The cowboy hadnt even said good-bye,
he just took off while I was under the bridge taking a leak. He got out just long enough
to toss my backpack out onto the shoulder and then he was gone, just like that. I walked
back and picked it up, a little lightheaded from the beer and reefer we'd been putting
away, and wondered why he had dumped me like that. We had been talking nonstop, and the
silence that fell after his little white truck crested the far hilltop seemed too hollow
for an outdoors type of quiet. It felt like the quiet you might hear inside a bathroom,
late at night in a bus station. It was a quiet that hurt, the way dying alone in the snow
might hurt. Except that here it was hot and I was high and my pack seemed heavier than it
had been before. It all of a sudden seemed a dead weight, and I was tempted to just dump
it, the way the cowboy had dumped me, in the desert by the side of the interstate. I
didn't, though, after all; I hefted it and tried to figure my situation.
There was some traffic coming from the east but
nothing in my direction. The interstate was new and black, as if it had just spilled from
the back of the truck and hadn't had time to bleach out and dust over. 1-70 through Utah
and west Colorado was like that-most of the truckers avoided it, went north on 80 if they
were heading to San Francisco or south on 40 to L.A. Nobody much used this stretch, and I
was wondering, my head a little light, if I'd be sleeping outside that night. There were
some mesas off the roadway that looked close enough to walk to, if a little snakey. A fire
on the far side wouldn't attract attention; I'd done it before. But I didn't like the
desert, and I knew I didn't want to wake up still in it.
Lately I'd been having dreams about walking through
the desert. There were dead fish and busted-spine wooden boats all around me as I walked,
one or two of the fish still flipping around. Snails as big as cats slipped along, looking
for shade, and the ground was covered with clumps of soggy, flat-leaved amber weeds,
drying to a high stink. Somewhere I had heard that the desert used to be all underwater; a
gigantic sea bigger than all the oceans put together cruised by dinosaur fish and eels the
size of tankers. But out in the real desert there were no puddles, no mud, nothing but
dirt and small, flat stones. The air dried out the inside of your nose, cracked your lips
and made your spit taste alkaline. Here and there was a lizard, or a roly-poly bug, but
they weren't much for company. Any birds you saw flew in high arcs, horizon to horizon;
they might have been jets.
Along about an hour came a guy in a Jeep. He pulled it
over and I liked the fact he had a gas tank strapped to the back, so right off I showed
him my nine-millimeter and marched him out about a mile into the desert, bouncing along
behind him in the Jeep. I was feeling easy still from the grass so I didn't let him think
he had anything to worry about, bulletwise. I even let him keep his Thermos, although it
only had coffee in it, and found him a Mars bar from a paper bag on the floor. I told him
how it all worked, how if he prayed for me he could probably find his wheels in Grand
Junction or even Denver if I felt adventurous. He prayed-they always pray when they think
they're getting their machine back as part of the deal-and I left him there on his knees,
with a piece of advice about rattlesnakes and hitchhikers: Don't pick either of them up.
The Jeep was one of those older ones that tended to
flip, so I strapped myself in and flipped it. It had a roll bar but I still managed to put
a crack in the windshield, a nice arc across the driver's side corner. The Jeep ended up
on its side and I had to unstrap myself and drop to the ground, then shove the thing over.
Right off the bat I was sorry. The gas tank had been flung off the back and ruptured; a
bad omen. I kicked the side of the Jeep and cursed myself It was a good idea to avoid
getting gas in other people's cars, especially if they're hard-borrowed. Gas in a can was
a blessing, and I had ruined it. Those Jeeps get maybe fifteen on a good day.
I got back out on the interstate about the time I
started to come down. My stomach was rising up on me, empty and hot, and my head hurt with
the wind slapping around my ears. The sun was dead behind me, nearly down, setting off the
scenery with bands of orange. The sky was the burnt blue color of a rifle barrel. I began
to hate the cowboy hard for what he did to me, and brought the Jeep up to eighty. He had a
good lead but his little Jap pickup wasn't good for more than fifty-five.
Wed gotten together in the basement of a
VFW in Salt Lake. A Brigham Young football game was on the TV and we were both
bad-mouthing the home team from different ends of the bar. In the whole place there was
only a short neckerchiefed barmaid and between us at the bar a couple of old purplenoses
with windbreakers and watery eyes talking with hunched backs about their problems with the
"Now how about that fatass," the
cowboy was saying, pointing up at the TV "Goddamn Mormons ought to just stay out of
sports altogether; if you ask me."
