Nod is a miner. He has long dark hair and owns probably a hundred different pairs of overalls; he likes to go dancing in cowboy bars. Because he weighs about two hundred pounds and is no taller than I am – about 5’ 4” in my bare feet – the sight of Nod, dancing, has been known to arouse the kind of indignation in the hearts of cowboys that, in New Mexico, can be dangerous to the arouser. Cowboys in slanting hats – not only their Stetsons, in fact, but often their eyes are slanting, and the dark cigarettes stuck in one corner of their mouths, the ash lighting only with the brief, formal intake of each breath – watch Nod dancing with the slight contemptuous smiles with which they slice off a bull calf’s genitals on hot afternoons in July. The genitals themselves are like plums buried in soft pouches made of cat’s fur; if you are not quick with the small curved knife the scrotum slides between your fingers, contracting against the calf’s ermine-slick black belly, the whites of its eyes almost phosphorescent with fear. The cowboys, with what seems to me an unnecessary lack of tact, often feed the remains to the chickens. Sometimes, living in the desert, you understand the need for an elaborate code of ritual laws; without them, the desert makes you an accomplice in all kinds of graceless crimes. They are not even crimes of passion – they are crimes of expediency, small reckonings made on the spur of the moment before the white chickens boil around the rim of the bloody, dented bucket.
‘Want to go dancing?’ Nod says. It is still early and he has just called. I stare at the picture on the wall by the phone: my ex-husband, standing up to his knees in a stream, holding a trout. In the picture my husband is wearing a dark T-shirt and the water in the stream is the colour of iodine. Only the trout is silver. ‘That job came through,’ Nod says. ‘The one in Texas, you remember? It put me in a bad mood. I want to go sweat out my anguish in a dim-lit bar. And it’s Saturday night and you’re a lonely woman with love on her mind. Come with me. You’ve got nothing else to do.’
I pause. It is true, I’m not doing anything else: on the television in the other room a long-haired Muppet with a quizzical expression is banging on a black toy piano with a toy hammer. My ex-husband is in Oregon. The trout, when he had opened it, was full of beautiful parallel bones. I was amazed by the transparency of the bones, and the fact that they had been laid down so perfectly inside the fish, lining the silvery gash of its intestines. My husband was pleased that I was taking such an interest in the trout; ‘This is an art,’ he said. He showed me the tiny minnow he had found, perfectly whole, inside the belly cavity. The minnow had tiny, astonished eyes. I wanted to put it in water. He refused. He wrapped it in a scrap of newspaper and threw it away. ‘It was dead,’ he told me. When he finally called me from Oregon, I could hear a woman singing in the background. My husband pretended it was the radio.
Nod waits a moment longer. ‘Come on,’ he says, ‘I already told you I’m in a bad mood. I don’t want to wait around on the phone all night.’
‘Why are you in a bad mood?’ I counter. ‘Most people would be in a good mood if their job had just come through.’
‘Coal mining always puts me in a bad mood,’ Nod says. ‘Now get dressed and let’s go to the Line Camp. I’ll be at your house in twenty minutes.’
I hang up the phone and go into the other room to get dressed, pulling on my Calvin Klein jeans while the long-haired Muppet sings The Circle Song.
The cowboys, leaning against the left-hand wall as you go in, look you over with the barest movement of the eye, the eyelid not even contracting, the pupil dark through the haze of cigarette smoke, the mouth downcurved, the silent shifting of the pelvis against the wall by which one signals a distant quickening of erotic possibility. The band is playing Whisky River. My white buckskin cowboy boots – I painted the roses myself, tracing the petals from a library book – earn me a measure of serious consideration, the row of Levi-shaded pelvises against the wall swivelling slightly (they can swagger standing still, for these are the highest of their art, O men) as I go by, the line of cigarettes flicking like the ears of horses left standing in the rain, movement for the sake of movement only. The cowboys stand, smoking, staring out at the dance floor. Everyone who comes in has to pass by them. My hair has been brushed until it gleams, my lips are dark with costly gels. I pay my five dollars. Nod follows me. He pays his five dollars. The man at the card table, collecting the money, has curly sideburns that nearly meet under his chin. He whistles under his breath, so softly I can’t tell whether it is Whisky River or something else. He keeps the money in a fishing-tackle box, quarters and dimes in the metal compartments which should have held coiled line, tiny amber flies. The cowboys shift uneasily against the wall. Nod graces them with a funereal sideways miner’s glance, the front of his overalls decorated with an iron-on sticker of Mickey Mouse, giving the peace sign. There is one like it on the dashboard of his jeep. Nod is nostalgic for Mickey Mouse cartoons, which I do not remember. Fingers in their jeans, the cowboys watch us like the apostles confronted with the bloody, slender wrists: horror, the shyest crease of admiration, hope.
In Nod’s arms I feel, finally, safe: a twig carried by lava, a moth clinging to the horn of a bull buffalo. Nod, you see, thinks I am beautiful – a beautiful woman – and that in itself is an uplifting experience. Nod is, for the most part, oddly successful with women; he has been married twice, both times to women you would think, if not beautiful, at least strikingly good-looking. Nod faltered through his second divorce, eking out his unemployment with food stamps, too depressed to look for work. He listened to Emmylou Harris records day and night in his bare apartment; his second wife had taken everything, even the Aloe vera. In the end, Nod says, it was Defying Gravity that saved him. He had the sudden revelation that there were always other women, deeper mines; he got dressed for the first time in months and sent a résumé to Peabody Coal. Peabody Coal, Nod claims, knows how to appreciate a man who has a way with plastic explosives. Don’t they use dynamite anymore? I asked him. Nod grinned. Dynamite, he said, is the missionary position of industrial explosives; some men won’t try anything else. He described the way explosives are placed against a rock face; in the end it often comes down to a matter of intuition, he said. You just know where it should go. Now, in the half-dark of the Line Camp dance floor, Nod is not unattractive. I imagine him closing his eyes, counting. (Do they still count?) No matter how many times you have seen it before, Nod says, when you see rock explode it still surprises you.
He holds me tightly, we move around the floor.