Glug-Glug the Frog Boy would swallow anything, as the legend was told, and the posters and press releases announcing his arrival attested to that and spelled it out quite specifically: “from live trout to fluorescent tubes, from brass finishing nails to chrome hood ornaments.”
It wasn’t Glug-Glug that drew me to Sierra Salida—that is, Gina and me—or to Pecos Bill’s Wild West Exhibition and Gaming Bazaar. It wasn’t my anticipation of reexploring the southwest, my memory of crimson valleys and golden mountains and rises of desert cliffs from sinuous sand and callous rocks, illusory or imagined. It was the paycheck. That sad and that simple. After setting out from Tucson years earlier for the east coast, I had scraped by on odd jobs—two weeks as an office courier here, a month stuffing medical files there, a single breakfast shift hauling plates of American cheese omelets and white toast and reheated home fries to the early morning crowd at Sandy’s Breakfast-Anytime Diner. Living from one meal to the next, one plate of eggs to the next was tenable when I was going solo and I only had my stomach to worry about, but as Gina had dutifully reminded me, it would never do with someone else depending on me. And with Gina and her plans for college and her plans for the future and the settling down and the setting up of housekeeping, steady employment was something I needed to consider.
The headquarters of what was officially Pecos Bill’s, LLC, consisted of a prefab steel building just inside Pecos Bill’s Park. A painted archway straddled the gravel lot entrance—to one side, a cutout of two bucking broncos complete with saddles, chaps, and spurs, and on the other side what I imagined to be a caricature of Pecos Bill himself. The brim of his cowboy hat curved upward and mimicked the sweep of his thick moustache. From the corner of his slanted smile emerged a bubble with the single word “howdy,” a word that I had seldom heard spoken in the suburbs of southern Arizona, except by tourists and transplants.
A woman at the desk just inside the doorway of the main office greeted me with a similar “howdy,” just as I imagined she would, company tagline intact. She must have been trained to offer little else since her only response to my questions about employment and interviews was to hand me a large glossy folder with Pecos Bill emblazoned on the front and filled with folded pamphlets and park maps. I thanked her. She smiled, but there was no “adios.” A one-trick pony.
The job I was applying for was as personal assistant to Señora Inés, a midway performer who had been with Pecos Bill for the past seven years. I did not know how long Glug-Glug the Frog Boy or the Amazing Short-Tall Man or the Ignito Woman—who made a living by setting her tongue on fire and spewing flames over the heads of the good ladies and gentlemen of the audience—had been a part of the organization, but I assumed they did not have their own assistants, so Señora Inés must have been important to the ongoing success of Pecos Bill’s, LLC.
The map in the folder led me through the midway and past a row of small empty buildings—stick frames and wood planks and canvas, like some reconstructed revival camp meeting-place. But instead of a “soldiers for Christ” banner, above the first building’s platform hung the colorful image of Glug-Glug the Frog Boy, who seemed less boy and more frog, his green scaly gullet stuffed with steel rods and glass tubes. Beside Glug-Glug was a Wild West rattlesnake charmer named Salina Slim, who was next to Celia the Psychic who was abutted to the Amazing Short-Tall Man. At the end of the row, separated by a dirt-hardened walkway, sat the only building without a stage. The opening led to a darkened space that stretched back to a dimly lit desert backdrop. In a lighted corner sat a man—half in lamplight, half in shadow. He softly hummed a song.
“Hello,” I called to the man.
He did not answer, but continued his song, which made me wonder if I should have said “howdy,” but I did not repeat my greeting. I walked through the entry, and as my eyes adjusted, I could make out his tawny canvas pants and his cotton shirt. A length of blue cloth held his dark hair back from the deep creases trailing from his cheekbones to the corners of his lips. His chair tilted slightly to one side, and his left moccasin was planted more firmly in the dirt than his right, as if to keep him from falling over. On one leg of his dusty pants he balanced a glass jar. He slowly raised the jar, took a swallow, and placed it back on his leg. He sang again.
“Do you work here?” I called.
He didn’t say a word, but he slowly nodded his head and pointed toward the roof. I backed out of the entrance and read the overhead banner—“Four Rain Horse.” I stepped toward him again.
“What’s that song?” I asked.
He took a sip from his jar.
“Creation song,” he said.
