Jubal Tiner (Ph.D., Oklahoma State University) is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Carolina University. His fiction has appeared in Oxford Magazine, The Diagram, and Midland Review. His manuscript, The Waterhouse, from which "Country Western Love Music" is excerpted, was a finalist for the 2001 James Jones First Novel Fellowship.
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He moves through his mother's empty house to her bedroom, stands before the closet, the funeral having come and passed a month ago or more. He doesn't count. The furniture gradually disappears, sold to a store, given to friends of the family, her clothes to the Salvation Army and Goodwill. He slides open the closet door and reaches into the darkness. The barrel of the .22 is cool. The stock feels lighter than he remembers.
In the living room he hears the air conditioner thrumming and feels the grain of the brushed brass doorknob as he grasps it. He steps out, onto the stoop, out into the heat, slips the key into the dead bolt and listens as it locks. He cradles the .22 and walks across the lawn, barely aware of the blue above him, passing the truck that quit running a week ago. He can feel the odd lump of the medicine bottle tucked under his baseball cap. He runs his hand over the front pocket of his work jeans, feeling the two bullets there, lying close together like lovers, ribbed in the darkness of the denim.
Jimmy Timberlake sat in the high leather-backed chair facing the Spanish Galleon desk in the wood-paneled, cigar-smoke-filled, pinhole office of Wright and Sons, listening to a sound he hadn't heard in years—Merle Haggard singing "I Always Get Lucky With You." Mason Wright, the father in the firm, passed Jimmy two copies of his mother's Last Will and Testament across the expanse of the desk with a reach like a longshoreman. Scrawled "X"s marked the lines that awaited Jimmy's signature.
Glancing over the documents, Jimmy signed both copies. Merle's croon gave over to a newer tune from one of the longhaired country stars Jimmy guessed were rejections from the rock scene. Travis Tritt, maybe. Mason Wright cleared his throat.
"There is one last item," he said. "I've made arrangements for the veterinarian. Your mother didn't stipulate anything about this matter in the will…"
"And the matter is?" asked Jimmy.
"Your mother's horse. Sugar, I believe she called it. It's out at Marrin's stables, where she kept it. It's sick."
"Sick," said Jimmy. "How sick?"
"Doc Girard said the tumor was over thirty pounds. I've arranged…"
"Thanks, but no thanks." Jimmy stood to leave.
"Girard said it would be best to… put it down," said Mason.
Jimmy nodded, strode through the secretary's office into the noonday Oklahoma heat.
He squints in the bright sunlight along the highway and misses his sunglasses hanging over the arm of the chair in his old bedroom. The sounds of rubber and asphalt, smooth pistons, weak mufflers, and backfiring tailpipes assault him. Tugging the brim of his cap lower, he trudges off the shoulder into the bluegrass ravine that stretches the length of Highway 177. It is lined with fast food sacks, cigarette butts and packs, empty cans of cheap beer high school kids toss out after cruising, paper drowned in mud—"road lint" his mother used to call it. He keeps his eyes low, concentrating on each step, the .22 resting in the crook of his right arm, a broken heron; still, he can sense the prairie swim out away from him, long and lean, from late in the morning on down to dusk. The skin of his neck crawls briefly, his sweat-soaked hair standing on end. Every town in Oklahoma, even one the size of Labette, is only a wide spot in the hot summer steamroller of grass and land.
His shirt is damp. He places the gun gingerly across the tracks, his damsel, strips to the waist, knocking the ballcap into the dirt, the medicine bottle bouncing end over end away from him. His chest sheens with sweat. He wipes his hand across it, thinking of his leathered skin, brown from laboring in the sun, the Cherokee blood in his heart and veins, that one small part of a past that turns his hair blacker than most, gives him a good tan, might get his name on a tribal role if he applied. He dusts off the cap, screws it down hard over his drenched hair, the medicine bottle again a lump beneath the soft canvas. He will never apply, appearing too European against the full bloods in what used to be their territory.
