2018 Pushcart Prize winner!
Leslie Jill Patterson
Winner 2017 Prime Number Magazine Award for Short Fiction
$1,000 First Prize
Followed by Bio and Q&A
Note from David Jauss, judge: In my forty-four years of teaching and editing, I’ve read countless stories about abused women but never one like this. Without a single scene of abuse (and the sensationalism such scenes almost inevitably create), the story parses its soul-shattering effects. At one point, the narrator says, “It’s odd, even savage, how lies are sometimes tender while truth can surprise you, like a backhand across the cheek.” This story surprises us with just such a truth. Reader, brace yourself.
You like to claim you landed at Eagle Hill by mistake. A misunderstanding of some kind. Truth is, Billy Scales and his ranch hands found you in a bar named True Grit, and they knew, from minute one, who you were.
They knew you stuffed your suitcase in a hurry and surely didn’t come to Colorado for camping in the mountains—because it was fifty degrees outside and dropping, and, even so, you wore a sleeveless dress and city-girl sandals with leather daisies arching over your foot. You avoided eye contact, propping a book around your plate and pretending to read when they took the bar stools next to yours. You ordered off the kid’s menu and packed half of it out in a to-go box, so you were clearly guarding every dime. They probably even knew you tucked your wedding ring inside your purse before you walked through The Grit’s door. And when Billy invited you to his equine program—where women caught in hazardous marriages learned to tug a rein resolutely, steering their lives away from vows they should have never spoken—your story was so obvious, he pitched his invitation in the same pragmatic vein that he mentioned where you could find a low-rent apartment and which local bank offered free checking.
Three days later—though you told Billy, Thanks, but no, you didn’t have any reason to saddle a horse, really, no—you drive out to Eagle Hill. And who knows if you do so because you’re ready to conquer fear or because you’re attracted to it. No question: Billy and his cowboys ought to frighten you. They’re the hardscrabble types who own only the necessities: toilet paper, milk, wire-cutters to mend barbed fences, hatchets to shatter winter ice, and guns loaded and well-sighted and always within reach.
When you arrive at the barn, a pack of wild dogs surrounds your car. They bark and lunge at the rear tires, then the driver’s door. You slam on the brakes. One of them, a blue heeler that looks like a coyote, rises on his hind legs and scrapes his front paws on your window and growls. Your car inches forward, herded into a parking space by the dogs. Snarling, they stand at a distance, their feet planted, refusing to let you out of your automobile.
When the commotion draws Billy from his office, your addiction to apologies surfaces. You’re sorry for rousing the dogs. You’re sorry to interrupt the routine of riding and breaking colts, to soak up daylight when the afternoon is already draining into evening. You’re sorry for the very fact that you know nothing about horses.
Billy whistles at his dogs, and they heel, and then he smiles at you. He looks exactly like Wilford Brimley: a handlebar mustache; full-moon cheeks that eclipse his eyes when he laughs; a bowling-pin belly lapping over the waistband of his Wranglers; and a copper bracelet, neckerchief, and Stetson. The hat is cocked at an upward angle this afternoon, and Billy wraps an arm around your shoulders and leads you into the barn. “I’ve taught handicapped kids before,” he says. “If you can spell horse, you can ride one.”
He halters and ties Juan, a chestnut quarter horse whose shoulders are a good head taller than you, to a post in the barn’s alley. Then he heaves a sixty-pound saddle onto Juan’s back, cinching it so fast it looks like a magic trick. “Tomorrow,” Billy warns, “you’ll do this yourself.”
Let’s be clear here: what’s ticker-taping through your head right at this moment isn’t the fear that you’re too stupid to manage a saddle without a chaperone. No, what you’re calculating is how easily you can sucker Billy into respecting your husband’s third-rate opinion of you, because if there’s one lesson you’ve learned the hard, punishing way, it’s that it’s safer for a man to believe you’re hopeless from the get-go than for you to fail at one of his assigned tasks. If he expects nothing, he won’t argue later that you intentionally botched the job to provoke him.
