issue 28: January - February 2002 

  | author bio

Burning Luv
Steven Rinehart


 The cowboy hadn’t 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.
We’d 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 VA.
      "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 said."
      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 unfriendly.
      "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 turned around.
      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.

© Steven Rinehart
This electronic version of  "Burning Luv" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author and publisher. It appears in the author´s collection Kick in the Head, Anchor Books, 2001. Book ordering available through amazon.com

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author bio

Steven Rinehart spent his childhood on military bases in Europe.  His family then moved to Illinois, and he went to school in Hawaii and Iowa.  His stories have been published in a variety of magazines, including Harper´s, GQ, Story, and Ploughshares, and he has received both NEA and Michener Fellowships.  He lives in New York City.

photo:© Marion Ettlinger


tbr 28              january - february  2002


Steven Rinehart - Burning Luv
Lawrence Schimel - Water Taxi
Brian McCabe - Relief
Marshall Moore - Sunset Over Brittany

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