The snow didn’t melt, would not melt for another three months and you’re scared, scared to sit with yourself, the memories slamming away, keeping you up at night, haunting your eyes so that the barista hands over the coffee with no chitchat, she takes the money and turns to the next in line with a glance of relief at his normality, the average build, short brown hair, brown eyes, winter hat and scarf from Walmart up the road, nothing unusual to him. Your Russian fur hat and ski instructor jacket from the seventies with the words Polite written across the back and your accent, that not-quite-right English accent, it’s too much, so you sip a mug of dark coffee and stare out the window onto main street, unsure what to do with yourself for the next few months, next few days perhaps, you are restless but why? Why when nothing is different but for that clock inside, the one with the loud ticking relentessly reminding you that you live on borrowed time, too many died the last few months, eight to be exact, eight friends and you’re only fifty, for fucks sake, you’re only fifty but you’re scared that time is running out, speeding past and you’ll never get all the words out before you die, never get the stories out and onto paper, onto screens, that they’d end up rattling around in the afterlife but as an atheist, that’s no help, not for you so you sit and sip coffee, take notes of conversations around you, twist them up to make them warp and burn in your brain, and then you trudge home through the snow drifts in sub-freezing weather, up the hill and back to your desk. You’re living on borrowed time and someone might knock on that door stop that clock inside and be done.
As part of the weekly excerpt from the novel LIVING THE DREAM:
DECEMBER: TIME FOR A FIRE
“Seriously? You did all of this in six months? I’m impressed, Jen. It’s incredible.”
Jaime and Gloria wandered around my home, admiring deck, outhouse, gardens, and even the wonky chicken coop. The hens cackled and followed us on the tour. Nelson sniffed, unsure of himself yet happy to be home. The snow had stopped during the drive, and a clear bright blue sky above made everything fresh and crisp. No wind for once, and so Jaime offered to light us a campfire.
“No, I’ll do it, but do you want to bring over the cooler so we can have your picnic now? I’m starving and these rocks make great back rests in summer. Hmm…maybe use the straw bales?”
Snow covered everything though so I left him to it. Jaime wandered off looking for three bales and blankets as Gloria poked around in the bus, opening and closing the three cupboards by the sound of it. She stuck her head out the door.
“This is a great little home, I can see why you want to stay here. But are you sure you’ll be warm enough?”
I nodded and blew on the kindling. The fire took first time round. “Yep, I’ll buy more bales to put around the bottom of the bus for insulation. The woodpile should keep me going for three months at least, that’s what my neighbor Danny said. The challenge will be the water, keeping water from freezing. I’m not sure what I’ll do about that yet. Keep containers inside, I guess?”
I crouched down at the fire-pit as the juniper burned hot and bright. Satisfied the fire wouldn’t go out, I walked over to the chicken coop. The girls followed me back. Inside their home, someone had scattered straw and made roosts. Two eggs lay frozen in the far corner, out of reach. I’ll have to get a rake or scoop to get those out, but another time, there was no rush. They all seemed happy and well fed. A bowl of water was full but had a thin layer of ice across the top, which I broke with a short stick lying next to it. Danny had been taking care of them apparently.
Gloria took photos as she wandered around, chatting to Jaime about how lazy he’d been the last six months, teasing him happily as he poured out hot chocolate. He passed me a cup and sat down.
“Yes, this is great. Your mom must be proud of you, not many girls know how to live like this,” he said quite seriously. My expression must have tipped him off because he backtracked, “not many men either, I mean. Me, I can’t imagine being this far away from other houses or cut off, but it’s beautiful. Hey, Gloria. Put the phone down and come on over, sit down a minute, will you? We’ve got another hour or so before it gets dark. You don’t mind if we leave by four, do you, Jen? I can’t picture driving that pass again, not in the dark.”
Gloria called out from behind the bus. “What are you going to do with this Subaru now? Do you need it? Do you want to sell it? To us?”
Jaime stood up, shaking his head and grinning at me. “She’s always begging me for a newer car, all wheel drive, she hates driving to work in the Accord.”
Nelson had already found an old bone of Frida’s and brought that along with him as we wandered over to check out the car. Gloria had scooted the front seat closer to the steering wheel and adjusted the mirrors already, making herself at home. I joined her in the passenger seat. Suddenly Nelson jumped on top of me, panting fast, scared I’d leave again. I scratched his ears and hugged him to me. Jaime stood in front of the car and knelt down, looking underneath for something, I didn’t know what.
“How many miles do you have on this thing? It’s in perfect condition, even after living out here. Did you say you wanted to sell it? Sorry, we’re jumping the gun on you.” He stood up and brushed snow off his knees.
I climbed out and stood next to him, looking at the car, the car that had brought Mark and I to New Mexico, our only vehicle for all those months. So many places we’d discovered here, driving together up unknown roads because of Google maps. I shook my head at myself and smiled at them both. Nelson sat across my boots and leaned against my jeans, smiling up at me, his bone still in his mouth.
“The 4Runner is all we need, right Nelson? It’s took us on a road trip and brought us home safely, with only a cracked windshield to show for it. Shall we sell the car?”
Nelson wiped the snow off the flagstones with his tail, a sign of approval.
I couldn’t start the damn fire. The kindling was still wet. I’d run out of newspaper and was fast running out of matches. I sat back and leaned against Nelson. The bus was cold. His water bowl was covered with a thin layer of ice. I poured out water from the kettle and thawed his drink first and then used the rest for my first cup of coffee. Outside a snowstorm raged. The Subaru sat in the middle of the driveway with a thick white hat of snow on the rooftop. My camera lay on the kitchen table but I had no desire to capture the blizzard or its destruction, its obliteration of my world. I’d run out of power on my phone and Mark had taken the laptop.
I made some coffee and shuffled back to bed, climbed under the covers, and stared out the window. It surprised me how little changed the bus was with Mark gone. More noticeable was Frida’s absence. Her small thick bed in front of the woodstove was gone. Her favorite blanket on the bed – gone. Her bowl – gone. Nelson kept pacing and whining from bed to door, bed to door. I finally climbed out of bed and let him outside. He ran back and forth around the bus and piles of firewood and recycling, he was a doggy snowplow, a happy loose-limbed husky in his element. I was not however in mine. This sucked.
