Fourteen Snapshots of the Eastern Plains

Patrick Kelling

& while the women retreated into the house with armloads of plastic dishes & the men steadied themselves with another round of piss water, he excused himself to a corner of the yard that was marked only by the line between the mowed lawn & the unmowed prairie grass & he plucked one, put it between his teeth a moment before replacing it with a piece of gum & the skyline was so empty that ten minutes after sunset he couldn’t delineate the horizon except that at some point the lighted windows of distant farm houses gave way to stars & a horse leaned its head over a barbed wire fence which he sheepishly approached & feeling like a tourist, petted with one hand while noticing the size of its belly & nostrils & how its breath smelled of seaweed & hay & how its eyes were so dark they didn’t seem to have a pupil, to which he thought, this is my life &

& his instincts told him that he should be able to catch a glimpse of reflective surf from the top of any rolling hill, but trying to peer so far into the distance made him feel as though he’d chanced upon the sublime at its most visceral, which was to say, it wasn’t nearly as flashy as the one which Wordsworth wrote or sailors spoke, but what it lacked in grandeur it made up in sheer expanse, a vastness in which the wind matured from the constant breeze that he had felt at the coast to something that might try to tangle his feet, but what horrified him constantly was the immediacy of the emptiness: anytime he couraged a look, the horizon was always that of the prairie and never of rooftops, which reminded him that, if he started running in any singular direction the land & sky would consume all signs of the town in under a quarter of an hour &

& Dee, the rodeo coach, said, “meet Guido,” handing him a rope that lead to a horse & moments later he found that sitting horseback was not dissimilar to sitting on a surfboard & he closed his eyes & Guido’s breathing became the small currents that pulled at his dangling legs & he inhaled through his nose & the smell of manure became the smell of seaweed & any moment a rideable wave would come & he would get down on his stomach & paddle until he popped to his feet, the wave kicking foam head-high, but then Guido began trotting & each step slammed his ass into the saddle which must not have pleased the horse because his ears pivoted like erratic satellite dishes, but he didn’t notice this because Dee was shouting something from atop a bay, something about pinning or pining when really she was saying “posting” & she told him to watch her hips as she thrust forward & back & he obliged, more than his bumpy vantage point should have allowed, so he began to practice settling his weight on his heels & sitting like a question mark but not so bent that his spine would rub up against the cantle, which he incorrectly named the “back” & he felt like he did when lost his virginity because although he thought he knew what to do, his muscles wouldn’t contort in the right ways or in the right rhythm & this was how he felt when he told a joke to the man behind the counter at the liquor store, a prime example of a local if there ever was one: the punch line always came too soon or too late, but to linger on such things would have smeared this experience because despite his already throbbing ass & sense of blazing dislocation, he felt the same as when he set foot on the sand-coated stairs that lead to the beach &

& he sat in the corner of Henry’s & watched the thick-skinned country girls, watched their full legs & arms & hips, watched their crass strength as one pecked another on the lips while a nearby group of men looked on & he remembered how he used to view such situations as a quick draw, but these things took two to tango & no one here spoke the language of tides & salt & he watched one of his students, newly eighteen & newly engaged, showing off her pebble of a diamond with such force that she would never look past the town’s borders & he felt like an Athenean in the Orient, could feel his quick-twitch muscles atrophying & to counter this he distracted himself with fast drinks & fast conversation which, when mixed with the smell of smoke & lead paint, caused a need for a jukebox full of Bob Dylan tunes, each song as worn as the next, but were, nonetheless, answers in themselves, yet how long could he maintain this pattern without sensing that this place required irreplaceable sacrifices in return for socialization &

