My Sister in Love
Our satellite phone looked like any regular phone—made of that white plastic that goes yellow pretty fast, with a cord to the receiver that just crawled around your fingers when you talked on it. Most often the connection sounded more like two tin cans tied together with a string, with the voice on the other end echoing in the aluminum, and when you picked up the handset you always had to wait longer than you thought for the line to click on. Timing it took some practice, but after thirteen years growing up on the Bitterroot Ranch in western Montana, I got to know it like a heartbeat. It rang that day around seven o’clock, while the pork chops were soaking in their brine on the kitchen counter, and my mother answered.
Lil and I were setting the table in the dining room. It didn’t get dark till about ten o’clock that time of year, and lately we’d been having dinner in broad daylight. The field outside was hot yellow, and inside the dust glowed on the black potbelly stove. I was putting down the paper napkins and Lil was trapping them under the water glasses, heavy and sort of indelicate, like she was catching a moth. She looked tired. Her knuckles were cracked at the creases from the dozens of dishes she’d passed through soap and scalding water three times a day, and her shirt was stained with bleach where the lip of the kitchen sink met her belly button. I loved that t-shirt, the green one that said M*A*S*H across the front with the orange nebula of Clorox right in the middle. A strand of her dry blond hair came loose and floated towards the table, lit up electric with the light from the window.
Ma pushed open the door to the kitchen with the meat pounder still in her hand, and her words came in like the five o’clock news.
“That was Caleb’s mother,” she said. “He left Knoxville yesterday and nobody’s heard from him since.”
The glass was out of Lil’s hand before the door swung back. I don’t know if Ma saw or pretended not to, but it was just me and Lil standing there when the din stopped and every piece of china was sitting under a million shards of glass, glittering like dew.
“Lil?” I whispered. She had a look on her face like she didn’t quite know what to cry about first.
“If it isn’t one thing, Jo,” she said, taking a deep breath, “it’s a dozen.”
In June of 1993, my sister married a drunk. His name was Caleb, and they’d had the wedding on my Grandparents farm in Idaho, in the cherry orchard a week after the harvest. It was a nice idea, but all the guests had gone barefoot and spent most of the afternoon wading through grass sticky with overripe cherry meat. By the end of it the bottoms of their feet were blood red and the hem of Lil’s dress looked like a massacre. She smiled, Pa wept. My brothers shot a pig to roast and paid it more attention than they did Lil all night, while Ma had almost as many whiskeys as the groom. I couldn’t tell one way or another how sober Caleb was, but I was only ten then and had known him about as many minutes.
I guessed he wasn’t the night before though. Lil had been sleeping in my room, and when I walked out of the bathroom I nearly dropped my toothbrush. Caleb was sitting on the bed in his underwear with a sewing kit and a bottle of black ink on the quilt in front of him. Lil was opposite him, his right hand balanced around her neck while his left ran the needle in a circle just under her collar bone.
“Don’t fuck it up,” she breathed, and her chest fluttered.
“I’m gonna have to if you want them to match.” Caleb smiled, and I noticed the tattoo by his left shoulder. It was a circle the size of a dollar coin, like Lil’s, only blotchy and perforated like a line that should have said, ‘cut here.’ The ink on their hands was shiny, and they were covered in each others fingerprints.
“I never was any good with a sewing needle,” she said back.
“Guess I’ll have to find some other heifer to mend my clothes then.”
“Damn right you will,” Lil said, and she smiled like I’d never seen her before.
I went back inside the bathroom and waited till Caleb had gone to come out, but by then Lil was asleep. After that she didn’t come back with us to Montana because Caleb took her south to Tennessee, and for a while that was the last I heard from my sister. When I think of the wedding now it’s usually that the cherry stones between my toes felt like stepping on snails, and I can’t remember much more of Caleb than his inky fingernails the night before. Even in the years after when I would try and think of Lil, she looked like she did that day—cherry gore creeping up the lace of her dress and the little stitches of the tattoo holding her together like the bride of Frankenstein. A while later when she started calling from Knoxville she still sounded a bit like a ghost, her voice spooky in the receiver. But it was usually late at night, and she always made me hand over the phone to Ma pretty quick.
The day Caleb’s mother called Pa had taken out the plane to round up our herd, but he’d missed two cows on his way up the valley. By the time he landed the Husky in the pasture at the main house he decided it was too late to go back for them with the plane, so my brothers had set out on horseback to push them the rest of the way in. My little brother Hank was nine and had begged to go along, but I bet he was regretting it now. It would be about eight miles down the ridge before they could even start looking for the cows, let alone get them back. By the time we heard from them it was midnight.
“Pa, can you come in?” Duke’s voice came in over the radio in the kitchen. Pa picked up a handset.
“I sure hope you found them, boys,” he sighed, mocking them with the dearth of optimism in his voice. His grey mustache was grown nearly past his bottom lip, seemingly to obscure his smirk at times like these. “Your mother’d like to get to bed and I don’t have much power left in me to deprive her,” he added, to torture them a bit.
“Come on Pa, we’re not more than three quarters of the way down. There’s no way we’d get ‘em tonight anyhow, it’s darker than the inside of Hank’s skull out here.”
There was a pause, during which my father smiled but didn’t reply, and instead let the boys’ failure steep a little longer in the radio static. When I was younger I’d known him to stay out all night hunting down a lost cow. Once he’d severed the tendon in his left ring finger getting a calf out of barbed wire. That’s because each cow at auction was worth more than twenty-five hundred dollars to our family, and if you asked him whether that was worth losing his wedding band, he’d lie. But it’d been almost a year since Pa had even been in the saddle—said he didn’t like the way a trot made his guts roll—and I think he was that much harder on the boys to make up for it.
