Cowboy Angel

By Samantha Cope

Part 2 of 2

Read Part 1 here


Judgment

~ salvation, reflection, fear, and regret ~

He hit her again, of course. That's the way this shit works, she told herself. She hadn't really been stupid enough to think it was an isolated incident.

This time, his ring caught and cut her cheekbone, and the bruise crept up around her eye.

This time, looking at herself in the mirror made her sick with shame and she thought, I'm not doing this shit.

This time, he hadn't stopped after hitting her once. He'd backed her into a corner, unguarded fury on his face, a fury entirely out of proportion to the argument that had preceded it. He'd struck twice more until she screamed his name and shoved him away; he was stronger, but terror had blossomed, delicate in her chest, and grew into a panicky strength. Then he had pulled back, cold, expressionless, in control again.

She leaned over the vanity top, closer to the mirror, and touched the corner of her eye, lightly, with her fingertip. "This is fucked," she whispered. And she thought of Adrian suddenly, what his face might look like if he saw her bruised like this. Humiliated like this.

Nick was gone. He never backed out of a gig. He could play while the city burned around him, and it always came right from the heart, you could tell; guilt and self-loathing were small things, compared to the music.

She was playing a complicated form of solitaire with the Tarot cards when he came in, quietly, head bowed and shoulders slumped. She only glanced up.

"Fucking Christ," is what he said when he looked at her. He dropped the guitar case on the floor at the foot of the bed, took off his leather jacket and threw it. Then he came over and swept her cards to the floor with both hands, fell into the space where they'd been, put his head in her lap.

She felt cold. Shivery, her skin roughened into chillflesh. What the hell? Was this love she felt, this burning and freezing, sorrow that made her want to scream up at the moon?

She put her hands on his head, snarled her fingers in his damp hair. He pulled himself up, clutching at her with panic-driven hands, pushing her down on the bed.

She rolled on top of him, pinned his hands down above his head, and looked into his eyes. They were lost, drowned-looking. The question sat like a stone in her mind, Is this worth it? The only sane answer was no. Her fingers, meshed with his, felt something different about his hand—his ring was gone.

He said her name, his voice cracking, and closed his eyes. She let go of his hands. She let him burrow his face into her chest and wondered how it was that she ended up comforting him. The only answer she came up with was that comfort in Nick's life had been in short supply.

His grief wrenched out of his chest and into hers as harsh, breaking noises that hurt them both.


Some nights, Roxanne was too worn out, too homesick, to go anywhere. She just wanted to be left alone.

She threw herself on the bed and wrapped herself in the bedding like a cocoon, as soon as they walked into the motel room. Her fingers were cold and stiff, her back ached. She stared through the window at the leaden sky and thought about winter, thought about snow and freezing her ass off on the back of that bike.

Nick put his guitar case on the floor and went into the bathroom. He had to get to his gig. She heard the water running, and had a moment of déjà vu when he came out and stared at her from the door of the room. His eyes were bitter and bruised when she finally met them, and she didn't know why.

"What?" she said.

He shook his head and picked up the guitar case. "The bar is three blocks that way." He pointed. "Come down later." The tone of his voice implied that he didn't give a shit whether she showed or not, but she wasn't fooled. He wanted her there. It would just cost him too much to say so.

She smiled at him. He knew she wasn't coming.

She slept all evening, curled on her side, as the light coming in the windows turned ashy and disappeared. Dreams came and went, gentle at first: meadows and streams and flying over the shaggy tops of trees.

Her dreams were still fractured, incessant, and she almost never understood them: blind alleys, hands full of fire, flesh on flesh, and a sky the turquoise of Nick's lost ring. She was dreaming of smoke and fire and entrapment when the snick of the door opening made her eyes fly open.

His silhouette walked steady, but she saw his shoulders sway, briefly, against the window before he drew the curtain closed. She closed her eyes again, before he could see her face.

She felt the mattress sink as he sat on the edge next to her; she felt his fingertips on her temple, momentarily, then he drew back. His voice was tired and hoarse, nearly a whisper, when he began to sing. She opened her eyes a slit, looked at his profile, black on black. She knew his eyes were closed; they almost always were when he sang.

