My Daddy is a Cowboy

Man in the hat

My Daddy is the man in the hat.

When the neighborhood kids ask about my Mama being single, that is what I tell them, shuffling them into my closet where I have a movie poster of an old cowboy hidden, tacked up on the wall behind my gingham dress and the white frock I wore only once, at communion. The man in the poster is what my Mama would call “rugged,” with a dark moustache and a fedora shaded over his eyes.

“Why you got him in here?” Jimmy asks, sniffling. His nose is always runny and I make sure not to touch his hands or sleeves, because he doesn’t have any manners and wipes his snot on places where they shouldn’t be.

“Because Mama would cry if she saw him,” I say and elbow him over when he tries to paw at where Daddy has a small cleft, right on his chin. I tell Jimmy what I don’t tell the others – that Daddy was an outlaw, a wanted man, and that he’s on the run and he can’t send me letters or telegrams on account of the FBI.

Jimmy’s eyes grow large and wide, and he looks at the poster, and then at me, in a queer special way.

At school the next day, he pulls his baseball cap low over his brow in the cafeteria when we pass by each other during lunch. I give him a solemn nod, like he’s a cowboy saying “Howdy,” and I’m the schoolteacher who he’ll end up romancin’.

Plague

Old Castle Gate

Enrico stops before the missionary’s door, his throat parched from the long day’s ride. He thumbs the silverware secreted in a sack beneath his shirt and clambers off his mule, bracing an arm against his chest to prevent the spoons from rattling. He knocks timidly on the timber, dried and cracked from the long Mexican drought, then pounds.

“Open,” Enrico cries, and is ashamed at his own strangled voice. He clears his throat and pounds again. “Open!”

After what feels like a long while, a priest finally pries ajar the door, sending a miasma of dust across him. He peers at Enrico through a small sliver. Enrico can glimpse little more than one of the man’s eyes and a bare courtyard beyond it. Enrico pulls the sack from his shirt and thrusts it into the man’s hand.

“Please, padre. My son, he is very ill.”

The priest, gray-haired and balding, avoids his gaze for a moment, then presses the sack back into Enrico’s arms. “I have heard,” the priest says. “We are all sick in this town, my son.” He turns his head away showing the scaly protrusions of smallpox along his left cheek. He entreats Enrico with kind, sad eyes. “Go home, my son.” Then he closes the door.

Enrico rides, slowly with hunched shoulders, feeling a weight as heavy as a stone press on his back. At the marketplace, Enrico exchanges his silverware for sweetmeats and fruit someone has managed to save by storing them in the coolness of his cellar.

He even buys an orange – his son’s favorite – knowing it’ll need no cutlery.

Mistress

Dancers lace their shoes

My girl is the redhead, the third in line by the corner over there.

She cut her locks three days ago, to sell as a wig, and bought the shoes she is lacing on, an old pair belonging to a consumptive ballerina. She’s dead now, that ballerina. My girl will be murdered too once she goes on stage. A chorus girl can flounce around and expect applause, provided she’s dressed scantily enough, but not in this.

We thrash artists the way working men drink and hit their dogs.

I’ve already tried persuading her not to go up there, you see. But she won’t listen and a mistress grows tiresome, once they lose the naivety of youth. I’ll be parting with her at curtain call, but here is her address, since I see you’ve been eyeing her.

Do treat her kindly.