Who I Am Now
I crossed the Reno Harrah’s lobby like a man risen from the dead and they were playing “Travis Jackson” over the sound system, promoting our big opening show that would never happen now—
Travis Jackson was a friend of mine,
Cowboy-bred but out of time.
The West is going, going, gone.
You can hear it fade when you hear his song.
Dr. Westbrook, that’s my last memory of the last day with Jodie—our two voices singing a hymn to the Western hero who wasn’t my bosom friend but myself and wore my real name—as I went out the glass doors into the blare of sirens and the smoke-filled city.
Behind me someone called, “There goes Buck Cole!” and I didn’t hesitate or turn to look toward the man who was pointing at Travis Jackson.
That day at Harrah’s I walked out onto the sidewalk and took a taxi for the airport and hired a private plane to the dirt strip in Waverly. From the ranch I didn’t look back for six months or more, all through 9/11 and the boiling anger that would lead to Iraq, to the awful prison at Abu Gharib that’s been on TV all week and made me remember Jodie and my time with the President.
After Reno I’d been eager to get away, to put a lot of mental mileage between Jodie and Buck Cole, but her face and his and President Bush’s and murdered Johnny Black’s kept appearing in my rearview mirror, until I had to turn again and confront what was behind the “old” and “new” me who were both Travis Jackson.
I knew I’d escaped from a dangerous spider, a regular black widow that had tried to eat her mate and had ruined Johnny Black, except Jodie had a guitar instead of a red fiddle on her stomach. She might bite anybody, including herself, but then of course she already had, when she tried to bury Travis and finally everything fell apart.
I tried to hate Jodie, when I felt shaky or uncertain, when I’d get a late-night phone call from the man who kept pretending to be Travis Jackson, or I’d go into Waverly and start to lose my composure, have trouble walking into a store or facing some old acquaintance on the street who didn’t know whether to call me Travis or Buck.
The town was mad with war fever and without a TV or paper the attack on the Trade Center had taken me by surprise—I’d unplugged the radio like the phone, to stay clear of the Coles and their songs and news of their split and the prank caller, the impersonator, who’d taken me in the last drunken year. The world had gone as crazy as Jodie and me and the death of Buck Cole bled together with the two jets hitting the Twin Towers.
It was as if both Jodie and Buck had been killed in the sudden blast and falling buildings in New York that made the fire three months before at the Reno Grand seem incidental—there were flames and smoke but nobody was hurt and the black sky made a fitting backdrop to my last meeting with Jodie in her suite at Harrah’s.
As I told you, that’s when I returned Jodie’s lost wedding band inscribed with our names and told her I’d just found out I wasn’t Buck Cole.
Slowly, I began to see Jodie was a victim too, a rich and famous and pretty victim, trapped by the oldest web there is, the net you think you’re spinning but that’s already old as the stars and waiting to snag you in its sticky ropes.
I talked to Jodie’s younger sister, Mary Ann, on the phone one night when I was connected again at the ranch, long after it all ended in Reno. She called me after she’d read about our break-up, in an article her mother Melva had given her—for three years Jodie had told me that Melva was dead, “up there with the stars,” far away from her alcoholic husband who’d died in a car wreck 20 years before. In the middle of a national crisis, the press and the public still had a healthy taste for stale celebrity gossip—maybe our tie with President Bush and his wife kept it alive.
I’d been on the right track but I learned a good deal more.
As a kid in Missoula, Montana, Jodie’d never got her fair share, she had a baby sister and brother to feed and raise and a sick mother to care for, a weird father to steer clear of the same time she had to milk him for what money she could get. They lived on the wrong side of the tracks and what decent clothes they had Jodie altered from neighbors’ hand-me-downs.
She’d taught herself to sing and dance and play guitar, use the right make-up and cut her own hair from pictures in magazines. Jodie had been a majorette, a county second-runner-up for Montana Junior Miss, won a bicycle as a contestant on a radio show, started a morning paper route, in high school clerked nights at a 7-11—the same time she watched the house and kids and tried to keep her mother halfway sober.
