Patsy sat by herself at the beginning of the evening, eating a melted Hershey bar. She had been reading Catch-22 but remembered the Hershey and fished it out of the glove compartment, where it had been all day. It was too melted to be neatly handleable, so she laid the paperback on the car seat and avidly swiped the chocolate off the candy paper with two fingers. When the candy was gone, she dropped the sticky wrappers out the window and licked what was left of the chocolate off her fingers before picking up the book again.
Sometimes she ate casually and read avidly -- other times she read casually and ate avidly. Another melted Hershey would have left her content, but there wasn't another. The glove compartment held nothing but road maps and a bottle of hand lotion, and if she walked to a concession stand and bought another Hershey it wouldn't be melted, probably.
And it was dusk, almost too dark to read. She had been in the grandstand, but the lights around the arena had come on too early, spoiling some of the softness of the evening, so she had come back to the Ford. Evening had always been her favorite time of day, and in Texas, in the spring, it was especially so. Dawn was said to be just as lovely, but she had seen only a few dawns and had been only half awake at most of those. It was evening that made her feel keen and fresh and hopeful.
The Ford was parked far back from the arena in a jumble of pickups and horsetrailers, far enough away that the lights and noise of rodeo scarcely intruded on the dusk. Soon she put Catch-22 on the seat again and sat watching the sky to the west. The sun had gone down and all the lower sky was yellow. While she watched, it became orange and then red and then a fainter red, and the color lingered on the rim of the plains until the whole sky was dark.
She wore a gray dress and was bare-armed. It had been a hot afternoon for May, and the coolness of dusk felt good on her arms. Behind her, at the near end of the bleachers, a high school band broke into the National Anthem -- it meant that the Grand Entry was in progress. The arena was full of horses and riders: rodeo had come again to Merkel, Texas. There were riding clubs, kids piled on ponies, pivot men unfurling the flags of the nations, cowgirls in tight pink trousers, and nervous businessmen on palominos. The procession into the arena had been very noisy, but before the anthem ended, the sound of hoofs and the jingling of bits faded out and the grounds became so quiet that Patsy heard it when one of the young clarinetists squeaked his reed. Everyone but her was standing up and the knowledge made her fretful and a little ashamed of herself.
The sport of rodeo did not interest Patsy at all -- it interested her husband Jim. She herself had lumped it in her mind with cows, and cows did not interest her at all -- not, at least, unless they were properly cooked. The fact that no cows were at hand was merely a lucky happenstance; in that part of Texas cows might appear at any moment. The only animal immediately at hand was a fat sorrel horse. He was tied to the sideboards of a nearby trailer, close enough that Patsy could smell him. Aside from one fart, he had been very polite and had gained her sympathies. Several times cowboys had walked by and slapped him on the behind to make him move over, and he had refrained from kicking them. If similarly provoked, she felt sure she would have kicked them. Occasionally the horse swished his tail against the fender of the Ford.
In the west a few very bright stars were out, though it was still not completely dark. She felt a little restless and was considering what she might do, when another cowboy walked by, a can of beer in one hand. He slapped the horse on the rump and the horse moved over. The cowboy burped, pitched down his beer can, unbuttoned his pants, and immediately began to relieve himself against the fender of the Ford.
"Hey," Patsy said, very startled. "Go piss on your own car!"
She was too surprised to sound very outraged, but she was no more surprised than the cowboy. He whirled around toward the trailer, liberally watering the whole area, horse included.
"My god, I never knowed you was there," he said. "Why didn't you speak up sooner?"
"Shock prevented me," she said faintly, for she was shocked -- the more so as the first surprise wore off. She could hear him pissing.
"Lady," he sighed, "I would stop. I just ain't got the brakes."
"Oh, hell," she said, flustered.
The cowboy was silent until he finished and had buttoned up. He stood with his back to her a moment, apparently in thought, and then confidently hitched up his pants and turned toward the car.
"Ed Boggs," he said. "I guess I ought to apologize."
"I'm Patsy Carpenter," Patsy said, assuming that an introduction was taking place. Ed Boggs was clearly charmed. He leaned his elbows on the car door and peered in at her happily. His face was paunchy and he smelled of beer and starch and hair oil.
"Never meant to mess up your fender," he said, not bothering to affect remorse. "I just kinda needed somethin' to lean on there for a minute. Been puttin' 'em down a little too fast this evenin'. What I really want to do is ask you for a date to the dance. You look to me like you've got a lot on the ball."
"Why, thanks," Patsy said, smiling. Her cheeks colored. She could never help smiling when complimented. "I'm married, though."
Mr. Boggs neither moved nor changed expression, and she assumed he had not understood.
"I can't go to the dance with you, I mean. I'm really married."
Ed Boggs was in no way discouraged. "Who ain't?" he said amiably. "My old lady's married too. How about me gettin' in and sittin' down with you a minute to catch my breath?"
