On my way through South Dakota I changed my name to Kate Jasper. Somehow Marita Bowman sounded too much like a Boston urbanite and didn't match my destination. I was fully prepared to become somebody else, to give up who I'd been for ten years and how I defined myself. I squinted against the bleach of sun to see the name of the ranch coming up on the right. Sure enough, Bernardo Dairy Farm appeared exactly where I expected it twenty-four miles south of Amarillo. As I started down the long dirt road, everything I had given up came flooding past me. A good job in a good city, chic condo in Back Bay, season tickets to the Boston Symphony, a closet full of designer clothes, two drawers full of makeup and a Toyota Camry.
A woman stood in the center of the dirt road with her hands held up in front of her. This is a ranch, not a military compound, I thought clicking off the motor. Her hair was half gray and half blonde, and her body was neat and compact like a ballpoint pen. She regarded me squarely over the tops of her sunglasses before speaking.
"You the gal that sent us a letter?"
"Yes, Ma'am," I replied, practicing a different kind of speech. Ma'am, sir, reckon, yonder. I was ready.
More silence. With that, I made a mental note to pause before speaking, unless I was informing people of a fire.
"Well come on inside then. I'll show you your room. Hope you won't mind Bandit. He's still tangled up in his bed sheets." She smirked and shook her head. I looked at my watch — nine o'clock. Another mental note — get up before sunrise.
I parked across from the main house behind the hitching post and spent several minutes looking out at the Texas Caprock with my mouth open. I was sure I could see for eighty miles in every direction. Back home, and other than around Boston Common or the Charles River, my view spanned one mile in each direction before interruption by skyscrapers. There had been a time, maybe even a decade, when I preferred the angular, vertical density of that urban life. I loved getting up on a cold morning and choosing from twenty different street vendors to buy coffee and a blueberry muffin, and reading the Wall Street Journal on the subway uptown from my Back Bay condo. The snow. The slush. Taxi cabs. Chinese restaurants open all night. So many things. Change is good, I kept chanting to myself.
A lanky, dark-haired boy opened the front door for me while I awkwardly squeezed through with four bags of stuff I'd probably never use in a place like this. God help me, I thought.
"Let me take those for you," he said closing the door.
Remember, you're in Texas. "Thank you," I said twanging my voice.
Bandit, who looked like I could blow him over in one breath, hauled all four bags into the last bedroom on the right down a slim hallway. He looked me up and down and smiled.
"What do I call you?"
"I'm Kate Jasper. You can call me Kate I guess."
The customary pause lasted longer than those of the older woman. I sat on the edge of the bed and looked up at him, waiting.
"You don't look like no Kate Jasper," he said as a question.
He shook his head, and when he did a tuft of black hair fell in his face. I could just see the harem of young girls dying to get him alone in a hayloft. "People from Boston don't have names like that. Generally speaking."
"What — do you think I changed it on my way out?" I could tell I was blushing.
"You wouldn't be the first."
"So how'd you end up here?" I asked, desperate for a new subject.
"I'm Joani's nephew. Joani's the woman who met you on the road," he added to my expression. "My dad left in the middle of the night when I was eight, and my mom died two years ago."
"I'm sorry. Two years isn't that long. How are you getting on?"
"Better every day I guess, but it never really goes away. Joani's aim was keep me so busy I wouldn't have time to feel bad."
"Did it work?"
He laughed slightly, and rubbed his eye. "No. All I got was calluses and a sore back."
"I think sometimes hard labor helps you work out problems. For me anyway."
After a moment of surveying the size of my breasts, he took a step back toward the doorway. "So � how old are you?"
"Thirty-three. And you're about fifteen, I'd guess?"
"No," he answered quickly in defense. "I'm seventeen."
"I'm still too old for you."
That was the last I saw of Bandit for three days.
My job title, as stated in my letter from Joanie, was Barn Hand. Of course there would be other duties that went along with this, and even some that didn't, like mending wire fences, cleaning out the horse stables and chicken coop, taking inventory of the herds out to pasture. Eddie Craven, the ranch wrangler, said hello by scant eye contact as he brushed down one of the mares in the stable. I noticed his crooked nose before anything, and wondered how it got that way. Then I saw crooked teeth when he smiled and a hunched over back and just decided that arthritis had warped his entire skeletal system. By the amount of gray hair at his temples and a far-off glint in his eyes, I guessed he was about fifty-five.
