a short story by Richard Speer

copyright and all rights retained by Richard Speer
originally published in Sedition Magazine, Issue #2


I came to New Mexico looking for peace and quiet but found only sex and blood.  A month’s seclusion was all I wanted, a month to pound out the first draft of my novel away from the distractions—a month, a thousand miles, and the Continental Divide between me and the newspaper in Seattle, the editors, the creditors, and the wife, with her “Did you check on the second mortgage/caulk the shower/find out whether the insurance covers fertility drugs?”  Above all I needed that big Southwestern sun to dry out my drizzle-shriveled Northwestern skin, bake me out of my seasonal affective writer’s-block bullshit, and get my fingers keyboarding post-haste.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the Great American Novel.  When my month in the desert was over, instead of finishing the book, I’d penned a tawdry little memoir, the one you’re reading now—and I’d written it not in the comfort of some cushy writer’s retreat, but in a cell at the State Penitentiary of New Mexico, a dozen miles down Highway 14 south of Santa Fe.  Blame my hyperactive libido and the broiling heat for the way things turned out:

Eros + Solaris x Chronos = Thanatos

Basically, my dick had a deathwish.  There was one additional factor that led to my current predicament.  Her name is Isabel.  More on her in a minute.

First, understand that a novelist needs his space, physical and psychological, to weave substance and arc into a plot.  A novel can’t be all chop-chop like a newspaper piece; it has to flow.  And you can’t flow—I mean you can’t really, really floooooooooow—when you can’t steal even a single uninterrupted hour to concentrate on the book that’s supposed to be your raison frigging d’être.  So you—meaning I—have to do something.

I did something.  I Googled my way out of Seattle.  “New Mexico writer’s retreat,” I typed in, and a few seconds later the engine spat out a 450-square-foot adobe studio at the end of a dirt road north of Taos.  I followed the link to the slideshow:  the studio’s exterior bathed in honeyed light, the interior done up in Navajo rugs and step-backed chairs.  It couldn’t have been more quintessentially O’Keeffe, more shamelessly clichéd, more utterly perfect.  I looked, I booked, I told my editors to put me down for a month’s unpaid sabbatical.  That night, I entreated my wife not to worry:  “I’ll be as close as the cellphone,” I told her.

A week later when I arrived at the place, I discovered that my cellphone couldn’t get a signal out, not even on analog roam.  Nestled in a canyon beneath the Sangre de Cristos, the studio was actually a guesthouse, a casita rented out by a middle-aged couple who lived in a larger home two acres away—so I was told by a gentleman at the gas station where I stopped to ask directions.  Unpacking my suitcase, I noted approvingly that the casita had no television, no telephone, no fax, no wi-fi.  A note on the counter from the owners advised that a pay phone was down the road at a convenience store in Arroyo Hondo.  I smiled.  This was what I’d come here for:  the chance to cleanse my ears of the newsroom din and be alone with the piñon pines and junipers, the sagebrush and the sunsets over the mesa that bleed for hours before they die.  Here, nothing would touch my eardrums save the whispers of ghosts on the evening breeze:  the echoes of the ancient Anasazi, and of D.H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley and Willa Cather and the rest of the bohemians who’d trekked up to Taos back in the 1920s and ’30s in search of vistas and visions and such.  They would whisper to me, these wraiths, and I’d write.  That was the plan, anyway, until Isabel knocked on the door the next day.

“I hope I’m not interrupting your work,” she said, and went on to explain that she and her husband had bought the guesthouse and main residence more than ten years ago.  “I just wanted to introduce myself and find out if you needed anything.”

Whether she was in her late forties or early fifties I couldn’t say.  Certainly she was older than I by ten or fifteen years, and yet there was something about her brown eyes and something, yes, something subliminal, unutterable, about the way she smelled, that made me consider her question—whether I needed anything—in many lights.  In those eyes, in her careworn face, in the molecules of the scents exchanged between us, I sensed a need, a gnaw that might have been hers or might have been my own or might have once belonged to the ghosts swimming around us in the air.  “No, thank you,” I said.  “I appreciate the offer.”

