Old River // Big Sky

7. Old River
“Each small bullet makes a sound”

It was sticky sweet in the dark night air, brewed potently from humidity and sea spray and petrochemicals. Davis stood with his hip cocked toward Tripp and watched flames lap up into the sky. They parked the bike on the side of FM 146 and started watching the refinery glow from across the street. It was peaceful in its way — whirring and working while everyone else is tucked-in asleep. Something about it was ominous, too. It left Davis with pinpricks of fear in the deepest parts of him. 

“Hey,” Tripp said with an implied dare to look. 

Davis couldn’t bring himself to look away from the endless maze of pipes and fittings. He was reminded of the life he used to live, working twelve-to-sevens out in the Permian Basin. Being a roughneck calloused any soft spots that survived high school and the teen rodeo circuit. It made him feel worn in like a good pair of boots; so busted up that you hardly feel like you’re wearing anything at all. He never really thought about how all the oil he drew out of the ground ended up here to be processed, perfected. 

He felt Tripp move in closer at his side. Felt his fingertips brush and caress near the belt loops on his jeans. It was tender, intimate. Still not looking, he could feel the intensity of Tripp’s stare. It was searching for something definite — a joke to break the tension or that look you get right before you kiss. Memory of a time out in the patch elbowed in: the boy with the turquoise belt buckle; fingers drifting to interlace being pushed aside; nursing a broken heart with burning swigs of Fireball. Suddenly Davis couldn’t play the part he knew he should; couldn’t give in to what he knew should happen next. He stared deep into the orange light of the refinery as the pinpricks of fear in him widened into snarling maws that could swallow him whole. Tripp’s fingers fell away and slid across his chest as he crossed his arms in a pout. 

“I have a gun,” he said after some time passed.

“Bullshit,” Davis spat back. 

“No lie. I keep it for protection.”

Tripp stumbled backward toward the bike trying on his best impression of Davis’ swagger and pulled a Beretta M9 out of the saddlebag. “Lifted it from my Dad before I left,” he bragged as he handed it over. Davis felt the weight of it in his hands and its smooth, inky metal. Without thinking he gripped the trigger and aimed it out across 146 at the refinery. 

“Fuck, boy, are you trying to get us arrested?” 

“Maybe,” Davis mumbled back, trying to sound flirtatious. 

“Here,” said Tripp as he waded through the tall grass of the shoulder. He picked up a six pack of empty beer cans and set them up on a large construction drum. After skipping toward Davis, he grabbed his hands and pulled him just in front of their new target. “Let me show you.” Standing behind him, Tripp wound his left arm around Davis’ waist and ran the other down from his shoulder until it found a firm grip on his trigger finger. “Both hands now, Mr. Marlboro.” Davis brought his left hand to the gun and let it rest on Tripp’s — something like holding hands. “And ready, aim … you know the rest.” On cue, Davis squinted one eye and took aim at the cans. A deep breath. Some fear. Tripp pressing his fingertips into the soft indent of his waist. “Now shoot.” 

It was a sharp, tinny ringing sound; like a bell stopped short. The can flew so quick that it seemed to disappear into the smokey air. “Hot damn,” Tripp whispered so closely that lips touched ear. “You really are a cowboy, huh?” The sound brought some clarity. It made Davis want to try something.  

He dropped the gun and pulled himself into Tripp, nearly clawing at his shoulder blades. Their lips found each other easily. He slipped in his tongue and felt out a conversation in flesh. They gave and took; pressing and releasing; biting when it was right. They stayed tangled up together for some time before Davis gave up on finding the clarity of that tinny sound in Tripp’s kiss. It wasn’t there. It was like touching through glass or making love in a dream — closeness without contact. 

When he pulled himself away it was with the distinct feeling of wanting to go home.   

8. Big Sky
“Heartbreak is a warm sensation when the only feeling that you know is fear.”

She was drunk on it now. Not the daquiris, but the power of how deeply he wanted her. Her mind was whirling and her body filled with electric glee. She dug her toes into the sand as the tide rolled in on Stewart Beach. 

