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ENMU students, national, and international writers are welcome to submit their original, previously unpublished short stories, plays, poetry and photography.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.
Cody Wilhelm is an English Major attending ENMU. Cody enjoys writing poems in his free time; his pieces attempt to capture universal human experiences and express intense emotional reactions to various interpersonal relationships. Cody is from Lubbock, Texas.
Shattered Stars by Cody Wilhelm
You are a galaxy.
An infinite abyss of wonder
but something broke you,
Swallowed all your planets,
extinguished your comets,
and shattered your stars.
A Black Hole came and didn’t stop
Until it consumed all of your life and stole all of your light.
It took everything until you were full of nothingness.
And you didn’t even see it coming, because Black Holes hide all the light that shows them.
I think your favorite planet, was the one that rained diamonds for days,
In a place where days lasted weeks.
And your favorite Sun was the one
That exploded with the most intense fury
Filling a whole solar system with the color of its fire.
He took your moons
And he took your suns,
Stole a piece of you.
You’ve always wanted to save rough men,
But this one showed such tenderness in his eyes that were pits of black.
You promised you’d never let go
As he drowned in the depths of himself.
But he pulled you into the currents of his hatred,
drowned you out in darkness
That you couldn’t outshine.
No matter how many supernovas you conjured in your vastness,
Richard Wirick is the author of four books that have been translated into more than ten languages. One Hundred Siberian Postcards (2006), short memoir-fiction pieces, was a London Times notable Book for 2007 and nominated for a PEN/Bingham Award for best first work by an American writer. It was followed by another story collection, Kicking In (2010). The novel The Devil’s Water was published in 2014, and a new novel, Sudden Mountain: Chapters From The Ghost Year, is forthcoming in 2022, as well as a third story collection. His collection of essays, Hat of Candles, came out in 2021. He writes for a wide variety of periodicals in the U.S., U.K., and is a senior voting member of the National Book Critics Circle. Originally from the Midwest, he practices law in Los Angeles, where he lives with his family.
Rain in the Heart by Richard Wirick
The cinderblock had fallen from the bridge overpass, plunging through the windshield of the mother’s car, bashing her head so badly her foot left the accelerator and she drifted over into the side lane near the Overland Avenue exit. It would begin to kill her slowly, but looked like it already had—her face a mound of scarlet mush that fell back against the headrest, which dripped with backsplatter, bone fragments, rivers of blood thickening on the elegant leather seat. None of her four kids were with her. No errand items. No dogs or purchases.
She wasn’t an immediate DOA, so an ambulance took her up to Cedars, where Lil’s friend Bev was a nurse in the ER. So much blood soaked through the sheets they kept putting new ones on her. The orderlies had a drill where they could whip the bloody one out as the new sheet floated downward, billowing, curved like a quiet parachute in the cave of sound—screams, shouts, metal clanging—that surrounded all of the beds. It was the plague time. People stayed away from hospitals.
Her husband was travelling and the kids were taken to an aunts. Lil went over for awhile. Their faces were so white and unbelieving that they could not cry. Sometimes they stood in a row and sometimes the row of them placed itself on the couch as the aunt and a cousin brought them glasses of water. Lil wondered who had told them without the father there. There were people at hospitals, social workers, that had such jobs. Death-messengers, like oncologists. Lil wanted to ask Bev how such messages were delivered. But Bev was beside herself in the café now where they talked now. She had just come from the house and had been in the ER when the interns were pumping the mother’s chest.
Bev had seen a lot—small plane crashes, commuter train suicides with heads and hands cut off by rails, explosion burns from chemical labs where the stuff couldn’t be put out and burned the people down to the bone. But Bev had never seen anything this bad, a head wound this severe. The mother had no facial skin intact, and a corner of the block had gouged out an eyeball and flattened her cranium, its centerless squares having left their exact footprint on her forehead and the beginnings of her scalp. They had shaved her head in case there was hope of getting her up into surgery.
But this was the worst, Bev said. She would talk for a minute and then start sobbing, looking down at the bowl of milk that some cereal—was the waitress sleeping?—was supposed to go in. She could hardly look at Lil. But when she did her eyes were so red and puffed that Lil imagined her as the swollen purple head of the woman herself. Bev, a nurse for thirty-five years, told Lil there was motion in the woman’s hand as she held it, tremors that were probably involuntary final twitches, the organism trying to preserve itself, trying to stay for a few more minutes in the world.
Bev put her head in her squared arms planted on the formica. Lil heached out and grabbed her arm, her head. They were close enough friends for Lil to hold her, but it somehow seemed wrong. Lil thought she would scream or faint, and then felt bad that that kind of spectacle would bother her. Bev shook with the sobs, reaching out to take a napkin, to roll them in one hand when Lil passed them to her.
“There was nothing left of her face,” Bev said, muffled, choking, looking up but out the window. It took a long time for her to meet Lil’s eyes. Lil felt helpless, imagining the helplessness of all nurses. How do you keep your head on straight with an assembly line of gunshot wounds, glass shards pulsing from the flesh of car crash victims, severed hands bundled in towels beside the body while nurses ran around looking for a refrigerator key, trying to save the shredded wrist and fingers for the calm, binoculared reattachment surgeons.