He wasn't touching her anymore, yet it was as though he was touching her all over: his voice, his presence sinking the mattress. A sob caught in her throat, just a tiny one, and she covered it with a sleepy shift of her body. She dreaded the stiffening of his body, the deadening of his face that she wouldn't be able to see in the dark but would understand in her heart—that she'd lost him again.

He was wrong. She didn't love mysteries; she loved cards and palms and prophetic dreams. Indecently so. Always, she wanted to know everything; it was like a thirst never slaked, the desire to know. The quest to understand.

His voice trailed off, melancholy and twisting into the dark room; filled it up, then hissed out, leaving cool empty space.

He lifted her shirt with both hands and lay his head on her stomach, and she thought, but couldn't be certain, that there were tears smeared between his cheek and her flesh. Thoughts of freezing and burning and the barren gulf between them crossed her mind and she wondered why everything in this world—except music—was so hard for him.

Oh, babe, she thought. What happened to you?


Death

~ renewal, transformation, a spiritual impasse, and the loss of a lover ~

Leaves turned orange and red and yellow, making Roxanne think of fire more than ever. They began to see their breath. Nick told her that he usually retired the bike for the winter; he holed up in a city with enough music venues for a few months at least, preferably a place where he had a friend to crash with.

"I don't like to go too far south," he said, grinning at her over the frets of his guitar. "Too many of those good old boys feel like it was just yesterday they were deprived of their slaves, they think it's still the Confederacy. . . . It pisses me off—I get into too many fights."

She wondered what his concept of "too many" was, since he got in a lot of fights in northern bars.

Roxanne liked the idea of them settling down, maybe getting a place, even while it made her uneasy. Maybe she could even get a job for awhile. Bare-bones living and heavy drinking and late nights were wearing on her.

They stood on a balcony somewhere in North Carolina. He was wearing a sheepskin jacket and she had on a thick wool sweater; the wind was fucking freezing when they rode on the highway.

He lifted his free hand, the one closest to her, to run it through his tousled hair.

Without thinking, or even being aware of it, she flinched away.

He saw and his eyes widened. He opened his mouth, drew in a deep, audible breath, his hand still mashing down his curls. Then his hand dropped to his side and he turned around and walked into the motel room.

She threw her cigarette over the side and gripped the iron railing with both hands. Are you fucking nuts? Settle down in one place?

She walked into the room. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, elbows on his thighs, head in his hands, his fingers working through his hair. He looked up at her and his eyes were bloodshot.

"You're afraid of me," he whispered.

She put her hands in the pockets of her sweater. "Well, Nick, you fucking hit me before."

"I know." His voice was small, horrified. "Christ."

She stepped closer to him; he wrapped his hand around her upper thigh and pushed his face into her stomach, rubbed it against the rough wool. She stood, looked out the window, and she wanted to say, It'll be okay and, Trust me. And I love you. She couldn't, so there was silence.

Maybe he was waiting to hear those things, maybe he even wanted to say them himself. He looked up and she touched his wild curls. She stared, tried to memorize the details because this couldn't last forever.

"This is it," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, this is it. I mean, you're gonna go home and I'm gonna go somewhere else. And . . . and it's over."

The thought paralyzed her; she suddenly couldn't imagine living life without him there, watching her, touching her. "No."

He pushed her away and she backpedaled, stumbling. "I've gotta go now." His voice was flat and hoarse.

"No, Nick." She wanted to step back to him, but she could feel his energy building, repelling her. It electrified the room, like a thundercloud piling up all around him.

The electricity reached an apex, and hurtled him through the space between them.

She shivered violently. Burning. Freezing.

And she knew it was the cowboy angel riding at her. His hand was clenched into a fist, he'd never hit her with his fist, only an open hand. Coldness crystallized sharply inside her chest, making it hard to breathe. She faced him head-on, the only way to do it. He was right, this is it.

There was no fear, no fire, just a sense of time melting, everything turning fuzzy and indistinct. Only he was real.

Then he was past her, smashing his fist into the wall; the plaster buckled and fine cracks radiated from his knuckles. The sound of impact was a flat crack, and he cried out when it hit.

