Heartbreak at Hogback 2

January 14, 2016  |  Fantasy  |  No Comments  |  Share

The funeral took place a few days later. Carole, after making the arrangements, spent a long time staring out of the windows of her home at Hogback Mountain. She was along, utterly alone. The house which had sheltered her mother’s parents and father’s mother, her parents, and her brother was achingly empty. Her employer had given her several days for funeral leave but she knew she had no intention of returning to a place marked by daily pettiness. She’d left the career she’d wanted to care for her brother, born when she was nine.

Roger had become all her family quickly. Her parents died in a bus accident in Mexico when Roger was four. Then her maternal grandparents, who had moved into the home, both passed away — complications from uranium poisoning — within a year of each other. Grandma Rose, a Ute and a marvelous story teller, then lived with them until she died when Roger was ten. Carole put her artistic ambitions on hold, took a deep breath and went to college part-time while working full-time in nearby Farmington.

The two orphans were closer than most siblings. They had complete and utter faith in each other. Roger encouraged his sister’s creative talents, and understood her sacrifice albeit sadly. Carole was excited by the genius he showed in school in math and science. His teachers predicted a great future for him, with an ability to win scholarships easily, and choose a good college for his future.

Now he was gone. The empty house creaked with the sudden harshness of fate. Roger, with all his promise, had been her anchor. With all sense of purpose abruptly squashed, Carole retreated into a stupor that was internally busy. Tragedy was the spur for her next actions.

She moved the furniture out of her bedroom and put her bed in her brother’s room. She dragged her easel and paints out of the basement and set up a place to work. The main window was wide and framed the doughty walls of the Hogback. The best sunshine came here until late afternoon, so she rose early and painted, breaking only for the funeral. There, she was a picture of numbness, rebuffing her friends and (soon-to-be) ex-employer’s managers. Carole sent no note, gave no telephone call, but her supervisor left the funeral home knowing that they now had a staff vacancy.

She shut herself up in the house, painting furiously, and rarely answered either the phone or the decreasing number of knocks on the front door. Two weeks after the funeral she left. Her final act had been to arrange for rental of the house to a new employee at the power plant on Navajo Lake, through a realtor in Farmington. She packed two suitcases, a duffel bag with art supplies, and a carefully wrapped set of canvases.

How do legendary artistic successes occur? Often, luck and timing have a lot to do with this. Carole’s first stop was Durango, and there friends directed her to specific galleries and media outlets. Four months after Roger’s funeral, the name of Carole Luhan was beginning to reverberate in both popular culture and the art world. A gallery owner made a five-minute video of Carole describing an electrifying large painting propped on an easel. The work was titled “Before the Car Struck.” A surrealistic landscape, dominated by the Hogback in full form, cradled a young man riding a bicycle with exhilaration. Carole’s narrative was starkly voiced: robotic and numb. The final minute was devoted to a retired Northern Cheyenne college professor describing the statistics of drunk driving.

The video went viral with millions of hits. The consequences for Carole were monumental. She acquired several offers of representation from major galleries, a call for an exhibition at a small but prestigious college outside Chicago, and offers from M.A.D.D. and another organization to become a spokesperson. A literary agent approached her about co-writing a book. Money was beginning to flow in. A modest woman from Waterflow, New Mexico, became the latest heroine to depict graphic sadness and passion.

The next four years saw a consistent flowering of her career. Carole went from bunking with friends in Colorado to a nice apartment in Chicago and a job as a visiting artist at the university there. Two years later, she made a cautious move to New York City, picking up a business manager to handle the many demands for her art and speaking engagements. Carole wasn’t a full-fledged beauty, but she possessed striking features that went well with her stories of life culled from her maternal Navajo grandparents and paternal Mexican grandmother.

Heartbreak at Hogback 1

January 7, 2016  |  Fantasy  |  No Comments  |  Share

Carole hurried down the highway, worried about being late. She’d promised to meet her brother almost an hour ago at home but had been detained by a personnel dispute. The job had grown less pleasant with the consolidation of two companies into one. No one seemed interested in cooperation, only domination. Perhaps it was time to depart. Heaven knows she would have been long gone, but family considerations kept her in place.

If she wanted to be thoroughly negative, she could say that work hadn’t been good ever since she gave up her gallery job in Durango. There were times when she missed it strongly, fighting off the pinprick of tears as she waded into yet another dispute. Compromise was something she’d learned to do as her duty. Other people were less willing to cooperate.

The sun was almost at the horizon point as it sank, leaving dusky shadows. The sentinel-like cliffs of the Hogback loomed ahead to her right. She’d grown up in its shade, always preferring midday when the sun gleamed off the dark sedimentary rocks. This part of Four Corners was known for its amazing rock extrusions, with the most famous, Shiprock, several miles due west.

Ahead she caught the flare of red and blue lights and groaned internally. Another traffic accident and since it was early Friday evening the bars hadn’t even begun to fill up. Carole had been brought up to be mindful of the danger on the roads. For various reasons the next stretch of five miles through Waterflow were particularly perilous. She’d lost her grandparents and an aunt to local drunk drivers and tipsy tourists.

