Living The Dream: 33

As part of the weekly excerpt from the novel LIVING THE DREAM:

DECEMBER: THE DRIVE NORTH

The interstate was passable but busy with the evening commuters heading home. I followed Officer Jaime at a steady pace, passing when he did, changing lanes and slowing, whatever he did, so did we. Nelson finally left my lap and curled up on the passenger seat with my hand on his head. He snored. My eyes didn’t blink; too much caffeine in one day. The night drew closer and I craved a warm bath and bed. Instead, I’d have to make polite conversation with another stranger and eat her food at her table and listen to her questions and and and…

The state police truck slowed and pulled off just south of Albuquerque. I followed down side roads and through old neighborhoods that made me think of Mexico, not that I’d ever been. The traffic and the lights woke me. Nelson slept on however.
We pulled up in front of a low adobe home with farolitas and a Christmas tree in the front yard. I turned off the engine as Nelson sat up. The front door opened.

 

“Our daughter used to live with us, she converted the garage into a separate studio. I turned on the heat and the bed’s made. There’s a plate of food on the table and the bathroom is on the left. Go on, Jennifer, go on, and make yourself at home. Come on through the kitchen when you want company. And don’t worry about Nelson; we usually have the kids bring their dogs when they come visit. Go on, go eat and warm up. Oh, and my name’s Gloria. Go on, girl.”

She shuffled Nelson and I through a side door and closed it softly behind herself. I was alone.

 

I woke to sunlight and a snoring dog. The central heating blew warm air across the bedroom and I nestled back under the covers. So much for heading back to the bus last night, Gloria wouldn’t let us. She’d insisted it was too dangerous in the snow and if her husband had taken the time off work then they were going to have a nice night at home together. I didn’t force the issue. I was too tired and Nelson was exhausted by his own adventures. I’d shuffled back to the studio and half heard muffled conversations in the kitchen as I fell deeply asleep with Nelson stretched out against my back.

The smell of coffee woke me a second time, that and a knock at the door. Jaime popped his head around and grinned.

“Coffee’s ready and its time to get up. Ten o’clock, young lady. Hey, Nelson, are you hungry? Bacon, my boy?”
Nelson jumped off the bed, trotted over but stopped suddenly to look back at me. I smiled and told him to go play, that it’d be okay.
“I’ll leave the door open for him, don’t worry. Do you take cream? Okay, see you in a minute. We have a full day ahead of us,” and he laughed at Nelson’s eager snout pushing in his hand.
I dressed, washed quickly, and caught up with them all sitting at the kitchen table. Gloria had on her reading glasses and she pushed them up to look me over. “Well, I knew it. You look so much better after a good sleep. You didn’t look your best yesterday, that’s the truth. All pale and baggy eyes, but now, why. You’re quite a beauty. Maybe we should introduce her to Pete, our son that is?” She happily teased me, chatting away as she poured out a mug of nectar. In front of them both lay a detailed map of Santa Fe County and the back roads of Northern New Mexico. “We started looking up the roads around Oliver, trying to guess where exactly you might live from your stories, but I doubt we got it right. I thought you might be out here,” and she pointed to Gringo Gulch area. I nodded but showed the last little stretch that took her to my property.

“You must have amazing views of the mountains out there. I can’t wait to see what you’ve done. We made a picnic and Jaime has the day off so as soon as you’re ready, we’ll head out, all right?”
“You don’t have to do that; I can make it from here. You honestly don’t have to drive up there.”
“But we do. I promised your mom.”
I almost dropped my mug. “My mom? You spoke to my mom? When? How did that happen?”
Gloria blushed and explained how my phone had kept ringing during the night, so much so that when it woke them the third time, Jaime had picked it up and seen the screen flashing “Mom”. Gloria had taken it from him and ended up having a nice long chat with Martha at two in the morning. I cringed like a teenager and poured out more coffee and cream.
“Anyway, we have to drive you back and make sure you settle in okay. No more accidents or cold nights for you, Jenny. Your mom made us promise to keep an eye on you both. You’d better call her before we hit the road though. And don’t tell her that the pass through Cedar Crest is snowed in. Anyway, we’ll just take it slow and steady in Jaime’s SUV since my Honda is useless in weather like this. Well, hurry along. Go call your mom, take Nelson with you outside, the porch will be warm enough, go on girl.”
She’s a force to be reckoned with, is Gloria. We did as told and I stood outside, huddled against a wall out of the wind as I called Mom. She picked up immediately.

 

 

 

 

NOVEMBER: CAFÉ CHAT

 

 

I pulled into the parking lot a few minutes late. Mark waved from a window in one of the busiest cafes on the south side of town. I grabbed backpack and phone, opened the car windows a crack for Nelson and pulled myself together. A good night’s sleep had helped.
I ordered breakfast and a large latte before joining my boyfriend in the booth at the back. He stood up awkwardly but didn’t reach for me. We were there to talk.

 

“So what is it you want, Mark?”

I lay my coat across the seat next to me and sat down with my back to the crowded café. Mom was right; this was a good place to meet him. I waited a moment but he didn’t say anything, just looked shy for once.

“What is it you want to do? Leave New Mexico? Or just take a vacation? You need to talk to me, Mark, because I feel like you’ve taken me by surprise and it feels like shit, you know? I…no, Mom said I should just listen to you. You. So you need to talk.”
I added honey to the latte and sat back to study him. He had shaved off the goatee and wore his all black uniform, as I used to tease him, the musician in mourning look from the city days.

“I’d like us to be friends.”

Pause. I sipped my coffee and didn’t throw it over him.
“You what? Want us to be friends? Like not be your girlfriend, is that it?”
He nodded as he fiddled with his smokes but then he looked up, sad and tired and something else I didn’t recognize, not immediately. “I need to go back to the city, for a while at least. I need to play music, you know that. That’s who you fell in love with, Jen, a working musician, not a hippy living off the land. Music is my life. I don’t have music here. I don’t have – ”

“A life?”

He nodded again, more sure of himself. He knew I didn’t like scenes of any kind. “Well, yeah. You want to live like this and I don’t so I reckon we need to separate, you know? Like be friends while I’m in LA and when you come then we can get together again. You seen, I’m heading to Venice Beach tomorrow, in the Ford, I’ll leave you the Subaru. It’ll be slow going but,” and he grinned at the thought of the drive before he noticed my expression. “It’ll be okay, I’m taking all back roads, head south, and all of that, get to the warmer routes. I’ll be safe, don’t worry.”
A waitress dropped off my plate of eggs and toast. I pushed it aside. Mark reached over and claimed a piece of toast. I slapped it out of his hand, surprising us both.
“Oh, sorry.” He leaned back in his chair and stared out the window. “Well, I need to go, to try again, see if I can get into a band that appreciates me, you know? Make music, make a CD, do that stuff that I can’t do here. I’ll come back to visit, you know? I will, if that’s what you want? I like it here; it’s a great place for vacations. We could live in LA or Seattle or something and come here in summer for a few weeks. It’s not like you have a mortgage or anything. Your grandpa set you up nicely, right? The inheritance set us up, didn’t it? I mean, we could sell up and come back to visit and just stay in the B and B? Then we’d really be good to go and I could fund my own CD, my own band, right? Yeah, there’s so much we could do together, Jen, if only we get out of this place.”
I picked at my food. Mom had told me to listen, really listen. But I didn’t like what he was saying. Could I leave yet? I’d talked to Mom for hours the night before. She’d persuaded me to stay in a motel in town and she’d even paid. But I’d had to promise to hear him out. Was this out? I shook my head and realized he was waiting for me to say something, to agree to sell out, to leave my dream behind, and follow his. I couldn’t do it, not completely, not yet, so I changed the conversation.

“Were you warm enough in the bus last night? At least it’s meant to stay sunny for a few more days, that’s what I saw on TV this morning.”
“At the motel?”
“Yep, the forecast is snow on Monday and to stay below freezing after that.”
“I’d better hit the road tomorrow then, huh?” He was thinking out loud, tapping the cigarette pack on the table in time with the music. “Well, if I go back to the bus now, I’ll have time to pack those last few clothes I’ll need for a few weeks, and then there’s Frida’s stuff. I’ll have to keep the guitars inside overnight, though.”
“Frida’s not going with you.”
Mark looked up in surprise. “Of course she is. She’s my girl. She’s coming to LA. It’s too cold here for her, you know that.”

I shook my head, deeply calm and cold myself. “I rescued her. She stays with me.”
He shook his head too. “Nope, she comes with me, you get the nervous Nellie you adore so much that you cuddle him and not your boyfriend.”

The waitress took my half-eaten plate away as we stared silently at each other. I thanked her but didn’t look up. In the parking lot, a dog barked. Nelson sat up in the driver’s seat and growled at a young man squeezing between the vehicles.
“I have to go.” I stood up and gathered my things.

