Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Chapter 7


The tectonic plates of Gypsy’s skull shifted and collided, as she rolled over and reached for the nightstand. Her hand felt around the table, then brought the cell phone to her ear. She waited for the voice on the other end.

      “Where the fuck are you?”

      She remained silent.

      “It’s Rick... from the agency. Do you want to explain to me why Paula called this morning to say I need to send a different girl?”

      Jacob opened his eyes, wiped some drool from the corner of his mouth, and sat up in the rocking chair.

      When the voice in the phone stopped shouting at her, she brought it back to her ear. “I had an accident yesterday.”

      “And I’m just hearing about it now? How am I supposed to get another girl up there for tonight? I needed you there yesterday.”

      “I was in the hospital.”

      “Oh.Well.”

      “Why don’t you try Minxy? I think she’s still up here visiting her boyfriend.”

      “Are you going to be OK to work next week?”

     “I told you yesterday that I wasn’t going back to work for a few weeks.” She took a deep breath and set her jaw.

     “Well, it says here that you’re in Calgary next week.”

     “I’ve got a rodeo in Fort Nelson, so I don’t see how that’s possible.”

     “I’ll tell them you’ll be late.”

      She took a deep breath to keep from crying. She couldn’t believe that she actually paid this prick a commission to bully her.

      “I’ll be ready to go back to work toward the middle of September, OK?”

      The phone went quiet. She set it back on the night stand.

      Jacob moved to the edge of the bed, and ran the back of his hand along the unbruised side of her face. It felt good to be touched. It felt good to be touched by him. Too good. She closed her eyes and let the moment linger. “You really want to go back to that?” he asked her.

      “What’s here for me?”

      He walked over to the window and opened the curtains. “How ’bout some breakfast? Get your strength up for fencing today.”

      “I’m still a little queasy.”

      “A cup of coffee and some bacon and eggs will do you good.”

      She swallowed a few times trying to work up enough saliva in her mouth to keep her lips from sticking to her teeth.

      Noticing, Jacob took a glass of water from the nightstand and held it out to her. “Are you up for a little fencing?” he asked.

      “There’s no better cure for a hangover than hard work, except maybe another drink, or clean teeth.” She smiled too broadly, and the top of her lip cracked. She took the glass and quickly drained it, but it did little to stop the feeling she’d become a human raisin.

      “How’s the head? I mean apart from the hangover. You alright to put a few hours in?”

      She was used to him cutting her little slack. She liked that he was being gentle now, but she needed him to just tell her to get off her ass and cowgirl up. Because as long as she treated her like she was tougher than she was, she could believe it to. “I’ll be fine.”

      She pulled her muscular legs out from under the covers. They were nicked and marked with scars. There was a prominent gash along her calve from the time she’d caught the back of her leg with the rowel of her spur, and there were scars from stompings and accidents of all sorts, most recently the drunken bruises she’d acquired the day before. They weren’t all rodeo and drunken mishaps though. Some of the mosaic could be attributed to falling out of trees and off of ponies as a kids. And then there were the scars inflicted on her by others, like the circle branded into her by a misogynistic customer who heated a loonie coin to red hot with his lighter before throwing it at her. But most noticeably, her inner thighs were the colour of a peacock’s tail, black and green from slamming against a bareback rigging. She was a mess. If her agent could see her now, he’d probably drop her on the spot.

      Finding the motivation to leave her room took some time. It was one of those days when all she wanted to do was hide under a blanket. But in Jacob’s world, there was no such thing as a sick day. So she walked out to the kitchen, turned on the tap and held her hand under the faucet until the water ran cold. The glass only made it to half-filled before the need to chug it overcame her patience. She shoved it back under the tap again, emptying it just as quickly again. After several gulps of half-full glasses, her stomach felt bloated, but the thirst had not disappeared.

      She took a seat at the table. Already close to the puking point, her stomach did dangerous double flips at the sight of the greasy eggs nearly sliding off the plate Jacob placed in front of her. She tucked one in a piece of toast and heaped it with bacon, to help it go down. One day maybe she’d have a home of her own and eat healthy things like grapefruit and yogurt and granola. It was a wonder she could maintain her figure when she’d spent the last few years living off cowboy cooking and truck stop food.

      She choked down three quarters of her plate and threw the rest out the door for the dog. Jacob drank his coffee and listened to the weather report on the radio, while she cleaned up the breakfast dishes. With the leftover bacon, she made sandwiches and packed them in a cooler, along with a couple of apples and some bottles of water. Normally, she would have added a few cans of beer, but she felt so rotten, she couldn’t imagine ever wanting a drink again.

