Chapter One: Hell, and the Route Out
Except for two boys hyped up about tonight's rodeo, the bleachers at Five Corners stood empty. Those kids in their dirty coveralls and straw cowboy hats -- maybe nine or ten years old, they were already talking in the hard way of their fathers, son-of-a-bitchin' this and goddamnin' that. I even saw one of them spit Copenhagen into a Coke can. They leaped the seats as if they were the backs of broncos, and I knew what was on their minds: winning a silver buckle, taking home the big-haired rodeo queen, though they weren't sure what exactly it was you did with a girl once you got her there. It's a way of life they were indoctrinated into straight off the baby bottle. Forget about the long-legged cranes that migrated through the sandhills; the university, where they could expand their minds; the highway leading out of town to brighter lights -- this was as good as it got -- Friday-night rodeo, good times, and Bud Light. Even without my mama's horoscope book I could read their futures: Knock up a pretty girl in high school, buy a double-wide trailer on time, work for NAPA Auto Parts, watch ESPN, and call that a life.
Me, I needed a map to tell which town I was in. I stood there smoking a cigarette before I started grooming the collies. I felt like ten miles of bad road, and I was looking down thirty miles of it, once again wondering how in the sweet Jesus I got to where I was. We were that far from anywhere, Dalton Afterhart and me. Tonight he would play his one famous song, and the crowd would go wild because a ten-year-old hit was really something out here in Nowhere Special, Nebraska. Everyone would buy him a beer, lay down ten bucks for his CD, and have him autograph the jewel case. I'd collect the money, and then Dalton would buckle his nasty spider monkeys into custom-made saddles on my border collies and he'd turn them loose in the arena. So where the hell was Dalton?
"Hey there, Mary Madigan."
I looked up to see Belmont Monty, the rodeo announcer, coming my way. He wasn't satisfied with calling me Maddy like everyone else; he had to say my whole name, every syllable coming out of his mouth like music. Monty was eighty years old, wizened as a golden raisin, and dressed in his natty Western-cut corduroy suit. I had no idea what his real name was. He'd acquired the Belmont nickname from his horseracing days, when he was a big-deal jockey and well known at the track. Then he had a wreck or drugged a horse or started taking drugs himself, or whatever else it is people do to fall so far from grace that they end up working here. "Hey to you, too, Monty. Looking so sharp there I might have to kiss you."
He grinned, a big, white, false-tooth smile.
Mentos, my female collie, whined from her tether, and Slim Jim, my male, trembled all over with happiness. My dogs adored this man, and why shouldn't they? He was a good man. It was something a person could tell just by being near him. He reached down to rub their ears, and they groaned with pleasure. "Where's Dalton?"
"Damned if I know. Said he'd be here an hour ago. Guess he's still drinking his lunch at Five Corners."
Belmont Monty squinted at me from behind his thick-lensed glasses. "Want me to go beat on him?"
There was a sight I'd pay to see -- five-foot-nothing Monty whaling on six-foot-tall Dalton. I shook my head no. "He's been later than this. He'll be here when he gets here."
Monty patted Mentos one last time, then adjusted his cowboy hat and moved along to check on the others. I admired the old man, the way he got ready for each rodeo like somebody was there with a clipboard rating our performances. Once when Dalton was being a dickhead deluxe, I spent the night in Monty's trailer. He made me a pot of green Chinese tea and sat up with me while I cried about men in general. I asked him did he have any kids, and he said God, no, he hoped not. Monty claimed to love three things, in this order: horses, dogs, and redheaded women, only when the first two items on the list weren't available. After that night Dalton was a peach to me for two solid weeks.
People like Dalton, who had had a chance at the spotlight and missed, there was a dressing room for them here at the Great Western Rodeo Company of America. We started out every year near Blanco, New Mexico, with mesas on one side of the road and locoweed on the other. You couldn't pasture horses there, but some cheap-ass always tried to save a buck on hay, and there was a long-drawn-out scene of suffering before a cowboy grew cojones enough to shoot the horse that ate the locoweed. Why God couldn't see fit to add a few trees and some grass to that landscape was beyond me, but I guess God had his reasons. Even third-rate rodeos were an addiction. Cowboys got asked for autographs; kids like the ones in the bleachers looked up to them as heroes. Those riders brave or stupid enough to ride bulls earned cash, sometimes a fairly decent amount. Of course occasionally they drew a longhorn that flicked them off as easy as a booger, and they went to the hospital, where -- whoops! -- it was adios long-term memory, but for some people that could be a good thing.
