Fiction: The Arc of the Plot

As Julianna Baggott said in class:

  1. Breathe in.
  2. Hold it.
  3. Hold it.
  4. Just a little longer.
  5. Release.

Funny, yes? But oh my, so true. I look at the stories and sketches I’m writing these days and they each have that basic arc. It’s such a simple lesson. One worth sharing.

 

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This #5

From an ongoing series of sketches called THIS:

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#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: 16

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

DECEMBER: ONWARDS

Money was flying out faster than I’d hoped or expected what with those nights in motels, a week in Albuquerque, eating out. I worked on my budget while sitting outside on the porch. Angie was at school, one last project that she’s working on in the library. Jonnie was expected to show up later today. Nelson relaxed, fully at home on his blanket, soaking up the sun. I made a decision, a small one, but it was time to move on.

 

“I’m heading south in the morning,” I told them over dinner.

We’d made pizza together, chatting and listening to a local radio station. Their home was toasty and welcoming. I didn’t really want to leave but my restlessness kicked in, and kicked me out. Nothing too comfortable for me, not yet. The ongoing distractions of exploring a new city on foot had revitalized me yet kept me from my purpose: Deciding what was next. What to do about Mark. And the others.

“You’re more than welcome to stay,” Angie offered. “It’s so easy to have you and Nelson around, no trouble at all. In fact, you could stay here for the holidays on your own if you like. I’m going back home for a couple of weeks and it’d be good to know the place wasn’t empty.” She drank some water and offered Nelson a taste of ham from her pizza. “Well, think about it, no pressure.”
“Where are you thinking of going to? Not north I hope. More snow is expected this week, and they say it’s going to be a warm and wet winter.”
“Whatever that means.” I jokingly finished for him. “I don’t know but I like the idea of going across to Arizona, see Jerome and Sedona and that area. It’s probably only a day or two’s drive for us, we stop every hour or so. Anyway, I’d like to keep exploring, camping, daydreaming…”
“ – and deciding?”
“Yes, there is that. I miss the bus as well.”
“But you’re not ready to go back yet?”
Jonnie passed me a glass of wine and we all followed him onto the porch, our nightly routine. “I can understand that. Have you heard from Mark?”
I sipped the malbec and leaned back in an armchair. “Yep, he’s in L.A. having a blast, he said. He even got to play bass for some band one night. They’d had a car accident on the way to the gig and, well, he was in the right place at the right time. It’s a dream come true for him, so I can’t blame him, not really.”

Jonnie brought out the rest of the pizza and picked at a slice as we chatted away companionably. Nelson yawned. Angie petted his head, playing with the long soft ears.

“Well, you have to stay in touch with us, okay? I’ll miss you both. You’re always welcome back. And if you move back to Oliver, we want to come visit, right?”

“Right, I’ll let you know where I end up, we end up, that is. To new beginnings.” I raised my glass to them both with a smile.

“To new friends.”

“To pizza!”

Glasses clinked and Nelson sat up, hoping for food, that’s my happy boy.

 

 

 

 

SEPTEMBER: SHOW ME THE WAY

 

 

“What the hell? You’re joking right?”

Five DEA agents surrounded Mark. They demanded that he hand over his plants. Mark stood there in his shorts and boots, bare-chested and indignant. A couple of black SUVs blocked our Subaru in the driveway. Helicopters, four of them hovered overhead, passing back and forth as they had all morning. I stood on the porch, holding onto Frida who wouldn’t stop barking and growling when anyone came close.

“Your ID please, sir.” An officer stood in all-black clothes and dark sunglasses and he had a gun. He held out his hand to for the license.

Mark laughed, “Where do you think that might be? I’m practically naked here.” he turned and started walking over to me, when the officer stopped him forcefully.
“No sir, you can wait with me and your wife can fetch both your IDs.” He nodded in my direction.

“Girlfriend,” muttered Mark. He put his hands in his pockets and pulled out a cigarette and lit it. “They’re tomatoes,” he muttered under his breath once again.

Two officers followed me to my car and I pulled out our wallets and handed over the documents. One stood next to me silently and the other read them before handing them to his partner. Mark asked why they’d come to harass us.

“We were told your wife –“

“Girlfriend.”

