The old man, tired, hungry, sunburned, and sore, pushed himself through the saloon doors, his joints creaking louder than the creaky old hinges. Inside the bar, his feet fell on even creakier floorboards, and he heard the wobbly strains of a honky-tonk piano, even creakier still. He had a headache, and he longed for quiet.
He breathed the dusty air and hacked a creaky cough that rattled through his chest like a dried out snake skin. He paused, inhaled long through his nose, and stopped cold. Suddenly he felt uncomfortable. The bar was full of horse people.
Well, he thought, crossing his arms over his puffed up chest and spreading his legs wide, now it’s full of me.
A clock bell tolled the bottom of the hour.
The old man walked slowly over to an empty bar stool and sat down, far enough from the horse people to be alone, close enough to seem lonely. He was bitter, and he wanted what was owed him.
These were horse people, all right. He could smell the hay. He could smell it all over them. Some of it didn’t smell like hay, but it was. It had just passed through a horse once, that’s all. What you had to pass through to become a horse person, he didn’t want to know.
He sniffed the air again. These horse people smelled okay, for horse people. It was the hay. Good, fresh hay. Good hay meant good horses, and good horses meant good horse people. Bad hay was just another kind of neglect, and neglect was just another kind of poison.
But these horse people, they smelled like the good kind of horse people, the kind of horse people who took care of their horses, brushed them and braided their manes, fed them good hay. Good horse people loved their horses; they just neglected everything else in their lives. Neglected it til it withered and died.
In the end, horse people were horse people. He had no friends in horse people, and he took comfort in the knowledge that they were more afraid of him than he was of them. He could smell the fear, right along with the hay. But my, that was some fine smelling hay. Fresh cut timothy. Or was it alfalfa?
“Hey,” said the bartender, “you gonna order somethin’?”
The old man looked hard at the bartender. “Yeah. I’ll have me a horse steak, rare.” The old man saw the horse people overhear him, and he heard the piano stop playing. The room was silent.
The bartender barely moved. “Sorry mister, we can’t cook it rare.”
“Yeah?” said the old man, “How’s that?”
“Well, in these parts, horses are awful common.” The horse people laughed quietly.
“Is that so?” said the old man with cold sarcasm.
“I’m afraid it is.”
The old man was unfazed. “In that case, I suppose I’ll have it well done.”
The bartender frowned slowly. “Sorry, mister. The only thing ‘round here that’s well done is the water.” The laughter was louder now, and one of the horse people, a middle aged man, stood up and started walking slowly over.
The old man grew angry. “Then I suppose I’ll just have to have it cooked medium,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Mister,” said the bartender, “this ain’t no wishin’ well, and it ain’t no blarney stone, neither, and I ain’t gonna read your mind if’n you ain’t even gonna read the menu.” The horse man was close now, and the stink filled the old man’s face, but still he couldn’t make out the hay. Was that timothy, or alfalfa?
“Timothy!” came a woman’s voice, “where’re you goin’?”
“It’s all right, Winnie, don’t you worry none,” said the horse man, and he turned to the bartender, “it’s all right, Ed, this gentleman ain’t from here and don’t know no better.” He smiled warmly at the old man, tried to make him feel at ease. “My name’s Timothy, and this here’s my place, and I apologize on behalf of my friend and bartender, Ed, here. Ed ain’t used to strangers. And around here, well, you start orderin’ dinner the way you did just now, sooner or later you’re bound to offend somebody. Just so happened that it happened sooner than later, that’s all. Might be you’re lucky that way.”
“It’s all right,” said the old man, feigning warmth, and he turned to the bartender. “Don’t worry about it, Ed.”
“That’s Mister Ed to you, fella,” said Ed, “but I reckon I owe you an apology anyhow, on account of the jokes. I’m right sorry about that. I didn’t mean no disrespect; it’s just that, well, we don’t serve no horse meat ‘round here. We don’t serve no meat of no kind. This here’s a vegetarian restaurant.”
“That’s right,” said Timothy.
The old man chuckled. He was wasting his time. He was hungry, but he wasn’t that hungry. Nevertheless he was angry, and vegetarian restaurant or not, he had a bone to pick. But he had to bide his time. “Well,” he said, “what do you recommend?”
Ed spoke up. “Let’s see, we just got us a mess of the freshest sprouts this side of the Ogallala River, sweeter than a July cantaloupe and springier than the month of May.”
“Alfalfa?” asked the old man.
“Timothy,” said Winnie, “why don’t you invite him to come on over and join us?”
“Well?” a hopeful Timothy said to the old man, “what do you say?”
