Charley’s Last Walk

I never appreciated dogs until I met Charley. She and Bob lived next door to me for a while, and as I became friends with him, I became friends with her. Charley and I truly bonded the day she crawled out from under the fence around his backyard during a thunderstorm when he wasn’t home. I found her flattened on the sidewalk with a foreleg stuck through her chain collar a result of her desperate scramble. Unable to move, terrified by the thunder, she gave me the most pleading, vulnerable look I’ve ever seen. After I extracted her leg from the collar, she still stuck to the ground in fear. Somehow, I persuaded her to get up, then gently led and nudged and prodded until I could put her inside Bob’s trailer.

She was medium sized and golden-red-brown, with a black spot on her tail and a matching black spot in the middle of her tongue. Her features were dingo-like, her body solid—and amazingly strong when she was being stubborn about where to walk. I used to try to convince her enjoy some variety, but when she didn’t want to do something, she would put on her brakes and just look at me, so we settled on a fixed route that made her happy and gave her a long enough walk. Once she won that argument, she kept up a brisk pace like she was on a mission, making me almost jog to stay with her. Sometimes I wondered if Charley thought she was walking me, and since Bob insisted that she take me out, she should be the boss. And why not? She was smart and responsible. She cooperated with a wide variety of verbal commands, if not suggestions about where to walk.

In her old age, she acquired new skills in avoiding dog-to-dog conflict. If a dog was on a leash in the distance, she paused to let it go past. If it was off-leash and coming toward her, she sped up to a trot and evaded the encounter, making me speed up with her. This impressed me, because even two years ago she would crouch and low-walk as if ready to spring when she saw a dog she didn’t like, and when she was young, she “got a ticket,” as Bob put it, for tearing the bandana off a pit bull. When it came to humans, though, she was a loving, sociable dog.

On what turned out to be her last walk, she chose the same route as always and did all the same things. Her key destination was the T or C Brewery and the people drinking on the patio. I made her keep her distance, though I could tell by those longing glances she really wanted to go up and put her nose in people’s hands and be petted, like she could in the old days before the pandemic. (Bob would ask her, “Want to go grab a beer, Charley?” And she would jump to attention.) She also liked to walk past a certain Akita and make him bark, and past her old home from before Bob moved. She took an interest in the smells along the bottoms of buildings without breaking her stride, only stopping to sniff at one specific corner where all the important canine information seemed to be, then headed home with me in tow.  Neither of us had an inkling it was her last walk.

The next afternoon, Bob called to ask if she’d acted normal on her walk, because she was sticking close to him nonstop and having some symptoms. I assured him she’d been fine. He made arrangements to get her to the vet the next day. She didn’t whine or make any fuss, but by night she had trouble standing. He lay beside her on the floor, and once in a while she laid her front paw on his arm. At six a.m., she quietly slipped away. After twelve good years of life, she had around twelve hours of knowing something was wrong. Love was her last moment. Her last walk was filled with the simple pleasure of her familiar neighborhood, and perhaps her memories of being the most popular dog on the Brewery patio.

She’s not taking me for walks anymore, but she guides me in spirit. Some of my most serene moments have been in her company, as we headed up Marr Street at sunset toward the church from which the bats emerge. Something about the sight of her sturdy back as she paced along and the bats in the sky framing my view of Turtleback Mountain silenced all the chatter in my head, as if I could enter Charley’s mind-state, immersed in the act of walking and the experience of my senses.

She taught me this: Live today with love and enthusiasm, fully present. Be yourself. Grow wiser with age. Thanks, Charley.

Works in Progress

I set myself a goal to complete five short stories and get them revised and sent out for critique by November. I’ve somewhat polished three, finished a very rough first draft of the fourth, and have the outline for the fifth.

Writing these stories is forcing me to examine emotional depths within the tight plots of short fiction. It’s my job as a fiction writer to make my characters’ lives difficult. To test them and to explore how they can come out stronger. In some ways, doing this in short works is harder than developing a character arc over the expanse of a long, complex novel. I’m enjoying the work, though. It’s been a chance to reunite with characters I haven’t seen for a while and integrate their personal journeys with those of my protagonists.

Will Baca and Letitia Westover-Brown from Ghost Sickness are featured in the first story. They’re trying to make a go of honest work and an honest relationship, but then someone sends Will a strange gift, and they need Jamie as a healer and Mae as a psychic to solve to mystery.

The next story takes place at the college fitness center where Mae works. No visits with “old” characters here. She finds herself with a new enemy, one who could undermine her future career.

