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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
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?”
“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.
“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?”