“You let me know if you think of anything, all right?”  She started to go, then turned to me again.  “I’m at the house every day except Tuesdays, when I go to market.  Jim leaves at 8 in the morning and gets home at 6.  You can set your watch by him.”  She paused.  “Jim is very predictable.”

I couldn’t get any writing done after she left.  My hands, let us say, were in my lap but not on my laptop.  As the winds whipped in from the south through the open patio door, I found myself wondering whether she was Hispanic, Native American, or some alloy of the two, perhaps with a quart or two of Anglo hippie blood thrown in.  She had a bit of a belly, curvy hips, and a soft Zia sunburst of crow’s feet when she smiled.  I lay on the bed, thinking I should get busy on the book but unable to do anything except redraw in my mind her every feature and reconstitute in my nose the burnished amber that had danced its pheromonal bossanova from the core of her into some dark alleyway between my nostrils and limbic system.  It occurred to me that something unspoken had transpired between us, to which neither her husband nor my wife could be privy; that a sliver of our psyches had overlapped in the Venn diagram of this canyon and might overlap again.  Then it occurred to me that maybe I was just horny.

She was all over my fantasies like honey on a sopaipilla the next morning when the birds woke me at the rude hour of quarter-past-six.  Avian fuckers.  Bleary-eyed, I made coffee and drank it slowly on the back porch, looking the property over from one end to the other, thinking very deeply about nothing in particular.  Back in the studio, I flicked the laptop on and opened Microsoft Word.  Dumbly the cursor stared at me, and just as dumbly I stared back.  On the windowsill, a lizard puffed out its neck and did odd little pushups.  It was 8:30 now, and I was hungry.  In a wooden bowl on the table were some pears, which I regarded glassily, intending at some point to eat.

Some time later, with a start, I saw through the open door a large snake, stretched out motionless on the wooden planks.  Must have been a good five feet long, pale brown with reddish spots, and thick.  As it lay there, implacable, I wondered if I should kill it, and if so, with what?  Over to the pantry I shuffled, looking for some manner of icepick or tenderizing hammer but finding in the drawers nothing more threatening than a butter knife.  No matter:  When I glanced back at the porch, the snake was gone.  To be sure it hadn’t slithered inside, I inspected the entryway and looked under the bed, but there was no sign of the thing.  My stomach growled, I crunched into one of the pears, and damned if it wasn’t the juiciest goddamned piece of fruit I’d ever eaten.

The cursor on the laptop was still staring at me, but instead of opening the template for my manuscript, I opened my image viewer and pulled up some porn from my hard drive.  Selectively I opened the jpgs; I wasn’t in the mood for wide shots where you could see faces; I wanted pure gynecology so that I could pretend the flesh and folds were hers.  For the next two hours I made love to her via PhotoShop, slowing myself whenever I got close, then ramping gradually back up the way I would in real life.  Tantric style, you know, like Sting.

But it was a sting of guilt I felt as I shut down the laptop that night.  Three days I’d been here now, touching myself liberally, my manuscript minimally.  No more excuses, I resolved.  Tomorrow with full vigor I would commence my creative work.

Between the coyotes howling and the thunder rolling in the distance and the crickets sawing away like miniature Itzhak Perlmans (whatever happened to the whispers of ancient Anasazi on the evening breeze?!), I hardly slept.  Next morning, crabbily, I awoke to those damned chipper little birds.  I wanted to shoot the fuckers.  A mantra was pulsing through my head, and I realized I’d been turning the words over all night as I’d trudged in and out of consciousness.  The words were Oscar Wilde’s:  “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

I waited until 8:30 to be safe, then sliced down the path to her house.  It was one of those Earth Ship homes made out of dirt-filled tires and recycled cans, half underground, buried like a relic of the Aquarian Age, when eco-friendly communes had flourished in Northern New Mexico.  From my angle of approach, I peered through the slanted windows into the kitchen, where Isabel stood at the sink, washing dishes in a blue apron, her sleeves rolled up.  She didn’t see me as I descended the stone-lined path to the front door.  I knocked.

