Last year, I was contacted by a group of international humor/humour writers, asking me to participate in a collection of comedic tales. That collection, TRUE WIT, has now been published. Priced at 99 cents, it is a great opportunity to sample some other writers of comedy, as well as read a new short story of mine. Click on the cover to buy.
I don't often write short stories, but I'm being a bit more active with them these days.
Here is the story that won the Texas Short Story Writers Contest in 2018. It's not my standard yuck-em-up tale; I wrote it in my self-described "death" period, when I was doing a number of tales about death in its various aspects. Fun stuff, huh? I like this story, though, because I got to use a different, non-linear narrative style. I hope you enjoy it.
With the sun at his back, the cowboy urges his horse forward. He is sore from the ride.
But the cowboy smiles, and pats the flank of Buddy, the palomino he rides. He likes his work, even if the days are long and hard.
They have been together three years now, he and Buddy, and the cowboy thinks of the horse as his, though of course that’s not so. The ranch owns him. Owns the saddle too.
But that won’t be forever. The cowboy saves his money to buy Buddy from the ranch. Then he and Molly will get married, settle down, have children.
The cowboy pushes back the brim of his Stetson. Perspiration has crept upward from behind the hatband, staining the felt. He wipes his brow on his sleeve.
Though young still, he is one of the last of his breed. Country is giving way to city; the horse defers to the automobile. The open range is a thing of the past, gone before he was born, vivisected by leagues of cruel wire. Yet day after day he rides, paralleling the fence, looking for damage, maintaining the barbs on which the Old West will meet its death.
The old man pushed the black mower through the opening in the chain link fence then closed the gate behind him. He knelt beside the machine, though his stiff joints protested, unlatched the handle and with both hands began to crank it clockwise. When he could do no more, he folded up the handle. His thumb, wide, flat, as if the years like a hammer had pounded on it, rested against the starter. He looked at the nail. Weathered white, cracked like dry wood. With a sigh, he released the catch. The Tecumseh two-stroke sputtered feebly, coughed then rumbled to an idle. Putt … Putt …
The old man pursed his lips. putt … putt … he mimicked. putt, putt, putt …
Kill yer engine, partner, said the gas jockey, as he removed the cap from the automobile fuel line. And put out that cigar! Wanna cause an explosion?
The driver smirked. Sure thing, grease monkey, he said, throwing the cigar out the window of his glossy black Model T. The stogie rolled a foot before coming to rest against the attendant’s cowboy boot. Cursing under his breath, he stomped out the cigar.
Hate this job. And these damn automobiles. For my money, a horse is the only way to get around.
For my money. Poor Buddy.
Buddy was dead. Pulled up lame before the cowboy could buy him.
After he and Molly got married, she made him quit the ranch. He took the only job in town that let him work outside, but the stench of hydrocarbons was a poor substitute for country air.
Here’s your change.
The driver started the engine and drove off, leaving the cowboy choking on a black cloud of exhaust. Putt … putt …
Phtht! The mower sounded the raspberry and died.
The old man rubbed the back of his neck. Woozy. Looked behind him. Half the grass of the back yard was neatly cut. Did I do that?
Too hot to mow today, anyway. He pulled the brim of his ancient Stetson lower over the thick lenses of his glasses. Pushing the mower was almost beyond his strength, but the smell of the fresh-cut grass was pleasant, reminding him he was outdoors, alive. He preferred being outside. Always had.
At least I’m makin’ myself useful.
Been hard since Ruby died, livin’ here in her daughter’s house—her daughter, not mine. But can’t make it on my own. Ruby’s money’s gone. Only got my pension check. Least that’s mine, thank God. And Roosevelt.
As tiny as the check was, he had a hard time spending it all. James and Marybeth wouldn’t let him pay rent or even help with the groceries. He hated that. Made him feel like a freeloader. Just like in the Depression.
