Under the Creosote Moon
That Spring went wrong, so they decided to send me to Texas. Discussion
never entered into it. Watched me pack my things. Drove me to the airport. Hugged me at the gate. Sent me off with a wish of good luck. The whole plane ride down, I wanted to order some booze, but couldn’t muster the courage. Then we circled overtop of San Antonio. Which did not appear to be near as blisteringly hot or as drought riven as I had imagined.
The Lytle ranch looked sterile and hopeless. Made me lonesome for the green hills and trees of San Antonio as they fell away to empty miles of burnt scrub. What the place really looked like was a well-oiled operation. That’s what scared me. Cowhands interrupting the mechanical landscape- taut, sweat ridden men two and three times older than me.
A tornado swept up some of the cattle pens a month before. A few of them stood roofless and bent, waiting to be healed. But the funnel winds skipped past most of them and their corrugated steel beams and tin roofs remained over top of the animals. The hands herded the animals onto the trucks. My godfather noticed me watching them.
Oh, don’t worry, he said, they aren’t your responsibility.
He pointed to a guy pushing a steer onto a chute leading up into a truck. The steer was shitting all over the cowhand’s pants.
That’s your job, he said, and laughed a little.
I ignored it. At the age of eighteen he’d brought his polo ponies to college. Over his shoulder were pastures. Running for the horizon. They stretched out well beyond the main part of the ranch then turned into small craggy hillocks dense with chaparral. That’s where I’d make them send me, I thought. It looked like a good place to hide, a good way to shirk responsibility. I got out of the truck, and my godfather looked me up and down laughing quietly once again.
You’ll do fine.
Both his boys worked summers as cowhands. He knew the power of a ranch, if only by proxy.
His partner, Horace, offered this bear trap of a hand and squeezed mine till it went limp. Then he introduced me around, and we ate supper.
Good to have you here, boy. Get yourself familiar with the territory. He introduced his sons, Bubba, and Horace Jr., sun charred men with families of their own. Horace slid me the keys to a Ford L T D.
After this first meal together, I excused myself, slipped on that pair of brown boots with the eagles stitched on the side, and got into the L T D. I ended up on a dirt frontage road in front of a store under a rickety bleached out sign with one word on it- beer. I grabbed for my wallet comforted by that sign, by the way the building crumbled around itself. By the way the sign admitted a recalcitrant defeat. If they won’t sell beer to anyone I don’t know who will, I thought, and went to it. Inside I grabbed a six of Pearl and plunked it down on the counter like it had always belonged to me. The guy behind the register cashed me out with out looking up. We entered into the bond, were partners in it. I was just another a customer, a beer drinker. And he was nothing but the register clinking with change. After scrubbing the horse troughs free of algae, hosing down the stable walls free of their manure, after patching fence holes with barbed wire and nails, I would drag my sorry ass over to the L T D and drive over to that store and get some more Pearl beer, because Pearl was an answer. Pearl healed my youth with its deep Texas history. Pearl remained… cheap.
Twilight in Lytle was worth all the hard work and sore backed mornings because twilight was when the King Ranch Kid sat out on the white fence that lead up to the big house and watched the Mute break horses. They called him the King Ranch Kid because he’d worked for the King Ranch’s property in Australia, so distant a place, so opposite of everything they knew the other hands couldn’t even imagine. The name fit. He was the youngest till I arrived. Maybe that’s why he spoke up when he caught me spying on him. He told me the Mute was an Indian from Mexico. Then he sat there watching, awe zapped right into his freckled face.
Check how he does it, the Kid said as the Mute started moaning this big haunting sound. The kind of sound that curdled your insides. The horse jerked his head.
See that? He’s convincing that big mother he’s a pal, he’s the one gonna show that horse the way of the world. See?
The horse started walking around on his own for a minute. The Mute had him on a lead. Once the horse stopped pulling on the lead, the Mute started grunting and moaning and stroking the horse’s snout.
Damn thing trusts him now. Straight outta a movie. Happens so fast.
The Kid offered me a beer without taking his eyes off the scene unfolding before us.
The thing is, that’s the last time someone is gonna be that nice to that animal for the rest of its life.
I wanted to say something sharp, to sound right. Ignoring instinct, I opened the can of beer and watched in silence. The Mute took the lead off the animal and it followed him around the pen as the moon raised up in the sky, bathing us in the brightest natural light I’d ever seen.
