James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. He is the author of five books, three of which have won awards. James’ writing has appeared in over thirty journals, including a prior issue of Scarlet Leaf Review. “Armadillo Slick” is an excerpt from his latest book, The Ping-Pong Champion of Chinatown, which is now available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08R95BJF9/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_hsch_vapi_tkin_p1_i0
Armadillo Slick (a novel excerpt)
Gertie McDowell, a young woman from rural Kentucky, has suffered a host of misadventures. She went to Holywood to seek movie stardom, but wound up posing on an online foot fetish site run by an entrepruener called the Nose. After a falling out with the Nose, she returned to backwoods Kentucky, started up a dress making business, and was tricked into muling meth for an outfit known as The Suger Shack Dress Company. Unbeknownst to Gertie, the “company” sewed powdered meth into the hemlines of the dresses she was delivering throughout the state. Sentenced to Alderson Prison, where Martha Stewart served time, Gertie became close friends with an inmate named Bertha Jean, who gave away a bunch of tampons so Gertie could get her hair done in the prison beauty salon. Gertie also began an amorous correspondence with Agent Jackson, the DEA agent who arrested her. Released from Alderson Prison on a technicality, Gertie relocated to San Francisco to escape the clutches of The Sugar Shack Dress Company. While in San Francisco, she was kidnapped into white slavery, but managed to get away. She was also nabbed by a contract killer known as the Muffler Man, and was rescued by Agent Jackson whom she later married. “Armadillo Slick” begins when Gertie, having lost Agent Jackson to liver disease, relocates to South Texas to reside with Bertha Jean who is now out of prison.
It’s me again, Gertie McDowell. It’s been a while since I told you stuff, and I apologize for that. Since Agent Jackson passed last year, I’ve been doing rather poorly. Agent Jackson had him some liver trouble and he turned as yellow as pus, and he passed away in a hospital bed while I was laying beside him. When I phoned the Nose and told him that Agent Jackson had passed, the Nose had the sand to ask me if the bottle done him in. I guess the Nose knew that Agent Jackson had a likker habit, but that got me riled cause the Nose shoulda known that you oughta respect the dead. So I told him a man like Agent Jackson would never drink himself to death. I told him what Agent Jackson died of was cirrhosis of the liver. The time’s been crawlin’ as slow as a slug since Agent Jackson passed, but last month I managed to turn twenty-three, and Ma she wrote me a letter. She wrote, Gertie, you’re a woman now, so it’s time you were showing some sense. It’s time you stopped posing on porn sites and selling illegal drugs, and it’s time you stopped consorting with perverts and common drunks. You had best put your trust in the Lord from now on and build up some treasure in heaven. And then she went on to assure me how I been heading for hell, and how I’ll be sittin’ on blisterin’ coals if I didn’t correct my ways. Well, that ain’t no advice to give a girl who’s lost the love of her life. If the Lord had struck me with measles, I’d have been okay with that, but when he took away Agent Jackson, He charged me too much for my sins. The way I’m starting to look at it is that I got some more sin coming. I ain’t in Witness Protection no more—I got pulled outta that. Some clerk from the Justice Department called me and said I weren’t never a witness. He said I didn’t qualify for protection, but that didn’t bother me none. It means I don’t gotta check with the feds every time I gotta pee. So I’m living in South Texas now on a ranch near the Rio Grande. The ranch belongs to Bertha Jean—she’s outta prison now, and, after Agent Jackson passed, she invited me to come stay with her. Well, I needed a change of scenery, so I accepted her invitation ’cause Kentucky ain’t no place to be when you’re already feeling depressed. But a change of scenery don’t do that much to ease a heart that’s still bleeding. Especially when the scenery ain’t nothin’ but cactuses and chaparral flats. Bertha Jean and I live alone on the ranch ’cept for a few longhorn strays and some chickens. The ranch used to belong to her Pa, but her Pa ain’t with her no more. Her Pa got stuck by a mesquite thorn and his blood got poisoned bad, and he willed the ranch to Bertha Jean before he passed away. Bertha Jean wishes he’d willed her a Lexus SUV instead, she says she ain’t got no