“I can’t…I dunno what I’m s’posed to say here.” The caller paused, his voice gravelly with misery and dirt. “She asked me to call you soon as… She wanted you to come to El Paso.”
That was the word last night that brought me instantly awake.
I sat up in bed, waving at Fern to go back to sleep. The connection wasn’t great, and I had no idea who this man was or why he was calling me at 3:16 in the morning, but he sure as hell knew the magic name.
Chrissy. I hadn’t heard from her in probably ten years, save for two or three postcards featuring jackalopes and cacti with sunglasses. Regardless, when the man called, I jumped, leaving my disapproving wife, my three confused daughters, and my struggling medical practice while I galloped madly across Lone Star country to my childhood soulmate.
The state of Texas, from the Panhandle to Corpus Christi, from the Rio Grande to Texarkhana, has given birth to so many singular breeds of men it’s a wonder we haven’t formed our own separate species. Homo tejanos, you can call us. We run the gamut from yippee-ki-yay rodeo cowboys to snakeskin-booted oil barons, from straw-gnawing farm boys to small-town doctors like me, competing against the local horse vet for patients.
No matter what tribe of Texan a man runs with, the trait that binds us all is a steady belief in the independent republic of Texas. That faith extends to the dubious political connections, the bumbling snow-bunny ambassadors we send out every winter, even the famed electric chair in Huntsville. Make no doubt about it, if you mess with Texas, we will mess with you. We consider ourselves natives of our own country.
The only problem is, a great deal of Texas resembles a third world country. Oh, sure, you’ve got the great metropolis of Dallas/Fort Worth, the bohemian capital of Austin, and the industrial filth that is Houston. But for the most part the great vastness of the land is populated by little gray-dot communities thriving off a single gas station. They throw parades if a highway gets rerouted near them. That’s Mather, where I grew up, and a thousand other bumps in the road.
El Paso is the bastard child. It’s a border city. It’s a passage to and from Mexico, and it’s still got that stench of old west outlaw. Folks who grew up there got out as fast as they could before they lost life and limb on the oil pipelines. Those coming to El Paso from the south are looking to start a new life, looking for new hope and better opportunities for their children. For those from the north, it’s the last elephant walk, the trudge to complete abandonment of hope. They buy cheap trailers with Astroturf porches and wait for the sun and wind to wear them away to nothing.
I squeeze my eyes shut against the sand, sun and sorrow. I don’t want to know that Chrissy lives here. I don’t want to see the inside of her shanty, or her trailer, or her camper, or whatever it is that she sleeps in. This isn’t what I want to have branded on my brain. This place is quicksand, and I’d prefer it just swallowed the whole thing up. She was gone years ago; she never came here, not in my version of her life. So what the hell am I doing here?
I’m rumbling past oilfields on a packed-dirt lane, sitting in the passenger seat of a pickup that should have been put out of its misery about twenty years ago. I grab the oh-shit handle, steadying my body and my stomach. I’m glad for the open windows, otherwise the stench of the driver, and all his years of pipeline-sweat embedded in the ragged upholstery, would humiliate me by making me pass out or vomit. On the other hand, puke might freshen the air in here.
“It’s just out here a couple more miles,” my driver says. “Few weeks ago, she just didn’t want to live nowhere near nobody no more, so we hauled the trailer out here. I got a coupla acres leftover from my granddaddy’s piece.”
Bo. He couldn’t have a more fitting name. A big, muscled, tanned, hard-worked man. His maybe forty years have been cruel to his face, weathering it like acid rain on limestone.
“You live out here with her?” I ask.
Bo thinks about my question for a minute.
“I did,” he finally replies, chewing on his lip.
“Don’t tell me,” I joke half-heartedly. “She conquered you and your trailer, then kicked you out for laughs.” Anything for amusement, that’s Chrissy. I laugh it off cynically, but cut it short when Bo doesn’t join me. I cough to cover my awkward chuckle.
“Not really.” Bo takes his foot off the gas, and pulls over to the side of the road. Dirt clouds around the vehicle, briefly obscuring the army of oil derricks pumping ceaselessly behind their chain-link fences.
“See, I couldn’t tell you on the phone,” Bo says, staring intently at his knuckles clutching the steering wheel. “She wouldn’t let me tell you. Said you had to be here. I promised her.”
I turn to face him, immersing myself totally in the truck aroma. “Tell me what?” I ask.
