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The Mellowhorn Home was a rambling one-story log building identifying itself as western the furniture upholstered in fabrics with geometric "Indian" designs, lampshades sporting buckskin fringe. On the walls hung Mr. Mellowhorn's mounted mule deer heads and a two-man crosscut saw.
It was the time of year when Berenice Pann became conscious of the earth's dark turning, not a good time, she thought, to be starting a job, especially one as depressing as caring for elderly ranch widows. But she took what she could get. There were not many men in the Mellowhorn Retirement Home, and those few were so set upon by the women that Berenice pitied them. She had believed the sex drive faded in the elderly, but these crones vied for the favors of palsied men with beef jerky arms. The men could take their pick of shapeless housecoats and flowery skeletons.
Three deceased and stuffed Mellowhorn dogs stood in strategic guard positions near the front door, at the foot of the stairs, and beside the rustic bar made from old fence posts. Small signs, the product of the pyrographer's art, preserved their names: Joker, Bugs and Henry. At least, thought Berenice, patting Henry's head, the Home had a view of the enclosing mountains. It had rained all day and now, in the stiffening gloom, tufts of bunchgrass showed up like bleached hair. Down along an old irrigation ditch willows made a ragged line of somber maroon, and the stock pond at the bottom of the hill was as flat as zinc. She went to another window to look at coming weather. In the northwest a wedge of sky, milk-white and chill, herded the rain before it. An old man sat at the community room window staring out at the grey autumn. Berenice knew his name, knew all their names; Ray Forkenbrock.
"Get you something, Mr. Forkenbrock?" She made a point of prefacing the names of residents with the appropriate honorifics, something the rest of the staff did not do, slinging around first names as though they'd all grown up together. Deb Slaver was familiar to a fault, chumming up with "Sammy," and "Rita" and "Delia," punctuated with "Hon," "Sweetie" and "Babes."
"Yeah," he said. He spoke with long pauses between sentences, a slow unfurling of words that made Berenice want to jump in with word suggestions.
"Get me the hell out a here," he said.
"Get me a horse," he said.
"Get me seventy year back a ways," said Mr. Forkenbrock.
"I can't do that, but I can get you a nice cup of tea. And it'll be Social Hour in ten minutes," she said.
She couldn't quite meet his stare. He was something to look at, despite an ordinary face with infolded lips, a scrawny neck. It was the eyes. They were very large and wide open and of the palest, palest blue, the color of ice chipped with a pick, faint blue with crystalline rays. In photographs they appeared white like the eyes of Roman statues, saved from that blind stare only by the black dots of pupils. When he looked at you, thought Berenice, you could not understand a word he said for being fixed by those strange white eyes. She did not like him but pretended she did. Women had to pretend to like men and to admire the things they liked. Her own sister had married a man who was interested in rocks and now she had to drag around deserts and steep mountains with him.
At Social Hour the residents could have drinks and crackers smeared with cheese paste from the Super Wal-Mart where Cook shopped. They were all lushes, homing in on the whiskey bottle. Chauncey Mellowhorn, who had built the Mellowhorn Retirement Home and set all policy, believed that the last feeble years should be enjoyed, and promoted smoking, drinking, lascivious television programs and plenty of cheap food. Neither teetotalers nor bible thumpers signed up for the Mellowhorn Retirement Home.
Ray Forkenbrock said nothing. Berenice thought he looked sad and she wanted to cheer him up in some way.
"What did you used to do, Mr. Forkenbrock? Were you a rancher?"
The old man glared up at her. "No," he said. "I wasn't no goddamn rancher. I was a hand," he said.
"I worked for them sonsabitches. Cowboyed, ran wild horses, rodeoed, worked in the oil patch, sheared sheep, drove trucks, did whatever," he said. "Ended up broke.
"Now my granddaughter's husband pays the bills that keep me here in this nest of old women," he said. He often wished he had died out in the weather, alone and no trouble to anyone.
Berenice continued, making her voice cheery. "I had a lot a different jobs too since I graduated high school," she said. "Waitress, day care, housecleaning, Seven-Eleven store clerk, like that." She was engaged to Chad Grills; they were to be married in the spring and she planned to keep working only for a little while to supplement Chad's paycheck from Red Bank Power. But before the old man could say anything more Deb Slaver came pushing in, carrying a glass. Berenice could smell the dark whiskey. Deb's vigorous voice pumped out of her ample chest in jets.
"Here you go, honey-boy! A nice little drinkie for Ray!" she said. "Turn around from that dark old winder and have some fun!" She said, "Don't you want a watch Cops with Powder Face?" (Powder Face was Deb's nickname for a painted harridan with hazelnut knuckles and a set of tawny teeth.) "Or is it just one a them days when you want a look out the winder and feel blue? Think of some troubles? You retired folks don't know what trouble is, just setting here having a nice glass of whiskey and watching teevee," she said.
She punched the pillows on the settee. "We're the ones with troubles bills, cheating husbands, sassy kids, tired feet," she said. "Trying to scrape up the money for winter tires! My husband says the witch with the green teeth is plaguing us," she said. "Come on, I'll set with you and Powder Face awhile," and she pulled Mr. Forkenbrock by his sweater, threw him onto the settee and sat beside him.
Berenice left the room and went to help in the kitchen, where the cook was smacking out turkey patties. A radio on the windowsill murmured.
"Looks like it is clearing up," Berenice said. She was a little afraid of the cook.
