The Cowboy, excerpt


Hollow and still, the house huddled around him. Only memories were left here now. The walls bore the ghosts of picture frames, the carpet shadows of furniture.

Even the air seemed wanting. Laughter was needed in the air, and the voices of his mom and dad, and the barking of an adopted dog. His own footsteps were missing. They would be a child’s footsteps with small feet in footed pajamas padding like a cat’s paws, or in cowboy boots rapping on the tile to announce him.

He had removed his shoes at some point this afternoon after the packing was done and the movers left. His size twelve Reeboks leaned against one another across the room, reminding him of how long it had been since he was a boy in this house.

A cool breeze spun through the room from the open front door. Autumn itself took him back. In those days everything was new and only for him: the sunshine, the moon and stars, the seasons. Summertime was for the beaches and a warmth that could make you feel like the universe itself hugged you. Wintertime was for fireplaces and hot chocolate and decorations and presents. Springtime trees flooded with leaves and sparkled with floating bees and flies, and birds chirping and calling. But in the fall the colors turned golden and brown, leaves lost themselves from limbs going stark in preparation for winter’s sleep.

Fall. His favorite season. Here in southern California, in the fall you could get a day in the nineties or hotter as the winds drove heat across the desert toward the coast, or you could get a day like today, the air cool enough to bring on sweaters or jackets. In childhood, every season had its magic but this one, for him, was finest of all. Its onset took his mind off the start of school and turned him forward toward the holidays he loved. But it was more than that. It was the changing. Autumn was the season of change.

The click-clack of skateboard wheels drew Robert’s eyes to the doorway. A kid of ten or eleven glided past, both feet on the board, arms hanging loose at his sides, hair brushed back from his face by the wind and whipping behind him.

That was the age. That was the autumn he remembered best.

A thought occurred to him, something he’d forgotten. He had to go to the backyard for a crate to stand on, because the ladder and stepstool and everything else were already gone. With the crate he was tall enough to open the hatch in the hallway leading to the attic. Head and shoulders into the opening, as his eyes adjusted to the dimness the trunk appeared, within reach. He slid it toward him and tilted it to slip it through the opening.

He blew off a layer of the dust caked on its lid, leaving a crust that would take a rag to remove. He opened the latch. The hinges resisted, but gave.

Inside were his boyhood things, saved by his mother.

That she would pack this trunk so carefully brought a swelling flood to his chest, a mixture of sorrow and gratitude, and yearning for times that would not come again. He wanted to tell her he’d found it, and thank her.

On top of the folded clothing of a child—worn jeans and a striped crew shirt—sat a white Cattleman crown cowboy hat. He lifted it out. The felt of the brim was soft to his touch, and he ran his fingers along the curve whose shape always reminded him of a saddle seat. Turning it over, the leather sweatband bore the stains of oils and sweats from his forehead, marks from a lifetime that was at once distant and recent enough to have been yesterday.

He didn’t try it on. It wouldn’t fit anymore. But it felt good in his hands. It was like the touch of a friend.

Autumn. Cowboys and Indians. The shrill cry of a crow. A dog saved and a boy lost. The memories swept through his mind.

They drew him away.

October, 1970

Long Beach, California


When Bobby got to the place in the sidewalk where tree roots had buckled it up, he straddled the break and planted his feet, and looked up. His thought was to count the few leaves still clinging to the branches that reached over him, but the brightness of the Friday afternoon sun clobbered his eyes. Squinting between his fingers didn’t work. He couldn’t outsmart the sun.

He closed his eyes to let the blaze fade from under his eyelids and while he was a blind man he shifted his textbooks to his other hand. The edges of his Science and Math books had dug into his wrist. He extended his arm down next to his leg and flexed his hand.

If he was a cowboy, his sidearm would rest holstered right about there against his thigh.

The sidewalk in a cowboy’s town wouldn’t be made of concrete. It would be planks, joining the front of the general store to the place that was a combo barber shop and tooth pulling parlor. His boots would rap against the planks. He’d tip his hat to the ladies, and view the Indians hanging around the saloon with suspicion. When the gunfight came, the townsfolk would scatter, and he’d step down into the dirt street and stand at thirty paces. He’d wait for the other guy to draw because then it’d be self-defense, and plus it was the honorable thing to do when you were faster.

“Hey, Bobby.”

Bobby wheeled around and drew.


“Never sneak up on a gunfighter, pilgrim.”

“You going to shoot me with your finger?”

Bobby uncocked his weapon and holstered it. “You ought to know better.”

