Craig Nova ~ Rattlesnake

(from NWW archives)

Earl MacKenzie owned a movie ranch in Chatsworth, California. The place was a col­lec­tion of facades, all of them made of wood that had aged to the col­or of a jackrab­bit. The facades lined two blocks of a dusty street, and on them there were signs for a saloon, a bar­ber shop, a mar­shal’s office, a gen­er­al store, a black­smith, and a hotel. A plank side­walk ran in front of them, and there were some hitch­ing posts in the street. The hitch­ing posts looked like some kind of rus­tic ath­let­ic appa­ra­tus, like par­al­lel bars in a nud­ist camp. A few of the doors were open and through them there were the hills which were behind the movie ranch. The hills were a whitish brown and they were rocky, although there was a lot of mica in them, the pieces of it look­ing like thin, fran­gi­ble sec­tions of glass. In the after­noon, the sun­light hit them and the hills began to shim­mer.

Earl had a nephew, a man of thir­ty-five whose name was Charlie Oats. Charlie lived in the East, but he had come to California on busi­ness. Now he drove up the main high­way to the entrance of the movie ranch, which was a gate in a split rail fence, and above the gate there was a cross bar on two uprights, and from it there hung a sign, on a piece of wood that was as weath­ered and gray as the movie ranch itself, and on which, in dim let­ters, it was almost pos­si­ble to make out “Bar Star, Open to The Public 365 days a year, admis­sion twen­ty-five cents.” Charlie drove under­neath the sign. The hills were a whitish col­or in the morn­ing, and beyond them there was a blue, clear sky. It was September, and this is the most pleas­ant month in California.

Earl lived in a house, a stuc­co cov­ered bun­ga­low, which was behind the Livery Stable at the end of the street. There was a cement porch, where Earl sat in an alu­minum chair that had aqua­ma­rine web­bing. He wore a cow­boy shirt with moth­er of pearl snaps, a string tie with a sil­ver and turquoise clasp, blue jeans, and a pair of bed­room slip­pers. Earl’s car, a nine­teen six­ty-three Cadillac with bald tires, was parked just behind the cor­ral. Earl made his own beer, and the house was always filled with the scent of malt and hops. There was a car­boy and a water seal, too, which sat on a table behind the screen door.

Oats got out of the car and stood in front of the house while a trail of dust blew up through the main street of town and then around the car. Earl looked down from the porch and said, “Jesus H. Christ. That isn’t Charlie, is it? Well, well, come on up and sit on the porch.”

Hello, Uncle Earl,” said Oats.

Say, look at your clothes,” he said. “You look like a real Easterner. I guess that’s what you’ve become.”

Oats shrugged.

Maybe,” he said.

Well, sure you are. Hell, it takes all kinds to make a world, does­n’t it?”

Oats sat down on the porch and they both looked out on the movie ranch. The dust blew away, tak­ing with it an odor that remind­ed Charlie of the dusty sum­mers, imbued with a kind of patience, that he had spent at the movie ranch, and then he smelled the scent of the hops and grain, and for a while he wait­ed, not only hav­ing the del­i­cate fra­grance in his nose, but feel­ing, too, almost as a phys­i­cal sen­sa­tion, the num­ber of years the scent trav­eled through with such ease. From Earl’s house, the movie ranch did­n’t look so bad, although even from a dis­tance there were tum­ble weeds in the alleys, and in the shade of the wood­en side­walk there were rat­tlesnakes now.

You remem­ber, Charlie, what this place was like?” said Earl.

Sure, I do,” said Oats. “I worked enough sum­mers here, did­n’t I?”

I had Crash Corgon here. Right down there. And Gabby Hayes and Hoot Gibson.”

And Tommy Mack,” said Oats.

That’s right. And his horse Clipper. Tommy had a lit­tle drink­ing prob­lem, you remem­ber. And he was always chas­ing young girls, too. You remem­ber when the Highway Patrol came up here look­ing for him and Tommy was hid­ing in the water tank?”

Earl’s face was deeply lined and tanned, and his gray eyes were very clear. He stared at the mid­dle of town.

You were always a good boy,” said Earl. “You remem­ber that last year you sold hot dogs and Cokes for me?”

I’d rather not think about the end,” said Oats.

I bet I even still owe you a lit­tle mon­ey,” said Earl.

Oats laughed.

