I was lost.
Well, more accurately, my father was lost and I was with my father. Does that make me lost by default? I suppose so. Some would say that it is an inherited trait, being lost, like having blue eyes, alcoholism or a tendency to see the glass half empty.
In Crow country, there are horses everywhere. Mostly wild patchwork paints with mismatched eyes that give them a crazed feral look. There are horses and the land is always on fire. Not all of it, of course, but some of it always, at least every time I have ever been there. In the early spring, after the snowmelt but before green-up, men walk the fields with flamethrowing devices, the fuel canisters strapped to their backs, the flames shooting from long metal tubes. They walk the tangled field edges, the creek bottoms, the orange and blue flames stabbing out like tongues bitten ragged, tasting the air. The alders and hunched Russian olives and tangled brown grasses smoldering black and bursting into flame as pheasants cluck and run senselessly across the bare fields. An apocalyptic scene set against a backdrop of arthritic, leafless cottonwoods and the flat hills that hide the Bighorn River.
We were lost in eastern Montana, Crow country, looking for the Little Bighorn Battlefield, site of Custer’s glorious defeat—my father behind the wheel, piloting our silver compact rental car over red clay roads greasy from the runoff of melted snow. Smoke rose from the charred fields in gauzy patches, filling the car with the faintly narcotic smell of smoldering weeds. Our luggage was in the backseat.
My large red pack—the kind supposedly favored by hikers on the Appalachian Trail (a gift from my father)—and my father’s wheeled leather suitcases. My father’s fly rods in their cylindrical leather cases were there, as well as two of my father’s side-by-side 20-gauge shotguns in their fleece-lined leather cases. One of these very shotguns, incidentally, I had stolen from the unlocked gun case in his den and tried to pawn when I was 15 years old. This was 16 years ago during what my father eventually came to call my “rough patch,��� a hazy span of time nearly a year in duration during which I stole rampantly and masturbated frantically, sometimes five to six times a day. My father was aware of the theft, obviously; of the masturbation I’m not sure, although I wouldn’t be surprised, as I stole a copy of Leopold von Sacher Masoch’s Venus in Furs, leaving a noticeable hole in the volumes on the shelves in his den. I kept the leather-bound volume under clothes in my closet and abused myself to a pulp daily in that very closet, the wooden folding doors shut behind me, the chain for the overhead light dangling over my head where I knelt with my jeans around my ankles, my favorite passages dog-eared for easy reference.
I stole mostly from my father’s house but occasionally from the houses of my friends—rarely ever from stores or people I didn’t know. I stole a Montblanc pen and a fake Rolex watch from the father of a friend of mine who was a federal judge. I stole a set of Wüsthof knives from my father’s kitchen and spent half a day throwing them at trees in the woods behind the house. I stole a necklace from my mother. It had once been my grandmother’s; quite possibly it had been her mother’s. It was old, medieval looking, the gold tarnished from the multigenerational sweat of the matriarchy. I stole every ashtray from my father’s house and spent half an afternoon throwing them at trees in the woods behind the house. I stole five bamboo fly rods—made by a certain R.L. Winston in Twin Bridges, Montana—from my father’s den and spent half an afternoon splintering them magnificently in a vicious sword fight battle with a friend of mine in the woods behind the house. During this time I masturbated, mostly in my closet, but in many other places as well: in the woods behind the house, in all of the various outbuildings on my father’s property (the garden shed, the guest house, the garage, the other garage), in every room of my father’s house including the attic (excluding my father’s den), in the bathroom at my school and in the bathroom at the Lutheran church we attended once a year on Easter Sunday.
The day I stole the shotgun was much like any other day that year. I attended school five blocks from my house, a distance I walked. I got home from school and masturbated once or twice, ate something that I could microwave easily and then looked around for something to steal. I sat in my father’s den, swiveling in his chair behind the large empty oak desk. I took one of a matched pair of side-by-side 20-gauge shotguns—made by a certain James Purdey & Sons of London, England—and a handful of shells, and I went to the woods behind the house where I spent an hour or two shooting at the tree trunks. When I ran out of shells, I put the shotgun in my backpack with the barrel jutting through the zippered opening and rode my bike six miles to a pawnshop that had a row of 10-speed bikes chained together on the sidewalk and glass with steel mesh embedded in it for windows. The man who owned the store also lived in an apartment above the business with two daughters; his wife had died of breast cancer when the girls were young. I would lose my virginity to one of the pawnshop man’s daughters a year after the shotgun incident. Her name was Sara and she was two years older than me—and for an event that I had anticipated for so long, to this day I don’t really remember much about it at all, whether it was awkward or sweet or even whether or not she was pretty.
