Two Men in a Pickup
Chapter 15, part 2
The door comes open and it's Hank. Behind him I can see the two bulldoggers from the bar.
"You boys OK?" he says and tells us a bunch of rodeo cowboys are going to be hanging out next door. "There might be some awful singing," he says. "Buster here's got his guitar."
Buster, the bulldogger, grins and holds up a guitar case he's got in one hand.
Hank walks to the little refrigerator that's been purring quietly in one corner of the room and pulls out two six-packs. In the room next to ours, I can hear the door opening and loud voices of men coming in who've had plenty to drink already and sound like they aim to drink more.
Hank ducks into the bathroom and I hear the toilet lid clank against the tank and then the sound of a long fart and piss landing square in the middle of the water in the bowl.
Buster steps inside the front door and waits for him. "You're welcome to join us," he says to us.
"Might do that," Don says, zipping up his jeans.
"No need to put on your britches," they guy says to me and thumbs back his hat. "We're informal."
There's a burst of deep laughter from next door.
"You yodel?" Buster says with a grin. "I'm gettin' in the mood for some first class yodelin' tonight."
A half hour later I'm counting eight men in the next room and more arriving. Most of them are sitting one way and another on the beds, duded up for the evening in clean pressed jeans, fancy shirts and belt buckles, and dress boots, some with braided strips of leather or bright feathers on their hats.
I'm aware that my clothes are feeling pretty lived in after two hot days riding around in a pickup. But like anyone else who walks through the door, I am made to feel welcome, my broken glasses, bare head, and unshaven face unfortunate matters that everyone is too polite to mention.
One man brings in a chair from another room and sits down with his feet up on a table. Buster is strumming his guitar, warming up with a couple verses from "Red River Valley." I'm on the floor with my back against the wall. Don is across the room, leaning with his butt against a countertop and not looking my way, like he's got the goods on me, knowing how out of place I really am here. Maybe he's pissed off that I tagged along. Or he's embarrassed by me. Or maybe just embarrassed for me.
A bareback rider named Corky sits down beside me. He's got long arms and bony knees and a tooth missing out of a lop-sided smile. He's also got a pint of Wild Turkey which he offers me, and the two of us pass it back and forth until it's gone. While we're doing that, we smoke up what's left of my cigarettes.
"Thanks, pardner," he likes to say whenever I hand him the pack and matches.
I do what I do in a room full of men. I just watch them, letting my eye see what it sees. I notice the things I think they don't notice about themselves, the shape of an ear or a chin or an eyebrow, the way a man smiles, what a man does with his hands, how he moves. I'm also admiring the depth of men's chests, and I'm looking for muscular thighs and the bulge in the crotch of a pair of jeans that says a man has more than enough in there to play with when he wants to.
I listen to the way they talk, what they say to make each other laugh, their tone of voice when they want to seem fearless and indifferent to pain or failure, and the silences when they feel proud and want to look modest.
And I do one other thing. I look around me at each of them, wondering if there is one among them who is secretly like me, noticing the same things and saying nothing. Has the quiet man sitting next to Hank or that guy with a silk scarf around his neck ever crawled into bed naked with another guy and had rough, sweaty sex until they both came all over each other? And if not, do they ever wish like hell they could?
Finally, I settle on one man in the room that my eye wants to linger on, soaking him up like a sponge. I'll look away only to glance back again a while later. Tonight it's the guy with his feet on the table, dark and handsome under his black hat, shirt open, a can of Copenhagen in one front pocket, and a strip of rawhide around his neck held together on his chest with a bit of silver and turquoise.
He winks at me with a sly grin, like he knows what I'm thinking and then calls out to Hank who's putting more beer in the refrigerator, "Hey, stud, pass me another one of them, will ya?" And as Hank does, the guy says, "Where's Dale tonight anyway?"
"Went to the dance, I think. Last I seen, he had some girl with him," Hank says and pops the cap off a bottle for the guy.
"Never seen a man so good at pickin' up women," somebody says. "I'd like to know what he uses for a pick-up line."
Hanks says, "Oh, sumpin' like 'Got any cowboy in ya? You want some?'" There's laughter around the room.
"That's a good 'un," Corky says to me. "I'll have to remember that."
"I got a better one for a bareback rider," one guy says.
"What's that?" Corky wants to know.
"I won't be any trouble, ma'am. It'll all be over in eight seconds."
There's a big laugh, and Corky flips the guy a finger.
