He’s old and gray. His skin is like used tissue paper. He has liver spots.
I see him seated on the bench in front of a supermarket. He is the quintessential old man. Boots. Plaid. Suspenders. Hearing aids.
There is a blonde child riding one of those coin-operated horses that cost fifty cents per ride. The old man is watching over the child. His hands are resting on his cane.
“Ain’t it fun, Benny?” the old man says.
“Yeah, Grandpa!” says the blonde kid.
Another boy wanders toward the ride. This child is Hispanic. Black hair. Dark skin. Two adults are with him, parents maybe.
They are a handsome young couple in ragged clothes, covered in dust and plaster. They look tired.
The kid points at the horse. “Qué chido, Papá!”
I don’t speak Spanish, but I know childhood wonder when I see it.
The young couple starts speaking rapid-fire. I can’t understand them, but I know what they’re saying. It’s universal parent talk:
“Get away from that horse,” the Hispanic man is saying to the boy. “Come inside, we have shopping to do.”
But the little boy is just that. He is little. He sees a fiberglass horse, adorned with a shiny saddle. And what boy on earth doesn’t want to be a cowboy?
The old man seems to know this. He smiles at the child. “You wanna take a ride on Trigger, son?” he says.
The kid doesn’t answer.
The man taps his cane on the horse. “Trigger? You wanna ride Trigger?”
“Trigger?” the boy says.
As it happens, when I was a child my father and I watched every Roy Rogers melodrama ever made. For most of my life, my father called all horses either “Trigger” or “Silver.”
“Porfa, Papá!” the kid says. “Porfa, porfa! Trigger!”
“No,” says Papá.
There will be no riding today.
But the old man won’t have it. He stands onto shaky legs. He hobbles to the coin-operated machine and helps the blonde child out of the stirrups.
He pats the saddle and winks at the Hispanic man. “C’mon,” he says. “Let the boy take a ride.”
The young father frowns at the old man. “Thank you, for this, sir, but the quarters, we do not have none of these.”
The old man waves him off. “Aw, I got plenty’a quarters.” He digs into his pocket and hands the Hispanic boy two coins.
The child climbs upward onto Trigger. The horse starts moving.
Magic. The boy is no longer a boy. He is a powerful vaquero, strong, and a stalwart servant of justice, riding across the Sierra Nevada. The boy grips the horn of the saddle and grins big. And I have always wanted to use the word “stalwart” because it is a very cowboyish word.
“Arre! Arre!” the boy hollers. “Arre, caballito!”
Trigger’s movements are quick and light. The old hoss carries his tiny passenger far away.
The boy is suddenly far removed from whatever heartaches real life holds. He is deep into the Great American West. This is the glory every boy feels when he is a cowboy. He is free. He is happy.
Together, boy and horse dodge sagebrush, chase runaway stagecoaches, rescue maidens, save the day, and…
The horse stops. The machine dies. Fun time is over.
“Awwwww,” the kid moans. “Una vez más, Papá!”
The father shakes his head. “No, Chuchito.”
And just like that, the West has vanished. The boy is no longer a cowboy. He is once again the son of hardworking people who do not have any quarters.
“Well, would you look at that,” the old man says in a loud voice. “Would you JUST look at that? I happen to have a few more quarters in my pocket.”
The Hispanic man says, “No, please, sir, you do enough for him, okay?”
“Oh, it’s no trouble, partner.”
The old man ignores the father and inserts quarters into the machine. Soon, the horse is gyrating again.
The little cowboy is reborn. Also, I wanted to take this opportunity to use the word “stalwart” again.
The Hispanic child is holding reins in one hand, waving his other hand like a rodeo king. It’s impossible to watch this kid without smiling.
When the ride is over, the young father steps toward the old man. He holds a hand outward. He is at least one foot shorter than the old man, but strong-faced, and kind.
“Thank you,” says the young man. “Joo is very good to be doing these horses toy walking now.”
The old man smiles. He removes his cap and bows his head slightly. “Es un gran placer, amigo. Dios los bendiga.”
Like I said, I don’t speak much Spanish.
But I speak fluent Cowboy.