Martin gasps, pants, and lowers his 380-pound frame into a chair carved from a massive pine stump. It is one in a long line on the Pinederosa Dude Ranch’s wide wooden porch. If he is lucky, he is going into cardiac arrest. Five days into the family vacation, and Martin is considering all possible exit strategies.
Which of his fellow guests will discover him, take one look, and go for the defibrillator? No doubt one of the few, like Martin, who, because of some deformity or another, is not out on the morning trail rides. Maybe the lady with bad knees, or the Fleeces, a family of four, who are allergic to everything, including horses, and medically proscribed from taking part in most ranch activities. Martin’s dad, with whom Martin has had an improving relationship since early dementia set in, will be shocked and saddened by Martin’s demise for about five minutes, until the details will slip away.
“That’s my Frankie,” Martin’s dad wheezes from a nearby stump.
Martin watches a line of riders in the valley below, a parade of raisins on slightly larger raisin horses. One rider trots at the side of the lead raisin. That could be the Frank, who never keeps his horse in line, despite that being a rule posted at the barn and covered extensively in the mandatory equestrian briefing that Ginger, the owner’s daughter, gives at the beginning of each week at the ranch. Frank has been coming to Pinederosa for thirty years. The rule never changes. The other thing that never changes is that Frank always breaks it.
“Look at Frankie go,” says Martin’s dad.
He pumps his arms. The sleeves of his baggy old-man jacket slip down and reveal a physique melted to skeletal form, as if he has forgotten, along with everything else, how to metabolize food into body mass.
“Why aren’t you down there with Frankie?” he says.
“Remember, Frank’s parole officer won’t let him recreate with upstanding citizens like you and me after molesting that Daisy Scout,” says Martin. “It’s a shame. Especially because we used to have such fun together, though Frank hated that I was the better rider.”
A morsel of light glints behind the old man’s cloudy irises, and Martin knows he has gone too far. He enjoys how close they have become, bonding over the array of crimes and sins Martin invents for Frank — wife beater, thief, flasher of children’s playgrounds — but Martin has less success when he tries to rewrite his and Frank’s childhood. For their dad, it is easier to imagine Frank wagging his dick at Catholic schoolgirls than losing a horse race to Martin.
“Tell me again, why isn’t Frank in jail?”
Martin shushes his dad. The stories of Bad Frank are between the two of them. For everyone else at the ranch, Frank is the guest you want to know, riding the fastest horse, singing the funniest cowboy song with the guy in the kitchen who plays guitar, dancing the salty dog rag with the prettiest girl wrangler. Martin can dance the salty dog rag too, and the prettiest girl wrangler always asks him first, but he knows she has to. Martin won’t dance a contractually-mandated pity dance, certainly not with Frank there, sure to hoot out “shake it, brother” and distract everyone from noticing that he, Martin, knows the steps better than Frank, who always twirls the prettiest girl wrangler when he ought to do-si-do.
“Hey, Martin.” Ginger rounds the back of Martin’s chair. “Want a Hershey’s with Almonds?”
Martin means to refuse but takes it and sets it on the armrest, because he can’t refuse a kind offer from Ginger, who is as pretty as the prettiest girl wrangler.
“I need your advice,” Ginger says, “about the Cowboy Poet.”
Martin hates the Cowboy Poet and hopes Ginger is going to ask him whether they should end the stupid tradition of having him read a poem in which some quirk or talent of each guest is featured. Pinederosa has employed different Cowboy Poets over the years, but for some reason, they all seem to have it in for Martin.
For a moment, Martin imagines what it would be like to take over as Cowboy Poet. He could live on the ranch, away from his dad who is always telling him to make a ham sandwich, even though Martin has just made him a ham sandwich and it is sitting right there on the plate. That would free up plenty of time for Martin to embark on his long-planned program of self-improvement and weight-loss, and soon he would be dancing the salty dog rag with the prettiest girl wrangler and coming back for an encore with Ginger. When his family’s week at the ranch comes around again, he would make sure Frank’s line in the Cowboy Poem is, at long last, accurate.
There’s a lot you don’t know about the asshole Frank
His dimples may twinkle, but his soul is dank.
Ginger interrupts Martin’s silent elegizing. “We’re thinking of having the whole poem be about the time Frank saved the wrangler. What do you think?”
