Western Swingby Tim Sandlin
From the acclaimed author of Sorrow Floats, Social Blunders, and Skipped Parts, comes a wickedly funny novel about love, marriage, and life. When Loren Paul spends too much time contemplating the meaning of life, his gorgeous, headstrong wife Lana Sue drives South to meet some cowboys. While Lana Sue drinks and flirts in country bars, Loren soul searches and starves in the Wyoming mountains. Loren and Lana Sue couldn't be on more different paths, but they're both steering toward the same surprising truth: maybe they deserve each other.
- Penguin Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.05(w) x 7.89(h) x 0.92(d)
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By Tim Sandlin
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 1988 Tim Sandlin
All rights reserved.
Sometimes I have these gaps which are amazingly like being dead except that they don't last, and I have an awful feeling that being dead lasts.
I shot through a gap to find the sun warm on my back. I was sitting in the dirt between two rocks on the spine of a dark green ridge. The rock on my left had a shape like a small foreign car, a hatchbacked Saab from the early seventies. The other rock, on my right, was smaller, more rounded, and pockmarked with lichen. My fingers held a lower larkspur, twisting it slowly counterclockwise.
One of the rules I made many years ago, back when I used to make rules: A good time is not worth having if you can't remember it. That's why the gaps are like death. Death is not a good time.
* * *
It was the quiet hot of midday, the sky fairly buzzing with color, light blue across the canyon, darker blue to the north over Yellowstone, shading to silver and blinding near the sun. The carpet of brown lodgepole pine needles rustled and boiled around me. Each needle was sliced in half and connected at the base. I knew they were lodgepoles because spruce and fir aren't sliced and limber pine needles are cut in fives.
My stomach hurt from a lack of food. One of my eyes itched like crazy, and I knew enough not to rub it and make it worse, but I didn't know enough to solve the problem by dropping the larkspur. A male Barrow's goldeneye made a neck-out landing on the cirque pond far below me. Above, a jet messed up the scene by leaving a white trail across an otherwise faultless sky. The roar came from the back end of the vapor, as if the sound had been left behind.
I now reached into my left front shirt pocket and withdrew a three-by-five-inch card, pink line above a series of blue lines. I read, Your name is Loren Paul.
* * *
The goldeneye and a mate I hadn't noticed earlier skipped across the pond, rose in a three-quarter circle over a budding chokecherry, and flew west toward lower altitudes where they belonged. In their wake, they left a V pattern on the water punctuated by expanding doughnuts made by their wingtips on the takeoff. I thought about how I might word it to Lana Sue when I saw her in a few days. We could sit at the kitchen table and drink coffee while I diagrammed the design of V and dots. She would ask with some skepticism how I knew the ducks were Barrow's goldeneyes and which one was the male.
If I saw Lana Sue in a few days. Our last contact had ended with her Toyota spitting gravel into my face.
The chokecherry exploded and burst into flames.
Indian boys used to not eat for four days and stray into the woods in search of a Vision. Jesus fasted forty and met Satan, who gave him a ride to the mountaintop. Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Max Brand, Martin Luther King, and the Son of Sam all had Visions. I'd gone three long, foodless days in hopes of seeing just such an occurrence as a spontaneous fireball, but now that it was actually happening, I had trouble buying the bit.
I looked at the sky. Still blue. A raven wheeled far up above the peaks. No, two ravens, one barely a dot. I wondered if they saw the fire. Far to the west, over by the Tetons, a stringy cloud crept across the horizon. Taking out the card, I read my name again. Loren Paul. I already knew that. The flames didn't spread, in fact they appeared to be dying a brown smoky death. If somebody wanted to attract my attention and reveal the Purpose, He wasn't being awfully patient about the whole thing.
My own religious preferences run closer to the Cheyenne Medicine Wheel than the Presbyterian Whitebeard, and this was just the kind of trick Father Coyote liked to pull in the stories, so I figured I better shimmy down the cliff face for a reality check.