use for the ranch ’cause she don’t like doin’ chores. Bertha Jean spends her time writing stories though she ain’t published none of ’em yet. The ranch ain’t too far from the town of Laredo, which has a song named after it. When I get to feeling restless, I drive Bertha Jean’s pickup into town, and I ride this mechanical bull in a bar called Cherokee Sal’s. Bertha Jean ain’t allowed in the bar—she got a stay away-order from it—but I’m always welcome there ’cause I ride the bull real good. They call me Bronco Betsy since I hardly never get thrown, and the bar lets customers work the controls, so they can try to toss me off. There’s a sign in front of the bull that says, Unseat Bronco Betsy, and a waitress will serve a steak with trimmings to anyone who manages to throw me. Now if a customer working the controls looks kinda down on his luck, I’ll let myself slip off the bull so he can have him a free dinner, but most of the time I stick to the bull like I been superglued to its hide. I gotta say this ’bout the bull, it’s pretty good for depression. Shucks, you can’t be dwelling on no broken heart when you’re hanging onto that bull, so there’s nights I’ll ride that bull maybe twenty or thirty times. I guess I don’t care about nothin’ as much as I do that mechanical bull. * Sometimes I sit on the veranda along with Bertha Jean, and we keep an eye out for wetbacks as we watch the sun go down. And sometimes I open the Bible to seek some comfort there, but the Bible don’t help me nearly as much as that doggone mechanical bull. Heck, the only verse that makes sense to me now is the one about Doubting Thomas. You can only read about Doubting Thomas in the Gospel According to John, ’cause Thomas he were a skeptic so he ain’t too popular. When the other disciples told Thomas that Jesus had rose from the dead, Thomas said he wouldn’t believe that unless he saw Jesus’ wounds. Well, Jesus came back a second time just to show Doubting Thomas his wounds, and Jesus weren’t happy with Thomas ’cause he didn’t have no blind faith. Well, Doubting Thomas he had a point, and I told that to Bertha Jean. I told her I prayed my heart out when Agent Jackson was dying, but a buncha nothing is all I got for trusting in the Lord. I told her a buncha nothing weren’t helpful to me at all, and if I hadda pick between nothing and grief I’d just as soon settle for grief. Bertha Jean said the course of true love is bound to end in grief, and that’s why she weren’t allowed to go into Cherokee Sal’s. Bertha Jean said she was hoping one day to have a respectable love, but that the love of her life is a beer-serving woman in a rundown, honkytonk bar. She was talking ‘bout Brandi Fay, who is one of the waitresses there. She’s a skinny young woman who wiggles her butt, so’s to get herself bigger tips. Bertha Jean said that Brandi Fay’s father made her file that stay away order. That’s ’cause he’s too fulla religion to approve of two women in love. “The heart wants what it wants,” said Bertha Jean and she sighed like a dog in a pound. That expression is real familiar to me—I saw it in The Hollywood Reporter. Woody Allen he said that when he married his Korean stepdaughter. * Well, we was sittin’ on the veranda and we was watchin’ the sun go down, and Bertha Jean gave me a letter to take to Brandi Fay. She didn’t put her name on the letter, she just signed it An Admirer. She said Brandi Fay’s father is as mean as a pit bull and beats Brandi Fay when she strays, and he tells her that God made Adam and Eve—He didn’t make Eve and Abby. She said if he knew that Brandi Fay was getting correspondence from her, he would probably hogtie Brandi Fay then lock her in a shed. Bertha Jean said she feels real bad about putting her lover at risk, but if bliss was their destination, it was only a sin away. Well, I told you I got some sin comin’ to me, so I said I’d deliver the letter. ’Cause I owe a lot more to Bertha Jean than I do to the word of the Lord. Shucks, Bertha Jean she listens to me when I talk about my troubles, and she gave away tampons when we was in prison so I could get my hair done. Maybe I oughta mend my ways so’s to build up treasure in heaven, but I think I’d be a lot happier in hell if I helped out Bertha Jean. When there weren’t no sunset left to watch, I hopped into Bertha Jean’s pickup, and I drove the truck to Laredo so’s to give Brandi Fay the letter. And when I noticed the tumbleweeds crossing the road and the buzzards soaring above me, I got to thinking ’bout that song that’s called “The Streets of Laredo.” It’s a song about a dying cowboy who keeps sayin’ that he done wrong. The cowboy is all