So what if you ain’t got a job? they said. A man only needs three hots and a flop to get by. Take ‘em and be grateful. Dignity don’t fill the stomach.
The old man frowned. Same damn thing all over again.
So he bought things for the two boys. Mowed the lawn when they let him. Repaired the chain-link fence.
The sound of the mower was drowned out by the roar of jet engines. The old man craned his neck upwards.
The Blue Angels. Heard they were comin’.
He watched them blast heavenward, marking the sky with white exhaust, ripping the fabric of sound with supersonic speeds. They broke formation, and he tried to follow the path of one that soared for the sun, but the glare blinded him.
From the trenches, he watched the fly-boys draw invisible circles in the sky. The hot-shots gunned for each other in awkward contraptions, invented barely fifteen years earlier. He was sure he’d never ride in one.
He had said the same thing about cars.
War came. Though nearly thirty, he enlisted, against Molly’s wishes. It was his duty. He was called doughboy, soldier, Yank. But in his heart, he remained a cowboy.
He did not see much action, and a day came when the sound of exploding bombs was replaced by bells pealing peace. Armistice Day.
War will never come like this again.
Red, yellow, black spots hung in the air. He blinked. Took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes.
GRANDPA! YOU ALL RIGHT?
Slowly, as if he waded in molasses, the old man turned in the direction of the voice. Jimmy, Marybeth’s oldest, stood on the porch. YOU WANT A BEER?
The old man swallowed thickly. Yea … yeah. Good. Sounds good.
He killed the engine and walked over to the porch, settling heavily on the steps. Jimmy had a queer look on his face as he handed his grandfather a beer.
YOU’RE ALL PALE LOOKING!
I’m fine, boy. Thanks for the beer. You go on inside.
Cold. Feels good going down. Really hits the spot.
He swished the beer around in his mouth. Standing up from the bar stool, he staggered to the door.
When he came home from the war, Molly was gone, run off with another cowboy. He got drunk for a month then looked for a job. The ranch wasn’t hiring—its owners had found oil beneath the range and had gone into a more lucrative and modern line of work—so the cowboy went back to the gas station. Time passed, and Model A’s began to replace the T’s.
YOU WANT SOME COMPANY?
The old man looked up from his beer, a far-away look in his eyes.
GRANDPA! IT’S ME.
Reluctantly the eyes came back into focus. Oh. Bobby. You. Need? Need somethin’?
The eight-year-old plopped down on the step above him. In his hands was a peanut butter sandwich.
THOUGHT I’D COME SIT WITH YOU. He held the sandwich up to the old man. WANT A BITE?
Crappy smell, peanut butter. Hate the stuff.
After World War II, he took Ruby back to the town of his youth, where he got a job in a factory that processed peanuts. The drone of goober machinery finished the job on his ears that World War I bombs and the rat-a-tat-tat of construction drills had started. Though he washed and salted peanuts faithfully for ten years, a day came when management said he was too old and deaf to keep around.
But at least he had Ruby.
Ruby. Best thing I ever did was marry her. She was always so strong. Stronger than me. My lucky day when I met her in the shipyard.
The Second World War. The Great Betrayal. They said we wouldn’t have to go through it again. They were wrong.
And we won’t come back ‘til it’s over, over there.
He tried to enlist again—it was his duty—but they wouldn’t take him. Too old. So he spent the war years working in a shipyard with women and with other men too old or sick to fight. They made him a riveter because of his construction experience in the Depression.
He attempted everything in those lean years, migrant farming, riding the rails, standing in long bread lines. He went to California. Came back. Tried the cities. Gave them up.
Who am I? What am I to do?
To thine own self be true.
Who said that?
Hold on. Hold on to who you think you are. All you got. All you ever had.
So always he wore his Stetson.
Roosevelt. The cowboy was for him. So what if he’s rich, and a cripple? I believe him. He’ll help the common man.
And he did. The cowboy spent the rest of the Depression building great stone bridges across rivers. The work was hard, but honest, and he felt like he was earning his keep again. No more handouts for me. Never again. Have my pride back. Can hold my head up again.
