Year 2 / Sleeping with Dogs
A red Jaguar convertible from Colorado passes my truck on its way to Santa Fe, no doubt. The top is down and two festive Hawaiian print caps poke above the sheepskin headrests. Four miles south of Las Vegas, New Mexico, two riders on thin hairy horses cross a rough field. A red dog runs ahead of them and a white-muzzled equine senior tags along. I don’t enjoy having my feet leave the ground by even a short distance: you can’t pick things off the earth and examine them from a horse’s back.
Back in town I order a special Lenten lunch at the Chlorox Cafe, consisting of a baked salmon patty, mild wild spinach, boiled beans, and a torta de huevo – an egg white beaten frothy then fried like a pancake. I sip my third cup of coffee, bathed in the breath of humanity. The chatter around me is innocuous, and for me, without content. Will I ever learn to love my own kind?
The washing machines at a popular laundromat in Santa Fe have female names paintedon the front panels in script, but the dryers are male: George, Billy, etc. The attendant is an elderly Chicana who does embroidery on the side.
“That shirt you have on needs embroidery,” she comments.
“Why do the machines have names?” I ask.
“So when they need fixed I can tell the maintenance man. That Tilla is a bad machine. Always needs a new belt or something. She wouldn’t take the coins one day so I left him a note, ‘Tilla won’t take the coins.’ Turned out some stupid put nickels in. ‘Scuse me Lady, I gotta mop the floor. I asked the boss what I do when people won’t move. ‘Mop between their legs,’ he told me. So I do.”
I insert quarters in June and Barbara.
Spring comes like a baby that is unwilling to be born. “You make the other statues look like putas,” said a man in Spain to the Virgin Mary. I read that the Moors painted Paradise blue; that the word Flamenco refers to the Flemish, because Spaniards were drab and the Flemish were exciting; that Merida comes from Emeritus, a retirement town for Roman veterans; that it was the Romans who brought the ancestors of fighting bulls to Spain.
Two elderly owners survey operations at the Chlorox Café, sister-generals who miss nothing and never interrupt a good assault. The elder commands the cash register from a bunker behind the bakery counter while her second-in-command limps sharply between the tables, her face immobilized by layers of face powder many shades lighter than her skin, as if she is casting her own death mask.
Balding National Guardsmen, whose dress socks and shiny black shoes stick out like sore feet, hold Sunday newspapers between their knees, spread like the wings of avenging angels, as if today’s edition details activities for the end of the world.
Overweight, arthritic, and ornery, and an efficient army in their own right, waitresses in black stretch pants scuttle to clear dishes and deliver hot lunches. Never down on the job, they hang tight and perform. A phone rings, the food bell jingles. A boy cursed with hair as red and springy as copper wire unwound from a motor coil blows a plastic whistle. Three cooks work like demons, delivering hot and gooey omelets and burritos, enchiladas et al. Despite a giant floor fan that sweeps their cage, they sweat profusely, pounding the food bell as the pass-through backs up with plates of burgers, bowls of posole and sides of sopaipillas. Bang! Crash! The yellow glove of the dishwasher sprays steamy water across a tub of heavy china.
A gleaming orb, the eye of the Cyclops, a shimmering disk, the silver plate of heaven, the business end of a cosmic flashlight, a bad ball of basalt (and a small one at that), the meteor-abused pal of a wet and wonderful earth, the sun’s faithful mirror: whatever the moon may be called, I grow restless under its wafer-like perfection as it slides up the sky toward brittle stars that peep from the edges of thin clouds. A full moon turns night into eternity and confounds all nature. What must sleep, does not, lured awake by a sham sun. Brittle, beautiful light, why do you unsettle me?
I fidget, long, desire and turn sideways on my bed, noting the mundane objects around me. Long days of confinement will no longer do. No, winter will no longer do. I wait like a potato in a cold oven, like a seed in a package, like a missile in a silo, like a crucible of bronze, like an ambush, like a parachutist, like a sun worshipper in the arctic night.
A man who sits across the kid-size library table we share grows an incipient spiky mustache; he snuffles over a book of quotations. An anthology of mythology received the same noisy inspection. One entry caused him to ejaculate “Abstinence!”
Donated to the town of Las Vegas by Andrew Carnegie, as were libraries in small towns across the nation, the building is a miniature model of Jefferson’s Monticello. No annoying computer system separates patrons from books, and since the library is petite, the antiquated card catalogue is unnecessary: one can simply scan the shelves.
History writers, even if they compose the facts well, don’t seem to know that the past was inhabited by human beings who smelled like growing things and kicked the dust into small tornadoes. To paraphrase the book I have in hand:
…and then she was stripped naked by the Comanches, who forced her to mount a wild horse that repeatedly bucked her off and then they made her get back on. Once time she got away and hid in some bushes, but had no clothes or hat. Some good guys happened and tried to help, but the Indians came back and chased them away. She was forced to hide again, this time in some rocks…eventually the nice guys came back to rescue her. Guess what? She was six months pregnant and didn’t have a miscarriage! Plucky little gal, huh?
