There’d been a stupid argument at the dinner table, something about who was going to inherit the dining-room chairs. They’d been custom-made for my dad by Sam Lucchese, the boot maker, right before Lucchese died. The argument ended with Garrett taking the chairs out back and grinding them up with a chain saw for firewood. In the meantime, while my mom and Shelley sat consoling each other in the kitchen, I’d watched my dad pace around in the living room. He went over to the fireplace and lifted a huge chunk of limestone off the hearth. I hadn’t even known it was loose. Then he took a fifth of Jim Beam out of the hole underneath and drank it almost empty. When he turned around and saw me I was sure he was going to slap me across the back forty, but he just smiled, then put the rock back. He pulled me up on his knee and started telling me stories about Korea. I don’t remember the stories. All I remember is the smell of the Jim Beam on his breath and the sound of that chain saw going in the backyard. Finally Dad leaned close and said something like: "Every man’s got to have a stashing hole, son. A man tells you he’s shot up his whiskey good and permanent, you’d best be sure he’s either got a stashing hole full somewhere or he’s a damn fool." Then he helped Garrett load the fireplace with Lucchese chair legs. By the time it was over they were joking together. I never said a thing about the stashing hole. I think I’d forgotten about it until now.
"Clean the fireplace," I said to Garrett. “I’ll be damned."
"What about it?" he said.
I was probably still drunk from the night before. It was a stupid idea. On the other hand, my other option was to spend the day thinking about dead people, missing people, and Maia Lee.
"What?" said Garrett. “I don’t like it when you get quiet."
I watched the water swirl into patterns as it washed down the bathroom drain. Jimmy Buffett was still jamming in Garrett’s office.
"Who’s got the keys to the ranch?" I asked.
Garrett swore. "I do, you know that."
"No way," my brother said. “You’re a total fruitcake."
"Runs in the family."
He was silent. "Probably. I can pick you up in a couple of hours."
The Carmen Miranda took the long way, down Highway 90, Old Sabinal Road. By the time we got there I was half-stoned just from sitting next to Garrett. I’d heard Changes in Latitudes on CD-ROM continuous replay cranked and remixed through Garrett’s computer in the back until I knew all the lyrics sideways. I’d had enough Pecan Street Ale to make my throbbing tequila hangover from the night before fade to a dull ache. There wasn’t much that could bother me at that point. Nevertheless, it was hard to look at what the march of civilization had done to Sabinal.
“Oh, Jesus," I said. "There’s a traffic light."
"Yeah," said Garrett. “They changed it from flashing yellow about six years ago."
I sat up a little straighter in my seat. “What the hell happened to Ogden’s?"
As a kid I’d loved and feared the place. Every time we stopped at Ogden’s for lunch on the way into town I used to get scolded for trying to sit at the forbidden Old-Timers’ Table in the back. Once I’d had my ears pulled good; from that time on I just watched from the counter while the old men diced to see who would pay for the morning coffee. My father would order the world’s greatest chicken fried steak sandwiches to go from a waitress named Meryl.
Now the diner was closed. The Hill Country mural that was painted on the glass in front was faded and chipped. The lights were off.
"Man, you are out of touch," Garrett said. "They changed the name to the Pepper Patch years ago. Then they went seasonal. No business out this way. They just open up for the hunters, now."
"How the hell do you know all this? You turning kicker on me?"
Garrett seemed to like that idea. "Sometimes I need a place to get away. It doesn’t get any more ‘away’ than Sabinal, little bro."
We passed the Schutes’ land, then a few smaller spreads of mesquites, olive-colored hills, cows. A few old ranchers leaning against their fence posts turned to watch the mound of plastic tropical fruit drive past. One of them raised his roll of spare barbed wire in a salute. Garrett honked.
The old Wagon Wheel across from the entrance to Navarre land had always been our landmark for finding which gate was ours. Now the restaurant was boarded-up. Our cattleguard hadn’t been hosed out in so long it was filled three feet deep with dirt. Our cattle were walking back and forth over the bars, grazing the side of the highway at will. One of them, a Charolais mix, was right in the gateway, staring down the Carmen Miranda.
"How about honking at it?" I said.
“No way," Garrett told me. “They’re tame, man. You honk your horn, they come running to be fed. You ever seen a safari bus crowded by thirty-three hungry Charolais? Ain’t pretty. "
“Hpw about a red cape then?" I suggested.
Garrett just leaned out the window and had a heated discussion with the heifer. I guess it was paying attention because it finally moved out of the way. Then we drove through, trying to find the driveway under the prairie grass.
The ranch house itself hadn’t changed much since the 1880s, when it had been the homestead for the Nunley family, one of the founders of Sabinal. just three rooms with limestone walls and hardwood floors, rough-cut beams holding up the ceiling, more or less. My grandfather had grudgingly agreed to get electricity and a septic tank when he bought the land after the original Nunley spread had been divided back in the 1940s, but neither the plumbing nor the wiring had been touched since then. These days the septic tank was called Old 90 because you could only flush the toilet or take a shower once every hour and a half without everything overflowing.
