Real Cowboy

Heather Sappenfield Click to read more...

Heather Sappenfield’s stories have appeared in Meridian, Tampa Review, and Limestone. She is the winner of the 2011 Danahy Fiction Prize at the Tampa Review. She recently completed her MFA from Pacific University and is now in a serious relationship with a novel. She lives in Vail, Colorado.

He’s a muscular angle against the barn door’s frame. His back and one leg are straight. His other leg is bent, bootheel pressed against wood. Though his eyes are in a wedge of shade beneath his hat, he squints across the pasture, the arena, and the pine forest rising on the mountain. He smokes his cigarette like breathing, not even a pause when he places it at his lips, and he’s careful to flick the ashes into the dirt. His name is Lloyd. He arrived at this Colorado ranch a month ago, and, other than the Idaho license plate on his Chevy truck, that’s all I know.

His profile ignites me. I catch myself staring, and I know Lloyd feels my eyes. I flush. I weave the red prongs of the apple-picker through the straw and empty the manure into the almost-full wheelbarrow blocking the stall’s gate. Ibn Soldad, the million-dollar stallion who produced this poop, whinnies to the mares from the lunging ring. It’s his favorite hour, the time when John strolls to the pasture, halters a mare, and brings her to him.

I roll the wheelbarrow out the barn door into the sun and smell blazing dirt. I’ve been doing this for a month, but I strain against the weight. I’m tall for fourteen, but new bra and all, I probably still weigh less than the wheelbarrow’s load. John, who owns this ranch, gets a kick out of my determination. Last week, Andrea, his wife, gave me a belt with a platter-size silver buckle etched with flowers. “For your hard work,” she said. Even though it pokes my stomach when I bend, I wear it every day. It’s not hard to be good around here. Andrea feeds me three meals a day, and her and John’s moods are as constant as the sunrise, which I’ve seen a lot lately.

When I pass the lunging ring, Lloyd holds a halter rope with the white stallion roiling at the end. Mane and tail churn the air. John leads Cammy, a bay mare, hauled here all the way from Montana, toward the gate. It’s like Lloyd holds a storm, and his velvet murmurs soothe lightning. I strain to feel his words over the squeaking wheelbarrow. I imagine them spoken to me. The tops of my thighs tingle. I clench the handles, hold my back rigid, and find strength in my legs.

The manure spreader is a buckboard wagon with a metal barrel across the back that sends shit flying over the pastures as it’s pulled behind a truck. Last week, I learned to drive. This week, John says he’ll teach me to tow the spreader. I shovel in the new poop, lifting it high over the side. Behind me, I hear nickering and squealing and the men speaking low. “Don’t look, Kate,” I say. But I always do.

Ibn starts at the head, breathing hard and fast as he takes in the mare’s scents, and moves, herky-jerky, to Cammy’s rump. Her back legs are hobbled, and his pink dick hangs long as my arm. As if they all have an agreement, Lloyd slackens the rope, and Ibn rears up, front legs bent at the knees, his hooves against Cammy’s flanks, and the men stand, feet wide and ready, to protect both animals from themselves. Lloyd reaches out and guides Ibn into Cammy. There’s nothing more beautiful than a horse rearing, but this is different. Ibn thrusts. I feel watery.

The second time I saw them breed a mare, I closed my eyes and pretended I was blind. But there came a moment when they all grew deathly quiet, and it was worse than watching. Now, when I watch, I hear that silence even more, and it’s louder every time.

The silence comes again. Lloyd steps back and shortens the rope, and as Ibn backs off, Lloyd pulls him away from Cammy. John releases her legs and pulls the mare forward, so the horses are safely apart. John strokes her neck. “Good girl,” he coos. He leads her from the ring. Lloyd removes Ibn’s halter, pats his shoulder, and looks up. As I turn back to the manure, my cheeks crackle.

“Ease off the clutch,” John says.

