On the last day of class before summer vacation, his students – all fifteen of them, ranging age eight to sixteen – filed out the door saying their goodbyes. Before leaving, one of his sixth-graders, Molly Hanchet, stopped at his desk. She had red hair and freckles and, in five years, would likely be Park County’s Fourth of July Rodeo queen. After that she would go on to pre-med at Stanford. She had her thumbs hooked in the straps of her backpack and she said, ‘Have a good summer, Mr Colson. I hope next year you feel better.’

She left and James was forced to ponder the implications. It had to be bad if a sixth-grade girl could see that he was fucked.

Carina lived in a small rental cabin on the river, set back in a grove of old cottonwoods. Once, in a windstorm, he’d lain awake, envisioning whole trees shearing off at rotten points in their trunks, branches punching through the roof, flattening him and Carina in the bed. He imagined them being found out that way.

Carina wasn’t home and he sat on her front step. He was preparing to leave when her car pulled in behind him. She got out and groaned at the sight of him. ‘I’ve had a bad day,’ she said. ‘I don’t know if I can handle you right now.’

‘Maybe I’ve come here to profess my undying love.’

She snorted.

They did it with her bent over the small two-burner stove, her skirt up around her waist. In their frantic movements one of them nudged a burner switch and soon the cabin was full of a strange odour. James thought for a moment that he was having some sort of olfactory response to imminent ejaculation. And then Carina was slapping him and swearing. A section of her hair had begun to curl and smoke.

He sat at the foot of the bed facing her. She was on her back inspecting the ends of her hair.

‘God,’ she said, ‘what a day.’

‘She’s moving her stuff out right now. That’s partly why I’m here. I can’t really go home for a while. I drove by the house and she was loading boxes.’

Carina didn’t say anything. She wet her fingertips in her mouth and rubbed at a burnt end.

‘Boxes. Moving, dying, breaking up. All life’s great tragedies are marked by the appearance of those goddamn square cardboard units. Such an ominous shade of brown.’ He’d thought of this earlier today and it pleased him to say it. He wished she’d come to his side of the bed and put her hand on his leg. He didn’t think that was asking too much.

‘Fuck,’ Carina said. ‘I may have to get a haircut to fix this.’

‘Part of me didn’t actually believe that she was going to leave. We had some serious work-it-out talks. We went camping up on the Stillwater last weekend. We sat side by side next to the campfire. She said the stars above were like a million diamonds. She said that. I almost asked her to marry me.’

Carina was pressing her hands to her face. Her fingernails, as always, were immaculate, painted a brilliant red. Each nail was like a little cherry hard candy that James wanted to crush between his teeth.

‘I’m serious,’ he said. ‘I was going to propose. And you know what? Why can’t the stars above be like a million diamonds? And why, when she said that, did I want to tell you about it immediately?’ James stopped. There was some sort of noise emerging from behind Carina’s hands, both of which where now clamped over her mouth. Her fingernails were digging into her cheeks and her eyes were screwed shut. And then she rose from the bed and he could hear her retching in the bathroom.

When she emerged, her dark hair was in beautiful disarray. She was brushing her teeth, one arm crossed over her bare breasts.

Carina had come from San Francisco on a grant to teach creative writing to at-risk girls on the Crow Reservation. She was writing a book about her experiences. For someone who could be so sarcastic, downright caustic, it surprised James to see the level of earnestness with which she approached her job. She loved it. She loved the at-risk girls (a classification that, on the reservation, seemed to encompass the entire population). She approached each class day with happy anticipation. If he happened to entertain the idea of staying over on a school night she would kick him out so she could prepare. She was a teacher and he was a teacher, but what she did was something completely different. He fully acknowledged that. She had a passion. He enjoyed the really nice sense of calm that came from having good health benefits.

She sometimes read him sections of stories or poems, written by her girls. James had to admit that some of the stuff was pretty remarkable. There was one he always remembered, the words themselves and the way Carina had read it, in bed, naked, on her stomach with her feet up in the air, her heels knocking together in time with the words. I look at him, the boy that doesn’t love me, and it’s like a badger has climbed into my chest. The badger tramples my stomach while it chews on my heart.

Carina got into bed. She continued to brush her teeth. She also started to cry.

‘I’m sorry,’ James said. ‘I shouldn’t have been talking about all that stuff. It’s been tough for me lately and I’m –’

Carina was shaking her head, pointing at the kitchen. ‘Can you get me a glass to spit in?’ she said, her voice garbled by toothpaste.

When he returned with the glass she spit, handed it to him, and then rolled in bed to face the wall.