Maybe,” he said. “I’ve for­got­ten about it.”

How much was it?”

I don’t know,” said Oats. “It was fif­teen years ago. I don’t know.”

Must have been a hun­dred dol­lars,” said Earl. “Maybe two.”

Don’t wor­ry about it,” said Oats.

I got some mon­ey on me,” said Earl. He reached into his hip pock­et and took out his wal­let, a large brown one filled with busi­ness cards, and which was held togeth­er by a rub­ber band. Earl rolled the rub­ber band from the wal­let over his hand and down to his wrist. There were some bills inside, most­ly ones and fives and a few tens.

Here,” said Earl. “I got … let’s see. Here’s eighty-one bucks. Here. Take it.”

I did­n’t come for that,” said Oats.

Take it,” said Earl.

He held out the mon­ey, the bills trem­bling in his old fin­gers.

You need it,” said Oats. “It’s O.K.”

The place went bel­ly up, and I could­n’t pay you.”

I don’t want it,” said Oats. “It’s O.K.”

I always thought you stayed in the East because you were mad at me about the two hun­dred dol­lars, not the mon­ey so much as that I did­n’t pay you.”

Jesus,” said Oats. “You thought that?”

Earl held out the mon­ey.

At least you can take twen­ty dol­lars,” said Earl. “Here. Please.”

Oats took the mon­ey.

You know,” said Earl. “I had to pay some peo­ple off in Coke syrup. They were angry, but they took the syrup think­ing that was all they were going to get.”

Earl put the rub­ber band over his wal­let again.

I guess you came here to see about your moth­er,” said Earl.

Oats nod­ded, look­ing up the dusty street of the movie ranch.

Well,” said Earl. “I lost track of her. I haven’t heard about her for awhile.”

I just thought I’d come to see you first,” said Oats. “That’s all.”

Did you, Charlie?” said Earl. “Why would you want to do that?”

I had a good time here,” said Oats. “I grew up here.”

Earl looked at Oats for a while and then turned away. “Yeah, well …” He looked down. “I guess that’s right. And you real­ly came to see me?”

Yes,” said Oats. “I want­ed to see where Crash Corgon had been. And Gabby Hayes. Hoot Gibson. Somehow it makes it bet­ter.”

They sat togeth­er for awhile, look­ing at the hills, which began to show the flecks of mica in the noon sun. They shim­mered a lit­tle against the blue sky.

You say hel­lo to your moth­er for me,” said Earl. “When you see her. And your sis­ter, too. Pearl. Jesus, you remem­ber, she was aller­gic to hors­es?”

You want me to bring you any­thing from town?” said Oats. “Maybe a steak. We can eat togeth­er.”

Sure,” said Earl. “You bring some­thing around. I’ll give you one of MacKenzie’s Pale Ales … You know what the secret to it is? I put in a beet. It gives the beer the nicest col­or, you know? Just a touch of pink. I always liked that in a beer. Yeah, you come back lat­er. You can tell me what you found out about your moth­er.”

In the San Fernando Valley, the house Oats was look­ing for was at the end of a short street, which gave the impres­sion, above every­thing else, of dry­ness. Each house on the street had a front yard, but only a lit­tle grass grew in them, and the bare places were filled with pale brown dust. The house Oats was look­ing for was a one sto­ry build­ing with a split-rail fence around it. There were some trees which had been plant­ed a year or so before, and they were still held by guy wires tied to stakes dri­ven into the ground. A tri­cy­cle sat in the bare front yard, and there was, through the front win­dow, the steady flick­er of a tele­vi­sion set.

Oats knocked on the door, and when Pearl opened it, he said, “Hi, Sis.”

Pearl’s blondish hair had less sheen than when Oats had last seen her. She was still thin, although a lit­tle heavy in the waist and hips, and hang­ing onto her there were two chil­dren, one about three and one about five. She was dressed in a skirt and a blouse. She turned to one of the chil­dren who was hold­ing onto her skirt and gave him a slap on the hand, say­ing, “Jimmy, I got my good clothes on. Don’t.”

The child start­ed cry­ing.

Come in,” she said to Oats. “It’s been a while, Charlie. It real­ly has. You haven’t real­ly ever seen your niece and your nephew.” She turned to the child, a boy, and said, “Here, Bobby, this is your Uncle Charlie.” She turned back to Oats and said, “I always tell them you were the one who went to col­lege.”