Ruby was a riveter too.
Ya sure look cute in yer hard hat.
You’re not so bad looking yourself.
‘Bout my age, maybe a little younger. A widow. Got grown children, six of ‘em.
Some were fighting in Italy, some in Guadalcanal. Some were home raising babies, hoping to see their husbands again.
Don’t know why she wants to marry me. Maybe she’s lookin’ for someone to take care of her. Or why I wanna marry her, after what Molly did to me.
WHAT’RE YOU THINKING ABOUT, GRANDPA?
But they both took a chance, and it worked out.
While working in the shipyard, the cowboy began to lose his hearing.
They spent their declining years in a little rent house, not far from the peanut mill. Ruby had a small annuity from her first husband, and her children occasionally sent checks. All the cowboy had was his Social Security pension. Not much, all told, but enough to get by.
A day came when they were unable to manage for themselves. That’s when Marybeth, Ruby’s youngest, took them into her house. He didn’t want to go, but Ruby insisted. He had already broken his hip once, and she didn’t think she could take care of him if it happened again. For love of Ruby, he went.
It was not a happy arrangement. The house was big, but not big enough for Marybeth’s family and them too, and James never made them feel welcome. He musta been talked into it, too.
Without a house to fuss with, Ruby concentrated her energies on her man. How she fretted over him, constantly worrying that he would break his hip again, have a stroke. And then what would she do?
GRANDPA! WHY ARE YOU CRYING?
She’s dead now. Why should we have to keep him around? He’s not our kin.
Hush, James, he’ll hear you.
That old fart? He’s so deaf, he couldn’t hear me if I was shouting at him.
He might be wearing his hearing aid.
Ha! He forgets to put it in most days. And it doesn’t work worth a damn anyway.
James, don’t swear.
And don’t you change the subject, Marybeth! He’s not our kin. He’s nobody’s kin. We don’t owe him a thing.
Mother loved him, and he was good to her. And the boys like him.
Let’s at least see if somebody else will take him in. Maybe Janet. Lord knows we’ve had our turn.
You know nobody else will take him. We’re stuck.
The cowboy got up from the rocker and walked passed them. James was embarrassed, but if the old man had heard, he didn’t show it. He left the den, entered his bedroom. Closed the door. Took the hearing aid from his ear and set it on the dresser.
I love being around grandpa. Don’t you?
Yeah. He cracks me up, especially when he gets things, you know, mixed up. HEY GRANDPA! Jimmy shouted at the old man, who sat on the edge of the bed. TELL US ABOUT ROOSEVELT!
They think I’m a clown. He sighed. Not bad boys. Not really. They just don’t understand. Not yet anyway.
Just can’t seem to keep things straight anymore.
He started telling them about the Depression, how Roosevelt saved this country.
Saved me. Got me a job. Sent me to war. He shook his head. Boys, I shoulda been in the cavalry.
Jimmy and Bobby rolled their eyes and turned away, their shoulders moving up and down rapidly. They were laughing at him, he knew, though their giggles sounded faint and hollow, as if he were hearing them through the end of a drainpipe. He looked with longing at the hearing aid, still lying on his dresser, which his pride would prevent him from ever wearing again.
Mom! Come quick! There’s something wrong with grandpa!
The chain-link fence wiggled, as if the old man were staring at it through liquid. On the other side he could see the neighbors’ pool. Cool. Inviting.
I’m ready, boys. You sure they said we could use it while they’re outta town?
YEAH, BUT GRANDPA, YOU CAN’T WEAR THAT.
JIMMY’S RIGHT, GRANDPA! IT’S UNDERWEAR! THREE TO A PACK. FRUIT OF THE LOOM.
No it ain’t. Them’s briefs, not underwear. Says so on the package. Underwear’s long and baggy, but see how tight this fits. Just like a swimsuit.
