by Lea Macquarrie
One late Sunday afternoon during a country club luncheon gig outside of Albuquerque, a recently widowed Air Force officer’s wife asked him for a dance. She was playfully flirtatious with a youthful figure and great smile, and though she was probably older than him by at least ten years and the music playing on the PA during the break was lame, he figured what the hell and accepted. He was the band’s saxophonist and this was taking place during a break between sets. She said the saxophone was her favorite instrument and her name was Nicole and what was his? He said Moth and she replied that’s a weird name and he said he was a weird guy. She seemed to choose her words thoughtfully; he could tell she was well educated. She turned out to be a good dancer too, a follower not a leader. She wore a smart black dress that showed a tasteful hint of cleavage, a sparkling necklace drew attention to her elegant long neck, and her dark auburn hair was cut on a slant that complimented her inquisitive brown eyes, which intrigued him. The country club where this took place was built high on a bluff overlooking a mesa of sagebrush and desert. The band was booked there for two weeks. They smoked a joint outside on the veranda. It was late afternoon and nearing sunset; the distantly lighted city of Albuquerque twittered in the valley far beyond. Later he went back and played the last set and when it was over she was waiting for him. She mentioned a cabin she had in the Pecos Wilderness and asked if he was interested in a long pleasant drive in the moonlight on back country roads.
They rode up in her Jeep convertible with the top down and had to shout over the wind that blew in from the road.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“I’ll be twenty five in June. You?”
“Older than you, that’s for sure. Old enough under these circumstances to be a cliché. Does it matter?”
“Have you ever been with a woman my age before?”
“You might like it.”
“I expect to. It’s why I’m here. I find you attractive and interesting.”
“Yeah, that’s me. I can cook too. And I’m smart. Do you like smart women, Moth?”
“Frankly, Nicole, I’m not as experienced with women as you might expect.”
“Really? Good looking guy like you? I thought you musicians had free pickings.”
“Some do. Not the good ones, though. We’re busy perfecting our music.”
But to say he lacked experience was truthful only in that he had had no lasting relationships. Before going on the road, he had loved a woman deeply back home, but it hadn’t worked out, and she had wound up marrying one of his boyhood friends. He later became involved with a married woman, which only made him ashamed. His last serious attempt, with a divorcee out of Spokane, also ended in failure. Afterwards, during his first six months on the road, there had been almost as many women as there had been motel beds. Some he vaguely remembered, most he did not. Of those he did, it was with fondness, but the memory was sketchy and usually anatomical and impersonal: the movement of a woman’s naked breasts as she leaned over him, a mess of long tangled hair dangling in his eyes and sweeping his face while straddled, the pleasing shape of a woman’s buttocks when leaving his bed for the shower. He could remember some of their faces, but none of their names. Mostly they were interchangeable, women who partied in dance halls and bars, who didn’t want a relationship any more than he did. Rarely had one of these women shared his bed for longer than a few days and nights, but usually for just one night, and he had long since arrived at an uncomplicated indifference in which he mostly slept alone and preferred it.
But he was too young to have given up on women and love. He knew this. He could not sustain a relationship, and in this regard he knew there was something wrong with him.
It was a long drive with heavy traffic congesting around Santa Fe and both of them were tired when they turned off the main highway onto a two lane road. Night fell and they drove another hour on dark back roads and then Nicole pulled off and shut off the engine with an abruptness that startled him. Somewhere along the way, briefly, he had fallen asleep.
