The Weight of Dreamsby Jonis Agee
Abandoned by his mother after the accidental death of his beloved younger brother, Ty Bonte spends his days working on the family ranch with his violent father and his nights marauding with his mean-spirited drinking buddy, Harney Rivers. When a drunken fight escalates into the near-death of a young Indian, Ty flees his Nebraska home. Twenty-two years later, Ty is a horse trainer in Kansas, sharing his life with a young woman named Dakota. Their comfortable existence is shattered by a visit from Harney, who commits an act of brutality that forces Ty to face up to his own violent past. Returning to Nebraska, he finds his dying father fighting the bank's foreclosure on the ranch. In an explosive courtroom confrontation with Harney, Ty finally comes to terms with the past and in the process is able to forgive himself and his family.
"Connect to and enlarge upon the myth of the Wild West . . . and vividly portray cowboy life in all of its degradation, violence, and romance."--Chicago Tribune
Jonis Agee is the author of several works of fiction, including South of Resurrection and the New York Times Notable Book Sweet Eyes. She is the recipient of numerous grants, including the NEA and Loft-McKnight Award. She teaches at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota.
- Penguin Group (USA)
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Ty Bonte kept his eyes fixed on his hands folded in front of him, the knuckles white as he tried to control his rage at being treated like a kid. He had been doing a man's work on the family ranch since he was eight; his browned, battered hands were evidence of that fact. What he really needed was a beer and a couple of shots of tequila to sort this whole mess out. The pills Harney had slipped him in the men's room half an hour ago hadn't kicked up any dust. All the edges were still too damn sharp.
The county prosecutor laid down the yellow pencil he had been using like a baton to conduct the litany of misdeeds and turned to look at the seventeen-year-old sitting at the table across the narrow aisle. "Your Honor, this boy has multiple arrests on his record, including driving without a license, underage drinking, malicious destruction of public property, and assaultI'm not even going to mention the other things he could be charged on."
Ty's mother sighed and even without turning around to look at her sitting behind him on one of the wooden benches that lined the back of the small room, he knew she was shaking her head like a dog with a taste of poison bait in its mouth. Sitting as far from his mother as possible, Ryder Bonte, his father, leaned against the wall, tan cowboy hat dropped down over his eyes as if he were asleep, arms folded, with his faded black western shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow so the blurred tattoo of a woman's naked silhouette seemed to lie along his forearm like a sick lizard.
Ty shifted his eyes to follow the staggeringmotion of a centipede that had been slowly circling the bare space between the tables and the judge's dark wood-veneer bench, which was dented from an angry defendant's kick. That must have felt good, Ty decided, only if he were going to do it, he'd put all his strength into it and make a big boot-sized hole. Although the courtroom blinds were shut, the sunlight still managed to cut through in yellow bars and had gradually marched across the brown linoleum tiles during the hearing so that now the scuffed and muddy toe of his right boot was caught and exposed in the grid of light. Instinctively he shook his boot, but the light held. The centipede wove toward the prosecutor's table, entering the home territory of the highly polished black loafers. The kind of shoes a Bonte man would never even try on. His wife had money, Ryder had told Ty this morning while they waited like poor relations on the bench outside the courtroom during Harney's session. Old man Rivers, Harney's father, had insisted that the two boys be tried separately.
"And there's strong evidence that he's not getting the controls needed in the home either, Your Honor." Francis Waverly, the prosecutor, swiveled slightly in his chair and directed the room's attention to the father, who pushed his hat up with his thumb and stared back. Waverly glanced at Mrs. Bonte, who was staring straight ahead. Ty shifted his gaze back to the centipede just as Waverly's shiny black loafer lifted and squashed it. Then Ty looked back at his father, whose deeply tanned face burned a shade darker.
Ryder had grown up around Francis and remembered him as a skinny kid who couldn't ride a horse, but had gone to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and thought he was hot stuff when he came home to Babylon on vacation. The law degree only certified that he was another asshole wearing a face. These days he was nostril deep with the bankers and business interest in town, busy protecting their kids while trying to settle old scores on his kid's back. In the old days a ranch teenager was expected to come to town, drink a little, raise some hell, spend money, and go home. It was part of growing up until he got married and settled down to the real work of ranching and raising a family. Now, they threw the book at these boys every time one sneezed. Ryder wanted to throw a punch at Francis, splatter that nice white shirt and pale sissy blue suit with some blood, but Quinn Yount, their lawyer, had warned the two Bonte men to say and do absolutely nothing. Last time, they had been fined for disrupting the proceedings and that had put another black mark on Ty's record.
