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ENMU students, national, and international writers are welcome to submit their original, previously unpublished short stories, plays, poetry and photography.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.
Once, when I thought my days were numbered, I had a peculiar desire. Before I die, I want to walk around New Mexico exactly on the boundary. Circumambulating my home state would be an inane ritual. Maybe I would put on whiteface and wear a clown suit.
I didn’t die and the ritual didn’t happen.
Years have passed. I now live in Canada, but I still tinker with the idea of making that pilgrimage. I’m aging. Will I need a cane? Is it possible to roll down the state line in a wheelchair? Is it possible to walk a straight line if barbed wire fences, arroyos, and mountains cut across my path? If I do a fool’s stroll, will I step off the edge of a canyon, be stricken by a rattlesnake, die of dehydration?
It’s now 2020. The pandemic has arrived. I can’t cross the international boundary, even though I have two passports, one American, the other Canadian. My only choice is to do a virtual pilgrimage sitting in a swivel chair, wondering whether sitting is the new smoking.
Google the New Mexico state map. On first glance it appears to be almost square. Look again, it’s rectangular, taller than wide, like a sheet of typing paper.
Most of New Mexico’s boundaries were drawn with a ruler. Straight lines across everything natural. Maybe the surveyors thought nothing was there. No Comanches no Apaches, no hunting grounds. No plant life, no animal life. My ancestors infested the land like a swarm on insects. We began to drill the earth full of
holes, suck out oil, plant genetically modified seed. Dig it up. Plow it under. Frame it with barbed wire. Suck water from Mama Earth’s belly and spray it over wheat, peanuts, corn, soybeans, jalapeños.
Zoom to the bottom of the map, slightly left of the middle. Here is the only New Mexico boundary that is not a straight line. That wiggly vertical bit is the Rio Grande River, the only natural boundary in the state. The Great River slices north to south through the middle of the state.
Circumambulating New Mexico would be like kinhin, walking meditation in Zen. Ask a Zen master its purpose, and she will say: walk, just walk. Walk for no reason, no purpose, none at all. The aim is to have no aim. But aims and intentions creep into consciousness: to say good-bye to
my home state, to outrun death, to the expose the silliness of straight-line borders, to prove I’m a man, to clown myself to death.
But let’s not get lost before beginning this Google-driven virtual journey. I’ll start in Texico, east of Clovis, where I grew up. In Santa Fe, Hispanics call this part of New Mexico “little Texas.”
Dad was hired one summer as a census taker. We go to Texico, which sits on the New Mexico side of the border. We are walking along the train tracks when Dad says, “On that side is Farwell, Texas. On this side is Texico, New Mexico.”
A testy kid, I walked down the middle of the tracks and tossed him a question, “Where am I now.”
He laughed, “No man’s land.”
To honor Dad, I’ll start on the train tracks that separate Texico from Farwell and go south down the middle of the tracks.
It’s not long before I have to follow a road rather than train tracks. Soon I cross the middle of a green crop circle—not a medicine wheel—but a water-guzzling sprinkler spraying crops. I ask the sprinkler, “How much of your moisture is evaporating into the dry air?” Standing at the center of the circle is the best place not to get wet.
Texas is to the left, and New Mexico, the right. Do ranches and farms stop at state lines? Can you plow or water on both sides of the NM/TX state line? New Mexico collects state income tax from farmers. Texas doesn’t have any taxes. They can thank oil for that.
The journey has just started. I’m a spry kid again and begin lilting a nonsense song: “Texas, taxes, Texas, taxes.” I begin to skip with an invisible rope to the tune.
When I was seventeen, I was a DJ for a radio station in Muleshoe, Texas. I had to play country and western music for early-rising farmers. I hated the music but got paid a pittance. I would need to add a slide guitar and harmonica to make my “Texas, Taxes” song worth turning off in west Texas.
Now we’re back on the road again, Highway 769. I love it when the roadbuilder follows the surveyor’s ruler lines. Easy walk.
Ah, there’s the Border Bar. I’ll stop for a drink, not too much. Gotta keep walking.
Just east of Hobbs I lose my road. It no longer coincides with the state line, the Yellow Brick Road to nowhere.
I’ll have to follow the dotted state line by divination. I wouldn’t use a GPS; it would violate the sanctity of my quixotic quest. But this is a virtual journey, so I can Google-zoom in and Google-zoom out.
South of Hobbs I pass through Nadine. That’s mom’s name. Maybe she borrowed her name from this town. Wouldn’t there be a family story?
Below Nadine I pass near Eunice. Hmm, what went on in this region—all these girl-named towns? Many other towns have old-boys-club names.
Eunice is not a place I’d like to inhabit. Near here is WIPP, the notorious Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, the nation’s repository for nuclear waste. Its first shipment came in 1999. More shipments are supposed to follow for the next 20 or 30 years. Atomic wastes are shipped south from Colorado. Truckers pick up more atomic garbage in Los Alamos, where the atomic bomb was developed, then haul radioactive waste farther south.
At first protesters imagined the pollutants would be dumped into Carlsbad Caverns, but that would kill the tourist trade. Instead, the government used a deep geological repository near Eunice. The site was guaranteed not to leak.
In 2014 drum #68,660 leaked, because Los Alamos packers used organic kitty litter instead of inorganic clay kitty litter. The organic litter is made of wheat, and its cellulose can burn. Radioactive isotopes of uranium,
americium, and plutonium began to escape. It cost 300 million dollars to clean up the mess.
The signs posted at WIPP are supposed to last 10,000 years. Linguists designed pictograms to scare away you and me or Martians (who could visit from Roswell), to scare anyone who might dig up the radiated waste.
Now I have a tough choice. The state line crosses through URENCO and, it seems, the middle of an open pit. What’s in it? What’s around it? Barbed wire? Razor wire? Cameras? Alarms? I have no choice but to deviate from the NM boundary. I have to walk in semi-circle around the place. Which side? New Mexico, of course. We’re the poor cousins of rich
Texas relatives. Texas is Egypt; New Mexico, holy land.
Suddenly, the ruler line turns left. I’ve hit the bottom of New Mexico. I head west toward El Paso, Texas.
I keep striding until I come to the Pecos River. Hard to swim in a straight line. I don’t get to improvise my path unless I have to; that’s the plan. So, I swim, dry, and peel off the mud. If I could swim north, I’d be near Carlsbad Caverns, said to be the largest known subterranean labyrinth in the world. It’s full of bat shit, marketed as “guano,” great fertilizer.
I keep walking the straight line until I approach the Guadalupe Mountains south of the Lonesome Ridge Wilderness Study Area. I am feeling lonesome—the pathetic fallacy—but there are trees and bushes ahead.
Once I hike through the mountains, I am back on flat land. Actually, it’s not flat, it’s full of arroyos and hills that feel like mountains when you climb out.
Don’t hike southern New Mexico in the summer, killer heat. I trudge westward, using Stateline Drive until I am north of El Paso. If I were to hike straight north, I’d hit the White Sands. At the north end is the Unholy Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was exploded.
