The Day I Sold Her Wedding Rings

canyon of the Rio Grande

Where the Rio Pueblo meets the Rio Grande

We found them after we locked her up and I could poke around the doublewide, two silver-looking rings with diamonds. There was money, too, stuck back in her bathroom closet. Actually I think my sister found them. (I recollect we divvied up some Benjamins.) A few years ago I had the rings appraised—now there’s a racket—the understanding being that they’re worth so much but you could never sell them. See? Ninety dollars down the drain.

I’d had them longer than I’ve had her ashes in the storage unit. That makes sense. I don’t know how long she was in the “secure memory facility” but we had time to sell most everything she owned and take her money in the end just like she said we would. As trustee I kept the rings. One was her original wedding ring, a simple platinum thing with tiny diamonds in a row, the ring of choice for over 50 years. The other was a more flamboyant white gold piece with larger stones they’d bought in Germany in the 1950s. I never noticed whether she wore it too because she always found a way to stick the dagger in and all I ever cared about was getting out of there. Be that as it may the time had come.

There was a jeweler down in Santa Fe. Not a strip mall “WE BUY GOLD” kind of joint but a professional establishment in the lobby of the La Fonda Hotel. The woman I talked to on the phone even told me how to clean the rings before I brought them in. I knew she wasn’t fooling and had not the slightest doubt that they would treat me right.

We took off yesterday to make a day of it in the big city. The sun was shining and the air was cool. The 70-minute drive begins with a thousand foot drop into the canyon of the Rio Grande just south of Taos. The twisting, curvy two-lane runs along the river below scary cliffs and hills for almost twenty miles, passing the spot where falling boulders killed three riders on a Greyhound Scenicruiser in the ’90s. There aren’t many places to pass, either. Right away we ran into the road work signs. One-way traffic ahead usually means alternating convoys but all we did was sit there. Every few minutes the line would creep forward about half a car length, which made no sense to me at all, while traffic sped by unencumbered in the opposite lane for half an hour. There were rafters splashing by and making better time. I was in good spirits though, never mind I saw we might be late. My curiosity for what the hell was going on was overwhelming and the canyon is an awesome place to be.

Eventually the line began to move a little more and kept on going, ooching up to almost 15 mph. When we crept over a rise five minutes later, crammed together on a narrow shoulder 40 feet above the rapids was an entire fleet of paving machinery and trucks. Good Lord. We’d been waiting all that time for the workers to park for lunch… I could barely make out the southbound end of the line a quarter mile away. There must have been 30 vehicles in front and 100 behind. Okay, but why were we still creeping?

It was the little red Toyota in the lead. When the highway straightened out enough I saw it, followed by a pickup camper pulling a boat and several other silly people too afraid to pass. The cowards were bunched up bumper-to-bumper, leaving no room for braver souls to pull in safely if they passed and ran out of road so no one tried. For the next 15 minutes until the four-lane opened at Velarde, the herky-jerky convoy bucked and braked as everyone went mad, never topping 30 mph on a road where I go 65.

After being bottled up so long, everyone went speeding through Velarde except of course the red Toyota, still doing 35 or less but thankfully in the slow lane now. I noted the Utah license plate and awaited my turn to honk. The driver was a little old man wearing a baseball cap and he was pissed, turning to glare at me and honk right back. I wondered if he’d ever get as far as Española, where he wouldn’t even have to brake.

Velarde marks the end of the canyon. The rest of the way to Santa Fe is more developed, hilly, scenic. Mountains in the distance all around and four lanes to the end. Past Pojoaque you can even cruise at 70 mph if the traffic’s not too bad. We hit the exit for downtown Santa Fe and pulled into the parking garage on San Francisco Street with less than 10 minutes to my appointment. The La Fonda Hotel was three long blocks away through crowds of tourists. My wife hung tightly on my arm and didn’t yell about the way I dragged her down the sidewalk. God I love that woman. Finally the lobby, scores of leather chairs, and someone there to help me. Time to pee and find the jeweler. Santa Fe is like New York compared to Taos. Maybe Paris. The cool efficiency of cultured civilization was a shock but I was so relieved.

The woman I talked to on the phone was cool and confident and didn’t waste a minute. Knowing how to melt down precious metals might account for that, I thought, or maybe there’s a gun behind the counter. I told her that I’d left my appraisals in the car but that I bet she didn’t need them. (Understatement of the year.) She noted that the lesser ring was platinum and badly worn. Whatever else my mother was, she’d played her role and worn it every day with pride. There was a strength in that I’d hardly noticed when she was alive, as if the pain inflicted late in life had roots in motherhood turned upside down. Something in the observation slipped between my ribs. It’s all right, I told myself, keep going. Inside of 90 seconds later I was folding up the check to stick inside my wallet. Three hundred dollars for the two of them was more than I’d expected, fair, and probably a gift. My wife was quite elated.

We drove immediately to a favorite brewpub. I felt looser than I had in months. Sitting outdoors at “our” table up against a giant aspen in the cool bright air was marvelous. I watched the city people, ate a meatloaf sandwich on Texas toast, and got wasted on my seven percent IPA. I’m a little tipsy, I said as we walked out to the car. Oh dear, she said, and laid a smooth warm hand on my bare arm, but everything was fine.

Here We Are

Ranchos de Taos scene

Great big truck o’ gas beside the Ranchos church one lovely afternoon

There must be all kinds of ways to do this. Fortunately the unconscious never quits.

