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Saw an Old Friend I Know

by Nels Hanson
 

By the time I made Salt Lake, I thought I’d done pretty well for an ailing man with marriage problems who was mourning the murder of a friend.

I’d driven for three days, alone, straight through from Nashville, with almost no alcohol. I had just one cocktail, a scotch and soda, before dinner in Omaha, then a beer with lunch at a Stuart Anderson’s in Denver.

No one had asked for an autograph, said they loved me, made a pass, taken a swing, asked me to kiss a baby, tried to show me a new song. I kept to the slow lane, letting the fast traffic go on and every now and then I saw the bumper sticker flash by—“Travis Jackson lives!”—and it made me feel good. No one had recognized me in any hotel, restaurant, 7-11, or gas station. I hadn't used credit cards, paying for everything in cash.

I enjoyed being alone, seeing the country again by myself, not having Jodie go on about my drinking or the Bushes, the constant harping about Travis. I liked the way the road just kept unspooling in front of me and all I had to do was follow where it led.

I realized what a cooped-up life I’d been living compared to my cow days in Nevada. I decided I would never really be balanced again unless I could get out in nature.

I liked the green corn land and red barns and white farmhouses and the hilly country with cattle grazing and now and then a red-headed cock pheasant flying up from cover to cross the highway, or a tan deer standing beyond the picket snow fence.

At a motel in Nebraska, I walked the parking lot, stretching my legs and watching the crimson sunset above the endless glowing cornfields of tall, pink-tasseled rows.

“It’s something, isn’t it?”

I turned and to my right a woman about 40, in jeans and a white blouse, studied the evening sky. I hadn’t noticed her standing there. She was leaning against a gray Honda Civic, smoking.

“It’s something,” I said.

“It makes me feel better, just looking.”

“It’s pretty,” I said.

I started to turn to go up to the room, when she asked, “You from around here?”

“No,” I said, “just traveling through.”

“I’ve lived here all my life and it still does something to me.”

“You live here, do you?”

“Not here,” she said, smiling, glancing over at the motel. “I’m visiting friends. They came to see my husband.”

“Oh.”

“He’s in the hospital.” She dropped the cigarette and ground it out with a shoe.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I hope he’s all right.”

“He’s been in before.” She looked up at the fading sky. Now the sun was down and the long cloud burned pink in the afterglow. “Heart.”

“That’s too bad,” I said.

“You on vacation?”

“I’m going to Nevada,” I said. “I’m meeting my wife.”

“Wendell liked Nevada. He liked to gamble.” Her face was lifted and I watched her profile against the coming night. Now the cornrows looked taller and darker.

“You married long?” I asked.

“Ten years.”

“Ten years.”

“It went by quick,” she said. She turned, smiling. “Like the sunset.”

“Well—”

“Have a safe trip,” she said. “Count your blessings.”

“I hope your husband feels better,” I said.

“We’ll see,” she said. “Good night.”

She got into her car. The taillights came on and she backed out and pulled away.


  

The next day, driving west, I thought of her, talking about her husband as she watched the setting sun.

The pass through the Rockies was the best, with those bare granite peaks, and every high blue lake like water caught in some giant’s raised hand. I made a mental note to rent a cabin up there sometime, as soon as I could, maybe when we’d finished the tour. I didn’t think there’d be snow yet. I could fish, and the mountains would be empty of people.

Jackson Hole, or Coeur d’Alene, maybe Kalispell, up in Montana on Flathead Lake. Or somewhere north of Sun Valley and Ketchum, those log cabins along the Salmon River. Or hell, even Aspen, if Jodie wanted to come.

I kept seeing her long-lost mother in her orange blouse and blue dress, the way she’d looked in a kind of wonder at the Nashville house.

From Denver, I’d called Missoula and talked to a Tom Riggins. I asked and he verified he was Jody’s brother, that indeed Melva was very much alive and on a train trip. Was she all right? I assured him that his mother was fine, at her request I’d served a cocktail and she had continued her tour of famous singing-star residences.

