by Richard Luftig
James Bainbridge liked osage orange better than any tree in Montana. Maybe it was because neither of them really belonged. The osage seeds had hitched a ride, probably on some pioneer’s wagon from Oklahoma. Now, its orange wood and hedge apples were part of the everyday landscape, but James, coming from San Francisco to attend his father’s funeral, still felt like an intruder.
It was two years since his last rip back. He flew from California to Cheyenne and from there on a puddle jumper to Havre. Scott, his younger brother, picked him up, and they were driving the 200 miles to the family ranch. In Montana, a 150-mile drive was little more than a ride for groceries, especially with the 80 MPH speed limit that most Montanans interpreted as 100. These huge distances were something James had forgotten living in the California metropolis.
And the quiet. James had forgotten that, too. Little traffic, just the occasional feed truck on the two-lane road. Not to mention the silence inside the car. Scott hadn’t said more than three sentences the whole trip. This was fine with James. He didn’t want to argue, about being away so long, going to college, then leaving the ranch, defending, again, his being gay. He knew all that would surface soon enough when the family got together.
He was startled from his thoughts by the static of the radio. He turned to see Scott paying no attention to the road but instead twirling the station dial. “Jesus,” James shouted over the din. “Pay attention to your driving. You’re going to get us killed.”
His brother gave the radio a bang with the side of his fist but went back to watching the road. “Don’t worry. Nothing out here this time of the afternoon.”
Yeah, except for the odd deer, semi trailer and escaped cattle. What’s so important on the radio that you have to get us into a wreck?”
“The farm report. I can usually get it from the Billings station but the signal’s too weak out here. Always a good thing to know how much money we’re losing.”
He shot James a look. “You used to be interested in that stuff but I guess there aren’t too many cattle in the big city.”
James opened his mouth to say something but thought better of it. He looked out the windshield. The truck’s wipers swished over the spitting rain and sleet. Though it was not yet November, the sky was the dun color that portended snow. It was the time that ski slope owners in the mountains looked forward to but ranchers in the plains worried about: frozen livestock and having to haul in expensive hay when the snow became too deep for the cattle to forage.
Despite the heater being on, it was drafty in Scott’s truck. James wished he had remembered to bring a hat. He ran his hands through his black hair, now graying at the temples. He would be turning forty in two months but working out at his health club made him look ten years younger. His brown eyes, hidden behind wire-framed glasses, made him look bookish like the lawyer he was.
They drove the remainder of the trip in silence until Scott pulled off the road and up the mile-long rutted lane that served as the driveway to the house. Again, James remembered the distances to everything. Just to reach the mailbox, one had to drive to the bottom of the lane or walk fifteen minutes each way. Nothing was easy out here, he reminded himself.
The truck came up the drive, the crunching of the hedge apples under the tires a better signal to the folks inside than the front doorbell. James reached into the back seat for his suitcase but his brother beat him to it. “Traveling pretty light,” he said, lifting the bag. “Not aiming to stay long, I guess.”
James wanted to postpone the inevitable argument. “Don’t know how long I can stay. I have trial cases back home.”
Scott frowned. “Well, just so you know that’s not how Mom’s thinking. She figures you’ll stay awhile.”
James wished he could hijack the truck back to the airport.
“Just Mom thinking that way?”
Scott shook his head. “No, all of us. With Dad gone, this ranch won’t run itself. We’ll need all the help we can get.”
James took the bag from Scott. “Can we put this off for a while? I’ve been traveling all day. Right now, all I want is to see Mom and have a cup of coffee. We can deal with this other stuff later. Okay?”
Scott opened the front door. “Fair enough. But be aware that Mom’s loaded for bear on the subject. I’m just trying to give you a heads-up.”
They walked in, and James dropped his bag on the hallway floor. Before he could get off his coat, his mother was in his arms, sobbing and stroking the back of his neck.
“Jim! Thank God, you’re home. I’ve been worried sick that you wouldn’t make connections and make it for the… for Dad.”
For a moment, he didn’t realize that she was talking to him. Nobody called him Jim in California. He had always preferred James, even as a boy, but somehow, maybe out of sheer stubbornness or because they thought he was putting on airs, everyone in Montana called him Jim.
He gave his mother a kiss on the cheek. “I made it, Mom. No problem. You didn’t need to worry. Not with everything else going on.”
He saw that her eyes were red from crying. She was wan, the creases in her forehead deeper than when he had seen her last. He cursed his selfishness for staying away so long.