“Honey, I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand there and look, and I’m the nurse.” Fuck, she said. Lil tried to support one arm and saw what was left of the washed-off blood on Bev’s skin, faded but with its edges sharp, like the sea-reaching splotches of land on a map.
When Lil asked the waiters for ice in a hand towel Bev waived her away, waived away the manager wondering what was wrong. Her lips trembled as the tears slid off of them, and when she looked at Lil it was like she was looking through a window, looking out a door that led to pastures, meadows of death.
Lil was twenty minutes late to her class. The teaching assistannt looked at her warily, looked down at the nail marks Bev’s fingers had left in the back of her hand.
“I’m not OK. Not OK. I can’t be here today.”
But she had to be. The other teachers and staff were strapped. They needed her. The assistant brought a paper by, knowing what had upset Lil. The headline called the mother’s death another “infrastructure accident.” There were many of them now. Under the banner was a “news analysis” editorial calling for taxes, grants, anything to fix the high, crumbling stone that was falling down everywhere.
Lil pushed the paper aside and looked out on her class of problem kids, an audience of what was now called the developmentally disabled. She saw their constant agitation as a kind of light around their bodies. Gravity was like a cloak, the lightest garment they could slip out of. A silk robe, a kimono. Alison was her cartwheeler, her hand-stander. She spun across the room on her windmill, calloused hands, hair wagging. She taught Tom, and later Dmitri, to stand on their heads, first with supporting hands and then with nothing but their heads, the warm pillows of young hair cupping their skulls with soft certainty. Allison put her classmates into circles, first still and then moving, like ancient Maypole spinners or toddlers playing ring-around. Her twin, Amy, brought in sticks and branches which she bent adeptly into animals.
They, the lot of them, could be aggressive. The girls, oddly much more than the boys. If a hand slipped, if a step in the dance was missed, a girl might slap another, push her so her neck jerked and her hair came out of its morning-Mother arrangement.
Dmitri was among the mollifiers, the calmers. The psychiatrist Jill consulted with told her about Melanie Klein, who had written written of “flips” from violent to peaceful and back again, something children carried from their early agons with their mothers, at once sunlike sources and enemies to be eviscerated. Lil’s kids riffed on this model, holding their companions’ shoulders and minutes later karate-chopping the bottoms of their backs.
Dmitri was the peacemaker, infallibly calling for calm, pulling people apart. This sheriff’s role came to him when he was most quiet and depressed. The same cloud that passed its mist over his face had a kind of pixie dust that stopped the clamor of his fellow spinners and dancers. He had a touch, and in the touch Lil imagined a gift, something almost supernatural, but pouring out of the grittiest earthiness and normalcy.
One girl, in an epileptic fit, threw books around the room like a spinning machine. Dmitri timed the spokes of her hands—lots of these kids, some high intelligent Aspergers with an intuitive physics—and made sure nobody became a target. One boy, two boys tried to drop a globe from the high bookshelf they stood on. They were waiting for vthe right enemy, a certain snide redheaded girl. Dmitri stood below their perch. If you want to hit something, hit me. Drop it and I’ll catch it.
He not only caught it but snagged it on the tips of his fingers, like a basketball player. He bounced it on his palms and watching him, Lil thought of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, Hitler passing a globe around like a basketball.
The Glover sisters were in one of their imaginary cooking fits, funnelling their neurosis into a kind of Formula One baking run-off. They couldn’t have a lighter or be in the kitchen, so all they could do was pull down bowls from the cupboards, whip the butter, load it all up with flower and yeast. Once, in an earthquake, their concoction swayed like the tiny waves of a resevoir. They pushed the pastel china together with air-hockey velocity, but could tell—again from their disorder—to push just hard enough to avoid breaking the bowls. Once they miscalculated, and geysers of unwhipped gunk flew out and spread across the pleats of their dresses.
The boys liked the rough tones of this supposedly gentle gaggle of females. The expected manner of the cooking, too, had a clamor much louder than seemed possible. Doug Grosso loved this, leaning forward as if at a zoo creature behind its glass. Jim Roper, whose class picture revealed a fly on his head, egged them on—‘Go girl. Go bitch’ in a soft tone they couldn’y hear.
Dmitri would laugh, in his gulping, asmatic, but somehow patois-like streams of laughter. He’d tapped out a rhythm on his knees, trying to follow the calve-slapping of Grosso. Lil saw Dmitri as the keel in this showboat, steadying, steadying it as the whole thing started slipping and collapsing. He was good, as was Grosso, with the girls, who were far more crazed than the boys, manic pools of estrogenic explosions. Lil locked up all the knives and scissors, but worried even about the bowl shards, even the girls’ clean, fast-growing nails. She thought of the psych-techs, burly bouncer-types in the Cedars 5150 wards, who of course the school could not afford. The funding gaps were cloying at first, then infuriating. She bought texts out of her paycheck, brought food from home as the girls’ weights were dropping. Boys took pieces of the food gratefully and walked around eating it, their skin shimmering with the white pallor of the hungry.
