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Sid Gustafson

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By Sid Gustafson
Sunday, February 27, 2011

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literary fiction
A short story first published in Inkwell Magazine, and later republished in Big Sky Journal as Time, a story with many lives...


As he aged I would pick him up and drive him around the countryside to wherever he wished. Backroads, backwaters of the Montana we once traveled together. He would make me stop if we saw action along the road, say we happened upon someone digging postholes or moving cattle horseback. And of course we always pulled over if someone looked like they needed help. The stop often became long and talkative, and frequently we ended up at the person’s home on what was left of the 21st century prairie—eating, drinking coffee, exploring the past, lost lives and almost-lost memories, rural Montana memories, exploring our own lives, really, the leftovers at least. This daily travel became his interest, such goings on beyond the pale of an electronic world. His adventures quickly became mine.
And he was my father.

I, having failed the world I set out to conquer, became his caretaker at the turn of the century. My life had broken down and the family—my sister mostly—appointed me his caretaker while she took over my maligned financial and legal affairs. She freed me to take care of him, covering my debts, cleaning up the mess I’d made of my life, a life I’d become quite tired of, a life too bleary to talk about here. 
It is the eldest daughter who does such things, takes care of the aging parent, the strayed brother—in Montana it is anyway. I was more than happy to oblige her request to be his keeper. In my youth my father and I had seldom seen eye to eye. I thought being his caretaker might be a good and even necessary opportunity to excavate the experiences of the man who produced me. Maybe it would help me merge with the world with which I’d become such a stranger. 
So we drove the country of my childhood, the countryside of his prime. We drove a long Caddy, one of those boats with fins, an ancient Coupe deVille that often carried too low for the roads of our ventures. I don’t remember its year, but the radio had a ‘Wonder Bar’ that automatically found Canadian AM stations that played real music. I had to maintain a good supply of chewing gum in the jockey box to repair gas tank leaks caused by the unforgiven roads we preferred. Fresh-chewed Juicy Fruit worked best. 
In his day Dad was a veterinarian, the only veterinarian around. We’d traveled this landscape together many years before and both knew it well, he of course better than I. And in these new travels we were able to—for once, at last—think together. I would see something, a broke down shed or barn, and he, he would reminisce about the building; how a heifer had jumped through its window. A window to small to seem possible for her to escape through. A window she indeed somehow scrambled through after she had arisen from a caesarian surgery he’d performed. I, silent witness to this all back then as his meticulous and underappreciated assistant, remained silent once again as he recapitulated it all. 
I remember how the farmer had no horse to go get the heifer, and how my father (and I) lured the cow back into the barnyard with her calf, preying on the maternal instincts we knew would soon overcome her fear, her fear of surgery, a normal fear for a young cow. Now only the barn remains, its window still small and impossible. The house where we were served hot apple pie, homemade cheese, and cocoa afterwards is flattened. A tilted stovepipe remains. With the right ears you can hear it humming better times in the wind, its music a pleasant remnant of that meal; farmer gone, livestock gone, everyone gone but the wind that sweeps time through its world… . On we’d go, coming upon another memory, another flash of recollected landscape. The wind urged us on. Even as the land wears out and its people get old and die, the wind knows no rest. 
I liked driving my father thus, mainly because he now allowed me to dream freely. Recent others have not been so kind. He never chastised me for my thoughts or dreams, and I still clung to a hope that someday I might begin my life over. A hope he never disputed or criticized. This was a different situation than when I was his child, when he in his all-knowing stance that comes upon fathers of teenage children, told me repeatedly what would be best for me, for my life. But he was over that now and nearly over his own life, didn’t tell me anymore what he thought or what he knew to be best for me. He gave that up. Finally. And it pleased me immensely. Every mile a different dream. 
