dinners were usually a group effort. We rotated houses, trekking down the road with pots and pans, toting hot food on four-wheelers. After the meal, stories were told about the deceased in an attempt to keep their memories vibrant. Now on my own, an adult living far from the dead-end road, I too consider the afterlife, and the path that leads to it. Sometimes I think of my unknown grandfathers. As a boy I swore to have seen the ghost of Vardis in our rental’s basement. He hovered three feet above the green carpet in an armchair, reading the newspaper. The next Sunday while eating dinner at Mabel’s (still alive then, she and Edith both expiring when I was eighteen), I asked if Vardis had owned such a chair. Mabel took me into an office and showed me the recliner. I told her of my sighting, and she dragged me out to the other adults to repeat it. They nodded and contemplated a silent elegy, as if saying, “See, we knew it all along—the dead don’t go far.” # Say macabre things to a nine year old and they’ll stick. And if death in the long road to eternity is nothing more than a speed bump, as my family has made it seem, then thinking about losing my father isn’t as frightening as it sounds. I consider what it was like for him or my mom to lose Vardis or Bernard, what a fourteen year old would have to muster to survive. I generate drastic scenarios of what it would mean to be fatherless. But how will my pops go? Will it be his lifestyle that kills him? Consider Coalee, our first border collie. Until her arrival, we had been a golden retriever family, having owned a string of elegant dogs since my sighting of Vardis. Coalee belonged to a drifter cowboy who worked on the farm for a year. He’d trained the dog with a number of commands to push
LAST DAYS “If you do anything,” my father said through the darkness of the pickup cab, “play this song at my funeral.” One-handing the wheel, he rattled around the console, snuck out a cassette tape that glowed green from the speedometer, and cued Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.” I was nine, my father thirty-four, yet there we were, already planning his last days. I’m always somber when remembering my family gatherings—we always discussed the dead. My maternal grandfather, Bernard, died when my mother was fourteen. Father of twelve and sole proprietor of Manwaring Cheese, a small business he’d started, Bernard came home for lunch and fell dead of a heart attack inside the home’s threshold. Edith, Bernard’s wife, found him facedown. She was angry; of her twelve children, six still lived at home. She never remarried and always referenced the joy of rejoining her husband in that heavenly realm. My paternal grandfather, Vardis, left his family when my father was fourteen. His death lingered longer than Bernard’s; years before, Vardis’s kidneys stopped working. A sister donated one, supposedly a perfect match, but Vardis’s body rejected it and he died of kidney failure. My father remembers Vardis’s late days as bed-ridden, Mabel bouncing him between hospitals in Idaho and Utah. My mother, LaReta, and father, Claxton, met in ninth grade, the deaths of their fathers cementing their relationship. They were married at twenty-one. The paternal losses informed their adolescence and shaped their adult years. My parents, on the dead-end road of their youth, refurbished and rebuilt Vardis’s old house; all five of my aunts built in the hay field between Claxton’s house and the irrigation canal. Sunday
cattle clockwise, counter-clockwise, to stalk, to block, to become stone still. Because our retrievers did little more than chew shoes and shed, I could see why my father wanted Coalee. After Coalee, Pops became an out and out collie devotee. But Claxton was no cowboy—he hired men for that. My dad was a tiller of the soil, a toiler of the hills. Coalee, perhaps the most efficient and beautiful tool I’d ever seen, served no use for my father the farmer. But Pops came to own Coalee just the same. The trade involved a snowmachine and a work truck upgrade. Coalee lived in a twelve by eight dog run behind our house. My father would load her in the pickup on days he had to check water. As soon as the tailgate opened, she’d go crazy, spinning around the pen. Then she’d bullet through the kennel door and launch into the bed of the truck. Coalee was a trick pony, and my father trained her to ride with him on his dirtbike. He’d kick start the machine and whistle low. The dog would leap and balance on the sliver of seat behind him, as still as a statue. But whether in truck or on motorcycle, Coalee was hornswoggled; she never again rustled cattle. Instead, the shadows of untouchable sparrows were the only thing for her to herd while checking water. Sometimes Coalee would have to bail from the dirtbike if dad got into some precarious situation involving mud or ruts or rocky terrain. Once, Coalee fell off too close to the motorcycle’s drive sprocket and ran her paw through the metal teeth. The vet did what he could, but ultimately Coalee’s front paw became a gauze-wrapped club, half of what it had been. No work for her until the wound closed and healed. That’s how Jeremiah, my brother, and I came to care for her. Spring, and a curious thing happened. Every time a pickup would rumble down our road, the dog would shake and urinate. She’d limp up and down the run, ears perked towards
