March 2013

Living History

listen to this story
 
Starr Weston’s wife, Georgia, was a rare beauty. Rare not because of her sulphurous red hair or the wide set of her startling green eyes, but because of the gift she had in attracting the affections of whacko thespians and looney-toon actors the way other pretty women caught the eye of normal and so-called decent men.

Cases in point: the lumbering Frankenstein at Universal Studios who’d tried to spirit her off the tour train in his massive green hands . . . the crusty mule skinner in buckskins at Bent’s Old Fort in La Junta, who cornered her behind a butter churn in a lovestruck standoff . . . and perhaps most notably, the white-haired geezer in the Civil War field hospital in Antietam who, posing as Walt Whitman, tried to feel her up as he recited some dubious line about manly attachments . . ..

The examples went on and on—a veritable Who’s Who of stage-struck oddballs—and if pressed, Starr could thumb down the list of offenders like a moth-eaten historian, tracing individual incidents back to every battleground, theme park, and historical site that he and Georgia had ever visited.

Starr, a newspaperman by trade, worked as an editor for the Sun Times, a small daily with dwindling circulation, and he claimed that after twenty years of dealing with the public, he’d seen and heard pretty much everything.

“Besides,” he explained to his newsroom colleagues with a shrug whenever a weekend went by that Georgia was accosted by some new admirer, “there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not like they’re breaking the law.”

Despite his air of nonchalance, though, Starr’s patience had begun to wear thin.  He’d grown tired of being publicly embarrassed by these characters, and wondered, privately, if Georgia’s pursuit by this particular class of masher was more than just coincidental.

“Why do you supposed it’s only those fake actor types,” he’d ask the boys in the office. “You know, the one’s I mean? The community theatre rejects? What’s up with that?”

Fred Begly, an old timer in sales who reeked of cheap aftershave and even cheaper, clove-scented cigarettes, propped his scuffed wingtips on Starr’s desk and grimaced. “I know how you feel, buddy.” He folded his arms over his big barrel chest. “The little lady and me used to go to ballgames all the time until the Philly Phanatic put his snorkel up her skirt.”

“Up her skirt?”

“Yeah, well. Maybe not up her skirt, exactly, but—“

“I’m not buying it, Begly,” smirked Dave Knudson, a young editorial assistant who, though he didn’t know it yet, would find himself in the soup line directly behind Starr in two weeks time. “I’ve seen your old lady.  She may be his body type, but she’s definitely not his type-type.

Begly nodded with an amused smile and gave Knudson the finger. “Junior here knows as much about women as he does about baseball.” Rocking forward in his chair, he picked up one of Starr’s Ticonderoga #2s from the cluttered desk, and twirled it lamely between his fingers. “Maybe it’s chemical, man. Ever think of that? People with bee allergies say the little bastards can pick them out in a crowd. Zero right in on them. Pheromones or something.” He turned up his palms, and shrugged. “Maybe that’s what we’re talking about here.”

Pheromones! Jesus. If Starr had a nickel for every crackpot theory and semi-educated guess he’d ever heard regarding these glorified—let’s just call them what they were—stalkers, he could have slipped into unemployment a happy man! But that wasn’t the way life worked. The way life worked was this:  his apprehensions grew and festered, and when he lost his job (the Sun Times folding overnight, victim of the Internet age with its online news bureaus, blogs, and conspiracy-laden chatrooms), they followed him into the dark malaise that would become his future.

***

Starr hid out in his study the first two weeks after he lost his job, surfing the Net in his pajamas, looking for work. But as time lagged on and his prospects waned, so did his ambition and, ultimately, his belief in his own talents. He’d worked hard all his life, and being on the dole now (which is what he called it when he applied online for unemployment benefits), all but destroyed him. He was under-qualified for this, overqualified for that, and there seemed to be no middle ground in which he might find comfort. He was now, in many ways, as big a loser as the nutcases and crackpots who’d chased after his beautiful wife all these years. Maybe bigger, as they, at least, had jobs.

“Nobody’s hiring!” he complained bitterly when Georgia, home from work at the hospital, sat down to a late meal with him in the dining room. “I was on the computer all day. There wasn’t even a dishwashing job to be had!”

