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Of course, it had to be Thursday. Friday night was date night for most Greeks, and Saturdays were for getting hammered in the basement before bars off Pong, or Flip Cup, or Flipadelphia, or Dice, or Ebola, or Rollers, or Battleship, or You Got Served, or Quarters, or Speed Quarters, or Civil War, or Baseball, or Kings. So weeknights were the best time for mixers to get numbers up. Tuesday was always a bars night because of all the specials, and Monday and Wednesday were for homework. So naturally it had to be Thursday for the Delt house and Mu, its sister house, to host the annual Cowboy Up mixer.
It never struck anyone as redundant that students in Texas would host a cowboy-themed event. For one, this was Dallas, where valet services outnumbered the fleet of city buses by at least two-to-one. Even Harby’s Famous Roast Beef Sandwiches had a valet. For another, nobody here had seen a cowboy, at least not a real one, their whole lives. “Cowboy,” like “Indian,” was not so much a real identity as it was a genre, or flavor of ice cream.
No one in the sorority spoke up that it should be called a “Cowboy and Cowgirl Up” mixer, because there was nothing to speak up about. The last cowboy and cowgirl died out over, like, a hundred years ago, with the dinosaurs, MP3 players, and Toy Story 2.
But that didn’t stop anyone from taking this party extremely, like actually, seriously. The semester was going to end soon, and that meant, of course, that it was the last chance to rustle up or lock in a formal date before deposits were due. So it had to be Cowboy Up; it always had to be. And it had to be nowhere else but Cowboy Bob’s Bar and Grille, known among “circles who know” as just “Bob’s.”
No one really knew if Cowboy Bob ever showed up, but one thing was for sure, he had a real deal, Wild West sort of a place, and it was always guaranteed--or at least written in soap on the window out front--to make your wildest dreams come true. Once you were past the bouncer, who was easy on fakes, you walked through some of those old wooden, swinging doors and into a scene straight from John Wayne movies. All kinds of dark wood and old, weathered mirrors everywhere, and wrought iron chandeliers with real tea lights in them. The whole place was dark and backlit, with red shades everywhere. And the walls were adorned in every direction by luminous, neon beer signs. A slicing cursive one that said “Wicked” here, a clunky red one that said “Rogue” there. Above the mirror was a sickly green one that glowed “Seven Sins Ales,” and above the flag over the swinging door was a blacklight that said, in an old-English-y type of way, “Reaper.” Waitresses said that the place had once been a real-live brothel back in the day, and, when the DJ wasn’t playing (And he assuredly would be this night.), they had one of those real self-playing pianos and a jukebox full of good old stuff like Garth Brooks and Brooks & Dunn. Even the little stuff mattered at Bob’s, like the purse hooks under the bar that were made of old shotgun shells. It totally could have been a place where guys would come to drink out of full bottles of whiskey and play cards and smoke cigars, although nobody ever did. Smoking was illegal in bars.
And the brothers and sisters, having trampled the thrift stores like desperate marauders, arrived at Bob’s en masse in proud, rhinestoned and plaid glory, positive that they had nailed it. The boys wore boots and neckerchiefs, and they tucked their snap-buttoned shirts into their tight jeans to show off their lean stomachs. The girls wore bustiers and long, turquoise jewelry to hide theirs.
Girls made polite conversation in small circles around small cocktails along railings, and boys joked for each other with competing volume and wit, ripping warm, palatable shots and sucking on bottles of Tin Star and Azteca. Everyone made sure that everyone knew how awesome everyone looked, and everyone unwittingly indulged little conceits of bravado or allure. One boy, whose devotion to his girlfriend in another state compelled him to flirt only Platonically and avoid unsolicited appearances on social media, showed up perpetuating the running gag he’d made of himself by wearing only boxers, an open bathrobe, mussed hair, and a coy expression of bewilderment. When things began to loosen up, girls batted their eyes like caricatures at the confluence of Southern Belle and Lady of the Evening. A real, country two-step built a brief momentum that was quickly blown apart by heavy bass, and dispersed into circles of drunken grinding, that faithful standby. Individuals began to realize the folly of fearing groups, and gradually strayed from their herds to mingle with other brave souls in dark, red corners. Pills began to jump out of pockets. Everywhere you looked, it was cap guns, and bullwhips, and magic, and sex. And no one was feeling more accomplished than Rowdy Glazer, the young man responsible for orchestrating this evening.