“Can’t you just get ‘em with the plane tomorrow?” Duke crackled in.
Pa looked at me and Lil.
“Alright girls. Go get your brothers.”
Lil took out the ham and pickles and had me fix some sandwiches while she warmed up the car. Even late summer nights were blue cold in the Montana hills.
“Don’t you think we ought to put something else on them?” The slices of Wonder Bread on the counter were so thin you could still see the dents were my hand had held them.
“They been out there since four o’clock, Jo. They won’t know the difference,” Lil said and walked out of the kitchen. I opened the fridge and dipped a knife into the mayonnaise, then slapped it on one of the white slices. Duke loved mayonnaise.
Before we could even hitch up the trailer Lil had gone out to unplug the white Ford f350 from the extension chord in the shed. The battery hadn’t worked without a jump in nearly a decade so Pa had run a little plug out from under the front hood, and we had to keep it charging every night. Even then the thing was about as reliable as fate. I would have bet it couldn’t even make the forty miles to the post office. If we needed to get to town—to sell our dairy or stock up on beans and Crisco for the winter—we’d take the plane.
The plane was a Husky A1-A that Pa bought in ’91, along with the acres that brought our land up to the national forest boundary. He said we needed it to run the cows on that much land, but it was also mercy on our horses—and any of us four kids Pa had in the saddle on big cow moves. Even before the purchase moves could take all day, and when it was really hot Pa would tie my ankles to my stirrups in case I fell asleep. But the pastures were all thick rabbit brush leading up to the base of the peaks where we lived, and Pa could spy the calves better from the plane. I never knew why they’d set up a cattle operation this far out, in a county called Wisdom, Montana, or why the Duke’s of the Colleredo family (My grandpa, Pa, and my brother Duke) had such a sweet tooth for stupid. Maybe it was just the fascination of what’s difficult—banking on a spotty satellite phone for their business and maintaining a homemade hydroelectric pump for our whole irrigation system and half dozen naked light bulbs. But I was too young then to think it might have been harder than it was smart. Even my mother had a shady sense of humor about it. She always said, “You know where to find us—when you’re coming down I-29 and you see that sign on your right that says, Wisdom, This Way! You just head clear in the other direction. That’s where we’ll be.”
I knew the news about Caleb was eating Lil up. She’d fishtailed the horse trailer down the switchbacks so fast her palms had even forgot to sweat. But her knuckles were white, and her blue eyes were pale in the reflection from the windshield, the shadows of dead mosquitoes falling on her cheeks like freckles. She was the oldest of all of us kids usually acted like it, but now for the first time I’d ever seen, she looked irresolute. As she drove I watched her chest rise and fall, looking right at the spot under her left collarbone where that broken circle was.
“I’m calling P.J.,” Duke said after Lil told him. Our headlights had just come up on them sitting on their saddles in the middle of the road. Duke didn't waste any time, just slapped his mare on her haunches until her hooves banged up into the trailer.
“Pa already did,” Lil said, a little mean. I could tell she’d wanted some sympathy before Duke started scolding her, but it was so typical of him to act like the law. To act like Pa even if he was barely eighteen. But she didn’t dare try and stop him getting involved. He was probably the only one she couldn’t kid about Caleb, because it was Duke, her younger brother, who she’d had to call to haul her back from Knoxville last winter when she finally got up the nerve to leave him. The past few months with her home had been a little strange, in that she was the oldest but Duke treated her like she was even feebler than me, like she couldn’t even be trusted to do anything right after she’d got herself in so deep with Caleb. He was wrong though, Lil was the toughest girl I’d ever met.
“Where’s Ma?” Duke said.
“Asleep.” She handed him a sandwich.
“This is the best darn sandwich I ever ate,” Hank said from where he was wedged between me and Lil on the bench seat of the ford. I smiled at Lil, proud of myself.
“Quit ass-kissin, Hank,” Duke said. “These girls in the kitchen are about as useless as tits on a bull.” Lil laughed, but Hank was silent and I felt like I’d been hit in the cheek. Duke was real good at that. Lil must have noticed the little patch of breath on the glass from me sighing out the window.
“Jo wanted to roast you up some pork chops but I wouldn’t let her,” she said heroically, and Duke apologized by wedging my head in his armpit.
Lil wasn’t like Duke. She was tuned to this higher frequency—sensitive to the smallest changes in feedback of fear, anger, help, whatever I was thinking, whatever I needed. She laughed easily, spoke gently, fawned over me always. But it wasn’t just me she loved. She found joy in the simplest things, almost curiously, sedately. Everybody trusted her, begged for her love. Really she was just so forgiving, and everybody it seemed wanted to be forgiven.
Especially Caleb. He’d leaned on Lil the same way I did, worshipped her like she was holy, and she’d had even more faith in him. Maybe that’s why I always liked Caleb. Because if Lil thought his booze hound heart and bad temper were worthy of her love, I did too. What I couldn’t stand was that he’d made her promises, and she’d had to give up on him before he could even keep them. She’d had to come back home and shovel pig shit for her parents and let her teenage brother be her boss at twenty-four, and she was feeling cheated. But he was coming back for her now, I thought. That was why he left Knoxville. I pictured him tearing across the mid-west, Bruce Springsteen in the stereo and Lil on his mind, straightaways, signs like You Are Now Leaving Kentucky! propped up in a cornfield—the drama of it all. Man, I thought, that was romance.
