As part of the weekly excerpt from the novel LIVING THE DREAM:
DECEMBER: TIME FOR A FIRE
“Seriously? You did all of this in six months? I’m impressed, Jen. It’s incredible.”
Jaime and Gloria wandered around my home, admiring deck, outhouse, gardens, and even the wonky chicken coop. The hens cackled and followed us on the tour. Nelson sniffed, unsure of himself yet happy to be home. The snow had stopped during the drive, and a clear bright blue sky above made everything fresh and crisp. No wind for once, and so Jaime offered to light us a campfire.
“No, I’ll do it, but do you want to bring over the cooler so we can have your picnic now? I’m starving and these rocks make great back rests in summer. Hmm…maybe use the straw bales?”
Snow covered everything though so I left him to it. Jaime wandered off looking for three bales and blankets as Gloria poked around in the bus, opening and closing the three cupboards by the sound of it. She stuck her head out the door.
“This is a great little home, I can see why you want to stay here. But are you sure you’ll be warm enough?”
I nodded and blew on the kindling. The fire took first time round. “Yep, I’ll buy more bales to put around the bottom of the bus for insulation. The woodpile should keep me going for three months at least, that’s what my neighbor Danny said. The challenge will be the water, keeping water from freezing. I’m not sure what I’ll do about that yet. Keep containers inside, I guess?”
I crouched down at the fire-pit as the juniper burned hot and bright. Satisfied the fire wouldn’t go out, I walked over to the chicken coop. The girls followed me back. Inside their home, someone had scattered straw and made roosts. Two eggs lay frozen in the far corner, out of reach. I’ll have to get a rake or scoop to get those out, but another time, there was no rush. They all seemed happy and well fed. A bowl of water was full but had a thin layer of ice across the top, which I broke with a short stick lying next to it. Danny had been taking care of them apparently.
Gloria took photos as she wandered around, chatting to Jaime about how lazy he’d been the last six months, teasing him happily as he poured out hot chocolate. He passed me a cup and sat down.
“Yes, this is great. Your mom must be proud of you, not many girls know how to live like this,” he said quite seriously. My expression must have tipped him off because he backtracked, “not many men either, I mean. Me, I can’t imagine being this far away from other houses or cut off, but it’s beautiful. Hey, Gloria. Put the phone down and come on over, sit down a minute, will you? We’ve got another hour or so before it gets dark. You don’t mind if we leave by four, do you, Jen? I can’t picture driving that pass again, not in the dark.”
Gloria called out from behind the bus. “What are you going to do with this Subaru now? Do you need it? Do you want to sell it? To us?”
Jaime stood up, shaking his head and grinning at me. “She’s always begging me for a newer car, all wheel drive, she hates driving to work in the Accord.”
Nelson had already found an old bone of Frida’s and brought that along with him as we wandered over to check out the car. Gloria had scooted the front seat closer to the steering wheel and adjusted the mirrors already, making herself at home. I joined her in the passenger seat. Suddenly Nelson jumped on top of me, panting fast, scared I’d leave again. I scratched his ears and hugged him to me. Jaime stood in front of the car and knelt down, looking underneath for something, I didn’t know what.
“How many miles do you have on this thing? It’s in perfect condition, even after living out here. Did you say you wanted to sell it? Sorry, we’re jumping the gun on you.” He stood up and brushed snow off his knees.
I climbed out and stood next to him, looking at the car, the car that had brought Mark and I to New Mexico, our only vehicle for all those months. So many places we’d discovered here, driving together up unknown roads because of Google maps. I shook my head at myself and smiled at them both. Nelson sat across my boots and leaned against my jeans, smiling up at me, his bone still in his mouth.
“The 4Runner is all we need, right Nelson? It’s took us on a road trip and brought us home safely, with only a cracked windshield to show for it. Shall we sell the car?”
Nelson wiped the snow off the flagstones with his tail, a sign of approval.
I couldn’t start the damn fire. The kindling was still wet. I’d run out of newspaper and was fast running out of matches. I sat back and leaned against Nelson. The bus was cold. His water bowl was covered with a thin layer of ice. I poured out water from the kettle and thawed his drink first and then used the rest for my first cup of coffee. Outside a snowstorm raged. The Subaru sat in the middle of the driveway with a thick white hat of snow on the rooftop. My camera lay on the kitchen table but I had no desire to capture the blizzard or its destruction, its obliteration of my world. I’d run out of power on my phone and Mark had taken the laptop.
