Cattle Call Leaves, A Ghost Story

by Jennifer Givhan

Photo by LoggaWiggler via pixabay.

Photo by LoggaWiggler via pixabay.

I felt sepultured in the snow globe Gabe gave me for Christmas, on the bridge beside its festively scarfed, hatted, and gloved characters, dropping sticks into the creek from one side, then clambering to the other side to see whose stick emerged first from the tunnel. I checked the rushing water but found, instead of sticks, tiny corpses. Dozens of them. Tiny faces mired in scum, sealed in ditchwater, swallowed by hissing. The mud caked in their hair, their toothless gums. Green, grungy ditchwater, pruning their fingers. I didn’t want them in my snow globe with the merry porcelain skinned children. Forever caught in the glass. I wanted childhood back, an ornament dangling from my mother’s Christmas tree, safe in our living room.

From the bridge, I crouched in the truck. Gabe’s pine green truck beside the ditchwater, beside stacks of sweet smelling hay.

A depression in the brown earth.

He reached across the center console and caressed the hanger-hook contour of my thigh as I perched Indian style in my sweats and recited John Donne. Gabe stopped caressing, scooped me to his side, buried his face in my hair, and cried.

I was a stick. Lying in the mud. Beside tiny bodies. Drowned.

My mother never told me the story of La Llorona. She never sent me to bed frightened on purpose. Instead, we said our bedtime prayer together: Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Guard me Jesus through the night, and wake me with the morning light.

Mom omitted the most insidious parts of the prayer. I didn’t learn until later, If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Gabe taught me that, like the story of La Llorona.

The summer after eighth grade, before I met Gabe, my best friend Lily and I spent every night together, staying up until morning, prank calling boys, playing truth or dare, and stirring up batches of rice crispy treats. We traipsed off to the Donut Shop on Main Street three blocks from our houses, going one of two ways: either shaking our hips down busy Rio Vista, if we wanted people to see us or late at night when we needed the protection of streetlamps and neighborhood watch signs and porch lights.

Otherwise, we sprinted through the potholed back alley if we needed a sugar rush from chocolate old fashioned doughnuts and sweet tea with crushed ice ASAP or if we felt like getting creeped out by the unlit empty lot that stretched to the end of the town limit where people with their lives piled into shopping carts camped out and lit bonfires in barrels and, probably, ghosts lodged as well. But that was still the summer before I’d heard of La Llorona roaming the New River, which flowed in the ridge jutting through town and which, they said, carried waste from across the Mexicali border, killing all the fish and smelling worse than the beef plant did during the hottest part of summer.

If I’d known about La Llorona then, that poor sad woman who prowled frothy stinking rivers trying to undo her mistake, perhaps mistaking all the other dead and glowing things there for her babies, I would’ve been scared for sure and never would’ve gone through the alley day or night. I might never have met Gabe washing his pine green pickup in the driveway of his corner house where the alley met that empty lot. He never would have seen me racing by, my chanclas slapping at the gravel, my dark ponytail flapping at my back, my thick thighs and round hips already pouring from my cuffed jean shorts, my too-early breasts cramming my paisley tank top.

Maybe he never would have called to me, asking where I was going so fast. And maybe I wouldn’t have left my yellow-haired-best-friend behind and scrambled into Gabe’s truck to jump the dirt hills behind his house like a dune covered stunt track, not scared that anyone could fly off the cliff and into the river. Not even thinking that trucks or loving or the country could be dangerous. Before that summer, I never knew what lay behind the palm trees and branches and rolling mounds of dirt and scraps of junk and trash and homeless people’s huts.

But I did run through the alley. And I did meet Gabe. And he’d taught me all the things my mother never taught me. Caldo de rez and sticky red rice, filling my belly with embryonic fluid. After Gabe, the world was all nanas and cerveza and brujas and chile con carne and Chupacabras. After Gabe, I’d turned into a kind of La Llorona myself.

Where might the street route have led? Would I have been finishing college now instead of drowning in the Valley, chasing a pipe dream with a boy I’d long outgrown? With a boy I’d watched become an unstable man. And wasn’t sure I loved. Except for the ghost baby—the one we’d made the end of that summer. The one I’d let go. The one who wouldn’t let me leave.