I said I’d been sorry to hear about his father’s recent death and he thanked me and said it had been a long time coming.

He was friendly and polite without being overawed by his rich and famous brother-in-law who’d had his picture taken with the President and First Lady. He hadn’t seen Jodie in 15 years, hadn’t heard from her in ten. He’d seen her on TV and had one of our albums.

Once or twice he’d got a call from a magazine reporter, but when he’d said he barely knew Jodie, the writer let it go. Montana was a long way to travel for a story about swimming lessons or the time Jodie made him a tuxedo for the prom. 

“Did she?” It impressed me, though I wasn’t that surprised. I felt a sudden wave of affection for her.

“She took good care of us,” Tom said. “I’ll give her that.”

I said we would have to get together and he said that he’d like to, that would be fine.

I decided I wouldn’t say anything to Jodie, that for now I’d keep her “dead” mother’s visit to myself. I’d have to wait for the right time to tell Jodie about her deceased father who now really was deceased, from cancer and not from the car wreck 20 years before that left him draped over a high oak limb—

After we’d straightened things out between us.

She had said Travis Jackson wasn’t real. It looked like for Jodie her mother and father weren’t either.

She was wrong on both counts. Travis was bound to answer his phone sooner or later, and Jodie’s dad might finally be dead but her mother was still thirsty and on the move. 


  
  

The overnight in Salt Lake was easy, no temptation. I went to bed at eight and got up early in the morning while it was still cool, for the last stretch across the desert to Reno.

I felt almost good again. Booze and too many people didn’t mix well with me. I didn’t feel I’d come off it too fast. I no longer felt the need to recall Travis Jackson every 15 minutes, see him galloping full out to rope a running calf or sitting his paint horse Cap against a sunset sky. I couldn’t pinpoint when the liquor had become a problem, except that it got worse after we split with Johnny Black, then worse still, with news of Johnny’s murder, his wife Marlene bursting into the make-up room on the Donnie Williams Show and throwing the wedding cake at Jodie.

“You murdered him!”


  
  

Jodie had been right, about mountain air and writing songs.

For a couple hundred miles I’d been humming to myself a new little fragment. It was about a cowboy Rip Van Winkle, a drunk, who wakes up one day and it’s 20 years later. Bits and pieces of the lyric were about to fall into place. I started to hum:

An empty bottle in the grass,
A ragged man who wakes at last—
The man sits up and sees
His beard all white and full of leaves,

But can’t remember February,
May or June, Jane or Mary,
If he’s been brave or lived a lie,

Been barber, baker, Indian chief,
If he’s been the law or just a thief,
A bad or good guy . . . .

I hardly noticed the Nevada line and the sad old billboards for gambling and girls, marriage and divorce. I was driving along, keeping the car in the lane, but completely into the song that was forming in my head, when five miles east of Wells the air conditioner on Jodie’s El Dorado gave out.

By the time I pulled into the Standard station in Wells, my shirt was soaked through. Right off the station mechanic knew me.

“You’re Buck Cole,” he said, pointing a finger. “Hey, you’re Buck Cole.”

It was hotter than hell, his uniform was drenched with sweat even with the big fan running over the lift, but we both laughed when we said together, “I’ve got all your albums.”

We shook hands.

“Raymond Welch. Here,” he said, gripping my arm, “sit over here. You don’t want to hang around the office, somebody’ll see you and bother you to death. Can I get you a Coke?”

“A Coke would be fine.”

Raymond opened the Coke machine with a key and handed me an icy can.

“What kinda problem you got, Buck?”

“Air conditioner—I don’t know if it’s a hose or something worse. I’ve got to get to Reno soon as I can.”

“I know.” Raymond nodded. “You’re playing Harrah’s. Let’s take a look at her. Keys in the car?”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

He drove the car into the garage, then stretched out on the fender with his head under the hood—he’d had to put out a blanket because the metal was so hot. The big clock thermometer on the wall read 105 and that was in the shade.

