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If you're white, and you're not rich or poor but somewhere in the middle, it's hard to have worse luck than to be born a girl on a ranch. It doesn't matter if your dad's the foreman or the rancher you're still a ranch girl, and you've been dealt a bad hand.
If you're the foreman's daughter on Ted Haskell's Running H cattle ranch, you live in the foreman's house, on the dirt road between Haskell's place and the barn. There are two bedrooms with walls made of particleboard, one bathroom (no tub), muddy boots and jackets in the living room, and a kitchen that's never used. No one from school ever visits the ranch, so you can keep your room the way you decorated it at ten: a pink comforter, horse posters on the walls, plastic horse models on the shelves. Outside there's an old cow-dog with a ruined hip, a barn cat who sleeps in the rafters, and, until he dies, a runt calf named Minute, who cries at night by the front door.
You help your dad when the other hands are busy: wading after him into an irrigation ditch, or rounding up a stray cow-calf pair when you get home from school. Your mom used to help, too she sits a horse better than any of the hands but then she took an office job in town, and bought herself a house to be close to work. That was the story, anyway; she hasn't shown up at the ranch since junior high. Your dad works late now, comes home tired and opens a beer. You bring him cheese and crackers, and watch him fall asleep in his chair.
Down the road, at the ranch house, Ted Haskell grills steaks from his cows every night. He's been divorced for years, but he's never learned how to cook anything except steak. Whenever you're there with Haskell's daughter Carla, who's in your class at school, Haskell tries to get you to stay for dinner. He says you're too thin and a good beefsteak will make you strong. But you don't like Haskell's teasing, and you don't like leaving your dad alone, so you walk home hungry.
When you're sixteen, Haskell's ranch house is the best place to get ready to go out at night. Carla has her own bathroom, with a big mirror, where you curl your hair into ringlets and put on blue eye shadow. You and Carla wear matching Wranglers, and when it gets cold you wear knitted gloves with rainbow-striped fingers that the boys love to look at when they get drunk out on the Hill.
The Hill is the park where everyone stands and talks after they get bored driving their cars in circles on the drag. The cowboys are always out on the Hill, and there's a fight every night; on a good night, there are five or six. On a good night, someone gets slid across the asphalt on his back, T-shirt riding up over his bare skin. It doesn't matter what the fights are about no one ever knows it just matters that Andy Tyler always wins. He's the one who slides the other guy into the road. Afterward, he gets casual, walks over with his cowboy-boot gait, takes a button from the school blood drive off his shirt and reads it aloud: "'I Gave Blood Today,'" he says. "Looks like you did, too." Then he pins the button to the other guy's shirt. He puts his jean jacket back on and hides a beer inside it, his hand tucked in like Napoleon's, and smiles his invincible smile.
"Hey," he says. "Do that rainbow thing again."
You wave your gloved hands in fast arcs, fingers together so the stripes line up.
Andy laughs, and grabs your hands, and says, "Come home and fuck me."
But you don't. You walk away. And Andy leaves the Hill without saying good-bye, and rolls his truck in a ditch for the hundredth time, but a buddy of his dad's always tows him, and no one ever calls the cops.
Virginity is as important to rodeo boys as to Catholics, and you don't go home and fuck Andy Tyler because when you finally get him, you want to keep him. But you like his asking. Some nights, he doesn't ask. Some nights, Lacey Estrada climbs into Andy's truck, dark hair bouncing in soft curls on her shoulders, and moves close to Andy on the front seat as they drive away. Lacey's dad is a doctor, and she lives in a big white house where she can sneak Andy into her bedroom without waking anyone up. But cowboys are romantics; when they settle down they want the girl they haven't fucked.
When Haskell marries an ex-hippie, everyone on the ranch expects trouble. Suzy was a beauty once; now she's on her third husband and doesn't take any shit. Suzy reads tarot cards, and when she lays them out to answer the question of Andy Tyler, the cards say to hold out for him.