The players in this rodeo were like slow-falling stars, but stars all the same. They attracted gaggles of groupies, girls who screamed and pulled up their T-shirts and showed everyone their wealth. Then there were roadies like me, who didn't fit in anywhere -- we came and went so often hardly anybody noticed.
I got out my various brushes and started working on Slim Jim's glossy black-and-white coat. Border collies come in the short- and longhaired varieties. Jim's was crazy long, prone to tangles and burrs, collecting particularly in his ruff. He stood still for the brushes, but let me come close with a fingernail and he carried on like he was being ax-murdered. Mentos's coat was thinner, silky, a beautiful sign of weakness in her breed. She was easier to groom, so I did her last. I liked them to look their best, so I finished them up with a mist of Show Sheen, and I remembered to outline their strangely blue eyes with some Vaseline to keep the dust out.
The dog-and-monkey show consisted of two overly intelligent dogs running with two of the vilest primates known to the animal world trying every which way to get loose. It went like this: Ten white sheep and two black ones were released into the arena. Immediately my collies started cutting the sheep into herds, because that's what they knew. The monkeys, screaming and clapping their hands, appeared to be cheering them on. From the stands all this looked hilarious, particularly with a six-pack of beer in your gut. But the monkeys were terror struck, and my collies were and are simply obsessive about work. There could be nuclear war going on up there on their backs, they'd still cut sheep. They wanted those black sheep out and separate from the white ones so bad it looked like Birmingham in the sixties.
All the time Dalton told me how the crowd loved our act. Just listen to them laugh, he'd say, and if that didn't convince me, how about the money we got paid? He'd pull on his leather gloves and unstrap the monkeys and toss them back into their cages for bananas and some kind of herbal Valium concoction to keep them quiet until the next show. My collies were allowed to sit and watch the events, but they had to be leashed or they'd try to herd the horses, the bulls, and the clowns; if it had legs they considered it fair game. At that point things took a turn for the serious. Me. I climbed the stairs to the crepe paper-draped stage and sang, a cappella, our national anthem, and tried to think of something besides what the words mean. It was just something I did. And when people got teary and clapped too soon, I knew enough not to take it too seriously.
For instance, this one time in our travels, we stopped at a Wal-Mart that was having a plant sale, and I bought all these four-inch pots of indoor greenaroo. Dalton got a big kick out of that, me going "domestic." Soon enough all the plants mysteriously died. I think he sabotaged them with coffee. Dalton was jealous of everything I liked, even my clothes, especially my deerskin leather jacket with the red-white-and-blue-beaded fringe my grandmother Fawn made me. He hated the fact that I had Indian blood in me and he did not. Next I got these cactus plants, special food, and a book on how to care for them. I bungee-corded them to the window in the trailer, and on the first of every month I fed them an eyedropper of plant food. At present my paddle cactus was sporting a fat little bud! Every day I checked on it, and I told that plant, Spike, if you can manage to bloom in this crazy environment, maybe I can too.
