Living The Dream: 31

As part of the weekly excerpt of the novel LIVING THE DREAM:

DECEMBER: I’M FINE, HONEST

“Miss, are you okay?”
A bright light shone in my eyes and I threw up an arm and yelped. A silhouette lowered his flashlight and opened the door gently. “Are you okay, Miss?” He reached for me and touched my shoulder. I nodded groggily.

“Where’s Nelson?”
“There was no one with you when we pulled up. Just a moment ago, that is. Who’s Nelson? Your husband? Son?”
“Where’s Nelson? Nelson.” I yelled and sat up, shaking my head clear. “Nelson? Where’s Nelson? Fuck, we’ve got to find him.” I clambered out of the truck and into a foot of snow. The sky had cleared somewhat and the snow no longer blinded me. It was cold, freezing actually, and I shivered.

“Miss, who is Nelson? What’s your name? Are you hurt?”
I shrugged him off and stumbled out of reach, screaming Nelson’s name over and over again.

“Nelson. Nelson, come. Come back. It’s okay, boy. Let’s go, Nelson. NELSON.”

I fell once, slipped as I stood and turned around, searching for my boy, my scared and sensitive boy. “NELSON. COME.”

The landscape lay empty and unfriendly. The State Police Officer watched as more police and EMTs arrived, sirens blaring and lights flashing. More and more people arrived, radios boomed, and the whole scene overwhelmed me.

“Turn the fucking siren off. You’ll scare him.”
“Your dog?”
“Yes. My dog. My family, he’s all I’ve got right now, my DOG.” I turned around again, yelling and yelling as the officers and EMTs watched me cautiously. I screamed, yelled, called out his name, struggling to understand. I sobbed. “Nelson, please, come back to me, it’s okay, it’s okay.”
An EMT came up, a slender woman around my age, and she squatted down close by.

“Can I make sure you’re okay? Physically? We’d like to take you to Albuquerque to one of the hospitals there and check you out for concussion, okay, Miss?”
“Jenny, my name’s Jenny. And no, I’m not leaving him alone. Not my boy. I’m not leaving.” I sobbed and wiped my eyes and cried even harder, shaking with shock and fear and cold. “He’s a husky, he’s mostly white and coffee colored, with odd eyes, have you seen him, please, have you seen him?”
She shook her head and watched me closely. I looked away. A State Policeman brought over a thermos and poured out some coffee. “My wife always makes me bring something hot with me,” he explained sheepishly. “Here, have some. Are you sure you don’t want to come with us to hospital?”
I shook my head, stubborn as hell, whispering Nelson’s name to myself.
“I’ll need you sign a refusal form, okay, Jenny?” The EMT nodded to the others and she asked if she could check me out anyway, make sure nothing was wrong. I nodded silently and stood for her to take blood pressure and the such. I guess I passed if not with flying colors as she walked off to confer. The other officers talked quietly as they checked out my vehicle. The State Policeman came back over and sat near on a tree stump.

“The bad news is that I can’t see any tracks from your dog so I’ve no idea which way he went. The good news, well, two pieces of good news I guess, one is that there have been no reports of crashes with animals near here. The other is that your vehicle is fine, you slid on the ice and landed here, but you can drive out if you put it into low four-wheel drive. The tires will hold. I could call a tow truck for you though, if you like? Or anyone else?” He sipped his own cup of coffee and waited.
All I could think of was Nelson, out there in the snow, scared and vulnerable. My boy. My pup. I shook my head but then remembered. “Do you know Officer Jaime Ramirez? He said to call him if ever I needed him. Could you? Could you call him? Tell him what happened? Please?”
He nodded and walked back to his vehicle and climbed in, with lights still flashing and engine running. Heat, he had heat. I walked back to the 4Runner and looked. The door was dented and hung open. The windshield had a three-foot crack. Nothing more. Just a missing dog and a headache. I was lucky. Not really.

I climbed inside and cranked the engine. It caught first time. I sat back and wiped at my eyes. I closed my eyes briefly but a picture of Nelson alone in the empty valley knocked me sideways and I climbed out, leaving the engine running so he’d hear it.

“Miss, if you could sign this form, saying you refuse medical attention? Thanks. I’d suggest you stay with a friend, someone who will keep an eye on you in case concussion gets you later, okay?”
I nodded, promising anything so that they would leave me alone, so that the ambulance and police cars would just leave me in peace. Quiet. So Nelson could hear me call him.
The State officer climbed out of his car and came over.

“Officer Ramirez is pretty close, you were lucky. He said he’ll be in Albuquerque in an hour and can meet you there. He’s coming up north any way so he’ll be passing through here and will look for the dog.”

He shook my hands and offered to wait for me to drive off. The ambulance had turned off their lights and pulled out onto the interstate slowly, followed by the other cop car. I shook his hand, thanking him for helping.

“I’d like to make some calls first, but then I’ll head to the city, I promise. Thanks again,” I smiled, kind of, enough to persuade him I’d do as I said. He nodded and shook my hand, wishing me a safe journey home to Oliver.

“At least it’s not too far and the snow’s stopped for now. Take care, Jenny.”
I watched as he drove off and left me alone with my empty truck. I waved him off. Then I bundled up, found a flashlight, and headed out into the snow.

“NELSON. NELSON. COME.”

 

 

 

 

NOVEMBER: FAMILIES

 

 

We climbed hundreds of stone steps, with the both of us being completely out of breath half way. The path curved back and forth. Placards stood at each switchback next to various styles of wooden benches. We read the tourist information slowly, not talking, just looking up and out at the view, catching our breath.
Finally we rested at a bench on the crest of the hill. With a huge stone cross memorial behind us, Santa Fe opened up below. It was incredibly beautiful even with all the trees naked and the streets seemingly empty. The cathedral, homes, narrow roads, hotels, and the plaza lay below in a crazy pattern. Mom sighed and pulled out her smart phone.

“Well, at least I get a decent connection up here. I’ve been wanting to post some photos all week. This is beautiful, Jen. Thanks for getting us up here; I can’t quite believe how breathless I am though. Yoga’s meant to help me, damn it.”

I laughed and sat down next to her. “Altitude, I guess. I thought I’d do better by now. Well, Mark should be in town by the time we get back down. He’s not one to be late unless he’s getting the New Mexico timing down.”

I leaned back against the memorial and relaxed. The sky was clear and as bright blue as usual. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains had a light dusting of snow. The world was quiet and I heard footsteps from the road below.

“So then, you and Danny, eh? Want to tell me anything, Mom?”
She burst out laughing and slapped my knees. “Not really. Let’s just say he’s a good man. I’m glad you have him as a neighbor. I feel safe knowing he’s there for you.”
I laughed and stretched out my legs with a groan. “Right. That’s very selfless of you, Mom. But the question is; are you going to see him again or not? Do we need to get you back by a certain time?”
“Jennifer. Behave. And no, I’m going to see him tomorrow night before I leave. He said he’d drive me to the airport, if that’s okay with you?” She fiddled with her phone then picked it up and pointed it at the both of us. Flushed, breathless, and slightly embarrassed by the conversation, she clicked a photo of the both of us. My phone beeped. A text came in from Mark saying that he’d just pulled in to get gas and would meet us in twenty minutes or so. I held out my hands to Mom.

“Time to go, Mom.”
I hauled her to her feet with a groan.

 

We found the entrance to the restaurant Anne had recommended. A narrow doorway lead to a staircase lined with posters of New and Old Mexico. I followed Mom up, slowly. Her knees ached. My whole body ached.

 

Mark sat at a table close to the fireplace. He stood at the sight of us and gave me a kiss on the lips. Mom took off her layers and the waiter hung her coat over an empty chair with a wink and a smile. He asked what he could do for her. She blushed and asked for the drinks menu for all of us. He nodded once and reappeared within seconds, carrying glasses of water for three. He focused on my mom. What was going on? I grinned and Mark caught my look and raised his eyebrows with a smirk. I tried not to laugh. Mom glanced over at us.

“Well, what would you two like? I’ll have a margarita, salt no ice please.”

The short rotund and clean-cut waiter nodded once and reluctantly turned to us. “Yes?”
I nodded at Mark and he ordered our usual beers and asked for a plate of queso and chips to start with, oh, and an order of chicken wings. Behind the waiter a large television screen held my attention. Football, and someone in a helmet had just scored a run from one end to the other, leaping over two people, skidding around others, and diving for the line as he got tackled from two sides. Too late. I clapped in delight, now that’s a game of football.

Mom turned to see the re-run but missed that too. She wore new black jeans and sensible winter boots, a green woolen sweater, and her hair was as tidy as usual. Hardly any gray, did she dye it? Will I look as good in my fifties?

