By George Thomas
As they stumble in file, Carl Packer informs his family he knows their location to be "about halfway round " the 19 mile road that edges the National Bison Range near Dixon, Montana. "Why else, " he huffed over his shoulder, "put the restrooms here? "
The Packers had parked their red Jeep Cherokee in a restroom area. From there, the four--Sara, Deano, Tammie Faye and Carl--tramped a dirt trail over a low rise and down its other side to this flat, dirt and stony aerie scratched in the mountainside where they now arrived. They stopped and turned in a line, winded, to gape over a wide valley. In three directions, peaks rose one behind the other into a misty distance--rock giants on the farthest horizon under summer caps of brilliant white snow. A gray-green river snake coiled below through stony earth and shadow-filled stands of hardwood and evergreen. The stupendous view was sufficient to bow them momentarily into silence.
Then ten year old Deano broke from the line to find and chuck stones down the mountainside and Carl Packer, squinting under a raised hand, burst out, "We never bring the damn binoculars! How come we don't think of it until we're already somewhere? " No one speaks. "Look how you can hardly see over that way, " he gestured, referring, obviously, to the air above the valley which was filmed with risen, obscurant moisture. "Grand Canyon's the same damn way. "
A taint of guilt about the binoculars darkened Sara's view momentarily. She, who had never been to the Grand Canyon, stood a few steps from her husband and had just noticed how the cel phone in his pocket dragged down his Hawaiian shirt on one side and the mechanical pencil in his other pocket which stood ready to jot down any communication from his electrical contracting business some five hundred miles west of them in Moses Lake, Washington--closed, thank goodness, it being Sunday.
Mrs. Packer sidled to slip her hand into her husband's and, after a gulped intake of thin air, she told him, simply, "Isn't it lovely, dear? " His relaxed fingers didn't grip. She was still winded from their short walk in high altitude. With her free hand, Sara shielded her eyes to look across the valley at the mountains Carl now guessed "might be the Mission Range ". She inhaled, deeply, a second time. "I'm really going to have to think about that Weight Watchers program. "
"That's good, sweetheart. "
When Sara squinted up at her husband, the sunlight that sneaked under the left hand shielding her eyes might have blinded her. Her face scrunched up and mouth twisted open. It could have been an expression of pain or of nothing at all.
"Do you love me, Carl Packer? "
"Til the end of time, " he replied without looking at her.
Sara Packer abandoned the painfully twisted expression and returned to gaping across the valley. "I'm sorry we had that fight. "
"It's okay, " Carl Packer said.
"And what silly thing were we fighting over? " she added. "I've completely forgotten. "
"Darned if I know! " Carl said. He was studying, it seemed to Mrs. Packer, some distant thing, his body framed by far, rock giants.
Sara was referring to a dispute of several days earlier, during the drive from Moses Lake to Butte, Montana for her mother's wedding. From which they were now returning. The argument had threatened to leap out of bounds and murder them when Carl momentarily lost control of the Jeep, but, for the life of her, she couldn't remember what the fight had been about.
When her daughter, Tammie Faye, darted before them, a few feet down slope from where they stood, Mrs. Packer transferred her attention to that distraction. Dressed in culottes of identical light blue color to her mother's, and a white blouse, she was turning this way and that, peering down into the valley and up the mountainside to her right and over to the tree line above them on another peak on her left. Tammie Faye was looking for the buffaloes they had come to see. But no buffaloes presented themselves for viewing. In fact, they had seen a whitetail or two but no buffaloes anywhere in the bison park to this halfway point.