I ease my left foot back while pressing the gas with my right. The old Ford lurches, so I feed it more gas. We move forward, and the spreader clunks behind.

“Good,” John says and nods, his mouth in the upside-down smile that tugs the corners of his gray moustache. “Now take the corner wide. A trailer always rides to the inside.”

I take the corner wide, and we bounce onto the double-track that leads to the pasture. Gears scrape as I shift into second. Ahead of us, Lloyd crosses the track, sitting Ibn’s trot like it isn’t even there. He nods toward us, and John lifts off his baseball cap and gives it a single wave out the window. I’ve never seen anyone but John on the stallion. Don’t look, I think, but my neck betrays me. I study Lloyd from the side, then the back as the truck rolls along. Andrea told me at breakfast that tomorrow, she and John are going to town for feed and worming paste, and I imagine Lloyd striding up to me during their absence, his gaze earnest and yearning, and taking me in his arms. When I finally look away, I realize John is smirking.

“Someday, Kate, you’re going to have men falling all over you,” he says.

I force down a bark of laughter and lean forward to concentrate on driving. I’m wearing a baseball cap with my ponytail threaded through the back, like usual, and I remember Dad saying, “Your sister’s going to have all the looks, so you’d better learn some skills.”

John’s words come as a shock. He knows Dad. They used to be friends, which is how I got here for the summer. I just called John and asked if I could work for him. Dad was furious. But they talked and talked on the phone, and he let me come.

“Hey,” John says and makes me look at him. His moustache is straight now. “I know life’s been hard. You deserve better.”

“How were you and Dad ever friends?”

“Your mother’s leaving hardened him.”

“He made her leave.”

“I had my part in that. Your mother was . . . special.”

The truck lurches before I realize my foot’s off the gas. I concentrate on driving, but the double-track’s a haze.

John shakes his head. “He wasn’t always cruel, Kate.” After a minute he adds, “And he let you come here.”

“Because of you.”

“And you,” John says.

I snort.

He studies me. “Think on it,” he says and glances ahead, “Gate.”

I mash on the brake, and his palms meet the dash. The truck’s door groans as he climbs out. My ears burn from the blood in them. I look down where the seat was cracked and is repaired with glue in a neat line.

John clanks loose the chain, swings the gate open, and lets me drive through. As I wait for him to climb back in the cab, Lloyd and Ibn canter through pale yellow grass along the fence line. I gaze at them and wonder if my mother ever felt this fire for Dad. And if she came to regret it. The memory of her dark braid and slender hands are all I’ve got of her. John must know I wish he was my father and Andrea was my mother.

John walks up to the driver’s side window and surprises me. I fix my eyes on the steering wheel.

“You’ve got it from here,” he says. As he turns to stroll back to the barn, he gives two quick slaps against the Ford’s side and says, “Atta girl.”

I study his lanky, bowlegged stride in the side mirror. He knew Mom’s face, knew my parents as lovers. I try to imagine him and my father as friends. However it happened back then, I’m glad.

I drive to the pasture’s far side, get out, and ratchet open the lever on the spreader. I bump back and forth with shit rooster-tailing behind and John’s words echoing in my head. I take a long look in the rearview. I have muddy green eyes, a straight nose. Nothing remarkable. I’m shaking my head as I get out of the truck and see Lloyd and Ibn canter toward me.

I’m shocked still, but my knees drift. Ibn is an accomplishment of nature, and Lloyd is an even match. His head is tilted forward, and his right hand is steady in front of his stomach while his left, on the reins, is relaxed. As they get closer, little puffs rise when the stallion’s hooves meet dirt, and I think about rain but smell baked grass, distant pine, and manure. I hear saddle leather creaking, the stallion’s rhythmic exhalations, and the powerful squeak that rises from Ibn’s flanks.

Part of me expects him to ride right on by. Other than a nod, Lloyd’s never said a word to me. But he stops. He dismounts, lifts the reins over Ibn’s ears, and turns to me. I realize I haven’t moved, that the Ford’s door stands open.