The next morning the other hands made a show of giving me the brown horse to ride.
Suits your boots, Feliciano said. Him and another hand chuckled. Ever since I got there, they got a chuckle at every thing I did.
You from the city, right, Gaucho?
Feliciano did the talking because Feliciano was the only one with the patience to repeat his sentence more than the requisite two times it took me to understand.
Yeah, I guess I am.
They have no boots like that in the city.
No, they do not.
As I rode out toward the front pasture I pointed down to my tan boots and then to Feliciano’s horse. Its chest roped with muscles, tawny in color.
You should let me have your horse, I said. Makes a better match.
I can’t remember what I was supposed to be doing. There hadn’t been any cattle in there for weeks. Soon as we entered, a convertible coupe the color of dime store lipstick flew by on the highway. The brown horse bugged out underneath of me and rocketed off. I didn’t have a choice in the matter. The more I pulled the reins, the wilder the brown horse ran. Nothing left to do but hug his neck hard as I could.
The horse saw the fence first. At the last possible moment his whole body cinched backward, and his front legs extended outward while he transferred his weight, like, if he could just start moving all those legs in reverse everything would be ok. I started sliding forward off of him. Instead of panic during those few seconds in the air, the only thing going through my mind was the song playing in the convertible. I had listened to it with what’s-her-name back home before getting sent to Texas in the first place. Right as it vanished into the disappearing hum of the engine, I smashed into the creosote fence headfirst.
I got up and dusted myself off. Ran my fingers over the bump rising on my scalp line. There wasn’t any blood. When I looked up, they were all there. Feliciano, the King Ranch Kid, the Mute, and a couple other hands, clapping and cheering and laughing at me. I gathered my hat, threw it at the brown horse and started toward the gate. When I got near enough to Feliciano, I spit out a Mexican insult, tu madre, and kept going.
A few nights later, the Kid came over with a six-pack.
We didn’t mean nothing ‘bout that the other day, he said. I’d been on dead cattle patrol since then. It was an isolated task. The old man didn’t want to waste a hand so I got the detail. Meant I got to ride back into the chaparral like I’d wanted in the first place. And after the little trick the other hands played on me with the brown horse I was glad to have some time to myself. I’d ride out right after breakfast while they joshed with each other prolonging the inevitable brutalities of work.
After tagging the ears of the first few carcasses I’d stop under a tree, out of sight. Get down off the long broken Appaloosa and scribble off a letter to the girl. I mean I must have been worried about her because everyday I got off another letter. Like I was strangling whatever we had between us in my hand. I hadn’t had another girl before her. That’s all it was. But I didn’t know hardly anything about her. That lack of knowledge scared me. Well, I knew a couple of things- I knew she kissed me with abandon. I knew what she looked like in a bikini, out of a bikini. All of that made more sense to me than most things had. As it turned out, all that writing and worrying pretty much did the exact opposite of what I intended. Sometimes it’s best to sit tight and shut up.
The Kid meant to apologize and I didn’t have the heart to let him roll around in my scorn. Besides, I was thirsty. He handed me a can and we leaned back on a railing over looking the empty spot where the tornado ripped out a cattle pen.
What’s Australia like?
He pushed his hat back till it sat on the top of his head, letting his red bangs hang down. He swallowed the rest of his beer and crushed the can on the fence post.
Not much different from Lytle, tell you the truth. It’s all accent, down there. You get used to that. Pretty much looks same as this, he said.
At night, though, you know you’re somewhere else. The sound is all messed up. First it’s familiar, but then the tone’s way off. You know?
I looked at him and nodded like I did.
There’s tons more tumbleweeds. They got like fifty to our one. I’m glad to be back, honest to God. Christmas time is summer. No sir, he said, that’s just plain wrong.
I drifted, to sleep, to reverie. Drifted as the Appaloosa wandered toward shade, or back to the stable. Sweat beading on the both of our necks.
What’s-her-name was tall, and brunette, tan and beautiful. Before I met her, my eyes were set on this other girl, Lisa, a tennis player. I watched Lisa skip across the Har-Tru courts her skirt hiking up over her bloomers as she slid from ball to ball. And that was magic. There must be some equivalent to it, some late in life devotion that relates to the first flicker of lust in a teenaged boy’s heart but I don’t know what it is because that first flicker is like a bullet that rips through you. When it comes you can’t move out of the way to dodge it. And no matter what the result a scar remains, a scar that lives long after you pass. The girl on those tennis courts was the first bliss I knew. Some nights we’d scamper around town in her deteriorating VW, drinking beer and smoking until the very last minute before I had to be home. Cigarettes and cheap beer meant very different things to us, though neither of us knew just what. I coaxed her into caring for me, the beer kept us talking about things we didn’t really know or care about, but we kept smoking and kept drinking.
