Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Chapter 2



The week before

     She woke with that same oh-my-god-is-this-really-my-life feeling that she had most mornings. Usually she’d fight it by throwing a long t-shirt on over her naked body and crawling into bed with Jacob, letting him hold her until she felt enough strength to face the day.
      Well, not today. Not after he’d gone and brought Cherry Hills home with him.

    She pulled on her jeans and a white button down cotton shirt she’d hijacked from him. Through the walls Cherry Hills was emitting a sound that was like a sharp jagged rasp across the skull, and Gypsy had to get the hell away from it. She grabbed her pack of cigarettes off the night stand, pushed her hat down on her head, and took her boots under her arm. The screen door slammed loudly behind her, not that Jacob or Cherry could have heard it. Jacob’s Catahoula stock dog, Louie, met her on the porch brushing against her and nearly upset her as she pushed her bare feet into her boots.

     The chickens needed feed and water, so she headed out to the coop and topped them up with cracked wheat and clam shells, then used the garden hose to fill their buckets. Then she hauled the hose back to house and sprayed down her flowerbeds. Thistles and quack grass sprouted up between the marigolds and tiger lilies. Long gone was all of that enthusiasm she’d had back in the spring when she’d worked the ground up and planted them with so much care.

     Jacob and Cherry came out of the house, all cutesy and hand in hand. Cherry squealed a fake giggle that revealed a line of red lipstick on her teeth. “Hey girl, hope we didn’t keep you up last night.”

      Gypsy gave a half smile from under her hat and turned her eyes away.

      “Mornin,” said Jacob.

      Gypsy was silent.

      “See you’re watering the weeds,” he teased.

      A rainbow fanned across the spray from the garden hose and Gypsy counted the colours in it. Red, orange, yellow... She let the pause grow awkward.

      “Well Jake,” said Cherry, “I’ve got first show today, so we better get going.”

      “Yeah,” Gypsy added without looking at either of them, “you better get going.”

      The truck engine faded out there somewhere on the gravel road to town, and she let the nozzle go and threw the hose to the ground. Damn weeds. A sprawling network of vines had entrenched themselves beneath the soil. She dropped to her knees and started clawing at the wet dirt, cursing the fact she’d let it get so bad. After an hour, she figured it was pointless. She’d have to dig up the whole bed and start over again next year.

      But then, she wasn’t going to be here next year.

      Defeated, she took a seat on the front step. Her dirty hands left a dark smudge on the white shirt pocket, as she pulled out a cigarette. A jet plane flew overhead and she watched it make its way to somewhere South. It disappeared behind a wisp of cloud, as she lit the cigarette. She leaned against the wall, letting it dangle from her mouth.

      The brim of her black Stetson, dotted with time worn mauve, flopped low over her eyes casting a shadow across her nose. Jacob was always on her to get a new hat. He hated it. He hated it, because it was sentimental and he couldn’t understand sentimentality beyond his own. He hated it because he couldn’t understand what it meant to her.
      There were a lot of things he didn’t understand about her.

      She held her left hand out in front of her face. It was always bruised now and permanently bent in odd ways. She turned it over and looked at the big raw hole on the side of her pinkie, red even through a layer of dirt. The only thing feminine about her hands were their size, not like Cherry who had those ridiculously long painted dagger nails, or Stella who had those perfectly lady like French manicured fingers. Guys liked those kinds of hands, not busted up bronc rider hands. Cody complained her hands were too rough when she touched him. She’d applied a million different creams and lotions trying to please him, but there was no cure for the calluses.

      There was no pleasing most people. And she figured she’d be much better off if she could just get that through her thick head. Easier said than done.

      She took the cigarette from her mouth and spit on the finger next to her pinkie. Laughing as she wiped a clean band around it. Finding humour in how odd it looked.

      In the distance Jacob’s diesel grumbled toward home. She quashed out her cigarette and smeared over the white strip around her left ring finger. She picked up a horseshoe nail from a pail on the porch and began prodding the dirt irritably from under her fingernails. He was back from town sooner than she expected. Not even time for breakfast with his new sweet heart. Jake was all class, she thought, drawing a thin line of extracted muck across a thigh of her faded Wranglers.

