Things were going well enough for Juan del Llano. The passing of his mother, maddened and dangerous in her final years, had smoothed him out and changed his face a little. He used the modest cash from his inheritance to pay off credit cards and spent freely on his needs until the fear of running low set in again.
Somehow it had gotten to be fall. Here and there a battered pick-up truck piled high with firewood crept up or down the road, reminding him of age and freezing. Too soon, he wailed inside. The thought of spending another winter huddled in the old adobe with mice and spiders, crumbling plaster, Taos plumbing, and no room for a goddamned thing was almost more than he could bear—or so he told himself. Taos being Taos and Juan being Juan, however, it had been this way for years.
That night it got cold enough to freeze the bird bath. Juan built a fire in the wood stove, not for the first time that October, but now it made more sense. Suddenly his wife was happy, with her bare feet on the coffee table. Juan plopped down in a comfy armchair with an old-guy groan. He had a cup of coffee, cookies, and his iPad. The cat walked in and sprawled out by the stove. In gratitude and horror, Juan realized that the unseen side of his eternal housing angst was shelter from the storm! In fact, when all the world was locked in snow and ice, the ancient Ashley wood stove raised the temperature to 70 °F in 15 minutes, and the thick mud walls were like a fortress. Nothing rattled when the wind blew—he rarely heard the latter—and he’d sit barefoot in his chair, not two steps from a loving wife who made him coffee every morning while radiators burst and stray cats froze. Without realizing it, he’d gone completely native, and it wasn’t hard at all.
While something of a prize, this made him restless, too. If he wasn’t careful, Juan thought, he’d end up just another gray-haired idiot with a pony tail, shuffling along the Paseo in Birkenstocks with socks, looking for a gallery opening to score free cashews and a little plastic cup of wine… What a cruel town Taos was, where aging hipsters went to die! You had to be clever when resigning from the club, Juan decided 40 years too late. Otherwise, it was like stepping into a hole and coming out when everyone had left. A few days later, the moon rose over the mountain, almost full. In the primal stasis of the bone-dry air, nothing earthly moved or needed to. Juan sat quietly at his desk. Inside the wall or high above the vigas, something gnawed a while and stopped.
Meanwhile on the East Coast, a giant hurricane was bearing down upon the very land he’d left to make a new life in the mountains. He remembered their old house, and all the tricks he’d used to keep them safe from coastal storms. Besides the candles and the food, there were towels and buckets for the porch, a jerry-rigged sump pump in the basement, and storm windows to be lowered when the rain and wind began. He’d even kept a chain saw in the hallway, in case trees fell down against the doors and blocked them in. Juan thought about his friends along the sandy lanes and woodlands of the Eastern Shore. It had been some time since empathy had loosed his memory like this, and he wondered how they were.
By way of contrast, he had only dust and cold and human foibles to contend with, like the time the gas company shut down service at 26 below. (No natural disaster, that.) He had few friends in Taos, either, after 13 years. It seemed that everyone was struggling, and their own narratives—his included—were the only things that mattered. After all, most had come from someplace else and shared no common frame of reference, outside of the adopted one. Juan wondered if his own version of the Taos trip—resigning from America—allowed a man to play a bigger game or put him deeper in the dark. Latinos, on the other hand, could bask inside a culture that had thrived for centuries, and Native life predated Moses. They were rooted in a way the Anglo seekers and retirees could never hope to be.
The next day he and his wife went hiking in the vastness underneath a vault of blue. The air was clean and cool. Suddenly from over the hill, a mountain biker appeared, and they stepped aside to let him pass. (Juan stole a glance back at his wife, bare-headed and beautiful in the sun.)
“Another day in paradise!” the rider called out as he rolled by.
The less he minded that, Juan thought, the better off he’d be, no matter where he was.