As part of the weekly excerpts of the novel LIVING THE DREAM:
DECEMBER: SNOW BOY
The wind bit into me as I hiked the land, one filled with cactus and junipers. I stood and yelled, sometimes whispered, and mostly cried. My Nelson, my nervous Nellie had run off and I didn’t know what to do. Should I stay by the truck? Should I get a posse together to look for him? Who would I call though? Not Graham nor Anne. Dieselhead Danny? Louisa? I didn’t know what to do but keep walking and calling his name, hoping he’d hear me, hoping he’d suddenly appear at my feet, his sweet sad eyes looking up at me. It didn’t happen like that though. I walked and called until my voice cracked until I’d cried as much as I could. Until my head hurt and my knees gave way and I sank to the ground. That’s how Officer Ramirez found me, in a field on my knees, staring empty eyed into the snowy distance.
“Jennifer? Jennifer? Are you all right?” He sank down next to me and reached for my face, checking me out for injuries or drugs, I don’t know. He pulled me up and asked me to stand with him, to explain what had happened. I told him everything, how I’d adopted Nelson, his story, the weeks on the road, and the crash.
“He ran off when I was out cold, I guess. I don’t know. Your friend, the other officer, said the door was open when he pulled up but the snow had hidden any tracks. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do…” I shook my head and glared at the clouds building up overhead. “I can’t leave him out here, he’s too vulnerable. It’s too cold. What do I do?”
He took me by the arm and directed me back towards the vehicles, small dots in the valley. “First, I get some hot coffee and soup into you. We’ll call your friends after that okay? The dog lady you mentioned. She’d be a good resource for you right now. Let’s go get warm though, okay? Come on, Jen, it’s okay. We’ll find him. We’ll find him.”
Officer Ramirez kept me upright, muttering reassurances to me as I stumbled and fell in exhaustion. The clouds grew dark and the afternoon sun disappeared. I shivered and pulled my coat closer. Where was my friend?
We sat in the cop car, parked a small distance behind the 4Runner. I’d left the tailgate dropped down and the engine running, in the hope Nellie would hear us, would find us in the snowstorm. I sipped my coffee grateful for Jaime’s company and his steady presence.
“Won’t you get in trouble? Shouldn’t you be out working or something?”
He shook his head and smiled at me self-consciously, “I called in sick. My wife knows where we are, and she’ll cover if anyone from the department calls looking for me. I can stay a while; don’t worry. Mary even offered to bring us dinner if we’re still here. Let’s just wait it out, I doubt the snow will keep on coming for much longer, and then we can go out again, but you’ll have to borrow more layers okay? It’s too cold for what you’re wearing.”
I nodded and warmed my hands on the mug. That’s what worried me most, the cold. He’s a husky, I know they have thick fur, but he’s a lap dog, a big soft lap dog that doesn’t know how to survive outdoors. He needs me. I need him. I finished the soup as the light faded and evening came upon us.
Officer Jaime nudged me, and pointed off to the side with his chin, saying nothing. Flashes of movement caught my attention. I put the mug down on the dashboard. I held my breath. Eyes glared in the darkness and slowly came closer. No sounds of footsteps reached us, only a sense that whatever it was, an animal was checking us out. Not a coyote I prayed, I’d dreaded a pack of coyotes attacking Nelson, a nightmare that flashed suddenly in my head and I flinched. The eyes stopped still. Then a tail wagged slowly and Nelson stood tall in the snow. His coffee coat lay flat and wet, but his ears perked up as I whispered his name.
I flew out the cop car and fell to my knees in the snow. He crept up towards me. It was not the happy return I’d hoped for: He stood at a distance and watched. Jaime didn’t move from within the vehicle. Nelson sniffed deeply as I sat still as a snowman. He sniffed and his tail slowly wagged but he didn’t come closer. I talked to him, to my boy, explained what had happened, the crash, my headache, looking and calling him, and how Jaime, Officer Jaime was helping me. Nelson’s eyes flickered over to the man, and back to me.
“Nelson, it’s okay now. It’s okay. We can go home.”
He crept closer, to within reach of my hands and I held them out for him to smell. He licked me once then jumped, knocking me down in the snow. He pinned me, sitting across my chest, panting and licking and wagging. Thump. Thump.
“We can go home, I promise, Nelson. We’re going home.”
“I’m coming back with you, but we have to stop by my place in Albuquerque, okay? My wife made us all dinner and she said she has some steak pieces for Nelson too. No arguments, Jen.” He cut me off as I opened my mouth to protest. “We’re both making sure you get home safely. Mary insists. You can argue with her when we get there but not with me. Come on. It’s time to get out of this weather and warm up.”
