[Author’s note: this is the first of three short stories in the collection Santa Fe Dogs, which I wrote in 1995 but never published. I am revising them and will post the other two in succession]
Cuate wasn’t really old. Nothing about him was old, except his name. Cuate, in two syllables, means buddy in the Spanish slang of old folks. Cuate was Jack’s buddy, and Jack, though not Hispanic, was old. Old but punctual, and if Jack’s pace was slow one couldn’t put it down to age, for he circled the park’s perimeter every morning between nine and nine-thirty with contained vigor. Old Cuate, as I persisted in thinking of him, ambled along at Jack’s side, his pace the result of a phlegmatic nature and a thick middle. The leash between them seemed a useless contrivance, a concession to law and custom.
Sunny the pup and I were also punctual in our after-breakfast outings, and as there was rarely anyone else in the park at that time of morning, I grew to look forward to crossing the old man and his golden retriever in their counter-clockwise passage. They would be emerging from the shadows of the riverbank cottonwoods as we were approaching them. Our paths always intersected at the same spot, a sunny stretch of turf between two concrete picnic tables whose forms linger less in my memory than do their sharply-etched shadows. Sunny and I and Cuate and Jack would each nod in our own fashion as we passed in a sort of pavane. There was a gritty courtliness about Jack in the way he nodded, touched his straw Stetson, and moved on. Much later, after we had spoken a few times, I asked permission to take their picture. Jack allowed it by standing back from Cuate, who sits splay-footed and grinning in the photograph. Jack is looking at Cuate. His face is in the shadow of his Stetson. It is my only souvenir of old Cuate and the cowboy.
Santa Fe is full of “cowboys”, but it was in Taos to the north that I saw my first real silver-plated, Wild Bill Hickok-haired, high heel-booted specimen. There in the tiny timbered plaza he strode magnificently past the boutique displays, a man with the ability to scowl and preen simultaneously. Finding such a self-styled cowboy in those parts was, I suppose, like sighting one’s first macaw in the Amazon, all dazzling plumage and bravado. Santa Fe is different from Taos. Cowboy chic there demands a certain amount of understatement. One morning while poring over the breakfast menu at Celebrations Café on Canyon Road I spotted two of the local variety, subspecies “Old Desert Coot”. Each one had a beard and iron-grey hair that would have waved in the wind were it not so well scissored. Cowboy boots and concha belts a little too new, denims a little too newly faded—all conspired to achieve the desired effect: Gabby Hayes reinvented by Ralph Lauren. The two were leaning toward each other over a low adobe wall, spitting monosyllables through gritted teeth, when something caught their attention. With glinty-eyed authority they tracked a swiftly receding object, which elicited this gravel-voiced exchange:
“That a Lhasa?”
“Nah, it’s a Shih-Tzu.”
I missed Jack that day, for breakfast at the café mellowed out into brunch, and Sunny and I got off schedule. Our walks in the park were the only schedule I had that summer, and when we missed one the whole day seemed out of kilter. On such days I would be cross with Sunny for no good reason, and liable to snap at my husband with little provocation. The best course of action was to get back to the park as soon as possible, not only for Sunny’s sake, but for mine.
My Santa Fe summer had followed several seasons of upheaval. In the spring of the previous year I had moved with my husband Francois from France to Connecticut, from a land-locked pocket of rural poverty foreign even to the French to a middle-class enclave surrounded by wealth bordering Long Island Sound. My own roots were in northern Virginia, the forward-looking region of a backward-loving state. The first courageous act of my life, the decision that altered my destiny, if one can imagine that destiny figures at all in ordinary lives, was to marry, at the age of thirty, a foreigner: a serious-minded singer of comic operas. Come away with me, he urged, and we shall live not safely, but well. And because he awoke in me not just feelings of love, but Feeling itself, it seemed, I breathed deeply and followed him. Together we travelled the zig-zag route of itinerant opera singers, reveling in spontaneity, and in each other. Eventually despite, or perhaps because of, our nomadic routine of no routine, we grew to share the dream of a home somewhere.
His career in those days kept us on the road between provincial theaters of France. In tired towns we lay on double beds in nondescript hotel rooms and gazed in perfect unison at the vision of our dream house outlined against ceiling after cracked ceiling. It was always a farm we imagined, with a little land and a house in need of repair, and therefore within our means. We were sure to discover it one day, see its shining potential, and transform it with love and a reverence for authenticity. In gratitude our farm would welcome us home from the shocks imposed by transience and urban culture.
