Dale should be able to cut straight across his fields to the high ground where the horses are grazing, but with the lower pastures still flooded he has to drive around, out the dirt snake to the Dismal Road, then right, keeping his back to the mountain. A half mile south he veers off, crashing through a wall of brush, dashboard rattling over roots and fallen limbs, following yesterday’s two-track. Saplings buckle under the blade of the snowplow mounted to the truck’s front receiver hitch; one snaps, a loud pop. He juices the engine, extra fuel injecting into the line. There isn’t a beat-to-shit truck within thirty miles whose distributor Dale hasn’t checked for looseness, whose cylinder heads he hasn’t lifted off to measure bore diameter. He’s made a living, built a life, all based on a simple faith in the perfectibility of machines. But after what they’ve been through, a whiff of diesel through the vent is enough to make him wonder. Maybe we would all be better off just riding horses.
Broad leaves of devil’s club and cow parsnip scrub the windows, undergrowth so dense he doesn’t even see the moose, a lumbering, loose-skinned bull, until it steps in front of him. He slams the brakes, steering wheel catching him hard in the sternum. He coughs, thumps himself in the chest. The moose stares, annoyed, dopey mug winged by antlers.
Move it, buck-O.
Dale judders up the rise to the clearing above the horses. From up here, it’s a straight shot down-valley to the homestead, the half-dug horse grave, hayfields a twenty-acre lake. The cabin peeks out at the edge of the woods, swallowed to the top step in brown floodwater. He’d never admit it to Elaine, but part of him wonders if they shouldn’t tear the damn thing down.
He drags the back of his hand across his mouth, as though he has only to speak his sons’ names and they’ll appear at the cabin door—Gabe a loose-limbed fifteen, fifteen years gone, Ben husky and bearded, what Dale’s own father would’ve called a big bear of a guy. Ben’s bounced around the Lower 48—timber, hotshotting, construction—but he’s got a 9-to-5 in Phoenix now, heat so dry your knuckles crack and bleed, last place on earth to wear a beard.
It’s past dinnertime, but with the midnight sun it might as well be eight in the morning. Light plays across the muddy shallows over the pasture, breeze riffling the greasy, iridescent skin. Flocks of redwing blackbirds dip and swoop, feasting on mosquitoes. In June, before the real trouble started, Dale dug a trench around the low-lying outbuildings, cabin included, and lipped it with a berm. Lucky they’ve always dug outhouse pits on high ground. Twice the river came over its banks, covering the lower pasture like a rice paddy—this is what makes riverland valuable—and twice his barricades held. If those greedy SOBs had taken half the precautions he had, closed the valves, shut off the tap, the whole situation might have stayed plain bad instead of tipping the scale to worse.
He looks out at the thickets of second-growth spruce and poplar sprouted from the old slash piles, islands in the standing water. Black beads ring the trunks at the highwater mark.
When the water finally recedes, Dale will have to heave his full weight against the cabin door to show the insurance men the damage. For now, he’s tacked up a mental curtain, cordoned off this eventuality in his mind. He hasn’t set foot in the cabin since Ben left, can’t stomach the idea of ramming until he overcomes the door’s resistance, portly, red-faced men pressing in behind him, giving the place a perfunctory once-over, ignoring the logs the boys spent months scouting, felling, trimming, the equally-distanced struts, the loft with its mountain view. Men who never built so much as a damn breadbox dismissing the place: rustic, amateur, shack. Dale elbows out of the truck. Even at this distance, the sick lingering sweetness of crude drifts up from the floodwaters. They say the particles have dissipated, but Dale still tastes the stuff in the air.
He yanks a bale from the truck-bed, twine cutting into his fingers. For the first time in twenty-five years, Dale had to shell out for hay at the same outfit where he normally sells his surplus. Ninety percent of his pasture is underwater, the dry spot half dying, half growing. Still, it bothered him to pull his truck under the loft and wait, a sitting duck, as bales were tossed down, a dull thunk, air churning with hay dust.
He grabs the second bale. Evenly weighted, he pushes down through the brush toward the four white-faced horses staring over the temporary fence, a shabby council. He sidesteps, palm still sore from yesterday’s devil’s club. Elaine had come along to help, but once they got to the clearing she crossed her arms, one hand worrying a loose sweater thread, resisting the pull of the cabin across the dark lake—invisible from the house. A week ago that lake was twenty acres of top-notch hay, enough to get them through the winter.
