For those of you who’d like to sample one of my books, I’ll be adding a chapter a week to this page. It’s from the novel LIVING THE DREAM (2015). Jenny and Mark move to New Mexico to live off-grid near a small rural town in the mountains. They haven’t got a clue, just an appreciation of Mother Earth News. Yes, it’s funny. Mostly.
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DECEMBER: NOT ALL WHO WANDER
“I know. I know. I’m lost. I don’t know where we are either.”
Nelson stared at me with those odd eyes of his, one blue and the other amber, unblinking, waiting for more. I shrugged and rearranged the cushions behind me. I propped myself up with a sigh next to him.
“It must have been last night, at that tavern in Farmington. I bet I left the map on the table or something. I didn’t see anything in the motel room when we left, did you?”
Of course he didn’t. He’d already been waiting in the 4Runner. As usual, he’d been impatient to hit the road.
I sipped my cold coffee and stared out the truck’s windows with a smile. I’d already folded the seats down and installed a memory foam mattress, cushions, and a thick pile of blankets and sleeping bags. We were living in style these days.
A blue-gray lake filled a valley’s basin, it was small by most standards but for New Mexico, not bad. Mountains surrounded us filled with ponderosas and cedar, native grasses, and shrub oaks. We’d walked the hills and explored various animal tracks earlier, picking up dead and down wood for the night’s campfire. Empty, the land felt empty yet loved and I saw no one. No one to ask for directions. All I knew was that we were somewhere in the Apache reservation, on a campsite next to a lake. I’d paid the five bucks in the envelope and settled in for the night. I still couldn’t find the damn map though. I figured we’d just drive west in the morning, sun to our backs, and follow these dirt roads through the wilderness until we came back out into the Carson National Forest.
Nelson sighed and licked my hand. His pale tongue rasped against my dried skin. I reached over and petted this friend of mine. A husky mix, I wasn’t sure what he’s mixed with, but he’s tall and rangy, shaggy caramel fur with a classic husky face. He’s not the wanderer though, more of a nervous Nellie, hence the name.
I stroked his head. “I don’t know where we are either my friend, but it’s not bad eh? Just the two of us? No more arguments with Mark, no cold school bus to wake up to, just us for a while.”
I finished the coffee and set the mug on the tailgate. I scooted out and stood in the cool evening air. I pulled the coat closer and called Nelson to me. Reluctantly my dog jumped down and stood next to me. He took a drink from the ever-present water bucket and then stared at me. I nodded. He ran to the lake and stopped, with paws only slightly wet, he drank his fill. The real deal, water from a lake, is much tastier than from a 5-gallon container a few days old.
I grabbed his bowl, filled it with kibble, and poured on some oil from the skillet. I hunkered down next to the fire pit and lay the paper, kindling and sticks in a pyramid. Lighting the flame, the fire crackled and took. The wind had luckily died down with the sun. I knew how to judge the fire risks these days. Nelson ate fast then wandered back to the water’s edge.
The campsite was barren, with not a soul in sight, and only a distant owl softly announcing the night to come for company. Clouds filtered out the last of the day’s winter sun and I shivered. Nelson stayed in sight, paddling carefully, and poking among the rocks. Like I said, he’s not the usual husky. Timid boy. Loving boy. He stays close to Mom. I sat on a boulder, enjoying the growing darkness.
I opened the cooler and pulled out a cold pilsner, one a day, that was my limit. It would be a challenge after those last few weeks with Mark, fighting, partying, and all with the background of Thanksgiving. Mom had even come and gone, oblivious of what was really happening in my happy home, well, maybe she knew. Mark announced one morning that he was leaving too. He left the next day.
The fire flickered and embers cooked my potato. Nelson lay on the tailgate, happily watching me cooking, his own belly full, and bed warm and comfortable. That’s one thing I’ll admit to – I’ve learned how to camp in style, in comfort. Only what, six months ago was it that we moved into the bus? That I left the city life? Incredible really, I’d had no idea what I was getting myself into. How could I?
I sipped on a beer, poked the fire, pushing the potato off to the side, and using tongs, rolled it onto a plate. Nelson perked up. More food coming he knew, since I was not one to eat much these days. Nelson sighed in contentment and nudged my knees. I reached for his big head and scratched behind his ears.
“Yep, not bad eh? Not bad, this is living the dream, my friend, living the dream.”
The lake shimmered in the moonlight, clouds lingered, and the fire warmed us. Yes, not bad at all. I can do this. I can do this, with or without Mark. I hope.
