“…Thoroughly engaging…narrated with passion and eloquence…”
-- The Clarion Review
These short stories by J. Reeder Archuleta, author of the novel “Rio Sonora”, are about coming of age in rural far West Texas. The stories are about the people who have come to stay in a remote part of Texas with a climate that can be harsh and unpredictable and a land that is demanding and unforgiving. For these folks, there is no place they would rather live.
“…A rich tapestry…The stories are conveyed in lean, elegant prose reminiscent of Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy…”
-- Blue Ink Review
|Publisher:||Dog Ear Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.31(d)|
Read an Excerpt
What remained of the afternoon sun balanced on the floor of the horizon and gusts of wind scattered the piles of brittle leaves at the base of the cottonwoods on top of the dirt berm. The leaves swirled in the cooling air above the small boy's head and then settled on the empty matchboxes he pushed around the small roads he had smoothed in the packed earth of the berm. He pushed the leaves out of the way but when they kept falling on his matchboxes he abandoned his imaginary highways and stood, brushing the dirt from his trousers. He could hear the steady drone of the tractor engine and turned to look over a small stand of salt cedars to the field on the other side. He could see Cecil on the faded red Farm-all pulling a brace of discs that cut long straight lines down the length of the field.
"Josh, come down here and clean up. Supper's ready," his mother called from the other side of the berm. There was a pot of stew hanging on a rod and bacon sizzled in the skillet at the edge of the fire.
"Okay, Mama," but he stood still and waited for Cecil.
Cecil brought the tractor up over the turn row to the bottom of the berm and cut the throttle, letting the engine idle. He then pulled a lever and lowered the brace of discs to the ground. Josh watched the cap on the exhaust pipe beat up and down in steady rhythm as Cecil kept the engine at a low idle, then he dropped the matchboxes and ran to the back of the tractor. Cecil climbed down, picked up the boy, holding him over his head, and sat him down on the tractor seat then climbed back up and stood on the axle next to the boy. "Do you remember where the throttle is?"
Josh scooted to the front edge of the seat and reached over to the right side of the steering column and pointed to the small red lever with a black knob.
"Okay, I want you to rev her a bit, but not too much."
Using both hands, Josh pulled the lever toward him and down and laughed as the engine speed increased and the exhaust cap bounced faster and then it stood straight up. Cecil let it run a while longer, listening to the boy laugh and then he reached over, pushed the throttle lever forward and up, turned the key and shut down the engine. It was quiet with the engine stopped and Josh could feel the heat from the exhaust and smell the gasoline and hot oil mixed with dust.
"C'mon, let's go eat," Cecil told the boy.
He picked Josh up and they got down off the tractor. Then he put the boy on his shoulders and carried him across the berm to the fire.
"Josh, wash up before you even come near the food!" His mother watched him as he went over to the basin and washed his hands and face. Cecil never washed before meals and Josh couldn't wait until he was grown up so he wouldn't have to wash before he ate.
They spooned stew onto their tin plates and sat around the fire and ate in silence. Josh's mother had been quiet all day and Cecil, sensing a storm, gave her plenty of room.
"Those are good biscuits, Belle." Cecil smiled at her.
She ignored him and sat close to the fire, smoking a cigarette. The brown cigarette paper was flat in the middle where there was not enough tobacco. Cecil liked to tease her about the way she rolled a smoke because she always spilled the tobacco and the paper always gapped open where she did not seal it properly.
Every payday he would buy a carton of Luckies but it had been weeks since Cecil had been paid and they had been rolling their own.
After a while Cecil said, "I believe that's the best rabbit stew I had in a while." He winked at Josh.
"Well hell that's the deal ain't it? You kill 'em and I cook'em." She threw her cigarette into the fire and went over to the washstand that Cecil had rigged on an old wooden crate. Josh was quiet because Belle was in one of her moods. He looked at Cecil out of the corner of his eye. Cecil smiled at him. Cecil had never gotten angry with Josh and always talked to him in a gentle way, especially when Belle was in one of her moods. He was a big man with an easygoing nature who liked to laugh a lot except when he drank whiskey and even then he just got real quiet. He usually only drank when he talked about someplace called Anzio. Josh thought that it must be a far-off place because it seemed like Cecil tried to find it when he drank and was quiet and the spark would go out of his eyes and he would stare out past the fields.
