Everything went so easy. Off and away, but for real this time.
With all my stuff in a storage unit near Congresso, I had turned over the keys to my landlord that morning, just dropping them off in his mailbox. I had everything I needed in my old Swedish military pack. I took the bus and Subte down to the Retiro bus station. The station was packed with people – old folks, kids with guitars and big spacers poked into their earlobes, a soldier — going wherever. I got in line and bought my ticket from a very polite attendant of the Andesmar Line who advised me to be on the platform 5 minutes early so I could get away without much hassle. I thanked her. I appreciated the service, especially since my castellano was a lot shy of perfect.
Outside, between Retiro and the train station, were a couple of open-air food stalls. I found one with a roundabout lunch counter serving steak, fries, and a bottle of beer for only 40 pesos. The place was kind of shabby but not without character. A picture of Jackie Gleason shooting pool from The Hustler hung square in the middle of the back wall with a rosary hanging from it, and there were plastic green tables with matching lawn chairs for seats and some old pink-and-white floral wallpaper wrapping around the sides of the counter. The only server there, an unshaven middle ager, stood behind the bar doing inventory of the beer bottles in a glowing white cooler. There was an old espresso machine on the counter that hadn’t been used in forever and a silver stereo head tuned to some station playing Latin pop. Both were thick with dust.
I pulled up to the bar. The man turned and saw me.
I said “please” in my broken castellano, asking for a bottle of Quilmes Bock and also asking for the promo meal for that day. He promptly got both, asking me if I wanted a glass. I shook my head no. Sipping out of the brown glass bottle suited me and when it came, I knew the beer hit the spot. The steak and fries came on a clean metal plate. The fries were a bit limp but the food tasted nice as a combo lunch. For once, it was all good with no complaints at all.
The bar man finished his inventory and then turned to me again.
“Everything all right?
“Yeah,” I said.
“Going on a trip?”
“Going to see my daughter in Andalucci. She’s got a new addition.”
None of this was true and I had rehearsed it a little before I left home, but the bar man smiled agreeably, not seeming to notice. He said he knew of Andalucci in Provincia Rio Negro and told me it was beautiful there. I agreed. I was sure it was.
We shot the shit for a few more minutes and then I got up to go. The bill was 40 even, but I tipped him a ten and five. Surprised, he took the cash and used his other hand to shake mine.
“I’m Javier. Come back any time…”
“Nels,” I said. Nels was the name of a tracker-bandit companion of Kentucky Sam’s in one of my books — the title I couldn’t recall there and then. It wasn’t my name, but the bar man didn’t seem to take any more notice than when I told him my travel destination. To him I was who I said I was. That was good enough.
“Nels. Nice to meet you.”
I left the bar and made to go back to the terminal, passing by the convenience shops and big magazine and paperback racks. Required reading for any journey’s length. I was sure they’d have a Kentucky Sam paperback in there. Probably Klondike Ride. It was supposed to be selling well under some new imprint. People still bought new books here and didn’t always download them. I did my best not to look. I just wanted to get to the bus and get going.
The bus was already there, washed and waiting with the motor on. The driver was loading some bags in the under-bus compartment, and I handed my ticket off to him. There weren’t many people inside and I went for the back, stretching myself out on the very last seat. The seats were clean and I felt in some luxury. Hell, I must have because I only remember the driver coming on, putting the bus in gear, and heading off. I could see out the tinted window at all the dark buildings passing. The day was grey and calm. The concrete jungle of Capital Federal was leaving me or I was leaving it. Either way, I was leaving happy and eventually I nodded off.
I shouldn’t have ripped into the city too much. It had never treated me that bad. I’d staked a claim writing Western stories in a place with decades-old, cracked plastic signs and pruned trees. Who knew?
While I was sleeping on that bus, some dream drizzled into my brain, probably due to the beer and food. I can’t remember a lot of it, but I was in some bar somewhere, scribbling cowboy cartoons on a napkin, and a few people passing by saying, “Hey man, that’s shit. Nice shit, but stupid shit.” But I was just scribbling away, not paying attention, feeling pretty good for whatever reason. Anyway, it must have been a nicely odd dream for me not to want to wake up.
But what woke me up? I know we stopped some place. I’m sure it must have been one of the kids with those bastard cell phones or iThink Pads or whatever. It was the sound of a merry-go-round, and it managed to pull me out of whatever dream I was having. Screw it. I could sleep when I was dead.
At the next station, the bus idled on the platform. People got off and more got on. It was getting packed. More old folks and a few kids. I had to shove over to allow a granny to sit beside me. A very pregnant-looking girl in a brown dress sat down in front of me beside another girl. Both were young, no more than 25, sitting very quietly. The driver got back on. I felt the gear kick in and off the bus went.
