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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 7, Number 3, September 2013


Jeff Streeby
Yucaipa, California, U.S.A.


Habit is Heaven's own redress:
it takes the place of happiness.
Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, Ch. 2, st. 31

What . . . ?

You wake and you’re peevish—it’s that sinking feeling like there’s something you forgot—late again, past time to feed. You’ve got to think “God, it’s still too hot and the kitchen radio’s too loud.” You don’t know how, but it’s PRI—“ . . . 12:00 in the daytime . . . church bells ringin’ . . .

From the back porch you can see that evening sun burning white at the horizon like a welder’s torch. Off to the south a squat pillar of cloud announces that July’s monsoons might be on the way. You think maybe you need a drink. “ . . . Church bells ringin’ . . . somebody mus’ be daid . . . ”

The Franklins and the hot red sky join along a ragged molten bead. You know just out of sight all the dusty groins of the wash are deep with piles of household garbage, ruined furniture, old tires—all the rude colonia’s mix of cast-offs and debris.

Dust devil—
in its crackling toils,
red dirt, trash, brittle desert litter

Across the road, the beehives that your neighbor has set out gleam white against salt cedar brush, and blue-black shadows thick in the mesquite are dappled with spatter of the falling light. Winds that blow the sunburned sage and witch grass smell of distant rain. Yellow salt bush flowers and ocotillo grows. Unexploded mortar rounds from the abandoned firing range turn up now and then to keep you on your toes. “ . . . mus’ be daid drunk . . .

If someone asked you, you would say this road goes through to join I-25 at Anthony, New Mexico. Around here, you know the compass rose is arbitrary and all routes run through the Spaghetti Bowl. The honky-tonk piano and the washboard coming in.

“All sunshine makes a desert,” you locals say. And that seems true enough: that is, up on Hondo Pass, the natural fracturing of rock is underway, the cholla’s blooming and so’s the prickly pear. And always you are aware that out here on the edge of things, coyotes eat unlucky dogs and cats. That’s why they come around. You can hear their giddy chorus yapping—this time they’ve run something small to ground down by your mailbox.

In the breaking pen, dos desafíos—
eye of the chaparral bird a mirror for the rattlesnake’s eye—
un duelo al sol.

And though you wouldn’t know it doesn’t matter, you note the sharp-winged bullbats have already taken to the air: fast-moving, angled shapes that call back and forth to fill the violet twilight—each twilight fills the same—with their tight, screechy croaks and softly percolating natter. Cymbals and drums.

It’s cooler now it’s getting dark (the sun’s almost behind the mountains) and already mosquitoes—that thin whine of wings—buzz around your ears. You see the desert moths have begun to swarm your porch light. Wynton Marsalis, that trembling clarinet of his.

When the old horse sees you by the fence, he leaves his little patch of shade beside the burned-out shed where he’s parked himself since noon and ambles toward his nightly scoop of grain. You’ve thrown his hay, but the gelding’s thirsty and turns aside to drink. You see the water in his tank reflects the fading sky, the clouds, the mercury vapor light above the gate, and you, looking up out of the bottom (an interesting sight) to meet your own gaze from that arresting vantage. When his two muzzles touch, the surface ripples and the little shoal of goldfish gathered there with one mind dives away.

Around the burned-out saddle shed,
red pricklypear
taller than the eaves.

The flies have got his eyes—you see thick snot-like mucous running down his face—and they’ve chewed his pasterns through to blood. You are a disgrace. You haven’t done a thing again today. The bass fiddle and the banjo behind the coronet.

No “Vaya con dios mi Corazon,” no hasty note by the coffee pot, but still you somehow have figured out she’s gone for good. Not by mutual consent, you’d almost have to say. You’d like to think your best efforts haven’t fallen flat again. But perhaps they have. A notion like that logically would follow. The solo coronet.

Anyway, it’s times like these you all but forget yourself and that strange hollow feeling takes your breath away. This is when once more you very nearly realize you’re dead as your grand-dad’s beaver hat. You’re breathing, yes, but where’s the trick in that? There’s nothing that you love and nothing you resent. Your world has always been for you only a torrent of foreign-sounding background noise—vague impressions running like bad subtitles under commonplace events. Nothing brings you joy and nothing brings you sorrow. All you’ve got to show for your 60-odd years of half-hearted effort as a human being are a couple of resentful ex’s, an old pickup and a trailer. And that’s all you’ll have tomorrow. Nothing that you’ve done seems worth condemning or forgiving. You can’t share or recollect. You almost suspect you have become too used to cheap substitutes for living. You’d be pretty sure, if it ever crossed your mind, that you could disappear without a trace and nobody would care. If you took the time to think it out you’d see for sure that you’ve been mostly written off by the human race. The last few bars of Dead Man’s Blues through a gasp of static.

You should know by now that nobody’s waiting on your good advice, that nobody ever thought twice about what you had to say—that even on the holidays, nobody waits for you to call. None of that is news. But it hasn’t ever dawned on you that what’s missing here most of all is some sense of loss—that you maybe missed out on the prize or were double-crossed somehow. You almost wonder what any of it meant and what it might have cost.

By starlight
in the wide arroyo behind your corrals
a Queen of the Night will unfurl its pale delicate flowers
just once.

Suddenly night comes and this desert shrinks to fit the dome of yellow porchlight that you’re standing in. Oh well, you know your little place is neat, your fences tight. You might as well go back inside. After all, if you don’t look too hard, things seem all right, but for those stark accents that mark the silences you deserve: a coffee pot that gurgles in an empty house, hot winds at noon that moan along the eaves, coyotes calling to each other in the dark.

Moonrise. A steady breeze.
Windmill in silhouette—
squeal of the wheel,
rattle of the plunger.

Shy ladinos gathered at the tanks.



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