Writing: Where I’ve Been — An Introduction to This Series of Unpublished or Published-but-Uncollected Work
My current project is writing a diary of a year on this ranch nearly 30 years after my first book, which is a diary of a year on this ranch. In this new work, I’ve necessarily looked back at journals I kept, letters and journals from my relatives and others who lived in this area, and at writing I did during that time, when I was searching for my writing voice.
Much has changed. I’ve worked as a journalist and a college professor. I’ve been divorced and widowed. I’ve settled down in several places for several reasons.
But always, I was writing. Much of what I wrote during the past will remain private, though— following my own advice— I rarely discard a draft because I never know what insight or information it might contain that will be of value to me now.
But re-reading some of what I wrote in past years has been useful for me, not only in matters of insight, but in matters of writing style. I can see things I would write differently today, but I have also discovered writing I consider good that has had few or no other readers. Technically, these are either unpublished works, or published and uncollected, meaning they have not appeared in a book.
Who knows when, where, how or even if I might publish another book that will enable me to collect past writing? My book Between Grass and Sky was a wonderful gift of that nature from the University of Nevada Press but the world of publishing has changed as well; I may not get so lucky again. Besides, publishing a book means promoting a book and these days I enjoy making sales pitches less and less.
So I’ve decided to self-publish some writing via this blog. The writing that will appear in the category “Writing: Where I’ve Been” is a mixture of styles, written as I was searching for the narrative voice that most nearly suited me and the material that has become most important to me. Each piece is annotated with background information. Some stories were intended to be read as fiction though they were substantially true; in those instances I have explained what is fact and what is fiction. Some of these pieces were published in slightly different forms; I have noted any previous publication.
Each of these writings was part of a thought process that resulted in other writing; readers may see the roots of ideas that appeared in later work.
I invite writers and aspiring writers to read these texts as part of your study of how writing develops. Remember, I think revision is the second most important part of writing (after thinking), so you might consider how you would revise and improve a particular story. Be inspired; be amazed; be annoyed! You might even comment, and I may— or may not— respond.
No matter what your response, I’ve posted these especially for writers in the hope they will help you to keep writing until you find the style and voice that particularly suits you. Then write your life with the variety and enthusiasm with which I continue to write my own.
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Introduction to “Moon Meadows Road”
This is a true story and I have written it as nearly as possible in the words of the man who told it to me. All names— except the name of the road— have been changed. This piece has never been published until now.
All photos were taken along Moon Meadows Road in February, 2015.
Moon Meadows Road
I’d run out of cigarettes just at dark, and was heading for town, taking the shortcut across Moon Meadows. I should have given up either the cigarettes or the shortcut years ago. Now I’ll have to, because I can’t drive it without remembering.
I should have been soaking in the tub instead of driving to town, with the highway already starting to ice over as the sun went down, and the clouds hanging low and wet. Should have quit working sooner, but the woodpile was getting low, and I wanted to get all the trees I’d cut this morning limbed and dragged up into the clearing where I could cut them up tomorrow.
I’ve cussed the old shortcut for twenty years, but I always took it rather than drive down the new highway past the country club and the ugly blocks of condominiums. Broadmoor Estates. Wildwood. Copper Mountain Homes. Innsbruck Acres. Where the hell they think they are? Certainly not a bare hillside in South Dakota. Maybe when they get inside their glass palaces and pull the fancy little blinds it seems like Aspen.
The old shortcut was Harry Adams’ pasture road a few years ago, and a lot of the land up on top of that ridge is still pasture. No cows in it now; he pastures it later, usually June. Always loses a cow or calf from some asshole trying to drive too fast. He had to sell off the west end, close to the hills, when he had a bad spell a few years ago and ran out of money. That’s when it got the name Moon Meadows; some developer thought he’d make a bundle putting houses up there. I suppose he hasn’t done too badly; the whole west end of the ridge is covered with them, and every time I drive across there, it seems like another one is going in.
