The white sign seems to glow in the gray of the rainy afternoon. It stands at the edge of a Texas byway, alone, the weeds clinging to the two wooden posts. COWBOY CHURCH it says in simple red letters. Below the words a red arrow pointed off to the right into the gloom.
My wet brakes don't grab at first, but once they boil off the water I slow and turn off the blacktop and look down a long, straight dirt road. No doubt about which way to go. Gently I pull forward, even that little nudge making my wheels spin for a moment before taking hold. The ground is saturated; water stands in a sheet over the mud of the road.
I creep along for a mile or two, glimpsing the road ahead for a fraction of a second with each pass of the wipers before the downpour obliterates my view again. Finally I make out a structure ahead, gray like the rest of the world. In front is a large area clear of weeds; I pull into that. The building is a large steel structure, a barn with a modest steeple at the crown of the roof over the door. I park next to the only other car in the lot, a faded blue Oldsmobile from sometime in the '70's. One of its windows is down and water is collecting in the footwell. A Bible lies sodden in the front seat. I push it farther over, out of the direct rain. I open the car's door to roll up the window, but there is no crank handle.
Already wet, I dash from my car up the steps to the front door. In the inadequate protection of the front porch I try to scrape the mud off my shoes. The wind is tossing the rain around and I am getting progressively wetter. This is a cowboy church, I decide; they should be used to a little mud. I slip through the door and close it quickly behind me, the sound overwhelmed by the drumming of the rain on the metal roof.
I am in a vestibule partitioned off from the sanctuary by walls that don't reach the ceiling. Carved wood doors in front of me lead into the main chamber. To one side is a folding table with mimeographed sheets in various pastels. One stack is of light blue sheets neatly folded in two, with a line drawing of the church on the front. Beneath are the simple words "Cowboy Church" and a date, past or future I do not know. Finally, in fancier script it says, "It's never too late."
I set the paper back down and square the pile. There's nothing left but to go inside. The door is heavy but moves easily on its hinges. I close it with a gentle click and turn to inspect the room. I am standing at the back of the sanctuary. Folding metal chairs are lined up neatly in rows across the concrete floor. At the far end of the space is a modest altar. On one side of the room is a cast-iron stove glowing invitingly, flanked on one side by a generous woodpile and on the other by a folding table with a pair of large coffee urns. On each side of the room near the front hang long banners of red cloth depicting Jesus doing a variety of good things. The lights are off; the only light comes from a row of small windows down each side of the building and a pair of large skylights. The place lacks the soaring majesty of the great cathedrals and the simple joy of a modern house of worship. This is the Cowboy Church, all right.
I step forward into the Cowboy Church, not sure why I came, not sure what to do.
In the Cowboy Church, pray to the Cowboy God.
"Hello?" The voice comes from the back, behind the altar. There are two doors there, one on each side, leading through another partition to spaces unknown in back. The voice is small, and female. A church mouse.
"Hello," I say. Suddenly I feel like I'm intruding. I should have knocked. "The door was open."
The door to the right of the altar opens and a figure emerges, small and gray and lost in the gloom. "Of course," she says. She steps forward into the splash from one of the windows. Her hair is dark and very long. Her skin is pale. She looks moonlit. "Preacher's not here," she says with a soft Texas accent.
"That's all right," I say. "I'm looking for the Cowboy God."
She takes another step forward and stops, back in shadow, but I can feel her watching me. After a moment she says, "We got the same God as everyone else."
I nod slowly, but then shake my head. "No," I say.
What kind of God would a cowboy create? To whom does a cowboy pray while the rain pours off his hat brim in a steady stream and all he has to look at are the filthy asses of the cows plodding in front of him? It wouldn't be some great being promising a life of comfort and joy. The Cowboy God wouldn't hold out the promise of Heaven. A true cowboy sees Heaven out in the open spaces every day; if he didn't he would have packed up and gone to the city long since. The Cowboy God doesn't bring promises and doesn't offer hope. The Cowboy God is the kind of God that sits at the next barstool, listening to Willie and sipping Bud from a long-neck bottle. He's a little run down himself -- his back is bothering him from all the heavy lifting and his knee goes out from time to time. Maybe the cowboy's foot is broke and his shoulder takes longer to get going each morning. It's not worth mentioning because there's nothing to be done about it and there's work that's got to be done tomorrow. They'll both be getting up before the sun and tending to their business. It's the hardship as much as anything else that makes the cowboy who he is; take that away and you take away his soul.
They don't say much, the cowboy and his God; not much really needs saying. Each is a comfort to the other, a source of strength. After a couple more beers they shake hands, maybe clap a shoulder, and leave. The cowboy climbs in his truck, the manufacturer more a source of religious fervor than the God he prays to, and he wishes his God a safe journey home and feels in his heart the blessing returned. The cowboy might in a real pinch ask his God for a favor, but he'll give the Lord his best wishes every day. The cowboy knows what it's like to carry a burden.
The church mouse has taken another step forward, into the light of the next window. One eye is as gray as the day outside, the other is lost in shadow. She is trying to look into my soul. "What is it you want?" She sounds suspicious, protective, as if I might be a threat to her Lord. Have I come into his lair to call him out, like some gunslinger in the old west? She stands shyly, her straight hair pushed back behind her ears, her hands clasped in front of her. She is wearing a brown skirt, her legs two pale stakes like the signposts. Over her white shirt is a brown coat that matches the skirt. She stands, afraid, ready to defend her God.
"I just want to ask him a question," I say.
She relaxes a little but suspects a trap. "Preacher will be back soon."
"All right," I say, but I'm not interested in him.
"Can I get you some coffee? I just made some in the back."
While she scuttles off to fetch the coffee I drift over to the comfort of the stove. I hold my hands out to it, feeling the warmth penetrate my tired joints. But it's the window next to the stove that has the stronger draw. I move from the warmth to look out into the gray world, to where the Cowboy God really lives. "What's it all about?" I ask softly. My breath fogs the glass.
"Did you say something?" she asks, bringing me a styrofoam cup filled with steaming black coffee.
I accept the cup. By the window I see that her hair is lighter than I first thought, but her eyes are still gray, and open a little wider than seems natural. Her lips are pale, almost indistinct, and pressed together. Shadows under her eyes give her a weariness that speaks of experience and gives her otherwise youthful face a gravity that makes her age impossible to guess. I sip the coffee. It's good and strong. Cowboy Coffee, I suppose. "Thank you," I say. "I was just asking my question."
"Oh," she says. Perhaps she is distressed that I could be on speaking terms with her God, that I didn't talk to the preacher first. More than that she is curious.
The sound of rain had faded so slowly I hadn't noticed its absence, but now it resumes with more furor than ever. The day grows even darker outside. A clatter begins above, and hailstones thrash the land.
"Guess you got your answer," she says, the corner of her mouth twitching upward even as she turns away, embarassed for joking at my expense. I look at her pale profile, glowing white like the sign by the highway had. She is watching me from the corner of her round eye.
"Guess so," I say, and I think she must be right.
Originally appeared 2004-12-25
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