Around us, conversation buzzed and hid the sounds of the television. The room was pretty damn large and open plan, with windows the length of the southern facing wall. Outside, the balcony stood empty, the colorful tables and chairs set up hopefully but with temperatures in the forties, we all stayed inside. The restaurant focused on the tourist trade by the looks of us, all pink and fresh and obviously from somewhere with gray skies. Only Mark had a local’s tan and beat-up cowboy hat. He waited for his pint and sipped some water. Mark told us he’d called a few bands and even had a couple of leads with a music store in town, and it was beginning to look pretty good. His frown had taken a hike for the first time in ages and I leaned over to kiss him happily. Mom told him about our day, the places I’d taken her to, the presents stored in the Subaru, and her plans to return to Oliver for Christmas.

“I already spoke to the owners of the B and B and they have room for me surprisingly. I booked one. Will that be okay? I’m not planning on making you feed me or anything, Jenny. In fact, I’ll cook. ”
“Oh, Mom. I’d love that. We haven’t spent Christmas together since Mark and I came to Idaho, what was it – two years ago? Remember Mark? It’s been ages, right?”
Mom beamed. Mark toasted her with his beer and she clinked glasses with both of us.

“To the holidays.”
“What about your parents, Mark? Are they planning to come out here anytime soon? I’d love to meet them again. Your mom was hilarious. Such a wicked sense of humor.”
Mark picked at the queso and chips, “we haven’t set anything up yet. I thought I’d wait a while before inviting them, wait until we have something solid.”
“Don’t you think they’d like the outhouse? The bus?” I grinned with a mouthful.

He shook his head. “Not exactly. They’re a little more conservative. Dad’s idea of camping is to rent a forty-foot RV with dish TV, a generator, and full bathroom. I can’t imagine them in out on the land, can you? Mom maybe, but Dad? He’d talk politics at the tavern and that’d be that. We’ll see, Jen, we’ll see where we are next year, right?”

“Right here, I’ll be right here.”
The wings arrived and we all tucked in to our messy BBQ covered sticky-finger-making munchies.
The dogs flung themselves at the door, barking madly. I opened the door cautiously. No one. No trucks. No animals. Nothing. The dogs flew down the steps and barked. At the sky: An arrowhead of Canadian Geese soared above. Flying south in formation, they clacked and flapped, changing places looking for the best spot among the crowds. Hundreds of geese fled the coming winter storms. Mark had gone to town to do laundry thankfully. I’d decided to work outside again.

I added compost and handfuls of straw to the garden beds, and dug everything in deeper than the first time round. I wanted to prepare the soil for next year so that I could actually grow more than just tomatoes and potatoes. The sun shone and the wind had a bite to it.

I dug in the dirt. I sweated. It seemed the best thing for me to do right then. The fence had even held up to the pups trying to get to the manure I’d brought back from Anne’s place. I rehung the gate and added some random sticks and cans and bottles to the chicken wire that protected the non-existent plants from rabbits. I wandered off and followed the arroyo back to where we’d been supposedly busted for growing pot. The footprints lead the way. The dogs followed and played behind me. First Nelson and then Frida jumped off the boulders and over the tree stumps. I gathered sticks for kindling.

 

A big Dodge pick up drove up and honked its horn. I ran back through the arroyo with dogs panting and flinging themselves ahead of me. The horn honked again and the engine started back up. I ran even faster.

Around the last corner, I almost tripped but caught myself on a branch. I yelled out and heard an answering call. Frida had won the race. She stood on her hind legs, trying to reach the truck window but failing completely. Nelson hung back and watched from the porch.

Debbie, the homesteading neighbor, and her kids waved at me and then all climbed out. Three young ‘uns with backpacks and thick coats and hats grinned at me and then sat down with my dogs. Debbie, in a long woolen pea coat and a red beanie, walked up fast. Her hands stayed deep in pockets and her eyes were raw and red. She’d not been sleeping by the looks of it.

“Hey, Jenny. I hate to do this, but I’ve got to ask…can you take the kids for the afternoon? I have to get to the dentist. It’s just got to the point that I want to rip all my teeth out. The painkillers aren’t working for the life of me and I’m taking it out on them.” The boys hung out on the porch, one had befriended Nelson and he leaned against him as Frida darted between them all with a ball in her mouth. Tails wagged. Kids laughed. It looked easy enough.

“Sure. Did you get an appointment or something?”
“The emergency room will take me. Everyone else is booked for the week and I just can’t deal with it any longer. Are you sure you don’t mind? Frank’s at work in Santa Fe until four but then can come straight here. I fed them. You shouldn’t need to do much. They’re pretty wild so just keep them outside.” Debbie rambled on and on. She rubbed her chin again and again. “Are you sure?”
At that point, I playfully pushed her away and back to the Dodge, saying, “Go on with you. Just tell Frank to come on over later. It’s fine. Mark will be home in a bit anyway. Go on. We’ll be okay, right boys?”
All three faces turned up and nodded seriously. “Have fun, Mom.” and they all laughed at her expression as she climbed in. We watched her drive off and then looked at each other. Kids. I didn’t want any myself but oh well, I could play with these guys and hand them back in a few hours, right? Right. I had no clue.

I wandered closer. “So, I don’t even know your names. I’m Jenny. That’s Frida and the leaner is Nelson. Both came from –“

“- Louisa’s.” came the chorus. “Us too. We’ve got a few from her. A mama and a puppy pittie. They’re old now though. Almost as old as Finnegan.”
One little hidden face peaked up at me from under his layers. “I’m six. That’s Clark and this is Franny-bo-banny.”
“I thought you were all boys?”
Franny piped up that she’s a tomboy and don’t ever call her a girl or make her wear pink or else. I nodded seriously back. “Understood. Okay, boys. I’m hungry. Your mom said you ate though. You can watch me eat if you want.”
All three stood up fast. “What have you got? I’m hungry.”
“Quesadillas and fresh salsa and some chips.”
“Yeah. I want some. I want some. I’m hungry.”
We trooped inside the bus. Clark helped me in the kitchen and the other two fiddled and explored the small space. Franny thoroughly checked out my home, opening and closing little cupboards, peaking under the bed and finally she gave her verdict.

“This is cool. We could do this at our place, couldn’t we? Mom and Dad have a bus but he uses it for his tools and the dogs. I want to paint it and make it a playhouse. Hey, can we make a fire? It’s kinda cold, you know.”
“I’ll do it in a minute. Flames and all of that.” I replied nervously.

“But we’ve been making fires since we were three. Even Finn can do a pretty good job by now. Not as good as me, but you know, not bad.”

Franny scrunched up some newspaper. Finnegan took the metal can and cleaned out the cold ashes carefully. Clark cooked. I pulled out the plates and a six-pack of ginger ale. The dogs curled up on their beds.

 

“Where to?” We strode through the trees.

“We want to show you a cave. I can’t believe you haven’t found it yet. That’s crazy.” Clark the ten year old, lead the way up the hill, following some path I couldn’t spot. The others followed me with the dogs at their heels.

“Whose land is this?”
“Dunno. Doesn’t matter really. We grew up here, so me and Franny, we always ran around and explored places. Mom and Dad used to send us off with backpacks of water and snacks and tell us to come back later. Much later. Then Finn was born and now Mom doesn’t tell us to go away like before. Dad works more too. But we used to come up this gulch and find pottery and stuff from Indians and tools from the miners. Dad made us a shelf and everything so we got a whole pile now. Finn’s really good at finding the arrowheads.”

Clark chatted up a storm and I listened and panted quietly. Franny and Finn ran rings around us, chasing the pups and hollering back and forth. Finally Clark pulled up short next to this huge beet red boulder that appeared out of nowhere. The dirt under foot was pitch black and like dust. In front of us the mesa spread its wings. The Jemez Mountains glowed pink in the setting sun. I grinned widely.

“This is amazing. What a view.”
“You can see our place, way out there, to the south. See?”
Clark brushed his long black hair off his face and reached out to aim me in the right direction. He was tall for his age, in that he was almost five foot two. His dark brown eyes twinkled happily as he looked around. The youngsters ran up and screeched to a halt. Franny opened her pack and gave us all some chocolate and shared her bottle of water.

“From our well.”
The water tasted crisp and clear. She packed everything back up and looked to her big brother. “Ready?”
The kids shook hands and yelped. I got nervous.

“This way.”

I followed them around the boulder, squeezing through a small gap, and suddenly looking down into a mineshaft.
“Are you sure this is safe?”
“No, it’s not. Don’t tell Mom, okay, Jenny? She told us not to come here again, not after we lost Finn that one time.”
I backed off. “I don’t know, kids. I don’t think we should.”
They all stopped and stared at me silently. “But we like you. I trusted you.” Franny whined. “And I gave you my last piece of chocolate.”
I stood a moment and looked down in to the dark cave. Tracks lead down but I couldn’t see past five or ten feet. Too dark. “I don’t have a flashlight.” I countered.

