CW: terminal illness, suicidal ideation
“Does the wind always blow this way?” asked the Eastern visitor, holding onto his hat.
“No mister,” said the cowboy. “It’ll maybe blow this way for a week or ten days, and then it’ll take a change and blow like hell.”
A tired chuckle followed, and then a profound silence. The odd pair looked with great envy upon the prairie grass, which with its two-foot roots had long been the great withstander of both storm and drought. After a moment of contemplation their eyes met suddenly, and then darted apart. No significant words came, but an understanding was reached nevertheless. They had each been moved by the realization of a sublime, forgotten kinship with the land.
For although men and grass are tread upon in equal measure, men are far the more delicate. And while the wind can coax a blade of grass back to standing, a man blown over is never quite the same.
I was born with a gun to my head.
Cancer was a name I found in a book. The word made a strange shape in my mouth, one I tried and failed to spit out. In our two-horse town, where tongues were dry from long days working in the sun, it would suffice to say that I had come up short. In other words, I wasn’t long for this world.
When I first got sick, I thought maybe I had done something to piss off God. That I had missed one too many prayers, or that my first baptism didn’t count because I couldn’t remember it. But only children, or men with childlike minds, can think that God is up there nitpicking.
I don’t think so. God’s not a stiff-lipped schoolteacher doling out merits and demerits. God’s a gambler, with one hand over his eyes and the other waving a revolver at his creation. I figure maybe it's only in destruction that he can find inspiration. What does that leave for us men? To hope we’re not in the sights when pin strikes hammer.
I guess I’ve been unlucky, if you want to put it that way.
But ultimately, I got sick because I was supposed to. My pa did, and so did pa’s pa, and so did a lot of men that looked like me. Each of them prayed plenty, and none of them could beat this damn thing.
So before pa went skyward, he gave me some advice.
He said, “If I pass, or your mother does—when we both do—I want you to take whatever love you have for us, and give it freely to all who cross your path.”
I’ll forget those words when I forget my father’s face.
In the spring of my sixteenth year, when I was at my skinniest, a raggedy doctor came into town. He was just passing through, word had it. Far be it from me to bother a weary traveler… but at this point, there was much about myself I didn’t recognize. Bags under my eyes. A faint greenish hue to my face. A lump in my side. Shame wasn’t going to kill me, but the tumor was.
At a crossroads, I dropped to my knees before the doctor and begged for his help. Medicine, surgery, whatever it took. Anything but another hail mary.
When I awoke from the operation, the doctor was gone. But, as my mother told me through joyous tears, so was the tumor.
God’s a gambler, but he pays his debts. I remember writing in a letter to a distant friend that maybe God made me a wretch so that I could see his angels for what they were. And I am certain, in retrospect, that that is what that raggedy doctor was: an angel. Providence. Unable to thank him directly, I searched for a little bit of him in everyone I met.
The book—not the Good Book, but the one that taught me the word cancer—was very firm about tempering my optimism. It said a tumor can disappear without a trace, and then up and come back stronger than ever, just when you least expect it.
Luck seemed to be on my side, however. I was healthy, free. For better or worse, I figured I ought to start betting the long shot.
If the scar on my abdomen wasn’t reminder enough of the wickedness that had been carved from me, there was the sinking sensation. It was always there, especially when I laid me down to sleep. And every now and then, when I found myself in endless deliberation about some course of action or another, the sensation would remind me that it didn’t really matter which choice I made. All that mattered was that I was still around to make choices.
Later on in life, when asked why I did what I did, I’d simply say, “I had a gut feeling.”
The very first thing my gut told me to do was marry the Baker’s daughter, the girl who blushed so hard I could see red through the flour dusted over her cheeks. Some said we were too young, but at sixteen, we were already a third of the way through an average life on the plains. And well, I wanted more time with her than without her, so that was that.
I started working as a deputy to make ends meet. Just before our first anniversary came around, the Baker’s daughter had a bun in the oven. I wanted to be as thrilled about the baby as she was, but truth be told, my gut feeling had changed. I thought, what if the kid gets sick like me? What if he’s not as lucky as I was? Still, I did everything I was supposed to do, everything God would ask of me. I bit my tongue, held my woman’s hand, and prayed for the best.
The thing about making bets is that the house always wins in time.
We lost our little boy before he ever got to set foot in the prairie grass. And I have to tell you, the Baker’s daughter didn’t appreciate the way I handled that news.
So it was that I had lost everything. Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last. I had become something of a gambler—if not in reality, then in essence. And when a gambler is down big, he doesn’t try to win it all back in a hundred small wagers. No. He keeps taking the long shot, because he’s so sure that on the next turn, it’s going to hit, and all will be well. He needs to get well.
The gambler keeps making the bet, because what are the odds that life is so unfair?
For a while I spent my days on horseback as a bounty hunter, chasing outlaws across the plains. At last, a greater purpose: humbling men who would spend their one chance at life making things difficult for people who already had a tough go. Certainly, there was some risk involved in this. I found comfort in the fact that rock bottom was a dignified death, and one that would hurt nobody but me.
