“Well’s dry again,” Travis says. He kicks the front door shut against the gnawing cold. His arms are full of damp pinon for the fire. The tang of manure and fresh hay follows him in.
“It’s winter,” I say. My fingers are numb from chasing dishes around in a sink full of suds. I’ve been waiting for him to ask about my day. But both our hands are busy with chores, and he won’t stop till they’re done.
“Checked the cisterns. They’re about half-way.”
“We’ll have to watch it.” I am guilty with the water in the basin. Laundry’s waiting by the washer and we’ll need to shower tomorrow. Seems there’s always more need than have.
As he kneels at the hearth, his knees creak and pop with the weight of years spent scraping at this dirt, fighting it. Wood chuffs against the rough cotton of his mud brown Carhartt. There is meticulousness in his stacking log upon log; he might have been an engineer. Instead, we’re just two washed up rodeo-ers, pretending we aren’t failing at being farmers, too.
The phone rings. He keeps his back to it, crouched away like a beat pup. There’s nothing new to say to the bank. I dry my hands on the back of my jeans before answering.
“Hi, Lisa.” I say her name so he knows it’s not for him. I should have let it go to voicemail. She chatters on about a Tanya’s baby shower and I set the last plates to dry. Travis finishes stacking the wood and heads out to the barn to shut the cows in for the night.
Just before we got married, he took me to Santa Fe. He needed a qualifying ride and I was just happy to be with him. We stayed the night on the square for Zozobra. The effigy of Old Man Winter, paled-faced and leering, was rising ten feet out of a pyre. The people all around us danced to the mariachi, their arms lifted in the air as they burned away the old and welcomed in the new. When he was lighted, the fire was so hot I had to turn away. Travis held onto me and whispered that he loved me. Right then, I had everything I ever wanted.
We go to bed early because there is nothing else to do. I put a thick log on the fire and turn out lights. He eases weary onto the mattress and I think this is the moment for me to tell him the truth. But I look at his sun-lined face and see his eyes hollow. The words lose their shape in my mouth. I reach my hand out, touch the sinew in his arms. I must be ice against his skin because he flinches. I pull away.
“Love you,” I say.
“G’night,” he answers, rolling to face the closet. His breath comes in familiar rhythms and I turn away, too. Cold air slipping under the covers between us.
We’d been married two years when I ended up the in ICU for rolling my trailer outside of Gunnison. My horse didn’t make it. Travis dropped out of the rodeo the rest of the year just to sit and read Jane Austen out loud. The following year, a bull caught Travis in the chest and I finished her collected works waiting out his surgeries. We both hate her to this day.
I stand outside the closest Wal-Mart, a forty-five minute drive from the house. As I walk to the automatic doors, the wind drags my hair through the gloss on my lips then covers them with a gritty layer of dust. Empty convenience store cups roll swirling dances around smaller tumbleweeds against the cinderblock walls. A fast food wrapper skips by, hurried along with intermittent gusts. The smell of cow shit lays a hazy veneer over everything, even my teeth when I open my mouth. I am only here for water.
An hour later, teal nail polish beeps across the scanner and the cashier says, “You take the day off?” I don’t recognize her at first. But under the lavender hair and watery, red eyes, I see the Mallory I knew years ago; back when we all thought we’d get the heck out of this town. Can’t go to Wal-Mart without seeing someone you know.
“Kinda.” I brush bangs from my forehead, aware of the few grey strands I found last week, almost white against my tawny brown.
Beep for a jug of water. “How’s Dixie,” she asks.
“Oh,” I say. My insides have been doused in ice water. Beep for matches. “She’s gone.”
“That’s sad.” Beep for chili beans. “Y’all were a good team. Hard to find a roper like her.” Beep for canned soup.
I wave a flippant hand. The hurt is an August fly, fat and lazy. “She deserved better.”
Mallory nods. “$15.62,” she says. “You keep her tack?”
I swipe my card. “No.” My throat catches. I’ve tried not to think about the hand-tooled saddle, mine and Travis’ initials interwoven with sunflowers in the leather; capped with an authentic Mexican silver saddle horn. The one my Daddy gave me as a wedding present. “We sold it.”
“Too bad.” She doesn’t care. “Enjoy your day.”
“You, too.” I hoist the water into the cart, the plastic bag flimsy in my grip. I hate coming in to town.
My soup is cold.
Travis was already gone when I got home. I didn’t bother with his cell, mostly because I don’t know what to say to him. I dip my spoon into the bowl but can’t bring it to my mouth. Tires on the gravel drive have me bracing for the rush of cold air when he opens the door. “What’re you doing home?”
“Sit down,” I say, pushing the bowl aside.
