Letters in Search of Love
Part Two

Part Two

Old Man and St. Louis

AIDS in Paradise


The Old Man and St. Louis

I'd never met the old man before I went to his house trailer to interview for the job he'd advertised on the radio, so I was apprehensive as I drove into town. More than likely, he would turn out to be a grouchy old man with a lot of fussy expectations. The pay would probably stink, and besides, the job wouldn't be steady employment--just three weeks (from the first of April through the twenty-fourth). Still, I was intrigued about the idea when I heard it on the local radio station: "Elderly Gentleman seeks licensed driver for a trip to St. Louis." All expenses, plus a small salary, were to be paid. I thought about it for a day, at most, before I called the number the radio announcer had given out.

I didn't bother to wear a suit, doubting I would even want the job once I learned more about it; so I wore the local standard--Wrangler jeans, a new T-Shirt, and a cap (the kind that every merchant in Deming hands out, with their logo embossed on the front). In this case, I was wearing one that read "Brady's Feed." I borrowed my dad's pickup and drove into Deming, following the directions the old man had given over the telephone that morning.

The five miles from my parents' property south of Deming to the middle of town took ten minutes, and it took another five to find the trailer park where he lived. It was a small park on a side street behind the local K-Mart. His trailer was small, too--just the kind retirees in Deming seem to prefer--usually consisting of one or two bedrooms, ludicrous small baths with showers, rather than bathtubs, and living rooms that double as dining rooms, separated from a kitchen by a counter, where a television usually sits. His trailer space was hardly bigger than the trailer, totally graveled over, with a few trees struggling in the rocked-in wells around them. There was a metal awning attached to the trailer that served as a carport, boasting a concrete pad running the length of the trailer. On the east end was a small porch with three steps.

The carport was swept clean, and a seventies model Dodge station-wagon was parked under the awning. The porch was newly painted and had a sturdy hand rail. Although the trailer could have used a fresh coat of paint, everything from the carport to the porch to the small graveled yard was neatly kept.

I stood at the front door without knocking, wondering if I should go ahead with the interview. At the moment, I didn't have a job. I had a few rows of peas planted in the garden on my parents' property and, even though I would be gone for three weeks if I got the job, there would still be plenty of time to plant the rest of the garden when I returned. Although I wasn't a burden to my parents, since I did the yard work, raised a garden, and helped my father with the other chores around their place, I wasn't particularly needed there, either. There was nothing stopping me from going off for a few weeks on a small adventure; besides, I'd never been to St. Louis, nor much of the middle United States. So I knocked smartly and waited.

I heard a voice from inside acknowledge my knock, but it seemed like several minutes passed before I heard movement on the other side of the door, a lock being turned, and the old man finally opening it wide enough for me to step inside and for us to get an initial look at each other.

His voice on the telephone had made him sound older than he looked. The authoritative way he greeted me, with a clipped "Howdy" and a wave of his cane indicating for me to enter, made him seem taller than he actually was. When I stood next to him, he was fully a head shorter than I.

"You'll have to come in out of the glare before I can see what you look like, son. I've got Diabetes and I'm almost blind," he said as I passed by him. When my eyes adjusted to the near gloom of the interior of the trailer, I saw that, although his hair was white, there was plenty of it, along with a smart looking white mustache to match. His skin had a red luster to it, which made his gray eyes stand out as he looked me over.

"Can't tell what you look like, son, but I can see you're stout enough. You think you can lift me?"

"Depends on how high," I said, my voice taking on a clipped edge, as well. "You're not going to fall down on me, are you?" That was a joke, which I regretted immediately, because he frowned.

"I have a sore on the bottom of my left foot that won't heal," he said. "Damned Diabetes. The doctor says I should go ahead with the trip, but if I do, you will have to help me around."

"I see, sir. I'm sorry."

He snorted at me. "Ain't your fault," he said, moving toward a small couch on the opposite end of the living room in which we were standing. He indicated a chair to his right. "Sit there, so I can hear you. This goddamned disease is drying me up faster'n a goose can shit."

With that rather obtuse remark, the interview began. Mr. Fowler told me his wife had died the year before. She'd been an invalid for almost ten years, he said. "I took care of her by myself after I retired from trucking." For several years, they had made trips back to St. Louis, Missouri, where his family lived and his wife had a sister. For the last five, he'd hired women, he said, mainly to be nurse-maids to his wife and to do the driving, since his Diabetes was causing his vision to fail.

"This'll be my last trip home," he said, after weaving his initial tale. Although he was facing me, his near-blind eyes were really looking inward as he spoke. Every once in awhile, to make a point, his eyes connected with mine; then they would become blank, as if he were a million miles away from the trailer.

"Women make better nurse-maids," he said, matter-of-factly. "Now that I'm dying, I'd rather have a woman around. No offense son, but women are just better creatures than us men."

I began to feel he was letting me down easy. "I understand, Mr. Fowler. I just thought I'd find out about the job. If you prefer a woman, that's certainly--"

He swung his cane in my direction and tapped the side of my leg. "Hold your suspenders, son. I've interviewed five women this week, and I ain't found a one I'd want driving my car, much less wiping my ass."

Although I was enjoying the interview and smiled to myself at his colorful, if chaotic, choice of words, I hoped desperately he didn't want me to get that personal.

"Have you got any objection to sharing a motel room?" he asked, after a moment of silence.

"No, sir."

"Good. I pay a hundred dollars a week, plus expenses."

"That sounds good," I said.

He nodded. "Get me that can of tobacco over there on the counter," he said, swinging his cane toward the kitchen. "You don't mind if I smoke a pipe?"

"If you don't mind if I smoke a cigarette."

"My wife died of emphysema. She was a chain smoker."

I considered that as he filled his pipe and I lit up. Soon the tiny room was full of smoke curling around our heads and, in the sunlight peeking in between the heavy drapes, it formed patterns as it floated toward the ceiling.

We talked a little more, the conversation drifting from the trip to St. Louis to what I was doing with myself. I told him I was a writer and that the year before I'd had my first novel published. I wasn't about to tell him its main content was about two gay men who had fallen in love and begun a relationship in a small town suspiciously like Deming. Although he had not made negative remarks about homosexuality or any other minority, I figured him to be old-fashioned and opinionated. And, in fact, I was becoming more enthused with the job. So I merely told him a little of the subplot of the novel when he asked what it was about. He confessed to liking Louis L'Amour.

I'd been there about thirty minutes when he said, "You've got the job, son, if you want it. I plan to leave April fourth, so make plans."

* * *

We left Deming, New Mexico at about seven o'clock on the appointed day. We filled up at a Shell station on the east side of town. There, he handed me three hundred dollars and a credit card. "You pay for our expenses out of the money," he said. "When you run out, I'll give you some more." I hadn't had three hundred dollars in my pocket in a couple of years, so I tucked the fat wallet carefully into the back of my Wranglers as we headed east.

Our route from Deming took us through Las Cruces, sixty miles east, then over the Organ Mountains, through another valley, where the first Atomic bomb was exploded in 1945, to Alamogordo; then we turned north and traveled through the village of Tularosa. There, we left the desert behind and began to see trees and pasture land. We curved east, again, and began climbing into the Sacramento Mountains.

Unlike the Organ Mountains we had driven over, these were forested. I commented on the beauty, but Mr. Fowler just snorted. "You call these scraggly things trees?" he asked, the bitterness evident in his voice. "I hate this god-forsaken state."

Surprised at his outburst, I asked how he'd wound up in New Mexico.

"Had to, son. My wife couldn't take the wet climate of Missouri."

"But why do you stay?"

He got wound up at that question. Although his voice was no longer acrimonious, he explained he'd buried her in Deming and he planned to be buried next to her. "Besides," he said, "I don't see the sense in moving when I'm not going to live much longer."

"I'm sure you have quite a few years ahead of you, sir," I said.

He just snorted, again.

An hour after we left Tularosa, we passed through Ruidoso, a little mountain village in the Lincoln National Forest that had become a favorite tourist spot for wealthy west Texans. They bought up the land, built cabins and essentially had turned the once sleepy village into a summer resort. Just east of Ruidoso, we passed by the Ruidoso Downs race track that made summer horse-racing the biggest attraction in the area. In winter, Sierra Blanca mountain was the ski resort, which also attracted a lot of people. I chose not to comment on the popularity of the area, however, since none of that was likely to change the old man's opinions about it being "God-forsaken."

We passed out of the forest about twenty minutes out of Ruidoso and began the descent out of the mountains. As we began to enter Rosewell, New Mexico, the mountains had become undulating hills and finally flattened out as we entered downtown. There, we ate lunch at a cafeteria.

I felt we were making good time to have covered some three hundred miles by lunch time. Some of that impression was due to the constantly changing scenery we had traveled through. On that first leg of the journey, I found the views magnificent; sometimes breathtaking in the way the earth fell away from us, opening up vistas a hundred miles wide; sometimes channeling us through forests where the sunlight flickered like wind-blown candlelight. But when we began the afternoon trek from Rosewell, New Mexico, we entered terrain of a never-ending sameness; time seemed to slow down, and we both fell into the trance that traveling through that part of the United States can put you into. Every mile was agony and, an hour later, it seemed we'd traveled only ten miles, with ninety or a hundred to go before we reached the next dried up town.

Mr. Fowler nodded off, the enthusiastic talk he'd regaled me with earlier in the day diminished, becoming the groans and grunts of an old man in fitful sleep. He came out of a cat-nap every once in awhile to say, "Get your damn foot off the brake." I grinned at that because for several miles I had been doing seventy, then eighty, and finally, when we passed over the border of New Mexico into Texas, I was doing ninety miles an hour. The old man had fallen into a deeper sleep, and I was left to my own thoughts.

For this first part of the trip, I was in familiar territory, because I had traveled this same road many times on trips to Texas with my parents to visit relatives in such small towns as Matador and Childress. Then later, as a young adult, I had lived in Texas for several years, attending various universities and serving in the Air Force. It was memories of my childhood, however, that this Texas flatland of thousand-acre farms brought back to me.

We traveled for a couple of hours over earth so red, it was like being on Mars. And at this time of year, there were very few crops to belie that impression. I remembered begging my father to stop along a road similar to the one we were now on, so I could get a closer look at the strange red earth. I remember collecting a bottle of it to take back to New Mexico with me. Out here, the sky lent the only relief from the red earth, and its endless blue was soothing.

I recalled treks across this terrain on visits home from Texas with a man I'd spent fourteen years of my life with; then making the trip together, when we'd both graduated from college and had decided to open up a bookstore in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Then I became angry at those memories when I remembered the last time I'd made the trip alone, spending most of it in tears, because he'd called it quits--a "divorce" as I thought of it. I glanced over at Mr. Fowler wondering what dreams he was spinning as he groaned in his sleep.

Sleep diminished him, somehow, reducing him in stature, his voice silent except for sounds of pain that escaped while he slept curled up against the passenger-side door. I glanced from the road passing beneath us at ninety miles an hour and studied him in snatches. He wore old man's Khaki pants and an old man's formless shirt. The only thing stylish about him was his neatly trimmed mustache. Yet even it drooped as he slept.

The miles passed and he finally came awake. Then he amazed me. "We'll be coming into Brownfield in a few minutes. You seen any road signs for it."

"Yes sir, I did. I thought you were asleep. How'd you know?"

He laughed a raspy kind of wheeze, then wiped spittle from his mustache with a handkerchief, examined it, and shoved it back into his shirt pocket. "I drove this route a million times in forty years," he said. "I may be almost blind, but you can't get me lost. Pull off and look for a little motel just off the highway on the right-hand side. We'll spend the night there. It ain't one of them Motel 6 jobs, but they've got clean beds."
Sure enough, a little ways into town there was a little motel just as he said there would be. Next to it was a coffee shop with a solid glass front facing the highway. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon, but he was ready to quit for the day. We checked into our motel then made our way to the coffee shop. Just as he'd done in Rosewell, he ordered a meal that would choke a horse then dabbled at this and that; then he ordered a desert I was sure would kill him.

He ate every bite of the sweets, then grinned at me. "I know. Diabetes. But I ain't going to live much longer. My wife is dead, so I might as well follow her along."

Later, at the motel, he said, "If I die on you, son, you take all the money in my suitcase, then you call the cops and have 'em haul my carcass back to Deming. Just make sure they bury me next to her."

I tried to poo-poo the idea, but he waved his cane at me across the width of the two beds. "I don't care about living, now that my wife is dead. I've had a long life and done well. I wouldn't trade it, you understand."

"Yes, sir," I said, busying myself with the gas and food receipts I'd collected. Such talk made me feel uncomfortable, but I didn't say anything. Just as it was getting dark out, he went into the bathroom and, at least an hour later, he came out dressed in pajamas, crawled into bed, and was asleep (I hoped and not in a sugar coma) in ten minutes.

The pattern of the first day was repeated the second day. We left town early in the morning after a pre-dawn breakfast, made it to another Texas town by the name of Denton by four o'clock and settled down for the night. I'd brought along books and stationery, but I was strangely uninterested in delving into the books or writing letters, so I also went to bed shortly after the old man did.

* * *

Biting off the miles in small chunks as we were doing would put us into St. Louis, Missouri in four or five days. We'd already spent over half our trip in Texas and had another hard drive ahead of us before we finally crossed over the border into Oklahoma, entering country I'd never seen.

There were dead Armadillos all along the interstate into Oklahoma City, and I began to think of it as an Armadillo killing field.