The moment froze. Nick stood motionless, head bowed, and she waited for him to stiffen, pull himself up cold and steady. But instead, he turned his face to her. She found herself wishing for the mask to slam down because his normally gray eyes looked so very blue and too full of weariness and pain for her to withstand. He let his fist loosen and fall, cradling it with his other hand.

"I won't do it," he said, his voice hollow and scraped-sounding. "I won't be your cowboy angel. I don't want to."

She stared at him and knew that he was seeing her, but he was also seeing another woman, small and faded and faraway. He was seeing history repeat itself. And it terrified him.

"Nick," she said, stepping forward.

He stepped into her arms, wrapping his own arms around her shoulders, keeping his half-curled fist very still.

"Just let me go," he said.

"I can't."

"You can. You're unbreakable." He kissed her cheek, said into her ear, "I love you."

She shook her head and clutched harder. All the times she'd wanted to hear that, and she didn't want it now. She only wanted to erase the past half hour, make things the way they were before, and just ride it all out. Just ride.

He let go and pushed her away, gently, with one hand. She resisted, then her arms went limp. She started to cry. She wanted to say she loved him, say it because it was the truth and needed to be said, but all she could do was look at him with mute longing. If she moved, she'd explode.

"I know, Roxanne," he said softly.

Then she kissed him, and he squeezed her shoulder, and he put on his sunglasses, and he walked out the door.


The Hermit

~ sacrifice, solitude, silence, and truth ~

It was only later, months later, when the pain in her back kept her awake and staring at the window blinds, that she began to suspect the truth about Death, a thing she should have known all along. But she turned from it, put her deck under the mattress; for once in her life, she didn't want to know. When knowledge nibbled at the edges of her mind and her back was tortured with aches and cramps and loneliness overwhelmed her, she got up, smoothed her T-shirt over the full white moon of her belly. She tried to imagine the pure peace light entering the center of her.

And then, giving birth, she nearly saw the whole of it because there was pain—tremendous spine-twisting waves of it—and a black sense of walking up to the edge and she knew she'd taken all the signs far too literally. But the measured IV drip of pain medication blurred it all out just in time, allowed her to become some kind of dumb animal, laboring, pushing out the next tiny, bloody generation.

The tradition in her family was to give baby girls fancy names: Jacqueline, Victoria, Roxanne. Names that sounded as though they should have little jewels attached to them. But Roxanne preferred a simple, sturdy name. Though she didn't even remember where she'd heard it, "Vaya" was what she named the indignant, red-faced bundle they handed her at the hospital.

Adrian came the next day. He stated his position in terms of what he wanted, not what she needed; he did not so much pop a question as place a demand. And she was too exhausted, too terrified, and too grateful to refuse.


Depression took her then in its malignant grip, wrapped her in layers of gauze until nothing could touch her.

She took Valium at night and killed the dreams.

Pleading in his eyes, Adrian brought her things: her coffee, her cards, her baby. She took them because she had to, there was nothing else left, no more choices.

And then Vaya was nearly a year old, and life was passing Roxanne by.

Roxanne looked at her daughter, asleep beside her, and pain cramped around her chest; obligation and love felt heavy enough to crush her. She heard a snatch of music, harmonica notes, and Vaya smiled secretly. Roxanne rubbed her thumb against the baby's cheek, then glanced up to the headboard, where her cards sat, dog-eared and loved, but untouched. She had never read the baby's cards, didn't know if she ever would.

Adrian entered, holding a cup of coffee. He set it on the headboard and sat on the mattress, watching Vaya with a faraway look on his face. His long hair was brushed and smooth, pulled into a ponytail, no glam-rock makeup on his pale face. Nothing made his face soften like Vaya did.

Roxanne could always feel his words bubbling beneath the surface, so many things he wanted to ask her, to tell her, but never did. He kept his silence, and some days she appreciated it and some days it made her want to scream because it was too much like Nick. Silence could be murder.

Adrian lay down beside her and put his arm around her, pulling her close. Roxanne put her hand over his and felt nothing but pure white light.

Entering the center of her, just below her navel, filling her with—

Peace.