The Atomic Heritage Foundation in Albuquerque now sells t-shirts displaying J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie R. Groves at Trinity Site staring at the bomb, or is it the world? Either way, I hurry on, don’t want to celebrate this heritage.
Then I’m forced to make a choice at Highway 213. The state line is dotted, but there is no road, so I can cut straight across or take an alternate road to the north or the south. The southern way takes me thorough Ft. Bliss, a military reservation. Do I want to do that? Will I need a pass? A badge? A uniform? What if I’m a conscientious objector?
I take the northern route. As I pass through Anthony, Texas, I know the Rio Grande awaits. The Royal Road to Santa Fe follows the path of the Rio Grande northward. I am a New Mexican, an American, a Canadian. Can I swim both sides of the river, walk both sides of two borders?
Wait…that dotted line is not the Rio Grande. I was taught in school that the RioG was the boundary between Texas, Mexico, and New Mexico, but the dotted-line boundary runs west of the Great River. International boundaries are complicated. If I plunge into the Rio Grande and swim south, following the current, I’ll soon be in Mexico. Where exactly would I be in Mexico? Can I swim on both sides of the river? Can I walk on both banks without a drone or a rifle being pointed at me? Who would shoot me first—Americans or Mexicans? Would I be shot if I swam with a US passport between my teeth, with the eagles turned upward toward the drone camera?
Anyway, I’m not going that way. I’m on a fool’s errand. So, I dangle my feet in the muddy water, swim across, and keep heading west on the dotted line. I pass south of Columbus, New Mexico, where Pancho Villa raided, inspiring President Wilson to send General Pershing into Mexico to arrest the man. On the American side of the border Pancho was a bandit. On the other side, Señor Villa was a hero.
The weather is hot as hell. I can’t think in so much heat, so I guzzle water. Where do I get more? As I turn one more time south, then west, I see no roads, no tourists with water. At Antelope Wells I could turn south toward Las Barras in Mexico, but would I ever get there? I’d either dehydrate or be picked up for crossing the border without flashing my passport. Would anyone care? Probably not, so I risk walking for water.
I imagine an elderly goat herder who gives me water. “Thank you, gracias,” I say in Gringo Spanish.
I turn north up New Mexico’s western border. Arizona is on my left. To the right is the town of Lordsburg, which usually records New Mexico’s highest temperatures. In the movie Stagecoach the Ringo Kid (played by John Wayne) left Tonto, Arizona, headed for Lordsburg. At the end of the movie Ringo exits the town through Monument Valley, 430 miles north in Arizona. Makes as much geographical sense as a Google tour.
If you’re my age, you can’t read the name Tonto without thinking of the Lone Ranger’s native companion. Jay Silverheels played Tonto. He was not from Arizona, Texas, or New Mexico. He was not an Apache or Comanche but a Mohawk from Six Nations Reserve. That’s in Ontario, on the other Grand River. From here American readers are south of the border. When Ontarians say “going south” they mean, “going belly up, failing.”
As I ascend north on the New Mexico/Arizona border the screen becomes green. “Green grow the rushes, ho,” we sang as Boy Scouts lost in the Gila Wilderness outside of Silver City. Hiking the Gila Wilderness, we Scouts were halfway through the trek and ready to quit. Lay down and die. I didn’t die then, because I was too young. I won’t die now, because I’m too old for dying. There were no rushes in the Wilderness, but we did find a troop of Girls Scouts bathing in the Gila River. Good Christian Boy Scouts, we didn’t watch. Nope, nope, really didn’t. See no evil; do no evil.
The next day we Scouts marched into Silver City with no money so the police invited us to camp out in jail or on the courthouse lawn. We chose the lawn. It was green, and the sky was full of stars.
The Gila National Forest is coded green on the New Mexico side. On the Arizona side, the map is beige. Does the greenery stop at the state border? I doubt it, since up near highway 180, which crosses the Arizona-New Mexico boundary, there is a town called Alpine. Someone thought the elevation was high enough and trees tall enough to make you want to yodel.
West of beige is the San Carlos Reservation, Apache territory. Too far to walk. Off the beaten path. The thought of Apaches puts fear in the Gringo heart. Too many 1950s cowboy and Indian movies. But I’ve read Wisdom Sits in Places and Portraits of “The Whiteman” trying to counteract movie values with book learning. Sometimes the strategy of reading Keith Basso’s books works; sometimes not. A whiteman’s brain is hard to change. I’m halfway through the journey and ready to quit. I’m so damned tired, but I can hear those Apaches joking about me, laughing their asses off at whitey idiocy.
Day after day, I walk north until I am crossing the Zuni reservation. No signs mark it. Zunis probably have no interest in the dotted line that I am following. Should I walk here? Who to ask for permission? How should I walk here? Softly, on sacred land.
One year I was driving on I-40 to Zuni Shalako, a winter solstice ceremony. It snowed and I was trapped, had to wait for a snowplow. I arrived at Zuni an hour before dawn. I could still see the Shalakos. They were supernatural, even though Zunis know humans animate the creatures. Even for white unbelievers they are momentarily holy. The Zuni world-map is multidimensional; the whiteman’s map is flat, as if viewed by satellite from outer space.
I trudge on. It’s getting late. The sun is setting. I’m in dire need of a bed but sleeping in a motel would violate the spirit of this wonky virtual pilgrimage. So, I search for a wrecked car at the edge of Lupton, Arizona. I hope to find one without rats or rattlesnakes. But the spongey whiteboy body needs ice cream.
I trudge to Tee Pee Trading Post. The “Pee” triggers a memory. After World War II, Dad would drive the family from Clovis to San Diego on Route 66, now overshadowed by I-40. He would make me pee through a plug in the bottom of our Hudson’s back floor—either that or piss into the top of Mom’s Pepsi bottle and empty the salty yellow fluid through the hole. After a stone flew up through the Hudson hole, striking blood from my kid-sized prick, I became adept at bottle pissing.
As a kid I loved roadside curio shops. “Real Indian stuff, real Indian stuff,” I’d shout. As a man, I know it is made-in-China fake. Still, the boy in the old man needs ice cream and can’t resist trying on moccasins and pounding a tom-tom. I find ice cream at Tee Pee. Sugared up, I head for a field of wrecked cars hoping to find a Hudson Hornet. I remember that Dad won a mileage contest driving a Hornet in Farwell. We should have buried Dad in a Hudson. Besides his family and Jesus, he loved Hudsons most.
I didn’t find a Hudson—had to settle for a Ford pickup. The next morning I feel better—healed by ice cream and snake oil. Hearing a pair of coyotes, I arise early and a chew a stick of buffalo jerky bought from Tee Pee.
I’m a tough old goat, but my muscles ache and my knees wobble. If you’re old, do you have more time or less time on your hands? Life is short, but each day is interminable. To distract myself, I begin measuring time and distance.
