This #5

From an ongoing series of sketches called THIS:

DSC_0548

#5

Coasts beckon. She follows, willingly, with books and notepad in hand. Jennifer goes from retreat to retreat, persuading the owners to offer her a place to finish this life-changing novel, the one we’ve all been waiting for. The second in her short career. That first one though. Who would’ve thought it? That Jen could be so talented? Articulate? Organized? That our sweet shy Jen could actually finish something?
This is more like it. This is the third retreat. She has four more lined up. All on coasts, the next one is in Hawaii. She’ll have to borrow the money to get the flight, but she’s not worried. That’s what Go Fund Me is for, right? To pay the way for the ones in need. And Jennifer tells herself that she needs this, as she pulls out the scissors and lops off another three inches from her long brown, long boring hair.
Turning forty isn’t agreeing with her. Her stomach suddenly bloated. Nothing to do with all the beer she’s tried at the various microbreweries. She notices a few stray hairs under her chin and grabs a razor, a dull one but who cares? No one looks at her anyway. Not now. Jennifer avoids the table with the laptop, notebook, smartphone and pens and picks up her camera instead and scrolls through the photos of the last retreat, of Michael. A big teddy bear of a man, soft spoken, a writer like herself, he’d paid attention, unfazed by her birthday blues. He might even have taken advantage of that strong IPA and the loosey-goosey chatterbox that she became for a night. He’d had green eyes, scruffy hair, and baggy jeans to hide his own beer belly. The selfies they’d taken in the morning though, just before his flight to Florida, they’d made Jennifer smile. For a brief moment, she forgot where she was, why she was here, and where she was going next. And the great novel? Nope, nowhere to be found in this congealing soup of sadness. She picked up the scissors again. Nostalgia gets her every time. Cut the damn hair.

 

 

Down East in Maine: back after 28 years

Down East #1

IMG_20170710_141245478_HDR

Mid-summer in Maine and the campground is empty but for three other sites, although the tall fat fella in the white van with a hound dog drove out this morning. Perhaps he’s moving on? Another couple in the big sand colored tent drove by shortly after and it’s not even 8.30. Maybe I’m alone then? Is anyone else around? Time to explore, well, after the morning coffee on the rocks. Rocks on the coast, solid sit-upon boulders, smooth under bum, and slippery under paws (Harold’s).

I’ve been up for hours, the light wakes us around 5am, the lobster trawlers thunder by, deep and low in the water as I sit on those rocks with a plain coffee. The fog is so thick this morning that the boats are invisible even though voices talk back and forth over the rumble of engine and waves, tides and eddies.

IMG_20170711_054205828IMG_20170710_181941973_HDRIMG_20170710_152245414

McClellan Park campground is a little known hideaway right on the ocean with ten sites for campers and tents. The road down is winding and narrow through dense woodland but easy on the vehicle, just tight, there’d be no room for anything bigger than a Sprinter. We pull off to let a sedan pass on the way up, and the couple tells me to claim number twelve.

“It’s open, a nice little bit of meadow, and just the other side of the trees is the shore.” She’s missing a tooth up front in that cheery smile of hers, and her husband says something unintelligable. They wave me off. My new neighbors.

IMG_20170716_170206701

We camped in number twelve as directed with a hundred feet of mown grass, a ring of birch trees and the sound of the incoming tides on the rocks. The fire kept us warm although the wood Dennis, the caretaker, sold ended up being damp and green. That couple I’d mentioned though, they brought me some dry wood one morning.

“I was worried you’d be cold, that other stuff doesn’t put out much heat, does it? Here you go, your cat came by this morning. I saw him in the trees, shy isn’t he? Yes, I told Jerry we needed to bring you some wood, get you warm. It’s chilly today. They say it’ll rain tonight so cover up your stuff, won’t you?”

She’s in striped loose pajama pants, a pink checkered long sleeved shirt, and another purple layer over her shoulders, quite a colorful thick-set woman in her sixites. Her frizzled hair is held back by bright red plastic clips. Jerry wears work boots, pressed blue jeans, and a sweatshirt with Vietnam Veteran in bold white letters. His front teeth are missing, his tongue swallows his words, and his grin is like a ten-yer-old boys, all mischief and innocence. He’s about the same size too, wiry, compact, small as a pre-teen.

“You have to visit Jonesport, it’s pretty. My sister lives in Millbridge, that’s why we come here. We only live an hour away but love camping here each summer. Columbia Falls too, that’s a stop if you’re heading to Eastport. South of here, go see the ferris wheels on the beach. Jerry here was on stage for July 4th. He’s an Elvis impersonator.”

