The Prophet Matthew inspired me in at least one way – I was drinking more. The drive was now measured by six-packs and pit stops. The daytime highway contained truckers, salesmen and the stray loser like me. If you could keep your ride between the white lines you were good. I made a game of finding beer in off-highway spots. Not an easy task; there were many dry towns and counties. Often the only place to get beer would be a low-lit cowboy bar with sinister music and hostile dowdy barmaids.
I found a package store affixed to a general store about ten miles off the highway near Laramie. I stood in line behind a young blond woman who wore a black cowboy hat with silver embroidery. The hat was tilted back resting on her shoulders. Her hair was fine and had a well-cared-for sheen. Her hair poured from under the hat and splayed over a dark blue shirt. Her shirt was tucked into tight jeans that showed off a classic figure.
The general store sold an assortment of farm stuff and a great amount of horse feed. Large sacks of the feed were arrayed at the front of the store. As a city boy, I had not given what horses ate a lot of thought; I thought they just ate grass. Leather and metal implements were displayed near the horse food. I looked at the articles with fear, glad that I wasn't a horse – I guess I'd jump a fucking hedge too if you rammed one of those things in my ass.
"Young fella, we don't cotton to such language here. Especially in front of a woman."
Fella. Cotton. Is he talking to me? I stared at the proprietor, a thin-faced man of about fifty with narrow eyes and black hair slicked over a balding dome - think Floyd the Barber, but with attitude. "Did I say that out loud?"
There was no amusement as his eyes drilled into me. I stood there with a six-pack and a handful of beef sticks. My hair was ruffled from the open window. I must have reeked of cheroot, beer, sweat and dog.
"Sorry, didn't know," I muttered. I looked down and felt the air as the woman turned. A sweet muted perfume swept by me.
"Danny?" she said.
I looked up from the floor I had been studying while avoiding the eyes of the clerk. She wore gray cowboy boots with darker embedded design, sharp black jeans tucked into the boots, a blue western shirt with a scarlet ascot, and a tan vest. The fair hair fell loosely to her shoulders. Her angular face highlighted by eyes that matched her shirt was set in bemusement. My mental tumblers spun as I tried to place her.
“Danny, it’s Deja from Maryland. We worked together. Remember?”
First my chidhood name: Danny, then hers: Deja. Of course, I remembered her. I was able to say, “Oh, yeah. Hi.”
Of course. She worked with me at the burger place. I started there when I was fifteen. The job was my social life through high school and a way to escape the boredom of the home. I was a backline burger flipper. She at the counter: elegant, controlled. She was unfailingly polite in an highly charged busy atmosphere.
We did not hang out after work. My world was restricted by the rules of the home. I wouldn’t have dared to ask her out.
She looked regal. Her posture was perfect. She had been a dancer as a child and the training showed. The last time I had seen her was a couple of years after school. I was wandering the streets with some drug pal or another when two horse riders emerged from the woods. Deja sat astride a gray. The sight was rare but not uncommon in a state known for horses. She smiled then as now and said hello. Her bearing and her generosity impressed me.
"No wonder you're surprised. What in the world are you doing in Wyoming?"
She stood aside as I paid for my things. I tried to form an answer that would sound better than the truth – that I had wandered off the highway looking for the beer and snack food – but settled for a weak: "Just passing through." I had lapsed into cowboyspeak. The counterman approved with a "thanks, pard".
"I knew him in high school back in Maryland," she said to the storekeeper.
"How long are you here?" she said to me.
"No particular time."
"You'll have to see our ranch. It's just sixteen miles or so away. We raise horses. I've been out here for ten years."
We. I scanned her left hand--there was a ring--a remote glimmer dashed.
"Any motels around. I could stay a night. I don't have a timetable.” The only deadline was avoiding the East. Rolling around the West had diminished my initial urgency to get to Miss Crimson. In fact, throughout the gin and beer haze, rare was the thought of her.
"Don't be silly. We have space at the ranch. You can stay there. I'll cook dinner. Okay?"
