…where I spend part of my life

October 19, 2010

 

Just the other day was one of those days wherein all the pieces fit together with serendipity, without the frustration of puzzling them into a picture of a fraudulent mountain landscape, and ultimately scooping the curlicued bits back into their gray box. 

In the morning I drove over the Jemez Mountains for lunch in Taos with longtime, dear friends I can see only rarely. The scenery as I drove was the kind of invigorating autumn we might imagine Vivaldi was describing in Le Quattro Stagioni, although he was more bent by the gusts suddenly rounding the corners in Venice more than trembling Aspens the forest fire three years ago allowed to return from their dormancy…  No that’s not off track. That’s exactly the point.  For years I’d been periodically driving to Los Alamos looking at the dismal charred and fallen trees from the forest fire three years ago, but this morning the firewood was stacked in rough pyramids for winter pick up. Gigantic colonies of Aspens had reclaimed the sunny sides of the valley. It had taken years of negotiations with the Forest Service, Stimulus Funded labor and the forgotten surprise that a root network of Aspen had been buried by the shade of the Ponderosa Pines. Sections of forest destroyed in the terrifying fire, were now soporifically echoed in the trembling glow of the Quaking Aspens. All of that on the specific morning I was driving.

I didn’t mention yet  that there was practically no traffic and two trucks pulled over so I could pass,

or the sky was cloudless and the color of my other’s eyes when she was happy,

or that I startled a flock of ravens (called an unkindness) that seemed like a shadow alongside the road that suddenly shattered and flew away in pieces,

or that I was in a rented minivan with an XM Radio that played seamless hypnotic music,  alternated with Stan Getz, Grant Green and a station that played nothing but Frank Sinatra whom I only enjoy on certain occasions and this was one of them, 

or that the road was dry and empty enough to drive straight through the middle of curves and feel the centrifugal and centripetal pulls grab and release…not at all bad for a vehicle that uncomfortably seats seven.

I slid past the security checkpoint into Los Alamos which made it seem like it was a medieval town with sleepy guards at the gates and it wasn’t until I passed Bikini Atoll Lane that the stranger reality of where I was crept back.  But it was Thursday morning and there’s a farmer’s market in the park, and I had a shopping list with fresh peppers on it. I was ahead of schedule, so I stopped. Walking over to the market I could smell  fresh cider, which reminded me of the Pyatt Street Market  my family used to visit on Friday afternoons back in Ohio. Hucksters yelled ”Fresh picked corn!  Apples bushel or basket!” and my father assured me if he didn’t pick the basketful one by one there would always a rotten or wormy apples at the bottom. And driving home we all might sing “I love you a bushel and a peck…”

Wandering the morning market I was drawn to the oily aroma of peppers roasting in fiery rotating bins. Brilliant cascabels, shiny poblanos, sweet yellows in bushels, spicy and sweet Italian. Vendors still stalking off the morning cold, shifting behind their counters. “There really was frost on the pumpkins Mam, these are the end of the tomatoes.”  From across the street I heard unmodulated screams.

Almost every other day for the last decade you could probably find me cheerfully working in Special Education.  I’m familiar  with the sound of screams. I can recognize when to bring assistance, when someone is being ignored, when there’s danger, even when to empathize with the mourning of a person who has already had too much school, and the afternoon seems so endless. But this scream I rarely hear passing classrooms, or being led by the hand though the door…this was pure joy, unadultered ecstasy, as if the Earth itself were speaking through these children. It’s a scream I’ve forgotten how to make.

Waiting at the crosswalk five families in the morning sunlight as gorgeous as the trembling Aspens. Three boys in wheelchairs flailed at the air embracing the morning, another girl was smiling almost painfully wide as her mother caressed the side of her swaying head. Here was a lesson long banished from school’s curriculum, that world is unimaginably beautiful and you can be moved through it in the genuine embrace of love. Then I got a cup of green tea and drove off.

Winding out of Los Alamos and down the mesa to Espanola, I was listening to a radio broadcast of an execution that took place in Georgia in 1992. It was one of those horrible events I wanted to turn off, but felt somehow bound to listen through to the conclusion, because in some kind of duty/guilt based rationale I needed to hear that horror on this particular day. But instead of cruelty, I was impressed with politeness, the unexpected tone of care between both the executioners and the victim. There was a mutual recognition that this death, in spite of the intimacy of their actual hands, was out of their hands, and their clear shared desire for these last moments to be a rare kindness exchanged.

Later there was a series of any last words (still delivered in lucidity before the recent policy of pre-execution valium)…requests for forgiveness, bitterness, curses, thanks, and as I’m driving through the ochre cloud of a pickup truck turning off the highway onto a dirt road, the voice of a man who is one moment away from having fifty thousand volts of electricity forced through his body. “If you’re living, I’m living with you; when I die, you die with me too.” We were drivingto lunch.

I’d corresponded with Dale, but hadn’t seen or spoken to her in the thirty years since we’d met in graduate school in Vermont. Gladys and Leslie I might meet every five years or so, at a writing conference party or a sporatic evening. We all shared a long protracted affection that time and distance seeed to have preserved instead of dissipated.

One of those homey aphorisms you hear people say on airplanes and at wedding receptions is you know you’re getting old when you arrive everyplace early…then I’ve been old for as long as I can remember. We had a two week old loose e-mail invitation to converge at Graham’s Resturant at 12:30. By 12:10 I had us on the list for an outside table and was grateful for the few moments to sit in the lounge and scribble a few details to recollect later. All of us had  been composing our own public and private fictions longer than thirty years with varying levels of success.  Each of us had drifted in and out of the events our own lives, as if that obsession to observe, the cost of that habitual drawing back came to no more than this, a chance to tell it all one perfect afternoon to wise and deeply sober friends who would break into smiles of recognition. Somehow I wanted us to believe that the time/space relavities contained  the collected hours of domestic misunderstandings and relentless revisions might even find kinship in this mountain luncheon.

Something not geographically unimaginable, like the first lunch following the arrival seventy years earlier when the scientists  of the Manhattan Project came to Los Alamos. How comforted those men must have been to sit in a dining room, and not be the only person waiting for a salad who had spent the day considering atomic theory at its most lonely human level.  Every embrace should be like those that ended my wait, sweet overflowing and sincere.

 The three hours we had allotted  to restore three decades escaped amid trout cakes, salmon, salads, artichokes and grilled fennel. Then lingering walks to cars. There’s always someplace else to be.

Leslie was already late delivering groceries and an inflatable bed. We walked Dale back to her casita, returning her to her month of retreat composing her novel. Gladys and I stretched another hour and a half of our delicious dessert of aimless walking and talking as if we had seen each other yesterday. Shadows told my fortune; I had three hours to race the darkness retracing my route through the mountain pass.

Driving through the dimming forest I glanced at an elk looking back at me and saw three deer dive into the dusk. In the distance as I turned down and down through the San Diego Canyon,  I felt guided by the faint glow of a strange, familiar fire atop Virgin Mesa, that’s above the village where I live part of my life.

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3 Responses to “…where I spend part of my life”

  1. vivian Says:

    You live a charmed life beautifully described.


  2. Dom,
    This is so beautifully written and damn, I wish I’d been there with Lesley and Dale and You. How to catch up on 30 years over lunch in beautiful Taos. Next time invite me!
    Your descriptions of landscape, of music, of wonder and friendship are wonderful. I hope you are gathering these into a book.


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