Holding the bridle and reins, Billy’s right hand rests on Juan’s forehead, ready to slip the tack over the horse’s ears. His other hand grips Juan’s chin, ready to pry open his mouth. Billy tells you a horse can bite hard enough to break bone, and suspiciously, his right thumb is missing a knuckle. His left, you guess, might be next. Too, you hear the smack of slobber, and it doesn’t sound pretty. When Billy pinches Juan’s jaw, it drops, and the metal bit glides into place. Juan jerks his head, rears, then settles. Now that he has the bit in his mouth and suspects you’ll soon be holding the reins, he angles his head to keep an eye on you, his ears spun and flat. Cautious, too, you cut a wide arc around his backend, and Billy notices and laughs.
It’s not funny how women are taught to fear trouble. Your granddad was a rancher who never let you sit a horse unless he himself held the reins. And you’ve heard the family stories—how a colt planted an angry hoof against your granddad’s forehead one summer, furrowing a scar on his brow that never vanished. Always, he warned you that a hoof stomping a little girl’s foot shod in steel-toed boots would slice off her toes. You haven’t worn your city-girl sandals to Eagle Hill—when Billy invited you out, he advised you to buy decent shoes, and you obeyed—but your Payless bargain boots aren’t much better. Juan shifts nervously in the alley; his hooves clomp against the rubber mats. His hips are as solid as old tree trunks. His hind legs alone outweigh you by two hundred pounds. At point-blank range, a kick from Juan can kill.
Of course, it’s possible you’re imagining Juan’s hostility. Back home, when you broached the subject of your husband’s anger, he swore he loved you. The first therapist encouraged you to point out the early signs of rage—his eyes, like gunnery scopes, locked on yours; his lungs, his chest, swollen with air and holding; his chin edged forward; his jaw cinched—so your husband, who adored you, could recognize himself then temper his stance. But when a man of fury swears he’s Mr. Charming, offering evidence to the contrary won’t mollify him. It’s not “communicating better.” What it is, is dangerous. The therapist’s suggestion only taught your husband a new trick: in the middle of an argument, his body language enflamed, his mood on the ledge between sanity and the E.R., but his voice rational and calm, he said, You be sure and tell me when I’m mad. What he meant was, I dare you.
“Horses can’t see directly behind them without turning their heads, and we’ve hitched Juan’s to a post.” Billy swipes his palm across Juan’s rump as he walks around his back end, showing you how to stay in a horse’s radar. “He’ll only kick if he can’t figure where you are.”
“Right.” You shrug. “So you say. But it looks like we’re just showing him where to aim, when to fire.”
Out on the trail, you riding Juan and Billy riding Scout, this cowboy’s smart enough not to remark upon certain subjects—like, Why are you alone in Colorado? and Does anyone back home know you’re missing? Instead, he rattles on about his family’s ranch in Whitewater, his sister’s fight with Lupus. He says he sleeps in the barn so he can hear his horses breathe easy at night, and when he cranks open the doors every morning and sees the view outside, he’s grateful for a life in Colorado though it means eliminating luxuries like indoor plumbing, electricity, maybe a wife. His laughter carries across the valley floor. You can see how his world—the mountains snow-fluffed in winter and sunbaked in summer, aspen with leaves the color of apples, a pack of dogs loyal and quick-witted—could make a poor man, or even a broke woman, feel rich.
Billy studies how you sit in the saddle. After a while, he lifts the brim of his hat, swipes a hand across his brow. “Don’t arch your back, Dolly. Juan knows you’re nervous.”
You ponder Billy’s posture. His denim jacket curves around the slump of his shoulders; his hands, one of them missing that half-thumb, coil loosely around the reins. You try to slouch, too, and ease your grip.
