Cowboy Good Stuff's Four True Loves

Joseph Scapellato





His first

A whore. She played her clothes like cards. Even with an empty hand she’d be beaming, singing brassy songs to keep the game going. Her room was small and dark and hot, a miracle she made homey.

When their first time ended she strutted fingers up his arm. She crossed to his chest, kicked a rib, clapped her palm flat. She leaned in close. She whispered that a man could make an unknowing whore of any woman, even ladies, just by what was in his heart when he was with her.

In his heart: her brassy singing.

He listened for a spell. Then said, “Don’t you mean what wasn’t?” She scooted back and up and let her voice break big, singing out in that little room.

He shattered into shivers—goosepimples popping off down every limb—heart stumbling.

Every song she sang she’d call “Good stuff.”  The only thing she’d ever say about herself was she used to sing on riverboats in Illinois.

“The ones that come as big as they come.”

When he left Oklahoma with the herd he was feeling that kind of big, like he’d see her everywhere. Why not? It was the way he had of making her go unmissing.

When he saw himself in a shining stream or knife, he’d get to humming.

The Shorthorn

Broke down to her belly by a rocky patch. She’d eaten something foul, maybe killweed.

Old Jim Bucket with the split chin saw her first, shouted out, and all the cowboys pushed the herd the hell away from there, dust churning up in banks, cowdogs barking, the sun hanging high.

Because the others had the moving covered, Good Stuff rode over to the sickened shorthorn to see what could be done. He passed Old Jim Bucket going thataway, looking gray and pouch-faced, puppet-like, riding hard to fetch the rifle from Flaco. Most said Bucket had been in beef cattle for sixty-five years. When you worked with him you saw his gift soon enough: the old man had long talks with the animals in his charge, even those that weren’t, his words rolling out in English but with different meanings and deliveries—strange tones and speeds, fits and starts. Every sentence a foreigner in familiar clothes, always learning, always feeling out how best to say what needed to be said.

If you watched this your skin prickled.

Even so, Bucket was big with high-rolling ranchers. He nearly always brought every animal back.

Good Stuff stuck close to Bucket in his early weeks on the job, sneaking in a listen when he could. He saw the old timer strike it up with steers, bulls, heifers, freemartins, calves, horses, mules, dogs, lizards, and beetles, each creature addressed in a special way. Before they left camp, Bucket had been crouching by his tent, pleading to a tarantula. Asking whispered questions while the hairy critter crawled into the shadows of his pantleg.

“Why no you ain’t,” Bucket said. “You ain’t, why no, you, you ain’t?”

Good Stuff, pretending to tie his bedroll, whispered Bucket’s words, tasted how they sat in his mouth.

Bucket, who had now gone to fetch the rifle.

Good Stuff approached the broke-down shorthorn. He dismounted his nervous horse and crunched over slow. The shorthorn’s left side was touching rock-shade, her body heaving, her breathing ugly. He reached to caress her. She snuffled her big head away, then back, eyes swimming, legs crushed beneath her bulk.

He sat next to her on a pile of rocks. Dissipated herd-dirt clouded by, five hundred clomping hooves not so noisy now. She bumped him gently with her head.

He opened his mouth to say something and singing came out.

Not words he knew. All made-up.

The words coming from some hard core of feeling he hadn’t felt but once before, centered, tight as a knot of clutched-together hands.

Something big at the heart of all those hands.

His chest flexing, his body shaking.

Unknotting out, and opening—everything he didn’t think he had was there—even the melody—until he’d used the words right up. He knew there’d be more to reach for later. He closed his mouth.

He came back to where he was.

His tongue caked dry. Gleaming black flies. The shorthorn dead.

He turned: the cowboys bent-up on their horses not four paces away, in a half-circle, their moustaches wet. Old Jim Bucket looking like he’d been shot in the throat. The sun squeezing low, swabbing all their faces bright.



His second

Sheriff’s daughter, a schoolteacher. Smart and stout and something else with her hands on her hips.

