By Leah Mueller
Standing at the long wooden bar at the Bisbee Stock Exchange, I stared at gleaming rows of bottles on the mahogany shelf. Next to me stood a middle-aged man, lean, with long gray hair and a handlebar mustache. He sported a checkered western shirt, tight jeans, and shiny boots with spurs.
“I like your outfit,” I said, though his look struck me as an absurd cliché.
Bisbee was the sort of town where city officials paid guys to dress up like cowboys and lounge on the steps of the mining museum. This was a calculated tourist gambit, designed to inspire folks to purchase kokopelli key chains and leather wallets embossed with rodeo scenes.
“I hate it when people say that shit,” the cowboy replied. He leaned across the bar like a cartoon of himself, placed his hat on the counter. “I don't dress like this to impress people. These are my CLOTHES.” He picked up his shot of whiskey, took a huge gulp, and stared at me angrily.
“I'm sorry,” I said, hoping to assuage his ego.
The cowboy waved his hand dismissively. “Let me buy you a drink,” he offered. “I'm used to this sort of bullshit. I get it all the time.”
I settled into my barstool and ordered a pint of Electric Dave's.
“That Dave sure is an operator,” the cowboy muttered.
The brew-master, Dave, had recently been sprung from prison after serving time for a marijuana smuggling conviction.
A buxom, leather-faced bartender shoved a glass in my direction.
“I don't know how he manages it. There are folks in this town who make it, and others who don't. You have to know whose asses to kiss. I don't kiss asses, but I've kicked a few. I've had my ass kicked too, more than once. Know what I mean?”
My companion had summed up the human experience pretty well. I took a sip from my beer. An excellent brew, smooth and hoppy, and worthy of its name.
“Best you can do is hope for a 50/50 split,” I said.
The cowboy nodded.
“My name's Rick,” he said. “I think we're going to get along.” He gestured towards the bartender. “Get another one for the lady.”
I accepted a shot of Maker's Mark from the bartender. Rick gazed at the contours of my body, then looked away quickly. I noticed a pile of fresh rosemary on the counter beside him. He had arranged the sharp little branches on an unfolded napkin, and they gleamed in the pale bar light.
“I picked it in a nearby field,” Rick explained. “I can't resist the stuff.”
He held one of the sprigs under my nose, and I sniffed deeply.
“I'm going to dry it when I get home,” he said. “It's really good in bread.”
I thought of my own home, fifteen hundred miles away in Tacoma, Washington. My live-in partner Dan and I had separated several months beforehand, after my mother died and left me with one-quarter ownership of her Bisbee four-flat. I’d managed to hold on to the Tacoma house. Meanwhile, Dan drank himself to unconsciousness every night, in his nearby studio apartment.
My mother’s building had been a miner's boarding house for many years. She paid cash for it, resurrected the rock garden, and died a few years later. Somehow, the task of unloading it had fallen upon my shoulders. I wasn’t happy about it.
The local real estate market was slow, and the building had taken a year to unload. My siblings and I had squabbled for months about a series of lowball offers. I was no longer on speaking terms with them. Both my brother and sister had objected strenuously to my decision to sell the place. They didn’t need the money as much as I did.
Three days beforehand, I'd flown to Arizona to tie up emotional loose ends and collect my $19,000 share. 2000 had been a miserable year, and I was eager to shake the dust of the Bisbee curse from my bones.
Rick gestured towards the bartender, and two more shot glasses appeared in front of us. I sipped my amber liquid eagerly. Rick chugged his drink, signaled for another, and asked what had brought me to town.
“My mother's house finally sold,” I explained. “She lived half a mile away. I'm here to say goodbye, since I won't be back again.”
“You'll be back,” Rick said. He drained his glass, and a new one arrived. “Get her one too,” he told the bartender.
The woman hesitated, then wandered across the bar with an air of resignation and measured another shot. Her stern face looked distracted, like she had other things on her mind. After a moment, she placed the glass in front of me and turned away.
I gazed at the tin ceiling. Its geometric patterns swirled and melted into each other. The sound of raucous laughter arose from the street, then subsided. Suddenly queasy, I realized I was quite drunk.
I rose unsteadily from my stool and smiled at my new friend.
“I'll be right back,” I said.
My feet shuffled towards the rear of the bar, while the top of my body undulated like seaweed. I found a door that said “women”, and after swaying on the toilet for several minutes, I returned to the bar. Rick was nowhere in sight, and the pile of rosemary was gone. Maybe he had tired of our conversation and decided to go home. I couldn't blame him. In my current state of mind, I was probably terrible company.
The men's lavatory door opened, and Rick wandered into the room. He staggered for a moment, but quickly righted himself. With feigned casualness, he sauntered over to his bar-stool. Rick gave the counter a sideways glance, and a stricken expression came over his face. “The rosemary!” he cried. “It's...gone! Somebody must have stolen it!”
“That's ridiculous,” I replied, shaking my head. “Who would steal rosemary? It grows wild in these parts.”
