Yale depended on Rolando Claycomb -a hard drinking old rancher with hardened veins – for his sustenance, his livelihood. I was defending Yale’s freedom in his guardianship trial. The State wanted to declare itself guardian over his person and property. He definitely had a person. His property was more dubious. It was what he kept in an ancient Airstream on Mr. Claycomb’s section of land.
In the middle of the trial, I got a call at 3 a.m. You don’t get good news at three in the morning. I get a call where a nurse coldly informs me that Rolando Claycomb had a stroke. I get the call because I’ve come to know Mr. Claycomb after I’d asked him to be a witness in Yale’s trial. He can tell the jury that Yale lives on his property; that in exchange for some manual labor, he lets Yale keep his trailer on his land. I get the call because Mr. Claycomb mistakes my former and questionable expertise as a lawyer and current expertise as a small town mental health counselor as reason to ask me to act as his attorney-in-fact under a power of attorney.
Claycomb was essential to my defense against the guardianship. Without him, Yale has no place to stay, no way to grow his vegetables, no way to live on his own.
I rushed to hospital. A few strangers to a widowed old man with hands shaky from booze and age keep the vigil. Mr. Claycomb’s own children don’t come. The hospital staff need me to make the decision, since Mr. Claycomb is brain dead.
His chest barely heaved. His pulse slowed, his heart like the rasp of something clawing to get out of its cage. His forehead cool, with no sign of sweat. He seemed barely home in his scabbard.
They’d transferred him to ICU, and someone had placed a walker and a menu plan beside his bed, just in case he miraculously revived. There’d be no miracle.
The ICU head nurse on the floor, and the urgent care doc — a Navajo man I barely remembered from a barely remembered bash last New Year’s Eve at Udenni’s — both looked at me, waiting for me to administer extreme unction.
“I’ll certify,” I said, sounding like the MD everyone seemed to think I was.
“You’ll need to sign this, Doctor,” a voice said from behind. The woman it belonged to had an electronic clipboard, along with a hard-copy on a hard clipboard.
I barely glanced at her, but her green eyes stood out from the sepia tones of the dimly lit corner of Claycomb’s room.
“I’m not the doctor,” I said. “He is.” I pointed at the Navajo MD.
I took the electronic scroll. It unfurled language which held the hospital harmless and stated that I administered the Power of Attorney in accordance with the “proposed decedent’s” wishes.
I signed off, hastening the end of Mr. Claycomb’s life. I signed the hard copy next, almost with a fury.
I should have seen it coming. He drank more than most of my DUI clients. He used tobacco. I never saw him eat. Statistics showed that a man followed his woman into the grave within a few years. No one to take care of and no one to take care of him. I peered down through the semi-dark and pondered the pewter skin of his face, falling back from the bones of his cheeks by gravity and by impending death. His sealed eyes never to reopen, bruised with spider veins. The lips turned down in his perpetual frown. The thin, granite lips bloodless and still. All of him, from the high cheek bones to the thin but wild eyebrows of an old man, all of him still. A death mask already.
My eyes roved over his gaping, David hands, the skin a translucent veneer over veins that twisted and bulged like burled roots. The hand had remained strong when I shook it in greeting just a few days before.
I saw the dirt worked into the whorls of his fingers, and thought of his land and all the man hours of grueling toil that went into it. Generations of women and men tilled the red soils outside of Dove Creek until they yielded more beans than America could eat. All of it ending with him.
Now that he seemed about to expire right before our eyes, I pitied him. And worse, I pitied the last few years of his life.
“I’m Danielle Lopez,” the pretty woman with the green eyes and hold harmless clause said, a friendlier version than the cold phone persona. She was slim, petite, a Navajo woman with expressive eyes and a ready smile. I shook her hand, and its softness and the interest in her eyes drained away some of the pity.
The four of us stood around Mr. Claycomb’s bed, an informal mourning party hired by the State to observe the last of an old man’s breaths. We waited. All of us knew it wouldn’t be long. The purpled veins in his nose turned less purple, more blue. The doctor reached over and checked his pulse, which I imagined winding down to every fourth or fifth second from its baseline rhythm that had carried the body through its life.
It felt sad but it felt relieving, too. At least we stood here to see him off. At least he wouldn’t be lonely anymore. Would he?
The four o’clock quiet merged with his quietus. His breaths, barely registering to the living, seemed to siphon off into the silence like black smoke into night air. It felt fitting. I knew it would be the only memorial Rolando Claycomb would receive.
None of us said a word. I felt privileged to be the only one among us who really knew him. I thought of his fortified coffee and the swamp of brown at the bottom of an old popcorn bucket on his porch where he’d spit his Skoal. At least I knew, Mr. Claycomb. At least I remember how your voice scraped and idled like an old tractor engine, how your father’s people settled Dove Creek and planted the first pinto fields in the blood earth.
“Who’ll take care of Yale now?” I heard his voice in my mind.
I’d been so focused on helping him pass, I hadn’t given it a thought. Shit.
“Doctor,” the nurse whispered, “would you like to check again? I think it’s over.”
I recalled the MD’s name now: Tallbrother.
Someone would have to pronounce him gone. Someone needed to end the dark ride and verify the passing of a forgotten man through the hardwall, Yale’s term for the barriers between planes of existence.
Dr. Tallbrother bent over him and checked his pulse. To verify, he checked his heart with his stethoscope.
© 2019 by Michael C. Just
from The Dirt: The Journey of a Mystic Cowboy Available at
This post regards a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incident are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.