“Kate,” he says and nods. He squints across the mountains as Ibn chomps the bit. Etched on his belt buckle is a bronc rider with Snake River Stampede arced across the top. Ibn whinnies at the mares in the next pasture, and their heads yank up from the grass.

I can’t speak. I’ve never been this close to him alone. I have to look up a little and fire sears through me. His eyes are blue, I realize. I had it wrong.

“I wonder if you’d like to have lunch tomorrow,” he says, and it’s all I can do not to collapse against the Ford.

“Yeah,” I say.

“The house. Noon.”

“Okay.”

He lifts the reins over Ibn’s swiveling ears and mounts. I feel the muscles beneath his clothes and concentrate on breathing. He glances down at me, and his lips hold a trace of smile. His bootheel presses gently into Ibn’s side, and he leans forward as they trot away.

It takes me a while to move, but I don’t care because I know he won’t look back. What just happened settles from my ears to my mouth in a smile, to my neck in a blush. My nipples harden, and I bend at the waist till my belt buckle jabs me. I put my hand over my heart and feel pounding.

“Holy crap,” I say.

As I haul the spreader back, I glance in the rearview again and again.

John and Andrea pull up by the barn as they’re leaving, and Andrea gestures for me to come over.

“There’s plenty of lunch in the fridge,” she says, and she lifts her blond eyebrows high. Behind me, Lloyd lunges a visiting mare in the ring, and Andrea glances at him, then at me. She bites one side of her lip, which I’ve seen her do when she worries. She catches herself and smiles. “We’ll be back around three. Need anything?”

I shake my head.

Beyond her, John grins. He shifts the truck into first, and I watch the tailgate as they roll away.

“You should’ve told ’em, Kate,” I mutter.

I turn and see Lloyd, leaned back slightly to offset the lunge-line, the mare trotting, content, in a circle around him. I study the contour up the back of his Wranglers into the small puff of his shirt, along his back, to his shoulders, and into his hat. The truck is a distant plume of dust as I head to the barn.

Lloyd has his jobs and I have mine, but the three times we pass, he stares at me, and despite my efforts, I blush. When he’s not near, I know where he is, and I can feel his body. I wonder if this sensing a person without seeing him is love. I imagine Mom sensing Dad.

Later, I imagine Mom sensing John, Dad sensing them sensing each other. Even though this would have happened before John married Andrea, I don’t like it. Instead, I picture Andrea from my first week here. She’s flushed, curvy in a dress, and pointing at my dinner in the oven before heading out to celebrate her five-year anniversary.

By eleven thirty, when I head to the house, anyone touching me would get scorched.

I take the fastest shower in history, brush out my hair, and when I open the drawer for clean underwear, I notice a little velvet box on my dresser. Inside is a silver necklace with a charm of a horse rearing. Underneath, is a tiny heart cut from construction paper with From J-n-A written on it.

My hand covers my mouth as I settle on the bed. It’s easier when people are mean, I think. I flop back, naked, and feel like crying for how I’ve lied by keeping quiet when I hear the screen door slam.

I get dressed like a tornado and start for the kitchen, but I stop and put on the necklace. My skin is tanned where the silver horse rests, and my plain neck turns beautiful. I touch it, sigh, and stroll to the kitchen.

Lloyd’s hat hangs on a hook by the door, and he sits at the table. On it are cold fried chicken, potato salad, coleslaw, and fresh strawberries. He stands as I enter.

“Kate,” he says and nods.

“Lloyd,” I say.

He pulls out the chair beside him. I can barely walk. I sit down, and he slides the chair forward behind me.

Lloyd lives in the cabin out back, but its kitchen is spare, so he’s here most mornings. Sometimes lunch. Rarely dinner. He’s usually out nights, and I’ve listened to his truck roll in after midnight with the radio playing low.

