Chapter 20: The Spirit of New Mexico

In which the woman calls down the frogs to rain upon the land!

The sun was casting its reddish glow on the Sandias by the time Gilly’s call came through. Oso had hopped in his car the night before and made the run for Albuquerque in twelve hours. At first, he didn’t know where he was going, only that he had to get away from his wife. Dolores. He loved Dolores. Or he had, until his private investigator had shown him definitive proof she was cheating on him. Her response? He worked too much and gave her nothing for her efforts.

He’d wanted to smash her face in. Instead, he’d thrown an overnight case in the car and hit the road to New Mexico, the place of his heart, the place he’d made great pains to leave behind when he’d graduated from high school. Bernadette lived in Albuquerque; he’d stay with her, if she’d have him.

She wouldn’t. She said yes to an afternoon date over coffee, but wouldn’t allow him to spend the night at her place, even on her couch.

“Get a hotel,” she told him.

He scowled at that. He didn’t like hotels. They were opposite to everything he’d grown used to in childhood: pristine, (mostly) quiet, and (purportedly) sterile, but worst of all, lacking in aesthetics. So he drove around until he found a liquor store, where he purchased a bottle of Booker’s bourbon to console himself in his lonely hotel room sans wife. He found a room at the Andaluz, and just as he was settling in with a tumbler of Booker’s mixed with a splash of distilled water, Gilly called.

Gilly was, of course, his favorite person. And although his ramblings were slightly incoherent, the phone call still sparked hope in Oso’s heart. This hope made him antsy, and he found himself changing out of his standard black leather oxfords and into his Saucony running shoes, his replacement for the barefoot sprinting he’d done as a child.

Sprinting cleared his head and reset his mental pathways so he could envision his tree of time, hanging with globes. He would sprint in a pattern: short sprint, reset; medium sprint, reset; long sprint, reset; start over. On that day, he did this along the Paseo del Bosque, a sixteen-mile trail through Albuquerque, as the cottonwoods composing the Bosque offered both shade and peace.

Due to his flat feet, he suffered from mild pronation that stressed his ankles. Despite that, he’d managed to keep running for years. He was physically capable. That was who he was. Nothing set him back. That is, until that evening, when the unthinkable happened.

His left ankle collapsed underneath him at the height of his sprint. He flew forward, catching himself on his shoulder, and instantly rolled over onto his back, off the path. He had, perhaps, sipped a little too much of the 120 proof alcohol and lost his edge.

He wasn’t in pain, though. And it was pleasant on this path in the shade of the branches drifting above him. But this wasn’t a time for sleep, and he tried to rise and fell back as the earth below him tingled with warmth, spreading heat through his fingers and arms and head.

Instantly, he recognized the feeling and waited for it. The air buzzed, his ears rang, and the ether swirled. He was in a bright lab, an unrecognizable one, and there was a small boy there. What was a child doing in a secure lab? The boy turned, and he groaned at the sight. It was his son, Adam, his child with current wife Dolores. Dolores the cheater. When he’d packed his overnight bag, his son had followed after him, asking him what he was doing, where he was going. The boy was too young to cope with his parents’ divorce.

The Adam in this memory appeared a year older, though, and he ran toward his father. Or so Oso thought. At the last minute, the boy turned, attracted by something in the corner. When Oso looked, he jolted. It was an image of the matrix Gilly had waxed on about over the phone. For a second, Oso thought it was on a computer screen, but then realized the matrix hovered in midair. It was spread out before him in intimate detailed honeycomb like mesh, interwoven with a structure of human cells.

“Adam!” he shouted. Even though the situation was preposterous—graphene didn’t suspend itself in ghostly waving images—he sensed his son’s danger.

The boy, however, ignored him and ran straight into the honeycomb mesh, where he was not swallowed up. Nor was the mesh altered. Instead, Adam pulled out a spherical structure that appeared to be a soccer ball composed of pentagons. Soccer balls were composed of pentagons. The boy threw the ball and then chased it out the door.

Oso peered into the clinical looking hallway, with waxed linoleum and drab fluorescent lights flickering overhead. The boy’s running feet made a syncopated echo up the hallway, interrupted only by the occasional scuffling and punting.

“Adam!” he shouted again, but to no avail. The boy had disappeared around a corner.

Oso’s body jerked at the sound of a woman’s voice. As his mind tried to comprehend the voice, he snapped awake to his surroundings. He was in Albuquerque’s Bosque, under the shade of trees. Gnats whined in his ears, crickets chirred, frogs croaked. The dry packed dirt beneath him held a distant odor of the Rio Grande. A trail of long dark hair flowed down toward him. The woman had long lean legs in a pair of jogging shorts.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“Yes, sweetheart, I am. I tripped and fell and then managed to doze off.” He smiled and slapped at a mosquito that was biting her leg.

She jumped and shrieked.

“Mosquito,” he said.

“Thanks.” Her brow creased. “Can I help you up?”