On the spring cattle drive, you show Suzy how to ride behind the mob and stay out of the dust. Suzy talks about her life before Haskell: she has a Ph.D. in anthropology, a police record for narcotics possession, a sorority pin and a ski-bum son in Jackson Hole. She spent her twenties throwing dinner parties for her first husband's business clients that, she says, was her biggest mistake and then the husband ran off with one of her sorority sisters. She married a Buddhist next. "Be interesting in your twenties," Suzy says. "Otherwise you'll want to do it in your thirties or forties, when it wreaks all kinds of havoc, and you've got a husband and kids."
You listen to Suzy and say nothing. What's wrong with a husband and children? A sweet guy, a couple of brown-armed kids running around outside it wouldn't be so bad.
There's a fall cattle drive, too, but no one ever wants to come on it. It's cold in November, and the cows have scattered in the national forest. They're half wild from being out there for months, especially the calves, who are stupid as only calves can be. The cowboys have disappeared, gone back to college or off on binges or other jobs. So you go out with your dad and Haskell, sweating in heavy coats as you chase down the calves, fighting the herd back to winter pasture before it starts to snow. But it always snows before you finish, and your dad yells at you when your horse slips on the wet asphalt and scrapes itself up.
In grade school, it's okay to do well. But by high school, being smart gives people ideas. Science teachers start bugging you in the halls. They say Eastern schools have Montana quotas, places for ranch girls who are good at math. You could get scholarships, they say. But you know, as soon as they suggest it, that if you went to one of those schools you'd still be a ranch girl not the Texas kind, who are debutantes and just happen to have a ranch in the family, and not the horse-farm kind, who ride English. Horse people are different, because horses are elegant and clean. Cows are mucusy, muddy, shitty, slobbery things, and it takes another kind of person to live with them. Even your long curled hair won't help at a fancy college, because prep-school girls don't curl their hair. The rodeo boys like it, but there aren't any rodeo boys out East. So you come up with a plan: you have two and a half years of straight A's, and you have to flunk quietly, not to draw attention. Western Montana College, where Andy Tyler wants to go, will take anyone who applies. You can live cheap in Dillon, and if things don't work out with Andy you already know half the football team.
When rodeo season begins, the boys start skipping school. You'd skip, too, but the goal is to load up on D's, not to get kicked out or sent into counseling. You paint your nails in class and follow the rodeo circuit on weekends. Andy rides saddle bronc, but his real event is bull riding. The bull riders have to be a little crazy, and Andy Tyler is. He's crazy in other ways, too: two years of asking you to come home and fuck him have made him urgent about it. You dance with him at the all-night graduation party, and he catches you around the waist and says he doesn't know a more beautiful girl. At dawn, he leaves for spring rodeo finals in Reno, driving down with his best friend, Rick Marcille, and you go to Country Kitchen for breakfast in a happy fog, order a chocolate shake and think about dancing with Andy. Then you fall asleep on Carla's bedroom floor, watching cartoons, too tired to make it down the road to bed.
Andy calls once from Reno, at 2 A.M., and you answer the phone before it wakes your dad. Andy's taken second place in the bull riding and won a silver belt buckle and three thousand dollars. He says he'll take you to dinner at the Grub Stake when he gets home. Rick Marcille shouts "Ro-day-o" in the background.
There's a call the next night, too, but it's from Rick Marcille's dad. Rick and Andy rolled the truck somewhere in Idaho, and the doctors don't think Rick will make it, though Andy might. Mr. Marcille sounds angry that Andy's the one who's going to live, but he offers to drive you down there. You don't wake your dad; you just go.
The doctors are wrong; it's Andy who doesn't make it. When you get to Idaho, he's already dead. Rick Marcille is paralyzed from the neck down. The cops say the boys weren't drinking, that a wheel came loose and the truck just rolled, but you guess the cops are just being nice. It's your turn to be angry, at Mr. Marcille, because his son will live and Andy is dead. But when you leave the hospital, Mr. Marcille falls down on his knees, squeezing your hand until it hurts.
At Andy's funeral, his uncle's band plays, and his family sets white doves free. One won't go, and it hops around the grass at your feet. The morning is already hot and blue, and there will be a whole summer of days like this to get through.
