Authors: Bonnie Nadzam
Also by Bonnie Nadzam
Love in the Anthropocene
(with Dale Jamieson)
Copyright Â© 2016 by Bonnie Nadzam
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters, and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or localities is entirely coincidental.
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Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America
First published by Grove Atlantic, July 2016
an imprint of Grove Atlantic
154 West 14th Street
New York, NY 10011
Distributed by Publishers Group West
For my father, Jeffrey Thomas Nadzam,
and for all the good men who do good work
If you've ever really loved anyone, you know there's a ghost in everything. Once you see it, you see it everywhere. It looks out at you from the stillness of a rail-backed chair. From the old 1952 Massey-Harris Pony tractor out front, its once shining red metal now a rust-splotched pink, headlights broken off. No eyes.
Picture high plains in late spring. Green rows of winter wheat combed across the flat, wide-open ground. The derelict sugar beet factory, its thousands of red bricks fenced in by chain-link clotted with Russian thistle. Farther down the two-lane highway, the moon rising like an egg over the hollow grain elevator, rusted at its seams. To the north and west, the sparsely populated town. Golden rectangles of a few lit windows floating above the plain.
They called it Lions, a name meant to stand in for disappointment with the wild invention and unreasonable hope by which it had been first imagined, then sought and spuriously claimed. There were never any lions. In fact there is nothing more to the place now than a hard rind of shimmering dirt and grass. The wind scours it constantly, scrubbing the sage and sweeping out all the deserted buildings and weathered homes, clearing out those that aren't already bare. Flat as hell's basement and empty as the boundless sky above it. The horizon makes as clean and slight a curve as if lathed by a master craftsman. Nothing is hidden.
It's said that in naming the place after a dream from which they refused to awaken, the people of Lions put a curse upon themselves as much as on the town itselfâone that finally ripened the summer a man and his dog came walking into town along the bar ditch from God knew where, his dark clothes blowing like robes in the wind.
He must have been from up north, people said.
Circled around on foot over the buttes, then hit the highway and came in as if he were from the east.
Didn't want anyone to know where he was from, they said. Or what he was doing.
They say that later that night, when Chuck Garcia, the county sheriff, asked him who he was, this man could give no answer. No name, no ID, and a shrug of his shoulders. They say he was gaunt, his face oddly shadowed, and that even though by the gray in his hair and the stoop of his shoulders they guessed him to be fifty, fifty-five years old, he had not a line in his face, nor any light in his eyes, which were black as seeds.
They say that just after this man stopped at the Walkers', John Walker practically keeled over dead where he stood, and Georgianna, his beloved wife of thirty-five years, all but evaporated from the kitchen at the back of the house, so distant and unearthly did she seem to become. They say that Gordon, their son, left alone to pick up the pieces and carry on his father's work, was doomed.
Leigh Ransom, who was seventeen when what seemed like the perfect summer began, had known something like this was coming. Close as she was to the Walkers, she of course knew the details of John Walker's own father suddenly dying, years ago, and could have predicted something similar would happen to John himself. There were patterns to things, especially in places like Lions. Especially when you were talking about the Walkers. So when she saw the silent ambulance lights from her bedroom that night, she knew whom they'd come for. She knew what was beginning to unfold. She could picture it all: the faded periwinkles on Georgianna's cotton nightgown as John woke beside her in a nauseated sweat; the runny moonlight in their bedroom, shadows of the framed window printed slantwise across the old hardwood floor; John Walker's hand, cold and damp, suddenly clenching the top of Georgianna's thigh beneath the sheets; his swayingâhe missed a step, then anotherâand their dance together down the narrow staircase to the front door, where he fell on the tile in his T-shirt and underwear, his blue jeans draped over her arm.
And if anybody had asked her that night, Leigh could have described everything that would happen to Gordon in the days ahead, as a result. How in the Burnsville clinic the next morning, the nurse would fold her hands at her wide belly, the toes of her white tennis shoes pointed outward, her hair cut in a smooth iron gray helmet, her blue eyes dull and bloodshot. Outside the windows, a violet green swallow piping in one of the landscaped trees. Inside, computers and medical devices clicking, hushed voices drifting and gathering around the triage station. Rubber-bottomed safety shoes squeaking on the polished floor.
Gordon would stand in the clinic hallway holding a white paper takeout bag from the diner in Lions as the floor tilted and the door to his father's room contracted into a small rectangle as if suddenly drawn some immeasurable distance away.
“You'll want to say your good-byes,” the nurse would tell him and Georgianna in an even voice. “I am so sorry. He's not likely to regain consciousness.”
