My radio worked sporadically. I had an old cassette player running on batteries and two tapes. Jane Oliver and Donna Summer. Such music was conducive to melancholy if not a sense of doom. My radio started working as soon as I got south of Las Vegas, and I took that as a good sign.
Ahead about a mile, I saw a highway patrolman spin a wild U-turn across the grass median strip. “Someone’s in trouble,” I thought, singing along to the radio across the open, dry country, my window down. I checked the mirror a little later, and there he was, cherry spinning, motioning me to the side of the road.
He came to my window.
“Hello, sweetheart. Do you have any idea how fast you were going?”
“No sir. My speedometer is broken.” My luck was good. In Colorado, that is something they can give you a ticket for; in New Mexico, it’s almost an excuse for speeding.
“You were going 82 miles per hour, honey.”
All I could think was, “Incredible! In this car? I was going that fast? I am a born mechanic.” I didn’t say that. All I said was, “Really?” The speed limit, of course, was 55.
“Yes, really. Let me see your license and registration.” He took my papers back to his car and made a call on the radio, all the while watching me.
“Do you know your license has expired?”
I knew, but knowledge is not always helpful. “Is it? How can that be? It expires on my birthday.”
“That’s right. Your birthday this year which was ten months ago.”
“Oh no. I thought it was my birthday coming up.”
“No, honey. It was your last birthday. I’m going to give you a warning. I ought to bring you into the Mora County Courthouse, but I’m not going to. I think you honestly didn’t know your license was expired. But listen here. I want you to go home, get a new driver’s license and get that speedometer fixed. If you do that, I’ll give you a twenty dollar fine. If you don’t send me proof that you did those things within sixty days, we’ll have to send you a summons, you’ll have to come back here and it’ll cost you a lot more.”
“Yessir. Thank you.”
“Drive careful, now. There’s no place so important that you have to drive so fast.”
I chugged along toward Albuquerque, but my good feeling, along with the radio, was gone. By the time I got to Pecos Pueblo, I wasn’t sure I was still alive. I thought maybe I was dead and driving on the Interstate Highway of Infinity. I had to get off the road. I knew that, so I took the exit to the pueblo ruins. I wanted to walk for a bit to clear my head.
The ruined church buildings were vivid red in the late afternoon light. It was depressing to think of the builders, long gone, gone with their crazy hopes of saving the souls of the Pecos Indians. Nothing remained but partial walls, pits, shards, all carefully tagged and identified with the latest anthropological conjectures. I went to the ladies room and looked at myself in the mirror. Who was I and what was I doing? I thought seriously of turning around.
It was nearly six when I finally got to Albuquerque. I parked where Charlie’s map had told me to, took a deep breath and walked to the door. I found a note. “Adrienne, if you come. I have gone to the store to buy something for supper. Go in and make yourself comfortable. Charlie.”
The door opened to a strange, stone room, a flagstone patio that had been enclosed. On the wall over the bed was a full-size poster of a Hong Kong movie star in a bra and bikini. I walked through the house, looking for the bathroom. I found it and washed my face and looked closely in the mirror to see if I were really there. Then I returned to the stone room. I didn’t know how Charlie lived. I didn’t know he rented a room in this house or which room was his. I had no idea where the common spaces were. I sat on a sofa and tried to read my book, but I didn’t like it, the stone room or the Hong Kong actress. I went to the kitchen which seemed neutral and safe. I leaned against the counter and tried again to read.
Finally, the door opened and Charlie walked in.
He had the most graceful walk of any man I had ever seen. His legs were strong, with large, muscular, calves. As he walked past me, his eyes met mine and looked at me deeply and long. I knew those eyes. I had one of those experiences where you feel that you’ve known someone before. I was thrilled — and terrified.
“I thought you weren’t coming.”
“I had a flat tire.”
“Did you get it fixed?”
“Yeah. I bought a new one.”
“What? You bought a new tire?”
“I had a flat.”
“How much did you pay for it?”
“Jesus! For a VW tire? That’s crazy. Why didn’t you go to a junk yard or get the old one fixed?”
“I didn’t think of it and I wanted to come here.”
“Wow.” Then he said, “When did this happen?”
“This morning. In Denver, when I was about to leave. That’s why I’m so late. I didn’t get out of Denver until ten o’clock.”
“I wondered. I didn’t think you were going to make it.”