The cop car pulled out behind me as I gradually inched my way up the embankment and onto the interstate. Traffic drove around us slowly, staring at the sight of a 4Runner driven by a husky.
NOVEMBER: COLD BITES
The Ford slid sideways on the dirt road and Mark swore under his breath. He silently pulled over and climbed out. I sat inside with the heat blasting me. Mark went to each front wheel and turned something with a grunt. He opened up the door and stepped up fast. The cold wind bit at his neck and he shivered like a wet dog.
“Damn it’s cold out there. You okay?”
He changed into four-wheel drive and set off up hill once again. No tracks, no vehicles, no lights, just snow lay all around. Silence of a whole new variety smothered us. I grinned at the thought of us singing as we tromped through drifts in the middle of the night like Anne and Graham had. But then Mark piped up as he lit a smoke.
“I can’t wait to get to the city to see Keith and the kids. Going out to a club and walking back in the early morning in just a thin leather jacket. Damn, it’s perfect timing, isn’t it? Hon? What with this weather? We can leave the dogs with Louisa or get Graham to come feed them every few days when we’re gone.”
I shook my head and watched the wipers smear snow across the screen, half frozen ice dripped off the mirrors. An owl sat tall on a pinion tree, undisturbed by the Ford’s slow progress. The snow kept coming down, hard and heavy.
We turned down the last mile in silence. I tucked my hands under my thighs and sighed.
“You tired, Jen?”
“I’ll make us a fire then. You can go straight to bed.”
I did just that; I went to bed without him. I lit an oil lamp next to the bed and called the dogs up to snuggle with me. Frida lay on Mark’s pillow and Nelson across my lap. The bed warmed up immediately and I faced the window, watching the snow come down slow and thick. It was so incredibly beautiful. I fell asleep.
The cold woke me. Mark was fast asleep in the armchair next to the woodstove, neglected and barely lit. I quickly pushed the dogs to one side and pulled on layers then made up a fire, quietly so as to not disturb Mark. I heated water for coffee and waited in the wintery silence. Outside the sun crept over the mountains and the air was still. Not a sound penetrated the snow banks. I shivered but not from cold. With thermals, jeans, a woolen sweater from my mom and a good coat, I headed outside with the dogs reluctantly following me. Nelson soon relaxed and became a snowplow, running full speed with nose to the ground as he sped around us. Frida shivered from the cold. I picked her up and passed her back inside the bus. Nelson and I hiked across the blank canvas, me with a mug of steaming black coffee in hand, him with a white nose of snow.
Juniper trees bent under the weight of a good few inches of wet snow, the kind that drips into your collar or soaks your ankles, at least that’s what I found. The sun shone in the distance and I drank the rest of the coffee when we reached a small peak above the land, looking down upon the bus with smoke trailing out the stovepipe. Idyllic. It looked so idyllic. But it wasn’t. I couldn’t pretend otherwise, not any more. I couldn’t pretend we shared this dream any more. I wiped at my eyes, willing myself to hold back and simply see what was going on. Nelson brought me a white stick to throw for him, his tail thumping happily against a rotten pinion. The tree suddenly toppled with a crash. Nelson sprang and skidded down hill in surprise and I laughed. I laughed in delight. At the snow, at my home, at the dogs, at life. This is my life, and I love it. I’m not leaving.
“What? What do you mean?”
I stood above the bed where Sleeping Beauty was curled up with Frida now on my pillow. Mark sat up and pulled the covers up with him, “you’re leaving? In this?”
The fire had warmed the bus but not that you’d really notice. I ignored Mark and stoked the fire with a couple of thick juniper chunks, and got it blazing. “Do you want some coffee before I head out?”
“Where are you going?”
I put on the water to boil, as regardless of what Mark said now, I’d need another cup. I squatted down in front of the woodstove and opened its door to watch flames. The snow glistened outside in the glare of the mid-morning sunshine. The water bubbled and out of habit I made two mugs of coffee, taking one back to Mark who had been watching me from the bed. Nelson asked to come back inside, his snow playing time over. He looked at me then Mark and decided to lie at my feet. I petted him absently, fiddling with his long silk like ears. I sipped my drink and warmed my hands at the same time.
“This is a good life, Mark, a life I love. I’m not going back West for Thanksgiving, not to visit nor to live.”
Mark reached for his sweatshirt. “Can we have this conversation another time? Like when it’s warmer?”
“It’s warm here, with a fire going and hot drink in my hands. I’m comfortable.”
“Well, I’m not.” He climbed out of the bed despite Frida’s grumbling, and he dressed in as many layers as he could, making quite a production out of it. I sat back in the armchair and Nelson lay down across my boots with a contented sigh.