"Oh good, you're here. Get them French fry packages out of the freezer," she said. "Thought I was going to have to do everthing myself. Deb was supposed to help, but she rather tangle up with them old boys. She hopes they'll put her in their will. Some of them's got a little property or a mineral-rights check coming in," she said. "You ever meet her husband, Duck Slaver?" Now she was grating a cabbage into a stainless steel bowl.
Berenice knew only that Duck Slaver drove a tow truck for Ricochet Towing. The radio suddenly caught the cook's attention and she turned up the volume, hearing that it would be cloudy the next day with gradual clearing, the following day high winds and snow showers.
"We ought to be grateful for the rain in this drought. Know what Bench says?" Bench was the UPS driver, the source of Cook's information on everything from road conditions to family squabbles.
"Says we are in the beginning of turning into a desert. It's all going to blow away," she said.
When Berenice went to announce dinner turkey patties, French fries (Mr. Mellowhorn still called them "freedom fries") with turkey patty gravy, cranberry relish, creamed corn and homemade rolls she saw that Deb had worked Mr. Forkenbrock into the corner of the settee, and Powder Face was in the chair with the bad leg watching cops squash the faces of black men onto sidewalks. Mr. Forkenbrock was staring at the dark window, the coursing raindrops catching the blue television flicker. He gave off an aura of separateness. Deb and Powder Face might have been two more of Mellowhorn's stuffed dogs.
After dinner, on her way back to the kitchen to help the cook clean up, Berenice opened the door for a breath of fresh air. The eastern half of the sky was starry, the west a slab of basalt.
In the early morning darkness the rain began again. He did not know but would have understood the poet's line "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day." Nothing in nature seemed more malign to Ray Forkenbrock than this invisible crawl of weather, the blunt-nosed cloud advancing under the lid of darkness. As the dim morning emerged, like a photograph in developing solution, the sound of the rain sharpened. That's sleet, he thought, remembering a long October ride in such weather when he was young, his denim jacket soaked through and sparkling with ice, remembered meeting up with that old horse catcher who lived out in the desert, must have been in his eighties, out there in the rattling precip limping along, heading for the nearest ranch bunkhouse, he said, to get out of the weather.
"That'd be Flying A," said Ray, squinting against the slanting ice.
"Ain't that Hawkins's place?"
"Naw. Hawkins sold out couple years ago. A fella named Fox owns it now," he said.
"Hell, I lose touch out here. Had a pretty good shack up until day before yesterday," the horse catcher said between clicking teeth and went on to tell that his place had burned down and he'd slept out in the sage for two nights but now his bedroll was soaked and he was out of food. Ray felt bad for him and at the same time wanted to get away. It seemed awkward to be mounted while the man was afoot, but then he always had that same uncomfortable, guilty itch when he rode past a pedestrian. Was it his fault the old man didn't have a horse? If he was any good at horse catching he should have had a hundred of them. He foraged through his pockets and found three or four stale peanuts mixed with lint.
"It ain't much but it's all I got," he said, holding them out.
The old boy had never made it to the Flying A. He was discovered days later sitting with his back against a rock. Roy remembered the uncomfortable feeling he'd had exchanging a few words with him, thinking how old he was. Now he was the same age, and he had reached the Flying A the warmth and dry shelter of the Mellowhorn Home. But the old horse catcher's death, braced against a rock, seemed more honorable.
It was six-thirty and there was nothing to get up for, but he put on his jeans and shirt, added an old man's sweater as the dining room could be chilly in the morning before the heat got going, left his boots in the closet and shuffled down the hall in red felt slippers, too soft to deliver a kick to stuffed Bugs with the googly eyes at the foot of the stairs. The slippers were a gift from his only granddaughter, Beth, married to Kevin Bead. Beth was important to him. He had made up his mind to tell her the ugly family secret. He would not leave his descendants to grapple with shameful uncertainties. He was going to clear the air. Beth was coming on Saturday afternoon with her tape recorder to help him get it said. During the week she would type it into her computer and bring him the crisp printed pages. He might have been nothing more than a ranch hand in his life, but he knew a few things.
Beth was dark-haired with very red cheeks that looked freshly slapped. It was the Irish in her he supposed. She bit her fingernails, an unsightly habit in a grown woman. Her husband, Kevin, worked in the loan department of the High Plains Bank. He complained that his job was stupid, tossing money and credit cards to people who could never pay up.
"Used to be to get a card you had to work hard and have good credit. Now the worse your credit the easier it is to get a dozen of them," he said to his wife's grandfather. Ray, who had never had a credit card, couldn't follow the barrage of expository information that followed about changing bank rules, debt. These information sessions always ended with Kevin sighing and saying in a dark tone that the day was coming.
Ray Forkenbrock guessed Beth would use the computer at the real estate office where she worked to transcribe his words.
"Oh no, Grandpa, we've got a computer and printer at home. Rosalyn wouldn't like for me to do it in the office," she said. Rosalyn was her boss, a woman Ray had never seen but felt he knew well because Beth talked often about her. She was very, very fat and had financial trouble. Scam artists several times stole her identity. Every few months she spent hours filling out fraud affidavits. And, said Beth, she wore XXXL blue jeans and a belt with a silver buckle as big as a pie tin that she had won at a bingo game.
Ray snorted. "A buckle used to mean something," he said. "A rodeo buckle, best part of the prize. The money was nothing in them days," he said. "We didn't care about the money. We cared about the buckle," he said, "and now fat gals win them at bingo games?" He twisted his head around and looked at the closet door. Beth knew he must have a belt with a rodeo buckle in there.
"Do you watch the National Finals on television?" she said. "Or the bull-riding championship?"