"Just turned forty yesterday," he said reading my mind.
I nearly died, but added this oddity to my list of things to get used to about being on a ranch in rural middle America.
"Some people think I look older than that from how tan my face is." He looked up into the ceiling of the barn. "From being out in that sun all day every day every year."
"How many years?" I asked.
"Long as I can remember. My daddy inherited a ranch from my granddaddy and he inherited it from my great granddaddy. So I guess I come from a family of ranchers."
"Around here?" I asked.
He jerked his head up and slightly left. "Powell. Wyoming. Just east of Cody."
My mind was still working on Wyoming, wondering if it was the state just north of Arizona or if that was Utah. It wasn't that I was uninformed or unintelligent. But I was beginning to realize that living in a big city and getting wrapped up in all of its chic, habitual trappings kept me insulated from the rest of the world, from reality. In my old life, reality was sipping cappuccino out of demitasse cups before going to work at a clothing designer firm in Copley Square. I read the New York Times and New Yorker Magazine, followed the movements of the stock market and knew about every movie that hit the theaters since 1980. But Wyoming? This was another story. It was all I could do to get used to myself as Kate Jasper in the Texas panhandle.
"Wait'll you meet Lyle," Eddie said.
"Lyle Whitfield. Tomorrow morning first thing he'll pick you up in front of the hitching post."
"To go where?"
"To the little horse arena near Triangle Pasture."
That night, like every other since I arrived, Joanie put out a big spread and barely sat down long enough to take a bite. Short, wiry, she could assemble dinner for the eight of us living on the ranch in twenty minutes. I was sure she either pre-cooked the roast beef and heated it up in the microwave for tonight's supper or she had somebody else cook it and relay it through the kitchen window. Looking into her eyes, I knew Joan Mahoney had many tricks up her sleeve.
"I'm gonna call you Tricky Joan. Alright?" I asked when we all sat down.
"Fine, if you don't want me to answer."
She wasn't good humored but I knew already that she liked me. Probably liked the attention more than anything. I could see how it would be easy for a woman to get lost in the company of herds of men and cattle. On my first night, she put a little basket of perfumed soaps, lotions and a votive candle on my nightstand as if to tell me there was indeed another female living in the house. So I knew she'd appreciate my ring. As we teamed up to wash and dry the dishes, I showed it to her.
"My God," she said in a typical monotone. "You can't wear that to wash dishes, darlin'. What are you thinking?"
"I never take it off." It was true. True because my knuckles had swollen from the heat and even soap and olive oil wouldn't budge it, and true because it was who I'd grown up to be. Hard and untouchable on the outside, and sentimental on the inside. And with the silence that followed my response, Joan Mahoney seemed to understand that my ring had a story to tell. She didn't press me about it, as expected.
In my first two weeks on the ranch, I learned volumes about silence. About how it can be used to add emotion, intensity and energy to a situation or conversation, and how it punctuates the words that come before and after it. And sometimes it's just silence without function, not meant to signify or accentuate anything in particular at all. Joan and I had started drinking coffee together on her front porch as the sun came up. Just one cup and then I'd hightail it to the barn and get started with my chores. The first time we did this, I filled the air with idle thoughts and phrases, anything to get a response out of her. But she said nothing and didn't respond even subliminally to what I had said. I made myself dizzy wondering. Had I angered her? Was she annoyed with me? Was I not what she expected? Had I worn the wrong clothes? I figured it out on the second day. She smiled as she sat down with two mugs and her leather cigarette wallet. Then one more glance in my direction and she retreated somewhere else. Not away from me or away from our table of coffee. And not even into her own head full of thoughts and concerns. She was still there with me, ever-present, just not talking.
Sometimes it got so potent I could barely resist the urge to speak or tap my fingers on the chair or start coughing. But some voice inside reminded me that this wasn't Boston. You're in Texas now. Learn their ways.