He had his hand rested on the widest part of her hip, lightly caressing the curve there as he told her about ships on the horizon. “That one’s an oil tanker and, see, the small triangular looking one? That’s a fishing boat.” She nodded politely, but found it impossible to listen. All she could think about was that hand and where it would like to go. “And that’s obviously a cruise ship, but I bet you see plenty of those around here.” She liked the look of the ships. She liked the warm, golden light and how small they looked from far away. She didn’t care for the technicalities; it was better to imagine them as tiny paper boats on the skyline.

He was midsentence on the next line of shipping vessels when she pulled him down to the sleeping bag laid out on the sand. She wanted him to make the next move, so she stared up at the sky and left her hand dangling empty next to his. It was a rare clear night when you could see most of the stars in the sky and even a few planets. As a child growing up out west she had always felt afraid of how impossibly quiet the night could be; how it was just you and these stars looking back at you like they knew something. Here she felt the charm of it, with the gentle sound of crashing ocean waves and the warmth of a man laying so close she could feel him breathe. Something big was about to happen. She had to have something wild to tell Davis when he got home. This man was going to grab her hand and confess something powerful. Love, or something like that. Patience, she told herself. No sudden moves. 

He shifted and her heart raced with anticipation. She willed him to say it. He turned his head to face her and she did the same, locking eyes for what she realized was the first time. They were nice eyes. Dark, but shimmering with golden light; tiny paper boats on the skyline of his face. He sighed through a smile. Tellmeyouloveme tellmeyouloveme tellmeyouloveme, she prayed. “I should be getting on back to my hotel.” It was blunter than her fantasy. Trying to get her back to his hotel seemed like the kind of line that she would have settled for in younger, prettier days. Now she was aching for romance, something real. But, still, he wanted her badly and that was something. One last something before everything unknown that would come with sunrise and the start of an indefinite lockdown. 

“Would you like a ride home?” 

“Home.”

“Well, sure, I don’t want you out here walking in the dark. It’s the least I can do.”

She held her breath for a moment. Disjoint in time, she was transported back to the doorway watching Bachelor Number 5 walk out for good; to the one before that kicking her out of his car for the length of her skirt; to her homecoming date sneaking under the bleachers with Mary Clare Lewis. She clenched her jaw and felt her fingers tighten into a fist. He let out a frustrated groan as she got up and grabbed her shoes. 

“I don’t get it.” 

“You’re done with me, right?”

“It’s not like that. I thought you knew what this was, sweetheart.”

It was when he gestured out to her that she caught his wedding ring reflected in the starlight. She wasn’t sure if she was just too stupid to notice or she had tried not to look. Either way, she was pulling the veil of loneliness over herself again; retreating back within and far away from this man whose face suddenly changed to something cruelly unfamiliar. She towered over him as she decided whether to take him up on his very practical offer. Her feet were once again sinking deeper into the sand.

“Just let me take you home. I swear, I’m not a bad guy.”

She knew it was wrong even as it was happening. He screamed when she kicked up the sand into his face — it got in his eyes, his mouth. It swirled in the wind, rushing past her and grating her skin like a million tiny cuts. She was already a good distance away by the time he started calling her a bitch between spit takes of wet sand. She was only a little afraid he would follow her. Holding her shoes in her left hand, she brought the right to her heart as she giggled and then belly laughed and walked in the dark toward home. 

THESE ARE THE SEVENTH AND EIGHTH CHAPTERS OF A SERIAL STORY I’M DEVELOPING CALLED
QUEEN OF THE RODEO.
MORE CHAPTERS TO COME, SO DON’T TOUCH THAT DIAL.

Queen of the Rodeo // Kansas (Remembers Me Now)

5. Queen of the Rodeo
“Don’t get down, girl. This world is a bummer.”

She had never noticed just how much of yourself you could see in the cooler-lined walls of Daiquiri Time Out. The blue-white light suited her face, reflecting back eerie halos in her eyes. She was lost now taking stock of the figure before her who did and did not feel like herself. 

She cut the kind of figure that made you nostalgic for what it once was. It had curves and lines that traced better times despite being more than attractive in the here and now. Still, it was haunted by the sense that she had once been extraordinary and then something happened. She delicately pushed her shoulders back with the tips of her finger, lifting her chin and pulling her head up as if by a golden string. This was closer. This was better. 