When we got back P.J. was in the kitchen. Which looked bad because he wouldn’t have driven the two and a half hours from Wisdom if it wasn’t important. P.J. was the Sheriff, and P.J. was short for Pajama John—called so because the hunting clothes he wore weren’t really camouflage so much as an ugly kaleidoscope-ish print. Like his wife had picked them out of the discount bin at Wal-Mart and sewn them into what looked like a happy matching set of long johns. Everyone in town thought he just walked around in his pajamas with a six-shooter and a bowie knife in his belt.
“I don’t know what y’all just stepped into, but that’s a wanted man,” P.J. said to my mother, who now was awake and boiling a kettle for him in her housecoat. “Went into a bank in Chattanooga with a toy gun and asked for a fair bit of money. Apparently he didn’t dump the tracker they put in his bag ‘till he was ten miles outside of the city. If I was you folks I’d gear up for a hell of a chase. There’s a warrant out for him in Tennessee.”
Frankly my mother seemed more concerned about the Sheriff and his small armory slurping tea in her kitchen at two in the morning. Every so often he would take out his knife and use it to swivel around his tea bag, and Hank watched him with eyes as big as dinner plates. She looked about ready to clock them both.
“Staying the night, P.J.?” Duke said, smiling at Ma.
“Well, now that you mention it, Duke,” P.J. started, looking bashfully at Ma. “That old road has got the axel on my truck sounding like a symphony. Probably best to have a look at it in the daylight before I head back…”
Ma slammed her teacup in its saucer.
“Well that’s fine by me as long as you can stand to spend a night without your rifle under your pillow,” she said, then looked at Lil, who was paler than parchment. “Big Duke won’t like an alarmist with a loaded weapon under his roof.”
“Alarmist?” P.J. coughed. “Lil’s man is running’ from the law!”
“Dammit, John, quit getting so whipped up. There’s people robbing banks every damn day in this part of the country, and not one of them would be caught dead with a toy pistol,” she said, and walked out of the kitchen.
What I didn’t know then was that there’s nowhere in the country people are robbing banks every day. In fact, nobody’d even gotten away with it in the state of Montana since Butch Cassidy and his boys. And they got shot, eventually. Turns out if you rob a bank anywhere in America there’s a near 98% chance you’ll be caught, tried, and convicted. It’s hard to think of why somebody’d want to with those odds. But I guess either you’re crazy, like the real, looney, cut-your-brain-out-and-stick-you-in-a-pillow-box crazy, or you’re asking for it. For the chase, or for the bullet. I don’t know which one Caleb wanted, but he was asking for it.
After that word came in from P.J. every couple days—a blip to the satellite phone like Morse code. Every time it rang we hovered around the kitchen like we’d have crowded around a television set for a special bulletin, if we’d had one. But despite the news about Caleb creeping in through the telephone, the ranch stayed quiet. Most days it felt like P.J.’s calls were coming from a different time, warning of a doom I believed in even if our little homestead seemed guarded from it by centuries. The wheat colored sky in the afternoon and the sound of voices from acres away seemed indicative of an impenetrable peace, unchanged by any police chase or tragedy hurdling towards it and gaining speed with every mile on Caleb’s odometer.
On Friday we had a thunderstorm. About four o’clock a bolt struck the lightning rod that ran through the middle of our house and out the top like a flagpole. The rod did its job and buried the current right underground, but the kitchen appliances got the worst of it. The toaster had spit sparks and the stove had been trying to light itself ever since. Plus, the hydro pump had shut itself down out of self-preservation when the power went out, and Pa was out trying to get it back on with a hairpin or whatever he used on that homemade machine. Even with all this rain, the runoff that powered the pump was real feeble on account of the draught, and every time the system shut off it stopped diverting water to the lower pastures. Water the cows needed more than we did electricity, so Pa was knee deep in the weir while Ma got the backup generator going. Hank was in the kitchen sliding pots around the floor to catch the leaks.
Duke and Lil were out trying to catch some horses that had spooked and busted through a gate when the lightning hit. When I tried to help Lil made me wait on the fence until they got them in, and the soggy wood was seeping through the butt of my jeans. The lightning flashing orange behind the black clouds, like the very last embers in a cooking fire. Duke cracked the bullwhip behind three loose bays who pivoted and bolted back towards Lil. Their slick coats rippled and steam came off them in the wet dark. She stood her ground at the end of the road waving her arms and hollering as they ran towards her, her boots slipping in the mud as she pushed them in through the gate. Pa came over, wet to his armpits in his waders, and tapped me on the shoulder.
“Come with me kid, it’s about time you learned to fix this thing.”
I followed him back through the pasture he’d come from, the grass so flooded his sunken footsteps were like little ponds. The hydro was surrounded by a chain-link fence, about six feet tall, the gate looped with an open padlock. We went through and climbed up a slippery hill to the top of the weir, which was overflowing with rain water. It was moving so fast the thing looked more like the hoover dam than the weir my dad built from a blueprint when he was twenty-five. A nearby tree had fallen into the sandy pool, its roots loose out of the mud and coiling up like smoke signals, but petrified. Pa stood on the stone edge of the weir near the intake and I watched from the bank.
“Now as you can see Johanna,” he yelled, loud whitewater running over his muck boots. “This rain’s brought down a lot of mud, so I spent the last hours shoveling silt out of here. I think I cleared the trashrack before it pugged up the penstock.” He pointed to a metal pipe running down the hill like a spine—out of the dam and into the cement house where the turbines were. “That’s where the power’s at,” he continued, and my toes shook in empty inches of my oversized rubber boots. “The water gets pressurized in the pipe, and the farther it falls, the more power you can generate. But it’s meant to shut itself off when the power surges. That’s why its all backed up.”