Raymond raised the car on the lift. He looked up, staring at a slow drip of oil from the motor.

“Leak here, Buck. These Caddies weep like somebody with a cold. Don’t worry, though, you can fix it in Reno.”

He shook his head regretfully, then pulled a slender flashlight from a side pocket, staring up into the bottom of the car.

“Shit, I wish I could see you at Harrah’s. Gotta go to Pocatello. Auto races. Runnin’ my own car.”

“Pocatello?”

“Sure. They got a nice track.”

“You know people up there?” I watched the soiled back of his shirt.

“My wife’s from there. I know a lot of folks.”

“You wouldn’t know a family named Riggins, would you? Melva, an older woman with three grown kids, a boy and two girls? The younger girl’s a nurse?”

Jodie had told me she’d grown up in Pocatello, that first morning at the ranch.

I waited as Welch squinted up at the motor.

“Riggins? No. My wife’s a nurse’s aide.” He shifted the flashlight, staring closer at something. “I might know ’em if we lived up there.”

He snicked off the light and quickly crossed over to the phone and dialed.

“Ray’s Chevron in Wells. I need a gasket and an A.C. release valve for a 2000 El Dorado.  Listen, this is for a friend, someone you know—Buck Cole, the singer? Jodie’s husband?”

He winked at me, then frowned.

“You sure? Well, you call back pronto, soon as you hear. Buck’s got to get to Reno.”

He hung up, wiping his hands on a blue rag.

“They’re gonna call me back. Factory part from Winnemucca. I can fix it if I get the right gasket. It’s complicated on some of these Caddies.”

“It’s my wife’s car. It’s been a real lemon.”

“Women get sentimental about their cars. Men do too, a’course, but it’s different. It’s more practical. Women buy cars for the color—you know, that sorta thing.”

“You mean women pick cars the way men pick women?” As I said it, I didn’t like the way it sounded.

“Yeah. But not Jodie, huh, Buck? She’s something.”

He patted my shoulder, as if he sensed I needed reassurance. I realized suddenly that I did.

“And so’s Travis.”

“Travis?” I turned sharply, staring at him.

“You know, you had me fooled, Buck.”

Welch smiled, returning my gaze.

“About Travis Jackson. I thought he was somebody you made up, you know, for the song? But then he came through, about a month ago.”

“Travis did?” I felt my heart race.

“We got to talking. He saw your poster in the office. He said he knew you from way back.”

“He did?”

“He said you guys talk on the phone all the time. Said you were going to help him with a couple of songs.”

“What’d he look like?” After Jodie’s mother’s surprise visit, I wasn’t sure about anybody.

“’Bout your height. Western clothes like yours. Seemed to know all about you.”

“What’d he say?”

“This and that. That he knew you, before you were Buck Cole—”

The phone rang. Welch hurried over to answer it.

“What’s going on up there?—yeah. How soon?—Buck’s sitting here waiting. Okay. Go ahead. Yeah, I’ll tell him.”

He hung up, shaking his head.

“They don’t have the part. They’ll have to call to Reno and have it sent express. Greyhound. It’ll take five or six hours.”

“That long?”

“If you give me the afternoon, I’ll work straight through dinner. You could leave tonight.”

He shook his head again.

“You believe people? The guy wanted me to tell you hi, that he likes ‘Secondhand Lace.’”

I put my Coke down on the workbench.

“Said to tell you he was sorry.”

“About the car?”

“Johnny Black. Like it was your fault—”

“You got a rest room key?”

“Right here, Buck.”

Welch handed me a key attached to a radiator hose.

“It’s just around that corner.”

In the stifling heat I stepped back from the urinal, washed my hands, and threw water on my face. There were no paper towels. I dried myself on toilet paper, picked off the wet pieces, and threw them in the trash. I stared into the mirror.

