About Sarah Leamy

Are you an armchair traveler? Or do you like to get out with the pups and discover new campgrounds and forest roads to explore? For the last twenty years I have lived in New Mexico and as much as possible I have explored the Southwest, pouring over maps, driving down dirt roads, camping with my dogs, and then writing and photographing my experiences for others to enjoy and be inspired by. If you turn to my blog at night over a drink and gets you to daydream, maybe you like the FB group, or follow our travels on Instagram, then please become a sponsor or patron as if you were paying for Netflix, cable, or simply a good book. You will receive regular updates, routes, trip reports, and even personal email consultation as you wish. Please, help me bring these stories, photographs, and inspiration to a wider audience so they too take the dogs on their next adventure. Thanks so much.

Living The Dream: 22

OCTOBER: TIME TO EXPLORE TOGETHER

“Wake up. It’s time to go. Come on, Mark, get up.”

I bounced on the bed next to him, poking him and tickling him until he opened his eyes. I waved a mug of black coffee in front of his face and set it down just out of reach. With a groan he sat up and looked at me with eyebrows almost touching his curly hair. I grinned sweetly.

“Happy Birthday, Boyfriend,” and kissed him sloppily.
He grinned back and drank a gulp of the French Roast before answering me. Or saying anything really, but that’s pretty normal. It takes him a moment.

“Good Morning, Girlfriend,” he said finally.

“You didn’t have any plans, did you?” I asked. I did, but I hadn’t told him yet.

Mark shook his head and leaned forward. He kissed me long and slow with a question mark of hope. I pushed him back down, kicked the dog off, and sang happy birthday as a Marilyn Monroe might if she lived in school bus in the desert.

 

“Well, let’s go. Wake up Mark, we need to hit to the road. Honest, I have plans.”
He smirked as I got dressed again. “Really? Already?”
I slapped the fool and reminded him that the coffee was cold and we needed to hit the road. “We’re going to Taos today.”
“We are?”
“Yep, it’s all arranged. I booked us a room at a motel near the plaza, we get to take Ms. Frida with us, and explore northern New Mexico. There’s even an Alehouse opposite the motel. Not bad eh? We can find you some birthday cake when we get there, but it’s time to go.”
I threw his tee shirt and jeans onto the bed and Frida followed me into the kitchen, all four steps away. I heard him rustling around back there as I put on another pot of coffee for us. Frida ate. I packed a bag of her food and the leash. I packed another one for us, the laptop, phones, camera, and a change of undies. That was that.

“Are you sure we can afford this? We don’t have to go just because it’s my birthday, Jenny. You know that, right?”

“I know, but it’s a treat before we buckle down, okay? And anyway, I have something for you.”

I sat him down at the small table and pointed to down. A present lay wrapped in the Santa Fe Reporter. He smiled stupidly as he took it all apart to find a pair of socks. Very nice striped socks. He laughed, “really? You bought me these? How romantic of you.”
I sat next to him. “Look inside.”
There was an envelope. Addressed to Mark and Frida: You are both cordially invited to join me in the search for the best breakfast picnic spot in the Rio Grande on the morning of your choice. Coffee and snacks provided.

A photo of some hot springs showed two full pools of steaming water with the Rio Grande rushing past in the background, rocks, cliffs, birds, dogs and bare shoulders of a family soaking. It looked idyllic, I wanted us to go in the morning, I explained. “To get up at the crack of dawn and drive out there and hike down into the Gorge. For your birthday. What do you think, Mark?”

He grabbed me and pulled me onto his lap. “I love it. I’ll show you how much later on…”
The Subaru rattled over the dirt road, “are you sure this is the way?”
Mark laughed. “Hmm, well, I used Google maps again. It looked like this would get us to the Gorge from the back road instead of us going into Taos first. Here goes.”

The highway had split off and we’d taken the left road past the village of Pilar and into a small narrow lush valley, with a river running through it and houses on either side. Camping grounds came and went, rafts floated past us, and a bridge marked the end of the maintained road. Ahead, straight ahead, the graveled road climbed up above the canyon, and hundreds of feet above us cliffs loomed with switchbacks the whole way up. The car slipped and slid and scrambled and made it. Finally. A few swear words later we’d found a place to pull over.
“Incredible, that’s incredible. No warning whatsoever. How are regular cars meant to get up that? They couldn’t. I’m so glad we’ve got all wheel drive.”
Mark lit up a cigarette and his hands shook ever so slightly. He leaned against the car as Frida got out to sniff around. She didn’t like car rides that much, but was definitely getting better, no more vomiting at least. She trotted over to the edge and I flinched. I froze. She sniffed and looked and peed on the shrubs. Mark called her back and I breathed out.
“Was that sagebrush? I want some.”

I started to pick it when Mark pointed out that we were surrounded by the low silvery green bushes, ones that hadn’t just been peed on by a furry dog.

“How about that one instead?” He pointed to one at my feet.

“Oh, right. Good idea.”

I bent down and sniffed. Wonderfully fresh sage. I picked a bunch and tied it together with a strand or three of dead grass. I placed it on the dash and the Fall sunshine warmed it so much that the car filled immediately with a unique smell even with the windows open. In the distance the mountains behind Taos reached for the stars, tall, craggy, sharp, they were nothing like the range near Santa Fe. These unbelievably flat high desert plains were empty but for the low silvery green shrubs and dried and dead grasses. The unending mesa was split open by the Rio Grande. All around this huge open space we were encircled by hills, and their presence was no gentle rise and fall like a breath in Mark’s chest; this was avalanche country in my mind. I had no intention of ever skiing at the Taos Ski Valley. What would the bunny hill look like? I shook my head and realized that Mark had been talking about something or other.

“Huh?”
“It’s my birthday and you still tune me out? Typical, Jenny,” he teased. He passed me a wrap made with tortillas, cheese, and avocado. I sat on the rocks next to the dirt road and ate. He joined me on a nearby boulder of his own.

“This is beautiful, isn’t it? Thanks for bring us up here, Jen. This is perfect, just this.”
We both stared at the sun filled valleys and canyons, the empty blue sky above, and the distant rumble of the river below. Frida sighed as she watched us eat. She scratched her ears and lay down, facing my feet and hoping for scraps. Mark piped up.

“I wish I’d worn shorts.”

 

“Want to go look now or later?”

“Now.”
We stopped at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. The parking lot was fairly empty and traffic slowed down as they drove across the huge divide. The canyon dropped three or four hundred feet to the Rio Grande flowing below. We pulled in at a rest area and took the west rim trail heading east and away from traffic. I held on to Mark’s hand even though the path stayed some twenty feet from the edge. The canyon was narrow and deep beyond measure, and I shuddered at the thought of Frida falling. I held her leash close and she yelped in reaction. I looked down to find her almost off her feet; I’d caught it that tight. I let her stand on her own two feet again. Four feet. You know what I mean. Shadows from three clouds created a movie of ever changing forms and colors, going from the peel of a Valencia Orange to a cowboy’s steel-gray moustache, all within minutes. Mark pulled out the camera and tried to capture a video but got frustrated instead. Poor boy. I simply gaped. Mark laughed as he clicked away.

“Another great photo of you there, Jen. Thanks, I can add it to my collection.”

It was true, he’d got quite a few none too flattering photos of me on vacation. Mouth open and eyes wide. Charming to say the least.
I sighed and turned back to the view. “Magical isn’t it?”
“Yep.” He put the camera away. “More importantly though, isn’t it time for a beer? It’s cocktail hour somewhere, right?”

We wandered back to the car only to find it had a flat tire. “Oh, damn. It was going so well. I’ll call AAA, shall I?” and I pulled out my phone and wallet. Mark shook his head, and opened the doors, looking for something.

“We’ll change it, it’s not a big deal, Jen. You can help, okay? Grab the other tools and I’ll loosen the nuts.” He crouched down in the dirt and got to work. I took a photo before asking which tools. He sighed as he stood and got them himself. “Just pass me stuff when I ask for it, okay? Oh, and block the other wheels with rocks so nothing moves when I jack it up. Don’t you know how to change a tire?”
I shook my head and grabbed some largish stones and a block of firewood. “Never needed to as I’d just call AAA. Here’s the jack for you, Birthday Boy. Get to work, we have places to explore.”

 

We pulled up at a brewpub and let Frida out to do her business before we went for a drink. We put her in the back seat and opened the windows widely. Mark was full of smiles, staring at the low adobe old and odd buildings lining the streets. Little cafes overflowed with tables and laptops, accompanied by a few locals by the look of it. The alehouse stood under three huge cottonwood trees in the dapple shade. Picnic tables were scattered in the back courtyard, with gravel pathways and a fountain off to the side. I sat down next to Mark at the one in the far corner.
“There are a couple of water bowls, dogs welcome I guess.” But then he pointed to a sign that said no dogs allowed. “Hmm. I don’t like leaving her in the car on days like this. It’s too hot out here.”
A small, petite almost fragile looking waitress came over with two menus and a couple of glasses of water with ice. Mark asked about the dog policy.

“Oh, that? We have a couple of regulars with really troublesome dogs; it helps us keep them out of here when we want. You can bring your pup inside the yard if she’s well behaved. No begging from the other tables, okay?”
Mark laughed, “me or the dog?”

The waitress laughed and asked what we’d like to eat.
“It’s his birthday, we’re celebrating,” I explained as I placed an order for a beer and some veggie stew.

“Thirty-two today.” He answered proudly. He shook his hair out, “not bad for an old man, eh?”

I poked him in the thigh. “Not bad, but don’t you want to order something too?”

“I’d like a well read chile burger, I mean well done, red chile…” He smiled sweetly and I couldn’t help but laugh with him.

The waitress wandered off to check on the other table and Mark went to fetch Frida. I sat and looked around. I liked the rustic funky style of the place; it was all very simple. I’d noticed tons of galleries on the drive into town, with a mix of pizza places, thrift stores, and whole food co-ops on the north side, and the chain stores were all on the south side.

Mark sat down just as the pints arrived.

“Happy Birthday, old man.”
“Hey, you’re older than me, remember.”

“Six months.” I toasted him with my chile beer. “Hmm, this is weird but I like it. It has a bite to it. Want to try?”
Frida sniffed around and I let her off leash. Only one other couple sat nearby and I asked if they minded her being free. The younger woman held out her hand and called to Frida, telling me of leaving her own dog at home for the day. She worked, well, volunteered at the local animal shelter in the afternoons, and painted in the evenings.

“Do you have anything in the galleries here?” Mark asked.

“Where is the shelter?” I asked.

The woman sat up and started to chat to us about town, how it worked as an artist of a certain kind. She wasn’t that kind; the ones with the landscapes or the Native American images sold and hers didn’t.
“Think dark thoughts, dreams, and put them into the jungles of South America, that’s my style. Magical, mystical, and just plain disturbing in a colorful way.” She took a sip of her lemonade and chatted about the shelter here in Taos. Small, underfunded, and a place of incredible challenges apparently.

“How so?”

