Denver Writer Amanda Rea Among Rona Jaffe Foundation Award Winners

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Photo: Denver fiction writer Amanda Rea"A Dead Man In Nashville" earned Denver author Amanda Rea a Pushcart Prize and now she's been recognized by the Rona Jaffe Foundation for her work -- one of six women to receive the honor this year. She plans to use the prize money to finish her first novel, based on stories she heard from her great aunts, who ran trading posts in southwestern Colorado during the 1930s. Just back from the award ceremony in New York, Rea spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Read an excerpt from Rea's short story "Following Slowly":

It was a bright night, and the moon was shining on the snow, so it wasn’t hard to find her. He crossed the frozen creek and walked down to a little stand of piñon trees, and the heifer was there, lying on her side. There was frost clinging to her rust-colored fur, and her breath steamed up. She was tired. She scarcely turned her head at the sound of his approach. He moved toward her with deliberate steps, talking above the sour crunch of the snow. “It’s okay there, girl.” 

She was a new heifer, this her first calving. She’d probably been bred by a neighbor’s bull, which was too big for her, but had pushed through the fence that spring. Sonny walked around her and knelt down, lifting her tail, talking softly, the snow cold against his knees. He felt his pocket for lubricant, and rolled up his sleeves. 

“It’s all right, now,” he said, and he pushed one hand inside her. The warmth revived his stiff fingers. He felt along the birth canal, closing his eyes to match his mind with the calf’s darkness. The heifer sighed, but didn’t move. He pushed his hand through the viscous warmth, along the outline of the calf’s body and the slick membrane that encased it. The calf was facing the right way, but one of its legs was turned back underneath it, its shoulders caught on the cervix. Sonny remembered having helped his father pull a calf that was similarly positioned — they’d struggled for an hour, and when the calf finally emerged it was stillborn, nothing more than a calf-shaped weight. For three days they tried to coax the cow to her feet with offerings of hay and water, but she could not stand. She wouldn’t even try. Finally, they shot her, and Sonny helped his father hitch her to the truck and drag her to the bone pile. They stood there for a while, his father breathing hard from his growing emphysema, and Sonny shifting from foot to foot, impatient. He didn’t know then that he’d run cattle himself, or that he’d irrigate the same ditches his father walked each afternoon. He thought he’d join the Navy. He wanted to see the world. 

He leaned into the heifer now, his fingers working blindly to tear a hole in the amnion sac. There was a weak gush of oil-smelling fluid down his arm, and then he could feel it — the slippery ears, the slick snout, the soft bulges of its closed eyes. He found its mouth and pushed two fingers inside. He waited. When he didn’t feel anything, he moved his fingers around, pushing at the calf’s tongue.

“Come on,” he whispered. “Come on, now.”

As he spoke, he felt it — a weak suckling.

He hurried, leaning until he was elbow-deep, pushing hard to turn the calf while the heifer pushed it toward him. She lowed, her muscles contracting tight around his arm. “Goddamnit,” he breathed, leaning into her, straining, his face touching her red fur. She swatted her tail in irritation. 

When he got the calf turned, he reached around with his other hand to find his rope. He was sweating now, his breath coming out in gusts as he wound a half-hitch around the calf’s hooves. He pulled hard, but the calf wouldn’t budge. He sat on the ground and planted his boots against the heifer’s rump, pulling so that his shoulders trembled. The heifer was pushing with him, her body rocking forward, her neck stretching out. She released a long bellow. Still it wouldn’t come. He’d have to use the truck.

He wiped his hands on his jeans and jogged to it. The night seemed colder in the cab, and he hunched behind the wheel in his bulky flannel coat, trying the engine once, twice, and then easing it across the shallow creek and between two little piñons. 

The headlights glinted off the heifer’s eyes, and he saw that she was standing. She lowered her head and watched. The cows usually came to the sound of his truck, gathering around and craning their necks to see if there was any hay in the back, but this time the heifer looked wary. She stood in the darkness, her big sides heaving. 

Sonny turned off the headlights. He’d give her a minute to lie back down, and if she didn’t, he’d pull the calf standing. It would be easier if she’d lie back down, so he sat in the dark and waited. 

The moon shone yellow through the trees. It was well past midnight, and Sonny was tired. For some time, he’d had trouble sleeping. He fell asleep quickly, exhausted by a day of cows and cold, only to come awake a few hours later in some unexpected place — sitting in the hallway, or standing over the kitchen sink. Sometimes it was hard to know where he was, and he stood awed and dismayed by some common object — a door handle, a sink fixture, the floral pattern of the bathroom wallpaper. One night, his mother had found him on the utility porch, urinating into a stack of neatly folded laundry. My God, she’d said, what is wrong with you? He hadn’t come home for two days, his shame was so great. He’d parked his truck in a field and slept there, curled on the seat, waking now and again to start the engine for heat. 

Even now, alone in the truck, the memory made him flush. He reached above the visor for his chew. He put a thick pinch behind his upper right cheek and leaned to get a soda can from the floor for a spitter. Then he sat with his hands in his lap, looking out through the windshield at the moon. Sometimes he forgot how good it was to be here, outside, and what it meant to sit alone in such quiet. Sometimes he had to remind himself.

When he turned the headlights on, she was lying down. He put his gloves on and climbed back out into the cold.

From FOLLOWING SLOWLY by Amanda Rea. Copyright © 2015 by Amanda Rea and reprinted by permission of Kenyon Review.