The road rolled out flat and endlessly into the barren landscape. The parched ground coughed up sagebrush and broken rock, an unforgiving comfort you had to look for. Beauty, as they say out here, plays hard to get. Connie pressed her foot to the gas. Her elbow rested on the open window as the hot, dry Idaho wind slapped whips of tarnished blonde hair across her face. The mediciny scent of the baked sagebrush stung her nostrils as the sun beat down on her arm that was already turning pink.
This was not a trip she wanted to make. But her mom had said if she wanted to see Dad one more time, she’d better get over there quick. The dread wasn’t that he was dying, it was that she didn’t like being in the same room with him. She couldn’t really explain it. It’d just been a slow hardening between the two of them for years. No particular moment, but an accumulation, so that it had become easier not to see each other. She was a harsh woman, her dad had told her.
“I shouldn’t be more than a few days,” she’d told her husband Tim. “There’s hamburger out in the freezer, and corn.” His Wranglers hung off his thin hips, tightening at his muscular thighs. Connie’s hand drifted to the roll of fat that hung over her own jeans, and wondered if it bothered him. It must, but he never said. The last time she’d been this fat was in high school. You need to bring a little less to the table, her father joked. She’d been almost skinny when she’d married Tim, but over the years it’d all crept back on.
“I’ll be fine, Con. Stay as long as you need.” Tim leaned into the van curling his hay-stained fingers over the top of the window. The dirt beneath his split nails would probably be there until the day he died. A yoke of perspiration circled the top of his blue cotton shirt. He smelled like the earth—a mixture of hay, oil, sweat and tobacco.
Connie poked her chin toward the field. Wide rows of cut hay arced around the field. “I shouldn’t be going. I should help you pick that up.” She looked to the west. “Rain’s coming.”
Tim scratched the back of his sunburned neck and flicked away a fly. “You need to go, Con. And I got Hedstrom and his crew coming out tomorrow with the baler. We can finish it all up then.” He tugged on the rim of his cap. “I added a quart of oil earlier. Be sure and check when you stop for gas.”
She sighed. “Goddamn it. All right then. I guess I’ll get going.”
“Wait. I better clean these windows for you.” Tim disappeared into the shed, past an old Dodge convertible he’d been meaning to restore. Over the years it’d only added more layers of rust, and so many splats of bird shit that it looked like someone had thrown white paint on it. Even if he’d gotten the old car to turn over, there’d never been any time to go “cruisin’” as he called it. But he wouldn’t let it go. It was sweet he could still pretend, but sometimes she wished he’d just stop. Tim came back with a squirt bottle and a squeegee. As the suds covered the window she looked in the mirror. The wrinkles under her eyes looked like tiny claw marks. And there were dark smudges under her eyes that reminded her of her mother. Maybe she should have put on a little make-up, but it’d been so long, she didn’t even know if she had any anymore. Rummaging through her purse she found an old tube of pink lipstick. She removed the layer of lint and dust, and dabbed a little on her lips and cheeks.
“Call me when you get in,” said Tim, leaving dark slashes on his legs where he’d dried the squeegee. “And tell your mom I’m sorry I couldn’t be there.” He leaned in to give her a kiss, and then touched his lips, looking at her funny.
“She’ll understand,” she said, rubbing off the lipstick with the back of her hand. Tim pulled his worn leather gloves out of his back pocket, which meant he was ready to get to work, and Connie put the car in gear. She slowly drove down the long drive, dragging a tail of dust behind her. Tim’s truck was in the field where he’d left it, and she watched him through the rearview mirror as he jogged, stiff-legged down the hill, and climbed over the fence. She knew his knees were starting to give out on him. The ibuprofen bottle needed refilling yet again.
Connie cut her eyes to the dark clouds beginning to form over the plateau. Of all times. They couldn’t afford another winter like the last. They’d run out of hay, and the price of feed had skyrocketed. They’d lost some of the old cows. Several had just lied down and died. They’d found carcasses all over the ranch, and burned them, the skinny survivors in their shaggy coats huddling together in a messy circle. Tim had patted one of the cows on the head. “I’m sorry, old girl.”
“Shit. She should turn around right now. Dad would understand. She pictured her brothers and her mom standing around her father’s bed, and him looking for her. “Had to put up the hay,” they’d tell him. And he’d nod. Work first. Everything else second. She gave one last glance behind her before pulling out onto the highway.