Mary Ann described Jodie as an overworked Cinderella, an orphan princess in a third-hand world a little short on Prince Charmings. Eager shiftless boys competed to possess her body but no one saw her for herself or recognized her true worth, no matter how she tried. She was sure she was somebody special, even though no one treated her that way, so she worked that much harder to prove it each time the one chance that might be her last strayed within reach.
It was that restless angry hunger that drove her, that created Buck and Jodie Cole and made us both stars and took her to the Republican Convention where she’d sung “Travis Jackson” and us to the Crawford ranch and then to the White House, to the Lincoln Bedroom where I’d made drunken love as Jodie held me close and whispered, “I’ll always love you, Buck.”
After the call with Mary Ann I remembered a story of my father’s, about a hired hand named Gregor who had worked at the ranch in the early ’30s. My dad was a boy and used to listen to him hour on end when they forked hay or mended fence and the skinny man told the story of his hunger.
Gregor was born in Czechoslovakia and spoke broken English. During World War I, he’d become a refugee, trapped between the German and Russian lines. He didn’t have food and to keep from starving he’d begun to eat grass and leaves and the bark from trees. He learned which wood he could keep on his stomach.
One day he saw a German patrol coming toward him and he ran and jumped in the river. He grabbed a log and floated all the way to the Baltic Sea, where some sailors on a Danish sealing boat saw him and pulled him out. He was nearly a skeleton and they hid him in the hold, wrapped in a sealskin, and brought him food, at first just soup and canned milk.
Gregor never stopped eating. When he wasn’t asleep, he waited in the dark for them to bring him more. The sailors couldn’t fill him up, they had contests and bet to see who could stuff him full. When the ship docked in New York, they carried him ashore wrapped in the skin. For years he worked his way across the country until he ended up at the ranch.
He was a steady worker, a good hand with the cows and horses, but at meals he’d eat a whole roast. He’d eat two chickens by himself. For breakfast he’d have a dozen eggs and a slab of bacon, a big basket of rolls. He had an iron stomach and would eat the green plums off the trees or dig up a potato and chew it raw.
Gregor Spadel never gained a pound. He was thin and strong and healthy—he was never sick, he never missed a day’s work—but he just couldn’t get enough to eat.
Finally my grandfather had to let him go, he couldn’t afford the food. For a dime, my father bought a big sack of Macintosh apples and gave it to him as a going-away present when he got on the bus. Gregor bowed and thanked him profusely.
The man’s craving was too deep, he’d been so hungry so long, the pangs had been so keen, he could never forget, and spent all his time trying to fill the hole in himself that wouldn’t go away—the hole of hunger that had taken the place of the dread of death no one can completely appease.
It wasn’t Jodie’s fault her appetite got a little sharper each time she tried to slake it. As you know, I haven’t seen Jodie since Reno, just on the cover of the tabloids at the grocery store and a time or two on TV. I don’t know for certain how well she really knew Laura Bush or if she ever saw the Bushes after Harrah’s.
I never heard from George, only on the radio news when I began listening again. He never called anymore to pray with me to stop my drinking, then to laugh and hear my stories about Travis Jackson, that the fake Travis Jackson had told me. The President still liked to mention Travis to reporters when he talked about Afghanistan and Iraq and the Axis of Evil—you remember that he dragged Travis in with Ben Laden and the Old West “Wanted Dead or Alive” speech.
Jodie told Barbara Walters that I’d driven drunk with the President at his ranch, put the whole country in jeopardy when I’d taken the wheel of his new pickup and looked for his cattle that weren’t there. “Buck Cole is a delusional alcoholic,” she said and it stung me but I couldn’t argue with her diagnosis. What would you call a man who forgot who he was, who needed to read his name on his wife’s wedding band to remember?
Once, for a whole bad day when I’d gone back to the ranch after the breakup, I thought about Jodie’s ring. Did she pick it up off the hotel room floor or forget about it? Did she keep it or throw it away? Did a maid or another guest find it? Did someone sell it or wear it as a keepsake, or was it still at Harrah’s, waiting in a corner underneath the dresser?
