Fiction — December 20, 2011 14:21 — 0 Comments

Want, Have, Need – Eileen Bordy

Sarah’s old Toyota labored up the steep highway. Every ten miles or so, she had to pull onto a dusty shoulder to let faster cars pass. Her father had offered to buy her a new car, but this fifteen-year-old, 4-cylinder Corolla was fitting for a grad student, although she was cursing it now as she slid around on the moist vinyl seat waiting for the pickup pulling a horse trailer to go around her. Two meaty horse’s hindquarters were visible above the Dutch door of the trailer, and their feathery tails waved at her mockingly. The air was a bit cooler now that she’d left the steamy quilted farmlands behind. She must be getting close.

Her former roommate, fellow student, and friend, Carolyn, was working at a pack station for the summer. She and Carolyn were two years into their MFA program when Carolyn came home one day and announced she was through with it. She loaded her old Subaru wagon and went off in search of the proverbial truth and beauty. The night before Carolyn left, they drank Guinness at a pub full of undergrads too shy to bother them. Sarah rarely drank too much, but she did that night and confessed how badly she wanted to sell something.

Carolyn replied, “If that’s your idea of artistic success, you might as well give up now.”

“Easy for you to say. You’ve had a show. You sold art. Strangers have validated your talent.”

“Oh my God. Look at me.” Carolyn had turned in her bar stool so that she was facing Sarah and grabbed her shoulders. “You have talent. Feel better?”

“No. You know me.”


Sarah slogged through the last year, attending seminars where fellow students questioned her dialog with her surroundings and use of symbolism and defended her choices more strongly than she felt. Every couple of months she’d return home to find a postcard from Carolyn in her mailbox. In this one-sided way she tracked Carolyn’s journey through Amsterdam, Thailand, Vermont, Wyoming. The sojourn was so cliché; Sarah could have guessed where the next card would come from. She wouldn’t have guessed this dude ranch, though. That postcard—a photograph of a clapboard lodge with the words “my room” and an arrow pointing to a window on the second—arrived in late spring. On the back was an invitation to come visit; Carolyn would be here through the deer-hunting season in the fall. Sarah thought Carolyn’s travels must have cured her of vegetarianism.


The road leveled and Sarah saw the sign: “Kennedy Meadows: The Gateway to Emigrant Wilderness.” She pulled onto a dirt road rutted with holes the size of kiddy pools.  She passed campsites called Deadman’s Flat and Baker’s Hole that were as barren and ugly as the RVs and chubby campers dotting them. She slowed to creep over a one-lane bridge that straddled an anemic creek. The campgrounds petered out and she passed a colony of saggy cabins with white plastic chairs on the porches. The road ended at a large clearing with a meadow on the right and the two-story lodge on the left. Sarah looked up at Carolyn’s window to see if she was waiting for her but could only see a reflection of heavy-bottomed clouds, threatening a late-afternoon thunderstorm.

A woman with leathery skin standing behind a desk in the lobby directed her out the back door to a small building emitting steam.

Inside, Carolyn was bent over an old-fashioned washing machine, shoving wet jeans between the two wringers. Her T-shirt was stuck to her torso. Sarah could see the outline of her rib cage. Carolyn looked up. “Sarah!”

She ripped off a pair of plastic gloves and hugged her friend.

“You’re so thin.”

“I eat like a pig.” Carolyn reached over, pushed Sarah’s curly bangs off her damp forehead.

“It’s muggy in here.”

“I have to use scalding water to get the trail dirt out of these Wranglers.” She pointed to a mound of jeans. “The cowboys’ pants.”

“I never imagined you doing a guy’s laundry.”

“It’s my job.” Carolyn shrugged. “Actually, it’s kind of meditative.”

A young girl poured into tight jeans and a yellow tube top stuck her head in the room.

“You ready?”

“That’s Sharon, the other girl.”

“Hi,” Sharon nodded. “Did Carolyn tell you about the teachers?” Sharon rolled her eyes. Her eyebrows were plucked into two thin slashes.

“We had a group of high school teachers here on retreat. Somebody broke a bed,” Carolyn said.

Carolyn’s parents were professors at Berkeley. Her father taught the Sociology of Deviant Behavior. Her mother was a mathematician. Sarah had visited with Carolyn one weekend, and they all sat naked in a hot tub drinking brandy and arguing about the most realistic sex scenes in movies.

“Wild,” Sharon added, pumping her hips. “Who woulda’ thunk?” She reached up and grabbed a pack of Marlboro’s from a shelf above the washer.

“Don’t smoke in here,” Carolyn said. “These are clean clothes.”

“Like they’re not going to smell like horse shit tomorrow.”