Georgia nodded, graciously, and told him she understood. It was frustrating. Frustrating and time-consuming. She poured him another glass of wine and reminded him that things were tough all over, and that he shouldn’t let it get him down. He just had to keep pushing. Believing in himself. Yet they both knew that this was easier said than done, and Starr knew it better than Georgia, as it was him who had been cut adrift from his job, not her. How could it not drag him down or torment him with self-doubt? How could he not feel jealous? She was a beautiful woman, and ne’er do well men with empty pockets were not the type to keep beautiful women long.

In time, Starr’s spirits flagged and hope deserted him altogether. In turn, his neatly-trimmed hair grew unkempt, his shoulders began to slump, and his walk, once cheerful and jaunty, throttled down into an exhausted, old-man’s shuffle. He became a homeless soul, a vagrant spirit inside the empty cardboard box of his own body.

***

“Starr?”  Georgia beamed, poking her head in his office one evening and failing, Starr noted gratefully, to see the naked woman on his computer screen. “I’ve got just the thing to tow you out of the doldrums.”

“Oh, yes?”

After three weeks of fruitless searching, Starr had given up on finding a job and lapsed into the shameful habit of browsing the Net for porn. He shut the computer down and eased back in his chair. “My ship’s come in, has it?”

“Yes!”

Georgia clapped her hands together and announced that they were going out to dinner with their neighbors, Dick and Darla Henkles tomorrow night, to a vintage restaurant in Green Mountain Falls. It’s just what you need to make you feel human again! she trumpeted, clamping her hands on her hips and lighting up the room with her high-voltage smile. “I made us all reservations at Bob Young’s Cabaret!”

What Georgia neglected to mention, and what Starr would not realize until the following night, was that these expensive reservations included not only a sumptuous, candlelight meal with their friends the Henkles, but an extravagant night of melodrama as well. Old time melodrama, served tableside by first year theatre students from the junior college over in Greeley.

Starr made it through his dessert of crème Anglaise and fried strawberries in benighted contentment. He even squeezed Georgia’s hand when coffee was served, and whispered in her ear, thanking her for giving him such a lovely evening out. But when the curtain rose and he saw the churlish figure of Snidely Whiplash lurking in the dim glow of the footlights and realized what was about to happen, he moaned, “Oh, God,” and pretended to collapse sideways into Dick Henkles’s lap.

Indeed. Scarred by experience, Starr’s threadbare heart knew all too well what to expect from these second-rate stage dwellers. So what came next came as no surprise.

The villainous actor with the waxed mustache cackled and, living up to Starr’s lowest expectations, wrapped himself in his long, black cape and glided to their table on elastic legs. “Muhahaha!” He bellowed, arching an eyebrow at Starr, then at Dick and Darla Henkles, and finally, amid the titters of the other theatergoers, at the lovely red-faced Georgia, whose delicate chin he coochie-cooed with the butt of his buggy lash.

***

“You’ve got to learn to see the humor in it, Starr,” Georgia scolded when they got home that night. “They’re just playing, is all. It’s part of the show.” She stepped out of her dress and sat down at the vanity in her lacy white slip. “If you act embarrassed,” she said, brushing her hair, “they only get more aggressive.”

Georgia didn’t need to remind Starr of what these men were capable. He’d seen it first hand, many times. But now that he was officially unemployed, the advances of other men—especially the crazies in theatrical drag—brought out a simmering jealousy in him. He didn’t say it, but it pained him to think of his wife as having knowledge of these men’s secret desires. There was an intimacy to such insight—one that suggested complicity, perhaps even some sort of tacit approval.

Georgia rose from her dressing table, adjusted the straps of her slip, and flopped down on the bed next to him like a bag of fresh-picked apples. “Don’t be so grumpy, you old poop! You know I adore you. You know I can’t live a moment without you!”

Starr knew nothing of the sort. Or so he told himself. He only knew that he couldn’t go without work much longer, and that if he did, he might lose his mind—as well as his wife of twenty years.

