Ranch life in the Big Sky state through the eyes of one who has lived through it...so far.

Secondhand Cowboy - Short Story

***

Valentine’s Day was a crock of shit.
Every adult male in Blaize Sanchez’s acquaintance had told him so at one time or another, but for twenty nine years he’d managed to sidestep the emotional black hole now yawning before him. It was as easy as entering a rodeo. San Antonio. San Angelo. Yuma. He’d always had a place to go, bucking horses to ride during the second week of February.
Until now.  
He flexed his knee experimentally the way he did a hundred times a day, testing the strength, feeling the ache, the tight pull of scar tissue. Three more months, the doctor said, and the reconstructed ligaments would be as strong as the original equipment. The rest was up to Blaize.
Meanwhile it should be healthy enough to navigate the tunnel of red and pink carnage ahead of him. Being out of town on Valentine’s had also forced him to plan ahead, so he’d never shopped on the day itself. He should probably be thankful they’d dodged the herd of ravenous goats that had ransacked this aisle just before they arrived. Cards dangled every which way from the racks, a couple of stray envelopes trampled on the floor, shelves stripped bare of candy. The scattering of heart-shaped boxes still left were dented and torn at the corners.
And no, Blaize was not setting the toe of one boot on that metaphorical path.
Thank God his mother had imposed a strict ‘no chocolate’ ban on all her children for this marketing hoax of a holiday. And Violet—well, she wasn’t the type to set much store by this kind of thing, and maybe she’d never been his girl, but she was the mother of his child so it had only seemed right to buy her a box of chocolates every year. Being Violet, she’d always accepted it in the same spirit. No big deal.
Now it was no deal at all.
Beni scampered up, waving a card. “I like this one!”
Blaize took it, relieved to see this year his son hadn’t grabbed one out of the adult section, necessitating a conversation regarding the meaning of ‘nookie’ and how yeah, it sounded funny and rhymed with ‘cookie’ all right, but that didn’t make it appropriate to give to your mother.
“It says ‘To Mommy’,” Beni declared proudly, pointing to the words he’d only recently learned to write.
The card was also butt ugly and inane, which as far as Blaize was concerned made it perfect for the occasion.
“Nice,” he said, and put a hand on Beni’s shoulder to steer him toward the checkout counter.
“Wait!” Beni locked up the brakes. “You forgot to get Mommy her chocolates.”
“Oh.” Crap. He’d been hoping to slip by without Beni noticing. Like that was gonna happen when Beni usually cleaned up half the box. “Uh, yeah, well…you know how she doesn’t like too many sweets around the house, and I’m sure Joe will buy her some so…”
“Uh-uh.” Beni squirmed from Blaize’s grasp and made a determined U-turn back down the aisle. “Joe’s not getting her candy. I heard him say so. He said she was sweet enough already so he was gonna give her something really special instead, but she had to wait until tonight to unwrap it.”
Oh, gag.
Blaize felt like his ears had been set on fire. Damn Joe. Couldn’t he just once watch what the hell he said in front of Beni? Not that it bothered the kid. He was hop-skipping down the aisle, oblivious. No psychological scars there.
He’d pawned them off on his dad.
***
Tori pressed her cheek to window of her patio door and stared out into inky darkness only deepened by the orange glow of the security light over the barn. No moon tonight. Just endless gloom. 
“I’m fine,” she said into the phone. “Honest, Beth. If you came over I’d feel like I had to clean the place up and then I’d really be cranky.”
“If you’re sure…” Beth said.
“Very. I’ll see you at work tomorrow. Bring cookies.”
“I will. The vanilla kind with frosting.”
“Perfect.”
They hung up but Tori didn’t move. The glass felt good, smooth and cold against her skin, and she had nothing important to do other than the cleaning. She understood Beth’s concern. A year ago it would have been warranted. She’d been a mess on Valentine’s Day, just as she’d been a mess on every other day of any significance.
Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries large and small. She’d cried herself sick on all of them. As that first year after Willy’s death had ground relentlessly on, she’d shed enough tears to flood the Red River, until she’d finally run out, everything inside her shriveled and leathery as the dried prunes Willy’s grandmother ate daily to ‘keep me regular, you know’.
Tori smiled at the memory. She missed them. Some day she might be able to live in
Cheyenne again, but for now it was too hard to be in the middle of Willy’s family without him. When the numbness had finally, blessedly settled over her, she’d found herself having to fake the pain for their benefit, which seemed counterproductive.
So she’d come home, back to Amarillo, where Lord knew she didn’t have to worry that her mother would expect too much from her on the emotional front. Lydia didn’t do feelings. They might make her late for surgery.
Now Tori could appreciate her mother’s approach. Much less exhausting this way, and the numbness allowed her to function like a normal human. Or close. Sometimes she wondered if this was what being a zombie felt like, only less rotted of course, or maybe everyone was just too polite to say so. She’d noticed they cut recent widows a lot of slack on the personal hygiene front.