And when the light had faded, her hand still lay over Adrian's, and it seemed she could really feel his skin against hers for the first time. She turned over to face him, pressed her face to his chest. Quietly, far away inside her, she heard a door close, and as it did, she felt as though she'd finally woken from a long dream.


Strength

~ struggle, weakness, balance, and triumph over fear ~

She heard music sometimes.

So when she heard guitar chords winding down to the kitchen where she was making a cup of tea after work, she went with it, listening idly, taking it as a gift from the void. A part of her, deep inside, suspected it came from Nick. Usually, the music came to her at dawn or late at night.

As she walked through the dining room into the entrance hall of their small house, the music grew louder. She looked up the stairs, trained her ears on the sound. It was really there. Her stomach tightened up and shook, then, and her spine stiffened and froze. She recognized the notes: "Handsome Molly"—an old folk song. One she knew well.

She took the steps slowly, tea slopping out of the cup over her shaking hand. With each step, her body grew colder and tighter. The music had to stop. Something huge and terrifying was trying to get out of her, some ugly grief that she hadn't known till this moment existed.

She followed the music and stopped in the doorway. Drips of tea pattered onto the floor, and her husband and daughter looked at her, surprised, expectant.

"Stop," she said, her voice rough.

Adrian looked shocked for a moment, then his eyes narrowed.

"Hi, Mommy! Don't you like Adrian's music?" Vaya, sitting next to him, cross-legged on her bed. She reached out and plucked the strings of his acoustic guitar, one, two, three, and grinned.

"Don't play that here," she said, looking at Adrian, ignoring Vaya. That huge feeling clawed inside her chest, struggled to explode. He always played electric, always rock. She couldn't stand it any other way.

Thursday was her longest shift at the record store, Adrian and Vaya home all day together. He's been teaching her to play. The sudden knowledge made Roxanne feel betrayed. She'd been disconnected but she didn't care. The music had to stop.

Adrian handed the guitar to Vaya. She took it in her tiny arms, hugging it to her, and set it on her lap. Her forehead knotted as she watched Adrian's movement. Her mouth quivered as if she would cry, but she didn't.

He walked toward Roxanne, stood in front of her, didn't touch her. With an air of choosing his words carefully, he said so softly that Vaya wouldn't hear, "Don't you fucking dare tell me what to do in my own house. Go outside if you don't want to hear it." Just as carefully, he turned his back to her and went back to Vaya and the guitar.

She took the last bit of her tea outside to the backyard, stunned by the tone of his voice, and cried although the terrifying grief in her chest had subsided. She threw the mug, and it shattered into sharp splinters on the stone path.


Adrian came down the back steps. He'd been inside the house for a long time. Longer, Roxanne imagined, than the phone call from the record label rep had actually taken. He looked a little dazed around the eyes.

He joined her at the patio table, put a cup of coffee in front of her. He lit a cigarette and then sat down. Roxanne was interested to see the end of the cigarette jittering slightly.

"Well?" she asked, touching the side of her cup and pulling her hand back quickly. She felt a desperate need for some distraction. She watched Vaya and the dog—a two-year-old collie mix and Vaya's constant companion—down at the end of the yard, rather than Adrian's face.

"They want us all." His band had been offered a record contract, and though the company had hedged at first about taking all of the musicians, they'd given in. "We're leaving next Friday."

She didn't say anything. She'd known since the beginning that they'd take him. He just hadn't wanted to let himself believe and be disappointed in the end.

She wanted to congratulate him, to hug him and kiss him, be deliriously happy for him. This was huge, incredible. Every musician dreamed of making it, of living a life of music. For Adrian, the dream could come true.

Roxanne looked down at her left hand pressed flat on the metal table. The sun winked off the gold wedding band in little flashes. The eight years of their marriage had been mostly good—rocky at the start and for the past year, but the middle few years had been a time of friendship and understanding. Strong and calm. Peaceful.

Until a year ago, and the miscarriage. It was as if he blamed her body for carrying Nick's baby to term, but rejecting his. As if he blamed her for overcoming her own sorrow and disappointment afterward.

"I'll send you money," he said. "I'll take care of the paperwork, all you have to do is sign it."

