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Cowboys and Indians

(a short story)

The wind came blowing down the plains, through the front door and out the back again. There was dust on her skin, grit in her dreams. The trailer glinted small and metallic in the large flat space, a small silver insect pointing to the horizon, clinging low to the ground. It was nestled at the foot of a crest that became the wall of the canyon further to the west. She saw it from above in her sleep, outside of her body, looking down on the shining roof under which she and Daniel lay cramped in their narrow bed.

The wind sent the shirts blowing. Lotte had hung them to dry around the room, over the backs of chairs, at the head and foot of the bed, on hangers dangling from the curtain rod above the one small window. She liked to have them where she could see them. They still had the smell of C&A on them, white sleeveless blouses with low, crisp collars, the kind she’d seen in a film magazine the week before they were set to leave for America – one-way flight out of Frankfurt, no regrets, no turning back. She went to the department store with all the cash she’d saved that month, and came back with enough to fill her suitcase.

She’d cried out when she saw the trailer, dropped the suitcase in the dust so that it burst its lock and some of the shirts spilled out. They’d driven an hour out of Santa Fe, in a car they’d acquired the same day their flight touched the ground. The dinged hood glinted in the sun behind them.

This is it, he said, and when she looked around uncertainly: What did you want? A palace?

The bed took up most of their bedroom, though as marriage beds go it was not so large. Its frame was solid wood, worn smooth as though many hands had passed over it. It called up stories of its previous lives – in motels? in a sanitorium? Not quite wide enough for two people, wide enough to feel empty with just one.

Lotte raised a hand to her face and exhaled into her palm. She touched her forehead and felt the heat seeping out of her skin. She had been dozing. The heat inside held her close in the middle of the day. The light through the curtains filled up the room bright and yellowed like a fruit’s pale inside. The linoleum floor was patterned to match the curtains. The room’s metal walls were painted over, almost white.

She saw Daniel through the window, approaching. His outline grew, swelling up out of the distance with the same steady gait that she knew from before, his figure bobbing up and down in the unmeasurable space.

He was gone during the day, at the job he didn’t want to talk about. The one at the cattle ranch, the job he’d been dreaming about growing up in the city, watching cowboys and Indians on TV.

Lotte got out of bed and went into the kitchen. She set the glass ashtray on the table and straightened it, fastidiously, stepped back and looked at it, self-consciously poised, aware of the line of her neck above the folded collar, the position of her folded arms.

There were things she kept from home: a letter from her brother, a few magazines, a cheap notebook with stiff photographs pasted inside. She read the letter several times, ran her fingers over its creases. It did not say very much, though it was the most communication she’d had from her family in some time. His handwriting was small and agitated, like he didn’t have enough patience to keep his hand in one place long enough for the words to come out. He relayed news from her parents in an impersonal tone, as if that could prevent it from hurting her. She read it over until it didn’t sting anymore, the way she’d worry a sore until it was numb.

She looked at the window, trying to keep track of Daniel as he got closer. Usually, she didn’t notice him right away, though you could see for miles around on all sides. He seemed to be moving without getting closer. She had the feeling of waiting in her gut, the kind that pulled her through the days.

The rest of the world seemed deceptively far away here. She tried to listen to the radio, but her English was weak, and straining to put herself into the stream of words filled her with a strange irritation – one that got into her legs down to the marrow, that she could feel in her toes. She was relieved when music came patching through, a tinny mariachi band, a crackling pop song. She sat at the small kitchen table, cut-off shorts and garish painted toenails, feet tucked up underneath her on the plastic-covered chair.

Whenever she asked Daniel questions about the ranch, he would only answer: I’ll take care of everything. Just relax.

She would glide around the peeling linoleum floor, waiting. She read her brother’s letter. She smoked. She chewed gum.

She could see the mesa through the window, its flat-topped, dun-coloured rise studded with scraggly vegetation, bushes the deep-green colour of pine boughs in the forests back home. The brilliant blue sky beyond it, the grayed-yellow expanse of brittle grass below, stretching toward the horizon.

There were ridges and ditches running through it, like miniature canyons cut into the earth. Sometimes she walked through them, with sunglasses on and her hair done up high. She would grow uneasy as soon as she lost sight of the trailer, until the growing tightness in her throat drove her back indoors.

She liked to watch Daniel moving around the small kitchen when he came home at the end of the day. He had a baby face that shone up with perspiration when he drank, some weak facial hair that would not take. She would talk to him in a steady stream as soon as he entered the door, like she was afraid to unlearn it, how to choose words and string them into sentences, control her tone of voice, take the right amount of breaths.

