creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest, Uncategorized

Snow, Spring, Surprise

On December nights, I walked with Buddy along the ditches.  The skies were usually clear, and December’s waxing moon, cutting its highest annual arc in the sky and all but unchallenged by artificial light, bathed the Valley in a brilliance that revealed the very face of the night. 

One morning several days before Christmas, it began to lightly rain.  Soon the rain was accompanied by our neighborhood’s first snowflakes.  Buddy, perhaps new to the phenomenon, snapped at the wet flakes as they lazily approached his nose.  The snow briefly accumulated on our lawn before disappearing into the thirsty earth. 

When the storm clouds finally lifted, they revealed snow that had accumulated on the higher elevations of the Franklin Mountains, where it would linger for days.  A mere 5,100 feet in maximum elevation in the New Mexico portion of the range, a blistering anvil to the daily hammer of sunlight throughout the long summer, the Franklins now had an almost Alpan grandeur, appeared far loftier than they really were, and the sight gave me a twinge of nostalgia for the Rockies far to the north. 

Early Christmas morning, while Linda and my in-laws, visiting from Denver, slept, Buddy and I drove in another snowfall out to Lanark, another vanished settlement along the Southern Pacific tracks in the desert southwest of Anthony.  There, Buddy flushed out rabbits while I investigated a melancholy string of snow-mantled boxcars on a siding.



By the first week of February, winter was effectively over in the Mesilla Valley.  The winds increased in frequency and velocity.  Dust storms fed by leagues of undeveloped desert and acres of unplanted fields were miles wide and several thousand feet high.  In the fury, the yucca quivered, sheet metal roofs clattered, and road signs gyrated hysterically. 

Yet as in Albuquerque, I loved the spring winds: the new year eagerly emerging from hibernation; the deep, robust respirations of a warming, vibrant planet; the howling messages from the most distant places. 

By the third week of February water began filling a number of ditches, and disc harrows again combed the fields. 

The winds continued in March, washing over our house and property like ocean waves.  Columns of pungent smoke rose around the valley: weeds being eradicated from ditches with agriculture’s version of “prescribed burns.”  Out on the desert, the snakeweed greened, the mesquite leafed.  Despite my protests, Buddy regularly nibbled on the manure recently spread on the field behind our house. 



Then: disappointment and anger.  State funding for Linda’s HIV/AIDS clinic suddenly and inexplicably dried up, and the clinic was forced to close.  I was furious with the government in Santa Fe.  I’d read and heard rumors about the system’s ineptitude and corruption.  This circumstance seemed to confirm one or the other or both.  Fortunately, medicine was in demand virtually everywhere, and Linda soon found work once again practicing internal medicine at a Las Cruces clinic. 

creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest

The Old Gringo

Several days before Thanksgiving my 83-year-old father arrived at the El Paso airport from New Hampshire. 

The following day, Linda, Dad, and I visited Juárez.  At the El Paso Convention Center we boarded the “Border Jumper Trolley”―actually a simulated trolley with rubber tires―that inched across the Santa Fe Street International Bridge, over the Rio Grande and into the Mexican megalopolis.  We disembarked not far into downtown Juárez with an assurance from the trolley’s PA system―comforting, no doubt, to at least some of the Yankee passengers remembering The Alamo―that the trolley would return us to the United States on the same day from the same location.  

The section of the city through which we walked with no particular destination in mind was crowded, chaotic, and shabby.  Street and sidewalk construction had created giant holes that were, at least by standards to the north, insufficiently barricaded.  I feared my father, who at this point in his life was walking slowly and unsteadily, would disappear into one of them, becoming a permanent part of Juárez’s municipal water system, a Border legend.  But, to my relief, he remained in view.  I could see he was, as in New Mexico, fascinated by the heavily-painted Latinas. 