“Frank would hate that,” says Martin, knowing full well Frank would love that. As if Frank needs one more thing around here to incite worship. It happened, what? Thirty years ago? And the wrangler was fine, a mild concussion and that thing with the nose.
“Well, it was Frank’s idea,” Ginger says. “We want the whole family to sit up front with him and the Cowboy Poet. We’ve even figured out how to haul your special chair down to the campfire.”
Three years ago, Martin had upended a wooden bench while settling in for Dale Evans trivia night. He was willing to forget the whole thing, even though he was almost garroted by one of the lassos in the rickety roping display into which he had tumbled. The weedy boy from France, who catapulted into the stand of fly rods and took a couple hooks to the cheek, bore up less stoically. The Pinederosa lawyers insisted that Martin, for his own safety and that of others, use a specially designed chair when he reposed in public spaces on anything other than the stump-inspired furniture on the porch and the picnic tables cemented to the ground down by the river.
“Oh,” says Martin. “Can’t wait. You shouldn’t have.”
“No problem at all,” says Ginger, pushing off Martin’s chair and tousling his dad’s hair. “See you tonight.”
The lunch triangle rings. Martin’s dad leaps the porch railing with the superhuman strength of the insane and trots toward the Olde Timey Mess Hall.
“Gonna sit next to my boy Frank,” shouts the old man into the dust storm he kicks up as he runs. “He’s a chip off the old block, except for the liberties he took with that little girl’s poodle.”
Martin smiles after his dad. Martin has never mentioned a poodle in relation to Bad Frank. His dad is starting to riff on his own.
“You going to eat that?” A voice floats up from behind Martin. One of the Fleece’s teenage girls. She is pale and slight, a victim of her family’s allergen-free-wheat-free-dairy-free-vegan diet. She is holding the Hershey Bar.
“Take it,” says Martin.
“I am allergic to nuts, chocolate, processed sugar, and food dyes,” says the girl.
“Then perhaps that’s not the best choice for you,” says Martin.
“My mom says I am allergic to those things, but I don’t think I am. I think starving us is what she does because Dad won’t let her work outside the home. She used to have a good job at a quilt shop.”
“Maybe you should test this theory in a more controlled environment,” Martin says. What if the girl starts to choke or vomit? Will Frank rush in, give her the Heimlich, and force the Cowboy Poet into lyrical overdrive to come up with another stanza on The Hero of Pinederosa?
Martin, that idiot, fed the allergic girl nuts,
Save her, Frank, from the stupid fat putz!
“There’s an Epi-Pen in the first aid kit in the office,” the girl says, “If my lips turn blue, get it and stab it into my thigh. You have thirty minutes.”
She takes a bite.
Martin stares at her lips. A bit of chocolate there but normal-sized and definitely not blue.
“I’m Abby, by the way,” the girl says, taking another bite.
“I’m Martin,” says Martin.
“I know,” says the girl. “If you need to go for the Epi-Pen, yell ‘Abby is in anaphylactic shock!’ I don’t want someone dosing my sister by mistake.”
Martin watches Abby finish the candy bar. They both stand on the porch for a minute, then Abby says, “I told you so” and slips back into the lodge.
Martin, gilded in sweat, struggles up from the horse blanket on which he had been napping under a stand of aspens. Dreams of Frank with puffy blue lips dancing the salty dog rag on Martin’s special chair have left him determined to tell Ginger not to bring it to the campfire tonight. He will sit on a bench, like everyone else.
Martin follows the chatter of the wranglers loading the Pinederosa F-150 in the ranch’s gravel parking lot. They hoot and holler and whistle through their fingers as they shove tinfoil pans heaping with ribs into the truck bed. You’d think they were driving cattle down the Chisholm Trail and not just balancing stainless steel bowls of coleslaw on top of the spare tire.
Martin composes his entreaty to Ginger. You have always been so welcoming to my family, even though Frank is a black-hole-dimensioned asshole, and Dad is no foxtrot with Fred Astaire, but I want you to know that, for my part, I don’t need . . .
Ginger darts past Martin and around the truck, heading for the kitchen’s screen door trailed by two wranglers, jangling in their spurs, one holding a finger wrapped in a red bandana above his Stetson.
Martin follows to see if they might need his help. His first aid certification expired about the same time he was discharged from the Webelos, but he reads WebMD. He makes it to the other side of the truck, and the sight of the special chair drives from his head all thoughts of fashioning emergency sutures from the buckskin stampede strap affixed to his Yankees cap.