repentant and he’s whiter ’an a sheet, and he asks that someone bang the drum slowly while he’s getting put in the ground. But the song don’t bother to mention what wrong that cowboy done. Shucks, he might have just peed on the sidewalk or shot him an egg-stealin’ dog. Well, I parked the truck and went into the bar, and Brandi Fay she was there. She was flirting with a coupla cowhands who looked like they were drunk, and them cowhands were too dumb to realize she was buttering them up for tips. Heck, one of ’em grabbed Brandi Fay by the arm and tried to give her a kiss, and Brandi Fay she slipped out of his grip like a lizard shedding its tail. Brandi Fay ain’t that purty—she got a nose like a hawk—but she got a manner about her that’s really sociable. I never seen no one half as sociable as Brandi Fay. Well, I handed Brandi Fay the letter and she looked at me kinda curious, like maybe I was serving her a notice to appear in court. “It’s from an admirer,” I explained and Brandi Fay she laughed. She got a laugh like a slot machine that’s spilling out silver dollars. “Honey,” said Brandi Fay, “that doesn’t narrow it down.” Well, I couldn’t say nothin’ more ’bout the letter, so I asked Brandi Fay a question. I asked her if Doubting Thomas had a point when he questioned the Resurrection. “Hon,” said Brandi Fay, “I’m a waitress in a dive. If I believed in resurrections, do you think I’d be here serving drunks?” I guess Brandi Fay had a point as well, so I asked her another question. I asked her if she knew what that cowboy done wrong in that song called “The Streets of Laredo.” “Dunno,” said Brandi Fay with a wink. “He probably short-changed the waitress. Hey, why don’t you get your buns back on that bull and stop asking me silly questions?” * I wish everything came as easy to me as riding that mechanical bull. Ya just gotta shift your butt cheeks when you feel the bull starting to turn, and you just gotta hold out your riding hand in the opposite direction. But when you’re messing around with affairs of the heart, there ain’t no girth to hang onto, and I started feeling the way I felt when I dreamed about the Muffler Man. I felt that something real uncommon was sizing me up again, so I weren’t surprised when I saw this strange fella working the controls of the bull. The fella he looked like nobody that I ever seen before. He looked ’bout as tall as a grandfather clock even though he was sitting down, and his face was as cracked as an ol’ red barn that had been in a hundred storms. The Stetson hat he was wearing was as wide as a barrel cactus, and his jeans were so bleached from the sun that they was practically white. The fella he hadda be sixty years old, but he looked as strong as an oak tree, and I ain’t seen no one control the bull the way that fella was doin’. He was working the dials and the joystick like he was playing a concert piano, and whenever some dude climbed onto the bull, he got thrown in less ’an three seconds. The fella turned and looked at me as if he been waiting for me to show up, and he spoke to me real familiar like he’d known me all my life. “I had almost givin’ up waitin’ for you,” he said in this lazy drawl, and I felt the chill of winter go running down my spine. “I hope you ain’t here to arrest me,” I said. “All I done was deliver a letter.” The fella he rose to his feet and he smelled of tobacco and whiskey, and he gazed at me like a squirrel that had spotted itself a nut. “No need to fret, lil’ darlin’,” he said as he tipped his Stetson hat. “Everything about you is arrestin’ already, so why would I need to do that?” He smiled at me kinda gentle like he was havin’ himself some fun, and he kept looking at me like he knowed me since I was knee-high to a duck. And the more that fella looked at me, the creepier I felt. He was acting like he had purchased me from them San Francisco slavers. “Mister,” I said, “you don’t need to do nothin’ but tell me who you are.” The dude stroked his jaw as if I’d asked him a question that needed real deep thought. Like maybe he had him a secret that he weren’t too inclined to share. When he finally spoke, his voice sorta flowed like water in a crik. “Darlin’,” he said, “you can call me Armadillo Slick.” * Well, there weren’t nobody mounting the bull no more, so the fella and I had a chat. He told me he was a horse trader and he had a spread north of Laredo, and it got pretty lonesome on the range, and that suited him just fine. But he said that now an’ then he got him an itch for some female company, and when he got the itch he drove into town and roped him a local filly. He said there weren’t no place better ’an Cherokee Sal’s for curing him of his itch. Well, that fella seemed kinda knowledgeable, so I asked him about that cowboy song. I asked if he knowed what that cowboy done wrong to get himself put in the ground. The fella he filled a shot glass with whiskey and he contemplated the question, then he said, “Ya don’t gotta do nothing wrong to get yourself put in the ground. The only thing doin’ wrong might do is hurry it up a bit.” I said, “I’ll bet that cowboy did nothing but shoot him a thievin’ dog.” The dude took him a sip of whiskey and swished it around in his mouth. “Say, lil’ darlin,” he said, after swallowin’ the whiskey, “how come I get the impression that you’ve been tempting fate?” Dern, it was like that fella could see right into my soul. When I said all I done was deliver a letter, he said, “That ain’t the point. Folks are callin’ you Bronco Betsy. You’re famous in most of the county. Don’t you know sooner or later you’re gonna get thrown from that bull?” “Shucks,” I said, “I seen Urban Cowboy six or seven times. John Travolta tempted fate much worse ’an me, and he didn’t get thrown at all. He rode out that bull in Gilley’s Bar and won himself a contest.” The dude opened a pouch of Redman Tobacco and he tucked a chaw under his cheek, and he said, “You ain’t never rode a bull controlled by Armadillo Slick. If you can last the full eight seconds when it’s my hand on the joystick, I’ll eat a red hot pepper and take you out to dinner.” Well, I didn’t say nothin’ more to him, I just climbed up on the bull. And the bull started twirling and jerking so fast it was like I was in a tornado. The room weren’t nothin’ but a blur, my head snapped like a whip, and the girth bit into my fingers like it had a set of teeth. But I lasted the full eight seconds and folks in the bar started clapping, and that dude hung his head like a scalded dog when he switched off the controls. “’Darlin’,” he said, “you just got the best of Armadillo Slick. Let’s find an Outback Steakhouse because I’m takin’ you out to dine.” * I’m gonna change the subject for a moment ’cause I remember something Ma told me. She said a woman has just one true love, and it’s all downhill after that. She said the love of her life weren’t Pa even though they was wed for twenty-five years. She said the fella that captured her heart was a dude that cleaned out porta-potties. She met him at a bluegrass festival when she was only sixteen, and they had ’em a torrid affair that only lasted a week. She said the fella left her to marry his high school sweetheart, and her heart went to sleep after that and never woke up again. She said no one ever rang her chimes like that porta-potty fella. While I was sittin’ in that Outback Steakhouse with Armadillo Slick, I remembered Ma telling me that, and my heart broke all over again. So I told him I was a widder and I weren’t in no market for sex, and I weren’t gonna love nobody ever again like I loved Agent Jackson. Armadillo Slick he was dipping cheese fries into a cheddar and bacon dip, and he said that didn’t bother him none ’cause them cheese fries were as good as sex. And he said a blooming onion was even better ’an sex, provided that you ordered it with two cups of spicy sauce. “Anyhow,” he said, “once I’ve mounted a filly, I like to dump her fast. I ain’t sure I’m in that big a hurry to get myself shed of you.” Well, I suppose the dude was having himself some fun at my expense. But he seemed to be kinda friendly and he weren’t too hard to talk to, and I wanted a second opinion about what I was doin’ for Bertha Jean. I told him I done time in Alderson Prison and that’s where I met Bertha Jean, and Bertha Jean gave some tampons away so I could get my hair done. I said I was beholdin’ to Bertha Jean ’cause my hair got fixed real nice, so I was helping Bertha Jean hook up with a woman she weren’t allowed to see. Armadillo Slick told me he knew Bertha Jean since she was a teenager stealing from pharmacies, and he knew Bertha Jean been to prison for soliciting bogus donations. He said he weren’t aware that she was out of the pokey now, and he didn’t know that she’d found herself a friend as good as me. “Ain’t it amazin’,” he said, “what a handful of tampons will fetch?” I gotta say this ‘bout Armadillo Slick—he sure could make me laugh. * Armadillo Slick kept sipping whiskey while we was eating them Outback steaks, and the likker musta primed his tongue ’cause he told me some more about him. He told me he was a fifth-generation Texan, the kind who likes open ranges, but one day he married a Kickapoo whore he met in a Dallas brothel. He said that was a damn fool thing to