Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Pilgrims, Page 1

Elizabeth Gilbert

  Praise for Pilgrims by Elizabeth Gilbert

  “Gilbert is keen on seeing as many of her characters achieve redemp-

  tion as possible—in the most creative ways possible. . . . She achieves the enviable feat of telling her characters’ stories in their own words, on their own terms, without pomp or superciliousness.”

  — The New York Times Book Review

  “Rendered with care and airtight precision. And her sentences are

  built solid as a brick shithouse.”

  — Time Out New York

  “An imaginative range, assured comic touch, and dead-on ear for dia-

  logue that’s truly exceptional. . . . A gifted fiction writer’s sympathy for an amusing, believable array of resolute searchers and a reporter’s thoroughness that never gets bogged down in detail . . . her nimble,

  sharp prose is like the fingers of a gifted illusionist.”

  — The Philadelphia Inquirer

  “Each story is full of humor, strength, and strange experiences. . . .

  Gilbert has taken her encounters with people of every past and place, and infused them with the light and longevity of her own imagination.”

  — Chicago Tribune

  “Gilbert draws her characters beautifully, and her sentences are sharp and bright.”

  — Los Angeles Times

  “Gilbert’s prose is honest and straightforward, her descriptions often funny and apt . . . [she] has given voice to very real and likeable characters all caught in that very most American of locales: on the way to being somewhere, or someone, else.”

  — Detroit Free Press

  “Hopeful, deluded, intoxicated, amazed, Gilbert’s characters shoot

  across the sky, and she catches them like a skilled photographer just as they pop, before they crash, drown or grow dull and fade away. . . .

  Her fiction, like the best reporting, bristles with sharp, startling


  — The Cleveland Plain Dealer

  “Reading this talented trickster is like watching an acrobat. The risks are cruel. The light-as-a-feather endings can charm. One waits with

  interest for more of this fabulist.”

  —Hortense Calisher

  “This is a killer collection, a run in the bad part of town, a sideshow of the heart. Elizabeth Gilbert writes with fierce grace about people who are all wised up, beaten down, and still manage to hope and love

  and get on with it.”

  —Frederick Barthelme

  a b o u t t h e au t h o r

  Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of a novel, Stern Men, The Last American Man (a finalist for the National Book Award and

  the National Book Critics Circle Award), and, most recently,

  the #1 New York Times bestseller Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. For five years she worked as a journalist at GQ, where her feature writing earned her three National Magazine Award nominations.

  She lives in New Jersey.



  E L I Z A B E T H

  G I L B E R T

  p e n g u i n b o ok s

  penguin books

  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

  Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto,

  Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

  Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell,

  Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre,

  Panchsheel Park, New Delhi – 110 017, India

  Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632,

  New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd)

  Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue,

  Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:

  80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Published in Penguin Books 2007

  Copyright © Elizabeth Gilbert, 1997

  All rights reserved

  “Pilgrims” first appeared in Esquire. “Elk Talk” first appeared in Story.

  “Tall Folks” first appeared in Mississippi Review. “The Names of Flowers and Girls”

  first appeared in Ploughshares. “The Famous Torn and Restored Lit Cigarette Trick”

  first appeared in Paris Review. “The Finest Wife” first appeared in Story.

  publisher’s note

  These are works of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

  the library of congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows: Gilbert, Elizabeth, date.

  Pilgrims / Elizabeth Gilbert.

  p. cm.

  ISBN: 1-4295-5567-X

  1. United States—Social life and customs—20th century—Fiction. I. Title.




  97-19956 CIP

  Book design by Robert Overholtzer

  The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

  f or mom a n d da d

  w i t h muc h l ov e

  Whan that April with his showres soote

  The drought of March hath perced to the roote

  And bathed every vein in swich licour,

  Of which vertu engendred is the flowr;

  Whan Zephyrus, eek, with his sweete breeth

  Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

  The tender croppes, and the yonge sunne

  Hath in the Ram his halve course y-runne,

  And smalle fowles maken melodye

  That sleepen all the night with open ye

  (So pricketh hem Nature in hir corages),

  Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages . . .

