Grandpa Goes to Mexico by Mark Saha

Wesley Boyd wakes up unsure of where he is or how he got there, in Mark Saha's charming story.

Somebody cracked Wesley Boyd in the back of the head with a pool stick and dropped him like a rock. One minute he was lining up a shot, and the next he was face down on the barroom floor, whiffing stale tobacco and rancid beer in the sawdust. His mind went missing in a low ground fog trying to figure out what in batshit hell had just happened. He must have got into an argument with somebody while shooting pool. Then when he leaned in for his shot, the bastard clipped him from behind with the butt end of a stick. For the life of him, he could not put a finger on who had done it or what they had been arguing about.

Lying very still with his eyes shut, Wes gradually became aware that he did not hurt anywhere. He felt good enough to jump to his feet and surprise the son of a bitch, and punch his lights out. He decided to do that. But when he went to make his move, he suddenly felt bad all over like he had tumbled down several flights of stairs. He decided to rest another minute.

About then he noticed everything had gone very quiet. The bartender must have thrown him out into the street while he was passed out, so he could lock up the place and go home.

Wes rolled onto his side, and discovered the ground was neither hard like street dirt nor firm like a barroom floor. It was soft and rustled when he moved. This made no sense. It was as if he was face down in a thick bed of leaves that had broken his fall. Maybe he had not been out drinking after all, and had not gotten into a fight while shooting pool.

He must have been riding Selznick in search of a calf that had gone missing from pasture, and hit his head on a tree branch. His head was probably bleeding, but the leaves had saved him from serious injury. It was a relief to know that he was not going to have a hangover, and would not have to explain to Sophie where he had been all night. He opened his eyes to see if he was right. It was daylight sure enough, but starting to get dark, which meant he had been down several hours. Sophie and the kids would be frantic with worry, and he did not want them out looking for him at night. Selznick could not have wandered far. He would get to his feet and find him, and ride back to the house and call it a day.

He decided to do that. It felt so good on the soft leaves that he lingered a moment. But then he shouted, "Okay Wes, enough of this nonsense! Let's go home."

He threw off the blanket, and to his surprise saw that he was not resting on a carpet of leaves under a tree out in pasture as he had imagined. He had been tucked away in somebody's bed, in a bedroom he did not recognize, and it was not evening falling but dawn that was breaking outside the window.

Wes sat up and tried to make sense of this. He had not fallen off a horse, nor had he been in a bar fight. The reason he felt all busted up was because he was eighty-nine years old. He woke up feeling like this every morning, but it had slipped his mind during the night.

He still did not understand whose bedroom he had slept in, or why his wife was not there with him. It was not the bedroom on the ranch where he and Sophie had lived for many years and raised seven children. This must be sometime after they retired and sold the place. They moved to the little town of Shiner, Texas, where she had grown up, and bought a house where they lived many years. Those had been good days.

Back when he was ranching Wes would rise at 4am, fix a cup of coffee in the kitchen, and listen to the farm and ranch agriculture reports on AM radio. After they retired to Shiner he no longer had to get up so early, but it was ingrained in him to start the day with AM farm and ranch reports. He moved the radio from the kitchen so he could listen to it in bed. Though such things no longer mattered, he would follow cattle, sow belly, and grain prices on the Chicago Exchange, updates on inches of rainfall for the year, and the weather forecast for the day. Sophie did not complain about him turning on the radio at 4am but began sleeping in the other bedroom.

During the day he always had some project or other that kept him out from under her feet. He had started a little garden in the backyard where he mostly grew tomatoes that he was very proud of and would share with the neighbors. They brought the barometer and rain gauge with them from the ranch, and he now used them to keep a written log of daily temperature and rainfall, though it served no purpose. Sophie mostly spent her time visiting neighbors, or shopping for groceries and other needs in town. They both looked forward to visits from the children and grandchildren.

Though Wes remembered those days of retirement fondly, he knew that he was not in the Shiner house bedroom, either. It came to him that Sophie had died two or three years back. The children and grandchildren would not allow him to live alone in Shiner after that. His grandchildren, who were grown with families of their own now, took turns putting him up for a few months at a time on their ranches. Some mornings he might wake up in Weatherford, and a couple months later in Mineral Wells, and then in Sealy or Brenham or Rosenberg.

It was his own fault that he was in this fix. They had been happy in Shiner where they were independent and lived as they pleased. One day Wes got fed up with telemarketers constantly calling to sell him everything from hearing aids and wheelchairs to gold and silver coins. He notified the phone company that he wanted his telephone removed because he did not need it. The children worried that he and Sophie would not be able to call for help in an emergency, and bought them a smart phone. Wes decided that it was too smart for him, but Sophie had learned how to use it.