One morning he joined me at the college.  I introduced him to a number of my students, some of whom commuted from Juárez.  Prior to our arrival, I shared with him some of the phrases I’d grown accustomed to using since teaching in the border city.  Thus, “No hablo Español,” said Dad with some stiffness while smiling and extending his cool, prominently-veined right hand to a student, who gently clasped the hand while returning his smile.  

On a chilly Thanksgiving evening, pecan logs burned in our fireplace, producing a vibrant flame, although a somewhat bitter smoke.  As the turkey cooked, I slipped a CD Dad had brought with him into the player, and Dad danced with Linda to Errol Garner’s rendition of “Poor Butterfly,” which Dad had lately indicated was his favorite song. 

My father was now mostly deaf and had had little success with hearing aids, although this didn’t frustrate him.  In fact, he rarely complained about anything.  Since I had last seen him, he had been diagnosed with a transient ischemic attack, or “mini stroke,” and as a result was easily confused.  He never mentioned the stroke.  For years his favorite outdoor activity was skiing on New Hampshire’s King Hill.  Now, however, my sister and I knew he would never ski again.  Yet our father, to our surprise―for he had always struck us as someone willing to acknowledge his limitations―continued to talk as if he would. 

During the visit, a discussion of nursing homes occurred, not in regard to my father’s health―my sister and I had never suggested to him that he might be a candidate for “long-term care”―but merely incidental to Linda’s adult-medicine practice prior to moving to Anthony.  Then, my father, who was still living independently, weighed in with a remark that was gaining in frequency with him: He said he would kill himself, preferably by an overdose of his prescription medications or by car-exhaust asphyxiation, before entering a nursing home.  It was not a threat, merely a declaration as he calmly sipped his martini and gazed contentedly into the blue and gold flames dancing upon pecan logs. 

Several days after Thanksgiving, we returned Dad to the El Paso airport.  It would be his final visit to the Southwest. 

Perhaps due to their being thrust into a climate far more arid than New England’s, my father’s legs itched often during his stay, and their skin, now loose and papery with age, bled easily.  With Dad’s departure, I stripped and bundled the sheets and mattress cover, both spotted with blood, from his bed.  Proceeding with the bundle to the laundry room, I passed the guest bathroom that now reeked of the 1950’s, of Mennen Skin Bracer. 

Six years later, Dad passed with relative comfort into the mystic―“Nothing to get riled about,” he assured my sister hours before his death―at a lovely assisted-living facility he willingly entered in his New Hampshire town. 

The facility included a bar, open late-afternoons, stocked by the residents, and tended by various volunteer townspeople.  My father’s weakness was vodka martinis.  Not long after his arrival, the bar had to display a two-drink-maximum sign as my father was frequently requesting thirds, thus prompting his fellow residents to do the same, all of which almost resulted in a mutiny of sorts.  In any event, those chilly New Hampshire cocktail hours were likely warmed with tales of Old and New Mexico by a certain fellow.         

creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest, Uncategorized

Fall in the Mesilla Valley

Fall arrived and I resumed teaching freshman composition, this time at El Paso Community College, located in a complex of old buildings near downtown El Paso, Texas. 

Spanish was the dominant language heard in the college’s hallways.  Latinos comprised about 85 percent of my students, and I suspected English was the second language of nearly all of them, posing an even greater challenge than what I faced teaching in Santa Fe.  Once again, I taught rhetorical approaches to composition.  And, once again, it was a challenge to get my students to discuss on even a rudimentary level the essays they had been assigned.  

For whatever reason, the students were better behaved―that is, there was far less talking among them on subjects clearly unrelated to rhetoric while I lectured―than my charges in Santa Fe.  I still dreaded reading a stack of student papers.  Yet the tranquility of the fields, ditches, desert, and mountains beyond the window of my little study, plus the soothing presence of Buddy, curled at my feet―round, brown, like a generous loaf of peasant bread―meant there were far fewer instances of an airborne dictionary.

Meanwhile, fall in the Mesilla Valley meant the golden flowering of broomweed and rabbitbrush, and purple bouquets of asters and slender stalks of wild sunflowers by the roadsides.  In the velvety desert night, our house glowed like a jack-o-lantern. 