“You coming?” Dale had asked.
“Squiters’ll eat me alive,” Elaine said, voice dulled by the window glass, as though traveling through a tin can along a string twenty years long, from an era of squiters and jimmyjams, meeses and geeses.
Dale had hauled the hose down the hill alone, stuffed one end inside the trough, then hiked back up to plunge the remaining end into the tank in the truck-bed, siphoning until the trough was filled. The hose snagged on a branch when he was reeling it in and he slid, thorns stitching across his palm. At home, Elaine tweezed them out, doused flaps of skin with peroxide—just remembering makes him draw a hiss of air through his teeth. A little fear is healthy; that’s something we’re supposed to teach our kids.
He drops the bales, pops the twine with his pocketknife and tosses sheaves over the fence, grass cropped to coarse brown stubble. Earp sidles up to the fence, more dog than horse—Ben spoiled him, snuck him carrots from the winter bins.
Cool it, Dogfood.
Dale runs a palm along the horse’s belly, living machinery of muscle and gut, smacks his rump. Earp nudges, wanting more.
Knock it off, you big whore.
The horses’ tails swish, flicking mosquitoes. The insurance man sent out to do the initial assessment had sworn himself hoarse, face smeared with a pale layer of Deet.
“They’re the state bird,” Dale had joked, taking pride in the swarming cloud when the man bent to retrieve his clipboard.
Dale had bailed the water out of the horse grave with a bucket that morning and set two slow fires at the bottom to thaw the permafrost. The smoke was keeping the bugs down, but it seemed a bad time to mention this to the man, who slapped the back of his shirt, then retreated to his rented sedan for his jacket.
Mosquitoes play favorites, something to do with pH. Dale and Gabe could always trudge across the buggiest swamps, while Ben and Elaine spun and swatted and later swabbed pink welts with Calamine.
“You could barbecue a damn elephant in that pit,” the insurance man had said. He’d been up to Montana after elk and was interested in caribou. Dale humored him, though he’d never shot anything but hogs, and even that filled him with remorse. If the horses ever got sick, he’d have to call Eddie.
“Nothing like pit,” the man had said. “Meat melts right off the bone.”
“He’s digging a swimming pool,” he’d heard Elaine tell Ben on the phone. She’s never been good with bad news—always twists away with a joke. Dale got pretty winded bailing the water out and when he hauled himself up, he’d found her standing there.
“How’d your husband die? Heart attack, digging a grave for a horse.” She handed him a towel to wipe his face. “What happened to the horse? Nothing.”
The horses chew the store-bought hay, twisting to nip at their flanks. Sonny and Cher are both swell-gutted and swaybacked, chestnut faces bearded white. Dale bartered an engine rebuild for the two geldings, Wyatt and Earp—the boys just little then, barely tall enough to ride. All four are about ready for the glue factory.
Earp snorts. Don’t look so hot yourself, Old Man.
It was Earp who had the colic last winter, gut ballooned. Dale set a fire to thaw the ground and started digging—it gave him something to do. He wanted Elaine to call Ben—Earp was his, he had a right to know. Wait and see, she said. In the end he pulled through, but Dale could tell it shook Elaine, the thought of having to call with news like that when the thread they held was already stretched so thin, when, any day, Ben might slip away for good.
Dale rubs the warm velvet between Earp’s steamy nostrils, feels a tug of affection—a way to do something for Ben. It’s not a lot, but he’ll take it. Earp noses his palm, snuffling.
“We work to feed them, but the horses are retired,” Elaine likes to tell people.
Dale started drawing social security in April—held out to sixty-eight for the higher payments. There’s a dugout around back of his shop with two wooden tracks extended over it, shored up with posts, enough space to walk around underneath a chassis. Thirty years ago it was a temporary innovation—he’d put in a lift, eventually. Won’t be inching another truck out onto these tracks anytime soon. Who knows how steady the pilings will be once the mud dries.
Water can really fuck you over, the cashier had said, while Dale waited for his hay.
In those three weeks of rain, Dale had surveyed his fields, dug extra drainage, rain sluicing off his yellow slicker. Thirty-three years, nearly half a life in the Interior; he’d never seen this. Fill a glass faster than you could pour one. And then, like someone turned off a spigot, it stopped. Suddenly, it was quiet: the tack-tack of a woodpecker, blackbirds perched along the barbed wire like musical notes, lifting off and settling farther down with the shuffle of turning pages. He slogged through standing water, shoveled a channel through sucking mud toward the frothy churn of river, water pouring off the pasture like water from a pitcher. A pleasant ache spread through his arms. He would finish the ditch, make himself a tuna sandwich.
