Holiday Art: Now Horse, Cut That Out!
(Okay, I tweaked ‘Art Saturday’ a bit, but I figured that given the current Zeitgeist, we could all use a li’l bit of an antidote to keep us from banging our heads against the wall, sinking into depression, or even worse alternatives. Hope it might make ya laugh a bit; we deserve it.)
After living four brief months in Truchas, New Mexico, and being involved in a few scuffles, including one involving being held at gunpoint, my husband and I decided to high-tail it back to Colorado where we’d stand a better chance of the lawmen being on our side, and our peers probably wouldn’t be packing, and assuredly not so lawless. Yep; we’d been cripplingly and cringeingly branded ‘love and peace doo-doos’ by Marla the stripper who came calling one day, along with some of her cohorts. We’d all introduced ourselves, and related mini-bios, which was probably the reason they’d shown up at our door: curiosity about the New Anglos in town. We’d been relating some of our scary experiences with the law and some ex-cons, trying to figure out if these experiences were the norm here. Marla said, “Thing is, around here ya need to carry a gun; and when ya pull it out, ya don’t hesitate to pull the trigger.”
She mimed pulling it out of a holster at her side, and with a liquid, smooth movement aimed it at me, and pulled the trigger. “Pow,” she said; “See? No hesitation.” She repeated the move, and the “Pow”. As I stared at her lips, my own unconsciously mirrored their movement with a silent pow.
Oh yeah, I saw, and I didn’t want any part of it; she’d nailed it: we were chickenshits, and didn’t relish guns or outlaws or junkies like Marla and company, or being at the bottom of the town’s Spanish Land Grant social order just by dint of being Anglo Intruders. That a dude they called One-eyed John had wandered out of the bathroom earlier and had obviously just hit up some junk…didn’t inspire much confidence in the local anglo surviving class, either.
Truchas, by the way, was where John Nichols’ The Milagro Bean Field Wars was filmed. It’s perched high up along the High Road to Taos against the Sangre de Christos, and the geography is incomparable, with sky vistas over the valley below that could stop your breath. Watching storms roll in at sunset was a treat.
Anyway, I digress, and we need to keep on moving here. We loaded our ’56 Ford pickup with all our earthly belongings and rolled back on north to Colorado, discovered a funny little town ‘between Mesa Verde and the Mountains’ we liked, and scoped out things with an eye toward settling.
We found a farm/ranch job in a dry canyon in the southwest corner of the state. A dried-out little frame house went with the job which paid a hundred and twenty-five dollars a month, and all the dirt you could garden. It had most often been used for ranch hands, and was in deplorable shape. I scrubbed and cleaned and washed upholstery, re-plastered some walls, and replaced wood trim that the previous tenants had used for firewood. (Yeah; I know.)
The neighbors in the lower canyon liked getting together for potlucks once in awhile and the ranch owners we worked for, Lloyd and Irene, included us. At one such we met a curious couple. He looked like a heavier Richard Nixon, if Nixon had worn a cowboy hat for decades, and had the resulting two-tone forehead and permanent dent from the tight fit that kept it from blowing off. He sported some incredibly bowed legs, probably from being horseback so often, and the stiff, disjointed way he walked spoke of unhealed injuries. He’d been a cop, and his down-turned mouth made you figure he’d been a mean one.
It turned out that he’d been a County sheriff up in Routt County, not far from where we’d been living before we’d landed in Truchas. His wife had been the matron at the jail: Kindred Spirits of the Law Enforcement Kind.
She had metal-grey hair twisted into a tight bun, with a few finger-waves near her temples held in place by bobby pins. Her jaw jutted with aggression that was impossible to disguise, her tiny eyes stayed narrowed, as did her husband’s. Both seemed to be constantly watching, but as it seemed hard for them to turn their heads, two sets of eyes darted and shifted around …calculating, it seemed. Their mouths were tight, and their lips were thin, as though they sucked on crabapples a lot. They both wore western shirts tucked into pants: jeans for him, poly trousers for her. The large turquoise and silver belt buckles they wore seemed to be more statement than decoration, but Lord knows what theirs were saying. In the west big buckles, especially, can almost take the place of bumper stickers.
When they discovered we’d been living up north in Hahn’s Peak, it was easy to see their brains sizing us up: hippies; Ah; we know what hippies do. Yep; you probably do. And in the seventies, pot was still a big deal; you really didn’t want to get busted, especially in a backwater like this.