She was somewhere on Highway 22 about a hundred miles from home and another fifty from the nearest town when the slick, caustic smell of burnt oil hit her nostrils and a cloud of white smoke roiled up from under the hood. Connie gripped the wheel with both hands. Pulsing the brake with her foot, she slowed the van and pulled it over to the side just as the engine seized with a screech of metal, followed by a final clang. Then nothing.
“Son of a bitch,” she muttered, getting out of the van. Through the smoke she could see a car had pulled up behind her. Music blared from the open window then suddenly cut off. A man got out, hitching up his pants over skinny bowed legs. He was old, she could see that. She wasn’t sure how old. It was hard to tell with the men out here.
“What seems to be the trouble?” he asked, coming into view. He wore a thin shirt with western pearl snaps, and worn baggy jeans held up by a thick belt with a big silver buckle. A large cowboy hat covered most of his face.
“There was smoke and a loud pop. And then this.” Connie gestured with open hands. “Shit.”
The man chewed on the inside of his lip and spat, spewing brown spittle over one of his cowboy boots. His boots were curved up at the toes and worn down to stubs on the heels, giving him a teetering appearance, like one of those toys you put on your dash. “Lemme take a look.” He pushed back the brim of his hat so it rested above the coils of his hat line, and leaned into the hood. He pulled out the oil stick and wiped it on a crusty red rag he drew from his back pocket and then stuck it back in and pulled it out once more. “Oil’s gone.”
“My husband just put in a quart before I left.”
He looked at her. “Well it’s gone now.” Grunting, he got to one knee and bent under the front end. He craned his neck back towards her. “Yeh, you must have thrown a rod.”
“What does that mean?” Near tears, Connie squatted next to him and looked under the car, as if she could make heads or tails of it. Tim always took care of anything to do with the vehicles. This close she could smell the damp tang of body odor.
“Means your engine’s shot.” He placed his knotted hands on the bumper, and pushed up slowly. His breath was short, and he was unsteady on his feet. Connie reached for him, but he held up his hand.
“Son of a bitch,” she said, staring at the steaming van. Lloyd cut his eyes at her. Now what? They couldn’t afford another expense. Goddamnit. She should never have come. Now here she was out in the middle of nowhere, and she wasn’t going to make it to see Dad now anyhow.
“Well, get in,” he said, pointing at his car with his thumb.
Connie looked up and down the empty highway.
He waited, and spat again, dribbling amber juice down his chin which he rubbed off with the frayed cuff of his sleeve. “There’s a coffee shop up ahead. You can call somebody from there.”
“Okay.” She bit her lip. What were her choices? Wait here for Tim? That could be hours. She picked up her dead cell phone. It was for emergencies, but, as usual, she’d forgotten to charge it. Probably wouldn’t have gotten service out here anyway. Connie went to her van and pulled out her bag. “My name’s Connie,” she said coming around his side of the car.
“Lloyd LaCroix.” Connie gently gripped the thick arthritic fingers. Her eyes skimmed the inside the car, jammed full of milk crates spilling over with papers, clothes, canned goods and bags of food , a dirty blanket and stained pillow. “You can put your grip in the back.”
The door of the rusted out Impala squeaked as an ache as she opened it. She threw her bag in the back and slid in, shoving aside a bowed checkbook, hamburger wrappers and three cans of Copenhagen. Resting near her thigh was an old Nestea bottle, rimed with slobber and bits of tobacco that flowed into a chunky puddle. She looked out the window for Lloyd, but he had turned his back, taking a leak. Carefully, she picked up the bottle and moved it aside, wiping her fingers on the stained gray upholstery.
Lloyd climbed in next to her and stuck the Nestea spittoon between his legs before pulling out onto the highway. His arm was out the window, and the papers in back flew around like crazed birds. Lloyd pushed in a cassette. She recognized the song. It was an old Merle Haggard tune her dad used to play.
“Where you headed?” he asked over the music.
Connie chewed at a hangnail. Her fingernails were gnawed down as far as they’d go. It was a habit she’d had as a girl, and hadn’t been able to break. “To Montana,” she yelled. “My dad’s dying.”
Lloyd cut off the tape. “I’m sorry,” he said, holding the bottle up to his lower lip. “Where abouts in Montana you from?”