“Who is it?” came her voice.

I called my name.

“Just a minute…”

It was in fact a full minute or more before she arrived, wrapped only in a towel.  “Sorry,” she said coyly, inching the door open.  “I just got out of the shower.”

Why, the little devil.  She had even managed to douse her hair with a sprinkling of water for effect.  “I’m sorry,” I told her, averting my eyes.  “I can come back later.”

“No, no, don’t be silly.  What can I help you with?”

I met her glance again and told her about the snake.

A couple sentences into my story, she invited me inside with Byzantine apologies for the immodesty of her dress, promising to excuse herself momentarily to put on something more decent.

“I feel badly I interrupted you,” I said.  “I should leave.  Just watch out for that snake—it got away before I could kill it.”

“Kill it?”  She raised her eyebrows.  “Don’t you dare!  Those are bull snakes, they’re not poisonous!  We love them around here, they eat the prairie dogs that tear up the yards!”

“Ah, I see.  Well, then, I’ll leave them alone.”  A moment passed.  I didn’t want to leave.  “What about scorpions?”

“What about them?”

“Are there many of them around?”

“No, no!”  She laughed lustily.  “Taos is too far north!  Same thing with rattlers.”


“Only in the fall.  You see them crossing the road during mating season.”  She tilted her head.  “You’re sure there’s nothing else you need?”

The Teutonic and Italianate halves of my temperament waged war as I stood there, suspended in purgatory between superego and id.

“Let me give you something before you leave,” she said, motioning me into the kitchen and pulling a short ladder out of a broom closet.  “Would you mind steadying this for me?  There’s a crawl space up here…”  She climbed up a few steps.

It was difficult to miss the view up her towel as she slid the crawl space open and reached for something.

“Here!”  She handed me down a clump of green spices tied together with string.  “It’s a sage smudge.  The Indians burn them in rituals.”

I thanked her.

“I gather the sage up in the field and bundle them, then I leave them up here to dry.  Let me give you another.”  At which point she strained farther to reach, her leg tilting outward for balance, affording an even wider view.  That is, if I were to have looked.

Okay, I looked.  I more than looked.  Something possessed me, the Italian had won, and I grabbed hold of the ladder, stepped up beneath and behind her, dispensed with her towel with a yank, and burrowed my face into the crevasse.  Her legs buckled, and from her mouth issued a noise of such husky obscenity, the most precise onomatopoeia could never approximate it.  Clumsily we stepped down, and she unbuttoned my pants as I pulled off my teeshirt.  We did it on the kitchen floor, her hands redolent of sage when she touched my face.  I knew I wouldn’t last long—there was too much pent up—and as the moment of no return neared, I began to pull out, since I hadn’t used a condom.

“No,” she insisted, and told me it was all right, that she had been through the change.

That was the beginning of the end of my novel.

Over the next days and weeks we had a standing appointment.  On alternating days I’d go to her house or she’d come over to the studio.  We did it in her shower, on my patio, her dining room table, my Navajo rugs.  We hiked west of Arroyo Hondo and did it in Manby Hot Springs by the Rio Grande.  During the act we never spoke, and she never climaxed.  Whether this was my fault or hers I couldn’t speculate.  Whatever the case, she always wanted more.

Every day as 5 p.m. approached, we’d part, she to clean up and prepare dinner for her husband’s return, I to spend the evening replaying in my mind every mad, moist moment of the past hours.  My neglected laptop languished for days without so much as having its power turned on.  Counterbalancing the excitement of these afternoons was the shame I felt by night, not so much for betraying my wife, but for betraying my novel.  Perhaps I was too cruel on myself.  All great writers have their distractions, after all:  Kafka his day job, Coleridge his laudanum, Hemingway his bottle.  I have my own prick.