Irene the boss-lady took me to their place a few times to pick veggies or fruit for canning; people in the neighborhood swapped their extra produce, and helped each other out here and there as good neighbors should. The Orc-ishes (not their name, but close enough to Tolkien’s malevolent hordes to transpose a little) had a dog. He was a giant Airedale, a handsome fellow, all wiry with reddish brown curls, and when I first saw him standing on the porch, I reached out a hand toward him, and spoke. He just about wagged his whole butt off at my greeting, then Zzzzap! He cowered. Wha-at? Mrs. Orc announced that he was a Guard Dog, not a pet, and there wouldn’t be any glad-handing with him. She explained that she had just zapped him with the remote control that juiced the electric collar around his neck; when the poor thing greeted a stranger, he was electrocuted by a canine Taser. Christ; the poor thing; being shocked into meanness.
Once the old cow had asked me what I thought of inter-racial marriage, but didn’t pause for an answer, thank God. “I think it’s like mating a thoroughbred to a Shetland pony.” I didn’t ask which race would be which; better not to fool around, I figured. But it became even clearer what sort of people these were: the kind requiring a wide berth!
We chose at first to find their interest in us amusing, but when we started seeing them parked on the road above our orchard house watching us with binoculars, we got a wee bit edgy. We began to notice that whenever we had guests, we’d find them lurking and spying, probably recording license plates, and having their cop friends run them. They weren’t cops now, but were on the local Sheriff’s posse, so they could make some trouble for us if they wished. Couldn’t they find a different hobby?
It had become clear to us that one major standard for our acceptance into the community had to do with Work; could we work hard enough, long enough, and well enough to be admitted to a culture so utterly defined by work? Luckily we both loved to work; we thought it would keep us young, and neglected to grasp in how many ways too much hard work could also break you down over time. But these were heady days, the glorious days when we could work extra-long and extra-hard, and see what our work had produced.
I wasn’t an official hireling to our bosses, more of an accidental indentured servant. It would, no doubt, amaze you how far I allowed myself to be conned into extra, but free, projects. Irene might call up and say, “You’ll want to set my hair in rollers if I come down, yes?” Well, okay; I’ll try that. Or, “You’ll be picking up bales with us this week, yes?” Well, sure. I drew the line here and there; “You’ll want to take some dinner to Steve this week since he’s over disking on Slim’s Hill, yes?” Er…no; I think not.
So we bucked bales, and winnowed wheat, whatever the hell was going, and whenever I wasn’t substitute teaching in town or gardening. And seeing those fresh bales glistening in the barn, for instance, was a pretty good feeling, though haying was really itchy work, come to think of it. Hay bits in your drawers, down your bra…and you really can’t stick your hand down your knickers or wherever, in front of a haying crew, you know?
Anyway, by and by, Lloyd and Irene figured we were Okay. Okay enough that one night they stopped by for one of their frequent visits to have some tea and for Lloyd to tell some more stories about their dust-bowl days in Kansas before they’d come to this valley. God, that old man loved to laugh; he’d wheeze and laugh so hard the tears would stream down his face, and he’d have to get out his big red bandana and wipe them off.
“That Bill Orc-ish,” he began this night, “he bet me twenty dollars awhile back that he’d be able to find some marijuana in the glove box of your truck.” And he laughed, Irene laughed, we all laughed. Fun-nee. But we now knew for certain why we were the current favorite hobby of those continual cops. Though they did actually have a lesser hobby; one of those machines, a rock tumbler, I guess it’s called, with a cylinder you’d fill with rocks, then plug it in, and the rocks would roll and clatter until they were polished. But just fancy that some people could listen to those rocks clattering against that metal drum for hours and days and weeks! Some hobby. That infernal racket was probably another reason they were so messed up.
One fine day we got a VW van full of visitors from New Orleans. Now, they would have driven right past the Orc-ish’s house in their decorated van, peacock feathers and strings of Mardi Gras beads hanging here and there, some peace signs and other dead giveaways; oh, they were a colorful lot! Freaks with long hair, guitar cases and probably a trail of reefer smoke behind them. (Well, make that for sure a trail of reefer smoke…)
I don’t recall how many visitors there were. We’d known one couple in Hahn’s Peak, Colorado. A whole pile of us had ended up living there in what was really a summer recreation town at the edge of Steamboat Lake. The cabins weren’t insulated, all had outhouses, cold-running water, and most of the cabins had Crap Wood Stoves, not meant for stoking all night. We were the first idiots to ever winter there; about twenty-five of us, and it sometimes seemed like about thirty dogs. The winters were hard, always a string of forty-below nights, and feet and feet of snow. Sometimes the only way to get in and out of the village from the main road was on cross-country skis. We helped each other out in the ways that hard living can encourage. I loved a lot of them, but after that winter I didn’t want to see another peer for a long, long time: give me some old folks, and some little kids to get to know, and easy on the dogs, please.
So we visited, and told tales, and caught up on news; we ate, and drank beer, and smoked some weed. Long after nightfall, lights came up the make-shift driveway.
