Wednesday, February 15, 2006

A Loss for Words Pts. 17 & 18

(CONTINUED) Seventeen

After Julie left I checked my phone messages. Ruben had called three times. I decided to listen to the most recent voicemail. He sounded exhausted, exasperated, and scared. “Tom, it’s me. I don’t know where you are or what’s happened, but please get in touch, man. The cops have been here and they asked lots of questions. They’re looking for you. I suppose you know that Anne is dead and so is that guy she was seeing. I didn’t tell the police anything, because even I don’t know if you’re alive or dead.” There was a long pause and I thought he’d hung up, but then he said, almost at a whisper, “Jesus, Tom, what happened?”

I thought for a moment and then set my phone to record a new outgoing message. After the tone, I said, “Ruben, I’m okay. I didn’t kill Anne and I hope you know that.” It was hard to go on and I had to stop for a moment. Then I made myself say, “I did kill him and I’m not sorry.” I could feel the tears in my eyes. “He took Anne and our baby. It was him.” I wiped my eyes and took a breath. “I just had to leave. I can’t face what’s happened. I’m sorry. I hope…” There was a beep and the recording cut off; I was out of time.

I went to my car and sorted through the clothes I’d left inside. Almost everything was filthy. Given my circumstances it was ridiculous, but I drove to a rundown Laundromat off the highway and did laundry. I read old magazines and stared at an ancient television while the washers and driers gurgled and spun. Dr. Phil was on the Oprah Winfrey show talking with three couples. The show was titled, “How to rescue a troubled marriage.” I couldn’t believe it. The picture rolled and popped and went green, then turned to static. Just when I thought the old set had finally, mercifully given up the ghost, Dr. Phil suddenly popped back onto the screen in full Technicolor. I sat there for many long minutes waiting vainly for the static’s return. Then my arms started to itch and I quickly got up off the filthy couch I’d been sitting on and scratched for a bit. It all felt so mundane and surreal that I could hardly believe it. When the dryer was finished I folded everything neatly, but I didn’t have a suitcase so I put it all in a plastic garbage bag.

Outside three kids were looking at my car but they backed off when they saw me approach. I threw my bag in the car and looked for the kids but they were gone so I walked up the street a bit to a bar I’d seen. A worn-out blonde with bad skin and black teeth was standing by the door as I went inside. She said, “Hello,” and I nodded in return. Inside it was dark and smokey and stale, like any other similar place in any town you’d care to name. I sat down and ordered a beer and looked around. There were five men in the bar and two women. Four of the men were alone and one of the women. There was one couple, but they weren’t talking. The jukebox was off and, aside from the soft clink of glasses and bottles, the only other sound came from a television above the bar. I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was tuned to Oprah. Thankfully, the volume was very low and it was impossible to make out the words. There was nothing else to see in the place, so my attention turned to my thoughts and then to my beer and then to another beer. The blonde from outside came inside and sat down next to me. She asked me if I wanted a date and I saw the bartender look at me out of the corner of his eye. I couldn’t tell if he wanted me to say yes or no. I told the girl that I was okay and she kind of slumped over and stared at the scoured bar top, her head in her hands. I slowly finished my beer and then asked the girl, who by then hadn’t moved in five minutes, if she wanted a bottle too. She looked up and said, “Yeah, thanks.” The bartender brought over our drinks and we drank in silence. The girl finished first and stood up. “Thanks again,” she said. “See ya ‘round.” A bright rectangle of sunlight fell across the filthy floor as she stepped outside. Then the door closed and the light was swallowed up.

I had one more beer and, while I wasn’t drunk, I’d taken the edge off things. I was going to need some more clothes, so I went to a department store and bought a few items. I also picked up a cheap suitcase, some toiletries, and a few notepads and pens. I didn’t know how I was going to convince Julie that I was doing any serious writing without a laptop or even a typewriter. I’d have to tell her that I found it easiest to get my words down the old-fashioned way; by hand.

I went back downtown and stopped at a French pastry shop. The girl at the counter spoke to me with a thick accent and I had difficulty understanding her. I felt a little sick to my stomach and I hoped the bread would help. I read the paper. I watched the customers. I counted the tiles on the floor. I tried not to think about anything specific. I was getting better at it. Then I walked around the plaza and listened to the conversations, picking out the tourists and trying to guess where they were from. As a young writer I’d done this kind of thing all the time. Observing. I’d believed that I needed to take in lots of information so that it could be processed and converted to stories. I hadn’t known then that real stories come from within, that they have nothing to do with the world outside or the lives of strangers. I may not have even known that until three days ago and now that I did know it I believed it was too late to do anything with the information.

At ten minutes to five I started walking toward Canyon Road. Julie hadn’t called and I hoped that didn’t mean I’d need to find a place to sleep that night.


I found the Golden Horse easily enough. A swank, upscale gallery, it fit right in with its neighbors. A man in a double-breasted suit walked quickly up the street, a wrapped painting tucked under his arm, a gift for his wife or mistress or ego. A woman stepped out of the gallery across the street holding a bronze cast of three horses. I wouldn’t have doubted that it cost five figures. I just hoped I’d have a couch to sleep on for the night.