Patsy wanted very much to scoot toward the opposite door. Sitting beneath Mr. Boggs's face was like sitting beneath a heavy, badly balanced wooden object. He reached for the door handle, as if he were sure she wouldn't mind his getting in, but Patsy had locked the door and he didn't quite have the nerve to unlock it.
"No, you can't get in," she said. "You're being a little rude. I was about to take a nap. Why don't you go off and fill your bladder again?"
Her admirer attempted to take the rebuff in stride, but it was clearly not the sort of thing he was used to hearing from the lips of a woman. His paunches slowly shifted position and became a frown.
"I ain't gonna hug-dance with you if you talk to me like that," he said, attempting to jest. "I ain't out to rape you. I just want to sit down and rest a minute, maybe talk, you know."
Patsy was silent, hoping he would simply go away, but his face remained squarely in the window.
"I'm probably gonna get bucked off a bull tonight," he said finally. "Here I am drunk as dawg shit, I'll probably get my stupid ass stomped. Least you could do is be friendly." At the thought of his own peril his tone grew slightly husky and his frown more melancholy.
Patsy didn't melt with sympathy, but what he said did make it seem funny again. She had been about to get scared.
"That's a pity," she said. "We all have problems. Now please listen -- the point is that I don't want you to get in and sit down. Just please go on away. If you're planning to get stomped maybe you better not refill your bladder after all."
Ed Boggs drew back. He had reached his wits' end. "What's my goddam bladder got to do with it?" he asked loudly. "That's twice you done mentioned it. I just want to get in and sit down."
He paused. "You're a good-lookin' thing, you know," he said, remembering that a compliment had got him his only smile.
"No," Patsy said, suddenly scared. He was terribly big and loud and she didn't know how to get rid of him. "You leave me completely alone! Don't you know better than to urinate on people's cars? It's very rude. I'm married, I told you. You ought to sober up instead of standing there trying to think of some way to seduce me." She started crying and began to roll the car window up.
At that Ed Boggs stepped away from the car. "Well, good snoozin'," he said angrily. "I'm glad I ain't the one that's married to you. I got better sense than to screw a woman as wordy as you are, anyway."
Patsy stopped the window halfway up and they regarded each other for a moment through the deepening dusk. Then Mr. Boggs stalked off, his dignity secure, and Patsy rolled her window back down and sat crying. Tears ran off her cheeks, into the hollows of her throat, down her chest. She could never find a Kleenex when she was crying and could only wipe the tears away with her fingers. Soon enough she stopped and felt more calm. She cried easily -- absurdly easily, she felt. Half the things she cried about were merely silly. Her cheeks stung a little from the tears, but that soon stopped too and they felt cool.
By the time she was through crying it had grown quite dark, so dark that she could barely see the sorrel horse. She wished Jim was there so she could tell him about Ed Boggs. To her left, across the parking lot, she could see the glow from the circle of lights above the open-air dance floor, and she tried for a moment to imagine what it would have been like to go to a dance with such a man. Crushing, she imagined, but then she felt a little annoyed at her own fastidiousness. He might have been a good dancer. The remark about her being too talkative to sleep with rankled, though. It had obviously been sour grapes.
Far to the northwest there were flickerings of lightning. The quietness was broken by a splashing near at hand, a steady splashing that carried with it an odor like wet hay. The patient sorrel horse was pissing too. Patsy looked and saw the arena lights faintly reflected in the spreading puddle. In an instant it lifted her spirits, and she wished again that her husband was there. It was just the kind of coincidence he loved -- the kind that might happen in life but that could never be made to work in a novel. Jim had tried to write a novel the first year they were married and had made it over a hundred pages before he got diverted.
When the splashing stopped, Patsy felt even fonder of the horse than she had originally. She decided to get out and pet him. He was good company, and he seemed to have a sense of the absurd. Just as she was opening the car door she thought she heard someone call her name. She saw no one and was puzzled, until she realized that her name had come over the public address system. The rodeo announcer had called her name.
"WILL MRS. JAMES CARPENTER PLEASE COME TO THE JUDGES' STAND. MRS. JAMES CARPENTER."
Scared, aflutter, she started off immediately and got two pickups away before she remembered her purse. She might need it. Jim was hurt, she knew. Her chest felt tight. She hurried back and got her purse, looked futilely for some Kleenex, and then turned and ran through the cars and trucks toward the arena. Perhaps he had tried to take a picture of a bull and been gored. She began to cry and a few strands of hair stuck to her wet cheek.
As she came dashing out of the parking area, a roper who was warming up his roping mare came within a foot of running her down. Patsy hardly saw the horse, but she felt the rush of its body past hers. She was out of breath and slowed to a walk. The roper whirled his mare and came back -- he was unnerved and furious.
