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The opposite of hope.

The Omak Stampede is just another rodeo and you would hear nothing of it if not for the Suicide Race. Three nights and one afternoon at the end of the second week in August, a few cowboys and couple dozen Indians sit aboard horses, sharing whiskey bottles and codeine and listening to the rodeo announcer deliver scores and chide the clowns.

As the events in the fairground close, the announcer directs the audience above and behind the north bleachers. Floodlights staggered on telephone poles blanch the riders and horses atop a sandy bluff across the Okanogan River. The veteran horses nicker and fight their bridles. The others respond until the whole field is astir. Riders yip and arm themselves with quirts and lengths of garden hose filled with gravel meant to beat passing horses and other riders.

Below sputters an outboard motor pushing an aluminum fishing boat and high school lifeguards back and forth on the river. A starter fires a shot and riders and horses leap the bluff and pile down a grade too steep to hold weeds or a man standing. In a breath, half the riders cover the 225-yard 67-degree grade to the water. The rest are afoot or midair before the river, adding tumbling men and horseflesh to the fog of dust and hard light. Those still aboard their mounts flounder through the river and climb a short gravel road from the bank into the fairgrounds, which are once again lit and filled with sound.

Men with concussions, torn tendons, broken legs, arms and fingers litter the slope and the riverbank. Riderless horses graze at the water's edge as if suddenly and quietly pastured. Their reins dangle in the current. Most years, at least one tests a leg or ankle, then limps into the darkness, stunned that something so certain a moment before could be so quickly cast into doubt. Later, in a barn or rendering yard, a veterinarian will inject it with enough pentobarbital to ease its pain and stop its heart and lungs.

Victory is as arbitrary as weather. The fastest team rarely wins. Preparation is not a factor. The race is just as capricious concerning justice. More than one wife-beater or thief has managed to get a mount first into the rodeo grounds, yet never has one employed an alias for his god-given name moniker bellowed across the loudspeaker, though the county deputies award the ribbons because of the frequency of such occurrences.

On Friday August 13, 1982, departing a party my college roommates organized each Stampede weekend, while on our way to the first of the four races, I killed a man. He had handed me a pistol to examine in the back seat of his car. The gun was the property of the Okanogan County Police Department, with whom my friend was interning; a fact that, I am sure, kept me from prison. When the gun fired, he coughed once, then shouted he was hit and fell through his still half open car door. Another friend on the passenger side bolted for the house and the phone. But it was clear: my friend was dying.

An orchard lay across the road and, after that, twenty miles of rock and pine before the next town. I was a league champion in cross-country; I could not be caught on foot. My cousins resided so far into the mountains they claimed their dogs on their income tax forms and the IRS didn't quibble. There is still country enough here in which to disappear for a good, long time. If Randy Weaver had simply kept moving, Ruby Ridge would be only another logging track.

Yet, when the siren's whir finally deafened me and the lights tumbled over the yard, and the cruiser door opened and a police sergeant asked who was responsible, I patted my chest like I'd just committed my last foul in a basketball game.

It is tempting to imply that nobility anchored me to the scene and that honesty required my confession. But if I could have conjured an argument where running improved my lot, I would have bolted like a scalded dog.

The pistol's report in the little car rang in my head for days after, but what I recollect hearing still is my laughter. Someone from elsewhere might have had the good manners to examine the weapon and the good sense to keep it holstered; someone from here would be required to perform a more thorough inspection to demonstrate the appropriate level of admiration. That person, however, would be no more likely to mishandle a pistol than he would his own arm or leg.

At my father's house, he handed me a beer from an opened Budweiser box, and my mother offered me a Valium. I stood in the yard alone, drinking from the can and gazing at the dusk settle onto the rocky cut we called Little Forest. I could smell barbecued chicken from the grocery deli. Hornets darted over the box, and I heard them, then didn't. My mind had never been so emptied; each moment was itself, and I was a humble animal expecting no meaning from them, separate or strung together. I felt there ought to be some romance in this disaster, some honorable wound leading to my redemption, or at least a hypodermic needle filled with something warm and ceaseless to put me down quietly.

The phone rang and I was called to answer it. On the line was my aunt Barb, who was the drunk of the family on my father's side.

"You're the last one I figured an heir to it," she told me.

"What?" I asked.

"Killing," she said.

One cannot help but try to twist tragedy into the beginning or end of some sort of arc of meaning. Blame, pity, anger, compassion, condescension and, later, even resolution requires a place to perch and narrative suits them. Few but the guilty want to discuss the thousands of random events that did or did not occur in a day or a year or life necessary to put a gun in one person's hand and bullet in another.