He felt it first, a quivering in the air. A train, that was his first thought, not a track for fifty miles. It roared through the woods, surge carrying whole tree trunks, tore around the bend, so loud he felt the vibration in his chest. He sprinted for high ground, reaching the porch just in time to watch the eroded north bank collapse, wrenching the half-buried pipeline free. Waves washed over the fields, a brown tide.
Dismal was more settlement than town, sixty families, two-fisted country when Dale and Elaine first arrived from Minneapolis: midwesterners, not scared of a little winter. They’d lived high on the hog, burning through savings, cashing in retirement accounts—it seemed impossible they’d ever reach the age they are now. They wired the house, added the sunroom, installed a phone line (now the one tenuous link tethering them to Ben—it sags, goes slack for weeks, a single ring enough to snap it taut). Heritage families kept hogs, chickens, goats—meat and milk—animals that served a purpose, but Elaine wanted a horse. They had to drive down to Juneau to find one for sale. Once they got there, the woman insisted on selling the pair.
“You wouldn’t buy just one shoe, would you?” she asked Dale, as though instructing a child, protecting him from his own foolishness.
Sometimes, when the horses came up alongside each other, Dale would try to lift Elaine’s mosquito veil, nearly toppling them both.
“You’ll get me all bit,” she’d say moodily, rearranging the netting, corner of her mouth twitching, holding off a smile.
Gabe would have been thirty this year, about the age they were when they packed everything into Elaine’s ‘68 Volvo, sleeping by the side of the road or, when it rained or they’d seen a bear or were too tired to set up the tent, sitting straight up in their seats. Their first date—pizza—she tapped her foot the whole time, impatient for it to be over. He worried she would stand up and leave, but she laughed open-mouthed, and her laughter buoyed him, filled his chest with air. She came home from teaching one afternoon, laden with papers to grade: let’s move to Alaska. If he’d refused, she would have gone without him.
He takes a last look at the horses, out in the open—enough berries ripe on the south-facing slopes to keep the bears occupied. The trough is low again. Have to haul the tank out in the morning.
Back on the road, Dale looks over the fringe of treetops toward McKinley, fogged in, though earlier the mountain was out, a craggy white iceberg. Melt gets worse every year. Even before the rain, the river had been swollen. Dale had dug trenches until one and two in the morning, midnight sun turning the grass hay silver, casting a pale, dusky light over the shop and barn, the outhouse with the crescent moon in the door. Ben had been scared of the dark, but Gabe, Gabe hadn’t been scared of anything.
Dale sits on the front step and shucks off his waders. With twenty-plus hours of daylight, Elaine’s sweet peas grow an inch a day. He can almost watch new tendrils unfurl through the latticework. He heaves open the insulated door, six inches thick.
“Horses are fed.”
Elaine has a quilt spread piecemeal over two card tables in the sunroom—she spends the summer out here. Roxy used to snooze at her feet. How they’d grieved that dog, who’d sniffed and licked and chased their boys, who remembered their smell, the sound of their voices slinging a ball back and forth. Dale tried explaining this to a neighbor as they dug a new outhouse pit, but the man just leaned on his shovel until Dale trailed off, let the shuff of dirt fill the silence. Ben went quiet on the phone when Dale told him Elaine had made the call–the phone was her domain–but bad news was his job. He’d gone back and forth about it, considered allowing the old lab to age—fifteen, twenty, twenty-five—to live forever in his son’s mind.
“You still there?” Dale had asked. He felt clumsy, wanting to console.
“Still here,” Ben said.
January, eight or nine years ago now. He’d stored Roxy’s body in the shed. He’d thought about digging a grave for her that summer, knowing she wouldn’t last the winter, but when he mentioned it to Elaine she tsked, rose from her chair. All winter, whenever he’d gone to the shed, the parcel had been there, wrapped in plastic. Once the thaw came, he got down almost two feet before he hit permafrost, deeper every year. So when Earp had his colic, Dale didn’t hesitate. He went out in the morning, set the fire, started digging; he was too big to store in the shed.
