God knows what possessed me to walk into
Tommy’s Tavern. Perhaps I had been ready for a random
destination. Maybe I was just
thirsty. I may have looked over my
shoulder and seen a trail of footprints in the dust, reeling back from the
heels of my boots, down the road, beyond the prairie, into oblivion, and felt
thereupon an immediate need for human companionship. But, for the life of me, I could not even
recall my arrival in Taos . New Mexico
I approached the bar and in short order had requested a shot of gin, neat and cold, from the black handlebar moustache that appeared across the mahogany, wearing an apron.
“Welcome to the Triple-T, mister,” said the voice behind the dancing brush.
As I stood at the bar sipping my drink, I seemed to recall a vast sky the color of a Tex-Mex horse blanket, and just as dusty. Before that, a long distance pissing contest conducted in a snow-filled alleyway behind a bar in
. It seems there had been a war. A winner had recently been declared, and a
jamboree of clog dancing, whoremongering, and the careless use of side arms had
broken out amongst the drinking set. I
believed that I had won the contest, but could not conjure from memory anything
of significance that had transpired since.
Perhaps, I theorized, I had spent some time panning gold in the
Dakotas. Maybe I was subsequently
bushwhacked, robbed of my dust, left for dead on a mountainside covered with
black bristles like the shoulders of a razorback hog. Evidently I had survived, perhaps nursed back
to health by a Sioux princess, a Deadwood whore, or a compassionate buffalo
soldier. Maybe I had wandered aimlessly
for a spell, amnesiac and toothless, a victim of ennui and scurvy, finally
taking a job tuning pianos in Scranton, Pennsylvania? Rochester, Minnesota
Since those times I have made it a firm practice to touch no drop of hard spirits that goes into a man darker in color than it comes back out.
Of one thing I was certain. Any roads I had traveled, I had traveled afoot. I loathed horses of all sizes and shapes. Horses were walnut-brained, flatulent, untidy beasts, contributing in no small part to the livelihood of flies, rodents and all manner of other misanthropic vermin. Owning no horse, I owned no saddle, put my feet into no stirrups, and was therefore free--nay, obliged--to keep myself shod in footgear befitting a civilized man of the frontier. I hoped that the devil might catch me dead in a pair of those pointy-toed, high-heeled, shit-kickers that your average butt-fucking cowpoke pranced around in. My boots were heavy, square-toed, low-heeled, flat black. My boots cried out for three thousand miles of paved road and a big chopped Harley.
In those days, however, the available alternative to your basic horse was shanks’ mare.
In any case, I had no need to bounce around the range balanced on the bowed spine of some half-starved, dim-witted mare to prove my manhood, for I could roll myself a smoke one-handed, pull the drawstring of my poke tight with my teeth, and pop a match on my thumbnail, all in one smooth motion. It was a skill I had learned from a hansom cabby in Hoboken, New Jersey, and I could do it in any weather. I could do it while reciting the Lord’s Prayer in flawless church Latin, if necessary.
That was all it took to make it on the frontier.
Despite the big ceiling fan, it was overly warm in the Triple-T, and I had soon availed myself of another icy gin. Pondering fate, I discovered that I truly regretted having left Minnesota and the woman with the corn-colored hair. She had smelt of fresh-turned earth and saltwater mushrooms, and had made me a fine overcoat of quilted homespun that reached just to my boot tops.
My departure had perhaps been precipitous. The child, after all, could have been mine, and, in any case, could have been trained to imitate my walk, my talk, my manner of gazing at the full moon rising over a broad lake.
I removed the quilted coat and soon felt more comfortable. Women like that were hard to find. Although perhaps not in
I recognized The Kid the instant that he swung through the double doors of the Triple-T. Maybe I had seen his face on a poster, hanging on the wall of a post office where I had stopped off to send belated words of apology to an address I had since forgotten. In any event, he was undeniably The Kid.
Perched on his head was a fruity little hat that looked like he had purchased it off the pushcart of an Orchard Street Jew. (My own hat was an authentic ten-gallon Stetson, acquired in Providence, Rhode Island at the cost of twenty-six books of supermarket gift stamps, gleaned from decades of loyalty to the A & P.)
The Kid had the slack-jawed look of an adolescent orphan who had just been stunned with a rubber mallet.
Removing that ridiculous lid from his head, The Kid felt around inside the band with his fingertips, finally extracting a tightly folded square of paper. He spread it out carefully on the bar and studied it for some time, his smooth brow exhibiting the tiniest crease of concentration, his moist lips moving silently.
Finally, The Kid nodded and grinned. Replacing his hat at a rakish angle, he hitched up his gun belt, dipped into the pocket of his black leather vest, and produced a silver dollar which he slapped down on the bar in an extravagant display of savoir-faire.
“Redeye!” The Kid demanded.
Had I snorted? Did I giggle? For whatever reason, The Kid dragged his big Colt peacemaker from its holster and blasted the hat off my head as casually as you might swat a fly off a hard boiled egg.
“Beg pardon?” The Kid whispered sweetly.
Now, I was genuinely fond of that chapeau. It had nearly gotten me laid on several occasions. However, although there are probably numerous good reasons to die, I was very much of the opinion that drawing on The Kid in defense of a hat was not one of them. Looking The Kid straight in the eye, I allowed that he had gotten off a nice shot and, furthermore, offered to buy him one in recognition of his excellent marksmanship. As The Kid proved agreeable to this course of action, I led him by the plaid flannel elbow to a free table, where he could be seated with his back to the wall—a consideration which did nothing to lessen The Kid’s growing appreciation of my accommodating nature.
