Looking west to a smear of dusty crimson sunlight, a young man of twenty stood on the shoulder of Highway 66 waiting to hitch a ride. A powder blue Cadillac pulled up and the lad was caught in a puff of loose gravel. When the dust settled, a woman dressed in a two piece matching suit leaned over from the driver’s seat. “Say fella, can you drive one of my cars to California? I’ll pay the expenses,” she yelled out the window. Another Cadillac pulled up next to hers with a jerk stop. The lad stared into the shine of the car. It looked like wet paint and he was tempted to touch it. “Sure will, yep I’ll do that. Should I get in now?” The young man answered. “I need to see your driver’s license.” She added. The man hastily drew out his license from a dusty plastic cover inside his billfold. She looked it over, and smiled. “All right Maurice, keep in close to us on the road, don’t get lost. We’re going far as Needles.” Maurice held tight to the steering wheel, ‘Geez, ain’t this great, what a car. I’m going all the way from Nebraska to California in a Cadillac.’ He’d forgotten about the sharp pains of hunger, and bloody sores on his feet. Now he was sitting on warm leather seats, with the cold night air off his back, and ten dollars in his pocket.
Sixty five years later, I’m walking down the street where Maurice lives. We haven’t met yet. I don’t meet my neighbors. I move before I have a chance to care about them. It comes easy to me, being a loner. Then I met Maurice.
Without a partner, lover, or relative nearby during our feared and festive flights of life, our ribs cave. You just cannot eat cake alone on your birthday, attend a funeral without a shoulder next to you, or celebrate a finished project without your best friend.
Dodger knocked and then opened the door to Greta’s casita, wide-eyed and edgy as usual, like he’s about to eject off the ground and go air-born.
“Close your eyes.” She commanded
“I’m in a hurry, I just wanted to know if you’ve seen my glasses?”
“No, I have not, look in your back pocket, they’ll be there.”
He obeyed, “Good try butterfly.”
“They’re in your pigsty garage under a pillow. Can you just close your eyes, please?” Reluctant as always to be asked things like this he shifted his weight on one torn sneaker.
“Okay, you can open your eyes.”
“Well, what do you think?”
“I’m looking, hang on.” He opened the book and leafed through it, expressionless.
“It will be published this week in time for Thanksgiving and your birthday, a kind of homage to you, for reading the manuscripts a thousand times. I think it turned out really nice, don’t you?”
“Yea, then he handed the book back to Greta as if it was some other author’s book.
“Did you read the dedication to you?”
“Don’t you want to read it?”
“ I’ll buy one when it’s on Amazon.” Greta turned around and sat at her desk chair avoiding the disappointment with silence. She felt a sharp sort of shock, that left her speechless.
” I’m going to see Patsy for my Birthday,” He said in a more decidedly final tone.
” But I planned a publication party on your Birthday. You knew that— I mean this is our book once you read it you’ll see half of it is about you. He turned his head toward the glass door, he was preparing his next line.
” I know what you’re doing.” He replied.
“ What does that mean?”
“ You don’t want me to see her.” He turned around and looked directly into her eyes, unkindly.
“ I told you to move in with her, she’s your girlfriend, but I’m your friend. Can’t you go a few days later?”
” Okay, go. Get the fuck out of here, the book I wrote about our friendship and dedicated to you doesn’t matter.” Dodger opened the door and stepped outdoors before slamming it shut. The vagueness and accusatory tone pulled the plug on her adulation and accomplishment.
Greta continued to sit at her desk, staring at the book, talking out loud as if Dodger was still in the room, you are fucking insane, he wasn’t the least touched, he didn’t even fucking smile or hug me. We are best friends you asshole, thirty-five years! Like family, I can’t believe you’d do this.’ The grail of completion dissolved when a few hours later, she had metabolized his absence.
Greta applied lipstick and blush, changed from sweats to jeans and a sweater, and dashed across the street to The Beaumont Hotel. It’s been what she termed her groove cave for the last ten years, ever since moving to town. Internally she reminded herself to retain some dignity, and not to cry, which would come later after she had a few glasses of wine.
The wave that most of us have to swim through at some sandy, loose day in our life comes unexpectedly as it did for Greta. It’s been two and half years since Greta agreed to tell me her story, it feels like it was yesterday.
Clutching her book in one hand Greta strolled into the Beaumont and, stopped at the staircase on the second floor where two hostesses were patiently but somewhat nonchalantly waiting for guests to arrive. She held up her book, partly because of the dismissal of Dodger, and her craving for some kind of acknowledgment. She is never sure what she has accomplished until she is validated by another person.
“Congratulations Greta, that’s so cool. I want a copy.” Jackie and Julia chimed in. Greta has told me over and over the people here, in the pueblo, it takes no time to get to know them because there is no pretense or preparation, they speak their feelings, as they arise without premeditation. Jackie is always tired and Julia is always infinitely alert and awake. Julia is in her sixties and Jackie is twenty-two.
“ Thank you dolls, do you think I deserve a cocktail tonight, no really, would it be all right if I have one. Jackie twirled her thin waist around the iron staircase,
“ Fuck that Greta, go have two,” she whispered.
“ You can walk home so have three,” Julia added, so neatly dressed in her uniform, but her eyes are like meadows like she’s not really there.
Holding court in the bar is Captain Kurtis. He’s ageless, one of those faces that retain the youthful spirit, and his six-foot-four physique almost doesn’t seem to fit with his face. He is no second guesser or lacks self-confidence, Greta loves him for that because she is not. She knows this for certain and she can’t understand why friends tell her, she appears so. She also knows that it is her little act.
“Hey! What’s happening?” He shouts out in his usual bar baritone greeting as if Greta were in another room.
She placed the book on the counter.
“ Wow! Hey, congratulations! That’s awesome. What would you like–on the house?”
“Thanks! A Martini.” He greeted another guest and I looked in the unavoidable mirror across from me and winked.
“ Wow, I don’t read much but I want a signed copy!”