The third story brings back Kyle and Vaughan from Shadow Family and Rex from Death Omen as well as Mae’s stepdaughters. I loved working on it, a project that made me rediscover pre-pandemic Truth or Consequences, as the twins attempt to plant a trivia mystery for Vaughan to solve. Another mystery emerges as a consequence, and the girls want Mae to find out the truth.

The fourth story centers around Montana Chino, a character from Ghost Sickness. She and her sisters, Melody and Misty, have planned a thirtieth birthday surprise for Mae, and then Montana, a hotel housekeeper, gets a much bigger surprise in a tip envelope at work. A tip that could change her life in more ways than one when Mae’s psychic inquiry brings up answers Montana wasn’t looking for.

I haven’t decided if the fifth story is more of romance or a mystery, as Mae and Jamie attend two weddings almost back to back, one in T or C and one in Santa Fe. (Trivia question: What happened in New Mexico in 2013 that would cause this to happen?)

Yes, it’s still 2012 and 2013 in these stories. (The Calling is set in 2009-2010.) I’m moving along. But so far, I can’t skip any part of my characters’ lives. They want me know what they’ve lived through, so I’ll understand them better for the next book.

“I’ve got nothing better to do. Might as well turn eighty-five.”

Last year, when Bob turned eighty-four, another friend and I took him for a float trip on the Rio Grande. With a very old friend, each birthday is a special occasion, even if he says things like the title of this post. When I stopped by Sunday to give him a book for his eighty-fifth, he was sitting on the cement porch of his apartment—a cheddar-yellow, purple, and red building in true T or C style. With him was a friend who had brought a cake, and they were having a quiet celebration in 2020 mode. The chairs on his porch are a little over six feet apart. His mask hangs on the knob of a large, heavy bureau he somehow hauled out from his living room along with his armchairs, a lamp, a clock, a table, and little potted plants. He’s pretty much established his pandemic parlor outside.

Every other day at sunset, I walk his dog. She’s old, too, but she’s a faster walker than he is, so I’m in charge of her cardio workouts, while he takes her for leisurely, companionable strolls to the river.

The bats have relocated yet again. Now they live in the Baptist church. The sky is alive with their dances as the dog and I finish our walk. I deliver her back to Bob, and we talk and watch the sunset. A ceremony of cherishing the day and our friendship.

 

Vacation Mind

On a sunny, sixty-degree day, the kind that tourists from cold places come here to enjoy, I asked myself, how would I feel, think, and act if I was on vacation?

Truth or Consequences used to be my vacation destination. As a full-time resident, I do the same things I did as a summer visitor. I live in a smaller, simpler space than I did back in Virginia. I soak in hot springs, run in the desert at Elephant Butte Lake State Park, I write, I go to Albuquerque to study yoga, I hang out with friends … It’s the same life, only busier.

I have a schedule. Teaching yoga three days a week is not what anyone could call a full schedule, though it does limit my spontaneity. I’m more involved in the community. I know more people. But the biggest difference is my mindset. I don’t feel the looming return to the academic calendar reminding me to make the most of my freedom. So I don’t.

I let my head get cluttered. After I encountered a number of vacationers hiking the trail where I ran yesterday, I switched to vacation mind, appreciating the moment as if I might have to leave any day. Wow. Isn’t this amazing? It’s so warm. The sky is so bright. The lake is so still and blue. I noticed the light striking one of the bare, rocky hills on the shore making it look golden, though the land in Elephant Butte is basically gray, and how the dried blossoms atop a yucca stalk held their bell shapes months after their blooming ended.

While I stretched at the playground, a spider web glinting in the sun caught my attention, its near-invisible threads turning iridescent. The weaver, a tiny dirt-beige spider with red-striped legs and two rows of dots down its back, clung to a green metal ladder on the play structure.

Yellow stripey things—bees or wasps, I’m not sure which—nuzzled around my ankles and inspected me. I rolled my pants legs tight so the inspections wouldn’t go wrong. Their soft buzzing was the only sound.

Spaciousness. Present moment. Vacation mind

La Vieja Lets Go

A large cloth figure stuffed with shredded newspaper, adorned with long scraggly hair and pink-painted nails, she spent December in the women’s bathroom at the Truth or Consequences Brewery as the interactive art installation for the season. Women, local and visiting, could write notes to pin to La Vieja naming what they wished to release, and then take gift of a small stone or shell from a basket sharing the table with the Old One.

Today, La Vieja moved from the Brewery to a fire pit in Rotary Park on the Rio Grande, where a young woman who is a professional wildland firefighter arranged a safe set up for the ritual burn. A circle of women of all ages and a few men gathered. Poetry and stories were shared while the setting sun cast bright linear sunbows in the gray clouds on either side. Our firefighter lit La Vieja, and the blaze was warming and bright, the gentle sister of the fires she fights in the wilderness.