The old man dropped his beer can, struggled to his feet. Wanna go swimmin’, Bobby? Got my swim trunks on.
He took a step, felt his hip crack and the ground beneath him give way. In slow motion he fell, flailing his arms as he tried to swim through liquid air.
He opened his eyes. Floating above him were the blurred faces of Marybeth and the boys.
I’m drowned. Come fish out my body.
The old man stared at the yellow flower mural on the wall opposite Bed B. The flower had been his only companion these past few weeks since Mr. Smith, former occupant of bed A, had died. Yellow. Cheery, except when he took off his glasses. Then the mural became a jaundiced enemy, petal-arms lifted threateningly above its head.
Can’t blame James for givin’ up, puttin’ me here in the home when my hip finally gave out. But I wish he’d just shot me, like I did Buddy.
With the help of drugs, liberally supplied by nursing home attendants, the old man floated away from reality. He closed his eyes for a moment. When he reopened them, it was five years later. He sat at a checkerboard across from another inmate, and a decade passed between his first and second moves.
During a rare period of lucidity, Jimmy and Bobby showed up pushing a wheelchair. They didn’t come often.
They’re almost adults now. When’d that happen?
WE’RE GOING TO TAKE YOU TO A RODEO, GRANDPA.
When what they said sank in, the cowboy smiled. Where’s my Stetson?
Bobby looked in the closet and found the hat on a shelf. The curl had almost left the brim, but the old man caressed the ancient felt lovingly and reshaped it with trembling hands. Then he put the Stetson on, refusing to remove it even in the car.
Half the coliseum parking lot was sectioned off for a livestock exhibition, and the old cowboy made the young men wheel him through the displays. He spent a long time before the pen that held the horses, his fingers clutching the chicken wire, while Jimmy and Bobby tried to contain their impatience. They did not see his tears.
That’s when the clock broke, and the old cowboy left the present entirely to wander along the paths of memory. It all seemed so real.
Feel funny. Head aches. Limbs numb.
His eyes flew open. Where am I? He felt the starched linen beneath his fingers. Sheets. Bed. Where’re my glasses?
He looked for the source of a persistent pressure on his arm. A needle, stuck in a vein near his wrist, attached to a tube that was held in place by gauze and white tape. He followed the tube upward to where it joined with a plastic sack that hung like an executed man from a metal pole. Wonder what’s in the sack.
With difficulty, he raised his head off the pillow and looked around the room. At the foot of the bed was a yellow ghost, arms held above its head. It floated in the air, back against the wall.
Don’t worry about falling, the ghost said. I’ll catch you.
Not yet, mumbled the old man. Hard to breathe. Where’re my glasses?
TRY TO RELAX, GRANDPA.
Before the yellow ghost stood Jimmy and Bobby, grownups now, and a man in a white coat.
LIE BACK DOWN, SIR. YOU HAVE FLUID ON YOUR LUNGS.
Bobby nodded. THAT’S RIGHT. THEY DRAINED OFF A QUART A FEW DAYS AGO.
Days? Weeks? Months? The old man coughed up yellow phlegm.
Now? asked the ghost.
Not yet. Jimmy! the old man gasped. Come here! Jimmy came to the side of the bed.
WHAT IS IT, GRANDPA?
The old man opened his mouth, but had difficulty getting the words to sound. Who won? he rasped.
Who won? Roosevelt?
Jimmy turned and said something to his brother. Bobby nodded, then the elder leaned back down. Yes, grandpa. He won.
With a sigh, the old man closed his eyes.
Sunset, and the cowboy smiles. A good day’s work, and he pats the flank of Buddy, long dead, who is back beneath him. Mine now. My inheritance.
It is good again to smell the moist leather of the saddle, the sweat of the horse, his own sweat, country air. He stands in the stirrups. In all directions, there’s open range. The cowboy lets his wire cutters fall to the earth, coils his rope and drops it over the saddle horn, then rides to the west.
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