When I walked into the pawnshop, I was still wearing the backpack, the twin shotgun barrels sticking up over my head. The pawnshop man undoubtedly knew my father or at least knew enough of him to know that he could be found in the phone book under Swank & Howe, Attorneys at Law, but instead of calling my father, the pawnshop man in fact called the police. As it turns out, the pawnshop man was enough of a firearms expert to notice that the gun I dropped on his counter—with its fine blued barrels and elegant scrollwork, the etched scene of a pheasant flushing in front of a pointer (whose tail was so finely rendered it was possible to see the breeze ruffling in the hair)—was probably valued at more than $30,000 and most certainly stolen.
That was my childhood. I trafficked in rare antique munitions and jacked off to first editions. It’s not that I was dumb. It’s just that I really hadn’t the slightest idea what things were worth.
This was our first trip together since my mother’s death. We mostly drove in silence. We never did find the Little Bighorn Battlefield, but truth be told, neither of us really cared that much about history. We had a few hours before we needed to be at the airport in Billings, and it seemed like the right thing to do. We pulled off the highway at Lodge Grass for gas, my father driving slowly on empty streets. A dog here and there. A burnt shell of a trailer house with smoke still breathing from broken windows. A Catholic mission and health clinic with mostly intact windows, and an IGA with broken windows covered by sheets of corrugated cardboard. We passed a faded sign for Custer’s Last (ice cream) Stand. The sign had a cartoon image of Custer, blond hair and cavalry hat, holding a triple-scoop ice cream cone, his tongue out as if he were licking the ice cream off his drooping blond mustache. There was an arrowhead and fletching protruding from either side of his head as if the shaft had entered one ear and come out the other side. There were people on a front porch that sloped toward the street. Teenagers in dark stocking caps and coats and black baggy jeans; some had sunglasses on.
“I have been here before,” my father said, “but it was in Detroit.”
We stopped at a 7-Eleven where there was one window broken and one window not; the broken window had been replaced by a sheet of plywood. The 7-Eleven was busy with locals. It was a dry reservation, and apparently this was the watering hole. A trio of dusty diesel trucks pulling horse trailers commanded the parking lot, and furtively I watched their occupants. All of them wore dark-brimmed Stetsons and dark Wranglers tucked into dark leather boots. Some of them had braids and some of them had their hair cropped short above the ears. A few wore belts studded with oval slabs of turquoise and fastened with large silver buckles. The young men were lean and acne-ridden and the older men had compact potbellied stomachs straining against the dark, striped work shirts tucked into their pants. The older men had coffee in Styrofoam cups and pocked faces and the young men had plastic bottles of Pepsi and candy bars and legs that curved like empty parentheses.
They swung into their trucks, and diesel fumes filled the parking lot and the crazy-eyed paint horses in the trailers stamped their feet. It was clear that the Indians had become cowboys or that the cowboys had all turned into Indians or that the Indians were all cowboys to begin with just nobody ever noticed. Well, maybe that wasn’t clear, but what was clear was the fact that something wasn’t quite right.
I got out to stretch my legs while my father pumped the gas. Our rental car was a small silver pony. The red clay clotting the panels made it look as if our pony had taken an arrow in its forelock and its heaving sides were fouled with sprayed blood and chunks of lung matter. I took my hand, pressed it into the red gumbo, then reached and made a splayed red handprint in the middle of our silver pony’s chest, right over the engine. We left Lodge Grass in silence.
The fishing hadn’t been very good this trip. My father had hired us a guide, a young guy about my age, with shaggy hair, who spent most of the day apologizing. “I don’t know,” he would say. “Usually it’s better than this. Fish can be fickle.”
“Well, hell,” my father said. “At least we have the scenery. There’s worse things we could be doing. At least we’re not at work.” For some reason then, I became acutely aware that the guide, hunched miserably at the oars, was indeed at work. I wondered what he thought of us. At the end of the day my father gave the guide two crumpled $100 bills and told him it was the best day he could remember having for quite some time.