My father was born into murder. When he was not yet two years old, his father was murdered by his grandfather in the killing to which my aunt alluded. He has no memory of a man older than himself as kin and nothing to compare fatherlessness to. His silence, rather than conferred upon him by an archetype that never breathed a breath except in the bellies of boys and men tapped out of country and worshipping a used-up movie genre, is not a choice and resembles nothing like assurance or calm; it is the opposite: a smoking, frozen inability to act. But, when driven past patience, that silence mustered powers so unhinged from his will, so purely sired in what was before him and his blindness to it, as to be monstrous.

My first clear memory is dangling over the Grand Coulee Dam's safety rail in his hands. Green water poured through the gates then broke into foam corduroy layers against the paved spillway below. The spray soaked me and the wind halted my breath. I squirmed, then stopped, reckoning the consequences, I suppose. My fingers opened and a baby bottle with juice--I was late to wean--tumbled for what seemed like minutes, then disappeared into the froth.

From above, my father said, "Well, I guess you're done with the jug."

That river is gone now. People ski and inner-tube above the dam and, below fish for sexless hybrid trout raised in pens by a cannery on the coast that releases a percentage to placate the tribe for the salmon and steelhead that once bucked the river's current.

I've heard it said that when we declaw all nature's monsters, we'll be looking across the table at the genuine article; whether the speaker meant God or each other, I don't recall. I haven't given up electric light or indoor plumbing, so I'm in no place to judge, my father tells me, and on this, at least, we agree.

Another memory, not much later. I recall my hair on fire--the wind had deposited burning cardboard from the rubbish barrel on my head and held it--me screaming, more scared than hurt--my parents chastising each other over whose fault I was, a child too inadequate to avoid flying debris. The cardboard crinkled my crew cut until the wind shifted and the flaming box-end toward the neighbor's alfalfa where my father stamped it out in a ditch.

It may be tempting to dismiss my father's behavior as cruelty, but that would be an oversimplification. During a party my parents hosted when they were married and I was not yet school age, I lay in bed, bored, howling for water; twice my mother shushed me, kissing me with the same red lipstick that smeared the lip of her cocktail glass. The third time delivered my father. In an instant my pajamas were at my ankles and his raised hand across my ass. During those seconds, I knew who I was and who he was, and felt grateful. He, though, regretted every blow, not with the simple compunction of a father punishing a son, but one born in the distress of never knowing if you're right or wrong before or following the things you do and his doubt caused him to spank me longer than if he'd been sure one way or the other.

Following his army stint, my father's best friend, Dale Rinker and his fiance, end-over-ended a Chrysler two days off a showroom floor. He died; she didn't. The doctors knitted her pelvis and hip back together with fifteen feet of wire, thirty-one screws and four metal bars thick as fingers. She became my father's first wife eleven months later and at some point between my mother.

In their wedding snapshots my mother is cast to her hip. How they managed, I have no idea. I arrived six weeks premature, my mother's broken housing incapable of retaining me and I often worried the stork had deposited me into some country-and-western folk tale in which my father purchased a field already sewn. I knew Rinkers by then, though, and they seemed even odder seed from which to spring.

From such beginnings it is no surprise that my parents marriage didn't last. At seven, I left, along with my little brothers, to be raised by my mother in a variety of venues whose common denominator was an opening for cocktail waitresses. Perhaps it was during this time that my education in masculinity failed. Though I recognized the rituals required of me and responded as fittingly as I could, I participated with a wooden self-consciousness that kept me in constant fear of being found out.

Not long after I turned twelve, my mother married a second time. After my father, she was drawn to bad men. McDonald proved no exception. Mornings, after they'd closed the bars, she would awaken with tufts of hair jerked from her scalp or eyebrows yellowed and swollen. Soon, I found my stepfather's hands raised over me, one a fist, the other cupped to keep the whiskey in his glass. I recall his perfect white predator's grin and the wolfishness behind them that my mother mistook for charm. He'd clouted me into me into the kitchen and a drawer lay open. I withdrew the biggest knife in it.

I am not a brave man. In my few fistfights I have a humble record. So when I returned his smile and tossed the knife from one hand to the other like the thugs on television and closed the distance between us, it was in disregard of what I knew of honor rather than in defense of it.

McDonald blinked hard. His dark pupils widened and the brown irises shifted. Another step and I would be to him, but he anticipated that and backed from the kitchen to the garage with his bourbon. He would remain absent a week, long enough for me to pack and move into my father's basement, where I would sleep in his gun room along with forty-three rifles, twenty-four pistols, a slingshot and a golf bag full of Playboy magazines.