The barmaid glowered at him. "Hey, there,
language," she said. She looked at me like I was the type to agree with her.
He ignored her and yelled at the TV. "Hey, that's
a ball, not a Bible, you great big stupid shit." He was a tall, thin guy with a
strange, happy face and a moustache that trailed down to the corners of his chin. He had a
ponytail. He was smoking cigarettes that he bought one at a time from the barmaid, blowing
the smoke into the top of his glass before he drank.
They showed a cheerleader right then and he took off
his cowboy hat and slammed it against the stool next to him. "Hooee," he said,
"like to bite her on the ass, get lockjaw and have her drag me to death."
"Hey," said the barmaid. "Language, I
I pounded my fist on the bar. "No shit, buddy.
Watch your fuckin' mouth."
She pointed a thick finger to the wall. "I got a
phone, you know."
Then she walked over to me, smiling hard and
"Son," she said, "we don't want no
trouble. Can you maybe get your friend to settle down some?"
I looked over at the two purplenoses and they looked
into their beer glasses quick. "Which one, Mom?" I asked.
Her lips pulled back over her teeth. "I got a
phone," she said again. And just like that a couple of highway troopers wandered down
the stairs and the barmaid's face went all smug and hateful.
"Boyyyys," she said.
The cowboy and I sort of stretched and pulled ourselves off
the bar stools. On the way up the stairs he reached into a slit in the collar of his coat
and pulled out a middle-sized black switchblade. Outside while I fished my pack from the
bushes where I'd hid it, he stuck the knife in the tire of the patrol car; easy as you
please, and it spit out steam quick like a cough. We hopped in his little Jap pickup and
left with the lights out, heading southeast toward mine country, laughing and carrying on
the whole way about bars and cops and Mormons in general. On the whole it was a fine time,
finer than I'd had in a long time.
After a few miles of this and that, I noticed on the
seat next to me sat a leather satchel, the throat wide open, and the inside was full of
round, flat tins of makeup and a bright red wig. I pulled out the wig and held it up
around my fist.
"What kind of cowboy wears a wig?"
"The clown kind," he said. "When I
can't get a ride I clown." I looked at him blank and he took the wig from my hand.
"Rodeo," he said, stuffing it back in the satchel. "And in the winter maybe
your occasional liquor store."
We slept that night in the back of the truck, between
horse blankets with his coat for a pillow. He'd had to hoist his saddle up onto the roof
to make room, and after things settled down I noticed one of the stirrups was hanging down
over the rear window like a noose, and if I moved my head just right, I could get the full
moon to shine right through the center of it, all the way through the cab. After a while
the moon was gone, up and west, and it wasn't long before the cowboy snored me to sleep,
his hand on the small of my back. I slept good; it was the first night in a long time that
I didn't have the desert dream.
Back when I was married, after the Navy
and all that horseshit, I thought that making money was all there was to do. The way I
looked at it, there wasn't much of a reason to do anything else, because it came down to
money anyway. I never cared much for Lia, one way or another; but she was Filipino and
didn't expect much and didn't ask many questions. Her family had given me a thousand
dollars to marry her and take her to the States. After I got out of Leavenworth I brought
her over. Everything went okay for awhile until one night she came at me with a kitchen
knife, screaming over and over she was going to "cut off you dickey, cut off you
dickey." I lit out of there and never looked back.
If not for the Dishonorable I'd have gone back to the
Navy. Truth is, they barely took me the first time and I'd gone begging, let me tell you.
None of that jungle shit for me. The ship they stuck me on was nothing more than a gray
coconut, bobbing in the South China Sea for three months at a time - it hated me and I
hated it back. I was lucky, though, I had a mate named Cecil and we got along fine. He was
a rancher's kid from North Dakota, just as gentle as can be, but then he went and stabbed
me in the arm when I told him about me and Lia getting married back in Manila. That night
he loaded himself up with foul-weather gear and metal doodads hooked to his belt and under
a full moon he hopped off the coconut, his hands above his head. The duty watch saw him;
he said he slid under the waves like a butter knife into dirty dishwater. None of my mates
said anything, but I got the ticket, anyway; I couldn't explain the wound on my arm.
Contributing to the death of a sailor; they called it, not being able to prove the other
thing. I was in Kansas in less than a month.