And as the Wild Turkey and my weariness settle in, I feel all that is odd about me disappear. I don't ride a horse or want to hear a rodeo crowd cheer for me; I'm not determined to be tough as nails and ready to break bones to prove it; and I'm no good in bed with women or even want to be; but I can be who I am right here, sitting against the wall, liking every man in the room, even Don, bless his obstinate ass, minding my own business and feeling a kind of safety in numbers.
The men all seem to know each other and tell stories on one another as they drink their beers. When they get to talking about injuries, someone asks about the bullrider who took a bad fall that day. "Anybody see it happen?" Corky wants to know, his Oklahoma drawl rising over the other men's voices.
"Broke his leg," somebody says. "That's what I heard."
"Tough cowboy," another one says.
"He warn't so tough when they got him in the ambulance," the first one says. "He was yellin' to beat all hell."
"Seems to me you broke a leg once, Darryl," says the guy with his feet up. "You never let out a holler?"
"Shit, that was different. Damn animal stepped on my nuts, too," he says. "You'd complain about that yourself."
They all laugh. One or two make faces and reach between their legs.
"Speakin' of injuries inflicted by animals," says the guy with his feet up, "you boys hear the one about the cowboy who went huntin' out West and shot himself a bobcat?"
"Against the law, ain't it?" says Darryl.
"This was years ago," the guy says and drops one foot to the floor, holding his beer bottle on the fly of his wranglers. "The cowboy is standing there with his gun, making sure the bobcat is dead, and there's this voice behind him going, 'Ahem.' And he's surprised because he thinks he's out there all by himself, and what he sees when he turns around about makes him shit his pants. It's a mountain lion."
I begin to recognize this as a story Ed told the night in Mike's swimming pool, except his version was about bears. And I forget the punch line, so I sit back in the warm arms of Corky's Wild Turkey knowing this will probably go on for a while.
The guy telling the story says, "Well, the mountain lion says to the cowboy, 'That's my cousin you just shot there, and what you did really pisses me off.'"
"Bobcats and mountain lions are cousins?" Darryl says, laughing.
"Just listen to the story, Darryl. You can interrupt me when I'm finished."
Darryl smiles, like it's a routine the two of them do, and he tips back his beer for a swallow.
"The cowboy is shaking in his boots now, and the mountain lion says, 'I'm givin' ya two choices. I can eat you alive, or you can bend over and get your ass fucked.'" A ripple of laughter goes around the room. "So the cowboy figures if he's gonna come outta this one alive, his choices are pretty much narrowed down to just the one. He turns around, pulls down his pants, and takes it like a man."
I'm watching the men around the room, and every head is turned to the guy. Jaws are set behind little grins, like they're holding their breath.
"I wanna tell ya, when that cowboy gets home he's sore as hell and can't sit down for weeks. But you know how these things go -- while he's recoverin', he forgets he's glad to be alive and starts thinking about going back and settling scores with that mountain lion. And next chance he gets, he's out there huntin' again, trying to track that sucker down."
The guy lifts his hat to set it on his head again, and I can see his hair is dark and curly. "As you might expect, it takes him a while, and the weather is awful -- rain, sleet, hail, blizzards, you name it," he says. "But at long last he finds that mountain lion. And when he does, he takes a steady aim with his rifle and drops him with one shot."
He pauses for effect and then proceeds. "And this time, wouldn't you know it, there's another voice right behind him -- 'Ahem' -- and when the cowboy looks to see who's there, it's a big old cougar. And the cougar says, 'You just shot my cousin, and that really pisses me off.' You got any comment to make this time, Darryl?"
"No, sir," says Darryl chuckling, "you go right ahead." And now I'm guessing that he's heard the joke before and is thinking ahead about how it ends.
"OK, then," the guy goes on. "So the mountain lion says, 'I'm givin' ya two choices. I can eat you alive, or you can bend over and get your ass fucked.' Well, this time the cowboy is even scareder than the last time -- I mean, this is one big cat -- and the cowboy doesn't have to think long about it. He turns around, pulls down his pants, and takes it like a man again."
Another ripple of laughter.
"A few more weeks go by, and this cowboy is gettin' mad again. So he takes his gun and heads back to settle scores with the cougar. It takes him more'n a week this time, and he's crossin' deserts and climbin' mountains where it's blazing hot and freezing cold. But finally he finds that cougar, and when he does, he takes steady aim with his rifle and drops him with one shot."
