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HE wanted to buy a cowboy hat but he was nervous about it. He thought it had to mean something. Thought people would expect something from him when he was wearing it.

“Like I’ve got a can of dip in my back pocket and only listen to country music,” he said. She grabbed another hat from the shelf and switched it with the one on his head. She liked that one better; it was darker and more sure of itself.

“You do like country music,” she said, standing back to get a better look at him.

“I like when you listen to country music. That’s different,” he said, turning to look at himself in the mirror. She put her chin on his shoulder, told him it looked good. Told him he looked like a real cowboy with it on. A right rootin-tootin six-shootin somethin or other straight out of the wild west. She made her case about how it should’ve been illegal for a guy named Wyatt to have gone almost thirty-five years without owning a cowboy hat. It ain’t right she said.

They were on their way back from their honeymoon. Fifty miles from home, they’d stopped for coffees and a quick peek in the country-western store next door.

“Charlotte. Be honest. This doesn’t look ridiculous?” Wyatt turned away from the mirror and stood with his arms stiff at his side, not smiling.

“Only because you’re standing like that. When would you ever stand like that?” Charlotte said, adjusting her purse on her shoulder. He smiled, all dimples and scruff. Looked down, shook his arms out. “See! There’s my beautiful brand-new cowboy husband looking like a normal human. Take it off. We’re buying it.”

“Wait. I wanna get you something,” he said, holding up his finger. She watched him make his way to the back of the store. It only took him a moment to see what he wanted. He walked back to her and held it out. A big ol’ belt buckle with a busty mudflap cowgirl on it. She wore boots and a hat and nothing else. “Looks just like you,” he said, winking. He swatted at her bottom.

“She kinda does, don’t she? I love it. I’m gonna wear this, I promise.” Charlotte put the cowboy hat on her head and carried the heavy brass belt buckle in one hand, held her husband’s hand with the other.

• • •

“Do we have to go pick up our kids?” Wyatt said half-teasing, starting up his truck. Sure they’d missed them, but they’d also quite enjoyed having a week in the mountains by themselves. They had decided not to sleep together before they got married. It was something neither one of them had ever tried with anyone else before. Being together like that was as fresh and crisp and new as the striped linens on the king-sized bed in their honeymoon cabin. He kissed the bottoms of her feet, behind her ears, the tender inside of her tiny wrists. She secretly hoped she’d get pregnant that first time, felt herself shiver afterwards, like a wandering spirit had suddenly found a home and filled the room.

They had spent their days making love and shopping for fruit. Making love and having X-Files marathons. Making love and playing Scrabble afterwards. They had champagne and tight plums for dinner, bacon and bagels with butter for breakfast. They ate smoked oysters on crackers with drips of vinegary hot sauce spilled on top. They went nightfishing. Swam like little lake creatures baptized in wet, North Carolina moonlight. Came back to the cabin and grilled the fish in foil over an open fire in the sticky-thick night air. Ate it with lemon wedges and crispy garlic potatoes, swallowed it down with sweating brown bottles of Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, Charlotte’s favorite beer. They spent one entire day in the cabin naked just to see what it felt like. Charlotte thought that it would feel like being Adam and Eve and it did. There was a fenced-in fecund garden filled with vespertine flowers, but no snakes. And most certainly no moody teenagers rolling their eyes at them or stomping off to their bedrooms.

• • •

Both of their children had been born only hours apart on the same exact day fifteen years ago. July 31st. They called them their pretend-twins. Karis and Joshua were soon-to-be juniors at Sleepy Hollow High. Wyatt taught American History there. He was the baseball coach too. Joshua was his shortstop and now he was his stepson, as well. Charlotte had fallen in love with how Wyatt clapped after each at-bat, how his ass looked in those baseball pants. But she had let him make the first move. It took him months to ask her out and even then he was careful not to be too forward. She’d grabbed the collar of his shirt that first night they went to dinner. Kissed his warm mouth and held his face in her hands. What was I gonna have to do to get you to kiss me? Shit! She’d said afterwards and he laughed and laughed. I guess what you just did. I like you a lot he said and his voice was so country and sweet she knew right then she could marry him, live with him and they could raise their babies together. Hot damn. That voice, that voice. How he said any word with an ‘L’ in it. How he sometimes said come ’ere before he kissed her.

Their kids already knew each other so that part was easy. They weren’t best friends yet but they got along well enough. Wyatt’s daughter, Karis, was a bookish theatre-geek and Charlotte’s son, Joshua, was mostly fine. He didn’t get into a lot of trouble. Early on in their relationship, both Wyatt and Charlotte had expressed anxiety over how normal their children were. Like they were both waiting on something extreme to happen soon. Face tattoos? Undercover prostitution stings? But so far, nothing terrifying.