After, in the car driving to our hotel, my father said, “Sorry the fishing was so bad. I’d hoped it would be better. But that’s the problem with having a young guide. When the fishing is good, it’s not so bad. The young guide is going to work for it, keep you out late—he’s enthusiastic, see? But when the fishing’s off, you’re screwed. No amount of enthusiasm is going to make up for lack of experience. I know if we would have had some old crusty salt out there today we would have caught plenty. But that’s how it goes. That’s why they call it fishing, not catching.”
This was a phrase my father loved. Often he applied it to situations that had nothing to do with fishing. Once, I called him in misery after a longtime girlfriend had left me. After a few consoling words his closing remarks were “Well, son, that’s why they call it fishing, not catching.”
I looked over at my father, driving, still in his fishing vest and obnoxious fishing hat, the one with the sweat-stained band and a line of ragged flies stuck in the brim. “Maybe it’s just us,” I said. “Maybe we’re not that good. I bet the guide is somewhere right now talking about how when the fishing is bad it really sucks to have poor fishermen.”
My father laughed at this. “Could be,” he said. “I guess there is always the other side of the coin.”
I thought about the night they admitted my mother to the hospital in Grand Rapids. I’d come as soon as I could but she was already in the ICU. I sat with my father there, all night. When the doctor came out to talk to us, I remember my father’s ill—concealed disbelief, his rage. The doctor looked all of 22, a young woman with henna—colored hair and a nose ring, who spoke in clipped British tones.
“Your wife has suffered a powerful stroke,” she said. “She is not responding to treatment.”
“And who are you, chippie?” my father said. “Just who the fuck do you think you are? Where is the doctor in charge?”
In the waiting room, the TV had been turned to a channel running some sort of classic Western marathon. Eastwood. Peckinpah. Bronson. McQueen. Kristofferson. All the dramatic gunfights, the stolen horses, the barroom brawls, the slow pinwheeling deaths. We watched these movies, a seemingly endless loop, blurring together in one continuous meandering story line, and then, sometime after dawn, the doctor came out again to break the news to us. This time my father had nothing to say to her. I shook her hand. I thanked her. I don’t know why.
Eventually, after driving around aimlessly for almost an hour, we got out the map and found our way back to the highway and the airport. But before we did, we passed through a small town, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it type of place—a post office, a laundromat, a small Baptist church with graffiti sprayed on the brick—the whole place unremarkable except for the mounds of tumbleweed piled up against every standing surface. It was bizarre, like the weeds were some sort of fast-reproducing vermin threatening to overtake the town. We hadn’t seen a single sign of inhabitation. The whole place was empty, except, in the parking lot of a run-down motel, there was a pile of tumbleweed burning. The flames towered over a man, wearing fluorescent orange sunglasses, who stood with a hose in his hand to keep the fire from spreading. The man had a dark ponytail, and he held the hose like a six-gun. As we passed, my father did something remarkable, a thing that I will never forget. He pointed at the flaming tumbleweed and the man with the hose. My father’s hand was a cocked six-gun.
“Crow country Moses confronts the burning bush,” he said, and began humming the theme song to The Magnificent Seven.
I joined him. We did this for miles.
At the airport, we sat at the terminal and waited for our flight. My father had a bag of trail mix and was digging through it for the almonds. We could see out past the planes staging on the runway, the flat expanse of just—greening grassland. Antelope were grazing. A plane came in to land, and its shadow moved directly over their backs and they didn’t even look up.
“You want some of this?” my father said, shoving the bag of trail mix toward me.
“Did you eat all the almonds?”
“I think so.”
“Why don’t you just buy a bag of almonds? They had those for sale right next to the trail mix.”
“I like searching them out amongst the other stuff I don’t want.”
“Seems like a waste.”
“I’m offering what’s left to you.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Well, then you’re the one that’s being wasteful, not me. All I can do is offer.” He was still wearing his fishing hat. His stained vest. The sunburn on his nose was starting to peel.
“What are you going to do?”