I climbed back under the covers but this time brought my clothes with me and warmed them up a while. First mug done, I dressed warmly and headed out with the dog. Just because I was miserable, didn’t mean I had to ignore his routine early morning hike around the land, did it? The woolen hat and scarf from Mom kept the snow off my face and the leather coat kept me surprisingly warm as we hiked a barren yet beautiful landscape.
At a nearby peak, I looked down upon the bus, a pale green shape smothered in snow. I had to get a fire going, I really did. My home looked so empty and desolate without smoke in the chimney. I threw snowballs for Nelson and he rolled downhill chasing and losing them each time. I laughed at his antics and at myself for being in a crappy mood. The world was beautiful. The sun shone. My clothes kept me warm. I had a home I loved. It was time to buck up and take care of things again.
Nelson ate as I cleaned up in the bus. I stacked firewood and kindling inside with more of each hidden under the deck in the urge to have dry wood another day. I opened up a few boxes from under the bed and found letters and newspapers and notes of mine. I tore them up for firelighters. In an hour or two I could probably try again at making a fire with some of this slightly drier wood. Hopefully. In the meantime, I swept the floor and dusted off the counters and shelves, reorganizing slightly, and claiming the place for myself. Books lay propped on a new shelf above my bed, photos of Mom and her cats, others of Nelson and Frida chasing each other in the mountains, and yes, one of Mark and I at the Rio Grande Gorge. I checked my phone, forgetting that I’d run out of power. I’ll have to call Mom the next day, perhaps go to the café in Cedar Crest for once? Oliver, NM didn’t appeal so much and I didn’t want to bump into Anne.
In the cooler I found some old tortillas, cheese slices, and salsa. Quesadillas sounded perfect. I lit the little propane cooker and set the tortillas to brown. The propane ran out. I ate tepid food in a cold bus in the middle of nowhere.
Nelson came up and lay across my lap, offering me Frida’s bone.
“I miss them too.”
A truck pulled up the next day, it felt like early in the morning, but I couldn’t tell you for sure. I scrambled out of bed and threw on some old clothes and boots before opening the door. The bus was cold. I was hungry. I’d not had any coffee. This was not a good time for visitors.
Danny climbed out of his truck, petting Nelson and carrying a cooler. “Your mom’s been worried. She couldn’t get a hold of you yesterday so she sent me over. Did you have a good Thanksgiving? Go anywhere?” He stomped through the snow and up into the bus. “Damn, it’s cold, Jen. Didn’t you make a fire yet?”
I shook my head but didn’t say anything. Danny set down the cooler on the kitchen table, saying, “I brought you some left-overs from the community meal at the tavern. I’d thought I’d see you there. All your friends were asking about you but Graham told me Mark had gone to LA without you. It got me worried. So, well,” and suddenly he got all shy and tongue-tied, “I brought you food. Martha said you eat meat these days so it’s the whole works. Did you get stuck in the snow? Your car’s kinda parked awkwardly, a right pain for me to get around. I managed though, but we’ve got to go over to Louisa’s this afternoon to pick something up but it’s a surprise.” He laughed and filled the kettle. He pulled out a match to light the propane.
“It’s empty. I ran out.”
He looked up at me, surprised. “That’s not good. You gotta keep extras in winter, we can all get snowed in and then what would happen?”
I shook my head.
He sat down opposite me, quietly. “Are you okay, Jen?”
I shook my head and started to cry soundlessly. Danny reached for my hand and just held it in his as I cried. He waited me out. I shuddered and took a deep breath.
“I don’t know that I can do this alone. Fires, kindling, water, animals, and propane. I can’t seem to keep track of what I need to do next. It’s too much for one person. For me.”
Danny sat back and stretched out his long skinny legs and tapped the table once. I looked up. He grinned. “It’s not, you know. Not if you really want it. It’s fun. It’s freedom. But it takes time, which is what we have living like this, isn’t it? No nine to five jobs, no commitments after work, it’s just playing on your place, enjoying the weather, making fires, and eating good food with friends. You have to want it though.”
“I don’t know that I do.”
DECEMBER: TRY AGAIN
The embers glowed when I opened the vents and throwing on a few large juniper logs, the fire quickly woke back up. I sat back and sipped a coffee laced with Baileys. The sun crept over the mountains and fresh snow sparkled and tempted me outside. Nelson was already plowing paths for us with his tail wagging constantly. The coffee mug warmed my hands and my concoction tasted just perfect, decadent even.
Jaime and Gloria had taken the Subaru back with them and promised to return with cash for the title within a few days. Knowing I’d got money coming in, I’d spent an afternoon in town, Santa Fe that is, spending more than felt normal or even comfortable. Well, I was trying to catch up with my life out here and that meant supplies, didn’t it?
The 4Runner had been filled up to and including the roof rack with numerous straw bales, two propane tanks (large ones this time), three water containers, crates of canned foods of all kinds, twenty pounds of chicken scratch, a box of fire starters with a dozen lighters, some candles and two oil lamps, and not forgetting a forty pound bag of dog food and then treats for both Nelson and I. I’d mentally thanked Andrew and Louisa once again for the gift of the Toyota as we’d driven through yet another blizzard in low 4-wheel drive along our dirt road. No slips, no accidents, just a cold bus had awaited us. The wood under the deck had finally dried out enough and the fire took at first attempt. Nelson had claimed Mark’s side of the bed with a stick of rawhide. The food had been spread out across shelves, in sight as a reminder that I’m comfortable these days. Candles stood tall in the various wine and beer bottles we’d collected over the months. Oil lamps claimed pride of place on the kitchen table and counter.
As the sun came up, a westerly wind picked up outside but it was meant to fade out by afternoon. That morning, the bus was snug and cozy. Sprawling in an armchair with a coffee mug next to me, I closed my eyes in relief.
“Time for a walk, kiddo?”
Nelson woke up with a yawn and a wag and jumped down, bringing a leash in his mouth.
“Silly boy. No, we’re just going for a good hike around here today, okay? I want us to find the four corners of the property and build little towers at each one. I’ll bring treats, don’t worry.”
Grabbing a small backpack, I filled it with a thermos of hot chocolate, some sandwiches, and a milk bone or three. Closing off the stove-vents, I hoped the bus would stay warm enough for an hour to two without us. I cracked a window though as we left, scared of carbon monoxide building up. The sun shone down brightly and soon I tore off my woolen cap and scratched at my shaggy self-styled haircut from the night before. An even four inches all over was how it had turned out when I hacked away without even a mirror for guidance. I’ll dye it again in the New Year, a reddish tint this time, something new, perhaps? I strode along, following Nelson to start with but veering off when we hit the arroyo.