He gave up cowboying to stay with her near Amarillo, his idea being to learn carpentry. When they went for walks along the town’s parched creek they got to feeling there were parts of each other they didn’t know they had, but had always had, and here they were learning to use those parts to grab on and let go and hold tight. He kicked sticks out of her way and steered them clear of snakes. She blushed, told him what she’d been teaching. He made up songs, his singing coming out in real words, words they knew—hadn’t sung without words since the shorthorn, hadn’t felt it in him with her—and she stopped to sit on stones and write the verses down.

When they held hands, roads rose up, bending from behind some way-off mountain. They were the kind of roads you cleared yourself. The kind that came with ranches and children and dogs, well-digging, feed-storing, song-playing on the porch you built on the land you owned, a song for every day, every day a road, every road crooking back to its beginning.

Sometimes they held hands so tight he’d quit feeling his fingers.

Sometimes they talked some silly-talk.

One Sunday the sheriff decided she’d marry a banker.

The banker owned a railroad. The railroad led to Chicago.

The sheriff liked Good Stuff so he told him himself, with whiskey, at the only saloon in town. “It’d be best for you if you left now,” he said, and stood up quick and shuffled to the door, as if showing him the way.

Good Stuff pushed off his stool, the one he’d built, and turned to catch up not knowing what he’d do, but the barkeep snatched his arm and said, “Hold on, you got free ones coming.”

“I don’t want no free ones.”

“Can’t say no to free ones,” said the barkeep, and poured them out, one two three four. Looking copper in the light.

Good Stuff wouldn’t drink. He sat on his stool and watched the barkeep watch him back.

Most everyone advised against their meeting one last time but they got together anyhow, by the creek. She looked like she’d been dying of dysentery for a week straight. She said they’d get accustomed to it. She said he could come to Chicago and track her down anytime he damn well wanted.

“By your new last name.”

She pulled damp pages out from under her shirt, her hands shaking. “Your songs.”

The first words he’d ever written down. She’d taught him how: the flip-sides all jammed up with practice-scribbles.

He pushed them back. “Our songs,” he said. It was the most awful thing he could think to say, and also the best.



His third

The Spanish Don’s daughter, descended from conquistadors, the most gorgeous woman him and everyone he knew had ever seen.

When California was being named, her granddaddies jumped up from Mexico with servants and gunmen, started planting and shooting, marrying, frying steaks, building floors and dancing on them. Way back they owned one-quarter of the coast.

They didn’t own so much now but were rich and didn’t like gringos, this being one of the reasons why Good Stuff’s face got knocked in when they were found out in her room—he’d had time to cover her and hop the bed before the Spanish Don’s men floored him with a flurry of pistol-whipping. She’d watched—terrified, proud, and invincible, the same way she’d watched him undress her.

They hauled Good Stuff down the stairs, tossed him in the cellar, and took turns stepping on his face.

His boots and guitar had been left beneath her bed—a fancy thing, four-posted and perfumed. Her still on it.

The men bolted the cellar door and hurried upstairs. Company had come, other rich folks. A fiesta.

Good Stuff lay on the floor like something spilled from a sack. He couldn’t hold all the hurting at the same time, so it dropped in piece by piece. Through the hurting he heard boots and heels and wood. Music, too: horns and guitars, an accordion, many men singing with one voice. Muffled, but magnificent.

Hearing this made him hot with a need to touch things.

When he could stand up, he did. Blood ran down his neck, shoulders, and chest, shined out in trails from his trampled face. This was the biggest room he’d ever been in and there was plenty to touch: broken farm tools saved out for spare parts, crates of wine, jarred fruits and vegetables, empty bottles lined up in boxes. He grasped every object, rubbed every surface. He couldn’t blink. He’d met her in the road. She was beautiful and he was beautiful, and they traded greetings in English and Spanish, and he played and sang. His face felt like pounded clay.  They both knew what they’d just been having had nothing to do with who they were, only where they were and how they were, right now, and this truth was as magnificent as the muffled music coming through the ceiling. She’d taken his hand and led him the whole way to the ranch.