“I’m here for the job,” I said.
“I don’t think it’s anybody’s job. Not yours.”
I laughed. His eyes traced my body from the ground up.
“I’m a lifer,” he said, but he sounded disheartened by his longevity.
“Job security,” I told him. “That’s why I’m here too.”
Four Rain Horse stared at me and returned to his song.
“Is the office this way?” I asked.
He paused for a moment, as if trying to reorient his eyes or rediscover his sense of direction, to recall the desert, the hills, the western skies. His vision settled and he nodded toward the right. As I thanked him and backed out of the shadows of his shelter, his eyes followed me.
Following along the sun baked asphalt, I arrived at the second smaller office building hidden within the shade of the arena billboard. I knocked, and after hearing no response, opened the door.
“Come in,” a voice said.
The first room was large, but made narrow by an abundance of furniture—sofas and ottomans and cushioned chairs lining the walls. At the far end of the room sat a woman with no arms. The side of the cushioned sofa rose up along her right hip and torso, and layers of plush pillows were wedged close to her left side. On her lap lay a baby. The baby squirmed against the woman’s stomach and kneaded the floral print fabric of her blouse and the space that, at one time, might have been occupied by her slender arms and long fingers, and her wrists, perhaps surrounded by a thin silver chain. She seemed small enough for such a delicate chain.
“Please. Come. Sit down,” she said quietly.
She gently rocked the baby in her lap as she spoke. I mistook her accent for New York, but during our conversation I learned she was from Boston. She told me how her life in New England was ancient history, and that she had lived in Arizona long enough to rightly be called a citizen of the west. Since she couldn’t shake the Boston accent, I asked her if the locals felt the same way.
“I’m guessing it’s different for you,” she said. “I’m guessing it’s different when you’ve lived your whole life in a single town—in a single spot in the world.” She gazed down to her lap and to her baby. “Is that right?” she asked.
For reasons unknown, I did not tell her about my own travels, and how I had spent much of my life drifting from region to region, city to city, job to job. I did not tell her that this was my first attempt to plant myself in one place, and that I had taken on responsibilities, which, for the first time, made such a planting necessary. I did not tell her about Gina or the small apartment on West Northwest Avenue. She was, after all, my prospective employer, and I saw no advantage in confusing my life at home with my life at work, especially with the woman who signed my checks at the end of the week.
It was in the holding back of the details that I realized just how simple it was to accept the precept of bosses and long-term employment, to separate the personal from the professional and the intimate from the personal. It was easier than I had imagined to acknowledge the distance between Señora Inés and myself —as far as Boston from Phoenix, or any other point in the east or the west. Señora Inés, on the other hand, didn’t seem to grasp the importance of such distinctions, such distances, the personal from the professional, the east from the west.
I stared at her legs as she lifted them; the muscles in her calves swelled beneath her smooth pale skin, and the ligaments along the backs of her knees strained against her flesh. She twisted herself and her child and nudged the large pillows toward the end of the sofa. Maneuvering her legs and feet, she lay the baby beside the pillows then spun back to her seated position. I continued to stare at her legs, somehow aroused by the movement, the unlikely pink complexion, the strength as she rested her feet on the floor and shifted closer to the baby. While I had no need to question arousal toward anything in my life, sexual or otherwise, I was struck by the indecency of my interest in her body. She would be my boss, after all. She had a baby. She had no arms.
“I was born this way you know,” she told me as she shifted her hips and adjusted her skirt. “Long before my son. But I still know what it is to hold onto things. I still know what that is, even today.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I told her, but the recounting of her history revealed the doubts she had faced from people more important than me. I was hardly worth convincing, though she continued to try.
Outside, a pickup truck pulled to the edge of the paved path. On the door, a logo for “Carver’s Tree something or other” bled through the painted image of Pecos Bill. Two men in company caps hopped out of the cab and began sorting through the tool chest in back.
“Do I bother you?” Señora Inés asked. “Will it be a problem for you?”
“Not for me,” I swore as I faced her and raised my hands in surrender. “I’m guessing you have things I don’t.”
She laughed, though I was serious in my assessment, if not completely honest. While her lack of arms didn’t bother me, my inability to accept the empty space did. As I watched her, I urged the appearance of her arms in the same way I might urge the completion of a thought when Gina seemed stumped for the perfect word.