"Hell, no," he said. "The old hens here wouldn't put up with it. They got that teevee lined out from dawn to midnight crime, that reality shit, fashion and python shows, dog and cat programs. Watch rodeo? Not a chance," he said.
He glared at the empty hall beyond the open door. "You wouldn't never guess the most of them lived on ranches all their life," he added sourly.
Beth spoke to Mr. Mellowhorn and said she thought her grandfather could at least watch the National Finals or the PBR rodeos considering what they were paying for his keep. Mr. Mellowhorn agreed.
"But I like to keep out of residents' television choices, you know, democracy rules at the Mellowhorn Home, and if your grandfather wants to watch rodeo all he has to do is persuade a majority of the inhabitants to sign a petition and "
"Do you have any objection if my husband and I get him a television set for his room?"
"Well, no, of course not, but I should just mention that the less fortunate residents might see him as privileged, even a little high-hat if he holes up in his room and watches rodeo instead of joining the community choice "
"Fine," said Beth, cutting past the social tyranny of the Mellowhorn Home. "That's what we'll do, then. Get him a snooty, high-hat television. Family counts with me and Kevin," she said. "I don't suppose you have a satellite hookup, do you?" she asked.
"Well, no. We've discussed it, but maybe next year "
She brought Ray a small television set with a DVD player and three or four discs of recent years' rodeo events. That got him going.
"Christ, I remember when the finals was in Oklahoma City, not goddamn Las Vegas," he said. "Of course bull riding has pushed out all the other events now, good-bye saddle bronc and bareback. I was there when Freckles Brown rode Tornado in 1962," he said. "Forty-six year old, and the ones they got now bull riding are children! Make a million dollars. It's all show business now," he said. "The old boys was a rough crew. Heavy drinkers, most of them. You want to know what pain is, try bull riding with a bad hangover."
"So I guess you did a lot of rodeo riding when you were young?"
"No, not a lot, but enough to get broke up some. And earned a buckle," he said. "You heal fast when you're young, but the broke places sort of come back to life when you are old. I busted my left leg in three places. Hurts now when it rains," he said.
"How come you cowboyed for a living, Grandpa Ray? Your daddy wasn't a rancher or a cowboy, was he?" She turned the volume knob down. The riders came out of a chute, again and again, monotonously, all apparently wearing the same dirty hat.
"Hell no, he wasn't. He was a coal miner. Rove Forkenbrock," he said. "My mother's name was Alice Grand Forkenbrock. Dad worked in the Union Pacific coal mines. Something happened to him and he quit. Moved into running errands for different outfits, Texaco, California Petroleum, big outfits.
"Anyway, don't exactly know what the old man did. Drove a dusty old Model T. He'd get fired and then he had to scratch around for another job. Even though he drank that's what got him fired usually he always seemed to get another job pretty quick." He swallowed a little whiskey.
"Anymore I wouldn't go near the mines. I liked horses almost as much as I liked arithmetic, liked the cow business, so after I graduated eighth grade and Dad said better forget high school, things were tough and I had to find work," he said. "At the time I didn't mind. What my dad said I generally didn't fuss over. I respected him. I respected and honored my father. I believed him to be a good and fair man." He thought, unaccountably, of weeds.
"I tried for a job and got took on at Bledsoe's Double B," he said. "The bunkhouse life. The Bledsoes more or less raised me to voting age. At that point I sure didn't want nothing to do with my family," he said and fell into an old man's reverie. Weeds, weeds and wildness.
Beth was quiet for a few minutes, then chatted about her boys. Syl had acted the part of an eagle in a school play and what a job, making the costume! Just before she left she said offhandedly, "You know, I want my boys to know about their great-granddad. What do you think if I bring my recorder and get it on tape and then type it up? It would be like a book of your life something for the future generations of the family to read and know about."
He laughed in derision.
"Some of it ain't so nice to know. Every family got its dirty laundry and we got ours." But after a week of thinking about it, of wondering why he'd kept it bottled up for so long, he told Beth to bring on her machine.
They sat in his little room with the door closed.
"'Antisocial,' they'll say. Everybody else sits with the door open hollering at each other's folks as if they was all related somehow. A regional family, they call it here. I like my privacy."
She put a glass of whiskey, another of water and the tape recorder, smaller than a pack of cigarettes, on the table near his elbow and said, "It's on, Grandpa. Tell me how it was growing up in the old days. Just talk any time you are ready."
He cleared his throat and began slowly, watching the spiky volume meter jump. "I'm eighty-four years old and most of them involved in the early days has gone on before, so it don't make much difference what I tell." He took a nervous swallow of the whiskey and nodded.
"I was fourteen year old in nineteen and thirty-three and there wasn't a nickel in the world." The silence of that time before traffic and leaf blowers and the boisterous shouting of television was embedded in his character, and he spoke little, finding it hard to drag out the story. The noiselessness of his youth except for the natural sound of wind, hoofbeats, the snap of the old house logs splitting in winter cold, wild herons crying their way downriver was forever lost. How silent men and women had been in those times, trusting to observational powers. There had been days when a few little mustache clouds moved, and he could imagine them making no more sound than dragging a feather across a wire. The wind got them and the sky was alone.
"When I was a kid we lived hard, let me tell you. Coalie Town, about eight miles from Superior. It's all gone now," he said. "Three-room shack, no insulation, kids always sick. My baby sister Goldie died of meningitis in that shack," he said.