Every other day or so, when I’d call my wife from the pay phone, she’d ask how I was doing on the book, and I’d tell her I’d written “2,500 words today” or “3,000” or, when I was feeling particularly ambitious, a whopping “5,000.”

“I’m proud of you,” she’d say, then move on to recount the tense exchange she’d had with her supervisor that afternoon, or the aftermath of her sister’s bilateral hysterectomy, or the fact that the cat needed to have a tooth pulled.

One morning when Isabel greeted me at her doorstep, she seemed out of sorts.  As I was asking her what was wrong, her husband walked up behind her.  Jim.  This gave me some idea what was wrong.

“He knows everything,” she said, eyes puffy.  “I couldn’t keep it from him any more.”

But he, this Jim, was smiling, which struck me as odd.  When he beckoned me inside I complied, and he explained in a resigned but nerdily overinterested way that he was all right with the situation, provided I acquiesced to one condition.

I waited for him to name his caveat, but he just stared at me.  I shifted my weight from right leg to left.  “What’s the condition?” I asked finally.

“I wanna watch you screw ’er.”

My first impulse was to bolt.  My second impulse, which I heeded, was to tell him in calm tones that I appreciated his cool head but had major misgivings about what he was suggesting.  “I think we shouldn’t complicate things any more,” I said.  “I should go.”

He walked across the room and leaned up against a stained oak gun cabinet.  He was still smiling.

I got the message.

He told her to take her clothes off, and wordlessly she obeyed.  “Now you,” he ordered, and led us into the bedroom, where he himself disrobed.  Over the course of the hour that followed, he choreographed Isabel and me like some backwater Balanchine, barking commands as he watched us and whacked off.  Although the circumstances were trying, I took a certain pride in performing well and wondered whether Isabel were taking some perverse satisfaction from the proceedings.  During the thick of it, as I was on top of her, I felt her hands skimming lightly across my glutes, then massaging the muscles more vigorously, pulling the cheeks apart, and...  Only an instant later I realized that her hands were on my chest—which meant that the hands on my ass were not, could not be, hers.  A quick backward glance at Jim confirmed this, and yet somehow I continued plowing away, willfully oblivious.  Whether this unexpected stimulation affected me in any way other than neutrally, I do not recall.  I am a red-blooded male, I had a task to execute, and I continued it to the end.  Afterwards he had his own way with her, and she, as usual, ended unsatisfied.

This became our new pattern:  I no longer visited her in the mornings, nor she me, but rather, at 7:30 each night, after they had dined, I would either saunter over to their place or they to mine, and we’d go about this sordid business of me on her, her on him, and other permutations I suppose I should leave unspoken.  It felt—how to describe?—like a string of those singsongy, bisyllabic –y words all in a row:  trashy, nasty, seedy, raunchy…  Above all it felt deeply, profoundly wrong—for hours at a time, day after day, orgasm after sweaty, slippery orgasm.

Late one Wednesday afternoon, as my month-long retreat neared its end, I called my wife from the convenience store.  From the get-go she had an edge in her voice, and my mind raced to the conclusion that she’d found us out, Jim and Isabel and me.  But no, as it happened, her excitement stemmed from a call she’d gotten earlier that day from my literary agent, who had phoned with the news that Random House had green-lighted my manuscript and wanted the working draft in time for their Friday editorial meeting—so could I please FedEx a hard copy to them tomorrow for arrival the following day?