"I wish to hell, honey, " Carl Packer burst out, "I'd brought the binoculars. They just sit up on the damn closet shelf and collect dust! "
"Sweetheart, " Sara shouted to her daughter, "the ranger said the buffaloes are supposed to be somewhere on the other side of this hill. When we get back to the Jeep, we'll find them. "
Carl disagreed, "She'll be disappointed. I think they're out of sight today. Why do you suppose she's so interested in buffaloes all the sudden? "
From beneath her shading hand, Sara turned once more to peer up at her husband, inches taller beside her. "She told me, at mother's wedding, they had a lesson about buffaloes at school. She's got the idea they're going to be 'distinct'. That's what she said! She was so cute! Mother and I laughed till the tears came. "
Sara Packer would gladly tell anyone in her woman's group at church, The Loving Soulfuls, how much she adored her family. She would say that Carl had "a fine nose and a wonderful jaw ". She also told them, more than once, how hard he worked, the "endless hours he puts in on the job to support us ". When it came to Sara's family, superlatives were inadequate. She would not mention to the group how often she burned with lust, waking next to him and seeing his face beside her in bed. Nor how often her sexual urges went unabated since about a year ago.
At that moment, on the mountainside, Sara Packer discovered to her surprise that she was wet. "Kiss me, " she told Carl.
And her husband did kiss her, but it was a peck and not at all what Mrs. Packer desired. "The herd's probably grazing somewhere we can't see them, " Carl added. "I think we'd seen them by now. This is a complete waste. "
Together, they watched Tammie Faye sit in the dirt and drop her glum face between her hands, her elbows on her outspread knees. Sara desperately hoped buffaloes would appear soon.
"Why do we fight? " she said.
"That's what men and women do, I guess. " Carl laughed.
"It was so bad with Bill that I have prayed that you and I would never.... I wanted us to be.... " Carl chuckled, but it was not his real laugh. It was his this is one of my wife's silly ideas chuckles which Mrs. Packer was all too familiar with.
Bill had been Mrs. Packer's first husband--a profaning, godless, drugging, long hair with a huge grin always (in Sara's imagination) on his face. After a couple of loving, fucking, fighting years, he had left her "to go to India " and never come back.
Sara went on, insisting, "Don't you remember anyone--I do--people who say their folks never fought. You know? My folks were never apart in all their fifty years together. When mother died, dad was inconsolable. He died right after that. Carl, you never heard that? "
"People say all kinds of things, Sara. "
"I hope not, " Sara said hopefully.
"When I think about most marriages, I think about your mother, " Carl said.
"That's not going to be us, Carl Packer. I won't let it be. "
Carl didn't answer her. In a contrived western drawl, he said, "Say, Missy, hain't thet yor spread down yonder? The Bar None or the Don't That Beat All? "
Her husband had pointed into space, way out and far away. Sara slipped her hand from Carl's and stepped a few feet down slope to stand behind her daughter. "It'll be all right, honey, " she told Tammie Faye and touched the top of her daughter's head.
Sara Packer wanted to think of God just now. Up here, she told herself, a God-thought ought to be fitting, and she would feel better to think of Jesus, but what she acutely felt was her slightly moist palm that had sweated in Carl's hand. Why was she allowing all this silly stuff to dim her connection with Lord Jesus? She remembered her dad, tending his cancer-consumed wife in her last days, leaning over her mother's bed with one of those bent straws, giving her mother a sip of water, praying in the dark nights together at the kitchen table. . . .
Sara was staring at the ground, at the patchy, medium tall grasses, the reddish earth through the thin cover. When she became conscious of her surroundings once more, a stone kicked up dust a few yards down slope of her.
"Don't throw the whole mountain down, Deano, " she told the boy.
He must have decided to take her seriously for he said, "I wouldn't do that, Sara. "
"I want to go back to the car, " she informed Carl.
Carl Packer raised his voice. "Come on, kids. Let's go. "
"I'm waiting for buffaloes, " Tammie Faye insisted.
"Your mother told you--if we're going to see them, they're over that way. " Carl gestured up slope, with his whole arm. "That's where we're going now, Miss Priss. Come on, " he ordered.