Now he was warming up to his sorry tale. "No water. A truck used to come every week and fill up a couple barrels we had. Mama paid a quarter a barrel. No indoor plumbing. People make jokes about it now but it was miserable to go out there to that outhouse on a bitter morning with the wind screaming up the hole. Christ," he said. He was silent for so long Beth backed up the tape and pressed the pause button on the recorder. He lit a cigarette, sighed, abruptly started talking again. Beth lost a sentence or two before she got the recorder restarted.
"People thought they was doing all right if they was alive. You can learn to eat dust instead of bread, my mother said many a time. She had a lot a old sayings. Is that thing on?" he said.
"Yes, Grandpa," she said. "It is on. Just talk."
"Bacon," he said. "She'd say if bacon curls in the pan the hog was butchered wrong side of the moon. We didn't see bacon very often and it could of done corkscrews in the pan, would have been okay with us long as we could eat it," he said.
"There was a whole bunch a shacks out there near the mines. They called it Coalie Town. Lot of foreigners.
"As I come up," he said, "I got a pretty good education in fighting, screwing pardon my French and more fighting. Every problem was solved with a fight. I remember all them people. Pattersons, Bob Hokker, the Grainblewer twins, Alex Sugar, Forrie Wintka, Harry and Joe Dolan...We had a lot of fun. Kids always have fun," he said.
"They sure do," said Beth.
"Kids don't get all sour thinking about the indoor toilets they don't have, or moaning because there ain't no fresh butter. For us everthing was fine the way it was. I had a happy childhood. When we got bigger there was certain girls. Forrie Wintka. Really good looking, long black hair and black eyes," he said, looking to see if he had shocked her.
"She finally married old man Dolan after his wife died. The Dolan boys was something else. They hated each other, fought, really had bad fights, slugged each other with boards with nails in the end, heaved rocks."
Beth tried to shift him to a description of his own family, but he went on about the Dolans.
"I'm pretty set in my ways," he said. She nodded.
"One time Joe knocked Harry out, kicked him into the Platte. He could of drowned, probably would of but Dave Arthur was riding along the river, seen this bundle of rags snarled up in a cottonwood sweeper it had fell in the river and caught up all sorts of river trash. He thought maybe some clothes. Went to see and pulled Harry out," he said.
"Harry was about three-quarters dead, never was right after that, neither. But right enough to know that his own brother had meant to kill him. Joe couldn't never tell if Harry was going to be around the next corner with a chunk of wood or a gun." There was a long pause after the word "gun."
"Nervous wreck," he said. He watched the tape revolve for long seconds.
"Dutchy Green was my best friend in grade school. He was killed when he was twenty-five, twenty-six, shooting at some of them old Indian rock carvings. The ricochet got him through the right temple," he said.
He took a swallow of whiskey. "Yep, our family. There was my mother. She was tempery, too much to do and no money to do it. Me, the oldest. There was a big brother, Sonny, but he drowned in an irrigation ditch before I come along," he said.
"Weren't there girls in the family?" asked Beth. Not content with two sons, she craved a daughter.
"My sisters, Irene and Daisy. Irene lives in Greybull and Daisy is still alive out in California. And I mentioned, the baby Goldie died when I was around six or seven. The youngest survivor was Roger. Mama's last baby. He went the wrong way. Did time for robbing," he said. "No idea what happened to him." Under the weeds, damned and dark.
Abruptly he veered away from the burglar brother. "You got to understand that I loved my dad. We all did. Him and Mother was always kissing and hugging and laughing when he was home. He was a wonderful man with kids, always a big smile and a hug, remembered all your interests, lots of times brought home special little presents. I still got every one he give me." His voice trembled like that of the old horse catcher in the antique sleet.
"Remembering this stuff makes me tired. I guess I better stop," he said. "Anymore two new people come in today and the new ones always makes me damn tired."
"Women or men?" asked Beth, relieved to turn the recorder off as she could see her only tape was on short time. She remembered now she had recorded the junior choir practice.
"Don't know," he said. "Find out at supper."
"I'll come next week. I think what you are saying is important for this family." She kissed his dry old man's forehead, brown age spots.
"Just wait," he said.
After she left he started talking again as if the tape were still running. "He died age forty-seven. I thought that was real old. Why didn't he jump?" he said.
Berenice Pann, bearing a still-warm chocolate cupcake, paused outside his door when she heard his voice. She had seen Beth leave a few minutes earlier. Maybe she had forgotten something and come back. Berenice heard something like a strangled sob from Mr. Forkenbrock. "God, it was lousy," he said. "So we could work. Hell, I liked school. No chance when you start work at thirteen," he said. "Wasn't for the Bledsoes I'd ended up a bum," he said to himself. "Or worse."
Berenice Pann's boyfriend, Chad Grills, was the great-grandson of the old Bledsoes. They were still on the ranch where Ray Forkenbrock had worked in his early days, both of them over the century mark. Berenice became an avid eavesdropper, feeling that in a way she was related to Mr. Forkenbrock through the Bledsoes. She owed it to herself and Chad to hear as much as she could about the Bledsoes, good or bad. Inside the room there was silence, then the door flung open.
"Uh!" cried Berenice, the cupcake sliding on its saucer. "I was just bringing you this "
"That so?" said Mr. Forkenbrock. He took the cupcake from the saucer and instead of taking a sample bite crammed the whole thing into his mouth, paper cup and all. The paper massed behind his dentures.
At the Social Hour, Mr. Mellowhorn arrived to introduce the new "guests." Church Bollinger was a younger man, barely sixty-five, but Roy could tell he was a real slacker. He'd obviously come into the Home because he couldn't get up the gumption to make his own bed or wash his dishes. The other one, Mrs. Terry Taylor, was around his age, early eighties despite the dyed red hair and carmine fingernails. She seemed soft and sagging, somehow like a candle standing in the sun. She kept looking at Ray. Her eyes were khaki-colored, the lashes sparse and short, her thin old lips greased up with enough lipstick to leave red on her buttered roll. Finally he could take her staring no longer.