The acrobats—that’t what she called them—lined up before their stunts—sweet or macabre—like a formless row of sagging shacks. Then each would start to break away, as if in something modernly choreographed. One girl—Lil was terrible with names, a deficit for a teacher—told Lil she felt like she was going to “buth open.” What she would do is simply hold her breath and puff out her cheeks like a blowfish. Her whole body would inflate—her stomach and tiny breasts, and make a metal balloon inflating sound, that kind of tinny, unfolding crinckle. She told Lil she never thought of anything because she was afraid she’d become the thing she was thinking of. After learning a little Darwin in biology, and with Lil spotting bulemia symptoms, the girl would suddenly throw out crazed savant phrases, like “Everything looks for something softer than itself to eat.”
One of the cartwheelers spun through, knocking a ruler and pencil sharpener off Lil’s desk.
An older girl, who looked so much like the Darwin girl they could be twins, had body separation and skin-shift hallucinations, talking about how, at certain times of the day, her head had shifted a little to the left. Or her eyes, her skull, the thoughts coming forward out of it like a tiny circus megaphone. The articulation of this always changed, but it was always a shift, a tilt. Usually to the left.
Disembodiment was a constant mean for these kids. Less of them were the usual fare—like in other homes—of delf-harmers, cutters, skin gougers, water-running scalders. They stood entirely to the side of themselves, so the harming would seem like they were harming somebody else. They felt their lives were being lived by somebody else. They loved the East European torture movies, but that was as far as true slashing and bludgeoning would go. For Lil, as ashamed as she would be to admit it, the lurid movies were bringers of peace, flickering buffers in the dark.
Dmitri never spoke of diisplacement, of distancing, or what the DSM called ‘splintering.’ He could be wildly eccentric, bugging out his eyes, pretzelling his arms. But he had, by Lil’s lights, grown into himself, robustly embraced who he was with all of its warts and flashes of unravelling. He didn’t seem to need the others, which Lil saw as a kind of strength. He was happy in his own company. Most of her kids were hard and incomplete, not having come into their characters, the fullness of their personalities. They were like kits, beginning to fill with the wind of themselves like the puffer girl. But Dmitri filled all of himself, catching hold of some early branch of maturity.
His eyes were smooth, as calm as a windless pond. Their blue, blue sameness made Lil want to believe in God.
When the pandemic came, the school stayed in session. It was in one of the red counties whose governments were skeptical of masking, bureaucrats, federal entities handing out “guidelines” that had so far seemed fruitless.
Her acrobats were there each day, spinning with masks on, standing upside down and pulling the bottom of the cloth off their chins so they could breathe and shout. They brought all of their old selves with them, but with a new sense of both fearfulness and joy. Following the lockdown’s tiny steps filled them with wonder, made them part of adult life, made their lives belong to the world.
When Dmitri wasn’t back by the fourth day she wondered if he’d shown symptoms and his mother had sequestered him. Surely it was something she was controlling, finding the limits of. He had not missed a class in three years.
She felt a hole quivering in the space of the room where he always sat. But he was so silent so much of the time that the empty space couldn’t be silent too. The clatter and laughter of the new-masked spinners filled out the square of his clean emptiness, his chilly Buddha calm. A Buddha stillnes. That was the thing about him. Lil felt she had finally happened on it truest description. She liked the odd assessment. She liked the idea of it.
When Lil called his mother’s cell—everyone’s mobiles were on an 8X by X app—but they went unanswered, even when she tried every three or four hours. Lil called Bev at her nurse’s station and asked if she’d heard from anyone at the house or anyone who knew him. Bev’s voice was cagey. She said that something was going on. She didn’t want to talk about it, felt that she couldn’t. Her clipped snippets took on an old-fashioned, gossipy tone as she hedged and deflected, the kind of guarded jabber she remembered from the days of party lines. This absence of information from an old confidant chilled and irritated her. Toward the end of the call, in a near-whisper that made Lil’s stomach flip, Bev said Lil might want to turn on the TV.
After about an hour and a half Dmitri’s school picture came up on the screen. Lil picked up the remote but it wouldn’t work. She checked the batteries. The area of the school she sat in had such poor reception, its open spaces and athletic wings pocketing voices and then bursting them back. She finally got the sound on, but it was just as his face was fading, still staring out at her with the eyes that had made her breathless so short a time ago.
Dmitri was missing was all she could conclude. She dialled the assistant principal, the school nurse and counsellor, people she had true friendships with. He was missing. Missing. She went back throughherthoughts of him, the long, filmlike row of images. She wondered how far he could get if he’d just left home. Five miles. Twenty-five miles. He had that kind of energy, that sureness of purpose.
* * *
It was Dmitri who had dislodged the piece of concrete from the overpass. Someone had seen him run from the missing square with a steel rod or a crowbar. Those were the allegations. He had been released on his own recognizance, to the mother who never picked up the phone.
Lil went to the wastebasket in the media room and vomited, the surge of it splashing and smearing the ink on the crumpled paper. When her stomach was empty and her head blank—at least for now—she went into her office, thanking God it was study hall so she could keep her door locked. The tears kept falling, in neat, streaming drops down onto her blotter. She pushed her keyboard toward the monitor to keep it dry.
