Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Cowboy Up

I'm in a pickup truck in Kit Carson County, Colorado, about 100 miles east of Denver. I haven't seen a Subaru or a Thule rack in days-just dusty Ford's, cowboy hats, and rolling crop grids that shimmer in the August heat. Manny is balancing a cigarette on his lower lip as he holds the wheel and sings along to a Conway Twitty tape that's crackling through the blown-out speakers. Back at the truck stop in Limon, where I had sat for close to three hours, Manny was the only one to pull up to my thumb. "I can get ya as far as Siebert," he had said through a toothy smile.

He's a tall stick of a man, maybe in his late twenties, with a taut red face pinched around a thick blonde mustache and over sized blue eyes. Above his sweat-stained tank top and I can see daddy tried... tattooed on his collar bone, and along his right bicep, Cowboy Up is printed in dark italics. Blue jeans hug his skinny legs, tight enough to make a teeny-bopper blush, and tuck effortlessly into a pair of red and black Tony Llamas. Empty beer cans clank around the cab floor, rolling back under the seat when he punches the clutch. The truck is a mess; a tan F-250, late 80's, with the flat bench torn out and replaced with two bucket seats. All the interior panels have been ripped out, exposing greasy tan metal and electrical wires which hang like tangled vines at our knees. In Genoa, where we had stopped for beer, Manny had to pop the hood and pour gas in the carburetor to get the starter to catch.

We're driving on the dirt portage road parallel to I-70 because the pickup won't drive on the highway. "She starts tremblin' up around sixty," Manny explains with a grin. But I don't mind much. It's the kind of golden summer day where even a dusty road shoulder looks beautiful and exotic. And the land really is golden like they tell you back east-wheat for miles in every direction, almost ablaze under the blue sky.

Siebert is a flat grid of trailers and plastic houses wrapped around a grain elevator and railroad tracks. Each yard is fenced off with crooked fencing and strewn with fisher-price play sets, kiddie pools, and barking dogs who leap at the fence as we drive by. There is no one outside. "It's been hotter than hell this summer," Manny says as we pull up to a light green mobile home. Two small dogs bark in the yard until Manny kicks one of them in the ribcage. I meet Krystal, who's pregnant and smoking a cigarette on the couch while a baby sleeps next to her. Spandex pants and an over sized t-shirt make her look like a bloated frog. "You can't be in here while he sleeps," she says, but Manny just wants to borrow a few smokes before heading out back. I wait in the mudroom, which is also the kitchen-a skeletal room with two heaping trash cans, a half case of Pepsi, and a few piles of dirty dishes. House flies buzz around the windows. A mangy looking sheltie lies under the table.

The baby wakes up anyways, and Manny dangles it above his head while it giggles and then he smokes a cigarette with Krystal on the couch. I sit in a Lazy-Boy, drinking and watching the baby wobble and stretch for an emaciated kitten sitting on the window sill. The faux-cherry walls are hung with images of western landscapes, cowboys, and Jesus. Above the couch is a shelf lined with mementos-an effigy of mother Mary, a caste of an Indian's head, an artistic cowboy boot made of blue and white china, a portrait of the baby. The carpet is littered with children's toys. A wood-framed television buzzes an outdated Gary Allan song. "You can crash here tonight if you want," Manny tells me.

We're back in the truck driving to a friend's house. The sun has dropped and the air is less sticky; the town is silent. We pull up to a double-wide where two men are outside at a plastic table smoking cigarettes. One of them has a dog on a leash and he brings Manny inside the house to show him something while I sit drinking with the other, an older man with a tanned, grizzled face. He stinks like cheap bear and sweat, but I probably do too. His work pants, t-shirt and baseball cap are a uniform brown, greasy and faded like spilt coffee. "I don't get it," he says, "yur just hitchhikin' to hitchhike?"

Manny comes back outside deciding we need more beer. We jump in the pickup and tear down a straight dirt road between fields of wheat and corn to the nearest store still open. He guns the truck through empty intersections, spitting dirt long, deep tracks in the rear-view. "Yup," he says, "got another fifty horsepower out of her with a few Pulstar spark plugs and a welded piston." At the convenience store in Cope, Manny has to pour more gas in the carburetor. He turns the key, flames burst from the cylinder, and he lets out a WHOOP as he jumps behind the wheel.

Halfway back to Seibert, Manny asks if I want to drive, and I do. We stop, piss, and switch. Its dark and the beam of the headlights are tunneled straight ahead by the walls of corn on either shoulder. The steering wheel jerks and tugs as I spring over washboards and maneuver the maze-like grid. I feel like I'm hydroplaning. The rushing dirt road blurs out my window, but the speedometer only reads thirty-five. At that point I would have torn through a field if Manny said it was OK.
We're back at Krystal's trailer, safe, and it's late, and June-bugs are slapping at the aluminum door under the glowing porch light. Some house down the street is hooting and hollering but I can't make out what they're saying. Manny goes straight into the back bedroom while I sit in the living room drinking more beer and watching country music videos on the television. The twangs of George Strait's steel guitar soon tangle with Krystal's excited moaning in the next room, but I'm too drunk to care.

They come out a half hour later to smoke a cigarette and Manny shows me his collection of cowboy boots. "I can give you a ride to just about the Kansas line in the morning," he says.

The next day I'm sitting in the Lazy-Boy anxious to get back on the road while the baby is climbing over my legs and the rest of the room, banging a cordless phone on the coffee table, and sucking on a cigarette lighter. Krystal is on the couch, smoking and drawing a tattoo in a sketchpad with loopy cursive reading Love Hurts. She occasionally glances over with a scrunched face as if trying to figure out why I was still sitting in her living room. It smells like cigarettes and musty diapers. Flies buzz, the baby shrieks, Manny snores, Krystal hums some lullaby. My head throbs. I feel like I just got sucker punched by America.

When Manny does wake up it's almost noon. He comes out of the back bedroom in only his jeans and cowboy boots. His eyes are red and his thin blonde hair is matted into sweaty tufts that jut out at wild angles. I figure I look no better. "Ready?" he asks, and I collect my pack as we walk to his truck which doesn't start again. 

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