*

Fencing sucked, no matter what kind of shape you were in when you did it. She felt better than she had when they started out in the morning, but her head still ached every time she bent over to extract staples from the upturned cuff of her Wranglers. She placed a handful between her teeth and straightened, a little too quickly. The world went fuzzy and she had to steady herself against a fence post.

      “You OK?” Jacob asked.

      She nodded, standing taller, pulled a staple from her mouth, lined it up with the wire, and pounded it into the post.

      “You’re a helluva worker.”

      She spit the handful of staples from her mouth. “Thanks.” Looking to the herd of fat pack animals off in the distance, she added, “You know, I don’t think I know anyone who has more horses than you?”

      “Those aren’t mine. They’re Stella’s.”

      “Stella doesn’t look much like a hunter to me.”

      “She isn’t.”

      “Then why does she need pack horses?”

      “They belonged to her husband. He used to own this place and the chunk across the river, too. She gave me a good deal; on the condition that the horses stayed.

      “What does she think of you fencing off half of their pasture?”

      “Don’t know. She only said they stayed, not what I could do with the land once it was mine. And I need to hay this next year if I’m going to be able to keep up with feeding them.”

      The wind was rising out of the West and the herd dodged and doubled back in cryptic patterns, trying to disperse their scent. Gypsy plucked the top line of wire. “You sure string a tight fence. Just like those damn gates of yours. I can barely open them, let alone close them.”

      Jacob smiled. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

      She laughed, squishing dimples into her freckled cheeks that hurt her black eye. “That’s how it was meant.” Their expressions sobered. As he stepped toward her, she lifted her chin to hold his gaze. He reached out and placed a hand on the nape of her neck.

      The quiet was too much. She turned her head from him and grabbed a bottle of water from off the top of a nearby fence post. Twisting the lid, she stepped back and tipped it to her lips.

      “We’ve got a lot more wire to string. I guess we best get at it,” Jacob said.

      She nodded silently, as the realization settled over her that she had been so chicken shit she’d just missed out on what she wanted most.

      By noon she was cursing herself for not packing beer. It had been a long day and when she finally made it back to the house, she downed her first beer in seconds. She grabbed another can from the fridge and headed back out to the porch where she lit a cigarette. So Cody was back in town. Jacob had said so. She wondered what would happen if she ran into him. It had been months since she’d seen him, and she was thankful for it, though she missed the good old days, when it was her and Cody, and Jim and Riley. Who knew it would all end up this way when they first walked into her life?

      “I’m done in the shower,” Jacob called through the screen door, “if you’d like to get cleaned up now. And thanks for your help today.”

      “No problem. I’ll be in, in a minute.” She finished her beer and headed back for the fridge, where she grabbed another can.

      What had it been about Cody that had attracted her so much? He was short and not too much to look at, but he had that wildness in his eyes. She took a sip of her beer and smiled remembering the first time she saw him.

      “Hey doll, can we get some service over here?” he’d called out.

      “Yeah, just a second,” she’d answered.

      He had held his eyes on her so intensely, it had set her on fire. She’d struggled to finish taking the order at the table next to his, but it was a discomfort she could get used to.

      Fidgeting with the pencil in her hand, she turned her attention back to his table. “Ok boys, what would you like?”

      “You,” Cody replied blatantly.

      “I’m not on the menu.”

      “You should be,” Jim said, tipping back his cowboy hat.

      Cody smiled at her with a look that left no doubt what he was thinking. “I haven’t seen you around before. New to town?”

      “Yeah, sort of. I came up here to work in the oil patch, but now that it’s spring break-up and things are slow, I figured I’d waitress a bit.”

      “You didn’t want to just collect EI? Go back and see your boyfriend or your family or something?” Cody asked her.

      “No. I don’t have much of either. And I’d just as soon work.”

      “Where you from?” asked the third cowboy, putting away his phone to join the conversation.

      “Rimbey.”

      “Really?” he said lowering his menu. “My father’s from Hobbema, but I mostly grew-up out on the Halfway.” His brown eyes had caught the light at that moment, twinkling with friendliness. He was the “nice guy” of the group, she thought as she studied his face, trying to pick out which features looked more Dane-zaa and which more Cree. Definitely more Cree, she thought.

      “Hobbema? No way. I used to barrel race as a kid there sometimes.”

