West of Clovis, New Mexico, varicose veins of tar crisscross the old highway and sand drifts over the asphalt, sticking in areas like traps on a golf course. Objects seen on the horizon could be something, or nothing. Gray grass tries its roots in the pink dirt and scattered shit-rock buttes add to the monotony. At Fort Sumner, Billy the Kid Aerie keeps the tired legend breathing.
“We’re all hell-bent for a dead end. A true westerner knows it and goes head first.” (Accept uncertainty, have peace of mind.) The man is stoic, but gradually the pain in his leg rises to his face.
“My foot got near tore off when I was a kid,” he says. “I’d get on anything that’d buck or jump.” Formerly a construction worker in Montana, he now sells trashy turquoise jewelry at flea markets.
“I got kicked in the head real bad by a horse this last year. Had two brain surgeries so far, but I still got a ways to go. That’s the end of it.”
There really is a Masonic Lodge
The day is devoted to carrying my Texas auction junk up the stairs to the two rooms I have rented on the second floor of the Masonic Lodge in downtown Las Vegas. Lito, an old deaf (and therefore cranky) reformed alcoholic, who like me, lives in a travel trailer at the state park, helps me with a pair of wooden beds carved in the 1950’s by a Navajo man, in exchange for canceling a debt. The heavy frames don’t come apart and won’t fit into the elevator. Lito and I wrestle my twin mistakes up the stairs, where the irresistible residue of cigar smoke, dust, and resin, and of mysterious goings-on in the fraternal darkness for a hundred years, hits me like a odiferous fossil. It’s time to acquaint myself with the ladies room down a dark hall at the back of the building. White stars on blue bars bracket red letters that spell WOMEN, a colorful sign leftover from WWII, when the USO occupied this floor.
Lito waits on the street by the truck. He sums things up when I ask whether or not he thinks anyone will come upstairs to my shop. “Offer free beer and they will come,” he says.
My first week as a tenant of the Masonic Lodge is over. From the expansive second floor windows I have visual access to the interiors of Monte Carlos, Mercury sedans, and other old white geezer vehicles, which evidently are a cross-cultural hit. Money not spent on mufflers is spent on titanic speakers that erode the peace, the sandstone facade of the building, and the hope that I will adjust to town life. Pancho’s Cafe sits at the catty-corner of the intersection. I’ve never eaten there, the Chlorox Cafe having stolen my stomach long ago. Directly across the street an insurance office occupies a converted gas station, which ought to be torn down.
I putter away, framing pictures I found in an old scrapbook at Bobby’s junk store downstairs, which is hog heaven for a scrounger, which I am. A parade of Saturday afternoon cruisers annoys, and yet, the view from my windows is remarkable; the far horizon is snipped away by buildings that have grown sorry with neglect. East toward the railroad tracks, the cupola of the once sterling and famous Castaneda Hotel, jewel in Fred Harvey’s crown, pokes above the trees.
Tonight I make camp as I did in the early days, eschewing electricity as a luxury. Three yellow candles wash my trailer home and natural blue light sifts through the windows. A fine and brief thunderstorm has released the scent of surrounding pines. Cold air pulls me deep under the covers, but in spite of lingering snow patches, it is possible to inhale the first bliss of summer. Man is nature with a will. (And a vengeance.)
Several warnings arrive via post from my former bank; urgent red demands that I pay several thousand dollars in loans within forty-eight hours. I lean against my truck, which is parked in the tall pine forest above Santa Fe. Birds twitter; the dog crunches his dinner. At this moment I understand why reservation Indians dumped government flour onto the ground, but kept the cloth sacks to use. There’s a shameless waste of effort in formal life that cannot be comprehended until one is booted out.
The night is deepened by one-hundred foot pines that roar and hush on a scale of wind that bends them from their roots like weighted toys. As vision recedes sound succeeds. A hidden stream subsumes night with ease. My hair is stiff and sticky from a long day beneath my hat. My jeans exhale a cloud of dust when I strip them off. Fatigue trades places with sweet melancholy. The flea market will play tomorrow to a new crowd, without me. I’m worn to a core that doesn’t care about money, but which begs to go home. Can I come home now? The thought occurs along with a half-forgotten feeling, but home is dishes drying on the hood of the truck, coffee heating on the propane stove, and the neighborhood of great pines that sway through remarkable arcs. It’s the natural world that I love; not ardently or fixedly, but as a matter of fact, just as I love my truck, my dog and the trailer.
