HE WAS way too pretty to be drinking beer in a shit-kicking West Texas bar on Friday night. I eased up out of my seat, leaned up against the bar so I could hear what was happening. A pair of cowboys was crowding him on either side, mean-looking boys with small eyes and dirty jeans. He looked city—San Francisco, maybe—with hair the color of pale honey down in his eyes. He looked like Heath Ledger’s little blue-eyed brother. He looked at me, trying to see if I was more trouble heading his way. He was still smiling, but his eyes had gone real serious. Stormy-sky blue, smart, and he eased away from the bar, nodded to the two shit-kickers.
“Where you going, boy?” The one with the belly and the Tony Lama boots reached out, grabbed a handful of his sleeve, and pulled him back against the bar. The second one leaned in, shoved a knee in between his thighs.
“You look like you’re up for a party.” He turned to his friend. “Don’t he look up for a party?”
I put my beer down. He crossed his arms across his chest, smile gone. “Back off, dickheads. I don’t party with your sort. And don’t put your fucking hands on my jacket again.”
“Oh, the boy don’t want to get his pretty clothes dirty! You hear that, Mike? We ain’t the right sort!”
“You two better clear out of here.” I leaned an elbow on the bar, moved a little closer, into their space. Let them notice how big I was.
Tony Lama Boots tipped his Bud up to his mouth and took a long pull. He stared at me, his eyes hard. “You talking to me? I’m not inclined to go anywhere. I’m just talking to my little friend here.”
“Yeah, well, he’s my friend, not yours, and you’re close enough you could shove your dick in his mouth. That the kind of fun you’re looking for? Better take it out to the alley.”
That got me three dirty looks. I could see the one called Mike measure up my size, my USMC haircut, decide he’d best cut on out of whatever was about to happen. But Tony Lama Boots had been at the Bud just a little bit too long. “What you saying there, Chief? I thought we didn’t let Indians in Texas. Run you all off to Oklahoma, right?”
“They let us back into Texas when they need a war fought.”
The city boy clapped his hands. “Okay, everyone? Let’s start again. I’m Jesse.” He pushed that pretty corn-silk hair back behind his ear. “Can we all just take a step back? I don’t like all this hostility I’m feeling, and I’ve got to be hitting the road.”
Tony Lama Boots reached out, shoved him hard in the chest with the flat of his hand. “I don’t think you’re going nowhere, boy, and I don’t think this big Indian standing here is gonna do dick about it. Am I right?”
Jesse looked pissed now. “It’s not Indian, you redneck pig. It’s Native American. And I told you to keep your hands off my jacket. Jesus, look at your fingernails! They have soap in the bathroom of the Greyhound Bus station.”
Uh-oh. I reached out, jerked him up against my chest, leaned over and spoke into his ear. “Would you shut up and let me handle this?”
Too late. Tony Lama Boots decided it was time for some action, and that action was a beer bottle across my head. I could feel the sticky beer mixed with blood flowing over my collar. Then he cracked the bottle against the bar, took the jagged cut edge, and tried to rake it across my face. He missed my eyes, but I could feel my cheek open up underneath the bottle’s sharp glass. Jesse screamed and leapt on the man’s back, knocked his hat off, and pulled his hair with both hands.
Then Tony Lama Boots was spinning around, trying to dislodge Jesse like he was a rabid monkey on his neck, and Mike threw a chair in my direction. It was a pussy throw, and he kept a table between me and him. The boys playing pool joined in the fun. Then a retired marine with a devil dog on his forearm decided to come to the service of a brother marine. By the time the cops were on the way, the bar was nearly empty, littered with spilled beer and blood and broken glass. Tony Lama Boots was splayed out on his back, unconscious, though I suspected some of that was put on to keep Jesse from kicking him again.
Jesse was wearing red sneakers with round white rubber toes. “Oh, yeah, you’re doing him some real damage with those. Were you pulling his hair? What the hell kind of bar fighting was that? You fight like a little girl.”
“Why don’t you lay down right here, and I’ll kick your ribs. Then you can tell me if it hurts or not.”
“Don’t get pissed off at me. I was just trying to keep those boys from beating the shit out of you and leaving you in some alley, with your clothes unfortunately missing.”
That stopped him for a moment, and he looked carefully around at the wrecked bar. “Okay, well. You may have a point.” He spread his arms, gesturing to the mess we’d made. “And this is just so much better! I am going to get my ass kicked.”
I thought about the old man waiting for me down in Marathon, thought about how to explain to him I was calling from a jail up in Alpine, nothing to worry about, just a Friday night bar brawl. Not a very good first impression. “Shit.” No good deed goes unpunished.