While they were honeymooning, the kids were staying with their other families. Charlotte’s ex-husband had partial custody and had remarried some years ago. Joshua had two brand-new baby half-sisters. And Wyatt’s ex-wife was divorced for the third time and shared custody of Karis.

Charlotte and Joshua’s stuff had been moved into Wyatt’s house because it was bigger and Charlotte especially loved the creek rock fireplace. She loved it in the winter, but also in the summer because no matter how hot it got outside, the creek rock was always cool. She could lie there and press her face against it and feel like she was lucky enough to always be on the cool side of the pillow. But the four of them hadn’t spent a night in the house together yet. Tonight would be the first time. They decided to pick up Karis first.

• • •

“I think I’m nervous,” Charlotte said. The cowboy hat had finally settled on Wyatt’s head and it suited him perfectly in his pickup truck. She was slipping the new buckle onto her belt and when she was finished, she put her bare feet up on the dash and leaned the seat back so he could get a good look at it. He grinned and nodded in approval, stopped at a red light.

“You’re nervous about what, about everything? About picking up Karis? About what?” He asked, matter-of-factly. She glanced at the knife he always kept clipped to his jeans. It made her feel safe, not scared. She breathed relief at being married to a man who was gentle with women. Joshua’s dad was so quick-tempered the nine years they were married. The holes in the walls were patched over easily and beautifully because it was what he did for a living—both the construction work and the raising hell. She had loved him once but now when she thought of him she saw a snarling, bloody-faced wolf. But he was good to Joshua. She’d always convinced herself that that was all that mattered.

Marrying Wyatt had felt like closing the door to keep out a blinding, swirling dust storm. And now she was safe inside somewhere; couldn’t even hear the dry howling anymore.

• • •

Charlotte looked down at her outfit and thought about how she refused to call her tank top a “wife-beater.” What a cruel name. The belt buckle looked damn good with it and her old jeans. She decided she didn’t want to be nervous anymore. Told herself she felt tough and it worked. Like all of the lights inside of her had been switched on and she could hear them, humming.

“Nothing,” she said, putting her hand on his leg.

“You sure?”

“I’m sure,” she said.

“You look good,” he said. He tipped his hat.

“Thank you. You’re already a perfect cowboy,” she said. He shifted into first and gunned the gas. She watched his forearms and took off her seatbelt so she could lean closer to him. So she could smell him better. So she could feel the warmth roll off of him like thick ribbons, unraveling.

• • •

Both Charlotte and Wyatt had been extremely hurt in the past, but so had everyone. There wasn’t necessarily anything special about their circumstances. Everyone got cheated on. Some men punched walls when they got angry. Some women didn’t know how much a man needed to feel loved. Charlotte was convinced they needed it even more than women did. She loved and loved Wyatt and told him and showed him all the time. He’d even mentioned it when he asked her to marry him. You make me feel loved he’d said. Good, because you are she said back to him before telling him the ring was too big, too much. Bullshit he said, separating her ring finger from the others and holding it there.

Wyatt was deliberate in his intimacy and he maintained it even in the times  when she grew distant. She’d recently realized that growing distant was her go-to response to things, an itchy comfort blanket she had to train herself to toss off. I promise to love you and I promise to let you love me back was something she said aloud at their wedding.

• • •

Karis’ mother was at the front door with her hands on her hips. Charlotte looked at the dashboard clock to see if they were late. They weren’t.

“Is she pissed off?” She asked.

“She’s always pissed off,” he said back. He kept his hat on and got out of the truck. Charlotte rolled the window down just a little bit so she could hear them.

“Today’s Karis’ last day of theatre camp. She’s not here. She’s there,” her mother said, stepping out onto the porch. Charlotte waved kindly from the truck and Karis’ mother waved back like just the thought of it exhausted her.

“I didn’t know that,” Wyatt said, shaking his head.

Her mother shrugged.

“Well I’ll come back,” he said.

“I guess you’ll have to. You get that on your honeymoon?” she asked, tilting her head towards his.

Wyatt took off the hat and held it to his chest. He nodded and looked back at Charlotte.

“She’ll be back in like two hours. Come back then,” her mother said. In the truck, Charlotte put her jingly purse in her lap and pretended to be looking for something. She pulled out her phone and sent Joshua a text. Be there to pick you up in like twenty minutes. Love you.

“Okay. Tell ’er I’ll be back in just a little bit then,” Wyatt said. He put his hat back on and made his way down the steps. Charlotte waved to Karis’ mother again, smiled. Her phone buzzed with a text message from Joshua: okay.