“This way, Nellie. We’re making a new route, okay? Come on, boy. Where are you now?”
He ran into me from behind, eyes blinking and tail wagging as I fell into a snow bank underneath him. He smiled his doggy smile and jumped off.
“Okay, round one to you, fella, but I’ll get you back.”
I brushed off the snow from my jeans, thankful they were flannel lined. I caught up with my dog as he crested another low hill to the west of us. I pulled up short. Nelson froze at my side and hunkered down.
He didn’t resist.
We watched as a five coyotes chased down a rabbit in the valley below. They yipped and chattered as they ran, circling the rabbit through the pinions and junipers. The rabbit shot under a large chamisa bush and the coyotes ran past full speed. The rabbit stuck his head out, listened intently, and backtracked.
“It should be around here somewhere. Not that you’ll help, but…” I set the pack down and checked the map. From my guess, there should be a marker set in the ground within twenty feet of this huge old surviving pinion tree. Twenty feet is larger than you’d think when faced with rocks, gulleys, trees, and a handful of shrubs. Fair enough, I decided to look for a while and then just make a symbolic corner, since it was for my benefit only and I doubted that Danny would really care that much if I was wrong. It’s good to get along with your neighbors, and I grinned at the thought of him and Mom dating. I scrambled up a six-foot boulder and looked around. I could barely make out the bus in the distance but a wisp of smoke lingered in the valley, mine or Danny’s. The trees here were thick and healthy in the wash, enough water seeped down here during monsoons to create quite a microclimate. I’ll have to come back here in the middle of summer for a dose of shaded sandy beaches. I slid back down, curious to see what Nelson was digging at.
“Hold on, fella, I’m coming.”
Nelson stuck his head back in the sand and sniffed and sneezed in surprise. I tugged gently on his tail and he backed out. He’d dug a small pit, twelve inches or so diameter. In the middle was a hole approximately four inches wide. To the left of then opening was a piece of rebar with a stamped metal tag. The corner mark, Nelson had found the northwest corner.
Nelson kept digging, deeper and wider as I piled rocks precariously into a tower. I found different shapes, sizes, and even colors, stacking them slowly and steadily, trying to build as high as possible, which was only two feet high unfortunately.
I squatted down on a rock with my face to the sun and sipped hot chocolate. Nelson ate his milk bone at my feet. I picked up my jacket and hat, stuffing them into the backpack, and checked out the map once again. We set off, looking for the next corner to the southwest of the bus.
An arroyo, full of dead cholla and prickly pear cactus blocked my path. The corner marker was right in the middle of the thorns. Great. I set down the backpack and reassessed the landscape. Yep, no doubt, it had to be in the middle of that damn arroyo. I scratched my head and sat down, not quite sure where to build a rock tower. In the meantime, I collected as many rocks to be found, although most were flagstones only an inch or two thick. I laid a path through the cactus patch and found myself in the middle of this gloriously unfriendly environment.
I carefully squatted down and looked for a marker. Then I stood and that slight change in lighting made something flash at my feet. A silver metal tag glinted from a rod of rebar. Perfect. I carried the last skinny piece of flagstone over to this hidden corner marker. Using a small hand sized rock, I dug out a hole as big as my footprint. I set the stone upright and tamped down the earth to hold it in place. On the top of this two-foot high pinnacle, I laid a fist of quartz.
Back at the gate, Nelson and I stood, warm and happy from all the hiking back and forth. Only two more corners to find and then I’d make us dinner. The sun was mid-way down the horizon. I knew I had a couple of hours at most. I glanced at the well-worn map and turned northeast. Nelson trotted along at my heels.
“Heel. Good boy, good heel,” I said, just in case he figured out what I meant.
A juniper sprouted out from under a three-foot high smooth boulder in the middle of the scrubland. I scrambled to the top and stood up tall. The valley was silent but for a sudden wind kicking up a dust devil across the way. The sunlight lit up the mountains behind Santa Fe. The air was chilly yet it wasn’t too cold after exploring for the last few hours. I hopped down, dropping the backpack on the ground, and searched for the elusive rebar. Nelson sniffed the area and peed in mid-air, which was all very undog-like of him. Curious, I wandered over to see why he’d lifted his leg without a tree or rock there. Of course, he’d marked the rebar, so to speak. Another treat for the boy as I created a tower of juniper branches tied together with my bandana.
We hiked back due south and searched for the southeast marker. I couldn’t find the damn rebar anywhere. I kept checking the ground, directions, map, and my memory. I’d been sure Mark and I had discovered it by accident after the monsoons but for the life of me, I had no image of where that might be. I sat under a tree and watched a few light clouds build over the Jemez to the west of us. No storm was forecast and I didn’t worry. Nelson ate the last milk bone and I finished the thermos of hot chocolate. My muscles ached gently, reminding me of how I’d been so lazy for the last month, only driving and setting up camp every so often, nothing like summer and fall which had been physically challenging, what with always hiking and building around the homestead. I sighed and promised myself to get fitter in the New Year.
Standing and stretching, I gave up the search without a blink. It’s not like the marker is going anywhere. And neither am I.
The phone blinked on the kitchen table but I focused on settling us in for the night. I lit a fire. I pulled out the lentil and tomato soup and set the pan to simmering on the woodstove. Two candles were lit on the counter and an oil lamp on the table. I fed Nelson who then promptly fell asleep with a full belly.
“I saw you’d rung.”
Voices in the background faded as Mark walked to a quieter spot. “Yes, I didn’t know what to say so I hung up, sorry.”
I sipped the cabernet and wondered why it didn’t matter to me either way. The wind had picked up again outside the bus and the tin roof flapped on the outhouse, loose and untethered. I wrote myself a note as I waited for Mark to say something.
“I got in with Keith’s band, do you remember then? A steam punk band? They’re pretty good these days and anyway they asked if I’d play mandolin and ukulele with them. We’ve got regular gigs in the area and even a small part in a documentary being filmed next week, crazy eh? I had to grow a moustache for them. I’ll send you photos if you like? It’s pretty funny looking but it works, or at least it’s getting me work…” He paused, suddenly conscious of babbling. “How are you doing? Is it too cold for you? It’s been in the seventies here this week. I’ve been getting even more of a tan. In winter, it’s bizarre if you ask me. Anyway, tell me about the trip, where did you end up? Did the Subaru do right by you?”
