LIFE AND LIMB
(Pubdate November 5th, 2019)
Inspiration for the Zoo Club
From out of the heat of the day and into looming twilight,I pulled onto gravel and threaded my Harley through a parking lot jammed with pickup trucks. Killed the growl of the engine as I rolled up next to a handicapped spot, stayed straddled as I pulled off my helmet and gloves and let the cool pine-scented air wash over me.Pure tactile, almost atavistic relief after hours on a hot interstate.
I yanked the tie from my hair and unstuck compressed strands from my skull with a couple of quick scrubs so it fell loose to my shoulders again.Unzipped the jacket.Left my ass parked on leather and crossed arms as I surveyed the building before me.
I had to smile. Not exactly my thing.
Now roadhouses, yeah.Definitely. But in the Patrick Swayze/Sam Elliott school. This?Nuh-uh. Pickup trucks, gun racks; a lighted sign boasting live country music.Probably spittoons on the floor, for all I knew. Maybe even a mechanical bull.
The building was a bulwark of massive, stripped pines chinked together rising two stories tall, topped by a rust-patinaed tin roof. Its slab of a front door looked thick enough to bounce cannon balls off of, and the entry steps were framed by a massive split-crotch tree.Behind it loomed the shoulder of a fire-ravaged mountain, and the dying of the day.
I heaved in a breath, blew it out on a sigh as I swung a leg across the seat. “Grandaddy, why the hell did you summon me to a cowboy bar in Flagstaff, Arizona?”
I clomped up the low steps in my biker boots and stepped aside as a laughing couple, nearly joined at the hip, exited.I caught the door’s edge from the guy, pulled it wide,and the strains of that live country music erupted into the twilight.
I winced, thought uncharitable things about a music genre I cannot abide—all that whine and twang and mud and blood and beer—and prepared myself for an even noisier unwelcome assault upon my ears.
As always in strange places, particularly roadhouses and dive bars, which I tend to frequent, I entered carefully.Eased through the door, let it thump closed, then stepped aside and waited, marking the details of the place.Particularly the exits.
Live band, already established; parquet dance floor; booths against the wall; couple of pool tables in the back.Tables and chairs; long, polished slab of a bar; rough-hewn beams, tree trunk pillars; and so many mounted animals, trophy heads, skins, and antlers affixed to the walls that it looked more like a . . . well, yeah, the place was called the Zoo Club.Though it more closely resembled a taxidermist’s. In fact, just beyond my right shoulder, crammed into the corner, loomed a ginormous huge-humped grizzly bear with mouth agape to display fearsome teeth.
I did not fit here, not in this place, where I was pretty much an alien.Cowboy hats,boots, plate-sized silver belt buckles, pressed jeans, yoked shirts.Me, I wore a plain black t-shirt, motorcycle leathers, and thick-soled boots meant for the road, not stirrups. I like me some bars with chrome and steel and twinned wheels parked outside, where the only hint of horses resides within engines.
A flash of movement at the end of the bar. Seems I’d caught the notice of a young woman.And boy, did I notice back.Long wheat-blond hair was slicked away from her face and tied into a high ponytail hanging down her back.I couldn’t see details in bar lighting, but the assemblage of her features collaborated quite nicely, well above the norm.Red lipstick.Her brows, darker than the gold of her hair, arched as her eyes brightened, and she smiled slow and easy, the invitation obvious.She did not appear to care that I was not in the cowboy uniform, or that my hair hit just past my shoulders.
Well, then. I smiled back, raised brows, lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug that told her Not just now, saw faint disappointment in the tilt of her head, the regretful twist of her mouth.Maybe later, if she were still around when business was concluded.
Even in the midst of roadhouse noise, I heard and knew that tone.With regret I shifted attention from the young lady to the man coming toward me.
Jubal Horatio Tanner, aka Grandaddy, the only one who called me by my full name.Tall, blue-eyed, clear-skinned, with a cascade of springy silver-white hair tucked behind his ears.Imposing man.To me as a kid, he’d seemed old; now, not so much, even with the near-white hair.Ageless, if anything.Rock of Gibraltar type.His brows remained dark, as did his neatly trimmed beard, though it bore a peppering of silver.
He wore, as he always did—for some unaccountable reason I kept forgetting to ask him about—an old-style frock coat, as if he’d stepped out of a Western.Which, inside a cowboy bar in Arizona, struck me as ironically appropriate.He fit.I didn’t. Beneath the coat, unless he’d changed his ways, he wore a sheathed Bowie knife and a waistband holster, home to his 9-mil S&W.
We clasped hands, grinned at one another, then stepped close for a quick hug, slap of hands against backs before stepping out again.