The two of you scoot along in silence now, Billy having run out of things to gab about. Occasionally, he whistles at his dogs to keep them close. And just when you relax, aren’t simply faking the posture of an experienced rider, Billy says, “So my manners were rusty at The Grit, and I didn’t ask what you do for a living.”
Billy’s trying to convince you, or maybe himself, that ferreting for information is polite and not inquiring rude, but he can’t look you in the face when he says this, and because he can’t, and because you’ve seen coworkers and your parents, and that furniture salesman one year the day before Christmas, glance away right before bulldozing in with the real interrogation, you brace yourself for the questions Billy wants to ask most, the pointed ones, which are surely coming next. Should he rev up the chitchat, you’ll lie to him because learning the truth makes some people demand a reckoning of your husband’s crimes, but others, an apology for yours.
It seems harmless to admit that you were, are, a professor; you teach English. But even as the words fall from your mouth, you worry that you’ve given too many particulars. Details are the map that will lead your husband to you.
“I like Cormac McCarthy,” Billy offers.
You stare at him, studying his expression for motive—because he’s yanking your chain shamelessly; he’s conjured that name from some high school memory, probably hasn’t held a book, open or closed, in decades. Then you realize, with a twinge in your gut, that you don’t care if he’s lying. You’re grateful he’s found a subject that puts you at ease. But just as you open your mouth, ready to share what you know about McCarthy—a man who answers questions about his writing but, like you, clamps silent when asked about his life—you think how silly that conversation will sound. “Okay,” you admit, “I’m a nerd. Bullies have always known where to find me. In junior high, the kids shut me in a bass drum, then a tuba case. It wasn’t pretty.” You laugh at your own joke in hopes that the conversation will stay light-hearted.
Billy’s head pitches backward, and he laughs so hard he nearly chokes. “By God, that’s damn ugly.” Then he steals a look at you to make sure you’re still smiling.
When you are, he clucks his tongue, asking Scout to bypass the trail and descend a steep slope. Juan follows, lurching downhill. The angle is so sharp you’d swear you’re standing upright in the stirrups while also reclining in the saddle, your head nearly resting on Juan’s rump. His hooves slip. Gravel skitters underfoot. Your weight pitches forward, and it feels like you and Juan will tumble head over hoof, your hands and feet hogtied by the reins and stirrups. Billy has told you that horses spook easily. On the trail, even a mature horse can buck and flail if it’s surprised by the scent of fresh bear scat or the scuffle of wind in the trees. There isn’t room in the mountains, on paths skinny as needles, for emotional outbursts. And as you and Juan reel downhill, you wait for him to panic—because fear is a habit that’s hard to break.
But Juan is more experienced than you. When you yank the reins nervously, his head shakes off the tug the same way it tosses to swat away flies. He steps, skids, steps then skids—level ground a goal he knows how to reach.
At the bottom, when the world rights itself again, Billy says, “I had similar troubles growing up. Bullies and such.”
Now he’s outright lying. The way folks at The Grit gathered around and offered to buy his supper and beer the night you met, you can tell Billy has always been popular. He’s faking common ground because he suspects you need some company. It’s odd, even savage, how lies are sometimes tender while truth can surprise you, like a backhand across the cheek.
Scout winds through the brush; Juan trails behind him. The sun begins heading home for the night, and already, the moon hovers above Owl Creek Pass like a blue china dish. Billy points out two bucks hiding in the chaparral. In the fading light, you can barely discern them.
Then Billy asks if you hunt and stares you in the eye. “I can teach you to fire a gun,” he says, “if you need it.”
When the two of you return to the barn, it’s twilight. Having finished their day jobs in town, Jim Merritt and Egan Anderson, Billy’s two volunteer ranch hands, arrive, looking to ride colts or help power down for the night. Unlike Billy, Jim is slender as a rope, and though black strands linger in his hair, his Vandyke is ice-white. Egan is so young, by a decade or more, that he still misses college—hence, the Cornhusker’s T-shirt and ball cap. All three of them head out in Billy’s truck to feed and water the horses stashed in the pasture, and they tell you to water the barn while they’re gone. You stare at the industrial-sized hose, nearly as thick as your arm, and then consider the buckets inside each of the stalls, where the horses, all enormous and snorting and knocking their hooves against the walls, wait for you to enter.