“It’s okay, you can hold my hand if you get scared,” offered little Finnegan.

“Okay, okay. I’m coming. But don’t tell your mom.”

We stumbled down in a single file. I held onto Finnegan’s hand. The dogs followed closely at my heels. I couldn’t see a thing.

“Seriously? You didn’t? That’s hilarious.”

I laughed. “Yep, they got me fair and square, the little bastards. Can you believe I fell for it? They laughed so damn hard all the way home. By the time we got there Mark and Frank were inside drinking beers and chatting away like old friends. Frank cracked up when they told him.” I blushed at the thought of how scared I’d been. And how I’d squealed like a girl when Franny sounded like a coyote in attack mode. I’d found out that the trench was simply an entrance to a blocked off old failed mine some ten feet deep at the most. The steep sides and rotten wood posts told a story of hard labor and tired old men. The kids however thought of it as a test. I passed. Just. Now they loved me and begged to come over again the following day.

I blushed again and drank some more beer. Anne and Graham grinned at Mark who couldn’t stop himself from describing the kids’ delight. Graham took out his phone and flicked through his photos.

“Was it this one?” He passed it over to me. I looked, nodded, and handed it to Mark and then Anne. She shook her head.
“It’s lucky it is closed off. There’s been some bad shit there over the years. Just this year, some meth dealer hid out there for months once after he’d killed one of ours. A local teenager had got into it and overdosed with some stuff he’d bought from that guy. We never did see him again. I heard a rumor though that Dieselhead and friends found him and took care of it.”
Mark and I did a double take, thinking of the hitchhiker we’d found that rainy day in summer.

“Recently?”
“A few months ago. Why?”
“We met him. The dealer. He stole my wallet.” I shook my head at the thought. I told them the story, short as it was. “What do you think happened to him?”
“Maybe he got picked up by the cops?” Mark leaned forward as the pizzas arrived.

Graham shook his head. “If that was the case, they’d have given him a ride to Albuquerque General Hospital and wished him well. He has connections, family, or something. He gets away with murder, so to speak.”
We drank in silence. The tavern was empty as usual now winter had hit hard. The fire roared and a handful of locals sat around and warmed up. Dogs lay at people’s feet and the television played unwatched in the far corner.

The food arrived and I tucked in as they all chatted. I was getting addicted to green chile enchiladas. Mark stuck with his usual cheeseburger and fries and the others had pizza. A storm warning flashed across the television screen. I ignored it. We had firewood, so who cared when it actually hit? I ate. Anne talked about Taos and how she’d dreamed of going there for Thanksgiving one year. Mark described our visit in October, talking about breakfast at the hot springs, afternoons at the pubs, and our drive home along side the Rio Grande.
“What are you two doing for the holidays?” Graham asked just as I put another mouthful to sleep. I swallowed, ready to say ‘nothing’ but Mark spoke up.

“Los Angeles. We’re going to see my brother, Keith, and his family for a week or more.”
I spluttered out my last bite and it hit Graham’s shirt. He didn’t notice. I stared at Mark, about to jump on him, verbally that is.

Mark continued, ignoring me and telling them about us driving back up the coast to see friends in Washington too if we had the time. I couldn’t say a word. Anne dived into the awkwardness.

“You are? That’s great. My sister lives out in LA too, I keep meaning to go see her, but I’m not a big traveler these days. I like being home with the animals, you know how it is.” Anne grinned at me. “I can’t imagine leaving them.”
“Me neither.” I took a gulp of water and waited. “When are we going, Mark?”
He glanced at me then focused back on Graham and Anne. “On Wednesday morning. I was going to ask if either of you could take care of the dogs, make sure their water’s not frozen, stuff like that. Come by once a day is all they need.”
“It is not. They’ll be lonely. And cold.” I blurted out in anger.
Graham poured me some more water and then noticed the chile on his white shirt. He wiped it off with a frown. Then he looked up at me and smiled again. “I can stay there if you like, or they can come to stay at mine in town? I don’t mind. Frida’s pretty good with me nowadays. Nelson’s just easy as pie.”
As I opened my mouth to speak, Mark decided it was time he stepped outside to smoke. Anne kept eating but asked, “he hadn’t told you, eh?”
I shook my head and finished Mark’s pint in one. “Nope. I don’t know how we’ll pay for it even if I wanted to leave here. Mom had sent me some money for a small solar system but we don’t have anything else saved. Not for some random road trip like that.”
“Did Diane set you up with electricity after all?”
“Nope, I worked it out myself. She didn’t want to work with what I needed, we needed.” All proud of myself, I told them how I’d planned on setting up the solar the first weekend in December, ready to hunker down for the winter. I’d made a box for the batteries, set up a platform with pallets to keep the panels off the ground, and even made a frame to hold them at the correct angle. “I just need to install the wiring, get it all put together but I’m close to being ready.”

“Not bad, not bad. You never knew you had it in you, did you now? I remember when you first got here you’d left everything to Mark.” Anne teased me as the man himself came striding back, shaking off a few snowflakes.

“Left what to me? It’s started snowing for real. Huge flakes. Damn, it’ll be cold at home.” He sat down and reached for his pint. “Hey. What happened to my beer?”
“You finished it, don’t you remember?” Graham stood. “Same again? Or something warmer like -”
“Hot toddies.” came the reply from us all in unison. We burst out laughing. Hot toddies it was then. Mark put another couple of logs on the fire like a pro and sat back. We all leaned on the table, nursing our drinks and chatting about the snowfall that had already whitened out the highway. Graham crowed that he only had to walk home from the tavern these days. Anne slapped him playfully.

“Remember all the times we had to walk up the mountain in the snow?”
“The drifts deeper than our boots?”
“With the moon shining on us as -”

“- we sang Pink Floyd and the Stones at the top of our voices?”
Anne snorted and Graham smiled, happily teasing his friend. She tipped her drink at him and they toasted each other. I watched and sipped my own. I ignored Mark and checked out the window. The snowflakes danced under the porch light. A big Dodge truck headed up hill, slowly but surely cutting its way through the drifts. A couple walked with hats pulled down and long coats closed tightly. The fire backed up without warning and filled the tavern with juniper and pinion smoke. I grinned and coughed.

All of a sudden, the door opened and a gang of locals poured inside, laughing loudly, and on the count of three, threw snowballs at us all. Mayhem broke out. Mark jumped to his feet, and returned the snowballs with a yelp. Graham hunkered down. I grabbed my drink and stood up just as someone tried to get Mark back. Straight in the face. My face. I spluttered. Graham took my glass. Anne and I scrambled around on the floor, grabbing the melting snow, and attacked back. Mark stood behind me, using me as a shield, and scored two big direct hits. But then a holler made him turn around, and –

“Gotcha.”

Splat. Mark yelped and fell over.

Graham grinned from a table next to us. “Oops. Is he on your side?”

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This #5

From an ongoing series of sketches called THIS:

DSC_0548

#5

Coasts beckon. She follows, willingly, with books and notepad in hand. Jennifer goes from retreat to retreat, persuading the owners to offer her a place to finish this life-changing novel, the one we’ve all been waiting for. The second in her short career. That first one though. Who would’ve thought it? That Jen could be so talented? Articulate? Organized? That our sweet shy Jen could actually finish something?
This is more like it. This is the third retreat. She has four more lined up. All on coasts, the next one is in Hawaii. She’ll have to borrow the money to get the flight, but she’s not worried. That’s what Go Fund Me is for, right? To pay the way for the ones in need. And Jennifer tells herself that she needs this, as she pulls out the scissors and lops off another three inches from her long brown, long boring hair.
Turning forty isn’t agreeing with her. Her stomach suddenly bloated. Nothing to do with all the beer she’s tried at the various microbreweries. She notices a few stray hairs under her chin and grabs a razor, a dull one but who cares? No one looks at her anyway. Not now. Jennifer avoids the table with the laptop, notebook, smartphone and pens and picks up her camera instead and scrolls through the photos of the last retreat, of Michael. A big teddy bear of a man, soft spoken, a writer like herself, he’d paid attention, unfazed by her birthday blues. He might even have taken advantage of that strong IPA and the loosey-goosey chatterbox that she became for a night. He’d had green eyes, scruffy hair, and baggy jeans to hide his own beer belly. The selfies they’d taken in the morning though, just before his flight to Florida, they’d made Jennifer smile. For a brief moment, she forgot where she was, why she was here, and where she was going next. And the great novel? Nope, nowhere to be found in this congealing soup of sadness. She picked up the scissors again. Nostalgia gets her every time. Cut the damn hair.