Ready for harvesting, the cotton plants were three feet tall, devoid of leaves, brown, crackling, and laden with glowing white bolls like dollops of wet snow.  However, unlike the events in one of my favorite recordings, Mose Allison’s Mississippi-set, blues/jazz song “Parchman Farm,” there were no “11-foot sacks” and “12-gauge shotguns” for this harvest.  Instead, John Deere cotton harvesters―massive machines that seemed to my inexperienced eyes comically disproportionate for the simple and delicate task at hand―combed through the crisp fields.  The gleaned cotton was then loaded into equally huge wagons and hauled away, to where I had no idea, perhaps a gin on the outskirts of El Paso.  The bolls that had escaped the harvesters and wagons invariably found their way to the Valley’s roadsides, where they remained for a spell like snow tossed by a plow after a light, wet snowfall in anywhere else but the arid Southwest.  

One autumn night, Buddy returned from the vicinity of our garbage barrel, his usual self but obviously redolent of skunk.  Neighbors had warned us about this, and so we immediately, on the patio, worked five six-ounce cans of tomato juice into his hide―tomato juice, we were told, being a neutralizer of the sulfur compounds of skunk spray.  (I have since been led to believe this is not true.)  I then joined Buddy in the shower stall where I got a good rinse and he got a thorough oatmeal shampoo.  He emerged from the shower smelling―between the tomatoes, oatmeal, and fundamental canine essence―like a weird rural Southern breakfast.

Never had I so welcomed November, which in the Mesilla Valley meant the beginning of cool days and chilly nights.  With the cotton now harvested, different designs of John Deere heavy equipment leveled the plants and plowed the fields.  The, the leaves of the cottonwoods, willows, Lombardy poplars, and pecan tress yellowed, and the leaves of the salt cedar turned to rust. 



creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest, Uncategorized

Perdido

One day during the second week of September, Buddy didn’t return to our house within a couple hours of his ramble, as he always did.  I simply attributed this to his independence.  However, when he had not shown up by noon of the following day, and had thus skipped two meals, I began to worry.  Of course, I recalled the many dead dogs we’d seen along Doña Ana County roads and highways. 

Rapidly mounting dread began to couple with anger at my naiveté.  Then I became angry at my fellow Doña Ana County residents.  Aware of all the empty beer cans and wine and liquor bottles along county thoroughfares, I cursed their drunken driving.  And I cursed their careless driving when they were sober.

However, while I was coming apart, preparing to write Buddy’s obituary in absentia, my wife, still composed and, as always, practical, decided we should gather up a photo of Buddy, some colored highlighters, and push pins, and head to the nearest copy shop to create some lost-dog posters.  A fool’s errand, I thought sadly: In one of the poorest counties in New Mexico, when there are fields to be harvested and children readied for another year of school, who’ll stop and read a sun-faded poster tacked to a tree trunk or telephone pole?  But I glumly went along. 

At an El Paso copy shop we ran off 15 posters, which, owing to Linda’s recollection of her high school Spanish, wisely included the words “perdido” and “recompensa.”  Driving around in my truck, we paused to tack the posters along the country roads roughly within a mile radius of our house.  Throughout, Linda periodically called out “Buhhhhhh-deeee!”―a wail into the indifferent fields, woods, and ditches that pierced my heart.  Later that afternoon Linda phoned the classifieds department of the El Paso Times, which was delivered throughout the Mesilla Valley, and dictated a lost-dog announcement.  That night I slept miserably.

The following morning, a Sunday, while I happened to be on our side patio, a dog appeared, limping down our driveway.  He was mud-caked and scraped.  Despite his sluggish arrival, he was panting rapidly.  His penis was oozing pus. 

We immediately phoned a veterinary clinic in Las Cruces, and the on-call veterinarian told us to bring Buddy in right away.  X-rays revealed that he had a torn diaphragm and two pelvic fractures.  Surely he had been struck by a motor vehicle.  We left the clinic while the vet prepared to perform “major surgery.” 