We ate lunch at a truckstop on the east side of Oklahoma City, where Mr. Fowler flirted with the waitress. He kept asking her to come sit on his lap and was making her flustered. It alternately disappointed me a little, after all his talk about his sainted dead wife; but it tickled me, too. Although he complained of his ailments and felt himself on the verge of death, he still had the juice to flirt. I shrugged off his behavior as harmless fun, but when we were on the road again, he began to talk about the lonely roads he'd traveled without his wife.

"You know as well as I do, Ron, a man needs the comfort of a woman," he said, his voice getting husky, then going silent; then, "And I think my wife understood."

This talk of cheating on one's spouse was a sore point with me--not because it was any of my business how he and his wife accommodated each other, but it reminded me painfully of my ex of fourteen years and his constant cheating. I knew when he was on a trip without me, he'd be seeking his comforts, too.

I was in a foul mood when we rolled into Tulsa. The old man had stuck to his theme of womanizing; then we'd had to pay for the privilege of traveling on Oklahoma's toll roads. As we were coming into Tulsa, another reason to dislike the state was added to my list. I recalled that Tulsa was the birth place of Anita Bryant and home to Oral Roberts University. I began to think of Oklahoma as the state that Holy Rollers and ultraconservatives had built. Public, free highways in the state were crumbling and ruining, so that everyone, rich and poor, had to pay for the privilege of driving to work, or getting into town for groceries. It seemed to indicate the kind of world we'd all be living in if such people as these were running the country. I was sure the Armadillos didn't like the state any more than I did.

We spent the night in Tulsa and made the last leg of our journey into Missouri the next day. We'd left a warm April behind in Deming and, as we crossed the state line, it seemed that we'd moved back into winter. We stopped for gas just past the border, then headed for a little out of the way town below Springfield to spend the night. Blind as he was, Mr. Fowler navigated me flawlessly down small farm-to-market roads and brought us right to the front door of the house of a friend about four o'clock that afternoon. His memory of every side road and major highway, reference points in and out of towns and cities, and a feel for our direction and the amount of time it took to make certain stop-off points continued to amaze me.
Now that we were in Missouri, I was ready to get to St. Louis. But he insisted on stopping along the way to visit his friends and relatives. This particular friend we'd stopped to visit was an old classmate he'd kept in touch with over the years. He told me the guy was interesting and collected antique watches and pocket knives. So we visited for a few minutes. His wife served coffee. Then talk turned to the guy's collections. We toured a storage shed in the back yard that was indeed full of watches and clocks. It was cold and wet outdoors, and the shop was cold, and I was ready to find our motel and crawl into bed. But Mr. Fowler took the time to sort through the man's collection of watches and bought one.

For a man who was ready to die, he still took an interest in such things, which I thought was a good way to live out the remaining years and hoped in that way, at least, I would be like him. I fidgeted and was ready to get back on the road, but Mr. Fowler also had to take a look at the guy's knife collection. I stayed with the two old men, then later, joined the man's wife in the living room.

There was very little talk and, in the silence, the clocks that seemed to be everywhere in the house, ticked and tocked and on the half hour clanged and chimed. This noisy passage of time punctuated too much the wasted afternoon we spent there. The elderly couple was friendly enough to me, but the weather was dreary, and it was already gloomy as the sun neared the horizon. I shifted from one foot to the other as the two old friends stood on the porch during our leave-taking. They exchanged promises to call more often, discussed Mr. Fowler's dead wife, her illness, the funeral, and the weather.

Then we drove east for the motel where we would be spending the night. That night, as my mood grew more dreary, Mr. Fowler began to come alive. "You're going to see some real stores, now, Ron, not those shitholes they have in Deming. And you'll see the prices aren't as high."

"And just look at the beautiful trees," he said, the next morning as we drove through the farms nestled in valleys of rolling green hills and copses of trees. Indeed it was beautiful, but the sky was overcast, and the air was moist and cold. I had been constipated since the first night in Texas, and every opportunity we took to stop for gas or to eat, I would find the bathroom and sit disappointedly on the toilet, feeling my guts as tight as stuffed sausage, thinking something had to give soon, or I would be the one to die and leave the old man stranded.

By noon of that day, we arrived at what Mr. Fowler described as his old stomping grounds. "Had to leave, though, when my wife took ill." He navigated us over twisting roads and scarcely better two-lane highways that rose and fell, and circled back on themselves, always reminding me, "Take your damn foot off the brake," which by this time, with my growing discomfort, began to make me nervous. I tried to accommodate his desire for trucker's speed, and the station wagon pitched and yawed, threatening to crash into guard rails on creek bridges, or careen into the other lane into the path of oncoming cars.
We passed by the thirty-acre farm he had bought just before he retired from trucking and he began to weep an old man's tears as he recalled, "Set out every tree on the place. Built that barn, myself. Hated to leave it, Ron. But we had to get my wife to drier climate."

I understood his grief of failed dreams, or those given up because circumstances conspired against him. It reminded me of my own father's grief in moments when he dwelled on the past too much and became melancholy.

Then he navigated us onto a narrow dirt lane that disappeared around a bend. As we followed it, we came into a farm laid out like a picture on a postcard, with a white clapboard two-story house, beside it a large barn, farm equipment parked chaotically around, and rolling pastures of deep green grass, with horses grazing against a back drop of a distant tree line.

When we came to a stop in front of the farm house, an old couple came out to greet us, waiving at Mr. Fowler and delightedly calling his name. "You're just in time, Gordon! What a surprise."

"Thought it was about lunch time," Mr. Fowler said, then turned to me and introduced me to the couple.

We were just in time for homemade blackberry pie the woman said. "I just took it out of the window where it was cooling." We gathered around a kitchen table with a patterned oil cloth and were served pie in mismatched bowls and served coffee in anything passing for a cup or mug. On top of the warm pie, we had ice cream that began melting and forming a puddle of thick cream in the bowls.

The elderly couple could have been anyone's grandparents. The wife hadn't bothered to take off her apron. The husband was younger than Mr. Fowler, but his hair was turning gray, his skin was wrinkled and sun burned, and we all talked of farming and gardening. For the first time in days, I began to feel my muscles relax, and to feel at home with this elderly couple.

They bespoke of a long-forgotten way of life. Their only child, a woman, had graduated with honors at a local university and had gotten her first job with the telephone company. They were proud of her, in awe of her technical knowledge of computers, but I thought of the end of their lives as closing a chapter in our American way of life. Although they still worked their farm, it was a museum piece. When I asked, I was told the house had been in the family for several generations, but when they retired, it would probably be sold and the land developed for city dwellers to come and subdivide and put up new houses. I was told this with less bitterness than resignation. For now, they were very much alive and, I hoped, would live many years into their retirement.

I kept these thoughts to myself, and stayed with the conversation, telling the wife that I had been gardening in Deming, and was learning to enjoy that kind of work. She took me out to her garden spot saying it was still too wet to plant, that she'd tried to turn the soil, but it would have to wait a few more days or a couple of weeks. The warm spring in southern New Mexico, with eighty-degree weather, seemed very far off to me in this chilled atmosphere--beautiful and picturesque though it was.

When we left, we agreed to meet that night for dinner in a town called Festes, where we were going to get a motel room. "You can spend the night here, Gordon!" the couple protested. "You're not any farther from St. Louis here than you are in that motel, and you'd be a lot more comfortable with us!"

"No, sir," Mr. Fowler said. "We won't put you out. You know the wife and I always stayed in Festes. Close enough to the family, but far enough away not to be a bother."

They leaned in our windows, continuing to protest out of politeness, then stepped back to let us turn around and head for the next motel on our trip.

* * *

During the interview for the job, Mr. Fowler had said that once we got to St. Louis, I would be able to borrow the car if I wanted, since I was a young person and he was sure I would be able to find entertainment in the evenings while he and his family visited. That promise had not persuaded me to take the job. I was already four years out of a fourteen-year relationship with a man who, at one time, I had felt was the love of my life. Even after four years of being single, I was still hurting from that break up. Rather than looking at the trip to St. Louis as a way to meet some other man, I had taken the job to get away from familiar surroundings, to occupy myself with something new, in hopes of soothing my pain. I wasn't ready for a relationship.

But I was beginning to feel restless, now that we had arrived in Festes, Missouri, some thirty or forty miles from St. Louis. The motel we moved into that night was to be our home for the next two weeks. So after a dinner with Mr. Fowler's farmer friends, I did borrow the car. I didn't yet take the opportunity to drive into St. Louis. Instead, I joined the teenagers of Festes, in that small-town ritual that apparently goes on across the United States; for several hours, I dragged the main streets of that small, hilly town, pulling into a drive-in hamburger joint for a Coke, sometimes parking my car and walking along a street with bars and arcade games, window shopping during the hours before the cops began to patrol the streets looking for teenagers about to get into mischief.

Only I felt out of place, like an itinerant middle-aged man who might look like a suspicious character to the cops, or like a "dirty old man" to the teenagers, who flicked disinterested glances past me, in hopes of seeing the high school heart throb (?) or the foxy chick, or whatever the hell it was young people in Festes, Missouri called each other when they were out cruising.

I wondered how many of the teenage boys out for the evening were gay and, like the girls, hoping to get a look at the same heart throb. I wondered which of the girls in the car load of girls that passed me were lesbians, more interested in being with each other than in seeing the guys. I had no doubt that many of the teenagers were gay. It made me feel nostalgic for the teenage years I had wasted in Deming where I grew up, doing exactly the same thing these kids were, always hoping to catch a glimpse of the guys in high school I had crushes on, cruising for hours up and down the main street, and more than likely going home to the farm disappointed I had not seen them.

I ended that evening by going into a bar across the highway from the motel and having a beer and feeling ignored by the locals. I felt too out of place among them to strike up a conversation, so I finished my beer and went back to the motel.

Mr. Fowler was asleep. The room was dark, except for a chink of light coming through the thick-woven curtains of the window that looked out on the courtyard. I wanted to write for the first time on the trip, so I took the spiral notebook I'd brought along into the bathroom with me and quietly shut the door. In that florescent glare, the words poured out, and the tears flowed. But why was I crying? Was it because I had reached forty years of age and felt like I was drifting down a long, dark passage with no real future? Was it because I could see the end of my life turning out as it had for Mr. Fowler essentially alone and just being ready to die?

Had I taken this job just to face myself in a mirror of my own making a thousand miles from home, seeing my reflection and realizing what a miserable failure I was, how alone? No. I told myself in my journal entry. No. Perhaps this adventure would be the beginning of something. Maybe it would break the spell of my heartbreak. Maybe it was unrealistic to expect I would meet someone on some street in St. Louis, Missouri that would rekindle my life; but then, maybe it would give me a different perspective, this trip, so that when I returned to Deming, I would be newly fired up to finish my second novel, to become more gregarious among the people I knew. Maybe I had to travel this distance to see things back home more clearly.

* * *

"Well, let's shit and git," Mr. Fowler said the next morning after breakfast at the restaurant around the corner from the motel.

I laughed at his expression. "Let's do it," I said.

As we entered the interstate, it began to drizzle. To Mr. Fowler's blind eyes, the Missouri countryside was apparently the verdant green he remembered. "Now you're seeing some real trees," he said to me, his voice becoming prideful and snappy.

I looked through the gray air and saw scraggly trees struggling to survive on the sides of the road-cuts, saw the suburban development on the hill tops, the helter-skelter accumulation of unregulated growth as people infested the once beautiful countryside in their attempts to get out of St. Louis, or perhaps to live close to the city without having to endure living in it.

We passed one small town after another, distinguished only by the names on the water towers. Then the interstate became wider, the traffic thicker, and freeway entrances increased, until we joined the rush-hour traffic of St. Louis. Coming into the city from the southwest, Mr. Fowler pointed out the Busch family brewery as we went through a mixmaster of converging freeways. Dark, wine colored brick buildings sat atop the freeway cliffs, clusters of pre-civil war relics made the atmosphere of the city seem dark and old.
"Isn't this a beautiful city?" Mr. Fowler said, relying perhaps on his memory of what it had once been.
I grunted an insincere, "Yep, it sure is," then continued to fight through the traffic in the mixmaster. I had never seen so much dark brick in my life. It seemed that everything in the city was built from it. The businesses were the same dark color. The brewery was the same. As we left the freeway proper and finally entered the long winding streets of downtown St. Louis, I could see that some renovation and upkeep had been underway, but it was a feckless attempt, at best, to save the face of the city I had heard about since I was a child.

We skirted the main sections of downtown St. Louis and drove through parts of town that were ethnically defined. And over the entire city, the gray clouds hovered and bled, and it was cold.

In the gloom of that morning, I did see some beautiful architecture. We passed the largest cemetery I had ever seen. It dominated the street along which we drove and Mr. Fowler informed me that there were some famous writers who were buried there. "You'll meet one of the men who does the upkeep on the cemetery," he said. "He lives across the street from my sister."

"Does he like the work?" I asked, glancing from the graveyard to the street to Mr. Fowler. He was sitting up now, becoming anxious, I guess, to see his family. He guided me flawlessly from memory through the many turns we had to make, through streets with French names. He didn't hear my question as he told me to turn left, suddenly, the first time he'd failed to give me adequate warning.

I had to slam on the brakes and went into a minor skid, which I brought under control immediately. But he barked at me. "Now look, here, Ron, you're driving in a city, now, and not that little squat of a town you live in. Pay attention!"

His scalding words made my ears burn. I felt like barking back that I had driven in cities a lot bigger than St. Louis. But I felt ashamed a moment later at my instant anger. He was an old man with a hell of a sore foot that wouldn't heal, he was blind, newly widowed, and was getting close to the only family he had left.
"Yes, sir," I said in as strong and enthusiastic a voice as I could muster.