the waning sounds of the horse trailer rattling away without her. After, she’d sulk inside the plastic hut, rest her head on her paws, then wait for the truck’s return and repeat the whole affair. I had seen this dog perform amazing feats and here she lay beaten, her life denigrated to the dog run. One Sunday after church, her paw healed well enough to fully support her weight, I let her out and we played fetch in the backyard. The cowboys clunked past in a work pickup and Coalee hobbled the length of the lawn, wanting more than anything to load up and be led to the cows. My calls brought her back. If Coalee was anything, she was loyal. The trees were in bloom that spring day, apple blossoms salting that blue Idaho sky. The lawn had transformed from its winter hibernation into a deep green. I didn’t put Coalee back in the kennel, figuring she deserved a free day. My mother called me for Sunday dinner. The kitchen table sat near big bay windows that looked onto the road, all of us able to mark the comings and goings of relatives and workers. Halfway through the meal, I heard the work truck clanking towards the highway. Then I saw Coalee rocket around the house, a black streak limping straight for it. Dad saw her too, and so did my sisters, and so did Jeremiah, and so did Mom. However, the cowboys—doing thirty miles an hour and lugging the gooseneck trailer—did not. Coalee sprinted up alongside the truck, then leapt for the flatbed. Her paws clambered on the metal, and she slipped and fell beneath the trailer, folding and rolling until the trailer passed over her completely. I honestly expected the dog to stand up and shake off the accident, but she lay flat, twitching. My sisters started to cry, and dad went on a tirade and asked me again and again what Coalee was doing out of the pen. I stammered, tried to
explain that Coalee was never intended to be locked up, that she wasn’t made to check water. “It’s a dog,” he shouted, slamming an open hand on the table. “It’s a thing. Now go clean it up.” We didn’t speak much the rest of the day. Jeremiah helped me tote Coalee’s warm broken body behind the barn, where we buried her. Jeremiah refused to speak to me; the few times I’ve tried to bring it up now, as adults, he refuses to recall her. I disconsolately replayed the scene for weeks. Had I killed the dog, or had she killed herself? The jump from ground to moving truck was impossible. Ultimately, I decided that she had to try. Whether it was the shade-less kennel, or the lack of cattle, or the missing sensation of snaking through sage, Coalee’s life wasn’t complete with my family. No amount of perching on a motorcycle and bounding over potato rows could fix that. She had to return to her previous life; the attempt killed her. Later that summer, I entered the kitchen and found my uncle and mother there, talking. On the dead-end road, six meals a day were plausible: stop any time at a relative or worker’s house and there was food. When my uncle’s wife wasn’t around, he’d stop at our house for a bite. That day, he and my mother discussed Merlin, a grizzled old cowboy that lived a few miles away, on the river. “What I’d like to do,” my uncle said, “is take every one of these high-schoolers who think it’s neat to chew to see Merlin, get a look at what snuff can really do.” Religion was another reason we discussed death so much in my family. Being raised Mormon in a rural community, our lives centered on Sunday meetings and weekday events like Boy Scouts, potlucks, and softball games. Because the congregations were set up geographically, I had to