“Nah, I’ll wake up in a minute.”

“It’s getting dark. You should be careful jogging when the sun’s setting like this.”

“Speak for yourself.”

“I carry pepper spray and a whistle,” she said in a strange playful tone.

He slowly stood up with all the grace he could muster. It hadn’t been his intention to take a woman back to his room, but this one had presented herself to him out of thin air, as it were, or nanocarbon. Women were rarely as afraid of him as they ought to have been. Not that he would do anything worse than seduce them. But still, he wasn’t a small man. Shouldn’t she have been afraid? He could see her precious whistle hanging between her breasts. He shook his head.

“What were you dreaming about?” she asked—again with the playful voice.

“Nanocarbon.”

“Oh?”

He hated the falsified tone of interest, but could forgive a lot in an attractive woman. He had one niggling doubt of conscience. When he was in a relationship, he was faithful. Period. When he wasn’t, he played the field. For what it was worth, it was about his only moral code. But Dolores had cheated on him. She had broken the marriage contract, and he was therefore free. He didn’t know why he had any lingering doubts.

“You must be hungry after going for a run,” he said. And then it occurred to him that it might be difficult to be hungry in this heat. “Maybe a fruit ice? Or a margarita?” he said with a laugh.

She laughed, too. “Maybe.”

He casually began walking back to where his car was parked at Alameda, and she fell in step beside him. Find a strange man sleeping in the forest, go home with him. Oso almost snorted but just stopped himself.

She was a New Mexican; he was a New Mexican. It was all good, according to her. She had family in Socorro. Once, as a kid, he’d attended her granddad Rosario’s yearly matanza.

They bought green chile smothered burritos at the Frontier and then drove over to the Analgest for drinks.

It felt good to be at a cozy bar, despite that he almost sat on somebody’s lapdog that was curled on a gold plush chair. From the vantage point of the chair, he could see a long line of pool and snooker tables stretched into the distance. They were antique tables and not meant for use. However, on top of them sat the ubiquitous modern mini pool sets that a man named Jacob Armstrong had begun creating about a year ago. They were played with marbles and mini cue sticks.

Surrounding these mini tables were hipsters of all varieties, wearing glasses and monocles, even—no doubt to see the marbles better—and chugging beer. Every man had a beard, every lady a dog. Both ladies and men and ladies with men’s clothes and men with ladies’ clothes quaffed microbrews, while the sleekest among them drank from beer cans bearing generic red and blue labels.

Oso had a five o’clock shadow because he hadn’t shaved for the night—he hadn’t been planning to go out. But the beards on these men were intense, scruffy, long. As they imbibed their brews, their beards caught the droplets, thereby sending back the molecular aroma of the hops to their noses.

It was fascinating to watch them. They leaned over their mini tables with deep and studious devotion to their art, cracking their marbles at precisely the right angles. Then, they would high five or shake hands.

“I hear this is a speakeasy,” the woman said as she sipped a margarita.

“In what way?”

“I hear they have a secret pool hall in back, where men play the real deal with big tables. But I don’t think women are allowed in.”

“I’ll have to check that out sometime.”

“Really? Your type of thing to hide in a back room being stupid without women?”

“It’s a lot safer than being stupid with women.”

Her laugh was contrived. “Silly.”

“The only constant is male stupidity.”

Another contrived laugh.

He stared at her for a few beats. After two margaritas, she was flushed but not entirely wasted. She was humoring him, and he didn’t like being humored. That was okay; he was at the point where he didn’t care, where he wanted only to take her back to his hotel. After a couple hours of mellow talk and laughter about their mutual love for New Mexico, they emerged into the night together. The air was a bracer. That is, it embraced him. God, he loved it here. He had to return. This was his home.

“I’m staying at The Andaluz,” he whispered in her ear.

She lightly touched his face and smiled, no contrived laughter. “My house is just up the road.” Then she began walking, pulling gently on his hand until he followed.

What was happening? He didn’t follow women anywhere, and yet he felt tugged along by an invisible force. True, she wasn’t a supermodel or an aspiring actress. That was an attractive force in and of itself. She had nice legs but was about five inches too short and ten pounds too heavy to be a model. Oso was sick of model behavior, his soon-to-be ex a prime example.

But still, the mysterious force pulling him along was inexplicable to the one constant. It was as if she folded him up inside her and her house, and he had no way out. She took him in her arms, and he relaxed for the first time in months and eventually fell asleep in her bed. He never slept over. This was wrong, but he was so tired. Perhaps, he thought, as he fell asleep, she was a forest witch who’d woken him. New Mexico was a magical land, and the magic hovered over the Rio Grande. He’d experienced the magic with Bernadette, years ago.

“The night it rained frogs,” he muttered sleepily.

“Huh?” the woman said with a sigh.

“I heard frogs on the trail. They bring magic.”