The bar was packed. He'd forgotten that college students in Oklahoma get trashed on Thursday night so they can go home over the weekend, visit their parents and their girl or boy back home, stroll into church on Sunday and repent for Thursday night. It seemed foreign to Jimmy. If he'd thought, he would have taken Labette's lone cab downtown to the quiet and sultry hotel lounge, but he was here now, so he called for something dark from the tap and leaned against the bar, watching.
Fraternity boys and hometown-turned sorority girls twisted on the floor, line dancing to the latest Brooks and Dunn. Tight jeans, iron-creased at the seam, and ropers—jeans with no back pockets—on the women, everything from band collared collages of color to plain black t-shirts on the boys. Cowboy hats dotted the rows and columns like crows on fence posts. Jimmy nursed his beer, the bass beat vibrating in the hollow cavity of his chest.
At the edge of the dance floor, missing half the steps, was an Indian. He was sweating, but beneath his black plastic-rimmed glasses stretched a smile, wide across his face. A beer bottle was in each hand. The Indian's hair hung black and shining, long and pulled back in a pony-tail. He had a barrel chest and sported a black cowboy hat with a rattlesnake hatband, and three young girls were shimmying around him. He was older than the others on the floor, and when the song ended, Jimmy watched him stagger slightly on his way to a table where there were two other men, one with a woman on his lap. The Indian sat down hard, saddle-bags filled with gold slung over the back of a burro, and a waitress set down a tray full of fresh bottles and glasses of beer, leaned over and kissed the second man. Jimmy smiled, slid his beer from the bar and wove through the jigsaw maze of tables.
"Troy Camplin," Jimmy said.
The blonde-haired man turned his eyes. His face was sunburned and grew redder when he saw Timberlake. His pupils hardened. "Well, Jimmy Timberlake. Good to see you. Been awhile. I believe the last time was when I was beating your ass into the ground."
"If I remember right, we never fought, although you talked mighty big about it."
"Long and loud."
Camplin smiled. "I guess you were always the silent type. Studious."
"I'm impressed," said Jimmy. He nodded his head toward the waitress who had kissed Camplin. "I guess she's taught you civility. The Camplin I knew would have used the word geek with colorful adjectives added for spice."
"I've got to consider my audience, professor. Or soon-to-be. Pull up a chair. I see they haven't schooled you out of drinking that dark shit yet." Jimmy laughed as Troy called to Amy, the waitress, for another one of whatever-Jimmy-was-going-to-be-finishing-soon. Then he eyed Jimmy, his pupils growing wider, softer.
"Sorry to hear about your mom."
"Thanks," said Jimmy.
Troy introduced him around the table, to the other couple, Matt and Nancy, and Marvin, the Indian, who reached over and clasped Jimmy's hand in his, burying it in darker flesh, his eyes swimming in blood-shot glasses.
"Don't mind Marvin here," said Camplin. "He works hard during the week and feels the need to unwind. We just don't let him operate the nail gun on Mondays."
"We?" asked Jimmy.
"Yeah. Me," said Troy. "My company. Hey, if you're staying around and you need some work, I could use the hands. As I remember, you used to be pretty good with a hammer and nails—but I forget, the school bell tolls for thee."
"Hey, I made a solid `B' in English Lit."
Jimmy held up his hands, signaling no offense. "So why drive nails for a living?"
"I like it," said Camplin.
Jimmy shook Camplin's gaze and looked to the darkness of the dance floor. It was a slow song, love amazing the singer, and he thought of a girl, Judy somebody, who would listen to country music when her life turned sour, especially the love songs, commiserating in loss. Jimmy laughed to himself, draining the dark bottle of beer. Maybe she wasn't so crazy after all.
"Where are you working?" Jimmy asked quietly.
"The new addition on Franklin. Building homes, buddy."
"Maybe I'll drop by on Monday."
"Do that," said Camplin. "We'll give you the nail gun." Jimmy glanced at Marvin, who grinned big, gave him the peace sign.