I thought about calling the hotel and asking them to look. In one of ten million places the ring with my name and hers kept living its secret life without us, just as it had those three years in the water barrel at the corner of the barn—until I found it, fell to the ground like a man struck by lightning, then in Reno gave it back to Jodie to watch her surprise.
She’d insisted for a year that I’d made up Travis Jackson, that I’d taken an imaginary cowboy from a song I’d written and she’d revised and then convinced myself that Travis was real and a close friend of mine, the way children sometimes have invisible playmates.
In several interviews, with a little prompting, Jodie admitted to a series of discreet, one-night affairs with music and movie celebrities, then a hint that she and Bill Clinton had talked on the phone after the Monica scandal. She wouldn’t say anymore.
Once she mentioned Slim Frye, the Nashville singer who’d put her out of the car in the desert, before I’d come along in the pickup and taken Jodie in and she’d found my stack of songs on the kitchen table.
“It’s true revenge is sweet,” Jodie said, about dating Frye again. “You put the poison in the sugar.”
I don’t know if any of what she said was true and it doesn’t matter now, though the Bushes couldn’t have appreciated her “kiss-and-tells,” if that’s what they were.
You know of course that she kept on singing, but for the fans it wasn’t the same. One actor had bowed out of the duet, like when Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge broke up. For a while, Jodie went with a well-known movie star famous for his many love affairs, then with a talented young Irish rocker who later died of a drug overdose. They cut a record together, “Winter Dreams,” which reminded me of the Christmas Day that Jodie returned to the ranch, in the new white Cadillac, and for a week she’d nursed me back to health before the Coles started for Denver to join Johnny Black and record “Travis Jackson.”
I thought Jodie and her new partner’s rockabilly album was good—very good—but it didn’t sell.
After that she did a series of confessionals with a therapist, about child abuse, something called “nonphysical psychosexual trauma syndrome,” so nothing I’ve said here is anything Jodie hasn’t said herself. She talked a lot about Melva and her father, who was still alive and living in Florida. Whatever happened early was the start of her never getting what she needed. And like so many children of alcoholics, she had married one, Jodie said.
Or made one? I’d never had a drinking problem, before she left me that fall, then changed my name in December and we went out to Denver to the recording studio and then on the road—
At the ranch after Reno, as I tried to get well on my own, I thought, “What does it matter now? Start from where you are.” I got the papers from Jodie’s attorney and I signed them and sent them back. The terms seemed fair—high but fair, considering I’d get to keep my land.
Playing them over, I realized most of our hit duets were secret arguments, that even in the sweet rush of love we’d been waiting for the other shoe to drop. We listened for it, even imagined how sad and pretty it would sound. Like a strop, the coming doom put the keen edge on our music, made love enticing and dangerous because it was threatened and couldn’t last.
How could it? It was already dead. With relief, we could cry and sing over it, like happy, sentimental murderers who wish their victim was alive and well to share their riches, but know that won’t happen, the insurance scam is safe. It was like that movie we were in, “Twilight Falls,” where the double kills Elvis and takes his place, sings one song, and retires—
Once I saw her on a special, “Christmas at Fort Bragg.” Jodie sang “Silver Bells” with Ann-Margaret and Paul Anka, for troops bound for the Middle East. She looked and sounded good and as I scanned the young faces of boys and girls heading off to war I thought of that Christmas morning Jodie had come back to the ranch—before the song became a platinum hit and we rose to the top and a million cars had “Travis Jackson lives!” pasted on their bumpers. Jodie had fed and warmed me, when I’d quit caring about those things you have to do to stay alive.
Whether I’d become human again was another question—after that I was Buck Cole.
A few months after I moved to Hawaii but before I came to you—as the push to invade Iraq was heating up and George Bush began talking about a conversation he’d had with Jesus—I got the last midnight call from Travis Jackson. He said he’d just bought a pinto horse from Elvis’ widow.