Dale watches Elaine stitch. He doesn’t like to think of her holed up here when she retires. They’d talked about moving down to Anchorage years ago, when the boys were in high school. More opportunity. But Anchorage was expensive. They’d have to sell the house, the horses. Worst of all, they’d lose this hermetic closeness, wouldn’t be a family in the same way. When the boys were young, he’d taken them to the lagoon to watch flocks of seagulls fend off eagles whenever they got down to Anchorage on a supply run. The eagles preyed on seagull chicks, the smaller birds hurling themselves against the predator, folding over each other in the air like schools of fish. The boys squeezed Dale’s hands, watching.
He worked so hard to hold the river back, to hold onto their life here beside it; maybe it’s time. Another year or two, when Elaine retires: Idaho, Wyoming. They could have land. Ben’s more or less settled with Amie. Elaine still tightens her nostrils at the mention of her—all those tattoos—but she’s a nice girl, pretty in a weathered, ropy way, on her own with those two little girls.
But who’ll buy the place now, a stone’s throw from a busted pipeline?
“Have your own little corner of paradise here,” the insurance man had said, coins of sunlight dappling through the trees.
“Had,” Dale corrected.
Once, when the boys were young, a surge of runoff swept away a section of riverbank, leaving the pipe exposed. Gabe got the idea to follow it to California. He was thirteen months younger, but had the certainty of the firstborn. Ben trotted behind, trying not to get his feet wet. A quarter-mile downstream, the pipeline burrowed back under the bank. Gabe had a hangdog look, returning, but Ben beamed: peanut butter-honey sandwiches, warm milk, and nobody could accuse him of wimping out.
Elaine resigned from the Dismal School when Ben got to kindergarten—didn’t want to teach her own kids. She took a state job flying to remote villages, leading public health workshops—prenatal vitamins, preventive care. Dale stayed with the boys, patched up trucks neighbors towed over. A man down the road traded transmission work for the loan of his tractor; Dale figured they could save on feed by putting up their own hay.
The level had come up like water filling a pot. A vertical foot from the door of his shop, then six inches, four. Dale stayed calm, carrying up what he could, laying it crosswise over the rafters. He was filling last-ditch sandbags in the dusky half-sun, Elaine inside, glued to the weather radio, when the USGS guys came up the driveway in a government pickup, headlights throwing ferns into relief. Both men had mustaches, which made the evac order seem like a prank. They talked to him through the truck window, drove off to warn others. By the time Elaine filled grocery bags with photos—whatever she could grab off the walls—the stink of leaking oil burned their eyes. Dale snuffed his nose on the back of his hand, expecting blood. Looking back, he has to hand it to those guys, bumping down twisting two-tracks to homesteads four and five miles apart, along a flooding river in the middle of the night, ordering people off their own land, a job that, in another place, would have fallen to a sheriff. Every decade a census taker gets his head blown off by taking I shoot first figuratively, but these men didn’t stop to consider; the river was rising and there were people who needed to get out of its way.
When they got home two days later, Dale walked up the valley to look for the horses. Water had come three-fourths of the way across the pasture. The tall uncut hay had acted like a big brush; tar clung to the stalks, standing water filmed with oily scum. Dale cut through the woods, following hoofprints until he found Sonny, the other three hunkering nearby, soaked to the skin. He led them to higher ground and tied them, not worried about contamination yet, just wanting to be able to find them again. Elaine was sitting at the table with the phone to her ear, so still his heart skipped—Ben?
“Find them?” she’d asked. He nodded. She switched the phone to her other ear. “People must die on hold to these claims people.” He opened one fist, pumping blood to his fingertips.
If the phone rang while Elaine was out, he waited until the machine picked up—a dead starter, a potluck invite—ready to pluck Ben from the cradle.
The kid who was driving the night Gabe died lives down in Wasilla now: married, with a son of his own. Besides a split in one eyebrow, he bears no physical traces: no limp, not even the bulge of a broken nose. The eyebrow might as well be a healed-over piercing. Dale saw him in town not long ago. Drove in for a couple of spark plugs, just as the rains were starting. Dale always makes a point to shake his hand, though he still sees the fifteen-year-old kid. The watery light of the fire must have flickered across his and Gabe’s faces as they waited for the engine to warm up, both flushed with the evaporating heat of the bonfire, breath fogging the windshield, a dozen beers between them. The school year was over—black ice still glassed the dips in the road. Just two drunk kids borrowing a Jeep. When Dale drove out to the wreck later, the scent of burnt metal was still sharp with gasoline.
