Desert Home Companion
Check Engine Light
It's two hours to Las Cruces, but a world away.
Editor's note: During the 2012-2013 academic year, the English faculty members at Aldo Leopold High School in Silver City hosted a writer's workshop series. In January, they studied Garrison Keillor, the novelist, essayist and host of public radio's long-running "A Prairie Home Companion," known for his weekly "News from Lake Wobegon." All seminar participants — faculty and students — were challenged to write a story about their own homes and lives in Keillor's style. Teacher Catalina Claussen shared her own "Desert Home Companion"-style story with us (beginning on this page), along with outstanding works by three students (on the following pages). We're delighted to share them with Desert Exposure readers — along with a reminder that our annual writing competition is now underway, with a deadline of June 15. If these creative entries inspire you, whether your forte is Keillor-esque or something completely different, you can find the rules in an ad in this issue or under "Start Those Keyboards!" online.
It's been a quiet week in the Mimbres Valley. The residents ride out the throes of winter in their adobe houses as the smoke from their chimneys rises and then disappears into the clear blue sky. The temperature has dropped just below freezing consistently now for a week with the occasional day of 40 degrees. The wind blows, sending clouds in to do their duty, packing their lunches and making sure their homework is done, but the sun steals their ambition and probably their lunch and so the residents are left staring at the sky full of expectation wondering if, when and why it doesn't snow.
Brandon Claussen sits upright on the couch, fulfilling his end-of-the-winter bargain as he battles out the flu. The sweats and the chills have him wound up in a pitiful mess of blankets as he hunkers down for a third day of aches and pains. A born workaholic, the illness has him wrestling delusions and the reality of running his landscape business and he calls out to his wife, Cathy:
"Say, could you make sure that invoice to… to… I think it's Librado Maldonado, or was it the DA? Howie Morales? Oh, no, that's not it. It's Linda."
Cathy's mind flashes to Linda's home set up on a respectably sized hill. The wife of the former mayor has a home equipped with wide department-store glass doors and no less than three toy dogs of some indeterminate breed that is most certainly AKC certified. Cathy likes the kind of dogs whose paws fill up her whole hand as she squeezes them, the kind of dog unafraid to show a little love with a tackle.
She dismisses her husband's request since it's been two years since he has worked on Linda's home and the list of other invoice recipients he has provided would require her to bill every dignitary in Silver City, which probably isn't the best career move.
"I'm going to Cruces today," Cathy calls out. "The check engine light is on again. Need anything?" Las Cruces is the big city that lies two hours across the wide open desert to the south and east of the valley. Las Cruces has the closest mall, swimming pool and chain bookstore — facts that trouble Cathy, but she seems to be content way out here, with the shades pulled wide open in her passive solar adobe home, except for the one that streams light onto the couch disturbing her husband's roost.
"Could you pay my tree guy? $200, that's all he gets. I owe him 500, but I'm giving him two right now. He called me yesterday. Needs all the money he can get. He's working government contracts now to get by. I think he'll grow next year but… well, at least this is the last time I'll buy from him. There's no money in it, you know." He says that and Cathy thinks of the dozen or so trees standing at least 15 feet in the air, jammed in their 24-inch boxes and littered across their property. He changes the subject. "I think I'm going to work around here today." The hope in his eyes is troubling since he hasn't moved from that spot in several days. "You know, I might feed the chickens."
Cathy decides to test him: "Could you start by waking Angie?" And then she thinks about all she knows about germ theory and the delusions and realities that go along with that in her classroom, where just last month one in three children went down with whooping cough. She adds, "But don't touch her."
Cathy goes back to the sink full of dishes that greets her every morning, the load that makes her feel keenly aware of the duties and dualities of motherhood. She's resentful that she's the one who always does them, but somehow deep down grateful for being needed. No, maybe it's just resentful. In any case, today she'll be two hours away checking her engine.
