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  • Hey Cowboy
  • Aaron Gilbreath (bio)

The first time I saw him, he was sleeping in the post office, face down under the counter with the shipping slips and red TYVEK Priority Mail envelopes. He had on brown snakeskin cowboy boots, blue jeans, and a yellow pearl-button shirt.

I dropped my letters in the slot, then whispered, "Hey man, you OK?"

He sat up, set his cowboy hat on his head. His thin, shoulder-length hair hung crispy silver, his gaunt face pointed like a praying mantis. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I'm OK." His front top teeth were missing. He smoothed his blue sleeping bag out and laid back down. He must have been 50 years old.

The next time I saw him, he was dancing on the street, one block south of the P.O. That was a Friday night. He was wearing the same hat and boots and shirt. Hordes of college kids streamed past, drunk and loud, smoking and laughing. The girls wore tight skirts and short summer dresses. The guys texted as they walked, high-fived each other, and eyeballed the girls. A blues band played on the red brick sidewalk, two black men hunkered beside amps, one on bass, one on electric guitar. I was walking to my car when I spotted him.

The cowboy twirled in a fevered counterclockwise circle opposite the band, spinning on the sidewalk's edge between foot traffic, the bus stop, and the curb. He would shimmy a few steps, spin, then his right arm would rise upwards, like a broken wing, where it flapped half-extended, palm back as if reaching for the guitar licks—flapped as if that meant something. Then he spun, shimmied, turned, flapped, over and over again. Pedestrians shuffled by. The guitarist sang, "I'm a soul man."

I considered dancing with him. I'm 33 and it's time I learned. I watch [End Page 61] dancers with envy—at bars, concerts, weddings. Even the sloppiest, most shameless squirmers have gallons more guts than I do. I stand there watching, but have never willingly entered a dance floor. When I tell people this, they ask why not.

"I'm self-conscious," I say. "I know I'll look like an idiot."

"Women like a man who makes an eff ort," they say, "more than his moves."

Recently I started making an eff ort, secretly, in my bedroom. I close the door, put on some juke joint blues, something like a bluesman T-Model Ford with a bump and a shuffle, and cut loose. I feel my legs wiggle, feel my feet stomp, let my hips float wherever the rhythm takes them, and feel how my shoulders follow in an unconscious drift. I stand far from the full-size mirror so I can't catch glimpses of my uninhibited self, which I fear resembles a beached, gasping carp.

Dancers tell me that the trick is to not think about it, just move.

I stood on the street that night watching the man move. A kid in baggy jean shorts howled, "Hey cowboy!" Cowboy didn't hear. His right outstretched arm wobbled as he spun, lifting as a sermonizing preacher's would at the call of the Divine. The music played. Cowboy spun. Spun, like the wheels on my car as I drove away, round and round in the same dumb direction, going the opposite way for nights turned to decades, spinning, another stifled spirit too scared to do what it needs to do. [End Page 62]

Aaron Gilbreath

Aaron Gilbreath has written essays for such magazines as North American Review, Cincinnati Review, Fugue, Mississippi Review, Passages North, Gargoyle, Florida Review, and Alimentum. He recently completed his first novel and is working on a second, as well as a memoir. Contact him at



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