Ben left the year after the accident; he’s never come home, never visited. At least, down there, he’ll never run into this man—the last person to hear Gabe’s voice, to breathe the same close air.
“Raining pretty good out by you?” the man asked, his little son regarding Dale, big brown eyes.
As much as he wanted to crush the man’s hand—a desire that’s only grown stronger over the years—those eyes made him loosen his grip.
Every fall, before the snows, Dale sweeps twigs off the cabin’s porch, replaces worn-down shingles, patches chinks. He performs the repairs from the outside, hauls the ladder back to the barn. As if, any day, Gabe might jerk open the insulated door and step out into the world again.
Dale and Elaine have gone to visit Ben, the last time two years ago, after he moved in with Amie.
“Cabin’s waiting,” Dale told him, and his son grimaced, a pang Dale had grown so used to he’d forgotten it until he saw it reflected on Ben’s face.
Home with the boys, he dropped hard blue pebbles of frozen blueberries into pancakes, knocked the snow off their skis. Some of their neighbors used dog teams, but Dale and the boys got into town fine on skis, heaping supplies on a plastic sled. Elaine was off charting infant weights, hammocking babies in a cloth sack hooked to a scale you held up off the ground to get a reading. When Gabe died, she waited two years, until after Gabe would have graduated high school, then quit—too old for the rattletrap bush planes, she said—and went back to teaching, as if this had been her plan all along, as if Gabe had simply followed Ben to Fairbanks. Except, of course, Ben, an only child for the first time in seventeen years, hadn’t gone to Fairbanks, hadn’t left for college at all. When they were little, the boys would stare each other awake, catapult out of bed, but Gabe had taken all that shared momentum with him, hurtling through the Jeep’s windshield alone. Ben loafed. Elaine hounded him: was he going to let his life stop here? They’d never raised a hand against their boys. Now she seemed always on the verge of striking him.
Sometimes still, walking out to his shop, the loss hits Dale in the chest. He doubles over, grips his knees, getting his breath. There are other things: twisting to grab the shoulder belt, his mind on a shim or a coil, the click of the buckle slicing him open.
The summer before he died, Gabe drafted Ben into cabin-building. Together, they combed gravel bars along the river for cottonwoods tumored with burls to fell and varnish for porch pillars. When it was finished, they moved out to it. They still came up to the house for meals, but they lived all that winter there, planning to build a second one—Ben’s—once the ground thawed enough to dig the footings.
Dale used to sit by the window at night, cold air coming off the glass, and long for his boys, less than half a mile from the house. They were teenagers—they wanted their own lives. He’d linger near the outhouse, hoping to run into them, Gabe lanky and fresh-faced, exhilarated by the stinging air, but Ben always looked cold, ashamed that he longed for the warmth and comfort of the house. He has Elaine’s wide, open face, which shows emotions plainly.
One winter, when the boys were young, Elaine out in the Aleutians on a fly-in, a rabbit fell down the outhouse pit. There’d been a lynx in the yard that year; it might have chased it in. In the early afternoon darkness, outhouse seat searing, frigid air wafting up from the hole, completely odorless, Ben heard it scurrying, frantic, clawing the winter stalagturd solidified atop the block of frozen waste. He came shouting, tripping down the cellar stairs to dig the garden carrots he hoarded from the bin. Dale fashioned a harness to a margarine container that could be filled with water, lowered, then hauled back up by a string tied to the toilet tissue dispenser.
Between keeping the horses fed and the stove stoked, it took Dale two days to get around to rigging a net to a mop handle. For two days, Ben was in constant motion, squeezing out frozen cylinders of margarine container ice, reanimating bendable carrots, snow crunching under his boots, only his head visible over the tunneled path. Quiet, plodding, good-hearted Ben finally with a project of his own. Adding wood to the stove, hearing Ben knock his boots against the front of the house, shove open the door, news of the rabbit bursting in on a blast of cold air, Dale’s chest inflated with love for his sons, for this house and their life in it.
Dale raised the rabbit in the net. The boys scrambled after him, up the snowbank until they stood looking out on glittering snowfields, crusted with ice, drifts washed up against the black comb of forest, the pale glow of moonlight. Dale lowered the net, the rabbit’s fur a perfect camouflage of white. For a moment it stood still, nose twitching. Then it bounded. Gabe shot after it. Dale heard the swish of Ben’s jacket sleeve rubbing his own—rooting for Gabe, for the rabbit, until it catapulted into the trees. Ben released the held breath Dale had felt tightening his own chest.