It gave me a chill for a second, but this time I recognized the voice as Red Stampley, Johnny Black’s pedal-steel player. Of course Red was an expert mimic, he’d loved to do Waylon Jennings and John Cash. He was the one who’d sent the letters and made the calls from Travis Jackson that had driven Jodie crazy and given me hope when I’d felt I had no where to turn. I realized now that the voice he’d used was my own.
Jerry, the sound engineer, was right that day in the studio in Nashville, when Jodie threw the vase of roses, a few days after Johnny Black was killed by the punk singer in Arizona—Johnny who had given us our start and taken the fall when Jodie let him go, then gone to work as a fixer for Columbia Records.
When Jerry answered the phone and Jodie was hoping it was the President calling to help with her drunken husband, Jerry thought Travis sounded like Red.
Red had made up the baby snake that slipped through the wedding ring and got stuck so it grew in a figure-eight six feet long. And Tex, the cowboy who rode the saddled steer instead of a horse, and the story of the bull and heifer the eager would-be grandfather staked outside the newlyweds’ bungalow—the President’s favorite Travis Jackson story.
Months before, Red had posed as Terry Riley, manager of the Branding Iron in Waverly, where Jodie and I first played with the Johnny Black Band. On the phone Terry told me Travis Jackson and his wife had split up and later I’d given that news to Johnny in the bar in Phoenix. Johnny had listened silently, knowing how lost I was, only a few hours before he met his future murderer, Eddie Rat, who wasn’t happy with his recording contract.
I learned later from Marlene Black that Red had been in and out of hospitals, with lots of traveling and impersonation stints between stays on the ward. It was probably Red who introduced himself as Travis Jackson to Raymond Welch at the gas station in Wells—before the air conditioning on the Caddie failed and I’d stopped for repairs that Raymond couldn’t make, then decided to head through the blazing heat for Travis Jackson’s ranch.
Hearing Red’s friendly, earnest, excited voice, and remembering our cordial conversations about ranching and the West, I felt some fear but no rancor and thought only, There but for the grace of God . . . .
Red’s Travis Jackson had been my only true friend, before I found out the real Travis was me—
After some rough times in Honolulu, I found you, Dr. Westbrook, and then later the place on the big island of Hawaii, the twenty-acre spread ten miles from Hilo, where I raise and train horses, Morgans, for the Forest Service.
As you know I attended the local community college, to learn some history and read books and talk to other people. I read a lot and I thought a lot and I listened a lot. I met new people I liked. Most didn’t recognize me without the dark glasses and black clothes and the Stetson with the silver-dollar band, and the ones who did were decent about it.
One guy, Walter Masumoto, joked that I should have run the President’s truck into the creek. “Good old Travis Jackson!” He grinned and slapped me on the back.
I’m still listening and trying to learn as the wars overseas go on and the administration threatens to bomb Iran. Sometimes I think how George Bush was about my age when he hit the wall with his drinking, found religion, sobered up and became a new person. When he landed on the aircraft carrier in the flight suit and the banner read “Mission Accomplished!” I thought of myself dressed up like Johnny Cash, not knowing I was pretending to be Buck Cole as I sang “Travis Jackson.”
I’ll say a prayer tonight for the President and his wife and for our country and the troops and their families and the poor Moslem people dying. I don’t wish any man or woman any harm, no child or bird or animal. If the President ever wanted to call me on the phone I’d be happy to talk to him, to listen to what he had to say, to assure him he can call me anytime.
After all, haven’t we both been strangers to ourselves, at one time or another? I hope it’s never too late to begin to become the person you’re supposed to be—in both our cases.
Once a month now I take the commuter plane to Honolulu to meet you for an hour. You’re kind and smart, Dr. Westbrook—you’ve helped me understand how Travis Jackson became Buck Cole and then Buck Cole’s only companion and the role Jodie played in my changing into a different person—like a snake that wasn’t meant to molt shedding a skin.