“Miss?” It was a voice from the bar. 

Still on a string, she turned her head elegantly to the left. It was a handsome-sounding man sitting at the end of the bar closest to her. He beckoned gently with his right arm. His face was obscured by a black face mask and he wore a cowboy hat inside. A tourist. Or worse: one who fancies himself a cowboy. 

“Excuse me, miss. I know this is forward, but seeing as the world is ending and all I thought I might buy you a drink. What the hell! What’d you like?” 

As he was talking she started running all the possible scenarios. He’s an out-of-towner playing cowboy for the weekend at the worst possible time and looking for one night of fun. He’s someone she knew in high school who is wearing a disguise to humiliate her. He’s a serial killer trying out a new routine. He’s impossibly handsome under that face mask and he could just be the love of — 

“Do you like strawberry daiquiris? I hear that’s what they do here.” 

She nodded and took the empty seat to his left. She asked where he was from and he asked for her name. By the time her nuclear pink daiquiri arrived she was nearly certain he wasn’t a serial killer. He was charming and just superficial enough to make her feel like she had cleaned up well. He was still drinking through a straw under his face mask so she couldn’t tell if what sounded like smiles were genuine or threatening. He claimed he was being cautious; that the news said it was a good idea. Maybe it didn’t matter. She needed a man to break this streak before the bars closed for good, for a while. 

“So, miss Harriet, how’s it that a woman like yourself is alone in a bar on a night like this?”

“I’m not alone. I’m with you. You can call me Tink, if you like.”

“I do. I do like that.” 

There was a silence just then. A potent silence where something was being decided without being said. She could just barely make out his eyes in the dark, but she could see that hunger that she knew so well. It’s the same look a man gets when he’s just been served an oversized steak and he’s working out where to start cutting. She had him now. 

“Neon Moon” came on, finally ending the silence. Someone must have requested it on the jukebox, nostalgic for a honky tonk that didn’t exist around here anymore. It made her sway and she hoped he would get the sense she was trying to give off. Right on cue he offered her his hand for a two-step. She had to pretend like she was taking her time considering it. 

“I’m not the best dancer, but I can spin you around the floor for a few. Only if you want.” 

She had missed this too much. Feeling like the most beautiful woman in the room, even though she knew she wasn’t. Not anymore. Still, she knew how to play the part and let the guy think it was all his idea. A breath in. A breath out. One more glance to the side and back, and then she’d accept his hand. 

As they moved to the floor she was pleased to feel how confidently he pulled her in for a close hold. Liar. He was playing humble cowboy, and she was playing coy queen of the rodeo. She kept thinking about Bachelor Number Five and the last time they’d touched. He patted her on the shoulder as he walked out the door like it had been a nice try. It reminded her that she was dancing with a stranger. He moved his hands lower to the small of her back and subtly pushed her hips against his. Brooks and Dunn sang, there’s always room here for the lonely.

“You are beautiful,” he whispered in her ear. She placed her head on his shoulder so she could close her eyes and enjoy the moment. She felt the rush of ego tense and then ease her muscles. She couldn’t contain her shivering, adrenaline-fueled grin. It might be worth it, she thought. She never goes out anymore and she hasn’t done this in a few years. She would tell Davis all about it when … if he ever came home. 

“What kind of car do you drive?”

“Black Suburban. Nothing fancy.”

“Oh.” She paused strategically. “I’d like to see it.” 

She didn’t need him to take off the mask to see that smile. 

6. Kansas (Remembers Me Now)
“Come, last leg of sunset. Nothing left to hide.” 

Good evening, Galveston County … It is midnight and you know what that means … We’ve been reporting all day that today marks the official first day of our stay-at-home, shelter-in-place order … Now, you know that we won’t leave you in a lurch so we’ll keep bringing you the best of classic country with the fewest commercials … Stay safe out there … 

The radio played but Tripp and Davis couldn’t hear it over the sound of the motorcycle’s engine. Tripp drove his bike and Davis held on tight to him. They put their drunken faith in the safety of a good time. No helmets, no leathers — just dumb luck. They were screaming down the Causeway on I-45, coming up fast on Ocean’s Cabaret. It was the strip club his father always promised to take him to on his 18th birthday. His father never said it, but it always seemed to him that it was a threat more than a gift. Over the strip club loomed a billboard with a picture of the hurricane memorial statue from the seawall; “Jesus Saves” layered over top it. It made him laugh. He nestled his face and his vodka breath against Tripp’s neck. Lifted his chin up to nibble at Tripp’s ear. 

