“It get more crowded ‘round here come summertime?”
Why on God’s green earth was I talking like that? Did a southern twang just escape my mouth? I stood with one hand gripped in the back pocket of what I call my Clay Jeans. Behind me the gate of the fence surrounding the rundown motel— where this supposed artist residency was housed— creaked in a burst of wind, then slammed shut.
“No sir,” Don said as he stared down the ghostly street, toward the unmoving town and the peaks of Turtleback Mountain, beyond. I winced at the word sir. What was I doing here?
“This the high season,” he continued. “Snowbirds make their way into town. February in New Mexico, escaping the ice world got going back East.” He broke into a barking laugh, culminating in a coughing fit.
Don’s blue flannel hung open over his double-curve of stomach. A flap of greasy hair, meant to be combed-over, hung lank by his right ear. How old could he be— forty? Sixty? He was the caretaker of the residency and lived in a trailer behind the property. The Cow’s Skull Artist Retreat contained five old motel rooms meant to be filled with painters, writers, and other sculptors, but I was the only “resident” signed up for this month. I’d been there for less than a day and was slated for twenty-eight more.
Don plunked a pinch of loose tobacco into a rolling paper. “Saw you leave painful early this morning. Nothing open in Truth or Consequences that hour. Where you head to, then?”
How could he have seen me? Ever since rolling my rented Honda into this sand-caked town, I’d felt as if I was being watched. Even trekking through the desert landscape of Elephant Butte that morning, eyes tracked me in the silence. Could it have been Don?
“My boxes of materials, the clay and tools I had shipped ‘cross, they haven’t arrived just yet. So I got up and went walking.” Thankfully I caught myself before I managed to say “a-walkin’.”
Don grunted— angry?— and turned away, headed back to his trailer. Wind surged through the yard behind me, setting off the hanging chimes and making the busted chairs around the fire pit cackle.
Don seemed to have taken a trip. He’d been everywhere for two days— beyond the screen door as the wind hurled lawn furniture across the yard, peering through his trailer window at night— and then nowhere. I still felt followed, as if something had an eye pinned on me.
My box of materials had not yet arrived. (The postal worker, with an entirely unconcerned shrug: “Should be here, ‘cording to our records. But it’s not.”) I had nothing to do but wander. It seemed I was always intruding. When I walked into the Post Office or a crumbling hot springs bathhouse, the record scratched. All eyes turned toward me, the elephant— no the alien— in the room; the skinny but butch, dirty but fancy, East Coast alien. Thankfully, the grocery store had voices in it, children whining; adults bickering beneath fluorescent bulbs. I couldn’t identify the accent though. Midwestern with an edge of Mexican? I listened to the foreign tones float through the holes of the sparsely stacked shelves. “Spaceport,” “Launch,” “You going?,” “Think it sinful?”
On the sixth morning, as I tromped through the scrubby brush of state park land at dawn, I noticed a missile-shaped monstrosity in the distance. Could it have been there all week? I called myself an artist, yet spent my days wallowing in self-absorbed problems— the rubble of my relationship with Alison, the New York apartment she now thought was hers— without even looking at the world around me. Typical.
Truth or Consequences is a town named after a 1950s television quiz show. Have you heard of anything more American? A contestant was asked a tough question, and either had to answer with the truth or face the consequences of her silence by performing a wacky stunt. I learned this after driving forty minutes down Route 25 to a Denny’s, where I huffed a stack of puffy pancakes. (Reception, phone.) I buzzed in my booth, and not just from the coffee: I was headed to the desert with stolen goods. After two material-less weeks, I had an itch to run, or fight, or physically create something. So I loaded up the backseat of the Honda with the old wooden chairs from the retreat’s yard. No, they weren’t mine— but they also weren’t valuable. In my trunk lay the entire contents of the retreat’s tool shed. A chain saw, four boxes of 3 inch nails, a large mallet, and a staple gun. What would I make? A pyramid! A totem! An alien! Land art!
“Check!” I hollered to the waitress. I had no time to conceal my rude New York soul.
A hunched over, blue flannel-covered, back in the booth in front of me turned. “Lenora.” The old white woman said my name slowly. “Why are you out here?”
“Hooo! You look petrified. I’m Venezia, the pra-prietah of Cow’s Skull. I seen your application photo.” She swung around to my booth more agilely than her years would have suggested. “I’ll ask again. Why are you out here?”
Had she seen me take the chairs from her yard? Had she followed me to the Denny’s? Breathe, I thought, you’ve done nothing to be punished for. “Just exploring ’round these parts, might could make a drawing of ’em.” And— out came the twang.
Her eyebrows rose. “I’m from Queens too, sweetie. Neighborhood over from Forest Hills.” Had I put my hometown on the application? She asked: “You going to the launch?”
“The launch?” The whispers that swam through the T or C supermarket. It was today? “Yep.” I could burn it back to the retreat and replace all the lawn furniture immediately.
“Really, hon?” Coldness moved over my face. “Get in my car for the rest of the drive. Parking there will be one sour-cheeked bitch.”
There was nothing to do but follow. Maybe I could say I was repairing them? In the parking lot, a man lumbered out of a plum Toyota pick-up. Don! I beamed as I crawled into the back of the cab, but he only asked in a deadpan: “Why you out here?”
“Nope,” Venezia sighed, “we’re all going to the spaceport.” The engine caught.