“If you want the job, you can have it,” she said.
The baby squirmed against her hips and suckled its balled fist. The shouts of men outside overwhelmed the suckling. Through the window, I watched the two men from the pickup apply a wrench to a length of steel framing. One man groaned as he leaned his weight into the wrench and pushed down. The other man laughed. Señora Inés bent over and placed her lips on the opposite end of her baby’s fist.
“Do you need to think about it?” she cooed into the baby’s fingers. “Talk it over with the family?”
“I’ll take it.”
“Fair enough,” she replied, as she sat up and reassumed her professional tone.
She filled me in on the details of the job—my pay, my hours, my duties—which were clear-cut, even though they called for skills I didn’t think I had. I was to assist with the financial records, which consisted mainly of retrieving accounting files and cash boxes and placing them in front of her. Then there would be the carting of materials for her rehearsals and performances. Finally, any incidental help she might require over the course of the workday.
“By the way, Señora Inés is my professional name. This isn’t Boston,” she said. “It’s Pecos Bill’s, and people have certain cultural expectations.”
“Like señoritas?” I asked.
“That’s only the beginning,” she said. “Call me Meara.”
People in the southwest did have their expectations, from fiery sunrises to pioneer freedoms, but I imagined we all had our expectations. In Arizona, it may have been the consequence of nostalgia or wishful thinking or dreaming, but they needed, at least, the myth of a culture. And if that included transforming Meara from Boston into Señora Inés from Nogales, plenty of people were willing to approve. Much later, I learned that Meara’s real name was Eveline. We all had our expectations, it appeared.
I had hoped to show at least the pretense of consulting with Gina when I arrived home that afternoon, but Gina could be forceful in laying out her view of the future. She was guided by realism more than romance, and she was just as satisfied knowing that I had made the decision on my own to have a steady check coming in. Resisting realism at nearly every crossroad had forced me into single room rentals and damp nights in bus shelters and was indicative of my weakness, not Gina’s. She was the studious one, the one who saw more in her future than being a waitress in Red Bank or a slot host in Atlantic City. And that she stayed with me on our trek back west was indicative of her strength. I suppose she even loved me although I was never sure why. Maybe she did have weaknesses.
On this occasion she surprised me and reacted as if she saw something romantic about it all, even though it was only a job. I told her about the assisting and the carting and the retrieving. I told her about Señora Inés and her baby and her Boston accent and her room stuffed with chairs and sofas and tables. She sipped on a bottle of cola as she listened.
“Sounds like a wonderful start,” she said. “What do you think?”
But before I could respond, she swayed toward me and pressed her lips softly against mine. Her hands encircled my neck. It was only then that I remembered the arms. I had not mentioned Meara’s arms, or their absence. I told myself that it had to do with neatly splitting the personal and the professional. Or it might have been to shelter Meara’s privacy—separating the personal from the confidential. But it was late, too late to sort it all out, and I reminded myself that I would tell her when the time was right. Once you don’t mention something like that, like your new boss being armless, it’s difficult to turn back without looking like a fool for forgetting it, or a louse for hiding it.
My first day of work the next morning, and each morning that week, began with placing financial records on Meara’s desk. As I worked, I heard the laborers in the park—the pounding of hammers and the rumble of generators and the clamor of voices and the strains of music from the Trail’s End Quartet, an a cappella group that strolled the range of the park singing the likes of “Daisy Bell” and “Down by the Old Mill Stream.” Work and diversion from work. Both were familiar to me and I wondered how long this career choice would play out before I’d had enough.
At her desk, Meara would place a stout pen between her lips and teeth and flip the pages of the balance sheets and tax records. To improve her efficiency, I organized a space within easy reach for the most current records, but she flew into a rage and waved her head and shouted at me about how each book had its place, and how if I couldn’t follow that much she would find someone who could. In the anteroom, the baby began to whimper, and Meara disappeared behind the door. In a few minutes, the baby was quiet, and I could hear Meara’s voice and some imperceptible words, some gurgles, some hopeful sighs, a melody, and I could hear her breath beneath the song. After 20 minutes, she returned to her desk.
“Would you like tea while we work?” she asked as her voice was suddenly transformed from fury to kindness.