Oats looked down at the boy.

Howdy,” he said. “Do you like choco­late? I’ve got a choco­late bar in my pock­et. How would you like to have it? Here.”

Oats held the thing out.

It’s all wrapped up. Clean and nice. No germs. Here’s one for your sis­ter.”

The boy took the can­dy bar. Oats and Pearl stood in the liv­ing room in which there were two mis­matched sofas, no rugs and the tele­vi­sion set. On the wall there was a Picasso print, inex­pen­sive­ly framed, and beneath it there was a book shelf in which there were some paper­back books. There were some care­ful­ly made mod­el air­planes, too, which were hung from the ceil­ing. The planes had been built by Pearl’s hus­band, Bill.

Is Bill work­ing again?” said Oats.

Thank god,” said Pearl. “If he had­n’t found some­thing now …” She looked at her broth­er, her eyes show­ing that she had been scared. “He’s not mak­ing what he did before. But it’s all right.”

That’s good,” said Oats.

Yeah,” she said. “He’s not work­ing nights, either. Days. That’s some­thing.”

They went into the kitchen, the bare Formica table between them, the kids now in front of the TV, on which there was a car­toon, the sound of it like a video game, a con­stant pat­ter of explo­sions and shots.

The sit­ter will be here in a minute,” she said. “Then we can go. Courts always make me ner­vous.”

Yes,” he said. “I guess that’s right.”

Are we going to have to do much? In court, I mean.”

I don’t think so,” he said. “It will be all right.”

She looked out toward the door.

I won­der where the sit­ter is?” she said, putting her hand to her hair.

You look fine,” he said. “You look real nice.”

Do you think so, Charlie? Do you real­ly?” she said. “I haven’t had many com­pli­ments late­ly. Certainly not when Bill was out of work.”

You look very nice,” he said.

Well, kids take it out of you,” she said, look­ing down at the table. “Let me get you some cof­fee.”

She turned her back and went to the counter, and when her face was at the win­dow, she picked up a cup and poured the thin­nish brown liq­uid into it. With her back still to him she said, “When Bill was­n’t work­ing I was get­ting food stamps …”

She turned back now, look­ing at him.

But what was I going to do?” she said. She put the cof­fee down on the table. “You remem­ber how Mom used to sneer at any­one who had to take a hand out. You remem­ber what she called it?”

I remem­ber,” said Oats.

She called it ‘Going on the coun­ty,’ ” said Pearl.

I remem­ber,” he said. “It’s all right, though. She used to say a lot of stuff. So what?”

Pearl swal­lowed, one hand push­ing a strand of her hair that had come loose. One of the kids came in and said, “Mom. Mom. You got a run in your stock­ing.”

She stood and looked, bend­ing one leg so she could see the calf.

Does it show?” she said to Oats.

A lit­tle,” he said.

She went to a clos­et, which she opened and which had a mir­ror on the inside of it. Then she turned again, bend­ing the knee and look­ing over her shoul­der. She closed her eyes for a moment.

Why don’t you put on anoth­er pair?” he said, and then he stopped, watch­ing her.

I haven’t got anoth­er pair,” she said.

I’ll run up to the drug store,” he said. “They sell L’Eggs there, don’t they? You know, the ones that come in those lit­tle plas­tic eggs, like sil­ly put­ty. Come on. It’s O.K. You know, I love you.”

I’m sor­ry,” she said, “I must have caught them on one of the chairs.” She sighed. “I’m not going to start cry­ing. I’m real­ly not.”

What size?” he said.

Medium,” she said. “I don’t know why I was so clum­sy as to tear the oth­ers. I just …”

I’ll be right back,” he said.

Oats drove to the cor­ner and then down to the phar­ma­cy, and among the aisles where there were bot­tles of sham­poo, he found the dis­play for L’Eggs and took two pairs down and then stood in front of the cash reg­is­ter. He had to wait until the cashier got around the counter, and for a moment, in the smell of per­fume and in the stink of the can­dy, there was some hint, some infi­nite­ly pri­vate aware­ness of how he and his sis­ter were bound togeth­er, the light­ness of the L’Eggs in his hand hav­ing a del­i­ca­cy to it, a kind of gen­tle­ness, or soft­ness that in the face of things (going to court, the house Pearl lived in, the fact of the food stamps), seemed pre­cious. Oats stood there, hold­ing the L’Eggs in his hand.

