As part of the weekly excerpt from the novel LIVING THE DREAM:
I spent the afternoon fixing odds and ends around the homestead. I’d set up a campfire by pulling down various three to four-foot lengths of branches and partial tree trunks to be found near by. Blankets covered a few straw bales for seats and I’d even swept the deck clear of snow. Veggie soup bubbled away on the wood stove inside. Nelson played with the hens, following them around the trees and eating their poop. He flopped down in a sunny spot on the deck. When the hens wandered back into their run to escape his attentions, I closed the gate behind them. The sky was clear blue, and no storms nor wind threatened to come our way. I wore Mom’s scarf, a fleece sweatshirt, thermals, long socks, and my big winter boots. The sun might be shining but it was still below freezing.
I lay back across a straw bale and drifted off.
Nelson barked. I fell off the bale. The delivery guys had arrived. Three different trucks pulled up together, making a right mess of the snow by all backing up as close as they could to the bus, and with much laughter and carrying on, we began to unload the straw bales. Three truckloads of bales, I couldn’t quite believe it. Debbie set the kids to clearing out a space around the bottom of the school bus with the help of Nelson who’d taken to young Finn. They wore so many layers as to indistinguishable from one another, and they set to work removing rocks and cactus.
“Frank is on his way but had to swing by the Firehouse first. He said he’d be here in a short while. How do you want to do this?”
“I just figured we’d set one layer end to end all the way around and see how far we get. How many did you all pick up today?”
“I’m not sure. Hey Graham, was it fifty or sixty we got?”
Graham climbed down from his warm truck with an obvious shiver. “More like eighty between us, I think. It should do a fair amount, right? We probably have enough for at least two layers with more stacked on the north side. We can go back again tomorrow, or are they closed?”
I shrugged and grabbed the wheelbarrow, passing it to Graham, knowing his ability to disappear at the sight of hard work. “This is for you, my friend. If you could take a couple at a time over to the bus and spread them around? Debbie and I will unload her truck first and then we’ll start on yours. And no, before you ask, there’s no foundation built. It’s straight on the dirt. When they fall apart, I’ll use them in the gardens, okay?” I handed him Mark’s work gloves in case he tried that old excuse of forgetting his own. I grinned though as he tried them on and picked up a bale with a groan.
Danny came around behind me and covered my eyes with a laugh. “I have a present for you. Want to guess what it is? Go on, Jen, you’ll not get it right, not completely.”
He twirled me around until dizzy, chatting up a storm until I made a stab at it, “kittens?”
“Close, but not quite.”
He took away his hands with a flourish. In front of me stood Mom holding a box with two kittens. She laughed at my amazed expression. “I knew you wouldn’t expect to see me here.” She hugged me with her free arm, laughing in delight at my wide grin.
“He said you wouldn’t remember. I’d told you I’d try to come back. Well, I’m sorry that I missed Christmas but here I am now, and here are your two new friends; one’s a boy and one a little girl. They’re almost two months old now and still pretty vulnerable, so let’s take them inside and get them warm. Danny, can you grab the supplies?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He saluted her and climbed up into the back of his truck and Graham struggled past with two bales in a wheelbarrow. They nodded at each other but said little though they grinned shyly. The two boxes handed down were full toys, litter, plastic trays, feeders, water bowls, towels, anti-septic wipes, kibble, and even cans of wet food. He set one container on the deck for me and then wandered over to help Debbie throwing bales down one by one. Mom and I climbed inside the bus and shut the door behind us. Silence suddenly.
I set down a box, “Welcome back, Mom. I missed you.”
She passed me the kittens and sat down in the armchair. “How about some coffee and a little chat, Jen? Tell me all.”
“Not much, we decided we’d talk later, in a few months or so.”
“And you’re okay with that?” She sipped her coffee with a contented sigh as a kitten nuzzled on her lap. The fire flickered in the stove and outside the others walked back and forth with straw bales, chatting, and even singing bluegrass tunes as they worked. I relaxed against my mom’s legs with another kitten in my arms.
“I am, I really am. This is a good place for me to be, with or without him. And then there’s the trust, I can’t trust him again, can I?” I shifted the kitten to the other arm as I turned and faced her. “I love this, can’t you see why? See why it’s special? Yes, you can, or you wouldn’t be here, would you?”
She laughed, “Busted as they say. No, you’re right, this is a good place for you. I haven’t seen you this relaxed for a long time, Jenny. I approve, for what it’s worth.”
