ONE NIGHT NEAR TEXAS
The cowboy sat up and shuddered. Again she wasn’t with him, his tent bigger and brighter than that room. In here his body felt unhelpful. He shook his boots from the ground and pulled them on. He stepped out.
His fellow cowboys, their tents, the fire, the herd—?all slumping at the bottom of the bowl of night. The way-off mountains wiped out. Burned Down Dan, who never had a tent, just a guitar, slept drunk before the fire, his guitar tucked like a tied-up bedroll between his blistered arms and chin.
The cowboy stared at that guitar, at the fire’s hard flicker in its polish, and wondered why he’d woken up. He wondered why he was here instead of with her in that room. The air smelled enough like rain to make him think it might, but the sky wasn’t having it.
He stole Burned Down Dan’s guitar from Burned Down Dan’s arms.
He crouched inside his tent and taught himself to play.
His fingers stumbled. The tent around him sucked smaller.
MANY NIGHTS NEAR TEXAS
He played. Even when he didn’t, he did. His playing wasn’t only in his head. His playing was all over.
When he played outside himself, with fingers and strings and frets, he made it sound like there were four guitars showing up inside the one, and all four were loners, loners yoked into a team, a team that listened to itself and got on well with other folks and animals and any kind of nighttime sky.
His fellow cowboys stayed awake to listen on account of how sleeping meant missing out on what his music had them feeling. They never said much, just sat there on their bedrolls trying not to look too lonesome, their faces crossed with firelight, their jaws working jerky and tobacco and fingernails and knives. Who knew what was worked in their hearts.
Something, because the cowboy’s playing never failed to magnetize: men and women alike would bend, favoring his direction, and when he stopped, they wouldn’t be sneaky about it, they’d sidle right over and find reasons to touch his body—?slaps on the back and slugs to the arm, handshakes, hugs, kisses. Always friendly.
What he found curious about all of this was this: when they touched him after an evening of playing, he couldn’t feel their bodies. It was like his skin was double-thick, deadened, and asleep. He couldn’t feel anything except an aching to be feeling his music touching him.
He knew his music would never be a body but he played it nonetheless.
Called, horseman cowboy clops over to old man foreman like he isn’t.
Old man foreman, the range boss, dying for days on a dirty blanket, he squints way up at horseman cowboy, saying, “Horseman cowboy, don’t none of us know just how you came to be, where or what you from. All we know is what you know. All man, all horse. Oats and beef, hay and steaks, mares and whores. The range, the range, the range, but always bumping plumb into a border.”
Horseman cowboy, ten feet tall from hoof to head, big chin set and big arms crossed, he looks way out westward over blistered land, saying, “Sure is so.”
“Top cutter, pegger, roper,” says old man foreman, “no saddle and no spurs and no bridle needed, clear-footed, with bottom. Every day we say it: you your own mount.”
The other ranch hands, hats off, young and sun-crusted, flanking old man foreman, they nod like they’re at church and sorry.
Old man foreman rolly-eyes how he rolly-eyes when he’s talking scripture.
“Your face, your chest, your arms,” he shouts, “they nailed to the center of a compass the points of which are white man, black man, brown man, red man! Your withers, your back, your croup, they nailed to the center of a compass the points of which are saddlebred, quarter, appaloosa, mustang!”
One by one the ranch hands drop their eyes to their boots in shamed awe.
Horseman cowboy, iron-shoed and woolen-shirted, bearded, the skin of his man-body sunned, the coat of his horse-body coarse, he looks way out eastward over scabby land, saying, “So?”
“The men,” says old man foreman, wringing the dirtiest ends of the dirty blanket, “my men, me, us, we look to you and can’t be other than sure you’re so. To see you with so much already, and so done with it? It makes a man feel small and foul inside. It makes a man grip to things he ain’t so sure he believes, to believe in the gripping, the gripping-to.”
Horseman cowboy says, “I’m a-going.”
“What all’s wrong with you is you can’t see what all’s right with you,” says old man foreman.
Horseman cowboy drill-pisses into the dry grass.
The ranch hands watch the golden frothing in a state of holy wonder.
Old man foreman flings a canteen, screaming, “Catch some up, boys, and quick—?it just might save my dying life!”
Horseman cowboy rears and goes.
Horseman cowboy fucks a horse, a donkey, a mule—he kick-smashes trees and boulders and hills—?he bellows black rage to a moonless star-pricked sky—?
Educated circus man, fat and wily, cane-waving, strolling through the stinking air of his biggest big-top tent, he says to horseman cowboy in a brightly painted voice, “Homo Equinus Gladitorius! The Four-Footed Bridge Between Barbarism and Civilization, Between Bestial Animal Appetite and Elevated Human Refinement! Behold: the Celebrated Incelibate Centaur!”
Horseman cowboy stands still, his big face blank.
Educated circus man presents to horseman cowboy a copper-painted tin helmet, a copper-painted tin breastplate, and a copper-painted tin spear. He smiles a smile that says more than the crooked mouth that makes it.
The other circus acts—?acrobats and animal tamers, sword swallowers and fire-eaters, dwarves and giants, freaks of a physical, foreign, ...