Cynthia Baughman, Santa Fe
After nine months at home and who knew how many more to come, Duncan and I went to buy our Christmas tree at the stand where we always go. Nobody was coming for Christmas. Duncan’s daughter Alicia was working in New Zealand, and we were cloistered in our old adobe house outside Santa Fe, but we still wanted a tree. A small tree, not like the bountiful ones we had when a dozen people came for Christmas dinner and the bedrooms were packed with guests. Back then, my mother drove up from Albuquerque, and Duncan’s parents came from their retirement community nearby. His sister and her family drove from Denver. Alicia brought international students home from college so that they could experience an American Christmas. A neighbor and her children walked up the lane with a tin of homemade biscochitos.
I was an ambitious cook back then. One year, I made turkey mole with an organic turkey from Embudo, Mexican chocolate, and three kinds of New Mexican chiles. I stayed up all night on Christmas Eve making that mole from scratch. Roasted tomatillos, raisins fried until plump, chopped tablets of chocolate, ground cinnamon, anise, and cloves. Nineteen ingredients in that sauce. I was proud of it, but I heard later that Duncan’s parents did not like it, so I reverted to roast turkey and played around with the stuffing. Piñons, cornbread, chorizo.
Now our parents are dead. Duncan’s sister is dead. His nephew’s first wife is dead, killed by a drunk driver just about this time of year. All our friends are hunkered down. “Our job is keeping each other alive through this winter,” I said to Duncan. “I’ll keep you fed, you be my doctor, and we will live to see summer.”
Hunkering down has been easier for me than for Duncan. At the end of the scary, suddenly online spring semester, I was furloughed from the community college where I taught and started Social Security. I threw myself into online election volunteering, and Alicia texted “Thank you!!!” when Arizona was finally called.
Duncan is a doctor specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of cholesterol disorders. He is seventy-one with an artificial heart valve. I am sixty-five with asthma. High risk. He switched to seeing his patients on FaceTime and Zoom, but he misses being in the room with them. I am a broken record: “It would be fatal for both of us and Alicia is too busy to take the dogs if we die.”
One of Duncan’s patients sells Christmas trees in a motel parking lot. “Hey, Doc,” he said through his mask sprigged with Santas. “What a year, huh? But we made it to Christmas. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you, Buddy. Handsome mask. And you got some good-looking trees.”
“What you looking for this year?”
“We’re going small. A quiet Christmas. Just us and the dogs.”
“I hear ya.”
Buddy glanced at the bumper sticker on the back of our truck. “So, I guess you’re happy about the election, huh, Doc.”
“ ‘Happy’ does not begin to describe it.”
Buddy, clearly, was not happy about the election. “I wouldda thought a doctor would care more about his taxes. You work hard enough for it.”
“Taxes pay for schools and roads and museums and the NIH and the FDA, which will regulate the vaccine,” I said, and Duncan gave me a look that said, Sometimes, could you just take a pass.
“I’m not getting any Bill Gates microchip vaccine,” said Buddy as he wound twine around our tree. “How about you, Doc?”
“I’m specifically requesting the one with the microchip,” said Duncan. “I want Bill to be able to find me if he ever has any questions about his cholesterol.”
While Duncan unloaded the tree and fixed it in its stand and carried in boxes of ornaments from the shed, I put on Elvis’ Christmas album and microwaved yesterday’s lasagna, made a salad and set the table with Christmas napkins leftover from last year.
“When we finish the tree, we can send a picture to Alicia. With the dogs. I’ll make a ‘Merry Christmas Alicia’ sign for Clovis to wear.”
My husband looked like he could cry.
“I know how it hurts you, sweetheart. I miss her too. Remember that Chinese premed student she brought home one year? Mei.”
“She was really smart,” he said. “We talked about gene therapy.”
“I guess she is a doctor in China by now. She could have been in Wuhan, for all we know. Did we ask where her home was? I don’t know if I would have remembered Wuhan because back then I’d never heard of Wuhan.” I pushed the salad toward him. “Now I guess we will go to our graves never having visited China.”
