Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Excerpt from "Where the Rainbow Waits for Rain"

Where the Rainbow Waits for Rain

By Deborah Voorhees

Days of riding where there rode no soul save he… – Cormac McCarthy

Chapter 1

1967


“Father had a long, quick stride. For every step he took I had to take four, and still he was always a few steps ahead. Catching up to him was like trying to catch the vanishing point on a line of telephone poles. No matter how fast I ran, he was always just out of reach.”
All around the dark-eyed girl, structures made of brick and rock and mortar and adobe and steel and glass dot this baked corner of the earth, a giant rock garden filled with yuccas and prickly pears and sand and more sand – all in varying shades of browns and greens – all in varying stages of thirst.
The Franklin Mountains divide the city east and west, while the Rio Grande cuts through the southern and western borders. The desert, with its dunes and precipices, proves an inconstant lover, altering its shape to suit the whims of the wind – as a wife is to shape herself into her husband’s image, or so says Rachel’s father.
The smatterings of wild grama grasses and tumble weeds assume the pale color of a skinned-coyote hide, bleached from hanging in the sun. Rain rarely touches this border town, leaving it sparsely vegetated and with far too little adhesive to bind the sands that lift and swirl at the slightest gust. Even a man’s shuffle can cause a faint swirl about the ankles of his boots.
When the winds are high, as they were last night, dust clouds blind as surely as any snow blizzard. Even the sanctity of the home can’t escape a storm’s intrusiveness. The powder seeps into cracks in walls, windows, doors, leaving no orifice inviolate.
The dust falls not with the speed and weight of raindrops but rather ethereally like soot, settling on everything and everyone not in motion. Each particle joins large and small drifts, which form even amid the creases and folds of those who sit in one place too long. To Rachel this brittle spot on the globe seems in a constant state of surprise that anyone would opt to stop here let alone build and stay.
Still she, like her father, has been seduced by this exotic and even erotic city, a desolate beauty that most must acquire a taste for like a sweet vintage port. Here, the lyrical language of Spain mingles with a somewhat bastardized version of the King’s English. The dark-skinned natives, the Isleta Indians, still paint their faces and dance the dances of centuries ago. Colorful serapes, adobe homes, red-tiled roofs are scattered about. In the spring, the prickly pears bloom crimson sunsets, and when the rains do come, green covers the valley and the Rio Grande swells. The sky is expansive and blue, blue, blue. And then there are those dark-eyed Mexico girls, whose veins pump the blood of the Aztecs and Spaniards, the conquered and the conquerors.
Rachel resembles these beauties more closely than her freckled ancestors. The slight crook of her nose and architectural cheek bones typify the people. This dusty child balances on the raised edge of a 1951 Dodge truck bed, where a mess of rattle snakes lay in a wire-mesh cage. Their scaly bodies entwine and tangle on top, beneath and amid each other like a mess of worms thrown in a coffee can for fish bait. Her moist bare feet squeak as she slides them against the metal, placing one foot in front of the other as if it were a tight rope.
She slips, jostling the cage. In unison, a dozen heads strike at the mesh. Rachel watches their frenzy with no more concern than she’d give to a cage of harmless rabbits. She has heard this sound many times before.
‘‘Rattlers go blind this time of year, striking at anything.’’ Or at least that’s what Rachel’s Daddy says. Perhaps they ain’t literally blind, she figures, but they’ve been hibernating in their dens since fall, and they surely come out hungry.
The bell, hanging from the gun shop’s door, jingles. As it swings open, her father yells out, ‘‘get down off of there. Behave like a lady. And put your shoes back on.’’ Before he had spoken all the words the owner walks in from the back of the store holding up another gun. Her father’s last few words fade as he steps back inside to look. Rachel, who has her back to the door, teeters on the truck’s edge with acrobatic precision. She understands the advantages to adding tension to her performance. Then, with equal precision, she springs upward and does a cartwheel off the truck. Her dress flies up and then swirls as she spins to face the now empty spot where her father once stood. Her expression that says, ‘‘Tat tam!’’ melts into disappointment.
She plops down on the curb in front of the gun shop. Her black braids fall into her lap, as she pokes her elbows into her knees and rests her chin on her palms. The El Paso desert sand has powdered her brown legs, brazenly spread with no regard for the exposed cotton triangle flashing beneath her pinafore. Her pout turns into that vacant far off look that only a truly bored child can muster.
Rachel would rather be doing anything other than sit here by herself. It’s not that she doesn’t cherish her time with her father. Quite the opposite. She jealously guards each second with him. The way she figures it is that gun her daddy’s holding is stealing what she wants most. Perhaps, somewhere in her eight-year-old mind, she knows her time with him is almost up.
The door’s bell jingles, again. Rachel spins around, hopeful her father’s attention will be hers. A tall, slender man walks outside. He musses Rachel’s hair as he strides toward his plain green Ford, similar to the unmarked cars policemen drive. And yes, “policemen’’ is correct; it’s still a few years before the feminists revolution questions such patriarchal terms – at least in this town and in this family. Rachel and her father have never seen a woman in uniform, and in all likelihood no one with breasts has worn a badge in this place of pick-up trucks and low-riders. There’s far too much machismo on both sides of the border. Oh, perhaps a dispatcher has been estrogen heavy, but not an honest-to-God-boy-in-blue who straps a piece on his hip and yells “spread ‘em.” TV cops are still the likes of the dourer Sergeant Joe Friday on Adam Twelve. Mod Squad’s Julie won’t come into Rachel’s living room for several more years.
“You’re gonna grow up into a real looker, Miss Rachel,” says the man, getting into his car. She doesn’t know exactly what a looker is but since Mr. Hacker delivers the line with a smile, she figures it must be good. Accepting the compliment, she smiles back.
As Mr. Hacker drives off, she pulls on the ruffled bobby socks that always creep down past her heels (the elastic was spent 10 washings ago). Then she slips her toes into her scuffed white patent shoes, allowing her heels to flatten the back of the shoes so that they’re worn more like sandles.