Millbridge is an odd little town in US 1, with very little by way of tourism, just a couple of stores, a diner and a mexican take-out, just what we want on the ocean, mexican food, right? I don’t find anywhere to get clam chowder, a sudden craving on these grey days. There’s a laundromat, library, bank, and a couple of churches, but no cafes or brew pubs that I can see. Bummer. I’ll not be staying here too long then. The supermarket undercharges me for the beer and I say nothing but feel guilty for a moment, and again as I write this. Oh well. I have worse regrets.

The shore is rough with a deep sudden drop from brown-stained rocks into swilling waves below. My brain imagines Harold slipping in and that fear that comes, knowing I’d jump in to save him. Probably kill us both. But I’d have to. It’s Harold. Fuck. “Get away from there!” I startle us both, he slips but not into the Atlantic.

We walk in the mornings, early, mid, late. We walk in the afternoons, every hour or so I jump up from book or laptop, “let’s go, guys.” All three pets bounce up, two dogs and a cat, and off through the trees we go, over the rocks, I sit on the grass to the east of this path and lean back. I can spend hours staring out over the ocean. This calm rejuvinates me, brings me back to myself, and reminds me of the Gower Coast in Wales. The grey skies with occassional bursts of sunshine. The salt on my skin. The damp air curling my hair. I wish there was a way to live on the coast like this, wake up each morning to stare out over the horizon and daydream in the cool breeze off the ocean. Can I? Make this a goal of mine? Why not? Or perhaps just drive along coastlines for the rest of my life? I could do that.

IMG_20170717_095136_075

My brain ticks over, the lists, the stressors, all that needs to be taken care of in the next few weeks. Instead of tackling any of this increasing number of projects and the relevant details, I make another cuppa. This is the week before I move in finally to a rental apartment in Montpelier, start work, and then college. This is problably the last break for a while. It’s time to explore then, isn’t it? So we do. We do. Gratefully.

Mosquitos follow my everywhere but the DEET works well, not that I’d want to live with it on me year in, year out. But who cares about a few weeks here and there? Toxic crap I know but it works. When I go pee though, that was a problem.

McClellan campground costs only ten dollars per site and another five for a generous bundle of (green) firewood. There’s a shower, potable water, trash cans, and a friendly host who lives near by. Yes, come here. Yes, stay a while. Millbridge is within reach of a bunch of interesting smaller villages, one’s you wouldn’t normally come across on you trip across US 1. The camping has been here since 1946, Dennis tells me, but the State only just realized it, so came a knocking over winter, demanding a licence fee, a few changes, and less sites. Dennis just took down a couple of numbers but left the picnic tables and still mows the grass in those numberless places.

“There, done.” He grins, his eyes wrinkle in mischief, “And they left. Not so bad after all. It might help that the Chief of Police runs this place and threatened the guy, but what do I care? Oh, if this fog eases up, tonight we’re meant to be able to see the Northern Lights!”

The fog only thickened though so I went to bed by nine, curled up in the camper with Harold on the front seat, Rosie in her crate (door open) and Stevie the cat at my feet, looking out the sliding window, gazing upon squirrels. We sleep deeply.

DSC_0657

Such utter calm and peace here, looking out over the Altlantic, I’m dreaming of a retreat, a time in a cabin on the waterfront, a deck, some shade, a place to swim, to walk the dogs, and days of peace to read, write, and create more. Yes. I’ll get right on it. Right after I finish my three years of the MFA.

IMG_20170717_120931_085
Next though, it’s Down East/ Up North. Time to find the eastern most town on the United State’s coastline. There’s a brewery there.

The Importance of Book Reviews

After about ten reviews, Amazon starts including books in their suggestions “also bought” and “you might like” lists.

After more reviews, Amazon is more likely to spotlight the book. This creates a massive increase in visibility and sales. We all want that, right?

Reviews and sales go hand in hand.
The problem for my own books is that most are sold by word of mouth, at events and the such. Then emails and FB posts/ messages tell me how much they enjoyed the book. Then that’s it. Which is wonderful to hear. Please though, can you take a moment and go on Amazon and click on Van Life or any of my books and leave a review. It only takes a moment. I need your help to find the recognition that is beyond winning best fiction with NM/AZ Book Awards in 2012 and 2016, plus being a finalist in 2014 for another. Great Northwest Book Contest awarded Van Life Grand Winner for best nonfiction.
Until I have some reviews though, Amazon ignores these books, which will stay under the radar and only appear if readers are actively searching for my name. The awards don’t help except reassure me that I didn’t waste my time putting it out there.
Seriously, I’d like to find more readers. Whether you liked the book or not, a review will get it noticed. After ten reviews then the sales hikes, the promotion by Amazon, it grows tremendously. But only after review start coming in.
So, yes, please take a moment and leave a customer review. It will make a difference.

Thank you. Thank you.

Yes, thank you.

What am I doing here?

