The very first time I met AJ Gorbett I nearly got punched out. The A was for Allen, the J was thrown in. All I was doing was coming up behind him in my usual non-intrusive, non-competitive, quiet, early 1970s way to introduce myself as the chief cook and bottle washer for the Colorado outfit called the Diamond Arrow Dude Ranch. AJ was the wrangler, just in from the Lubbock Stockyards and full of all this bullshit Texas cowboy etiquette. Like, don’t swear in front of a guy’s girlfriend; never drink less than twenty cups of black coffee a day; and, for God sakes, don’t, under any circumstances, sneak up behind a cowpoke. You’ll liable to get decked.
After all, these western types are wired on Copenhagen, one-night stands, and green colts, like the two-year-old Mayjoe AJ bought for $200 down on the Navajo reservation: just as wild as any horse would be after a few miserable winters pawing among the rabbitbrush around dumps like Tuba City and Kayanta, where the red rock cliffs are overshadowed by the orange glow from Howard Johnson’s.
At least that’s the cowboy myth and no one believed that crap more than AJ Gorbett. In fact, he thrived on the cowboy image. A regular Marlboro Man. Whenever an attractive-looking woman stayed at the Diamond, it was always, "Yes, ma’am, no ma’am." "Cowboying is lonesome, but a man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do." Then he’d take his black Stetson off, real gentlemanly like, while the poor woman (a Methodist just up from the asphalt ranges of Houston) fell in love with him. I saw it happen a dozen times that summer.
Dammit, he was handsome. Tall, and dark of course, with a slight limp that seemed more than than slight when talking to the ladies. From the rodeo he’d say, suddenly full of awkward shyness with a look across his mug that indicated he didn't want to talk about it. Too painful. But he'd go on and talk about it anyway; busting bulls on the B-grade circuit in eastern Oregon, Idaho, and Texas; and breaking broncs the Apache way by leading horses out into deep creeks and then jumping on bareback.
And me just standing there fading into the background like a coat rack, hating his cowboy guts, his Texas accent, the way he held his coffee cup and cigarette with the same hand. Knowing that the rodeo limp came when he fell out of my truck cold-drunk, standing to pee while we were rounding a corner coming back from a grain run.
And knowing when night came, AJ would be rolling in the arms of that same attractive woman (by now a lapsed Methodist) with his hat on the bedpost and, if he really felt sensitive that night, he'd take his boots off. I'd once again retire alone to my tent, pet my blue heeler, Emmie, and fall asleep listening to the whirl of the Coleman lantern while reading Hermann Hesse. It was a long, lonely western summer.
In the morning I'd have to face him, in fact have to serve him his fucking eggs and coffee while he grinned at me and went into precise, editorial detail about his night of carnal gymnastics; this position and that position, and something called the "heifer delight," involving lariats and spurs.
There was no more of the polite "yes, ma'am, no ma'am, cowboying is the only life where a man is truly free" AJ. No, it was "God, what a tight ass. You should see her without her clothes. She wouldn't stop screaming."
Then, after showing me the alleged bites and scratches, he'd start to rub it in a bit. "Did you rope your mule last night? You know you're only supposed to rope your mule if he comes up. It's bad luck to rope your mule if he doesn't come up." Why didn't I pour grease down his faded Wrangler shirt with the extra-long tails?
AJ's dog was worse. One Way is what he called him. "One Way and Hell-bent for leather!" AJ said. A regular cur if you want to know the truth. One of those dogs running around the West people claim are "part-wolf." Right and I'm part Cherokee.
Whenever Emmie came within eyeshot of One Way, AJ would yell, "Kill Emmie, One Way. Kill her!? And damned if that sorry pot-licker wouldn't charge Emmie (who was only about a year old, recovering from kennel cough, and not nearly as smart as the heeler Wade the plumber owned who would fetch metric sockets, right size and all out of the pickup and cart them to him under the bunkhouse), grab her around the neck and make menacing growls until AJ, who never got tired of this job, would finally tell One Way to stop.
I swear Emmie's never recovered. Sometimes when I feel nostalgic, I'll whisper One Way's name to Emmie, now 12 and incontinent, and her ears will perk up, then she'll bury her head in my lap whimpering.
But I'm getting off track here. This story is about AJ Gorbett, Mister Western Cowboy Himself, and all the cruelty he leveled my way and all the acrobatic sex he somehow finagled out in the middle of nowhere Colorado, while I was stuck with "Magister Ludi and the Bead Game" and, yes, a summer of roping my mule whether it came up or not.
One Friday night AJ took me with him to Durango to teach me how to pick up women. Felt sorry for me he said, living a life of celibacy in a tent, eating raisins and nuts. "I'm worried you'll go blind, Lyons," is how he delicately put it. I'll admit my eyesight is bad.
Bell bottoms and sandals would never cut it, according to the expert, and might provoke a brawl at this particular bar where weekend patrons still flew through the plate glass windows startling the tourists walking by. So AJ dressed me in tight Wranglers, boots, and a paisley shirt, topped with a beige hat with porcupine quills in the brim (from a road kill). There was nothing AJ could do about the wire-rim glasses and my Liberal smirk.
I must say I looked good. Even One Way cocked his empty head my way and didn't register his usual growl when I stepped over him. The ZZ Top blaring in AJ's pick-em-up truck sounded richer than just three chords and maybe, just maybe, I thought, I might have some cowboy blood running through my Chicago veins. After all, I did grow up "behind the yards." The Texas drawl could come later and anyone can bust broncs and fake a limp. I believed.
At the Stockyard Bar after a few beers, AJ poked me and said, "She's looking at you. Tip your hat to her. she might be a barrel racer and you know what that means. Ask her to dance." It was difficult to assess the situation as rapidly as AJ could, and I had no idea what sexual repertoire a barrel racer had, but for some vague reason I trusted his judgment and besides, he did this every Friday night with disgusting success and I had finished my last Hesse book, so I sauntered over as best as I could wearing Tony Lamas that were two sizes too large. Events then moved rapidly and it was to be the last time I saw AJ that weekend. The barrel racer actually had a glass eye that wandered so it was hard to tell just who she was looking at. After we danced a couple of awkward western numbers, she ditched me for a biker. I ended up in a Main Street alley with the dry heaves.
Cowboys, bikers. What's the difference? I walked the 12 miles home to the ranch cursing AJ and each boot-induced blister along the way. Next day I quit the mass cooking profession and went back to college where I pursued a seven-year undergraduate degree.
AJ, last I heard, was a collections agent on the
Navajo reservation working for a shadowy car firm out of Snowflake, Arizona. A
just reward if you ask me. And every Christmas for a few years I got a postcard
from him with the following message: "Lyons, did you rope your mule last
night? You know you're only supposed to rope your mule . . ."
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