PRAIRIE DOG BLUES
Most people thought the Corleys would give up and scatter to the four winds after what happened. It came at them suddenly on the morning of January 18, 2002, in Albuquerque, New Mexico: the land of enchantment. Today they expected a cool 3 million dollars. The title officer and the Corleys’ lawyer sat at the head of the gleaming mahogany table, and the buyer sat on the side with his attorney. Above them, warm air whispered from the heating vent, somehow ominous.
“You kids sit over there,” Mom said as she settled in next to Pop. She put her hand on his leg, covering the denim knee patch. Their grown children arranged themselves in their birth order: Jeff, Ida, then Junior. Jeff sported a new gold chain. Ida smelled slightly sweaty, like early-morning sex, and Junior reeked of alcohol. Pop twisted his neck and pulled at his wrinkled collar, frowning. Mom’s thin face creased with a bright smile, her eyes sparkling.
Just one month ago, the children had lined up in the same order at the dining table for Mom’s Christmas dinner, one of the four annual family dinners they could not miss. Junior had jabbed his finger at Ida called her a slut. Mom had raised both hands to stop Pop from coming over the table at Junior. “It’s the liquor talking,” she said. “Just ignore him.”
Jeff had quickly changed the subject, and Junior had muttered an apology and had left the house. She hadn’t seen him until today.
Their lawyer, Robert Epstein, shuffled papers, walked over to Mom, and slid the deed in front of her.
“It’s ready for your and Roy’s signatures,” he said. “I’ve written the legal description exactly as you instructed. Pop squinted at him. You’re selling 15.12 acres and keeping 4.18 acres, the house, barn, machine sheds, and all related improvements.”
Mom put on her reading glasses and beamed. Her smile was infectious, her face impish and sunny. She read the document carefully, as though it were an old biblical parchment. Fifteen acres in Albuquerque is valuable, but in the northeast heights near the Sandia Mountains, it’s like gold. Pop’s eyes grew wide as he looked at “Three million dollars ($3,000,000)” printed on the closing statement. It took Mom a moment to translate “Roy John and Janice Pauline Corley, husband and wife.” She had been known as “Mom” ever since the evening 36 years ago, when she said to Roy, “Well, Pop, it’s time we went to the hospital to have this baby.”
Roy jumped up. “Okay, Mom, let’s go.” Jeff was born later that night.
Mom wanted her family to get along, like a real family, and she wanted each one to be happy. She would do anything to make that happen. She worried about the fact that all three of her children were single. Jeff pursued his dental practice, worked all the time, and was normally broke. She suspected Jeff spent time at the casino, although she didn’t want to anger him by asking. Thirty-four-year-old Ida was an intensive care nurse, seemed unable to settle down with just one man. Thirty-two-year-old Roy, Jr.—whom the family just called “Junior”—loved mechanics and carpentry, but lived with some sort of darkness that was a mystery to Mom. Sometimes she wondered where she had failed as a mother. Her worrying often made her stomach ache; for her, the pain in her abdomen was inseparable from the pain she felt for her still-immature children. Mom and Pop had talked about this sale over the past four months, and Mom had convinced Pop to give each of the children $500,000 now instead of making them wait for their inheritance. If life could be easier for them, Mom thought, maybe they could find a way to be a real family. Maybe some of the damage could be undone. Maybe, for heaven’s sake, they could grow up.
The title officer said, “I appreciate you all being willing to be here together for the closing. Normally, we would have the buyer and sellers come in separately, but this is a large sale, and all parties can watch the transaction and be clear about details.”
“Mr. Whitman,” she said to the buyer, “I need your check for one-million fourteen thousand. That covers your down payment. Your bank will wire the balance.”
Henry Whitman raised his eyebrows, and his attorney nodded his head, saying, “Everything is in order. Go ahead and write the check. The bank has agreed to honor the funds today.”
The door opened.
“Hello everyone, I’m David Holden, attorney for Land America Title Company. I’m sorry to interrupt, but we have a problem.”
Mom glanced at Pop. Three attorneys in the same room spelled trouble and was certainly a waste of money.
“I know this is a surprise,” Holden said, “but let me explain. Today our inspector went to the property to check the survey flags and the survey inspection report, and he said there are hundreds of prairie dogs on the fifteen acres. He said there are prairie dog holes everywhere.”
“So what?” asked Pop. “Those prairie dogs have been there for years. My dad used to poison them. They’re a menace. What’s the big deal?” The bright fluorescent lights made deep shadows on Pop’s wizened face. He had become expressionless from years of setting his jaw and focusing while operating heavy equipment for the family’s business, We Move Dirt, Inc. His eyes were clear blue under furrowed bushy eyebrows, and his permanent frown gave the impression that he was easily angered. Everything about Pop seemed weathered and humorless.
“Here’s the problem,” Holden continued. “The City Council is on their third reading of a new Prairie Dog Ordinance that restricts development and creates a number of requirements for property owners. The ordinance is due to become law next month. That is a material fact that affects the sale. I’ve checked with our underwriters, and Land America will not insure the title against endangered species or city animal ordinances.”
“Would the ordinance stop development?” Whitman asked.