Among the farm tools he found an old guitar. Two strings, the base cracked and rat-gnawed. He squeezed its neck. He rapped its rotten frets.

None of this touching really felt like touching, so he started playing, which began to feel like something. His mouth opened and returned to singing without words, just the milky gargle of a bloodied throat:

Ooooh-haeeee, haeee, hauuuu.

Ooooh-haeee, haaoooh.

Haeee, hauuu.

Hauuuu.

The dancing upstairs stopped. The music too.

Ooooh-haeee, haaoooh.

The cellar door unbolted and groaned open. He walked through bleeding and playing, thickly singing his wordless song.

Haeee, hauuu.

Hauuuu.

Blood streaked down the guitar’s neck, both strings slickening.

Blood pattered into the sound hole.

He entered a bright hall twice as big as the cellar and crammed with colorful people. Still playing, he passed them in bare feet, dripping across the dancing floor. He couldn’t tell which well-dressed gentleman was the Spanish Don. All the faces were soft and well-bred, but pulled tight, shocked without wanting to show it. They looked like they lived sure lives except for maybe once a month.

The musicians smiled stunned smiles. One’s face was crossed in half-open scars. Another stamped with an eyepatch.

All stayed in place, held down.

Good Stuff walked through the adobe arch into the early evening. The Spanish Don’s many dogs did not pursue.

The daughter watched him leave the ranch at her window, from where she’d helped him climb in.

The cradling range of mountains fading. The daughter wanting badly to be feeling worse than she did.



The nowhere dogs

When he’d get to whichever somewhere town, he’d sit outside the saloon in the dirt and wait for the nowhere dogs to find him. Sick and old, infected, starved, abused, they’d shuffle up in dozens and take turns resting their muzzles on his boots. They begged to be touched. He’d oblige—he’d knead their necks and ears, their boils and sores and burrs, and the dogs, unfeeling even in their rawest wounds, turned their bodies to invite still more.

Then Good Stuff would open his mouth and sing the willing ones into easy dying.

Anyone who watched, men, women, children, lawmen, undertakers, outlaws, they’d weep, even if they didn’t think they had it in them, the tears tugged into dry air. Then they’d pick up their dogs.

Good Stuff didn’t ask but they’d pay in cake and bread, hats and boots, knives, polish, jugs.

Never meat.

Never lodging.

And on and on, and over, wordlessly crisscrossing the West, feeling carried.



The bodies

When Good Stuff got older he stayed put in Texas.

When he stayed put, his wordless singing let him go. It swaggered down the road, a body wandering outside his body. Ungrasped, he felt heavy but firm. He got to building.

           

His fourth

The radio.

Good Stuff, a creaky old man. His head a hundred shelves of memories of singing songs. He lived alone inside a stuffy rowhouse he’d mostly built himself. The Jackley boy, who lived just down the street, came by every Sunday afternoon to listen to him play because his parents, who he never disobeyed, declared it Christian duty.

The Jackley boy was scared of Good Stuff’s crumpled brow and smashed-toad eyeballs, disgusted by the spit bubbles he blew when he spoke. But he’d sit on the porch, close his eyes, listen to the old man play from his rocking chair, and pretend the songs came from somewhere else. From the mountains, or whatever worlds stretched behind them, the worlds his daddy had explored.

When the boy showed up the first thing Good Stuff did was tell a love story the boy wouldn’t understand. There was always music in the love story, and he’d cap it with a two-part saying:

“Music ain’t the tool of the devil. The devil’s the tool of the music.”

“Music’s made of love. But love ain’t made of music.”

“Music don’t make the world smaller. Just makes you bigger.”

Then he’d ask the Jackley boy to fetch his guitar from the porch, and he’d play and sing with words.

He thought he’d miss the wordlessness more than he did.