I found a white pick-up truck parked with the motor running out in front of the hitching post at ten after seven. I didn't waste any time getting in as the driver's expression showed that he'd been waiting a while.
"Mighty sorry," I said in my new affected language. "Traffic jam in the bathroom. You know how it is." I waited for some kind of agreement or even consolation. None came.
"Why would I? I've lived alone for fifteen years."
I could tell he wasn't saying this to elicit sympathy or even interest on my part. Just stating some obvious facts. I quickly learned that Lyle Whitfield conducted social situations like an FBI Agent at a crime scene. "I'm sorry," I said again.
He shrugged and looked not at me but near me. "No need to be. I like living alone. I think some people are suited to live with other humans, and others aren't."
"Let me guess. I'll bet you have three big dogs."
No shrug this time. Only a blank stare out the windshield as we bumped down the dirt road. "I had a German shepherd for ten years. He died not long ago."
Tired of striking out, I was on the verge of some radical behavior that would for certain elicit a human response from this half human being. Like taking off my blouse. I studied him for the rest of the drive to wherever we were going. Tall, thin, long graceful legs and a powerful upper body, short salt and pepper colored hair and clean-shaven. The look on his face was one I had only seen on people who had contemplated suicide. A hollow vacancy in the eyes strategically encased in a veneer of competence and responsibility. Lyle was in charge of all ranch operations. So why he was training an underling like myself was beyond my comprehension at first. Then when Joanie started asking me questions at dinner about how it was going with Lyle and what kinds of things we talked about, I realized that she had in mind for me to be some sort of healer. I was no more interested in being a social worker as I was bronc busting in Triangle Pasture. But this was my choice, I reminded myself, and I planned to stick it out.
I got out of the truck when he parked and followed him into an empty barn. He spoke to me using his eyes and head gestures rather than traditional speech, which based on our ride seemed the preferable method of communication. I'd only say the wrong thing anyway.
"You ever been on a horse before?" he asked as he helped me up onto a large quarter horse, as if it hadn't occurred to him to ask before now.
More than anything, I wanted to surprise him and stop falling into the stereotype he'd put me in.
"Sure," I lied. "I had a bunch of western-style riding lessons when I was a kid and a few more when I was a teenager. It's been a while, though."
"It should all come back to you then," he said with a knowing grin. "What's the one thing you remember about direction?"
I slapped down an invisible game show buzzer and smiled internally. "To watch how I sit."
"Because if I lean left, the horse will go left. And right if I lean right."
Lyle Whitfield looked up into my face, into my eyes, and studied me a moment. His face was tan and angular, which made his blue eyes stand out against these other features. I wasn't sure if I had fallen in love with him in that moment or if I just felt an urge to carry out Joanie's wishes to cure his murky heart. Women do that. I knew this not only from being a woman but from growing up in a house with five sisters. Female wisdom was passed around back then like butter at breakfast. My grandmother used to say that women confused passion with compassion. I felt inextricably drawn to his woundedness now, where I felt repelled by him an hour ago. What was happening to me, on this ranch, in this kingdom of open space and rolling prairies? I was changing. It had already happened. Marita Bowman. Kate Jasper. Who was I going to be next?
Lyle walked in front of my horse and held the reins. He walked me around in a wide circle, then close to the fence, and then he let go.
"Draw on your instincts, and take control. Make him take you where you want to go."
Right now I wanted to go to bed, or at least take a hot bath. I'd only been up for four hours but I felt like I'd aged ten years. My chest fluttered as I dismounted with Lyle standing behind me. I wanted him to say something now, to address what had happened between us or what I imagined was happening. I turned around abruptly and leaned against the horse facing him. We were only a few inches apart, but he didn't move. His hand was reaching over my right shoulder to the saddle. I could have kissed him I was so close, and I could tell he was contemplating the same move. It wouldn't happen. Not now, and probably not ever. I knew the drill with men like Lyle Whitfield. People, to him, were just props in a big play. Redundant, almost. Animals and silence were all that mattered.
A graveyard folklore followed every conversation I'd had since I first arrived, and started with Bandit and Eddie Craven. Lyle added his German shepherd to the list and continued when I inadvertently mentioned Joanie. Not meaning to, I implied that there had been something between them at one time. He lashed out by throwing a saddle on the barn floor. The noise made me jump, or maybe it was the reaction coming from someone I had deemed incapable of this.