"Got a question?" he said.
"Are you Ray Forkenknife?" she said.
"Forkenbrock," he said, startled.
"Oh, right. Forkenbrock. You don't remember me? Theresa Worley? From Coalie Town? Me and you went to school together except you was a couple grades ahead."
But he did not remember her.
The next morning, fork poised over the poached egg reclining like a houri on a bed of soggy toast, he glanced up to meet her intense gaze. Her red-slick lips parted to show ocher teeth that were certainly her own, for no dentist would make dentures that looked as though they had been dredged from a sewage pit.
"Don't you remember Mrs. Wilson?" she said. "The teacher that got froze in a blizzard looking for her cat? The Skeltcher kids that got killed when they fell in a old mine shaft?"
He did remember something about a schoolteacher frozen in a June blizzard but thought it had happened somewhere else, down around Cold Mountain. As for the Skeltcher kids, he denied them and shook his head.
On Saturday Beth came again, and again set out the glass of water, the glass of whiskey and the tape recorder. He had been thinking what he wanted to say. It was clear enough in his head, but putting it into words was difficult. The whole thing had been so subtle and painful it was impossible to present it without sounding like a fool. And Mrs. Terry Taylor, a.k.a. Theresa Worley, had sidelined him. He strove to remember the frozen teacher, the Skeltcher kids in the mine shaft, how Mr. Baker had shot Mr. Dennison over a bushel of potatoes and a dozen other tragedies she had laid out as mnemonic bait. He remembered very different events. He remembered walking to the top of Irish Hill with Dutchy Green to meet Forrie Wintka, who was going to show them her private parts in exchange for a nickel each. It was late autumn, the cottonwoods leafless along the grim trickle of Coal Creek, warm weather holding. They could see Forrie Wintka toiling up from the shacks below. Dutchy said it would be easy, not only would she show them, they could do it to her, even her brother did it to her.
Dutchy whispered as though she could hear them. "Even her stepfather. He got killed by a mountain line last year."
And now, seventy-one years later, it hit him. Her father had been Worley, Wintka was the stepfather who had carried the mail horseback and in Snakeroot Canyon had been dragged into the rocks by a lion. The first female he had ever plowed, a coal-town slut, was sharing final days with him at the Mellowhorn Home.
"Beth," he said to his granddaughter. "I can't talk about nothing today. There's some stuff come to mind just now that I got to think my way through. The new woman who come here last week. I knew her and it wasn't under the best circumstances," he said. That was the trouble with Wyoming; everything you ever did or said kept pace with you right to the end. The regional family again.
Mr. Mellowhorn started a series of overnight outings he dubbed "Weekend Adventures." The first one had been to the Medicine Wheel up in the Big Horns. Mrs. Wallace Kimes had fallen and scraped her knees on the crushed stone in the parking lot. Then came the dude ranch weekend where the Mellowhorn group found itself sharing the premises with seven elk hunters from Colorado, most of them drunk and disorderly and given over to senseless laughter topping 110 decibels. Powder Face laughed senselessly with them. The third trip was more ambitious; a five-day excursion to the Grand Canyon where no one at the Mellowhorn Home had ever been. Twelve people signed up despite the hefty fee to pay for lodging and transportation.
"You only live once!" cried Powder Face.
The group included newcomer Church Bollinger and Forrie Wintka, a.k.a. Theresa Worley, a.k.a. Terry Dolan and, finally, as Terry Taylor. Forrie and Bollinger sat together in the van, had drinks together in the bar of El Tovar, ate dinner at a table for two and planned a trail-ride expedition for the next morning. But before the mule train left, Forrie asked Bollinger to take some photographs she could send to her granddaughters. She stood on the parapet with the famous view behind her. She posed with one hand holding her floppy new straw hat purchased in the hotel gift shop. She took off the hat and turned, shading her eyes with her hand, and pretended to be peering into the depths like a stage character of yore. She clowned, pretending she was unsteady and losing her balance. There was a stifled "Oh!" and she disappeared. A park ranger rushed to the parapet and saw her on the slope ten feet below, clutching at a small plant. Her hat lay to one side. Even as he climbed over the parapet and reached for her, the plant trembled and loosened. Forrie dug her fingers into the gravel as she began to slide toward the edge. The ranger thrust his foot toward her, shouting for her to grab on. But his saving kick connected with Forrie's hand. She shot down the slope as one on a waterslide, leaving ten deep grooves to mark her trail, then, in a last desperate effort, reached for and almost seized her new straw hat.
The subdued group returned to Wyoming the next day. Again and again they told each other that she had not even cried out as she fell, something they believed denoted strong character.
Ray Forkenbrock resumed his memoir the next weekend. Berenice waited a few minutes after Beth arrived before taking up a listening post outside the room. Mr. Forkenbrock had a monotonous but loud voice, and she could hear every word.
"So, things was better for the family after he got the jobs driving machine parts around to the oil rigs," he said. "The money was pretty good and he joined some one of them fraternal organizations, the Pathfinders. And they had a ladies' auxiliary, which my mother got into; they called it 'The Ladies,' like it was a restroom or something. They both got real caught up in Pathfinders, the ceremonies, the lodge, the good deeds and oaths of allegiance to whatever.