“White Sulphur Springs?”
“I’m from Ringling.”
“No kidding.” Ringling was just down the road from where she’d grown up. Her dad had an uncle who’d lived there. He was dead now, but she remembered visiting him as a kid. “Ringling’s a nice town,” she said, spitting out a piece of skin.
“Haven’t been there since I left.” Up close his face was gray and lined, like old rope left out all winter. His fingers loosened on the wheel, and she could see he was missing the thumb of his left hand. The skin was pulled inward, like the inverted end of a balloon. He started to cough, and pulled out a handkerchief from between the seats. He hacked into it, and then dug into his can of Copenhagen, and pushed a new wad up against his teeth. “I’m sorry about your dad. Coffee shop’s just up here.”
Connie straightened the crease in the new khaki pants she’d picked up at Wal-Mart just last night. She’d packed an old dress for the funeral, but she hadn’t been able to zip up any of her old slacks. Now it didn’t matter, anyway. It was probably all for the best. And she’d tried, hadn’t she? No one could say she hadn’t.
As they came around the corner, Lloyd took a sharp left and pulled into the small diner. Lloyd limped ahead of her and held open the door. The few customers inside tipped their hats or nodded in their direction. Connie went to use the phone as Lloyd got a table.
“I ordered us coffee,” he said, when she got back. Two cups of black coffee shivered on the table as she slid into the booth across from him. “Want a piece of pie or anything?” He didn’t look like he had two dimes to rub together.
“Coffee’s fine,” she said, reaching for the cream and sugar. She stirred in three teaspoons of sugar and then took a sip. “There’s someone on the phone, but as soon as he’s off, I can call my husband to come pick me up. I don’t want to keep you.”
“I wasn’t doing anything that can’t wait.” Lloyd’s hands shook as he held the mug up to his lips. The skin on his face was loosed from the bones. There were gray patches on his cheeks, and spidery red veins along his nose giving him a permanent bruised look. Like he’d spent a lifetime in wind and cold and not a few bars. Lloyd hunkered over his cup while Connie kept glancing over her shoulder at the payphone.
The room was warm and heavy with the smell of coffee and grease. At the tables were a few solitary old men wearing overalls and baseball caps with feed company logos; one lingered over a wedge of lemon meringue, another picked at a hamburger patty. The waitress filled their coffee cups and they watched her with weary, grateful eyes.
Lloyd took off his cowboy hat, and scratched at his head. His thin hair lay in greasy strips across his scalp. “Your husband going to drive you then? To White Sulphur Springs?”
Connie looked at her cup. “I don’t think so. He has work.” Her chest tightened again, and she sucked in a breath. She looked back at Lloyd. His shoulders drooped in the thin shirt. When he raised his chin she could see the white patches on his throat where he’d missed with his razor. The waitress came over and refilled their cups.
“This your daughter, Lloyd?”
Lloyd looked up. “Nah, she ran into some car trouble. I’m just giving her a lift. Annie, Connie. Connie, Annie,” he waved his hands over the two of them.
“Well, you watch out for him,” said Annie with a wink. “He’s a real lady killer.”
Lloyd raised one eyebrow. “Yeah, they take one look at this ugly mug, and they drop over dead.” They two women laughed.
Annie held a full tray of dishes up over her thick, sturdy shoulders. She winked at Connie again, and Connie smiled back at her. Annie’s eyes were blue. Lines crisscrossed her puffy face, and dark pouches smudged her eyes, but her eyes didn’t carry the haunted look of some of the men in the diner. They’d been put out to pasture, shoved aside for a younger generation, and didn’t know what to do with themselves. “I’ve become redundant,” her dad always said.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing Montana one more time.” Lloyd lifted expectant watery green eyes. “What if I take you? I got nothing to keep me here.” His eyes peeked out from a heavy brow, his thick knotted fingers playing nervously with the handle of his mug.
Connie dropped her eyes to her hands, absently twisting the Timex watch about her wrist. Her fingers were inexplicably shaking. “I couldn’t ask you to do that. And besides, my husband needs my help. I shouldn’t have come anyway.”
“You’re going to miss your own dad’s funeral?” His voice was sharp, and she looked up again.
“Hell, I can drive you. I was thinking of going anyway.” Lloyd took another sip of coffee, spilling some down his chin. “Damnit,” he said, wiping at his shirt with his napkin. But there was a little life in his eyes now.
