High Desert Journal witn ess to th e west
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issue 14 high desert journal
The Gap-tooth Girl The gap-tooth girl is dancing, and the man in Wranglers holds his arms around her like a loose hoop of rope, a snare for her tight two-step. The band will never play better than this town limits, and still it’s sweeter than the sounds the country makes, gumbo mud, trains coupling, a wild Chinook, a place laced with ice and barb-wire singing. Her hips have land in them, are good enough for dancing but in those jeans look ready made to sit a horse all day; she wears the weather in her hair. How easily the bar-light shames our faces sallow and city-broke, but she blooms like some wild prairie weed. Men bled sod and themselves for whatever it is glowing in her and never found it, dug in worn boot-heels until their bodies gave out in this place where nothing rots but bones and barns dry up and blow or burn away. This whiskey is a myth and why I’m here. We are those men. A woman with cat’s eyes turns and turns before the dark pedal-steel player like a fence-caught feather in a gale. The night wheels. The gap-tooth girl is dancing all alone, the tin band moans, the wind outside is making blizzard songs, and the West shakes off this game of lost or won.
– m el issa m y l ch r eest
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Judged by Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Paulann Petersen, and chosen from over 500 poems submitted “The Gap-Tooth Girl” by Melissa Mylchreest is High Desert Journal’s winner of the $1,000 2011 Obsidian Prize in Poetry. To read the “back story” of the creation of “The Gap-Tooth Girl,” judge’s comments about the poem and the other finalists’ poems go to www.highdesertjournal.com. The deadline for 2012 Obsidian Prize in Nonfiction to be judged by William Kittredge is March 1. For full submission details see our ad on page 49.
by w i l l i a m k i t t r ed ge
Ve rnon, th e spri ng h e was fou r, bare foot i n button-up blue pajamas, developed a love of leaving his grandfatherâ€™s rockwork house in early sunlight and making his way through the cookhouse garden to the fringes of the apple orchard planted by his great-grandparents, among the first settlers in the Pelican Lake basin. He stood transfixed by undulating flights of water birds lifting from swampy meadows and from the reeds along the mysterious Lost River, so named because its single sodbanked channel, off downstream toward Pelican Lake, threaded out and its waters vanished into marshes, only to reappear as seepage into the shallow lake itself. Mallard drakes and dun-colored hens, canvasbacks and blue and green winged teal and redheads and the snow geese and Canada honkers and Sandhill cranes and pelicans, avocet and phalarope, snipe and tiny wandering Excerpted from William Kittredgeâ€™s novel in progress, Everything We Wanted high desert journal
oceanic birds, all swept along in acrobatic flocks. Wings sighed, great birds clamored incessantly as they circled off toward nesting grounds beyond boreal forests in Canada, to distant tundra and Alaskan rivermouth estuaries. “They can’t keep still,” Vernon’s redheaded mother said. “It’s not a sin. It’s their beauty.” Those words, for that little boy, were unforgettable. Nellie, “a highheaded wonder” according to his father, stood with Vernon in her violet silk nightdress. He hugged her hips and she rubbed at his head while glancing back toward the house, to see if anyone, her husband, or Vernon’s grandfather, Virgil, might be watching. “Women,” she said, “if they want it, should be admired and watched. Like birds. Everybody knows that.” Soon the lilac would blossom. Nellie also told Vernon that he was saving her life. “Without you I could be stone cold crazy.” In those childhood days they were living up a narrow stairway in Virgil’s isolated River Ranch mansion, built of black volcanic stone by Vernon’s great grandfather. They lived above the kitchen in tiny bedrooms designed for cooks and maids. “Can’t think I stood it so long,” Nellie would say years later, affecting a dumbfounded gaze. “I was a nursing cat in that cage. It was reptilian.” She pronounced each syllable. “Dutch got us out of there.”
