Author's note: In my last two posts I set the stage for the beginning of a series of stories I wrote back in the early days of the Rusty Goat. With the following story, I divulge exactly how this character we affectionately call the 'Rusty Goat' got his name. I like to call it 'Classic Rusty Goat.' Enjoy!
I watched as the U-haul drove down the dirt road, turned onto the highway and disappeared out of sight. The truck carried my wife of seven years, her utterly worthless twenty-eight-year-old son who had never left home until now, and most everything I had ever owned. I sighed a sigh of relief...she was finally gone. Hell, it had taken me twice as long to get rid of her than it did to get her five years ago. I paused and took an assessment of my mental and emotional state...nope, nothing...I was just fine for the first time in a very long time. I turned my head toward the heavens and pointed a finger to the sky and said in a loud voice,
"Alright..I can't pick 'em! You pick the next one!"
I stayed busy the next couple of months...ridding the house of all traces of the woman and her son, learning to cook, do laundry and such. I learned useful things such as...a dryer has a lint filter, a roast doesn't cook in thirty minutes, hamburger helper tastes better if you follow the instructions. I planted a vegetable garden, tended to the flower beds, and washed the curtains which seemed to be somewhat shorter afterward.
I patiently waited for God to send me a woman all the while. When a knock finally came on the door, I scampered eagerly to open it only to discover the ugliest old woman I had ever laid eyes on. I said a silent, quick prayer that she wasn't the one God had picked for me, and let out a sigh of relief when she handed me a package from the post office. "Wouldn't fit in your mailbox. I had to bring it all the way up here," she snarled in her deep baritone voice. I closed the door and it hit me that she had been my only visitor in two months...I was beginning to get lonely.
The nights were long, the silence was deafening. I began to feel myself slipping into a depression. I had never intended to be alone at this age. I would look in the mirror...the wrinkles, the receding hairline...just a lonely fifty-something-year-old man way past his prime that, I was quite sure...no woman would want. My attitude toward life sucked...and I didn't like it. I wasn't a quitter, I told myself and made a decision that life must go on...and wasn't nobody going to change my life but me. I decided that I was going to be happy even if it meant being alone the rest of my life.
I found myself sneaking out onto the patio after dark, turning on a George Strait CD, and dancing all by myself. If I got the urge to dance in the daylight, I'd just dance by myself in the kitchen. I began to get the urge to dance with someone other than myself...the thought of venturing out terrified me. I bought wrinkle cream and Rogaine down at the Walmart...dyed my hair...started digging out my good dancing clothes from the back of the closet. I reckoned that it wouldn't hurt if I went out and did a little window shopping while I was waiting on God to find me a woman.
It happened one Saturday afternoon. I made up my mind that I would run up to the city that night, walk into the bar, and try to get up the courage to ask some woman to dance. Maybe there would be a few really old ladies there, I reasoned. I stared in the mirror and felt the fear in my heart...damn! I'm just an old man, a foolish old goat...who the hell am I fooling. I walked to the closet and reached up to the top shelf and found it...a black hat that hadn't been worn in many years. It had been given to me by an old friend years ago. He had told me it was given to him as a Christmas present and that it never fit him just right. Then he told me a story.
He said he had just wandered through the first half of his life searching for his identity...just never seemed to know exactly who he was or what he was supposed to be. Then one day he stopped outside a western store and stared at the cowboy hats displayed in the window...he stared at them for a long time, then went inside and bought one. He told me that the moment he put that hat on his head he knew who he was supposed to be. It gave him the confidence he had been seeking all his life. I thought about all the years I had known this old cowboy and couldn't ever remember seeing him without his big cowboy hat. I felt a tear in the corner of my eye as I brushed the dust off the old black hat with my hand.
I stood before the mirror again, the hat in my hand.
'Ok,' I thought, 'Maybe the old goat in the mirror can't pull himself together enough to get back out there...he's so, so rusty at this.'
I placed the hat on my head, adjusted it ever so slightly pulling it down low on my brow.
'Now,' I thought to myself, 'where's that little grin that use to get the girls' attention way back in high school?'
There it was...spreading across my face as I felt the excitement flow through my body.
I spoke out loud, "Hell, you ain't nothing but an old Rusty Goat...I think we can do this!"