Five Corners roadhouse was this hokey, hogan-shaped building that badly needed a new roof. Not that it mattered much in the summertime, but come winter I imagined the place leaked like a sieve. There was a wooden hitching rail in front of the parking spaces. Even a few ratty horses tied up. Nothing worth stealing except for this seventeen-hand black-and-white paint horse with a ton of chrome. Inside the bar all the rodeo cowboys were drinking, which was what I'd've liked to be doing, but drinking made me do stupid things, like have sex with total strangers or agree to five-year-long singing gigs with men like Dalton or -- duh, what do you know? -- both, so I avoided the bottle, though I hadn't quite got around to doing the AA thing. On the sign outside Five Corners, faded plastic letters announced that the Lou Peltier band played every Thursday through Sunday. I wondered if he was a distant relation to Leonard, one American Indian who stood up for his beliefs enough to stay in jail and not rat out his brothers. It killed me how Bobby Dylan could sing one song and get Hurricane Carter cut loose. Unless Clinton grew a conscience -- and how likely was that? -- Leonard would rot in the slammer until he was an old man crippled by phlebitis. Underneath the regular sign, in those plastic letters they use on movie marquees, it read, TO-NITE ONLY DALTON AFTERHART. Whoop-de-fecking-do. Just then, the door swung open and out came Dalton himself. It says in the Bible that man is created in His own image. I hoped that was an exaggeration, because if not, Lord God, what a specimen! Imagine Kevin Costner with an overbite, a beer gut, and a little bit blonder hair, age fifty-two, but looking older. Now cut his vocabulary in half, give him a shorter, fatter Johnson that only works half the time, and the bank account of some ordinary Joe. Take away manners, and throw in a Ph.D. in sweet talk, paint a mean streak down his back, and you have Dalton Afterhart, who professes to have authentic Cherokee Indian blood! First time I met him in Tulsa he asked me to call him Chief. I told him that sounded even dumber than anything I could ever have thought up, and I had a lengthy history of dim. I am one-quarter Creek Indian, one-quarter German, and the whole other half of me is a terrible combination of fighting Irish and Sicilian Eytie, thanks to Daddy's parents' scandalous union. I didn't tell anyone anything when they asked me why my last name (Caringella) was so unusual. I just said, Gee, isn't that a coincidence, your name sounds pretty fecking weird to me, too.
"You feed those monkeys, Maddy?" Dalton slurred as he tried to light his cigarette. He was way buzzed, having trouble with the lighter, and I was banking that even with a pot of coffee in him he wouldn't be sober by the time he needed to perform.
"Hell, no. They're not my monkeys. You feed the little bastards."
"Those monkeys pay for your cigarettes, let me remind you."
"Relax, Chief. I tuned your guitar."
He stopped in his tracks, the cigarette hanging from his lips, and gave me a smile. Nobody knew this but me, but Dalton was going deaf and he could not tune that beat-to-shit Gretsch to save his life. He fancied himself some Willie Nelson clone, on the road 365 days a year. I guess he thought the world would eventually give him a trophy for his time, and my tuning the guitar would go down in history as a small contribution. "That's what I love about you, Madigan," he said, using my middle name, which I preferred. "You're thoughtful."
Dalton was the only man who ever said "I love you" to me besides my daddy, and my daddy sure as hell didn't say it anymore.
"Oh, get over yourself," I said, and went to tune the guitar before he realized I was lying.
Well, the night didn't stand still for thinking, and Dalton did not get sober enough to sing. In fact, he must have had some secret bottle stashed back in the trailer because when I came to get him for the show he was dressed to perform but passed clean out. He'd apparently bumped into a few things along the way, too, because the frying pan was on the floor, and so was a bagful of onions, and the silverware box I kept all straightened was upside down, and I nearly broke my neck stepping on spoons and knives. Then I saw my jacket. Mother feckity! It was covered with vomit. My paddle cactus was out of its pot, and the bud, which was just starting to unfurl a silky yellow blossom, lay crushed in the sink. I cradled it in my palm for a moment and then tossed it in the trash. Using a dishrag, I wiped each bead clean and tried to get out the worst of the stain, but the deerskin had soaked too much up ever to look good again.
I sat down on the bed and took Dalton by the shoulders. I shook him hard, I threw water on his face, yanked his belly hair, screamed in his ear about what a worthless piece of shit he was, and all the while he smiled and rolled his eyes. His limp form in that horrid parrot-patterned Hawaiian shirt fell back on the bedding like he'd just finished a day of hard labor. Jimmy Buffett after too many margaritas. I was killing mad. If we didn't do the act, we didn't get the paycheck, and we needed gas money just to stay with the rodeo. Outside the trailer I heard the collies whimper, and I pictured them cowering. They hated fighting, and could tell when I was in a bad mood without me saying a word. The monkeys, who were probably hooked on the herbal Valium, rattled the bars on their cages and screamed that ear-piercing squeal that meant they knew it was almost show time.