The image of that blinking cursor seared into my brain, blinking as if spelling out two words in Morse code:  You're fucked.  Unless.  Unless I could write it—write the manuscript, from start to finish—between now and then.  Could my fingers type that fast?  More importantly, could I come up with something to type?  My wristwatch said it was 5:45 p.m.  If I rushed back to the studio and wrote all night through the morning, all the way until 3 p.m. tomorrow, I might just have time to run a disk down to Paseo del Pueblo Norte, have Kopy Kween rush the job while I waited, then whisk the fresh manuscript over to FedEx before the 4:30 cutoff.  By God, it could be done!  Twenty-two hours, that’s what I’d have to get something down on paper and off to the publisher, if only I could make the juices flow and stay awake through the night.  Which of course I could—I could buy Yellow Jackets and cigarettes and live on black coffee till the thing was written.  Type my fingers to the fucking nubs.  Parlay the sloth and shame of the past four weeks into pathos, yes, slash my literary wrists and letting it all bleed out, yes, wrest my creative drive back from my sex drive, send the package off to Manhattan, then hightail it out of this canyon back to the Northwest, never, ever to come back.

I got the speed pills and a carton of Camels, sped back to the studio, and punched the laptop on.  The screen lit up, and desperately I sat down before it.  My mind drew an utter blank.  Zip.  I wiggled my fingers over the keyboard—“Come on!”  Nothing.  The pathos, the emotional insights I was counting on, where were they?  I stood, paced, put the coffee on, lit another cigarette, returned to the computer.  The minutes raced by, the brain stood still, the screen peered out:  a tabula rasa with an attitude.

Then came the knock at the door.  It was Jim and Isabel, ready for the evening romp.  Cordially but firmly I explained about the deadline and promised a raincheck for tomorrow, knowing full well that if all went as planned I’d be gone tomorrow.  Jim seemed to know I was fibbing, because he insisted we proceed and wouldn’t back down.  It was as if, in his mind, our nightly appointment was a binding contract signed by the three of us in bodily fluids.  I would have slammed the door in his face had it not been for the look on his face, that certain flicker he got in his eyes sometimes, a certain, shall we say, craziness.  In the microsecond it took to catch that look, I comprehended the extent of the mess I’d mired myself in, and suddenly I knew that no good fiction would ever come from this affair, only the cheap melodrama of Harlequin romance or true crime.

But the moment that it died—the hope that I could wring from these weeks some trace of meaning—a new, unrelated idea sprang to life, a new premise for a new novel that would weave together every meandering stream that had ever run unchanneled through my neurons, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood.  A conceit such as this comes perhaps once in a writer's life, and it had come to me now.  With it, this shining, perfect idea, in the forefront of my mind, I knew I could do it—I could write a book in my remaining 20 hours.  It would not be the book I had come here to write; it would be the book I had been born to write.

Jim was still glaring at me, Isabel at his side.

Because I had to get them out of my hair pronto, I suggested by way of compromise that we do an ultra-quickie:  I would make fast love to Isabel, and Jim could simply watch.  He nodded, and in less than a minute I was on her, urgently, violently, euphorically, with such force that I feared I might break her pelvis—and indeed from her open mouth commenced a crescendo of what I took as pain until I realized it was pleasure.  When her muscles clenched around me, as they soon did to my surprise, I knew she had finally climbed beyond that plateau she had never before been able to exceed.  But I myself wasn’t quite finished, so I pressed on.  When I heard someone sobbing, I looked up and saw Jim pulling his shirt and trousers on, stumbling towards the door.  His voice choked:  “No man’s ever made her come before.”  And then he was gone.

Isabel was looking up at me.  I sped my pace, and she began to ascend again, bestial croaks from her throat as she threw her head back, and soon my own pleasure began to well.  Something that was half-thought, half-sensation was coursing through me, difficult for me to describe in words even though words are my stock and trade.  The crux of it seemed to be that this was to be more exorcism than orgasm; that I would expel my every foible and neurosis, my every quirk and quagmire of personality that had ever stymied my ambitions and kept me from full potential—and that in some way, this great release was related to the premise for the new book.  Within this limpid consciousness was also the implication that Isabel would experience her own evolution, that whatever it had been, over the years, that had worn her face and sapped her élan vital would be wiped away and replaced with some manner of crystalline epiphany.

