Small Repairs

Once again I have said goodbye to my mother. She lives in New Mexico and each November I travel from California to visit her. Last year she broke her hip, and so I was there twice.

Each time I visit my mother someone accompanies me, a sister or my partner, though once I did go alone and it wasn’t easy driving across the desert wondering what might happen to me if the car broke down. About forty-five minutes from my destination I had to take a comfort break, and reluctantly I pulled into the only rest area on that desolate route. I had not seen another soul for many miles, and you can imagine my unease when another car pulled up right behind me—a man of course. Men can relieve themselves pretty much anywhere, so naturally I was suspicious. I deliberated behind the wheel a moment but my need was too urgent, and as I hurried into the building I imagined him right behind me. My last five minutes on earth, that’s what I was thinking. No one would ever know what had happened to me. I’d wind up in his trunk, or out there somewhere, my lifeless body withering behind a clump of sagebrush. False alarm. I passed him on the way back to my car and he didn’t even look at me.

Getting to Carlsbad is never easy, requiring two plane trips and a long drive. Other than the famous caverns, this hot dusty place has little to recommend it. Still, my mother likes the town, and my sisters and I no longer encourage her to move to a more accessible area; I wouldn’t want to be pestered either. And I understand the comfort she must feel living in a town she knows and trusts. Our senses dim as we age, and this inability to perceive things as clearly as we used to can make the world a threatening place.  Familiarity is invaluable.

Much is accomplished on these yearly visits. One of us takes my mother’s car in for servicing and stocks up on supplies, while another tackles the household chores and yardwork. My mother has limited mobility and can no longer manage tasks that involve strength or dexterity. She should not in fact be living alone, which is something we don’t discuss because we all know the difficulties involved in a transition. For one thing, she is not wealthy; the sort of the retirement home she could afford is the sort we wouldn’t want to see her in. Nor does she wish to live among others. She is a lone wolf and has managed so long on her own that cohabitation would likely finish her off.

So we do with her what we can. We buy easy-reach tools, install grab bars, replace the nonskid stickers in her shower. We change the ink in her printer and order foam mattress pads to ease her aching shoulders. We clean her bathroom floors, hem her pants, bandage whatever wounds she’s acquired. And we try to do these things tactfully, to make light of them. To spare her.

At the end of each day we watch some TV, play card games, share stories (carefully avoiding politics and social issues; a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, my mother can’t fathom our liberal views.) Struggling for common ground, we retrieve mismatched memories and laugh over many of them before falling into silence. Time is running low and we can’t think what to say. If our feelings are hurt by some offhand remark, we don’t let on. Intent on minimizing damage, we skirt any trouble and keep an eye on the clock.

At the front door we say goodbye and this is the moment when my mother seems to shrink. I look back and see a tiny bent-over woman gripping the doorknob, lifting the other hand to wave. She is scared and relieved at once, sad that we are leaving and eager to reclaim her solitude. And so are we. Flying home, we will think of questions we meant to ask, things we should have done. There is more to do here, there is always more to do, but for now she is okay. We will also wonder if we have just seen her for the last time, but this thought is too painful and we push it away. As many times as it returns, we push it away.

My mother can be harsh, no question about that. I am a dutiful daughter, I’ve been told, for making this trip each year. I don’t see it that way. I feel no moral obligation to visit my mother. I go there because she is a frail woman whose life has not been easy and it makes me feel better to help her. She should be living in more sensible housing, with a walk-in tub and nonslip floors and no stairs, but she is not. She is where she wants to be. What is there to do but pick up our tools and make the best of it? Ongoing, seemingly futile, what matters more than these small repairs?

For Audrey

One of our customers died last week. I didn’t know her well. I just knew that I liked her, that I wanted to see more of her, that I wish I could have told her what she gave us.

Audrey was her name. Tall, generously proportioned, she always came into the store smiling. Because of this, everyone wanted to assist her, to be part of this easy joy. We would ask her what she needed, and she would invite us to help her choose, would listen closely to our recommendations and defer to our knowledge of the plants and products we sell. Audrey never objected to our prices, higher of course than the box stores, evidently understanding that independent nurseries are struggling to survive. Each time she came in she told us how nice the stock looked, and she thanked us for the time we spent with her. How she loved flowers!

She was not elderly; her death was sudden and wrong. I am still recovering from it, trying to understand my feelings so that I may move on. Not that I expect to make any sense of her death. We live in a wild world of chance, and asking: why, why her, is a pointless pursuit. People die too soon all the time. What does bring me comfort is the certainty that she was happy: people mired in suffering don’t offer themselves so freely. Audrey’s was a spill-over joy, something she couldn’t help, something that rose from a private, boundless well.

Can I dig such a well for myself? Now there’s a question worth asking. Certainly we are born predisposed to certain behaviors. Joan Didion wrote that some people (especially writers) are “anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.” I do believe that many of us are glass-half-empty people, and we must work harder at finding the things that bring us cheer.

Working in retail has given me ample opportunity to study the various ways people engage with the world. Some are meek, some are nervous; some are resentful, others punitive. I recall a woman who stunned me with her rancor. I had rung up her purchase and carried her plants to her car. As she was starting to drive off I wished her a good day, and she stopped short and glared at me. “What do you care? You don’t know me. You shouldn’t say things like that to people you don’t know. It’s phony. It’s meaningless.”

I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. My heart was beating in my ears. I did the oddest thing then: I waved good-bye, helplessly—a gesture that probably irked her even more.