The next two days were a blur: viewings at the funeral home, services at the church, the gathering at the house afterwards. He was grateful that his mother had stood up reasonably well under the strain. Maybe there was something to keeping the grieving busy. Mostly, he was happy that either through awkwardness or because they were involved with their own thoughts, people pretty much left him alone.
The morning after the funeral, he was awakened by the smell of bacon. Even though as part of the San Francisco culture, he generally swore off meat, the smells wafting from the kitchen made him hungry. He hastily got dressed and walked downstairs.
His mother was at the stove, her back to him. He walked over and gave her a quick kiss.
“Jim, you’re up. I’m making breakfast. There’s coffee in the pot. Now sit down and get ready for a real meal, not the bran muffins and granola they feed you in California.”
He took a mug from the shelf and poured a cup.
“There’s milk in the ‘fridge and sugar on the counter,” his mother said.
“No thanks, I take it black.”
“Well, thank God there’s still a little Montana left in you that ‘Frisco hasn’t worked loose.”
He sat down at the kitchen table that sat eight, more if you put in the extension leaf. He thought again of the differences between here and California. In his rabbit hutch of an apartment, he could barely fit a table for two in the tiny space that the landlord claimed to be an eat-in kitchen so that he could double the rent. Here in Montana, the kitchen was the center of activity, the place where folks congregated, discussing whatever was important in their lives. The only problem was that before he had left most of the talks were arguments with his father about his life choices. His mother spatulaed three fried eggs and probably a half-pound of bacon onto his plate along with two slabs of buttered toast.
“Jesus, Mom, you trying to give me a heart attack? They’re going to have to clear my arteries with a plumber’s snake.”
He was rewarded with a laugh, the first one he’d heard from her since his return home.
“No, just trying to fatten up my boy who’s gotten pretty thin since the last time I saw him. Maybe get him to stay home for a spell for some home cooking. You can’t blame a mother for that.”
“Don’t talk, eat.”
He was through his second egg and fourth piece of bacon when she sat down next to him.
“Jim we need to talk,”
“This might not be the best time.”
He saw her eyes flash with anger. “And when would be the best time? When you’re back in California and can handle it by email?”
“I just meant….”
Her anger seemed to leave as quickly as it had surfaced. “I’m sorry,” she said, taking his hand. “I know what you meant. It’s just that I’d rather talk to you face to face.”
He put down his coffee. “All right. You have my undivided attention but I already know what this is about.”
She sighed. “Yes, you probably do. But that doesn’t make it any less important. Your brothers want you to stay. They need you to help run the ranch.”
“I have a more ulterior motive. I want my son back.”
James felt terrible, even though he had been expecting this conversation from the moment he had come home three days ago.
“Mom, you know why I left in the first place, why I can’t come back here to stay.”
“You mean because you’re gay?”
“That among other things.”
“Times have changed,” she said.
“Not in Montana. You forget how Dad, right here told me he wasn’t going to have some queer for a son. It’s why I left. I would have died if I stayed here.”
“But your father’s gone now. He can’t reach you.”
“Yeah, but everyone else is still here. Scott, Ryan, their wives, their children. Everybody in this town still looks at me like I’m about to corrupt their children.”
He took a long breath. “Even you.”
Her eyes grew wide in amazement. “Me? Jim, that’s cruel. Have I ever been anything but supportive?”
He cursed himself. Why bring this up now when she was most vulnerable?
“I’m sorry, Mom. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Well, the door’s been opened,” she said. “So let’s hear it.”
He took a sip of coffee. “Okay. Let me ask you a question. Why do you and everybody else around here persist in calling me Jim?”
“Because that’s your name. Would you rather we all call you Bob?”
He laughed in spite of himself. “No, but I go by James. I always have. It’s the name everyone uses for me in California. I’ve tried for years to get you to call me that, but you never have.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll try to do better. But what does that have to do with my not supporting your being gay?”
“Maybe not all that much when taken alone. But it goes to how you see me, how you want me to be. Jim. A rancher. A man’s man. Somebody that makes you proud instead of an embarrassment.”
He choked on the words. “Somebody’s who’s not a queer.”
He saw from the shock on her face that he had gone too far. Still, he wasn’t sorry that the subject had finally surfaced. It was like he was coming out all over again, only stronger.
His mother picked up his plate and coffee cup from the table and began to rinse them off in the sink. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought she was crying.
“Mom, I’m sorry. Not for who I am but for causing you…. and Dad pain over the years.”
