Eddie Luhan was a poet, though he hadn’t written a word he liked in almost five years, hadn’t sent a poem out to any journals, hadn’t given a single reading in all that time. Yet when he left his house near the Pueblo, and drove his old rattling army Jeep into town, he discovered that he was still something of a local celebrity. People in Taos tended to show him respect. There weren’t a lot of groupies hovering around these days, but apparently his old poems had a life of their own, and his reputation still served to attract the curious ones, the adventurous ones, and the slightly crazy ones. Those who held shared memories with him always smiled with the sort of world-weariness he felt himself on these crisp fall days when the chamisa bloomed golden on the mesas and along the ridges.
Dori’s Bakery was closing soon, which broke Eddie Luhan’s heart. He loved the bakery. In the past he’d often held court there over breakfast. It was his best first place to go when the New Mexico sun was just revving up its thermostat, and the red rocks and blue sky were coming into focus. Where would he go now?
He sipped his pinon coffee, buttered bread, and studied the patrons, a few tourists. He was the only Indian in the place and the only regular until Bernstein walked in. He waved a hand, and Eddie Luhan nodded. What the hey? Bernstein ordered a stack of hotcakes, pulled up a chair, and slopped coffee on the tabletop.
“You gotta wake up, man.”
Eddie Luhan studied him? What did the fussy little bookseller from New York want now? “Why?” he said. His first word of the morning. Dori always prepared his usual on a nod and a wink.
“Eddie, man, she was at it again last night after the reading at Tazos. You have got to do something about her. Good reading, too. You should have been there.”
Eddie Luhan hadn’t missed anything, he was certain. Two poets from Santa Fe, followed by an open mike, which would draw: touristy poets, cowboy poets, that lesbian poet with the dangling 6” beard, Dennis Hopper wanabees, more drunken losers than he could stomach, plus her of course. The old girlfriend. Star. The one who’d stuffed most of his drafts from the long dry spell into a backpack and walked away.
“Did she read well?”
“Well enough I guess, but it was so obvious they were your poems man, and she’s showing them off as her own. I mean there’s just no way.” And then Bernstein sneezed. Caught the snot in his hand. Rubbed it on a napkin. “I mean you have got to do something about it. She’s got to stop.”
Eddie Luhan considered what Bernstein was saying. Watched as the nervous man adjusted his glasses, took them off, attempted to clean them with the snotty napkin, failed, licked the glasses and tried again.
“Did she win the slam?”
Bernstein looked exasperated. “Well, of course she did.”
Eddie Luhan smiled before sticking his fork into another slab of bacon and raising it to his lips.
Nobody else had found their way up the mesa to the hot spring so early in the day. Eddie Luhan was glad. He submerged his naked body into the bubbling water and tried to forget watching Bernstein eat. That had proved even more comical than watching him clean his glasses. He’d managed to drip syrup everywhere. So instead he thought about Star, about their time together.
She was a tiny woman and he was a large man. Their relationship had a circus quality to it from the very beginning. He had first seen her at the laundry mat. And then again at the vegetarian place he’d helped build out on the highway. He’d been doing some repairs for Syn and Raven, the lesbian couple who owned the place. He liked them and they liked him, though their patrons always drew in a shocked breath or two when he walked through the door. He knew he scared most people when he rose up to his full 6’ 7”. But he generally walked slightly stooped, slightly bent over. Bad knees. Too many games of hoops on the rez. He creaked slightly when he moved now and didn’t have the same zip.
He remembered that it was abundantly clear right away that Star didn’t realize she was sitting in a lesbian place. She was attracting a lot of attention and was slightly freaked. The crazy streak was pretty apparent though. He’d accepted some lunch as payment for fixing the bathroom electrical outlets, he loved the dressing Raven put on the salads, the sesame seeds and lemon and tahini mix he could never duplicate. It was like inhaling lemons with every bite. Eddie Luhan was man who loved his citrus.
Star had smiled at him and he’d winked at her and that had been enough for her to flee to his table and attach herself to him for the next few years. His shadow swallowed hers when they walked.
Star’s craziness manifested itself in a nuclear temper, foul language, self-destruction, and the paranoid idea that everybody was out to get her. Even Eddie Luhan. He was confident enough in himself and his place in the universe not to let her throw him off kilter. But even his enormous patience was pushed to the limit.