I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to sit around an empty motel room watching TV and smoking cigarettes, or a dark gambling parlor with people drinking early in the afternoon.
Someone would see me and I’d have to go anyway. I’d nearly forgotten about Johnny, though he’d only been dead a few days, shot with a flintlock at the hands of the rapper Eddie Rat. Marlene had told me after she threw the cake.

I was into the rhythm of the road, I had a new number in my head, and tonight I’d see Jodie again for the first time in a week.

I hadn’t been thinking about Travis since Salt Lake, much less of running into someone who knew him. This was Travis Jackson country, but for once I didn’t want to see him. I was doubtful the real Travis had talked with Ray.

I went back into the garage.

“Listen, Ray, I really appreciate your offer. If I weren’t in such a hurry I’d take you up on it. I’ve got to get to Reno by dark. Promised Jodie.”

“Man, you’ll die without air. You’d be crazy—”

“I’ll rent a car in Elko. You’ve been awfully nice. If you could just check the oil—”

“Okay. Hold on just a sec—”

He lowered the lift and pulled the dipstick.

“Looks fine. Listen, let me look one more time—Maybe I missed somethin’.”

He turned and picked up a wrench.

“It’s all right,” I said. “It’s not your fault. Don’t worry. I’ll come back through one day and we’ll have a beer together.”

“I don’t drink anymore.” He stood back, looking down wistfully at the engine. “I give it up, just like George W. Travis said you and the President were friends.”

“Well, whatever. We’ll have a Coke sometime.”

“Okay, Buck.”

Ray slammed down the hood and I pulled out my wallet.

“Thanks for all your help—”

He looked at me sadly. He knew I’d never stop by, that I’d forget him forever half a mile up the road.

Now I wanted to go, I’d begun to feel naked hanging around the garage. I tried to slip him 50 bucks for his time, but he wouldn’t take it.

“Hell no, Buck. Not for a buddy. It was an honor.”

“You sure? I appreciate it.”

“I know you do.” He shook my hand. “Don’t you worry about Johnny. I know you and Jodie wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

I put my sunglasses on and got into the car.

“Tell Jodie hello. Tell her my favorite’s ‘Blind Man’s Bluff.’ I love that song.”

“Will do.”

Raymond lifted an oily hand.

“So long, Buck. Stay cool.”

I waved and pulled quickly across the blacktop to the street.


  

But Raymond was right. It was hot. And I must have been crazy.

Forget all they tell you about dry heat. The desert air was broiling, hot-metal dry, hot as only the high desert plain can get hot in late summer.

I put the windows up, then hit the switch and rolled them down. The wind off the asphalt burned my arm and I pulled it back inside the car. The air clung close to my face, like a mask. It was hard to breathe.

The reflected light from the white alkali flats hurt my eyes through the dark glasses.

Jodie had told me the sunglasses weren’t dark enough and she was right. Five-hundred dollars for prescription lenses that didn’t work. Every five or six miles there was a van or pickup pulled off on the shoulder with its hood up, and I had to look away from the bright chrome.

Out on the flats it must have been 110, maybe 112. My face felt swollen and I had a headache. My boots had sweated through, I was sitting in sweat. I’d taken off my watch and the gold chain Jodie had given me. It burned my neck.

It didn’t help that I was wearing black hat, shirt, and slacks. That was my trademark, it was Jodie’s idea. I’d got used to it, wore black all the time like someone lost in perpetual mourning.

For who?

The old Jodie or Travis Jackson?

I imagined the hatband of silver dollars made a fiery halo. I kept going to the thermos of fruit juice and the six-pack of 7-Up in the ice chest. I’d been drinking orange juice and taking vitamin C all the way from Tennessee.

But now I began to get antsy.

I lit a cigarette but it made my mouth taste like hot iron and I stubbed it out. I flipped on the radio and caught the last third of “Current of Love,” Jodie and me telling each other how the swift river would drown us or sweep us out to sea.

