Monday, November 19, 2012

Buzzards Loop

 Horses’ hooves don’t clatter, or click, or even thud, on the dry desert sands of New Mexico.

Horses never talk in New Mexico, either. Not even in Albuquerque.Still, Josh couldn’t help wondering what his horse might say if it could talk as they rode along. He kept his eyes on the scruffy mane of his horse, which he had named“Conquistadore.

He had no idea what the horse called itself. Maybe that was something the horse would say if it could talk. He wiped his forehead, took a sip of warm water out of his canteen, and peeked out the corner of his eye at Presley.

Presley, like Conquistadore, didn’t talk. But he was far from silent. His spurs jingled, his butt made slapping sounds on the saddle. He cracked his knuckles and hawked his throat, spitting tobacco juice onto the rocks with a wet snap. And he hadn’t said a word in … how many days? Josh couldn’t remember. Forever, maybe. He’d forgotten what Presley’s voice sounded like, could barely remember if the man had one.

Presley’s horse was called “Hallelujah.” Back when Presley still talked, eons ago, he had explained it to Josh. It’s my favorite word from the only song I ever sang.

That’s what he’d said: It’s from ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ I sang it, Presley had told him, at my son’s funeral.

Josh hummed a bit of the Battle Hymn now as he wondered how Presley’s boy had died. The song faded out into the dry air, carrying not far beyond Josh’s cracked,chapped lips.

“Gonna be a hot one today,” he said trying again (and yet again and yet again) to draw Presley into a conversation. “We’d better try to find some water, maybe a shady place to spend the afternoon.” He squinted into the morning sun the same way he did every morning. “Maybe up by that rock there.” He pointed at the rock, a monolithic outcropping that made him think of a knee sticking up through bathwater. A knee that big had to be God’s knee. But not sticking out of bathwater, not out here. Sticking upthrough the gravelly ground, like someone buried in the sand at a beach. All the rocks looked like that out here, large or small, near or far, they were all identical in shape and outline and profile and feel and in the general nowhere-ness of them. “We could probably get to it by noon,” he encouraged.

Presley answered by flicking some dirt off his knee. Josh started to reach for his canteen but decided he’d better hold off. They urged their horses on into the sun.

“Heading east,” Josh said. No answer. He patted Conquistadore’s neck.“Yesterday it was north.” Quiet. “The day before it was, what, south?”

There was a speck on the horizon. After a moment, a second joined it. Josh looked away, over to Presley, who kept his eyes resolute, locked on the sun. Presley’s pupils were tiny, looking that way, almost invisible. His beard turned from pale gray to yellow-white-gold in the light. It gleamed motionless until it cracked open to reveal for a split second Presley’s mouth as he drew back his lips and spit an arcing jet of tobacco juice. Josh was repulsed. He looked back down at Conquistadore.“What do you say, boy?” His voice was falsely chipper. “You want to choose the direction tomorrow?” Josh found his eyes creeping to the horizon again, pulled them back down. Still two specks. He leaned down, brushed his face against Conquistadore’s neck, smelling the musty bristling sweat.

He inhaled deeply, sighed.

He whispered into the mane, “The way I see it, old boy, we’ve got to get Presley talking or he’s going to snap.”After a moment, he added, mostly to himself “Or I’m going to.”Then, keeping his eyes off the distant specks: “Of course, I’m talking to my horse. ” He laughed, throwing his head back and holding his stomach. He felt the heat pour into his mouth and dry his tongue, his cheeks. He closed it quickly. His lips puckered as he shaded his eyes and scanned the horizon. The rock really did look like a giant knee. And it looked dry.

He finally couldn’t stand it, and reached for his canteen.He weighed it in his hand. About half-full. Unscrewed the lid, poured just enough water into his mouth to coat his tongue. He swirled the water around his mouth and then carefully spit it back into the canteen. Only then did he finally swallow.

“Presley?” he began.

No reply.

“Presley, do you think…” He stopped, looking at Presley, and changed his mind about the conversational direction. “Do you think…horses are smart?” He rubbed his chin, carefully shaved every morning, now pink with razor burn and sunlight. “I mean, do you think they can understand some things we say? Like they’d answer us if they could?”

Presley spat again and flexed his hand, then his shoulder.

His eyes stayed on the horizon. Josh felt the power of that stare and felt it pull his own gaze forward until he was looking in the same direction. He saw three specks swimming in the sky-ocean, tiny in the blue and white. The sun was directly ahead of them, firmly hung in the sky and he looked down and away from it. The sight of all that blue made him thirsty all over again. He glanced back over his shoulder. The horses were not leaving any prints or trail.

“You’re right. They’re just animals,” he said.

Had it been three specks?

“But it’d be neat, huh? To have other things able to talk to us? I think so. It doesn’t seem possible that we’re the only smart creatures around. Sometimes I think that maybe animals are just as smart as us, only we’re not as smart as we think ‘cause we can’t figure that out.”

