Living The Dream: 21

 

SEPTEMBER: SUPPORTIVE FRIENDS

“Do you have a shotgun?”

“Did you kill it?”
“What happened?”
I poured the French Roast one at a time and answered, “we went to bed.”
The café broke out in laughter; all began talking at the same time. The two tables were full of locals, with newspapers, empty paper cups, plates of bagels, and the various phones and hats they all carried. Eight chairs, seven gray-haired men, and one four-year old little girl in pink. She held court between the snake stories. Mark and I’d gotten off lightly apparently. One local woman had a rattlesnake climb into bed with her. I’m glad that wasn’t me.

The guys all had different ideas as to what we could/ should do next time. No one had the definitive answer that I heard. But here goes, the ideas included but were not limited to:

Shotgun.

Rope on a stick to lasso the bastard.

Metal buckets with lids.

Cats keep away mice and rats, and therefore the snakes don’t come over for dinner.

Clean up piles of lumber and trash. (Little did they guess that I was pretty anal about that already and didn’t need any excuse.)

Wire mesh under the bus to keep out all kinds of critters.

Cat-litter spread around the perimeter.

And again, get a shotgun.
I poured coffees for the regulars and made lattes for the tourists. The café business was slowing down after my mid-morning rush. I took a breath and carried on cleaning, dusting, and catching up. I drank another cappuccino. The two glass doors had been propped open and a soft crosswind took out some of the various odors, not all were that pleasant let’s say. I wiped down the shelves and took a cloth to the shelves full of small colorful silly gifts for those passing through. I looked at my notes. Matthew, a local mechanic, had drawn a sketch for how to make a lasso out of PVC pipe and baling wire. He’d drawn a cartoon of Mark and I chasing down a posse of snakes across the desert. I wanted to frame it; he’d done such a great job. Frida was asleep outside in the back yard of the café, under the elm tree with her favorite blanket and toy near by. She’d been on quivering guard all night long and the poor thing was exhausted. I checked on her every so often but she barely moved.

The morning passed peacefully and for that I was glad. I scanned the paper, looking for jobs for Mark. He’d hate that, but he’d need to do something soon. I couldn’t support us both on what I was doing. I thought of asking at the restaurants but couldn’t face that either. I leaned against the counter and daydreamed.

 

“Hi. Is Anne around?”
Andrew, the birthday boy, stood in front of me with his hat in hands, politely letting me gather myself. He’d pulled up in the driveway in his 4Runner, the engine still running. I checked the calendar and told him she’d be back in the morning but not before.
“Can I help somehow?”
Andrew shook his head but sat down on one of the wooden stools in front of me, his truck forgotten. His long white hair hung loosely and the blue Levis and denim shirt were much more worn out than at his party the other weekend. He wasn’t in his Sunday best, I guess.

“I don’t know, Jenny. It’s my sister; I’m worried about her. Anne’s so good at all of her community outreach stuff, I wanted to ask her help.”
“What’s wrong? Is there anything I can do?” I poured him a cup of coffee out of habit and sat next to him. I turned down the music. He sat quietly for a moment, thinking to himself before he started to talk.

“It’s the rescue. She’s drowning in debt but won’t ask for help from anyone. I don’t think she can keep going for much longer unless she gets some money together. I don’t know how. We’re all the family there is, we don’t have anyone to turn to. Mom’s ancient and doesn’t even recognize us any more.”
“So you thought of Anne? How come?”
He glanced at me. “I forget you’re still new here.”
“I’m not. I’ve been here almost three months now,” I said indignantly.

He laughed, “no offence, but that’s not so long, is it? Anyway, Anne’s put on fundraisers before. I thought maybe we could do one for the sanctuary.”
“I want to help. I don’t know how, but I’m sure I could do something. What does she need?” Ready to get involved as usual, I couldn’t keep my enthusiasm in check. I tried not to bounce in my seat.
“Mostly it’s the financial stuff, paying bills, buying supplies for the dogs, paying medical bills as they come up, maybe even making it into a non-profit.” He grinned. “Well, that’s what I’ve come up with so far.” and he tied his hair back and out of the way. His moustache drooped and dipped into the coffee.
“What’s she been doing until now?”
He sighed deeply. “Nothing. I told her to set herself up properly when her husband left, but did she listen to me? No, I’m just her older brother.”
“Mark’s been helping over there, mending fences and stuff. It’s not really what he’s good at. He’s more of a musician than anything else. But he’s good on the computer. Maybe we could do the Internet stuff for her, work on the accounts and look into some marketing?”
“Louisa doesn’t like getting people involved in her life. We’d have to get her okay first. But is it hard to get the non-profit stuff done?”
I shook my head and sipped coffee and grabbed notebook and pen. I started to write down ideas free form. “I’d think it’s probably just lots of details, setting up the different roles and that. We could do it so she has the final say on mission statements and that, but we organize how to deal with the money side of things. If Mark or someone could write some grants, then…”
“She’d be okay? I don’t want her to lose everything in the meantime.”
“Oh, right, that wouldn’t help her out right now.” I stood up and called to Frida. She trotted up the steps and lay down next to Andrew’s boots, and started to lick the one nearest her.
“Been cleaning out the stables,” he explained as we watched my dog.

I wrote down about grants, sponsors, fundraisers, and asked, “When Anne’s done other events, how does that work?”
Andrew added some more sugar and talked about the tavern hosting various shows over the years, with silent and live auctions, music all night long with the local bands each getting a set or two before the community jam towards the end of the night. “For one woman with a back injury, we raised about six thousand, and that took care of her mortgage and those kinds of expenses. The hospital covered the medical bills since she was under the poverty income levels.”

“Do you really get that much support here? There are not enough people, surely?”
Andrew laughed, “I know it seems that way at times, but there’s another four hundred or so folks living out in the mountains, and most of them are artists and writers and sculptors and woodworkers. They all bring their own creations to auction off. The musicians play with each other and with their reputations they bring in more of a Santa Fe audience, the families bring the kids, and it’s pretty incredible.” He had the sweetest smile right then.

I petted Frida. “Let’s do it, a fundraiser then, and in the meantime, Mark and I can work on the long term legal stuff, finding us, I mean Louisa, sponsors. I’m up for it. I’ll tell Mark later today, okay?”
Andrew put his hand on my arm, and still smiling, simply said thanks.

 

The four of us sat at the corner table in the tavern. Papers and pens lay scattered among pints of half-drunk beer and untouched iced water. A bowl of tortilla chips was brought over by the waiter. He left us to it after checking we didn’t need anything for a while. We all talked over each other, one idea after another. Anne took down notes as to names of artists and galleries. I wrote their suggestions for media coverage, which papers and the specific journalists to approach. Radio stations, online yahoo groups, Facebook, all the different social networks came to mind. Mark scribbled his own ideas and questions to follow up on for finding the bands. Andrew stood up after a while and stepped outside to smoke, with Mark following his lead. Anne and I took a breath and stopped talking. The calm felt good. I set the pen down. I breathed in deeply and let it out slowly.

The tavern was empty. Then again, for a weekday afternoon, I should know to expect that by now. Anne drained her first pint and ordered another round, with a plate of nachos for the group of us.
We sat in an easy silence.

The drinks came. The men didn’t.