I asked God, What have I done in my twenty-nine years to deserve this?
He answered, Don't go there, Madigan. The answer will take too long and you can't spare the time.
So I rinsed the vomit off my hands. I swept up the dirt, picked up the silverware and the onions. I took out the leather gloves, the special saddles, said a Hail Mary, who had never let me down. Some Christians will tell you that praying to the Mother of God is pagan, blasphemous, and downright wrong. To them I say, Excuse me, and just who taught Jesus his pleases and thank-yous? Give the woman some credit. I harnessed up my dogs. Mentos was such a good girl that she looked at me with her wide blue people eyes and lifted a front paw when I went to adjust her cinch. Slim Jim stood tall; like a good soldier, he knew the drill. Then came the monkeys. Thing One and Thing Two was what I called them. Their little biting faces were pure evil. At first they looked real cute, like wrinkly old grannies, but if you gave them a half second they'd transform into aliens with razor-sharp teeth like in that movie about the gremlins.
They despised the saddles, the straps, the stirrups, the buckles, and the cinches that kept them tethered to the dogs. They were trembling by the time I got the second one buckled in -- and they'd each had nine peanuts as bribes. I wanted nothing more than to let them out, but the thought of that paycheck kept me going. Lately we'd been eating only one meal a day to save up cash. I changed into Dalton's Hawaiian shirt, tied it above my belly button so my silver navel ring showed, grabbed his ratty old guitar, and headed out the trailer door just in time to hear his cue.
It wasn't that big a crowd tonight. Maybe sixty people. The rodeo arena looked so different in the dark, somehow more genuine. Once when I was really broke I did exotic dancing in this club in Tulsa, and the way they made me up and lit me I swear my own daddy could have walked in and not recognized me. That was a lifetime ago -- how could I say that and not yet be thirty years old? I let the dogs into the arena. Mentos ran to the left, Slim Jim cut right. I let them circle twice, and then I lifted the gate for the sheep.
The crowd went berserk as the dogs began to work the arena. The monkeys squealed like they were being stomped to death. Two beefy women stood up in the crowd and started yelling about animal cruelty. They were wearing white T-shirts with big red splotches on them, I guess made to look like blood. I prepared myself for whatever came next -- a paint gun, a bullet, or the afterlife.
My identical twin, Margaret -- I called her Maggot; she called me Mary Magdalene -- could not hold a tune if it came in a bucket. In all other ways she was a superior human being. Maggot worked in a day care center, tending the babies. I pray for you, Maddy, she'd said to me more times than I could count. I pray that your music lifts the spirit, that you find a good man, and that our Heavenly Father blesses you on a daily basis. I'd get so mad at her I wouldn't return her phone calls or answer her letters, even though she never played such games. Singing was the only thing that ever came natural to me. I wasn't afraid of solos, or opera, or even the national anthem. People heard my voice warble on "and the l-a-nd of the free" and assumed I was choking up on patriotism, but it wasn't true. Politics had failed me every step of the way. Maggot was very patriotic. She voted in every election. July Fourth was her favorite holiday, and she was purely mental for fireworks. Because of her dying, it was hard for me to sing that anthem all the way through. Dalton always said, "Madigan, you keep that wiggle in your voice, it's fuckin' brilliant." Feckin' Dalton. Sometimes at night when I woke up next to him and he was sleeping on his back snoring like a ripsaw, I got the urge to crush a dozen bananas, rub them over his privates, and turn the nasty-smelling spider monkeys loose.
"Stop the insanity!" one of the protesters yelled, and I thought, Huh, using that spiky-haired power-workout chick's slogan isn't very original.
"Shut up, you dyke!" a cowboy told her, and a beer bottle flew through the air. Like thunder, the grumbling that rumbled through the crowd increased, and the air felt heavy and ugly. But the dogs kept running, the white sheep moving like a beautiful stream, the black sheep behaving like the hunted. I hated this act, I hated the activists, I hated Dalton Afterhart and his drunkenness for leaving me in the bull's-eye of this evening, and I missed my jacket, which I knew would forevermore smell like his beer and nachos sick-up.
