Laura M. Gibson decided to be a writer the summer she had a job transplanting tomato seedlings in a Bakersfield greenhouse. Since then, her stories and essays have appeared in Canteen, Word Riot, and The Sun, among other places. She hails from Idaho, where she works with kids in classrooms and outdoors, chases her dog around in the mountains, and is at work on a novel.
Stu and I were the paramedics on call and the first to arrive at Rusty’s Saloon, where my Uncle Lou had died alone and upright in a booth at the back of the bar. Sirens quiet, I nosed the ambulance to the curb next to Lou’s pickup. A small crowd of smokers lingered on the sidewalk, talking low to each other. I crossed the threshold from the low-slung light into the smoky chill of the bar and had to stop for a beat and let my good eye adjust. The other gone, made of glass since I was eight. Stu hovered next to me, radiating heat on my blind side, one elbow touching my shoulder. I felt him put a lemon drop in his mouth, then reach to his belt and turn down the volume on the radio.
When the dark fell away, the inside of my Uncle Lou’s favorite bar came into focus. Cowboy velvet art. The pine bar along the far wall so shellacked with varnish it could double as a mirror. Booths along the other wall, a couple of high tables and chairs in between, and some dusty piñatas hanging from antler-shed chandeliers. In his favorite booth at the back, under a string-art rendition of Comancheros on the plains, sat Uncle Lou.
“Dead for hours,” Rosemary whispered. She gripped my arm with a pale, blue-veined hand. “I’m the world’s shittiest waitress, Lilly.”
I closed my eye a beat. My ears roared with the awkward sound of Rusty’s gone quiet. Rosemary wandered behind the bar to get us some drinks. Stu, already at the booth, shook his head at me and put his stethoscope back in the loop of his pants. He reached into his breast pocket for a lemon drop and offered it, then put it back when I said no.
Lou’s leathery fingers curled around a warm beer. Still sitting upright, he’d stiffened against the ripped vinyl of the booth seat. His hat sat low on his brow, and his eyes were closed like he’d dozed off.
“I can’t believe it,” Stu said.
I thought about the smoking patch of earth next to the willow, the deep pit filled with coals and meat—a whole pig, just like we always did for a party—Lou’s slaw and a gallon of pickled beets from the garden in the extra refrigerator. In the pocket of my work pants, the list of supplies we still needed was scratched on a triangle of the Loden Area News section.
“I’m really sorry, Lil,” Stu said. He took a ginger ale from Rosemary and handed it to me.
Rosemary hooked an arm through mine. “How you doin’, sugar?”
“He was okay this morning—”
“—I’m just a wreck.” She reached into her apron for a ball of blue tissue to wipe her face. “I mean, how could I have missed it? But we were busy, you know?”
She locked into my good eye with hers. Around her gray irises the sclera was as yellow as parchment brittled by years of dank air. Rosemary was on transmit mode, as she often was; I patted her arm.
When Sheriff Donaldson came in, we hung in a loose circle near Lou’s booth. Donaldson slid his notebook out of his pocket. “He been having any problems?”
I nodded, thought about where to start with Lou’s problems, the ones I felt reasonable to share, then remembered the two bypass surgeries. “But that was twenty years ago,” I said. “He quit eating all the bad stuff. Mostly.”
Donaldson wet his pen in his mouth and turned to Rosemary. Swiping at her nose and eyes, she catalogued the few regulars who came to sit with Lou. “Mostly he was with Mr. Carlson, you know? Started drinking whiskey pretty early, what with Carlson’s daughter just dead. Such a shame. I had to call Carlson’s wife to come get him.”
For a minute I watched Donaldson’s thin fingers translating the scene, then a news teaser about television making kids dumber on the flat screen behind the bar. The door opened, flashed a white light and gust of dry air from outside, and George, the coroner, stepped in. Stu met him by the door, and I watched them together, one short and one tall, leaning toward each other to talk. Glowing red under the neon open sign, Stu’s high and tight Marine hair made him look tough, severe, even though he was about as scary as a kitten. In his cheek, a lemon drop. He was never without them, part of a weight loss plan that got out of hand, he told me once.
Rosemary asked again, “How you doin’, sugar?” She clucked with her mouth, gestured to my ginger ale, and shook her head. “You poor thing. Want something stronger, Lilly?”
I told her I’d be all right and sat down opposite Lou in the booth, hoping he’d open his eyes and snap out of it. Seventy-five wasn’t that old, especially not Lou’s version of it; he was way busier than me, with the ranch, committees, friends. He’d been a cop once, but that was before I came to live with him almost twenty years ago. By that time he was a rancher, a tinkerer, a party-maker. Lately, a crotchety old gardener who drank too much.
Just last week, we were weeding the garden, the same huge side-yard plot Lou insisted on planting every year that birthed mammoth tomatoes and zucchinis the size of fence posts. Lou kept stopping, leaning over and coughing up chunky phlegm into the dirt. He wouldn’t have gone to the doctor with me had I suggested it, but I should’ve gotten him a Z-pack out of the rig.
“Let’s scale back the garden next year,” I said. “See how it goes.”
Sitting on an old milk pail between rows, he stopped for a moment, a clutch of pineapple weed in one hand. “If I’m too old for this, I’m too damn old,” he said.
“Bet you’d feel better if you laid off the hooch some,” I said. “Gotta be another way to be sad.” I waited for him to answer and watched two crows chasing each other, bleating, along the barn’s rusted roof.
“Bet you’d feel better if you gave poor Stu some satisfaction.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Gig’s up. You’re gonna die an old maid, swabbing down my nasty bed sheets, if you don’t get off your duffer.”