“We Anglos have a whole different way of treating the animals, as if they’re our children, right? Take them everywhere, buy good quality food for them, and keep the vets and vaccination companies in business. The local Hispanics take care of the animals but they’re more likely to be outdoor dogs and cats roam free. Still taken care of but in less of a companion role, their animals have jobs to do, guard homes or catch mice, that kind of thing. The pueblo? They are a sovereign state, so they do what they want, not that I know what that is, just that there’s an overpopulation of skinny feral dogs and cats. Anyway, we all do things differently, I guess is my point. Who am I to judge?” She shook her head and toasted us self-consciously.
“I help, well, we help at a rescue south of Santa Fe. It’s a small independent place, Louisa takes on dogs that have behavior issues, she’s some kind of magician with them, most come around in the pack home life she offers them. There’s old dogs, big mastiffs, huskies, that kind of thing.”
“What do you do for them?”

The women came over and sat with us, bringing pints and bags with them. Frida kept close to me and watched for scraps to fall as the food appeared.

“We’re putting on a fundraiser in a couple of weeks, with an auction, a yard sale outside, bands and donations and all of that. We made flyers and posters for the event. Jenny here sent out the information to the local papers and radio stations.”
“Did you get any feedback yet?”
“Yeah, it’s been incredible. Considering we’re new to town, the community is behind us full strength. The radio station has invited one of us to come be interviewed the night before the event, but I think we’ll get someone else to go, right? Ask one of the other volunteers from Santa Fe. Oh, and the free weekly paper came out and interviewed Louisa at the rescue, she hated it.”

Mark laughed at the memory of Louisa’s reaction when we turned up with a reporter in the car. It wasn’t pretty. Funny but not pretty.
“I persuaded her we needed a face to the story, to get Santa Fe more involved. The article’s going to run the Wednesday before the show. Tickets are ten dollars, but sliding scale since not everyone in town has extra cash to throw around but we want the tavern to be packed. A friend of ours, Anne, is dealing with that side of things, bringing in the locals and their artwork and books and music, all the stuff we can’t do because we just don’t know. Her husband is bringing the volunteer firefighters to work as security and keep it all safe.”
Mark carried on babbling away about the show, how he’s going to get to play with that bluegrass band he jammed with before. Finally he’d have a real gig. He was thrilled to get some kind of musical career started here.

The beers were refilled almost without noticing, and the conversation picked up steam. The younger woman was called Kelly and her friend ended up being her sister from out of town, Janice. Both had light brown tanned skin and shoulder length dark hair and amber eyes, and once you looked, really looked, there was no doubt they were related. Kelly talked to me about the dogs and cats in town, another overpopulation explosion that was being slowly countered by free spay and neuter programs.
I talked of Frida showing up, and meeting Louisa later that day. We’re friends now, I told her. “I tend to help out on Saturdays when she takes a handful of adoptable dogs to Santa Fe. I usually end up with this husky, Nelson, who’s so shy, it’s really hard on him to drive or go anywhere.”
“So why not let him just stay at the rescue?”
“Because he’s very adoptable to be honest. Small and gentle for a husky but he must have been traumatized when he was a stray, the slightest noise or a raised voice and he drops to the floor and pees himself. Poor thing, eh? I feel sorry for the boy.”
We talked more of the fundraising events Kelly helps with in Taos, one was going to start in the morning at one of the pet stores, a subsidized adoption event with prices low enough to find homes for as many as possible.
“Overcrowded, the animals have limited time here. We just can’t take them forever. Did you know that last year some 55,000 animals were euthanized in New Mexico? That’s what I read somewhere.”
“Fuck.”

“Where now?” Mark asked as we drove around. I drove actually. I pulled off to the left into a driveway.

“Here.”
The lodge was an old-school motel with adobe low-slung buildings in a horseshoe shape, and the room I’d booked was in the far corner with the open grass courtyard in the front. I pulled up and parked in the shade and let Frida out.
“Wait here and let me get the keys for us. Take the pup for a pee, will you?”
I crossed the yard and did the paperwork and paid for the night. I wandered back slowly and found Mark lying on the grass watching Frida wriggling around her on her back, barking in delight as she rubbed up and down in the long grass.

“I wonder if she’s seen a lawn before? It feels great. I miss grass, Jenny. Come here.” He opened his arms and I lay on top of him laughing.

“What will the neighbors say?”

 

I woke at six and turned on the coffee pot. Mark snored softly to himself. I cleaned up the empty bottles and threw out the plastic glasses. The pizza box was empty but for one piece so I ate that. The sheets covered most of Mark, and Frida had climbed onto my pillow as soon as I’d stood up. She curled up in a tight little furry ball and kept an eye on me as I putzed around the room. I had a shower and took my time, savoring the never-ending hot water. Still Mark slept on. I’d worn him out apparently, either that or the late night movies until three am were taking their toll. The coffee aroma made me salivate and I went out to the car for my mug. Frida followed me and wandered off. I checked around but as we were the only ones up I didn’t grab her leash. We walked across the grassy yard and I stood under the Cottonwood trees in the sunshine as it peeked over the mountains behind the motel. I shivered slightly but it felt great after the heat of August, and I wasn’t complaining.

 

I poured out two cups for us and placed it within Mark’s reach. He opened an eye.

“Good Morning Girlfriend,” he murmured from under the sheets. Frida jumped onto his chest and head-butted him before rolling upside down and belly up. He laughed and sat up.

“Okay, okay, I’m getting up.”

 

“Here?”
“Yep.”
We pulled up. No other cars were in the dusty parking lot overlooking the Rio Grande Gorge, and we let the pup roam free. I grabbed a thermos of coffee and Mark threw on the backpack with towels and snacks. The sun was well and truly up but the air still had a nip to it and I wore an extra layer of fleece. Mark wore shorts, determined not to suffer yesterday’s lesson in overheating again. Frida ran ahead and we followed her at a more sedate pace. She knew where to go seemingly. The gravel path wandered through sagebrush, grass and past a few low-growing cacti. Boulders and rocks lined the way and we climbed down, down, and again, down. For three hundred feet, the canyon side dropped and I slipped only twice. Frida ran back and forth, tail wagging so happily, and panting with either altitude or exercise. I tried to keep up with Mark but his long legs strode ahead and I found myself alone on the path. The Rio Grande was still in the dark, overshadowed by the huge cliffs on either side, and the river ran past on its way to Texas, the sound echoing up to me and speeding me on, keen to go soak. I turned one last corner to find Mark in his boxers on a huge river rock, with the towels spread out in the trees and within reach. Frida ran on further and sipped from the river. I stripped down and climbed in next to Mark.
Incredible.
The pool was ten or more feet across and built into the rocky cliffs with the hot springs bubbling up from within. The water scalded me to start with but my inner lobster self relaxed and I sighed in delight. Mark beamed. Frida panted. We lay, swam, dunked, and made out. The pup fell asleep.

I climbed out of the pool for a breather and poured us both a cup of black coffee and unpacked bagels and cheese. I cut avocado and passed Mark his breakfast.

“Happy?”

He splashed me, “No, I hate this relaxed indulgent decadent lifestyle of ours. What did you think? You? Are you happy too Jenny?”
I smiled, “yeah, this really is perfect. Thanks for everything, Mark, for everything.”
“Oh, is it that time of the month?”
I wiped away the start of the tears, “No. It’s just how I feel, it’s no big deal…”
Mark stood up and climbed out to sit next to me. He wrapped himself around me and I leaned back against his chest. He pushed my hair out of his mouth, and kissed me gently on my neck.

“I love you too.”

Through the Trapdoor.

Get ready. Do you want to reach deep inside? Find the areas and themes that make your writing uniquely yours? Try this. Over and over. Random lists of nouns. No editing. Free write. Nouns. Word associations. Just write. Try it. Over and over. Put the lists aside and come back when ever you doubt your own voice. Try it.

 

1.

Tomboy. Dirt. Cows. Boys. Rules. Why? Why? Dad. Bedroom. Mum. Darkness. Waves. Camping. Trucks. Boys. Tools. Yes. Why? Jeans. Scruffy. Dirt. Cows. Patty. Why? Not.

2.

Female. Femme. Butch. Tires. Trucks. Fix it. Talk. Tellings. Beer. Drama. Girls. Pain. Drama. No. Dreams. Nightmares. Outside. Failed. Failed. Why? Dead. Gone.

3.

Rovers. Community. Passion. Talking. Tools. Girls. Boys. Camera. Bodies. Shapes. Lighting. Too much. Details. Seats. Engine. Leafsprings. Bears. Dogs. Family. Friends.

4.

Camping. Woods. Bears. Why? Fire. Food. Quiet. Calm. Sleep. Stevie. Dogs. Gods. Fire. Leaves. Wind. Window. Reading. Writing. Food. Beer. Calm. Quiet. Finally.

5.

Nightmares. Coma. Choices. Decisions. Christmas. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beer. Beer. Beer. Books. Read. Hide. Pubs. Hospitals. Nightmares. Mum.

6.

Camping. Fields. Trees. Decisions. Fires. Food. Camping. Vans. Trucks. Tents. Beetle. Dogs. Cats. Camp. Out. Away. Smiles. Hide. People. Less. More. Me. Me. Found. Peace. Smiles. Hide. Out. Side.

 

 

 

 

This #1

It’s not as expected, this apartment. It’s in a basement. To look out the windows, I have to stand up. The dogs see only fake wood paneling. The cat sits on the windowsill, unhappy to be trapped inside. I can’t breathe. The landlady shows us around, quite the good cheerleader, and nodding and smiling, I suppress a panic. What can I say? We’re outdoor dogs, even Little Stevie, or should I call him Cat Stephen now that he’s an adult? Go deep, I tell myself all the time, go deeper. That doesn’t mean into a basement.
In my twenties, I worked for a metal worker in Santa Fe. Taken by the piles of steel in the yard, the shapes and weight, the sounds of the mig welder and that raw sharp smell of the grinder, I walked in, scruffy as usual, looking the part already. Within a short conversation, my unskilled self had an internship with Flip. I worked with him mostly, but helped Larry, the tall twiggy owner, by spraying polyurethane and paint onto finished lamps, tables and gates, sniffing deeply in the afternoon thunderstorms. Flip, or Phillip to his parents, was a stocky thick set local, blackened by the work, and with a huge laugh that flew out of him like a startled rabbit, Flip had ways to box people on first impressions.

