John Wayne to Temüjin, May 1979
Perhaps you found
the mustache offensive.
Or the Paiutes
we cast as Turks.
Or the fact that I wore
you as a costume those
many months amid
the Escalante desert
we called Mongol.
The idea that I could inhabit
your life seems absurd,
I know. Newspapers and dry cleaners
rejected it. Millions laughed.
Your Gods loosed a plague:
Poor Agnes died of a cancered loin,
Van Cleef felled at
his soft, tobacco-lined throat.
Even luminous young Patrick
suffered a raised tumor
though it was, thank God, benign.
For decades now the
unbelonging has dogged me.
I remember only that nuclear sun
and the cases of tequila,
the crushed ice, the sliced lemon.
I don’t know what Howard
told me to say. Or what I said.
I don’t remember what it
was like in that suit of your skin
or how poorly it fit.
But I believed then and still now
in my own malignant bowels.
We are not so different,
both conquered and
true. This is so even if
I never knew you
beyond that tossed off script
and the reels reclaimed and
destroyed, lost now to
that place of myth
where faults are
rendered heroic and
the only disease is
a failure of will.
The Fire on Heartbreak Ridge
This morning, the old blue
skies of summer
held out the clouds again. No rain, like the Neil
Young album says. But these mountains need rain—the dry woods
crack like the static of a car radio.
Fire yearns to devour Heartbreak
Ridge and the houses perched up there, causing hearts everywhere to break.
I spend my days on a corner downtown with a guitar and the blues.
30 years ago, I had a song on the radio;
the rock station in Memphis said I was the hit of the summer.
The question, they said, is whether I would
last. That night, I dreamt about meeting Neil
Young at a diner in Santa Cruz. “Neil,”
I said, “How can I last in the music business? How can I avoid heartbreak?”
But his lips held tight, he stared down the polished wood
of my guitar. A night breeze blew
through my bedroom, and I woke knowing despair was as sure as summer’s
end. Now, I avoid the radio.
Between songs and conversation, I gaze past the radio
towers and think about The Great Blues Picker in the Sky. Each night I kneel
down and offer thanks for the songs of summer.
God hasn’t spared me from heartbreak,
and I thank Him for that as well. There’s no darker blue
than a summer night below the ridge, and I would
capture that shade in a song, but my pen is as dry as a wooden
spoon, as the cracked static of the dying radio.
So I play my corner with the classics—Cocaine Blues,
Delia’s Gone, Stack-a-lee, Jack-a-roe, Broke Down Engine, and some Neil
Young, if I can muster up the courage to face heartbreak.
The folks here drop a dollar in my coffee can. Some are
year-round residents; others are here only for the summer.
But I don’t mind, each of us loves the woods
and not a one has escaped heartbreak.
This town isn’t a playground for radio
stars and movie actors. The people here kneel
down and pray that the wind won’t blow
into town if there is a fire this summer. They get their weather from the radio
and they sincerely hope the woods don’t burn at all. But they know kneeling
in prayer won’t stop heartbreak from coming—that’s why God made the blues.
— Quinn Grover’s work has appeared in Red Rock Review, Juxtaprose, and other literary and popular magazines. His book of personal essays, Wilderness of Hope: Fly Fishing and Public Lands in the American West, was published in 2019 by the University of Nebraska Press.