The Cowboy God

The white sign seems to glow in the gray of the rainy afternoon. It stands at the edge of a Texas byway, alone, weeds clinging to the two whitewashed two-by-fours holding it up. COWBOY CHURCH it says in simple red letters. Below the words a red arrow points off to the right into the gloom.

My wet brakes don’t grab at first, but once they boil off the water I slow and turn off the blacktop and look down a long, straight dirt road. No doubt about which way to go. Gently I pull forward, even that little nudge making my wheels spin for a moment before taking hold. The ground is saturated; water stands in a sheet over the mud of the road.

I creep along for a mile or two, glimpsing the road ahead for a fraction of a second with each pass of the wipers before the downpour obliterates my view again. Finally I make out a structure ahead, gray like the rest of the world. In front is a large area clear of weeds; I pull into that. The building is a large steel structure, a barn with a modest steeple at the crown of the roof over the door. I park next to the only other car in the lot, a faded blue Oldsmobile from sometime in the ’70’s. One of its windows is down and water is collecting in the footwell. A Bible lies getting sodden in the front seat. I push it farther over, out of the direct rain. I open the car’s door to roll up the window, but there is no crank handle.

Already wet, I dash up the steps to the front door. In the inadequate protection of the front porch I try to scrape the mud off my shoes. The wind is tossing the rain around and I am getting progressively wetter. This is a cowboy church, I decide, they should be used to a little mud. I slip through the door and close it quickly behind me, the sound overwhelmed by the drumming of the rain on the metal roof.

I am in a vestibule partitioned off from the sanctuary by walls that don’t reach the ceiling. Carved wood doors in front of me lead into the main chamber. To one side is a folding table with mimeographed sheets in various pastels. One stack is of light blue sheets neatly folded in two, with a line picture of the church on the front. Beneath are the simple words “Cowboy Church” and a date, past or future I do not know. Finally, in fancier script it says, “It’s never too late.”

I set the paper back down and square the pile. There’s nothing left but to go inside. The door is heavy but moves easily on its hinges; I close it with a gentle click and turn to inspect the room. I am standing at the back of the sanctuary. Folding metal chairs are lined up neatly in rows across the concrete floor. At the far end of the space is a modest altar. On one side of the room is a cast-iron stove glowing invitingly, near it is a folding table with a pair of large coffee urns. On each side near the front hang long banners of red cloth depicting Jesus doing a variety of good things. The lights are off; the only light comes from a row of small windows down each side of the building and a pair of large skylights. The place lacks the soaring majesty of the great cathedrals and the simple joy of the modern house of worship. This is the Cowboy Church, all right.

I step forward into the Cowboy Church, not sure why I came, not sure what to to.

In the Cowboy Church, pray to the Cowboy God.

“Hello?” The voice comes from the back, behind the altar. There are two doors there, one on each side, leading through another partition to spaces unknown in back. The voice is small, and female. A church mouse.

“Hello,” I say. Suddenly I feel like I’m intruding. I should have knocked. “The door was open.”

The door on the right opens and a figure emerges, small and gray and lost in the gloom. “Of course,” she says. She steps forward into the splash from one of the windows. Her hair is dark and very long. Her skin is pale. She looks moonlit. “Preacher’s not here,” she says.

“That’s all right,” I say. “I’m looking for the Cowboy God.”

She takes another step forward and stops, back in shadow, but I can feel her watching me. After a moment she says, “We got the same God as everyone else.”

I nod slowly, but then shake my head. “No,” I say.

What kind of God would a cowboy create? To whom does a cowboy pray while the rain pours off his hat brim in a steady stream and all he has to look at are the filthy asses of the cows plodding in front of him? It wouldn’t be some great being promising a life of comfort and joy. It wouldn’t hold out the promise of Heaven. A true cowboy sees Heaven every day. If he didn’t he would have packed up and gone to the city long since. The Cowboy God doesn’t bring promises and doesn’t offer hope. The Cowboy God is the kind of God that sits at the next barstool, listening to Willie and sipping Bud from a long-neck bottle. He’s a little run down himself—his back is bothering him from all the heavy lifting and his knee goes out from time to time. Maybe the cowboy’s foot is broke and his shoulder takes longer to get going each morning. It’s not worth mentioning because there’s nothing to be done about it and there’s work that’s got to be done tomorrow. They’ll both be getting up before the sun, and tending to their business. It’s the hardship as much as anything else that makes the cowboy who he is; take that away and you take away his soul.

They don’t say much, the cowboy and his God; not much really needs saying. Each is a comfort to the other, a source of strength. After a couple more beers they shake hands, maybe clap a shoulder, and leave. The cowboy climbs in his truck, the manufacturer more a source of religious fervor than the God he prays to, and he wishes his God a safe journey home and feels in his heart the blessing returned. The cowboy might in a real pinch ask his God for a blessing, but he’ll give the Lord his best wishes every day. The cowboy knows what it’s like to carry a burden.