Despite Buddy’s obviously serious injuries, I was hugely relieved and, ignorantly perhaps, hopeful about the surgery.  After all, I told myself, he was still young, and he’d made it to our house from wherever he had been. 

The first thing I did when we arrived home was head out in my truck to take down all of the posters, not for practical reasons, but for the sheer relief, joy, and gratitude.  Never had our section of the valley―the roads, ditches, fields, homes both solid and sadly ramshackle, tractors, farmworkers, children, cats, dogs, blossoming alfalfa, seven-foot-high weeds―looked so lovely.  I savored the removal of every poster, while, with some shame, acknowledging the wisdom, not to mention the simple humanity, of tacking them up in the first place.  I thanked the fair skies that had occurred over the previous three days and the muddy ditch that may have cradled Buddy while, broken and torn, he mustered the strength to return.  Acknowledging once again my own carelessness, I apologized to the desert skies for my blanket condemnation of my neighbors.  Finally, I blessed my calm and compassionate wife.

That evening, we returned to the clinic and saw Buddy: sedated, an IV line in his forepaw, under several layers of warmed blankets, and breathing regularly.  He had survived the surgery, which revealed that his liver and intestines had partially entered his chest cavity through the ruptured diaphragm.  Beholding him, I was so grateful that, if he had not survived the trauma, at least he did not die slowly, in agony, filthy, forgotten, in a ditch, beneath a gathering whirlpool of soaring vultures. 

The following morning, remarkably, the veterinarian informed us that Buddy was ready to go home.  I’ve never forgotten that vet, her training, and her hands of an angel.

Over the next six weeks, as fall in the Mesilla Valley arrived, Buddy mended.  In the evenings, he reclined at my feet as I sat in the portal.  Never again did I let him out of my sight and voice control, at least not in our developed part of the Valley.  In the undeveloped desert, I continued to make an exception, for I knew he was safe there.  

Once again, in pink and lavender evenings, we sat together at Vevay on our knoll above the Southern Pacific track.  We watched the lights of El Paso and Juárez blossom in the east.  In boots and packing a rucksack, Jack Kerouac spent a winter night just east of here―“a beautiful night and the most beautiful sleep of my life”―as he Dharma-Bummed his way to a job as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in Washington State. 

With the approach of a freight train, I held Buddy firmly.  Sometimes, obeying the red light of a block signal, the train came to a halt right beside us, and in so doing seemed to become a black hole into which was sucked not only the clamor of the train, but the noise of the entire world, creating a vast and deep silence underscored by a mile or more of dark and brooding steel on wheels.  

Buddy, meanwhile, attended to every point in space, gazing, sniffing, in my gentle control, yet reveling in the independence of his senses.

creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest, Uncategorized

Dogs Days

That first summer, Buddy was a joy to accompany and observe.  Again, he joined me on my first backpack in the Black Range.  He was often with me in a place called Vevay, a vanished settlement in the desert southwest of Anthony through which ran the main line of the Southern Pacific Railroad.  There, in 100-degree heat, I watched the freight trains while Buddy, unbothered by the flames, would bolt after jackrabbits he flushed from the mesquite, never catching one. 

Patrolling the cotton field behind our house, the hound would accelerate for no apparent reason, sprint 20 yards, stop, leap, and spin―a lean, young canine reveling in his youth.  He’d pause to grab a stick from the ground, merely to shake it vigorously. 

Once, we gave him a foot-long rawhide chew.  Likely unaccustomed to such a feast, he wandered around our property a good part of a morning with the massive thing clenched in his teeth, apparently unwilling to so much as nibble on it, the delayed gratification again at work, but in a tormenting quandary as to where to bury it.  He eventually interred it in the cotton field, where it likely marinated in a flooding or two; who knew if he ever found the filthy, slimy thing again. 