“Thanks, Mom, thanks for just letting me be okay with him gone. I miss Mark, but I’d miss this more.” I poked her in the foot, “Well, what shall I name these two?”
“That’s for you to decide, not me, but I can tell you something, it’s time we helped finish the work, isn’t it?” She set her mug on the table and stretched out her legs.
“You mean now they’ve done two truck loads?” I laughed and held out my hands, pulling her upright. “Good timing, Mom, I approve, for what it’s worth. Well, come on then, let’s show them how it’s done, shall we?”
Supervising my friends, we quickly got the first layer down by mid-afternoon. I called a halt to the work and asked someone to light the campfire while I set up a late lunch of soup and bread, followed by hot chocolate and mulled wine, age depending. We’d settled around the fire pit with bowls and mugs, happily chatting away when another truck could be heard slowly and steadily approaching. Two engines, one deep and rumbling and the other more like a diesel pick-up. Frank perhaps? I stood and put my plate down for Nelson to pre-wash and grabbed a straw-hat, then went to find out. Debbie called to the kids to get ready, “Papa’s on his way so stay back kids, wait till he turns off the engine, remember?”
They bounced in place and stuffed their faces with the last of the bread as a huge red truck slowly turned into the driveway, a water tanker, it was the oldest one kept out back at the firehouse. I glanced back at Graham and he simply smiled but shook his head, motioning he’d say nothing. I walked up to Frank as another vehicle pulled up behind him. Louisa and Anne sat in a flatbed truck with a black metal tank strapped to the back.
“What the hell’s going on? Why are you here, Anne?” That sounded bad so I tried to smile as I approached, heading to Louisa’s window deliberately. I nodded at Anne but didn’t say much. Louisa laughed though as she climbed out and hugged me, surprising us both.
“I was so excited to hear from your neighbor about today’s projects. I couldn’t believe the timing – it’s perfect. Did you tell her to expect us?”
Danny actually reddened slightly as he admitted that “no, I was busy with kitten wrangling and -”
“- picking me up from the airport. It’s my fault. I’m Martha, Jen’s mom. And you must be Louisa, the local dog whisperer. Anne too? Hello, come on over, we have some soup left if you’re all hungry. Kids, is this your papa? Are you sure? I don’t know if I believe you, Finn.”
Mom’s inner-hostess kicked in and soon we’d all sat back down with bowls of soup and more hot drinks. Louisa explained that the water tank came from Andrew’s place, which had been sold and they needed to clear out all the stuff the new owners didn’t want. “Like these tanks for some reason. Frank’s taking one for their place and I thought you’d be able to set up a catchment system, more than the ten buckets you’ve got lined up, if you want it?”
“Are you sure though? Don’t you need them at yours?”
“No, that was one of the first things my ex-husband and I had done together. There’ll be lumber too, odds and ends of tools if you want to come over this week? The place has to be cleaned up by Friday the fifth.”
Frank stood up, “talking of water, we should fill you before it gets dark. That old tanker is full, so I can give you about 500 gallons, and that’ll keep you going for winter, Jen, don’t you think? A nice feeling that’ll be, water in a tank, just stack some – ”
“ – BALES.” we all yelled out together, laughing at the reminder to work. Our late lunch break ended with the kids giggling and running after Nelson and a paper plate.
I drank a glass of the spiced wine as the others worked. I took photos, Mom insisted. Then Anne waved me over to Louisa’s truck. I wandered across, uncertain that I was up for this, but it might as well be dealt with, right?
“You stayed with Mark in LA, didn’t you?”
She nodded sheepishly and held out her hands, empty and open. I stared into her eyes and away, back at the impromptu gathering behind us. She spoke.
“I did. I doubt I’ll go back though. It was primarily to see my sister but yes, I saw Mark when I was there. But I’m not a city girl any more, not that I ever was, but it was fun to see Helen and take her to a party with Mark’s friends.” She played with snow at her feet, clearing out a small patch of dirt. “I am sorry, sorry it turned out like that, messy.”
“Yes, well, Mark’s happy there, I guess. And I’m happy here. Simple as that, when it comes down to it, isn’t it? I’m not to fall apart.” I suddenly had an image of my lonely Thanksgiving in the bus and cringed. “Well, not again. So now where do we go from here, Anne?”
Anne zipped up her coat and shrugged as she stared at my homestead and my friends hanging out around a blazing fire. The silence lasted a moment but was surprisingly comfortable. Anne shuffled and turned back to me, her eyes bright. “I have something for you, something Mark asked me to bring back for you.”
