to your chin. You try to be as still as can be, as quiet as the sky.
You wait and wait, nearly holding your breath with stillness — until
slowly their bodies ease and their breaths slip and deepen, and
then you can relax, for they are asleep once more. They need
their sleep. They work hard. You understand that to be a boy here
in this bent-back, make-do world is to be a shadow, o= to the side
of things and out of the way. Though here, for a sunrise span of
minutes, you are the center of the unfolding universe.
Your father faces the wall, his broad back a sheer rising ridge,
his white t-shirt stretched thinly from thick shoulder to thick shoulder. With the tips of your fingers you feel now the tight, black curls
of his head, so unlike the dishwater mess you brush from your
own eyes. Oh, it is something to be this close to him, to touch him,
to breathe with your big-shouldered father. You breathe with him.
But you are more like your mother, you think, turning to look
at her soft, sleeping face. Not just your lank hair, but the way
she is facing you and is not ridges but hills and sweeping fields.
That’s how you feel on the inside. You feel like plain old hills, a
dry swath of bu=alo grass, like you can turn your back to nothing
and must face everything.
You aren’t worried about this. Not yet, at least. Your father’s
hair didn’t go dark and curl until he was in the Army. You’ve heard
the story many times, how he blames a shampoo his sister sent
him. It’ll be that way for you, too. It will happen, this alchemic
transition to manhood. You must be patient. Until then, you’ll
watch him. That’s what you do: watch things, think about things.
That’s how you’ll make your way through.
On the ceiling — it catches your eye, always — there is a pattern
of cracks and twisting water damage. It looks like some shovelheaded, bent-nosed man. You don’t like it, are scared of it, but
the accident of that grim face holds you. You can’t look away.
You stare and stare, and the man stares back. You are about to
squirm — to make a noise and wake your mother or your father
or both of them — when the first morning meadowlark calls, and
you can suddenly, thankfully look away.
You crane your neck to see out the window, to follow the bird’s
clear song: gauzy curtains lifting and filling, the green-silver
leaves of the plains cottonwood in the front yard rippling like
water. And beyond, the very sky coming alive — all blue and slate
and brightening smolder.
It was a summer country. Not because we didn’t have a winter, for
we had a long stretch of near-arctic time, from mid-October
through mid-April, when the sun stayed low in the sky and set in
the late afternoon and the temperature dropped in mere minutes
to negative twenty-three, the wind coming cold and hard from
the north and west. Everything under that wind weathered. Storms
drifted snow as high as our sheep shed, some twenty feet, though
in the days to come the wind would scour the drifts down again
to hard, dirty patches. The freeze then worked deep into the body
of the land itself. There was no use trying to dig a posthole or
even work a good throwing stone from the gravel. If a blizzard
was on the way, you cut your fences so your stock could keep
moving, might stay alive. If it was just bone cold, you stacked a
load of square bales on the back of a pickup and drove out to
winter range and called the sheep from the fields.
First thing in the morning Donnie Laird turns his welding rig
onto our road and comes raising a roostertail of dust fast down
the gravel and bangs on the screen door with his ham of a fist
and announces to my mother that he’ll go ahead and fix the boys’
The other Saturday I’d wanted to lower it so my brother and I
could dunk. My mother was at work, and I took the pickup keys
without permission and with the tailgate down backed over the
cement pad and up to the pole. I planned to stand in the pickup
bed and loosen the high screws and slip the hoop down the pole.
In the rearview mirror I aimed the truck and carefully tapped the
gas, but the truck fairly bucked beneath me and the wedge of the
tailgate slammed into the pole, which meant the new basketball
hoop and level cement pad we’d begged and begged our mother
for was just-like-that useless.