Fiction

Collected Stories, Poems, and Lyrics

Painted Horses

I
Robert Wilson awoke from a dream in which he was standing alone on a wooden train
platform at dusk. A black locomotive rumbled and billowed steam from its towering chimney as
it slowly sped away into the ochre of the desert. He felt the wind from the train on his face push
him off balance. He panicked as he started to run after it down the wooden platform as it sped
faster along the tracks. He noticed an elbow reclining through one of the open windows.
Wilson shouted over the din of clanking steel and hissing steam, but no sound escaped
his mouth. He tried shouting again until his face was red and swollen. An old Navajo man with
deep canyons and fissures in his face leaned his head out of the window and wryly smiled at
Wilson with the kind of quiet amusement that is only earned through age. The old man mouthed
a single inaudible word and watched Wilson become smaller and smaller as the train disappeared
into the night. Wilson stood alone on the platform. The last of the train’s memory faded into
nothingness along the horizon of the blue morning in his room on the second floor of the Royal
Palms Motel. As he lay there, he stared at the ceiling trying to cling to the dream as the images
became vague and distant with each passing hour.
The cars clanged outside his window, now mid-morning. Had it not been for the growing
agitation festering in his gut that grew with each city sound, Wilson thought that he could lie
there forever. He would have felt perfectly content to let the hours become days as the world
continued around him. He felt he was just a bystander on this earth and had convinced himself
over the years that he had nothing more to say. There was nothing left to do but die with the
quiet dignity of an old coyote who retreats off to be left alone under the shade a creosote bush.
The valley was hot and windy in the fall. Wilson felt that the Santa Anas were bad
medicine. They brought wildfires that whipped through the land every year around this time. By
noon the winds, the city and the rot inside Wilson had agitated him enough to force him out of
bed. This is how it was going to be, and he knew he didn’t have a say in the matter so there was
no point in fighting it. He walked over to the window overlooking the palm-studded boulevard.
He sat on the wooden stool where, when he was younger, he would paint the horses that earned
him a little money here and there. He could have been at least mildly successful had he really
tried his hardest. Wilson did have some minor talent, and people seemed to want his kitschy
tableaus of Americana. People seem to want what they don’t have. If nothing else, he understood
that. Wilson wanted to believe that he always tried his hardest but knew that was a lie; he never
really tried his hardest at anything. When a man lies to himself, he destroys a sacred oath
between he and the Almighty, Robert Wilson thought.
Wilson locked eyes with the old mutt caged up in the back of Kim’s repair shop across
the alley. A glorified junkyard, small engines and machines littered the back area where the dog
was imprisoned during the day. Wilson was sure there was no cover or shade, and he thought
that he could kill the man who would ever do that to an animal. Every night Wilson saw that old
bastard Kim lock up his shop, only letting the dog out after the sun went down. He watched as he
rolled around in the dirt and machine parts and God knows what else. He’d be damned if the dog
didn’t look strangely happy though. The dog was free at night, and maybe that was enough.
Every now and then Wilson would grab a stick of rawhide from the market and throw it
over Kim’s barbed wire fence. He wanted to buy a pair of bolt cutters and set the dog loose, but
the city streets are no place for an animal. Wilson reckoned that dogs were just another tool to
some people, like the broken lawnmowers in Kim’s junkyard, and that he had no place in another
man’s business no matter how much he hated that sonofabitch. Wilson walked away from the
paint-covered stool and put on a stale pair of jeans, a clean shirt and his cowboy boots. His gut
burned even worse and he thought he should force himself to eat and try and see Annie down at
the cafe.
II
“Are you going to order something?” the waitress asked, tapping her pen on her pad.
Wilson’s head was down, scrawling on the back of a paper menu. He picked up his mug and
swirled it twice, finishing off the last drops. The waitress took his cup back behind the counter.
Moments later, she returned with more coffee and a side of dry toast with butter.


“You shouldn’t keep drinking that on an empty stomach, Bob,” said the waitress. Wilson
nodded and took a bite of dry toast. He sipped his coffee and focused back on writing. She’s
grown so much, Wilson thought. He noticed new lines around her eyes, and he loved her even
more for them.
After some time, Wilson flagged her back.


“What is it?”


Wilson put his head back down and looked at the paper menu.


“Annie…”


He looked back up at her and asked if she was free to talk. She walked back into the


kitchen and he watched her hang up her apron through the door.


“I’ve got five minutes,”


“Could we sit in a booth?”


“Sure.”


They sat at opposite ends. He looked at Annie and was silent. She felt uncomfortable and
looked away. She seemed tired, but strong.


“You look very good, Annie. Are you happy? How’s school?”


“Is that really what you wanted to talk about, Bob?”


He hung his head and sighed.

“Christ, honey, would you please not call me that?”


“Why, Bob, that’s what two adults do, Bob, they call each other by their names, Bob.