As I walked back into the store, my shock gave way to indignation. I probably should have let it go—I couldn’t. All the rest of that afternoon, I fumed over this meanness, this assault. I wondered how much wreckage, in just one day, this woman left in her wake. I found her charge slip, noted her name and copied her address from the phone book. By the time I got home, I knew what I was going to do.

In the drawer of my desk I located a blank card with bluebirds and flowers on the front. Using a pretty font on the computer, I wrote a note, printed it out, then cut and pasted it into the card: “Some people, with their charm and warm smiles, make the world a better place. You are not one of them.” I typed her address and supplied no return identification.

Though this deed brought me ample satisfaction, it was not the end of the story. A year later she came back into the store, utterly changed. She was kind and complimentary, and when she signed her charge slip that day, she told me we had a nice staff. “If you can’t be nice,” she said, “then what good are you?” She looked up at me when she said this, but there was no malice in her eyes, and if she suspected that I was the card-sender, I saw she held no grudge. I carried her plants to her car and once again wished her a good day. “You too,” she said. She started to drive off, then stuck her head out the window. “Hey. I like your hair.”

I am a fretful sort, a woman too quick to retreat, a woman who doesn’t smile often enough. There is plenty in me to work with. Change is what life wants.

Though Audrey might have been born good-natured, she was a mortal like the rest of us and must have known pain and loss and fear. But what she put forward was her best self, the side of her that made us feel better.

This is for you, Audrey, with love and thanks.

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An excerpt from “The Side Bar”

I’ve always been fascinated by people who can endure the stark realities of desert life. Here is an excerpt from “The Side Bar,” one of the stories in my collection SURVIVAL SKILLS. Set in the Nevada desert, this story concerns a handful of characters who work in a hotel casino.

It’s not just the people here who have stories, it’s the land. In Elko County there’s a town that was built on a blizzard-whipped mountaintop where someone found gold in the 1860s. The elevation was 10,000 feet and nearly everything the townsfolk needed had to be hauled up the icy slopes—whiskey was cheaper than water.

Every month or so I drive to a ghost town I haven’t been to before. I’ve walked into listing, cobwebbed shacks, found tin cups and plates still on the tables. Today I’m in Rosamund, about two hours east of White Horse. There isn’t much left: stone foundations, a roofless drugstore, parts of the sagging saloon. Dealers and collectors have picked the place clean, but roughing up the dirt I find two unbroken bottles: “Hamlin’s Wizard Oil Liniment” and “SOS Vermin Killer.”

While April is usually a cool month in the high desert, the temperature today is over eighty, so I hike up a stony slope and eat lunch in the scant shade of a juniper. The sky is blue, the mountains brown, just two colors taking care of everything. There is no sound, no chirping birds, no babbling brooks, no car engines, just a huge silence to slip into. I could be the last person on earth.

I take a bite of my ham sandwich and ponder the crumbling square of a house where people once ate, slept, fought, made love, had children, got sick and died. Looking at the drugstore, I have no trouble envisioning the miners, dirty, coughing, walking in and out of the door. I conjure up an old yellow dog lying in the shade, a couple of prostitutes leaning up against the posts, laughter and piano music coming from the saloon. It doesn’t take much imagination to evoke those days. Nevada has more ghosts than living people and the land is strewn with what’s left of their dreams.

It’s dark by the time I got to the outskirts of White Horse and there’s a gorgeous pink line in the west, just above the black horizon. I stop the car and roll down the window, let the night air wash over my face. It smells of sage and silver, of mica and cold clean bone. Out there, all around me, are creatures I can’t see, small desperate animals darting over the rocks. What I can see are the neon lights of town and, even from this distance, the White Horse Casino sign: a tall smiling cowboy holding the ace of hearts.

The coyotes are howling. They do this almost every night, launch their plaintive chorus into the starry heavens. Are they joining forces, organizing a hunt?  Or do they just need to know they’re not alone?

Last month a chef in Reno pricked his thumb on a contaminated chicken bone and died ten days later. A friend of mine was struck and killed by a falling eucalyptus tree while she was jogging. Take all the precautions you want, staying alive is a stroke of luck.

I think that’s why I like the desert so much—all this terrifying space, this nothingness, and me just a dot in the middle of it.

Okay. Here I am. Come get me.

Sunset south of Boulder

 

 

A Frugal Life

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This is my air plant, specifically Tillandsia bulbosa, native to Belize and Guatemala. The twisted branches fascinate me, the way they seem to be searching the air for something, anything, to live on: rainwater, leaf debris, bird droppings, dust. These are not needy plants. Weeks of neglect will leach their color and turn them spongy, but after a long soak in a bowl of tap water, they are firm and strong again. They can even do without their tuft of roots, which only serve as an anchor. Everything they need is absorbed through the suction scales that line their branches. Day and night, these plants are ready, accepting whatever windfalls come their way. If drought occurs, they simply shrink and wait.

Spanish moss, another type of Tillandsia, doesn’t bother with roots. It just drapes itself over a limb and hangs there, resisting nothing. Rain washes the nutrients off the leaves of the tree, and the moss catches this nourishing rainwater in its tiny cupped scales. Like the canary in the coal mine, Spanish moss is so proficient at absorbing elements that analysis of local specimens can reveal the extent of metallic pollution.

Bulbosas bloom just once before dying, but as their rainbow flowers emerge, they send out “pups,” baby plants attached to the mother’s base. In a year’s time, these new plants have plants of their own, and so the clumps can grow large and luxurious, the living and the dying in perfect accord.

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Willing. Resourceful. Irrepressible. I’m learning a lot from this plant.