do ’cause he weren’t sober at the time, and women get pricklier ’an grass spurs if ya let ’em hang around. But at least that whore had the decency to run off with a veterinarian, and she left him a note that said she weren’t suited to his all his ramblin’ ways. He said that nothin’ came of that marriage but a blazing dose of the clap and a daughter he ain’t seen for thirty years ’cause she’s a church-goin’ type of person. “Didja make her stay home and slop a hog?” I asked Armadillo Slick. “I ain’t gonna fault your daughter none if ya had her sloppin’ a hog.” Armadillo Slick he laughed and said, “We ain’t here to talk about hogs. We’re here so I can tell you how to ride a robot bull proper.” Well, he took another a slug of whiskey and he ate the last bite of his steak, then he said, “Darlin’, when you’re ridin’ one of them bulls, you don’t wanna hang on every time. The only time you wanna stay on it is once the odds against you are high.” He went on to explain that there’s bull ridin’ contests in bars all over Texas, and that there’s bookies laying odds as to who’s gonna win them contests. The trick, he said, is to fall off the bull when they’re having the practice rounds, and to hang onto the bull for the full eight seconds after the odds against you are set. “That’s how you bring home the bacon,” he said, “without havin’ to slop no hog.” * Well, that’s how things got started between me and Armadillo Slick. He entered me in bull riding contests in bars all over Texas, and the time it didn’t drag so much when we was on the road. We entered bull riding contests in Austin and Houston and San Antonio, and I made it a point to fall off the bull quick during the practice rounds. By the time the final round began, the odds against me were steep, ’cause the folks in them cities weren’t yet aware that I was Bronco Betsy. I won almost all the contests though the prize money weren’t that much, but Armadillos Slick made thousands of dollars by betting with bookies and customers. We split the money fifty-fifty ’cause that’s what I thought was fair. Otherwise, I think Armadillo Slick woulda let me have it all. One time we drove all the way to Dallas where they got a bar called Gilley’s. It’s a spinoff of that bar near Houston where they filmed Urban Cowboy. I seen that movie a coupla times ’cause I really like John Travolta, but the character he played in that movie almost turned me offa him. He played this phony cowboy who was dumb as a pimpleback oyster. All the dude did was dance the two-step and knock his girlfriend around, and he couldn’t even order a hamburger without throwing it at the waitress. I suppose John Travolta was playing a fella a whole lot dumber than him, but after that movie came out, I’m surprised that he kept any fans at all. Well, at that bull riding contest at Gilley’s, we got into a peck of trouble. After I won the contest and collected a five hundred dollar prize, a buncha rowdies approached us while we was in the parking lot. One of them rowdies asked me if I was Bronco Betsy ’cause he’d heard of this girl in Laredo who never got thrown off the bull. The dudes had lost a passel of cash to Armadillo Slick, and, since things didn’t seem on the up-and-up to ’em, they wanted their money back. Armadillo Slick asked them to wait while he fetched his money belt, and he reached into the cab of his pickup truck and pulled out a two-barreled shotgun. He said, “How about double or nothing, boys?” and them rowdies scattered like crows. And Armadillo Slick he emptied both barrels an inch or two over their heads. As he drove us back to Laredo, Armadillo Slick whooped like a rustler. He said we weren’t hustling Gilley’s no more ’cause he don’t like the company there, and he said he never had as much fun with his daughter as he was having with me. I believe Doubtin’ Thomas would have plenty of doubt about me and Armadillo Slick. ’Cause I don’t suppose I was building up a speck of treasure in heaven. But treasure in heaven ain’t tempting enough when you’re hurting to get through the day. And the day didn’t weigh so heavy when I was with Armadillo Slick. * After we hustled Gilley’s and headed back to Laredo, Armadillo Slick he kept swigging from a bottle of Johnny Walker. The pickup truck started weaving like he was driving on ice, and it would only have been a couple of seconds ’til we was wrapped around a tree. So I asked him to pull over ’cause my bladder was about to burst, and, after we both had a pee, I slipped behind the steering wheel. Shucks, just ’cause my heart was broken didn’t mean I was in a hurry to leave this world. It wouldn’t have been no improvement