Maybe you should just get in your car and drive away.
This is how you arrived in Colorado in the first place. Your husband called home from work one afternoon and asked you to cook your rosemary chicken for a group of his friends, and you knew: you’d bake it too long, or not long enough; you’d serve it on a platter that wasn’t presentable; you’d unwittingly give another man a chicken breast plumper than the one you spatulaed onto your husband’s plate. After dinner, there’d be the stack of dishes leaning precariously in the sink, the steam rising from hot water, and your husband locking the door behind the last of the guests—the kind of setting details that foreshadow what’s to come. That final afternoon, you stood in the kitchen, the phone in your hand, him waiting on the line, the both of you pretending he wasn’t telling you but was instead asking a genuine question—Were you inclined to cook or no? Did you have the time and ingredients?—and you weren’t pondering what dessert paired well with chicken. No, you were remembering how the women at the last shelter gave you what they called a safety plan: Never again, they warned, let an argument start in the kitchen. That’s where the knives are. And imagining the disquiet in the house after the guests would be gone, you said, Yes, I can do that, but then hung up the phone, grabbed a duffle, stuffed it, and ran.
But running means you can’t come back.
You stare at the hose, heavy and tangled on the ground. One of the horses whinnies and bangs his water bucket against the wall. You take a step forward, then another, and another; then suddenly, you’re cranking on the water and filling all the pails in Billy’s barn. Sure, you can’t control the industrial hose while wrestling open the stall doors. It bucks in your hand, jetting water so icy your breath catches when it splashes in your face. You douse the horses, their shavings, the alley. And you worry there’ll be trouble when the men return and find everything soaked and you covered in mud.
Not that the three of them look any better. Dust cakes Billy’s eyes; his shirt is wrinkled and untucked; and dirt, or maybe manure, is wedged under his fingernails. His Justin ropers have rusted spurs. Jim’s jeans may be starched and pressed, the crease down each pant leg sharp as a blade, but hay clings to his jacket, and his hair, damp with sweat and flattened by his hat, is filthy. Egan’s hand is bleeding.
To your surprise, they don’t gripe one word about the mess you’ve made but instead invite you to join them near the round pen for a makeshift happy hour. Outside, the stars glisten like coins tossed into the sky’s well, and Billy and his ranch hands pull vests and woolly jackets over their sweaty shirts to keep warm. They offer you one to wear, too. Then they’re drinking beer and teasing you about your Payless boots.
Jim points his bottle of Sierra Nevada at them. “I hope you didn’t pay good money for that bullshit Western wear.”
Egan nods. “Salesmen around here can smell a Texan coming.”
So your boots aren’t Tony Lamas or Justin ropers, but they are two tall, fleece-lined bargains, warm for winter when she arrives and with the appropriate heels for stirrups. “The pair of them cost only $12,” you say, holding your feet out in front of you so everyone can admire your purchase. Really, they look like big black galoshes.
Billy’s laughter spills free. “Where the hell did you get those motorcycle boots, Dolly? Do we have to take you shopping?”
“Are you buying?” you ask. The question, a bona fide joke some men might mistake for impertinence, flies from your mouth before you think about consequences.
Billy only laughs harder, his face turning red. Jim warns him that if you get the right shoes on your feet, you just might kick his ass. And this, Jim’s punch line with a little zest, makes you want to laugh out loud for the first time in years. You almost don’t recognize the feeling.
For certain, you don’t recognize where you are.
By now, eleven beer bottles line up on the ground, and Egan and Billy are using two other empties as spittoons. Billy hasn’t even asked your name yet but is simply calling you Dolly. These men are nothing like your husband, an English professor like you, who carries a briefcase and wears Perry Ellis slacks, button-down tailored shirts, and matching silk ties. They’re nothing like anyone you’ve ever been attracted to, all the old boyfriends whose manners were clean and sober. So they shouldn’t cause any trouble. At least, not the way your husband defines trouble.
