Page uses his poetic verse to create a cowboy legend.
— Read on poets.media/a-universe-within-verse
Page uses his poetic verse to create a cowboy legend.
— Read on poets.media/a-universe-within-verse
This a Short Story and work of fiction.
by Stephen Page
My beeper is going off, so I look down to see the number on the display screen. It’s the grocery store. I run toward the store, hoping it isn’t anything serious. This job is generally boring, in fact, deathly boring, but when something exciting happens, it is usually the kind of excitement that sane people try to avoid. Crossing the large parking lot, I dodge moving cars, scattered shopping carts, and slow‑moving people. I check to see that my handcuffs are in place on my security belt as I enter the store. My three‑cell, heavy‑duty flashlight is in my right hand. The manager of the store tells me there is an “undesirable” walking around, one that has been picked up before on shoplifting charges. The manager points him out to me and I begin to follow him around. He hasn’t yet noticed me when he cuts into one of the aisles with some food items in his hand. When I turn the corner of the aisle, there he is, gulping down a quart of milk. There is half‑eaten lunchmeat and cheese in his hand. He has long, matted hair and he is wearing an Army trench coat, old jeans, T‑shirt, and worn‑out tennis shoes‑‑all of which look like they have been worn for several weeks without a washing. He gapes at me. A few of his front teeth are missing. I ask him if he is going to pay for the items, and he says, “Yes.” I say, “Let’s go then,” and he says, “Fuck you.” He begins to walk out the door. I tell him if he walks out the door, I will have to apprehend him. He says, “You wouldn’t dare.” I tell the manager to call the police as I follow him out the store. When we are outside, he turns and bumps me with his chest. I am surprised because his body is hard and wiry, his muscles hard as steel. A fork has appeared in his right hand, and he is holding it in a menacing manner. I notice that the sun has gone down and the parking lot has emptied. There is a slight chill in the air. The manger comes outside and tells me that the police will not arrive for at least half‑an‑hour. Then he disappears, ducking quickly back into the store. I look down at the very sharp fork waving around in the air. Just then, a police car pulls into the parking lot. I think they are there to assist me, but it turns out they are headed for the Mexican restaurant located at the other end of the parking lot. I yell, “Hey!” They turn their car around and head toward me and the hungry man with the fork in his hand. They end up arresting him.
I am walking around the parking lot. I am bored. My mind is numb from lack of use. It feels like someone has had it freeze‑dried, or at the very least, cut off its blood supply. The only part of my brain that is alive is the motor‑function area, and a minute section of the language area that keeps reverberating, “I’m bored, I’m bored, I’m bored.” It takes absolutely no intelligence to do this kind of work. I am trying to figure how a person like me ends up with a job like this.
It is near closing time. Three more minutes and I can lock the doors and go home. I am lazily staring through the glass doors and out over the parking lot. Suddenly, a man appears in front of me, on the other side of the glass, his eyes are bloodshot and glassy. I have to let him in because it isn’t yet closing time. I open the doors and he just stands there. It isn’t very cold out, but he is shivering. “I just seen my friend get killed,” he says. “Over drugs.” I feel terrible. Then I remember I’m on duty. “Was it here, in this parking lot?” “No,” he says. “A few blocks away.” His eyes stare unfocused on an imaginary spot over my shoulder. His pupils are dilated. “He was shot, man. Three times. In the gut. He just lay there and bled all over the ground.” I look down and notice he has one of his hands in his jacket pocket. There is a bulge in that pocket, and he is lifting the bulge up, pushing it forward, pointing it toward me. “Sorry,” I say. “But it’s near closing time. I have to lock up.” I quickly begin to close the doors. He doesn’t move. He’s still staring at the imaginary place behind me, still pointing the bulge at me. He looks like he is ready to cry. I finally get the doors closed in front of him, lock them, and move off like I have something to do.
I am walking around the parking lot. My legs are tired and my feet are killing me. My new shoes are pinching across the tops of my toes and rubbing sore spots on the backs of my heels. When the eight‑hour shift finally ends, I hobble to my car and drive home. When I arrive, I take off my shoes and socks and notice the skin is missing on numerous spots around my feet. I soak my feet in Epsom salts and wince at the pain. The next day, when I wear tennis shoes, the Sergeant of the Guard chastises me for not having black shoes on.