His mouth gapes as he struggles for words, and I know it is not good news welling up in his throat. He’s not announcing a wedding, not about to show off a new horse or even a bastard baby. This is tear-in-my-beer kind of news, and I am not surprised.
On the other hand, maybe this man doesn’t know Chrissy at all. Maybe it’s all a clever ruse to draw me out to the middle of nowhere, stick a bullet in my craw, and bury my body in an oil field. That ground is never turned. No one will ever put a housing development out here. I’ll never be found, just some poor, missing sap who fell for a con man and murderer’s line, while dear old Bo here steals my identity and all my credit cards and lives the high life in Monte Carlo. My family will assume I’ve run off for good, and hate me forever, intending to charge me for all their therapist’s fees – if I ever turn up.
Then I see it. A tear rolling through the dust and beaded sweat on Bo’s face. It’s a rare con man who can cry on command, and suddenly I want to hug the guy, like I do my youngest daughter Delia when she dreams about the boogeyman in her closet. I settle for clenching my stomach and my fists in anticipation and repeating softly, “Tell me what, Bo?”
“She’s gone, Doc,” he sighs, barely uttering the words. “Died last Tuesday.”
Stunning, the force words like that can hit you with. My lungs suddenly close up, like he hit me in the chest with his massive fist. I blink and suck for air. She’s 38 years old. She’s a goose who migrates wherever she pleases. She’s always gone, but never is she gone. I gaze at an oil derrick, pumping light years faster than my astonished heart. Can’t be true.
Air returns to my body, and I look back at Bo. A second tear rolls down his face, and I know this man is as incapable of lying as I am of riding a bull for longer than a split second. He probably wouldn’t have shed a tear when his own father passed, probably just got piss-drunk and rowdy if a brother or close friend bought it in a pipeline explosion, but here he is, quietly crying over my cousin.
Hot tears coat my eyes, but I hold on to them. My tears would put Bo’s to shame, and they would set in stone what he has just told me. If I don’t let them out, then the possibility remains that this is Chrissy’s elaborate prank, and she is even now laughing her ass off at me. That would be wonderful.
Rubbing my eyes furiously, I clear my throat and focus forward, trying to convince myself it could be true, that this could just be an elaborate prank. I study Bo out of the corner of my eye; maybe he can lie, maybe the Academy is missing the boat on this burly bear-man. In my chest, in the tightening there, I know I’m full of bull, but my head forges on anyway, imagining all the scenarios save the one that is the truth.
Bo wipes at his face with a rag. He’s pretty good, with the tears and all that. I wonder how far she might carry it. Will we get to the trailer and find a body, bloated and covered in flies and maggots? Will we go through a funeral, complete with casket and mourners? Then, when we get to the graveyard, and we’re about ready to dump the first shovelful of dirt on our beloved Christine, will she throw open the casket and holler “Gotcha!”?
I force myself to smile slightly, determined to uphold this pretense of a joke that I know is not a joke. I shift in the swampy interior of Bo’s pickup. His face is now dry; he is once again the swarthy pipe-man, big and strong. He puts the truck in gear and we raise another choking dust cloud as we pull out onto the rutted lane.
“How?” I ask. I’m playing along, I tell myself. Just playing along.
“Pancreatic infection.” His voice creaks over this, mucous still clotted in his throat. He clears it away. “About six months ago, right when I first met her, she came down with pneumonia. Never really got much better. So when the pancreatitic – pancreasitic—”
“Pancreatitis,” I supply quietly.
“Yeah. When that set in, she didn’t have no strength to fight it.” He scratches the back of his neck, a raw, dry sound that makes my ears curl. I dig my fingernails into my jeans. “She didn’t want her family to see her while she was sick.”
“No,” I agree. Never a sign of weakness. Never allow a witness to tears or illness. In a lot of ways, Chrissy is more Fuller than I am.
It’s a nice touch, the pancreatitis. A disease difficult for a roughneck to pronounce. Following on the heels of pneumonia. Indications of something deeper, darker, a weakness that Chrissy would never admit, a defenselessness of the body. Pneumonia doesn’t just pop up in healthy women in their thirties. It hits the old, the very young, the physically distressed and the weak. I have no space in my skull for a Chrissy who can’t fight off something as insignificant as a germ. It must be something she picked up along the way, in a night club or a seedy hotel, from a man I would kick to death if I could find his name and know his face.
Bo says nothing for a long while, and the oil fields stretch out endlessly. A couple of miles on a corrugated dirt road is an eternity. My kidneys are like as not starting to bleed from the jarring.
