Chance And Howling At The Red Sky

Gabrielle Idlet (

After college, I worked for a rogue Houston branch of the recently investigated and presidency-threatening activist group ACORN. We solicited monetary commitments from low-income residents with a script about how we would organize neighbors to fight the city to tear down abandoned buildings, clear boulevards of prostitutes and round up packs of stray dogs.
In Chicago and New York City, ACORN thrived, but in Houston there were only three of us, and we had too much fun drinking beer on couches in vacant lots and riding around in a pickup singing to Neil Young to accomplish anything.
One night, we climbed a sculpture on the Rice University campus. It was made of stone, one eight-foot cube set at an angle above the other. When it was time to get down, I was last, and I got scared. My feet would have to land on the small triangle top of the lower cube, and I didn’t trust my feet or any part of me to drop with success.
Finally, when it was ridiculous to make everyone wait any longer, I did it. I missed the triangle and went straight down onto the grass face first, unhurt. The thing is, while falling, I felt the tip of the triangle graze the spot between my eyes. It was a soft, fleeting streak of a touch. I have never forgotten that instant. Chance kept me from a head injury, an altered life. Chance was exhilarating. We rode back to the office in a laughing fever.
I take my work seriously now, and I take care not to fall. I am trying to climb back into the skin of the girl in the bed of the truck howling to the red sky.
This piece, “Brush Hog” by “Backstory” reader Franklin Winslow, was written in response to last week’s prompt: Write about a dream you let go.

"I was on the edge of the property nearest the brush line that separated the neighbors. The others’ fields were manicured and well tended, a product of day-to-day labor. The field I was in was overgrown and dying." — from "Brush Hog" by Franklin Winslow

‘Brush Hog’

by Franklin Winslow

A brush hog is pretty much a trailer-sized lawn mower hitched to a tractor. Where I’m from, it’s common to call the whole rig a brush hog. I was on the first day of what turned into a three-day job.
“I’m the right man,” I had promised, not knowing the half of it. The field was wide and hot. The seat of the brush hog stung through my jeans.
“Careful now, son,” said the guy who was supposed to be doing the work. “Got copperheads out there in the brush. Don’t stop and pee any old place. If you do, don’t get off the hog. Just pee off the side there.” He pointed at a stain on the side of the tractor. It was the size of a few children. “Take this,” he said and handed me a pull out of his tobacco pouch. “But don’t swaller it,” and he smiled.
His teeth told of his years with his pouch, but I wasn’t sure how well he knew the fields. He hadn’t pointed out any of their features. They were yellow and brittle with the long September days. They coughed up never-ending dirt and field dust as I chugged along. I couldn’t have been happier, a white-trash biker kid getting a chance to prove I was ready for problems of my own making. I shifted the brush hog into its high gear and sped along lipping my tobacco.
The field hand was off somewhere. In the porch shade napping, I figured. Daydreaming as I was, I didn’t see the tree trunk. The wheels bounced and thudded over it. The brush hog’s large blade didn’t hit, but I ended up swallowing the tobacco. I stopped the hog and stood near the pee stain. I was on the edge of the property nearest the brush line that separated the neighbors. The others’ fields were manicured and well tended, a product of day-to-day labor. The field I was in was overgrown and dying. Standing there, the heat and tobacco juices were doing me in. I was dizzy and reeling.
I could hear copperheads in the brush, waiting for me to keel over, to fall under many generations of rejection and wandering. The only place a biker can call home is a campfire. Any man worth his salt knew this. I spit hard and righted myself. The snakes would have to wait a while longer to teach me the nature of outlawing. I got back in the seat and mowed over the rest of the field. It took two more days. Looking back now, it wasn’t the campfire that was calling, nor the snakes, nor men, but I’ve encountered the long toil, the stump, and the stained edge many days, nights, and mornings.


Follow Franklin’s lead and write a piece for this column! Write a 400- to 450-word piece about a form of rebirth. I heartily encourage you to submit your writing, as Franklin did, to my e-mail: for possible future publication in “Backstory.”

* No part of “Brush Hog” may be reproduced without written permission from the author.

▲ Gabrielle ( is a former Writer-in-Residence at the Sundance Institute. She has crisscrossed the country from Los Angeles to New York more times than she can count and is proud to call Fayetteville her kinder, gentler home.

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