“You’re an outdoor dog. There are indoor dogs and outdoor dogs. You belong outside.” Flip chuckled, as he looked me up and down, both of us a similar age and height. “Yep. Don’t be fooled. You’ll not be happy with a desk job. So, anyway, if you can carry that angle iron, the ten-footer over, I’ll set it up for you to grind the edges smooth before I tack weld it to the rest of the framework. Got it?”
Yes, an outdoor dog. Still scruffy, I sit in this basement apartment and plan an escape. It’s been three nights. I can’t do it. This dungeon will kill my spirit, my energy and me. Each night, I close the computer, try to read, and hope for night to fall so I can sleep and start again. Count down to moving out. It’s four o’clock, the rain thunders against the window, the lights are all on, and for a summer’s afternoon, it’s a dark cold afternoon down here. Can I go back to bed? Please? Yes, it’s been three nights. I drove over 2450 miles from New Mexico to move here, into a ‘downstairs apartment with windows overlooking the lawn’ and technically, that’s what I have here but –

But. I see the lawn at eye level. Harold and Rosie admire the fake wood flooring. Stevie makes his escape and sits under a shed by the van. With coffee in hand, I head out with the dogs who run for the trees and lift legs with glee. The clouds hang low over the pines and the many other tall deciduous trees that I no longer recognize after a lifetime in the Southwest. Breathing deeply, I crouch down onto my haunches, sip coffee and watch the trucks and cars fly by on this busy highway. What have I done now? Oh shit. I wanted a challenge. This might be too much. Not a quitter, there has to be a way. A ladder up and out of this dark pit. The mozzies find me and after a shuffle to the van for another layer of pure DEET, I sit back down and consider the options. Harold and Rosie ask to sit in the van, a Dodge conversion van that I’d stripped out and installed with a platform bed, some drawers, stocked with clothes and a basic kitchen set-up, for three pets and myself to drive slowly cross country. It’s a better home than this. Can we simply move back in? Yeah, why not. It’s home. Fuck it. I’ll live in a van.
So what’s so bad about a dungeon? I mean, a basement? Claustrophobia. Depression. Panic attacks. Trouble breathing. Trouble eating. Eyes flicker. Heart races. Blood pounds. Clammy neck. Feet sweat. Trouble waking. Trouble sleeping. Lack of creativity. Lack of room to move. Lack of windows to stare out of as I write and sketch. Lack of light. Did I mention panic attacks? Oh, yes, well, more of those. I can’t do it. I can’t. I can’t.

The coffee is done, time for more. Not one of the critters will come back inside. As I wait for the kettle to boil in this kitchen with no windows, I mentally write a list of my ideal place.

  • Pet-friendly
  • Walks and gardens for critters to explore
  • Under $600
  • Two vehicle parking
  • Well-lit, sunshine, windows, all that good stuff for outdoor dogs
  • Heat and internet included
  • Space and quiet to write and draw

The basics.

Within two days, I’m offered a few places. One is so far out of my budget that I don’t bother checking. The other two appeal. Most of the boxed checked positively, and so with hope, I load up the van with dogs, trick Stevie into the dungeon with wet cat food and a taste of cream. Then we go a looking. Fingers crossed. Toes unstuck from fake floor, I clean myself up quickly but not thoroughly. The usual.

“Up the first street at the lights in town, left after four miles, across the dam and past the pond, drive 1.8 miles and I’ll the first home on the left,” says Carol.
The drive was refreshing, the lake tempting, and with hope in me, we parked outside a single story home in the trees on five acres. Yep. I could do this.

Yes. I can do this. Carol’s dog is a sweetheart, a shy timid Collie rescue called Jim. She’s a forthright, messy and friendly woman of a similar age to me. We get along great, easy conversation, but the room is small even though it has good windows facing south. Carol chats away as she tells me of the room she’d make for me, emptying this shelf, this table, this box, yes, the place is cluttered. “I haven’t had roommates for about six years though, so let me think about this again. Women of a certain age…”

Yes, she said that to describe me. Me! Really, I only just turned fifty dammit, and it’s already begun? Wow. Not a good wow.

“Up County Road, past the Corner store that is also a post office and a pub, head another few miles when it turns to dirt and you’ll see a log cabin set off the tracks a ways,” says Anne.

The road to Anne’s is through open agricultural land, farms, log homes, up and through the trees and past the store. I stop in and poke around the shelves, ones full of healthy dried goods, quality coffee beans, fresh veggies, and beer. In the back is a tavern that’s open four evenings a week with live local music. I like this place. They are looking for help. Hmm…

Anne’s on the deck sweeping off a few leaves. Her shitzu pup wanders over to meet mine and tails wag as Anne laughs, a hearty booming breath up to the skies. She’s a full soft woman of a ‘certain age’ like me, yes I said it, and we hit it off. She shows me her apartment. It’s a dungeon. Even worse than where I am now. I stifle the panic and climb up and out, staring at my camper van with longing. Yep, fuck it, we’ll live in the van.

“I can’t do it. I’m sorry.” I explain the fear and terrors that come with dark and closed in spaces. Hands twitch and heart races within my one and only clean tee shirt; humidity kills laundry. Fear does too.
“Well, would you like a coffee any way?”

In the kitchen, we prop ourselves against counters and keep chatting. It’s a shame that the apartment is down in the ground, not even one window to sit at except from the toilet. I know. I know…who could live like that? Not me obviously. Nor my critters.

Anne and I chat about writing, college, and animals. Her big dog died last fall. Her old cat soon after. After mentioning Cat Stephen, Anne shows me a cat door, mudroom for the litter box, and when we put away the now empty coffee mugs, she takes a breath.

“Do you need your own space? What about sharing this home?” She grins cautiously.

“Why? What do you have?” Messy hope slips against grainy hope to live in a nurturing home like this. If only.

Upstairs are two bedrooms in the roofline of this log home. One end of the house is hers, a master bedroom and a bathroom. The other corner has two small rooms looking out onto her twelve acres, a field full of apple trees, and there’s even falling down wooden shed in the meadow that needs help, perhaps for chickens she offers.

“I’m sorry but the curtains don’t close, it’s very bright in here. Too much for me. And in this room,” she shows me the other one, “this room was my crafts and books and storage. You could have both rooms, if you like. This could be a writing studio. If it’s not too bright.”

Looking out of the window, I breathe and imagine sitting up here with a desk and laptop, reading and writing, watching the dogs play in snow as Stevie sits in an apple tree.
“Yes. This is perfect. This.”

Living The Dream: 21

 

SEPTEMBER: SUPPORTIVE FRIENDS

“Do you have a shotgun?”

“Did you kill it?”
“What happened?”
I poured the French Roast one at a time and answered, “we went to bed.”
The café broke out in laughter; all began talking at the same time. The two tables were full of locals, with newspapers, empty paper cups, plates of bagels, and the various phones and hats they all carried. Eight chairs, seven gray-haired men, and one four-year old little girl in pink. She held court between the snake stories. Mark and I’d gotten off lightly apparently. One local woman had a rattlesnake climb into bed with her. I’m glad that wasn’t me.

The guys all had different ideas as to what we could/ should do next time. No one had the definitive answer that I heard. But here goes, the ideas included but were not limited to:

Shotgun.

Rope on a stick to lasso the bastard.

Metal buckets with lids.

Cats keep away mice and rats, and therefore the snakes don’t come over for dinner.

Clean up piles of lumber and trash. (Little did they guess that I was pretty anal about that already and didn’t need any excuse.)

Wire mesh under the bus to keep out all kinds of critters.

Cat-litter spread around the perimeter.

And again, get a shotgun.
I poured coffees for the regulars and made lattes for the tourists. The café business was slowing down after my mid-morning rush. I took a breath and carried on cleaning, dusting, and catching up. I drank another cappuccino. The two glass doors had been propped open and a soft crosswind took out some of the various odors, not all were that pleasant let’s say. I wiped down the shelves and took a cloth to the shelves full of small colorful silly gifts for those passing through. I looked at my notes. Matthew, a local mechanic, had drawn a sketch for how to make a lasso out of PVC pipe and baling wire. He’d drawn a cartoon of Mark and I chasing down a posse of snakes across the desert. I wanted to frame it; he’d done such a great job. Frida was asleep outside in the back yard of the café, under the elm tree with her favorite blanket and toy near by. She’d been on quivering guard all night long and the poor thing was exhausted. I checked on her every so often but she barely moved.

The morning passed peacefully and for that I was glad. I scanned the paper, looking for jobs for Mark. He’d hate that, but he’d need to do something soon. I couldn’t support us both on what I was doing. I thought of asking at the restaurants but couldn’t face that either. I leaned against the counter and daydreamed.

 

“Hi. Is Anne around?”
Andrew, the birthday boy, stood in front of me with his hat in hands, politely letting me gather myself. He’d pulled up in the driveway in his 4Runner, the engine still running. I checked the calendar and told him she’d be back in the morning but not before.
“Can I help somehow?”
Andrew shook his head but sat down on one of the wooden stools in front of me, his truck forgotten. His long white hair hung loosely and the blue Levis and denim shirt were much more worn out than at his party the other weekend. He wasn’t in his Sunday best, I guess.

“I don’t know, Jenny. It’s my sister; I’m worried about her. Anne’s so good at all of her community outreach stuff, I wanted to ask her help.”
“What’s wrong? Is there anything I can do?” I poured him a cup of coffee out of habit and sat next to him. I turned down the music. He sat quietly for a moment, thinking to himself before he started to talk.

“It’s the rescue. She’s drowning in debt but won’t ask for help from anyone. I don’t think she can keep going for much longer unless she gets some money together. I don’t know how. We’re all the family there is, we don’t have anyone to turn to. Mom’s ancient and doesn’t even recognize us any more.”
“So you thought of Anne? How come?”
He glanced at me. “I forget you’re still new here.”
“I’m not. I’ve been here almost three months now,” I said indignantly.

He laughed, “no offence, but that’s not so long, is it? Anyway, Anne’s put on fundraisers before. I thought maybe we could do one for the sanctuary.”
“I want to help. I don’t know how, but I’m sure I could do something. What does she need?” Ready to get involved as usual, I couldn’t keep my enthusiasm in check. I tried not to bounce in my seat.
“Mostly it’s the financial stuff, paying bills, buying supplies for the dogs, paying medical bills as they come up, maybe even making it into a non-profit.” He grinned. “Well, that’s what I’ve come up with so far.” and he tied his hair back and out of the way. His moustache drooped and dipped into the coffee.
“What’s she been doing until now?”
He sighed deeply. “Nothing. I told her to set herself up properly when her husband left, but did she listen to me? No, I’m just her older brother.”
“Mark’s been helping over there, mending fences and stuff. It’s not really what he’s good at. He’s more of a musician than anything else. But he’s good on the computer. Maybe we could do the Internet stuff for her, work on the accounts and look into some marketing?”
“Louisa doesn’t like getting people involved in her life. We’d have to get her okay first. But is it hard to get the non-profit stuff done?”
I shook my head and sipped coffee and grabbed notebook and pen. I started to write down ideas free form. “I’d think it’s probably just lots of details, setting up the different roles and that. We could do it so she has the final say on mission statements and that, but we organize how to deal with the money side of things. If Mark or someone could write some grants, then…”
“She’d be okay? I don’t want her to lose everything in the meantime.”
“Oh, right, that wouldn’t help her out right now.” I stood up and called to Frida. She trotted up the steps and lay down next to Andrew’s boots, and started to lick the one nearest her.
“Been cleaning out the stables,” he explained as we watched my dog.

I wrote down about grants, sponsors, fundraisers, and asked, “When Anne’s done other events, how does that work?”
Andrew added some more sugar and talked about the tavern hosting various shows over the years, with silent and live auctions, music all night long with the local bands each getting a set or two before the community jam towards the end of the night. “For one woman with a back injury, we raised about six thousand, and that took care of her mortgage and those kinds of expenses. The hospital covered the medical bills since she was under the poverty income levels.”

“Do you really get that much support here? There are not enough people, surely?”
Andrew laughed, “I know it seems that way at times, but there’s another four hundred or so folks living out in the mountains, and most of them are artists and writers and sculptors and woodworkers. They all bring their own creations to auction off. The musicians play with each other and with their reputations they bring in more of a Santa Fe audience, the families bring the kids, and it’s pretty incredible.” He had the sweetest smile right then.