“Really? What? Something I’d given him or what?”
She grinned suddenly and I remembered that smile so well. “Kind of, but Louisa might disagree.” She opened the door of the truck. A little face stared up from within a pile of blankets. The white and golden scruffy little face I knew so well.
“Frida. Oh my god, it’s Frida.”
My pup shot out and into my arms, licking me all over as I shrieked and almost fell over. Nelson suddenly tackled us from behind and with Frida in my arms, I tumbled into a snowy wet pile with them both. “You brought back Frida.” and I collapsed into tears.
Embarrassed, I cracked open a beer and tried to make a joke. They all looked at me with such sympathy that it set me off again, dammit. Mom caught the kids, whispered to them, and made them stand in a line facing me from on top of some bales.
“On the count of three,” she commanded.
“One.” said Finn.
“Two.” said Franny.
“Three.” yelled Clark.
Out of the blue, hundreds of snowballs rained upon us, those little buggers had stockpiled them out of sight and now all was mayhem as Danny and Mom fought back, catching them in mid-air and tossing them onto the screaming kids. The dogs ran in circles, barking and chasing each other in excitement. Graham hid behind Anne as she desperately tried to make enough to throw back. Frank commandeered the high spot of the bus roof and yelled out directions for the kids. Debbie sat on a rock and ate more soup, unaffected. Louisa climbed the water tanker, staying out of danger. I stood there, in the middle of the battle, covered in melting snow, tears falling from laughing so hard that I dropped to my knees, unable to take any more. Undone. I was undone by my new friends.
“Thanks, Mom. You started it.”
“Did not. Did I, Danny? The kids did it, I blame the kids.”
Franny giggled from on Debbie’s lap as Finn dozed on his dad’s. Clark helped Graham and Anne clear up the plates and mugs. The stars slowly lit the night sky and a breeze reminded us of the winter storm watch for the weekend. I shivered and pulled down the woolen hat. Anne and Louisa were chatting away. Graham was shuffling around, trying to get into the conversation but failing in his awkward way. The fire lay hot and bright at our feet, glowing embers that sparkled and flickered briefly before settling down once again.
“Well, it’s time we headed back and settled the children down for the night. Are you okay out here tonight, Jen?”
I grinned up at my tall friend, “Frank, I think I am, I think I am. Thanks so much for the water and everything today.” I stood up and suddenly hugged him, making him redden uncomfortably. His kids clambered over the bales to say bye before they all disappeared, driving slowly with up the dark road. The others followed suit and soon I was saying good night to Louisa and Anne, and shortly after that to Mom and Danny.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay tonight, Jenny? I don’t want to worry about you, not tonight.”
“Oh, Mom, go and enjoy yourself and don’t worry about me. It’s a two-dog and two-kitten night for me. I’m fine, right? Danny, take her away, will you? I’ll meet you all for lunch tomorrow as planned. Go on with you both. I’ll see you next year.”
“Happy New Year to you too, my favorite daughter.”
“Your only daughter, you mean?”
“There is that but I’m not complaining Jen. Well, we’ll see you tomorrow then, bye.”
With a waxing half moon in a cloudless sky, they drove back down my driveway and pulled the chain across the gateposts.
I poured water on the fire and it sizzled into a cold soggy mass. My two happy dogs lay on the deck, tuckered out, but tails wagging whenever they caught me looking. Hiding behind a juniper shrub, I peed and stared at the stars above without falling over for once.
I stood up and with the last of my wine toasted land and sky, dogs and owls in the distance, not forgetting coyotes and cactus.
“This is the life, isn’t it? I’m living the dream, yep, living the dream. Oh, and Nelson? Frida?” They both yawned. “Happy New Year. Let’s go to bed, shall we? Are you hungry?”
In the dark, we clambered up the steps and into the warm bus. A squeak and tiny sharp claws climbed up my jeans, a black and white fur ball of a kitten had a mission to get up high. Her brother, a pale ginger kitten, stared out from his place on the armchair, watching the invading dogs, and completely unfazed by a huge hairy husky cleaning his ears. With boots removed, I shrugged off the coat and scarf, hanging them up at the door. I stepped over to the table to light a candle. My sock slipped in a wet and smelly present. Great. Frida licked at the mess with a wagging tail.
“Okay, first things first, you kittens need to learn how to use a litter box.”