One night Sophie came into his room and woke him because she was having difficulty breathing. She was in such distress that she could not use the smart phone. Since Wes couldn't use it either, he had to pull on his pants and go outside and try to wake up the neighbors. It was the middle of the night, and he did not move so fast anymore, and he had to go to two or three houses before he finally woke somebody up. They called an ambulance that took Sophie to the hospital, but she passed away that same night.

Wes knew the bedroom he woke up in this morning was not any of the ones he had been in before. It was modest but comfortable, and when a breeze stirred the curtains the country outside looked different too. This was not Weatherford or Sealy or any of those places. He was not in Texas anymore.

It seemed to him that his nephew's son, Matt, had married a Dallas girl named Josiane sometime back, and they had moved to California. He must be with them now. Sometimes it was hard to remember who he was staying with when he woke up, though such confusions usually sorted themselves out as the day went on.

Sitting in a strange bedroom at age eighty-nine, he pondered how in the world he had allowed himself to come to this. Back in younger days he used to look at old folks with a certain awe, and wonder why in the world they had allowed themselves to slip into such bad shape. He had resolved that he would never permit that to happen to him. When he had met Sophie, he could not imagine it happening to her, either. But she was gone from his life now and would not be back. He did not like thinking about such things in a strange bedroom.

He slid back into the bed and instead thought back to the days before he had set eyes on Sophie or had even known she existed. Once when he and Jimmy Salter were about twenty, they had, on a dare, set out on horseback to ford the Rio Grande and shoot pool in a bar in Mexico. A shy but achingly pretty young girl was cleaning tables there, and she could not take her eyes off him. Probably she didn't get to see many boys her age. He wanted in the worst way to say something to her, and maybe take her someplace nice. But he and Jimmy were both pretty thin financially, and he did not have the courage to talk to her. He resolved that he was going to save up some money over the summer and then return to court her. He was pretty sure she would like that. She had haunted him in memory for a long time, but somehow or other he never did make it back there to ask her out.

He had not thought of the girl for many years until this morning. But it seemed like only yesterday that he and Jimmy had forded the Rio Grande to that little cantina. Once again he felt the girl's soft, dark eyes on him while they shot pool. It was all so real he believed the Rio Grande must surely be right outside the bedroom window where a breeze stirred the curtains. And not very far past that, the girl was still cleaning tables at the cantina.

When he lay very still in the bed and did not move, he did not feel any different than when he was twenty. He did not understand why he should not go outside and saddle up Selznick and ford the river and return to the girl working in the cantina. He was brave enough to court her now. Maybe that would be a good project for the day.

When he sat up and swung his feet to the floor, suddenly he was eighty-nine again. He pondered this a moment. It seemed to him if he could feel twenty lying very still in bed, there was no reason why he could not feel the same age on his feet. The thing was to just do it, and to dismiss the rest as nonsense. Anyway, he had kept the girl waiting long enough.

Wes pulled on his pants and put on a shirt, and that went all right. There was a pair of boots in the closet that fit, and he pulled them on, too. He looked around the ranch house a little, and sure enough it was Matt and Josiane's place, but nobody else was home. Matt and the boys were on the road showing horses, and Josiane worked at the Valley Kitchen cafe in town. She had fixed a breakfast for him, and it was still warm in the oven. He felt even more confident after eating it. Then he packed a saddlebag with some cold roast beef from the ice box and a pan of cornbread from the stove. By the time he walked to the barn with the saddlebag, he felt sure that he was close to twenty again. It was going to be all right.

He took a halter from a nail near the barn entrance, and went looking through the stalls for Selznick. Most of the horses were gone, but sure enough there was his chestnut gelding over in the fourth stall on the left.

"Hey, Selznick!" he said. "Guess what, lazy bones? Time to move your ass. We're going to Mexico!"

"Wrong chestnut, old man," the horse told him. "There's no Selznick in this barn."

Wes looked at him more closely. "Don't mess with me today, Selznick. We have places to go and things to do."

"Stick it, bud. I'm not him."

"You saying I don't know my own horse?"

"It's not my fault if you tied one on last night."

"You have a loose lip, chestnut. So who in the hell are you?"

"In the arena I'm Lightning Jack Prescott, but around the barn everybody just calls me Ralph."

"You must be a pretty piss poor cutter if they went on the road and left you in the barn."

"I'm all right on a good day, but I won't load in a trailer. Matt says it's not worth it. He says he'll settle for a 72 on another horse before he'll try to load me for a 74."

"I could have you in a trailer in one minute flat."

"You're in for a big surprise if you believe that."