Carl Packer held his hand out to his stepdaughter who got up from her crouch and turned to come his way. Suddenly, for the umpteenth time this morning, Viv's face was in Carl Packer's thoughts. Sara's sister's face--her eyes shaped like Tammie Faye's--superimposed itself over the landscape. Her snorted, pot-slurred guffaw at the wedding reception when he tried to remonstrate with her about using weed rankled him again: "Oh, fuck you, Carl! " Viv had cut him off and continued piling cocktail wieners on a stiff paper plate.
The Packers straggled up the thin dirt trail to the top of the rise. Deano led, then Sara. With Tammie Faye in hand, Carl dutifully brought up the rear. He was a man with regular features, just beginning to put on a paunch. Not yet completely, unathletic ally awkward, he still approved of what he saw in the mirror.
Carl Packer waited in the Cherokee with Deano while Sara took Tammie to the restroom, remembering a time that Viv (a commercial artist with an ad agency), heading out a door (always in a hurry to get somewhere), shouted back into a roomful of lesser mortals, "Hey! See ya folks. People to do. Things to see! "
That gesture, that moment still stuck with him. It had force to draw his attention, like the first time they met, when she said, "So you're the new guy Sara's got the hots for. " This had embarrassed Sara and made the sisters' mother redden and glance at her third husband, Stuart Payne, now long gone, just like Mr. Fourth Husband, whatever his name had been. Viv was like that constantly.
At her mother's fifth, this last, wedding, Viv told her mother's new spouse, Benny Treadwell, "You better make the honeymoon short, sweetheart. The line's already forming. " She had been high, of course, which she always was. Benny was also a tad stinko (usual for him too, Viv said), fortunately caught the remark out of the blue, from the side, so to speak, and didn't quite understand. Viv had never married.
Carl Packer ran his fingers over the steering wheel, remembering that specially difficult time with Vivian when, over a couple too many drinks one Christmas, he'd warmed to her, looked too hotly at the curves under Viv's tan slacks and red sweater. Too hotly too, he'd been teasing her about "modern " art, and she fired back, "What in hell is modern art, Carl? Do you know? Please, don't tell me. I don't want to argue with an amateur about art. " It still smarted.
Then later that evening, both even drunker, apologizing or explaining, she added, standing way too close with a finger on his heart, "Look, husband of my sweet, sweet sister, Sara. I know you have, or have had--my, my, listen to those whatchamacallits--'or have had' ambitions--though I don't know why in hell--no money in it--to be man of letters? A writer, or some damn thing, isn't it, or a teacher? Well, look, my dear, that's tough toast you didn't follow your bliss, but don't blame her. "
All he could stammer back, as he remembered, was nothing, something as lame as "I didn't... ", staring at Viv's bright mouth with thick, tangerine lipstick which he clearly remembered being impelled to kiss in spite of his best judgment. He had leaned, Viv had turned, was going, but she had noticed his impulsive, stupid, dangerous gesture first, and that was that. And had been ever since. But hadn't she been flirting too? Even now he felt her finger on his heart. Half-formed concerns nibbled at his mind: If only Sara would.... Why couldn't Sara not be so.... What? Carl was hot and restless in the Cherokee. When he fired up the engine and turned on the air conditioning, Dean was balancing along the concrete parking bumpers in front of the Jeep. What if my foot slips from the brake onto the accelerator? What happens then?
The Packers rode their Cherokee into the valley out of the high ground, down a steep, twisting drop with view points at every turn. They were, Carl informed them, on the other side of the peak where the restrooms had been, and this road was probably following the edge of the Bison Range. He encouraged them to "look for buffaloes " and called their attention to another range of mountain peaks which rose before them across an even wider valley with also a river in it, though smaller, and let them know he didn't know what that range--or that river--were called either.
The morning air remained misty and darkened in the distance, beyond the confines of the Bison Range. All the drop down, Sara Packer attempted to enlist the children's interest in the vistas unfolding before them, calling their attention to this view or that at every turn, but without buffaloes in the view, any view was empty of interest to Tammie Faye, and Deano was at an age to be bored, no matter what. Not one Packer saw one buffalo.