I made some coffee and shuffled back to bed, climbed under the covers, and stared out the window. It surprised me how little changed the bus was with Mark gone. More noticeable was Frida’s absence. Her small thick bed in front of the woodstove was gone. Her favorite blanket on the bed – gone. Her bowl – gone. Nelson kept pacing and whining from bed to door, bed to door. I finally climbed out of bed and let him outside. He ran back and forth around the bus and piles of firewood and recycling, he was a doggy snowplow, a happy loose-limbed husky in his element. I was not however in mine. This sucked.
I climbed back under the covers but this time brought my clothes with me and warmed them up a while. First mug done, I dressed warmly and headed out with the dog. Just because I was miserable, didn’t mean I had to ignore his routine early morning hike around the land, did it? The woolen hat and scarf from Mom kept the snow off my face and the leather coat kept me surprisingly warm as we hiked a barren yet beautiful landscape.
At a nearby peak, I looked down upon the bus, a pale green shape smothered in snow. I had to get a fire going, I really did. My home looked so empty and desolate without smoke in the chimney. I threw snowballs for Nelson and he rolled downhill chasing and losing them each time. I laughed at his antics and at myself for being in a crappy mood. The world was beautiful. The sun shone. My clothes kept me warm. I had a home I loved. It was time to buck up and take care of things again.
Nelson ate as I cleaned up in the bus. I stacked firewood and kindling inside with more of each hidden under the deck in the urge to have dry wood another day. I opened up a few boxes from under the bed and found letters and newspapers and notes of mine. I tore them up for firelighters. In an hour or two I could probably try again at making a fire with some of this slightly drier wood. Hopefully. In the meantime, I swept the floor and dusted off the counters and shelves, reorganizing slightly, and claiming the place for myself. Books lay propped on a new shelf above my bed, photos of Mom and her cats, others of Nelson and Frida chasing each other in the mountains, and yes, one of Mark and I at the Rio Grande Gorge. I checked my phone, forgetting that I’d run out of power. I’ll have to call Mom the next day, perhaps go to the café in Cedar Crest for once? Oliver, NM didn’t appeal so much and I didn’t want to bump into Anne.
In the cooler I found some old tortillas, cheese slices, and salsa. Quesadillas sounded perfect. I lit the little propane cooker and set the tortillas to brown. The propane ran out. I ate tepid food in a cold bus in the middle of nowhere.
Nelson came up and lay across my lap, offering me Frida’s bone.
“I miss them too.”
A truck pulled up the next day, it felt like early in the morning, but I couldn’t tell you for sure. I scrambled out of bed and threw on some old clothes and boots before opening the door. The bus was cold. I was hungry. I’d not had any coffee. This was not a good time for visitors.
Danny climbed out of his truck, petting Nelson and carrying a cooler. “Your mom’s been worried. She couldn’t get a hold of you yesterday so she sent me over. Did you have a good Thanksgiving? Go anywhere?” He stomped through the snow and up into the bus. “Damn, it’s cold, Jen. Didn’t you make a fire yet?”
I shook my head but didn’t say anything. Danny set down the cooler on the kitchen table, saying, “I brought you some left-overs from the community meal at the tavern. I’d thought I’d see you there. All your friends were asking about you but Graham told me Mark had gone to LA without you. It got me worried. So, well,” and suddenly he got all shy and tongue-tied, “I brought you food. Martha said you eat meat these days so it’s the whole works. Did you get stuck in the snow? Your car’s kinda parked awkwardly, a right pain for me to get around. I managed though, but we’ve got to go over to Louisa’s this afternoon to pick something up but it’s a surprise.” He laughed and filled the kettle. He pulled out a match to light the propane.
“It’s empty. I ran out.”
He looked up at me, surprised. “That’s not good. You gotta keep extras in winter, we can all get snowed in and then what would happen?”
I shook my head.
He sat down opposite me, quietly. “Are you okay, Jen?”
I shook my head and started to cry soundlessly. Danny reached for my hand and just held it in his as I cried. He waited me out. I shuddered and took a deep breath.
“I don’t know that I can do this alone. Fires, kindling, water, animals, and propane. I can’t seem to keep track of what I need to do next. It’s too much for one person. For me.”
Danny sat back and stretched out his long skinny legs and tapped the table once. I looked up. He grinned. “It’s not, you know. Not if you really want it. It’s fun. It’s freedom. But it takes time, which is what we have living like this, isn’t it? No nine to five jobs, no commitments after work, it’s just playing on your place, enjoying the weather, making fires, and eating good food with friends. You have to want it though.”