JUNE: FIRST IMPRESSIONS
“Are we there yet?”
Mark hung tightly onto the steering wheel, and pumped the brakes nervously. “I hope so, Jenny, I hope so.” He downshifted just to be on the safe side.
The mountain dropped down steeply in front of us. The road practically melted away in the midday sun. Rocks slipped out from under the U-Haul. Stones and the gravel skidded away with a lurch. Mark swore under his breath. The dirt road was barely one car wide. Boulders blocked the path. I climbed out to move the biggest ones. The sun beat down and the air conditioner cranked out as best it could but it barely kept up. We drove downhill at two miles an hour. Gringo Gulch appeared before us, a steep empty canyon with only one homestead half-hidden in the distance. The gravel slid from under us again. The brakes started to smell. Mark’s curly hair lay flat against his forehead and his arm glowed with sunburn.
“I knew we should’ve come out at least once more. This is crazy, Mark, crazy.” I pulled out my camera and started clicking away.
“Are you getting cold feet?” He asked, patience worn thin. “This was your idea to start with. Let’s move to Santa Fe, she said, let’s buy that land we saw – only the once, mind you – and just move, she said.”
I opened the window and took in the desert heat, the pinions and the junipers, and the wildlife. My cowgirl denim shirt stuck to my back.
“It’s not like we can go back, is it? The school will have replaced me already and you were just…” I put my camera down. “Sorry. I’m tired. I didn’t mean it, okay?”
Mark sighed. “I was just a musician? Is that it? Thanks.” He reached for his cigarettes.
“What’s that?” I threw my apple at a snake crossing in front of us. “A rattlesnake?” I missed as it slithered onwards and upwards, glancing across as we crawled past. I shivered. We didn’t have snakes in Olympia.
“I’m glad we only got the twenty footer. Can you imagine driving anything longer down here?” Mark lit up and drew in deeply. The brakes squealed one last time as we reached the bottom of the valley. Not one person in sight. Deserted. Desert.
“Are you sure this is the right way?”
Mark flicked ash out the window. “Well, when I looked on Google this was the shortest route. We came a different road last time, I guess. But remember that the realtor said your Subaru would do fine out there, right?”
“But I’m not driving this way, that’s for sure, I’d hit every rock. Didn’t he take us down a long flat smooth road, that’s what I kinda remember? There were miles and miles of slow curves and lots of homes in the distance, right? What was it called?”
“Harold’s Way, I think.” Mark kept driving steadily as he checked the maps again and said, “Yep, this is the short cut, the direct route. I don’t know, Jen. We might want to bring your car the other way tomorrow. I’m glad we left it in town.”
We kept on slowly driving, desperately searching the landscape for the driveway, or a sign of some kind. It’s not like there was anyone to ask for directions. We drove on in silence. Beside us, a dried up riverbed followed the lowest point, and we ended up crossing rocky sandstone ledges every few hundred yards. Dead cacti lined the path. Dead pinion trees. Dead dogs.
“Is that really what I think it is?” Mark had noticed it too. We both stared at the swollen black furry body in the middle of the tracks. “I wonder what killed it?” he continued as he steered around it with a slight bump.
“And whose was it? Should we put up a sign at the store?” I looked back out the window uneasily.
Mark rolled his eyes. “Are you going to get out and check its tags? Do you really think it has a city license on a nice leather collar? This is the Wild West, remember, Jenny? We’re not in Kansas any more.”
“We never were in Kansas, you dope. No, drive on. I just want to get home.”
Blue sky beat down on us as we crawled along Gringo Gulch at four miles an hour. With not one cloud in the sky, the canyon was painfully bright and barren. The rise and fall of the hills and creek beds obscured any homes or signs of life. It was bright, too bright for my blue eyes. Where were my sunglasses? The junipers bunched together in clumps with dead straw-like grass scattered over the dirt. I didn’t see a single flower. How weirdly beautiful it all was to me though. I looked all over, my head spinning around and around, noticing branches full of crows and ravens, the incredible silence, and then we rounded yet one more corner.
“I recognize it. This is it, right?”
Mark stopped the truck. He threw his cigarette butt out his window and looked around.
“I think so. I think so. Let’s go see, shall we?”
In front of us, the road split north and south. On the western edge, a driveway, well, a dirt track led out onto towards the mesa, the valley that is, which sprawled all the way to the mountain range far away. A For Sale sign lay flat on the mud embankment. The dirt track had a chain strung across from two wooden posts.