It was in this state of mind that Francois saw the advertisement. Curiously, he was onstage at the time, playing the role of a grumpy old man reading a newspaper. That was how he discovered the farm for sale. So excited that he nearly missed his cue, he bounded offstage at intermission to telephone for an appointment to visit the property. We bought it breathlessly, feeling fated to have found it; in those days we could still afford such quaint notions. Fate ultimately revealed the folly of our impulse. By the time the arduous, money-draining renovations were completed, the house stood empty most of the year, as my husband’s career took us away from France and more and more to America. Finally we conceded the obvious, sold the farm for the little we could get, and adapted ourselves into a snug split level in the outlying suburbs of New York.
By our first Christmas in Connecticut we were forced to adapt to a new change: seemingly from one day to the next I had lost my health. Cancer called for chemotherapy, so through a winter of nineteen snowstorms and on into spring I learned a third language after French: of doctors and nurses and statistical studies, while life droned on in a dramatic way to the cyclical rhythm of side effects. Just as suddenly as it all began, the treatment was over. I was pronounced in remission, and the very next day we boarded a plane for Albuquerque, because the Santa Fe Opera liked the way Francois sang. His summer-long contract there afforded us adobe lodgings on Canyon Road, and it was our proximity to the park coupled with my love of dogs that gave me the idea of acquiring Sunny, who tumbled raucously out of a roiling mass of Collie puppies and into our family. Through the mundane rituals of housebreaking I could focus outside myself on a task that was not too demanding. Sunny’s puppy antics were refreshing, and our walks almost convinced me I was well again.
The morning following my café brunch I resolved to speak to Jack. The sun had risen to its same degree of altitude when our shadows intersected, as if foreordained, between the two immovable picnic tables. We and our dogs were the only animate beings in the flat expanse of the park at that hour. So acutely did the sun bisect us into hemispheres of light and darkness that we could have been raised figures on a sundial, or, it occurred to me, two moving second hands on Nature’s timepiece, though fated by our normal orbits to sweep past each other in contrary motion. I hesitated to break the stately rhythm of our passing by engaging him in conversation, for over the past weeks I had come inexplicably to feel that something in the predictability of our daily countermarch contributed in its own infinitesimal way to the celestial mechanics of time itself. Santa Fe can do that to you.
Yet I spoke, and thereby learned his name. Jack wasn’t one to volunteer too much about himself, at least not at first, so I asked about his dog. Cuate started out life as part of a litter for sale in front of Wild Oates Market. Jack bought him when his other golden retriever, Brandy, was an old girl. She accepted the puppy, letting him finish off her food, and when she died Cuate took her place beside Jack’s bed. Jack’s voice got a little rough when he talked about having to decide to put her to sleep, so rather than look in his eyes I shifted my gaze to his belt buckle, which was a sober silver-rimmed turquoise rectangle. His Levis were well broken in and his blue work shirt had paint spatters on it, yet both were clean and freshly pressed. There was an air of worn decency about Jack, as of a man who didn’t need a wife to tell him to change his shirt, but might have needed one to tell him when to throw it out. On his feet were dark canvas running shoes.
Sunny’s inventory of Cuate was more direct and more dramatic. First she fell over in stunned disbelief at the random nature of the universe. She had accepted one routine, one precise itinerary whose elliptical course habitually approached, yet excluded one certain dog from the set of all possible canine acquaintances, and on one particular morning which in every way resembled all others, I, the decider of all arbitrary directions, had stopped in my tracks. Being but ten weeks old and not human, she could not formulate such thoughts, much less extrapolate meaning from them; she could only seize the essential fact of the matter, and wriggle her delight. Here was the unhoped-for chance to play. They say younger dogs will instinctively show their underbellies to older dogs as a sign of submission, but I knew Sunny to be an incipient bully already aware of the distinct advantages a bitch could deploy against the touchingly archaic chivalry of dogs, especially her elders. For her a prone position meant a better look at her opponent’s underbelly, and her cutely twisting head allowed her to size up Cuate from all angles. Her instinct was unerring: Cuate might be bigger, stronger, and wiser, but he was a sentimental marshmallow, the epitome of gallantry, a plaything to despise and dispatch.