Later; when I was living with Lia in the trailer; I
started writing those letters to Cecil. Since he was dead and I didn't want them lying
around, I got the smart idea of sending them to Santa Claus, care of the North Pole. I'd
heard that somebody actually read those letters, somebody at the post office or somewhere,
looking for kids who say they're being beat by their folks. So I just wrote to Cecil,
asking him about how things were down there, underneath all the waves and coconuts. I told
him about how the whole thing with Lia was just for the money, and I retold it every time,
in every letter. It was one of those letters that Lia found, when she, too, came at me
with a knife. Man, it's something, being stabbed. Not many people can say they've been
stabbed. The worst part is the itching when it starts to heal. It invites you to tear it
open, get it all infected inside. The body doesn't forgive you letting something get into
it like that; it knows it'll never heal right again.
After we crawled out of the back of the
truck that next morning we drove into Price and ate eggs and ketchup and coffee in a place
by the side of the road. The cowboy told me about his wife, that she was part Indian,
Paiute, and she had been raped by her half brothers more times than she could remember. He
showed me a picture of her on a postcard. It was in black and white, grainy like it was a
hundred years old, and the girl in the picture looked about thirteen. The back of the
postcard said: Paiute Girl in Traditional Ceremonial Dress, 1970.
The cowboy took his wig in his hand and shook it,
brushing it the way he might brush a horse. "I'm supposed to send her money every
month," he said. "But I don't. I'd be in prison stealing the money I'm supposed
to send her. Last time I saw her she said those brothers of hers were out looking for me.
They're Tribal Police and they're allowed to kill me on sight, if they want."
The cowboy got quiet then and after a minute it looked
like he was having trouble swallowing. Halfway through his eggs he turned and ran into the
bathroom. When he came out he was sweaty and one of his eyes was deep red, like he'd poked
it hard. I pointed to it and asked him what was wrong with it.
"Nothing's wrong with it," he said, looking
peeved. "It's the other one."
The other was white, blue in the middle. "It
looks fine," I said.
"It better. It cost six hundred dollars."
I looked at it again, and I was sorry that it looked
so much better than the real one. He shook his head and poked around at his hard eggs,
then he looked up at me.
"Goddamn, I'm scared to death of those
Indians," he said. "It's so I can't even show up at a rodeo anymore, afraid
they'll be there waiting. I don't even know what they look like. Every Indian I see has me
reaching for my knife."
I didn't say anything. I was from Illinois and the
thought of a cowboy this afraid of Indians impressed the hell out of me.
"I'm going to Texas," he said. "They
got rodeo and I understand there's no Indians down there no more."
"Hell," I said. "I never seen a rodeo
before. I'll go with you. "
He didn't say anything. He picked up his cowboy hat
and put it on his head. I paid for the breakfast and got into the truck. We headed down
south, meaning to catch the interstate by midday We ate a few pills he had lying around in
the truck, drank a few beers, partook of some weed. My head started buzzing and it got
eerie when we dropped down and were in the desert officially. The valley we came into was
hollow and flat, with carrier-shaped buttes on either side. Then suddenly down ahead of us
lay the black ribbon of the interstate, with a few bright sparkles moving across the
length of it. The highway we were on was rough and bumpy, and we bobbed around quite a bit
in the little truck, but with the interstate in sight it looked like smooth sailing just
ahead, all the way to Texas.
I was so grateful for the cowboy's company, and
grateful for the truck and the interstate, and glad that I wouldn't be left in the desert
alone to fend for myself. Things had been bad but they were looking up, looking up for the
both of us. I would help him with his Indian problems and he would see me through the
desert. Things were going to be fine, I was sure of it. Only, I hadn't noticed right off
that the cowboy hadn't been saying much. I myself had been talking ever since breakfast
about this and that, even about Cecil, of all things.
I should have paid more attention; it was five minutes
later that the cowboy dumped me by the side of the road.
It was about thirty miles outside of Grand
Junction that I saw little white truck, pulled over to the side of the interstate, smoke
billowing up from around the hood. It was nearly dark, and I turned off the lights of the
Jeep. I could just see the cowboy off a ways into the desert, up against the wire fence,
looking southeast toward Texas. He was a dark patch against the smooth white cover of the
desert. I pulled up quiet behind the burning truck. I took the nine-millimeter from under
the seat and, when I got out, stuffed it in the back waistband of my jeans. He hadn't even
I walked up to about ten feet behind him and cleared
my throat. He turned slowly, and his face went confused when he saw me. He looked behind
me at the Jeep. It was a few seconds before he looked me in the eye again. He was already
scared and that suited me. I had liked him a lot but now I couldn't remember why.