go four miles in any direction to meet someone I didn’t already see twice a week at the chapel. I checked-out chalk and easers and church books at the chapel library from the same woman who sold me soda at the Lightning Nines on the weekdays. Religion and culture integrated into a daily situation. I couldn’t just go out and throw rocks at an anonymous mailbox without destroying a brother or sister’s property. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, too, is unique in its formation—the entire hierarchy is a lay ministry, meaning no one is paid for church service. Local bishops and stake presidents are fulltime volunteers. Both my uncle and father served in important roles in church leadership. This, for me and my sisters and brother, resulted in a never-ending sermon. So to walk into the kitchen and hear my uncle warning about the woes of tobacco use was normal. I made myself a sandwich. My uncle continued, and I realized I had never met Merlin. In fact, I’d never met a true-blue cowboy since the farm staff consisted of me, my cousins, and a few transient young men like Coalee’s former owner. I knew Merlin’s ranch, a square mile of hardscrabble ground along the Dry Bed canal. In Merlin’s dying days, his son had taken over the operation, but Merlin still rode along in the pickup, a passenger-side operator, nodding to this cow and that hay stand, ordering and watching his son and grandsons work. Merlin never attended church, although at times neighbors or daughters-in-law brought his towheaded grandchildren. So when Mom decided to pay her last regards and take a casserole over to Merlin’s soon-to-be widow, I announced I’d be going with her, more out of curiosity than anything. Merlin lived in an A-framed house surrounded by cottonwoods, so secluded I’d never seen it. Creeping along the dirt driveway was like tread-milling time; it seemed like we
were stuck midstride in some indigent epoch; rusted-out trucks connected to oxidized horse trailers, hunchbacked dogs paced the porch, and faded saddles and tack leaned against the foundation. Merlin’s son met us at the front door. My mother gave him the casserole. The son told us that Merlin had built the house and had raised all of the kids there. He had homesteaded and cleared the land, bought his herd one by one, worked every day of his life. Merlin’s wife came in. My mother embraced her and rubbed circles into the thin woman’s back. The son explained that the house was built for practicality; the kitchen near the door so Merlin could sit right at the table and take off his boots. Thick beams supported a loft were the children had slept, underneath sharp roof angles too steep for snow. The wood smelled worn and oily. Our shoes clacked about the floor. The voices dissipated into the tongue and groove walls. “Imagine you didn’t want to yak with me this whole time,” the son said, leading us into an adjacent front room. A bed—not a steel hospital bed, but a bed that Merlin had probably built himself—had been pulled into the corner, a cowboy hat hung on the footboard. Merlin had already propped himself up on pillows, anticipating a few more visitors. From the looks of the plastic wrapped dishes crowding the table, many had already come. Merlin outstretched his arms to my mom and she leaned down and hugged him. Years later, I’d gain insight into this embrace when I took my new bride Renae to see my moribund step-grandfather Vern—second husband to Mabel—who was losing his mind in a nursing home. Though Vern had never met my wife, he demanded a hug. Renae complied, and Vern wandered his hands up and down her back, pulling her closer until their chests met. When I saw my wife’s breasts flatten
against the marginal man, I tapped Vern’s shoulder, asking him to stop. I couldn’t blame Vern or Merlin for their actions—it wasn’t copping a feel, but more like grasping for straws, a last chance to brush up against warm sweet life. It seemed too that Merlin would never let go of my mother; she bent at a strange angle over him. But mom gave it right back, squeezing and whispering—she knew death and held on to show it. When they finally parted, my mother dabbed her eyes. Merlin was not crying. He was shriveled and weathered, a feathering of transparent hair, and a red nose too large for his face. On his jaw was what my uncle had referenced—a bulbous growth rolling along the bottom of one cheek, as hard and thick as a baseball. The bulb shifted with each of Merlin’s breaths. When he spoke, the flesh moved with dicey dexterity. Merlin was fully aware, though he spoke in wheezing wet lines that left the rest of us to interpret. My mother held Merlin’s hand the length of the conversation. She told him to be strong and added other simple advice, but it seemed like he wanted to talk about the house or the ranch or anything other than expiration. After a while, Merlin’s wife pulled my mom back into the kitchen to show her all of the wares brought by the community. They also needed to discuss and plan the funeral, to be held in the local chapel. Merlin’s son and I were left with the dying man. “Secret,” Merlin said, struggling out every word. “Don’t. Start.” His bulb bobbed, and he wiped away brown slaver with a wrinkled hand. I had been raised with the teaching that tobacco, alcohol, and other addictive substances were to be avoided, a concept that Merlin was imparting that to me now. He smiled.