I was a little surprised to find Harold Diliberto standing on the porch waiting for us.
“He still takes care of things out here?" I asked.
“Yeah," said Garrett.
Harold had taken the job when he was still married to my sister Shelley. He’d been abusive, drunk most of the time, and not very energetic, but he’d been family, he knew about cattle, and he’d been cheap to hire. I’m not sure which was the biggest selling point for my father. That had been ten years and two of Shelley’s husbands ago.
I looked at the house, the cattleguard, the lawn that had turned back to prairie grass.
“Doing a great job," I said.
Garrett shrugged. “He’s okay when his friends don’t get him drinking."
Harold looked like he and the cows had been partying pretty hard the night before. His shirt was buttoned wrong so his collar stuck up on the right side. His jeans were half-tucked into his boots. At one point his third-grade teacher had probably told him: "You make that face at me and one day it’ll stick that way." She’d been right. Harold always looked like he was trying his best to look ugly.
He nodded at me like he’d just seen me last week.
Garrett took the stairs on his hands, then pulled his chair up after him. The chair probably weighed fifty pounds. Garrett used one arm without straining.
"How’s the well?" he asked.
Harold scratched a rash on his neck. "Got the pump working, but it’d been a few days. Cattle stampeded the trough soon as it was going."
Garrett lifted himself back into the seat and led us through the door.
I looked around while Garrett and Harold talked maintenance. Except for being dirtier and older, the place had hardly changed. The Army Corps of Engineers elevation drawing for Highway 90 had turned brown on the living-room wall. The coffee table we’d gotten for Christmas from the Klayburgs down at King Ranch still had boot marks on it from the last time my dad had propped his feet there. There was still a metal pail full of Cricket lighters sitting in the corner from fifteen years before when the Western Union had derailed in the middle of town. Before the Army Reserve had come in to guard the trainload of new Toyotas that had spilled unexpectedly into downtown from that accident, everybody in Sabinal had already helped themselves to the smaller dumped cargo—three boxcars full of lighters. Sabinal still didn’t have a single Toyota on the streets, but it was a good place to go if you needed a light.
I wasn’t quite ready to look in the fireplace. Instead I sat on the couch. I traced the old boot prints on the table. Finally Harold went out to shoot a rattlesnake he’d seen in the back field. Garrett wheeled his chair up next to me. He handed me a warm beer out of the chair’s side pocket, then lit another joint.
“So you checked?" he asked.
He took a noisy inhale. Together we sat and looked at the limestone fireplace for a while like it was getting great reception, a Cowboys game maybe, deep in the fourth. I stood up.
“Look," Garrett said, “just don’t expect anything, okay, little bro?"
I moved the rock and looked in the stashing hole. No Jim Beam. Nothing but dark, mortar, a few daddy longlegs hanging dead. Then I stuck my hand inside. The hole was almost a foot deeper than I’d thought. I brought an old business-sized envelope into the light. My back was to Garrett. After a while he couldn’t stand the silence.
“Well?" he said.
The envelope had faded from pink to brown, but the original letter was still inside—written on pink stationery that after all these years still smelled faintly of strawberry potpourri. I read the first few lines, then turned and let Garrett see Cookie Sheffs last letter to our father.
“God damn," said Garrett.
“Does your mouth taste funny?" I asked. “Kind of like metal?"
Garrett nodded, then wheeled his chair around to leave.
“And the bastard didn’t even leave us any bourbon to wash it down," he grumbled. “Fucking typical."
After reading the letter several times, Garrett and I either needed to get seriously drunk or do something to take our minds off what we’d learned. We opted for both.
First, Harold put us to work worming thirty-three head of cattle. I’d like to say there was something cathartic about it, but there wasn’t. I had the privilege of clamping the victim’s head between metal bars while Garrett pumped a wad of paste that looked suspiciously like K-Y jelly into the side of the cow’s mouth. If you’ve never seen cattle gag, don’t go out of your way.
When we were done, we sat on the porch drinking Harold’s cheap booze and watching the evening come down over the plains. The sunset was orange, except when you looked at it through a liquor bottle. Then it was brown and yellow.
On the way back to town Garrett and I cranked up the Jimmy Buffett. Occasionally we’d look at each other, then decide not to talk. We both had the letter from the fireplace memorized now, and phrases of it kept gnawing at me. Protests that my father had used Cookie, searched her husband’s private files, and only thus found incriminating documents about Travis Center. Pleas not to break her heart with a public scandal that would destroy her family. Promises that Dan Sheff, Sr., really wasn’t to blame, that Cookie would help my father find out who was responsible for using Sheff Construction to embezzle millions. Fervent affirmations of her love, kept from open admission by her duty to her son, to her sickly husband. The letter implied that my father had made Cookie a deal: Leave her husband and have the Travis Center issue forgotten. Garrett was bothered by it as much as I was, though his way of dealing with it was to curse at the semis on the highway and flip off the snowbirds in their RVs as he zoomed past them.
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