  —Geoffrey Chaucer

  C O N T E N T S

  p i l g r i m s


  e l k ta l k

  1 9

  a l i c e t o t h e e a s t

  3 3

  b i r d s h o t

  4 9

  ta l l f o l k s

  6 9

  l a n d i n g

  8 5

  c o m e a n d f e t c h

  t h e s e s t u p i d k i d s

  9 5


  t h e m a n y t h i n g s t h a t

  d e n n y b r o w n d i d n o t k n o w

  ( a g e f i f t e e n )

  1 0 9

  t h e n a m e s o f

  f l o w e r s a n d g i r l s

  1 2 9

  a t t h e b r o n x t e r m i n a l

  v e g e ta b l e m a r k e t

  1 4 7

  t h e f a m o u s t o r n a n d

  r e s t o r e d l i t c i g a r e t t e t r i c k

  1 7 5

  t h e f i n e s t w i f e

  2 0 1






  When my old man said he’d hired her, I said, “A girl?”
  A girl, when it wasn’t that long ago women couldn’t

  work on this ranch even as cooks, because the wran-

  glers got shot over them too much. They got shot even over the

  ugly cooks. Even over the old ones.

  I said, “A girl?”

  “She’s from Pennsylvania,” my old man said. “She’ll be good

  at this.”

  “She’s from what?”

  When my brother Crosby found out, he said, “Time for me

  to find new work when a girl starts doing mine.”

  My old man looked at him. “I heard you haven’t come over

  Dutch Oven Pass once this season you haven’t been asleep on

  your horse or reading a goddamn book. Maybe it’s time for you

  to find new work anyhow.”

  He told us that she showed up somehow from Pennsylvania

  in the sorriest piece of shit car he’d ever seen in his life. She

  asked him for five minutes to ask for a job, but it didn’t take that

  long. She flexed her arm for him to feel, but he didn’t feel it. He

  liked her, he said, right away. He trusted his eye for that, he said, after all these years.



  p i l g r i m s

  “You’ll like her, too,” he said. “She’s sexy like a horse is sexy.

  Nice and big. Strong.”

  “Eighty-five of your own horses to feed, and you still think

  horse is sexy,” I said, and my brother Crosby said, “I think we

  got enough of that kind of sexy around here already.”

  She was Martha Knox, nineteen years old and tall as me,

  thick-legged but not fat, with cowboy boots that anyone could

  see were new that week, the cheapest in the store and the first

  pair she’d ever owned. She had a big chin that worked only

  because her forehead and nose worked, too, and she had the

  kind of teeth that take over a face even when the mouth is

  closed. She had, most of all, a dark brown braid that hung down

  the center of her back, thick as a girl’s arm.

  I danced with Martha Knox one night early in the season. It

  was a day off to go down the mountain, get drunk, make phone

  calls, do laundry, fight. Martha Knox was no dancer. She didn’t

  want to dance with me. She let me know this by saying a few

  times that she wasn’t going to dance with me, and then, when

  she finally agreed, she wouldn’t let go of her cigarette. She held

  it in one hand and let that hand fall and not be available. So I

  kept my beer bottle in one hand, to balance her out, and we held

  each other with one arm each. She was no dancer and she didn’t

  want to dance with me, but we found a good slow sway anyway,

  each of us with an arm hanging down, like a rodeo cowboy’s

  right arm, like the right arm of a bull rider, not reaching for

  anything. She wouldn’t look anywhere but over my left shoul-

  der, like that part of her that was a good dancer with me was

  some part she had not ever met and didn’t feel like being intro-

  duced to.

  My old man also said this about Martha Knox: “She’s not

  beautiful, but I think she knows how to sell it.”

  Well, it’s true that I wanted to hold her braid. I always had

  wanted to from first seeing it and mostly I wanted to in that

  2 ✦


  dance, but I didn’t reach for it and I didn’t set down my beer

  bottle. Martha Knox wasn’t selling anything.

  We didn’t dance again that night or again at all, because it

  was a long season and my old man worked all of us too hard.

  There were no more full days off for dancing or fighting. And

  when we would sometimes get an afternoon off in the middle

  of a hard week, we would all go to the bunkhouse and sleep;

  fast, dead tired sleep, in our own bunks, in our own boots, like

  firemen or soldiers.

  Martha Knox asked me about rodeo. “Crosby says it’s a good

  way to get made dead,” she said.

  “It’s the best way I know.”