It’s 29 miles from Lupton to the Navajo Nation headquarters at Window Rock. By car, the trip takes 33 minutes. By motorcycle, 15 minutes if the Navajo police don’t catch me. On foot, at an old man’s pace of 3 miles an hour, the walk would take 9 or 10 hours. I need time for food, pissing in the bushes, a mid-afternoon doze, time to send pictures to my wife and kids so they know I’m alive. So, 6 hours a day seems reasonable. That’s the best I can do, 18 miles a day. New Mexico’s boundary is around 1,500 miles, so this is a 3-4 month journey. If I die on the road, I will be a fool for many, but a hero for few. Better to become buzzard bait that die in an old folk’s home.
At Window Rock, I stare through the window in the rock. I stand by the statue of a Navajo Code Talker, pay homage to men whose language the Japanese could not decode in World War II. We whitefolk stole native land; natives saved our white asses. Not exactly a fair trade.
I sit and talk with a couple of old guys. They see my white beard and ask for toys from Santa Claus. They suggest that I cool off in the museum, stroll the library. When I come out, they are still there. They offer me a cigarette. I decline. I offer them a stick of jerky. They accept. As I begin to leave, they ask me what I’m doing. When I tell them, they are amazed at my stupidity. They bite their tongues to keep from saying what they think about the whiteman’s foolish ways. I hand them my card. It says Ronald L. Grimes, wandering fool, whiteman, old goat, Ph.D. They howl with laughter.
Fort Defiance was established in 1851 so the U.S. military could control Navajos. I walk past it. It is no longer a fort. Now it is called Tsehootsooi, “green place among the rocks.” We settlers don’t understand Diné any more than the Japanese did. For us monolinguals, all languages other than English are “code talk.”
I decide to head to Four Corners, where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado meet. If I do what limber tourists do, I can stretch and put a foot or hand in all four states. If I do what old-timey Mormons used to do, I could stand here and not be arrested for polygamy. If I’m in no-man’s land, which state’s laws apply?
Since I’m not a tourist or a polygamous Mormon, I’ll do an old-man spin, sit in the middle, and whizz on my bony ass through four states. I stop with my feet pointing east. I win on the gambler’s wheel. In front of me is eastern life, behind me is western sunset. I am facing the right direction for the resurrection. I’ll live to finish this pilgrimage and set out gleefully with Colorado on my left and New Mexico on my right.
I’m tempted to follow the road. The walking would be easier, even though the distance is greater. But I have to stay true to the basic principle of the journey: walk the dotted line, not the road. A hundred- and forty-five-mile walk, and I’ll have to swim four times.
I pass Dulce, NM, on the south. I could visit the headquarters of the Jicarilla Apache Nation or go there to gamble at the Wild Horse Casino, but I’ve already won once doing the gamble’s spin at Four Corners, so I’ll quit while I’m ahead. (I’m getting weary, making too many excuses.) I keep going until I pass Edith, CO, and discover another “side” of New Mexico. The Yellow Brick Road drops south, then east. A boring triumph.
I pass Raton, NM, and remember the most fantabulous burritos that I ate there. If I sneaked off the dotted line to get one, I couldn’t get up. I’d fall asleep, fart, and want more.
I hurry past Branson, CO. I could easily walk the 3/10 mile. But why go? Population 74. I’d scare the entire town. Could I go there and ship myself collect by UPS back to Clovis? Would the truck follow the Yellow Brick Road? Probably not.
I pass Wheeless, OK. My wife sends me a text asking, “Are your brains scrambled by the hot sun? Are your wheels falling off?” I could hike over to the Great Plains Bunkhouse, pull the axles and all my wheels would fall off. Then people at the Mexhoma Church could burn me, ship my ashes home, or bury on the lone prairie.
I walk south. Just north of Texline the surveyor’s ruler jogs right. The New Mexico border slips two miles into what looks like Oklahoma. What did the surveyor’s pencil bump into? What was it going around? A cow blocking a surveyor’s transit? A ranch? A Comanche who stood his ground? A forefather’s grave? Texline must be a sibling of Texico. They lie precisely on the state line. Maybe they are magical towns, superstructures lying liminally in the spiritual universe.
I am now passing through the llano estacado. I saw these words on a geographical map in junior high and asked my teacher what they meant. In a few days she brought a photocopy of a letter written by Coronado dated October 20, 1541. The letter said, “I reached some plains so vast, that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I travelled over them for more than 300 leagues…with no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea…There was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.”
The next day the teacher told our class that Coronado and the conquistadors were searching for cities of gold. She said New Mexico history is full of myth. When the conquistadors crossed the llano, they became so disoriented that they began driving stakes into the high, flat ground so they could find their way back out.
“Like Hansel, Gretel and the breadcrumbs?”
“Yes, just like that,” she said.
“Where is this plane?” we asked.
“You are standing on it.”
I arrive at Texico, barely alive, where the circumambulation began. The square is now circled. I’m proud, but Dad’s ghost sits on the train tracks mocking me, “I’m eating watermelon and listening to country music while you labored without pay for no good reason. You’re a fool, boy. You need practice. Come back and try it again.”
“You know George is always messing with that engine,” Skinny said, taking a sip from a chipped white mug emblazoned with a green 4-H logo. “Cain’t leave well enou –” He froze mid-sentence.
Hank looked at him. “You sure that’s just coffee in that mug, Skinny? Can’t leave well enough – what?”
Skinny’s eyes were wild. “She’s back.”
“Who’s back?” Bill asked.
Brother Jerry and Jesus exchanged a look. “La Llorona,” Skinny whispered, trembling, his eyes wide. “She’s crying again.” He stared at Brother Jerry, setting down his mug. “Who was the last one? Frank’s wife? She heard her. And Sam before that, and them kids that went out partying here a coupla years ago and got run over by that train … and Grant Loucks.” Skinny looked around the table. “Don’t none of you hear it, do you?”
“Dios,” Jesus whispered, crossing himself and pouring a shot of tequila.
The men looked at each other around the table.
“Shit, Skinny,” Hank offered. “Maybe it’s just the wind.”
Skinny ignored him. “Jerry, I think maybe we need to have a talk this afternoon. I ain’t a bad man, but I ain’t as good a man as I oughta be, either, and if she’s cryin’ for me, I think maybe that’s my cue to set some things straight while I can.”
Brother Jerry nodded, his face solemn. “Y-you’re a w-w-wise m-man, Sk-Sk-Skinny,” he said. The stuttering preacher drained the dregs from the bottom of his cup and stood to leave. “You s-say your goodbyes, and I’ll m-meet you o-over at the ch-ch-ch-church in a f-f-few.”
Hank brushed a surreptitious tear from his cheek as Brother Jerry clapped Skinny on the shoulder on his way out.
“Thank you, Jerry,” Skinny said. He turned to the others. “You’ve been good friends. All of you. Even you, Hank, you old pain in the ass. I mean it. A man couldn’t ask for a better bunch of friends than you boys. I don’t know how long I’ve got. I know she’s callin’. Don’t you hold it against that little girl. You know she cain’t help knowin’ things, and I’m grateful to her for givin’ me a warning before it’s too late. Maybe she’s keepin’ an old man out of hell. Lettin’ him say his goodbyes. No, now, don’t you start the waterworks, you old fools. I’ve had 88 good years, and I cain’t ask for more’n’at.” He stood. “Jesus, keep ’em in line for me.”
