My friends east of the Mississippi, in their grad programs and office jobs, acknowledge that the economic situation is perhaps a bit grim. Some of them give me detailed analyses of why and how the financial market will rebound. Most of them say, Yeah it’s probably going down, but I figure I have at least five, ten years, right? Then they ask, If shit hits the fan, I can come stay with you, right?
“Sure,” I say, “but bring a goat.”
Two years ago I was deciding whether to move to New York or New Mexico. A professional clown in Madrid, New Mexico asked me to watch her land for the summer while she was away. I would have to feed her dogs, water her plants, fill in a ditch, and pick tumbleweeds. This was the best job offer I had. I packed my truck with my belongings and my dog and kitten, and I drove west.
The state’s motto is the Land of Enchantment, the locals call it the Land of Entrapment, but to me it’s the land of the free. The gaping sky, obscenely blue, with clouds lumbering across like buffalo. The mesas and volcanoes rising up in the distance, and canyons ripping the land along fault lines. Sagebrush and piñon and rattlesnakes and that one week in summer when all the tarantulas march across the orange parched land. The land is bewitching, dangerous, sexy. She knows what she wants and you’ll gladly give it to her, all your blood and sweat and years. Land of enchantment, land of entrapment, people come here and they fall in love and they never leave.
Madrid is an old coal-mining town with a population of a few hundred. Most people just pull off the road to buy a turquoise bracelet and then keep driving to an actual place. The hills are black and the bar is built on top of a mineshaft. The men dress like cowboys and are somehow sepia-toned, smelling of sage and weed and urine, with matching long beards.
I met the clown lady at the mineshaft bar. She was dreadlocked and dusty. The pool hall was playing the same Muse song on repeat. We had a beer and then I followed her in my truck for a half hour, up winding unmarked dirt roads to the top of a mesa. It was desolate and dry. Nothing but sagebrush and sky. The clown lady showed me the off-grid house where I’d stay, a little adobe casita painted with stars and arrows and hearts in bright colors.
It’s my studio, she said. The clown house.
Inside was a single room packed with boxes of oversized shoes, juggling pins, wigs, and fancy velvet suit jackets. I barely had room to set down my suitcase.
Outside, my dog went off in search of local fauna and my kitten was investigating cacti. The clown lady told me that there was a solar bathtub around the side of the house. It turned out to be a dirty old tub with a piece of black plastic in it to heat rainwater from the sun’s rays.
It hasn’t rained in a couple of months, though, she said.
There was an inch of water in the bathtub and six scorpions. It occurred to me that similar bathing set-ups throughout Madrid were probably responsible for the sepia-tone of its residents, and that it was only a matter of time before I joined them.
The clown lady departed and suddenly the mesa was echoingly empty. She had mentioned that there were some neighbors a half-mile away, meth-heads of a very serious sort. One day I saw a few of them trying to tow a pickup truck with another, smaller truck, slowly moving across the mesa under the blaringly bright sun.
Other than that, I was alone. I wore nothing but jean shorts, a straw hat, and work gloves, and picked tumbleweeds for at least four hours a day, barefoot and topless. The clown lady told me to pick as many as possible. The mesa was covered in them. If I picked tumbleweeds all day every day for the rest of the summer, the mesa would still be covered in them. I’m not sure why she wanted me to pick them. I forgot to ask her that before she left. There were holes in my work gloves and my hands bled. I didn’t mind. I liked picking the tumbleweeds. I declared aloud to the big blue sky that this was the best job I’d ever had. I also had to fill in a 20-foot long ditch, but that was definitively not the best job I’d ever had.
I cooked on a propane stove outside. It was baby blue and looked like it came from a children’s kitchen set, but even so, it still didn’t fit inside the clown house. The wind whipped across the mesa so fiercely that half the time I couldn’t get the stove to light. On those days I just ate cold canned beans and sat pressed against the side of the clown house to escape the wind.
It was lonely, desperately lonely. I built a bonfire every night and found pockets of cell phone service and called everyone that I normally neglected to call. I talked until my battery ran out. And then, when the last embers of the fire finally diminished and my nightly search for extraterrestrial activity was concluded, I went to bed and read by candlelight, my knife beneath the pillow, praying that the meth-head neighbors wouldn’t decide to pay a visit.