I petted Frida. “Let’s do it, a fundraiser then, and in the meantime, Mark and I can work on the long term legal stuff, finding us, I mean Louisa, sponsors. I’m up for it. I’ll tell Mark later today, okay?”
Andrew put his hand on my arm, and still smiling, simply said thanks.

 

The four of us sat at the corner table in the tavern. Papers and pens lay scattered among pints of half-drunk beer and untouched iced water. A bowl of tortilla chips was brought over by the waiter. He left us to it after checking we didn’t need anything for a while. We all talked over each other, one idea after another. Anne took down notes as to names of artists and galleries. I wrote their suggestions for media coverage, which papers and the specific journalists to approach. Radio stations, online yahoo groups, Facebook, all the different social networks came to mind. Mark scribbled his own ideas and questions to follow up on for finding the bands. Andrew stood up after a while and stepped outside to smoke, with Mark following his lead. Anne and I took a breath and stopped talking. The calm felt good. I set the pen down. I breathed in deeply and let it out slowly.

The tavern was empty. Then again, for a weekday afternoon, I should know to expect that by now. Anne drained her first pint and ordered another round, with a plate of nachos for the group of us.
We sat in an easy silence.

The drinks came. The men didn’t.

“Cheers.” she toasted me. “Welcome to Oliver. You’re truly a part of this place if this is how you spend your time off.”
I tipped my glass and took a sip. “Yep, I feel like I can help out. I know Louisa. If it had been anyone else, I don’t know that I’d be as keen as this, to be honest. But I like what she’s doing up there. Maybe I can help set up a website, tell people about the specific dogs looking for homes.”
“She’d do well with a monthly newsletter to keep us in touch. She’s not good with people, that’s for sure, but I’ve known her with these dogs, ones you’d think should be quarantined because they’re so unpredictable. But she works with them, teaches them manners, and finds them homes. It’s such a shame her husband left her, but I reckon she’s happier without him.”
“Really? Why?”
“It wasn’t his dream, you know? The ones that don’t make it out on the land, well, usually one or the other is just going along with it to keep the partner happy. After a while, hauling water, or chopping firewood, or waking up to a raging windstorm, it gets old for some.”
“Not me. I love every minute of it. I didn’t know I would, but I do. And Mark’s been amazing too. He’s so great with the pup, and with getting his hands dirty, all the while he’s grinning and giggling and whistling to himself. I’ve not seen him this happy before. It’s pretty amazing.” I stared out the window and we watched Andrew and Mark chatting away, big smiles on their faces, non-stop back and forth. Mark pushed his curls out of his eyes and tied a bandana around the unruly mess, as he stroked his goatee absently. He finished his pint as he listened to the older man. Andrew’s faded denim shirt glowed in the direct afternoon sunlight, and his weathered skin suited him just fine, so much so that I imagined my boyfriend in his seventies looking somewhat like his new friend. I smiled to myself and turned back to Anne. She was reading her notes distractedly, fiddling with a strand of hair.

“Where’s Graham today?” I asked suddenly.
She shrugged. “I’m not sure. Something about the fire department, taking out a new volunteer to check for wildfires. He said they’d be back late afternoon sometime. We’ll see.”

She shook her head and focused on writing reminders to herself when Mark wandered over. He took a seat next to me just as the nachos arrived. He helped himself, humming away as he ate. I watched them both.

Taking Dad To Guatemala in 2005

This is a short piece I wrote years ago but since it’s Father’s Day, I thought I’d share it. I miss him. I miss Mum. Gran. Nan. Viv. My family. Days like this, the pre-made duty filled days are hell on me. Oh well, right? Carry on. Carry on. I am British after all. 

LAST DAYS

BRITISH AIRWAYS offered her tea, milky with sugar. The taste made her relax back into the window seat, knowing that the first thing her mum would do is put the kettle on.

She had found herself telling complete strangers in Antigua, that colonial city where she waited for the trip back to England. In the clothes shop on Sixth avenue, to the west of the central park, she looked through racks of women’s’ trousers and blouses.

“These aren’t the things I know how to buy,’ she was muttering to herself when the lady offered to help. They spoke in Spanish with Louise describing the need for black, for baggy yet formal if possible.

“My dad died.”

The silence though inevitable was not awkward but natural, as the lady looked at Louise and touched her briefly on the shoulder. She understood. Louise said nothing else as the wave of sudden belief shredded the calm she hidden within. Tears came fast, and she took refuge in the dressing room.

Her dad had lived vicariously through her over the last few years. He had researched the places she expressed an interest in visiting, sending long emails full of statistics and anecdotes of the social, political and economic history she would encounter there. Then he sent poems in Spanish as she arrived in Central America, clippings from the Guatemalan national newspapers about the children’s’ plight and poverty. And she wrote weekly of the families she’d talked to, the kids she’d befriended, putting individual names and faces to the facts he would discover for them both.

Antigua is the centre of tourism and Spanish language schools in Guatemala. Louise had learnt a weeks’ worth of grammar before leaving to stay at a smaller village on Lake Atitlan, a few hours away. To be honest, her dad had suggested at least three weeks of school, but Louise was never the scholar her dad is, was…On the Friday at the end of her first week in classes in over fifteen years, her mind crept forward into a game of table tennis, counting and losing over and over to Jose, the teacher.

Antigua is a beautiful city, and when they wrote to each other he mentioned the architecture of the twelfth century, and asked after the three volcanoes surrounding the town of forty thousand. Louise though had found the shoeshine boys and homeless Mayan girls to chat to, juggle with, and play chase around the grassy plazas where tourists and locals alike spent their afternoons. Architecture was not her focus.

Louise had arrived back to Antigua reluctantly drawn from the safe little haven of San Marcos on the lake, stunned and alone. Her dad had died suddenly, unexpectedly. And now she had to fly home, to be there, with her mum, with her brother and his family, see the cousins and aunts and uncles. Her dad had been friend to all, the funny intelligent and compassionate friend they turned to with questions. He fed them with stories and facts and good advice but rarely an easy answer. The thought that he had gone, died, left forever was inescapable yet lingered distant. Numb she sat on the rooftop of Casa Leon’s hostel. Rather out of character she smoked, staring out over the cafes, the narrow cobbled streets, the terracotta plastered adobe homes and private courtyards. Under her unfocused gaze life carried on. Stoned, she still had no appetite beyond memories of Sunday lunches with the family, a ritual she’d hated at the time.

Louise sat alone, in a distant city remembering her brother crying over the phone, telling her that their dad had died in his sleep. A week before. Her knees had given way; she fell to the floor at Stacy’s home, clutching the phone to her ear, not quite knowing what was happening. Mike told her again and again. Then he cried that she was alone without family to hold her, help her. But Stacy stood close, ready for Louise to turn to her, there for her. The baby had been whisked away by Catarina. Pedro had taken off to care for the store. Stacy waited for Louise.

She was not alone, not quite.

On the rooftop, in Antigua she was utterly alone, more than she had ever realised. Daddy’s little girl. The smoke dwindled as she forgot what she was doing, the thoughts of the last letter he’d sent her, about her publishing an article for the first time. His pride and encouragement meant everything to her, particularly today.

Reluctantly yet glad to have another distraction, she took a yellow woven shoulder bag and walked towards the market by the bus station. The streets were busy, well it was a Saturday, and she bumped into an American couple she knew from Panajachel village, at the lake. A quick chat, nothing said of note, Louise didn’t want to tell them, avoided their sympathy unlike at the travel agents earlier, or at the bank, or on the bus with Shane, she had told random people all day until just then. So Louise smiled, made some joke or other and then left to hide in the anonymity of the crowded market.

Tall and fair-haired could she ever be anonymous though? Breathing in the chaos, colours and comforts of this Guatemalan market, Louise found how much she was at home here after four months. She was no longer intimidated by the sensory overload nor frustrated by the languages. The men wore western clothes, trousers and tee shirts, stood and talked to the other vendors. The Mayan women wore traditional dresses of hand-made fabric, all brightly coloured with the designs of their villages. They were normally a bit gruff with the tourists but for once saw something in Louise, and so unusually they reached out to her often, talked as to a regular customer, and gave free extras of avocadoes and bananas. Louise walked, talked, and acted as if nothing had changed. But from now on her life would be defined by this moment. These days alone then the weeks of funeral and mourning with the family in England.

She bought a few gifts for the nieces and nephews from the crafts vendors inside the hall, multi-coloured bracelets and little bags. For her mum it was a different matter.

What do you by someone who just lost their best friend of forty years?

Walking back through the central park Louise sat on a bench, watching sprawling colourful families enjoy the afternoon warmth of springtime. Above her, a cherry blossom tree swung heavy branches saturating the air with memories of their farmhouse in Worcestershire. Those were the times when her mum’s bum would stick out of the overgrown lilac shrubs as she weeded, and dad would always hum to himself as he trimmed the privet hedge near by. She’d hated it at the time.

“Laundry. I must not forget the damn laundry.” She put the book down. It was boring anyway, simply a result of the last minute grabbing of something in English from Stacy’s house on the way out. On the way to catch the boat, to get to the bank, to pay for a ticket, to catch the bus, to get to the city, to buy the ticket, to wait another day, to catch a shuttle bus, to get to the airport, to fly to Dallas, to fly to London, to meet her big brother, and finally to drive home.

Home.

Through the peeling peach plaster of the hotel room Louise listened to an English couple discuss their wedding.

“It’s not a loan, we’ll tell him, it’s a gift because we can’t get married without him, right? Whenever he can, he’s to get a flight to meet us in Honduras, right?” His voice annoyed her, too childish and whiney for a grown man, she thought irritably. Do all British men sound so young? She didn’t remember. It had been twelve years since last living there, and memory was patchy about anything beyond her dad, her mum, and big brother. Every second hit her with a new picture of one day or another when they’d sat around the kitchen table, drinking wine and telling each other stories to make them laugh.

That night in bed when sleep didn’t find her, Louise craved a child. A boy. To call him Tony after her dad. Her body ached with the need for a child of her own. But life had taken her in another direction and there would be no son to remind her of her dad, to fill that void, that desire. She thought of all the kids in her life that light up when they see her. Marley. Freya. Dasen. Freddy. Maria. Thomas. Emily.

“Well, at least I have my little friends,” she said to herself and clutched her old teddy bear.

Time dragged. Two days to wait in an anonymous city, waiting to go home, where she would really feel her dad’s absence from the house, the silences he filled with stories and laughing. Louise packed and unpacked and packed again. Non-stop she fiddled, looked for something, then forgot what in particular, then replaced it all in the green small back pack on the other bed, empty and unused by either friend or lover. Louise wiped the table over and over; her fingers never stopped dancing on the bed. Shoulders tensed and juddered of their own will just as they had after that terrible phone call, when Louise had turned to Stacy and lowered her head sobbing.

During the evening promenade, the orchestra pulled together the wandering tourists and locals and filled the park with rows of wooden seats. Louise found herself drawn in, and ended up sitting next to an old couple and their grandsons.