“I don’t know that I do.”
DECEMBER: TRY AGAIN
The embers glowed when I opened the vents and throwing on a few large juniper logs, the fire quickly woke back up. I sat back and sipped a coffee laced with Baileys. The sun crept over the mountains and fresh snow sparkled and tempted me outside. Nelson was already plowing paths for us with his tail wagging constantly. The coffee mug warmed my hands and my concoction tasted just perfect, decadent even.
Jaime and Gloria had taken the Subaru back with them and promised to return with cash for the title within a few days. Knowing I’d got money coming in, I’d spent an afternoon in town, Santa Fe that is, spending more than felt normal or even comfortable. Well, I was trying to catch up with my life out here and that meant supplies, didn’t it?
The 4Runner had been filled up to and including the roof rack with numerous straw bales, two propane tanks (large ones this time), three water containers, crates of canned foods of all kinds, twenty pounds of chicken scratch, a box of fire starters with a dozen lighters, some candles and two oil lamps, and not forgetting a forty pound bag of dog food and then treats for both Nelson and I. I’d mentally thanked Andrew and Louisa once again for the gift of the Toyota as we’d driven through yet another blizzard in low 4-wheel drive along our dirt road. No slips, no accidents, just a cold bus had awaited us. The wood under the deck had finally dried out enough and the fire took at first attempt. Nelson had claimed Mark’s side of the bed with a stick of rawhide. The food had been spread out across shelves, in sight as a reminder that I’m comfortable these days. Candles stood tall in the various wine and beer bottles we’d collected over the months. Oil lamps claimed pride of place on the kitchen table and counter.
As the sun came up, a westerly wind picked up outside but it was meant to fade out by afternoon. That morning, the bus was snug and cozy. Sprawling in an armchair with a coffee mug next to me, I closed my eyes in relief.
“Time for a walk, kiddo?”
Nelson woke up with a yawn and a wag and jumped down, bringing a leash in his mouth.
“Silly boy. No, we’re just going for a good hike around here today, okay? I want us to find the four corners of the property and build little towers at each one. I’ll bring treats, don’t worry.”
Grabbing a small backpack, I filled it with a thermos of hot chocolate, some sandwiches, and a milk bone or three. Closing off the stove-vents, I hoped the bus would stay warm enough for an hour to two without us. I cracked a window though as we left, scared of carbon monoxide building up. The sun shone down brightly and soon I tore off my woolen cap and scratched at my shaggy self-styled haircut from the night before. An even four inches all over was how it had turned out when I hacked away without even a mirror for guidance. I’ll dye it again in the New Year, a reddish tint this time, something new, perhaps? I strode along, following Nelson to start with but veering off when we hit the arroyo.
“This way, Nellie. We’re making a new route, okay? Come on, boy. Where are you now?”
He ran into me from behind, eyes blinking and tail wagging as I fell into a snow bank underneath him. He smiled his doggy smile and jumped off.
“Okay, round one to you, fella, but I’ll get you back.”
I brushed off the snow from my jeans, thankful they were flannel lined. I caught up with my dog as he crested another low hill to the west of us. I pulled up short. Nelson froze at my side and hunkered down.
He didn’t resist.
We watched as a five coyotes chased down a rabbit in the valley below. They yipped and chattered as they ran, circling the rabbit through the pinions and junipers. The rabbit shot under a large chamisa bush and the coyotes ran past full speed. The rabbit stuck his head out, listened intently, and backtracked.
“It should be around here somewhere. Not that you’ll help, but…” I set the pack down and checked the map. From my guess, there should be a marker set in the ground within twenty feet of this huge old surviving pinion tree. Twenty feet is larger than you’d think when faced with rocks, gulleys, trees, and a handful of shrubs. Fair enough, I decided to look for a while and then just make a symbolic corner, since it was for my benefit only and I doubted that Danny would really care that much if I was wrong. It’s good to get along with your neighbors, and I grinned at the thought of him and Mom dating. I scrambled up a six-foot boulder and looked around. I could barely make out the bus in the distance but a wisp of smoke lingered in the valley, mine or Danny’s. The trees here were thick and healthy in the wash, enough water seeped down here during monsoons to create quite a microclimate. I’ll have to come back here in the middle of summer for a dose of shaded sandy beaches. I slid back down, curious to see what Nelson was digging at.
“Hold on, fella, I’m coming.”
