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Now that the last sections of dirt road have been paved, it doesn't take much more than an hour to drive from the coast to the hot springs. On even this short trip, it was still necessary for us to stop several times so the ailing Curt could relieve himself. Physicians had probed and poked his rangy frame in search of clues, measured its functions, mutilated it, and finally prescribed a gallimaufry of pharmaceuticals to extend its life. His body, a mess with a mind of its own, wasn't responding.

"The dying doesn't bother me so much," said Curt, swinging open the car door, "but those doctors, they're killing me."

We were a couple miles the other side of Comptche, little more than a post office, a Grange, a poorly stocked grocery store and a country schoolhouse. The hamlet's major attraction is the hokey Passion Play the evangelical church puts on every year, yet a surprising number of coastal roads lead to Comptche, a fact which affords some amusement for the wood hogs hanging out in four-by-fours by the gas pumps in front of the store.

"Where does this road go?" asks the bewildered tourist, his finger still on the power window button, while his wife nervously rustles an apparently useless map.

"Don't go nowhere," deadpans the local. "Mostly stays right where it always is."

Curt shuffled his way towards a fence enclosing a pasture hacked out of the forest. A few mares grazing off in the distance raised their heads for a moment at the sound of his boots crunching gravel along the side of the roadway, then returned to the business of munching the tender grass, which a poet once compared to the long, green hair of graves. I wondered if the horses reminded Curt of his rodeo days, if his bones would suddenly recall ancient, half-forgotten aches from bucking broncos.

He pulled up at a corner of the fence, face to face with a tall, lone sunflower growing just past the barbed wire. When he returned to the car, his eyes were misty. Curt climbed in without saying a word, avoiding my glance, clearly embarrassed.

"I don't know why that sunflower made me cry," he said a few miles down the road, rubbing the track of a tear from his cheek with his knuckles. "I had this crazy feeling. It was like that sunflower was looking me in the eye, waiting for me to say good-bye. So it could eat me."

He thought aloud for a while about the last time he had been so full of emotion or pain that tears flowed spontaneously. It wasn't when he got married, or when a Brahma bull snapped his femur in two. Nor, much as he loved them, when either of his sons was born. Or when his wife left him. She had followed him everywhere on the rodeo circuit, just as that sunflower with its many seeds followed the sun, always cocking its face to the light. Until she caught him in their trailer with another woman one afternoon and the light went out.

"Shoot!" exclaimed Curt, as though he had stumbled upon an amazing discovery. "It was on our honeymoon!"

He thought Niagara Falls would be good enough, but his bride insisted on nothing less than Europe. She whistled the theme song for their wedding, "April in Paris," all the way to the airport after the rice-tossing and other connubial festivities were finally over.

She was thoroughly disappointed by the fabled metropolis. It was damp and cold, the streets littered, the open-air, boulevard pissoirs stinky. Surly waiters vied for the prize in rudeness with hare-brained motorists who drove with their horns. The glamour melted like a puff pastry left in the rain, and they caught the train to Vienna three days earlier than called for by their itinerary. Going to Vienna, his grandmother's birthplace, was Curt's idea. As long as he was in Europe, probably for the only time in his life, he reckoned he might as well take a gander at the Prater and Saint Stephen's and all the other stuff his grandmother used to jaw about every time she sliced him off a hunk of fancy Linzer torte when he was a kid. "The Ring you must see," she would say, "and the Lippizaners. Horses that know how to dance, not like the nags at these rodeos of yours."

The train rocked through the Austrian countryside with a consoling clacking, the berceuse rhythm peculiar to travel by rail. It was dusk, a yellow glow thick as honey pouring over the slanted, orange slate roofs on the outskirts of Vienna. Through a clump of trees a patch of the Danube appeared, then the great iron wheels of the carriages wailed as the train bent around the last curve of track leading into the city. Curt, turning his gaze from the window to his wife, noticed a tear forming at the corner of her eye, a little brackish world reflecting the last of the daylight. She wasn't the only one. The eyes of the other passengers in the compartment were also shiny. His, too. It was as if some prankster had let off a canister of colorless tear gas. It was uncanny. Something about the train ride into the old capital, even though he'd never been there before, felt like a voyage home.

"Maybe it was the twilight," Curt said, "the smell coming through the open windows. A safe smell, like an iron on flannel, like hot starch, the clean scent of our grandmothers' skirts."

After several more attempts to plumb the mystery of the unexpected tears, Curt gave up. Somebody with more book-learning and twenty-dollar words would have to figure it out.

Minutes later I pulled into the parking lot baking at the entrance to the hot springs. We'd come here to get out of the coastal fog, into the warmth, and we weren't disappointed. We added our bodies to the heat, soaking in the heavily sulphured water of the hot tub and taking saunas. Sweat trickled over the many scars Curt had earned coming out of chutes on kicking beasts goaded into fury. Then we stretched out on the lawn beside the pool to gaze upon the most nubile of the naked women surrendering their lithe bodies to the bronze fingers of the sun.

"They work a far sight better than the saunas," confided Curt.

According to him, the worst thing about dying was the inner cold the doctors' medicines couldn't remedy. The sun's rays weren't enough -- not for him, not for the globe itself. If it weren't for the molten core at the heart of our planet, life here would have frozen solid long ago. Some day in the future the sun would be wasting its hot breath on an icy ball. Yes, the slow chilling inside was the worst thing, the insult, Curt said. And the fact that the doctors had made him impotent with their drugs.

I was thinking about that carnivorous sunflower as he rambled on, the great eye full of seeds staring at him, and all those eyes streaming tears on that train ride into Vienna. I guessed that I'd be getting a hushed call from one of his sons in a few weeks. At dawn, maybe, when the fog rises from the meadows like the cooling earth's last breath.