“Back to the bus with me?” he asked and I shook my head. “You’re going back to the motel?”
“Yes, to the motel. I can’t watch you take Frida away from me.” I wiped at my face and pushed my hair out of the way. “But you’ll be back? After Thanksgiving? We can talk about it, then?”
He stood and nodded. “Yeah, but we’ll just have to play it by ear. I can’t live here any more, not full time. Would you think about moving out west for a while, please Jen? Split your time between the two places?” He struggled into his leather jacket. “It could be the best of both worlds, if you did?”
At the door, we both suddenly got shy, neither leaving nor wanting to stay. Finally, I looked up at him and nodded. “I’ll think about it, I’ll try Mark. In the New Year, maybe I can go with you, but not yet.”
Mark smiled briefly and walked off towards his truck.

I shouted after him as he started the engine and drove off. “Were you warm enough last night? You never said.”
The truck pulled up near me. Mark looked awkward for a second and then nodded. “I was. I stayed at Anne’s.”

 

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MFA Writing and Publishing: week one

Reading lists. Essays. Critical responses. Creative responses. Research. More essays. More readings. Editing. Writing.

Well, yes, it’s began folks and I thought you might like an inside view as to our first week at VCFA, the Vermont College of Fine Arts. The campus dates back to the 1800s, huge imposing brick buildings with columns, ten foot windows, a lawn with a fountain, and steep roads leading into Montpelier, with trees, more trees and a ring of low lying soft hills and mountains. Tis idyllic.

The class is held in a basement though, overlooking the parking lot outback and I feel gypped! Why in here? When there are such great classrooms upstairs, unused with these inspiring beautiful views? We sit, all eighteen of us, around a collection of tables back to back, creating that family mealtime, all facing each other with our books and laptops spread out. First class.
Julianna Baggott is here. Our faculty director and teacher, an inspiration herself, a powerhouse of words and action. Tuesdays we have five hours with Julianna, a focused five hours with a dynamic writer of all genres, she is forward facing, industry facing, with a desire to bring us into the craft of writing wherever we each are as individuals as well as help us find our places and careers as writers. Just what I need. I’ve done as much as I can on my own, in the vacuum of a small mountain village in New Mexico, with a determined pushing and presenting my work as often as possible to the larger world, to the community out there, here. Yes, I’m here. In graduate school and it hits me this week. I’ve not felt this fully myself before. I’m a writer. I’m a grad student. I can do this. I will do this.

  • 3 x33: a short fiction collection that is 1200 pages long. And yes, I’ve read it.
  • The Subversive Copy Editor
  • Story by Neugeboren
  • Forgotten Places by Johnson
  •  Three poems to be reviewed.
  • Five essays to read over for a journal I work for.
  • Owls by Norden
  • Tra Bong by O’Brien
  • My Man Bovanne by Bambara
  • Masked/ Unmasked by Hunger Mountain
  • Upstreet #13

And for my own pleasure and research for a new book idea:

  • Columbus Was Right! by Barbara Toy
  • Descansos by Harrison Candelaria Fletcher
  • Solo, a collection of travel essays
  • Susan Sontag
  • Grace Perry

Forms Class with Julianna gave us three short stories to read with critical essays to write, three creative responses as essays, one on our own muse and process, a free associative writing exercise, and another on six random words and how it provokes memory.

Professional Development class gave me a smaller assignment of writing a cover letter and to research small presses, their submission processes.

Publishing Class gave me the three poems and six essays to read and review, one to copy-edit, and a mere 36 pages of a copy-editing book to read. Was there something else? Oh, I hope not.

First week. That’s all. Just a few things to take care of. So what did we all do, us students, after class on Friday? Yep, pub. We went to the pub.
And bumped into Tom. Thomas Christopher Greene that is, the President of the college.

It was all in all a good week. Now I’ve got some reading to do, forgive me. I’ve got to go.

 

Living The Dream: 32

As part of the weekly excerpts of the novel LIVING THE DREAM: 

DECEMBER: SNOW BOY

The wind bit into me as I hiked the land, one filled with cactus and junipers. I stood and yelled, sometimes whispered, and mostly cried. My Nelson, my nervous Nellie had run off and I didn’t know what to do. Should I stay by the truck? Should I get a posse together to look for him? Who would I call though? Not Graham nor Anne. Dieselhead Danny? Louisa? I didn’t know what to do but keep walking and calling his name, hoping he’d hear me, hoping he’d suddenly appear at my feet, his sweet sad eyes looking up at me. It didn’t happen like that though. I walked and called until my voice cracked until I’d cried as much as I could. Until my head hurt and my knees gave way and I sank to the ground. That’s how Officer Ramirez found me, in a field on my knees, staring empty eyed into the snowy distance.

“Jennifer? Jennifer? Are you all right?” He sank down next to me and reached for my face, checking me out for injuries or drugs, I don’t know. He pulled me up and asked me to stand with him, to explain what had happened. I told him everything, how I’d adopted Nelson, his story, the weeks on the road, and the crash.
“He ran off when I was out cold, I guess. I don’t know. Your friend, the other officer, said the door was open when he pulled up but the snow had hidden any tracks. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do…” I shook my head and glared at the clouds building up overhead. “I can’t leave him out here, he’s too vulnerable. It’s too cold. What do I do?”
He took me by the arm and directed me back towards the vehicles, small dots in the valley. “First, I get some hot coffee and soup into you. We’ll call your friends after that okay? The dog lady you mentioned. She’d be a good resource for you right now. Let’s go get warm though, okay? Come on, Jen, it’s okay. We’ll find him. We’ll find him.”
Officer Ramirez kept me upright, muttering reassurances to me as I stumbled and fell in exhaustion. The clouds grew dark and the afternoon sun disappeared. I shivered and pulled my coat closer. Where was my friend?

 

We sat in the cop car, parked a small distance behind the 4Runner. I’d left the tailgate dropped down and the engine running, in the hope Nellie would hear us, would find us in the snowstorm. I sipped my coffee grateful for Jaime’s company and his steady presence.

“Won’t you get in trouble? Shouldn’t you be out working or something?”
He shook his head and smiled at me self-consciously, “I called in sick. My wife knows where we are, and she’ll cover if anyone from the department calls looking for me. I can stay a while; don’t worry. Mary even offered to bring us dinner if we’re still here. Let’s just wait it out, I doubt the snow will keep on coming for much longer, and then we can go out again, but you’ll have to borrow more layers okay? It’s too cold for what you’re wearing.”
I nodded and warmed my hands on the mug. That’s what worried me most, the cold. He’s a husky, I know they have thick fur, but he’s a lap dog, a big soft lap dog that doesn’t know how to survive outdoors. He needs me. I need him. I finished the soup as the light faded and evening came upon us.

Officer Jaime nudged me, and pointed off to the side with his chin, saying nothing. Flashes of movement caught my attention. I put the mug down on the dashboard. I held my breath. Eyes glared in the darkness and slowly came closer. No sounds of footsteps reached us, only a sense that whatever it was, an animal was checking us out. Not a coyote I prayed, I’d dreaded a pack of coyotes attacking Nelson, a nightmare that flashed suddenly in my head and I flinched. The eyes stopped still. Then a tail wagged slowly and Nelson stood tall in the snow. His coffee coat lay flat and wet, but his ears perked up as I whispered his name.
“Nelson?”
I flew out the cop car and fell to my knees in the snow. He crept up towards me. It was not the happy return I’d hoped for: He stood at a distance and watched. Jaime didn’t move from within the vehicle. Nelson sniffed deeply as I sat still as a snowman. He sniffed and his tail slowly wagged but he didn’t come closer. I talked to him, to my boy, explained what had happened, the crash, my headache, looking and calling him, and how Jaime, Officer Jaime was helping me. Nelson’s eyes flickered over to the man, and back to me.
“Nelson, it’s okay now. It’s okay. We can go home.”
He crept closer, to within reach of my hands and I held them out for him to smell. He licked me once then jumped, knocking me down in the snow. He pinned me, sitting across my chest, panting and licking and wagging. Thump. Thump.
“We can go home, I promise, Nelson. We’re going home.”

 

“I’m coming back with you, but we have to stop by my place in Albuquerque, okay? My wife made us all dinner and she said she has some steak pieces for Nelson too. No arguments, Jen.” He cut me off as I opened my mouth to protest. “We’re both making sure you get home safely. Mary insists. You can argue with her when we get there but not with me. Come on. It’s time to get out of this weather and warm up.”

 

The cop car pulled out behind me as I gradually inched my way up the embankment and onto the interstate. Traffic drove around us slowly, staring at the sight of a 4Runner driven by a husky.

 

 

 

 

NOVEMBER: COLD BITES

 

 

The Ford slid sideways on the dirt road and Mark swore under his breath. He silently pulled over and climbed out. I sat inside with the heat blasting me. Mark went to each front wheel and turned something with a grunt. He opened up the door and stepped up fast. The cold wind bit at his neck and he shivered like a wet dog.
“Damn it’s cold out there. You okay?”
“Fine.”