“We’re almost there", she said. "We have to walk from here. The cabin is a mile and a half beyond those cottonwoods. There is no road. ”
She slipped off her shoes, threw them in back and exchanged them for some boots while he opened the jeep door and stepped into a vastness so dark it was impossible to see more than a few feet. They hiked through a clearing into a wooded grove and eventually into a field of prairie grass from which the murmur of a running brook could be heard. They continued beyond this, carefully following Nicole’s flashlight beam to negotiate a narrow rock-strewn path leading to a small wooden bridge crossing the creek. His first view of the cabin was of a small L shaped adobe and stone abode with a tin roof, and not at all what he expected. Nicole said it had once been a getaway for her and her husband and bordered a state wildlife preserve. The cabin was old and in moderate disrepair and when she opened the door a mouse ran out. The inside was dank with the atmosphere of a house without human habitation for many months. It was necessary to leave the doors and windows open to let in fresh air to replace the smell of musk, but there was a nice breeze circulating between the two doors. Nicole assured him that despite the absence of electricity or running water the isolation made the lack of conveniences worthwhile. She showed him around, opening cupboards stocked with canned and dry goods in the panty and an ample liquor cabinet from which she made them drinks. A well with delicious cold water was located in back and an outhouse beyond was situated in a patch of woodland. There were some mouse droppings on the floor and some ants in the pantry but Nicole changed into some jeans and a t-shirt and swept the place out and wiped down the counters and shelves and had the place clean and comfortable quickly.
They were awkward and tentative with each other initially. He became acutely aware they were absolutely alone in the wilderness and he didn’t know much of anything about her or why they were together. It occurred to him for the first time he was stuck out here in the woods with no telephone and no way back. No one even knew he was out here, in this wilderness. What if she turned out to be some kind of deviant nut case with sex toys consisting of locking restraints, blow torches, and dental tools? No one would even hear his screams out here. And hadn’t there been something in the newspapers about a serial killer running loose in this part of the country, dismembered bodies found in the woods, shit like that?
When she asked if he might be able to cut some firewood for the wood stove he was grateful for something to do and relieved to get outside. By then the moon had come out from behind some clouds and there was so much moonlight that a kerosene lamp hardly seemed necessary. There were only a few stars visible and perhaps because of the cold he thought of them as ice crystals and maybe they were at that. Frozen planets, suspended in emptiness, eternally drifting.
Earlier there had been a chill in the air, but now the temperature had turned positively cold. His ears burned and stung with it, and his cheeks reddened. A big tree stump by the side of the cabin had an axe stuck in it and beside it was a pile of cut wood and a wedge and sledgehammer. He looked forward to warming up with the task.
Some cut cedar split easily into kindling. The oak had some large knots in it so he had to crack it open with a wedge and sledgehammer before splitting it with the axe. He worked efficiently and knowledgably, memories of his Yakima boyhood coming back to him, and after awhile had made a nice pile of wood to bring in to Nicole, who already had a fire going and something cooking on the wood stove. Kerosene lamps burned in several places and whatever was cooking on the woodstove smelled marvelous. He sat on the leather couch and looked out the windows at the stars.
Nicole joined him and he kissed her and soon she was breathing heavily and whimpering. He had his hands all over her and began unbuttoning her clothing but stopped because she began crying. He asked what was wrong and she said she hadn't been very active sexually since her husband died and was still having trouble adjusting. She told him to please not take it personally, it wasn’t because of him, she was sorry and embarrassed and it wouldn’t happen again, if there was ever going to be an again, it was up to him. He told her it was okay and not to worry about it.
Later she served cheese enchiladas with rice and beans from the woodstove and shots of Cuervo with Corona chasers. She told him about her marriage, her life as an officer’s wife traveling around the world, and of her life as a widow. Her husband had been killed in the war. She said she always knew he would be, from the day he left. Knew when she kissed him goodbye at the airport luggage kiosk it was for the last time. She had a sister and two adorable nieces in Iowa who kept urging her to move in with them, but she hadn’t really decided yet what she was going to do. She couldn’t imagine living in Iowa, all that flatland, all that corn. Albuquerque was bad enough. She was thinking maybe San Diego, somewhere near the beach. What about you, she asked? What’s it like to be you, Moth?