‘Today, Ellen Realbird went to the bathroom and sawed through her wrists with an obsidian spear-point from the early Clovis era. She asked to be excused and was gone for twenty minutes and I had a weird feeling and I went into the bathroom and there was blood under one of the stall doors and she was in there. James, she was still kind of moving around, slowly, in a pool of her own blood. She was making, like, fish movements or something. Trying to swim through the floor. That will never go away. I will have that forever. And then on the way home I literally caught myself thinking, for a split second, Damn you, Ellen, you little bitch. Do you have any idea what kind of thing you have just lodged in my brain? Can you believe that? What kind of person thinks that in response to something like this?’

James was still holding the glass with Carina’s toothpaste spit in it. ‘Jesus Christ,’ he said. ‘An obsidian spear-point? The Clovis era?’

‘In science class they were having a prehistoric unit. Apparently there was a guest speaker from Montana State who brought visual aids. Ellen pocketed it at some point when no one was looking. Last week I asked them to write me a paragraph about some of their writing goals for the summer. She wrote that she had gotten a job at the Dairy Queen and that she was going to carry a little notebook in her waitress apron so she could just jot down observations about all the interesting people she would see. That’s how she put it. She was going to observe and jot things down. No one who jots things down kills themselves.’

James got into bed and put his arms around her. He’d come to tell her that he was leaving. It seemed rather impossible now – the telling, not the leaving.

In the morning, Carina still sleeping, he pointed the car south. It was green-up, the best time to be driving through the great swathes of western grassland. Crossing Wyoming was like riding a fresh swell of chlorophyll. He pushed his way into Colorado until he hit the front-range traffic on I-25 and then he got a room and ate a bad meal and watched sports highlights before surrendering to the pull of stiff hotel sheets.

He was up early, an egg sandwich and coffee to go. Past Denver the traffic eased and the land flattened. It was still Colorado, but it could have been anywhere. Eventually he broke out and covered the skinny Oklahoma panhandle in about the time it took to listen to an entire Townes Van Zandt album. And then – just as the sun cracked itself down on the vast, oil-pump-studded plain that stretched around as far as he could see – James crossed over into Texas.

His brother lived in a maze of cul-de-sacs and identical two-storey homes with two-car garages. The streets were named after trees or Ivy League colleges. James imagined that if you lined up all the kids and golden retrievers of the neighbourhood on the sidewalk, they too would prove indistinguishable.

Casey’s wife, Linda, met him at the door. She was big and brassy and blonde. James had seen her in a bikini once and she had the lone star of Texas tattooed on the small of her back. She pressed a beer into his hand and led him into the study where, predictably, Casey had deigned to remain instead of coming out to meet James. Like Don Corleone, he had always enjoyed receiving visitors, especially family members, as opposed to just greeting them, like a normal person.

Casey was sitting at his desk shuffling some papers. He looked up, surprised, as if he hadn’t known James was there, as if he hadn’t heard him talking to his wife in the kitchen. He stood, they shook hands and then Casey pulled him into an awkward hug, both of them leaning over the expanse of desktop between them.

They hadn’t seen each other in almost a year and they launched into all the usual topics – last year’s presidential election, the weather as of late, the state of the MSU men’s basketball programme, their respective health, their mother’s continued descent into Jesus-tinctured battiness.

Linda brought them sandwiches and more beer. When she put the plates down in front of them they each got a smile, a ‘there ya go’ and a personalized heart-warming Southern term of endearment. He got ‘honey’ and Casey got ‘darlin’’.

‘Damn it, Casey,’ James said while Linda was still in earshot, ‘why is your wife such a horrible nag.’

‘Oh you stop,’ she said. ‘Y’all are too bad. Y’all holler if you need anything.’ And then she went back to the living room to watch TV.

James had read somewhere that a study done of three thousand American couples found that those engaged in traditional gender roles – male breadwinner, female homemaker – were 50 per cent happier than couples who comported themselves less conventionally. He thought about mentioning this to Casey but decided against it. In general his brother was not a man who needed validation that his ways were correct.

Casey got up and closed the door to his study. He poured two glasses of whiskey from a decanter on the sideboard and gave one to James gravely before settling back into his chair. James knew he was loving this. Casey leaned back and sipped his whiskey.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘What’s the deal? You having a bit of trouble?’

Casey was a lawyer. One of the most unsatisfying parts of his life, as far as James could tell, was how infrequently his family members needed legal counsel. It was endearing, how ready he was to spring into action, to roll up his sleeves and get litigious to preserve the family honour. ‘Going to Billings to get a new muffler put on your car, you say? Well if you get in any trouble over there you call me, understand?’ At some point, James realized he might have to get himself incarcerated, just to make Casey feel needed.