Jesse handed me some napkins. “Better hold these against your face. You’re gonna need some stitches, I think.” He looked down at his pants—spattered cream-colored silk and linen, the hems rolled up, and no socks with his red sneakers. “Can you believe this? I’ll never get the blood out.”
“What I can’t believe is that you wore that into a bar in Alpine on a Friday night. Why didn’t you just wear your rainbow T-shirt?”
That got me a sour look. “I don’t need a T-shirt. I’ve got a rainbow tattooed on my ass.”
My face was throbbing like an abscessed tooth. “I’m looking forward to seeing that,” I said, “but hopefully not in the jail showers.” He gave a shiver and wrapped his arms around himself, but further conversation was impossible, once the bar filled with the flashing red and blue lights of the Alpine police.
The cops started sorting people into groups, and it didn’t take Jesse long to figure out he wanted to be with the group going to the hospital. I suspected Tony Lama Boots figured that out too, and he was going to remain unconscious just long enough to get him a soft hospital bed overnight. Jesse was holding his right hand.
“I think you need an X-ray, don’t you? I hope it isn’t broken.”
He picked up his cue. “I can’t move my fingers!”
He sat next to me in the waiting room at the Big Bend ER, his hand resting up against his chest. The cop that was supposed to be guarding us gave me a stern look, told me not to move, and went off looking for coffee. As soon as he was around the corner, Jesse was up and talking to the girl at reception. She slid a cell phone under the glass, and he came back to the seat next to me, punching buttons with his injured hand. “Second cousin,” he said, looking up and winking at her. “Hey, Granddad! It’s Jesse. Yeah, I’m…. No. No, I mean, yes, I’m at the hospital but I’m fine. Listen, can you mosey on up to Alpine and get me? Bring some bail money?” He listened for a moment. “No, I… listen, Granddad, can I explain it all when you get here? I’m sorry to make you come all the way. Yeah. Okay. Love you too.”
Jesse held the phone toward me. “You need to call somebody to come riding to the rescue?”
I took the phone, pulled the number out of my wallet. “I need to let somebody know I’ll be late. I was supposed to go down to Marathon tomorrow.” I dialed the number, listened to the gruff old man pick up the phone on the first ring.
“Yeah? What is it?”
“Um, sir, this is Lorenzo Maryboy.”
“Maryboy, you calling from the hospital?”
“Uh, yes, sir, I am. Nothing serious.”
“Are you sitting next to my grandson? Jesse Clayton?”
I turned to Jesse. “Are you Jesse Clayton?”
“The third,” he admitted.
I closed my eyes. I wasn’t sure there was anything to say.
“Maryboy, you there?”
“You need bail money too?”
The cop was coming back around the corner, and he frowned and reached a hand down to his nightstick when he saw me with the cell phone.
“Yes, sir, I believe I will.”
“Is there a cop there with you? Let me talk to him.”
I handed the cell to the cop. “Mr. Clayton wants to talk to you. Jesse Clayton from Marathon.”
He took the phone gingerly, and Jesse turned and looked at me, frowning. “Why did you call my grandfather? How’d you know who he was?”
“I didn’t. I was supposed to go see a Mr. Clayton tomorrow. He’s giving me some studio space. I’m a cartoonist. He’s offered to mentor me while I get set up in the business. I just mustered out of the Marine Corps. My CO knew him, arranged for us to meet.” We looked at each other carefully, reassessing. “So, who are you again?”
“I’m Jesse Clayton the third. JC3 to my friends. I’m a painter. I was coming down to Marathon for the winter. I thought I could talk him into letting me use the studio he’s got out back for a new project. I wonder if that’s the studio he promised you. I didn’t tell him I was coming.”
“How many studios does he have?”
“Far as I know, just one.”
The cop shut the cell. “Who does this belong to?” Jesse gestured toward the reception desk, and the cop walked over and shoved it under the glass. He came back over and looked down at both of us. “I got to check with the duty officer first, but I think we can send you both home with your granddad tonight. Jesse Clayton, wow. Jarhead. I’ve always admired him. We’ve got one of his cartoons hung up at the station.”
A nurse came out from the back, a pretty dark-haired woman with a Spanish accent. “Ready for some stitches?”
“What are the alternatives?” I stood up to follow her to an exam room.
“Well, if you don’t care about how you look, we could just superglue it back together. But you’re too good-looking for that. I’ll use the very finest silk, I promise, and it’ll look just like a dueling scar.” She patted the exam table, and I lay down. She angled a big light until it was playing over the laceration. “So was it a duel?”
I thought about Jesse’s pretty face, stormy-blue eyes, his red sneakers with the white toes. “Sort of. A West Texas Friday night sort of duel.”
“You got in a fight in a bar? Broken beer bottle?”
“In that case I better look for fragments of glass, don’t you think? And maybe we should get you a tetanus shot.”