Father Coyote? I was beginning to think like a Peanuts character who hauls a blanket around to fight off stage-four anxiety attacks.
This wasn't really a valley or a canyon. My hero, Max Brand, would call it a coulee—not a term you hear that often in conversation. I look the face by a friction descent, scraping both hands raw on rock, loose sand, and sticky greasewood. My daypack and canteen lay in the dirt up top, a mistake because a terrible dry mouth came on halfway down the slope.
The chokecherry bush smoldered next to an empty gallon of Coleman fuel. I touched the black branch, jerking back in quick pain. The fire was definite. The hallucination theory was dead. Which pissed me off. Neither God nor Father Coyote has to resort to Coleman fuel to ignite a chokeberry bush. So far as I know, there's not a single believed-in deity on earth would even need a match.
Therefore, somebody was fucking with my head.
Since Lana Sue yelled "I'm not going down with you, Loren," and left in a huff, Marcie VanHorn was the only person with any notion of my whereabouts. Marcie was sixteen and lived in a tube top. No one in a tube top would do this to me.
The blackened branch leaped aside and a shot echoed through the canyon. I dived, down and right, rolled onto my feet and hit dirt next to a Volkswagen-sized boulder. The dry mouth took on a hot aluminum taste. My throat closed. Since the shot could have come from anywhere, there was no way to tell if I was hiding behind cover or in front of it.
The rock next to my ear splintered. Another shot rang up the hill. I crab-scrambled to the back side of the boulder, then belly-slid over to another, smaller rock.
The secret seemed to be to resist panic, to breathe slowly and use my skittering brain. The hiding spot was a good choice so long as whoever was firing stayed put. I had no reason to think he would. Nothing on earth could have stopped this character from walking across the clearing, stepping around the boulder, and blowing my crotch into the creek.
The third shot skipped off my rock and over my head. I flattened, face pressed into gravel. The scene felt almost unreal. I mean, I was once a late sixties South Texas longhair, so I know about drug wars, peace marches gone bad, redneck insurrection—all that love generation jive—but, at thirty-five, I had never been shot at before. Everyone should be shot at once. It fosters humility.
Surprisingly enough, I didn't wet my leg. My theory is that modern American life—TV, movies, the few of us who read books—prepares us for violence. We go out each day fully expecting to be shot. I know I do. Or it could be the absence of booze and food undid my survival instinct.
Instead of screaming, I crouched in the fetal position of a breech baby, remembering Buggie. I thought of a story he once told me about a white rabbit who could speak English even after it had been killed, skinned, and cooked. The rabbit said, "If you eat me you'll get a hare caught in your throat."
I suddenly got the joke.
Another shot cracked the rock. I lay my ear against the ground and imagined the slap-slap of hunting boots coming to finish me off. It appeared I would discover what happens after we die by the same method as everyone else. Would he blast me from several feet away or hold the barrel flush against my temple so I could feel the cold metal before my brains scattered?
Whenever I'm someplace and I don't know the proper course of action, I always ask myself, "What would Jimmy Stewart do if he was here?" This is a fine way to make decisions because Jimmy always knew right from wrong and bravery from chicken-shit. I tried Cary Grant or Max Brand, but ran into situations where they didn't apply. Jimmy Stewart always applies.
However, the Stewart Standard had never come up in a crisis of physical danger—I'm rarely in real physical danger. One thing for certain, Jimmy never cowered behind a rock waiting for death. He acted—either attack or evade, depending on the reel—but never did he wait while others romped all over him.
Attacking didn't seem feasible because I was unarmed. I own a rifle—a 7 mm Ruger Magnum I bought to scare snowmobilers and dirt bikers off our land. I've never shot it at anything more mobile than "Listen to the Warm" by Rod McKuen. Besides, it was back home in a cottonwood-post gun rack. Who thinks to take a rifle along when he's searching for God?