We passed some fields. I noticed how green they were and that the farmers had kept their fences up with new 2-by-10 planks. They weren’t old and dry. They were new additions meant to blend in after they had aged and turned grey. I also caught eye of the cattle in the pasture. Herefords. No. Charloais, maybe. Jesus, you’d think I’d know. I must have written about cattle or cattle rustling in a Kentucky Sam story. I must have researched cows for sure in Dark Drive to Missouri. Got the trails in Mexico and Texas down onto the page fairly well. But what about the cows? Shit. Couldn’t remember at all. Ah well. Didn’t matter.
Well, I thought it didn’t matter. Of course, while we were heading down the highway, passing even more pastures, trees, and estancias, I pulled out the old notebook I kept in my jacket pocket, just reflexively. My old compadre. A simple black staple-bound notebook you could buy at the drugstore. I started scribbling stupid random words and phrases down:
“…trees…trails…ranch with a hand who’s a bandit…Kentucky Sam shows up to bring him back for bounty…”
Shit. Thank God I stopped myself. No more of that. It was nice enough to sit there and watch that nice landscape pass by through the glass of the window. I could file away any landscape but didn’t have to go to the computer to type it up. Just enjoy what I saw now from a distance.
I was putting the notebook back in my pocket when I saw a piece of loose paper sticking out of the back. I took it out. It was a note that the publisher had taped to the first edition of Spanish Rifles that I got in the mail. It read:
“…not bad on this one. More action, less talk, less description. Good characters. Might get the next one in a compilation hardback…”
Yeah, whatever, Mr. Print-on-Demand Publisher. Go fuck yourself. Better yet, write one better. And write it yourself. At least the note was handwritten in pen. No more e-crap. I’m always getting worked up about that bastard and whatever friends he was working with over the wires. I crumpled up the note up and tossed it into a white plastic bag lying on the floor underneath the window.
The bus pulld into another city. I didn’t catch the name as we came off the highway and into downtown. There were lots of concrete buildings shoved up close together and cafés and people on the street. A sushi shop too. Things looked lively in the center. The bus pulled up beside a kiosco and the driver left the motor running while he got out, took some tickets, let some people on while some others got off, including the granny beside me. I had a free seat for a moment. I debated if I should stretch out again, pretend to be asleep, and hog the whole space to myself.
A lot of people got on. The seats filled up. The pregnant young girl in a brown dress came up beside me.
“Mind if I sit here? I like it in the back,”
“No,” I said. “Go nuts.”
She and I sat in silence for a bit. She had spoken to me in English and how she knew that was my mother tongue I’ll never know. I had no aim to talk at all. Then the bus took off again. It wasn’t until we were back out on the highway that the girl piped up.
“So are you going to Mar del Plata?”
“Just to Plaza del Azul.” It was the first name that popped into my head. Plaza del Azul sounded as good as Andalucci. Did I use those towns in a Kentucky Sam story? Jesus, I hope not.
“Great,” she said. “I’m going to Mar del Plata to visit my girlfriend.”
This girl seemed nice enough. Long hair, braided, her brown dress made out of the same fabric as a dinner mat, carrying a canvas handbag. I thought I’d entertain some talk. We’d be on the bus for a while.
“Well, I have to help her. She’s going to court to fight her ex about the rooming house they shared together. I stayed with them before. She needs a witness about some stuff.”
I didn’t like the sound of any of this – I was going to get a bunch of silly problem-stories from someone who was probably decent but did some dumb things that I would be apt to criticize later. Borderline trailer-park crap that I thought I was, well, above, especially so far away from home. I opted for a more humane topic to change the subject and pointed to her stomach.
“How’s the battle?”
“Great. No problems at all…”
She talked more. On and on. I wasn’t sure if any of it was true, but I listened anyway. She seemed like she needed a pair of ears to yak at. She went back to the old topic: her friend was in hot water and she was going to Mar del Plata to help her with a legal case. Her porteño boyfriend and soon-to-be father of her child was on the verge of leaving her a week ago when she threatened him one night with a chorizo and a knife, intimating what would happen if he did in fact leave. She was due in three months and so far there seemed to be no health problems for her. A crazy time, but totally exciting, she said. She wanted to make everything in her life work. I nodded in respect. Something I meant wholeheartedly.
“I’m Stacey,” she said, offering her hand. I shook back.
“So you’re going to Plaza del Azul?”
“What’s your job?”