And the baby, at first so demanding and insistent, seemed to have shifted Meara’s concerns from profits and losses to more peaceful thoughts. As selfish as it seemed, in that moment I was pleased for the baby’s existence. I was pleased for peace. I was pleased for the cup of tea and for Meara’s smile.
The following morning, the front office was quiet when I arrived, but I could hear Meara’s song in the anteroom. I could hear the baby gurgling then breathing.
“Adulio,” she called out. “Come here and help me,” she said.
Tentatively, I approached the room. The door was partly open, and on a sofa sat Meara. The baby lay amidst a pile of pillows beside her. As he breathed, I could hear him laboring through his congestion. Half dried mucus coated his nostrils. On Meara’s chest lay a tube-like device, an aspirator, she called it. I was reluctant to help at first, and not sure how to approach either Meara or the baby. I mused about how this was not part of my job description but just a favor, a matter of care, a matter of human decency extended from one person to another, but I also hesitated to think of myself as nurturer or caregiver.
“Hold that end against the opening of his nostril,” she told me. “Hand me the other end.”
She took the mouthpiece between her lips. She breathed in. She did this until fluid appeared at the end near the baby’s nostril. I switched nostrils, and she repeated the process. She twisted her torso and with one foot, raised her shirt above her breasts.
“Now place him here.”
I lifted the baby and set him in the chasm between the rise of the pillows and the swell of her breast. The small legs writhed across her skin and the nose burrowed and foraged beyond the lighter flesh toward the darker circle. I guided him toward the breast.
Outside, darkness began to fall as the baby fed, and Meara’s eyes were very nearly drowsy. Through the window, I watched the moon drift low in the sky and through a shroud of cloud cover, and even then, its light shone onto the curve of the Ferris wheel in the distance. Engines droned beneath screams and catcalls and bells and barkers. Inside, the baby suckled and swallowed and clutched. His eyelids drifted, then opened as he swallowed. And I listened to the two worlds, and I listened to the space between them, but I could not connect them.
“What kind of a mother am I?” Meara whispered, but she did not look up at me. She did not look at the baby, but she was with the baby more than with me. I was an extension. An ancillary device. A space. A gap. I was the one who did not belong there.
“Even good mothers need help,” I heard myself say, but I was certain it was only to make her feel better, and for a time it did. But I knew nothing about babies or feeding or motherhood. I figured everyone could use encouragement now and then, even if it was just for show. She touched the baby’s head with her lips.
As the baby clung to his mother’s breast and lay his arm across her chest, and Meara gazed down at his lips and fingers, I wondered which one’s needs were greater—Meara’s or the baby’s, or even if it made sense to rank them that way, like listing preferences for a room’s décor or tourist attractions for a summer vacation. I thought of Gina, and her taste, and the shimmer of the moon’s light on her skin, and I wondered what she needed from me. Then, I couldn’t distinguish between Meara’s needs and Gina’s needs—the baby’s needs and Meara’s needs. And I couldn’t distinguish need from longing, desire from fantasy. I wasn’t sure what I needed or what I longed for.
I tried not to touch Meara’s breast, as if the touch of her skin might be more intimate than all of this. Still I stared at their fullness; I sensed their weight, their gravity, even as the baby pressed the space above the ring of color spiraling out and out from around his lips. A drop of moisture seeped from his latched lips, and it was only when Meara looked at me, and at my attempts to guide the child, position the body between us that I was struck by the intimacy of the act since I belonged to neither the child nor the mother in any real sense.
After a time, the baby’s breathing became labored, and he pushed away from his mother and began to cry. Once more, and into the darkness we monitored his sighs and suckling and whimpers and breath.
On my arrival the next morning, Meara called me into the anteroom, and we repeated the performance from the previous day— the clearing and the nourishing and the urging. She instructed me to stay close that day, as the baby’s congestion was worsening, and she might need me from time to time. I worked in the outer office until I was called back to repeat the ritual.