"Hey, partner;" he said. His voice was
squeaky. "You come around just in time."
"Looks like it," I said.
He pointed with his good eye over at the smoldering
truck. "Isn't that a bitch? Threw a rod."
"They'll do that."
"Yeah," he said, "they sure will.
Where'd you get that Jeep?" He asked it in that way that didn't expect an answer. I
just stared at him and didn't say anything. The light was nearly all gone and the gun was
getting cold against my back. As he started to say something else I reached back and
pulled it out. I figured it was the right time. He stopped right in his tracks.
"Hey," he said. "What's this for?"
"What's this for? You just took off, threw my bag
onto the dirt and took off"
"You were talking crazy." His good eye
darted around a little as he spoke, like it might have been following a fly. "Some
wild faggot Navy shit about a drowned guy." As soon as he said this he licked his
lips and his eyes slowed down. He reached behind and scratched the back of his neck. When
he spoke again his voice was smoother. "You have to understand, I'm a wanted man. It
wasn't anything personal."
I pointed the nine at his forehead. "Sounds
personal as all get-out to me. "
It had a good effect. His eyes went wide open and his
mouth sort of dropped. He shook his head, and his eyes both stared at the pistol.
"You're with them Indians?" he said. His
voice was high and terrified. "You are, aren't you?"
It was so crazy I wanted to laugh, but for some reason
I couldn't. Instead I felt my throat start to tighten, and my eyes got blurry. The air had
grown cold; I shivered. I waved the pistol side to side and made my voice hard.
"Kneel on the ground over here, back to me."
He came over slow and knelt in the dust in front of
me, his back bowed, the knuckles of his spine pressed out under his T-shirt. He started to
cry; his ribs pulsed out from his sides like gills, and he began to sway a little from
side to side. I stepped up behind him, took off his hat, and put the nose of the gun
gently against the back of his head, where his hair pulled together into the ponytail.
Some white light flowed over him-a truck on the road behind us-and my shadow slid across
his back. I pressed the gun against the soft underside of the ridge of his skull and his
shoulders stiffened, his back arched, and he let out a small moan that made my head swirl.
"You should have never left like that," I
said. "Why'd you do that?"
"God," he said, "tell her I'll come
back, I promise."
"Hush, now." The hate was flowing from me,
down into the dirt. "It's too late for her now." The sun had dropped and the air
around us was now black, thick, and cold. My hands were numb and my legs ached.
"Here's what you do, " I told him.
"Just pretend you're swimming in the ocean." My voice was nearly a whisper.
"You're swimming in the ocean, but you're getting weak." I heard him sob and I
knew then that I wanted him to sink, that he had to sink. I lifted up the ponytail
to do him at the top of the neck, quick and painless the way the Chinese do, and then I
saw the empty slit in his collar. That did it; that did me in. I saw the slit and a chill
began to rise in me, starting at my ankles and climbing me. My skin began to crawl; a
quick shiver like an electric shock raced through me and then cracked like a whip along my
spine. The pistol nearly tumbled from my fingers.
God the cowboy was fast. I didn't even see him whip
around, I didn't see his hand when he stuck me in the thigh, high up by the pocket and
hard into the bone where it wouldn't come out. I didn't see any of that, but I heard the
nine snapping in my hand and then a howl and the sound of him running off into the desert.
I dropped the gun into the dust and fell to the ground next to it. I curled up with my
hands over my eyes, the handle of the knife prodding my belly.
After awhile I pulled my hands from my face and they
stuck a little, coming away with a damp and sour smell. Through a paste in my eyes I could
see the glowing outline of the truck through a pale light coming from the east. It was the
moon rising over the desert, liquid and slow and steady. From far off I heard the boy
calling for me, but a wind had come up, and he seemed to be crying; the sound rose and
fell, rose and fell.
Hold on, I yelled out to him, I'm coming. Out
on the road a semi-truck moaned past, eighty, ninety, and like an answer let off its horn,
long and low. I felt around in the dust with my hand, my fingers found the gun; I closed
my eyes and let the current take me out to him.