“Tinderbox” by Michael L. Woodruff

Red Slug, Salvador Campos

Tiny Town lay at the northern edge of Madrid, New Mexico, in the high desert at the base of the Sandia Mountains on a scorched parcel of land filled with debris rehabilitated into new forms of dignity: art. I am one of its sculptures.

We pull into a graveled parking area and stop in front of a wire fence that leans its way across the front of the property. I don’t want to stop. It looks like a dump, but my girlfriend, Monica, thinks it will be fun.

“More junk,” I say. “You’re always taking me to these damn flea markets. You know I hate them. These places fill with stuff no one wants. I get bored.”

“Hush! Be good.”

In the distance, from the back of the property, we can see a woman coming out of a punished trailer house.

“Shut up, Blackie!” She yells at the dog. The dog is tethered to a red stool shaped like a large hand with curled fingers for back support. It is gloss painted, looking like the hand of a clown. It rests at the front of the trailer to the right. The dog stops barking and blinks stupidly at the woman.

We wait, momentarily, the crunch of gravel beneath our feet. I feel the need to turn back to the car and leave; it’s the scratch of the gravel that alerts my thoughts, the grating on my senses. It’s a hunch, more a warning. But I ignore it, pushing on, wanting to show Monica I can put up with a little shopping, that I have her endurance, so we continue through the entrance, a questionable arch, dried and splintered, slumping forward, an embarrassed bend in the sun-burnt lumber. I grab the threshold and push it up, careful not to prick my fingers, and continue pushing until it catches on something, another splintered board, and I wrap loose wire around the two gray supports to keep it from falling again. It leans doubtfully, but it works. There’s a rickety donation box inside the entrance. Spiderwebs encircle the top near the opening where money is inserted. This place is a museum of sorts. I take a ten dollar bill from my wallet and push it through the spiderweb into the slot on the box.

“Classy place,” I say.


The first thing I see is a river of glass that cuts its way across the cluttered yard. It reflects in multi-colored monocles. I spy troubled spirits, plastic dolls with cracked eyes, lying between us and the woman. The dolls are naked, on their backs on the piles of shards, and I watch their numbed souls melt into pools of red.  

“Okay, well, that’s different,” I say, shaking my head.


“Nothing, Monica. Nevermind.”

“Maybe we should go. I’m sorry, I’ve changed my mind.”

“I’ve already paid, Monica, I want to see the place now.”

Monica’s apprehensive. It’s not the flea market she imagined but some kind of art display: something otherworldly—grotesque. It peaks my interest.

“Please, let’s go.”

“You were the one who wanted to stop, sweetheart. I did it for you. You can at least do this for me. Can’t we at least see what happens?”

The woman is looking at her dog. It starts barking again. She picks up a rock and throws it, and the dog ducks.

“Be quiet, Blackie. It’s just visitors.”

The dog’s lazy eyes search, its tongue lapping air, its chest heaving. It lowers its head sniffing at the ground for food; the sound of the thick chain around its neck drags through the dirt. Finally, it half-circles, lies on the ground, and puts its head on top of its front paws. It seems to work. Maybe I should throw rocks at my dog. It barks and barks, late into the night, coughing out hideous yelps. I’m sure my neighbors have their thoughts about it. But they are too afraid to complain.

“There’s a lot of glass,” she shouts, walking up to us. “About this time in the evening it reflects from the glare of the sun and looks like gold and jewels. It helps to reveal some of the art. I’m Tiny. I did all this. I have a thing about glass.”

“There’s a lot of it,” Monica notices. The glint of light on the glass keeps her from seeing what I see—the revelation, as Tiny sees it. “We can’t stay long. It’s starting to get cold. We have plans tonight.” She pulls her sweater across her breasts until they are safely secured.

Monica is beautiful and smart. Her greatest virtue is her greatest fault: she’s loyal. Her blond hair bounces perfectly when she walks. It’s light and airy. She always dresses sensible and clean, in collared blouses and designer blue jeans which fit like her personality—accommodating. She likes to look comfortable. We have been engaged for months. We just can’t get around to setting the date for the wedding. It’s constantly illusive. Our discussions on marriage always disappear into our daily activities. We start to talk, get distracted, and moments later we are involved in our separate projects. Monica likes to knit. She makes Christmas presents for friends and family—stocking caps and scarves. I prefer to be anywhere outside—usually re-stacking boxes in my shed, making room for more, or arranging the lumber at the side of the house, by size, to keep neighbors from calling the city, complaining that construction materials, unused, are starting to accumulate in my yard. But most of the time I’m tinkering with my power tools, building small stools and bird houses, things I don’t really need but give away to those who ask. When it’s time to go inside, Monica shouts through the screen door: dinner!