The words “chicken out” hovered unsaid, but so obvious they were almost visible. “No, I came,” I admitted, feeling like an idiot.
“What are you reading?”
“This,” I showed him the book, Monsieur by Lawrence Durrell. “I don’t like it much. I liked the Alexandrian Quartet, but this? Not really.”
“Are you hungry?”
In my imagination, we were going to Old Town that night, but I didn’t say anything about it. I never suggested it, invited him, nothing.
“Let’s cook dinner.” He opened the sack which contained cheese and two cans of tuna. He handed me the cans and told me to open them, but I, who had never thought of getting my tired repaired rather than replacing it, didn’t know how to use his can opener. I suppose he thought I was some kind of pansy who had used only electric can openers, but that wasn’t the case. My can opener was even more primitive than his. “I don’t know how to use this,” I said.
“No. I never used one like this.”
“Here.” He showed me opening one can. “Now you do it.”
I did it and drained the oil from the tuna into the sink.
“What are you doing with all that good oil?” he screamed. “You’re wasting it!”
“You cook,” I said, and he did, winding up with a tuna casserole we ate with carrot sticks. Then, it was over. Everything had been prepared, cooked and eaten from one stainless steel pot. I loved it. No Cuisinart for this man; no fancy pasta machine. Just one pot, two knives, two spoons.
“That’s great,” I said.
“It’s all they use in Nepal, for everything. Cooking, eating, shopping. That’s what I learned there. You don’t need a lot of stuff. You shouldn’t have more stuff than you need because, one way or another, you just have to carry it around with you. The best thing is a thing you can use in a lot of different ways. So, this pot. I brought back two.” He washed it. “Come on. I have to do something. You can help.” We went into what had been planned as a dining room but was now a study. He sat down at the typewriter.
Next to the typewriter was a model of a molecule. I picked it up and said, “Benzene.”
“How did you know?”
“My husband — ex-husband — was a chemistry major.”
“You’re a writer,” he said, suddenly. “I’m trying to write my application for medical school. Maybe you can figure out a good way to say this.”
“OK.” It was the first time I’d heard that I was a writer. The idea was exciting.
“I need to explain why I want to be a doctor.”
“So why do you want to be a doctor? Maybe if you tell me, you can just write down what you say.”
“I don’t know. Inspiration? Inspiration, I guess.”
Inspiration. Wow. I was knocked hard. No one I knew used inspiration as a reason for anything. Reasons were money, success, prestige. Charlie had beautiful legs, a stainless steel pot and ordered his life according to inspiration. I was very, very frightened.
“What inspired you? Write that.”
“India. When I was in India, I saw so many sick, sick people. You can’t imagine. You want to see some pictures?” he got up from the table and went to his room, and I followed like a puppy. I felt like a puppy. I’d been taken in, fed, disciplined and now I wanted to stay.
“Here.” He handed me a big book filled with pictures. I was behind him, still looking all around me. On the wall was a photo of the Taj Majal. There was the dome, some minarets, a slight haze, a reflection; water in the foreground in which beautiful curves moved, curves like the necks of swans or a woman’s arm, everything your mind visualizes with the words, “Taj Mahal.” But, the curves were the necks of camels, not swans; the water was a lake, not the rectangular reflecting pool; the dome was not centered perfectly between the minarets, but stood to one side. The photograph did everything I believe art should do, force you to turn around and look beyond your expectations.
“I love this picture,” I said with solemn reverence.
“It’s mine,” said Charlie.
“You took it?”
“It took me a long time to get everything just right.”
So, now I had to imagine Charlie sitting on an unknown dusty hill in Agra waiting for things to get “just right” so he could take this picture, develop it, hang it on his wall in Albuquerque so that I, a person he didn’t even know, would see it. There was no longer any chance for coherent conversation between us. I sat down and put the book in my lap.
Faces came out of the pages, dirty children smiling in bright red clothes. Mud houses. I remembered a woman I’d known in college, a woman from Afghanistan, whose husband was studying architecture. “What do you build houses with in Afghanistan, Akbar?”
“Mud,” he had replied.
“You mean adobe or bricks?”
Here were mud houses and walls painted with huge, vivid eyes, stupas (for which I had no word at that time) with golden bells, prayer flags on strings waving in the wind, frozen in the pictures. “Is this Nepal?”
“No. That’s Ladakh. That’s where the Dalai Lama lives now since the Chinese threw him out of Tibet.”
“Were you there?”