Rachel goes and peers through the gun shop’s glass door, smeared with hand, paw and nose prints, left by unwelcome mutts and stragglers of the small-fry variety. A few belong to Rachel, recording her past visits like fossils documenting history. She lowers the barrel of an imaginary rifle to the precise spot where her father’s silhouette fondles a pistol. His string-bean frame barely manages enough girth to hold onto his Wranglers. Still stiff. Still shiny blue. And still heavy from when he sat himself – jeans and all – into a tub of water. The idea is to wear them until they dry, allowing the material to sculpt to the body like papier-mâché. Why Ira Vandoren bothers Rachel doesn’t understand. No matter what, his pants always look as if they’re ready to drop if not for his tightly drawn belt. He has no butt to assist in the effort, either – not even the slightest curve. In fact calling it flat is entirely exaggerated. Rather it’s concave with less form than a deflated tire. Rachel breaths on the glass and wipes a spot clean with the side of her fist. She can make out his black-wire rim glasses perched on his Roman nose, and the water beads muddying the dust of his brow and forming rivulets along the crevices in his temples. A life-time in this moisture-sucking desert has already left its marks on his 29-year-old face. With her father in her sites, she pulls her imaginary trigger—an act she feels mildly guilty for since he always stresses never point a gun at anyone. She re-sheaths her pistol on the side of her hip.
Sticking her head inside Jake’s Gun Shop, she hollers, “Daddy, can I have a quarter for a soda and candy?”
“Hell, no. Money don’t grow on trees.’’
“No, it grows in your pocket. Why don’t you share some?”
“Get on outta here. I got business to tend to.”
“Grandma says you better not be spending the grocery money on a gun.”
“You best be mindin’ your own business or you’ll be cutting me a switch when we get home.”
“Oh, man,’’ she says, drawling the last word out into a long pathetic pout as she lets the door slam behind her.
Realizing she has quite a bit more time to wait, she hops onto the back of the pickup – stick in hand – prepared to do anything to break this ungodly boredom. The afternoon sun intensifies, heat vapors dance across the black-topped parking lot, and the rattlers quicken their primal tune. It’s unusually hot for June. The barometer pushes toward a hundred – usually these intense temperatures wait for July and August.
Slightly hunched over, she approaches the pile of snakes, eyeing them as if they can squeeze through the mesh and strike her if she isn’t nimble enough on her feet. She reaches for a green tarp dropped in a clump on the truck’s bed. Shaking it causes a whirl of dust to tickle her nose and eyes. Her face twitches and scrunches but no sneeze comes. Inching closer and closer, she tosses the tarp on top of the cage as the snakes hiss and strike at their unseen nemesis. Racing to the far end of the truck, the rush of fear reduces her to sweaty palms and a palpitating heart, making her reel with laughter.
Now, all she can do is wait for her victim.
After she etches a tic-tac-toe in the layers of dirt that have settled on the truck’s bed, Rachel looks up at the still pale sky. The dust blurs all things around her. She scrawls: X, O, X. Without finishing the game, she destroys it with the soles of her white shoes.
Fed up with the stiff patent-leathers pinching her feet, she yanks them off and tosses them behind her, hitting the cage and setting off a new round of hissing and striking. Rachel plops down on the open truck bed door and dangles her feet as she sticks the end of one of her braids into her mouth, grimacing at the taste. That morning her father soaked the ends in iodine to break her nasty habit. Stubbornly, she sucks and sucks knowing that as gum eventually loses its flavor so will this. She shifts her legs slightly, feeling the metal’s heat seep through her dress.
A child’s eternity passes, until her perfect victims—the twins Janie and Jodie—come skipping out of the five and dime. They tote a sack full of candy: jaw breakers, candy cigarettes, and a six-pack of miniature wax-soda bottles filled with cherry, lime, orange and such flavors in them. Holding hands, the two, with blond pigtails and starched dresses, giggle at Rachel’s less than pristine appearance: crusted green below her nose, skinned knees poking beneath a hem that’s coming unraveled and a cod-liver oil stain down her front from when she jerked her head away from her father’s prodding spoon. Rachel’s knows she’s too old to resist the spoiled taste of “father’s daily miracle medicine,” but she figures the more that goes down her dress; the less she has to swallow.
The tar has grown so hot it has a wet sheen to it, causing each of the twins’ steps to hesitate slightly as it sucks at their soles.
“Janie, Jodie,” Rachel calls out. “For a quarter I’ll show my snakes.”
“No one wants to see your stupid garden snakes,” says Janie, taking a long drag off her cigarette then biting into its candied center.
“These are rattlers, fangs and all. Biggest I’ve ever seen. One’s so big I saw it eat a 12 pound dog in a single swallow.”
“Really?,” Jodie asks, moving slightly closer.
“You promise you ain’t gonna throw nothin’ on us?,” Janie inquires.
“Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.”
This childhood sacred vow seems to be enough to convince these lanky girls to move closer.
“All right show us.”
“Money first.”
“We know your ways Rachel Vandoren. You ain’t getting no money until we see the snakes.”
Rachel, with her stick whacks the side of the cage, sets off a frenzy of hissing and rattling. The girls’ eyes grow wide and each slap down their quarter on the truck’s edge. Rachel throws back the tarp. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop—like firecrackers on the Fourth of July. One by one the snakes explode pieces of skin and meat flying. All the girls scream—Jodie and Janie in fear and Rachel in awed and confused amazement.
Rachel’s father sticks his head outside. Seeing the messy site, he exclaims, “Dagnabit! That venom ain’t worth nothin’ now.” Ira really wants to yell “shit” or “damn” but he won’t utter obscenities in front of the “fairer sex,” except when he has too much to drink or forgets their present (which he always apologies for). Oh, and except for “hell,” which he says ain’t a cuss word because it’s a real place. These unguarded moments are how Rachel has acquired most of her four-letter vocabulary (the words she doesn’t use in front of her Daddy). Well, she has also learned a few words from her rebellious Aunt Etta May. Ira refers to her as that “neutered sister of mine” because of her refusal to marry. He doesn’t allow her in his house because her “trash” mouth and “unlady-like” cigar habit might unduly influence Rachel.
On the drive home, Rachel scoots as far over as she can and leans on her Daddy’s tanned and re-tanned arm. Sure, she wants to avoid the exposed springs in the passenger seat, but mostly she just wants to breathe in her daddy’s musty smell. He lays his hand, palm up, on her knee. Rachel snatches this invitation and laces her fingers into his, except for the pinkie. Her reach isn’t quite that wide yet, so she cheats and slips that one next to her third finger.
A hunting rifle with a scope hangs on the gun rack. A loaded pistol sits on the seat, and a new Colt .45 is tucked in the front of Ira’s jeans. The crack in the window, caused by a flying rock, keeps expanding like a line on an Etch-a-Sketch board.
“Daddy, they popped just like someone stuck a stick of dynamite in ‘em. Why’d they do that?’’
“I reckon their blood got to boiling and like a simmering pot that can’t let off its steam they just exploded. Rattlers carry on like they’re a rough bunch, but they’re sissies like Californians. They can’t take the heat. That’s why they crawl into their dens. The desert earth is always 70 degrees—cool and nice. ”
“Why don’t we live in the ground?”
“Perhaps we ain’t as smart as snakes.”
Her father’s thick fingers reach inside a brown paper bag, pulling out a shooting target. “Lookie, here. They give it to me for free. It’s the “Iotola Komanie.” I’m gonna enjoy poppin a couple at him. I’m gonna get him right in the nose.”“Me too,” she chimes in.


