The House of Ambiguity (November 4-15)
I trace faults in limestone beds which were raised like the lid of a box when the Sangre de Cristo mountains bumped up with the rest of the Rockies about six million years after the last dinosaur closed its eyes. Inside the box is time, the mystery dimension, which, though it runs forward only, folds back on itself in the human mind.
What we cannot have we sometimes grow to despise, yet the abundance of the natural world can coax us from a state of want, and provide, without thought or motive, what we need. The wind chill sinks to 12*, snow clasps the ground and I continue talking to the stones.
There’s no one to show my deserted, wind-rattled, adobe house to so I prop open the two front doors, which face south, and the one in the kitchen. Dust, already inside, and more drifting in from outside, skitters across the wide board floors loosely covered by fragments of cracked blue linoleum. I remove boxes from the truck and stack them in a corner of the middle room, which holds the only source of heat, a coal stove shaped like a Christmas ornament.
As I come and go I force myself to look around the four rooms and catalogue the difficulties. Roller coaster ceilings have been coaxed to stay put with layers of paper, little bits of wood and a cloth seat cover which bulges with mud that is making its bid to return to earth. Paint will hide the soot and crayon marks on the walls and fill cracks, temporarily. Red dirt, which clings to everything, can be scrubbed away. It will return. Wind batters at the boarded-over windows but the walls are thick and snug. The six outside doors however, are much warped and bleed daylight around the frames. The place will be truly sunny when I remove the odd pieces of wood and metal that shield the windows but three missing panes of glass will have to be replaced first.
I’ll need a coarse rake, I note, as I go to the truck for another box. Generations of tenants have used the yard, the whole acre of it, as a trash can. A good day’s work will have its surface clean again. To the east is the home of my landlord’s several cattle, in the yard of an empty blue house. Beyond, maroon mesas are sharply outlined in the winter light. The black dog stays on our side of the fence even though he could easily slip under the three strands of wire. Two fox-eared neighbor dogs do just that and bark at us.
I drag a large wooden trunk into the shed-kitchen over the rocks and broken concrete which serve as the back stoop. Inside, I push it against a wall. Good God the place is dirty, crummy! I’d better buy a couple of gallons of Chlorox. And new linoleum to cover the floor, which I can’t look at. The fridge is old but functions, says the landlord, as does the propane stove. Buy oven cleaner I note. The single bulb, overhead light works, and I see a phone jack. A water faucet drips into a creepy sink engulfed by a cabinet meant for a large, semi-modern kitchen. Fragments of something cover its top. I picture it gone.
Happenstance care has left the house in nearly original form, preserving what character it possesses, but my clean genes are hopping up and down wanting to apply minimum standards of sanitation to the place. Then there’s the bathroom; there is none. Probably for the best, as it would be too gross to use. I’ll use the portable in the trailer and wait for the outhouse to be redug.
Red sand, which shovels away easily, fills the drive, although it looks like there won’t be enough room between the gate posts for the trailer to pass. In a snow storm – impossible. After a rain I may not get up the gullied drive either. I’d better find a parking place down by the road. Buy snow boots, I add to my mental list.
A few more shovelfuls of red sand fly into the wind but as I dig the gate merely sags to the lower level. Hmm. The wind howls and my eyes run with tears. The black dog hovers near the truck. “I guess we’ll be content to leave it stuck open,” I tell him. “Let’s go.” My voice dies at my lips. That’s another thing, the wind. I lock the front door, which has no lock set or knob, just a hasp and miniature padlock, provided by the landlord, of the size one would use on a jewelry box.
Along the hard-packed dirt road that leads to the highway we pass roofless stone rooms with a few habitations tacked onto them like huts built in the Roman forums. What happiness, I think. This is my road, my part of the world.
My friend from Cheyenne has come and gone on his way to his mother’s house in Wyoming, from Kansas City, via Houston, where his brother lives. As we drove to the adobe house I had rented he praised the countryside, but when we arrived he did not think it charming.
“This is how my ancestors lived,” he shouted. “My great grandparents up near Walsenberg. This is my heritage,” he repeated. He seemed unduly upset “There’s no bathroom,” was his final condemnation.