I’d been avoiding the radio and tape player on the trip. I needed quiet, time to think, a part of me was all musicked out. Or had been, until the little melody with a few tag lines of lyric had popped into my head.

I couldn’t remember them now, the song about the drunk cowboy, sleeping his life away. Something about “Current of Love” irritated me. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something wasn’t right, Jodie and I sounded like we were singing two different songs.

I turned it off and tried to look straight ahead, ignoring the mileage signs that crawled up and flashed by.

I didn’t stop at Elko to rent a car. I didn’t want to get off the highway. Elko, Battle Mountain, Winnemucca. I was determined to get to Reno by sundown. Sober and intact. The words kept running through my mind. Sober and intact.

“I give it up,” Raymond had said, “just like George W.”


  
  

About four I began to recognize the rising hills and make out the mountains before Reno in the distance. Past the heat haze and mirage, they looked clear, dark, cool, and shadowed. The lines in their flanks were the creases of arroyos where cottonwoods grew.

I was close now, getting closer all the time. “Almost there,” as Jodie would say when I’d show her a draft of a song. She’d said it that first night at the ranch, when she’d changed the title to “Travis Jackson,” after she’d found his name on a livestock receipt.

As a gift to myself, I decided to stop in Lovelock and have a cold beer, just one, before I went on into Reno and met Jodie at Harrah’s. Lovelock was only another 50 miles.

Twenty miles up the road—two trees and a stalled motor home had gone by—it hit me, just like that. As if I’d been bit, or stung by a wasp that had hit my arm, gone down my open shirt and struck my chest.

When lightning strikes
And your heart starts to burn
Then your world catches fire
And there’s nowhere to turn—

I wasn’t going to make it—

Sure you will, no sweat, Buck, I whispered to myself, but I didn’t believe it.

I gritted my teeth, clamping my jaw tight.

I gripped the wheel hard with both hands.

I sped up, floorboarding the pedal, then slowed down again. I couldn’t believe it was happening. The worst was over, I was nearly home.

I tried the radio, a different channel, got “Blind Man’s Bluff” and switched it off. Then I turned it on but the song was over.

I sang “Secondhand Lace.” I even prayed.

“Please, God, help me,” I said out loud.

For a second I shut my eyes, saying the prayer Bush had made me repeat over the phone a few weeks before:

“Help me stop. Help me not need this. Please, God, take the pain away. Thank you. Amen.”

The car started to drift to the shoulder and I opened my eyes, swerving back onto the pavement.

None of it did any good.

Maybe you know what I’m describing. If you don’t, God bless you, there’s no way to explain, you’ll have to ask the President.

I had to have a drink, right now, right this second, before the next moment came. The way a junkie needs his dope, even if he’s without and alone on Mt. Everest.

I’d have chartered a submarine and one of those deep-sea robots with mechanical arms if someone told me the last bottle on Earth was intact on the Titanic.

Once I thought I was on the wrong side of the interstate, that I was driving away from Reno instead of toward it.

I looked in the rearview mirror and saw George Bush and his wife wearing the hats and cowboy shirts we’d given them, then my parents alive and staring at me, then Jodie and a shadowed lover in shifting black and white, all three scenes in half a second.

I looked away before the dark-haired man could turn from Jodie’s arms and look at me.

An exit sign came up, out of nowhere, shining like an invitation to an oasis. Friendly palms would shade a turquoise pool set off by greenery from the burning winds and blowing sand.

Dry Creek Road
Black Mountain

I hit the signal a quarter mile early and at the ramp turned off the highway.

Until I’d seen the sign, I’d been turned around, begun to lose all track of where I was. I might have been crossing a desert on Mars, toward the waiting spacecraft that had blasted off years before when my crew panicked and decided I was dead. My white bones would lie forever in the swirling red dust.