Mark opened his door and climbed down, stretching his six-foot skinny white boy frame, and reaching high with arms outstretched. His jeans hung low and loose, with a white tee shirt neatly tucked in, and his black boots shone. He suddenly shouted out at full volume.
He turned to me, grinning a wicked smile so huge and happy. “We did it, Jenny. We bought land. It’s ours. All ours. We’re free, Jen. We’re free.” He spun wildly round and round.
I ran to him and jumped into his arms, crashing us against the U-Haul, kissing him deeply and suddenly we’re both yelling aloud, home, we’re home. The echo came back at us, welcoming us here. A huge pitch-black crow flew up off the gatepost, crowing at us to shut the hell up.
I laughed. We’d done it. I wasn’t going to give up this time.
“Where are we going to sleep?”
I looked around at the pile of stuff we’d unloaded. The ramp to the back of the U-Haul was down, and twenty cardboard boxes were stacked neatly under a tree, next to a five-gallon container of drinking water and a cooler of food and beer.
I spread my arms wide. “I don’t see an RV, do you? We did buy 40 acres with an RV, right? Or am I missing something here?”
The heat was relentless. Where was a cowboy hat when you needed one? My face burnt up. I strode around, steaming.
Mark, however, sat on the ground on the shady north side of the truck with a small plastic bottle of water resting on the dirt between his boots. He grinned up at me. He shook his head and held out his hands to me.
“I’ve no idea where it is, but yes, there’s an RV here somewhere, that was part of it. We can look tomorrow, okay? But, hon isn’t it great? We can sleep under the stars tonight. I haven’t done that since I was a kid. I wonder if we can see the Milky Way from here?”
He passed me the water and I drank deeply. I shook my head and told him we were too far south for that. Was I thinking of the Northern Lights? I sat next to him and poked him in the thigh.
“So we’re sleeping rough tonight, are we Cowboy? You’ll make us a fire and protect me from the roaming bands of thieves?”
Mark hugged me to him. “Sure will, little Missy, I sure will. And you’ll be making me my dinner of beans and beef over the fire-pit, won’t you?”
“I was thinking of some red wine, the French loaf and that brie we have.”
Mark snorted. “Yeah, that’s probably more like it. But we can make a fire and sit on the rocks and stay up all night, can’t we? I’ll push the worst of the stones out the way and we can pull out the sleeping bags right here. What do you think?” He sounded like a ten-year-old on summer vacation with his best friend. “We can tell scary stories.” He stood up, energized and ready to go again. He brushed the sand off his nice blue jeans.
I laid down, pleading a headache, and I watched as he made us a fire-pit, placing the rocks in a circle, finding a couple of flat flagstone-like pieces for seats, and he wandered out of sight, fetching branches and kindling. I fell asleep.
We’d come with nothing practical, that’s all I can say, nothing but the bare necessities of tent, camping gear, and sleeping bags. Plus a truck full of my grandparents’ furniture I’d just inherited. Fifteen boxes of Mark’s books and his drum set and bass guitars. I’d brought my own guitar I never play, but planned to make the most of living out there, finally able to practice in peace. We had a laptop and our two cell phones. Some clothes, I admit to, but mostly they were Mark’s. I’d bought the land. Mark would build us a home. That was the plan, to live in the RV as we build a home.
The red wine flowed through me easily and freely and I discovered the joys of peeing outside.
“Look the other way.”
“I can’t see you over there. Remember? It’s pitch black from where I am. What time do you reckon it must be? My god, look at all those stars. Do you know any of the names?” Mark kept talking, to hide the splashes, or from pure wonder, I didn’t know. I walked back to the glow of the fire and squatted down opposite him.
I looked at my watch. It was only ten thirty, early for us. I poured out another beaker’s worth of wine. Trader Joe’s best three-dollar vintage was perfectly doable out here, and anyway, I couldn’t see the label, and we had no guests. That made me think.
“Do you think we’ll get visitors out here? My mom? What would she think about peeing like I just did?” I couldn’t picture it.
“Wait until morning when you need a number two,” Mark reminded me with a smile in his soft voice.
“Oh my god, that’s right. Is there an outhouse? Or did you dig us a hole or something?” My voice squeaked embarrassingly. I coughed to hide it.
Mark laughed hard, and told me about how we’d be using buckets, making a compost toilet with straw and sawdust and I tuned out, figuring he’s just teasing his city girlfriend. Then I realized something.
“If I have to shit in a bucket, I want a dog.”
“Huh?” Mark scratched his chin; the day’s stubble was itching already. “I thought you didn’t like dogs?”
“Well, I do now. And a donkey.”