  We were facing each other across the short pine fire, just us,

  drinking. In the tent behind Martha Knox were five hunters

  from Chicago, asleep or tired, mad at me for not being able to

  make them good enough shots to kill any of the elk we’d seen

  that week. In the tent behind me were the cook stoves and the

  food and two foam pads with a sleeping bag for each of us. She

  slept under horse blankets to be warmer, and we both slept on

  the jeans we’d be wearing the next day, to keep them from

  freezing. It was the middle of October, the last hunt of the

  season, and ice hung in long needles off the muzzles of the

  horses every morning when we saddled.

  “Are you drunk?” I asked her.

  “I’ll tell you something,” she said. “That’s a pretty damn good


  She was looking at her hands. They were clean, with all the

  expected cuts and burns, but they were clean hands.

  “You rode rodeo, right?” she asked.

  “One time too many,” I said.





  p i l g r i m s

  “Is that why you get called Buck?”

  “I get called Buck because I stabbed myself in the leg with

  my buck knife when I was a kid.”

  “Ever get nailed in rodeo?”

  “I got on this bronc one night and knew right away, right in

  the chute, that it wasn’t going to have me. It wanted me gone

  and dead for trying. Never was so scared on a horse as on that

  son of a bitch.”

  “You think it knew?”

  “Knew? How could it know?”

  “Crosby says the first job of a horse is to figure out who’s

  riding it and who’s in charge.”

  “That’s my old man’s line. He says it to scare dudes. If horses

  were that smart, they’d be riding us.”

  “That’s Crosby’s line.”

  “No.” I took another drink. “That’s my old man’s line, too.”

  “So you got thrown.”

  “But my wrist got caught in the rigging and I got dragged

  around the ring three times under the son of a bitch’s belly.

  Crowd loved it. Horse loved it. Put me in the hospital almost a


  “Give me that?” She reached for the bottle. “I want to ride

  broncs,” she said. “I want to ride rodeo.”

  “That’s what I meant to do,” I said. “I meant to talk you into

  it with that story.”

  “Was your dad mad?”

  I didn’t answer that. I stood up and walked over to the tree

  where all the pack gear was hung up in the branches, like food

  hung away from bears. I unzipped my fly and said, “Shield your

  eyes, Martha Knox, I’m about to unleash the biggest thing in

  the Wyoming Rockies.”

  She didn’t say anything while I pissed, but when I got back to

  the fire she said, “That’s Crosby’s line.”

  4 ✦


  I found a can of tobacco in my pocket. “No, it’s not,” I said.

  “That’s my old man’s line, too.”

  I tapped the can against my leg to pack the chew, then took

  some. It was my last can of tobacco, almost empty.

bsp; “My old man bought that bronc,” I said. “He found the

  owner and gave him twice what the bastard was worth. Then he

  took it out back of the cook shack, shot it in the head, and

  buried it in the compost pile.”

  “You’re kidding me,” Martha Knox said.

  “Don’t bring it up with him.”

  “Hell no. No way.”

  “He came to see me every day in the hospital. We never even

  talked because he was so goddamn beat. He just smoked. He’d

  flick the cigarette butts over my head and they’d land in the

  toilet and hiss out. I was in a neck brace for a bunch of months

  and I couldn’t even turn my head and see him. So damn bored.

  Just about the only thing I lived for was seeing those butts go

  flying over my face to the toilet.”

  “That’s bored,” Martha Knox said.

  “My brother Crosby showed up sometimes, too, with pic-

  tures of girls.”


  “Well, that was okay to look at, too.”

  “Sure. Everyone had a butt for you to look at.”

  She drank. I took the bottle, passed it back, and she drank

  more. There was snow around us. There’d been hail on the day

  we rode in and snow almost every night. In the afternoons big

  patches of it would melt off in the meadow and leave small

  white piles like laundry, and the horses would walk through

  these. The grass was almost gone, and the horses had started

  leaving at night, looking for better food. We hung cowbells

  around their necks, and these rang flat and loud while they

  grazed. It was a good noise. I was used to it, and I only noticed



  p i l g r i m s

  it when it was gone. That quiet of no bells meant no horses, and

  it could wake me up in the middle of the night. We’d have to go

  out after the horses then, but I knew where they usually went,

  and we’d head that way. Martha Knox was figuring them out,

  too, and she didn’t complain about having to get dressed in the

  middle of the night in the cold and go listen for bells in the

  dark. She liked it. She was getting it.

  “You know something about your brother Crosby?” Martha

  Knox asked. “He really thinks he knows his way around a girl.”

  I didn’t say anything, and she went on. “Now how can that

  be, Buck, when there aren’t any girls around?”