Nelson stuck his head back in the sand and sniffed and sneezed in surprise. I tugged gently on his tail and he backed out. He’d dug a small pit, twelve inches or so diameter. In the middle was a hole approximately four inches wide. To the left of then opening was a piece of rebar with a stamped metal tag. The corner mark, Nelson had found the northwest corner.
Nelson kept digging, deeper and wider as I piled rocks precariously into a tower. I found different shapes, sizes, and even colors, stacking them slowly and steadily, trying to build as high as possible, which was only two feet high unfortunately.
I squatted down on a rock with my face to the sun and sipped hot chocolate. Nelson ate his milk bone at my feet. I picked up my jacket and hat, stuffing them into the backpack, and checked out the map once again. We set off, looking for the next corner to the southwest of the bus.
An arroyo, full of dead cholla and prickly pear cactus blocked my path. The corner marker was right in the middle of the thorns. Great. I set down the backpack and reassessed the landscape. Yep, no doubt, it had to be in the middle of that damn arroyo. I scratched my head and sat down, not quite sure where to build a rock tower. In the meantime, I collected as many rocks to be found, although most were flagstones only an inch or two thick. I laid a path through the cactus patch and found myself in the middle of this gloriously unfriendly environment.
I carefully squatted down and looked for a marker. Then I stood and that slight change in lighting made something flash at my feet. A silver metal tag glinted from a rod of rebar. Perfect. I carried the last skinny piece of flagstone over to this hidden corner marker. Using a small hand sized rock, I dug out a hole as big as my footprint. I set the stone upright and tamped down the earth to hold it in place. On the top of this two-foot high pinnacle, I laid a fist of quartz.
Back at the gate, Nelson and I stood, warm and happy from all the hiking back and forth. Only two more corners to find and then I’d make us dinner. The sun was mid-way down the horizon. I knew I had a couple of hours at most. I glanced at the well-worn map and turned northeast. Nelson trotted along at my heels.
“Heel. Good boy, good heel,” I said, just in case he figured out what I meant.
A juniper sprouted out from under a three-foot high smooth boulder in the middle of the scrubland. I scrambled to the top and stood up tall. The valley was silent but for a sudden wind kicking up a dust devil across the way. The sunlight lit up the mountains behind Santa Fe. The air was chilly yet it wasn’t too cold after exploring for the last few hours. I hopped down, dropping the backpack on the ground, and searched for the elusive rebar. Nelson sniffed the area and peed in mid-air, which was all very undog-like of him. Curious, I wandered over to see why he’d lifted his leg without a tree or rock there. Of course, he’d marked the rebar, so to speak. Another treat for the boy as I created a tower of juniper branches tied together with my bandana.
We hiked back due south and searched for the southeast marker. I couldn’t find the damn rebar anywhere. I kept checking the ground, directions, map, and my memory. I’d been sure Mark and I had discovered it by accident after the monsoons but for the life of me, I had no image of where that might be. I sat under a tree and watched a few light clouds build over the Jemez to the west of us. No storm was forecast and I didn’t worry. Nelson ate the last milk bone and I finished the thermos of hot chocolate. My muscles ached gently, reminding me of how I’d been so lazy for the last month, only driving and setting up camp every so often, nothing like summer and fall which had been physically challenging, what with always hiking and building around the homestead. I sighed and promised myself to get fitter in the New Year.
Standing and stretching, I gave up the search without a blink. It’s not like the marker is going anywhere. And neither am I.
The phone blinked on the kitchen table but I focused on settling us in for the night. I lit a fire. I pulled out the lentil and tomato soup and set the pan to simmering on the woodstove. Two candles were lit on the counter and an oil lamp on the table. I fed Nelson who then promptly fell asleep with a full belly.
“I saw you’d rung.”
Voices in the background faded as Mark walked to a quieter spot. “Yes, I didn’t know what to say so I hung up, sorry.”
I sipped the cabernet and wondered why it didn’t matter to me either way. The wind had picked up again outside the bus and the tin roof flapped on the outhouse, loose and untethered. I wrote myself a note as I waited for Mark to say something.
“I got in with Keith’s band, do you remember then? A steam punk band? They’re pretty good these days and anyway they asked if I’d play mandolin and ukulele with them. We’ve got regular gigs in the area and even a small part in a documentary being filmed next week, crazy eh? I had to grow a moustache for them. I’ll send you photos if you like? It’s pretty funny looking but it works, or at least it’s getting me work…” He paused, suddenly conscious of babbling. “How are you doing? Is it too cold for you? It’s been in the seventies here this week. I’ve been getting even more of a tan. In winter, it’s bizarre if you ask me. Anyway, tell me about the trip, where did you end up? Did the Subaru do right by you?”