On the bucket seats lay six intricate scale models. One had concentric circles radiating from the center of a fifteen-inch square of shellacked sand. A model of land art? The next was a rockier terrain, spotted by stacks of wooden blocks. A third sandy base held a collection of hacked up wood, parts painted white, arranged in peaks. Pyramids. It was just what I was imagining—
Venezia’s grey ponytail flicked in the rearview. “What the SHIT, Don? Those are supposed to be in the truck bed! Just cover ’em up, Leelee.”
A tarp lay on the cab’s floor. Sweat flashed down my ribs. I eyed the passenger’s side door. Could I escape? Only my father and brother had ever called me Leelee.
As we sped through the desert, I hyperventilated. Don pulled map after map out of a bag at his feet, which Venezia swatted at. “Find the one with the contestant entrance!” He chucked the unfolded maps behind him: diagrams of foreign places, towns labeled in another language. But some were maps of Queens, Lower Manhattan, Amherst— the neighborhoods of my life. On the back, in small print, were lists: Food Eaten; Hours Slept; Minutes of Television Watched; Books Read; Ideas Grappled; Art Made. Were these my statistics? “Let me out immediately!” I huffed between hot tears. “I stole the lawn furniture—”
Venezia snorted. “Yea you passed the final test, hon. Oh Mother Mary, we’re here.”
It was a football stadium surrounded by oceans of rusty sand. I felt the thrum of bass, heard the roar of a thousand voices cheering. A concert? By the time they dragged me up the metal staircase to the back of the stage, I had ceased kicking and blubbering; the lumens stunned me. A pale man in a tight, black suit joked into a microphone in a halting language. His words ended in sha— Russian? Venezia enveloped me in motherly hug before pushing me in front of her. Even Don was blushing, engaged in a slow clap. Lined up beside me were four other shell-shocked people with paint-splattered clothes. To the left of the stage was the massive silver missile, vertically displaying: SPACEPORT AMERICA (галактический™). To the right of the stage, a Jumbotron. Grainy translations of The Suit’s words flashed purple and white: This, Is, Truth, Or, Consequences! ARE…YOU… READY… TO… PLAY?
The guy ahead of me, oil painter from right here in New Mexico, was introduced with a Polaroid of him as a spaced-out seven-year-old at powwow. The Jumbotron flashed, “A real Apache Indian!” The stadium resounded with the unified chant, WHY ARE YOU HERE? WHY ARE YOU HERE? He squeaked, “To find my True Self?” The judges— CEO of галактический™, an astronaut, and the American Movie Star— huddled-up. Then the Movie Star cheesed his perfect teeth. “That means nottthing! Bu-bye, Scott!” Like the others, Scott fell through the floor.
Final contestant, Lenora D’Marco, Sculptor from New York City… and a Real Gay! (The Polaroid: my twenty-year-old torso pressing Jules Sullivan against a wall behind a ping pong table, head bent as if I could fish her tonsils out with my tongue.)
My whole body quaked, but I had a heavy, regrettable notion that I knew the answer. “I— we— are here for redemption. To atone for the spectacles of evil that human beings create.”
After a pause, the stands went wild. Fleetwood Mac cut with a techno beat pumped out over the crowd. A lei was placed around my neck and Venezia was kissing my cheek. The host spoke a mile-a-minute into the microphone, but the only word on the Jumbotron was WINNER!
Then the screen cut to a shaky shot of the four other contestants, distraught and cramped behind the astronaut. How’d they get there so quickly? “We’re almost ready for take-off, folks!”
WIN-NER! WIN-NER! was the dying chant, as a Ford F150 Pick Up, painted with a rippling American Flag, drove onto the stage. The judges, the host, Venezia, Don; they were gone. The Movie Star became only the Voice. “Congratulations Lenora! Because you know the truth you’ve won a NEW TRUCK! And a lifetime pass to the Spaceport America Theme Park! (Slated to open March 2025.) Now it’s time…”
The crowd began: 5! 4! 3! The Jumbotron flickered with the astronaut, thumbs-erect, and the four other contestants holding hands, bracing themselves. A deafening boom. Smoke exploded; a silo, locking me in. I saw only white and my breath wouldn’t catch. Then above: a violent waterfall of orange heat. The Voice arose. “Annnd, they’re off! Off to start an Artist Colony in the stars! You can follow their progress for the next three years, on Bravo’s Beautiful Frontier: Bringing Culture to Space! (Tuesdays, 8 pm Central.)”
The smoke fell slowly, as the missile— a fire-tailed tadpole in the sky— curved to the left, and the Jumbo-screen cut to a receding arc of blue-textured earth— to radio silence— to nothingness growing angelically with each added mile. But the people in the stadium didn’t look; they pitched and screamed in a hellish struggle to leave. I wondered, How I will park that truck on Hester Street? But I had nothing left on Hester Street. The missile’s flare receded. I had the drowning feeling that no one in the world was watching me. “I cheated!” I yelled into the microphone. “I cheated!”
Madeleine Boucher is a print-based artist living and working in Brooklyn. She is a founding member of Shoestring Press, a print shop and art space dedicated to experimental approaches to traditional and new print media in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Following an undergraduate education in art history and printmaking at Columbia University, she graduated from the University of Chicago with an MA in Chinese Art History in 2013. Her academic work on Buddhist art of the medieval period parallels an exploration of images with sacred resonance in her own artwork: icons from dreams; personal symbols and apparitions; cosmological maps refracted through Google Earth.
Maura Roosevelt lives in New York, and teaches writing at New York University. Her fiction and essays have been published in Joyland, The Nation, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, among others. She is currently completing her first novel, about a grand old New York family who has, essentially, gone to seed.