Lord of the manor, after breakfast he’d wander across the road and join the farmworkers in the onion field, occasionally making, somewhat to my embarrassment, a solid deposit among them before resuming his wandering.  The workers ignored him.

Indeed, Buddy’s wanderlust mirrored mine in this fabulous new place.  During the day, he’d often disappear for hours at a time, perhaps revisiting the territory, near or far, that eventually led, however circuitously, to our house, although every night he was either in his outdoor pen or in the house.  I didn’t mind this, nor, I presumed, did Linda.  In fact, I liked Buddy’s independence, befitting of a “country dog,” I thought.  Among other things, it reminded me that we were no longer living among all the perils of the city.

Or were we?

creative non fiction, Desert, memoir, new mexico, southwest, Uncategorized

The Event

By the third week of July, the ferocious heat of early summer in the Mesilla Valley eased up, and the “monsoon season” of regular rain showers, some brief and weak, others sustained and powerful, commenced, typically in the form of local, convective thunderstorms. 

The pattern was predictable.  Mornings consisted of empty skies or, at best, skies fleeced with vague, unthreatening, high-altitude cirrus clouds.  By early afternoon, however, cumulus congestus clouds, caused by rising columns of warm, moist air from the gulfs of Mexico and California and the eastern Pacific Ocean, began to form over the Franklins, Organs, Floridas, and Sierra Juárez.  Brilliantly white, these burgeoning clouds recalled, in their shapes and textures, heaps of mashed potatoes, ballooning mushrooms, and exploding cauliflowers.  As the afternoon progressed, the clouds climbed higher and higher, and their bellies began to darken with raindrops.  When the clouds assumed anvil-shaped heads, the tops of which reaching 10 miles above southern New Mexico, west Texas, and northern Chihuahua, they were fully-developed cumulonimbi, prepared to release their payloads. 

Rain in the green world―that is, most of America―is often merely weather.  Rain, even the lightest rain, in the water-starved desert was an Event.  Iron-gray curtains of rain spread from their mountain cradles and swept slowly across the Valley floor, bearing lightning, thunder, and winds that often kicked up―with a queer juxtaposition, it always seemed to me―towering clouds of dust fleeing for their parched and diaphanous life.  As always, the initial drops to hit the ground briefly perfumed the desert air with the unique Southwestern odor of delicately-moistened dust. 

Then, rain, miraculous rain, rain sometimes so heavy that it reduced visibility to a quarter of a mile. 

From our property, I often viewed several storms patrolling various sectors of the vast Valley at once, wreaking havoc.  If our house was in the bull’s eye of a storm approaching, say, from the south, the north wall of the house was often coated with flies presumably seeking shelter. 

Most of the storms that began in the afternoon ended by evening.  Some, however, occurred in the night, their lightning offering dazzling displays near and far, often in eerie silence.  

In a heavy storm’s wake, the Valley filled with the cloying, tarry odor of wet creosote.  At sunrise after a stormy night, Anthony often looked like a summer morning in Connecticut: fogbanks, puddles everywhere, and our lawns greening before our eyes. 

Monsoons coupled with flood irrigation taught us two things.  First, mosquitoes occur in the desert providing there is enough standing water, which there was with such a pairing.  Thus, come August, pleasant evenings on our patio and portal were no more as clouds of insects sought blood. 

Second, a swamp cooler provided relief only below a certain percentage of relative humidity.  One day in August, I entered the house once again anticipating relief from the heat.  I heard the comforting hum of the swamp cooler’s blower, felt the draft from the registers, yet found that the beads of sweat on my brow and under my nose were failing to disappear.  Meanwhile, my clothing was clinging stubbornly to my skin.  Linda began experiencing similar phenomena.  Our swamp cooler in Albuquerque never failed to keep us comfortable, even during central New Mexico’s monsoon season.  Something was causing this new discomfort.  We figured it was the additional humidity of the flood irrigation, so we replaced the swamp cooling with air-conditioning, absorbed the additional cost in electricity, and felt immediately better.