The Rainbow Kid
By James Tipton
A long time ago, when a few people still loved him, the Rainbow Kid reached this place on the plains of Denver: the Golden Rose Retirement Home. Now he was ninety-three and those same people who loved him were dead or at least in their own dead-end retirement homes. Sometimes late at night, though, the Rainbow Kid thought he could hear one or two of them tapping with a spoon on a distant wall. Sometimes he tapped back, very quietly.
All summer the Kid had trouble sleeping and so the nurse named Estafanía arrived each night at nine o’clock sharp to hand him water and to drop two little pills into his open mouth. Then he had to move fast because in fifteen minutes, wherever he was in his little room, he would fall asleep, hopefully on the tiny bed, but sometimes in the padded chair, and a couple of times on the toilet seat.
Lately the pills had been wearing off early. He had been waking two or three hours before dawn. Sometimes, just after waking, he would feel his heart leap up, like a big stallion on its hind legs. “Easy boy, easy boy,” the Kid would say, over and over until the stallion no longer wanted to kick loose, no longer wanted to burst out of his chest.
The pretty nurse Estafanía remembered who he really was. She was the only one who called him by his real name.
“You still awake, Rainbow Kid?” she said with her sweet Mexican accent, pronouncing “Kid” much more like “Keed.”
“The Keed is still awake, Fanny, and waiting for you.”
He loved his nurse Fanny. She was only nineteen years old. And he loved her names, both Fanny and Estafanía. He always felt like clapping his hands when he said them.
The Director told him he had become “unsociable” and told him his meals would be carried up to his room now. That was fine with the Kid, because it was Fanny who brought the red plastic tray loaded with his favorites: meat loaf with lots of tomato sauce, mashed potatoes, tapioca pudding, and rolls warm and soft like a woman’s breast. Those cooks knew what they were doing.
The Director didn’t. He would drop in on the Kid now and then, and every conversation was the same.
The Director began, “Bob…Bob, try to remember who you are.” The Rainbow Kid started to bob his head.
“Bob…Bob, remember who you are.”
The Rainbow Kid bobbed harder.
“Bob…Bob!” the Director shouted. The Rainbow Kid bobbed even harder but still couldn’t remember a thing.
“Bob, you’re not the Rainbow Kid! You were a plumber here in Denver!”
“A plumber? A plumber of what? Pantaloons? Souls? If I was a plumber you must be Billy Jesus!”
But tonight only Fanny was in the little room and he loved her. Had he not loved Nellie so much he might have tried to make a move on little Fanny, but he was, he thought, still on “The High Trail of the Heart,” at least that’s what Nellie called it. And for a long time now—for the Rainbow Kid—that was The Mighty Lonesome High Trail of the Heart.
“Here, Rainbow Keed, is your water. Good. Now let me help you over to your bed.” Her gentle brown hands helped him lift himself out of the chair and lie down.
“You can stay with me tonight,” he said to Fanny, with a wide grin. He really did love Fanny. She never asked him to bob.
“Oh Keed, I can’t. I promise them I always work until midnight.”
The Rainbow Kid liked a woman who made a promise and stuck to it. But at least Fanny always kissed him good night on the cheek. Some night soon he knew Fanny would tell him she loved him. Then he would have to think about what to do. He had already told her about Nellie.
The Kid studied the sepia photo beside his bed. In the bottom-right corner there was a little oval stamp that read: Olde Tyme Western Studio. He and his wife Nellie sat in a big copper tub kissing each other. He was duded up in a billowy white shirt and leather vest with the silver star of the law pinned over his heart. His beat-up Stetson had a bullet hole clean through it. His Winchester leaned against the tub. Nellie wore a low-cut ladies-of-the-night gown that showed almost all of her creamy breasts. He always loved to see Nellie in that get up.
Nellie had insisted they have that photo taken on his sixtieth birthday. She had written boldly across the bottom, “For the Rainbow Kid, with all the Love I have left.” It was signed “Nellie.” Less than a year later Nellie was dead.
But what a life they’d had! And, now that he thought about it, what a life he had had, even before he met Nellie. Few historians realize there had been a fifth man walking with the Earp brothers and Doc Holiday down Fremont Street in Tombstone that fatal day they confronted the Clantons and the McLaurys. The Kid wished he still had that long black coat and that lever-action Winchester that he had used to save Wyatt’s life. When the reporters showed up, the Rainbow Kid slipped into Fly’s Photography Studio. He didn’t need the glory. Let the Earps and Doc Holiday have it all.
Those reporters got a lot of other stuff wrong as well. The battle took place not at the OK Corral but at the empty lot behind the photography studio. Over drinks the reporters agreed to say that it took place at the OK Corral, but the Rainbow Kid knew it was really “The Gunfight at the Empty Lot Behind Fly’s Photography Studio.”
