As part of the ongoing Sunday installments of the novel. You can find the other chapters on here, posted each Sunday morning. Thanks!
SEPTEMBER: SOMETHING ON THE SIDE
“I thought I’d see how I can help.”
A table of six men in navy blue tee shirts all stood up in surprise. All men. Hmm.
“This is the volunteer fire department, isn’t it?”
I fiddled with my striped ginger and periwinkle tee shirt, tucking it in to my shorts. I’d wished I’d worn jeans. One by one, they nodded uncertainly. Graham hung back as the others came over one by one, introducing themselves, welcoming me, and explaining their routines. There were so many voices and too many details that assaulted me that I almost left. I caught Graham’s smile though. I stayed. The building was massive, hundreds of feet long and fifty feet wide. There was an office full of files and computers and a community room towards the back where I’d found everyone sitting around a big wide table. The rest of the place was given over to four vehicles. There were two big red fire trucks and with hoses and water storage, equipment lockers, ladders strapped on tight, then extra tanks and even more hoses, it was most overwhelming when I stood next to them. I felt like a mouse before the lion. There was an EMT vehicle, outfitted with pretty much everything you might need before the paid paramedics showed up, with monitors, back braces, heart attack stuff, needles, even machinery to get people out of burning cars. Pretty impressive it was, in a gruesome way. Lastly there was a beater of an old Chevy truck set for fighting wildfires. That was the one I recognized from the fire department’s late night visit at our place the other month.
Frank, my homesteading neighbor who’d pulled us out the mud, was the volunteer showing me around. He towered over my five foot three self as he climbed up and down the ladders on each fire engine. He told me that Tuesday nights in Oliver are the regular volunteer recruitment and training nights. They’d pick a different topic each week, which was a refresher for some and new information for others. As trainee officer, he gave me a manual to take home and read, it being the source of all info for newbies apparently. I flicked through. I put the manual down on a shelf somewhere. I tagged along as Frank showed me each of the four vehicles. I’d hoped Graham would come work with me, or at least talk to me. He stayed in the office working on the computer. Around me, the other firefighters maintained the engines, checking oil, lights, tire pressure, machinery, and all of that.
“Meeting time,” Frank announced and put his notebook down. I smiled widely. He walked us both back to the community room and sat down, checking us off one by one from his list. I thought of Mark drinking at the tavern, checking out the TV and music. I knew where I’d prefer to be.
The meeting started. I listened and watched. The meeting ended.
I stood up. “Thanks, that was great.”
Graham followed me outside. He looked good in the uniform in a school-boyish way.
“You leaving already?” He scratched at his big belly and leaned against my car.
“Yeah, this really isn’t my thing.” I admitted. “But thanks.”
“Oh, okay.” We stood there saying nothing for a minute or two. “Can I ask you over for coffee in the morning? Come see how I built my place?”
I wasn’t sure why but I said yes and he gave me directions. He walked back inside for the rest of the night’s training session. I went to find my boyfriend.
“My God, this is incredible.” I blurted out.
Graham beamed. The view stretched out to the northeast, a wide high desert valley with mountains ringing the edges. Frida ran free. The high-topped bright blue nothingness of a sky overwhelmed me more than ever; there was so much space above us it made me realize how tiny human life was. Trees circled his home, and the junipers had all been pruned into interesting shapes, almost like sculptures. The house stood in a small clearing, surrounded by fruit trees and shrubs. Two huge water tanks sat at either end of the building, with gutters running from all angles, feeding the gardens with more than enough for this lush English-style garden. No wonder Anne knew how to set me up at home. The home itself was built of adobe bricks, no plaster, and with a wooden wrap-around porch, screened in on the east side. The exposed wood trim on the doors and windows had been painted a soft turquoise.
“Beautiful, Mark would love to see this.” I gushed, admiring everything. Graham described how he’d done everything, made all the decisions on the design, explaining the process of mixing adobes by hand, and how much effort it took for him to work on it after his daytime job in town. And finally, he said, it was finished. Almost.
Anne came out of the kitchen carrying a pot of coffee and three mugs. Graham jumped in, telling me, “I told her you were coming this morning and so she took some time off. She wanted to show you the gardens, her pride and joy.”
They smiled easily at each other with the comfort of old friends, proud of each other’s work.
“I take it you’ve heard how we broke our backs making and hauling the bricks around?” Anne laughed brightly as she walked back to the porch. “Teamwork, it was all about teamwork, even with Graham’s slipped disk, we got the walls up and roof completed by winter that first year. Thanks for all the locals who kicked in when he was laid up.”
In surprise, I turned to Graham who smiled sheepishly and looked away. I followed Anne, shrugging to myself. I craved a cup of coffee sitting on their eastern deck. Graham closed the screen door behind us and we all sat down in the soft worn-out armchairs. Frida looked in through the mesh at me, her ears dropping, and she whimpered. Anne let her in and the pup sat at my feet, knowing this wasn’t a dog-friendly household. A cat sat up on a shelf and watched us both nervously. I kept an eye on my girl.