She felt there was nothing left for her now, in her heart or what was left of her head. She took out her Xanax, pear-shaped light peach pills, and downed four of them with a bottle of Fiji water. “It will break you down.” It’s what her father had said about working with kids like this. “It breaks you down.” It was worth it, she thought, the fracturing, the personal crumbling. She was a passenger on their train, setting each one of them down in a cracked plastic but still useable seat. She built on that, that moving forward. She walked now in her thoughts through the sun and shadow of the imagined, racing, voice-filled cars.
Bev would have known Lil had seen this all already. She scrolled through the Beverlys in her contacts, even though she knew her number by heart. They would get someone in to see him. Somebody other than a lawyer.
In a newspaper quiz the day before, she learned that Hitler was known to have loved and treated with special attention his loud pen of shepards. For hours, it was the only thing she could think about. In the next couple of days, as details developed, she could not rid herself of the image—the small man leaning down in his perfectly pressed tan officer’s uniform, taking pieces of meat out of a bowl and placing them, with the utmost gentleness, into each one of the upturned mouths.
Wolfren Davis, graduate of ENMU, was raised in beautiful Colorado amongst the colorful leaves of the abundant aspen trees. Despite all the fresh air and endless skyway, she spent all her time tucked into a dark corner with a good book. Her library teacher was heard saying she was relieved when the girl left for college because, on her last days, she’d read all there was to offer. Now she resides in New Mexico with her beloved French Bulldog who, instead of barking like a normal dog, screeches like a seal suffering from the flu, her two cats whose sole purpose is to not let her sleep, and her amazing domestic partner.
The pounding beat of a song that civilization had forgotten pulsated in my ears, taking me out of this broken down car and into a not-so-distant past. It didn’t even matter that the seat belt had been broken in the locked position and was, therefore, digging into my back or that the car rocked and groaned in a way that would have made a lesser woman seasick.
My trance was broken when a shaking hand lurched forward and twisted the knob on the dash until the radio went mute.
“It’s not going away,” Jeremiah worried, leaning closer to the window to try to get a better view with his video camera. He flinched violently backwards when a pair of rotting hands beat at the passenger window. “And no one else is coming. What if this is it? What if this is what I’m wearing to my funeral?”
“It’s not like they’d have an open casket,” I pointed out. “Though I doubt it’s going to leave enough of a body behind to even find. If our corpse doesn’t walk off first.”
Jeremiah gave a disgusted glare at his stained jeans and tacky, salmon colored t-shirt that featured a faded college logo. “I knew I should have worn my nice button up but nooo. It’s for a special occasion. What’s more special than dying?”
But, as I surveyed our situation a little more closely, I realized that Jeremiah was right. The undead creature was banging, howling, and slobbering away and it hadn’t attracted the slightest bit of attention. I guess that is what we get for sneaking out after sunset.
“Well, I guess you know what that means.”
“We should get into the fetal position and wait for sweet death to take us into her embrace?” Jeremiah pressed the video camera right against the window. “Is it me or are they getting even uglier?”
“We should make even more noise.” Without setting the driver’s seat up, I put my foot onto the car’s horn, prayed it would work, and pressed. A long, splitting honk filled the night.
The undead paused its attack, sniffed the air and looked about to see if something bigger and badder had joined the fight. Seeing that it was still alone, it resumed its attack with vigor.
The car briefly went up on two wheels.
“I’m turning the radio back on,” I warned Jeremiah. “If I die, I want to die deaf and oblivious. Do me a favor and try not to scream too loud.”
“You can’t just bury your head in the sand every time we are about to get eaten, Ostrich-Girl.” Jeremiah turned the video camera to face himself. “You see, kiddies, there are three types of people in the world. There are people like Joanna here. She ignores her problems. Closes her eyes and hopes they’ll just, poof, disappear. Then there are handsome, dashing people like me. We are runners. Not the most heroic sort but, hey, we survive.”
The creature suddenly stopped its attack on the car, leaned back, and listened. With a gleeful rumble, it darted into the darkness.
“Where is it going?” I asked. “Wait, where are you going?!”
Jeremiah kicked the door open. “And, perfect timing, there’s the third type of person in this wacky world of ours. That…” The undead suddenly reappeared, tittering backwards and bucking with each gunshot as buckshot pummeled its rotting body.
“That is an Ari.”
From the abandoned street came a leather-clad woman. Marisol King was barely five feet of bottled rage armed to the teeth with weapons and a desire for mayhem. The third shotgun blast knocked the undead onto its back where it struggled like an overturned turtle.
Ari dropped a foot onto its chest to keep the dying creature down. It swiped weakly, tearing her skin-tight jeans. Honestly, it could have skinned her to the bone, and she wouldn’t have noticed. She just cocked the shotgun, aimed for the head and fired.
“Yes!” Jeremiah laughed, running over to circle the pair to get the best view and providing commentary as he went. “And the crowd goes wild! Ari King, The King of Mayhem. Ari ‘Don’t Need No King’ King. She might be short…”
Ari re-cocked the gun and pulled it on Jeremiah with a flash of teeth.
Jeremiah backtracked, “Not short. Very average. Tall. Really, a freak of nature!”
“Shhhh.” I carefully stepped around the mess of Jell-O-textured blood, skull fragments, and brain matter. “We’ve made enough noise to draw a lot of them,” then a terrible thought occurred to me, “Or my sister.”
