The Agave Stalk
by Ivan Calhoun
Gabe wondered why anyone who lived here did not get up early every morning to see the light of sunrise hit the mountains in all directions. Crazy thing was, the desert even smelled terrific on certain mornings when plants released their pollen—especially the creosote while flowering. If thunderstorms had brought rain overnight, the smells and the sights could be overpowering. Even on days like this, headed south to Jackass Flats because of the accident, he loved dawn in the Big Bend.
Much earlier that morning, a couple of the deputy constables had volunteered to drive out to break the news, since Gabe’s ex-wife and her husband had no landline or cell coverage, but he wanted to do it himself since he was almost still friends with the couple. The kid hadn’t even been hers, but Amy had grown close to that stepson after raising him for years. It was definitely going to be tougher on Todd; the 26-year-old had been his only child
After a bit over an hour’s drive, Gabe turned into their place for the two-mile drive up to the yurt. At the edge of the property, a monster-sized agave was growing a flower stalk that was already at least fifteen feet tall. He thought it a bummer that after it flowered, the plant’s life would end, too.
Todd spotted Gabe’s pickup coming from the kitchen sink window. He glanced over towards Amy, who was weaving a small basket.
“Your ex, the JP, is here.”
After parking, Gabe dragged his boots along the ground, doing the West Texas shuffle to grind off goathead stickers from the soles before coming up on the patio. Apparently, they had themselves some almost-pet javelina; a couple of the wild animals were laid out napping under the sparse shade of a sorry-looking salt cedar. Amy was already on the other side of the door after having stowed under the sink a bong that had been left out. Despite being well into her fifties, the gray-blond dreadlocks she’d grown out in the last five years living off-grid looked pretty good on her. Gabe would have never guessed that look for her in a million years when they were married. She opened the door on Gabe’s first knock; the screen door remained between them.
“Whatcha doing in these parts, Gabe?”
“Hiya Amy, you’re lookin’ well. Uhh… can I come in? Am here in an official capacity.”
“You ain’t here to arrest us, are you?”
“Justice of the Peace doesn’t make arrests. I need to talk with both of y’all, unfortunately, though.”
She swung the screen door out with her left hand and turned back towards their couch as Todd came up drying his hands, having finished the dishes. Gabe removed his straw hat as he entered.
“Can I get you some coffee, Gabe?” Todd offered.
“Nah, but thanks. Mind if I sit here?”
Todd shook his head as he sat next to Amy on the couch. She was starting to anxiously chew a fingernail, a habit Gabe used to scold her for. Gabe sat down on the edge of a homemade chair across from them, slowly twirling his hat in his hands.
“So, hey, I’m here about Randy.”
“He didn’t get himself busted again, did he?!” Amy shot out.
Gabe paused. “Wish he had. Unfortunately, he got hit by a car really early this morning on Holland just down from Harry’s. I’m super sorry, guys, but… he didn’t make it.”
Amy gasped and covered her face with her hands. Todd looked down and barely audibly said, “Dammit, dammit, dammit.”
Gabe looked down for a long minute at the yurt’s floor, noticing some marijuana seeds and a couple of goatheads while letting them process what they’d just learned. After the pause, he continued.
“Was just an unfortunate accident. A tourist from Austin headed out super early to get on home, and it looks like your boy darted across the road right in front of him for some reason. The guy didn’t see him till it was too late.”
“There was probably a fuckin’ dog in the road, or, or, a cat,” Todd stammered.
“Yeah, he was a sensitive kid like that…I’ll go out on the porch and give y’all a moment.”
Amy buried her face in Todd’s chest while he wrapped his arms around her, his eyes tearing up. Gabe made sure the screen door didn’t bang as he walked out into the drying air of the morning. In the near distance, he could see Nine Point Mesa guarding the East. He thought there were probably a bunch of aoudad sheep up on it at that very moment, living their lives hoping to not get jumped by a mountain lion or hit by a car.
Twenty minutes later, Todd walked out to the patio and sat down on its edge beside Gabe.
“I need you to come into Alpine and identify the body, Todd.”
“I can give y’all a ride.”
“Truck is running good, but thanks. Pretty sure Amy won’t come.”
“Will she be all right? She can do unhealthy things when she’s upset.” Gabe remembered how, during their marriage, Amy had cut herself when she found out about him and Maria.
“She’ll be okay. She’s found more of her center over the years out here. Besides, she has critters she’s too attached to.” Todd looked over at the sleeping javelinas.
“You know her better than I ever did.”
Todd said into the near distance after a couple of minutes, “I swear I tried to get that kid off high-center, get him to pick a path for his life, but he always thought he was smarter than any of us. Couldn’t convince him to go to college or even join the Navy. Randy was so convinced something would land in his lap that would be perfect.” His voice cracked as he finished.
Gabe silently nodded his head.
“Know how to get ahold of his mom?”
“Nah. Just tell her sister. She seems to be able to reach her when needed.”
Both men looked into the rising Chihuahuan Desert heat. A couple of small cumulus cloud wisps offered a chance of spotty thunderstorm rains by late afternoon.
“I’ll be at my office when you get in. Very sorry for y’all. Wish I hadn’t had a reason to come.”
“Thanks for that. Me, too.”
Walking back to his truck, Gabe thought he might have come mainly just to see Amy. It had been maybe a year since they last ran into each other. It hadn’t been a great occasion then, either. He figured that may be the way it would go from now on to the end. But just like the dawn drive that morning, he liked setting eyes on her once again.
Jumping back up in his pickup without having scraped the bottom of his boots, he added more stickers to his floorboard. Amy stepped out of the yurt as Gabe put the truck into reverse. He stayed on the brake and rolled down his window.
“You don’t think Randy did it on purpose, do you, Gabe?” she asked from the porch.
Gabe saw Todd beside her look down and take in a large breath.
“The report will state that he was likely chasing an animal on the road,” Gabe replied.
As far as which animal he’d write on the report, he hadn’t decided yet, but he figured it didn’t matter.
He let off the brake to back out and get turned around.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please reach out to the Suicide Hotline for free at phone number 988.
Ivan grew up in the Texas Panhandle and after having lived all over the country he finally settled in Alpine. As a full-time sportswriter, he has been published in numerous magazines and newspapers including FlyfisherMagazine, Rugby Magazine, ESPN.com, the Santa Fe New Mexican, and the SundayTimes. This is his second published fiction, though he has written a number of screenplays, some of which can be found at clan-creative.com.
Katrina Rasmussen is an East Dallas artist and a proud Dallas ISD art educator. Her roles as an educator and a working artist are deeply intertwined: the joy of discovery when she collaborates with her students gives her renewed energy in the studio. Rasmussen’s work explores the metaphysical aspects of the western landscapes that she loves. Using Venetian Plaster and oil paint, Rasmussen creates vivid panoramas in which color reflects the intense, other-worldly beauty of the Big Bend region. These contemporary landscapes highlight a desert region abundant with life, and a beauty both fragile and ferocious. Rasmussen’s work is available at Kettle Art Gallery in Dallas, and online at kmrasmussenfineart.com. Bio photo by: Paxton Maroney paxtonmaroney.com