When he came back with the stock­ings the sit­ter was there, watch­ing the car­toons with the kids. Pearl took the stock­ings and went into her bed­room, and as she stood in front of the mir­ror, she kicked off her shoes and bunched up her skirt, like a woman wad­ing in a stream, and stripped off the old stock­ings. Oats stood there, hear­ing the car­toons.

Pearl glanced at her­self once in the mir­ror, ran a hand over her skirt, smooth­ing it down, and then she came back into the liv­ing room and said, “Thanks, Charlie. Things have been a lit­tle tough, that’s all. But it’s going to be O.K. McDonnell’s going to get a big con­tract for Navy jets. Everything will be fine.”

They got into the car and drove down the street, past the hous­es which had around them a kind of clut­ter of half-fin­ished things, toys bro­ken but laid aside to be fixed, half used paint and tur­pen­tine cans and lad­ders left against the side of a house. Pearl relaxed a lit­tle when the car pulled away from the curb, and when they were going down­town, she said, “Bill was wor­ried about my being a con­ser­va­tor. That’s the word, right?”

Yes,” he said.

He wants to know if we can lose the house or some­thing.”

No,” said Oats. “It just means we man­age what moth­er’s got and decide where she’s going to stay.”

That’s what I told him,” she said. “Do you think it’s the right thing?”

Yes,” he said.

Mother just got worse and worse. Sometimes she was all right.”

She just got old,” said Oats.

Well,” she said. “It was O.K. for awhile. She even had a boyfriend. He took her out to see the wild flow­ers in the spring time. Sometimes she used to think peo­ple were com­ing to get her and she want­ed me to find one of your old friends to come over to pro­tect her.”

They drove toward the new munic­i­pal build­ings down­town.

You know what they call the place where she stays? A nur­si­tar­i­um,” she said, gig­gling a lit­tle.

In the cor­ri­dor of the hall of jus­tice, they wait­ed for their lawyer. There was a bench along the wall and Pearl sat down, and when she did so, she pat­ted the seat next to her, and Oats sat down, too. Pearl sighed and looked down and Oats picked up her hand for a moment, just hold­ing it, his touch light and reas­sur­ing in the noise and echo of the long mar­ble hall. He held Pearl’s hand.

Oats walked up and down the hall, and when he came back, their lawyer was stand­ing there, hold­ing some papers. He was a tall man with a paunch, and he wore a Dacron shirt, a green tie and a brown jack­et.

This won’t take but a minute,” he said. They went in, each of them tak­ing a seat, all of them wait­ing in the cool, dry court­room, and after awhile the bailiff said, “Oats,” and as they stood up, Pearl took Oats’ hand, her palm a lit­tle damp.

In ten min­utes, Oats and Pearl emerged from the cour­t­house. It was now after­noon, and the yel­low sun­light washed over the front of the build­ing, and in the air there was the feath­ery swat­ting of the wings of pigeons. Opposite them there was a park with a foun­tain in it, the mist there break­ing into a rain­bow with the shad­ows of the birds pass­ing through it. There was a place to sit down, a con­crete bench close to the foun­tain, and the two of them sat there, Oats hold­ing the court doc­u­ment that made them their moth­er’s cus­to­di­ans. It was warm now. There was­n’t any­one else in the park, but it was a large, con­crete place, like a cir­cu­lar the­ater. The air was a lit­tle smoky, yel­low­ish.

Are you O.K.?” said Oats.

Sure,” she said. “I’d just want­ed to get a lit­tle fresh air. What do we do now?”

We go to the bank,” said Oats. “We open a con­ser­va­tor’s account.”

For a moment both of them sat there, look­ing at the pigeons and feel­ing the warmth of the sun. Pearl hugged her­self.

I did­n’t like the way the judge looked at me,” she said.

What way was that?” said Oats.

I don’t know,” she said, “like we were doing some­thing wrong.”

Oats fold­ed the offi­cial paper he had received in the court and put it in the inside pock­et of his jack­et. The spray from the foun­tain made a shad­ow that moved over the con­crete in a thin, gray cloud: it looked like the shad­ow of smoke.

When we were grow­ing up,” she said. “You were always the smart one. You could fig­ure things out.”

I don’t know about that,” he said. “I’m not sure about that one bit.”