“Quit changing the subject.”
He sniffed and ran a tattered flannel sleeve across his face to wipe his nose. “Bossy,” he said. “Trying to take away my joy.”
“I’d like you to stick around.”
“Oh. I ain’t going anywhere.” He spat into the dirt. “I ain’t near done.”
While the others busied themselves in the bar, I sat up and leaned over the booth table and put my face close to Lou’s, inhaling his sawdust and wood smoke flecked with motor oil, a whiskey after-burner. Though he’d always been a drinker, Elizabeth Carlson’s death a few months before marked the beginning of a punishing drinking routine. Her family lived up the road on a ranch ten times the size of ours. She was eight, and it didn’t have anything to do with Lou, but it had unmoored him in a fierce roil of grief I thought we’d both made peace with after all this time.
Stu, George, and I pulled Lou’s body from behind the table and loaded him onto the gurney. We laid him on his side, his knees drawn in as if he were sleeping, his arms resting on an invisible platform, fingers still holding the ghost of a drink. He looked like a child, with his plaid shirt buttoned all the way up to his neck and skinny legs bent inside his baggy jeans. The bottoms of his boots smooth and worn, so thin near the balls of his feet he’d have to have them re-soled soon.
George drove his van, with Lou in it, away from Rusty’s, and Stu and I stood on the curb. In the daylight, saying goodbye to Lou almost felt like the job. I’d seen way worse than someone dying quiet like that in twelve years as a paramedic. At night Lou gone would be harder, starting with the hours just in front of me and a party that would never happen. A future of empty nights clamped the back of my throat. My glass eye was always weeping, the tear ducts trying to make sense of that foreign body in there. I didn’t cry, but my eye leaked in the heat.
Stu put his arm around me, and I let him. I leaned into his armpit, felt the beating hum of him through the scratchy canvas of his uniform. He crunched the last of his candy.
What I wanted most then was to be able to talk to my sister Macy. She’d be twenty-nine now, three years younger than me. Feisty and funny. Probably married. A teacher or an artist. Maybe a kid on the way. Macy had the gift of being both flexible and determined, and I wondered how I’d be different if she was still here.
Stu rubbed my arm with one thumb. When I put my hand out for a lemon drop, he reached into his uniform pocket and offered me one perched in the center of his palm.
. . .
I remember the year because my eye was still healing; I was nine, and on days when I couldn’t face using my glass prosthetic, I wore a patch Mom glued with fake jewels in the shape of a daisy, which wasn’t much better. Mom, Macy, and I had been on the run for almost a year then, and settling in anywhere was freighted with the constant anxiety of discovery.
It was a Thursday, in Florida, almost summertime and so humid we were perpetually sweaty. Our last unit in third grade was a mashed-up set of mythology lessons. The kids had started calling me Cyclops—they’d called me lots of other names already—but Polyphemus’s story inspired me to use my eye itself to fight back. All I had to do was take it out and hold it in my hand, show kids it was fried-egg-shaped—my iris the yoke in the middle—and not round; its absence left my empty eye socket raw, gaping wide as an open mouth. The afternoon recess bell was about to ring, and because I was wearing my patch, I was planning an alternate attack for the playground when Macy and I got called to the office. We stood at the counter, listening to the secretary on the phone describing what she wanted her hairdresser to do with her tragic head. She hung up and waved us over with one stubby finger. Uncle Lou was in the parking lot.
“You girls can go on out. His name’s on your forms. But. Says here I’m supposed to check anyway. Let me just call your Mom.”
We pushed the school’s heavy front door open and stood beneath the awning. Except for teachers’ cars, the lot was empty, but it was shaped like a kidney, part of it hidden from us by the building. We stepped off the sidewalk into the sun and looked again. Over by the gym, Bill’s car was parked in a swatch of shade under a wilting jacaranda. He waved at us. The sweat on my face cooled. He got in his car and drove it closer.
Bill was stepping out of the car when Mom pulled up in our station wagon and got out, already screaming, in her spaghetti-stained Morty’s apron. A bus arrived with kids returning from a field trip to the beach, their faces pressed against the windows. Shimmering on the edge of our family drama, in waves of heat rising up from the asphalt, they watched Bill try to stuff us into the backseat of his rusted-out Mustang. The elastic band of my patch snapped against the door frame, broke, and got lost on the floor of the car. Another bus pulled in. The police came, their cars blocking everyone, and told us all to calm down.
We left Florida that night, us girls in the back of the station wagon while mom drove north too fast and chain-smoked to stay awake. Through the open back window, I closed both eyes against the fierce hot wind of the interstate and imagined a world in which my eye, pulsing with powerful magic, could shield us.
There were three, maybe four states after that, and then the Bay Area, where Mom got a job as a receptionist at an insurance agency. Bill didn’t find us there, but by the time Mom took time off to visit the doctor, her cancer had metastasized, conquering not only her ovary but just about everything else. By then I was twelve. Macy was nine. Lou came to stay with us during Mom’s last few weeks, sleeping on our couch without taking his boots off.
After all the surviving we’d done, I was furious with her for dying that way.
Later, we drove all night and woke up just after dawn at the ranch in Loden, Macy and me tangled together in the back seat of Lou’s truck. In other towns—big enough so we could feather in, anonymous—we’d moved to the constant baseline of traffic. The first thing I noticed at the ranch was how quiet unfolded in layers, one small noise making way for another.
Macy and I tumbled out of the truck into the winter fog, the day’s slant warmth a promise already smudging dew. Our breath cast itself out before us, testing the waters of our new life. We’d never been to the ranch in winter. I reached into the front seat for Mom in her hard-cold urn painted with horses and moons and took her with us.