I turned on my heel and made my way towards the door...and the ol' Rusty Goat headed out in search of his first big adventure!
I was old. Just a washed up, over-the-hill, fifty-year-old guy who had suddenly found himself single. That's right about where we left off on this story last week. It occurs to me frequently that many who land on this page find themselves puzzled by the title 'The Rusty Goat.' Obviously, there are no goats, so why? I'll enlighten you on that with next week's story, but right now I'd like to give you a behind the scenes glance of how I came to write these frivolous stories.
I never saw myself as a writer...still don't really. I showed some promise way back in high school, landing the job as editor of the high school paper. I went on to participate in UIL Journalism events and as luck would have it, wound up at the state finals, capturing second place in news writing and third in feature writing. But after high school I let it all go and never wrote again...until, well, it went like this.
With my ego and self-esteem crushed beyond repair, I set out to find some simile that might pass as a happy life of solitude. That didn't go well and after a few months, I began toying with the notion of getting back out in the real world. Time and time again I struggled to muster up the courage to step out into the world of dating and failed miserably each time. I searched for an answer as to why. Yes, I was old. The wrinkles around my eyes confirmed it every time I looked in the mirror. But I had accepted the fact that if I ever did manage to force myself out of the safety of my home, it would be women my age who had their own wrinkles I'd be focusing my attention on. It was more than that. I had settled into a life of complacency during those seven years of marriage. Not bliss or happiness...complacency. I had been a good, dutiful husband. I was a dedicated father to a child who came to visit every other weekend. I was a farmer of sorts with a pecan orchard and the best herd of goats in west Texas. I had a house bought and paid for and never had to wonder where my next meal was coming from. The upheaval that came with the divorce had shattered my complacency and my competence in myself.
I can recall sitting alone in a darkened house Saturday night after Saturday night, fully aware of the fear that flowed through my body...fear that this was all there ever would be for me. It was the weekends that brought me down. I had my routine throughout the week to pull me through. But I came to dread the weekends, floundering all alone in an empty house, the echoes of silence haunting me. Thoughts of once upon a time screamed in my mind...a once upon a time that gave promise and hope of a 'normal' life that we all dreamed about in our younger years.
The memories that taunted me the most on those horrid Saturday nights were those of a time not so long ago. Before the seven-year marriage...the seven-year nightmare, there was a time when I was not the man I now found myself to be. Pictures flashed through my mind of a man in a black hat beneath the neon lights, some random woman in his arms swaying to the music on a dance floor. Those were the years of adventure. A man in his early forties who could turn the heads of many a thirty-something-year-old woman. Oh, those memories of a man I used to be. Where had he gone?
In a desperate attempt to cling to my sanity on those lonely Saturday nights, I would replay the memories over and over in my mind. I envisioned the night I met Psycho Sherry and smiled...something that I found myself unable to do much anymore. I recalled the times with the married school teacher who forgot to mention she was married. My mind pondered the woman who has inherited an oil company...what was I thinking when I let her get away. Oh yes...I remember. And the bank teller named Jenny. We met on the dance floor and dirty danced one night. It was the following Saturday night that...well, I might have to tell that story later. Oh, the gorgeous little Hispanic girl that I never dreamed I'd ever had a chance with...that ended when I met the preacher's wife. Now the preacher's wife...five stars, buddy! Crazy as a loon, too! And there were so many more.
One Saturday night I sat down with the laptop and a beer. I hadn't written anything in years, yet I had an overwhelming and uncontrollable urge to put those stories on paper. I never had any intention of sharing any of them with a single soul. As my fingers tapped the keyboard into the wee hours of the morning, I found myself smiling, occasionally even laughing out loud. For the next three months, I would spend my Saturday nights retelling these memories to myself, saving each one in a special folder on my computer that no one one would ever stumble across. It was my therapy. Lord knows I needed therapy. As the weeks passed I found myself more and more contemplating taking that first step. But there was still that one stumbling block laying across my path. I was still old, in fact, six months older than when I first began having these crazy ideas of dating.
