In the extreme early morning on July 3rd, Philemon Gonzales aged seven going on twenty eight, wakes up feeling anxious. Philemon has learned the wrong part first of what makes a man wise, so he knows enough to worry but not what to do about it and that makes him anxious and prone to chronic stomach upsets. His Daddy, Anselmo Gonzales, brought him up to Cimarron from Las Vegas to visit his grandpa and the 4th of July rodeo. He also promised to take him fishing. His mother said she had to work and couldn't go so she made Philemon responsible for reporting back to her any monkey business with strange women. Philemon knows the difference between hugging and kissing on aunties and staying out all night after being last seen with some girl from Albuquerque. Philemon also knows he'd prefer his Dad get his sorry ass home before Philemon has to get up to pee and can no longer claim he was asleep and didn't know what time his Daddy got home without lying. Philemon hates lying and is not good at it. If he lies for his Daddy, his Daddy will be real sweet to him but what good is sweetness from a drunk? His mom will find out sooner or later anyway and then he'll be in big trouble with her and she won't talk to either of them for a week.
Just when Philemon is about to have a nervous breakdown over all these decisions, he hears his Daddy sneak in, cowboy boots in hand, and Philemon watches from the sofa until his Daddy is bending to kiss him. Philemon closes his eyes just in the nick of time, and waits until he hears his Dad grunt and crawl into the sleeping bag on the living room floor. When Anselmo begins to snore, Philemon gets up real quiet and uses the bathroom careful not to wake his grandpa as he tiptoes through the one tiny bedroom to the one tiny bathroom. The grandfather is deaf as a doornail but has an uncanny ability to sense when someone is coming or going.
By the time he wakes up again the sun is high in the sky, the short hand on grandpa's kitchen clock says its almost 8 o'clock and Philemon's Tio Joe has come to bum cigarettes and get breakfast. His Daddy, miraculously, is up frying bacon like he'd slept all night.
Philemon starts to doze off again when he hears his Dad and Tio Joe laughing.
"What's funny?" he asks wanting to laugh too and his Tio Joe, already pedo at 8 in the morning tells him the joke:
"Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone are at the Alamo when they see hundreds of Meskins coming at 'em." Tio Joe puts his hand up over his eyes like he's looking far out into the sunlight and nearly falls off his chair getting a better look.
"And Davey, he says to Daniel: 'hey man, I didn't know we were laying concrete today.'" Tio Joe laughs real hard all over again but Philemon doesn't get the joke. No matter, Philemon is happy because his Daddy promised to take him fishing up the Canyon where it's cool. Thing is they gotta get a lot of stuff including power bait and a new part for the old truck that broke down last night, several six packs of beer and probably a bottle of Tequila which Philemon's Tio Tommy, who doesn't drink anymore, calls "Tokillya." After all that they decide to wait for Philemon's Tio Juan coming in from Denver because Tio Juan has a new truck with air conditioning.
Philemon starts whining and fidgeting. He wants to know when are they going fishing and his Daddy says they will, they will, and be patient and if he don't get real quiet real quick, he's gonna give him a tune up. Philemon points out that his Daddy always says that and he complains it's hot in grandpa's house so his daddy tells Philemon to go ride his bike, which cost Anselmo a lot of money, to his Tia Therese's house.
"Come in hijito" says his Tia Therese who is laughing herself at something some old lady friend of hers been saying. "Felicia's in the living room watching a movie." So Philemon goes into the cool dark living room and watches the movie with his very beautiful older cousin. Its hard not to stare at her. She is quite tall for ten and thin like a model with long straight blonde hair she can sit on. She likes to swing it around when she walks. She knows she's good looking and she's learned all about sex from the movies. She scares Philemon actually but he can't help looking at her. He hears his Tia Therese laughing some more and tries to listen to what her friend Ramona is saying. He's heard about Ramona and her three husbands.
"Oooooh it's hot today." says Ramona fanning herself. "You know what I want to do? I want to go home and take off all my clothes, you know strip naked, and just sit in a cool bath."
"Oh, I thought you were going to say you wanted to jump Slim's bones." says Therese still laughing.
"On no, hijita, I'd hurt him." and Ramona draws out the word hurt and rolls her eyes a little making Therese laugh even more. Ramona has buggy eyes like Betty Davis and is real sexy for an old lady. Philemon is smiling because he knows what "jumping bones" really means. Then there is a knock at the door and Philemon's Tia Sheila, Tio Juan's wife from Denver, comes in and wants to know what Therese and Ramona are laughing about.