Before her rehearsals and performances, I was to cart Meara’s supplies to the stage area while one of the company assistants watched the baby. One day after the assistant arrived, I wheeled Meara’s supplies through the park to the narrow music hall—chilled bottles of water, straws, hand towels, three stools. I watched her as she began positioning her equipment. At her feet, sat a control bar with a row of colored pedals. She slid it toward the center of the stage. She pressed a pedal, and a spotlight was thrown on her. I stood at the back of the hall amid sawdust and folding chairs and watched Meara as she pressed another pedal. The curtain behind her started to rise and revealed a bright white backdrop. When she pressed the third pedal, the spotlight faded and the rear lights slowly brightened the back portion of the stage. The lights revealed her body beneath the white tunic—the slight swell of her midsection, the arch of her hip, the shadowy rise of her breasts.
As the light rose and faded, her stomach and her waist and her legs and her breasts slowly crystallized and then dissolved into the diminishing light. The empty sleeves of her tunic rose from her shoulders, and slowly, shadow arms began to emerge from her empty sleeves. Fully formed and flesh-like, the shadow arms began to rise above her shoulders, and I felt a sudden sympathetic urge to move my own arms with her. My fingers encircled my wrists, embraced my forearms. I could feel my skin with my fingers.
Meara’s arms reached across her chest, nearly in a self-embrace, and they moved fluidly, alternately shading her breasts and then her waist, her hips beneath her phantom arms and fingers. Her hands ascended, and her palms cupped the fine line of her jaw, then traced her prominent cheekbones. Her fingertips spread toward her pale ears. The turquoise stones in her earrings glittered through the spaces in her fingers. Flecks of dust scattered within the light above her hair but mysteriously disappeared behind her phantom arms. She raised them above her head and stretched back, as though reaching for some past city or past life. Her chest lifted and finally rose upward into the light as she inhaled deeply.
The stage was suddenly thrown into blackness.
That night, in recounting my day to Gina, I felt the desire to tell her about Meara’s performance, but since I had not told her about her arms, the appearance of arms where none existed would have made no sense, and it was something she didn’t need to know. I did fill her in on the details about the workers and the financial reports and the tea breaks and Glug-Glug’s booth and Four Rain Horse.
Early the following morning, I draped my arm around Gina and shifted my chest against her warm cotton shirt as I lay in bed. My legs pressed against hers. My lips found her neck beneath tangled strands of blonde hair.
“Want breakfast?” she murmured in a fractured voice.
“I’ll grab coffee,” I told her and kissed her neck again.
“Good,” she sighed.
“Goodnight,” I whispered along her skin, but I could already hear the depth returning to her breathing, so I pulled myself out of bed and toward the bathroom.
As I stared into the mirror and at the stubble on my face, I considered skipping the shave, but then I had considered that many times before. At one time, I wondered if a beard would make me look older. At another, I wondered if I would look experienced. I wondered if I would look intelligent. I wondered if I would look sophisticated. Now, I didn’t know what I was looking for. I did see that the overnight growth was suddenly a lighter shade than my dark wavy hair, and even that was lighter than it had been years earlier. I rubbed my cheeks and my chin and then shaved. I considered some cologne but decided against it. I swished some mouthwash and got dressed. I kissed Gina, but she just kept sleeping and breathing. I grabbed my jacket and gulped down a cup of instant coffee.
At work, Meara was already nursing her baby. I sat beside her and grazed the baby’s skin and soothed his back. This seemed to momentarily help with his breathing, but in time, his congestion returned. I held his legs and coaxed him toward embrace where embrace was not possible. But how could that be? I had seen Meara’s arms spring impossibly from her shoulders. Impossibly, for a few moments, I was her arms and I held the baby’s legs and his back, urging him toward what I had never known.
None of this helped the babies condition for very long, and after a week he was still congested, even more so. I suggested that Meara talk to her doctor, but I knew nothing about raising and caring for anyone, and I let her know this, which is probably why she ignored my advice and continued to rely on me to aspirate and alleviate her concerns about her shortcomings as a mother by helping her nourish her child.
I returned home later each day, and Gina began to question my work schedule and became impatient with my distance. I explained that I had been given more responsibilities and I could hardly turn them down since I was bound by the “additional assistance as required” clause in my job description. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that part of the assistance involved helping Meara with breastfeeding and aspirating. I didn’t know why I needed the secret, or whether I needed distance from her and proximity to Meara, but I reasoned that since I had never told her about Meara’s missing arms, explaining why she needed help without explaining her arms made little sense. I guessed that, eventually, I would bring these details up but not now.