to be sittin’ on blistering coals. Once we got back to Webb County, I drove us to Bertha Jean’s ranch house. Armadillo Slick he needed to drink a pot of real strong coffee, and no one makes coffee stronger than Bertha Jean. It hits you like a bolt of lightning snaking outta the sky. And since we’d done enough sinning to earn us a bolt of lightning, it’d be best if it sprang from a pot of coffee and not the fist of the Lord. There weren’t no lights on in the ranch house, but I could still make out Bertha Jean. She was sitting on the veranda, watching our truck approach, and a harvest-like moon had lit her up like she been touched by Saint Elmo’s Fire. It looked like she weren’t of this world no more and was waitin’ to tell me goodbye. Well, I sat down on a rocker beside her and a chill kinda tickled my neck, and I heard a horned owl hoo-hooing when Bertha Jean took my hand. She didn’t say nothing at first, she just sat there holding my hand. And Armadillo Slick he stayed in the truck ’cause he weren’t fit for nothing but sleeping. After a while, Bertha Jean started jawing ‘bout our time at Alderson Prison. She talked about how nice my hair looked after she gave them tampons away, and she talked about how I made her proud when I skunked everyone at checkers. She even talked about Warden Jordan and how he was fulla surprises, and how it was hard to know if he was speaking to you on account of his lazy eye. But it didn’t seem like Bertha Jean was sharing no memories. It was like she was reading from a book that she maybe found in a bus station. And Armadillo Slick he kept snoring ’cause he weren’t fit for nothin’ else. He sounded like a chain saw that was cutting down a tree. * After we sat on the veranda a spell, Bertha Jean changed the subject. She told me about something she said she been keeping inside her for a while. She said heaven was surely a sin away if she could run off with Brandi Fay, but if the sin was committed by Brandi Fay’s father, things weren’t gonna work out so well. She said Brandi Fay’s father had served time in Huntsville for stabbing an Austin man to death, and he had knocked off several other folks for which he had never been caught. She said that folks called him Abraham after that fella in the Bible—that’s ’cause he’s all the time quotin’ scripture and wielding a knife for the Lord. She said he visited her last Sunday and his eyes were fulla fire, and he was carrying the letter I delivered to Brandi Fay. And he told her that it weren’t proper of her not to sign the letter, ’cause the letter was her death certificate and her name oughta be on that. When Bertha Jean told him the Bible only gave him the right to kill beasts, he said women that fornicate with each other ain’t no better ’an beasts. He said he weren’t gonna kill her on a Sunday ’cause the Sabbath belongs to the Lord, but he was gonna come back in a coupla days and put her in the ground. Well, the moon was as bright as a headlight and that owl was as loud as a horn, and I realized how much them tampons were gonna cost me now. There weren’t no doubt in my mind about what Bertha Jean wanted me to do. ’Cause Bertha Jean she’s a felon and felons ain’t allowed to do much. They’re only allowed to get carved up by fellas that folks call Abraham. Ya know, sin is as cheap as a dime-store ring when you’ve committed a passel of them. ’Cause untangling a pack of transgressions is harder than committing yourself one more. So I took some comfort in knowing that I was heading straight to hell, and that them coals wouldn’t burn no hotter if I bought Bertha Jean a gun. * I gotta tell ya about this dream I had after talking with Bertha Jean. I ain’t sure why I gotta call it a dream ’cause it was as real as a bellyache. But when something don’t lend itself to explaining and sorta shakes you up, people ain’t gonna be comfortable unless you call it a dream. So I’m gonna say I was dreaming ’cause I gotta finish this story. The dream it happened in Bertha Jean’s guestroom, which weren’t fit for no visitations. There weren’t nothing in that guestroom but a cot and a broken back rocker, and my clothes were strewn all over the floor ’cause I had no place to store ’em. Well, I felt a breeze tickling my forehead when I was getting close to sleep, and when I opened my eyes, I saw Agent Jackson sitting in that broken back rocker. He was sitting there quiet as a lizard and he was reading a newspaper, and he was flipping through the pages like he was hoping the news would change. “How are you doing, Gertie?” he said, and he kept on turning pages. He was probably real uncomfortable to be haunting so messy a