Jeremiah yelped when Ari stomped on his foot and swiped the video camera from his grasp.
“No! No, no, no!” Jeremiah bounced around in pain, tentatively trying to retrieve his property. “Don’t delete it. That’s amazing footage!”
“Shhh!” I reminded them again. “This is why I hate sneaking out with you! You just invite danger!” “I can’t have my father seeing this,” Ari explained as she erased Jeremiah’s precious footage. She tossed the now blank camera back.
Jeremiah pouted. “I wouldn’t have posted it without your permission. You didn’t have to be such a bully.”
“You posted a video of you brushing your teeth yesterday,” I pointed out. Seeing his betrayed look, I added. “I’m not taking sides. I’m just saying you post EVERYTHING.”
Jeremiah just scoffed, taking his loss in stride and beginning to videotape the undead’s body. “Well, excuse me. My videos are my only way to connect with the world!”
A crash in the distance made me jump, trying to cower behind Ari. My nearly six-foot frame looking comical behind Ari’s short stature.
“It’s just a stray dog,” Ari said dismissively.
“You sure?” I peered over her head down the deserted streets. I could spot more abandoned cars and store fronts but nothing else. “How can you be sure? Shouldn’t you get your gun ready just in case?”
“As I just said,” Ari roughly nudged me with her elbow, “It’s a stray.” A dog barked in the far distance and Ari flashed a smug grin in my direction.
Rubbing my ribs, I backed away. “Well, we should go. Someone is going to notice that we are gone.” Jeremiah sighed, “Come on, Joanna. You always do this. Relax a little.”
“It’s called being responsible,” I defended. I knew I was the ‘buzzkill’ of our group, but I liked to think I was the only reason that the other two were still alive. If I left them to their own devices, it would be their blood decorating the sidewalk.
“Can we go?”
“Just chill. I have one more store to search and then we can scurry home, okay?” She reached up to pat the side of my ear before heading over to a store with a grungy sign that said PEEP’S KNACKS AND KNICKS.
With no preamble, Ari used the butt of her gun to smash the front window.
I groaned, “She didn’t even check to see if the door was unlocked.”
Jeremiah just shrugged. “It’s Ari, isn’t it? What did you expect?”
While Jeremiah walked around and narrated the tale of how we had nearly been eaten by such a fearsome creature, I kept a sharp eye on our surroundings. We hadn’t seen any undead on our journey here but, as the attack suggested, there was at least one. And, if there is one, others are sure to follow.
Another window smashed. Apparently leaving through the same window she had already broken was too easy for Ari, so she had broken the last remaining one on her way out.
“Find it?” Jeremiah asked, shoving his video camera in her face.
Ari huffed, “No. Did they just burn them all or something?”
“A dictionary?” I stared incredulously at the scowling woman. “Please tell me that I didn’t almost get eaten because you were looking for a dictionary again.” Ari shrugged.
“I’m friends with lunatics.”
Once Jeremiah had gotten his fill of taping and Ari had accepted that this little town’s stores were not going to provide her with the book she needed, they both relented and allowed me to drag them back home.
Home was a mobile convoy that consisted of five semis with mobile homes strapped to the trailer, another seven RVs, and nearly two dozen trucks, ambulances, cars, and motorcycles. As far as mobile camps went, Sanctum was exceptionally large and always on the move.
It had been started by Father Dragger, a young man at the time of the infection some thirty years ago who grabbed some vulnerable transients and created our little slice of paradise. Over the years, people had come and gone, given birth and died, until Sanctum was fifty people strong.
Even after all this time, Father Dragger still liked to gather those down on their luck. If he found a family struggling, a loner limping along, or, better yet, an orphaned child, he was sure to scoop them up with a warm smile and a promise of a better life.
Sanctum was currently parked outside a small town in New Mexico called Porthall. It seemed to be built around VVCU, a small college which was completely overrun with stray animals and purple flowering weeds. Which, considering how strongly and randomly the wind liked to blow, I was surprised that anything that wasn’t bolted to the ground hadn’t just flown away.
The convoy had circled itself on top of the fake grass of the football field during its short stay here. The night Enforcers were keeping guard in the Announcer’s Booth, high above the arena, and I could see a few couples milling around in the safety of the stadium lights.
“We need a distraction,” I surmised, trying to piece together a plan to sneak back in without the pair in the Announcer’s Booth catching on. “Ari, if you throw a rock at Jamerson’s truck then…wait, where are you two going?!”
“It’s Davis and Rodrick on look out,” Jeremiah pointed out. “It’d be harder to sneak by a blind…” “And deaf,” Ari added cruelly.
“And deaf, old, paraplegic,” Jeremiah finished with a chuckle.
Sure enough, Davis and Rodrick weren’t even acing the convoy but each other. They were obviously too far away to make out what they were saying but a lot of wild hand gestures were being made to emphasize points. I didn’t know how Sanctum had not perished with those two as Enforcers but, if there was a time to get up to shenanigans, it was when they were at the helm.
Even from a long distance away, I tried to catch a glimpse of Davis. It’d been ten long years and I still felt like that eight-year-old peeking around cars to see the new boy without being caught. Would I ever grow out of that? I was almost eighteen and it sure didn’t look that way.