"Let's look where you're goin', lady," he said. "This ain't no damn track meet. I coulda broke your neck."
"I'm sorry," Patsy said, sniffing and trying to get her breath. "I'm afraid my husband's been gored. If you could show me the way to the judges' stand I'll try and stay out of your way."
The roper was a thin young man, no older than Patsy. When he saw how pretty she was, and how distressed, he cooled off at once and got down from his horse to help. He held a rope in one hand and had a contestant's number pinned to the back of his shirt.
"I'm Royce Jones," he said. "Sorry I blew off. You scared the daylights out of me. How'd he get gored, bulldoggin'?"
He spoke quite calmly, as if a goring were something that came to one occasionally, like a toothache, and his spurs jingled lightly as he walked beside her -- a comforting masculine sound.
"He's probably just got raked alongside the ribs," he added, to soothe her. "Always happens sooner or later, doggin'."
"Oh, no, no," Patsy said. "He's a photographer, sort of. I don't really know what's happened to him."
Royce Jones grinned at her in the tolerant way men of experience grin at the folly of women. Distressed as she was, it annoyed her a little.
"I doubt he's gored," he said. "Them steers wouldn't take after a photographer. He probably just wants you to bring him some flashbulbs. Ask the clown, he'll know. That's him there with the cop."
Patsy saw the clown and the cop and turned to thank Royce Jones, but he had mounted his mare and was already riding away. When he was halfway across the dusty road he stood up in his stirrups and turned and waved his rope at her, as if to acknowledge the thanks he hadn't waited to receive.
As Patsy turned back toward the arena she bumped smack into a little girl who had been racing along carrying a Sno-cone. The Sno-cone popped out of its cup and felt on Patsy's foot, and the little girl looked at her angrily and neglected to hold the cup upright, so the lump of ice was followed by a stream of strawberry-colored water, part of which splashed on Patsy's ankles.
"Oh, damn," she said. "Why can't anyone see me coming? Don't worry, I'll buy you another one. I've got some money right here."
"Okay," the little girl said smugly. She knew the world owed her a new Sno-cone. "My name's Fayette," she added in a chummier tone.
Part of the ice Patsy managed to kick off, but most of it slid into her pump and began to melt beneath her instep and trickle between her toes. She dug in her purse but could find nothing smaller than a dollar. It made her feel a little desperate. Jim was somewhere, probably hurt, and the world was coming to an end amid an absolutely ridiculous mess involving her. Something in her rebelled against giving the little girl the whole dollar. She had taken a dislike to the little girl, and she hated to be exploited by anyone she disliked. She felt that her nerves were beginning to split and curl like the ends of her hair sometimes did, and she was on the point of raking things wildly out of her purse when she looked up and saw the clown approaching. He had on baggy overalls, a ridiculous derby hat, and red and white greasepaint.
"I bet you're Mrs. Carpenter," he said in a quiet, agreeable voice. It was in complete contrast to his garish appearance.
"I'm so rattled I'm not sure," Patsy said. "Do you have any change?"
But he had squatted down and was already holding out a dime to the little girl. "I seen your plight," he said, glancing up at Patsy.
Fayette was slightly awed by the clown, but not too awed to be practical. "They cost fifteen cents now," she said. "Do you still have your skunk?"
Patsy would have liked to kick her, but the clown stood up and pulled a quarter out of his pocket. "If you got a nickel you can buy one for your little sister too," he said.
"I only got brothers. Did your skunk die?"
"No, it got stolen in Tucumcari."
The quarter grew bigger in her mind and Fayette said a perfunctory thanks and rushed off to find her best girl friend and tell her about the skunk.
"Thank you so much," Patsy said. "I guess I'm scared -- my legs are shaking. Could I lean on you for one second? I've got a Snocone in my shoe."
She handed him her purse, quickly emptied the water out of her pump, and, with one hand on his shoulder, slipped the shoe back on. "How did you know me?" she asked.
"Kind of an educated guess," he said. "You don't look like nobody else here. Your husband met with a little accident, not very serious. Let's go see if he's come to yet."
His voice was low and unworried and sure of itself, and it made her feel better. She snapped her purse shut and he took her firmly by the arm, his hand above her elbow, and they hurried into the bright dusty arena. Sand stuck to her wet shoe. A crowd of cowboys stood near the heavy wire fence, all of them looking healthy and very cheerful. They parted for the clown, and she saw Jim lying stretched out on the ground, his head on a pair of brown chaps. She had never seen him stretched so flat. His lower lip was split, and there was dirt in his blond hair and a raw skinned place on one temple.
"Was he run over, or what? What's wrong with him?" Patsy asked, tears starting in her eyes. It was terrifying to see her husband lying with his eyes closed amid a crowd of cowboys.