       Louie ran out from under a tree, yipping and chasing the truck up the driveway. The engine fell silent and she heard the door thunk shut. She wished she was as invisible as the shadow of a ghost hidden beneath her hat. She wasn’t in any mood for conversation.

      Jacob sat down beside her on the steps and she shrank closer to the wall. “Well now, that was one heck of a little lady,” he said. “Put a smile back on an old man’s face.”

      “I’ll bet,” she answered. She was also willing to bet that the guy in the last town said the same thing, and the one in the next would be saying it too.

      “If you poke yourself with that,” he said pointing at the horseshoe nail in Gypsy’s hand, “you’re gonna have to get a shot in the rear.”

      She tilted her chin and gave him an icy sideways glare with her blue eyes. “So what? I’m already sitting with a pain in the ass.” Jacob scrunched his crow’s feet sympathetically. The expression repulsed her. “I’ve already got a father, thanks.”

      He lifted his ball cap, squinted against the sun and brushed a large hand across the bristles of his grey hair. “Well, at least you’re talking to me now. That’s an improvement over the silent treatment I got this morning. What’s up? Talk to me?”

      Talk? It was a little late now.

      She watched him tense, stopping himself from reaching out to her. “Level with me. I don’t get it. What’d I do?”

      Unfolding her tall lean body, she stood erect and placed her hands on her hips. “That’s just it. You don’t even know.”

      “Sorry, did Cherry and I make a little too much noise last night?” A blush rose on his face.

      She set her jaw.

      “Is that why you’re sore?”

      “You have to ask?”

      “Whoa. I guess you don’t care for her too much, eh? She told me you guys had a bit of a run in back in Winnipeg.”

      “She’s a crack slut.”

      “When a man gets to be my age, any loving is good loving, especially from a young filly like that.”

      “If that’s the case, I know a whole lot more crack sluts I can hook you up with.” She threw the horseshoe nail on the ground and turned on the heel of her cowboy boot. Clouds of dust sprang from under her angry Laredos as she tromped her way to the barn, disappearing into the dark opening.

      A saddle was perched awkwardly on her hip when she stepped out again into the blinding light. Jacob held the horseshoe nail tightly in his hand, a look of bewilderment on his face. When he noticed Gypsy, he shoved the nail into his pocket and moved toward her.

      Averting her eyes, she pretended not to notice his approach.

      “What am I thinking?” he muttered to himself, stopping in his tracks. “It’s not worth it.”

      “You’re right,” she shouted at him. “I’m not worth it.”

      “You?” he asked.

      “Yeah, me.” Christ, she thought, I’m not even thirty and I’m sitting around here waiting on him. It was past time to move on.

      “I’m sorry. You know I appreciate everything you do, right?”

      “Of course.” Out of all of his women: Stella, Cherry, the others, she seemed to be the only one sticking around to cook his meals and do his laundry. But she wasn’t good enough to replace a one of them. If she went back out on the road she could be making twice what he paid her and her heart wouldn’t be in the shape it was. “Sorry boss. Carry on fucking whoever you like.”

      “Excuse me, but it’s none of your business who I’m sleeping with.”

      “Like I said, carry on.” She fought with the gate latch, until it came free.

      “Why does it matter to you, anyway?”

      The gate swung shut and she dropped the saddle onto its side without bothering to answer. A big old rez bred mountain horse plodded toward her, lowering his oversized head submissively. She caressed the long white blaze that ran down his nose. “Hey boy,” she cooed. “How’s the only man I’ve ever loved?” She slipped a rope halter over the blood bay’s head and tied a knot near the top of his jaw, then swung the cumbersome saddle up and settled it on his back. “Let’s go work off some of this fat,” she kidded, using the same overly-reassuring tone fighting parents used to address their children. “How’d you like to go for a ride, hey Bonney?”