“Cheers.” she toasted me. “Welcome to Oliver. You’re truly a part of this place if this is how you spend your time off.”
I tipped my glass and took a sip. “Yep, I feel like I can help out. I know Louisa. If it had been anyone else, I don’t know that I’d be as keen as this, to be honest. But I like what she’s doing up there. Maybe I can help set up a website, tell people about the specific dogs looking for homes.”
“She’d do well with a monthly newsletter to keep us in touch. She’s not good with people, that’s for sure, but I’ve known her with these dogs, ones you’d think should be quarantined because they’re so unpredictable. But she works with them, teaches them manners, and finds them homes. It’s such a shame her husband left her, but I reckon she’s happier without him.”
“Really? Why?”
“It wasn’t his dream, you know? The ones that don’t make it out on the land, well, usually one or the other is just going along with it to keep the partner happy. After a while, hauling water, or chopping firewood, or waking up to a raging windstorm, it gets old for some.”
“Not me. I love every minute of it. I didn’t know I would, but I do. And Mark’s been amazing too. He’s so great with the pup, and with getting his hands dirty, all the while he’s grinning and giggling and whistling to himself. I’ve not seen him this happy before. It’s pretty amazing.” I stared out the window and we watched Andrew and Mark chatting away, big smiles on their faces, non-stop back and forth. Mark pushed his curls out of his eyes and tied a bandana around the unruly mess, as he stroked his goatee absently. He finished his pint as he listened to the older man. Andrew’s faded denim shirt glowed in the direct afternoon sunlight, and his weathered skin suited him just fine, so much so that I imagined my boyfriend in his seventies looking somewhat like his new friend. I smiled to myself and turned back to Anne. She was reading her notes distractedly, fiddling with a strand of hair.

“Where’s Graham today?” I asked suddenly.
She shrugged. “I’m not sure. Something about the fire department, taking out a new volunteer to check for wildfires. He said they’d be back late afternoon sometime. We’ll see.”

She shook her head and focused on writing reminders to herself when Mark wandered over. He took a seat next to me just as the nachos arrived. He helped himself, humming away as he ate. I watched them both.

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Living The Dream: 10

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

 

JULY: ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE

 

I woke up to the sun shining in through the bus windows. The sky was streaked in gold and periwinkle. My sweetie was snoring next to me. The wind gently rocked the bus, but in a good way. I yawned and stretched my legs. I climbed out of bed and took three steps to turn on the coffee pot. I stared out another window at the mountains to the south of us. Tall and craggy, they loomed over the valley we lived in.
I got dressed in the usual jeans and red tee shirt, found my new cowboy hat, and poured out a fresh brewed Joe. I opened the door quietly and stepped down on to our almost finished porch. The paint smell had finally blown away.

I stretched tall and touched the tin roof above before bending forward to scratch my toes. I looked all around and once again was overwhelmed by how beautiful the desert can be. Sitting down on the bench we’d made yesterday, I put my feet up. The coffee was perfect. The sky lightened into a teal and orange stripe fest. The silence enveloped me. I sighed. I drank the coffee.

 

“What the hell?”

In front of me stood a small animal. Furry. Four legs. Tail tucked somewhere underneath. She looked like a roast chicken that had been left drying out on the dining room table.

A stray dog, in other words, she looked like a border terrier mixed with something, I had no idea what. I put my feet to the floor softly and she flinched but didn’t run away. The poor little bugger was all skin and bones, panting even now in the cool morning temperatures. I stood up, talking gently the whole time. I took a couple of steps and climbed into the bus, grabbing a green cereal bowl and filling it with water. I couldn’t think of what to feed her.

I came back out and she’d gone. I stood there, water in hand, and started to cry. It was hormones, honest. I put the bowl on the wooden platform and sat back on the bench. Out from under my feet she crawled past me and crept over to the water. She drank half and then burped like a pro. I laughed out loud and she jumped, running back under the porch itself. I could see her through the flooring.

I drank some of my tepid coffee and started to talk. I described the bus and how we’d found it. I told her about the mice and rats. I mentioned my favorite colors. I just talked a bunch of crap really.

The dog came out and sat in front of me with her head tilted. She had long spindly legs and that scruffy wiry creamy straw-like fur that terriers are known for. On her top lip, she’d grown a short moustache. She licked her lips as I spoke.

“Are you hungry, Frida?”
She knew what I was offering and her tail made an appearance, wagging slowly and cautiously. I stood up.

“Well, let’s see what you might like, shall we? Come on inside, don’t worry; the fella snoring is one of those good ones. He’s a keeper. He’ll be nice to you, I promise.”
I looked behind me to see her at the top step, nose working furiously, aimed at the new kitchen. I squatted down and opened the fridge. We had some beans, rice, and tortillas, Mark’s leftover hamburger and fries, a bag of tomatoes, coffee, cream, and beer. Oh, and some eggs. I pulled out what I wanted and put everything on the counter above me. I found another bowl, blue this time, and half filled it with the rice, an egg and some burger and stirred it all together. I headed back outside with the little girl at my feet, staring at me expectantly.

I put the bowl by her water and stepped away.

She sat. She waited. She licked her moustache.
“Go on, it’s yours.”

 

We walked the property with the sun rising behind us. I walked and talked out loud to the pup. She bounced like a puppy, forgetting herself and chasing at leaves and flies. She looked up when I chatted. She played under the pinions and in the sand, digging furiously at a small hole. I wandered over to see what the fuss was and she stopped to stare at me. I squatted down to her height. I leaned against a banana of a boulder. She dug some more. Suddenly a mouse ran between her legs and I squealed. Frida lunged after the little creature and gave chase. I heard her excited yelps growing more and more distant. I waited. She didn’t come back when I thought she would.
I carried on walking. I reached the back half of the forty acres and came across a few deep holes, seemingly old ones, hidden by branches cut from a nearby juniper tree.

I stood on the high point that looks over a dry riverbed, an arroyo as they say hereabouts. Sand and river rock lined the route the water must take if ever it flows. We’d still not had more than a slight rain so far this summer. My umbrella stared forlornly at me from the hook on the porch.

I sat down and listened hard. No furry footsteps came my way. I sighed and stood up and walked home. I took the western path, cutting under a ridge with sandstone ledges that scared me; the slightest extra weight could bring them crashing down on me. I spotted a small stumpy cactus that had thrown out a shocking pink flower. Just the one. I got close and stared. It was delicate yet chunky. Solid in it’s new growth, the flower didn’t move in the breeze. Or when I poked it with a stick.
The sand turned a burnt sienna in places, and in others a golden cinnamon toast. I was hungry. I picked up the pace. The sky was becoming more of a gunmetal gray than the periwinkle blue I’d grown used to. In the distance I heard a rumble. It wasn’t my stomach this time.

I walked fast through the silver pale green shrubs and the forest of tall cactus near our homestead. I heard Mark snoring still. I rounded the tail end of the school bus. On the steps sat Frida, with both the water and food bowls licked clean. Her tail wriggled and she stood up and ran to me. She stood on her back legs when I bent down. A lick on the chin, and that was that; I loved her.

 

“What the hell is that?” Mark yelled from the bed.

I ran inside. Frida followed a few paces behind. On the pillow next to my boy was a mouse. A dead mouse. Mark had scooted to the bottom of the mattress. His hair stuck out in all directions and he gave me a frantic look. “How on earth did that get there? Is this some kind of a joke?”
I laughed, which probably wasn’t a good idea. He scowled. I nodded behind me. “I think she brought you a present.”

“Who?” Mark pulled his knees to his chest and stared at me in a foggy daze.
Frida stepped closer to me and peered at Mark from between my legs, all sixteen pounds of her pressed into me for support.