My father called my stepbrother, Steve, The Coyote. Growing up, he bombed the fireworks stand while we hooted like Christ had been elected to Congress. He once ground his ear to a nub when he fell from a pickup moving forty miles an hour. He has a penchant for wild meat and kills game whenever his deep-freeze is empty no matter the season. No one knows if he's married or not, let alone to whom. He embodied the mythical Coyote enough to secure a five-year stretch in federal prison and return with more tattoos and talent at living large without a salary and without anything resembling rehabilitation. He resided in those hinterlands where reason and fear would not permit the rest of us. His existence has become a yarn he is required to add to each day, and which is destroying him. He will never misfire a gun or back away mythic and criminal exploits in the spirit of his mythic namesake or Butch Cassidy or William Bonney. But, but he will likely never love his children or enjoy the assurance of twenty years with the same, good woman, either--such is the other half of manhood in my West.

I was never mistaken for an Animal Person. I read books and went to school and took drugs only on weekends, which permitted me the same anonymity my absence would have. As far as romance, any girl who showed a passing interest in me it seemed insisted upon escorting me to a church service. I would find myself in a pew in thrift shop slacks and a hand-me-down shirt. I had nothing against prayer. Every thought that entered my head struck me as an appeal for a divine quid pro quo of some kind. So I pinched my eyelids and kneeled. Light poured through the stained glass as if it might be wisdom itself; on the way in or out of the sanctuary. I would stand in it and allow it to warm me, and for a moment the girl would look at me strangely, as if I might be taking the whole exercise more seriously than she intended.

Self-annihilation is our dream in the West. We don't worship a god; we grieve his murder and our existence itself is complicity in the crime. It is the essence of our tragic nature. Smart to me always meant the capacity to hotwire a car or retool a firing pin or school a mean dog to guard your truck, subjects in which I found myself barely literate. I was voted class president and had two step-siblings to bootleg beer for me, yet I recall resting on a rock overlooking the river, feeling like a cut steer. Another less apprehensive, more appropriately tormented man might have thrown himself from the cliff's edge to float for a few heroic seconds, then leave a poignant dent in someone's garage or parked car.

The semester of school that followed my crime, I could not sleep. I drank coffee on the sofa gazing at the window waiting for dawn. The lights stitched over the streets and across the buildings. Stars shrank and the sky grew. I picked out church steeples, billboards, the slate roof of houses, all part of the same geometry. In that time before the sun finally stayed in the sky for good and the shadows diminished, my lungs pressed out all of my air, holding me between breaths for so long it seemed that I might have forgotten how to inhale and start again. I sat there, my head wavering and light on my shoulders, waiting for my diaphragm to work. Finally, as the air drove into my lungs, the barely conscious point behind my forehead tingled with oxygen, and I wondered how it was possible, how all this had happened.

A man in this country will take his son to the river and wait for a deer to leave the wheat at dawn or return at twilight, and, together, they will revisit Western narrative in its most fundamental form and, if their luck holds and their aim is worthy, they will take control of the story by ending it. Hunters over a kill cannot help but think of their defining act as finality itself, leaving their imagination no productive direction but backwards toward a time primitive enough to erase their presence. Over a kill one cannot help but consider this act the opposite of hope. Rifle shots and hurtling lead possess all the anarchy necessary to marry geography to misfortune.

Since 1982, I have been diagnosed with maladies ranging from paradoxical narcissistic denial to post-traumatic stress syndrome to adult attention deficit disorder. The pharmacists filled the appropriate prescriptions and I swallowed them according to their various labels and directions, but the medicine served truth, not story and so much truth can grind a man to a nub.

Perhaps, though, the random nature of this universe offers grace as well. As winter approached that same year, a woman named Holly, whom I had known and liked for some time, crossed the room at a party and asked if I wanted to take a walk. Later, I would wonder if it was pity that moved her or if she had tired of the chase enough to settle for someone clearly not up to anything past a trot, but at the time I was happy to be sitting next to someone as kind as she was pretty.

That evening it was cold enough to frost the window and we sat in her Impala hugging and drawing pictures on the frozen glass, then starting the heater to erase them, and kissing until there was enough frost and fog to begin again. I suppose someone might argue that this is the point where story starts to make sense. I prefer to think of it as serendipity, which strikes me as the opposite of tragedy.

I beg my own children's forgiveness several times a year, because forgiveness one can give and receive at the same time. They used to inquire as to why, and I would reply that offering or seeking their pardon needs no rationale. They weren't sure what to make of that answer. Like most people, I tell them, I am wrong more than I am right, but unlike those people, I am their father, and a father, like nations and religions and epic poems, possesses some providential capacity to defy ethics and common sense and convince his own flesh and blood that the fault lies within him. It is too much power for a man or a god or a story to possess.