“No. But that’s what Nepal looks like. You find scenes like that in Nepal. We did. You approach the mountain by hiking through all of these small villages. The children came out of the houses to get money. Nepal is beautiful, but terrible, too. Have you been to Mexico?”
“You know the bridge between Juarez and San Antonio?”
“Not really. I haven’t been there since I was five years old.”
“Well, anyway, Nepal is like that in places. Very poor. They are destroying their forests to get land to grow food. Here’s a Japanese book about the climb up Everest,” said Charlie. I opened it and looked at snow peaks. Since I had known Mark, I had unconsciously avoided the mountains; my one hike with Anne that July had been my first trip up into the mountains in three years.
“Listen,” said Charlie. “Are you hungry?”
“Uh, uh, no, but if you are…” I mumbled, not wanting to look up.
“Let’s go get something to eat.”
He had a motorcycle. We went out back, and he said we could take the bike. It was a big cycle, I don’t remember what kind. I had, fortunately, ridden a motorcycle before so it wasn’t another affair of the can opener. I got on, he started it, we were on our way.
“Do you like motorcycles?”
“Yeah, I do. I used to have a dirt bike.”
“A small Honda. My ex-father-in-law bought it for me. When I divorced his son, he took it back.”
“That’s mean,” said Charlie. Charlie was trying to help me to relax. I was so scared and so tense that even the least perceptive person would notice and Charlie was NOT the least perceptive person. A fast trip on a big cycle would give us lots of chances to touch, and touching would have helped, but I kept my hands in the back pockets of my jeans. We rode around Albuquerque, by Old Town and downtown, stopping in a small, unfinished, mall. His old girlfriend was an architect; maybe this was one of her projects? I think he still loved her then; I think it was she who broke it off, but I don’t know. Anyway, we drove past her house, then down a busy street filled with low-riders and neon lights.
He stopped at a hot-dog stand and got a hot-dog, which he ate, telling me about filmmaking school in San Francisco and a three minute film he’d made about The Doggie Diner, hot-dogs and dachshunds. Then we went back. We sat in the living room in the dark and talked. Charlie tried to “draw me out.” “Do you climb?” he asked.
“I did in high school,” I answered. “Free climbing.”
“Didn’t you like it? Why did you stop?”
“I loved it. Most of my friends were climbers. I never got into the technical bit, though. I never did a big climb. I have problems telling my right from left and I was afraid of the knots I would tie. I just climbed around on the rocks in The Garden of the Gods, some rocks in Eldorado Canyon, places like that. Some of my friends did a lot. One of them lost his toes on some mountain, I don’t know where, California? It didn’t seem worth it to me.”
“I thought you loved mountains.”
“I love mountains, but it seems like a long time since I’ve been in them.”
I didn’t want to tell him what I thought the reason was. There was something luminous about Charlie and I didn’t want to throw shadows on the moment by revealing anything about my life with Mark, or the suddenly stupid, vapid, supposedly sophisticated evenings I spent with my “successful” attorney friends. Charlie was touching something I’d been about to leave behind.
“I guess I haven’t had time. I just finished my thesis, you know. And I work full time. What about you? How do you feel when you’re up there?”
“You know, I was reading, here, look at this,” he handed me a magazine, but it was too dark in the room to read. “Well, anyway, these guys are hang-gliding. Imagine that, imagine putting these wings on, walking to the edge of a cliff, then — bam! — stepping off, trusting the wind and the wings to carry you. What that must take!”
I had been reading a lot of Hemingway. The question of courage in his books seemed to point not so much at the kind of courage it takes to step off a cliff, but the kind of courage it takes to live what Thoreau termed “a life of quiet desperation.” For all of his wars and bullfights, Hemingway spoke of heroism in the modern, urban world; maintaining your soul and integrity — and life! — when life offers no real adventures for sustaining courage. Charlie had another courage in mind; something that had to do with death. I didn’t have anything to say because, at that moment, I recognized my own position. I was on the edge of a cliff and I didn’t know if I had wings.
“You’re probably tired,” he said, standing. When he came back, he had his sleeping bag and pad. He rolled them out on the living room carpet. “You can have my bed.”
I followed him into his room. He was carrying a small tin can in his hand. Placing it on the table next to his bed, he said, “This is for you.” It was a peanut butter can from India, “Prutina Peanut Butter.” On the side was a face of a blonde girl in pigtails who looked like she came off a wrapper for Swiss chocolate. It was a present for me. I imagined it being in his bag on his climb.