Wes was not accustomed to such sass from a horse but admired his spunk. He looked the animal over, taking his measure. "Ralph, let me ask you a question. You ever been to Mexico?"

"I've been around. Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, those places. The usual circuit. Can't say I've been to Mexico."

"How'd you like go down there with me?"

"When, now?"

"Sure. We'll see a little of the country."

"What for?"

"Well, I know a girl down there who's sweet on me. Works in a cantina. I intend to court her today. It's not very far, and you won't need to load in a trailer."

Ralph mulled this over. "I've got news for you. You can't get to Mexico from here."

"It's just across the river."

"I don't know where you've been but a lot has happened while you were gone. They paved over the main trail to Mexico many years back. It's an interstate now, and horses aren't allowed there. I suppose we could take the San Marcos pass, but that goes into Santa Barbara. It's all urban development down there now, and zoning laws don't permit me to trespass."

The old man shook his head. "Ralph, you have to be the most mixed up gelding I ever saw. Stick with me and you'll learn something."

He slipped on the halter and led Ralph around to the tack room, where he found a saddle and blanket. Back in the day Wes could toss a saddle with ease, but on this morning struggled to drag one outside to his horse. He borrowed the chair that propped open the tack room door and placed the saddle on that. From there he was able to sling it up onto the gelding.

"That cinch isn't nearly tight enough," Ralph told him.

It was as tight as the old man could pull it. "Did I ask your advice? I was doing this before you were born," he said.

Wes climbed unsteadily onto the chair, grabbed the saddle horn, and with a foot in the stirrup was able to pull himself on board. The cinch was not secure, and the saddle slipped a little askew by the time Wes settled into it. He tested the balance, and it seemed to him good enough to ride, so they set out for Mexico.

The old man noticed that West Texas had changed a lot since the last time he had passed through this part. Back when he and Jimmy were cowhands for some outfit, the country had been a flat treeless prairie. Now the land was buckled up with hills so that it resembled a crumpled blanket, and cottonwoods and oak groves had sprouted up to dot the landscape. They passed through the sleepy little town of Buellton which had not been there before. It looked like a nice enough place, and he did not understand how they could have missed it. He stopped at the cemetery to see if he knew anyone buried there, but the names were unfamiliar, so they moved on.

Somewhere around four that afternoon they arrived at the river. The water was low and slow, winding peacefully through the chaparral along its banks. There was a high ridge on the far side that he did not recognize, and Wes figured he must have miscalculated by a couple of miles. But the river was unmistakable.

"Well, chestnut," he said with a gesture of his hand. "I give you the Rio Grande."

"You must have hit your head when you fell out of bed this morning," Ralph said. "That's the Santa Ynez. I've been out here a few times, so I ought to know."

"Horse, you talk a good game," Wes replied. "But that don't make you an expert. What you see over on the far side is Mexico. I'm about to court a pretty girl works in a cantina not far from here."

Wes moved the horse forward into the shallow stream, and they forded easily, leaving a wedge of ripples on the glassy surface in their wake. There was lush pasture on the opposite bank, though it shortly gave way to yet more chaparral which ran all the way up the foothills.

They emerged from the river and he spun the gelding around for a look at this beautiful country.

"Okay, Ralph, now you can tell the barn you've been to Mexico!"

"I'll keep this our little secret."

Wes studied the high ridgeline that had not been there before. "We'll have to follow that thing until we find a pass."

"I'm not going anywhere near the interstate," Ralph told him. "There's the San Marcos pass, but it's quite a ways yet."

The sun was low in the sky and there was a slight chill in the air, so Wes slid from the saddle. "This is far enough for one day," he said. "We'll get started again at first light."

He removed his sleeping bag and unbridled Ralph. The saddle had slid even further at a cocked angle because it was not tightly cinched, but Wes decided not to remove it. He was not sure he could get it back on Ralph again without the chair from the tack room. "There's plenty of water and good grazing out here," he said. "You can go look after yourself."

Wes was too tired to build a camp fire. He ate the cold roast beef with cornbread while Ralph grazed along the river. After sundown the stars came out with a quarter moon in the west, and blessed them with a peaceful night. Wes snuggled in his sleeping bag and looked up at the moon and contemplated the pretty girl at the cantina who was sweet on him. When he saw her tomorrow, he intended to apologize for having taken so long to return for her. He felt bad about that but was confident she would forgive him.

Ralph thoroughly enjoyed the clean night air, fresh water, and sweet grassland. Wes nestled under an oak tree in his sleeping bag and had the best night's sleep he had known in a long time.