“He always told me not to start,” the son said, “but I did. Now I’m lucky to have a good reason to quit. But there’s something in the book—moderation in all things. It’s not that bad, right? He ain’t going to hell for a little chaw.” Merlin perked. As far as I knew, bedside confession had no bearings within my religion, but it felt like this was where we headed. I shrugged. “Dad said nothing tasted better than a cold beer on a hot day,” the son continued. “All that sweat, he needed a cold one for nourishment with dinner. He never drank more than a few at a time, and he always deserved it.” These were the first people to mention drinking as anything but sin. Merlin was nodding and grinning. “Salt,” Merlin sputtered. After a minute, the son said, “He’s talking about the sweat. That’s what he puts together, remembers, sweat and a cold beer, how they go together.” Before we left, I shook Merlin’s hand, clammy and wet from his mouth. The next time I saw those hands was at Merlin’s funeral; in the casket, the hands were manipulated over his chest to hold his cowboy hat there. The mortician had dressed Merlin in Wranglers, a chromed roper’s belt buckle, and a purple, pearl-buttoned work shirt. Other than the tumor, which had been excised, all was the same. In the end, Merlin was little changed. # In the years following Merlin, the only people to move off the dead-end road were cousins that married out-of-staters. Sometimes they moved back, and their husbands would work short stints on the farm, but the lifestyle was just too hard. With distance I realize now that if a person isn’t raised on a farm, he or she shouldn’t be held to the same standard as the born-andbred grunt. But when the married-ins would come to work with
ski gloves rather than leathers, or sweats instead of jeans, and they called it a day no later than five in the afternoon, the other workers and I would spit a handful of mean-spirited names at them. This division was formed throughout the entire makeup of the full-time employees, all of whom sacrificed family for work. My father’s farm and ranch became a strange outdoor orphanage filled with responsibility and seventeen-hour days. My father was a father on Sundays and the other six days, my boss. The managers only saw their families late at night unless they goaded their wives into bringing them dinner, toting their legions of kids in minivans to the dusty farms. Most of the time the men ate at the gas station. And the Mexicans—Beto, Benito, Cruz, Ponchito—each left their progeny in Mexico to come to the States and earn a buck. We ostracized those who didn’t fit the mold, who couldn’t put work before all else. Our head cowboy Andy came that same way. Andy was only three years older than me but already in charge of running the two thousand head of the cow-and-calf operation. Andy was nothing like Merlin. He was young and thick, six feet tall, and so muscular he looked too stocky for a horse. In high school, Andy was a state-champion wrestler and had offers to play college football, and on the ranch wore Nike t-shirts and Roper boots. As a teenager, before he came to work for us, Andy drove with his sister and father to visit family in Nebraska. Sometime in the night, Andy’s father let his son take over at the wheel—they were only hours from the homestead and his father needed some shut-eye. Those lonely midwestern highways were no good for sleepy boys, and it wasn’t long before Andy started to drift. The pickup rolled and crashed. Andy woke up; his father and sister did not.
It’s painful to consider what it must have been like for that seventeen year old, to be charged with transporting his kin and failing; what Andy may have thought upon waking in the steaming night amidst metal and glass, sweet blood and the feral chirpings of the great plains. For all the hours I worked alongside Andy, we never spoke about the accident but vaguely. “Your dad was just good enough to take me on,” Andy would say. That was true. Claxton knew Andy’s family well. They lived on the shoulder of the highway and had a few hundred acres for hay and a few hundred cattle to feed it to. After the accident, Claxton struck a deal with young Andy—he could run his family’s cattle with the Foster herd and work for Claxton, giving Andy the chance to keep growing his own piece while staying above water. The deal apparently worked because Andy forwent college and made cowboying his career. But that’s not to say Andy was there just by chance: he was smart. Bumping along in a pickup, he spotted cows and named them by number even though we’d be too far off to see their ear tags. He’d dictate their medical history as if reading from a chart, naming the calves they’d thrown and the last time he’d doctored them. He’d march through a penned herd and throw a loop and catch exactly what he wanted and do what needed to be done to keep the herd healthy. We issued him a company cell phone, on which I taught him to program phone numbers, but he had no use for that—he just memorized everything. It seemed that Andy was on a mission to not fail and took each loss personally. And sometimes they were personal, for his cattle ran alongside ours. I would not get to work with Andy often, as my father preferred I stay on the agricultural side to keep his thumb on