“Do you want to ride along with us?” Carolyn pointed to her Subaru. The hatchback was open and the back was full of brooms, mops, clean towels, and a box of hotel soaps.

“I’m kind of tired, actually.”

Carolyn grabbed a horseshoe with a key attached to it off the cigarette shelf. “My room is on the second floor. I’ll catch up with you later, okay?”

Sarah stopped in the little store and bought a six-pack of beer and a dubious-looking green apple. The woman behind the cash register was the same who’d been at the front desk.

“Need ice?”

“I don’t think so.”

The flimsy door to Carolyn’s room on the second floor flung open when Sarah pushed it. Inside there were two twin beds, a chair, a nightstand, and dresser. The room smelled moldy. Sarah recognized a lamp that was the same one that had been in Carolyn’s room when they lived together: the voluptuous, curvy base was covered in scenes of a Japanese garden. Carolyn had bought it for a dollar at a garage sale. It surprised Sarah to see it. Carolyn’s attachment to things was ephemeral. Easy come, easy go. She picked things off the sidewalk or in thrift stores, then left them when she moved or gave them away to friends. There was always something else.

Carolyn had hung several of her own paintings on the walls. They were works from her first show, large pieces with Rothko-esque blocks of color and found objects attached to them: wooden angels, springs, and electric toothbrushes. One of the paintings was crooked. For a moment Sarah wondered if they’d fit in her trunk.

Sarah pulled out a bottle from its cardboard carrier and flopped on the bed. Moldering in this cheap room wasn’t exactly how she wanted to spend her visit. She kicked off a flip-flop and reached out her foot to straighten a painting. A sprinkle of dust rained onto the bed.

She had been in worse places. A cabin in Vail that smelled of skunk; a motel room near the Oregon border with a moldy shower she wouldn’t use; even the bathroom in that Paris brasserie where she shared a platter of mussels with her boyfriend didn’t have proper toilets but just a hole in the cement floor that she had to squat over.  She closed her eyes and must have fallen asleep because when Carolyn opened the door later she was startled and dropped the beer she’d been holding. It spilled onto the floor.


“Don’t worry about the floor.” She took a towel from the back of a chair and dropped it on the spill.

“Are you done?”

“I’m never really done. Tomorrow I’ll draw a map so you can hike up the pass. You won’t believe the rocks up there—huge shoulders of granite that sparkle in the sun. It’s like you landed on the moon.”

“I thought we were going to hike together.”

“I can’t. We have a last-minute group coming in.”

“You can’t get a single day off?” As soon as Sarah said this she realized this was how Carolyn was—she threw herself into whatever she was doing, completely. She was not a multi-tasker.

“Don’t pout,” Carolyn said.

“I’m not pouting; I’m adjusting.”

“We can make dinner together. And I’ll sleep here tonight.”

“Should I feel grateful?”

Carolyn threw the beer-wet towel at her.

They had to exit the lobby to get to the restaurant. Carolyn led Sarah down the front steps and pointed up at the sign.

“I painted that.”

“Nice work. Good commission?”

“I get to sleep with the owner. Ha. Ha.”


They walked through the dining room with tables covered in red and white checked clothes to the kitchen where there was a stove with six burners and several rows of bowls and pots. A skinny middle-aged woman with a long braid and granny glasses was leaning over a notebook.

“Hey Julia,” Carolyn called. “This is my friend Sarah. Julia’s the cook.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Help me with this box of veggies, will you? I’m making stew.” Carolyn was lifting one of three cardboard boxes that were stacked in a corner.

You weren’t kidding you eat like a pig.”

“It’s for the boys.”

“I thought Julia was the cook?”

“Julia does the customers. I’m the cowboy cook. They like my cooking better. Can you believe it? Nobody’s ever liked my cooking.”

“When do you find time to paint?”

“This is my canvas.” She pointed to a pot she’d put on the stove. “And here’s my brush.” She held up a knife. “The best part is I get to watch people appreciate my work. I know their head space exactly.”

“But the work is temporary. It gets devoured and digested.”

“It gets devoured—exactly. Try it. You might like it. There’s something satisfying about starting fresh every day.” Carolyn laughed, picked up a potato peeler, and tossed it to Sarah.

“Don’t make your friend peel potatoes. She’s on vacation,” Julia was tying on her own apron.

“She doesn’t mind,” Carolyn smiled.

“At least give her your apron. Her shirt looks too nice for this place.”

No matter how hard Sarah worked in school, she couldn’t do what Carolyn seemed to do so easily. Sometimes in class she would stand in front of Carolyn’s work hoping some of her talent would pass into her by osmosis. She watched Carolyn pull on a splattered apron and start peeling carrots. She reluctantly picked up a potato.

