“In the High Desert of California” by Dan Howell


I’d been painting trim on condominiums, working with friends, and my scalp was burnt. So after buying a cap to shield my head against the workday sun in Leona Valley, I was shuffling along a gravel road to the home of my friends, where I was staying awhile. Dust rose from my footsteps. This was many years ago.

For no reason I can remember I happened to glance uphill to my left at an island of trees on a fenced-in plot of otherwise dry acres, the grounds always “patrolled” by a grizzled German shepherd and a flabby old hound. And I saw that hound in a sunny patch at the top of the hill, his muzzle-wattles flopping as he idly nosed an arched black kitten, swatting at him ineffectually, all of it looking playful and cute — two simple creatures in a bright cameo of space.

Then out of the shade that framed them the shepherd came charging in, as if to rescue the hound, his pal. Without a growl he quickly snapped up the cat in one bite and with a second broke it, which I think I heard.

The old shepherd, dropping his prey, stares at me. His sunlit eyes glow like a red jelly while the kitten tumbles downhill, closer to me. The kitten stops rolling about ten feet and a wire fence away, convulsing, and he’s also staring directly at me, with an oddly angled right foreleg jerking behind his neck as if to claw his head. Then he closes his eyes and falls back, stretching out, pissing a slow steady arc to his chest. He opens his mouth and sighs, all pain invisible now, all given at last to what looks like pure comfort in stillness.

I stand there reminded again of how I can never believe again in some imponderably enormous, omnipotent humanoid being whose minute attention would bother to arrange such a laden vignette, just as I was passing, though I might almost believe in how our living world—improbable being that it is, in fact—could be thinking in some distant way at that moment of me, as if somehow it knew what I needed to be completely present, for a change. And actually cared, temporarily, that I was.


Dan Howell’s collection of poems, Lost Country (Massachusetts), was the runner-up for the Norma Farber First Book Award of the Poetry Society of America and short-listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry.  Other awards include a Writing Fellowship (Poetry) at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Tom McAfee Discovery Award (Missouri Review), and a Notable Essay citation in Best American Essays.  A chapbook of poems, Whatever Light Used to Be (Workhorse) was published this August.  He lives and teaches in Lexington, Kentucky.


Photo on 9-21-18 at 1.28 PM