I thought we were in the clear. Jeremiah had already split off to head towards his family’s RV while mumbling about edits and soundbites while Ari and I headed towards the semi-trailer that held the mobile home that we shared with her father.
It had been about three years ago when Ari had started seeking her own space and, instead of sharing a small room with me, she’d taken to sleeping in the seats of the parked semi at night. It didn’t look comfortable, but I wouldn’t complain about having my own room.
“You cool?” Ari questioned as we reached the semi-trailer.
“Would it matter if I wasn’t?”
“Not really.” Ari gave a wide grin. “But you don’t have to worry so much all the time. I got you.” “Pulchritudinous.”
We both froze as my sister’s voice rang through the otherwise silent night. From behind the trailer, the Enforcer strode. As always, my sister was immaculate, not a strand of gold hair out of place, a wrinkle in her clothes, nor a fleeting emotion to break her stony persona.
The first time Jeremiah met Olwen, he had gone as far as to poke her shoulder and marvel “how life like she was”. I still haven’t managed to convince him that Olwen wasn’t a robot. Just lacked, well, any sort of personality.
Olwen’s amber eyes swept over the both of us before landing back on Ari. “Pulchritudinous.” My pathetic crush on Davis was not the only thing that hadn’t changed in the last ten years. Olwen had used that time to stage a long assault on Ari and, by the way she’d started appearing with more and more words as of late, she was determined to drive Ari crazy before the short girl turned eighteen.
Ari gritted her teeth, a low, grinding noise. “Stupid Head.”
“Your vocabulary astounds me,” Olwen droned, her demeanor unchanging even as the insult lit a fire in Ari’s eyes that promised harm. “Did you learn that word on the back of a cereal box?”
“Can you two stop it and help me up?” I struggled to climb onto the back of the semi-trailer. Everyone else made it look so easy but, no matter how often I tried, I always looked like a newborn deer on black ice.
“Two? She insulted me first!” Ari snapped but came over and shoved me the rest of the way up.
Olwen didn’t even blink, just studied the two of us closely.
“What is on your shoes, Joanna?”
I glanced down. Despite being careful, I still had managed to get a smear of black/red blood on the white of my converse. I hastily scraped my shoes against the trailer. Olwen watched.
“That wouldn’t be undead blood, would it?” Olwen didn’t wait for an answer. “Because that would mean you snuck out again. But you wouldn’t have done that after you promised Ari’s father that you’d outgrown that type of nonsense, would you?”
I just squeaked but Ari, a much more practiced liar, intervened. “Of course, we didn’t sneak out. Even if we wanted to, we wouldn’t have been able to sneak past Davis and Rodrick.” Ari leaned against the trailer with a sly smirk. “No one can sneak past them. Very bright. And alert. I tried sneaking into your oh-so private trailer, and they totally stopped me. I definitely did not get a chance to hide a snake in your bed. That’s how alert they are.”
Olwen was clearly not convinced. It did not help that, while Olwen mulled over a smartass response, one of the Enforcers in the Announcer’s Booth leaned against the controls and a booming voice echoed through the stadium. “And then I was like BOOM! You should have seen this thing drop. It was insane.”
Olwen rubbed her temple. “Excuse me.” She turned to Ari. “Pulchritudinous.” Then she strode away, heading towards the Announcer’s Booth to ream her subordinates. Ari spluttered. “Moron!”
I grinned. “We really need to find you that dictionary.”
“Oh, shut up.” Ari spat. “Just go to bed. Tell my pop that…”
The front door of the mobile home opened, and Father Dragger gave an unimpressed clearing of his throat. Ari had gotten her height from her father but, despite his small stature, he had a big personality and an affinity for an unusual dress of a bolo-tie with socks and sandals. Now, though, he was wearing blue flannel pajamas.
“Now, girls. It’s late and the good people of Sanctum are preparing for a long journey in the morning. Joanna, come in and prepare yourself. Will you be joining us, Ari?”
Ari just pointed to the cab of the semi and waved over her shoulder as she headed away.
Father Dragger just shook his head with an exasperated sigh. “What shall we do with our girl, Joanna?” Luckily, Father Dragger didn’t see the stain on my shoe and let me slip to my room without an inquisition.
Frank Haberle’s novel-in-stories, Shufflers, about minimum wage transients during the Reagan era, is now available from Flexible Press (https://www.flexiblepub.com/shufflers). His short stories have been featured in many journals including Rosie, featured here, in El Portal in 2015. Frank’s stories won awards from Pen Parentis (2011), Beautiful Loser Magazine (2017) the Sustainable Arts Foundation (2013) and the Rose Warner Prize for Fiction (2021). Frank is a volunteer workshop leader for the NY Writers Coalition. He lives in Brooklyn and works in The Bronx. More about Frank’s writing can be found on his website www.frankhaberle.com
ROSIE by Frank Haberle
From the back of the truck, Danny watches the first shafts of sunlight paint the side of the mountain in brilliant orange. The beam spreads above him, picking up floating ice crystals that swarm around the trees. The snow lights up, then turns to black water and dribbles down the slopes in big black stains. This is so beautiful, Danny thinks. This place is so beautiful. If only—
Bang! The truck hits a rut on the hard dirt road. Danny bounces up, then down on the toolbox. Kenny pulls the little cab window open and grins at him. A plume of cigarette smoke puffs out the window. “You still holding them propane tanks?” he asks.