Cold damp air washed over me, doused the happy day I’d had, that inspiration from the classes attended. The dogs ran it to the kitchen, Harold howling for his dinner, his tail thumped on the fake wooden floor, Rosie checked out the bucket. Stevie wound in and out of legs. Within ten minutes, all ran back outside into the rain. Harold sat in the front seat. Stevie sat underneath the front bumper. And Rosie? Rosie hunched on the grass in the drizzle before squeezing under the campervan. They hate it in here.

What am I doing here? I grabbed Stevie, needing to cuddle his fluffy belly. He scratched me, claw stuck in my left cheek.

What am I doing here?

Quitting isn’t an option, isn’t it? When is it time to give up? Say enough is enough and walk away? The Santa Fe speak for this persistence is that it’s meant to be, you deserve this (as long as it’s good and if not, then this phrase is quietly ignored), and the inane something better will come along and don’t ever say this to me – god wills it. The idea is that someone or something godlike has determined what will and won’t happen. A notion that confuses me, well – it pisses me off actually. Lame. Suitable for good times and not so surprisingly forgotten in the bad. Who’d say, you deserve this when you lose home, job, or worse, a parent? My parents are both dead, sorry to be blunt, though and so right now it’s just home and job. Without a job, I can’t get a home. Without a home, I can’t get a job. Funny that. Catch 22, or in my case 22 1/2:  the van, I like living in this van of mine, don’t I? But I can’t leave the pups and Stevie inside all day while working for another. Can I?

I scroll through Craigslist looking for work, for pet-friendly homes, anything but this, a dark little dungeon that is mine for another ten days. The dogs are in the camper, Harold on the passenger’s seat, Rosie on the bed in the back. Stevie hides underneath. I’m sitting on a camp stool under the eaves of the garage, staying out of the rain as being inside the basement apartment wets me down to a soggy pile of rotten leaves. Even the paperwork on the table in there curls in the damp air. The smoke alarm beeps every few minutes, the moist air short-circuting the wiring inside, well, it did until I tore it off the ceiling, ripped out the wires and threw the fucking thing into the creek downhill.

Walking along a riverside dirt track outside of Montpelier is the one time the dogs play. The one place Harold will shit. He holds it in, constipated by these changes in our life. He’s not happy. The road is empty, absolutely no-one there, a full river rushes by, and Harold and Rosie run into the trees, eat grass, poop, eat more grass and speed off ahead. Strolling along under the dense leafy greenery that suffocates me, the rain trickles down. Oh, it’s pretty, it is. The understory is chocked full of grass, shrubs, flowers, and who knows what they’re all called, I don’t care. Not really. It’s too much, too green, too dense. I crave the open space of mountains or meadows.

Mad Dog River valley appeals, just as Anne from the college had guessed. It’s wide open, with fields and flushed muddy banks deep in the flash floods from a month of rain. This rain that doesn’t stop, it drizzles and storms in both the afternoons and mornings. Mid-day, when I’m here, driving around the lanes, the sun shines and so do I. We stop in Middlesex first, leaving fliers at the cafe looking for a home, and then back onto Hwy 100B, along another smaller river and past different styles of wood-sided houses with small yards. I take note of rental signs and for sale. In Moretown, again, I stop at the General Store, drop off a flier, search for others. Nothing pops. I drive on. We stop at a picnic area under some trees, dogs run to drink from the river. The views along this valley are wide and my breath loosens. My anxiety loosens its hold and so we walk around the next town along, Waitsfield. It’s a tad too far for a commute to college and (hopefully) work. A sandwich, a soda, and then time to drive again. The afternoon was sweet, the valley open and views expansive.

College inspires me. Invited to drop in and out of lectures, I’ve found academics and writers who speak to me, remind me that yes, I’m a writer, there’s nothing else. How do I align my interior life as a writer with a lifetime of writing? How do I make this into a professional career? I’m doing my best but this, the community of writers and poets, they can help. They’re teaching me of all that I know and don’t. How else will I find my way into the publishing world and to become a better writer both? Ada Limon talks of how she found a balance as a poet and editor/copy-writer, and to mix the introvert and social sides of herself. Flexibility was a goal of hers, workwise, one that not just appeals but is necessary for me, and her lecture on personal process, making it in the world by knowing when to be the artist writer self and when she needs to step out of that, to be professional, she can do that, knowing it’s temporary yet needed.

My toes are damp. The foundation seeps and puddles in the kitchen. With a towel to two, I sop up the worst next to the fridge and stare out the highest little windows as the rain keeps coming down.  The dogs spread the dirt and mud from puddles inside, outside, onto my bedding, into the garage and into the camper van. Dog hair, those shedding beasts of mine, run through a downpour, shake it off inside the dungeon, and jump onto my bed again. Stevie steps across the table, my papers, and I admire the little paw-prints, so perfectly formed. Thunder crashes out. Lights go out. Electricity down. Nighttime. Bedtime. It’s seven o’clock. Oh, why not, it’s not like I have anything to do.

