Illustration by Simon Roussin
Thomas McGuane reads.
Cary was out of likely places to cross. The five-strand ranch fence was on the county line, ran south, and would guide him to the canyon and the wild grasslands beyond. He could go all the way to Coal Mine Rim and a view dropping into the Boulder Valley. Due south he could see the national forest, the bare stones and burned tree stubs from the last big forest fire. After the fire, a priest who loved to hike had found nineteenth-century wolf traps chained to trees. The flames and smoke had towered forty thousand feet into the air, a firestorm containing its own weather, lightning aloft, smoke that could be seen on satellite in Wisconsin. The foreground was grassland but it had been heavily grazed. In the middle of this expanse, a stockade, where sheep were gathered at night to protect them from bears and coyotes, had collapsed. The homestead where Cary’s dad had grown up and where Cary himself had spent his earliest years was in a narrow canyon perpendicular to the prevailing winds, barely far enough below the snow line to be habitable. Around his waist, in a hastily purchased Walmart fanny pack, he carried his father’s ashes in the plastic urn issued by the funeral home, along with the cremation certificate that the airline required.
Once, these prairies had been full of life and hope. The signs were everywhere: abandoned homes, disused windmills, straggling remnants of apple orchards, the dry ditches of hand-dug irrigation projects, a cracked school bell, the piston from an old sheep-shearing engine. Where had everyone gone? It was a melancholy picture, but maybe it shouldn’t have been. Perhaps everyone had gone on to better things. Cary knew enough of the local families to know that things weren’t so bad; some had got decidedly more comfortable, while claiming glory from the struggles of their forebears. Where the first foothills broke toward the Yellowstone, a big new house had gone up. It had the quality of being in motion, as though it were headed somewhere. It had displaced a hired man’s shack, a windmill, a cattle scale, and had substituted hydrangeas and lawn.
After his father died, Cary had flown to Tampa and then driven north to the retirement community where his dad had ended his days in a condominium that had grown lonely in his widowhood. Cary sped through the Bible Belt, where “we the people” were urged to impeach Barack Obama. The billboards along this troubling highway offered a peculiar array of enticements: needlepoint prayers, alligator skulls, gravity deer feeders, pecan rolls, toffee. “All-nude bar with showers.” “Vasectomy reversal.” “Sinkhole remediation.” “Laser Lipo: Say goodbye to muffin tops and love handles!” “It’s a Small World. I know. I made it.—The Lord.” A car displayed a sign that said “I work to cruise” and a cartoon ocean liner running the full length of the rear window, with an out-of-scale sea captain waving from its bridge.
We the people.
Cary thought that his old man had had a pretty great American life. He’d lived on the homestead through grade school, attended a small Lutheran college in the Dakotas, flown a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk named Tumblin’ Dice in Vietnam, worked as an oil geologist all over the world, outlived his wife and their mostly happy marriage by less than a year, spent only ten days in hospice care, watching his songbird feeders and reading the Wall Street Journal while metastatic prostate cancer destroyed his bones. “Can’t rip and run like I used to,” he’d warned Cary on the phone. He’d died with his old cat, Faith, in his lap. He’d once said to Cary, “In real psychological terms, your life is half over at ten.” For him, ten had meant those homestead years, wolf traps in the barn, his dog, Chink, a .22 rifle, bum lambs to nurture, his uneducated parents, who spoke to him in a rural English he remembered with wry wonder: as an adult, he’d still sometimes referred to business disputes as “defugalties” or spoken of people being “in Dutch.” The old pilot had observed himself in his hospice bed, chuckled, and said, “First a rooster, then a feather duster.” His doctor had given him a self-administered morphine pump and shown him how to use it sparingly or on another setting: “If you put it there, you’ll go to sleep and you won’t wake up.” His warrior buddies at the retirement community had held a small service, with tequila shots and music on a homemade CD that finished with a loop of “The Letter,” which played until a carrier mechanic who’d serviced Tumblin’ Dice replaced it with “Taps.”
Cary didn’t spend long at the condo—long enough to meet the Realtor, long enough to pick up a few things, including photographs of himself up to sixteen. What an unattractive child I was, he thought. The rest were shots of aircraft, pilots, crews, flight decks. Judging by the framed pictures, his mother was forever twenty-two. He took his father’s Air Medal, which was missing the ribbon but had fascinated him as a child, with its angry eagle clasping lightning bolts. “That bird,” he’d called it. He put it in his pocket and patted the pocket. He took the black-and-white photograph of his great-grandfather’s corral, with the loading chute and the calf shed, and the distant log house. “We lived in the corral,” his father had joked. He’d told Cary plainly that he had grown up poor. He remembered his grandfather, who’d started the ranch, prying the dimes off his spurs to buy tobacco, sticking cotton in the screens to keep the flies out. The old fellow had spanked him only once, and it was for deliberately running over a chicken with a wheelbarrow. Cary’s great-grandfather was a cowboy, who moved through cattle like smoke, who could sew up a prolapsed cow in the dark with shoelaces and hog rings. His only child, Cary’s grandfather, had detested the place, had done almost no work, and had lost everything but the homestead to an insurance company. A tinkerer and a handyman, a tiny man with a red nose in a tilted ball cap, he ran the projector at the movie theatre in town. When Cary’s father was home from the war, he took him to see his grandfather up in the booth; Cary remembered the old man pulling the carbon rods out of the projector to light his cigarettes. An unpleasant geezer, he’d peered at Cary as though he couldn’t quite put his finger on the connection between them, and said, “Well, well, well.” Years later, his father said, as though shooing something away, “Dad was a failure, always flying off the handle. My mother ran away during the war to build ships. Never seen again, never in touch, had me and vamoosed. Dad used to look at me and talk to himself: ‘Can’t figger out why the little sumbitch is swarthy.’ Went broke trying to sell pressure cookers. Once left a town in Idaho in disguise. He told me it was plumb hard to be born on unlucky land.” In the projection booth, Cary’s grandfather said that he was busy and told Cary to get lost. Cary’s father stayed behind, and Cary heard him say, “Lord have mercy, Daddy. You’d give shit a bad name.”
Cary’s other grandfather, the glowing parent of Cary’s mother, a former Miss Arkansas—or a runner-up, depending on who was telling the story—was a lunatic entrepreneur named J. Lonn Griggs, who’d made a fortune selling swamp coolers, reconditioned tractors, and vitamins. Grandpa Griggs had long white hair like a preacher’s, and, according to Cary’s father, was as crooked as the back leg of a dog. He adored Cary and Cary adored him back.