‘It’s not really a legal matter,’ he said. ‘Affairs of the heart and all that.’

Casey shrugged, disappointed. Somehow most of his whiskey was already gone. ‘Hell, I don’t know, Casey. I just needed a change of scenery. Do you mind if I loaf around for a little bit?’

‘My casa es tu casa, brother, you know that.’

‘Gracias amigo. Let’s drink more of your fancy whiskey.’ James watched Casey pour them both more bourbon, man-sized slugs this time, and he thought that Casey seemed more at home here in his den, with his wrinkle-resistant khakis and his big-haired wife in the next room, than any man had a right to be. If he was anyone other than his brother he might have hated him for it.

They reached across the desk and touched glasses. ‘Nice to see you, brother,’ Casey said.

‘It is,’ James said.

Casey leaned back and kicked his feet up on the desk. He wore fleece-lined moccasins.

‘Nice slippers.’

‘They aren’t slippers. They’re house shoes.’

‘What’s the difference?’

‘The sole on these is slightly more rugged, I believe. One could feasibly spend a short amount of time out of doors with them. Linda got them for me for Christmas. She’s been making baby noises.’

‘What do those sound like?’

‘“Casey, honey, my ovaries are speaking to you right now. They’re parched. They’re starting to wither. Are you going to fertilize this garden or what, boy?”’

‘She says that?’

‘And worse. Much worse. That’s the version generally fit for public consumption.’

‘You might as well just do it. What’s there to wait for? You’re rich. You could support a small tribe.’

‘A boy wouldn’t be too bad. I’d like that actually. But a girl, I don’t know if I could take it. And this isn’t something I can talk to Linda about very well.’

‘What’s wrong with having a girl? Girls love their daddies. You wouldn’t have to fight with her like you would a boy. Linda would get to have all the awkward talks.’

Casey took a drink of his whiskey and swished it audibly around in his mouth. He swallowed and grimaced. ‘One time I was involved with a gal that liked me to put my hand around her throat and squeeze. I mean, she liked me to choke her, James. Now, can you tell me what happens to make a little girl grow up to become a woman who wants something like that?’

James laughed and then he saw that Casey was serious. ‘I’m not sure,’ he said. ‘But, how d’you handle that situation? I mean, did you, you know?’ James made a gripping motion with his hand.

Casey shook his head. He drank the rest of his whiskey and set the glass down carefully on a coaster shaped like a bass.

‘Shit man, I did more than that. I married her.’

It was mid-June and north Texas was a smoking hotplate. In the cotton fields outside of town farmers were doing something to raise the dust. There was nothing to see and you couldn’t see it if there was.

In the late evening James sat on the back porch drinking a beer, half reading a newspaper, sweat dampening the pages. He watched the sun turn red as it sunk through the dust. The houses and roofs and backyards of the neighbourhood were cast in a blood-dusk glow. A Martian suburb awash with the smell of a thousand barbecues being lit.

James finished his beer and finally, mercifully, it was dark. A few degrees cooler, maybe. There were fireflies blinking on and off in the yard. He hadn’t seen a firefly in a long time. There were none in Montana as far as he knew. Maybe it was too cold. Years ago he’d been camped next to an old hippie couple in Yellowstone and they’d told him that once, in Iowa, they’d dropped acid and went out and gathered a whole jar of fireflies and then rubbed them all over their naked bodies and then had luminescent sex in a moonlit cornfield. Their obvious happiness at relaying this story gave him a shiver. He saw, in them, all the couples of the world for whom the past held more promise than any potential future. Relationships based largely on reminiscence of things past. Was this what it meant to be rested, content, settled in love? Or, were the old hippies, and all others like them, just wound-up machines running on memories?

After a week of loafing at Casey’s, the dust and feedlot smell of Amarillo started to wear on him. Casey worked long hours at his office. Being in the house all day with Linda – she did yoga in the living room, she constantly wanted to feed him sandwiches – was making James uncomfortable. The probing questions from Casey at the dinner table made him feel like an underachieving son, stalled out after college, living in his old bedroom.

James found himself a job. An unlikely one at that. It was a ranch-hand position at an outfit outside of Austin, in the hill country. The job description in the classifieds was succinct.

WANTED: Seasonal ranch labourer.
No experience necessary.
Beautiful location. Remote. HARD WORK.
Fair pay.

James called. He talked to a man who occasionally let out clipped groans, as if he was in pain. Their brief conversation was punctuated several times by loud birdcalls. In less than fifteen minutes he was hired. He had two days before he was to start and he’d forgotten to ask about pay.