‘Dolor con suenos de alegria’ means pain with dreams of happiness.

The irony of the musical choice was not lost on her, and she cried again, tired of crying but unable to stop. She listened and cried gentle tears, admiring the stonework of the sixteenth century; the architecture of Spanish colonial times, the arches and pillars, and the fountains reminded her of the family holidays in northern Spain. Age six and learning to swim in Aranda. Eating fresh sardines grilled over the fire in Santander. The huge waves mum dragged her and Mike into squealing with delight.   On Saturday nights, both in Spain and Guatemala people walk and greet each other, sharing ice creams with little children, couples go courting and the shoeshine boys earn whatever they can. Louise stopped one lad to polish her leather boots for the funeral. His hands were blackened and his own shoes were laceless, but his grin reached his eyes as they talked about their families.

Later that night Louise looked around the worn out room, thankful to be going home. To the town she grew up in, to those cousins who tease her. To the uncles and aunts. Family suddenly made sense to her, after all these years apart, she knew she needed them, now more than ever. And they needed her, wanted her to come back, back home.

“I took my dad to Central America. Now he is taking me home.”

…It was time for Louise to go home.

BRITISH AIRWAYS offered her tea, milky with sugar. The taste made her relax back into the window seat, knowing that the first thing her mum would do is put the kettle on.

 

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Living The Dream: 20

Another chapter in the ongoing series from the book LIVING THE DREAM. Click on the image below for more info! 

SEPTEMBER: VISITORS

“I want one.”

Mark shook his head. He carried on pounding in the posts. I stood there and watched him work on the chicken run. “I’m serious.”
“And so am I. We’re not nearly ready enough for a donkey.”
“Two. They get lonely on their own.”
Mark shook his head and passed me the last post. He measured out another eight feet and started again. I helped in a sulky silence.

“But they’re only a year old, two siblings. Frankie is black and gray and his sister is more of an amber color. Franny. Their names even match Frida’s. You’d love them, Mark, honest.”
He sighed and looked at me. “No, not yet, that’s all I’m saying, Jenny. It’s too much. I’d end up having to take care of them as well as everything else, wouldn’t I? We still have too much to do before winter any way. There’s getting enough firewood, finishing the fencing, getting chickens, building an outhouse and another compost bin, closing in the deck, or at least making some kind of windbreak. When am I meant to build a barn? Don’t I have enough to do as it is?”
He shook his head as he tied the chicken wire to the posts. I said nothing. One layer at a time, we built up the sides of the run, up to six feet high. The roof area would need to be covered by something to keep the predator birds out, and the coyotes apparently, they’d climb up and in to get themselves some chicken. I shuddered at the thought.
We worked in silence for a while and the project wound up almost done. I put the tools away in the waterproof containers and stacked the extra posts out of sight of the bus. A tidy camp was more my style than his. I was the one to finish up, that’s for sure.
Frida followed him around quietly, aware we weren’t laughing and playing like usual. I was lost in my head. I raked a path and placed more rocks along the edge. I putzed for ages in the afternoon sun, pruning back junipers, and pinions, pulling away the dead cactus branches. I found large flat rocks and laid them out for the beginnings of a flagstone patio under the eastern facing bus windows. Frida loved this porch deck and spent most of her time watching Mark and I from her bed in the corner. Mark made us some lemonade and we sat in the shade, looking out at the sunset, still silent.
I sighed. It had been a long day. The morning spent at Graham and Anne’s had inspired me and I’d gone straight to the community garden in town and taken more detailed photographs. I’d come back and found Mark playing his guitar in the hammock and instead of joining him. I’d gone inside and printed out the pictures of the donkeys and the trees and the water tanks and everything. I’d gone online and researched what donkeys needed as far as shelter and water and still, I’d been inspired and not intimidated.
Mark listened to me babble as he strummed quietly, the same tune over and over, it drove me crazy. I passed him all the images and described each and every one of them. He knew to wait until the new infatuation wore thin before he pointed out the costs and the reasons to hold off. He drank more of the cold lemonade and ate some chips. Frida begged. I chattered away.

“So what’s Graham like?”
I stopped short. I sat back for a moment.

“He’s odd. I don’t know why I like him, but I do. It’s like hanging out with my younger cousins. He’s trying to impress me somehow but he’s like a big kid, and he can’t quite keep his stories straight. He told me all about the home and the bricks and the gardens and all of this stuff and how he did everything, and only ten minutes later Anne tells me how she did most of the work with her friends because he was laid up with a bad back or something. It’s laughable really.”
Mark nodded. “So I don’t need to be jealous?”
“Are you?”
He shook his head, “not really, but you gravitate towards him whenever you can. It made me wonder.”
“Do you want me to step back from them?” I put my glass down.

Mark shrugged uneasily. “No, they’re new friends and we don’t have many to pick and choose from, do we? You could invite them both out here sometime for a grill? What do you reckon?”

He scratched Frida’s back. She rolled belly-up and farted. She sat up in surprise, then realized she must be thirsty and wandered off.

“Yeah, let’s get them over here. Our first official visitors, right? Anne can help with some of my questions; you’ll like her. She’s full of the best stories and information. You can tell she grew up in New Mexico, it all makes sense to her, you know? It’s natural and easy. She even offered to help us if ever we throw a work party for some project around here. She said she’d bring Graham’s teenage boys up to help us out.”
Mark stretched out his long toasted legs and sighed to himself. Frida wandered over and lay down next to me, resting her head on my bare and probably smelly feet. The clouds drifted overhead but no storm was heading this way. I finished the chips and stood to get more from the bus. My tee shirt stuck to my back.

“I wish we had a proper shower.”
He grinned up at me. “Next project? Make a small wooden bathroom with a view of the mountains? The old hippy style?”

He reached for me but I stepped away slightly. I stripped off the sweaty shirt and stood in front of him.

“Well, what are we doing tomorrow?” I dropped my shorts. I stood closer still. “More importantly, what are we doing tonight?”

 

Mark handed me a glass of red wine, well, a mug of merlot to be exact. Frida curled up between us, finally allowed back to her favorite place in the bus. She snuggled into my armpit and groaned as she wriggled and curled up into a small little lump of fur. I sipped the wine and sighed. This was the life for me. Mark sighed and lit a candle for his cigarette. No moon tonight and the black sky intimidated me. Mark took a swig and refilled his glass before placing the bottle on the floor beside him. The back emergency exit was propped open for the breeze to cool us down. Frida grunted once and fell fast asleep. Mark dozed and daydreamed. I lay happily under the sheet and looked around.

The bus had become a home. My shirts hung off a couple of pegs at the left of me, along with all of Marks. Our shorts and jeans and that kind of thing filled the four drawers. Under our bed, suitcases of underwear and tee shirts were all within grabbing distance. Shelves held a few books and more candles. I’d put up a couple of framed photographs of my family. Mark didn’t want his parents to look down on us in bed so he’d refused to give me anything. The curtains I’d made hung off the southern window, the only one we’d needed to cover. It was the full moon we kept out, not the neighbors’ prying eyes for once. Mark loved to stride around the land buck-naked but for his baseball cap and pair of boots. His lean body shone like toast and butter. Good enough to snack upon whenever I liked.

 

“Mark?”
“Mmm?”

I nudged him and tried again. He slowly opened his eyes and half smiled. I’d finished the glass of wine and had been thinking. I sat upright and poked him again.

“I’ve been thinking.”
“About what?” His voice was soft and sleepy, nighttime wasn’t the best time for any kind of conversations with him, but I persevered.

“Money. I’ve been doing the budget.”
Mark groaned and turned his back to me. “Not now, Jenny. I mean it, not now. I’ll get a job, I will. I’ll get a job, but can you leave it alone for tonight? It’s getting old and I’m having some sweet dreams about my girlfriend and I don’t want to spoil the mood.” He squeezed his foot between my legs.

“But…”
He kicked me, gently, but he meant it.

“Okay, okay, not now. But we need to talk about it sometime soon.” I told him firmly.
He kicked me, more of a caress this time, sighed once more, and fell asleep, just like that.

I wriggled out from under the sheet and got dressed in a small dress, more of a huge tee shirt really; it covered me to my knees and kept the bugs off. I climbed over the two sleeping beauties and picked up the rest of the wine and walked outside.

The incredible never-ending stars lit the deck, and I crept quietly to my favorite armchair. The wooden pallet screen to the west side kept the breeze off my legs and I curled up in place. We did need to talk. I’d done the budget in my head and money was flying out too fast. My three shifts at the coffee shop weren’t enough, even here with the land paid off. We still had insurance, gas, food, phone bills, all of that. I was worried. How on earth would we have the money to build a house? Or even finish the other projects first? It seemed everything we did cost money. And I didn’t have enough. Nor did Mark. Not that he cared. He loved being the househusband, writing songs, practicing, and when I was around, working on the place. Something had to change. I sipped the merlot and picked at a scab on my calf. The trees barely moved in the night winds and I relaxed back into the corduroy chair. Frida shuffled out to find me. Her ears perked up as she bounced up onto my lap and curled up in her usual tight ball, the ginger fur bright in that half-light. She grunted once and fell asleep. I drifted off.

 

“What the hell?”

Frida woke me with a squeal. She quivered and whimpered. I started at the sound. I knew it instinctively. A rattle. A freaking rattlesnake. I looked around, desperate to see where the thing was. I found it fast. In front of us, coming onto my deck was a three-foot rattlesnake. We’d disturbed its plans and it wasn’t too happy with us. It slithered up and coiled itself, staring in my direction, rattling hard and fast. A warning.

“MARK. Get out here NOW.”
I screamed at him, but quietly somehow, low and impossible to ignore, I did it again. Mark stumbled through the bus, flashlight it hand. He almost fell out the door when I stopped him short with a yelp of fear.

I whispered loudly. “Look down.”
Mark looked. Only two feet away the snake had focused on him. It shook and rattled and stared up at the doorway. Mark froze. The snake appeared dark skinned, the mouth was wide open, and the tail didn’t stop flailing this way and that. Its shadow danced on my deck in some parody of the Moscow ballet. Mark looked terrified.

“What am I meant to do?” he whispered.

I almost laughed. My boyfriend stood there naked but for a flashlight dangling uselessly from his one hand, and in the other he held his socks. He glanced over at me but only briefly, as he didn’t dare lose sight of the visitor.

“What do I do?” he whispered again.

“Can I get up? Is there another one?”
“Oh my god, I hope not.” He shone the light around, under and around my chair and across to the steps. “Can you make it? Can you carry Frida?”

We both frantically checked out the whole area. Nothing to be seen, but who knew what was hiding in paradise?
I had no choice. I stood up with the pup in my grasp. Frida stuck to me like a wad of chewing gum on a table. She wrapped herself around my neck with her little legs and wouldn’t let go even when I almost tripped on the sandals and shorts I’d left lying there earlier. Mark groaned in relief as I found my footing and reached up for him to take her. Frida shook as I passed her across and into his arms. I joined her there. The three of us stared at the snake together from our safe spot up the steps. Snakes can’t climb, can they?