A commotion breaks out at the far end of the parking lot. Because of all the cars, I can’t see what it is, but I can hear a lot of shouting. I follow the noise until I arrive at the scene. I find a man and a woman arguing. A few people have gathered to watch. Nobody is interfering or saying anything, even though the man is moving toward the woman, gesticulating in a manner that is causing her to walk backward. The man is about six‑foot‑four, and weighs about two hundred and forty pounds; maybe that is why nobody is doing anything. I check to make sure my battery‑powered zapper is on my belt. My ever‑present flashlight is swinging in my right hand. “Please take your argument elsewhere,” I tell them. They ignore me. I say it louder. They still ignore me. “I want my baby,” the man says. “If you’re going to leave me, I want my baby.” “No,” she says. “I’m taking her to my mother’s.” By this time the man has the woman backed up to the trunk of a car. She looks like she wants to crawl backward over the top of the car. She is not afraid to argue back though, and keeps the emphatic rhetoric going, all the time eyeing his hands. I walk up next to them and yell, “Take your problems off this parking lot!” “Stay out of this,” the man says as he turns his face toward me. That is all the time the woman needs. In the split‑second it takes the man to turn his attention, the woman ducks under one of his arms and begins running toward an idling car. Behind the steering wheel is another woman, holding a baby. The man turns and takes a step in their direction. I quickly maneuver around him and stop a few steps in front of him. He looks intent on tearing me limb‑from‑limb. His eyes are flashing fire. He steps up to me and towers over me. I stand my ground. He looks surprised. “You’re only doing this because I’m black,” he says. “No,” I say. “It’s my job. I have to do this.” The car behind me squeals off, carrying with it the two women and the baby. The man looks over my head and begins to relax. “She’s a terrible mother,” he says. He turns and saunters off toward a large four‑by‑four vehicle, gets in, and slowly drives off. I relax the tight grip I had on my flashlight.
Tonight I am working at the local hospital. It is near the end of my shift, but my replacement hasn’t arrived yet. I wait, fifteen minutes, half‑an‑hour, an hour‑and‑a‑half. It is near midnight. I call the officer of the day and tell him what happened. He asks me to work a double shift. They never pay overtime, but I agree. I drink another cup of coffee, buy a newspaper and check the want‑ads.
I am working out in the Palomar area, guarding an office building on the midnight shift. I took this post because I can sit in my car most of the time and study. I only have to walk around every hour, check the area, and make sure all the office doors are locked. It is cold here at night. Whoever said it doesn’t get cold in sunny Southern California never lived away from the coast, and never worked outside at nighttime in the winter. I have a Volkswagen, so the heater doesn’t work unless I am driving 40 miles an hour. Since it’s hard to drive around the parking lot at night at 40 miles and hour and study at the same time, I sit in my car and study by flashlight. The bad light bothers my eyes. Even when I wear long johns, my legs go numb after ten or fifteen minutes.
I am sleeping soundly when the phone rings. It is the officer of the day, asking me to come into work. I look at the clock and notice it has only been six hours since I left my last post. A headache creeps into my frontal lobes. My neck tenses up. I tell him, “Yes,” hang up, and stumble toward the shower. As the water washes over me, I remember what I studied last year in American history: at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, business owners exploited their workers to every extent possible. As I make myself coffee, I wonder what happened to the strong labor unions of the 1970’s. As I drive to work, I look down at the gas needle. It hovers near the empty mark. I think about the one-hundred‑fifty dollar paycheck I received for last week’s pay.