Ryder looked across the room to the left, where the raised platform filled with chairs seated a jury when necessary. Today the blond oak chairs were empty except for the social worker and a visiting county prosecutor sitting beside Red Tibbetts, the lawyer for Harney Rivers, whose case had gone just before this one. No wonder Francis was on his high horse, putting on the show for the out-of-town visitor. Ryder took the worn black checkbook from his shirt pocket and began tapping it lightly on the back of the empty chair at the' prosecutor's table in front of him. They were in the middle of haying at home. Neither he nor Ty even had time to shower before they changed clothes and rushed to town for the hearing. He could smell his own sour stink and hoped it bothered his wife and Francis too. He noticed that Francis was looking out of the corner of his eye at the checkbook. They might get down to business after all. Best he could do for the kid was a couple of hundred. Not like Harney's old man, who had rigged a deal so his kid could go to a 4-H meeting and talk about the evils of alcohol and get off without a fine or a note on his record. Harney Rivers Sr. owned the Cattleman's Bank, so that kid could ride free as long as Francis and the judge were in office.
"Do you have anything to say?" The judge directed the question at Ty, who glanced up quickly and away, feeling the shame press against his face like a fat stomach pulling him into its pillowy flesh, making him breathe its musty sweat until he had a rotten sweet smell like a dead mouse stuck in his nose. He shook his head and stared at the black Formica tabletop scratched with angry initials and swear words. He felt like adding his own.
Red Tibbetts, Harney's lawyer sitting on the sidelines, cleared his throat. "Your Honor?"
The judge held up his hand while he wrote notes on the file and stared at them for a minute.
Ryder had heard how the judge spent weekends at an enclave of cabins on the Niobrara River in the breaks northeast of town, playing cards and drinking with the local lawyers, bankers, sheriff, and an assortment of men with money. About once a month during the summer they lured someone from the state offices in Lincoln to come up and spend the weekend floating down the river in canoes, drinking around the campfire, raising hell like real men. Two weeks ago, the lieutenant governor camealmost as good as the governor, who promised a visit in late August. Anytime Red Tibbetts wanted to say something in court, whether he was an official part of a case or not, it was okay.
"Sons a bitches," Ryder muttered loud enough for Francis Waverly to hear but not the judge. Waverly's sissy blue suit back twitched, but he didn't turn around. These lawyers were all a bunch of punks. "Yeggies," he muttered, a word his father had used that had no real definition except to signify people who didn't really work for a living, but lived off the fringes, lazy, no-good, half-evil, half-incompetent, conniving sons a bitches. Couldn't find their own asses in the dark. Damn kid could end up just like 'em too if Ryder didn't watch out. Nothing but backbreaking work kept people on the hard road, his own father used to say as he kicked Ryder out into some cloudburst or snowstorm to work cattle.
The judge looked at Harney's lawyer.
"Your Honor, this boy is just having growing pains. We all remember those days, and I bet his father will be whipping some sense into him before dark." Red Tibbetts smiled at the judge, who gave a short nod and looked at the social worker and raised his eyebrows.
Ryder snorted loud enough for the judge to glance in his direction. He almost hated that the tide was turning in his boy's favor because some fatass lawyer was taking their side for a change. Hell, a person never knew where these lawyers were going to landgoing to court was like riding under a tree full of snakes.
The social worker was a stout young woman with cropped brown hair, a square face with a low forehead, and a mean glint in her eye as she looked the Bonte family over. Dressed in pink-and-gray plaid shorts with an elastic waist and a gray men's cotton short-sleeved pullover, she slouched in her chair as if she were a bored teenager in court herself and didn't bother straightening up as she gave her report. "We were hoping to get Ty into the counseling program at the Outreach Center, but it's full right now."
"He don't need more talking to" Ryder leaned forward and glared at the social worker.
"Please be quiet," the judge ordered in a monotone.
"Your Honor, we'd like to see this boy sent to the training facility in Hastings," the prosecutor announced in his dry, flat voice. "Smashing the window at the Corner Bar was a willful act of vandalismnot to mention the brawl with the two cowboys."
"No! I need him working on the ranch" Ryder's urgent whisper could be heard all over the room.
"He's needed at home, Your Honor. The Bonte family would suffer great hardship without him this time of year," Quinn Yount, Ty's lawyer, said. "And there's no actual proof about the window."
The judge, a thin middle-aged balding white man in glasses who looked like he might sell insurance on TV, glanced at Red Tibbetts and the visiting prosecutor, then back at Ty.
"Son, you're becoming an embarrassment to your folks. The community is sick of you causing trouble. You've got JAIL printed across your forehead. I see you one more time, that's where you're going. For now, I'm fining you three hundred dollars plus court costs, and I want you to pay it. Your father can pay the fine today, then I want a letter saying you've paid him back. You have sixty days. Remember, next time we won't be sitting here holding your hand"
"Three hundred dollars!" Ryder muttered, "bunch a yeggies ..."