Sure you could,” she said. “I remem­ber you thought of a way not to go to school and nev­er get caught … it had some­thing to do with the way the high school kept records.”

Yeah,” he said, laugh­ing for a sec­ond, “I remem­ber that.”

I always got caught,” she said, turn­ing to face him now.

He shook his head, look­ing around now, see­ing the insti­tu­tion­al archi­tec­ture of the build­ings above them.

You fig­ured it out. So, you tell me about this,” she said. “Here.”

Pearl took a pho­to­graph out of her pock­et book. It was a black and white snap­shot, in which there were Oats and Pearl, and their moth­er and father. Pearl and Oats were just kids, eight and ten years old, and Oats’ father was dark and hand­some and Oats’ moth­er had streaked hair and was dressed in tweeds and a white blouse. She stared at the cam­era with a pleased sat­is­fac­tion, her air one of being caught in the mid­dle of some plea­sur­able thing. Her hus­band looked proud as he reached out to touch the shoul­ders of both of his chil­dren. In the pho­to­graph the chil­dren smiled sweet­ly, and all of them, par­ents and chil­dren, seemed not so much part of a fam­i­ly as safe because of it. Now, though, with the pass­ing of time the peo­ple in the pho­to­graph seemed vul­ner­a­ble, their smiles hav­ing a kind of unknow­ing qual­i­ty which sug­gest­ed the pic­ture had been tak­en just before a bad earth­quake. Oats’ father had been dead for five years now.

We were just grow­ing up and every­thing seemed all right,” said Pearl, “Anything was pos­si­ble. You know? Wasn’t that won­der­ful, Charlie? Wasn’t that great?”

He reached over and took her hand. It was damp still and trem­bling a lit­tle.

What do you remem­ber?” she said.

It’s hard for me to think about it right now,” he said. He touched his pock­et again. “Why don’t we go and have lunch?”

She still held the pho­to­graph out, almost as though she were look­ing for a lost child and was show­ing the thing to a stranger, ask­ing if he had seen the child. Then Oats reached out and took the pho­to­graph and put it in his pock­et, just lift­ing it away from her as though it were some evi­dence of a crime she want­ed to for­get.

I remem­ber going to see the snow,” he said. “We’d nev­er seen snow and it had snowed up there in the moun­tains, the San Gabriels, and we all went. We had a pic­nic in the snow. Dad brought a ther­mos full of hot maple syrup and we poured it on the snow and ate it.”

She nod­ded.

What went wrong?” she said.

Don’t,” he said. “Please. It does­n’t do any good.”

What do you mean?” she said. “It ends up like this? With us sit­ting on a bench with the pigeons fly­ing around, with the piece of paper in your pock­et? And we’re not sup­posed to say any­thing? Or not even sup­posed to ask a god­damn ques­tion?”

Don’t start cry­ing,” he said.

Why not?” she said. “What bet­ter time than now?”

Then I’ll start, too,” he said. “You know some­thing? I love you. That’s all I can tell you.”

She put her head down.

You said I was smart,” he said. “But you’re wrong about that.”

He looked around the emp­ty, con­crete gar­den.

Your hands are shak­ing,” she said.

Yes,” he said. “That’s right. But we’ve just got to do this. That’s all. I don’t want to think of Dad being ashamed of me. You know what he used to say? ‘God hates a cow­ard.’ ”

She took his hand and the two them sat on the bench for awhile, say­ing noth­ing.

I’ll keep the pic­ture, O.K.?” he said.

She dropped her eyes.

Sure ” she said. “It’s just an old pho­to­graph. I have a mess of them like it of Bill and me and the kids.” She looked at her watch now. “I’ve got to go,” she said, “the sit­ter is going to kill me. I mean she’s going to mur­der me if I don’t get back there soon.”

In the car, on the way home, Pearl fell asleep, her head back, her face final­ly relax­ing, the expres­sion slack now, peace­ful. Oats drove slow­ly, find­ing a kind of relief in just pro­tect­ing his sis­ter while she slept on the seat next to him.

The sit­ter came to the door of the house, her face look­ing sour while the kids stood behind her. The liv­ing room had the end­less flick­er of the tele­vi­sion, the con­stant blur there look­ing like con­fu­sion itself. Pearl woke smooth­ly, almost beau­ti­ful­ly, just open­ing her eyes.