“Nine weeks!” He groaned as if someone had stepped on him. “I’ve been unemployed nine weeks! I haven’t had nine weeks off from work since I was twelve—back before I was a paperboy!”

Georgia frowned, thoughtfully. It was the look she reserved for only the most solemn of moments. Then she raised up and slapped the bed covers. “We should take tomorrow off,” she announced in the voice of someone who knew what was best for all involved and wasn’t afraid to say so. “We should drive up into the mountains and have a picnic and just forget about everything!”

Starr made a moody face. “I don’t know.”

“Why not?  What could it hurt?”

“I’m supposed to be looking for work. It’s part of the—you know–the deal with the job service people. I’m supposed to spend time every day looking for employment.”

Georgia rolled onto her back and crossed her feet at the delicate curve of her ankles. She was unmoved by his protests. She had a way, at times, of being depressingly optimistic, and Starr sensed that this was going to be one of them. Suddenly, she snatched his arm and squirmed, her bumcakes jiggling with glee beneath the flimsy satin slip. “I’ve got it!” she squealed. “You can say you went up the mountain looking for a job!”

“Who would believe that?”

She gave him a look. This was the government they were talking about.

“Okay, but still—“

“Oh, stop being such a stick in the mud!” She laughed, tousling his unkempt hair. “Let’s just go and have fun. You only have to apply for a job. You don’t have to come back with one!”

***

But Starr did come back with a job. One that, despite Georgia’s gentle protests, he’d pursued with a shameless fever and, when offered the position, accepted with what seemed a reckless and almost joyful abandon. It was fate, he told her as they drove back down the mountain that night. Destiny! Good jobs were impossible to come by these days, and here, as if by the hand of Providence, the one he’d always dreamed of having had fallen out of the sky, squarely into his lap!

In a sense, this was true. The job had fallen out of the sky. For it was while he and Georgia were lounging in a back booth at the Pecos Café and Old West Souvenir Emporium in the little town of Buena Vista, munching on a lazy lunch of cheeseburgers and French fries, that Starr heard the commercial that roused his slumbering ambition and urged it into a hard, sweaty gallop.

The gravely voice that came at him was full of six-guns and saddle leather. It drifted down on the airwaves of an old RCA Victor radio, and when Starr heard it crackle out its unbridled call to adventure, he was overcome as if by the magic of a mighty spell.

He dragged his eyes from the radio’s glowing dial, and looked across the table at his lovely, unsuspecting wife. “I want,” he announced in an innocent voice, “to be one of those guys.”

Georgia smiled at him, not quite understanding the drift of his meaning. “What guys, honey?”

Starr pointed up to the radio on the shelf. “One of those living history guys. The kind who dress up and put on shows for tourists.” His palms found the table top, and he leaned into the words. “I want to work in a place (here he recited from the commercial) where legends still ride tall in the saddle and history comes alive in a whiff of gunsmoke!”

Georgia’s face went as white as the napkin in her lap. “Have you lost your mind?”

“No,” Starr said, coming around with a quick little shake of the head, his eyes going from soft-focus and cinematic to pure, tempered steel. “But I have lost my job, and I want to get back to work.”

“Honey. In theatre?”

Georgia reminded him that looking for a job had only been a joke. That they’d driven up here to relax and see the sights, to admire the snow on the Collegiate Peaks. But Starr reminded her that the unemployment bureau was a humorless mistress, one who did not take kindly to fraudulent suitors.

“But you haven’t any experience.”

“I was a shepherd once in a Christmas pageant.”

“You were twelve!”

“And your point would be?”

“You loathe those sorts of things, Starr. You always have.”

Loathe? Hmmm. He gave the word a serious going over in his head. More, perhaps, than it deserved. No, he told her after a thoughtful sip of coffee. That wasn’t it. What frustrated him, what made his blood boil all these years, was not the occupation, proper, but rather the disservice its players did in carrying out their roles. He put his hands on hers, reminding her of all the forts and farms and battlegrounds and graveyards they’d visited over the years. All the historic sites and roadside monuments they’d stopped for on their way to other places.