Adams hung onto the east end for pasture, and he’s a tough old bird, around eighty. He’ll probably be around another twenty years, and until then, the road won’t improve because he made them sign a deal to follow his old pasture road and he only gave them enough easement for a narrow trail.
That made him laugh, but it was a mistake, because there wasn’t enough space for a decent shoulder. The gullies cut so deep into the ridge from both sides if you drop a wheel off you’re going down sixty, eighty feet into a steep‑sided draw.
The snow was falling harder by the time I was halfway across the Meadows, beginning to look like a real April blizzard. I’d be lucky if it wasn’t too deep in the morning to take the truck to the clearing where I’d stacked the logs. I could always chain up the tractor, though, and drag them right up by the house. This morning it was so warm I almost thought I could ignore the woodpile and do something else; that’s how these spring blizzards sneak up on people and get them killed.
Anyway, I saw the damn fool’s lights coming up behind me just after I’d got past the first batch of houses. If I’d seen him sooner, I’d have pulled off and let him pass, but I’d run out of driveways, so all I could do was just go along slow and hope he saw me and got past me. The snow was coming down hard. When I tried to accelerate a little, the rear end of old pickup swung out slow, like a horse nudging you with his hindquarters, getting ready to casually mash you against the side of the stall while you put the saddle on.
The guy popped over the hill behind me, his headlights glaring on the rear view mirror so all I could do was squint my eyes and hunch over, ready for the smash. But he swung out somehow, and got around me, skidding and sliding all over that road, horn blaring, tail lights flashing, making the snow look red as blood for a few minutes as he pumped the brakes.
I straightened up and breathed again, and kept on. Should have quit smoking, then I wouldn’t have to go out in a storm for something that was probably killing me anyway. I felt in my shirt pocket; I had most of a pack, but I’d smoke those tonight and then have to go out in the morning anyway. And the storm might be worse.
I never wanted to live until I got old and sick; used to say I’d shoot myself when I got to be fifty, but I made it in January. Might as well move it up to sixty.
Or I could have taken the other road. It’s straight and wide and they plow it about six times a day all winter; can’t have the pretty people sliding into the ditch on the way home to condominium heaven. There’s a convenience store right at the bottom of the hill, but I like the old store over on the other side of Moon Meadows, where I’ve been buying beer and cigarettes and bread since I moved out here twenty years ago. Same bent old man behind the counter, propped up on a shelf reading the paper.
The wood stove would be red tonight. The tourists that wandered in there always think the stove is quaint, but it leaves the corners of the store chilly in the winter. Old Ben won’t buy a furnace. He lives behind the store, and judges cold nights by how often he has to get up to stoke the stove. On winter nights, a few old boys are always gathered around it bitching about how the country is going to hell.
Most of them still have their places, but their wives are gone, their kids all studied to be lawyers and moved away, and they just rattle around feeding a few old cows. At night they come into the store for something for supper, and to ease the loneliness. I keep seeing myself ending up like that‑‑hell, I already have, I guess, only I just get my stuff and go instead of sitting down. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ben keeps the stove and the ugly chairs on purpose.
I’d almost forgotten about the car that passed me when I saw the light off to my right, just a single column of white light shining straight up into the darkness. Been watching too much TV I suppose, because my first thought was to glance up and see if a space ship was coming down, lighting its way. Then I shook myself and realized the light had to be coming out of one of those deep gullies.
I stopped the pickup right in the road; no choice, and put on the brakes and blinkers before I crawled out. The road was so slick I had to hold onto the pickup to keep from falling down, and I skidded off the edge of the road and looked down.
The car was upside down, but the front end was tilted enough so that light shone up, or I’d never have seen it. By morning, at this rate, it would be covered with snow and the light would have burned out. I stood there a minute, looking down, feeling the snow piling up on my hair, and actually considered just driving off. The son of a bitch had damn near killed us both, and it would serve him right.
Then I got my flashlight from under the seat, hitched my coat up around my ears and started down. The slope was slick, and if it hadn’t been covered with sagebrush I could hang onto, I’d have started sliding and never stopped until I bounced off the car. It was wedged into the narrow bottom of the gully, belly up like some beetle. I could see fluid trickling out of the gas tank so I pushed my cigarette into the snow and slid down toward the driver’s side.