With a red face, he clenched his fists and circled me like a lion with prey. "Bart Mahoney was like a father to me, you know." His index finger was outstretched. "Whatever I felt about Joanie, not that it was � ever � inappropriate, was always superceded by a loyalty to the best man I ever knew. Bart did more things in a day than other people do their whole lives."
I didn't see Lyle the next day or the day after. On Monday morning, I drove to his house ten miles from the ranch and knocked softly on his front door.
"How'd you find where I live?" he asked, startling me into a heart attack. He was rocking in an old wooden chair on his front porch with a steaming mug of coffee in one hand.
"Joanie forgot to give you your paycheck last night. So I told her I was coming into town anyway and would be glad to drop it off. Your Plainville address is on the check."
At first he said nothing, deciding how to respond. "Are you?"
"Am I what?" I asked, terrified of the answer.
"It's no trouble, really. I need to get some supplies in Silverton anyway."
I sat beside him on the porch and looked at his mug. "You got any more coffee?"
"No. Do you want some of this? It's still hot?"
He put his cup down on a rickety table. "So why are you here, Kate?"
"I guess two reasons. I came to apologize. I didn't mean you and Joanie were lovers. I just meant I sensed a closeness between the two of you. Now I understand that closeness was because of who you had in common."
He bit his lip and sipped some more coffee. "What else?"
"I want another riding lesson. I never took any as a child. I just didn't want you think," my voice trailed off.
"I didn't want you to see me for who I really am."
"Maybe I'm getting to like who you are."
Scared to meet his gaze, I looked at odd things on his porch. A live cactus, wagon wheel leaning against the house, cow skull. "Is that true?"
"All I said is maybe."
The day Lyle gave me a second chance was the first of October, and the air had never smelled cleaner. I tried to imagine a grove of fire red autumn maples, the kind that lined both sides of Boylston Street and the southern perimeter of Boston Common. I tried to miss home. Tried to miss the trivialities of the design shop and the types of chaos inherent in the fashion business. And I tried to pretend to miss everybody's chronic issues, relationship dilemmas, unresolved childhood and marital conflicts and the frivolous rivalry between the management, the administrative staff, the bookkeepers and the designers. I had been an artist at Hirsch-Broughman, one of many subsidiaries of Willi Smith, for ten years. I climbed the ladder, developed my skills as a clothing designer and established a highly sought after resume and then just stopped caring one morning. It wasn't depression, because I didn't stop caring about everything; just work. The first sign of my professional burnout was when dress-down Fridays spilled over to every day of the week. This was followed by two and then three-hour lunches, delegating all of my work rather than just small tasks to my assistant; and toward the end I started creating a line of clothing that could have been worn by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
"You remember anything I told you the other day?" Lyle asked.
"No." I remembered every word, inflection and nuance.
He tried not to smile. I could tell I was getting to him by now. And not because of physical attributes. No one in their right mind would ever describe me as pretty, let alone beautiful. My hair was above my shoulders, medium brown, medium curly, with dark brown eyes to match. I was neither tall nor slender. Yet I knew Lyle Whitfield's attraction to me came from the small number of people he had grown close to in his life. He'd never been married; that much was obvious. But also evident was the fact that he'd never had to compromise with anyone. Like the tiny negotiations that come with living with someone for the first time. Whether the toilet seat stays up or down, who picks out the color of the bedspread and what brand of peanut butter to buy. He seemed to understand the price of having everything his own way.
Like he had done last week, he held the reins in front of me and walked me and my gigantic horse around the edge of the arena and then handed them to me. He instructed the horse to gallop, then walk, then gallop and then abruptly stop. This part I could have done without. My whole lower body hurt, and I was sure I'd never have children.
"You all right?" he said to my pained expression.
"Yep. Fine. Keep going."
"You up for a run?" he said mounting another horse that had been tied to a post close to the barn. His horse.
"Are you coming with me?"
"I'm not talking the Kentucky Derby, Kate. Just a trot around the perimeter."
