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.
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.