Bernalillo and Albuquerque, New Mexico
September 13, 2018
I told the neurologist this week that my headaches have taken up shop in the mornings, arriving post–head injury with a frequency and persistence I haven’t known since my days as a dehydrated and sleep-deprived high schooler. Recommended daily allowances haven’t helped. The doc prescribed a preventative, the tiniest pills I’ve ever had, brown and smaller than half-blown pupils. Common side effects include sleepiness, and last night’s slumber felt like it had to be peeled off.
It’s also possible sleep was hard to part from because its cycle had been interrupted. As our little dog Jasper and I lurched downstairs, I remembered being startled by something (a phone charger?) drop-thudding against the shelf behind our bed. I wasn’t awake enough to open my eyes, squirmed and murmured, and Andrew’s soothing voice broke through. Most nights after dark he’s bonfiring branches the drought-racked trees drop, or lately, bundles of monsoon-inspired weeds. Goatheads. Palmer amaranth. Burning nettle.
The day’s work schedule was full, including research and phone calls about the work of public officials. Those calls sometimes (if I also sound soothing) lead to conversations complicated enough my head needs clearing. I followed the dog into the backyard.
These past months our neighborhood has acquired a cast of hawks. Distracted by work last week, I let the dog out by himself and then felt a tug of panic. I bolted out to the deck, called his name. The tags on his collar chimed nearby, but suspended midair, maybe 20 feet above the chiweenie, was a hawk calculating talon-to-girth ratio. When I yelled, the bird lifted with one stroke to a low elm branch. It immediately tracked a hummingbird sailing past that looked as blithe as the old pup ambling toward me. Please don’t be caught that way, oblivious.
No hawks screeching this morning, though, and the quince trees looked like they might be nearing harvest.
Our water heater is so sedimentary its output has a bracing effect; I thought maybe that would help my stupor. The clawfoot tub’s rounded floor cupped little puddles of wet ash, and there was bloody gauze wadded in the wastebasket. Those parts of the night I did sleep through.
Tepid water and then coffee didn’t do much; I stayed drowsy doing desk work all morning, through early afternoon. I felt disembodied, my hands at a safe distance as they typed, dialed, scribbled, underlined. Starred a quote about the need for “real teeth.”
Five days in, my new tattoo started peeling off like school glue in increments, except outlined in black. As I observed my fingertips and liniment circled over the ink, skin seemed like wet tissue with raised lettering, ample distraction to help keep me upright.
Research and phone calls were productive, though nothing incandescent today. The sleepiness finally wore off midafternoon, in time to meet Kharlos at the main library 30 minutes downtown.
We vowed last week to make this initial meet-up routine. That last word alone comforted me in a few ways, one being the library’s time-capsule condition. It smelled like it always has to me, both worn and cleaned by hand. The reading chairs have not been replaced in decades, still machines on the second floor for reading microfiche.
Kharlos arrived speaking Spanish and wearing a black shirt with the sleeves trimmed off. Its front lettering said “Pink Freud” over Sigmund’s head encased in a rose-tinted prism, Dark Side of the Moon–style. One of the family genealogy librarians unlocked a private study room for us, requested private in case we needed a break to talk. Unpacked and settled in, Kharlos uncoiled a three-ring binder, arranged its yellow lined pages in sections, twice gasped as he read his words.
When the security guard knocked to remind us it was closing time, Kharlos told him he had nice eyes, that they knew each other. The guard nodded, waved us away. I offered Kharlos a ride home. He lives for now in an old church building converted into plywood lofts, communal kitchen. When we arrived, he pointed to the muscled man just past the front steps talking on a cellphone, headed to the corner: “That’s Rooster. Of course he’s leaving and won’t see us arrive together,” Kharlos laughed. “His image of me could be upended.” There was another neighbor Kharlos hoped he’d introduce, described to me as a possible reincarnation, definitely “genius.”
Kharlos said caffeine had fast-forwarded his wording, and I wanted to catch up, so we walked to get coffee. It was dark enough on the way back that we eyed a dude wearing what looked like pajamas angling across the street from us. We fretted over this especially ill-lit stretch of road. Kharlos said New York and DC taught him to address lone strangers who have inscrutable energy, and to let them know they’ve been seen, heard, sized up. I steered us where Albuquerque and my dad taught me to walk, on the left-hand side. It’s easier to spot cars as they approach, and they can’t pull up from behind without being in the way of oncoming traffic. It’s better to not be gripped unaware.
Someone willowy was smoking in the shadow of the old church when we got back, and Kharlos called him over. It was the genius neighbor we all should know. He offered a feathery hand, repeated my full name like he was test-tasting the syllables. Kharlos commented that his shirt collar could be mistaken in that light for an ascot. The neighbor purred in agreement before melting back into the shade.
We said final goodnight things, somehow got around to how we’d both heard that caterpillars in chrysalises don’t exactly change shape. They liquify themselves, congeal into new form. I was close to leaning toward the shadow and asking for a cigarette, but a tiny moth swept past Kharlos’s face with one wing stroke, and I forgot.