When does it become time to stop? To walk away? How do we know? Competitive I am not. Does that mean I’m a quitter? Do I give up too easily? Those friends who decided to believe another with a reputation for lying instead of me, the most bluntly honest one? What did I do? I walked away, not going to waste my time trying to remind them of the value of reputation: if they didn’t believe me why should I make them? So, no, perhaps that was giving up too early? I don’t know. I’m okay with it, in that case. This though is different. I want this. I want to be here. It’s just…

It’s just that it’s not easy. Moving across 2100 miles to a town where I have no back-up, friends, or sense of community.  The home rental fell through. I found another, paid, moved in a few things and then the landlady changed her mind. The job that’s meant to start tomorrow, there’s a technical hitch and they can’t take me on for a few months. I’ve sent out resumes, stopped in at so many local businesses, I’m tired of selling myself, or trying to. No leads. And I find it’s more lonely to be here in a town than it is to be in the mountains alone. Loneliness/ alone, they are such opposites but easily confused.

A night in Maine, the fire crackled and dogs ran free. The van doors were propped open and Stevie sat in the stoop. My laptop sat on the wooden table with notebooks, pens, papers, reviews and phone. The cookstove took over the other end of the table and a pot of soup bubbled away. The birds cackled and ravens taunted Stevie as he climbed a pine tree behind us. The 35 acre lake reflected back a growing cover of stormy clouds. Finally I could breathe deeply. With such dense forests, there was no shortage of firewood and I made the most of it. Glorious. Absolutely glorious. The words pour out and remind me that writing is why I’m here in Vermont. Tonight I’m inspired by both journey and conversations had with random people as I drove around Maine. Life is good.

Give it a chance I tell myself. I know why I’m here, trying to find a home and work in Vermont so that I can spend three years on a Writing and Publishing MFA. How often does such an offer come up? Rarely. One that is exactly what I want and need as a writer on the edge of finding herself? I’m here for all the right reasons.

What would happen if I walked away? I’d regret this, this lost opportunity to find a community, to step into a world of experienced and published writers that inspire me. I’d miss the possibilities within reach. I can see them, touch their words, and listen to their voices as they talk of how they got to this point. I see myself one day, giving such a lecture as Ada’s, talking of my process and path, with confidence and ease talking to a room full of strangers, making them laugh and hopefully inspiring them to keep going, keep writing and to trust themselves. I see myself talking of agents and publications. Process and challenges. It’s clear to me. The goal. I’m here for the right reasons. I am.
I open the door to the dungeon. A wave of cold damp air hits me, the dogs run back to the van, Stevie scratches me. Bleeding, I break down again, crying into fists, sitting on the stupidly soft mattress on this shitty little single bed in this fucking bunker. Why am I here? What am I doing here? I don’t know. It’s time to sleep, I can’t deal, unable to cook a decent meal, read or write. Fuck it. It’s seven thirty.

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.

 

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

Living The Dream: 15

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

AUGUST: GROWING YOUR OWN

“Your usual, Jenny?”

“Yes please.”

I sat at one of the stools at the counter and returned the morning’s greetings with the locals. They’d become used to my turning up Thursday mornings at the coffee shop. All had paper cups of coffee and lattes. The newspapers lay half read and conversation flowed from building stories, their weekend plans, and on to gardening. I perked up my ears and drank my medium dark roast. With cream.

“How are your plants doing?” asked one bearded sixty-something man to another.

“Pretty good, they budded out nicely, and they have grown tall and thick for once. It’s the best year yet, I’d say, although I don’t want to jinx us. But those rains sure helped my back, I’d prefer the rains do the work for me rather than haul five gallons at a time all day every day.” He knocked on the wooden slab of a table and grimaced.
They laughed and talked about fertilizers and soil amendments. I wanted to butt in but felt shy. The caffeine hadn’t kicked in yet apparently.

“I added more manure to the soil last winter and let it all soak in and break down for a good six months. I used to add straw as a mulch but it’s so bright and conspicuous that I buy bags of peat moss instead.”
“Yum Yum mix, I swear by it, that’s made all the difference to my crop this year. It’s expensive I know, but it works a treat.”

They talked about cuttings, clones, and trial and error and all the details showing some serious organic expertise. I just wanted a few tomato plants and some spinach. Too late now.

“Excuse me, can I ask you a gardening question?”
They looked at each other first before the one on the right nodded to me.

“I want to set myself up to grow some plants but it’s too late for this year, isn’t it?”
“What kind of thing are you thinking about?”

