The Nurse From the Woman’s Prison in Chowchilla

The “Cheney Spoken” began on a shopping bag
with a series of sprinkler lines as late fall turned crisp and cold.
The revisions were mostly done at night around an open fire.
Luthor’s landlady, Rena, always called out from next door to
lower the fire, or I’d be trapped in burning bamboo.
But my revisions went on till the dry cold turned to warm afternoon.
Word-tired and restless, my writing stopped, and I could hear
Rena through the fence, swearing at her weeds.


“Who’s there?”


“Roy, who?”

“From Luthor’s.”


“I’m going up by the dam to look for words and language —
you want to come with me on the motorcycle, Rena?”

“Which dam?”

“The north one.”

“All right.”

I waited while Rena changed. When she arrived,
I told her it was a motorcycle.

“I wanna wear the fuckin’ dress.”

“Okay, Rena.”

We rode out of town, quietly heading north on the 41
as sunset darkened the roses in front of Marilyn’s vineyard.
We didn’t speak, we just rode.

I didn’t know her well.
She’d suffered mountains of abuse,
sometimes revisiting them.
A green-eyed blonde, wearing a
canvas brown dress,
she worked as a registered nurse
at the woman’s prison in Chowchilla.

She smelled of sage smoke and sweat.
I was poor.
The motorcycle had loud, straight car pipes —
Rena liked that.

We turned at the sawed-off mountain
and came to Rafchieller’s abandoned feedlot
on our right side.
Rena commented on the empty pens,
wondered where the cows were.
I told her Raymond hated cows;
shut it down when the market dropped.
He’s living with his boyfriend in Three Rivers now.

As the dusk went away
we stopped and walked into pistachio groves,
as she told me things about herself … others.
She’d married young; she had a son, a good one;
he wanted to be an artist.
Her ex-husband worked in a prison —
the real kind.
But she never loved him.

“Do you love pistachios, Rena?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Well, they’re pretty late around here —
another month till they split open. Let’s climb to the top.
Dr. Wills’s hill doesn’t produce as well, but the nuts are better.”

“Who’s hill?”

“Dr. Wills was a wealthy gynecologist and really big farmer.
He exceeded his dreams and his partners.
Two hundred limited doctors own this land, Rena:
fifteen cents on the dollar.”

“To hell with doctors, Roy — look on down there.”

From the high ground at night above four miles of pistachios,
you could look up to the dam — backlit, white-flowing —
or downstream, moving water banked by other groves
and hayfields mostly. We carried our stolen nuts away.

Then she wanted to go in to the town of Millerton.
We couldn’t — there’s eighty feet of water over it.
I did show her the old courthouse and the graveyard.

“They moved those before they built the dam, Rena.
The old town and houses are under the lake.
Once in a while, something comes up, but it usually stays down.”

It was in the old graveyard
that she mentioned Thailand and her plans to go back.

“I want to make scents for my living —
It’s why I’ve got those woodstoves plumbed over my balcony.
I do my trials and burn things there.
I’ll go back to Thailand and buy my materials raw;
I’m saving my money to go.
I stay away from people — except my son — at least I try to.
The prison work is hard for me,
and the women are just awfully goddamned vicious.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, they’re tired and ugly — even the beauties.
The whining, the gossip: it’s pretty sad and depressing.
I could show you one day if you want.”

“No, I’ll leave those women alone, Rena.”

Then walking into the cemetery, I asked about her husband.

“Danny was a prison guard. I left after a long whore of a marriage.”

“I’m sorry it didn’t go.”

“It’s over, Roy — he’s dead now.”

Inside the silent graveyard under dark oak trees,
I told her about an old black rainfall woman
who’d called cemeteries “stick bone places.”
Rena shivered, and then a little later
said she used to blow Danny
on the grass in the middle of Fresno Street.

“Are you living better now?”

She kissed me.

Rena was extremely graceful in the gravestones,
whispering “Aqua Bernal 1888 to 1933.”
Quietly wished her well in the gray monuments.
With great care and attention we read more names —
Burford, Mathieson, Blasingame, Walls — all buried once and again.
The last was Otis Diefenbach.

We went on with the ride,
going along the old flume right-of-way
and across the river valley.

“Let’s go on a little higher, take the 29 Mile Road.
There’s a saloon up by the Bass cutoff —
you want to stop for a beer?”

“I feel like shaking this hair out.
I’ll buy, Roy. That’s Dick’s Bar — have you drunk there?”

“No, I just heard about it.”

Riding together through air warmed twice by thermals
as the road crossed creeks,
she enjoyed having a good night, untethered,
and tapped me on the shoulder, saying she needed to pee.
So we stopped and peed in unison:
me over a ledge, Rena beside — squatting, giggling,
thighs shaking, gorgeous for a time. We left.
I liked her.

Up at the end of the 29 Mile Road,
a cheap motel glowed across from Dick’s —
which seemed safer
since his frontage was crammed with Harleys.
I didn’t want my second Buffalo destroyed
and didn’t much like Harleys either.
Then parking in the courtyard,
a raccoon fell hard off a trash can —
so we left her as guard over the bike.

Crossing the street, Dick’s windows showed grime flakes.
We heard filtered noise, and it looked thick hot in there.
Outside on the blacktop, we talked about my marriage:

“I was, Rena … not anymore.
Married a fine woman, and learned things too —
Rebekah, she was a political activist.”