In my brain and out my idiot, under-rehearsed mouth. I blew it. She asked me what I wrote and I tried to fix the situation. I told her that I just wrote ad copy, commercials, brochures. Stuff for the tourists in Buenos Aires and Mendoza. My friend in Plaza de Azul was going to help me get some new contracts over a weekend of fishing and boozing as he was getting a lot of foreign clients from the States and the UK. Business and pleasure. She seemed to buy it until her arm dove into her handbag.
“If you’re into writing, I’ll bet you’ve read this.”
She pulled out a copy of Rangers Along the Cherry Banks, an English edition, where Sam took up with a posse to hunt a child-killer who was actually innocent. Later she has to defend him from a lynching. One of the first Kentucky Sam novels I wrote. I could feel my bones rattle with pain.
“I never thought anything about this cowboy stuff, but once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop. This stuff is like drugs. God, how cool is Kentucky Sam Ryan?”
This was the story I’d heard. And heard. The Kentucky Sam stories seemed to be the sensation. And I wrote the goddamn things. Well, Borden Crawford did. And I was supposed to be “Borden Crawford.” The edition she was holding looked like one of the originals — the ones I actually got a check for. Stacey flipped through the pages and then pointed to her stomach.
“My new one, if she’s a girl, is going to get that name. ‘Sam’.”
“No. Just ‘Sam’. Like Kentucky Sam.”
Christ. My creation, my legacy: a woman gunslinger out of no real reason other than to score pay. Just a new kind of mainstream character for books where she did everything that the male cowpuncher might have done. Whose real name was Samantha. There must have been at least one real-life Wyatt Earp or William Bonney with red lips and a perm. Guess I should have read more about the West than worrying about writing Westerns.
But what this woman was saying was stupid. What a load of shit. People are naming their kids all kinds of stupid names these days. Now they are turning to a cowgirl in a bunch of cowboy books written by a guy. Jesus Murphy.
She smiled and cracked open her copy of Rangers Along the Cherry Banks. It was page 137 and some lines were highlited with a blue pen.
“Sorry, but I have to read this and show you why my Sam is going to get her name from Kentucky Sam…!”
She fixed on the page and began to read.
…Jimmy Emery, his tanned right hand on the single-shot’s trigger and his leather-gloved left hand grappling the brown, dusty hair of Sterling Granton that lay on the saloon floor. He had the single-shot cocked and ready.
“Now you’re going to get it just like my pop did, you greasy, cactus-sucking rustler. On the ground and in the head!”
Granton’s face was in terror and he closed his eyes hard.
That’s when the first shot rang out from outside the saloon. It caught Jimmy’s shoulder and he fell, pulling Granton down with him. Two seconds later, Granton realized he was free and stood up. He grabbed the single-shot from beside Jimmy on the floor and smiled.
“Dammit all, half-breed boy. Looks like you and your pa are going out the same way.”
That’s when the second shot rang out. Granton heard it and then looked down at the expanding red hole in his gut. He fell back to the floor. The pain bloomed inside him.
Both men looked up from the floor at the sound of the saloon doors rattling closed. Sam walked in, her face gleaming with sweat. She had found Jimmy on her own and now had the bounty for Granton. Cliff, the barman, rose from under the bar rail, holding the scattergun in a trembling grip.
“Uh…better get Sheriff Cooper,” he said.
Sam moved closer to the two men lying on the floor, kicked their guns away, and observed their dual agonies.
“Yeah. But get a doctor for Jimmy Emery. Granton’s the only one that needs the law…’
Stacey closed the book with a happy grin. I wondered if anyone else around had listened to her read aloud in English. It wouldn’t have mattered. She was too happy.
“I love this. This woman just comes in, doing the right thing for that poor half-breed boy and giving justice to that stupid cowboy. It’s all there. Easy, without a lot of words. I wish life was like that. I can’t imagine what it took to write those books.”
I would have said, money, right to her face but I couldn’t even remember that book. I think Kentucky Sam rescues that Jimmy-kid from some hell-bent revenge thing and recruits him as desert ranger or something like that.
How do you write Westerns in this day and age, I couldn’t tell you. Better yet, do you write Westerns these days? I didn’t know. I had heard publishing dead-tree books was dead anyway. How the hell does anyone write about witches and trolls and teenage vampires and find success? I sure can’t imagine what it takes to write about people’s everyday lives. Or porn. HA! I used to think that if I really had it together, I’d be writing tons of horny novels filled with those long urethras and moans and groans and splatters. I could have been on my own island off the coast of Peru now.