“I sold the Subaru.”
“You did? Why? When? Did you buy something else?”
Voices around Mark drowned out his voice for a moment and a laugh like Anne’s echoed in the background. I cringed at the image. “After you left, well, the day after Thanksgiving actually, Danny took me over to Louisa’s. We fixed up the last of the doghouses and even had dinner with her. She talked about her trip to see her mom in Colorado, the memorial for Andrew at their land with the other surviving brothers and a sister. It sounded pretty sweet to be honest, very idyllic. Anyway, as we were leaving her place later that night, Louisa handed me some keys. Danny had laughed and admitted he’d not told me but apparently he’d been asked to bring me over there to pick up Andrew’s 4Runner. She wanted it be a gift for me, to help with living out here, something more rugged for these roads. Isn’t that incredible?”
Mark inhaled and coughed and another laugh whispered in the background. “Yeah, that’s kinda unbelievable. But it won’t be good gas mileage, will it? You’ll want a smaller car for getting out here, it’d cost you a fortune to drive to LA.”
I sipped the wine and poured out another full mug’s worth. I nodded to myself and sat up.
“But I’m not coming out there. I’m staying here.”
“You what? You’d said you’d come out for the New Year. That we’d try to be together again after a break, this month apart, you know?”
“No, I said I’d think about it, that I’d think about coming out after the New Year. Well, I’ve been thinking, driving and thinking a lot the last month, and I’m not coming out there. I’m not moving there or even visiting you there. You can come back here some day, on vacation, but that’s all. You’d have to stay in Oliver though, as a friend, nothing more, like you’d wanted, remember?” My tone was flat, the words methodical, as I explained my decision, it sounded almost clinical. “You slept with Anne, remember? That was the final straw. I’m not interested in trying to work it out, not now. I just can’t, Mark. I can’t do it.”
“But it’s not like it’s a big deal, Jen. We were taking a break, weren’t we? You’d walked out on me, leaving me in the bus in the snow…”
I took a deep breath and asked. “Was that the first time? The first time you slept with her? Was it? You owe me that at least, the truth, what was going on this summer with you and her?”
Mark blew out a big sigh, “Don’t go there, Jenny, please. Let’s just try to work it out. You’re my best friend, I love being with you – we have fun. But I can’t stay out in the middle of nowhere like that. Remember how easy it was when we lived together in Olympia? I do.”
“Yes, I remember,” and my voice dropped low and soft as a wave of sadness swiped at my resolve, washing away the anger. “I remember.”
“I miss you, Jen. I do.”
I stood up and crouched down in front of the woodstove and poked in another log. The bus stayed warm these days and I curled up in the armchair in my jammies.
“Don’t you miss me?”
“I do, but Mark, I love this, living out here. It’s taken me a while but I do like it, you know? It suits me.”
“And that’s great, it is, Jenny, it is. We could still see each other though, you could come here, just for a week or so every now and again, and I don’t have a regular schedule, so I can take the train and come out too.”
“And in the months between? You want to sleep around?”
Mark sighed, “not exactly. But why not? Why not have an open relationship? Like -”
“- Anne and Graham? No, I don’t think so. I can’t do that Mark. It’s all about trust, isn’t it? Well, I don’t trust you any more, not like that. Not like that…” I reached for the bottle of wine and poured out the rest while closing my eyes. Nelson stirred in his sleep, his muddy paws all over Mark’s pillow. I smiled despite the conversation. “Look, Mark, it’s good to hear from you. I’m glad you’re getting gigs and work and you’re happy. Well, so am I. I’m happy. So let’s just talk another time, okay? I’ll put your stuff in storage under the bed or something and you can let me know what to do with it another time.”
Mark didn’t answer but waited in silence as I sipped my wine and talked about my day hiking the land, playing in the snow with Nelson, and now relaxing in front of a fire.
“You really are happy, aren’t you? I didn’t think you’d do it on your own.”
His footsteps crunched on sand and ocean waves drowned out the sounds of a party in the background. Music and laughter echoed down the phone.
“Yep, I am. Well, I’ll talk to you another time, Mark.” I finished my wine and stood up, taking off the slippers as I sat on the edge of my bed. “Oh, and Happy Christmas, my friend.”
He sighed softly. “Happy Christmas, Jenny.”