Excerpt from 'Fine Just the Way It Is'
Fine Just the Way It Is
Wyoming Stories 3
By Annie Proulx
ScribnerCopyright © 2008 Dead Line, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFamily Man
The Mellowhorn Home was a rambling one-story log building identifying itself as western - the furniture upholstered in fabrics with geometric "Indian" designs, lampshades sporting buckskin fringe. On the walls hung Mr. Mellowhorn's mounted mule deer heads and a two-man crosscut saw.
It was the time of year when Berenice Pann became conscious of the earth's dark turning, not a good time, she thought, to be starting a job, especially one as depressing as caring for elderly ranch widows. But she took what she could get. There were not many men in the Mellowhorn Retirement Home, and those few were so set upon by the women that Berenice pitied them. She had believed the sex drive faded in the elderly, but these crones vied for the favors of palsied men with beef jerky arms. The men could take their pick of shapeless housecoats and flowery skeletons.
Three deceased and stuffed Mellowhorn dogs stood in strategic guard positions - near the front door, at the foot of the stairs, and beside the rustic bar made from old fence posts. Small signs, the product of the pyrographer's art, preserved their names: Joker, Bugs and Henry. At least, thought Berenice, patting Henry's head, the Home had a view of the enclosing mountains. It had rained all day and now, in the stiffening gloom, tufts of bunchgrass showed up like bleached hair. Down along an old irrigation ditch willows made a ragged line of somber maroon, and the stock pond at the bottom of the hill was as flat as zinc. She went to another window to look at coming weather. In the northwest a wedge of sky, milk-white and chill, herded the rain before it. An old man sat at the community room window staring out at the grey autumn. Berenice knew his name, knew all their names; Ray Forkenbrock.
"Get you something, Mr. Forkenbrock?" She made a point of prefacing the names of residents with the appropriate honorifics, something the rest of the staff did not do, slinging around first names as though they'd all grown up together. Deb Slaver was familiar to a fault, chumming up with "Sammy," and "Rita" and "Delia," punctuated with "Hon," "Sweetie" and "Babes."
"Yeah," he said. He spoke with long pauses between sentences, a slow unfurling of words that made Berenice want to jump in with word suggestions.
"Get me the hell out a here," he said.
"Get me a horse," he said.
"Get me seventy year back a ways," said Mr. Forkenbrock.
"I can't do that, but I can get you a nice cup of tea. And it'll be Social Hour in ten minutes," she said.
She couldn't quite meet his stare. He was something to look at, despite an ordinary face with infolded lips, a scrawny neck. It was the eyes. They were very large and wide open and of the palest, palest blue, the color of ice chipped with a pick, faint blue with crystalline rays. In photographs they appeared white like the eyes of Roman statues, saved from that blind stare only by the black dots of pupils. When he looked at you, thought Berenice, you could not understand a word he said for being fixed by those strange white eyes. She did not like him but pretended she did. Women had to pretend to like men and to admire the things they liked. Her own sister had married a man who was interested in rocks and now she had to drag around deserts and steep mountains with him.
At Social Hour the residents could have drinks and crackers smeared with cheese paste from the Super Wal-Mart where Cook shopped. They were all lushes, homing in on the whiskey bottle. Chauncey Mellowhorn, who had built the Mellowhorn Retirement Home and set all policy, believed that the last feeble years should be enjoyed, and promoted smoking, drinking, lascivious television programs and plenty of cheap food. Neither teetotalers nor bible thumpers signed up for the Mellowhorn Retirement Home.
Ray Forkenbrock said nothing. Berenice thought he looked sad and she wanted to cheer him up in some way.
"What did you used to do, Mr. Forkenbrock? Were you a rancher?"
The old man glared up at her. "No," he said. "I wasn't no goddamn rancher. I was a hand," he said.
"I worked for them sonsabitches. Cowboyed, ran wild horses, rodeoed, worked in the oil patch, sheared sheep, drove trucks, did whatever," he said. "Ended up broke.
"Now my granddaughter's husband pays the bills that keep me here in this nest of old women," he said. He often wished he had died out in the weather, alone and no trouble to anyone.
Berenice continued, making her voice cheery. "I had a lot a different jobs too since I graduated high school," she said. "Waitress, day care, housecleaning, Seven-Eleven store clerk, like that." She was engaged to Chad Grills; they were to be married in the spring and she planned to keep working only for a little while to supplement Chad's paycheck from Red Bank Power. But before the old man could say anything more Deb Slaver came pushing in, carrying a glass. Berenice could smell the dark whiskey. Deb's vigorous voice pumped out of her ample chest in jets.
"Here you go, honey-boy! A nice little drinkie for Ray!" she said. "Turn around from that dark old winder and have some fun!" She said, "Don't you want a watch Cops with Powder Face?" (Powder Face was Deb's nickname for a painted harridan with hazelnut knuckles and a set of tawny teeth.) "Or is it just one a them days when you want a look out the winder and feel blue? Think of some troubles? You retired folks don't know what trouble is, just setting here having a nice glass of whiskey and watching teevee," she said.