Sometime around three in the morning, on one of my rounds at the Palomar office building, around the back, next to one of the dumpsters, where the smell of rotting lunch scraps and ink‑smeared photocopy paper mingles with the night air, I find a man sleeping on the ground. He is wrapped up in a dirty Army‑surplus sleeping bag. He is snoring. With my foot, I tap the end of the sleeping bag where his feet are. It takes me three or four nudges to wake him. “You’re going to have to leave,” I say. “No one is allowed on these premises at night.” “Man, do you know who God is?” he asks. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to leave.” “Do you go to church, man?” “Look, you have to leave the area.” “I didn’t think you went to church. Otherwise you wouldn’t be kicking me out of here.” I wait as he slowly stands and rolls up his sleeping bag, grumbling all the time about God and church. I watch as he picks up pieces of food from the ground, wraps them in a greasy piece of typing paper, and deposits the package in his pocket. I follow him until he walks off the parking lot. “Go to church, man,” he says as he walks away.
I got this job, finally. After six months of checking the want‑ads, making phone calls, driving around, pounding the pavement, filling out apps, and getting drunk every evening, I got this job.
This story first published on Quarto, the literary magazine of Columbia University.
The story you are about to read is a work of fiction.
Riding the Wind
by Stephen Page
Juan was driving his pick-up, I was on the passenger side, and Isabel was in the back seat. The stick shift rattled between Juan and me. Juan had met us at the international airport in Montevideo and was taking us to his farm near the sea, a vacation that Isabel had pestered me into taking after three months of rattling on about how nice it would be for me to finally visit her home country and meet her oldest and dearest friend. The first thing I had noticed about Juan’s truck, besides the winch on the back, was its dull, dark green color. The first thing Juan noticed about me, by the way he looked me up‑and‑down at the airport, was my clothes‑‑an Army jacket, Hawaiian shirt, blue jeans and white tennis shoes‑‑the same easy‑going style that Isabel always said a man in his late thirties was too old to wear.
The back seat was a small pad bolted to the front seats, and it was barely big enough for one adult, maybe two children, yet the way Isabel was sitting closer to Juan’s side of the cab, she made it look larger. She was leaning so that her left elbow was resting on the back of Juan’s seat, her forearm pressing against his shoulder. They spoke English at first, but when I tried to jump into the conversation, they fell into their native language, Spanish. I was just learning to speak Spanish, and had only memorized a few nouns and phrases. Isabel’s vocal tones rose and fell. Juan occasionally regarded me out of the corner of his eye and laughed. I glared at Isabel. Blood rushed to my face. I turned and looked out the passenger side window and watched some cows as they looked dumbly at our passing vehicle. The long lines of trees used as windbreaks between the plots of farm land were losing the last of their brown, curling leaves. I felt the onset of a headache and squeezed my thighs with my hands, imagining I was holding onto someone’s throat.
When we arrived at Juan’s farm, I was still staring out the window. I had been thinking about the conversation that Isabel and I had a few months back, when she first told me about Juan. “He moved away from the city and settled on the land he inherited from his father,” she said. “Built his own house, with his own two hands. Bought a few cows and now he’s got a whole herd. Plowed up half of the land and planted beans, right before the bean market skyrocketed. Wait ‘til you see his house,” she said. “It’s beautiful. He works wonderfully with his hands.”
Juan’s house was finished on the outside with oak‑wood slats, and on the north side there was a spacious sun room faced in large rectangular glass panels. Inside, the sun room blended smoothly into the living room. The furniture was rustic but rich‑‑large hand‑carved wooden furniture that reeked of Spanish colonialism. Above the fireplace, there was a painting of an elderly man who had a J.P. Morgan stare. At the bottom of the picture was a gold engraved plaque that read, Soltero Juan Ladrón de Guerra. “My Grandfather,” said Juan. On the mantel in front of and next to the painting was a bronze statue of a conquistador. Above a desk on the far side of the room was a coat of arms. Hanging on all the walls were horse whips and riding crops.
Juan said we could have his room upstairs, since it had a larger bed, and he would take the guest room at the end of the hallway under the stairs. While I set our suitcases in the bedroom, next to an antique four poster bed, I noticed Isabel casually take a candy from a jar on the nightstand.
Juan started to grill us lunch. “From one of my steers,” he said. “Cured by a neighbor of mine.” He seared the slab of beef on a grill he had placed over the fireplace. Isabel went into the kitchen to get something, and Juan followed her, giving me instructions to “Keep an eye on the meat.” Instead, I followed them, trying to pick up a few words of their conversation. They glanced at me then back at each other.