Mark shone the light over the deck, checking for more. The snake had uncoiled and stopped its horrible warnings and the other night sounds resumed. The coyotes and the owls spoke up. The snake started to move slowly towards us. Mark kept the light on it. Frida jumped down and I heard her take a running leap on to the bed in the back.

Mark slammed the door. We stared at each other. He spoke first.

“Wine anyone?”

We closed all the windows and even reluctantly shut the emergency door by the bed. The bus heated up immediately. The wine tasted perfect. We drank standing up. Frida huddled under my pillow, and whimpered to herself faintly. I started to sweat. Mark put on his boxers and lit up a cigarette. I took a drag and coughed for five minutes. I drank more wine. Mark finally sat down and told me to relax.

“Relax. Are you crazy? You want me to relax? With that out there?”

He started to laugh, doubled up, barely able to catch a breath. I stood there furious with him.

“You think this is funny?”

He glanced up at me and started again, spluttering about the expression on my face with Frida desperately clutching onto me, and how I had my mug of wine held out of her way.

It was the wine, he said, over and over, the way you saved your wine under the pressure of facing down a rattlesnake. Who’d have thought it? He started laughing again, the tears streaming down his cheeks and onto his bare chest and suddenly I gave up. I sat down and cried. I cried and laughed and cried some more.

“What? Oh baby, it’s okay, it’s okay.” He stopped short and stared at me in surprise. He actually looked worried for a moment.

I punched him. “I’m fine, don’t be stupid, I’m fine, I’m just so relieved, I can’t stop.” I grinned up at him and we both began to giggle. I couldn’t stop sniffing and sniggering both.

Frida whimpered under her covers. Mark pulled her out and sat her on my lap, giving her a treat and passing me my wine.

“Now what?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s still out there, Jenny. What are we going to do about it?” Mark pulled on a black tee shirt and sat next to us both. He scratched his head and leaned back against the wall. “What do we do to get rid of it? What if there are more?”
I shook my head. “I can ask at the coffee shop in the morning and see what they tell me. I have no idea about snakes, what makes them come round or go away. Should I take Frida to work with me?”
Mark petted her and nodded. “Yeah, I’d hate for anything to happen to her. I’ll start by getting any trash out, clean up under the deck, find if there are signs of them making a home under us, wouldn’t that be the worst? Shit, I hope it’s just gone on its merry way. Far away.”
I finished the last of my wine. I set Frida on her corner of the bed and nestled back in myself. I blew out the candle. I tucked the sheets up to my shoulders and gave him a small nervous laugh.

“Let’s pretend it never happened, okay? No snake, no rattle, it was just a bad dream. I’m so tired. Come to bed, Mark. Come to me.”

He laughed quietly to himself, stripped down, and climbed in next to me with a happy groan. He curled up around me, covering me with his warm lanky legs and arms. He snuggled against my neck.

“Mmm, home,” he mumbled, “I’m home at last.”

Living The Dream: 19

As part of the ongoing Sunday installments of the novel. You can find the other chapters on here, posted each Sunday morning. Thanks! 

SEPTEMBER: SOMETHING ON THE SIDE

“I thought I’d see how I can help.”

A table of six men in navy blue tee shirts all stood up in surprise. All men. Hmm.
“This is the volunteer fire department, isn’t it?”

I fiddled with my striped ginger and periwinkle tee shirt, tucking it in to my shorts. I’d wished I’d worn jeans. One by one, they nodded uncertainly. Graham hung back as the others came over one by one, introducing themselves, welcoming me, and explaining their routines. There were so many voices and too many details that assaulted me that I almost left. I caught Graham’s smile though. I stayed. The building was massive, hundreds of feet long and fifty feet wide. There was an office full of files and computers and a community room towards the back where I’d found everyone sitting around a big wide table. The rest of the place was given over to four vehicles. There were two big red fire trucks and with hoses and water storage, equipment lockers, ladders strapped on tight, then extra tanks and even more hoses, it was most overwhelming when I stood next to them. I felt like a mouse before the lion. There was an EMT vehicle, outfitted with pretty much everything you might need before the paid paramedics showed up, with monitors, back braces, heart attack stuff, needles, even machinery to get people out of burning cars. Pretty impressive it was, in a gruesome way. Lastly there was a beater of an old Chevy truck set for fighting wildfires. That was the one I recognized from the fire department’s late night visit at our place the other month.

Frank, my homesteading neighbor who’d pulled us out the mud, was the volunteer showing me around. He towered over my five foot three self as he climbed up and down the ladders on each fire engine. He told me that Tuesday nights in Oliver are the regular volunteer recruitment and training nights. They’d pick a different topic each week, which was a refresher for some and new information for others. As trainee officer, he gave me a manual to take home and read, it being the source of all info for newbies apparently. I flicked through. I put the manual down on a shelf somewhere. I tagged along as Frank showed me each of the four vehicles. I’d hoped Graham would come work with me, or at least talk to me. He stayed in the office working on the computer. Around me, the other firefighters maintained the engines, checking oil, lights, tire pressure, machinery, and all of that.

“Meeting time,” Frank announced and put his notebook down. I smiled widely. He walked us both back to the community room and sat down, checking us off one by one from his list. I thought of Mark drinking at the tavern, checking out the TV and music. I knew where I’d prefer to be.

The meeting started. I listened and watched. The meeting ended.

I stood up. “Thanks, that was great.”
Graham followed me outside. He looked good in the uniform in a school-boyish way.

“You leaving already?” He scratched at his big belly and leaned against my car.
“Yeah, this really isn’t my thing.” I admitted. “But thanks.”
“Oh, okay.” We stood there saying nothing for a minute or two. “Can I ask you over for coffee in the morning? Come see how I built my place?”
I wasn’t sure why but I said yes and he gave me directions. He walked back inside for the rest of the night’s training session. I went to find my boyfriend.

 

“My God, this is incredible.” I blurted out.

Graham beamed. The view stretched out to the northeast, a wide high desert valley with mountains ringing the edges. Frida ran free. The high-topped bright blue nothingness of a sky overwhelmed me more than ever; there was so much space above us it made me realize how tiny human life was. Trees circled his home, and the junipers had all been pruned into interesting shapes, almost like sculptures. The house stood in a small clearing, surrounded by fruit trees and shrubs. Two huge water tanks sat at either end of the building, with gutters running from all angles, feeding the gardens with more than enough for this lush English-style garden. No wonder Anne knew how to set me up at home. The home itself was built of adobe bricks, no plaster, and with a wooden wrap-around porch, screened in on the east side. The exposed wood trim on the doors and windows had been painted a soft turquoise.

“Beautiful, Mark would love to see this.” I gushed, admiring everything. Graham described how he’d done everything, made all the decisions on the design, explaining the process of mixing adobes by hand, and how much effort it took for him to work on it after his daytime job in town. And finally, he said, it was finished. Almost.
Anne came out of the kitchen carrying a pot of coffee and three mugs. Graham jumped in, telling me, “I told her you were coming this morning and so she took some time off. She wanted to show you the gardens, her pride and joy.”
They smiled easily at each other with the comfort of old friends, proud of each other’s work.

“I take it you’ve heard how we broke our backs making and hauling the bricks around?” Anne laughed brightly as she walked back to the porch. “Teamwork, it was all about teamwork, even with Graham’s slipped disk, we got the walls up and roof completed by winter that first year. Thanks for all the locals who kicked in when he was laid up.”

In surprise, I turned to Graham who smiled sheepishly and looked away. I followed Anne, shrugging to myself. I craved a cup of coffee sitting on their eastern deck. Graham closed the screen door behind us and we all sat down in the soft worn-out armchairs. Frida looked in through the mesh at me, her ears dropping, and she whimpered. Anne let her in and the pup sat at my feet, knowing this wasn’t a dog-friendly household. A cat sat up on a shelf and watched us both nervously. I kept an eye on my girl.

“The coffee’s local, as we try to support the New Mexican economy as much as possible,” Graham offered me cream. “From a dairy farm in Taos.”
We all relaxed into sipping the coffees. I didn’t have much to say so I asked the most boring thing I could think of. “How long have you two been married?”
They shared a glance. “Twelve years now.”
“Officially.” Anne added.
I raised my eyebrows. “Meaning?”
Anne told me that Graham had been married before, had two teenage boys, and that there was a bit of an overlap between the relationships. “He had a habit of keeping someone on the side, didn’t you?”
He nodded awkwardly.
“And now?” I asked with an innocent smile as I stroked my dog’s ears.
Again, Anne answered for them both. “He’s better now. A roaming eye, but this is a small town, there’s not much you can get away with here. We notice things. What about you and Mark? What’s the story?”
Graham kept quiet the whole time. He sat in one of the green armchairs and petted the cat, or rather the cats. Three now hung out with us, taking Frida as no threat at all. The room was filled with houseplants of all kinds. Hanging from each beam, Anne had set up a greenhouse of young and old, with hoses and watering cans, bags of potting soil and a few hand tools. I was jealous. I’d have to get Mark on closing in our own porch. I noticed the conversation had stopped, waiting for me.
“Oh, right, Mark. We’ve been together two years now, just over, that is. He’s my best friend. We’ve known each other years, since college in Seattle, but we lost touch after that. He found me online and just wrote a sweet hello email. That was that. Both of us were living in Olympia, single, with good jobs, and time to play.” I reached for one of the plants nearest me; it had a weird shape and one solo flower. “What’s this?”
“An orchid. Haven’t you seen them before?”
The orange and gold stripes were gorgeous. I wanted to touch it but knew that wasn’t too polite of me. Anne stood up, and explained that she had tons of interesting plants all over the place to show off. I followed her lead. Graham stayed in place, pinned to his seat by a twenty pound black cat that was giving Frida the evil eye. He shrugged helplessly. Frida came with me.

 

I spent the rest of the morning learning all about orchids, soil, lighting, and the watering needs of each and every houseplant imaginable. I kept up most of the time but by eleven my brain was fried. I couldn’t learn another thing. Frida needed to go outside – and I made my excuses. Anne laughed at herself. She tied her hair back into one ponytail and grabbed a straw-hat. The long sleeved men’s shirt was thrown on as an afterthought.

“I’m sorry. I get so caught up by this stuff. It’s not that interesting to everyone, but you earned some brownie points for listening to me go on and on. No wonder Graham left us to it. Usually he sticks around when some one comes out here. We don’t get many visitors. It’s too complicated to give them directions from town unless they know the area to start with. Anyway, I owe you, Jenny. I’ll get your coffee tomorrow if you come by the cafe. How’s that?”

I grinned and trailed her back out to the porch. Graham had cleaned up and gone out. Frida was at my heels, intimidated by an orange tabby stalking her through the house.
“Do you want to walk around the land for a while? We’ve got some great views from the ridge behind us, you can see into town and even as far as Santa Fe. We’ll go find my husband but hopefully he’s fixing the gate on the chicken run. We had a coyote break in last night, but luckily my girls were locked in the actual coop so no one was killed.”

I got my cowboy hat from the car and picked up my camera at the same time. I wanted to show Mark what we could to with our place. I told her how we’re doing one project at a time, not my usual start everything at once mentality. Mark was keeping us on track. I needed that, I couldn’t imagine doing this alone.

“We’re making a fenced area, and trying to work out what kind of coop to build. Something simple, that’s my idea. He’s getting all ambitious now and wants a chicken condo, all insulated and big enough for a flock.”

