Bonnie Armstrong

Summer 2012 Writing Regimen Contest Winner

At the end of every month-long writing regimen, participants are invited to submit up to three of their best regimen-inspired pieces for a chance at publication in SEROnline. After sifting through the varied and truly wonderful submissions from this summer’s run, we managed to select just one prose piece to display. We are proud to announce that Bonnie Armstrong is our most recent winner.

Bonnie Armstrong, Summer 2012 Winner


Bonnie Armstrong grew up in Southern California, went to graduate school in the Midwest and the northeast, but is glad she finally settled in Tallahassee. Retiring a few years ago from faculty and administrative positions at Florida State University, she now provides instructional design consultation for colleges and universities. She is also pursuing her interest in writing and has published short stories in theApalachee Review, the Seven Hills Review, and in Life Lessons, an Anthology of Writers from the Osher Life-long Learning Institute at Florida State University. Her poems have appeared in the Penumbra Chapbook and the Life Lessons Anthology. In addition, she writes reviews for the Southern Literary Review and recently joined the staff of the Apalachee Review as an associate editor. She and her husband love to ballroom dance and travel any chance they get.

This story was inspired by a writing prompt on Day 4 that discussed the use of setting in stories. The prompt was to write a story, poem, or nonfiction piece in which the setting is crucial and more than just a backdrop. Bonnie wrote a poem first, but when it reached 800 words, she decided to try to turn it into a story instead. In Bonnie’s words: “I’d never tried a short short story before, but revising the poem into the short short was an enjoyable task. I’m now motivated to try more short shorts.”

Hiding Out in Desert View, 1985

I fled suburbia over a year ago, leaving my husband behind, and found Desert View, an unincorporated cluster of concrete block buildings and trailers perched high above the El Cajon Valley just east of San Diego. From my trailer window, a mountain stretches as far as I can see, arroyos furrowing its face into an illusion of rugged cheekbones, now lightly covered with a skin of dry, brown dirt.

But in summer, thunderstorms foment in the Anza-Borrego desert and sweep over the mountain’s brow. Then rain tears down the slopes in angry torrents, engulfing everything in an atmospheric roar, reminding me of my husband. His sky-blue eyes would suddenly grow gray with imagined wrongs, and he’d let lose his accusations. Finally, his furious words tore the topsoil of love from my heart like the summer rain rips away the thin skin of the mountain.
So one morning I didn’t drive to work. Instead, I threw a suitcase and typewriter into my old Ford Fairlane and took off for the desert, seeking a place to hide out for awhile. Three hours later I stumbled on Desert View and stayed, captivated by the rosy-tan sand stretching in a broad plateau, not to the horizon but into the horizon, like a passage to a new world. The bordering mountains, young like me and too steep to be subdued, even by dirt bikes, emboldened me to reach upward, showing me the sky was truly the limit. Here was a place where I could sing and shout and explore and, finally, write. I didn’t need much; I could work at anything and get by. It didn’t matter that my husband would likely turn my family against me; nothing mattered, except my freedom to become whoever I wanted to be.
Now I’m a waitress in the Desert View Café. I’m careful with my money and always have enough to pay rent, fill my Fairlane with gas, buy food, and even booze. But lately I feel off-balance, like tiny earthquakes are snaking cracks of doubt through my bedrock. I know I’m spending too much time watching old T.V. movies with Cal, the forty-something owner of both the café and the gas station, and too often getting drunk or high (if Cal has weed), and then having sex as an afterthought. And I’m morphing into a desert rat. The sun has leached the gold from my once dark copper hair, and my face is bare because eyeliner runs, eye shadow pools, and lipstick oozes into the new lines framing my mouth.
Most of all, I worry about writing. Or rather, not writing. In my trailer (which I never call a mobile home, unlike everyone else in Desert View) my typewriter huddles on a side-table, mute and undemanding beneath a plastic cover, a caged song bird deceived into sleep. But I have no choice. The words used to flow like a river through my being, a source I could always dip into and let pour onto the page. Now I search for words like someone tramping through a previously picked orange grove, frantic to find a piece of fruit that was somehow left-behind. And almost always disappointed.
So slowly but surely (my mother’s motto for how to live life) I am cultivating the art of not thinking, not feeling, just waiting tables in the cafe, saying the same things day after day about weather and road conditions since the customers are mostly families going camping, or rock hounds, or rabbit hunters, or just teens on their way to the Anza-Borrego to drink.
But sometimes I think, in spite of myself, about the buzzards squatting on the sweeping branches of the scrub oaks scattered throughout town. Big-bodied birds with unruly black feathers, they remind me of the over-sized torsos and dark hair of the men calling Desert View home. These men hunker down on crates outside the gas station and, like the birds, paste their eyes on the landscape for hours, hoping to spot something once vigorously moving but now so still it might be dying. Because it could be their next meal. Because that’s how people are here, living off those who come through and those who can’t make it any further.
Each day reflects the image of the one before, and I’m not sure but time itself might be dying. Sometimes I feel shimmery, like the heat waves rising from the road. Other times my thoughts scatter and diffuse, like the dust when the late afternoon wind sweeps the plateau clean of anything not rooted to the ground. Worst of all is the hot hand of noon, the heat vaporizing me into small puffs of moisture. I struggle to breathe during those rare day-time moments when I leave the sanctuary of the gasping air-conditioner in the café or the laboring heart-beat of the swamp cooler in my trailer.
This morning I stand staring out the sand-pitted kitchen window of my trailer, still lounging in my faded pink pajamas, and a cup of coffee in hand. The arroyos on the mountain stretch as far as I can see. A gentle spring rain falls on the mountain’s face, soaking immediately into the substrate but still leaving the thin soil barren, even of tumbleweeds. There is no place to hide on these slopes; there is no place to hide in Desert View. I’d planned to write for a few hours, but instead I stand staring through the rain, wondering how long I can keep moving, and when the buzzards will begin watching me.