“All I’m saying is the crop don’t bother the horse none.”
“But when a rider hits the horse, it runs faster. So the horse can feel it.”
“That’s just instinct. Horse feels it, knows he’s gotta run faster.”
“Or what, what?”
“What happens to the horse if it doesn’t run faster?”
“Well it gets whipped some more, most likely.”
“And none of this bothers the horse?”
“Sure. Think about it. That’s not just a horse. You don’t just take a crop to any old horse. This is a racehorse. It’s built to run faster.”
“It’s built to run faster? Or just… fast?”
“Both, I guess.”
“I don’t understand.”
“These horses are made to be whupped around a little bit. Pushed a little further than a normal horse.”
“So, Paul, you’re telling me that whatever or whoever brought life to this earth made a conscious decision to create a horse that people can race around and whip in the ass when they aren’t going fast enough? That’s what you’re saying.”
“I don’t fuckin know, son! Why do you care anyway? I don’t see you out trying to stop anyone from hitting their horses.”
“I’m just curious.”
“You’re talkin to me like I’m a fool. Like I don’t know what the hell I’m saying.”
“I’m sorry, Paul. We can talk about something else.”
“I’m trying to eat here. And what’s with this ‘Paul’ shit?”
“I already said I’m sorry.”
The two sat in one of the darker booths of the Wild Wolf Saloon and nibbled on their chips and salsa. The Wild Wolf was one big room, and just about everything in it was made of wood. Apart from their booth the rest of place was pretty dark, too, even though a lot of sun beamed in through the windows. It was almost like the dust in the air caught all the light and held it, not letting it really shine down on anything. Like something was caught between the Wolf and the sun, and the Wolf was just its shadow.
The booth benches didn’t have cushioning and there wasn’t much leg room under the table. Paul fidgeted in his seat. There was a man sitting at the bar and two more people sitting at a table on the other side of the room. From the booth they all looked like silhouettes.
Robert watched his father rub his eyes then run two fingers over his thick, white mustache. Paul was constantly moving around, constantly editing himself. Rolling his sleeves down, picking his nails, rolling his sleeves up, playing with his hair, cleaning out his ear with a pinkie finger. He didn’t like seeing himself in other people.
Paul squinted at the table. “How’s Charlie?”
Robert rolled his eyes and sat up. “He’s good.”
“How long’s it been now?”
“Eight years next month. I feel like you should know that.”
“I’m sorry.” Paul looked at him. “I do wish I was more involved.”
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“Maybe you could come over for dinner.”
“I don’t know about that. I came over for dinner that one time and there was lots of people there and I didn’t know how to talk any of them.”
“Those were our friends,” said Robert. “But they don’t have to come. You haven’t seen Charlie in three years.”
“I just didn’t know how to act that night. Or what to say. Everyone there was gay.”
“Yeah, dad. That’s usually how it goes.”
Their waitress appeared at the booth with a salad and a cheeseburger. The two men turned out of their talk and faced her.
She put the salad in front of Robert and the cheeseburger in front of Paul and smiled. “If you need anything at all, let me know.”
Paul looked at Robert’s plate and laughed to himself. “Still can’t believe you got a salad. I didn’t even know they made salads here.”
“You’ve never been here before,” said Robert, swallowing his first bite.
“But this is a bar,” said Paul. “Just doesn’t seem like something a bar would do.” He started cutting his cheeseburger into bite-size pieces.
Robert watched his father’s hands and smiled. “You still do that?”
“Sure.” He forked one of the bites and shovelled it into his mouth.
Robert looked over at the shadow of a man sitting at the bar. He was hunched over the counter and sipping his drink with a straw.
Robert turned back to the table and put his fork down. “You wanna come over for dinner tonight? Charlie would love that.”
Paul wiped his mouth with a napkin and balled the napkin in his hand. “I’m going to California.”
“After we’re done here.”
“I’m taking the truck.”
Paul took a deep breath. He let go of his napkin ball and it unfurled in his plate. “When I was about eight me and my family went to San Francisco. It was a fine week. Weird fuckin place. We ate sourdough and peanut butter all week. Lots of walking around. Our hotel had a kind of pool smell but without the pool. One day we drove across the bridge to Muir Woods. Those trees are damn big. We didn’t know about Muir Beach at all but some folks there told us about it and we decided to check it out. It was cold as hell. I think it was raining, or cloudy at least. The sand on the beach was more like rocks than sand and the water was too cold for swimming. I’d never seen a beach like that before. We walked some and found these big rocks right by the water. Me and Dave climbed up on them and Mom and Dad watched from the sand. Then me and Dave were jumping from rock to rock and we saw something pink underneath one of the rocks and we climbed down to see. There was about fifteen starfish down there. We ran over to Mom and Dad to tell them but we saw they were holding hands so we went back into the rocks and kept the starfish to ourselves. Those starfish always stuck out in my mind.”
“So you’re going back?”
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Robert shrugged and nodded. “I think that’s good.”
They sat in the Wild Wolf and talked and laughed and boiled each other’s blood for another hour, then Paul got up to leave. As he stood up his boots made a jangling sound.
Robert looked down at Paul’s feet. “California’ll love those spurs.”
“I thought so.”
Robert looked up to him. “Let someone know when you get there.”
“Sure. I’ll see you later.” He put his hand on Robert’s head for a moment, smiled, then hobbled away.
Robert listened to the spurs and watched the shadow of his father hobble through the front door of the Wolf and disappear into the light outside.
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