me, but looked forward to each opportunity with gusto. But in the winter calving months with nothing to do other than tinker with tractors, I became a cowboy in sneakers. Or at least a cowboy’s apprentice. More like a cow dog. Andy felt that Foster cows were the craziest bitches known to man. “No shit,” he’d told me more than once, “up to Horseshoe one day I watched a Foster cow plow down a fence. A brand new fence too. I know—I just put it up. Those bitches could get out the state pen. She put her head to a pole and just kept stomping, plucking up posts like carrots. I ran that thing to near death but she wouldn’t come back. Probably still up there wrecking fence. Good riddance. Let the bitch starve.” In the wintertime, we’d pull the herd off the Twin Buttes and Horseshoe summer ranges and truck them to more manageable calving sites. That year, we had so many cows we had to rent extra corrals. Andy finagled the new owner of his family’s land to rent us their operation. Andy’s place was like juvenile detention for cattle. My father sent three hundred of the orneriest, fastest, meanest cows there because the barbwire fences were too high to hurdle, though that didn’t stop the cows from trying. Anywhere else, calving was a calm process, crunching through snow amidst lulling cattle, guiding the animals to the barn and assisting in the birth. But at Andy’s, I rarely dared get out of the truck for fear one of the furry maniacs would pin me against the barn wall and trounce me to death. That day we had come to help a calf suck. One of the wildest mothers—number 1081, a high backed, wild eyed cow bought cheap from the auction—had calved out in the feed pen but was too stubborn to let her calf feed at her teat. When we arrived, the termagant bucked and bellowed like some bovine goliath. Andy decided the only thing we could do was get her in the barn and make her stand still.
We tried for hours. Andy didn’t dare rope her from the horse, what with the slick snow and a half-mile of open space, he’d be drug to death. Finally, we coaxed the whole herd into the tiny holding pen with a sheaf of hay on the back of the flatbed truck. Those cattle were as cautious as if walking a minefield. They all wanted that hay, sniffing the air and licking their tongues up their nostrils, but they wouldn’t cross the gate’s threshold. Andy and I lay behind a granary, quieting our breath and waiting to lock them in. Soon the rabble came prancing into the pen and tore at the hay. When 1081 entered, Andy bolted for the gate and slammed it shut. Pandemonium erupted within the corral, the cows stressing against the fence poles. We took ten into the barn, 1081 with them. Long and narrow with a sour straw floor, the barn had thick timbers running down the middle that supported the patchwork roof. With a lasso, Andy looped 1081 as she bolted by and then he dallied to one of the beams and we tugged and jockeyed the cow until she was tight up against the wood, cinched stopped. Even then, she kicked and bellowed, threw her head at us when we got close. “Go for that calf,” Andy ordered me, “but be careful, there’s a few bitches out there that’ll eat you.” I took the flatbed pickup and headed into the larger feed pen, opening the gate on the way. The cattle, stomping and sprinting and snorting, funneled out like fury. The flatbed was way worn, having been used on the farm for too many years. After bouncing over lava and ruts and ruining the bed, Odell had welded on a flatbed and used it only in winter to feed hay. Even with the wheel straight, the truck careened left and right. The doors wouldn’t shut. The accelerator was hard and sticky. I bounced across frozen cowpies and old fencing towards the lone calf. The cattle followed me from the corral
and surrounded my pickup to lick the hay leaves off the bed. Once I got to the two-day-old, the whole herd surrounded me. I opened the door and the cows backed away. A few fled, but most hoofed the snow and shook their heads, warning me to get back. I chased them in the pickup, circling the herd and whooping and cussing and driving them away. When the cows bolted, I pulled back to the calf and bailed out, sliding the shifter into park as I did, and ran down the little animal through the snow. The calf ambled, then loped and stopped. I caught it by the back hoof and held it, adrenaline surging at the thought of rabid cattle circling back. I heard the truck roaring before the machine actually slammed into me. The shifter had kicked out of park and, with the sticky throttle, had enough juice to follow my trail and was now ramming me. I stayed upright, somehow, still holding the calf by its back leg, and rolled off the grill towards the driver’s side. Tripped by me, the calf toppled and fell under the truck. The flatbed’s front and back tires bounced over the newborn, then the truck traveled a few more feet and stuck and died in a high snowdrift. I’d always thought being run over would crush and flatten, but it hadn’t; the buckskin calf looked normal and was wheezing labouredly. I scooped it up and laid it on the cold metal of the flatbed. The calf coughed and seized, folding up along its ribcage as if trying to kick off a heavy blanket. Blood seeped from its nose as I rubbed its languid side. The calf’s last breaths fogged into the cold, and it rested its head and died. I started the pickup and pounded on the steering wheel. I drove back through the herd and to the corral where Andy leaned against the fence, grinning. “See you made it alive,” he said. “The calf is dead,” I replied. “I ran it over.”