The window was either down or smashed, because the first thing I saw was a bleeding snowdrift. I brushed the soggy stuff away from his head, but I saw pretty quick there wasn’t much sense in it. His forehead looked like a couple of pounds of hamburger, and the steering column was driven about half through his chest. A little blood was still running out, but it looked like it had flooded out at first, like his heart had been punctured.
I couldn’t see past him, so I scraped snow away from the back windows and shone the flashlight in. I could see about a five year supply of beer cans, but no bodies.
I struggled around to the passenger side, stopping once for breath and to look up at my pickup. It seemed as far away as the moon, and the blinking lights were faint through the snow. I couldn’t believe I’d come down that steep slope without breaking my neck, and I had no idea how I was ever going to get up it. Maybe the crazy bastard would end up killing me anyway, if I froze to death down here. The way that gas was trickling, though, I could always toss a match in it and warm myself up that way.
The woman was lying with her head out the window on the passenger side, her shoulders in the snow. She looked peaceful, her arms over her head the way some people sleep. I brushed the snow off her face and she opened her eyes. They were a deep, dark blue for a minute before she blinked and I moved the light.
“Gary?” she said in a kind of gasp.
“Take it easy,” I said, wondering what the hell that was supposed to mean. What else could she do? “I’ll get you out of here in a minute.”
I shone the light down her body. She was lying across the window sill, and the top of the car was crushed down against her just below her breasts. I leaned back and shone the light through the back window. The roof of the car was tight against her upper body all the way past her hips. Dark blood ran slowly from her chest down over her body. One leg went off at an angle, and blood was dripping there too.
I squatted in the snow and thought it over. Even if I got her out alive, I couldn’t see how I could get her back up that damn hill without killing her. “Gary? You got a cigarette?” she murmured.
“I’m not Gary. You’ve been in a wreck; I’m going to try to help.” I patted her shoulder without really thinking about it.
Maybe I ought to leave her right as she was and go for help. There was no telling how long it might be before someone came along the road, and even if they did, they might think I’d just stopped the truck to take a leak or puke. And even if they didn’t think that, how many people these days stopped to help?
“Don’t leave me!” It was like she’d been reading my mind. Her hand caught mine, and held on tight. “Give me a cigarette, will you?”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea. There’s gas leaking out of that tank; we might blow ourselves up.” But I wanted one too.
It seemed to me I could hear the snow plopping heavier on the upturned belly of the car now. Christ! What was I going to do?
“My coat’s in the back seat,” she said. “There’s cigarettes in the pocket.”
I shone the light in the hole where the back window had been, and saw a bundle of wool. I brushed snow off a rock and set the light so it shone over us, making a little pool of brightness. When I’d wrapped the coat around her upper body and tucked it under her shoulders she smiled, and I realized she wasn’t just a kid, like I’d thought. She was maybe thirty, or even a well‑preserved forty. Her wrinkles were the kind that come from smiling, and her smile was enough to melt ice. She was lovely, but I couldn’t look at her face without seeing the blood dripping in the darkness of the car.
“Gary’s dead, isn’t he?” She said it so quietly, so sensibly, that I nodded before I thought.
She sighed. “I should have left him a long time ago. I kept thinking things would get better, thinking he really would quit drinking and . . . You ever do that? Just keep hanging onto people even though you know you’d be better off without them?”
“No.” I shook my head, and then decided she needed more than that. “I did it the other way. Never held onto any of them long enough to think about losing them.”
“That’s too bad.” She looked really concerned about it. “Listen, I can’t feel my legs. It’s pretty bad, isn’t it?”
I didn’t know what to say. She moved her arm out from under the coat and reached up and squeezed my hand as if to comfort me.
“Yeah, it’s pretty bad. But someone will come along soon, and we’ll get you out of this. It’s probably not as bad as it looks.” As I said it, I realized she was breathing like someone who has asthma, in uneven gasps. Maybe a rib had punctured a lung.