The following week, when I entered the office, Meara was sitting at the side of her desk sorting through the files left out from the previous day.
“Good morning,” she said, but turned toward the anteroom as she spoke.
She looked tired. She leaned her hips against the edge of the desk and her neck drifted forward. Her eyes were ringed with the residue of moisture.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
“Doctor’s in there…nurse,” she said, correcting herself. “Home health aid or physician’s assistant or whatever they’re called.”
“Help’s not a bad thing, right,” I said, but Meara had already returned to the stack of files and ignored me, which was just as well. I had no more right giving her advice about her baby than I did giving her advice about her accounts. Oddly, I was still in the position of doing both. In the back room, I heard the baby cry. Meara left the folders and walked to the room. In a few minutes she returned to her desk and to her files.
“I’m not going on today,” she said.
“Doctor helping?” I asked.
“Just a cold is my guess, but they don’t know.”
She raised the chair height with her foot then moved the lamp base with her shoulder. She lifted her leg and turned on the printer with one toe. She returned to staring into the files.
“Anyway, I’m tired of sucking snot, if you really want to know. What do you think about that?”
“Understandable,” I said, but I didn’t know if she was looking for agreement.
“You’ve done it,” she said. “The whole thing. You know what it is.”
I wanted to tell her the truth, which was that I got paid to help her suck snot. I got paid to lift her shirt and stare at her breasts and urge her baby toward her. And I could pretend to nourish and nurture without the suffering or struggle she was experiencing.
“I’m not his mother, but you are.”
“But you’ve touched him. Watched him drink. Heard him gulp and take a breath and not take a breath.”
“You’re his mother, and you know what I don’t know.”
She stood away from the desk and stiffened her neck.
“Anyway, I won’t be going on,” she said. “And you get some time off. Enjoy yourself for a change.”
“Sure you won’t need me?” I asked.
She waved her head toward the door.
“Go on. Got real honest-to-god professionals today,” she said. From the back room, I could hear a soft wheezing, then the baby began to cry. Meara closed her eyes, shrugged her shoulders and the neckline of her housedress. One shoulder strap fell to the side as she walked away.
I knew Glug-Glug would be a welcome distraction from the confusion of sick children and overwrought mothers, so I headed toward the midway. I strolled past the collection of amusement rides—the Ferris wheel, which was not so different from other Ferris wheels back east, except that the motifs on the cars had been replaced with paintings of Conestoga wagons and sharpshooters and Indian warriors with pained expressions. The same was true of the tilt-a-whirl and the whipper-snapper and the bumper cars, which were not cars at all but small stagecoaches with hard rubber Winchesters as bumpers.
I walked into Glug-Glug’s performance in time to see him chomping on and swallowing a half dozen light bulbs. He was a squat fat young man, his body covered with slick green vinyl paint. Two oversized eyes bulged from each side of his head, and they wavered from side to side as he munched away. After he swallowed and belched in a rather frog-like manner, groans and scattered laughter arose from the crowd. He proceeded to the next item on his menu, a claw hammer, which I chose not to witness.
From the main arena, I could hear the distinct and disjointed applause from the audience interspersed with bellows from a bullhorn with words I could not understand. Inside the arena, in the center of the ring stood Four Rain Horse. He wore his canvas pants and cotton shirt, but the blue cloth holding his hair had been replaced by a full feathered headdress, and around his neck and down his chest hung a neckpiece of turquoise and bone. Circling him on a massive horse of chestnut and bronze was the man himself, Pecos Bill, or at least someone who could pass for Pecos Bill, with the same bravado and wide sweeping brim and full moustache. As Pecos Bill circled around, Four Rain Horse released a resonant and linear chant that rose into the arena and echoed into the sky. I instantly recognized it as the same melody he had sung in his shadowy shelter the first time I encountered him. I remembered it—a creation song. Soon, other horsemen joined Pecos Bill and formed a circle around Four Rain Horse, and rode and rode in an ever-expanding ring. But Four Rain Horse seemed oblivious to the riders, and his need to sing his song overshadowed Pecos Bill and his massive horse, and the melody of his chant filtered out past the circle of horsemen. And when the horsemen drew their pistols and began to fire shots in rapid succession toward the sky as if they might shoot out the stars, Four Rain Horse sang on. And the creation song echoed and lingered and slipped along the asphalt paths and the midway stages and the canvas sheeting and the stick frames.