The men rose from their seats and embraced Skinny in turn. As the old man shuffled out of the bar, Hank squared his shoulders, snapped to attention, and saluted his old friend. Bill Swinney joined him, and Jesus set down the glass he was drying and followed suit, staring after him as the door opened and he stepped out into a sunny Coldwater afternoon.
Emily Priddy is a graduate student pursuing an M.A. in English at ENMU. She lives in Tucumcari and teaches English and journalism at House High School. She is currently writing her second novel.
other dusty laws of the past,
under the grime of ideology:
Hopes, shattered lives
thrown into the pit of Indifference
born of greed…ignorance,
Compassion wilting in the darkness
of shattered dreams,
into the fiscal indifference
of our time,
all under the weight of
Jim Piatt’s poetry collections include “The Silent Pond,” “Ancient Rhythms,” and “Light.” He has had over 1,135 poems published, and several of his poems were nominated for both Pushcart, and Best of Web awards. He earned his BS and MA from California State Polytechnic University, and his doctorate from BYU.
No one noticed his brown eyes,
receding hairline, or the goatee
poking out of his chin.
He was only ever the trumpet he played.
On stage, that was understandable.
His mouth was wide open and brass.
His fingers, valve slides and buttons.
But, even on the street,
he was only recognized
as a conveyance for his instrument,
a wind machine
for some of the sweetest notes ever blown.
That’s how he saw himself as well.
Slumped in a chair after a show,
that trumpet on his lap,
he shrunk to the size
and function of a spit key.
He well understood the two kinds of “solo.”
One corralled an audience
in its audacity, melody and flair.
The other trudged home alone.
John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident. Recently published in the Homestead Review, Harpur Palate and Columbia Review with work upcoming in the Roanoke Review, the Hawaii Review and North Dakota Quarterly.
Michael Gardner is a transfer student at ENMU, majoring in DFM and double minoring in Business and Theatre. He is originally from New England and hopes to work in the film industry directing, producing and screenwriting. He enjoys photography, reading, writing, traveling, visiting national parks and of course movies/television.
Poems by Betzaida Chavez
Betzaida Chavezis a resident of Lovington, New Mexico who enjoys writing out her feelings as poetry and sharing them with others she plans to someday hopefully publish a poetry book.
Flower You are my delicate flower
You worry me so much I want to puke and cry
Because that thought of you not being ok hurts so much
It hurts so much I feel it everywhere in my body
My delicate little flower
You deserve all the love in the world
Dead mind I’ll kill myself slowly
But rather mentally
Until one day I’m just a hollow shell
A hollow shell of who I once was
So I may not feel much
So that things won’t be so complicated and scary
Kisses from strangers Kisses from a pretty stranger
They have no real affect
But I like kisses
And I’ll take from whoever gives
Because I find a comfort in kisses from strangers
They hold no promise but they are nice to have
In 1998, the year I graduated high school, Gwyneth Paltrow starred in a movie called “Sliding Doors.” The basic premise of the film was to illustrate the momentous differences in one’s life that can hinge on a comparatively small matter of timing: e.g., making it through sliding doors on a subway train or just missing them. While the movie (spoiler alert?) illustrates a literal life-or-death difference in the ultimate outcome, Hollywood couldn’t resist making a cutesy ironic point about destiny in the end, since Paltrow’s protagonist ultimately leaves her boyfriend in both storylines, loses her baby in both storylines, and ends up in love with the same new guy in both storylines.
Real life, of course, is probably not governed by such an attachment to destiny. When you just miss the train, certain experiences you might have had thereon are forever lost, while new possibilities are created through the later train. The odds of this being a life-changing decision are probably lower for any given train-ride than they are for, say, jobs offered and taken or not, or the college one chooses to attend. In 1998, I myself was choosing where to go to school and at one point became utterly overwhelmed by how much of my future life would stem from this single choice. I had full rides to Brandeis and UC-Berkeley and realized that all of my new friends for the next four years, plus the path my life would take geographically and professionally, would all be traceable to this one binary decision. Internalizing it was so paralyzing that I had to will myself not to think about it. I ultimately chose Brandeis. And while I regretted the decision at several junctures (it’s an aesthetically ugly campus filled with Stalinist architecture and many of the first classmates I encountered seemed sad to be there, preferring colleges I’d declined to attend that had not admitted them), I ultimately think I made the right choice. If nothing else, reconsidering the decision also means erasing many of my closest friends and immediately becomes unimaginable. Even if those friends would be replaced by other (perhaps equally good) friends who went to Berkeley, the counter-factual seems impossible to retroactively entertain.
Admittedly, which Uber rider is paired with which driver is a lot more like a mundane train ride in its import than where one goes to college. And yet I spend a little bit of each night fascinated by the amount of willful randomness involved in letting an automatic app match me with riders and arrange the constellation of my travels. The app is not really in the driver’s seat, so to speak, since I control where I steer my vehicle and, importantly, which pings to accept. I, like most serious drivers, accept almost all pings that don’t involve driving well out of my way and prioritize those which offer significant surge. But there are times when I’m barreling toward an area of surge on the map and, just on its edge, get a ping that is offered at the regular fare.
Sometimes I take these fares and sometimes I don’t. There was a period when three straight pings I accepted in these circumstances all ended up giving me a significant cash tip (at least $5 each), overriding the potential difference in fare that the surge would have given. After the last of these, I felt like I was being karmically rewarded for not insisting on surge in my rides and started taking these rides at all times. Needless to say, the pattern did not persist. But it was an important reminder that surge is not the only factor in the bottom line of one’s night, much less the quality of the overall driving experience. After all, riders are less likely to tip the more surge there is on a fare, understandably noting that they’re already paying more than normal for the same ride.
Of course, driving a car in the best of circumstances is still a high-stakes activity. Car accidents are a frequent reality and often result in fatalities, not all of which can be prevented by unilaterally safe driving. Are there rides I could have accepted that would have literally led to my death? And then there are the rare but existent nights when a shooting hits Bourbon Street, one of the most common places for me to pick people up. Or the night on the Saturday before Mardi Gras when a drunk driver plowed past a barricade and into a crowd of parade-goers at Endymion (one of the season’s largest parades). My fiancée, Alex, called me minutes after that happened to ask if I was anywhere nearby. I wasn’t; I was on the other end of town. But our first thought in the developed world when a car goes awry and hits people is now terrorism, so it took more than an hour before Alex felt comfortable with me driving near the parade route. Miraculously, no one died that night.
