“It held his arms tight to his body, in a magical grip from which he could not escape.” – Jay Williams, Petronella
It hasn’t stopped pourin’ rain and I’m afraid my Petra ain’t ever coming back. “The enchantment’s worn off Albie, I see you.” She declared. It was all so peculiar. As wet as it was outside, her eyes were dry when she packed the last of those silk dresses she liked to glide around the house in. She was languid as a feline indoors but she could mount her quarter horse and reach the far end of the ranch faster than any one of my cowpunchers. Hell, my name ain’t even Albie but Petra liked calling me that so it stuck. Despite her uppity parents enrolling her in some American finishing school, Spanish was Petra’s first language and she had a hard time understanding my accent. Too hick, I reckon. She always had to extend an ear whenever I was jabbering I’ll be right over, I’ll be seeing you, or I’ll be darned! So she christened me Albie and then it was, te quiero mi Albie or lets ride Albie! And before I could do something to stop it, the end came when she said, Albie estas muy loco y muy enfermo.
Been landlocked more than I ever intended to be. Our housekeeper Nilza silently mumbles a Hail Mary with the intention that I return to work whenever she lifts the boots that are still on my legs to mop the Terra Cotta tile. In times of trouble, my salvation has been the bountiful topsoil the Colorado River gifted my land. The molasses in Cattle feed smells like the sugar cookies my Momma used to bake and the tangy alfalfa I’ve grown to feed the livestock always serves as a reminder that I could push through anything that was makin’ me unhappy. Well, almost anything. This particular inertia is an enemy I can’t seem to fight; the herds of cattle are sheltered to keep away the rain scald and there’s nothing to do but think.
It all started when Petra hightailed it back to Mexico. The dirt was whirling off the ground in discontent as water droplets fought to pack it back in. Her parent’s chauffer slammed the car door with me abandoned inside our sprawling temple I bulldozed my shack for, a roof over my head the color of her dark ginger hair, the roof ridding itself of tears.
The only will I’ve been able to summon is to park myself in front of the fireplace. I watch the fire dance feverishly. I wont let it extinguish when it goes tepid, otherwise my mutation will be complete. Nilza throws a Navajo blanket over me before she retires every night. I murmur thanks, as the bourbon has won out and I’m halfway asleep. I can hear my insides begging me to crawl into to bed but I just can’t bear to roll in cold sheets. I need to stay close to that front door just in case. I’m starting to think I’ll need something more potent, like the tranquilizer I gave my wayward horse once he settled his debt. It’s just that my eyes remain blindly faithful, they continue to crack open before dawn. Petra didn’t take that away from me but its worthless.
No rain, no cold, or damp days, that’s what brought me to this low desert Shangri-La. This steady downpour is a solicitor I wish I could shoo off my property. Maybe that’s why I can’t seem to snap out of my debilitation. Or maybe I’ve just reached full tilt from being married so many times. Once upon a time I met the girl of my dreams, thrice. I’ve let myself get squeezed by a wedding ring that only tightens my solitary confinement. At least it was only one ring. I’d pretend I purchased a new one in honor every impending nuptial. My father didn’t want it once he crossed my mother’s arms. “Maybe your luck will be better than mine, son.” He’d say. “I hope you live a long happy life with the woman you love.” He never warned me that disappointment would suffocate the senses, forcing me to adjust accordingly.
Petra always had this uncanny ability to outwit my demons. But what she’ll never understand is that she boosted me where the other two failed. I could feel myself coming around. Why’d she have to go and pull those weeds out? She ruined everything. We’ve fought before but this absence is different. This time she took our boy with her. Now I’m afraid Albie hexed forever with her PF brand hot ironed to my skin.
One, two, three wives I’ve had. One, two, and now all three have left me.