The wedding photo: she’d framed it, a cheap gold-coloured frame from the drugstore downtown. He’d take her to town once a week, in the car she couldn’t drive. It was an old railroad town from the turn of the century that looked partially abandoned now, a main street lined with brick buildings and a certain air of faded ambitions, the bank and the plaza, three diners and a liquor store.

They found the frame at the store on the corner. She slid the picture in, sitting in the passenger seat in the sun, waiting for Daniel to come back from the bank.

There she was, smiling into the camera, a thin nose and bony shoulders, slumped slightly forward in the sequined white dress. Her mouth was open – joy, surprise. Daniel next to her with his hand around her waist, eyes looking off to the right. This was the reception afterwards, a wooden sideboard behind them, camera flash sparkling off the glass bottles – whiskey, gin, Wurzelschnaps.

Coming back across the parking lot he saw her asleep with her head against the window, looking small and fragile behind the glass.

The plains stretched out on either side of the highway, driving back from town, the sun coming down behind the line of mountains on the horizon. Lotte could hear her aunt’s voice in her mind. She had a habit of starting a conversation and trailing off in the middle. She was nervous of asking questions. Her advice was rote: wash your hair three times a week. Don’t talk back. Don’t smile too much or too little. She would pick up a magazine, cross her legs, hold her cigarette poised next to her head. She would flip through page-by-page and evaluate the haircuts of everyone inside it.

“No good at all,” she’d say.

“His head is completely square.”

“Makes her look like a pig in a ball gown.”

“Look at that – it’s completely limp!”

“I don’t know what they see in her.”

She’d dressed conservatively the year they met, coming from the white-walled apartment that her mother and aunt shared, where they’d fight and make lists and write up budgets, mend blouses, cook thick soups. Her mother was a war widow, her aunt younger and unmarried. Their voices rose to the ceiling of the small apartment, singing along to the radio, the small one on the mantel in its white plastic case.

She’d see him biking around the neighbourhood, a grin slapped on his boyish face when he’d pass her walking home from school. His hair was combed carefully, a syrupy blond, the colour of honey sitting in a jar. After some time, he’d get off his bike and walk next to her. She’d hated those walks, the way he’d say so little. His silence had something dense at its center that she could sense helplessly but couldn’t touch.

He’d get off work and they’d go out, never getting too close walking down the street, moving in a pack with the kids they knew from school and around the neighbourhood. The way he’d meet her eye when she laughed, like everything was a joke and only they were in on it, smiling at each other conspiratorially over the shoulders of their friends. Looking back, she thought, was it this feeling? Was that why she did it? He wanted to get away from all the bullshit, he said. Meaning all of that: the lists, the magazines. The polite conversation, sitting on the sofa. The dresses and shirts, the radio programs. The haircuts that all looked the same.

They stuck it out in the trailer like that: days apart, nights lying side by side, waiting for things to begin. The days got colder, and the heat gave way to faded autumn. Before long it was December, and Daniel insisted they would have a real tree for Christmas, the kind they’d grown up with, candles and all. He insisted, though it made Lotte anxious. We’re living in a fire-warning zone, she said. This isn’t like home.

But I want this to be like home for you, he said. It snowed that night, and the ground was dusted with a light layer of white that melted halfway through the next day

He came back from work to find her clearing all the dry stuff she could away from the trailer. The sky was so blue that day, it almost hurt to look at it. He brought the tree in over his shoulder, trying not to look at her. They set it up – it took hours, just getting it upright, putting on the feeble decorations she’d made by hand out of paper and string. Then they sat around the tree nervously. They tried to talk but it felt like they were just waiting, watching the sky get darker, staring at the flimsy tree.

It was strange that he insisted on the tree, since he wanted so badly to leave everything behind. The place that Lotte found traces of in the creased letter, the curling photographs, the smell of a department store she could now barely remember. He was trying hard to grow out his moustache, a golden-brown fuzz to cover his shining face that always looked too young and demanding. They had a few drinks once the tree was illuminated, small points of light that played off the metal walls. Lotte kept pushing her hair behind her ear, the way she did when she was nervous. Daniel sat down next to her.

He started to tell a story. He could retell entire Karl May movies, cowboy and Indian stories from a man who’d never been out West. And the way he’d tell them, how animated he got, the light in his face, the whites of his eyes.

She barely remembered the stories afterward. Just those expressions, the way the light would sometimes shift and catch him for a moment, and you could still see that face lingering even after the light had moved on.

Images by Ben Peck and Noelani Eidse