“Hey, look at that,” I said.
“What is it, Daddy?” Pema asked.
I pointed a few yards ahead, near the side of the dirt road, “a snake.” It was thin and brown, no larger than a garter snake, with two white stripes running the length of its body. It was dead, snakes being common roadkill in these parts. “But I’ve never seen one like this before,” I continued, stopping to hunch over its fragile body. A bloodied scar ran a couple inches beneath its head to about midsection – the width of a car tire – but otherwise the sleek, coiled body was pristine.
“Can I touch it?” Pema asked.
“Yeah, if you want,” I answered. “Just…I don’t know…” I shrugged my shoulders. “Maybe don’t touch the bloody part.” I hadn’t had the inclination to touch the snake, but in order to demonstrate that it was safe I placed a finger on the tail end of its long, circuitous body, stroking it gently. Its skin was soft and pliable. It must have died recently, I thought. Poor thing.
“I’m going to…You know what, Daddy?”
“What, pup?” I answered, smiling. Pema, like me, tends to speak in short, clipped phrases. That is, until she works her thoughts out. She picked up a rock. “I’m going to move it to the side of the road, because…you know…”
“I don’t know,” I said. Of course, I did have a sense of what she meant – it’s natural enough to move a dead animal from the road – but I wanted to give her the chance to express it in her own words. Instead, she giggled.
Then she grew serious. A rock in each hand, she began scraping the snake to the side of the road. We both watched as its body adjusted and flopped. It wasn’t elegant, but the awkward reality of the task seemed to draw something out of her. For the time being there was no need to share further words.
I stood up and looked at the sun. It was a Saturday afternoon in mid-fall. Having little else to do, Pema and I were out on a walk. She and I are frequently together, but it’s often in the company of other children, especially now that I’m her kindergarten teacher. But that day, largely by stroke of luck, we had no other plans. Francis was napping, and Ruby was home with her dad.
An hour earlier, having gathered eggs from the chickens, Pema and I had collected leaves, scores of them, from the sumac trees near the coop. A cool, shady green in midsummer, the leaves were now dazzling red, almost magenta, with hints of orange, yellow and green. Now, as Pema scooted the snake to the side of the road, her bag, which hung awkwardly from her shoulder, was full of those refulgent leaves.
Silke was away for the week and we had set out with the nominal goal of arranging the leaves in some conspicuous place for her as a homecoming gift. Precisely what that would be, we didn’t know. Mostly, it was just an excuse to disappear from the world for a few hours and walk the dusty dirt road. It was October. The aspens in the mountains, which we could see plainly from our little valley, were golden yellow, and the purple asters, past the height of their bloom, were still abundant. In the fields, a low-lying herbaceous plant had gone to seed, leaving thousands of sparkling little tufts of silvery white thread floating on the wind.
The snake now respectfully to the side of the road, Pema put down the rocks and turned to me. Slipping her hand into mine, we continued our leisurely pace up the dirt lane. We had about a mile to go.
“Dada, will you tell me a story about your childhood?” Pema asked.
“Like what?” I replied.
“Like anything,” she answered. “It could be about you and Uncle Peter, or school, or…you know, anything.”
“Well…” I said, buying time as I searched my memory banks, “…when I was your age...” Then I spied a big puddle of water. “Hey, you want a rock?” I asked, spying a hefty one. “No,” she answered, letting go of my hand. “I mean, yes.” Hiking up the bag of leaves, which draped low on her shins, she leaned over to pick up a stone twice the size of the one I had grabbed.
“You go first,” I said, Pema already waddling over to the chocolate colored puddle. New Mexico is dry, but clayey soils in the shade can sometimes hold water for what seems like weeks. Pema dropped the rock into the water, then leapt back just in time to escape the muddy splash. She turned and smiled. I could do this all day, I thought.
“Okay, you go,” she said, and I tossed my rock high into the air. It landed with another big splash, radiating out in long concentric circles. Pushing the bag of leaves back up her shoulder, Pema turned and walked up to me.
“You want me to carry that?” I offered.
“No, I’m fine,” she said, reaching her hand silently into mine once again. “Maybe when we get to the top.”
We walked a few yards silently, then Pema piped up again. “Tell me a story about your childhood,” she said.
It may have been the puddle, or the crisp autumn air. Or it may have simply been that old familiar feeling – what was it? – timelessness in a container of autumn. Whatever it was, a memory knocked loose and I began to speak.