The special chair stands five feet high and weighs over two hundred pounds. The wranglers built it from Western red cedar reinforced with iron bars salvaged from Pinederosa’s defunct Cowboy Prison Play Yard. A few years ago, the fly fishing instructor, also a watercolorist, painted a western sun on the chair’s back. Unfortunately, his palette was restricted to the mud-brown Pinederosa uses on its fences, and the spiky blob resembles an enormous anus more than a heavenly body. A lasso flecked with rubber cement twines along the armrest like a snake and winds onto the seat in a cursive “M.”
“Hey, hey. A little help over here.”
Except for the squeaky pitch, the voice could be the one in Martin’s head, because he had just thought the same. A little help here. He could use a little help here. Help to explain to Ginger that this special chair, as much as it might be a legal requisite, is not a kindness, no matter how kindly meant.
“I think we need a gun. Definitely some fly swatters.”
It’s Abby. She stumbles down a grassy burn toward Martin. Her arms are swollen and black, pulsating and throwing off bits of what could be charred flesh. Oh dear God. An allergic reaction to the Hershey Bar with Almonds. She is burning up from the inside.
As Abby gets closer, Martin detects a low drone. Abby is not in the throes of theobromine-induced spontaneous combustion. She is covered in flies.
“A gun?” says Martin.
“I’m going to fire it in the air to disperse the flies,” says Abby. She waves one swarming arm at two emerald hummingbirds dive-bombing her head.
“Honey,” says Abby, as if Martin had asked. “My arms are painted with honey. I’m trying to get stung by a bee, but the flies are in the way.”
“I hear they carry typhoid,” says Martin. “Would that work?”
Abby frees her hand from her hair. “Not this time. I have my heart set on bee venom. You catch more bees with honey, as they say.”
“Actually,” says Martin, “they say ‘flies.’”
“Whatever,” says Abby. She beats her arms and bugs billow into the air.
She bats a few from her face and blinks at the special chair.
“Holy cow,” she says, “What’s that?”
“My special chair,” says Martin.
Abby circles it. Martin would like to think she’s impressed but knows she is, at best, stunned.
“’Special’ as in ‘extraordinary’ or ‘special’ as in ‘off?’” she says.
Martin places a hand to his forehead. “Off,” he says.
When he looks back up, she has her back to the chair and is staring at him.
“You hate it,” she says.
“Yes,” he says.
“I hate it too,” she says. “Let’s get rid of it.”
Abby twirls toward the chair, her fly-halo bobbing slightly in the mountain breeze. She places both hands on the seat’s apron and scrabbles her legs in the gravel, kicking dust and stones back at Martin. The chair does not move, but he does not stop her. It’s as good a plan as any.
“Oh shoot,” says Ginger, banging back through the kitchen screen door and planting herself between the chair and Martin. “We were hoping to surprise you.” She gestures toward this year’s emblazonry — a row of upturned horseshoes nailed to the chair’s top.
“Fit for the Sun King,” says Martin and thinks, fit for the Anus King. Ginger grins. Behind her Abby climbs on the chair and stands on the rope “M.” She scrapes honey and flies off her arms.
“We always load it last. It keeps the coolers from skittering around,” says Ginger.
Martin wants to feign great interest, as he feigns great interest in any words that drop from her cupid bow lips. But he is transfixed with Abby, who is peeling layers of golden goo off her arms. The flies desert her and swarm sticky around the wood and twine.
Abby hops off the chair and claps at a last fly buzzing at her hand. Ginger turns and gasps.
“What’s with the vermin? They’re all over Martin’s special chair,” says Ginger. “And where are your parents?”
“Annabel blew out her nebulizer,” says Abby. “They went into Antonito. Martin was just telling me that flies carry typhoid. Terrible situation.”
“That’s right,” says Martin, “A whole host of pestilence. Looks like they’re nesting in there.”
Ginger covers her mouth. “What about tonight?”
“Don’t worry about me,” Martin pats Ginger’s shoulder, tries not to gawk at the fly crawling into her ear. “I don’t need to sit up front.”
Martin digs into his third Pinederosa Pork-a-Palooza Platter. He has chosen a picnic table as far as possible from the soon-to-be roaring campfire and the birch-bark podium, where the Cowboy Poet is already warming up with yodeling scales. Next to Martin, his dad pushes posole into a tiny Indian burial mound.
