This is West – The Playa


“Thirst, probably.” He reported as if he’d swallowed something too large and it had stuck in his throat. The news had come as a sand-sting to the town; it covered the small wagon-wheel in dusty rumors. I’d come as an outsider with a Corolla and a funny accent.

“Ironic, isn’t it?” He continued.

I didn’t know if it was irony, but I had a suspicion it remained sore for this man. A bleeding puss pocket—ready to burst at the moment he touched bourbon to his lips. Something he held onto and let fester; he picked at it and over time the skin remained damp and soft. As the Deputy Chief of a small border-town that had 17,000 residents he felt a sense of personal responsibility, I imagined. He was a pudgy man with bug eyes that were yellowed and looked like the cracked earth he stood on now. He’d taken me out to the pasture where they’d found her.

“She was headed for the Terry farm I’ll bet,” he said. “Dairy farmers and the like, I imagine looking for a husband or brother.”

“What was her name?” I questioned, scribbling in a notebook as he kicked a tumbleweed out of our walkway.

“Don’t know. Undocumented.”

“She was traveling then?”

“Suppose you could say that. No one knew her.”


She didn’t know how hard the wind could make her ache, as if it were peeling layers of her away. Little by little she forgot herself among the dirt. She forgot why she’d come. And how could it have hurt so badly for her to be here now. Water. She needed that, she knew. Dust and sand covered the backs of women that had come before her—a list of names the desert had crossed out. Arizona, she thought. That’s what she could remember. She said it out loud, focusing on the syllables. Why was land so cruel?  It erased the name her mother gave her. She huddled down in the heat, covering her face from the journey. She thought of home.


“There’s a playa, just north of here,” the Chief said. “She had maybe two miles.”

I wrote “Dead woman” in the perfectly aligned columns I’d taken from an air-conditioned trailer. I’d been counting bodies for two years and every trip never got any easier. I scribbled “Nameless” in the margins. The Chief climbed into his four-by-four Dodge pickup and cranked up the AC, removing his sweat-rimmed hat and throwing it on the dash. I walked around the truck to the passenger side and noticed a bumper-sticker that read “Pray for Rain” in blue and white lettering.

“The farmers sure could use it.” I hopped in the truck, moving my thumb in a hitch-hiking motion toward the back of the truck. “The rain.” Trying my best to sound local in sympathy.

“Not for the farmers anymore.” He looked ahead and drove over the large holes in the pasture.

I looked at him, puzzled. The wind had picked back up and the sand hit the glass of the truck and made a scraping sound.  We were headed back to town to get a burger and something to wash the afternoon down. He pointed to my notebook in my lap.

“Rain keeps the body-count down.”

(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.