It didn’t seem fair by comparison to tell her how beautiful his life was. He played it down, told her about the less glamorous side of his life; how far off people were when they imagined the life of a musician or what kind of person a musician really was. The road miles were weary and monotonous, the food was greasy, you never got enough sleep, and even though you woke up in a different bed every morning everything was basically the same. But he couldn’t restrain himself. He ended up telling her that he was blessed with a life beyond anything he could ever imagine for himself, certainly beyond what he deserved. Of all that he might have been given at his birth, whether to have been born into a family of wealth and privilege, whether to have been the recipient of superior intelligence, extraordinary beauty or unequaled physical strength and athleticism, to be gifted as a musician was a treasure beyond any he might have chosen. He wouldn’t trade it for anything, not for power, for money, not even for love. As a musician he experienced moments of being that were otherwise inaccessible, transcendent experiences that elevated consciousness and perception. It was more than prayer; it was direct communion with the spiritual world.
But then he felt Nicole withdraw and knew that instead of inspiring her, he had brought her down. He asked if she was all right and she said yes but she couldn’t comment on what he had said because she was too far removed from it. She had been raised Catholic but nothing worked anymore, not prayer, not meditation, nothing.. He thought she had a bad case of the blues and told some jokes: What’s the difference between a savings bond and a saxophonist? Eventually the savings bond matures and makes money. What do you say to a musician in a three piece suit? Will the defendant please rise? What's the difference between a saxophonist and a lawnmower? A lawnmower cuts grass; a sax player smokes it.
They laughed and talked and drank more Tequila and eventually were both drunk and in her bedroom. She lit the small bedroom woodstove and the frigid room warmed up quickly and became cozy. Navaho rugs hung on the whitewashed walls of the bedroom and a little window by the bed looked out to a grove of pines illuminated by moonlight. A scattering of distant blue stars shone on them. In the far distance, a coyote called.
She undressed without demonstrating false modesty or reservation about showing her body and was beautiful in the low lighting the kerosene lamp provided and it was easy and comfortable to be naked with her. The cedar in the woodstove burned fast and hot and they kicked the covers off their lightly perspiring bodies and began making love without concern for what it meant or how it would end.
He woke to the sound of mourning doves and mocking birds. It was dark in the room but slender long streaks of daylight leaked through tiny pinholes in the tin roof. Nicole slept soundly. He drank some water while acknowledging the creator and giving thanks for his life. He asked for forgiveness of his sins and for correct discernment and divine guidance. He prayed his new friend Nicole in the next room would find relief and comfort from the loss of her husband and it would be revealed to her what she should do with her life now that it had changed.
Standing on the porch, he felt the wind on his face and the morning sun on his bare arms as he gazed toward vast rippling brilliant fields of wildflowers. Shaded groves of woodland and fields of knee-high grass undulated in patches of shadow and light. The forest beyond extended to where the Sangria de Christo Mountains began. Everything was purring alive and announcing itself -- wind, leaves, the sound of the trickling creek behind the outhouse, the call of birds in scattered trees, the honking of migratory wild geese high above, the bray of donkeys and the thrilling distant call of wild horses.
He retrieved his saxophone and, dressed only in his underpants, began wading through waist high prairie grass, the morning sun bearing down on him. He passed through the grass to a little creek, the water squishing between his toes. After awhile he stopped and smoked a joint he had stashed in his saxophone mouthpiece. Afterwards he experimented changing the music of the creek by rearranging the stones in the water. Later he determined he had overstepped his authority. It was a bad idea and he should have left it as it was. He apologized. He was very stoned. He blessed the creek and the water and the stones and anything alive in the water or that might come to drink from it.
He walked through a clearing and then into a shaded grove of cedar and pinion trees. He played his saxophone to the mountains in the distance, then to a small herd of goats that answered him from a meadow. He danced his saxophone into the meadow and the birds followed him and his song and joined in it.