She cheated on him, she got drunk and forgot to come home, or else she crashed his Jeep and the cops would bring her home. The sex was good when they had sex. But Star would give and give and love and love and then she’d dry up like a dusty arroyo. Eddie Luhan was finally coming to grips with the cycle of her good times and bad. Then she went too far. She came to him straight from another’s bed and didn’t clean up. He could smell the other man on her, smell the sex. He’d been sleeping and Star had tried to start something, her breath like whiskey, her words slurred, trying to arouse him.
Hurt, angry, disgusted, he’d climbed out of bed and walked outside into the desert. Behind him he could hear her screaming and breaking things in his place.
When he returned, she was gone. She’d scrawled a note meant to pull his chain. The language was crude and rude. He remembered searching around on the floor for the frying pan and coffee pot. He remembered that numbly he’d fried eggs, bacon, and made coffee. He remembered the first forkful and how good it had tasted with that first sip of fresh roast until his eyes eventually focused on the open drawers of his writing desk.
After that he’d been angry. Revenge fantasies blossomed bigger and wilder than desert flowers after a summer rain. He wanted to hurt Star in the worst way. She knew he didn’t write with a computer. She’d taken his originals and his drafts. He had nothing to show for the past five years, the years since the appearance of his only book of poems—-Ghost Oceans. She’d taken everything. This wasn’t about heartbreak. He hadn’t loved her in awhile, he had come to pity her, and to wish to help her mood swings. No, his reaction was born of betrayal. Pure and simple.
In the old days, Sioux Indians would wrap a white man in a buffalo hide and wet it down to shrink in the hot sun. In the old days, Indians would bury a man up to his neck in desert sand and leave them without water to die of thirst. Both punishments seemed too good for Star. His anger consumed him for a while. He got drunk and ran his Jeep into a ditch. In a panic he tried to recall his poems from memory. Saved one, saved another. No more. He was blocked. Couldn’t write a word. Couldn’t think of anything new . . . only revenge.
Eddie Luhan heard voices. Two women cresting the hill, coming to the hot spring. Normally he’d stay put. Let them deal with his presence. Not today. He stood up and picked his jeans off of the sagebrush where he’d set them. The women stopped talking and paused in their climb up the hill. Eddie waved. They took him all in and giggled awkwardly. He dressed quickly, waved again, and took a different path back down.
Moby Dickens Bookshop was wall to wall. The audience locked on the grizzled writer at the front, a dead ringer for Stevie Ray Vaughn. The reader stopped when he noticed Eddie Luhan, and his face lit up into a broad grin. After a pause he continued reading his story about the Vietnam War, prisons, death, and redemption.
After his friend Stu had signed every autograph and talked with every pretty face, Eddie Luhan made his way over.
The two large men hugged and laughed.
“Damn, it’s good to see you Bear.”
“I see you still draw a crowd.”
“Thanks for coming. I miss reading your stuff. You have to get a new book out.” And the man pulled a curled up copy of Eddie’s one book from his duster.
Eddie Luhan was moved.
“I carry this everywhere I go my brother, everywhere I go.”
“Eddie does need to write a new book,” a woman said.
Star. She was so small she’d disappeared behind the bookshelves. Eddie Luhan hadn’t even noticed her. But here she was now in her fringe jacket, the lace-up moccasins he’d given her, and a pair of silver eagle feather earrings.
“So you guys know each other?” Stu asked.
Eddie Luhan’s face was inscrutable his teeth grinding. What could he say? He wanted to fade into the desert night. Catch a thermal and soar above Angel Fire.
“Sure, Eddie’s hard to miss in this little town,” Star said. “Everybody knows Eddie.” She was smiling. She’d been at some wine or maybe the Bush Mills.
Her breath smelled of alcohol. The scent Eddie Luhan remembered best about her to his chagrin.
“We’re going over to . . . where are we going again Star?” Stu looked puzzled.
“Tapas de Taos.”
“Why don’t you join us for dinner?”
So that’s how it was. Before Eddie Luhan could say anything, an exasperated Bernstein gave Star a withering glance, and in his role as reading series host asked Stu to sign some more copies of his books.
“You guys go on, I’ll join you in a bit,” Stu said.
“You know where the restaurant is?” Star asked.
“This isn’t New York ya know.” He pointed to Bernstein and the spirited woman who managed the shop, her eyes the same color as the turquoise that adorned her arms, her neck, and her ears. “I’m sure they can steer me in the right direction.” The manager’s laugh was like delicate birdsong as Stu joined her at the front counter.
Star hooked an arm around Eddie Luhan’s thick belt and tugged. “Let’s go.” This small woman impossibly pulling this large man.