"Mother was always baking something for them," he said. "And there was kid stuff for us, fishing derbies and picnics and sack races. It was like Boy Scouts, or so they said. Boy Scouts with a ranch twist, because there was always some class in hackamore braiding or raising a calf. Sort of a kind of a mix of Scouts and 4-H which we did not belong to."
Berenice found this all rather boring. When would he say something about the Bledsoes? She saw Deb Slaver at the far end of the hall coming out of Mr. Harrell's room with a tray of bandages. Mr. Harrell had a sore on his shin that wouldn't heal and the dressing had to be changed twice a day.
"Now don't you pick at it, you bad boy!" yelled Deb, disappearing around the corner.
"Anyway, Mother was probably more into it than Dad. She liked company and hadn't had much luck with neighbors there in Coalie Town. The Ladies got up a program of history tours to various massacre sites and old logging flumes. Mother loved those trips. She had a little taste for what had happened in the long ago. She'd come home all excited and carrying a pretty rock. She had about a dozen rocks from those trips when she died," he said.
In the hall Berenice thought of her sister toiling up rocky slopes, trying to please her rock hound husband, carrying his canvas sack of stones.
"The first hint I got that there was something peculiar in our family tree was when she come home from a visit to Farson. I do not know what they were doing there, and she said that the Farson Auxiliary had served them lunch potato salad and hot dogs," he said.
"One of the Farson ladies said she knew a Forkenbrock down in Dixon. She thought he had a ranch in the Snake River valley. Well, my ears perked up when I heard 'ranch,'" he said.
"And Forkenbrock ain't that common of a name. So I asked Mother if they were Dad's relatives," he said. "I would of liked it if we had ranch kin. I was already thinking about getting into cowboy ways. She said no, that Dad was an orphan, that it was just a coincidence. So she said."
At dinner that night, once Forrie Wintka's dramatic demise had been hashed through again, Church Bollinger began to describe his travels through the Canadian Rockies.
"What we'd do is fly, then rent a car instead of driving. Those interstates will kill you. The wife enjoyed staying at nice hotels. So we flew to San Francisco and decided to drive down the coast. We stopped in Hollywood. Figured we'd see what Hollywood was all about. They had these big concrete columns. Time came to leave, I got in and backed up and crunch, couldn't get out. I finally got out but I had a bad scratched door on the rental car. Well, I bought some paint and I painted it and you could never tell. I drove to San Diego. Waited for a letter from the rental outfit but it never came. Another time I rented a car there was a crack in the windshield. I says, 'Is this a safety problem?' The guy looks at me and says 'No.' I drive off and it never was a problem. We did the same thing when we went to Europe. In Spain we went to the bullfights. We left after two. I wanted to experience that."
"But are they wounded?" asked Powder Face.
Mr. Bollinger, thinking of rental cars, did not reply.
When Berenice told Chad Grills about old Mr. Forkenbrock who used to work for his grandparents, he was interested and said he would talk to them about it next time he went out to the ranch. He said he hoped Berenice liked ranch life because he was in line to inherit the place. He told Berenice to find out all she could about Forkenbrock's working days. Some of those cagey old boys managed to get themselves situated to put a claim on a ranch through trumped-up charges of unpaid back wages. Whenever Beth came with her tape recorder, Berenice found something to do in the hall outside Ray Forkenbrock's room, listening, expecting him to tell about the nice ranch he secretly owned. She didn't know what Chad would do.
Ray said, "I think when she heard about the Dixon Forkenbrocks, Mother had a little feeling that something wasn't right because she wrote back to the Farson lady thanking her for the nice lunch. I think she wanted to strike up a friendship so she could find out more about the Dixon people, but, far as I know, that didn't happen. It stuck in my mind that we wasn't the only Forkenbrock family." Beth was glad he didn't pause so often now that he was into the story, letting his life unreel.
"The last day of school was a trip and a big picnic. The whole outfit usually went on the picnic, since learning academies of the day was small and scattered. When I was twelve the seventh grade had only three kids me, one of my sisters who skipped a grade and Dutchy Green. We was excited when we found out the trip was to the old Butch Cassidy outlaw cabin down near the Colorado border. Mrs. Ratus, the teacher, got the map of Wyoming hung up and showed us where it was. I seen the word 'Dixon' down near the bottom of the map. Dixon! That's where the mystery Forkenbrocks lived. Dutchy was my best friend and I told him all about it and we tried to figure a way to get the bus to stop in Dixon. Maybe there'd be a sign for the Forkenbrock Ranch," he said.
"As it turned out," he said, "we stopped in Dixon anyways because there was something wrong with the bus.
"There was a pretty good service station in Dixon that had been an old blacksmith shop. The forge was still there and the big bellows, which us boys took turns working, pretending we had a horse in the stall. I asked the mechanic who was fixing the bus if he knew of any Forkenbrocks in town and he said he heard of them but didn't know them. He said he had just moved down from Essex. Dutchy and me played blacksmith some more but we never got to Butch Cassidy's cabin because they couldn't fix the bus and another one had to come take us back. We ate the picnic on the bus on the way home. After that I kind of forgot about the Dixon Forkenbrocks," he said. He was beginning to slow down again.
"I didn't think about it until Dad died in an automobile accident on old route 30," he said.
"He was taking a shortcut, driving on the railroad ties, and a train come along," he said.
He said, "I'd been working for the Bledsoes for a year and hadn't been home."
At the mention of the Bledsoes, Berenice, out in the hallway, snapped her head up.
"Mr. Bledsoe drove me back so I could attend the funeral. They had it in Rawlins and the Pathfinders had took care of everything," he said.
Beth looked puzzled. "Pathfinders?"