I liked how he called me by name, and I liked the inflection in his voice when he said it. He was waiting for my okay while I squinted and braced up against a nasty wind biting the back of my neck and ears. I nodded and off we went.
After about thirty seconds, my body seemed to relax into the colliding rhythmic thud of my crotch against the hard leather saddle. I felt like a dog running through a field of tall grasses. At that moment I couldn't tell if I was flying or not. Lyle was in front of me with his horse in the lead, holding back his pace so as to stay close. Even at this distance I could feel us growing together. It didn't need to be addressed or acknowledged. I knew if and when we slept together, it would be silent and intense, probably without much eye contact. That's how everything would be with him. He slowed us down to a gentle trot, then a walk. He dismounted from his horse and stood in front of it stroking the white spot on its long nose. The sun lit up the part of his face that wasn't shadowed by his cowboy hat. When I looked down, I noticed he had spurs on his boots. The last man I was attracted to, a downtown stockbroker, wore Italian leather loafers with tassels.
"You ready to dismount?"
"Sure." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him approach to stand behind me to chaperone this simple procedure. And I did exactly what he told me not to do. I held onto the horn of the saddle, which allowed it to swivel when pulled. My fingernail seemed to stick into the animal's fur. It took two quick steps backward and swung its head up in the air. Jesus, I thought, desperate for intervention. Lyle spoke some magic words to the horse and quieted him down while I hung uncomfortably in the saddle.
"Try again," he said.
But this time, and even when I grasped the allowable part of the saddle, the horse bucked again, got on his hind legs and bowed his head up and down. I could almost feel the slap of the hard, parched ground before my unprepared body hit it. Lyle, in a movement quicker than I'd thought he was capable of, slid between the horse and my body. Some moments in life don't give you a choice. The universe had in some way asked me to choose between two distinct disasters. Some part of me must have chosen selfishly, I realized, watching the twelve hundred pound animal crash down onto Lyle's thin frame. Out of pure instinct, I stood up, grabbed the horse's reins and carefully leaned down to assess Lyle's condition. His eyes were closed and his lip was bleeding, probably from having bitten through it as he landed. I put my finger to his neck and felt a strong pulse. Okay I thought. What do I do next? Put the horse up. I walked way in front of him and tied him to the same post that Lyle's horse had been tied to, then I carefully approached the other horse and did the same thing. Not quite sure where my composure was coming from, I knew I was performing for these horses, telling them in my subliminal human language that they shouldn't be afraid and that everything would be okay. But as I looked down at Lyle's crumpled body I didn't believe that for a minute.
"Can you walk?" I whispered when his eyes cracked open a hair.
"Where are the horses?"
"Tied up. They're fine. I'm more worried about you right now. Is anything broken?"
I watched him perform an all-over mobility assessment, starting with his feet, ankles, knees, hips, arms, back and neck. "My left ankle feels cold. If it's not broken, it's sprained pretty bad."
"Won't know till I stand up. Don't think so, though."
I held him up with all of my body weight as he tried to make sense of his injuries. He put one arm around my waist and hobbled in a thunk-and-shuffle pattern from the hitching post to the barn doors. Then he just collapsed in my arms. Filled with a sweaty panic, I tried to prop him up against the door but gravity pulled him down to the bristly hay carpet. I took off my sweatshirt and balled it up under his head and stroked his face. I wondered where Bandit was, and Eddie Craven, and Corky and Ray and the other man who worked with them whose name I could never remember. I stood on my tiptoes and then on the bottom rung of the hitching post to see out over the ranch, but there was nothing to see in any direction but vast open spaces. I would have done anything, in that moment, for the hustle and bustle of the T station at Copley Square. I would have settled for some solitary man sweeping out barns, refilling troughs or cleaning the chicken coop. Of course Lyle's truck was around the corner and fifty feet away, but I was afraid he'd die if I left him here.