 

 

Living The Dream: 30

As part of the weekly excerpt of the novel LIVING THE DREAM:

DECEMBER: SNOW BLIND

I slept deeply, snug in a down comforter and a hairy husky breathing on me, waiting for that moment I opened my eyes. The sun hadn’t yet come up. The house lay silent. The dog panted in my ear. It was another winter’s day with no plans. I was bored. Forget Jerome. Forget exploring new places. I needed to hit the road. I needed to go home.

I let Nelson out to run as I made coffee. The sky slowly lightened but barely. A storm, the first big storm of the season was expected to hit today. Alaska was sending down clouds, wind, freezing temperatures, and snow. Snow in the mountains. Snow in the valleys. I left Nelson happily sniffing around the yard and wandered back into the bedroom. Making the bed, and grabbing the few things I’d brought over the day before, I cleaned up. Cracking open the window slightly, I breathed in the sharp cold air.

Time to go.

I wrote a note and left it on the kitchen table for Angie and Jonnie and snuck out the back door, not wanting to talk to anyone.
With the last of my food tucked carefully back in the cooler, the bedding, and supplies all stacked in the back of the truck, we drove away.

I hit the highway as the sun rose over the San Andres Mountains. With a sleeping dog sprawled on the back seat and a window down for fresh air, it was good to be driving again. Good to be going home. The clouds darkened to the north, a wind buffeted the truck, but the 4Runner drove smoothly, unaffected by the storm. I finished the coffee and threw the paper cup on the floor.
It snowed, hard, and thick with flakes the size of quarters. I stared, mesmerized, at the wipers doing their best against a wicked freeze. The heater cranked effortlessly. The dog slept. I slipped once, when a semi flew past me, kicking up ice and snow and gravel, blinding me. I slipped. The tires slid. Another semi sped past but then braked. The interstate traffic had slowed to twenty miles per hour and I switched into four high finally. The sky was a dark gunmetal gray. I couldn’t see the lanes, mountains, nothing but for the rear lights of tour bus ahead. I slipped again, touching the brakes once too often. I hit black ice.

The truck slipped off the highway quietly, slowly, and painfully.

 

 

 

 

NOVEMBER: CRITTERS

 

 

“Are you sure this is the right way, Jennifer?”

A dark heavy cloud shrouded the mountains. Orange and pink stripes shot out from the horizon to the west. Birds talked back to us. Mom wore sensible boots and black jeans and a warm jacket. She’d insisted I do the same. I did as told and was glad for it. The air nipped at my ears and I bundled up in the coat, pulling my hat down. Winter had kicked in that afternoon with a force I’d not expected. Making the chicken coop took less time than planned. We threw the bales together, two on each side and one at the far end. I’d get more at later. Tin and lumber across the top and it was finished. Mom hung a sheet over the front opening, to keep out the wind, she explained.
That afternoon, we played cards in the bus with the stove going and the wind battering and rocking us. Cozy and perfect. Mom made tea every hour or so and had even brought chocolate chip cookies with her.

But now I badly needed to pee. I hid behind a juniper as she carried on, chatting away about this and that. Suddenly I heard a panicked voice calling for me.

“Jennifer. Oh, Jenny. Jenny.” She crashed through the trees calling out for me.
Trying not to laugh, I told her to hang on, that I was watering the plants. Her footsteps headed back my way. I reappeared from visiting the impromptu outhouse, doing up my layers once again. She laughed at herself, holding out her hand to me.

“Don’t do that. I don’t know what I thought, but -”

I zipped up the leather jacket and grinned. “I’m just glad Mark’s bringing us home, aren’t you?” We both giggled in relief.
All around us the trees crowded out any sense of space. The wind shook the branches. The sky was heavy. I set the pace, following a faint path in the dirt across the hillside. Down below us, Cottonwoods and Oaks, their leaves bright against the dark green of the pine trees, flanked a steep valley. Nothing stirred. The path faded out at one point and I stopped. Mom walked straight into me and shrieked.

“Now what? I’m getting all spooked out here, Jenny. Can’t we go back and get the car?”

Suddenly a chorus of dogs barking startled us.

“We’re here. I guess. He said he has a bunch of dogs. Oh god, I hope they’re friendly.”
Mom poked me in the arm, “don’t say that.”
Footsteps headed our way and Mom grabbed me to her. I wanted to laugh or pee, I couldn’t decide which.

“Is that you, Martha? Jen?”

Dieselhead Danny strode up to us, a pack of brown mutts at his heels. He grinned at the sight of us half hidden behind a dead pinion tree.

“Welcome to my place, ladies. Come on, let’s get inside out of this weather, okay? Mark called; he said he’d be here in an hour or so. Come on. Follow me. Don’t mind the dogs.”

He turned abruptly and we struggled to keep up. Giggling as we stumbled and tripped in the twilight, Mom and I held hands. We walked past three or four old trucks up on blocks and wheel-less. A huge, and I mean huge, amount of firewood had been stacked off to the side of his driveway. A school bus overflowed with stuff, I have no idea what. Dogs, cats, chickens, and goats ran around our feet, tripping Mom more than once. In distance, horses called out for hay and a donkey brayed mournfully.

A cobblestone path wound through junipers, grasses, pinions, and fruit trees. Flowerbeds were scattered on each side, abundant even in these fall months of wind and cold. Danny chatted away as he led us up and into a small adobe courtyard.

“In summer, I tend to hang out here, a good book and a drink, out of the wind. I think we should head inside tonight though, don’t you?”
He wore faded blue jeans and a worn denim jacket with a fleece collar turned up high. He’d shaved and I’d not seen him clean up like this before. The gruff hermit of a neighbor turned out to be quite the host. He walked us through a greenhouse and into the kitchen, all one huge south facing room, with plants of all kind: herbs, spider plants, cacti, flowers, and even orchids.

“Did you get those from Anne?”
Danny laughed and nodded. “How did you know? She’s the local orchid pusher that’s for sure. Do you have any yet?”
I shook my head as I took in the twenty or more blooms surrounding us. “This is incredible.”

Mom stood silently, staring around her in awe. “Who would’ve thought you’d live like this? You’re a pleasant surprise, Danny, yes, a definite surprise.”

He blushed and turned away, fiddling with the pots and pans on the stovetop.

“There’s some cabernet in the living room, through there. Can you get the bottle, Jen? It’s the Argentinian not the Californian wine we’re having tonight.”

Mom made herself at home and sat at the kitchen table with a bottle opener and three glasses. She lit a candle. The woodstove roared in the background and she took off her thick jacket with a sigh. The room was cluttered yet organized with shelves, counters, and cupboards everywhere.
“So where did you learn to cook then?”
I passed Mom the bottle and she opened it for us and poured us each a glass. As we toasted each other he told us about being a chef in Northern California after getting out of the army some twenty or more years ago. He’d reached some kind of crisis point and got a medical release. He’d found work at a restaurant shortly after that and loved the pace of it, the creativity, and the challenge of finding the perfect combination for specific tastes.

“But then I decided I wanted a quieter life. I put everything in the truck, one of the ones outside as it happens, and started across the Southwest. This is as far as I got.”
“I can see why,” Mom said softly. “This is a beautiful home, Danny. How did you do it?”
I listened to the grown-ups chatting and sipped my wine. It was a smoky and full red wine without a bitter after taste. I poured another glass as they were talking about finding a place that resonates. Mom described her home in Boise and all that she’d done to the place. Danny sat at the table with us. He gave us crackers and a vintage cheddar and told us that the beef red chile stew would be ready as soon as we were.

“Reds with red, that’s what I was taught and it seems to work, not that I know much about wine, but these days I like a good malbec and most cabernets. What do you both think?”
Mom raised her glass to him. “Thanks, this is perfect, just perfect after a day out at Jenny’s. Did she tell you that we’ve got the coop ready for some hens? That was the afternoon’s project, but I’m not used to the altitude so I’m glad that’s all we did. Aren’t you, Jennifer?”
I sat up and put down the newspaper. “Oh, yeah, it was enough for now. Could I still get a couple from you? Can you spare them?”
Danny laughed out loud. “Well, you saw how chaotic it is outside, didn’t you? I don’t even know how many I have right now. You could take four or five if you like. I’ll find us a box and we can catch them after we eat.”
“How?”
“Chase them down.”
“In the dark?” Mom laughed, reaching for more wine. “Really?”
“Yep, they get all sleepy, shouldn’t be too bad. Don’t worry, I’ll sort them out for you both.” He pulled out a tin and opened it up and rolled a joint in front of my mom. I tried not to blush. He lit it and passed it to mom and she took it. And then she passed it to me. I had to try it, didn’t I? I coughed. They laughed. Then I giggled and drank some more wine.