Nelson’s brown cowlick stood out to one side like a bent stalk of wheat. Behind his smudged glasses, he narrowed his eyes and looked down past Bobby.

The leaves on the sidewalk here were bigger than ranchers’ tanned hands, their flexed fingers dry and rigid. Bobby stretched for one of them and stomped. Through his worn All Stars the brittle crunch tickled the sole of his foot.

Nelson leaped onto the next uncrunched leaf. Bobby lunged for the one beyond it. The rest of the way they scrambled for the leaves, yelping every time their toes got stomped.

At 3rd and St. Joseph, Nelson peeled off toward his house. Bobby ran home.

The Imperial sat in the driveway. Dad was home early.

Bobby burst into the house. “Mom! I’m home!” His books clapped together on the dining room table and in the kitchen he found the graham crackers and poured a glass of milk.

Five minutes to The Rifleman.

But it was Dad who walked down the hall, not Mom, and something in the hunched way his shoulders were set made Bobby stop and stare. He came on down the hall, the only dad in the neighborhood who was a doctor too, the one they called whenever anybody was hurt.

The milk glass cooled Bobby’s fingers. He loosened his grip on the graham crackers so he wouldn’t snap them.

Dad’s hand pressed down onto Bobby’s shoulder. “Son, we need to talk.” His lips tightened up like they did when he was trying to loosen a stuck bolt on the Imperial.

Bobby edged away. “The Rifleman’s about to start.” The T.V. screen reflected the light from the living room window as a warped white rectangle. The on-off knob stuck out above the two channel dials.

Dad knelt down. His eyes had rims of red tucked inside the lids. And his hand on Bobby’s shoulder was pinching too hard.

“There’s no easy way to say this, Bobby, so I’m just going to say it. Connie—your mom’s gone.”

Bobby looked over Dad’s shoulder, down the hall. He saw no movement back there, heard no sound.

“Where’d she go?”

Dad’s eyes flickered, going wet. Seeing it made Bobby feel like the floor was falling away.

“I… she’s with some friends for a while. Then, I don’t know.”

The emptiness of the house cratered around him. No footsteps came. The hallway over Dad’s shoulder was a black cave broken by sunlight streaming out of windows in rooms with nobody in them.

The ticking clock on the mantel was loud enough to shatter windows.

“Bobby, your mom’s left us.”

“But when’s she coming back?”

“I don’t know.”

“But what…” The empty house around Dad was blurring up. Bobby felt the glass of milk starting to slip from his hand. He clamped it tight.

“So it’s just you and me, son. For now anyway.”

Bobby spun out from under Dad’s hand and went into the kitchen. The counter at the sink was empty. No one stood there. Mom wasn’t at the refrigerator or sitting at the table stirring a cube of sugar into a cup of Lipton.

His milk glass clacked onto the cold white top of the kitchen table, and the echo in the silence was like a slap.

What had he done? There was that thing with Miss Kelly last week. Why did he have to talk back? Mom had to go to the school and talk to her, and he’d been off the T.V. for a whole afternoon for that one.

He went back to Dad, who still knelt in the living room.

“Is it because I got in trouble at school last week? Because if that’s it, I won’t talk back again. I promise.”

Both of Dad’s hands came onto Bobby’s shoulders, like he was trying to keep him in place the way he couldn’t keep Mom. The water seeping into Dad’s eyes made everything worse. He blinked.

“No, Bobby. That’s not it. It doesn’t have anything to do with you.”

He shrugged out from under Dad’s hands. “Yes, it does. She’s my mom. ’Course it has to do with me.”

“I mean it’s not your fault, Bobby.”

“Don’t say it doesn’t have anything to do with me. Because it does.”

“Okay. Right. Yeah, that’s right.”

“She’s my mom. And she’s gone.” He turned away and looked into the vacancy of the kitchen again. “Who’s going to make dinner? You? And who’s going to—” He snapped his mouth shut. Every night, after Dad said good night, Mom drifted into Bobby’s room to hug him and tuck him into bed. To tell him about the day coming up and make him giggle over something.

He rubbed his face against the short sleeve on his shoulder.

“We’re going to have to figure it out, Bobby. You and me.”

She’d left the kitchen windows open. The drapes she’d picked out lifted away from the wall in a cool breeze as if the outdoors was breathing—white cloth like clean bed sheets broken by a pattern of printed flowers without a fragrance. They settled back down.

“Like Lucas and Mark on The Rifleman, Bobby. Like those guys. We have to get through it like they did.”

Bobby turned to his dad.

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