Ty turned to see his mother stand and ease her way along the narrow bench and into the aisle. He half-expected her to pat his shoulder or lean down and murmur something in that quiet, even voice of hers, at least a word of caution or regret. Anything, really, would have been enough, but his body waited, almost naked with expectation as she brushed past, in her navy blue shirtdress with the little patent leather belt, a whisper of lavender scent against the wood bench behind him. He dropped his hands into his lap, fixing his eyes on the wood grain of the judge's stand and willing himself not to cry. Nobody ever held his hand, he wanted to protest. Nobody even tried. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the motion of his father standing and winced from the sharp tap of the checkbook on his shoulder as Ryder passed.
"Court dismissed," the judge said.
Turning, Ty saw his mother and father starting to argue in the hallway and Harney's grinning face lurking near the stairs.
"Best stay away from that Rivers boy," Yount said as he shuffled papers into the thick yellow file with Ty's name on it.
Everybody had a piece of advice, but not one of them was worth a wagon of manure when it came down to those nights on the ranch with his father drinking or about to start drinking again. Ty faced that alone, and it was only going to get worse now. Maybe he should just get it over withask the judge to send him to Hastings now instead of waiting till the next time. Except for the problem of having no booze, the training school would be a vacation from Ryder and the ranch. He rose and his back pulled from the most recent beating with the belt, for lying about some cattle he was supposed to doctor for pink eye and hadn't gotten to yet. Lucky he'd grabbed the belt when Ryder had switched to the buckle end, as he did when he drank enough. The way it was flying through the air, that big trophy buckle would've torn his back open instead of his hand. Everyone thought Ty had broken the bar window because of the deep cut that almost tore off his little finger, but it was Harney who'd thrown the half-full whiskey bottle after their fight with those cowboys from the ZC ranch, not him. Doc saw him in jail yesterday morning, said the stitches Ty had put in himself were sufficient. Leave an ugly, thick scar though. Then he'd checked the mobility to make sure there was no tendon or nerve damage. When Ty told him it was a roping accident, Doc's eyes flicked with disbelief because of the dark purple stripes crisscrossing his back like a bad night sky. Ty hadn't wanted his lungs and heart checked out. He knew he was breathing a little shallow and hunching over. Doc never said a word though. Wouldn't give him any pain pills either. Probably figured Ty deserved it, being the kind of boy who got examined in jail of a Sunday morning. A boy whose father and mother were so disgusted they wouldn't bail him out until the afternoon, so he would be home for night chores and start work bright and early Monday morning when haying began. It was just natural to take a belt to that kind of boy every so often, the way rank horses needed a good tussle to put their minds on work.
"You coming?" Yount asked, laying a hand on Ty's back so softly it made the boy wonder if Doc had told him. He shrugged off the gesture, put his straw cowboy hat on so it shadowed his eyes, and stood. He was already an inch or so taller than the young lawyer, and it made him feel even more alone, as if he were growing beyond anyone's reach now. He kept his expression empty as he thanked Yount.
"You want to talk about thisor anythingyou give me a holler, okay?" The other man's features were so pale they reminded Ty of the late summer hills, subtle shades of tans and yellows in those watery hazel eyes that held a surprising sympathy. It was a little too late for that, something inside Ty said. He was grown now, six one in his socks with a promise of another inch or so to put him over Ryder. He couldn't bring his troubles to another person anymore. His father was right on that count.
Collecting the file and turning to go, Young paused again. "I'm serious about Harney. His wiring's bad, and your family doesn't have the kind of deep pockets old man Rivers has."
Ty nodded and kept his eyes away from the lawyer's. Following Yount, he saw his mother put both hands on her husband's chest and shove him back. Ryder was laughing as she turned on her chunky black patent leather heels and walked down the steep marble stairs. Ty hung back long enough for his father to push his way through the lawyers and clients toward the window to the left, where the clerks sat waiting for payment of fines and news of verdicts they could spread around town. Glancing at the pale green marble stairs his mother had disappeared down, he thought briefly of running after her. Not after her, but after her in the same way she had run from Ryder and the ranch several years ago, taking Ronnie and his sister, Charla, and making it clear that Ty was part of what she was fleeing. And after Ronnie, his younger brother, died two years ago at the ranch, where he spent his summers, there wasn't any question of her ever coming back. In fact, Ty couldn't understand why she bothered coming to court today, unless it was to look good in front of people here in town. The thing was, he could never figure out why she hated him so, even before Ronnie.