Duncan did not care if he ever saw China. He didn’t want to travel anywhere he could not bring his dogs. Unless his daughter was working there — she’s designed sets for movies in Argentina, Atlanta, Russia, Thailand, Texas. She’s supposed to work in Santa Fe next summer if things go OK. The unions have tight protocols, she tells us. We work in pods. We are tested all the time. Everyone is careful.
I went on. “So many people have it worse than we do. Parents of little kids. Unemployed June graduates. People in high rises. People lonely and alone or stuck with someone they can’t stand. Workers who can’t telecommute. People losing their jobs who are too young for Social Security. Let’s count our blessings.”
Duncan pointed at the dogs and counted. “One blessing, two blessings.” He kissed the top of my head. “Three blessings.”
I kissed him back. “Four.”
“Time to go out, girls,” he said. I watched out the kitchen window as a magpie flew off into the dusk and the dogs squatted in the dry grass while my husband stood there, vigilant. Four of us for Christmas, counting the dogs. And we would finish the tree in the morning. There was plenty of time. ◀
KEEP YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL
Dona Bolding, Santa Fe
The Morocco Motel is not a place where I want to sit on dirt and pluck dry grass by the highway while we wait for Hazel’s mother to come out of Room 8. I keep checking the time.
Hazel says, “Carrie, you’re too old to wear a Mickey Mouse watch.”
I say, “Twelve is not thirteen.” As long as we live, Hazel will be six months older.
She swears we’ll swim today. Every minute that passes suggests we won’t. Mother had said I could go to the swimming hole so long as I promised not to drive Hazel’s car. Bagshaw, the projectionist at our picture show, told Daddy he’d seen me behind the wheel out on Lone Star Alley. I was grounded until today. Hazel hadn’t warned we’d be taking Laraine out of town. Now, I’m kidnapped.
“Let’s play a game,” I say. Last night we saw Shall We Dance, with Fred Astaire as Peter and Ginger Rogers as Linda. “Say how you and Linda are alike. Like this: Linda has a little dog. Me too.” I mark one point in the dirt.
Hazel thinks. “Linda’s a good dancer. Me too.” “Good point,” I say. “Linda has a vanity with a round mirror. Me too.”
“That’s Mother’s,” says Hazel.
We call my mother Mother. We call hers Laraine.
“Daddy moved it to my room.”
“Oh, Daddy,” says Hazel. “Does he do your hair there?”
My hair is an inch long. When I got nits, Daddy shaved it. I dock Hazel’s point.
“You lose,” I say. “Hey, I’ve got one. Linda has a satin gown ...” I hadn’t noticed Bagshaw’s blue pickup across the road. It needs a wash.
“Mother used her organza for my banquet dress.”
Hazel’s face squinches. We all wear sack dresses, but Mother makes mine look like Sears Roebuck. Now she’s cut up her old evening gown for me, another reason for Hazel to be jealous. Hazel’s a half-orphan — my daddy says her daddy succumbed to moonshine — but she inherited a souped-up Roadster. No other thirteen-year-old has that. Laraine can’t drive it — her leg shriveled from infantile paralysis — but Hazel can.
“Fred Astaire is a Philadelphia Fancy Man.”
Like my father, she means. In our town, he’s the only man who wears a fedora. A western hat looks stupid with wingtips. I wrestle her down. We tickle-
fight until we’re helpless, our backs in the grit. We sing “Keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved” and undulate our arms, Busby Berkeley style.
A gust blows up. Room 8’s door opens and Laraine faces the wind like a clothesline in a dust storm, barefooted, bone-leg planted on the ground. Then it’s still. We stand up and beat clouds of dust from our shorts. Laraine limps forward. She raises her lip.
Hazel says, “Where’s your tooth?”
Laraine holds up a bloody handkerchief. We ease her off the walk. She winces on the gravel and says, “My thooth.”
“Your tooth?” I venture.
