I am the Real Jesse James
It took four men with big heavy hands to hold the horse down. The horse kicked
its stomach, collapsed like an ironing board and rolled over, pinning the legs of
the men beneath it. One man sat on its neck while the other administered the
needle — Bute and Demerol in the night paddock. The horse’s eyes were like
stoplights in the headlights of the men’s trucks parked in a circle around the
animal. I have faced this animal in a paddock when it was too late to run. I was
young but I was no girl when my hand came down hard on the muzzle of the
horse that charged, half a ton of meat and muscle thrown my way.
I am the real Jesse James. I have stared down that stampede, that rage he
thinks belongs only to him. I heard it took four men to hold him down when his mouth
frothed and he swore and spit and bit people, had to be held down against the
smashed furniture. This rumor follows him like a legend, like a bad smell. An
animal that can be held down by four grown men. But what kind of animal is
that? A horse that kicks its own stomach. A thought that eats away at men’s guts
when they are already trapped, already tamed. The one last thing that she should
have told him but didn’t; the one time he reached for her and she turned away. I
am the real Jesse James. Not the man you may have heard of held down by
four men, his friends who ran after him when he drank too much as usual and was off
like a horse out of the bar and down the street and into the forest of buildings, the
forest of his own thoughts, all the things he should have told her.
Perhaps you have heard about my legend? The one that follows me like a hang-
over, a bad smell. It was rage that held the big animal down in the paddock, not
the heavy hands of the men who pinned it there in the dirt that wasn’t a paddock
really, just the circle of their trucks parked and running. This happened when I
was just a girl, so it is hard to remember. I watched as it took two of them to hold
the neck down and administer the needle—Bute and Demerol. One man sat on the
horse’s neck and said: this is one sick horse, fucking bastard. The men were
angry, standing in front of their trucks after chasing the horse across the field,
through a forest of trees and I wasn’t supposed to follow.
I am the real Jesse James. I know you have heard of me. That was what I was
supposed to say, the last thought before I turned my head away from him and he
flew into a rage. I am the real Jesse James. But I have drunk far too much
tonight. And I am just a girl. Perhaps you have heard of his legend? It took four
men to hold him down in the paddock after he ran out of the bar, four of his
friends to hold him down because rumor has it that he smashed some furniture. I
have seen this man naked and I can tell you that he is no Jesse James. I am the
real thing. I mean, I am telling you the real story now. But I have drunk far
too much tonight. And I am just a girl.
What is known about the doctor who helped the outlaw Jesse James when he was
wounded, rolling in a frothy rage and held down by four men in a paddock:
He brought his doctor’s bag with him. Needles, Bute, Demerol. The doctor did
not know he was helping an outlaw. When he entered the circle of trucks the men
had parked with the engines running, the air smelled like horses let loose from
barns. The outlaw Jesse James was a small girl held down by four men. She was
in a rage — having smashed furniture and split a man’s lip, kicked him in the
stomach. Why had the men been holding her down, the doctor asked, couldn’t
they see she was just a girl? The air smelled like outlaws and the girl said, I am
the real Jesse James, you aren’t gonna tell on me, are ya, doc?
The doctor lived in a red house that burned light from the inside. When he
walked out the red door, the air smelled like a legend. Somewhere out in a field,
four men were holding a girl down by the legs, they were kneeling on her neck.
Her eyes were stop lights in the air that smelled like the men’s breath, like the
inside of whiskey glasses. They said they were looking for a friend who ran away
and they talked about him as if he were some sort of outlaw, as if he were the real
The horse, the girl said, the horse has escaped its stall, is running out in the night,
has broken out of the barn. I am no girl. And I am no doctor, the doctor thought, I
am a thief. I steal from medicine cabinets. The girl rides the horse to all her
private robberies. Who has stolen her horse? The doctor placed a hand on the
girl’s neck where the boot had been. He felt a vein pulse. A red house that
burned light from the inside. Isn’t it always rage, the doctor thought, that makes
one body hold another to the ground like some sort of legend? The men are all
outlaws. They are all little girls who need to be held down and given medicine.
She needed this medicine, the men told the doctor. Her mouth was a red house
that burned light from the inside. I am no girl, she said, I am the real Jesse James.
The men drank too much tonight and could not find their friend. The doctor
placed his bag down in a circle of dirt, in the air that smelled like whiskey. I am
no doctor, he said.
When I was a girl, my father was a doctor who lived in a house that caught fire
and burned red from the inside. He was always falling asleep with a needle in his
arm, burning things down. He was always running away from his four friends,
those men with heavy hands who used to chase him out of bars and down the
street through a forest of buildings, his own thoughts that were filled with the
smell of burned houses, horses and the outlaw Jesse James. That night I watched
the men driving their trucks across the fields. The trucks stopped with their
headlights in a circle, the engines running. I was riding my horse through the
forest until he sweated with rage, his mouth foaming, his red coat burning from
the inside against my legs. I was just a girl and I was not supposed to follow
the men when they drove their trucks across the field looking for my father with his
doctor’s bag caught in the circle of light, his eyes burning red stop lights when he
said where is my girl? And the men’s hands were on him.
But the men, were not outlaws. They held themselves down with their own hands.
The doctor came with his bag and gave them clean needles. The air carried the
smell of horse on its back. The men talked to each other as if they were creating a
legend. Each of them said I am the outlaw, I am the real thing, the one who ran
out of the bar and into the streets and give me your hands, go ahead put your
hands on me and try to hold me down now that my veins burn red from the inside.
I am a horse that rolls over on your legs and pins you down. And what do you
think I am? Do you think I am a girl? I am no girl. Did I tell you that before I left
she let four men put their hands on her? She let them hold her down to the ground.
There was a girl I loved who was a legend among her friends. They said that she
was prone to fly into rages and sometimes just ran out of bars and into the streets.
I was no doctor, but I could tell this girl needed help. Rumor had it she smashed
some furniture, burned letters, and split the lip of her friend, all because a man
turned himself away from her at the wrong time. I loved her, yes, but there is no
point in making a legend of it. Jesse James was shot by a friend in his own home.
But in his photo, they crossed his hands over his chest in a restful pose.
I am the Real Jesse James appeared in Bandit Letters (New Issues, 2001); Pierogi Press , Fall 2001, pg 13; and (reprint) PEN Journal , Spring 2005, Issue 6.
Poem, copyright © 2005 by Sarah Messer
Appearing on From the Fishouse with permission
Audio file, copyright © 2005, From the Fishouse