“Shut up,” Andy said. When he saw I didn’t waver, his own smile flickered, faltered. He came over to the calf, now flat and cold, and picked up its snout and saw the blood. He took off his baseball cap and rubbed his head. I saw Andy’s strong shoulders droop, his sweaty hair mussed and steaming. Andy didn’t ask for an explanation, just sat staring at the calf, saddened and pissed off and figuring how to explain it to my father. He swore, jammed on his hat, yanked the calf off the flatbed by its back leg, and dropped it into the burn barrel amidst orange baling twine and faded soda cups. In the truck, as we drove to a neighboring dairy and bought a sickly replacement calf, Andy would not speak to me. Once we got back to the barn, we tried to get the Jersey to suck off crazy 1081, still tied up. She wouldn’t let the alien calf near her, butting it down into the straw every time. Andy didn’t wanted to skin the dead calf, but by then, we’d exhausted our other options. We pulled the carcass out of the burn barrel and, taking turns, began to strip off the dead calf’s hide with a dull pocketknife. Andy, a man I’d never known to shirk work, stopped hacking and stared at the dented pickup bumper where the calf’s head had struck, a bit of hair and blood still stuck there. Andy told me he couldn’t go on. I’d felt obligated to do the skinning anyways, as it was my screwup that had started the whole mess, so I took the knife and cut. The weak Jersey shivered when we draped the bloody skin over its back and lashed it tight with twine and finished the grafting. Back in the barn, 1081 bellowed when we neared but then she stopped still. We inched the calf closer. The mother whiffed. After a moment, she nudged the baby towards her bag and the coated calf took a teat and drank, nuzzling and tugging so as to drop more milk. #
Perhaps the most anyone can hope for is to pass in a beautiful place. Near a meander in the South Fork of the Snake, hidden by large groves of cottonwoods, is an oddly shaped piece of land called Brinkheart’s. I didn’t discover it until I was thirteen, but immediately took to the place as if it was a parallel frontier. Most of our farms bordered with paved roads and some with major highways. But to work on Brinkheart’s fields was metamorphic. We left the highway and followed a back road that traced the river’s wanderings and on one corner (the first few times it felt almost random) my father would bust across the oncoming lane of traffic and disappear us down a narrow dirt road. Miles later, we’d be at Brinkheart’s, as far away from civilization as I could get, a few hundred acres of rocky land that we rented for hay. A small ditch cut the acres in half, and was further divided by ten-foot tall dikes that protected the fields from the Snake the few times the river flooded its banks. There were roads on top of the dikes, and driving them made me feel like a king of a small country, an overseer of stones and weeds and the few ducks that nested in my ditchwater kingdom. My first job at Brinkheart’s was rolling, pulling a fiveton steel drum across the terrain behind a door-less, radio-free Masey Ferguson tractor. Brinkheart’s was pocked with so many patches of river rock that my father justified the diesel and tractor hours of rolling in an attempt to save the hay harvester. The swather had blades that rode close to the ground that its whirring mouth ate the alfalfa mere centimeters above dirt. A rock protruding just an inch would, at least, break the blades or, at worst, lodge and strip the header of its gears, rendering the machine useless. We rolled to push the rocks level with the dirt.
