Not that many years ago, on a spur of the moment hunch, I stopped by the Elks Club in Hotchkiss and found who I had hoped for. Sitting at the bar, with a whiskey and Coke, no ice, was L. E. Wheeler, a cowboy, horse trader, and so much more. We hadn’t spoken in years and he filled me in on the time warp I’d missed – wife Kathleen died, hip replacement several years before, had just gotten a new knee a month or two earlier and in the weeks prior, had celebrated his 90th birthday. He beseeched me to round up some long discontinued I.W. Harper, his favorite brand of whiskey, and to come back in a month or so for a horseback ride with him. A week later, a car ran over L. E. as he crossed the street to the Elks Club. Sort of like a hurried shot at an elk on the run or at your wife’s lover as he flees the boudoir, it didn’t kill right away, but rather took a few days to snuff the life out of him.Sometimes in the middle of the night, in that half-reality between sleep and wakefulness, I see a vase of purple flowers on my window sill, stark against the faint light of a weak moon. It pleases me to know I had the foresight to put such a unique piece there, unless of course, I fully awaken and realize I see the stanchion of the foot of the brass bed, jutting up into the gray of the open window. Perhaps then, reality sorts itself out, in my dreams and in my bed. As I drive by a ranch house at four or five in the morning and see a sick old man I know in his lighted room, flailing at the blankets and bed sheets around him, I wonder if he’s thinking about whether he’s seen his last sunrise, or more like me, if he’s searching his mind, and his bed, for what appears to be a lost reality.Whether it’s a vase or a bedpost it’s a nuance that has no immediate bearing on my existence, but other matters may, such as what is the difference between the exhilaratingly esoteric experience of a highly charged tryst with a lover of more than 30 years or the exceedingly exciting first time with a new paramour? Can you say?My mature horse, Donald, almost never lets a cow or calf get around him, even when he’s not on his game. My new horse, Drifter, a youngster who will one day soon be like the older horse, and already misses only a few, talks to me with the arrogance of youth when he says, “Put me on a cow or calf trying to bolt the herd, and I’ll show you flying!” Is success the difference of a step, or a heartbeat?I find myself driving across South Dakota at just under a hundred, testing the limits of a two-lane asphalt road deserted by the building of an interstate. As my eye drifts to a lonely, wind-scoured shack ahead, an “Ice Sold Here” sign stuck just under the eave causes me to brake to a hurried stop.The stairs are sagging and the squeaky screen door has just enough list to make it ineffective. My boot heels clunk loudly on the wooden floor and as my finger draws a line on the dusty red top of a beef jerky container, I see a very old bottle of I.W. Harper staring back at me from behind the bar.A lady who should have done something else for a living pours me a shot of Harper into a small glass of Coke, no ice, and disappears. As I quickly gulp it down, the alcohol spirals almost immediately to my teetotaler’s brain and a beautiful diffusion of dilation flushes my mind. For the briefest of moments, do I really look into the blue eyes and grasp the gnarled hand of L. E. Wheeler, or is my brain gently telling me to be careful crossing the street? Nuances. Tony Vagneur thinks he has a good grasp of reality, which is enough to convince the rest of us that perhaps he doesn’t. Read him here on Saturdays and send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
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