A Comanche warrior 1892 and his namesake, the Boeing-Sikorsky Comanche helicopter. The Comanche were possibly the toughest human beings who have ever existed.
I don’t watch vintage Bible movies like I did last Easter, courtesy of a motel in Cheyenne, Wyoming, which is where I lived at the time. The old dog passed on in January; the black dog lies by himself on the cool trailer floor, waiting for me to suggest a walk or a ride in the truck. Today’s task was to reflect on the year that has passed, but other than the fact that I’m still living on the road, what is there to say? I must have changed in some way, but how do we see such things in ourselves?
Bales of disposable diapers cross the bridge into Mexico from El Paso, clasped in the arms of men and women who dive into any passing truck. The contents of adjacent shops spill onto the sidewalk, as do men whose calls are augmented by flashing lights, Latin music, and portable microphones. Their efforts create an irresistible suction that pulls shoppers into narrow stalls, myself included, and I surface inside a women’s store presided over by dour, skull-faced Koreans, who stand on platforms like sinister storks, shouting in terse, effective Spanish at the Mexicanas who work the sales floor. The saleswomen are polite, patient, and recommend garments that one would never choose for oneself. I leave with a bright patterned leotard and an equally – no – logarithmically loud Polynesian-psychedelic blouse and skirt, printed with red and yellow and brown and blue flowers that are outlined in red and green and gold and ultra blue and hot pink sequins. It’s an event, not an outfit, and I will never wear it.
I could do with a pair of shoes, but those offered are cheap uncomfortable things, though of intriguing Whores-of-Babylon style. Little girls’ dresses, in unbearably petite sizes, stuff a shop window. I was not a happy toddler when confined in similar confections of ruffled organdy and huge satin bows, but it’s obvious why my mother forced me into them.
Fifty miles up the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, water flows over Leasburg dam with a distant rush, day and night. Two days in the sun have stripped my hair summer white again: Rio Grande, Rio Blonde. Small greening fields abut the thread of water where it courses between bare mountains to the west and hills held by creosote to the east. A freight train slides by; its ‘chuffs’ are silenced by the wind. Bats fly across the setting sun and mosquitos whine in the dog’s ears as if some speedier universe is trying to reach him, but their message only makes him irritable. Soothing and familiar country music plays on the radio. The DJ of the hour announces a contest for Secretary Day, “Lonche con su patrone,” the prize. I would live this way forever.
Knee-high boots cover the shins of a cowboy whose pencil-thin legs are broken into thighs and calves as strategically as those of a Greek statue. A bright buckle breaks his lanky torso and iron gray hair fluffs from beneath the halo of his cowboy hat. He claims that a broke down saddle that I own (lying in the dust at the Santa Fe flea market) is the very one that he passed off to a woman in Las Vegas: it’s the Old Maid saddle, and I am now stuck with it. He thinks this is terribly funny and when he laughs, three pebbly teeth are all that remain to disrupt the gap between his lips, reminding me of a horse skull that I own.
The cowboy dips his hat toward a sickly kid weighed down by mirrored sunglasses, who stumbles toward us up the sandy aisle. “That’s the boy there now. The wife stayed home this weekend. We rent a house out there, oh you know, halfway to Santa Rosa. One of us has to stay put or the damn neighbors take everything. Worse, they shoot the horses or dogs, just for the hell of it.”
Later in the day I pass his booth, hoping he will signal that he’s doing well, but instead he mouths “No good,” and moves his hands down and away, his long fingers spread toward the ground. By day’s end, the cowboy flashes a bundle of bills. “I can’t believe what these people will buy,” he says. “I dragged all this junk out of a dump behind the house. I am gonna do just fine.”
I meet a new kind of Westerner too, a smooth talking Moroccan who lives the ‘easy life,’ he says, thanks to his American wife.
“You don’t eat pork, I don’t date married men,” I tell him.
The road that runs southeast from Las Vegas, New Mexico, climbs out of a down-warp at the foot of the Rockies, which at this southern extremity, divide like the tongue of a rattlesnake. A hazy sky shares the view ahead with blue plains that sometimes elicit Homeric clichés, but not from me. The truck drifts past windmills and squat ranch buildings connected by a million fence posts. Soon the mountains recede behind us; a mirage shrinks then disappears abruptly when the road plunges over the edge of the Canadian Escarpment, a giant ledge that runs northeast for one hundred miles, from Las Vegas to Clayton.
A carload of tourists monopolizes a roadside shrine, taking pictures of each other in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, so I watch a broken windmill rod lift, then drop, no longer able to pump water. The up-screak, down-screak is an existential sound.
National Weather Service announces that golf-ball hail is moving our way, toward Amarillo, at 40 mph. A tornado has been spotted nearby, so I abandon the trailer to its fate, and speed the truck to an underpass to wait out the storm in the company of two other vehicles. Despite the concrete roadway overhead, rain bites hard and road signs wave like twirling lollipops. Lightning flickers as if someone up there is wiggling a light switch. A pigeon that tries to gain a perch on the concrete support waffles in the air like a piece of litter.