*

Gabe drove me, his two-year-old daughter Lana, and his mom Esme to the rodeo. Past the burnt down Planter’s Hotel and bar where rodeo tickets were once sold every year before the fire. Past the Dollar Store that used to be a grocery store. Past the recently added stoplight, making five instead of four in the entire town. Past the post office and the town square where mariachi and bluegrass festivals were held. Past the crumbling, empty movie theater that hadn’t been open for my whole life, the one that teenagers hoped would be restored so they wouldn’t have to drive all the way to El Centro to watch movies. The ballet studio where I practiced the grand jetés mom and I thought would launch me out of this town, an empty storefront.

I used to like the rodeo. When it came to town every November, Cattle Call park filled with kettle-corn-eating swarms of townsfolk who had this one event to look forward to each year, down in the river’s northeast basin, the rich white farmer’s side of town where the only houses that could pass for mansions spackled the few blocks cliffhanging the park. Cattle Call and the rodeo belonged to Brawley—its only claim to fame since unwed mamas were nothing to brag about—and people from all over the Valley came to watch cowboys and cowgirls from across the Southwest barrel race and calf rope. Cars flattened yellowed grass. Folks trudged dusty fields toward the arena. Sparkly booted little girls in pink fringe cowboy hats and vested little boys in Wranglers flashed through the crowd. Wedging through chain link fence, engulfed by booths lining concessions below the bleachers, excitement and barbacoa.

I strutted through the gate grasping Gabe’s hand while he held Lana in his other arm; Esme had gone ahead with her comadres. Gabe pulled me aside, tugging me toward the Budweiser stand. Its line stretched further than any other, longer even than the kettle corn line. He bought two cups, and no one asked questions though I didn’t show I.D. and couldn’t have if they’d asked.

We took our seats on the benches near the bullpens, facing the afternoon sun. A girl I knew from high school sang the National Anthem all American Idol style, kicking off the rodeo. People cheered and yelled as the first event unfolded: wild bronco saddling. I realized I was peeling paint chips from the bench as I watched, and the sticky mess clotted under my fingernails.

After a few minutes, Lana complained that the sun was hurting her eyes, so I shaded her with the oversized umbrella Esme brought. But she wasn’t appeased. She demanded a hot dog, so I offered to carry her downstairs to buy one.

We sat at a Sequoia shaded picnic table where I crunched churritos with lemon and chile between my teeth and licked the spicy sauce from my fingers while Lana stuffed her hotdog into her mouth in too-big bites and got mustard all over her face. I couldn’t help the longing that washed over me, and all at once I wished she belonged to me—girl with the sticky yellow mouth. In that moment, I loved her more than I resented her, and I wiped her face with a napkin. Then, holding hands, we started heading back toward the bleachers but stopped to admire the horses in their holding pens. I swooped up Gabe’s little girl—not mine, not mine—to give her a better view, and she giggled at the whinnying horses. Brown, with flies in their eyes.

Outside the fence, encircling the arena, an asphalt road curved a mile round. Gabe and I used to go running there throughout high school. When I was still a cheerleader and he was still the boy who knocked me up.

Beyond the road, a playground and picnic spot with built-in barbeques. How often I’d watched birthday parties going on, screaming children, and piñatas strung from trees, thinking that’ll be us someday. When we’re ready.

This had been our favorite place. Even after I flushed the baby. Before I realized what I was letting go. Before he had a daughter with someone else. Before I took him back anyway. Before I wondered what the hell I was still doing with him. In the Valley, that wide depression in my belly.

I remembered when we used to run, as though preparing for our sprint out of town. Into a better life. Away from dusty brown earth and field after field of alfalfa sprouts. He used to call out between breaths, “Come on babe, just a little bit further.” I’d bite down on my lip, lift my head, and keep running. After we’d jogged a few times around the arena, he’d yell, “Let’s go up the hill.” He, bounding up the asphalt, climbing out of the dell and I, plodding along after him, huffing and puffing. If I lagged behind, he’d look over his shoulder and mouth, “Just a few more steps. You can make it.”

I looked up toward the bleachers; an American flag waved in the breeze. The sun was setting, and the clouds were looping cotton candy, blue and pink. Like the lines from a moonfaced stick on the bathroom floor, smiling sickly up at me.