“Not just a visit this time,” Macy said to me, moving around to my good side. She knew both my ears worked fine, but she still did it anyway. “I miss Mom.”
I squeezed her hand. We hadn’t left in the night this time. Hadn’t been given fifteen minutes to grab whatever we could, stuff it into our suitcases that stayed under our beds, and then get into the car and creep out of the apartment parking lot with the headlights off. This time we were going toward something new. My relief was all jumbled with guilt and sorrow and fear, too, that there was no place on earth Bill couldn’t find us, especially in a place he already knew to look. “Me too,” I said.
Lou’s ranch was the same as it had always been. Walking the property, we inventoried our new for-good home: a main house, a guest house, Lou’s work barn, a shed, a fenced pasture. A hundred acres of dry grasslands flanked by scrubby pinion trees and ponderosas, the hills swelling up behind them. The big willow and stand of cottonwoods by the creek in the backyard. The fog disappeared, and the sun crawled over Fromman’s Peak behind the house and spread over Loden down in the valley like a slow-burning wildfire, glinting off the shrinking river that cut town into two cashews.
Through the single-paned windows of the big house, the wet hiss of bacon in the cast-iron pan sizzled behind Paul Harvey telling us how it was. The refrigerator door creaked and slammed. The rooster-shaped timer pinged for the egg frittata. Lou switched the radio channel and warbled a duet with Patsy Cline.
Macy giggled. “He’s the one who’s craaa-zzzy. He sings so bad.”
“But gol-damned loud,” I said.
We took our shoes off at the door, setting Mom down on the step where she could look over the valley and know she was home. We banged the screen door behind us, just so she’d know for sure.
. . .
On the way back to the ambulance bay, dispatch radioed they’d gotten Brian to relieve me but not for another hour, so Stu and I stopped at the market to get supplies for the quarters. In the frozen food section, I took Lou’s party list out of my pocket, eyed the tilt of his letters, all caps, neatly justified along the edges of a newspaper article about hot rods on the lake bed. He’d spilled coffee on the bottom, had wiped it away with his sleeve so the spot looked like spin-art. I closed my eye against the list and listened to the hum of refrigeration.
Stu threw a gallon of chocolate ice cream into the cart, then leaned over my shoulder.
“Shit, Lilly. The list.”
I nodded. buns. soda. mustard. shaving cream. napkins. sparklers. I read the items like an acrostic, wondering if they would’ve revealed Lou’s death in that order, like a secret code.
“What you want to do?”
“Well. We needed this stuff anyway. Except for sparklers.”
“We still need to eat,” he said. We.
On our radios, the tones went off for a fire east of town, always a beat ahead of the air raid siren at the firehouse, our valley’s alarm system. Next to the market, the air raid sirens on top of the fire station blared in syncopation with our two-ways, and the engines rolled out, screaming a Code 3. Stu’s eyes ticked back and forth, watching engines pass the windows outside the market.
“We’re up next. Guess shopping will have to wait.” He reached into his pocket for the lemon drops, looking at both my eyes, back and forth, a slower ticking, not in a hurry. “You okay to run call?”
We should’ve been hot-shoeing it for the rig, but we didn’t move, and everything about me was frozen, mute, except the anger rising at Stu’s hulking concern. He stood, one hand on our cart, looking at me with his insufferable patience, while outside police sirens joined the chorus. I was too old to take my eye out and shake it at him and show him what he was really up against, looking at me like that. I wanted to tell him he was a sorry excuse for a man in love. He’d feel duped if he ever got brave enough to offer me something other than a lemon drop. What future was there in fucking an orphaned Cyclops?
I opened my mouth to tell him to back off. On the radio, the urgent static of dispatch ordering the ambulance to the fire called out instead. We left our cart in the aisle and ran to the rig.
. . .
Winter at the ranch was frigid and unrelenting. We kept Mom on the mantle, waiting until spring for the ground to thaw, and the house squeezed in small as a fist. In the hours after school, while Lou helped neighbors with their cattle or tinkered with his geothermal plant up in the canyon, Macy and I bundled up against the wind and went outside. We scrambled around the land and steered clear of the hunters—gol-damned poachers, Lou called them—who drove up behind the ranch with their guns and camouflage. Most of them hunting trouble, Lou said.
Most days, shots rang out somewhere above us. It was Macy’s idea to make the sign.
“It’s gotta say this: Homes Below- Don’t Shoot, so them poachers know to get.” We took some car paint from Lou’s work barn, dragged a piece of plywood with motor oil all over it out to the grass, and worked most of an afternoon making a base coat of yellow with black lettering. When we showed it to Lou, he chuckled until he coughed.
“You’re gonna be mayor some day, girl. This is a fine idea.” We drove Macy’s sign up the road and nailed it to a fence post at the turn-off up the canyon. It’s still there.
The new year clicked over, us celebrating with sparklers and apple cider and relieved at putting such a year behind us, even if it was only on paper. Spring came, melting away months of gray chill and the season of Mom’s death. We thought we’d be ready to bury her, but we weren’t, so she stayed inside on the mantle, next to a picture of her as a kid kicking high in a swing.
I could tell Lou was getting cabin fever, keeping us close to him, waiting to see if Bill would show. Near Easter, after six quiet months, a friend of Lou’s showed up with a wild boar in the back of his truck. Every season was right for killing an invasive menace, Lou said. “You know what a truck full of pig means, girls?”
We knew. The pit was already in the yard, next to the willow, lined with basalt from the valley. We started a fire in there, stoked the coals and got them good and hot, then wrapped that old menace in burlap and aluminum foil. We laid him in hell, stuffed to the gills with garden veggies and spices, and buried him to roast. We made slaws and breads, salsas and punch, and finished our preparations as the sun went down.
