“Take your sweet time. I swear, young’uns these days. No respect for their elders. Just a boilin’ away with a fever, no hurry.”
A woman not quite as old as my father and darker skinned than a moonless night shooed me into the middle of the room. After shutting the front door, she barred it. Somehow, without changing the identity or ethos of the three-room house, almost every item in it had been rearranged. It smelled different, better.
I turned to face the rather large woman, more a mound of rolling hills than a mountain, and certainly more of a babbling brook than still waters. “You still haven’t answered my question.”
“You still ain’t asked it, Mr. Smarty-Pants.” She stopped for nothing. Brushing past me, she tutted before continuing, “I swear, young’uns these days.”
“Well pardon my prodigal manners—”
The maid threw back the bedroom door and disappeared inside. “He sure ain’t much to look at, fer all your fussin’. Calm yourself. He’s a tad on da slow side, but he’s a comin’.”
Bracing myself and half-expecting to see an emaciated madman, I strode into the room.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
Damn it all. I gritted my teeth. “Nice to see you too, old man.” Physically, he didn’t look too bad—an older, smaller version of myself. Less scars. Then again, some of mine were his fault. He was too pale, his eyes bloodshot.
He started mumbling, maybe to me, maybe to himself. “Not that, not that. That’s not what I meant.”
“I never could figure what you meant. Why should now be any different? I swear, for a man practiced in preaching you ain’t for shit at simple conversation.”
He burst upright, scattering his sweat-soaked covers. A buck-naked, crazy-eyed specter, he screamed at the top of his voice, “And what’s so simple about this! This isn’t right, none of it!” His face spasmed and he blinked faster than a machine gun for a full eight seconds.
“Son? J.T. I knew you’d make it. I knew God wouldn’t let me die yet, not yet.”
I looked from my father to the maid, one eyebrow raised. She shook her head and went about fluffing the pillow. “Some how they both your father, da angry one and da calm one. But they ain’t lived together for these last few weeks. You gonna have to talk to one or da other at da very least. I like me da angry one personally, ain’t quite so mushy as da other.”
I breathed deep. “Dad, I came ‘cause you’ve got trouble. I reckon more than you can handle. Word on the wind—”
He leapt out of bed altogether, naked as the day God made him. “I’ve had more trouble than you could know for these last sixteen years. But that’s over now, ‘cause you’ve come home.” With that he embraced me in the full-on, without a stitch from his Canada to his Mexico. He started to cry, and it was too much.
The whole damn experience felt like opening a dozen-year-old bottle of Lenoir, expecting an explosion of black currant and licorice but getting a mouthful of vinegar and dirt instead. I bolted.
Snatching up my saddle, the natural course of things found me rummaging around in the barn. If any place on the ranch had felt the least bit mine, it had been the barn. The exact opposite of the house, nothing had been moved—every dusty, old farm tool in the same damn spot. Just the way I’d organized it. The fingers of my left hand curled and twitched. I needed a dadgum cup of coffee.
The work bench was strewn with an assortment of leathers and check valves. Face muscles twitching, I swept them to the ground. Hefting a post driver, I smashed the bench I’d built when I was twelve—the year we relocated to the ranch and crushed my mother’s spirit. “I was just a boy, dammit!”
I clutched the driver with white knuckles, delivering another splintering blow to the brittle lumber. “You were her almighty, self-righteous husband. You selfish piece a…” My right eye twitched out of control. Lightning pulsed through my face and neck until the seizure forced me to drop the pipe and stumble to my knees, drunk and blind.
Helpless as a baby, I laid there in the dirt and writhed for untold minutes. When I came to, the air above me sparkled with motes as daylight sliced through unshuttered windows and two dozen jagged holes the size of rifle slugs. The truth burned the back of my eyes worse than any grand mal seizure. Not only had my piss poor father preserved the whole barn as a shrine to his failures, but he’d left off his maintenance weeks ago—before winter hit, and the war began.