When James left Amarillo, Casey shook his hand and wished him luck, as if he were shipping off to basic training. Linda gave him a hairspray-scented hug. ‘Y’all take care now darlin’,’ she said.

He pointed his car south once more into the fiery bowels of the Summertime Republic of Texas.

Outside of Austin the land began to show some contour. The pure flat of the north gave way to wrinkled hills and canyons with cream-coloured limestone walls. He was pleasantly surprised: he’d never known Texas to look like this. He admired the swells of oak-covered ridges, the white caliche ranch roads, glowing under the sun.

Two hours and several wrong turns later he pulled up to a low ranch house tucked under a grove of pecan trees. There was a small pond and a windmill. A red heeler with a grey muzzle came out from under the shade of a parked truck and eyed him without approaching. Peacocks scratched in the gravel, bottle-green feathers resplendent under the sun. James stretched and looked around. His shirt was stuck to his back with sweat.

A man came out of the house. He wore a straw hat and had a cast on one of his legs – ankle to mid-thigh. The leg without a cast was jean-clad and it took James a moment to figure out that the man had taken a pair of his Levi’s and cut one leg off three-quarters of the way up. He’d put a double wrap of duct tape around the shortened pant leg to keep it snugged down over the cast. On the foot with the cast the man wore a large rubber galosh. On the uninjured foot he had a cowboy boot. Some folks with a full leg cast in Texas in late June probably just wore shorts. This man was obviously cut from a more rugged cloth.

‘You James?’

‘Yessir.’

‘That’s good. I’m Karl. We’ve talked. Montana, eh?’

‘Yes.’

‘I been there once. Saw Old Faithful. It could have been worse. Montana’s better than a lot of places. But, you know what they say?’

James thought about telling Karl that Old Faithful was actually in Wyoming. He didn’t. ‘What do they say?’

‘In Montana they make cowboys. In Texas they make men.’ Karl laughed and wiped at the sweat on his face with his shirtsleeve. ‘Montana, I got a broken leg here.’ He pointed at the offending member. ‘Usually I do everything here myself but, as you can imagine, this has got me limited. How’s your back?’

‘My back is fine.’

‘That’s good. We’re going to be working. You’re going to be working mostly. I’m going to be telling you what to do. There’s where you’ll bunk. Everything you need should be there.’ Karl pointed to a low-ceilinged wing built off the side of the barn. ‘Stow your gear and then come on back and I’ll give you a tour.’

The bunkhouse was more pleasant than James had expected. There was a double bed. A small kitchenette. A table with a bouquet of dried flowers. Most importantly, an air conditioner. James cranked it up and tossed his single bag on the bed. The back window looked out over the pond where the heeler was standing up to its belly in the water, panting. James looked in the small fridge. There were two cans of Tecate and a jar of peanut butter. He’d had a refrigerator just like this in his dorm in college. The sight of this one made him indescribably happy.

When James emerged from his room Karl was sitting behind the wheel of an off-road vehicle, kind of like a golf cart, but with large knobby tyres and a camouflaged awning and a rifle rack on the hood. There was a cooler in the back, and as James slid into the passenger seat, Karl reached around and rummaged in the ice, pulling out a beer for both of them. He drank deeply and belched.

‘You said on the phone the other day that you’re a teacher?’

‘Yes.’

‘What subject do you teach?’

‘Everything, pretty much.’

‘What, like kindergarten?’

‘No, I actually teach in a one-room schoolhouse. I have around fifteen kids.’

‘A one-room schoolhouse? They still have those? Jesus, employment offers weren’t exactly flooding your mailbox, or what?’

James laughed. ‘It was actually a competitive position. People want their kids to go to Pine Creek School. It’s selective. We have to turn students down every year. It’s a unique learning environment and we consistently get high test scores. We have brochures. That’s what they say.’

‘I see.’ Karl drank and then released the parking brake on the golf cart. ‘It’s a yuppie one-room schoolhouse, not a real one-room schoolhouse. I’m sure the pay is better. Anyway. It don’t matter because your ass is mine for the rest of the summer. Let’s get you acquainted with the lay of the land.’

They embarked upon a rambling tour of the 2,000-acre Echo Canyon Ranch, stopping occasionally so Karl could lever himself out of the driver’s seat to take a piss. Occasionally deer bolted out in front of them. Once James saw something larger and darker moving off into the brush and then it was gone.

‘What happened to your leg?’ James asked.

Karl laughed. ‘Buffalo fell on me,’ he said.

Then the beer cooler ran dry. Karl, reaching and coming up empty, said, ‘Well shit.’