"That organization they belonged to. Pathfinders. All we had to do with it was show up. Which we done. Preacher, casket, flowers, Pathfinder flags and mottoes, grave plot, headstone all fixed up by the Pathfinders." He coughed and took a sip of whiskey, thinking of cemetery weeds and beyond the headstones the yellow wild pastures.
Berenice couldn't listen anymore because the chime for Cook's Treats rang. It was part of her job to bring the sweets to the residents, the high point in their day trumped only by the alcoholic Social Hour. Cook was sliding triangles of hot apple pie onto plates.
"You hear about Deb's husband? Had a heart attack while he was hitching the tow bar to some tourist. He's in the hospital. It's pretty serious, touch and go. So we won't be seeing Deb for a little while. Maybe ever. I bet she's got a million insurance on him. If he dies and Deb gets a pile a money, I'm going to take out a policy on my old man."
When Berenice carried out the tray of pie, Mr. Forkenbrock's door stood open and Beth was gone.
Sundays Berenice and Chad Grills drove out on the back roads in Chad's almost-new truck. Going for a ride was their kind of date. The dust was bad, churned up by the fast-moving energy company trucks. Chad got lost because of all the new, unmarked roads the companies had put in. Time after time they turned onto a good road only to end up at a dead-end compression station or well pad. Getting lost where you had been born, brought up and never left was embarrassing, and Chad cursed the gas outfits. Finally he took a sight line on Doty Peak and steered toward it, picking the bad roads as the true way. Always his mind seized on a mountain. In a flinty section they had a flat tire. They came out at last near the ghost town of Dad. Chad said it hadn't been a good ride and she had to agree, though it hadn't been the worst.
Deb Slaver did not come in all the next week, and the extra work fell on Berenice. She hated changing Mr. Harrell's bandage and skipped the chore several times. She was glad when on Wednesday, Doc Nelson's visit day, he said Mr. Harrell had to go into the hospital. On Saturday, Beth's day to visit Mr. Forkenbrock, Berenice got through her chores in a hurry so she could lean on a dust mop outside the door and listen. Impossible to know what he'd say next with all the side stories about his mother's garden, long-ago horses, old friends. He hardly ever mentioned the Bledsoes who had been so good to him.
"Grandpa," said Beth."You look tired. Not sleeping enough? What time do you go to bed?" She handed him the printout of his discourse.
"My age you don't need sleep so much as a rest. Permanent rest. I feel fine," he said. "This looks pretty good reads easy as a book." He was pleased. "Where did we leave off," he said, turning the pages.
"Your dad's funeral," said Beth.
"Oh boy," he said. "That was the day I think Mother begin to put two and two together. I sort of got it, at least I got it that something ugly had happened, but I didn't really understand until years later. I loved my dad so I didn't want to understand. I still got a little Buck knife he give me and I wouldn't part with it for anything in this world," he said.
There was a pause while he got up to look for the knife, found it, showed it to Beth and carefully put it away in his top drawer.
"So there we all were, filing out of the church on our way to the cars that take us to the graveyard, me holding Mother's arm, when some lady calls out, "Mrs. Forkenbrock! Oh, Mrs. Forkenbrock!" Mother turns around and we see this big fat lady in black with a wilted lilac pinned on her coat heading for us," he said.
"But she sails right past, goes over to a thin, homely woman with a boy around my age and offers her condolences. And then she says, looking at the kid, 'Oh, Ray, you'll have to be the man of the house now and help your mother every way you can,'" he said. He paused to pour into the whiskey glass.
"I want you to think about that, Beth," he said. "You are so strong on family ties. I want you to imagine that you are at your father's funeral with your mother and sisters and somebody calls your mother, then walks right over to another person. And that other person has a kid with her and that kid has your name. I was all I could think was that they had to be the Dixon Forkenbrocks and that they was related to us after all. Mother didn't say a word, but I could feel her arm jerk," he said. He illustrated this by jerking his own elbow.
"At the cemetery I went over to the kid with my name and asked him if they lived in Dixon and if they had a ranch and was they related to my father who we was burying. He gives me a look and says they don't have a ranch, they don't live in Dixon but in LaBarge, and that it is his father we are burying. I was so mixed up at this point that I just said 'You're crazy!' and went back to Mother's side. She never mentioned the incident and finally we went home and got along like usual although with damn little money. Mother got work cooking at the Sump ranch. It was only when she died in 1975 that I put the pieces together," he said. "All the pieces."
On Sunday Berenice and Chad went for their weekly ride. Berenice brought her new digital camera. For some reason Chad insisted on going back to the tangle of energy roads, and it was almost the same as before a spiderweb of wrong-turn gravel roads without signs. Far ahead of them they could see trucks at the side of the road. There was a deep ditch with black pipe in it big enough for a dog to stroll through. They came around a corner and men were feeding a section of pipe into a massive machine that welded the sections together. Berenice thought the machine was interesting and put her camera up. Behind the machine a truck idled, a grubby kid in dark glasses behind the wheel. Thirty feet away another man was filling in the ditch with a backhoe. Chad put his window down, grinned and, in an easy voice, asked the kid how the machine worked.
The kid looked at Berenice's camera. "What the fuck do you care?" he said. "What are you doin out here anyway?"
"County road," said Chad, flaring up, "and I live in this county. I was born here. I got more rights to be on this road than you do."
The kid gave a nasty laugh. "Hey, I don't care if you was born on top of a flagpole, you got no rights interferin with this work and takin pictures."