“Get her shoes,” Hazel orders as she folds Laraine into the back of the car. Laraine’s feet don’t match. She has to buy two pairs. I’m sorry about that but I’m frozen.
Laraine groans. “He’th gone.”
When I come out of Room 8 with the mismatched pumps, Hazel’s backed up the car. She hops out with the engine’s running. She has the Conoco map in her hand.
“You’re driving, Carrie. Laraine’s swoony.”
“My thig-th,” comes a croak from the backseat. I go in again and get her Luckies.
Hazel’s driving pillow pushes my ribs to the wheel. My feet dance around on the pedals. The Roadster jumps like a big jackrabbit and we herky-jerk onto the highway. The needle shimmies up. The stick shakes like crazy.
“Second,” Hazel shouts. “Double-clutch.”
We pass Bagshaw’s pickup. No one’s in it. Hazel fans Laraine with the map. I shift into third like a natural. Before long, Laraine’s sniffs becomes snores. Hazel covers her ears and looks out at the ranch land. It’s beautiful but I have bad luck on my mind. When I went in for the cigarettes, I saw a fox-brown hat on the bed.
If I tell Daddy that Bagshaw took his fedora to the Morocco Motel, I’m the one who’ll get in trouble. We never did swim. It’s Shall We Dance at the show again tonight. I’ll get Hazel whatever she wants from the concession stand. When I see Bagshaw in the projection booth, I won’t smile.
Closer to home, I press harder on the gas. We almost soar going over the last hill. Laraine’s alive now, sitting up. She beats on the back of my seat.
“Thlow down! You want to kill uth?”
Our right turn is below, Lone Star Alley. Hazel braces her arm against the glove box.
She hasn’t taught me that. I smash my heel on the brake, and we slide into a loop-de-loop like a ride at the Frontier Centennial until the Roadster tilts high on its side and slams down. Tires pop. My body is red jelly in a sandwich. I say, “ma-ma.” My front teeth jiggle on my tongue. Mickey Mouse is crushed. I want to tell Hazel that she’s right — I’m too old for this watch — but she’s not there.
The milky sky means suppertime. Mother would pray, “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills,” so I do it. A blackbird dips. I try to think about Shall We Dance, Linda flying into the heavens with her little dog, but it hurts. I want my little dog.
Sun strikes the fender of Bagshaw’s truck as it comes over the rise. It rolls down slowly and edges off the road. The door opens. Daddy’s hat is on his own head.
He cries, “Carrie!”
He puts his hand on my forehead to look at my face. I shut my eyes tight. If I can’t see Daddy, he can’t see me. ◀
ACE IN THE HOLE
Jennifer Edelson, Santa Fe
Girls that kiss in cars always get more than they bargain for; that’s what Momma says.
The day I fell off Jimmy’s swing set and Eddie swooped in out of nowhere to save me, lashes fluttering over earnest brown eyes bigger than wheels, I was done for. Kissing in cars? Heck, I would have jumped Eddie on Jimmy’s lawn, in front of all the mommas on Milton Street just to prove I’d be Eddie’s forever.
Eddie patched my knee and, that summer, I made it my business to steal his heart. Every day, I biked past the sandlot where Eddie played, or past his daddy’s work where Eddie helped box peaches. And later, when his own momma got wind of what my momma called ‘my little preoccupation’ to Eddie’s house, dragging Jimmy along like a too-worn security blanket behind me.
Even at ten, I knew Jimmy was an asset — my ace in the hole — Eddie’s competition and the reason Eddie never lost interest. Momma taught me that one. Her whole life she had had an ace in the hole too; buttoned-up Vernon Lewin. Polite as a pope, the other mommas called him.
Momma swore Vernon helped her sort the losers from the winners. All she had to do was teeter into the Tipsy Cow on those stacked heels with Vernon on her arm, and the men would all drop their pool sticks and gather round her like she’d come to dole out first-class tickets to heaven. The winners, she said, fought for her because they knew a good woman when they saw one. The losers walked away with their tails between their legs.