We rolled up a long hill, then entered a neighborhood where the brick houses were at least blond and well-kept, where every house had a new model car sitting out front, with expansive lawns and French windows that put on a brighter face in the gray rain than the parts of St. Louis we'd just driven through. I placed the value of the houses in this neighborhood in the six-figure range--at least real middle-class or lower-upper.

A few minutes later, he directed me to pull behind a van on the concrete driveway of one of the houses. Mr. Fowler was as manic as the poodle that came running out of the open garage door.

"Well, you got us here, Ron!" he said, as he struggled with the door handle on his side of the station wagon. I got out quickly and hurried around to the other side. A moment later, a man at least Mr. Fowler's age (around seventy-five) came out of the garage behind the poodle.

Mr. Fowler introduced me as his driver, then threw in my name as an afterthought. The two old men had eyes only for each other as they hugged and helped each other into the house via the garage. I followed along behind, feeling slighted, so I turned my attention to the dog.

It snapped at me when my hand got close to its face.

"Pepper! Mind your god-damned manners!" the old man called to the dog from the house. "He'll get used to you, Ron," he said. "Come on in. The wife has gone shopping, but I think I can dig up a beer if you want."
The interior of the house was a series of rather small but well furnished rooms. Directly from the garage, we entered what I would call a family room. It was long and narrow with high, mini-blinded windows on each end. There was a small oak desk on the side next to the garage door with a nondescript computer sitting on it, a tensor lamp and a silver dish with bits of expensive rubbish. The matching desk chair had a worn pad on the seat, and a newspaper was laying open on it. Against one of the walls with the window was an oak credenza, with elaborately carved birds displayed haphazardly on its surface, and on the wall below the window, above the credenza was a well-rendered painting. The other two walls had other pieces of matching oak furniture, a telephone stand with telephone books spilling out from beneath it.

As I left that room, my impression was that both of Mr. Fowler's relatives used that room a lot. Then I stepped up into an L-shaped room that served as a formal dining area, then let immediately into a living room that was wall-to-wall immaculate white furniture, from a long, white sofa beneath the French windows, to matching white easy chair, and French colonial chairs with white silk brocade.

Mr. Scarlaccini indicated the couch in the living room. I brushed off the seat of my pants before sitting down. The poodle came and lay at my feet. Mr. Scarlaccini sat in the easy chair off to my right and laid back in it, used to its rich texture and not afraid of spoiling it. Mr. Fowler sat on one of French colonials, leaning forward, and appearing to hold himself upright with his cane. He looked mighty tired to me, and I was about to ask him if he was comfortable when Mr. Scarlaccini beat me to it.

"Gordon, god-damn it, why don't you go sit on the couch, or go in there and lay down in the bedroom?"
Gordon waived a hand at him. A hand, I noticed not for the first time, that was scalded-red looking with liver spots the size of dimes. "No, sir, Joe. I just got here. I ain't going to be snoring when Audrea gets here."

Joe turned to me. "That's Gordon for you, Ron. Stubborn as a buck nigger."

I was so surprised at his racial slur, I leaned back into the couch folding my arms over my chest. I couldn't make myself respond for a moment. Then I looked over at Gordon. He was grinning at his brother-in-law, apparently untroubled about the use of his language. My stomach contracted. I couldn't even smile, so I got up. "I think I'll go outside and have a cigarette," I said to Mr. Fowler.

Joe leaned toward me from his easy chair. "You can smoke in here, Ron. Gordon and I worked in the mills, together, over on the east side of the river. A little tobacco smoke won't hurt."

"Thanks, Mr. Scarlaccini," I said, "but I need some fresh air."

As I was leaving the room, I heard Joe saying, "You seen what those niggers've done to East St. Louis?"

It was cold outdoors. The sun was breaking through the cloud cover as it inched toward noon. I had brought along a wind-breaker and retrieved it from the back of the station wagon, the whole time shaking my head at Joe Scarlaccini's prejudice. I didn't know much about the people of St. Louis, or Missouri, for that matter, but I was confused, having never associated it with a southern state. While I was not naive about prejudice (I knew it was as deeply seated in the North as sit was in the South), I was surprised that it would come out in such an open way.

It was so cold outdoors, I thought about sitting in the station wagon and smoking, but I was afraid if Joe or Mr. Fowler came out, following my statement about needing fresh air, they would think it was odd. I suddenly realized I would have to be prepared to not appear odd to them. There were two weeks to go, and no doubt we would be spending a lot of time with them. I imagined how ugly they would turn if they knew they had let a queer son-of-a-bitch into their midst. I had no way of knowing which would be worse to them--queers or niggers. I bet they would be democratic, however, in hanging us both. It suddenly seemed a long time until April twentieth, when we would be leaving.

Noon turned into mid-afternoon, and Joe Scarlaccini was beginning to complain, "Now Audrea knew you were coming, today, Gordon. But you can't figure women. Sometimes I think she's losing her mind. Makes me damn mad, she can't think better."

Finally, Mrs. Scarlaccini did arrive. By then, I was expecting to see Edith Bunker's twin sister, flustered and dizzy. But the woman who pulled up in the white Caddie was anything but an Edith Bunker. She pushed open the door, stepping gracefully out onto the driveway with her white head held erect. She was smartly dressed in a white suit, with matching high heels. By then, Gordon and Joe had joined me in front of the garage, and when she saw her brother, she set her purse on the hood of the car and headed for him with a brisk walk.


Brother and sister hugged and then Audrea was all business. "Don't suppose Joe fed you has he?" She turned to him. "You should've fed these boys," she said, acknowledging me for the first time. She offered me her hand, palm down, fingers together. "I'm Audrea Scarlaccini."

"Ron Donaghe," I told her. "Glad to meet you."

"Joe, you ought to be ashamed you didn't take them to eat."

Mr. Scarlaccini had his back to her, then opened the Caddie. "Ron, give me a hand, will you?"

Gordon and Audrea made their way into the house, and I was alone with Joe.

"Is Gordon doing all right, Ron?" Joe asked, handing me a paper sack with the imprint of what I took to be a local chain department store. "He sure looks tired to me."

I felt some loyalty to Mr. Fowler and I wasn't sure how he would have wanted me to answer such a question. "He gets tired easily in the afternoons," I said. "On the way out here, we stopped early every day. But he has a good appetite."

"Yeah? I bet he sucks those sweets down and pushes his real food away."

"You know him well," I said.

We were walking into the garage and he stopped, blocking my entrance into the house. "I know he's not interested in living now that Livia, his wife, is dead."

I didn't want to answer that one. "He seems to be in pretty good spirits most of the time, Joe. He kept me laughing on the way down. We stopped in and visited with some old friends of his outside of Festes."

Joe opened the door for me, "And that's another thing," he said, raising his voice, and walking past me into the dining room. "I don't know why you insist on staying in that flea-bitten motel in Festes, Gordon, every time you come visit. You hear me?"

Gordon and Audrea were in the kitchen. They were involved in an animated discussion of some sort and completely ignored Joe. So he turned back to me. "It's run by Indians, you know."

"What is?"

"The motel where he stays. Those god-damned foreigners. Taking over the motels. They're ruining this country. And..."

Joe went on talking but I tuned him out. Instead I studied him. He was taller than my five feet, eleven inches by at least three inches, but he was stooped in such a way that our eyes were level with each other. I kept glancing away as his dark eyes sought to lock with mine. He was Italian, I thought, with his last name. And his skin was darker than mine. I wondered how long his ancestors had been in the United States. And what claim he had to shut the doors on the country, now that he was here.

For his age, which I assumed was equal to, or older than Gordon's, his hair was still dark, with touches of gray. His eyes were dark, yet a little sunken. His lips were wide and rather thick. When he grinned, his false teeth were the whitest thing about him and lit up his face.

He was a working man who'd been able to retire comfortably. It was obvious he'd worked hard in the mills he'd mentioned, and had managed to hang onto some sort of pension. He waved his hands as he talked and stood close to me, closer if I attempted to move away, always seeking contact with my eyes.

Then Audrea came out of the kitchen and began setting sandwich fixings on the dining room table. I offered to give her a hand, but she sent me into the living room to visit with her husband.

When we gathered around the table, the talk between Gordon and Joe had drifted back to east St. Louis. Joe turned all his attention to me. "East St. Louis has a nigger mayor, he said. "And that buck is ruining the city. The police cars don't have good tires, and they let people burn trash in their front yards."

What could I say? I nodded and continued to eat. I looked at Audrea to see what her reaction to her husband's diatribe was. She smiled irrelevantly without appearing to be daunted by his use of language. And neither was Mr. Fowler. That saddened me, because I had grown to like the old man. Yet, here, in St. Louis, he reverted to someone I didn't think I would care to know.

This trip and this opportunity had begun to turn into an ordeal for me. It became merely a job I would be glad to be finished with. I cannot pretend I was unaware of prejudice and the hateful way people had of talking about other races and minorities. My own parents are prejudiced, as well. Only they are not fixated with other minorities; they do not blame all the ills of the world on some minority group, as Joe Scarlaccini was doing.

After a mid-afternoon lunch, when Audrea changed into sweats and sneakers and asked if I would like to go for a walk with her, I jumped at the chance, hoping to get away from the incessant talk of nigger this and nigger that. I didn't think I would ever be able to become inured to the sound that word made in the air.

"I try to take my walk every evening," she explained as we walked outdoors. "Sometimes I go for a mile, but not lately, or very often. Joe has measured off two alternate courses for me," she explained.

She took off suddenly like a cannon ball, springing ahead of me about ten paces, with her elbows held high and swinging in that comic rhythm of the fast walker. I had to trot to keep up.

"I'm just going a half-mile, today," she said over her shoulder.

"Fine with me," I called ahead. I came abreast of her huffing a little. "When you said walk, I thought you meant a casual stroll. You do this every day?"

She didn't look at me, but rather waved at neighbors in their yards as we streaked past. "Not every day, so I have to go at it hard when I do. Besides, this nigger family moved in over on the next block..."

For God's sake! I thought, was this all these two people had to occupy their thinking? "Why does that matter?" I asked as casually as I could, hoping she would enlighten me.

"Well you know how those bucks go after white women," she said, as if stating the obvious.

"Hello, Elizabeth!" she suddenly called to a woman pushing a baby stroller down the opposite side of the street. "How's Frank?"

"Fine! Fine!" her friend called back, then we were turning a corner.

We made other conversation, but I can't recall what it was.

* * *

We drove back to Festes for the evening in a downpour. Having made the trip into St. Louis, Mr. Fowler expected me to be able to retrace my route without a problem, but I had to ask him several times where to turn and where to enter the freeways, where to get off. He had lost his patience with me and grunted the answers. My stomach knotted at his impatient attitude and I was on the verge of yelling at him.

But he seemed to have sunken into depression; so I tried to keep my perspective about his condition and age. I clamped my mouth shut. If I made a wrong turn, I would blame it on the rain.

We ate in the same restaurant around the corner from the motel, then both went to bed early. I lay awake for a long time, realizing this trip had deteriorated into something I would have to endure, rather than truly enjoy. I decided I was going to earn my money and to keep a lid on my emotions. Then I giggled to myself in the dark of the motel room. I was a hired driver and probably nothing more. And, like hired drivers (chauffeurs) or kitchen help among the wealthy, I would have to learn to bow and scrape and keep my own counsel, never letting on to my boss that I did not care for him.

Except I did like Mr. Fowler. I was just disappointed in him for being like his brother-in-law and his sister. I had no right to impose my judgments on him.

The next morning, we drove north of St. Louis and crossed the Mississippi River into a dreary, rain-soaked town where he said he graduated from high school, where later, he had worked in the mills with Joe. We drove through run-down neighborhoods and row houses that looked like they were well-built but as dreary inside as they appeared to be from the streets. By the time we pulled up in front of a small Victorian house with a large gray-painted front porch, the rain had stopped, and the cold was sinuous, seeking every opening in my clothing, clutching the back of my neck with hands of ice.

"My wife's sister lives here," he explained. "Now she has a retarded daughter, Ron, so don't let that throw you. The child has a mind of a little girl, but she's a good girl. So when she offers you coffee, don't be surprised if you get scared water."

I expected the worse, having worked with retarded children in my college days. But the woman who greeted us at the door seemed quiet, rather than retarded. She carried on a conversation with her uncle as well as any niece might, recalling exactly who he was. And the coffee was good.

Mr. Fowler's sister-in-law was a nurse. We had arrived about an hour before she got off work, so I let the niece show me around the house. She took pride in the simplest things, including some crocheting she was doing in a room that had been a sewing room for a long time. There were trunks full of her handiwork, and "Home Sweet Home" wall hangings, and comforters made of multicolored yarns spread out on the furniture in the living room. She showed me the bathroom and took pride in its cleanliness.

Mr. Fowler lay on the couch in the living room and took a nap.

When his sister-in-law arrived, he got up stiffly and grimacing with pain, which I attributed to the seeping cold of the house.

The sister-in-law was a tall woman, probably in her sixties and as stout as her daughter. Both of them were quiet and polite and, when we left, I was in a better mood than I had been the day before. Still, I began counting the days until the two weeks would be up.

On the third day of our visit, Mr. Fowler told his brother-in-law that I was a writer and that I'd had a book published. Nothing would do but that we go to the bookstores and find a copy, Joe insisting that he would like an autographed copy. So he and I went in search of it. At a locally owned general bookstore close to downtown, the clerk looked up the title of my book and announced that it was sold out.

For that I was relieved, and Joe was impressed. I didn't tell him that bookstores often carry only one or two copies of a book, especially by a novice and, when it sells, they're glad to be shut of it.