This time I was walking with my wife through the hall of a large building like a college dorm except with wider corridors and clean white walls. There was some kind of event and we were staying there. The hall was full of people were making their way in both directions with a sense of expectation. I was glad to see a friend of ours among them and said hello. She was dressed in white the way she often is in real life, happy, friendly, and we joked about her room that we’d just walked by on the floor below. They’ve got me in the (something-something-basement) room, she said. Then somehow I was there again alone outside the open door. There was no one in the hall. I went inside. The room was one large kitchen with counters and a sink, a big refrigerator, and a stove with eggs in butter cooking slowly in a little pan. I wondered where the cook was and whether it would burn. The place was packed with food. There were large plastic bags of different kinds of fruit sitting on the counter. One in particular held a huge amount of little peaches turning soft but still quite edible. They gave off a pleasant scent. I worried that there were so many and wondered who would eat them.

I woke up full of fear about no money. It was 4:18 a.m. and there was nothing I could do to break the mood except get up and move around or write. Now the clock has just chimed five and I’ll go back to bed. The outline of the mountains to the east is black and sharp against the inkling of the dawn.

Afterdream, 7:43 a.m.: An extremely vivid dream. I was driving in New Mexico (of course), on an almost empty Interstate cresting the top of a large hill in bright sunlight. To my right and just ahead of me was a low wide open sports car in the on-ramp. At the top of the hill it pulled away from me and I could see it was a Viper but completely chromed except for red and yellow accents by the cockpit. I loved the sight of it and heard the V-10 rumble like exploding bombs inside a can.

Message for the Fourth

Mills Canyon, NM

Mills Canyon (google the sucker)

A JHF Classic from June, 2006. A column from Horse Fly, actually, an alternative Taos weekly of the time, only obliquely about the 4th of July. It has to do with things that matter.

The last ten miles of rocky trail going down into the canyon took at least an hour, most of it in first gear.

When I got to the primitive campground at the bottom, it was obvious that no one had visited in quite some time. The views of the high canyon walls all around me were breathtaking. I went skinny-dipping in the river and afterwards sat in my chair watching shadows move across the cliffs. There wasn’t another human being for miles, and Verizon was dead. I could have fallen out of the sky, tumbled from another era entirely. The only sounds were bird calls and wind in the trees.

I have probably never been so physically alone in my life. Only my wife knew where I was, and she was in Maryland. No one had seen me go into the canyon. I had a book with me and of course my computer, but I didn’t want to read or write. I didn’t even want to think.

As it turned out, no thoughts came, and I had no visions. I hadn’t expected any, but I had thought I might get a little lonesome. I didn’t. I was completely at ease and felt no fear. When it got dark, I climbed into bed in the truck and simply went to sleep. I remember waking up a few times, looking out at the moonlight, and marveling that it was so quiet. There was never a thump, a skitter, or a scrape. No bears, no mountain lions. Not even a skunk. It was like camping in a church that had neither a building nor a name. In the isolation of my experience, I felt myself expand and fill the canyon with my spirit. From wall to wall and end to end, there was only me, the rocks, the trees, the birds, a turtle and a garter snake I’d seen down by the river, and flies that buzzed around my lemonade in the sun. As I drifted in and out of sleep, I felt calm and safe as warm clean sand.

The drive home was spectacular but uneventful. Time passed. Eventually I thought some more about the things I’d seen and the fact that something called or pulled me, how I had driven out across the plains with no more goal than simply going there, that I had allowed myself the freedom to explore.

I also remembered the raven.

It happened early on. I was standing on a rock next to a tall Ponderosa pine on the edge of a precipice at the actual entrance to the canyon, watching a raven banking in a tight circle in the stiff wind just above me. I was staring very carefully to make sure I had it pegged, because the bird had made a noise I’ve never heard a raven make before: it whistled at me with a sound very much like the shriek of a hawk, only more full-bodied, longer, and strangely piercing. This didn’t make sense: why would a raven, of all things, be whistling at me? I heard the sound again. Just then the raven dived in my direction, descending to land in the pine tree, I assumed, except it kept on coming. It was diving straight at me, and I saw the raven’s face front-on. Not with my eyes, however, but with my mind: instantaneously filling my entire field of vision was the close-up face of the raven, with gleaming black beak and big red eyes! I ducked, obviously, heard the raven whistle again, and decided not to linger. It was as if the bird had projected an image of its warning face directly into my brain.

Nothing like that has ever happened to me before. And what does America have to do with this? Nothing! Not a blessed, goddamned thing!

No politics, but think about it. I did.

Experimental Days

old Taos scene

Behold the mighty Arc of Mystery

You know I’m not a kid anymore but here I am still learning to drive this thing. A better metaphor might be discovering the clutch in the recesses of my brain. You have to make a conscious decision to bug out with a stick shift and need to know which gear you’re in at any given moment. My father taught me how to drive in his ’58 Volkswagen with four-on-the-floor. In driver’s ed at Jefferson Junior High we had a brand new dead stock six cylinder white Chevy sedan with a three-speed column shift. That thing was so huge and smooth. A ’59 Chevy, man, with bat wings.

Es La Hora

old adobe scene in Taos

Can’t identity the little black things no not that

I don’t know how other people live their lives but the other afternoon at tequila hour I rambled on into territory that my wife had never visited because she never thinks of going mad that way. It was kind of fascinating to see her lift the trap door, sort through this and that—which she grasped quite well enough—and have the visceral reaction that she did. “Who thinks that way?” she asked.

“Well, I do, all the time.”

[long stare]

“But I was just trying to—”

“I don’t think it’s productive to go any further down this road.”

“But—”

“Just do it!”

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