At least his lungs were still working. I could see his chest rise and fall. His forehead felt clammy, but his hands were freezing cold. I considered taking off his boots, spurs and socks to have a look at his ankle, but the temperature had dropped some and I remembered the rules of frostbite. The wind cut at my cheeks again, which prompted me to drag Lyle further into the barn where it offered more shelter. I quickly swept each stable to check for occupants, but they were all empty. I only had enough strength to drag him to the first one. We rounded the corner, and then I dragged him a little further to a pile of blankets in the corner. He was still breathing, but didn't respond when I gently slapped his cheeks. Jesus, I thought. Don't die on me. Not before our first kiss. I felt the convergence of two lives split me in two. I would have sacrificed a finger for a cell phone right now. Then again, looking around me at the empty vast plains proved an even greater impediment to no cell phone. How far was the closest hospital? Thirty, forty-five minutes? The voice of my old medical training from another failed attempt at success echoed from the back of my skull. Three years in nursing school with an emphasis in emergency medicine. I had to remember something. Okay, okay. Elevate his feet to keep the ankle from swelling and to prevent shock. This keeps the blood flowing toward the heart and the brain. Then again, he's probably already in shock. Right. I pulled up one of the blankets he was laying on and covered his entire body, even his head. I at least remembered this was the quickest way to lose body heat. Then I started rubbing his body and talking to him.
His eyes blinked but would not open. So I rubbed some more, this time concentrating on his face and head.
"Lyle? I need you to answer me now. This is an emergency. Can you hear me? Focus on my voice."
He nodded at least, and opened his mouth but nothing came out.
"Do you know where you are?"
"What's my name?"
No response came that time, but I saw his mouth start to form a smile.
"Your real name?" he whispered.
Bandit. Damn him! "The only name I ever told you I had."
Lyle's eyes were open now and I could see him trying to move his feet and ankles. "You're Kate Jasper from Boston. But according to Bandit who looked in your wallet, your real name is Marita."
I tried not to smile.
"Want to hear more?"
"Why not. Humor me." At least it will keep your mind occupied, I thought thankful for the conversation.
"You've worked for ten years as a clothing designer and you own a condo on Gloucester Street in Back Bay, wherever that is."
He was fading out again. His eyes blinked and his breathing was erratic. I had to get help for him. But if I didn't want to leave him, all I could think to do was wait for Joanie to send Eddie Craven looking for us when we didn't show up for dinner. That was two hours away by the looks of the sky.
"Tell me more about my life," I said.
"I'm tired. You talk for a while." He tried to move but stopped after a second.
These were the times when communication always failed me. Anything involving improvising in social situations clammed me up like a Venus flytrap. "What do you want to hear?"
"Tell me about a time when you were happy," he said in a strained, unfamiliar voice.
"That's a tough one."
He leaned closer to me now. I'd slid between his back and the wall so that his head and torso were leaning against me. He curled into a fetal position and put his head on my lap like a sleeping puppy. I liked him being here in this position, even under these circumstances.
"Because happiness is not a simple concept. It's all relative. I mean, in a way, I've never really been unhappy," I lied, "but I can't say I've ever really been happy either." Except for right now, I thought.
"What about as a child?"
I couldn't believe he really wanted to hear this. Only barely conscious, he grabbed onto my leg to pull himself back to the present. I needed to start talking to give his mind something to hang onto.
"When I was a little girl, I used to go for walks with my father every Sunday just the two of us. He'd wake me up at seven o'clock before anyone else was up, because I was the youngest and this was our special ritual. I'd get dressed and put my sneakers on and we'd walk down the tree-lined streets of Brookline to Montillio's Bakery where he'd buy pastries for breakfast. I remember one time it was raining and I didn't think he'd want to go. But he knocked on my door at seven o'clock and hung my red umbrella on the doorknob."
"Did you get wet?"
"Oh yeah. It was pouring out, but it was warm that morning so we didn't mind. And on the way back home, I walked on the sidewalk and he let me jump off the curb into the rain puddles. Then when my feet got wet, I'd squeal and he'd pick me up into his arms and carry me home."
Lyle was snoring on my lap now. And as I heard the rubber tires of Eddie Craven's clunky old pick up coming down the road, I noticed my face wet with tears.
Once again, I saw two lives in front of me like thoughtful adversaries, each bowing to the other. I looked down at the ring my father gave me when I got promoted to Senior Designer and thought maybe that life of glamour and coffee and all-night restaurants hadn't been so bad after all.