room. Well, I guess he needed to hear him a lie, so I said I was doin’ well. And when he didn’t respond, I knew that the talking was gonna be up to me. So I told him I was keeping company with a fella named Armadillo Slick, but that I weren’t gonna have no sex with him ’cause we’d rather eat blooming onions. I said I never liked onions much, but they taste real good when they’re blooming, and then I asked him how heaven was ’cause I wanted to be polite. Agent Jackson he didn’t say nothin’ for what seemed like a real long time. He just kept reading the newspaper and glancing out the window, and I weren’t sure he had even heard me’ ’til he finally cleared his throat. “It’s sort of like San Francisco here,” he said and he turned another page. “I always liked San Francisco, Gertie. Except for the traffic and bums.” I told him I liked San Francisco too, especially Golden Gate Park, and I liked when we sat by that big ol’ pond and watched them geese eating bugs. “Did we?” he said, and he rattled the newspaper. “Things kind of get away from you here.” Well, I ain’t sure why Agent Jackson had come to pay me a visit. Even when he spoke, he never looked in my direction. But that was probably for the best ’cause my face was scalded with tears, and Agent Jackson seemed troubled enough without seeing no woman’s tears. As I looked at Agent Jackson, I remembered somethin’ Ma told me. She said folks in heaven might pay you a visit, but they weren’t gonna hang around long. ’Cause the dead got business they gotta get on with, and that business don’t include you. But I sensed that trouble was coming my way and it felt like it was close, and I sensed that Agent Jackson knew that too, but weren’t allowed to do nothin’ about it. I don’t think that Agent Jackson was pleased that he hadda get back to heaven. I don’t think heaven was meant for a manly fella like him. After a while, he pushed himself out of the chair and came over to where I was laying, and he stroked my head with his palm, which felt as chilled as a channel catfish. And that rocker it swayed like a pendulum while he was telling me goodbye. He told me he’d love me forever, and he kissed me on the forehead. And his breath it smelled like ashes that was cooling in a stove. * When I woke the next morning, I wondered why I hadn’t heard Bertha Jean’s rooster. She has this bantam rooster that’s been waking us up at sunrise, and she says she’d like to wring his neck, but she needs him to breed with the hens. So I got outta bed and went out on the porch, and I noticed the sun was high. And I saw this big ol’ javelina gobblin’ that rooster up. I didn’t see Bertha Jean nowhere and her pickup truck was gone, and Armadillo Slick he was sitting on the porch all by himself. His feet was propped up on the railing and his hat was shading his eyes, and he was sipping a cup of coffee and watching that rooster get et. When I let him know that Agent Jackson came to me in a dream, Armadillo Slick blowed on his coffee and had himself a stretch. He said he don’t put no stock in dreams ’cause there’s other things needing attention. He said one of them was for me to learn the right way to fall off a bull. “Darlin’,” he said, “when you’re ridin’ for money ya can’t be too obvious. If folks think you’re tryin’ to fool ’em during the practice round, the odds on you will go way down and we won’t be makin’ no money. Ya gotta hang on a few seconds longer, so folks won’t start gettin’ suspicious.” He said we was goin’ to Cherokee Sal’s so I could put in some practice time, and I told him I weren’t goin’ nowhere ’til he shot that javelina. I was real fond of that rooster, ya know—I even gave him a name. I named him Little Prince Charles ’cause he was a cocky little fella, and I weren’t gonna stand there a second longer and watch Prince Charles get et. Armadillo Slick said he couldn’t do nothin’ about Prince Charles getting et. He said Bertha Jean told him her story about how she been tempting fate, so he gave her the loan of his shotgun so she wouldn’t get stuck with a knife. He said there’s too many crazies around with murder on their minds, and them crazies don’t oughta be given no chance to put folks in the ground. “Now I ain’t into christenin’ roosters,” he said, “but I did give that shotgun a name. I call it the Faith of Job because it gives a soul confidence. Fate ain’t gonna be tempted so much when you’re carrying the Faith of Job.” Well, it looked like Armadillo Slick had taken my sin off my hands. And I guess I felt beholding enough to let Prince Charles get et. So I gave him a smooch on the forehead, and we got into his truck. And we headed to Cherokee