Mark choked on his wine and spat it into the fire. I pulled my leather jacket closer to me as the wind had picked up.
“Forty acres and a mule.” I explained. “And a dog, a nice big hairy friendly dog.”
“For the buckets?”
“Yep, if you want a compost toilet, that’s the deal, okay?”
He stood up and reached for my hand. “Deal.”
The night ticked way and I wobbled off into the shadows every few hours. We talked about how this all came to be, the incredulous looks our friends had given us as they waved us off last week. Mark lay down and climbed into this sleeping bag, saying so quietly I almost didn’t hear him, “damn, it’s beautiful here, isn’t it? And it’s so empty and silent, I can’t believe it.”
We listened in awe. Here the world turned on a sigh.
“No-one telling us what to do.”
“Nothing, no traffic, no cop cars, nothing like a damn city with its never ending noise and rules.” I pulled out my camera. “This is the life, Mark, it really is pretty magical here.”
I stumbled up hill. Falling over rocks and into cacti made for a slow progress. Finally, I stopped and I turned slowly three hundred and sixty degrees. The silhouettes of trees and shrubs filled the landscape eerily. I saw neither houses nor lights. I’d heard no traffic all night long. Only in the far distance, the interstate showed some stream of cars’ headlights as they drove north to Santa Fe and beyond. I heard nothing but for a coyote. Suddenly I laughed aloud. I’d heard a coyote. I stood stock-still and stared into the darkness, willing one to come up close to me. I’d read all about this kind of stuff on the drive across Idaho and Utah. A power animal is one that comes to you repeatedly. They have messages for us if we listen. I planned to do just that.
I waited for the coyote to come back.
“What the hell was that?” I whispered as I poked Mark with my boot. He murmured in his sleep. I poked harder. “There’s something out there.” I hissed at him. “Do something.”
“What?” he sat up fast and looked at me. “What? Oh, my head. Why does it hurt? I didn’t drink that much, did I?”
“Who cares about that, Cowboy? You’re meant to protect me. I heard something in the boxes, in our stuff. What is it?” I poked him once more and for good measure I grinned sweetly in the darkness.
Mark sat there in his brand new sleeping bag around his waist. His nice clean white tee shirt looked rumpled by sleeping on the sandy ground. So much for him trying to smarten up, damn musicians are scruffy buggers. He stood up, shedding his bag as he stretched, groaning slightly. I turned on my flashlight and passed it to him. He tucked his tee shirt back in and grabbed a fleece sweater from my pillow-pile. With another of his easy-going smiles, he told me to wish him luck. I blew him a huge wet kiss and sent him off to be the ‘man’. I watched the light flickering up and across our belongings as he looked for signs of life. He said nothing but kept moving closer. He checked the cooler and the boxes of books first. He went round back and into the U-Haul. I lost sight and sound of him. I sat huddled in my sleeping bag and cuddled my knees against my chest. I poked the fire and put on another log. I waited nervously.
“I think I know what it was.” Mark came back over to my side of the fire, bringing his bag with him. He spread out next to me and lay me down, spooning me through REI’s idea of a comfortable bed.
“What was it? A coyote? An owl? What?”
“A rat. A pack rat to be precise.”
I sat up quickly. Mark told me that he’d seen pictures of them in Mother Earth magazine.
“Oh, and they’re pretty cute by the way.”
“Cute? A rat is cute? And it’s in my stuff?”
“Our stuff. But yeah, it was cute and settled in for the night. We can do something about it in the morning okay Jen? Not now, I’m tired and it’s pitch black out here.”
“But how are we going to kill it?”
“We?” he asked, teasing from behind me, out of reach.
“Well, you, how are you going to kill it?” I giggled as he snuggled closer.
“And so spoke the vegetarian pacifist? What about your love of animals? What about those power animals? What if this is one of yours?”
“Ha, ha, very funny, just don’t let it any where near me tonight, okay?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’m on duty right now as I…” and with that he fell asleep. I lay there and listened intently. The flashlight stayed close by. I flinched at every whisper and rattle. I kept the fire bright. I finished the bottle of wine alone. Like I said, Mark slept soundly, the bastard.
JUNE: MEETING THE NEIGHBORS
“Maybe walking to town wasn’t such a great idea.”
We huddled in the shade of a half dead tree. Mark’s nose was lobster red. My tongue stuck to my lips. The heat was relentless. I’d not slept well. Mark had a hangover. What a perfect first day in New Mexico, eh?