I nodded assent. I followed her outside to a clean gray pick up. I helped throw some bags of feed into the truck bed. A white Husky peered from the rear window, tail wagging.
Fritz hung from the driver's side window of the Aspen with similar enthusiasm.
The store guy had wheeled out a cart stacked with the large sacks of horsefeed. I grabbed one end as the guy did the other. He swung his end a little quicker than I anticipated and the sack jerked in mid air. He jammed his thumb or something and stifled a curse. Deja stepped in to finish the task with me. Without speaking we lifted the rest of the bags onto the bed easily.
I thought about how rare it is to work with someone on anything and have that level of synchronicity. At the home there had been many tasks. The father was demanding; nothing ever was right. A phrase floated back to me “what are you trying to do?”, his way of saying I was not measuring up. My thoughts had been - rather than "trying" I had a different idea on how to do the job.
Deja and I along with others on the team at the restaurant had that sort seamless coordination. I learned through many other experiences how rare that is. She sat in her truck as I went to the Aspen. I caught a scowl from the keep. I realized just before entering the car what the look was about. I went back inside thinking I would ask the guy for advice on something to bring as a gift. He already had a bottle of wine and a bouquet of flowers on the counter. I pointed to a half-pint of Jack Daniels to add to the bill. “Thank you, Mr. Griffiths, have a nice one, pard,” he said as I waved a wordless thanks.
Griffiths? I followed the truck on a pine tree bordered black top two-lane. Flowers and wine, nice of that guy, and then I realized - the jerk had been shining me with the cowboy lingo. Griffiths - he saw the book on my dash. I could understand the comparison, Deja as Sondra, the rich girl in the book that the son of the skid row preacher foolishly pursues.
I nipped at the Jack and popped open a can from the sack. I cupped some beer in my hand and held it over the seat for Fritz. His rough tongue lapped the beer. Ahead, Deja went around a bend disappearing into a thicket of trees.
Dagnabbit! I thought as the car swerved too hard into the curve. I whipped the wheel back to the left - too hard. I went off the asphalt breaking branches on the evergreens. I jerked the wheel back and righted the car. I was glad she was around the bend and did not see that performance.
You haven’t seen this young lady in ten years. She invites you home and you decide to get drunk on the way.
The road plateaued. A valley appeared set in tones of multi-brown-- nothing yet had sprouted from the winter. We went off the road on a long curving driveway of bare ground. The drive swung into the front of a modest one-story house, and continued to a barn where Deja parked. A man stood by another pick up with a horse-trailer attached.
I stopped by the house. I lit a cigar hoping to mask my breath. Deja and the man approached.
“Danny, this is my husband, Don.” He was handsome in a graying at temples, crinkling serious to friendly instantly way. He was less the grizzled westerner and more the executive type. His eyes bored into me. He shook hands with a firmness that spoke of his strength and confidence. I hoped he hadn’t read mine as weak and drunk though he would not have been wrong on either account. He wore the jeans and jean jacket uniform of the country, but would have looked comfortable in Brooks Brothers apparel as well. I kept a cloud of smoke around my face.
“Danny, Don will show you where you’re staying. I’m going to go in and start things.”
“Wait,” I said, “this is for you.” I pulled the bag with the wine and flowers from the Aspen. The bottle flew from the bag and smashed onto some ornamental rocks that bordered the drive. A red stain grew around the broken green glass.
“Don’t worry the rain will wash that away,” she said as she took the flowers.
“Sorry, Don,” I said.
“Like she said, don’t worry though let’s hope the rain holds off another couple of days,” Don said with a crinkled look to the southwest sky. “We would like to show you some of the country tomorrow from horseback. Let me show you your digs for the night.” He led me to a house behind the barn. “Supper is in a hour.”
The house must have been for seasonal help. There were rudimentary accommodations. The sort of place one crashes right after “bean time” to get that early start on chores. I went back for my paper sack and a change of clothes. Fritz had bounded off with the Husky.
I drank another beer in the shower. I let the water run cool. In shorts and a tee I flopped on one of the bunks for “just a minute”.
I woke the next morning to the sound of horses.