“I guess it’s all finally gotten to me,” he said. “Only, in a good way. The way you’d always hoped.”

***

The ride out to Buckskin Joe’s Frontier Town and Railway was a quiet one, Starr’s silence born out of nervous excitement, Georgia’s out of what Starr took to be raw and unwarranted desperation. They arrived mid-afternoon, hardly a word between them along the way, but as they barreled into the gravel lot and saw the great wooden lintel with the rusted branding irons crossed like swords, Starr knew, instinctively, that everything would be all right.

He surveyed the scene as he walked around the car and opened the door for Georgia, nodding in aching appreciation at the blueness of the mountain sky and the clean, Pine Sol scent of the air.

Tourists were passing through the gates in droves, which was something Starr hadn’t expected, or even thought about. But there was an energy to them, a crude electricity that moved his heart to a merry little quickstep.

“How about you take yourself a ride on this little dandy,” he told Georgia, “while I go up to the office and check things out.”

He pointed to the dizzying billboard picture of the miniature-scale train that ran from the town’s old west depot out to the rim of the Royal Gorge.

“Alone?”

“You’ll be fine. Sign says it’s only a twenty minute ride.”

“That’s not the point.”

“I’ll meet you right here. On this very spot, all right? I promise. Just give me twenty minutes.”

Georgia looked at him.

“Starr, this is ridiculous.”

“Please?”

She glanced disdainfully at the train with its overweight tourists and shrieking children and took a long, exasperated breath. “All right,” she conceded. “For you. But then we’re going home.”

When the train pulled out of the miniature station with a frowning Georgia on it, stuffed ankles-to-elbows into boxcar No. 12, Starr waved like a proud father watching his only child take her first ride on a carousel. Georgia managed a dim smile and a twiddle of the fingers, but nothing more, and when she disappeared into the jagged red rock of the canyon beyond the trees, he turned and trotted off to the main office to inquire after the job.

The eighty-year-old proprietor of Buckskin Joe’s was a man named Gus Whitehead. Starr and Gus took an instant liking to one another, and after a brief chat in the old man’s office, Gus invited Star over to his cabin where the two of them could talk in a more leisurely fashion. They had a manly, heart-to-heart in Gus’s back yard. A stick-whittling, slug-in-the-arm kind of talk, the likes of which Starr hadn’t known since he was a boy sitting around a campfire with his chums. They jawed on about fishing, hunting, man’s natural distrust of the federal government, and a host of other issues whose rugged importance had been lost to Starr over time, but which he now revisited with gusto.

Gus Whitehead was impressed with Starr’s savvy, and told him so. “Don’t know if it’s cause you read or went to college or what. But you got yerself a good head on yer shoulders there, son. Rill good.” The old man rose from his lawn chair and thumbed up the battered straw hat that covered his balding, liver-spotted head. “I believe you know what yer talkin about.”

“But what about the job?”

The old man poked his tongue around the inside of his mouth, then sniffed and raised his chin. “How you set on a outfit?” He lit a smoke and pointed at Starr’s tee shirt and cargo shorts, indicating they wouldn’t do.

“I can scare something up.”

“Gotta look authentic, son. This here’s an authentic western town.”

“I’ll find something. I’m sure of it.”

The old man gave him a good going over, like he was totting up a list of plusses and minuses. “Got some used duds down in the bunkhouse,” he said.  “Might have a look-see. Somethin might fit.”

“You mean—“

“Yep.”

“I’m hired?”

“Start next Monday,” the old man said gruffly, “providin you kin get your look right.”

***

Starr had a grin on his face the entire way home. Not so with Georgia, who seemed nonplussed by the scant details Starr was willing to part with regarding his new employment arrangements.

“What? Aren’t you happy for me?”

Georgia folded her arms and turned to the window. She’d stopped being happy for him the moment he’d put her on the little train—alone—and gone off to have his talk with Gus.

“Okay, so it’s not the same money as I was making before. But Gus says there’s room for advancement.”

Georgia explained in measured terms that she wasn’t worried about the money, so much as the long commute. It was hours up and back down the mountain. That meant wear and tear on the car, excessive gasoline charges on the credit card, the possibility of accidents.