Cecil put his plate down and began to roll a cigarette. "What've I done now, Belle?"
"Nothin', just nothin'. How many times have I told you how tired I am of all this?" She waved at the tent and the car parked behind it.
"I told you, darlin', just another week and I'll finish the contract and we can move on."
She did not say anything and began picking up the plates. Josh felt his stomach shrink and he wasn't hungry anymore. Sometimes he heard them at night when they would argue in the tent. Belle wanted to settle down and she would question Cecil about what they were going to do when Josh was old enough to go to school. Belle wanted a house with wallpaper and a real bed and she wanted a decent stove and a sink and a lot of other things Josh could not remember. He had tried hard to imagine what it would be like to live in a house like that but could never picture it in his mind. He only knew moving from place to place and living in the tent and car except for the time they had lived for a short time in what Belle had called a "tourist cabin." He had good memories of that because it was warm and cozy and there was a radio and Belle kept turning the dial and would sing along with the music.
Cecil and Belle slept in the tent and Josh slept in Cecil's car on the front seat on a pallet Cecil made for him. He liked sleeping in Cecil's car. It was like having his own private tent. But sometimes in the middle of the night, his mother would come out of the tent and climb into the back seat of the car. She tried to be quiet but it always woke Josh. He would keep his eyes closed and pretend to be asleep but he would lie there awake and listen as she sobbed in the back. He did not know what to do when she cried like that and even though he knew he should do something he could never think of anything. One time he asked her what was wrong and she told him: "Oh, Josh just leave me alone and go back to sleep."
But he couldn't sleep. So he just lay there while she sobbed and then he felt tears sting his eyes and his arms and legs would get real stiff. He felt useless but he could not go to sleep until she stopped sobbing. He would wait for what seemed a long time and then when he heard her soft, steady breathing he would wait a while longer until he knew she wouldn't cry anymore and then the tightness would leave his body and he would drift off to sleep.
Josh looked into the fire and picked at the stew on his plate. Cecil smoked and watched Belle stack the dishes on the washstand. She banged the tin plates around and threw the knives and forks into the dish pan. Cecil rolled another cigarette.
"I think I'll go for a little stroll – c'mon Josh, you can go with me."
"He'll be stayin' here to help me clean up." Belle kept her back to Cecil.
"Hush up and get over here! You can dry while I wash."
Josh watched Cecil get up slowly. Cecil winked at him and then walked down the edge of the field, disappearing from sight on the far side of the car. Josh was disappointed but he picked up the towel and went over to the wash stand. He liked walking in the evening with Cecil. It was always an adventure for him because Cecil could see ground squirrels long before Josh could spot them and he would laugh and point them out. And Cecil could see birds hidden in the trees and they would stop and watch until the birds sensed their presence and flew off. Once last summer they were walking alongside a ditch bank and suddenly Cecil grabbed Josh by the shoulder.
"Stay still!" He whispered. He cocked his head to listen and then Josh heard a sharp rattling sound.
"Don't Move!" And then "There he is!"
Cecil pointed to some weeds next to the water in the ditch. It was the first rattlesnake Josh had ever seen. They stood very still and quiet for what seemed like forever, then the snake, its tongue flickering, slowly uncoiled and crawled out of the weeds and slid across the ditch bank into the field. Josh felt his heart pounding in his chest. Cecil lifted his hand from Josh's shoulder and said: "Remember to always give a snake plenty of room and leave 'em a way out."
Josh remembered when Belle would walk with them. Belle and Cecil would walk real close together and talk and laugh the whole time. They walked so lightly on the ground it looked as if they were floating. Cecil would call her, "ma Jolie Blon", and Belle would smile and call him her "Bon Homme" and grab his hand and they would walk together holding hands. It had been a long time since Belle had walked with them in the evening.
In the morning Cecil went to work without breakfast. Josh ate biscuits and bacon and Belle drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. She sat looking into the fire, smoking and drinking coffee while Josh picked up the plates one at a time and took them over to the wash stand and dipped water out of the bucket into the basin.
In the distance they could hear the tractor as Cecil plowed the field that was on the far side of yesterday's field and after a while Belle got up and went into the tent. She came out carrying two suitcases and her coat and went over to the car and put them in the trunk.
"C'mon, Josh, let's go!" She was standing at the car.
"Where are we going, mama?"
"Just get over here and get in the car!"