The Old One arched back with grace, and her legs moved into a posture reminiscent of an artist’s model reclining in the nude. As the words that clung to her burned, her heart seemed to open. Her arms fell back, her legs softened, and when she released her limbs one by one they seemed to let go with relief, until nothing was left but a heart-heap of smoldering ashes.

The ceremony was silent at times, social at others. I saw a friend who is moving to another part of the state. She’s letting go of T or C, feeling called to a new place without quite knowing why. Not in her head, anyway. Her heart knows.

Part Two: Not Quite Letting Go

 I found myself thinking of that famous Maine story in which a tourist asks a local for directions. The local muses and makes some attempts to find a route, but his final answer is, “Come to think of it, you can’t get there from here.” Travel from Truth or Consequences to Baton Rouge for the electric car I wanted was kind of like that. I have an eye condition that makes flying inadvisable, so my choices were either to drive my Fiesta, adding 1,000 miles to her odometer, and then trade her in for next to nothing, or take a train or a bus—the lowest carbon options.

Amtrak’s answer when I tried to plan the trip: no such route. I would have had to go a very long way out of my way and then take a bus from a place the train does go. Or I could have spent thirty-two hours on a bus one way, after getting to nearest Greyhound station in Las Cruces. I couldn’t just leave the Fiesta at the station and drive back in the new car, so I’d have to get a friend to drive me there. Or take the Mexican Bus.

I’ve never seen the Mexican Bus. It has no published schedule that I could find. You just have to know someone who knows. As in, “Ask Davey. He took it to Albuquerque once. I think it stops at the McDonald’s in T or C.” We’re not that far from the border. I can see why a Mexican bus line would come here, but it’s a strange state of mass transportation in rural New Mexico that your only option is a mystery bus from across the border.

I reached the cusp of having the electric car shipped to me, but some troubling errors in the paperwork the dealer sent and some red flags in the fine print made me cancel the purchase. (I hope I can use all this in a book. I think the objectionable sales contract has disaster potential for one of my characters who wouldn’t read the fine print.) My attachment to the Cajun Spice Red 2017 Chevy Bolt with only 10,000 miles was brief, not meant to last, but I didn’t pin “electric car” to La Vieja. I’ll drive one eventually. It may not be perfectly convenient—I’ll have to charge it at an RV park and buy a portable charging station to adapt to the plugs—but I still want to do it. Maybe, by the time I find another affordable dream car, much closer to home, T or C will have public charging for non-Tesla cars. I’ve proposed that the city or some entrepreneur convert at least one of our town’s abandoned trailer parks to EV charging stations. The infrastructure is partly there, and the lots are close to both downtown and the river. People could recharge their cars while they recharged their bodies and spirits with art, music, hiking, and hot springs. And there’s something so T or C about a recycled trailer park.

 

Cold Day Run

It was thirty-nine degrees today, with wind at fifteen miles per hour. In the spring, when it blows at twice that speed on a regular basis, I would call that a light wind. But it’s not cold in the spring. It’s normally not cold in the winter, either, for which I’m grateful. I have a low tolerance for low temperatures. Still, I had to get out and run. The weather had been even less inviting for the previous two days. A third day without prolonged outdoor time would have been far worse than wearing the winter running gear I’ve so seldom needed since moving to Truth or Consequences. My mind and body crave nature, light, and movement.

It would have been easier to stay indoors, but less rewarding. The sky was brilliant New Mexico blue, and no one else was out on the trail. No humans, that is. On my third loop, there were fresh deer tracks, signs they had been there just before me. By the end of my run, my face was cold, and my fingers and wrists deeply chilled through my gloves, but I’m glad I braved the weather. It was uncomfortable at times, but whenever I turned a curve that took me out of the wind, I cherished the reprieve and communed with the winter sun.

I have a list of unpleasant tasks I’ve been crossing off, one by one, but a few remain—and they’ve remained on that list a long time. I have to remind myself that the actual doing of the difficult thing is less stressful than thinking about doing it.

 

Caught in the Vortex

I’m a guest today on fellow New Mexico mystery writer Donnell Ann Bell’s blog. Talking about my discovery of T or C, and Mae Martin’s connection with the town as well.

“I could live here,” said a voice in my head. It was two in the morning. I’d walked into my room at The Charles Motel and Hot Springs in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico after driving across the country in two days to make the most of my spring break, and so far I’d seen nothing of the town.  Follow this link to read more.