We sat down at the kitchen table while Isabel and Juan kept yakking away in Spanish. Isabel sat between Juan and me, her body twisted in his direction as she spoke. My headache was turning into a full‑fledged migraine. Juan got up to check on the meat and Isabel got up to get the plates. I reached for the large wooden pepper shaker that sat in the middle of the table and felt the heft of its weight as Isabel laid out the plates. She laid my plate last. “Why don’t you ever help?” she whispered at me.
Juan brought in the meat. “This is the cut we call ‘tapa,’” he said. “Do you want a cut from the large end, where it is tender and juicy, or do you want a cut from the small end where it is tough and hard, the part the real men eat.” Isabel watched for my reaction. Juan smiled at me. I narrowed my eyes and ordered a piece that the real men eat. Even though they were still speaking Spanish, I could tell that the conversation had turned to the subject of Laura, Isabel’s daughter by a former marriage. Laura was an beautiful, agitated bundle of post‑adolescent hormones that deftly managed, at least once a day, to get either Isabel angry at me, or me angry at Isabel. She had elected to stay home with the housekeeper, cook, gardener, and private tutor to study for her college entrance exams while we went on vacation. I can’t say I was disappointed.
“Juan was there when Laura was born,” Isabel said in English.
“Yes. I called her the little princess,” Juan said.
“That’s exactly what I always say,” I exclaimed. “She’s like a princess. And Isabel is like a queen.”
“Where does that leave you?” Juan said. “Are you the servant?”
This time I looked at Isabel for her reaction. She was staring down at her plate, watching her knife cut through a fat piece of meat. Juan laughed. I glared at him and abruptly pushed myself from the table. I went outside and had a smoke on the back porch. This was going to be the last time, I thought to myself.
I noticed Juan had a barn a hundred feet or so from the house. Funny I hadn’t seen it when we came in, it being so obvious, mansion sized and faced flat cement gray with two immense bright green front doors. The doors were shut and high above them was an open hay‑loft window. I crushed my cigarette out with the sole of my shoe. Next to the front doors and leaning against the wall of the barn was a pitchfork. Just as I was going to walk over to it, Isabel came outside. She took my hand. “Let’s go take a nap,” she said.
“I’m not tired.”
“The bed is very big and comfortable,” she said, pressing her breasts into my arm, “And Juan has some errands to run. We have the entire afternoon to ourselves.”
I followed her back into the house. Juan was cleaning the fireplace as we went up the stairs. He watched Isabel’s backside as she walked in front of me.
When I woke up, I was alone. I opened the bedroom window and saw them walking toward the truck. They had their backs to me and Juan had his arm around her neck while Isabel rested her head upon his shoulder. They were walking slowly and Juan seemed to be speaking rather softly. I flew down the stairs and stepped out the back door just as they were arriving at the truck. I let the screen door slam shut.
“My love,” Isabel said as she skipped towards me. Her blouse was open to the fourth button. I stared intently at Juan. He was mocking me with his eyes.
“You are awake,” he said.
“Yes, I am. And it seems to be just in time.”
“Oh, you mean to come with us,” Isabel said. “We were just going to pick up Juan’s kids. They live only ten minutes away.”
“That’s okay,” Juan said. “I can go alone. There’s coffee on the fireplace if you want some.” He got in his truck and drove off, the winch on the back rattling and bobbing back and forth.
“Love, are you okay? You have a terrible look on your face.”
I lit a cigarette. “Where were you going?”
“To pick up his kids, I told you.”
“Why didn’t you wake me?”
“You were sleeping so well. Besides, Juan needed to speak. He feels comfortable speaking to me. We’re old friends, you know that. He wanted to talk about his divorce. Hey, wait a minute, what are you insinuating?” She put her hands on her hips. I could see her bra and cleavage.
“Why didn’t he invite both of us to go with him?”