Lana was falling asleep on my shoulder, so I crept back into the stands and plopped down next to Gabe, feeling all nostalgic. And bitter. He didn’t notice, but when he offered me a plastic cup of beer, I chugged the whole thing down. I’d come back in time to see the bull riding, where each rider tried to keep calm for eight tiny seconds.

“Look at that poor jerk,” Gabe said, laughing at a thrown cowboy being chased by a bull while the rodeo hands tried distracting it so the cowboy could flee the ring.

I stared at Gabe, the man I’d watched grow up in front of me. He was tall and well-built with bronze skin that released a mixture of Cool Water cologne and sweat, so to me he always smelled like a beach in the desert, an ocean of incongruity. Though I couldn’t see them beneath his T-shirt, I knew his broad shoulders were stretch marked where his muscles grew faster than his skin. On his otherwise clear boyish face, even slightly impish with his upturned ears, a scar streaked below his eye where he ran into the side mirror of his uncle’s truck when he was little. Esme and Nana say he was a real travieso when he was small. He’d go storming through the house in a fury, knocking plates of food off the table for no apparent reason. But then, he’d smile his charming dimpled smile and be forgiven. Not much had changed since then.

Lana curled on the bench, her feet propped on me, her head on Esme’s lap. I felt sick of babies, so I lifted her little legs off me and set them on the bench. “I’ll be right back,” I whispered to Gabe, but he didn’t look at me. “I have to pee.”

“All that beer,” he said, moving his big feet out of my way. He slapped my butt as I scooted over him, but I didn’t react, just lurched toward the aisle.

I thought I’d vomit as I headed toward the stall, but I just hovered above the toilet, waiting for something that didn’t come. I wasn’t sick, just sad.

Outside the bathroom, I was rinsing my hands with drinking fountain water when I realized some guy was standing nearby watching me and chuckling.

“The sink’s not working in the lady’s room either, huh?” he asked, flashing me the kind of smile I hadn’t seen in ages. The kind that meant I don’t know what destruction we’re capable of. His hair was the color of summer squash beneath his cowboy hat. His green eyes, playful. He wore tight Wranglers and cowboy boots. “No, the water won’t turn on. I know this isn’t exactly hygienic, but I had to do something.”

“Let me get you a paper towel,” he said. “Hang on.” And for some reason, I did. I watched him stride to the other side of the building and could hear him asking someone behind the booth, “Excuse me ma’am, may I please have a paper towel?”

When he came back, smile inviting and startling as ever, he was holding out a stack of napkins. “This is the best they could do,” he said, handing them to me.

“Thank you,” I said, my neck veins fluttering as I wiped my hands in the kind of compulsive way I might have were I Lady Macbeth instead of La Llorona. When I finished drying, he reached out to take the crumpled napkins, threw them in the trash barrel, then kept his hand out to shake mine.

“I’m Luke, by the way.”

“Hi Luke, I’m Bianca.” My stomach roiled again, but in a good way. “Do you work here or do you just like standing outside the restroom handing women napkins?”

“I rode in the show today,” he said. “And hey, don’t knock the napkins. This is a great way to pick up the ladies.” He winked, and I tried hard to remember the scar on Gabe’s cheek. “Did it work on you?”

I shook my head.

“Aw, darn it. I was sure I would have had you at paper towels.”

I laughed, aware of the heat spidering my neck and cheeks, and the fact that I sounded like a silly eighth grade girl again, opening myself to loss. “Well, thanks again, but I should get back up to my seat. Someone’s waiting for me.”

“Oh, of course,” he said, and I pretended to ignore the disappointment in his voice. Given enough time, hope faded. Hope, that thing with feathers, eventually fell ceremonious as tombs. “You’re so pretty, of course you have someone up there. Is it serious?”

“Dead serious.” And I meant it.

“That bad, huh? Well, I know a cowboy who’d be glad to relieve you.”

“You’re too kind, cowboy.” Then, feeling foolish, I added, “You are the cowboy, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He took his hat off and gestured a bow.

My chest matched the stomping from the arena. How easy it would’ve been to give in. To walk away. How easy it would’ve been to let go. But the sticky yellow girl caught the rutted burial ground inside me, and I knew I couldn’t. “Even so, cowboy, my someone has been around a while, and I think I ought to finish the rodeo with him.”

“May I at least buy you a beer?”

“That you can do.” I eyed the stands again, making sure Gabe wasn’t watching.

