Alba, spry at 70, was reborn ten years ago on settling in Sand Valley. All her previous life she aspired to be a nun. As a child, she begged at the nunnery steps and was told to scoot to school. After college with a business degree a Sister ordered her to ramrod the family million-dollar hardware chain. Twenty years later as a San Francisco CPA, the door was shut again in her face with a scolding to care for her aging mother. Some years later, after that death, the nuns conspired to update Alba that she was too old to convert and she ultimately repented, ‘Go to hell!’ She sold everything, gave away the hardware empire, stepped into a battered blue van that today full of dog food rests on blocks on her forty acres ten miles east of my Sand Valley Rancho, and drove south until she broke down.
I spent 24 hours yesterday with Alba and am peeling the dust, sleep and three brands of pet food from my eyes. I stopped by her remote plot that morn to check her health and to see if the three trailers withstood a recent wind: a white one for fourteen dogs, brown one for as many cats, and her small camper. A 1′ thermometer face said only 100-degrees but strangely the dogs rose not to greet me as Alba slurred French in the cat trailer. She heard my door slam and emerged beaming in a soiled blue dress, black sweatshirt, and orange stocking cap.
‘How are you?’ she asked, hinting trouble.
‘Fine, and you?’
‘I ran out of food and water two days ago and have been sucking ketchup to gather strength for the walk (eight miles) to the highway to hitch to town.’ I offered her pudding and Gatorade but she snuffed, ‘I don’t eat until the puppies do.’ At this, seven pups somersaulted from the trailer at us, and as quickly retreated out the sun.
She gestured with gnarled hands to a silver 100-gallon container. ‘There’s one inch of rusty water in the bottom but I can’t open the faucet.’ I took her steel cane, popped the rubber cap and used the open end as a pry lever to turn the faucet. Reddish water gushed into a pail now with fourteen lapping dogs about as Alba scooped a pan for the cats, and finally sipped the last drops.
She licked her lips, ‘You just gave me a great idea! Two months ago I walked to town for supplies and two punks who watch seniors collect and cash their monthly checks rode up on bicycles. They cut my purse with a knife and groped me for more. I battered them with my cane until they screamed for mercy. ‘Ha!’ Next time I’ll pop the rubber cap and really give them the business.’
‘Good,’ I cheered. ‘I stopped by two months ago. Did you find the dead cat?’ (I found it mauled by some creature.) Alba wagged her head, so I opened a drawer to an outdoor desk where it lay mummified.
‘I wondered where Magdalene went.’ We placed it into an underground pantry converted to a mausoleum.
‘I’m going to town now,’ I offered. ‘Hop in.’ She sat next to me and didn’t look back.
An hour of hot dirt later we swung into the Blythe, Ca. post office where a half-dozen older citizens peered from their knees into PO boxes for the postmaster to push their checks at 9am on this first mail day of the month. Alba joined them and momentarily on pulling hers, I bid, ‘Let’s solve the supply problem once and for all. We’ll rent a U-haul!’
‘I can’t see over the steering wheel because I’ve shrunk an inch a year for as long as I remember,’ she smiled magically.
‘I’ll drive,’ I agreed.
Down the road, the U-haul owner spotted Alba and whispered to the receptionist, ‘30% off,’ so off we drove in a truck with a 20′ box to Albertson’s. The manager saw her and ordered an oversized shopping cart filled with Friskies Cat Food, and insisted, ‘Keep the cart to wheel the kittens around.’ Into the box, and then we stopped at a doctor’s office where Bones asked Alba about a painful rib. ‘A week ago,’ she described, ‘I heard a desert castanet, if you know what I mean.’ ‘I can’t say I do,’ admitted Doc. ‘A rattlesnake that didn’t like my Spanish. I spoke and it rattled; I quit and it ceased. So I rubbed garlic on my shoes and got a shovel and said softly, ‘Come here, bitch’_ It rattled_ I talked Spanish and followed the clicks to a can but it smelled my garlic and squirted out. I brought that shovel down and cut off its tail but the handle jammed my rib so hard I could hardly lift the shovel again to chop off it’s head!’
‘Alba,’ the Doc responded. ‘You worry me. In fact, most of my patients have high blood pressure but yours is 110/70 – How do you do it?’ She advised, ‘I take one raw egg in ten drops of wine daily, and my animals eat first!’
The doc prescribed a painkiller for bruised ribs and soon we curbed at the Kitchen, a local soup line, where Alba began to act goofy on the pills. Nonetheless, the cook heaped more stew onto her plate than mine that she wouldn’t eat. We drove on to Smart-and-Final where a stock boy reverently bowed behind a long cart and loaded 500-lbs. of Good Day dog food into the truck. Next stop, the Oasis Water Store, where a lackey with a wire brush shined nine brass faucets until they reflected sunshine, screwed them into nine 100-gallon used containers ($10 each), and piled them all into the U-haul box. We picked up a 50′ hose at Ace Hardware, and continued along the town outskirt to Miller Park to fill up for two hours with free water.
I guess the trouble began about sunset as the laden truck turned at 10mph onto the last ten mile stretch to her compound, and slowed. Alba likes to talk but I don’t. ‘Bo,’ she pleaded from the passenger side. ‘I’m hungry, my rib hurts, the painkiller makes me odd, I didn’t sleep a wink for the animals, and the sunset is blinding me.’
‘Adjust,’ I chided for I too had put in a hard day on little sleep and food. She rambled and I brooded over the washboard for an hour till the final turn and the truck was surrounded by barking mutts. We parked and they dashed to the box low corner that trickled water. ‘Alba!’ I shouted. ‘We’ve sprung a leak…Bring the hose!’ Instead, she stumbled over every little thing in the path to grope about her tiny camper for a flashlight. l sprang to the rear bumper, flung open the box and siphoned precious water from a dented container out 50′ into pails, pots and cups.
The dog food bags lay on the floor sodden as I lifted the first to the bumper and the bottom blew and forty pounds of kibble bounced to the ground in a ten-foot radius. Alba approached with a flashlight to the circle of wolfing dogs and yelled, ‘It doesn’t grow on trees!’
‘It wouldn’t have burst if you’d stayed!’
‘Don’t talk to your neighbor that way!’
We threw dog food at each other to the great delight of everyone.
Sometime later, the moon rose yellow over a U-haul truck on a remote toe of the Sonora speckled with dog food and puddles. We munched an early breakfast and barked about how long distance makes good neighbors. At sunrise I returned the truck to town leaving Alba self-contained with her light for a long, long time.