The weak excuse for a bonfire wasn’t built for warmth. Russian thistle burns fast and hot, but the insistent wind made those tumbleweeds too hard to chase down and there were no fences nearby for them to catch on. And, although the caliche flat was lined with mesquite bushes, it was too much trouble fighting the thorns to get to the roots for good firewood. So the fire was built of woodscraps left lying around in truckbeds, and a couple of small branches stripped off a nearby sagebrush. Sagebrush seeds exploded like firecrackers at regular intervals. Anyway, September Saturdays in West Texas are warm enough for standing around bullshitting even without a fire. Its sole purpose was to serve as a center for a perfunctory circle of lean young men listening to the coyotes sing down the last sliver of sunset, their new pickups and fast cars glowing like embers in the burnt orange light.
Those gathered were a common bunch of West Texas no-quite-cowboys and not-quite-hippies; some wore shit-kickers, but boots were outnumbered by scuffed, expensive loafers worn sockless. When someone added another scrap of wood, the firelight glinted off fancy chrome wheels and a rare championship buckle. Two or three vehicles had their high-end sound systems tuned to an alternative rock station that drifted in from Lubbock. As the evening wore on, random lines of conversation coalesced, as it often did, into themes worthy of storytelling. The current subject was "the Weirdest." One guy had just finished telling about his Weirdest cop encounter, the third or fourth in a series. There had been Weird ghost and UFO and Marfa stories, a couple of Weird dog stories, and enough Weird high stories to wear out the topic. At present, there was a small silence in the group, broken only by heavy tokes on primo weed, slurps of beer, and a fine stream of tobacco juice here and there.
Thoughts of JB’s last lover had been nagging him all day. He knew he could make a Weird story out of their love affair, but he wasn’t sure he was ready to make a legend out of it. He grunted and shook his head, then reached into the keg cooler and drew a refill into the red plastic cup. JB tried to distract himself by concentrating on the yeasty sediment swirling around in the cup, but it was no good. He could still feel her long hair spread out over his shoulder, and could smell the satiny skin of her thigh. On the breeze, he caught a whiff of his own aftershave, the one he wore because she liked it best. He remembered how she would hold him like a baby on nights when he was drunk and sick. Finally, the weed and the long silence in the circle broke him down.
"I'll tell y'all the story of the Weirdest Woman I've ever known."
Well, there was considerable interest among the ten or so young men, all about thirty and still single, except for one or two who just acted single. JB wasn't known as a playboy. He kept to himself, mostly; almost never went to bars. If you wanted to see JB, he was usually at home with his dog, his weed, and his music. So, a Woman story from JB was new information in itself, no matter whether she was Weird or not.
"First of all, she was older'n'me. Fifteen years older."
JB played to the crowd and graciously received the expected catcalls and whistles.
"But I was the one who asked her out and she said yes the first time. Met her in a Business Spanish class I took once. She was pretty and smart, too. My horoscope that day said, ‘Ask for what you want,’ so I did. I was just barely twenty-one then. When I told her how old I was all she said was, ‘Well, as long as your mama don't take a hatchet to me, I guess everything's okay.’ We went crazy for each other that night, over dollar fajitas at Rosa's Cafe."
JB plunged ahead, the words coming faster than he’d anticipated, like a flash flood exploding in the arroyos of the Big Bend, exciting and dangerous.
"Now, that should've been my first clue, that she liked me so much. And she kept telling me I was beautiful, like a painting or something and you all know I'm one ugly motherfucker."
A chorus of "Damn right!" and "You know it," erupted from the crowd.
“And a week after we met,” JB continued, “she wrote me a poem about my muscles and that scar on my beer belly. A love poem about a scar!”
JB stopped for a moment and took a long pull on his best ale, some he had just decanted earlier in the day. It was smooth and rich and helped swallow down the lump that had come up in his throat.
"She told me, you know, that she was crazy . . . cer-tee-fied . . . but it didn't matter much to me because people have been telling me all my life that I'm crazier than a javelina boar in mating season. She seemed OK then anyway, and boy, did she treat me good. She cooked, great food and lots of it. She gave me back rubs anytime I wanted and more sex than any man could want. I tell ya, she was pure nympho."