He changed into four-wheel drive and set off up hill once again. No tracks, no vehicles, no lights, just snow lay all around. Silence of a whole new variety smothered us. I grinned at the thought of us singing as we tromped through drifts in the middle of the night like Anne and Graham had. But then Mark piped up as he lit a smoke.

“I can’t wait to get to the city to see Keith and the kids. Going out to a club and walking back in the early morning in just a thin leather jacket. Damn, it’s perfect timing, isn’t it? Hon? What with this weather? We can leave the dogs with Louisa or get Graham to come feed them every few days when we’re gone.”

I shook my head and watched the wipers smear snow across the screen, half frozen ice dripped off the mirrors. An owl sat tall on a pinion tree, undisturbed by the Ford’s slow progress. The snow kept coming down, hard and heavy.

We turned down the last mile in silence. I tucked my hands under my thighs and sighed.

“You tired, Jen?”
“Yep.”
“I’ll make us a fire then. You can go straight to bed.”

“Fine.”

I did just that; I went to bed without him. I lit an oil lamp next to the bed and called the dogs up to snuggle with me. Frida lay on Mark’s pillow and Nelson across my lap. The bed warmed up immediately and I faced the window, watching the snow come down slow and thick. It was so incredibly beautiful. I fell asleep.

 

The cold woke me. Mark was fast asleep in the armchair next to the woodstove, neglected and barely lit. I quickly pushed the dogs to one side and pulled on layers then made up a fire, quietly so as to not disturb Mark. I heated water for coffee and waited in the wintery silence. Outside the sun crept over the mountains and the air was still. Not a sound penetrated the snow banks. I shivered but not from cold. With thermals, jeans, a woolen sweater from my mom and a good coat, I headed outside with the dogs reluctantly following me. Nelson soon relaxed and became a snowplow, running full speed with nose to the ground as he sped around us. Frida shivered from the cold. I picked her up and passed her back inside the bus. Nelson and I hiked across the blank canvas, me with a mug of steaming black coffee in hand, him with a white nose of snow.

 

Juniper trees bent under the weight of a good few inches of wet snow, the kind that drips into your collar or soaks your ankles, at least that’s what I found. The sun shone in the distance and I drank the rest of the coffee when we reached a small peak above the land, looking down upon the bus with smoke trailing out the stovepipe. Idyllic. It looked so idyllic. But it wasn’t. I couldn’t pretend otherwise, not any more. I couldn’t pretend we shared this dream any more. I wiped at my eyes, willing myself to hold back and simply see what was going on. Nelson brought me a white stick to throw for him, his tail thumping happily against a rotten pinion. The tree suddenly toppled with a crash. Nelson sprang and skidded down hill in surprise and I laughed. I laughed in delight. At the snow, at my home, at the dogs, at life. This is my life, and I love it. I’m not leaving.

 

“I’m leaving.”
“What? What do you mean?”
I stood above the bed where Sleeping Beauty was curled up with Frida now on my pillow. Mark sat up and pulled the covers up with him, “you’re leaving? In this?”

The fire had warmed the bus but not that you’d really notice. I ignored Mark and stoked the fire with a couple of thick juniper chunks, and got it blazing. “Do you want some coffee before I head out?”
“Where are you going?”
I put on the water to boil, as regardless of what Mark said now, I’d need another cup. I squatted down in front of the woodstove and opened its door to watch flames. The snow glistened outside in the glare of the mid-morning sunshine. The water bubbled and out of habit I made two mugs of coffee, taking one back to Mark who had been watching me from the bed. Nelson asked to come back inside, his snow playing time over. He looked at me then Mark and decided to lie at my feet. I petted him absently, fiddling with his long silk like ears. I sipped my drink and warmed my hands at the same time.
“This is a good life, Mark, a life I love. I’m not going back West for Thanksgiving, not to visit nor to live.”
Mark reached for his sweatshirt. “Can we have this conversation another time? Like when it’s warmer?”
“It’s warm here, with a fire going and hot drink in my hands. I’m comfortable.”
“Well, I’m not.” He climbed out of the bed despite Frida’s grumbling, and he dressed in as many layers as he could, making quite a production out of it. I sat back in the armchair and Nelson lay down across my boots with a contented sigh.

“I’d like us to go back for Thanksgiving, just to see, Jenny, to remind us of what it’s like to live with central heating and movies and buses and people around. I miss it, that’s all I’m saying. I miss it. Don’t you?”
I glanced out the window next to me, and took a moment. “No, no I don’t. This is good for me. I even laughed this morning when I fell into a snow bank. I can do this, Mark. We can do this.”
“But do we want to? I don’t know. It’s been fun, good to make stuff, but it’s real now. This snow makes it real and we can’t do this, we’re not up for it. I’m not and I know you, you’re not either.” He crouched down in front of me and rested his arms on my legs. “It’s too much, let’s just take a trip down memory lane for the holidays okay? You know we have more than enough places to stay when we go back to Washington, and Keith, all my friends in LA, they’d put us up for sure. I’d get to play some gigs, bring in some cash for us, it’ll be easy, Jen, easy.”
I shook my head and moved in the chair. He took his hands back and stood up. He put the mug down on the counter and walked outside. The smell of his cigarette wafted through a cracked window. I stroked Nelson’s ears again, and lay back and closed my eyes.

 

“Did you ever want this? To live like this, Mark?”
He shook his head slowly, “not like you did, no.”
“So what the hell were you thinking? Patronizing me or something? Shit, I can’t believe this. Mom said -”
“Your mom said what exactly?”
I sat down and reached for one of his cigarettes but he pulled them away. “What Jen? What did Martha say about me?”
“That I was imagining things, that you loved me…” I paused, remembering the rest of the story, her story. Mark picked up on it and frowned. He opened two bottles of beer and passed me one as he sat back down on the bed. The dogs had been sent to the floor and we’d camped out here for hours, talking, trying to understand. The woodstove and the sunshine made it bearably warm enough to sit in tee shirts and jeans alone. I shook my head and started to cry without sound. Mark sighed in exasperation.
“Why do women always have to cry? Drink your beer, Jen. Just drink some beer.”
Nelson came over and stood watching me at a distance. He’d never fully trusted Mark after the first night here. I reached for him and the pup stood close enough to reassure himself I wasn’t hurt then he wandered back to his blanket by the woodstove. Frida dozed. I drank the beer and looked around my home, our home, at the shelves we’d built, the paint we’d chosen, the bed we’d made.
“We did this together, Mark. We found this place, dreamed of building a home, growing food, finding a community, all of it. We did this together.”
“I did most of it, not that you noticed. You were too busy helping everyone else. Didn’t you notice I’ve been lonely out here? I’m useless; I can’t find a decent band, no regular gigs, no teaching guitar, nothing that I like. It’s all just the stuff you like, Jen, with animals everywhere, and then making junky projects that will fall apart in a good wind. Is that something to be proud of? Working in a café for the rest of your life and living in a bus?”

“Mom didn’t seem too upset with me, did she?”
“I’m talking about you, Jen, not your mom.”
“I know, and you’re not being very nice about me are you? Saying this isn’t something to be proud of, saying you did all the work, not me. Is that what you really think? That this is all your doing? Well thanks a bunch, Mark.” I stood up and grabbed a jacket and car keys. “I’m going out a while. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
Mark stood up and towered over me. “You’re running away again? Leaving?”
“No, it’s you who says you’re leaving. Not me, I’m staying. This is my home. But yes, I’m going out. To play in the snow and see friends -” I stepped down onto the deck, clutching the coat and backpack.
“ – and hope I’m here when you get back? With the fire going and food made like a good little househusband, eh? Well, fuck you too.” And he slammed the door behind me. I stood on the deck, too shocked to cry. Then it opened again and Nelson flew out and the door closed gently after him.

 

I drove carefully down the road in my Subaru with the heater cranked and radio silent. Nelson stayed in the back seat, stretched out in the warmth and sunshine. I drove carefully with the phone to my ear that is, praying Mom would pick up. She didn’t. I tried Anne, just her voicemail, and the same happened with Graham and Louisa. Damn, I was alone with this.

Over Santa Fe, the clouds built a wall of gray, encompassing the mountains and creeping my direction. More snow by the look of it and during the afternoon was my guess. I kept trying the phone but no one answered. Nelson slept. What the fuck?

 

“Another, Jenny?”
I nodded and stared at the television above his head.

“Is Mark coming down later? I had a band call up asking for a gig and I think he’d get on well with them, you know? Should I just call him?”
I took the pint and muttered that I didn’t know so just call him. My third pint went down easily but walking to the bathrooms was not. Maybe it was time to call it a day. I stood outside to sober up in the cold and snow. The phone rang.
“Mom? Oh, Mom…” and I burst into tears.

Time Management for the Middle-Aged! 

Starting graduate school as a grown up is a tad scary. I have plans though. Ways to organize my days. I thought it would help.