“Because there are three kids and the cab would be full. You’re being ridiculous.” She slipped inside the back door. I stayed on the porch and finished my smoke. Then I went for a walk.
After a walk around the barn, where I noticed the front doors were padlocked, I went back inside the house. Isabel was lying on a hammock in the sun room. I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat on the sofa. She leaned over and looked at me. The back door opened and three kids piled in, howling and yelling. They ranged in ages from three to eight.
“Lets go to the beach,” Juan said.
“It’s almost winter,” I said. “Don’t you think it’s a bit nippy for a swim?”
“We’re not going to swim, just have a picnic. The waves are beautiful to see crashing on the shore this time of year. They’re about five or six feet tall.”
The kids were running around the house and jumping up and down on the sofa. “Isn’t it going to be crowded in the cab?” I asked.
“Well, I have a suggestion. Isabel says you like to ride motorcycles.” My mind escaped to thoughts of my Harley‑‑that red and white Knucklehead that occasionally freed me from the stagnation of my marriage. He continued, “Well, I have a motocross bike. You can follow us. If you wear a sweater under your coat you’ll be fine.”
The road was overgrown with grass, but if I stayed in the wheel ruts, it was easy to ride on. I actually started to feel good after a mile or two. The sun was out, the wind was in my face, the briskness of the air incredibly invigorating. I started singing a song by Steppenwolf. “Get your motor running, head out on the highway, looking for adventure, in what ever comes our way. . . Born to be wi‑ii‑ii‑ii‑ld. Born to be . . .”
After a meal of chicken sandwiches and red wine, and an afternoon of watching the kids build sand castles, then watching the sand castles get destroyed by the crashing waves, we headed back. Since I knew the way, I ventured out in front of the truck. I lost sight of them over some rolling hills, but I didn’t care, I had my freedom again‑‑the open road, the scenery passing by, the wind combing my hair and caressing my body through my clothes. When I saw the house loom up ahead of me, I slowed down. I looked over my shoulder. I slowed down some more. I stopped. I rode to the top of a knoll and scanned the road to the beach. The truck was nowhere to be seen. I rode all the way back to the beach. Nothing. I returned to the house at full throttle. When I arrived, the sun was setting.
Around midnight, I heard the truck pull up and the doors slam shut. I went to the back porch with my hand around the neck of a bottle of bourbon I had found in the kitchen.
“Mi amor, how are you?” Isabel asked me. “Sorry, we had a flat tire.” Her hair was mussed.
“I went back to find you.”
Juan interrupted, “Sorry Jim, we took a different route. To drop off the kids.”
I lit a cigarette.
“Let’s go to bed, love,” Isabel said to me. “It’s late.” She put her hand over mine, the one that gripped the whiskey bottle.
In the bedroom I confronted her. “Did the flat tire happen before or after you dropped off the kids?”
She looked at me condescendingly. “Your petty jealousies belittle you. You have no right to speak to me like that. Juan is my friend. Whatever fantasy you’ve concocted in your mind is purely fictional. Besides, you know how I feel about infidelity.”
“Yeah, I know how you feel about infidelity. The same way you always feel about it. The way you feel about it every time we go on a vacation together. The way you feel about it every time we meet someone new. Even the way you feel about it with all of our friends back home.” She stormed out of the room. I picked up the jar of candy and smashed it on the floor.
I sat on the bed and looked at the grass stains on my tennis shoes. After a few moments, I got up, went down the stairs, through the living room, and into the kitchen. I couldn’t find Isabel or Juan, so I walked, quite quickly, under the stairs and into the hallway that led to the guest room. I found the door closed. I pressed my ear to the door. Silence. Too much silence. A light shone from under the door and onto my feet. A double shadow passed by the light. I grabbed the door knob and drove my shoulder into the door, bursting into the room.
No one was there. A window a few feet from the unmade bed was open a couple of inches and its curtain fluttered in the breeze. The lamp between the bed and the window was on and the curtain periodically passed in front of it.