“ This is the proof that I approved, the book comes out on Thanksgiving.”
“ My parents will be here, will you?”
“ Of course, I can’t not be here.”
“ Has Dodger seen it? Bet he’s happy huh?”
“ Actually Kurtis, he’s not.”
“ What the fuck is wrong with him?”
“ I don’t know, but he’s leaving for the holiday to see his girlfriend, I’ll be here alone.”
“ No way! We’ll be here. Drink your Martini and get crazy, loosen your bottom or something.” A while later, a second bartender arrived, Rooster, his hair is slicked into a rooster tail and he loves to dance and lip sing behind the bar. Greta went through her announcement, and he just beamed. “I want to buy one– where do I get it?”
A dreamy drench of joy poured over Greta, she let the martini take her away to the full euphoria of escape.
Over the next few days, she watched her royalty cart fill up. It was graduation day, a milestone for any self-taught writer. The instant a book was bought she wanted to tell Dodger.
From Greta’s desk window she views the driveway and converted garage where Dodger lives. It is now the twenty-third and she is waiting for him to leave as their incidental crossings on the street or in front of the house enrage her temper. This afternoon he appears to be preparing, and un-preparing for a departure. Greta is observing his actions with just a hint of humor as she sees him bring his bicycle up from the basement place it outside the garage, then a few hours later, he places it inside the garage, then it comes out again and he keeps repeating this action until he switches to his construction tools, they go in the van and then back in the garage. Dodger then moves on to washing his car in militant style, climbing onto the roof and manically wiping down the exterior and interior with a roll of paper towels and cloths. Greta says, ‘My God Patsy must be a car germophobic.’ On Thanksgiving Day, she sees the Van, and then Dodger comes out of the garage carrying his toiletries bag and a garment bag. He glances over at her door where she silently observed him. She opened the door to say whatever came to mind at that moment and he accelerated into his van and drove off.
Greta propped herself up in bed drew her coffee cup into both hands to warm them and wiped tears on her nightgown sleeve. She could not get up at least not for a few more calming hours so she looked at the walls of her bedroom sparked with honey sunshine inside the gold curtains and as the day passed her enthusiasm for turkey and stuffing wilted, until four o’clock, when she closed her mind like closing a book thinking of Dodger. She pulled a green sweater and burgundy velveteen slacks and dressed without even looking in the mirror, habitually applied make-up and while looking in the mirror tested her smile, to find the one that looked genuine. ‘ Oh fuck him, I’m going to make joy tonight’
Couples and families scurried the walkways on their way to dinner. Greta watched enviously having never been a mother, every child appeared distinctive and worthy of love. As she walked through the lobby her attention was drawn to a circumference of platters of food decoratively arranged on tables. The mounds of appetizers, salads, loaves of bread, and turkey slices tuned up her appetite for the first time since Dodger departed. Inside the bar, a standing crowd of guests fused in high-pitched voices, laughter, and glasses raised in toasts. Greta eased her way to the bar feeling slightly self-consciousness of her unaccompanied presence. The Dude, as she referred to the leading bartender stood tall as a redwood, his hair wrapped in a perfect man-bun.
“Greta, over here. I saved you a seat.” She smiled uncertainly, unconvincingly and the Dude noticed. He raised his chin a notch, it’s his way of acknowledgment.
“Hey Greta, you look really nice tonight. Are you ready for a martini or what?
“ I don’t feel like it, can I go now?”
“ Come on, it’s Thanksgiving, aren’t you thankful for something?” she savored the comment, it was true she did not feel the thankfulness quality of the celebration.
“ I’m grateful for you!”
“ Okay, what’s wrong?”
“ You won’t believe it, whatever it is I don’t know. Dodger didn’t stay for the publication party, he didn’t even say congratulations when I showed him the book, he’s gone to see Patsy, you know the woman in Las Vegas that he sees sometimes.”
“What an asshole, I’ll whip him when he gets back. Do you have the book with you, I want to see it now!” She kept one in her bag, in case someone came in that I knew.
“ Here, that’s yours.”
“Aren’t you gonna sign it?”
“ Of course. I’m just jilted like my prom date didn’t show up.”
“ Hang on, write the inscription I have to take care of these people. Don’t leave!”
The evening evolved into a gathering of singles at the bar, the exchange was simplistic holiday conversation, suited to the occasion, so very all American, though the holiday isn’t widely accepted by the Natives due to the fictionalized history of the holiday. Within the festive mood, the distraction pulverized the hollowness of dining without Dodger on Thanksgiving and his birthday. Greta’s closest female friend is White Zen (WZ), who is out of town, and other friends are with family, so it is one of those days for single unattached people to find refuge where they can.
The man seated next to her was so close she was tempted to move her chair but thought that would appear unfriendly. The Dude approached her,
“ This is my Dad.” The Dude went on to talk about the book I handed him and then the father started up a discussion about how he was writing a book too and so the evening, between bits of food and wine liberated Greta from singleness to a dinner companion. She knew Dude had that planned as he was continually trying to introduce her to men.
When there was a lull in the conversation Greta seized the moment to excuse herself and squeezed through the crowd to the ladies’ room. The silence relieved her as it always does after a two-hour conversational overload and incessant noise of guests whose cocktails elevated their voices to disturbing mumbling. She applied fresh lipstick, and then she took a deep exalted breath and texted Dodger, ‘ hope you have a wonderful thanksgiving.’ She washed her hands and after a few more minutes passed, the text remained unanswered.
“ Dude, I’ll have another glass of wine.” He was more than responsive, and poured a full glass of wine and left the bottle next to her. She knew he knew her heart was crumbling.
“ I’m thankful Dude!
“ Yea, you should be!’ A tipsy jolt took care of the evening and she managed to make some mocking jokes about the Dude, and how his youth at twenty-eight pleased the women at the bar as they attempted a sensual pat on his hand.
“Cougars, divorced or cheating on their husbands, women your age are weird.”
“You’ll understand when you get older.”