This accident looked like a bad one. There were two ambulances stopped on the other side, a fire engine, and several police cars. Smoke rose from a car with a crumpled front. A cop was directing traffic to a single lane and she braked automatically to join the queue. Her car had just pulled level with the fire engine when she saw the smashed bicycle; Carole applied the brakes and skidded off onto the shoulder, throwing open her car door. She leapt out into the murky scene, ignoring honking vehicles behind her and the cop’s warning shouts. The whole world had narrowed down to a tunnel with one focus: a shrouded gurney being pushed toward one of the ambulances.

Other people loomed out of the haze and several tried to grab her shoulder to detain her.

“It’s my brother!” she shrieked and fought off restraining hands. A tall man in paramedic scrubs spoke sharply to those around her and she reached the gurney. She’d almost succeeded in grabbing the sheet that concealed the victim when the paramedic pulled her away none too gently. “Carole, stop! There’s nothing we could do by the time we got here.”

Chest heaving with a heart attack of despair, she subsided. Her eyes noted a rumpled and very deflated middle-aged man sitting in the back seat of one of the police sedans. Floyd Dewey, perennial drunk, had somehow gotten his license back. He ducked his head when he caught her frantic gaze. She and Roger had always joked how old Floyd would kill half the county one day. Raising her voice in a scream, the world suddenly dropped away.

When she returned to consciousness, she was in a hospital outside Farmington. The same paramedic who had yelled at her was seated next to her on a wide vinyl sofa. They were in the waiting room for the E.R. but Carole knew there was nothing to wait for. One look at the man’s deep blue eyes confirmed her despair. She’d known the man, Everett Muncie, most of her life. She used to ride with him on the school bus, and never hesitated to accept his counsel. He was one of the best persons she’d ever encountered, and perhaps for that reason alone she lashed out at his concern. No one and nothing could help her climb out of this tragedy.

Now, her whole life had tumbled to a halt. Her brother was gone. Carole held her head, marveling at the fact that for the first time in her life she’d fainted. Everett tonelessly narrated to her the story of the accident. She listened silently and remained that way even when a pack of relatives and friends arrived to noisily commiserate and point out unnecessarily what needed to be done now.

Shamed in Socorro 3

December 31, 2015  |  Fantasy  |  No Comments  |  Share

The spring of her fifth year of incarceration arrived, and with it came an unexpected visit from her family. They appeared in the lounge in an obvious state of nervousness. Her uncle smiled and smiled, rolling the edge of his hat compulsively. Her aunt looked angry. Marina received them dubiously, for once letting their unusual mood pull her out of her essential lethargy. What they, or rather her aunt, had to report was shocking. An older male inmate in the Santa Fe penitentiary had confessed to setting fire to the Hansen’s barn where he had been sleeping off a drunken bout after quarreling with Juliet’s father. His story was confirmed by several details that matched holes in the case against Marina; a better lawyer would have pressed further at the time but her relatives’ choice of legal assistance was more accustomed to handling real estate and wills.

Matters accelerated after this but were tempered by tragedy. Marina’s aunt and uncle were returning in their car to Socorro on I-40 when a tractor trailer driver fell asleep at his wheel; the accident knocked their car into a ditch just outside of Albuquerque. Her aunt died forty-eight hours later from her injuries, and her uncle’s spine was severely damaged, requiring his removal to a nursing home. Marina was told that distant relatives had stepped in on her behalf to see to her uncle’s care and arrange for their small ranch to be maintained. One month after the accident, Marina was transferred to Albuquerque, reappeared in court and found her sentence repealed by the very judge who’d overseen her trial. His irate attitude toward her remained the same, however.

Court officials got her onto the I-10 bus to Socorro and now she sat in her uncle’s law office, dusty suitcase at her side. Marina was conscious of an active desire to get away from her immediate surroundings. When a small flurry of activity and voices sounded in the main office, she saw her chance to leave at once. Father Barry Flanagan had arrived. He was a large, bluff figure, a genuine Irish priest who’d been sent from the East to New Mexico; his parish included the local Apache population, and Marina remembered he was some sort of scholar in their language and culture. Her aunt and uncle had been devoted members of his congregation. He’d come now to take her home. For the first time, she felt tears prick her eyes.

Father Barry was as good as her word. He swooped her out of there in record time, deposited her in the passenger side of his worn grey SUV and took off for the Wilde ranch. True to his style, the priest took this time to launch into a lecture. “You’ve got to wake up now, Marina. You’ve got responsibilities to handle. No more sleepwalking through life.” After she nodded her head tentatively, his tone rose. “Good God, girl, your passivity has almost ruined you. You knew you were innocent, why didn’t you fight back?”

“I’m not so sure I really believed I was innocent, Father. I wanted to kill them at the time. They destroyed all my dreams.” When his sigh boomed through the car, she added, “Maybe I wanted to punish myself. For choosing the wrong dream.”

He braked at an intersection, and swung his head to stare at her. “This ends now. Your cousin Peter Hoskins is a good man. He’s got some ideas for you to consider.” An unexpected smile split his craggy sunburned face. “He’s probably also a romantic like you, Marina. But it’s time you faced life and joined it. No hiding out at the ranch, tending stock. You listen to him.” And then he laughed.

Marina was bewildered. Happy endings belonged in books, not real life. Yet she felt an active curiosity now. The turnoff to the ranch appeared and as Father Barry wheeled the vehicle down the dirt track he was humming. The woman next to him sensed an improbable happiness, and suddenly her heart started thudding in her chest. She wasn’t returning to disapproving relatives after all. Something new was in the air.