“- had been talking about her pot plants at the coffee shop.”
“Her potted plants.” Mark said, and he looked over at our home. The patio was covered in hanging plants of all kinds. Mint. Toms. Lettuce. Onions. Creeping vines. Geraniums. Wildflowers. You name it, I’d planted it.

The man with my ID passed it back and headed for his boss without a word to me. He had a potbelly big enough to hold a drink if he’d leaned back just another inch or two. I tried not to think about it. I coughed under my breath.
“It’s who we thought.”
Mark smoked in silence. Frida whined. I shook. I wish I had my boots on, I felt vulnerable in flip-flops.

“I’m Detective Anders. Would you take us to your pot plants please Mark.”

The man had cropped gray hair and a belt full of his important toys and symbols. And a gun. He lifted his sunglasses briefly to make meaningful eye contact with Mark, who set off in the direction of the bus. I joined him on the porch. I quickly grabbed my boots and sat down. Mark stood next to our pots.

The officer didn’t move. “Well?”

Mark pointed out two tomato plants at the front door. “That’s all we have.”
The officer didn’t smile one bit but reiterated his request. The take-me-to-your-leader kind of an order. “We spotted some twenty pot plants near by and your home is the closest. I suggest, sir, that you comply with my requests. Take me to your plants.”
Mark sighed in exasperation. “We don’t have any. I don’t even know what you’re talking about, as if we’d grow pot plants on our property. That makes no sense. Neither of us smokes anything but this stuff.” He pulled out the cigarettes from his back pocket and held them out.

Another SUV showed up and drove past the other vehicles across my front yard. He pulled up next to us.

“Is there a problem here, Anders?”
“No sir, we were just taking them to the site. Would you like to come with us?”
“Not at all, I’m staying in the air conditioning. Speed it up though. We have another sighting a mile away.” He closed the window and backed out. Tire tracks everywhere. I’d have to rake this later.

“Come along. You can let your dog loose, Ma’am. My officers aren’t afraid of a little runt like that.”

He strode off without a glance at Frida snapping around his boots. I grabbed my hat and caught up with Mark. We followed them down the arroyo on the right, through the hundred-foot bed of coal dust, and past the burnt-out pinion, the result of a lightening strike was my guess. The midday sun wore me out but I kept up with everyone, all ten or us. Although I hated to admit it, taking that hike was easier than digging in fence posts for the chicken run. I spotted some orange paintbrush-like wildflowers on the southern slope. The ridge took us up and over into a neighboring meadow of cacti and silvery stunted shrubs. We walked over the scrubby grasses, along the riverbed and past trees dead and dying. The entourage stopped next to a clump of junipers. Mark and I looked around us.

“Where are we?” he whispered.

“Please, sir, if you have something to say, say it to the group.”
Were we in high school again? Mark said nothing. I coughed. He snickered. Frida found something and ran off. I heard her digging furiously.

“Stop that dog. She’s tampering with evidence.” They ran after her and someone pulled her out from under a tree by her tail. The poor girl yelped and raced over to Mark, jumping into his arms. She buried her head in his armpit.

“What had you found, girl?” he talked softly to her. She looked up briefly, saw Anders walking over, and whimpered.

“This way please, Ma’am, Sir.”
We looked at each other and followed him into a clearing. A bunch of tall bulky and bright green pot plants lay on the dirt. Pulled out by the roots. Each one was at least four or five feet tall, I’d guess, thick and furry.

“Wow. Those are huge.”
The agents watched us closely. I stepped up to poke one with my foot. “Are there more?”
“Why?”
“I’ve never seen anything like this.” I practically laughed in fascination. I bent down and picked at one. It stank. I picked off a piece and put it to my nose before someone yanked me back.

“That’s enough. Where are the rest?”
“Huh?” I stood up and brushed myself off. “You tell me. You brought us here. This isn’t even our land.”
“Nope, never been out here before, have we Jen? I like it. Is this on our property?” He asked Anders who had a bundle of Xeroxed maps in his hand. Mark went to look and unthinkingly took the top copy. It was of a map of our forty acres and both properties on either side. The road cut through ours in a pretty diagonal, across the two arroyos.

“Isn’t that us?” He held it out to me and I looked over his shoulder, or rather under his shoulder. My finger followed the road, the paths we usually took and found our campsite and the bus, somewhere in the middle. We’d placed it well, apparently. I nodded and handed it back to him. Mark passed it to Anders.