“Let’s go to the balloon festival tomorrow morning,” he said. “I went today. There was a mass ascension. You can’t believe how beautiful it is when eight hundred balloons take off together. We have to get there before sunrise.”
“That sounds great,” I said.
“I have a lot to dream about. All the pictures.”
“Yes. A lot of new visions.”
Charlie’s words struck me. I have always understood things as images, visions, contours. The images in my mind that night were not entirely new.
“Goodnight,” I said.
“If you get cold, pull that sleeping bag up over you.”
“OK. Goodnight.” I lay on the bed a long time, trying to relax.
Suddenly, I remembered what made the images from the books familiar. When I was a child, I never missed Lowell Thomas Presents. It was on Wednesday nights at 7:30, at the same time as my little brother’s Little League games. I loved baseball, and I practiced with his team, but I wouldn’t miss Lowell Thomas for anything. Strangely enough, although we never had a color television set, my memories of those travelogues are in color. In color Lowell Thomas chased down the Dalai Lama; he visited the dye pots of Timbuktu; he climbed the High Atlas Mountains. I drifted to sleep, Charlie’s pictures and Lowell Thomas’ trips melting together in my brain. Still, it didn’t account for the frightening sense of recognition I felt when Charlie’s eyes met mine in the kitchen.
It got cold in the night. October in New Mexico — maybe warm days, but the nights are cold. I was awake early because of the cold, but not awake enough to cover myself better. At 5:30 Charlie knocked on the door. “Come on if we’re going to eat breakfast and make it in time.”
“I’m awake.” I got up. I was even more tired than the day before, but I was determined to be less catatonic and stupid.
“Hi. Do you like yoghurt?”
“I got this thing for Christmas.” He pointed toward a yoghurt machine. “Here, try it. It’s good. How about sprouted wheat? Can you eat that?”
I was thinking, “Health food?” but I said, “Why not?”
“My mother can’t. She can’t seem to digest it. I made bread yesterday. Do you like honey?”
“Sure.” He poured honey over my yoghurt and on my bread. The bread was tough and chewy, dense like a brick. “That’s my dad’s honey,” said Charlie. “He keeps bees.”
My resolution to be articulate vanished. Homemade, sprouted wheat bread, homegrown honey and yoghurt. I thought of my usual — Carnation Instant Breakfast and espresso. Charlie appeared with dental floss. He flossed comfortably, happily, talking. I had quit flossing when my first husband told me it wasn’t appealing. Every small, everyday thing this man did pushed me further into my pit of silence. We got on the motorcycle and went to the fairgrounds were the balloons were firing up. I managed the ride to the fairgrounds without touching him.
Truly it might be the most beautiful sight in the world, 800 balloons in dazzling colors, expanding in the early morning sunshine, then taking off steadily higher with the sun until all the balloons and the sun are well above the Earth. The balloons drifted silently toward the mountains. Near eleven, Charlie said, “Let’s go. I have work to do today.”
We went back to his place. Once there, I actually opened my mouth and invited him for dinner that night.
“I didn’t know you could stay so long,” he said. “I have plans to go to a volleyball tournament tonight. We only have a few tickets, or I’d ask you to come along. But you can stay if you want. I’ll be back around eleven.”
I should have felt rejected or brushed off, but I felt relieved. I was off the hook. It wasn’t just images of children’s dirty faces, snow peaks and the Taj Majal. Other things had happened and were clamoring to be thought about. I knew at that moment that I wanted to go home. I wanted to go home and write stories. I realized it was all I had ever wanted to do. Succeed, fail, whatever the outcome, there was nothing else. Inspiration, no other motive, deserved my life.
“No, I’ll head out. It’s sort of ridiculous to hang around if you have to study and have plans. I would have to leave early in the morning, anyway, if I leave tomorrow, so what’s the point? I’ll go get my stuff together. I went to his room and put my few things into my backpack. Charlie stood at the doorway watching me. The most important thing, to me was to remember the peanut butter can and take a long look at the Taj Mahal.
“Do you have a spare fan belt?” he asked.
“You should have one.”
“Oh no,” I said, “I don’t want to be outside of Walsenburg in the dark changing a fan belt.”
“I don’t want you to, either. That’s why you should get one before you leave.”
Now that I was leaving, my personality was returning. I thought to myself, “What is it? Some kind of charm?”