As they pulled up in front of the house, she saw two men standing and talking. The taller one she recognized as Joe Strang, one of her uncle’s longtime ranch hands. He waved at the approaching car and ambled off. The remaining man was someone she hadn’t met before. He must be her cousin. Marina felt another pang as she exited the car. This guy was good-looking and his eyes were glued to her face. He looked just like one of her Regency heroes come to life! She could almost envisage him in the tightly tailored cutaway jacket and snug breeches or trousers of that time. Instead, he wore a blue denim shirt and jeans that had an expensive aura. His eyes were a deep lapis-like blue. Now he was smiling as he came forward.

Marina was barely conscious of Father Barry pulling out her suitcase and heading for the porch. All her focus was one this stranger, someone who looked at her as if he knew her, really knew her. His dark hair curled around his shirt collar and he clasped her hand; the warmth of that touch sent tendrils of shock into her passivity.

“Marina, it’s wonderful to meet you at last. You’re even lovelier in person than in photos.”

She flushed in return, knowing what articles those pictures accompanied. Thank heaven she had put on some lipstick and blush before leaving the bus. He was being kind when meeting his notorious relative; what else could it be? Except, he did really seem genuinely glad to see her. Even Father Barry was smiling as he came back from the house to provide the more formal introductions and take his leave. Marina lived through this flurry of activity with distraction. Inside, she was having a battle.

But when the priest was backing his SUV out of the clearing, heading for the driveway and then the road, her internal turmoil resolved itself. Peter was telling her about himself — successful novelist, horse ranch up near Taos — when she interrupted him. Was it possible that she could go on a short holiday, someplace private with no trailing reporters?

“My dear,” Peter said, “I’ll take you anywhere you wish. Just as long as I can come along with you.”

No more romance in books and imagination only. Marina was going to make it real, as of this very moment.

Shamed in Socorro 2

December 24, 2015  |  Fantasy  |  No Comments  |  Share

Jason sought her out, rode the bus with her, and talked, really talked with her. He was a sophomore, a track star, and involved in various school activities. Marina thought he looked exactly like the man of her dreams, and most people in the community agreed he was an uncommonly good-looking youth who lacked any attitude problems. But despite the frenzied research of reporters later, there had been no authentic courtship between the two of them. Yet Marina had believed that this was only a matter of time. Her daydreaming while reading continued unabatedly, only now she had a real person for a prince.

Then, a year later, Juliet Hansen and her family moved to Socorro, buying the old Penasco ranch on the south side of town. The Hansens were first generation Swedish immigrants and their children inherited the fair skin, blonde hair, and fine cheekbones of their parents’ heritage. Juliet was an avowed beauty—no argument all around. She turned heads wherever she went, and one that turned the most was Jason. Within a month of her arrival at school they were a couple, and showed this in a very tangible way.

Devastation would be a weak word to describe what took hold of Marina’s heart. The Jason and Juliet duo firmly dislodged her from her former role of confidant. Jason was friendly but distant, Juliet always seemed to be slightly pitying in her encounters with Marina. And her school mates delighted in throwing this fact in Marina’s face; many of the kids had always thought Marina was a bit too stuck up for her own good, what with her constant book reading and good grades in English and History.

Then, one day, Jason and Marina were excused from classes unexpectedly early and found themselves waiting for the school bus. Marina managed to bring up a neutral topic that allowed the two of them to chat away. Until Juliet came running out of the building, grabbed Jason’s hand and removed him a distance away. Jason acted embarrassed but let her have her way.

If Marina had simply gone home, had a good cry, and carried on as she planned, her life would have taken a very different course. But she’d been caught up in a plot of one book where the heroine had a frank talk with the balky hero, one-upped the conniving beauty, and won the day. Marina knew that the duo would hang out at a barn on the edge of the Penasco property, and she became determined to go there, force a confrontation, and perhaps score her own victory.

Her arrival a half hour after the couple did not go well. Court testimony from the duo portrayed Marina as being “unhinged” and “loopy,” and both agreed that the Farm Girl uttered threats, although cross-examination yielded little substance. Marina had descended into bathos by the time their argument ended. At this point, the account of events got shadier. But the facts as announced by the police in the day that followed were as such: at some point, Marina returned to the barn and set it on fire, waiting until Jason had left and Juliet was still inside.

Marina did not help her case much. She claimed to be out of her mind with grief and chagrin, didn’t know where she was, or what she was doing. The Hansens pressed charges, and Socorro had itself a first-class attempted murder trial, which was subsequently moved up to Albuquerque. Matches were found in Marina’s purse and the verdict from the public was swift: crime of passion. Marina was convicted and the judge, incensed by her stupor and the case’s media attention, gave her a harsh sentence: ten to fifteen years in prison.

The New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants was suitably arid. But it had a library and that was where Marina gravitated. She continued to exist in a fog, but her forcible interactions with fellow inmates oddly increased her interpersonal abilities. She received a wide variety of attention from the convicts—from scorn and slaps to suggestions that went over her unworldly head. Ultimately, Marina’s dreaminess awoke a grudging protectiveness. The older Latina inmates mothered her, and that affection fed something that lay very still and buried inside her.