A few weeks later Wyatt’s brother Morgan was killed, and then his brother Virgil was badly wounded. Doc Holliday’s tuberculosis was killing him. The whole territory seemed to be after the Earps and Doc. But the Kid was a Colorado boy and he led them to safety, all the way to Silverton, high in the Rockies. They left Doc in a tuberculosis sanitarium in Glenwood Springs.
It was up there in Silverton that Josie, Wyatt’s wife, the beautiful actress who had stepped off the stage and stamped her pretty foot on the dust of Tombstone streets a couple years earlier began to become a bit too suggestive around the Kid. Josie boldly liked to rub her beautiful bosom against the Kid as they stood at the door late at night waiting for Wyatt and the boys to stumble home.
Reluctantly the Kid bade farewell. He headed to Denver thinking to find his old trail buddy. And thank God he did, because that old trail buddy introduced him to Nellie. Nellie never made him go to bed at nine o’clock. When they did go to bed she always said, “Kid, the night is young.”
Yet that fool Director on the days he wasn’t trying to convince the Rainbow Kid he was a plumber was trying to convince him that almost everyone now lived in the twenty-first century. The Denver sewers must be overloaded with just the shit from this one man. To make up for it the Director ought to shovel out every outhouse in Colorado.
The Director told all the guests to never call the Kid by his real name—Rainbow Kid—but whenever they saw him they were to say “bob.” He was so damned tired of bobbing every time they said it that he was losing weight and getting aches at the base of his skull. Some of them said “bob” just to make him start bobbing. Then they would laugh. Why he followed their orders and bobbed at all he didn’t know, but now he was even doing it alone in his room when he felt nervous.
The last time he was allowed to eat in the cafeteria, when people started saying, “bob, bob,” and he started bobbing, the Director loudly announced to the Kid in front of everyone that he was going to get the Kid a bucket of water and fill it with apples so the Kid could bob all day long. The Kid turned to the other guests and just as loudly proclaimed, “This so-called Director wouldn’t know a real apple from a road apple and if I had my way he’d be bobbing for those!”
Fanny had just left, but there was another knock on the door. He knew the Director never worked this late. Probably Fanny wanting to kiss him one more time.
“Come in Fanny,” he creaked out in his most romantic voice, at the same time clapping his hands.
A grizzled old cowboy stood there wearily brushing the dust off his worn chaps. It was…well…it was his old trail buddy…God.
“God, what are you doing here after all these years? You moving into the Golden Rose?”
“Golden Rose? What a name Kid! Sounds like the Saloon we sat in one time for three days straight down in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, don’t it?” God reached his big hand toward the Kid.
“God it’s good to see you,” the Kid said. The Kid had never forgotten it was God who had introduced him to Nellie.
“Kid,” God began as he walked on into the room, “It’s good to see you. I’ve been thinking about you, remembering the old days when we rode together.”
“I’ve been remembering the old days somewhat myself when I was up to remembering,” the Kid said. “Lately though I get lost between here and who I was.”
God continued, “We had some fun, didn’t we? Running them cattle down to Mexico, tumbling the ladies, cheating at poker, playing like we was the law when we felt like it, killing whoever needed it.”
“We sure did God, and I’d do it all over again, at least the stuff Nellie would approve of.
“If I know Nellie, it’s almost all of it,” God said and winked.
The Kid tried to wink back, but big tears were gathering among the little pebbles around his eyes.
“Kid, there’s something I needed to see you about tonight,” God said.
“I’m listening with both big ears,” the Kid said. He wanted to say “big” to remind God that he used to box the Kid’s ears when the Kid was getting out of line.
“For seventeen years Nellie’s been sitting up in Heaven waiting for you. She’s so damned lonesome she doesn’t know what to do. She says everything’s so damned white up there you can’t see a damned thing because of it. She says she needs your rainbow, Kid. She said to me, ‘God, dammit you tell that to the kid the next time you see him.’ Needs your rainbow, Kid.”
The Kid was trying hard to hold on with both hands, but the medicine Fanny had given him had taken hold and he was slipping away, right when he wanted to talk all night long about the old days. He felt God lean over and kiss his wrinkled cheek and then leave, closing the door behind him. As the Kid let go and dropped down into sleep, the last thing he thought was, “That’s the second time I’ve been kissed tonight.”
But damned if that medicine didn’t work all at once and then too soon it stopped working at all because this time the Kid woke up only a couple of hours later. In his big ears he heard something. A whole herd of horses raced across the plains just below his window. God he loved the smell of horses. Those horses smelled like the horses of Heaven.
Suddenly he could feel the stallion inside his chest again, prancing on his hind legs and kicking out wildly with his front legs. “Easy boy, easy boy,” the Kid said, but the big stallion kept kicking.
Below his window he could hear God whispering, “Easy, Kid…easy, Kid…I have a horse saddled and waiting, just below your window. The night is young.”
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