She’s taken another step forward, into the light of the next window. One eye is as gray as the day outside, the other is lost in shadow. She is trying to look into my soul. “What is it you want?” She sounds suspicious, protective, as if I might be a threat to the Cowboy God. Have I come into his lair to call him out, like some gunslinger in the old west? She stands shyly, her straight hair pushed back behind her ears, her hands clasped in front of her. She is wearing a brown skirt, her legs two pale stakes like the signposts. Over her white shirt is a brown coat that matches the skirt. She stands, afraid, ready to defend her God.

“I just want to ask him a question,” I say.

She relaxes a little but suspects a trap. “Preacher will be back soon.”

“All right,” I say, but I’m not interested in him.

“Can I get you come coffee? I just made some in the back.”

“Thanks.”

While she scuttles off to fetch the coffee I drift over to the comfort of the stove. I look out the window, to where the Cowboy God really lives. “What’s it all about?” I ask. My breath fogs the glass.

“Did you say something?” she asks, bringing me a styrofoam cup filled with steaming black coffee.

I accept the cup. By the window I see that her hair is lighter than I first thought, but here eyes are still gray, and open a little wider than seems natural. Her lips are pale, almost indistinct, and pressed together. Shadows under her eyes give her a weariness that speaks of experience and gives her otherwise youthful face a gravity that makes her age impossible to guess. I sip the coffee. It’s good and strong. Cowboy Coffee, I suppose. “Thank you,” I say. “I was just asking my question.”

“Oh,” she says. Perhaps she is distressed that I could be on speaking terms with her God, that I didn’t talk to the preacher first. More than that she is curious.

The sound of rain had faded so slowly I hadn’t noticed its absence, but now it resumes with more furor than ever. The day grows even darker outside. A clatter begins above, and hailstones thrash the land.

“Guess you got your answer,” she says, the corner of her mouth twitching upward even as she turns away, embarrassed for joking at my expense. I look at her pale profile, glowing white like the sign by the highway had. She is watching me from the corner of her round eye.

“Guess so,” I say, and I think she must be right.

She steps to the wood pile and selects a log, then opens the stove and delicately places it inside. The yellow light gives her face some life as she inspects the fire. “You should wait till the storm passes before you drive,” she says. She almost has to shout to be heard over the hammering on the roof.

Odds and Ends

Shreveport to Chattanooga was mostly freeway. I saw the white stripe flash past in a hypnotic rhythm mile after mile, and wrote stuff in my head. I’m still working on getting the chapter of The Fish written as I felt it within my skull, but it could turn out to be really cool. The rest of the stuff I thought up I can’t start writing until November 1, but my 30-day novel is starting to take shape in my head, and I’m pretty stoked about it. More and more I feel confident that when people ask me what I do I can say, “I’m a writer.” That’s true enough, anyway, even if it does imply that I get paid to write.

Meanwhile, I crossed the 15,000-mile mark outside of Birmingham, Alabama. Safety Dance was playing on the radio. During the day I had been searching for a decent radio station as I moved along from state to state. I heard Turn the Page twice—once as a cover and twice the original version. Here I am, on the road again…

Speaking of radio stations, the best one I know of on this continent is 91 1/2 in Chattanooga. It’s a college station. “We guarantee sixty minutes every hour!” They played some good, good stuff, and quite a variety. I was sorry to pass out of range as I passed through the Appalachians this morning.

Lots of other things happened, the kind of mindless details I do my best not to burden you with. Raccoons should learn to look both ways. I didn’t hit any, but I think I was the exception.

It’s getting harder and harder to keep my hair from blowing in my eyes as I drive. Perhaps a mullet is in order.

On the way over to Asheville today the storage thingie on my fancy camera filled up. I guess that means I really do have to do something about processing all those pictures you guys have been moaning about not seeing. I’ll see what I can do in the morning. I think I got some pretty nice ones today. Highway 64 in Western North Carolina has to go on the list as one of the best drives ever. Honestly, though, I’d recommend driving it on a weekday. Once the camera was maxed out, I wanted nothing more than to enjoy the sinuous asphalt as it wound through the late October headless horseman forest, sending leaves flying in my wake.

Alas, much of the time I crept along behind people doing well under the conservative speed limit. These drivers had no clue whatsoever that they should pull to the side, even when they saw other drivers doing the same thing. I relaxed and enjoyed the drive anyway, but the rare taste of real driving left me yearning for more.

Reading over the last episode I posted, I see a serious omission. The sleeipes caught up with me before I finished, I supposed. I was in the lounge at the hotel, which almost had wireless Internet. No matter, really, I could post when I got back to the room. The bartender was Shelly, who was back after a month and the regulars were all very happy to see her. Slender with long straight dark hair, she had a ready smile and a sense of humor. I sat at the bar where I was advised the signal was strongest with my laptop open and lamented the intermittent, weak signal. There were a couple of other friendly regulars and overall the quiet bar was most congenial. Eventually I was the only customer, and after I talked to Shelly for a while I headed back the room with one last beer. I was enjoying the chat, but I’m in love with enough bartenders already. I decided to get out while the getting was good.

Now I’m at Jesse’s house, and it’s nice. I’m in the nursery, so I better be ready to get the hell out of here if the baby arrives.