I knew of another bookstore in St. Louis where I would likely find the book and I took kind of a perverse pleasure in having Joe drive me there. "It's on Vandeventer," I said, taking out a sheet of paper where I had scribbled the name of the bookstore. "Called Our World Too," I said. I was nervous that Joe would realize the kind of bookstore he had walked into as soon as we got there, but he relieved me by saying he would stay in the van and I could go in to check.

When I walked into the gay and lesbian bookstore, I felt genuinely happy that I'd come for the first time since arriving in St. Louis. Not only was my book among the titles in the men's fiction section, but the owner had said he'd read and enjoyed it. I picked up a couple of magazines and local newsletters, intending to come back if given the opportunity before I left the city.

"Didn't have a copy," I told Joe, when I got back into the van. "Sold out, too."

That afternoon, when Joe and Audrea's son came for a visit and we had dinner with Mr. Fowler's other sister in a close-by neighborhood, everyone spent too much time asking me about my book and saying they would be sure to get a copy.

Yeah, right, I thought. And won't you all be unpleasantly surprised if you do? Joe's son was an architect. He had two point five children who were attending private school and, I learned without caring to, that he was a social climber. Unlike his father, he had never had to work in the mills that were now shut down. Mr. Fowler's other sister was the oldest of the three of them, and her house was more spacious than Joe and Audrea's, with a chandelier hanging from the dining room ceiling.

The conversation at this gathering stayed genteely away from the blacks in East St. Louis; rather, it drifted dangerously close, then was veered expertly away to more polite matters, such as money and investments, and retirement, and politics.

I held up better under this kind of conversation and felt I had successfully skirted the issue of my writing and had left everyone duly impressed (even if it wasn't deserved) that I had written a book that was "constantly" being sold out--as Joe had insisted on interpreting the matter. When we were leaving, I said to Mr. Fowler's eldest sister, "You'll have to come out to New Mexico and visit."

"What!! Come to that God-forsaken country!!"

Oh, well, I thought, smiling to myself.

* * *

I must admit, before I come down too hard on these folks, that other than the niggerniggernigger obsession Joe and Audrea had, and other than their unkind attitudes about my "God-forsaken" state of New Mexico, they did try to show me a good time. While Gordon napped in the afternoons during our visits, Joe or Audrea took me around and, with pride, showed me their beloved city.

Joe got wistful one afternoon down at the waterfront, telling me how, when he was a kid, he used to watch the black men unloading the barges. "There was a continual line of them," he said. "All day long, they carried bags and equipment off the barges. They'd load up those big buck shoulders and walk to the dock, dump their bag, then join the line back to the barge. I watched them for hours. From sunup to sundown, a row of niggers unloading the barges. Now, it's all done by machine. Those good old days, when men were men and niggers knew their place, are gone forever."

As they should be, I thought.

We spent a long, pleasant afternoon at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial arch, and I really enjoyed going up into the arch and looking out over the cities of St. Louis and East St. Louis.

The contrast between the two cities was like a comparison between towns along the United States/Mexican border. I went from one side the of arch to the other several times. On the western St. Louis side, there were tall buildings, with a definable downtown whose streets, from up here, seemed to be laid out to flow from the westward view of the arch. On the East St. Louis side, across the Mississippi river, it looked like mostly single or two-story dwellings, the repository for much of the dirty industrial complexes and, all across the city, there were, indeed, open fires burning, and in areas of the city, smoke hung in the air.
Maybe it was the obvious poverty of East St. Louis that bothered Joe. By extension, he might have thought that poverty is proof that poor people (most notably the black population) are criminals.

I thought back to what Audrea had said, too, that with the black family in her neighborhood she was afraid to go out on her mile-long walks. I reasoned that if the black family was able to afford the housing in that area of St. Louis, obviously they were not poor. So, was she afraid they would breed poverty, somehow? Or crime? But why would they want to? Didn't they have as much to lose#or gain#by keeping the neighborhood safe? I don't know which of their attitudes I found more offensive#their lack of compassion for people less fortunate than they, or their attitude that they were somehow better than the blacks or the poor.

I shrugged, boarded the elevator cage along with three other people and emerged in the below-ground museum of the Jefferson memorial.

On another day, Joe took me on a round-trip van ride, about a fifty-mile tour of St. Louis. On the way back to his house, I asked if we could stop at a White Castle hamburger place. I had heard of White Castle hamburgers from other people from the midwest and I thought I might as well try them. My expectations were too high. I did not become an addict.

One afternoon, I borrowed the car from Mr. Fowler and drove to Our World Too bookstore again. It was nearing the end of our stay in St. Louis and I had vowed to return to the bookstore by myself. I picked up a few more magazines to carry back to Deming with me. I was careful not to bring them out at Joe and Audrea's. At the motel room in Festes, I had no fear that Mr. Fowler would be able to read them, so when we spent most of our evenings waiting to go to bed, I brought out the magazines I'd bought.

Over the two weeks we visited St. Louis, Mr. Fowler may have wondered at the change in me and what my interests were. I couldn't always pretend I was enjoying myself when practically every conversation centered around the black race. I had had enough of the open prejudice of his brother-in-law. Back at the motel, Mr. Fowler did not seem to be as obsessed with blacks or as prejudiced as he did when he was around his relatives. In fact, he adored the Indian family that ran the motel. Contrary to Joe's description of the motel, it was neither flea-bitten nor dirty. And on the next-to-the-last day of our stay, I gathered the entire Indian family together and had Mr. Fowler stand with them while I took their picture.

In that photograph, Mr. Fowler is standing in front of the Indian family, his red-luster skin and white hair a contrast to the darker skin and black hair of the Indians. He is leaning on his cane, which he is holding with both hands, in what I recognize after being with him for almost three weeks as a characteristic stance. One of the Indians has a hand on Mr. Fowler's shoulder. It's a friendly gesture, a sign of liking the little man, as I'm sure Mr. Fowler likes them.

It contradicts what I witnessed among his family, which I'm glad of. Their obsession with the black race as the cause of all the world's problems is an illness. And like any disease, they had disabilities because of it. They were unable to make black friends; nor could they appreciate the qualities in a black person enough to realize that those qualities--and not the skin color--should define the person; they told mean stories about their black housekeeper who had been with them for something like twenty years. In her absence, after that loyal service, they laughed at her in a way that seemed tinged with cruelty. It made me wonder how they had treated her all those years.

On the last day at Joe and Audrea's, I had had enough of Joe's nigger this and nigger that. So I told him a story of what had happened to me in a bar I used to go to in El Paso, Texas. Of course, I did not tell him the bar was almost exclusively patronized by gay men and lesbians, or that many of them were members of the armed forces who were sworn to protect and defend him, regardless of his race or sexual orientation, regardless of whether he was a wife beater or a member of the Klan. I hoped my story would make him sick, since he seemed to hate black people so badly. In short, the story went like this.

"Every night I was there, Joe, this black woman would stare at me across the room as soon as I walked in. She would stare at me for awhile, until she had made me nervous, then she would ignore me the rest of the evening. Every night it was the same thing. Eventually, I would look around for her as soon as I walked into that bar.

"Then one night, she made her move. She was a tall, black woman, Joe, an amazon, and I had no doubt she could break me like a pencil. So when she came right at me that night, staring at me the whole time, I was too nervous to look away and too scared to move.

"So I just sat at my table like a doomed man. She didn't crack a smile, Joe. And I knew she was going to do something bad to me."

Joe leaned closer, the more I got into the story. Nodding.

"Anyway, she comes right up to me, not a smile. Not a word. And before I knew what was happening, Joe, she grabs my face and plants a big kiss right on my lips."

Joe laughed loudly and leaned in real close to me. "Didja git any?"

I was dumbfounded. "What?"

"Didja git any?"

"Any what, Joe?"

He just laughed, showing a wide mouth full of false teeth. When it finally dawned on me that he meant did I have sex with her, I was embarrassed, felt my face turn red. My little story had backfired miserably.

* * *

We left Festes, Missouri on April 20th. During the two weeks we had been in the area, the weather had steadily warmed up, and it was sunny and fresh-looking as we entered the interstate, heading west. "Let's shit and git," the old man said.

We retraced our route through Oklahoma, then dipped down into Texas and spent the night at a Motel Six outside of Lubbock. We were in what is known as the tornado corridor, where the wind blows incessantly during the year and all the trees' branches are permanently bent northward. That night, the sky overhead was angry and the color was strange. I lay awake listening for the roar of a tornado, finally able to drift off at around two a.m. Mr. Fowler slept like a rock.

For the endless trip through the Texas plains, Mr. Fowler seemed to droop, had no trucker stories to tell me, and slept a lot. After we crossed the eastern plains of New Mexico and entered the mountains, he finally came awake, seeming to be anxious to get home. Unlike the trip out, on our return, he insisted on driving late into the day. "Get your damn foot off the brake," he said more frequently.

We arrived in Deming, New Mexico on the afternoon of April 24th. I saw the old man one time after that to return the credit card he'd given me for the trip. He still had the sore on his foot, and seemed even more sunken and tired. We had a short, pleasant visit, but I was just as anxious to leave as he seemed to be to have me leave. There was something withered about his attitude, and when I was out the door of his small trailer and walking toward the pickup, I doubted I would ever visit him again. He'd hired me for a job and I did it. I had written a short letter to the Scarlaccinis, to let them know Mr. Fowler and I had made it back all right. I was sure I would never hear from them, again.

So I was surprised, but not pleasantly so, to get a short letter from them one December day. I stood at the mail box on the side of the road wondering if I should even bother opening it. They had not answered my letter of eight months before, so I doubted, much less cared, that they wanted to correspond now, after so long a time.

The letter was just a couple of lines telling me Mr. Fowler had died and that their son, the architect, had come out to close up his trailer and to bury him.

The news did not bring tears to my eyes, although it made me melancholy. But I knew the old man was with his wife, which is where he had intended to be when he got back from St. Louis.

AIDS in Paradise

By the time I'd made the decision to go, it was so hot and muggy at night in my cabin that I was sleeping outdoors on a sleeping bag, preferring the whine and persistence of mosquitoes to the drag of my skin across the sweat-drenched sheets of my waterbed. I'd been writing to the owner of a goat ranch in northern New Mexico for at least a month, ever since I'd read an ad about it in RFD Magazine:

"Wanted: Gay male to work on 5,000 acre goat ranch in Las Vegas, New Mexico in exchange for room and board. Primitive conditions."

Something in the very strangeness of the idea appealed to me. Although I had some idea of what working on a goat ranch might entail, since I grew up on a farm where we raised pigs, chickens, and cows, and made our own butter and butchered our own beef, I had no way of knowing what it would really be like unless I just did it.

It wasn't the idea of a goat ranch that appealed to me so much--but rather the "primitive conditions" the ad promised. I had shed my rural background over twenty years before when I entered college and opted for a profession afterwards that kept me working in urban areas. But somewhere along my career path, I got weary of commuting sixty to ninety minutes to work, sitting behind a desk for eight hours, then commuting home, eating a hurried meal, vegetating for a couple of hours, and going to bed, then doing the same thing the next day and the next. So I had tried to get out of the rat race by settling down back in my hometown, hoping to make it as a writer. I had one published novel under my belt and was at work on another.
Compared to my hectic life in the city, I was living simply in my one-room cabin in the middle of nowhere in southwestern New Mexico. But I hadn't really given up a comfortable life, since I had home-cooked meals with my parents every day, took long hot showers, slept in a waterbed, and had a computer (for god's sake) to write on. So the ad appealed to me, as did the articles in RFD. There, I read about Faerie gatherings and men who gave themselves pagan names. I'd even thought of a couple of pagan names for myself: "Coyote" or "Owl."

So at night, when I was lying naked in my sleeping bag, gazing into the brilliant night sky, watching the blinking lights of a jet moving across my field of vision 26,000 feet overhead, or caught the streak of a meteor out of the corner of my eye, I pondered the goat ranch. I wrote letters to the owner asking "How primitive?" "Are you isolated enough so that I could go nude?" "How many men work for you?"
Every time the owner wrote back, he was frank. "Most of the guys have found our life too rough, too primitive. I don't know what they thought we were advertising for, because we don't have indoor plumbing or electricity." About my nudity he said that, while he was raised to be more modest, it wouldn't bother him if that's what I wanted to do, although he wouldn't want to chance skin cancer, himself.

"Would I be milking the goats?" I wrote.

"And making cheese," he replied.

Each time I got a letter from him, I tried to read between the lines. But it all seemed right there for me to see. "We bathe in the stock tank."

That did it. I fantasized about being a cowboy of sorts--or, in this case a goatboy. In the next exchange of letters we worked out the details of just how I would get from Deming, New Mexico in the southern part of the state to Las Vegas, somewhere north and east of Albuquerque, in the northern part of the state. I would travel by bus from Deming to Albuquerque, change buses there and travel to Santa Rosa, New Mexico. Since there was no telephone at the ranch (naturally), I would have to arrive in Santa Rosa at a given time on a certain day. The owner would make one trip to Santa Rosa, on his way home from his black-smithing class in Tucumcari, New Mexico. If I wasn't at the bus depot on that day, at the hour specified, he would assume I wasn't coming. It was too much, he said, to expect him to wait--or to return to check on me--since the ranch was forty miles north of Santa Rosa on a little traveled highway. Once he passed through, that would be it.

It was the bus ride from Hell. Out of Deming, I took an early morning bus to Las Cruces, then had to wait almost three hours for a connection to Albuquerque. That bus was late and, by the time it arrived, I was worried I would miss my connection in Albuquerque to Santa Rosa. "We might make it," the bus driver said. It was a four-hour drive. It was around eleven o'clock when we started out, and my connection in Albuquerque was at three. That leg of the trip was crucial, and I kept time on my watch as we entered each town, noting that we were just barely keeping time and miles in sync. We arrived in Albuquerque at five minutes after three and, as I leaped from the bus and made my way through the maze of buses parked in Albuquerque's depot, I was afraid each bus pulling out was mine.