"Interfering?" But before he could say any more the man inside the pipe machine got out and the two who had been handling the pipe walked over. The backhoe driver jumped down. They all looked salty and in good shape. "Hell," said Chad, "we're just out for a Sunday ride. Didn't expect to see anybody working on Sunday. Thought it was just us ranch types got to do that. Have a good day," and he trod on the accelerator, peeling out in a burst of dust. Gravel pinged the undercarriage.
Berenice started to say "What was that all about?" but Chad snapped "Shut up" and drove too fast until they got to the blacktop and then he floored it, looking in the rearview all the way. They didn't speak until they were back at Berenice's. Chad got out and walked around the truck, looking it over.
"Chad, how come you to let them throw off on you like that?" said Berenice.
"Berenice," he said carefully, "I guess that you didn't see one a them guys had a .44 on him and he was taking it out of the holster. It is not a good idea to have a fight on the edge of a ditch with five roustabouts in a remote area. Loser goes in the ditch and the backhoe guy puts in five more minutes of work. Take a look at this," he said, and he pulled her around to the back of the truck. There was a hole in the tailgate.
"That's Buddy's .44 done that," he said. "Good thing the road was rough. I could be dead and you could still be out there entertaining them." Berenice shuddered. "Probably," said Chad, "they thought we were some kind of environmentalists. That camera of yours. Leave it home next time."
Right then Berenice began to cool toward Chad. He seemed less manly. And she would take her camera wherever she wanted.
On Monday Berenice was in the kitchen looking for the ice cream freezer which hadn't been used for two years. Mr. Mellowhorn had just come back from Jackson with a recipe for apple pie ice cream and he was anxious for everyone to share his delight. As she fumbled in the dark cupboard Deb Slaver banged in, bumping the cupboard door.
"Ow!" said Berenice.
"Serves you right," snarled Deb, sweeping out again. There was a sound in the hall as of someone kicking a stuffed dog.
"She's pretty mad," said Cook. "Duck didn't die so she don't get the million-dollar insurance, but even worse, he's going to need dedicated care for the rest of his life hand and foot waiting on, nice smooth pillows. She's got to take care of him forever. I don't know if she'll keep working and try to get an aide to come in or what. Or maybe Mr. Mellowhorn will let him stay here. Then we'll all get to wait on him hand and foot."
Saturday came, and out of habit, because she had broken up with Chad and no longer really cared about the Bledsoes or their ranch, Berenice hung around in the hall outside Mr. Forkenbrock's room. Beth had brought him a dish of chocolate pudding. He said it was good but not as good as whiskey and she poured out his usual glass.
"So," said Beth. "At the funeral you met the other Forkenbrocks but they didn't live in Dixon anymore?"
"No. No, no," he said. "You ain't heard a thing. The ones at the funeral were not the Dixon Forkenbrocks. They was the LaBarge Forkenbrocks. There was another set in Dixon. When Mother died, me and my sisters had a go through her stuff and sort it all out," he said.
"I'm sorry," said Beth. "I guess I misunderstood."
"She had collected all Dad's obituaries she could find. She never said a word to us. Kept them in a big envelope marked 'Our Family.' I never knew if she meant that sarcastic or not. The usual stuff about how he was born in Nebraska, worked for Union Pacific, then for Ohio Oil and this company and that, how he was a loyal Pathfinder. One said he was survived by Lottie Forkenbrock and six children in Chadron, Nebraska. The boy was named Ray. Another said his grieving family lived in Dixon, Wyoming, and included his wife Sarah-Louise and two sons, Ray and Roger. Then there was one from the Casper Star said he was a well-known Pathfinder survived by wife Alice, sons Ray and Roger, daughters Irene and Daisy. That was us. The last one said his wife was Nancy up in LaBarge and the kids were Daisy, Ray and Irene. That was four sets. What he done, see, was give all the kids the same names so he wouldn't get mixed up and say 'Fred' when it was Ray."
He was breathless, his voice high and tremulous. "How my mother felt about this surprise he give her I never knew because she didn't say a word," he said.
He swallowed his whiskey in a gulp and coughed violently, ending with a retching sound. He mopped tears from his eyes. "My sisters bawled their eyes out when they read those death notices and they cursed him, but when they went back home they never said anything," he said. "Everybody, the ones in LaBarge and Dixon and Chadron and god knows where else kept real quiet. He got away with it. Until now. I think I'll have another whiskey. All this talking kind of dries my throat," he said, and he got the bottle himself.
"Well," said Beth, trying to make amends for misunderstanding, "at least we've got this extended family now. It's exciting finding out about all the cousins."
"Beth, they are not cousins. Think about it," he said. He had thought she was smart. She wasn't.
"Honestly, I think it's cool. We could all get together for Thanksgiving. Or Fourth of July."
Ray Forkenbrock's shoulders sagged. Time was swinging down like a tire on the end of a rope, slowing, letting the old cat die.
"Grandfather," said Beth gently. "You have to learn to love your relatives."
He said nothing, and then, "I loved my father.
"That's the only one I loved," he said, knowing it was hopeless, that she was not smart and she didn't understand any of what he'd said, that the book he thought he was dictating would be regarded as an old man's senile rubbish. Unbidden, as wind shear hurls a plane down, the memory of the old betrayal broke the prison of his rage and he damned them all, pushed the tape recorder away and told Beth she had better go back home to her husband.
"It's ridiculous," Beth said to Kevin. "He got all worked up about his father who died back in the 1930s. You'd think there would have been closure by now."
"You'd think," said Kevin, his face seeming to twitch in the alternating dim and dazzle of the television set.
Copyright © 2008 by Dead Line, Ltd.