Red Clay Woman

14401302521_2e4b5d7a93_bSee the young man sit down at the bus stop. He digs into a tectonic upheaval in the sidewalk with his cowboy boots. His baseball cap pushed back on his head. Elbows propped on the back of the bench. A duffel bag strapped over his shoulder. It carries a laptop, some Blu Rays, two packs of American Spirit cigarettes, a Zippo lighter, headphones, and a snub nose .38 pistol with a pearl grip. He leans forward and stares South into the distance. The bus is a little under a mile away. The sun is directly above the bus stop and the shadow of the dormant street light falls far across the street before him. Somewhere out there is his shadow, the shadow of himself. He sits back. He sits and studies the landscape. Across the street an adobe building with terra-cotta shingles sprawls out in front of him. The name on the blue neon sign in the window says “Tia’s Tacos.” The young man spits into the gutter and wipes his mouth on the shoulder of his white cotton t-shirt.

His eyes wander along the curb North from where he sits. Moving toward the bus stop is a small tailless dog, rust in color. He watches it move through the gutter. It has a small head and huge ears and it suffers itself to walk with a pronounced limp. It stops and stands in the gutter in front of him. It looks behind it then across the street. Then it goes on. He lowers his sunglasses and sits watching it go.

He hooks his thumb in the duffel bag’s shoulder strap. His hat pushed back on his head. The back of his shirt is wet with sweat. The woman on the bench next to him looks to be etched from some ancient petroglyph. Like the hunters tattooed onto his arms. She seems to him to be a thousand years old. Of youthful beauty there is no trace. In her hands a rosary is intertwined round arthritic fingers. She is bent in silent prayer. Eyes closed. Unmoving. He leans forward. The bus is still a mile away. Between him and the bus it seems nothing moves. He just sits there for a long time.

The old woman’s face is like a floodplain that cuts a wide circle to where her hair falls on her shoulders like sun-charred prairie grass. Her skin is red clay colored. You goin’ far, he says. I am, I think. But sometimes ya think you’re goin’ far, but ya ain’t. He stares again to the South, letting his eyes regress slowly to the North. He fingers the bear’s tooth tucked under his t-shirt. About now, he says, folks’re shaded up somewhere workin’ or watchin’ their shows. The chances us seein’ anybody ‘cept workin’ folk this time a day is close to nothin’. And they got no time to stop to pick up pilgrims. He turns to look up at the sun. It is about half past noon. He can almost not remember how it had all gone down last night. He crosses his legs and goes over the landscape before him again, more slowly this time. Then he lowers his sunglasses. It might even could be near one o’clock. Or it could be last night.

A light wind comes up. He pushes back his hat, wipes his forehead with the sleeve of his t-shirt. You live to be one hundred, he says, you won’t see another day like this one. As soon as he says it he turns his attention back to the red-clay woman, still bent in prayer. She doesn’t even look up when he talks. Strong believer. He starts to speak to her but the words crawl back up into his throat, dust themselves off and climb down into their den. He looks at her over the top of his glasses. He gets a cigarette out of the bag. Yes, a cigarette, he says. I been sittin’ here all this time in this damn heat and I ain’t had no relief. He lights it, takes a long drag, then zips the bag shut.

The only thing he can hear is his heart and the hum of the wind against the power line overhead. Here I am, he says, too dumb to live. I am a dumbass. I am the very description of a fool. Here I set, then I’m gone. Whether this bus comin’ drives me to heaven or hell, I can’t tell you. He stares but doesn’t see her. The hair that falls across her shoulders also frames the contours of her face. When he looks at her he feels like a fly in a jar. A truck goes by. When it’s gone he sucks air and listens. It’s alright, he says, we all got our misery. Best thing for everybody, I ‘spose. God knows what else can keep us busy. Like that truck that just went past. Never goin’ to see that old pickup truck again. Somethin’ sad to that, I think. Somethin’ dark. It goes past, moves on, then there’s no sign of it. The man drivin’ that truck goes on his way and I mine. Dark shapes runnin’ with our lights off, high and small, pretty damn motivated to find somebody out there who will call you “darlin’ boy.” But you never can count on findin’ someone like that out there. Then he realizes he will never see the young woman again. Well, he says. There’s a lot of things I ain’t goin’ to see again.

I wish I was home in bed, he says. The back of his hands are ugly, purple, bruised. When he looks up he can see the dust against the skyline over the restaurant. He leans forward. The bus is still the better part of a half mile away. I wouldn’t hurt her, he says, not on purpose. It’s just that I get stung too easy. Things come up out of me and I don’t know what they are or who I am, and they never stop pushing at me. Never, as in never, until they bust out of me. I don’t know where I am at or where I am not. He looks at the old woman’s hands wrapped around the rosary. The crucifix dangles down to lay dead flat on her lap. Her hands look like they were formed from red dirt and creosote. I hadn’t even taken a drink, he says.

The young man takes his baseball cap off and puts it on his knee. He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. He listens. He nods. A bird squawks from somewhere in the trees behind him. He drums his fingers on the duffel bag. Well, he says, here’s our bus. Yessir. Let’s see where it takes us. He stands up and spits. I’m ready. He looks up at the sun. An apocalyptic yellow eye in the blue vault above him. Crossing to the bus he pauses for a moment before putting his boot on the first step. He stands there. The street is quiet. Old woman, he says over his shoulder, that God you pray to, does he live in silence? When you pray do you ever get anything for your devotion other than salt and ash? He steps up into the bus. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out bills to pay with, then looks back over his shoulder at the bus stop. The old woman is still bent in prayer. Women, he yells. Señora, andale! Woman! He asks the bus driver to hold. He steps down off the bus and crosses the sidewalk to the bench. He sees her now. She is old, very old, and her face is red-clay colored and gray and leathery. She wears a black dress that covers her from throat to ankles. Her shoes are black too. Scuffed and worn. Dust has collected in the folds of the dress. Woman, he says. Señora. She does not look up. The shawl that covers her shoulders is old and faded. He speaks to her now in a low voice. He tells her that it is time to get on the bus. He tells her that he will make sure she arrives at her stop. Does she have family he can call to meet them? He cannot leave her in this place, he says. She will die out here in this heat. He squats before her, elbows resting on his knees. He reaches out and touches her arm. He shakes his head and looks away. Up the street he sees a young woman. She is drinking a Coke in the shadow of a hardware store. She doesn’t look up. The old woman sprawls across the bench. She is dead.