Soon we could make out the Orc-ish’s truck, some gargantuan white thing with dual wheels grinding toward us. Yikes.
I alerted our guests about the kind of folks about to enter, and suggested they may want to stay put in the little living room until we could get rid of them, and maybe air the place out a little. Yeah, I know; as good hippies we were taught to remember that any guest at the door might be the Buddha, and treat them accordingly. But I was pretty sure these two weren’t the Buddha.
It seemed these clever foxes, long steeped in investigative technique, figured they needed a clever ruse to get invited in. One of them held a giant pressure canner. “We canned meat today, and thought you might be able to use the leftover broth.”
(Well, sure; some scurvy left-over broth would be just the ticket, thanks.) I granted that I could find a use for it (put it out for the stray cats, maybe) and thanked them. We stood; we never offered them a chair, hint-hint…but they stayed, leaning against the hideous red and yellow Formica counters with their arms crossed over their chests.
By and by, I slipped back to the living room. One guest, Basel, was having a problem. He really needed to pee. And the problem was this: the only bathroom was actually an outhouse out back of the house. The other problem was that he really didn’t want to meet the Orc-ishes. Hmmm; what to do?
“Oh, shoot, come on out through the kitchen,” I said. The front door (well, the only door, really) was there. The others had a brainstorm: he could go out through the window! We went over to the little double-hung window. Curses! I had built a little window box for flowers outside below it, and painted it with little flowers to, you know, make the shabby little place look a bit more Tyrolean, or something. By then we were laughing so hard while trying not that we leaked tears; there was nothing for it except for Basel to come through the kitchen.
Now he had thick, dark brown hair waist-length hair, a tender pink mouth with full lips, and bushy Italian eyebrows, an earring, and a great slow, drawl. It may be because of their lives lived in the heat and humidity, but some Southerners seem to play at thirty-three RPMs while the Northerners play at forty-five; did you ever notice? That was Basel.
He sauntered into the kitchen with me, met the not-the-Buddhas, grabbed a flashlight, and high-tailed it to the outhouse. Bill sneered, Catherine winced, (maybe it was Basel’s patchouli scent, it made me wince a bit, myself) but mission accomplished I guess, and they left. They had scored a sighting of the dreaded Lou’siana Long-haired Hippie.
No sheriffs came that night, or in the days that followed. How grand. I’d dispatched the broth, washed the canner, and returned it.
One day several weeks later, I heard a horse clip-clopping up the dried adobe and gravel of the drive. I looked out, and there was Mrs. Orc and her horse riding in. Rats. She rode up to the house, swung out of the saddle, and I went out onto the board-and-bat stoop.
We said our howdys; I forget which fake errand she was on this time. She held the reins of a fantastic buckskin horse, caramel-colored with a black mane and tail. Her tack was fine, conchos here and there, and a fancy breast collar with leather rosettes and conchos and ties. I didn’t dare approach; he might have been trained as an Attack Horse, how the hell did I know? But my eyes were glued to his beauty. Catherine must have talked, but I can’t remember a thing about it now; I just wanted her gone. She gave me the willies, frankly.
And suddenly Mr. Gorgeous Buck whickered, and began to paw the ground, scrape…scrape. I looked down at the ground to where he was pawing. Oh. My. God.
Just off the little stoop, right at his hoof, was a six-inch pot plant, brazen and green as all giddy-up. Wo-jeez.
Look up, I told myself. Don’t look down again…poker face, now…act natural…don’t look down…she’ll look… smile…talk…breathe…don’t look down…Bad horse; cut that out! I prayed in that way quasi-agnostics do: Oh God…please, please, please…No deals, just outright begging, trying to stave off panic.
My ears were roaring like that ocean-sound you hear inside conch shells; I don’t know how I finished that conversation. The horse quit scrape, scraping. Hell, maybe she’d taught him to count, like Trigger. And he’d gotten to ‘ten.’ But she never looked down. Believe me; she would have recognized that little seven-leafed beauty in a heartbeat.
After a couple of minutes she wheeled the horse around, got on his back, and the two walked down the driveway, clip, clop. Clip, clop.
Once they were out of sight, I pulled that little pot plant up, shredded it, and tossed the bits into the breeze. What a shame; that little volunteer plant was so sturdy and thick, though how it got there and ever found enough moisture to grow remains a mystery. So does the fact that we’d never noticed it was there.
Every now and then over the years I’ve relived that last scene in slow-motion, or pictured it as a still photograph. And although I’ll find myself slowly turning my head from side to side, at least I can laugh, now. And as Lloyd would have said, “Good God all Friday!” And oh—by the way: thank you, God.
(cross-posted at Cafe-Babylon.net)