“I sold the Subaru.”
“You did? Why? When? Did you buy something else?”
Voices around Mark drowned out his voice for a moment and a laugh like Anne’s echoed in the background. I cringed at the image. “After you left, well, the day after Thanksgiving actually, Danny took me over to Louisa’s. We fixed up the last of the doghouses and even had dinner with her. She talked about her trip to see her mom in Colorado, the memorial for Andrew at their land with the other surviving brothers and a sister. It sounded pretty sweet to be honest, very idyllic. Anyway, as we were leaving her place later that night, Louisa handed me some keys. Danny had laughed and admitted he’d not told me but apparently he’d been asked to bring me over there to pick up Andrew’s 4Runner. She wanted it be a gift for me, to help with living out here, something more rugged for these roads. Isn’t that incredible?”
Mark inhaled and coughed and another laugh whispered in the background. “Yeah, that’s kinda unbelievable. But it won’t be good gas mileage, will it? You’ll want a smaller car for getting out here, it’d cost you a fortune to drive to LA.”
I sipped the wine and poured out another full mug’s worth. I nodded to myself and sat up.
“But I’m not coming out there. I’m staying here.”
“You what? You’d said you’d come out for the New Year. That we’d try to be together again after a break, this month apart, you know?”
“No, I said I’d think about it, that I’d think about coming out after the New Year. Well, I’ve been thinking, driving and thinking a lot the last month, and I’m not coming out there. I’m not moving there or even visiting you there. You can come back here some day, on vacation, but that’s all. You’d have to stay in Oliver though, as a friend, nothing more, like you’d wanted, remember?” My tone was flat, the words methodical, as I explained my decision, it sounded almost clinical. “You slept with Anne, remember? That was the final straw. I’m not interested in trying to work it out, not now. I just can’t, Mark. I can’t do it.”
“But it’s not like it’s a big deal, Jen. We were taking a break, weren’t we? You’d walked out on me, leaving me in the bus in the snow…”
I took a deep breath and asked. “Was that the first time? The first time you slept with her? Was it? You owe me that at least, the truth, what was going on this summer with you and her?”
Mark blew out a big sigh, “Don’t go there, Jenny, please. Let’s just try to work it out. You’re my best friend, I love being with you – we have fun. But I can’t stay out in the middle of nowhere like that. Remember how easy it was when we lived together in Olympia? I do.”
“Yes, I remember,” and my voice dropped low and soft as a wave of sadness swiped at my resolve, washing away the anger. “I remember.”
“I miss you, Jen. I do.”
I stood up and crouched down in front of the woodstove and poked in another log. The bus stayed warm these days and I curled up in the armchair in my jammies.
“Don’t you miss me?”
“I do, but Mark, I love this, living out here. It’s taken me a while but I do like it, you know? It suits me.”
“And that’s great, it is, Jenny, it is. We could still see each other though, you could come here, just for a week or so every now and again, and I don’t have a regular schedule, so I can take the train and come out too.”
“And in the months between? You want to sleep around?”
Mark sighed, “not exactly. But why not? Why not have an open relationship? Like -”
“- Anne and Graham? No, I don’t think so. I can’t do that Mark. It’s all about trust, isn’t it? Well, I don’t trust you any more, not like that. Not like that…” I reached for the bottle of wine and poured out the rest while closing my eyes. Nelson stirred in his sleep, his muddy paws all over Mark’s pillow. I smiled despite the conversation. “Look, Mark, it’s good to hear from you. I’m glad you’re getting gigs and work and you’re happy. Well, so am I. I’m happy. So let’s just talk another time, okay? I’ll put your stuff in storage under the bed or something and you can let me know what to do with it another time.”
Mark didn’t answer but waited in silence as I sipped my wine and talked about my day hiking the land, playing in the snow with Nelson, and now relaxing in front of a fire.
“You really are happy, aren’t you? I didn’t think you’d do it on your own.”
His footsteps crunched on sand and ocean waves drowned out the sounds of a party in the background. Music and laughter echoed down the phone.
“Yep, I am. Well, I’ll talk to you another time, Mark.” I finished my wine and stood up, taking off the slippers as I sat on the edge of my bed. “Oh, and Happy Christmas, my friend.”
He sighed softly. “Happy Christmas, Jenny.”
As Julianna Baggott said in class:
- Breathe in.
- Hold it.
- Hold it.
- Just a little longer.
Funny, yes? But oh my, so true. I look at the stories and sketches I’m writing these days and they each have that basic arc. It’s such a simple lesson. One worth sharing.
As part of the weekly excerpt from the novel LIVING THE DREAM:
DECEMBER: THE DRIVE NORTH
The interstate was passable but busy with the evening commuters heading home. I followed Officer Jaime at a steady pace, passing when he did, changing lanes and slowing, whatever he did, so did we. Nelson finally left my lap and curled up on the passenger seat with my hand on his head. He snored. My eyes didn’t blink; too much caffeine in one day. The night drew closer and I craved a warm bath and bed. Instead, I’d have to make polite conversation with another stranger and eat her food at her table and listen to her questions and and and…
The state police truck slowed and pulled off just south of Albuquerque. I followed down side roads and through old neighborhoods that made me think of Mexico, not that I’d ever been. The traffic and the lights woke me. Nelson slept on however.
We pulled up in front of a low adobe home with farolitas and a Christmas tree in the front yard. I turned off the engine as Nelson sat up. The front door opened.
“Our daughter used to live with us, she converted the garage into a separate studio. I turned on the heat and the bed’s made. There’s a plate of food on the table and the bathroom is on the left. Go on, Jennifer, go on, and make yourself at home. Come on through the kitchen when you want company. And don’t worry about Nelson; we usually have the kids bring their dogs when they come visit. Go on, go eat and warm up. Oh, and my name’s Gloria. Go on, girl.”
She shuffled Nelson and I through a side door and closed it softly behind herself. I was alone.
I woke to sunlight and a snoring dog. The central heating blew warm air across the bedroom and I nestled back under the covers. So much for heading back to the bus last night, Gloria wouldn’t let us. She’d insisted it was too dangerous in the snow and if her husband had taken the time off work then they were going to have a nice night at home together. I didn’t force the issue. I was too tired and Nelson was exhausted by his own adventures. I’d shuffled back to the studio and half heard muffled conversations in the kitchen as I fell deeply asleep with Nelson stretched out against my back.
