THE sere New Mexican wind blew a handful of snow down the back of my neck. The snow was gritty and dry as sand, and it melted in an icy stream down my spine. I pulled the sweatshirt over my head and dropped it on the deck chair, skimmed out of my sweatpants, and climbed into the hot tub. A hundred and five degrees, and the steam poured into the cold night air, reaching into the sky, melting the falling snow before it had a chance to reach the ground.
Nothing like sitting in a hot tub during a snowstorm. An outdoor hot tub in the winter, in the mountains of New Mexico? You were practically guaranteed some beautiful privacy. I stretched out and propped my feet up on the far side of the tub. I’d found a couple of beauties for my collection this trip. There was a house in the foothills with the garage door painted white, and in huge, scarlet letters, the homeowner had sent a message: SHOVE IT, HEINRICH. Poor Martin. He was good-looking and a liberal, so no wonder people hated him. Down in Southwest Albuquerque, I’d come across an old adobe church turned into a boxing club, and the ancient carved wooden doors had been painted by a graff artist in devil’s colors, black and red, BAD BOYS BOXING CLUB, with little horns sprouting from the B’s. That sign must have driven the grandmothers and priests crazy. My favorite, though, was a message written in soap on the back window of a Bronco speeding down the interstate with a giddy couple inside: JUST TIDE THE KNOT!!
I collected language, words, messages shouted from billboards and T-shirts and windows and sometimes garage doors. Nothing could stop people from communicating. I was happy when they communicated with words instead of weapons. I taught English at the community college up in Taos. The class on Weapons of the Middle Ages always filled up before Intro to English, even though English was required for graduation. But that was cool. Everybody listened to their own music.
An old man came out of one of the hotel rooms fronting the pool and made his slow way over to the table next to the hot tub. He was wearing a plaid snap-front shirt, its snaps covered in old fashioned mother-of-pearl. The shirt was thin, worn from years of washing and careful ironing, but he didn’t seem to notice the cold. He sat down, opened his tobacco pouch, and started rolling himself a cigarette.
“What kind of a damn fool sits outside in the bathtub in the middle of a snowstorm?”
I gave his cigarette a pointed look, but he just took a long draw, the end sparking bright orange.
“Come on in, partner. The water’s fine.”
“I think I’ll pass.”
A young man came out of one of the rooms, looked around for someone, then hurried our way. He was carrying a jacket over his arm. He looked Navajo or Apache, his long black hair streaming down his back.
“I think you’re busted,” I said. He turned around and looked at the boy hurrying toward him.
“I put your coat on the chair right next to the door. How could you miss it?” He wrapped it around the old man’s shoulders, then pulled up a chair. “Don’t you know enough to put on a jacket when you’re going out in the cold?”
The old man made a dismissive sound. “This ain’t cold.”
He wasn’t a boy, more early twenties, with a dark, proud face and a nose sharp and straight as a hatchet blade. He looked over at the hot tub and studied the rising steam, and me, with interest. The old man barked out a laugh. “I should say, this ain’t cold unless you’re sitting in a bathtub, then you get out soaking wet and stand in the snow like a damn fool.”
“Why do you have to leave tomorrow? Can’t you stay another day? The film festival’s just started.”
The old man shook his head. “You know I don’t like to leave the stock. That weather channel said there’s a storm heading my way.” The boy just stared at him, waiting. “Johnny, I’m real proud of you, you know that, right?”
Johnny nodded. “I know that.”
“Good. I liked your movie. Film, I mean, though I don’t know what the hell difference there is between a film and a movie.” He raised a hand. “That’s okay, I know you told me once. Son, you’ve done a fine job with it. You don’t need me to stick around when you show it to the world. You might not have noticed, but I don’t exactly fit in with this movie crowd.” He hesitated. “I don’t want to slow you down.”
“I don’t care about any of that. I wanted you here.”
“I know that, son. I was thinking today about when you bought your first camera. You remember?”