I’d wrapped my mom’s station wagon around a tree over Christmas. Two weeks old. Took the tree out, too. And so was forced to sit in the passenger seat beside the tennis player. The only thing she had I didn’t lust after was her bleached blond hair. If she’d only let it be the soft casual chestnut it naturally was. I wanted to tell her. Every day I wanted to, but young and immature as I was, even I understood: you can’t say something like that to a girl. Least not the girl who drives you around keeps you in beer and takes her gum out so you can tongue-kiss her.
Lisa introduced me to her friend. And that friend was the girl, the tall one, the tan one, the naturally brunette one. It was spring by then. Teenage switches from one car to the next with the careless abandon of freshly bloomed buds. And, so I switched from the tennis player’s VW Bug to the lithe brunette’s Volvo station wagon.
We spent whole days inside that Volvo. Smoking. Flexing the thoughts inside our heads. I watched her fuss with the stick shift never quite comprehending the gear ratio.
I know what I’m doing, she’d tell me, her calf darting over to the clutch pedal after the fact. I know what I’m doing. Her mantra.
No matter how brilliantly tanned, and well-muscled her calf was, it didn’t matter because she was heading off to an academically elite university way out west. This summer was nothing but a weigh station before her real life began. I was the kid who smashed borrowed cars into things, who sometimes sold pilfered medicine cabinet drugs to other kids. The bad kid she wanted to try out, but just for the summer, a memorial to the delicate neckline of her youth, a punch to the gut of her own respectability. She slipped into an appreciative smirk at the idea of anything more substantial. You make decisions in the split second one of those smirks offers. At least, I made mine. I swore I could live with it.
The Kid asked me to ride over to Huntsville with him. He had to visit a couple of pals. His car was a white Camaro junker. A spring in the rear end had broken and the frame was bent. The car scrambled across the highway like a crab. Go over a rough patch and sparks shot out in from underneath of it. It was part of his puzzle. Or it puzzled me. He saw the look on my face.
I couldn’t picture my whole life going along in a pickup truck, he said. My dad had a pickup. His dad had one. Pickups, horse trailers, saddles, and calloused hands. When I came back from Australia I had some money saved up. Enough for one of them Diesel 350’s. But then I saw this thing. The 350 couldn’t match it, diesel or no diesel. I just had to try and bring it back to life, prove I could do something besides sit in a goddamned saddle all day. We all stand behind a curtain of our own invention. The Kid was the first guy near enough my age to try and pull the thing back. I wanted to know him for the rest of my life.
What’s in Huntsville?
He’d been waiting for that question. And he played it like a dinner theater actor would, the high notes strung out too high, the middle and low ones non-existent.
He slid a Pearl my way as an 8-track tape that came with the car battled the engine noise and the road wind to be noticed.
The Kid was talkative driving that car.
I got a job on a ranch about an hour south of Laredo. It was a holding station for cattle, just me and a foreman, that was it. The foreman had this old Colt six-shooter, 1850, 1860, a genuine piece of frontier history.
He slammed the horn. The car jittered toward the shoulder before he righted us.
A Colt six-shooter, that’s how the fucking West was won, he yelled into the
oncoming emptiness of the highway. He slipped a hand off the wheel and popped open another beer.