“Okay,” I said, “Remember GG’s house at the bay?” I was referring to my grandparent’s cottage on Sandusky Bay, a shallow inlet on the coast of Lake Erie, near Cleveland, where I grew up.
“Yeah,” Pema answered. She had visited there once when my grandmother turned ninety. It was a proper family reunion, and the whole clan had come in for the occasion. Growing up, my whole family lived in Cleveland, or somewhere nearby. My Dad being the oldest of eight children (six boys, two girls), holidays were big events, and summers at the bay were grand affairs, full of cousins, bonfires and sandy feet. I love my life in New Mexico, but I miss the comradery of those times, and I occasionally feel pangs of guilt that Pema doesn’t get to grow up with that kind of largesse.
“Do you remember the dock, the long walkway that went out over the water?” I asked.
“Well, every spring we put the dock in. And every fall we had to take it out,” I continued. “The bay freezes in the winter, and anything left in the water will get frozen and shattered as the ice moves around.”
“How does the ice move?”
“It’s kind of hard to explain.”
“Yeah, but tell me Daddy.”
“Well, basically anything in the water – like the poles of the dock – gets locked into the ice as winter comes. But the ice doesn’t freeze all the way down. There’s water underneath, where the fish live. That water moves, and the ice moves with it, breaking into big chunks over time, often huge chunks, and as it does it tangles up and bonks into anything left in the water. They call it shove ice, and apparently the snow and ice on the shore sometimes grew higher than the roof. Isn’t that wild?”
“Honestly, Pema, it’s all a story to me too. I never saw it, because I never went to the bay in the winter. Not even once. We only visited in the summer. And at the end of the season, as it turned to fall, we closed the whole place up. We had to take out the dock, and clean the house, and…”
“Where did you go in the winter?”
“We just stayed home, in Cleveland. The bay was about two hours away and I wouldn’t ever see the place till the following spring. I think my grandma and grandpa went once or twice, just to check on the place, but my dad didn’t, so neither did I.” Pema nodded her head thoughtfully. “Or Uncle Peter,” she said.
“Right. Anyway, my point is – we took the dock out every fall. That was a big task, and when we got old enough, we helped.”
“You and Uncle Peter?”
“Right. See, the dock comes apart in many pieces, the big steel poles and the flat pieces of decking. All the parts were labelled, and there’s bolts and nuts and various tools required. Including a ratchet. Remember what a ratchet is?”
“What is it?”
“It’s the twisty thing you use when you change the oil. Like a wrench.”
“Exactly. Well, in the spring we built the dock from the shore out, but in the fall we took it down from the far side, in the water, towards the shore. Right?”
“My uncles did all the important stuff, organizing and keeping track of everything. I just needed to help. But that meant standing in the water, and by then the water was very cold. There were always two or three of us in the water, and we had to hold the big pieces of wood decking in place while one of my uncles, kneeling on an as yet solid part of the deck, unbolted the next piece over. The poles themselves were pretty heavy, but the wood decks were much heavier. Sometimes you had to stand for a long time and hold one end up while someone unbolted the other side, and until then you couldn’t let go. There were four corners to each deck, and it was a bit of a puzzle to disassemble it all without breaking or losing anything. Anyway, that was part of the fun. The water was cold and our arms would get tired, and everyone would kind of joke and complain and, well, that was part of the fun too. My uncles would drink beer and Pete and I usually had a pop.”
“What’s a pop?”
“Soda. Like fruit juice, but with bubbles.” Pema looked a little confused. “Yeah, we don’t drink pop, do we?” Pema shook her head. Bless her heart, I don’t think she’s ever had a can of soda in her whole life. “Well, anyway,” I continued, “occasionally something went wrong, but mostly it was just…whoa! Pema! Did you see that lizard?”
“Over there,” I said, pointing to the side of the road. “It was just a little guy, a baby.”
“Oh, I see it.”
We stopped to watch the little brown whiptail, who had climbed up a piece of cardboard.
“Hey, Dad - what’s that?” Pema asked, eyeing the littered and dilapidated section of earth next to the road. We had passed it countless times before, but here we were staring directly at it. A bit of a nowhere land, it’s the kind of place people dump garbage and shoot guns.
“Well…” I began. “It used to be a gravel pit. See the marks in the dirt, sort of like huge claws?”