Johnny was grinning. “When I rustled your goats and bought a camera with the money?”
“That would be it.”
“I fell in love with Western movies, watching John Wayne on your old TV. That’s why I wanted to make Westerns.” The old man gave him a silent look, then took a last drag of his cigarette and stuffed the butt into a can of sand. “I know you don’t think I’m getting it right yet.”
He shrugged. “You make any movie you want and I’ll watch it and tell you it’s fine. Maybe I’m just too old to get this new moviemaking. My time, a Western had a basic plot. The bad guy rode into town and caused some trouble. The sherrif locked him up. Then the brother or father or uncle rode into town with his gang to get him out. It was the good guys against the bad guys. There was a shoot-out. There was usually a pretty girl who could sing. There would be some fine looking horses and a threat of Indian attack. The Apache in those movies—what a joke. Damn Italians wearing Cheyenne feathers on their heads and Sioux moccasins.”
“They weren’t real Apache. And the film makers didn’t even bother to try to get the language right. But times are changing. That’s what I want to show. How things are changing. How the land shapes people. Maybe how it breaks people. I don’t know that I’ve got it, not yet.”
“The old Westerns, they always had quite a bit of singing. Guitar playing, or maybe a fiddle.”
“I don’t know that much about country music. What…?”
“Not country, boy. The old stuff. Folk music. Blues. The songs the poor people sang. You need to find you a girl who can sing like a bird with broken wings. A bird who remembers what it felt like to fly. That’s the kind of singing you want in your movie.”
“I’ll keep looking, then.”
The old man hesitated, fiddling with his tobacco pouch. “Johnny, that man helping you with the movie. Why’s he calling you Shadow?”
Johnny shrugged, looked down at the table. “Drama, I guess. It’s a marketing thing, to help sell the movie. He thinks it sounds mysterious, and that’ll cause some interest—”
“He looks at you like he’s thinking about the casting couch. Like you’re some fancy little pet he’s got on a nice, shiny leash. Can’t you get your movie out in the world without that?”
Johnny was staring at the concrete beneath his feet. “Maybe. I surely don’t know how.”
“Why don’t you come home with me for a while? See your old horse. This ain’t your world.”
He shook his head. “I can’t. But I’m happy to know he’s with you, and you’re looking out for him.”
“I could look out for you, too, if you’d let me.”
Johnny stood up. “You did. When I needed it.” He pulled the sweatshirt over his head and dropped it on the table. “I think I might take a dip in this hot tub.”
“You don’t even have a towel! You’re gonna give yourself pneumonia.”
“I’ll run back to the room when I’m done. You let me in when you hear me knocking, okay?”
The old man stood up, left the jacket on the table. “Put this on when you get out.” He stuffed his tobacco pouch in the front pocket of his jeans, then turned to watch Johnny get undressed.
I was watching, too. He leaned forward, pushed his jeans down over his hips, and his black hair slid over his bare shoulders, lay against his cheek, and fell into the cold night air like a dark cloud. The old man frowned at me, but I just grinned back at him. Johnny was giving me a good, slow look, and I was enjoying his smooth brown chest, elegant shoulders, and flat belly. He climbed into the hot tub in his plaid flannel boxers, and the old man went off to their room shaking his head.
He reached across, offering his hand. “Johnny.”
“I’m Raine Magrath,” I said and let his smooth palm slide against mine.
He pulled away, his smile twisting a bit. “Shadow and Raine. Very cool.”
“If you’re a marketing weenie, I suppose so. What name do you prefer?”
“My name’s Johnny Bravo.”
I sat up, looked at him a little closer. “Really?”
“You’re here for the film festival?”
He nodded. “It’s my first one. I’ve got a sponsor. I’m not really sure how that happened.”
“The casting couch?”
His face darkened. “Maybe. No. I don’t know. You a filmmaker?”