“What’s that?”
Frida whimpered and shook slightly. I looked down at my scruffy new friend. “That is a dog.”

“He has a moustache.”
She, yes, she does. She has a name.”

“What name?”
“Frida, her name is Frida.”
“Oh, right. We can talk about this later, okay? Can you do me a favor now? Take the corpse away.” He pointed to my pillow. “You might want to wash that before tonight.”

I picked up the mouse with his bandana. Frida watched me with her head tilted sideways. Her one ear flopped and the other stood up high. She licked her top lip nervously. I smiled at her and looked back to Mark. “Isn’t she adorable?”
“Does that mean we’re keeping her?”
I smiled sweetly. “Did you want coffee in bed?”
“We should try to find if someone lost her.” Mark said sensibly.

“But what if they did and I have to give her back?”

He drank more coffee and leaned back against the headboard. I sat next to him. Frida looked at us from over the edge of the mattress, her little tufty ears following us back and forth. She watched as we decided her fate.

“What if it was your dog? Wouldn’t you want someone to give her back?”
“Yes, of course. Damn, now we’ll have to go to Oliver and try to find her family, won’t we?”
He nodded sagely, and lightly tapped the bed once. Frida needed no more encouragement and she bounced up. She stood there for a second, all eighteen inches tall, before she circled twice and curled up at his feet. Her eyes watched him closely.

“We can make some flyers or something. Go to the Post Office and ask around at the store and at the cafe. It’s a small enough town that they probably know the dogs’ names more than their neighbors.”

Mark was right; we’d have to go look, and make sure she wasn’t simply lost. To me, there was something wrong about how scared the pup was. That shouldn’t be allowed if she did indeed have a home nearby. Maybe someone dropped her off on the highway? Left her out here on her own?

“What about driving and asking the neighbors first? We could drive up Harold’s Way and ask around.”
Frida sighed and wriggled against Mark. He reached down and petted her absent-mindedly. I said nothing and left them to it.

 

“Hello? Anyone home?”

Mark shouted out of the car window. Three big furry dogs ran up to our Subaru and barked like crazy. Frida hid at my feet. The adobe house had one wall fallen in. A horse stood in a corral and watched us, flicking its tail. The German Shepherds soon got bored and walked back over to the shade of the porch. They didn’t stop staring. The house was pretty big but incredibly run down. Gutters half fell off the roof. Buckets lay everywhere. Empty bottles and trashcans lined the driveway. An old Chevy truck sat on blocks. The firewood pile had cacti growing out of it. The path to the front door was clear and well worn. Where was everyone?
I wanted to get out and look around. Mark wasn’t going to let me.
“Remember what Dieselhead Danny said, about how people don’t like visitors showing up uninvited? Especially folks they’ve never even met. We’re lucky we didn’t get shot.”
He looked around nervously, smoking as he checked his mirrors. “Do you have that note about Frida? We can stick it to the gate post on the way out.”
We turned the car around slowly, trying to avoid the stuff lying everywhere. The gate had been open when we drove up but I got out and pulled it shut behind us. I had some duct tape and I attached the description of Frida to the right hand side. That would get their attention.

 

One by one, we stuck notes on gates and sometimes on front doors, depending on the dog situation. If none charged us as we drove up, I was sent to do the deed. If the car was surrounded, Mark admitted defeat and we drove away with Frida on my lap. Her fur tickled. She leaned against me, nestling in for hugs when Mark wasn’t looking. We spent most of the morning looking for her owners but no one could help. Not that we met many people, but still, we did run into a few and not one recognized her. There was one last reclusive homestead on the way to Oliver we were told to check out first.

The gate was firmly shut but for some reason Mark insisted on going up closer. I got out to push the metal gate out the way when a voice shouted out to me.

“Don’t do that.”
Deep and strong, the voice was of God, booming out from the unseen. I spun around. A tall dark-skinned woman strode towards us. Frida whimpered and ran for the car, bouncing in and onto Mark’s lap. I was on my own here.

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” I started in my polite middle class way when she reached me. At some six-foot or so, she made a remarkable first impression. The long legs reached higher than my waist. The tee shirt hugged a skinny wiry body devoid of anything extra, (that’s a polite way of saying she was flat-chested), the muscles shaped her arms into string beans, and her hair was a silver gray, and almost invisible it was that short. Her blue eyes took me by surprise. I didn’t expect that. I stuttered out the story of finding Frida. “Are you missing a dog?”
“I might be. Describe her again.” She had a no nonsense approach for such a strange answer.

“Surely you’d know if a dog’s gone, right?”
“Not necessarily. You see, I run a rescue here. That’s why I didn’t want the gate opened by strangers. Look up the hill and you’ll see my dogs are watching us closely.”
I looked and almost fainted. The hilltop was lined with dogs staring at me, bunches of dogs, all eyes focused on my healthy sized thighs, the color of a medium rare hamburger.

“How many do you have?” I shuddered in awe.
“Thirty-three. Or maybe it’s thirty-two now?” She smiled and suddenly I liked her. A childish mischief came out in the twinkle in her eyes. I grinned back.

“Let me show you Frida, she’s with Mark in the car.”
“Okay, that’ll work. I did get some dogs in recently that haven’t adjusted to the pack dynamic. They want to leave. I try to take a handful in to Santa Fe each month to find more permanent homes, you know, but that’s hard to do sometimes.”

We walked back, introduced ourselves, and she talked about the sanctuary. She’d had the place for fifteen years, starting with two rescue dogs that she found wandering her land. Mark watched us but didn’t get out of the car, Frida sat on his lap, and they both stared at us worriedly. Her little ears drooped at the sight of us.

“Is that one of yours?” I asked.

Louise stepped closer.

“Yep, she came in last week. She hates it here. The other dogs are much bigger. This isn’t really the place for a dog like her; she’s too vulnerable. Too small.”
“How did you end up with her?” Mark piped up, curious after all.

“Her owner died of old age and in his sleep. The EMTs brought her here when no family came forward. They’re pretty good like that, taking care of more than just the emergency patients. You could say that she came here reluctantly.”
We stood next to each other in silence. In the Subaru, Frida sat on Mark’s lap and licked her nose nervously. The storm hovered above the hills to the north of us, which were lit by a streak of sunlight within a mix of dark gray and baby blue clouds. Ominous.

“Can we keep her?” Mark said it first. I grinned at him and he smiled back briefly before focusing on the woman next to me. She stood quietly scratching her shaven head absently.

“On one condition,” she answered after a moment spent assessing us both. “You come help me here with the dogs and the property. My husband left me last spring, for a woman with two cats.” She shook her head in disbelief. “I need help, with maintaining the place more than anything, but also taking four or five dogs to town each month to find them homes.” She broke into a toothy gapped grin that made me nod my head without thinking it through. She stuck out her hand to mine. I shook hers and I didn’t wonder why.

She stepped closer to the car and leaned down and into the window. Mark held onto Frida. Louisa laughed softly.
“Don’t worry, she’s yours. I’d say she’s about three years old, and I know she’s had her shots and been spayed. I have the records for you. She’s a good dog. Thanks for taking her.” She petted the pup gently. Louisa looked into Mark’s eyes. “I’ll see you on the weekend, shall I? Not too late, I get up a six.”

Living The Dream: 8

As part of the ongoing Sunday installments of the novel. You can find the other chapters on here, posted each Sunday morning. Click on the image for a link to the whole novel if you can’t wait.  