But every once in a while, I do wonder how I could have written Westerns. I guess it was after I found those paperbacks. What was I doing? Job-hunting probably. I was stuck in Buenos Aires that last time, no money, looking for any job I could find. I remember I came back to the hostel I was at and on the street was a box filled with Western novels, pages curled and yellowing, all in English and with seamen mission stamps inside. They all had nicely painted covers of lean, unshaven cowboys in Stetsons carrying carbines. Instead of leaving them, I took the box home to my dorm room and read them all. I had no job, so I could. Not classic literature and I’m sure no Sunday book critic would have given them the time of day. But they had something. Something good. I guess that’s how I got writing then. You found a bit that went:
“…He came up over the ravine, his shirt caked in dust. He slowed the horse down, letting it trot while he took off his hat and wiped his brow. The sun had beaten down on him all day. He was tired. But the sweat reminded him he was alive. Alive and still eager to continue on down the trail…”
That or thereabouts. The old-boy paperback scribblers might have done it that way. The reader got it clearly. Now take that and put your own spin on it. Add in a character you like – Miss Kentucky Sam Ryan was mine – and you might get:
“…the trail wound far and wide along the mountain, with snow coming down and the wind kicking up. But Sam was ready. She had saddled her horse tight and re-shoed it at the livery in town the night before. Her Winchester was full of shells. Her head was high. She’d find the man she was looking for if Satan himself was standing fat and ugly on the path…”
Now you’ve got it. Or rather I had it. Borden Crawford had it – that’s it. I think I’d like to have been some sort of cowboy or bushwhacker and then I really could write the real thing. But at that time, faking it was all right. Whatever I did, whoever I put Sam up against along the plains or up in the mountains, in saloons busting rustlers and macho landowners, the dice always seemed to come up 2 sixes. I wrote a lot. The publisher, the people, they all dug it and things went glacial. Or was it viral?
Stacey was looking at me.
“You know, I guess I should have read that stuff,” I said. “But I never got around to it. If I read anything, it’s marketing stuff.”
“Sounds interesting, but I don’t know anything about business.”
I wished I knew more myself. Especially with that bastard publisher. I was living in the lead-and-ink era. I guess Kentucky Sam wouldn’t be what it was if it wasn’t for my trips to the Internet café. Was I looking for a job when I found the Key West website? Maybe. That website, their ad — “looking for only the best popular fiction you can muster. Mysteries, romance, Westerns, sci-fi…no-daddy-issues or boring how-I-came-of-age stories. We’re making the books for everyone, like before.”
I had found a calling by accident. They seemed like they were offering a challenge and a form of income. Truthfully. I bought the line and so I wrote. I wrote that first story…Cruz Ranch…no. Yes, that was the one. Wrote it in a month in that same Internet bar at 2 pesos an hour. Then I sent it in. They wrote back. The publisher did anyway. I got an e-cheque in American bucks and a request to write more. So I wrote more. Don’t ask me how long I did it for. Book after book, every time I sent something in, they’d write back with no names and ask for more, sometimes with critiques. After they bought a story, I’d get wired money. Lots of it, especially after the novels sold. Life couldn’t have been better.
“Well,” I said to Stacey, humouring her. “I’m trying to learn that stuff myself. Make a life y’know? Like you and your mister and junior. Sam.”
Stacey smiled and turned away. She looked down at the cover of Rangers. It was a hardback with a painted dust jacket of Sam coming over a barren range on a horse. Stacey flipped it open and opened to the back cover. I could see the author information bit:
“…Borden Crawford lives in…is the author of several popular Western novels and is currently working on a new Kentucky Sam adventure.”
I wrote the biography but the black-and-white photo wasn’t me. I have no idea where the publisher dug it up. His high school yearbook, maybe. Borden Crawford. Kentucky Sam. I created them both.
“Too bad you’re not into this stuff. You look young enough to get going on it. I heard Borden Crawford disappeared or something on some blog. There might not be any more books. One of my friends in Buenos Aires said he should write gaucho stuff…”
Now I was getting angry. Some blog dishing news about me, eh? There weren’t going to be no more Kentucky Sam books. Period. I was young enough, younger than she knew, and my patience for horseshit had expired already.
The Kentucky Sam books had eventually been pirated, like everything else these days. Printed under some new label and then later on the Net for free. I saw them in used bookstores, on magazine stands, and at a flea market. The imprints said Solid Copy or Best Edition or had no imprint at all. I wrote Key West a message. The publisher politely told me that there was nothing he/she could do as his/her firm held no real copyrights. Books fell in and out of copyright all the time now. That was the business, or lack of it.
“Things are weird now with the Net. Not much we can do. Just keep writing.”