  
  

I’d been thinking about the drink, a tall whiskey with ice and fresh crushed mint and a little sugar. Or vodka straight. Scotch. A simple Coors. It didn’t matter. That’s what really drew my attention to the sign.

But after I got off the freeway onto the two-lane road I felt calmer.

I slowed as I drove the narrow welted asphalt with the dim wavy line, through purple and silver sage and red-barked mesquite, past big flattened blue tumbleweeds where they’d blown and caught in the fence’s sagging strands of barbed wire.

To the west I watched the long graph of Sierras with snow in the peaks’ granite hollows, in the far distance I saw the broad cone of Jenny Lind, then turned, as if someone were calling at my shoulder, and studied the brown bare mountains to the southeast.

At a crossroads, I saw an old Aero Motor windmill with a big rusty rudder and missing vanes like dropped teeth. A faded tire tube hung halfway up the angle-iron framework.

I left the pavement and headed due east, up the white gravel that rose straight into the dun hills.

On the higher, darker mountains ahead there were big spike-leaved yucca with ten-foot stalks of dried blooms, and above the yucca the first jack pines with black twisting trunks and smoky bunches of needles. Up a rugged slope of jutting red boulders, at the crest, grew a stand of what looked like Douglas fir.

I sensed water ahead, a sudden random vein of coolness in the hot air at my window. I straightened my arm to it, spreading my hand to feel the different wind. Mountain air.

Now the sky above the ridges looked closer and bluer, that stripped clearer watery blue that comes in later September, sharpening the yellow of cottonwood leaves that had set Jodie’s pretty face in profile.

The bad was gone now, each second falling farther behind me in the lengthening past. Time was distance. I was 30 miles better from half an hour ago.

I was on the right road, a road I knew.

When I lived outside Waverly—before I’d found Jodie stranded beside the road that day Slim Frye had let her out and we’d started singing and gone back to Nashville—in the spring I delivered cattle to Travis and in the fall I picked them up. For a while we’d nearly become partners—together we chose the stock, I paid and carried the paper, he fattened the cows, and I sold them.

We split 50-50. 

More than business associates, Travis and I had been good friends. When we made a deal, we’d always shake hands, then have a drink and talk. If we were up at his ranch, he’d invite me in to sign the papers and have a drink.

He’d walk into the shade by the turning swamp cooler to pick leaves off blue-flowered peppermint before we climbed the steps to the porch.

We’d talk about cattle and horses, wild game, Indians, the pioneers, sourdoughs and homesteaders. He’d take down the old gun and let me feel its heavy weight and how it must have roared and kicked with blue stinging smoke when you raised the sight and fired 200 yards at a six-foot buffalo.

Travis was an eighth Indian, his people had been early settlers, his great-grandfather had come out with the Gold Rush, gone bust, then turned inland and started ranching.

As least that’s how I remembered it.

I hadn’t seen Travis since just before I’d met Jodie, before I’d moved away and made a success of the music. I’d talked to him ten days ago—before Jodie grabbed the phone and said it wasn’t Travis, she’d call the President and the FBI—about Tex the cowboy roping from the saddled steer, but a call wasn’t the same as getting together.

“That’s Red Stampley, Buck! He’s just out of the nut house!”

Right now, under welcoming familiar skies, hopeful and unafraid in God’s Big Country, I could hear Jodie and me arguing: 

“You used to like my stories about ranching. You said they were romantic, the Old West—”

“They stopped being romantic when you started drinking again.”

“I didn’t start drinking—I never stopped.”

“That’s the kind of thing I mean—You think that’s funny—”

“Travis was a friend. We did business, but we were friends.”

“Goddamn it, Buck, I don’t want to hear about him!”

Jodie didn’t even know Travis, she’d never met him and insisted that he was make-believe, but she always got edgy when I brought him up, even in passing, though the song with his name had made us famous.