But when Gordon was alone with him later that hour, that's exactly what his father would do, making a low hum in the back of his throat, clearing it to speak, as he opened his eyes. He'd speak slowly, interrupted with long periods of silence, between cycles of the ventilator. Clear fluid in the IV bag shimmering in the gray light. The electrocardiography machine beeping at regular intervals.
“Write this down,” John Walker would say, reciting the instructions by heart as Gordon took notes on the back of a Gas & Grocer receipt in his wallet, then describing the task he was asking his son to perform. Afterward he would pause, looking out the window from his bed at the silver poplar. “You can say no, Gordon. But this has been my life's work. And one way or another, it will be yours.”
Here was a master of his craft who built a first-class weld servicing facility, who spent ten hours of every workday in his shop, whom Leigh had heard people say could outweld even the Hobart and Lincoln Electric sales engineers working the region, who was famous in eastern Colorado for his skill and precision, but who was calling his life's work this odd errand out of town to deliver canned food, blankets, candles, batteries, and firewood to somebody up north.
“Don't speed,” he'd tell Gordon. “Don't look for shortcuts. If you find you've made a wrong turn, go back to the place where you went astray and start again from there. Remember when you're up there that I ran the same errand myself for thirty-five years, and was never the worse for it. Whatever you might hear to the contrary.”
And Gordon would know what his father meantâwhat people sometimes said of John Walker, of the Walker men before him, and what they would come to say of Gordon. He'd know what his father's request would do to his life, the one he thought he'd have, the one he was on the edge of taking up in his hands that summer, the one with her. They were going to leave. But as Gordon stood there in the hospital room looking down at his father, neither the rumors, his plans, nor the cost of ignoring them would matter.
And so from that first night and all through the summer as Leigh walked from her mother's diner to her bedroom to the empty factory to the Walkers' house and back again, the sun broiling her neck and the top of her head, waiting for Gordon to reappear after an absence of a week or three nights or five, she tried to understand how these Walkers, who lived so small, and had seemed so good, ended up at the heart of a story like this one.
Story goes, when the man and his dog came down off the edge of the highway into town, they crossed the unpaved frontage road and stepped over the fallen fence posts toward a little white houseâthe Walkers'.
He stopped next to the frame of a rusted old tomato-red Bronco someone had dropped off for Gordon or John to clean up and repair, but had never returned to claim. A hundred feet from the house was the Walkers' shop, its windows open to the narrow county road where the Gas & Grocer had stood sixty-one years, and next door to that, May and Leigh Ransom's little place.
It was just barely twilight. The man stooped and scratched the dog behind the ears and spoke to her, looking out over what he could see of town. From the slight inclination of the plain, it must have appeared a shipwreck awash in grassâthe old splintered homesteads half sunk in dirt, the small crush of lights in the distance from the diner and the bar where anyone still surviving had gathered together to ride out the coming night.
He circled around the Walkers' weld shopâa combination pole barn and Quonset hut surrounded by neat piles of scrap metal and corrugated steel. It was filled with pretty fine machinery and tools for repairing broken farm equipment and assembling hog fencing. In various forms, the shop belonged to John Walker, his father, William, grandfather Charles, and another two Johns, before them, the first opening his doors primarily as a wheelwright in the nineteenth century right around the time Lions was founded. So did Gordon's paternal grandfathers reach back in the history of the county as agricultural equipment innovators and repairmen. They had never been cowboys, they had never been hunters or trappers, they had never been traders or soldiers, and they had never been farmersânot even in the days when it seemed every man west of the 90th meridian was some combination of them all. They had long been the only metalworkers in the region, as far back as living memory went, and always with expertise far beyond the meager needs of the county.
John Walker in particular was a masterful and efficient welder, with skill in proportion to his oddness. If there was a wildfire in the foothills or in the mountains, he knew it first. If it was going to rain in a day's time, he had already tacked down the tarps over the hay at Dock Sterling's place, before Dock himself could see to it. His neighbors mistook for queer perspicacity what was in fact great attention, and what his wife called serious love.
The Walkers were strange like that, they said. Hard to figure.
But good guys. Reliable.
Heck. John'd do anything for you.
They'd all raise their glasses to that.
But no common sense, they agreed, and the men shook their heads. The womenâheavy around the middle, slender gold crosses around their necks, and hair colored from boxes of dye they bought at the grocery store in Burnsvilleâall looked away, out the window to the empty street and storefronts that made up the single block of downtown. The mute television hanging over the bar flashed a commercial for car insurance.
As if the man had no interest in money, someone said.
They were all like that, someone said. All the Walkers.
