Strange New Freedom


Hang in there baby

In the middle of tearing up the joint, attacking piles of dusty junk that’s walled us in after 17 years together in the old adobe. Blow ‘em up, sort the pieces, make more piles in other places while I vacuum. The whole damn shitteroo is worthless if I don’t fill the trash can, though. Has to be done so she can find things after Easter when I bring her home. Hah, “home.” Not the home she wants nor I myself but this is paradise compared to fucking rehab, more about which in a minute while I bitch about the nails.

I took a break to feed the birds, assuming they could beat the squirrels. There was snow all over the ground because that’s spring at 7,000 feet. All I did was walk a foot into the brush pile to poke some poor dead yellow roses in the heap and brighten up the scene, then ouch goddammit as a broke off twig thing stuck me in the ankle. No, not that. In the bottom of my left foot, right through the beat-up Eddie Bauer moccasins I’ve decided are my winter shoes, the longest rusty nail I’ve ever seen, poking from a little four-inch piece of wood I never saw in all my life but there it is and now it’s jabbed me. Pull that sucker out like movie cowboys do with arrows shot into their thighs. A little blood. Oh God, the snow is full of nails! What a metaphor for Taos.

Driving to Urgent Care to get a tetanus shot was oddly fun. This is where it gets a little weird. The day was cold and gray, my wife imprisoned in the idiot shop, I’d just stepped on a rusty nail, but I could grab a mask and get a shot and be all right. Taking control in the avalanche of shit was rousing. The heater in the Dodge pumped gobs of air, the Fat Possum Records sampler I’d crammed into the stereo jumped in with an obscene Hasil Adkins track, and for the time it took to get inoculated and drive back here the world was fine and dandy. I found a cut with slide guitar and cranked it. So…

Now about that clinic. The first thing is, you don’t get sick in Taos. Holy Cross Hospital is a healing place, but all the rest is scary. La frontera has always been where hardy souls shut grandpa in the shed until the banging stops. You need a root canal or dermatologist, you go to Santa Fe. For anything that kills you, there’s a $50,000 helicopter ride to Albuquerque. The purpose of a “rehab clinic” in a county with 14 souls per square mile is for Medicare to pay for salaries and help some people if they can. Training costs a lot of dough. I’ve met ferociously smart and dedicated staffers there, and then there are the ones I hear while my wife is on the phone who talk to her as if she’s stupid. She isn’t deaf or insane, she just had a stroke. Hello??

I realize everyone is doing what they can. But you can read about aphasia or the other common consequences of a stroke and know you have to hang on just a minute. This morning for example when I called my wife, she sounded almost normal, then happily informed me that “I actually drove myself to Chestertown this morning.” In Maryland, where we used to live. Oh boy.

“I don’t think so, honey.”

“Oh, right. Of course…” [she gets it though]

“But never mind all that, how was it?” [lightly spoken, better maybe]

“Just beautiful…” [okay, fine, excellent]

Then I told her I’d been texting with an old friend of ours in Maryland last night who had a lot to do on this Palm Sunday with her church job. A little bit of long-ago passed through the ether, maybe, in the midnight hour, and my honey picked up on it. For all I know she tried to say (or thought she had) that she’d been thinking about our old home town this morning, but it came out that she “drove” there. In any case she did recover [see above] and we shared a happy memory we have in common. Healing, brothers and sisters—can’t do this in a cold white place where no one knows they’re dealing with a lifelong musician, classical pianist, performer, college professor, and adventurer with three degrees, the brightest loving spirit I have ever known.

This entire process has smashed my face into the mirror, or the mud. The mud and blood. The fucking spiders underneath the bed, the lies I learned so long ago. No “what ifs” any more, I’m in the moment. The brain, it crackles. My heart is torn apart and bursting. I thought it would be worse but so far not. No strategies, no planning. I was born for this somehow. I have the wildest dreams of women, locomotives, music, houses with a porch and flowers. Just blew Sunday.

Back to work.