  1. Buy black chisel tipped markers.
  2. Get paper 24 x 24 minimum. The local print shop gave me rolls of cut-offs.
  3. Tack paper to wall either near windows or under lights.
  4. List days of week and fill in deadlines for the next week. 
  5. Mind-map projects, loose tangents, ideas, questions etc. The benefits of this style of brainstorming is that it’s fluid, non chronological and you can keep adding to it. 
  6. Lastly for me, I have a list by priority of ongoing projects. It reminds me to bear in mind how important (or not) that deadline is. 
  7. The best part? I don’t need to find my bloody glasses to read these to do lists.

Living The Dream: 31

As part of the weekly excerpt of the novel LIVING THE DREAM:

DECEMBER: I’M FINE, HONEST

“Miss, are you okay?”
A bright light shone in my eyes and I threw up an arm and yelped. A silhouette lowered his flashlight and opened the door gently. “Are you okay, Miss?” He reached for me and touched my shoulder. I nodded groggily.

“Where’s Nelson?”
“There was no one with you when we pulled up. Just a moment ago, that is. Who’s Nelson? Your husband? Son?”
“Where’s Nelson? Nelson.” I yelled and sat up, shaking my head clear. “Nelson? Where’s Nelson? Fuck, we’ve got to find him.” I clambered out of the truck and into a foot of snow. The sky had cleared somewhat and the snow no longer blinded me. It was cold, freezing actually, and I shivered.

“Miss, who is Nelson? What’s your name? Are you hurt?”
I shrugged him off and stumbled out of reach, screaming Nelson’s name over and over again.

“Nelson. Nelson, come. Come back. It’s okay, boy. Let’s go, Nelson. NELSON.”

I fell once, slipped as I stood and turned around, searching for my boy, my scared and sensitive boy. “NELSON. COME.”

The landscape lay empty and unfriendly. The State Police Officer watched as more police and EMTs arrived, sirens blaring and lights flashing. More and more people arrived, radios boomed, and the whole scene overwhelmed me.

“Turn the fucking siren off. You’ll scare him.”
“Your dog?”
“Yes. My dog. My family, he’s all I’ve got right now, my DOG.” I turned around again, yelling and yelling as the officers and EMTs watched me cautiously. I screamed, yelled, called out his name, struggling to understand. I sobbed. “Nelson, please, come back to me, it’s okay, it’s okay.”
An EMT came up, a slender woman around my age, and she squatted down close by.

“Can I make sure you’re okay? Physically? We’d like to take you to Albuquerque to one of the hospitals there and check you out for concussion, okay, Miss?”
“Jenny, my name’s Jenny. And no, I’m not leaving him alone. Not my boy. I’m not leaving.” I sobbed and wiped my eyes and cried even harder, shaking with shock and fear and cold. “He’s a husky, he’s mostly white and coffee colored, with odd eyes, have you seen him, please, have you seen him?”
She shook her head and watched me closely. I looked away. A State Policeman brought over a thermos and poured out some coffee. “My wife always makes me bring something hot with me,” he explained sheepishly. “Here, have some. Are you sure you don’t want to come with us to hospital?”
I shook my head, stubborn as hell, whispering Nelson’s name to myself.
“I’ll need you sign a refusal form, okay, Jenny?” The EMT nodded to the others and she asked if she could check me out anyway, make sure nothing was wrong. I nodded silently and stood for her to take blood pressure and the such. I guess I passed if not with flying colors as she walked off to confer. The other officers talked quietly as they checked out my vehicle. The State Policeman came back over and sat near on a tree stump.

“The bad news is that I can’t see any tracks from your dog so I’ve no idea which way he went. The good news, well, two pieces of good news I guess, one is that there have been no reports of crashes with animals near here. The other is that your vehicle is fine, you slid on the ice and landed here, but you can drive out if you put it into low four-wheel drive. The tires will hold. I could call a tow truck for you though, if you like? Or anyone else?” He sipped his own cup of coffee and waited.
All I could think of was Nelson, out there in the snow, scared and vulnerable. My boy. My pup. I shook my head but then remembered. “Do you know Officer Jaime Ramirez? He said to call him if ever I needed him. Could you? Could you call him? Tell him what happened? Please?”
He nodded and walked back to his vehicle and climbed in, with lights still flashing and engine running. Heat, he had heat. I walked back to the 4Runner and looked. The door was dented and hung open. The windshield had a three-foot crack. Nothing more. Just a missing dog and a headache. I was lucky. Not really.

I climbed inside and cranked the engine. It caught first time. I sat back and wiped at my eyes. I closed my eyes briefly but a picture of Nelson alone in the empty valley knocked me sideways and I climbed out, leaving the engine running so he’d hear it.

“Miss, if you could sign this form, saying you refuse medical attention? Thanks. I’d suggest you stay with a friend, someone who will keep an eye on you in case concussion gets you later, okay?”
I nodded, promising anything so that they would leave me alone, so that the ambulance and police cars would just leave me in peace. Quiet. So Nelson could hear me call him.
The State officer climbed out of his car and came over.

“Officer Ramirez is pretty close, you were lucky. He said he’ll be in Albuquerque in an hour and can meet you there. He’s coming up north any way so he’ll be passing through here and will look for the dog.”

He shook my hands and offered to wait for me to drive off. The ambulance had turned off their lights and pulled out onto the interstate slowly, followed by the other cop car. I shook his hand, thanking him for helping.

“I’d like to make some calls first, but then I’ll head to the city, I promise. Thanks again,” I smiled, kind of, enough to persuade him I’d do as I said. He nodded and shook my hand, wishing me a safe journey home to Oliver.

“At least it’s not too far and the snow’s stopped for now. Take care, Jenny.”
I watched as he drove off and left me alone with my empty truck. I waved him off. Then I bundled up, found a flashlight, and headed out into the snow.

“NELSON. NELSON. COME.”

 

 

 

 

NOVEMBER: FAMILIES

 

 

We climbed hundreds of stone steps, with the both of us being completely out of breath half way. The path curved back and forth. Placards stood at each switchback next to various styles of wooden benches. We read the tourist information slowly, not talking, just looking up and out at the view, catching our breath.
Finally we rested at a bench on the crest of the hill. With a huge stone cross memorial behind us, Santa Fe opened up below. It was incredibly beautiful even with all the trees naked and the streets seemingly empty. The cathedral, homes, narrow roads, hotels, and the plaza lay below in a crazy pattern. Mom sighed and pulled out her smart phone.

“Well, at least I get a decent connection up here. I’ve been wanting to post some photos all week. This is beautiful, Jen. Thanks for getting us up here; I can’t quite believe how breathless I am though. Yoga’s meant to help me, damn it.”

I laughed and sat down next to her. “Altitude, I guess. I thought I’d do better by now. Well, Mark should be in town by the time we get back down. He’s not one to be late unless he’s getting the New Mexico timing down.”

I leaned back against the memorial and relaxed. The sky was clear and as bright blue as usual. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains had a light dusting of snow. The world was quiet and I heard footsteps from the road below.

“So then, you and Danny, eh? Want to tell me anything, Mom?”
She burst out laughing and slapped my knees. “Not really. Let’s just say he’s a good man. I’m glad you have him as a neighbor. I feel safe knowing he’s there for you.”
I laughed and stretched out my legs with a groan. “Right. That’s very selfless of you, Mom. But the question is; are you going to see him again or not? Do we need to get you back by a certain time?”
“Jennifer. Behave. And no, I’m going to see him tomorrow night before I leave. He said he’d drive me to the airport, if that’s okay with you?” She fiddled with her phone then picked it up and pointed it at the both of us. Flushed, breathless, and slightly embarrassed by the conversation, she clicked a photo of the both of us. My phone beeped. A text came in from Mark saying that he’d just pulled in to get gas and would meet us in twenty minutes or so. I held out my hands to Mom.

“Time to go, Mom.”
I hauled her to her feet with a groan.

 

We found the entrance to the restaurant Anne had recommended. A narrow doorway lead to a staircase lined with posters of New and Old Mexico. I followed Mom up, slowly. Her knees ached. My whole body ached.

 

Mark sat at a table close to the fireplace. He stood at the sight of us and gave me a kiss on the lips. Mom took off her layers and the waiter hung her coat over an empty chair with a wink and a smile. He asked what he could do for her. She blushed and asked for the drinks menu for all of us. He nodded once and reappeared within seconds, carrying glasses of water for three. He focused on my mom. What was going on? I grinned and Mark caught my look and raised his eyebrows with a smirk. I tried not to laugh. Mom glanced over at us.

“Well, what would you two like? I’ll have a margarita, salt no ice please.”

The short rotund and clean-cut waiter nodded once and reluctantly turned to us. “Yes?”
I nodded at Mark and he ordered our usual beers and asked for a plate of queso and chips to start with, oh, and an order of chicken wings. Behind the waiter a large television screen held my attention. Football, and someone in a helmet had just scored a run from one end to the other, leaping over two people, skidding around others, and diving for the line as he got tackled from two sides. Too late. I clapped in delight, now that’s a game of football.