“How so?”

“She came out here to break up large farms.
I was opposed — it’s how we met.
It’s all gone now; and I’m glad we married.”

“That’s all?”

“Aren’t you thirsty, Rena?”

We went into Dick’s cauldron bar where
the bartender’s name was Rose Anna from South Africa.

“I’ll watch those helmets here under my bar,
and wipe the bugs, too.”

“Not tonight Rose Anna, but thank you.”

Rena ordered a pitcher, grinning at my raised eyebrows.

“You can’t drink Guinness?”

“Well, once when I wrote a piece for Guinness,
they drank most of the stout.”

The music was good, some money-guns thing.

“It’s about this kid, Roy:
Goes to Cuba … gets in with the Commies
and stuff … in over his head. Calls dad for help —
send money, guns, and lawyers.
It’s the main thing of the song.”

She poured.

“Drink up, Roy.”

We drank, drank more, talked a lot, listened to “Soldier Boy.”
Rena said she’d played volleyball on the B team
while her father wrote $10,000 checks to strangers —
the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
She nursed and loved him for five years …
five years of brain strands slowly clouding and dying.
Her mother ran off with another guy,
because he was a good provider like her dad.

Rena met Danny about then:
a good-looking, bitter man; maybe a hitter.
She was like a lot of women born in the early fifties —
raised one way, for men, so to speak.
The world diminished the men, and the velocity scours the Dannys;
so the Renas make their own way with almost grown sons.
And the time was passing on.

Music was still pulsing in the loud smoky room.
Rose Anna brought us another glistening Guinness pitcher —
I liked Rose Anna.

Rena asked what was I writing.

“A farm piece about where sprinklers come from.”

“Luthor says, you’ve written about what you’ve seen or heard.”

“Maybe so, another journey
would be good, Rena — I need the distance.”

“Why, are you chased?”

“No, but the farming’s weakened —
we’ve matured so badly in the ‘One Man, One Vote’
and our ethics have gone to hell.”

Dick’s Bar was jammed all around us —
a raucous narrow place with big, open doors on the ends.
The long bar on one side was a bedlam herd of grazing, loud drunks.
On the other were scarred, uneven pool tables, full of people —
mostly pretense playing, ass gazing, and hustle stroking.

Rena liked the pool hall and bar. Combined,
it felt close and familiar; and her eyes warmed in the heat.
We lost three games. Then she began blazing, running hot tables.

An unruly mountain booze-and-speed crowd gathered.
Money was coming in, and I wanted to get the hell away.

“Can’t manage the crazies; we’re in the working Sierra.
See all the colors? I’d just get my head kicked in.
This is a mountain bar in a hell country of miscues and misfits, Rena.”

So we moved off down where the drinks were made,
by the loudest group shouting under the ceiling’s greasy fan:
Four or five men — stupid, drunk, throwing insults at Rose Anna.
A night crowd from the dam, with red, wet eyes —
staring at the hair under her armpits, and then through her dress.
They hadn’t slept in a week, substances keeping them awake.
So we left; and on the way outdoors, Rena asked if I ever knew them.

“No, they’re just searching
through those deep hell tunnels for water flow.”

Then while crossing to the Buffalo
she wondered if I was being sly about the cheap motel.

“Maybe so, it’s a long walk home.”

Then back at the bike, the raccoon
had completely chewed my seat to foam.
I accidentally hit the kill switch,
and the motorcycle wouldn’t start till I switched it on.
Rolling downslope into second and go,
we noticed the pistachios were missing —
raccoons have balls.

Our beer haze lightened,
coming down out of the mountains
with a night wind blowing against us
into the average blackeye country.
Blackeyes were beans, as rabbits quickly crossed our headlight,
and Rena showed the way along Bandoni’s canal —
which curved and coursed to a Whitney rise.

Below us, we could see the prison for women
on the east side of Chowchilla. I parked to restart.

She straddled my seat while
I laid in the dry cattle grass and wind,
listening to hard-woman Rena stories —
also about bitch convicts demanding to see the nurse.
I imagined confined women’s pasty faces,
sleeping twins with yanked hair.

I guess the darkness was moving to twilight,
so I told her a story about a huge, hairy man:
a young heart surgeon who developed a new procedure —
a saving one, he hoped.
Twelve terminal people died using it;
he’d operate, and they’d die.
Then there were two small children:
The first, a boy, just faded.
The doctor — almost shattered —
cried after he told the young boy’s parents.

He canceled the surgery for the second
child — a girl — and he went home to his wife,
who took him fishing, cradled him in a small boat.
A large, brilliant, crying man — a husk — he grieved,
cried more with her, and hated medicine and surgery.

“Good Christ, what happened, Roy?”

“The wife — you’re a nurse — she got him to go back.
The procedure was flawed only in its timing: they corrected that —
the girl lived. It’s part of heart surgery now.”

“Where was the doctor from?”

“The man was from Minnesota.”

More stories carried us from the dawn
into sunrise over the Chowchilla Woman’s Prison.

Then on our way through the hills,
a storm was building while I was musing —
maybe Rena, too — about the words,

White River flowing sprinkler ground,
rainfall black woman, Rena’s prison,

… the real kind — as we beat the weather home,
and we closed each other’s doors …