For lack of any better environment, she proved a model prisoner. After two years, she was allowed to work in the library and push the metal cart daily through the wards delivering books and magazines. Because of her notoriety, the prison’s warden kept her in a single cell. Once a year, near the winter holidays, her aunt and uncle came for a visit. It was awkward and always shorter than the actual time permitted. The floods of media attention cooled off, and the facility’s administration turned down all requests for interviews.

Shamed in Socorro 1

December 17, 2015  |  Fantasy  |  No Comments  |  Share

The bus ride from Albuquerque had taken place in virtual silence. The passengers not involved in sleeping were all making covert glances at her. Of course it hadn’t helped that a gaggle of news media people had seen her and them off at the bus station. Cries of “Miss Wilde, Miss Wilde! Can you tell us what you feel?” still echoed in her head. She thought she’d become used to the numbing publicity, or rather notoriety, over the last five years.

Marina Wilde felt the same, however, about everything this time, even if the circumstances had changed dramatically. She was numb. Not even the latest developments had penetrated to that mislaid organ she called a heart. She’d lost her reputation years ago and with it, all claims to human empathy. “Alone in the World” one recent headline had blared.

“Farm girl” had been her description before infamy struck. She’d grown up with that label and found it neutral, satisfactory. It was only after the tragedy that the media rechristened her “Lovesick Farm Girl.” “Lovesick Farm Girl Tries to Murder Rival” was one of the less vicious headlines. Now, returning to Socorro was possibly an act of courage. Marina only hoped there’d be no reporters when she arrived in town. Today was a Monday in a May grown slowly warmer.

It helped that Jason and Juliet had left at least two years ago. They’d moved to his uncle’s ranch in Montana, and word had it that Jason would inherit the spread, a good-sized property, when his uncle finally succumbed to his COPD. Marina couldn’t help but be glad. They would be spared embarrassment all around.

When the bus pulled into the Socorro station, there were no reporters waiting. Marina accepted her suitcase from the intrigued, gum-chewing driver, thanked him, and started off down a side street to her destination. Few people were around and nobody came out of doors to stare at her. She did get looks when she entered the dusty office of Blaine & Neufield, but the receptionist’s manner was deferential to the point where Marina wondered if her notoriety had jumped to a new and altogether stranger level.

Mr. Neufield was already out of his chair when she was brought to his office and he gave a Marina a hearty handshake. “Awfully good to see you. You know your uncle has authorized a damages suit for wrongful imprisonment?” When she shook her head, he quickly added, “Spoke to me just before he went into the hospital. He’s back at the nursing home now.”

She nodded and accepted the set of keys he gave her. Seeing her silence, the lawyer felt it necessary to talk enough for both of them. Through the welter of words she heard one unexpected point. Marina cleared her throat and jumped in with a question.

“That’s right. He came in about a month ago. Your uncle signed all the papers,” he replied a shade too brightly (or defensively). “He’s your aunt’s nephew so that makes you cousins. You didn’t know him when you were growing up?”

Marina shook her head. Her aunt and uncle weren’t much for talk, even about family affairs. They’d adopted her when she was ten, after her parents had been killed in an interstate highway accident. Her upbringing had been chilly. Aunt Hester had never liked her sister-in-law, or rather her sister-in-law’s Latina heritage. And Marina knew she looked very much like her mother.

Now, she’d learned that her mother’s nephew, Peter, had been appointed caretaker of the ranch she’d come home hoping to manage. All she knew how to do was ranching. She’d finished her GED in prison and taken some college courses. She’d never thought of life after prison, preferring to retreat into a fantasy world when safe in her cell, while watching her step outside that refuge.

In fact, real life didn’t seem too genuine to her right now. That was her main problem, of course. One her aunt never failed to blame her for. “You always have your nose in a book,” was the most frequent complaint. Marina loved to read all sorts of books, nonfiction and fiction. But as she became a teenager, romance books became her favorite occupation. Nor was she content with just following the story, but wove romantic improbabilities into the world around her. Inevitably, she discovered that real life romance was elusive.

Or so she thought until she started high school and met Jason Legrand. He was the knight in armor of all her collected fantasies—the Regency rake who tossed aside the obvious beauties for a shy wallflower. Marina never rated herself pretty, even when the newspaper and magazine stories depicted her as “beautiful” and “seductive.” If she could describe herself she would say she had long straight jet black hair and hazel eyes, nothing out of the ordinary. She couldn’t see herself through others’ eyes, and her aunt already disliked her growing loveliness.

Washed Out in Winslow 3

December 10, 2015  |  Fantasy  |  No Comments  |  Share

Errol came back just as Mandragon finished, clutching two big paper sacks. He spread the takeout onto the dining room table and both men relinquished their instruments to join him. They ate in silence, while Errol made small comments as he worked his way through a steaming burrito. The only drink on offer was a large bottle of soda that Mandragon brought out of the refrigerator.

After dinner, they played some more at Errol’s urging. Soon, however, Manuel felt the fatigue of his hard driving earlier in the day. His host seemed to spot this, too, for he urged Manuel to go get some rest at the hotel. Errol volunteered to accompany him there since it was dark and when Manuel saw that his father made no objection, he agreed to the boy’s escort.

Out on the street, Manuel adjusted himself to the light chill that had descended once the sun was gone. “Your father do any recording in the last few years?” he asked Errol.

