In the Age of the Dictators

New Mexico sky

Any day now, we will move. I don’t know where. But when the cat died, something changed. “I feel a little movement,” said my wife, as if there’d been a shift. Part of this was getting through the ordeal, the fact we’d faced it. I felt lighter, open to the breeze. The other thing was the bargain: we had liberated Callie, she had liberated us. The cat had spent almost her entire life within 150 (?) yards of this apartment. She had her meadow, hillside, and acequia. The thought of taking her away from that seemed cruel, if not impossible. Maybe I’m projecting. It’s the symbolism more than anything.

We want more space. A little land around us and a view. There must be trees, a place to keep our tools, a porch to shelter from the rain. A good-sized but simple house that’s easy to keep clean, with room for all our things. A place to spread my treasures out and write or paint or get real loud. A music room. Two studios, in other words, one for her and one for me.

I’m at the point where I’ve begun to care what people think about me when I’m gone. Sometimes history tells you what to do or tries. If this were Poland in the ’40s, I might run off to join the partisans. It could come to that, I guess. The old man telling stories by the campfire just before the flares go off and his comrades scatter in a hail of bullets fits the bill but isn’t realistic. Nowadays they’d check the database and pick you up at 3:00 a.m. and you’d just disappear.

Short of that you simply have to do the thing that you were born for. More than ever I think that’s living long enough to be all right. Maybe I already did that. Maybe I don’t see because I thought it was a struggle and I tried too hard. Maybe all right is a thing I’ve carried with me since I was a little boy.

How much do I owe the zeitgeist after all? Save your own damn selves he said with love. I know what feels extraordinary: the sense of possibility. The way she felt the instant that I shot that photo. The lightness when the armor rots. The letting go of thoughts that hurt me.

Any day now, we’ll be gone.

Callie’s Gone, Part I

Callie the Wonder Cat

We now have an invisible cat. I’ll bet you know just what I mean.

We did the deed last Tuesday. We never had a cat like that and never will again. Dr. Sides at Salazar Veterinary Clinic was extraordinarily kind and understanding, giving us “a little more time” so much that I lost count. Her assistant even put a soft warm blanket down for Callie to lie on. They used that to gently wrap her up when it was over. We needed the extra time. I couldn’t believe we had to do that, I just couldn’t, but she was down to less than half her healthy weight and there was finally no question.

I’ll tell you what I can about the origins of Callie the Wonder Cat. At the time we got acquainted with her, my wife was renting a “rustic” owner-built studio next door heated by a tiny wood stove. There were several other structures on the property, no doubt hippie heaven in the ’60s, now devolved to hippie hell. Callie was one of half a dozen cats nominally owned by an idiot alcoholic and his wife who rented a battered single-wide across a driveway on the other side of the studio property. She and her siblings weren’t allowed into the trailer and simply lived outside the best they could, even in the winter. The fellow used to “feed” them by scattering kibble from his front steps as if the cats were chickens.

My wife took note of Callie and started putting food out. I poked around and discovered that the cat was sleeping in a shed full of junk behind the studio. The door was hanging off its hinges and couldn’t be closed. All the way in the back corner was a discarded office chair. One cold morning when I peeked inside, there was Callie, curled up in the chair! It was so packed in with trash, I couldn’t reach it, but that was where she stayed.

Anyway, we fed her, or rather my wife did, so she wouldn’t have to grub for kibble in the dirt. The next step was getting her to give up the old shack and come inside the studio—she was very shy and wild—but eventually we realized we simply had to grab her every evening and lock her up inside. (This got easier over time.) Late at night, after my wife had gone to bed, I’d walk up the frozen driveway crunching on the ice and snow, go inside the studio, and build a fire for the cat… I’d pull a rocking chair next to the stove, set her in it on a cushion, and make a little blanket tent that covered her completely. In the morning when we opened up the studio and built a morning fire, she’d still be in the chair.

The reason we didn’t simply take her home was that she wasn’t ours. Also, we already had a cat. That would be Hobbes the Wonder Cat who came with us from Maryland in ’99. We knew from grim experience that he could never get along with other cats and weren’t about to try just yet. (That did happen later, and we’ll get there in the next installment.) So we handled this the best we could.

