July 28, 2020: “The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain” by Don Waters

Hey, there, Story366!

Because this MLB story changes more quickly than other news items, such as COVID-19 or BLM protesting, I’ll stick with MLB today for this portion of my entry, even though I covered it in detail yesterday. The scoop today is that the Florida Marlins, now up to nineteen positive tests, are on official hiatus for a week, meaning all those games are postponed or canceled. That means the teams who were going to play them also have off. Are those automatic wins for the Marlins’ opponents? No, I don’t think that’s how they’ll do this. For one, that’s no fair, and for two, that promotes an ablist agenda; if you carry that type of thinking out, before long, the best team in baseball will literally be the team that’s healthiest, that can stay on the field the longest. MLB won’t want any part of that, so no forfeit wins for the Marlins’ foes, I’ll predict.

Still, that’s going to leave this crazy season unbalanced, as some teams, e.g., will finish the sixty-game season with fifty-seven games played. Others with fifty-five. The Marlins are looking at considerably fewer. How do you figure out standing and send teams to the playoffs with such discrepency?

One positive here is that it’s easier now to play double-headers. MLB ceased scheduling those because each double-header took a day of gate revenue away from the home team, but since revenue isn’t a factor, teams can play a double-header every day and nobody loses anything. Plus, in a shortened season, the players can’t really complain, can they, about being at the ball park all day, about the stress on their bodies, as they’re only playing sixty games, 37 percent of the normal card. We might see a lot of double-headers, is what I’m trying to say. Somewhere, Ernie Bank is cracking a smile.

Of course, this is merely the news as I type this sentence. A few other teams—like the Phillies, who just played the Marlins—are postponed tonight as well, awaiting extra-stringent testing. If they develop a bunch of positives, then they’re out, too. Then the teams they were supposed to play don’t play games, either. You can see how this can domino so quickly, that by the end of the week, they might have to just scrap it, either go into a two-week holding pattern, or worse, call off the season.

Amidst all these logistics—and my desire to watch my team play baseball—is the actual health factor. Nineteen people have tested postive so far. That’s nineteen households also affected. That’s nineteen sets of contacts affected, too. We’re already talking about a large group of people, and someone in that large group of people might not only get coronavirus, but might get seriously ill. And they might die. All because we want baseball, to have our pastime.

So, I’m going to post about the Cubs a lot in the coming days, if not weeks and months. I am aware, however, of the ramifications of this pursuit, what’s at risk. I wish all these players, their families, and everyone they’ve come in contact with the best of health. And I hope that MLB, its teams, and its players, do better. They have to, or they should quit right now.

For today’s entry, I read from Don Waters‘ collection, The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain, out from the University of Nevada Press in 2017. Pretty much all of the stories in this book have appeared in major lit mags, and this is Waters’ second collection (he previously won an Iowa Short Fiction Award). Therefore, I’ve been aware of his work for a while, but as always, was glad to sit down with a whole book, string a couple of these tales together.

The lead and title story, “The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain,” is about Emmett, a can’t-win guy who ends up with a twelve-year prison sentence for a string of minor crimes that culminated in an assault—he got into a fight at a convenience store and won, basically. For five years, Emmett couldn’t deal with prison, five empty years of darkness. After that five years, he felt assimilated, started to be soothed by the sounds of the bars, the wake-ups, and the guards. He took to the routine. A few years later, he was handpicked by the warden for a special program, springing a few “lucky” prisoners for work detail on a ranch. I put “lucky” in quotes because cowboy life might just be harder than life inside, hard work in the sun all day, every day, leading to a locked trailer, shared with another inmate, every night. It’s like Cool Hand Luke: Sure, those guys got to be outside, see a little bit of the world, only they had to slave away in the unforgiving sun on a chain gang. Same thing with Emmett on this ranch: He may have been better off in his cell.

The story starts with a modern round-up of some wild horses. Instead of cowboys on horses with lassos, herding animals the old-fashioned way, these cowboys basically hold the gate open while a low-flying helicopter buzzes the horses into the corral. The hardest part is not catching a random hoof as they horses run by. That and the overwhelming sour smell of shit, the horses crapping all over, they’re so spooked.

Emmett is paired with Billy, a young kid caught with some personal-use pharmaceuticals.  Neither man really deserves a life of hard labor, but the ranch—where they’re known as “trustees”—at least gives them purpose and direction. They also get a few privileges. Their overseer, Gustavo, slips them sips from his flask, and once in a while, Gustavo will let one of them drive into town with him for an errand. Both men, favored by the warden, should be up for early parole before too long.

Emmett has one more perk in that he’s got a thing going with Kim, the ranch vet. Kim visits his trailer, is eager to see him, her rough-and-tumble cowboy jailbird lover. Waters makes it pretty clear that Kim is more into this than Emmett is, which is kind of surprising, as Emmett was in jail and she’s a human woman, visiting him for sex. Then again, that’s how characters are characterized, by the choices they make, the oddities they reveal. Writing!

One horse didn’t get into corral during the helicopter blitz, a beautiful blue roan stallion that seems to want to pudder around outside. It’s not running away—Gustavo points out it wants to be near its kin—and the warden directs Emmett to get him that horse, that he wants it in the corral, pronto. This horse leads to more plot later in the story, as well as a pretty big metaphor, the free horse that can’t bring itself to be free, that kind of thing. This also bookends another incident, a nasty accident involving Billy’s face. Mostly, the story establishes this setting and its rules, shows some easy interaction between Emmett and Gustavo and Emmett and Kim, and focuses on this blue roan, deciding its fate.

In the end, Emmett has to make some choices, of which he has few, but he’s in this special situation. Without giving too much away, I’ll note that he takes advantage of someone’s trust, kind of screwing himself, though I’m pretty sure this lonesome cowboy knows what he’s doing.

“Deborah” is a fascinating case study of a woman who, at first, seems like an animal activist. She lives in a little house in the middle of nowhere with several animals, mostly rescues, and even sleeps with a guy just so she can get access to the collie chained up in his yard, set it free. That could have been a good story all by itself. Deborah, however, also spends Sundays at the local discount zoo—mostly retired animals, nothing overly funded—where she sneaks into a mountain lion enclosure and feeds it raw hamburger, not overly worried when the cat takes a finger, repeatedly, as a side dish.

“Two Kinds of Temples” is a split story, depicting a different type of temple in each half. The first depicts a hippie spring resort, the kind of place where they eat cale burgers and skinny dip in hot springs. A man and a woman, both married to other people but out for solos retreats, get all up and over each other during their stays, passionate, vegan-fueled lovemaking that celebrates life, if not monogamy. In the second half, a proprietor/maid of a roadside motel sees a couple check in, then remain for nearly a month, not paying any bills. Yet, this narrator becomes obsessed with their affairs, the couple occupying the room next to hers, the kind with the door in-between.

Don Waters’ second collection, The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain, is full-on fiction. This is just a delightful book, full of intense, high-action stories that have deep, developed characters. So much happens in every one of these tales, and Waters possesses the skill to draw us into his worlds so completely. I perhaps had greater connections to these worlds and people than I’ve had to anything I’ve read in a long time. Such a good book, time so well spent.

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