Her head jerked up. "Paperwork?" The word exploded out of her. "You mean—you're leaving me?"

His eyes were wide. "Roxanne, what did you think? You told me I'd be a fucking fool not to go."

"But—but I thought . . ." What? That he'd want a long-distance wife and kid tied to him like a tin can to a dog's tail? No.

He dodged her gaze. "It's better for us both if we don't have any attachments."

"We're getting a divorce?" The words stunned her. She'd known he was going, yes, but severing all ties? No. She hadn't known that. Against her will, her eyes filled with tears.

His eyes narrowed. "Come off it, Roxanne. You don't love me." He had never stated anything so baldly in their years together. Maybe he thought brutality would make it easier.

"That's not true," she said. "And you know it." She reached out and touched his hand.

He just looked at her and smoked. Not like you loved him. He'd never say it aloud, but his eyes said it clearly.

"You know I love you," she said. "And so does Vaya."

He flinched at that. "Do you want me not to go?"

He was looking at her steadily and she knew she could say stay and he was honorable enough to do it. But he didn't want to. Not anymore. Her voice caught in her throat. She'd said she loved him. Was it true; was it enough?

"You have to go. It doesn't matter what I want." She swallowed, her throat clicked dryly. She squeezed his hand.

He squeezed back. "I love you, too, Roxanne," he said. And, "It's better like this."


Adrian cried when he left, and so did Vaya, and so did Roxanne.

She felt hollowed out then. For months, nothing but empty.

The dreams overcame the drugs; she dreamed a thing ugly and full of rage and fire.

It was the escaped grief-monster, an unchecked dream fire, and the noise of it consuming everything in its path filled her and she burned, inside and out. She looked for Vaya, for the dog, screamed Vaya's name. The light of the fire was red-orange, cruel and flickering, and she was trapped. Trapped.

A black figure, the silhouette she remembered so well, stood within the flames, watching—eyes sad and blue, shadows like massive wings shifting behind him.

She woke up sobbing, gagging on her heartbreak, and sent her ragged cries and her need into the void, a release almost against her will.

Come here, to me. Now.

She doubled up against the pain, choking on the harsh, breaking noises coming from deep inside her chest, and she thought feverishly of Nick's hand in hers, of standing calm in the center of a spinning wheel. She wished she could put her lips in his palm one more time.

At last she'd seen his face, and Death had been so much worse, so much longer, than she'd ever expected.


The Star

~ peace, faith, hope for the future, and unconditional love ~

Her face felt stiff and swollen, glazed with old tears, and she should have splashed water on it before coming downstairs. She looked out the screen door at Vaya and the dog.

Vaya sat on the top porch step, a big pad of drawing paper at her side. She drew busily with crayons, her mouth slightly slack and crooked.

Roxanne inhaled deeply. She could be a very distant mother, and tried hard to bridge the gap. One of the ways she did so was by drawing with Vaya. They filled pad after pad of collaborative crayon and marker drawings; anytime either of them felt out of sorts, they pulled out the drawing pad and spent hours watching colors grow under their hands.

She got a cup of coffee from the kitchen, joined Vaya on the step. "Good morning, Starshine," she said.

Vaya frowned at her, a stern groove forming between her gray-green eyes. "Don't be so sad," she said.

"I'll try not to." There was an ache in her chest, in her temples, in each of her limbs. Her throat was scratchy, her voice hoarse. She sipped her coffee. "What are you doing out here?"

"Waiting for my dad," Vaya said matter-of-factly, still coloring.

Roxanne hesitated, studying her daughter, taking slow stock of details: slender fingers grasping a sky-blue crayon, scabbed knees, wild curls not remotely tamed by the plastic poodle barrette clipped in haphazardly.

"Adrian is in California," she said finally, cautiously.

Vaya nodded. "I know." She looked up at Roxanne and grinned, showing a gap half filled with a new permanent tooth. "He's making music. On a CD, he told me."

"Well, what do you mean 'your dad,' then?"

But a picture was forming in her mind's eye, drifting, swirling. Pieces of dreams, the roar of a motor, a rush of wind. Black sunglasses and behind them, cold and shuttered eyes.

