I Don’t Say Hello Anymore
(published in American Short Fiction, Winter 2007)
This was the Sunday I heard Vernon Keller went missing. It’d been about six months since my wife left me. My ex-wife. I was sitting in the stands of the Wildfire Ranch roping arena, thinking how I might like to throw up on the bleachers, down into the sand and tobacco spit. The Cowboy Preacher had just finished sermonizing on how Gideon beat 135,000 Midianites with 10,000 of his men playing trumpets at dawn. I figured 10,000 trumpets must’ve sounded like Kingdom Come, especially if you were asleep. The main point, I think, was God used people to do amazing things if they let him. Crazy things. But I wondered if this didn’t also make us chess pieces he moved around to please himself.
The preacher started with a low, barrel-bottom voice, singing “Hallelujah, hallelujah” over and over, real slow. He was a meaty fellow with a starched white shirt and Wranglers. A Mexican stood next to him with the same outfit. They both had a ranch brand logo on their shirt pockets that looked to be a J with a tilted C on top of it. The Mexican pulled out a harmonica and cut in louder than I figured necessary. Everyone else in the bleachers sang along, mumbling at first, but gaining a little spirit when they heard the harmonica. I had a hangover from the night before; the cowshit smell of the roping arena was closing in on my stomach.
The preacher said a little prayer, which ended: “Bring Vernon back safe to us, Lord. And watch over Manuela.”
Manuela was Vern’s wife.
I leaned in to my friend Jess, who was fanning his hat, and asked what happened to Vern.
“You ain’t heard? Gone out on another drunk. Longer than usual.”
“How long?” Vern had been gone before. The last time I saw him, we had to drag him back from a two-day drunk. Poor fucker, holed up in a gut-rusted ’57 Buick in the back pasture of Jack Berry’s place.
“Five days,” Jess said.
I held back a heave and thought I might like to be wherever Vern was. I tried to remember getting out of bed that morning. Jess had called early and asked if I wouldn’t mind saddling up for a team roping at the arena. It’d been over five months since I’d rode.
“C’mon, Caleb,” Jess had said. “I can’t get nobody else. They all got too high a numbers for the cap.”
“Shit, thanks,” I said.
“I didn’t mean it like that.” Jess sounded desperate. If a roping is a #7 event, and you’re ranked #5 like Jess, you can’t partner with anyone over #2. I was lucky to be a #2 if they hadn’t revoked my standings.
“That’s what you say every time.”
“It’s the truth.” Not the whole truth, I thought, but good enough for 5:30 a.m. in the Christ-almighty morning. “Like a dog,” I said.
“I ain’t asked you for much,” Jess said.
“You ask me every other week.”
“But do you ever come?”
He had me there.
I didn’t finally get out of bed because I wanted to rope. That’s important to note. I used to, back before Jess started bugging me about it, back when I still cared. I’d squeeze into my trailer’s stand-up shower, so small you couldn’t piss properly, burn my throat with Folger’s Instant, drive to the rental barn to clean and saddle Leon; all so I could sit in a saddle for eight hours, waiting, waiting, waiting to run half-crazy around a square patch of dirt for five to eight seconds, chasing an animal more fearful and stupid than a mule deer. And I didn’t finally go because I wanted to prove anything to myself about roping, how it hadn’t gotten the better of me or some other psychological nonsense. I was done with it. Had been done with it. I went because Jess Rainbolt was about the only friend I had left.