I should mention that the owner of the property in question semi-lived there at the time. She and her partner, both archetypal older freaks who kept their money in the mattress, so to speak, and never did a legal, normal thing if they could help it (“just hire a Mexican”), were building another totally off-code outlaw empire high up in a nearby canyon in a gorgeous spot they must have lied or killed to buy. They loved it, though, and had a sincere mystical appreciation for the beauty and the wildlife. We were even friends for quite a while, although I haven’t spoken to either of them in years. At any rate, she was something of a hippie priestess. (Eye-roll emoticon needed here.) Perhaps “enforcer” is a better word. She always knew what tribal curse or blessing to bestow and how we were to do things. She’d also noticed the hungry cats that came around from next door and would set out a giant bowl of Walmart kibble beside the studio in the evening. The cats showed up, all right, and so did a family of skunks. Soon the cats had run away to do the chicken thing again, and we’d see what must have been a dozen skunks at once. All sizes!

It wasn’t hard to tell that my wife had more or less adopted Callie, and she noticed that as well. She told us how the drunken neighbor and his wife had brought the litter down from San Luis, Colorado and how much they loved their cats. Oh, sure. But she at least had named “our” cat and called her “Kali”… (I hope that rings a bell and you are thinking, “Oh my God so Taos!”) We misunderstood at first and thought she meant her calico color, so we heard the name as “Callie.” At any rate, when it was finally understood that we’d basically just stolen Callie, she glared and said,”She was his favorite!”

Ahem.

Fed like chickens.

Sleeping in the trash.

Every time I think of that and what she said, I toss a “Fuck you, lady” up the canyon. I know she meant well, but it’s all too much, and she’s still of this Earth with many friends so I am probably a dead man. Never mind, though, she could just as easily be gone with someone cashing all her checks. It’s that kind of situation here among the outlaws, very Taos, of a sort that recent new arrivals can’t imagine, and all we want to do is be long gone. Too bad Callie isn’t here to move out with us.

I just heard a scrabbling in the kitchen and thought she was in the cat box. Perhaps it’s the water heater or the fridge. Maybe I should take a bath and go to bed.

Dream Life

woodpile

Taos driveway drainage management

For the last two decades of her life, every time I visited my mother, she’d shove a book at me called “How We Die.” Helen loved discussing her demise. I never could figure out why, except as a way of making me feel sorry for her. That wasn’t it, though. She was really trying to kill me. Quite unconsciously, of course, but it was cold and terrifying every time. She wanted me to read the signs of physical decay inside myself. Can you imagine?

I had a wondrous dream the other night in blazing technicolor, sharp as any movie. I was at our old home in the country back in Maryland, the one my wife and I bought back in ’89, but it was different: much larger, tall, and beautiful, more formal, “higher rent.” The floors were covered with dark red tiles, almost maroon, thick glazed ceramic tiles four inches on a side, with deep-cut beveled edges. (Rolling a vacuum over them would have been quite noisy.) The color of congealed blood, it occurs to me. There were two female (anima) figures inside the house, women who were old friends from the area. One I witnessed puttering happily through a window and I think we waved, the other I hugged tearfully on the back steps, saying, “So much water under the bridge…” Her dress matched the color of the tiles. She hugged me back but cooly, looking off into the distance.

The yard outside was striking. Beautiful green grass that stretched forever like a park, with immense, impossibly tall deciduous trees. They all had straight, clean trunks (no branches) that reached up to crowns of bright green leaves against a clear blue sky. The trees were absolutely stunning.

As I walked around the house, it changed—white siding with no windows—and I came across two very different trees. Both of them were low and old and heavy, leaning partly over the lower portion of the house, with gnarly twisted trunks and hardly any leaves. The bark was peeling like a sycamore. The first one was severely tilted but supported by a sturdy, hollow steel pole like a flagpole that tapered toward the top. The heavy bottom end was anchored in concrete in the grass, and the pole—more like a pipe, really, about 12 inches in diameter and painted silver—extended upward at a 45° angle to meet the trunk. An expensive, professional job, I thought. The undertaking of a government, perhaps.

The second tree was lower and more fragile. High up on this windowless side of the house, a heavy branch had almost punched a big hole in the siding from swinging in the wind. I could see the indentation, round and deep. That one needed cutting, I decided, or the next big storm would punch the hole completely through.