Of course back then I never followed his advice. I never became the banker he suggested I become, nor the cattle buyer. No, against his advice I became a musician. Jazz. I still think my failure was at least a noble failure, somehow better than my father’s unrewarded success. Yes, music was perhaps a mistake, and in a way it was a huge mistake, but after all, it eventually landed me here, where I’m sure I presently belong, driving him over the stouthearted life I somehow tried to create for myself but never could manage, no more blowing saxophone smoke. No, time took care of that life, time without money.
We did a different peregrination routine most every day. My sister had made arrangements for purchasing gas and the only rule was that neither of us drink alcohol or take drugs, pastimes at which we had both become quite accomplished. One day we drove over a rise, one of many rises. In the middle of a bleak landscape, a place where shortgrass prairie had somehow missed the plow, an old cowboy fixed fence. He led a horse by the rein tucked in his back pocket. The horse grazed, and when cowboy moved down the line, faithfully followed. Each time the cowboy stopped to mend the fence the horse foraged the last of the summer dried grass. The man seemed surprised we stopped. He later remarked it didn’t happen often. What happened is one of those stories I must tell you:
“Hello,” the cowboy says.
“Lo,” my father responds as he struggles out of the deep leather seat, grabbing the top of the door to tug himself up and into the fresh air. He manages his left elbow to the roof and levers himself fully upright, wavering a bit before catching his breath and moving away from our automobile. I shut down her engine. A welcome gust delivers us both from of the car, a breezy world. The horse pricks his ears, he too, amazed we stopped. 
“Need any help?” Dad asks.
“Help?” the last rancher in the county answers, no cattle in sight. He looks to me as if I might be in charge of my decrepit father’s words, as if my aging dad couldn’t help if he tried. 
“He wants to talk, that’s all,” I offer, throwing an arm in the air, as if to send my father his way. My dad hobbles across the barrow pit, a precarious effort in the wind. 
Ol’ dad did pretty good physically until he hit 80 and the physical wasting began. Each month he gets thinner and drier, I witness to the steady demise. Despite the progression of this frailty, he uses the wind to balance rather than let it hinder, a balance a lifetime spent in this wind bestows. I wander to the other side of the road and do some stretching exercises while my father does his old-timey thing with the cowboy. It used to embarrass me, his forthrightness with strangers, but at this age I welcome his practice of conviviality. It keeps his mind sharp, helps anyway. Others his age, old cronies of his stranded by the empty prairie of their ancestors, rot in their television Barca-loungers, ensconced in the smell of old age, piss and sour milk. Forays into the wind, however ill-conceived, keep my father from smelling that way. And his thinking, his thinking is clearer than theirs. This roadwork keeps it so. 
The Sweetgrass Hills are to the north, the near north. Did I tell you the wind here rinses the mountains as well as life? We are somewhere north of Galata, MT, a squalid ghost town along the HiLine. Most of the country is farmed. No one, hardly anyone, unlike the good ol’ days of the 20th century, keeps cows anymore. The old cowhand my father approaches seems an exception, despite no cows in sight. If he doesn’t really have cattle—if he isn’t really a cowboy with cows—at least he’s still out pretending, and I can relate to that. We seldom stop to visit farmers. We tried, but they did not cotton to my old man disparaging the narrowness of their grain growing. Dad never liked monocultures. A veterinarian wouldn’t, you know. A wheatfield wiped out everything. He witnessed a lot of diversity plowed under, a lot of cows sent down the road to turn Mother Earth insideout and end it all. 
I gaze through the wind to the Hills, sacred Hills to the Indians, today apparent just how sacred, the only wildness remaining. The wind somehow magnifies them. They are green and blue and silver. Their diversity floats upon a magical mirage of waviness, color rising above the brownish farmland, exalted jewels of wilderness. Three huge hills—mountains by any standards other than Montana’s. Cattle and elk and deer and swift foxes abound, unlike the wasteland about us, wasteland but for the unfarmable coulee the make-believe cowboy fences off from the rest of the world. 
A wire is down, broken. Dad wobbles along the fenceline to gather the broken end from the dirt. The cowboy retrieves the other end and they lean toward each other trying to bridge the gap the broken wire has left. They do not talk, strenuously attending the mending task at hand. My father amazes me. He deliberately wraps a piece of splicing wire to his end while the cowboy retrieves the fence stretcher from his horse. Cowboy hooks the stretcher to his end, my dad has added wire to his. The cowboy opens the clamp, my father drops the extension in and the ratcheting begins. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. Two ends come together. The wire slowly lifts its length out of the grass and dirt. When taut enough to hold cattle, my dad weaves a splice and the cowboy pops the stretcher off. A few staples pounded into the weakened fencepost wood. A mended fence. 