Sooner than James would have thought possible they were back in front of the house. ‘There you have it, Montana, what d’you think?’ Karl said.

James could hear the clank of the windmill turning lazily. The red dog came and put its muzzle on Karl’s broken leg. ‘It’s great,’ he said.

‘Likely as not you’ve noticed we haven’t got so much as a milk cow on the whole spread.’

‘I thought maybe they were in a different pasture or something.’

‘Nope. Closest thing we’ve got is a few buffalo. Nasty things. Stay clear. They’d just as soon gore you as look at you. Same with the elk. Even the females. Especially the females. They’ll kick you through a barn door.’

‘Elk?’

‘Sure. This is a hunting ranch, son. We’ve got all the exotics. Aoudads, Sitka deer, feral hogs, New Zealand red deer, elk, a few different kinds of antelope. There’s things out there that I can’t even name off the top of my head. I was driving down to Bandera the other evening and coming up out of the riverbed I saw this animal almost the size of a horse. It had corkscrew-looking horns, spots on the rear half of its body. Now what the hell was that? I have no idea. Who knows where it came from and who knows how long it’s been running? All I know is that there’s a dentist in Dallas who would pull his own eye teeth to have that thing’s head hanging on his wall. That’s what we do here. It’s what all the ranches around here do. Been that way for a long time and that’s why you’ll occasionally see a random like that.’

‘What do you mean, a random?’

‘Just like it sounds. Some animal that was released at one time to be hunted but that just never got killed and was forgotten about or jumped a fence, or whatever. Ranches sell all the time. Fences fall over. Inventory is hard to keep track of. The hill country’s full of loose exotics. You’ve seen the brush. You can’t get much more than a few steps off a road and it just swallows you. The African species especially seem to find it just like home.’

James was slightly disappointed. He’d been under the impression that he was going to be out mending fences. Rounding up doggies and slapping hot iron to calves.

‘What exactly, then, will I be doing?’

‘Oh we’ll keep you occupied. At least once a week we have to go around and fill the feeders with shelled corn. That takes a full day. There’s over forty of them on the property. Some fences might need shoring up. Some brush might need to be cleared out to keep the shooting lanes open. Like I said, I usually do it all myself but it’s just a little bit much right now for this ol’ boy.’

James got his own four-wheel-drive golf cart. One of the perks of the job. He filled a gallon jug with water and set out to explore further on his own. Karl said the pain pills he was on were making him woozy and he was going to take a nap.

James started noticing the feeders. They were metal tripods with a hopper operated by some sort of timing device. At a set time each day a measured amount of shelled corn would fall from the hopper to the ground. The feeders were placed in small clearings hacked from the brush. Twenty yards from each feeder, in a lane cut through the trees, was a blind – a small, tin-roofed camouflage-painted shack with low windows from which a rifle could be fired. James went to one of these blinds and opened the door. Inside was an office chair and a pair of ear-protecting headphones.

An office chair – with adjustable lumbar support and rollers and pneumatic suspension system. It was the seat every accountant in the world sat in all day. It seemed strange to think that that same accountant might get a day off and come down here to Echo Canyon Ranch to sit in that same chair some more, listening to the rhythmic clunk of the feeder hopper opening, the musical shower of corn falling to the leaf litter. Waiting with anticipation for something, anything, to present itself for killing.

All the blinds were numbered. The two-track roads were like fairways claimed from the mesquite and shin oak and cedar. James felt that he’d landed on some sort of morbid golf course, where, instead of clubs, the camouflaged hackers toted .30-06s and tallied their day’s end score factoring in missed shot bogeys, sand trap woundings, extra clip mulligans – counting pars and birdies and eagles in hides and horns and tusks.

‘Fore,’ James shouted.

His voice was swallowed immediately by the tangle of dense green that surrounded him. Echo Canyon was kind of a misnomer.

That night his air conditioner melted down. He woke in the early hours, his bed sheet drenched in sweat. There was the god-awful squealing of the hogs rooting in the brush behind the barn. He lay in the dark, thinking about a conversation he’d once had with Carina. She had called him on his lunch break at school to tell him that he didn’t value his own profession and this made him unattractive to her.

‘You have disdain for those who teach,’ she said. ‘And yet you do it yourself. That must be exhausting.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘Because, when we first met, when you told me you were a teacher, and I said that’s great, you said, “You know what they say, those who can’t, teach.” That’s a bullshit philosophy. And if you truly feel that way then you should quit teaching immediately before you infect any
more students.’

‘You called just to tell me this?’

‘Yes, I thought you should know.’

