by Guinotte Wise

Winchester_1873Only two horses left at my place. They’re no longer ridden, nor do I attempt to influence their behavior other than to stand for the farrier to trim, or get their shots in spring and fall. Pasture ornaments. A low stress occupation. I like to see them out there, heads together, looking toward the house like they’re conspiring. I do life-sized horses in welded steel, some smaller ones in bronze, and they’re good sculpture reference.

Three wives are gone, one who liked horses, two who didn’t. When they die of old age on my place, the horses, not the wives, I have a friend doze a hole, we roll the old guy into it, cover it up. You’re not supposed to do this, but they might as well be buried in pasture they spent their lives in. Their spirits like familiar pasture, I think. Other horses see their pasture familiars, their ghosts. The ex-wives are still whinnying with some herd or another.

So, horses. That’s why I was up on hay bales that day. I don’t know what happened, heat confusion, dehydration, whatever, but I was stacking hay on a trailer and was maybe four bales high, misstepped, fell on the trailer side, broke my left arm. I blacked out for a bit, became nauseous, sweated big. I’d already hauled sixty bales to my barn and stacked it. This was the remainder, forty bales. Maybe thirty-five were on the trailer. I dragged five more on, drove home and stacked all but thirteen one-handed, couldn’t do any more, but I did get them all dragged into the barn and shut the sliding doors. Then, off to the E.R.

My old man was probably the reason for this macho display, me always trying to live up to some movie version he had of himself. John Wayne was his hero. And the forecast called for rain that night. I didn’t want to ruin my arm and the hay both.

Denial led me to hope I had just sprained my arm, but when I cranked the truck wheel, backing the trailer, something wasn’t working from the elbow on. No bones sticking through though, like last time. It’s the same arm I’d busted ten years before in a rodeo wreck. Full of metal plates and pins and screws, it set off the metal detectors in airports after that, causing waves of mistrustful consternation from the guard services. Boarding is a slow process for me, not that I fly much.

Now there’s more metal in it. The arm is in a sling and a bionic-looking brace, and I experience dull aches that make me less than effervescent. Plus I hate like hell to keep explaining the thing to everyone.

So, I wasn’t anxious to attend a meeting of the local zoning board of which I’m a member. The others are town businessmen, farmers, and various luminaries. My duties as a member of the town Beautification Advisory Council involve nodding, drinking coffee, looking sage. The board sought me out as representing The Arts.

Maybe I signed on thinking I’d pepper the area with strategically priced welded steel sculptures but that hasn’t happened so far. My main reason for attending now is a real estate lady on the board who I always like seeing, a handsome forty-ish woman with auburn hair and a great figure on the cusp of plumpness but just short of that. Good legs. Green eyes. Whitened smile that makes me aware of my own beige choppers. Rita. Sometimes we have a drink in town at the faux Italian cafe on the square; once, dinner at the new motel south of town. There is electricity or something fun between us, though it could be all me and my imagination. At my advanced age, you need a good imagination.

I have fantasized about looking at a model home with her, she locks the door after we enter, chatting about adjustable rates and balloon payments while I gaze into those green eyes. Wait’ll you see this master bedroom, Austin. Lead me there, Rita.

* * *
The meeting place is always at The Golden Angus, a good steakhouse with banquet rooms in back for wedding rehearsal dinners and meetings like ours. It’s a pleasant place for a town our size; our phone book is a slim affair with about ten yellow pages, maybe 8,000 souls spread over three counties. The town itself, Winchester, Kansas, is around 2,000. I live maybe ten miles from it but close enough to be on the Rural Water District.

Half a block from the restaurant, I parked the truck behind Rita’s silver Acura and took my time checking my image in the window of a tattoo parlor, next to a gift shop that was having a half-off sale on crystal. I wondered how some of these businesses kept going. With my corduroy sport coat hanging over my sling, I looked a little like I was affecting a cape. But my hair wasn’t too wild, my jeans were clean, and I had scrubbed my welder’s hands. Time to slide on into this place, get the arm stuff out of the way.

“Austin, what the hell did you do to your arm?” This from Ralph Nichols who owned the Nichols lumberyards and a big grocery store. “What’s that body armor on it?”

“Improves my pitch. Wait’ll softball season.”

“One of those sculptures fall on you?”

His lovely white-haired wife pitched in with an “Awwww,” and she patted the arm lightly. “What happened, Austin?”

