KISSING HER KOWBELL
I met Hayley Kowbell when we were sixteen. We both went to Chippewa High School. Her father owned the Sweet Ridge Cattle Company.
I had seen Hayley around but I first officially met her in Honors Literature. I liked to read. Louis L’Amour was my favorite author. I loved frontier stories. I don’t know why but when I saw Hayley sitting there in class I just sat down at the desk next to her. It wasn’t like me at all. I only nodded hello to her at first.
I don’t say much, ever.
When our teacher, Mr. Sayers, called roll on that first day he called out, “Buxton Carter?” and I raised my hand but I quickly turned to Hayley and I said, “They call me ‘Buck’.”
Hayley had that half-smile and she just said, “OK.”
Hayley was a surprise. She looked like a Wisconsin cowgirl, her cornflower hair and freckles and the way she dressed in denim shirts and jeans. But she was real smart and I couldn’t believe how much she read books.
One day she just turned and asked me about our reading assignment, “How do you like A Farewell To Arms?”
I said, “I like it. The way Hemingway writes it’s like a clean-polished wood carving.”
I guess that was the right thing to say. She liked that.
Hayley said to me, “Who’s your favorite author?”
I told her, “Louis L’Amour. I love frontier stories.”
She gave me that half-smile and damn if I didn’t feel kind of embarrassed so I asked her, “Who’s your favorite author?”
Hayley said, “Camus.”
I heard “Kah-moo” and I thought she was teasing me. I must have looked perplexed to her and so she asked of me, “Albert Camus? He won the Nobel Prize for Literature? He was born in French Algeria.”
I said, “Oh, yeah.”
But damn if I didn’t know anything about Camus. And damn if I didn’t google him right after class.
Hayley was an athlete like me. She was on the swim team. She was real popular. Before I knew who she was I’d noticed her among all the girl swimmers. She was strong and graceful.
I was Cross-Country. I liked being alone, challenging myself. I would find my own harmony running and I would feel like I could run forever. They say that it’s because of en-dolphins, I think. I sure would feel like a dolphin.
So Hayley and I had things to talk about. Or more like as not she would talk and I would listen. I listened to her like she was music. Then I’d make a joke and she would laugh and I would feel funny like I wanted to kiss her face.
Hayley had a funny saying. Whenever she liked something she would say “That sure kisses my Kowbell”, and when she didn’t like something she’d say “That sure don’t kiss my Kowbell”.
I was only sixteen but soon enough I found myself thinking that Hayley’d be a perfect wife and then I’d daydream about what it would be like to have kids.
But she had a boyfriend. Gavin Hawke. Hawke the Jock. He was a senior and he was the Quarterback Hero and the Senior Class President. The real problem was: he was a nice guy. Well, I didn’t really hate him. I was jealous.
I knew I was in love with Hayley.
If Hayley suspected my feelings she sure didn’t let on. She even thought that Gavin and I should be friends. When we both shook hands at her say-so I could see the cold suspicion in Gavin’s eyes. He knew what I was all about. I couldn’t blame him. I marveled at Hayley’s hold over both of us. But Gavin would always find some excuse when Hayley would recommend that he and I hang out together some place.
Anyway, Hayley got me a job working at the Sweet Ridge Cattle Company, her family’s business. I was so lucky. Most other kids worked at Wal-Mart. Her family also bred horses and that’s where I worked: tending the horses.
Hayley was a great rider. I could tell that she was holding back when I went riding with her sometimes. That didn’t help my case any.
One day Hayley started talking about the Wisconsin High School Rodeo Association. But she was talking about bull riding! I didn’t get it at first but she was telling me that she wanted to learn how to Bull Ride.
Hayley said to me, “The Wisconsin High School Rodeo Association is sponsoring a three day bull riding school by Terry Don West. He’s one of the top five Bull Riders of all time.”
I asked, “Why the hell do you want to be a Bull Rider?”
Excited, Hayley replied, “I been reading about Maggie Parker and I found a interview with her on YouTube. She started riding bulls when she was my age. And she’s smaller than I am. Maggie talks a lot in that interview about the adrenaline rush. She says: ‘Bull riding is one of the most dangerous sports because you’re up against an animal and you don’t know what he is going to do or what he’s thinking.’ Maggie’s got no quit in her. That sure kisses my Kowbell.”
Hayley was out there like that in everything she did. And it wasn’t just sports. She won the Dolly Crockett Homemaker Award in her Home Economics class.