Over the next few days Greta texted Dodger six times, and he didn’t respond, so she called. She was blocked. Her rage erupted, and so she sent an email with a link to her Amazon book page. When days later she did not get a response, she pinned herself in front of the television and dialed WZ. The outdoor snow piled up, the trash was not emptied, she avoided going into the basement where the washer and dryer were and the temptation to begin sabotaging, or breaking his belongings.
“ Hi, it’s me. What’s left of me that is. Can you talk?”
“ Yes, you don’t sound good– what’s happened? Let me get a cocktail going I think I’ll need it.”
“ I’m into my third glass of wine, call me back because it takes you fifteen minutes to do your marvelous Martini’s.”
Greta waited as if she was about to go into the operating room. WZ is in the category of mothering it’s not just her whispery voice, or intense talent for listening, she has the appetite for drama and that’s what hooked her to Greta.
ONE MONTH LATER ON THIS DAY she closed the shutters to his wanting eyes, and alchemized from a butterfly to a cocoon, beneath a circle of friends in tune. She removed the photos, gifts, and letters, put them in a box to reminisce later. Talking out loud, “She takes just like a woman but” she will not break like a little girl. No more hours fanning the past, on this day my view is spanning.” Into the night she sat peacefully by the fire and let her broken wing sing as she watched the wood turn to gold.
By darkness, she ushers in a memory, a solo sojourn in Old San Juan.
Lounging in the dawn by a hotel pool, he appeared at her side, talking as if they met on another day. “ You’re from the US .. let me see if I can guess, by the bathing suit I would say, Los Angeles. Am I right? His smile opened wide enough to place an apple inside, and his darkened arms were on his hips, his hair clipped his neck, he dressed in a floral shirt and jeans. He wasn’t fat or thin, a body well-fed, a spirit too combustible to restrain, so she let him continue on his strain. When she answered Los Angeles, he flung his arms wide open and immersed himself into a storyteller about when he lived in Los Angeles. The commonality swept him into a chair next to her and several hours later, they were paired in Old San Juan.
She finds breaking off pieces of her love life is like a tasting of sugary cupcakes, some better than others. The ones she is sure she will never see again are the sweetest.
Without a partner, lover,or relative nearby during our feared and festive flights of life, our ribs cave. You just cannot eat cake alone on your birthday, attend a funeral without a shoulder next to you, or celebrate a finished project without your best friend. During these times of divisiveness, a pandemic, our favorite restaurants and shops out of business, and vigilanteviolence, it takes courage to be alone. It is you I am thinking of and I know you are out there, isolated. I listen to a lot of music, from Opera to Salsa, shout myself out of bed, attend to mediocre mindless tasks and think about all of us singles, without children, or family and friends out of my reach in Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Scottsdale, Sedona, and Florida. Each one holds a podium on the telephone, as I listen to their feelings, they are variations of a Chopin or Bach recording. The sadness and fear each one is holding at bay, reveal their authentic character. Isn’t it an extreme tragedy that holds a spotlight on our soul and spirit? One friend reminds me to refrain from judging myself too harshly, another advises how fortunate I am to be in a safe small village, with very few deaths, and another says simply, I’m falling apart.
We are now forced to learn our supreme strength, our survival methods, and how to structure a new lifestyle. When was the last time you were tested? Remember that and you will forge ahead.
THE CLASSMATE THAT wrote is named Andrew. I imagine he’s married; a man with his looks and gregarious personality living in Los Angeles all these years. Maybe he married one of our high school classmates. We exchanged a few emails in two thousand eight, he’d just returned from a trip to Poland and I was managing the gallery. Then the crash came and I think my correspondence dropped. Why was he thinking of me? I don’t have any photographs from high school, I suppose I could look him up in the yearbook. I’ll wait till he writes again.
The sky is crystal blue, and the temperature a mild fifty degrees. From my window, the leaves dropping makes me think the trauma and suffering the last four years has dropped from my life. What the trauma was about is irrelevant and too lengthy to write. We all get sent to the chopping block of heartache and this was mine. This is as liberating as taking off a tight bra after a long day!
September has traditionally been my month of transition. It’s a sort of pattern that began years ago and so making decisions is as if I’m on a time clock. What is most essential now is finding a new place to call home. I began looking at Santa Barbara. I loved visiting the city by the sea, those beautiful mountains, and quaint craftsman architecture. So what if I don’t know anyone, I’ll be alone regardless of where I move. Easily accomplished in my fifties, not so improvisational at sixty-seven.
Rapturous Autumn day; this year the transformation of nature, outdoor activities, cider doughnuts, smoking fireplaces, and a crispness that reminds me of breaking open a head of lettuce. What really happens to us in the East is fall descends like a new stage and the props from summer are removed. The mums come out on the porches, and the bright yellow and gold plants dot every porch. The conventional lifestyle and customary activities placate our sense of belonging. Christmas, wow, it’s only a short time till winter. In the dressing room unpacking more sweaters, socks, warm-ups, I get an alert, another email. Andrew added another compliment so my response was crush-worthy. Why not? Maybe fantasy is what is needed. Remerging silhouettes, all of us on the front lawn at lunch time, and boys are pairing up with girls and Andrew is laughing, making clownish faces and gestures, yes he was crush-worthy. He walked in long strides, visible energy and every step seemed to have a purpose. The boy I was in love with graduated, and I did not have a boyfriend. My shyness and restrained conversational skills excluded me from invitations to date. Maybe that’s why he didn’t take notice of me observing him, a lot of classmates had crushes on him.
The reality of COVID-19 is now the centerfold story because it is affecting everyone; the excruciating financial loss, death, sickness, and loneliness. It’s more like acceptance that this is our job now to tolerate COVID-19. Restrictions, circumstances of failed businesses we all loved, fear, and more fear call for an imaginary friend who I haven’t seen in fifty years. He replied with a formal note of response that he was on Facebook and could we be friends. I wrote back, yes. I am listening to the soundtrack from the film A Man and A Woman while chopping vegetables for soup. This music has formed a flame of optimism for the day I’m in love and let go of singleness.