This went on until we were all seated at the long table, I did a quickie one-fits-all explanation and talk turned to weather, cattle prices, and local news. I sat across from Rita. She smiled, shook her head in commiseration, said, “Good thing you’re right-handed.” This caused a little hitch in the conversation. Several thought there was more to us than there actually was.

About eight of us sat around the table, town fathers even older than I, some young Jaycees, the usual group.

There was a small commotion at the door to the meeting room, as Johnny Brandt bustled in, calling over his shoulder. “Hell, it’s noon somewhere, bring me a shot and a beer.” Johnny is the errant son of the owner of the local funeral home, on and off the wagon, occupying the off position at present. He had been on the board during one of his longer attempts at sobriety but rarely attended anymore.

Ralph gavelled us to order with an empty water glass as the waitress brought us our coffee and cinnamon rolls. “Short meeting today, ladies and gentlemen. Only one order of business. Names to consider for the new subdivision. We don’t have many, so we’d like you each to come up with five or six before Halloween and submit them by phone or email to Irene here. It’s an upscale area, so try for elegance.”

“Cuntshire,” Johnny barked at Ralph, “That’s sort of elegant. It’s the shire that does it, see. British.”

There was silence in the room. Johnny hated the subdivision. The present owners had bought the 300 acres from his father, Augie Brandt. Johnny had looked upon it as his to inherit and had talked often of a cattle operation on those acres.

“Shylock Downs!” Johnny grinned angrily at Harv Rosen, the oldest insurance provider in Winchester whose face colored instantly as he glared back.

“What do you think, Rita? You sold the sonofabitch. Man, you do look good in those tight black pants.” He grabbed his crotch. “Say, I got a parcel you might like to handle.”

“Get this punk out of here.” I heard my voice in a higher register than I meant it to be as I stood up.

Ralph Nichols was up at the same time, saying something like, “Johnny, that’s way more than enough outta you.”

The next thing I knew Johnny was in front of me. “I guess you’ll have one of your dumbass junk horses out in front of the entrance for twenty grand or so, am I right, Pops? Punk this, you fucking geezer.” Then he shoved me hard, and down I went on the bad arm into some overturned chairs. I saw stars and a collection of moving legs around me as I crawled out of the way.

Two of the younger men trundled him out, still flinging possible names over his shoulder, “Peckerwood Estates! Dickwick Acres! Fuckhaven Commons!” And then he was gone.

I was a little embarrassed but couldn’t fathom why as none of it was my fault. A drunk had called me names and pushed me over a chair in a cheap shot. With a good arm, I’d have slapped that little jaybird cross-eyed.

Rita and I walked to her car, and she insisted I get in the passenger side. As we sat in Rita’s front seat, a soft drizzle began to mist the windshield. She took my good hand. “I really think we should go to emergency and get an X-ray of that arm, Austin.”

“It’s a waste of time and money, Rita, really. It’s well-protected by the brace and doesn’t even hurt. Believe me, if I thought there was any possibility it was injured again, I’d be there.”

“Do it for me, Austin. And I’ll do something really nice for you.”

“I hate that place. Something really nice?”

She smiled and turned the ignition on.

* * *
After an hour’s wait, a lead apron was tossed against my chest, a buzz, repositioning of my arm, another buzz, some more waiting. I was reminded how much I despised Emergency Rooms by a strangely hyper rural family, who occupied most of the waiting room, from little kids to a bearded man older than I.

They all seemed to be on crack, laughing, hollering, going on about nothing. The children were encouraged to race up and down the echoing hallway by a stringy-haired woman who was relentless in her praise for their speed. The only quiet one was a large young man with either perfectly rouged red circles on his cheeks or gin blossoms, in Carhartt coveralls on a swivel chair, testing its mechanism around to one side and back again, thunk, swivel, thunk. His eyes remained in the middle distance, trancelike.

My irritation was showing.

Rita said, “It must be serious, since they brought everyone, Austin. No one to sit the kids, I imagine. Just be patient, and we’ll be on our way in no time.”

What a good woman, I thought. Now that I’ve done this penance, I wonder what my options are, what the “something really nice” will be.

“Austin Curry?” A man in a lab coat questioned the room in general.

I raised my good hand, and we followed him down a hallway. He swiped a card, and a door opened.

“And you are a relative?” he asked Rita.

