The longest journey may begin with a single step, but the road to Temeraire is fraught with hazard and despair. Or maybe he was just a pessimist. The odds of making this one work were not good, Stover figured. A two-time loser in love and 60 to boot. Really, who'd take that bet? The best a man could hope for, maybe, was a little old lady in Fort Lauderdale who didn't mind a few bad habits and collected vintage lingerie.
But here he was, all excited, like a kid headed off to his first prom. Bethany. Bethany. He liked her name a lot. And he liked the way she said his name on the phone. Man, the recuperative powers of the human animal. The horny human male animal, but still. Enormous.
He'd come down for breakfast, a rarity actually, the way things go. Sitting there in the corner was Monroe, one of his oldest friends.
--Bro, what are you—
--I'm leaving you, Will.
Laura appeared in the doorway. He glanced to Monroe, who shrugged and looked guilty. Will hadn't spoken to him since. Didn’t even go to the man's wedding. Been five years.
So let's see: I'm stubborn. I'm proud. I value loyalty above everything, just like George Bush, and I don't suffer fools. Sad to say, though, every bit of trouble I’ve had in my life is 'cause of a woman.
Well, 'cause of me and the way I relate to women. I mean—'cause of me. See what Motion Picture Health and Welfare and five years of therapy can do?
There was a possibility he thought too much he thought. There was an even stronger possibility he didn't make his feelings known to others. He got that a lot. Like now, he's avoiding flipping off the Ferrari driver, who's made about five lane changes in the last mile and a half and who's too goddamn young to be driving that car in the first place. How does a 24-year-old kid drive a Ferrari? His dad's you think? Maybe he works for Rusnak and he's just delivering it. Do they do that? Let some kid drive a three hundred thousand dollar car? In bumper-to-bumper traffic?
Will set the thought aside and changed the station. Bluesville. Exit 74 on the XM Highway. Blind Boy Somebody was fixin' to shoot his woman down.
--I'm not interested in what you think when you're writing said Bethany. I want to feel what you feel. We write about feelings here. Questions?
The class sat on its collective hands. God. These were graduate students. Most of them had been turned loose on the California educational system years ago. TEN of them had already taught your kids to misspell “they're” for the rest of their lives. In spite of the D's they'd get in Bethany's class, which was merely Communicative Writing 506, required, they’d all go on to their Masters and…and…sometimes it was just too depressing.
Barry-in-the-front-row raised his hand with studied thoughtfulness the way he does.
--So, Miss Byrne, he said, a little too cloyingly, you're saying that…no matter what our feelings are, you're saying, we should write about them. Completely. Without holding anything back?
Bethany knew where this was going, and she thought about her answer for the briefest moment, but finally:
--That's correct Mr. Borowitz. Put it all on the table.
Barry-in-the-front-row needed no further encouragement. Out of some kind of atavistic habit, he licked his Mont Blanc ballpoint and started writing.
--OK said Bethany. Timed writing. Fifteen minutes. Keep your hands moving, OK?
It was a job, and as jobs went, it was a good one. One long day a week, right in the middle. Wednesday. Two hours round trip to UC San Berdoo. They gave her an office and a computer she didn’t know how to use. That’s how she’d ended up on Match in the first place.
Bethany had a stack of papers two feet high to correct, correct being the operative word. In the class of thirty there were maybe two students with any aptitude for self-expression on paper at all. One was an ex punk-rock chick with tattoos and a nose piercing, and the other was Barry-in-the-front-row, a retired lawyer, looking for another degree, new career, not to mention a girlfriend. Barry-in-the-front-row was way retired and he didn’t brush his teeth. Omit useless words, counselor. And thanks, but I’m busy tonight. Busy with the car that was pulling to the right, and the dark dangerous road back to Temeraire, and the never-ending tasks that a ranch, even a small one, requires.
It was Silvia, her secretary, who’d talked Bethany into the whole Match thing. After she got over the initial embarrassment of photographs (new, ugh) and actually WRITING TO COMMUNICATE (ironic), it sort of got to be fun. And she’d actually had coffee with half a dozen OK guys who positively didn’t wind her clock.
But then there came this Will. This William. And for the first time ever she skipped the coffee stage and went right to the deal-breaker—the hundred miles and change that got him to the gateway of her very complicated life on the ranch and on campus.
Ten minutes flew by the way they will. She collected another pile of timed writings for home, said her goodbyes, brushed off Barry-in-the-front row again, and headed back to the office.
