Written by Kalli Azad
Art by Trini Rogando
Mary hates cowboys. All of them. She hates their guts.
About every other Friday, she wakes up to the sound of their gunshots. There’s a crack, like the sound after lightning lights up the sky in the middle of a raging storm, and Mary thinks the roof above her head may collapse. For the four years that she’s lived in Texas, despite her best effort, Mary hasn’t found a way to block the noise. She’s tried earbuds, soundproofed walls, and sleeping pills. Once, she took double the recommended dosage. Instead, the sound of fired bullets grates at her eardrums, no matter how thick her walls are, no matter how many pillows she presses against her head. She can feel each bullet rattle her bedposts. The bullets are bad news, but the roof hasn’t fallen yet, so when the sun comes up, and everything has gone quiet, Mary slips out of bed every morning and gets the paint.
Mary’s mother loved painting. She was never more than a meter away from her watercolors. She painted intricate portraits of Mary yearly that decorated every corner of their home back on the East coast. Mary, despite her genetics, hates painting. She’s never had the talent. When she moved to Texas, she thought she’d never have to sit through etiquette and art lessons again. But painting followed her into the middle of the desert.
The shed, all the way in the back of the inn, stores jars upon jars of white paint. They line the walls that were once stored with fresh sheets and fluffed pillows, back in the days when Mary was naive about owning an Inn in Texas. The paint is useful. It draws in customers, promising them shelter from the heat and the crime. The inside doesn’t matter, since no one sees inside an inn until they’ve already paid. It’s wisdom like this that keeps Mary in business. Alongside the paint, Mary keeps the junk materials, stored up over the years, for stuffing the holes in her walls. A few more years of lawlessness and the building will be made entirely of old rags and discarded metal. They’re convenient, but not as useful as the paint. Mary could take you from the shed to the front of the inn in her sleep. She rolls the wheelbarrow with her, rolling out an unopened jar, unscrewing the lid, and discarding it in favor of a large paint roller. She dips the roller into the jar, coating the edges in dripping white with practiced movements. She draws the roller out quickly, careful not to waste any paint and spill it on the floor. Then, she runs it against the newly battered walls, hiding each imperfection with sweeping strokes.
There is truly nothing Mary hates more than repainting her beautiful walls. In her perfect world, there are no cowboys, no guns, and no paint. Her spare change would certainly go to better use then, like a new pair of shoes or a bookcase. For a week, the fresh paint glimmers in the heat of the desert, while Mary runs around catering to the wealthy family, who are covered in rouge and hide from the sun with parasols. They regale her with stories about their farm in California as Mary wipes down drinking glasses in the kitchen. She likes them as much as she can like any of her guests. They’re a nice family, she supposes, and they leave her in peace, and her paint intact.
For a week, Mary has her peace. Then, this cowboy comes to check-in. His name, Mary learns, is Arthur. Arthur is a sun-bleached blonde, all too common for, with a certainly unhealthy amount of sunburn. He books a single room, for a month. He comes in and out, shooting straight past the bar, not stopping to flirt or chat or anything of the sort, and Mary is put off. She’s far too used to hearing the same line about how hot the weather is. There hasn’t been a cool day in Texas since Mary moved.
But Arthur doesn’t use that line. Arthur stays out of her way, he doesn’t start fights, and he wears his gun out of sight. He doesn’t gamble. He doesn’t even drink. So Mary enjoys a peaceful few days. She reads one of the few books locked away in her dresser. She chats with one of the guests for an hour or so. She doesn’t paint. Still, she doesn’t let her guard down. The next week, cowboys ride in with the rain, washing away all the work she did the week earlier.
There are gunshots all throughout the night, echoing around the town, and she can hear the screams of her guests, the little kids shrieking while some criminal in a hat shoots up her beautiful walls. The next morning, she’s out under the scorching sun, repainting her walls and bidding her wealthy guests farewell. She’s so sick of the Texas heat. But mostly, she’s sick of cowboys.
Until Arthur comes out, in a fresh linen t-shirt and grabs a paintbrush. Arthur, Mary determines, is not a practiced conversationalist. He mutters under his breath, apologizing for the mess, swearing it wasn’t his fault. He doesn’t use any social niceties. No questions about Mary, nothing about other guests, and certainly nothing about the weather. Instead, they repaint her walls, fixing up the Inn until everything is perfectly intact. Mary makes a joke after the job is done, that her next couple of guests will just come back in and ruin it all again. Arthur doesn’t laugh at all, instead, offering a sympathetic grimace.
The next few mornings, it’s Mary and Arthur out with paintbrushes. And Mary thinks, after a few days, that maybe Arthur will stay, and maybe having a cowboy for the company won’t be so bad after all.
Until one night Mary lies awake to the sounds of curses, screams, and more gunshots. They ricochet off the walls, hurting Mary’s eardrums until she can still hear the bullets ringing long after the fighting has stopped. There’s an eerie chill in the air, with fog hanging over the town chapel.
Mary heads out to the shed to grab the paint, not waiting for Arthur before she starts. Humming a light tune, she wheels her jar right outside of her door, until it catches on something in her usual path. Arthur lies dead, covered in bullet wounds and with someone else’s long trench coat over his head. Mary pauses and time stops with her, as she stares down at the man lying before her feet. It only takes a second to make her decision. With one shout, the undertaker is there with his cart as Mary heads back around to her shed. In a few minutes, all that remains is the outline of a body in blood.
She drags out the white jar, and Mary, for the last time, she promises herself, starts to paint. After a while, as the sun lights up the sky, another cowboy walks in, and Mary walks out.