We were working on one of those chunks of borderland, the Kid said. Been empty for a decade at least. Probably more. All prep work, setting up cattle pens, fencing off open-range, planting feed grass. NAFTA was coming. Just what this place was waiting for- Canadian, Mexican, American Cattle ready to move. The few trees left stood a long ways off from the ranch house. The only place to collect a proper pattern was the outhouse. The door had a quarter moon carved out of it to let in the night. If the moon hung right you could read by the light coming through the hole. Course I aimed just over that half moon. Pulled the trigger once, twice, was squeezing off a third when the door flies open and out squirts this little Mexican pulling his pants up running for safety. That was Juan. Scared for his goddamn life hands flying ever which way. Stupid son-of-bitch I am, I took off after him. But I couldn’t drop the gun. A Colt from the 1850’s ? Uh-uh. He caught sight of the pistol right off and he’s really kicking up some dirt. I’m screaming and hollering after him- lo siento, lo siento. Finally Juan stops. Maybe his breath was all gone, I dunno. He turns to face me. His hands go up like he’s climbing the ladder rungs straight up to God. You no kill me? I’m shaking sweat off my head. No. Goddamn it, no. I no kill you. I didn’t even know you was in there. It was only then did Duarte rise up from the one depression in the landscape. He waved at me that universal wave, all kindness and good feeling, but suspicion kept his eyes on the Colt. Out of relief, I invited them up to the house for some dinner and some beer. I could better my Spanish. They could make some scratch. We rode fence for two weeks. Nothing odd about it. That’s border life.
Duarte was all questions after they smoked some of the marijuana he’d brought with him to sell. Before, he’d been quiet, his eyes alive and receptive, but his mouth closed. Now, he did all the talking, and Juan sat back cackling softly to himself as the weed took hold.
You know people who buy?
The Kid said he was too stoned to focus. But even with the dope fogging his brain, it was obvious Duarte was in charge. Juan had come along for the adventure. A rider. But Juan held the knife.
It was a big fucking knife, the Kid told me, a little fear at the corners of his mouth.
Bigger than a man’s arm. Like a small sword Juan stuck effortlessly into the back of his Levi’s, underneath his shirt tail, the huge knife disappeared from sight. No one ever saw it unless Juan let them see it. Start bellyaching about the price of Duarte’s weed too long, out came the knife.
He looked across the car at me like he was coming down from Jupiter.
It wasn’t long before I knew them two Mexicans were the best friends I ever had.
He laughed a little at the thought of Juan and Duarte reeling off their stories – the endless poverty of Sinaloa despite the fields of marijuana that grew there, the coyotes who tricked their flock into canyons policed by La Migra. They in turn had suffered through the Kid’s myopic tales of juvenile desperation in the flatlands of west Texas. Each Friday night was better than the last. Regardless of the oncoming NAFTA border easements expectations far outweighed acceptance. They might drink a few beers together but after that locals got a little wary of the Kid’s two foreign friends.
His voice picked up with the car noise. He didn’t look at me anymore.
When the girl showed up the whole town started talking like any small town will do when a pair of impossibly big breasts accompanies a woman with a past nipping at her heels.
I didn’t know who or what he was talking about it. But interrupting him wasn’t going to change that.
Soon as the girl took up with Duarte and Juan, the talk turned to rumors and the rumors scorched the town. Melanie wore too tight tube tops accompanied by mesh shorts. She let her hair cover the scabs she picked at on her neck. Locals knew what she was, blamed her for it and no one else. Still, she was a white girl. One week she was there, the next week she wasn’t. Juan never liked her. But when Melanie hugged Duarte to her over inflated chest, he escaped into one of the few dreams brown skinned kids south of Laredo dream. I only turned a blind eye because I hoped the one girl might multiply into more like they do sometimes. But this girl wasn’t that kind of girl.
There was a hitch in the Kid’s voice and with it a lonesome pang, a pang I could relate to. I rolled down the window and let my hand ride on the wind chop. I readied myself for impact. The Kid swigged his beer. I didn’t know anyone the way he knew Juan and Duarte, not what’s her name, not the tennis player, not my godfather, not my parents.
Even with the window down, the air in that car thickened with his unnamed need. His pain spread out through the interior. It filtered from his fingertips, from underneath the fancy buffalo calf of his boots, and it leaked over to me. Then, like some balloon evacuating its helium, it fled the cabin of the car for the roasted air outside.
They found Melanie outside of town. His voice low and even so I knew she was dead.
Cut almost in two. Last person anyone remembered seeing her with was Duarte. Wherever Duarte went, so did Juan. Juan had the only knife I knew that could cut a body into pieces like that. Only thing the local police needed was a description of the color of them two’s complexion.
The Kid was barely twenty-four. He never trusted anybody well enough to admit his best friends were two Mexicans on death row.
It’s alright, I managed to say over the wind. But I wasn’t even old enough to vote. I didn’t know what alright meant.
The police eventually came for the Kid. Threatened jail when he wouldn’t testify. Within a week he was in Australia. Greedy hooker or not, a white woman was dead. Both Juan and Duarte received the death penalty. No one ever found the knife.