And there he stood so foursquare in the sun, wagging his tail in the same tentative way that his far-off brain was dimly perceiving a change in his surroundings. Methodically he acknowledged Jack’s halt, then turned liquid eyes set in silk toward the shock waves emanating from somewhere near his feet. He slapped his jowls shut to swallow, started to pant, and before his flaccid tongue could emerge Sunny was on him. On him, under him, hanging off him, slashing and snapping, she quickly found her target of choice. While the rest of his burnished coat was impervious to her charges, it covered so thinly his legs that she seized and gnawed on them, alternating with such speed that she soon toppled him. Cuate could have squashed her. He knew it and thought she didn’t, and just as she knew it would, the thought of her feminine fury melted his heart. For her sake he roused himself to an honorable imitation of menace, in homage to her puppy pride. Gently pinning her down between his outstretched legs, he curled back his lips in a snarl, yet the velvet flesh of his muzzle wrinkled up above his nose so comically as to completely defeat the purpose. Sunny, all but immobilized beneath a heaving chest, craned her neck like a snapping turtle and latched on to the loose folds of his jugular. Cuate threw his blunt head back melodramatically, naively pleased with her prowess and his own performance.
So they went, and so for want of anything better to say, I admired Cuate’s collar. Jack said a lady friend of his had found it stuffed into a brown paper bag along with men’s clothes and left on the riverbank. It had been a man’s concha belt. She had asked Jack to help her look around, in case a dead body might be lurking nearby, but all they found was an empty wallet. He suggested she keep the belt for herself, as it was real quality work, but she thought the silver medallions encrusting the smoothed-down leather would suit Cuate just fine, and so she had it cut down to fit him.
“I used to have a little farm up near Ojo Caliente.” Jack had tired of looking at the dogs and was squinting off into the distance. “Just five acres. I planted it in alfalfa, and a big vegetable garden. Then while I was farming I bought some land up in Colorado. Ridgeway?” His sharp glance at me was met with blankness, so he went on. “I bought it for $15,000 and sold it four years later for $49,000. Then I retired to Santa Fe. Got a little house over on Acequia Madre.” Now that he had loosened up he had more to say, but first looked at me in what I took to be a cagey sort of way. He spoke quietly, though no one else was around to catch the undercurrent of feeling behind his measured words. “I’ve just about closed on a deal in South Fork. You see, what’s good about this parcel is that one side borders irrigated ranch land, and the other three sides are surrounded by National Forest land, so that limits development. It’s got a cabin that brings in $1500 a month winter and summer. In winter there’s skiing, and in summer there’s trout fishing.”
That was all I learned about Jack. He didn’t ask about me, and I wouldn’t have known what to tell him. I wished him luck and we parted. Cuate followed Jack with no regrets and no visible wounds. Sunny snorted and trotted off, oblivious to her own sorry state, the result of Cuate’s mock ferocious mouthing. She needed cleaning up, but I steered her away from the steep-banked Santa Fe River. We headed instead diagonally across the field and up the opposite slope toward the backs of the houses that faced Canyon Road. Forming the boundary for a short distance between park and back yards was the narrowly rushing irrigation ditch called Acequia Madre. I supposed it joined the river but never bothered to follow it. The acequia came from under the houses and across Canyon Road, following the street of the same name, as rich in history and real estate value as Canyon Road itself.
At that time of morning the shade of trees surrounding the acequia was a welcome relief from the dry heat of the open field. Sunny at first distrusted the swiftly moving water but when she saw it was shallow she readily waded in. After she was good and soaked, I herded her out and toward the cottonwood tree near our entrance to the park. As she rested from bath and battle, I eased my back against the rough-barked trunk and began to muse over that shrewd kind of expression that had come over Jack when he talked about his land. I had seen that look before. Of course Jack was no cowboy; he was a farmer, and that was a farmer’s patented gleam in the eye. I had seen it often enough in France, first in the eyes of the farmer who sold us our land. Well, not the farmer himself—his eyes were too bleared from alcoholism to register subtle gradations. His wife was the canny one. She arranged all the details of the sale and convened us in the notary’s office to sign the farm over, which was only her right, as the land descended from her side of the family. The rheumy wreck of grizzled sinews in an oversized suit sitting beside her had no say and seemed to know it. He emerged from his stupor only once, venturing to remark that the farm ought to be worth more than the figure the notary had just dryly rattled off, and we were embarrassed for him, as it was only a down payment she was talking about. But his wife relived us of the burden by saying “Mais non, mais non” in the slightly impatient tone one might use to correct a child, and as it was clear that he was beyond embarrassment for himself, we took no more notice of him until she slid the contract under his trembling hand, and with a rather touching tolerance inclined her straight back to show him where to sign.