On Facebook Andrew’s feature photos reveal the teenager I remember. He is a photographer, a Neuro Technician, and in his twenties an actor and model … hum, sounds like my resume, professional career changer. His photos sent a quiver through my veins, a call to read everything on his page, and view videos of his European travels: beautifully crafted images of architecture, monuments, art, culture, and locals. It deepened my understanding of his life just by his photos and posts. The other side, his appearance; the facial features, keen brown eyes, uncensored or rehearsed self-photos, group photos with our high school mates at the reunions, his long wavy hair, and his defined lips and cheekbones tingled curiosity.
The photos of Andrew at the class reunions next to my best friend and other classmates I remembered brought a snowstorm of memories. How I loved my friends back then. About six of us went everywhere together; bought our first bras, learned to drive, went to Westwood Village to look for cute boys, sat in the booths at Mario’s Pizza, Hamburger Hamlet, and The Apple Pan and all of it on ten or twenty dollars a week allowance. I have not been to a reunion since the tenth. Andrew posted photos from several. He stayed connected. Fifty years have passed, and he’s on my mind. To be continued.
“Did you want to be like the people in Rancho Santa Fe?”
He laughed out loud and said, “I don’t want to be what I’m not. I am the happiest man alive.”
“Tell me again why you are so happy?”
“I told you about when I was stuck in Buna– I made a vow to God that if I got out of there alive, I’d never complain about life again
“You kept your promise.”
“ Yes, and I have the most wonderful friends in the world—and you’re one of them.” I gave him a hug and a kiss and asked him to tell me more about his life in Solana Beach.
“ Was your wife happy too?”
“ Oh yes.”
“ How long were you married?” I asked.
“ My wife and I were married fifty years, nineteen forty-one until she passed away.
She was so good to me when I come back from the war. I used to get up in the middle of the night and wander around, didn’t know where I was and she always got up with me. I had bad dreams and got lost, didn’t know where I was, and would hide in the closet. She was so careful with me. I just didn’t know what I was doing like spilling things at the table, and not remembering things she told me. It went on for a long while, but she never got angry or lost her temper. She was so good, and after I got better, we started having fun again, and we were doing good. I was at the dairy and they bought me the house on Barbara Street.”
“ The dairy bought it for you?” I interrupted.
“Yeah, 208 Barbara, that was it. We lived in that little house while I worked at the dairy– I worked seven days a week, from midnight until noon, then I’d have my lunch and rest awhile. Then we might go out and we’d party. “
“ Before you went to work?”
“ Oh yeah, it was the only time we had together.”
“ I feel like a wimp,” I mumbled.
“ Well, you work hard, and I don’t know it just seems people need more sleep today or something, I don’t know what it is.”
“ We haven’t been in a war.”
” Maybe so. I think people seem to marry for different reasons these days. Janet and I had the same background, we both knew what hard work was about. She didn’t complain, she was very good with money, she wrote down everything we spent. I guess we were lucky.”
“ I think it’s more than luck, you appreciate life every day,” I said.
“ I do, like you too, I am so glad you are my friends, and we can sit here and talk and have such good times.”
Then Rudy took my hand, and apologized for shouting at me earlier about not turning the hose off all the way. He said he wanted to take me out for dinner because he felt so bad. Maurice grinned, and I gave him a hug and a kiss. He went into the back and came back with a little bouquet of sweet peas for me.
“ These are for you,” he said.
“ Oh Maurice, you’re making me feel terrible,” Rudy said in jest.
“ I don’t mean to, it’s just that I love women so much. I told my wife every day, every morning she woke up I told her I loved her. We never went to bed angry.”
The house Maurice lives in and has lived in since 1950, is a tidy two-bedroom farmhouse. The house is painted white, with black shutters framing the front windows.
Tucked in the front entrance on one side are a twisted juniper and the other side a bush of poinsettia. He planted roses and hollyhocks and a few more varieties that were always postcard perfect. The porch out front changes with the season. The first year we met Maurice placed a sofa on the porch and two chairs. When Rudy and I stopped at the end of the day, Maurice would be outside sitting in the rocking chair, his hair still wet from his shower, and in his hand a jigger of Jack Daniel’s. In the front room, Maurice covered the walls with mementos and pictures of his friends. He didn’t hang any paintings of any kind, so when you sat on the couch and looked around you were looking at his life. He has a television and watches the news, old westerns, and the country music station. He especially likes the rodeo shows. He has remarked on occasion that he thinks television is very bad for you. His old sofa so worn from visitors when I sit down next to Maurice I sort of fall into his lap. We sit so close, unlike we do now in these large stiff hi-tech furnishings. In front of the sofa is a long glass coffee table, one of Rudy’s favorite stops as he walks in the door. He dives for the peanuts and the chocolates. There are always treats on the table, and you will not wait long before Maurice goes into the kitchen and brings back a plate of home-made pickles.
The first time Rudy ate his pickles, he yelled out, “ Damn Maurice, these are incredible I could eat a whole jar!” So Maurice went in the back and brought out a jar of his homegrown pickles. The kitchen is small and in the corner is a antique table where he keeps his baking utensils and one chair. He has a collection of antique jars and cooking tools on a shelf that whines around the kitchen ceiling. His refrigerator is an adventure in itself, shelves are packed with wrapped leftovers, sauces, meats, cheeses, and vegetables, so packed that on several occasions when I tried to put something back in I couldn’t find an empty place for it. Naturally, he uses a gas stove but growing up in Iowa all they had was a wood-burning stove. In the hallway, the walls are framed with more friends and family. There is one beautiful girl, that seems to be in every room. When I asked who she was Maurice replied, “ That’s Linda. She’s my sweetheart.”
From the photographs we learned all about Maurice’s life; his mother and father, brother and sister, his wife, Janet, his grandpa and grandma, and the hundreds of people in between. His home is a storybook, all you need to know about Maurice is revealed unaltered.
