(c) 1995 Steve S. Saroff
When I was 19 I was naive.
At 19 I was strong. Able to take care of myself. Able to walk all day through the desert. Able to go without food and sleep. Able to get by. When I was 19 I had been alone, a bum, for two years.
My one time in jail had been in El Paso, in the county drunk tank. When they let me out I decided to walk east and not try to catch a ride. I had no food and no money. that’s how I was though — and there I was, walking into the desert. Summertime too.
I walked along the Rio Grande, through farmland and wasteland. There were fish in the river, yucca grew in clumps, I stole onions from the planted fields. I drank the muddy river water, I swam in it, I watched it flow by as I walked. Sometimes the lights from my fires would shine across the river over to Mexico, and sometimes light from other fires would shine across to me. I would shout then, “helloooo,” and a shout would always come back. It was a good time.
At the farms no one noticed me. I passed by slowly, watching workers bending and swaying in the sun; I passed by cotton and onions; I passed by hay and beans; I climbed fences; I waved to men who wore straw hats; I stood still in the cool spray of irrigation sprinklers, listening to the “Kaatcha, kaatcha,” of metal and water.
In the long stretches between the farms there was little besides sagebrush and red sandstone. The ground was hard and my feet bruised. Beneath the blue of the sky the color of the desert turned to dust. Heat waves moved the air and my eyes became dry and sore. I stopped and swam often. I wasn’t in a rush.
I don’t know how far or for how long I would have walked if I hadn’t met Mr. George. Probably I would have walked until my boots wore out, our until someone else came along and got me drunk. Even in a desert there are people who carry bottles and make sure no one goes too long without a drink.
He came out from the dark, Mr. George did, carrying a shotgun. I had been nearly asleep, watching the last embers of my fire die, when I heard the soft, low sounds of a man walking. He wanted to know who was on his land and why there was a fire. It was his land and his responsibility to look after it. Right off he broke open the shotgun and put the shell in his breast pocket. It was alright I was there, bums didn’t bother him, he said, as long as the closed gates behind themselves and watched their fires. I got up from my blankets then and put more wood on the fire, sappy limbs of mesquite that sputtered as they burnt. Mr. George sat down on the ground next to me and both of us watched the fire. He had a full bottle with him, and he broke that open too.
“You’ve really walked from El Paso?”
“Taken a long time?”
“Not in a hurry,” and I laughed, holding the fifth — good whiskey — between my face and the fire, making the flames become amber spirits, “I was trying to dry out…”
Mr. George laughed, reached and took the bottle from me, “didn’t mean to interfere with your plans.”
But I took the bottle back from him, took a deep drink, felt the burn warm down into my gut, and then I gave the bottle back. “Can’t interfere with someone if they really don’t care.”
We didn’t finish the bottle, but we both got drunk. Mr. George, as he had first introduced himself, putting out his large, rough hand while the other still had held the shotgun, wanted me to come and work for him. I told him that I was a bum, that I didn’t work. He told me that I was a liar, that if I could walk a hundred and fifty miles through the desert that I could be no bum.
“We’re all worthless.”
“How much pay?’
“There you go. $30 a day.”
“And 3 good meals.”
“OK, for a while at least.”
We talked for two hours. The stars moved, the moon rose, we let the fire die. Mr. George was having trouble with his wife, trouble with his workers, trouble with the weather. He ranch was large, inherited, and his troubles were complicated. He told me that he was 40 years old and had always thought that as you grew older you also grew happier. That’s what I thought too, I told him. Not so, he said.
“We’re both young, Sam,” he said to me, “I’m not really any older than you. What I know now you’ll know soon.” He was right.
I slept that night next to the river for the last time; I was too drunk to go the short mile with Mr. George back to the ranch.
“See you in the morning, George,” I said, and I rolled back into my blankets.
“Hope so,” and Mr. George was gone, walking away from the river with his shotgun and near empty bottle.
At dawn I woke and swam. Shivering while I dressed, I decided to go and work. More for the food than the money, I needed a job, my body looked like it was all ribs.
He was ranch was four thousand acres of deserts. He raised cattle, scrawny animals that looked as dry as the land, and he grew alfalfa, beans and cotton in the irrigated fields.
I was put to work on the fences; I worked with a Mexican restringing the barb wire in the places where it was loss or missing, and straightening leaning fence posts.
