Swimming to Arcturus


Another one from Goddamn Buffalo, you lucky readers!

There once was a weekly web column named “Grack” (see below). This one’s from November 17, 2003, which I can hardly believe. You can find it among the other pathos-soaked lovelies in my Taos Soul ebook. – JHF

Just before I saw the cloud, it happened again.

There I was, just standing on the mesa, waiting for the sunset, when all at once the moment somehow slipped inside my chest and gave my heart a slap. I’d gone halfway up the way I usually walk to try and catch the pink flash on the mountains when the light begins to fade, and now I had to cry. A rush of joy, release perhaps, as I yelled thank you to the wind.

The ground was sticky everywhere from melted snow, my boot soles caked with heavy clay. The wind was colder than I’d thought it would be, and I shivered inside my jacket. It was early still, but there was plenty to observe. As I waited, sniffling from the chill, a flock of several dozen juncos flitted silently through the sage and juniper no higher than my knees, a moving carpet of birds. Sunlight focused through the breaking clouds made changing patterns on the slopes. I was alone again in the middle of nowhere, standing in the mud and totally content. That’s when it hit me, see, the way it sometimes does. You’re in the moment, thinking nothing, and suddenly the world is perfect and no one is left out.

* * *

In Maryland I used to go out on the water in my kayak. The broad tidal river close to home was all but deserted along its upper length, at least for certain stretches. Thick woods gave way to marsh and sandy beach along the shore, and it was easy to pretend that I had traveled back in time before the settlers and profiteers had butchered Eden. Most often there was no one else around, no sounds except the wind and splash of water against the hull. Sometimes there were birds, and they made noise: herons squawking as they lifted off at my approach, seagulls crying overhead, geese honking in the fall. A couple times I saw foxes sneak quietly from the woods to take a drink, and once I had an afternoon that blew my mind.

It was one of those warm days in early fall before the cold sets in, when all the leaves are on the trees but changing, and there isn’t any wind. I was paddling by a marsh along a place called Possum Cove, at a wide bend in the river a couple hundred yards across. All at once I heard a distant barking, frantic yelping of the kind that told me dogs were on the chase. It was coming from the woods beyond the marsh, on the same side of the river where I was and headed in my direction, judging from the sound. Soon I heard the unmistakable noise of something crashing through the woods, then closer still, and suddenly three deer, two full-grown does and and a smaller yearling, burst frantically out onto the beach a stone’s throw right in front of me and dove straight into the river, followed all the way to the water’s edge by a couple of delirious yapping mongrel mutts!

I had never seen the like and sat there dumbfounded as the deer began to swim across, heading for a wooded bluff I doubted they would ever reach. All I could see were three brown heads bobbing perilously above the water, moving much too slowly, as far as I could tell. The dogs stood panting in the shallows with their tongues hanging out for hardly any time at all, then wheeled and ran off in pursuit of other game. It was all but over in an instant, or so it seemed, and quiet, like I’d dreamed the whole thing up, except for three little brown heads with floppy ears, far out in the middle of the river.

What happened next was a holy gift from God. Acting more out of instinct than anything else, I shook myself awake and started to paddle. The deer were quite some distance off by now, but I knew I had to reach them if I could. The current had carried them upstream a ways as well, but a couple of minutes of furious stroking brought me closer than I’d ever been to deer in the wild.

By now we were all maybe two thirds of the way across. The deer were in a tight formation, swimming steadily and looking scared. I thought their big black eyes took note of me as I moved alongside, but otherwise they kept their heading and paid me no mind, or so I thought. I was close enough to touch them with my paddle and could hear them breathing. Great gobs of foam and drool ran from their open mouths back across their necks. I feared they wouldn’t make it, but what could I do? Just then I noticed that the doe in front was curving gradually away from me and lengthening their course, so I relaxed and let them pull ahead. The animals immediately angled back across my bow and made for land as directly as they could.

With great relief I watched them stagger from the water on a little beach below the bluff, then clamber quickly up a wooded slope and disappear. I would have been on my knees, gasping in the mud, if I had managed to survive at all, I realized, half in shock. What power in those skinny legs, what life force in the heaving lungs.

* * *

Above the Taos valley, a final light was spreading out across the mountains. A cloud bank moving in behind me meant there’d be no magenta light show on the snowfields, but for now the vista was enough to make me linger. I moved a little to my left to get a better view, shifting my feet to what I hoped was drier ground. When I looked up again, there it was: a “mothership cloud,” so named by UFO aficionados for the shape they think conceals a giant starship. A moment later it moved away and melted out of sight. Just like I’d do if I were piloting the the thing, after having been discovered. It had to be a mass of water vapor shaped by wind, but then I thought the deer would drown. Who would know if something paddled out to meet us in midstream, rolling through a river of stars?