Sex with Monica is a regular and a predicable activity, never disappointing. It calms my nerves.

“I started this river a long time ago to show the danger of beauty,” Tiny shares.

“The danger of beauty?” Monica questions. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“Haven’t you ever felt the prick of a rose? Love hurts. I call it the River of Life. Every time I get bottles I put them in an old pillow case and crush them with a baseball bat. I dump the pieces into the river. It grows daily. So you can say that this place is an ongoing concern.”

Tiny is toothless with terrible tattoos that blend into her overly tooled skin, thin-leathered and smudged with ash. She wears an olive soiled tank top and her small breasts, bruised pears, droop down to the middle of her chest. I can’t take my eyes off them. They beg to be noticed. I look out over the yard to find pieces of art to capture my attention, but my eyes always come back to her breasts. She sees me looking, I know, because she moves her body on purpose so they dance, and then she laughs. She knows who I am. She has the wild look of a bonfire, her eyes the lick of flames. Her body is the soil of the earth.  

“The glass is cool,” I say.

“The whole yard is my therapy,” she says. “I find it cathartic to just create whatever comes to my head. I can spend hours piecing this shit together. Did you ever see Pink Floyd’s “The Wall?” Ha. I just get on my stomach and fix the parts together. It’s one big crazy puzzle. I let myself go.”

“I’m sorry, but are you ill?” Monica chimes. She’s straight-faced and serious.

“A little, but aren’t we all? I’ve been told that everyone is mentally ill; it’s just a question of degree.” She looks into my girlfriend’s face; there’s no recognition, no sisterhood, the gulf between them is massive, night and day, their worlds will never collide.

“Well,” Monica responds, “I’m normal.”

“I ask myself all the time why I do this,” Tiny continues, a quick laugh, pretending Monica isn’t serious. “Everything just keeps expanding. Half the time I’m not even thinking about what I’m doing. But there it is. I gather trash daily. People drop it off in my parking lot, and I go through it. I take what I think I can use and put the rest in the big dumpster at the edge of the property.” She points to the dumpster. I follow her bony finger; the dumpster is a mangled steel box scarred by the pounding of a sledge hammer, or so it looks; the front is pockmarked with indentations the size of large fists.

“We almost missed this place. It’s a good thing my girlfriend saw it. It’s like your yard just rose out of the desert. I don’t remember driving by it in the past.”

“You weren’t ready to see it then. Now you are,” Tiny says. She’s cryptic in her revelation. She stares through Monica. Monica lowers her head and plays with the dirt, drawing pictures, using the point of her tennis shoe. When she’s through, she stomps on her art.

“Your gate fell. We pushed it back up, but I’m not sure it will stay there,” Monica says. “It’s probably going to fall on someone, and you’ll be sued.” She looks up and smiles like she’s made an important point.

“I’ll have my old man fix it.”

“Do you get a lot of visitors?” I ask.

 Tiny laughs. Her head bobbles, yes and no, hesitantly, back and forth. There’s almost a blush. “Only the curious stop.” It’s an inside joke, one that she files away in her thinking—only the curious stop, yeah, a whisper, and then she perks up,So, enjoy!”

Slivered dry lumber, broken into kindling, splinter the yard and form tired dollhouses, shrouded by moments of crazy impulses: plastic dolls with cracked skulls, bleeding into the dust and the dried bones of cows, white and smooth as ivory. There are letters on one of the bones in black sharpie. I can barely discern the message: Give a dog a bone. Guillotined Barbie dolls lay like croutons across a rusty grid; it leans against a dead tree. The dolls dangle in the metal. Torsos of female mannequins, sporting pairs of football pants, smeared with red paint—blood—tied to wooden poles up their backsides, leaning like reluctant crucifixes. G.I. Joes are wired into the chain-link fence at one side of the property. They cradle rifles.