We’d spent the morning making plans, what to buy, what we needed, where to set up the tent – that kind of thing. Oh, and ice, we needed ice. I’d suggested walking to Oliver.
It hadn’t seemed that far in the truck, going as slow and steady as we’d driven, I’d figured a few miles at most. Now though was a whole different perspective.
We passed the dead dog again. For some reason, we both walked up close and examined the body closely.
“A boy,” said Mark with authority. He poked the body with a stick of dried cactus. I’d kept back in case it stank. It didn’t. My curiosity drove me nearer. I noticed the tuxedo style of white chest and black body. White paws on three feet. Thick dense fur and a long scrawny tail, the dog was pretty odd looking I have to say. I nodded wisely.
“Yep, a boy.”
We carried on walking for another ten minutes before taking a break. The water bottle was empty by then. I noticed that Mark’s navy blue shirt had large wet rings under his armpits. Mark looked at me strangely when he noticed me staring. “I hear something.”
“Uh huh.” I rolled my eyes.
“No, seriously. I can hear a car or a truck or something. Come on.” He stepped back out into the full day sun. June at midday was not going to be my favorite time of year, I decided. I followed my boyfriend and we started walking once more. The thought of a beer at the tavern kept me going, sort of. The trees no longer seemed as dead and useless as yesterday, I saw them as potential time-outs and craved sitting under each and every one. I noticed the range of colors but had no words to describe them. I’d need to get a thesaurus for the eighteen shades of brown.
A beat up old diesel truck pulled up behind us but I stayed under a juniper tree. Mark chatted away and within minutes I found myself sitting between him and the driver. Danny. Danny the Dieselhead, he told us to call him.
“So you two bought old Pete’s place, did you?”
He took me by surprise. “Yeah, how did you know?”
“Well, you’re not locals for one. Why else would someone be stupid enough to walk down here in the middle of the day? It’s fucking hot out there.” Danny laughed harshly and spat out of his window. “Smoke anyone?” He offered a roll-up.
I shook my head. I’d stopped smoking tobacco eight months and three weeks ago. Mark’s hand shot out and took it from him with a thanks. He lit it. It didn’t smell like tobacco to me. I sat back to get out of the way of the smoke. My boyfriend was getting high with someone we’d just met and I wasn’t too happy about this. I kept my mouth shut though. For now.
They started talking about Oliver. Danny drove slowly, swerving this way and that to miss the rocks and boulders that we’d simply driven over the day before. He told us that even though Oliver, NM claims only three hundred residents, there are some four hundred locals in the hills and valleys surrounding the place.
“Like us.” I piped up.
Danny stopped talking. He looked over at me in my jean shorts and new red tee shirt with the Zia symbol. My sunglasses were high on my forehead and my short bleached blond hair stuck to my ears.
“Yep, like you, right.” He turned back to Mark. “Do you have any guns?”
Mark hiccupped, “Yes.”
“No.” I said just as quickly.
Danny looked between us, raising his glasses. “You might want to say yes, if any one else asks you. It keeps the riff raff away.”
I coughed. Mark knew what that meant; Danny was not exactly an emblem of the thriving middle class by any means. Bailing wire and duct tape held the truck together. The seats were worn through and covered by old blankets, themselves held together by dog fur. Dog fur.
“Are you missing a dog?”
“You mean that black and white boy back there?”
“Yep, that was mine. He never did listen. The coyotes got him last week.”
“How?” I couldn’t help but ask. He seemed so nonchalant about it all.
“Well, every night they’d come a calling, howling in the arroyos and picking off the hares and the critters near by. Old dumb dog of mine wanted to run with them for the last three years, but I’d get him in the kennel by nightfall. Until last week. I was in the city. Santa, that is. I got home late. The damn dog was gone. Poor bastard never learned, did he?”
I stared out the window. Note to self: keep dogs in at night.
Mark asked where Danny lived, was it nearby? Danny slowed down to a crawl even my Grandma could have kept up with and he pointed out behind us. Into the barren blank land that I was to call home.
“Yep, there, there she is. My home. Built it myself I did. Took me some twenty years, but she’s done now. Well, not quite but almost. Brick by brick, I made them myself.”
It took him that long? Not us, Mark wasn’t going to be some slacker. A year at most, that’s what I figured. I looked hard, I did, but I didn’t see a home out there. Mark kept trying to find it, is that it? Is that it? Danny finally stopped the truck and made us get out. He stood on a rock and pointed back towards our place.
“There. See that twisted juniper tree, hugging a pinion, with a huge boulder to the right?”