Since lunch, the old man has rejected Martin’s every attempt at conversation. He got no rise even when he broached the possibility that Frank’s bestiality proclivities might be taking a reptilian turn.
When Martin’s dad finally does speak, it is with a velocity and volume that startles them both: “At lunch today, Frank asked me to come live with him.”
Because the old man has not said anything sensible in years, Martin does not try to make sense of this. But his dad speaks again quickly, as if, like Cinderella’s carriage, his uncharacteristically cogent train of thought might at any moment morph back into a pumpkin.
“Frank wants me to live with him. My room will have shag carpet. I’ll have a waterbed. I can get a ferret.”
The old man drops his head, winded. Martin stares at his dad, and his dad stares at his sauce-slathered ribs. Martin doesn’t believe it. And then he does. Frank must want to take over, thinks Martin, because, for once, I’m good at something, maybe even better at something.
And as he thinks it, he knows it’s not true. Just the opposite. Frank probably believes he’s doing Martin a favor. Doing Martin and his dad a favor. Who would want to live with either of them?
“Are you sure you want him around a ferret?” says Martin. “You know, after the poodle?”
“I know it’s not real,” says Martin’s dad.
Martin nods. His dad pushes his ribs as far away from his posole as he can. Martin crumples a red and white checked napkin and drops it on his Yukon Golds. His dad dribbles limeade onto his plate, and a green lake spreads around his piles of food and drips onto the grey wood of the picnic table.
“Yahooweee! Whoop-ee-ti-yi-o, it’s time for the Cowboy Poet. To the campfire, everyone.” Ginger passes by and swipes her arm in the air. Martin’s dad shambles after her, a Wet-One dragging from his cowboy boot, and reaches for her hand. She doesn’t recoil, which is impressive, since his grasp is clammy and limp. Martin knows this from leading his dad away from the garbage disposal he is forever putting his cellphone down because it has failed, again, to connect him with his dead wife.
Martin struggles out from behind the table and lifts his eyes to the crest of Heartbreak Hill, where the lanterns hang along the eaves of the lodge’s porch. It is a hell of a hike back to his room. But if he rests at the plateau where the corral sits, maybe checks to see if there are any leftovers from the Cowpoke PB&J ride in the barn fridge, he might be able to make it.
At each switchback on the trail up to the corral, Martin captures a glimpse of the flickering campfire below and hears the Cowboy Poet droning on, his cadence punctuated with dramatic strumming from that guy in the kitchen who plays guitar. To block out the noise, Martin works on a new story of Bad Frank, though for whom, he does not know. This one will involve a petting zoo, a tiny boy in a wheelchair, and Frank caught stuffing baby rabbits down his pants. He feels sorry for his dad, missing it.
When Martin finally reaches the corral, it’s empty. He feels he has been climbing for days, but the lights from the lodge seem as far away as when he set out. He leans on a rail fence.
After a few minutes, a crash from inside the barn interrupts him mid-pant. Another moment, and Abby Fleece emerges pulling an oversized saddle. She is shoeless and the hem of what appears to be an old-fashioned white nightgown drags in the muck.
“Come on and help me,” Abby says. “I’m going to ride a horse.”
Martin looks around, “The horses aren’t here.”
“It’s the logical next step in my allergen experiments,” Abby continues. “At dinner, I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread: Nuts, cornstarch, corn syrup, refined sugar, a number of preservatives I cannot pronounce. Not even a hive. And I’m wearing 100 percent polyester,” she pauses to indicate her tattered and muddy nightgown. “I stole it from the guest laundry.”
“The horses aren’t here,” Martin says.
A faint cheer rises from the fireside below where the Cowboy Poet seems to have finished up. This is good. It means people will start coming back up the hill. Martin will be able to find Abby’s parents. But this is bad too. People will start coming back up the hill, and they will find Martin, red-faced and panting, and Abby in a torn and dirty nighty.
Martin swivels his head from left to right, not sure what an escape route might look like. He stares back down at the campfire. Someone else is talking. Frank. The guests are not moving away, and for once, Martin is grateful for the thrall in which Frank seems to hold people who are not Martin.
