THE AWARD-WINNING BOOK BY JOEL BROWN
I WANT NO ONE WAITING
I want to go back to that summer in my mid-twenties
and the San Juan ridge that rose up green and grey
beyond the parched pasture where every afternoon
the horses wander tearing up what little there is. I want
to ride one of those substantial animals and pause
on the edge of the trembling meadow near Elk Creek
just before we give the horses the signal to run. Warm
wind batters my face, late afternoon sun heats the top
of my uncovered head, makes long thin shadows from
the tall grass as it whips the horse’s legs and my dangling
feet. And I want that feeling of breathlessness, how I
imagine the somersaulting fall as the horse’s ankle
gives way, his foot seized by a hidden marmot’s hole.
My knees grip the scratchy wool of a red and grey striped
saddle blanket, my thighs pulse with the working muscles
of the dark horse’s back. The hot smell of him rises on flecks
of foam, laces into the threads of my tight jeans, my pale blue
T-shirt, so that later when these clothes hang empty over
a chair, they exhale the odor of horse
the whole afternoon.
I want to stay up too late listening to stories,
how Nancy opened the door to the attic and the flames
ran like red water down the stairs, Alison’s sister
killed by a grizzly that walked right through the screen
as if he’d been called. We pass a bottle of tequila,
a tin saltshaker, lick the salt from the sides of our hands,
squeeze lime juice into our mouths.
Our eyes sting from the smoke
of a fire fed with wet spruce twigs.
I want to walk home at midnight, listening for bears,
scarcely able to climb up into my bunk,
pull white sheets over sunburned arms,
legs aching, stomach tightening up harder
I want no one waiting for me anywhere,
to take anyone I choose to be my one-night lover,
a friend’s brother who looked me up on his way to Denver
and invited me to share his sleeping bag - it was that cold -
the cowboy from Alamosa whose hands inside yellow leather
work gloves were thick and rough as woodchips, the boy from Texas
who smelled like soap and took me up the mountain
to Second Meadow on the back of his trail bike to drink Coors Beer
and eat white bread and peanut butter.
I want to take the next day off, borrow a car, drive alone
thirty miles into Antonito to drink beer at the San Luis Hotel bar
and tell jokes with the Spanish ranchers. They stare until I sit
on a red vinyl stool, my eyes fixed tight to the top of the wooden bar
that glows with reflected beer signs and half full shot glasses. A thin
dark-skinned man warns his glass to “Be careful, Anglo girl.”
He laughs when I say I know my way around,
his brown cheeks like crumpled paper, teeth uneven and stained,
eyes red from watching sun play on the tan backs of cattle.
The humpbacked Wurlitzer by the restroom plays country western music,
I smoke thin brown cigarettes and lie about my age. Two men with grey hair and dangerous eyes walk me to the car,
Don’t come in, they tell me, when we’re not here.
I drive home fast in the absolute black
of a wilderness midnight, turn up the radio, sing with Tanya Tucker,
loud, until the tires hit the gravel road, the pine smell rushes to embrace
the car and I stop, to breathe it, to step out into the thin air,
the Milky Way scattered above my head, coyotes calling across
the pasture, the wind a sound like trains
passing through the branches.
I want to open the door the next morning, hung over,
remorseless, and find that the snorts and crashes that woke
me at 2:00 were bears in the garbage, the door to the fence
hanging by one hinge again. Holly’s springer spaniel paces,
waiting to walk with me to work. I want the sharp cold air
to penetrate my wool sweater, shorten my breath, and flush
my face as the dog runs long barking loops into the forest
all the way up the road to Rainbow Trout Lodge.
By noon, the loud birds shut down and grey thunderheads gather
to send a crash down the valley like a ball bouncing out
of bounds, and then the hard silver rain fractured with lightning.
I want to walk home in the soft sun of dusk
on wet gravel, aspen leaves shaken dry,
smells turned thick and strong
juniper, wild geranium, sage,
granite boulders, wet earth, the horse corral.
First appeared in Seems 34, as “Untitled.” Pushcart Nomination, 2000