“Well…” she began again. His look haunted her, as if she’d seen it before, and for some reason she didn’t want to hurt him. “Are you sure you don’t mind?”
“I said I didn’t.” He countered his tone with a brown-toothed grin.
Tim didn’t answer when she called. He must be out in the field. And probably wouldn’t be back in until nightfall. She got out some more change, and called her neighbor, Tammy. She told her where Tim could find the van, and that she’d call him from her parents’ when she got in.
They took the back roads onto Highway 33. The withering sun beat down on the old car as the miles rolled out ahead. Lloyd silently held his Nestea bottle to his lips spitting into it a constant flow of juice.
Connie rolled down her window. She couldn’t believe it’d only been that morning she’d left.
Lloyd coughed into his rag. “You all right?” she asked. “You want me to drive?”
“You’d run us into the ditch.”
“I can drive,” she snapped.
Lloyd raised an eyebrow. “I just meant that she pulls so much to the right, we’d probably end up in the ditch. Nothing personal.”
“Oh.” Thorny, that was the word her dad called her.
Time moved slowly, the ache in her growing, as they traveled over foothills and flats, through forgotten sheep and cow towns, past the twisted tufts of sagebrush, permanently bent from the relentless Idaho wind. Abandoned houses and half torn down barns teetered in the empty expanse. Discarded rusted out pick-up shells littered the yards like their insides had just up and crawled away. Families come and gone. Broken hearts scattered in the wind.
There was a line of snow ebbing slowly up the high mountain peaks that would disappear just long enough to start showing up again in a couple of months. Another reminder of how cruel hope could be.
Lloyd took another large pinch of tobacco. Wet flakes fell onto his lips and chin which he didn’t wipe off. He cracked his knuckles and straightened up.
The wind blew her hair across her face, and she rolled it up most of the way. “How’d you lose your thumb?” she asked.
“Roping. I was a regular rodeo king for awhile.” He wiggled patchy eyebrows at her. “I was a dumb son of a bitch, though, and caught my thumb in the rope when I dallied it to the saddle horn.” He gave her a grin. “I found out a six-hundred-pound bull will rip a man’s thumb right off. But I got this silver buckle.”
He looked at her. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t take the lord’s name in vain, young lady.”
She was forty-nine years old and was about to reply that she didn’t need any lectures from a beaten down old cowboy, but she noticed the tremor in his fingers and bit her tongue. She looked out the window silently.
“That thumb was nothing,” said Lloyd over the wind. “Besides roping, I was a bull rider. I’ve had just about every rib busted, my spleen taken out, my ankle broke, both wrists, busted hip, and a shattered shin from a kick from a dumb sonovabitchin’ mule.” He gave her a wistful, lost, half-smile, and Connie softened. It was the same look she’d seen on almost every man she’d ever known. It was Dad’s look. She’d begun seeing it on Tim, and it scared her.
“What do you do now?” she asked him.
“Oh, this and that,” he answered. “After I quit rodeoing, I did some ranch work, but I’m not much use anymore.” Yeah, she knew. After years of being thrown off horses, run over by renegade cows, nearly frozen to death pulling calves in the winter, you ended up with a permanent limp; crippling lumbago; swollen knuckles; arthritis in your hips, shoulders and fingers; cataracts, and not much else to show for it. “I’ve had a good life,” he said, as if contradicting her thoughts.
It was bullshit, but her father probably felt the same. He kept one photo near his bed. He’s on his horse, his sheepskin collar up around his ears, snow blowing sideways. Ice is hanging off his horse’s tail and off his mustache; his arm is stretched down to the horse’s neck, and he’s grinning from ear to ear. She wondered now where that photo was.
That particular morning was clear in her memory. He’d been out since daybreak looking for calves that’d wandered off in the storm. She, her mother and brothers had been sitting around the kitchen table waiting for him when they’d heard the yell. They’d grabbed their coats and ran outside. Her brother had gotten a Polaroid camera for Christmas, and held it up to their dad. She thought he’d get angry, but instead he smiled. His cheeks were frostbitten, his eyes dancing. “We found ʼem,” he said, climbing down. “Scout found ʼem all.” Her father went inside and took the wool blanket off the couch, and then draped it over the mare as he led her into the barn. He fed her a bucket of oats, and only then came inside. For the rest of that afternoon in front of the fire, his cheeks greased up from the ointment her mother had put on them, a cup of coffee in his hands, he was grinning.