“That’s our place, right? Here’s the road, the bus, our gardens and the boundary where we walk the dog. See?” Mark in his innocence started to walk back the way we’d come.
Two of the officers blocked his path. They kept their hands on their hips.

“Unfortunately, sir, that might be true, but you two live right next to this large collection of illegal plants. We don’t believe you, to be blunt. Now, where are the rest? Someone who grows this many usually has at least another ten or more hidden nearby.”
“Couldn’t your helicopters see any?” I piped up.
Anders stared at me. “No, they didn’t.”
I shrugged and sat in the shade on a huge rock the size of a VW Beetle. Frida tried to join me but she kept slipping off the rocks. She sat at Mark’s feet instead. Anders watched us both carefully.

“Show us the path you use to bring the water out here,” he asked after a while.

“No, you show me.” Mark was getting braver and braver as time went on. I was quite proud of him. “Because there isn’t one and you know it. You know that this isn’t our doing. We’re too effing naïve, aren’t we? Oh, and to add to the equation, we haven’t lived here long enough. You might want to check your records before you try to pin anything on us. I only moved to Oliver, what, two months ago at most.”
Anders looked between Mark and I. He looked down at his paperwork.

“Is that right?”
We both bobbed our heads in agreement. He started to sweat.

“Damn. Who owns this bit? I’m going to get in such deep trouble for messing this up.”

His officers hung back, slowly melting into the trees around us. Frida headed for the freshly dog holes and stuck her face back in them, sighing loudly. I almost felt sorry for Anders. I came to look at the map he held. I recognized the driveway he pointed out as being the nearest. I said nothing.

He folded up his papers and looked around for his men. They’d gone back without him.

“How do we get back from here?”

He turned in a circle, desperately looking for someone to lead the way back. The clearing stood empty but for five dying plants and the rear end of a digging dog.

“We follow the little runt,” said my boyfriend with a sweet smile. “Frida, let’s go home.”

 

“Another pint, Jenny?”
“Hell yeah.”

We stood at the bar surrounded by locals, Dieselhead Danny being one of them. He’d been telling everyone about watching us with the cops and how suddenly they’d all just left, driven off, no charges, and no further searches. Or finds.

“They didn’t get the others,” he announced proudly. He kept buying us drinks. The tavern was pretty empty but it was a Wednesday afternoon. The tourists took over town on the weekends. After we’d found out that little detail, we had adjusted our drinking times suitably, still trying to fit in. Anyway, Danny kept slapping Mark on the back, thanking him for not mentioning the water hauling or anything like that.

“Oh, right, I’d forgotten about that. I just hated the way he called my dog a runt. He pissed me off.” Mark leaned against the stool I was sitting in and gave me a quick kiss on the ear. That third beer was doing wonders for his mood.

We’d got back to the bus with Anders in tow and had made ourselves a cold drink. All three of us sat on the deck and watched as Frida found a rawhide and fell asleep with it under her front paws. One SUV waited for him as he finished his lemonade and apologized in a roundabout way. Finally we were alone again. I got up and raked out the tire tracks. Mark took a sponge bath. Frida napped.

Half an hour later we drove to the tavern, under the watchful eyes of two helicopters. Mark gave them the finger. Frida panted. For once, I drove.

 

Danny wandered outside for a smoke and Mark joined him. I sat there alone for a while, I was glad the day was over. The bartender came over and handed me a pint of cold water.

“You’re looking a little rosy,” he said politely.

I snorted. “I know. It seems to be my New Mexico color, I’m okay, just a little flushed after this morning.”
He laughed out loud and grinned with me, and had no teeth missing. The job must pay better than most.

“Yeah, I heard. That was a close call, you realize that, don’t you?”
“Yes, that’s why I’m here. I need to forget how close a call. Does that happen a lot around here? It was crazy. Do you think the cops even know whose stuff it was? Is?”
“Probably, but I’d forget all about that if you can. At least now, you’ve made a friend for life with Danny. He’ll look out for you for as long as you live near by. He’s as loyal as a puppy if he likes you.”
Once a year apparently the cops come around, hoping to find fields of green. Instead they bust two or three people for having a handful of pot plants. After seeing the five ‘copters and twenty or so ground personnel, SUVs, even a couple of all terrain vehicles, I have to wonder how much that all cost?