Although he could have won in a landslide, Rowdy had reneged on his promise to run for chapter president and graciously deferred to other candidates. In truth, he had been terrified of real budgets and liability. But he had explained that he needed to work on getting his GPA up for his graduate school app. “Besides, it would only go to my head,” he had jokingly warned with monkish humility. Instead, Rowdy, king of the Delts, chose to be Social Chair, which amounted only to wielding executive power in matters of fun. He was the right man for the job, for sure. Good-looking, charming, and a dogged salesman, he somehow had convinced the sisters to divert funds from a joint philanthropy outing in order to rent out Bob’s for the most private and exclusive Cowboy Up in history. Here, right where he was standing, was, no question, the place to be.
Rowdy crossed his legs to show off his new boots and leaned against the railing that surrounded Goldie, the mechanical bull. Although no one had been brave enough to take a turn on Goldie yet, Rowdy was confident that she would blow this party wide open and secure his legacy forever. The plastic and foam rubber monstrosity sat unnaturally still atop its black, metal perch, and was kinked at a rakish angle like the crouched hind legs of an animal ready to kick. The enormous, beveled hips, which were covered completely in shining, gold sequins, canted down a sloped back, out of which grew a single yard of frayed rope, and tapered into sleek shoulders, at the tip of which was painted a smirking mouth with full, red lips. If anybody in the room had seen a bull before, they would have known that this was not a very big one. Still, its glamorous facade hid cold, pneumatic strength and fast-twitch terror.
A couple of boys emerged from the bathroom and seemed a little more confident that they could tame the beast. They eyed it up and down, each waiting to be challenged by the other. Rowdy, who thought himself keeper of the leash, felt like a god.
It was not long before the pumping bass, red light, and concentration meds began to play tricks on regular people, convincing them that they were powerful and impressive. One by one, boys and girls took their turn at Goldie, mounting her with distorted pleasure before flinging off into foam rubber shame, or desperately holding on with the inner muscles of their akimbo legs before sliding down the rope into mediocrity. But the pulsing, electronic music that had taken over suddenly seemed to grow louder in everyone’s ears, as if they were all extras in someone else’s show. It was then that Cassidy MacMillan opened the gate and stepped into the ring.
Idle conversation faded around her as she leaned out over Goldie’s haunch. Stretched out this way, her full, round figure couldn’t be ignored or forgotten. Her thick, black hair was blown up like that of a ‘60s country starlet. She had hardened it with product, and she wore it like a helmet. The hair edged gracefully over the collar of the tight, faded denim shirt, which seemed that it might momentarily bust. She welcomed their miserable eyes with teasing and condescension. Mesmerized simultaneously by the suppleness of her leather pants and the secrets hidden within them, a boy who had recently become one of Goldie’s casualties offered to give Cassidy a lift into the saddle, which she flatly denied. With the dexterity of a gymnast approaching the pommel horse, she sprung off of her high heels and mounted the animal in one quick motion.
Spurred into action, Goldie moved more gracefully than she had for the drunken, ungainly masses who had climbed on top of her prior. She bucked and jostled less violently, undulating and turning with smooth deference. Cassidy moved slowly, too, locking her powerful legs around the beast and centering her core on its core, rising and falling adeptly with the movement underneath her, allowing her hips to command when necessary and relinquish when necessary. Rhythmically, she began to conquer the room in marvelous slow-mo, each second becoming an astonishing, record-breaking tick. As she squeezed her legs harder, Goldie began to rock and sway with gradually increasing velocity, and dancers and revelers from across the room slowly moved toward the spectacle. Bass pumped harder as Goldie’s swell and fall increased. The spectators increased, and their grips tightened on the railing, eyes rolling in their heads with the movement before them. Gyrating her hips with immense command, Cassidy threw her head back. The growing spectators began to move in time, slowly becoming a single, writhing mass. If the music had not been so loud, one would have heard the yips and moans that began to surge in the billowing crowd.