The man nearest me sipped his drink and leaned forward encouragingly. He wore the usual uniform of faded blue jeans, work boots, and a light colored long-sleeved shirt. The cowboy hat lay on his lap. His face was as lined as a dried out apple and his blue eyes sparkled to some inner joke.

I explained that we were new in town and –

“Pete’s?”
I nodded and sighed. “It seems everyone knows us but we don’t know a soul.”
The guys laughed, but kindly. “We get so many folks moving here, wanting to fit in, but after a season, or maybe a year, they end up leaving. We take our time before putting in much energy and that’s the truth.”
“Why?”

“Why what?”
“Why don’t many people make it for the long run?” I honestly didn’t get it. At the time.
He sat back. “It’s not easy, is it?”
I shook my head.

A man in coveralls and slicked back ponytail added his opinion by saying, “after that movie came out, tourists flocked here, looking for the dream of an artist town near Santa Fe, all hip and cool, and easy living. But it takes work to be here. Too freaking hot in summer, harsh winters, and incredible winds in the spring. The homes are either old run down shacks or you build it yourself out on the land. Either way, if you’re looking for suburbia, this isn’t it.”

I grinned. “That’s what we told Diana, the solar woman.”

“Oh yeah? She’s pretty mainstream, isn’t she?”

“Yep, she wanted us to build a suburban and expensive home with televisions and sound systems and microwaves and washing machines, the whole nine yards instead of just hooking us up with the old funky school bus we’re living in. She kept insisting that she knew best so Mark told her we’d do it ourselves.”
“And have you?”
“Well, no.” I admitted with a wry grin and a shrug, and that made them laugh with me.
Anne, the barista, told me that her brother, Ken, was a solar tech geek, and had sorted out a few homes in the area. He could help out. He had the right connections, as she said.

“If you want to get know us here in town, keep doing what you’re doing, and show up, hang out with us, talk to us rather than watch us as if we were a freak show.”
“Does that happen a lot?”
The whole café erupted in loudly as they all chimed in with their own stories of rude and naïve tourists and the stupid questions they ask. I was guilty of at least a few of them. I shook my head in embarrassment. The conversations died down and they soon forgot about me. Anne poured me a refill and started to chat about her own gardens and described the community garden in Oliver. Close by, I could walk over there with Frida if I wanted. The place was fenced in with homemade gates, stone pathways, and beds overflowing with healthy crops of all you possible imagine growing. Incredible for a desert garden, she finished.

“That place will inspire you. And, no, it’s not too late for some things. Do you have anything set up yet?”
I shook my head again. “Nothing. I haven’t even thought about where we’d put the garden.”
“Well, you’ll need some kind of wire or wooden fencing to keep out the rabbits. I’d suggest sunken beds to catch the rains rather than have the precious water run off and away. Do you want some catalogues and books?”
Anne sat on a stool next to me and wrote down a few ideas and the best nurseries to visit in Santa Fe for free information. I suddenly knew what I’d be doing for the next few days.

“Greens, there’s quite a few lettuces and stuff for the fall, you could get them in now. But I’d suggest that you start with some pots for whatever you want to grow this fall, and make a greenhouse or something if you want more than that. You can work on making the soil perfect in the actual gardens over winter. Get the manure, straw, better soil, and add your compost, that kind of thing. Spend the holidays digging in the shit, as my husband says. Digging in the shit.”

 

“Do you have the pick?” Mark hollered over the radio.

AC/DC rocked out, filing the valley with something he sang along to. I never did like them that much.

“I can’t dig more than four inches in this stuff, it’s ridiculous. Rocks everywhere I turn. Are you sure you want the garden here?”

He wiped his forehead with his bandana and propped the shovel against a tree. He stared forlornly at the area we’d chosen. Close enough to the bus for us to remember to water things, and also within walking distance to the car for hauling supplies as needed. The juniper trees protected the western edge because of those infamous spring winds. The one pinion in the middle would give shade to different sections throughout the day.

I stopped pounding in the metal T-bars. I’d done five out of twenty-eight. My shoulders killed me.

“Well, yeah, it’s the best place, right? After all we read and what Anne told us, this is going to be the easiest spot to grow what we want. Do you want to switch with me?”

Not that swinging a pickaxe would be any better, but you have to help when you can. Mark suggested a break instead. He turned off the radio thankfully.

“It’s that time already?”
He grinned and pulled out his cigarettes. “It is somewhere.” He walked over to the bus and grabbed us both pale ale and opened them. Frida followed him everywhere these days. She had a crush. I was jealous. They walked back and found a seat in the sandy shade. Frida came over and curled up against my legs, groaning in pleasure. An angel, she’d been an angel since the monsoons had stopped. I sighed and stretched out, lying down and shading my face with my hat. I rested the bottle on my belly.