2

1996

The “It’ll Do Motel” sits on a parched stretch of land with cracks running through it like veins in an old man’s hands. Nothing much happens here in Rio Pecos, New Mexico. It’s a speck people seldom come across except the occasional soul, who gets lost on the way to somewhere else. Few ever see the place, fewer stop, still fewer do more than ask for directions on how to get out, and only one man calls it home.
Standing in a doorway, that rickety man leans on the door jam. His gut—rounded and hard from gout—hangs out his unsnapped shirt, which is thinned and sweat stained.
He eyes a stranger driving a washed-out red convertible, lunging over dunes and trying to avoid the creosote bushes and ocotillo cactus that have about overtaken the rarely traveled road. Perhaps calling this ghost town a spit-in-the-road isn’t really accurate since the gravel road has been left five miles back. Almost a century ago, when the railroad didn’t see fit to come through here, life moved on. About all that’s left of the town are abandoned granary silos and empty hulls where the old opera house and saloon stand, looking more like a facade for an old west film than the real thing. This road isn’t on the map and for that matter neither is the town, at least not any made after 1955. It lies about a hundred miles outside Deming, New Mexico about a day’s ride to the edge of the Gila Wilderness.
Not much is left of the man’s home except a broken down barn, a shed and the sun-blotched aqua-blue adobe the old man stands in front of. The mud structure is a favorite spot for insects of all kinds: centipedes, spiders and especially ants and ants and more ants. Religiously, every summer the colonization begins, carving out roads and domiciles. These invading armies come in as if survivors of some mass exodus. The walls are especially vulnerable to an invasion after a heavy rain followed by several weeks of drought. The mud becomes saturated, swelling and splitting. Then the heat sucks it dry, widening the cracks and causing chunks to fall. The exposed mineral-stripped soil becomes as easy to access as the U.S. border, the old man often comments.
Pinching a leafy wad from a Red Man pouch, he tucks it between his cheek and gum, allowing it to settle into the cradle that the acid has carved over the years. The stranger brakes, kicks up dust as the back wheels fishtail over the loose shale. She throws the parking brake on, and the Virgin Mary, swinging from the rearview mirror, slows. She’s not religious, nor Catholic. She just collects religious icons, mostly mass-produced plastic Saints acquired from flea markets, a handful of remaining Five and Dimes and Mexican supermarkets. This used to agitate her ex-husband, who had been schooled by nuns in full penguin git-ups. To him they were cruel reminders of his ruler knuckle-bashing days. It’s not that she was trying to upset him, but perhaps she didn’t really care if she did.
The old man doesn’t offer help, as she pulls the bags out of her back seat. Instead, he stays put, glancing up at the clouds that swell and darken, teasing the earth with the promise of wet drops.
The twin mesas, cradling the motel on its northern and southern borders, have turned this spit-way-off-the-road into an amphitheater for the thunder and lightning. When the lightening comes, as it does now, the canyon’s valley holds it captive. Hostile toward its jailer, it branches into numerous fingers, seeking an escape. The bolts shattered the murky sky, and for a split second the pieces look as if they could fall to the earth like shards from a broken glass. The winds pick up, but the rains play coy.
“The devil must be beating his wife,” says the gritty clerk to the stranger walking up the dirt path.
“If that’s what it takes to get a little rain, the devil should beat her more often,” responds the stranger.
Dressed all in black—jeans, T-shirt, sunglasses, combat boots—she looks like something off the streets of New York, not the dusty back roads of the Southwest. A single freckle, shaped like a tear drop, below her left eye makes her appear perpetually forlorn.
As the man sizes her up, he inquires, “You lost?”
Saying nothing, she drops a faux-leather bag by his boots and then traipses back for another case sitting in the back of her Cadillac convertible, the same make and model she swore would be hers a couple decades ago. She had planned on buying it long before now, but this gas-guzzling dinosaur is all she can manage on her newspaper salary. With the ripped canvas top and rusted frame, it’s only a shadow of its youthful image as is the man she has come to see.
She scans the aging “It’ll Do” motel up and down, trying to remind herself that this is only for one night. The 1950s-style adobe motor court is in dire need of painting – something it’s needed since the first day it was brushed on more than 40 years ago. A sand storm blew in, imbedding its grains in the now dried and flaking paint.
This all-but abandoned town mostly fits into a single structure that houses a six-room motel, general store, a dried up gas pump and out back a stable of horses. All the rooms haven’t filled up at once since the county quit tending to the road ten years ago. About the only people who find this spot are the explorer types, who come to ride in the hoof prints of Geronimo, Cochise, Butch Cassidy, Billy the Kid, Kit Carson. Here is where Geronimo roamed, and where he and his Chiricahua Apache warriors raided miners and settlers through much of the 19th century. The only way into the wilderness is by foot or horseback—no motorized vehicles are allowed.
Looking up at another round of lightening, the old man shakes his head in disgust, “For all the wrath-of-God theatrics, God only knows if it’ll rain. Usually storms blow on by before doing much more than spit.’’
The stranger drops another bag by his feet, but still she says nothing. After having made umpteen wrong turns, she isn’t interested in chatting. The maze of unmapped roads has always made Rio Pecos difficult to find, but complicating matters further is the town sign, stolen by vandals years ago, has never been replaced. Exhausted, dusty, she has more grit in her teeth than she ever cared to taste. All she wants is a bed and a shower, and she’s too tired to care what order they come.
So where ya from?”
Ignoring his question, she gestures toward the motel’s sign, “Name fits. How much for a room?”
The man eyes her. There’s something familiar about those black pools staring at him. He goes behind the desk to get a room key, teetering from side to side like a flat-footed platypus.
“Got any magazines?”
Tossing one at her, he quips: “Keep it. Just another one spouting off about child abuse. Hell, ain’t no such thing. If you don’t beat ‘em once in awhile, one day they’ll show up out of nowhere and blow your head off.”