He looked back at the fire and saw the rest of the bacon in the skillet begin to turn black and smoke.
"Mama! The bacon!"
"Josh, let's go and I mean right now!"
He hurried over to the car but he was not ready to go because he felt he had forgotten something. Belle lifted him up and put him in the back seat and went round and got behind the wheel. She started the car and in a moment they were heading down the dirt road that led out to the blacktop and the main highway. Belle never looked back.
Josh stood on the back seat and turned around to look out the back window. He could see Cecil's tractor in the distance, a small thing followed by a large brown cloud and in his mind he could hear the exhaust cap popping up and down. And then he remembered his matchboxes. He had forgotten them on the ditch bank!
"Mama! My matchboxes! I left them!"
"Oh Josh, I'll get you some more."
But Cecil had given him those matchboxes and Josh had watched as he had drawn wheels and doors on them and windshields and people inside behind the windows. Tears came to his eyes but he would not cry because Belle would just scold him. They drove on past old farmhouses and barns and Josh saw a tractor plowing a field near the road and it was then he knew for certain they would not ever be going back for Cecil.
After a while Belle started humming and then she began singing. She had a high, clear voice and knew a hundred songs and her singing always made Josh happy. He stood on the back seat with his arms across the top of the seat. The windows were down and the cool air blew into the back, drying his tears and carrying his mother's singing and after a while, the air and the steady hum of the wheels on the highway made him sleepy. He lay down on the seat and was soon sound asleep.
When he woke they were parked in front of a bus station in a town.
"Josh! Wait here – I'll be right back."
Belle opened the trunk, took the two suitcases out and closed the lid. Josh watched her walk into the station carrying the suitcases.
Evening shadows stretched across the front of the bus station and men in suits and women wearing dresses and carrying purses walked by the car and smiled in at him. In a little while Belle came back to the car without the suitcases. She got in, started the car and pulled out onto the main street of town. She was quiet as she drove and she leaned forward looking at the street signs. She turned down a side street and pulled into a lot with cars lined up in rows with numbers painted in bright colors on the windshields.
Belle got out and began talking to a large man who was wearing a tie and a straw hat. They talked for a while and Josh looked out the back window at the cars and a clothesline strung with yellow and red flags running from a pole at the front of the lot to a small building in back.
"I assume there is a clear title, ma'am?"
"Yes, it's in the glove box."
"And what are you looking to get for it, ma'am?"
"I know it's worth two-fifty."
The man frowned and Josh watched him as he walked around the car, examining it closely. He saw Josh standing on the rear seat.
"Howdy young feller!" The man had a double chin and kind, blue eyes.
"Well I could go one-seventy five. The tires are pretty bad and this paint is real tired."
"Goddammit! You know it's worth at least two-twenty five!" Belle was following the man around the car.
The man stopped, stepped back from Belle and took off his hat.
"It might be to you, ma'am, but I can't go higher than one seventy five."
Belle stepped closer to the man. "You wouldn't be trying to take advantage of a widow, would you?"
Belle started for the driver's door.
"Ma'am, I am truly sorry for your plight and I would never take advantage, but if I agreed to more than one seventy five my boss would fire me and I need this job!"
Belle had the door open and stood there for a moment as if deep in thought.
"Well, if that's the best you can do."
"Yes, ma'am, that is the best I can do!"
"Well, ok, but I need to get some cash up front to take care of some bills today."
"Yes, ma'am, I can do that but I'll need to see the title."
Belle reached into the glove box and brought out an envelope with the title and handed it to the man. The man studied the title.
"Cecil Deveraux," He looked up from the paper, "Your husband?"
"Yes." Tears were in her eyes. "The war." She said.
"Ma'am, I am so sorry for your loss."
"Thank you." She looked at Josh and then asked, "Will it take long?" She sniffled. "I mean, I need some cash now to repay a loan this afternoon ..."
"No, ma'am, it won't take long. I can give you some cash now and the rest when we have the papers drawn up and signed."
The man walked back to the office with the keys and the title. Inside the office the owner of the lot watched his salesman approach with the keys and title to Cecil's car.
"What's the deal?" He asked.
"She wants to sell it. There's a clear, signed title." The salesman handed the title to the owner.
"What did you offer?"
"One seventy five."
"You thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?