Silvia looked up from her Brenda Joyce. She was still on number five of The Bragg Saga, the one with the cover that looks like a Tequila Sunrise from Hell:
Heiress to the magnificent Bragg empire, lovely, headstrong socialite Lucy Bragg lives a life that flies in the face of convention. Dark and rugged half-breed Shozkay Savage lives an outlaw's life on the edge. These two people inhabit different worlds-hers, opulent and privileged; his, dangerous and wild. But on the vast and sweeping plains of Texas, their worlds collide . . .
--Hey! said Silvia. She was a pretty girl who spent hours each day, for sure, on her perfect eyes, her perfect lips, her perfect hair. She was perfectly single and it was beginning to get perfectly old.
--Bother me not said Bethany. I’m exhausted.
--That guy called again. On the machine. The lawyer from your class?
--But I just saw him.
Silvia shrugged, went back to her book.
--Persistent, hunh? she said, licking her fingers to turn a page.
--I kept it said Silvia without looking up. In case you want to listen.
--I just saw him, said Bethany, amazed enough, shaking her head as she opened up her brand new laptop. You’re going to have to start vetting my emails too.
--They all email me with questions about their assignments or—I can’t believe it—reasons they can’t hand in their assignments.
More nodding. Silvia turned a page again, a little too quickly for a 30-year-old woman.
--It’s like I’m back in high school. Only I’m the gym teacher in study hall who really doesn’t wanna be there.
--No, said Silvia, half-closing her book for emphasis. You’re the wonderful teacher who will make a difference in the life of that one student who will never forget you.
--Barry Borrowed Wits?
--You think? said Silvia, giggling.
--No said Bethany, logging onto the campus website. I’m just the over-extended PhD candidate with the ex-husband who still wants to come by once in a while to pet the dogs and fuck.
--Would I kid about my pets?
--So? said Silvia, with The Fires of Paradise now entirely closed so Bethany could read the title.
--So does he? Do you?
Bethany was having trouble logging on. She shook the question away, concentrating, moving closer to the keyboard myopically, then farther away, very much like the 50-year-old she’d somehow become. It’s a pity about relationships though, she thought. In the areas of the dogs and the horses and the cats over the years, and—yes—the fucking, everything was fine. That stuff was always fine.
--No she said, emphatically, finally. He does not. Nor do I. We do not. We will not. I am the boss of me.
--But maybe you’d like to, hunh? said Silvia, suddenly as persistent as Barry Borowitz. I mean he’s a dreamboat isn’t he? I mean, he’s famous! Just, you know, cause you…you know. You have needs.
--He is the reincarnation of the Titanic, Silvia. He is a famous asshole. Please. There are needs and then there are needs. It’ll never happen. Again. Listen, can you log me in here? I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.
The sun hung on the edge of the land for a long time the way he will this time of year. Gabilan watched Bethany’s friend, the babysitter, who always spent the day on Wednesdays. She was feeding. Raking the stalls but not the paddock, and not behind the barn. Not dumping. The white mare was ignoring her completely, which seemed odd. She really didn’t like to exercise too much. Judith, it was. They used to hang out though, colgaban hacia fuera sin embargo, back when he was training Sabaa. And Gal, that fruit. When things were different. Before the white mare. Before Kalila died. Over a year ago now. Already. Mierda. A year.
--A year, Oso, he said to the dog. Seven years for you, hey boy? You all grown up now. He scruffled Oso’s velvety ears.
Oso was a perfect specimen, a Lab’s Lab you could say. Big square head, intelligent eyes. Thick otter-tail for steering in the water. Loves the water. Heavy paws, webbed. Lustrous thick yellow coat. Not skinny like the new-fangled “American” labs you bought in a store. Beefy. Made for cold water and work. Pure-bred.
--You remember Rags? In the morning-time? All those good smells, amigo? Hay? You still smell her from here Oso?
The dog wagged. Licked his chops. Panted. It felt a bit like he nodded too. He had that way of making you think he understood what you were saying, or even thinking, and maybe he did. Or maybe you just wanted him to understand you because nobody else did. Can. Would. People will attribute the damnedest things to their animals though. Like Beth and those fucking horses.
--You still talking to Sa and Val? he said to the dog. Brain-melding like on that show? More panting. From all the way over here? tu pequeño diablo disimulado?
--OK, OK! Siento! Here, have a beer.
He held the Dr. Pepper bottle in front of the dog. Oso lapped at it nonchalantly, alert to something else entirely.
--You Lab-lip it, hombre.
The dog grinned.
They sat in silence a while. The soft breeze that had been up all afternoon was slowly dying with the sun. It got so quiet out here this time of day. Dog and man could hear almost to the other side of the wind. They could hear the horses work their dinner. The birds settling in for the night. There was a soft and distant ring of metal on metal. And there was a tinny stream of hip-hop too. The kid down the road was changing the plugs on his ‘65 Mustang convertible. It was painted an unfortunate shade of circus orange, but nonetheless--a worthy enterprise. The kid was off to the Marines in a couple of months. Off to Iraq for sure. Another desert in his young life. A big one.