“It was your idea I look for job,” he said.

“That was because I didn’t think you’d find one.”

Starr put his eyes on the road and, without thinking too hard, began to whistle. Being employed again was the finest feeling in the world. He’d always miss his work at the newsroom, but there was something about this new job that felt as right as anything he’d ever known. It wasn’t journalism, true. But it was a chance to educate people, and in a way that, let’s face it, was a whole lot more interesting than reading some stuffy old rag.

He told himself he was going to be one of Gus Whitehead’s best employees. A fellow who, once he’d studied up and gotten a handle on his new responsibilities, would give folks something to write home about on the backs of those old postcards over in the gift shop.

“Did you know they shot Cat Balloo up here?” He was driving one-handed now, confident, his elbow resting on the window. Wind ruffled the sleeve of his tee shirt, and flashes of sunlight glinted off the lenses of his Bollé Cruisers.

“What?”

“The movie. Cat Balloo. Gus says they shot it up here. Lee Marvin was drunk as a skunk the whole time.”

“That’s nice.”

“Gus says they filmed John Wayne’s The Cowboys up here, too.” He put his eyes back on the rolling, two-lane highway. “I didn’t know that, did you?”

“No.”

“God, I loved that movie!” He slapped his thigh. “Remember that part where Bruce Dern gets drug through the river by his broken leg!”

Georgia stared out the window, bleakly, and Starr glanced over at her without much to offer in the way of solace. He was sympathetic with her concerns, yet he felt too good to let her bleed the steam from his newfound enthusiasm. She’d get over it. Change was one of those things you had to take to, gradually. Real easy like.

***

A month into his job at Buckskin Joe’s, Gus Whitehead promoted Starr from bartender to telegraph operator. Then from telegraph operator to newspaper editor. Starr wore a black vest and a collarless shirt with sleeve garters, and he kept a pair of round wire-rimmed spectacles perched atop his short, graying hair for affect. When visitors wandered in for a look-see he’d get up and rattle off some news current to the day and times, and if things clicked and the people joined in on the jawing, as was often the case, he’d try and sell them a copy of the vintage broadsheet that Gus printed on the old linotype machine in the shed behind the main cabin.

Starr felt authentic working in the true-to-life old west town, and after a while the thought of getting a job as a flatlander again all but deserted him. Still, Georgia had been right about the drive. The daily commute was long and costly, and some tailoring was in order to make things more sensible. So he approached Gus one day about tossing his bedroll and other possibles in the bunkhouse and holing up there for the rest of the season. The old man agreed without a second thought.

“It’s just for the summer,” Starr told Georgia over what would be their last dinner together that week. “I don’t like being away from you, either, darlin. But it helps pay the bills and I’m picking up some nice change on the side with tips.”

Georgia raised an eyebrow and laid her fork carefully on her plate. “I don’t like being without you, Starr. I didn’t get married to live here, all alone, in this big house.”

“Me neither.” Starr reached across the table for a piece of bread, giving her the smile he’d been using with regular success now on the tourists and tour-bus drivers from town. “It’s just for the summer, darlin.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

Starr would have liked it if Georgia had been able to spend a few nights a week with him in the bunkhouse up on the mountain. But with her own job, working as a radiation technician, there was no way she could manage it. Not unless she put in for vacation time, which she wasn’t willing to do if it was only to watch him perform for tourists.

“I’ll come up weekends,” she told him. “That’s all I can promise.”

***

The summer pushed on like a big, fat, lazy cloud, and as it did Starr became less and less inclined to go home. He had it good up here at Buckskin Joe’s—decent chuck, a bunk, a bedroll, black coffee with a touch of whisky at night when him and Gus sat under the stars talking philosophy—and he began to fear that if he left, he would never be happy again. He wasn’t gaining any ground, financially. But on the other hand, he wasn’t losing any either. Which evened things up. He was working hard, sending home his wages, and life couldn’t have been simpler or better—unless, of course, he could get Georgia to move up here with him.