His bedroom is at the end of the hallway by the back door. His bed is covered with a handmade quilt and about twenty decorative pillows. The bathroom is very colorful with green and red towels, and more photographs of Linda. Then he opens the screen door to the backyard.
The throw of the dice this week falls on the silhouette of a Taos night out in 2006. It begins with the sunset — a bubble-gum pink sash that swirls like taffy just above the distant hillside. The transcending forms and colors in the sky distract me; it silences me, it keeps me from turning on the television or answering the phone.
The sunset has settled into my routine. It’s something I watch every night. In the midst of dressing to attend an art auction at the Millicent Rogers Museum the sun has vanished. The sky turns Taos blue; a luminous oil pigment canvas blue that appears like an endless tunnel you can walk through. As I descend the staircase, and cross over the ménage of piles shoved in a corner to allow SC to paint, I think, “This is going to be my home. I’m still here” Adventures in Livingness
In the courtyard where new flagstone has been laid, and the exit is blocked by a mud ditch, Rudy hitches me on his back and carry’s me out the side entrance through Tony Abeyta’s yard. Tony’s yard is piled with sand from our flagstone project, and my high-heeled black suede shoes are not at all practical for crossing New Mexican sand dunes. This is how the evening begins.
Out in the parking lot, we circle around once and stop in Robert’s gallery. He has offered me his turquoise squash seed necklace to wear at the auction. The necklace is from Turkey, and sells for $1,800. Millicent Rogers events always attract women with extravagant jewelry, and Robert knows I have no such possessions. He hands me the necklace, and says, have fun.
At times like this, I am able to forget the faces and routines I lived in Solana Beach, and feel swept into a labyrinth of unfamiliar vignettes. There are two police cars in the rear of the parking lot, the church looms like a fortress of wet mud, and SC is listening to The Band CD we picked up in Santa Fe. I slide into the car making sure my shoes don’t fill with gravel.
Parking for the Plaza where we lived. San Francisco de Asís Mission Church.
Along the desert road, there is very little street light and cars approach you at disarming speeds. For newcomers, the pale yellow line that separates oncoming traffic, roaming animals, hitchhikers, leather clad bikers, and abandoned pets, is of no comfort or value. Boundaries are vague, so are civilities between people, and sometimes conversations elope into poetry.
At the Millicent Rogers Museum the director Jill, who is there to welcome each guest, greets us at the carved wooden doors. This museum was once a home, like most museums in Taos.
Each room is an envelope of Native American jewelry, ceramics, painting, weaving, textiles, and metal work, sealed with an ethereal presence of Millicent Rogers. She set global trends in fashion, art, and living, by coming to Taos and bridging her New York chic with southwestern sensibility.
The museum collection includes some of her own designs that evolved from her residency in the desert. She moved here in 1947 and died here in 1953. She could have chosen anywhere in the world to live, and she settled in the unaltered, surreal lunar beauty of Taos.
I wandered through the tightly packed rooms, alternately viewing the guest’s attire and jewelry. The woven wraps, belts, and hats worn by men and woman form a collage of individual expression. Almost everyone seems to attract attention by the texture and color of his or her attire. It is festive traditional look, southwestern accessories paired with jeans or silk dresses. If you come to Taos, look for a belt buckle, one piece of Native American jewelry and one piece of art.
When the auction was announced, I found myself admiring the same etching as a woman next to me. She remarked that the artist was also the teacher of one of her children. I came to learn that Ellen had six children and 11 grandchildren. She was petite with curly blonde hair, and I liked her instantly. I told her I was a writer.
“So am I,” she answered.
Rather than talk about her work, she began talking about her daughter, also a writer.
“I’m so lucky,–all my children and grandchildren are creative and artistic.”
It was obvious that her life was a garden of earthly delights, and that she had raised many roses. When the auction began, she vanished, and I made a very swift viewing of the art before returning to the two etchings. They were both sold.
As I was walking out, I bumped into Ellen. She was clutching the etchings.
“So, you bought them,” I said.
“Oh, yes, I had to have them.”
She left me with a beaming smile and a closing remark that I hear very often: “Welcome to Taos.”
I love hearing that so much I don’t want to stop saying, I just moved here. After the auction we decided to stop in Marco’s Downtown Bistro, where we joined an improvisational party. It started when Marco introduced us to his friends, Pablo and Joan, visiting from Santa Fe.
The dim glowing melon adobe walls of the bistro, Marco hugging everyone, Joan’s melodious high-pitched laughter, Pablo telling jokes, Rudy laughing, and then Philip arriving to tell stories crossed over from strangers in a bistro to a fast rolling film. The conversation, and laughter surfed breathlessly from one person to another.
Joan remarked, “My 15 minutes. This is the best for me. The first time you meet someone, your both talking without any effort. It’s so perfect.”
We closed the bistro past midnight. Marco had gone home. Joan decided to stay at a friend’s house. Philip agreed to drive down to Santa Fe the next day, and we took Tylenol before going to bed.
Not every night out in Taos is like Joan’s 15 minutes, but chances are you will have something to write home about. Photos of Gallery LouLou Taos, NM
Maurice did things for us that no one had. It started with small gestures, like inviting us inside every time we passed by his house. Even if he was on his way to deliver furniture he’d scuttle to the kitchen and give us homegrown tomatoes, and oranges, or hand me a bouquet from his flower garden. These were the early years of my story submission rejections. I was so consumed with rejection that the only person in the world that made me feel human was Maurice. He didn’t understand what my torment was about, but he knew how to make it go away. Sometimes all it took was a big hug and a kiss. Maurice always met me with a hug and kiss, though I didn’t realize at the time how much he knew what I needed.
That Christmas I felt the spirit because of Maurice. I went to Sav-On and collected a basket of decorations, and though we had no room for a tree, I did what I could. Instead of wishing I could dash into Nordstroms and shop like a madwoman, I dug a little deeper and searched for appreciation gifts for friends.