He waited patiently as we stared and stared, as if I could make out which tree but then Mark found it. He described it to me, “Straight ahead, thirty degrees north, down four inches, there is dark grey rectangle. See it? That’s the roof, I think.”
Danny slapped him on the back. “Well done. Not bad for a tourist.”
“We’re neighbors,” I exclaimed excitedly.
Danny sighed. “Yeah, but don’t come over asking for a cup of sugar. I’m not that kind of neighbor. I don’t like visitors, not generally. The dogs don’t like it neither.”
“Dogs? You’ve got more?”
“Oh yeah, they keep on having pups, you know how it is.”
I bit my tongue. Danny was our new neighbor. Anyway, we needed the ride to town. Damned if I was walking any more today.
Danny dropped us off at my Subaru in the parking lot of the general store. Mark wanted to get the shopping done, coffee, bacon and eggs, two bags of ice and all of that. I pointed out that it’d all go off by the time we got home.
“Oh, right. So beer first and after that shopping?”
I gave him a hug; he was so smart sometimes. I opened up the car and sat down. Then back up. Fast. The seat burnt my thighs. The water bottle on the back shelf had drooped. The M&M’s were slime. We cranked open all four windows and stood back.
“Walk to the tavern?” Mark suggested.
“Yep, let’s leave it like this. Oh, and add it to the list that we need the window shades.”
Mark took out his notebook and wrote it on page three of the things we needed. I took my bag and off we walked. It’s a half-mile from one end of town to the other. The sun shone. Tourists passed us and smiled. Kids biked down the road with dogs chasing at full speed.
Life was great but for these facts: My head hurt. My skin burnt. My knees wobbled. My new Nikes pinched my feet. I needed a cold drink, preferably alcoholic.
On either side of the two-lane highway were small old wooden houses made into galleries and stores. A thrift store. Rugs. Art. Art. Art. More art. Cowboy boots. Art. Stone work. Art. And one coffee shop. I craved beer not coffee after our little adventure. We kept on walking.
“How’s the hangover?”
Mark laughed easily. “Not bad actually. I don’t know why I felt so crap. I used drink much more than three glasses of wine in Washington. It must be because I was tired from driving or something. How are you feeling today?”
“Apart from hot and tired? Pretty good. I can’t wait to sit down with the locals and talk to them about living out here. I wonder if anyone knows we’re new here?”
Mark shook his head. “Well, I don’t reckon they’ll take to us that quickly, you know. They don’t know us from Adam, or the rest of the tourists. Hey, isn’t it July the Fourth next weekend? I wonder what they do to celebrate here.”
We crossed the road with two yellow and orange local mutts and followed them up the steps and into the tavern. Yes, the dogs went inside too.
The sun woke me. Nelson poked his nose under the covers and scooted closer against my shivering sleeping bag clad body. He sniffled contentedly as his warmth seeped through the layers of blankets and I laughed. The sun peeked over the mountain, and steam rose from the lake in front. The frost on the windows shimmered as it faded and dripped. The fire pit beckoned.
“Coming out, Nelson?” I sat up and grabbed the jacket and hunter’s cap. Nelson claimed the pillow instead and wagged his tail. “Okay, okay, you just warm yourself while I make the fire, get the coffee going and fry up some eggs, is that it?”
Thump. Thump. Nelson smiled his doggy smile as I opened the door and climbed out. The only problem with the 4Runner? You can’t open the tailgate from inside. I can live with that though.
Ravens flew overhead, crowing to each other as they swooped and soared in the light breeze. I shivered but poked at the embers. I added some old pinecones, yesterday’s newspaper, and a handful of small sticks. The fire took within minutes. I set the grate over the rocks and prepped the coffee pot. With chores done, I settled back on the tailgate.
I’d woken only the once during the night. Well, Nelson woke me. Another nightmare, I guess. He’d nudged his wet nose in my face until I took a deep breath and woke. Thump. Thump. I recalled reliving my memories of Mark and living in the hills together, walking along the arroyo to the school bus. The overnight solstice party at Andrew’s home with all that live folk music. Louise’s dogs greeting me on my weekly volunteering visit with her rescue. My heart broke to think I could lose all that.
I shook myself free of the images and tied my hair back into a loose ponytail. The coffee pot farted its readiness and I used the jacket sleeve to grab and put it onto the campsite’s concrete table, my new kitchen. I moved aside a crate of canned soups, snacks, teas, and cooking supplies. I poured out a mugful and added cream and honey. My days always start in such comfort if I can help it.
Nelson groaned softly then jumped out and ran down to the lake and drank deeply. Then he peed into the lake.