I shook my head. “I teach English up in Taos at the community college.” He was quiet, waiting for the rest. I studied the bright stars. “Pretty sky tonight. You don’t usually see the stars when it’s snowing.”
He pushed back and studied the sky. “You know anybody who sings like a bird with broken wings?”
“Willie Nelson? Oh, wait. I do know somebody. Gram Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris. Just before he overdosed out in the desert. You know him? He was a Western sort of man. Beautiful and talented and self-destructive. He went up in flames when he was still too young to know any better.”
“I don’t know that I’ve ever heard him sing.”
“He had a band called the Flying Burrito Brothers, among others. You should listen to them sing ‘Wild Horses’ on YouTube.”
“What, the Stones’ ‘Wild Horses’?”
“His is better. You can hear his heart weeping in his voice.”
“Is that what it means to be a Western man? Beautiful and talented and self-destructive?”
I thought about this a bit, gazing up at the sky. I slid down until the hot water was lapping at my shoulders. “Maybe it does. I’m not sure. My daddy, he’s about the same age as that old man you’re with.” I nodded in the direction he had gone. “He was more than fifty when he met my mama. He had a code he lived by. Rules that meant his honor, you know? That honor was more important to him than his life. Still is, though he doesn’t remember so good anymore. He still remembers that. That’s what I think of as a Western man.”
Johnny nodded and looked back toward the hotel. “It makes for a hard life, living by a code.”
“That old man, he raised you?”
He shook his head. “He knew my mama before I was born. He gave me a horse when I was a boy, and he gave me a home when I needed one. He loved me when I was pretty damn unlovable. He’s tried to teach me what it means to be a man. So, yeah, I guess he raised me.” He paused, raising a hand to cover his eyes. “He doesn’t have much longer. He’s got cancer, and he’s too hardheaded to get any treatment.”
“I’m sorry, Johnny.”
He dropped his hand and looked up at me, like he was trying to figure out if I was being straight. Then he reached out and lifted a piece of hair off my shoulder, gave it a tug. “Your hair’s curling up like Shirley Temple’s in this steam. So you live in Taos? I’ve been meaning to drive up there, look around.”
“It’s a real different piece of New Mexico. Still pretty wild. Look me up, you ever get up that way. I’ll take you for a horseback ride in the Carson National Forest.”
“Maybe I will.” He still had my hair curled around his finger. “I like your moustache.”
A man walked around the side of the pool. He was older, fifties, maybe, with elegant silver hair combed down slick. He frowned when he saw Johnny sitting in the hot tub. “Shadow, I told you I had people coming by I wanted to introduce you to. Did you forget? Come back to the room. See if you can dry your hair, okay?”
He was wearing a black cashmere turtleneck with a silver scarf around the neck. He looked spoiled rich. Johnny opened his mouth to speak, but the man cut him off. “Just hurry. They’ll be here in ten minutes.”
He turned around and walked away, and Johnny leaned close to me, his mouth an inch from my neck. I could smell the damp heat coming from his skin. “Let me guess. Casting Couch?”
He nodded, looked up at me, and I felt the power of his eyes down in my belly, proud and tender and as dark as the night sky, full of stars. He leaned forward and kissed me, light as a hummingbird on the side of my mouth. “Later, Raine.” He climbed out of the hot tub, grabbed his clothes, and pulled the old man’s jacket over his shoulders. The snow was falling on his hair, but he didn’t hurry, just followed the man, wet bare feet on frozen concrete.
I closed my eyes so I didn’t have to watch him walk away.
I was up early, before the sun, anxious to be on the road. When I walked out of the hotel, I saw Johnny Bravo throwing his duffel bag in the back of the old man’s pickup truck. He was dressed in a plaid flannel shirt and jeans and moccasins. He walked around the driver’s side, and the old man gave him the keys. They climbed into the cab, and he gave me a two finger salute and a grin when they pulled onto the highway, heading west. It was a year before I saw him again.