She punched the pillows on the settee. "We're the ones with troubles - bills, cheating husbands, sassy kids, tired feet," she said. "Trying to scrape up the money for winter tires! My husband says the witch with the green teeth is plaguing us," she said. "Come on, I'll set with you and Powder Face awhile," and she pulled Mr. Forkenbrock by his sweater, threw him onto the settee and sat beside him.
Berenice left the room and went to help in the kitchen, where the cook was smacking out turkey patties. A radio on the windowsill murmured.
"Looks like it is clearing up," Berenice said. She was a little afraid of the cook.
"Oh good, you're here. Get them French fry packages out of the freezer," she said. "Thought I was going to have to do everthing myself. Deb was supposed to help, but she rather tangle up with them old boys. She hopes they'll put her in their will. Some of them's got a little property or a mineral- rights check coming in," she said. "You ever meet her husband, Duck Slaver?" Now she was grating a cabbage into a stainless steel bowl.
Berenice knew only that Duck Slaver drove a tow truck for Ricochet Towing. The radio suddenly caught the cook's attention and she turned up the volume, hearing that it would be cloudy the next day with gradual clearing, the following day high winds and snow showers.
"We ought to be grateful for the rain in this drought. Know what Bench says?" Bench was the UPS driver, the source of Cook's information on everything from road conditions to family squabbles.
"Says we are in the beginning of turning into a desert. It's all going to blow away," she said.
When Berenice went to announce dinner - turkey patties, French fries (Mr. Mellowhorn still called them "freedom fries") with turkey patty gravy, cranberry relish, creamed corn and homemade rolls - she saw that Deb had worked Mr. Forkenbrock into the corner of the settee, and Powder Face was in the chair with the bad leg watching cops squash the faces of black men onto sidewalks. Mr. Forkenbrock was staring at the dark window, the coursing raindrops catching the blue television flicker. He gave off an aura of separateness. Deb and Powder Face might have been two more of Mellowhorn's stuffed dogs.
After dinner, on her way back to the kitchen to help the cook clean up, Berenice opened the door for a breath of fresh air. The eastern half of the sky was starry, the west a slab of basalt.
In the early morning darkness the rain began again. He did not know but would have understood the poet's line "I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day." Nothing in nature seemed more malign to Ray Forkenbrock than this invisible crawl of weather, the blunt-nosed cloud advancing under the lid of darkness. As the dim morning emerged, like a photograph in developing solution, the sound of the rain sharpened. That's sleet, he thought, remembering a long October ride in such weather when he was young, his denim jacket soaked through and sparkling with ice, remembered meeting up with that old horse catcher who lived out in the desert, must have been in his eighties, out there in the rattling precip limping along, heading for the nearest ranch bunkhouse, he said, to get out of the weather.
"That'd be Flying A," said Ray, squinting against the slanting ice.
"Ain't that Hawkins's place?"
"Naw. Hawkins sold out couple years ago. A fella named Fox owns it now," he said.
"Hell, I lose touch out here. Had a pretty good shack up until day before yesterday," the horse catcher said between clicking teeth and went on to tell that his place had burned down and he'd slept out in the sage for two nights but now his bedroll was soaked and he was out of food. Ray felt bad for him and at the same time wanted to get away. It seemed awkward to be mounted while the man was afoot, but then he always had that same uncomfortable, guilty itch when he rode past a pedestrian. Was it his fault the old man didn't have a horse? If he was any good at horse catching he should have had a hundred of them. He foraged through his pockets and found three or four stale peanuts mixed with lint.
"It ain't much but it's all I got," he said, holding them out.
The old boy had never made it to the Flying A. He was discovered days later sitting with his back against a rock. Roy remembered the uncomfortable feeling he'd had exchanging a few words with him, thinking how old he was. Now he was the same age, and he had reached the Flying A - the warmth and dry shelter of the Mellowhorn Home. But the old horse catcher's death, braced against a rock, seemed more honorable.
It was six-thirty and there was nothing to get up for, but he put on his jeans and shirt, added an old man's sweater as the dining room could be chilly in the morning before the heat got going, left his boots in the closet and shuffled down the hall in red felt slippers, too soft to deliver a kick to stuffed Bugs with the googly eyes at the foot of the stairs. The slippers were a gift from his only granddaughter, Beth, married to Kevin Bead. Beth was important to him. He had made up his mind to tell her the ugly family secret. He would not leave his descendants to grapple with shameful uncertainties. He was going to clear the air. Beth was coming on Saturday afternoon with her tape recorder to help him get it said. During the week she would type it into her computer and bring him the crisp printed pages. He might have been nothing more than a ranch hand in his life, but he knew a few things.