“Nope. Dad says he lost all his L.A. connections. His band had two managers, one after the other. One of them died from an overdose, I don’t know what happened with the second guy.”

Gone on to more sure things like his own agent, Manuel thought wryly. Except Dan hadn’t said outright he was dumping him. Yet. Manuel knew that what he did in the following weeks and months would determine his success or failure in that respect. Dan had sent him back to his roots to recharge—or unwind.

They parted when they reached the hotel lobby. The place was handsome and smelt of Route 66 nostalgia. Casually dressed tourists came laughing out of the lounge. Manuel took a hard look inside the bar, feeling the tug of liquor on his tongue and the warm glow it could provide. But then he walked on, opened his room with the electronic card, and threw his duffle on the bed. He walked out again to fill his ice bucket and retrieve a soda from the vending machine down the hall.

He turned on the television and muted the sound, like so many other travelers he found the colors and movement comforting. It made the room feel less empty. Seating himself on the room’s one armchair, he poured some soda into a paper cup he’d filled with ice. The events of the last six hours seemed oddly surreal, as if he’d strayed into someone else’s life and dreams. But the music had been real, indeed.

Now he let his unfocused mind search for that funny little bell in the back of his head. Manuel had built his career on a handful of solo songs and one album. Every one of them contained the same theme: picking up again after washing out. He’d let the people he’d known in his still young life act as muses, starting with the father who’d never found a bar he didn’t love until he’d reached bottom. His dad had worked hard, struggling for years, but the alcohol had gained enough time to destroy his liver. He’d died before any transplant had become available. In high school, Manuel had adored his math teacher; even when he’d been arrested for shoplifting in a local drug store, Manuel had defended him against a critical community. Mr. Fells had relocated to California and was still one of Manuel’s good friends. His former teacher had joined his uncle in a thriving clinic that treated poor people in East L.A., after training as a paramedic.

There were others. Men and women. People he’d known since high school and college. Some were musicians like Manuel, and in Austin’s open mike music scene, they’d all thrived after detox or rehabilitation of some sort. And now, here in Winslow, after a car breakdown, he’d just discovered another survivor. Mandragon Phipps was in many ways the most colorful example of human rebounding. His Apache culture had learned firsthand how to endure in a world now dominated by white folk; in a world where the conquerors relegated his people to lesser status.

Manuel sighed. He’d come to L.A. filled with idealistic enthusiasm, like so many others. Everyone had warned him how tough the music business would be. But he’d soared high early on, and took continued success for granted. This departure from California was freighted with high stakes. Would he rebound or retrain himself for another occupation? He could teach grade school, run the school’s band, or take in students learning the guitar.
Yet the high clear notes of Mandragon’s flute reechoed in his mind. And now the little bell in his brain asked him this question: Are you ready to wash out? Unconsciously, he sat up in his seat. The answer was there, waiting just behind the bell’s high notes. Manuel went over to his jacket and pulled out the well-worn little address book he carried, even after it had become more fashionable to record all acquaintances on one’s cell phone. He knew a number of fellow musician survivors in Austin. Even one in Albuquerque he could drop in on as he continued to Texas.

The next hour passed like a blur. By the time he put the phone down, he’d talked to at least six guys and one woman friend. The woman had had her own career hassles, rather like Janis Joplin without the notoriety. Manuel fell into the bed and slept like a log until his little plastic alarm clock went off all too early.

He’d emerged from his room ready to check out and eat breakfast when he discovered Errol waiting for him in the lobby. He could tell the boy had been inhaling the excellent scents that drifted from the coffee shop.

“Go get your dad and bring him here,” Manuel said. “Breakfast is on me and I have an idea.” When the kid ran off, he pulled out his phone and punched in a direct dial number. It rang a few times and when it was picked up, Manuel exhaled into the receiver. “Dan! I’m still on the road to Austin but I’ve had the greatest idea. … Still working on it … Yup, involves a revived concept. All new voice … maybe a jam session, too.”

When he finished, he pocketed the phone again and walked into the restaurant. Asking for a booth, Manuel allowed himself one small triumphant grin. His idea would allow him to recharge, rewind, and take charge.

He was going to take the negative in “washed out” and give it a new spin. And he owed it all to breaking down in Winslow, Arizona.

(A new story starts next week.)

Washed Out in Winslow 2

December 3, 2015  |  Fantasy  |  No Comments  |  Share

“I’m honored, sir. I remember seeing you and your band on early MTV. Apache Tears, wasn’t it?”

Errol’s father nodded. He was, Manuel thought, one of the handsomest guys he’d ever seen, even in a four-year stint in L.A. and Hollywood. Age had only intensified his good looks. First of all, his face seemed carved from a fine stone, like pipestone, with high cheekbones a long aquiline nose, and a thin mouth framed by slash lines. He wore a black tee shirt and jeans of the same color. At first glance he appeared expressionless, but a closer look told Manuel that the flat dark eyes reflected a bleakness that chilled him at once. Something had gone wrong with this guy.

At his gesture, Manuel took a chair near the sofa and Errol threw himself into another. Errol’s father placed the flute on an end table and picked up a weather-beaten Gibson and launched into Manuel’s hit song “Out on a Limb.” Manuel listened in fascination for his words as sung by the man on the couch resonated more deeply and darkly. When he finished, Mandragon regarded Manuel with somber eyes, “My old man was an alcoholic, too.”