One night on Halloween weekend, six freaked-out West Virginians asked if they could all cram into my car to flee an incident on Frenchmen Street, one that might be labeled “a series of unfortunate events.” It’s one of the best examples I know of a story where everyone involved made the sequentially worst decision, which led to escalating mistakes. In their dramatic retelling, a car made the poor initial decision to drive on Frenchmen Street, which was packed elbow-to-elbow with costumed revelers celebrating the holiday weekend. It’s unclear if he had to scoot past a barricade to do so or if it was just obvious to all other drivers that the thronged mass of humanity made this an inadvisable plan. At one point, the driver almost hit a person standing in the street. The people in the street then started gesturing rudely at the driver. The driver then accelerated slightly, tapping a couple people and knocking them over. The people then started hitting his car, with a few people sitting on the hood and jumping up and down on it. The driver then got out of the car with a gun in his hand and started brandishing it.
Our heroes the six West Virginians did not stick around to discover the rest of the story, not wanting to become a statistic in exchange for witnessing the end result. But we can be pretty sure there was some sort of de-escalation since this story didn’t even make local news, much less national. I don’t think any damage ensued, other than minor injuries to the people and dents to the car. But all six individually said how lucky it was that I was just around the corner so they could avoid getting shot that night. They gave me a $20 cash tip at the end of the ride, expressing gratitude for my willingness to ferry all six of them from danger at once.
On one of my own Uber rides, heading home from the airport after a trip back to New Mexico, my driver told me that he thought he’d met the love of his life the previous week while driving. He said he’d kicked himself for not getting her number, but he was pretty sure he could find her again. He explained that he was spending most of his time on Uber hanging out near where she worked (the initial pickup spot the week before), hoping to grab her going home again or even going to lunch. He would still take other rides in the area, but he was always rushing back to that part of town trying to find his would-be love. While I can’t imagine that Uber corporate would interpret this story as anything other than creepy, the driver insisted that his feelings seemed reciprocated, that she was really flirty and interested on the ride, that he’d just lost his nerve at the end because she seemed out of his league, but after a week he couldn’t stop thinking about her. He planned to play it cool if he finally did get her again as a rider, and asked whether he should lay it on thick about destiny if so.
“How much is too much?” he asked me sincerely. “Should I just say ‘I’m so glad I got to see you again’? Or ‘I knew we’d find each other again’? Or should I just ask her out on the spot ’cause it was meant to be.”
Maybe this is what the sports commentators mean by “controlling your own destiny.”
How many relationships start in an Uber ride? How many eventual marriages? There are all sorts of reasons that Uber doesn’t advertise itself as a dating site or the next Tinder, but I have no doubt they’d have enough material if they chose to pursue this angle. I can just see the stream of too-pretty huggy couples with that peppy eHarmony beat in the background, telling the condensed stories of their whirlwind ride-share romance.
Of course, being engaged, this is not an angle I care to pursue. I can detect audible, almost physical, relief from women riding solo when I mention my fiancée in passing conversation or in answer to a question about how I ended up in New Orleans. Usually mentioning this early can be the difference between a stilted, stifled exchange of a few words and an extensive friendly conversation.
What I am after, really, are good stories, good conversations, and (sure) good tips. Those are the difference-makers in my night. And ideally to avoid the belligerent drunks, the arguing couples, the vomit (knock on wood), and the awkwardly silent. A vast majority of my riders fail to fall into any of these undesirable categories – I have been pleasantly surprised at how much friendlier, more appreciative, and positive most riders are than I anticipated. But I can’t help but wonder after each unfortunate experience whether I should have stopped for gas first, whether I shouldn’t have run through that last yellow light. Driving is full of constant near-misses and split-second decisions, all of which lead to a computer app pairing me up with one request instead of another. And, of course, I have the same series of random and barely chosen processes to thank for every story I’ve told about Uber, every great and heart-warming interaction, every person I’ve met and connected with for the first time in my car. Far more often, I look back on my driving decisions thankful that they led me to this precise series of riders and no others.
I took a couple on their first date the other night. They were flirting in that shy, tentative way of asking permission to say something risky. They were dressed in overly formal clothes for a night of dancing in the bars of New Orleans, an activity they admitted they both thought would be fun. They were bright and bubbly and optimistic and promised me that I’d be a big part of their long-term story if they made it, if they got married. They’d send me their wedding invitation and say remember when we had that Uber rider who took us to Bacchanal and gave us advice.
But I could tell, from the front seat, that they weren’t going to make it. She took a second too long to laugh at some of his attempted jokes, like she wasn’t sure they were supposed to be funny. He talked about himself too much, rarely reciprocating when there was a clear opening to ask about her. Ditto his response to her attempts to touch him quasi-innocently. I was struck by how easily I could know their fate as an objective observer, a stranger, a fly on the steering wheel, before either had internalized it themselves.
Sometimes I like to think of the Uber app and its algorithm as a self-aware intelligence, seeing who will connect and who won’t, as it deploys pings to drivers and acceptances to riders. That it is the omniscient technology that creates order from anarchy and links us all to a future where we have the opportunity to find new or reassuring experiences as we make our way home at night’s end. And yet, every time, it is really my choice whether to tap the phone and accept the latest suggestion. In the end, all we have is these simple binary decisions in the cacophonous chaos of riders and drivers traversing the streets of the city.
Cupide and his lyste of arwesor The path to my degree
My first love forgot to love me back so I buried him and found another.
My second love imagined he were a Russian spy – he faked his death. In good fashion, I pretended to mourn and moved on before he could resurface.
I lost myself in a book or two – not even a good read and espionage would find me there.
Hawthorne – the fraud – chose death over longevity and forgot to haunt me. How perfectly unromantic.
William was an obsession and threatened to bind my next 40 years at least. Conscience bid me move forward – I left him in 1386 plagued by sorwe of losing another – and frolicked by the river with my swete fo on Seynt Valentynes day in the dede of October.
But my white hart has not been killed and I dream anoon –
If Degaré’s legs can make the body speke like Jenkins, this game will take flite ageyn.
Desire courted Inspiration &
together they faded into irises,
gold, brown, &
green like the rows
of forsaken oak
in her vision of trees;
bowed deep against
their trunks shallow
wounds in gravel.
He suggested she stop
& she did.
A cool gaze left wrapped
in icy ashes, her eyes fall
on another chess match
with Passion she lacks
the strategy to win.
Jellyfish and Paper for Josie
develop silently, twisting in
on itself – a jellyfish
of halted breath.
Can a jellyfish rein in the undertoe brought on by its own thoughts?
She could not reach out and harness it because
how could she catch the current?
How could she stop the wind, the rain, the waves, the ice cold
bitterness of eternal frost caught
in a world that wished it were
Search a forbidden voice –
paper and ink. Watch darkness flow –
distress in knowing no
matter how much is written, lungs fill
with life’s poison
at every exhale
the page has nothing
better to do than sit idly by while ink stings across it.
Each moon-rise – dreams become terrors
and darkness is not solitude.
Doomed characters cast reflections in a midnight pool of burnt salt
and it resembles her,
who forgot to write the hero.
She couldn’t scream for help
when her words were gone.
Surrounded in an embrace of twisting tentacles,
she was left to drift.
Watch the bubble escape
a book torn from her grasp.
Bridget Richardson is an extremely stressed ENMU graduate student working too many jobs. Her hobbies include picking up strays and hosting scheduled crying sessions with herself on the weekend.