 

JULY: TOURISTS

“You look damn pink for a New Mexican.”

The man stared at me, taking in the fried shrimp color of my arms and legs, and the boiled lobster of a nose. “Are you sure? Don’t you come from the Midwest or something? We do.” He turned to his wife and introduced her. “Maggie, these two live here now and I’d thought she came from Ohio or something.”
His wife giggled nervously and pulled on her denim skirt, trying to bring it past her knees.

“I’m impressed,” she said, “but don’t you get bored in a little town like this? There’s nothing to do, no mall or movies or anything like we have in Lafayette.”

Her skin glistened with sunscreen and her tidy brown hairstyle wilted. She smiled though, enjoying the newness of everything even as she complained. Her white sneakers shone in the afternoon light. The sky, as usual, offered no break from the relentless sunshine and heat.

Summer. July Fourth to be exact. Oliver had it’s own Independence Day Parade. How cool is that?

The man stood next to Mark and asked about the festivities here. Mark lost his cool edge by admitting we’d only been here a couple of weeks.

“But you live here now?” The woman piped up, taking a gulp from a can of sweating coke. She held a pink plastic cowboy hat, and tilted her head so she could look up at him. All of five foot nothing, she had to lean back to see into Mark’s eyes and from where I stood, I half expected her to crash backwards against the truck. I have the same problem being five foot five to his six foot two.

Hundreds of motorcycles, a few sedans and more than a handful of trucks parked along every free space in front of the stores on the highway. Straw hats and baseball caps gave a minimum of shade to tourists wilting in the dry heat. Elm trees offered dappled cover to the lucky ones. Town was packed. I was glad we’d parked up the north end of town, as we’d be able to get out of here whenever we wanted. The Fire department had stopped all traffic. At each end of town stood one of four volunteers with a big red fire engine. Suddenly I wanted to wear a uniform like theirs. Although, perhaps not in this heat. The firefighter wearing full gear and even a helmet had sweat dripping off her nose and she wiped her forehead repeatedly.
Horns blasted. Whistles blew. The parade had started. Tourists cheered encouragement. I hopped up and down, craning over the heads of all the kids near by. It was in the nineties and dry, not a humid percentage to be counted. No clouds came to threaten us with those monsoons we kept hearing about. Not a drop in sight. Mark kept up the conversation.

“Yes, well, we moved here from Olympia, Washington. We’re building a place outside of town, in the valley out to the west of here. It’s a rough road or I’d offer to take you,” Mark said, lying through his bandana.

She asked all about what brought us here and when. The details. It was a good practice run for us. What to say, and what not. The city lifestyle they understood. The compost toilet didn’t go over so well.
“You what?”
“Shit in a bucket,” answered Mark helpfully.

She put her hand to mouth as if to stifle a scream of disgust, or to call down the wrath of some god for our disgusting heathen ways. I coughed and covered my giggles as they made excuses and wandered off to stand in the full sun. Mark held out his bottle of water to me and I took it. He wore his usual blue jeans and a faded green tee shirt that he’d found at a thrift store. His face looked the color of cinnamon and tasted of sweat and smoke. He’d grown a goatee and kept his curls under the bandana.

A cheer went up and I stood on my toes to look to the south end of town. You can see one end from the other; it’s that small here.

“There. The Fire Dept. is leading the way. You should join them, Mark. Make some friends and get involved. Right?”
“Why not you? You’d look good as an EMT.”
“But I hate blood.”
“There is that,” he conceded.

A fire truck passed us with a man in seventies style aviator sunglasses waving at everyone he passed. The sirens boomed suddenly and we all jumped, squealing in surprise. He grinned and threw candy at me. I caught a melted ginger sweet and ate it, smiling to myself. Mark nudged me.

“Got a new boyfriend already, eh?”
I laughed, glad that he wasn’t the jealous type by any means. I poked him back. Pointing behind him, I joked, “and you just want a little ass.”

A donkey strolled past us and Mark laughed, hugging me to him. The donkey had a blanket on its back with a poodle sitting upon that, and an older couple walked and talked to each animal, stroking ears and tapping tails. The donkey pooped as it walked.

Next along came tan or twelve young kids in costumes, ranging from Spiderman (he’s still cool?), to ninjas, Madonna, and cuddly Pooh bear and friends. Quite the gang, they took candy from the audience instead of throwing any. I’d already eaten mine and had nothing to offer the four year old in a George Bush mask.

A couple of old beat up cars drove past at two miles an hour with local twenty-somethings leaning out of windows, waving flags and laughing hysterically. People walked by, some brought dogs wearing stars and stripes, others brought goats, horses and even llamas. A motorcycle crawled along and in the sidecar sat a clown who didn’t smile. Very odd.

Lastly four or five middle-aged cheerleaders strode past in big boots and not much else, doing handstands and cartwheels. The tourists liked them a lot.

The parade was over.

After standing in the full sun, I’d wanted some cold water or a shower or something. Mark suggested we follow the crowds (such as they were) to the tavern and get a beer before heading home.
“It’s not like it’ll be any cooler back there, is it?” he reminded me with a grin.

“You’re right. It’s no better there, heat-wise. But at least I could get out of my tee shirt and lay in the hammock under the junipers.”
“Well, I like that idea too. Hmm, half-naked girlfriend in the desert? Or a beer at the tavern followed by half-naked girlfriend in the desert? It’s hard to decide.”

We walked with the donkey’s people. I wanted to ask a ton of questions even though my brain was fried but the husband, an old guy with long black dreadlocks said to get in touch some other time and gave me a business card. The Donkey’s card that is, Frodo The Burro had a local number. I pocketed it, thanking him.

“Did you win the bet?” a rather sun and wind weathered woman in brown leather chaps and sport’s bra asked Mark. He blushed and looked over to me for help.

“What bet?” I asked politely.
“Oh, we make a kitty of a dollar a guess as to how long the parade will last. I heard this one was eighteen minutes. One of the better ones.” She shook his hand, introduced herself, and studiously ignored me. As we came to the corner and crossed the road, she passed him a piece of paper with her address on.
“I don’t have a phone but come by some time.”
Mark glanced down at the paper. When he looked back up, she’d gone down some small alleyway. “She lives half a mile away from us, Jenny. That’s probably our closest neighbor. Should I tell her?”
I pulled him into the bar as he made to follow her. The door swung open and I pushed him through the crowds in front of us. A cheerful and very sweaty waitress headed over but I waved her off. She smiled briefly and then focused on a family of four behind us. We stepped up to the bar instead.

“A pale ale for me, thanks Mark.” I headed out to the porch for some fresh air.

 

I tripped over a dog lying in the middle of the doorway and almost fell off the porch. The mutt barely flinched. He raised his big brown mastiff head and stared at me, decided I wasn’t worth the attention and fell back to daydreaming. I found a corner where I could lean against the wooden edge and looked out over the parking lot. Filled to the brim with Harleys and the weekend bikers, I noticed a scattering of clean sedans and family wagons from out of state. That reminded me that I wanted to find the DMV next week and change my own plates. Get a New Mexico license. Post Office box. The list grew as I waited for Mark and my pint.