There was only one way to thank his host. Manuel, after receiving a nod, got up and walked to a table where he extracted a Suzuki guitar, a cousin of the one he’d learned to play on. Remaining standing, he strummed a few chords and then sang a slower version of “When I Remember.” The song had been a hit in the early to mid-70s.

A slow smile curved on the Apache’s lips. “Do you recall ‘Raven Tells All’?” he asked. Manuel nodded tentatively and replied, “Well, I can play melody.”

Errol clapped his hands as the two men played. Mandragon had a husky voice, undoubtedly seasoned by drink and drugs. But Manuel also recalled that Apache Tears had been a combination of protest, folk, and experimental rock. The electric guitars on the wall had taken their sound to new levels the same as other groups of the time were trying out.

The next two hours were filled with an impromptu jam session that sometimes felt like a musical duel. Manuel suspected that he was being tested; his flagging spirit rose to the challenge, though.

They broke briefly at one point and Errol volunteered to make dinner. His father pulled out some bills and instructed the boy to go to a restaurant. Manuel didn’t hear the name. He insisted on giving Errol a ten dollar bill, claiming he’d never expected such hospitality. When the boy left, Mandragon put his guitar down on the couch next to him. Manuel wondered if it was because he’d anticipated his question, “What happened to the band?”

“We let success go to our heads. Three of us were Indian; we never should have gone so far from the values of our heritage. I can’t make excuses and say it was because the white guys did it to us. Nobody made me a drunk and a junkie,” he said, his voice lowered, “except myself.”

“When did you go straight?” Manuel asked after the silence began to feel heavy.

“It took my wife walking out, leaving me Errol. Then Dan Masters accidentally set a forest fire that wiped out a small town. He killed himself before the cops came for him. One of the elders from my people came and got me into a facility in Phoenix. He and his wife looked after Errol.”

“How long ago was that?” Manuel asked.

“Five years now. Dan’s death caused a minor media sensation. I had reporters camped out on my porch.” Mandragon pursed his lips as he looked back at what was clearly a very bad memory.

“What do you do now?” Manuel had been unsure whether to ask this question, but he was genuinely curious.

“Play any gig I can get. Mostly bars in Flagstaff or Sedona. I do a traveling high school tour about the dangers of booze and dope.” White teeth flashed for a moment. “Scare the kids witless.”

Something rang like a tinny bell in the back of Manuel’s mind, but he brushed it aside. “I’d like to hear you play that flute?” Mandragon had a solo on his band’s first record that was one of the most masterful sound effects Apache Tears had become known for.

His host obliged, but he didn’t play the solo, instead choosing a song that probably came from his heritage. It was long, convoluted, and absolutely heartbreaking in its intensity. Manuel could feel the weight of history the notes evoked. Of lines of tired men on horses being marched by uniformed cavalrymen. The stupor of waiting outside the agency for rations, and then the cold certainty that tomorrow would bring another day of emptiness and lost pride.

Washed Out in Winslow 1

November 19, 2015  |  Fantasy  |  No Comments  |  Share

When the rental car died at the rest stop outside Winslow, Arizona, Manuel found himself too introspective to care. The idea he’d been toying with had grown stronger with each mile. Maybe it was time to quit and use that education degree he’d acquired. When his agent had told him he hadn’t gotten the recording deal they were both so sure would happen, he’d also recommended that Manuel go home and reflect on his next career move.
Homing to Austin sounded good. Manuel was sick of Hollywood and the air of desperation that clung to so many people he’d encountered. He’d known the music industry was tough, but he’d been so buoyed by the fans he’d acquired; they had countered and kept his loathing of California to a healthy minimum.

But now, with the Taurus broken down, money limited, and income unsure, getting home to Texas felt problematic. Manuel had been proud of the fact that he hadn’t let the first four years of success go to his head and bought an expensive car. The shiny red Ford was only a few years old. Having it break down so suddenly came as a shock, interrupting his fractured thinking. Luckily, he was within the city’s limit, but, alas, no service station or truck stop was in sight.

Vaguely, he spotted a boy walking a battered bicycle through the parking lot. Manuel got out of the car and waved his Stetson at the kid. He obligingly wheeled his bike over to stand next to Manuel. “Car broke down, Mister?”

“Yeah. Do you know where I can get a tow and a garage to repair it? I think it’s a transmission problem.”

“Sure do. It’s about a half mile walk. Jose’s Exxon, they’ll fix it alright.”

Manuel found himself joining the kid and they cut through a lot to a local road. He could see a cluster of commercial buildings ahead, and thanked his lucky stars for the meeting. The boy beside him had dark good looks. “Are you an Indian?” Manuel asked.

“Apache,” the boy grinned. “Dad’s great-grandpa was one of Geronimo’s scouts.”

Manuel thought that was rather a nice pedigree. “What’s your dad do for a living?”

The boy’s face darkened. “He’s a musician. When he can get a gig.”

“Oh, yeah? I’m a musician, too.” Manuel wondered if he should change his line of conversation. The world was filled with failed artists and contemporary versions of Billy Joel’s Piano Man.

“Maybe you can talk to him,” the kid said slowly. Then he smiled. “My name is Errol and my father’s name is Mandragon. I think I remember seeing you on tee-vee once.”