That left the Jimmy Stewart method of evasion. I raised my head to scan the immediate area. Grass, a few larkspur and balsam root, pond upstream, meadow down—nothing to stop a bullet. Fifteen feet from my rock a line of willows ran along both sides of the creek, stretching downstream to the edge of the clearing and beyond. If I made the thicket, I could snake around, maybe even slide into the water, and lose the sniper.
Of course, the sniper would know that also and have his sights trained on that side of the rock. One budge toward the creek and he could nail me. But aiming a rifle barrel at one spot for minutes on end is not that easy. Sooner or later, he'd have to relax and that would be the moment to make my dive.
I tried to picture the guy. Did he know me? Or was the whole thing a random ambush—some retard with khaki pants and a long-bore rifle, slobbering on himself, snarling, "I'm gonna set these chokecherries on fire and shoot anyone that comes by." The guy probably rhymed fire with jar and drew faces in the dirt when he peed.
Jimmy Stewart wouldn't wait long and neither could I. I edged my knees up under my chest, raised onto my toes, and hesitated a moment to see if he'd shoot my ass off. When he didn't, I said a little prayer to God knows who and took off.CHAPTER 2
The summer I turned fourteen, I decided dogs and cats were agents of God, angels who spied on us and reported unclean thoughts and screwups to the man up top. Actually, dogs reported to cats, who spoke directly to God. Dogs can't talk to God. Just cats.
The episode was discovered when I attached notes to Him onto neighborhood dog and cat collars. I know what you're doing, but it's okay. You can trust me not to tell anyone. Please let me go.
Neighbors complained to Mom and my stepdad, who sent me to a county extension analyst, who said the problem was artificial flavors and coloring and if I ate better I still wouldn't be happy, but at least I wouldn't bother anyone.
We—Lana Sue and I—own two dogs and two cats now: Rocky, Josie, Fitz, and Zelda. I still won't do anything in front of the animals that I don't want God or Lana Sue to know about.
* * *
My mother is a beehive hairdo cocktail waitress in a jukebox and bingo club in Victoria, Texas. She wears fake gold earrings shaped like the Texas A&M logo. She keeps Coronet facial tissues between the cups in her bra. She chews three sticks of Trident at once and fries everything she eats.
Mom royally botched the job of raising me and my two brothers. Patrick grew into a real estate magnate in Corpus Christi. He's a swamp drainer. Garret is a Jesus freak serving ten to twenty-five on a heroin charge in the Georgia State pen in Reidsville. There was also a baby sister, Kathy, who got herself killed by a Texas Ranger during a race riot in Houston. They caught her looting a Woolworth's department store. She died with her arms full of Barbie dolls.
My stepfather, Don, works on an offshore rig in the Gulf, bowls in the low 200s, and has worn white socks every day of his life. He sleeps in the same underwear he bowls in. Mom told me my real dad was an evangelist for the Southern Ministry, but I don't believe her. I doubt if she knew.
If I ever sell another book, I'm going to a plastic surgeon to have my navel smoothed over. I don't want any reminders that I was ever connected to that woman.
* * *
Writing books is what I do—or did. Lately, I've been thinking there may be more to life than pretending I'm somebody else. In ten years of almost daily typing I sold two formula Westerns and one of those sentimental novels where you make the readers like a character, then you kill him. After I met Lana Sue, I wrote a vaguely true, mostly lies book called The Yeast Infection. All the carefully veiled characters recognized themselves and I found myself embroiled in two lawsuits and a fistfight. I won the lawsuits. Would have won the fistfight, but Jimmy Stewart doesn't hit women.
Movie rights sold, amazingly enough, and Lana Sue and I suddenly arrived in Temporary Fat City. Lana Sue'd been raised upper tax bracket, so she handled it okay. I went nuts—Super Bowl tickets, eighty-dollar bottles of sherry, Nautilus machines, personalized license plates on the Chevelle. After a quick trip to Carano, Italy, in search of Max Brand's first grave—he had two—I still maintained enough cash to support us without hourly work at least through the summer.