“Hey, bud, you hungry?”
Nelson bounded up, ears flat and tail wagging, and I passed down a full bowl of kibble. I’m constantly amazed at how much this boy can put away.
“What should we do today, then? Head west? Or simply find somewhere warmer than here? Like Arizona, you think? I wish I hadn’t forgotten the map at that tavern but oh well eh? I can fake it. The truck will take us wherever we want, and in comfort too, right boy?”
Nelson burped and sat down at my feet, staring into the hills around us, as if looking for someone.
“I know, I know, I miss Frida too.” Nelson looked up at me, hearing her name, but his ears drooped and he lay down across my boots unhappily.
In the bus together last summer, Mark had liked to sleep in with the dogs, but not me. Up and out early for me, sitting on the porch, watching the birds cruise the neighborhood, listening for the coyotes in the hills. Grabbing my journal, I wrote a few phrases remembered from the day before, just my passing thoughts, little reminders of sights and sounds on the road, just the two us, a girl and her dog. Those short interactions at the gas stations. The conversation with Salty Dan at the tavern in Farmington, meeting his wife, and talking of books we’ve loved. Finding the cemetery at the end of the national forest road, one that was in memory of firefighters who’d lost their lives protecting a nearby village. The eagle in the ponderosa. The snakeskin on the boulder at the signpost for this campsite. I made notes about Mark too, his comments that still hurt, and the ones I could answer now, too late I know. I carried this book with me, in the jacket, with a notebook of tasks to be taken care of if I decided to stay in Oliver. If I decided to make a go of living alone in the bus in a small community like that. I didn’t yet know, didn’t know if I had it in me. To go back or to see everyone again.
I stood and gulped back the last of the coffee.
“Ready yet, fella? Ready for a walk?”
A sign at the door announced: There is no town drunk. We all take turns. A room opened up in front of us empty but for ten or so wooden tables and a handful of locals sitting at the bar. The oldest bar in the area the waiter told us as he took us to a table by one of the windows. He sat us down and took our drinks order. The local beer was our choice, Santa Fe Pale Ale. I figured it was what everyone around here drank. Mark smoothed out his dirty blond hair, trying to tame his curls into some semblance of style. The stubble on his chin and cheeks had saved those parts of his face from sunburn but his nose glowed and the rest of him didn’t look so good. I kinda liked the rough look on him. I told him so.
“That bad? Oh, I’d better go clean up.” and he practically ran to the bathrooms. I waited for him to come back before I started my pint, but he was too long gone.
“Cheers.” I muttered to myself and drank deeply. “Not bad, not bad at all.” I drank some more and started to feel better.
Mark came back over, his hair wet and flattened. A stain from the water dripping off his face covered the buttons on his shirt. Thinking he looked all tucked in and presentable, he sat down next to me, facing the bar.
“I need to get a battery operated shaver. I can’t do this cowboy thing for much longer.” He pulled out his notepad and made another note. “Tomorrow? Drive to Santa Fe to get supplies? I heard there’s a Super Wal-Mart this side of town – we could go there.”
“Do you reckon they’d have solar lights? I’m not into stumbling into a cactus in the middle of the night again. You know, we get to do the right thing and be all Green now. Oh, do we need to get a tent? Did you ever find it in the U-Haul?”
“No, I didn’t find it. But we’ll probably find the RV this afternoon and move into that. Anyway, we’ll need to drop the truck off tomorrow unless we want to pay for another day or two? We could get some groceries and another cooler while we’re out. What else?” He looked at the lists that kept growing minute by minute. He scratched his beard.
“Water, we need more water containers. Can we fill them at Wal-Mart? What about batteries for the flashlights? Matches? Fire starters? What else?”
The list grew and grew. We sat and drank while making plans. We didn’t even talk about the home he’d build, just the settling in phase. One day at a time, or so my uncle used to say once he got sober. Too much caffeine and rum had made a mess of him. Then again, he’d been much more fun after his tainted coffee in the mornings.
Mark went outside for a cigarette. I sat alone and looked around. The tavern was dark and wooden with a single sided bar complete with mirrors and high stools. A stage stood ready for the bands on the weekends with a PA system and speakers laying off to the side. The air inside felt stale and warm. All four windows were firmly closed and by the paintwork was my guess. The tables all sat empty but for ours. Mid afternoon on a Thursday didn’t bring out many drinkers or tourists apparently. The bearded and stocky bartender chatted with a few people, shaking his head occasionally, and laughing at their jokes as he pocketed their tips. He walked past me on the way out to the porch, a cigarette hanging from his mouth. He stopped to ask if I needed another yet.