Some days I’m just glad to feel all right and not make judgements. When I got home, I knocked a pound of clay from off my boots and built a fire.

If I learn how to make this last, you’ll be the first to know.

Angel Stampede


Another one from Goddamn Buffalo. If you sign up below, you can get these in your email.

At least 15 years old, this should be read on acid. Failing that—I don’t know where to find the stuff and wouldn’t take it now myself—just leap into the stew. It positively stinks of old-time Taos. (Previously published here.) Good luck. – JHF

Today three women and I carried our landlord to the ambulance.

A couple of weeks ago a 74-year-old neighbor lady, the same age as my landlord, called to ask if we’d noticed the unusually large flocks of ravens and magpies congregating in the tall cottonwood trees below the house. The ravens in particular were behaving strangely, leaving the tree in groups to circle directly over our landlord’s apartment, then returning to roost in the branches. As he’d been in very poor health for some time, our neighbor wondered whether they were “coming for him,” as she’d witnessed ravens signaling someone’s death in other instances. As it happened, he did end up going to the hospital but survived, and life rolled on.

Today, however, the woman next door called to tell me that once again, the guy could barely breathe. He needed to go to the hospital, so I went next door to help her lift him into her truck. That wasn’t going to happen: he was so short of breath he couldn’t walk or talk, and he didn’t have a portable oxygen unit. Even if we could have gotten him into the cab, there was the 10-minute ride to Holy Cross without any oxygen to consider, so we called the county Emergency Medical Service instead.

What a circus. The “driveway” here is a sloping bobsled course and that there’s still almost a foot of snow on the ground. Because of all that, there was no way to get the gurney to his little apartment on the end of our building. He has ulcerated swollen feet and would have been in pain if he’d been ambulatory anyway. To top it off, he was against the whole proceeding and wouldn’t do a thing they told him.

That being the case, the two female paramedics, my neighbor, and I ended up carrying him in his chair through the snow to the ambulance, where we somehow got him shoved in face-down on the stretcher. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. He didn’t want to take off his jacket. They told him they’d have to cut it off if he didn’t, and they won. All four of us had to help, but soon we had him squared away on his back with an IV and monitoring sensors stuck all over him. One of the paramedics handed him a inhaler of some kind and said, “Suck on it like you do a marijuana cigarette.” He did!

When the ambulance got ready to go, I crossed my fingers, but the huge blue and white vehicle promptly got stuck. By the third try, it was fishtailing into the sagebrush just like our ’89 Dodge, and I thought we’d have to call in a rescue for the rescuers. But after my neighbor grabbed a can of fireplace ashes and scattered them on the snow, the ambulance driver pulled forward once again, gunned it in reverse, and slithered out in one piece after all.

That evening I ran into an old friend of my landlord’s who lives across the valley, someone who’s known him intimately for years. “I’ve been calling him a couple times a day to gauge his condition,” she said. “Last night when I called, he sounded pretty bad, and I felt there were a lot of other beings with him.”

She went on: “This might not be related, but I have an older woman in my place now. Solid, short… you know, like those old Spanish ladies, or the old ones at the Pueblo with their heads down low and their necks pulled in.” I nodded, not quite comprehending.

“But I had to set some kind of boundaries,” she said, shaking her hands as she smoothed down her jacket. (The gesture was not unlike what you would do if you were covered all over with ants.) “ ‘Not in my bedroom!’ I told her.”

Suddenly I understood. Oh my oh my.

Good Taos Day

Taos street

I’ve been posting a few selected chapters from my ebooks on Goddamn Buffalo. This is one of them.

Bill Whaley died the other day. Cited with the reservation that anything one says about another person’s life is inevitably biased and incomplete, here’s what the local paper published. I’ve written about him before—and he about me about me once—but on the occasion of his passing, I was looking for this brief piece and found it in one of my ebooks. I hope it lifts you some. – JHF

See, it’s not all angst and primal bullshit with electrodes jabbed into your spinal cord. Sometimes you walk right into a moment that just works. It happened to me today in the local organic food emporium when I encountered a dangerous, wisecracking personage of some repute whom I hadn’t seen in quite a while.