James tried to imagine Molly Hanchet, his red-haired sixth-grader, smuggling a scalpel from their dissection unit into the bathroom and opening her veins. He imagined finding her, the red of her blood shaming the red of her hair. He tried to imagine returning to the classroom the next day, all the days after, and it was here that his imagination failed completely. He didn’t know much about Carina’s childhood but he knew enough to realize that she had once been an at-risk girl. Her resilience and dedication seemed to stem from some deep-seated need to save an earlier version of herself. Could he fairly fault himself for lacking this dimension of commitment? Did one’s vocation need to be so deeply personal?

He got up and banged on the A/C with his boot heel. It clanked to life slowly. Out behind the barn there was a vicious cacophony of squealing and grunting and thrashing and then it was silent. Clearly it was going to be a long night, the mind chasing the heart in circles around the moon.

The days passed. True to his word Karl kept James moderately busy. But it was pleasant work, at a stately pace. Lots of golf-cart driving and standing around discussing strategy before anything was actually done. James patched a few fences. He cut and cleared some brush. He filled the feeders, hauling sacks of corn, winching the hoppers down to the ground, smelling that good Midwestern smell as the golden stream poured forth from the tipped bag. On weekend evenings he and Karl would load up in the truck and head to Bandera, the nearest town, for beers and a hamburger. As far as James could tell Bandera was not populated by a single attractive female between the ages of eighteen and forty-five. This relaxed him in a way that he, up until this point, had thought impossible.

He called Casey to update him on ranch life. After listening for a while Casey said, ‘Hey, while I got you on the phone I wanted to ask you for something.’

‘What?’

‘Your life, basically. I want your life.’

‘Like, you want to sacrifice me for something, or you need a heart transplant, or?’

‘I just want to take off when I want to and go live on a ranch and mend fences and screw around with strange women and drink beer.’

James laughed. ‘Don’t tempt me brother. I’d take your place in a heartbeat. Wear your house slippers. Drink your fancy whiskey. Enjoy your bank account. Choke your wife.’ There was silence on the line for a moment.

Casey cleared his throat. ‘Please never mention that again.’

‘You’re right. Sorry.’

‘Seriously though, James. Never change. For the sake of all of us sad bastards who need to live vicariously through you, never stop what you’re doing.’

James knew what his brother needed. He gave it to him. He said, ‘I have a feeling that all this will be decidedly less thrilling when I’m fifty. You ever think of that? Because I do, all the time. I worry that I’ll be doing all the same stuff, just none of it will be quite as good as it used to be. There’ll still be strange women but most of the time I won’t be able to get it up anyway. I’ll still have my freedom but I’ll be too tired to go anywhere and I’ll probably start to accumulate cats and when I finally ride the big one, sitting alone in my recliner in front of the TV, no one will find me for three weeks and the cats will have eaten most of my face. So there. Stop your bitching. You’re living the dream.’

Casey didn’t say anything for a few moments. James could hear the rhythmic clicking of a pen.

‘You remember Linda’s ovaries?’

‘How could I forget?’

‘Well, we’ve been walking the tightrope with no safety net for
a while. Flying with no parachutes. Rafting with no life jackets.’

‘What in the hell are you talking about?’

‘We agreed that Linda should go off birth control and just see what happens.’

‘And?’

‘We’re knocked up over here in Amarillo.’

‘Oh man, congratulations. Tell Linda I love her. That’s great.’

‘I still don’t know if I’m ready for it all but I guess it’s too late. We are about to go shopping for stuff to make one of the spare bedrooms a nursery. Lord help me.’

James could hear the happiness in his brother’s voice and felt a small twinge. It stopped short of jealousy. But, just short.

There was a rainy day. A small miracle. The air was thick and humid and it was still hot but the dust laid down. James and Karl pulled the golf carts into the barn and did some maintenance. James had never been mechanically minded and Karl was having a good time exposing his ignorance. ‘Hand me that oil-filter wrench there, Montana. No, I said the oil-filter wrench. No, the oil-filter wrench.’

‘Karl, I don’t know what that is.’

‘Goddamn son, are you serious? You’ve never changed your own oil? The decline of a once great nation. Evidence.’

Later, James drove up to the hill where he was able to get spotty cellphone reception. He had one voice message from Carina. ‘Call me immediately.’ This was how she always left him messages. No one else he knew did this and it always drove him to think the worst, that she had been involved in an accident of some kind or that she needed him to bail her out of jail or that she was pregnant. There was something about Carina that placed all of these things firmly in the realm of possibility. But, up until this point it had always been something benign, something like, she had just heard an NPR programme about life on the Wind River Reservation that she thought was horribly off base and she wanted to discuss it with him.

