The Sunburned Cowboy
by David Byron Queen
When I met the cowboy on the bus to Palm Desert, I had a few months sober still and life was open and full of possibility. This was 1995. Everything I owned was in a suitcase in the compartment above me—toothbrush, socks, underwear, jeans, t-shirts, a box of nicotine patches, my father’s meditation tape, a tambourine, and a 1971 Selmer Mark IV saxophone that had once belonged to my father in a plastic music case. I looked good. I’d shaved my beard, gotten myself a haircut, and wore a neat dark suit my father had given me around the time he left, told me to wear it one day at the start of my career. And well, it had taken longer than some but there I was.
My father disappeared when I was six. This was before, when we lived in Arizona. My mother always said she was sure he’d wandered into the desert on the way home from the bar and had fallen asleep. When I was this age, I didn’t understand how someone could fall asleep in the desert. Wouldn’t the sun keep you awake? He must have been so tired, I’d thought then.
I thought this for years: he was the greatest sleeper there ever was.
I don’t know when the cowboy got on. I woke up somewhere along the long flat line of the 10 and he was seated next to me, newspaper stretched over his lap, with a stack of several more in the seat between us. He was older by about thirty years, 50s by my guess, and wore a clean Canadian Tux (denim jeans, denim snap shirt) with an ornate pattern of a rose reaching out across each shoulder. His skin was terribly burnt, the color of hard red candy, and his ears and parts of his face were bubbly and peeling under the sharp white brim of his Stetson. Though he tried to conceal it, he appeared to be in a tremendous amount of pain. Each time he would move, even the slightest turn of the neck, he’d release a pained groan. He quickly read each paper, turning straight to the Real Estate sections, stopping to rip out every listing of a Spanish colonial, folding each when he was finished with it into a neat rectangle he’d place in his shirt pocket. “On my way to see my son,” he said, when he saw me staring. “Hey, do I know you?”
“No,” I said, and pretended to go back to sleep.
My sister Pat was waiting for me at the bus station, and drove me back to the house. The arrangement was that I could live on her couch for a few months, while I began my job parking cars for a rich old man who lived in town. Pat had met him at the country club where she worked as a server. He was an eccentric, I guess, and a car collector. And owned close to two dozen vintage cars he liked to keep parked in front of his various properties around town (“for aesthetics,” he’d said, over the phone). To avoid parking tickets, he needed someone to move them periodically throughout the day, usually just from one side of the street to another. I’d pick up the keys each morning in a P.O. box down on Palm Canyon near the Agua Caliente, in an envelope that had written on it no joy-riding!! in what I presume was the old man’s scrawl. 1
I never once met the old man1.
Strangely, when I’d speak to the old man, something in his voice would remind me of my father. I don’t know why. I barely remember my father. All I remember about my father was that he’d wanted to be a famous jazz saxophone player like Bird or Sonny or Getz but instead worked for a company that paid him to leave the house each morning and return home each night smelling like copier toner, and was the reason he would lie on the living room floor at night with a flask on his chest, listening to a woman on a cassette tape guide him through a series of meditations. You are a drop of water in the ocean, she would say, a wind pitching across a valley. He always looked so content.
Sometimes I would lie there with him, sneaking sips of his flask whenever he’d nod off. It tasted awful, but I wanted to be like him. I wanted to go to that place too, where he went when he was listening to the tape. I once asked him why he never did the meditations, why he just sat there listening to the tape. He said that was the meditation, not having to do anything. The trick, he said, was learning to clear your mind. I think he just had a thing for the woman on the tape.
I felt like a king driving in those cars, gliding down the avenues, with the radio on and the windows down, the streets giving off that wavy kind of heat like when a TV show is about to do a flashback. I was a nobody from Wickenburg, Arizona, who’d never driven a fancy car in his life. And then I had twenty of them. It was the best job in the world.
One day I was out in one of the old man’s cars, a sleek black ’73 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, pulling it around the block, when a man darted out in front of the car. I slammed on the breaks, nearly hitting him. I shouted, hey watch it!, but the man barely seemed to register I was there. I recognized him immediately. It was the sunburned cowboy I’d met on the bus weeks before, still all in denim, his perfectly white Stetson gleaming like a tooth in the sun. He walked quickly, his hands in his pockets, shoulders arched, as if he were trying to get to wherever he was going in a hurry. I wasn’t supposed to—and believe me I was fully aware of the rules—but I was curious and followed him up the block a little ways, keeping about twenty yards between him and the car. He was so set on getting to his destination he didn’t seem to notice. He took the next corner, and I followed him for another six blocks, and then for a while down one of the many side streets of Palm Desert. As I was still new to the city, I was losing track of where I was. As well as falling behind on my parking schedule.