“How about we build one of those little window boxes with a window on top? Like a mini greenhouse? We could set that up and prop it next to the porch steps.” Mark continued to talk about that and other ideas. He wasn’t enjoying the preparation part of this gardening business. He mentioned how we needed to make an actual outhouse soon. Our shallow dumping hole was filling up fast. That meant more digging though.

“What about the compost toilets?” I reminded him.
Off he went, describing the different options we had, the store bought, the homemade style and the humanure kind. I half-listened and sipped my beer. He could work it out and let me know. I didn’t pay too much attention. He did most of the work, not me.

“Do we have the pallets for a compost pile?”
“Weren’t you listening?”
I sat up and grinned. “No. Were you talking to me?”
He threw a stick at me and hit Frida on the butt. “Very funny. I was saying, to Frida apparently, that for the humanure toilet we could go ahead and use the pallets we have and build us compost box this afternoon. We only need four and I think we found five or so. I have the baling wire to tie them all together. We can empty the buckets in there and cover it with straw. I’m glad we got a few bales today, some for this garden of yours and one for me and my shit pile.”

Mark finished his beer and toasted me with the empty bottle. “Your round, my dear, yes, I’d love another.”

He gave me an easy going smile and scratched at his goatee. The new shaver had kept the rest of him clean cut but what with the facial hair and how he had let his hair grow wilder and curlier than before, this was a new man. The outdoor work had made him a shade of toast and peanut butter. I still stayed on the pink side of the scale; a Tuscany rose as I claimed. I liked the sound of it even if Mark teased me, but he was the one with the farmer’s tan, not me. My pinkness was through and through. I’d even stopped bleaching my hair, and the dirty blond and brown roots had grown into a reddish mop with white tips.

 

I picked at the dirt and swore under my breath. I jabbed at it with the shovel. I kicked rocks away with my new work boots. I sweated and dripped and got two beds dug before giving up. I added a bag of peat moss, a bucket of manure from the horse-lady in town, and stirred it all together before covering it with a layer of straw. It looked good if nothing else.

Mark finished the fence posts and gave up. He wandered over to the pallets and propped them into a square, tying them upright with the wire. He spread some straw a couple of inches thick across the bottom and emptied out a bowl of table scraps. He smiled up at me proudly and pointed.

“Our new compost pile. Food and feces. Can’t you imagine what your mom will say when we point her towards the buckets to use?”

“I don’t think I want to explain what we’re doing. Can we make it easy on her and leave the sawdust in a container next to the toilet with a little sign or something? Less of a lecture on the benefits of recycling our waste, let’s just make it quick and easy for her. You know, something that says ‘Pee here, cover it with this, close lid.’ Not that she’s planning on visiting that I know of. God, I hope she doesn’t surprise us again.”

I stood next to him and stared at the pile. It was pretty sturdy and didn’t fall over when Frida jumped up trying to get to the scraps. He nodded happily as Frida kept trying to push her way to the leftovers but failing.

Mark picked up his tools. “What next?” he asked me, as we headed back to the bus. “Chickens?”

 

 

Living The Dream: 14

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

JULY: IN SANTA FE

“What was in it?”

Louisa turned to face me as she picked up a timid husky from out the back of the truck. The sign for the sanctuary was completely hidden by the mud splattered everywhere. I took the leash.

“Not much thankfully. Some cash and my old driver’s license. The rest was just receipts and business cards, that kind of thing.”
“No credit cards?”
“No, Mark keeps those on him. We looked around but didn’t see the guy anywhere. He must have hidden pretty well.”

I stroked the dog’s ears; he was terrified with tail between his legs and shaking like my sheets in the wind. The sound of all that traffic on highway through town filled my head, so loud and insistent it was. I knelt down to talk to the pup at his own height. He smelt my hand and then my arm. He gave me one lick of friendship but the tail remained tucked.

“Did you get the guy’s name? I might know him, by reputation if nothing else.”

Louisa was busy unpacking dog crates, leashes, pamphlets, and she only half listened to my stories of the motel, the night in town, what Mark was up to. In short, she didn’t really care; the dogs were her focus right now. That was why I was here too. To get the dogs homes at the monthly adoption events she put on in Santa Fe.
We walked across the parking lot towards the store and she left me holding three pretty large dogs. I stood there, not knowing what to do with them when a white-haired couple came and started chatting to the dogs by name. Finally they turned to me.

“You must be the new volunteer Louisa told us about. This in my husband, Jim, and I’m Margaret. Or Meg if you like me.”

She had a round soft face, all freshly washed cheeks and sparkling white dentures. She wore clothes of white and pale yellow, perfectly light colors for such a sunny day. No thunderclouds threatened us so far. She held out her hand and I reached to shake it but she took a leash instead. I put my hand down. Meg petted the husky who immediately relaxed and sat at her feet. Jim took one of the other dogs, a chow-chow mix. I was left with a lab retriever youngster. One year old and hyper as all hell, she bounced impatiently, trying to nose me and anyone within reach.