Oats pulled up to the curb and she got out. “Thanks, Charlie,” she said. “I’m sor­ry you live so far away, you know? You can nev­er just come over for din­ner. That would be nice if you could.”

She looked through the win­dow of the car, and then she turned and start­ed walk­ing through the yard, where the kids were stand­ing behind the screen door. They pushed it open and ran toward her, jump­ing up and gig­gling, ask­ing about the court, delight­ed. There was the dis­tant sound of the TV set, the car­toon char­ac­ters still mak­ing the end­less sounds of explo­sions.

Pearl,” said Oats.

She turned back, her face a lit­tle puz­zled. “Did I for­get some­thing?” she said.

No,” he said. He stared at her, lift­ing his hand in her direc­tion. “You take care now. All right?”

Sure, Charlie,” she said. “You, too.”

The Riviera Nursatarium was in a new build­ing in the val­ley. There were trees on the street, large ones with shag­gy tops, the fluff of the leaves hang­ing in the still air. The build­ing was sand col­ored with a lit­tle pink in it, and the win­dows in it on both sides of the door were tall, but nar­row, the frames around them poured con­crete, not square but with a par­tial­ly oval shape: the win­dows looked like some­thing from a new, small-town air­port.

Oats went through the door of the place and into a wait­ing room, which was fur­nished with large chairs cov­ered with imi­ta­tion leather. There were some out-of-date mag­a­zines on a table in front of them and some plas­tic plants in a planter with imi­ta­tion dirt in it. The over­head fix­ture had a flu­o­res­cent bulb in it, and because of it the room had a slight pur­plish flick­er. At the end of the wait­ing room there was a locked door.

There was a woman behind a desk, and Oats intro­duced him­self and held out the court papers.

I’m sure we’ll get along fine,” said the woman. “The month­ly fee is due on the first. Being prompt makes things run smooth­ly, don’t you think?”

Yes,” said Oats. “I’d like to see my moth­er.”

Mary!” said the woman behind the desk. “Buzz Mr. Oats through. When you want out, you push the but­ton by the door. It’s under a lit­tle cov­er. You just lift it up and push.”

Oats went through the door, turn­ing once as he did so to see where the but­ton with the cov­er was, and then he stood in the hall, feel­ing the door swing shut behind him. The sheen of the flu­o­res­cent light fell over the linoleum on the floor. There was a chair against the wall and he sat down on it for a moment. Around him there were old peo­ple, all stooped but all mov­ing just like peo­ple in a mall. Two women were work­ing at the lock on the door with a bob­by pin.

If I could get out of here,” said one of them, “I’d sure like to get my hands on a car.”

Oats’ moth­er was hold­ing hands with a man by the door of the cafe­te­ria. He was tall­ish, with white hair, and he was unshaved. He looked like Arthur Miller. He was wear­ing a pair of paja­mas and a bathrobe, which hung open. Oats moth­er, whose name was Marge, was dressed in a pair of paja­mas and slip­pers, and as Oats came up the hall, she dropped the man’s hand and went into the cafe­te­ria.

The cafe­te­ria had the same pol­ished linoleum, some plain tables (with­out table­cloths), and some fold­ing chairs. Lunch was over and there was the smell of soup in the air. Marge sat at the end of a table, and although her pose seemed famil­iar, Oats had trou­ble rec­og­niz­ing her. She was short, thin, stooped a lit­tle, her hands espe­cial­ly long and thin, her hair as white as spun glass. Oats thought that her hair was as white as the cot­ton they used to put under the Christmas tree to sug­gest snow: for a moment he wait­ed, mak­ing the mem­o­ry last.

He sat down next to his moth­er, pulling up a chair and say­ing, “Hi.”

She turned to look at him and said, “Hi.”

He picked up one of her hands, sur­prised at how cold it was. “Do you have a sweater?” he said.

Yes,” she said.

Well, maybe we should go and get it,” he said. “That way you won’t be so cold.”

It’s not that kind of cold,” she said. “It’s a dif­fer­ent kind of cold here.”

He sat there for a moment, her glassy eyes mov­ing around the room.

It’s Charlie,” he said.

Are you Charlie?” she said.

He nod­ded.

I had a son named Charlie. He got a schol­ar­ship to go East.”

Yes,” said Oats. “Maybe we should go find your sweater.”

It’s locked up,” she said. “Here.”