JC3 and I waited at the police station for the original Jesse Clayton to show up and bail us out. That’s what Jesse called him, The Original. “What’s with JC3? It sounds ridiculous. People don’t really call you that, do they?”
He huffed a little. “It’s a San Francisco sort of name,” he admitted. “You know, a clever and bright sort of name. It’s fun when identity is fluid. What do people call you? Lorenzo? Renzo? You could be Z-O. Like the initials. Or zo-zo. No capitals. That would be cool.”
“People call me Maryboy.”
“I’ve been in the Marine Corps.”
“Of course, that explains the butch haircut. What sort of name is Maryboy? You’re Navajo, right?”
“Yeah, my family comes from up around Shonto, Navajo Mountain. Lots of Maryboys up there.”
“Can I call you MB for short?”
“No. You can call me Maryboy.”
“I bet your platoon mates called you Mary.”
“Only when they were suicidal. Have we got the names issue settled yet?”
JC3 crossed his arms, slouched down a bit in his seat. “I’m just a little anxious, I guess. I screwed up. I should have told The Original I was coming. I don’t want to mess anything up for you.”
“It’s cool. Don’t worry about it.”
That got me a look, just shy of major eye rolling. This boy was a piece of work. I was starting to like him, though his being here might just fuck up the only chance like this I would ever get.
He seemed to be reading my wavelength. “Tell me about your cartoons.”
“Your granddad’s cartoon was Jarhead, right? The one I’ve been doing is called Devil Dog. It’s a series for Marines. About being in the Corps. I guess sort of insider humor, you know? Like his was. I started sending them out over the Internet when I was in Afghanistan, and they started getting a lot more hits than I was expecting. Then I started getting these offers from people, let-me-make-you-rich deals, but I just ignored them all. Then your granddad wrote to me. He’s like a legend, you know?” I looked at him, and Jesse nodded. “Only other USMC cartoonist, far as I know, and he’s been doing this for, what, forty years? More? Anyway, he said the one thing nobody else said.”
“He said you could come work at the studio?”
“Not really. I mean, that was part of it. He said, ‘If you’re looking for a mentor, maybe I can help you get on your feet as a cartoonist.’ I nearly fell over. I said, ‘Hell, yeah, I’m looking for a mentor. I don’t have a clue what to do.’ So he said, ‘What do you think of your cartoons?’ That seemed strange to me, but I told him the truth. I said I thought they were okay, but not really good enough. Not yet. I couldn’t concentrate on them full time. I needed to work on them some more before they were ready to go anywhere. He said he agreed with me, and why didn’t I come down to his place in Texas, a little town called Marathon. It was quiet and still and he had a studio I could use. So I could concentrate enough to get down to the bones.”
“That sounds like him. He really believes in the value of working on something till it’s good enough. Not rushing out the door with a rough draft. It took me a long time before I really got that lesson.”
“What are you working on now?”
He shifted in his seat, sat up a bit. “Well, that’s why I came down here. I had an idea about a series of paintings, but I just couldn’t get…. What was it you said? Down into the bones. I couldn’t get into the bones of the work. I was painting cowboys, and I thought I needed to come down here and soak it up a bit.” Jesse studied me out of the corner of his eye. “Maybe you want to let me paint you? I heard the best cowboys were Indians.”
“Well, that’s very true.”
“I’ve been working on icons for a while now, exploring iconic American images. I thought about The Original’s studio because it’s down here, of course, and Texas is Umbilicus Mundi for cowboys. But it’s also big, with a really high ceiling, and I wanted to make these paintings physically big. You know? Cowboys are big.”
I thought about his first hour back in Texas, in a cowboy bar. “So, what do you think about cowboys so far?”
He sneered at the blood spattered on his beautiful trousers. “I don’t confuse redneck crackers drinking PBR with real cowboys.”
“I think they were drinking Bud.”
“Whatever. You know what I mean.” He turned around and looked at me. “Thanks. I should have said it before. I know they were dangerous. They had that crazy, reckless look, like they would enjoy hurting somebody. They were scaring me. I appreciate you helping me out.”
He studied me for a moment more, then went back to leaning up against the wall. “I have always had excellent gaydar.”
I sighed, rubbed a hand over my face. The stitches were throbbing and my mouth tasted like the inside of an old boot. “Can I pay you to shut up so I can suffer in silence here?”
He smirked at me. “Sure, cowboy. Don’t want to get too close, you know? Don’t want to tie a pink ribbon on any fierce, brooding warrior feelings. Or get in too close to the bone. That must have been fun, being in the USMC with a rainbow flag tattooed on your ass.”
Ouch. “If you’re so smart, why’d you wear red sneakers into a bar on Friday night in Alpine?”
His eyes were closed. “They’re comfortable.”