“Well let’s go then, pretty lady,” he motioned for me to pass, touching my elbow. I focused on the Budweiser sign instead of his tight jeans.

After buying two drinks and handing one to me, Luke raised his cup to mine and said, “Cheers. To what might have been great, were there not someone up there,” he motioned his cup to the bleachers. “And, to that lucky guy, up there.”

Luckiness tasted sour in my mouth. “It was nice to meet you, cowboy,” I said. “Thanks for the drink.”

He tipped his hat, and I walked away. But when I climbed back up the stairs and sat beside Gabe, he asked how I got the beer. I handed it to him, considering lying. Instead, I settled on the truth. “This nice guy down by the concessions bought it.”

“Wow. That was nice of him.” He took a sip. “And, what did you do to deserve it?”

“Nothing. He just saw me standing there and asked if I wanted a beer.”

“Hmm… sounds like someone was trying to get in your pants.”

“Gabe, just drink the beer. Free beer is free beer.”

“Yeah. Right.”

“Here, let me have some.” I grabbed the cup back from him and chugged it down. “You looking to get drunk?”

“Maybe.”

“You know what I do to you when you’re drunk?” He smirked, pulling me close. But I felt myself becoming a ghost, already another unfortunate legend.

*

In his pine green truck, the engine still warm, after the rodeo, after he dropped off his daughter with Esme and took me out to the country, past Brandt road, past the fields of alfalfa, between the hay stacks, beside a canal flowing with irrigation water, Gabe groaned, “So you like to pick up nice guys at rodeos? You’re a little slut who lets guys buy you beer?”

He unbuckled my seatbelt, then pulled me across the bucket seat to his lap, my ass on the steering wheel. And I didn’t even think to run. “Are you a slut, Bee?” He slapped my face. A flat palm against my cheek. He tore open my blouse, squeezed my breasts together.

“No,” I whispered, kissing him back, not sure if we were playing a game.

He laughed, clenching my shoulders. Then he pushed me away from his body, held me in front of him, looked hard at my face, and I got my answer. “You’re not?” he asked, his voice cold and flat. “Then why did you let some jerk hit on you?”

“It was just beer, Gabe.” I didn’t want to apologize. Why should I have apologized? I didn’t do anything wrong. “Can we let it go?”

“You want me to let it go that my girlfriend is a puta whore? Fine. I’ll let it go.” He pushed me hard from his lap, slammed me to the passenger seat, yanked my jeans down from my hips to below my ass, unbuttoned his own jeans, climbed on top of me and thrust in. I didn’t cry out. “Is this what you wanted, puta?”

Girl with sticky yellow mouth. American flag waving in the breeze. Pink and blue. I was much further out than you thought. Not waving, but drowning. She’s yours, not mine. I’m yours, not mine. This world is yours, not mine. It is too cold always.

“Say it, say you’re a slut.”

I used to love you. We snuck up to your Nana’s rooftop across the tracks, wine coolers in your back pocket as we climbed. Lay on the sleeping bag you’d heaved up there, mapping ourselves in the stars. Reading each other’s palms.

“Puta whore. You wanted that drink. You took that drink. Now tell me what you are.”

Christmas snow globe. In mine, the stick never reached the bridge; floating in the creek, immobilized, arrested by stones, a fish without fins, its scaly body slick with desire but not the strength to push. I heaved that glass into the street one day, a glittering spectacle for you and the neighbors. The stick lay flat, a limbless, lifeless body. Still without the will to escape. The leaves, crashing into each other, frantic as mothers searching for lost children.

My tears rolled down the upholstery, another stain at my cheek, pressed to the bucket seat. Out, out damn spot. Life’s but a walking candle. And I haven’t gone for weariness. I’ve just gone.

“What? I can’t hear you.”

“I’m a slut.”

“That’s right.” His fists through my hair, pressed me down, down.

In my snow globe, if shaken briskly, the leaves seemed to hover without end.

 

 

NEXT: Cleaving, A Prose Poem…>

 

Jennifer Suzanne Givhan is the author of the poetry collection Red Sun Mother and the novel manuscript In The Time of Jubilee. She’s at work on a second novel and a second poetry collection. A National Latino Writers’ Conference scholarship recipient, she received a grant to attend the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College. She lives in Albuquerque with her husband, parents, and two young children.