He knows way more about this place than I could ever learn. I envy guys like that, despite the price they had to pay to get there. He’s been here a long time, maybe 40 years. Luckily, we first connected within a couple of months of my arrival in these parts. You need to meet people like this, you know. Once I ran into him in a coffee shop. I told him I’d just heard that it was legal to carry a loaded gun in the glove compartment of your car here in New Mexico and asked if that was true. He laughed and said it could be, spoken in a way that told me he might have always had one there and couldn’t care less.

Today’s episode was almost comical. We each came around the end of an aisle in opposite directions and ended up abruptly face-to-face. We’re about the same height and age. Both of us wore dark sunglasses and could hardly see—incognito desperadoes, all right. When we recovered from the shock, the refreshing conversation that followed affirmed everything I’d felt about Taos lately:

“We’re trapped,” he said. “We can’t leave.”

“Right,” I replied. “You can’t live here, but it ruins you for anyplace else.”

“Exactly,” he said. “It’s a love-hate relationship. How do you feel now? You really liked it when you first came.”

“I still mostly love it,” I said, “but when I do hate it, I hate it worse than ever!”

“That’s the way it is,” he said. “I tell my friends at the Pueblo, ‘when you’ve lived here long enough, you’ll understand.’1 They used to get mad when I told them that, but now they laugh.”

We also commiserated over lack of money. The ritual should never be indulged in by pretenders, but we were real and in the zone—in these circumstances, the exchange is mutually uplifting. He told me how he visits family in a neighboring state but always has to borrow money for the trip. “I just keep running up the credit card bills,” he said. I allowed as how I did too, so he told me an anecdote about a local artist who died recently. Supposedly in good shape financially, it turned out to the great surprise of all that he had major credit card debt.

“Great minds think alike,” I said.

“Yeah, he’s showing us the way!“

Empty My Head

window scene

The spiders were still hibernating. The cobwebs on the ceiling quivered in the drafts. Juan del Llano scrunched over far enough to squint at the clock: 7:57 glowed green through the dust. The old black Sony she gave him for Christmas 15 years ago. Did people really used to wake up to the radio? He tried it once or twice to get up early to drive to Albuquerque for a flight, before he had an iPhone, when she was far away in cold Dubuque. As he eased back now against her and felt the warmth, she gave a little moan of recognition and the morning edge. A song or poem he’d never heard before kept cycling through his brain:

Empty my head
empty my head
roll it all out
on the ground
empty my head
just like I’m dead
except I’m still
here all around

Yesterday at cocktail hour. Juan had coffee, not tequila, six days past a bad boy molar. He remembered how it cracked. She drank lemonade and stared down at the carpet.

“I’ve had it,” he said.

“Me, too.”

No need to dig deeper, just The Situation.

He knelt down to build a fire in the Ashley. Where would they be in the old adobe without that hippie mainstay? Back in the woods in Arkansas some 50 years ago, he’d read his battered Whole Earth Catalog and dreamed of one. (Back to the land we go, hi-ho.) Seven or eight lifetimes passed between. Sagittarius rising or growing up an Air Force brat? Burn, you stupid motherfucker. The local paper he’d crumpled up for starter fuel was oddly slick and nearly fireproof, but soon the piñon flared, the stovepipe signaled hey look out with a crick-crick-crick, he turned the draft clear down, and twilight in el Norte faded into night at three degrees.

Why was it every time he reached his limit, yeah-yeah, it was already winter? Abundance thundered in the void and all he needed was a rain dance. He bought a fancy German vacuum cleaner, red faux leather sneakers, and real leather ones in black. He was so tired of the deprivation. Voluntary, mostly. Tired of dust, dirt roads, the neighbor’s dogs, what passed for life in wartime Taos. All around was madness: lunatics and fascists, zombies of his past. The old man’s life advice had mostly been of things to be afraid of, stuff you couldn’t have. How to bait a fishhook, now that was helpful. Which way to turn a screw, how to drive a nail. Nothing’s ever black or white. No one goes to hell. Surely goodness and mercy would follow him all the days of his life, and he would dwell in the house of Juan forever.

The oral surgeon had just left. Juan felt no pain except the memory of the cold steel forceps in his mouth. “Do you want to keep your tooth?” the assistant asked. That would have been nice, he almost cracked, but she was much too kind and smart to torment. (Move through life and be a dolphin, never leave a wake.) Curious, he sat up, peering at the tray. Ah yes, the old gold crown, still attached to a jagged piece of tooth with a bright red line of blood along the edge. As if he’d had his ankle severed by a bullet and they offered him his shoe and foot, he thought.