Andy's obituary says he was engaged to Lacey Estrada, which only Lacey or her doctor father could have put in. If you had the guts, you'd buy every paper in town and burn them outside the big white house where Lacey took him home and fucked him. Then Lacey shows up on the Hill with an engagement ring and gives you a sad smile as if you've shared something. If you were one of the girls who gets in fights on the Hill, you'd fight Lacey. But you don't; you just look away. You'll all be too old for the Hill when school starts, anyway.
At Western, in the fall, in a required composition class, your professor accuses you of plagiarism because your first paper is readable. You drop the class. Carla gets an A on her biology midterm at the university in Bozeman. She's going to be a big-animal vet. Her dad tells everyone, beaming.
But the next summer, Carla quits college to marry a boy named Dale Banning. The Bannings own most of central Montana, and Dale got famous at the family's fall livestock sale. He'd been putting black bulls on Herefords, when everyone wanted purebreds. They said he was crazy, but at the sale Dale's crossbred black-baldies brought twice what the purebreds did. Dale stood around grinning, embarrassed, like a guy who'd beaten his friends at poker.
Carla announces the engagement in Haskell's kitchen, and says she'll still be working with animals, without slogging through all those classes. "Dale's never been to vet school," Carla says. "But he can feel an embryo the size of a pea inside a cow's uterus."
You've heard Dale use that line on girls before, but never knew it to work so well. Carla's voice has a dreamy edge.
"If I don't marry him now," Carla says, "he'll find someone else."
In his head, Haskell has already added the Banning acreage to his own, and the numbers make him giddy. He forgets about having a vet for a daughter, and talks about the wedding all the time. If Carla backed out, he'd marry Dale himself. For the party, they clear the big barn and kill a cow. Carla wears a high-collared white gown that hides the scar on her neck half a Running H from the time she got in the way at branding, holding a struggling calf. Dale wears a string tie and a black ten-gallon hat, and everyone dances to Andy's uncle's band.
Your mother drives out to the ranch for the wedding; it's the first time you've seen your parents together in years. Your dad keeps ordering whiskeys and your mother gets drunk and giggly. But they sober up enough not to go home together.
That winter, your dad quits his job, saying he's tired of Haskell's crap. He leaves the foreman's house and moves in with his new girlfriend, who then announces he can't stay there without a job. He hasn't done anything but ranch work for twenty-five years, so he starts day-riding for Haskell again, then working full-time hourly, until he might as well be the foreman.
When you finish Western, you move into your mother's house in town. Stacks of paperwork for the local horse-racing board cover every chair and table, and an old leather racing saddle straddles an arm of the couch. Your mother still thinks of herself as a horsewoman, and buys unbroken Thoroughbreds she doesn't have time or money to train. She doesn't have a truck or a trailer, or land for pasture, so she boards the horses and they end up as big, useless pets she never sees.
Summer evenings, you sit with your mom on the front step and eat ice cream with chocolate-peanut-butter chunks for dinner. You think about moving out, but then she might move in with you and that would be worse.
You aren't a virgin anymore, thanks to a boy you found who wouldn't cause you trouble. He drops by from time to time, to see if things might start up again. They don't. He's nothing like Andy. He isn't the one in your head.
When Carla leaves Dale and moves home to the Running H, you drive out to see her baby. It feels strange to be at the ranch now, with the foreman's house empty and Carla's little boy in the yard, and everything else the same.
"You're so lucky to have a degree and no kid," Carla says. "You can still leave."
And Carla is right: You could leave. Apply to grad school in Santa Cruz and live by the beach. Take the research job in Chicago that your chemistry professor keeps calling about. Go to Zihuatanejo with Haskell's friends, who need a nanny. They have tons of room, because in Mexico you don't have to pay property tax if you're still adding on to the house.
But none of these things seem real; what's real is the payments on your car and your mom's crazy horses, the feel of the ranch road you can drive blindfolded and the smell of the hay. Your dad will need you in November to bring in the cows.
Suzy lays out the tarot cards on the kitchen table. The cards say, Go on, go away. But out there in the world you get old. You don't get old here. Here you can always be a ranch girl. Suzy knows. When Haskell comes in wearing muddy boots, saying, "Hi, baby. Hi, hon," his wife stacks up the tarot cards and kisses him hello. She pours him fresh coffee and puts away the cards that say go.
Copyright © 2002 by Maile Meloy