“We need to get up to the lodge,” Martin says, but Abby has abandoned the saddle in the mud and disappeared. Martin trots toward the barn, cursing his luck, her idiocy, and Frank, out of habit. Past the barn, he spots a flash of white polyester flapping beyond the rail fence around the rodeo ring.
“I found the horses.” Abby dances toward two Belgian draft horses, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon-sized animals, which regard the white scrap fluttering in front of them with eyes as dark and passive as shot puts.
Martin trundles into the arena and follows Abby toward the beasts.
“You can’t ride those,” he says. “They’re for pulling things.”
“Can too,” says Abby, tossing herself at one of the horses, her outstretched hand barely reaching its back. The horse stands still, not even a tail swish to indicate it registers the girl’s assault. “I saw it at the kid’s rodeo.”
And so had Martin. He had sat on the bench of their rental van, not wanting to get any closer than he had to to Frank’s kids’ methodical capture of top prizes in all events. After they had collected their ribbons, Ginger guided the two draft horses out, boosting squealing children on their backs to be bounced around the arena led by a wrangler. The Fleeces had parked next to the van, sealed tight in their station wagon, Abby and her sister’s faces pressed to the backseat window.
“Come on, help me up.” Abby hops next to the horse.
“We’ve got to get back to the lodge.” Martin wonders how long Frank can go on, trusts it is a good while, but still, it will take he and Abby over an hour to make the last leg of the climb.
“Not until I ride a horse,” Abby says.
Martin presses bunched fingers to his hot face, grabs Abby’s waist, and boosts her onto the horse, almost tossing her clear over, she is so light. He grips the rope around the animal’s neck and starts jogging along the fence line. Anything to get her to leave the corral.
“Once around,” he says.
“Okay,” says Abby, giggling and letting out little cowboy yips. Martin sneaks a look at her. He is doing a good thing here, a heroic thing. He’s giving a little freak-child a normal-child experience, something she will always remember and cherish after they lock her back in her bubble. Someday, he might even convince Ginger to have the Cowboy Poet write about this:
Martin gave the weird allergy girl a ride on a horse,
He’s a prince of a man, a cowboy hero, of course.
Concentrating on getting his Cowboy Poem lines to scan, Martin does not notice when Abby’s whoops and giggles stop and are replaced by low moaning. As they come around the final bend of their lap, Martin turns to see if Abby might like to trot the horse across the finish line.
Her bony fingers are entwined in the horse’s mane, her arms outstretched, her head buried in its back.
“Abby,” Martin screeches.
She lifts her head slowly and through purple, puffy lips, whispers, “Epi-Pen.”
No. She is allergic to horses. Not chocolate. Not nuts. But horses. Martin has killed her. He has put her on the biggest horse on earth, and now she is going to die, all swollen and purple-mouthed.
Martin runs out of the rodeo ring and toward the road up to the lodge. He puffs three steps up, slides two back. His legs cramp.
Martin labors back into the corral. Frank has to be done talking by now, and people will start up the hill. But below, the guests still huddle around the fire. Frank still stands before them. It’s been over two hours, yet they are frozen, entranced.
“Help! Help!” Martin yells and waves his arms. He is crying now. “Shut up Frank, shut up.” But Frank doesn’t shut up. No head turns from Frank to Martin.
Martin flails back toward the arena and looks out at the woods around the stables, considers hiding. But he knows he won’t do that. He’ll stand here and watch Abby die. As Abby’s parents wail, as Frank screams at Martin, as all the guests howl, “Why couldn’t it have been Frank who found the girl? He would have saved her like he saved the wrangler. He would have ridden his horse…”
He would have ridden his horse.
Martin runs back into the arena and vaults the draft horse. He grabs the mane in one hand and wraps an arm around Abby, eyes shut but still — thankyouFrankthankyouyouasshole — breathing. With a mighty kick, which Martin notes could not have been executed by a less substantial man, he propels the horse up the hill, galloping in a spray of rocks and dust, toward the lodge and the Epi-Pen.
KATE SPARKS is a farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Her short fiction has appeared in Word Riot, Citron Review, and WhiskeyPaper, is upcoming in Jellyfish Review, and was recognized in the New Millennium Writing Awards. She received her MFA from Queens University in Charlotte. She’s currently working on a novel about cowboy poetry and the obese pet mortician who loves it. Tweet at her @OnTheFenceWrite if you want to publish her book or buy eggs.