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November 19, 2004

Works in progress

So while I take a couple days to figure out what to omit from the final installment of the J. story, most of which I plan to do while hiking tomorrow in Castle Rock State Park, here is a piece of a short story which I wrote and then didn't finish in 1997. It takes place in a town that doesn't exist, about equidistant from Sedona, Salt Lake and San Francisco. I'm putting it here to shame myself either into completing the damned thing, or erasing all copies of it and sowing the sectors of my hard drive on which it resided wiith salt.

And thanks to all who've commented so far. With readers like I have here, who needs major magazine distribution?


There's something about the valley I live in that plays tricks with vision. Maybe it's the way light curves over the Dead Wash Range or maybe it's the iron ore lodes at Jackass Bench, the ones that Ian Coe went famously borrasco trying to extract; some kinda relativistic thing. I'm not the only one that says so. Everything seems either shorter or longer than it really is.

This is especially true at night. I've always had problems with my headlights, for instance, which never happen when I go somewhere else, to Carson or Salt Lake or wherever.

For instance. The day the River first showed up, I had been in the Dead Washes all weekend gathering deadfall pinyon, hauling it to my truck, cutting it to furnace length and loading it, taking it easy in between, and hearing Dad making fun of my laziness. Dead a year and a half, and he still rides me. But Sunday night I had to get to my part-time at the Sav-Mart, and so I sorta hustled through the day and got about a quarter-ton loaded in the F-250 before sunset. Which is maybe a couple dozen pounds more than the shocks would like. And I headed back to town, thinking I could unload at Betita's mom's house and still have enough time to clean the worst of the pinyon sap off my hands and face so that Pete Equsquizaguirre wouldn't accuse me of despoiling his canned goods when I got to work.

The thing you have to realize is that the road coming out of the Rachel National Forest follows this old hanging canyon, and there's a few people've wrecked about halfway down where the canyon opens out into midair, with a four-hundred foot drop down onto the old Coe mine through splintered juniper. Unless you're doing about twenty-five, it's hard to make the left hand turn. And I've got about six thousand years of tree growth scratching my bedliner. So I'm in second gear, tapping the brakes, and still I'm doing about fifty, and my tachometer needle is pressed so hard over to the right that I'm afraid smoke will start coming out of it.

That turn moves around. I've been driving this road for some twenty years, on and off, and it sneaks up on me every time. But this time I nailed her. Saw her coming, hit the brakes and downshifted into first, which believe me my tranny did not approve of at forty five miles per, and somehow the wood and the mud and the radials conspired to skid me in just the right direction, and I headed down the first of the Coe Mine switchbacks. The other two turns were no problem, cause the pavement starts about halfway down the first.

So I'm feeling pretty cocky cause I've tangled with that guardrail three, four times, and I didn't add another dent to my truck tonight. And I wish my dad had been with me to see my driving like he was for the first few dents, which I never heard the end of till he died, and even after that, if you catch my meaning. And when I get to the Dead Wash Slope, where the mountains level off into this big bajada that runs down toward the Wash and town, I sorta let it out, and was in fifth in about a minute. And here's the thing about the headlights: I got good bright ones, halogens, and still when I get into this valley, it seems like I can only see about ten feet, is what I'm saying. Just the sagebrush and blackbrush on either side of the road, flashing by. I don't know how many times I've come close to hitting the slow-elk that wander the open rangeland on the slope there.

So it's a good thing they had the black and white out, with me basically blind and flying off the Slope. Even still, I had to smoke my brakes a little to stop before I hit the squad car. It's blocking the road, lights flashing, and it seems like everyone in town is out, just standing around, their faces lit up blue and red by the squad car's lights. Dave the cop looks up at me kinda annoyed, but he doesn't cause trouble where he doesn't need to, and he's got his hands full anyway.