Beth was dark-haired with very red cheeks that looked freshly slapped. It was the Irish in her he supposed. She bit her fingernails, an unsightly habit in a grown woman. Her husband, Kevin, worked in the loan department of the High Plains Bank. He complained that his job was stupid, tossing money and credit cards to people who could never pay up.
"Used to be to get a card you had to work hard and have good credit. Now the worse your credit the easier it is to get a dozen of them," he said to his wife's grandfather. Ray, who had never had a credit card, couldn't follow the barrage of expository information that followed about changing bank rules, debt. These information sessions always ended with Kevin sighing and saying in a dark tone that the day was coming.
Ray Forkenbrock guessed Beth would use the computer at the real estate office where she worked to transcribe his words.
"Oh no, Grandpa, we've got a computer and printer at home. Rosalyn wouldn't like for me to do it in the office," she said. Rosalyn was her boss, a woman Ray had never seen but felt he knew well because Beth talked often about her. She was very, very fat and had financial trouble. Scam artists several times stole her identity. Every few months she spent hours filling out fraud affidavits. And, said Beth, she wore XXXL blue jeans and a belt with a silver buckle as big as a pie tin that she had won at a bingo game.
Ray snorted. "A buckle used to mean something," he said. "A rodeo buckle, best part of the prize. The money was nothing in them days," he said. "We didn't care about the money. We cared about the buckle," he said, "and now fat gals win them at bingo games?" He twisted his head around and looked at the closet door. Beth knew he must have a belt with a rodeo buckle in there.
"Do you watch the National Finals on television?" she said. "Or the bull-riding championship?"
"Hell, no," he said. "The old hens here wouldn't put up with it. They got that teevee lined out from dawn to midnight - crime, that reality shit, fashion and python shows, dog and cat programs. Watch rodeo? Not a chance," he said.
He glared at the empty hall beyond the open door. "You wouldn't never guess the most of them lived on ranches all their life," he added sourly.
Beth spoke to Mr. Mellowhorn and said she thought her grandfather could at least watch the National Finals or the PBR rodeos considering what they were paying for his keep. Mr. Mellowhorn agreed.
"But I like to keep out of residents' television choices, you know, democracy rules at the Mellowhorn Home, and if your grandfather wants to watch rodeo all he has to do is persuade a majority of the inhabitants to sign a petition and -"
"Do you have any objection if my husband and I get him a television set for his room?"
"Well, no, of course not, but I should just mention that the less fortunate residents might see him as privileged, even a little high-hat if he holes up in his room and watches rodeo instead of joining the community choice -"
"Fine," said Beth, cutting past the social tyranny of the Mellowhorn Home. "That's what we'll do, then. Get him a snooty, high-hat television. Family counts with me and Kevin," she said. "I don't suppose you have a satellite hookup, do you?" she asked.
"Well, no. We've discussed it, but - maybe next year -"
She brought Ray a small television set with a DVD player and three or four discs of recent years' rodeo events. That got him going.
"Christ, I remember when the finals was in Oklahoma City, not goddamn Las Vegas," he said. "Of course bull riding has pushed out all the other events now, good-bye saddle bronc and bareback. I was there when Freckles Brown rode Tornado in 1962," he said. "Forty-six year old, and the ones they got now bull riding are children! Make a million dollars. It's all show business now," he said. "The old boys was a rough crew. Heavy drinkers, most of them. You want to know what pain is, try bull riding with a bad hangover."
"So I guess you did a lot of rodeo riding when you were young?"
"No, not a lot, but enough to get broke up some. And earned a buckle," he said. "You heal fast when you're young, but the broke places sort of come back to life when you are old. I busted my left leg in three places. Hurts now when it rains," he said.
"How come you cowboyed for a living, Grandpa Ray? Your daddy wasn't a rancher or a cowboy, was he?" She turned the volume knob down. The riders came out of a chute, again and again, monotonously, all apparently wearing the same dirty hat.
"Hell no, he wasn't. He was a coal miner. Rove Forkenbrock," he said. "My mother's name was Alice Grand Forkenbrock. Dad worked in the Union Pacific coal mines. Something happened to him and he quit. Moved into running errands for different outfits, Texaco, California Petroleum, big outfits.
"Anyway, don't exactly know what the old man did. Drove a dusty old Model T. He'd get fired and then he had to scratch around for another job. Even though he drank - that's what got him fired usually - he always seemed to get another job pretty quick." He swallowed a little whiskey.
"Anymore I wouldn't go near the mines. I liked horses almost as much as I liked arithmetic, liked the cow business, so after I graduated eighth grade and Dad said better forget high school, things were tough and I had to find work," he said. "At the time I didn't mind. What my dad said I generally didn't fuss over. I respected him. I respected and honored my father. I believed him to be a good and fair man." He thought, unaccountably, of weeds.
Excerpted from Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx Copyright © 2008 by Dead Line, Ltd. . Excerpted by permission.
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