The railroad crosses the highway and he cuts away from the blacktop, remembering balancing on the same steel rails as a kid, later drinking beer with friends, watching the trains, feeling the whip of hair and the rush of life as he hurtled himself off the track just in time, screaming with the intensity of it. The wooden slats are still unevenly laid and his heels catch, the toes of his boots dipping into the gravel beneath the tracks. The sounds of the highway fade and he reaches the junction, takes the left fork as cicadas and grasshoppers knit a finer hum in the hot afternoon. He focuses on his steps. A bird calls. He checks for trains. Funny, he thinks—what would they say if one hit him. You hear? they'd say. Yeah. Jimmy Timberlake got run over by the northbound out of Tulsa. Made a mess outa him—a bigger mess. Out there with a .22—just suppose what he was doin' out there. Hunting season's still four months away.
Rivulets of sweat course down his sides. Pulling the brim of the ballcap down level with his eyes, he looks out across the fields. Farm buildings dot the distance—houses, barns, crop sheds, garages, silos. He is two miles out and can't yet see the Marrin place, where Sugar is, back behind the barn in a pen, away from the livestock and farm dogs. He thinks of that joke—What do you get if you play a country western song backward? You get your truck back, your dog back, your bronc-riding belt buckles back, and your girl… he laughs a little against the heat. He doesn't think about anything but his steps for a time.
Later that night, having parted with Camplin and company when he'd finished his two beers, he lay sweating in bed, the darkness of the house a living, choking being. After several hours of courting sleep, he gave in and let himself think about the women in his life. He rolled onto his back, stared toward the dark ceiling, thought of the day. The truck unfixable. The house. The horse. Lunch from the new grill at O'Conner's. Pork chops. Pork chops, Glennis had said months ago. Yesterday I was thinking that I wanted pork chops for dinner, and he comes home from work, and I'm amazed, but he's got pork chops. He said he stopped by the store and got some for dinner, that they had just sounded good to him all day. Jimmy remembered the phone receiver, how light and breakable it was at that instant, how powerless he was to break it. We just click, he heard Glennis say, her voice distant, her last world like an order he wanted to follow, wanted to hang up, but she went on and he mumbled good for you, hating himself for having to wait until she hung up before he could set down the receiver and roam around his apartment.
Jimmy climbed off the bed and stood, looking out the window of the bedroom, over the lights of this big small town in the Midwest, hundreds of miles from where she was sleeping, no doubt curled up in the arms of Pork Chop Man. Jimmy entertained brief images of Pork Loin Tender and how they might fry up after he cut them off, the look on her face, seeing her new main man maimed. He rumbled around in the darkness, ending back on the bed, thinking of Glennis nestled against his chest after they had made love—before they became just friends—his brain humming a wordless tune wailed out by a slide guitar in the distance, fretting him back to his mother.
He had taken the back right corner of the casket from the hearse, and along with Lou Fisher, several of his mother's colleagues from the college, and Bill Schultz, the last man that seemed to have any significance to her, carried her coffin to the frame over an open hole in the cemetery. Jimmy didn't pay much attention to the biblical recitation that was standard fare, or the piece about death by William Cullen Bryant he knew his mother had liked. He was out past the cemetery, thinking of the miles of fields and flatlands that still startled him. When he came back to himself, he thought about his father, the conversation they'd had over steak and beer the night before, how he seemed in good health and laughed when Jimmy asked if he were seeing anybody. They made plans to get together during the winter once they were both back in the west. He had watched his father at the ceremony, solid in his dark suit, his hair whiter but not thinning. Jimmy knew they would not meet.
The minister finished and the morticians lowered the casket. Jimmy dropped the first handful of dirt, remembered his mother in a smart suit, standing at the front of a classroom, one hand out and the other on her hip, her hair tied back, cracking a joke, moving through the room, all eyes focused, clear, on her.
One late night, back in high school, he remembered sitting around the kitchen table with Copper, drinking some beer he'd procured—probably from Spicer, the resident radio station drunk where Copper worked part-time—and eating leftover pizza. Jimmy's mom came home from a date, sat at the table with them, opened a beer herself and pulled from a cabinet an airtight coffee container. She released its lid, taking out the small sack of gourmet coffee, some filters, and then reached in a last time, removing a pack of Camels Jimmy didn't know she had, tamped the package, tapped out a cigarette and matched it up, dragging slowly, holding it in, then breathing out through her nose like a dragon.