The wind has been merciless today, pounding trees, truck and trailer alike, turning dogs and stray humans into shivering putty. It burrows deep to expose my paralyzing confusion and disappointment. Words have been put together in so many ways to express the states of being human and yet words fail to tell the hollow part. My mouth opens and manages a sigh. Nothing will say the hollow part.
Bobby, who owns a store in town, had a fit when I told him where I’d rented a house. He turned pale then at length hissed, “Ya shouldna done it. Thems out there’ll rob ya blind. And you travelin’? Sheeze! You’ll come back and everthin’ ya own’ll be gone.”
“The point in renting a place is so I can leave things there,” I said. “The trailer is getting pretty full.” I don’t let on that in my imagination I’ve bought a mule and written a dozen books while gazing out the front door at passing trains and motionless pink mesas.
“I hate to upset you,” he said more quietly, “but I don’t want to see you walkin’ in here in two, three months cryin’ you bin robbed.” He continued, sotto voce, “There’s an ol’ boy come in here one afternoon, spread a sack of stuff out on the counter he wanted me ta buy. A customer was lookin’ around, saw things that’d jes bin stolen from his house, in fact he was in here lookin’ ta replace. There’s somes around think that’s the way ta make a livin’.”
My thoughts had gone disorderly like wet spaghetti, but I tried to listen as Bobby went on. “I wuz robbed s’many times right here I had ta fill the basement stairwell with dirt and cover it over with concrete. Now they hafta come in the front. I’m tellin’ ya, town’s bad but you’d be safer here.”
Back at the ranchito, my eyes sting at the sight of the thick mud walls, crooked windows and junk-filled yard, which for the writer evoke enthusiasm for potential and remembrance. I stand in a doorway and watch swallows fly across the image of Starvation Peak, not a peak at all, but a butte isolated from the Glorieta Plateau by erosion. I doubt the one-hundred twenty Mexican settlers trapped on top by Indians thought it lovely. What if Bobby exaggerates?
My advisors are robust Hispanic officers who relax on folding chairs or lean against the walls. The lone female officer sits with her feet propped on a desk. Couldn’t someone design uniforms for women that are a bit more flattering? She looks to be sewn into a brown polyester cocoon.
Six deputies confirm Bobby’s warning, with qualifications. “It’s not all that bad,” an officer whose pants are sliding off because he has no butt, says.
“What does ‘not that bad’ mean?” I ask him.
“Well, he means it’s not as bad as Villanueva,” says another, leading the rest in a hearty laugh.
“Is Mr. X home now or in jail?” an officer who must periodically hike up his pants asks the others. They discuss the whereabouts of an evidently well known Villanuevan criminal, but no one is sure of his present status.
“Anyway, we would discourage anyone from moving down there,” says the man who brought up Villanueva. The beautiful, medieval valley of the Pecos, where I recuperated, which is populated by miniature Ancianos, is a hellhole of crime? Morbid curiosity curls holes in my memories.
“A real bad bunch of kids live there. Drugs up and down the street, you name it.”
A big, big deputy with a pistol bulging from his hip, pulls me aside to give me his card. “Why didn’t you ask us first? Call me before you rent something. I’ll tell you if it’s OK.”
“Go meet your neighbors, the female officer calls out. “Take them a gift and ask them to watch the house for you.” A gift? Drugs maybe? Sometimes I think the day cannot come too soon when we return the planet to small-brained creatures who invent nothing, not even theft.
I return to the house of ambiguity where the paint I rolled onto the walls yesterday has dried to a perfect putty white and I use it now to coat woodwork peppered with nail holes and staples. An approaching train is detectable by a sound that is below hearing, a rumble I feel through my feet, a movement of the earth that spreads upward in my body until it becomes audible. I can’t help myself. I step outside to watch, this time an eastbound freight pulled by four diesel engines. It moves fast with the cars empty, toward successive lavender mesas tinted by rusty pinons. The dogs bark at the vanishing train then plop down in the red dirt in the shade of the truck. They ignore the landlord’s three cows and a calf, mere feet away.