He wasn’t sure he was ready to talk to her. He’d called her only once since leaving and he’d kept it vague. He’d told her he was going to visit his brother, and that was it. His life at the ranch was simple, unexamined, not something she’d understand. He could picture the conversation, trying to defend himself in the face of her incredulousness. You’re filling deer feeders with corn? Are you serious? Everything unravelling under her scrutiny. She would accuse him of trying to hide. ‘My god,’ she had said to him once. ‘Am I the first adult woman you’ve ever had to deal with?’ They were parked in his car on the hill overlooking town. This was when they were still stealing moments wherever they could.

‘What is that supposed to mean?’

‘Just that you seem incapable of taking anything seriously. Is that how she likes you to be? Or, is it just a coping mechanism you’ve developed in order to endure swimming in a pond that shallow?’

‘Shallow ponds are the best for swimming. They warm up the quickest. And you can always touch the bottom if you get tired.’

She looked at him for a long moment. Shook her head. Got out of his car and into hers.

He figured that she had probably never been swimming in a pond her whole life. He could see her as a child, in the summer, running wild through the concrete heat of whatever hellhole she’d grown up in, the busy city pool her only escape. After that, how could she help it if her aura was clear blue California chlorine?

He sat for a while watching the rain dapple the truck windshield. Then he drove back to the bunkhouse and stripped, running through the rain, to dive in the spring pond. He kicked down until his outstretched hand felt the muck bottom and then he turned and drifted slowly back to the surface, opening his eyes to see the raindrop-pocked roof of water above him. He floated for a while on his back remembering something Carina had read to him. It was from one of her girls, part of an essay about swimming in Yellowtail Reservoir on the Bighorn River.

When I dive in the water it’s like going down through Neapolitan ice cream, except, instead of chocolate-vanilla-strawberry, it’s temperature – warm up top and then cool and then cold where it’s deep and the sun can’t reach. That’s where I like it best. I call that the chocolate layer. That’s the flavour my mom tasted when she drove her car off the high road. Everyone says I look just like she did at my age.

Often, Carina’s life seemed immeasurably more worthy than his.

He checked his level of enthusiasm for the return home. A new school year at Pine Creek. Anxious parents. Lesson plans. His classroom had two long bulletin boards that would need to be rehung with inspirational quotes and motivational posters. These bulletin boards had become nightmare fodder. In one memorable dream his posters had somehow morphed overnight so that, on the first morning of school, the children were greeted by walls plastered with profanity-laced diatribes and pornographic pictures. He woke up soon after his firing.

He towelled off and sat at the small table in the bunkhouse. Call me immediately. Maybe he’d write her a letter.

Somehow, it was mid-August. There was more activity on the ranch than there had been all summer. Housekeepers came to air out the guest cabins. Men in camouflage shirts with binoculars around their necks patrolled on golf carts. Hunting season was approaching. The actual owner of the ranch came from Austin for the day. He was a big, white-toothed, red-nosed man who didn’t have much to say to James but immediately fell to back-slapping and exchanging barely coherent Texas good ol’ boy insults with Karl. They loaded a cooler with beer and departed on a golf cart and were gone for the rest of the day. Apparently he’d made his money mostly in real estate. Probably a little oil revenue there on the top, like salad dressing.

To James it was fairly clear that men of a certain standing in Texas needed to own ranches. They needed to have a man like Karl on the payroll. It’s what separated them from the citified businessmen on the coasts. During the week they might sell and trade commodities but on the weekends they were ranchers, desperately. How else to justify their existence, if not by holding themselves to a moral code developed in large part from watching John Wayne movies as boys?

James gassed up his golf cart and took one last long evening drive. The summer was all but spent. He had a six-pack on ice and he drove slowly on his favourite two-track, the brush gathering evening shadow on either side of him until he broke out on the hilltop overlooking the ranch. He was going to watch the sunset and tomorrow he would leave. He was surprised to find that he would miss Echo Canyon. He really would. He hadn’t been to town in a week. Hadn’t bought anything. Hadn’t had lust-filled thoughts toward a strange woman, hadn’t had a hangover, or a fast-food meal. It was amazing how these things could accumulate in your system, like toxic heavy metals, without you realizing it.

He drank his beer and watched the deer that were coming out of the trees to the feeder near the hill’s summit. He leaned back and propped his feet on the golf cart’s dash. A flock of mourning doves came and settled in the grass, close enough that he could hear their chortling love warbles to one another. He noticed the deer at the feeder were looking back over their shoulders to the treeline. And then, a zebra poked its black-and-white-striped head out of the brush and made its way slowly across the clearing as the sun set.