By the time the season had ended, I was fixated on Maurice. It is strange to write about him now. The story I wanted to write was about Del Mar, and Solana Beach, California during the thirties and forties. I searched the indexes of the Del Mar Library and the local bookstores and shared the antiquities with Maurice.
We were sitting on his cushy pillowed sofa one evening in 1994, sipping chilled southern comfort, and snacking on saltine crackers and cheese. There is always a subject of interest with Maurice. He is seventy-five years old, lean and tough as a stalk of corn, with blue eyes that twinkle even if he’s not in the light. His wealth came from the uniqueness of how he lived.
“Tell me what you remember about Del Mar.”
Old Del Mar.
“Oh so many good times, not like it is today. I knew just about everybody, we were like a family.” Sometimes Maurice shared memories while driving around Del Mar and Solana Beach. Suddenly he would start talking, and I’d would listen with childlike curiosity. I recall one evening at the old Cilantro Restaurant while having dinner with Maurice. We sat at a table facing the Rancho Santa Fe Polo field. Maurice began to tell me how it used to be. Rancho Santa Fe
“I used to plow those fields there, all the way up to where the hills begin. I worked out there all day, and I loved it. That land belonged to the Conleys’. I remember that the whole field was underwater for one year. Hard to believe–but it was.”
“Sure I did! I was a farmer, a dairy farmer, and I delivered milk to Bing Crosby and Dixie Lee. I remember Christmas she comes out and gives me some extra money.–I always loved going there at Christmas. They was always so nice to me, you know. The Conley’s had a hog ranch, they were the ones I worked for. The year it flooded from El Camino Real to the racetrack we lost a bunch of pigs and a cow under the bridge. It only happened twice that I know of.”
“ What was Rancho Santa Fe like back then, when you were a farmer?”
“Well, it was different than today, then it was rich people, I mean really rich. I don’t know where they got their money but they had everything–you know expensive cars, cooks, and maids.” Maurice chuckled, “ I couldn’t understand what the cook did all day. The man my wife worked for, Ronald McDonald, he had a butler, maid, cook, and a big house, a really nice house. But today, anyone can live there, people who just inherited a lot of money. There was just a few families back then– everyone knew who they was. One time a young girl who lived up there was stuck on the road–her car broke down, so I drove her home. You did things like that. There were two really well-known families there, the Clotfelters were one, they had a son, Tom. He stopped by my house at Christmas and brought me a fish, he liked to fish. The other big family was Avery, he had everything. He used to get jobs for the Mexicans in the Ranch. Everyone knew him, he kind of ran the whole town, was really active in the community. Another fellow, Joe White, went around to the homes and put in the meters for the water district. We used to play cards with him and his wife, Marilyn– have a few drinks and have a such a good time. ” Maurice stopped and shaking his head remarked that there were so many wonderful people in his life, and how lucky he was to live in Solana Beach.
Downtown Rancho Santa Fe.
The Rancho Santa Fe I knew began when I moved there in nineteen-eighty-three. It was a place you heard of right away, and so I drove up to take a look around. Like thousands of others before me, I dreamt of living in the Ranch under a canopy of Eucalyptus trees with a horse stable and a grove of oranges. It was a blissful place to drive on a Sunday afternoon, very few cars on the road and the homes bathed in sunlight. But when I walked down Paseo Delicias, the main road in the village, I felt like an outsider. I did not feel that detachment in Del Mar, or Solana Beach, or even La Jolla. But the Ranch has eyes, it seemed to single you out and therefore no one on the inside made contact with you. You could dine at the charming Mille Fleurs and drop a few hundred dollars but you would not be invited to mingle. I asked Maurice if he wanted to live in the Ranch. His expression was curious as if I was pulling his leg.
ONE EVENING, Rudy and I were sitting on the porch, it was in summer and we would sit out till after eight o’clock at night talking about different parts of Maurice’s life. He is really busy in the summer, he works one day a week gardening for a man in Fairbanks ranch, and he spends a lot of time delivering furniture for the shops in Cedros Design District, and helping his friends with their gardens. He never seems tired; he likes to sit on the porch at dusk, watch the sunset, have a jigger and tell stories. I had not met a man that could tell me things like Maurice. There didn’t seem to be anything he couldn’t talk about. I will tell you in the next series how I met, ‘the happiest man in the world.’
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
“ Maurice, how old were you when you were drafted?” I asked.
“ Well, I was thirty-one years old, that was in 1941, you know when the war broke out. I had to leave my wife, and that bothered me, but I wanted to go overseas, there were so many nice real young boys, there were two boys from Chicago that were only eighteen years old, they lied to get in, and they were the best soldiers you ever saw, they weren’t afraid of anything.”
“ Where did they send you, I mean after you left San Diego?”
“ Well first I went to Camp Roberts for training, thirteen weeks, but I got out in nine weeks, then they send me to Fort Ord to get my gear and rifles and clothes to go to New Guinea to fight the Japanese. We left San Francisco on April 21, 1942, I remember going under the Golden Gate Bridge, cause we hit a bad storm there. We was on a luxury liner and then we were sideswiped by another ship. I was in the bed at the time, and water started coming in through the porthole so I run for the door, to get on deck but I couldn’t get it open. I thought we were hit by a torpedo, then I got sick, I was real sick. Well anyway, then we finally settled down, and I think we hit coral sea without any escort or anything and finally got into Adelaide, Australia after twenty-one days at sea.” Maurice paused like he had to catch a breath. I watched his face, thinking he may want to stop.
“ You remember so much, do you mind talking about it?” I asked.
“ No, I don’t mind, it changed my life, everything about it.”
“ Where did they send you after that?”