One Saturday afternoon I printed out all the stories I had written over the past three months. I sat down with a glass of sweet tea and began reading. I would read page after page, shaking my head. This man I read about, this wasn't me...certainly not the man I had become. This man who would step through the door of some country bar on a Saturday night decked out in a black cowboy hat and starched Wranglers was some sort of super-hero. He rescued damsels in distress, scooping them up in his strong arms, holding them tight, their bodies close, swaying to music beneath the neon lights. He would kiss them gently as the last song played and turn and walk out into the night, leaving them yearning for more. He held their hearts in the palm of his hand and though trying so hard no to, broke more hearts than he could count. The man I read about in those pages was a man on a mission...a mission to find the perfect woman. No, this man wasn't me but it was he I had to become if I were to succeed. As midnight came on that Saturday night, I carefully placed the stories in a safe hiding place and sat in the dark in deep thought.
Throughout these many pages of stories I had written stood one main character, one star, one hero. If there was ever to be a sequel to these adventures, I'd have to find someone to play the part. George Strait? Naw, not that spit and polish. Jeff Bridges? Too rough around the edges. And it was at that moment I discovered the answer I had been searching for. If I, Rodney Strange, an over-the-hill fifty-year-old man with zero self-confidence, couldn't do this on my own, I would just have to step up and play the part of the guy in my stories...an over-the-hill wannabe cowboy, and west Texas' most eligIble bachelor. And my mission? To find the perfect woman!
"I want to get a divorce."
He stared over his horn-rimmed glasses from the leather chair behind the desk that separated us. Reaching for the silver pen in his shirt pocket, he pulled a legal pad from a drawer. With his silver pen poised mere inches from the yellow pad, he sighed and cleared his throat.
"Not with her, thankfully!" My face took on a faux look of horror.
"I have my stuff and she has hers. I pay my bills and she pays hers. I don't see a problem."
The attorney scribbled illegibly on the pad before him.
"I don't like her anymore."
"Incompatibility," he murmured as he noted my statement.
"What else do I need to know?" He again stared at me over his glasses.
"I just want a 'wham-bam. thank ya ma'am divorce. I just want her to go away."
He leaned back in his leather chair, fondling his silver pen between his fingers.
"Wham-bam divorces run around seven-fifty plus court costs. I'll need three hundred up front."
I pulled my checkbook from the back pocket of my Wranglers and accepted the pen he extended from across the desk.
"Oh, and it would be best if we can rush this through. I have a feeling she will lose her job in the near future and I'd like to be legally unresponsible for her bills."
"I don't see a problem once we clear the state mandated waiting period. I'll draw up the papers. Oh, one more thing...no chasing women until this divorce finalizes! We don't need complications."
I paused at the door, glancing over my shoulder, "I never intend to chase another woman as long as I live."
It was a statement I truly intended to live by at that moment. Nothing would be further from the truth.
I was three weeks away from my fiftieth birthday when the judge rapped his gavel and declared the divorce final. It had not been a decision made in haste. I was well aware that a man my age had no business being single. A fifty-year-old man should gleefully rise every morning, motivated by the prospect of retirement just down the road. He should be bouncing grandbabies on his knee. He should rub his fat, old man belly while stretched out in the recliner watching the nightly news. He should be patting his chubby, middle-aged wife on her round hiney after the lights go out at night.
I never intended to find myself where I found myself halfway through a century on this earth. But, after making a very bad mistake which had robbed me of seven years of my life, I saw no other choice. She had hidden the alcoholism for the first two years. By the seventh year, she was just one stumble away from becoming a non-functioning alcoholic. I had for all intent purposes been living alone anyway. She rarely made it past eight in the evening, perched on her end of a sofa, beer in hand, staring blankly at some TV show or another. Then, just like clockwork, around eight she'd just deflate like a blow-up doll, out for the night.
And so, I stepped out of that courthouse a free man. I really had no intentions of ever giving another woman any thought whatsoever. But loneliness plays a powerful mind game with its victim. I tried to shrug it off for several months. I'd adapt, I told myself. In fact, by that third month, I was talking to myself pretty regularly.
It was a hot afternoon in June that I stood in the middle of my back yard, arms folded across my chest.
"You know, we ought to put some fertilizer down...maybe some weed-and-feed," I spoke rather loudly.
My eyes grew wide as I ducked my head and responded, "Shhh! Not so loud! Someone might hear us!"
It was at that moment that it hit me. I really, really needed to get out more. Maybe find someone to talk to. Maybe a woman? The thought haunted me throughout the night and into the next day. I was old. Just a washed up, over-the-hill...and that's what brought all this on.