“Yes,” Danny says. He is holding in his frozen hands a steel cable that loops through the eyeholes of a dozen propane tanks, leashed to the truck’s side rail. They are tight and cut into his palms, but he can’t let go. He’s been told what happens if he lets them go. “Fireworks,” the boss once told him. “Happened to the last rental,” he said, holding his hands up and giggling under his bushy moustache. “Look ma, no hands!”
Kenny drives straight into town and pulls the truck up in front of the McDonald’s. He climbs out of the cab and slams the door shut. “Come on.” He waves an unnaturally long arm at Danny. Danny follows him through the glass door to the counter. “Boss says I should buy you breakfast.”
Danny sits down across from Kenny. Two stacks of pancakes in Styrofoam containers sit on plastic trays between them. “Boss wants me to talk to you about not being a rental no more,” he says. A knot of homesickness clutches Danny’s throat. He can’t swallow his pancakes. He pushes the tray away. “He just wants me to ask is all. It’s a good job once you go permanent.” Kenny finishes his pancakes and sticks a plastic fork into Danny’s. “Once I went permanent, they started paying me for all the overtime and all that. And nobody treats you like a rental no more.”
“Thanks,” Danny says.
“All Boss wants you to do is think about it is all,” Kenny says. Somehow he stuffs the pancakes into his mouth while still smoking. “Let him know by tomorrow. Today he told me to bring you and the propane and them tools over to site four. They screwed up so bad they need a rental to come clean it all up.”
The big truck turns out onto the flat paved road that runs through downtown Bend, then spills out on the road toward the river. Through the trees, Danny can see the neat little cluster of houses and stores around the old mill. He can barely make out smoke rising from chimneys, steam rising from a plant, and the roof of a diner. All he can think of now is that tray of pancakes they left there. He misses them. He is sad he didn’t eat them.
Kenny pulls the truck in front of a two-story shell of a building in the woods. Through the woods next door, cars inch slowly through a drive-through window. Danny can’t make out if it’s a Wendy’s or a Burger King.
Kenny sticks his head back out the window. “Well, we’re here, I guess. Get your ass off the truck. Check in with a guy they call Rosie. Jest pull off four of them tanks. And don’t lose them tools.”
Danny enters a cinderblock fortress. A half-dozen workers with burnt faces and shaggy blond beards drop long steel bars onto a cement surface. They glare at Danny, then go back for another bar.
“You know where I can find Rosie?” Danny asks one.
“Nope,” this one says, putting his large hands on his hips.
“Can you point me in his general direction?”
“I can,” he says. “But let me ask you something first. Where you from?”
“Site seven,” Danny says, nodding back toward the big truck. “From the site seven worksite. They told me to find Rosie.”
“No, I mean, where you from.”
The man turns and spits on the bar he just dropped.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “We heard all about you.”
“Up here!” A voice comes from somewhere high up in the building’s half-constructed skeleton, but Danny can’t see anyone up there. “You come on up here! Don’t pay them no mind.”
A new bar clangs down. “Who’s that?” another one asks.
“Shuffler,” the spitter says. “They sent him over here from seven to do some poop work.”
He spits again.
“Course, now we don’t need us no poop worker. We got us here a shuffler.”
“Up here now,” the voice from above comes again. “Get on up here.”
Danny looks up again at the roofless turret of the castle. Scaffolding made of planks and rope weaves through the top ledges. The sun has just started to bleed through the trees, blinding him. He sees the silhouette of a small man above him, waving a large forearm. “I guess you’re looking for me,” the voice says. “You must be that shuffler they sent. Get on up. There’s a ladder out back. Grab that toolbox. Get on up here.”
Danny climbs over a pile of half-shattered crates and broken cement blocks, through the frame of what might someday become a back door. Danny ascends the ladder with one arm, moving the heavy toolbox up against his stomach. He climbs over the ledge and lands softly on the wet wood of the scaffolding, which creaks under his weight.
“Y’ever see anything so screwed up in your whole life?” the voice asks.
Danny turns around, and Rosie is standing in front of him. His face is very difficult to look at. One eye is clear blue and stares right at him, and one has no pigment at all and stares down and away. There’s a nose that’s been broken so many times that Danny can’t really tell where nose starts and forehead ends. The whole right side of Rosie’s face drifts away from him. He’s short but wide; two twisted arms dangle loosely out of a sleeveless Rebel Yell sweatshirt.
“Yeah, like I was saying,” Rosie continues. “Some screw-butt contractor said we do it his way or whatever and git it done before the first snowfall, and guess the hell what else is new. So what’s it do? It snows. And it all just fell out, the first frost, it just frigging cracked out, man. Set us back three weeks easy. We’re screwed, man. We screwed this job up good.”
Danny pulls his gloves on; they have grown stiff and cold in his pocket. “What do you need me to do?”
