The Cowboy

John Wayne Durler had always needed something to run from. If it wasn’t his older siblings or his parents, it was his teachers at school, and then, of course, the Draft, and a full-time job. But soon he had finished his studies, his siblings grew old, his parents died, the war was put to an end, and John Wayne lost three of his fingers, and consequently his livelihood, when he was thrown from La Muerte Roja at the Omaha Round-up Rodeo, after riding the bull a mere three seconds.

To avoid any questions or queer looks, John Wayne wore a glove most of the time. In the hollow slots he stuffed cotton and pipe cleaner. It wasn’t unusual for John Wayne: reshaping his defects, adding substance to places lacking.

Whenever someone did finally ask – usually a woman he aimed to touch bare-skinned or some asshole who said, Hey what’s with a glove in the summer? – he’d peel back the leather, revealing his lobster-claw hand, and he’d focus on the grotesqueries, the things he thought they’d most want to know, like how his fingers slipped right off – easy as plucking up weeds – or how he didn’t even realize they were gone until after he’d rose up from the dirt, ran across the arena, and scaled the metal fence to get clear of those horns.

They’d found all three fingers still tucked inside his riding glove, still roped to the back of the bull’s neck. They’d thrown them on ice until the doctor said it was no use.

And while John Wayne found it eerie, he also felt a little sad, knowing that his decay had no discernible pain, almost as if he would float away from this world, one molecule at a time, until he was just gone, and he had nothing left to run from. Not even death seemed an occasion to avoid.

 

The Saddle

He was twenty-eight at the time, and with the money he received from the insurance claim, John Wayne bought his girlfriend, Lila, a fancy ring, and with what was left, he purchased a semi-truck – a red-and-black-striped Peterbilt – that his daughter, Dolly (when she came along), liked to call The Ladybug.

Inside the truck, there were two seats in the front. Behind them were shelves for his clothes and a short refrigerator that John Wayne filled with pepper-flecked salami and loaves of white bread. Beyond the refrigerator, within an arm’s reach of the captain’s chair, was the sleeper unit, with its full-sized mattress and a black velvet curtain for when John Wayne desired a little privacy.

At first, he imagined the truck would be their own little adventure – Lila could leave her job at the meat-packing plant (and her studies at the college), and they would listen to Bob Dylan, and live like vagabonds, avoiding all structure save for the painted lines that divide up a road, and of course, the rules of space-time, Lila reminded him – but it was clear that Lila had other ideas, and within a few months, she was pregnant with Dolly, and soon thereafter they were married and mortgaged a house, and John Wayne took to the road alone.

 

The Frontier

Because he had never travelled much – his prior adventures led no farther than the rodeo circuit, places like Branson or Tulsa, cities just as brown and flat as his hometown in Nebraska – John Wayne felt, during his first few weeks on the road, a shift in his head, as if it had been yolked open and fitted with new wires.

He felt an emotion damn near unfamiliar, save for the moments he was riding a bull or a woman, but there it was, a command over himself and his direction, a pride rising up from his throat as he watched the corn fields blur into mountain peaks or marshlands (depending on which coast he was pointed at), and he finally realized, somewhere between the lines of one state or another, that he was still some kind of a cowboy, driving cattle, dead and frozen as they were, across the open land.

 

The Law

As Lila predicted, time still shed away and soon Dolly was born, and even sooner she was rolling, and sitting, and walking, and making words, so that it seemed to John Wayne, each time he emerged from the road, that Dolly was a different person entirely. Even Lila seemed different – a new haircut or a jacket morphed his already wobbly image of her, and John Wayne worried that maybe his perception had been faulty all along. Maybe he didn’t love her any more. Maybe he didn’t love Dolly, even.

To rekindle his homesickness, Lila came up with a plan. While the science behind olfactory recollection was an anomaly to John Wayne, he couldn’t deny that he still remembered his first blowjob any time he smelled buttered popcorn, or that just a sprig of alfalfa would shoot him back on to his childhood farm the day his horse crushed both his femur bones, or that the dry-wiry twine of rope made his entire left hand flare up in pain, so he let Lila, excited as she was to fix him, douse some of her perfume over a washcloth and seal her scent inside a Ziploc bag. She made another of Dolly’s baby talc.

Smell them whenever you miss us, she said. But John Wayne knew what she was up to – she wanted him to smell the rags in order to miss them – and it worked for a month or so, until she’d given him so many scents, even foul ones he had no fondness for, like the musty smell of his bathrobe or the zest of her dirty underwear, that his desire to make it home once a week petered out until he hardly returned at all.

 

The Alibi

For years it continued that way: John Wayne hauled sides of beef from the Midwest down to Los Angeles where he’d drop off the trailer and wait for an outgoing load, one that might lead up to Washington, or Montana, or, if he was really lucky, all the way across the country to New York or Delaware. While he waited, he parked in the same Fresno truck stop, where the showers cost fifty cents, and he had a few friends – waitresses and lot-lizards mostly – who would, from time to time, come out to John Wayne’s truck and help him roll joints or fuck in the sleeper.

His favourite of the lot-lizards was RitaMae, a leathery woman who chain-smoked Kool cigarettes, and liked to listen to John Wayne – whether he had paid her or not – tell his stories of adventure along the road.