"Animal cruelty!" the dykey girl's friend yelled, and the beer-bottle cowboy and his pal rose to bodily remove the two women, who from the looks of them, were ladies who would not suffer such interference without protest. They screamed and fought, but the crowd booed them down. My collies continued to herd the sheep, the audience clapped, the monkeys wailed; I got a headache that said, Have one drink, Madigan, just one, and then I'll leave you alone.
Then Belmont Monty went to the mike. He said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Dalton Afterhart, singing his Top 40 hit, 'When You Stopped By.'"
Only it was me climbing up there to the spotlight with the beat-up Gretsch with its duct tape-covered holes, and wearing Dalton's Hawaiian shirt, all smelly in the armpits because no matter how much deodorant he rolled on, he reeked. I tossed my black hair back over my shoulders and smiled, leaning into the mike. From this far away the scar on my mouth didn't show, but every time I pulled my lips across my teeth, I felt it just the same as if it were still in stitches. "Good evening, folks. I know you were expecting Dalton, but he came down with the flu. I hope you'll put up with me singing his song, though, and I do have his CDs for sale, autographed, and special for tonight to make up for the disappointment, one dollar off."
"When You Stopped By" was so pathetically easy a song, and I had heard it so often, that I could play it in my sleep. Dalton sang it in the key of G, because for anything else he'd need a capo, and he lost them too often to keep track. My voice was higher than his, so I barred the chords, sang it in E-flat, and tore things up with some fancy chord inversions just to keep from boring myself to death. It told an entire story start to finish, not just one good chorus where you sang the same refrain over and over. It had this mysterious ending that made you want to know what happened the next day when the couple involved woke up. I shut my eyes and sang.
Lately I had the urge to see Mama again, even though she didn't seem to share the inclination. Pretty soon I'd turn thirty, though, and I kept on thinking that since it was the end of my twenties, having lived through that decade of madness, I should touch base with the woman who gave birth to me. Mama was in Oklahoma, living on the edge of the reservation again with her sister, MayAnn. My dad, well, I'd come to learn it was best to leave some people alone in their grief. Between us there was Maggot. Gone, but not gone. I'd've given anything to trade places with my twin before she died. It's not that I didn't like myself; it was just that at this stage of the game I would have liked to walk in Maggot's shoes and, however briefly, see the world through her eyes. Like now, under this summery Nebraska sky, so wide open. To me it looked like a dirty gray sheet, and made me think of chintzy motels and bad sex. Maggot, she'd probably have seen tempera paint on crisp white paper. The first brushstroke of something beautiful enough to frame. She might have turned to me and said, Mary Magdalene, the Lord hath made some real beautiful stuff down here, and I would have answered right back, Yeah, but for every pretty thing there's five cosmic mistakes He should be thoroughly ashamed of, and she would go on to say, Never end a sentence in a preposition, and I would have fired back, You just did, and then we'd hit each other and start laughing....
I had -- still have -- this famous temper. Maggot had endless compassion. People in need of comfort were drawn to her. Seemed like everyone but the horny gave me a wide berth.
And the song I was singing: It made me think about how when I met Dalton years ago I thought he might be the answer to my prayers. I needed somebody older to keep me from doing stupid things, and to demonstrate how to behave in public, somebody to slow me down and help me grow out of my wildness into well, maybe a lady, like Maggot was. But it didn't work. Well, it kind of worked for a while, but then it was like this Chinese cook I once dated said -- sanpaku -- everything got out of whack and I saw that mostly what Dalton was was an old drunk who liked firm young nookie because it helped him forget he was growing old. So I had this feeling inside me of my heart tapping its foot, and now my fecking cactus wasn't going to bloom, and the jacket that my grandma made by hand with tanned hide and hundred-year-old trade beads was ruined by an alcoholic's poor aim.
When you stopped by
It was fall. All the falling autumn leaves
Decided not to fall after all. They hung around
Making canopies of red. Lacy dreams of gold and green,
Colors soft enough to make a bed.
So what's a man to do
When he meets a girl like that,
But hang around her life; maybe ask to hang up his hat.