“You’re the new couple out down Gringo Gulch, right?”
I turned to see an older cowboy checking me out. I put out my hand and introduced myself. “Yes, in Pete’s place, I guess.”
“How’s it going out there for you? Hot, ain’t it?” He grinned widely and settled in next to me. His blue jeans were worn to a pale shade of gray. The black tee shirt was tucked in place with a leather belt. The cowboy boots were working boots and not for show.
“George. My name’s George Whitlow. Pleased to meet you, Jenny. I’d toast you but you’re without a drink.”
I grinned and explained my boyfriend was waiting at the bar for us.

“Don’t worry. Once the staff starts to recognize you, your pint will be already poured by the time you try to order. The benefit to living here in tourist season.”
We started chatting about the land and Oliver and what the plans are. Daniel lived out in the hills to the south of town, and he described the roads to get his place as being impassable in the rainy season. There was a short cut from his road to ours. I didn’t trust those short cuts any more.
“We keep hearing about these rains but I haven’t seen anything yet. Is it really that bad?”
“It can be.” He wiped his neck and talked of one year how the big rains flooded out his stables and he’d had to move the horses up hill, tying them to the trees and watching over them even as he got soaked himself. “I couldn’t risk them getting spooked and running off because of the lightening strikes.”
“So what did you do?”

“I pulled up my collar, pulled down my hat, and settled in for a long night.”

“Since it rains like that, how come our neighbor hauled in a few truckloads of water last week? Isn’t it about to rain again?”
“You mean Danny Dieselhead?”
I nodded. “Does he grow his own food?”

Daniel kinda laughed. “Yep, he likes to grow his own.”
Mark showed up with drinks for the both of us. I introduced them to each other and sipped the cold beer. It hit the spot perfectly. Good shot.

“If there’s so much rain, is this a good place to do rain catchment?” asked Mark.
“Yep, you’d need a huge tank or three to store it all for the times of year when there’s nothing. It’s been a rough year around here; the weather’s been strange. Very dry and windy. It makes the fire department nervous. They’ve banned fires and are on the watch for anything risky. No fireworks today, for one. That didn’t go down well with some in town.”

“Even if they know why not?”
Daniel laughed bitterly. “We’re a town of outlaws. We don’t like to be told what to do.”
A young woman in her early twenties came out of the tavern and walked up. She nodded at me and turned to our new friend. Her hair was long, black, and loosely tied in back. Her skin was like a milky coffee with a splash of honey.

“Dad? You’ve got to take us home now. Mom said.”

As part of the ongoing Sunday installments of the novel. You can find the other chapters on here, posted each Sunday morning. Click on the image for a link to the whole novel if you can’t wait.  

Living The Dream: 7

As part of the ongoing Sunday installments of the novel. You can find the other chapters on here, posted each Sunday morning. Click on the image for a link to the whole novel if you can’t wait.  

DECEMBER: THE BIG CITY

“Old town? Downtown? Uptown? Which one did you want?” The young woman looked up Central Avenue, tugged a long woolen scarf tighter, and hugged herself against the biting wind. “I think you’d probably be happier just up the road, Nob Hill. It’s kinda artsy, lots of small businesses, cafes, restaurants, a movie theatre, that kind of thing, and more your style I’m thinking. Yep, Nob Hill is where I’d go if I were you. There’s this amazing clothes store, kind of a consignment place. Bonanza sells funky stuff from all different decades. It’s really cool, you know?” She nodded to herself and then smiled. “I think I might go there myself today in fact. Yes, yes, I think I will. Well, nice chatting to you and I hope you enjoy your visit. Bye then, bye.” She huddled in the doorway of the café and pulled out her smart phone, ignoring me suddenly.

I pushed past her gently and found myself in line at a counter before I’d had a chance to look around.

“Next.”
“Me? Oh me, right?”

The menu above the counter went on and on. What with the music, the chatter and laughter all around, and a crowd of dinnertime customers pushing against me, I stared uncomprehending.

“Mmm, do you mac and cheese?”

“With or without chile?”
“Without, and a mug of decaf too please?”

I stood aside and waited as she rang me up. Fifties décor filled the huge cavernous café. Bright color photos and movie stills lined the walls, weird odd keepsakes from Route 66, and even two ancient gas pumps stood under the neon signs for the bathrooms. I took my number and found a seat in the far corner next to a window. The place was packed, loud, and anonymous. It wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped for but oh well. My head was silent for once, words and memories drowned out by the wall of noise around me. Tired and hungry, I waited quietly.

 

“Okay, Nelson, what do you think? A walk around the neighborhood before we find a motel for the night?”
Nelson sat up with a huge wide yawn and jumped out to sit next to me. His light cappuccino fur looked ragged. I felt bad for him. Later, later tonight, I’d brush my boy. I should probably look for some better dog quality food too, we’d been buying cheap crap found in gas stations and tiny rural stores, and it was time to take more care of my boy. I’d been neglecting him.

I hooked on his lead and we took off down Central. A Friday evening in December is a busy time in Albuquerque apparently. Couples, families, students, all walked in and out of the various stores, selling books, new and used clothes, music, and even food. Food. A real live co-op. We stopped and looked in a window to see shelves of organic veggies lined up, bottles of juice and sodas, a deli in the back, and yes, it looked to have a pet food section. Perfect.

“We’ll come back in a bit, Nelson, okay? Grab you a bone at the same time if they have them.”
Cyclists raced past us, yelling at each other over the screech of buses, semis, and trucks all commuting home in the wintery dark. The wind dropped and streetlights kicked on. Christmas was just around the corner and the holiday spirit filled the stores with farolitas, strings of colored lights, everything on sale, and all the paraphernalia for the shopping frenzy to come.

“I wonder where we’ll be, eh?” I looked down at my curious pup as he sniffed and marked every tree we came across. “Do you want to go home?”
Nelson froze. He stared up at me and wagged his tail, low and slow.
“Not now, I didn’t mean right now. I’m sorry Nelson, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. But soon, we’ll go back. I don’t know that we’ll stay but we’ll go back. It’ll just be weird without Mark and Frida though. I don’t know if I can stick it out…” I wandered along, talking out loud to my four-legged friend.
“Excuse me?” A hand stopped me in my tracks. “Can you help?”

A middle-aged man with dark brown hair in a ponytail and wearing a ragged but well loved leather jacket stood back a step awkwardly. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I was looking for Kelly’s? Do you know it? Am I even close?”

Nelson wagged and approached the man. I relaxed and looked around in confusion, unsure as to how far we’d walked. Opposite us, a sign proclaimed, “Art walk Fridays. New works and local bluegrass band here at Kelly’s Brewpub 6 p.m. Free.”

I pointed silently, not trusting my voice after days alone.

The guy laughed in delight. “Isn’t that just the way? Same at the store, whenever I ask for something, it’s right in front of me. Now I feel like a right idiot.” A wide smile lit up his brown eyes and I couldn’t help but smile. We chatted for a moment as he waited for a break in the traffic. Suddenly he turned to me.

“Hey, do you want to come? I’m meeting my wife at six, so I’m probably late, but anyway, come on. Oh there she is. Angie. Angie.”

A tall slender figure hidden in a long ankle length leather coat waved to us. She grinned widely and pointed to the propane heaters on the patio, motioning for us to join her.

“Oh hell, why not? It’s not like we had plans, right Nelson?”

He wagged and peed on one more tree and we all ran across the six-lane street, laughing at the crazy wind that suddenly battered us and died out again before we reached the sidewalk.