“ Well we trained for awhile in Adelaide, the people in Australia were so happy to see us. I remember they met us at the beach with tea and cookies cause the enemy were getting real close. Then we went up the coast to New Guinea to Port Moresby, we got there on Thanksgiving day 1942. As soon as we got off the ship the bombs hit us, it was the hundredth raid that night. Then the next morning we were supposed to get to Stanley Range, but we were in such a hurry because the enemy had built cement pillboxes. So we got in this plane, a hull, and they flew us, twenty-one at a time. When I got to the island of Buna, there were dead soldiers all over and so much jungle. At night the tide came in, so I found a mound to lay my head on, but my whole body was underwater. We were losing men so fast, so on Christmas 1942 General McArthur ordered us to advance, regardless of the cost of lives. My division was one of the first divisions to stop the them, the Thirty-Second division. After we were immobilized, and a lot of our men were killed, they sent in the Forty-First division to take over. I got pictures, you want to see them?”
“YES, RUDY,” SHOUTED. Maurice went inside and Rudy and I sat there just talking about how soft our lives had been, never having been in a war. Maurice came back with a Life Magazine, from 1942, the headlines were Attack at Buna. We sat next to Maurice on the couch and he sifted through the magazine showing us the photographs of his division. He picked out one photo in another stack in his lap and told us his wife kept this one, she was sure it was Maurice. It looked like him to. The soldiers were young, but they didn’t look young, they looked like men. The things he told us that night were hard to believe. They didn’t get supplies at first, they had to wait till everything was shipped to Europe, and then they got what was leftover which wasn’t much.
“I ate cocoanut bark for two weeks and had to drink my own piss to stay alive, there was no water. I can remember so well the first enemy I saw, sneaking through the jungle, he was only thirty feet off, and I don’t know if I shot him, but he dropped, and I don’t like to think I killed anyone, and it bothers me to this day that I had to kill, but that’s what we did. The Japanese were good soldiers, they had better ammunition than us, their guns were always real shiny. We fought all day, and we always ran out of ammunition before they did. Christmas day of forty-two we went into a trench to get ahead, the fellow ahead of me was cut wide open, and the guy behind was shot, and I just laid there on the ground. If you moved you’d be shot. It was so bad, I laid there all day and night. “
“ Did you think you were going to die?”
“ I didn’t let myself think that, I made a promise to God, that if I ever got out alive I’d never complain about anything in my life again because nothing could be worse than that day.”
“ You kept the promise didn’t you,” I asked.
“ Yes, I have.”
“ And that’s why the war changed your life?”
“ That’s right, every day is a beautiful day after you’ve lived through a war, at least for me.”
BUNA came into our conversations many times over the years. The things they did to survive is what he remembered; like brushing his teeth with black charcoal because it polished the teeth even though they made them black. They bathed in dirty streams, or in the puddles in the street made by the tires of the trucks. They had to relieve themselves in their pants because moving was dangerous. They didn’t have modern medical supplies. When Maurice had cavities he was sent to the infirmary and the dentist told him to just grit his teeth, there was no Novocain. He got gum disease, leg rot, malaria, and he lost his sense of smell.
“But it was much worse for some of the men, so bad you can’t imagine.” He talked about the kinship amongst the troops, it was unlike anything he’d ever seen or experienced, all the guys looking out for each other. Buna was a strange place to be, I’d never heard of it before Maurice told us. After they took over Buna, one of the beaches, was named Maggot Beach, because so many dead Japanese and American soldiers laid there, in the hundred-degree heat, and the flies got to them, and it was a terrible sight, it smelled so bad he remembered. Maurice was sent to the hospital for two weeks, then he started working in the kitchen and got to be the first cook.
2001. OUR CONTRY IS AT WAR AGAINST TERRORISM. Rudy and I wanted to know Maurice’s thoughts on the way it is now, and how he felt. We sat in his living room watching the news and talking in those first few weeks after the attack on America. It seemed like Maurice couldn’t believe what had happened, I’d never seen him speechless. He didn’t know what to say for a long time.
“The ground troops are the only way to get this enemy. Now with these terrorists– we have a different war. I don’t know what our government will do but they should give our troops overseas that die big funerals, news on the television and newspaper, that’s the right thing to do. In WW11 they didn’t do that for any of us, they just wrapped the dead in a tarp, and dug a little hole in the ground. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of boys, all they got was a stick where you was. I think they got some of the dog tags mixed up, you didn’t know who was who. When you think about what we went through, and how close you were to each other, everybody was so close, and if someone was shot, you couldn’t stop and help them, you had to keep going. The natives were so nice to us, so good to us, they picked up the wounded guys and carried them to the hospital, they wouldn’t do that for the Japanese. Now everything is on the television so you’re part of it.” Maurice began to weep silently. I hugged him. Rudy interjected.
“What were the natives like?”
” Back then we called them headhunters. They didn’t wear any clothes at all, but after we got there some of them started wearing our clothes. They lived in bamboo huts, pretty neat to live in, Rudy, you would have liked those tents. Anyway, they had these powwows, they’d catch a monkey, and hang him up, build a fire under him, and cinch the hair, then sit down and eat the monkey raw, I saw a lot of that. You didn’t dare look at the women, they’d shoot you with an arrow, they had poisonous arrows, the women were so terribly dirty, but they seemed to be happy. After we took Buna, they liked to shoot up the trees and show us how they got the coconuts, they were so fast. I guess some of them are still alive today, the jungle was so thick and full of mosquitos, a lot of them had malaria, they had no medicine, they ate herbs and things, to make them better. I’ll never forget them, they were so good to us, when they took me to the hospital they put me on a stretcher one time, they were so careful, didn’t move me at all.
“ You couldn’t speak at all to them?”
“ No, they had their own language, I couldn’t understand it, no one did.”
Maurice went into the house and came back with a photograph of a female headhunter. It was strange to think of this person as a woman, she was so primitive. Rudy loved the photograph. Maurice gave it to him. t. Rudy knew he would never see anything like it with his own eyes, so he cherished that picture and the story Maurice told us as if it was his own experience.