A zebra. It joined the deer at the feeder. The sinking sun burnished its flanks so it glowed like polished variegated copper. The deer were sad dead leaves next to its majesty.

He sat stunned, didn’t want to move, but then it was dark and the mosquitoes came out in full force. He turned on the golf cart’s headlights and caught the zebra, its eyes like huge white marbles, before it disappeared. He drove slowly back to the bunkhouse, straining for just one more look, but it was gone.

Karl was on his porch scratching the red heeler behind the ears. James pulled up a chair and sat. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I just saw a random.’

‘Yeah?’

‘A zebra.’

Karl straightened. ‘You’re shitting me.’

James shook his head. ‘No shit.’

‘Huh. I’ll be damned. We got a crew of hunters coming in from Fort Worth next weekend. That would be a hell of a way to kick
the season off. Those ol’ boys would lose their minds over something like that.’

‘You’d really let them shoot it?’

‘Sure, what the hell else would you do with it?’

‘I don’t know. Just doesn’t seem right.’

Karl shook his head, crushed his empty beer can in his fist. ‘I know what you’re getting at and you’re off base. That thing you saw wasn’t a zebra.’

‘No. It was a zebra. I’m sure of it.’

‘Nope. Zebras are in Africa. That’s the only place. A zebra anywhere else in the world ain’t a zebra. See what I mean?’

‘Not really.’

Karl gave an exasperated sigh. ‘You set these Fort Worth boys down in Africa and let them unload on a zebra and then maybe I can see your point. That’s not something they’re worthy of. But here, in Texas? A Texas man is worthy of anything in Texas. That’s how I feel.’

‘Karl, I was thinking. What if I stayed on through the fall?’

‘What about your one-room schoolhouse and all that?’

James shrugged. ‘They’d find a replacement for me quickly enough.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Haven’t you ever wanted to be indispensable?’

‘Shit. Indispensable don’t exist. God’s a junk man and he’s got spare parts to replace everything he’s ever made.’

‘What if you have a family, children? My brother’s wife is pregnant. No matter what happens, that kid will never have another real father.’

‘All sorts of ingrates reproduce. There’s nothing sacred about it.’

‘I guess,’ James said. ‘But, I’m serious. If I called and told them I wasn’t coming back to teach, would you let me stay on through the fall?’

Karl was using a straightened metal coat hanger to scratch under his cast. ‘I’m supposed to get this damn thing cut off in a week,’ he said. ‘I’m tempted to go get a hacksaw and do the job myself.’ He stopped scratching and leaned back. ‘Montana, why do you think men come here? The thrill of the hunt and all that? Bullshit. In olden times, when you were sick, you went to the doctor and he vented your blood to release the bad humours. I’ve seen men cry. Grown men with tears on their cheeks confronting the mangy old buffalo they’ve just shot. Tears of joy, mind you.’ Karl waved his hand as if to encompass the yard, the ranch, Texas as a whole. ‘You’re here for the same reason as those Fort Worth boys. Even if you try to hide it behind something else. And, I’m going to do you a favour here and tell you what I tell all of them when they get a little drunk on the last day of their vacation and start in about how they want to come down here and buy a little ranch and just leave it all behind. Do you know what they say in the bar at closing time?’

‘What do they say?’

‘You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.’

James packed his things and then stretched out on the bed. In a few days he would walk back into his house, his life. It would be stuffy after the summer’s vacancy. Her things would be gone – gaping holes in the closets where her clothes had been, the empty place in the toothbrush holder like an unblinking vacant eye. He felt like he deserved a better homecoming. Maybe he’d go to Carina’s first. They could sit outside in the grass under the cottonwoods. She would tell him about her summer-school girls and he’d describe Echo Canyon Ranch in ways that made it all seem more spectacular than it really was. He wanted to tell her about the zebra. It was very important that he do it in such a way that she wouldn’t dream
of laughing.

It was out there, the zebra, somewhere, moving through the sticky darkness. He imagined what the land would look like if you could somehow strip away all the brush – the mesquite and the cedars and the prickly pear and the madroños – to expose the animals. All the randoms. It would be like a goddamn menagerie.

Maybe there was a lion. If there was a zebra then it seemed like anything was possible. He hoped so.

If all was right in the world, there was a lion out there right now stalking the hills, eating deer and hogs to pass the time, but really hunting the zebra. Eventually the two would cross each other in the brush. The zebra would run, gratefully, and the lion would chase, and, ultimately, under the low shade of a live oak, the lion would feast on the zebra’s flesh before either one of them had to suffer one more indignity.

 

Illustration © Edward Tuckwell


Thing with Feathers that Perches in the Soul
River So Close