“A long time ago, this was just a hillside, like everywhere else. Then, someone brought a backhoe in here, or some big machine, and they scraped out a lot of dirt. That’s what all those markings are.”
“Yeah, good question.” The lizard scurried under a thorny shrub. “Well, they used that dirt for things like roads and leveling out other pieces of land, and that sort of thing. Like this road here,” and I stamped my feet. “It’s mostly just the dirt that was already here, but there’s been gravel added to it. Makes it harder.”
“Yeah, but why’s it so messy?”
“Well, sometimes people dump garbage here…which is not so nice.”
“It’s not nice for mother earth.”
“No, it’s not. But, it is what happened. And the fact is, our trash – even yours and mine – gets dumped on the earth too. Just somewhere else. I still want to take you to the dump. We have to do that someday.” Pema smiled. She knows I love the dump. There’s just something about throwing your trash directly on the earth that is so…visceral. There’s no escaping the cold reality of acres of human trash. You really have to look yourself in the face. And even if you feel remorse, you still have to chuck it.
“And people shoot here,” Pema said.
“Yeah,” I answered, “you’re right.” I eyed the old tv, which had been shot through a couple hundred times or more. There was also an old sofa, and some other loose trash. It’s not exactly a place you want to spend time at, which, in a twisted sort of logic, makes it the perfect place to spend time at.
“I’ve heard them, Daddy,” Pema said, as if this made her mature.
“Yeah, me too,” and I shrugged my shoulders. I used to be the kind of person that grimaced every time I came upon a piece of trash, especially in a river or wilderness setting. I would jam as much as I could in my pockets and curse the assholes who threw it there, then promptly throw it all in the trash when I got home. But after a while I got tired of all the judgement, not only of the people, but the stuff itself. Looking at beer bottles and fast food cups as litter made it so that I saw the earth as filled with litter. Today, I prefer looking at litter as filled with earth.
“Keep telling me the story, Dad,” Pema said. We had turned back to the road, our feet crunching the gravel and dust once again.
“Okay,” I said, pausing thoughtfully. We were at the bottom of a long incline, roughly halfway between our house and Silke’s. At the top, we would walk out upon the broad, flat mesa, and from there it was another half mile or so to Silke’s. “You okay with the bag?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Pema answered. I looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, smitten with my girl, then shook my head. Life shouldn’t be this good, I thought.
“Alright, well…” I said, returning to the bay. “Taking the dock out was always fun, but it was sort of bittersweet, because it meant it was the last time we’d go to the bay for the year. I had so many cousins, and we’d go to the bay almost every weekend during the summer. It was just…well, it was a lot of fun. Leaving was hard. So, taking the dock out was sort of fun, but sort of sad. It meant the summer was over. By then we would have already started school, and I knew I wouldn’t even see the bay again till next year.”
“So, you were sad?”
“Well, not exactly. Like I said, it was fun, and helping my uncles made me feel like I was big and important…like I was helping with family stuff. It was good. And afterward, as always, we’d have a big meal and maybe we’d stay one more night. But, by and large, taking that dock out was always an ending. It was symbolic. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I remember one time in particular, when I was finally big enough to carry the big pieces of deck. They were very heavy, and it took at least two adults to hold them, one on each side. When I first started helping, Uncle Peter and I would each hold a corner, with maybe my dad or one of my uncles on the other side. But eventually we were strong enough to hold one of the sides ourselves, and, well, that felt important. It was the same with the steel poles. A grown man can hold one, but a young child…”
“You mean an adolescent?” asked Pema, a word she narrowed in on at an early age.
“Yeah, like an adolescent,” I said, shaking my head in confirmation. “When I was an adolescent, I needed my dad, or maybe Uncle Peter, to carry the other end of the pole. They had these huge metal feet on them, which were very heavy…”
“They had feet?” Pema asked, giggling at the thought.
“Well...” I answered, thoughtfully. “Not feet, not like you or I have,” and I smiled at the image. “But they were like big metal plates at the bottom. In the spring, when we pounded the poles into the lake bottom…”
“You mean the bay?”
“Yes, the bay. Anyway, the metal feet, which were big and wide, slid all the way down the pole to the mud. You had to stand on them when we put them in, and one of my uncles would use a huge sledge hammer and bang the poles into the muck. Then you had to tighten the bolts underwater.”
“What’s a sledge hammer?”