My first wife Suzy screeched when I put her on a horse for the very first time. Damn near got thrown off of it. Poor animal was terrified. I was riding the rails on my way to California when she poured me some coffee in Oklahoma. She was ripe in that peach waitress uniform with an unbuttoned neckline that pointed to her lily-white apron. I promised her I’d be printing my own money in a year so she tailgated the rest of the way. I settled us in this southeastern agricultural frontier, purchasing thousands of acres to raise cattle and farm. I believed in hedging my bets; if the farming wasn’t so good then I knew cattle surely would be. The miracle of baby calves eating and growing into feeder cattle made me yearn for my own kin but Suzy lived in daydreams. In a swimsuit and glossy robe, she’d sunbathe mostly, paging through photoplay magazine. When it got too hot in the summer she’d sleep through into the evening, spending most nights painting her claws or doing up her nest with that big black comb of hers. We never did have kids. She didn’t want to ruin her figure.
It was a dog bite that made Suzy rabid. I made sure of it. One morning, I told her I’d be back by sundown cause I needed to survey the feedlot that was being built on the property. I asked that she give the dogs their breakfast. I knew Wilbur was sick. She probably thought he was snarling and foaming cause he was hungry. It was an awful shame to find Suzy rolling in the dirt with her hair and nails all mussed up hootin’ and howlin’ like a banshee, so unladylike. I reckon it would’ve been easier to put her out of her misery with a bullet like I did with poor, angry Wilbur. She kept naggin’ me, “When’s the doctor coming? I don’t feel so good, Carl.” I never bothered. When she began to refuse liquids, I knew the end was near.
I buried my dear Suzy in a ploughed field of neglected rubble deprived of its abundant harvest. I had a heart shaped stone made for her big send off. To the left of her, a Raggedy Ann doll leaned against a cross. ‘Baby daughter’ it said. Poor angel got taken away too soon. I believe it was diphtheria. Now there’s a real tragedy.
Never thought I’d want another wife after Suzy but Maggie changed my mind. I saw her in the lobby of the Barbara Worth Hotel sitting on a green velvet bergere under a mural of settlers taming the desert. Her hair was up in a bun and she was gussied up like a Chinese porcelain doll. She had a white fox fur wrapped around her and it gave me hope that maybe this gal liked to hunt. No such luck. She couldn’t even boil an egg.
Maggie was wicked in her tease. I was her country bumpkin she’d say with her hand on my knee letting the words slither out, her lips thick with war paint. She drove me wild. I was determined to woo her; shaving and pomading my hair to take her out for steaks and swing dancin’ every night.
We had a small ceremony. She convinced me to rent a long-term room at the hotel leaving her there during the day. My house was still a shack and that was no place for woman like Maggie. No, she liked the finer things in life. As a wedding gift, I bought her a floor length Italian Cheval mirror. She claimed the one at the hotel wasn’t big enough.
It was a horse that trampled her. I made sure of it. It was New Years Eve and I had finished getting some slaughter cattle loaded and shipped. I figured I’d clean up at the hotel so we could have an early dinner and spend the night carousin’. As I unlocked the door of the hotel room, I saw some trousers hanging over the cherry valet stand and through the wedding mirror a man in between her milky gams. She moaned, “No housekeeping, per favor!” I called from one of the payphones downstairs and told her how sorry I was to be runnin’ late but I had a wonderful surprise in store for her. I returned to the ranch and took a hot bath as the as sun went down.
There’s a mighty fine oil painting of Barbara Worth in the lobby. The story goes that when the chips were down, Barbara had an unshakeable faith that the desert could be bridled. She saw its splendor but she was indeed a myth. Seems that Maggie had been taming every man that came through the hotel. With her silk scarf, I blindfolded her and drove back to the ranch. She kept whinin’ “Why’s this taking so long? Where’s my surprise, Carl?” I dragged her out of the car, tying her hands as she cursed and screamed like some crackpot, so unsophisticated. I locked her inside a stall with an abused horse I had just bought. No one would hear her as I locked the stable doors. It had struck midnight. Fireworks were going off and everyone was probably kissin’ their sweetheart. To a better year I thought.
I was beginning to think that my detriment was picking wives not suited for the country when Petra Franco came barrelin’ into my life. Her father sent her to inspect a fat steer to purchase as the main course for a fiesta. At first, I was offended to be dealin’ with a woman but I was struck by how muscular her arms were when she forcefully shook my hand. Wearing men’s trousers tucked into her riding boots and tipping her wool felt cowboy hat made me embarrassed that my grip had been so limp. The dogs followed behind her as I led her to the feedlot. She stroked their dark fur as they panted with glee, tongues wagging like rosy popsicle sticks.
