PREFACE: Like all of the stories featured here (and like most entries we received, actually) you have to go looking for the sense of redemption in “Alive and Well.” It’s not obvious, and it appears initially not to be there at all until the story unfolds itself, jumping in time from past to present, reminding us that redemption sometimes takes generations to find. And when it is found, sometimes it’s in an act as simple as being faced with a familiar choice — and choosing differently than your parents did. (Luke Baumgarten)
“But Da-a-a-a-d …” Toby’s voice started to rise in that high-pitched whine from his toddler days; then he caught himself. He was an 8-year-old, knowing the game: slower, lower. “But Dad, Mom said….” Marcus winced at the sound of his son’s canny change to adult register.
“Mom.” Always Mom, even when she wasn’t there, working at Thrifty until midnight but still with her finger on the pulse of the family, always within mental calling distance of their only child. Marcus held his wide leather belt folded in a loop at his side, his rage slowly subsiding. He knew that Mom, his wife Ella, would not want him standing here, looming above Toby, fidgeting with the weapon he’d drawn only from a sudden lack of knowing what else to do.
The sound of Toby’s voice reverberated back through decades to a similar corner of a similar room, where Marcus’s own dad, Big Dan Forsythe, loomed even taller. Wielding a short, vicious willow switch with no malice but with distinct intention, he had thrashed Marcus once, twice, three times on his bottom, jeans down, grayed white underwear barely buffering the sting, with the burn lasting long after the welts subsided. The reason was so eerily similar he thought it was a trick of time and memory.
“What did your mom say? What exactly did your mom say, Toby, that made it OK to ruin my stuff? Jesus! You could have burned down the house!”
“Mom said….” Toby’s eyes clouded, then teared up as he suddenly realized the foolishness of the idea. He passed it off to the adults. “Remember? When you and her were . . . talking on Sunday. You said you were plum out of ideas! And Mom said maybe you could melt down the . . . you know . . . the gold in the trophies and stuff on the shelves in the den. She said they’d be worth more melted down than gathering dust and you said you by god guessed that was true.” Toby‘s voice gained confidence. “Dad! You said. I was just trying to help!”
The fire was small by fire department standards — the cheap Kmart charcoal brazier with too much fuel had collapsed under the weight of the big metal pot, and flames had spread onto the dry lawn.
By the time Toby had run gasping, sobbing, into the house and yelled at his dad to call 9-1-1, the fire in the old acacia tree’s damp bark had caused smoke to curl up to roof height. It was all over in an hour. Sodden black grass, scorched tree, stinking bitter pile of charred wood and deformed metal disarrayed on the little cement patio pad. Report filed, neighbors placated.
Marcus, using his thickest leather garden gloves, had retrieved some award buckles out of the smoking mess. From regional rodeos mostly, except for those three from the weekend in Novato where everything he’d touched — reining, roping, team penning — had turned to gold. He could remember the origin of most of the blackened, twisted metal tops of the trophies and even recognized the brass plate he’d unscrewed from the cantle of the heavy Tex Tan roping saddle.
The print was blackened and he brushed it with his thumb. Las Vegas NRCA 2003 Grand Champion Roper. The gelding he’d leased had gone back to its owner. And the hand-tooled, double-rigged saddle? He’d sold that on eBay last November when he realized that Christmas was six weeks off and his last unemployment check was in the mail. Not a time for sentiment.
What was that shadow of remembering that kept slipping into his vision? Toby standing there, not defiant, but so sure he’d been right — starting a fire, for Chrissake, to melt down all his trophies for money. The little inventor, the third member of the family, the one who’d get them out of this deep wallow of debt. And himself the bully this time, the big man, who knew the way to bring up a boy, who knew how to keep order in his own household. Ella keeping her chin up and smiling, turning her voice into something cheery and singsong at all the wrong times, making a game out of disguising leftovers, working overtime at the supermarket, mending socks, tossing those fancy clothes catalogues into recycling the second they hit the mailbox.
What year was it now? Was it 1980 again? Was he that almost-weeping T-shirted boy, bony shoulders straight with false courage, knowing more every second how wrong and rash he’d been? Only then it wasn’t trophies and fire. It wasn’t the third-grade alchemy of optimism that said you could pay Bank of America with a brass nameplate or buy a clutch for the Chevy two-ton with a pair of silver spurs.
Oh, he was indeed that boy. And his plan — sensible when you parsed it out at first, and then clearly wrong. Big Dan Forsythe, with corrals full of 2-year-old cutting horses, had just started training them, and then the market fell off, the price of alfalfa and fuel and even horseshoes skyrocketed, and the harsh, muffled words Marcus had heard from the kitchen were almost the same.
Marcus’s mom had said it, tight-jawed: “Well, why the hell don’t you just turn those colts loose and call it quits? There’s four hundred a month right there.”
“Good idea, Ms. Forsythe, ma’am,” Big Dan said, “and while I’m opening the gates to air the place out, maybe Rockefeller will drive in with a truck full of cash.”
Marcus didn’t know who Rockefeller was, or how much cash was in a truck, but it all made sense to him. Sure, all those colts wouldn’t know what to do at first, but they’d find another pasture, somebody would take them in.
Marcus looked down at Toby. Saw the earnest eyes, brimming now with shame, not the fear of being hit. He noticed for the first time his son’s singed eyebrows, the soot-blackened knuckles. He could almost hear Toby’s heart beating, and Marcus remembered the moment years ago when he had swung open the last corral gate. He lifted it hard the way you had to, guided it over the uneven earth, hinges straining, and then a half-dozen line-bred Quarter Horses trotted past him. He remembered the syncopated thud thud thud, somehow their hoofs matching his heart’s rhythm as they wheeled away from the home ranch and headed fast for the low bluffs above the river and freedom.
“Dad? I guess I thought … y’know … I could help out. Take care of stuff.” Toby’s voice got breathier, saying the hard words softly.
Marcus, as slowly as he could, barely breathing — like straightening a sleeping baby or putting a fallen robin back in the nest — with only a slight tremble in his hands, undoubled his tooled leather belt. He slipped the end into his left belt loop, pulling it around him in small gestures with exaggerated casualness, then eased it through at the end and buckled it. Toby watched him, first wary, then relieved. His eyes lost the frightened-fawn look. He seemed to soften, just a child again.
Marcus smiled a little, looking down at his son. Tomorrow would be tough. But a day rounding up a herd of skittish colts or a day scrubbing a scorched patio were both good, honest work. Just a thing you do to keep the family alive and well.