As usual, Mark interrupted my deep thoughts.

“There’s a BBQ out on Alaska road on the weekend, and we’ve been invited. Want to go?”
“Sure. Whose?”
Mark grinned. “I don’t remember but here’s the address for us. Dusk onwards, and he said bring beer, instruments, and dogs, not bad eh? Frida’s first party.”
More importantly – it was going to be our first party in Oliver. We’d finally arrived.

 

 

Living The Dream: 15

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

AUGUST: GROWING YOUR OWN

“Your usual, Jenny?”

“Yes please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I explained that we were new in town and –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Living The Dream: 13

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

 

JULY: WET DOG

“Frogs? Do I hear frogs?” I murmured in my dreams.

Mark woke up with a startle. “Frogs. What the hell?” He jumped out of bed, almost knocking Frida to the floor. She yelped and sat on my lap as I tried to work out what was happening. Outside the sky was a dark grey with the sun only just lightening everything up enough to make out the basic blackened shapes and silhouettes. He pulled on his jeans and boots.

“Come on. It’s raining.”

It was true: That thundering sound wasn’t an imaginary waterfall, rain was slamming down upon a metal roof. I stood up excitedly. At last. Monsoons. Mark called out to Frida and they charged out the front door. He was laughing out loud and running around, with our pup barking and howling along. I got dressed and stood on the steps. It was pouring. Torrential rain, they’d not been kidding when describing the monsoons. The driveway was flooded, the trash bags floated under the trees. I ran down the steps and stood arms spread out and head turned up to catch the raindrops in my mouth. Within minutes I was soaked through. I took my shirt off and stripped to my skin. What was the point of wearing anything? This was a shower like none before. Mark laughed and copied me and we ran around in only our boots, thoroughly naked we skipped through the storm.

“Let’s try to find the frogs.” He stood and turned slowly, listening intently. “That way, I think.” He pointed to the west and I followed, holding his hand as we slipped. Frida kept stepping in front of me, asking to go back. I sent her out from under my feet. I ran with rain pouring off me. A stream, or a waterfall gushed in the distance; I couldn’t make out where. Mark jogged ahead, stopping occasionally, and then changing direction slightly. He stopped next to the arroyo. That dry sandy beach of ours now had a river running full speed down the embankment, taking branches, rats’ nests, and who knows what else with it. The rushing water was so loud he had to shout. I still didn’t catch what he said so he pointed.

On the banks I spotted the frogs. Tons of them, all echoing each other to some internal rhythm, one moment deafening, and the next a silent pause before they started up the chorus again. These were the voices that had woken us both up. I stared at them, absolutely thrilled and fascinated by their shapes and sizes. Where did they come from? Did they live in the dirt all year, waiting for this? The rain slammed into us continuously, I was drenched, my hair stuck to my head, and water ran into my eyes. I blinked.

“Want a bath?” Mark stuck his mouth next to my ear. He nodded down stream at our beach.
I grinned, “we might as well, we’re already wet.” I followed him down the rocks and he found a spot that curved up and past three huge rocks, making a pond. We curled up against each other and shouted sweet nothings.

 

“Where’s the tent?”
I walked next to Mark as we headed home to warm up and make breakfast.

“I don’t see it. Do you?”
The sandy campsite was now a sodden mess of twigs, our trash bags, and a couple of cardboard boxes that had lodged themselves in the bushes. No tent. We looked at each other and then downstream. Mark nodded once and set off into the mud. He searched down the arroyo for some ten minutes before he came back with a piece of fabric in hand. Emerald green, wet, and muddy.

“Was this it?” He held it out to me to inspect.
“It could be. But what about our clothes? Did they wash away too?”

“I don’t know. What else did we have in there? Oh, my ties and nice shirts were in a sports bag, a box of photos and letters, some books, oh and that box of vinyl too, damn. Could it really wash away something that heavy? Come on let’s go, it’s your stuff too, you know?” He paced impatiently, scratching his beard.
I waited a moment and offered, “We’ll look for everything when it stops raining, okay? I’ll help.”
Mark looked around helplessly once more and shrugged his shoulders in defeat. He held my hand though as we paddled through the streaming rain. The door stood open, as we’d left it. Mark went in first as I took off my boots and hung them out to dry. The sun peaked out from behind dwindling cloud cover.