“You’re going to make me crash this bike, boy,” Tripp said with delight. “Jesus Christ.” 

… Coming to you live from the seawall as the bars close down indefinitely for the shelter-in-place, stay-at-home order … reports saying that there are two confirmed cases in the county, no deaths yet … Experts are saying that the best thing you can do right now is stay inside and remain calm … keep interactions with those outside of your household to a minimum … 

“Can you put on some music or something?” Tink knew she had to try that one again. “I’m having a wonderful time; it’s just so scary.” 

He turned it back to the classic country station and then they went back under his spare sleeping bag. She couldn’t remember the last time she had fooled around in the back of a car, but it certainly had not been this spacious. She was laid out on the backseat as he lavished her with touch. Mask and hat long forgotten, he was working his way up from her toes. The radio played “Walkin’ After Midnight” and a clear sky cast moonlight across the crinkling polyester. She was pleased with herself.  

Throwing her arms expectantly overhead, she glanced up through the window to see stars and feel the light on her face. She wondered where Davis was right now. She arched her back and got on with it. 

… And that was, of course, THE Patsy Cline with Walkin’ After Midnight … It’s after midnight, Galveston, do you know where your children are? … We’re kidding around, of course, but remember to check on friends and family from a distance over the next few days to make sure everyone’s accounted for … we’re all in this together … Next on, we’ve got “I’d Love to Lay You Down” by Conway Twitty … 

The pack of red wolves walking down The Strand turned their ears to note the new song. They were indifferent to it. They moved silently down the deserted cobblestone road toward East Beach. They looked and sniffed and inspected this place they had never been safe to explore before. They pushed over big gulp cups of alcohol with their noses. Tripped over discarded plastic bags. Picked up and carried off half-eaten hamburgers. 

The wolves had no idea why all the people had suddenly disappeared. But, they were sniffing something on the night air that suggested change. It smelled like sea water and smoke. 

THESE ARE THE FIFTH AND SIXTH CHAPTERS OF A SERIAL STORY I’M DEVELOPING CALLED
QUEEN OF THE RODEO.
MORE CHAPTERS TO COME, SO DON’T TOUCH THAT DIAL.

Turn to Hate // Buffalo Run

3: Turn to Hate
“It’s alright. It’s alright. It’s alright. It’s alright.”

“You hate it because I’m right,” she said, absolutely pissed that the quiver in her voice would give it all away.

The chain link gate was still vibrating after he slammed it hard. He didn’t quite hit the latch like he intended so he would have to do it again. And that meant turning to face her.

“You’re not right.” A look. “I don’t know if you’re right or not, alright?” He slammed the gate again, making sure to precisely catch the latch as he went. The TV inside their technicolor shotgun house was still blaring the early evening news: Unseen disease spreading. Weeks of lockdown. Starting midnight tonight.

Continue reading “Turn to Hate // Buffalo Run”

Dead of Night // Winds Change

1: Dead of Night
“See the boys walk on by. It’s enough to make a young man cry.”

He kept thinking about how the Gulf once tried to take this island back into the sea.

He was looking out into that water now and watching how it crashed on the breakwaters, lapping at the belly of phantom piers lost in the last hurricane. Or, maybe it was the one before that. The piers were there when he was a boy and now they were gone. That was the part that mattered. He had set up at a picnic table on the seawall, right next to the memorial statue gone green with patina. A man holding a woman holding a baby, all reaching up into the sky for help. He didn’t hardly notice it normally, but folks had started leaving flowers, toys, and candles. Like some charm from the hurricane goddess would save them from a plague. He shook his head as he cracked open another Lone Star from the cooler.

Six thousand dead was what they said. Six thousand dead and a hundred years ago they raised the whole thing up from the water. He was sitting on the engineering marvel that stands between this sandbar and oblivion, drinking beer and not knowing what to do with himself.

Continue reading “Dead of Night // Winds Change”