Charlie said, “It’s like a talisman. If you have one, you won’t need it. Your fan belt won’t break.”
“So, do I wear it around my neck?”
“Yes, exactly,” and he smiled. “Here, go to Target. It’s on your way out of town.”
We walked out back together. I decided to check my oil. I opened the hood of my VW and pulled out the dipstick. “Did I tell you I got a speeding ticket?”
“South of Las Vegas. I was going 82. Can you believe it? I was so excited. It was fantastic!”
“Oh yeah, you see, three months ago I tuned up my engine and cleaned and rebuilt the carburetor myself. Isn’t it beautiful?” I put my hand on the carburetor.
“That’s amazing! I just did the same to my car!” His Karmann Ghia was sitting next to my Bug. He opened the hood. I was curious to see what the differences were between the Karmann Ghia and a Bug since os many of my friends seemed to think the Ghia was a piece of junk. It was not as simply and elegantly laid out as my engine, but it was OK. Charlie reached in a gently placed his hand on the carburetor of his car. We stood together, our hands on our respective carburetors, as if they were small, cherished pets. It was the first time I had felt relaxed with Charlie. Obviously we shared the same affectionate feelings toward our carburetors. It was something. “It’s incredible, you know? It’s something I couldn’t have done before I took chemistry. It’s been good, taking all of these courses.”
“You mean in summer school?”
“Yeah. I was a literature major — you know that. I had to get as many of my pre-med requirements this summer as I could because I’m almost too old to be accepted anywhere. I don’t have them all, yet. Now I’m taking Inorganic. It’s tough.”
“I know what Inorganic is. The one that killed my ex was Physical Chemistry.”
“I liked that one. So, you’re going?”
“And you’re going to get a fan belt?”
“Right. Well, thanks for the pictures and the balloons.”
He looked at me intently and strangely. “Could you at least give me a hug good-bye?”
“God,” I thought. “Maybe not.” I walked to him and put my arms around him. Since I’d been asked for it, I didn’t die or faint. “Well, bye. If you’re ever in Devoid, let me know.”
“I will. Be careful. Get your fan belt, OK?”
“OK.” He followed me to the car. There in my back seat were my hiking boots. “Hey,” I said. “There are my boots.”
“Are those the ones you wrote me about?”
“Yep. That’s them. Probably have blood stains on the heels.”
“Why do you still have them?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why would anyone keep boots that hurt their feet? Give them to me. I’ll sell them for you and send you the money.”
I handed over the boots, awed by Charlie’s simple sanity. Why would anyone keep boots that hurt their feet?
“Well, goodbye,” I said, “thanks for unloading the boots. That should help my mileage not to tote them back to Denver.”
“They are heavy, but they’re good Italian boots.”
“They are, but they don’t fit me.”
I headed out of town, stopping for a fan belt. I felt light, luminous. In the sky I could still see balloons drifting off. I drove the short way, through Taos, but I got lost and found myself driving dirt roads in circles in aspen filled canyons at the base of Taos Mountain.
I love Taos. Miracles can happen there — or could, years ago. One day, as a tourist at Taos Pueblo, I stood on a bridge over a stream and looked at the mountain. My eyes wandered down to the buildings, the piles of homes that make up the pueblo. I saw that the rooms were heaped in such a way that they mimicked the shape of the mountain. It seemed that was true from every point in which I stood, the pueblo and the mountain were the same shape.
I found the highway and drove through the San Luis Valley at sunset. I climbed the pass and dropped into Walsenburg at dusk. I stopped for gas and got a burger at the A&W. The way home was dark, and I felt slightly paranoid about the fan belt, but at least I was no longer suffering from neurotic flat tires. The drive was long, the car unheated, but I was warm with excitement. I knew what I was doing and why for the first time in years, maybe ever. I was a writer, and I was going home to write. All the difficulties of my life and relationships were minor, now. They were food for stories. I couldn’t wait. The Law School Admission Test, which I was taking the following Saturday, seemed like a big joke. Let others be lawyers; I had decided to take the step off the cliff. That was the only way I could know if I had wings.
Just after midnight, I unlocked my door. I turned on my desk lamp, opened my bag and unpacked. In the bottom I found the peanut butter can. On the bottom was written “CM Glass Jar.” I took off the lid. Inside I found plastic bubble wrap. I carefully pulled it out and unwrapped a stone jar small enough to sit in the palm of my hand and exactly the right shape.