I look around the yard with new clarity. Rusted knives and scissors pierce the scattered bones of animals. A stuffed, mildewed rabbit lies alone in the dirt surrounded by toy trucks of different sizes; the rabbit is missing its eyes. Broken ladders lay like crooked teeth throughout the yard. Old bicycle frames and metal bed frames twist into each other and lay against rocks that push out of the ground like serrated blades. A crippled swing set creaks in the light wind. It’s the sound of metal, not lubricated, rubbing against metal. Stuffed animals sag, hanging in nooses along the crossbeam of the swing set. There are tangles of sheet metal, ribbons of rusted ivy, angling through everything in the yard. A statue of St. Joseph, or so I guess, the broken body of the baby Jesus lying in front of him, leans against the left front of the trailer. It sits on a veneered table which is peeling around its edges.

In my mind, there is a method to the landscape: desert-dried wood and trash and rusted metal and the dolls, lots of dolls. It’s the world in chaos, peopled by a numb audience, and coupled by hundreds of hours of creative effort: art for the sake of art—without thought or judgment.

“I guess we should start looking around,” I say. Monica squeezes my hand. Her palm is soft, starting to sweat. With just a little pressure I could crush her fingers.


“I want to show you my new piece,” Tiny says. She points to the side of the property, the side away from the G.I. Joes. Her voice cracks. It’s dry, her throat filled with sawdust. She coughs. “Sorry, allergies. They creep up on me this time of the year. I’m always working on something new,” Cough. “I have a lot of nervous energy.”

We follow her to the other side of the yard. There’s a barbed-wire fence that encircles a macabre patio with black wrought iron tables and chairs. The bent frame of an umbrella leans, unsteadily, in a hole in the middle of the table; it looks like the wretched skeleton of an osprey. A spent string of lights weaves through the umbrella frame. Everything is spray-painted flat black, the empty cans lying, awkwardly, against the fence, separated from their lids.

“I call it Better Homes and Gardens.

Tiny invites me to sit in one of the chairs. Monica stands on the other side of the barbed-wire fence looking at me with a whisper of doubt. Don’t do it.

“It’s okay,” I say.

“Nothing here is going to break,” Tiny assures. “Everything is built solid. It’s meant to last.”

I slump into one of the chairs and push it back on the hind legs. There’s a cracking in its joints, and I start to sink into the ground.


“It rained last night,” Tiny says. “The ground is soft.”

“I didn’t mean to suggest it wasn’t safe. I just had to catch myself.”

Tiny’s eyes are glass tears. The mad twist of a smile inches across her face. She’s a confident cat—tattered, not preened.

“My work can be anything you want it to be. Just let yourself become.”

“Honey, don’t you think it’s time for us to go home?”

“In a minute, Monica.”

The sun starts to descend. The sky turns orange; it’s a nervous fire, and it stutters into a soft ember pool. It captures the world by surprise.

“Do people buy this stuff?” Monica asks

“I think it is more an experience.”

At the back of the lot sits the corpse of a trailer, void of window glass and curtains. I can hear the wind blow through its metal panels. It’s the whistle of the desert canyon. It slices through the testy air, cold and sandy. There’s black soot flared around the window frames. The metal siding is streaked with rust.

“Do you live in that trailer?”

“Yes, my old man and I stay there during the summers.”

“You live in a burnt-out trailer?” Monica doubts.

“We migrate to warmer weather in the winter. We’re free birds, like the song. Sometimes we separate for a while when we need a new scene. It just depends on how we feel. But we always come back together.”

“Is he here, now?” Monica asks. Tiny is embarrassed, but she beams, and it leaks reflective mystery.


Tiny’s fingers wrap over the top of the windowpane, holding on, scratching into the dry aluminum frame. She’s naked and leans over an old exercise bike in front of the window. The bike is missing most of its operating parts, including its pedals and chain. Her head is pushed over the cold steel of the handlebars as she continues to grip the edge of the window, white-knuckled, the muscles in her arms flexed. There’s a push, coupled by harsh grunts, continued pushes, hard and punching like a battering ram. It’s violent and certain, until her body gives up, and semen drips down the inside of her legs. Her right cheek lay against the cold handlebars until it warms her face. She smiles. There’s a quiet, except for the occasional yip of a coyote. The night sky is a myriad of micro-lights.