• • •

Not long after their first date, Wyatt had told Charlotte the story about getting arrested for beating the shit out of Karis’ mother’s ex-boyfriend some years back. The ex-boyfriend had gotten drunk on whiskey and grabbed Karis’ arm so hard he left medium-sized Bible-black bruises from her shoulder to her elbow. Wyatt went over to the house, knocked on the door and when the ex-boyfriend opened it, he punched him in the face. The fight spilled out into the front yard and the neighbors called the cops. He kept reiterating the fact that Karis wasn’t there. That Karis didn’t see. He wanted to make sure Charlotte believed him and she did. He didn’t have to keep saying it. She trusted him already. The ex-boyfriend had a couple of warrants anyway and Wyatt only had to spend one night in jail. Charges were dropped and he didn’t lose his job or anything. His eyes got all teary when he told her that part. He said he didn’t want people to think he was a violent man. He said he just lost it because someone hurt his kid. He said he hadn’t been in a fight since middle school. It had taken him a good long while to feel okay with leaving Karis with her mother after that. And even still, he worried.

• • •

When they got to Joshua’s father’s house no one was there but Joshua. He came right out to the truck with his backpack, looking taller, browner and more beautiful than Charlotte had left him a week before. She asked him if he’d had a good week. They’d talked a couple times while she was away, but she turned around in the passenger seat so she could look him in the face when she asked.

“Yeah. Missed you guys though,” he said and she was glad to hear it. He told her he’d just been swimming a lot and helping out with the new babies. Charlotte asked how they were, how everyone was. Wyatt asked if he wanted to go to the batting cages later. Joshua smiled and said sure and told him he dug the cowboy hat.

They stopped for burgers to kill some time, waiting to go pick up Karis. Joshua wore the cowboy hat now, as they sat outside in the afternoon steam of late-July in the south. They were near the river and would occasionally benefit from the water-breezes.

“It’s a family cowboy hat,” Charlotte said, patting her son’s leg.

“So are you my stepdad or my baseball coach once school starts back?” Joshua asked, dipping his fries into salt and spicy mustard, the only way he ate them.

“Whichever one you want,” Wyatt said, smiling.

“Lemme think about it. I’ll get back to you,” Joshua said, with a full mouth. Charlotte let it slide.

When they were leaving, Joshua raised an eyebrow at Charlotte’s new belt buckle and she felt her cheeks pinking. She pulled her tank top down a little, told him it was a joke present from Wyatt. Whispered I love it into Wyatt’s ear when Joshua wasn’t looking.

Karis and her bags were waiting on the porch when they pulled up this time. She got in the back, buckled up and said hi to everyone. Said her mom wasn’t home anymore. Wyatt asked her how theatre camp was. Joshua asked her if she wanted to wear the hat.

“I don’t know what that means but yes,” she said. Joshua tapped the hat on her head and Charlotte turned around and watched Karis’ hoop earrings swing as she turned from side to side. Watched her tiny, pretty face get shadowed under her daddy’s new hat.

“You look like a real cowboy,” Charlotte said.

“I feel like a real cowboy,” Karis said back.

• • •

After everyone was settled in the house, Charlotte made popcorn on the stove in her new kitchen. She made it with extra butter and salt and asked everyone to come sit in the living room. There were boxes that needed to be unpacked and lots of cleaning to be done for the double birthday party they would be throwing for the kids in a couple of days.

“I love all of you and we’re gonna make this work. No. It’s already working,” she said to them, tilting her head at her new family. She handed everyone their own bowl of popcorn—heavy white ceramic with POPCORN written on the edges in thin lipstick-red paint. Charlotte’s bawdy brass belt buckle was blazing like light from her middle and she bit her bottom lip so she wouldn’t cry. She shoved all of her feelings into the overflowing suitcase of her heart, sat on it and smashed it down so she could close it, snap it shut.

Wyatt stood up and put his arm around her. Joshua and Karis looked at them, then at each other. Karis was quiet and offered a small smile. She pecked at the popcorn in her cupped hand, like a little bird. Joshua rolled his eyes and said Mom, stop. You’re not going to cry are you?

“Okay. Okay. I’m sorry. Put the family hat back on, cowboy,” she said to Wyatt. He said yes ma’am, picked it up from the table, set it on his head and tipped it real slow.


Leesa Cross-Smith is a homemaker and the editor of a literary magazine called WhiskeyPaper. Her debut short story collection, Every Kiss A War, is available now through Mojave River Press. Find more at LeesaCrossSmith.com

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LF #052 © Leesa Cross-Smith. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, October 2013.


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making cowboys

by leesa cross-smith