We rode in silence the rest of the way. Thrilling as the story was, I could only imagine telling what’s-her-name how it I made it to Death Row. Then we were in Huntsville. And Huntsville as a town deserves no description.
A prison guard named Cheryl led a group of us into the visitor’s room and locked the door behind her. A buzzer sounded. A steel door slid open. Inmates streamed out from behind it like the first droplets of water from hotel room sprinkler. They all wore the same white jumpsuit. Outside of that, all of them looked like the guy pushing the cart next to yours at the grocery store, or in line to butter his popcorn at the movie theater.
Duarte and Juan hugged the Kid until a guard told them to stop it. Duarte was taller than I thought he’d be. Juan had glasses, and wore a proud mustache. The Kid shoved a pile of quarters at me, pointed toward the red line painted on the floor. It went straight to a row of vending machines.
I watched them interact as the food cooked in the piece-of-shit microwave. Duarte was animated. Juan played with his long mustache happy to hear old friends talk. Back at the table I handed him the food. Juan grinned. Each of his teeth were capped with platinum.
I came for the food, he said and I took that for a joke, but his expression remained serious.
You bring me the best food I get all year. Gracias, he added, his metallic teeth catching in the fluorescent light.
Duarte asked for another burger. Grateful to have something to do I followed that red line once again. Duarte and the Kid were arguing under their breath, both their faces red. When I came back, Juan could take the uncomfortable silence the three of them had settled into no more.
You like futbol? Copa Mundial?
Without waiting for an answer he started in about his team back home. For the first time in my life I actually enjoyed talking about soccer.
Not for long.
The Kid stood up so quick, even the guard monitoring the cameras looked up.
We gotta get going, he said staring in my direction until I got up, too. I said an awkward goodbye to Juan and Duarte as the Kid drifted toward the exit. A thin guard spun his baton while he led Duarte and Juan back behind the sliding steel door. He pressed the intercom.
Need an escort over here at 3. Need an escort in 3.
When I turned around, the steel door had shut. Duarte and Juan were gone.
The Kid stamped hard on the gas pedal and the Camaro fished tailed out of the prison visitor’s lot. I opened up one of the Pearls and gulped it fast. This was one of those inexplicable days that would last with me forever. No amount of explanation was going to ease the discomfort of it. I didn’t want to have to remember it. But I didn’t know any amount of Pearl that would erase it.
Duarte coulda got out. They offered him a fucking deal.
I looked at his hands clenched on the wheel.
Everyone knew Juan killed her on his own. Let him buy the goddamn farm his own self.
The Kid knew what he was saying was heartless. I had just talked soccer with a murderer and liked it. I never understood exactly why, but as the Kid ran him down, I empathized with Juan.
Melanie demanded in on the weed deal. Even Steven. Juan wasn’t getting no equal share. I don’t think he was getting more’n the roof over his head, a little pocket change and the chance to tell his grandkids how he got one over on the gringos. Duarte thought they better split across the border. Juan always the fucking planner, had an idea. Borrowed a car, took Melanie for a ride. Smoked her out on the way. Stopped somewhere that was nowhere and turned up the radio. She got out to dance, started twirling. Soon as she turned her back he gutted her like a fucking deer. Dressed her out like an animal.
The Kid gnawed on his lip until the blood drew out and it was rubbery and white. My brunette girl came to mind. It was her body I imagined Juan gutting and dressing out. That fine skin of hers, soft as chamois, nursed by years of private school and poolside tanning. And I imagined Juan suddenly twisting her free of her skeleton. Her internal organs resting on the side of some ranch road, wind whipped, covered by sand, already drying in the crisp heat.
The Kid slid another beer over the Naugahyde bench seat.
We got a ways to go, he said and opened one himself. His eyes beaded out onto the white lines slipping under our front end every few seconds. I drained another beer and tossed it out the window. The Kid nodded reassuringly. To a guy like him the only way to put distance between a problem like that was to drink. And I wanted to be like him so bad it hurt.
The Kid turned to me.
You were fetching the burgers. Juan was sitting there calm as a goddamn Buddha. So I leaned over and asked him what them organs felt like. You know, to get a rise out of him. Something.
I turned back to the window, the Texas landscape whizzing past us, not wanting to hear anymore. A green sign beside the road read, Entering Bexar County.
He said they felt like warm sticky clay.