Her back was still to him but she waved him off with her hand.
“You said that being gay wasn’t the only one reason you couldn’t come back. What are the others?”
“Well, my law practice for one.”
She turned. “They have lawyers in Montana, so let’s not play games. What’s the real reason?”
He paused, wondering how best to phrase his next sentence.
“I have someone back in California.”
He could see she was shocked. “You mean like a lover?”
“No, Mom, a frog. What have we been talking about for the last ten minutes?
She smiled at his joke. “What’s his name? Is it serious?”
He fiddled with the spoon on the table. “His name is Robert. And to answer your second question, I don’t know. It could be. We’ve been together about a year. We’re working on it.”
“Well, Robert could stay here with us. He’d like Montana. We could get to know him while you helped get things here in working order.”
“Where would he sleep, Mom, in the spare bedroom? Or better yet, with me in my old room? I can just see Scott and Ryan handling that one, not to mention Dad spinning in his grave. And I’m sure that would go over real big in the Methodist Church, you having to listen to sermons about homosexual fornicators condemned to hell.”
She sat down again, a resigned look on her face.
“So, that’s it then? You can’t stay at least until we get back on our feet, emotionally and otherwise? Even for your mother?”
He took her hand and gave it a squeeze. “That’s what I love most about you. Your gift of guilt. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
She kissed him on the forehead. “I love you, too. Now quit stalling and answer the question.”
He got up. “Let me think about it. But right now, I need to get some exercise. Those eggs and carbs you just fed me have cemented my ass to the chair.”
He walked upstairs to shower and shave. Had he actually just agreed to consider staying in Montana? He had spent most of his life trying to get out. He shook his head in amazement. His mother still had the magic touch.
Scott and Ryan blew into the house shortly after noon. James was on the couch with his computer working on a law brief for one of his clients.
Ryan walked over and snapped the case shut while Scott unplugged the computer. “Jesus! What are you two doing?”
“Old Montana tradition,” Ryan laughed while unceremoniously dumping James off the couch onto the rug. “Younger brothers take older brother out to get drunk early in the afternoon.”
James sat back down laughing, trying to maintain his dignity.
“Old Montana tradition, huh? Since when?
“Since today,” Scott said. “Get your coat; we’re going on a bender.”
Their mother walked into the living room drying her hands on a dishtowel. “I thought I heard you two come in. I’m making lunch.”
“Sorry Mom,” Ryan said, giving her a kiss. “No time. We’re all going to drink our lunch.”
She looked at James. “You in on this, too?”
James shrugged. “Guess so. It’s not like I have a whole lot of choice.”
She looked serious. “Who’s the designated driver on this field trip?”
Ryan and Scott pointed at one another. “He is,” they said, in unison.
“Oh, God,” she said. “James, will you take responsibility for these two lunatics? See that they don’t run their truck off the road and kill some innocent cows.”
James laughed. “I’ll do my best.”
“Don’t worry about us, Mom, and don’t make dinner,” Ryan said. “We’re going to get this guy so drunk that he’s not only going to stay on the ranch, he’s going to offer to buy us out.”
James laughed and called over his shoulder. “Fat chance.”
An hour later, the three were sitting in the back of The Stockade Bar. Their small table was crowded with beers—James couldn’t remember how many Coors came in a bucket. Just about all of the bottles were empty thanks to Scott and Ryan. James was still slowly sipping on his first trying to make his lack of drinking inconspicuous. Part of it was the promise to his mother that he would stay sober to drive everyone home. But mostly it was because he had always disliked the taste and smell of beer, especially stale beer, which seemed to leak out of every crack of the old bar.
“Admit it, big brother,” Scott said, clinking James’ bottle in a toast. “You miss all this.”
James took a small swig. “Yeah, I do. I mean who wouldn’t miss a bunch of cowboys like yourselves puking all over their boots and passing out dead drunk in the afternoon.”
He saw that Ryan hadn’t appreciated his attempt at humor. “Yeah, I do miss it in a way. It’s a long way from San Francisco.”
Scott slapped the table for emphasis. “Precisely my point!” James could see his brother was well along the way of being gloriously drunk, even by Montana standards.
“Why would you want to leave all of this for some big city? Here is where you belong, with your family. We want you here—check that—we need you here—to help us run things with Dad gone.”
“What my moronic brother is trying to explain,” Ryan said, “is that him and me are too dumb to run the legal side of the ranch. We’re okay doing the grunt work, the day-to-day stuff, but we need you to be the brains of the outfit.”