The old man grew tense with anticipation. He had them right where he wanted them, but he couldn’t let on. “Golly, I, I just don’t know.”
“You go on,” said Ed. “Have yerself a seat over there and take a gander at the menu, and I’ll bring you a glass of water, well done.”
The old man shifted ominously on his stool, his elbow crooked, his back sore, his neck hot with sunburn, his head throbbing, his mouth dry, his stomach growling, his heart beaten. The moment was his, but he had to play it slow. He had to play it slow and mean.
“Come on,” said Timothy with a friendly smile and a welcoming gesture. “We’ll find somethin’ to satisfy, sure enough.”
The old man stayed in his seat. “I’m much obliged, I really am, and I thank you and I thank you kindly,” he said softly. “But the fact is that I simply can’t abide by horse folk. Please don’t take it personal. I’m sure you’re all fine people, and I’m not saying I’m any different, no sir. I’ve mucked out a stall or two myself, let me tell you, and I’ve bucked my share of hay. I’ve done my time in a horse barn, and let’s just say I’ve been kicked. So no, I won’t be joining you. And besides, I’ll need to get some real food in me if’n I’m a gonna make it through the night. I don’t reckon I’d last long without meat. Horse meat, preferably.”
Timothy looked the old man over and nodded slowly. “Well, sir,” he began, a note of disappointment in his voice, “I reckon I know when to leave well enough alone, but I can’t say as I’m not real sorry to hear all that, and I hope you’ll come ‘round to a change of heart. And even though Ed told you this ain’t no wishin’ well, we’ll be wishin’ you well, anyhow.” He struggled to smile, more defensive now.
“Much obliged,” said the old man, and he turned back to the bar. He sat coiled, ready to strike, as taut as an old lesson. He struck. “But you know what they say.”
Timothy stood wary. “What’s that?
The old man swallowed hard and looked Timothy cold in the eye. “You can’t spell Lipizzaner without pizza.”
Timothy’s brow furrowed and his cheeks fell. He scratched his head. “Now what the heck do ya mean by that?”
The old man stood up and raised his voice a notch. “What I mean is this. A little horse fat would grease up them hinges right good, a couple of horse hides would muffle them floorboards real nice, and a big juicy horse steak would keep that piano player quiet for a couple more chimes of that clock bell. And let me remind you that I’ve got a hankerin’ for some horse meat myself, a hankerin’ that’s got to be satisfied, one way or another. That’s what I mean by that.”
Timothy started for him and stopped himself, fists clenched by his sides. “Now you wait just a minute there, mister.” He struggled to control himself. “You wait just a goll-dern minute and listen here. Them hinges tell me when somebody comes through them doors, and them floorboards tell me how far they get. As for the piano player, she tells me that we live in a beautiful world that’s full of hope and joy and all kinds of goodness, and I’d sooner drag you clear on to hell than tell my youngest girl-child she can’t practice when and where she pleases, especially with a recital comin’ up.
“Now, you done gone and offended us once or twice already, talkin’ that way, and we done gone and let it go, seein’ as how you come from far off. But I believe I done made it clear just how things is around here, and I believe you done seen the line I drew, and I believe you done crossed that line with intent. I believe you done intentionally tried to rile me up, and I can’t say as I appreciate it. But it ain’t in my or my family’s interest to enter into a quarrel with you, and I don’t reckon I will. We won’t have none of that here.” He relaxed just enough to show the old man he was serious, but he stayed on his guard, his eyes never leaving eyes that never left his. But the old man’s eyes, and his mouth, were silent.
Timothy continued. “Mister, I don’t know what you got against horses, but it ain’t no concern of mine. That’s your burden, and it’s clearly a ponderous one, and for that I pity you.” The edges of his voice broke under the weight of his sadness. “But it ain’t my business, and I reckon your business waits elsewhere, if’n you got any business aside from building maintenance services, of which I am not in need at this time. So I reckon you’d best be gettin’ on. This here’s a farmin’ community. We pick vegetables. You’ll see better someplace else, if’n you’re lookin’ to pick a fight.”
The old man, defeated, took a slow, creaky step back. He nodded to Timothy, surrendered deferential glances to Ed and to the horse people, and he turned away. He didn’t say a word, didn’t make a sign, just passed back through those creaky swinging doors, off into the dusty street, a blown out tumbleweed, dried up and lost, rolling as it goes where the wind goes to die, where the words aren’t so many, and the memories not so keen, where the silence tells a truth lit soft by northern lights, and the dark, half-empty valleys shelter mystery and lies.