Authors: Ron Hansen
to Jim and Karen Shepard
His name was Atticus Cody. He was sixty-seven years old and a cattleman without cattle, the owner of six oil rigs and four hundred forty acres of high plains and sandhills in Antelope County, Colorado. And Atticus was on One Sock in December weather that was just above zero when he looked up at a coupling on his Lufkin oil jack and caught sight of two white suns in the gray winter sky. Weeds and sage were yellow against the snow and the snow strayed over the geography as though recalling how it was to be water. And just above the nodding horsehead pump were the sun and its exact copy, like the moons of another planet. One Sock champed on his wide spade bit and high-stepped up from a deep patch of snow but otherwise seemed unperplexed. Atticus squinted up at the suns and thought to himself,
You have lived sixty-seven years and now you have seen a sundog.
At five he did what he always did at five. Atticus cracked
the frail pane of ice on the horse-water tank and forked horse silage onto the fresh snow for Pepper and One Sock. He took off his yellow gloves in the tack room and shook chicken-flavored cornmeal into the house cat's tin bowl and watched as Skeezix softly crouched on the floor and crunched hard pellets of food. Crows were pecking at saltine crackers that he had crushed on the kitchen porch, and flits of snow were skewing under the fluttering yard light; and a yellow taxi was heading away from the front of his white two-story house.
Atticus hurried out and yelled, “Who's there?” but heard no reply. And by the time he got to the house porch, whoever it was had disappeared. Even his shoe prints were being winnowed away. Atticus replaced the green tarpaulin that had sagged off the gas tank and engine of his old Indian motorcycle, then he looked out at the night and a high plains landscape that was being gently simplified by the snow. His windburnt face was a cinnamon red, ice was on his gray mustache like candle wax, his fair blue eyes watered with cold. Atticus picked up the frozen Denver newspaper and opened the porch door without a key.
His forty-year-old son was sitting in his flight jacket on the green wingback chair inside, his hair bleached platinum and his handsome face tanned, just up from Mexico and grinning at his father's astonishment. Scott folded his hands behind his head and said with joy, “Merry Christmas!”
Atticus telephoned his firstborn son, but found out from Frank's wife that he was still at a budget-committee hearing at the Colorado state legislature.
“You'll have to face me alone then,” Scott said.
Atticus just smiled and fried pork chops and hash browns in an iron skillet while his son opened a chilled bottle of California wine. Atticus tore up some red lettuce for a salad and when he saw his son holding the fancy electric carving knife heard himself say, “Don't play with that.” Like he was fourteen. At supper Atticus talked pleasantly about family and farming and old friends who had died, the funny things that Frank's little Jennifer was saying these days, Frank's fine speech about responsibility and self-discipline to the Antelope Boys' Club, Frank's informed letter to the editor in
Oil and Gas Journal
, the new sixty-horse Ajax engine that Atticus and his older son had hauled onto one rig. Eating in silence, Scott took it all in like a hired hand, like he used to in high school when he treated their family suppers as his penance. And now he hardly spoke except to say when asked that he was house-sitting for friends in Quintana Roo on the Mexican Caribbean.
“ResurrecciÃ³n. Twenty miles south of CancÃºn. Eighteenth-century mission town tarted up for the tourists.”
“We got a Lutheran church here by that name. Resurrection.”
His son smiled with a familiar irritation. “You do always look for the local angle.”
Atticus folded his napkin as if his next question was one of indifference to him. “Who are these friends you're house-sitting for?”
“You want their names or their occupations?”
“Want to know if your judgment's improved since Key West.”
“That was one guy in a house of six people.”
“And he's in prison, isn't he.”
His son's stare was cold as he said, “Unfortunately, these friends are halfway criminal, too.”
“Can't say,” Scott said, but he was smirking like he did in the old days when he told his father that his friends were Communists or heroin addicts or fresh out of reform school.
Atticus let it pass. “Are you going to stay in Mexico?”
“Even after I've worn out my welcome.”
“Well, that'd be nice for us, just to know. You've moved fourteen times since you got outta college.”
Scott said nothing but only hunkered low over his dinner plate, tipping his fingerprinted wineglass by the stem.
“England. New York City. Key West. That farm up in Vermont. I got a whole page for you in my address book.”
“You left out the loony bin.”
Atticus took up his knife and fiercely trimmed the fat from his pork chop. Hirsch Clinic. Signs for the simplest things: T
. Hearing Scott tell his psychiatrist about his tries at suicide. Watching him teach finger painting. Hearing him inform his mother that the 503 on his hallway door was not an odd number, just an uneven one.
“Even today,” Atticus said. “We're half sick because we haven't heard from you, and you surprise us from outta the
blue when it was just as likely your older brother and I would have plans. You could of got a ride from Frank instead of hiring that taxi all that way. Was that a hundred dollars, or more?”
