“I like your outfit,” I said to the inebriated cowboy. We stood together at a long wooden bar and stared at gleaming rows of bottles on the mahogany shelf. The interior of the Bisbee Stock Exchange was cavernous and spooky, filled to overflowing with the ghosts of real cowboys. After 125 years of continuous operation, the establishment effortlessly retained its air of Wild West authenticity. My companion was middle-aged and lean, with long gray hair and a handlebar mustache. He sported a checkered western shirt, tight jeans, and shiny boots with spurs.
I was flattering him, since his look struck me as an absurd cliche. Bisbee was the sort of town where city officials paid guys to dress up like cowboys and lounge on the museum steps. It was a calculated tourist gambit, designed to inspire folks to purchase kokopelli key chains and leather wallets embossed with rodeo scenes. The locals despised the tourists, but were utterly dependent upon their revenue.
“I hate it when people say that shit,” the cowboy replied. He leaned across the bar like a cartoon of himself, placed his hat on the counter. “I don’t dress like this to impress people. These are my CLOTHES.” He picked up his shot glass, took a huge gulp, and stared at me angrily.
“I’m sorry,” I said, hoping to assuage his ego. The cowboy waved his hand dismissively. “Let me buy you a drink,” he offered. “I’m used to this sort of bullshit. I get it all the time.” I settled into my bar-stool and ordered a pint of Electric Dave’s. The brew-master had recently been sprung from prison after serving time for a marijuana smuggling conviction. The locals didn’t care what he did, because they loved his beer so much. It was easy for me to see why. Electric Dave’s was an excellent brew, smooth and hoppy, and worthy of its name.
“That Dave sure is an operator,” the cowboy muttered. A buxom, leather-faced bartender shoved a glass in my direction, then turned her attention to other matters. “I don’t know how he manages it. There are folks in this town who make it, and others who don’t. You have to know whose asses to kiss. I don’t kiss asses, but I’ve kicked a few. And I’ve had my ass kicked too, more than once. You know what I mean?”
I took a thoughtful sip from my beer. My companion had summed up the human experience pretty well. “Best you can do is hope for a 50/50 split,” I said. The cowboy nodded appreciatively. “My name’s Rick,” he said. “I think we’re going to get along.”
I accepted a shot of Maker’s Mark from the bartender. Rick gazed at the contours of my body, then looked away quickly. For the first time, I noticed a pile of fresh rosemary on the counter beside him. He had arranged the sharp little branches on an unfolded napkin, and they gleamed slightly in the pale bar light. “I picked it in a nearby field,” Rick explained. “I can’t resist the stuff.” He held one of the sprigs under my nose, and I sniffed deeply. “I’m going to dry it when I get home,” he said.“It’s really good in bread.”
I thought of my own home, fifteen hundred miles away in Tacoma. My live-in partner and I had separated several months beforehand, after my mother died and left me with one quarter ownership of her Bisbee four-flat. Mom’s building had been a miner’s boarding house for many years. She paid cash for it, resurrected the rock garden, and died a few years later.
The local real estate market was slow, and the building had taken a year to unload. As a result, I was no longer on speaking terms with my siblings. They had objected strenuously to my decision to sell the place. I’d flown to Arizona to tie up emotional loose ends and collect my $19,000 share. 2000 had been a miserable year, and I was eager to shake the dust of the Bisbee curse from my bones.
Rick gestured towards the bartender, and two more shot glasses appeared in front of us. I sipped my amber liquid eagerly. Rick chugged his drink and signaled for another. “Why are you in town?” he asked. “My mother’s house finally sold,” I explained. “She lived half a mile away. I’m here to say goodbye, since I won’t be back again.”
“You’ll be back,” Rick said. He drained his glass, and a new one arrived. “Get her one too,” he told the bartender. The woman hesitated, then shuffled across the bar with an air of resignation, and measured another shot. She placed the glass in front of me, and turned away quickly. I gazed at the tin ceiling. Its geometric patterns swirled and melted into each other. The sound of raucous laughter arose from the street, then subsided. I felt suddenly queasy, and realized I was quite drunk.
Perhaps a trip to the bathroom would help. I rose unsteadily from my stool and smiled at my new friend. “I’ll be right back,” I assured him. My feet shuffled towards the rear of the bar, while the top of my body undulated like seaweed. I found a door that said “women” and wandered inside. After swaying on the toilet for several minutes, I returned to the bar. Rick was nowhere in sight, and the pile of rosemary was gone. Maybe he had tired of our conversation and decided to go home. I couldn’t blame him. In my current state of mind, I was probably terrible company.
The men’s lavatory door opened, and Rick wandered into the room. He staggered for a moment, but quickly righted himself. With feigned casualness, he sauntered over to his bar-stool. Rick gave the counter a sideways glance, and a stricken expression came over his face. “The rosemary!” he cried. “It’s…gone! Somebody must have stolen it!”
“That’s ridiculous,” I replied, shaking my head. “Who would steal rosemary? It grows wild in these parts.”