The morning sun broke behind the ridgeline, and he slept late in the shade of the ridge. When he woke, he allowed himself to lay and watch Ralph grazing near the river. Wes was always in his twenties or thirties when he dreamed, and if he lay very still, he would feel that way after he woke up. He figured the cantina could not be more than three or four miles on the other side of the ridge. They ought to make it by noon or so.

He had begun to doze off again thinking of the girl, when he heard the sound of a horse splashing across the river toward them. Someone, a boy, shouted at them in Spanish.

"Papa Boyd! Hello! Is that you?"

It was some Mexican kid of about ten, barefoot and wearing only jeans, bareback on a spotted appaloosa. His horse sprang from the river and approached. Wes sat up as the kid looked down at him. The boy looked familiar, but Wes could not put a finger on where he had seen him before.

The boy again shouted across the river. "Josiane! I have found him! He is here!" He waited a moment, but there was no response. Whoever he was calling did not hear him.

"What's wrong, son?" Wes asked. "Are you in trouble?"

"Papa Boyd, they have called the sheriff. Everyone is trying to find you. Josiane, she is not happy." He turned and shouted once again. "Josiane! Over here!"

Still no reply. He looked at Wes's horse and shook his head. "Ralph, you are in so much trouble. Big time!" The boy turned the appaloosa and splashed back across the river, going the way he had come.

"Oh sure. Blame it on me," Ralph said. "Tell me I didn't see that coming."

"Well, horse face," Wes said with a chuckle. "Let me ask you a question. Did that kid look like a Mexican to you? What country do you suppose we're in now?" Ralph did not deign to reply.

"Anyway," Wes added, "my Spanish is a little rusty. What did he want?"

"That was Juan David, the trainer's son. He works for your nephew's grandson Matt. And for Matt's wife, Josiane."

"I know who Josiane is," Wes said, pulling on his pants. "She's that Sealy girl."

"No, you're thinking of Brin Spacek. The one your cousin Edwin married. You stayed with them in Brenham before you came to California."

Wes frowned. "I didn't know Brin was a Spacek. I thought she was Alan Foster's little girl."

"That's Danielle. She's married to Robert."

"Oh, that's right."

"Anyway, Josiane is from Dallas. She married your nephew's grandson, Matt. They've been putting you up out here in California."

Wes thought about that a moment. "Josiane... is she one of those Sadler girls?"

"That I don't know. She might be a Sadler, but I couldn't say for sure." Ralph thought a moment. "Now, your cousin Earl, he married a Sadler."

"I don't have a cousin Earl."

"Sure you do. He's your second cousin on your wife's side."

"Oh, that's right. I forgot about him."

"I don't recall if any of the Boyds married a Sadler. Sophie would know, but she's dead now."

Wes was on his feet and pulling up his pants and looking for his shirt.

"Sophie Wallenski, now there was a beautiful woman," he said. "Her papa sure didn't have much use for me, I'll tell you that. But Sophie, God bless her, knew what she wanted. For about a year after we married, her old man would flush beet red in the face anytime I walked into the room. He got over it eventually. I was always grateful to her for that. I sure was crazy about that girl. Yes sir, treated her right, too. A few things about me aggravated her sometimes, and she had some funny ways I had to put up with. But overall we got along real good. I have to say that we did."

Two riders splashed into the river from the far bank and moved toward them. One was Juan David on the appaloosa. The other a straw-blonde women in her thirties riding a sorrel.

"Oh boy, here comes Josiane," Ralph sighed. "She's not bringing any apples, either."

Wes struggled to zip up his pants as Josiane pulled up to him on the sorrel. She was furious beyond words. "Grandpa Boyd, what is the matter with you!" she shrieked. "The sheriff's department and everybody is out looking for you! Have you lost your mind or what?"

Wes looked up at her. "Are you one of those Sadler girls?"

"Damn straight I'm a Sadler, I'm the one married to Matt. Now you talk to me, grandpa! Do you know the sheriff organized a search party on account of you?"

"Tell him to jump to hell. I can look out for myself. Anyway I don't want people looking for me."

"I'm responsible for you while the boys are on the road! I had to call Matt in Oklahoma and tell him what happened. He's waiting to hear from me. They're planning to cancel their trip to come help find you."

"He in Oklahoma City?"

"Yes, and he made the finals. It's important to him!"

"How'd they do at Will Rogers?"

"Fourth with a 213. Oh, don't even ask me that! Why would you care? You don't care about anybody but yourself." She took out her smart phone and called her husband. "Matt? He's out here by the river and he's fine. Yes, Juan David found him. I don't know, he just went off with Ralph somewhere. They spent the night out here." She tried to hand the phone to Wes.

"Matt wants to talk to you."