Scott held an affected white smile as he said, “I have this inheritance, you see. I have this fantastic trust fund that my father set up so he wouldn't go crazy with worry.”
“I'd just like to see you get settled someplace.”
“Well, I am.”
“Well, good.” Atticus pushed his dinner plate forward half a foot and carefully aligned his knife and fork across it. He had a flashback of Scott as a child in his high chair, chewing a cookie with great seriousness while he gazed out at the nothingness behind the kitchen window.
You wonder what he's thinking
, he'd said. “Writing poetry these days?”
“Nah. That was their idea.”
Their. Them. Confined twice now, for three months each time. Atticus thought of Scotty at eight, talking to himself about the picture he was sketching with crayons on a torn grocery sack. And at fourteen with his paints, Serena behind him and gently smiling, a hand as soft as sunshine in his hair. “Well then,” he asked. “Are you painting?”
, Dad. You've got one son who's a huge success that any father'd be proud of, and you've got one son who's a slacker and using up your hard-earned cash on just getting by from week to week. Hell, I'm forty years old. You oughta be used to me being a failure by now.”
Were Atticus to talk honestly, he thought, he'd say he was alone all the time and this was his son whom he loved and ached for, and heaven was where
was, and Atticus hated himself, as he always did, for insisting and teaching and holding up standards and seeming to want Scott to be him, when all he wanted was for Scott to be happy and to know he was loved and loved and loved. “Shall I change the subject?” he asked.
“Work it to death if you want.”
Skeezix was on the floor heating vent, his green-yellow eyes only slits, his white cat paws tucked primly underneath his chest, surrendering himself to pleasure. Atticus asked, “Would you like some coffee?”
“You have whiskey?”
Atticus sighed but got up.
Then Atticus sat in his green wingback chair with a biography of Eisenhower, and Scott drank whiskey from a water glass and lay against a sofa pillow with a paperback version of the
open atop his gray Stanford T-shirt, his blue eyes nailed to the page with just that look of thrill and passion that he always got as a child. Even though he was forty years old, his hard body seemed much younger than that, but his bleached hair was hinting darker roots and his skin was weathered as brown as sorghum from a half year in the Caribbean sun. Atticus was trying to find features of himself in the high ridge of his cheekbones, his tightly shut mouth, his squint and quiet and carpenter's hands, when Scott caught his fatherly gaze with a sidelong
glance and Atticus said, “Well, you appear pretty healthy.”
“Wild living hasn't caught up with me yet.”
“Are you still getting those headaches?”
“My head's all right.”
Atticus thought for a while and then offered, “I like this house a lot better with you in it.”
Atticus opened up his book again. Eisenhower was first assigned to San Antonio, Texas, after West Point and in 1916 married Mamie Doud, whose father owned a meatpacking company in Denver. Atticus looked up. “I forgot to say. You see the sundog when you were flying in?”
Scott dully considered him. “I have no idea what you're talking about.”
“You have just the right circumstances and a great big spot'll show up on the halo around the sun so it looks like you got two suns up there. Called a parhelion, if I got it right, the sundog is.”
“Huh.” Still flat on his back, Scott tilted whiskey into his mouth and put the glass on the floor.
“Well, it was a topic of conversation.”
“You do try. I have to hand it to ya.”
“Are we going to go on like this?”
“Me being your prying old man and you being my ornery juvenile delinquent.”
Scott held his hands behind his head and just stared at his father for a full minute. And then he said, “It's the flight. Culture shock. And frankly, there are those who'd
say my hostilities have been held in check pretty well.”
“But I have the benefit of knowing how you were brought up.”
Scott faced him like furniture. “What, then?”
Atticus looked away to Serena's piano and all the framed pictures on it. “Well, I'd be real interested to hear how you spend your days.”
“Nah, it's boring.”
“Even so, I'd kinda like to hear.”
“Wake up at ten or so, have coffee, walk to town for whatever mail there is and the English-language newspaper. Skin-dive or lift weights or jog on the beach. And then drinks and dinner out.”
“You didn't have to mention the drinking.”
“Ever think about getting a vice, Dad? You might find more tolerance for regular human beings.”
“I got vices.”
“Oh, right. You're addicted to order and cleanliness.”
Atticus sought out a change of subject. “So who are your friends in Mexico?”
“Drunkards and expatriates. Writers, artists, some ex-movie people, cancer patients hunting miracle cures. Half the Americans in ResurrecciÃ³n are just middle-class retirees who can finally afford servants.”
“You head down there for no particular reason?”
“No. I gave it some thought.”
And there was a pause until Atticus asked, “Are you getting back together with Renata?”