Sal’s, so I could learn how to fall off a bull. * The tumbleweeds were floating like ghosts as we headed down the road, and I never saw so many turkey vultures hanging in the sky. And I remembered Bertha Jean talking to me with that heavenly glow in her eyes, and how that glow weren’t dimmed by the thought of some fella carrying a knife. So when we parked outside of Cherokee Sal’s and I saw a police car sitting there, I figgered the Faith of Job mighta had something to do with that. Bertha Jean was sitting in the back of the police car, and she looked like she was in a trance. And a crowd had collected around Brandi Fay who was talking to a couple of cops. And Brandi Fay was pale as a corpse and holding onto one of the cops, and she weren’t acting sociable no more—she was shaking her head like a mule. Well, I felt like a wart on a peacock when I hopped outta the truck, ’cause I didn’t feel too compatible with what was goin’ on. Bertha Jean didn’t look as though she wanted no company, and Brandi Fay was raving like she witnessed the Resurrection. I ain’t that adaptable to folks when they’re raving about religion—not since I hadda chase them pigs out of the church. “It had to be a miracle,” I heard Brandi Fay telling the cops. “She pointed that shotgun right at my chest and said heaven was a sin away. And then she pulled both triggers, but the shotgun didn’t go off.” “Her shotgun needs a good cleaning,” a cop said to Brandi Fay. “A murder-suicide ain’t gonna succeed unless you use a clean gun.” “Thank god, she’s a mess,” said Brandi Fay, and a chuckle came into her throat. “She got things outta order too. She should have shot herself first.” Brandi Fay started telling the cop that she hardly knew Bertha Jean. She said Bertha Jean came into the bar one day and she gave Bertha Jean a smile, then she served her a free margarita ‘cause it was happy hour. And Bertha Jean said one happy hour didn’t compare with eternal bliss, and she came back to the bar every day for a month and kept trying to sneak a kiss. Brandi Fay said she put a stay-away order on her ’cause she didn’t want that much bliss. When I felt a hand on my elbow, I thought it was the hand of the Lord, but it was only Armadillo Slick who was leading me back to his truck. He said Bertha Jean told him a mighty fine story and she oughta get credit for that, and that when she goes back to prison, she’ll have plenty of time to write herself a best seller. When I told him that Brandi Fay’s father don’t deserve to be in no book, he said Brandi Fay’s father passed ten years ago, so I don’t gotta get worked up about that. He also said I don’t gotta get worked up about witnessing no miracle, ’cause it didn’t take more than a flathead screwdriver to pull the firing pins out of that shotgun. As we pulled out of the parking lot, he patted me on the arm, and he said we was heading to the Outback Steakhouse to share a blooming onion. He said this consternation weren’t nothin’ a blooming onion won’t fix. * I got nothing else to tell you except that I ain’t left South Texas yet. I’m hanging around with Armadillo Slick and we’re still entering bull riding contests, but folks are startin’ to recognize me so our hustle it ain’t gonna last. And I’m still staying at Bertha Jean’s ranch house ’cause her chickens have gotta be fed, but if that javelina starts lickin’ his chops, them chickens ain’t gonna last neither. But I still owe a favor to Bertha Jean ’cause she gave all them tampons away, and feeding her chickens is a million times better than helping her kill Brandi Fay. I wrote Ma a letter and told her what happened ’cause I needed to clear my head. And Ma she wrote back and told me that I must have a guardian angel. Well, I suppose Ma got it right again, but I feel kinda riled about that. ’Cause them angels ain’t fair as to who they protect and who they let fall through the cracks. Agent Jackson deserved some protecting, but they let darkness snatch him away. And the Nose he needed to keep his muse, and they let him get robbed of his talent. Shucks, them angels have gotta be blinder than moles and without the sense God gave a turnip. But I guess fairness got nothing to do with it, and I’ll have to make do with that. I also gotta make do with the fact that they ain’t too presentable. If one of ’em is gonna lighten my load, I’d expect him to have some wings. I’d also expect him to glow like a candle and carry himself a harp, and not to be sluggin’ down whiskey all day and watchin’ as roosters get et. Now I ain’t no expert on saviors—I got too much sin for that. But I never thought mine would be no drunk named Armadillo Slick. #