Rick's eyes became suddenly wet. “People are no goddamned good,” he said bitterly. “You never can trust them to do the right thing.” He blinked back his tears and shook his head. “They snatched it after I went to take a leak. This town is full of backstabbers.”
I could imagine better ways to stab a man in the back than stealing his rosemary, but I didn't say so. My own experiences in Bisbee had been less than ideal. Over the years, two different men had dealt me cruel rejections—a junkie writer who was carrying on with a local barfly, and a confused drummer who kept divorcing and re-marrying his wife.
My tryst with the writer had caused the demise of my relationship with Dan. I’d known this was a possibility, but my habitual lust and the desert heat got the best of me. Bisbee was exactly the sort of town that inspired wild herb theft, since nobody thought much about consequences.
“You have to trust people anyway,” I said.
Despite my inebriation, I sounded like a wise elder, though I was at least ten years younger than Rick. I worked as a tarot reader, so I’d had plenty of practice. My tone was compassionate, yet firm, like I believed my words. I drained my shot, and Rick waved down the bartender, ordered two more.
“I mean, they don't deserve it, but what choice do we have?”
For the first time, Rick stared directly into my eyes.
“I don't know,” he said.
He looked away, embarrassed.
“It's my own fault for letting people screw me over. I never learn.”
“That makes two of us,” I assured him. I pivoted on my stool and grabbed the edge of the bar so I wouldn't topple. My empty glasses glistened on the counter. I had managed to set a new personal record of a beer and five shots in less than two hours. I strongly suspected that I wouldn't be proud of this record when morning arrived.
“I'd better go back to my hotel,” I said. “Thanks for the drinks. I enjoyed talking with you. I hope you find more rosemary.”
Rick stared at my breasts, then looked away sharply, as if seized by pain. “You're really attractive,” he said. “I'm going to go home and masturbate.”
His tone was morose, yet philosophical, like he was resigned to a future of onanism. My sudden departure was deeply disappointing and had come swiftly on the heels of the rosemary theft, but he would deal with both issues as well as he could.
It was easily the most pathetic pickup line I'd ever heard. I emitted an uncomfortable laugh, and Rick set his jaw.
“It's true,” he insisted.
“I don't doubt it,” I replied. Steering my body as if it were a ship, I labored my way towards the exit. A gust of wind caught my skirt, and I clasped the edge of the fabric with one hand. The door whooshed shut behind me as I stepped onto the darkened sidewalk.
I couldn't remember the location of my hotel, and this made me furious. Nevertheless, I walked purposefully down the cobblestone streets, as if I knew exactly where I was headed. I'd figure out the direction as I went along, as I'd done many times before. There was no reason to hurry. I owned plenty of time. No one could steal those minutes from me. I'd plug them a good one, before they had the chance to get out of town. They wouldn't dare mess with me again.
After pacing the length of the street several times, I found my hotel and collapsed into bed. Several hours later, I awoke with the sun in my face. It beamed mercilessly into my eyeballs, and I winced as I raised myself from the mattress. I wandered into the tiny bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. My ravaged, puffy-eyed reflection stared back at me from the mirror. I felt terrible, but not half as bad as I'd expected.
A cup of coffee would do wonders for my equilibrium. I left the hotel, wandered down the sidewalk towards the coffee shop. Finally, paper cup in hand, I drifted across the street, towards the museum.
Rick perched on the top step with his long legs dangling beneath him, waiting for the tourists to arrive. His face was expressionless as he stared at the horizon. The man fit his inscrutable cowboy role perfectly. When he spotted me, however, he ducked his head with shame.
“I'm sorry,” he muttered.
I shrugged. “Don't be,” I said. “I'm not upset. It was a good talk.” Rick lifted his head and looked relieved.
“Okay,” he agreed. “I still feel stupid, though.”
“How did you sleep?” I asked.
Rick's face brightened.
“Oh, I never have trouble sleeping. My place on Chihuahua Hill is so beautiful. I always wake up at sunrise. You should come over and see it tomorrow.”
You had to hand it to Rick—although he kept losing, he never accepted defeat without a fight.
“I'm flying back to Washington this evening, or I'd say yes,” I said.
In less than an hour, I would climb the winding hill in my rental car, take one last look at the town, and head towards the Tucson airport.
Rick looked momentarily saddened, but then he smiled.
“Another day,” he said. “You have to come up next time you're in town and watch the sunrise. I make a hell of a good breakfast.”
I wasn't sure how to explain to Rick that I never intended to return to Bisbee.
“I’ll look you up,” I said.
Rick reached out his hand, and I shook it firmly. His fingers were warm inside of mine, and they lingered there for an extra moment, as if he needed every bit of warmth he could get.
“Take care of yourself,” I said.
I released his hand and turned away, began my trek back to the hotel. Two packed bags rested beside the bed. My departure couldn't come soon enough.
Leah Mueller is an indie writer and spoken word performer from Tacoma, Washington. Her work has appeared in Blunderbuss, Outlook Springs, The Spectacle, Your Impossible Voice, Summerset Review, and many other publications. She has authored two chapbooks and four books, most recently a memoir entitled "Bastard of a Poet." You can find Leah on Facebook and Twitter.