He tugs his sweat-stained ball cap off, walks to the sink. The facet sputters when he tries to fill a glass. “Damn it.”
“There’s a jug in the fridge.”
He brings the empty glass to the table and sits across from me. He looks at the floor. “Bank’s coming this afternoon. They’re taking the tractor.” Titling the glass, he looks through it. “And the livestock.”
My throat is squeezing in on itself. I can’t swallow. “I got fired yesterday.”
He looks up, green eyes bright against the red of his brows. I doubt he expected a pissing contest. Trouble is, we’re both downwind, facing the wrong way.
“Gibbs said I took too much personal time. Didn’t care that it was for the doctors.”
“Well,” Travis tries to make the best of it, “Gibbs is an asshole.”
“Dr. Cross finally just said it,” I say; I can’t wait any more for him to ask. “I can’t keep a baby. There’s just too much scarring.”
That’s the one. He winches, the same crumple I saw when the bull’s horn got under his chest plate. It’s the kind of hurt that ruins a life. He studies the table between us; deep breath. “It is what it is,” he says. The ball cap is back on his head and he shuffles for the door.
“Where you going?”
“Water the stock.” His glass is on the table as he opens the door. The winter scuttles in, brushing my skin into cold fury.
He’s back around time for dinner. I don’t know what he’s been doing out there, the cows gone to auction and the tractor back to the bank. But he comes up behind me while I’m setting out bowls and folds his arms around me. His hands are cold through my sleeves. “I love you, Ruth,” he says. “That won’t change now.” Then he’s gone to wash up. At dinner, he is quiet and I just sit there, running the cornbread through my chili, trying to swallow without water.
When we’re in bed, I reach for him and he is accommodating. It’s the only thing we know. I lay on his chest tracing the scar where the bull gored him. “Why’d you marry me?”
“You had a roper’s ass.”
“You don’t quit.” He has that half smile, an echo of the one that knocked the breath out of me every time I sat in the stands, watching him in the arena. “Even when you were outside the time: you’d still tie ‘em up, like you didn’t hear the whistle.” He laughs. “Then you’d throw your hands up in the air and wave like you were the damn rodeo queen.” His lips are soft on my forehead.
“You had a bullrider’s ass.”
He laughs again. I remember this, remember me. I could stay here, warm and drowsy, as long as the heat holds. Then he says it quiet, like he doesn’t want to wake from this. “We would ’a made great babies.”
I choke. “I’m sorry, Travis.”
“Me, too.” He sighs. “Shit happens, you know?”
I feel the warmth draining from my body and I start to shake. “I can’t do this.”
“Come on, Ruth.” He pulls his arm from under me. The thunderstorm he’s been hanging onto breaks, but I’m the ground too dry to soak it in. “What more do you want? I’ve got nothing.” His eyes are full and he is fighting to keep his voice from shaking. “You want me to say sorry that we had to sell your saddle to pay the doctor bills? ‘Cause I am. More than you know. And I’m real sorry you’re stuck on this piece of shit dirt with a man who can’t do squat to make a life.” He is standing now, yanking pants off the floor, belt buckle ringing as he pulls them on.
“Travis,” I say. “This isn’t how we wanted it.”
“I’m thirsty.” And he walks out, like it’s as easy as that.
The sun’s coming up; but the chill is worse in this moment than it has been all night. Travis will be up soon, no matter what the day will bring. He’ll find my note propped against the coffee pot. I sincerely hope he reads it, so he knows that this life, and not him, has taken too much of me already. The canvas duffel I used when I was on the rodeo circuit, is packed with only the essentials and half our savings. It’s in the back seat of my dirt-road crusted Focus, the only things I own outright.
I smell like gasoline. The ground in front of me is wet with what I could find in the barn. I crouch close to the packed dirt. It is a small thing to light a match. It is an even smaller thing to let it go.
The tiny pyre of twigs in front of me catches. On top perches a corn husk doll, the one I made when we first started trying. It isn’t long before a prickly spire of flame finds the gas. With a rush of heat, the fire chases the line of fuel toward the barn. I blow a kiss to baby Zozobra. By the time I stand, the whole row of stalks is involved, inviting its neighbors to join their flickering dance. The field is full of ochre and melting gold.
I turn my face toward the well. I can see Travis leaning against my car, bag slung over his shoulder. I feel a grin cracking open on my face.
“You coming,” I ask when I’m in earshot.
“Yeah,” he says. “If you want me to.” I nod and his smile breaks like the sun over prairie.
I drive slow out onto the highway. The wind has picked up, blowing smoke in front of the house so I can’t see it anymore. Travis holds his hand out and I lace my fingers into his. “You’re warm,” he says, leaning his head back, closing his eyes.
“I am.” I put the sun behind us as I lay the pedal on the floor.