She thought she was faking it pretty well, though. Most days when she looked in the mirror she could barely tell the difference between what she saw and a live person.  
Sighing at her own melodrama she straightened, turned to put the phone back in the base, then frowned when the doorbell rang. Couldn’t be Beth, she hadn’t had time to drive across town, unless she’d been on her cell phone instead of at home like she’d said. Tori couldn’t imagine her mother or her sister remembering it was Valentine’s Day, let alone that it might have some kind of impact on Tori. If her dad bothered to celebrate the date, it certainly wasn’t with any of the women in his family.
She checked the peephole, blinked, and checked again.
Blaize?
She opened the door halfway, still frowning and not particularly caring if she looked less than hospitable. A chime sounded deep in her chest the way it always did when she saw him these days. Not a true ping, just the echo of old feelings bouncing back to her through the murky eternity between now and who she’d been with him.
He shifted on his feet, tried a smile that died long before it reached his dimples. “Any chance you’d be interested in helping me kill a box of chocolates?”
He held up the narrow carton. Not red. Not decorated with hearts and cupids. Just a plain half pound of caramel pecan turtles.
Tori raised her eyebrows. “A gift from one of your fans?”
“No.” His face flushed, his expression somewhere between miserable and embarrassed. “Beni insisted I buy them for Violet. I couldn’t figure out how to explain that it’s not my place anymore and it seems like a waste to throw them away.”
So he’d brought Tori hand-me-down chocolates. But hey, at least now he wasn’t pretending anything he gave her wasn’t Violet’s leftovers. That was refreshing. And what do you know? Tori still had enough juice left in her to be bitter.
A dry bubble of laughter swelled in her throat. Geezus. Zombie girl and the secondhand cowboy. They were a pair, all right. Of what, she couldn’t say.   
Still, those were turtles. The good kind, too.
She pushed the door wide and turned on her heel. “Enter at your own risk, and don’t expect a chick flick with your chocolate binge. Even I’m not that pathetic.”
She heard the door close behind her, his boots scuffing on the tile floor, then coming to an abrupt stop. When she turned to see why, his brows were pulled into a concerned vee.
“I wasn’t thinking—is it a problem for you, me being here?” he asked. “Because I’m your patient, I mean.”
 As opposed to all of the other reasons his presence in her house might be problematic? She shook her head. “It’s physical therapy, not psychoanalysis. No rules against fraternizing with the patients…unless you’re doing it one of the treatment rooms.”
Wow. Was that a blush? Hard to tell with his dark skin, something she’d always envied. Blondes never got to pretend they weren’t embarrassed.
Speaking of which…Lord, wouldn’t she have just died if he’d dropped by and caught her looking like this in the old days? Not that she ever had. Back then she would never have yanked her hair into a messy knot to go riding after work, held with whatever hair band she’d happened to grab. There had been no grubby sweatshirts and jeans she tossed in the corner of the bedroom and re-wore every night until they were so dusty and stretched out they threatened to fall off her hips.
Yeah, baby. She was hawt.
But instead of an excuse to scurry into the bathroom and freshen up, she made a right turn into the open kitchen, waving Blaize toward the entertainment center, past the load of laundry heaped in the recliner and three pairs of shoes scattered across the floor.
“I only have basic cable, but there are a few movies up there on the shelf,” she said. “Want a cup of coffee?”
“Sure.” He set the box of chocolates on the breakfast bar and wandered over to check out her limited selection of DVDs.
“Any preference?” she asked, tapping the rotary rack of single shot coffee cartridges.
“Hazelnut, if you have it.”
He rested one hand on the shelf as he read the titles of the videos, the other propped on a cocked hip. Posed that way, the soft light of the lamp glinting off his black hair, he looked misplaced, like a photo clipped from a glossy magazine and pasted into the dust and clutter of her living room.
She hadn’t seen him in anything but workout clothes since she’d been back. Tonight his boots were polished, his jeans starched and ironed to a razor sharp crease, the collar of his white shirt crisp under a wool and leather letterman-style jacket that declared he’d been a recent contestant at the National Finals Rodeo. She’d be flattered, except Blaize dressed that well to go out for a burger. Besides, how hard was it to be spiffy when your mother still did your laundry?
How did he choose which jacket to wear? she wondered, as she loaded the coffee machine and put his mug under the spout. He must have a closetful, one for every year he’d qualified amongst the top fifteen bareback riders in the world standings. Maybe he had a favorite color. Maroon and black definitely suited him…but hell, what didn’t?
She knew for a fact that nothing suited him best
“You weren’t kidding about the chick flick,” he said. “There’s a lot of John Wayne here. I suppose I lose cowboy points if I admit I’m not a big fan.”
“Me, neither.”