"Tell him I said he's too piss poor of a cutter to waste my time. I want him take Oklahoma with at least a 220. Then we'll talk."

She spoke with Matt a little longer and hung up. "My God, you are such a mess, Grandpa! Don't you know people love you? We go crazy with worry when you do stuff like this! Why do you put us through this?"

"I got business to take care of."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Wes hesitated in a moment of embarrassment, then mumbled quickly. "I'm going to see my girlfriend."

Josiane was a little taken aback, but recovered. "Your...? Oh, okay. Which one are you talking about?"

"You don't know her. It was a long time ago, back when me and Jimmy Salter went down to Mexico. She's real pretty, a little bit shy, works in a cantina. Had her eye on me the whole time. She likes me, I can tell you that."

"Where in Mexico? And who's Jimmy Salter?"

"Jimmy passed away, he was before your time. But it's not far from here. Little bit above Alice Springs. We need to figure out how to get past this ridge somehow."

Bewildered, Josiane softened a little. "Does Sophie know you have a girlfriend?"

"I haven't met Sophie yet. See, she won't find out because it's before her time. That's not cheating, is it?"

Josiane looked at him. "No," she said gently, "I don't suppose it's cheating."

"I'm glad you think so. I was a little worried about that part."

"Listen to me, Grandpa. Matt says you can't go to Mexico today because he needs you at the ranch. He wants you to help me look after things while they're hauling. Can you do that for us?"

Wes quietly scuffled his boots. "Sure, I suppose I can put this off for Matt. Anyway I've pretty much figured out how to get there now. Few more days won't make much difference."

"Juan David, will you gather up Grandpa's saddle bag and things and bring them?"

"Yes, ma'am."

Josiane fetched Ralph, and saw the saddle resting at a crooked angle on him. "Oh, my God in heaven! Grandpa, did you loosen this cinch or were you riding him this way?"

Wes looked at the saddle, but he could not remember and did not answer.

"You could have been killed!" She sighed. "You know what? I'm going to have to hide your clothes in a drawer someplace so you can't leave the house without telling somebody." She tightened the cinch, and helped Wes up into the saddle.

"Juan, I want you to know that your daddy and everyone else are going to be real proud of you for finding Grandpa," she said to the boy. Sheriff Dexter might even give you a reward. You were such a hero today. Your parents are going to be very proud."

Juan grinned. "Yes, ma'am!"

"And, Ralph," she said, turning to him.

"Oh, boy. Here it comes," Ralph said.

"You have been a bad horse. Bad, bad, bad! Don't you dare run off with Grandpa like that ever again. You scared the life out of us. No apples for you for a week!"

"Don't pay any attention to that, Ralph," Wes said. "The ladies will act pretty mean sometimes, but they can never make it stick with a horse. She'll bring you an apple in a day or two."

"Grandpa, you stay out of this!" she said.

The three of them set out across the river for home.

Matt stayed on the road and took Oklahoma City with a 221. Wes wanted to hear all about it, and Matt told him over the phone.

Ralph liked to work cows in the arena, but did not miss the part about traveling halfway to hell across country in trailers all summer. Josiane put him out to pasture so he could graze at inclination or just stand in the shade of a tree and contemplate life. Sure enough, the very next day, she brought him an apple just as Wes had predicted.

The adventure with the old man had been a new experience for Ralph. It was a welcome break to his daily routine; he got to see a little of the country and experience life on the far side of the river. He would not have minded if Grandpa Boyd took him out to explore again sometime.

But that was not going to happen anytime soon. Josiane had taken away all of Grandpa's pants and hidden them in her bedroom closet to prevent him from wandering off again.

7 comments:

  1. Mark Saha’s “Grandpa Goes to Mexico” painted a colorful literary vista of an area of the United States with which I am not familiar. I appreciated his intricate weaving of facts and descriptions. For a long moment I thought that Grandpa would wake up and discover “it’s all a dream,” but Mark didn’t cop out and shortchange the reader in that way. I thought asking Ralph a “talking horse” was essential for the interplay and self reflection of the two main characters. This story was just the right length. Right on, Mark Saha!

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  2. A story that zigs and zags to keep the reader wondering in a good way.

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    1. Didn't know how to get my name in the comments. Doug Hawley.

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  3. Fun story. Pretty surreal. I think the moral could be always listen to your horse. He'll tell you what reality is.

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  4. Rozanne CharbonneauAugust 5, 2022 at 7:22 AM

    I loved the way the author mixed humor and action with the poignant challenges of old age. Well done!.

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  5. I agree with others that this is an excellently told story with a perfect balance of wit and action. Excellent read.

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