The smell of coffee woke me a second time, that and a knock at the door. Jaime popped his head around and grinned.
“Coffee’s ready and its time to get up. Ten o’clock, young lady. Hey, Nelson, are you hungry? Bacon, my boy?”
Nelson jumped off the bed, trotted over but stopped suddenly to look back at me. I smiled and told him to go play, that it’d be okay.
“I’ll leave the door open for him, don’t worry. Do you take cream? Okay, see you in a minute. We have a full day ahead of us,” and he laughed at Nelson’s eager snout pushing in his hand.
I dressed, washed quickly, and caught up with them all sitting at the kitchen table. Gloria had on her reading glasses and she pushed them up to look me over. “Well, I knew it. You look so much better after a good sleep. You didn’t look your best yesterday, that’s the truth. All pale and baggy eyes, but now, why. You’re quite a beauty. Maybe we should introduce her to Pete, our son that is?” She happily teased me, chatting away as she poured out a mug of nectar. In front of them both lay a detailed map of Santa Fe County and the back roads of Northern New Mexico. “We started looking up the roads around Oliver, trying to guess where exactly you might live from your stories, but I doubt we got it right. I thought you might be out here,” and she pointed to Gringo Gulch area. I nodded but showed the last little stretch that took her to my property.
“You must have amazing views of the mountains out there. I can’t wait to see what you’ve done. We made a picnic and Jaime has the day off so as soon as you’re ready, we’ll head out, all right?”
“You don’t have to do that; I can make it from here. You honestly don’t have to drive up there.”
“But we do. I promised your mom.”
I almost dropped my mug. “My mom? You spoke to my mom? When? How did that happen?”
Gloria blushed and explained how my phone had kept ringing during the night, so much so that when it woke them the third time, Jaime had picked it up and seen the screen flashing “Mom”. Gloria had taken it from him and ended up having a nice long chat with Martha at two in the morning. I cringed like a teenager and poured out more coffee and cream.
“Anyway, we have to drive you back and make sure you settle in okay. No more accidents or cold nights for you, Jenny. Your mom made us promise to keep an eye on you both. You’d better call her before we hit the road though. And don’t tell her that the pass through Cedar Crest is snowed in. Anyway, we’ll just take it slow and steady in Jaime’s SUV since my Honda is useless in weather like this. Well, hurry along. Go call your mom, take Nelson with you outside, the porch will be warm enough, go on girl.”
She’s a force to be reckoned with, is Gloria. We did as told and I stood outside, huddled against a wall out of the wind as I called Mom. She picked up immediately.
NOVEMBER: CAFÉ CHAT
I pulled into the parking lot a few minutes late. Mark waved from a window in one of the busiest cafes on the south side of town. I grabbed backpack and phone, opened the car windows a crack for Nelson and pulled myself together. A good night’s sleep had helped.
I ordered breakfast and a large latte before joining my boyfriend in the booth at the back. He stood up awkwardly but didn’t reach for me. We were there to talk.
“So what is it you want, Mark?”
I lay my coat across the seat next to me and sat down with my back to the crowded café. Mom was right; this was a good place to meet him. I waited a moment but he didn’t say anything, just looked shy for once.
“What is it you want to do? Leave New Mexico? Or just take a vacation? You need to talk to me, Mark, because I feel like you’ve taken me by surprise and it feels like shit, you know? I…no, Mom said I should just listen to you. You. So you need to talk.”
I added honey to the latte and sat back to study him. He had shaved off the goatee and wore his all black uniform, as I used to tease him, the musician in mourning look from the city days.
“I’d like us to be friends.”
Pause. I sipped my coffee and didn’t throw it over him.
“You what? Want us to be friends? Like not be your girlfriend, is that it?”
He nodded as he fiddled with his smokes but then he looked up, sad and tired and something else I didn’t recognize, not immediately. “I need to go back to the city, for a while at least. I need to play music, you know that. That’s who you fell in love with, Jen, a working musician, not a hippy living off the land. Music is my life. I don’t have music here. I don’t have – ”
He nodded again, more sure of himself. He knew I didn’t like scenes of any kind. “Well, yeah. You want to live like this and I don’t so I reckon we need to separate, you know? Like be friends while I’m in LA and when you come then we can get together again. You seen, I’m heading to Venice Beach tomorrow, in the Ford, I’ll leave you the Subaru. It’ll be slow going but,” and he grinned at the thought of the drive before he noticed my expression. “It’ll be okay, I’m taking all back roads, head south, and all of that, get to the warmer routes. I’ll be safe, don’t worry.”
A waitress dropped off my plate of eggs and toast. I pushed it aside. Mark reached over and claimed a piece of toast. I slapped it out of his hand, surprising us both.
“Oh, sorry.” He leaned back in his chair and stared out the window. “Well, I need to go, to try again, see if I can get into a band that appreciates me, you know? Make music, make a CD, do that stuff that I can’t do here. I’ll come back to visit, you know? I will, if that’s what you want? I like it here; it’s a great place for vacations. We could live in LA or Seattle or something and come here in summer for a few weeks. It’s not like you have a mortgage or anything. Your grandpa set you up nicely, right? The inheritance set us up, didn’t it? I mean, we could sell up and come back to visit and just stay in the B and B? Then we’d really be good to go and I could fund my own CD, my own band, right? Yeah, there’s so much we could do together, Jen, if only we get out of this place.”
I picked at my food. Mom had told me to listen, really listen. But I didn’t like what he was saying. Could I leave yet? I’d talked to Mom for hours the night before. She’d persuaded me to stay in a motel in town and she’d even paid. But I’d had to promise to hear him out. Was this out? I shook my head and realized he was waiting for me to say something, to agree to sell out, to leave my dream behind, and follow his. I couldn’t do it, not completely, not yet, so I changed the conversation.
“Were you warm enough in the bus last night? At least it’s meant to stay sunny for a few more days, that’s what I saw on TV this morning.”
“At the motel?”
“Yep, the forecast is snow on Monday and to stay below freezing after that.”