Rowdy, too, was intrigued, but retained the casual diffidence of an emperor as his people came together to feast on his gifts. In the crowd but not of it, he smiled haughtily, and flew up to the bar to survey his territory.
Hands appeared in the crowd. Some hands were bitten by their owners. Some hands rubbed flushed cheeks. Some hands leaned on strange shoulders and waists. Some reached out longingly to Cassidy. Breathing heavily, she closed her eyes and raised one hand above her head as the music and movement and masses and moment unfastened into one beautiful and frightening crescendo.
A collective gasp was exhaled as Goldie slowed to a crawl and then to a stop. Cassidy kicked her heels up and slid with arms high backwards into the forgiving foam. There was no music, and no words. And then there was an eruption of voices. The crowd whooped loudly in applause of what they’d witnessed. They whistled and cheered and shot off cap guns and bayed like coyotes at the moon. Mussed and flush, Cassidy stood up, and took an elegant bow. A freshman boy scurried up to her with hunched shoulders and averted eyes. He offered her a beer, which she politely refused while waving to her adoring public. Furrowing his brow, the boy took a sip, and offered it again. Again, she snubbed his advances with ceremony and tact. Confused, the boy put his hand around her wrist. A steely murder glinted in Cassidy’s eyes for a moment as she speedily dispatched with the bridge of his nose and left him bleeding in the foam before allowing a sister to help her down the stair. The crowd gasped in amusement and titillation before dissipating into its thumping, strobe-affected revelry. The mood was unmistakably heightened--electric, as if the pulse of action picked up speed and confidence. Bob’s was shivering all over with anticipation, just of what it did not know.
Cassidy sipped casually from a long neck with two sisters at a high top. A boy who must have been paying attention sauntered up to the table with projected confidence and equanimity.
“Dang, girl,” he tried, “you just rode the shit outta this place.”
“Where you from?” she said, after a second.
“Arlington,” the boy said with the smile of a novice lock-pick.
“So how come all y’all sound like you’re from California?”
The boy grasped for a response, but he was interrupted as the front doors swung violently open, and the blinding, low sun of dusk invaded the darkness. Shrinking from the red light, agitated party-goers swung their necks towards the doorway, which was now filled by the imposing silhouette of a man. The DJ reflexively paused the music, and for a brief moment, you could hear the unmistakable jingle of spurs as he stepped through the door. He looked around the room slowly while the crowd took in his impressive profile, which was mostly hidden in shadow. He was very tall, slender, and dark, with a wide-rimmed hat that sat low over his furrowed brow and sunken eyes. His face was mostly covered up to his eyes by the high collar of a long, black duster that cascaded down to the heels of his boots. He would have been honored by all for the authenticity of his appearance, if he had been invited. He walked into the room, and the people watched him closely and cautiously as he sapped their electricity. Slowly, and with long strides, he made his way to the bar, unaware of, or perhaps ambivalent to, their fixed gazes. The bartender approached him knowingly with a shaky, unlabeled bottle and a shot glass. He set them in front of the man, who hunched over calmly and began to drink.
From his perch, Rowdy watched this bizarre occurrence and tightened his grip on his bottle. How had this man gotten past the bouncer? he wondered. And, like, what was he doing here? He looked around and noticed that the pulse of his party was changing as if moved by a magnet. Despite their best efforts, they were all looking at the man in the duster like something out of another time, and they were wondering what he was going to do next. Rowdy decided that it was his responsibility to restore order. This was a private event, his private event, and this stranger was scaring people. Girls, no less. So he knew he would have to approach him, though he was terrified to do so. Knowing this, he would use the one weapon he knew how to wield: charm. So he sidled up next to the stranger, and ordered two beers.
“Howdy,” said Rowdy, with affected cordiality, leaning toward humor. He edged one of the beers toward the stranger, who didn’t accept it, didn’t even look at it. The man stared straight ahead without saying a word.