She was impressed with my selection of Herefords, Brown Swiss, Santa Gertrudis, Aberdeen Angus and Brahma bulls. I found myself wanting to impress her, giving her history lesson on how during the olden days before the desert was irrigated and penned yards came into fashion, cattle migrated from other states for winter feeding, grazing on wild flowers that grew around clear blue lakebeds that have since dried up. She politely listened while checking if steer’s nose was moist and cool. She smoothed its chocolate mane with her hunky hands to make sure it wasn’t matted and then requested I bring it outside of the pen to exhibit its gait. It was at that moment that the dehorned, vaccinated and castrated animal we later sired Prince sauntered right up to Petra who began smile from ear to ear. He put his head under her hands and begging for affection, he bobbed it up and down. She began to sing to him in the most melodic voice.
Petra and I used to say that Prince should really be one of our dogs. That silly bull loved chasing rabbits and chewing the cud in the fields with his fellow canines. Petra couldn’t bear seeing him get killed for her father’s feast so she begged me to let him live. After a few weeks of back and forth hagglin’, Petra and I agreed on a price. I went across the border to Mexicali where her parents lived and offered them a lifetime supply of my best Angus beginning with as many as they needed for our wedding.
Sometimes Prince would let Petra ride him. I could swear he took on an air of refined dignity as her trotted her around. He was as crazy about her as I was.
Petra liked calling our son Felipe even though we named him Phillip like my father. She never was one to conform to anything that didn’t suit her but I didn’t care, I was so happy. Nilza came on board to watch the baby while Petra helped me cut horses and tend to the crops and livestock. Nothing intimidated her, not even me and that’s how the trouble started.
Petra had us raising turkey’s to sell for Thanksgiving. We had a barley field for those deformed creatures to forage on. She was overseeing this enterprise, promising me we’d make some extra money and have our pick of the finest turkey for our own celebration. We didn’t need any more money but I loved her business savvy. One morning, Petra began pulling at weeds, keeping busy while the birds ate and that’s when she spotted a shiny object jutting out from the ground. It was a wedding band with part of Maggie’s finger still attached.
With a gun pointing at my face, she made sure to tell me that she knew whose it was. As my hands were raised to the heavens, I kept thinking that I could have sworn the razorback hogs had eaten all of Maggie before the cholera wiped them out. So much for getting rid of evidence! Petra said she never trusted my story about Maggie running off with another man. It seemed believable to me; I caught her with one.
I kept denying it till she made her escape. I told myself that there was absolutely no way I was gonna come clean about Maggie’s demise or Suzy’s for that matter. Petra thought I was only married once.
One, two, three wives I’ve had. One, two, and now all three have left me.
The rain has stopped. It looks like its mid afternoon but I can’t really say, the skies are so muted. The mud drags under my boots as I head toward the livestock. Prince is lying with the dogs under the barn. Looks like they’ve been asleep for as long as I have been hibernating indoors. Prince’s eyes begin open and I wonder if he knows Petra’s gone. He sleepily stands, moving side-to-side shaking his downtrodden head. She spared his life. She married me instead. He’s pawing his feet like a cat, rubbing his fat noggin’ against the ground, markin’ his territory. The dogs begin to take notice. Perhaps they’ll follow his lead. Dirt begins to fly behind him and the dogs begin to growl. I’m wearing a big red target. He wants to hurt me. I know the feeling.
I shot him dead. I slit his throat and as soon as I saw his legs curl under him, I held him close and wept.
I’m lightheaded as I feel his warmth escaping, laying itself out like a picnic blanket. I lost his Momma and I’m relieved I wont have to look at him for the rest of my days. Oh, but I never want to rise again. What’s the point? Another search for familiar pastures and lakes that have long since gone, settling still, watching it all go so terribly wrong. One, two, three wives I’ve had. One, two, and now all three have left me. Oh Lord poor me, I hope the dogs go rabid and bite, the horses trample and the turkeys eat me what’s left of me. And I pray that someone can make sure of it.