Finally he pulls up next to a tiny lot jammed between derricks. A sagging brown mobile home squats diagonally across the lot, piles of wood and random car parts completing the aesthetic design. I can smell the west Texas dirt still hanging in the air from the last time I was in a place like this with my cousin: Her father’s trailer, totaled by a dust storm, an evil hole gutted by nature that we perused and picked through until the fear of the place and the man were lessened by the crudity and wretchedness of his possessions and his life.
I know what I will find here. Nothing. Nothing of my girl. She wouldn’t leave anything behind.
Bo parks, and I follow him through the junk in the yard to the trailer, massaging my truck-tortured back. Up to the porch littered with broken, plastic lawn furniture and through a pock-marked screen door.
Inside, it is dark. Bo hangs his keys on a little rack made from horseshoes and horseshoe nails. A piece of rusted old barbwire hangs in the living room, a ranch antiquity. The relatives will be fighting over that one.
I almost laugh. Chrissy and I could have had a blast with this place. She would have loved to bring her fashion-conscious mama here to show off the portrait of a Hereford bull. That’s true art right there. The boots and spurs pattern on the couch is an especially nice touch. Aunt Suzie would have had a coronary if she’d known her daughter lived here for any length of time. I want to take pictures to show her, just for the satisfying expression of horror on her face. But then I figure the death of her daughter will be enough for both of us.
“Hold on here a sec and I’ll just…” Bo trails off. He heads back into the dungeon-like bedroom hallway to retrieve my inheritance.
He comes out with a shoebox. It is mostly empty but for three things: a stuffed envelope, a key, and the urn.
The grating living room fades away, yet strangely I still want to laugh. I maniacally tell myself she must have filled the urn with cocoa powder, maybe even the flavored sugar from those Dipsticks candy packages we used to get from Oscar Barnes at the corner store. I have to fight back the urge to un-stopper the urn, dip my finger in and have a taste.
“She didn’t want no funeral,” Bo offers as I gingerly pick up the urn. “Said it was stupid since you and me was the only ones that gave a good goddamn.”
I nod. If this were truly the joke I wish it were, cremation would be the logical choice. No funeral to fake, making the elaborate prank remarkably less elaborate. But it’s not a prank, not a gaffer, not even remotely funny-ha-ha. I stare at the urn. It’s not ceramic or glass, just a little wooden box, with her name penciled on the bottom. And it’s sure as hell not filled with powdered sugar. Jesus Christ. My mouth convulses and I cough to get my throat open again.
All humor drains out of me, leaving me sickened and weak. Bo retreats into his kitchen, granting me privacy for my reunion with Chrissy. I sink into the couch, and somewhere in my brain I realize it smells just like his truck in here, only fainter. This is his world, not hers. He brought her into it and even moved it farther out in the wastelands for her, just so she could be more comfortable.
I open the envelope, my hands barely strong enough to rip it. The paper is torn from a spiral notebook, its edges littering confetti on my lap. The first sheet is what I can only imagine as her last will and testament. She says she wants to be cremated. She says I should be contacted, dragged out here bodily if need be, and given the contents of this box, including her ashes.
The rest is a letter to me.
You know I’m not much for writing, but after all I figured you deserved more than a postcard. That, and I ran out of the Jackalope ones. Hope you don’t mind.
Nope, this isn’t a joke. Sorry. It would have been a good one, huh? Commence with the grief.
I have to set the paper down on my lap for a moment, if only to wipe the betraying moisture from my field of vision. Damned if she hadn’t known what my immediate reaction would be and called me on it, waggling her fingers at me from the other side of the graveyard.
You would have had fun with me out here. I spent a lot of time at the track, a lot of time in Mexico, and a lot of time flat on my back. Ha ha.
You probably figured out a long time ago that I’m not in Costa Rica. I missed my flight, couldn’t catch a bus, car broke down, whatever. Doesn’t really make a difference now.
The key is for you. The key to the holy grail you’ve been lusting after your entire life.
Don’t argue, you know what it is, and you know you’re drooling at the thought of it. It’s all yours.
As for what’s left of me, it’d be okay if you dumped me in a duster and flew over Papa Fuller’s old fields, the one with the tank, remember? That always cracked me up.
I’ll be seeing you.
P.S. Seriously, I’m dead. Don’t go looking around for me. And don’t act to Bo like it’s a joke. He’s a sweet man, but a little slow on his feet, you know. It’d just confuse him. I’m dead, have fun at the wake. Eat some fried chicken for me.