Older, now, they recognize I am talking to myself when I make such claims, and they politely tarry until I have left enough silence to permit them to go, though they are likely to return with their homework and a question they are sure I can answer or a baseball and our gloves.

The Christ I recognize is an offering to forgive the sins of the Father, not those of Man. Like every parent, the good lord had been mean and selfish and difficult with his flock, and he was heartbroken over it. I know a little of how he feels.

In October, around my birthday, the year I killed a man, my father asked me to visit his home. He had a gift. In his driveway was a sixties-era Ford something or other. The bolts on the trunk still held only the F and the D. Under the hood a hastily soldered radiator bled antifreeze.

I was surprised when it started and even more so the first time I hit the accelerator. The front seat wasn't bolted to the floor. It rolled like a great fish and tossed me into the back. By the time I scrambled to the wheel, the car had hurtled through a neighbor's back yard. My father stood in the street, watching.

"Guess it wasn't the best twenty-five dollars I ever spent," he said.

The next morning, he woke me before light and set a package of long underwear and a hunter orange cap on the bed. He carted the gun cases to the pick-up and we drove to the family ranch in silence. He opted for a point where he could see the entire canyon and I chose a crevice below a rockslide protected from the wind. The remaining leaves appeared slick in the first rays of the light. Rusty basalt and shale spills formed three of the four horizons, a few spindly locusts scattered among the sharp, volcanic rock. The steep canyons deposited earth and rock from the glacial floods along the canyon ridges and bottoms. Sagebrush and Larkspur and Russian Thistle and spindly cheat grass pocked what would hold flora. Locust trees my great grandfather planted a hundred years ago lined the road to the barn. Their wood was hard and made fine fence posts. Grey ash from volcanoes centuries past coated all of it. Up top it was flat and silty easier to draw a plow through, more to farm and less to abandon to pasture and the coyotes and deer. But I imagine being up above left my great-grandfather feeling like he was in the middle of an open room, when he preferred the closeness of two walls and a corner to back him. It limited his profits, but it also narrowed his sightlines and reduced what he had to watch and what he could leave to chance. Even then, choosing this place, he'd thought like a criminal.

Past Moses Mountain, light continued to break. The yellowing morning had nearly reached us when the shale rattled below. Through the grey light, a single buck picked his way toward the river. He stopped and sniffed the air, but it blew the wrong way for him, and he stepped again. His shoulders and hindquarters rolled as he found his footing with each step. Thirty yards away, he turned broadside, the easiest shot. I pressed the rifle's butt to my shoulder and blinked, then found him in the scope.

His mule ears jerked at the clack of a stone above him and after another, he bounced over the ridge, two hundred yards away.

My father stood behind me, another rock at the ready.

"What do you think you're up to?" I said.

"That movie. Deerhunter?"

"I've seen it."

"There wasn't much hunting in it was there?"

Then he sat to keep out of the wind. A while later, he searched his jacket pocket until he found a cigar, the paper old and yellowed. It nearly disintegrated in his hands while he opened it. He bit one end, spit it out and lit the other, then he drew hard until it caught and burned. He and my mother, while they were still married, had once had a tremendous row over who should go to the grocery to buy cigarettes. Neither would go, and they both quit smoking for thirty years.

My father lay his head back and let out a cloud of smoke. The smell was good. He offered it to me.

"Go easy," he said.

"I smoked worse stuff than this," I told him. He held up his hand. "I don't want to hear about all that."

I drew and held the smoke in my mouth and lungs until it was bitter, then let it loose. He took the cigar and puffed. The burning tobacco popped in the wind.

"I bought these when you were born," he said. "Gave them to everybody at the gas station where I was working."

He took the cigar and puffed then laid his head back into the land that was his father's and his grandfather's and before that no one's. He lay in the grass and stared into the sky and so did I. It was deep and blue and I felt lost in it, but when I closed my eyes I could sense the earth moving beneath me, inventing time and memory.

I wanted to circle this place like weather, like the mists of each spring, to be only a shadow across the great rock walls, the yellow prairies, the few bear and cougar still prowling the woods, the pine, tamarack, elm and white-barked birch lining the canyon breaks, and the wiry creeks that unraveled into the thick gash the river that had cut through a thousand feet of basalt and granite.

The killdeer and magpie hushed and the wind dropped. Stillness enveloped the house, the barn, the thirst-strained fields. It covered the horses in the corral we had passed walking in, and it covered the rock of the coulee. It enveloped even the river, and I felt as if I were in huge, comforting hands.
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Author:Holbert, Bruce
Publication:New Orleans Review
Article Type:Short story
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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