Mom turned to see the re-run but missed that too. She wore new black jeans and sensible winter boots, a green woolen sweater, and her hair was as tidy as usual. Hardly any gray, did she dye it? Will I look as good in my fifties?

Around us, conversation buzzed and hid the sounds of the television. The room was pretty damn large and open plan, with windows the length of the southern facing wall. Outside, the balcony stood empty, the colorful tables and chairs set up hopefully but with temperatures in the forties, we all stayed inside. The restaurant focused on the tourist trade by the looks of us, all pink and fresh and obviously from somewhere with gray skies. Only Mark had a local’s tan and beat-up cowboy hat. He waited for his pint and sipped some water. Mark told us he’d called a few bands and even had a couple of leads with a music store in town, and it was beginning to look pretty good. His frown had taken a hike for the first time in ages and I leaned over to kiss him happily. Mom told him about our day, the places I’d taken her to, the presents stored in the Subaru, and her plans to return to Oliver for Christmas.

“I already spoke to the owners of the B and B and they have room for me surprisingly. I booked one. Will that be okay? I’m not planning on making you feed me or anything, Jenny. In fact, I’ll cook. ”
“Oh, Mom. I’d love that. We haven’t spent Christmas together since Mark and I came to Idaho, what was it – two years ago? Remember Mark? It’s been ages, right?”
Mom beamed. Mark toasted her with his beer and she clinked glasses with both of us.

“To the holidays.”
“What about your parents, Mark? Are they planning to come out here anytime soon? I’d love to meet them again. Your mom was hilarious. Such a wicked sense of humor.”
Mark picked at the queso and chips, “we haven’t set anything up yet. I thought I’d wait a while before inviting them, wait until we have something solid.”
“Don’t you think they’d like the outhouse? The bus?” I grinned with a mouthful.

He shook his head. “Not exactly. They’re a little more conservative. Dad’s idea of camping is to rent a forty-foot RV with dish TV, a generator, and full bathroom. I can’t imagine them in out on the land, can you? Mom maybe, but Dad? He’d talk politics at the tavern and that’d be that. We’ll see, Jen, we’ll see where we are next year, right?”

“Right here, I’ll be right here.”
The wings arrived and we all tucked in to our messy BBQ covered sticky-finger-making munchies.
The dogs flung themselves at the door, barking madly. I opened the door cautiously. No one. No trucks. No animals. Nothing. The dogs flew down the steps and barked. At the sky: An arrowhead of Canadian Geese soared above. Flying south in formation, they clacked and flapped, changing places looking for the best spot among the crowds. Hundreds of geese fled the coming winter storms. Mark had gone to town to do laundry thankfully. I’d decided to work outside again.

I added compost and handfuls of straw to the garden beds, and dug everything in deeper than the first time round. I wanted to prepare the soil for next year so that I could actually grow more than just tomatoes and potatoes. The sun shone and the wind had a bite to it.

I dug in the dirt. I sweated. It seemed the best thing for me to do right then. The fence had even held up to the pups trying to get to the manure I’d brought back from Anne’s place. I rehung the gate and added some random sticks and cans and bottles to the chicken wire that protected the non-existent plants from rabbits. I wandered off and followed the arroyo back to where we’d been supposedly busted for growing pot. The footprints lead the way. The dogs followed and played behind me. First Nelson and then Frida jumped off the boulders and over the tree stumps. I gathered sticks for kindling.

 

A big Dodge pick up drove up and honked its horn. I ran back through the arroyo with dogs panting and flinging themselves ahead of me. The horn honked again and the engine started back up. I ran even faster.

Around the last corner, I almost tripped but caught myself on a branch. I yelled out and heard an answering call. Frida had won the race. She stood on her hind legs, trying to reach the truck window but failing completely. Nelson hung back and watched from the porch.

Debbie, the homesteading neighbor, and her kids waved at me and then all climbed out. Three young ‘uns with backpacks and thick coats and hats grinned at me and then sat down with my dogs. Debbie, in a long woolen pea coat and a red beanie, walked up fast. Her hands stayed deep in pockets and her eyes were raw and red. She’d not been sleeping by the looks of it.

“Hey, Jenny. I hate to do this, but I’ve got to ask…can you take the kids for the afternoon? I have to get to the dentist. It’s just got to the point that I want to rip all my teeth out. The painkillers aren’t working for the life of me and I’m taking it out on them.” The boys hung out on the porch, one had befriended Nelson and he leaned against him as Frida darted between them all with a ball in her mouth. Tails wagged. Kids laughed. It looked easy enough.

“Sure. Did you get an appointment or something?”
“The emergency room will take me. Everyone else is booked for the week and I just can’t deal with it any longer. Are you sure you don’t mind? Frank’s at work in Santa Fe until four but then can come straight here. I fed them. You shouldn’t need to do much. They’re pretty wild so just keep them outside.” Debbie rambled on and on. She rubbed her chin again and again. “Are you sure?”
At that point, I playfully pushed her away and back to the Dodge, saying, “Go on with you. Just tell Frank to come on over later. It’s fine. Mark will be home in a bit anyway. Go on. We’ll be okay, right boys?”
All three faces turned up and nodded seriously. “Have fun, Mom.” and they all laughed at her expression as she climbed in. We watched her drive off and then looked at each other. Kids. I didn’t want any myself but oh well, I could play with these guys and hand them back in a few hours, right? Right. I had no clue.

I wandered closer. “So, I don’t even know your names. I’m Jenny. That’s Frida and the leaner is Nelson. Both came from –“

“- Louisa’s.” came the chorus. “Us too. We’ve got a few from her. A mama and a puppy pittie. They’re old now though. Almost as old as Finnegan.”
One little hidden face peaked up at me from under his layers. “I’m six. That’s Clark and this is Franny-bo-banny.”
“I thought you were all boys?”
Franny piped up that she’s a tomboy and don’t ever call her a girl or make her wear pink or else. I nodded seriously back. “Understood. Okay, boys. I’m hungry. Your mom said you ate though. You can watch me eat if you want.”
All three stood up fast. “What have you got? I’m hungry.”
“Quesadillas and fresh salsa and some chips.”
“Yeah. I want some. I want some. I’m hungry.”
We trooped inside the bus. Clark helped me in the kitchen and the other two fiddled and explored the small space. Franny thoroughly checked out my home, opening and closing little cupboards, peaking under the bed and finally she gave her verdict.

“This is cool. We could do this at our place, couldn’t we? Mom and Dad have a bus but he uses it for his tools and the dogs. I want to paint it and make it a playhouse. Hey, can we make a fire? It’s kinda cold, you know.”
“I’ll do it in a minute. Flames and all of that.” I replied nervously.

“But we’ve been making fires since we were three. Even Finn can do a pretty good job by now. Not as good as me, but you know, not bad.”

Franny scrunched up some newspaper. Finnegan took the metal can and cleaned out the cold ashes carefully. Clark cooked. I pulled out the plates and a six-pack of ginger ale. The dogs curled up on their beds.

 

“Where to?” We strode through the trees.

“We want to show you a cave. I can’t believe you haven’t found it yet. That’s crazy.” Clark the ten year old, lead the way up the hill, following some path I couldn’t spot. The others followed me with the dogs at their heels.

“Whose land is this?”
“Dunno. Doesn’t matter really. We grew up here, so me and Franny, we always ran around and explored places. Mom and Dad used to send us off with backpacks of water and snacks and tell us to come back later. Much later. Then Finn was born and now Mom doesn’t tell us to go away like before. Dad works more too. But we used to come up this gulch and find pottery and stuff from Indians and tools from the miners. Dad made us a shelf and everything so we got a whole pile now. Finn’s really good at finding the arrowheads.”

Clark chatted up a storm and I listened and panted quietly. Franny and Finn ran rings around us, chasing the pups and hollering back and forth. Finally Clark pulled up short next to this huge beet red boulder that appeared out of nowhere. The dirt under foot was pitch black and like dust. In front of us the mesa spread its wings. The Jemez Mountains glowed pink in the setting sun. I grinned widely.

“This is amazing. What a view.”
“You can see our place, way out there, to the south. See?”
Clark brushed his long black hair off his face and reached out to aim me in the right direction. He was tall for his age, in that he was almost five foot two. His dark brown eyes twinkled happily as he looked around. The youngsters ran up and screeched to a halt. Franny opened her pack and gave us all some chocolate and shared her bottle of water.

“From our well.”
The water tasted crisp and clear. She packed everything back up and looked to her big brother. “Ready?”
The kids shook hands and yelped. I got nervous.

“This way.”