I walked home after school that day with my friends Travis and Flip. I put it out there: “How do you make a girl do what you want?”
Travis thought a minute and then he said, “Chocolate condom.”
Flip said, “What you want to ask is: how do you please a girl?”
Travis sneered, “Who cares? They’re supposed to please you.”
Flip eyed me and asked, “Growin’ antlers, Bucky-Boy? Who you got in mind?”
They were no help.
I got home and my Uncle Garrett asked me, “Learn anything today?”
I lived with my uncle. My mom died when I was a child. Head-on car crash. My dad survived but he was so fucked-up he has to live in a hospice. My uncle stepped-up to take care of me. My grandma is still amazed.
Grandma would tell me, “Your Uncle Garrett was always headed for trouble,” but she never told me what kind of trouble. Uncle Garrett never had any women over to our house. I figured he was being protective of me.
I showed Uncle Garrett the picture of Hayley which was in the school newspaper story about the Dolly Crockett Homemaker Award and he said, “Oh, yeah, cute as a bug, Buck,” and then he asked me, “Why don’t you just ask her out somewhere?”
I sighed, “She has a boyfriend. Gavin Hawke, the football hero.”
Uncle Garrett said, “I see. Well, why don’t you find an excuse to study with her if she’s in your literature class? Then you can take a break and go out to eat somewhere casual like. Seems to me you gotta think like you’re the quarterback of the opposing team, get it?”
I smile wryly and said, “That makes her the football.”
Uncle Garrett corrected me, “That makes her the goal.”
I clutched the hope and said, “Yeah. The ‘opposing team’. It’s a game, right? Thanks, Uncle Garrett. Thanks a lot. How’d you get to know so much about girls?”
Uncle Garrett said, “I don’t know about that. Affections are tricky varmints, Buck. You hunt varmints by their habits.”
I smiled, “I don’t know what that means, but thanks.”
My chance came when Mr. Sayers assigned us The Grapes of Wrath. I asked Hayley real casual-like, “Can we discuss tonight’s essay assignment?”
Hayley said, “Sure.”
I asked her, “Can we meet at the public library? It’s kind of distracting around school here.”
Hayley replied, “Sure. Meet you there after school.”
I couldn’t tell you what I did the rest of that day at school.
Later at the public library, after we were making fun of the way Mr. Sayers always dressed, with his bow tie and sweaters, Hayley got serious and asked me, “What do think those between-chapters are supposed to represent?”
I said, “I think they were Steinbeck’s original notes about the novel, but he used them like clips from newspapers.”
Hayley was engaging me, “But what did they do to move the story along?”
I said, “They were like, like what you call…foreshadowing. But Steinbeck used it to trick you sometimes and get you all worried about what was coming next for the family. Like the story about the bad accident and the dead children.”
Haley sat back and said, “Well, That sure kisses my Kowbell. Mr. Sayers should like that.”
I smiled. Then I was real smooth when I said, “Reading about Ma Joad cooking has made me hungry for biscuits and gravy.”
Hayley grinned and then she imitated Mr. Sayers, saying, “So you would say you were deeply moved by The Grapes of Wrath?”
I ran with it quick and I said, “Hey, Hayley. Why don’t we deeply move to Joey’s BBQ? Aren’t you getting hungry, too? I’ll buy.”
Hayley looked at me funny and said, “You’re buyin’? That sure kisses my Kowbell,” and she laughed and I wanted to kiss her face and then she said, “Sure. Let’s go.”
Joey’s BBQ was real informal and had great food. They made their hamburgers out of steak trimmin’s. And their salads had big slices of carrots, long-wise like bacon, and whole green onions and I always got extra pickled beets.
I don’t talk much, ever. But with Hayley all I had to do was strike a spark with most any question and she’d catch fire, she had something to say about everything. But right then I really had to ask her, “So, are you still serious about learning Bull Riding?”
Hayley answered while she grinned and exaggerated her cheek full of salad, “Hell, yeah!”
Uncle Garrett had told me that instead of trying to hold Haley back, which he forced me to admit I would never, ever, be able to do anyway, he said I should support her and why didn’t I go along and take the Bull Riding class, too.
Uncle Garrett had said, “How dangerous can a class be? I’ll pay. I can see what this girl means to you and I can be your ‘Offense Coach’, Buck,” then he had said, “Go long,” and he had laughed, motioning down an imaginary gridiron.