“I’d better hit the road tomorrow then, huh?” He was thinking out loud, tapping the cigarette pack on the table in time with the music. “Well, if I go back to the bus now, I’ll have time to pack those last few clothes I’ll need for a few weeks, and then there’s Frida’s stuff. I’ll have to keep the guitars inside overnight, though.”
“Frida’s not going with you.”
Mark looked up in surprise. “Of course she is. She’s my girl. She’s coming to LA. It’s too cold here for her, you know that.”
I shook my head, deeply calm and cold myself. “I rescued her. She stays with me.”
He shook his head too. “Nope, she comes with me, you get the nervous Nellie you adore so much that you cuddle him and not your boyfriend.”
The waitress took my half-eaten plate away as we stared silently at each other. I thanked her but didn’t look up. In the parking lot, a dog barked. Nelson sat up in the driver’s seat and growled at a young man squeezing between the vehicles.
“I have to go.” I stood up and gathered my things.
“Back to the bus with me?” he asked and I shook my head. “You’re going back to the motel?”
“Yes, to the motel. I can’t watch you take Frida away from me.” I wiped at my face and pushed my hair out of the way. “But you’ll be back? After Thanksgiving? We can talk about it, then?”
He stood and nodded. “Yeah, but we’ll just have to play it by ear. I can’t live here any more, not full time. Would you think about moving out west for a while, please Jen? Split your time between the two places?” He struggled into his leather jacket. “It could be the best of both worlds, if you did?”
At the door, we both suddenly got shy, neither leaving nor wanting to stay. Finally, I looked up at him and nodded. “I’ll think about it, I’ll try Mark. In the New Year, maybe I can go with you, but not yet.”
Mark smiled briefly and walked off towards his truck.
I shouted after him as he started the engine and drove off. “Were you warm enough last night? You never said.”
The truck pulled up near me. Mark looked awkward for a second and then nodded. “I was. I stayed at Anne’s.”
Reading lists. Essays. Critical responses. Creative responses. Research. More essays. More readings. Editing. Writing.
Well, yes, it’s began folks and I thought you might like an inside view as to our first week at VCFA, the Vermont College of Fine Arts. The campus dates back to the 1800s, huge imposing brick buildings with columns, ten foot windows, a lawn with a fountain, and steep roads leading into Montpelier, with trees, more trees and a ring of low lying soft hills and mountains. Tis idyllic.
The class is held in a basement though, overlooking the parking lot outback and I feel gypped! Why in here? When there are such great classrooms upstairs, unused with these inspiring beautiful views? We sit, all eighteen of us, around a collection of tables back to back, creating that family mealtime, all facing each other with our books and laptops spread out. First class.
Julianna Baggott is here. Our faculty director and teacher, an inspiration herself, a powerhouse of words and action. Tuesdays we have five hours with Julianna, a focused five hours with a dynamic writer of all genres, she is forward facing, industry facing, with a desire to bring us into the craft of writing wherever we each are as individuals as well as help us find our places and careers as writers. Just what I need. I’ve done as much as I can on my own, in the vacuum of a small mountain village in New Mexico, with a determined pushing and presenting my work as often as possible to the larger world, to the community out there, here. Yes, I’m here. In graduate school and it hits me this week. I’ve not felt this fully myself before. I’m a writer. I’m a grad student. I can do this. I will do this.
- 3 x33: a short fiction collection that is 1200 pages long. And yes, I’ve read it.
- The Subversive Copy Editor
- Story by Neugeboren
- Forgotten Places by Johnson
- Three poems to be reviewed.
- Five essays to read over for a journal I work for.
- Owls by Norden
- Tra Bong by O’Brien
- My Man Bovanne by Bambara
- Masked/ Unmasked by Hunger Mountain
- Upstreet #13
And for my own pleasure and research for a new book idea:
- Columbus Was Right! by Barbara Toy
- Descansos by Harrison Candelaria Fletcher
- Solo, a collection of travel essays
- Susan Sontag
- Grace Perry
Forms Class with Julianna gave us three short stories to read with critical essays to write, three creative responses as essays, one on our own muse and process, a free associative writing exercise, and another on six random words and how it provokes memory.
Professional Development class gave me a smaller assignment of writing a cover letter and to research small presses, their submission processes.
Publishing Class gave me the three poems and six essays to read and review, one to copy-edit, and a mere 36 pages of a copy-editing book to read. Was there something else? Oh, I hope not.
First week. That’s all. Just a few things to take care of. So what did we all do, us students, after class on Friday? Yep, pub. We went to the pub.
And bumped into Tom. Thomas Christopher Greene that is, the President of the college.
It was all in all a good week. Now I’ve got some reading to do, forgive me. I’ve got to go.
As part of the weekly excerpts of the novel LIVING THE DREAM:
DECEMBER: SNOW BOY
The wind bit into me as I hiked the land, one filled with cactus and junipers. I stood and yelled, sometimes whispered, and mostly cried. My Nelson, my nervous Nellie had run off and I didn’t know what to do. Should I stay by the truck? Should I get a posse together to look for him? Who would I call though? Not Graham nor Anne. Dieselhead Danny? Louisa? I didn’t know what to do but keep walking and calling his name, hoping he’d hear me, hoping he’d suddenly appear at my feet, his sweet sad eyes looking up at me. It didn’t happen like that though. I walked and called until my voice cracked until I’d cried as much as I could. Until my head hurt and my knees gave way and I sank to the ground. That’s how Officer Ramirez found me, in a field on my knees, staring empty eyed into the snowy distance.
“Jennifer? Jennifer? Are you all right?” He sank down next to me and reached for my face, checking me out for injuries or drugs, I don’t know. He pulled me up and asked me to stand with him, to explain what had happened. I told him everything, how I’d adopted Nelson, his story, the weeks on the road, and the crash.
“He ran off when I was out cold, I guess. I don’t know. Your friend, the other officer, said the door was open when he pulled up but the snow had hidden any tracks. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do…” I shook my head and glared at the clouds building up overhead. “I can’t leave him out here, he’s too vulnerable. It’s too cold. What do I do?”
He took me by the arm and directed me back towards the vehicles, small dots in the valley. “First, I get some hot coffee and soup into you. We’ll call your friends after that okay? The dog lady you mentioned. She’d be a good resource for you right now. Let’s go get warm though, okay? Come on, Jen, it’s okay. We’ll find him. We’ll find him.”