You know about the blow-up at Harrah’s, about the angry tape I made after I reached into the bucket by the barn and found the ring engraved “Jodie and Travis,” then fell to the ground and had to crawl to the house. I played the tape for Jodie in the hotel room in Reno and you asked if I still had it. I said I’d burned it to ash when I moved back to Waverly and you frowned and said you’d liked to have heard it.
“It might have saved us some time and medication.”
What I haven’t told you yet is that at college in Hilo a classmate and I did a project together, on Queen Liluokalani, the last monarch of the Islands. The queen was an amazing woman. When she died, for two weeks the waves that struck the Islands turned crimson with strange, dying red fish. It was as if nature were giving up the ghost.
My friend’s name is Jane and she knew all about the last queen. She and I studied together and then began going out and after a while fell in love. She’s pretty, with black hair and blue eyes, and doesn’t look at all like Jodie.
My grandmother was right when she read my palm and said I’d find a good wife. Jane is very patient with me and my ups-and-downs. We’re going to be married in June, not long before the Democratic Convention, if she’ll still have me after my depression this long awful week of ugly news from Iraq—
I’m teaching Nicky, her son, to ride and play guitar and harmonica. I’m relearning all the old cowboy songs, tunes sung by Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. Nick likes “Cool Water” and “Streets of Laredo.” He thinks Lash Larue is strange but sort of cool.
Nick is teaching me to body surf. Together we’ve written a couple of songs for kids, including that one about the western Rip Van Winkle I never finished, the lyric I was working out on the drive from Nashville when the air conditioning went bad and I ended up at Travis Jackson’s and saw the buck deer in the window, then found Jodie’s thrown ring at the bottom of the drum of stagnant water.
We changed the song some, gave it a Hawaiian beat, took out the drinking and the broken marriages, put in a white-bearded, 100-year-old surfer and a killer wave, the Wave of the Century, the old man has been waiting for.
The song is better now and when we were finished I thought things had finally come full circle, from that first night at the Waverly ranch when Jodie took my song and inserted the name Travis Jackson, to appeal to my vanity and make us partners and lovers.
All this bad seven days, with the story and torture pictures of Abu Ghraib playing—the hooded naked man connected to wires—Nicky’s been a loyal soldier. Sitting with me, staring at the TV screen, he asked, “Is it true you used to know the President?”
“I used to, Nick, a part of me did,” I said. “Not very well. Not for a long time now.”
I got a card the other day from Janice Wheeler, thanking me for standing up for her and her sisters that day Jodie threw the vase of roses and tried to fire them in the recording studio. The Wheel Sisters had enjoyed touring and singing with me and she wanted to personally acknowledge what my friendship had meant to her. Janice said if Travis Jackson ever wanted to kiss a woman in a dark closet, Buck Cole might know a willing someone he could highly recommend.
I know what it is to have to crawl across a barnyard with a lost wedding ring in your hand. When I walk, I try to go step by step. Each night I lay my head down softly on my pillow next to Jane’s. I know the past can rise up in a flash, from the shadow of a man and horse cast across green pasture, or from TV and a tortured prisoner’s picture that breeds a nightmare when you go to sleep after kissing your true love. I know I still have to take things slow, but then that’s as it should be for a new man in a new country.
After all, my people were pioneers.
I’ve written too much but I need to say just a little more—a few extra things I never told you— about what happened after I left Jodie in Reno and before I sailed with Captain Robert for Hawaii and met you, because it’s how I ended up where I am now, which is the most important thing of all, as you said our first day.
When I landed in Waverly I went back to Wonder Valley and took up my old life as Travis Jackson, making repairs on the house and barn, running 200 head of white-faced cattle. I tracked down Cap, my paint cow horse, at a ranch outside Lovelock. He looked bony, but he recognized me right away as I drove up in the blue pickup.
During the time we’d been in Nashville Jodie had paid the taxes and fees on the ranch and hadn’t put a pen in my drunken hand and made me sign a bill of sale. I thank her for that.