I was of two minds then: I knew I needed to get back to work, but another part of me wanted to see where he was going.
I followed him on and on, several miles, until we were on the outskirts of town, back in a neighborhood development. Finally, he stopped. Then he moved out into the road and turned to face me, his hands outstretched like he were trying to calm a spooky horse.
I rolled to a stop in front of him and he walked around to the passenger side of the car. “You been trailing for a while,” he said. “We have a problem?”
“No, sir,” I said.
He looked at me. “Hey, I know you.”
“You need a ride?” I asked.
“No,” he said, but then opened the door anyway and got in the car. “I’m going to see my son,” he said, running his hand along the leather interior. “This yours? Sure is a nice car.” “Yeah,” I said, “ain’t she a beaut?” It gave me a sense of pride to say it, even though it wasn’t true. Back then, I was still in the belief one sin had the power to cancel out the other. “Done well for yourself for a kid your age.”
“I’m no kid. I’m 22.”
“And to think just weeks ago you were riding the bus.”
“American dream, I suppose.”
I told him to direct me. We drove around and around and by the time we’d circled the neighborhood at least three times I had serious doubts as to whether the cowboy had any idea where he was headed. I picked at a scab on my right thumb’s cuticle. I was about to give up on the whole thing when the cowboy lunged forward in his seat, shouted: there! I hit the brakes and he jumped out of the car and hurried up the dusty lawn of a plain one story Spanish colonial.
He knocked. Soon the door opened and he went inside.
I waited. It must have been over one hundred degrees. After fifteen minutes, my shirt was stuck to my back with sweat and there was a taste in my mouth like I’d been sucking on an old penny. My heart clicked in my chest. What was he doing in there? I gave the cowboy one more minute. I closed my eyes. You are a drop of water in the ocean; a wind pitching across a valley. When I opened them, the cowboy was at the car. His eyes were red like he’d been crying. He retrieved the newspaper listing of the house from his pocket, crumpled it in his palms, and tossed it on the ground. I pressed in the door’s lock. He pulled at the door handle and poked his head through the open window. “Wrong house,” he said. He tried the door again, and looked at me.
“What took you so long?” I asked.
“Please,” he said. “Let me in.”
“Did you hear me?”
“I’m going to see my son,” he said. “Not far from here. Little ways.”
I unlocked the door and the cowboy got in the car. I drove him four blocks down the road, and again he pointed—there! He ran to the house, knocked, and disappeared inside. I sped off back to the center of town.
The old man called. Said he’d gotten notice of several parking tickets, and he was going to have to dock my weekly pay ($85) to help cover them. It seemed unfair. I know I screwed up but I say this only because here he had all that money and he was an old man so there was no way he was going to spend it all before he passed. The most it’d ever be would be numbers on a sheet of paper. To this day, I don’t fully understand.
Over the next few months, I regained the trust of the old man. I maintained a perfect record. I didn’t miss a single car and by the time I’d paid back the parking tickets I had the schedule down like it was second nature, like walking, or making sure to breathe.
I wished my father could have seen me.
I signed up for saxophone lessons from a guy in town. He was a music student at the COD, and would occasionally drive to Palm Springs, or even Los Angeles, to play in the clubs. We’d meet twice a week in the back of an oriental rug store his parents owned. I wasn’t very good. In my hands that sax was a loud, honking, wretched thing. Like I were squeezing the life out of a swan. I wouldn’t develop my chops until later.
It was around this time I saw the cowboy once more. He was hurrying along the sidewalk with a newspaper tucked under his arm, his skin worse than before. A motion of loose, knotty energy. He saw me, and approached the car—this time an arctic white ’65 Buick Riviera.
“Hey, I know you,” he said.