The whole thing seemed a little like a toy, the bolts and pipes all just a little bit bent, water spurting out of crevices and going in all directions. Seeing Pa standing over it he looked like a kid at a science fair. The more he talked the more I could tell how proud he was of it, even if he ended up down here to repair it about every two weeks. I like to think it made him feel smart, being the only one who could. He liked that about it, and I wondered what the hell he was doing showing me how it worked when Little Duke didn’t even have a clue. He walked carefully down the hill, smiling all the way at his creation like he was tending to another one of his children. Come to think of it, it was about the only thing Pa tended to these days, when he wasn’t up in the Plane. But even Little Duke could pilot now and took care of the cows as much as Pa did, and now this seemed like his last way to prove he was useful.
“What’s with the fence?” I asked.
“The cows. They can step on the pipe and crack it, then we’ll all be pissin’ in the wind. Or drinking it to stay alive before I can fix it.”
I laughed and wrung my blue fingertips.
“Well it sure is pissin’ rain out here Pa. Can we get this thing running already?”
He smiled and I followed him down the hill. The turbines were housed in what looked like a bunker. You had to wrench open a manhole at the top and climb down a ladder to get in. It was a strange quiet in there when it wasn’t running, and the sound of the water outside was soft through the thick concrete. The cold lifted off the cement floor and in through my socks. Water stained the creases of the walls. Pa led me over to a switchbox and had me hold the flashlight, then flipped the switch.
“Shit,” he said, as we stood there in the silence. “Best we give it another shot tomorrow, when daylight’s burning.”
By the time Pa and I got back the backup generator was running and the lights were back on. Duke and Lil walked in next, rain sliding off their noses. For a minute we were silent. Water dripped from the ceiling and the big iron oven clicked as it delivered spark after wasted spark. Duke drummed his fingers on the linoleum counter.
“Well if the oven’s broke, what’s for dinner?”
“Whiskey I guess,” Ma answered from behind the refrigerator where the breaker board was.
Duke knew what to do. He grabbed the bottle from the cabinet and took a swig, smacked his lips and rolled his eyes like he wasn’t quite convinced. “I don’t know Ma, is this whiskey?”
“Let me see that son,” Pa said, hanging his wet felt hat on a hook and taking the bottle. He gulped and paused. “Tastes like a Comanche’s toilet water to me. I don’t know, what do you think, Lil. If anybody can tell the difference, it’s you.” He handed her the bottle and kissed her on the ear. Sometimes he seemed like the only one who treated Lil like she deserved. Like he was glad to have her back and didn’t see her marriage as leaving the rest of us to rot, like I think Duke did.
“Please,” she said, her face smiling and stinging all at once. “That’s plain WD40!”
“Jeez, Lil, times are hard but there are easier ways to go,” Duke teased. Lil punched him.
It always made me a little mad, watching Lil laugh at Duke’s jokes. He could just unglue her at his mercy, and she’d forget that most of her day was spent working for him, making him sandwiches and scrubbing the pots he ate his grits from. It was like he used joy as a weapon. He knew so perfectly well how to give it to her, yet often did not.
“I’ll tell you if it’s whiskey,” Ma beckoned and took her taste. Then, shaking her head, “you kids, that’s nothin’ but tap water.”
“What a woman,” Pa squeezed her, while Duke took the bottle and looked at me.
“What do you think, Jo? Is this whiskey?”
I’d always imagined when it was my turn I’d just purse my lips and act tough like Ma, say something like, tastes like maple syrup to me! I’d even put it on my pancakes. But I’d never been allowed to play. Usually Hank and I would just watch and pretend like we were in on the joke, our guts green with envy because they weren’t full of whiskey. I looked to my mother first for approval before lifting it to my lips.
It did not taste like maple syrup.
Everybody in the kitchen was just about splitting their kidneys laughing while I tried to regurgitate the liquor, but before I could even get my eyes un-blurred, the phone rang.
“Lil,” Ma held out the receiver, her face suddenly like a cinderblock. In the stillness the skillets swayed from their hooks above her head, while the rest of us silently breathed out bourbon. “It’s P.J. I think you oughtta hear this.”
Lil took the receiver.
“That sounds like Caleb” was all Lil said, then she hung up and walked out the screen door.
“What’s the latest, Ma?” Little Duke slid down from his place on the kitchen counter. I went to follow Lil, not caring if he’d robbed every bank between here and Tennessee, I wasn’t about to let her give up on him now.
“Said they spotted Caleb at a place called the River Port Casino outside Baton Rouge, with a woman.”
I stopped to listen.
“You surprised?” Duke asked.
“If she isn’t, I’m not,” Ma said coolly.
“She is she just won’t admit it. She’s just actin like she’s as wised up to that idiot as she should be but she ain’t. You never should have let her marry that son of a bitch.”
“One day, Duke, you’ll have a daughter and she’ll listen to you about as good as your mustang. That’s the secret about having kids. They’re gonna act stupid no matter what, your job is just to make them feel a little better about it.”
“That’s a hell of an attitude.”
“Don’t get smart—”
“—especially when you didn’t see him that night. Because I was the one who drove a thousand goddamn miles to get her when Caleb was on his fourth pint and Lil was on her last legs. You don’t know the half of it.”
“Please, Duke, I know everything.”
“Oh yeah? You know when Lil used to call from Knoxville—back when they first got married—that she’d be calling you from the inside of that asshole’s Silverado? That on the nights he got real drunk she’d walk out to the driveway to lock herself in the truck ‘cause she was scared. That some mornings she’d wake up to him tapping on the driver’s side where she’d fallen asleep, because he needed the car to drive the woman home from the night before.”