"Mayra," she says, talking to the mechanic on her cell phone as she waits out a Mimbres Valley traffic jam that today consists of a young buck deer whose processing speed seems to be hindered by the fuzz on his horns and the early rush of spring that stems from his loins. Rather than address the fact that her silver SUV, a car that promised to faithfully transport her children and their friends to and from school and soccer and tennis and dance through rain, sleet and snow that has lately picked up a nail or two from the driveway every day since the neighbors' monument to stuff and civilization aka a shed has been under construction for what seems like a full year, rather than address the fact that this car is headed straight for him threatening to cause great damage or even death, the buck stops dead in his tracks chewing on how great his fortunes are this year and how he might be able to court and, well, follow "God's plan" with more than one of them.
"Boys are dumb," Cathy's 11-year-old daughter says in fit of wisdom from the passenger seat. Angie runs a quick hand through her hair that she recently cut to donate to charity, hair that will one day make a wig for kid battling cancer.
Cathy smiles in recognition and says to the phone, "Say listen, Mayra. You know how I called on Thursday about my check engine light and then I called on Friday 'cause it turned off? Well, it's back on again and I was wondering if you still have time for me."
"Sure, sure. Bring it on in."
"Yeah, boys are dumb," Cathy says, confirming Angie's words as she folds up her cell phone. She and Angie silently contemplate the day ahead free from the guys in their family. Angie recognizes the buck's look from her 16-year-old brother's face. The buck and Byron seem to have a lot in common. Cathy and Angie look at each other and laugh as the buck finally clears off the road. "Clear" might be too strong a word, more like "wanders off" the road trying to train his sights on the does in his fuzzy-horned crosshairs. But the doe-eyed girls left his contemplative self long ago, in search of greener pastures.
"It's gonna be a great day," Cathy breathes, exhaling long and slow after a full breath. A great day.
Two hours later, Cathy pulls into the Honda dealership and parks in the lane that reads "Service Reception." She is perplexed now, since a stop at the cheap gas station in Deming has convinced the check engine light to go off again. The iced lattés at that station are no better than the ones at home ever since Starbucks has standardized the perfect latté in a bottle. Lattés tend to slow the progression of any illness, so Cathy is certain that her SUV's improved condition is living proof. Leave it to the experts to confirm the diagnosis, she told herself as she went through with the rest of the drive.
Cathy opens the door and greets Mayra, a female Elvis whose slicked-back, black pompadour speckled with gray reveals her age. Her solid body, which attests to the quality of Christmas tamales in Las Cruces, reaches for the keys as Cathy rattles off a series of complaints. "There's another nail in my tire that slowed me down, but I made it. I had to figure out how to keep the nail in there long enough to get here. I wasn't sure if I could outrun it. The check engine light is off now," Cathy says, priding herself on the idea that last week's oil change, car wash and fill-up and this morning's latté might have done the trick.
"That's not good news," Mayra says. "There's nothing I can do for you." She looks up from the clipboard where she's been recording the make, model and VIN.
Cathy's face falls. "Well what about replacing… something about a recall on seatbelt stitching. I've been getting notices in the mail."
"We've got you down for that."
"And the buttons on the key only work sometimes," Cathy offers, hoping her two-hour trek across the desert won't seem like a waste to her husband.
"It's just a battery that needs replacing."
"How long is this going to take?"
"Well, we're open til one so it can't take much longer than that," Mayra jokes.
Cathy glances at the time on her cell phone: 10:46 a.m.
She and Angie collect their books from the car and settle down in the waiting room. The coffee machine in the corner promises hot fresh coffee with the beans cleverly displayed in a clear plastic bubble on top. Cathy and Angie cue up with styrofoam cups. Cathy presses the vanilla latté button, unconvinced that it has no healing powers, and dangles her cup under the nozzle to avoid the puddle of stale lattés splattered on the grate below. Angie does the same. She dangles her cup and then thinks for a moment about how she's supposed to rebel, given her age and all, and selects mocha instead.
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