What, do you expect me to call you, Dad?”


“Honey, I don’t want… I can’t fight anymore,”


“No, of course not. You always just quit. You quit me. You absolutely quit Mom. You’re
obviously quitting yourself. Look at you, you look terrible. For someone who only gives a damn
about themselves, you never take care of yourself. You always need someone else to take care of
you and there aren’t enough women in the world to put up with your shit long enough to be the
ones who pick up your pieces.”


Robert Wilson sighed.


“You’re right, you’re absolutely right.”


In the silence they could hear cars speeding down the boulevard and people going about
their lives.


“School is good. Mark and I are graduating in June and then we’ll both keep working while we figure out if college is the right thing.”


“June? Boy, that’s something. That’s so great honey. And this Mark guy,
he’s good?”


“Yes.”

A truck rolled by.

“Are you still painting?”

“Mainly just for me nowadays. I just finished one recently. There are these horses
running but all you see are their legs and feet at the bottom of the canvas kicking up dirt and
sand. In the middle of the piece there’s this giant human mouth shouting and crowds of people,
and at the top there are the horses’ heads all in mid-stampede with their nostrils flaring, and it’s
all hair and teeth and foam in their mouths, and bulging eyes, and stuff like that.”


“That sounds cool,” .


Wilson nodded a thank you.


“Are you happy, Annie?”


“I am.”


He handed Annie the folded paper he had been writing.


“Don’t read it in front of me, but I wanted to give this to you. It was really good seeing
you, Annie. Stay in school.”


Annie took the paper.

“Try and take care of yourself,”


Robert Wilson smiled and turned to leave the café. Annie walked into the back of the
kitchen to be alone. She opened the folded piece of paper Wilson had written.

A Eulogy for All the Things I Never Said
By Robert M. Wilson
Dear Annie,
I know I never said this often enough, but I need you to know how much I love you
and your mother with all my heart and that I’m sorry for all—


There was a crash outside, followed by gasps and commotion
arising from inside the café. Through the window she could see cars stopped and dozens of people
crowding across the street. Annie’s face was ashen white. An uneasiness in her gut pulled her out the door and she made her way through the crowd. Her eyes were closing, then opening, then closing again as the
world faded to black around her. When she broke through the crowd, she saw the hiss of steam
from a pickup truck’s engine billowing into the sky. The crash had shattered the storefront, littering
the pavement with glass and bricks. The driver sat numbly on the curb as people crowded around
him.


“He came outta nowhere,” the driver mumbled. “I didn’t see him, I didn’t see him, he
came outta nowhere, I swear…”


Annie looked through the crowd searching frantically for anything and nothing. She turned
to an elderly man and composed herself to ask what had happened.

“Big fuckin’ mutt ran into the street and in front of that guy’s truck,” the man said. “He
would’ve damn near hit the stupid thing had he not swerved and crashed at the last second. Shame,
all that damage for a stupid mutt. Beautiful truck.”


“Is he okay?”


“Looks like a concussion, but he’ll live.”


“The dog,”


“Yeah the dog’s fuckin’ fine. It ran off lookin’ happy as hell, the stupid idiot.”


Annie made her way back to the café.


III


When a man lies to himself, he destroys a sacred oath between he and the Almighty,
Robert Wilson thought as he washed his face in the bathroom of the Royal Palms Motel. The
smell of manure from the Harper Ranch a hundred miles away hitched a ride on the Santa Anas
headed west from Nevada, through the mountain passes of the Sierras and into Wilson’s room on
the second floor. He didn’t mind the smell of the manure, it reminded him of thoughts and
feelings about all facets of life that are unfinished or imperfect.
He liked imagining the cows running free on a vast pasture and the strong, cracked hands
of the Mexican men tending only to the cows’ best interests. A mare would labor towards the
grand oak tree in the middle of the pasture to escape the afternoon heat, and an old Mexican man
would offer an apple to the weary beast. Tranquilo he would sing as he stroked her mane, and the
tenderness of the old Mexican’s voice would soothe the wildfire of the mare and the juice from
the apple would quench her thirst in just the right way. She would trot off when she was done
and the old Mexican would lay out his serape and sit alone in the quiet and the cool of the grand
oak tree in the middle of the pasture looking west towards the sunset. He would be tired but
smiling with the satisfaction that only a man who had led an honest life can have.
Wilson was sitting on the edge of his bed now, thumbing an Amtrak ticket north. Te
quiero, mija, his voice cracking under the burden of his own whisper. It’s cooler up north, he
reminded himself. The cool air will be good for you. Cool means new beginnings. You’re ready
for the cool. He thought this to himself and smiled. Robert Wilson looked back at the window in
his room on the second floor one last time as he stood in the doorway, and wondered if he’d miss
the palm trees and thought for a moment if the Santa Anas went as far east as Honolulu, or if this
really was the end of the line.


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