She laughed, “well, we have some pallets and about ten straw-bales stacked together with a little wooden door to keep them in at night. It works.”

“Did you build it?”
“Yep, Graham picked up the bales for me on his way home from Santa Fe, but yeah, after that, he said I was the one that wanted the chickens. He was right too. He’d just been promoted to District Chief and was fairly overwhelmed by all the paperwork. He’s there all the time now, I rarely see him in the evenings. For a while I got jealous and so I joined, but the whole men’s club feel of the place put me off.”
“And now?” I asked nosily as I took photos of everything they’d done. The chicken run, the gardens, and the fruit trees mostly attracted my attention. I tried to focus on what Anne was saying.

“Now? Now he’s at the fire department, trying to pull in more volunteers and I’m generally home, taking care of all the animals.” Anne took off her hat. With those big steps of hers it was hard to keep up. She was tall and long legged, I am not, nor will I ever be.
“What else have you got? Besides cats and chickens?”

I jogged to keep up, putting the camera back in my pocket. My hat fell off but I caught it.
Anne strode ahead of me towards a small wood barn. She glanced back at me over her shoulder.

“You didn’t know? I have some goats, a goose, a couple of turkeys and two miniature donkeys.”

 

 

Living The Dream: 18

As part of the ongoing Sunday installments of the novel. You can find the other chapters on here, posted each Sunday morning. Thanks! 

DECEMBER: CATCHING UP

I struggled to light a fire but eventually the kindling took and I sat back in the sand. The sun had set half an hour ago and a cold night threatened. I wasn’t worried. The cabin behind us was well made, a solid log home with a woodstove, double bed, and small galley kitchen. I’d kept the cooler outside on the porch next to the rocking chair. I didn’t bother putting Nelson’s blanket on the floor. He’d reverted to his worried self and didn’t like to sleep anywhere but leaning against me. That was fine in winter. I hoped that by summer he’d grow out of it. I couldn’t imagine us in the bus with all that fur pushed along side of my overheated self. I placed a grate over the fire, moving the bigger logs to the side to open up the embers, and put on my veggie burgers to heat. I’d made a simple salad with a balsamic dressing plus I’d bought a pecan pie. It was the holidays after all. Or close enough.

Nelson sniffed around the porch, suddenly darting and grabbing a mouse. He shook it once and dropped it. He stared at it in surprise. He looked up at me and back to the mouse. The mouse didn’t move. He prodded it with his pink nose but no; one dead mouse lay at his feet. He walked back to the campfire.

The beach was silent but for a few late birds settling in for the night. An owl hoo-hoo-ed in the distance. The wind had died down. I loved this quiet. We’d had a full week in Albuquerque, full of people and traffic and shopping and conversations. I’d even sent presents to Mom, which never happens until the last minute. This way, she’d get gifts before and not after Christmas.
Stars came out overhead and my burgers toasted. Life was good. I sighed. Nelson sighed. Yep. I could do this.

 

“Want to go for a walk, kiddo?”

Nelson perked up, but didn’t move from my bed, our bed. The cabin was snug, his belly was full, and it was after midnight. He didn’t believe me.

I’d drunk too much coffee on the drive down. I couldn’t relax. I wanted to move and have Nelson to come with me. Reluctantly he slid off the blanket and came over with leash in mouth. He sat and I hooked him up.
“Yep, it’s that kind of place. Pets on leashes at all times, sorry big guy. Come on, let’s go see, okay?”
Thump, thump, and off we walked. I grabbed my coat and a headlamp and we aimed for the water. Easy access to the lake they’d said, and to be honest it wasn’t bad. The sliver of moon helped us find the glittering lake. The beach was sand and pebbles with places set aside for fishing. A marina lay silently off to the side. Short mountains hovered over to the east. Lights from homes reminded me of Angie and Jonnie. They’d persuaded me to head to Elephant Butte, reminding me to make the most of their community, who to talk to, where to eat. Jonnie had tried to get me to stay at their home near by but I needed time alone. Time to think and to decide what to do about Mark, Anne, and even Graham. How do I deal with this mess? I shook my head and kept walking. I unhooked Nelson and he ran to the water and drank, tail mid-height, wagging contentedly. I stretched and then took off at a slow run. Nelson caught up in three strides of his long legs and together we ran and we ran. The moon flickered in and out of the clouds coming in. The homes, the beach, the lodge, all were completely silent and my footfalls echoed softly on the sand as we ran.

 

I lit another lamp next to the bed. Nelson stretched out beside me. I finally turned on the smart phone and waited for the messages. Voicemails, emails, texts, so many came in that I wanted to turn the phone off, turn the light off and simply sleep but I didn’t. I pulled out my notepad and settled in for the long haul. It was time to take care of business. To see what they had to say for themselves.

 

So, how are the rattlers at your place?

“How are they? Er, fine, thanks, pretty healthy.”
I smiled and wondered if that’s what he meant, this tourist I was chatting with at the coffee shop in town. Here I am in Madrid, NM, talking about rattlesnakes as usual. It’s the season for paranoia. I’m over it to be honest, looking forward to moving to Vermont, a place of bugs and mozzies, something less life-threatening. I can deal with that.

So what do you say to the question about rattlers? Where do I begin? Do you want the statistics of injuries, deaths, human encounters or animal encounters? The names and numbers of those who’ll come take care of the snake for you? Talk of Little Chris, who once drunk as a skunk, thought he could pick one up with his hand. He ended up in hospital for a week. Stories, you want stories? Are you sure?

We had a few bad years, the moisture and springtime brought an abundance of mice, rats, rabbits and snakes. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Or rather, I’m going back too far. Let’s talk about now. In May 2017.

This week, Rosie my mini-Husky/ lab mix, went to the vet for blood work so we can start her on heartworm. We had to sedate her, and that alone took an hour to mellow her out enough to then cover her in a towel while Nan took blood. While we’re sitting around after Harold, the other dog, a Collie/ Husky mutt recovered from minor surgery, and Rosie is trying not to fall asleep, Nan tells me of a rattlesnake bite. Damn, already? I’m not ready, already…

Rebecca’s young dog, Nika, was bitten on the nose, spent the night in the emergency care at the local vets in Santa Fe. Costly, scary, not something I wish on anyone. I forget though, how unusual this is, this risk of rattlers. In a presentation given at Overland Expo in Flagstaff, one of the crowd asked me where I lived since so much of the class was spent on the subject of how to take care of rattlesnake bites and more importantly, all those little things we can do to limit the risks. Like move to Vermont, that sounds good to me.

I’ve been at home in New Mexico since 1993. It’s been a while, I come and go most years, most months even, but rattlers are part of life here. No flip-flops on walks. Cut the weeds and grass near your home and on paths. Clean up the piles of lumber, trash, recycling etc to keep rats away and also so there are less places for the snakes to claim as their own . Don’t walk around at night in the height of summer. Don’t walk around in the evenings and mornings of spring. It’s all about timing, temperature, season. There’s so much to consider. Not that I knew any of this when I bought my land outside of town. Finally, I was a grown up! I had property, twenty acres, an adobe shack to create into a home. All within reach of the local village, it seemed perfect. In many ways, it is.

That first summer though was a challenge, emotionally. Living in a school-bus, raising a new puppy, Harold the Handsome, and building a home while working as a landscaper the rest of the week. Damn I was fit. And busy. It was a good life. I had a home! Well, almost. The shack was about twenty by twenty with a flat roof that leaked, broken windows, dark and dank, with straw and dirt floors. The fourth wall, facing the driveway, was incomplete, some windows, some half-finished stable doors and not much else. I put the mattress inside once I’d cleaned up after the last human pack-rat/ squatter had left it filled with pipes, broken tools and gadgets, dirty clothes, old rotten sleeping bags for him and his kid. I’d claimed it back to health, swept the dirt, put in a camp-chair, a mattress, and a stove for coffee in the mornings. Home, I had my own home.

New Folder (64)

Harold woke me up with a squeak. Dark inside our new home, I fumbled for the flashlight but couldn’t find it. Harold squeaked a puppy yip of fear. A rattle sounded. I froze. Harold shook. At the end of the bed, a rattler coiled up and stared us down. Saying nothing, I slowly climbed out of bed, clutching Harold to me, and hugged the walls, gently moving around the bed and out the front almost-door.

I stashed Harold in the truck. I locked the doors.
No, I don’t know why, but I locked the doors. No snake would get him now.

It was five in the morning. What the hell was I to do? My friends Alexis and Alan were camped on the land with their two kids. I wrote a note and stuck a rock on top so they’d find it on opening their doors in the morning. First light was creeping over the horizon and I craved coffee. To Java Junction then. Down the dirt road and into Madrid we drove. Harold on my lap, me trying not to cry. It was too early though, the cafe wasn’t yet open. I drove to Carol’s and woke her. Eyes still closed, she passed me the tools. I shook my head.

“You want me to do it?”

Nod. Nod. Desperate nod. Carol was one of our local snake-wranglers, and of course I wanted her to do it. I was too freaked out. This was my home. My supposed safe space. Home. Home isn’t meant to be invaded by things that kill. That’s in movies and books. Not real life. Not my life.

“Okay, give me half an hour. I’ll meet you at Java. I need a shower.”

A shower? At this time? It’s too important for a damn shower…but I nodded, mute as ever, and wandered next door. Elisa came to the porch in pajamas.

“Ooh, yes, let me get my gun! I’ll meet you at Java.” She trotted off excited by my news. No need for a shower for the Minx.

By seven o’clock, I’d rallied a team of gunslingers, hoe-holders, kids, families on holiday, families just curious, Grandmas and kin, all ready to take down this snake for me. We couldn’t find the fucker though. My not-quite-a-home was barren, dirt walls, dirt floors, wooden beams and little else. Where could it be? Carol and I slowly lifted the mattress, nope. Then the box spring, nope. I slashed the fabric underneath to make sure, what a nightmare that would’ve been, to find it hiding in my bed the next night. Then Carol mentions how snakes climb. As one, we all look up at the wooden ceilings, above us in the trees but nothing. Carol stepped lightly in ever-widening circles and under a thick juniper some fifteen feet from the house, she found it. A six-footer. Thick of waist and hearty with hissing, it rattled furiously as she caught it in her home-made noose, and dropped it into a metal trashcan. Alexis slammed the lid. Elisa reluctantly put the gun away. The kids loved it: Viv, Sofia, Zoe and Kathryn, all under ten years old and loving every moment. Not me. Not so much. But we were done, right?

Half of the crew left, and Harold was allowed out of the locked truck. He wandered around, sniffing and peeing as puppies do. Then Carol mentioned that at rattlers often pair up.
“I think there’s another one near by. It’s just a sense.”

Oh great. Just great.

Harold was quickly deposited back in the truck. I hid on the far side of the house, rocking manically when Elisa joined me. Five feet something, a Chicagoan folk artist who inspires me constantly with her quirky views and manners, she pulls up the only other chair. The adobe wall behind us hides us from the Sleam Team and it’s peaceful, briefly. She sighs and picks at a rock, making shapes with the scattered debris at her feet.