"I didn't know you smoked," said Copper.
"I don't," she said.
Copper looked at Jimmy, who shrugged. "I didn't know either," he said.
Jimmy's mother smiled. "I don't. Not regularly. But you've got to have something to finish things with, a gesture to mark the space in time. So, the first drag here is for George, and the rest of the cigarette is for me without him."
"You broke up?" asked Jimmy.
"No, not really. It just ended. Time to move on." She got up, walked into the living room and gazed out the window, dragging on the cigarette until it was down to the nub. Back in the kitchen she doused the butt in the sink and threw it in the wastebasket.
"See you two in the morning," she said and moved to the bedroom, beer in hand.
"She thought George was great, right?" asked Copper.
"A prince," said Jimmy.
He had never asked about George after that, but thought about him a lot that year. Jimmy couldn't recall what her reasons were for leaving his father either, except maybe for the things he had against school, one of which happened to be her going.
Jimmy rubbed his eyes. The last one. The one he didn't want to think about. Cate. Cate Marrin. High school. They were good friends, lab partners, worked late as stockers at the IGA downtown. A girl he considered a pal. Jimmy began to notice the way she moved, the way she spoke, a tiny dimple on only one side of her mouth when she gave that wry smile and said, Timberlake, you are full of shit. He grew towards her, a gravitational pull, a moon to a planet. He began to wonder if Newton and the apple weren't self-aggrandizing propaganda. Then he lied.
He and friends got wasted one night. Copper, Copper's brother, Marcus, others. They started swapping stories about who they'd made it with and how many times and where. To Jimmy's surprise, Cate came up in connection with him. They were all sure he'd done her, and though the lie turned his stomach then as it did now, he said "Sure, all the time, on the table in the break room." They all slapped him on the back, saluted, toasted him, before Marcus went on to another tale of conquest.
Of course Cate found out, as Jimmy knew and feared she would. During their second semester senior year she didn't speak to him. Rearranged her schedule at the store. Didn't say goodbye when she left for college. Never wrote. He hears she is somewhere in Michigan.
Now there was Sugar. He would do what men do—walk up and put a bullet in the brain of an animal that was hurting, that was dying. He'd seen it on thousands of television shows, movies, heard of men speaking proudly of good animals that ended with dignity. No vet would touch Sugar. Put to sleep was not a euphemism Jimmy cared to embrace. It would be man and horse, the brave and the faithful, coming to an end here, in this, the closest place to the old west there was. Jimmy could see himself, pointing the rifle, the hole in the earth. The guitar he heard earlier fell silent, and he slept.
Later in the night a sound woke him. Jimmy let his mind reach toward the darkness, hinging on nothing. He rose to the window that looked out over the fields at the edge of town and noticed a string of headlights on the highway. In the distance he heard a rumble. Large trucks, eighteen-wheelers. Something else was in the wind as well. Jimmy could see a pickup leading the semis, a lone dark figure opening a gate. Then he remembered that field, and it wasn't a field at all, but a blacktop for the overflow parking at the Mercruiser plant, whose lights were sparkling two miles off. The vehicles circled, and the engines shut down. Amidst the sound of slamming doors and shouts, Jimmy could hear the muffled roar of lions.
Closer. He can barely see the Marrin farm from squinting in the afternoon sun, barely see the statue of Jesus on top of the silo. He remembers this Jesus being as tall as he was when they hoisted it up with the Tarlin Construction crane, a blessing on the grain in the teeming silo, he guessed. It would light up at night then, maybe still does, and Cate told him once that it made her feel good and safe, and she admitted, sexy. Her parents had been at the funeral, but she wasn't. They didn't mention her when they offered condolences.