"Mona was just saying she can't jump her husband's bones because she'll hurt him." Now all three women are laughing.
"You know I am ten years older than Slim but if I am not careful I can hurt him. I think he takes Viagra now. I don't ask."
Therese tells Sheila that Ramona is going to be eighty soon.
"Eighty?! No! you can't be. You look great!"
"Yeh, its all that good exercise" and Ramona rolls her eyes again, and goes on: "and I still like to drink and carry on. My oldest daughter Bessie, she's Therese's age, 59 (Therese's been 59 for the last three or four years now) and she gets so mad at me. She wants me to act my age. Hah! Can you see me? . . ." and Ramona gets up and pantomimes a very old lady, all bent over and feeling out each step with an imaginary cane. Sheila tells her she wants to be like her when she is eighty, "hell, I'd like to make it to eighty."
"Well, hijita, just be sure to laugh a lot and have lots of sex, oh dear are the kids listening? no? watching TV? that's good. Here, I tell you a joke:
"The husband is in bed, horny as hell, waiting for his wife and she comes in and stubs her toe on the bed and he is so nice, oh honey, poor thing, did you hurt yourself? and then they do it you know and she gets up to go the bathroom and stubs her toe again on the bed and he says 'why don't you be more careful you stupid bitch'" and the three women laugh a long time and Sheila says Juan isn't like that thank god and Therese says neither is Patrick but of course Juan and Patrick are both second husbands and the first ones are exes for a reason.
Philemon doesn't get the joke. He's afraid if he asks Felicia she'll want to see his peepee because she asked him to show it to her the last time he visited and he didn't, but he got so embarrassed she laughed at him and said she didn't want to see it anyway, was probably too small to see, and she had squinted up her pretty eyes and pretended to look for something too small to see. After that she teased him constantly by just squinting up her eyes and he'd blush and get flustered and tell her to stop but he couldn't explain to his Daddy or any other adult why it bothered him so much when she squinted up her eyes.
Philemon realizes he has a stomach ache and gets up to go to his Tia, scowling sadly and holding his tummy, expecting a hug which he gets. He tells her he wants to go home, meaning back to his mom in Las Vegas but Therese thinks he means back to grandpa's house and she puts the bicycle, for which Anselmo had paid more than it was worth considering how little his son actually uses it, in the trunk of her big old splotchy car and drives him and Sheila who had walked over, the three blocks back.
Primo Tommy Trujillo is there leaning his butt against the bumper of his truck and telling stories. He wears a bandana around his forehead to keep the sweat from rolling down into his eyes when he works. Tommy works for some Indians who live up in Ute Park off social security disability checks and he is their only friend in town. They have no running water or electricity in their little cabin and he chops firewood for them and drives them into town for groceries because they have no truck.
He says he wouldn't take their money for these favors if he thought they couldn't afford it, but he knows they can afford it and would only spend the money on alcohol anyway, alcohol and gold paint. The woman sniffs paint and he says she likes to spray herself all over with gold paint. He went to check on them once and when no one answered his knock he looked in the window and saw the man passed out all naked on the table with some big blonde woman and he wondered was the guy cheating on his wife and what hueda would go with him anyway? Then the woman turned around real slowly and here he stood up and imitated the woman turning, and peering out toward his audience and said it was her, the Indian woman, all spray painted gold: hair and whole body. She didn't let him in and he didn't know if she even saw him, all pedo they were, so he just left. He is all the time laughing while he talks but Philemon thinks that maybe Tommy is sad about them Indians.
"I got a birthday coming up" Tommy says "Thirteen years end of the month" and Philemon understands he is talking about drinking: that Tommy hasn't had a drink of alcohol in thirteen years. "Got so pedo one week, whole week was like one long nightmare day and then I just up and quit: cold turkey, knew I'd die if I didn't." And Philemon wishes his Daddy would do the same: not the almost dying part, just the quitting cold turkey part, forever this time, not just a year way back when Philemon was too young to remember, the year he got back from the Gulf War and felt like war had made him grow up. There was some good reason why he'd started drinking again: fight with his wife probably, that was usually the reason.
Philemon gets tired of Tommy's stories, tired of trying to figure out what the grownups are all laughing about: most of the stories sound more sad than funny to him. He gets so bored he starts riding his bicycle around in circles in the gravel parking lot in front of the subsidized housing where his grandpa lives. Of course he falls down turning too tight a circle and gets all scraped up on the gravel and his Daddy is actually pretty nice about it and fixes him up, splashing some whiskey on his cuts to kill germs and bandaging him up more than he needs. Philemon doesn't complain about the bandages because he enjoys the attention. But he decides to stay inside just the same. The house is hot but the sun outside on the gravel is worse. His grandpa wakes up from a nap to ask him in Spanish what is the matter. Grandpa is blind as a bat but can feel people's moods.
