(01-01) Cowboy Jesus

“Tick tick tick tick,” Indian Shadow thinks to himself, “I am a time bomb loose on the town.” He hurries down Mission Street, across 18th against the light. “Tick tick tick tick,” he says out loud. He has almost no power of self-reflection, and moves down the street like a dog mindlessly following a scent.

Most of his brainpower is focused into his body. As a compensation for his inability to self-reflect, he can pick up vibrations through the bottoms of his feet, and his sense of smell is keen, like a dog’s. He lifts his head and samples the air. There is an inrush of petroleum fumes on the nose, with a bouquet of human waste, tobacco smoke, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Indian Shadow draws back with a puzzled frown as a baby-faced man with startled eyes tentatively smiles at him. The man reeks of patchouli and Indian Shadow is offended by it. The man senses danger and scurries away like a battery toy.

Indian Shadow’s ears vibrate with the pulse of the city street. A white Japanese pickup pumps out bass that rattles windows and confuses cats. Two scruffy Chinese women in drab, unisex clothing argue in sing song cadences in front of a fabric store. A helicopter crosses one quadrant of the sky, a beam of light following somebody escaping on foot. Indian Shadow stops to look at an old Korean woman eating a sweet potato. She sits cross-legged and eats from a box made of woven reed. She slowly mashes butter into the pale yellow flesh of the potato, not making eye contact with the giant who has stopped to watch her. She rocks forward and back and speaks in her native tongue. He understands it, though he doesn’t know it is Korean. It translates somewhere between her lips and his ears by forces unknown.

She is saying that he is not real, that he is spirit, a ghost. It is why she does not offer him half of the sweet potato, she says; ghosts have no use for food, having no digestive or eliminative systems. “Desire better than satisfaction. No contest. You no need sweet potato.”

“That’s right,” he says. He knows the desire for food is something he can’t satisfy, and that the hunger could focus itself on any object. He moves on down the sidewalk and says out loud, “Imaginary food.” He is beginning to remember smells. The pachouli for example can be recalled, and now he recalls the scent of buttered sweet potato. His laugh is like an unexpected rupture, like a dog laughing. Passers-by, depending on their inclination, pump themselves up to look menacing or pale into invisibility. One boy stares defiantly as the big Indian passes him. “What the fuck’s your problem?” he asks. He peers coldly from the back recesses of a black Oakland Raiders hoody.

Indian Shadow is oblivious to danger. He sticks out his tongue and rubs his belly in large circles. “Ooga booga,” he says, advancing.

“Crazy mother fucker,” the kid says, and pulls a surprisingly large pistol from his baggies and cocks it.

Indian Shadow points an index finger at the boy and leaps toward him. “Bang! Bang!” The kid is so shocked by this he pulls the trigger four times in rapid succession, filling the air with the smell of burned powder. All the shots go wild threatening only pedestrians on the other side of the street. Indian Shadow’s arms move up and across in a lightning wrist strike that sends the pistol skittering down the sidewalk. Indian Shadow does not remember where he learned to do that.

The kid opens his mouth to say something else but nothing comes out. He backs away. Indian Shadow points at him again. “Bang! Bang!” Then he moves on down the street, ignoring the pistol.

Indian Shadow has forgotten almost everything, but he still remembers Cowboy Jesus. The name is associated with the image of a child on a stick horse, with toy guns strapped around his waist. He can’t remember who the kid is or what caliber his weapons are. He doesn’t know the cardinal directions or what time it is. But he knows enough to call on Cowboy Jesus when somebody pulls a gun on him.

“Thank you,” he says to the image in his mind.

Indian Shadow remembers that Cowboy Jesus was beaten until he came apart, and then he came back together again, and that just because he, a lost shadow, has fallen apart doesn’t mean he can’t remember himself, the way Cowboy Jesus did. “He’s the King of the Cowboys,” he said out loud, as he moved past the 16th Street Bart station, where a short bus had arrived to offload prisoners being released out of San Quentin, back into society.

Indian Shadow stops to watch as five men get off the short bus. One of them looks like Cowboy Jesus. He’s little, like a seven year old child, but with a man’s hardened face and receding hairline. He is speaking to a heavyset black who stoops over to better hear him saying, “You making fun of me you fat fuck?”

The black man looks confused. “What are you talking about, little man?”

“Small talk. You said I was making small talk.” He let the bigger man roil in indecision for a few beats before he laughed. “Got you!” he said. He grabbed the big man’s hand and shook it. “I guess this is goodbye, Floyd.”

“Man, we have to put you under a wash tub to let the sun can come up in the morning. You watch out for yourself, Lou. Where you on your way to?”