He put down his bottle and looked into James’ eyes. “We might lose the business, Mom included, if we don’t have someone savvy, like yourself, to run it.”
James had never seen his brothers so vulnerable before. They’d spent their entire lives trying to prove how independent they were, hiding their emotions, never wanting, or needing anyone. Now, they were pleading with him to stay.
He was grateful when a woman, maybe forty years of age—it was difficult to tell with her makeup and the dim light in the place– walked over to their table. He was more surprised when she directed her attention to him.
“Jim Bainbridge? Is that really you?”
He couldn’t quite place her.
“It’s me. Laura Franklin—well, Laura Stevens now. We went to high school together. Come on, don’t tell me you don’t recognize an old flame.”
It took a few moments for the tumblers to click in.
“Sure. Laura. Of course, I remember. It’s been a long time.”
She smiled. “Twenty odd years but who’s counting? Heard you were a big-time lawyer living in California.”
“Don’t know about the big– time part, but I plead guilty to being a lawyer.” Laura put her hand on his shoulder. “I was sorry to hear about your father.” She looked at the beer bottles littering the table. “Guess you’re commiserating the Montana way.”
“Yeah, these two criminals kidnapped me from the ranch, and now they’re trying to get me drunk enough so I’ll promise to move back here.”
“Is that such a bad idea?” she asked.
James decided to change the subject. “So, besides being married, what do you do?”
“Well, for one, I own this place. So the next round of beers is on me.”
>Scott raised his bottle in a toast to her. “God bless you, my child.”
She laughed. “Yeah, right.
She was interrupted by shouting at the bar.
“Laura! You going to gab all day over there? We need refills.”
Three cowmen were sitting on the barstools drinking through their day off. James recognized them as men who did odd jobs on the ranches around the county.
“In a minute. Just lick the bottom of your beer bottles till I get there. That should hold you for a while.”
One guy angrily got up, pushing over his barstool in the process. “Hey dammit, we’re regular paying customers. So how about you stop discussing steers and queers with the Bainbridge boys and come over here and serve us up?”
James wasn’t sure if he’d heard right, but Scott’s reaction was unmistakable. He picked up an empty bottle by the neck, stood up and began to move menacingly toward the bar.
“You son of a bitch,” Scott shouted. “Say that again so I can bash in your skull without feeling bad about it.”
James grabbed the bottle from his brother and pulled him down. “Stop it! That’s all we need in the county paper. Bainbridge brothers involved in barroom brawl while mourning death of their father.”
He got up. “Let’s just get out of here and call it a day.”
He turned to Laura. “Sorry for the disturbance.”
“No,” she said, “That stuff doesn’t fly in my place. Let me handle it.”
She walked behind the bar and came up holding a baseball bat. She pointed it at the three cowmen.
“You guys just lost your guest privileges,” she said. “You want to be homophobes– oh wait, I realize your vocabulary is too limited to know what that means– you do it some other bar. Clear out!”
“Get off it, Laura,” one of the men said, “we’re paying customers. And regulars too. Why are you taking up sides with those pretty boys?”
She slammed the bar so hard with the bat that their beers tipped over. “That’s a warning,” she said. “The next swat is aimed for your heads. Now get out!”
Scott and Ryan stood up and walked over to where Laura was standing, ready to offer any support she might need.
The men moved off their barstools towards the door. “Okay,” one said, “we’re leaving. But don’t be shocked if your business drops dead after we tell everyone in town you’re a queer lover.”
“You three are a decade too late,” Laura said. “No one around here gives a crap about that stuff anymore. I’ll take my chances without your business.”
After the three left, she turned and gave James a hug. “I apologize to all of you. Those yahoos I just threw out—we’re not all like that. Unfortunately, there’s no statute of limitations on stupid.”
But the mood was dead. The brothers finished their beer, paid the tab and left.
Back in the truck, James took the wheel “Well, I thought that went well,” he said, trying to break the tension.
“Screw him,” Scott growled. “We should have stayed, if nothing else than to drive those guys crazy.”
James shook his head. “No, that wouldn’t have proved anything. But now you see why I can’t stay on here. We’d be facing that stuff everyday.”
“They’re not all like that,” Ryan said. “Look at the way Laura stood up for you. Scott and me too. That ought to tell you something.”
“I know,” James said. “You guys were great. Thanks.”
“Hey,” Scott said. “You may be an asshole, but you’re our asshole. If anybody’s going to make your life miserable, it’s going to be us. You stick around; we’ll have your back anytime you need it. That ‘s what brothers do.”