And somehow the years collide,
And lovers grow from friends.
Like that day when you stopped by
I never wanted it to end....
When I finished singing you could've heard a pin drop in the arena. Not even Slim Jim howled. God, I asked, did I sing it wrong? Were my fingers barred wrong on the frets? Was I singing the jokey lyrics I made up when I was bored to death, pissed off at Dalton and his pretentious delivery? Had I totally lost it? He didn't answer. Oh, what did it matter? I got paid no matter what. Feck it; all's I had to do now was sell the CDs, sing the national anthem, and I could go to bed -- if I could shove Dalton over enough so I could lie down.
Then the most amazing thing happened. Everyone got to their feet, like America commanded they do with the anthem, only I hadn't sung that yet. They clapped and they clapped and they would not stop. I felt tears in my eyes. I just stood there until Belmont Monty came over and patted my back and said, "Maddy, sweetheart, maybe we should have the national anthem now, and you can sell the CDs afterwards."
I looked down to make sure my fly was zipped, and it was. Then I whispered to Monty, "Does this mean I did good?" and the mike caught it. Monty said, "Yes, honey, you did right fine," and the crowd laughed.
So I went ahead and I sang the anthem. For once I made it through "land of the free" without the wiggle interrupting my voice.
Later that night, when I was trying to balance the monkey cages and the collies and get back to the trailer, the girls with the phony bloody T-shirts showed up. I looked up from the cages and there they were, kind of scary, like biker chicks, hands in fists at their sides, and I felt this unreasonable urge to start laughing, but immediately saw that this would not be the best tack for somebody five four and 120 pounds to take.
However, Caringellas were not quitters, so I planted my feet and stood my ground. "Something I can do for you ladies?"
The smaller one took a step forward. Right then I got the impression the bigger one had bullied her into speaking first. "What you're doing with those monkeys is animal cruelty."
I sighed. "I couldn't agree with you more. Only they're not my monkeys. They belong to the guy who's passed out in the trailer over there. Why don't you go take it up with him if you can wake him up?"
"And the collies," her friend added, moving toward Slim Jim, who growled low in his throat. "It isn't morally right to force dogs to wear saddles and chase sheep."
I held up a hand. "Hold on, Babe. The saddles are one thing, but border collies are bred to herd sheep. I swear, if these two don't get to herd something on a daily basis, they rearrange their food dishes. It's in their blood -- "
That's when the first balloon hit me. I thought it was full of water, but then I looked down at my belly and saw that the parrot shirt was covered with red. A quick sniff told me it was probably food coloring, but by then I was royally pissed off. Then the second balloon hit me in the left tit, and the third missed me but caught Mentos in the eye, and she started yelping.
"You call yourself animal lovers?!" I yelled, and just like that I shifted into fight-club mode, knocking the smaller one to the ground and kneeling on her chest in two seconds flat, and I heard the satisfying crack of a rib under my knee. She huffed hard, then bitch-slapped me across the face and once again I saw red, but this time I felt a slow trickle down my cheek, and reached up to touch real blood -- mine. She must have been wearing a ring. I doubled up my fist and landed one on her chin, and then I leaned back and hauled Mentos by her collar to the girl's face. "Look what you did! You could have blinded my dog! Get out of here, you coward, and take your asshole friend with you or I'll kick her butt, too."
One more knee, this time to the belly, then I shoved her off and looked for her friend, but surprise, surprise, the bigger one was nowhere to be seen. I was breathing hard as I found a hose and wet a cloth, gently daubing Mentos's face clean. She had the eye half closed, and I knew if I told Dalton I wanted a vet to look at it he'd argue she was just a damn dog and one eye was plenty, then go drink whatever I would have spent on her vet bill.
Belmont Monty came over with my pay as I was sitting there hugging Mentos, trying to calm her. He whistled. "Lordy Jesus, you're all cut up. What in hell happened here, Maddy?"
"Had a little run-in with the animal lovers."
"Those girls in the bleachers?"
"If you can call them girls. I had my doubts, but I didn't check their panties."