The stench of sweat and ash fill the trailer from the fire the summer before, an assault on her senses. She fell asleep on the couch smoking a joint. The joint slipped out of the ashtray onto a loose Kleenex on the carpet. By the time she noticed it, the floor was in flames, moving quickly across the carpet. She had just enough time to jump from the couch, smashing out the front door.

She hears his steps backing away. There’s a clearing of the throat, a cough.

“I can get some pizza if you want.” He has a rough, low, almost indiscernible voice.

“That’ll be fine.” She says, her body is limp over the handlebars. Her voice is casual; her wrists hang out the window over the frame.

There’s a brief silence and then the clop of footsteps as they descend the porch. He stumbles over one of the metal sculptures.

“Damn it!”

The dog growls.

“Shut up, Blackie, it’s just me.”

He muscles one of the sculptures, then footsteps, again, and they grow softer the further away he gets. No more sounds until the truck spits out a cough. She wants to fall asleep, but she can’t close her eyes. The semen has dried to her thighs. She stares out the window, catching the glint of the glass, the River of Life, in the light of the full moon.

“The glass is always so beautiful at night,” she whispers. “The reflections look like the eyes of God.”


There’s a place I tell myself I will never go, a line that I will never cross, but then, my raw reason challenges me, never say never. It starts with the hint of a conviction, the trading in of the old soul for new laundry, the refraction of ideas and inclinations that push to the forefront of my thinking, reckless thoughts telling me to go to places I once considered taboo.

It isn’t fair, but it’s my justification. I never wanted to stop at Tiny Town from the outset. I was compelled. Monica is always taking me to places I have no interest in seeing: plays and movies, art galleries and festivals. It wears on me, and she thinks it expands my world, but it only frustrates me. I make very little room for elasticity in my life. My convictions are set in stone. I’m immoveable.

Let’s just say it: I know I am going to snap and beat Monica in the future. Up to now, I’ve stifled the temptation, my true thoughts hidden each time she pushes me toward something I don’t want to do, but the voices haunt and stew in my head. It will happen; I am certain. She says things that make me want to lash out—nice things—things that make the sky look pink. I could care less about a pink sky. These are things intended to soften me. And one day I will let it all out. There will be a moment’s guilt, and I will forget soon after it happens. With tears in my eyes I will beg for forgiveness, and she will give it to me. But for now, I don’t want to think about it. What I want to do is to claim the honesty of this place; it doesn’t have judgment. It separates me from Monica, a breath of new air, in a world she will never understand, and it takes me to a place—at once, forbidden, free from remorse or shame.

I do understand that it’s not Monica’s fault. She’s long-suffering, saintly, and I constantly move away from her attempts at intimacy, away from her obsession to know who I really am. I tell myself she could do much better. And of course, she can. But she’s convinced we are made for each other. She says, I see so much potential in us. And I shrug, doubtfully. But for now, it’s about the moment; all I want, all I need, at this point, is to be a part of Tiny Town.  

Monica moves away from me. She looks through my face like she’s looking through a darkened glass. She sees something change in me. My face has a new tone—shades of red, a flare in the eyes. I’ve become a stranger. She waits for me to come through it, but I don’t. She looks like she’s about to cry. It’s a revelation. She uses her arm to create distance, and slowly, she moves back, going toward the parking lot. Her steps are sharp and hurried. Her hands reach out in front of her, shaking off the filth. She turns and leans against the door of the car. I watch her put her right hand up to her mouth. For the first time, I see how desperately fragile she really is.

“Let’s go home.” It’s a faint cry. And it disappears into a rapid fade of the day.

I pretend not to hear her. I have the keys to the car in my pocket. She stands anxiously against the door. Tiny walks quietly back to the trailer; the musk of the evening follows her. Her body is a beast, stalking the night. She carries the dust of the desert with her. The smell of ash carries her. I’m left alone in the middle of Better Homes and Gardens.

Monica walks away from the car to the edge of the road. I look to the nearby hill, past her and the highway, and watch it blacken. It’s a smooth mound. I see it arc under the horizon. Its lines are clean and honest. Monica stands just off the asphalt, alone, looking north and south. She waits, without turning around. I can hear the vibration of a semi-truck as it rumbles up the road, and it stops in front of her. It’s a mammoth of a vehicle shaking the earth, the screech and the hush of the hydraulic brakes—the sound of a wounded animal. The passenger door opens. I can hear the faint murmur of conversation. She takes a big step and is lifted into the cab of the truck by a man with a large arm. The door shuts. The light in the cab is faint, yellowed, and I see her silhouette in the dusty window. Her fingertips press against the glass, creating small circles, and her barely visible eyes peer out at me. It’s unlikely we will see each other again. Her brother will collect her things at my house. Before he leaves he will hand me a letter of regret. She’s unaware of the violence she is spared, and it’s her salvation. And, strangely, I am glad. But regardless, I wish she would stay, go through Tiny Town together, embracing the moment and sharing what Better Homes and Gardens has to offer. I have twisted hopes I cannot help.