I paused for a moment, then went through the kitchen and out the back door. The moon was full and the sky was clear, giving the outdoors the appearance of a silvery low‑lit day. I could see the hills I had ridden upon earlier that day. A cold wind was blowing. The wild grass in the field next to the house rippled in the breeze. The main doors to the barn stood slightly ajar, and I watched as a white owl circled the barn twice then entered through the hay‑loft window. I glanced at the pitchfork where now it leaned within arm’s reach against the side of the house. The truck, its exterior looking black and shiny, its chrome bumpers reflecting the moon, sat pointed in the direction of the road that led to the airport. The skin on the back of my neck burned and my scalp tingled as I stepped off the porch and walked up to the driver’s side. Its keys dangled brightly in the ignition. I looked again at the dark slit made by the opening of the barn doors, over at the pitchfork, around at the hills, the wild grass, the road. The wind picked up and whistled in my ears.
The Suspense of Loneliness cover
Riding the Wind, as published in Quarto
Riding the Wind, as anthologized in The Suspense of Loneliness
This is a work of fiction. All people, places, and events in the story are fictitious.
You can also find this story on a Quarto website on page 27
I am so pleased that you have volunteered for Meals on Wheels–a noble endeavor to say the least. The driving around and handing out of containered food must surely keep you busy; which as we both know is something you need to do, especially now, at this point in your life.
Here on Santa Ana it is raining, a necessity for all ranches and farms alike. There always seems to be too much or too little of the wet stuff: cows either grazing in knee-deep water or chewing cud in puddles of dust, wheat like reeds in lakes or corn withering and dropping cracked ears. Last week the soy leaves turned from yellow to brown, a worsening state of bad, and the wind–break evergreens ochred the cow-lot borders. This afternoon, after two hours of steady raindrops the size of acorns, the whole ranch and everything on it seemed to sigh with relief; an almost audible sigh like one you hear in a dream as you are waking. The land has blackened to chocolate and the air chilled to jacket weather. Today’s downpour reprieved a two-month bout of ninety-degree swelter that made ill the character of the entire Santa Ana populace, not to mention tainted much of our cupboard tins and racked red wine.
We start the yerra next week–a picnic for us, as we watch while the gauchos perform. The cooler weather will be perfect for it. In a month or so we sell the calves.
I am sure you are happy that you will soon move to Florida after such a cold Michigan winter. Two months of breath-cracking below-zero is enough to make anyone seek guayaberas and daiquiris on the beach. Retirement will be pure pleasure. No more up before daybreak! No more “thru rain and shine!”
I hope your recovery from prostate surgery goes well. A hobby is in order for you to find, as we spoke about, to keep you occupied. Distracted. Don’t be like your father. Your career is over, not your life.
I trust this letter finds you and Mom well.
With much thought,
Your son, Jonathan
PS The jacket you gave me during my last visit, the bombardier with the shoulder insignia missing, keeps me from the wet and chill. I use it on my wood walks.
This poem first published on Foliate Oak. Read the poem there: http://www.foliateoak.com/stephen-page.html
Stephen Page is from Michigan. He is the author of The Timbre of Sand and Still Dandelions. He holds two AA’s from Palomar College, a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from Bennington College. His critical essays have appeared regularly in the Buenos Aires Herald and the Fox Chase Review. He is the recipient of The Jess Cloud Memorial Prize, a Writer-in-Residence from the Montana Artists Refuge, a Full Fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center, an Imagination Grant from Cleveland State University, and an Arvon Foundation Ltd. Grant. He loves his wife, travel, family, and friends.