Here’s the truth though: what you’re doing is reckless. You’re sitting around a campfire with three strangers, all of them drinking, and they might not know your name, but, rest assured, they know who you are and what you’ve given your husband permission to do. And for some men, that’s an invitation.
When the three men quit laughing, the silence catches you off-guard. In the backcountry, far from city traffic, you can hear every noise: wind, a clock ticking, even the sound of your own breathing. Jim shuffles his feet and fidgets with the buttons on his jean jacket. Egan takes another swig of beer and wipes his sleeve across his mouth. Billy stares off into the distance, scanning the horizon, maybe watching for coyotes or mountain lions.
Back home, quietude usually meant a man seething, a man jonesing to take a swing. But today, for now, you hope it’s not the ratchet of danger you hear in the emptiness. You pray it’s the sound of life when it’s finally safe. Far away, a truck mumbles down the road, and the Uncompahgre River purls downstream, flush with snowmelt. Biscuit and Dweeb, Billy’s two heelers, patter around the campfire, panting and happy. And one of the three cowboys starts humming, soft as a fiddle.
~ ~ ~
Leslie Jill Patterson's prose has appeared in Texas Monthly, The Rumpus, Grist, Colorado Review, Literature: A Pocket Anthology (7th edition), and other journals and anthologies. Her awards include the 2013 Everett Southwest Literary Award, judged by Lee K. Abbott; the 2014 Time and Place Prize in Brittany, France; and a 2014 Soros Justice Fellowship, funded by the Open Society Foundations in New York. She also serves as editor for Iron Horse Literary Review. Today, she works as the case storyteller for attorneys representing indigent men and women charged with capital murder and facing the death penalty in Texas.
I lived in Ouray, Colorado, every summer for over a decade. There, I met a clutch of horse trainers who ran so counter to my traditional notions of “cowboy” that I knew they belonged in a story. I tried to write about my experiences with them as nonfiction, because they saved my life, but I soon realized that I couldn’t voice a narrative anywhere near as honest as I could if I gave myself permission to write it about another woman—you, not me. So I turned it into fiction, gave her a hideout cabin and the grave necessity to run. The resulting stories about Eagle Hill Ranch comprise the fictional thread inside my just completed hybrid memoir, Splitting, and some I didn’t use there appear in Trouble Is a Friend of Mine, my in-progress collection of short stories that spin around real events, mostly environmental/natural disasters, that have occurred in the San Juan Mountains.
What is your favorite dietary pleasure?
Mexican food. It’s a part of daily life in Texas, a must in my family. I could eat it every meal: migas or huevos rancheros for breakfast, tacos and elotes for lunch, enchiladas and sopas for dinner. Tomorrow, the same all over again. I miss it horribly any time I travel away from the American West.
You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?
Charlie. My father, at the age of 80, has turned suddenly, shockingly ill. Always he’s been the healthiest person in my family, with a history of ancestors who lived into their 90s. Now, he’s so delicate that my arms around his shoulders—it’s like hugging the back of a Shaker chair. I must believe he will survive this turn, and survive it mightily, but it has set me to thinking about this world without him in it. It’s so desperately sentimental to say it, but I’d name it after him. I’d do it to pretend, to reassure myself, that I can keep him in this world.
Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer, or Fall?
Spring. The wind blows in West Texas all the time, but it’s a bitter thrashing in the winter, so when spring comes along, it feels like salvation. I can shuck the thermals and tights and sweatshirts and parkas that have weighed me down for months when I walk the dog every morning. And with spring comes the promise of those glorious summer months every writer teaching in academia races toward. There’s so much potential when March and April arrive. I plan on accomplishing great things, and, at that time, I genuinely have faith that I will.