      Jacob scratched his head. “Is this about…” He choked on the last word. Hooking a thumb in his belt loops, he tried again, “Is this about us?”

      Yeah, he was real clever.

      Bonney trailed behind Gypsy as she crossed the yard to the old farm truck. She opened the door and reached behind the seat, rooting through the refuse of a month’s worth of MacDonald’s take-out and a couple of cases of empty Pilsner cans. She could sense Jacob’s eyes on her, watching from the safety of the tailgate. Holding her breath, she waited for him to give her crap again about the mess she’d made of the truck.

      He was silent; a caricature of himself leaned there in a Steve McQueen stance, staring at her reflectively, his belly bulging slightly over his belt. She wondered if he knew that. If he knew that he wasn’t the hot shit he still thought he was. She figured maybe she’d tell him one of these days.

      “So, is this about us?” he finally asked again.

      She pretended not to hear the question. How could he be so thick? Is this about us? What the hell did he think she stuck around for? She could be back down the road any minute she chose. She didn’t need this crappy job. She didn’t need to be back in this crappy town with all its shit memories.

      Coming across the brown paper bag she’d been looking for she clamped a hand around it and pulled it from behind the seat.

      Jacob furrowed his brow and looked away. “What’s going on here?” he asked without meeting her eyes.

     “That’s what I’d like to know?” She paused a long time, as if she expected an answer. None came. She unbuckled the strap of the saddle bag and tucked the brown package into it.

      Louie darted from beneath the truck sending Bonney skittering a couple of inches, his front left hoof and a good portion of his weight landing on her foot.

      “Son-of-a-bitch!” she cried heaving against his colossal body. Bonney shifted his mass and lifted his hoof.

      Jacob came up to her and took hold of her trembling shoulders. “Maybe we should talk about this. If I’ve given you the wrong impression here, I’d like to sort it out.”

      He hadn’t given her the wrong impression. Well, maybe for a second way back when he’d first asked her to come home with him. But then dawn had found them both on the front steps, drunk on black market Hutterite wine, with a million stories passed between them, but not so much as a kiss. Some days she figured it was just waiting on that kiss, proving that she could draw it from his lips that kept her around more than anything else. Waiting on that kiss had mattered so much she couldn’t even remember if she really even liked him anymore or not.

      Shrinking beneath his touch, she pulled away from his hand. “No. It’s clear.”

      She hiked her good foot into the stirrup, grabbed a chunk of mane and swung her leg over the saddle.

      The screen door slammed, as her firm buttocks hit the smooth leather of the saddle.



*

      Jacob would never know all the things she needed him to know about her, and he’d only ever be capable of understanding very little, still that didn’t stop her from wanting to tell him. But the stories were like the sparks—a very brief light that appeared once in the cloud of a drunken night, and then died quickly away.

      She had things she needed to tell him. She’d needed him last night. To talk. OK, so it had only been just a glimpse. Gypsy couldn’t even be sure that it was the red headed cowboy she’d seen the night before. He’d been driving in the opposite direction, his face illuminated only by the dim glow of a street light, but an ancient instinct had told her, it was him. The traffic light had held her back and by the time it turned green and she could get the truck turned around the street was empty. She’d driven around town searching bar and hotel parking lots with no luck. But as drunk as she was she was sure it had been the redheaded cowboy—the one who hung around in the dark corners of the impenetrable places where a girl could hold out anyone, but a ghost.

      The porch light had been a beacon. She’d managed to make it home without losing her mind, knowing Jacob would be inside, maybe even waiting up for her. She’d been sweating and shaking with anger, so bursting with it all she had to let it, to tell someone, to tell Jacob. But when she’d opened the door she was slapped in the face with the screaming bedroom theatrics of Cherry Hills.

      He wouldn’t have understood anyway. Fuck. She’d grabbed a warm beer and carried it out to the porch.

      A distraction. That’s what she needed. She flipped through the hundred and some odd numbers on her phone, but couldn’t see herself pressing send on any of them. She dropped it in her lap and cracked the beer.

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