“Just a big metal hammer. It’s very heavy. Kind of like an axe, but heavier. As heavy as,” I tapped my fingers, “a big stone.”
“Like that one?” Pema asked, pointing to a grapefruit-sized rock on the side of the road.
“Bigger. Like that one,” I said, pointing to one the size of a loaf of bread.
“Yeah. But wait, wasn’t I talking about the dock?”
“Yeah, but it had feet.”
“Right. The poles had feet. But the poles, even though they were very heavy, weren’t as heavy as the decks. They were much heavier.”
“Dada, look!” Pema said, pointing to the sandy earth at the side of the road. In the soft soil, where rain had recently dumped a load of fresh silt in little pools and eddies, was a distinct claw mark.
“Yeah!” I answered, “What do you think it is?”
“A raccoon!” Pema said, excitedly.
“Hm. I don’t know. A raccoon would be a bit bigger I think. And more like a hand.” I spread my own out as an example. “This looks like a squirrel to me, but it’s too big for a squirrel. Could be a skunk, or maybe something like a weasel. It might even be a rabbit. They have claws too.”
“Look, Daddy, there’s more!” The tracks led up the hillside, then disappeared behind a large chamisa bush. “Wait – look Dad! A tarantula!” And sure enough, out from behind the chamisa came a black and tan tarantula. Fairly common this time of year, when the males are out searching for mates, the hairy spiders are a big hit with the kids. And me. Unfortunately, like snakes, they’re common roadkill too.
The first time Pema saw a tarantula she was three years old. We had stopped on the side of the road near a campsite. Putting the car in park, I had left it on the pavement, there being no quick place to turn off. While Pema and her mother ogled the hairy tarantula, I kept a lookout for cars. After a while, a huge truck came around the corner pulling a big camper. Moving to the side of the road, Pema watched with her mother as I directed the truck around our parked car. I pointed and pointed at the spider, but the driver didn’t see it. Or maybe he didn’t care. The front tire took it straight on, and that was the end of that. Pema cried for a good long while.
“It’s going towards the road, Dada,” Pema said, a bit of anxiety lingering in her words.
“It’s probably fine,” I said to Pema, shrugging my shoulders. We hadn’t seen a car the whole time we’d been walking, and the dirt road we were traveling was used only by the few folks who live on it. Fact is, it’s nearly impossible to reorient these lusty males. I’ve tried. While they do navigate around obstacles, they tend to follow a fairly straight overall path, and you can’t really veer them off course. Whether the sun, the scent of a female, or the earth’s magnetic field – whatever it is – they always orient in the same basic direction, and if there’s a road in the way there’s no keeping them from it. Same thing with a snake. You can chase them off a warm, dirt road, but they’re just going to climb back on later.
“Yeah, it’s probably fine,” Pema agreed. She’s so dutiful. Hiking the bag of leaves up her shoulder, she turned to me.
“Good luck!” I said.
“Yeah, good luck tarantula,” Pema echoed. We were silent for a moment, then turned and began walking up the hill. The top was nearby, and I could already feel the expansiveness of the mesa arriving like a window onto the whole world.
“Keep telling me, Dada,” Pema said.
“Well, it’s interesting that we saw the tarantula,” I said, “because that was kind of the point of my story. What I really remember about taking out the dock were the spiders. See, the whole summer spiders built webs underneath the dock, in every crack and empty spot. Even in the poles. You hardly noticed them, because they were under the deck and mostly out of the way. But there were lots of them. There’s something about a dock, like a streetlight. I think it’s that insects like to hover over the water at night, or, I don’t know. For whatever reason, there were tons of spiders. Tons. In fact, I think they added a significant amount to the weight of the dock. Probably would have been lighter without them.” I paused.
“Noooo…” said Pema.
“Nah, probably not. Still, there were a lot of spiders. We’re talking all summer long. Sometimes, while we were playing in the water, we’d walk or swim under the dock and you always had to duck your head, otherwise you’d get a mess of spiderwebs in your hair. And sometimes you’d see their fat bodies walking across the deck in the early morning, or late at night. But mostly it wasn’t a big deal. They kept to themselves. But they were big, fat ones. Not as big as the tarantulas, of course, but they had huge fat bodies that seemed swollen with insects, and eggs. They were mostly a bluish-gray, as I recall, or a grayish-green, but some of them were white. I don’t know what kind of spiders they were, but they…”
“Did you touch them?” Pema asked.