(To Be Continued)
Don't you just love those late spring showers? The rumble of thunder in the distance, lightning bolts streaking through the sky, and the smell of rain are some of my favorite springtime moments. As I made my way through town yesterday, catching both traffic lights green, I peered a hopeful eye toward the sky as the promise of a shower dribbled sporadic sprinkles onto my windshield. By the time I had made it past the city limit sign, the sprinkles had transformed themselves into a deluge of huge raindrops. Turning onto the dirt road toward my modest little farmhouse, I dodged puddles, taking the high middle of the road in an effort to avoid creating ruts.
I stepped into the house just seconds before the torrential downpour unleashed its fury, kicking off my boots by the back door. I shook the water off my hat and placed it on its rightful hook by the door. It was at that exact moment a brilliant flash and the angry roar of a thunder clap caught me off guard, my heart skipping a beat or two. My ears focused in on...complete silence. No electricity!
Stepping into the living room, I smiled at my daughter sitting on the couch, staring at a black TV screen.
"I was binging on 'The 100.' The new season came on Netflix yesterday and I made it to the season finale...and now THIS!"
She picked up her phone and began texting. Seconds later she headed for the door.
"Where are you going?"
"To find electricity."
And she stepped out into the storm, leaving me to deal with a darkened, silent house all alone.
Sure that the power would return in a few moments, I sunk into my usual easy chair, smartphone in hand.
I mindlessly scrolled through Facebook, then Twitter. I googled the number to the electric company just in case the electricity didn't come back on momentarily, jotting the number down on last Sunday's church bulletin. Bored with all that, I meandered into my bedroom and changed into some dry clothes. The dog danced at my feet and we both headed through the house toward the kitchen door, me stumbling over the canine a time or two in the darkened hallway.
I shooed the Boston Terrier out into the pouring rain, muttering, "You'll be sorry!"
Watching sheets of rain roll off the patio awning as the dog hesitantly squatted in a puddle, I shook my head, "I'll have to mow again!"
Letting the dog back in, a distasteful smell of 'wet dog' following along with her, I stood in the middle of the living room and raised my iPhone...a whole ten minutes had passed since the electricity had gone out. I sighed. I couldn't cook. I shouldn't even open the fridge. What if the power didn't come back on for hours? A surge of panic flowed through my body. How much charge did my phone have left? What if my e-cig peace pipe went dead? I couldn't watch TV or play on the computer! The silence in the house was deafening. Oh wait, that was the noise of the rain smashing against the window and the crack of another lightning bolt landing nearby.
I fervently dialed the number to the electric company. The line was busy! Why would the line be busy right now? I needed to call them about the power! I waited another thirty seconds...still busy! Geez! How would they ever know I have no electricity if I can't get through to them? I tried to calm my panicked mind. Perhaps someone else was telling them about the power outage. Or was it just me without power? I stared toward my neighbors' homes through the deluge. I shrugged my shoulders. My nearest neighbor was ten acres away, after all. I dialed the electric company again...still busy. Tossing the phone onto the couch, I raised my hands in despair.
Well, of course, the electricity came back on...two hours later. I had some touch-and-go moments during that time. I had time to reflect...time to think. It was a bit scary, me trapped with nothing but my own thoughts to entertain myself. But I came away from this tragedy with some realizations and some thoughts to ponder.
The Good Lord allowed mankind to live without the luxury of electricity for thousands of years. When the sun went down, our ancestors sat in the dark... or fired up a torch. For the vast majority of civilization as we know it, man has had nothing to entertain himself with except his own thoughts. There were no smartphones, no TV's, no internet. For thousands of years, the human race survived without the convenience of electricity and here I sat for two hours practically going out of my mind.
The luxuries and conveniences of today have weakened mankind. We have spoiled ourselves. I, an off-the-grid survivalist sort of guy, struggled with the concept of living without what we all truly believe to be a basic necessity for survival...electricity. I have told myself in the past that if by some natural disaster or even a nuclear attack the world fell into darkness, I would be one of the few that could pull myself through should the lights go out for days, weeks, or months. Perhaps I've been keeping myself in the dark about living in a darkened world. Two hours in the dark was enough for me! Note to self: Need batteries for flashlight.