Ma didn’t answer.
“Sure you knew he was a drunk, but so is half of Montana. For god’s sake so is Pa and everybody else we know. But you don’t know the half of it.”
Ma grabbed the bottle of whiskey from the counter and smashed it in the sink before I could flinch.
“Get out and make sure that damn gate is still on its hinges. If the horses are out again you won’t get dinner ‘till morning.”
The broken glass scraped the aluminum as it settled in the sink and I wedged through the door out onto the porch. I couldn’t tell if Ma was angrier about what she’d just heard or the fact that Duke had called Pa a drunk. I’d certainly never heard anyone say it before.
Lil was hanging the laundry. It had stopped raining but the sky was dark and the white sheets looked grey behind her blonde hair—the strands around her face were kicked up by the weather and sticking to her mouth and eyelashes like static. She looked right at me and hung up a comforter so all I could see of her were the ankles of her blue jeans. I didn’t have my shoes on, and the splinters of the porch grazed my toes, but I didn’t go inside. I watched her move along the line, the damp linen walls clinging to her like velvet, and could see she was aching but wasn’t proud. Because I knew it wasn’t the warrant out for his arrest, and it wasn’t even the other woman—it was that he’d taken the turn south, and Louisiana was in the wrong direction. That despite all of it, the worst part was that he wasn’t coming for her.
The next day Lil didn’t get out of bed. At breakfast her hot cereal steamed at the place next to mine, and stayed there lit up by the late-morning light as we cleared the table. Nobody said a word about it and Ma who’d have made a dead horse work, just started bringing meals to her so they didn’t keep getting cold at the table. Everybody forgave her, almost more out of loyalty than commiseration. Even Duke didn’t complain when it took twice as long to do the dishes without her, and he expected me to do the same when he asked me to clean out the grease trap, because it was Lil’s turn.
But I was mad as hell about it. Nobody got a day off unless it was Christmas, and that grease trap under the sink looked like a cauldron and smelled worse than the time we found a dead packrat in the wall. It took me the better part of two hours to clean it; I had to skim off the solids into trash bags, then get the shop vacuum and suck all the black water. Down there was all the things once stuck to the plates I’d washed every day for the last six weeks, every smear of mayonnaise and sliver of bacon fat and flap of chicken skin I thought I’d never see again floated on that black water. Even the sage Duke tucked inside in the handkerchief over my nose didn’t cut the smell.
After I’d finished I ran up the stairs to Lil’s room, ready to chew her out, ask where she got off expecting so damn much of everybody while she spent the afternoon moaning in her bedroom. And over some guy who’d have married a bottle of bourbon if it looked half as good in a dress. But every hot thought in my head was snuffed out the minute I opened the door.
Inside the room was dark in a way that still reminded you it was daytime, with the edges of the windows glowing behind the shades like neon. It smelled stale like warm breath and I felt simultaneously on the verge of tears and like I’d forgotten something very important. I swallowed to keep my stomach out of my esophagus. I didn’t want to ask how she was feeling, because it wasn’t hard to guess. I just got into bed with her and we both fell asleep on the same pillow, right there in the middle of the afternoon.
Around midnight I woke up to cobwebs of frost on the window and could tell Lil was up too.
“You up?” She said from the dark.
“Will you sing for me Jo? Like you used to?” She meant like I used to before she married Caleb, when we shared a room in Idaho. Before we ever met Montana, and the nights weren’t quite so cold. Grandma had given her an Emmylou Harris cassette for her birthday, and she played Angel from Montgomery so much she nearly had the tape ribbon nearly in shreds. Ma would make us shut it off after nine so I’d sing it for her under the covers. I think she thought it was about her.
“If dreams were lighting,” I sang, “and thunder was desire, this old house would have burnt down a long time ago.” She’d always liked those lines best. I mumbled through the last verse and stopped.
“Why’re you crying, Lil?”
“You just sung it so pretty, that’s all.”
She had her back to me, like the mountain of comforter between us might spare us a little humiliation—the sound not nearly as sweet as when I was six, or just that my grown sister was having me sing her lullabies.
“Ma says Caleb’s selfish,” I said.
Lil almost laughed, the tears throttling in her throat.
“That’s what Ma don’t understand. Selfish people are just that much easier to love.”
I guessed I didn’t understand either. It was quiet, and I thought maybe she’d fallen back asleep, but then her voice came through the chilly room.
“Sing it again.”
I woke up to the sound of the cows moaning outside the window. About an hour later Pa went up in the plane to push them to the farthest and greenest pastures that hadn’t been grazed yet. He was gone all day, and about six o’clock he radioed in to say he wanted to land in Shedwell Meadow, the pasture about a mile north of the main house, and when Duke asked about his reasoning he just said reason had nothing to do with it. He wanted us to head up there in the Ford and drive the ground to find a good piece of airstrip. We headed out after dinner.
“You wanna drive, Jo?” Duke said when we got up to the pasture. We were at the top of the range, and the mountains filled up the whole windshield like a masterpiece.
“Sure I do,” I said, trying not to sound so excited. Duke showed me the clutch and I had to stand straight up in the driver’s seat just to get my weight down on it. When I had it in he shifted into first for me. I gave it some gas and felt pretty proud I hadn’t stalled. It felt like everyone was teaching me how to do things that summer, like they were all letting me in on the big secrets. Around the ranch you never asked somebody to teach you anything, because that was acting like they had time to watch you learn. Usually there would just come a day when Pa asked you to do something you never had before and you’d do your best not to screw it up. So I was grateful for Duke that night, even if he did act a bit like he was taking pity on me. He lay back on the splitting upholstery looking a little bit bored and hollering clutch! every once in a while, then when I had it down he would shift up into second as the truck rattled over the dirt.