A long pause.

He thought about where to go from there. Then he went on.

“Just because something doesn’t talk to you doesn’t mean they ain’t thinking about stuff. And what if they could think? I bet there’s a lot of stuff we don’t notice that they could tell us about. And maybe they listen. Just because you can’t get an answer doesn’t mean they don’t hear you.”  He forced himself to keep his head down. The sand here was a deeper brown,more earthy today than yesterday, he thought. Was that a good sign? “Still, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be better if they’d answer, right?” He held his breath, but it hadn’t worked.

Presley scratched a cheek—Josh could hear the slight rasping like two twigs rubbing together – and blinked. The blink was in slow motion.

Josh exhaled.They rode on. Twice, Josh repeated the swishing procedure with his water before finally giving in and swallowing a whole mouthful. He quickly rescrewed the cap and shook the canteen next to his ear. It seemed nearly empty. He wondered if it was evaporating like the beads of sweat that clambered out onto his scalp, rested in his thin hair for a moment, and wisped away to Heaven. He twisted the cap tighter, and shook it again. The sun was almost overhead, pressing its light down on him.Was that four specks on the horizon now? They were right over the rock. He gave in and looked. No, only three. The trio looped about, tiny gnats they looked like, in a sideways figure eight. Josh tore his gaze away and turned again to Presley.

“Think there’s water by that rock there?” he asked. His voice was quieter and he tried to speak without opening his mouth too widely.

Presley’s eyes were flickering back and forth, yellow with the light reflecting off the ground now, like two tiny flames. It took Josh a moment to realize that Presley was watching the specks. “There’s got to be or they wouldn’t be there, right?” Presley spat again. Josh saw the man’s chest rise and fall, once. A sigh? “Presley?” he asked but didn’t expect an answer.  “Presley, what’re we doing here? Where are we going?”

His voice sounded small and whiny to him in all this openness.Presley didn’t react.

“I mean it, Presley, we’ve been heading different directions every day. We’ve just been riding around. I don’t even know where we are anymore.And you ain’t talking.” Conquistadore perked up, tossed his head. Josh bit his tongue, but then went on. “Damn it, I mean it, Presley.” He reined his horse to a halt. “I want to know. I’m tired of just following you around, trying to talk to you, and you just keep going your own way and never answer. You might as well not be here. Either tell me where we’re going, or what we’re doing, or…” he was stumped. Or what? “Or I’m just going to go my own way,” he finished.

He was talking to Presley’s back by then. Hallelujah had not stopped trampling forward with Presley straight-backed on him heading toward the rock. And the specks which weren’t specks anymore were lower now and were little “T” shapes criss-crossing each other in the not-as-distant sky.Josh kept his horse motionless, watching Presley move further away, looking from the sweat stains on Presley’s shirt to the T s in the air.

“Crazy. He’s gone mad. I should just strike off on my own. All we’re doing is looping around out here. Maybe we’re lost. Or maybe he’s trying to kill me. Probably is.  Probably killed his kid, too. That’s why he won’t talk about it.”  Presley was about a quarter-mile ahead now. Josh looked around the empty desert. “South, north, west, east, he doesn’t know where we’re going. Probably head back west tomorrow. I don’t need him.” Conquistadore tossed his head. Josh tried to collect his thoughts, which were getting pounded into so much more sand by the sun. He shook his face back and forth. What if Presley did have a plan?

He rubbed his eyes. What if he didn’t?

He took his canteen, drank a large gulp of the hot water. I know I don’t have a plan , he thought. He spurred his horse into an almost-trot.  Conquistadore’s skin was hot, too. He kept the trot going until he was once again alongside Presley and Hallelujah.

He asked: “Presley, how’d your kid die?”

His face felt flushed.

The T s in the sky were closer now and becoming three dimensional.

Presley didn’t react. He showed no signs that he’d heard the question, or even that he realized Josh was there. The rock was no nearer. Josh turned and watched the shapes in the sky with Presley.

“Once, a friend of mine made love to a woman in Albuquerque,” he told Presley in almost a sing-song, low, quiet voice. “He said that every time after that that he thought of her, he felt like if he died he’d want to go be by her in Albuquerque instead of going to Heaven.” The T s, which were birds, which he’d known were birds, spun lazily in their double circle. Presley didn’t do anything. Hallelujah shook his head.“’Course, we might not even be in New Mexico anymore,” Josh said. “Could be anywhere by now.”Presley wasn’t blinking anymore. Josh searched in vain for the other man’s pupils. The sight of those eyes, buried in that craggy, weathered face, ordered him to look forward again.

“Presley, how’d your kid die?”

No answer. The buzzards flew so slowly they were almost motionless.

“Presley, do you think we’re going to die out here?”

No answer.

“Yeah,” said Josh. “That’s what I think, too."

Buzzards Loop appears in the collection Just Exactly How Life Looks, which you can buy for $0.99 here. 


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