Shreveport, Louisana has never been on my bucket list of 'must-visit-before-I-die' places, but it should have been. It was a spontaneous whim that brought me to this culturally overloaded historic city last week where I found myself smack-dab in the midst of something called the 'Mud-Bug Madness Festival.' Apparently folks around those parts refer to crawfish as mudbugs, and obviously, those same folks believe mudbugs are meant to be eaten...with an ample dose of, what else, Louisana Hot Sauce.
I have dined on crawfish, or mudbugs, or what we called crawdads when we were kids. As long as you remove that little poop-vein, crawfish are fine eating. With crawfish in every imaginable form and fashion available at the Mud-Bug Madness Festival, I had every intention of devouring a few of the little critters, but my first stop was at a concession stand hawking alligator sausage gyros. Admit it...you'd have to try alligator sausage, too, right?
While those crawfish enchiladas at the next booth looked amazingly delicious, there is just something manly about scarfing down alligator sausage. Throughout the night I sampled foods I couldn't even pronounce, all-the-while fully intending to round it all off with crawfish. And believe it or not, I just never got around to it. I was having too much fun!
Music and festivals go hand in hand and two stages offered an awesome sampling of local musicians dishing out music as hot as that Louisana Hot Sauce. My group of revelers finally settled at a table, listening to some pretty little lady wearing a peach colored dress, accessorized tastefully with a fiddle resting on her shoulder. As I sipped on that one beer I had allowed myself to indulge in and grazed on something I couldn't even pronounce, she sawed that fiddle into a foot-stomping rendition of 'The Devil Went Down To Georgia.' And that's when it hit me...
I was having fun! I had inadvertently let my hair down, what hair I have left. It was something I'd not allowed myself to do for some time. The last time I had this feeling sweep through me was on some beach on Padre Island, and that was some years ago. Yeah, I dunno...I'm just twisted a bit differently than most.
I am a driven, goal-oriented, focused person. Throughout my life, my primary goals have been survival...not to starve and to keep my nose to the grindstone so I can pay the bills. I have been cursed with an old-fashioned work ethic. Cursed with a mindset that 'fun' is simply not in the budget. Nickles and dimes still mean a lot to me, and you can't even fathom how much twenty dollars is to an old goat like me. Sweat beads on my forehead and my heart pounds inside my chest whenever I lay a five dollar tip on the table of some diner. It's from years of scraping to get by. It is perhaps my biggest curse.
I've not missed a meal since those 'young and dumb' days back when I first set out on my own. There were times back then when I flicked the piss-ants off a stale saltine cracker and diligently scraped the last spoonful of peanut butter from the bottom of a jar. I learned the hard way that hunger is real. I learned to survive. I learned that a dollar is a whole lot when you don't have one.
So, fun has always been on a back burner for me. Fun costs money and I might need that money someday for a box of saltines and a jar of peanut butter. I can't shake the curse. I am not financially successful by many peoples' standards, but I do better than some. The house is bought and paid for, as is the old pickup. I have very few bills compared to most of you. I have free health insurance for the rest of my life and someday when I wise up and retire from a job I've clung to for over twenty years, I'll have a respectable retirement check. But still, I scrape for every nickel and dime I can.
But, as the old country song says, you'll never read on a tombstone, 'I wish I'd spent more time at work.' I am at a threshold in my life. I yearn for the enjoyment that life has to offer. I'll need counseling to achieve it. Lucky for me, my daughter wants to major in phycology in college. Did you know colleges don't take nickles and dimes...or twenties, for that matter? That is my final financial hurdle.
Shreveport, you found a place in my heart. I will come back. I have to...I never got to sample your crawfish cuisine. But there is more I wish to do. I want to catch enormous sun perch in an Alabama lake. I intend to experience mardi gras in New Orleans. I just have to walk on the beach in Myrtle Beach. I yearn to see the lights of Vegas. I dream of sitting on the porch of some cabin in Colorado and watching the sunrise.
I wish to bury that serious side of me so deep that it'll never rise to the surface again. I want to laugh until my belly hurts. I have a burning passion for experiencing all that life has been saving for me all these years. I crave the notion of irrepressible impulsiveness and the adventure of unpredictability. I desire to break the curse of frugalness, with an unbridled freedom to toss nickels and dimes into any fountain I happen upon with nary a fleeting thought. Seriously...I just want to have fun!