& he was halfway across the parking lot when a truck larger than would fit into any So Cal parking space stopped & just when he thought that Dee was going to lean out to say something half-flirtatious, she leaned out & demanded his hand which he gave as steadily as his expanding veins would allow & which she took with the same formality he imagined she shoed a horse & his embarrassment grew when he felt her fingers tracing his palm because, he realized that she had larger calluses & even with her foot on the break, he felt those familiar chills cascade along the nubs of his spine, a feeling that hadn’t evolved since he was five & an older girl had whispered in his ear, a feeling that, despite his reoccurring attempts to manufacture it the same way that masturbation mimicked sex, he could never sincerely duplicate & the feeling said hold still, said hold your breath, said listen & in the twilight, the silhouettes of her eyes were potent, but he knew better than to trust the pressure that her fingers exerted along his palm & he knew better than to think that she was among the lightest of the elements, if this was occasion for such a label & eventually she said, “how bout that,” before driving off without offering so much as a drink to explain herself & he suspected she had just learned more from the pattern of creases on his palm than he had by placing them there &

& Dee could have avoided the rail: he was sure of it & she could have angled her bay to evade the suddenly sidestepping black mare, or taken the impact with her horse’s shoulder, but this would have probably dislodged other rider, a flighty ten year old whose bones may not have survived the impact, so instead she grazed the bay along the fence, just a hiccup in its stride & dodged enough to keep the kid in her saddle, but he forgot how much horses weigh & he saw injury in the angle that Dee hung from her saddle & he knew if she lay down her dual mantles of strength & credence, he would be the only one present who would do more than look at the ground uncomfortably, so instead of riding low over Guido’s neck, just like she told him not to, he dropped to the ground because his own feet were more reliable & when he reached her she had a hand pressed against her knee, but her eyes said, “I am still wild,” so he asked “you dyin’?” & she answered without quiver, “it’s a long way from my heart” & when she leaned against him he was surprised at the weight of her body, as though her solidness guaranteed she would never have trouble lifting a trailer’s hitch or shoving a horse & after two failed steps he put her on his back, which seemed to humor her because, as he piggy-backed her to his car, conscious of her legs under his armpits & his hands on her thighs, she clicked to him with the same pointed tongue as she did any horse & while he drove she fumbled with the radio as if they were going on a road trip instead of crossing a stoplight & a handful of stop signs to get to the clinic & she surprised him by skipping the country stations: in fact she skipped all of them, pushing the button with such intensity that she traversed the entire spread a half-dozen times before he began to wonder if she searched to avoid biting her lip or if she searched for some sort of answer & then he carried her through the hospital’s sliding doors & she scoffed when the doctor asked if she were “crying in public again” by answering, “never let ’em see you bleed” & when the doctor turned to him & said, “she always thinks she’s tough shit,” he rolled his tongue & she started to swear but that might have been because the doctor was wiggling her boot, “we’ll have to cut it off” & she hissed, “just pull the fucking thing” &

& when the tides of his breathing slowed he could taste the dying leaves & the slowing grass & the grease of a stopped train & the cattle that brawled from inside its cars & if the tracks hadn’t been occupied, he would have walked on them just to feel that he too was a part of Manifest Destiny, but instead he walked parallel to them & thus, for a mile, saw the bulbous nostrils pressed out of waffled holes & during that mile, listening to the frightened bleating, unsure of his own stomach, he found that his molars far outnumbered his incisors, leaving him no choice but to declare that beef eating was an abysmal use of evolution, which he acted out as soon as he walked into his cabinet-lined kitchen by emptying his freezer of its chicken breast, bacon & ground beef & he climbed the plantation house’s shag carpeted stairs & knocked on the single door at the end of the dreary hall & when no one answered he left the meat &

& as he climbed into his car, drunk but only with blocks to go, he noticed that he could look over the rooftops of the ranch style houses & see the weathervane, a cowboy on a horse, lasso cast toward some unseen target, which marked the roof of his abode & he realized that he recognized this landmark because what he had first perceived as a labyrinth of streets was shrinking & this thought both invigorated & dismayed him because a second later he had no choice but to say “this is it,” meaning that border to border there were only so many unknowns left in this town & beyond its borders he’d be exploring the dry nothingness of empty sugar beet fields & cattle land & he realized without hint of reluctance that if he tried to set out across that prairie without intention of altering his course, it wouldn’t be the cold or heat or lack of water that claimed him, it would be the very space itself &