 

“Angie, I just met this young lady, but I don’t know her name yet. I’m Jonnie.”
“Jen, and this is Nelson. Hi.” I held out my hand to his wife, suddenly shy, unsure of myself. Nelson nudged me out the way and sat at her feet, tail thumping silently. Angie knelt down to pet him, letting him sniff her hands before touching his coat.

“What a beautiful boy you are. How handsome.”

Nelson smiled. He knew those words, he heard them often enough. He looked over at me, checking in, and smiled his wide toothy grin when he caught my eyes watching. Thump. Thump. My boy’s been lonely, I guess.
I followed Jonnie and Angie to her table under the heater. Nelson sat between Angie and me with Jonnie opposite, facing the street. The tables all around were packed full despite the bad weather. Music blasted out from the speakers by the door to the restaurant.

“Is it always this busy?” I looked at the beer menu. Sixty beers on tap confused me for a second but I found one familiar to me and ordered that. My new friends chose a couple IPAs brewed on site. Jonnie shook his head and shrugged.

“We live south of here, in T or C. Well, Angie? Why did you pick this place to meet me?”
She leaned back and undid her scarf. Her hair was surprisingly short, a buzz cut of silver and black. “It’s on the old Route 66, like in all those movies we love. And it’s nearly always this busy on a Friday evening. I thought you’d enjoy the vibe, remind you of those college days of ours, Jonnie.”

The beers arrived and she took a sip, toasting us both. The waitress returned with a small bowl of water and a treat for Nelson.

“So tell us about yourself, are you a student here or something?”

 

As part of the ongoing Sunday installments of the novel. You can find the other chapters on here, posted each Sunday morning. Click on the image for a link to the whole novel if you can’t wait.  

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?”

Living The Dream: chapter two

JUNE: MEETING THE NEIGHBORS

“Maybe walking to town wasn’t such a great idea.”

We huddled in the shade of a half dead tree. Mark’s nose was lobster red. My tongue stuck to my lips. The heat was relentless. I’d not slept well. Mark had a hangover. What a perfect first day in New Mexico, eh?

We’d spent the morning making plans, what to buy, what we needed, where to set up the tent – that kind of thing. Oh, and ice, we needed ice. I’d suggested walking to Oliver.

It hadn’t seemed that far in the truck, going as slow and steady as we’d driven, I’d figured a few miles at most. Now though was a whole different perspective.

We passed the dead dog again. For some reason, we both walked up close and examined the body closely.

“A boy,” said Mark with authority. He poked the body with a stick of dried cactus. I’d kept back in case it stank. It didn’t. My curiosity drove me nearer. I noticed the tuxedo style of white chest and black body. White paws on three feet. Thick dense fur and a long scrawny tail, the dog was pretty odd looking I have to say. I nodded wisely.

“Yep, a boy.”

We carried on walking for another ten minutes before taking a break. The water bottle was empty by then. I noticed that Mark’s navy blue shirt had large wet rings under his armpits. Mark looked at me strangely when he noticed me staring. “I hear something.”
“Uh huh.” I rolled my eyes.
“No, seriously. I can hear a car or a truck or something. Come on.” He stepped back out into the full day sun. June at midday was not going to be my favorite time of year, I decided. I followed my boyfriend and we started walking once more. The thought of a beer at the tavern kept me going, sort of. The trees no longer seemed as dead and useless as yesterday, I saw them as potential time-outs and craved sitting under each and every one. I noticed the range of colors but had no words to describe them. I’d need to get a thesaurus for the eighteen shades of brown.

A beat up old diesel truck pulled up behind us but I stayed under a juniper tree. Mark chatted away and within minutes I found myself sitting between him and the driver. Danny. Danny the Dieselhead, he told us to call him.

“So you two bought old Pete’s place, did you?”
He took me by surprise. “Yeah, how did you know?”
“Well, you’re not locals for one. Why else would someone be stupid enough to walk down here in the middle of the day? It’s fucking hot out there.” Danny laughed harshly and spat out of his window. “Smoke anyone?” He offered a roll-up.

I shook my head. I’d stopped smoking tobacco eight months and three weeks ago. Mark’s hand shot out and took it from him with a thanks. He lit it. It didn’t smell like tobacco to me. I sat back to get out of the way of the smoke. My boyfriend was getting high with someone we’d just met and I wasn’t too happy about this. I kept my mouth shut though. For now.

They started talking about Oliver. Danny drove slowly, swerving this way and that to miss the rocks and boulders that we’d simply driven over the day before. He told us that even though Oliver, NM claims only three hundred residents, there are some four hundred locals in the hills and valleys surrounding the place.

“Like us.” I piped up.

Danny stopped talking. He looked over at me in my jean shorts and new red tee shirt with the Zia symbol. My sunglasses were high on my forehead and my short bleached blond hair stuck to my ears.
“Yep, like you, right.” He turned back to Mark. “Do you have any guns?”
Mark hiccupped, “Yes.”

“No.” I said just as quickly.

Danny looked between us, raising his glasses. “You might want to say yes, if any one else asks you. It keeps the riff raff away.”
I coughed. Mark knew what that meant; Danny was not exactly an emblem of the thriving middle class by any means. Bailing wire and duct tape held the truck together. The seats were worn through and covered by old blankets, themselves held together by dog fur. Dog fur.
“Are you missing a dog?”
“You mean that black and white boy back there?”
I nodded.

“Yep, that was mine. He never did listen. The coyotes got him last week.”
“How?” I couldn’t help but ask. He seemed so nonchalant about it all.

“Well, every night they’d come a calling, howling in the arroyos and picking off the hares and the critters near by. Old dumb dog of mine wanted to run with them for the last three years, but I’d get him in the kennel by nightfall. Until last week. I was in the city. Santa, that is. I got home late. The damn dog was gone. Poor bastard never learned, did he?”
I stared out the window. Note to self: keep dogs in at night.

Mark asked where Danny lived, was it nearby? Danny slowed down to a crawl even my Grandma could have kept up with and he pointed out behind us. Into the barren blank land that I was to call home.

“Yep, there, there she is. My home. Built it myself I did. Took me some twenty years, but she’s done now. Well, not quite but almost. Brick by brick, I made them myself.”

It took him that long? Not us, Mark wasn’t going to be some slacker. A year at most, that’s what I figured. I looked hard, I did, but I didn’t see a home out there. Mark kept trying to find it, is that it? Is that it? Danny finally stopped the truck and made us get out. He stood on a rock and pointed back towards our place.

“There. See that twisted juniper tree, hugging a pinion, with a huge boulder to the right?”
He waited patiently as we stared and stared, as if I could make out which tree but then Mark found it. He described it to me, “Straight ahead, thirty degrees north, down four inches, there is dark grey rectangle. See it? That’s the roof, I think.”
Danny slapped him on the back. “Well done. Not bad for a tourist.”
“We’re neighbors,” I exclaimed excitedly.

Danny sighed. “Yeah, but don’t come over asking for a cup of sugar. I’m not that kind of neighbor. I don’t like visitors, not generally. The dogs don’t like it neither.”
“Dogs? You’ve got more?”
“Oh yeah, they keep on having pups, you know how it is.”
I bit my tongue. Danny was our new neighbor. Anyway, we needed the ride to town. Damned if I was walking any more today.

Danny dropped us off at my Subaru in the parking lot of the general store. Mark wanted to get the shopping done, coffee, bacon and eggs, two bags of ice and all of that. I pointed out that it’d all go off by the time we got home.