“It could,” Holden replied. “I talked with the attorney at your bank, and he said they can’t fund the loan unless the title insurance covered the endangered species and city ordinance risk. Our company can’t take the chance. I’m sorry to be the messenger. I know this is bad news.”
“You mean we can’t sell our own property?” Mom put her hands on the table, touching the papers, and glanced at her three children. They wouldn’t be together again until Easter dinner.
“You can sell your property just like it is. However, the buyer runs the risk of being unable to develop it until they solve the prairie dog issue. Technically, an environmental issue clouds your property title. I’m sorry.”
Whitman’s attorney handed him a note. He read it quickly.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t have the resources to go ahead without the loan,” Whitman said. “My development money is from partners, and I can’t in good conscience take the risk. I mean, if I can’t develop the property, my partners could lose millions.”
Pop slammed his gnarled fist on the papers and stood up. “We’ve been waiting four months for the money, and now this.”
Junior wiped his mouth with his hand. “Well, shit, we should have known. Nothing goes right in this family.”
Ida crossed her arms and began to tremble. Jeff stared at the wall and his eyes welled up with tears. Jeff had a fine-featured face, well scrubbed and with blond peach fuzz standing in for whiskers. For a moment, his perfect smile faded. The florescent lights hummed. Mom felt the room turn cold.
Whitman stood up. “Believe me, I know how you must feel. We may have to wait for a while, but I still want the property—it’s prime for development. I won’t give up.” He reached over the table and gave Pop his card. “Keep this, and don’t worry. We’ll stay in touch and get this done.”
“What do we have to do?” asked Pop. “We’re talking about three million dollars here.”
Jeff spoke up. “There might be a way around this. If we can get the city’s zoning office to go along with Whitman’s plans, the bank should be okay with this, right?”
“That’s a reach, and it will take a while,” Whitman said. He turned to his attorney. “Francisco, maybe you and Mr. Epstein can check things out with the city manager and see what this ordinance really means. Maybe we can comply with the requirements.”
“Don’t count on it,” Holden said. “The ordinance is modeled after the Santa Fe ordinance. No one can develop a prairie-dog habitat. Many owners just give up and donate their land to a land preservation trust in exchange for the tax deductions.”
Robert Epstein looked at Jeff and then at Pop.
Jeff nodded his head. “Robert, please see what you can find out. We’re prepared to pay.”
“Someone tell me what this all means,” Mom said.
“It means we don’t get the money and you have to kill all those prairie dogs,” Junior replied coldly. “You should have killed those varmints years ago. Way to go, Pop.” Junior’s eyelids appeared heavy. He had a drawn, hollowed-cheeked face that was often haggard and impassive. His dark brown eyes darted around, rarely making contact with anyone else’s. He cursed under his breath and clenched his teeth.
Mom folded her hands and composed herself.
As they left the room, Mom found herself dwelling on the private thoughts she knew haunted each of them. Pop’s thirty-two-foot Winnebago disappeared, along with his bass boat, and her remodeled kitchen and new dining room table evaporated into the clouds. Jeff’s office addition, lab, and two new dental chairs faded away, as did his new Mercedes, and his bills continued to pile up. Ida’s condominium on Juan Tabo Boulevard, along with all new furniture that would fill it, dropped out of sight as her dingy one-bedroom apartment in Mountain Run reappeared. Her Master’s degree in nursing faded away. Junior’s new Dodge diesel pickup reclaimed its place in the dealer’s showroom, and his new Harley Sportster had the “sold” sign removed. Pop would be deeply embarrassed because he had promised to sell his heavy equipment to friends around Albuquerque. Some of Pop’s old competitors had spoken for his loaders, scrapers, backhoes, dozers, and trucks. He had announced that he was going to hang up the earthmoving and excavation business. We Move Dirt, Inc. had been in the family for 50 years, and Pop had installed several hundred miles of water line, sanitary sewer, and storm drainage all over Northern New Mexico. He would have to call all of them, back out of his promises, begin overhauling the hydraulic pump on the loader, and find a used transmission for the motor grader. He just wanted to retire and travel, but today, without warning, fate hurled him back into yesterday’s life. Mom knew Jeff would bury himself in work at his dentist office, Ida would take on extra shifts in the intensive care unit at University Hospital with all her doctors, and Junior would take the day off from the framing company and get drunk.
Junior climbed into his truck. “Just like the rest of our life,” Junior said. “Whenever this family does anything, it all falls apart. We really suck.” He glowered at her.
“I’m sure it will work out, ” Jeff said. “It will just take some time and effort.”
Ida waved at Mom showing the hint of a smile. Ida had a delicately sculptured pink doll face and often sported a come-hither smile, like what you’d see on a lingerie model ten years past her prime. Mom hated that smile. She even preferred Ida’s condescending smirk to it. As if she could read her mother’s thoughts, Ida made her face unreadable as she chewed her lip and drove away.
Mom and Pop got into the Suburban.
“Prairie dogs,” Pop said. “I could have poisoned them years ago. Junior was right.”
“It’s not your fault,” Mom reassured him. “There’s no way you could’ve known. Let’s go home and see what tomorrow brings. God will provide.”