“Alright kid, Pa’ll be here any minute and you’re driving as slow as Ma. Move over.”
I panicked a little and forgot to clutch, so we stalled out and I pretended like I’d done it on purpose. Duke slid into the driver’s seat and hit the gas, hard. It was almost nine o’clock but bright as daylight, and I hung out the window as we barreled down through the pasture and headed straight for the sky, straight for those mountains. They were ancient and purple, like the edges of a crater, casting a color on our skin that made it look like we were on another planet. I turned around to see the cloud of dust behind the Ford pluming like Daytona, and tears streamed down my face. Not from the dry air or the grit or the gravel, but from pure high voltage happiness.
But as I saw the plane come down in front of those mountains, the ones that surrounded us like walls, I gulped a little thinking about what was beyond them. I knew the town of Wisdom pretty well alright, I’d run in to the post office while Ma idled outside and I’d won a tin ring in the little vending machine outside Conover’s general store, but as far as I was concerned town ceased to exist when I wasn’t in it. The Loaf n’ Jug was only there when I could see the top of Lil’s blond head pacing the aisles through the window, our Ford at the pump in a bath of its own diesel fumes, smelling like the promise of a long ride home. But now I thought of it, what Main street might look like now, and how this violet grey light might not look as friendly on a town as it did on the peaks to the east. How darkness in town meant something else than it did out here. Because there was nothing we could do on the nights without a moon on the ranch, no work we could get done until dawn came back up and ignited the grass. But maybe in town there was a whole lot that went on when the glowing open signs went out, and maybe darkness wasn’t so much an obstacle as it was an opportunity.
The plane bounced along the field in front of us and finally came to a stop about a mile away. Pa kicked the door open like it was made of tin and swung down into the brush. From where we were parked you could only see the top half of him, everything below the knees erased by the cloud of dust he was wading through. He tossed a beer bottle back in the cockpit and started walking towards us. When he got to the truck he threw his hat in through the window first and it landed on my lap. The white felt was tanning, and around the band was a brown muddy stain, each layer like a testament to every hour he’d spent sweating in it.
“Duke, you don’t mind taking us the rest of the way home do you? I feel so dull I couldn’t cut hot butter.”
“Sure, Pa,” he said with an unfriendly look on his face Pa didn’t notice. He put the truck in gear and I watched the shadow of the mountains roll over the pasture as we drove down the divide.
By Monday Caleb had left the woman in a motel at Hoback Junction, just across the border to Wyoming, while she was in the shower. She talked to the cops, said he’d switched his license plates after he left the casino. She said he’d been using burner phones, and I pictured him chucking them out the window of his black Chevrolet as he sped down an interstate. Going north now, I guessed, but that woman went back to Knoxville, back to where she’d left her Corolla on the side of the road and her eight-year-old daughter in her apartment, empty handed save for her driver’s license and the hundred dollars Caleb had left for her on the dresser. I thought of her alone in the shower, unsuspecting while she shampooed her hair with that bar of soap that comes wrapped in plastic on the rim of the sink. The mirror fogged up, the steam interrupted only by the crack in the door Caleb slipped out of. The motel room silent save for the acoustics of the water pressure and her humming and an infomercial playing, maybe the dead bolt swinging from a chain on the lock, the ugly carpeting, the dark night.
For the first time I doubted Caleb. I couldn’t figure it with the Lil I knew. Who was this man she’d been such a fool for? In what indelicate hands had she placed her big and gentle heart? It couldn’t be true. What was true was that he was coming for her, no matter who that woman was, and Lil knew it too. Hoback wasn’t far, six hours maybe, and I could feel Lil thinking it. She never slept in again, woke up like the rest of us, armed and ready for whatever busted machine or thrown horseshoe the Bitterroot Ranch had in store for us that day. But every time the phone rang she’d clutch for something, and usually found the downy inside of my bicep. Any minute now, I’m sure she thought.
When he finally called that phone rang louder than Christ, and Lil answered, by some stroke of fate. She went so still you’d have thought she was looking down the barrel of a gun. I knew it was him, and ran upstairs to Ma and Pa’s rooms to pick up the extension.
“I robbed a bank, Lil,” he said, and I pictured him just south of Wisdom, drawing in the dust on top of some old payphone with his fingernail.
“Don’t I know it.” Lil managed something casual and a little tough in her tone, like nothing he did could spice her soup, like he hadn’t just run a train through her brain the last week.
“Well, you oughtta call the cops now that I told you, I don’t want you in no trouble.”
“Baby, I can’t do that.”
“You gotta do it Lil, or you’ll be in as deep as I am and I don’t want that for you.”
“How sweet of you to think of me” she said sarcastically, because it seemed like the first time he had in this whole mess of things. But there was a smile in her voice, a sad one, and something wonderful about the way she regarded their ruin so sweetly.
“I didn’t mean to put you in a tough spot Lil I just, I just had to talk to you. And you really oughta call, for your own good you gotta.” He sounded scared and wild in a way that made me uncomfortable as I listened, his voice not quite as low as I’d imagined it. “This thing is over Lil. It’s over, its all over. I, I want you to call the police.”
“I can’t do that to you baby.” She started crying.
“Dammit Lil, call the damn cops!”
She was silent.
“If you don’t, then I will and you won’t come out of this clean. And for god sake’s I’ll kill myself if you don’t come out of this clean.”