She moved her head a little, looking up the slope behind me. “I kept telling the son of a bitch to slow down. You came down that? Listen, why don’t you just light me a cigarette and then go on back up there and go for help. I’d about as soon blow up as lay here any longer.”
She gasped then, a low, ragged sound, and her hand tightened on mine. “Please.” I could see drops of sweat on her forehead. “Please give me a cigarette.” It was a whisper.
I stepped away from the wreck a little, cupped my hands and lit one, and put it between her lips. She inhaled deeply, and then let the smoke trickle out the side of her mouth. She coughed a little the next time she inhaled, and reached for my hand again. I took a drag on the cigarette; I could have lit another one‑‑ two was no more dangerous than one‑‑ but it seemed right to share it, almost as if we were in bed.
“Isn’t this ridiculous?” she said, a little louder. “I always figured the cigarettes would kill me, but I guess not. I ought to be able to quit when I’m ten minutes from dying anyway.”
“You’re not going to die. Look, I’d better get going.” I stood up. “I’ll leave the flashlight here, and I’ll be back before you finish the cigarette.”
“Wait. Please. Just another minute or two.” She spoke rapidly, rattling out as much as she could between those harsh gasps. “Tell me your name. I’m Sally, Sally Barker, only since I married him I guess I’m Sally Brooks. Please, tell them‑‑ you know that kid that rolled here last week and hurt that girl? He said he was forced off the road? They’re charging him with drunken driving, but it was Gary that did it. It was just like tonight. He was driving too fast, and drunk, and he came up fast behind the other car and blared his horn and the kid jerked the wheel and went off. Gary wouldn’t stop. Tell them, so the kid doesn’t get put in jail.” She was struggling to breathe, holding her hands against her side as if she could hold her lungs together. “Will you do that?”
“Yes. Yes, I’ll tell them, but you’ll be able to tell them when I get an ambulance here. I’m Joseph Brown; I live on a little ranch back in the woods about three miles. Look, I’d better go for help.”
I was turning away from the look on her face when I heard something from up on the highway. Somebody was parked behind my truck, and then I heard a shout.
“Down here!” I bellowed, using the voice I used for driving cows out of the trees. “Down here!” I grabbed the flashlight and pointed it at the other car and waved it around until I saw a man peering at me from the edge of the road. “Get an ambulance! Get help! A woman is pinned in the car.”
“There!” I said cheerfully. “Won’t be long now.”
Sally smiled weakly up at me, and made a little motion with her arm. Her eyes got wide, and she turned her head a fraction and spit the cigarette into the snow. “I can’t…I can’t move my arm. Oh Joseph, I’m scared.”
I took her hand and began to rub her arms, thinking if she was just cold I could get the blood running again. “Probably just chilly from the damn snow,” I muttered, showing my teeth in what I hoped looked like a smile.
“Tell me something warm,” she begged, and the blue of her eyes seemed to start blood circulating in a part of my mind that had been cold and paralyzed for a long time.
“Like what?” All I could think of was the warm blood flowing out of her in the darkness of the car, and the still warm body of her husband beside her.
“Do you have a fireplace in your cabin?”
I shook my head. “Wood stove. Fireplace makes the corners chilly, because the heat’s all sucked up through the chimney all the time. But in my place you can curl up on the couch in the living room, and open the fire door, and stare into the fire and be cozy. Lots of times I sleep in there instead of in the bedroom.”
“Ever been married?” Her face was pale in the light, and her breath whistled in her throat.
“No. Probably should have been, but I . . . well, I guess I was afraid of what it would turn into.”
She tried to chuckle and choked, and I saw sweat break out on her forehead. “Tell me about your place. Do you have cows?”
“Yeah. Only about fifteen, and a couple old horses that are retired. I used to manage a place for a rancher up north, and bought this place by doing that and working construction. Then when I figured I had enough money to get by on, I moved down here and built the cabin. I still manage construction jobs once in awhile, if it’s working for somebody I like. The rest of the time I work in the garden, or the woods, or travel.”