Another half mile and he is letting himself through the gate of the barbed-wire pen. He knows Jack Marrin will be in the fields for hours and his wife is in town, finishing her shift at Wal-Mart. He latches the gate behind him and turns. Sugar rolls her head toward him and steps backwards until her flanks buckle the barbed wire. The horse looks odd, thick, like a water heater with a head and tail, a weak spot on its side about to burst, ballooning out like a medicine ball. Doc Girard said the tumor was over thirty pounds. Jimmy looks at it sticking out from Sugar's ribs, notices the horse's eyes, the left one cobalt blue. There is anger. Fear. Jimmy takes a step. Sugar bucks, her forelegs a challenge, lashing out with her front hooves, a high-pitched sound issuing from her, like no animal Jimmy's ever heard. He locks the rifle's barrel in place, slips the bullets out of his pocket, pumps them into the magazine with sweaty fingers. Leaning the gun against the fence, he approaches Sugar again, hands up, palms out. She bucks and Jimmy steps back, eyeing the open field just outside the fence. She should run free a little, at least, before… he reasons; maybe it will settle her. Jimmy moves to the gate, opens it, moves back. Sugar eyes the expanse of land, moves slowly to the gate, eyeing Jimmy, then bolts.
"We need to get you drunk and laid," said Camplin as they walked out of the bar Saturday night. Jimmy couldn't help laughing a little as Amy helped her cock-eyed boyfriend stumble around the parking lot.
"Or better yet, a girlfriend," said Amy.
"Yeah," said Troy. "C'mon, everybody's doing it."
"Marvin doesn't have one," said Timberlake.
"Marvin's got anybody and everybody," said Camplin. "Need a ride, Dominus?" Camplin gestured to several cars in the lot. "Or shall we help you find somebody to `monk-ey' around with?" Camplin laughed at his own joke and tripped. Jimmy grabbed his arm, helping Amy keep him upright.
"You think I'd ride with your drunk butt?" said Timberlake. "Thanks, but I'll walk."
Camplin fumbled with the lock. He threw the keys to Amy, and she slid into the driver's seat. "That's how she got me, you know," said Camplin. "The barmaid's always a safe ride home. One night she took me to her place instead of mine."
"She seems great," said Jimmy.
"Is, buddy… is." He focused. "Good to have you on board. See you Monday?"
"Sure," said Jimmy, rubbing a thumb over the calluses on his palm. Amy started the car and pulled away. Timberlake watched them until they were out of sight, then he turned and headed away from the bar and town, towards the highway.
That's how Glennis had gotten him. A week of passing him in the hallways and a drunken-Friday-night-crash-landing into her bed. She sounded surprised when he called the next day, wanting to see her again. It was easy, a first for Jimmy, something he thought he could stay with, later knew he would.
Jimmy walks out over the field, following Sugar, who keeps fifty yards distance at all times, retreating as Jimmy advances. It doesn't look like a retreat, thinks Jimmy—some attitude, this horse. Probably why his mother liked her —she was the only one who would understand, be able to ride her. He remembers a funny country song he'd heard that week, the clock radio in his room tuned to KVLE, about the relationship between a woman and her horse. But Sugar is female. His mom had always been progressive.
He examines the rifle, hoping the sights are still straight and his aim
as good as it was when he was a kid. His mother had gone hunting with him once and shot the only deer of the season with this rifle. After that, before he lost his taste for it, Jimmy went with Mr. Anderson or Lou Fisher or Copper. He didn't kill much and missed intentionally most of the time. Some frontiersman.
Jimmy shoulders the rifle, lips firm, one eye closed, finger brushing the trigger guard, slipping inside, as if it were a ring, rubbing the curve of the trigger. He stops. He needs a shovel to dig the hole. Where? It would depend on where Sugar fell. Then he sees it in his mind—digging a hole single-handedly, with a shovel, and dragging a fifteen hundred pound horse by the tail across the prairie, finally flinging her, alone, by himself, into the hole. It is a cartoon. Elmer Fudd, Mighty Mouse and Bugs Bunny rolled into one. He lowers the rifle. Sugar stomps her feet, throws back her head, as she and John Wayne laugh at him.
He rubbed his shoulders in front of the window of his bedroom and stared out at the lights of the Ferris Wheels and the Big Rigs. Labette was part of the summer carnival's regular route, staying a month. Farmers and their families came in each weekend, parting with money they hoped to earn during the mid-July harvest on rides for the kids, cotton candy, elephants, lion-tamers, clowns and beautiful women and men swallowing swords, the strains of a country band; mom and pop thrilling the kids with a two-step to a love song, like the one that sizzled itself across the night to his ears now.