His hand rests on the table in a loose fist. I’ve stared at it while we’ve eaten with John and Andrea and imagined its calluses moving along my stomach. That hand reaches for the chicken and holds up the platter. I take a piece I know I won’t eat.

When Andrea and John are here, I keep my eyes off Lloyd. Now, they move up the arm of his clean, blue shirt to his shoulder, and finally up to his face. I work to keep my breathing even. I notice that he has pocks up his neck and across his cheeks. A scar runs along his jaw, and the corners of his eyes and mouth are lined. Where his hair is newly trimmed over his ear and into his sideburn, there’s a thread of pale skin. I picture him in the barber chair and see he’s older than I thought. His nights out grow darker. I hear murky bars and tinkling ice in highball glasses. I smell the perfume of dusky women with low-cut shirts. I suck in my breath. My hands fall to my lap. I swallow hard. I’m fourteen, and this is a real cowboy.

I study the food on the table. It’s too carefully prepared to be leftovers. Before us are two glasses of lemonade, one of which Lloyd lifts to his lips, and I watch his sharp, clean-shaven Adam’s apple go up, then down. Lloyd never drinks lemonade; he drinks water, black coffee, and beer. I touch the necklace and picture Andrea worrying her lip as she prepared this food.

“You don’t have to do this,” I say.

Lloyd assesses me like I’m a horse puzzling him. I feel the weight of his eyes, and I sweat, even on my stomach. I bunch the napkin in my lap and consider setting it on the table and leaving. But I can’t.

Finally, he shakes his head. “It’s just lunch.”

“Okay,” I croak. I reach for the potato salad.

We don’t talk, we just eat, but his body is hot and dangerous beside me, and I think, Dad was right: I’m plain. How could I have been so stupid?

When we finish, we clean up with no sound but the scoot of dishes, the clink of silverware, and the faucet. As I turn from the sink, our arms touch. Our eyes meet, and mine fill with tears, so I look down.

“Come here,” he says as he pulls me into his arms. They feel just like I’d imagined, except all I do is rest my head against his chest. The pearl snap of his shirt presses into my cheek, his chest rises and falls, and his belt buckle brands my stomach, just above my own. He smells like cigarettes and leather, and I wet his shirt with my tears. The dangerous part of me heats up, but he pulls back. He takes my cheek in his hand and runs his thumb along my jaw. He leans down and kisses me, just in front of my ear, then on my jawbone.

“John’s right. You’re something special,” he says with a trace of a smile, and he’s at the door, reaching for his hat and stepping out in one motion. The screen door claps.

The ghost of his lips holds me still. His words unravel me, and I steady myself against the counter. I wobble to the porch and lean on the rail. My bones kindle as I watch Lloyd disappear into the barn, sense him setting to work. I press the stallion charm between my fingers and saw it back and forth along the chain. I feel the bump of each link against my neck.

Discussion

One Response to Real Cowboy

  1. Caitlin Doyle says:

    The ending to this story makes me so happy. The entire time I was reading, I felt like Kate was teetering on the boundary between childhood and adulthood. Her frequent allusions to the dark relationships surrounding her–between the stallion and the mare and between her own parents–made me almost certain that she was going to be torn from her naiveté in a violent way that would leave her in the same cynical and hardened state in which her parents seem to be stuck. Was she going to try to understand the genesis of her parent’s failed relationship by using Lloyd as a substitute for her father? Even worse, was Lloyd going to take advantage of her insecurity and innocence? Sappenfield brought me to this precipice and made me almost 100% certain that this was a story about the impossibility of mature, respectful love. That’s why Lloyd’s reaction was so splendid. I had forgotten that there was an alternative to the brutal companionship evinced by the horses and Kate’s parents. Lloyd, for no apparent reason except an inherent goodness, chooses to be like John. Sappenfield artfully tricks the reader into a state of disenchantment, only to reveal an inherent virtue, making us all the more appreciative of human goodness.

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