Suddenly, I had a lot of energy. I felt like a sick man who’d come back to life and didn’t want to waste time. I cleaned up where the buck and other animals had got in the house, then added a room and remodeled the kitchen but kept the rest pretty much the same—I hadn’t returned to change it, but to find it again, to change myself back.
I ate right, worked and didn’t drink. I rode and did a lot of walking. There were some hard patches, many lonely times, but at the ranch I was on home ground again. Like I said, I had to summon my will to go to town and be in public, and when I got back I was always pretty tired.
On warm days I swam in the creek, diving deep from the tree shade and holding my breath, stroking a few yards against the current, through the stone door into the underground river where the walls glint with quartz and the water whispers things in your ears. I took the tin dipper from the cottonwood trunk, filled it from the creek and brought it to my mouth. I hesitated, remembering that late fall Jodie left me and I’d thought the cup held poison. Then I closed my eyes and took a deep sweet drink.
I walked back toward the house, across the meadow where Jodie and I first lay together in the summer sun and I’d imagined we were carried under the pasture by the underground river.
One day, following a trail of broken arrowheads, I stumbled on the entrance to a cave. Cap was skittish, like he smelled a rattler. I got my flashlight and pistol from the saddlebag and squeezed in past the big rocks blocking the door. I got spooked and nearly fired a wild shot, hearing my own breathing echoing off the walls.
Then I remembered I’d been there before, I’d told the story in Mom’s Tavern in Nashville the night we’d finished “Lightning Strikes.” In the flashlight’s beam, two skeletons of unequal size embraced like lovers on the stone floor. The bear’s teeth and claws bit and raked the white shoulder blade. The woman’s bones wore a ripped deerskin blouse and long skirt. A medicine pouch and moccasins lay beside her. Her fingers held a stone knife between the bear’s ribs. The tall coarse basket with shoulder straps had been torn from her back. The Paiute woman was gathering firewood. Taking shelter from the Thunderbird, the sudden lightning storm, she’d crept into the cave where the hungry bear slept lightly. You could hear the stabbed animal’s roar and the echoes of her cries as they stumbled in the enclosed dark, holding each other in the terrible dance that wouldn’t end.
All the time my parents and grandparents had lived and died, and I was a kid and learned to ride a horse and work and went to school, and later picked up Jodie along the road after Slim Frye had put her out and I brought her home and we’d sung together for the first time, then left the ranch and become famous and split up again—all the time the skeletons had lain quietly in each other’s arms.
The white skulls didn’t turn away from the flashlight. Their dark sockets didn’t stare. The furious sounds of the secret battle had turned to silence, joined the weatherless breathing of the rock. I thought that now they were part of a stone hymn, the faint mineral singing that sounded like time itself. The bones seemed holy and I left them undisturbed.
One October Sunday I packed a lunch and rode ten miles to Widow’s Tower and entered the box canyon of steep mesas. Carefully I walked the half-mile of rubble and shards of volcanic glass. The canyon floor was scattered with hundreds of perfect dinosaur eggs, big unbroken geodes. They were worth money and I remembered how Travis Jackson had taken only a few.
After deathtime, the winter and the talking snowy wind, sometimes on spring evenings—when tall, sail-stacked ships of white cumulus crossed the valley from the west, past Jenny Lind and the other snowy peaks—I rode up on the butte above the greening pastures. The clouds were the burning turrets of Ur or Babylon, Troy or Jericho, like the lithographs in my mother’s Hurlburt’s Stories of the Bible. Billowing orange fire was destroying Heaven, overleaping alabaster parapets and marble palaces and balconies and now the final dizzy citadel. The flames had reached the shining tower where gold banners waved toward a world beyond sight—
And below, beyond the pine in the stamp-sized square of glowing iron picket fence, my family’s tombstones stood up like houses made of yellow light, a little town where at last peace was, the quiet Earth far away and safe from the war of vying gods.