We chatted about his home, taking the time to build one room at a time, adding hallways and doors, playing with whatever materials came to him, and how it’s made this unbelievably cozy and beautiful eclectic adobe and straw-bale home. I wandered off and found myself opening and closing doors, following a tabby cat. She took me down another hallway and into a laundry room filled with metal cans. The cat meowed and sat on one can. I crouched down and saw that on the shelf next to her was a towel bed with four kittens, staring at me but not one moved. Then I kneeled down and reached out a hand to them. One little ginger kitty scooted closer, purred, and then suddenly lunged and licked my fingertips. I grinned and settled down.

 

“Jennifer? Jennifer?”

“Jenny? Are you okay?”
A male voice echoed my mom’s. They found me in the laundry room with all the kittens on my lap, and the mama cat sitting on the shelf next to me. The room was toasty and I’d taken off my sweater and used it to make a bed for the little ones. Mom laughed and kneeled down next to me and caressed a furry head. Danny leaned against the doorframe and watched us.

“Want one?”

We both looked up at him and back at the kittens. In unison came the reply “yes.”

He laughed and came in closer.

“I’m pretty allergic to cats but I keep them around. The mice, you know? Especially in a rambling mansion like this, I have to have some kind of critter control and I hate poisons. So, seriously do you want one?”
“I’d love one. I love cats, don’t I, Mom?”
“Yes, you do, Jen. She always had cats when she was small. But then we had to move into another place, we weren’t allowed any pets, just plants, and lots of them. You were so gentle with the cats though even when you were only three or four, you knew how to treat them somehow.”
“Can I, Mom, can I have one?” I looked up so earnestly that they both burst out laughing. I stroked the little ginger kitten.

“You might want to talk to Mark first though. What will he say?”
“Oh, there is that. Not much. He thinks we’ve got too many as it is. One dog was about his limit, I think…but Mom.”
“Come on, let’s go eat, okay?” Danny reached down to help us to our feet. “The stews done and that’s exactly what I want right now. I don’t know about you but I’m hungry. Food and wine sound good to you both? Oh, and I’d make you take two cats by the way, one would be lonely on its own.”
I laid the kittens back in their bed, reclaimed my sweater, and followed Mom back to the kitchen table.

 

“Do you have the net?”

“No, I thought you had it.”
“I’ve got it but we have to spot them first. They usually hang out right here, where are they, dammit?”

Danny swore as he tripped over a pile of wood and knocked down some tools from against the tree. He stumbled around in the dark. Mom hung back and watched, trying to keep the flashlight on us both even though we kept wandering in different directions. His dogs crossed paths, back and forth, getting under my feet. The cats watched from the porch.

Danny snuck around another pile of wood and whispered that he’d found them. Ten chickens huddled together next to a couple of straw-bales and slept soundly. Mom brought the light and I grabbed the cardboard box. Quietly and surely, Danny grabbed one, two, and three, placing them gently in their travel home. He then asked me to get the last one. I lunged and missed it. She flew up squawking into the tree overhead. Suddenly chaos broke out. Wings flapped. Feathers flew. Cats pounced. Danny tripped over my foot and fell onto a dog. Mom giggled and dropped the flashlight. The dog yelped. More dogs barked. Donkeys brayed. Horses neighed. Hens squawked from inside their box. An owl screeched above me. I screamed and fell over. Then the giggling began. All three of us, sniffling and snorting and I tried not to pee.

Just as I was picking myself up, Mark arrived. I tried to stand up normally without cracking up but Mark walked over looking so serious, clean, and most clearly a fish out of water. I lost it and started giggling and snorting again. Mom helped Danny to his feet and both were laughing so much they hadn’t even noticed the truck arrive. Then she saw Mark standing near me but not talking to me and she poked Danny. She took him back inside after glancing over at us. They shut the door carefully.

Mark still stood silently. He watched me as I set the chicken box upright. All the animals shushed. The dogs backed off. And even the horses and mules shut up. Silence.

“So, how was your day?” I finally asked, brushing off my jeans and jacket.

“Okay.” He looked around the yard, at the firewood, wrecked vehicles, the recycling and building materials. “Jeez. What a mess.”

“You should look around, it’s been great to see his place. Come on, Mark, you should at least check it out, come inside. It’s amazing – I think you’ll get all inspired again and start designing a home for us. Oh, and he saved you some stew.”
Mark shrugged deeper into his coat and didn’t move.

“Let’s go home, Jenny. It’s cold and I’ve had a long day, I don’t think I can hang out with someone I don’t know tonight, okay? Hon, please? I’ll make us a fire, all right? Some wine and go to bed? I’m tired, that’s all.”
And he did look drained; his shoulders were slumped, and just deeply exhausted. I went to him and hugged him and kissed his neck – it’s all I can easily reach at the best of times. He smiled down at me and took the box off the ground and rattled it.

“Our new hens, eh? Okay, how many did you get?”
“Four.”
“I thought we agreed on only two, Jen?”
“I know but Danny insisted on more. We’re lucky it’s been so hard to catch them or we’d have two boxes full by now.”
Mark laughed softly. “So I see, so I see. Okay, I’ll put these away then let’s go say good- bye. I’ve got that whiskey for him. Hey, are we giving your mom a ride back to town?”
I nodded and followed him over. He put the box in the truck-bed but when I frowned, he put them inside the cab. He shook his head. “They’re chickens, you know? Not pets. They are not sleeping in the house, ever.”

He closed the truck door on them, grabbed a brown paper bag, and took my hand. I lead him inside Danny’s incredible home, smiling happily to myself.

 

The fire glowed. The dogs slept. Mark snored. I lay there. I couldn’t sleep. We’d talked for hours with wine in hand, dogs on the bed, and a fire burning off the chill in my heart. I fell asleep briefly. My head woke me up though.

My sensitive boy, Nelson, watched me from his bed in the hallway, eyes concentrating in the morning darkness. Frida curled up on Mark’s pillow and snuffled in time with his grunts. I gently climbed out from the covers and threw on as many layers as I could reach without waking them. Nelson followed me to the woodstove and sighed contentedly when I threw in more logs and left the door open for us to see the flames. Slowly the bus filled with sunshine and the smell of fresh coffee, and juniper logs burning. I sat down in the armchair and Nelson came over and lay his head across my feet. We simply sat and stared at the flames.

Another day, another day, with so many things to take care of. I finally stood and stretched. I filled the stove with more wood and got ready for a day in town. Mom was meeting me at the coffee shop first thing. I threw out the old coffee grinds in the compost and checked on the new chicks. They clucked happily at seeing me. I watered the plants inside. Then it was time to leave for the day.

The sky was clear overhead and reluctantly I closed in Nelson. I heard him whine softly but I held firm and left the homestead after visiting the outhouse with a view.

 

“Latte and breakfast burrito sound good to you, Jennifer? Danny?” Mom looked back and forth at the both of us. She looked tired but flushed. I grinned.

“I’d love some, yeah, thanks. You’re both hungry, huh?”
Danny laughed and scratched his freshly shaved chin. He’d left the moustache to grow back. Mom’s hair looked damp. Mom stood up and walked off, leaving us to make small talk. Danny picked up a newspaper. I still grinned. He fiddled with the silverware.

Lattes in hand, Mom returned. Anne came over to us and handed out plates of food. She sat down facing the front door; she joined us whenever she could. Dishes filled the sink and covered one countertop. A Putumayo music mix played in the background. The sun shone brightly through the broad windows and her plants still thrived, unlike the ones at my place. Mom added some sugar and passed the bowl to Danny. He took two lumps. I added hot sauce to a bacon and egg burrito and waited to see what Mom would say.

She ignored my smirks and explained how work beckoned her back to Boise, her cats too. They chatted easily and I ate. Time drifted by. We drank more, ate more, and talked about the new hens.

“Settling in nicely, I think. But the water bowl was frozen this morning. What am I meant to do? I kicked it but that didn’t break the ice. A rock did but I can’t do that every day, can I?”
Danny put down his mug and smiled. “It’s just part of it. Don’t worry too much, they’re used to it being cold. You saw how they lived at mine. Nothing fancy. Not even the shelter you’ve done, so they’re probably in seventh heaven by now, right?”
Mom piped up that my kittens were out exploring more this morning.

“Oh really?” I grinned. “How do you know?”

Mom blushed, Danny grinned at me sheepishly, and Anne suddenly burst out laughing.

“It’s a small town, Martha. You can’t get away with anything here, can you?”