Ch ew i n g a w o o d e n m at c h that tasted of sulfur, Virgil Wasson, the grandfather, swung a heavily framed bedroom window open to morning. Holding his left hand silhouetted against the sunrise glare coming off the distant ice fields on Mount Shasta, Virgil studied for signs of tremor; 55 years and holding steady. It was the 10th of May and the gnarled cottonwood along the banks of the Lost River and the Lombardy poplar were broken into new green leaf. Virgil flicked the matchstick away, found his pinch bottle of Haig and Haig and downed a swallow straight from the neck and then another. This was an every-morning ritual. “Look at you.” Dottie Mallory, the elegant grandmother, dark eyed in her bluish velvet nightdress, had come through from her own bedroom. Virgil held out the bottle of Scotch. “Looking for a shot?” “That’s not it.” Virgil wondered if there was time for this. “You might get,” he said, “what you want.” She swept up the skirts of her nightdress and fell back onto the rumpled sheets of his canopied bed, her body pale and softening in the middle of life, knees upraised, faintly smiling as she whispered. “Anything.” They had all the time in the world. Virgil wasn’t due down in the cookhouse for a half hour. Soon enough he’d be riding out with his horseback crew trailing after.
A blu e - e n a m e l e d t i n c u p of coffee in hand, anticipating crisp bacon and over-easy eggs, Virgil stood outside the screen door into the cookhouse kitchen, watching his saddle horses drum along on the hard summer sod of the Modoc Field, driven to a morning gallop by a wrango boy. Fine geldings, the herd constituted Virgil’s caviata, Morgan and Standard Bred cross, 63 of them, more horses than anybody needed. How many was up to him. He could name them as they wheeled between the fire-hardened juniper gateposts and into the round willow-walled corral—Snip and Brewster, Lever and Buckets and Fandango, all of them, as dust spiraled counter-clockwise into a morning where water birds were flying and calling. 10
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Virgil’s second son, the sarcastic Bobby, 27 years of age and his father’s primary vaquero, a gleaming steel brace strapped down his withered left leg and under the sole of his snake-hide boot, was forming the first loop of the morning in a light-weight rawhide riata. “Got an idea?” “Rocking Chair,” Virgil said. This was a traveling day, and Rocking Chair was an easy-riding traveling horse. A long-boned bay, Rocking Chair circled in the herd under the spiral of dust. Bobby flipped the loop and Rocking Chair stood ensnared. One loop: it was a matter of pride with Bobby. Virgil eased in carrying a hackamore woven of rawhide and led Rocking Chair to a bait of grain by the saddle shed. The next morning, Virgil would be up on one of his quick little roping horses, Brazo or Kit Kat. They would head out into the juniper hills to the east and a branding fire on the open range. Ropers would drag calves to the fire. Cowhand days were much the same except for shimmering summer heat and dust and thin winter snow on slick frozen ground. Of two empty plates at the breakfast table, one belonged to Vance DeLoria, a long-time Great Basin buckaroo who three days ago had drifted off to Klamath Falls claiming toothache. Vance was no doubt drunk in one of those houses with women and quiet with the knowledge that he was fired and free to gather his bedroll and saddle and hit the road when done with his sporting. These things happened with Vance, who was as calm and good as a man got with horses until he was overcome by his old urge for Ancient Age and women. Vance would go down and find work in Nevada. He’d be back in a year or so. Virgil would shake his hand and hire him with no hard feelings. Anybody but a fool would employ Vance DeLoria. But Virgil was at ease with such men and their careless freedoms and excellences, their comings and goings. But Dutch: where was his elder son? Before the babies, before Dutch found Nellie, he’d go off down a whiskey road on occasion. No more, Dutch ran work in the fields, in charge of fencing, haying crews, cooks and their cookhouse vegetable plots, irrigating and mowing and stacking 4,000 tons of loose meadow hay. Dutch was boss on Virgil’s fee simple property and Bobby was cow boss. Virgil owned the land and cattle. He was everybody’s boss. That was how things were divided. Dutch’s ranch hands and eight of Bobby’s buckaroos silently passed platters and bowls, pounded round steak and fried eggs, boiled spuds and milk gravy. Bobby sat in a Captain’s chair at the far end of the table. Dutch should have been in his own Captain’s chair, alongside Virgil, at the head end. “Papa,” Bobby said in the ironic voice he cultivated. “Where’s your boy?” “He’s married. He has children. He’ll be along.” “Shit,” Bobby said, grinning up and down the table. “We should all be married. All you’d ever want. Pussy and late for breakfast.” Virgil eyed his plate. A horse breaker laughed. “You fuckers.” No one responded. The horse breaker rode the rough string and was not worried about his job. Young hard-handed fellows like him, who got to name the horses they broke, could drift down to Winnemucca or Elko and find another job in a day or so. Virgil smiled. “I wouldn’t mind a couple more of those eggs.” He turned back to Bobby. “Anyway, here comes Dutch.” “Nellie sleeping on your shirttail?” That was Bobby, when Dutch got to the table.
