This is West – Down Range

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“I’m suffocating in all of this openness,” he said over a pecan beer and our favorite sugary sunrise.

“Jerry, stop it. There’s plenty of room to breathe here.” We’d spent most of our savings on the move. On the truck we hadn’t needed in the city. On some specific sort of peace of mind. Quiet.

There wasn’t a drop of space after he left. The walls began to close-in. I could feel myself trying to remember what breath tasted like. Cold steel mixed with lemon. The kind of claustrophobic that makes you answer certain questions. That you can’t hide from anymore. He’d always wanted to go, I imagine. I can’t remember if I wanted him to stay, really, in the end. But comfort, like space, like openness, has a way of lingering in the bones. Attaching to tendons and becoming a part of you.

I met him on a Wednesday. An ordinary, hopeful day. The kind that leaves flurries of syrup fire in the belly—sticky, heavy, hot. He had shrapnel-flaked green eyes that had seen much more of death than I cared to peer into. He wore combat boots under his leather thong sandals as if he had never quite gotten used to the weight of where they had been. And now he was here. Ordering green-chili on a cheeseburger and tasting sand-grit when he bit into it. Asking through his grease-dotted napkin always more to himself than me, “What makes an enemy? How do you know there’s an enemy?”

You can ask these things in this much space. It has time to mold to the dirt and stay for awhile. The answer doesn’t really ever come here. It floats, settles mid-air, and follows the horizon, tracing the land that doesn’t belong to him. That never belonged to us. Framing the little world we tried to build. Instead: Babylon.

He would take the Wrangler out to the pasture and sit with the dead-end line, tracing its sunflower silence with clean fingernails and an academy ring, trying to pinpoint the last time he loved anything alive. He found nothing but open space.

I found him a day later. Hanging from the indifference of the land.

I waited to sell the sunset. The chicken-wire garden and two inherited tractor tires of potted plants. The front-porch swing that was painted a barn-yard red still facing the cactus pond we’d put in two summers ago.

“I want it to face the mornings,” he’d said.

I needed to sit with it all. Let it dry out like a skinned deer hide hanging over our clothesline. Dripping into something I could digest later.

This kind of space never alleviates. Never revives. It only contains. Multiplies. Stagnates.

“I can see to the ends of the Earth and back into myself,” he’d said.

I drove down our caliche road throwing cream puffs from the back tires. I played chicken with the sunset.  Pulsating through the open day, breaking into night. Thick, desert night like ticking clocks.

I asked why, only once, right before the thread-bare mountain range.

You can ask these sorts of questions in this much space.

(Fiction and Photography by Jade Smith)

Published by

El Portal

Eastern New Mexico University’s literary magazine, El Portal, offers a venue for the work of writers, artists and photographers. ENMU students, national, and international writers are welcome to submit their original, previously unpublished short stories, plays, poetry and photography. No entry fees are charged. Cash prizes are awarded to first-, second- and third-place winners in each category (only ENMU students qualify). El Portal is published each semester at Eastern thanks to Dr. Jack Williamson, a world-renowned science fiction writer and professor emeritus at ENMU who underwrote the publication. El Portal has been published since 1939.