University of Oregon

By Ellie Belew

i. turning west

Where we dream of cowboy and Carhartt clothes, of horses and a sky that is all ours. Nobody dreams of the work, body bent and then some, hiring out when you can’t afford what your own place needs, working day jobs to feed the kids. Trying to understand big loans and big trends, trying to hold on while it all bucks. Find a friend or a relative in a restaurant, in construction, in insurance or real estate, especially real estate, because knowing the land might count for something.

Snow turns to slush under soft rain, rainbows spread in a deep sigh. The sun throbs, loses interest, dew holds the sour scent of dry grass. Beneath the days and the locomotion of weather and breeze, the land itself changes.

The Company made this town with a mining claim, laid a long metal band of railroad on its way to somewhere else. The Company took from this place and we worked for it. An old trail across the mountains became a highway, a byway, a yellow brick road. Ridgelines that contained and illuminated our lives, and those of our parents, and back in time, now lie in the shadow of something much bigger. Bigger than a mountain because we know mountains, a bigger that makes us little more than a molehill.

No one really looks at this town. Because anybody and everybody was either born here, or is here for work, or leaves. Our paths are worn house to store, neighbor to neighbor, sideyard to school door. Grass grows tall between families who do not speak to each other, weeds cluster around the empty houses.

A whisper, a voice, a chorus from the dark. A child hears, an old woman listens, a man hunches forward, ears perked.

ii. desperate means

The men are sullen and sudden with violence. The women are blamed and sometimes punished for gossip but it is the men who pass on worry and fear: over tailgates, between silence and sighs, in their nasty not-quite-drunks.

Like a drug in our blood and we can’t do anything about it. We hear it in our voices. Spoiling, not for an actual fight, but a certain tenor that gets everybody ready, gets everybody ugly. Rumbling turns to grumbling. Classic complaints with undertones. At home, in the dark, when the stack of bills gets so big you throw them all away. When your kids stop asking for things. When you can’t remember how to begin to make love.

The wheel turns round and round, picking up speed. There is barely one schooner of warm beer in the pitcher. Nobody wants to finish it, to buy the next round.

“It’s a crime, you know? We chew each other up if the Company—the Boss—the Feds—if any of them even talk about throwing us a bone—”

“If it’s so frigging impossible why don’t you leave? And take your ex-wife with you.”

“Easy for you to say. You got a job and your wife drives school bus.”

“I think it’s more than a bone.”

“Well I think if you aren’t with us, you gotta be against us.”

“I’ll show you a bone.”


The men bark. Then laugh. Someone coughs up five dollars and another bitter pitcher goes around, TV yacking in the corner.

Everybody watches everyone else. Change left for a tip, what goes on the barbecue, what your kids wear to school, what you do when your rig needs fixing. Arguments spill over, children cower. We all take sour pleasure in a word here, a word there. Like the flicker of a razor. The tears that follow are real. We lick our wounds, make vows and apologies. Until the circle of another day begins.

Buck up indeed. We try. We pretend. We could be close, maybe loyal, maybe friends. Maybe, just maybe, there is something we can do. Round and round the mesmerizing wheel of hope spins.

iii. chasing

After the war, most of the young men who went away returned, having seen the world of bombs and tyrants and progress, the world of many mountains, and many towns. The bright ones see the sparkle, see the sharp glint of not-so-far, not-so-far-away, really. With the strong backs of their parents they heave-ho.

Over-the-hill becomes local parlance for going to and from the big city. In the fancy magazines and TV shows there were prosperous times, but our town is dwindling and everybody knows it. Those with itchy feet, with plans, move on. Unless they happen to be a big fish in our small pond. The rest of us blunder on. There had been a time. Oh sure, there had been several. Ask around.

In this town, the spinning of our wheels generates current. Alternating: attractive, repulsive. A spin, a whir, a glittering shimmer. As greedy as crows we plot how to snatch the future; we’ll figure out then, when we clutch it, what it’s good for.

Big city allure. Call it the Emerald City, call it Seattle, or Portland, or the Coast. Watch its aluminum planes and software and tennis shoes bring jobs and money for everyone. Watch its big banks and its big plans disappear. Our town cannot receive. By circumstance of topography wave patterns rebound, what broadcast towers and satellites are sending everywhere, all that light and noise bounces like bad pool shots everywhere but here.

Money, its currency, its field of attraction, grows more powerful, spinning round and round, hand to hand. Speculation, all of us and everything we know, sucked into the swirl of marketplace, interest rates, stocks and bonds; little numbers with big meanings swirling though a funnel.

The sun comes up, the clouds blow through, the moon sets. Seasons go round and round. Spinning at the same speed, they say, but what does your heart tell you? Can’t you feel sometimes, the Earth a little weary, dragging as it spins? Can’t you see sometimes, our whole world twirling faster into the edge of time?

Ellie Belew lives in Roslyn, Washington.

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