“We usually set up on that bench. We’re close enough to the door that people wander over but we’re not making a nuisance. It’s very good of them to let us come here once a month. I don’t want to annoy them, you know how bad that would be.”

I followed her and settled in for the long haul. Meg talked about doing this very thing for the last six years, once a month, sitting with the dogs and counseling people to make good matches. There are too many dogs homeless in Santa Fe County she explained:    “The Shelter takes in as many as they can, almost six thousand last year. Isn’t that incredible?” Meg chatted away easily.
“Where else do you go?” I asked after a while. I drank some water and ate a protein bar.
“Oh, to the other grocery stores and the mall. We mix it up but we try to keep a schedule. That way people know where to find us. Which is a good thing since Louise doesn’t like to return phone calls.”

Jim laughed and nodded agreement. With sunhats and water bottles, Jim and Meg were ready for the next four hours. Louisa came out with a manager in tow. He stood near us, quite clean and friendly, talking to the dogs but not actually touching any. He kept his hands in his pockets.
“Only three today?”
“No, we have two more in the truck, an old border collie and a Chihuahua mutt. I’m waiting for the other volunteers to get here before I get them out. They’re both friendly so don’t worry. I think we’ll start over at the bench but move closer as the sun comes round if that’s okay?” Louisa tucked in her tee shirt and adjusted her baseball cap.
“Sure, just don’t block my customers.” The manager smiled at us all meaningfully and walked back into the air-conditioning briskly.

At eleven o’clock, my brain was already baking. How did they do this all day long? Louisa got me to help set up the signs and put flags around to catch attention. I wiped her truck a little, just enough to read the name: “Rose’s Rescue.”

I put out a table in the shade but was told to move it. The dogs needed the cool more than us humans. I spread out literature, all about animal overpopulation, the rescue’s mission, and a call for donations. I started to read. It was fascinating to learn how she does it, how she keeps the dogs fed and housed. It’s all about volunteers and sponsors apparently. Mark had dropped me off on a perfect day for this. We’d kept meaning to help the adoption events, but we hadn’t until then. Staying the night in town was the reason to be honest – I was already so close; I had no excuse not to show up. It gave Mark some time alone, which he claimed with glee.

I leaned against the truck and watched the day pass by. Hundreds of folks shopped here, in and out they came, with brown paper bags overflowing, and the donation jar filled quickly. They took flyers and chatted to the dogs.

Jim and Meg both pulled in these complete strangers and engaged them confidently with the dogs, passing the leash, coming to me to get water even though they had bottles near by. Anything to give families time alone with each animal that was the ploy. The lunchtime crowd picked up even more and I was glad when two other regular volunteers came and took on the extra dogs I’d been holding onto. This was one big happy family, and I noticed that all of them kept the public away from Louisa. She held back, she supervised, filled water bowls, walked dogs, and kept to herself. Not a publicity hound so to speak.

A huge bear of a man adopted the chow, both were strong and gentle, and the man was so soft-spoken Louisa had to lean close to talk about the details. I watched as he knelt down and whispered to the dog, who suddenly sat up on his back legs and begged. Louisa laughed and shook her head.

“He approves, I see. Don’t forget to switch the food slowly, and if you have any questions, call and I will try to help. Jenny, can you set him up with the paperwork?”
“Sure,” I passed on the forms and took his information and handed out the vet’s info. The man hugged me and loaded up the chow-chow into his car with a huge smile and a wave. Jim came over just as I was basking in the glow of a successful adoption.
“Can you walk the lab? She’s got too much energy and can’t settle down.” Jim passed me the leash and the pup started bouncing wildly.

“Where to?”
“There’s small park up there a couple of blocks. You could run around there for ten or twenty minutes. That’s probably enough for now. You okay with that? Do you want some water?”
I took a bottle and the dog. Helen was her name. Helen led the way. The roads were pretty busy with afternoon shoppers but Helen didn’t seem too bothered by the traffic coming so close. Across the street from us, a park opened up a couple of blocks length, with huge deciduous trees covering the whole area with shade. It was heaven, with thick green grass, the kind you picture but is rare to find in New Mexico. It was so luscious I stuck my face in it and breathed deeply. It smelt so yummy, better than a smoothie any day. Helen rolled on her back and wagged happily as I scratched her belly. I took off my sandals and walked barefoot. We wandered around, one end to the other. My toes were ecstatic. I missed parks; we’d had a great one in our neighborhood in Olympia. I used to spend my afternoons lying under the trees reading. I almost missed being there, but not quite. I walked us to the benches encircled by dozens of roses, all blooming. It smelt wonderful. Did you know that Tuscany is the name of a rose? They sure do come up with some odd ideas for plants. I broke off one flower and stuck it in my pocket guiltily.

