over the bentonite. We didn’t know what we were doing, didn’t
know bentonite is a terrible carcinogen. We were hoping the
bentonite would waterproof the foundation, though with every
afternoon storm, thick clouds shouldering across the suddenly
bruise blue sky, the rain coming hard and fast, a gully washer,
muddy water still ran and pooled in the basement.
My mother had a contractor come in and pour a wide sidewalk around the foundation then, but that didn’t help either. The
contractor told us the only thing left to do was lift the house up
into the air and tear out the foundation and redo the whole thing.
We didn’t have the money for that. We shut the basement door.
Let it flood, hoped the walls would hold.
And the foundation was just one thing among many. We had
mice in all the closets, ants in the sugar drawer, mealworms
wriggling in the flour, millers and moths hatching eggs in the
ceiling. In the summer, our little air conditioner cooled maybe
a room and a half. In the winter, we rubbed our stinging eyes
and coughed as coal smoke rose through the vents. The kitchen
counters were knife-scarred and stained with co=ee and blood
and burnt sugar, the wallpaper in the bathroom peeled o= in
sheets. Yet through it all our old house weathered and stood. The
waters never rose high enough, I guess, and the stone below,
even broken, was stronger than it looked.
A Black Bird with
Snow-Covered Red Hills
To her they are always red hills,
even buried in snow.
She hears the earth coursing
red and brown and pink,
all the hidden melodies
beneath a white song.
The black bird,
linear and primitive,
fills most of the sky
above the low point
where two hills begin.
he is the center
of the world, black
on white. He has no idea.
I find the notes folded and bent to the curve of my back. They
must have slipped some time ago through this tear I have just
discovered in the left pocket of my old red-checked jacket. The
first is from a small pad, folded only once, right down the center,
and faded now to a rinsed sky blue; the other has been folded
many times and is nearly worn to nothing here and there along
Deep in the day’s cares and worries, finishing up graduate
school in a few weeks and on yet another plane to yet another
job interview — Baltimore, this time — I can’t make any sense of
the first. Masking tape and overshoes, it says. Stock salt. Steel posts.
Handsaw. Claw hammer. 10 inch frying pan. The script is my own,
I think, but the list is utterly unfamiliar. I don’t own a handsaw.
What’s this about stock salt? The second is just three names:
Donnie Laird. Clyde Brewer. Wade Kincheloe. I read it again. And
once more. These men were my father’s friends. They were, like
my father, hay farmers and sheep ranchers who drew their irrigation water from the Musselshell River. And, like my father,
all are dead. Yet my father died years before Wade or Donnie or
Clyde, which made him a kind of sad legend. And legends, with
their anecdotal lack of detail and good-hearted dishonesty, are
something less than real. Though I fished this jacket years ago
from the back of my father’s closet, though my shoulders now
fill the spaces his once filled—to me he has never been more
than some sad-eyed farmer’s beer-sour breath, the dusty photograph atop the front-room piano no one ever plays, my mother’s
Sunday morning tears.
Yet here, now, in my own two hands, are these lists: the very
things of a day, a season, a life. Was he on his way to Tractor Supply up in Billings? Or maybe the stockyards across the river? Did
my mother, still in her nightgown and patching once again his
old pair of overshoes with the last of the masking tape, remind
him all morning not to forget? Did he owe Clyde money? Or did
Donnie owe him? Were they all thinking of going in on some
rangy Wyoming sheep? Maybe signing up for a truckload of good
alfalfa hay? Was he just waiting for the irrigation water to roll to
the back fence, sitting at the kitchen table and sorting things out
with pen and paper and a cup of black co=ee, light rimming over
the far hills and trees?
I stare at the lists through takeo=. Rub my thumb along the
many creases, over the few still-sharp corners. The plane begins
to level. Bright, upswept clouds slide beneath us, alternately ob-
scuring and revealing the roads and rivers below. I trace carefully
the slanted letters, so strangely like my own. Then, just to feel
the syllables further, I say, out loud, “Clyde. Wade. Stock salt.”
The woman sitting next to me frowns. I say again, louder this
time, “Stock salt.” A