Dusk at the ranch was Lou’s favorite time and place. The hills filled up their lungs with one last breath of day and then held it, pulsing in purple hues. Town lights drunk as fireflies flickered, and even the birds knew to stop flying and listen. It was like standing right between two rooms you wanted to be in at the same time, so you could see into both and not miss a thing.
The next night, it seemed like everyone blazed into the yard at once, falling out of their cars laughing, their arms full of more food. Lou’s musician friends tuned up their instruments and began to play. Someone unearthed the boar and his sweet smoky haunches lured us to eat. Macy went off to dance, and I lay in the grass made warm by a sunny spring day, my good eye almost asleep, watching through a sliver couples dancing under lights made out of punched tin cans.
There was a moment then, in a lull when the musicians idled their guitars with lazy, practiced fingers, talking about what to play next, when the air smelled like it did right before lightning strikes in Nebraska. My skin felt thinner, and the earth pulsed in jerky waves under my hip pressed into the grass. In the garden, cabbage and kale grew through the deer fence into the path, where someone was just arriving, caught by the thick web of shadows. After I lost my eye, the doctors showed me how to get back depth perception by moving my head side to side. That way, my brain could take a couple pictures of my surroundings and then put them together, just like if I had two eyes. Mostly, I’d gotten pretty good at doing it on the sly, but sometimes it didn’t work, and I had to exaggerate the movements like a robot. I sat up and ratcheted my head to make out who it was, my skin on fire with an old, anxious burn.
Bill rounded the side yard, sauntering with his hands in his pockets, and my head went still.
I stood up and scanned the yard for Macy. And Lou. Calculated how long it would take to pack just what I’d need from my new room for the next town. Pictured my Wonder Woman pouch of spare eyes—a gift Lou had sewn himself—and the tin pillbox I used to carry around a spare, both in the bathroom drawer.
Bill lurched to a stop near the dance floor we had hauled up from the VFW. “Looks like a party. Lucky me.” He crouched down, held his arms out as if I would run to him.
Macy appeared next to me. “He’s got the drunk voice,” she said and pressed her body into mine. I squeezed her to me.
Lou walked across the lawn to meet Bill like there was about to be a duel, except he was holding a bunch of sparklers and not a gun or a sword. “You’re not invited here,” Lou said.
Bill stood, rocking a little, his head swiveling around to take in the scene. “I gotta right to see my girls.”
“You gave up those rights. Now get.”
“We all know you’re about this close”—Bill held up his fingers pinched together—“to dropping dead from a heart attack.”
Lou stepped closer to Bill, whispering something to him, and Bill smiled and said, “We’ll see.”
Before I could think about it or be afraid, I gave Macy to Mr. Arcularious and went to join Lou. “You get out of here!” I shouted. Lou grabbed me, and from the corral of his arms, I yelled it over and over. Bill stepped back and stood blinking, his eyes wet.
“You’re hurting my heart, Lilly-Pad. I came here because I love you.” He put his hands in his pockets and hung his head. “I came to say how sorry I am.”
Behind me, the presence of our guests was palpable as a pulse. “I’m not going with you. Neither is Macy.”
Bill picked his head up, and his tears were gone, his face hard and mean.
“You’d better get,” Lou said. “If you stay, everyone here’ll say it was an accident.”
Bill turned to go, stumbling at the edge of the dance floor. He loped off around the corner of the house, tailed by our friends. Someone got in a truck and followed him down the road to make sure.
For me, that leaving was scarier than the coming. Because I knew what sort of things could happen when Bill’s inebriated plans got hijacked. He’d store them up for later. Even though we were outside under the new-mooned sky, stippled thick with stars, it felt like Bill had sucked all the air out of the place. Mr. Tolvee plucked a few strings on the banjo. Just two or three mournful notes that brought us back together. The band went to their stations and began to play.
Macy ran over to hold onto Lou, and he told us it would be all right, that he’d take care of us. “Think that old drunk is any match for me?”
We looked at each other and wanted it to be true. Couples began to whirl around us, calling us to join them. We danced late into the night, blushed under the glow of praise about our cooking, and let Loden put its arms around us.
. . .
Stu and I drove toward the black twister of smoke, rising like a signal from the valley floor, and parked in the triage area. The flames had just about finished with the house, a two-story-duplex, and had traversed to some eucalyptus growing behind it. As they succumbed, the trees exploded, scattering hot shards of bark into the river, loud as a fireworks show. Both families sat on the curb and watched their lives burning over the shoulder of the fire marshal while he quizzed them about their appliances, their habits. A mangy dog huddled under the back bumper of our rig. We doled out electrolytes and aspirin and stayed a while, watching the fire department pump water from the river to subdue the flames.
Back at the ambulance bay, I finished paperwork while Stu restocked the rig and went through the checklist of supplies. “Whole thing’s covered in ash,” he said, his voice muffled inside the back. “Help me wash her down while you’re waiting?”
“I’m going to Pardee’s,” I shouted. “Brian should be here soon.”
We’d parked the rig outside the bay, our usual routine. I couldn’t see him from where I stood on the asphalt near the hood, but the ambulance wiggled and shifted with Stu’s weight, and then his face appeared behind the windshield between our seats. “Don’t you want to go home? Do that tomorrow or something?”
“Come get me if we get a call.”
I drove to Pardee’s Funeral Home a few miles west of town, moving against the dusty impulse to pack my stuff and leave for good. In the parking lot, I sat in my truck, thinking about what Lou wanted. It had always been a joke, using his ashes to mulch the garden. We had other ashes up at the ranch—Mom’s and Macy’s, both planted under the cottonwoods—and though I wasn’t superstitious in the slightest, I wondered if the place would feel haunted now, if every time I lingered in the backyard I’d hear the braid of their three voices.
“If you could soften just a little, Lil, I think you’d be happier,” Lou once said. “Time for fighting yourself’s over now.”
“Shit, girl. You don’t know nothin’.”
Cursing the business of death, both eyes beginning to tear, I reached into the glove box for my checkbook. Out fell the red bandana Lou had stuffed in there the last time I’d hauled him out of Rusty’s, drunk off his ass and in no shape to drive.
“Gol-damn,” I said. I folded the cloth and set it on the seat, then headed inside.
. . .
After the party, we moved within the protective bubble of Lou. Ferried to school and then home. Watched by a quiet posse of neighbors. Our one independence was the land, made sweeter by its awakening as if it had heard our call. Days got longer, warmer, and we felt safe and strong in the arms of Loden.
In the afternoons, Macy and I trekked up the moraine above the field, looking for old mine shafts and collecting mountain lion scat in a Crisco container. At home, we picked it apart with sticks to see what they ate, sure that the next time our travels would show us a real, live lion.
“You keep looking, girls,” Lou told us when we showed him our treasure. “Gotta think like a cat, keep your eyes and ears open. Feel with your whiskers.” He winked at me and wandered off to work on the tractor.
Summer came, glorious and bold. We swam in the creek and learned to two-step at a series of bluegrass barbecues. Lou made us slingshots, and we could hit just about anything, though Macy was a better shot than me. I felt rich, still living at the ranch, and I understood what it meant to have roots, to interpret the world underneath and above and to relish both sensations. School started, and I was still in the same place, only I was thirteen. Macy was ten. Bill had come and gone and had not won as he’d always done before.
One night in late September, after we’d watched five old episodes of Gilligan’s Island and Macy had gone off to bed, Lou and I stayed up working on my history essay about Mesopotamia under the too-bright light at the kitchen table.
“You can hang the leash up, maybe,” I said. “I know you’ve been missing your poker nights.”
“That’s not what it says here.” He flipped through the pages of Artold’s World History, pretending confusion.
“He’s probably not coming now. You ran him off.”
“Maybe not.” He dug a piece of ice out of his cola and sucked on it, looking out the window into the night.
“But you did.”
The washing machine, tucked at the far end of the kitchen, kicked on, its soak cycle over, and began to beat against the cabinet. “Didn’t I just fix that?” Lou closed the book and set it down between us. “Maybe I’ve been sitting on you too hard. You scared?”
“Lots before. But not now.”
That Saturday afternoon, Lou got ready to drive to town for his poker game, saying he’d be back around nine. We walked him to the truck. “You get spooked, girls, you run on down to Carleen’s through the woods,” he said.
“We won’t get spooked,” Macy said. “We’re armed.” She turned around and showed Lou the slingshot in the back pocket of her jeans.
“Atta girl,” he said.
In the surprising heat of an Indian summer day, we soaked up the warmth like cats, lying on the grass reading comic books. We set up a firing squad of old oil cans on the fence in the backyard and gathered an armory of stones. Squatting in the shade of the cottonwoods by the barn, we divvied up our rocks and practiced.
A car came down from up in the hills, the noise echoing off the barn, and then didn’t fade but pulled into the drive. Not an engine I knew. A car door opened and closed. I put a finger to my lips and Macy nodded. I looked around to see where we could crawl. We backed ourselves off the lawn into the tall grasses of the field, watching the corner of the house. A second, maybe two, and then he was in the backyard, standing and listening, his eyes a searchlight, his legs taller than they were from my perspective lying on the ground. We were hidden from him by a flank of wildflowers gone to seed.
Bill looked through the back window of the house, into our bedroom; he hadn’t seen us yet.
“Macy,” I said. A whisper. “Let’s go to the barn.”
“It’s so nasty in there,” she said. “Let’s wait to see if he’s got the voice.”
“Girls? You here? I’m just… I’m just here to apologize.”
He stood on his toes and peeked into the high bathroom window, then into Lou’s bedroom. From the blind of our wildflower bed, lying flat and quiet on our bellies, we watched him walk away toward the front of the house again.
“He’s not drunk! He’s sorry, Lil. I can tell.” Her breath was hot in my ear.
“He’s a liar. You shouldn’t believe anything he says.”
She put her slingshot down. “He’s right, though, Lil. He’s our only dad. Maybe we should give him one more chance.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Come on.”
If we hurried, we could get inside. We crawled from the field and then ran across the yard to the barn. Lou was a packrat, so the space was crammed with his collections. A Studebaker with flat tires sat toward the back. A plow, a rock-polishing machine and a box of unpolished rocks from the hills, sacks of grain, old windows stacked against a cider press.
“Your inheritance,” Lou had joked the first time he’d shown us the inside.
The air was still, slats of light falling through cracks in the weathered siding. We had already started to sweat.
“Don’t you think this is good enough?” Macy whispered, on her hands and knees, peering under the car. “Guess we could hide under here. Except he’s smart, Lil. How do you think he knew to come today?”
I was thinking about what to do. About when Lou had said he’d be back. About whether Bill had been squatting in the hills above us, watching us all this time. About how long it would take him to look in the barn. About how to get to Carleen’s without being caught on the way to the trees.
“What if just I go, and you stay here.” Macy said. “It’s not the drunk voice.” She started for the door.
I grabbed her and put my hand over her mouth and pulled her to the back of the barn, behind the car and onto the ground, where mice had been making nests in the insides of the Studebaker’s deflated tires. Macy pulled my hair and bit my hand.