My father left me after a few passes in the roller, it clanking and bouncing over the loaf-sized stones. The work was neither glorious nor speedy; I tried many times to get the radio working and took extra moments when I stopped to pee to stand up on the hood and spy something interesting. Towards the road, the outline of a new house shadowed some trees. A duo of mallards circled and landed in the ditch. A fox sprinted across the budding spring hay. In the dusty afternoon, destiny happened: the implement’s bearings seized, and the heavy tank came off its frame and took off across the field. Looking back from the driver’s seat, it scared me to see five tons of steel bouncing uncontrolled. In a time before cell phones, and in a tractor without a two-way farm radio, the only thing to do was walk to the nearest house and use the telephone to call Odell. This is the sweetest memory I have of Brinkheart’s. I tromped in and knocked on the back door of a two-story plank mansion so newly constructed that the yard was still all dirt and tire tracks. A girl my age answered. She was pretty in her denim shorts and tank top, and a giggly friend stood beside her. Both had freckles and dark hair. They were surprised and, as I interpreted from their apparent awkwardness, excited for this boyish apparition to come trudging through their hayfield with no parents at home. I stuttered through my plight and they handed me a cordless phone. When I finished, I nodded goodbye and nearly flew across the backyard and over the fence. Before I was out of eyesight—in a show of adolescent bravado—I peeled off my shirt, stuck a weed in my mouth, and sauntered slowly back to the tractor, kicking rocks, knowing no one would come for at least an hour or two. That night, the girl from the house called and asked me some questions.
“Do you smoke?” was the first. The girls had retrieved a pair of binoculars and glassed me all the way back to the tractor, mistaking the schwig of grass for a cigarette. “Want to come swim in my slough?” was the second. It made me light-headed to think some day in the near future, my father could send me to Brinkheart’s and then I could ditch the tractor, strip to my boxers, and spend a day jumping into brackish water—all with a freckled, pale, pert, swimsuit-clad girl. While the relationship never blossomed to anything more than phone calls and empty invitations, my responsibilities on the farm grew with each summer. Finally, at twenty-three, the summer I decided to leave, my father put me in charge of the sod farm. My biggest competition was a booming operation called Gem State Sod, but since there were only three sod companies, all of us knew each other. Bart, the owner of Gem State, and I became friends, as I had no idea how to grow suitable sod. I’d call Bart for advice. He was just entering middle age, had a typical Mormon family, and was one of the most genuine men I’d ever encountered. In fact, too nice. Even though most everyone that worked for my father’s farm adhered to Mormon principles, all were known to cuss if they scraped their knuckles while pulling an alternator. I had the reputation of linking great strings of curse words. But I never so much as heard Bart get past a dad gum or darn, no matter how bad the day. I noticed Bart wouldn’t drink caffeine and forget about working on Sunday. Out on the grass, I asked Gem State Sod’s foreman about Bart’s holier-than-thou lifestyle. The foreman, a kid that I knew from high school, truckled and told me a story. “When I started it was different. Don’t get me wrong, Bart was never bad, but he’d cuss and joke just like anyone.
His first kid was a boy. You never heard about it? Man, that kid was my little buddy. Bart brought him out to the farm as soon as he could walk. That little dude loved riding on the harvester next to me, holding on and watching the guys stack the rolls. That dude worked hours just like the rest of us. When he’d get tired, Bart would put him in the truck for a nap. He was our mascot.” “Once business took off, Bart decided to build a new house. One day, Bart’s in the backyard leveling some dirt in the tractor. All the kids, think he had four by then, and his wife were inside taking a nap. Well, the little dude, couldn’t been more than five or six, woke up and jimmied the backdoor without waking his mom. Went outside and wanted to work with his dad. He tried to climb up on the back of the tractor and Bart couldn’t see or hear anything from the cab. Bart went in reverse and ran him over.” “It was really tough, after the funeral, to go over to the house and help Bart roll out the sod, knowing what had happened there. After that, Bart had a long talk with his fatherin-law, a Stake President, and now he’s a changed man. No more cussing. No more caffeine. Tries as hard as he can to be nice to everyone. Church every Sunday. Made a deal with the Big Guy.” Upon hearing that, I looked at Bart differently, the implications of the accident heartbreaking. Did Bart scream at his wife for sleeping in the middle of the day, or did she accuse him for not paying closer attention? I’d been to Bart’s house and seen his family—a home in the truest sense—and pondered what the backyard meant to him now. It was a vibrantly green, tree-framed acre standing at the edge of a field, but still, how could a game of volleyball be played or a barbeque held in dirt that had been soaked with a son’s blood?