Sometimes I’d wondered if she were jealous of Travis and me, of our friendship, or maybe thought he was a link to previous women and wild Nevada goings-on. She connected him with my drinking and regrets about leaving the ranch, and she was partly right.

Off and on for a year, usually during an argument on a bad hangover day, I’d promised Jodie to drop both Travis and the liquor. 

But Travis had been on my mind more often the last month, both before and after Johnny Black got shot and Red, Johnny’s pedal steel player, had the breakdown, imagined he was Roy Rogers and General Patton and a raft of other people.

I’d been lonely for Travis, for a real friend who didn’t style his hair or check the mirror or the Top 40 list twice a minute, someone different from the music people and paid help, people like Slim Frye and Donny Williams and Jerry, Jodie’s spy at the recording studio where she’d thrown the phone against the floor when Travis called.

Now I’d see him again, for the first time in a couple of years. I wasn’t panicky anymore, I felt solid. I was still thirsty, but good thirsty.

And Reno and Harrah’s were only an hour to the west.


  
  

As the miles went by and I didn’t meet any pickup or car—just patchy brown stubble, the white road, bare blue cloudless sky, now and then a turkey buzzard or golden eagle or red-tailed hawk high up below the white half moon—I remembered something that had slipped my mind.

About six months ago—I couldn’t remember exactly when—I’d talked to Terry Riley on the phone. He said he was calling from the Branding Iron, in Waverly.

He’d told me Travis and his wife had split up, after a long, messy two years.

Again, it was a blur, I’d been drinking, but that’s the way I’d heard it. I’d told Johnny Black in the bar in Phoenix, the day he said he was working now for Columbia Records scouting new talent, so it must have been longer ago than six months. Travis had never mentioned the break and I’d never brought it up when he phoned me.

“You saw Travis?” Johnny asked with surprise.

“No, not for a while.”

“Well,” Johnny said, grinning, “if you ever see old Travis, tell him Marlene and Johnny said hello!”

I’d known Travis Jackson had a wife but I’d never met her.

He’d never mentioned any marital problems but then he probably wouldn’t, that was private business, and private talk wasn’t his style, he’d been brought up to carry his own water.

If a bluebird like a flying chip of larkspur landed in the March cottonwood, you found a good brown-obsidian arrowhead, the blizzard let up for half a day, the white corn had firm kernels and tasted sweet, you caught the garden’s outlaw gopher, like a champ the old truck started the first try, or the water ran quick down the new-plowed ditch, there was more than reason to grin.

Now I vaguely recalled that each time I was at the ranch Travis’ wife was in town on an errand, or visiting her sister in Fallon. I think once she was asleep in the house and that’s why Travis got us some chairs and we sat in the yard under his big cottonwood.

I remembered that was the way it went.

What was her name? Abby? Addie? I’d forgotten. One time he’d mentioned her name over the phone.

As I watched the land rise, I knew from experience how tough a break-up could be. However much relief you felt at a bad thing ending, you could get awfully lonely until you had something better or even fair-to-middling to take its place.

For me, music, songwriting, had been the lifesaver, until Jodie came back and we headed out toward Denver.

It had been touch and go and toward the end I was free-falling with no net to catch me. I might have hit hard if Jodie hadn’t appeared at the ranch on Christmas Day in white buckskin and the white Cadillac I was driving now.

I wondered what Travis had to lean on.

The world wouldn’t care—People or Hard Copy wouldn’t run news of his divorce, unless by some far chance a stringer ran across his name in the legal listings of the Waverly paper and connected him with me and Nevada and the famous song.

No president’s wife would drop him a kind note.

I thought he would be glad to see me, not jealous but pleased about my good fortune, if it was good or fortune.

Raymond Welch in Wells had seen Travis Jackson and talked to him at length, about how Travis and I were such buddies and Travis wanted to see me, he wanted help with some songs he’d written.

That seemed fair. I didn’t care if he could write a lyric or not.

After all, he’d probably heard his name sung all over the radio for two years and I hadn’t even asked his permission when Jodie had changed the song’s name.