For example, decades before it was common practice, Gordon's great-grandfather fashioned a manner of swather out of scrap. It cut the grain and laid it on the ground in windrows, allowing it to dry before harvest. It was by this invention that Lions finally for a brief uncharacteristically rainy decade seemed to promise a little prosperity. This great-grandfather Charles never thought of patenting the swather, however, so never profited by it in any worldly sense. He'd bent over the metal with some design in mind, to help a neighbor who was a distant cousin on his wife's side, and considered a more efficient harvest payment enough. Sons and daughters of those neighboring farmers whom he helped accumulate a little wealth soon moved on to Denver, Salt Lake, Phoenix, and San Diego, where their great-grandsons and -granddaughters now live in flat-faced stucco houses on smooth, curved streets that you will discover, if you are a careful student of cartography, loop into the interstates and highways in broad, swooping, endless circles.
If what this New World offered was boundless opportunity for material wealthâreward for ambition and gritâthen it really was a mystery why any of the Walkers came to the continent in the first place. Of course there may have been some exchange of perishable goods for the rudimentary swather: a season's worth of fresh eggs, or clay jars of alfalfa honey, or plums or cherries, which every few summers grew with an abundance the early farmers could neither predict nor control, and which were otherwise impossible to come by. Some thingsâcarrots, potatoes, turnipsâyou could keep in ten-gallon buckets of cold sand in a dirt cellar straight through the winter, but fresh fruit was rare. Gordon's grandmother, if left alone for an afternoon, might be discovered beneath the warty hackberry tree, her kitchen work and laundry left undone, indolently eating a lapful of plums, one after another, sticky pink juice running down her chin and neck and wrists and forearms, flyaway dark hair standing out in a frayed and sweaty halo around her face.
Look, she would say, I love these plums. And love is never idle.
The Walkers' was the first house the man on the highway would have seen when he dipped down onto the frontage road at the exit to town. Perhaps it was only because of this that he felt welcomed by the small, tidy home and crossed the weeds and clipped grass to the back door.
Perhaps it was that simple.
Georgianna Walker was ready for him with a mug of hot black coffee. Her long, gray hair was parted in the middle and pinned up behind her ears in tin barrettes, her face scrubbed clean.
“All out of change,” the man said, putting his hands up.
“Please.” She extended the cup to the stranger, and when he took it, she ushered him inside and pulled out a kitchen chair. “You're just in time for dinner. Scrambled eggs, buttered toast, and cocoa sound good?”
He checked her face and she nodded and smiled. He sat down. “Almost a warm spring night,” he said.
“We're getting there. Couple weeks it'll be hotter than we can stand.”
“That's a good-looking dog,” John Walker said coming out of the living room, grinning, his finger holding the place in a paperback. “What's its name?”
The man looked across the room at him. “That's my Sadie.”
“Come a long way together?”
“All the way together.”
“Will she eat eggs?”
“We'd both eat eggs.”
John set the paperback open, facedown, on a shelf beside the pantry door.
“Good story?” the man asked.
John smiled. “Old cowboy book my dad used to read.” He picked it back up and turned the cover to show the visitor. It featured a man on horseback in a long yellow linen duster. The horse was black with a fiery red eye, and rearing on its back legs. In the distance, a snake behind a sage bush, and a woman in a turquoise dress pouring off her shoulders like water.
Both men laughed.
“I don't know that one,” the man said.
John had a hundred more with covers just like it: a bearded man crouched in a mountain stream and panning for gold, an outlaw with a red bandanna tied over his face and a pistol in hand, creeping up from behind; a shoot-out in a dusty street; a magnificent cowboy on horseback draped in curtains of blue snow, long ribbons of the dark and wild mane of his dark and wild horse whipping sideways in a glacial wind.
Georgianna took out the eggs, milk, and bread, while John led the man upstairs to the shower and found him an old pair of coveralls carefully patched with scrap denim. Dressed in the borrowed clothes while the washing machine churned his dirty onesâGeorgianna had given him no choice in the matterâthe man sat back in his kitchen chair. Neither John nor Georgianna asked anything of him, not his name and not a story, nor did the man offer anything.
All of this Chuck relayed weeks later at the bar, and the report made the men and women shake their heads.
The Walkers, God.
“You didn't ask him anything? Who he was? Where he was from?” Chuck inquired of John the evening after the stranger disappeared. He wrapped his fingers around the warm coffee mug and leaned forward in the kitchen chair. Georgianna set a thick slice of yellow pound cake before him.
John shrugged. “He needed a shower and a meal.”
Chuck smiled at his old neighbor and cut into the cake with his fork. “Well. At least you didn't keep him.”