“Get in,” I said. He did, and then I asked him where he was headed. He said it was a little ways up the road, and that he was visiting his son. I said: I know. His skin was tough to look at— cracked and purple-red and bubbling like lava. He asked if I could drive him. I told him I couldn’t, I had a schedule to keep, and then he removed his Stetson and retrieved a thin silver flask tucked away inside. He drank, and handed it over to me. I unscrewed the top and smelled the rim of it—tequila; it burned the edges of my nostrils nicely. Then I handed it back to him.
We drove up the avenue, and pulled off into a quiet neighborhood. Again, we drove around. All the houses looked the same, and I wasn’t sure how the cowboy was able to differentiate one from the other. The cowboy spotted a similar looking Spanish colonial at the end of a cul-de-sac, not far from the base of the hills in the distance. There were a dozen cars parked along the curb and balloons on the mailbox. We got out of the car and walked up to the house, peering in the windows. There was a party inside. Children running around, adults standing and talking with drinks in their hands. “You sure this is it?” I asked, and the cowboy said he was. We rang the doorbell, but it appeared to be broken. We knocked but nobody came to the door. Then the cowboy started around the side of the house. I told him to wait, but he ignored me and opened up the gate and disappeared. I followed. In the dusty backyard, there was food spread out on a folding table, a clown, and a piñata dangling from a tree that a line of children were taking whacks at with a baseball bat. Children’s music played from a boombox in the window of the house. The yard was strung with lights and balloons.
The cowboy moved quickly through the crowd, causing many of the adults to turn and look and point in his direction. Then he slipped into the house through the side door.
I went after him and found him in an unlit living room, away from everyone else. The furniture was all covered in blankets and looked like ghosts. It didn’t appear to be a room they often used, and made me wonder what kind of people were these to decide that some rooms were of use to them and other rooms were not. He turned as he saw me come in. He was holding a photo of the family. “This is it,” he said. “I know it is.”
“We should go,” I said.
A man, the owner of the home I suspected, came into the room. He had the stocky build and origami ears of a former prep school wrestler, and wore a blue blazer and a pair of pink seersucker shorts (“Nantucket red,” as I was corrected). His name was Tad. He seemed a little tipsy and was holding an instrument case and a tambourine and it all happened so fast it took me a minute to realize they were mine. Tad said we’d forgotten them in our fancy car out front, and that the kids were getting bored and we better get on with the performance. I asked him why he’d been going through my stuff in the car and he said it was a talent he had, that he had an extra- ordinary awareness of his surroundings, and didn’t mean any harm by it. I said, sure, fine, and then he ushered us out into the yard where the children were seated in front of a group of standing adults. There was a small stage set up in the corner. The children cheered and clapped. I unsnapped the saxophone case, and handed the cowboy the tambourine. He looked at me with the bewilderment of a father being handed a newborn. Then I removed the saxophone, placed my fingers on the buttons, and pressed my lip against the reed. The cowboy stood silent. The children stared. All these nice people—I didn’t want to let them down. I pushed a few sharp squawks out of the instrument. The children covered their ears. The sun beat down on us. I don’t know how much time passed, but I know it must have been long enough for many of the children and adults to fidget uncomfortably. All part of the performance, I assured them. The cowboy had given up on his instrument. He moved across the stage and took the saxophone from my hands. He licked his lips and began to play. It was the most joyous, beautiful sound I’d ever heard. He skronked and grooved. The notes cut through the hot, dry air, reverberating warmly against the stucco and adobe. He ripped up and down the scales. I was outside my body. I was six again lying on the floor with my father. Everything was possible. He found and sustained a high E and held it for so long I thought the blue sky was about to crack open. Then the bottom fell out. All went silent. It was the silence of the end of a fireworks display—the colors and sounds still tangled in your senses. The cowboy staggered. He dropped the saxophone. He fell to his knees at the edge of the stage, and groaned and touched his face. Some of the children began to cry.
In the study, Tad stood holding a glass of whiskey. “Through and through, I’d say that was a rather impressive performance. Though a little avant-garde for the kiddos, don’t you think?” He shook the glass around under his nose and I could hear the ice clinking softly against it. The cowboy was deep in his head, hadn’t said a word since the afternoon. I sat there with my seltzer water. “Could certainly hold a candle to the great New York experimentalists.”
Then the cowboy flopped to the floor.
“My god,” I said, “he needs medical attention.”
“Are you OK cowboy?” Tad asked.
“I’m missing things in my mind,” said the cowboy. “It’s going to get worse.”