The payphone beeps loudly, the operator’s monotone voice pours through the earpiece. “Please deposit one nickel for five more minutes. You have thirty seconds before I must disconnect the call.”
The hitchhiker looks for another nickel in his empty pockets. The phone goes silent and beeps loudly. The hitchhiker sighs and exits the telephone booth, taking a drink from his flask and lighting a cigarette. He looks to the East, over his shoulder towards the shallow grave of his companion. He decides to forget about his time on the desert as he climbs back into the rusty old Buick and turns his wheels west.
The man is an actor, aspiring to be the next bigshot in Hollywood. He, like most of his peers, has nothing to his name. His mother would fret over him and call him a fool if it wasn’t for her comatose state guarding her from what she was better off not knowing. It protects her from knowledge of how and where he’s been getting the money to keep her alive, from knowing that the money has run out and she doesn’t have much longer. He walks down the side of an unknown desolate stretch of highway in the middle-of-nowhere Nevada, hitchhiking back to Los Angeles. The road signs guide him, updating him on how far he is from any other human life form every twenty miles or so. The pavement radiates heat and aside from the mirage on the horizon, only dry, and dirty land stretches as far as the eyes reach. There is rarely an automobile passing, always a semi-truck traveling in the opposite direction. The hitchhiker expected more traffic, but he doesn’t completely reject the solitude. He rather prefers it for his humble reflection of life.
A billboard stands tall a little way up the road, its big red letters warn him of approaching civilization. “BETTY LOU’S DINER! GAS AND GOOD EATIN’!…3 MILES!”
He stops for a moment, looking up the road, licking his lips. He empties his flask, gulping the liquor down his throat. A new motivation to keep walking. The hitchhiker hums to himself, a tune he heard years ago. It keeps him better company than the tumbleweeds that play chase in the distance. He closes his eyes and strolls mindlessly, recklessly. The mid-day heat beats down on him. Sweat drenches the layers of clothing and drips from his face. He stumbles and opens his eyes, his vision blurs. Perhaps I was a fool to think I could go it alone. That fella back in Austin wasn’t feeding me a line. I ain’t gonna get back to Hollywood for dang near a week if I gotta keep up like this. Ma won’t last that long.
The diner comes into view. The faded, pink, stucco building stands out against the gray-brown landscape. A busted, neon, arrow sign flickers and flashes. In front of the diner stand two gas pumps. The parking lot is empty. Dull green weeds creep up the sides of the building, finding a home in the cracks and chips of the stucco. There is only a battered screen door to guard the entryway.
The hitchhiker walks in and a tiny bell rings above his head. A ceiling fan rattles and echoes throughout the empty diner, drowning out the jukebox’s melancholy tune. Everything is red and green patent leather or velvet on aluminum chrome and walnut wood. The inside of the diner is much more pleasing to the eye than the unkempt outside. The nicotine-stained air is hot and dense. The hitchhiker seats himself on a swivel stool at the bar, extinguishing the privacy of employee gossip.
The waitress and the cook draw back from each other. The waitress sets her cigarette in an ashtray and turns to the hitchhiker. She places a yellow paper menu in front of him. “Well hello, Sugar. Can I getcha some coffee?”
“You got it, Babe.”
“You wouldn’t happen to have a bottle too, would ya?”
“Sure, we do.”
The hitchhiker holds out the empty flask. “Mind topping me off?”
She smiles and takes the flask.
“Thank ya, ma’am.”
They are silent for a moment. The waitress hands the hitchhiker his renewed flask. “So, where you headed, Mister?”
“L.A.” The hitchhiker takes a swig and places the flask in his pocket.
“Another one of those hot-shot wanna-bes, yeah?”
“I was out on loan for a minor part in one of them new movies. They called me in day before yesterday. Cut my vacation short to go speak three lines.”
“Hey, it’s better than nothing right? Tell me more about Hollywood.”
The hitchhiker shrugs. “There ain’t really much to tell ma’am.”
“Oh c’mon. Hollywood’s so glamorous.”
The waitress sets the water down in front of him and leans on the counter flirtatiously. She continues to coax him with small talk. He looks at her over the menu now and then, raising his eyebrows and nodding or shrugging slightly. Occasionally, he interjects, hoping she’ll be satisfied soon enough and return to her cigarette.
“So, why’re you walking to L.A?”
“Hitchhiking.” He corrects her before continuing. “My car broke down back in Eureka, something with the tranny. Don’t got the money or the motive to fix it.”
“Must be lonely. Can’t imagine having no company out on the road all by myself.” She pauses. “You know, I always wanted to—”
The sound of the doorbell cuts her off, saving her from the rejection of the hitchhiker. A man walks in and seats himself at the end of the bar near the window, so he can watch his Buick accumulate rust. The waitress jumps at the new opportunity for amorous toying. It must be a slow day. She abandons the hitchhiker and rushes to the drifter’s side.
“How are you today, Honey? What can I getcha? Water? Coffee?”
“Sure thing, Baby. Let me know if I can grab anything else alright?”
He plasters on a faux smile and nods, trying to mask his disinterest. She notices and takes leave. He has seen this waitress a million times, different places and names, but to him, they are all the same. If he would let her, she’d fall in love with him for the day, only to be left behind tomorrow when he turns his wheels in another direction. There have been so many short-lived love affairs that he’s unsure where all he’s had a lover. He never stays in one place long, has no reason to. He has no wife and no kids— at least not to his knowledge. He’s a drifter, a loner trying to make it by traveling the country selling the miscellaneous trinkets for some CEO from back East.
The hitchhiker and the drifter take notice of each other. The drifter’s curiosity eats him from the inside out. Crazy fella out here by his lonesome without a car. Wonder where he came from.
The hitchhiker plays his curiosity off as the intrigue of the unknown. The hitchhiker doesn’t want to know the drifter’s story. Wonder where he’s headed. Maybe he can help me get to Cali faster. They watch each other for the duration of the drifters stay.
The hitchhiker studies the drifter and follows him out when he departs. “Excuse me, Mister. I don’t mean to be a thorn in the side. But which way you headed?”
The drifter points west. “Need a ride?”
“If it ain’t too much trouble.”
The drifter nods towards the passenger door. “Saddle up, Cowboy. Make yourself comfortable.”
“Say! Gee thanks, Mister.”
The drifter displays himself as humble, a wall to camouflage his loneliness. The desert blurs as the car picks up speed. The hitchhiker looks out the window as they drive. The men are silent for a long while. The drifter pulls a cigarette out of his shirt pocket, offers one to the hitchhiker.
The hitchhiker nods. “Got a light?”
The drifter pulls out a card of matches, tossing them at the hitchhiker.
“Thanks.” “That gal back there sure was talking up a storm.” The drifter pokes at the man.
“Why ain’t you offer to take her with ya?”
The hitchhiker shrugs. “She’s getting paid to make a pass at every fella that comes through there. We both know that.”
“Seemed pretty stuck on you. She looked at you like you was the shiniest penny in the jar.”