Once they hit the street, she released her grip. “I didn’t know you knew Stu.”
“Is that a question?” Eddie Luhan was surprised to discover that he wasn’t pissed at her. He was amused. Star was not subtle. His time away from her crazy streak gave him clarity–tonight he could see her coming miles away like a storm across the prairie.
“Look, I don’t want to play word games with you. I’m with Stu and I don’t need a lot of your Native American mystical b.s.”
The streets were still jammed with traffic, rarely deserted even on September weeknights. They walked the block or so to the restaurant. Every room in the place featured a different color paint job. They settled in the blue room and ordered drinks.
Eddie Luhan was surprised to hear early Rolling Stones over the sound system. “The Singer Not the Song.” He remained silent, listening. Star was getting anxious, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before she exploded. And eventually she did.
“I did it for you, to shock you out of your apathy. To try and get you to open up and air this work out. Let it breathe Eddie. Let it breathe, c’mon. You’re a great poet and you’ve lost your way.”
“Is that so?”
“Well, think what you want. But that’s why I did it.
“That’s why you stole my work? Or why you left me?”
“It’s just as much my work, you wrote those poems about me. I think you owe me that much.”
She’s terrified, Eddie Luhan realized. Paranoid. Afraid I’ll blow her cover to Stu. Afraid I’ll take her new poet personae away. She’d have to leave Taos. She hadn’t liked the place very much until he’d escorted her around his favorite haunts. Now she tried to carry herself like a native Taosonian. Quite a stretch for a tiny gal from Newark, New Jersey.
Star crossed her legs and bent over to retie one of the moccasins. She’d been genuinely happy when he’d given them to her. Girlish. And though a few moments ago he’d wanted to slap her across the parking lot, now he felt something unexpected. She must have felt it, too. Eddie Luhan tried to hold onto his anger to churn it around a little bit. But Star fingered a curl and smiled–a genuine smile that gave off sparks. What memories co-existed between them seemed to surge to some kind of mutual understanding. So, Eddie Luhan forgave Star. She can’t help it, he thought. She’s just plain off and nothing I say or do will change that. Yet she had her winning moments and this was one of them. Something inside of him began to lift. Then Stu arrived with Bernstein and the evening unwound calmly, predictably, with Stu telling tales about how he first met Bear at a writer’s conference in Missoula. When Bernstein started to out Star, Eddie Luhan chilled him with a wink and a headshake, so the little man made an excuse and left. Soon Eddie Luhan did the same.
“See you around Star,” he said. Her face relaxed for the first time all evening.
“This little gal’s a mighty fine poet,” Stu said Sotto voce, one hand clamped on Eddie Luhan’s shoulder. “Reminds me of your work.”
Eddie Luhan smiled. Stu’s eyes were asking a question he didn’t feel like answering, so he drifted off into the night.
Once past the Kit Carson house, he reclaimed his Jeep and droves out to the gorge, another of his favorite places. He parked and walked off down into the sagebrush, his flashlight sweeping light back and forth on the rocks. He walked for a long time, stopping at the sound of running water. Sat with his flashlight off and listened to the water talk and emptied his head of Star and Stu and Bernstein and poetry.
Soon he was thinking about his father dying in his arms. He’d found the old man at the bottom of a ravine in Truchas, his head caved in on a rock. The blood like paint. When he’d hoisted his father’s body into his lap, the sand had clung to the mouth and face. The old man felt like a papier-mâché version of himself. A husk. The spirit flown. Then he thought about holding his sister’s baby, Walking Rain, how he’d been astonished by the volume of her wails. Her little scrunchy face. Her perfect little fingers and toes. So small he could hold her in one hand if he dared. Death in life, life in death. All part of the great wheel.
And then Eddie Luhan studied the Milky Way above his head. The star wheel. He chuckled, the chill already creeping into his sad knees.
Eddie Luhan was stiff when the sun came up. He must have dozed some. A magpie was singing. When he stretched, the bird flitted from branch to branch in a large cottonwood tree by the banks of the creek. And he realized he had always loved the flash of white on the black bird when it opened its wings, that he loved the magpie’s shrill call.
The magpie watched Eddie Luhan pat his denim jacket pockets, searching for a pen and something to write on.
Richard Peabody edits Gargoyle Magazine and has published a novella, two books of short stories, six books of poems, plus an e-book, and edited (or co-edited) nineteen anthologies. He teaches fiction writing for the Johns Hopkins Advanced Studies Program.
To comment on this story, visit Fiction365’s Facebook page