That same summer on a slow sod day, my father called and asked if I had time to cut the hay at Brinkheart’s. I couldn’t have requested a better job. The hay was first crop, green as Emerald City. The hay came up to my waist, deep and healthy, and the breeze made the field undulate and bend. Midmorning, I looked over the swather’s header and saw a small whitetail fawn bouncing through the hay, so tiny its spotted body barely crested the tops of the plants. It felt as if we were in some green ocean, me captaining this oversized red tug, the fawn an inland marlin surging through the surf. It stayed alongside me for twenty feet before scampering towards the woods. Hours later, I crossed the canal and started on the larger piece. Here the hay was thinner, but I had a clear shot at the two-story house. My summer love, that young girl, had moved out long ago. The swather hummed across the land without problems, and serenity overcame me. In the middle of the moment—so peace-filled, so methodically calm—the gears hiccupped. From header to windrow fan, the swather worked on one centrifugal motion so if a rock or a log hit the cutting blades, or the driver happened into a mess of wet hay, the whole machine would bog down. But this hiccup was a split second. I perked and paid attention. I made another pass and nothing seemed affected on the machine. But coming back, I saw a body in the cut hay. I stopped the machine and walked over to see what I’d hit. Had it been a rabbit or squirrel, I really wouldn’t have cared. But it was the fawn, with its copper-colored hair and egg-sized alabaster spots. The blades had cracked and split it like a melon, its twig-legs bent unnaturally. Why hadn’t it run? I imagined it hunkered down, stock-still, its instincts of invisibility wrong for the occasion. Back in the swather, I figured the farther I could get away from it, the better. Not two passes later, the swather
hiccupped again. I stopped immediately and got out to examine the damage. Another fawn, so similar to the first I had to go find the other to make sure I wasn’t tricking myself. Two baby deer lay dead fifty feet from each other. Now my gut was churning. I’d been hunting a hundred times and seen death quite a few, but this was maddening, destructive. Two does, red and high-headed, crept out from the cottonwoods near the fence line and pranced about the hay, pawing up the windrows. When they couldn’t find their offspring, they charged menacingly at one another, each afraid that the other had mistaken the lost fawn for their own. They sprang down the field searching and angry, panicked and bleating. # This year, my father turned sixty, and I can play “Wish You Were Here” with my eyes closed. It’s as if both of us are just waiting. I called to wish him happy birthday (he hadn’t even remembered, my mother reminding him the night before) and we talked about what our milestones felt like—I’d reached twenty-five a few months earlier. He was in a good mood, driving truck to Twin Buttes to bring in the cows for the winter. Pops said, “I told LaReta fifty was the big one for me, since I figure it’s the halfway point. I mean, my dad only lived to forty-three. Hell, who wants to think about sixty? I’m fat, can’t hear, my hair’s falling out.” “You got so much else to worry about,” I said. “What’s a birthday? The only time you stop on the farm is for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and that’s because Mom makes you.” Dad laughed. “I know it.” I realized dad won’t stop until he’s dead.
Our conversation ended, and I sat alone on my couch a thousand miles away, thinking of my father. What would it be like to really have him gone? I know that I’m not ready, that nothing could prepare me to see him stretched out in a casket with calloused hands crossed over a stopped heart, dressed up for one last meeting. I think further back to the day at Brinkheart’s. Watching the panicked deer aggravated me so much that I had lifted the swather’s header and bumped full-speed across the cut hay. I parked and jumped out and ran. The deer didn’t move far, circling away and coming back, defiant to leave without their kin. I gathered rocks and flung them, angry that the mothers couldn’t understand that I still had work that needed done. I ran at the deer until I was close enough to pelt them. Finally, the deer bounded across the fence and disappeared into the trees, their white tails fading like twin retreating suns.