“How much?”
“$35. Cash only darlin’.”
“I’m not your darlin’. And I’ll give you “$30.”
Taking the money, he asks, “Got a name?”
“Vandoren.”
His toothy grin grows wide as he, with surprising agility, makes his way out from behind the desk. His excitement has made his limbs forget, at least temporarily, that they’re arthritic.
“That’s where I know you from. It’s those eyes. You got crazy old man Vandoren’s eyes. You must be Rachel.”
“Yes, Sir. I guess you’re Baker.”
At age 36, Rachel isn’t a traditional beauty, but, all the same, the camera loves her. Even as a child her brown eyes seduced the lens, loving her black brows, sharp-angular jaw and high-cheek bones. Rachel still has the same long, wispy limbs that give her a model’s statuesque appearance, but she’s far from the sunken-eyed heroin waifs that proliferate on the pages of glossy magazine ads. Her figure is a closer cousin to the full-busted pin-up gals of the 1950s, meaty, shapely. In the last couple years her waist has thickened slightly, but she still looks to be in her late twenties, or she would if it wasn’t for the hint of gray she refuses to color. Her ex-husband used to call her his Elizabeth Taylor, because as he put it: “You really know how to move a slip around.” Clay still owns the drive-in movie theater in Balmorhea, Texas that the couple once ran together. He’s obsessed with Elizabeth Taylor movies, hard-boiled detective novels and Rachel. He’s known for holding on too tight. She walked out on him. Any man who’s tried to own her, she’s left.
“I figure I must be your father’s best friend, or at least I would be if he had any friends,’’ says Baker, oblivious to her indifference. “He said you’d come for him. I didn’t believe him. Nope. I surely didn’t believe you’d come. Boy, do you have his eyes.”
Baker’s thick fingers deliver the key, “Room 2-A. Jiggle the handle.”
“On the lock?”
“The commode. The bucket of water you’ll see beside the toilet is for the tank so you can flush it and the one by the sink is for washin’. There’s another on the dresser for drinking. That’s all you get for one night so you best conserve.’’
“There’s no running water, great.’’
“Oh, all right since you’re Vandoren’s daughter. There’s a pump out back. Take as much as you like. Just need to prime it a bit if the water doesn’t come. You’re all he ever talks about. Rachel this and Rachel that.”
As he chats at her, Rachel notices Baker’s hands are her father’s: leathery, callused, creases filled with the black stains from gunpowder. Baker’s hard to slow down once he gets to gabbing. He doesn’t get much company way out here. Like a starving animal will gorge until its stomach explodes, Baker binges on conversation. Responding to him isn’t necessary, just a warm body fuels him.
He tells Rachel about his heifer that adopted an orphaned pig and how that pig stood on its hind legs to suckle. She learns of his wife’s lost-battle with lymphoma, and how his kids – Kyle, Becky, Wesley, Katie – all left Rio Pecos for the big cities of Abilene and Odessa. He tells her that he’s native to the town and for that matter the last citizen of Rio Pecos. “My mother Ruth Ann gave birth to me, squatting in that corner right there,’’ he says, gesturing to the anointed spot. “A doctor’s fee was more than my Daddy and my Mamma could swing, but being rich wouldn’t have changed how things unfolded that day. I was demanding to see the world within the first hour her contractions started. The nearest doctor was too far away, and Rio Pecos had no midwife. My Mamma just locked my father out—cause he was screaming and she wouldn’t have none of that from anyone but herself. She’d never born a baby before, and she’d never seen one born either. She just went with her instincts and remembered what an Indian woman once told her: squat and push. Yep, that’s the best way to birth a baby. My Mamma swears by it.’’
For the last several minutes, Rachel has been trying to politely break into the conversation, but he doesn’t pause, that is until he remembers Rachel’s reason for being here. His mood shifts abruptly. He hems and haws and kicks at the dirt, struggling to tell her…
“You know he isn’t doing well.”
Her downward glance tells him she already knew this.
“I’m going to need a horse in the morning.”
“We got ya takin’ care of. Your father had me bring his horse, Red, in for you. He ain’t much to look at, but he’s about as good a horse as they get. Just keep a firm hand on him and don’t let him drag ya under any trees. He’s fast and likes to haul. So don’t let him go wide open or when it comes time to stop him, you’ll have to have the will of the Almighty Himself. He’ll get you to your father’s place and back, though. He knows the way. You’ll need to cover at least 35 miles a day to make it in two-days. That’s some pretty fast riding in this rocky country. The trails aren’t well tended. Don’t worry about Red. He can make it. I’ve seen him do more than that with a two hundred pound man on his back. A little light thing like you won’t even make him sweat.”
“Two days? I should be able to reach his place by night fall. He’s just right there on the east fork.”
“He was getting passerbyers every month or so. He said that was every month or so too many so he moved on. You can sleep at his East Fork cabin tonight and then head on out. He found an abandoned cabin that he fixed up and moved into about five years back. It’s so heavily covered with vines that the forest rangers don’t even know it’s there. Without Red with you you’d sure to miss it. If you meet any rangers out there it’s best not to mention why you’re there. They’d sure to throw the old coot out if they knew.”
With a worried look in his eye, he adds, “I wanted to bring him out of there last time I brought him supplies, but Ira wouldn’t have any one but you touching him or his things. That’s his request. I honor it.”
Rachel has so many questions she wants to ask Baker about her father: Does he still like fried potato pancakes for breakfast? Has his hair gone white? Does he still drink whisky from a tin can? Just how bad is bad?
Her lips and tongue refuse to speak, but her mind isn’t so easily hushed. She remembers Baker’s words: “You’re all he ever talks about.” That’s the last thing she expected to hear. Sure, at one time, she was confident that she possessed her Father’s love, but he always had a way of making her feel as insignificant as a spilled beer on a pool hall floor. During the good times, he used to sit on the floor eye level to Rachel, and in his sweat-stained cowboy hat, he would play his guitar and sing: “You are my brown eyes, my brown eyes... I’ll love blue eyes no more.” All that changed, the first time blood soiled her white cotton panties.