The conjugal visits, as Starr had begun to refer to them, were fine in and of themselves, but he was looking for more now, and he wrote Georgia to tell her so.  My sweetest Georgia, the letter said, I long for the touch of your vanished hand.

Georgia wrote back a hasty screed. See you Saturday.

“JesusChristGoodLordAmighty!” Starr laughed when, four days later, she pulled up to the bunkhouse in their Honda Civic and got out to greet him. “How I do miss you when you ain’t here!” He peeled off his hat, tossed it in the air, and did a little jig. Then he strutted over, clutched her hand in his and, giving it a crank, twirled her about in a two-step move he’d picked up from Slim Liebowitz who worked over in the saloon as a piano player. “You’re a fine little lady to look at!” he yipped. “You know that Mrs. Weston!”

Georgia pushed her hair back into place, and glanced around, embarrassed. She knew why Starr was excited, and only part of it had to do with her spending the weekend with him. The rest was because of the promotion Gus Whitehead had just steered his way, and which Georgia, upon hearing about, had cruelly labeled as yet another of “the old man’s tricks” to force a wedge between them. Only three months into my employment here, Starr had scribbled to her on the back of a sepia postcard, and the old man has offered me a crack at the top job in the outfit—gunslinger!

It had been a difficult decision, Starr told her, whether or not to accept the position. First and foremost, he was still learning the ropes—and his confidence remained a bit shaky after having been fired from his last job. Second, he was in his forties, and most men who lived by the gun were pushing up daisies on boot hill by that age. It was Gus, he told her, who’d helped him decide.

Of course it was, Georgia said.

Starr said that Gus, who admired him for wanting to be authentic in his role, had explained that there were notable exceptions to the west’s notorious “live by the gun, die by the gun” rule, including the likes of shootists Doc Holliday and the Sundance Kid. So they talked the matter over and, after a convincing speech by the old man wherein he was told that the streets of the old frontier town were exactly where he was needed, Starr had stood up, shook hands, and called it a deal. Now, every day at high noon, he got to swagger into the street, call his rival out from the Pair-O-Dice Saloon, and slap leather!

“They had me workin the necktie parties last week,” he said, putting his arm around Georgia and steering her off for a stroll through the trees, “but folks was gettin put off seein men strung up in public, so Gus figured maybe we should put the gallows in storage for a while an concentrate on the bigger stuff.”

Georgia shuffled to a stop under a spreading cottonwood and eyed him up and down, noting the spurs and gunbelt. The rakish way he tilted his hatbrim low on his forehead. “Listen to yourself, would you? ‘Necktie parties?’ ‘Strung up?’ What’s gotten into you, Starr?”

“What do you mean?”

“I feel like I’m losing you.”

The words startled Starr, who stepped back as if he’d been drilled by hot lead, and he turned and faced her and, taking the toothpick from his teeth, gripped her by the arms. “Ain’t nobody losin nothin, darlin. You hear? You an me, we got us a heap a livin to do, and I aim to see we do it.” He released her, and lowered his head. Pawed at the dust with the toe of his boot. “I love you, Georgia-girl. I love you like there’s no tomorry.” He looked up, reclaiming her shoulder with his long, thin arm, and began walking her toward the setting sun. “And don’t you never fergit it.”

Georgia wept some during their lantern-lit Dutch-oven dinner of beans and biscuits in the bunkhouse that night, and later retreated into a cold and bitter silence. She fell asleep under his wool saddle blanket, and there was no sweetness between them or putting forth of domestic favors. But Starr, though disappointed, was all right with it. He knew that it had been a long summer for his wife. It had been a long summer for both of them, and he was sorry he’d caused her any hardship. But a man didn’t quit on a thing just because the going got rough. Nor did he back down from a scuffle, regardless of the odds confronting him. There was still a good two months of tourist season left before Gus nailed the place up for winter and headed down to his condo in Tucson, and that meant everybody would just have to buck up and see it through the best they could. Everybody.

He turned out the lantern. His hand found the curve of her luscious hip. He couldn’t explain why, but he was mad about this woman. Simply mad. She might not realize it, but there was no way in the world she would ever slip through his fingers.