Lil sucked in air, like she knew he meant it. Like maybe he wanted them to come after him. I think it dawned on her that that’s what he’d wanted all along. I thought of Caleb’s toy gun in the bank in Chattanooga and how he couldn’t very well shoot himself with it, but even the Sheriff’s gun in a little town like Wisdom was loaded. And killing himself seemed like exactly what he was set on doing.
But a moment later Ma and Pa must have walked in because Lil changed her tone.
“Oh, sure, sure. I’ll do my best,” Lil hung up the phone and I ran back down to the kitchen, sliding through the door in my socks.
“Who’s that?” Pa said.
“P.J. Said I should go in to Wisdom to talk to some detectives, Caleb’s trail went cold.”
“Well if his trail’s cold he could be bushwhacking through the Bitterroot for all we know. Better you stay here and his trail stays cold.”
“I’m just trying to help.”
“I don’t want you doing that,” Pa said sternly, then reached out and pulled her close. Lil squirmed a little in his arms, her hand still on that brittle yellow receiver in its cradle, still holding on to it, still holding onto Caleb. But Pa just looked down at her and stroked her blond hair from where she couldn’t see him, like he could read her mind from there, and he didn’t like what he saw.
Ma wasn’t convinced either.
“Lillian, you leave this property and Duke’ll be two steps behind you with his pistol, and you’ll both get yourselves killed,” she said, salt in her voice.
“But you heard her Ma, she’s just trying to help!” I said. “You know P.J. don’t have enough brains to grease up a skillet.” I was hoping she might smile, but she didn’t.
“You listen to me,” Ma said, looking dead at Lil. “You don’t take poison and wait for it to kill your enemy.”
I didn’t have a clue what she meant, but Lil looked like death warmed up. Like the hope she’d been so heavy with was escaping from her romance like air whistling through a hole in a tire. It was so hard to watch I could barely look her in the eyes. But I did watch her, for the rest of the evening while she stood at the sink, her fingers puffed up and red as she scraped the garbage disposal, her teeth clenched, her eyes nowhere. I watched her all night long. But after dinner as I lay awake in my bed, the hours disappearing into our big hollow clock, I decided I just couldn’t watch anymore.
I always felt like I’d spend most of my life waiting around. On the ranch there were plenty of things to wait for—for the snow to melt or for Pa to land in the plane or for the calves to drop. But mostly I felt like I was waiting to get older, waiting for something to happen to me. Only the truth is when it does it seems to happen too quickly, with its own momentum. That’s how I felt when I snuck down to the kitchen that night and into the shadowy space behind the refrigerator, where the backup generator switch was crusted in rust. I flipped it knowing that would be it for our power, because Pa hadn’t been out to get the hydro pump running again since the storm, and there was no doubt the two days since then had only brought more debris down into the weir. The humming stopped when I flipped the switch, but in the stillness something seemed to pick up speed. Maybe it was just my heartbeat as I slid out from the crawl space and back between my sheets, but I suddenly had the feeling I’d set something into motion. Like I was watching a bowling ball roll down its lane, so convinced I could control where it was going until I let go.
By the time everybody woke up at six they figured the back up generator had just run out, and Ma, Pa, and Duke went straight to check the pump while me and Hank stoked the wood stoves and heat water on the burners. The meat in the freezer was heating up fast, so Lil’s job was to cook it as fast as it thawed. She’d been scraping the livers out of our chickens for the last hour. But despite how fast we were working, the whole morning was the most painful quiet. She knew I’d heard the call with Caleb, and the silence felt like that liminal space between peace and panic, like the moment when Lil dropped that glass the day Caleb’s mother called but before it hit the table. It felt like we’d spent the last three weeks there, all poised to break.
“Go,” I said to her, and she was silent. “Don’t lie Lil, I know you’re thinkin’ it. The rest of ‘em’ll know eventually, but I’d say you got another hour before anyone comes back from the pump.” She just looked at me, and for a second I thought she might slap me.
“Oh, Jo,” she almost sobbed, like she knew what I’d done without me having to say it. Then she threw down her last chicken, wiped her bloody hands on the back of her jeans, and walked out of the kitchen. I watched her move through the sugar jars on the window ledge, her body buckling in the glass, straight towards the shop and the white Ford.
“Wait,” I said, running out onto the porch. “Take me with you.”
When we got to the truck I unplugged the chord under the hood and Lil hoisted herself into the cab, her knees rubbing the mud cakes off the bottom of the frame. But before Lil could even turn the key, she froze.
“I don’t believe it,” Duke was yelling from thirty yards away, walking towards the truck. The wind stole the depth in his words, but they got to us all the same, flat and sinister. As he marched through the field the brown grass cowered away from his knees. “Ma and Pa are just about drowning themselves trying to fix that damn pump before all our food’s spoilt and every single one of our cows is dead and you’re making a fucking break for it?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” she yelled back, and slipped out of the truck, backing away from it like it was stolen. But Duke had got to her.
“Like hell you aren’t!” He yanked her away from the driver’s door. “You’re taking the truck and once Pa knows you’re gone he’ll take the plane to come get you, leave the rest of us to rot for your sake.”
“Pa wont do that. Pa trusts me.” The words hit hard, like she knew just how Duke would take it. Then he lunged for her. She tried to get out of his way but he got his hands on her shoulders. He didn’t do anything but that, just tried to hold her there. Tried to hold her in that one spot, in the cracks of the tire tread in our driveway, in the dead center of our ten thousand acres, uncharted as the sea, safe as a cradle. But Lil wouldn’t give. She started slamming herself against the truck until his knuckles were bloody where he held onto her, lodged between the cotton of her t-shirt and the white aluminum of the door. Duke wouldn’t let go. He shook her like a hunting hound with a quail in his jaws. Only there was something tender in his grasp, like the way those dogs only hold on with their soft black gums to deliver their pray for slaughter, out of loyalty, out of obedience. I was crying too, pulling on Duke’s belt loop, kneeling in the dirt.