“The coffee’s local, as we try to support the New Mexican economy as much as possible,” Graham offered me cream. “From a dairy farm in Taos.”
We all relaxed into sipping the coffees. I didn’t have much to say so I asked the most boring thing I could think of. “How long have you two been married?”
They shared a glance. “Twelve years now.”
“Officially.” Anne added.
I raised my eyebrows. “Meaning?”
Anne told me that Graham had been married before, had two teenage boys, and that there was a bit of an overlap between the relationships. “He had a habit of keeping someone on the side, didn’t you?”
He nodded awkwardly.
“And now?” I asked with an innocent smile as I stroked my dog’s ears.
Again, Anne answered for them both. “He’s better now. A roaming eye, but this is a small town, there’s not much you can get away with here. We notice things. What about you and Mark? What’s the story?”
Graham kept quiet the whole time. He sat in one of the green armchairs and petted the cat, or rather the cats. Three now hung out with us, taking Frida as no threat at all. The room was filled with houseplants of all kinds. Hanging from each beam, Anne had set up a greenhouse of young and old, with hoses and watering cans, bags of potting soil and a few hand tools. I was jealous. I’d have to get Mark on closing in our own porch. I noticed the conversation had stopped, waiting for me.
“Oh, right, Mark. We’ve been together two years now, just over, that is. He’s my best friend. We’ve known each other years, since college in Seattle, but we lost touch after that. He found me online and just wrote a sweet hello email. That was that. Both of us were living in Olympia, single, with good jobs, and time to play.” I reached for one of the plants nearest me; it had a weird shape and one solo flower. “What’s this?”
“An orchid. Haven’t you seen them before?”
The orange and gold stripes were gorgeous. I wanted to touch it but knew that wasn’t too polite of me. Anne stood up, and explained that she had tons of interesting plants all over the place to show off. I followed her lead. Graham stayed in place, pinned to his seat by a twenty pound black cat that was giving Frida the evil eye. He shrugged helplessly. Frida came with me.
I spent the rest of the morning learning all about orchids, soil, lighting, and the watering needs of each and every houseplant imaginable. I kept up most of the time but by eleven my brain was fried. I couldn’t learn another thing. Frida needed to go outside – and I made my excuses. Anne laughed at herself. She tied her hair back into one ponytail and grabbed a straw-hat. The long sleeved men’s shirt was thrown on as an afterthought.
“I’m sorry. I get so caught up by this stuff. It’s not that interesting to everyone, but you earned some brownie points for listening to me go on and on. No wonder Graham left us to it. Usually he sticks around when some one comes out here. We don’t get many visitors. It’s too complicated to give them directions from town unless they know the area to start with. Anyway, I owe you, Jenny. I’ll get your coffee tomorrow if you come by the cafe. How’s that?”
I grinned and trailed her back out to the porch. Graham had cleaned up and gone out. Frida was at my heels, intimidated by an orange tabby stalking her through the house.
“Do you want to walk around the land for a while? We’ve got some great views from the ridge behind us, you can see into town and even as far as Santa Fe. We’ll go find my husband but hopefully he’s fixing the gate on the chicken run. We had a coyote break in last night, but luckily my girls were locked in the actual coop so no one was killed.”
I got my cowboy hat from the car and picked up my camera at the same time. I wanted to show Mark what we could to with our place. I told her how we’re doing one project at a time, not my usual start everything at once mentality. Mark was keeping us on track. I needed that, I couldn’t imagine doing this alone.
“We’re making a fenced area, and trying to work out what kind of coop to build. Something simple, that’s my idea. He’s getting all ambitious now and wants a chicken condo, all insulated and big enough for a flock.”
She laughed, “well, we have some pallets and about ten straw-bales stacked together with a little wooden door to keep them in at night. It works.”
“Did you build it?”
“Yep, Graham picked up the bales for me on his way home from Santa Fe, but yeah, after that, he said I was the one that wanted the chickens. He was right too. He’d just been promoted to District Chief and was fairly overwhelmed by all the paperwork. He’s there all the time now, I rarely see him in the evenings. For a while I got jealous and so I joined, but the whole men’s club feel of the place put me off.”
“And now?” I asked nosily as I took photos of everything they’d done. The chicken run, the gardens, and the fruit trees mostly attracted my attention. I tried to focus on what Anne was saying.
“Now? Now he’s at the fire department, trying to pull in more volunteers and I’m generally home, taking care of all the animals.” Anne took off her hat. With those big steps of hers it was hard to keep up. She was tall and long legged, I am not, nor will I ever be.
“What else have you got? Besides cats and chickens?”
I jogged to keep up, putting the camera back in my pocket. My hat fell off but I caught it.
Anne strode ahead of me towards a small wood barn. She glanced back at me over her shoulder.
“You didn’t know? I have some goats, a goose, a couple of turkeys and two miniature donkeys.”