Mostly he thought of Sunday afternoons, of looking forward to them.

One Sunday morning Good Stuff woke and felt someone’s arm laying on him heavily. His tired heart fluttered. Daring not to touch it, he kept his eyes shut, thankful to whoever had walked into his house and climbed into his bed and thrown their arm across him like a lover’s. He felt the surging of an old and magnificent feeling. When that feeling crested an hour later, he looked. It was his own arm, as senseless as a ham.

He carried his arm all day like the thing still belonged to someone else, setting it down tenderly, rubbing the skin slowly. Good Stuff didn’t get the feeling back until lunchtime. He found himself conflicted by his arm’s return. He stood on the porch and got to thinking about what it might feel like to be someone else.

The Jackley boy came by. Before telling a love story, before playing, Good Stuff asked him what he did on the other days of the week when he wasn’t here being so good-hearted visiting with an ugly old man.

The boy looked up from drawing stick animals in the porch-dust. “I like to listen to the radio.”

The radio, who hadn’t heard about the radio? Good Stuff knew the radio came from nowhere but at the same time from towers in Chicago. He knew something about Chicago. He touched the boy’s little elbow and said, “Can you bring me a radio, son?”

“My daddy can.” He sped straight home.

Mr. Jackley brought the radio over, the boy tagging excitedly along, wanting to help carry it, wanting to just watch his daddy carry it. A dozen neighborhood kids saw Mr. Jackley hefting the beautiful bulky contraption down the street. They dropped their sticks and tops and jump ropes and followed, and before long were crowding up Good Stuff’s porch, being noisy, roughhousing, too excited by the radio to get the willies from Good Stuff’s misshapen face.

Mr. Jackley, a quiet veteran who’d served in the trenches, was sweating from exertion. He said good afternoon and removed his hat and set up the radio in the doorway. It was the size and shape of a liquor cabinet. The neighborhood kids all crouched low. A stillness spread among them. Good Stuff knew something big was about to happen but at the same time acknowledged he’d never believe it until he saw it. Mr. Jackley turned the knob.

Music squeezed out as if from a magic room. The darkest room, the darkest magic. Good Stuff shivered, feeling it all over, the best bath he’d ever had.

The neighborhood kids all looked at the radio, through the radio, and into the invisible big band orchestra. The musicians sounded a thousand miles away but also right next door and upstairs.

The Jackley boy beamed up at Mr. Jackley.

Mr. Jackley knew his boy was looking, but he looked at Good Stuff.

Good Stuff wasn’t looking anywhere. He asked the Jackley boy to fetch his guitar.

The boy didn’t hear him because Good Stuff didn’t say a word, but thought he had.

When the song ended, Good Stuff tumbled out of his rocking chair and onto his arm. The nearest kids hurried to help him up. He rubbed his shoulder and said, “Hardly anything, keep it playing.”

They listened to tunes for an hour. Good Stuff didn’t play, even though Mr. Jackley periodically offered him his guitar. All the kids left.

Mr. Jackley guessed Good Stuff had broken his arm, and decided he’d call on the town doctor after he brought the radio home. He shook Good Stuff’s hand, put on his hat, got the radio ready, and lifted.

As he and his boy left the porch, Good Stuff said, “I been wrong all my life: music don’t make you feel more. Just makes you feel how much you keep missing.”

On the way home, the boy whispered to his dad, “What’s he been wrong about?”

Mr. Jackley set the radio on the street outside his house, needing but not wanting to rest his arms before bringing it up the steps and through the front door. Inside, his wife banged pots, cooking chili, pregnant again. Their blind cat napped under the porch. Mr. Jackley rubbed out the aching in his hands and looked down at his son. His son looked back with love, even though he didn’t know what it was or how it worked, or where it came from and how it left you, how it stayed. He didn’t know a thing about it. Mr. Jackley wanted to match his boy, to learn to put outside what was inside, but knew he’d only ever muster up just so much, and nothing more.







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