“No, that’s all right.”

Five hundred eighteen dollars, paid by debit from the chair. Like being maimed inside a spaceship, so you wouldn’t even mind. He didn’t, actually. The tooth was gone, he’d paid with fairy dust. They had it down, all right.

Out the door, still biting on the gauze. He and his wife were in the truck this time, his ‘01 Dodge Dakota with the big V-8. When they’d left the house, the Vibe had started up all right but cranked too slowly. Sensing trouble, he’d switched seamlessly to the gassed-up 4WD and off they went. The next day it was snowing when he tried the Vibe again. Not even a solitary solenoid click. Aha. It took three days with breaks to pull the old battery, take it to O’Reilly’s, and install the new one. There was still some jiggering with the hold down J-bolt to be done, but Juan had found the answer on the internet. That night it snowed again—five inches—and he finished in the morning. Six days passed before the Miele arrived from Amazon. The Vibe was still snowed in.

People he saw online went out and did things, never mind the plague. But in the cold and wind he lost his nerve. If only he could keep his thoughts from killing him. Did he not have a golden flaming Jesus riding on a tiger in his heart? He vowed to take the fancy German vacuum to the cobwebs, suck the sleeping spiders from the cracks, and wear the bright red sneakers while he did. Empty his head, goddammit, motherfucking blank, and be here now. The Miele was so German. Everything was click and turn and pop right out or slide right in. The motor spooled up slowly like a Zeppelin coming over the hill but sucked with black hole fury until the bag half-filled and flashed a warning. The filtration was so efficient, the dirt so invisible and deep, it did so after only half a room. No wonder the house was “impossible to clean.” Their old vacuum moved dust like a leaf blower shifted leaves. Every step they’d ever taken on the threadbare carpet only raised it up into the air to fall again on top of everything and down into their lungs, food, hopes, and dreams. You want to be free, buy more bags. Even half-filled, clogged, and signaling nicht gut, it yanked yards of greasy bullshit off the wall and antique shotguns in the corner. He moved one aside. The biggest cobweb spider he’d ever seen sat snarling in a clump of tiny victim husks, but not for long.

Magnificent and mundane all at once. The vacuum was a sign.

A few days later Juan del Llano was on a tear deleting photos. In the old days he’d have filled another shoebox and stashed it in the closet but there was neither that nor shoebox to his name. Old adobes didn’t come with closets, just two pegs behind the bedroom door—one for a Sunday outfit, the other for the work clothes—that’s why someone invented the trastero. (They had a pipe suspended from the vigas in the bathroom.) But the 21st century came in via coaxial cable from the wireless internet receiver on the roof. He laughed recalling his surprise the day the ISP techs pulled out a portable drill and punched a hole through 18 inches of old mud bricks and never asked. Not that he cared, but damn the thing was easy. So that was how he started burning old tired pictures off the SSD… There were so many of the same things: canyons, mountains, snow, his silly face, the old dead cat, the tires on his neighbor’s roof. Delete, delete, delete. Another gigabyte, hooray.

He lingered over one shot, though. A scanned image of his five-year-old self sitting on the back steps of his mother’s sister’s house in Maryland. The one he spent the night in once with all his cousins sleeping in the attic, the old wooden building he’d have called a farmhouse now but this was on a quiet street beside the railroad tracks where bad boys and girls put pennies on the tracks to get them squashed. He’d done it once but gotten scared—what if it made the engine jump the tracks? There was a willow tree in the front yard. His Uncle Buddy cut a stick and made a whistle for him once the way you could because the bark slid nicely off the bright green wood. One time everyone was eating bologna sandwiches on white bread at the kitchen table, baking in the humid June, when the iceman (think of that) came up those same back steps, pulled an ice pick from his overalls, and chopped off corners of the block for them to suck on.

He stared hard at the photo. Something snapped and he felt clear and strong and knew that he could manage.

Hi, Juanito.

(Hello, Juan.)

Magic at his fingertips, mercy in his heart.

Morning Hello

Ranchos de Taos scene

Six weeks ago looking south

Good Morning! Here’s something I tweeted this morning that I wanted to share. I hope everyone reading this is fine today. I tell myself to stay alive, get through the winter, and thank God we’re living in New Mexico. May everyone be well, no matter where you are.

Same for me personally, by the way. Hidden shadow’s gonna manifest. But when you see, confront, and own it all, you get the mystery good stuff, too. It’s all underneath the trap door. Set your demons free, make art, and sing. God bless America, what’s left of it. We ain’t dead yet.