"Just knocked out," the clown said. "He was in a kind of fight, he's not hurt bad. We'll get him in an ambulance in a minute."
"But Jim never fights," she said, kneeling and brushing awkwardly at the dirt in his hair. He was very blond and she could see the dirt against his scalp. "We don't even know anybody here -- who could he have wanted to fight?"
The clown squatted beside her and silently took off his bandanna and handed it to her. "He ain't hurt bad," he said calmly. "You don't need to have no hysterics. What happened was a couple of bronc riders beat him up. He snapped 'em at the wrong time, I guess."
When Patsy looked up, all she could see was the legs of cowboys, long legs in blue Levi's, and large hands with the thumbs hooked in the pockets of the Levi's.
"Where is the ambulance?" she asked. "I won't be hysterical, but can't it come on?"
"Oh, it's right out there," the clown said. "It's the driver we can't locate. He went off with some woman and took his keys with him.
"Pete's my name," he added.
"But that's awful," she said. "That's awful." Jim's face seemed waxen to her. She had an urge to feel his pulse but was afraid to for fear she wouldn't be able to find it. The clown's hair was sandy and curly at the back of his neck, and only the fact that he seemed genuinely unworried kept her from breaking down completely.
Then, to her relief, there was the sound of a motor, and a white ambulance spun into the arena, cut sharply their way, and skidded through the knot of cowboys, almost to Jim's feet. It seared Patsy terribly, but the cowboys jumped gracefully out of the way and seemed amused at the driver's recklessness. Suddenly several of them converged on Jim. Pete helped her up, and in a moment Jim was in the ambulance and Pete was helping her in after him. When she looked around to thank him all the cowboys were standing behind him, arranged like so many wooden-faced sculptures, all of them staring at her. It embarrassed her, and she blushed.
"Have you to town in no time, ma'am," the driver said. Patsy turned and saw that he too was watching her. He was a balding man, with such hair as he had slicked down. His shirt wasn't buttoned.
"Couldn't you come?" she said, turning back to Pete. "I don't know what to do."
"No, got to work," he said. "He'll come to in a minute." He nodded kindly as he shut the ambulance doors.
She realized then that she had his bandanna in her hand, but it was too late to give it back. The ambulance was already spinning around in the soft dirt, and a cloud of dust hid the clown and the cowboys. "We're off," the driver said cheerfully, as if it were a race. The ambulance came out of its curve and almost plowed into two black Shetland ponies that had wandered into the entranceway to the arena.
"Shit-toody," the driver said, braking hard. "Get them goddamn ponies out of the way," he yelled, leaning out of the window. "I got a hurt man in here." A cowboy ran up and yanked the little ponies unceremoniously aside and the ambulance shot through the entranceway, only to brake abruptly again when confronted with the milling crowd of children and horses and men. The starting and stopping seemed to wake Jim up. He blinked and made a restless movement.
"He ain't hurt, he's already movin'," the driver said, looking back again. They passed out of the rodeo grounds, accelerated down a short dirt road, and lurched onto a highway. The rodeo pens were three miles outside the town. "Nothin' to worry about," the driver said, speeding into a curve. He kept looking back at Patsy, with more interest than he seemed to be able to muster for the road. She could see the lights of the little town, bright in the darkness, but the ambulance was going so fast it seemed to her they might not be able to stop even if they got there safely.
Jim suddenly raised up on his elbow. "Got to vomit," he said.
"Get the pan, get the pan," the driver said, and Patsy got it just in time. The sharp smell of the vomit made her feel nauseated herself.
"I hope you got my cameras," Jim said when he was finished and lying back. "I feel bad."
"Oh, I didn't," Patsy said. She started to explain, but her voice broke on the first word and she began to cry again. Jim had wiped his mouth on the clown's bandanna and it seemed that for the hundredth time in an hour she had nothing to cry into but her bare hands. Jim was white around the mouth, whether from weakness or from anger about the cameras she couldn't tell. As they flashed into the little town she lifted her husband's arm and wiped her face on his blue shirt sleeve. He cupped his hand behind her neck a moment affectionately, and she felt relieved. A few street lights were on and some frazzled-looking rodeo flags were strung between the streetlight poles. The ambulance driver began to grow irritable, even baleful, as they neared the end of the run.
"Ain't hurt a goddamn bit," he muttered. "I knew it. Made a trip for nothin' and was interrupted besides."
"Oh, please be quiet," Patsy said. "He is hurt. We'll pay you for your trouble.
"I know your kind," she added melodramatically, because the driver glanced back at her again.
"I wish you'd got the cameras," Jim said.
They squealed to a stop behind a small dingy-looking brick hospital with a big television antenna on the roof and a swarm of moths and insects around the yellow light bulb that lit the back door. Jim gamely sat up, but he didn't look mobile. The driver honked impatiently and they all sat waiting for attendants to run out with stretchers. None came. The driver sighed and stretched his arm across the back of the seat. He seemed content to wait, since he was there, and turned on the radio. A hillbilly song came over the air, plaintive and nasal.