“Too long, Grandaddy!” Couple of years, in fact. I raised my voice over the live band. “I thought you’d visit, at least.” I didn’t say more; he’d know what else I meant.
“Business,” Grandaddy said crisply; no apology was included. “You know how that goes.I kept tabs on you.” He touched a fingertip to his left eyebrow. “Your dad told me you got jumped.”
I almost put my own hand up to that spot in my brow, but dropped it back down.I knew it was there: a thin, pale diagonal line, stitch-free now, but it looked like the hair wouldn’t grow back.
I kept my tone light. “Too far from my heart to kill me.”
Grandaddy’s eyes were unrelenting. “You handle the man who jumped you?”
Handle him? Oh, yeah. I lifted the scarred eyebrow. “We had us a ‘discussion’ right there in general population.Nobody bothered me after that.”
What I didn’t add was that it’s tough to bother a man in solitary.
Grandaddy didn’t respond, just gestured with a sweep of a broad-palmed hand. “I’ve got a table in an alcove in the back where we can talk privately. Remi’s not here yet; he called to say he was running a tad late. Sorry to say that boy’s always a tad late; his internal clock runs about as slow as his Texas drawl.”
I started to ask whom he meant,but Grandaddy’d headed off through the crowd.I followed to the alcove, discovered a pitcher of beer and a half-filled mug, two empty tumblers, a bottle of Patron tequila, and another of Talisker single malt sitting atop the table.
“Unless you’ve changed your brand of whiskey.” Grandaddy flipped aside the tails of his frock coat as he sat down and took up his beer.
I couldn’t suppress my grin of delight. “Hell, no.I still drink that whenever I can get it.But it’s not usually on offer in biker bars.” And anyway, I’d pretty much ridden nonstop to this watering hole with time only for coffee, prepackaged convenience store sandwiches.And, well, licorice.The black stuff.The real stuff.
“They don’t carry it, so I snuck the bottle in under my coat,” Grandaddy admitted, eyes bright with amusement.
Warm affection filled my chest.Damn, it was good to see the man again.I hooked out a chair, swung it around pushed the back against the wall so I could keep an eye on the bar crowd, then sat my ass down and poured two fingers’ worth of fine Scottish whiskey.Lifted the tumbler, let it linger at my lips as the pungent tang of spirits rose to my eyes.Took a sip.
Yeah, there it was, that complex peaty power.I just appreciated it in my mouth a long moment,then swallowed with a grateful smile and a nod of the head.I’d missed this while in prison. “So, this is all your doing, right?Early release, and now I report to you?Maybe the first time an ex-con has been assigned to his own grandfather.”
Blue eyes were bright across the beer mug.As always, he watched me even as his posture suggested relaxation. “Mitigating circumstances, Gabriel.”
I poured more whiskey, enjoyed another swallow. “Now, who’s this Remi, and why are we meeting here?Why not Oregon, like usual?”
“Remi’s coming in from Texas.Arizona splits the difference.” Grandaddy drank beer, thumbed away liquid from his moustache, then fixed me with a steady gaze I remembered very well, even if I hadn’t seen it for a couple of years. “Pay attention, Gabriel.”
Okay, so it’s like that.I’d heard those words, that tone, so many times over the years.It always prefaced information Grandaddy considered vital, even if it made absolutely no sense.I huffed air through my nose in amusement, grinned crookedly, nodded.
And he said, by way of pronouncement, “Remi is someone you’re going to come to know very, very well, Gabriel.Someone with whom you will form a bond unlike any other.Someone upon whose actions your life will depend, and whose life will depend upon your actions.”
For a long, arrested moment, drink suspended in midair on its journey to my mouth, I stared blankly at him. Found no illumination in his face. “My life?” I waited a beat; no answer was forthcoming. “As in, life and death?”
“Precisely life and death.”
“Uhhh, okay.” I set down the tumbler with a muted clunk, scratched at my bisected eyebrow.It itched now and then. “Can you kinda elaborate on that?Just—” I waved a hand in an indistinct gesture encompassing worlds of nothing much “—you know, for the sake of me knowing what the hell you’re talking about?”
The eyes were penetrating. “He will have your back, and you will have his, pretty much twenty-four, seven, three-six-five.”
I contemplated that announcement, knocked back more whiskey, then opted for candor. “That still doesn’t tell me shit, Grandaddy.”
Now he was quietly amused. “Not yet, no.We’ll wait till Remi arrives, and then I will, as you say, elaborate.”
I opened my mouth to question further,but gave up, knowing it was pointless.Grandaddy was often cryptic, and he could not be rushed.I’d learned not to push or things got more obscure.I could tie my brains into knots trying to sort out the man’s intentions. “This Remi got a last name?”