I pull a wooden match from my pocket and turn it over in my fingers. There’s a nervous energy racing through my body. I am in the middle of my own tinderbox; the unlit match sweats. I am standing at the center of the uncomfortable life I’ve spent years creating—symbols of the world I believe is righteous. It no longer means anything. It’s a pretense. I’ve reached a point where I want things to ignite, to go up in flames, but I can’t quite get there. I continue to embrace the idea that produced my culture: the owning of property, the fierceness of my individuality—take no shit off anybody. It has an imagined meaning, something that bites into the standards for my life. I have boats and ATVs, two, one for myself and one for Monica, a fifth-wheel camper, tools—lots of them—one for every job a man can possibly do, a 12,000 watt Cat gas generator for emergencies, big screen TVs in three rooms and stuff, lots of it, which already fill a large storage shed at the back of my property. There are letters—words, written cleanly on the sides of large boxes; my life is neatly packed and taped and stored.

I look around at the broken sculptures, the dolls, the splintered wood, the chaos, watching the pricked souls of all those before me working their way through Tiny’s cluttered world. They float, calmly, lost, through the tangle of barbed-wire and metal and glass. They are the brave without reason, those who have tired, bloodied by efforts they could never explain, and finally, let go. Sometimes you just have to thin the herd. Someone said that. We are the unwanted. And we know it. Separation is a welcomed relief, and I’m tired of being a part of the whole. The world is filled with too many people, different from me, all grabbing at a virtue I don’t understand. But here, in Tiny Town, there is room for all of us, those of us who don’t fit, those of us who tire of the changes that we don’t understand.

The rules in my life have become irrelevant, the lack of substance being the taint of original sin. Each morning I look at my face in the bathroom mirror, a silvery lit glass—blinding, begging for evidence of my worth before I fall into the pressing needs of each day. I’m becoming what the world believes me to be. I strike the match and stare at the flame and smile. I’m there. I let go. The flame is pure and white-hot. It looks for fuel. It’s hungry. Things start to take the fire, and everything—my house, my property, the friendships I have carefully nurtured over the years, my job and savings, all the securities I protected with precious detail, the way I see myself—the slant in my character, purity and principles, all of it, every aspiration, imagined or real, and my political pretenses…all are engulfed in the flames. The gate is fallen again. My car is on cinderblocks, aged; the wheels have been removed. All the windows are missing, the inside upholstery weather-beaten. There’s a scar of rust cut across the hood. My house has been red tagged by the city. I feel the pull. Tiny Town is taking me to the River of Life, toward the sparkling shards, through the glass blades that cut across the front yard. I bleed into the spangle of the glass and feed off the moon. A cold blows through me, and I harden. There’s nothing but an orange cinder coming from the window of the burnt trailer. And it grows.


DSC_3000cMichael L. Woodruff is a graduate of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Nebraska Omaha. While at the workshop he received the Reikes Scholarship for Writing. He is a 2019 Nominee for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. His stories have appeared in The Summerset Review, Little Rose Magazine, Straylight Literary Magazine, Idiom 23, Soundings East and Main Street Rag. He was born in Los Angeles, and currently lives in Albuquerque. In addition to writing and reading, he spends his time hiking the deserts of New Mexico.

Salvador CamposSalvador Campos is a self-taught artist who for the past twenty years has worked with found objects to create assemblages, figures, masks, and sculptures. His creative process is completely intuitive, spontaneous, and random, aiming to stimulate the viewer’s perceptual awareness of the beauty and value in the ordinary. He encourages viewers to regard reused materials with creative imagination in the hopes that they will discard less and recycle more. Each piece contains not only a unique history, but potential for aesthetic function. Somehow these disparate pieces fit together to create something altogether new and sometimes the objects tell him what direction to go. It is then his task to find the missing piece.