I grinned until I remembered talking to Mark last night. He said no to the kittens. A Big Fat No. My smile dropped and I looked down at my empty plate. Danny kicked me gently under the table and smiled at me when my head popped up in surprise.

“I can keep the cats for you until you’re ready, okay? You can come and play with them, it’s good to socialize them when they’re little like this.”
“Okay, thanks.” I nodded and finished my drink. I stood up and began to clear our table, telling Anne to relax for a second, literally. “There’s a tour bus just pulling up outside, you’re going to be slammed in a minute.”
“Oh shit. The dishes.”

She panicked and just then the door opened. A troupe of gray-haired Texans poured inside, with accents and cowboy hats placing them in the first sentence. Anne flew to the counter, knocking over a plant. Mom stood too and we all headed behind the counter. Danny cleaned up the soil and placed the orchid out of harms way. Mom did the dishes and I took care of the food orders.

 

“Now what?”
“Well, I have some business to take care of today, but can I meet you later? If you want?” Danny stood with hat in hand. He stood near the table, anxious to get going by the looks of it.

Mom looked up at him and smiled softly. “I’d like that, but let me see what the kids are doing this evening, all right?”
He nodded once and left us alone to deal with the aftermath of a tornado of tourists. Mom played with her phone. Anne and I grinned at each other. We waited until Mom looked up and then all three of us giggled.

“Now what?” She repeated after a moment. “Are you working all day, Anne? You could come with us to town, couldn’t she, Jenny?”

“Sure, that’d be fine with me. It’s going to be boring though, no offence, Mom.”
Anne glanced at me, “I don’t think so, not this time. Thanks for asking though. So what are you up to in Santa Fe then?”
“Errands. I have to buy the last few presents for my friends back in Boise. Something Southwestern, you know how it is. Salsa and chips, Mexican blankets, and posters of cacti and coyotes, that kind of thing. Jennifer, did you say we’re going to the plaza too?”
“Yep, Anne, you mentioned a restaurant there, right? Anyway, I suggested we meet him there after we’re done shopping, it’s not his favorite thing to do at the best of times, but when he’s worried about finding work, I don’t want him to come become more of a grouch. We’re going to meet him around four o’clock for something to eat. How’s that, Mom?”

“Whatever you want, I don’t want to be a bother. I just need to get a few things, that’s all. ”

Mom stood up just as the bell on the door rattled and in came a large family, chattering loudly in German and taking over the place. Anne shrugged and left us to it. Mom picked up her coat.

“Can you drive, Jenny?”

 

Vermont, oh why don’t you have public land?

Oh my, it’s frustrating. I’m spoilt, I know. After decades exploring the West with and without dogs, I’m used to pulling off onto a dirt road, finding a lake or ocean beach, and just walking freely.

Since then, I’ve moved to Vermont and I’m having a hard time. It’s pretty. There are mountains, soft rounded not very tall mountains, and lots and lots of trees. Maple. Red. Syrup. Oak. Pine. Ash. Aspen. Birch. Beech. Blah blah blah…and an understory that would take years to decipher.
I drive around, explore, pull off and park. Then this:

Or this

Or this.

Or this.


It doesn’t stop. Or for me, it doesn’t start. There is no sense of open horizon, public land, or a freedom to just wander around. Private land. Limited access. No camping. No dogs. No swimming. Each place I find has its own rules and regulations.
Most land is privately owned, only the rich or the landed gentry can use this beach, enjoy this view or cross this meadow.


It’s driving me nuts. That’s all. I have no answers. I haven’t done the research on BLM, NF or any other kind of accessible places. I just needed to bitch.

I’m hemmed in. Vermont is pretty but…not for me.

Living The Dream: 29

As part of the weekly excerpt of the novel LIVING THE DREAM:

NOVEMBER: TEAM WORK

Coffee bubbled away. The windstorm had finally disappeared with the sunrise. The dogs played outside and my boyfriend brought me breakfast in bed. It was not a bad start to my day.

“Here you go, Jen, do you want some more cream?”
I shook my head and sat up against the wall, drinking the coffee he passed me. I sighed and he grinned, standing with his back to the mess in the kitchen.

“I thought we could finish the outhouse today, together if you like, Jenny? Or did you want to work on it alone?”
“Together. I have a few ideas I can show you, but basically, it’s going to be kinda open plan with no doors or windows or anything.”
“What about in the snow?”
“You’ll just have to be quick.”

Mark laughed and stole a piece of toast. “Right. Okay, well, it’s your outhouse, we’ll do it your way, okay?”
I couldn’t help myself. “Don’t you have to be at Anne’s today?”
He shook his head and scratched his goatee. His hair had grown in the last month and he looked more and more like a local with his farmer’s tan. Anyway, he flicked some curls out of his eyes and joined me on the bed.

“Not today. Her and Louisa are working on some things together, out at Andrews. I’m glad we went to his party, got to know him some the last few months, aren’t you? I wish though…” and he drifted off.

I poked him with the empty mug. “If you make me more coffee, I’ll do the dishes for once.”
“Deal.” He laughed and stood up, almost knocking over a spider plant but catching it just before I yelled at him. “Time to get up, Jen, time to get up and at it.”
I climbed out of bed and into some jeans and a thick sweatshirt, outdoor clothes. I grabbed my sketches and met him outside on the porch. I heard a donkey bray in the distance again.

“Where’s that coming from?”
He shrugged and looked westwards as Frida ran to the edge of the hillside and barked. A donkey brayed back at her. Nelson joined in. Some random dogs in the valley started up their own chorus. Coyotes yipped. Mark howled and I laughed out loud, a mouthful of coffee splattering the clean jeans.

 

Two-by-fours lay propped against a tree as Mark decided which were too full of dry rot for us. He picked out six of them and stretched them out as directed by me. I looked at the posts and framed in roof, and then at my sketches in hand.

“If we frame in at whatever my knee height is, that can be closed in to make a bench, right? Then all we do is use the planks to side the bench, make steps to cover the hole at our feet, and cut a toilet seat. Yeah, we can use this piece for a back rest and I’ve already found a wooden box with a lid for the paper and sanitizer.”
“What about the wind from the gully? Do you want to put up barriers on the south and west at least?”
I nodded. “If we have enough wood for that , sure but what do you reckon? I’ll start on cutting the frame if you can attach it? Do you need help?”
Mark lifted his suntanned face and grinned. “No, boss, I’m okay. You just tell me what to do and we’ll get this done in no time. Do you want it painted too, right, since we have stuff left over from painting the bus?”

I drank the last of the bottled water, and grabbed a handsaw. Cordless tools would be great, I told him as I sweated and panted over cutting the lumber and carried it over to him, holding each piece up as he hammered them together. The shape slowly came together. The outhouse looked more like a country gazebo than a toilet, and I couldn’t wait to christen it.

The basic framework was done in a couple of hours. Mark solidified my ideas and created a cozy little room with open views at shoulder height. I sat on the bench, jeans at my feet, pretending, you know? I grinned over the walls at Mark as he gathered the scraps for our firewood pile.
“Not bad, my friend, not bad. Want to try it?”
He laughed and dropped the bundle and came up the steps, sitting next to me in his boxers with jeans around his cowboy boots.
“We could make it a two-seater.”

“No. That’s just too weird. What would my mom say?”
He shrugged with a grin, “it’s worth it just to see her face. Don’t you think? Let’s clean up and go see her. Did you make plans for today?”
I shook my head and stood up. “No, I didn’t know if we were going to get firewood or not. I guess not, eh? But I’m not worried because I saw this place in Cedar Crest we can call; they had these mountains of cut wood piled up in a fenced yard. I took down the number somewhere.”
I pulled up my pants. “But first we need to cut a hole for the seat.”
“Oh, right. It’d be pretty messy without. I’ll do that if you go call Martha. See what she’s up to, if we’re going to town or not.”
“Are you sure Anne doesn’t need your help though?”
He shook his head. “No, I told her I wanted a day at home with my girl.”

He reached for me and pulled me close, kissing me deeply. I didn’t complain. We christened the place – but not in the way I’d thought.

 

 

A huge diesel truck pulled up outside and honked. I put down my notes and went out to see. Dieselhead Danny, our monk-like neighbor, leaned out of his window and looked over at the two dogs at my feet. They were quiet for once.

“Friendly are they?”
I petted Nelson’s head and she wagged slowly, bravely. “Yep. What’s up? Want some coffee?”
He shook his head and pointed to the truck bed. “I got some extra firewood here, thought you guys might want some. It’s meant to get down to freezing again this weekend.”

He climbed out. Frida ran up to him and scooted upside down, wagging her tail furiously. Danny laughed, a big deep rumbling scary man laugh, and she peed herself. He crouched down and rubbed her tummy until she bounced onto his lap. She licked him once, on the long white beard, and then ran off.