There’s a lot to unpack in this one, but it isn’t hard.

In grossly simple and symbolic terms, the house is me, my body. The anima figures are my creative side, my muses. (Having two of them is somewhat odd and needs reflection.) The otherworldly tall straight trees are my true self, and I’ve seen them before in dreams. The older, gnarly trees against the windowless (unconscious) siding are my parents. The tree supported by a silver pole would be my Air Force father, the one that’s almost knocked a hole into my head is Helen [koff], and now I know why I started this thing off with her!

Fence Music

horses, fences, and mountains

Very close by

The cat is still dying. Monday can’t come soon enough except I hope it never gets here. Callie the Wonder Cat was almost chipper for a few days but now seems to be slipping away, no purring at all. When she lies down, it looks like a cat rag attached to a head. She’s unsteady and stumbles. The yowls have turned into piteous moans. For most of the weekend, she hasn’t eaten a thing. I’ve stopped forcing pills down her throat because I can’t bear it. Whether it’s kidneys or cancer or being 17 years old, from all appearances she’s just shutting down. There isn’t anything we can do except get her to the vet and send her to heaven. It’s all right, though it isn’t. She’s the most physically communicative cat I ever saw. She used to reach out with her paw and touch us gently on the face to wake us up in the morning to pet her and feed her. Not now, obviously.

The thing is, today I felt like the cat. Hell, I was the cat, like my life was all over, we’d never escape, never clean up the dust or buy new clothes or get the hell out of Taos. Like being in jail, all broken by fate. Reading the news didn’t help. We tried to take a nap in the quiet afternoon, but the cat had other ideas. Every time she made a sound, my wife threw off the blanket and went off to see. After an hour of that, I got up and staggered outside to chop wood in the snow.

It was 27°F with no wind in full sun. At 7,000 feet, that means it felt warm. Bringing in firewood is something you simply must do, like taking sick pets to the vet, washing your plate, or paying the bills, but it felt like the end of the road. I wanted to load up my rifle and kill the whole world. Like I said, it was warmish and golden and pretty much quiet, save for Romero’s damn Doberman two houses over. Every time the maul fell, he barked like an idiot. (Always chained up, who can blame him.) But I got the job done. After carrying the last chunks of pitchwood inside, I came back to clean up the wood chips and weight down the tarp. The sun was still shining but soon would be down.

I stood there in brainlock, unable to move. Lord, get me out of this place—is this really my life? Then I realized it was, surely nobody else’s. Even more crazy, how I felt made no difference. The sun would still set. The light on the mountains would still be the same. The magpies would still gather in the tall cottonwood by the acequia before flying off to their roosts in the canyon. There would still be ice under my feet, and the fucking dog would still bark. Even worse, I’d still need the wood!

My wife was awake, lying down, when I came back in the house. She could tell I had words and motioned for me to sit on the bed. I told her I’d decided to live, there was money all over the ground, and I’d just rake it up. She smiled like an angel. We knew what we’d do in the morning and cried for a bit. Later, after supper, she told me she loved me and wrote in her journal, while I watched “El Camino” on Netflix and loved it, resenting salvation but too tired to fight.

Prism of the Past

farr family portrait

Only Joyce and I are still alive

Every year about this time my wife gets weepy over “family,” those distant ones in Iowa (now Minnesota), Georgia, or wherever. Location doesn’t matter except that we aren’t there and weren’t expected anyway, distance being what it is. She remembers Thanksgivings in Ottumwa, Des Moines, or Muscatine with piles of food, the special china, journeys, relatives, and shelter from the storm. I remember murky gatherings like the one above at Granny’s house in Maryland, which may have been Thanksgiving or another time, before my father hauled us off to Germany for four long years.

The only people sort of smiling in that photo are my cousin Joyce and me and Aunt Mary the nurse (!), gazing down at Bill—she didn’t marry until age 56 and could safely dote on other people’s kids. Just look at that ensemble. I wonder where Teresa is? She would have been just three, too young to take the picture, or maybe that’s why I’m amused. Granddad lost his other leg a few months later, by the way. Aunt Mary was there that Christmas, as were we, when he opened his present from her and a pair of hand-knit socks fell out. She’d forgotten about the amputations, a perfect plot twist for the Farrs.

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