I followed them around the boulder, squeezing through a small gap, and suddenly looking down into a mineshaft.
“Are you sure this is safe?”
“No, it’s not. Don’t tell Mom, okay, Jenny? She told us not to come here again, not after we lost Finn that one time.”
I backed off. “I don’t know, kids. I don’t think we should.”
They all stopped and stared at me silently. “But we like you. I trusted you.” Franny whined. “And I gave you my last piece of chocolate.”
I stood a moment and looked down in to the dark cave. Tracks lead down but I couldn’t see past five or ten feet. Too dark. “I don’t have a flashlight.” I countered.

“It’s okay, you can hold my hand if you get scared,” offered little Finnegan.

“Okay, okay. I’m coming. But don’t tell your mom.”

We stumbled down in a single file. I held onto Finnegan’s hand. The dogs followed closely at my heels. I couldn’t see a thing.

“Seriously? You didn’t? That’s hilarious.”

I laughed. “Yep, they got me fair and square, the little bastards. Can you believe I fell for it? They laughed so damn hard all the way home. By the time we got there Mark and Frank were inside drinking beers and chatting away like old friends. Frank cracked up when they told him.” I blushed at the thought of how scared I’d been. And how I’d squealed like a girl when Franny sounded like a coyote in attack mode. I’d found out that the trench was simply an entrance to a blocked off old failed mine some ten feet deep at the most. The steep sides and rotten wood posts told a story of hard labor and tired old men. The kids however thought of it as a test. I passed. Just. Now they loved me and begged to come over again the following day.

I blushed again and drank some more beer. Anne and Graham grinned at Mark who couldn’t stop himself from describing the kids’ delight. Graham took out his phone and flicked through his photos.

“Was it this one?” He passed it over to me. I looked, nodded, and handed it to Mark and then Anne. She shook her head.
“It’s lucky it is closed off. There’s been some bad shit there over the years. Just this year, some meth dealer hid out there for months once after he’d killed one of ours. A local teenager had got into it and overdosed with some stuff he’d bought from that guy. We never did see him again. I heard a rumor though that Dieselhead and friends found him and took care of it.”
Mark and I did a double take, thinking of the hitchhiker we’d found that rainy day in summer.

“Recently?”
“A few months ago. Why?”
“We met him. The dealer. He stole my wallet.” I shook my head at the thought. I told them the story, short as it was. “What do you think happened to him?”
“Maybe he got picked up by the cops?” Mark leaned forward as the pizzas arrived.

Graham shook his head. “If that was the case, they’d have given him a ride to Albuquerque General Hospital and wished him well. He has connections, family, or something. He gets away with murder, so to speak.”
We drank in silence. The tavern was empty as usual now winter had hit hard. The fire roared and a handful of locals sat around and warmed up. Dogs lay at people’s feet and the television played unwatched in the far corner.

The food arrived and I tucked in as they all chatted. I was getting addicted to green chile enchiladas. Mark stuck with his usual cheeseburger and fries and the others had pizza. A storm warning flashed across the television screen. I ignored it. We had firewood, so who cared when it actually hit? I ate. Anne talked about Taos and how she’d dreamed of going there for Thanksgiving one year. Mark described our visit in October, talking about breakfast at the hot springs, afternoons at the pubs, and our drive home along side the Rio Grande.
“What are you two doing for the holidays?” Graham asked just as I put another mouthful to sleep. I swallowed, ready to say ‘nothing’ but Mark spoke up.

“Los Angeles. We’re going to see my brother, Keith, and his family for a week or more.”
I spluttered out my last bite and it hit Graham’s shirt. He didn’t notice. I stared at Mark, about to jump on him, verbally that is.

Mark continued, ignoring me and telling them about us driving back up the coast to see friends in Washington too if we had the time. I couldn’t say a word. Anne dived into the awkwardness.

“You are? That’s great. My sister lives out in LA too, I keep meaning to go see her, but I’m not a big traveler these days. I like being home with the animals, you know how it is.” Anne grinned at me. “I can’t imagine leaving them.”
“Me neither.” I took a gulp of water and waited. “When are we going, Mark?”
He glanced at me then focused back on Graham and Anne. “On Wednesday morning. I was going to ask if either of you could take care of the dogs, make sure their water’s not frozen, stuff like that. Come by once a day is all they need.”
“It is not. They’ll be lonely. And cold.” I blurted out in anger.
Graham poured me some more water and then noticed the chile on his white shirt. He wiped it off with a frown. Then he looked up at me and smiled again. “I can stay there if you like, or they can come to stay at mine in town? I don’t mind. Frida’s pretty good with me nowadays. Nelson’s just easy as pie.”
As I opened my mouth to speak, Mark decided it was time he stepped outside to smoke. Anne kept eating but asked, “he hadn’t told you, eh?”
I shook my head and finished Mark’s pint in one. “Nope. I don’t know how we’ll pay for it even if I wanted to leave here. Mom had sent me some money for a small solar system but we don’t have anything else saved. Not for some random road trip like that.”
“Did Diane set you up with electricity after all?”
“Nope, I worked it out myself. She didn’t want to work with what I needed, we needed.” All proud of myself, I told them how I’d planned on setting up the solar the first weekend in December, ready to hunker down for the winter. I’d made a box for the batteries, set up a platform with pallets to keep the panels off the ground, and even made a frame to hold them at the correct angle. “I just need to install the wiring, get it all put together but I’m close to being ready.”

“Not bad, not bad. You never knew you had it in you, did you now? I remember when you first got here you’d left everything to Mark.” Anne teased me as the man himself came striding back, shaking off a few snowflakes.

“Left what to me? It’s started snowing for real. Huge flakes. Damn, it’ll be cold at home.” He sat down and reached for his pint. “Hey. What happened to my beer?”
“You finished it, don’t you remember?” Graham stood. “Same again? Or something warmer like -”
“Hot toddies.” came the reply from us all in unison. We burst out laughing. Hot toddies it was then. Mark put another couple of logs on the fire like a pro and sat back. We all leaned on the table, nursing our drinks and chatting about the snowfall that had already whitened out the highway. Graham crowed that he only had to walk home from the tavern these days. Anne slapped him playfully.

“Remember all the times we had to walk up the mountain in the snow?”
“The drifts deeper than our boots?”
“With the moon shining on us as -”

“- we sang Pink Floyd and the Stones at the top of our voices?”
Anne snorted and Graham smiled, happily teasing his friend. She tipped her drink at him and they toasted each other. I watched and sipped my own. I ignored Mark and checked out the window. The snowflakes danced under the porch light. A big Dodge truck headed up hill, slowly but surely cutting its way through the drifts. A couple walked with hats pulled down and long coats closed tightly. The fire backed up without warning and filled the tavern with juniper and pinion smoke. I grinned and coughed.

All of a sudden, the door opened and a gang of locals poured inside, laughing loudly, and on the count of three, threw snowballs at us all. Mayhem broke out. Mark jumped to his feet, and returned the snowballs with a yelp. Graham hunkered down. I grabbed my drink and stood up just as someone tried to get Mark back. Straight in the face. My face. I spluttered. Graham took my glass. Anne and I scrambled around on the floor, grabbing the melting snow, and attacked back. Mark stood behind me, using me as a shield, and scored two big direct hits. But then a holler made him turn around, and –

“Gotcha.”

Splat. Mark yelped and fell over.

Graham grinned from a table next to us. “Oops. Is he on your side?”

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.

 

 

Living The Dream: 30

As part of the weekly excerpt of the novel LIVING THE DREAM:

DECEMBER: SNOW BLIND

I slept deeply, snug in a down comforter and a hairy husky breathing on me, waiting for that moment I opened my eyes. The sun hadn’t yet come up. The house lay silent. The dog panted in my ear. It was another winter’s day with no plans. I was bored. Forget Jerome. Forget exploring new places. I needed to hit the road. I needed to go home.

I let Nelson out to run as I made coffee. The sky slowly lightened but barely. A storm, the first big storm of the season was expected to hit today. Alaska was sending down clouds, wind, freezing temperatures, and snow. Snow in the mountains. Snow in the valleys. I left Nelson happily sniffing around the yard and wandered back into the bedroom. Making the bed, and grabbing the few things I’d brought over the day before, I cleaned up. Cracking open the window slightly, I breathed in the sharp cold air.

Time to go.

I wrote a note and left it on the kitchen table for Angie and Jonnie and snuck out the back door, not wanting to talk to anyone.
With the last of my food tucked carefully back in the cooler, the bedding, and supplies all stacked in the back of the truck, we drove away.

I hit the highway as the sun rose over the San Andres Mountains. With a sleeping dog sprawled on the back seat and a window down for fresh air, it was good to be driving again. Good to be going home. The clouds darkened to the north, a wind buffeted the truck, but the 4Runner drove smoothly, unaffected by the storm. I finished the coffee and threw the paper cup on the floor.
It snowed, hard, and thick with flakes the size of quarters. I stared, mesmerized, at the wipers doing their best against a wicked freeze. The heater cranked effortlessly. The dog slept. I slipped once, when a semi flew past me, kicking up ice and snow and gravel, blinding me. I slipped. The tires slid. Another semi sped past but then braked. The interstate traffic had slowed to twenty miles per hour and I switched into four high finally. The sky was a dark gunmetal gray. I couldn’t see the lanes, mountains, nothing but for the rear lights of tour bus ahead. I slipped again, touching the brakes once too often. I hit black ice.

