As my wheelchair starts its slow slip down the icy knoll, the slate blue shadow of late afternoon finishes its crawl across the grounds of the Taos Pueblo, up the one-thousand-year-old adobe walls, and over the peaks of the Sangre de Cristos. And that is my last poetic thought of the day.
I’m no poet anyway. I’m an eighty-year-old, wheelchair-bound grandmother, abandoned on a snowy hill to wait for the Taos Pueblo’s Christmas Eve processional so I can check it off the bucket list my daughter, Carol, made for me.
She and Tom, my weirdo grandson, on leave from his latest therapeutic wilderness experience, planted me forty minutes ago and went to buy silver bracelets that come with circle-of-life bullshit hand-printed on the price tag. Life’s no circle, no matter how many turtle totems you tattoo on your ass. It’s an express elevator to the sub-basement, where they burn the trash and store the boxes.
My chair pauses at the heels of a young man in a Gore-Tex coat the color of the Caribbean Sea. He steps forward to avoid sitting in my lap. A family at the bottom of the hill gets their bonfire started, and we’re hit with a burst of gasoline fumes followed by wood smoke that smells blacker than it looks.
“Are you okay?” says his girlfriend. She puts a gloved hand on my chair.
I don’t answer because that’s a complicated question. Instead I say, “It’s on my bucket list,” and I nod around the pueblo. More small bonfires flare up, and the grounds go orange and black, clouds of saffron smoke blurring the edges. There is brimstone, or at least crematorium, in the air, and I consider if that’s why Carol insists I see this before I die. If so, I need to give her more credit for a sense of humor.
Carol wants me to have a bucket list because she can’t figure out where she and I stand unless she keeps score. I did my own at first, put things on it like Hostess HoHos and a good pair of black tights. She said, that’s a shopping list not a bucket list and that I needed to come up with items like see the Taj Mahal, so I said, fine, see the Taj Mahal, and she said, what do you think we are, the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and then she said, I’ll just do it, which is how I ended up here, slipping again, now broadside, toward the fire.
“This is what the end of the world is going to look like,” the boyfriend says to my retreating back.
Even though the chair is sliding sideways, making the brakes useless, I’m not concerned. We’re travelling at pace befitting an old lady counting the bus stops until death. I imagine Carol would like me to move a little quicker, but I’m not going tonight. There are three fires at the bottom, and the bundled tourists are joining the pueblo families to stand under the soaring and undulating flames, like those twenty-foot-high balloon men that bend and snap in front of car dealerships. Someone will stop me. It’s Christmas Eve. No one wants to see an old lady immolated on Christmas Eve.
“Whoa there, Nana.” My chair straightens out. I recognize Tom’s voice. He’s been to juvenile court twice for showing his pecker to those who don’t want to see it. He shoved it at me a couple years ago. Nothing to be proud of.
“Where’s your mom?” I ask, and he ignores me and steers to the line-up of folks waiting for the Archbishop of Santa Fe to come out of the chapel and parade behind a plastic Virgin Mary. The biggest bonfires get lit then, and after, we can all go home. According to Carol, and Frommers.
“Wheelchair coming through,” Tom announces, and two Carhartt mounds part to make a space for me in the front row. Across the cleared path are three ancient Indian women, also in wheelchairs, wrapped in thick blankets. I wish I had a blanket. I’m putting that on my bucket list.
“Make good choices,” Tom says, kisses the top of my wool beanie, and trots to the other side of the crowd.
A crack like close lightening nearly shoots me out of my chair, and I look to make sure one of the three-story bonfires hasn’t exploded. The second crack I see. An Indian man, one of a line of four, moon-faced and bundled up, ambling snowmen in earth tones and Wal-Mart mufflers, has discharged the rifle he props against his right flank. Behind him, a line of buckskin-clad braves bang on drums, which I can’t hear over the ringing in my ears. And behind that, the Archbishop and the Virgin Mary.
The crowd falls shuffling in with the drummers, and young women push the ancients into the throng. I wonder if Carol ever made it out of the gift shop. When my chair jerks forward, for a minute I think it’s her, but it’s not. It’s one of the pueblo men, and he lays his shotgun across the arms of my chair so he can better maneuver the flow.
And so this is how I am when I spot Carol and Tom, watching from the side of the path. I’ve got a gun, which I lift for a moment so a tiny brown girl can toss a red and black blanket on my lap. I find myself hoping the parade lasts a good long while. I am warm and I am armed. I feel like thanking someone, even Carol.
I look to her, and she flaps her Peruvian mittens, backlit by the string of fires and animated by the repeat of the rifles. I can’t tell what she’s signaling. She looks like she’s calling for help from the upstairs window of a house aflame. I give her a thumbs-up, mime ticking something off a list. She waves and waves.