A summer in Jackson Hole without money thoughts is the gift of a lifetime and gifts should not be pissed away on idleness. I decided that in order to stay with Lana Sue I had to resolve my past and in order to do that I had to give up Buggie.
Lana Sue said, "Loren, no disembodied voice up in the mountains is waiting to tell you where Buggie is."
"I'll force it out of him."
"Out of who?"
"Whoever's up there."
"Wave bye-bye, Loren, 'cause I won't be here when you come back down."
Lana Sue's daddy was a gynecologist and her grandma committed suicide. Her former husband was a country music promoter who used to fake epileptic fits whenever she wouldn't go down on him, so Lana Sue was well acquainted with insanity before she came to me and she doesn't care to get involved with purposeful psychosis.
"You're getting heavy," she said.
"Don't you ever wonder about the purpose of life?"
"I wonder about the price of Tony Lamas or how many calories are in frozen yogurt. The purpose of life doesn't matter, Loren."
"Does to me."
As America goes lightweight—light beer, light cigarettes, light margarine—being "heavy" is the last great sin. It replaced saying "fuck" on television.
Lana Sue sang in one of her hub's bands before I spirited her away to the Wyoming wilderness. She wasn't good enough to be in the band without balling somebody, and she knew it, and the husband, Ace, reminded her of this fact every night.
Ace said, "You could never be in this band if you weren't screwing me," which made her resent him, naturally. Ace is the title character in The Yeast Infection. I came, fell into the picture, and told her I wouldn't give her anything at all if she slept with me, so she did. I lied, though, because after the last book came out, we got our picture in the Casper Star Tribune's Sunday Supplement. I have the picture in a frame on my desk. Lana Sue and I are standing by the greenhouse, petting our dog, Rocky, who has just ripped the heart out of a marmot that's not in the picture. Lana Sue is wearing a dark wool shirt and tight jeans. Her hair is the best part of the picture. I love Lana Sue's hair.
My face looks like I just woke up with a bad schnapps hangover. The back of my jeans hangs down loose was if my ass has been surgically removed. Even in the grainy newspaper picture, my glasses are noticeably dirty. The caption says Lana Sue and I are a "vibrant young Wyoming couple." Lana Sue is vibrant. I don't label well.
* * *
I fell in love with Lana Sue because she fell in love with me. Also, because she sings on the toilet. The morning after our first night, I woke up fuzzy and heard the chorus of "Jambalaya" coming from the bathroom. The song is a list of interesting Louisiana foods. Hank Williams wrote it.
Figuring it was safe, I did my usual blind morning stumble into the can and there sat a beautiful woman, the beautiful woman, my adolescent fantasy woman, with panties around her ankles.
"Nobody sings on the toilet," I said.
"You're supposed to sing in the shower."
"I sing anywhere I want."
"My God." I backed out, closed the door, and leaned my forehead on the cool paint of the frame. Seven-thirty on a Sunday morning and she's singing Hank Williams on the crapper. I decided to marry her and have children.
* * *
Lana Sue is the most self-confident person I've ever known. She's so smooth and ... adaptable. And cheerful—how many cheerful people do you meet who aren't unrealistic to the point of retarded?
More remarkable than that, Lana Sue thinks I'm "hot stuff." She said so. She said I'm a prize she got for not going nuts or settling for anything less. Isn't that remarkable, a woman of balance and perspective, not to mention beautiful as the sun rising over the Tetons, swept off her feet by a manic-depressive soul searcher with no ass? There's no accounting for tastes.
Excerpted from Western Swing by Tim Sandlin. Copyright © 1988 Tim Sandlin. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Tim Sandlin is the author of the GroVont trilogy—Skipped Parts, Sorrow Floats, and Social Blunders—as well as Western Swing, Sex and Sunsets, and Honey Don't. He is also the author of a collection of columns from the Jackson Hole News called The Pyms: Unauthorized Tales of Jackson Hole.
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One of my favs