"Two against one? You're such a little bit of a thing. How did you manage -- "
I cut him short before he had me laid out in an ambulance, headed for intensive care. "Monty, can I have our pay?"
"Sure." He counted it out and looked at the cages with the screaming monkeys. "You -- uh -- sure you don't need any help with those -- uh -- primates?"
Poor Belmont Monty. He was too old for this. He should be living in some nice little one-bedroom apartment near the Los Alamitos racetrack, where he could watch the six A.M. workouts in peace. If I'd've said yes, he'd pop a coronary on the spot. "Relax, Monty, I'm all right. This is just a scratch."
"Be a shame to add another scar to that pretty mouth, Hon."
Yes, it would be. I folded the bills into my pocket. "It's nothing a Band-Aid won't fix."
Visible relief flooded his face. "Well, then, I'm gonna grab me a beer. Hope Dalton's feeling better. See you two in Cheyenne."
He toddled off into the night, headed for Five Corners and beer, billiards, and boobs -- the three B's, which made up the brotherhood of man.
I trudged back toward the trailer, but there was a lot of traffic, pickups coming in with the radio blasting C&W; feed trucks going out empty, headed to suppliers; travelers ogling the sights; and the locals all juiced up and ready to party. What stopped me was a yellow Ryder truck. It was probably just somebody's weekend rental, moving furniture from one residence to another, but since McVeigh blew up the Murrah Building, to me every yellow van was a potential bomb. I couldn't move.
Mentos whined, Slim Jim danced around me, and the bastard monkeys shook the cage bars Jonesing for their nightly dose of herbal Valium. I knelt down in the dirt and howled out loud for my sister, who did nothing to deserve having her life erased at age twenty-five just because some idiot was mad at the government.
So many things I wanted right then that I couldn't have -- like my family around the dining room table in McAlester, with fry bread on one side of the platter and fettuccini on the other. I wanted to hear Daddy arguing the merits of saying the rosary and Mama saying horseshit to all that, and smell her burning sage at dawn and blessing the four directions. I wanted to wake up drenched in sweat because it was 105 degrees outside, and see Maggot sitting there with not one hair out of place and her shirt buttoned all the way up to her collar, a peaceful smile on her face because she loved her life like it was winning the damned lottery.
When it happened I was sleeping in a Super 8 with some dirtbag whose name I don't even remember. I woke up with a start, thinking what the hell was that dream I was having, or am I getting the flu, or maybe this is a heart attack because of how much cocaine I did last night, and then I felt it -- the bottomless pitch into loss, and immediately afterward the phantom ache of my lost twin rising like bile in my throat.
The driver's-side door of the Ryder truck opened, and an old man got out. He looked at me, tipped his ball cap politely like it was every night of the week you saw a sobbing, paint-soaked girl kneeling in the dirt with two monkeys in cages and twin whining border collies. He hurried off to the bar because if he didn't need a drink before, he sure needed one now. I told the dogs to sit, picked up the monkeys, and went into the trailer. Dalton was still asleep. I emptied his wallet and found three hundred dollars. The rat bastard was holding out on me! I left him enough for a bus ticket, shoved the rest into my pocket, gathered up my cactus plants and my ruined jacket, found my toothbrush and shampoo, and my photographs of my sister. I tipped a generous amount of the herbal drug into the monkeys' bananas, and at the very last moment before I closed the trailer door, I unlatched their cages and whispered, "He's all yours, boys."
Then I closed the trailer door, unhooked the hitch, stood there for a second, and sucked my sore knuckles. I wadded up some Kleenex onto my cheek because it was still seeping, and I told Mentos and Slim Jim to load up in the truck's cab. Mentos's eye was swollen shut. "The first vet we come to, we'll get that taken care of," I promised her. I meant it. They were such good dogs; they minded so well it broke my heart. I gave them each a Milk-Bone, then popped the tab on a Diet Coke and drank half the contents down, enjoying the carbonation burn against my tight throat. The three of us headed out into the night, not toward Cheyenne and the next rodeo, but toward Oklahoma City and a different kind of showdown -- one that was five long years overdue.
Copyright © 2003 by Jo-Ann Mapson