Got caught on a blizzard out over the Rockies, snow blowing so hard it looked like static on a TV. Well, I threw them chains down over the tires while those other fuckers parked their rigs off on the side of the road. Sissies. Hell, don’t they know people still need to eat?

RitaMae always had a way of getting John Wayne back on the right track. Call your daughter, she might say around Christmas time. Or, When’s the last time you had something warm in your belly? But he drew the line when she asked him to come over to her house. Asked him to meet her ten-year-old son.

People got different sides they like show, RitaMae. And I like this side of you just fine.

 

The Trap

To his recollection, the last scents of his family began to fade around the same time his marriage to Lila fizzled out, and soon thereafter John Wayne threw all the bags out the driver’s-side window as his semi-truck punched forward, on through the moonless night.

Lila had finished college and gotten a job teaching ‘special learners’ by then, and though he’d never actually met any of Lila’s students, the handicapped kids he’d seen eating in the truck-stop diners or shuffling across the asphalt from a gas station to the back of their parents’ car made him feel a little on guard, as if they were just pretending to be different, and at any moment they could jump out of those bent and boney shells and shout out, You got it all wrong!

(He suspected, as the years went on, that maybe those kids just reminded him of that bitter stage in his life when he lost his family and his home, because it was only after she’d gotten the job teaching that Lila served John Wayne with divorce papers.)

Of course, it didn’t help his opinion of the malformed when the Sunday after he’d signed his name to the last document and he’d called to give Dolly a half-truth about why he’d be missing Thanksgiving, she said she spent her entire morning drawing pictures across her mother’s classroom chalkboard. She did it, she told him, so that when the students arrived Monday morning, they would feel like someone out there, someone other than their parents or their teachers at school, someone who didn’t have to, loved them for being different – Like I love you and your funny fingers, Daddy, she said to him.

 

The Showdown

Now, John Wayne couldn’t have his Dolly thinking he was nothing but his fucked up hand, so he made an arrangement with Lila to take Dolly for a big trip the following summer. John Wayne collected facts he thought he’d use to impress Dolly, like how he’d already driven as many miles as it was to the moon and back, or how the inside of the refrigerated trailer, where slabs of meat hung from chains, seemed like a horror show picture, but Dolly just yawned and said, Daddy, I have to pee.

Problem was, Dolly always had to pee.

And she didn’t care about all the dials and knobs on the dash – twenty-seven to be exact – that John Wayne had to monitor all at once. The transmission fluid, the Jake-brakes, the axle temperature, the motor fluid. She just wanted to know which button was the horn.

Ain’t a button, Dolly, he said. He pulled a cord that looped from the ceiling and the truck bellowed out into the vast yellow light.

Some nights, when he and Dolly were snuggled down in the sleeper, and she was frightened by the sounds of metal banging against metal, he would tell her that it was just the lot-lizards out there making all that racket, going from cab to cab, trying to get inside, and she imagined they were real reptiles – giant beasts who scurried beneath the axles of the trailer – and by the week’s end, she wouldn’t leave the cab of the truck unless it was by piggyback. When he finally told her that a lot-lizard was just a woman trying to make a few dollars, she lost her fear and seemed a little bored.

Problem was, Dolly always seemed bored. Never mind that he showed her the Grand Canyon, and her first palm tree, and the freezing cold ocean. Only thing that seemed to interest her was the CB radio, which he let her pull down when he grew tired of her jabbering at him.

Why do monkeys have four hands? Why can’t people have tails? Where do caterpillars’ souls go? Why can’t I change like that? Daddy, will I change like that? What about shooting stars? Who are they mad at? Why do fingernails grow back, but not fingers?

Go on and give her an answer, RitaMae told him when she came around, but John Wayne just shook his head.

Go on, he told RitaMae. Why don’t you give her an answer?

Honey, what is it you’d most like to know? RitaMae said, smiling toward Dolly.

Dolly bit her lip and thought this over. Are you a lot-lizard? she finally said.

RitaMae narrowed her eyes and turned to John Wayne. I don’t know, Dolly. John Wayne, why don’t you try to tell her? Then she stood up to leave.

 

The End

By the time Dolly was ten, the Peterbilt had over a million miles beneath its wheels – a trip to the moon and back twice over – so John Wayne traded it off for a new one. He sent Dolly a Polaroid of the new black-and-white truck in the mail, but she never replied.

John Wayne continued to haul beef carcasses to the coastlines. He brought crates of oranges and grapes back to the plains. He grew dull to the highways. The varied terrain seemed a stew of plant and rock and steel, but nothing more, nothing ever steamed up in his throat any more.

Before long, he turned soft around the waistline. He’d lost a circle of hair from atop his head. He forgot Lila’s eye color. He forgot Dolly’s age. He stopped calling altogether. He let the Pall Mall’s catch up. He forgot how his hand looked with all its fingers. Or how a breast felt beneath his palm. He forgot the smell of a rodeo or the feel of a bull between his legs. He forgot how Dolly looked as a child. Even more, he failed to imagine her as an adult, and when he could muster out a feature – a jagged tooth or a freckled nose – it was only as a brief worry when a new woman slithered up to his window to ask, after so many miles, if he could use something warm.

 

Photograph courtesy of Michael Coghlan

Detroit, 1966
Letters from One Young Poet to Another