Because the Wash is full of water. Flash flood, I think at first, but even in the light from my high beams, I can see this isn't any flash flood. There's no mud, no logs and rocks. The water goes by soft and quiet, kind of murmuring, and wide, and it smells green, and I swear I can hear big fish jumping into the air, like they want to smell the sage, then splashing down hard. And I look across the water, and there's Equsquizaguirre on the roof of the Sav-Mart looking small and pale in the floodlights, and a chopper letting a rope ladder down to him, and what looks like a hundred cereal boxes and loaves of bread and bags of chips floating around the five foot six level on the door's crime prevention decal, eddying back around inside the flooded dumpster and then slipping downstream.


I don't think anybody expected Betita Sanchez to come back home. Girls like her, when they get out of high school, if they get out of high school without getting knocked up, they tend to light out for the territories, or they would if this town wasn't already about as far out in the territories as you could get and still have a phone. And everybody knew Betita wasn't long for Coeville, from the time she was about five. She had a brain, all right. Locked up the semifinal in the Intermountain Regional Spelling Bee when she was eight, and she would have won, too, if they hadn't handed her the word "dissent," which not only sounds to a desert kid exactly like "descent," which is what she spelled out, but was also a word none of us kids growing up in Coeville had ever had the opportunity to learn. It isn't like they taught us in that old Deseret alphabet or anything; no one can write that anymore other than my Uncle Heber. But we didn't exactly have CNN in those days either, and there weren't many dissenters in Coeville, once again excepting Uncle Heb.

Betita turned out OK by junior high, too. One of those girls every guy wants to walk around with. Dark eyes, dark hair, nice figure. But we all learned pretty fast that she didn't have much interest in dating, at least not any of us. In fact, just about the time she won the National Merit Scholarship, the year she told everyone to call her Elizabeth instead of Betita, most guys had written her off.

Me too, at least in public. But I used to hang with her older brother Chuy our senior year, which kept me around the Sanchez house a lot, especially after Mr. Sanchez died and there was always a ton of work Chuy needed help with. And I don't think there was a minute I spent there that I wasn't hoping Betita would come out and talk to us while we worked, which she never did, except the once. I even went so far as to ask Chuy what he thought about me asking her out, to his endless disgust. I never asked him about it again. And Betita ... Elizabeth ... loaded her pickup with all her books and took off for California right after graduation. She didn't even want to wait for the summer to end before getting out to Davis.

I did see her once while she was out there. I was living in Berkeley before my dad got sick, and driving up to Sacramento to see a girlfriend, I found her at the gas pump across from mine on the Interstate. And she seemed glad enough to see me, and we made plans to eat dinner together on my way back, and two days later I ate while she twirled spaghetti around her fork and every once in a while ate some and kept looking over her shoulder like she was expecting someone to join us, but nobody did. We had one of those awkward moments in parting where you try to decide whether to kiss or shake hands or whatever, and she just slugs me in the shoulder and says "call me, you big dummy" and runs away. When I did, a month later, her phone had been cut off. No forwarding number.

So it was kind of a surprise when I got down out of the mountains one day after a week of pinyon hunting to find out that she'd gotten into town the day I left, moved back into her Mom's house and been offered two jobs within a day, and took both. And the way I found out she was back was I walked in to the pre-deluge Sav-Mart to find her running Uncle Heb's jar of Postum over the scanner over and over, trying to get the barcode to read, and she's frustrated and trying to keep a strand of hair tucked behind her ear but it keeps falling in her face, and Heb looks up at me and grins.

Two weeks later I was out the south end of the Dead Wash Range, raking up a bunch of pinyons, watching the clouds when I should have been watching the ground. If you're not careful, you'll rake up a whole pile of dirt and bark and cone leavings where the pinyon jays have been shelling nuts, and not even a floater in the whole pile. But I couldn't help it. The sky was filled with clouds, not flat overcast but a zoo of different billowy shapes and shades of gray, and I stood and raked and looked out over the escarpment as they jostled one another, not heading in any one direction as far as I could tell. Even though the sky was completely covered it was still pretty light, and seeing as I was at the bottom timberline of the pinyon forest I could see about eight hilly miles of sagebrush down as far as to the wash, and the sage was gleaming that bright almost-blue that it gets when it's a little wet and the sun comes out, even though it hadn't rained for months and the sun was nowhere in evidence. I could almost smell it, the wet sage that wasn't. And every so often the clouds would bump one another and the light would shift and the sun would almost come through the fog up there and the sky would get just the faintest tinge of that turquoise you see around here when you get a piece of open sky backlit after a three-day blow, and then the sagebrush would go gray again. And the sky and the ground trading colors back and forth the way they were, I wasn't sure if I had my feet pointing in the right direction. I looked down at them, and saw I'd accidentally raked up what looked to be about a gallon of really good pinyons.