The night before Jimmy had gone with Camplin and the others, watched them cuddle up and coo, the boys winning prizes for their girls—pedestrian midwestern—a favor to Camplin, who wanted the whole crew there, his treat for hard work and prosperity. Sugar occupied Jimmy's mind as he watched the kids in the midway, witnessed the lights whisk people up high and bring them down screaming, lingered too long on a boy giving the blue rabbit he'd won to his girl for a kiss. Jimmy held the winnings of the others as they mounted rides, gripping each other tight. His mother would have smiled. She loved the carnival.
Jimmy moved away from the window and lit the candle he'd won with his pitching arm. No, he was not the boy, he thought. No girl, no kisses. The candle holder was rectangular, reminding him of a tower, a buttress on a castle. Its sides were stained glass windows connected with joint compound. The flame inside flickered, flashed colored geometric shapes on the walls. It smelled good. Sandalwood. His mother's favorite. Now his. Tomorrow he would burn it in her empty room.
He lay on the bed and pulled a sheet up over his body, country western love music on the brain, the imagined head of Glennis's tousled hair on his chest. He decided to let the candle burn through until morning and maybe the decision would come to him. His choices lay on the night table. Bottle of pills or bullets.
Jimmy watches from the front steps of the Marrin porch as the Buick Le Sabre comes up the drive. Mrs. Marrin slips out, not seeing him at first. He has been sitting on her porch for the better part of two hours, tired of chasing Sugar around the pasture.
"Hello, Mrs. Marrin," he calls.
"Land sakes, Jimmy Timberlake," she says. "What brings you out here?"
"Can I use your phone?"
"Why certainly. C'mon in." Her key opens a world of white pine and oak. It is country, but tasteful. She points the way to the phone, though he already knows. At the raised kitchen table he takes a familiar seat, his when he and Cate composed lab reports and munched chips throughout evenings, mixing chemical equations with television and each other's company. He sees the radio that sits at the back of the table and wonders to what station it is tuned.
"Coffee?" she asks as he picks up the receiver.
"If it's no trouble."
Mrs. Marrin smiles, like she remembers a polite boy now buried inside the body of this man. "No trouble," she says. "There's a pot already on."
"Troy Camplin, please," he says into the receiver.
"So, you never answered my question," says Mrs. Marrin.
"Thanks," he says as she pours the dark liquid into a white cup. He likes the color of it against the polished hardwood table, a white stone rising from a murky sea. "Sugar. My mom's horse." He speaks into the phone briefly, hangs it up.
"Well, did you put her down?"
Mrs. Marrin shakes her head, sips her coffee. "Seems strange," she begins. "You know, your mother and I were casual friends, more than acquaintances, especially since she'd been out once a week to ride Sugar. She'd come, and have coffee after, and we'd talk. She always seemed so organized."
"You should have seen her office," says Jimmy.
"That's not what I mean exactly. She seemed to have all her affairs in order."
Jimmy wonders what she thought about her mother and the men in her life. Mrs. Marrin didn't hesitate on the word "affairs," though she couldn't have missed the double meaning.
"Yeah," he says. "She always knew how to keep order. Prioritize."
"Right," says Mrs. Marrin. "That's why I can't understand why Sugar wasn't provided for."
Jimmy sips his coffee. "You're right." A horn sounds from the driveway.
"No. Helping hands."
Outside, Camplin and Marvin are already climbing out of the rust-brown van with a horse trailer in tow.
"A van?" asks Jimmy.
"Hey, killers can't be choosers," says Camplin. "Where's the horse? I know a glue factory down in Altus. Oldest one in the state."
"No glue factory," says Jimmy. "Sugar is going into that field, provided…" He looks at Mrs. Marrin, who shakes her head solemnly in agreement.
"And whose backhoe are you going to use to dig the hole?"
"Shovels," Jimmy says.
Camplin laughs. "You and what army? I mean Marvin and I will help, but do you know how long it's going to take to do that?"