The boys trudged up the tunneled snow-path toward the house, exhaling purposefully, breathing white shapes into the dark, naming them: rabbit, fox, eagle, lynx. Heads thrown back, they watched their creations rise, puffs of living smoke.
It’s terrible to admit, but Dale is grateful if they had to lose one, it was Gabe. Ben had to be prodded: go sled with your brother, jump, it’s not cold once you’re in. Gabe threw himself headlong—football, guitar, climbing—would have whooped when the Jeep fishtailed, fearless.
The pasture drains, an oily muck sucking at Dale’s waders as he collects rotting fish in a bucket, adjusting the kerchief over his nose and mouth, stopping only once, at the sound of the phone ringing. Not Ben, it turns out. Only the neighborhood phone tree, a reminder for the community meeting.
Dale hasn’t set foot inside the schoolhouse in a decade. Elaine greets neighbors, people whose kids and grandkids she’s taught right here in this room, with its green chalkboard and cast iron stove. She lays hands on forearms, asks after sons who’ve followed girls down to Sitka. It always surprises him, her public persona unchanged, how she wades smiling and energetic into large gatherings, Elaine as he’d first known her.
She works her way through the rows of chairs—this is, after all, her classroom—chooses seats near the front. The EPA guy sits with the oilmen at her desk, on the raised platform. There’s an Ag boy too—the only one Dale recognizes—plus a camera crew from Anchorage Channel 8.
The room smells dank and musty from being shut up all summer, platform coated in a fine layer of chalk dust, mites swirling in the beams streaming through the windowpanes. Homesteaders from twenty miles in all directions pack the room. Dale feels them shifting, straining to understand what’s being said.
The air is fine. They tested it. It smelled bad for a couple days, now it’s clean. The EPA will come around to collect samples—soil and water. A month or two before they get the results.
The main company man is dressed in a smug white turtleneck, a jacket with leather elbow patches, the kind of smooth-talking huckster who would name a town Eden, Sweetwater, Paradise Glen.
“I’m not here to feed you a load of bullcrap,” he says, overdoing the twang. “We’ve got a problem. We’ll fix it. Ask the Yellowstone River folks down in Montana. Their land’s back to normal. Hell, some of them made good money off that deal.”
A few chuckles, muttering.
The man pushes up his jacket sleeves, pleased, figuring he’s won the room over. To this man standing on the platform, and the others, seated at the old desk Dale sanded and refinished, she must look harmless: a silver-haired matron, face pink with the heat of all these bodies. They don’t understand why the room stills when she raises her hand, how, behind her, everyone sits up straighter.
The man smiles, ready to explain, to indulge.
“What about depth of cover?” she asks. “That pipeline wasn’t buried out by us. Isn’t that the law?”
He nods sympathetically, her accusation registering in the tightening of his jaw.
“Yeah,” someone says.
“How come some of my grass is dying and some’s growing?” a voice calls from the back.
“Can we use it next year, if it comes back?”
“How much oil is too much oil on my property? Huh?”
Dale turns to see who’s asking, but Elaine stares straight ahead, as if she sees them reflected in the man’s eyes, though of course she simply knows everyone in the room by their voices.
“Where the hell were you guys before this happened?”
A half dozen at a time, a volley. Dale sees the man’s Adam’s apple bobbing above the line of his turtleneck.
When they get home, the light on the answering machine is blinking. Ben wants to know about the spill, if it’s near them. It was on the news. Just hearing his voice gives Dale’s heart a jolt, makes him want to lunge for the receiver. He waits through dinner, dishes, waits for Elaine to call back—her territory—he’s not allowed to rush her. Finally, he gives in: “Aren’t you going to call him?”
“Pretty late,” she says.
“Not that late.”
“Might wake the girls.”
They know the girls have different fathers, but Ben’s role in their lives remains unclear—they’re not sure whether to begin clearing a shelf in their emotional pantries, or just wait and see how it goes.
“I’ll call tomorrow,” she says.
When Gabe wasn’t home in the morning, Elaine flipped ahead through the calendar, like she’d marked the date of his return. She was scheduled for a fly-in.
