Western Illinois Tug-of-War League

by E. A. Greenwell



The dust we kick up isn’t ours. It belongs
to the City, who cut out the diamond

and put in floodlights last fall. We saw it
then driving home on icy salted roads

when it got dark early, artificially lit
and snow-covered. It looked like a bone

coyotes dig up. I imagine Marcus there
with his father, leading calves.

I imagine their tracks. Now this infield,
as fine and bare as meal, covers everything.

It’s on the Dixie cups. It’s in the water.
It’s the grit left on your tongue.


Old mooring line or improvised ladder
Unknotted. Any sort of rope will do.

I brought some hand-plaited cotton
Marcus’s father used to lay down

this mare he was breaking once.
He hobbled her thin ankle, winching it

around her withers. Then he pulled,
tucking her leg to her chest and circling

with the patience of rust, taking slack
until her other leg couldn’t bear her

like that any longer. It’s hard to watch
a horse get its grace taken away.

I can hear her surrenderous whimpers
in every braid, splicing my neighbor’s line

with mine to make it long enough.


You leave a man with the most weight
in back. He’s a living anchor, a fact

about Marcus’s father. What I don’t know
is why he kept coming here, his hands

split and clutching the end of the rope,
wrangling eight men as he did a steer

or would, if he could, if he still had one
to his name. How quickly dust—a sponge

of jeweled guts, insecticide and puddled
blue starlight—can be leeched

of its bloodlines. Overnight, for sale signs
popped up next to the white cedars

and in bars you heard people shutting up
about the deer in Marcus’s father’s

woods, as if the apostrophes left
their throat in threads of cigarette smoke,

then each letter unspun and dissipated
like strength from a taxed muscle.


His car must’ve run a while idling high
when Marcus found it overheated,

the cracked block smoldering anti-freeze.
Its mustiness a vaguely sweet odor

like pond water that never comes off.
The coroner says he slept, he felt nothing.

The police says nothing. They’re sideless
as the moon, who says nothing. I hear

the sayings about bad apples
and bygones, about letting well enough

alone. As we crowded his driveway
huddling together for warmth, I saw him

inside, the driver’s door hanging half open.



greenwellRecipient of Writing in the Wild and Port Townsend Writers’ Conference fellowships from the University of Idaho, E. A. Greenwell was the 2016-2017 PEN/Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident. His work has appeared in Boston Review, Terrain.orgMoss, and is forthcoming from Poet Lore and Common Ground Review. He lives in Eastern Oregon, where he works with tribes, NGOs, government entities, and private landowners to conserve land.