By then Little Dave is off work and comes over in his uniform. He has to go home to change and when he gets back they want him to stop at the liquor store because they have drunk up all their beer listening to Tommy's stories.
By the time they finally get to the lake to fish, it is dusk, a long lazy dusk that will last a while and Anselmo tells Philemon that is the best time to fish anyway. Tommy is at the lake with his wife and little daughter Rosa. Rosa has caught a couple of little fish and her baby brother is playing with them. Anselmo takes one of the little fish and whispers to Tommy that he is going to attach it to his line and toss it out and let Philemon reel it in.
"I'm going to make sure my son catches a fish" Anselmo says all proud of himself and he goes to toss his line with the ridiculous little dead fish on the end of it into the middle of the lake and catches his cowboy hat with it as he swings the line. Then he falls into the lake up to his knees trying to catch the hat. Everyone laughs, Philemon the hardest and longest.
Philemon has never been fishing and hasn't realized how boring it could be. His Tia Sheila takes him for a little hike and they pretend they have witnessed a grizzly murder in the woods and must be very quiet and fast getting back. They think the others might have been looking for them but no one has missed them and all the men are all standing by the truck drinking the tokillya and laughing because Anselmo has put that silly little dead fish in the back of a pickup truck with Texas plates.
It's late when they get back to Cimarron and Philemon has fallen asleep on Sheila's shoulder so she waits in the truck while the guys go into the Kit Carson Bar to see if Tio Joe is there (where else would he be?) About half an hour later, they come out, Juan and Little Dave holding on to Anselmo who is shouting "Fuck you, I'll whip your fucking ass" to a very large Biker guy covered with tattoos while Little Dave apologizes to the man and Juan is telling Anselmo "Philemon is here, you don't want your son to see you like this do you?"
The large biker guy is apparently neither drunk nor angry but just keeps on saying "I don wanna fight you man, you're drunk, go home, sleep it off" and reasonable things like that until Juan and Little Dave are able to get Anselmo back into the truck and he turns around to Philemon on the back seat and mouths the words "I love you" before passing out.
The next morning, hung-over or not, everyone is up and ready for the rodeo. The Cimarron 4th of July Rodeo is a combination tail gate party and first through fiftieth High School Reunion for everyone who has ever lived in and left the town. Most folks come to see old friends and hardly anyone pays any attention to the competitors who come hoping to win in eight seconds more money than real cowboys in those parts used to earn in a month.
Grandpa, who is lame as a three legged dog, but still gets around pretty good for a man his age, comes to receive the homage of the young folks who are impressed to meet an authentic old vaquero. He'd been a hell of a cowboy, best bronc buster in three counties when he was younger. He still dresses in full regalia no matter the heat: the black leather vest with silver conchas, the battered old black hat, the fancy boots.
Anselmo leaves Philemon with Tio Juan and Sheila and goes cruising hoping to run into old girlfriends. Not being a drinker anymore, Tommy is the only one who pays attention to the rodeo so he sees what happens when the saddle bronc dies. It happens very fast like this:
The pickup man rides up alongside the bronc-rider whereupon the rider is supposed to hand the rope over to the pickup man before he jumps off the bucking bronc onto the back of the pickup man's horse. The rope doesn't get transferred and trails on the ground when the rider jumps off. The horse, continuing to buck, steps on the rope and snaps his own neck as he bucks.
The dead horse is there on the ground a while before the tractor comes to drag it off. Most folks say they haven't seen anything like that happen but once in a million years. Everyone says "better the horse than the man" but Philemon doesn't think that is exactly fair since it is the men who want to do this thing, not the horse. Soon the tailgate party and the rodeo both go on as if nothing has happened.
Later that night, Philemon cries and cries and won't tell anyone why and his Daddy threatens to give him a tune up if he doesn't get quiet. Sheila gets Philemon alone and asks him if he is crying about the horse that died that day. He says yes because that is close enough to a truth he can't quite explain and she tries to comfort him by telling him the horse died instantly, didn't suffer any pain. Philemon doesn't know how to say it is not the horse's pain that is bothering him but the grownups' apparent lack of it that makes him so sad. It will be a few years before he learns how they do that.