The room is now dead quiet, just the hum of the refrigerator in the corner. The end of the story is coming, and I can feel Corky beside me, loose legged and wiry, waiting for it. And now I'm remembering the punch line.
"Well, the cowboy is standin' there, makin' sure the cougar is dead," the guy says, "and then he hears another voice behind him -- 'Ahem' -- and when he turns around this time, there's a big, old, ugly lion lookin' back at him. This lion is big as a half-ton truck and looks meaner than hell, and now the cowboy is sweatin' bullets."
With a poker face, the guy sets his other foot on the floor and leans forward, with an elbow on one knee. "The lion looks the cowboy straight in the eye, puts his paw on his shoulder and says, 'Admit it, son. You ain't out here for the huntin', are you."
There's a split-second of silence, and then the room erupts with guffaws, groans, and knee slapping. Don glances over at me, as if to say, no one needs to explain that one to you. I just nod.
"I got one, I got one," Corky says as the laughs die down. "Cowboy walks into a bar and sits down next to this woman who's there all by herself."
"This is more like it," someone says.
"She's a real looker, too," Corky says. "So he thinks he'll try to get friendly. 'Excuse me, ma'am,' he says, 'can I buy you a drink?' But she tells him to get lost. And in no uncertain terms."
"He needs to try one of Dale's pick-up lines," somebody says.
"Cowboy is taken aback," says Corky. "He says, 'Pardon me, ma'am. Is it just me, or do you have something against cowboys?'"
I'm watching him tell this story and his eyes are wide open, his voice full of excitement. His hands and shoulders in constant motion as he delivers the dialogue.
"'You cowboys are all dirty,' she says," his voice going up an octave. "'You got no manners, you're uncouth, and you smell bad. And you'll fuck anything -- sheep, cows, dogs, lizards, chickens, or a knot hole in a barrel.' Cowboy's mouth drops open, and he says, 'Chickens?'"
Another big beery laugh.
There follows a long and heated discussion about movie cowboys. Some of the room, mostly encouraged by Don, favors John Wayne. And if you've been watching Don, this should come as no surprise. He's a little stiff and full of self-importance, like the Duke, patient with things he doesn't like up to a point, and when he's had enough, hauls out the guns to set the world right again.
The guy with his feet up makes a case for Randolph Scott. "Did you see 'Ride the High Country'? Now that's one helluva movie."
"I dunno," Darryl says. "You can't beat 'High Noon,' and he wasn't in that."
"I tell ya the real McCoy is Burt Lancaster," says Hank. "You ever see him in 'Gunfight at the OK Corral'?"
"That's Wyatt Earp," someone says, "he don't count. He ain't no cowboy."
Corky has been warming up to something, and finally he says real loud, "You guys are all wet. The best by-jesus western movie is 'Hud.' That Paul Newman is my idea of a cowboy."
"Hell," Darryl says. "He don't ride no horse; he just drives around in that Cadillac."
"I don't care. I wanna tell you, he's got the right attitude."
"What's the matter with you, Corky?" Darryl says. "Paul Newman wouldn't know not to squat with his spurs on."
"You ain't gonna change my mind," Corky says. "That man's got cowboy all over him."
Buster, who's been impatient to get to the singing, strums his guitar and says, "You boys all know 'The Streets of Loredo'?" And he starts into the song. The men listen respectfully. If you don't know it, it's about a cowboy who's "done wrong" and is dying from gunshot wounds. The song goes, "Bang the drum slowly and play the fifes lowly" as his friends bury him, and Hank and one or two others join in on the last lines:
Buster, who knows his folk music tells us the song is 200 years old and was at one time about a man dying of venereal disease.
"No, shit," says the guy who's put his feet back up on the table. "Glad as hell that's a thing of the past. Darryl here'd be a goner for sure."
Buster strums a new key and starts singing, "I ride an old paint. . ."
"Aw, hell, Buster," someone says, "not another song about dying. Give us something we can feel good to." And Buster segues into "Back in the Saddle Again," and he sings it with a big smile, just like Gene Autry.
One song follows another, and I feel myself nodding off. I open my eyes now and then, especially when Buster throws in some yodels, and I glance back at the guy with his feet up -- never got his name. I swear whenever he notices me looking at him, he grins like we've got some little secret going. And the secret is maybe that I'd love to just be him for a day. And he'd let me do it if I could.