As JB spoke, he shivered with the memory of the way she caressed his body as if he were something breakable and priceless.
"Things really started bothering me, though, when she started knowin' what I was thinkin'. No shit!"
"I'd start to call her and there she was, on the line, without the phone ringin’. Then she started callin’ just as I was getting up from the chair to call her. Pretty soon, she was bringin’ me a fresh cold open beer at exactly the right time. You know, after one is finished and you're ready for a new one, but you haven’t quite talked yourself into making the trip? His audience nodded, knowing just what he meant.
“There she’d be, putting a new one in my hand, already opened. Got to where she’d twist up a fattie or bring my bubbler—cleaned and loaded—at the very moment I was thinking of it. Now, I know that seems great to you; but after a while, it gets a little spooky. Anytime I couldn’t find something she’d quietly walk up and hand it to me without a word—in my own house! So one day I’m at her house and I see fortune-telling cards and books and I begin to get an idea of was going on. The woman was witching me, I tell ya."
JB took in a deep breath then burst out, "And I got proof, too, about the witching. About a week after I broke up with her 'cause things were gettin' way intense, a friend of hers called and said the woman had put herself in the nuthouse. That night, I bought a six and got some to burn and went out for a cruise. You know, just me and my truck and a hundred-twenty per. All a sudden, I found myself rackin' this sweet, custom, worked-by-my-own-hands, low-rider truck you see right here, on the metal guard rail just next to the fucking nuthouse.”
JB ran his hand along the front wheel-well of his stark white truck as if he were checking a mare’s injured shoulder.
“Still don’t know how I got there. Still don’t know how that guardrail jumped out in front of me on a straight road with a full moon. I guess there were some pretty good things going on with her, but there was too much mojo workin' for me."
JB turned away from his friends, leaned over the hood of his truck and stared stubbornly off to the distant purple horizon.
"That woman was just plain Weird,” he insisted, as much to himself as to his audience. “I can't explain it very good, but she was Weird."
Nervously, the guys began to dig in their coolers, open beers, and mumble to one another, hoping to fill up the heavy silence. But it was too late now. JB’s heart broke, right there in front of everyone; he was bleeding and bleeding bad. Right through the moss-green Gap t-shirt he wore, JB bled like a gutted deer. No one wanted to see it, so they lowered their heads and examined the patterns their feet made in the sand.
JB finished off the last of his beer in a long, slurping exclamation point.
"Gotta go piss."
His eyes glowered like those of a cornered mountain lion, so no one said “me, too” or hooted a crude comment about his equipment. They just left him alone to kick his way through the mesquite. As he walked away from the circle, JB had an odd feeling in his chest, like maybe he was having a heart attack. He thought about that woman, and their second date, when they drove up an old lease road to the top of an escarpment over by Notrees, and watched the sun go down and the moon rise over the edge of the world. All he had wanted to do by telling that story was make sure, again, for the millionth time, that she was Weird and he was right to get out of her life. Instead, he felt like a fool. "Who gives a fuck, anyway?" he growled to himself. He crushed the plastic cup in his left hand, dropped it, unzipped, leaned back, and stared up at the goddamned beautiful stars.
Jeanetta Calhoun Mish is a poet, writer and literary scholar; in 2009, she earned her Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Oklahoma. Her first book, Tongue Tied Woman, won the Edda Poetry Chapbook Competition for Women in 2002. Her second poetry collection, Work Is Love Made Visible (West End Press, 2009), won the 2010 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry, the 2010 Western Heritage Award for Poetry from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and the 2010 WILLA Award for Poetry from Women Writing the West. She has been awarded a 2010 residency at the Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Arts and a scholarship for a 2012 Vermont Studio Center residency. Dr. Mish was previously Poet-Scholar in Residence with World Literature Today and is currently a member of the faculty of the Red Earth Creative Writing MFA program at Oklahoma City University.