“I don’t care what the hell you do,” Rosie says, still staring at his ruins. “I ain’t the boss man.” Rosie turns to walk back to a corner where he dug a hole between two steel beams. Then he marches straight back to Danny, almost bumping up next to him. “But I guess if I was the boss man, I’d want you to take that sledgehammer over there and start breaking up the rest of that crap wall so we can reset it all over again. I’d probably want this whole job dug out and redone and set before it freezes out again.”
Danny’s arms and legs ache with hunger. He picks up the sledgehammer. It’s heavy, and it hurts his hands still cracked and sore from yesterday, when he dug a foundation trench out at site seven. Rosie starts digging through the toolbox. Danny starts swinging. The cracking concrete feels good. It drops in little triangles onto the scaffold boards. He peeks down at the floor below; he can still hear the clang of the rebar men working, but he can’t see them. He follows the lines where they interlaced the bars together.
“You ain’t gonna get nowhere, just tapping at it like that,” Rosie says.
“Don’t have to apologize to me none,” he says, still pulling out tools. “Like I said, I ain’t the boss.”
Rosie screams out something like a whoop. It is so loud that Danny loses his grip on the sledgehammer. He traps it with his leg before it plummets off the scaffolding. He turns back to Rosie. He guesses Rosie must have hurt himself, but he is staring out over the precipice.
“Oh, baby,” Rosie says. “Oh, baby. Will you look at that. Oh, baby, baby. Will you look.”
“Look at what?” Danny asks. He peers over the edge. He can see the fast-food restaurant. There’s a woman pulling the door open. She’s wearing a green pants suit, like a flight attendant or a rental car agent. Her hair is tied up in an off-green scarf that matches her suit.
“Will you look at that,” Rosie says. “Hmmm, hmmm. Oh, baby.”
Danny picks up the sledgehammer and swings it fiercely. A square foot of the wall becomes sand; it slides down the wall of the building.
“Let me ask you something,” Rosie says behind him. He waits for Danny to turn around. Danny takes off his work gloves, pretending to adjust them, so he doesn’t have to look at Rosie. Then Rosie comes right up into Danny’s face again.
“You got yourself a woman?”
“A woman! You got yourself a woman?”
“Yeah,” Danny says, “I guess.”
Danny starts to pick up the hammer again when Rosie makes a gesture for him to stop.
“I got me the best woman in the world,” he says. “But she’s in the big house right now.” Rosie pulls a wad of something wet out of his sweatshirt pocket and stuffs it in the sagging side of his mouth. “It’s all account of me she’s in there too.
“Thing is, we were climbing out the back window of this here liquor store, and we set the alarm off, and the cops came in the front door. And you know what she said? She said, ‘You run, Rosie.’ And I said, ‘No, sir,’ right to her face I said it. ‘No woman of mine’s gonna take one for me.’ And she said, ‘You run, mister! You got a prior!’ And she turned and shot one over their heads. That was enough for me, and I ran like hell. I just ran and ran, and when I turned around, she weren’t there. She got eight years, and she’s still up there, and she never once told nobody I was with her. Not once. I ended up in there later for something else, but I only got two years. Now I go up there and visit her sometimes ’cause she was so loyal and all that.”
Rosie is still staring out at the fast-food restaurant. He spits a string of brown tobacco juice out onto the snow.
“Even though I pretty much got women anytime I want now.”
Danny picks up the sledgehammer and swings it with such force that the whole wall collapses in a cloud of powder; when the dust clears, Rosie’s still there.
“Now let me ask you something,” he asks Danny. “You got a woman that would do something like that for you?”
Danny doesn’t get to answer. The workers on the floor are screaming up at him; he has to go down and clean the rubble and plaster he’s just poured down into their new foundation.
By the time Danny is done, Kenny’s come back to get him. When Danny climbs down the ladder, Kenny stands there staring at him, his arms hanging at his sides, surrounded by the other workers.
“Looks like he pretty much screwed this job up worse,” one says to Kenny.
“Stay away from them sledgehammers,” one of them yells to Danny when he climbs into the back of the truck.
Kenny drives Danny back to the center of town.
“So you got to meet Rosie,” he yells above the wind howling all around Danny.
“Ain’t he something?”
Kenny pauses to light a cigarette.
“He tell you he used to be the boss man?”
“No,” Danny yells back. “He didn’t tell me that.”
“Yeah, he used to be the boss,” Kenny says. “Then he got all messed up, did some time. When he got out, the company still hired him back. Only he can’t be a boss no more. For all the obvious reasons, I guess. But it goes to show you. This company takes care of its own,” Kenny says. “When I heard that story, I signed right up.”
The big truck pulls over on the town’s main street, just across from the McDonald’s.
“See you in the morning,” Kenny yells. “You go right in and talk to Boss.”
Kenny pulls the little cab window shut. Danny climbs off the back of the truck, which roars off out of town, its tire chains ringing on the pavement. The sky goes dark, and it starts to snow again; big white gobs float down like feathers. Danny stands for a second, not sure where to turn; then he can’t help himself. He stares in through the plate-glass window of the McDonald’s, now closed. He looks at the table he sat at, where the pancakes once steamed in their Styrofoam tray. He has some hope that they are still there. But the table was wiped clean many hours ago.
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.