There were miles of fences on Mr. George’s ranch. Fence that kept the cattle away from the fields and the river, fence along the dirt roads, and fence that crossed and re-crossed the land.
The we worked well together, the Mexican and I, we didn’t talk. We helped each other — one of us straining to keep the fresh wire taught, the other fastening it into place — but we didn’t care about each other. So, on the morning of my 4th day on the ranch, when Mr. George told me that the Mexican had quit, all I thought of was how would I be able to string fence by myself.
“Guess I will have to help you,” Mr. George said.
Mr. George talked. So did I. Miles of bad fence, most of it didn’t seem to have any purpose. “The old man built this place, “Mr. George said as he drove his pickup looking for bad fence, “and he put up all of this,” he waved out the open window,” don’t know what they’re for, but as long as I’m able I’ll keep it up.”
He stopped his truck next to a place where the wire, rusted and tangled, lay on the ground. No cattle in sight, no tracks, not even old turds, and no reason to repair the fence, but we did. And I thought, what the hell, I’m being paid, I’m eating well, I don’t mind this.
He had a bad wife, Mr. George did. She kept leaving him and she kept coming back. Each time she left he hoped that she would stay away, but she always came back. “She blames me, that’s the rotten part, she blames me.”
“You should leave her.”
“You ever been in love, Sam?”
“Well, it could happen. It’s something that happens to people like you, I can tell.”
“Doesn’t matter about me, you should leave her.”
“I can’t. And where to? I’ve got this ranch, and I can’t tell her to stay away.”
She had a lover in Marfa, the nearest town; Mr. George know all about him, though she didn’t know that he knew. “How did you find out?”
“It wasn’t hard.”
She was tired of the desert, tired of the smell of manure and alfalfa. I saw her. Beautiful.. Tall, dark, her cheekbones high and bold, her face lovely. She talked to me once, in front of the bunkhouse, she was wearing a long dress, I can’t remember what color. She told me her husband liked me, that I had a job for as long as I wanted. She called me “Walker” and she made me blush.
On a Sunday Mr George drove to Marfa and I went with him. We got drunk, but it wasn’t like the night we met; it was a bitter drunk with bar smoke and bar mirrors and stale, stinking air.
“I’m going to kill him,” Mr. George said.
“You better not.”
“I know, but I’m going to kill him.”
He didn’t deserve what she did to him. He was a good man. It was her lies that broke him. Mr. George was strong enough to have dealt with everything lese. On the fence lines he told me how he waited for her every time she left. He knew where she went and would imagine what she was doing and it would make him ill. He wouldn’t be able to sleep, he wouldn’t eat. She would leave him for days at a time and then, when she would come back, she would tell him that she had been visiting friends. She would say that she just had to take off, that she was going mad, that she needed the privacy of her own life.
“I asked her once, at the beginning of this, straight out. Almost a year ago. I asked her if she was sleeping with someone else. I already knew that she was,” Mr. George was sweating, rivulets ran down his temples, his hat was stained dark, “and she looked right at me,” he put down the spool of wire. “Sam, she looked right at me, her big eyes, and said, ‘don’t insult me. It’s you I love. I would never sleep with anyone else.’ Damn it all Sam, why does she lie? And why does she keep coming back to me?”
I couldn’t answer him then. I wouldn’t be able to now. He was right though, the years brought me love and the years have taken love from me, but I still do not know what the answer is.
She had blamed him for squeezing her, for keeping her in Texas, for trapping her in his way of life. “I guess she wants more than I could ever give her,” Mr. George said, smiling, even laughing a bit. “I think that what I should do is just walk away from her. Leave you with her and the ranch. What you say Sam? Do you think you could make her happy?” I laughed, wiping sweat off of my face, thinking of walking again, of swimming, of the silence of the desert, a place where the only love was just a dream, as far away, and as constant as the moon.
Mr. George was sentenced to 20 years. I had to go to the trial and tell them that he had been drunk and nearly mad. The defense lawyer asked if Mr. George had acted out of passion. I said yes, he had. The judge agreed and called it a crime of passion, but said, “20 years,” in a passionless voice. I didn’t tell them how I had tried to stop him, or how Mr. George had hit me. I didn’t tell them how hard he had hit me, how he had knocked me sprawling across the ground. I wish I had gotten up faster. He could have hit me again. I was strong when I was 19, and I didn’t know a thing.