At first, I envied the horsemen, never having had the chance to ride myself, when I suddenly recalled a single summer as a boy at Oak Valley Stables—a horse farm that had neither oaks nor valleys to speak of. I remembered how each morning I would seize the reigns and lead three horses from the stable to the training ring and then back again in the afternoon. When no one was watching I would toss the reigns up and mount one of the horses—Felicity, I believe was her name—and trot her back to the stable doors. I would brush her down until she was cool and satisfied.
That night, as I drove home the chant reverberated inside me, although I didn’t stop to ask Señora Inés if she, too, had heard the song. Of course she had. She had heard it many times. And I suddenly recognized it as the same song she had sung to her child each day. She must have heard it as her shadow arms emerged from her empty sleeves. She must have heard it when her phantom arms embraced her shoulders and her phantom fingers traced her chin and her cheeks. It must have accompanied her baby’s suckle and breath. It must have accompanied her cooing and whispering and sighs. It must have filled the spaces between her child and her flesh, her shoulder and her breast, her sand-salmon skin and the aquamarine threads beneath its surface.
The next morning when I entered the office I was greeted by a familiar “howdy.” The woman I met on the day of my job interview sat at my desk. She looked up from a set of open folders. Her hair was tied severely to her scalp. She smiled a smile of recognition, even though she had seen me only once. I asked her about Señora Inés, but through her smile she told me that she had no information as to her whereabouts.
“How could you not know where she is?” I asked.
“Well, there’s only so much I can say about matters of a personal nature,” she told me, still smiling.
“And her baby? How is he?”
“I understand your curiosity,” she said. “But what if it were you? Would you want everyone to know your personal business? Or anyone, for that matter? Your personal life?”
“But, this is my life. This is me. Meara would want me to know.”
“Meara?” she asked.
She shook off her puzzled expression and closed the folder. She could not or would not tell me anything further about the welfare or whereabouts of Meara or her baby. Rumors ensued and legends circulated that the baby was dead. Some said that Meara had returned, under a doctor’s care, to Boston where her old friends knew the history of her arms but nothing about her baby. Still others insisted she surrendered the child to foster care since the doubts about her own abilities as a mother grew until she could no longer see herself as mother; she could no longer imagine the impossible embrace. Myths spread of armless women, performers, illusionists, tricksters from carnivals in Phoenix and Houston and Tampa. But I believed none of the stories, and though I continued to ask about her, the only thing anyone knew was that she had quite simply and quite mysteriously vanished.
The following week, I was told that I could possibly be kept on with Pecos Bill, LLC if I were willing to assume different responsibilities, perhaps helping out in the general financial office, and providing, as necessary, assistance to other performers. I asked if Pecos Bill, the man himself, the American horseman, the Indian fighter, the sharpshooter needed any riders, and I told her about my summer at Oak Valley Stables. She said they would consider it.
That evening, as I left the park, I walked past Glug-Glug’s empty structure. I saw the Amazing Short-Tall man for the first time, who I discovered was merely average height. I walked past Four Rain Horse,whose eyes and song followed me along the midway and toward the main gate.
I thought about telling Gina the news about my permanent job being less permanent than we had hoped. I would tell her about the possibility of accounting or assisting or riding, even though no one knew for sure what any of that involved. It also seemed like a good time to tell her about Meara and the baby and their sudden disappearance, and about how no one was sure if they were living and breathing, but that I was certain they were. I would tell her that they were probably back east—Boston or New York, where illusions were expected. I would tell her about the force of euphony and chant, the force of veracity, the force of Eveline and her child and her breasts and her arms,
Outside, the midway lights shone beneath the emerging stars. As I walked, I thought about those sleeping and those dreaming. I wondered if a man who swallowed tubes of light at dusk might dream differently from a child who thirsted for his mother’s milk. I listened to the threads of music; the harmonious sounds from the Trail’s End Quartet, its recapitulation and refrain, blended with the quaint western rhythm of cowboy poetry and the rising linear chant from Four Rain Horse, a chant whose singular line continued to follow me into the wider world. I heard the screams of young girls and the plaintive cries of small children and the laughs of mothers and fathers from distant towns.