“Yep, the missus,” I said, just to cut through the possibility she wouldn’t be allowed to go along and be left to the wandering eyes of the crack family. She squeezed my arm against her breast, and I winked at her. The doctor paused only slightly to check out this younger wife over the tops of his specs.

“Good to be careful, Miz Curry, Mr. Curry, but I think we’re okay.” he slapped an X-ray to a light box, showing the mass of metal in that arm. “I’m Dr. Trabon. This is the old injury.” He pointed to the lower batch of plates and pins. “This is the new one.” Whitish line up higher.

“No new problems here. At least I don’t see anything. Does it hurt?”

“No,” I said, “I told the little woman here we didn’t have to come, but you know how…” I let that trail off, and Rita pinched my good arm.

“You have pain medication?” he asked.

“Yes, thanks. Though I haven’t had to use it lately.”

“Where were you when this happened, Mr. Curry?”

“A zoning board meeting.”

“Hmm. Lively meeting. Reminds me of this guy on HeeHaw, not on TV anymore, used to be, anyway he says to the doctor, ‘Doc, I broke my arm in three places.’ Doc says, ‘Stay outa those places.'” He laughed, repeating, “Stay outta those places.”  One more appraising look at the missus over his glasses.

And we were free to go.

* * *
It stopped misting, and the wind picked up from the north. Leaves flew around in little wind devils in the parking lot.

“Brrr. It’s freezing out.” Rita folded her arms around herself. “So where do Mr. and Mrs. Curry go now?”

I felt very much like saying, home, have a couple of toddies, maybe a joint, hit the hay. “Your car, turn on the heat, then we’ll discuss it.” I put my good arm around her as we shivered our way to the car.

* * *
She drove us thirty some miles into Lawrence, Kansas and a new restaurant on the outskirts of the college town. It was mid-afternoon, and there was a nice mix of young people, students at KU, and an older, affluent bunch of locals and maybe parents in for the weekend and a football game. The energy was pleasant and upbeat. I felt pretty foxy being in the company of a looker like Rita.

“Well, Austin. What are you up for?” Quite a twinkle in her eye.

I smiled, maybe doing some twinkling of my own. “Steak. They don’t even have to cook it! You?”

She rested her chin on her interlaced hands while our server lit a candle between us.

* * *
The doorbell rang about 10 p.m. I thought I was dreaming. Then an insistent knocking at the door, a male voice calling, “Rita. Ritahhhh!” Gravel tossed against the bedroom window.

Roused from a sound sleep, I first registered the strange room, then Rita and the satin quilt, the big four-poster bed. Rita mumbled, turned over, and drew the quilt around her.

“Rita.” I tapped her quilted shoulder. She woke up immediately, sitting upright, beautiful breasts bare in the moonlight. She got up and slipped on a nightgown-looking filmy thing.

“What’s going on, Rita?”

“Oh, it’s that damn ex-husband of mine…”

“Why don’t you just ignore it. Maybe he’ll leave.”

“Not Jack. Not when he’s this way.”

“Call the police?”

“Maybe. Let me handle it for now.” The knocking was insistent. “I won’t let him in. You stay right here. He doesn’t know anyone’s here. Your truck’s back in town.”

Muffled voices at the door. Male voice alternately whining, then insistent, angry. Rita said, “We’ll talk when you’re sober, if that ever occurs.”

Then I heard, “Just a drink of water, Rita. Please, then I’ll go, I really need a glass of water…”

Shit, I thought, that’s how the whiny bastard gets in, she won’t refuse, she’ll hand it to him after unchaining the door, don’t do it, Rita, it’s a child’s ploy. She and I had done about everything I knew how to do in bed and some that she added in that was astonishing. I just wanted to go back to sleep. Wake up, maybe try it again, have coffee, and go home. Now here was this moron at the door. I sighed and started dressing.

Instead of letting the drunken ex in the door, she dialed the cops.

Soon I saw red lights whirling on the dark bedroom ceiling. Was I remiss? Should I have inserted myself in this dumbass conversation? What would I have done or said? I felt, again, somewhat embarrassed, twice in a span of fifteen hours or so, and again through no fault of my own. Then why the guilt at not “handling“ this latest disruption? Why did I feel rather like I was caught in the act of cuckolding someone? I couldn’t even leave unless I wanted to walk the five or so miles to town. Brother.