“Oh, hang it up, Mister.”
The drifter puts his hands up for a moment, chuckling. The hitchhiker tosses his cigarette butt out the window. They fall quiet for some time again. In the distance, the men can see a thunderhead; the dark gray storm looks like it could be violent. They watch as the sun sinks into the desert, tired of scorching this side of the planet until tomorrow. The drifter flicks a switch, and the headlights illuminate a mile marker.
MILE 72: FALLON 40, DAYTON 91.
The hitchhiker puts his feet up on the dashboard and pulls the flask from his jacket pocket, takes a big gulp. He gestures to the drifter. “Want a sip?”
“Suit yourself. More for me.”
The drifter lights another cigarette, unsure what else to do with himself. The hitchhiker takes another swig, and another for good measure. “So, we stopping in Fallon or what?”
“We won’t be there for another hour—”
“That ain’t what I asked.”
“We can stop if you need to.”
“I might.” The hitchhiker takes a big gulp of liquor and burps loudly. He is silent for a moment, taking another sip before speaking. “How far are you going anyways?”
“Aw heck, Carson City maybe? I ain’t got the slightest idea if I’m being honest though. I go ’til I can’t no more.”
The drifter looks over at his intoxicated companion. The hitchhiker lifts his head and screws the lid back on the flask. “How far you taking me?”
“Far as I can. State line, maybe. Depends on how long we’re headed the same direction.” Fear rises in the hitchhiker’s chest. State line won’t be close enough. That’s three days’ worth of walking at least. He retrieves his pocketknife and begins to clean his nails. In the clouds, electric charges battle for dominance. Thunder shakes the land. The hitchhiker uncaps the flask, takes another swig, and places the flask back into his jacket pocket.
The drifter breaks the uneasy silence. “You’re quite the swigger, Cowboy.”
“What of it?”
The drifter falls quiet again.
“I said, what of it, Mister? Don’t go giving your two cents where it ain’t due.”
“Ease up, Cowboy. Don’t blow a fuse. I was just trying to make conversation. I wasn’t looking for trouble.”
“Bustin’ my chops ain’t the way to do that, Mister.”
“C’mon cool down, man.”
“Aw, shut the hell up would ya?”
The drifter’s knuckles turn white, he clenches the steering wheel, biting his tongue. The air outside stirs and a gust of wind shakes the car around a little.
The hitchhiker becomes more agitated. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to drive, Mister?”
“If you don’t like my driving, I can let you out.” The drifter’s dry voice echoes in the hitchhiker’s head. The drifter slows down to counteract the wind.
“No. No. You can’t let me out—” The hitchhiker pales and panic courses through his veins, sending him tumbling over the edge. His hands shake, his vision flashes black. The drifter notices the change in the hitchhiker and pulls over.
“Don’t spew in here now, Cowboy. You don’t look so hot.”
“You can’t kick me out here, Mister. I gotta get back to Hollywood. My Ma needs me to get that part.”
“What are you getting all cracked up about? I was just trying to let you out if—”
“I said you can’t kick me out!”
The hitchhiker lunges at the drifter, pocketknife still in hand. The drifter jumps and reaches for the hitchhiker’s wrist to stop the impending blow. The drifter’s eyes cloud over with pain as the stainless-steel point penetrates his abdomen.
The hitchhiker looks over his shoulder at the rusty-old Buick as he steps into the telephone booth. He picks up the phone and dials the number.
The operator comes on the line instantly. “Please insert one dime for ten minutes. Thank you.”
The hitchhiker puts a dime into the machine. He hopes the call won’t take long. The dial tone hurts his already throbbing head. There’s a click on the other end of the line.
“Hello?” A man’s sleepy voice pours through the phone.
“Hey, man. I’ve got a problem, I really screwed up—” The hitchhiker trails off, unsure.
His companion on the other end of the phone grows more alert. “What’s eating you?”
“I killed someone man. I mean I think it’s okay, not a big deal, but—”
The other end of the line is silent.
“This guy gave me a ride, started giving me some trouble. He was about to kick me out on the side of the highway. I just couldn’t take it, you know? So, I let him have it.”
The phone cuts out and beeps. The hitchhiker inserts another nickel into the machine before the operator can interject.
“I see. Where are you now?”
“I don’t know, exactly. I’ll be back in L.A. tomorrow.”
“Why don’t you disappear for a little while?”
“Just call and tell my manager I’ll be there tomorrow evening.”
“How do you know they ain’t gonna be looking for you?”
“He was a loner. Nobody will miss him for a long time. I was out on the desert when I ditched him. I don’t think anyone will find out.”
“You better hope not, son. They’ll send you to the big house for this one.”
“Same as yesterday.”
“I’ll come up with the money soon.”
“Don’t fret none about her. Don’t you go stirring up no mor—”
There is silence on the other end of the phone. The silence begs for another deposit. The hitchhiker sighs and rubs his temples. The payphone beeps loudly, and the operator’s monotone voice pours through the earpiece. “Please deposit one nickel for five more minutes. You have thirty seconds before I must disconnect the call.”
The hitchhiker has run out of time, and his pockets are empty. He can only hope that there’s enough gas to get him off of Highway 50.
“A moth sees a flame, or multiple flames, through its compound eyes. The image is a kaleidoscope of luminous spots radiating from their brightest point— the corona around a burning candle’s tip. The moth has no choice but to fly toward the light.” – On Soft Wings, Thaddeus Rutkowski
In October of 2019, the Languages and Literature Department of Eastern New Mexico University welcomed fiction writer Thaddeus Rutkowski to Portales, New Mexico as our Visiting Writer. Rutkowski has published both full-length poetry and short story collections. A passionate teacher, Rutkowski guides fellow writers at Sarah Lawrence College’s Writing Institute, Medgar Evers College and the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA. He has also taught at Pace University, the Hudson Valley Writers Center, and the Asian American Writers Workshop. During his visit, Thaddeus Rutkowski took a few minutes to speak with El Portal about his philosophy as a writer.
EP: At what point in your life did you know that you were a writer? How did you come to claim this identity for yourself – were there any obstacles you had to overcome or expectations you had to release in order to be able to call yourself a writer?
TR: I liked to write small pieces when I was a teenager. I was interested in stories, and I would get lost in the world of a book. That world could have been the one I knew, or it could have been a place completely different, someplace fantastic or just odd. Through writing, I could see things as they were, but I could also uncover a layer below what we see.
I would show these pieces to friends, maybe to a teacher. I even submitted a couple of them to mimeographed literary magazines. At least one was published, in purple ink on slick paper. I recently received a comment on Facebook from a high-school friend who remembered a character from one of those pieces—the Likable Creature. The name embarrasses me now.
In college, I read my work aloud in cafes, including a place called the Unmuzzled Ox, which was in the basement of a church in Ithaca, New York. I doubt there were more than a handful of people in the Unmuzzled Ox at any one time. But there was something communal about being there, sharing work, and listening to others. One of the attendees played the dulcimer—it was the first time I’d heard that instrument.