& he was thankful for the weight of the hay bales because, although the sunrise bathed the sky purple & orange, he could feel the air bite into his fingers & Dee huddled so low between her crutches that her lips shook when she spoke & only later did he piece together that she had said some of the prettiest things were “made of ice,” which may have been directed at the way the hoarfrost reflected the clouds, but when she spoke again she told him that he’d been in a dream of hers & that they’d been in a cabin in the mountains during “a fuck-off blizzard” & he’d been outside creating a barricade of trash to guard against the inevitable avalanche while she watched through a window & when he’d finally erected enough of a barricade he’d come inside & he was dripping wet & she was dripping wet & she had to go outside & she had closed the door so tightly behind herself that she’d slammed it on her wrist & then she held up her arm & rolled back her sleeve & said “look” & later they stood inside one of the empty stalls, nibbling at doughnuts, which in itself was intimate, but when she rubbed her shoulder against his he didn’t mind because he was jealous of the natives who’d grown a resilience to the cold the same way his skin had learned to tan instead of burn, which was, he felt, cause for extinction if for no other reason than he feared he’d never feel sun-heated sand on his back again & he left before he finished & gave the remaining bit to Guido who pulled at his fingers with infant-like lips &

& Dee pointed down a country road, said she once tried to leave, that she felt it was time to “spread herself as a thunderhead,” but her truck had broke down a half-dozen miles out of town, a divined event if she’d ever seen one, so she stood in the ditch, “six pack in one hand, a thumb jutting out of the other,” until a truck swerved across the yellow lines like she “knew it would” & the driver was going the wrong direction, so she turned him down, but her second lowest rib told her she’d go anyway &

& a spring storm swept in & he noted how much fuller the rain sounded against his office window compared to even the largest snowflakes & no sooner had it begun to hail than an Art Professor appeared at his door & motioned him to follow at top speed & they paused only long enough to unlock a stairway he’d never seen before & after climbing several flights he found himself on a rooftop littered with trash, tar-covered paint cans, abandoned lawn chairs & hail the size of popcorn & as they crouched next to the air-conditioning units the Art Professor handed him a 9-iron & pointed at the half-filled student parking lot before using a pitching wedge to hook a golf ball off the roof of an F-150, calling it “hail damage” & he questioned just once, only to have the Art Professor say that his “give-a-shitter” was broke, so they spent the next fifteen minutes complimenting each others’ rushed strokes with statements such as “nice fender” & “sliced that one right into their windshield” & “that fuck complained about me to the administration” &

& the baker bragged that the rhubarb was some of the most tart she had ever tasted & she hoped that Pepper’s leg healed quickly & while they wove through the crowd, he carrying the plates, Dee unwieldy in her brace, he asked how she’d come by that nickname & she responded that if he didn’t have the “imagination or wherewithal” to place it he had “no right to inquire as to its origin” & once she’d situated herself at a picnic table & held out her hand expectantly he withheld her pie because, as he stated, if she didn’t have the “imagination or wherewithal” to get it from him she didn’t want it badly enough & when he wouldn’t give in despite her increasingly creative curses, she finally pinned one nostril with a finger & emptied the other at his feet, a gesture she feigned in his direction the rest of the afternoon &

& after enduring the deluge for over an hour, he found that that even the driest stalls had rivulets of water running under the horses’ hooves & he thought Dee would be proud that he stood without even the cover of the bedroll now, while the horses in the lowest stalls stood to their ankles in floating sawdust, but he’d run out of higher ground, so he pondered how high the water would have to rise before he was forced to open the doors, say to the herd “you’re free to do as you will” & he found Guido, pressed himself against his flank, even as the horse dipped his head, fishing for loose hay &

& when he returned Dee was sitting on the roof of his car, her weight concaving the metal & she motioned him up, laid back, pointed & then his arm paralleled hers, all but one finger curled in the dark, Urza Major & Auriga but between them, ever so faintly, Lynx, a constellation, he explained, born in the 17th century to fill the gap &

Patrick Kelling is a doctoral student in the Creative Writing program at the University of Denver and is the fiction editor for the literature magazine Gambling the Aisle ( His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and to Best New American Voices.