Graduation 2017...we made it! My daughter and I both crossed the finish line last Friday night. I do not mean to take any of the glory away from her for the truth is she did it all on her own and in a very grand way. But when she walked across that stage to receive her diploma, I was right there with her. Yes, tears and all.
There were some tense, behind-the-scenes moments leading up to the event. I'm just a dad and had not the slightest clue what to do, or when to do it...or how to, as a matter of fact. I had never ironed a graduation gown before and literally lost sleep the night before wondering how hot to set the iron. What if the garment burst into flames right there on the ironing board? I had a shirt do that to me once. I'm sure the entire fiasco would have made a pretty funny video. But you burn a shirt, you go down to the Walmart and buy another one. You burn up a graduation gown? I've never seen those at Walmart.
There were numerous banquets in the weeks leading up to graduation. In a small community such as ours, events such as that draw large groups of people together. You get to see folks you weren't sure were still alive. You get to sit next to people you don't like. You stand in long lines at the buffet table and when you finally reach out for that last slice of cheesecake, some six-year-old snatches it just nano-seconds before you claim ownership.
Graduation banquets are a time to share your feelings. For one particular affair, I had to write a letter to my daughter that would be read before a large crowd. Nobody told me about the two hundred word limit and I am an author. I'll be publishing that letter in book form shortly...at two hundred pages, it should be a pretty good read. At the next banquet, my daughter wrote me a letter. I had to stand before the crowd as she read it. Thankfully I wore a long sleeve shirt that night to wipe my blurry eyes with. That was even more emotional than letting the cheesecake get away.
Finally, the big night arrived and myself and an army of family members headed off toward the football stadium. Well, yeah! Where else would a small west Texas town hold a graduation ceremony? We arrived fairly early and the stands were already packed. Everyone around here is related to some student who is graduating. Every year the entire town shows up. Our entourage was forced to find seating the uppermost bleachers and we all scrunched together, fumbling with cameras and smartphones, trying to zoom in on the empty chairs lined up on the field. ln the stands, folks were testing out their air horns. Helium balloons bobbled above the crowd and as the moment arrived cheers rose throughout the stadium. This was the biggest event of the year, after all, and we had all came out to support those kids who had endured and conquered a grueling twelve years to get to this point in their lives.
As the ceremony concluded, the speaker announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, the class of 2017, I declare you graduates of...."
Well, you would have thought we'd won the Super Bowl. Before he could finish his speech, the entire crowd rushed the field. Air horns sounded throughout the crowd and confetti flew everywhere. I was really expecting fireworks to start shooting off on the fifty-yard line. I don't know how the rest of y'all do graduation, but around here we do it in a big way. After some serious searching, I finally located my own graduate and the family gathered around for pictures. As my eyes surveyed the mass of people on the field, I had a genuine feeling of euphoria. I found myself pondering the question 'Is this what Heaven might feel like?' For there was nothing but pure joy, love, and happiness radiating throughout the crowd.
And what better way to top off a graduation than to throw a traditional Texas-style cookout afterward. Family and friends gathered to continue the celebration, feasting on a brisket cooked to perfection. As the last of the crowd drove away well after midnight, I patted myself on the back. I may have faltered here and there leading up to this night, but by gosh, I had managed to pull off the perfect cookout. Exhausted, I slumped into my easy chair and cherished tonight, filing it into the 'Favorite Moments Of All Time' folder in my mind.
I am proud beyond words of my favorite daughter. Yes, I have only one but she is my favorite. Three years ago she came from a big city school to our little podunk high school, not only adapting...but soaring like an eagle. Her accomplishments these past three years are overwhelming and she shined like a diamond. I'm thankful the Good Lord afforded her the opportunity to experience life in a small town. And I am grateful to our community, school teachers, and so many more who not only acknowledged her potential but encouraged and cheered her on every step of the way.
I sat down with a cup of coffee Sunday morning and flipped through our local Sunday paper, which was three times thicker than its usual four pages, and beamed with pride. My daughter, my pride and joy, and my biggest blessing had landed herself on every page of that special graduation edition. After reading the paper, I carefully folded it and tucked it away in that special place I keep my treasures.
And so, a chapter ends. Next chapter...college! I'm accepting donations!