Just as the doors were beginning to close on a bus bearing BOSTON on the destination tag on the front, I jumped on. Not a seat was empty, and the driver tried to dissuade me from boarding. I forced my way on mentally defying him to refuse to let me board, explaining as calmly as I could that I had to make this particular bus. He shrugged. "You'll have to sit in the aisle."

For over two hours, I sat in the aisle between two warring factions of assholes who were on their way from Los Angeles to points east of the Mississippi. I learned this from their slurred conversation, as they argued over who drank up the whiskey, who smoked up the last of the cigarettes. I gathered that they'd seen each other's ugly faces for the past thousand or so miles, had been friendly with each other early on, but when the booze they'd smuggled aboard had run out, so had their friendliness. Now it was ethnic curses, hot tempers, and near blows across the aisle.

The worse backache I'd ever had, constipation, and the sheer stink of sweat on my skin defined my entire being by the time the bus pulled away and left me on the dirt lot of the bus depot in Santa Rosa. Population: maybe a thousand. It was around five-fifteen p.m. In another fifteen minutes, the owner of the ranch was supposed to pull up to the depot and my adventure would begin.

But the appointed time came and went, and nothing. I didn't even dare go to the bathroom inside the depot for fear the rancher would pass through town, so I ducked around the corner of the building and pissed against the wall, keeping one eye on the highway and the other out for unsuspecting passersby. By then, I probably looked like a derelict, hanging around the depot, pissing in the alley, and talking to myself: "What in the hell have I gotten myself into?" I began to wonder.

Every minute that ticked by seemed longer than the one before, but I dared not wander away from the bus depot. There wasn't much to see, anyway. East of the depot, the highway disappeared over a hill. To the west, from the direction the bus had come, we'd passed a handful of perfectly style-less buildings, a couple of bars, a roadside cafe, a gas station, and a few dilapidated houses. Santa Rosa, for all its sparseness, however, was likely the hub of activity for miles around, since it was the only town of any size we'd passed through since leaving Albuquerque. I could just as well have stepped off the bus into the Twilight Zone as quiet as it was. The only sounds came from the highway. A couple of semi-trucks roared over the hill, followed by a flock of cars. My heart rose and sank as I hoped one would turn in to the bus depot. Since my ride would be coming from the east from the direction of Tucumcari, I studied every car or pickup coming over the hill.

So I was surprised when a gray Subaru station wagon with a lone driver pulled up next to the depot from the west. The driver rolled down his window and squinted at me. "Are you Ron?"

"Yes!" I said, relieved. "And you must be Tim?"

The driver shook his head. "Stephen. Tim sent me to pick you up. He's in the hospital in Las Vegas."

After I threw my suitcase and sleeping bag in the back of the station wagon amid old newspapers, used cans of motor oil, and a bale of hay, I slid into the passenger seat in the front, where I got a better look at Stephen.

He was sun burned and tan, but very skinny. He smiled shyly, turning away in an instant to fiddle with the keys in the ignition. He was wearing a worn T-shirt, and the long arms protruding from it were thin and bony--too delicate looking in my opinion to be capable of much hard labor. On each wrist he wore leather bands, decorated with hundreds of beads. When I asked about them, he had managed to coax the Subaru to feeble life and, as he was pumping the gas pedal, he said, "Oh, I forgot," and removed the leather bands, laying them on the dash board. "I can take them off now, since the ceremony is over."

Several things about his demeanor struck me as odd. He seemed only half-focused on our conversation, distracted perhaps into nursing the Subaru onto the highway and setting a course west. When I asked what he meant about the wrist bands and the ceremony, he just smiled and glanced away. "I'll tell you about it later," he said.

Because we were strangers, I decided his behavior was attributable to that. Being rather shy myself, I settled back in the seat and concentrated on our trip. Our route to the ranch took us west for about fifteen miles, then north for another thirty.

mesasThe views from the dusty Subaru windows made me feel as though we were traveling above the world. On the map I had studied before making the trip, it said Santa Rosa was about 4,600 feet above sea level, but as we turned north, we began an immediate climb. If we had gone all the way to Las Vegas, we would have reached a plateau 1,200 feet higher than Denver, Colorado, famed for being the "mile high" city; yet even as high as we were, all around us there were mountains towering above us. The view from the Subaru was as daunting in its immensity as it was in its weirdness. We were in a land of "mesas" from the Spanish word for "table." Mesas are mountains, but some freak of nature has sheared their tops off. Within my view, there were mesas in every direction bearing names the Spanish settlers to this region had given them over three hundred years before. There was Ciruela Mesa, Jacinto Mesa, and the Mesas Cuatas. And in among those was an out-of-place mountain with a peak, which Stephen informed me was called "Suicide Mountain," named for the settlers who had fled to its top to escape massacre by the Native Americans. Their deaths were even more gruesome, however, having starved to death, or died from exposure or lack of water.

To the west, the mesas were far off--ten, twenty, thirty miles away--but on my right, to the east, they were just off the highway. Because I had grown up with close and distant mountains all around our farm, I knew the tricks the land could play on the observer; in the casual sweep of my eyes, I knew that some of the mountains I saw were at least fifty miles away by their pale blue color. In a glance in all four directions, I knew that my eyes were seeing, yet hardly perceiving, over five thousand square miles of land; yet it was only a minute part of New Mexico, which covers over one-hundred twenty thousand square miles.

As we traveled north toward Las Vegas, the land was a strange scape of desert valleys, rising ever so slightly away from us, sparsely covered with tall grasses, then farther away, dotted with some sort of native shrub. I also recognized Piñon Pines as the land took another rise. As we continued our journey, the feeling of immensity gave way a little. It became hilly, and we kept climbing and diving from one rise of land to the other, the highway sometimes disappearing over a small hill. We passed small villages with names like "Anton Chico" and "Dahlia," nestled in small valleys that Stephen said had survived for three centuries. Each village sported a Catholic church a small store, and a few adobe houses, where most of the inhabitants bore the same family names, where newcomers were not welcome.

As the miles began to pass under us, the land became more lush, the grass thicker, the shrubs taller and more dense, the Piñons hardier, and the mesas grander and closer, until they marched right up to the highway and looked down on us with a majesty only gods know.

After dispensing the tour-guide information, Stephen finally seemed relaxed enough to explain about the ceremony he had mentioned when he took off his wrist bands.

"It's a way the native Indians of some South American countries greet strangers," he said. When I pressed for more, however, a look of confusion or reticence passed over his face.

"I'm sorry Tim is in the hospital," he said, after a lapse. "He got dehydrated."

"At school?"

"Yeah. It's the heat. He lived in his car, because he couldn't afford to rent a motel."

"So how is he?"

Stephen explained in his distracted way that Tim got sick a lot. Then he took a deep breath and glanced at me strangely. "We debated about telling you, but both Tim and I are HIV positive. If you don't want to stay, I'll understand. I could take you back to the bus station and tell Tim you didn't make it, after all."
I suppose I must have looked at him with too much surprise, because even as I was about to say no, he was already beginning to slow down, as if to stop. I shook my head. I liked Stephen and didn't want him to feel ill at ease about the information he'd just shared. "I'm not afraid of catching the virus from casual contact, Stephen. I've gone through a lot to get here. I'm not about to turn around now."

"You're sure?"

"Of course!" I said. "I'm looking forward to seeing the ranch."

Stephen looked relieved. "It's not full blown for either of us," he said. I get a little tired sometimes, but I manage."

"Is that why Tim advertised for workers, for room and board?"

Stephen looked confused.

"Is the work too hard for him?"

Stephen shook his head. "No. We can manage. We just want to share our place, give gays a chance to get out of the rat-race if that's what they want."

For the first time, I looked away, hoping my discomfort didn't show. I wasn't uneasy about their being HIV positive. I wasn't afraid of catching the virus, but felt I'd come at a bad time. I said so, after looking out the window at the light beginning to turn gold and red on the landscape, turning the grass a darker, richer green, the mesas blue and purple.

"It isn't the way we'd planned your visit," Stephen said. "Tim hated to be sick. But he'll be getting out of the hospital in a few days."

I put our talk of AIDS out of my mind as Stephen began to slow down. We were now passing a barbed wire fence on the east side of the highway. Although it went on for miles, Stephen said, "This is it. The ranch. It's really a lot more than five thousand acres. That's just how much of it we run."

I looked to my right at the mesas dominating the ranch. We were close enough to some of them that I could make out a line of pine trees along their flat ridges, then the craggy faces of the cliffs. "Can the goats get up there?" I asked, nodding toward the mesas.

Stephen laughed. It was a musical sound, full of gaiety. "That's why we have goats. The rancher who really owns the place lets us work this part of it because it's worthless for cattle, except for the lowlands."

We came to a gate made of criss-crossed metal pipe. When Stephen came to a stop, I jumped out and opened it. There was a metal grate buried in the ground over which we had to drive, called a cattle guard. The soil was reddish around me and grittier than the sandy soil in the southern part of the state where I lived. The reddish hue meant there was a lot of iron in the soil.

I took a moment to look east toward the mesas and, just out of my vision, on the other side of a hill, I could make out the top of a windmill about a quarter of a mile away. But even at this distance in the thin air, I could hear its rhythmic bumping, as the drive rod went up and down, pumping water. I could also see the roof of a building, which I assumed was the house.

When Stephen drove through the gate, I shut it behind me, then ran to the car and hopped in. Stephen was smiling shyly again as we made our way over the hill. "Did Tim tell you we don't have electricity or running water?"

"Yeah," I said. "That's one of the reasons I wanted to come. I wondered how people would live without all the modern conveniences."

"You'll see," Stephen said.

As we topped the hill and the yard came into view, I imagined I was moving through time to a hundred years before. But the fantasy was ruined by the other automobiles parked next to the house. Then I began to laugh, because there were goats everywhere, on top of the cars, all around them, some wandering farther away near an outhouse without a door that faced us. Two dogs came running up to the station wagon as we came to a stop next to a mid-70s model Oldsmobile. Stephen said their names were Betty and Ralph. There were chickens pecking at the soil, paying no mind to the goats. A couple of geese waddled across the drive from the direction of a corral next to the windmill. On the side of a hill in a pasture, two horses were galloping toward the house, I thought, because it was coming on feeding time and they had seen us drive up.windmill

The sounds and sights were more than I could concentrate on. I heard a pig squealing, then the tinkling of a bell on one of the goats, the honk of a goose. Stephen glanced my way with lowered eyes and a beautiful smile. "Welcome to paradise."

The sense of immensity dropped away from the land now that I was walking upon it, ensconced as we were in a small valley, protected from the yawning depth of distance to the west by the little hill, made more cozy by the close mesas to the east. The house, goat pens, corrals, windmill, and outhouse were close enough to the cliffs of the mesas that if a man were walking along the top of one, we would be able to see him, although he would probably look about an inch high.

I pulled my sleeping bag and suitcase from the back of the Subaru and followed Stephen through another gate into a fenced in area around the house. By the front door was another fenced in area with beds of flowers, peas climbing on a vine, and marigolds. The entrance to the house was on the south side, away from the yard where we parked. The house itself was made of thick adobe, plastered but unpainted; yet, over the years the grayness of the plaster had taken on an earthier tone and seemed to be as much a part of the land around it as the scrub oaks and Piñon Pines growing here and there in the yard.

We had to climb up three wooden steps to enter the front door. Stephen went ahead of me and pushed it open. A sudden flapping, honk, made Stephen laugh his bright laugh as a goose ran out from inside the house.

"I hope he hasn't shit everywhere," Stephen said, as he led the way inside.

"Do you let them in all the time?" I asked, following him and, as I stepped over the threshold, moving around a green puddle of goose shit on the floor.

"I washed the floor just before I left," Stephen said. "It'll clean up." He stopped inside the room. "This is it."

We were standing in the middle of what must be the living room, dining room, and either Tim's or Stephen's bedroom. Along the west wall of the long, narrow space was a desk, bed, and bookshelves. At one end of the bed was a trunk. Along the north wall, below a window was a small dinette with two chairs pushed under it. In the center of the table was a group of condiments, an ivy growing out of a mayonnaise jar full of water, a coffee mug with a spoon beside it, next to a jar of instant coffee. The window sill above the table had a cassette radio, with a collection of cassette tapes. Beside the window next to a doorway leading into another room was a pen and ink drawing of two naked males entwined either in wrestling or love-making.
Along the east wall of the living room was a wood-burning stove, a box with small chips of wood in it, a small sofa and, on the south wall, an overstuffed chair with threadbare upholstery. Behind the chair was an open window and beside that was a shotgun leaning against the wall.

Stephen took me on a quick tour of the rest of the house, which consisted of a kitchen with neither a stove nor refrigerator, but cabinets full of dishes and a collection of jars that probably served as drinking glasses. Although the sink had faucets, Stephen showed me that they didn't work. Underneath the sink were two five-gallon buckets full of water with a dipper hanging off the edge of one of them. On the counter top next to the sink was an ordinary Coleman two-burner butane camping stove.

"We heat our dish water on the burners," Stephen said, "then we rinse them in bleach water. We can't afford to heat the rinse water. I hope it doesn't bother you, but we think the bleach kills the germs."

I told him I was sure it did.

Another door let out the kitchen into a lean-to sort of room full of cans and bags of what I figured was feed for the animals.

Back through the living room, Stephen led me to the only other room in the house. It was half the size of the living room and the most untidy in the place. "Tim's bedroom," Stephen said.