“You got any kids?” Lloyd asked suddenly.
“No.” Connie sucked in her breath. She was surprised at how the question stung, even after all these years.
“I got me some,” he said. “Three boys.”
Connie and Tim had been through all the tests; and although there had been nothing conclusive, it never took. Two miscarriages and then nothing. It’s just God’s way, everyone had told her, holding their own little babies in their arms.
Lloyd scooped up another fingerful of tobacco. Saliva dripped off his fingers as he stuck it in his lip.
“That’s great,” she said after a too-long pause. “You see them often?”
“Nah, it’s been awhile.” Connie chewed at her finger.
Lloyd pushed the tape back in and they drove in silence. She looked at her watch, and wondered again if she was going to make it in time.
“Look,” Lloyd said, suddenly turning off the stereo and pointing to the road sign. “We’re almost to the border.” Jesus, two more hours to go. At the pull-out, Lloyd parked the car. He got out and rummaged around in the back seat, grumbling and cussing until he found what he was looking for. Then he hobbled over to the sign that said Welcome to Montana. Connie got out and stretched. She wished he would hurry.
“Could you take a picture?” He shoved a disposable camera at her. “It’s for my granddaughter.”
“You have a granddaughter, Lloyd?” Her voice caught.
Lloyd took off his hat and combed his hair with his fingers, and then put his hat back over the whole thing. He leaned against the large sign, and gave her a smile that showed he was not used to getting his picture taken.
She paused for just a moment before taking the picture. “Okay, here we go.” Lloyd grinned at her from the small screen. Then his face went back to a scowl, and then they got back on the highway.
They drove for a long while in silence. “There they are,” Lloyd shouted, startling her. “Would you look at that.” They were passing through the Big Belt Mountains, nearly home. Large swaths of the forest had been eaten away by pine beetle leaving just the skeletons. It felt as if they were driving through a graveyard.
“It’s so sad, what’s happening to all the trees,” said Connie.
“Everything dies one way or another,” he answered. And then looked at her. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.” His rough hand lay beside her and she almost touched it.
“I used to spend a lot of time in those mountains. Back when my dad was with us we’d saddle up a couple of horses, throw whatever food we had into the panniers and take off.” He chuckled. “One time we got lost. My dad brought a bottle of whiskey up with him and drank it all. It was getting dark and cold, and us kids went to look for firewood. But we got lost somehow, and spent the night crying and shivering out there alone. When my dad found us the next morning he took off his belt and gave us all a good whipping.”
“That’s terrible. Why’d he do that?”
Lloyd looked at her sideways. “For getting lost. He’d always told us to be aware of our surroundings, but we hadn’t done it.” She shivered. His eyes were hard. “You think that’s cruel? It was survival. You treat kids with kid gloves and they turn out to be sissies.”
They were quiet. “You going to see your boys?” she asked, after a time.
Lloyd didn’t answer right away. “Nah,” he said, finally. “I think I’ll just drop you off and go on my way. No sense in stirring things up.”
His look was sharp. “Go on home. See your dad.” Awhile later he spoke again.
“It was nice riding with you. There’s nothing lonelier than driving through a town you don’t belong in.”
A little while later they pulled into White Sulphur Springs. “My folks’ place is just around the corner,” said Connie. They drove up to the small green and white house, and parked between a truck and her mom’s blue Pontiac. Connie got out and grabbed her bag. And then she came around to Lloyd’s side. She touched his arm, and his deep green eyes sunk into hers.
“I wouldn’t have changed a thing, honey.” His sad eyes held hers for a moment. “Go on. You don’t want to be late.”
As she stood at her father’s bed, surrounded by her brothers and her mother, Connie started to sob. The ache started in her chest, and spread through her shoulders, and up through her jaw. Her brother Sam put his arm around her. He’d been out moving irrigation pipe and he smelled of dirt, sweat and tobacco. She pushed her head into his chest and breathed in. He smelled like the earth. Not sweet, but not unpleasant.
Her dad held out his hand. It looked shrunken, but his grip was still hard. “I must be in a helluva fix to get you home.” But he was smiling. “Glad you could make it.”
“Me too, dad.”