“What the hell?”
The bus was wrecked. Furniture overturned. Fridge open. Books scattered and at least one was half-eaten. A pile of puppy shit sat in the middle of the hallway.

“That dog of yours.” He looked around furiously. We couldn’t see her. I called and called but Frida didn’t come out. I stepped back into the bedroom. The covers were shaking.

“Mark? Come here, will you?”
“What is it now?”
I pointed at our bed.

“Oh baby,” was all he said. He sat on the edge and started talking to her soft and low, calling her name, talking to her as I had that first day. She stopped shaking and the lump under the sheet slowly wriggled towards his voice. Her head stuck out and she stared up at us both dolefully. Her big amber eyes blinked. Her ears were flat to her skull. Her terrier brush-like fur was soaked and droopy. She shook as I folded back the sheet and reached for her.

The rain slammed against the roof of the bus suddenly, one last attempt before the sunshine returned, and she flinched but came out finally and sat between us, leaning into the warmth of our bodies and craving our touch. I looked at Mark over her head. He shrugged.

“Now what?” I echoed.
“We clean up, one of us does, and the other can stay with her. I guess we don’t leave her alone in storms any more.”
I stood up. “I’ll make us some coffee then, you stay here. Here’s a towel for you both, catch.”

 

We spent the morning enjoying the rain, the dog, and finally, remembering to enjoy each other. Mark made us a fire in the woodstove, as I still didn’t do a good job with that. Coffee in bed, we chatted about the solar and what we should do. Mark decided that we could work it out ourselves. What’s so hard about it, right? A panel, an inverter, and some batteries. Yep, we could do that for ourselves. Frida had finally left us alone to curl up on her own bed but one eye kept watch at all times.

The driveway was a muddy river. The porch had held up, and the bench had stayed dry enough for us to sit outside and we listened to the buckets overflowing, drip-by-drip, all from off the one little tin roof. We now had ten five-gallon buckets of our own water – it was a pretty satisfying for a start in self-sufficiency. The rains finally stopped but the clouds hung around. The mountains hid from sight in a lingering dense fog.
Mark went back inside, putting away mugs and coffee pot, and generally cleaning up after me. Frida came outside and joined me on the bench. Mark listened to the radio, only to come tell me that another big storm was on its way.

“This afternoon,” he said as he sat next to us, looking around the mud pit we called home.

“Is it time for a motel?” I offered with a grin, tying on my boots, hoping he’d agree.
“You want to bail on us? Go back to your townie ways?” He teased.

I nodded. “Yep, no shame in that as far as I’m concerned. It’s just for a night, it’s not like I’m giving up and moving back to the city, you know. You’ll quit before me.”
There was an uncomfortable pause before he laughed me off and stood up. “All right then, let’s go.”

“Now?”
“Yep, why not? It’s stopped raining. I’ve drunk three cups of Joe and I’m raring to go. So let’s go, right?”
I grabbed my backpack and cowboy hat as I closed the door behind us. Frida followed me closely, still scared.

“You drive.” I threw him the keys with a grin.
“No, you drive. I’m tired of driving all the time, it’s your turn.” Mark whined as he picked up a guitar and followed us.
I raced to the car, jumping over some puddles, splashing through others, and claimed the passenger seat. Frida ran after me and climbed into the back seat. Mark stood there, staring at us all warm and dry, and climbed in with a shrug and then a brief smile. He nodded to himself.

“Okay, okay, girls. I’ll drive. You wouldn’t know how anyway.”

 

“Hey, do you need a ride?”
Mark pulled up next to this figure stumbling along Harold’s Way in the mud. He turned. I tried not to gag. His eyes were both swollen shut, his mouth dripped a fine trail of blood and his face was a mass of eggplant bruises. He held his right arm close to his torso. I looked at Mark, shaking my head frantically. Too late, the man was coming up to my window. He leaned down. Frida growled from her back seat.

“That would be great. I’m trying to get to the clinic in town.”
“Okay.”
Neither of us knew what to say exactly. We drove slowly through the mud, occasionally slipping off to one side or the other. Thank God for four wheel drive. Finally I had to ask,

“Hmm, are you okay?”