The truck slipped off the highway quietly, slowly, and painfully.

 

 

 

 

NOVEMBER: CRITTERS

 

 

“Are you sure this is the right way, Jennifer?”

A dark heavy cloud shrouded the mountains. Orange and pink stripes shot out from the horizon to the west. Birds talked back to us. Mom wore sensible boots and black jeans and a warm jacket. She’d insisted I do the same. I did as told and was glad for it. The air nipped at my ears and I bundled up in the coat, pulling my hat down. Winter had kicked in that afternoon with a force I’d not expected. Making the chicken coop took less time than planned. We threw the bales together, two on each side and one at the far end. I’d get more at later. Tin and lumber across the top and it was finished. Mom hung a sheet over the front opening, to keep out the wind, she explained.
That afternoon, we played cards in the bus with the stove going and the wind battering and rocking us. Cozy and perfect. Mom made tea every hour or so and had even brought chocolate chip cookies with her.

But now I badly needed to pee. I hid behind a juniper as she carried on, chatting away about this and that. Suddenly I heard a panicked voice calling for me.

“Jennifer. Oh, Jenny. Jenny.” She crashed through the trees calling out for me.
Trying not to laugh, I told her to hang on, that I was watering the plants. Her footsteps headed back my way. I reappeared from visiting the impromptu outhouse, doing up my layers once again. She laughed at herself, holding out her hand to me.

“Don’t do that. I don’t know what I thought, but -”

I zipped up the leather jacket and grinned. “I’m just glad Mark’s bringing us home, aren’t you?” We both giggled in relief.
All around us the trees crowded out any sense of space. The wind shook the branches. The sky was heavy. I set the pace, following a faint path in the dirt across the hillside. Down below us, Cottonwoods and Oaks, their leaves bright against the dark green of the pine trees, flanked a steep valley. Nothing stirred. The path faded out at one point and I stopped. Mom walked straight into me and shrieked.

“Now what? I’m getting all spooked out here, Jenny. Can’t we go back and get the car?”

Suddenly a chorus of dogs barking startled us.

“We’re here. I guess. He said he has a bunch of dogs. Oh god, I hope they’re friendly.”
Mom poked me in the arm, “don’t say that.”
Footsteps headed our way and Mom grabbed me to her. I wanted to laugh or pee, I couldn’t decide which.

“Is that you, Martha? Jen?”

Dieselhead Danny strode up to us, a pack of brown mutts at his heels. He grinned at the sight of us half hidden behind a dead pinion tree.

“Welcome to my place, ladies. Come on, let’s get inside out of this weather, okay? Mark called; he said he’d be here in an hour or so. Come on. Follow me. Don’t mind the dogs.”

He turned abruptly and we struggled to keep up. Giggling as we stumbled and tripped in the twilight, Mom and I held hands. We walked past three or four old trucks up on blocks and wheel-less. A huge, and I mean huge, amount of firewood had been stacked off to the side of his driveway. A school bus overflowed with stuff, I have no idea what. Dogs, cats, chickens, and goats ran around our feet, tripping Mom more than once. In distance, horses called out for hay and a donkey brayed mournfully.

A cobblestone path wound through junipers, grasses, pinions, and fruit trees. Flowerbeds were scattered on each side, abundant even in these fall months of wind and cold. Danny chatted away as he led us up and into a small adobe courtyard.

“In summer, I tend to hang out here, a good book and a drink, out of the wind. I think we should head inside tonight though, don’t you?”
He wore faded blue jeans and a worn denim jacket with a fleece collar turned up high. He’d shaved and I’d not seen him clean up like this before. The gruff hermit of a neighbor turned out to be quite the host. He walked us through a greenhouse and into the kitchen, all one huge south facing room, with plants of all kind: herbs, spider plants, cacti, flowers, and even orchids.

“Did you get those from Anne?”
Danny laughed and nodded. “How did you know? She’s the local orchid pusher that’s for sure. Do you have any yet?”
I shook my head as I took in the twenty or more blooms surrounding us. “This is incredible.”

Mom stood silently, staring around her in awe. “Who would’ve thought you’d live like this? You’re a pleasant surprise, Danny, yes, a definite surprise.”

He blushed and turned away, fiddling with the pots and pans on the stovetop.

“There’s some cabernet in the living room, through there. Can you get the bottle, Jen? It’s the Argentinian not the Californian wine we’re having tonight.”

Mom made herself at home and sat at the kitchen table with a bottle opener and three glasses. She lit a candle. The woodstove roared in the background and she took off her thick jacket with a sigh. The room was cluttered yet organized with shelves, counters, and cupboards everywhere.
“So where did you learn to cook then?”
I passed Mom the bottle and she opened it for us and poured us each a glass. As we toasted each other he told us about being a chef in Northern California after getting out of the army some twenty or more years ago. He’d reached some kind of crisis point and got a medical release. He’d found work at a restaurant shortly after that and loved the pace of it, the creativity, and the challenge of finding the perfect combination for specific tastes.

“But then I decided I wanted a quieter life. I put everything in the truck, one of the ones outside as it happens, and started across the Southwest. This is as far as I got.”
“I can see why,” Mom said softly. “This is a beautiful home, Danny. How did you do it?”
I listened to the grown-ups chatting and sipped my wine. It was a smoky and full red wine without a bitter after taste. I poured another glass as they were talking about finding a place that resonates. Mom described her home in Boise and all that she’d done to the place. Danny sat at the table with us. He gave us crackers and a vintage cheddar and told us that the beef red chile stew would be ready as soon as we were.

“Reds with red, that’s what I was taught and it seems to work, not that I know much about wine, but these days I like a good malbec and most cabernets. What do you both think?”
Mom raised her glass to him. “Thanks, this is perfect, just perfect after a day out at Jenny’s. Did she tell you that we’ve got the coop ready for some hens? That was the afternoon’s project, but I’m not used to the altitude so I’m glad that’s all we did. Aren’t you, Jennifer?”
I sat up and put down the newspaper. “Oh, yeah, it was enough for now. Could I still get a couple from you? Can you spare them?”
Danny laughed out loud. “Well, you saw how chaotic it is outside, didn’t you? I don’t even know how many I have right now. You could take four or five if you like. I’ll find us a box and we can catch them after we eat.”
“How?”
“Chase them down.”
“In the dark?” Mom laughed, reaching for more wine. “Really?”
“Yep, they get all sleepy, shouldn’t be too bad. Don’t worry, I’ll sort them out for you both.” He pulled out a tin and opened it up and rolled a joint in front of my mom. I tried not to blush. He lit it and passed it to mom and she took it. And then she passed it to me. I had to try it, didn’t I? I coughed. They laughed. Then I giggled and drank some more wine.

We chatted about his home, taking the time to build one room at a time, adding hallways and doors, playing with whatever materials came to him, and how it’s made this unbelievably cozy and beautiful eclectic adobe and straw-bale home. I wandered off and found myself opening and closing doors, following a tabby cat. She took me down another hallway and into a laundry room filled with metal cans. The cat meowed and sat on one can. I crouched down and saw that on the shelf next to her was a towel bed with four kittens, staring at me but not one moved. Then I kneeled down and reached out a hand to them. One little ginger kitty scooted closer, purred, and then suddenly lunged and licked my fingertips. I grinned and settled down.

 

“Jennifer? Jennifer?”

“Jenny? Are you okay?”
A male voice echoed my mom’s. They found me in the laundry room with all the kittens on my lap, and the mama cat sitting on the shelf next to me. The room was toasty and I’d taken off my sweater and used it to make a bed for the little ones. Mom laughed and kneeled down next to me and caressed a furry head. Danny leaned against the doorframe and watched us.

“Want one?”

We both looked up at him and back at the kittens. In unison came the reply “yes.”

He laughed and came in closer.

“I’m pretty allergic to cats but I keep them around. The mice, you know? Especially in a rambling mansion like this, I have to have some kind of critter control and I hate poisons. So, seriously do you want one?”
“I’d love one. I love cats, don’t I, Mom?”
“Yes, you do, Jen. She always had cats when she was small. But then we had to move into another place, we weren’t allowed any pets, just plants, and lots of them. You were so gentle with the cats though even when you were only three or four, you knew how to treat them somehow.”
“Can I, Mom, can I have one?” I looked up so earnestly that they both burst out laughing. I stroked the little ginger kitten.

“You might want to talk to Mark first though. What will he say?”
“Oh, there is that. Not much. He thinks we’ve got too many as it is. One dog was about his limit, I think…but Mom.”
“Come on, let’s go eat, okay?” Danny reached down to help us to our feet. “The stews done and that’s exactly what I want right now. I don’t know about you but I’m hungry. Food and wine sound good to you both? Oh, and I’d make you take two cats by the way, one would be lonely on its own.”
I laid the kittens back in their bed, reclaimed my sweater, and followed Mom back to the kitchen table.