3



Ash spills to the floor; his boot’s edge sweeps the burnt tobacco through the warped wooden slats. His leathery skin is as crinkled as the elk-hide pouch he keeps tucked in his front pocket. Untying it, he pinches the tobacco and sprinkles it in an even row across the thin paper. His nimble movements belie his gnarled joints, which have become so deformed as to resemble parasitic-barnacles. As he rolls, he seals the contents with a lick, places it between his lips, and strikes the match on the bottom of his boot. With a ragged breath, he sucks until an orange cinder glows. The butt’s heat has etched thousands of hair-thin creases that circle his mouth. As he draws the smoke in, a gurgling in his lungs attest to the disease that has come to claim Ira Vandoren. Out here his only visitors are the infrequent hiker or hunter. His closest neighbor is Baker in Rio Pecos. Ever since Rachel walked out on him, he has lived as a recluse off the East Fork of Gila Wilderness, where his old family’s homestead has been passed down son-to-son since 1889.
Full and content after a meal, Ira leans back in his great granddaddy’s rocker. Pushing off with the ball of his heels, he teeters back and forth; his eyes closed and the cigarette pursed between his lips. Grasses grow tall and wild around the one-room cabin made of rock, pine and railroad ties from an abandoned track a half mile down the dirt trail. Vines twist and weave through the spaces in the boards and over the roof’s top; even the beginnings of a big-toothed maple pokes through where a slat is missing. Nature has come to reclaim this piece of ground.
Ira hardly minds; he figures one man can only hold the forces back so long. As a single blade of grass pushing through concrete attests, all things eventually return to the earth. A smile spreads across his face. He can feel four eyes on him. Looking up, he confirms his suspicions. Directly in front of him sit Emily, a St. Bernard/Great Dane mix, and Duke, a calico cat. Both lick their chops as their eyes dart between him and the remains of that wild turkey Ira had roasted in his wood-burning stove. Teasing with them a bit, he stretches and pats his full stomach. “Hmmmm, that was good.” Emily and Duke take that as a cue to move in closer, playfully pawing at the dirt and wagging their tails. Emily’s tail wags with the fast and furious movements that can clear a table with one swipe. Duke tries with all her might to do the same but her long-flowing tail just swishes. To her chagrin it lacks the stiffness of Emily’s tail.
Ira cannot help but grin at this orange-and-chocolate anomaly sitting before him as he sets the plate down for the two to share. A cat who thinks she’s a dog. Duke will lay down with her head on her front paws, wag her tail (or rather swish her tail), play catch and tug-a-war. She plays dead and dances for treats. Her first attempts to make sound frustrated her to no end. She’d try and try to bark. First, she’d stiffen her entire body, pressing down on all four paws (as if to concentrate all her efforts), and then she’d force the wind out her throat, trying for a bold, harsh woof but only squeaks would come out. She always seemed so shocked that this high pitch was coming from her. She’d try again and again, but her vocal cords refused to cooperate. Eventually, she had no choice but to give in to the softer tones.
Ira found her years ago, on a frosty morning when icicles hung from the roof’s edge: Ira saddles up Red just as he has done every day for many years to gather berries, nuts, wild onions and possibly to hunt if some irresistible meat presents itself. Right now, hunting isn’t his first concern. He has plenty of jerky stashed beneath his cabin, and with the cold weather it should keep for some time. Just the same, Ira has slipped the rifle into its leather sheath at the saddle’s side. Fresh meat is always a pleasure. By the time the sun is at eight o’clock, Ira’s fallow deer saddle bags have been filled with wild onions and prickly pear paddles, which he likes to dice and sauté together in butter with a touch of jerky; the same way his mother used to prepare green beans.
As he heads back toward the cabin, he notices fresh tracks, reins Red to a stop, and leans on the saddle horn to study them. The claw marks in the snow tells him that the predator cannot be a bobcat because its retractable claws would not be visible, and it cannot be a hiker’s dog because the tracks are straight and purposeful rather than bounding playfully. A kept dog knows where its next meal is coming from and has time for folly. This is a hunter, a lone coyote, perhaps the same one that killed his hens and cut off his fresh egg supply.