“Call you tonight if I can,” she said, leaving the pebble of worry to roll around in Dale’s shoe. It took her two days to get back.
They put the campershell on, took Gabe’s body to Anchorage to be cremated. Ben drove, Elaine in the passenger seat, Dale in back, music. It almost felt like a trip.
“Remember when he cut off that girl’s pony tail?” Ben asked.
“Pig tail,” Elaine corrected. “Melanie Hood’s little sister.” She laughed.
Dale tried to listen, but his mind wandered. He ran his thumb across Gabe’s cold forehead, skin pale yellow-green. Besides that, he didn’t look bad. There was a dust of salt under his eyes. It was those minutes Dale couldn’t allow himself to imagine—where had he been while those tears ran down his son’s face? Had he felt any inkling? Had he looked up from brushing his teeth, heard a noise, felt the tug of an invisible string?
Dale had answered the phone that morning, back when he still answered the phone—Elaine gone, Ben out feeding the horses. He pulled his boots on and ran, panicked, as though something might happen to his older son too, before he reached him.
“What?” Ben asked, annoyed, voice still gravelly with sleep. Dale began to weep. “Where’s mom?” Ben asked, uncertain, thinking of the tin-can bush planes. He and Elaine had bickered before she left and Ben hadn’t said goodbye.
“What?” Ben asked when he told him. “What?”
Ben lived in Gabe’s cabin that summer. Looking back, Dale wonders why they didn’t insist he stay in the house. When the boys were young, Elaine blamed Dale for letting Ben get tubby, said he would be teased—she’d been heavy as a girl. Sure, he was big-boned, felt things a little too deeply, but he could take care of himself. It gave Dale pleasure to see Ben eat. Flipping pancakes at the stove, boys talking at the table behind him; he wished he’d recorded those mornings, wished he could play back the cassette.
In Phoenix, Dale had been surprised at his son’s bulk, shooting hoops in the driveway with those little girls. Dale had tried playing, just to be close. Ben mopped sweat from his forehead, bent to catch his breath, trying in his own way to bond with these girls, abandoned by their fathers, skeptical of men, and of their mother’s boyfriends especially. Dale saw he was interfering, pretended to be winded, drifted away, the echo of the ball on concrete reverberating off the front of the house.
He had hoped Elaine and Ben would reconcile, but both seemed to feel they had traveled a sufficient distance already—Elaine by visiting and Ben by allowing it. A few weeks before Ben left for the Lower 48, Dale had come in to find Elaine screaming, kitchen drawers rolled out, cabinet doors flung open. It took a minute to understand what the fight was about: Gabe’s old Red Sox cap, which had lain on top of the fridge all these months, an item Ben had coveted as a boy and which Elaine now accused him of taking.
“It’s not my fault!” Ben yelled.
“I know that!” she yelled back. “Don’t you think I know that?”
The EPA guys take samples. The oil company sends a woman insurance adjuster to do the final estimate. Dale wonders if they think he’ll be less demanding of a woman, or if he has already shown some weakness, some readiness to compromise. The mosquitoes dive-bomb her until Dale takes pity, lets her in.
Elaine must have been watching him show her around the property. “It’s your perfume,” she calls from the sunroom. The adjuster looks up, startled, as though the house itself had spoken.
“I’m not saying the water’s bad. We’d just like it tested, for three years or something. Same with the soil,” Dale tells her. “We want to be able to show a clean bill of health for our property, to tell people it’s okay and have some science behind it.”
The woman writes a check to cover the temporary fencing, the uncut hay—she has special emergency authorization. Later, he examines it, the memo: recovery effort, Dismal, claim 461.
He imagines the office jokes. Dismal, they got that right.
“We won’t get two cents for this place,” Elaine says. Not bitter, merely a statement of fact.
The barn smells of wet wood, of rot. He’ll have to dig out the floor, haul in fresh dirt. He takes the bucket off the nail, grabs a harness, a lead, and crosses the pasture, walking uphill. Earp greets him. He ties him to a fence post to keep him from nudging.
He doesn’t need a harness to groom Cher—she leans into his touch like a lazy housecat. He runs his hands down her legs and she gives up her hoofs. He scrapes out muck and pebbles, a few mashed sticks, pulls the gunk around the frogs of her feet loose with his fingers. He rubs the currycomb in tight hard circles, following the direction of her coat, bringing out the dander and crud, sweat cooling his brow when he stops for breath. He whisks dirt out with the hard brush, soft-brushes bellies, wipes faces with a wet rag. Sonny, then Wyatt, who edges away a step at a time so that when he finally wipes away the last trace of undercoat they’re three yards from where they started. Earp has turned as much as the harness allows, keeping Dale in view.