There was a small cot against the east wall beneath a window that looked out on the mesas. A closet on the north wall had no door or curtain, and I could see bundles and as many clothes on the floor as were hanging up. Beneath the bed were several pairs of shoes and boots, a rumpled pair of Levi's and another rifle.

A dresser with a small mirror stood against the south wall, along with another trunk like the one in the living room. In one corner of the bedroom, my eye caught what I thought to myself must be some sort of pagan altar. On a wooden crate, standing on end, a tie-dyed cloth had been draped carefully. In the center of the cloth was a skull from a cow, with a beaded necklace of some sort around it. There were several feathers from some large bird tied with string hanging from the ceiling above the skull. Leaning against the wall, but placed so that it was part of the collection, was a piece of metal tubing with feathers coming out of one end and a dull-clear crystal stuck in the other end and secured with black electrician's tape.

Stephen confirmed my idea that it was an altar. "That's Tim's," he said, with a laugh in his voice.

"What religion is it?" I asked.

"His," Stephen said, as we left the bedroom.

I had set my suitcase and sleeping bag down just inside the front door. "Where am I going to sleep?"

"If you don't mind," Stephen said, "on the floor in the Tim's room."

Stephen made us instant coffee and, as we sat in the living room resting from the trip (which I suspected Stephen needed as much as I did, even though I'd been traveling for almost twelve hours that day), we made small talk. He showed me what must have been his most precious possession#a compact disk player.

"We're not quite as primitive as you might think," he said with a wry smile. "I just have to be careful to only play it for an hour each evening or I run the batteries down."

I looked at the titles of the books in the shelf. They were eclectic, ranging from Stephen King to Plato. Among them were titles of gay magazines I recognized, like the Advocate, RFD, and even Blueboy. On the bottom shelf was a collection of two dozen or so National Geographics, and some coffee-table art books. When I asked, Stephen said that both he and Tim liked to read. "We spend most of our evenings reading to each other. Doesn't matter what. When you don't have television, there's a lot of things that seem more interesting."

When we became quiet, I was struck that, beneath the honking and squealing, the tinkling of bells and the bleating from the goats, there was an absolute silence surrounding us. I shut my eyes for a moment. It was unspoiled by modern sounds that intrude so much we're not even aware of them, and the silence spoke clearly of how far away from people and human activity we were. We were far enough from the highway that I couldn't hear the whine of an engine and far enough out of the coast-to-coast jet corridors that the sky was silent, too.

Then I became aware of the windmill, the tinkling of the bell on one of the goats, then my own breathing, and the creak of Stephen's chair at his desk. I opened my eyes and looked into his.

"Are you ready to do the chores?" he asked, standing, "and to meet the goats? I'm sure they're wondering who you are."

We fed grain to the chickens, geese, and turkeys; fed corn that had been soaked in water to the pig, named Micah; dished pellets of alfalfa into the rabbit pens; and gathered eggs, which we stored in a picnic cooler covered with several layers of wet towels inside the kitchen. Such chores brought back memories from my childhood of the farm where I grew up.

But never in my life did I have such a strange encounter with another animal as I did with the goats. Their particular breed is called Nubian. They are quite friendly and cute with floppy ears, rather than the short, perky ears on other varieties; and each of them (somewhere over 30 goats) had a name Stephen called out as quickly as a grade-school teacher calling class to order. When we gathered them in their pen to feed them their evening meal, Stephen warned me that they were curious.

I stepped bravely in among them, and they came up to me from all sides, cocking their heads from one side to the other, some of them looking straight into my eyes long enough I knew, when they turned away and moved toward the feeding troughs, that I had been thoroughly studied. The eyes of the Nubians are gold with rectangular pupils, laid sideways in the center of their irises. When they looked at me with those strange eyes of theirs, I knew I was in contact with beings which were possessed, not only of souls, but of self-knowledge. Although the experience was weird, it didn't bother me; rather, it added to the charm of the experience I was having in this weird, time-out-of-sync land.

After we did the chores, we sat outdoors watching the sunset in the west which, on that cloudless day, was rather quick. One minute the sun hung in the sky above a distant mesa, lighting up its flat top; the next minute it fell behind it, and was gone leaving a golden glow in the sky. Then dusk settled quickly over us, and the shadows that had been long in the slanting sunlight disappeared. The air itself became thick with sunset colors, from gold to purple. The bare ground became a ghostly white, the shrubs black, and our faces pale ovals. Stephen's eyes were dark spots in his clear face.

When we could no long see each other's faces, we began to share more intimate details of our lives. I told him about my journey through the last few years of my life, losing a long-time lover to self-loathing as a gay man, who had tried to become heterosexual and, the last I heard, was living in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. I said I was just coming out of a long depression and finding, on the other side, a desire to experience new things. "That's why I came to see this place, to see what it would be like to be far from civilization."

Stephen told me how he and Tim had met it Denver a few years before. Both of them had been living on the streets. "I was living under a bridge when Tim found me," Stephen said. "I thought I was going to die."
"You were sick?"

"Much worse than I've been living out here. I'd been sick a lot. I'd been staying with a friend, but she moved away. I didn't have a job, so I lived out of my car."

"You couldn't find a job?"

"I couldn't stay well long enough to hold one."

That admission brought tears to my eyes. I considered myself lucky--and rather selfish, at the moment, because my visit to this place was just a diversion, a two-week vacation. If I wanted, I could go anywhere and work. "You seem better now," I said after a silence between us.

"I am," Stephen said, getting up and going into the house.

Once inside, I heard him fiddling with the kerosene lantern, then a match being scraped on a box. When the wick was lit, he set the lamp on his desk and sat in the chair. I sat on one end of his bed.

"This is a healing place," Stephen said. "I'm hardly sick at all." He didn't look at me in the rich yellow light of the kerosene lamp but, as I spoke, he raised his eyes to meet mine.

I told him a little of my plans for the future, wanting to be a writer, but as I talked, I realized that he didn't have the years I sketched out to plan for, which might explain why he seemed to pay so much attention to the small details around him, or why he seemed distracted.

Although I told him about my lost lover, my pains and problems were insignificant to his. I realized that this place, while a diversion for me this hot summer, was where he was attempting to come to terms with the rest of his life. He depended on it for his very existence. These were not primitive conditions to him, but a massive step forward from his days on the streets.

As we said goodnight and I undressed in Tim's bedroom and laid out my sleeping bag on the floor, it struck me how cold it was in the room. Three hundred miles southwest of here, in Deming, this night would be another muggy, uncomfortable one. But here, I shivered and slid gratefully into the sleeping bag, zipping it around me. For awhile, with my head toward the door, I watched the shadows play along the wall in the living room as Stephen made ready to go to bed. Then he blew out the lamp, and we were thrown into pitch blackness.

It lasted only until my eyes adjusted to the dark. Then through the window in Tim's bedroom, it was like a light had been turned on outside. From my place on the floor, I could see the mesas east of me, their flat, tree-lined tops and the cloudless sky above them. Although I'd been tired when I laid down, I became restless and lay awake, listening to the sounds from outdoors.

By far, the silence was the loudest noise, but there were the sounds of small animals in the yard--a rat, maybe, or some other rodent, exploring around the house. There was the occasional hoot of an owl, the muffled clop of the horses' hooves. At first, hearing them, I thought some heavy person was walking around, but then one of them snorted.

Then I heard a scrabbling sound coming from Tim's closet. The hair crawled up my neck and I lay still, listening. There was something in there, but I couldn't imagine what it was. I would have dismissed it as a rat, but it made a sound I couldn't place.



"There's something alive in the closet in here!"

"I know."

"Well? What is it!"

I heard him laughing. "I'm sorry. I forgot to tell you. It's a sitting hen."


I lay awake awhile longer, thinking, drinking in the sounds, becoming familiar with them. Then I turned over, wanting to sleep, but realized I had to pee. I got up, reaching for my pants, then shook my head. Tim had given me permission to go nude if I wanted. That had been one of my motives for coming here. It was a modest way to begin, in the dark, hopefully with Stephen asleep. I unzipped the bag, sat up, and reached for my work boots.

My breathing was shallow with a kind of erotic excitement. The air that had felt cold when I lay down, now caressed my back with a cool breath that actually felt wonderful and made my skin tingle. When I stood up with just my boots on, I hesitated to go through the doorway into the living room. Then without thinking, I spoke into the darkness.

"I have to take a leak," I said.

"Tim just pees out the door," Stephen said, in a clear voice, and I realized he hadn't been asleep, either.

"Thanks," I said. "I hope you don't mind, but I don't have any clothes on."

Stephen just laughed softly.

I got up before dawn, when the rectangle of Tim's bedroom window began to lighten. Somewhere outside a rooster had crowed itself raw, and I couldn't make myself stay in bed another second. Again, I rejected my clothing when I unzipped myself from the sleeping bag, and put on a pair of sneakers.

I peered through the doorway toward Stephen's bed. In the darkness of the living room, I couldn't make out his shape in bed and thought he must already be up. But then I realized he was so very thin, almost wispy, that his shape was a mere lump in the covers. I listened. He was breathing quietly, so I hurried across the room and opened the front door.

Once outside, I drank in the icy air, felt it moving across my naked skin, raising goose bumps. But rather than feeling uncomfortable, I was energized. I walked quickly out of the yard, marveling that I was leaving my clothing inside where, if a crowd of people had suddenly shown up on the ranch, I would have been caught red-faced and bare-assed. But that only added to the sense of adventure and excitement that came over me.

Once outside the fence, I ran and leaped across the yard, up the hill past the outhouse, feeling my excitement grow. How far did I dare go, before I became too self-conscious and retreated to the house for my clothing?

As the sunlight began to play across the sky, turning it from black to gray, to dark blue, I continued walking toward the east, toward the mesas towering above me. I leaped across a ravine and, in spreading my legs wide to jump, felt my penis slap my stomach. I wanted to shout with happiness at the feelings of freedom washing through me. Still I didn't stop.

A quarter of a mile away, I turned and looked back toward the ranch house. It was surprisingly small and, from my vantage point on the side of the hill, I saw it laid out before me. I was high enough above the house and yard now to see the highway about a mile below me. I saw where it came around a curve from the north and where it disappeared around another curve toward the south. When I saw a tiny RV round the bend, my first impulse was to duck down, but I stood erect, arms at my sides, my penis heavy with excitement as I watched its progress north to south.

I imagined I was a native of the land, surveying the trespass of a foreigner below me, imagined how the Apaches or whatever Native American tribes that roamed this land might have viewed a wagon train passing in the valley below, the coming "white" man a bitter thought and a threat to their way of life.

Those natives are consigned to reservations, now, but this part of New Mexico still belongs to Hispanic people who have been part of the land for hundreds of years. Although I was born in New Mexico, until a couple of years before, I had passed through it blindly, failing to recognize its rich heritage. Naked as I was now, above a highway where travelers passed blindly, I felt newly born, about to discover life, to discover what Stephen had so aptly called "paradise."

When I finally decided to return to the house, I stopped in the outhouse, giving it a quick once-over for spiders before I sat down over the single hole. Without a door, I could look out over the yard and, beyond it, over the hill that hid me from view. As outhouses go, it was positioned in a wonderful spot. To the west, the mesas were pink and blue against the sunlight already striking their craggy faces. Framed by the open doorway, far in the distance, was Suicide Mountain, situated between two mesas closer to me. It was a definite landmark in a land of mesas.

In the yard, itself, I became aware that the animals were waking up. The horses were wandering off to my left in the pasture, themselves cavorting in the early-morning chill. The goats were bleating in their pen, crowding at the gate, no doubt wanting out for their daily grazing. Stephen had told me the night before that, after we watered the garden we would follow the goats into the mesas while they grazed. Stephen had let the two dogs, Betty and Ralph, outdoors, and they were lying in a sunny spot on the south side of the house, pricking their ears up at the horses.

Then I heard the front door open and saw Stephen come out onto the steps. Like me, he was also naked and, as I watched, he unabashedly peed off the steps into the yard, his stream a bright streak of yellow, arcing away from him. For a moment, I felt voyeuristic watching him; then it struck me that, in this setting, far from prying eyes, there was nothing for him to feel abashed about. I had also told him that a chance to be nude was one of my reasons for coming here. Unlike Tim, he said, he often went nude as well, even though Tim laughed at him.

I was momentarily aroused by the sight of his tanned body in the golden light, but as yesterday's tensions fell away from me, and my body responded to its functional needs, I soon returned to a flaccid state. After cleaning myself and returning the roll of toilet paper to its protected place in the rafters, I stood up, trying to pull up nonexistent underwear and pants, then laughed aloud at the conditioning of a lifetime of wearing clothing.

When I emerged from the outhouse and began a rather modest trip down to the yard, Stephen looked in my direction and waved. "Come down for breakfast!" he said in a clear voice that carried to me in the windless air.

When I made my way into the yard and up the steps into the house, I considered getting dressed, until my modesty or Stephen's had fallen away, but I forced myself to walk through the living room into the kitchen where he was scrambling eggs.

We glanced at each other, but our eyes shifted away.

On the other burner of the camp stove was a pot of boiled coffee. Stephen handed me a mug, and I filled it.
"Go sit down at the table," Stephen said. "Breakfast is almost ready. "We're out of bread, so I hope you don't mind crackers with your eggs."

"No. Fine. Anything," I said, and sat at the table.

From what I'd seen of their food supply in the small pantry off the kitchen, Tim and Stephen didn't have very much to eat in the way of store-bought items. Without refrigeration, they had to mainly stock canned goods, of which there was only a small supply. There was a large jar of peanut butter, a small jar of jelly, a box of dry milk, a burlap bag on the floor with raw peanuts, "a gift," Stephen said, "from a guy who came for a visit a few months ago."