Did this make me a “writer”? I don’t know, but these are things that many poets and writers do, and that I still do. The only obstacle to doing such things is an internal, contrary voice, saying such activities are not important in the practical, commercial world. You can’t listen to that voice.
EP: What advice would you give to writers who struggle with developing/maintaining writing as a daily practice?
TR: Maintaining a daily practice is difficult for anyone, but here are some ways to keep a schedule:
Give yourself deadlines. Tell yourself you’ll write a page (or a paragraph, or a sentence) each day. Extend that deadline as needed—bigger projects take longer.
Put yourself in situations with built-in deadlines. Take a writing workshop. Apply to contests that have deadlines. Submit to journals and magazines.
Go to public readings. Many readings have an open mic. Bring something you’ve been working on, and read it.
Find a quiet place to work. Whether you have “a room of your own” or go to a favorite café, set aside time to do your work. You won’t spend all of your time writing—you might spend much of it gazing—but the down time will help you generate ideas.
Read El Portal‘s full interview with visiting writer Thaddeus Rutkowski – plus two of his new pieces – in the upcoming Spring 20220 Issue.
INFINITE KARMIC LORE from Amazonians Have a Hundred Words for Green
by Gerard Sarnat
Here we are living in bliss on the “D” type exact epicenter of the San Andreas Fault’s apocalyptic Richter earthquake risk. Redwoods almost as ancient as the ancientest dinosaur from the Triassic era nearly a quarter of a billion years ago.
Grandest tallest oldest trees ever, they are just beginning to be threatened by Silicon Valley shiny objects’ air pollution.
When Ronald Reagan was President, my boy transplanted a few dull toy sprigs by the shady west side of our small cabin.
For now their majesty dwarfs this A-frame, though on the east there’s wide-open space past wild oak and Japanese maples.
The next entrepreneurial probable gazillionaire owner of the lawless unfenced no-lawn rustic structure will start upgrading it.
My short squat family lives an easy life in hardscrabble gorge gardens at the bottom of a forest saucer, but gazes up at stars.
Peering toward the not quite yet set sun in parallel blazing orange chez lounges, we babble ourselves into a twilight muddle.
She has been with me forever, is the mother of above son plus both daughters — then became Bubbe to one and still counting.
The two of us, smoked-flirted more than enough, stare over a nook of flowering angelicas before a crook lying on the skyline.
I fall in love with a gloveful of some turquoise fronds looking halfway like such very delicate needles bobbing in the wind.
A pair of red robins, three fluorescent squirrels, quivering Peter cottontail, a five-pointed buck shield the sliver of new moon.
Shimmering flora and fauna trigger timeframes that don’t seem to notice my pale chloroformed glop which nests here a lot.
If ecojustice isn’t much better supported, none of these glories will be around for Spring generations of offspring offshoots
Gerard Sarnat, MD, has authored Homeless Chronicles (2010), Disputes, 17s, Melting The Ice King (2016). Gerry’s recently published by Gargoyle, Oberlin, Brown, Harvard, Stanford, Margie, Main Street Rag, New Delta Review, LA Review, Brooklyn Review, San Francisco Magazine, New York Times. Mount Analogue selected Kaddish for distribution nationwide Inauguration Day. His work appeared in his Harvard reunion Dylan symposium.
We agree that nothing is absolute, not the dark of closets, not clock-faces, not the stink of cooking fat. But we disagree on the exceptions. You place your plastic crucifix on the wall and claim that it represents the ultimate. I prop Wallace Stevens’ Collected Poems against the bassinette to make the baby cry. You prod my undercarriage with the skewer you used for lamb until I objected to cooking the young of innocent animals. I scratch you very slightly with a genuine Thoreau pencil I bought in a rare book shop forty years ago. You respond with the word “Animula.” I reply with “Condensed.” We agree that if we laugh it has to be aloud.
The room sweetens with the breath of your tiny pet turtle. It walked all the way from the Caribbean to live in your terrarium. Soon the immigration police will arrive to arrest us for importing disease from the furthest reach of the galaxy. We will explain that nothing is absolute, not even the furthest reach of the galaxy, and that law enforce peters out beyond the limits of the atmosphere. They will arrest your plastic crucifix for violating the religious clause of the Bill of Rights but allow your turtle to remain with you until a judge hears its case.
William Doreski recently retired after years of teaching at Keene State College in New Hampshire (USA). His most recent book of poetry is The Suburbs of Atlantis (2013). He has published three critical studies, including Robert Lowell’s Shifting Colors. His essays, poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared in various e and print journals and in several collections, most recently A Black River, A Dark Fall (2018)
You feed these birds at night
the way every feather they use
comes from a quarry where the air
darkens with each landing –it’s Tuesday
and you still have not forgotten
their return for seeds, endlessly
weeping for a missing child
a brother, mother though their eyes
are unsure how to close
when listening for a name, a flower
a river –you fill your hand from a bag
as if at the bottom they could hear
an emptiness that is not a night
falling behind step by step on the ground
–how open it was, already grass.
And stubborn yet these wicks
warm the light they need
to blossom as stone
then cling, smell from hair
burning inside, clawing for roots
heated by butterflies
and the afternoons coming together
to the light the fire, be a noon
where there was none before.
Simon Perchik is an attorney, born in 1923, whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, Poetry, The New Yorker and elsewhere. His most recent collection is The Gibson Poems published in 2019. For more information including free e-books and his essay “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.
A former guest poet/mentor turned Artist-in-Residence, Steve Bellin-Oka, shared the following piece with El Portal on November 11, 2016. We always knew he was bound for great things and are deeply honored to say, with a full heart, “we knew him when.”
Still Life with the Plague of Darkness — for my daughter
I woke this morning before dawn
to find the nation’s hearts had hardened.
Something stretched out its hand—a darkness
so thick it felt like gauze.
It seemed it would last for days.
Even the pavement cracks were wider:
more thick weeds forcing up
through the ridged concrete.
Overnight, someone stepped on them
and now we think our backs are broken.
But they’re not—I think of you
in another time zone, just turned thirteen,
the same sun rising from the far end
of the city. We’d wanted a land
less dangerous for you. To find
our questions answered. To wipe layers
away from the cocoon you struggle
to break free of. Forgive us.
But the November branches define
themselves against the slow sunrise.
Brown and red leaves still cling to them.
Inside the house now, I’ve pulled
the curtains back. Already so much
light pours in—nothing can keep it out.
A previous assistant professor at ENMU, Steve Bellin-Oka is the 2019 Poets in Parks artist-in-residence for The National Parks Arts Foundation (NPAF), the Poetry Foundation, the National Parks Service, and the Gettysburg Foundation. He is the author of two chapbooks, The Frankenstein Poems (2014) and Dead Letter Office at North Atlantic Station (forthcoming in 2017). His work has appeared in Cream City Review, Mississippi Review, William and Mary Review and Yalobusha Review, among other journals, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the Hambidge Center for the Arts, and was shortlisted for the Key West Literary Seminar’s Scotti Merrill Memorial Award.