For a fleeting second, I wanted to choke her, to squeeze her so hard she’d lie still and be quiet.
“Stay with me,” I whispered. “Let’s wait to make sure he really means it. Don’t I always take care of you?”
She stopped hitting me and nodded.
“If I take my hand off,” I said, “you can’t give our spot away.”
She nodded again.
Her muffled assent came from underneath my hand, and I took it away.
Bill shuffled around behind the house. “I know Lou’s not here, girls. Good time to spend the day with me,” he said. “He doesn’t understand how it is with us. Hey. Cool slingshots.” Rocks pinged against cans on our firing range. He whistled when he hit the mark. “I could show you how to really use these things.”
Between the barn’s planking his shadow moved toward us, shifting.
“I’m no good without you. You know that.”
Macy was whispering fast in my ear. “It’s for sure not the drunk voice.” She missed him, she said, even if he did bad things. He could be different, now that Mom was dead.
I was shaking my head, telling her to be quiet, listening to Bill look for us, twin anvils of anger and despair stealing my breath. We had never told Macy the truth about my eye. Mom didn’t want her to have any more information than she could handle; she’d been so little then. So we both lied and said my eye got sick and had to be taken out.
Outside, starlings gathered in the top of the willow. Their chittering masked Bill’s steps until he was right at the barn door. “I miss you so much. No more drinking. No more bad stuff. I promise.”
“See? He wants to be different. He does!” she whispered. She didn’t remember the wild see-saw from violence to suffocating love. We’d hidden too much from her.
I put my hand over her mouth again and pushed her head down into the dirt, praying hard Bill would think the noise came from somewhere else. She flailed under me, and I shoved her face toward the tire of the car and whip-kicked her with my legs.
Everything happened at once. Bill tugging on the door of the barn. Lou’s truck pulling up and the sound of his feet running into the backyard. His voice telling Bill, who was opening the barn door, to get off his property. A round racked in the Beretta. Scrabbling steps in the dirt. Hard breathing and starlings flushing out of the tree, and Macy’s head pressed into my waist. One shot. Splintering wood in the barn. Macy screaming.
The barn door opened. I wet my pants.
I closed my eye. I waited for my punishment. When I opened it, Lou was pulling us from underneath the Studebaker. He carried Macy into the house and told us it would be okay. He’d fix it.
Macy didn’t see him. Near the plywood covering the deep pit, Bill commando-crawled along the grass. Just above the back of his knee, a darkness blossomed against the khakis he always wore. Lou yelled for me to follow. I held my breath and crossed the lawn to the back door. Before I went into the house, I looked back to see him one more time. He’d made it only a few feet, the dark bloom big as a sunflower.
Inside, Lou washed our faces and made us some lemonade. I changed my pants. He turned on the radio in the kitchen. He made us peanut butter and crackers. He dealt out hands of Crazy-Eights and told us a story of Mom learning to milk a cow. Not once did he look out the window. After an hour, Lou picked up the phone and called the coroner.
Afterward, in the big swing on the front porch, we arced back and forth into darkness until everything behind us was swallowed by the new-mooned sky, and the light below us was a bed of embers.
. . .
When I got back from Pardee’s, Brian was just parking a vintage Lincoln in the handicapped spot next to the ambulance bay. He saw me watching him and tapped at the blue placard dangling from the rearview.
“Nice ride. Your legs broken?”
“My dad’s.” He shrugged, blushed. “Truck’s in the shop again. Would have been here sooner,” he said. “Sorry about Lou, Lilly.”
I waited for him to tack on something pithy about how Lou went out right, but he didn’t. We went inside, and he tossed his duffel on the listing recliner in the living room, a chair Stu had dubbed the “stroke simulator.” Too many of us had sat in it, leaning left so we could see the T.V. better, and the cushions were permanently damaged so anyone sitting in it was forced off-camber, pitched to one side. Brian left again, mumbling something about doing inventory. Under the humming fluorescent lights, Stu wore a flowery apron way too small for him and leaned over the stove, cooking ground beef for a pot of chili.
“You okay?” He added onions and turned toward me.
I left him at the stove and went to the bedroom for my clothes, double-checking the pillbox for my spare eye. I always carried one. They broke easily, splintered around the edges from use. The box was in two pieces, no eye there, but I had more at home. We usually worked three days on, living at quarters during block shifts, though as long as we had the rig with us we could leave. In the kitchen, Stu whistled a tune, put something in the microwave and beeped it into life. The phone rang, and he picked it up on the second ring, his voice deep as a cavern. I was supposed to work two more days. Three nights of listening to Stu snoring in the next room, lying on his back with one arm flung over his face. Spices from the chili washed the air in the bedroom. I wanted to sneak out, get to the ranch and fall apart where no one could see me. To get to the door I had to walk past him.
Stu turned to wipe his hands on a towel. “Tim said he’d cover for me. I’ll be up later. Or sooner. Whichever you need.”
“I don’t know what I need.” I waited for him to reach into his pocket, but he didn’t. He turned down the heat and stirred the chili. He opened four cans of beans and dumped them into the pot, his head tilted to the right. Bit the inside of one cheek. Gestures I’d come to recognize meant he was searching for what to say—I’d seen them often enough with our frequent-flyer drug pick-ups or domestic violence calls, scenes in which Stu took the lead. He’d wait until the wind-down of their whirling, irrational stories. Then that pause.
“It’s okay to be upset.” He turned to me, holding the spoon. His other hand moved up toward his pocket and then didn’t reach inside. He scratched at his beard and looked past me out the window. “Why don’t you head out. Brian’s got it covered.”