So, after Hayley had said, “Hell, yeah!” and was daring me to say something, I’m sure, like girl’s shouldn’t Bull Ride, I surprised her and I said, “It sounds like a rush to me, too. Thanks to you, I’m thinking about taking the Bull Riding class, too.”
Hayley pretended to choke and cough and she laughed and said, “You?” but then she touched my arm and said, “I’m kidding. I’ll be glad to have you there. Gavin is no support.”
And I thought to myself, “Yes!”
But then, wouldn’t you know it, I saw a couple of the guys from the football team come in and sit at a table across the room. One of them noticed us and said something to the others and then they all looked over at me and Hayley. One of them got on his cellphone. I could see the blitz formation.
Hayley followed my gaze and she saw the guys and she waved at them innocently.
I waved too. They were smiling at Hayley and they frowned at me.
Hayley turned back and she then was lost to me in thought and she said almost to herself, “Gavin is talking to some college recruiter tonight. He might get a football scholarship. His dad has connections. He’s getting ready for pre-med, you know.”
I said, reluctantly, “That’s great.”
Gavin’s dad was a doctor.
Hayley continued, “Gavin’s sweating every grade.”
The only thing I was sweating was Hayley. I suddenly felt like a bush league quarterback with fourth down and ten yards to go.
I said, “Hey, want desert? The Cowboy Cake will kiss your Kowbell.”
Hayley looked at me with doubt.
I enticed her, “It’s made with dark chocolate, coffee and cinnamon.”
Hayley slowly smiled and said, “Buck, you are evil. Sure, why not, but let’s split one, OK?”
There was one piece left when Gavin showed up.
Gavin startled us both when he appeared beside me and he said, “What’s this?” and he took the last piece of cake with his fingers and put it in his mouth and then he reached over and bent Hayley’s head back and kissed her.
Hayley laughed, embarrassed, and she said, sing-song like, “Ga-vin!”
Gavin was looking at me and he said, “Mmmm,” then he turned to Hayley and asked, “What’s going on?”
Hayley said, matter-of-factly, “Taking a break from studying.”
I said, “Hey, Gavin. How’d it go with the recruiter?”
Gavin said to me, curtly, “Good enough.”
Then he bent down and kissed Hayley again and he said to her sweetly, “Really good,” and then he glanced back at me with a crocodile smile.
I said, “That’s great.”
Gavin asked Hayley, “Are you about done here?”
Just then the check came and Gavin nabbed it and he paid.
I had to say, “Thanks” to him and he knew I would have to.
Hayley said as she kissed Gavin again, “Thanks, sweetie. We’re done,” and then she said to me, “See you tomorrow, Buck,”
Gavin wrapped his tentacles around her and pulled her away to his teammate’s table.
I plugged my sick stomach with a painful grin and I said, “Yeah, see you.”
Later, when I shuffled in the front door, Uncle Garrett asked me enthusiastically, “How’d your game go tonight?”
I said, “I got blown out.”
I told Uncle Garrett what happened.
Uncle Garrett said, “One game does not a season make. Sounds like you had a good game, though, Buck, until that final down.”
I grumbled, “Final downer, you mean. How many chances am I going to get?”
Uncle Garrett reminded me, “There’s Bull Riding school.”
I had to grin and say, “Yeah. What could possibly go wrong with that?”
We laughed and I went to my room. Later, laying on the bed I finally realized that it was a pretty good night.
The next day I told Travis and Flip about what had happened, expecting them to be impressed and to encourage me.
Travis said, “Nice moves but, dude, you will never make this happen. She’s a rich girl. He’s the fucking Man at school.”
Flip said, “You got balls, man, but you’re going lose them.”
Travis added, “Although, you know, fucking Hayley Kowbell might be worth losing your balls for. I know I’d consider it.”
They were no help.
Later that same week, Uncle Garrett had told me one morning that he was heading out that same evening for a while and that he wouldn’t be home when I got there after school.
And so the house was indeed empty. I put some tomato paste on a couple English Muffins and I added cheese and a few olives and I micro-waved what I called “mini-pizzas”. I sat on the porch listening to tunes on my iPod.
At sundown a full moon was rising and I felt agitated. I decided to go for a run. I put on a sweatshirt, my swimming trunks, and my running shoes. I stretched and warmed up. I never wore my iPod running. I believed: when you listen to music, listen to music; when you run, run.