Fine. Nothing you can do, then there was nothing I was going to do either. No more Kentucky Sam. I guess it was a time issue – using all that juice for so long and now words were floating around the world with no ownership. Screwed. That’s how I felt. Royally screwed. I was angry, maybe too much. It was my own fault but that was the end of everything. Best to quit while you’re ahead. Right?
I bit my lip a bit and turned to Stacey.
“Well, maybe in another lifetime I’ll do that.”
“It’s too bad…”
She couldn’t finish her sentence. The bus driver announced the next stop over. The bus pulled into the Rio Nuevo terminal and the driver told us we’d have a 20-minute stop to go get a bite or butt if we wanted. Stacey smiled and told me she had to go use the washroom badly. I nodded and smiled back. After those questions and if I I’d been a bit more cynical, I might have hoped she would get her leg stuck and miss the bus. Well, maybe not.
I waited until everyone else was off and then got off myself, taking my pack with me. I had my entire life in it and didn’t want to lose it. Everyone always talked about the theft in Latin America but it’d never happened to me. The day had gotten brighter and there was a breeze blowing. I looked into the terminal from the platform. Too many people gathered there so I opted to not go through it and headed to the street. I needed to stretch my legs and relax. Alone and uninhibited.
I must have been really mad. It wasn’t the girl’s fault. Maybe not even Key West’s and their bullshit. I was just fuming and enough so that I didn’t watch the time. I started walking through some of downtown Rio Nuevo’s streets. Sarmiento, Belgrano, Chaco, all familiar names I could remember. Rio Nuevo looked like the last town we passed on the bus with all kinds of old concrete buildings and cafés. No sushi restaurant though. There felt like there was street life here and more than I might have ever expected even though most of the windows had their shutters pulled down. I guess I had thought that was all in the city.
I just kept walking around and looking at it. When I did finally check my watch, I realized that the bus break time was up by two minutes. I ran back to the terminal, thinking things would be fine.
The bus had gone. The platform was bare and the terminal had emptied out. I might have been angry, but I had my pack with me and left nothing on the bus. I might have lost a bus fare for where I was going, but I didn’t care. I actually felt a bit of all right. Maybe the walk did something good to me.
Now if I had to do it over, I might have inscribed that book for Stacey while she was in the washroom. She could have hawked it for a couple of bucks if matters called for that. That is, if she believed Lloyd was Borden Crawford, the guy next to her on the bus who had left her an autographed copy. Ah well, you can’t miss what you didn’t do. Didn’t have. Whatever. I turned and walked back into Rio Nuevo with all the time in the world.
I passed some stores, then a storefront space up for lease. There was an open-pit parrilla on the corner, still closed up. I crossed over, past a bank, and then looked across the street. A second-hand bookstore stood elegantly in brown-stained wood trim and a painted fileteado sign that read “Librería Silverado.” There was no real traffic so I strutted across.
This kind of bookshop was more upscale. Most of these old towns sported second-hand shops in plazas stuffed to the tits with books, magazines, CDs, vinyl records, and even some hippie clothes and pipes. The depositories of today’s creative and quirky in América del Sur. I actually like those places a lot, and if you have a Sunday afternoon to yourself, you can dig through the piles of dust and musty paperbacks and get some good space stories, some romance crap, and stacks of cowboy stories. Everything, and a lot of it in English. These days, you might find my stuff in there if you’re lucky. This place I was looking at though was different. Painted, carpeted, clean. My stuff was there, in a glass case, on display for the world.
I saw them all in the window. Some bootlegs, some originals, most in Spanish but one or two in English, all in nice hardback. Klondike Ride, The Sun Chasers, Guns of Telegraph Trail. All the ones I wrote.
I did. I wrote every goddamn one of them.
They were laid out in the window and no museum worker with the Dead Sea Scrolls or Sir Francis Drake’s compass could have laid them out better. There were no tumbleweeds or hay bales, just simple, painted-black boxes with white cloths displaying the books with the greatest admiration possible.
I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or smash the goddamn thing to pieces. I couldn’t move, think, anything. Just stare off. My mind was gone.
But then, I smiled. Bless their hearts and souls to the Divine if it so existed. If not, I didn’t care so long as they get happy from that stuff, even if it wasn’t necessarily mine anymore. There weren’t going to be any more books anyway, so they could revel in what they had of me. They had shown their affection. That was enough. My anger was gone and my mind was straight. I could go anywhere again. It felt good.
At the bottom of the window, written on a piece of Bristol board was a large message in neat black India ink:
BORDEN CRAWFORD, COME HOME!
Queremos más…we want more ‘Kentucky Sam’…
Featured image by mharrsch.