With a dog in hand, I ended up meeting three or four different families and their kids and teenagers, all coming to pet her soft black fury body. She wriggled and played and chased the tennis ball this one little kid had. I sat with that family for ten minutes before they asked about Helen’s story.

“She’s a stray,” I told them. “We don’t have any history on her. Somehow Louisa, who has the rescue our near Oliver, took her in. Want her? I’m meant to be finding her a home today,” I joked.

“Yes, I think we do.”

“Really?”
“Please Mommy. Please Mommy.”
The kid threw himself around Helen’s neck. Helen fell over and started licking every inch of the little boy. He squealed in delight. Mom watched and smiled to herself. She caught my eye and nodded once.

“Oh. Okay. Hmm. I think you’ll need to come to the store and talk to Louisa. I’m not sure how that works.”
“What does she ask?”
I grinned, “I’ve no idea, this is the first time I’ve helped out.”

Back at the store, the others were settling the dogs back in the truck, making sure they all had enough water before driving back to Oliver. Jim folded the table and boxed the papers. Louisa was nowhere to be seen.

Meg pointed to the store. “Shopping for herself. She might as well since she’s in town. Did you need something?”
I introduced Meg to the family with Helen. “She’d like to adopt the pup. What do we do?”

“Did you talk to them about where they live? What their expectations are? Do they have a vet? Other pets?”
I shook my head, “No, we just played together. The dog was great with little Mickey here.”
We both looked down to see Mickey sitting on the floor with the dog laying across his thin lap, her tail wagging slowly as she drifted off. He stroked her over and over, talking to her about his toys at home. The wooden boat, the teddy bears, and the balls.

“Well, that’s a great start.” Meg laughed with the mom. “Don’t worry, we want to make sure it’s a good fit, that’s all. So, can I ask you some questions? Find out more?”

Mickey butted in, “her name’s Helen, Mom, like my best friend at school. We can keep her, right?”

Louisa and I sat on the tailgate as I waited for Mark to show up. The truck was in shade finally, the groceries packed away and three dogs had been adopted. The chow, the lab, and that shy old chi mix all found homes. The collie had fallen asleep in her kennel, tired from all the attention. All in all, Louisa had had a good day in town. She scratched her head and looked back on the husky.

“That’s the one I worry about.”

The husky stared at her. He was curled up in the tightest ball possible and only the odd colored eyes could be seen. He watched us cautiously.

“Nelson’s special. He was so messed up when I took him in that I had to carry him outside to pee. He lay belly to floor constantly. What the hell makes people scare animals like that?” The pain and outrage poured out of her. She shook her head and told me more. “I call him Nelson, because he’s such a nervous Nellie as my English friend called him, it stuck. Nelson’s a good boy, I see it in him. I’m not sure that this is the best place for him but it’s better than living so scared on the streets, isn’t it? Las Cruces was not nice to you, was it?”
I wanted to pet the boy but he’d only just got easy enough to come to me when I wasn’t looking. I’d wait. I’d find him a home, I promised myself: I’d find him a home.

“Next week you can drive in with me if you like, if that makes it easier for you both.”

“Thanks, let me talk to Mark. I think he likes his time to play in town without errands, you know? He should be here in a few minutes.”

We sat in companionable silence, watching traffic and clouds.

“Another storm do you think?”

Louisa breathed in deeply. “Yes, in two hours time, but I doubt it will be as harsh as last night but steady. So make sure your stuff is safe this time.”
“Oh I think we will. But Frida gets terrified, what should we do for her?”

Louisa thought for a moment. “Keep her near one of you at all times. Make her a den to hide under the bed, but where she can still see you, your feet if nothing else. Have you Rescue Remedy? The homeopathic stuff really helps for that kind of thing. I have some in the front of the truck you can take.”
“What do I do with it?”
“In her water, put in twenty drops each day. Or if she’s getting in a bad shaky space, give her a few drops into her mouth. Wrap a tee shirt of Marks tight around her chest. Something that smells of you both, and she’ll feel like she’s being held by one of you. Thundershirts are what they’re called at the stores but I make my own. That’s something you can do for her tonight – get her settled and covered before a storm comes in. Do you keep her inside at night?”

I had to laugh as I tell her that my sex life has taken a back seat as little border terrier claims her space between us both, cuddling one and then the other all night long. We need to send her off for a doggy date for mom and dad to play again.
“Maybe wait until after the storms are done.”
I spotted my family. Mark was headed over with Frida in a new pink harness and puppy sized straw-hat somehow tied on behind her ears. She looked dapper for a dog, although a little uncomfortable. Poor girl spent the day with her dad shopping.