“They found another. The dilemma now is, what to do with it. They can’t open the trash can because number one wants out. So, I think-”

Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam.

There goes Elisa’s gun as she finishes by saying, “-that Alexis is going to shoot the second one. She might even-”

Bam. Bam.

“-shoot the first one too.”

I can’t deal, suddenly I’m sobbing in the corner with Elisa awkwardly being there for me. Pat. Pat. We’re not the cuddly type. Pat. Pat. Young Viv comes around the corner with a bloody rattle in her hand, dripping down her five-year old skinny forearm, happily showing “Look what I got! Dad cut it off for me! Do you want the other one?”

“Viv,” says Elisa, “now might not be the best time.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll show the others.” Viv wandered off around back to the activity out front.

2013-10-25 21.17.41.jpg

These days, the old timers in Madrid call me Snake: they don’t know that I’d cried. I didn’t mention that part. I did get pretty good at dealing with the snakes on my own. I’ve caught three or so per year in the last nine years up here, killed some, got friends to catch some, and even called Animal Control at times. All in a summer’s work, right? What’s the big deal? It just never ends…

A few years later, we had the snake season from hell. A neighbor of mine was breeding them, not intentionally, but you know, three acres of stuff, piles of broken down vehicles, trash, lumber, firewood, old mobile homes and trailers, his property was a hotbed of snake sex. Nine dogs were bitten that summer. Three died. One was a puppy, a little boy I’d called Eric, he and his siblings used to come hang out with me next door. Too young, too small, he’d swollen and died. My snake magic couldn’t help him. I did adopt the rest of his litter though, fostered until we found them all homes, safe homes.

Snake magic. I say that with a shake of the head. So Santa Fe, I can’t wait to be gone from those who tell me all about snake magic, ask me what I’m transforming or shaking off, pronounce my need to let go of old ways to shed the skin of blah-de-blah-de-bloody-blah. I’m too pragmatic, too bloody English for such talk. I nod, mutely, and watch where I step.

After getting back from the vet this week, Harold was sleeping in the house after having a lump removed, and Rosie staggered around, telling the cat, “I’m fine, fine. Just can’t walk too well, right now. Oh shit, SNAKE!”

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

The monotonous single bark alerts me. She’s seen a snake. I race out and coach her and Little Stevie, the cat, back into the house. With dog-door closed, I look for the snake. It’s six inches of dried cholla. She was tripping. False alarm. Thankfully. I’m over it. Bloody snakes.

At least the home is finished now.  I can sleep safely.

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Living The Dream:17

As part of the ongoing Sunday installments of the novel. You can find the other chapters on here, posted each Sunday morning. Thanks! 

SEPTEMBER: TURNING SEVENTY-FIVE

Note to self; don’t drive this road in the monsoons.

I held Frida on my lap as we bumped and flew over the rockiest dirt road around. I hit my head on the roof at least once. This was so much worse than Gringo Gulch and that’s saying something. The sun was setting over the Jemez Mountains, giving a streak of golden amber to the three clouds.

Alaska road took numerous forks left and right, up and down, until we were in the middle of nowhere, looking out over the empty land between the highway and interstate some twenty miles away to the west of us. I tried to spot where we were going but couldn’t see any obvious homes, only a few travel trailers and yurts. I took off my sunglasses and squinted again. The hills rose and fell, the trees lived and died. I kept looking anyway.

“There it is.”

Up ahead and to the left was a two story wood sided cabin, with decks and porches and tons of the colorful Tibetan prayer flags strung from tree to tree. The smoke from a campfire lingered overhead. The gate was open and a longhaired teenager welcomed us, showing the best place to park for an easy escape in the dark. Trucks were parked on every free area between all the trees. The place was packed.

“Just remember there’s a tree stump by the passenger door,” the kid reminded us as we walked towards the house.

Mark held my hand and Frida ran with the big dogs. I carried the food and he had the beer and cigarettes. I heard guitars and a mandolin on the other side of the clearing.

The lighting was magical with the weird way the junipers changed color in the dusk, becoming more orange than green. Christmas lights hung in the pinions.

“Welcome. Welcome. You must be Mark and Jenny. I’d been told you were coming tonight.”

A white-haired gangly man shook our hands, chuckling happily as he talked of our escapade with the cops. He wore a tight white shirt and clean black jeans and shiny cowboy boots. His eyes held me captive; they sparkled with a mischief that made us both beam along. His moustache drooped as an old cowboy’s should, and he towered over me at the grand old height of six foot three or more.

“It’s my seventy-fifth birthday and I throw myself a party every five years. You caught us at a good time my friends. The bands are setting up, the brownies are fresh out of the oven, and the dogs roam free. I take it you brought your little terrier with you?”
“How did you know about Frida?” I blurted in surprise.

He smirked. “Louisa is my sister. She likes you two. And no, she’s not coming out tonight. Well. Let me show you around if you like, and here, try some of this brownie. Let’s see…” He tilted my head so he could look into my eyes. He chuckled again. “Perhaps only a very little taste for you, young lady.”

 

At the back of his home, he’d built a stage big enough for a five-piece band. Speakers ran off a solar system. A great white parachute was stretched out across posts and beams to give everyone shade. A wind barely moved through the mesa. A campfire flared to the south side, with chairs and benches made out of logs and faded old pieces of lumber surrounding the pit. Everyone was strolling around with happy smiles and half drunk bottles of local brews. The outdoor kitchen faced the view to the west of the Jemez Mountains.

Mark wandered off to look at the stage and to chat to the musician with the double bass. I sat. I felt funny, a little lightheaded. I drank a beer slowly and took it all in.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore.” I whispered to myself.

“Hey Jenny. How’s it going out on the land? Did you get the garden in yet?” Anne, from the café, strode towards me in her usual black jeans and white tee shirt, with her hair loose around her shoulders. She sat down next to me and leaned back, sighing happily.

“This is great, isn’t it? Andrew’s one of the town favorites and puts on the best parties.” She glowed, her eyes were wide, and she munched away on a plate of goodies. “Want some?” She placed tortilla chips, guacamole, salsa, cheese slices, and chunks of French bread between us on the bench. I couldn’t resist. We ate in companionable silence, with her greeting various kids by name as they ran by. The night settled in and I hadn’t moved very far. Only to pee in the outhouse and then I came straight back. Anne and I chatted about the projects we all seem to do, those ongoing projects, and the never-ending list of improvements.

“Some days I wake up and wish we didn’t need to do so much, but I take my coffee outside, sit on the deck and that’s all it takes. I can’t wait to get started after that. Does that feeling ever go away?” I asked.
Anne tied her hair back and stretched out her arms to take in the huge view.

“Not for me it hasn’t. My husband and I built our own home in a year and a half, but since then we’ve added tool sheds and gardens and rain catchment. I count my blessings every day for having such a great home and partner. And it’s a wonderful place to be, isn’t it? Oh, I heard about the bust over at your place. What a laugh, eh?” She rested her water bottle on the ground and lit up a smoke. She passed it to me but I told her I’d given up.

“Really? That makes the story even better.”
I whistled for Frida. She ran over with a buddy, this big lump of a Rottweiler mutt, he slobbered all over my knees before I thought to push him off. Anne drifted over to the band and I followed a few minutes later with both dogs at my heels bumping into me whenever they got too excited. It made for a tricky walk in the dark. I had my headlamp in the backpack wherever that was. I couldn’t remember. Mark wandered up to me and gave me a great big bear hug that made me squeak.

He had a sandwich in hand and guitar in the other. “I just played with those folks, they told me the basic chords and let me play along. Not a bad start to finding gigs here, although I’d been thinking more of a crowded nightclub, but this was great.”

He babbled away, telling what songs they’d played and how he’d been invited to join their band for practice the following week. I didn’t really listen. I was starving again.

“Frida, are you hungry yet?” Her little golden wiry face looked up at me, and she wagged her tail knocking over some toddler. He giggled and stood back up, trying to catch the older kids. “Because I am. Show me where the food is, girl.”

Frida ran off and I left Mark to it. I kept up with my pup but for stopping to say hello to a couple of familiar faces. I caught up with her at the BBQ, just as she stole a pork rib off a plate left on the dirt. I picked up a different plate for myself and wandered closer.

“Howdy. Want some of my famous ribs? Or is a hamburger more your style?”

Graham from the fire department stood over the grill with a light green apron and a spatula in his right hand. He offered me corn on the cob to start with. He had barbeque sauce on his moustache. It was quite the color combination.

“I can’t believe how famished I am, so yes, hmm, a hamburger and some corn would be perfect. And your buns, I’d like to try your buns.”

Graham smirked for a second and waved me to the table behind us. I found salad, tomatoes, onions, and the various squirt bottles of red and white condiments. I took a little of everything and went to find a corner to sit.

 

“How are you doing out here in the wastelands?”
Graham sat down under the pinion tree, facing the same direction as me. I looked over as I wiped off the mayo from my chin. He was in his navy blue Fire Department shirt with the logo written huge across the shoulders.

“This tastes so good.” I dove back in and munched on the corn, dripping butter down onto the ground between my knees. Frida watched me patiently. Graham waited until I finished eating before asking me anything else. It took a while, I’ll be honest.

“Have you thought about joining the fire department?”
“Nope, not at all. To be honest, I can’t see myself doing anything to do with blood or fires or car wrecks. Mark might be interested, but not me.”
“But there’s so many ways you could help out, not just on scene. And I have to say, it’d be great to have another woman involved.”
“Who else is a volunteer there?”
“Anne, you’ve met her, right? She’s been a medic but is taking a break for a few months.”
“Burnt out with the drama?”
“You could say that.”

He wiped off the dirt from his jeans and looked me in the eyes, trying to gauge something. I had just finished licking my plate clean. Frida hated me right then. She wandered back to the grill. I wanted to join her but it seemed rude to leave Graham. He looked out of place here even though everyone said hello to him as they walked past. He ignored the interruptions, chatting to me about his home on the far side of town, and how he’d built it in eighteen months, brick by brick. The latest projects included gardens and sheds and workshops. The views from up there were amazing, he told me. “You should come up some time.”
“We’d love to. Mark’s all about learning how others do this.”

“Right, well, you can come out whenever you like, with or without your boyfriend. Is it an open relationship by the way?”

I drank some beer and looked around for Mark. Anne came over to us and said hi again. She stood near by, half dancing to the bluegrass music carrying across the clearing. She drank a beer and passed me a sip. Graham sat quietly, listening in as we chatted about the food. Anne gave him a grin and turned to me.

“I see you’ve met my husband. He’s pretty quiet with most women, but I’d told him about those gardening ideas we’d been talking about. Is that what you too were chatting about?”
I looked at Graham, and he smiled sheepishly at me and back to Anne.

“I was trying to get her to join the department,” he admitted, “but she’s not interested.” He stood up and wiped off his jeans again before heading off to man the grill. Anne held out her hand and pulled me upright.

“Are you okay tonight, Jen? You’re kinda quiet today.”
“I am? Oh, I thought…” I drifted off and she laughed out loud.

“Did Andrew give you a brownie when you got here?”

I nodded. She held out her hand and took mine. “Let’s find Mark, shall we?”

I followed her, whining the whole time, “but I’m still hungry.”