“Oh no,” Tad said.
Tad set down his drink and walked out of the room. Soon he came back with a woman
following him. She was older, and was likely his mother—white hair, floating along with a kind, regal grace. She held a glass of water, some Advil, and a bottle of aloe verde. She helped the cowboy apply some on his face and hands. She said her name was Sloane.
“It’s you,” the cowboy said. “I knew I would find you.” “You’re dehydrated,” Sloane said.
“No, no. I’m fine.”
“You need to take better care of yourself, cowboy.”
“We met at the casino in Indian Wells,” he said. “You were a waitress. We spent the weekend together. We took the tramway up to the mountains. We had a child.”
“You must have me mistaken for someone else,” she said. She stroked his hair tenderly, and held his head in her lap. She was crying, wiping the tears away with her dress.
“Where is my son? I need to see him.”
“I don’t know,” Sloane said.
“We need to call an ambulance,” Tad said.
“No,” Sloane said. “He’ll be OK. He needs rest. He needs to relax.” The cowboy reached into his pocket and removed his flask. He took a long pull before Sloane snatched it out of his hand. “No!” she said. “That’ll only make it worse.” She handed the flask to me. I took it and held it in my hands, felt its cool smoothness, its comforting weight.
I took a sip, and placed it in my shirt pocket.
“I know what to do,” I said. I ran out to the car and returned with my father’s meditation tape. Tad retrieved the boombox from the window and I placed the tape inside. Then I drew the curtains of the study and told the cowboy to lie on his back on the floor, to imagine himself in a dark room with no ceiling and no floor and no walls.
The tape began: warm, ambient music—a zither, a soothing bell. “Welcome to a world of pure relaxation,” said the woman on the tape. “You are about to embark on a journ—” There was a crunchy, sputtering sound. Followed by silence. I looked over to see the tape in the open deck, the ribbon unfurling like a scarf from a magician’s sleeve.
I gathered the tape in my hands. Sloane placed her hand on my shoulder, and told me to join the cowboy on the floor. The two of us lay there. “—a journey,” she continued, picking up where the tape had left off. “Now relax. Your toes, your feet, your legs, your chest”—that voice! —“you are a drop of water in the ocean, a wind pitching across a valley.”
“How do I know if I’m doing it right?” the cowboy asked. “There’s nothing to do,” I said. “Don’t do anything.”
“I’m trying,” the cowboy said.
“Don’t try,” I said.
“Your neck, your head. Feel the pain and tension leave you behind,” Sloane said. “Goodbye to all thoughts and anxieties. Allow your mind to clear.”
In the morning, I called Pat. She said the old man was at the house waiting for me, and I told her I would be there as soon as I could. “I hear it in your voice,” she said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
I walked into the kitchen where I found the cowboy seated at the table with Tad and his family. Sloane wore an apron and was standing over the stove cooking eggs in a pan. She told me good morning and to help myself, and I did, and then sat at the table. The cowboy looked better than he had the day before—rested, more life in the face. His skin was healing. The dark purple- red was leaving, returning to a more normal coloring. He sipped on an orange juice and forked a few honeydew melon cubes into his mouth. “Look who’s feeling better,” Sloane said, as she returned to the table with a fresh pan of eggs. She removed her apron and sat, and asked us to take each
After breakfast we thanked Tad and Sloane and left the house. The children ran after the car down the block waving goodbye, and I drove the cowboy back over to the bus station.
At the curb, we hugged. “Thank you,” he said, and walked inside. I went back to the car and I drove for years until the old man found me. Turns out he wasn’t as old as I had imagined; he still had plenty of time to spend that money, and used a good deal of it to find where I was living, with a too-nice car in a vaguely messy town in Florida, nowhere near the beach.
The old man walked up onto the porch one day, while I was sitting with my drink, listening to the summer rain. “Father!” I said, as he stood over me.
“I’m not your father,” he said. He demanded the car keys and I handed them over and watched him drive away in that beautiful Riviera, until disappearing up the road.
I sat there for a while, all day maybe. It didn’t matter. Another few drinks, and I was there.
David Byron Queen grew up in Ohio. His work has appeared in VICE, Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Montana, where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. Currently he lives in Brooklyn, New York and runs the indie publishing company ‘word west.’ You can find him on Twitter @byron_queen.
Image original: Jakob Owens/Unsplash