“What? No candy-coated solution?”
He set the spoon down and opened a can of corn. “Careful, Lil. Don’t take it out on me.”
“Don’t you do that thing you do.”
Corn slopped from the can into the pot, and he stirred at it again, let silence hover. “What’s that? Be a good friend? Be sad that Lou died?”
“I just can’t take the mellow-in-all-situations routine. Have a little fire in the belly, why don’t you.”
He slammed the lid on the pot and wiped his hands on the apron. “Sure. You want fire? You’re a stubborn ass. Also, I can see you, scary eyeball and all, and I’m not afraid of you.”
We stood facing off across the kitchen.
“That’s a low blow.”
“Yeah, well, now you’re really paying attention.”
“You tell Tim to stay home. I don’t want to see you. I’m not an emergency.”
He reached into his pocket, tipped his head to one side, and looked right at my dead eye while he popped a candy in his mouth, then stepped closer and looked down at me.
. . .
A week after Lou shot Bill, I woke up to Macy hacking in the bunk beneath me.
“I got a ton a gunk in there,” she said. “I’m freezing.”
“Geez. It’s like a million degrees in here,” I said. “Spit into the trash can.”
“Can’t spit. I don’t know where my mouth is.”
It lasted all the next day. The rasping and the fever. Every so often she’d come to and talk to someone who wasn’t in the room. She wouldn’t fight with me. When I brought her the slingshots, she didn’t even open her eyes. We took her to Dr. Polt, who said we shouldn’t have waited so long, that her respiratory system was failing. They couldn’t figure out why, not a virus he’d ever seen.
And then, just like that, she was dead. A mystery illness the Health Department later investigated with no results.
We spent years not talking about it, Lou and me. Dealing with our sadness in different ways—he threw himself at raising me and the hospital auxiliary; I learned how to run the ranch, stuck my head into the school’s library books and didn’t take it out until I graduated from high school. I couldn’t leave Loden or Lou. After childhood, I figured there wasn’t an emergency I’d be surprised about, so I went to paramedic school. The first female medic in three counties.
Lou always said any good story, tragic or not, has a couple of hinges that work because you don’t see them coming. Awful magic, he called it. For him, Elizabeth Carlson’s death that June—years after Macy’s, just a few months before his own—was the second hinge.
Stu and I had just transported the barely alive parts of a cyclist from Germany who had been riding along the shoulder of the highway, minding his own business, helmet and all, when he got clipped by an RV mirror from behind. The RV people, an obese couple from Oklahoma, were in the waiting room, hysterical, while they waited to see if their bus had killed someone or not. And so were Elizabeth’s parents.
They’d brought her in for a flu she couldn’t kick. I stood at the desk finishing my paperwork, eavesdropping, when Dr. Polt came out into the waiting room. I held my breath to see what he was going to say, feeling right then like I was thirteen years old again. He talked to the Carlsons about all the usual stuff, about how they were going to admit her, keep her there and watch her, make sure she got plenty of fluids. There were a few other kids already in beds on the second floor with the same collapsing respiratory system. The hair all along my arms stood up. I pretended I was still doing my report for the cyclist. Stu had gone to the vending machine.
“There’s something else,” Dr. Polt said. “Do you have any outbuildings?”
The Carlsons were confused, both of them answering slowly, processing, it seemed, the random tack in conversation. There was a barn they said. A workshop covered in corrugated siding.
“Elizabeth has access to these places?”
“She’s in 4-H,” Mr. Carlson said. “She spends most of her time in the barn with her horse, her pigs.”
“I guess what I’m really asking,” Dr. Polt said, “is whether you have a place that doesn’t air out? A place where rodents, deer mice specifically, can nest without being bothered?”
They nodded. Said their barn had a place like that.
“We think Elizabeth might have Hantavirus. It’s spread by mice urine. And feces.”
Dr. Polt sent one of them home to clean everything with bleach while the other one sat at Elizabeth’s bedside. I stood at the counter shaking, reliving those moments under the car in the barn. Our new start had been doomed to failure, the high body count of that summer as swift as a bad western, and me, not Lou, holding the smoking gun.
After work I found Lou in his garden shoring up tomato vines with bamboo poles. He sat on his milk can, shaking his head, while I unraveled the whole bad spool for him.
“Gol-damn,” Lou said. “Gol-damn.”
We cleaned until well past dark, until our fingers were raw and red and the bleach had burned out all other scents. Lou threw out the last of his cleaning water into the field and peeled away the mask and gloves. We sat on the swing in the cottonwood, drinking beer and letting our eyes adjust to the dark.
“You listen here, girl,” he said. “Don’t be like that Atlas, carrying it all around.”
“I don’t know what to do,” I said.
The chain of the old swing creaked above us. Lou’s country radio in the kitchen took a commercial break, inviting us to head to Rusty’s for good burgers and beers, then went back to an hour of line dance tunes.
“No use competition flogging ourselves now,” he said. “What’s done is done.”
He stood, shaking his head and considering the ground. He pulled his red bandana from his pocket and wiped the back of his neck, then stuffed the cloth away and stood in the glow cast by the porch light where mosquitoes and gnats hurled themselves at the light.
. . .
A week later, Lou woke me in the middle of the night, leaning over me in my bedroom in the guest house—my house—and reeking of whiskey. “Come on out and help me,” he said. “We gotta do it together.”
Out back we stood under the cottonwood and looked up through its branches at the sky, heavy and dark, moonless. “You have to trust me,” he said. He let out a long, sour breath and rocked back on his heels.
“Okay,” I said. “I’d trust you a lot more if you were sober.”