Actually, my domain overlaps Comancheria; Las Vegas was headquarters not so long ago for an infamous trade territory that has not yet lost it’s flavor.
Officially I reside in Las Vegas, however infrequent my stays. My tire tracks crease the dusty earth, my face has grown familiar to a few. Comings and goings are traditional in a town that has witnessed the treks of trappers, traders, soldiers, Apache, Comanche, cattle drivers, outlaws, and sheepherders. There is a place to go when I arrive, the front door painted with sign of the Masons. For one-hundred years the wide stairs felt the weight of the town’s ruling males whose static portraits line the hallway that carries me to my wall of windows, through which I regard a poor, unimaginative, and lonely street.
The exterior body of stone, the interior beribboned and extravagant woodwork, are as fine today as the day the materials were delivered. The space suits me: light, light and more light, high above the street, the ceilings tall enough for a cloud of thought to kiss, but my rooms remain empty except for an unshakeable tail of boxes that follow me everywhere. There’s nothing more useless than a saddle without a horse, and the Old Maid sprawls on the floor. A few townspeople have ventured up the stairs, making comments such as, “We’ve always wanted to see inside this building, but the Masons keep it locked. “ Many hurry away after becoming delirious over the blond oak woodwork.
I have yet to be here on a night when the Masons meet, but one of them appeared the other day with his wife and asked, “What is this place going to be?”
“A shop?” I ventured, knowing that I’ll be a citizen of the same sort that long ago drifted in and out of town.
Bats cross the fragile dusk. Overhead, jet engines scream. Crickets rasp incessantly. Frogs will join them later. A yellow bird lands on a dried thistle, which stoops under its weight. Much of the grass was missed by the mower and blond seed wands point like windsocks at an airport. Juvenile cottonwoods flash shiny leaves. I sit on the tailgate, luckily alone in a field at the state park outside Las Vegas, except for the black dog, who lies behind me in the truck. We have slunk into place at the tail end of a passing storm, behind a trailing hand of clouds that flexes as if drawn in chalk by an unsure hand. Mosquitos are scarce, the lake mirrors the sky, and magpies travel in a group of four, complaining, from tree to tree. What I craved was a simple formula for living that would preserve time at the core. I eat my third Snickers bar of the day. Why, I don’t know.
The black dog and I share an evening of flawless conditions. High above us the crescent moon slices a dust-free blue sky. I repainted the inside of the trailer today. Cleaned the empty fridge compartment and enthroned the freshly-scrubbed ice chest there, since the fridge is now at the Lodge. I like to keep the trailer tidy, so that it’s easy to find things. Old, cranky Lito mentioned that some people here at the park want to sell their trailer, which is bigger than mine. “You should take a look,” he said.
Funny. I couldn’t imagine parting with this one. I see it as an installation in a museum someday, like an Apollo capsule. “She lived in this?” schoolchildren shout in alarm.
A circle of light falls on my notebook from a flashlight perched on my shoulder, like a parakeet: it occurs to me that God is a mother tiger that carries her baby in her mouth, a baby that she could easily crush, but she restrains her giant jaws and carries the little one safely. This is the power of God, and the love of God, that is, if I actually believed in God.
I’m determined not to stir an ounce of flesh beyond what I must to secure a space at the flea market, so at 2:30 p.m. I enroll in the fourth row of waiting vehicles. It’s not a destitute lot that sells here. On the contrary, new Jeep Cherokees and the like are aligned in the hot wind along with beat up cars and patched campers. Santa Fe is an expensive town, and even middle class folk must add to their income by selling on weekends.
Ethnic garb of all sorts is worn by all sorts of ethnics: bright stripes on Guatemalans, peaked hats on West Africans, name brand marked-downs on Californians. Texans constitute a kind of summer occupational force, which is understandable to anyone who has visited that state during summer. A regular contingent from Colorado drifts down. Generally it’s a quiet crowd, as the party-seeking Texans find to their dismay, but we veterans have been matured by experience. Heat, wind, and a long wait, make the conservation of energy a wise strategy.
Once inside, I claim a space on the sand by tying a rope between the two metal posts that mark each territory, then drop a folding table on the ground for added stakes. Now, all I must do is show up before 8 a.m. tomorrow, and endure.