Ira unsheathes his rifle and reins Red off the primitive trail and down the mountain’s side. Red prances and snorts, bobs his head up and down, hesitant to yield to his master’s orders. Ira knows this as a good sign. The scent must still linger, meaning the bandit is close by. He nudges the horse forward with another kick. Red obeys but his steps are cautious, his ears cock straight ahead as he scans the forest. Ira tries to soothe him with the sound of his voice. A horse’s survival depends on being herd bound, and when danger is near its first instinct is to run. Everything unfamiliar is put in one category: four-eyed horse eater. Ira is not only asking Red to go it alone, which Red is fairly used to, but he’s pushing him toward a sworn enemy. Red doesn’t grasp that coyotes rarely attack anything near the size of Red or Ira—but they will if threatened. Complicating matters further, Ira’s never shot from on top of Red—something he’d rather not try for the first time while tracking a predator.
In the distance, they both hear a high-pitched whimper. A bitch with pups, Ira figures. Red stiffens, prepared to bolt, but Ira holds firm and pushes him through a rocky pass so narrow that its jagged rocks scrape the sides of his boots. Through the eye of a needle, Ira muses. Looking up, the tips of the walls jet up so high that its tip seems to peer into the clouds. When the two reach the path’s edge, Ira has to choose between following the safer switchbacks and possibly missing the coyote or maneuvering down the precariously loose and icy shale. Without a cue Red knows the answer and sits on his haunches and slides down the shale toward the child-like cry. Leaning back to help Red balance, Ira and Red pick up speed and barrel toward hundreds of burnt-out trunks, stubs and rapier-sharp appendages. Ira’s experienced hands bend Red’s head from side-to-side weaving the two through the forest’s gantlet of talons, spikes, and clubs. Ahead, a petrified tree’s sword seems to reach out to impale the two interlopers; Ira leans hard and draws Red’s right rein too deep. Red, with his nose against Ira’s scuffed boot, jerks his head slightly lose from Ira’s grasp so he can gain just enough balance to prevent the two from toppling over. Ira understands his error and calls out “Sorry, boy” just as a branch swipes him across his face, drops of blood make it difficult to see out of his right eye. His jousting opponent draws first blood. With no time to nurse his anger, Ira pulls Red’s neck to the far left to try to miss a trunk as big around as four men. Both lean into the turn. As Ira’s leg bashes into the side of the massive trunk, he hears a loud snap and a rush of pain shoots up his leg. The world blurs as haunches and withers and arms and legs spill end over end and the two skid to a stop. Red throws his head forward and lifts himself up on shaky legs, careful not to step on Ira’s still body. Red watches his master for any sign of movement. When the man doesn’t stir, Red drops his nose and nudges him in his ribs. Groans encourage Red to try harder. Using his lips, he tugs at Ira’s jacket to force him to sit up. Ira slightly lifts his head and calls out as if to a nagging wife: “I’m up, I’m up.” Relieved, Red whinnies and paws at the ground, but then the he stiffens when he hears the whimpering from the bush in front of them. Red’s instinct is to run, but he stays planted because he’s more afraid of being without his only herd buddy.
Ira figures he has found the bitch’s den, but the bitch must be gone because he would have already felt her fangs grip his throat. Still he reaches for his pistol, but his holster is empty and the leather strap that holds the antler-handled revolver in place has torn off. It must have tumbled out in the fall. He stares up the mountain’s side and sees his silver Colt .45 gleaming in the sun. Lot of good it does me there. Ira slips his bowie knife from its sheath, crawls forward on forearms, and brushes the sage aside. A cinched up burlap bag wiggling, a site Red just cannot handle. He scampers to the side, but not too far from his Ira, who opens the bag to find a kitten crawling over the remains of her siblings. Her eyes were not even open, and she was smaller than his palm. Apparently, someone has dumped a whole litter of kittens in the woods to be rid of them. The others probably starved, and this little one is close to death. Ira considers riding on, but he figures suffocating it or breaking its neck would be kinder, so he grips her windpipe. A pinch is all it will take. He counts to three and counts to three, but the burly man, with the gray stubble, just could not cut this little determined one’s life short. The same man that has lived solely off his own kills for more than two decades years just cannot steal this kitten’s breath. The whole way back to the cabin Ira curses himself for he disdains cats. What am I going to do with a damn cat?
That night he rewraps his damaged ankle, which had swollen up like a melon. It will be a few days before he learns that it’s a torn a ligament, not a broken bone. The kitten that he names Duke after John Wayne suckles on Emily’s hind tit alongside her six black-and-white and brown-and-white patched coyote pups. He figures any creature—no matter how tiny—deserves a tough name if she can survive what Duke survived. The mutt, who has the height of a Great Dane and the width of a St. Bernard, readily adopted this calico cat that can fit into Ira’s shot glass. Ira chuckles at nature’s odd coupling. Already the pups must be at least ten-times the kitten’s height and weight.