Simmer down, Dogchow.
He leaves him tied, starts with the currycomb, feeling the muscles flex. Earp gives in, a blanket of satisfaction settling over him. Dale’s arms ache—tomorrow he’ll be sore.
Getting old, huh Glue?
Earp nudges him in the shoulder. He’s halfway down the horse’s midsection with the soft brush when he spots Elaine trekking up through the muddy pasture.
“About done,” he says, thinking she has come to help. He takes the rag from his back pocket and wipes Earp’s face. The horse nuzzles, blows warm air into Dale’s shirt.
“I caught him on his way out,” Elaine says, a lightness in her voice different from the one she puts on in public. “He’s off today. He’s taking the girls to the pool.”
“Oh yeah?” Dale wipes his hands. “Think they’ll come up?” They haven’t discussed it, but suddenly Dale pulls the curtain at the back of his mind open, and here it is.
“Maybe,” Elaine asks. “Four roundtrips. It’s a lot of money.”
“We could help them out.” He’s walked to edge now, risked tipping the whole plank. She might clam up, go gruff. Could be weeks before he gets another word out of her.
“I offered,” she says. Dale looks up. “They’ll think about it.” She avoids his eyes. He flops the rag into the bucket of brushes, slap’s Earp’s flank to let him know they’re through. The horse sidles up to Elaine.
“Senior citizens,” she says, rubbing Earp’s nose.
“All of us.”
“I don’t want to move,” she says.
Earp turns his head Dale’s way, snorts.
“Say something, you stupid sonofabitch,” Dale translates.
Elaine laughs. Full-throated, mouth open, a laugh echoing through a long tunnel, piped from a window booth at the Pizza Palace in Duluth, Minnesota.
The company sent a thresher to level the uncut hay yesterday and today, as though to show approval, the mountain is out. The grass around the cabin has been cut back, but the air still smells faintly of crude, residue caked around the foundation. Dale spreads out plastic and scrapes away clumps. By late afternoon he’s gone around the whole cabin, a process not unlike grooming a twelve by twelve-square horse. In the end, the insurance woman had not asked to look inside. He gathers himself, rams the door with his full weight.
Inside the air is musty. Dusty cobwebs sag from two-by-fours bracing the underside of the loft. The brown paper lining of the insulation—they never got around to drywall—gives the place a quilted feel. An old propane cookstove, exposed red wires. The girls will have to stay in the main house. But maybe Ben and Amie would like a little privacy, a view.
The ladder up to the loft is just a few two-by-ones nailed flush to the wall frame. Dale’s face warms, fingers cramping until finally, short of breath, nostrils itching with dust, he manages to haul himself up into the loft with the heaviness of a half-drowned man. There’s an old sleeping bag laid out of the floor, sheets of plywood nailed to the undersides of the steep-pitched roof, rubber climbing holds screwed into the plywood for Gabe to practice crimping and dynoing, hanging upside down for hours.
Dale coughs into his sleeve. It’s warm, sun baking through triangular windows set under the point of the roof. He dodges, searching out the mountain, but there’s no mountain. A red corner of barn, the braced wooden tracks around the back of his shop—is this all the window has ever looked out on?
Amie’s girls will run out to the horses when they visit.
Which one’s yours, Ben?
This one. The one who thinks he’s a dog.
The old horse will accept a pat, then turn, faster than Ben can step back, and nip him as hard as possible without breaking the skin. Later he’ll have a bruise whose meaning he can probe with his fingers.
In the morning, the girls will stand at bottom of the cabin steps, nervous to set foot on the porch. They’ll know the cabin belongs to the boy in the photos. They’ll be curious about him, but not enough to risk it.
Pancakes! Wake up! You guys! Mom! Pancakes!
They’ll lead the way through the tall grass behind the outhouse, Ben and Amie following.
They’ll clothespin their noses, sly, wanting to be chased.
The pee pit!
Dale presses a palm to the dust-spotted glass, feels the vibration of their shrieks, the giddy terror of being tickled, or held upside down by the ankles, dunked head-first into the rank air of the outhouse hole longer than a held breath—that way children have of living only here, only now.