Nelson and I came down the steps and past the piles of trash I planned to take to the dump later that day.

“How d’you get so much extra? That’s amazing, I’ve got severe firewood envy.”
Danny laughed again and opened the tailgate. Stacked this way and that, the firewood covered every inch of space, all cut to the same lengths, different kinds of wood, and both thick and thin pieces.

“I traded and the guy gave me so much I thought I’d spread the wealth, you know how it is out here. Feels good, doesn’t it?”

He passed me a solid chunk with a shy grin.

“For me? Seriously? I’d love it. I don’t have any cash on me today but I’m going to town so I can pick up some. What do I owe you?” I stroked the wood and picked up a stick and smelled it.

“Nothing, it’s a present, that’s all. Hey, that’s the pinion, from round here. Take a sniff of this; it’s juniper. Great, huh? You’re sticking around for winter is what I hear. That true?”
“Yep, we’re staying, that’s the plan. I don’t know how we’ll do it but well, this is my home now.”
Danny nodded and took out a smoke and lit up. He offered it to me but I shook my head, still holding the firewood. “Did Pete stay out here over winter?”

“Not often, but yeah, he did. A long time ago now I guess. He used to walk over to mine through the snow and hang out at my place when it was really bad. He’d keep the fires going and I’d keep the food coming. I love to cook, you see, not that you’d think so by looking at me.” He held out his wiry arms and his pants almost fell down. A skinny guy for sure. He held his cowboy hat in his hand and shrugged. “I’ve always been able to put it away like crazy, eat four times a day when I can. Yep, I love to cook not that’s there anyone to cook for these days.”
“ Well, you can cook for me sometime. I love being fed home-cooked meals. I don’t seem to eat anything much beyond soups, quesadillas, and breakfasts.”
Danny put his hat back on and started to fill his arms with wood. “Where do you want it?”
I looked around, suddenly embarrassed by our conversation, was I flirting with the old man? I wandered over to the porch. “What do you think about here?”
He shook his head. “Too close, you don’t want to make a home for rats and mice, do you? What about making a pile over by the tools and later on you can stack it to make a windbreak? Got a wheelbarrow?”
“Yep, let me get it.”
We worked together unloading the truck, a big truck, bigger than Mark’s Ford. My phone rang inside the bus but I ignored it and built up a sweat instead. Danny chatted about the weather, what to expect and when. He wasn’t surprised by the light frost the other day and even warned me to expect the first snow sometime soon. He talked up a storm did this hermit-like neighbor, and I listened as I worked near him. He’d fill the wheelbarrow and I dumped it out off to the side of the driveway, fairly near to the recycling and garden area. He checked the homestead out, noticing the porch, gardens, compost pile, and now an orange and green outhouse.

Nodding once he told me, “You’ve done good, young lady. Pete would be happy to see all this, you know? He loved being out here.”

“Hey, have you met my mom yet? She’s staying at the B & B in town for a few days. She likes it out here, not to live, but I think she’s happy I’m here. You’d love her, she’s all about people’s stories.”
“D’you want to bring her over this weekend, well, if you like? I’ll fire up the woodstove and make us some food? A good New Mexican selection for her but I’d leave your dogs at home though; my guys can get a little weird, especially with little ones. See them as snacks, you know?” He passed me the last of the wood and I took the barrow straight to my front door. Danny wiped off his hands on his none-to-clean faded jeans.

“Coffee sounds good right now, don’t you think?”

He nodded, waiting politely as I unloaded the last of the wood. I opened the door to the bus, grinned over at him, and took an armful of wood with me. The dogs ran inside and he followed, leaving his cowboy hat on the door handle.

As the coffee heated up on the stove, Danny offered to make us a fire. So I could smell the difference between the pinion and the juniper, he said. I cleaned off the table and checked my phone. Mom had called once. Louise too. But not Mark. Where was my boyfriend now?
 

 

NOVEMBER: THE GIRLS ARE COMING

 

 

Using my various sketches and notes, it was time to finish up the chicken coop. The run was almost ready but we needed the home for the little feathered critters. A gate needed to be hung before I built a hen house. After coffee, I called Mom and arranged to pick her up on the way to the Feed Store in town. She was easy company, no more stories of cheating husbands thankfully.
I’d found some rusty metal hinges, our cordless drill, and propped the door in place. It came from someone’s home is my guess, with little glass panes and wooden frame, and green paint peeling nicely. I’d be able to see the hens in their run from the kitchen window, and I liked the idea. With only a couple of minutes spent tying the door in place with some twine so it didn’t fall on top of me, I screwed in the three hinges into a thick post and found some wire to make a temporary latch. Pretty solid. I tested it by putting a couple slices of bacon inside. The dogs flung themselves against the wire fencing, dug holes, and even climbed the door but no luck. Definitely puppy proof but coyote proof is another thing.
I finally convinced Nelson and Frida to stay in the bus with another couple pieces of bacon and shut the door on them. I grabbed my phone, shopping list, and wallet. No hat for once, the sky was overcast and Danny had warned me that the weather was changing.

 

“Yep, a house for my chickens. I thought I’d get four straw bales from you and then put some tin roof across the top, what do you think? Will they be warm enough?”

We stood inside a barn whose walls were lined with shelves full of the oddest things: tons of different animal food, leashes and collars, caulking guns, various bags of kibble, horse-tack, ropes, nails, barrels of screws, plumbing pipes, chimney pieces, you name it, they sold it. The dirt floor and open windows made for a chilly set-up, and I shivered in my jacket.
A tall thickset man with a farmer’s weathered face smiled down at me. “You know that spring is the time most folks get chickens, don’t you?”
I nodded seriously. “But you see, we weren’t here then. My neighbor’s got too many and he said I could have four or so for me and my boyfriend.”
“What kind are they?”
“Er, you can get different kinds? I think they’re brown. Does it matter?”
He laughed and walked me over to a notice board covered in business cards, flyers, and information sheets. He pulled one off and gave it to me. The sheet of paper listed out some thirty common breeds of chickens.

“Some lay more than others, that’s one difference, some are bred for eating, others for their eggs. What are you wanting to do with them?”
“Feed them. Oh, and eggs. I love the idea of collecting eggs for breakfast this winter.”
“They don’t like to lay much when it’s that cold, just to let you know.”

“Close your mouth, dear, it’s not attractive,” Mom teased.
“Thanks, Mom. I love you too. Hey, did you know that? About the chickens not laying in winter?”
The man grinned as she nodded.

“Yep, remember where I grew up. Of course I did, sweetie. You can still get set up though, I don’t see why not, do you?”

She turned to the salesman and he shook his head, smiling down at her with a flirtatious glint. She faced me again to say, “you’ll also need a feeder and a water bowl of some kind for them. How many is Danny giving you?”
“He said we could pick some out when we go over. What do I need?”
Mom picked up a book from one of the shelves next to all the chicken supplies. “One of these to start with. Four or five hens will be fine, more than that is just trouble. Unless you’ll feed the dogs some eggs with their kibble?”

The salesman pulled out a forty-pound bag of chicken feed, scratch I guess it’s called, and loaded it into the Subaru.

“How many bales did you want? You can probably fit three inside and we could put some on the roof too, if you like? Do you have any rope?”

 

We ended up with food, containers, and three bales in the backseat with three more strapped down hard on the roof. Filling up at the station near by, we headed home only to have Mark pass us on the long straight stretch before our hill. He did a double take and then burst out laughing, honking his horn and waving at us. Mom opened her window and waved to him to join us. Somehow he understood and turned round and pulled up next to us when we came to Oliver.

Lunchtime.

He met us at the tavern with a huge grin and a hug for my mom and a kiss on the forehead for me. The wind picked up and slammed the door behind us. The tavern was empty but for the usual five locals along the bar watching the sports channel. Mark and I claimed the table next to the fireplace.

“How did it go in town?”

“What’s with the bales?”

Mom sat down next to me and told him that he was about to be a father to four hens. He didn’t hear her though and pulled out his lists and proceeded to tell me in detail about each and every place he stopped at. No more paid work had come out of his efforts and the boy wasn’t happy about it. Those gigs from summer had ended already unfortunately and he was at a loss. Bored, I guess.

“It’s impossible to get work here. I keep trying, online, in person, asking around, showing up at the gigs, and no one’s called me back. Damn, Jenny, this is harder than I thought. Don’t you miss your old job too? I do, that’s for sure. I didn’t realize how good I’d got it playing with the guys. I miss working in the music scene.”
“Maybe you could try Albuquerque? It’s not too far from here, isn’t it?”