The rancher sights down the fenceline. He wiggles an aging post. The rusted wire creaks and moans. Their splice holds true .
I look to the sun balancing in the southern sky, not quite to the top of the day. “What time is it?” I ask. The cowboy looks at me, expressionless. “The time, you know,” I gesture to my wrist and then to the sun. 
“Time? I don’t believe in time,” he says. 
My dad chuckles and starts walking down the barrow pit along the fence. The cowboy mounts and rides on the inside of the fence. I hop in the deVille and drag slowly down the road, get ahead a ways to stop and wait and look and dream about starting another life when Dad doesn’t need me anymore. Sun chafes the sky. I monitor the two fencers as they approach, marionettes in the rearview mirror. I watch them talk and gesture, my hobbling dad afoot, the cowboy atop his horse, pointing to the sky, to the earth, nodding in a communal knowing of the land, how it was. They catch up. I check on my father. Is he winded? No, not terminally anyway. We repeat this to and fro process. Occasionally they stop and mend the fence, but it seems after awhile they just walk and talk, the fence good enough. Secure my father is in good shape, and in good hands, I drive way ahead. Next time I look back dad is riding the horse! Did I tell you he’s also a cowboy? Yeah, quite a cowboy in his time, quite a horsemen all around.
The next spurt I come upon a missile silo cordoned off in a wheat field that borders the last shortgrass prairie. It is surrounded by a ten-foot-high cyclone fence festooned with coils of concertina wire. I step out to inspect the eyesore. Yellow and red warning signs poke up everywhere. Serious talk. These missiles went in when I was little, during the moo-cow heydays. Nuclear warheads. As far as I know, one still points over the world from here. We meet at the missile fence.
“What do you think will happen if we were to touch the wires?” the rancher asks in abeyance of all the nasty warnings. He almost seems riled up, as if this is a new development, this missile silo; but it is not. He speaks to neither me nor my father, but to the wind, his most constant companion. The wind answers with a little dust devil. We contemplate the trespassing signs. Government Property it says. Keep Out Under penalty of Law. Stay Away! DANGER. 
“It used to be my land,” Ike says. My dad introduced me earlier to him as Ike, a patriotic name I thought.
“Nice fence,” I say as I look up to the gyration of razor blades. The two look at me like I’m a child. My father struggles down from the horse. He limps to the nuclear fence and begins clipping the wires with his fencing tool. It takes all of his strength and he is only able to clip a few strands. 
“Enough,” I say. Being the well-behaved obedient father he is, as I once was as his son, he stops.
Stranded with nothing more to do, feeling foolish, Ike invites us to his house. He unsaddles and turns his horse loose in the field where they just fixed the fence. I throw his saddle in our spacious dust-riddled trunk and we detour around the hydrogen bomb launch site to the yonder ranch house where Ike boils some cowboy coffee. About the time we start sipping an Air Force surveillance van pulls in the yard with its gumball flashing. A Military Policeman enters unannounced and asks, “Who cut the hole in the missile fence?” 
No one speaks but the wind, which howls. The officer storms out and brings back two baby-faced airmen. They handcuff us, all three. Dad sneaks me a smile, a leer with twinkle, an eye I’d not noticed sparkle recently. They lead us outside and put us in their vehicle and drive us to Great Falls. A nice trip after I convinced them, because of their age, to let Ike and Dad be handcuffed with their hands in front (and, of course, myself as well as long as they had the keys out). The trouble gets a little taller when they strip search us and put us in jail at Malmstrom Air Force Base. I finagle a phone call to my sister who lives in town. She’s a lawyer. 
She springs us after a few hours. By the time we are released it’s dark outside.
“Were you drinking?” she asks.
“No,” I say. My father nods that I am honest, his eyes twinkling like quasars. 
Sis drives us back across midnight Montana to our car parked at Ike’s ranch and drops us off in the middle of nowhere where we belong. We stand outside and watch her taillights fade into the nothingness of the Big Open. We look up. My dad takes us through the stars. Deneb, Vega, and Altair highlight the Milky Way.
“Pathway of souls,” he says, waving his frail arm across the universe.
We stay overnight. 
The wind blows.
Ike lives alone, all hat and no cattle. 
The next morning we drive south after the sun rises. 


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