“Gol-damnit, girl. You don’t know nothin’.” He looked at me hard, angry.
I examined the yard for whatever it was that I needed to know, and it all looked the same. Lou reached into his pocket and fiddled with something, then said, “Follow me.”
We walked over to the barn. He opened the door and the smell of bleach overlaid on motor oil and paint thinner wafted out into the damp night air. He disappeared inside and banged his head or leg against something and cursed, then dragged the metal gas can out. He paused, hunched over and wheezing.
“I need gas?”
“Yep. Take it over there.” He pointed to the other side of the building where we kept a pile of corrugated siding, then closed the barn doors and snapped the padlock shut.
I waited for him at the opposite corner of the barn, trying to remember what Stu had said about his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s and how they’d first recognized she was afflicted, which was way before she’d strip down naked at the nursing home and climb into bed with every new man who came to live there, cogent or not.
Lou scratched his head and raised his voice at me, “Well, pour it, for Christ’s sake.”
“The gas. Jesus.” He leaned down and opened the spout and tipped it toward the base of the building, emptying half the can, and the sweet choke of gas fume bled out into the night.
“What the hell are you doing, Lou? You’re scaring me.”
“Carleen called. The Carlson girl died.”
Between us, a cloying curtain of gas rose, blocking out the sweet scent of willow from the creek, the wet earth of the field. Lou sobbed into his bandana and told me he was sorry. We had to do it now or he’d never be right. His stooped frame straddled a maw of grief and guilt that felt too large to reach across. My eye blurred and his face swam in my vision; I toggled my head back and forth, trying to get him into focus. Then he handed me the matches and pointed.
“I’m not doing it,” I said. “This is insane. We have tools in here. Supplies. A car you love.”
“I can’t stand it, Lilly. I left you here for him. I can’t stand it.”
“Burning the barn down won’t make you feel any better.” I thought about the pleasure we both got from burning piles of brush, how we frequently turned these into parties. “Well, it might for a minute. But you’d feel bad tomorrow.”
“Give me those matches, then. Let me do it.” He reached out to swipe them from me and stumbled. I put them in my robe pocket.
“No way. You gave them to me because you don’t really want to do it. Let’s go inside.”
He mimed striking a match then tossing it at the base of the barn. “Always taking away my joy,” he said. He stepped back a few steps, struck another imaginary match and threw it down. “Never gettin’ none for yourself, neither. Just give him a chance, girl.”
“Him who?” He was about to strike another, but stepping back, he fell against the barn.
“Now you’re just being stubborn,” he whined.
“Let’s go inside. I’ll let you have more whiskey.”
“I drank it all.”
He leaned against the barn and sobbed, talking to Macy. Talking to Mom. I pulled him toward me, got one of his arms around my shoulders, and we limped toward the back door, one of his feet dragging behind. I tucked him into bed. He rolled over, patted his pocket for his bandana, then blew his nose into a corner of his sheet.
“You’re a good girl, Lil. A good girl.”
. . .
Up at the house, I unpacked my bag and went out back to check on the pig. The smoke was beginning to slack off. It trickled up from a rectangular seam of earth outlining our pit. A pair of shovels leaned against the willow tree. Before he’d gone to the bar, Lou had pulled three picnic benches over into the shade with a chain hooked to the back of his truck. A stack of gingham tablecloths lay folded on one of the tables, tamped down against the wind with a can of paint.
Shots exploded in one of the canyons and echoed above me and all around. I was on the threshold of Lou’s favorite time of day. That moment between light and dark when the sky closes and opens up, too. I considered how survival was a boomerang that kept winging back at me, relentless. The hills purpled and blurred. The barn slunk back into the shadows, pulsing and ticking away the day’s heat while the cap of evening fell. Its dark absence a reminder of things I could not help and some I could. It felt cheap and mean, now, to have kept the pleasure of its burning from Lou.
Lou’s truck grinding up the road and the swing of headlights interrupted my pity party, made me wonder if I’d imagined the whole day. I walked around to the front of the house as Stu pulled up and parked Lou’s truck in the spot where Lou always did. He stepped out, reached back in and retrieved a bowl of fruit salad. He’d changed out of his work clothes into jeans and a green button down.
“Think the transmission’s going on this thing,” he said.
“It was on his list,” I said. Over Stu’s shoulder, the lights of Loden glittered in two twinkling crescents cut by the black of the river. “You still mad?”
“Not sure. Can’t seem to figure out why I don’t just chase a nurse or something. But today’s not the day for that conversation. Figured you might wanna have that party anyway,” he said.
I hadn’t thought of it, but he was right. “Lou would like that.”
“Told folks I’d call them if you hated the idea. Oh, I forgot.” I reached for the bowl, and he handed it to me and poked his head back into the truck for a brown bag. “I found these. No kind of Lou party without sparklers.” He set them on the hood of the truck. “Also…” He patted his front pocket and reached inside it.
“Jesus. Enough. I don’t want any of your stupid candy.”
He held his hand out, his fingers a closed clamshell, the nails neatly trimmed, an oval callous along the ridge of his thumb. “You sure?”
“Absolutely sure. You have got to get a new shtick.”
His fingers unfurled.
Not a lemon drop, but my eye.
“Found it under the nightstand while I was vacuuming. I always thought they were round.”
I cradled the bowl of fruit. Stu stood tall, his mouth working over the last shard of a lemon drop, waiting to be invited, holding my eye. I could feel all the punch going out of me; it was too much to hold, the bitter and the sweet vined together, both vital as arteries.
“I won’t apologize about being stubborn.”
“Of course you won’t.”
“I need to do something. Will you help me?”
“You know I will.”
“We’ll need some matches.”