He looked around, see­ing a nurse down the hall. She was wear­ing a sweater.

Come on. Let’s see if we can find a sweater for you.”

He stood up and she did, too, and then he took her down the hall, look­ing at the names on the doors, and then turn­ing into the right one and see­ing in it two sin­gle beds, two chairs.

Do you know my son?” she said.

Yes,” he said.

He got up and walked across the room to the clos­et, which he found was locked. Then he came back and sat down on a chair oppo­site her, remov­ing from his pock­et the pic­ture he had got­ten from Pearl, the one show­ing the four of them togeth­er. He held it up for her to see, his hands steady in that flow of lone­li­ness in the room.

Look,” he said. “Do you remem­ber this?”

I remem­ber this one,” she said, point­ing to her hus­band. “The oth­ers. They’re just kids. What the hell do kids know?”

They grow up,” he said. He went on hold­ing the pic­ture, some­how think­ing that by hav­ing her look at it, they weren’t real­ly in that room so much. He had stopped to buy some tape at a drug store, and he reached into his pock­et for it and put some along the edges of the pho­to­graph and stuck it to the wall. He did this care­ful­ly, cut­ting the pieces of tape so they were just the right length, mak­ing a neat job.

Do you remem­ber when your kids were grow­ing up?”

Oh,” she said, “I don’t know. Give me a chance to think about it.” She sat for a moment. “You know what I’d like to do? To take a ride up to the desert to see the wild­flow­ers. Poppies and that oth­er kind, you know …? I’ve for­got­ten the name.”

Lupine,” he sad.

Yes, of course, lupine. That’s right. I like the blue lupine.”

Oats nod­ded.

There were birds, too,” said Oats.

Yes, I guess there were,” she said.

She looked at Oats and said, “You look angry, Charlie. Don’t be angry.”

I’m not angry,” he said. “I just want­ed to see you.”

I got old. You can’t be mad at that, can you?”

No,” said Oats.

Have you gone out to see Earl?” she said. “I think about him a lot. You know, one time Hoot Gibson or Crash Corgon or one of those cow­boys went out to that movie ranch. He had a big palomi­no horse, and on the horse there was a sad­dle cov­ered with pieces of sil­ver. They were like scales of a snake the way they fit­ted togeth­er, and the sun hit them and it was the most beau­ti­ful thing I ever saw. Like a horse out of … oh, I don’t know. Like from some oth­er time. When there were kings.”

He picked up one of her hands, the skin cool and dry. Oats’ moth­er stretched out on the bed and put her head back. For a moment she closed her eyes, the skin of her face thin and pale, tight over the bones, her hair so much whiter than the white counter pane that it made the mate­r­i­al look a lit­tle dirty. She was very still, her breath­ing deep and irreg­u­lar. Oats sat on the chair next to the bed and thought about Saturday morn­ings when he had had break­fast with his father, Marge, and Pearl, the smell of toast and eggs and straw­ber­ry pre­serves com­ing back with a kind of leg­erde­main.

His moth­er woke with a start and said, “Charlie, is that you?”

Yes,” said Oats.

I’ve been think­ing about your father, Charlie. Do you under­stand me? Sometimes I say things and no one under­stands.”

I under­stand,” said Oats.

You know, men just don’t live that long,” said Oats’ moth­er.

She put the back of her hand to the side of her face. “You see, Charlie, I’m not so far gone as you think.”

He pulled his chair a lit­tle clos­er.

She went to sleep. Oats wait­ed, hear­ing the steady, dry breath­ing, and when he looked up he saw the pic­ture he had taped to the wall, the four peo­ple in it all in their best clothes: around them there was an air of some sweet, pre­cious thing, like love or safe­ty, the pres­ence of it so pal­pa­ble that Oats reached toward the pic­ture as though what­ev­er it was could be had just by pick­ing it up. He stopped, his hand still out, hear­ing in the hall the sound of some­one com­ing along on paper slip­pers, the hiss, hiss, hiss of them on the shiny floor bring­ing him right back to the hard­ness of the chair and the sound of that steady breath­ing. Then he stood up and went to the door.

At the entrance to the lob­by he flipped up the cov­er and then pushed the but­ton under­neath it. Outside, the woman at the counter buzzed the door, but Oats just looked through it. Then he beck­oned to her, and when she came through the door, Oats said, “The keys. I need the keys to the cab­i­nets.”