“I’ll just save the bag. Maybe someone on the plane will want them.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Oh. You mean what am I going to do. I don’t know. I’m 62 years old. She managed the office for 32 years. Can you believe it? Men say stuff like this all the time, but I wouldn’t have acquired half of what I’ve got now if it wasn’t for her. I was thinking today, you and I are too much alike. You know that if she was with us there is no way in hell we wouldn’t’ve found that damn battlefield. She would have had the directions printed up last week. A brief synopsis of important facts regarding the massacre, and the location of a nearby café whose lunch menu featured reasonably priced healthful options with a local flair.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know what way my life would have gone. Maybe it sounds pathetic, but she picked me up, put me under her arm and ran with me like I was a football.”
“Oh no, but at certain moments you can’t help but imagine how things would have been different. I didn’t come out of the womb wanting to be a tax attorney, you know.”
“What would you have done instead?”
“What’s past is past. How about now? I’ve been thinking about moving out here.”
“What would you do?”
“Fish. Relax. I think there’s some sort of golf course around here somewhere. I’m sure it’s no Pebble Beach, but I bet you don’t have to call ahead for tee time. I could get a dog. Chase birds in the fall. I’m not joking. I’ve always thought that had things been different for me, I’d’ve ended up out here as a young man.” He patted the carry-on bag at his side. “I picked up some real estate literature. I’m going to look at it on the plane. If I sold just the house back home I could buy a whole damn ranch out here. Think about it. Land you couldn’t ride across in a day.”
“What are you talking about? Ride? You don’t ride.”
“I might learn.”
Two years later, I had to come home to Michigan to handle my father’s affairs. As I was cleaning out his desk I found a stack of real estate brochures in the top drawer. BIG SKY COUNTRY REAL ESTATE: OWN A PIECE OF THE LAST BEST PLACE. REAL WEST: EXPERIENCE THE TRADITION. There were glossy photos of middle-aged men holding large trout, middle-aged men smiling in ski gear with their pretty second wives, middle-aged men in Stetsons doing things with horses. My father had suffered a heart attack waiting in line at the DMV to get his driver’s license renewed. To me, this seemed like a punch line to a joke, not a legitimate way for a person to die. He’d never moved to Montana, of course. The process of disentangling himself from the practice proved insurmountable. The last time I’d talked to him had been on the phone for my 33rd birthday. I’d told him I was thinking of going back to school, or going to Alaska to work at a salmon cannery for the summer to save up enough money to go to New Zealand—or possibly signing up to teach English in Korea.
He’d laughed. “Was I hard on you when you were a boy?”
“Not especially, no.”
“I didn’t think so either. My dad was hard on me, and it didn’t make any damn difference. I think women are the only real source of motivation in the world for men. You know what your problem is?”
“I can say this because I recognize my symptoms in you. You and I, we have a capacity for work, dedication, all that. It’s just that we suffer from the diffusion of desire.”
“I have a lot of things I want to do.”
“I understand. And we should do something before you move to Alaska or New Zealand or Korea. We should go to Montana, do a little fishing. Maybe we’ll take a day and look at some land.”
After the brochures, the rest of the papers in my father’s desk were inscrutably impersonal. He had a whole drawer full of receipts for gas, lunches and travel expenses. He had another drawer full of warranty statements for every appliance in the house dating back to the first microwave he and my mother ever purchased in 1979.
I ended up throwing everything away, brochures and all, and sitting in his chair with my feet on his desk. I thought about how you could tell a house was empty, even a big house like this one, just by how it feels when you’re quiet. A house can give a sense of emptiness that moves beyond mere silence. It’s a hollowness. You can be more alone in an empty house than anywhere on earth. And now, the house was mine—all the stuff and all the absence, the empty dark matter between the stuff. I realized for the first time what it must have been like for my father here, and this too was something I’d inherited—a newfound awareness that nothing amplifies the emptiness of a place like ownership.
I got up from the desk and went to the gun cabinet, opening the door on the neatly aligned regiment of English and Italian shotguns. I ran my fingers over the blued barrels, the glossy hardwood stocks. The Purdey was there, the one I’d tried to pawn all those years ago. I took it out and swung it like I was following a low-incoming grouse. I sighted down the barrel at the Tiffany lamp on my father’s desk. I broke the gun open and smelled the tang of Hoppe’s No. 9 oil. I snapped it shut and the barrel reseated with a satisfying click. I stuffed some shells in my pocket and headed out to the woods behind the house.
From Dog Run Moon: Stories by Callan Wink, out this February from Dial Press.