Jimmy doesn't answer. He doesn't know, but that is how it is done. There is a code. Shane would bury his horse in the high heat of the desert so it wouldn't be carrion for the buzzards—or taken to the glue factory.
"Where's the horse?" says Marvin as he slides two lariats from the trailer. Jimmy points to Sugar.
"Christ," says Camplin. He tips his hat to Mrs. Marrin.
"I thought I'd let her run a little."
"This isn't The Electric Horseman or Born Free, or some goddamn country song the chief over there listens to." The hat tip again. "Sorry, ma'am," he says.
"That's alright," she says. "You should hear my daughter."
"He got up on the wrong side of the saddle this morning," says Marvin, indicating Camplin.
"I did not," says Camplin. Then he grins. "Alright. So I'm a crotchety bastard. But the Duke here let the horse loose in the crops."
Out in the field Jimmy carries the .22 over his shoulder as the van rumbles and shimmies over dips and gullies, the trailer rocking back and forth, a sailboat in a typhoon, every joint squeaking while the hitch threatens to spring loose. Once she sees the trailer, Sugar sprints to the far fence. Marvin and Camplin plan to rope and lead her, or force her, into the trailer, where Jimmy will make the kill shot. After the hole is dug, preferably with a backhoe borrowed from Tarlin, they will back the trailer to its lip and roll Sugar in. Jimmy thinks how crazy he's been, how senseless to come out here like some cowboy and kill and bury this horse alone, John Wayne or not. No wonder Clint Eastwood just piled rocks on dead animals and men in those old Spaghetti Westerns. Camplin wants Sugar up close
since Jimmy only has the two shells. Calling you Keats from now on, says Camplin. You ol' romantic.
When they get within fifty yards, they stop the van. Marvin and Camplin pile out with the lariats, and Jimmy eases behind the wheel. The radio is blaring.
"Shit," says Marvin. "Tim McGraw's new one, and I'm going to miss it."
"A groupie," says Camplin. "Mr. Country Western Love Music."
"I'll turn it up loud and roll down the windows," says Jimmy.
"Mighty white of you," says Marvin. He and Camplin move off toward Sugar. Jimmy does as promised—a twangy voice fills the cab. Johnny's daddy is takin' him fishin'… little girl comes through the front gate, holdin' a fishin' pole… Jimmy watches Sugar rear her head, stomp her hooves. Camplin and Marvin ready their hoops… Take any boy in the world, but Daddy, please don't take the girl.
Camplin moves down the fence line, putting the horse between himself and Marvin. Sugar keeps intent on Camplin, backing slowly, moving away from the fence out toward the open field. Same old boy, same sweet girl, ten years down the road… Marvin closes from the other side as Camplin rushes Sugar. His lariat hooks Sugar's nose but slips off, pitching Camplin into the dirt. This is not his day, thinks Jimmy… Stranger came and pulled a gun… Marvin is more skillful with his rope and hooks Sugar around her back leg. Johnny said, Take my money… Sugar rages against the rope, slinging her hindquarters back and forth, tail twitching, a hula girl in a grass skirt, but Marvin holds on. Camplin rings his lariat around Sugar's neck, and Marvin loosens his loop from Sugar's legs, catches it around Sugar's head. It slides down to join Camplin's. Please don't take the girl… Sugar is wild, her blue eye spinning, the tumor bouncing, sloshing.
Jimmy fires up the van. He eases it over the bluegrass, closing on Camplin and Marvin still struggling to gain control of Sugar… five years… Jimmy is within ten yards… there's gonna be a little one… Sugar is still frantic, straining to pull away, her neck muscles standing out like a runner's hamstrings. Jimmy steers the van to the right, lining up the trailer… cause his momma's fading fast… he hops out of the van, grabbing the gun… And there he prayed… walks to Sugar… please, God…
"What the hell?" says Camplin.
Sugar is standing still, watching Jimmy and the rifle. How maudlin, thinks Jimmy. The horse stereotypically still for the master. Maudlin and melodramatic. Anger rises up in Jimmy as Marvin and Camplin line Sugar up with the trailer; she backs in like a show horse, her white coat rough but clean, her skin dark beneath it. The tumor almost touches the inside wall of the trailer. She whinnies at Jimmy. Goddamn horse, he thinks. He ought to kill her with his bare hands.