As the moon rises to the sky’s center, Ira’s lantern glows and the wood-burning stove warms the one-room cabin. The kitten has fallen asleep in Ira’s breast pocket and Ira’s eyes fight to close. His body grows still and his breath shallow, only the balls of his feet seem awake enough to at least unconsciously keep the rocker in motion. On the armrests his fingers fit precisely into the prints seared into the wood. About 50 years ago, his great grandfather had been staring out from his covered-front porch in Laredo at a lightning storm gathering force inland from Mexico’s coastline. He always loved watching the storms come through. On this summer’s eve, a bolt of lightning shot through him and forever seared his hand prints into the wood. From that day on, his legs would tell the family when rain was due. His joints would stiffen and he’d limp, dragging his left foot as if it were too heavy a club to lift.
At the tips of Ira’s fingers lays his favorite vinyl albums: Sons of the Pioneers, Tom T. Hall, Porter Wagner, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash. When he wants to give ‘em listen, he takes them to Baker’s. He only goes into town, meaning Rio Pecos, occasionally to pick up staples such as rice, flour, sugar, beans, corn meal and ammo. Sleepily, Ira reaches down for his Johnny Cash album and mutters the words he has long known by heart: “Well, my daddy left home when I was three and he didn’t leave much to Ma and me. Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze…” An Army-issued short-wave radio hisses a few words in Italian. The sing-song rhythm tells Ira that it’s probably a commercial selling some new improved product, perhaps laundry detergent. He hears the words he waits for every Saturday night “American Broadcast Radio.” Before the anticipated opening is even heard he giggles like the long-gone boy once did when he would hear the narrator hauntingly say, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The weed of crime bears bitter fruit… The Shadow knows.”
On this particular night, his eyes are destined to close soon after the famed introduction. As he often does, he has swallowed a few too many shots of his Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey. In his boozy slumber, he watches his daughter’s Texas license plate—GTL-102—fade into the distance of the shaded blacktop that snakes pass his hacienda in the valley. The morning sun during this August of 1979 already sears down on any in its path. Ira’s in the backyard pulling up the irrigation paddles to soak his five acres of peach trees. The water flows from the Rio Grande into the concrete canals that wind through the El Paso valley. Farmers and land owners saturate their fields and yards. Moments Ira opens the gates, the water rushes in and he wades through murky fluid in his black rubber boots. After tightening the rope that cinches the excess material of his britches to his bony frame, he fills a can with river water. Muttering and cursing, he sprinkles the flowers in the boxes under the windows. This is what Ira calls “wimmin’s work.” He is stuck doing it because his head-strong daughter refuses to have duties delegated to her based on her sex. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the barefoot Rachel throw a duffel bag in the back of her El Camino truck with the back bumper that he had tied on with bailing wire. Wading through the water bare legged, she wears only cut-offs and a tank top and stares Ira straight in the eye.
“I’m outta here.”
“Your hair’s short,’’ he protests.
“So is yours,” she fires back pleased at her latest rebellious act. One of the many rules in her father’s house is “Girls wear long hair. Period.” Earlier that morning: she stares into the mirror at her black hair falling passed her butt. When she gathers the strands into a rubber band, her hair is as thick as a horse’s tail. In truth she loves her iron-board straight hair, but she wants to rile her father more than she wants her hair. Holding back tears, she hacks and hacks at the thick mass with a hunting knife her father gave her before her first period came. The jagged ends look as if saw teeth have cut the strands. Her sorrel eyes seem to see beyond the image in the mirror to a simpler time when her sex did not interfere with her and her father’s relationship. She misses the afternoons at the gun club or pool hall where the prepubescent girl sneaks a swig of beer and a puff of her Daddy’s cigarette. The big girl steps over the fallen strands and stomps out to the backyard where her father curses as he tends to the flower beds. Now the stubborn girl stands before the stubborn man.
“You look like a boy.”
“So do you.”
“These days boys look like girls and girls like boys.”
“Yeah, it’s a wonder any of us breed.”
Failing to catch her sarcasm, he comments: “Yep!”
“How can one man be so archaic? Gloria says ‘a liberated woman has sex before marriage and a job after.”
“Wash your mouth out with soap. Who the hell is Gloria?”
“Steinem, Daddy; Steinem. Watch the news. The world is changing.”
Ira cannot fathom when exactly his life turned upside down. One moment men brought home the paycheck and girls spent their allowance fixing their hair and painting their nails, content and dossal housewives. How did the beauty-shop girls get so riled up over something called the ERA. At first he thought it was kinda cute to see the barefoot “flower” girls protesting braless, but now the Bee Gees sing soprano, Billy Jean King has challenged a MAN, and his daughter has just neutered herself and refuses to serve her brother his dinner. Ira hardly minds if a woman has rights as long as she does it between cooking and cleaning, which to him seems like a reasonable compromise. Ira doesn’t grasp that the women’s liberation movement may have ignited the spark that sends Rachel walking out the door, but it is hardly the real cause. For years the kindling has been so dry between the two, anything could have and would have fanned the spark into flames.
Ira watches his baby-faced 18-year-old girl climb into the truck’s driver seat—its stuffing coming lose through its ripped red vinyl. It takes two tries to slam the door fully shut. Her dripping wet feet work the clutch and accelerator; she shifts into reverse, screeching as she wheels spin out of the drive way. Shifting into drive the wheels kick up the gravel as she pulls away. He thinks Rachel will sleep off her anger at a girlfriend’s house and then come home, just as she has done many times before, but Rachel knew she could no longer live with this Neanderthal—she dearly loves—and grow into the woman she dreams of being. Rachel doesn’t know that if he had understood she would not come back, he would have run after her.