Jimmy, and Eddie, and I, we spent that summer exchanging wits over cookies in Eddie’s sunny kitchen, beneath his momma’s cherished ‘Bless Me Jesus’ needlepoint. Or on Jimmy’s creaky backyard seesaw, catching splinters where the sun don’t shine.
“Why did the ketchup blush?” Eddie would yell, planting his feet in the grass before pumping his legs up and down, springy like the coils in my mattress. The one Momma used to yell at me for mistaking for a trampoline.
“Why did the ketchup blush?” I’d yell back, giggling as I stared up a slope at his pale face, reduced to a smudgy thumbprint by the sun behind him.
“Because he saw the salad dressing!”
Eddie would whoop then, falling to Earth as my own seat rose high into the air above him, confusing my beat-up Keds for birds as I reached the pinnacle.
Then Jimmy and Eddie and me, we’d all burst out laughing.
Sometimes, Jimmy got in on the action too. It’s how he tested bad words.
“Listen up!” he once yelled from the sidelines. “Two fish swim into a wall, and one of them says ... damn!”
That one especially made me laugh. But not Eddie. He called Jimmy’s joke crass, repeating this word his momma liked to call the pictures we sometimes drew to make each other snicker after sneaking into Eddie’s basement to read his daddy’s dirty magazines. I found out later that Eddie got enough of a whooping for repeating it at the dinner table that night — because “damn” isn’t one of Jesus’ favorite words.
That was the best summer. The first year before the last year Jimmy and Eddie really got along. Before Eddie made me pick between them, and Jimmy stopped being my ace in the hole. Before Jimmy turned into a bargaining chip and stopped being my friend. His words.
Those who cast stones should not live in glass houses — Momma’s favorite saying. And I’ll be honest, I never understood it. Except now, Caddy Jenkins is Jimmy’s ace in the hole and he parades her past me at every opportunity. Though God’s honest truth, except for missing his stupid jokes, it doesn’t bother me a bit. Plus, at least Caddy is someone else’s something. Because as my momma also says, she’s just a little bit shy of dumb and a little bit left of homely.
Maybe, sometimes, I do miss Jimmy. But time don’t change it. My life is a bargaining chip where Eddie’s concerned. And no matter what Momma says, any random minute with Eddie is worth every moment of fire and brimstone that awaits us. Babies, shame, disease: they pale in the shadow of his kiss.
At least, that’s what I’m guessing.
The other thing Momma says? Girls ain’t got no right to be kissing when they’re only thirteen.
Momma brought me into this world, but Eddie fuels my soul. Momma feeds me, but Eddie is the air I breathe. And, unlike Momma, Eddie doesn’t ask for anything. Plus, Momma would never steal the keys to Uncle Jessie’s Cutlass and risk a beating to prove how much she loves me, like Eddie just did.
“What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t come back?” Eddie asks, sliding closer across Uncle Jessie’s bucket seat.
“What?” I giggle.
Under a glint of moonlight reflecting off the rearview mirror, Eddie’s saucer eyes glimmer.
“I got one.” I raise my hand, dying to tell him. “A monk asks a priest if it’s okay to kiss a nun. The priest replies, just don’t get into the habit.”
Eddie raises an eyebrow. “Just watch me.”
It’s black as asphalt out now. Uncle Jessie’s worn bench seat shifts again as Eddie moves closer. I reach for him, ignoring Momma’s voice and the hollow in my heart where Jimmy’s face sometimes haunts me.
The past, present, and the future walk into a bar. It was tense.
That’s the joke I’d tell Jimmy if he were here now — .
I know what I want. But now that Jimmy’s a ghost, I also know now can feel like forever and that, until it’s at my door, tomorrow doesn’t exist. Time is like that. Always making us feel like we’ve been tricked when, really, we just never stop to reckon with it.
Jimmy would love this moment. The uncertainty.
The space between then and later where nothing is final.
Not even Momma’s warning. ◀