I walked into the Golden Horse and had a look. The art was a mix of southwestern-themed tourist-bait--pictures of cactuses and turquoise jewelry--and well-done oil and watercolor paintings of just about anything else. There was a strange incongruity that I’d noticed before in the Canyon Road galleries; overpriced trinkets side-by-side with museum-quality work. There seemed to be no middle ground. I looked for a time at a painting of a girl sitting at a cafĂ© table, an empty chair across from her, her anxious face lit from a single candle on the table. The picture was titled, “Stood Up,” and it was very good. It was also $9500. A grey-haired woman of about 65 came over to me. She was wearing a turquoise and silver necklace and smelled of rose water.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it,” she said.

“Yes, it’s quite good,” I replied.

After a few moments she continued: “We do offer layaway, if you’d like.”

I laughed. “I’m going to need more than layaway.”

She smiled, somewhat disapprovingly, it seemed, and I told her I’d just stopped in to meet Julie McGregor.

“Oh!” she exclaimed. “Then you must be the fellow that’s looking for a room.”

“Yes,” I said. “I am.”

“You know, I might have just the thing for you. It’s not much, but it’s got a bed and dresser and I won’t ask much for it.”

“That sounds perfect.” At least one problem was solved.

“Good. Let me find Julie.”

The woman went up a flight of stairs and I looked at a few more paintings. As they came down the stairs, I heard the woman tell Julie, “He can move in tonight if he’d like. It would be nice to have someone around the place again.”

I walked across the room to meet them and Julie said, “Hello, Tom. I see you’ve met Mary.”

“Yes, we’ve met. Although we skipped names and went straight to business.” I offered the woman my hand and said, “Tom Gould.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Mary Ann Carter—just call me Mary. Julie says you’re a writer.”

“Yeah, as much as writing can be said to be a profession.”

Mary asked me if I’d written anything she might know and I rattled off a few titles. She hadn’t heard of any of them but said she’d see if the library had anything available. I really hoped she wouldn’t because I knew they would. She asked me how long I planned on staying and I told her that I wasn’t sure. That was the truth. Then I told her that it all depended on how the story I was working on went. I thought that might be a lie, but looked at another way it could’ve just as easily been the truth.

We left the gallery and Julie locked up. Mary said that I could follow her to her place and told Julie she could ride with me. I saw Mary wink at Julie but I pretended I didn’t notice. Julie and I walked to the Jag and got inside.

“She seems like a nice lady,” I said.

“Yeah, she’s a sweetheart. Her husband died 6 months ago and she inherited the gallery. Well, she’d worked there for years, but Dane—that was her husband—he’d always done the books. Now I do the books.”

“How are things?” I asked.

“Oh, pretty good. It’s pretty hard to have an unsuccessful art gallery in Santa Fe. But it’s expensive to continually be bringing new work in.”

We drove up Canyon Road for a bit and turned a few times and pulled up in front of a large, adobe house with an exquisitely manicured lawn and a collection of life-size statuary out front. I hadn’t expected this.

“Here it is,” said Mary, as we got out of the car. I looked at the houses nearby and was glad I didn’t have Ruben’s truck anymore. The Jag, on the other hand, fit right in. Julie and I followed Mary into the house.

Just inside the front door was a tile entryway. To the left was a living room with a piano in it and to the right was a long hallway. The walls were filled with painting and photographs and several shelves held a variety of figures and carvings. A massive bookcase stood against one wall of the living room. Mary noticed me looking at it and said, “Go ahead. Have a look. See if you approve.”

I slipped out of my shoes—Mary didn’t tell me to leave them on—and walked over to the book case. James Joyce. Dostoyevksy. Dante. Victor Hugo. The classics. “Mary,” I said. “You wouldn’t happen to be in Julie’s book club, would you?” Julie and Mary both laughed but neither of them said anything.

Julie said she had to run a few errands and I told her I’d give her a ride back down to the plaza. Mary said she’d start cooking supper for us, if I was hungry. I couldn’t bring myself to say no, so I told her not to make anything special and to start running a tab for me.

On the way down Julie told me that Mary was really looking forward to having some company. She warned me that Mary might want to talk about literature and films and art and that if it got to be too much and interfered with my work I could just say so. I told Julie that I didn’t think it would be a problem. As she got out of the car she said, “You know, I don’t really know much about you.”

“That’s true, but I don’t know much about you, either.”

“Should we fix that?” she asked.

“I would like that,” I said, though the thought honestly frightened me.

“Can you be at the gallery at 5 again tomorrow?”

“I’ll be there.”

I drove back up to Mary’s and could smell chiles as soon as I opened the door.

“I hope you like New Mexican food,” she called, as I came inside, carrying my cheap suitcase.

I put the suitcase on the floor; I hadn’t actually been shown my room yet. I went into the kitchen and sat on a stool. Mary asked me if I wanted a beer but I told her I just wanted a tall glass of water. I sat and watched Mary cook and neither of us said much. I felt safe for the first time in what seemed a very long while. I knew it wouldn’t last. (CONTINUED)

The top photo was taken in Clayton, NM one dark and balmy fall evening. The middle shot is the remains of the Cactus Cafe, Springer, NM. The last shot is Taos Pueblo, NM.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like the two chapters at a time, more at once is good.