“No, I’m fine. Thanks.”
He nodded once, saying nothing more, and kicking the solid wood door, he went outside.
“Where are you from?”
A young man sat himself down opposite me and smiled. He was missing one tooth in the front. His skin was toasted a dark brown and he smelt odd. He had a short dark brown beard and long hair tied back in a ponytail. The tee shirt was worn to transparency. He held out a hand. It was dirty.
“I’m Dave. Pleased to meet you.”
I shook his hand out of habit and introduced myself, “I’m Jenny. Do you live around here too?”
He nodded and took a big gulp from his pint. “Yep, came here in ’96 when I was a kid. I grew up here. It’s changed that’s for sure, what with everyone and their dogs moving here. Well, yeah, anyway, I’ve not seen you around so I figured I’d be polite and see where you’re visiting from.”
I sipped my pint and wished Mark would come back in. I told Dave how I’d moved here from Olympia, and that we were going to build a place out of town on our land.
“We?” he echoed.
“Yes, me and my boyfriend. Mark.”
“Oh, that’s nice.” There was a pause as he finished his pint in one long gulp. He stood up and nodded absently. “Well, yeah, see you around I guess.”
I drank some more and pulled out my camera, deleting the blurred photos from the drive the day before. I put it away as the waiter had poured me another pint and dropped it off as I looked over our lists for in the morning and sighed. There was too much to be done. I sighed again.
“Are you okay?”
The waiter was standing nearby with a pitcher of water with ice.
“You’ll need this if you’re not from around here, you’ll get headaches, hangovers, feel sleepy and probably get all irritable. It’s altitude sickness; some get it worse than others. Be careful for a while, especially with alcohol. It’s twice as strong if you’ve come from sea-level, okay?” He topped up my water glass with more ice before heading back to the bar. He was tidy in his black tee shirt and jeans, short brown hair, and shaved unlike the rest of the men around. I scooped out a piece of ice when he wasn’t looking and put it down my bra.
The door opened and Mark came back over grinning loosely.
“Some guy got in my face, calling me a narc.” Mark sat down next to me and gave me a kiss. A big slobbery beer and smoke flavored kiss.
“What’s that for?”
“Bringing me to this crazy town. A narc. Me? Why did he say that?” He sat there in his black tee shirt with sweat stains drying out nicely, and tucked himself in, scratching at his newly forming beard. I described my brief visitor at the table and asked if that was who’d talked to him.
“I wouldn’t call it talking, but yeah, a young and ugly bugger, scruffy and full of himself. Yep, that’s the one. He kept on calling me a Fed, not listening to a word I said. I get the feeling he says that to anyone new. Someone else out there told him to give it a break and they all made fun of him for picking on me. I told him to call me Special Agent Bradley in future. I think that helped me make friends with the other guys out there after he left. The bartender, he was all right. He’d been out West to Oregon and Washington before he settled here with his wife and kids. I liked him.”
“Did you tell them we live here now? That we’re locals?”
“Yes, but they’d already heard about us walking up Gringo Gulch in the middle of the day. Danny had stopped in here to tell them about picking up some tourists walking out in the noon sun.”
“And?” I sipped more water. “What else did you find out?”
“Not much, I tried to tell them that we bought the place so we’re not tourists, but they kind of laughed. It wasn’t mean, but sort of sarcastic, you know? Oh, and you know what? I’m told there’s an old school bus on the property, not an RV like the one the realtor promised. Somewhere on the back half of the forty acres Pete set up camp in a converted 1950s school bus. He lived in it until his daughter got him an RV or something and then he hit the road and sold up. Anyway, they reckon it’s probably all set up for us, better than waiting for the monsoon season in a tent.” Mark reached over and drank the rest of my pint.
I passed him the water too. “Finish that,” I said and I told him why he’d had those headaches all day long. He frowned but downed it in one.
“A bus you said? No RV?” I asked. “And monsoons?”
“Yep, regular as clockwork I’m told.”
We sat there nursing the beers when it occurred to me. “What about our stuff? Where are we going to put it all? When exactly does it start raining?” I needed details.
“In July.” Mark grinned. “So in about a weeks time. Do you want to go live in a school bus with me then?” he offered with a wickedly disbelieving grin.
“Yeah, why not.” I punched him lightly.
“Really?” He looked shocked. “You’d do that?”
“On one condition,” I told him. “No pack rats, cute or not.”
We clinked glasses and called for the check.