New Mexico-based writer Laura Jean Schneider lives a “rural ranch life” and uses nature to inspire her stories. She is enrolled in an MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts studying fiction and short stories, and sticks to a six-days-a-week morning writing routine.
“Physical movement encourages mental movement,” says Schneider. “Nature is gentle, brutal, adaptive, harsh but ultimately neutral and unapologetic. There’s a lot to learn from that.”
She was drawn to the Tell It Strange prompt out of her appreciation for Annie Proulx’s work. She wrote “The Young Wife” in one sitting.
“Doing a lot of internal work before you sit down to write a piece is crucial,” she says. “It might not look like you’re working, but mulling on your material is powerful and productive.”
“The Young Wife”
By Laura Jean Schneider
Arvy Tidloe lost cell service over the hill, which probably had to do with the weather, the static cling hanging over everything and the heat lightening sparking in the sky. Coming back from the sale barn late with a trailer full of cow shit, Arvy remembered he’d forgotten to turn off a water valve. It was just in at the old headquarters’ pens and he figured he’d better do it before tomorrow. As it was, the storage was probably already overflowing. In the morning, there’d be a muddy sink where the earth had sucked up the moisture like a greedy infant from a poor-producing tit.
Arvy was pretty laid back about things on the ranch, but he respected the newlywed status of the man he’d just hired. He’d been there himself, once. The husband, Brady Rikey, was over at the Powerline Camp calving heifers out ten miles east of the headquarters Arvy was just turning into.
The dually truck found the worst parts of the ranch road. The ruts from the winter thaw were finally flattening out. The washy place where the stream crossed was intermittent at best until the monsoons, when the bottom regularly washed out as it turned into a full-on arroyo. It had once fooled Lorna Tidloe and the four-wheeler ended oil pan up, dumped into water up to her armpits. There was the huge ponderosa around the second bend that he couldn’t bear to cut down. It was a real tight squeeze to get the biggest stock trailer between it and the rock cut on the other side. Arvy had driven this road so many times that he navigated without thinking. It felt strange to live in the new place further up, but that’s how Lorna would have it.
Coming across the last cattle guard, he saw a light on at the Rikey’s house. He had figured Tammy went up to the Powerline with Brady, but she wasn’t such a handy type, he thought. She was from Billings anyway, a city girl.
The diesel was so loud she must have heard him drive in. Arvy felt better about not calling. He rolled down the driver’s side window and reached out to open the door, which he’d been doing so long now he no longer cursed the broken handle. The moon was bright enough that he didn’t need a flashlight, and he knew the way to the valve box by heart. He drew the heavy steel cover aside and lowered the long rebar key into the darkness, turning the valve until he could hear the water shoved back to silence.
The solitary light drew Arvy like a moth. It was the bedroom window that was all lit up, Arvy knew, since he’d spent many nights there. Unless the new couple had switched things around, in that room was the same mattress he and Lorna had slept on. She refused to take it with them to the new place, saying they had money now, why didn’t they use some of it? She did have a bad back, the result of horse wreck eight years ago, and his own was anything but straight so he’d shut up and let her pick out a fancy name-brand bed that cost him a month’s wages.
Arvy had stepped closer to the house while he was thinking about the mattress. He wondered if it was still in there or if the newlyweds had brought their own bed. When he and Lorna were young, there was no money for such luxuries. They were lucky there was a bed at all. He stopped in the shadow of a Russian olive. A thorn tore against his cheek as he turned for the truck. But Arvy saw a spot of motion beyond the curtains and he moved back to the light.
The young wife was on the bed, naked from the waist down, her hands between her thighs. Arvy crept closer, his boots crunching on the dead grass of the lawn. It hadn’t been watered since he and Lorna moved last year, he figured. The window was open a bit, and the curtains huffed in and out, like Tammy did, every now and then. Brady’s side of the bed was a dead, empty space.
She was not a pretty girl in clothes–Arvy hadn’t given her a second look when they showed up for the job–but here, in this dim lamp light through the gauzy curtains, she was exquisite. Without thinking, his hand fumbled desperately with his belt buckle and slipped into his jeans.
Lorna and him had pretty much given up on sex after her hysterectomy. It wasn’t comfortable, she said, then she just stopped wanting it all together. Arvy told himself he’d had thirty good years. She’d never refused him; he shouldn’t complain. He didn’t complain. But the one time she woke up when he was working away on himself she’d spent the rest of the night in the guestroom.
The crickets carried on loud and earnest like they always did around the house as Tammy flopped back into the pillows, her heels drawn in, her knees akimbo, limp. Her skin glistened and her flat stomach lifted up and down, up and down. Then she got up, pulled on a pair of shorts, and walked out of the room.
Arvy had never seen Lorna touch her parts, unless to wipe them dry with her hand after she’d crouched in the weeds when they were miles from a bathroom, rolling out the heavy protein lick tubs or tossing salt blocks off of the flat bed.
When he walked in the door, Arvy could smell Lorna’s enchiladas. There’d be a plate wrapped in foil in the oven. He’d eat his dinner and enjoy every bit of it: his wife was a good cook. Then he’d crawl into bed beside her, feel Lorna’s knees cup the backs of his own and for the first time in a very long while, sleep through the night.