Then the moment came, and so did I, and concurrent with my explosion inside her came another explosion, like a thunderclap over the Sangre de Cristos, and I knew that she had come again, too—except that when I opened my eyes I saw Jim in front of us again—he must’ve come back in without our noticing—but he was hurtling backwards, sucking on a shotgun barrel, his body slamming against the wall behind him, sliding downwards, smearing blood and brains on the adobe until, with a hard thump, his tailbone hit the floor and he slumped over, still.

Over on the table my laptop glowed, screen splattered red, cursor winking conspiratorially.  As I withdrew from Isabel, she glanced over at him and screamed, then looked back at me, eyes expectant.  This, dear reader, is where I confess my darkest sin, not for what I did next, but for the fact that to this day I do not regret it.  Instead of rushing to their house, dialing 9-1-1, and alerting the police, I made a quiet request of Isabel:  “Give me till tomorrow afternoon.  Please.”

Shaking and silent, she left.

And so with his body only a few feet away, I typed with bloody fingers before the shining screen in a torrent of words that flowed from brain to hands like lightning through brine.  Whatever it was that compelled me to do it was a force that superseded both rationality and morality, but it drove me to write 31 chapters:  nearly 80,000 words over the 17-hour marathon from crimson sunset to midnight to crowing cock to midday sun.  When it was finished and saved to CD, this opus that had come out of me, I knew that the vision I’d had the night before had carried through and, come what may, had delivered me from my demons as it had wordlessly promised.  I hoped that somehow, the same would prove true for Isabel.

Fifteen minutes later, staggering from sleep deprivation, unshaven, dried blood caking my hands, I showed up at the copy store with the CD and handed it to the clerk, who looked more than a trifle alarmed by my appearance.  I doubt it was ten minutes before the cops arrived.

At the trial, Isabel testified for the prosecution, but something in the way she looked at me across the courtroom gave me solace.  The district attorney tried to argue that the death was not a suicide, that I’d shot and killed Jim, a claim clearly contradicted, as my defense argued, by the directionality of the buckshot.  Nevertheless the jury found me guilty of a variant of second-degree manslaughter, and the judge sentenced me to ten years, with a chance for parole in six.

In an odd sort of way I felt it would all be worth it when the novel came out.  Literary fame always eclipses personal infamy.  Alas, as I later found out, the CD used as evidence in the trial, which contained the only copy of the manuscript, was lost when the Taos County D.A.’s Office moved into a new building across town.  If you wish, you may play your miniature violins for me now.  Try as I have to reconstitute the book here in my cell, where they allow me to write longhand on lined paper, I have been unable to get it back.

The good news is that I’ve been writing other things:  short stories, poetry, and non-fiction, including the melancholy memoir you’re now reading.  My wife, whom I get along with much better now, sends me big yellow notebooks, which I fill with scribbled confessions and send back to her, covering the postage with money I earn fabricating license plates.  Diligently she transcribes them onto computer and forwards them to my agent, who in turn sells them under pseudonyms to the likes of Esquire, The New Yorker, and Playboy.  I’m making more money now as a writer than I ever have, and I can’t touch a cent of it.  Another bit of news that may surprise you is that Isabel occasionally visits me here.  I’m happy to report she’s doing well, volunteers for the United Way, and is engaged to a wonderful man from Las Cruces who treats her like a queen.

There is a tiny window in my cell, and if I press my face close to the glass and look to the extreme left, I can see the mesas in the west and, in the broad skies above, those singular New Mexican sunsets that bleed for hours before they die.  Funny, isn’t it?—and sad:  When I was out there, walking free beneath those skies, I was a captive of creative block and a Whitman’s Sampler of assorted ennuis; now, as I sit corralled in the middle of parched sands, my creative fount bubbles forth as never before, flowing strong, flowing free, flowing red.




—Richard Speer is the author of Matt Lamb:  The Art of Success (John Wiley & Sons) and a forthcoming literary novel.  His articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, The Los Angeles Times, ARTnews, and Opera News.