Publisher: Three Rivers Press (October 1, 2002)
Reviewed by Stephen Page
Once I took a vacation with my wife to visit some of the interesting places in Argentine Patagonia—the Perito Moreno Glacier, the Petrified Forest, the Cave of Hands, etc. We decided on hiring a guide in a pickup that would wind us through Patagonia. Our guide was friendly and helpful. In-between the beautiful locations (mentioned above) most of Patagonia is windswept semi-arid desert, so for hours at a time we would only see tufts of yellow grass and scrawny bushes (xerophyte classification). Once in a while we would see a harrier, or a hawk, or a condor glide by. When we did see a tree or two, they where sticking out of the ground at a thirty-degree angle, because the strong year-round winds made the trees grow that way. Occasionally we would see a guanaco (an animal genetically related to an African camel and also but more phenotypically related to a llama, which is a smaller, hairier version of a camel), a hare, a snake slither across the road, or a herd of huddled sheep overseen by a lone gaucho sitting in a saddle on a horse silhouetted atop a hill, him and his horse leaning a little due to the wind. Otherwise, our first impression of Patagonia was that it is all but barren. The gauchos I saw looked ominous, hunched over in their saddles, puffing on hand-rolled cigarettes, staring at us with slit-eyed hatred as if we were something they were not or at the very least, intruders in their world. I didn’t understand. We were just tourists driving on a public (dirt) road. The guide told us “some gauchos are irresponsible, resentful, lazy, violent, drunkards.” But then he then added, “not all of them. Most of them were good employees, and good human beings.” I didn’t think much about those comments at the time. I just associated gauchos with the romantic notion of cowboys of the Old West in the U.S. of A.—riding in a saddle all day, sustaining for weeks at a time on jerky and coffee (by the way, gauchos drink maté—not coffee—which is a loose-leaf tea sipped out of a gourd through a metal straw). Anyway, most of the time on our trip, we stayed in one or two star hotels. We ate grilled meat and white bread three times a day. We travelled . . . ascetically . . . to say the least. One evening the guide invited us to his home to introduce us to his family. “It’s on the way.” He said. “Just a few miles from our tour route.” His house was set against a line of sand-beige foothills spotted with clumps of sparsely leaved green bushes and a few clumps of yellow grass. A few sheep and a couple of horses were wandering around and chomping on the grass. It was a humble abode, but well maintained and immaculately clean inside. His wife was very accommodating and good-natured. She cooked us up some lamb stew (guiso). They had an infant child who was lying in a portable crib set by kitchen table and gooed while we ate. We ate bowls and bowls of the guiso and sipped red wine and talked for hours. By then it was after sunset, so the couple showed us the guest room. It was just big enough for a small dresser and a twin bed, and since the only fireplace in the small house was in the living room, we slept with the door open. To keep us warm while we slept, the couple had placed 10 blankets atop the sheets (southern Patagonia can be very cold, all year round—did I mention that Patagonia was windswept? Yes I did. I forgot to mention that the wind is extremely cold, sometimes coming from over the snow-capped Andes, usually directly from the south—Antarctica). That was a romantic night for my wife and me, cuddled together in a small bed with a mountain of blankets over us. It was certainly memorable. We often talk and laugh about it.
Sometime after, I read Nick Redding’s The Last Cowboys at the End of the World. I bought the book just before I started studying at Bennington and read only part of the first chapter when a friend of mine, over a cup of coffee, in a Buenos Aires café called “El Gaucho,” explained to me the plot and the ending. I was, to say the least, perturbed. I decided to put some time between the book and me so I could read it somewhat unbiasedly.
The Last Cowboys is a wonderful book. It has some tones of Chatwin, in the narrator behavior and voice, but in the end, overall, it is a unique story. The setting takes place on a huge spread of a ranch in the Chilean side of Patagonia (more mountainous than the Argentine). The main character, nicknamed Duck, whom Redding studies in the book is a gaucho, a family man (married and with children), and he is a hodgepodge of all the bad-guys in gaucho land—knife fighter, horse thief, cattle rustler, heavy drinker, wife-beater, philanderer, cuckold, malingerer, excuse maker, liar, irresponsible employee. Duck lives Spartanly—as do all romanticized gauchos and cowboys—but not because he wants to, because he has to, due to his inadequate salary. So, in order to live better, rationalizing to himself he deserves better for his family because the owners of the ranch he works on are rich, Duck sets up a system along with a few other gauchos from neighboring ranches, to “lose” a few head of cattle every time he moves the bovines from one pasture to another or when the big end of the year cattle drives are on. I won’t tell you if Duck gets caught or not, but there is a detailed chapter in the book that explains how difficult it is to fire a bad employee even if he is not working in the manor the employer wants (with the labor laws in effect at the time). The reader gets to know the inside story of ranching on a big spread—a dying entity in itself, what with feedlots and overpopulation causality. Reding shows Duck working, in home at rest, his family, his social life. Duck confesses to Reding his dreams, his thoughts, his heartbreaks and elations.