“You think I’m a snob,” Sarah said.

“You are a snob but I like you.”

“Remember that trip to Florence when we shared my Walkman and danced to U2 while standing in that long line to see David?” Sarah tossed her potato into the pot and picked up another.

“No. Cut it up first.” Carolyn tossed the potato back.

While Sarah chopped her potato she remembered watching Carolyn argue with one of her professors at a faculty function about whether math had any place in art. Carolyn was convinced painting had to be organic. She wouldn’t back down, even though this guy would be handing her a grade in a few months. Sarah was fairly certain the professor was just trying to get Carolyn into bed. Two years ago, Sarah would have fucked the guy but she was trying very hard not to trade in that currency anymore. That purse was shut.

Sarah finished her potatoes then sat on a stool, ate a carrot, and flipped loudly through a year-old Time magazine that she’d found in the lobby. She read the entire issue, even the ads while waiting for Carolyn to finish. The dining room was filling with customers and Julia was busy.

“Are we going to spend any time together?”

Carolyn clapped her hands. “I’m done. C’mon. Let’s go to the bar.”

Sarah looked at her watch: 9:30.

“It’s Saturday night. You can meet my cowboy. You might even have a good time.”


They went back upstairs. Sarah sat on the bed and noticed a photograph of a man in a cowboy hat propped against the lamp. He was ruggedly handsome in a Butch Cassidy/Marlboro man kind of way.

Carolyn emerged from the steamy bathroom wrapped in a towel and lugging a small suitcase.

“Face paint,” she said. “The next best thing to oils.”

Carolyn opened the case to reveal brushes and tubes.

“I’ll do you, okay?” Carolyn dragged a chair next to where Sarah was sitting on the bed.

Sarah tilted her face up. “Go easy; I don’t need much makeup.”

“Don’t worry.” Carolyn hummed as she stroked a brush across Sarah’s eyelids. Sarah felt her soft breath against her cheek as she leaned in closer to apply eyeliner. Then Carolyn used her fingertip to rub color into Sarah’s eyelid.

“Who’s your cowboy?”

“His name’s Skeet; he owns this place.”

“You weren’t kidding about sleeping with the owner? You could do a lot better than a cowboy, I think.”

“You’ll like him. No, even better, you won’t like him. He’s happy. All this is enough for him. And he’s never heard of postmodernism. Make an “o” with your mouth.”

Sarah opened her mouth in a circle.

Carolyn took a pencil and, with the heel of her hand on Sarah’s jaw, drew around Sarah’s lips. Then she filled them in with gloss.

“I like happy people.”

“Right.” Carolyn stopped for a minute. “Look up.” Carolyn rested the palm of her hand on Sarah’s cheekbone and pulled mascara through Sarah’s lashes. Then she blew on them to dry them. Her breath smelled milky like a baby’s.

“There. You’re done.”

Sarah turned to the mirror.

“I look like a slut!”

“Not yet. Put this on.” Carolyn threw Sarah a silky tank top.

“I’m too top heavy for this.”

Sarah went down to get her suitcase, and when she got back she hardly recognized the woman standing in front of her. Her doll eyes were big and round with thick, long eyelashes, her lips a curvy, pink shiny bow.


They walked over to a squat building with another sign that said Bar.

“Did you paint that one too?”

“You like?”

“It’s your sign period.”

Inside, the room was divided in two: half a still-empty dance floor and half a bar crowded with cowboys and guests lubing up on sweaty bottles of Bud and amber shots. The cowboys watched them walk across toward the bar.

“There’s Skeet.”  Carolyn pointed to a tall, stocky man standing at the end of the bar with a cowboy hat pushed back on his head revealing a blond crew cut. By the look of his blurry blue eyes he’d been there a while. He gave Carolyn a sloppy kiss on the mouth then grabbed Sarah’s hand and kissed her on the cheek.

“Any friend of Carolyn’s is okay by me. What can I get you girls?”

“Harp’s please.”

“The only import we got is Heineken.”

“Then Heineken.”

“Two,” said Carolyn.

The bartender had to hold the beers above his balloon belly in order to open them.

“Are you a model?” Skeet asked.

“Sarah’s an artist.”

“As is Carolyn,” Sarah said to Skeet.

“I wouldn’t have anyone else paint my signs,” said Skeet.

Carolyn leaned into Skeet and he put his arm around her and squeezed. Carolyn looked happy.