I glanced up toward the road, hoping to see somebody, and saw only the lights of the town reflecting off the clouds. Down there people were laughing and drinking and having a good time; it seemed unfair she should be lying here dying, and I should be crouched in the snow trying to figure out what to say to her.
“Old red hens; they lay brown eggs with yolks so yellow some people think I dye them.”
“Our chickens did that, on the farm when I was little. I like chickens.” She gasped a little chuckle again, and clucked once or twice. “I used to talk to them. I had one that would let me scratch her back. She’d squat down in the dust and close her eyes.”
“I’ll tell you what we’ll do in April, Sally Barker. You’ll come out to my house. I’ll make coffee‑‑”
“How do you make it?” she said sleepily, like a small child.
“I get a pot of water boiling, then put a handful of coffee in it. When it’ll float a horseshoe, I throw in some cold water and a couple of eggshells.”
“Good. That’s how my dad made it.” Her eyes closed. “Tell me the rest.”
Somewhere in the distance, I thought I heard a siren.
“Everyone who comes by for coffee with me has his own cup, so you’ll have to have one. I think yours should have blue flowers on it, to match your eyes. I’ll get it down off the rack and take the cups and the coffee out on the porch, and we’ll drink coffee. The yellow roses around the porch should be blooming then, and the baby rabbits will be under them, eating the weeds. The birds will be at the feeder, and if you don’t know them, I’ll tell you which ones are which. And maybe the mother turkey will bring her babies by for a drink; I made a little concrete basin for her. We’ll listen to the birds and drink coffee.”
The siren was definitely getting closer. “Will it be very warm?” she asked.
“Very warm, but if we get too warm we can go to the part of the porch with the roof, or take a walk through the trees. I cleared a spot down in there and planted raspberry bushes, and we can stand by the bushes and eat raspberries.”
“I’ll bring a cake. I make very good chocolate cake.” She sighed. “Joseph. What a nice name. Thank you, Joseph.” Her hand quivered in mine as though she was trying to squeeze and couldn’t, and I squeezed hers. On the road, I heard shouts, and saw more red lights flashing.
“They’re coming now, Sally. Everything’s going to be all right.”
“Yes, Joseph,” she said dreamily. “Will you come see me in the morning?”
“In the morning.”
“Quick,” she murmured, “tell me some more. Will you put on some music inside so we can hear it through the windows?”
“I’ll put on Elvis Presley‑‑ or are you too young for him?”
“‘I Did It My Way,'” she said. “‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ ‘Jailhouse Rock’ ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’ Do you have any Judy Garland?”
“Play the one from the Wizard of Oz for me, would you? ‘Birds fly over the rainbow, why then, oh why can’t I?'”
I held her hand until the ambulance men, cursing and staggering, got to us, with two silent firemen who moved efficiently up to the car. I gently put her hand back on her chest. Her eyes were closed, and she was smiling.
I turned away, and walked down the gully a few steps, but I still heard her scream when they lifted the roof of the car. When I turned back, the two men were strapping her to the stretcher, and the firemen were by the other window. The stretcher men started back up walking, but they kept slipping, and the stretcher would clang against a rock; I could hear them swear under their breath, but Sally never made a sound. After a minute or two, one of them went ahead and started towing the stretcher like a sled while the other one stayed behind to guide it. They’d only gone a few feet before the snow hid them. I started back up the hill.
By the time I got to the top, of course, they were already gone. A policeman asked if I wanted to go to the hospital, but I shook my head and told him about the wreck, and what Sally had said about the one the week before. I felt as if I’d been cold for a long time. He said he’d make sure the word got to the right place.
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A month later I sat on my porch in the warm sun and watched the rabbits and the baby turkeys and the old red hens. I had coffee, but it was pretty well flavored with whiskey. I told Sally the names of all the birds, and sang “I Did It My Way” along with Elvis.
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(c) 2015 Linda M. Hasselstrom