To Reding, Duck’s cowboy/gaucho life is evolving (a most intelligent observation), and he explains why, not didactically, but through the actions of the main character.
Reding puts together a great novel, filled with drama, action, excitement, everyday work drudgery, and romanticism of the Old West set in the present. I am glad I read it. You should too. I will quote something for you to ponder which Reding puts in the introduction: “if you can’t tell a story without maintaining the dignity of the people involved, you should not be telling the story in the first place.” I need to tape that to my computer screen.
You can check out the book here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Last-Cowboys-End-World/dp/0609810049
Stephen Page is from Detroit, Michigan. There he worked in factories, gasoline stations, and steel-cutting shops. He always longed for a vocation associated with nature. He now lives in Argentina, teaches literature, ranches, and spends time with his family.
Poetry by Stephen Page
While it is yet dark I slide from between
the sheets, pad to the kitchen, brew coffee,
and pack sweetrolls in a plastic bag. I strip
off my pajamas, shower myself with insect
repellent, and put on yesterday’s clothes. I
shoulder my backpack, and slip out the back
door, closing it quietly behind me. In the vestige
of moonlight I walk past the barn, feeling the dew
wet my ankles. Just inside the edge of the
Wood I breakfast on a treestump. Two barn
owls screech at my invasion and leave their
branch perch. A bat flaps violently by my
head. I roll marmalade around my tongue
and smell fecund earth spiced with decaying
leaves. A silver fox darts across a clearing,
and I unseat myself to wander the wood.
In the penumbra of trees I walk–I listen to
silence–I do not feel the weight of my
pack–I misplace time–an hour when I click
the light on my digital watch. The Myth
I seek does not appear but feel I was close
to finding it, or it finding me. A wooddove pops
its wings as it departs eucalypti mist auraed by
a vanilla sunrise. Treefrog croaks crescendo
then stop as I exit the treeline. A peach sun rises
behind a windmill as I cross the field to breakfast
a second time, this time with my wife.
In a lemon tree behind our ranchhouse, I discover
a newly made wasp nest bowing a brace of branches.
In the Room of the Dead
Grandfather slits open
A forty-pound fish
From anus to throat,
His nostrils flaring
At the effluvium.
Grandmother sits upon the lap
Of her gray-suited father,
Her pale dress fluttering
Above her chubby thighs,
Their skin dusted
With corn silk,
Stubble in the field
Your high-headed friend
Who prefers blue oxfords
And khakis with loafers,
Who planted the blooms
That perfume your garden,
Breathes ether and oxygen
Through a plastic mask
And winces at each needle prick
Of the vein-finding nurse.
You mother in lavender chiffon
Who swallowed every morning
whole garlic clove
Wheezes in a sanitary cloud
Of baby powder,
Her stomach cancer
Your father, a tall man
In a baker apron,
Sips aromatic yerba
In front of flock
Of sparrow, the birds
Of his diabetic
An antique wool blanket
Is folded neatly
Upon the foot of the bed,
And atop the cedar chest of drawers,
The sliver frames
Never quite tarnish to black,
But remain a constant state of gray,
The chromatic faces stilled
By the opening of the door.
these poems published in Zymbol
The Night is Long
By Stephen Page
red and green walls
melt from the ceiling
red and brown ducks
paint the windows
a hanging witch
a reminder of Salem
the hour of evil
a female nude stands
in shy sexual wanting
cold as stone
from sculptor’s hands
my clothes are scattered
in some semi-order
my room is displaced
in time and location
her lovely remembrance
strums and plays
A song for daughter
sits on a shelf
his staring eyes
sadly know all
five o’clock now
the mourning bird sings
a song for me
the death I’ve lived
a week has passed
in eight long hours
a moment ago
it was tomorrow
*This poem first published in “Our Reader’s Quarterly”
Editor: Gene Brill