In the picnic cooler, beside the eggs that were gathered daily, were a few tomatoes from their garden, a couple of onions, and little else. When I had agreed to work for room and board (even though I knew I'd be living in primitive conditions), I'd never thought I might go hungry. Maybe some of Stephen's thinness could be attributed to meager meals.

Thinking of this, I had a moment of panic, the smell of the eggs from the kitchen making me realize just how hungry I was. I hadn't eaten since sometime the day before around noon. I looked down at my nakedness and, in my moment of anxiety, felt ridiculous. Again, I thought, What have I gotten myself into?

After a meal, as meager as it was, I felt better, and the anxiety that had seized me abated. Both of us had stayed nude, and getting out in the sunlight that was now pleasantly warm, my skin felt clean as every pore took in the clean mountain air. It was a joy to feel the gentle breezes passing over me. Even the song of the birds seemed to seep into me from the air. Stephen was humming to himself and, like his musical laughter, his voice had qualities soothing to hear. Several times, I just stretched in the sunlight, to feel my nudity, to rejoice in it. I didn't even mind that we were engaged in the first hard work I had done since my arrival--hauling water to the garden. We had to carry five-gallon buckets of water from the stock tank outside the fenced in garden area to individual beds of plants inside. After making several trips with a full bucket of water in each hand, I asked Stephen if he had a long garden hose.

"If you had one," I said, "we could use it as a siphon by sticking one end in the bottom of the stock tank and running the other end to each of the beds."

"Do you really think it would work?" he said, his face lighting up.

"As long as the garden hose doesn't have any holes in it to cause air suction."

Stephen left me, then, and ran across the yard to the lean-to on the house. A few minutes later, he came back with a garden hose. It worked perfectly. Our only real chore after that was having to carry the buckets of water to the flower beds on the south side of the house, which was too far from the stock tank for the hose. But I didn't mind. It was a pleasure to be nude; all else succumbed to that pleasure. Even the working of my muscles without the stricture of clothing was a pleasure.

As we completed the irrigation, the sunlight in the thin, high air began to get very hot, and as I began to sweat, I realized my fantasy about continual nudity fell short of the reality. I would have to take it easy or, as Tim had suggested in his letters to me, I just might be putting myself in danger of overexposing my virgin skin to the sun.

Reluctantly, when we let the goats out for their trip to the mesas, I put on a T-shirt and rummaged in my suitcase for a pair of cutoffs. Stephen gathered a couple of canteens, filled them with water, and grabbed two walking sticks from the east side of the house. I slung a pair of binoculars across my shoulder, took one of the canteens, tying it in a belt loop, and followed him up the hill after the goats. The two dogs joined us, running ahead and returning, excited to be going off for the morning. They circled our legs, let out short, excited barks, and ran ahead of us, disappearing and reappearing as they tried to get us to follow the goats, as if to say, "Hey! You're letting them get away. Hurry!"

The goat herd began at a rapid pace, leaving the yard and heading directly east. Soon they were out of sight. Stephen and I took our time meandering up the side of the first hill, across a ravine where water ran when it rained, and began a steep climb up the side of the first mesa.

From the distance of the yard, the mesas looked much less forbidding than they did once we began to climb them. We followed a well-worn trail the goats had made from their daily treks, but soon it played out as the goats moved off in different directions in search of their food.

TerrainI was out of breath after only a half-hour of steady climbing. Although I could walk erect, I had to pick my way along narrow ledges, placing my feet on protruding rocks on the face of the mesa. Stephen fairly glided over the same trail ahead of me I found difficult to negotiate. It was then that I began to respect his commitment to living in such primitive conditions. This daily activity was a source of strength building and, even with the threat from his own blood, of hauling him down physically, he kept up a marvelous pace.

A couple of little goats stayed with us, and I delighted in Stephen's motherly attitude toward them. He bent branches of shrub down for them to nibble on, all the while clucking at the little goats, small laughs escaping from his throat as he watched them. Unlike my misconception, the goats were picky about what they ate. This time of the year, they would eat only a certain type of plant. At other times, Stephen said, when this variety of shrub played out or was eaten back by the goat herd, they would begin foraging on the Piñons.

As we got farther into the mesa, I could look above me where a few goats had climbed for their food and below me where others had gathered around a copse of shrub. Farther off, I could hear the constant tinkling of the goat wearing the bell. Stephen explained that he'd put the bell on the leader goat so that we could always find it.

"We have to be on the lookout for coyotes, too," he said. "Every year, we lose a couple of kids to them."
We finally came to a place, well above the ranch house, where the goats settled in to their foraging. We were surrounded by cliffs and sat for awhile beneath the sparse shade of a Piñon tree. I was exhausted, but Stephen seemed relaxed. We drank from our canteens and talked a little while of his plans.

He said Tim wanted to turn the ranch into a getaway for gay youth. He told me of how Tim constantly tried to get people interested by advertising in RFD. "But we just can't get very many people to give it a try. But I know it's better than living on the streets. Just look how many teenagers are living such terrible lives, selling their bodies for a little food."

After we'd rested for about thirty minutes, Stephen got up. This time, he began to yell, cupping his hands at his mouth. "No coyotes! No coyotes, here!"

The dogs came running at the sound of Stephen's voice, their tongues hanging out of their mouths. Stephen poured a little water into his hand to let them wet their mouths. "You guys take it easy," he scolded.
The sun grew hotter as it moved toward noon. I had finally got my second legs under me and for a time felt as if I could keep up the pace we'd set in keeping the goats in view. But with the heat and a growing hunger, I soon drooped again. I rested more frequently, taking time to scan the cliffs with my binoculars. Heat waves rose off rocks and boulders along the upper edges of the mesas, and even the shadows of the trees began to look hot. But I didn't want Stephen to see my enthusiasm flag.

When he finally said that the goats had gone about as far as it looked like they would, I was relieved. "So now what do we do?"

"We'll head back in a few minutes, as soon as we see the lead goat begin to turn the others."

"What do you mean?"

Stephen wiped his brow. "When the lead goat begins to come back this way, the others will follow. They may stray for awhile, but they're gregarious and won't go any farther out than he does."

So we waited, every once in awhile yelling "No coyotes!" into the cliff face, hoping to keep them away from the herd. Then we began backtracking the way we had come. I itched all over from the sweat that made my T-shirt stick to my shoulders, felt the sweat drench the waistband of my cutoffs; so, as the ranch house came into view below us, I stripped off my T-shirt and hung it around my neck. I stepped out of my cutoffs and tied them to the strap of my binoculars.

Stephen did the same. Naked, we made our way back to the ranch house, and when we got to the stock tank, we tossed aside our belongings and clothing and plunged into the water. It was like ice after the heat of the sun. It was like dessert for my body.

In just of couple of days at the goat ranch, I got into the routine of the work. In the afternoons, we would do the chores, feeding the animals, sit for a time until shortly after sunset, then go indoors for the night, eating a few vegetables from the garden, drinking instant coffee, sometimes munching on peanuts or peanut butter crackers. Then each morning I would get up around dawn, go for a stroll in the nude, always marveling at how delicious it felt; then we would water the garden, herd the goats, and spend a leisurely afternoon talking, reading, or like Stephen, napping.

When we finally made the trip into Las Vegas to pick up Tim, I felt that Stephen and I had become good friends. I believe Stephen felt the same way too, and I was looking forward to meeting Tim, whom Stephen had talked about in many of our conversations in the past few days, telling me what Tim was planning to do with the ranch, what he was going to do with the goats when the herd got big enough. But when we entered Tim's hospital room and Stephen tried to introduce me, I immediately felt ill at ease. I crossed the room to shake Tim's hand, but he didn't even look at me as he held out his hand for me to shake; as soon as I had grasped it, he withdrew it, glanced at me without making eye contact, then began talking to Stephen as if I wasn't even there. Although I had been initially interested in getting to know Tim, based on the letters he wrote, I felt hurt at his slight and wondered, yet again what I might have gotten myself into.

As I listened to their conversation, I tried to realize that this guy, who wrote such enthusiastic and well written letters about how anxious he was to meet me, was probably sick and tired of being sick and tired and that once we got back to the ranch and he had a chance to rest for awhile would be the same person I had met in the letters.

Although Stephen had been rather adamant that he and Tim were just friends, they were definitely involved in a dominant/submissive relationship; if they had been a couple, Stephen might have been seen as the "wife." He busied himself in Tim's hospital room gathering up the magazines, books, and clothing Tim had brought with him. Meanwhile, Tim carried on a monologue with him about his treatment and diagnosis.
"Looks like they're going to run some more tests in a month or so. My cell count was way down, Stephen. They said I couldn't continue in blacksmithing school, said I had to take it easy when I got home too. If you don't mind you and..."

Tim looked at me for a quick glance, "...Ron, will have to do most of the work."

"And don't go treating me like a baby when we check out, okay, Stephen? Don't go embarrassing me in front of the nurses. I know they know we're gay, but they don't have to think we're a couple for god's sake, do they?"

Tim was even thinner than Stephen. But he wasn't nearly as tanned. As he was getting out of his hospital gown and into a pair of worn Levi's, I saw that his legs were as white as the walls in the room. Although he was about five years younger than my forty-two years, his face was creased with lines. His teeth were bad, and he was missing about half of the upper plate, so that his grin and wide mouth drew attention to it. Only his eyes were bright and quick, glancing around at Stephen as he gathered up the stuff, at me, appraising me in an instant and not liking what he saw, I felt, then back to getting himself dressed.

When we left the hospital, we went into Las Vegas and made one stop at a grocery store. Tim took out his wallet and drew out a couple of tens. Once we got in the store, Tim said he was going to select something fresh for our dinner and Stephen and I could pick up a few more things. I gratefully followed Stephen as he selected a loaf of bread, some spun honey, a couple of jars of jelly, turning every once in a while to ask me what I would like. I was still smarting from the treatment I had received in Tim's hospital room and was reluctant to give my opinion on anything he was buying. I think Stephen felt my increasing uneasiness and tried to make up for it by smiling and being his usual sweet self. I was angry, hurt, and even on the verge of tears, but I choked back those emotions and tried to speak without any emotion. "Look, I'll eat what you guys eat."

In fifteen or twenty minutes we made our way through the store and met Tim near the checkout counter. Stephen laid his items on the counter, and Tim went through them. "Stephen, you know we can't afford these kinds of luxuries," he said, pulling out the jellies my mouth had watered for, and a loaf of nut-berry bread that would have gone perfectly with the jelly. "Put these back."

For a moment, I almost let my anger show. I was angry--not because we weren't going to have jelly and nut-berry bread, so much, but because of the way Stephen was made the fool of in front of the cashier. I felt like walking back into the store and buying candy bars, or a roasted chicken, and slamming them down on the counter and pulling out money of my own, declaring that I wasn't going to starve, even if I had to pay for my board and just work for a room. My stomach agreed with my anger and growled at me to pitch in, but I stopped myself. I had brought very little money with me and decided that in case of emergency, I would need what I had. Besides, I had been promised primitive conditions and I was determined to live as Stephen and Tim lived. If it didn't kill me, I would be stronger.

I rode in the back of the Subaru, crouched on top of the bale of hay, listening with my back to Tim and Stephen as they talked. It was the chatter of a married couple, despite Tim's protestations to the contrary. Actually, it was the chatter of the husband informing the wife of what the plan would be for the next few days, where the husband was planning on going, with the wife silently nodding ascent. My stomach was in knots, yet in Tim's voice, I thought I could finally hear the beginnings of an apology for the way he'd snapped in the store.

"I got a good deal on some fish, Stephen. Tonight we'll have a nice meal to celebrate Ron's arrival..."

"You like fish, don't you, Ron?"

I turned around and looked directly into Tim's eyes. He was smiling at me, but I was hard put to smile back. "Anything's fine," I said. "I'm just the hired hand."

I had tried to make a joke, but it came out as caustic and bitter.

"Then we'll feed you outside," Tim said. Although he smiled and I barked a short laugh, we had established a way of talking I wasn't particularly crazy about--trading barbs. I hoped they wouldn't get too mean.

Despite my continuing anger, I enjoyed seeing the town of Las Vegas. As we made our way through its narrow and twisting streets, Tim informed me that it was one of the oldest towns in New Mexico and, after a brief period when it competed with Denver, Colorado in importance, when it was one of the hubs of the railroad, it had been in a steady decline ever since. The saving grace of its poverty was that, while the more prosperous towns in northern New Mexico could afford to tear down their old buildings and replace them with modern structures, Las Vegas had to keep its buildings. The end result was that Las Vegas now boasted about a third of the historic buildings in the state.

It was true as I looked around the town. There were buildings from territorial New Mexico in the style of the period; there were magnificent buildings made of rock and brick, some bearing ornate wrought iron and columns; there were houses around the town square that reflected the Victorian era, with a well-kept gazebo in the center of the park; there were adobe buildings from an even earlier period and storefronts straight out of a western movie. In all, Las Vegas, by its very poverty, now had treasures in its buildings.

As we left the outskirts of Las Vegas and were, once again, headed down the highway toward the ranch, I dreaded the next phase of my experience; this time, the dynamics of our life, there, changed by the presence of Tim. Yet, I also tried to squelch those feelings, telling myself I had to give Tim a chance. The guy probably was torn up over his diagnosis, angry himself, that he had to drop out of black-smithing school. He had written to me about that, saying he could make good money in the area by shoeing horses for the ranchers. I had admired him for learning such lost arts, and now I tried to feel sorry for him for being too sick to stay in school.