A year late r, on a gol de n autumn afternoon Dottie and Virgil drove to Klamath Falls so Dottie could shop and lunch with her ladies and Virgil could sit at pinochle with his ranchland cohorts. Dutch and Nellie had the rock house to themselves and she was putting a special dinner together, wine and new red candles and French recipes. Vernon, now five, found Dutch at the oval oak dining room table
but dutch: where was his elder son? before the babies,
before Dutch found Nellie, he’d go off down a whiskey road on occasion. No more, Dutch ran work in the fields, in charge of fencing, haying crews, cooks and their cookhouse vegetable plots, irrigating and mowing and stacking 4,000 tons of loose meadow hay.
Dottie kept so immaculately polished. Dutch was propped back on two legs in the chair where Virgil always sat, Dutch with his boots up on the table. A .30-30 with the bluing worn off rested across his lap, the walnut stock cracked and wrapped with brass wire that gleamed in the last sunlight. It had been stacked alongside the shotguns and rifles, a light .410 shotgun for quail and heavier 10 and 12 gauges for ducks and geese and two .30-06 rifles for deer hunting with scope sights, the family collection leaning in a corner of the dining room. “Décor,” Dottie had said. “A statement. We’re the kind of people who have weaponry in the dining room.” Dutch gestured toward Vernon with the rifle barrel. “Little man,” he said. “Plug your ears.” The .30-30 roared in the room, glass shattered and out in the orchard a doe feeding on the rotting apples fallen from twisted ancient trees dropped, inert as killed creatures are when they fall. Splintering glass rebounded from the screen over the window, into blue-flowered plates on the table, glass glittering in a heavy white bowl slopped full of dark green spinach. Nellie screamed in the kitchen. Dutch ejected his cartridge, the casing clattering to the floor. He took Vernon by the hand and led him to the doe in the orchard. After whetting his pocketknife, then the slicing of the jugular, Dutch held Vernon’s hand into the hot steaming wash of blood. The entry wound was tiny in that narrow ruined head. The exit was exploded, a seeping cavity inside sharp splintered bone. After Dutch went off for a rope, cheesecloth, a hatchet and a wheelbarrow, Vernon explored with his fingers. “Don’t ever shoot yourself,” Dutch said when he came back. “Unless that’s what you want. Keep that idea in your head.” Whistling softly, Dutch hung the carcass from an apple tree. In dimness of a childhood bedroom, Vernon would recall the red liver glowing like a slick massive creature that had kept its life, and coils of glistening intestines steaming and looping around Dutch’s hands as they slithered from the rib-cage of that strung-up doe after he was done skinning her, before he split the backbone with the
hatchet. Dutch wrapped the quarters in cheesecloth, loaded them into the wheelbarrow and wheeled them to hang and cool in the woodshed. In the house with Nellie and the younger children, Max and Ruth Ann, nowhere in sight, Dutch washed up in the kitchen sink and, after scrubbing the drying flecks of blood from Vernon’s fingernails, poured himself two inches of Scotch, dipped a finger into the glass and deposited a burning drop on Vernon’s tongue. That drop lingered in Vernon’s memory. Nellie had cleaned up the mess. She silently reappeared and fed them on leftover ham and beans. Then, far in the night, she pulled Vernon from sleep. She was frantic as she dragged him down the narrow stairs behind Max and Ruth Ann. A rifle shot echoed from outside as she herded them into the steel-walled firebox in a downstairs stonework fireplace. “We’ll just wait,” she whispered. Dutch was out in the darkness, firing through windows at lighted bulbs in the high ceilings, bullets puffing into ornately painted plaster, white dust floating down onto the Italianate tile flooring. When he came inside, Dutch was trembling, sweaty and grinning, like he’d just discovered a nest with fantastic tiny animals crouched in that sooty firebox. Nellie stood and faced him, wiping her smudged hands on her white nightdress and radiating tentativeness like she might be approaching a rabid creature. “You love me,” she said, letting each word fall. Vernon would wonder what their first promises had been and which had stayed true and how she could know it was some abstract thing like love that Dutch wouldn’t give up on as she reached out with the hem of her nightdress to wipe at his sweat. “Now stop,” she said, and Dutch slapped at the air with his rough hand, as if trying to reject the language that had stopped him so securely, and then he ejected a final cartridge to clatter on the floor, as if in disgust with what had happened and his failure to do whatever it was he intended. Nellie touched at Dutch’s cheek. “Don’t go at us. You start in on me or these children and you’ve given it all away. I’ll put the