Those were the days when real man never sweetened anything but a poker pot.
|The desert dawn yawned as wide as the mesas where the morning sun drank the Rio Grande dry.
Clutching the sweet scent of a fading dream, Michel curled long legs up to spoon with Juanita. But Juanita wasn’t there--nor had she been for over thirty years. Just as the desert's he lived in, Michel’s morning began with a thirst impossible to quench.
He plodded his way to the kitchen. Arthritis rode his bones and his joints bucked like an old rodeo bull. At fifty, Michel’s life was as threadbare and worn as the old Navajo rug on his bedroom floor. Neither his years nor the rug could protect him from the cool threat of autumn creeping through summer’s backdoor.
As he ground his favorite Arabica beans, their bitter-sweet aroma swept him back to Chiapas--back thirty years--when both youth and Juanita were gifts he’d taken for granted. Michel added a pinch of cinnamon to take the bite out of the thick coffee. Back then, back in Chiapas, he’d have snickered at the need to tame a cowpuncher’s brew. Those were the days when real men didn’t sweeten anything but a poker pot and cowboys never cried. Nowadays, Michel did both. But, then, nowadays the closest he came to horses were the vintage Mustangs he refurbished as a hobby. Back then, back in Chiapas, he’d been a rising cowboy riding the rodeo circuit.
Fella whined at the kitchen door, his insistent tail reminding Michel that the collie hadn’t been out since last night. Michel opened the door and followed his old companion outside. He didn’t bother to close the paw-torn screen behind him. Just like Michel, it served no purpose anymore.
Michel sat down on the concrete steps and wrapped his chilled fingers around the steaming earthenware mug. A faded postcard fell from the robe pocket where he had crammed it during the last wee hours of a long Tequila night. The once summer-bright reds, yellows, and blues of the Kachina doll on its face were winter grey now. So was the swirled feminine script on its back. But it didn’t matter. Michel knew the words by heart.
Juanita had sent it to Michel thirty years ago when, after three major rodeo wins, he'd decided to take his celebration to Mexico--down Chiapas way where all the front-door beer parlors had enticed and all the back-door poker games had seduced. With spring winnings heavy in his pocket, he was a welcomed customer. For three weeks, he rode a winning Blackjack bronco.
All the while, Juanita kept sending postcards: She wrote about the sweltering heat and the long hours of overtime on her new job. She wrote about an old neighbor moving away and a new neighbor moving in. She wrote of her sister Maria’s new son and of her mother’s old arthritis flaring up again. She mentioned how helpful the new neighbor, Jed, was--driving her mother back and forth to the doctor’s. But, most of all, Juanita asked Michel to come home.
Michel was too young to read between the lines or to think that time was a thing that mattered. He let the postcards pile up along with his poker winnings.
Perhaps it was the sheer simplicity of that last postcard which finally broke through the cowboy bravado and found a cowboy brain. “Please come back to Albuquerque. I'm so lonely without you.” Or, perhaps, it was merely that Michel had tired of Coronas and tamales.
At any rate, he decided to play one last round of Blackjack, then return home to the lovely Juanita. Hell, maybe he’d even buy her a ring with his winnings. It wasn’t hard to picture her in a long white mantilla. Perhaps next autumn. Juanita's dark eyes grew deeper in the fall and a low sun caught chestnut in her hair. She wore autumn well.
Michel could have bet less, but he'd already chewed the worm in the Tequila and lady luck was now his best friend. He could see her waving a go-ahead from the bottom of his shot glass. So Michel waved the dealer to his “17”. He busted out. He'd bet everything and everything was lost.
It never occurred to Michel to cry. Cowboys didn't cry. They just got back in the saddle and kept on riding. Of course, Michel had lost his saddle, too. But he still had the lovely Juanita.
He never wrote her an answer to that last postcard. If he had tried to put into words what he had done, it just might have come out sounding foolish. And cowboys were never foolish--foolhardy, perhaps, but never foolish.
So Michel answered Juanita's postcard in the best way he knew how: He took thumb to road and back to labor. By then the rodeo circuit was closed. It would not open again until spring. Michel pitched hay and cowpoked, painted barns and dug post holes--anything for a ticket home. His days were long and lonely; his nights, short and full of Juanita. He curled up in empty haylofts to spoon with her. He told her about the soaring eagle that flew so high it seemed to touch the sun. But, most of all, he watched her walking down an aisle wearing autumn in her hair.
It took six months for Michel to work his way home to Albuquerque.
Autumn had come and gone. Juanita had worn it in her hair as she walked down the aisle to take Jed as her husband.
There were many more rodeos and many more poker games in Michel’s life, but there was never another Juanita.
As a cooling sun drained rows of pastel adobes to a burnt sienna, Michel stood up and tossed the dregs of his coffee into the wilting tomato plants. He glanced down the road where bare branches of sage brush rattled along like lost skeletons of summer. Another autumn was in the air.
“Never hit 17 when you play against the dealer
For you know that the odds won’t ride with you.
Never leave your woman alone
When your friends are out to steal her.
She’ll be gambled and gone like summer wages.” Ian and Sylvia
Word Count: 1307