Manuel grimaced. He’d played guitar on a commercial during the Super Bowl last year. It had gone viral and had millions of hits on YouTube. Sometimes Manuel thought that commercial was the only reason why his agent kept him on. Until now.

They reached the garage and there was a flurry of explanations, credit card location, and forms to fill out. Jose, a lanky fellow, rubbed his chin all the while as he dispatched a tow truck and ordered an employee to clear a bay for inspection of Manuel’s car. Manuel bought sodas from the vending machine for the kid and himself. Despite his expectations, Errol did not leave for his house, but stayed with Manuel as if he, too, wished to hear the verdict.

The car was towed in, hoisted on a lift, and Jose joined his mechanics to supervise an inspection.

“I hope this won’t cost me a fortune,” Manuel muttered out loud, forgetting he had an audience. “Don’t worry,” Errol consoled, “Jose can fix anything and he never overcharges.”

After what seemed like a small eternity, Jose returned to the office. There’d been a break in the transmission system. The good news was it was fixable, the bad news was that a part needed to be obtained from either Flagstaff or Holbrook. It was already early afternoon. Jose promised Manuel that the car would be fixed by tomorrow morning. Resigned, Manuel dialed the number Jose gave him for the hotel and reserved a room for the night.

When he’d finished this action and retrieved his duffel bag from the car, Manuel found Errol waiting for him with a determined grin. “My house is down this block. Would you come and meet my dad? He’d like to talk to a successful musician.” Manuel wondered if that was really the case, but he was intrigued despite his reservation. A memory, dim but slowly forming, suggested he’d actually heard of Errol’s dad. Manuel wondered if his recollection was right.

The house was two-story and showed signs of wear. Manuel followed the boy inside to find himself in a large living room dominated by a series of electric guitars that hung on the walls. A man sat on a large deep leather couch, a wooden flute in his lap. Staring at him, Manuel discovered that his memory hadn’t played him false. Slowly the man rose and held out his hand for a soft handshake as Errol rushed into an introduction and explanation of Manuel’s predicament.

(to be continued)

Landing in Lukachukai 4

November 12, 2015  |  Fantasy  |  No Comments  |  Share

That moment opened up a new perspective now, one she hadn’t heeded before. Wrapped against his side was a slender woman, her well-curved figure also expensively clothed. Blonde hair spilled over her shoulders and she smiled easily. Camilla knew at once that she worked in some area of the entertainment industry, since there was a buzz among classmates who seemed to know her from somewhere. Magazine, movies, television, what did it matter… Camilla’s gut truly wrenched. This woman’s air of easy possessiveness told Camilla what she didn’t want to acknowledge. Using every ounce of energy and poise she could muster, Camilla did the only thing she could: smile.

“Camilla!” Dan cried and leaned forward to grab her hand. He half-hugged her and enthused “You look great!” Camilla stepped back as quickly as she could, in time to see the blonde grin at her. “Oh, your old girlfriend, Dan?” she cooed at him. “How sweet.” The next two minutes flashed by in unbearable slow motion. Camilla felt that she’d actually left her body, occupied now by a walking, talking, smiling automaton. Other classmates pressed in gradually, and Camilla was able to extricate herself from the chattering group.

Wendy took her arm. She and Lily dragged Camilla over to one of the food tables. They stared at her, Wendy squeezed her arm. “We figured you weren’t in a position to follow any news or gossip, and it seems we were right,” Lily stated glumly. “She’s a sportscaster for one of the national television channels. They met at some party in Hollywood a couple of months ago.” Wendy shook her head. “She’s also five or six years older than Dan. Ex-husband was a star on the U.S. Olympic hockey team.”

Back in the present, a last boom sounded overhead and suddenly the rain funnel was gone, moving ahead with the wind that whipped tree branches at the side of the road. Just as suddenly, the road crested a final hill and sunshine slid into the place vacated by the rain. Camilla could see the dark clouds racing southwest, soon to be over the Hopi mesas where the harsh rain would be received with gratitude. Just so did she visualize this natural phenomenon as a metaphor for her failed relationship with Dan. She had not clung to him — no, Camilla had never physically clung to him — and that had been a mistake. Or not. They had each pursued their post-high school training with single-mindedness.

Camilla’s reward, however, could be viewed in the landscape unfolding before her as she rounded each hairpin curve. To the northwest, the red beauty of the Chuska Mountains glowed, deeper and more raw than the famed glory of Sedona’s red rocks. To the south lay a pastoral setting of green. At a pull-in near the bottom of the road, Camilla guided the Camry to a stop, thrilled by the misty rainbow that framed the Chinle Valley in contrast to the faraway dark hump of Black Mesa. She had worked so hard for all this. A kingdom more alluring, she realized, than any of Dan’s exotic getaway scenarios. Still the tears she’d suppressed came now, raining into the tissues she’d retrieved from her purse.

The remainder of that fateful reunion gathering had passed quickly. Camilla had smiled, joked, and carried herself with aplomb, making sure to stay far away from the celebrities, despite a couple of half-hearted attempts on Dan’s part to call her over. In the end, they’d proved to be from different tribes, indeed. She’d had a number of warning signs upon reflection, but the work of the past year had swallowed up all opportunities for deliberation. In the meantime Dan had walked away to greater temptations.