Except for my poor mother.
I learned of her passing in a short letter from the Baker’s daughter, who by then was the Baker.
Come home, Cowboy, it said in ledger-like scrawl. Fever took your ma.
I should have gone to her right away, but I was afraid of what I'd find. Of course, at the time, I didn't have the wits about me to see it that way; at once I found myself inexorably focused on the bounty I was chasing. The man was no more than half a day's ride ahead, so I figured I could finish the job before starting the journey back.
I finally cornered him in a stable and told him he was wanted, dead or alive. I'd been extraordinarily careful, and had only killed two men in the course of my career. They were bad men, and men who would rather die than see the consequences of their own actions. Never, ever, would I take pleasure in the act. I wouldn't draw it out or be cruel. I wouldn't mangle the mark.
Never, ever, until that night. I can't bear to repeat what I did. Just know that, as a result, I was relieved of my authority and pointed to the nearest chapel.
Instead I came home for the funeral. In the hours surrounding the service, several townsfolk took it upon themselves to whisper in my ear that I wasn’t looking well. Finally, at the last of these encounters, I snapped. “Well, damn it! Why should I?” I shouted. “Why should I look well? God is sick, his creation is sick!”
“It’s a part of His plan,” someone said. I don’t remember who; I was blind with rage. Out of instinct, I stormed back to my family home and shut myself inside for days on end.
I could have sworn that I only came home for the funeral, but I never did leave.
Grass is too fixed in place, too tightly packed. The rot in one blade can spread from plant to plant through crossed roots. I thought myself more like the tumbleweed. I kept my rot to myself, and lived knowing that the wind could one day pick up and carry me far away. I needed to know that the people around me would be no worse off for it.
And so, unwilling to send down roots and yet too tired to run away, I faded into the background. Years passed, and I became an almost-unnoticed fixture at the local saloons. A curiosity to young men and out-of-towners. The strange old coot sitting at the blackjack table, drinking himself sick and betting the long shot. Several times I built a fortune big enough to retire with, but just as often, I threw it all away. I was on a rickety old wagon, and I was going to ride it until the axle snapped.
In the meantime, I learned to laugh at my lot in life. I befriended the Baker at least, who showed me that even bad hands can make bread. I grew close with nobody but her, and even we were not that close. To the rest I was a part of the setting, and that was how I wanted things.
More importantly, I learned to make other people laugh. I played the fool. I poked fun at blowhards and tyrants. I told crass jokes to children when their parents weren’t in earshot.
To make others suffer is the worst suffering of all; to ease others' suffering is Heaven. I did what I could to be a blessing, not a burden, and that made me light.
I hardly noticed my old age until I started getting blisters on my hand from leaning so heavily on my cane.
One windy day, a visitor came to town from the East.
“Does the wind always blow this way?” he asked.
“No mister,” said I. “It’ll maybe blow this way for a week or ten days, and then it’ll take a change and blow like hell.”
The Easterner chuckled—I think not because of the joke, but because he didn’t expect me to tell it. We looked out at the ridges on the prairie, where the dry brown grass rippled like river rapids. I met his eyes, then averted my gaze.
“Forgive me for saying so, sir,” he said. “But you really don’t look well. Would you like to sit down?”
I waved him away. “A storm is coming. You’ll want to get yourself to an inn.”
Back at home, I collapsed on the bed. My abdomen spasmed, shockwaves of pain pulsating through me. I painstakingly pushed myself onto my back and removed my hat, dashing it to the floor. It was time for me to go. I unholstered my revolver. The kiss of cold steel on my temple was a kiss goodbye, almost comforting. In the end...
I didn’t have the guts.
“Forgive me, father,” I whispered.
Cancer, the resurgence of which I had hidden from everybody for years, finally got me. The gun, which had been set to my head since birth, went off.
The last sound I heard in life was the patter of raindrops on a tin roof, like tiny drums marching me into the hereafter. My spirit left my body, invisible, immaterial, passing through the window like smoke through a screen. I stood—perhaps it could more aptly be said that I hovered—beneath the lantern on my porch, feeling the warmth of the light fade away.
The sky opened, and I idly wondered whether it had opened just for me. A portal, perhaps? To whatever’s up there? But however hard I strained my eyes at the darkening sky, I couldn't see anything. I was as blind as God.
Thunder shook the house as four figures ran up the street toward me, shouting. One was the Sheriff, one was the Pharmacist carrying his black bag, and the woman between them was the Baker. In their wake was the Easterner, who evidently had alerted the whole town to my sorry state. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I was supposed to go quietly. Cleanly.
The three men rushed inside to try and reinvigorate me, but the Baker stopped short and stood in the street, arms folded over her bodice. After all I put her through, she ought to have been relieved, but it didn't seem so. The lines in her face told me that she was crying, even as her tears washed away with the rain.
Maybe I didn’t have roots here, but this place, these people, had roots in me. It wasn’t so easy to leave it all behind.
In life I took the long bet and came up short.
Still, I was lucky.