4




The next morning Rachel heads out to the corral to saddle her ride. Built like a prize fighter, Red is short and stocky with a speckled hide that calls to her mind the eggs that the Red Cardinals used to lay in the honeysuckle vines of her childhood home. Running her hand down Red’s long neck, she senses his restless spirit, his need to run the trails. He snorts and paws at the dirt and nods his head—his mane springs up and down to the rhythm of his movements. She fingers the scars from bites and kicks to his hindquarters, face and neck. Even though he’s a gelding, he foolishly spars with stallions twice his size. Castration didn’t tame his wandering eye. Rather he ended up being proudcut—part of one testicle lay lodged inside him, leaving him with the desire but not the ability. Once he tried to scale a six-foot rock wall to get to a mare.
Baker has already finished saddling him and is leaning against a corral rail with a coffee cup in hand. Rachel nods to Baker and then runs her fingers across Red’s velvety gray muzzle—nothing except perhaps the skin behind a woman’s knee or baby’s behind is as soft. She lifts his head slightly to check the bridle’s bit, his metal mouthpiece. Satisfied, she runs her hand down the horse and pulls at the saddle horn and then the leather cinch tightened around the horse’s girth.
“That saddle ain’t going nowhere,” Baker says, slightly annoyed that she’s checking his work. He knows he shouldn’t be since he’d never start out without double checking. It’s just that a woman questioning him irks him. He softens though when she gives him a nod, affirming his good work. She ties on her pack, which carries enough food for three days onto the back of the horse. A canteen filled with water hangs on the saddle horn by its leather loop.
“A stream runs most of the way along the trail. You can refill up on water there.” Handing her a valve of iodine, he adds, “It should be safe but add a drop of this to the water, and it’ll kill any bacteria. It won’t taste as sweet but at least you won’t have to worry about the runs.”
“If you’ll hop up I’ll adjust your stirrups,’’ he says. “I’d recommend letting ’em hang down so low that you almost feel like you’re bareback. You got a hard three-day ride ahead; any higher will make your legs and knees sore.”
Taking his advice she allows him to adjust the stirrups to his liking.
After a moment of silence she asks, “Is my father happy?”
“I guess that’s something only he can answer.”

2 comments:

talulabelle said...

Deborah,

Somehow Chris stumbled onto this site or Francisco mentioned it. I just read your excerpt and it's very good. I hope you get it published. Congratulations on getting married; we wish you the best. we now live in Cozumel, Mx. Intersting how things change, isn't it? Our lives are very different Ican tell you that.

All our best,

Victoria and Chris

mike zimmet said...

This is very good. I have been a fan for some time