The Battle of the Angels would fade, the satin night bring calm. The low sun turned the ridges and the pastures silver-red as it set quickly behind the Sierra Nevada toward the sea. In a sky gold and scarlet, then pure indigo, the first stars shone between the clouds.
Later the glow of the summer dusk was soft as the lining of an abalone shell. Each sundown a single jet fighter from Fallon like a burning star climbed the pearl dome, paying out a contrail of gold filament, until Venus and then Mercury appeared. I remembered the first dusk, when I’d seen the orange fingernail moon and the string of big planets in the chocolate-colored sky as I drove up in the pickup after irrigating the pasture and heard Jodie singing “Travis Jackson” from the house.
A time or two I wished the President could see it, that would do him good, give him a different view of things. Didn’t he really want to be a cowboy like Travis Jackson, instead of president?
Sometimes I’d lift my hand and look at the star on my palm Jodie had showed me, like the one she still wore just above where the life and love lines meet. More than once I’d wake in the middle of the night with a start, thinking Jodie was beside me. Then I’d fall back on the pillow and gaze out the window at the stars beyond the cottonwood’s branches until the sky turned light.
I breathed again the scent of grass and sage, pine and juniper. Again I loved the morning and the night and the day between. I felt the old thrill when a coyote barked clear and sharp and the moon rose late, yellow and full behind the sugar pines on the ridge.
It was all a balance. That’s what I was working on. But after a year I began to get restless, not jumpy but eager to take hold of something that wasn’t in reach. Like Jodie, I had an itch I couldn’t scratch. The ranch wasn’t the same anymore, or maybe I had changed more than I’d planned. I’d lost my taste for raising cattle for slaughter. I didn’t want to hunt deer or kill anything.
And I couldn’t take the winters anymore. I was tired of the snow, of the dark mornings when the dry flakes fell past the frozen kitchen window, like random pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that had no solution, all the pieces blank and white. I wasn’t Buck Cole anymore, but I wasn’t the old Travis, either. If his ghost still lingered, it was fading.
I was worn out by the memories that didn’t finally go away, of Jodie and me, of the way we’d been and the songs I’d written and how the President and other people had loved them and us, the way we’d pretended to be America’s patriotic sweethearts. I felt ashamed of myself when I listened to “Secondhand Lace.”
But in “Lightning Strikes,” our last cut, I heard something hopeful:
When lightning strikes
And your heart starts to burn
Then your world catches fire
And there’s nowhere to turn,
There’s no one to call
And no place to run
When the sun’s a freezing ball
And the red moon’s the sun.
So you jump into the fire
And the fire burns your bones
Until the flames are water
And the fire is your home—
Then you walk the fiery sea
And you swim the frozen land
Until you lose your way
And you find a place to stand.
That’s where you meet a friend
In clothes of burning blue—
What you thought was just the end
Is the start of something true.
I liked what it said—what I thought it said—and the way Jodie and I sang it, the way the band played it, and especially how the Wheeler Sisters gave us our baseline, like a gospel chorus. Jodie had been right, there was nothing wrong with our performance.
By September I’d decided.
“That good, Captain Robert?” I asked.
I was feeding Cap his morning oats in the barn, listening to him chew the shells of grain, the light through the loft door falling on the stalks of clean fallen straw where the angry buck had tried to browse, the deer I’d seen with his head out the kitchen window when I’d driven up in Jodie’s Cadillac, eager to meet Travis Jackson again. He’d pushed open the torn porch door with his dipped antlers and walked calmly across the dead lawn and into the barn to nose the hay stuck to the dry dirt floor.
I didn’t know that my horse and I would be on an island in a month, in the middle of the ocean, well before the snow came to western Nevada—but just in time for the storm clouds that gathered for Shock and Awe.
There was still something in me that loved Jodie, and for a long time I’d quit fighting it. My passion for her had been deep and I sensed that a part of her, a lost broken part, maybe the best part, had loved me back in her way. And then, after all, she’d gotten Travis Jackson out into the world, even if she’d given him an alias, a rough push, dark glasses for a blindfold, and the President for his only non-imaginary male acquaintance. It was strange. In a way, hadn’t drunk Buck Cole been George Bush’s only friend?