“He said he couldn't stay.”
Can you imagine?
Bringing a man off the highway like that into your home?
With your wife and son?
He could've been sick.
He could've been on the run.
It's a nice enough impulse but my God. You got to be more careful than that these days.
Could've been a thief, a drunk, or worse.
Could've been a foreigner.
like a foreigner.
Anything could have happened.
They tsked, they looked at each other with faces of wonder. They never could understand John Walker or what seemed to be his lifetime of poor decision making. The backward code he seemed to live and work byâhis entrepreneurial failure somehow as perpetual as it was absolute. It was as if each of the Walkers in his time was choosing again and again, every morning in his workshirt with his first cup of coffee, to fail. They worked for free, or seemed to; they forgot or neglected to bill their neighbors; they worked so many hours a day, but scarcely profited by it at all.
What other, secret work did these Walkers live on?
People wondered. People talked.
John Walker. Just look at the guy.
That long, lean frame, the patched workshirt, the steel-toed boots. And that look in his eye, as if he had seen right behind your face and into the inner workings of your brain and had decided, upon seeing everything there was to see about you, to say nothing. A nod of the head.
And Gordon. Did you ever see a more serious eighteen-year-old?
Works harder than three grown men put together.
Abnormal, tell you what.
Yeah but he's got Leigh Ransom's attention.
A knowing look, a groan.
In such a small town she seemed a great beauty, her hair long and brownish gold and tumbling over her shoulders and down her back the way the g and the h fell with bulky grace through the letters of her name.
Gordon must be hung like a bull, someone said.
That girl is vain about her hair.
All women are vain about their hair.
And then there was John Walker's regular disappearance out of town, presumably to tend remote customers up near Three Bells or Horses, customers who, if they really existed, were probably not paying him for his work, either.
Walkers used to run a farrier service out of their old trucks, someone remembered.
Yeah, but no one up north has horses anymore.
No one up there has anything anymore.
Nothing up there but an old gas station. Used to belong to that Indian guy with no teeth.
Gerald. But he wasn't an Indian. He'd make you an RC with whiskey.
Sharp as a tack.
Whatever happened to him?
Well anyway, gone now. Nothing and no one up there.
See then? Walker's visiting Boggs. Got to be.
So had they sometimes jokingly cast John Walker as the unlucky Good Samaritan of local legend in which a man and all of his sons and grandsons were bound through the generations to tend an immortal, wounded pioneer, one Lamar Boggs, purportedly left for dead by his nineteenth-century companions who were racing west like hell for leather after a better life. The first Walker in the region found him, nursed him, and set him up safe and sound in a tiny hut on the mesa. One you could still find if you drove north, and were really looking for it.
And truth be told, the joke sort of stood to reason. In over a hundred yearsâin spite of all rationale and opportunity as their neighbors fled drought, dust, influenza, auctioneers, grasshoppers, fire, boredom, and disappointmentâthe Walkers never left Lions. If there were other stragglers in town, it was because they didn't have the means to leave, or weren't staying permanently, but working various financial stratagems to land someplace better. Denver, say, or Boise. They liked to say to each other in Lions that those who had come to America and come west, as their families had, did so because they were risk takers and big dreamers. But what, they wondered, had been the Walkers' dream? For what had they taken the risk of coming out here and then, against all reason, decided to stay? They might have thrived somewhere else, but were riveted to the plain, it seemed, couldn't leave if they'd wanted to. If old Boggs was really up there, the Walkers were certainly the men to tend him.
“No one else would stick around to do it,” Boyd Hardy said. He stood behind the bar with arms folded in front of his chest, a bottle of Bud Light in one hand, leaning back against the counter.
“Tell you what,” Dock said, and pointed his beer bottle in Boyd's direction. “If they weren't the best men in the county I'd say you had it wrong.”
“Maybe he just goes north to be alone,” May Ransom said from behind the bar, where she often ended up after closing her diner across the street. She refilled her own glass of boxed white wine.
Boyd stared outside, not moving. “Seems to me there's alone enough to be had right here in town.”
When weeks later Chuck told them about the stranger's stop at the Walkers' that nightâthe shower, the cocoa, the buttered toastâeveryone shot accusatory looks at Boyd, who by that time was a little hangdog, his thick silver mustache a little ragged, his own truck oiled up and ready to pack and leave Lions for good.
“You all saw him,” Boyd said.
Yes, they'd all seen him.
But that evening in the Walkers' kitchen, the man had bent over the table with John and Georgianna and spooned scrambled eggs into his mouth, perfectly sound, perfectly human, if the Walkers and Chuck could be believed.