March Contest Winner: Wild West Hero
Updated: Mar 25, 2022
Each month we hold a writing contest for our members, by our members. Writers are given parameters, such as a word count and/or a prompt. Entries are judged and discussed blindly. For this month's contest, writers were asked to create a 1,000-word piece that either featured or was inspired by a song heard on the radio during the 1970s.
Wild West Hero
by J. Powell Ogden
I KICK OFF MY RED WINGS and set the two six packs of Michelob on the floor beside the only chair in the room. They’re ice cold, fresh from the Piggly Wiggly up the street, and I wonder how many I’ll get through before passing out tonight.
It’s Friday. I’m sunburned, windburned and fine red dirt shakes from my short, bushy hair as I collapse in the ripped chair. I snag the remote from the crate beside me and point it at the TV, whose bunny ears, wrinkly with foil, give me one channel. Click the remote. TV on. Click. Off. No decision required. I’m four beers in and halfway through a new episode of Cheers when the call comes.
I swap the remote for my flip phone.
“Tish?” Madonna says.
“Dad’s mom died.”
“Have you been drinking?”
“Me? No.” I press my fingers into the space between my bleary eyes. “What happened?”
She pauses. I’m sure she’s considering the slur in my voice. “They found her body on the living room floor. Respiratory failure.”
I squeeze my eyes shut. Calculating. Columbus is a solid, twenty-four-hour drive or a ten-hour, three-stop, God-knew-how-much-flight from Minot. A warm breeze wafts through the screens, and I catch the scent of the rustling, tall grass prairie that begins at the edge of town, the sharp dust of the badlands beyond it. My throat prickles.
She adds, “The funeral’s on Monday.”
Three days. My eyes slide to the steel-toed work boots in the corner. I’m damned proud of those boots. They were new at the beginning of the summer. Now, near the end, they’re scuffed and broken in, and I know I’ve fit in during my summer internship with the men up here in North Dakota. The men of the Indian Health Service. “I just flew to Hartford.”
I don’t add that I have no more leave. I don’t add that I’ve already been AWOL once this summer. No one in my family knows that.
“Nobody expects you to come home, Tish.”
“Thanks, Mad Don.” Sarcasm rough-hews my voice.
My older sister’s tone softens, which coats my throat with more prickles. “I didn’t mean to—”
“I’ll call you back,” I say and hang up.
Since high school, after seeing Dances With Wolves, all I’d wanted to do was adopt a golden retriever, buy a Jeep and travel west to work on civil engineering projects on Native American Indian reservations. Build earthen dams and canals. Provide clean water and safe septic. I’d wanted Montana, Wyoming or Washington State. I’d wanted to see the Rockies and hike along mountain streams testing water quality, serve the sorely abused indigenous peoples of the wild west. I’d made it halfway there. I didn’t have the dog. And Dances With Wolves was a romanticized mirage. But North Dakota, honed by fierce, dry winds was beautiful in her own way.
I call my boyfriend in Hartford.
“You were just here,” he says. “AWOL.”
“Can you get the time off?”
The short answer is yes, probably.
“I’ll call you back.” I hang up and take stock of my tiny apartment. Beer bottles and dishes with dried-on food fill the sink, clothes smelling like sewage litter my bedroom floor, and mold patches fancy up my clawfoot tub, but I have rags, soap and a big box of Hefty bags. If I’m going, I have to clean. I set a pot of coffee on to brew and get to work.
By the time I’ve packed up all my shit and stuffed it into my boxy Civic, I face the tub, sober, caffeine-jittery and dog-tired. I know I need more than a rag to attack the cast-iron behemoth, and I’m lucky to find an old scrub brush under the sink. When it’s all shiny clean, I pull the plug. As the sudsy water swirls down the drain, I look down at my hand. My Claddagh is gone. No. No, no, no!
I fumble with the plug, but it’s too late. The water and the ring are gone. I shine a flashlight into the drain and see only dark, slimy hair stuck to the sides. No ring. I ransack the apartment looking for tools. Nothing. It’s close to midnight when I call my landlord. It must ring a hundred times before he picks up.
“What the hell?”
“The ring my mom gave me went down the tub drain.”
“It can wait ‘til morning.”
“I’ll be gone by morning.”
His breath whooshes into the phone. Seconds tick off. Then, “Can I have that TV?”
“Sure.” I’d bought the piece of junk from a garage sale for $20.
“And the remote?”
I smile. “Yeah. And you can have the rest of my beer, too.”
He shows up a half hour later and wrangles with the drain. After an hour, a good-sized pile of sticky hair and black goo stinks up a bucket beside the tub. No ring. I swallow the achy lump in my throat and thank the man as I watch my shit-TV, remote and lukewarm beer go out the front door.
When I cross into Minnesota, the horizon turns from midnight blue to deep apricot edged with gold. My hand rides the cool slipstream, over and down, outside my window. I hadn’t called my boss. Officially, I’m an ensign. There are only ten days left in my internship, and if I’d asked for permission to leave, I would have had to come back. So, AWOL for the second time in two months, I pick up my cell and call my dad. He doesn’t answer, so I clear my throat and leave a message.
“Hey, Dad. It’s Tish.” My chest quivers, and I have to clear my throat again. “I’m sorry I didn’t come home when Mom died last year.” I pause. “I’m on my way now.”
Then I turn up the radio and smile ruefully as the classic rock station spins one of my favorite Electric Light Orchestra’s songs: “Wild West Hero.”
Photo by Linhao Zhang on Unsplash