“Oh, right. So beer first and after that shopping?”
I gave him a hug; he was so smart sometimes. I opened up the car and sat down. Then back up. Fast. The seat burnt my thighs. The water bottle on the back shelf had drooped. The M&M’s were slime. We cranked open all four windows and stood back.

“Walk to the tavern?” Mark suggested.

“Yep, let’s leave it like this. Oh, and add it to the list that we need the window shades.”
Mark took out his notebook and wrote it on page three of the things we needed. I took my bag and off we walked. It’s a half-mile from one end of town to the other. The sun shone. Tourists passed us and smiled. Kids biked down the road with dogs chasing at full speed.

Life was great but for these facts: My head hurt. My skin burnt. My knees wobbled. My new Nikes pinched my feet. I needed a cold drink, preferably alcoholic.

On either side of the two-lane highway were small old wooden houses made into galleries and stores. A thrift store. Rugs. Art. Art. Art. More art. Cowboy boots. Art. Stone work. Art. And one coffee shop. I craved beer not coffee after our little adventure. We kept on walking.
“How’s the hangover?”
Mark laughed easily. “Not bad actually. I don’t know why I felt so crap. I used drink much more than three glasses of wine in Washington. It must be because I was tired from driving or something. How are you feeling today?”
“Apart from hot and tired? Pretty good. I can’t wait to sit down with the locals and talk to them about living out here. I wonder if anyone knows we’re new here?”
Mark shook his head. “Well, I don’t reckon they’ll take to us that quickly, you know. They don’t know us from Adam, or the rest of the tourists. Hey, isn’t it July the Fourth next weekend? I wonder what they do to celebrate here.”
We crossed the road with two yellow and orange local mutts and followed them up the steps and into the tavern. Yes, the dogs went inside too.

Living The Dream. Chapter 1.

JUNE: FIRST IMPRESSIONS

“Are we there yet?”
Mark hung tightly onto the steering wheel, and pumped the brakes nervously. “I hope so, Jenny, I hope so.” He downshifted just to be on the safe side.
The mountain dropped down steeply in front of us. The road practically melted away in the midday sun. Rocks slipped out from under the U-Haul. Stones and the gravel skidded away with a lurch. Mark swore under his breath. The dirt road was barely one car wide. Boulders blocked the path. I climbed out to move the biggest ones. The sun beat down and the air conditioner cranked out as best it could but it barely kept up. We drove downhill at two miles an hour. Gringo Gulch appeared before us, a steep empty canyon with only one homestead half-hidden in the distance. The gravel slid from under us again. The brakes started to smell. Mark’s curly hair lay flat against his forehead and his arm glowed with sunburn.

“I knew we should’ve come out at least once more. This is crazy, Mark, crazy.” I pulled out my camera and started clicking away.

“Are you getting cold feet?” He asked, patience worn thin. “This was your idea to start with. Let’s move to Santa Fe, she said, let’s buy that land we saw – only the once, mind you – and just move, she said.”

I opened the window and took in the desert heat, the pinions and the junipers, and the wildlife. My cowgirl denim shirt stuck to my back.

“It’s not like we can go back, is it? The school will have replaced me already and you were just…” I put my camera down. “Sorry. I’m tired. I didn’t mean it, okay?”
Mark sighed. “I was just a musician? Is that it? Thanks.” He reached for his cigarettes.

“What’s that?” I threw my apple at a snake crossing in front of us. “A rattlesnake?” I missed as it slithered onwards and upwards, glancing across as we crawled past. I shivered. We didn’t have snakes in Olympia.

“I’m glad we only got the twenty footer. Can you imagine driving anything longer down here?” Mark lit up and drew in deeply. The brakes squealed one last time as we reached the bottom of the valley. Not one person in sight. Deserted. Desert.
“Are you sure this is the right way?”

Mark flicked ash out the window. “Well, when I looked on Google this was the shortest route. We came a different road last time, I guess. But remember that the realtor said your Subaru would do fine out there, right?”

“But I’m not driving this way, that’s for sure, I’d hit every rock. Didn’t he take us down a long flat smooth road, that’s what I kinda remember? There were miles and miles of slow curves and lots of homes in the distance, right? What was it called?”
“Harold’s Way, I think.” Mark kept driving steadily as he checked the maps again and said, “Yep, this is the short cut, the direct route. I don’t know, Jen. We might want to bring your car the other way tomorrow. I’m glad we left it in town.”

We kept on slowly driving, desperately searching the landscape for the driveway, or a sign of some kind. It’s not like there was anyone to ask for directions. We drove on in silence. Beside us, a dried up riverbed followed the lowest point, and we ended up crossing rocky sandstone ledges every few hundred yards. Dead cacti lined the path. Dead pinion trees. Dead dogs.

“Is that really what I think it is?” Mark had noticed it too. We both stared at the swollen black furry body in the middle of the tracks. “I wonder what killed it?” he continued as he steered around it with a slight bump.
“And whose was it? Should we put up a sign at the store?” I looked back out the window uneasily.
Mark rolled his eyes. “Are you going to get out and check its tags? Do you really think it has a city license on a nice leather collar? This is the Wild West, remember, Jenny? We’re not in Kansas any more.”
“We never were in Kansas, you dope. No, drive on. I just want to get home.”
Blue sky beat down on us as we crawled along Gringo Gulch at four miles an hour. With not one cloud in the sky, the canyon was painfully bright and barren. The rise and fall of the hills and creek beds obscured any homes or signs of life. It was bright, too bright for my blue eyes. Where were my sunglasses? The junipers bunched together in clumps with dead straw-like grass scattered over the dirt. I didn’t see a single flower. How weirdly beautiful it all was to me though. I looked all over, my head spinning around and around, noticing branches full of crows and ravens, the incredible silence, and then we rounded yet one more corner.

“I recognize it. This is it, right?”
Mark stopped the truck. He threw his cigarette butt out his window and looked around.

“I think so. I think so. Let’s go see, shall we?”
In front of us, the road split north and south. On the western edge, a driveway, well, a dirt track led out onto towards the mesa, the valley that is, which sprawled all the way to the mountain range far away. A For Sale sign lay flat on the mud embankment. The dirt track had a chain strung across from two wooden posts.

Mark opened his door and climbed down, stretching his six-foot skinny white boy frame, and reaching high with arms outstretched. His jeans hung low and loose, with a white tee shirt neatly tucked in, and his black boots shone. He suddenly shouted out at full volume.

“WE’RE HOME.”

He turned to me, grinning a wicked smile so huge and happy. “We did it, Jenny. We bought land. It’s ours. All ours. We’re free, Jen. We’re free.” He spun wildly round and round.

I ran to him and jumped into his arms, crashing us against the U-Haul, kissing him deeply and suddenly we’re both yelling aloud, home, we’re home. The echo came back at us, welcoming us here. A huge pitch-black crow flew up off the gatepost, crowing at us to shut the hell up.

I laughed. We’d done it. I wasn’t going to give up this time.

“Where are we going to sleep?”
I looked around at the pile of stuff we’d unloaded. The ramp to the back of the U-Haul was down, and twenty cardboard boxes were stacked neatly under a tree, next to a five-gallon container of drinking water and a cooler of food and beer.

I spread my arms wide. “I don’t see an RV, do you? We did buy 40 acres with an RV, right? Or am I missing something here?”
The heat was relentless. Where was a cowboy hat when you needed one? My face burnt up. I strode around, steaming.

Mark, however, sat on the ground on the shady north side of the truck with a small plastic bottle of water resting on the dirt between his boots. He grinned up at me. He shook his head and held out his hands to me.