I would become my own music.
I took a breath and then I suddenly exhaled like a starting gun and I set out down the road. I hit my harmony running and then I became pure motion and I was gliding up and down the waves of hills like a dolphin under the full moon.
Over an hour later I was slowing down to a trot approaching my home and I could feel my body heat radiating from my face. I felt purified.
The lights were on in my house. There was Uncle Garrett’s truck. I figured that Uncle Garrett must be home early. Whatever he went out to do must not have taken long. I wished again that he felt like he could go out and have a good time more often and not worry about me. I didn’t care if he brought a girl home.
I walked up the porch steps and I could see through the screen door into the kitchen.
I could see my Uncle Garrett standing over Mr. Sayers who was sitting at the kitchen table bent over.
They both looked at me when I entered. I started to say, “Mr. Sayers? What brings you here?” but I stopped when I saw Mr. Sayers’ bloody black and blue face and I realized his bow ties was gone and his sweater and shirt were torn.
I opened my mouth and looked at my Uncle Garrett. He was messed-up and bloody too!
I cried, “What happened?!”
Mr. Sayers looked up at my Uncle Garrett and then he looked back at me and said, “I got jumped and they were kicking the Jesus out of me. Your uncle saved me.”
Uncle Garrett was looking down at Mr. Sayers with his hand on Mr. Sawyer’s shoulder and his mouth pursed and his lip bleeding and his cheek torn and he glanced up at me and his eyes were glistening and they flashed.
I yelled, “Who did this?!”
Mr. Sayers stammered, “I, I’m not sure, but I think it, it was…”
Uncle Garrett growled, “We’re sure! It was fucking punks from your football team.”
I yelled, “What?! Why?!”
Then I suddenly got the sickening thought that it must have had something to do with the other night at Joey’s BBQ.
Mr. Sayers started to stand up and then he collapsed back into the chair with a yelp.
Uncle Garrett said, “That’s it. We’re going to the hospital. Now!” and he lifted Mr. Sayers out of the chair so he could stand up and he supported him and he told me, “Get the door, Buck.”
Uncle Garrett drove away with Mr. Sayers slumped in the truck.
They very next day Honors Literature was cancelled. The word was that Mr. Sayers had left suddenly to tend to his sick mother.
I had no excuse to talk to Hayley anymore.
I finally found Gavin and Hayley sitting together at a lunch table. I marched up behind them and I yelled just as nasty as I could, “Hey! Gavin!”
Gavin turned around and Hayley said, “Buck! What are you doing?”
Gavin stood up and he loomed over me and he asked me coldly, “What the fuck is it?”
I stuck my chin at him, “Mr. Sayers isn’t ‘visiting his sick mother’, is he?”
Gavin asked me contemptuously, “What is wrong with you?”
I was sure that Gavin was going to kill me but I was determined to hurt him.
I growled past him to Hayley, saying, “Someone from the football team fucked up Mr. Sayers!”
Hayley was aghast and she said, “What?!”
The Gavin seemed like he had taken a blow. He looked down and he turned to Hayley and he said quietly, “I know. Hayley, I didn’t tell you. I’m going to find out what the fuck…”
I yelled, “You know?! You know?! And just how the fuck do you know, Gavin?!”
Gavin turned to me and took a step toward me and Hayley called, “Gavin! Don’t!” and Gavin snarled at me, “My father is a doctor at the fucking hospital, you moron turd!” and then he said quietly, “Somebody beat-up your Mr. Sayers outside some gay hangout somewhere outside town.”
I didn’t fully grasp what Gavin had just revealed and I didn’t know what to say so I just said with righteous anger, “They bloodied up my uncle, too!”
Hayley asked, “Your Uncle Garrett?”
I said, “Yeah! My Uncle Garrett!”
Then Gavin asked me, “Your Uncle Garrett? What was he doing there?”
I replied proudly, “Saving Mr. Sayers!”
Both Gavin and Hayley just stared at me.
Hayley suddenly looked down and then the realization hit me like a sock on the jaw. My head jerked to the side and my eyes were wide open and I stared at nothing, stunned. My wits came back and I turned again to Gavin and Hayley and the two of them together were looking at me with fucking pity.
I yelled, “Fuck you both!” and I turned and I began to run and I ran and I ran and I ran back to my only home in the fucking world.
The most ancient scrolls are kept on: THE TABLE OF MALCONTENTS