I peeked out the window. The ex was in the police car, and a tow truck had arrived, hooking up to his SUV, a forlorn faded Jeep Cherokee. I knew the tow company driver, Randy Timmel. I computed the costs for no reason: bond, fine, release of vehicle, hours lost at work if the guy even worked, five hundred bucks easy just for bothering Rita. She was outside in a dressing gown and long down coat with the hood up, talking to Charlie Wainwright, the cop on duty. He was writing something on a clipboard. Old home week. I knew everybody out there except the previous husband. I could see us all around the kitchen table having coffee and discussing the situation, Rita bustling about in her silk robe, pouring, me saying, “Well, Rita and I were sound asleep having fucked our wheels off, no Viagra involved either, Charlie, I saw that look…”—winks all around, an elbow or two—”…and then there’s this racket outside…”

I jumped back from the window as Charlie looked up at me. Maybe his lawman sense kicked in, and he felt the eyes. Probably not. He’s more of the Mayberry school of law enforcement. But this whole confluence of humanity was making me uncomfortable.

I heard vehicles leaving. Then, some locking up sounds downstairs. Rita appeared in the semi-darkness.

“Austin, you’re all dressed!”

“Well, if that guy got in, I didn’t quite know what was expected of me. I could shoot him at my house…”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Wasn’t your fault.”

“Is the mood ruined, Austin? Oh, I hope not, we’re so…you know, simpatico.”

“I do know. And it’s definitely not.”

She allowed the silk robe to slide to the floor and advanced on fully-dressed me. This was all too good to be true, of course. After helping me return to my unclothed state, she pulled the covers over us and rode me like the pony express. Pardon my ungentlemanliness. And ill-disguised glee.

As has been my wont over the long haul of years, when I ascribe wonderful qualities to a woman, she turns out to be crazy as a mouse in a shoebox. It was in the morning’s bright fresh light that I caught a glimpse of Rita’s craziness. Part of her back and right shoulder were exposed, and as my eyes adjusted I was a bit startled to see that it looked like someone had written a list flush left to her spine on the right side with a black sharpie or some kind of marker. It started about four inches down from her neck and continued on under the quilt. It was a tattoo.

The letters were quite neat and looked almost printed. It was a list of names. I moved closer so I could read. She spooned into me and made a pleasure noise as I got closer, then reached around and began guiding me. I was surely aroused but also wanted to read this list. I grazed her neck with my lips and got the first name: it was Alec Thomas. The next was Joe Ramirez. Then Nick Nolte. The actor? What was this list? She pulled the quilt up. I’d have to resume my reading another time. She damn near made me forget about it.

* * *
Then we did have coffee in her bright kitchen, the morning sun slanting in and catching a few dust particles.

“Rita, I haven’t been bored since Johnny Brandt knocked me over that chair. I thank you, I surely do.” That lacked the proper complimentary tone, but I’d think of something better before I left. I sipped my coffee.

“That’s lovely, Austin. You have such a way about you. How do you like your eggs?”

“Any old way.” I thought, like I like my women, but kept that one inside. And it wasn’t true anyway.

She looked quite good without makeup, hair tied back with unplanned wisps here and there. The list was somewhat visible through the silk robe but only as a series of lines. I couldn’t tell how far down they went. When she poured more coffee, I could see a whole breast, and it made me giddy and smug at the same time. She was a handsome lady all right.

“Rita, I must ask you about something,” I said, before I could quite cap the well on my curiosity.

“Yes, Austin?” She was standing to my right, close enough that I could smell a faint perfume from her robe.

I chickened out. “What do you think of the age difference between you and me?”

She put the coffee pot on the table, moved behind me and put her hands on my shoulders, began massaging my neck.

“What a question, Austin. Age. It’s a number. Let’s not worry about things like that, okay?” She patted my cheek, sat down across from me. “How’s your arm feel?” Again, the chin on interlaced fingers, echoing her look from the restaurant in Lawrence.

“Almost as good as the rest of me. I had totally forgotten about it.”

She laughed. “I’m so glad I could do that.”

* * *
I had her drop me off a couple of blocks from my truck at the feed store, and I pretended to head in there as she drove off. Then I walked to my truck. I think this was to save her any embarrassment from being seen dropping me off at my truck with its frosted-over windows, obviously there all night. Or maybe it was for me. I unlocked it, slid in and started it, turned the defroster up high.