James turned the truck into the dirt drive. “Maybe. But I don’t have it in me to be a pioneer and, with more guns around here than people; I sure don’t want to be a martyr.”
He parked the truck and turned off the engine. “No, if its one thing that growing up here has taught me it’s that people ought to stay where they belong.”
He felt tears coming to his eyes. “For me, that’s not here.”
They got out of the truck. Scott and Ryan headed for the house, but James moved toward the barn.
“Where you going?” Scott called.”
“I’m going to ride the range for a while. I need to clear my head.”
“Well, you better take Dad’s rifle. It’s in the box by the tools. You’ve been in the city a long time and might not remember, but there’s wolves and the occasional rattler. You don’t want to be out there without a firearm.”
James entered the barn and got the rifle, checking to make sure it was loaded.
It was interesting, he thought. Having a gun in San Francisco could get you five years in prison. Out here, you didn’t even need a permit.
He mounted up one of the horses, putting the rifle in the scabbard. Scott was right. You never knew what you might find out on the rangeland. Better to be prepared.
He rode off east knowing that border of the ranch was the shortest edge of the property. He could get to the far fences and make it back to the house before the sun went down.
The land was as he always remembered it: flat, square, open. Osage orange trees appeared among the sage, the hedge apples lying at the base of each tree, waiting to be smashed by cattle and then for the seeds to be carried away by the constant prairie wind.
James wondered why it was that the land was so wide but people’s minds so narrow. Perhaps, the two were connected, that people could only make it in these hostile expanses by keeping their minds tight on a strict set of beliefs. Somehow, people like him were a threat.
aybe his brothers were changing. He realized for the first time in a long while how much they loved him. Maybe if his father had lived even he would have accepted his oldest son.
Nearing the edge of the ranch, he saw something. At first, he couldn’t make it out, but as her came closer, he saw that a broken fence section was lying on top of a calf. Its legs were tangled in the broken wood and wire.
As James rode up to the scene, he wondered if it had been an act of vandalism, maybe by one of the townspeople not happy about his being home. He dismissed the notion. He was getting paranoid, he thought, especially after what had gone on earlier today at the bar. No, this was just some old osage fence that had rotted over the years in the relentless bake and freeze of Montana weather. His father would have never let the situation get this bad but, as he had gotten increasingly ill, much of the chores like fence mending had lapsed. It was just another reason; James told himself, why he was needed here.
The calf was moaning. James dismounted and tied his horse to a fencepost. He looked around for others of the herd but they were nowhere in sight. Probably, they were headed back toward the barn to get out of the cold. Even the calf’s mother had left it to die.
He tried to comfort the animal. We’re both outcasts, he thought. Neither of us have any chance of surviving out here.
James knew what he should do. He took out the rifle. He could see the terror in the animal’s eyes, but it also looked like it was pleading with him. From his years spent with ranchers, James knew not to be sentimental over animals or attribute human qualities to them. Still, it was unmistakable; the animal seemed to be begging. But for what? To live? To be put out of its misery? James felt like if he could only get the answer, right here, right now, it would go far in clearing up the questions about his own life.
He reached down and felt the animal’s foreleg. Nothing seemed broken, perhaps the animal could be saved, mended. Maybe, it could rejoin the herd.
James replaced the rifle. He struggled to free the calf then propped up the fence section the best he could without any tools. The calf got to its feet, hesitated, and then took off with a limp toward the safety of the barn.
Animals know the best way home, he thought. James wished he did, too.
He noted the exact spot. With the sun going down, all of the land might look the same: sparse, bare, and dizzying in its loneliness. Everywhere, were stunted and scattered osage orange trees. But James had grown up on this ranch, ridden it as a boy to the far reaches of its property. He knew where he was.
He realized now that the osage orange had the advantage on him. It might have been an outlier once but now it was as accepted as the sagebrush that was indigenous to the land.
James wondered if he could ever fit into the place like the osage orange. Maybe one day. But was now that time? He had given the calf the opportunity to live, to contribute to the welfare of the ranch. Shouldn’t he do the same for his mother, his brothers, himself?
He would need to tell Scott where it was so he could fix it. James knew he was upstairs at the ranch sleeping off his drunk. But James knew his brother. He’d be up and about soon enough without even a headache.
Good, he thought. It would give him time to talk to his mother.
And Robert. James needed to call him in San Francisco. He wondered how his lover would take the news.