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It was the song playing on the radio that made Ben Pipestone tighten his two-fisted grip on the big steering wheel of his old red and white Chevy pickup. Somebody up there had to be orchestrating moments like this, putting "Me and Bobbie McGee" in the DJ's
He was approaching the newly resurfaced driveway of his former home. Some all-seeing body who had nothing better to do than to mess with a man's head just when the sorry bastard thought he was finally getting it on straight.
He doubted that Tunkasila had much time for him these days. Probably not Jesus, either, or the Virgin Mary or anybody in the upper echelon of the Spirit World. He'd bet on his old buddy, Iktome. It was just like the wily Lakota Trickster to play on the sentimental bone a guy could have sworn he didn't have in his body.
Clara was the one who was always getting sentimental over songs, but there Ben sat, staring at the house and letting his throat tighten up over foolish memories. It hurt to swallow, but he actually savored the fleeting twinge. Yeah, pour on the pain, he told himself. Pain was good. Physical pain was the kind of a challenge a guy could really sink his teeth into and hope to beat.
The best way to kill it -- well, maybe the second best -- was to get busy and concentrate on the here and now.
Forget the past and face the present. Deal with the condition of the driveway right in front of him. Take note that the guy who had sold him on the asphalt had done a nice job, which was good to know since Ben had paid the bill simply on Clara's terse approval. No detailed report, no "Thanks, we needed that." All she'd said was, "Yes, it's fine."So he'd taken what satisfaction could be bad in writing a check for the balance owed on the job. After all, it was still his house, at least partly, if not his home.
The yard needed some work, though. Clara was a great one for putting in flowers in the spring, but after the first frost, she'd always left the dead stuff for him to take care of. Not that he'd minded much. This was the first house he'd owned, and he'd never had a yard before. Probably never would again, nor one like this. He figured he might as well drive back up to Bismarck and take care of the fail cleanup next week, sometime when no one would be home.
The thing he'd liked most about the house was the view of the river bluffs from the big window in the front room. Clara had had her list of requirements, but he'd mortgaged his soul so that he could see forever on a clear day. And in North Dakota you could count on plenty of cloudless sky. Someday he was going to buy the adjacent farmland, he'd told Clara. Plenty of room to keep a couple of horses, Some primal part of his brain still measured his personal worth in horses.
The late afternoon sunlight slanted across the field behind the house like long fingers reaching for the fast biscuit on the table. Don't reach. Ben could hear Clara saying in that soft, crisp tone she took when she was being the authoritative mother. Ask, and it shall be passed.
Ask, and it shall be passed.
How about, ask and it shall be past?
Not likely. Not after what he'd done.
He set the brake and draped his wrists over the top of the steering wheel, rubbing his chin on the shoulder of his denim jacket. Softly, absently, he added his deep voice to the song's final refrain as he gazed out the pickup's side window. The backyard had faded to yellow-green, but the autumn sun had turned the alfalfa stubble to pure gold. The hollow echo of one single yesterday was all he had to hang on to most nights. It wasn't always the same one, but he tried to stick to the good ones. The days when the troubles were Still far away and the nights when he'd slept nearly guilt-free. Those were the yesterdays he believed in.
Today Clara wanted to talk to him about Annie. She'd said so over the phone, taking refuge in a tone she'd once reserved for salespeople and bill collectors. He should have just said, "Talk. I'm listening." That was usually the way it was anyway these days. She'd talk. He'd listen. It was always about Annie. Clara wouldn't talk to him about much else.
By now she'd have seen his pickup in the driveway, and would be waiting for him to come to the door. He didn't have time for a cigarette, but he sure could have used one.
It wasn't that he didn't want to see her. He did. He always did. Even when he knew he wasn't going to enjoy seeing the look that inevitably crept into her autumn-colored eyes whenever she saw him these days. She always managed to coat that sad look with something harder -- a cool glaze, an angry sheen -- but at the Core of it he could see the hurt. It was always there for him to see, which was as it should have been, for he had been the one to put it there.
The last time he'd mounted the front steps, all hell had broken loose when he'd walked right on in and announced his presence. In the interest of trying to keep the peace, he slowly extended one finger toward the doorbell, but he couldn't quite bring himself to punch the button. Granted, she'd been making most of the house payments since...