He knelt on a bed of moss to contemplate the view and the birds that had been following him lighted in the trees and waited for him. One of them sat right next to him on a rock and sang to him. He played a few little bird notes to answer it and it sang a few back. Soon the branches of surrounding trees were filled with their singing. When the goats began calling again from the meadow the birds flew off in their direction. Maybe they had something to discuss. He didn’t know; he was new at this.
He walked over to a rock pile and sat down to play to some ants. There was a dying flower next to the rock he sat on and he serenaded it, imagining the music healed it. It seemed the flower perked up a little, opening its petals slightly to the music and the sun. After awhile the ants started crawling up his legs, so he moved along.
He looked up at the Sangre de Christo Mountains and thought of the blood of Christ. He thought of the religiosity and devotion of John Coltrane and the mystical spiritualism of Albert Ayler. Albert Ayler had named one of his records Music is the Healing Force of the Universe. Ayler was dead now. It was rumored Ayler was murdered, that his body had been found tied to a jukebox in the bottom of the East River. He didn’t know if was true about Ayler but men of peace were so often murdered, especially if they were men of influence who were loved. Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, the list was long. Omnadaruth John Coltrane was another matter altogether. Ayler made songs titled Spirits and Ghosts but Coltrane made cuts like The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. The music in both cases was dark and spooky, like Tibetan music. Trane was not murdered. The medical report said he died from liver failure but it was clear in his music that Coltrane endured a profoundly terminal melancholia, was homesick and tired of it here on earth and asking in his music to go Home. Both Trane and Ayler were playing somewhere in the universe now, thought Moth.
He walked down the creek until he saw a strange looking mound in the distance and continued toward it for about a hundred difficult yards over sharp hot rocks that burned his bare feet. The morning sun was now brilliant in the cloudless morning sky, and rocks were sun baked hot and made him monkey-dance. He arrived then at a group of bubbling pools of warm frothing water and eased his grateful body into one of them and submerged himself, staying for a long time, listening to the wind and the song of the forest. Finally he got out and hiked back to the cabin through a meadow of butterflies.
When he got back to the cabin, two horses were tied to a post outside. Nicole explained over a breakfast of buckwheat blueberry pancakes that she had rented the horses from a rancher down the road. They rode along a trail high into the Sangre de Christo Mountains where they bathed in an ice-cold river and afterwards warmed themselves in the hot sun. They had sex in a grassy field and were bitten by ants. They went back to the river where the cold water relieved their stings. They held each other naked and shivering but when he went to kiss her she spit water into his mouth. She splashed water in his face and he chased and caught and dunked her and they laughed so hard they collapsed breathlessly in one another’s arms. That’s when he suddenly knew. He thought they both did. Something was happening here. They both recognized it. It was happiness. Maybe even the beginning of love. The acknowledgement was sobering, and quieted them both.
The ride back took almost two hours, down a steep winding trail strewn with loose pebbles that made the horses lose their footing and become skittish. To their right was a steep drop to a rocky gorge below. The horses had to be reigned in firmly during the descent and he felt his muscles tighten with the awareness of the danger and roughness of the trail. By the time the trail began to smooth out the soreness in his limbs and the effort of controlling his mount exhausted him. His buttocks hurt from the rough ride on the saddle and his arms and shoulders ached from holding in the reigns. The horses glistened with sweat and breathed heavily when the trail flattened out. They rode across a meadow strewn with flowers, then crossed a patch of woodland to the cabin.
They dismounted, kissed and stripped their clothing and bathed with cold water from the well, and fell asleep happily exhausted in each other’s arms. When they woke it was the late afternoon light was diminishing.
“I have to think about getting back,” said Moth.
“I know,” she said softly. “I do too.”
“What about the horses, Nicole?”
“It’s been arranged. The owner will come for them.“
She got out bed naked and began finding her clothing. She had a good body and graceful movements that he enjoyed watching. He dressed in jeans and a tee shirt and quickly packed his razor and toothbrush and comb in a small shoulder bag. They walked alongside the creek where he could hear the trickling water and the rustle of autumn leaves in the wind. Silent trees hundreds of years old watched over them in benevolent wisdom. Families of wild turkey rose suddenly from a shuffle of tall prairie grass and the concealment of underbrush. Nicole squeezed his hand and pointed as they rose upward into the sky.