We didn’t see much of them after taking possession. They had already bought their little house in the village, thanks to a singular stroke of luck. One day while hoeing the potato patch just fifty yards from the house, the farmer had broken his hoe on the corner of a buried chest that turned out to be full of Roman coins. We saw a few of them which they had kept as souvenirs. The rest had brought them enough money, after the State took its share, to fulfill their dream, hers anyway, of a house in town. The story of the coins enchanted us, and while we never found any more, Francois did unearth an ancient-looking well in the far corner of the potato patch that he solemnly declared to be of Roman origin.
Disappointments had followed. At first I would traipse through our fields and tiny vineyard in hopeful rhythm with the line of poetry that came back again and again: “The land was ours before we were the land’s.” The land was ours but we were never the land’s. Whether it was because of frequent absences dictated by opera, or because of our nationalities—I was American, my husband Swiss—this land would not embrace us. How many a farmer since Roman times had broken himself to know every furrow and hedgerow more thoroughly than the dents and creases of his woman’s face? And what cunning it had required of them, a cunning and shrewdness beyond the scope of our pale romantic illusions. We were not worthy of the land, and finally turned our dream over to the uncallused hands of other foreigners, even more romantic than we.
By the time we sold out the old farmer was dead and his wife was relieved, I suppose. Even while he lived I could never remember his face, until I once visited the cathedral of Bourges. Shunning the vast crypt which was the funeral chapel for the fabulously wealthy benefactor and art patron Jean, Duc de Berry, I strolled the outer nave, stopping short before the duke’s likeness in a cathedral apse. There, under filtered stained glass light he knelt in weathered polychrome opposite his duchess. Both were properly reverential in attitude. The duke’s hands were artfully arranged in prayer, but his face beamed an inner glee that to me was a picture of avarice revised as religious fervor. No statue ever looked more real, more ready to raise property taxes than this apple-cheeked, snub-nosed aristocrat. Those cheeks, that nose, that face—they all belonged to our farmer, as they must have been before alcohol erased the gleam in his eye. Across the span of five centuries, Jean and his descendants, legitimate or otherwise, claimed features that were molded from the red clay of the Berry, and dissipated by the fruit of its vines. I inclined my head to the duke, humble in defeat.
Abruptly Sunny jolted me back to the present. Tumbling across my legs, she galloped toward a little girl who was just settling down with her father a respectful distance away within the shadow of our tree. He was in his twenties, Hispanic looking to my unpracticed eye. As puppy and child made their raucous acquaintance he smiled benevolently. Now that they had a house with a yard, he said, he hoped to get a dog or two. His name was Ortiz, I have forgotten his first name. The Ortiz family, he told me shyly but proudly, was a great family of Santa Fe. He talked about their exploits in a soft tone that coursed on like the Acequia Madre. Later I wished I had listened more closely, and in atonement I looked up the name Ortiz in Origins of New Mexico Families, by Fray Angelico Chavez, himself a descendant of early colonists. Ortiz family history was confusing. One sixteenth century ancestor had come up from Mexico City to settle Santa Fe, but he escaped hanging after assassinating the regional governor for alleged infidelity with his wife, and sank into obscurity. Another had fought the Ute and Picuris tribes with the great DeVargas, who cited this Ortiz for military valor. There were no pictures of early patriarchs, and by the time I read the accounts my memory of meeting the young man was already dimming.
What I do remember of that late morning in July is the grass and the trees and the shadows bounded on two sides by water, a ludicrous green field carved out of the high desert and called a public park. Alone again after our chance encounters, Sunny and I surveyed the familiar landmarks. We belonged here, in this place and time; for what purpose I did not know and Sunny did not care. I would keep bringing her back many times a day, and train my brain, which was beginning to tingle as after a long sleep, on every shade and contour and creature that crossed our path, accompanied by the silence of the Utes, the Picuris, and the Santa Fe dogs.
Original short story by Mary Beth Loup written in 1995, revised August 2011
© 2011 Mary Beth Loup. All rights reserved