The man turned to face me. I wish he hadn’t. Frida leaned next to me, none to happy with sharing the car. She grumbled deep and low.
“It looks worse than it is. Are you two the ones out by Dieselhead?”
Mark nodded as he drove. “Yeah, why?”
“Well, don’t tell him that you picked me up.”
“You mean, he did this to you?”
“No, but he arranged for me to leave town. He wants me gone.” The man shook his head and mud flew everywhere. Luckily he’d stopped bleeding. His jacket was soaked through and his jeans were caked in layers of clay and sand. He smiled at me and I saw beyond the yikes-factor. He had a friendly open grin, with only one tooth was missing.

“Thanks for picking me up. I don’t know that I’d have made it out of there on my own. Most people drive past me.”
I had to wonder why but I didn’t ask. Not directly. “Really?”
He turned back to watch where we were going as he started to talk about living in Oliver. He’d been in town for some eight or so years from what I could gather, and never as a popular man. “To start with, they thought I was a Narc. Now they think I’m going to steal whatever’s lying around.”
“Are you?” Mark sounded quite firm, most manly for a second.

“No, I’m not. And you just helped me out more than you can imagine. I’d not do anything to you, or your place, honest.”
I believed in his messed up logic. I think we’d just paid our insurance dues. He told me about the trailer he’d rented being burnt down in an accident in March, and since then he’d been couch surfing around the area.

“But I think I’ve run out of places to stay. Did you say you have a space? Extra studio or something? I could trade you.”
Mark said that no, we’d lost our tent on the floods, had our own place, but thanks for offering. It was all quite polite of him considering the situation. The car started sliding to the right as we crested the one small hill. I clutched Frida a little too tightly and she yelped. We drove down an embankment and into a riverbed. A creek rushed past my door. Great. The car stalled out. It started to rain again. Great. Mark gave me a look of frustration and stepped outside to see what we could do. Not much by his helplessness of his shrug. I opened the door, stepped shin deep into cold water, and joined him. Reluctantly. Our wandering hitchhiker sat inside and stared at us through the glass. I turned my back on him. I whispered to Mark. He went back over and asked the guy to get out and help us.

After checking it out from all angles, Mark had a plan. The three of us searched the road for loose rocks and stacked them around the tires and made a ramp back onto the road. It kept on raining. Frida started to whimper again so I put her in Mark’s seat with a scarf of mine to suck on. She watched me through the window.

The ramp was built. Mark got in. He started it up. The car didn’t move. I fell in the mud. Like I said, it was great.
We all sat in the car not knowing what to do.

A Dodge truck drew up beside us and stopped in the middle of the road, and the Hitchhiker flinched but said nothing. A young couple – did I really just say that? They were in their twenties at least, but anyway they both climbed down and introduced themselves, telling us how they lived a few miles past us, way out at the end, and rarely came out. They were pretty friendly, nice, you know? Three young kids peered out the truck windows. Frank and Debbie were homesteading, home schooling, and basically staying home. We were lucky; it was their regular trip to Santa Fe, bad weather or not, they always drove to town once a month. He pulled his cowboy hat back on and shrugged on a denim jacket. With leather gloves, Frank took out a ten-foot chain and tied our car to his bumper. The Hitchhiker hung back, being very low key for a man with a smashed in face; you’d almost not notice him. Debbie climbed into their truck and with only a second glance she pulled us out. Mark whooped it up in glee and Frida barked in distress. I let her out and she ran over to Mark to make sure nothing was wrong with him. He petted her as he took out his wallet to pay our saviors.

“What? No chance. We’re neighbors, that’s what we do. Help each other out.”
“Well, can we invite you all over sometime?” Mark offered.

Frank held out his hand, “We’d be honored to do just that. We’ll stop on by some afternoon with the kids. Do you both have kids?”
“Not yet,” said Mark.
“No plans,” I said.

Frank smiled at us both a little uncertainly. He unhooked his chain. “Well, okay then, you can follow us out to the highway if you like. And you’ll see us again. Pleased to meet you both.” He shook our hands. Debbie pulled on her sunglasses and gave us a wave as she waited for Frank to climb into the Dodge. She slowly drove off and waited for us to catch up.
I looked around. “Where is he?”
“Who? Oh, right, yeah, where is he?”
I looked over at the car and Frida had jumped back in through a window. I walked closer to check on her. She was alone. Our hitchhiker had disappeared. So had my wallet.

Living The Dream: Chapter 3

DECEMBER: CAMPING

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?”