“Let her go, let her go!”
He went quiet, and the wind snapped his wool shirt.
“She’s right Duke, you can’t make me stay,” Lil said.
I think even with his own hundred and seventy pounds between her and the ignition, he knew she was right, and that nothing short of a civil war was going to stop her getting to Caleb.
“Please,” Duke said, the simple truth in the words he didn’t say. That this wasn’t just stupid, it was betrayal, and absolutely sure that she would do it. “I hate how much we need you. You know I do.”
Then, almost gracefully, he turned and walked back towards the house, where we’d left Hank in the kitchen sorting through the corpses of a dozen hens.
Wisdom was quiet, and strangely so. As we drove down Main street I half expected to find Caleb leaning on the white shingles of the general store with a cigarette, standing by the pay phone, maybe searching his pockets for change. But P.J. had beat us there, the lights on his car lit up the color of hard candy. There were only two police cars in all of Wisdom, but along with them were enough neighbors and ranchers to pack the parking lot like a drive-in movie. Only what they were watching sure wasn’t John Wayne and a wide-screen sunset, it was Caleb’s black Chevy, totally surrounded.
Lil skidded into the parking lot and all but fell out of the truck as it stalled out. I watched her faded t-shirt weave through the alleys between cars, straight for that Chevy. Everyone else was still too, shifting their eyeballs between the truck and the two cop cars, waiting. Lil seemed to be the only thing moving, squeezing through pickups like a rat in a maze. Until Caleb stepped out of the truck.
“Lower your weapon!” P.J. yelled from where he was crouched behind his car, his pistol balanced in the nook of the driver door. When he said it his head bobbed up a little, like he ought to stand up and look the boy in the eye while speaking to him, but he quickly realized his foolishness. His hat had come off sometime since the standoff started and no doubt he’d been too nervous to pick it back up, and now his bald spot was showing like a little bull’s eye the two other cops kept looking towards, waiting on his word.
Lil was almost at the front now, gunning for Caleb like something rabid, but before she could reach him two boys hopped down from the bed of a silver Toyota and held her back. She called out to Caleb in a yell that seemed to sail right by him, because he didn’t even look her way. He just stood with his gun in his hands and a pained look on his face, like he was being punished for something, like that gun was made of hot coals he was being forced to hold.
“Lower your weapon!” P.J. said again, in a way that seemed more like a plea than a command.
“Do we fire?” An officer whispered from where he crouched behind his tire.
“Please! Lower your weapon sir, or I will be forced to shoot!”
“Caleb!” Lil was fighting to get loose from the boys. “Put the gun down!” Tears ran down her face as she called his name again, louder this time, like he was getting farther away. I sat in the truck listening to her yelling and the blood swimming in my ears, praying for god knows whose sake that P.J. wouldn’t shoot. He looked even worse off than Lil, the sweat on his face pooling so thick you’d have thought he was sobbing too. And he may as well have been. As he lowered his finger to the trigger I could see him gulp, cowering from Caleb just the way he had from my own mother that night in our kitchen no more than two weeks ago. Something about it just seemed unfair.
“Goddammit Caleb how dare you!” Lil said this time, watching P.J.’s finger. “If you wanna kill yourself you pull your own damn trigger! Don’t do this!”
At those words Caleb couldn’t help but look at Lil, only he was trying just as hard not to—his head bowed crooked away from her like some kind of guilty animal. Then he just gave up altogether and shut his eyes real tight, still with that hurting look on his face, like he wanted that gun out of his hands as bad as the rest of us.
“Come in Wisdom County Sheriff, this is Bitterroot Ranger Station 12.” The radio went off inside P.J.’s cop car, cutting the silence like something serrated. “We’ve got an Aviat Husky A-1A down about ten miles west of you. Requesting an EMS evac. Do you copy Wisdom?”
I had never wanted to be less certain.
“Wisdom County come in. A single engine aircraft just crashed by Salt Creek. Looks like the Colleredo plane.”
Caleb dropped his gun, but it didn’t matter anymore. Lil sunk to her knees, and the two kids who’d held her just let her slide out of their hands. Because there wasn’t a man in that parking lot that didn’t know our plane.I was watching Lil, but all I could see now was Ma and the boys back at the ranch and the pasture slowly rising into a marsh around their ankles, alone in a world that had come down with Pa and that plane. Every calf and colt and inch of grass with our name on it had just come to rest with him, and they didn’t even know it yet. It occurred to me then that they might not forgive Lil—that you really can’t someone who wont move their hand from over a flame. For the first time I tried to see her like they did—to take every memory I had of her and swap the word formidable for foolish. I thought of her and Caleb on my bed that night in Idaho, and I thought of her voice coming through the phone like vapor in the middle of the night. I thought of Pa’s boots as he stood in the weir, of the plane diving like a hawk, the old Emmylou Harris cassette tape. But all that seemed innocent compared to what I had done, as I remembered the cobwebs on my eyelashes behind the refrigerator while I flipped the breaker. Because Lil, she was in love, but I had no excuse. Only that I’d been as hell bent on a heartache as she was, but without anybody to blame.
The sun was going down, and its silhouette behind the hill made the pines look like the edge of a two-man saw. The sky went blue, then it went black, and the open sign went out in the window of Conover’s general store.