He went back down the hall and into Marge’s room, where he unlocked the cab­i­net that held her sweaters and took out a green one, just like the ones she had worn when he had been ten years old. He put it over her to keep her warm and where she’d find it if she woke up.

Then he went out to the lob­by, which seemed qui­et, clean­er than before, and the light of the street came into it with a yel­low rush, the bits of dust turn­ing in the air like flecks of jew­els. Outside there was the warm air and in the dis­tance there were the pur­ple shapes of the moun­tains.

Oats drove back out to Chatsworth and turned onto the dri­ve that went between the uprights of the Bar Star. On the seat next to him there was a steak in a brown paper bag, some fresh veg­eta­bles. There was a cake from a bak­ery and a bot­tle of brandy. There were some cig­ars, too. He stopped in front of the porch of the house, where Earl was sit­ting. It was late after­noon now, and the movie ranch was in shad­ow, although above it, behind the house, there were the hills, each of them bathed in a gold and car­rot-col­ored light.

Well, well,” said Earl. “What’s that stick­ing out of the bag? Is that broc­coli? I always loved broc­coli.”

Oats came up the steps and put the bag on a small, weath­ered table by the door.

How was she?” said Earl.

Oats pushed the bag a lit­tle more firm­ly against the wall and said, “Let’s take a lit­tle walk. Down there.” He point­ed toward the facades of the movie ranch. “Come on.” He swal­lowed. “I’ve been in the car all day.”

Well, sure,” said Earl.

They walked in the dust of the road that lead to the facades, all of them gray and black, the win­dows pit­ted or bro­ken here and there and across them all there lay the blue shad­ows of after­noon. It was still warm, though, and the air was the tem­per­a­ture of human skin. Earl walked slow­ly, wear­ing his blue jeans, his hat, his cow­boy shirt and string tie and his bed­room slip­pers. Oats went along with him, his shoes cov­ered with dust. They passed the porch in front of the saloon, the boards of which were bro­ken, and beneath which there could only be seen the dark­ness of the under­side of the façade, a black shape in the blue shad­ow of the after­noon, but as they stood in front of it, a rat­tlesnake began to make its buzzing. Earl stood and looked at the porch, and Oats went a lit­tle clos­er.

Have you got a hoe?” said Oats.

Up at the house,” said Earl.

Maybe there’s a stick around,” said Oats.

What are you going to do?” said Earl.

Do you hear that sound?” said Oats. “Just lis­ten to it.”

Oats went to the alley and found a piece of two by four, the grain of which was raised from the time it had been sit­ting in the sun.

Hey, Charlie,” said Earl. “Leave that thing alone.”

The snake went on buzzing.

Pull up the boards,” said Charlie.

Why?” said Earl. “That will just make the place look worse.”

I’ll do it,” said Oats.

He reached down and began to pull on a plank.

It isn’t going to do any good,” said Earl. “Not a bit.”

Oats stood with the piece of wood, look­ing into the dark­ness.

Come on,” said Earl. “Let’s go eat. Did you bring some brandy?”

Oats nod­ded.

Yes,” he said.

Oats looked up at the hills beyond Earl’s house. In the set­ting sun, the gold and orange col­or was brighter than before, and the light hit the mica in the soil in such a way as to make the hills look like they were cov­ered with trans­par­ent, but reflec­tive fil­a­ments, insects’ wings, say, and the entire hill shim­mered with them in the last of the after­noon. The orange and shim­mer­ing moun­tain was per­fect­ly silent, and beyond it there were long streaks of clouds, which were orange and black.

Oats dropped the piece of wood, and sat down on the porch. “O.K.,” he said. “All right.”

You get used to the snakes, Charlie,” said Earl. “You real­ly do.”

They start­ed walk­ing up hill, toward the house and the shim­mer­ing of the hills.

Yeah,” said Earl. “You remem­ber, Crash Corgon was right out there … That horse used to prance around. A palomi­no, that’s what he rode. And then there was Gabby Hayes, too. All of them, right here.”

~

Craig Nova has appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, and Men’s Journal, among oth­ers. His short sto­ry, “The Prince,” won an O.Henry Award. His first nov­el, “Turkey Hash”, won the pres­ti­gious Harper-Saxton Award. Nova received an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and received a Guggenheim Fellowship.