 

The Full Circle Moon of Good Intentions

“Do you know anything about turtles?” the woman asked. She was a slim, big-eyed brunette in a sundress, carrying a large blue canvas bag. A silver-haired man carrying a plastic grocery bag stood nearby, poised to walk off, his shoulders turned away from her. She must have already asked him, and he obviously wanted to keep moving.

I was on my way to meet a friend for a sunset walk. The clouds promised great color effects. But when I discovered the woman was uncertain how to rescue a  turtle that was trying to cross the street, I had to stop. We were five blocks from the river. A long hike for a turtle, and a dangerous one. Hot pavement, traffic, and predators. Yes, predators. And not just cats. There was a gray fox trotting down the alley across from us. Unlike turtles, foxes come downtown quite often. (Plenty of bunnies, no competition from coyotes.)

I found a small flower pot lying on the street. The woman offered to sacrifice her towel—she was on her way to La Paloma for a hot spring soak—to wrap the turtle, and I cupped its sharp-beaked little head in the pot. First we just lifted the critter over the adobe wall into the yard of the nearest house. I knew the owners, and they wouldn’t mind. But the turtle took off running for the sidewalk. I never realized they could move that fast. It would be in the street again any minute.

I called my friend and explained that I was taking a turtle to the river, and he said he would meet us there. My new acquaintance and I headed toward the Rio Grande, with her cradling the turtle in a fluffy pink towel. She told me was in T or C on a long visit from Austin and was thinking about moving here. Since she was too young to retire, I asked what she would do here. “Thrive,” she replied.

We met my friend and his dog on the way and then released the turtle into a muddy spot on the riverbank, not too steep or bumpy, so it could have a safe slide into the water. It stared at the river and then hurried into the weeds.

Satisfied, we humans lingered to watch the full moon rise from behind Turtleback Mountain, and my new friend and my old friend told stories, getting acquainted. Bats dived after insects, swooping in close to us, and we gradually fell silent in the sacred space.

Later, at home, I looked up turtles. I’d never answered the question that started the evening’s adventure: Do you know anything about turtles? If I had, the answer would have been no.

I learned they lay eggs around this time of year and may walk up to a mile from the water to do so. Our rescue interrupted a turtle on a mission. I told myself we meant well, and that she came out the wrong side of the river. The other side is wild, but she was heading downtown. Even if she somehow found a spot to bury her eggs, the hatchlings would never make it home. Still, I have to wonder about the unintended consequences of our good intentions. Maybe she knew what she was doing. I hope she found a good, safe place to lay eggs, but after her heroic trek, we brought her right back to where she started.

 

Dropping In

When I was a teenager with divorced parents, one of the many things I loved about living with my father was the spontaneous sociability. People dropped in on him, often in the late mornings on weekends, and on summer evenings we would go for walks and drop in on friends. We were in a small town on the Maine coast where he was informally referred to as “the mayor,” though the town was in fact so small it didn’t have one. He was one of the few year-round residents.

Where I live now, spontaneous socializing happens on the streets, in coffee shops, and at the brewery, but I don’t drop in on friends unless they own shops—dropping in on shop-owners is a social custom here. Otherwise, I’ve developed the habit of calling if I want to make short-notice plans. Then my cell phone provider and I had to part ways, due to a series of annoying technical events. I couldn’t make calls. I was in the middle of I-will-not-tell-you-what kind of hassle trying to set up online with the new provider when I heard a knock on my door.

A friend had dropped by to tell me his phone didn’t work.

Needless to say, the timing was perfect. I invited him in. I’d been meaning to call him during my three days of phone problems and couldn’t. We vented about cell phone service, and he said he’s going to get a landline. “Why do I need a phone with me all the time?”

Good question.

I didn’t go quite so far back in tech time as he decided to, but I still don’t have a smart phone. Why do I need a computer with me all the time? I like talking. If friends want to get in touch, I like it if they call and talk, not text. If it’s after eleven a.m., they can even drop in.

Anniversary Sale

Two years ago today, June 2, I was half-way across the country, moving from Virginia to New Mexico. I’d lived in Santa Fe previously and left for a job in northeastern North Carolina, where I found the setting for The Calling. I always knew I’d be back, and when I discovered Truth or Consequences, I was instantly caught in the vortex. I knew I would live here someday.

In Shaman’s Blues, Mae Martin moves to T or C. Unlike me, she’s never seen it before. Never been to New Mexico. Doesn’t know a soul in town except her father. Join her on the adventure and celebrate my anniversary.

Click here for 99 cent sale