“I’m going to kill them. Kill them all. I’ll run the dozer over the whole field if I have to.”
Mom took a breath, folded her hands, and closed her eyes. “Lord help us,” she whispered.
She sometimes thought of herself as a spiritual magnet that drew the family together. As they had done at the title company, they gathered like obedient little iron filings on a piece of paper, with Mom hovering underneath. On some occasions, like Thanksgiving, her magnetism was bright and light. She had hoped things would be different, somehow. Her children often criticized her for arguing with Pop about how to improve their lives. Mom’s strong spirit, holiday meals, birthday cards, phone calls, and the promise of substantial wealth lured her kids into minimal contact. Mom worried that if anything happened to her, the tenuous thread that held these people together would snap. Then, any sense of a family would disappear into a spray of isolated lives, a fear that chilled Mom more deeply than her death.
In her heart, Mom didn’t really want to sell the land, because it helped bring balance to her life. Yet the sale as a way to create happiness for her children and peace of mind for Pop. It was worth the sacrifice if her family could heal, even a little. They’d still have the house, the machine shops, the construction yard, Junior’s trailer, and a little space to the east that would serve as a buffer against the new neighbors. After taxes, the sale would provide 1 million for Mom and Pop’s retirement. Pop was sixty-three, so the earnings on the money, his coming social security and Medicare, and a home with no mortgage would create a comfortable life.
Before dawn each morning, she curled up in an easy chair with her coffee. She faced the Sandia Mountains and watched the light flicker across the gray rocky crevices and dark-green cedars. Whenever she opened the window, the cedar smell was pungent, almost refreshing. March, the coming of allergy season, brought wheezing and sneezing, a time when she couldn’t smell anything at all.
The sunrise splashed over the mountain in a different place every morning, and the emerging light gave her a focus for her prayers and her emotional balance. Sometimes she wrapped her mind around the soft folds of the mountains, much like God probably does.
This was her home, a safe place, predictable in the midst of change. The county built Bernardino Avenue. The Flood Control authority built a huge pond directly to the east, which held back the water that used to rush down the Domingo Baca Arroyo during rainstorms. The arroyo was dry now, scattered with leftovers from the fall—purple asters, yellow daisies, sunflowers, and brown native grasses, leaving a soft cover over what used to be sharp cuts through the earth.
To the north, the Presbyterians build Sandia Presbyterian church on the old Armando Garcia property. After the city widened and paved Paseo del Norte, it built the Sibrana Northeast Police Substation, another huge flood control pond, and the Griener Soccer Field, which often filled with happy people. To the northwest was Saint Peter’s Anglican Catholic church and the Altamont Little League Field. At night, she could hear children playing and parents cheering. Across Eubank Boulevard to the west were several new million-dollar houses and a view that was endless.
The sunsets spread out across the horizon like warm fire in the winter and a cheerful carnival of pastels in the summer. To the southwest, on the corner of San Francisco Road, a new Latter-Day Saints Temple appeared among the throngs of grateful people, and across Eubank, south of the Corleys’ property, the Grace church welcomed hundreds of folks during the week. Grace was Mom’s church, her spiritual home. No one else in her family attended. Pop went once a year, on Christmas Eve. They both knew why Pop didn’t go to church, but they didn’t talk about it, because it made Pop have nightmares. Pop became a bear when he didn’t have enough sleep. For years, Mom had run the church hospitality programs as a volunteer; her pastor saw her as an anchor for church gatherings.
Mom rested easily here. While she often said that she’d done the best she could raising her children, she believed she’d overlooked something important. During her morning prayers, she often felt a deep quivering behind her stomach, just before the daily pain started. There might be something alive in there, she thought. It haunted her, pulling at her innards like a tight shoelace. Over the years, the discomfort became reassuring, as though it might be a companion provided by God Himself. Although she believed she deserved the pain, she thought perhaps God had given it a friendly face to remind her of His power to lessen suffering. She knew she was a good wife to Pop, even when she did not feel like it. That gave her some satisfaction because Pop was fond of saying that good wives are hard to come by. Besides, Mom believed that being good was not about feeling good.
This place held her like a blanket, surrounded by mountains, churches, police, and children: a combination that she believed was impregnable by the forces of darkness that plagued other people and tugged at the heart of her family. Often Mom imagined a filmy roof, a light silver and white veil of comfort, billowing up in the gentle breezes and tied by tethers like a tent. They were tied to Grace church, to the Sandia Mountains, to the Presbyterian church, to the police substation, to Saint Peter’s Anglican Catholic church, to the roof of a million-dollar house, and to the top of the steeple on the Mormon Temple. Embedded in the Grace church wall, the bronze Jesus and his outstretched hand blessed the traffic that whizzed by on Eubank. On top of the Temple steeple, high above it all, Maroni, the Latter-day Saint prophet who spoke to Joseph Smith, stood with his trumpet, like a sentry prepared to warn everyone of a common enemy, or like the herald of a coming truth. Behind him, a huge American flag rippled gently in the breeze. Mom felt loved and protected—yet her family was miserable, and all the blessings of safety seemed somehow wasted.