It was a slow Friday; few buyers mingled with the cheerful sightseers. I held my own, scraping up sales as if by chance or magic, but more likely it’s my reasonable prices. People come, they give me money. Not much, but enough. Still I fret. Winter will come, and then what? I had planned to save like a dutiful squirrel, but I’m only getting by.
Other benefits accrue. A man asked whether I liked old photographs; he led me to the trunk of his car, where boxes of excellent images baked in the heat. He was anxious to be rid of the lot, reason unknown, but not for money, since he pressed a pile of them on me for twenty dollars. I spent the next hot, neck-reddening hour sorting my hoard. What riches came my way! Young men dressed for WWI and young women for the battle of the sexes. A family of five, each standing rigid like fence posts on the frontier, both anchoring and distorting each other a century ago. Old time wrestlers wearing woolen trunks that fit like diapers; men forcibly men, oblivious to uses of the brain. The stack also contained pictures of locals, those few who could afford a photograph of a confirmation or a wedding. One child bride strangled a bunch of white flowers, as if she must return her borrowed shoes and bit of lace before her new husband demanded supper. Strange twisted faces united a family with no necks: one supple move might have shattered the lot and most disturbing? A preacher flanked by eight Aryan youth gripping Bibles like rifles.
Cortez in a cowboy hat: a compact, muscular, and dignified man speaks a tight-jawed version of English through teeth so perfect that they look fake. He chats with the man who runs the booth next to mine and I know that he hasn’t stopped there to buy anything, because he watches me skillfully, without looking. He leaves, pretending to pass by my booth, but pauses, asking to try on a pair of boots I’m selling, despite the fact that they are the wrong size for him. We size each other up as two healthy animals will; sniff and wag our tails, talk gold, the benefits of free trade with Mexico, and crime rates on either side of the border. Adios! What fool claims we don’t run on instinct? I would follow this man anywhere, preferably on the back of a horse. And I don’t ride.
A man who comes up to Santa Fe nearly every weekend, from a town down state on the Rio Grande, stops by. We discover that each of us knows an unlikable couple who live in his town, which furthers conversation. As for him, he said that his wife left him with two boys to raise and that the youngest just left for the army.
“Now I can do what I want,” he says. “I’m originally from Sweetwater, but I’ll never go back to Texas. Too many Baptists – and Texans are aggressive people.”
I return to my perch on the tailgate and swill warm water. Shoppers trudge past. Embedded in this new world, my old friends, and old life, slip off the face of the earth.
Blue moonlight sweeps the great outdoors and candles burn yellow inside the trailer, which for some reason, lists to its left. Crickets, screaming frogs, and crickets. A soft wind comes up and I review my day, suddenly aware that I repeat details just in case I’m asked to write a report some day. A vague sense of extension into a hereafter is all the Christianity left in me, the religion I was born into reduced to a book report on my life. Inside my gypsy wagon the song goes on, telling of an existence so sweet that it dies as it is born.
A nap after lunch lasted the entire afternoon. I awoke from heavy-dreamy sleep to a new world; took a shower, stocked up on snacks at the grocery store, and arrived at the Lodge by 6:30 p.m. It’s impossible not to spy on tonight’s cruisers, even as I punch thoughts into the computer. I’m getting to know a few, especially a long black sedan with jacks that simulate intercourse being conducted in the rear seat. Girls travel in threes, squashed together on front seats like overdressed pumpkins. Beer bottles grow from too many male crotches. A cool breeze fluffs the papers on my desk and I speed up my plonking, mindful that the gates at the state park are locked at 8:30 p.m., thanks to local vandals.
It’s 9:30. p.m. Pork chops and new sweet corn cook on the camp stove. The moon is nearly full and the black dog lies in the doorway, sculpted by its light. Last night coyotes barked sharply in my dreams and I asked them to come closer, just to hear what they had to say. Care is soon forgotten: I live an ‘as is, where is existence’ my energy directed toward providing for myself and nothing more. Words cease: my thoughts are carried out over the waters of the lake and beyond, to headlights that descend the Taos road, north along the interstate to Denver, perhaps to lie amid the clutter there. The dog fusses, wanting a better dinner than dry food, but I ignore him. I ignore everything but the wind and the now: sensation.
A boy appears each night, a spider clothed in black and red: a quick walker. He avoids my trailer by veering to the north, toward the lake, or south along the road, using the opposite path to return. Tonight he slips between me and the shrinking lake. Is he sad, or does he simply love the potent dusk as much as I?