Gabilan’s ranchito was sixty-seven acres at the foot of a hill at the end of a road off 371. His property wrapped around three sides of Beth’s slightly-more-than-three acres. He’d sold the parcel to Beth and God’s Gift to Rock n Roll back when everything was lovey-dovey, and then shit happened. Daddy done gone and her place had a name now, though that was something very new.
Everybody had taken to naming things since the casinos got started up. Money’d come to the desert. And stayed. The old ranches were sub-divided. Paths that horses walked for generations had names. On signs. You could smell all the new pavement in the summer. Every weekend some tourist drunk would wrap his car around a telephone pole, coming or going. Casino or winery--choose one. Drop your money at the door. Used to be a man had friends who’d drive him home ‘he drank too much. Used to be.
Before he got too maudlin, Gabilan chugged what was left of his Dr. Pepper and headed off to the stalls. Oso tagged along. When they turned the corner of the barn:
--Que paso Hawk? said King Cake, who was mucking out.
--Same old said Gabilan. ‘they hangin’?
--Good here. Nopal threw the left. I called the farrier. He shrugged. Had to anyway.
--Right. ‘s not like I don’t pay him enough as it is.
--He’ll be here first thing. It’s time, Boss. He got time to do everbody.
--Whyn’t you learn that, Cake? Make yourself useful around here?
--Shee-it. I be any more useful, you spend all day beatin’ it. I been thinkin’ Boss: I’m about fixin’ to take me a vacation as it is. Brothers’ not supposed to work like this.
--Well, any time you want back in that shotgun shack in the parish you let me know, G.I. Meantime, I need ten hours a day, six days a week. White man’s hours.
Gabilan grabbed a rake.
--Lemmee help you with that.
--‘chew know white man’s hours Cisco?
--Pretend you’re back in Nam.
--Shee-it, only way I be back in Nam’s to visit my kids.
--Well say hello to their momma for me.
--Your GRANDkids you mean, cabrito.
--There it is.
The two of them raked horseshit a while. It’s a good and soothing and necessary thing to do.
--Seriously, King, said Gabilan finally. Everything OK? You OK? Comfortable in the place?
--Mighty fine, Señor, said King Cake, nodding thoughtfully to himself. For a goddamned trailer you stole from some other brother offed himself.
--The V.F.W. got a bar? A year, two months, sixteen days ‘n a wakeup.
--Well, long as we’re wakin’ up I guess.
--Any day above ground. Yep.
Oso watched the two men contentedly, luxuriating in the smell of fresh-raked manure. He sat comfortably on one butt-cheek, tongue lolling, ears working this way and that. He could hear the occasional coordination-call from the two raptors who always worked the ranch from someplace far up, up there near the stars. Once in a while he’d hear their wings. Cars whizzed by on the three-seventy-one-they-said-it, a good long trot down the road. The horses were grumbling softly to each other, occasionally calling over to Sa, Val, and the new one, and somebody had switched on the news, he thought they called it. He’s and she’s talking to each other at a table, with pictures, in a box.
And then there was the almost overpowering not-good smell from that old owl across the paddock, who’d be waking up pretty soon, hunting for the rest of the little’s who lived there under that corner of the barn, whose cousins, the biggers, camped out in King Cake’s box, now that there was somebody to drop crumbs, who’d be picking up anything the raptors left behind, who one time took Oso’s dinner right out of his bowl when he wasn’t looking and didn’t even say thank you, who might already be stirring ‘cause of the not-good skunk-scent that just now wafted this way on a screech of brakes from the three-seventy-one-they-said-it.
Stuff was not-good and becoming not-good and about to be not-good all around them, but even so, thought Oso, who thought he thought his two he’s thought the same thought too, because it’s never a thought that’s very far away, even if you only sometimes know it, even so—it was a very very very good day.
--Good dog, said Gabilan, palming the cold of the animal’s beautiful black nose.
--Yeah Oso, said King Cake, scruffling the big Lab’s magnificent yellow ears. Good dog.
Next: On Location
Intruso, a dangerously postmodern love story
- Her voice was shiny
- Timed Writing
- On Location
- In the Beginning was Rock n Roll
- Cell Phone Interruptus
- The Hooch
- Blackbirds at One O'Clock
- Probiotics and the Muse
- Email by Rodney Strong
- Dope and Flax Seed
- Free to a God Home
- Lemonade and Consequences
Brenda Joyce, The Fires of Paradise, Avon, 1992, ISBN-10: 0380765357, ISBN-13: 978-0380765355