“They’re thrilling, aren’t they?”
“You’re thrilling,” he replied. “I can’t decide whether to watch you or them. “
“Well then, just kiss me,” she said. She came into his arms, and her mouth tasted as clean and sweet as fresh wild spearmint. He could feel her give herself to him completely in his arms. It was as if she was melting there. Was this love? He thought it might be the beginning of it. Or at least could be. He knew she was special; smart and brave and hearty, and she kissed wonderfully.
They hiked quietly as they could manage, as if reluctant to in any way upset the delicately balanced harmony and serenity of the woodland, and when the Jeep came within sight across the field he wanted the trees to reach out for him and hold him back. He wished the creek might mesmerize him, carry him downstream and claim him forever as part of the forest. Nicole squeezed his hand. There were no words between them and none seemed necessary because they both felt the same magic of being in which they and everything around them were interconnected and they had merged with the forest and the silent beings that inhabited it.
He placed his bag and saxophone case on the earth and sat on the mud-spattered front fender of the Jeep, attempting to imprint on his mind the landscape he was about to leave. Again the power and beauty of the view impressed itself on him. He surrendered to the cool breeze against his face and the gentle afternoon sun on his bare arms and listened to the tapping of a woodpecker a short distance off. There was the sound of darting hummingbirds very close. He and Nicole laughed in unison when a butterfly landed on his nose. They kissed, and the kiss lingered in the silence after it had ended. There was nothing to say. He sat looking out at the landscape. The mountains in the distance were a luminous dark purple and seemed to be pulsating, as if their mineral-rich nutrients were somehow aglow with the waning soft light of the descending late afternoon sun, now low in the skyline. It had become pleasantly cool; the shadows of slow moving cumulous clouds danced on the fertile green surface of the valley floor.
Nicole sat next to him on the fender and said, “It’s always so hard to leave here.”
“That’s what I was thinking exactly,” Moth agreed. “It’s Perfection.”
“I often wonder why I don’t stay here and live in the cabin. It’s different for a woman, though. And the winters are hard.”
“But isolated and beautiful I would imagine.”
“Absolutely so. In the winter the forest belongs to the animals. At night the deer come right up to the cabin door.”
“It must be magical. I think I would love it here in the winter.”
Nicole squeezed his arm lightly and said, “You are welcome to stay and live in the cabin, Moth. You could practice your saxophone all hours of the night, take walks in the woods, whatever you liked. There would be no strings attached, Moth. I wouldn’t even be here most of the time. I’d be in Albuquerque, working. I wouldn’t claim you or feel you owed me anything. I need someone to watch over the place, nail down some tin on the roof if a storm loosens it, and make sure there is wood cut in the winter. I’d visit most weekends. If you had cabin fever you could ride back with me to Albuquerque. ”
He considered it. Imagined leading a solitary life of isolation in the midst of winter silence, a snow monk dressed in animal skins and furs, subsiding on fresh bear meat and fish speared through ice clogged rivers. It was a pleasant fantasy but he couldn’t see it happening.
“I have a steady gig, Nicole.”
“And you have to be moving, don’t you, Moth? Your home is the road.”
“For now I guess it is.”
“And where are you going, Moth? Where is that road taking you?”
“I really don’t know. Maybe it doesn’t even matter.”
“You want to keep moving. You want to play the Blues, play Jazz.”
“That’s it. That’s my life.”