Oh, my baby's not in town tonight,
This ole town just don't seem right,
Even my old friends don't seem the same to me...
Well my baby's not in town tonight,
These ole lights don't shine so bright,
And I'm cryin' tears till I can't hard-ly see...
"Can you walk if I help you?" she asked Jim. "I don't think there's anybody in there, but maybe we can at least find you a bed."
"Oh, there's somebody in there, most likely," the driver said, waxing friendly. He looked back at her with robust admiration. "I'll help you drag him in, ma'am," he offered.
He got out and opened the ambulance doors and the two of them helped Jim ease to the ground. Once on his feet, he waved them off and wobbled unsteadily toward the hospital, leaving Patsy to pay the driver. He stood watching her, scratching his stomach happily.
"We're sorry we bothered you," she said acidly. "I hope you can pick up where you left off, approximately at least."
The driver, nothing abashed, took out an old billfold and stuffed the money in it. "Ain't too likely, ma'am," he said. "Somebody else probably done already has, if I know that gal. Besides, I'll have to be hauling in them stomped-up bull riders before long. Such is the times. Glad to help you out, ma'am."
His complacency and the way he kept calling her ma'am were almost too much. "Oh, I'd like to kick you," she said hotly.
The driver was amazed, and silenced for a moment. "You sure you ain't crazy?" he asked after a pause, unable to arrive at any other explanation.
"I don't like being called ma'am," she said and walked away. The driver continued to scratch his stomach, but a little less happily.
Jim was in the waiting room alone, sitting on a couch with his eyes shut. "No one's here," he said, but no sooner had he said it than a fat implacably jolly nurse walked in and stood with her hands on her hips looking at Jim. She was as rouged as any harlot, but no one could have looked less like a whore.
"I see the bloodshed's begun," she said. "Doctor'll be out in a minute. He's pumpin' out a kid who had himself some rat poison for supper. It's a wonder to me any of us survive."
She gave Patsy a card to fill out, and they sat alone in the empty waiting room for twenty-five minutes waiting for the doctor to come. The bright overhead light was so piercing that Jim had to keep his eyes closed. Patsy hunted through his billfold and found their insurance card. The beige leatherette couch they sat on seemed to her the ugliest piece of furniture she had ever seen.
"I'm sure those cameras were right there somewhere," Jim said. He had a way of being single-minded, even when in pain. "That's nine hundred dollars gone if somebody steals them. Besides, they had pictures in them."
"I just didn't see them. I had pictures in me too -- pictures of you dying and me being left at the mercy of about a thousand stupid cowboys. Maybe the clown took care of them. He was the only nice person there."
But she felt guilty, anyway, for not having more presence of mind.
Soon a frail-looking doctor with a black heating aid came in and led Jim off to be X-rayed, and she sat alone in the waiting room, fidgeting uselessly about the cameras. Jim had only been working at photography three months and she had difficulty taking it seriously. His decision to photograph rodeos seemed quite nonsensical to her. She was always unable to take his work seriously enough at the time when he was most intense about it; by the time she became enthused about one of his lines of endeavor he would almost invariably be bored with it and ripe for a new pursuit.
To escape the brightness of the waiting room she walked out into the front yard of the hospital. The grass was dry and crackly already, though it was not yet summer. She walked around the side of the building to the back, away from the street lights, and felt better at once. The depth and sweep of the sky was a relief after the tiny room, and the sky was sown with uncountable stars. Her hair was mussed; she took a comb out of her purse and stood combing it, her legs spread and her head bent back over one shoulder. Her hair was black and she wore it middling length, just long enough that it touched her shoulders. She felt refreshed and combed vigorously, looking straight up into the Milky Way.
It seemed very odd to her that anyone, even a cowboy, would want to hit Jim. He was mild-tempered and agreeable, and to her knowledge no one had ever hit him before. She walked back around the hospital, combing more leisurely, and saw a car filled with teenagers race down the empty street. It was an old two-tone Buick with no muffler. There were eight or ten kids in it, boys and girls all mashed together, yelling and laughing and waving their arms out the windows. As they passed the hospital a boy pitched an empty beer can high in the air. It rang when it hit the pavement, bounced into the center of the street, and spun around a few times before it stopped. The sound of the car gradually faded and the silence of the empty summer town was complete again.
When she went back inside, the fat red-checked nurse was sitting at the desk clicking her tongue over a coverless movie magazine that seemed to be several years old.
"Pore little Debbie," she said. "Can't tell a no-good when she sees one, can she, honey? We've about got your hubby patched up."