She saw him make the connection, the way his gaze slid up to the picture of her and Willy on the next shelf, then bounced toward her and away again with the awkward swiftness she’d learned to ignore the same way an amputee ignores the people who can’t quite look him in the eye. Yes, she’d lost a critical piece. Deal with it.
“You disappeared,” Blaize said abruptly, fingers tapping the shelf, gaze fixed on the videos. “I came back from the big Fourth of July rodeo run and you’d left without a word. Not even goodbye.”
“Did you think I owed you one?” She flinched at the harsh words. Ouch. That sounded downright bitchy.
Blaize turned to face her square on. “It was all I had to give at the time. I never pretended any different.”
And wasn’t that what irritated her the most? He’d never led her on. She’d known the score, had settled for so little, but let herself hope for so much more. She gave the rack that held the coffee cartridges an angry spin, fingernails clicking the plastic containers. Silly girl.
“I know I could have been more considerate,” Blaize said quietly. “I’m sorry for that. But don’t think I took you for granted, Tori. Every time I rolled in off the road and called you out of the blue I figured it was a damn miracle you even picked up the phone, let alone agreed to see me.”
She slapped her hand down on top of the coffee dispenser, bringing it to an abrupt halt. Damn him. He had to go say something that knocked the legs right out from under her high horse. Leave her with no snarky comeback.
She plucked a shot of Irish cream out of the coffee rack, pulled another mug from the cupboard as the machine beeped to let her know his was finished. “Do you take sugar in your coffee?”  
“Please.” He shoved his fists deep into his jacket pockets and blew out a long sigh. “It’s been a long time and a lot has happened—I don’t suppose we could just start over?”  
“No.” At his blink, she gave a strangled laugh. “Sorry. I seem to have misplaced my manners. But tact aside, the answer is still no. There are no clean slates. The past is always going to be there.”
“Does that mean we can’t be friends?”
She cocked her head, considering. Friends? She couldn’t picture herself popping by his house on Sunday afternoon for a beer and a barbecue, but she would be seeing the man three times a week until his therapy was done. It would be nice if they could at least relax. Starting with toning down her attitude, and no better time than the present.
She slid his mug across the bar. Blaize eyed the stools, both draped with pairs of jeans she’d hung there to dry.
“Just toss them over on the laundry pile.” While he was at it, she added, “Since it looks like a movie is out, do you want to play a board game?”
His expression morphed into utter bafflement. “Like Chutes and Ladders?”
She laughed outright. She couldn’t get used to thinking of him as someone’s daddy. “More like Monopoly. Or Trivial Pursuit. I have a few others. Look in the cupboard below the videos.”
He grinned, flashing those break-your-heart dimples. “Does this mean I get to roll my own dice and move my own token and everything?”
“As long as you promise not to put them in your mouth.”
 She reloaded the coffee maker, watched the liquid stream into her cup and listened to the unfamiliar sound of another human body rustling around in her house. Another body of any kind. Beth was right. Tori needed to seriously consider getting a dog.
Gathering spoons and the sugar bowl, she turned to find Blaize setting a box on the bar. Her eyebrows shot up before she could stop them. “Scrabble?”
He gave a defensive shrug as he peeled off his jacket, releasing a wave of male scent. Spicy. Warm. “My granddad said it helped his English vocabulary, so I played with him a lot growing up.”
“Me, too.” Tori set the sugar bowl and spoons on the bar, grabbed her coffee and circled around to the second stool. “My grandmother only allowed educational games and this was better than chess.”
They shared a brief, commiserating look, then Blaize went to work setting out the game. Tori sipped her coffee and watched. Scrabble. She never would have guessed. In half a year of sporadic dating he'd never mentioned his grandfather, or that he wasn't crazy about John Wayne, or much of anything else. He'd been on the road so much she'd been lucky to see him once or twice a month, and yeah, she could admit it, she hadn't been any more interested than he was in wasting those precious hours chatting.    
She smiled into her mug but he still saw.
“What?” he asked.
“Just thinking,” she said.
“And?”
She let the smile warm, wiping all but a trace of the sarcasm from her voice. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Blaize.”

*** 

8 comments:

jill said...

Love it! I can't wait until you have an official release date we can look forward to.

Donnell said...

Oh, lovely Keri! What Jill said. Love the turn around, and the little ping inside her chest. Beautifully written.

Cynthia D'Alba said...

Fabulous, but then you know I LOVE your voice.

Thanks for sharing

Janet Reid said...

I am just in love with your writing and characters.

Rashad Pharaon said...

Great voice and grammatically well-polished. Thank you for sharing.

Heather said...

What a great story! Is this going to be a full length one?

Kari Lynn Dell said...

Thanks everyone. Yes, this will be a book, the next full length project on my schedule. Right now I'm finishing off revisions on Joe and Violet's story, in which Blaize is a supporting character.

June said...

I really enjoyed. Thanks for sharing it. I look forward to the books.