All in Writings
When I feel like it I’ve been writing a series of essays on the years I attended a small, conservative Bible school in Wyoming. This is one of the essays. It was late October in Nebraska and we were standing on the side of the road, yelling to cars. There were fifteen of us in the parking lot, washing cars to raise money for soccer uniforms. I tried to be one of the guys holding the signs and yelling at the commuters because it was too cold to stand there with the hose and sponges. It started to snow.
I wondered how I got to be there. I hated soccer. My parents made me play it in the second grade, and all I excelled at was trying to trip the other team. And sitting down.
So why was I standing there, wet and shivering? Why was I trying to pay for a uniform? Trying to be on a team? Why did I have a limp?
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When I feel like it I've been writing a series of essays on the years I lived and went to school in Wyoming. This is one of the essays. Cowboys are not rednecks. I learned that from Shane. They seem like they should be in the same category: they both talk with a twang, both live out in the country, both drive enormous pickups. But there’s a major difference, and to me it signifies many more: Neckerchiefs. If you ever see someone in a cowboy hat and boots and Wranglers and spurs and all that, but they don’t have neckerchief, you are looking at an imposter. A kid dressed up for Halloween. An ambitious redneck. A dandy. What impressed this upon me was the only time I saw Shane without one. It felt almost disrespectful being in the same room, like seeing my mom without makeup. You feel like you should just bow your head and walk backwards out of the room, muttering, “I’ll let you be.” But it was spectacular. Here was a man who had never, and I’m going to go ahead and say ever, been in the sun without that thing wrapped around his neck. It was white underneath. White white. The line between the always-covered section of neck and the turned-leather swath was sharp, like the stripes on the American flag. Ever since, I’ve drawn the connection: Shane was a man, Shane was a man of the Earth, Shane was a cowboy. Hence, Shane wore a neckerchief. * * * * Shane walked up to me, I assume guided by the hand of fate, and asked if I wanted to join him trapping. OF COURSE I WOULD. That afternoon found me in Shane’s pickup, headed down the highway. We turned off onto a dirt path and onto another, crossing the cattle guards and stopping every so often to let ourselves through wire gates. Although I had lived there for years, I didn’t recognize this part of the land. Fall was ending and snow was beginning to dust the hills we crested. The path would lead down into the slight valleys, where we would rev the engine and drive through the shallow creek and onto the next hill. I was smiling, but kept glancing over at Shane. I regretted my baggy city jeans and my stupid sneakers. So dumb. And my lame jacket. Man, Shane looked so cool in his Carhart. What was that stain there? Was that blood? Awesome. Awesome. My jacket had mustard on it. I reached up and felt my bare neck. Shameful. We stopped next to a stream and got out. I followed Shane to a thicket of branches next to the water, not sure what to do with myself. He felt around for something, a chain that led to the water. He gave it a tough pull, and out came a metal trap. Inside of its rusted teeth was a lump of wet fur. “Muskrat,” he said. “Muskrat,” I replied. What the hell is a muskrat, I wondered. He opened the trap, carefully reset it down in the water, then stood, gently holding and examining the animal. It looked like a big rat. A big wet dead rat. “Is this all you trap?” “You’ll see.”
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I was staring out the window in the office I shared with Nate. He had covered the window on his side with cardboard. He said it was too distracting, but I had pushed my desk towards the window on my side. I liked the distraction. He wasn’t in that morning, so I closed the door and sat by myself and stared outside. This was back before they asked me to stop working there, back when I still wanted to. Somewhere down below a funeral had just finished. There was a church crammed into the office complex, unable to build the building they really wanted off by the interstate. As I watched the mourners wandering the parking lot, attempting to grieve among the squat buildings and corporate logos, I wondered how I would feel about having my funeral in an office park. I hoped I’d get something grander, but dead beggars can’t be choosers.
I couldn’t see the people very well, but I saw their balloons. They rose past my window, red and yellow and blue and green, set against the grey sky. I yelled down my hallway and Aaron answered back: A man had died and as a final request asked each person to set a balloon loose to the wind, small envelopes attached to the ribbon, helium missionaries spreading their gospel. I was listening to a particular soundtrack which had the power of making any moment meaningful, but combined with the colors rising in front of me and the sudden thoughts of life and death, it made this moment especially wondrous.
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