Sarah looked around for potential flirting material. The other guys in the bar either had bulbous bellies like the bartender or skinny, bowed legs you could drive a Volkswagen between. An unfortunate few had both. Sarah decided she might as well get drunk. In a couple of hours, she had to close an eye in order to watch Carolyn and Skeet spin around the dance floor. Carolyn was laughing. Everybody in the bar was laughing, even the ugly people. All these people were so damn happy. She noticed a drunk camper leering at her and stuck her tongue out at him, then walked over to where Skeet and Carolyn were dancing and mimed if she could cut in.

Carolyn nodded and yelled, “Be good.” She patted Skeet’s bottom when she said this, but she was looking at Sarah.

Skeet was a commanding lead. Sarah imagined this was the same way he treated his horses. He’d just started teaching her an intricate, behind-the-back move when the song ended, and Patsy Cline started singing “Crazy” from the jukebox.

“Slow dancing I can do,” Sarah said and glued her body to Skeet’s as he rocked back and forth.

“You’re not so bad,” Sarah said.

“Thanks for the compliment.”

She took a deep breath and noticed him staring at her breasts. She had one thing going for her. It wasn’t a thing she wanted, nothing she had to work at to develop. It was luck of the draw. She was hot, not bag-of-bones-clothes-hanger-model-hot, but the kind of hot that made boys forget other women. She leaned in closer and wedged one of her legs between Skeet’s. She felt him stir in his Wranglers.

“Actually, I heard you were damn good.”

”I wouldn’t know.” He blushed.

Sarah thought about Carolyn’s paintings; had he seen them? Did he know what he had? It was all a waste, a steaming pile of horse shit. She pulled Skeet closer and whispered in his ear, “Show me the barn?”

Skeet looked over at Carolyn who was playing a game of liar’s dice but watching the two dancers. She laughed at something one of the cowboys said.


“I just want to look at the horses. I like horses.”

“All right.”

“Wait,” Sarah said. “You go first; I’ll meet you outside.”

He stepped outside. Sarah went over to the bar and tapped Carolyn on the shoulder, pointed toward the lodge, and gestured that she was going to get something from their room.

Under a dim light outside the bar Sarah joined Skeet and a group of people who were smoking and laughing.

“Shall we?” Sarah asked.

“Where you off to?” one of the group asked.

“Look at the horses,” Skeet said.

“Good one,” they all laughed.

Sarah and Skeet were soon out of range of the bulb, walking in darkness toward the next lit bulb on the barn.

“Do you know those people?” Sarah asked.

“Some of them work for me, some of them are regulars, and some of them I’ve never seen before in my life,” he said.

The ground was uneven and rocky and Sarah stumbled. Skeet grabbed her elbow. “I could make this walk in my sleep,” he said. “And probably have.”

Sarah could hear the horses shuffling and sighing, then smelled their scent of hay and shit.

Skeet opened the barn door and they went in. It was warm. As they passed the stalls, Skeet named the horses: Jughead, Flame, Spot…

Sarah stopped.

“Horses actually scare me.” She pulled Skeet close and put her mouth on his. At first he kept his lips together but soon he opened to her.

“Carolyn,” he mumbled.

“Won’t mind,” she said.

“You are so beautiful,” he said.

“I know.” She pushed Skeet down onto the hay, and before long she was helping him out of his jeans. It amused her that he wore what Sarah thought of as little boy underwear: white briefs. He had sex like a boy too—straight missionary position, wham, bam.

Skeet sat up and held his head in his hands.

“I won’t say anything,” she said.

“You don’t know this place.” He was staring at his fish-belly white legs.

“No I don’t.” Sarah stood. “But people are the same everywhere.” She pulled on her pants and walked outside.

A bluish moon, framed between two trees, made the branches appear to be clad in silver. She thought it was the kind of beauty that changed lives or broke hearts, the kind of beauty that was supposed to lift a person up and out of herself. Sarah waited for ecstasy but it didn’t come. She thought about a rock in her sneaker, her damp underwear, her fuzzy teeth. She was tired of seeking beauty. She needed more time but the moon, this moon, had already started to slip behind a tree.

“It’s not fair!” she yelled into the darkness.

“Shut up!” somebody yelled from a window.

She kicked off her shoes and threw them into the pond. The sound of them hitting the water scared the frogs, and they stopped their nighttime chorus. She stood in silence, listening to her breath and the distant music from the bar. It occurred to her that if she stood there for twenty-four hours a new moon would be hanging in the sky, and maybe all she needed to do was wait.


Eileen Bordy lives in Northern California with her two children, two cats, and two chihuahuas. She keeps her kids in shoes and pets in flea medicine writing copy for high-tech companies. (Call her for freelance!) Her fiction and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle; Brain, Child; Oxford Magazine; Green Hills Literary Lantern; Eclectica, and others.

Leave a Reply

The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney