Jimmie wasn’t my first choice. Then again, she picked me out of the Lewistown bar stool line-up and settled me over in Coffee Creek. For as long as I knew her, she’d picked through letters at the post office and sent them off to important places that end in “Avenue” or “Island.” Went from clerk to supervisor overnight, then stayed in character after she’d walked home. She once told me handwriting said too much about a person, and I caught myself eyeing my altimeter or stabilizer purchasing slips and my hunched l’s leaning as if they were staked to the ground. Denton’s little Cessnas were easy enough to fix for Fergus County, but hiding in a hangar for thirty years and setting up everybody else’s tickets to freedom got me bored enough to moonlight as a rodeo clown these last eight. They tell me eight seconds can feel like eight years, but I haven’t hopped in the saddle that way yet. After Jimmie’s funeral last month, time’s been ticking a little differently.
Still, bullfighting’s no different than being around the pissed-off bronco I grew up with. I called him Dad. Though Dad hated Jimmie because Jimmie hated Dad, when Kate and her younger sister, Sam, came along he forgot why. My babies had enough spunk to carry the flag through a field of cannonballs. When Kate was old enough to enlist, I told her to leave it up to the fellas, and instead, she went ahead and sheriffed for Denton and eventually Great Falls. Sam liked more grease on her hands than I did. I found her tucked under diesels and twin engines until she found a girl she liked and moved away. Jimmie hated that Sam dove into her own kind, said it wasn’t in her DNA. There’s no shame. Sam’s heart needed love from a woman, and Jimmie just wasn’t the sort to give it.
“God, your face still smells like clown paint,” Kate said in her half-hug at my front door. “I see you’re not washing it off now.”
“Can’t get all the creases clean. You try a weekend of Cloud White and Bazooka Pink on your face, kid,” I said, letting her by. “Tomorrow’ll take me half an hour to put it back on.”
She grunted a laugh and threw her Stratton hat on the pancaked couch cushions. She unzipped her sheriff’s jacket, sat, then stared out the once-white billowing curtains.
I sat across from her on a tired Cogswell chair. The house looked like shit and she knew it. When I couldn’t find a spot for my feet between the coffee table’s heaping ashtray and food-stuck plates, I leaned forward.
“So?” I started.
“You seeing anybody? Catching any bad guys?” I cozied back with my hands behind my John Deere hat, the one Sam always borrowed in the shop.
“Nope. Nothing new. I just came here to see how Coffee Creek was.” She stared at the small table in front of her, then made a show to look at the two fifths of Jim Beam glistening atop the dusty television.
“Don’t get all bunged up over those two bottles there. They’re the only two in the house.”
“You know I wouldn’t be surprised to find the whole goddamn distillery in the basement now. And I wouldn’t blame you.”
“Been wearing this face for eight years now. Still feel like a damn duchess, readying for the ball.”
“We both know it’s been more like forty. I’m thirty-six now. God, it’s gotta feel more like forty for you.” She pulled her ponytail out and leaned back to rub her brown, shoulder length hair into the back of the couch. “Hell, Mom made all of us wear a face. I just didn’t know her as long as you.”
“Does. Feels like forty.” I stared blankly at her.
“I get the bourbon, but what I don’t get are the Camels.” She squinted at the overflowing ashtray, a few of the ends still marked with lipstick. “Some of those are still Mom’s?”
“Pink as hell.”
“It’s the only thing we shared worth a damn.” Kate’s talk made me get up and grab the tray before it forced further insight that I’d been smoking with a ghost. I walked into the kitchen to dump the ashtray under the sink. Kate stared up at the ceiling.
“And you’ll share her demise then, as well. It’s not a race to the grave, Dad.”
She paused and I found myself clearing my throat as I opened the cabinet, trying to halt a brewing cough that would have punctuated her point.
“You gotta stop bullfighting. You got to. Tanner Martin is half your age and we know how he’ll walk the rest of his life. Grandpa had how many surgeries?”
I struck the ashtray hard against the side of the garbage, hoping she’d shut up. The butts spilled like spent .38 casings, so damn many it was embarrassing. Jimmie’s fluorescent lipstick reminded me we’d been sucking on bullets. The luxury hung in the slow drag, the intoxicating loading of the gun. Used to, at least.
“What are those?” Kate asked, sitting up. She was staring in the corner near the front window. “Are those golf clubs?”
“Picked ‘em up last week at a yard sale. Ten bucks for the set.” I found myself holding the ashtray, not wanting to set it anywhere. It looked too dirty, even for this place. I pulled out the garbage and quickly dropped it in.
“You don’t golf, Dad.” She was holding the only driver in the bag.
“Do now. Always wanted to, at least. Denton put in an 18-hole course a few years back.” I walked over and grabbed the putter.
“I’ve seen it.”
“Remember putt-puttin’ as a kid? We took you and Sam over to Billings a few times?” I faked a putt.
“Sure do. And I remember the Indian burn Mom gave Sam for holding the windmill and breaking it. Sam never did like putt-putting after that.”
Kate put the club back and nabbed my hat. She began to re-size it and pulled it on. “I was always jealous that Sam got to wear your hat so much. I always loved the way it smelled. That weird?” She stepped back to eye me.
“Only weird because it’s me. Now my dad’s smell? Barbasol and Fisherman’s Friend. Helped cover up the Camels in his pockets.” The putter fell back in the bag. “Hell if I can smell anything anymore, but to answer your question, no that ain’t weird. Smells are important. Just wish I could smell or taste something. You might still sense a difference between your oatmeals and your baked beans. ”
“Then stop smoking,” she whispered in my ear.
She wandered out the front door and stood in front of the cob-webbed windows on the porch. When she turned around, I’d reached for a Camel and popped it in my mouth out of habit. The move caught even me off guard. Kate just stared silently, jaw open. I waved her off.
“I won’t light it.”
And I didn’t.
~ ~ ~
The next morning the bed sheets clawed at me, and though my bones were now officially a lonesome pile, I told myself they held purpose. I’d hidden my pack of smokes from the bedstand the night before and found myself reaching into my coat pocket on my way to the bathroom. Staring into the sink mirror, I saw Dad.
I could never be a barrel man, like him. Jumping in and out of the damn thing while Mudslinger or Hard Eight gores the cylinder ain’t quality couch time. Dad held onto the barrel until he was forty then stayed on crew until he was fifty. That’s when he lost his sense of humor and his first step. Those are nice round numbers, but I can’t hold on until sixty. Two years is too far away. I don’t mind being the old timer, helping the fellas, but “old timer” is getting under my skin like a tick on a cold night, crawling bone deep. And though I never did tell Kate this was my last rodeo, I knew her little speech felt better said than thought. A daughter out to save her dad. My quitting, on the other hand, that’s a hell of a lot better thought than said. I guess now that Jimmie’s gone, I shouldn’t be hiding in an arena anymore.
Took forty-five minutes to get to Wheatland County Fairground. The crowd was seldom fat here on a Sunday. I’d been known to cake my face at home, but I felt like walking in today without all the stares.
All prettied up, I headed for the arena. The bleachers were starting to fill and the animals were cozy back in the stalls. I checked the barrels and had to smile. Gossamer was somewhere in the vicinity, a beautiful Brahma bull mix that had a telltale way of scraping the barrel straight up and down on approach. Most scrapes were slapdash. Gossamer drew in straight lines, and frequented the barrel.
I wandered over near the bucking chute. The chute looked smaller today. Smaller and more lonesome, I guess. It was hard to imagine a Gossamer or Hard Eight ever fitting inside, or a rider’s legs packed beside them. Maybe it was the paint, or my last go, but I felt compelled to gauge it the way a man would without a tape measure.
Jumping in, I could almost touch my shoulders to the walls. A bull shouldn’t fit in here, I thought. How the hell could it? The size bothered me enough to lie down and settle back to stare the sky. A failed snow angel left the green metal sides rattling, and I thought, be it horse, bull, or man, trap something in here long enough and he’ll want to kick free, you bet. I rested my arms under my head and followed the gray clouds tip-toeing from Big Sky, Boise, and beyond. The kind of clouds that seemed to dull coming off the Pacific, having met man and soil.
When a bull sunfishes, he’s trying to fly. Something a bronco can’t do. Horses always have at least one foot on the ground, but a bull’s leap can leave his pointing to the four corners of the universe. God, the monkeys we put on their backs. I’ve seen many a Cessna sputter dead and tinkered them back to life. I’ve resurrected nearly a hundred Pipers in the last thirty years. But the way we bullshit a bull and tell him that he’s living. We’re damn liars.
That got me laughing. Bullshit and soft earth got me laughing. The kind that bubbles up from the gut and makes a leg kick out. Bullshit and soft earth and a set of golf clubs. I started into my smoker’s cough, then laughed at the spit dripping from my lip. Jimmie used to do that. She leaned on the counter after a spell, the back of her hand wiping her bottom lip clean with an almost smile. Her laughs, few and far between, seemed to be cut shorter near the end. Hell if that didn’t make me slap the ground and keep slapping while the chute rattled. My laughter dropped me into another coughing fit.
A sandy-haired boy poked his head over the side of the pen. He stared down at me and squinted.
“You okay?” he asked. His arms over the railing seemed to reach for me.
I sat up and sucked my lungs healthy again after a few deep breaths, then tried to wave the boy off.
But he kept staring.
“You a rodeo clown?”
I reached up and lightly patted my cheeks, remembering. Some clumps of earth fell and I knew my face wasn’t Bazooka White anymore. The mix between my thumb and finger, that painted dirt. I rubbed it into a paste and shook my head.
“Nope.” I stood and wiped my hands on my shirt. “But call them bullfighters, son.”
~ ~ ~
Todd Day is a high school English teacher in Brighton, Michigan. He holds an MFA from Wayne State University in Detroit. He is the author of a children’s poetry and teaching book, Never Play Checkers With a Leapfrog (Old Line Publishing), and a humourous stage play, Mona. “Coffee Creek” is his first published fiction.