It isn't supposed to work that way, because you get a good crop of pine nuts about once every three four years, and last year was the biggest bumper crop people had ever seen, enough that the local paper the Paiutes put out every month had a front page story on it. But here it was the very next year, and it had last year's crop beat. I filled a five gallon bucket in about a half hour, and headed to the Sav-Mart, getting there five minutes late as usual. Pete Equsquizaguirre was ringing up sales. It was government check day, and there was a line, and he looked at me like he was gonna pop a vein, and before he said anything I handed him a gallon bag of pine nuts, which took the wind out of his sails a bit, and I got to work breaking down and baling the cardboard boxes out back.

During my lunch break I was in the storeroom and eating a nuked chile verde burrito out of the Freezer Section and talking to Pete E. about the pine nut crop when Betita — turns out she'd dropped the Elizabeth at some point — came in from her job at the Coeville House Of Style And Nailatorium, and was putting on her apron, and I started to tell her about the pinyons and the clouds and sagebrush and she cut me off, like she always did, and said that she'd love to hear about it sometime but that right now she had a line of people waiting to be rung up and so I asked her what she was doing after work and she said sleeping because she'd have worked fourteen hours straight at that point and after a month of her putting me off like that when we hadn't seen each other for however long I was just a little frustrated and I said so what do I have to do to get your undivided attention and she looked at Pete and then at me and she was pretty well fed up at this point and she said she didn't have undivided attention anymore except when she was painting someone's nails and maybe I should just come get my nails done if it was that important to me. And she put on her "Hello I'm Betita" badge just in case there was someone within a hundred miles who didn't know already and walked out, Equsquizaguirre laughing his ass off. I just sat there for about half an hour, then worked out back the rest of my shift and went home.


It only took about two three days for people to get used to the river flowing through town. Equsquizaguirre took a loss, but he was about ready to sell out anyway because of losing business to the CaseCo warehouse in Elko. Seems like people around here will drive about six hours round trip just to pay ten cents less on a roll of toilet paper. I thought I was out of a job, but got a "Dear Valued Employee" letter promising me a place in the new store they planned to build on higher ground, and hoping that I would remain a valued member of the Sav-Mart Family, endquote. About six eight months of unemployment benefits didn't seem too bad, and if they sent me to an interview for a job I like, so much the better.

So I decided to go for a walk up the wash, watching the water come up in smooth, flat, black boils. And it looked like the river's been there forever, the way it'd cut out the banks just above on the outside of each bend, the way the sandbars seemed to have transplanted themselves there overnight. There's a grove of tamarisk about a mile up from town, which was there before cause of the groundwater coming up at the Coeville fault, but it was cut in half now and turning that rotten-pumpkin orange, kinda early in the year if you ask me. So I walked up to check it out and there's Dad on the other side of the grove, casting spinners into the current like he used to do before he got sick.

I asked him if he'd caught anything and he shows me this two- and-a-half-foot Chinook salmon still flopping in the shallows, red belly showing through the water, tied to a tamarisk by a white cord through the gills. He asked me if I've caught anything yet, and I knew what he meant right away, which never happened when he was alive, and I said no, she won't even talk to me. And he grunted, shaking his head; cast his line back into the smooth green water and right away pulled out another Chinook.


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who needs major magazine distribution?

... well, um, are people sending checks yet?

Posted by: Jarrett at November 19, 2004 02:15 PM
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Um, no. What's up with that?

Send checks to
Chris Clarke c/o Faultline
300 Broadway suite 28
San Francisco CA 94133

Posted by: Chris Clarke at November 19, 2004 04:27 PM
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Complete it! Complete it!

I wanna know what happens next!

Posted by: Carrie at November 19, 2004 09:07 PM
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