Then I glanced over at the tattoo place next to the gift store I’d seen the day before. “Winchester Tattoo,” the sign said. I let the truck idle and walked over to the storefront, looked in the window. Sign said OPEN, one of those Walmart neon-looking things. I entered, and a tinkling sound came from a device that announced my entry.

The shop was crammed with art books and photos of tattoos, many of them prints of what looked to be local customers, bikers and musicians, some were of bare body portions, genitalia with tattoos that cleverly incorporated the parts shown, legs with zippers and floral patterns, vines, backs covered with gruesomely colored scenes, price codes, skulls, marijuana leaves, the usual, all fairly nicely drawn, if off-putting to me. The guy was good. I never understood the application of some non-erasable thing to the skin, like those designs young women liked to have above their butt. Then I saw it, the list. A voice behind me startled me a bit.

“Wanting a tat?” I turned to face a rotund man in an Ed Hardy T-shirt, the art on which looked like a huge tattoo. He had a beard like ZZ Top.

“Well, no, not me. Just had some questions if you don’t mind.”

“You a cop or somethin’?”

I chuckled. “No, no, just interested. My granddaughter just came back from California with a tattoo, and I was wondering if it was safe.”

“Depends. If it was done right with sterile needles, sure, it’s safe. Most are. A bad experience, just one, can put us out of business, so we’re pretty careful.”

“Did you do this list here?” I pointed to Rita’s back, noting the list was maybe thirty names.

“Yeah. She’s gonna run out of back on that side. Then we start on the other side. She’s a good steady customer.”

I looked closer at the photo. I saw Ralph Nichols on there. My dentist was listed. Suddenly I felt dizzy. When that passed, I asked, “What’s the story behind this list?”

“Guess I can tell you. She’s pretty open about it. Brags about it even. She calls it her back list. Anyone who’s had her on her back, she puts…on her back. I wouldn’t mind being on the list actually, she’s hot. But I’m strictly professional. Doesn’t pay to get involved with customers.”

“Who’s the last name on the list?”

“I dunno. She’s coming in tomorrow, though. Some lucky new gent.”

“Nice lettering.”

“Thanks. My name’s Jake, by the way.” He held his hand out.

“Johnson. Jim Johnson.” I shook his hand.

* * *
They said, after the fire, that arson was suspected. Rita’s smoke detector didn’t work, and she perished in the blaze. That’s how the county gazette put it: perished. I wish, now, I had read the entire list because that would probably include the person or persons who had done the thing, if, indeed someone had done it, but I only remembered a couple of names. And who would be compromised by it, anyway?

I was going to distance myself from Rita, but only because she was a little scary in my book, not because I’d be on her list. Curiously, I didn’t mind that at all. When I thought to drop by and ask Jake where the list photo was, he said “What list?” The new red Dodge king-cab dually sitting in front of his shop told me that perhaps he’d been bought off, and that, in turn, narrowed the list to a few wealthy businessmen. But I hadn’t seen the whole list, so that really told me nothing.

The police held her ex-husband for awhile but they finally turned him loose.

The first name on the list, I saw in the obituary, was an uncle, her mother’s brother. And that, to me, was a sad deal. I attended a couple more board meetings, but it was terrible to be there, just awful. And I caught Ralph Nichols staring at me at the last one, a hard look. He’s running for state senate unopposed. And, come to think of it, Irene is the one with the money.

I just bought some new smoke detectors and a yappy little Jack Russell Terrier that barks at anyone approaching the house, me included. And I have a .357 with one birdshot shell in the cylinder for the first shot, .38 specials for the rest.

My arm is okay, less range of motion than I’d like, and weather changes affect it; the slight pain reminds me of Rita. And my dentist. I wonder, should I change dentists? Nick Nolte remains a mystery, though there’s an N. Nolte listed in our little phone book.

Guinotte Wise welds and writes at a farm in Resume Speed, Kansas. He welded a short story collection (Night Train, Cold Beer) that won a thousand bucks, publication by a small university press and not much acclaim. It’s on Amazon. Another collection (Resume Speed) and a novel (Ruined Days  are in edit rounds at Black Opal Books and should be out in 2015. His stories have appeared in numerous literary reviews including Atticus, The MacGuffin, Prick of the Spindle and Best New Writers Anthology 2015. His wife has an honest job in the city and drives 100 miles a day to keep it. Some work can be seen at