J. Eric McNeil


J. Eric McNeil is a former English teacher, student publications advisor, and fiction editor and designer of the literary magazine turnrow. He received his doctorate in creative writing from the University of Louisiana in 2007. These days, he works in the oil and gas industry.

Perfect Horses

There was a truck driver, a cowboy, and a waitress. I watched them from the front seat of the car. Mikey was asleep in the back seat, and Nick was trying to read a comic book by the neon motel light.

The truck driver's truck sat across the street, idling, while he went into the motel room. I could hear it, chug-chug ka-put, chug-chug ka-put. I could almost smell its dusty sweet diesel like at a carnival with a merry-go-round with less-than-perfect horses. But smells fade quickly. And so does chugging. Only a truck sitting across the street. No sound. A windshield like dark covered eyes. A grill like teeth in a monster's mouth. A short body with no trailer. Just a large-headed monster. I closed my eyes and the truck disappeared, leaving just the truck stop.

My father came from around the corner of the motel where he'd been smoking a cigarette. He walked over to the cowboy. He was a fancy cowboy. But he didn't have a horse. He should have had a white stallion, but he didn't. My father put his hand on the wall of the motel where the cowboy leaned with one foot propped against the rough adobe to keep him from sliding off the wall. The light that shone over him was a high-watt light with bug specks all over it. A few bugs popped at the light as if their heads were metal and the light was a magnet. But they didn't bother the cowboy. It was as if the bugs didn't even exist. Just the light.

The cowboy's black boots had pointy silver toes and curly red designs on the top, which I could see because he'd propped his foot on the wall. He was dressed in a black western suit with rhinestones making large curvy V's on his chest. The suit wasn't all that gaudy like the ones western singers wear. But I don't remember the fancy designs anymore. I see plain black boots and a plain black suit. And he had a white felt hat. Its large brim shaded his face. But then he took a pack of cigarettes out of his coat pocket, and when he struck the match and held it up to the cigarette, I could see his face. I could tell that he was young and that he was interested more in the waitress across the street than in what my father was saying to him.

My father walked away from the cowboy. He went behind the motel to smoke another cigarette.

The cowboy watched the waitress. She reminded me of Aunt Rita. Her auburn hair was thick like a frayed rope. It hung down her back, against the pink waitress uniform. She didn't look in the direction of the motel, of the cowboy, of my brothers and me. There was a man waiting for her in a light-green Chevy. She got in the car and kissed the man, leaning on him as they circled the parking lot in a joyride like a merry-go-round with green and lavender and vanilla horses. Horses with eyes painted black and frozen wide. Big teeth with chipped paint. Broken ears to show how the horses were hollow inside.

The cowboy looked disappointed when the waitress didn't look his way. She and her boyfriend just kept circling in that light-green Chevy until they faded into the background, leaving the cowboy sad. The truck stop fades, too. Turn out the light that shone above the cowboy. Leave him standing in the shadows of the motel.

When the truck driver came out of the room, he was tucking his shirt into his pants. I could see my mother through the open door behind the truck driver. She was lying on the bed, wrapped in a sheet. My father stood at the edge of the motel. The truck driver threw him a lazy salute and walked across the street. Take him out of my story. He no longer exists. I don't remember a truck driver.

The cowboy stepped out of the shadows. He had a new look on his face. Grim but determined. Erase that look. He has no expression. He talked to my father, who put his hand on the cowboy’s back as he talked. The cowboy twisted to remove my father's hand. He gave something to my father. I could not see what it was. So erase that, too. Then the cowboy entered the room where my mother lay on the bed and closed the door behind him. The cowboy is no longer a part of my story. Erase him. Erase his black boots and his black suit and his white felt hat.

The cowboy, the waitress, the truck driver are gone. The truck stop is gone. The motel is gone. There is nothing but the desert left.

It was hot. Back then we did not have an air conditioner in our car. So take away the air. Mikey and Nick sat beside me on the seat. They were sweating. I was not. The sweat does not exist. My mother and father were in the front seat. She was sad. Crying. I could not hear what she was saying to my father. He would not listen. There was nothing to be said.

We drove for days in the desert. Night, day. Night, day. As we drove, I dreamed about horses. Riding in green pastures. Over hills. Through trees. Along trickling brooks and streams. Big horses, strong enough to carry Mikey, Nick and me on a long journey. Longer than this drive, which lasted so long I must have turned another year older. The back seat of the car was my home.

We stopped driving. It was early evening. The sky in the desert was purple. I didn't know the sky could be purple, but it was. A light purple, almost pink, but definitely purple.

My father pulled the car off the road and we drove for a short distance in sand. Cacti and brushy plants covered the desert. We all got out of the car. Everybody but my mother. She sat in the front seat. Crying. Erase the crying. She just sat in the front seat of the car. My father told us to wait. He got back in the car and didn't look back as he drove away. Take away my mother and father. I don't remember them. There is nothing left in this story now but cacti and brushy plants. Take them away. Leave Mikey and Nick and me beneath a purple sky. And the trucks and cars that whistle by, and then they are gone.

I like to mess around with the conventions of fiction. In ‘Perfect Horses,’ I wanted to unwrite a story, which is impossible. But if you think of life as a story, people sometimes deal with traumatic life events by erasing them from their memories. ‘Perfect Horses’ is based on a story my mother told me about family members.