It used to drive him crazy, now it just felt like a numb lump, the way that place on his leg bone felt where he got cornered and kicked that time by the mare who'd lost her foal. Ended up with bone chips that had to be taken out, and a huge blood clot that swelled his calf to three times its normal size so he couldn't walk for a week for fear it'd break loose and travel to his heart before the drugs dissolved it. Maybe that was when his mother finally lost interest in him, coming up the stairs with his meals on a tray, standing there with her arms folded and staring at him like he was doing these things on purpose to make her mad or hurt her. He was only twelve. He didn't know what to do about other people's feelings. He was just a kid.
When she said, "I want you to come to town this winter and stay with me. I don't want you out here all the time," he'd protested and argued and finally asked his father to stop her. He couldn't know that she'd give up on him then, that she'd hate him for giving Ryder ammunition to use against her, that she'd see her son as following in the footsteps of her mean, drunk husband. He was just a kid, he'd wanted to tell her for several years. How could she give up on him? Now he knew: A parent can decide they don't like their child. And there isn't a damn thing either one of them can do about it.
"Hey" Harney nudged him in the ribs and laughed at the way Ty caved away from the elbow. "How soon can you get away from your old man?"
Looking quickly at Harney, then glancing over to check on what Ryder was doing, Ty thought about his lawyer's warning about the wiring in Harney's head. It was true, although you couldn't see it at first. His light brown hair and almost boneless face, with a regular-sized nose and evenly spaced blue eyes, were so ordinary that he almost stood out. He was stockier and a couple of inches shorter than Ty, without being overweight. In fact, his first two years in high school, he'd been on the wrestling team and had kept the muscular build and quickness that let him dominate in two weight classes until he was kicked out for a string of dirty plays. The strange thing was that he would've won anyway. When the third opponent lay writhing on the floor with an ear half-torn off, Harney had stood panting over him, a small satisfied smile on his face. Harney Sr. had thrown a fit and claimed it was all a misunderstanding, an accident, and had his son reinstated. But Harney Jr. never joined a team or club again. Instead, he had gradually taken a central role in their school as the boy who could put his hands on anything illegal: drugs, alcohol, fake driver's licenses for trips to North Platte and Rapid City, and pictures of stupefying filth.
Ty's mouth was suddenly dry as he pictured the exhausting, hot days of ranch work ahead, with only the few beers he was allowed to drink. He'd have to get away somehow.
"We're hayingbut maybe Friday night. I can steal the keys to the truck unless he tries to hide them again. That could take a while, but I'll catch you at the Gas 'n Git just after darkyou better have something other than those pills you gave me in the johnwhat was that shit, aspirin?"
Harney smiled lazily and shrugged one shoulder. "Worth a try"
"Yeah well, you owe me, man"
"Don't worry" Harney looked past Ty and frowned. "Here comes your old manjust don't be late, we're going to `Mexico' "Harney gave his arm a light punch and ambled over to the little knot of lawyers. "Mexico" meant a crazy night of tequila, grass, and looking for girls. Ty could already taste the oily burn and sour salt on his tongue.
"Come on." Ryder brushed past with the yellow receipt for the fine crushed in his fist. He was scowling and walking quickly, landing light on his feet as if he were on his way to someplace important. "Don't even think about getting into trouble again," he said over his shoulder on the way down the stairs. "You're gonna be so damn tired from working, you'll be grateful I let you take a shit. Next time you come to town, it'll be with that letter to the judge saying you repaid me this three hundred dollars at fifty cents an hour. Plus what you owe me for my time today, the gas to drive in here, and the energy to fight your mother." Ryder pushed the big glass door open and stepped outside, pausing to put on his aviator-style sunglasses in the bright light bouncing off the concrete and stone as if they were tin. "Boy, you'll be lucky you even make it to school this fall."
Ty stood on the top step for a moment, glancing back at the courthouse, again considering a plea to the judge to put him away. Then the horn on the truck honked and he sighed and descended the limestone steps. Climbing in, he settled on the torn brown vinyl seat with the exposed springs. Ryder had taken the old red-and-gray striped saddle blanket that usually covered the hole in the seat and bunched it up for the small of his back. Years ago he'd busted his back when he fell off a haystack and it gave him fits during the summer when the work was nonstop. Ty put his hand down on the seat, pushing the stitched cut against the spring so that it throbbed. Staring out the windshield speckled thick with bug debris, he saw his mother standing under the awning of the J C Penney Catalog Store, shading her eyes with one hand, watching them. He couldn't tell even now what she thought or felt. If she changed her mind about him, he'd never know. She was as quiet and unrelenting as the hills they were heading into.
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