Patsy felt defenseless. The slovenly ambulance driver she might have kicked, but no person of character would kick a jolly nurse. It irked her to be called honey, and it irked her more to hear Jim referred to as her hubby. It was on the tip of her tongue to say something very complimentary about Elizabeth Taylor, but before she could think of anything she glanced up and saw that the fat nurse was looking at the pictures with affection brimming in her face. Her voice had dropped with sadness when she said, "pore little Debbie," and she was studying the pictures with as much fondness as she might have bestowed on a family scrapbook.
"I'm sure it was hard on her," she said, choked for a moment, with a desire to be kind to the nurse.
"'Course Liz ain't had no easy life either," the nurse went on. "She was as sweet a little thing as there ever was when she was young. Growed up too fast, I guess, and let all them bright lights and them night spots confuse her. I was out there once, went with my sister and her family. We went to Disneyland and had us quite a time. You-all got any little ones?"
"Not yet," Patsy said. It was a question she disliked being asked.
"Well, you ought to. Lord bless us, they're what's worth living for. 'Course I never married myself, but my sister has six and I love every one of 'em. Liz has been a good mother, seems like, but adult'ry's adult'ry, don't matter who does it. When you carry on like that you've got to pay. Thank goodness I've got a clean conscience, even if I don't have much else."
"Did they X-ray my husband yet?" Patsy asked, suddenly remembering Jim.
"Oh, they X-rayed him all right," the nurse said. "I don't know what showed up. All them X rays look alike to me."
She rattled on, and in a few minutes Jim came out looking somewhat steadier. He had a badly swollen lip and a bandage on his forehead. Patsy went over and put her arm around him a little awkwardly. She had never been able to be gracefully affectionate in public.
"The doctor's been telling me rodeo stories," Jim said. "I must be lucky. I don't even have a concussion."
"Sonny, you wouldn't know the half of it," the nurse said cheerfully. "I've been a night nurse twenty-four years and you wouldn't believe the sights I've seen, specially after these rodeos. They brought in a boy one time with a hatchet stuck in his skull -- never lived the night. And nine times out of ten it's all to do with women."
It was not until they were out the door, standing on the front lawn of the hospital, that they realized they had no way back to the rodeo grounds.
"It's unreal," Patsy said. "How many more things can go wrong?"
"Actually, they're not so wrong," Jim said mildly. "Just inconvenient. Who would have thought those crazy bronc riders would hit me?"
"I would have thought it. I'll believe anything about cowboys. A bull rider tried to seduce me too. I didn't get a chance to tell you sooner. He peed on our car and then tried to seduce me."
Jim seemed scarcely to hear. He wandered aimlessly and a little woozily across the hospital lawn.
"They didn't even bawl me out or give me warning," he said. "I would have quit if they had. I took two pictures, and a big one got up and knocked me loop-legged. I'm still loop-legged, I guess."
"Oh, listen to my problems," Patsy said, relieved that he could talk again. "If you have to indulge in pity, pity me. There I was, about to be raped and pillaged in a parking lot and left to my unpleasant end. If that had happened I'd be loop-legged too, believe me."
"I wonder if there's a taxi."
"Of course not. What would a taxi be doing out in the wilderness? We'll have to wait two days for a bus, or else walk. What about my gallant stand for chastity?"
"It sounds like you made it up," Jim said. "Why would anyone want to pee on our car?"
She thought he was going to say, "Why would anyone want to seduce you," and was relieved.
"I think he chose the car more or less at random," she said. "Why would anyone want to knock you loop-legged? These people are crazy, that's why. Isn't there anything besides rodeo you could take pictures of? I don't like you getting beat up and I don't want to sit around getting raped and pillaged just so you can become a famous photographer. Why not take pictures of gypsies? Then we can go to Europe and look for them."
Jim was silent, looking down the empty street. He didn't enjoy joking about his profession, whatever his profession was at the time, and Patsy knew it; but she kept thinking that if she could make the right sort of joke, in the right tone, he might relax about it and then everything would be a lot more fun. But demons got in her and she never made the right sort of joke or found the right tone.
"The bull rider's name was Boggs," she said. "He breathed on me. If my fair white body is going to be sacrificed to your ambition the least you could do is take me to Europe. Why must I be sacrificed in Merkel, Texas?"
It didn't lift his spirits, so with a wriggle of her slim shoulders she dropped it and went over and hugged him, her face against his throat. He had his hands in his pockets and she shyly pulled one out and held it.
"Maybe we could hitchhike back out there," she said.
Then they heard the thin noise of a siren in the distance and saw, far down the straight highway, the red revolving light on top of the ambulance.
"Aha," Jim said. "Here comes us a ride."
"No," Patsy said firmly. "That's not our ride. I refuse to ride with that man."
"Why? He surely didn't try to seduce you, did he?"
"Then why not?"