He walks toward the trailer, raises the rifle. The blue eye is clearer and deeper up close. Her mane falls unruly on her neck. Jimmy places the muzzle against Sugar's forehead, parting the strand of white mane like a curtain in the early morning. Sugar looks straight at him. Jimmy thinks of apples and horse flies, the cool of shade in the mountains—shuts it out.
When he gets to the Marrin house, he spoons a huge dollop of peanut butter from Mrs. Marrin's canister and pushes two pills into the glob, licking the excess from his fingers. Marvin and Camplin stand guard, but don't need to. Sugar is patient in the trailer. As Jimmy walks toward her with the spoon dripping Jif, he notices the piece of upturned prairie that now holds the two bullets. He knows Sugar doesn't have much of a chance, but whatever chance she has is a real one. No romantic gestures. No heroic final acts or words or deaths. Just one horse—getting better or getting worse.
Jimmy asks Camplin and Marvin to take them to Doc Girard's. He will sell his mother's house. That will pay for the surgery, any medicines, a stable and enough hay for ten or fifteen years. They drop Jimmy at the Marrin house and Mrs. Marrin meets him on the porch. He hands her the spoon. "Thanks," he says.
"I'll be out tomorrow to square accounts on the stable."
Mrs. Marrin gives him a puzzled look. "Didn't Mason Wright tell you? Your mother paid for two months of stable space and hay several weeks before she died. I owe you some money."
"Keep it," says Jimmy.
"No," says Mrs. Marrin. "I've worked it out. A little over a hundred dollars."
"I'm selling mom's house," says Jimmy. "And working for Camplin for a while. I'll be fine."
Mrs. Marrin takes Jimmy's hand as if to shake it, but places the money on his palm, closes his fingers around it. "Take a vacation, then," she said. "I hear Iron Mountain, Michigan, is beautiful in late fall. This is the price of a bus ticket and a few greasy hamburgers on the way. This is your mother's legacy. Take care, Jimmy." Jimmy starts to speak, but she interrupts. "Yes, I know. I'm a pushy broad—just like your mother." Camplin honks. Jimmy waves him off and turns back to the porch, but Mrs. Marrin is already disappearing behind the screen door.
The bar is loud, lots of new faces—kids back for school, people from neighboring towns, carnival hands taking a break. He has showered and changed. He is sitting at a table alone, drinking his second beer as he sees
her across the room. Her hair is hippie straight, simple, long plain earrings dangling, spinning dully in the smoky light. He has never seen her before, and that is right for now. Garth Brooks' latest slow song begins.
When he reaches her table, she is finishing a cigarette. He watches her fingers push the butt into the ashtray. She looks at him, smiles once and stands. He takes her hand, small and smooth in his, leads her to the floor. He hasn't held a woman in his arms in months, never danced in all his time here with Camplin and the others. Jimmy places his hand on the small of her back and feels her forearms rest on his shoulders, her thin frame holding him close. He thinks of asking her name, but when he glances to her eyes, they say no. Not cold, but they stare off into a distance—the next shift, the next ride, the next town, the next man. She is out away from him already.
He holds her loosely as they turn to the beat, cutting a curve in the sawdust on the dance floor. He can sense her hard edges, but they don't cut or rub. Though she is miles away, she is alive in his hands—real—not a remembered head on his chest in the darkness of a solitary room. A strand of hair touches his wrist as she sways, and Jimmy takes it, blonde, between his fingers, parts it, thinks of Sugar's mane. With this slow turn in boots over the hardwood floor when the lights are low, the soft edge of memory or fantasy recedes, and the bit of reality comes like a nudge, a lyric—the old pickup truck, a pair of faded jeans, a loose shirt, his hair now a little shaggy, nothing clean-cut. After this dance, tomorrow, he'll see the sunrise, hammer in hand, nails sweet in his mouth, humming to himself as he drives them into wood, setting a frame, squaring a corner, binding a rhythm, his hand brimming the sunlight for a moment before the brilliance again.