I'm not the person I was! The thought was panicky. She wasn't willing to be his useless baggage anymore. And she thought of the stretch marks that cascaded over her hips like water, her body reformed by pregnancy, birth, nursing.

Then she felt a spark of anger. So what?

"He heard you calling him." Vaya shrugged, discarded the blue crayon and picked up an orange one. "So he's coming."


The sound of the motor came to them before he did. He climbed the steps, stopped, and looked at them.

Just a man, not a myth or a memory. A man with tired eyes and slight smile. He pushed his sunglasses up on his head.

"Hi, Roxanne. Hi, Vaya," he said, looking at her, then past her, to his daughter.

Vaya gave him a quick, shy hi and darted inside the house, letting the screen door slam behind her. Roxanne and Nick stood and stared at each other. There was a sensation up her back like a striking match. And a sinking in her stomach.

"We have a daughter." An awestruck expression spread across his face.

"Don't tell me you didn't know." There was no bitterness in her voice, just an acknowledgment of truth. "You probably knew before I did."

"No," he said, "not at first, I didn't. Not until after she was born."

"Who did I name her after, anyway?"

"My mother."

"Of course." Something else she should have known.

Vaya reappeared, carrying her own small guitar, eyes on Nick. He grinned. Roxanne had to turn away; their eyes, their smiles, were almost identical.

When she turned back around, Vaya sat on the top porch step, her head cocked as she listened to each slow note she played. She couldn't tune completely by ear, but she always tried, only occasionally sneaking glances to the digital tuner beside her on the step. Nick was coming back up the walk with his guitar case.

Roxanne sat, her face in her hands, and listened. Nick played slow, kept pace with Vaya. What the hell is this? What the hell am I going to do?

After a while, Nick stopped. "Keep going," he told Vaya. He got up, sat next to Roxanne. She looked at him inquiringly, he looked down at his hand.

"It was broken. That day I left you." He took a deep breath. "I went to an emergency room, had it fixed up. But I kept playing, well as I could. With you gone . . . well, I had to . . . to save myself, I guess." He grimaced down at his hand, flexed the fingers, shook his head slightly. "It never healed right, something with the tendon." He smiled at her, his face softening into a real smile, but his eyes were hooded and dark. "I finally managed to fuck up everything."

"You can still play."

"Oh, yeah. It hurts, though. And I'm definitely slower." He shrugged. "I can still last a whole set."

Vaya came and stood in front of them, looking at Nick. "Can you help me tune this better?" she said.

"I can," he said, holding out his hands for it. She only hesitated a moment, flicking a glance to Roxanne, before giving it to him.

He looked at Roxanne over the frets, something struggling in his face. Then he bit his bottom lip and looked down at the guitar.

Roxanne went into the house. Drew aside the curtain on the front window, and watched Vaya lean her weight into Nick's arm, watching his hands, listening.


He sat on the edge of her bed and looked up at her.

"It's time to quit. I can't make a living at it, anymore." He rubbed his eyes, forefinger on one eye, his thumb on the other, brow knotted. Pulled his hand away and said, "I can't drink like that anymore, can't keep running from shit." He talked almost like an old man, but Roxanne knew he couldn't be more than thirty.

"So now you're here?"

He swallowed hard. "Yeah. I never should have left you in the first place, and if you want me to leave now, I will."

She only stood and looked at him; burning, freezing.

His eyes flicked around the room, fell finally on her deck of Tarot cards on the headboard shelf. They were covered with dust. She followed his glance, took an unconscious step toward the cards.

He picked up the deck, held it out to her. "I still don't think you need them, but you can read mine if you want." Again, that struggle on his face, struggling to keep the mask off. "Or I can just tell you whatever you want to know."

She took the deck, ran her fingers over the edges, looked at the skeletal face of Death, the card on the top. She put it back on the shelf.

She knelt, kissed his palm, put it on her heart. It burned.

They were in the center of something that spun almost, but not quite, out of control.


dedicated to t. l. lance


Samantha Cope writes, paints, and teaches in the Midwest, the landscape of which she often finds beautiful and inspiring. You can contact her at sammeewolf@yahoo.com.