“No. I didn’t like them. I didn’t hate them, but I mostly tried to stay away. I didn’t really like bugs as a kid. I didn’t like putting worms on hooks, either.”
“Eh, nothing. What I’m getting at is, every year when we took the dock out, we took out the big wooden decks, one at a time. Once they were unbolted from the poles, we dropped them into the water and floated them to the shore. Well, the spiders, which had lived all summer in bug-heaven, suddenly got soaked. And they didn’t like it. Within seconds, every spider would be crawling on top of the deck, trying to get away from the water. And you’d be shocked how many could be on one piece. I’m talking dozens, probably millions.”
“Okay, probably not millions, but more than there were stars in the sky.”
“No, really. There just aren’t that many stars in Cleveland. Anyway, it was a lot. And when we got to the shore, we had to pick up the decks, which, as I said, were extremely heavy. We didn’t have to carry them far, a couple hundred feet or so…”
“Where did you put them?”
“Just on a spot in the grass nearby. The whole thing – the decks, the poles, everything – would just sit on the ground, maybe under a tarp, till next spring. That’s when you had to worry about wasps, but right now, in the fall, we’re talking about spiders. Big ones. Hundreds of them. See, you’d be carrying the dock, and all these spiders would be crawling around, trying to save their lives and figure out what was going on. And if one happened to crawl near your arm, it would just climb on up. It was looking for anything safe. But the dock was heavy, so heavy, that I couldn’t let go. I couldn’t hold it with one arm and swat with the other. Plus, I’m surrounded by my aunts and uncles, and everybody’s joking and getting a little irritated, so I didn’t exactly feel like I could wimp out because of a few spiders. Sometimes I’d have three or four crawling up my arms – big, fat guys – and I’d just have to leave it at that and keep going. And it’s not like I could ignore them. They were right in front me, crawling, crawling, crawling. Anyway, I didn’t like that.” I stopped and smiled, laughing at myself. “I think nowadays, I’d probably handle it better, but as a young child…”
“You mean an adolescent?”
“Yeah, as an adolescent I didn’t exactly enjoy that. But that’s partly the fun of the story. Because sometimes things you don’t like are funny. Or, they are after the fact.” I looked up, over the wide mesa. The mountains were black and gray, yellow and green, and sky was clear blue. We had reached the top. “It’s probably twenty years since I last did that,” I said.
“Dada, look. I can see Silke’s house.” Surely, I thought. Silke’s house, a three-story home with a pitched roof, in a land full of one-story homes with flat roofs, can pretty much be seen from Missouri. Especially on the mesa, where nothing grows taller than my knees.
“Yep,” I answered, “we’re almost there.”
An hour later, Pema and I were headed out Silke’s front door. We had spread our sumac leaves on the bedroom floor, first just playing with the colors, arranging them in piles of gold, red, orange and green. Then Pema had suggested we make a heart with wings. “Silke likes hearts,” she said, “and wings,” which was true enough.
Having snuck an apple from her fridge, we were on our way out when we ran into Waylan. Waylan lives in a small hand-built camper he’s attached to the back of his truck, which he sometimes detaches and leaves on a corner of Silke’s property. In exchange, he does a bit of handiwork for Silke now and again. New Mexico is full of guys like this, which is part of what makes it so interesting. “You guys want eggs?” Waylan asked.
“Sure,” I answered, nodding approvingly. Our own chickens at New Buffalo were only turning out two or three a day, and we had recently realized that some of them were missing, likely due to coyotes.
“There’s a dozen on the counter inside,” Waylan said. “Take ‘em.”
“What about Silke?” I asked. “She’ll be back tomorrow.”
“No, I’ve already got ten in here,” he said, meaning his camper, “and I know there’s another dozen or so in the bushes. I haven’t collected any today. There’s plenty.”
“Okay, if you’re sure,” I answered.
Walking back inside, I picked up a handful of eggs, then began searching for a carton or something in which to hold them. But I couldn’t find anything very useful.
“I don’t know, pup, what do you think?” I asked, holding up my egg-laden hand to her.
“You can put them in my bag,” Pema said, shrugging her shoulders.
I almost brushed her off – that would never do – but then I thought about walking a mile and a half down a dusty dirt road in the late afternoon with my daughter in October, telling stories and holding hands, with a bag full of fragile eggs.
“Oh my God, pup, you’re brilliant,” I said, and began stuffing them inside.