The salesman shrugged. He did not like to think that the woman was dishonest and besides the little boy reminded him of one of his own. "She wanted some cash up front," he told the owner. Suddenly he did not like his job as much as he did at breakfast.
The owner grinned, "I guaran-damn-tee you that Mr. Cecil Deveraux is not dead and at this moment does not have a clue that his wife, or whoever she is, is selling his car. And once we give her some cash we'll never see her again. Oh, we may see Mr. Deveraux when he comes looking for his car but by that time the storage fees will add up to more than what the car is worth. You did real good, Wilbur." He went over to the desk and took out a small metal cash box. He removed five ten dollar bills and one five.
"This is a little bonus for you," he handed the salesman the five dollar bill. "And give her this," handing him the five ten dollar bills, "Then drive the car around back and park it way in the back of the shop behind those two big trucks. Not a bad deal for fifty bucks." He was smiling.
The salesman had a sour feeling in the pit of his stomach as he put the five dollar bill in his pocket.
When the salesman went back to the office with the title, Belle opened the door to Cecil's car.
"Josh, c'mon, get out of the car!"
"But mama, what loan —"
"Hush, Josh – just keep quiet until we get out of here!"
The man came back and counted out five ten dollar bills and handed them to Belle. He gave Josh three orange lollipops.
"Will a couple of hours be enough time?" She asked.
"Things may not be ready 'til mornin', ma'am. I need to draw up the bill of sale and check the title with the State boys and they're closed for the day."
Belle grabbed the man's hand with both of hers. "I hope you'll forgive my behavior and language ..."
"Not at all, ma'am, it must be very hard, what with the little one and all."
Josh put two of the suckers in his pocket and was trying to unwrap the other when Belle grabbed his hand and led him toward the street. She held Josh's hand tightly and they walked quickly down the side street to the main street and turned left toward the bus station. At the corner Josh turned around and could see the man watching them from the lot. They walked down the main street to the bus station. Then they walked past it and went around the block to the back of the station and entered through the back door. Still holding Josh's hand Belle walked up to the ticket counter.
Excerpted from "The El Paso Red Flame Gas Station and Other Stories"
Copyright © 2017 J. Reeder Archuleta.
Excerpted by permission of Dog Ear Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Story 1: Jolie Blon,
Story 2: La Tormenta,
Story 3: Old Dan's Lament,
Story 4: Homecoming,
Story 5: Driving Braceros,
Story 6: The El Paso Red Flame Gas Station,
Story 7: An Understanding,
Story 8: Con Bendigas De Dios,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The thing about southern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona and extreme western Texas is that the more things change, the more they remain the same. This wild country, with it's side-of-the-road mountain towns and wide spreading ranches and isolated farmers interspersed with the odd service station and boarded up farmer's markets and independently owned general stores is in a time warp. To some these stories appear nostalgic but to those of us born and raised here this is not just the way it was. There are places where it still is this way. J. Reeder Archuleta understands that, and honors that way of life with his stories. I loved Josh. He is the character who ties all these stories together, a boy raised by a community who are able to insure that he has what he really needs and his pride as well as he grows from an abandoned child into a responsible, caring man. And the war stories that span WWII and Korea to Josh's Vietnam are the oral histories of a community who takes seriously the cost of freedom, the necessity for giving your all to preserve what we have for the next generations to come. Even an abandoned child (who also understands that he is a fifth generation desert native) without current family ties knows that we are all family, that we rise and fall together and it is the responsibility of everyone to hold the status quo. That has not changed even in this modern world of Walmart and Amazon and extremely fast food. That is why you will find so many residents of the high plains desert who wouldn't dream of moving to a 'real' city with many options for entertainment and excitement and theatres and restaurants and jobs. El Paso is just down the road, and it is big enough for all of us. To visit. I have added Archuleta to my short list of authors who understand and honor our way of life. Ivan Doig. Zane Grey. Cormac McCarthy. Wallace Stegner. But also Kent Nerburn, Michael McGarrity, Tony Hillerman, Navada Barr, William Street, Wily Cash. And our more northern families - C J Box, Craig Johnson, Robert Olmstead. These are authors who love this lifestyle and wish to share it. But please, don't plan to move here. You would hate the dust. I received a free electronic copy of this collection of short stories from Netgalley, J. Reeder Archuleta, and Dog Ear Publishing in exchange for an honest review. Thank you all, for sharing your hard work with me.