babies back to bed.” The next morning, a vastly silent Dutch measured the window frames and drove to Pelican Lake and had panes of glass cut and puttied them into the frames and patched the holes in the screens, weaving wire to fine wire. Both he and Nellie seemed intent on covering up evidence. To no avail. Virgil and Dottie came home, and Virgil was a grim customer. “Sheriff called me in Klamath,” Virgil said, stepping in close to Dutch. “Said he heard there was shooting out at the ranch. Wanted to know if anything was gone bad.” “Dutch can go around with a crazy man inside him, that’s what I told him. I said that crazy man got loose and went shooting. The sheriff laughed and said you boys, you got your crazy men.” Virgil stepped back. “You got Nellie covering your mess like a slave. What’s the matter with you?” “Crazy man,” Dutch said. “You got it right, crazy man.” That round of shooting constituted “the final trick” for Virgil. Not long after, Dutch moved the family to a second floor apartment in Pelican Lake, a tree-shaded federally developed farm town serving the Pelican Lake Drainage and Reclamation District. “See where you got us,” Nellie said, ironic but vastly pleased to be out of Virgil’s stone house. Vernon filed that memory of Dutch’s rampage under untouchable. Nellie brought it open again. Vernon confessed he was unable to trust any woman but her. She told him that men and women, adults and children, everybody, had stories kept secret. “Dutch’s family, your family,” she said, “learned isolation. They live like it was the dark ages. They built castles on hilltops and defend them like animals. It’s no way to be. After that night, I wasn’t going on with a crazy man. I was going to take you kids to Santa Barbara. I told him so. Dutch let me inside. We spilled our secrets. We still do, in bed. We don’t go nuts.” “What kind of animals?” Vernon said. “Prehistoric?” “This isn’t school,” she said. “Give up playing cute. Kill your own spooks. You can’t get it done with jokes.” < hdj > high desert journal
by c h a r l es bow den
KILLING GROUND A storm broods on th e mesa in the trough of a Sunday afternoon. The street runs black and silent since the repaving a week ago took away the rumbles. He sits on the brown leather couch and is about to explode. He was in the jailhouse visiting a client and then he came down the elevator and somehow in the lobby he ran into a guy. And then it happens. But it is not that simple. The guy heâ€™d gone to see was a gang member nailed by immigration and waiting for his deportation. His girlfriend was wrapping up a degree in criminology and wanted to keep her guy on this side of the fence. The lawyer listened and said heâ€™d see what he could do. His practice was preparing people for a slow death. Immigration courts are a backwater of the federal justice system, a place where a low hum buzzes in the heads of the barely awake judges, political hacks put out to pasture
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where they can’t pester citizens and resort to using their small knives on foreigners. The voices are low in such courtrooms, the cases done by rote, husbands trying to reunite with wives, wives with husbands, dates are whispered out – always far in the future, and the hope is everyone will go away and leave the court alone The clerk is fat, the judge 50-something and finished with the ambitions of life. The walls are paneling, lights fluorescent and the petitioners sit in rows numbed by the slow movement through the docket. Out the windows, the sun shines on a world that hardly knows of such a room. The clerk reads the case title. The judge scans his schedule, tosses out some distant date. The petitioner and counsel mumble their agreement. The mill produces fees, salaries and gestures by petitioners. Drama is strangled by the calm and order of the court. The air conditioner is the loudest sound of justice. Inside the court it is always winter, that cool death of feeling that ignores the movement of seasons outside the walls. So he is leaving the jailhouse after half listening to a client when this guy comes out of the elevator and says, “Hey, you’re a lawyer right?” The lawyer stops, sees a Mexican guy in his late 20s weighed down with tattoos. He’s in a hurry, that’s how lawyers pay their bills, by being in a hurry. He reaches in his pocket and hands the guy a card. And moves on. The next day, Saturday, the guy shows up. Turns out he’s been there before – the lawyer’s secretary remembers him. “Yeah,” she says, “he left when I said a consultation was a $150. He said, ‘hey, I thought it was $50’ and I said yeah, like years ago.” Now he’s back. The lawyer is busy, packed in an office for 45 minutes with other clients. The guy waits, sprawled on a chair in the lobby surrounded by paintings of illegal Mexicans trying to punch through the river, the wall and the armed agents swarming everywhere. His turn finally comes. He sits in a chair in the office, the door is open. The lawyer nods. The man gets up and closes the door. He says, “I am called The Butcher. I want to talk to you about a woman I love.” “Wait a minute,” the lawyer sputters, “You’re The Butcher?’ The man smiles. “Yeah. I run 125 sicarios in Juárez.” The lawyer exhales. He wants nothing to do with this case. It is dangerous, he knows that instantly. What will happen to him if he loses? He looks at The Butcher and asks, “You’re not going to make soup of me if I lose are you?” “No, no, no Señor. Not you. No.” The lawyer sighs. “Look,” The Butcher continues, “I gotta tell you I don’t want you going to Juárez without telling me. It is very dangerous there. Now I am recruiting good looking girls as sicarias, they can get close to anyone. So don’t go picking up any girls, you hear?” “I don’t go to Juárez anymore.” “Ah, very good. And I don’t want you down by the bridge anymore either.” The lawyer snaps alert. At first he can’t understand what the man means. And then he remembers having an ad filmed down by the bridge with Mexico in the background, a bit of footage for publicizing his immigration practice. “No,” The Butcher says, “stay away from the bridge, it is not safe there. People in that area commit crimes. And report to me.” The lawyer remembers the row of taxis, the vendors peddling this and that, the feel of the summer sun on his face as he cut the ad, the
sense of standing in the U.S. and being … immune from over there. His world has slowly shrunk during the violence. He now has a security system in his house. He has a remote to start his car in case of a bomb. He has a carry permit for a gun. But still, don’t go to the bridge in his city to film an ad for his practice because he is being watched? The Butcher smiles. “Let’s talk about the case.” It is cut and dried. He met a woman and fell in love and then immigration caught her, she was illegal in the U.S. and put her in detention. He wants her free and so he has come to see the lawyer. “Well, to be freed and not deported she would need to file for political asylum. And to qualify for that she’d have to give evidence that her life is in danger in Mexico because she belongs to a group that cannot be changed and that this classification means her death. You understand?” The man takes in the lawyer’s statement and smiles. “Ah, this will be easy then. Both her uncles have been killed – their heads cut off. My people did it. I could arrange testimony about this, that she is doomed, you know, because of my sicarios. That would work, no?” The lawyer sees all the doors closing and leaving him trapped with The Butcher and his case. He says, “If I take the case, my fee will be $10,000.” “No problem.” The lawyer’s heart sinks. He pulled the number out of the air thinking it would be impossible for The Butcher. He says, “Even if I get her released, it does not mean she can stay here. It will only mean she is free and on this side until her case comes up and is decided.” The Butcher stops smiling. His mind seems to shift from being the boss of something to being the prisoner of something. He says, “I love her. I must have her. Even if she loses and is expelled to Juárez, well, then I will move there also and if they kill us we will die together. This is not a business matter for me.” The lawyer’s last hope vanishes. He is dealing with a man possessed and is now chained inside some border story of Romeo and Juliet. He keeps thinking of becoming soup, of having his body tossed in a barrel of acid in order to vanish any trace of his existence on earth. He looks at a tattoo of an eagle on The Butcher’s right wrist. “What does that mean?” “Ah, the eagle? It means I am a capo. Sometimes, I must put my hand over it if I am dealing with the wrong people, you know. But that hardly ever happens. I have federal police identification, you know.” And then he leaves. Two weeks later, the mother of the girl comes by the office. She works in Juárez in the prison. And she is concerned about her daughter’s case and if she can be released from the detention center. The lawyer asks her, “Do you believe what The Butcher says about his work?” She answers, “All I know is that my daughter is afraid of him.” “Yes, but he says he had both her uncles killed and their heads cut off.” “He did? No, no, they killed her distant cousins, not her uncles. Why?” The lawyer suddenly sees his life returning to him. A distant relative is not enough to qualify for a filing for political asylum. So, the next time The Butcher comes to his office, he tells him he cannot take the case because there is nothing he can do given the actual facts. For a moment, the lawyer wonders if The Butcher will take in this new criterion of American law and order the execution of family members closer to his beloved. But he says nothing and simply leaves. This is love in this place. < hdj > high desert journal
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