Officer Ramirez kept me upright, muttering reassurances to me as I stumbled and fell in exhaustion. The clouds grew dark and the afternoon sun disappeared. I shivered and pulled my coat closer. Where was my friend?
We sat in the cop car, parked a small distance behind the 4Runner. I’d left the tailgate dropped down and the engine running, in the hope Nellie would hear us, would find us in the snowstorm. I sipped my coffee grateful for Jaime’s company and his steady presence.
“Won’t you get in trouble? Shouldn’t you be out working or something?”
He shook his head and smiled at me self-consciously, “I called in sick. My wife knows where we are, and she’ll cover if anyone from the department calls looking for me. I can stay a while; don’t worry. Mary even offered to bring us dinner if we’re still here. Let’s just wait it out, I doubt the snow will keep on coming for much longer, and then we can go out again, but you’ll have to borrow more layers okay? It’s too cold for what you’re wearing.”
I nodded and warmed my hands on the mug. That’s what worried me most, the cold. He’s a husky, I know they have thick fur, but he’s a lap dog, a big soft lap dog that doesn’t know how to survive outdoors. He needs me. I need him. I finished the soup as the light faded and evening came upon us.
Officer Jaime nudged me, and pointed off to the side with his chin, saying nothing. Flashes of movement caught my attention. I put the mug down on the dashboard. I held my breath. Eyes glared in the darkness and slowly came closer. No sounds of footsteps reached us, only a sense that whatever it was, an animal was checking us out. Not a coyote I prayed, I’d dreaded a pack of coyotes attacking Nelson, a nightmare that flashed suddenly in my head and I flinched. The eyes stopped still. Then a tail wagged slowly and Nelson stood tall in the snow. His coffee coat lay flat and wet, but his ears perked up as I whispered his name.
I flew out the cop car and fell to my knees in the snow. He crept up towards me. It was not the happy return I’d hoped for: He stood at a distance and watched. Jaime didn’t move from within the vehicle. Nelson sniffed deeply as I sat still as a snowman. He sniffed and his tail slowly wagged but he didn’t come closer. I talked to him, to my boy, explained what had happened, the crash, my headache, looking and calling him, and how Jaime, Officer Jaime was helping me. Nelson’s eyes flickered over to the man, and back to me.
“Nelson, it’s okay now. It’s okay. We can go home.”
He crept closer, to within reach of my hands and I held them out for him to smell. He licked me once then jumped, knocking me down in the snow. He pinned me, sitting across my chest, panting and licking and wagging. Thump. Thump.
“We can go home, I promise, Nelson. We’re going home.”
“I’m coming back with you, but we have to stop by my place in Albuquerque, okay? My wife made us all dinner and she said she has some steak pieces for Nelson too. No arguments, Jen.” He cut me off as I opened my mouth to protest. “We’re both making sure you get home safely. Mary insists. You can argue with her when we get there but not with me. Come on. It’s time to get out of this weather and warm up.”
The cop car pulled out behind me as I gradually inched my way up the embankment and onto the interstate. Traffic drove around us slowly, staring at the sight of a 4Runner driven by a husky.
NOVEMBER: COLD BITES
The Ford slid sideways on the dirt road and Mark swore under his breath. He silently pulled over and climbed out. I sat inside with the heat blasting me. Mark went to each front wheel and turned something with a grunt. He opened up the door and stepped up fast. The cold wind bit at his neck and he shivered like a wet dog.
“Damn it’s cold out there. You okay?”
He changed into four-wheel drive and set off up hill once again. No tracks, no vehicles, no lights, just snow lay all around. Silence of a whole new variety smothered us. I grinned at the thought of us singing as we tromped through drifts in the middle of the night like Anne and Graham had. But then Mark piped up as he lit a smoke.
“I can’t wait to get to the city to see Keith and the kids. Going out to a club and walking back in the early morning in just a thin leather jacket. Damn, it’s perfect timing, isn’t it? Hon? What with this weather? We can leave the dogs with Louisa or get Graham to come feed them every few days when we’re gone.”
I shook my head and watched the wipers smear snow across the screen, half frozen ice dripped off the mirrors. An owl sat tall on a pinion tree, undisturbed by the Ford’s slow progress. The snow kept coming down, hard and heavy.
We turned down the last mile in silence. I tucked my hands under my thighs and sighed.
“You tired, Jen?”
“I’ll make us a fire then. You can go straight to bed.”
I did just that; I went to bed without him. I lit an oil lamp next to the bed and called the dogs up to snuggle with me. Frida lay on Mark’s pillow and Nelson across my lap. The bed warmed up immediately and I faced the window, watching the snow come down slow and thick. It was so incredibly beautiful. I fell asleep.
The cold woke me. Mark was fast asleep in the armchair next to the woodstove, neglected and barely lit. I quickly pushed the dogs to one side and pulled on layers then made up a fire, quietly so as to not disturb Mark. I heated water for coffee and waited in the wintery silence. Outside the sun crept over the mountains and the air was still. Not a sound penetrated the snow banks. I shivered but not from cold. With thermals, jeans, a woolen sweater from my mom and a good coat, I headed outside with the dogs reluctantly following me. Nelson soon relaxed and became a snowplow, running full speed with nose to the ground as he sped around us. Frida shivered from the cold. I picked her up and passed her back inside the bus. Nelson and I hiked across the blank canvas, me with a mug of steaming black coffee in hand, him with a white nose of snow.
Juniper trees bent under the weight of a good few inches of wet snow, the kind that drips into your collar or soaks your ankles, at least that’s what I found. The sun shone in the distance and I drank the rest of the coffee when we reached a small peak above the land, looking down upon the bus with smoke trailing out the stovepipe. Idyllic. It looked so idyllic. But it wasn’t. I couldn’t pretend otherwise, not any more. I couldn’t pretend we shared this dream any more. I wiped at my eyes, willing myself to hold back and simply see what was going on. Nelson brought me a white stick to throw for him, his tail thumping happily against a rotten pinion. The tree suddenly toppled with a crash. Nelson sprang and skidded down hill in surprise and I laughed. I laughed in delight. At the snow, at my home, at the dogs, at life. This is my life, and I love it. I’m not leaving.
“What? What do you mean?”
I stood above the bed where Sleeping Beauty was curled up with Frida now on my pillow. Mark sat up and pulled the covers up with him, “you’re leaving? In this?”