Carl Packer listened with irritation to his wife's futile attempt to interest the children in what they were clearly not interested in. When he had had enough of the wheedling, he exploded, "I don't know why we even try to do anything with these kids. We oughta leave them at home! They don't appreciate anything! " In the rear view mirror, Tammie Faye continued her pout. "Tammie Faye, if you don't stop being that way.... "
Tammie looked at him plaintively, her face flushed and her eyes wet.
"Now stop that, " Carl warned. "Don't you dare cry, Miss Priss. " Their glances locked in the rear view mirror, and she pouted down into her lap, avoiding his glance. "Stop it! I'm warning you. "
"This is a brilliant idea, isn't it? Well, what're we going to do now? " He directed the question to his wife. She had suggested it - days ago, true - but she had been the one to bring the idea up in the first place.
"I'm hungry? " Mrs. Packer said. "Are you kids hungry? " She turned to look in the back seat. "I'm hungry, you guys. What about you? "
Before anyone could say anything more, Deano pointed across Tammie Faye's nose out her window. "Look! Look! There's a buffalo. "
And, sure enough, farther down, in a small depression in the valley floor, pent up in a strong, three rail corral, looking very small from the road, stood a single, horned, dark mass, a shaggy, motionless buffalo in the sunlight. Around that corral on three sides, a well-tended lawn spread out - one section of grass glittering from a recent watering - and there were gray, weathered picnic tables placed about on the grass, and a clean, stone building with restrooms and a stand or three of hardwoods to provide shade.
A sign beside the exit road told them the next road would take them to the Bison Display And Picnic Area.
"Let's go down, Carl. "
Carl Packer sighed, and so down the last, narrow road the Packers went, and Carl Packer pulled the red Cherokee into a small parking lot beside the corral. The lot was empty except for their Jeep, and they all got out in a flurry of door slams and walked to the corral to stare in.
Tammie Faye leaned on the middle rail, her chin resting against its rough wood, her arms down at her sides. Deano climbed up on the first rail and leaned his arms and shoulders over the top. The adult Packers stood side by side a few feet from the corral and looked on. The buffalo presented a side view to them and while they stared, his visible eye blinked once while they just stood there and stared in.
"His eye seems small for his big head, " Deano said.
"He's got a big head all right, " Carl agreed.
The buffalo blinked a second time, and Tammie Faye asked, "Do you think he knows we're here? "
"Oh, he knows we're here all right. He probably smells us. "
"Maybe she's a girl bison, " Tammie said.
"Well, maybe so, honey. "
"He's got horns stupid, " Deano told his sister.
"All bisons got horns! "
"You don't know that, does she, dad? "
"I don't know, " Carl said, "but she might be right. Look how massive they are in front. "
Sara Packer nodded.
"They've certainly got short front legs, " Carl Packer continued. "I wonder if it's so they can get to the grass easier? "
Sara was relieved to see her husband was clearly intrigued. And Carl spotted a plaque on a wooden pedestal down the fence aways and went to take a look at it.
The buffalo blinked once more and switched its tail. Its wet nose dropped moisture into the dust of the corral floor. Sara looked at the buffalo and thought of Snoopy, their dog which had recently been killed on the road which ran by their home in suburban Moses Lake.
"Says here, " Carl read aloud to his family, "Bisons are unpredictable and can be very dangerous. They appear slow and docile but really are quite agile and can run as fast as a horse; so don't plan to outrun one. A bison's tail is often a handy warning flag. When it hangs down and is switching naturally, the animal usually is unperturbed. If it extends out straight and droops at the end, he/she is becoming mildly agitated. If the tail is sticking straight up, they are ready to charge and you should be somewhere else... but do not run! "
"Where's his tail, kids? " Carl Packer shouted.
"Down, " Deano and Sara shouted back.
"What does unpreturbed mean, " Tammie Faye asked everyone.
"It means he's not angry, Missy, " Carl said, returning to his wife's side.