“I’d like us to go back for Thanksgiving, just to see, Jenny, to remind us of what it’s like to live with central heating and movies and buses and people around. I miss it, that’s all I’m saying. I miss it. Don’t you?”
I glanced out the window next to me, and took a moment. “No, no I don’t. This is good for me. I even laughed this morning when I fell into a snow bank. I can do this, Mark. We can do this.”
“But do we want to? I don’t know. It’s been fun, good to make stuff, but it’s real now. This snow makes it real and we can’t do this, we’re not up for it. I’m not and I know you, you’re not either.” He crouched down in front of me and rested his arms on my legs. “It’s too much, let’s just take a trip down memory lane for the holidays okay? You know we have more than enough places to stay when we go back to Washington, and Keith, all my friends in LA, they’d put us up for sure. I’d get to play some gigs, bring in some cash for us, it’ll be easy, Jen, easy.”
I shook my head and moved in the chair. He took his hands back and stood up. He put the mug down on the counter and walked outside. The smell of his cigarette wafted through a cracked window. I stroked Nelson’s ears again, and lay back and closed my eyes.
“Did you ever want this? To live like this, Mark?”
He shook his head slowly, “not like you did, no.”
“So what the hell were you thinking? Patronizing me or something? Shit, I can’t believe this. Mom said -”
“Your mom said what exactly?”
I sat down and reached for one of his cigarettes but he pulled them away. “What Jen? What did Martha say about me?”
“That I was imagining things, that you loved me…” I paused, remembering the rest of the story, her story. Mark picked up on it and frowned. He opened two bottles of beer and passed me one as he sat back down on the bed. The dogs had been sent to the floor and we’d camped out here for hours, talking, trying to understand. The woodstove and the sunshine made it bearably warm enough to sit in tee shirts and jeans alone. I shook my head and started to cry without sound. Mark sighed in exasperation.
“Why do women always have to cry? Drink your beer, Jen. Just drink some beer.”
Nelson came over and stood watching me at a distance. He’d never fully trusted Mark after the first night here. I reached for him and the pup stood close enough to reassure himself I wasn’t hurt then he wandered back to his blanket by the woodstove. Frida dozed. I drank the beer and looked around my home, our home, at the shelves we’d built, the paint we’d chosen, the bed we’d made.
“We did this together, Mark. We found this place, dreamed of building a home, growing food, finding a community, all of it. We did this together.”
“I did most of it, not that you noticed. You were too busy helping everyone else. Didn’t you notice I’ve been lonely out here? I’m useless; I can’t find a decent band, no regular gigs, no teaching guitar, nothing that I like. It’s all just the stuff you like, Jen, with animals everywhere, and then making junky projects that will fall apart in a good wind. Is that something to be proud of? Working in a café for the rest of your life and living in a bus?”
“Mom didn’t seem too upset with me, did she?”
“I’m talking about you, Jen, not your mom.”
“I know, and you’re not being very nice about me are you? Saying this isn’t something to be proud of, saying you did all the work, not me. Is that what you really think? That this is all your doing? Well thanks a bunch, Mark.” I stood up and grabbed a jacket and car keys. “I’m going out a while. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
Mark stood up and towered over me. “You’re running away again? Leaving?”
“No, it’s you who says you’re leaving. Not me, I’m staying. This is my home. But yes, I’m going out. To play in the snow and see friends -” I stepped down onto the deck, clutching the coat and backpack.
“ – and hope I’m here when you get back? With the fire going and food made like a good little househusband, eh? Well, fuck you too.” And he slammed the door behind me. I stood on the deck, too shocked to cry. Then it opened again and Nelson flew out and the door closed gently after him.
I drove carefully down the road in my Subaru with the heater cranked and radio silent. Nelson stayed in the back seat, stretched out in the warmth and sunshine. I drove carefully with the phone to my ear that is, praying Mom would pick up. She didn’t. I tried Anne, just her voicemail, and the same happened with Graham and Louisa. Damn, I was alone with this.
Over Santa Fe, the clouds built a wall of gray, encompassing the mountains and creeping my direction. More snow by the look of it and during the afternoon was my guess. I kept trying the phone but no one answered. Nelson slept. What the fuck?
I nodded and stared at the television above his head.
“Is Mark coming down later? I had a band call up asking for a gig and I think he’d get on well with them, you know? Should I just call him?”
I took the pint and muttered that I didn’t know so just call him. My third pint went down easily but walking to the bathrooms was not. Maybe it was time to call it a day. I stood outside to sober up in the cold and snow. The phone rang.
“Mom? Oh, Mom…” and I burst into tears.