He’d never asked for a favor, unlike the majority of the people I met. Maybe I could sing one he wrote.

Hell, this winter when his stock was sold, maybe he could come out with us on the road for a month.

I couldn’t believe I’d been ready to drive on and not stop in to see him, before the whiskey bug bit me. We’d talk about old times and the new, better times ahead, for both of us.

After all, Jodie and I still weren’t on easy street.

If she wanted to get along, she’d have to give Travis some slack.

I’d forgotten how far Travis’ place was into the mountains. In the old days it had seemed like nothing, driving 40 or 50 miles of unpaved road. I sped up, the gravel louder, hitting up in the wheel wells.

I reached in the ice chest and felt around for a full can till my hand ached, then found one and pulled it out.

I drank my last 7-Up as I looked out at the vast distance of sagebrush and sparse salt grass and every quarter mile what looked like a juniper stunted to a bush. I lifted my sunglasses for a moment.

Everything was bone dry. What grass there was was almost white. It seemed hotter again. The taller mountains had pulled back and away, they were farther than I’d thought, the ground had returned to desert.

I could understand how it might get lonely for a woman, living isolated, way off in the hills with no neighbors or friends, no store or place to go. The cold winters and hot summers were long and the spring and fall short.

Then I remembered Travis’ wife. Her name was Jolene, like the Dolly Parton song. I was sure that was it. That’s what Terry Riley had called her, when he’d phoned about Travis’ divorce.


  

The road ran up a sharp incline and from the top again I recognized the changing country. There was that one bad stretch that had always turned me around so I’d think I was going backwards.

Right away I could make out my landmark.

At the dead cottonwood with a bleached-out rag hanging from one limb—Travis had tied it there so visitors could find his road their first time—I pulled off the gravel onto a winding dirt road, following the dry creek that switched back and forth through the hills.

Along the creek there was greenery, real bushes whose roots drank groundwater and lived off more than dry, light snows and rare desert rain. I rounded the second bend and the branches leaned across the road toward the hillside. Buckeye and long leafy willow boughs that smelled of menthol slid along the car.

I took the wheel with both hands. In places the pot-holed stony dirt was the creek, where the spring snowmelt had overflowed the banks and run up against the hillside.

Something with brown fur darted through the low shade ahead as a grouse flew up and whirred flashing pale underwings.

I kept cranking the wheel, dodging the deeper hollows.

More than once I tensed as the Caddie scraped bottom with a long dragging grate and I worried I’d torn the pan. I craned my neck, squinting up at a cliffside of green rock sheets like smooth jade that glinted in the sun.

The road leveled as the arroyo opened out. It was rangeland again but with better grass and a thousand feet higher. The creek and a line of willows veered off to the north across the little valley. I saw pines on the close ridges that angled down nearly vertical.

I figured I was 40 miles in from the interstate.

For a minute, I worried there were two dead cottonwoods, that some kid or joker had switched the rag and I hadn’t gone far enough down the gravel road.

There were many dry streams, the country looked the same for a hundred square miles. I didn’t know how far to go on before I should stop and turn around.

I yearned to see the line of cottonwoods along the pure creek where it rose and ran for a mile, before it disappeared.

Like mine, his place had an underground river. You could swim down through the opening in the rock, stroke a yard or two against the strong current and see the gold pyrite, the fool’s gold, sparkle in the stone tunnel.

Come farther.

Jodie’s gone.

The water whispered things—

And then the road made the familiar wide swing around a smooth, soft-looking bluff and down below—all green and spread out like a picture with the river running through it—lay Travis Jackson’s ranch.

  
  

Nels Hanson grew up on a small farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California and has worked as a farmer, teacher, and writer/editor. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz and the U of Montana and his fiction received the San Francisco Foundation's James D. Phelan Award. His stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Long Story, Short Story, Starry Night Review, and other journals.
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