Mrs. Packer looked up at Carl with something like a smile trying to grow on her lips. "Listen to you, Carl. You're glad we came now. " She mocked him with a question, "Your tail down, sweetheart? "
Carl considered a response to his wife's question. Bored Deano climbed down from the corral rails and started off to explore the picnic area.
"Don't go far, Deano. We're not going to stay long. " Carl shouted, but Deano began to run and, if the boy heard, he didn't let on. Carl Packer's anger rose immediately into his head, and when he screamed, the pressure in his sinuses and forehead actually hurt him. "Goddamn it, Deano, what'd I say? Come back here! "
"Carl, " Mrs. Packer whispered urgently, "did you have to say that? "
Carl glanced at his wife, pretended not to understand. "What? "
"The Lord's name? " she said.
"Oh fuck that, Sara. Just fuck that. "
Through all this, Tammie Faye had barely stirred. She remained chin-locked to the middle rail, staring at the massive, dark creature which had not moved a muscle, except to wink at her. Then she removed her chin from the middle rail and turned from the corral. "I'm ready to go, mom. "
Carl glared at Deano who was dragging himself back to the little Packer group. Apropos of nothing, Carl said, "I wish you were a little more fun. Like Viv. " He knew he didn't know what that meant, except he was certain he could hurt Sara with it. And it did. The tears welled up and poured from his wife's eyes.
Back in the Jeep they were on their way again, rattling across the last of the cattle guards and turning left out on the highway where Carl could make time down toward Missoula and I90. He was going a little too fast but he didn't care and didn't want to slow down. He knew his wife would not oppose him either. Not for awhile yet. Why had they come on this side trip anyhow? Why did he let himself be dragged along? All it did was screw things up when he did things he didn't want to do.
Finally, after about five unbearable minutes of silence in the car while Sara's tears flowed, Sara patted her eyes and blew her nose. "We should have gone to church this morning, " she said. "We could've found somewhere in Butte before we left. It's never right on a Sunday when we don't go to church. "
"We'd been forever getting out of there. "
"I don't care. "
"We couldn't have gone to your good ol' Bison Range for sure then. We'd never get home today. "
"Let's go get something to eat, " Sara said. "I'm hungry. "
Viv flashed into Carl Packer's thoughts, and he exploded again, "Like that's going to help your weight? Christ, Sara, is that all you got on your mind? You wanted to eat at ten already. It's too early. I wanna make some time. "
The tears were flowing again, and Carl Packer knew there'd be hell to pay later, at home, for days, maybe weeks. But he did back off the accelerator. He was probably going too fast for the narrow road, and he felt a little too far out on the edge of himself, almost like he didn't care any more. It felt nearly like years ago before he met Sara, those back-East years, when he "sowed wild oats ", maybe drank a bit too much and hunted Boston College for the chance piece. This was before he started going to church, before he moved West and sought a new life. But lately, he was beginning to know that "the place " was not the problem. Carl Packer shrugged his shoulders to loosen the tightness. He tried to reign in his recklessness. He did need more church, damn it, he did. Damn that Viv anyway. Fuck it, fuck everything.
"I'm hungry too, dad, " Deano said from the back seat.
"I told you you'd get hungry when you didn't eat breakfast, " he reminded his son.
The Jeep grew very silent. Everybody was staring out a separate window.
Carl drove more carefully now. The Cherokee was returning to peace and quiet. Missoula wasn't far, they could eat there, and Carl could think ahead to I90 and Moses Lake by late afternoon maybe. In a peace gesture, an attempt to restore some feel of family, he tilted his head toward Sara and the back seat and asked, "Well, you guys, what did you think of that huge buffalo? "
Sara, of course, would say nothing, and though Carl didn't realize it, Deano could say nothing. He had fallen asleep. But Tammie Faye was awake, scruntched in the corner of her seat, and she said, "I think he's lonely. "
What his stepdaughter said, she said quietly, with great aplomb and the force of unabashed honesty, and Mr. Carl Packer was struck to the root with a big pang registering in the muscles of his heart he could almost imagine was an attack.