Rick’s eyes became suddenly wet. “People are no goddamned good,” he said bitterly. “You never can trust them to do the right thing.” He blinked back his tears and shook his head. “They snatched it after I went to take a leak. This town is full of backstabbers.”
I could imagine better ways to stab a man in the back than stealing his rosemary, but I didn’t say so. My own experiences in Bisbee had been less than ideal. Over the years, two different men had dealt me cruel rejections-a junkie writer who was carrying on with a local barfly, and a confused drummer who kept divorcing and re-marrying his wife. It was exactly the sort of town that inspired wild herb theft.
“You have to trust people anyway,” I said. My voice sounded compassionate, yet firm, as if I actually believed my words. I drained my shot, and Rick waved down the bartender, ordered two more. I continued relentlessly: “I mean, they don’t deserve it, but what choice do we have?”
For the first time, Rick stared directly into my eyes. “I don’t know,” he said. He looked away, embarrassed. “It’s my own fault for letting people screw me over. I never learn.”
“That makes two of us,” I assured him. I pivoted on my stool and grabbed the edge of the bar so I wouldn’t topple. My empty glasses glistened on the counter. I had managed to set a new personal record of a beer and six shots in less than two hours. I strongly suspected that I wouldn’t be proud of this record when morning arrived.
“I’d better go back to my hotel,” I said apologetically.“Thanks for the drinks. I enjoyed talking with you. I hope you find more rosemary.”
Rick fixed his eyes on my body, then looked away sharply, as if seized by pain. “You’re really attractive,” he said. “I’m going to go home and masturbate.” His tone was morose, yet philosophical, like he was resigned to a future of onanism. My sudden departure was deeply disappointing, and had come swiftly on the heels of the rosemary theft, but he would deal with both issues as well as he could.
It was easily the most pathetic pickup line I’d ever heard. I emitted an uncomfortable laugh, and Rick set his jaw. “It’s true,” he insisted.
“I don’t doubt it,” I replied. Steering my body as if it was a ship, I labored my way towards the exit. A gust of wind caught my skirt, and I clasped the edge of the fabric with one hand. The door whooshed shut behind me as I stepped onto the darkened sidewalk.
I couldn’t remember the location of my hotel, and this made me furious. Nevertheless, I walked purposefully down the cobblestone streets, as if I knew exactly where I was headed. I’d figure out the direction as I went along, as I’d done many times before. There was no reason to hurry. I owned plenty of time. No one could steal those minutes from me. I’d plug them a good one, before they had the chance to get out of town. They wouldn’t dare mess with me again.
I found my hotel and collapsed into bed. After several hours of fitful sleep, I awoke with the sun in my face. It beamed mercilessly into my eyeballs, and I winced as I raised myself from the mattress. I wandered into the tiny bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. My ravaged, puffy-eyed reflection stared back at me from the mirror. I felt terrible, but not half as bad as I’d expected. At least I could drive to Tucson, drop off my rental car, and hop a flight back to Seattle.
A cup of coffee would do wonders for my equilibrium. I left the hotel, wandered down the sidewalk towards the coffee shop. Finally, paper cup in hand, I drifted across the street, towards the museum. Rick perched on the top step with his long legs dangling beneath him, waiting for the tourists to arrive. His face was expressionless as he stared at the horizon. The man fit his inscrutable cowboy role perfectly. When he spotted me, however, he ducked his head with shame. “I’m sorry,” he muttered.
I shrugged. “Don’t be,” I said. “I’m not upset. It was a good talk.” Rick lifted his head, and looked relieved. “Okay,” he agreed. “I still feel stupid, though.”
“How did you sleep?” I asked.
Rick’s face brightened. “Oh, I never have trouble sleeping. My place on Chihuahua Hill is so beautiful. I always wake up at sunrise. You should come over and see it tomorrow.”
You had to hand it to Rick—although he kept losing, he never accepted defeat without a fight. “I’m flying back to Washington this evening, or I’d say yes,” I said politely. Rick looked momentarily saddened, but then he smiled. “Another day,” he said. “You have to come up next time you’re in town, and watch the sunrise. I make a hell of a good breakfast.”
I wasn’t sure how to explain to Rick that I never intended to return to Bisbee. In less than an hour, I would climb the winding hill in my rental car, take one last look at the town, and head towards the Tucson airport. The chilly, damp air of the Pacific Northwest would be a huge relief after the desert heat. “I’ll look you up,” I promised. “Take care of yourself.”
Rick reached out his hand, and I shook it firmly. His fingers were warm inside of mine, and they lingered there for an extra moment. The poor guy needed every bit of warmth he could get. I released his hand and turned away, began my trek back to the hotel. Two packed bags rested beside the bed, waiting to leave Arizona forever. My departure couldn’t come soon enough. The desert was a barren land of desperadoes, and I needed to make a timely escape. Otherwise, I might end up like them, and I would rather die than allow that to happen.