She murmured and didn’t answer, as she’d apparently fallen asleep. He wasn’t sure if he was asleep or awake, but he dreamed of sleeping with Bernadette in his backyard. He dreamed of the warmth, the fluidity of being outdoors, the cottonwood tree blowing above them. The night smelled of the damp wind that blew off the irrigation ditches. Making love to Bernadette was a relaxed and natural process. She wasn’t a stick figure as his soon-to-be ex wife wife was—not then, nor now. In her youth she was very much as she’d been over coffee earlier that day, only more innocent.

He dreamed of whispering his ideas in her ears, while she listened to his every word in her calm unemotional way.

“You should be a psychologist. You’re good at this,” he told her, the compliment falling easily from his unsuspecting lips. At the time, he couldn’t fathom her choosing a career over him.

“Maybe I will.” She yawned and said nothing else.

His mind felt his fingers in her soft brown hair, running down her face, her neck, her breasts. Why? Why had it ended between them? His body suddenly ached for hers. But it was a dream, not reality. The summer of the frogs was a dream. And like dreams, they ran to the bizarre, even if the pleasantly bizarre. On that summer night, hundreds of tree frogs coalesced and stormed them. Hundreds of tiny green frogs found them and hopped around them.

Bernadette woke from her reverie and shouted with delight, forgetting their tryst was meant to be subtle. She rose from the blankets they’d spread out, her body a silhouette in the moonlight. And she scooped a frog into her palm and she brought it to him, leaning over his prostrate form like a child, her hand outstretched.

“Do you want me to kiss it?” he asked her.

“Kiss it?” Her laugh matched the silver quality of the night. “Do you want me to find a prince who isn’t you, or do you want to find a prince for yourself?”

“I want to be your prince.”

“No need to kiss a frog, then. Where do you think they all came from?”

“The water? Maybe from the pond my dad created for his ducks.”

“You would ruin the magic, being Mr. Logical.”

“They rained from the skies!” he told her. “Mark this night on your calendar because it will be forever known as the night it rained frogs!”

She let the frog go and somehow wasn’t disgusted by the hundreds of tiny creatures hopping around the backyard. She slipped right back under their blanket and cuddled with him, and they listened together to the sound of the frogs that rose above the usual din of cicadas.

He had no idea whether she’d marked it on her calendar. He hadn’t marked it on his, and he’d subsequently forgotten it. How strange that his mind would dream the memories awake tonight, in a strange woman’s bed in Albuquerque. Yet, it was the same river running through Albuquerque, and the same moon and stars that hung in a Southwestern sky that couldn’t see fit to hide the beauty of the night.

The next day he and the woman exchanged numbers. He was moving back to New Mexico, he told her. But the magic had disappeared, and he knew he wouldn’t see her again.

“Frogs, Granddad?” Stephanie asked.

“Tree frogs. The rain falls, hundreds of tadpoles turn into frogs and cascade over the land. Go at the right time, and you’ll see them traipsing down California Street in Socorro.”

“Are they really magic?”

“Do you believe in magic?”

“No.”

“That answers your question. If you don’t believe in magic, you also won’t believe the woman was the spirit of New Mexico calling me home, either.”

“So, she was a witch?”

“I said she was the spirit of New Mexico.”

“What was her name?”

He shook his head. “Don’t remember.”

“You got drunk with a woman and had a one-night stand with her, and that makes her the spirit of New Mexico?”

“She woke me from the memory just as Adam disappeared with his buckyball. I thought I was leading her, but it was the other way around. She informed me the memory would happen here.”

“Did it? Did Uncle Adam play with a…buckyball in your lab? I don’t even know what a buckyball is.”

“A buckyball is a spherical fullerene. No, Adam never played with one. The alcohol skewed the memory. What happened is that he came to live with me in Albuquerque, where Gilly and I set up headquarters. After stealing my son from me, Dolores gave me full custody and I never saw her again.”

“Tell me about it.”

“There isn’t much to tell. Her new boyfriend didn’t like kids. I had my lawyer draw up a consent order giving me full custody and childcare payments ceased immediately. I didn’t strong-arm her, so don’t look at me like that, darlin’. She did it of her own volition.”

“Like what? How was I looking at you?”

Oso glanced at his actual time-telling watch, and then at the hologram on the wall. “Let’s get back to the important part of the story. Right on cue, the assistant’s going to come clear away the coffee tray, and then we’re done for the day.”

“You know, the assistant sounds a lot like the type of woman Uncle Gilly was attracted to when he was young. Like Cameron.”

“Don’t you mean is attracted to? He designed the look he wanted. His first pre-Minä prototype looked like that. He’s never wavered in his taste.” He cocked his head toward the door, as if indicating that the assistant was waiting on the other side. “She’s all right, but I’ve never been a one-trick pony, myself.”

“Wait, what? Are you admitting she’s an intelligent Minä designed by Gilly?”

He cleared his throat and clapped his hands. “We need to keep going with this story. We haven’t even gotten to the part where we bring our first Minä to life.”


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