      Cody bolted upright in his chair. “Rodeo?” He leaned around to check out the back pockets of her jeans. “Wranglers. And don’t I love me a cowgirl.”

      “Well, I don’t do it anymore. What I’m really dying to do is ride bareback.”

      Jim grinned, bearing a mouth full of tobacco stained teeth. “Well, we can help you with that.”

      She rolled her eyes.

      “What he means,” said Riley, the one she had pegged as the nice guy, is that we ride rough stock.” He pointed back and forth between himself and Cody. “Well, I did. I gave it up last year. Cody here will probably ride into the old folks home.”

      “And you?” she asked Jim.

      “He’s the clown.” Cody laughed.

      “Bullfighter.” Jim corrected.

      Cody reached up and grabbed on to her shirt sleeve. “So when do you get off. We just got out of camp ourselves and we’re hittin the town to celebrate.”

      Charlie looked at the clock. “About an hour.”

      “Great.”

      She wrote down their orders in the best chicken scratch she could manage with a shaking hand. These guys looked like a heck of a lot of fun. And there was just something about the little one, she assumed was a bull rider, though he hadn’t said exactly what he rode.

      “That perfume you’re wearing,” Riley said, stopping her as she was about to walk away, “what is it?” He was much taller, with broad shoulders and long legs. Probably a saddle bronc rider.

      “It’s called, Forgotten Dream,” she answered.

      He nodded his head a few times, inhaling deeply. “It reminds me of sweet grass.”

      She knit her brow, unsure what to make of a comment like that.

      “I mean, it has a kind of vanilla smell.” His lips spread into a crisp genuine smile.

      “Well, I don’t know about that, Black Bull” said Cody, “but she certainly smells good enough to eat.”

      “It’s not Black Bull,” Riley corrected, as if it had been his thousandth time, and he expected to have to do so again another thousand times. “It’s Red Calf. Riley Red Calf.” He extended a hand for her to shake.

      “I’m Cody,” the little one said, taking her hand and stealing the show effortlessly, with a gentle kiss on her hand.

      “Jim,” said the other one, but he was so far off her radar at that moment, it barely registered.

      She walked away elated with the sensation of being appreciated as a woman again after a long winter of overalls and a hard hat.

      Three days later she was on her first bronc, and in two weeks she had moved in with Cody, travelling down the road with the guys, rodeoing and picking up scraps of oil patch work, here and there. It had all been a dream come true.


      Yeah, that was a lifetime ago. And look at her now. She set the empty can of beer on the bathroom counter and stepped into the shower. She soaped up her legs and reached for the razor. No. She couldn’t shave her legs. If she did, it would be one less barrier between her and Cody, should she see him in town later. But she was unwilling to let her armpits and her nether regions go. She placed a foot on a shower shelf and ran the razor carefully between her legs. She tried to imagine herself at eighty; contorting her body to get those tricky places. By then she’d be saggy and probably have a moustache and mole with foot long tentacles sprouting out of it. Who’d give a crap about shaving then? She wasn’t eighty though, so she surrendered her leg hair. There was nothing that could make her be as stupid as to take that jerk back. Besides, the banged up face was probably barrier enough on its own.

      She dried her hair and put on some lipstick. There wasn’t much point in putting any other make-up on.

      “Heading out now?” Jacob asked her, as she passed by the living room where he was lounging on the couch, watching an old black and white movie.

      “Oh, The Misfits,” said Gypsy. “That’s one of my favourite movies.” She looked at the clock. It was only seven. Nothing much would be happening in town yet, so she grabbed a beer for herself and one for Jacob, and sat down beside him, leaning comfortably against him in the familiar way they so often let their bodies be familiar with each other, without being sexual.

      It was dark when she woke up to Jacob covering her with a blanket. “Oh, that’s OK,” she said. I’ll just go to bed.”

      “You must have been tired. You didn’t go out tonight. That’s a first.”

      “It was actually nice to just stay in and hang out.” She ran a hand through her tussled hair.

      “Did I tell you that Stella is flying in, in the morning? Maybe you guys could go for a ride together, get to know each other better. I think she’d like that. You’re actually a lot alike, you two.”

      She wasn’t sure how to respond to pressure that she cozy up with his sugar mama. “No, I didn’t know she was coming. Yeah, maybe. Sounds good.” It didn’t. “I’ll see you in the morning.” She wobbled to the bedroom and turned on the lamp and the radio. She hated to sleep alone in a dark room.

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