"Well, because I threatened to kick him," she admitted. "I'm the kind of girl who sometimes threatens people."
"You never threatened to kick me," Jim said, frankly astonished.
"You're nicer than him. He just prompted me to threaten him, never mind why."
"I don't intend to pass up a ride just because you were rude," Jim said. "I'm about to collapse. You can apologize. I'm sure you had no business saying whatever you said."
The ambulance shrieked into town and skidded to a stop on the gravel driveway. Patsy didn't want to look. She had the horrid conviction that Ed Boggs had indeed been stomped by a bull. She would have to watch him carried into the hospital, his entrails spilling out. Instead, a young cowboy in black chaps emerged from the ambulance and limped inside, holding one of his shoulders. Jim walked over to the ambulance and she followed timidly.
"Sure, sure," the driver said, waving them in. "I got your cameras for you. Pete Tatum gathered 'em up. Just keep between me and your missus, is all I ask. She's a little on the violent side, ain't she?"
He was lighting the stub of a cigar and seemed not to expect an answer. Jim got in the middle and Patsy sat by the window. In a moment they were speeding back past the street lights, toward the dark country. Patsy had her arm on the car door. As they gained speed the rush of air cooled her armpit and blew through her dress, across her chest. The lightning to the northwest had grown heavier; when it flashed they saw the dark shape of a cloud. The driver seemed to be making an effort to be polite and Patsy softened toward him.
"I'm sorry I said what I did," she said. "I was a bit overwrought. Did you say the clown's name was Pete? He told me but I'd forgotten."
"Pete Tatum. Knowed him for years. Only reason Pete bothers with this little show is because his brother's a big man in the rodeo association here. He works them big professional shows. Santa Rosa and shows like that."
"It was awfully nice of him to take care of the cameras," Jim said. "Thank him for us in case we miss him."
Ahead, off the road, they saw the glow of the arena lights and a lower glow from the dance floor. The driver turned onto the dirt road and they were soon back inside the rodeo grounds.
"This'll be fine," Jim said. "Our car's right here."
"Okay. Watch out for your missus now. Don't let her kick none of these pore cowboys. Most of them get kicked enough as it is."
"I'd advise you not to run that into the ground," Patsy said. "I might make good on it yet."
The driver grinned at her engagingly. "I was teasin'," he said. "Be a pleasure to be kicked by a pretty young wench like yourself. See you-all next time."
He tooted his horn lightly with the heel of his hand and moved the ambulance expertly through the mob of men and women and children who were leaving the stands.
"You see," Patsy said. "He keeps calling me things. Could I be accurately described as a wench?"
Jim was too tired to be interested in such issues. Patsy took his hand and they walked through the swirl of people toward the Ford. The horses and cars and departing pickups kept the sandy roadway stirred up, so that the dust rose to their waists and made it seem like they were walking through a sandy mist. Car lights shone red through the sand, and whenever a horse crossed the road in front of a car the lights threw huge wavering shadows against the dust.
"I hope you don't mind driving," Jim said. "I still feel dizzy."
The sorrel was no longer tied next to the Ford, and the trailer he had been tied to was gone. Jim went wearily around the car. Patsy stood for a moment by the door on the driver's side trying to locate her car keys by the little door light. Finally she jiggled her purse and located them by the jingle.
"Let's sit until the traffic thins out a little," she said. Jim was quite agreeable. He slumped silently against his door. By the time Patsy got her key in the ignition his eyes were closed, and very soon he was asleep. It annoyed her and dropped her spirits a little, even though she knew his head must hurt. She wanted to talk, and having him so soon asleep made her feel lonely, as it often did. Jim could go to sleep quicker than anyone she had ever known. He claimed he had always been able to, but she sometimes felt it was an escape technique he had developed for occasions when he didn't want to talk to her. She would have liked to scoot over by him, but there was a clutter of photographic paraphernalia in the front seat and she had to content herself with putting a hand on his shoulder. Over the way, the dance she had been invited to was in progress. As the cars drove out and the grounds grew quiet she began to hear the sounds of the dancing, a yell now and then, the scraping of feet on concrete, and, over that, the sound of the hillbilly band. At first she only heard the ring of the steel guitars, but as the grounds emptied, mournful snatches of lyric filtered through:
Keep those cards 'n' letters comin' in-uh-in, honey,
Tell me that you love me time 'n' time ugin-uh-in, honey;
It's many a mile from Memphis to Berlin-uh-in, honey,
So keep those cards 'n' letters comin' innn....
Patsy kept time with her fingertips. When the song ended she started the Ford and drove through the almost empty grounds, squashing several beer cans but no bottles that she noticed. There was a very small trailer parked to the left of the exit gate, with a donkey tied to the fence nearby. As she turned to go through the gate her headlights swept across the front of the trailer. A man with no shirt on sat on the tiny steps of the trailer wiping his face with a towel. He looked up when she passed and to her surprise called her name. She braked, puzzled, and he got up from the steps and came to the car, the towel slung over one shoulder.