The fire had warmed the bus but not that you’d really notice. I ignored Mark and stoked the fire with a couple of thick juniper chunks, and got it blazing. “Do you want some coffee before I head out?”
“Where are you going?”
I put on the water to boil, as regardless of what Mark said now, I’d need another cup. I squatted down in front of the woodstove and opened its door to watch flames. The snow glistened outside in the glare of the mid-morning sunshine. The water bubbled and out of habit I made two mugs of coffee, taking one back to Mark who had been watching me from the bed. Nelson asked to come back inside, his snow playing time over. He looked at me then Mark and decided to lie at my feet. I petted him absently, fiddling with his long silk like ears. I sipped my drink and warmed my hands at the same time.
“This is a good life, Mark, a life I love. I’m not going back West for Thanksgiving, not to visit nor to live.”
Mark reached for his sweatshirt. “Can we have this conversation another time? Like when it’s warmer?”
“It’s warm here, with a fire going and hot drink in my hands. I’m comfortable.”
“Well, I’m not.” He climbed out of the bed despite Frida’s grumbling, and he dressed in as many layers as he could, making quite a production out of it. I sat back in the armchair and Nelson lay down across my boots with a contented sigh.
“I’d like us to go back for Thanksgiving, just to see, Jenny, to remind us of what it’s like to live with central heating and movies and buses and people around. I miss it, that’s all I’m saying. I miss it. Don’t you?”
I glanced out the window next to me, and took a moment. “No, no I don’t. This is good for me. I even laughed this morning when I fell into a snow bank. I can do this, Mark. We can do this.”
“But do we want to? I don’t know. It’s been fun, good to make stuff, but it’s real now. This snow makes it real and we can’t do this, we’re not up for it. I’m not and I know you, you’re not either.” He crouched down in front of me and rested his arms on my legs. “It’s too much, let’s just take a trip down memory lane for the holidays okay? You know we have more than enough places to stay when we go back to Washington, and Keith, all my friends in LA, they’d put us up for sure. I’d get to play some gigs, bring in some cash for us, it’ll be easy, Jen, easy.”
I shook my head and moved in the chair. He took his hands back and stood up. He put the mug down on the counter and walked outside. The smell of his cigarette wafted through a cracked window. I stroked Nelson’s ears again, and lay back and closed my eyes.
“Did you ever want this? To live like this, Mark?”
He shook his head slowly, “not like you did, no.”
“So what the hell were you thinking? Patronizing me or something? Shit, I can’t believe this. Mom said -”
“Your mom said what exactly?”
I sat down and reached for one of his cigarettes but he pulled them away. “What Jen? What did Martha say about me?”
“That I was imagining things, that you loved me…” I paused, remembering the rest of the story, her story. Mark picked up on it and frowned. He opened two bottles of beer and passed me one as he sat back down on the bed. The dogs had been sent to the floor and we’d camped out here for hours, talking, trying to understand. The woodstove and the sunshine made it bearably warm enough to sit in tee shirts and jeans alone. I shook my head and started to cry without sound. Mark sighed in exasperation.
“Why do women always have to cry? Drink your beer, Jen. Just drink some beer.”
Nelson came over and stood watching me at a distance. He’d never fully trusted Mark after the first night here. I reached for him and the pup stood close enough to reassure himself I wasn’t hurt then he wandered back to his blanket by the woodstove. Frida dozed. I drank the beer and looked around my home, our home, at the shelves we’d built, the paint we’d chosen, the bed we’d made.
“We did this together, Mark. We found this place, dreamed of building a home, growing food, finding a community, all of it. We did this together.”
“I did most of it, not that you noticed. You were too busy helping everyone else. Didn’t you notice I’ve been lonely out here? I’m useless; I can’t find a decent band, no regular gigs, no teaching guitar, nothing that I like. It’s all just the stuff you like, Jen, with animals everywhere, and then making junky projects that will fall apart in a good wind. Is that something to be proud of? Working in a café for the rest of your life and living in a bus?”
“Mom didn’t seem too upset with me, did she?”
“I’m talking about you, Jen, not your mom.”
“I know, and you’re not being very nice about me are you? Saying this isn’t something to be proud of, saying you did all the work, not me. Is that what you really think? That this is all your doing? Well thanks a bunch, Mark.” I stood up and grabbed a jacket and car keys. “I’m going out a while. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
Mark stood up and towered over me. “You’re running away again? Leaving?”
“No, it’s you who says you’re leaving. Not me, I’m staying. This is my home. But yes, I’m going out. To play in the snow and see friends -” I stepped down onto the deck, clutching the coat and backpack.
“ – and hope I’m here when you get back? With the fire going and food made like a good little househusband, eh? Well, fuck you too.” And he slammed the door behind me. I stood on the deck, too shocked to cry. Then it opened again and Nelson flew out and the door closed gently after him.
I drove carefully down the road in my Subaru with the heater cranked and radio silent. Nelson stayed in the back seat, stretched out in the warmth and sunshine. I drove carefully with the phone to my ear that is, praying Mom would pick up. She didn’t. I tried Anne, just her voicemail, and the same happened with Graham and Louisa. Damn, I was alone with this.
Over Santa Fe, the clouds built a wall of gray, encompassing the mountains and creeping my direction. More snow by the look of it and during the afternoon was my guess. I kept trying the phone but no one answered. Nelson slept. What the fuck?
I nodded and stared at the television above his head.
“Is Mark coming down later? I had a band call up asking for a gig and I think he’d get on well with them, you know? Should I just call him?”
I took the pint and muttered that I didn’t know so just call him. My third pint went down easily but walking to the bathrooms was not. Maybe it was time to call it a day. I stood outside to sober up in the cold and snow. The phone rang.
“Mom? Oh, Mom…” and I burst into tears.
Starting graduate school as a grown up is a tad scary. I have plans though. Ways to organize my days. I thought it would help.
- Buy black chisel tipped markers.
- Get paper 24 x 24 minimum. The local print shop gave me rolls of cut-offs.
- Tack paper to wall either near windows or under lights.
- List days of week and fill in deadlines for the next week.
- Mind-map projects, loose tangents, ideas, questions etc. The benefits of this style of brainstorming is that it’s fluid, non chronological and you can keep adding to it.
- Lastly for me, I have a list by priority of ongoing projects. It reminds me to bear in mind how important (or not) that deadline is.
- The best part? I don’t need to find my bloody glasses to read these to do lists.