Predictably, The Kid wore spurs on his pointy-ass boots, and he chimed like a goddamned hootchy-cootchy dancer all the way across the floor. That annoyed the hell out of me, but I let it slide.
In the preliminary small talk that ensued, The Kid disclosed that he was currently employed as a hired gun by a man named Chisum who had got himself involved in a bloody range war. Chisum, it seemed, was either of the open range, cattleman’s persuasion, or was a shepherd and hell-bent on the installation of fence posts and barbed wire. The Kid could never keep it straight, but was glad for the steady work. Killing one man for every year of your age (The Kid’s current pace) was not a difficult feat, he explained, once you got over being finicky about dorsal/ventral considerations with regard to entrance wounds.
It was not a bad job, as jobs went, and The Kid’s only regret was the two years he had spent at Junior College, for he had yet to discover any practical application for the training he had received there.
After a few more neat ones, we were fast friends, The Kid and I. Between rounds of drink and good-natured bouts of arm wrestling, we discussed politics: (I stood firmly behind the Gold Standard. The Kid favored the annexation of Cuba, and nearly drew on me again when I impugned the manhood of William Jennings Bryan); religion (The Kid had definite Manichean tendencies, while I admitted to leaning toward some of the more liberal tenets of the Parsees. In the end, we each decided that vis-à-vis matters occult, perhaps Nietzsche was deserving of a second look); and sex (the multiple orgasm: ball bust or bull shit?).
Suddenly, “We need some tunes!” shouted The Kid. “Gimme all yer quarters!”
I then learned that one of the best features of the Triple-T, second only to the immaculate privy, was the coin operated player piano. It offered an outstanding mix of oldies as well as such avant-garde numbers as Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”, The Kid’s first selection.
“All I ever really wanted,” The Kid admitted, “was to blow some jazz.
“But we was poor in New York, poorer still in Kansas. No bread for lessons. A piano was outta the question altogether.
“Things coulda been different. Things coulda been awesome…”
In another world, Erik Satie slept. In a dream, Satie saw Thelonious Monk kneel to remove a ring of gold from the toe of a reclining blonde, who was Jean Harlow. Monk cut the ring with a steel blade and slipped it through the black lobe of his right ear. When Satie awoke, he crossed to his piano and composed new music of duned snow and spun gold. He gave his piece but one perfect note per measure. Invisible birds looped in crimson frenzy between those vibrant jewels of sound. When he had finished, Satie removed the soiled sheets from his bed, stuffing them between the wall and the back of his battered upright piano, where he concealed from prying eyes the best of his compositions.
Silence had befallen the Triple-T. The last bargirl had long since made the sad, dutiful, climb up the wooden stairs to her room, accompanied by the jingling spurs of the last cowboy.
The Kid’s lids had grown heavy, and I noted with some dismay that the steel gray eyes of the infamous Kid, most feared killer on the frontier, were brimming with moisture.
“I ain’t never gonna be no jazzman,” whimpered The Kid. “It’s too late. Too fuckin’ late.”
I conceded that going that particular route was going to entail playing a good deal of catch-up at this juncture, but tried to smooth things over a bit by suggesting that, in any event, there was much more demand on the frontier for pistoleros than there was for pianists.
This opinion seemed to cheer The Kid but little. For some minutes he remained slumped silently in his chair, a brown study. Suddenly, however, his eyes brightened and he leapt to his feet.
“Now just hold on a minute,” he cried. “Check this out. See if you can dig this, man!”
He pulled himself up to his full five-foot-five and stood quite formally, hands grasping the lapels of his vest, his gaze fixed, it seemed, on the bare beams overhead. And The Kid commenced to recite:
“Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles,
Je ne me sentis plus uide par les haleurs:
Des Peaux-Rouges criards les avaient pris pour cibles,
Les ayant clones nus aux poteaux de couleurs…”
I recognized the verse immediately. It was the opening stanza of Arthur Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat”. The Kid had rendered it flawlessly, and with great feeling. The lines were, moreover, quite appropriate to the occasion.
I found myself applauding with sincere enthusiasm.
“That’s it!” cried The Kid. “All’s you need is a pencil and a paper tablet! I can be a fuckin’ poet! Far fuckin’ out!
“Let’s have one more for the road,” he gushed. “I wanna pick your brain on this shit, man!”
To the chagrin of the black handlebar moustache, we spent the next two hours charting The Kid’s course toward literary immortality. Punctuated by The Kid’s interjections of “Fuck sheep!” and “Piss on Chisum!”, we decided that by turning in a dozen or so more killings, he could bank enough cash for a train ticket to New York City, with sufficient left for his one-way passage (in steerage) to France. Upon arrival in Paris, he would rent a garret beneath the eves of some ancient and mossy edifice near the Sorbonne, there to subsist on bread, cheese, and wine, while suffering the righteous agonies of the true artiste.
By day, he would earn a few sous as a sidewalk performer, doing rope tricks and twirling his pistols. By night, he would write scalding verses of volcanic passion, going slowly blind for the insufficient candle light in his clammy attic room.
Finally The Kid wound down, doing a drunken bob-and-weave, his second wind exhausted.
“I’d like to thank you, sir,” The Kid slurred, offering me his hand. “I feel as though my fate has been decided tonight.”
“Please, call me Pat, son,” I said.
But suddenly I understood. It came to me as clear and pure as the gin in my glass: the reason why I had walked to New Mexico, and why fate had set me and The Kid down together at this table in the Triple-T.
I stood up, shook The Kid’s damp paw, and offered to see him home.
As I followed The Kid’s drunken progress toward the saloon’s double doors, my gaze was fixed on the tender nape of his scrawny neck, so like a child’s, and I was keenly aware of the weight of the .45 holstered on my right hip.