I wander the yard and note debris: the blade of a cheap carving knife, the rusted head of an axe, a plastic jug full of dark oil, an oil filter, two ‘fridges, one with the innards of a TV set sitting on it, two sets of usable, antique bed springs in rusty red and gas station green, abundant wire, a bath tub, a child’s toy radio, rusted cans, a tire, marbles, batteries, a shoe, stove racks, lengths of hose, empty oil cans and more. I pick up a couple of rusted can lids, handy patches for holes in the floor.
The soil is wet beneath a pipe which exits the kitchen so I follow it to where it ends, open-mouthed, eight feet from the back door. White water flows from it. I left a couple of brushes in a can in the sink, a dribble of water flushing the paint…this is the drain? Everything runs out into the yard! Why?
Four hundred years of occupation comes to this: Compost Mentis. A reeking outhouse, a dribble of questionable water, oil and waste dumped on the ground, a junkyard with every house, and beer cans, bottles and cars in every arroyo; in short, all the insults of human occupation.
Let the earth return to its procession through countless unobserved seconds, to rocks alone receiving rain, to the crust flexing, to seas extending and receding, to clays settling and quartz grains rolling toward spherical perfection, to magmas swelling and benign creatures evolving and dying just like we saw in geology text books, I pray. How soothing the picture seems.
In a road cut on the way to Las Vegas, variations in dark maroon and red rock preserve the variation in mud on a moving shoreline: blocky ochre limestone that formed offshore is are e high and dry and faulted for anyone to see. Some of what we humans do is deplorable, and yet I cannot bear the thought that I might not have been a witness to what the universe has made. Feelings tumble through me like a desert stream until a boulder of a thought strikes me.
The landlord responded to my plea and hired a man with a truck to haul away trash, not to the dump, but across the railroad tracks where he spread it along the road. He has improved the outhouse and replaced (two-thirds) of the absent window panes. The landlord himself installed a bizarre, cone-shaped fireplace with a coat of arms on it in the bedroom and, as if the thing wasn’t ugly enough, he set it on a piece of hinged metal of unknown former function, then leaned a full sheet of bare sheetrock against the wall behind it, held in place by a 2 x 4 nailed to the floor. He has just completed the work and I am behaving quite strangely, having gotten myself totally confused. Am I happy or not that he has ‘fixed’ things?
“How marvelous, how wonderful,” I exclaim as he escorts me to the outhouse. I feel ludicrous standing over the freshly dug hole like it’s the Baths of Caracalla.
“Come here, look what we’ve done. Remember the refrigerators, the tires? Look.” He is truly pleased, I realize, as we walk to the front of the house and stand in the sun, looking south to where the train tracks lie.
“It must look pretty much as it did when you were a kid,” I say.
“Almost, you bet. Except for the railroad station being gone. That’s where your outhouse came from. The blue house over there is where my parents lived. Pretty soon there was eleven of us, so they built this place. We boys stayed here, like a bunkhouse.”
“That’s why all the doors.”
“Yes. We came and went. You know, we could get on the train right here and go to town, up to Las Vegas, to shop or see movies.” He smiles into his memories and I understand that I have no heart in the place. I rented an idea.
“Thank-you, Mr. A. I’ll be going away for awhile. You’ll hear from me.” He must think this odd, but even if I never come back he’s done right by his house today.
Along the road that curls away to the south, past the county dumpster with nothing inside, but much on the ground, is the local post office, which I pass three times before I recognize it by a tattered American flag that hangs limply outside a gray trailer. I stop the truck near an adobe hut: on the side is written in black spray paint, TIRES. There is also aweathered school bus that once hauled seminarians from Montezuma, outside Las Vegas.
A woman with dyed black hair, most of it missing, tends to a few weeds in front of the door. “I rented a house from Mr. A and I need a post office box.”
“Oh,” she says.” Come in.” She shows me two columns of boxes on either side of the counter. “What number will be OK for you?”
“Any number, really.”
“How about sixty?”
“So you rented Mr A’s house. Little or big?”
“I don’t know,” what you’re asking.
“See, I have to draw which house it is. Is it the blue one?”
“No. Next door.”
“That’s little Mr. A.” She draws a map on the form so that the United States Postal Service can find me.