Unaccustomed to being ignored, Rowdy leaned toward the stranger a little more closely.
“Er...howdy, there, stranger! Nice evening! What’s your drink?” he waxed convivial with feigned dialect he’d never tried before.
The stranger said nothing. He just looked right on through the mirror behind the bar.
“I...uh...I’m not sure if this is customary for regulars like yourself, but this here is a sort of a...closed bar.”
The stranger lifted his glass to his mouth and held it there.
“Y’see, I’m the, uh, representative here. I’m what’s called the Social Chair. And the, uh, the hoe-down we’re havin’ ourselves is kind of in the nature of...of a private thing. So, you can imagine that I, being sorta the acting sheriff of the evening, might need to do a little inquiry when someone...when someone off the guest list comes in,” he chuckled, “even if they are, uh, dressed for the occasion.”
The stranger downed the shot of whiskey under his nose, and did not speak. Rowdy decided that he would, in a phrase his father often told him, try another tack.
“Sir, I’m not sure what you’re doing here, but as you can see, the only people in the bar for tonight are registered Greeks. Now, if you’re A.L.E., I believe it is within my right to ask for your identification before you ask how old anybody is.”
Without moving a muscle, the stranger shifted his gaze slowly from the mirror to Rowdy, then down to his drink. This change, underneath the low, wide brim of the stranger’s hat, was barely discernible to Rowdy in the clubby light and distant glare of strobes. If he had not begun to fixate with growing intent on this mysterious man, he would have noticed that everyone in the bar was looking at him and the stranger and whispering frightened questions. They tensed at the slow, deliberate movement of the stranger’s arm as he seemed to reveal something under the chest of his duster. Rowdy did not hear the growing susurration of whispers, because he was struck by what the stranger had revealed: a simple, metal star, immaculately polished and completely void of markings or writing. It glared a blinding flash at Rowdy, but the stranger didn’t say a word. He closed his coat again and put both hands flat on top of the bar surrounding his bottle.
Rowdy wiped the sudden sweat from the back of his neck. Unlike some at the university, he was a novice at dealing with the police. No rehearsed lines trickled up from his subconscious. No guide to step-by-step survival could be relocated from his childhood. No sounds like his father’s voice could he hear. He was on his own, as he often had been, so he did what he had practice in.
“Look,” Rowdy said, with feigned rationality, “you are probably looking for a few bad eggs in what is otherwise a well-intentioned, law-abiding crowd, here, sir.”
The stranger did not move, nor speak, nor blink.
“I can help you with that. But, where are my manners? Please allow me to pay for your bottle first. I’m not used to buying whole bottles of alcohol. How much is it?”
Rowdy began fumbling with bills from his wallet, glanced vaguely at several, and put them on the bar.
“Is this enough?”
The stranger’s gaze moved to the bills on the table.
“No?” Rowdy said, “Maybe this is enough?”
He laid a few more on the pile like they were contracts, or logs on a fire. The stranger stared at the pile long enough for Rowdy to feel more confident. Then the stranger moved his hand across the bar, and pocketed the bills without speaking. He went back to staring into the mirror. Rowdy looked in the mirror too, smiled at himself, and thought, Now you’re mine. The crowd did not sense his ease, though they sensed the exchange of money. They dwelled on the black duster, and what might have been hidden underneath it. No one spoke now; their questions went unanswered. There was nothing left to do but wait, bundled together here and there in dangerous anticipation, compressed like the air in a cattle-killer.
Rowdy was cocksure that he had been able to woo another adult authority, but precious seconds began to pass, and the stranger did not move. Rowdy became desperate, shifty, and treacherous.
“Well,” said Rowdy in a low voice. “I’m sure you’ll be interested in a few of the more, er, colorful characters we have here. That one, for example. The boy holding tissues at his nose in the back corner. He has a history of violence...of a certain kind. Tonight he’s on the hunt.”
The stranger did not look or move.