He shook his head and put the notebook on the table and his pen back in his pocket, saying, “well, yeah, that’s next on the list. But seriously, don’t you miss the city?”
Mom sat down as the waiter approached and took our orders for beer and burgers as usual. She raised her eyebrows at me when I said that I liked working in the café. I liked having easy work, and teaching was just too much bureaucracy these days. That’s probably not what your mom wants to hear, that you’ve become a slacker by mainstream standards, is it? She didn’t bug me though, just ignored me, and asked Mark to explain.

“I worked hard when I could, teaching guitar to kids after school, recording with whatever band needed more guitars or drums. It wasn’t regular but with all the gigs and side jobs I did okay, you know what I mean, Martha? I miss it, that’s all I’m saying. I miss it.”
The beers arrived and he took a huge gulp before asking about the bales again. Mom laughed and showed him the reference book she’d bought us, nicely changing the subject.

“It’s really easy to raise hens, but Jenny wanted to do it right, so here you are, Mark. I think you’ll like having them around. It makes it feel like a real homestead when you start getting animals.”

Mark picked up the book and flicked through it as Mom carried on.

“Did you think about getting a cat? It’ll keep down the mice this winter if nothing else. He’d keep you warm too.”
He looked over at me before answering with a smile. “No more animals right now. Two chickens and two dogs is more than enough, right, Jen?”
I nodded reluctantly, saying nothing about the donkeys I still dreamed of adopting, or that Danny was giving us five hens. Mom ate her burger and I fiddled with mine. Mark was oblivious to the tension at the table. I didn’t say anything for a while but then remembered Andrew and Louisa.

“When’s the funeral?”
“Oh, right, well, last I heard it’d be in a couple of weeks. They’re cremating him and then taking his ashes to their family ranch in Colorado. Louise wanted to go see their mom who’s in a nursing home near Pagosa Springs while she’s up there.

“Is there anything I can do? How’s Louise doing?”
Mark looked out the window. “Fine, I think. She’s worried about all her dogs when she goes away next weekend hopefully. Other than that, Anne and Graham have taken care of the rest of the details, you know, like death certificate and social security and stuff.”

“I wish I’d get to meet her but not this time, it seems.” Martha pushed her empty plate to the side. “Jenny, what do you think about spending a day in town with me tomorrow or the next day? I need to buy some presents for back home. We could go out to eat afterwards if you’d like to show me around.”

The music kicked in with some country and western tune and the fire blazed suddenly.

“Don’t forget we’re going over to Danny’s for dinner tonight,” Mark reminded me and grinned. “Don’t worry, Jen, I’m not leaving you alone with him. How about you and Martha walk over together and I’ll meet you there as soon as I can? He won’t mind, will he? I want to pick up something for him as a thanks for all the wood.”
“Whiskey. I bet he’s a whiskey drinker. What do you think, Mom? An evening stroll to the neighbors?”
Mom leaned back against the bench seat and smiled at us both. “I’d love to, sweetheart. But first we’ll get the hens set up shall we?”

Mark passed me back the book and laughed at my coop idea. “It’s not quite what I’d imagined but why not? At least we know the ladies will be warm enough even if we freeze in the bus. Maybe I could go sleep with them?” and with that he stood up to order another round of drinks for the table.

 

Living The Dream: 28

As part of the weekly excerpts from the novel LIVING THE DREAM:

DECEMBER: FIREWOOD

“We thought you might still be here.”

Angie strode across the sand and greeted Nelson with a good deep scratching along his back. He wriggled in delight and rolled over in the sand, belly up for his friend.

Jonnie walked up, holding a couple mugs of steaming coffee and paper bag. He passed me one cup and offered a homemade breakfast burrito.

“The eggs came from our chickens, not that like to lay in winter but they surprised me this morning with enough for all of us. How are you doing, Jenny? Don’t you love it here? Much warmer than Albuquerque right now, that’s for sure.”

He sat on a rock near the campfire and sipped at his coffee. Angie stole it from him and grinned.
“We’d heard you were still staying at the cabin. It’s a small community and apparently Nelson’s been quite the star, a well-behaved boy is what our source told us.”

Nelson sat down next to me, sniffing at the burrito in my hand before lying down within reach. Just in case.

“It’s been great. We walk in the mornings and evenings and then spend most of our time sitting by fires, inside or out, daydreaming and reading and writing. It’s been perfect, a real break. We went for a drive the other day and almost got stuck on a dirt road up in the hills but I got us out okay. Then a tire blew on us. I had a moment’s panic to be honest but I’m pretty pleased with myself, first time I changed a tire on my own. And I’m in love with the 4Runner – it gets us in and out of any situation. It’s much better than the new Subaru I had for a while there. I can’t believe Louisa gave me her brother’s truck when he died. It’s been the best gift ever. What’s been going on with you? Work or school-wise?”

Angie described finishing up the term papers before coming home as Jonnie prodded at the fading fire and threw in his empty paper cup. “Talking of work, do you want to earn a little cash today? We could do with your help, that’s partly why we came down here, to offer some work followed by dinner at our home? Are you interested?”
“Well, I don’t know how I can help but sure. What are you up to?”
Angie grinned and stood up. “Firewood. We need to cut a truckload of firewood before the snow really comes to town, if the forecast is right. What do you think?”
“Firewood? Okay, but I’ve never cut any. I have no idea what help I’d be, but sure. A neighbor gave me some and then Mom ended up buying me, I mean us, a cord before she left in November. I’ve just been using that and picking up kindling from the property on my walks with the dogs.”
“Well, it’s about time you learned then, right? I’ll teach you, don’t worry Jen. It’s easy enough if you take it carefully. Come on, we’ll start with a chainsaw lesson.”

 

I followed in my truck with Nelson and Angie sharing the front seat. He pressed against her legs with his head on her lap, staring up, crushed out on her.
“Right up here a half a mile. Yeah, that one.”
A national forest sign pointed off to the west and I turned in slowly. I put the truck into high four-wheel drive and turned off the radio. Angie chatted about her plans for Christmas but carefully avoided asking me mine. They usually had neighbors over for a late lunch eaten on their deck with a chiminea’s fire going in the background. Their place overlooked the reservoirs and mountains, and it all sounded beautiful.
Jonnie slowed to a crawl and pulled off down a rough track. He parked and waved for me to park next to him. I pulled up and turned off the engine. Angie opened the door and let out a cramped but happy dog, who ran and marked the nearest trees before following his new girlfriend.
I pulled on a woolen hat and an insulated vest. Angie passed me a spare pair of work gloves. Jonnie opened up the back of this truck and pulled out the tools of the trade. The quiet was suddenly broken by the roar of the chainsaw and Nelson jumped back into the 4Runner. He peeked out a window and lay down out of sight. Jonnie grinned, and turned off the little gas engine. He checked the fluids, the chain itself, and then beckoned me closer.

“The main thing you need to remember is safety. Think about where your body is in relation to the chainsaw so if anything slips down suddenly or kicks back towards you, the chain can’t reach anything.”

He held it out to his right side and walked me through the steps, the safety features, and then passed it over to me.

“Okay, let’s see you start her up.”

 

“Break time.”

Angie motioned towards the truck, where she’d set out a thermos, some bottles of water, and sandwiches. I nodded but carried on, chopping another branch into 18-inch lengths, until a dead pinion lay in a pile at my feet. I turned off the engine and removed the ear protection with a sigh. I grinned and turned around. Jonnie had just sat on the tailgate with a sandwich in hand. He waved me over. The silence grew as we sat together, ate, and drank. A huge wilderness, dark with ponderosas, pines, valleys, mountains, and creeks, stood before us. Speechless, I stared at the Gila National Forest.

Nelson joined us, begging at my feet. I passed him a corner of bread.

 

“Do you want us to unload your truck now?”

I stood in their driveway pulling on my gloves, ready to finish up before the afternoon sun left us.

“No, I can do that in the morning. I’ve done enough for one day. I’m an old man remember? I can’t keep up with you kids.”
“Yeah, right, what, you’re maybe fifteen years older, that’s all. Are you sure, I can keep going for a little longer if you want?”
Angie reached for the gloves, “I don’t think so, and we’ve all done more than enough for one day. Here’s your pay and now go inside and clean up. Go on, Jonnie will clean up the chainsaw and then we’re all going to relax on the deck. Any complaints, anyone?”
Jonnie and I shook our heads and I pocketed the envelope of cash.

“Thanks.”
“Of course, and now go inside and claim the bathroom. I’ll keep an eye on Nelson. Go on. Get in there before Jonnie uses all the hot water.”
“It’s heated on demand, Angie,” he laughed. “You know that.”
“I know, but Jenny didn’t,” Angie smiled at me as I walked inside with Nelson at my heels.