"Thought that was you," he said, and she realized it was the clown. He bent and peered in at her solemnly and looked past her at Jim.
"He's just asleep," she said. "He's fine. I'm ashamed of myself for being so flustered." But she felt embarrassed and oddly flustered again and didn't know whether to look at him or not. He seemed lankier than he had seemed in his clowning apparel. He was balding too. The hair that was so curly on the sides of his head was almost gone on the top.
"We're very grateful about the cameras," she said. A girl had come to the door of the trailer house and stood just inside the screen, her body a dark shadow.
"Well, glad he wasn't hurt," Pete said. "Maybe sometime I'll get to meet him when he's awake. If he'll come and see me maybe I can tell him who not to take pictures of."
"Oh, we won't be coming back here," she said. "We were in Dallas and heard about this rodeo and drove out. We're going to lots more, though -- my husband wants to do a book of pictures about them. I'm sure we'll see you again."
"Hope so," Pete said, stepping back. He was sawing the towel thoughtfully against the back of his neck. Patsy never quite knew how to get out of conversations; she gave a little nod, raced her motor a little, and let the clutch out too quickly. The Ford jerked forward and almost died. In a moment she regained control and was out the gate. A cowboy was leading three horses down the middle of the dirt road that led to the highway, but as she approached he obligingly moved them over and waved at her cheerfully, his hands full of bridle reins. When she turned onto the pavement the slight bump caused Jim to slide farther down in the seat, his head still against the car door. Straining, Patsy reached across him and locked it.
The lightning had come close enough that she could see it flickering in her rearview mirror, but it seemed a dry kind of lightning, appropriate to the country. Ahead on the straight highway were five or six sets of red taillights, cars going back to town. Patsy drove slowly, in no hurry. She followed the taillights into the town and stopped at both lights. The cars that had been ahead of her had all disappeared, absorbed by the town. Except for a deputy's car parked in the driveway of a filling station, hers was the only vehicle in sight. The deputy was sitting with his car door open. He had taken one boot off, and the sock too, and was contemplating his bare foot with an expression of gloom. He held a pocketknife in his hand, one blade open, as if perhaps he meant to perform an amputation. It was just the sort of moment she would have liked Jim to take a picture of, though no doubt the deputy would have resented it. Probably the man had ingrown toenails from wearing such sharp-toed boots.
When the light turned green she went on, past a block of darkened grovel stores and laundries, still driving slowly and enjoying the almost pristine emptiness of the little town. Except for herself, the deputy, and one lank brown dog, the emptiness was absolute. Soon she left the town behind and turned onto the Interstate. On the broad highway she could not help driving fast. There was no one on the road but herself and the trucks of the night, the huge trucks with squares of red taillights that lumber nightly over the country, from the South to Los Angeles and from Los Angeles to the South. The trucks blinked their eyes when she passed them, purring and snorting like great nocturnal animals. She held to the left until she had passed half a dozen and was ahead of all that were in sight, pushing the Ford almost to its top speed, which was eighty-five. The darkness, the speed, the straining pulse of the car, and the rush of cool air in the window were keenly satisfying to her, as satisfying as the taste of the Hershey bar had been, and as brief, for the motel where they were staying was in Abilene, less than a dozen miles away. She would have liked another fifty miles to drive -- the road all to herself and the wind blowing her hair and cooling her arms. She swerved slightly from time to time to avoid the flattened corpse of some possum or coon or armadillo, and much too soon she was among the lights and filling stations of Abilene. It was irritating to have to slow down when she was avid for more driving; she stamped the brake with annoyance at the first light off the freeway.
Their motel was called The Old Homestead. Its office was done in imitation logs, with a squirrel rifle hung over the door to complete the effect. She circled the office, the swimming pool and kiddy playground, stopped and killed the motor at the door of their room, yawning and stretching her arms back over her head as far as she could. The moment she stopped she was glad she had no farther to go. She considered Jim with a mixture of affection and petulance, and gathered up her purse and Catch-22 and his precious cameras, only to have to set them all down at the door of the room in order to find her key. She found it, took the stuff in and dumped it on the bed, got a glass of water, swished some around in her mouth when she was through drinking, and walked back out and across the bare courtyard to stand on the concrete edge of the swimming pool a minute, stating at the greenish shimmer of the water. She yawned and leaned backward, her hair dangling. The stars were so much brighter than any stars they ever saw in Houston, where they lived. Once again she yawned, and she reached inside the armpit of her dress to scratch what felt like a mosquito bite. Then she strolled back to the Ford to begin the awkward but familiar task of getting her husband awake enough to go to bed.
Copyright © 1970 by Larry McMurtry