“The girl at the high-top, back at your seven o’clock,” Rowdy whispered dramatically. “She assaulted someone. Tonight. Just now. She could be booked now. We’ve got witnesses everywhere.”
The stranger still did not respond, and Rowdy wondered if this were the man’s sort of interest. He set his reluctant gaze on his roommate, who returned a look of desperation and trust. Rowdy leaned in very close, so that his eyelashes were almost touching the brim of the stranger’s hat.
“...That tall one, there, at the end of the bar....don’t look now,” he whispered. “He’s distributing prescription medication tonight. In fact, he has quite a market for selling ADD meds all over town, and he’s good at it.”
Still the stranger did not seem to respond. Rowdy began barely to reveal his exasperation.
“Look, I don’t see what the point is of keeping us here like this. Now, I’ve paid you, and I’ll happily pay you more. I’m asking you nicely to please do your duty or vacate the…the premises.”
The stranger arched his brow at this comment, looked over to the boy at the end of the bar, and then, with an exasperated sigh, threw back a shot of whiskey.
Rowdy sensed an advantage. “Say, what precinct are you from, anyway?”
The stranger responded silently, as he expected.
“That star. It doesn’t look like the ones you usually see. On TV. Didn’t even know they still did that, actually,” he said. “I just wonder if I could see it again.”
The stranger shifted in his seat. Rowdy sensed the entire bar watching him for the first time. Had he also sensed the anguish with which they looked, he might have perceived the final judgment spinning around like a revolver on a table. He quickly calculated his odds, and pulled the trigger.
“Listen, mister, you’re not A.L.E., and you’re not a cop. As far as I can tell, your authority here is shit out.”
The stranger smiled a wry, joyless smile, and slowly pulled open his duster at the waist. The handle of a revolver protruded from his hip, and, for the first time in his life, Rowdy considered death. He considered the people who were not with him now, and then he considered the profundity of those he had considered, especially his sister, ten years older than he, whom he had not seen in ten years--not since it became impossible for her to live under the same roof as his father, whom she thought had remarried far too soon after his mother’s death. He had considered the screaming and the crying that echoed through the house as he tried to avoid it, hunched in the corner of his bedroom closet. He also considered it astonishing that he had not considered his best friend, who was here in this room now, staring at him while a bead of sweat rolled down his cheek. Nor had he considered his girlfriend, his young step-brother whose autism had made him so worth constantly defending, any of the young men in his fraternity, nor his stepmother, the pain pills that had killed her, nor his father. He had considered his dog and his mother, whom he hoped he would join in a moment or an infinity.
He looked around the room at all the scared faces, who, he calculated, were one seventy-millionth of the people who did not love him.
“Please,” he choked. “Take that money, and get out of here now before I call the cops.” Rowdy had not said what he had meant to say.
The stranger grinned, and threw back another whiskey.
“I mean it!” Rowdy said, now lost. “I mean it!”
The tall stranger stood from his stool, stepped forward, and looked imperiously over the crowd before him, which was now a cowering, huddled mass of livestock. Rowdy could not tell if they were gathering strength in their numbers or hiding behind the life-preserving ramparts of each other. They all moaned and hummed and snorted and stamped their feet, waiting for the slaughter. All of them except for Cassidy MacMillan, who put her beer down on the high top table and stood up straight to face him.
Rowdy stepped up and whispered in the stranger’s ear.
“Look, If it’s a death you want, I...I’ll do it,” and now he had said what he had meant. “But that has to be it.”
The stranger opened the waist of his long coat. Cassidy stepped forward. Rowdy blinked.
He lunged as the stranger lifted his pistol in a silver flash and shot Cassidy MacMillan once in the chest. She crumpled to the floor, and the herd of humanity moaned in anguish. Rowdy fell to his knees. As the stranger started toward the door, Rowdy yelled after him.
“What...what gives you the right?”
With his hand on the swinging frame, the stranger stopped and looked over his shoulder. Rowdy could only see the sunken sockets of his eyes underneath the wide, black brim.
“You did,” the stranger replied, smiling now with all his teeth, “Cowboy.”