THEN THE LIGHT OF DAY TURNED FOGGY. Maurice said it was time to go in because it was getting cold. He told us how much he loved us that night, and what good friends we were. When Maurice talked of his experience in the war, it was like a chiropractic adjustment on my struggle, and I had renewed strength to just keep writing.
It was the first time for Rudy to hear first hand about WW11 because his father had been stationed here making torpedoes. My father enlisted but they wouldn’t take him because he didn’t have citizenship. It bothered him too, he was the kind of man that would die for this country in a heartbeat.
A year or so later, some woman came to know Maurice and asked about his experience in the war. She said she would write a book about it, and so he gave her the photographs and Life Magazine and waited to hear from her. She never came back, and Maurice was really shocked because she had seemed so sincere.
I wanted to know more about his life after the war, but the time didn’t come until one night when Rudy and I got into a nasty fight. To be continued.
IN THESE TIMES OF DISTANCE, DEATH, DISCOURSE, AND ISOLATION what can I write of value? All month this puzzle chased my thoughts; nudged me like a pesky fly. At different intervals during the solemnness, my journal returned parched sketchy paragraphs, and books did not deliver the inspiration I craved. Listening to Beethoven as I gaze out the window at the blowing branches on a spring gray and white day, I feel a singleness I’ve never known. Maybe you feel the same, and it is you I am writing to because I know you are there. Singleness in quarantine is more incarcerating than it is for married, partnered, family people. Though they have to acclimatize to spacial hardship as everyone at home is at the same intersection without privacy, and that slogan I remember from college, ‘I need my space man,” resonates. One friend said to me on the phone, “I yelled at my kids today, I’ve never done that before. We’re bumping into each other. I think I’m losing my mind.”
US SINGLES are accustomed to solitude, especially if you are an artist. How we howl for isolation to create, and now we have it. The time is here, to skip down the most bizarre roads and create COVID-Art. A few weeks ago, Governor Cuomo delivered his press conference and said, “I have something to show you.” A sliding door opened and a collage that appeared twelve feet in height displayed a tapestry of masks. He told us they came from all over the world. He was so touched by the gesture. Imagine a new solo dance performing an abstraction of the virus, or a poem, a song, and for sure a dozen or more writers and screenwriters are tapping at the speed of light to capture the pandemic in art form.
I’M GOING DOWNTOWN now to pick up a cobb salad from Sunset Grill, my stable for drinks and great food. The sky is in turmoil, as the clouds interchange across the sun, and she appears to be breaking through at one moment and the next she has revealed her radiance. I dress for the weather with a hat and coat and begin my three-block walk to downtown. When it begins to rain, I am smiling as I’ve always loved walking in the rain. As masked villagers pass, I’m struck by the absence of smiles, or good afternoon which you get a lot in a village of five-thousand. Some younger couples cross the street when they see me, and heads are mostly lowered to the ground. A new silence emerges as cell phones are tucked into pockets and passing voices are inaudible.
I HAVEN’T HAD FACE TO FACE conversation for several days and I feel a sprinting joy in anticipation of a conversation with Eric or Brian who own the café. They’ve installed a take out window, and as I approach I see Brian, and he ducks down to greet me.
Hey Loulou, how are you?
“ At this moment I am so happy to see you!
He swings down a bit lower to pop his head through the window
“ So am I. We miss you.”
“ I feel the same. How are you doing with all this.” He is smiling, and he’s always a bit jumpy like he needs to go for a jog or a bike ride.
“We had to let the staff go,” now his smile turns to a gripping inner pain. My kid is washing dishes and we’re still here, but you’re the first customer today.”
“Will you reopen when we’re off the pause button?
“ With twenty-five percent capacity, I don’t know. The numbers don’t work out so well. I mean we’ll still do curbside.”
Suddenly he turns about-face and joins me on the sidewalk touting my cobb salad. Brian must need a conversation as much I do. We chatted about the virus, our change of behavior, and this pent-up craving for closeness.
“ I can’t even go on a date anymore with someone! How can you meet anyone today?” He gestures with his arms to emphasize his frustration.
“Yeah, you’ll have to take their temperature before you sit six feet away.” We laughed, maybe for the first time in days.
AS I WALK BACK HOME my thoughts are traveling along the pathway of restaurants, I frequented in San Diego, Los Angeles, Taos, Santa Fe, and now here. I see the owners and waiters’ faces, remember the food and a visual kaleidoscope of the festive times we shared. You know that saying, the good ol’ days, now I am on the other side of that at least for the foreseeable future.
For me the adaptation is more than frustration. Last year I did not take advantage of the racetrack, or the concerts at SPAC, or the exhilarating nightlife along Broadway on a Saturday night in Saratoga Springs. I trembled in silence abashed by the consequences of my mistakes. If we un-pause this summer I promise you I will not be clasping the remote waiting for the next film.
AS I APPROACH my house, I notice the neighbor in her driveway. We clashed in the most vicious ways the summer Rudy and I moved into the house. One time I think the police were brought in to settle the argument. It was because she placed a close circuit camera on her roof to track our renovation. She was retired and her husband was always fiddling in the shed. We gave her a purpose. She looked my way timidly. I smiled at her. This is the first time we’ve been this close since I moved here two years ago. She smiled back.
“Are you happy to be back?” she said in a quiet sort of empathetic tone.
“It’s taking time to adjust. I haven’t lived here in so long.”
“I know. Well, not much has changed except for a few new restaurants. Do you plan on staying?”
“I don’t know the answer yet. We had the house up for sale…”
“ I noticed the sign.” She said expectant of more information
“ I can’t maintain a hundred and twenty-seven-year-old house on my own. You know, Rudy’s gone.” She nodded her head.
“Well, I don’t know how much longer I’ll be here either. I’m eighty years old now.” She dropped her head to the ground.
“Lorraine you don’t look like it at all.”
We continued on about my new tenants, her dog, and how much work it takes to maintain a painted lady historic home. I couldn’t believe how sweet her voice was, I’d actually never heard her speak except one time shouting at me. Give up grievances and trivia because the person you once disliked may be very different now.