“McCue.And—ah, speak of the devil.” Grandaddy laughed softly. “Or not.” He shoved his chair back, rose, extended his hand. “Remi, good to see you, boy.”
I raised my brows.Unlike me, Remi McCue fit right in with the crowd.Dark denim western shirt, tucked in; neatly pressed jeans, leather belt with big silver buckle, cowboy boots,even an honest-to-God hat.
This was the man Grandaddy thought I’d bond with, whatever the hell that meant. Upon whom my life was to depend.
The booze warmed my belly.I gusted a laugh and sat back in my chair, grinning. “No offense, but . . . you gotta be shitting me!”
The stranger gazed down at me a long moment, registered that he was himself the target of the irony, and raised one eloquent dark brow beneath the brim of his cream-colored hat as he made his assessment of me.In a clear tone he drawled, “Well, boy, looks to me like you’re wearin’ one of my steers in all that biker leather, so I wouldn’t go sayin’ much, was I you.”
Ah.Okay.Like that, then. “You weren’t me the last time I looked.”
Grandaddy laughed. “Oh, in a way he is, Gabriel.While you’re not related in a normal sense, there is a common genetic background.Take a harder look.”
I did.Okay, yeah, the cowboy was around six-feet, one-eighty, so we were pretty much within an inch and five pounds of one another, and he had dark hair, too, but his eyes were a clear blue, not my brown.He was tanned, I wasn’t; prison leaches melanin.Still, I had to concede we were of a similar physical type.
McCue smiled as he was given his second inspection. “Well, if Grandaddy says we resemble one another, then I’ll have to say you are a handsome devil.” He paused, lips pursing. “Might could do with a haircut, though.”
Beneath the hat, McCue’s hair was neatly trimmed and did not remotely approach the vicinity of his shirt collar, let alone his shoulder blades.I smiled back, not meaning it; you learned to do that in prison. “And you’re a poor man’s Matthew McConaughey.”
That, too, you learned there, to challenge before he did.
But the cowboy, patently unoffended and offering no return challenge,grinned slow, then drawled in deep tones, “All right, all right, all right.”
“Remi, sit down and have something to drink,” Grandaddy told him, before it went further,“and Gabriel, have another.You’ll need the alcohol.I’m about to embark upon a foray into the expositional—and I guarantee you won’t believe a word of it.All I ask is that you suspend your disbelief and hear me out.”
I employed a booted foot to shove the empty chair toward the cowboy.He caught it, settled it, took his seat.We eyed one another in brief male-to-male consideration and evaluation, smiled blandly, poured drinks.My second went down easily.McCue drank Patron.
Grandaddy meanwhile assessed us like he was weighing our worth, marking things about the two of us I couldn’t grasp.This was a man who knew things, who always struck me as a secret-keeper, but not out of ill-intent.Out of privacy and a wish to control what he said when he said it.Of what he viewed was safe to be said.
And just now, Grandaddy appeared to arrive at a conclusion.His smile was a brief, sardonic twitch. “Forgive me the melodrama, but I do promise that at some point, some day, all will come clear.I ask merely that you keep your minds open.” His smile broadened. “I did train you for that.”
Much as I wanted to, I didn’t swear in frustration.Yeah, you don’t push him, but Grandaddy could be more than a little frustrating at times.And a sideways glance at McCue suggested he felt the same as he smiled crookedly at me and twitched a shoulder, tilted his head in shared resignation.
But we waited.It’s what you do with Jubal Tanner: you wait for pronouncements to be declared from on high.
He spoke quietly beneath the whine and twang of the music, but we heard him easily.In fact, everything else seemed eerily distant, muted. “You boys will go to bed tonight wiser than you are at this moment, yet ignorant of much more.That, you will learn as you go, if you survive—and yes, I mean that in the literal sense.” The back of my neck prickled; Grandaddy’s eyes were insanely compelling. “You know me as a close family friend, someone who approximates a grandfather.The relationship is complicated, but in truth we’re all related."
The cowboy and I exchanged baffled glances.Related? What the hell?
Grandaddy smiled a little. “Not by blood or birth, as humans count it, but by birth place, and by certain bonds of that birthplace.” He turned his beer mug in idle circles upon the table. “Where we come from, where our kind comes from, we are all of one body, but not biologically linked. Not as humans know it.”
I stared at my—whatever he was.
Grandaddy—it was the only name I’d known him by, and hard to shake—stared back.There was no tension in the man’s body,no indication of anticipatory concern for the reception of his words; his attitude was that he’d merely stated the obvious.
And I heard him in my head again, saying, All I ask is that you suspend your disbelief.