“I’ve no idea where it is, but yes, there’s an RV here somewhere, that was part of it. We can look tomorrow, okay? But, hon isn’t it great? We can sleep under the stars tonight. I haven’t done that since I was a kid. I wonder if we can see the Milky Way from here?”
He passed me the water and I drank deeply. I shook my head and told him we were too far south for that. Was I thinking of the Northern Lights? I sat next to him and poked him in the thigh.

“So we’re sleeping rough tonight, are we Cowboy? You’ll make us a fire and protect me from the roaming bands of thieves?”
Mark hugged me to him. “Sure will, little Missy, I sure will. And you’ll be making me my dinner of beans and beef over the fire-pit, won’t you?”
“I was thinking of some red wine, the French loaf and that brie we have.”
Mark snorted. “Yeah, that’s probably more like it. But we can make a fire and sit on the rocks and stay up all night, can’t we? I’ll push the worst of the stones out the way and we can pull out the sleeping bags right here. What do you think?” He sounded like a ten-year-old on summer vacation with his best friend. “We can tell scary stories.” He stood up, energized and ready to go again. He brushed the sand off his nice blue jeans.
I laid down, pleading a headache, and I watched as he made us a fire-pit, placing the rocks in a circle, finding a couple of flat flagstone-like pieces for seats, and he wandered out of sight, fetching branches and kindling. I fell asleep.

We’d come with nothing practical, that’s all I can say, nothing but the bare necessities of tent, camping gear, and sleeping bags. Plus a truck full of my grandparents’ furniture I’d just inherited. Fifteen boxes of Mark’s books and his drum set and bass guitars. I’d brought my own guitar I never play, but planned to make the most of living out there, finally able to practice in peace. We had a laptop and our two cell phones. Some clothes, I admit to, but mostly they were Mark’s. I’d bought the land. Mark would build us a home. That was the plan, to live in the RV as we build a home.

The red wine flowed through me easily and freely and I discovered the joys of peeing outside.

“Look the other way.”

“I can’t see you over there. Remember? It’s pitch black from where I am. What time do you reckon it must be? My god, look at all those stars. Do you know any of the names?” Mark kept talking, to hide the splashes, or from pure wonder, I didn’t know. I walked back to the glow of the fire and squatted down opposite him.

I looked at my watch. It was only ten thirty, early for us. I poured out another beaker’s worth of wine. Trader Joe’s best three-dollar vintage was perfectly doable out here, and anyway, I couldn’t see the label, and we had no guests. That made me think.
“Do you think we’ll get visitors out here? My mom? What would she think about peeing like I just did?” I couldn’t picture it.
“Wait until morning when you need a number two,” Mark reminded me with a smile in his soft voice.
“Oh my god, that’s right. Is there an outhouse? Or did you dig us a hole or something?” My voice squeaked embarrassingly. I coughed to hide it.
Mark laughed hard, and told me about how we’d be using buckets, making a compost toilet with straw and sawdust and I tuned out, figuring he’s just teasing his city girlfriend. Then I realized something.

“If I have to shit in a bucket, I want a dog.”
“Huh?” Mark scratched his chin; the day’s stubble was itching already. “I thought you didn’t like dogs?”
“Well, I do now. And a donkey.”
Mark choked on his wine and spat it into the fire. I pulled my leather jacket closer to me as the wind had picked up.

“Forty acres and a mule.” I explained. “And a dog, a nice big hairy friendly dog.”
“For the buckets?”
“Yep, if you want a compost toilet, that’s the deal, okay?”
He stood up and reached for my hand. “Deal.”
We shook.

The night ticked way and I wobbled off into the shadows every few hours. We talked about how this all came to be, the incredulous looks our friends had given us as they waved us off last week. Mark lay down and climbed into this sleeping bag, saying so quietly I almost didn’t hear him, “damn, it’s beautiful here, isn’t it? And it’s so empty and silent, I can’t believe it.”

We listened in awe. Here the world turned on a sigh.

“No-one telling us what to do.”

“No bills.”
“No permits.”

“Nothing, no traffic, no cop cars, nothing like a damn city with its never ending noise and rules.” I pulled out my camera. “This is the life, Mark, it really is pretty magical here.”

I stumbled up hill. Falling over rocks and into cacti made for a slow progress. Finally, I stopped and I turned slowly three hundred and sixty degrees. The silhouettes of trees and shrubs filled the landscape eerily. I saw neither houses nor lights. I’d heard no traffic all night long. Only in the far distance, the interstate showed some stream of cars’ headlights as they drove north to Santa Fe and beyond. I heard nothing but for a coyote. Suddenly I laughed aloud. I’d heard a coyote. I stood stock-still and stared into the darkness, willing one to come up close to me. I’d read all about this kind of stuff on the drive across Idaho and Utah. A power animal is one that comes to you repeatedly. They have messages for us if we listen. I planned to do just that.

I waited for the coyote to come back.

“What the hell was that?” I whispered as I poked Mark with my boot. He murmured in his sleep. I poked harder. “There’s something out there.” I hissed at him. “Do something.”

“What?” he sat up fast and looked at me. “What? Oh, my head. Why does it hurt? I didn’t drink that much, did I?”
“Who cares about that, Cowboy? You’re meant to protect me. I heard something in the boxes, in our stuff. What is it?” I poked him once more and for good measure I grinned sweetly in the darkness.
Mark sat there in his brand new sleeping bag around his waist. His nice clean white tee shirt looked rumpled by sleeping on the sandy ground. So much for him trying to smarten up, damn musicians are scruffy buggers. He stood up, shedding his bag as he stretched, groaning slightly. I turned on my flashlight and passed it to him. He tucked his tee shirt back in and grabbed a fleece sweater from my pillow-pile. With another of his easy-going smiles, he told me to wish him luck. I blew him a huge wet kiss and sent him off to be the ‘man’. I watched the light flickering up and across our belongings as he looked for signs of life. He said nothing but kept moving closer. He checked the cooler and the boxes of books first. He went round back and into the U-Haul. I lost sight and sound of him. I sat huddled in my sleeping bag and cuddled my knees against my chest. I poked the fire and put on another log. I waited nervously.

“I think I know what it was.” Mark came back over to my side of the fire, bringing his bag with him. He spread out next to me and lay me down, spooning me through REI’s idea of a comfortable bed.
“What was it? A coyote? An owl? What?”
“A rat. A pack rat to be precise.”
I sat up quickly. Mark told me that he’d seen pictures of them in Mother Earth magazine.

“Oh, and they’re pretty cute by the way.”
“Cute? A rat is cute? And it’s in my stuff?”
“Our stuff. But yeah, it was cute and settled in for the night. We can do something about it in the morning okay Jen? Not now, I’m tired and it’s pitch black out here.”
“But how are we going to kill it?”
“We?” he asked, teasing from behind me, out of reach.

“Well, you, how are you going to kill it?” I giggled as he snuggled closer.

“And so spoke the vegetarian pacifist? What about your love of animals? What about those power animals? What if this is one of yours?”
“Ha, ha, very funny, just don’t let it any where near me tonight, okay?”

“Yes, ma’am, I’m on duty right now as I…” and with that he fell asleep. I lay there and listened intently. The flashlight stayed close by. I flinched at every whisper and rattle. I kept the fire bright. I finished the bottle of wine alone. Like I said, Mark slept soundly, the bastard.