She was glad she’d made the practical arrangement she had, seeking a guest room at the college on a reservation not known for many hotels. Her interview tomorrow was a full-day one, but she suspected it was all formalities. She knew she was well equipped for the position, and the certification diploma tucked into her briefcase confirmed that fact. The crying spell was shorter than she figured it would be, and she restarted the engine to pull out and stop again at the Lukachukai Trading Post, now a grocery store. The lady behind the counter gave her a smile as she strolled in, heading for yet more junk food.

“Came down the pass in the rain, huh?” the woman asked as she rang up Camilla’s Coke and Hershey bar. “First time, too?” Camilla nodded and smiled weakly. That climb and descent typified so much more than just a new experience. At this moment, her loss weighed most upon her. Yet stirrings of something else gathered in the back of her mind.

The drive to Tsaile was an easy one, the sun so warm and all-encompassing the rain seemed more like a dark memory. The assistant in the Admissions Office greeted her pleasantly and, happily, had been briefed on her arrival. Camilla stared unseeing out over the busy office as the young woman made a quick telephone call.

“Ms. Natachu?” a warn baritone voice sounded at her elbow. Camilla swung round to confront a man in his early thirties. He was a few inches taller than she and wiry, with an interesting face and shoulder-length black hair. The smile on his face showed he liked what he was beholding. Camilla studied him for a few seconds before sticking out her hand to shake his. “I’m Samson Bitsue,” he confided. “I’m in the Chemistry Department. Have you had dinner yet?”

When Camilla shook her head, his smile grew wider. “Excellent. Let’s get your bags out of your car and stowed at the dorm. Then we can head off to Chinle. I know this restaurant…”

A wave of well-being swept over Camilla. She even giggled when, after they went outside and he viewed the muddy, leaf-strewn Camry, he hastily stated, “Let me get my car and I’ll drive.”

It was going to be a fine, fine, sunshine-y day after all.

A new story starts next week.

Landing in Lukachukai 3

November 5, 2015  |  Fantasy  |  No Comments  |  Share

Back at the Casino hall, her heart had been beating just as fast as the cheers of her classmates sounded. There also seemed to be an extra lilt in their voices, as others began to throng the entranceway. Dan’s progress was slow, and through the mass of bodies, she saw him high-fiving individuals. Wendy dug her elbow into Camilla’s side, “What are you waiting for?”

“It’s so crowded,” she exclaimed, but involuntarily moved forward. Now that he was here, she thought she just couldn’t wait any longer. Two other friends detached themselves from the crowd and turned back to Wendy and Camilla. One walked over to Wendy and whispered in her ear. “What’s going on?” Camilla asked Lily Pete, who stood rather awkwardly to one side. She shrugged but looked over at her companion, still rapt in low-voice conference. Wendy stared over at Camilla, and suddenly she felt a pang of apprehension.

Was her hesitation due to fear? Camilla felt her heart rate increase as she navigated the series of upward turns the road made. The rain was fierce, striking down onto the car with force, but at least it wasn’t hail. The Camry hugged the road as she wanted it to, but the heavy rain and darkness seemed like assailants. One vehicle, a pickup truck, passed her, shifting off its high beams momentarily. The motor gave a sudden roar as it shifted into low gear and she squinted ahead well aware that after going up, there would be a descent that wasn’t likely to be smooth.

Her subconscious remained in that crowded room, drawing closer to the moment she’d been dreaming of even as she sensed a new element. She passed a tight knot of onlookers and space opened up directly in front of her. She saw him at that moment and for that brief time he seemed to radiate welcome. Dan was tall, relaxed, casually but expensively dressed in modish jeans, tooled leather belt with an artistic buckle, and a Ryan shirt he could never have afforded back in high school. His gaze fell on hers and he smiled. Camilla tensed, waiting for the electric pulse that had always marked their rediscovery of each other after an absence — but it wasn’t there. One second his eyes bored into hers and the next, his head turned and looked down.

That moment opened up a new perspective now, one she hadn’t heeded before. Wrapped against his side was a slender woman, her well-curved figure also expensively clothed. Blonde hair spilled over her shoulders and she smiled easily. Camilla knew at once that she worked in some area of the entertainment industry, since there was a buzz among classmates who seemed to know her from somewhere. Magazine, movies, television, what did it matter… Camilla’s gut truly wrenched. This woman’s air of easy possessiveness told Camilla what she didn’t want to acknowledge. Using every ounce of energy and poise she could muster, Camilla did the only thing she could: smile.

“Camilla!” Dan cried and leaned forward to grab her hand. He half-hugged her and enthused “You look great!” Camilla stepped back as quickly as she could, in time to see the blonde grin at her. “Oh, your old girlfriend, Dan?” she cooed at him. “How sweet.” The next two minutes flashed by in unbearable slow motion. Camilla felt that she’d actually left her body, occupied now by a walking, talking, smiling automaton. Other classmates pressed in gradually, and Camilla was able to extricate herself from the chattering group.

Wendy took her arm. She and Lily dragged Camilla over to one of the food tables. They stared at her, Wendy squeezed her arm. “We figured you weren’t in a position to follow any news or gossip, and it seems we were right,” Lily stated glumly. “She’s a sportscaster for one of the national television channels. They met at some party in Hollywood a couple of months ago.” Wendy shook her head. “She’s also five or six years older than Dan. Ex-husband was a star on the U.S. Olympic hockey team.”

(continued next week)