“Maybe you are hiding in your music and are on the road because you are running from something that is chasing you, even if you don’t know what it is you are running from. Look at those birds in the trees above you, Moth. They have the gift and freedom of flight but they live here, in these woods. They will never leave. They aren’t in search of greener pastures. They know what they want and what they have. But we’re different, aren’t we? We’re so fucked up, we humans. It’s impossible for us to be happy. To be human is to turn away from happiness. We’re never satisfied. I know I wasn’t in my marriage. I didn’t know what I had until it was taken from me. Then I thought I would never recover but now I’m with you here in Paradise, and everything in this moment is perfect. But we will separate from this, Moth. We will choose to. I think the Bible had it wrong; I don’t think Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden. I think they just turned their backs and walked out on it. That’s what we’re doing now, Moth. Rejecting paradise. Turning away from love. It’s too bad, because we could have something rare and beautiful, you and I. I know you feel it just like I do.”
They didn’t talk much in the car on the way back to Albuquerque. He supposed her thoughts had turned to her life ahead. Both of them knew he had no future in it. He knew they were already in the process of vanishing from one another’s lives and assumed this accounted for the uneasy silence between them. But his life was music, his family whatever band he happened to be working with, and his home was the road. He imagined she too had a life she needed to be getting on with.
She was a good fast driver and had them on the outskirts of Santa Fe in a little over an hour. They were both hungry and it seemed a good place to stop, but when they pulled into a roadside restaurant parking lot he looked at his watch and she said, “You’re going to be late aren’t you?”
He nodded yes, so she pulled out again, and they were back on the road. It was dark now and she turned on the headlights. He couldn’t see much on the side of the road and she was passing every vehicle on the highway. They passed Placitas and were on the outskirts of Albuquerque when she became talkative again. It was mostly chatter, about her job driving a rural route for the post office, her two dogs and the sister and nieces in Iowa.
Forty minutes later they pulled up to the shrubbery-lined curb in front of the clubhouse. The distant lights of Albuquerque blinked and twittered in the valley below. There was a distant echo of barking dogs.
Nicole leaned over and kissed him on the cheek and said, “Well, this where we say goodbye, Moth. And we barely got started. Funny to think of it now, but I was a little afraid of you initially. I thought you would think I was a bourgeois middle class square. When we danced and shared that joint on the veranda? I was acting like I thought I should to impress a hipster musician. Then, in the car on the way up to the cabin I imagined that when we got there, you would be rough and dangerous, but you weren’t at all. You were kind and honest.”
“Were you disappointed?”
“No, because you turned out to be real and much better than my fantasy. You connected with who I really am and not the person I was pretending to be when we danced. You reached me in a way I hadn’t expected. But as it turns out, you’re the one who is afraid, Moth. I think you’re on the road because you’re a fugitive from love like so many men. Do you remember when we were laughing and splashing and dunking each other in the river? There was a moment in the river when we both suddenly stopped what we were doing and went silent. That’s when we both knew that we could fall in love-- would fall in love if we continued. . I know you felt it too. I know because I saw in you, Moth. And do you know how I saw it? Your face became a mask of fear. You withdrew from me, Moth. Shut it down. I felt your heart turn and run as if it had legs and your life depended on it. That’s what men do. Men run from love. My husband ran off to war. You’re dashing off to – I don’t know where. Probably you don’t either. It’s all right, Moth. It’s all good. It’s sad, but just the way life is. The way men are. “
She put a card with her name and number on it in his pocket and said, “Anytime time you’re passing through, Moth.”
He got out of the car and kissed her briefly on the lips. She waved and pulled away, driving out of his life and into her own. He watched until her vehicle was out of sight: Another road not taken. He looked at his watch. A gust of wind blew up the ravine from the valley.
He picked up his saxophone case and headed for the clubhouse. It was time for some music. Two Mexican cooks dressed in whites taking a break outside on the back steps to the service entrance nodded at him in disinterested recognition and slid aside for him to pass as he entered the building. A long carpeted hallway led to the ballroom, where the band was warming up. He could hear them, and he picked up his pace in eager anticipation. There was no way Nicole could understand. He wasn’t running from love. He was running toward it. He loved music.