 

“Do you have the net?”

“No, I thought you had it.”
“I’ve got it but we have to spot them first. They usually hang out right here, where are they, dammit?”

Danny swore as he tripped over a pile of wood and knocked down some tools from against the tree. He stumbled around in the dark. Mom hung back and watched, trying to keep the flashlight on us both even though we kept wandering in different directions. His dogs crossed paths, back and forth, getting under my feet. The cats watched from the porch.

Danny snuck around another pile of wood and whispered that he’d found them. Ten chickens huddled together next to a couple of straw-bales and slept soundly. Mom brought the light and I grabbed the cardboard box. Quietly and surely, Danny grabbed one, two, and three, placing them gently in their travel home. He then asked me to get the last one. I lunged and missed it. She flew up squawking into the tree overhead. Suddenly chaos broke out. Wings flapped. Feathers flew. Cats pounced. Danny tripped over my foot and fell onto a dog. Mom giggled and dropped the flashlight. The dog yelped. More dogs barked. Donkeys brayed. Horses neighed. Hens squawked from inside their box. An owl screeched above me. I screamed and fell over. Then the giggling began. All three of us, sniffling and snorting and I tried not to pee.

Just as I was picking myself up, Mark arrived. I tried to stand up normally without cracking up but Mark walked over looking so serious, clean, and most clearly a fish out of water. I lost it and started giggling and snorting again. Mom helped Danny to his feet and both were laughing so much they hadn’t even noticed the truck arrive. Then she saw Mark standing near me but not talking to me and she poked Danny. She took him back inside after glancing over at us. They shut the door carefully.

Mark still stood silently. He watched me as I set the chicken box upright. All the animals shushed. The dogs backed off. And even the horses and mules shut up. Silence.

“So, how was your day?” I finally asked, brushing off my jeans and jacket.

“Okay.” He looked around the yard, at the firewood, wrecked vehicles, the recycling and building materials. “Jeez. What a mess.”

“You should look around, it’s been great to see his place. Come on, Mark, you should at least check it out, come inside. It’s amazing – I think you’ll get all inspired again and start designing a home for us. Oh, and he saved you some stew.”
Mark shrugged deeper into his coat and didn’t move.

“Let’s go home, Jenny. It’s cold and I’ve had a long day, I don’t think I can hang out with someone I don’t know tonight, okay? Hon, please? I’ll make us a fire, all right? Some wine and go to bed? I’m tired, that’s all.”
And he did look drained; his shoulders were slumped, and just deeply exhausted. I went to him and hugged him and kissed his neck – it’s all I can easily reach at the best of times. He smiled down at me and took the box off the ground and rattled it.

“Our new hens, eh? Okay, how many did you get?”
“Four.”
“I thought we agreed on only two, Jen?”
“I know but Danny insisted on more. We’re lucky it’s been so hard to catch them or we’d have two boxes full by now.”
Mark laughed softly. “So I see, so I see. Okay, I’ll put these away then let’s go say good- bye. I’ve got that whiskey for him. Hey, are we giving your mom a ride back to town?”
I nodded and followed him over. He put the box in the truck-bed but when I frowned, he put them inside the cab. He shook his head. “They’re chickens, you know? Not pets. They are not sleeping in the house, ever.”

He closed the truck door on them, grabbed a brown paper bag, and took my hand. I lead him inside Danny’s incredible home, smiling happily to myself.

 

The fire glowed. The dogs slept. Mark snored. I lay there. I couldn’t sleep. We’d talked for hours with wine in hand, dogs on the bed, and a fire burning off the chill in my heart. I fell asleep briefly. My head woke me up though.

My sensitive boy, Nelson, watched me from his bed in the hallway, eyes concentrating in the morning darkness. Frida curled up on Mark’s pillow and snuffled in time with his grunts. I gently climbed out from the covers and threw on as many layers as I could reach without waking them. Nelson followed me to the woodstove and sighed contentedly when I threw in more logs and left the door open for us to see the flames. Slowly the bus filled with sunshine and the smell of fresh coffee, and juniper logs burning. I sat down in the armchair and Nelson came over and lay his head across my feet. We simply sat and stared at the flames.

Another day, another day, with so many things to take care of. I finally stood and stretched. I filled the stove with more wood and got ready for a day in town. Mom was meeting me at the coffee shop first thing. I threw out the old coffee grinds in the compost and checked on the new chicks. They clucked happily at seeing me. I watered the plants inside. Then it was time to leave for the day.

The sky was clear overhead and reluctantly I closed in Nelson. I heard him whine softly but I held firm and left the homestead after visiting the outhouse with a view.

 

“Latte and breakfast burrito sound good to you, Jennifer? Danny?” Mom looked back and forth at the both of us. She looked tired but flushed. I grinned.

“I’d love some, yeah, thanks. You’re both hungry, huh?”
Danny laughed and scratched his freshly shaved chin. He’d left the moustache to grow back. Mom’s hair looked damp. Mom stood up and walked off, leaving us to make small talk. Danny picked up a newspaper. I still grinned. He fiddled with the silverware.

Lattes in hand, Mom returned. Anne came over to us and handed out plates of food. She sat down facing the front door; she joined us whenever she could. Dishes filled the sink and covered one countertop. A Putumayo music mix played in the background. The sun shone brightly through the broad windows and her plants still thrived, unlike the ones at my place. Mom added some sugar and passed the bowl to Danny. He took two lumps. I added hot sauce to a bacon and egg burrito and waited to see what Mom would say.

She ignored my smirks and explained how work beckoned her back to Boise, her cats too. They chatted easily and I ate. Time drifted by. We drank more, ate more, and talked about the new hens.

“Settling in nicely, I think. But the water bowl was frozen this morning. What am I meant to do? I kicked it but that didn’t break the ice. A rock did but I can’t do that every day, can I?”
Danny put down his mug and smiled. “It’s just part of it. Don’t worry too much, they’re used to it being cold. You saw how they lived at mine. Nothing fancy. Not even the shelter you’ve done, so they’re probably in seventh heaven by now, right?”
Mom piped up that my kittens were out exploring more this morning.

“Oh really?” I grinned. “How do you know?”

Mom blushed, Danny grinned at me sheepishly, and Anne suddenly burst out laughing.

“It’s a small town, Martha. You can’t get away with anything here, can you?”

I grinned until I remembered talking to Mark last night. He said no to the kittens. A Big Fat No. My smile dropped and I looked down at my empty plate. Danny kicked me gently under the table and smiled at me when my head popped up in surprise.

“I can keep the cats for you until you’re ready, okay? You can come and play with them, it’s good to socialize them when they’re little like this.”
“Okay, thanks.” I nodded and finished my drink. I stood up and began to clear our table, telling Anne to relax for a second, literally. “There’s a tour bus just pulling up outside, you’re going to be slammed in a minute.”
“Oh shit. The dishes.”

She panicked and just then the door opened. A troupe of gray-haired Texans poured inside, with accents and cowboy hats placing them in the first sentence. Anne flew to the counter, knocking over a plant. Mom stood too and we all headed behind the counter. Danny cleaned up the soil and placed the orchid out of harms way. Mom did the dishes and I took care of the food orders.

 

“Now what?”
“Well, I have some business to take care of today, but can I meet you later? If you want?” Danny stood with hat in hand. He stood near the table, anxious to get going by the looks of it.

Mom looked up at him and smiled softly. “I’d like that, but let me see what the kids are doing this evening, all right?”
He nodded once and left us alone to deal with the aftermath of a tornado of tourists. Mom played with her phone. Anne and I grinned at each other. We waited until Mom looked up and then all three of us giggled.

“Now what?” She repeated after a moment. “Are you working all day, Anne? You could come with us to town, couldn’t she, Jenny?”

“Sure, that’d be fine with me. It’s going to be boring though, no offence, Mom.”
Anne glanced at me, “I don’t think so, not this time. Thanks for asking though. So what are you up to in Santa Fe then?”
“Errands. I have to buy the last few presents for my friends back in Boise. Something Southwestern, you know how it is. Salsa and chips, Mexican blankets, and posters of cacti and coyotes, that kind of thing. Jennifer, did you say we’re going to the plaza too?”
“Yep, Anne, you mentioned a restaurant there, right? Anyway, I suggested we meet him there after we’re done shopping, it’s not his favorite thing to do at the best of times, but when he’s worried about finding work, I don’t want him to come become more of a grouch. We’re going to meet him around four o’clock for something to eat. How’s that, Mom?”

“Whatever you want, I don’t want to be a bother. I just need to get a few things, that’s all. ”

Mom stood up just as the bell on the door rattled and in came a large family, chattering loudly in German and taking over the place. Anne shrugged and left us to it. Mom picked up her coat.

“Can you drive, Jenny?”