UPDATE 3-29-2021: I just talked to my wife and she sounded much better. Keep thinking good thoughts! (They work.) Home by Easter. – JHF


Sweet Kathy

Sweet Kathy two days after an eternity ago

What the everloving hell? She turned and flopped and flailed her arms. This was crazy. “Honey, what’s the matter?” I pleaded in the dark at 3:00 a.m. No answer. Flop and spin, limbs slapping me all over, no words. Good God. I turned on the light: my honey was contorted, head turned to the right, eyes and mouth wide open. Breathing, couldn’t talk or move her eyes. Holy Mother of God. I wasn’t hysterical, though. This had to be a stroke or snakebite. I grabbed my phone and dialed 911. The EMTs showed up 15 minutes later., two guys wrestled the stretcher through the narrow doorway, scooped her up in the bottom sheet, loaded her in the back, and split. I followed in her car down the dark and empty road. It was freezing cold. The flashing ambulance lights were so bright I had to shield my eyes. They hit 65 mph on the main road heading for the hospital. Until then I’d been all business, only now it slammed me: “KATHY!!! STAY WITH US, HONEY!!!” I yelled, sobbing as I drove. Stupid husband trick, following the ambulance in the dark, all helpless like a fool.

Who knows what the hell they did to her as soon as we arrived. Probably every scan and test you ever heard of. Her mouth stayed open, her eyes began to move a little, and then she moved her arms. I spent the next five hours wrestling with her to keep her from yanking out the tubes and wires. Every 30 minutes a different nurse or doctor came by to tell me they were working on getting her admitted. Someone brought me coffee I didn’t have a chance to drink. I had her purse with me in case they wanted her Medicare number but no one ever asked me anything. Finally they wheeled her into a room on the other side of the building, far away down a forever corridor. There was a motorized recliner for me so I could stay there with her. The door closed, and that was it for us for three whole days except for constant interruptions taking vital signs, blood and urine samples, doctors, nurses, people to “counsel” me and hand me pamphlets that I haven’t even opened five days later. It all went just like that, ka-boom.

She got better, sort of, but was still a wreck. Crying, disoriented, wanting to go home. This became a theme. Her memory was shot. At one point when it wasn’t, she wanted to know just what had happened and I told her. More shock and disbelief before she slipped back into the fog. I fed her half a dozen spoonfuls of her puréed mush three times a day and gave her lemonade and water. A couple times we staggered to the bathroom after midnight with her diaper falling down so she could pee. (I never wiped my wife before but add this to the tricks.) Feeding her was almost holy. When the nurse came in to change her once, I helped to turn her on her side. The skin on her back, her butt, the back of her legs was perfect. Where had all the stretch marks gone or had they ever been there, really? She glowed smoothly like a teenage girl. I thought it was so beautiful. The warmth, the love, the light that shone within.

The next stage needed to be rehab. She sure wasn’t ready to come home, and home was in no shape for her. Piles and clutter wouldn’t do. Medicare would pay for 20 days in the clinic adjacent to the hospital. She’d get four hours a day of speech, physical, and occupational therapy, and maybe I could get the house in order. The people we talked to at the hospital were certain the draconian “no visitors” rules had been relaxed, since all the staff was vaccinated and my wife would be in quarantine for two weeks anyway. I figured I’d be there for several hours a day, watch the therapists, and get an education as her coach. You know where this is going, right?

Five days ago they dropped the bomb on us:

With just one hour’s notice, they told us that she’d be discharged and taken next door to the rehab unit, but I couldn’t come. No visiting hours, ever. Period. The rules in fact had not been changed or relaxed in any way. We were devastated, terrified, in shock. I’d been reassuring her that I’d be there to see her every day, bring her things, and ease the pain of isolation every minute they’d allow me—which turned out to be zero. I watched the nurse wheel her down the hall next door, terrified of how she’d manage.

Not that well so far. The FaceTime visits haven’t really worked, not for someone who’s just had a stroke. This afternoon I found a message from two days ago I’d missed somehow, just her crying in the dark: “I need you, John. John? John???” but there was nothing I could have done. She has to stay, just two more weeks, except I worry that her mind is going, going, wandering like she is, up and down the corridor, the stroke and what that does inside the brain. There’s another issue, too: they found a blood clot in her heart and saw it wasn’t pumping like it should. All this tears at memory and reason. Forty years together and she has to pull out of the fear and madness on her own until she’s here and I can feel her warmth and lie that everything will be okay.

Don’t get sick in a pandemic. Do not, do not ever, ever, ever…

Sunday morning before we knew she’d be discharged on Monday, I looked out the window. It was gray cold spitty day. Suddenly a big brown coyote trotted out of nowhere to sniff around a patch of dry brown grass between our building and the rehab clinic. At that exact moment my wife said that she’d just had the thought that “everything was over…” I thought I heard some irony in how she said it, as if her words were less a statement than a proposition. The coyote was still there like he was listening, maybe 30 feet away, until he turned and vanished in the sagebrush. The goddamn trickster, plain as anything, but where’s the joke? That she was right or she was wrong?

Or that it’s just a big brown dog-thing in the grass?

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!“