Dancing in the Dust

Suzanne R. Thurman

I didn’t mean to fall in love with a cowboy. After all, I’d just left one behind in Utah. I waited until he came in from his evening rounds, covered in the dry red soil of Thompson Springs, then blew him a kiss and fled to Denver to get the dust out of my nose. I thought the noise and the traffic would cure me of my addiction to open spaces and desolate landscapes. But here I am, one week later slouched in a booth at a suburban Denny’s, picking the green peppers out of my salad while Rusty the cowhand sits across from me, fiddling with a deck of playing cards.

I have to laugh. It’s ten p.m. and the other cowboy is probably upping the ante at his weekly Saturday night poker bash. Those parties drove me crazy. Not that I don’t enjoy an occasional game of cards, but I got tired of sharing my life with four queens and their motley sidekicks. Every now and then we could have gone dancing in Moab. That’s all I’d wanted from him, love and the occasional two-step. Was that expecting too much?

I sip my coffee and try to forget. I don’t want to think about that cowboy. I have a new one to keep me busy. I stare at Rusty while he practices shuffling the cards with one hand. He is a cliché. His hair is all silky waves, bleached white from the sun. His skin, tanned the color of perfectly toasted bread, is soft beneath my touch; he’s still young and his cheeks haven’t turned to shoe leather yet. His eyes flash emerald green, and his lips, parted slightly in concentration, sizzle a dark red. I get goosebumps just imagining what our first kiss will taste like.

It’s not a new sensation. I always feel this way around cowboys. I don’t know why. We have nothing in common, yet they drive me wild, even though I’m generally a very rational person. My dad’s an engineer. My mom’s a psychiatrist. I’m a nurse. Scientific objectivity runs in my genes. Until I talk to a cowboy. As soon as he opens his mouth, his words fill my head with stars, the kind that litter the sky in the open country of the high desert. His pungent sweat, laced with juniper, makes me dizzy, and his cry, mournful as a coyote, lures me in. Before I know it, I’m baking bread and washing dishes in the kitchen of a ranch house miles from anywhere, my green scrubs covered in a thin layer of desert dirt.

What was it my friend said after I moved in with the last cowboy? That it all seemed so whimsical, a nurse and a cowboy falling in love. Fact is, there’s nothing whimsical about living on a ranch, measuring your life against a herd of cattle and weekly poker games. Still, I must find it appealing. Why else would I be sitting here with Rusty when I could be cruising the doctors’ lounges at the local hospitals?

Rusty interrupts my thoughts.

“I can do a trick. Wanta see it?”

The words sound strange, coming from Rusty. My other cowboy did card tricks too, only his never worked.

While Rusty shuffles the deck, I admire his long, thin fingers. I picture them tracing a pattern on my bare skin, an intricate dance of swirls that makes my body shudder. I’m mesmerized by the vision and forget to answer his question. But I don’t have to. He’s just like the last cowboy, assumes I will always want to see his tricks. He shoves the deck in my direction.

“Pick a card and I’ll tell you which one it is. I can read people’s minds.”

I smile. That’s what the other cowboy used to say. But he couldn’t, really, which is why I’m here now.

I stare at the backs of the cards fanned out on the table, looking for a sign. Two dice stand out against a dark green background. “Las Vegas” is printed in the lower right-hand corner, the gold letters worn from constant handling. The images tell me nothing except that Rusty gambled away his paycheck one weekend during off season, a sin I’m willing to overlook. I choose a card, take a peek, then slap it face down on the table. It’s the same card I drew the last time I played this game, with the other cowboy.

Rusty squeezes his eyes shut. I can tell he’s thinking hard. He gnaws on his bottom lip, and his veins throb in his temples. I cross my fingers. I want his trick to work.

“Nine of clubs?” he asks.

Dust motes dance in the cheap glare of the hanging light.

“Nope,” I say. “Joker.”

“I am a writer, musician, and mother of 2 small boys. My poetry and short stories have appeared in many publications, most recently The Mochila Review, The Cresset, Studio, and War, Literature, and the Arts (forthcoming).” E-mail: srthurm[at]hiwaay.net