P.P.S. If you wanted, you could save a little of me to mix in some fried chicken batter. Don’t eat me, of course.
I fold the letter back inside the envelope. The key is small, with a safety pin for a keychain. She’s right about this, too. I know exactly what it is and what I’ll find.
My desperate need for this to be joke collapses into solid, undeniable knowledge. She is not about to spring out of her little wooden urn in the shoebox and chalk up another imaginary score for herself. My girl, my partner-in-crime, my first love, the eternal thorn in my side is dead.
I hold her letter, seeing her as I did the day she left me for Central America. Standing there on that melting asphalt, I should have known. Hell, I did know, and I stood there like a rube in that truck stop parking lot, gulping down the half-truths she fed me like they were as tasty and solid as the crackles my grandmother used to make from leftover chicken batter.
Now, I gag as it comes to me. She never made it to Costa Rica. She came south to El Paso because she’d already received her death sentence. Alone, she’d slowly faded away in this sweaty hole while I blithely swaggered through my empty storybook life.
I leap up, shove the shoebox onto the wagon wheel coffee table and scramble out the screen door, banging it against the side of the trailer. I know I’m going to puke, and it will likely not improve relations with Bo if I spew in his living room with the barbed wire and cowboy couch. I reach the sagging chain-link fence surrounding the nearest derrick and cling to it, retching. My stomach empties of last night’s spaghetti and this morning’s Egg McMuffin. It keeps going even after it’s emptied of every speck of nourishment and bile it can dredge up.
My stomach and intestines finally settle. The kaleidoscope of images that shower through my mind are of her in trouble, manipulating me, laughing at me, walking away from me, but alive. Snapping a picture of my naked ass in a cow pasture. Fluttering her eyelashes demurely at my new bride. Giggling in a Sunday school dress covered with childish drawings as her mother explodes like a volcano.
I’m glad her things aren’t here. I’m glad I can’t see her here. I gather the strength to turn back to that dilapidated trailer.
Bo is standing in the doorway, his huge noggin brushing the top of the jamb. He squints at me as I shuffle up the steps.
“You’re welcome to stay here long as you want. Though I imagine you’ll be wanting to get back home to your family.”
I nod and follow him into the house, trying to wipe the bile from my mouth.
“I got some meatloaf,” he continues, heading toward the kitchen. “Or I could whip up some pork chops and green beans. I’m a pretty good cook.”
He stops and looks back at me. I run my tongue over my dry teeth, smelling the puke on my breath. “Thank you.”
“Oh, it’s no problem. I like to cook, and I got plenty of room here.”
“No, I mean, thank you for taking care of her.”
Bo looks down at his big, meaty hands. This is a hellhole to me, but this man must have been an angel to her. Someone finally took care of her, and she finally let him.
Bo nods and meets my eyes. “I wished I coulda known her before…before. I wished I coulda married her, met you and her folks. But she wouldn’t let me.”
My throat constricts, making my words tight and almost inaudible. “I wish that, too, Bo.”
We cannot meet each others’ eyes. Even if I had the heart to look up at him, I wouldn’t be able to see him through the blurry sheen of tears stampeding through my eyes.
He clears his throat, a mucous-filled grunt that makes me want to hug him all over again. “I’ll just nuke that meatloaf,” he says softly. “Won’t take but a minute.”
I sit back down on the couch. Its upholstery doesn’t seem so humorous to me now. Now it’s endearing, the evidence of a man trying to provide what comfort he can to a woman he’s fairly certain the world should stop turning for. It isn’t even remotely fair that this is all he is left with.
I can only imagine this will not be the last time I will see Bo, her final caretaker. Struggling to atone for my selfishness with Chrissy, I’ll make excuses to visit El Paso, to have a beer with him, to talk with him about Chrissy and the pipeline and trips they might have taken to Juarez. Next year he’ll come to Thanksgiving at my house, and my wife Fern will kindly let him cook beans in her crockpot, and he’ll give bronco rides to my laughing/screaming daughters. Fern and I will have many worried discussions about him, about how to get him back out in the world again, how to keep the loneliness at bay for him, and Fern will even invite full-bosomed single women to our infrequent family gatherings to dangle in front of him. Bo will never take the bait, though, and I will understand.
In the end, he loved her far better than I did. Bo wasn’t the one who gave up on her. I was.