I knew I wanted other people, that I needed them if I were ever going to find out who I was. You couldn’t find yourself alone, just like you couldn’t love alone. I decided they were the same thing. It was time to pull up stakes, but I didn’t know where to go.
I thought how Jodie had screamed and cursed at me in the barnyard that fall, when I’d refused to leave the ranch with her and Johnny Black to become big stars. She’d thrown her ring and driven off and later I couldn’t find the ring, hard as I looked. And then three years later, trying to get my sunglasses back, I found the gold band in the barrel of murky water under the faucet, without looking for it, just like Jodie hadn’t aimed for the barrel—
By chance? I wasn’t sure, but there was something real and magic that had always called me back, whispered right along in Buck Cole’s drunken ear. Then I saw the straw at my boot burn like gold and I remembered that it was the Indians, the Paiute Tribe, who called the valley Washtakoshkee.
I began packing up slowly, half-stalling, getting ready. I was scared but resolved and knew I wouldn’t turn back on what I figured to do. I was going through some old magazines, throwing stuff out, when I saw an ad for the Hawaiian Islands. They looked pretty, green, warm. There were horses and pastures, beaches, waterfalls and mountains, even an extinct volcano with a grass-green crater.
I liked the Hawaiians in the pictures. They appeared happy and eager, alert, but not for anything more than what the good day might bring. They looked like my folks, in the picture of them when they were young and just starting out.
On my own and from Jane I’ve learned the Hawaiians are very spiritual people—each year hundreds of white tourists fly back to the Islands to return lava stones they’ve taken from one of the sacred volcanoes. It causes misfortune, to take things away from where they belong.
Writing this out, like you’ve taught me to do when I get upset, I know now my story isn’t addressed to me, to who I am now, but to Travis Jackson and Buck Cole, that these words are for the spirits of the Earth and not for any living man.
Dr. Westbrook, I think you knew that from the first, about my learning to surrender to the past and future if I was ever going to build a new person. Maybe the President was right after all, in a way he didn’t know, when he said we’d have to let History decide.
Maybe he was really talking about himself, not the war in Iraq, when he said we’d have to wait 20 years, to know whether it was right or wrong, good or bad.
I’ve got an old tin bank box from the ranch. When I go back to visit and show Jane and Nicky the pastures—and swim with Nick where the underground river rises and forms a clear pool—I’ll bury these pages among the cluster of graves under the lone pine.
Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and his stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Montreal Review, and other journals.
Hanson’s connection to the Inland Empire region is from childhood and memories of his Aunt Alice’s “O’Henry’s” drive-in and fruit stand in Indio, on the 99 Highway. At first his aunt’s family lived in a ramshackle house in Coachella–the fence was barbed wire– and later in a modest tract house on the western outskirts of Indio–it had once belonged to the English character actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke.
Hanson floated in the Salton Sea and at 9 hit golf balls at a driving range in Palm Springs, where he found a shiny dropped iron in the gravel parking lot and returned it to its owner. He saw “Flipper” and a “silent” Jerry Lewis movie at the Indio Fox, discovered fascinating rows of Biblical date palms with tall, narrow ladders that climbed their strange trunks, and returned to the San Joaquin Valley and his family’s small farm with the mumps.
Once, at night on a return trip from Indio, the car passed a hill of eucalyptus and Hanson’s mother said, “That’s the University of Redlands.” Years later, he met his wife, Vicki, at the writers’ workshop in Missoula, Montana: Vicki had graduated in English from Redlands, loved the college, and described the perfumed, luscious air and the acres of blooming orange trees. His nephew graduated in history from UC Riverside. When Hanson’s grandmother was 5, in 1895, she left a cattle ranch in New Mexico and got off the train in L.A., on the way to the San Joaquin and a new life. Los Angeles had 10,000 people and for a nickel she rode a trolley to the beach and for the first time saw the sea.