Joanna Fields: The Culling (Excerpt)

October Web Feature by Wolfren Davis

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.

Her full novel, “Joanna Fields: The Culling,” is available for purchase now (Amazon.com: Joanna Fields: The Culling: 9798465603065: Davis, Wolfren: Books).

Joanna Fields: The Culling by Wolfren Davis

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.

ROSIE

September Web Feature by Frank Haberle

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.”

“Back East.”

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.”

“Okay.”

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.

“Sorry.”

“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 what?”

“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.

“Yeah.”

“Ain’t he something?”

“He is.”

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.

After Whiskey & Waiting For Their Arms to Get Tired (Double Feature)

August Web Feature by Jennifer Battisti

After Whiskey by Jennifer Battisti

After whiskey you tell me

you’d like to be a part of my body

and I wonder if my skin has been a hostel for you all this time.

That maybe you were an element worked out of me,

the sliver of graphite under the flesh of my thigh

after I stabbed myself with a number 2 pencil

in the third grade to stop the arithmetic of separateness.

Maybe I was injecting our future—pierced myself

with the blue-gray cold-shock meeting—analgesic for the hard stuff.

The small splatter of blood staining the plastic chair, so that

later your mouth could venom and surface my epidermis

to kiss all the wounds you’d already known. To soften

the sharpened world into shavings of spiraled aphrodisiac.

To love me minimally toxic, with the near-extinct intimacy

of cursive.


Waiting For Their Arms to Get Tired by Jennifer Battisti

The taxi man looks at your tits

while you bend over the hustle of geometry: rolled bill,

square card, the pocket pouch meant for spare buttons.

This ritual of symmetry is your only loyalty.

Strutting the Blvd, you are a bottle of Goldschlager;

fermented flecks of sex float under the marquee.

When you slur your words, your mother calls in sick for you.

You are not a black sheep, you are a black hole.

Sometimes you’re the girl waiting outside an AutoZone.

Under the sign for antifreeze, you feel eternal.

While waiting for the dope man

your bowels twist like a rabid animal.

For a buck, you can confess your sins

to the bathroom attendant. She pities you in Spanish.

One time you were a girl lost in a strange city,

retracing your steps in a Red Bull can on-wheels.

All of the multitudes of you will sleep with each other’s

boyfriends because addiction is a whore in every dimension.

In the morning, power lines play double-dutch in the wind.

Your heart is an abandoned dance floor.

Twin scabs ripen each Achilles where the stiletto

loves the night like a tourniquet.

Your mouth is packed in ice like rotting meat.

When the asphalt burns your feet, you feel what you can’t

remember.

You are a pigeon outside the mini-mart. The man sells

you menthols, sucks his teeth, everyone is a prophet at 6 a.m.

A block from the local detox, there is

a bar named Just One More.

The intake doctor asks you what year it is.

You try to seduce him. You answer every question with your body.

Dead

April Web Feature by Carson Pytell

Dead

My heart breaks for you,

who was so young

when my name was often heard

just outside the library doors,

whose smile was a spotlight

and voice a cotton load lifted but

for that and some weekend laughter

I was sometimes close enough to hear,

the voice I’d never,

as a hand, have made raise

lest for that again

and all the laughter.

You were so young.

I was too young to act

on knowing you have to do more

than just smile back.

The distances between a voice,

dumb ears, something and nothing;

a fissure between you, myself,

steps from those automatic doors.

My heart breaks for you,

just over the water, no earshot,

silent, warm and comfortable in bed, having made another’s.

Boundary Bound

March Web Feature – Ronald L. Grimes

Boundary Bound

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.”

Warning

February Web Feature

Warning

Emily Priddy

“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.

Raging River & Rocks

June Web Features

Photo: Raging River & Rocks
Michael Gardner

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
Not physically
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

 

 

Thaddeus Rutkowski, Fall 2019 Visiting Writer

On Soft Wings

“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.

Fall 2019 Visiting Writer

El Portal and the ENMU Department of Languages and Literature
are delighted to announce our Fall 2019 visiting writer: Thaddeus Rutkowski.

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Join us for a personal reading by Thaddeus Rutkowski
on Tuesday, October 8th at 3:30 pm in ENMU’s Little Theater.

Rutkowski’s novel, Haywire, was a fiction finalist for the Asian American Literary Award, and won the Member’s Choice Award of the Asian American Writers Workshop in New York.

You can read more of Rutkowski’s work on the author’s website – Thaddeus Rutkowski – and on the NY Times Opinionator blog.

Reader: Tyne Sansom

Tyne photo

Tyne Sansom, former editor of El Portal will be reading his work on Monday, October 29th at 2:30p.m. in ENMU’s Art & Anthropology Building room 110.

Tyne Sansom is a graduate student in English creative writing at ENMU. He lives with his family in Portales, NM. He enjoys road cycling on the high plains and is an aspiring cigar aficionado.