I must admit that when I was corresponding with Tim about coming to the ranch, I had idealized him by his letters. The voice I'd heard in the letters was not the voice of the real person. His real voice was raspy, which might have been due to having tubes stuck down his throat for several days, but the tone in his letters also belied the tone of his real persona. He was gruff to Stephen once we got back to the ranch. And Stephen changed to accommodate that roughness, fading a little into the background as Tim and I got acquainted.

In fact, I regretted the change Tim's presence evoked in Stephen. Gone was his rather light-hearted, ever gentle way of being around me. He was still sweet natured, still had that distracted demeanor, but a new dimension unfolded around Tim. Now he seemed unsure of his motions. When we did the chores that afternoon, he asked Tim how much of this do we feed the chickens, how much of that does Micah get. "Do you think we should haul some more water to the house?"

Tim laughed at Stephen while looking at me with a "puh-lease!" expression, inviting me to laugh at him as well. "Of course we should haul some more water, Stephen," he said, in a condescending voice. Anytime the windmill is pumping water, we ought to make sure the buckets are full--unless, of course, you want to drink out of the stock tank!"

I tried hard not to actively dislike the real Tim and kept reminding myself that, had I been in the hospital (and this was just one of many stays, as my health continually deteriorated) I'm not sure I would have been the most sensitive person, either. Stephen, of course, had spoke nothing but praises for Tim in his absence, which spoke well for Stephen as a loyal friend. So I decided to try to get to know the real Tim and not the persona of his letters.

The first night of his return, Tim did cook a marvelous meal of white fish, fresh squash from the garden, seasoned with the flavors that would compliment a chef which, incidentally, I found out later that Tim had been a chef for a time.

My stomach seized on the food gratefully and even unclenched itself the rest of the evening. Our first night's conversation after supper, laced with several cups of instant coffee and home-rolled cigarettes, finally turned friendly, and I felt all over again that I had been wrong about Tim, that he was the Tim of his letters who'd only been cranky because he hated being cooped up in the hospital. All three of us shared the common love of the outdoors and agreed that the farther from the rest of humanity we got the better. In common with me, Tim had been in the Air Force, so we traded war stories, our experiences in basic training, seeing who could tell the cruelest story of his T.I. (Training Instructor) for Stephen's delight and horror.

Later that evening when the ranch was blanketed in darkness, after a time of sitting outside until the thin air grew too cold, Stephen and Tim revealed another dimension of themselves. Both were artists. Stephen was by far the most accomplished of the two, but Tim had been doing quite passable work with pencil and pen and ink. It was his drawing of the two men in the picture next to the door into the kitchen. They both pulled out sketch books to show me more of their work. Most of it was decidedly homo-erotic; but much of Stephen's work was of the ranch, the goats and rather idealized pictures of the ranch house, windmill, and the mesas off in the distance.

After a long evening of talk and coffee. Tim said he was getting too tired to sit up. We all said goodnight like the Waltons from different parts of the house. I told them I'd come to bed later, but not to keep the lamp lit for me. "I hope I don't disturb you, Tim, when I come in. But I think I can find my sleeping bag in the dark."

"I won't hear you," he said. "I'm a heavy sleeper."

With that, I undressed next to my sleeping bag dropping all my clothes out of the path Tim would follow if he got up during the night. Then I slipped through the living room and walked out into the moonless night. I traced a course with my memory of where the fence was then walked blindly in the dark to the gate, opened it and once away from the house and into the area between the buildings, I headed for the stock tank and the windmill, which was silent without a breeze to turn it.

Although there was no moon, my eyes soon adjusted to the darkness. The ground around me was a blurry whiteness, speckled with rocks and bits of trampled weed. The corral and the other structures were darker images in my field of vision, but I could clearly make out the stock tank's metallic surface. It was long after sunset in that July night, and it must have been around ten or eleven. And that high above sea level in the thin air, the earth gave up its warmth quickly. It was probably in the forties, but the cold and the strangeness of being naked felt wonderful. When I finally walked up to the stock tank, I bent over it, and drew back in an instant, startled.

The water was like a mirror, its undisturbed surface reflected the night sky and, as I bent overt it, my image was like a black wraith, between it and the water. I looked up at the sky and almost shouted with astonishment. I had never seen the heavens so full of stars, nor seen the familiar constellations so clearly. I shivered all over and thought that, despite my earlier hurt and anger and my moments of wondering if I should have come at all, I would endure anything--even an experience like basic training again--just to have been able to feast my eyes on such a brilliant sky.

I had learned another thing growing up on a farm. Water is warm at night because it gives off the heat it has collected during the day. So I pulled off my boots and got into the stock tank and floated on my back, enjoying the warmth like a gentle caress as I gazed off into the light years of outer space, drifting.

The next day, after a night's sleep when I had slid into my sleeping bag feeling refreshed from my late night "swim" and well fed, I greeted Tim with the friendliness I felt. He responded in kind and, even when he teased me when I took off my clothes and helped weed the garden in the nude, telling me he wasn't responsible for the sunburn I was going to get, I took his teasing as good natured.

Having spent several days in and out of my clothes, I was able to go longer periods without feeling the heat of the sun burn my back so quickly, so when Stephen and I set off to herd the goats, I left my cutoffs hanging on a gate we had to go through and committed myself to almost three hours when I would have no protection from the sun at all, except for the T-shirt I had hung around my neck.

That day, we went farther than ever, straight up to the top of one of the mesas, where we came upon a delightful meadow full of grass and spotted here and there with gnarled oak trees.

"Tim wanted us to check how full the pond is," Stephen said, "and to let him know if I thought we could bring some cattle up here for the next few days."

"How are they going to get up here?" I asked, looking around doubtfully at the steep side of the mesa we had just climbed over.

"The cattle will come in from the north," Stephen said, pointing in that direction. "It's a gentle slope from there."

He also told me that Tim would be riding one of the horses from that direction, to herd the cattle there.
"Is he up to it?" I asked. "Won't that be too strenuous?"

"Tim is stubborn, Ron. He gets antsy just sitting around. I think you noticed how grumpy he was yesterday."

I turned away so Stephen couldn't see my frown. "Is that all you think it is? I didn't think he liked me."

Stephen came up close to me and gently touched my shoulder. "He can be a tyrant sometimes. But he's a good guy. He really is. He just has so many responsibilities."

I felt better at Stephen's explanation. And Tim had made me feel good the night before. So I smiled with a warmth toward Stephen I really felt. "Thanks."

After a few more minutes of walking in the meadow, we passed through a growth of pine trees. The sudden shadow felt good on my skin. I was beginning to realize I was going to get one hell of a burn on my butt, so when we came to the pond, I stepped up to its mossy shore, pulled off my boots and waded into it. The bottom of the pond was slimy, and the surface of the water was green, but I sluiced water over my legs and back and held water in my palms to my butt, hoping I was warding off a horrible blistering.

I saw Stephen looking askance at me with such a concerned expression I burst out laughing.

"It'll give Tim something to razz me about," I said, "when he finds out he was right and I was stupid."

By that evening when I was in the living room with Tim and Stephen, after a meal of corn on the cob (complements of the garden), a plate of squash, and a glass of goats milk, I felt the beginnings of terrible itching on my butt. But when I tried to scratch, my skin felt hot to the touch and too sensitive to relieve, so I suffered in silence, not wanting Tim to know. But later, when he saw me wiggling on the chair in the corner of the room, he laughed.

"I told you, Ron."

I braced myself for more, but nothing came, and I began to like Tim a little more. Maybe it was as Stephen had said. Maybe he was just grumpy and depressed about being in the hospital.

Another dimension of Tim's and Stephen's personalities emerged when our talk turned speculative and philosophical. Stephen related stories of growing up in South America and his contact with the Indians, there; then of an out-of-the-body experience he'd had. Then Tim related a story of a disembodied presence that had visited him one night in another place, in another house. As our voices became more hushed and the stories more weird, I began to feel uneasy, although I tried hard to hide it.

But the remoteness of the ranch, the moonless dark all around us, the feeble light of the kerosene lamp and the shadows it cast of us on the walls in the living room began to make me aware of the sounds outdoors--the hoot of an owl, the sudden alien sound of the coyotes yipping somewhere in the mesas.
I tried to discount the mystical nature of the stories both Stephen and Tim were telling, saying something like, "I must be from Missouri, because until I see something like that with my own eyes, I'll have to believe they don't exist."

Stephen ducked his head. But Tim seemed challenged by my remark.

"You don't believe in other worlds, or other dimensions?"

"I have no way of knowing about them. I think the mind can play very powerful tricks, and it's like a bad acid trip, you know? You think what you're seeing is real, but it's just a chemical reaction in your brain."
"You think Stephen never had his experience?" Tim asked, this time looking to Stephen with his "puh-leese" look.

"All I'm saying, Tim, is until I've had some experience like that, I'll be hard pressed to believe it."

"And I suppose you don't believe in spirits. What about religion? Are you saying you're an atheist?"

I gave up trying to explain myself. My anger had returned and so, it seemed, had Tim's. I regretted I hadn't kept my mouth shut, rather than to disagree. But then I thought, no, damn it. Wasn't I entitled to my skepticism? Had I got angry when he was telling me of his beliefs? But later, still, lying in my sleeping bag, completely unable to stop thinking, I mentally kicked myself. I had the luxury of putting off thinking about any world but this one, any reality but the one I was now perceiving. Perhaps both Tim and Stephen had to spend time thinking about what came after their present lives, and I felt ashamed of myself.

I spent two weeks on the ranch. With Tim there, our routines changed a little. He was, despite my initial discomfort of his ways, quite willing to show me all phases of his operation, from the way he milked the goats, to the set up for making cheese. By far the best thing in his favor was a love for all his animals.

He and Stephen had told me of the time they'd rescued an eagle with a broken wing, telling of how magnificent a creature an eagle is--and how large. "It filled up this living room," they said. "You can't imagine how big they are until you confine one to a room this size."

I took on jobs they said they wanted to get around to one of these days, but which I doubted either of them had the stamina for. I dug a new hole for the outhouse through several layers of rock and hard soil. Then the three of us moved it to its new location. I went with Tim one afternoon to another location on the ranch where the real owner kept a supply of hay for his horses and helped load up the Subaru. I shoveled and spread a hill of goat shit, where it had been collecting in their pen. And through all of that kind of help, Tim let down his guard and his unpleasant ways.

I guess the most that could be said of the kind of friendship Tim and I developed was that it had its ups and downs. Tim was a man of many moods, like me. He went through periods during the day in which he was manic and jovial, then just as suddenly could be dashed into depression, where he didn't speak to either Stephen or me. Then just as suddenly, he might become angry and explode, as he did when one of the dogs refused to come to him one afternoon. Although he wasn't cruel to the dog, he scolded it off and on for the rest of the day, making it walk about with its tail between its legs.

Stephen's mood swings were more gradual. Most of the time he was even tempered and as sweet-natured as ever, but he would also get depressed, expressing it in sleep. I worried about him one day, because he didn't get out of bed at all. That was when Tim's best dimension came out. He took me for a long walk, talking of his love for Stephen and his worries about him.

"I razz him, Ron, to challenge him. Before you came, he had just about given up. But knowing you were coming, he got busy trying to clean up the house. If I hadn't gotten sick, we would have done a lot more than we've done. I know I hurt his feelings, sometimes, but if I don't at least try to make him mad at me, he just drifts off. He won't eat, he won't draw, or read. And he needs to stay busy."

I felt myself choking up. I wanted to tell Tim I was sorry for both of them, but I knew enough about Tim that my sympathy wouldn't be appreciated. Sometimes, when he talked about his plans, to be one of the largest goat ranchers in the southwest, I had felt embarrassed for him, dreaming such unrealistic dreams. I think I know now, even as he said such things, that he realized they would not happen. Maybe he had to keep himself going by dreaming those dreams and by his irascibility and cantankerousness.

I took the goats out by myself a couple of times to allow both of them to rest. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being completely by myself, with no other human around. I gathered stones and interesting branches and made myself a secret pagan altar high up on one of the ridges of the mesas overlooking the highway. It was play for me, not a real devotion to some nebulous pagan spirit. Still, as I danced naked around it, I felt things stir within me, as if I had tapped into some energy only the ancients know.

Rain came for a couple of days and, as high above the world as we were, even though it was coming on mid-July, it was as cold and crisp as winter. When the rain stopped and the sun came out, the light seemed to fairly glow from the rocks. The greens looked greener, and the Piñons took on a heavenly smell of incense.

I bathed every day in the stock tank and, unable to leave all of civilization behind me, was glad I'd brought along a bottle of Head and Shoulders shampoo.

One day we had visitors: Stephen's brother and sister-in-law. By the time these people came in their new pickup with the camper on the back of it, unloading fruit and homemade breads, and other delights, I felt like I'd lived on the goat ranch all my life. I certainly looked as though I had and tried just as hard as Stephen and Tim seemed to be trying, not to dig into the fruits with too much gusto, looking at such heaven-sent gifts with a smile and a "Thanks...maybe I'll have one of those peaches."

I probably dropped ten pounds during my stay, but I'm sure I came away from the ranch stronger, lighter of foot, with a lot more stamina than when I'd arrived.

Over the course of a week and a half, Tim had begun to feel well enough that he was already talking about trying to get back into the next cycle of black-smithing school in Tucumcari.

I suppose he did.

Once I left, we exchanged few letters; because they didn't have a telephone, I wasn't able to call and check up on them, either. But as I got back into my own routine in Deming, three-hundred miles to the southwest, I often thought of Tim and Stephen and hoped they survived the winter, and that with each Spring, they feel renewed, and that...

Well, there's no place to end when thinking of friends with AIDS. I'm just glad these two already live in paradise.road

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