“The library,” the midget said, “to check out Little Women.”

“Really? I guess it’s a safe enough place for them.”

“I’m gonna miss you, Floyd. I think you really are an innocent man.”

“Always maintained that I am.”

The midget is Lou Short, just released from San Quentin after serving seven years of a fifteen year sentence for assault with intent to kill. He is fine tuned to know when somebody is focused on him and he picked up Indian Shadow in his peripheral vision when the big man locked onto him. Now he walks directly up to him and speaks with an Irish lilt. “You’ve never seen a little man before?”

“Cowboy Jesus?” the big man whispers.

Lou isn’t afraid of anybody because he’s a shooter, but it’s a disadvantage to have to shoot because it’s a felony. He can always use a friend who’ll discourage situations that might come down to his pulling a weapon. And besides, he doesn’t have a weapon as yet, as they didn’t give him his back when he checked out of prison. His calculations take only a few seconds. He smiles. “I’d rather you didn’t call me that out here on the street,” he says. “I don’t want to be noticed by people who might do me harm.” He waits but the Indian doesn’t say anything. He just smiles down at him like he’s found money.

“You understand?”

“I won’t let anybody hurt you, Cowboy …”

“Call me Lou when we’re out in public like this,” the midget said confidentially, looking around as if checking for surveillance. The short bus had pulled away from the curb and the other releases had gone down into the BART station, on their way to the airport. “Lou Short. What’s your name?”

Indian Shadow doesn’t know his name. He can’t remember much. He can remember tick tick tick tick, though. “I’m a bomb?” he asks.

“A-Bomb,” Lou repeats. “The atomic bomb. I’ll bet you’re one tough son-of-a-bitch, am I right?”

Indian Shadow nods. Now he has a new name. He knew if he believed in Cowboy Jesus he would show up, and here he is. Cowboy Jesus knows things, and he won’t argue with him. “I’m one tough son-of-a-bitch,” he says.

Lou smoothes his hair with his fingers and grins. “This is working out perfectly,” he says. “Lately it seems like I ask for something and boom! I get it right away, like magic. I need a partner, boom! Here you come down the street as soon as I get off the short bus from Oz. What are you? An Apache? Sioux? Cherokee? Creek?”

“Boom!” Indian Shadow says.

“A Creek?”


“Well now, seeing as the Creek Indian is distinguished by his abstract sense of humor, A-bomb, and considers it rude to force another man to be serious, it’s your great luck to have come upon an Irishman, who’ll laugh at your fucking jokes you know? And if you’re a lucky Indian I’ll ride on your shoulders and steer you someplace where you won’t find your own footprints.”

They move into a block where the cafe and shops and markets have thinned out and there is only an occasional liquor bar. Most of the people on the street here cannot remember what it is they are supposed to do next, or why. They follow their bad habits day after day, like big cats pacing their cages, or like rats scuttling into a hiding place. “Every goddamned one of ya’s got a story,” Lou said, speaking rhetorically, and a little grandly.

He pictures himself as a warrior on a warhorse, riding on the shoulders of Indian Shadow, who is now beginning to think of himself as A-Bomb, the man who is under the protection of Cowboy Jesus. “Lou Short,” he repeats to himself. He has to think of him that way or he’ll forget and start calling him Cowboy Jesus in public. “When we’re on the street you’re Lou Short.”

“It’s like Billy the Kid, you know?” Lou explains. “When you’re the fastest gun there’s always some tinhorn wanting to make a name for himself, calling you out. It’s no different when you’re a spiritual celebrity with bodyguards and what not.”

A-Bomb doesn’t follow the logic of the comparison but he isn’t trying to follow it. He just feels pleasantly lost, like Lou slacked the reins and they are tripping down the cobblestones, moving deeper into the heart of the city. He assumes that Cowboy Jesus must be the fastest gun in the west. He has traveled into the west as the son of a sky spirit who came down to earth, horned and shooting silver bullets. He doesn’t experience these thoughts as belonging to him. He experiences them as part of the neighborhood he’s moving through. He doesn’t think ahead. That’s Lou’s job. When questions come up, he will know the right thing to do.

“Turn toward Market at the next street,” Lou says, “and let’s work our way over to Stockton, and through the tunnel into North Beach. “You know how this feels, A-Bomb? Like I’m a fucking giant. All my life I’ve been looking at everything from about four feet off the ground, like I was a kid. Now I feel like I’m ten feet tall. So I’m either looking from a kid’s eyes or from a giant’s eyes. For me there’s no in between.”

Posted: Mon - January 28, 2008 at 08:36 PM