Squatted down on his great haunches, Glen Ryan, the ditchrider, fingers the hairy green leaves, the tight buds erupting into waxy purple stars. Knapweed. And a mess of it. He’s supposed to open the headgate tomorrow, let folks start irrigating, but you can’t risk knapweed riding the water all down the valley, pouring into fields—at least that’s what the ditchrider’s manual says. He’ll have to burn it out. Burn the whole length of the county ditch.
Glen blows a shot of air out his nose. Takes off his ball cap and wipes at the wide expanse of his sweating forehead. A dry wind purls down the hills, bending the grass. Glen says to himself, just under his breath, “We’ll have to burn it out.” Then tears off a sprig of knapweed flower and rises, makes his way back along the ditch. Even dry, a ditch is a tricky thing. More than one oldtimer has broken an arm or a leg or bunged up his back slipping in mud or stepping in a sinkhole or just falling ass-over-teakettle down. Jerry Drease, the ditchrider before him, nearly drowned. Last summer, just days before the headgate was to be closed, and Jerry’d been at the Sportsman Bar all afternoon—after a double shot of Old Crow for the road, he hopped on his motorbike and rode out to shut off Art Kincheloe’s water. He slipped and fell, and even though the water wasn’t running at full capacity, the current carried him nearly half a mile. Pinned him across the grate of a culvert. Son of a bitch was lucky his head was up out of the water. And that’s how they found him, drunk and blubbering, soaked to the bone. Art took him home and had Evelyn wrap him in wool blankets and feed him hot ginger tea and other of her various witch- doctor concoctions all evening.
Glen places his right foot just past a scraggly sagebrush, and the step holds, gives him back his weight, save a little dust cloud puffing from beneath his boot. He walks on, rolls his shoulders, feels the burnt skin of his neck crack and pull. It feels good, that burn. Lets him know he’s been hard at work, been on the job. Though it has only been six weeks since the ditch board retired Drease and made Glen the Musselshell County ditchrider, he thinks he’s been doing a good job. He’s checked the flow rate at the dam daily and oiled the headgate twice, repaired a half-dozen snowmelt washouts east of here, walked the length of the county ditch twice. When he was up for the job, Art Kincheloe took him aside and told him the board knew he was strong as a brick shithouse and a hard worker, but they worried about his creativity, his thinking on things. Glen allowed that he hadn’t gotten the best grades in school, but he swore to Art that he’d study the manual every night and ride the ditch every day. Art looked him in the eye and shook his hand, said, “You do that, son, and I’ll speak for you at the next meeting.” Art did. And even if he has to burn the length of the ditch, Glen’s determined to prove they made the right choice for ditchrider.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that he is only a few years out of high school and his breaking the record is still big news, the story passed around like a foreign coin to scratch and wonder at over coffee down at Mel’s Cafe, over whiskey and smoke at the Sportsman. Did you know that boy of ours, that Glen Ryan, set the Montana state record in the shotput his senior year? Did you know? Well, it’s something, ain’t it?
Of course, they don’t finish the story. They don’t tell how at the state meet up in Bozeman—the sand raked and chalked, the grass a kind of green you see on television, the grandstand full of college track coaches and recruiters—he threw nearly three feet off his average and didn’t even make the finals. And for this disappointment the stories and the slaps on the back always feel dishonest to Glen. Sometimes he has to remind himself that it’s true—he did set a record, set it right here in tiny little Musselshell, Montana, on the hardpan dirt field out back of the schoolhouse, at a meet where the competition was so lousy he could have tossed the shotput like a softball and still won. That day the wind slid and circled in the bellows of his lungs, further flamed the fire in his belly. That day he was even larger, his chest wide and broad as the hills, his arms as strong as a full head of water roiling down the ditch. That day he spun himself around the pad and threw the shotput farther than any high-schooler had ever thrown it, heaved it out into the white sky.
Glen steps now down the bank of the ditch—his big heart thwacking hard at the satisfying, shaming memory of it all—and takes his motorbike, the ditchrider’s Honda 350, and swings his massive leg over the seat and kicks it to life.
Jerry Drease kicks the clothes piled on the floor into the laundry bin and then tugs the greasy sheets off the plastic mattress, tosses those in the bin as well. He pushes back the curtains over the small, recessed window above the bed, cranks the window wide. He tromps down the trailer, opening every door—save Penny’s, of course, whose room, he is sure, is as bright and clean as a blue sky—pushing back curtains, unlatching windows, tossing nearly everything that isn’t nailed down into the laundry bin or the trash bag.
He pauses in the bathroom. The fury of it all has his old heart hammering, and he reaches up into the medicine cabinet and takes down a pint of Rich & Rare. He pours two fingers into a water glass. He has been feeling watery of late. As if something in him has thinned, gone slack. He has always been a small man, but ever since they fished him out of the ditch, he has felt not small and tenacious, but small and frail. For the last few months he has done nothing more than sleep and listen to talk radio and read the westerns Penny brings home from the school library. He gets up around noon to spoon half a can of beef noodle soup down his gullet, then goes back to bed. Yes, he damn well needs the whiskey, he thinks, and tosses the shot back and swallows and winces. Licks his lips. It’s nearly irrigation season, nearly time to start riding the ditch.
In the hallway closet he finds a straw broom and begins sweeping. First, the rucked linoleum in the kitchen, then the faux-wood down the hallway. Dust motes eddy in the light, bits of paper drift and swirl. The whole trailer shakes with the ferocity of his sweeping. Having built up quite a pile of filth, Jerry pops open the front door with his bony, bent-over ass—white light pouring in—and sends the dust and trash cascading down the cinder-block steps. Jerry blinks in the morning light and realizes—that watery feeling building again below his heart, in his gut and thighs—that he is standing on his front step in his undershorts and tee shirt, and anyone driving down Main Street might look through the gap in the false fronts, between the Sportsman and the old post office, and see his naked, bony knees, the yellow stains at his armpits.
Goddamn. He has gone straight to water, the very stuff of him spilling out and all over. Too often this winter it has been like this—he reads the same book but doesn’t realize it is the same book until better than halfway through, he leaves a can of soup on the burner and doesn’t remember until Penny comes home from school and asks him to please not burn the trailer down, he wakes Penny up for school, worried she’s late, but she tells him to go back to bed—it’s Saturday.
“Jerry! Jerry, you old rascal!” Who is that? He can’t see for the morning glare, and he can’t place the voice. Has no idea who is calling out to him. His heart charges like he’s having a damned attack. He scrambles back into the trailer, tries to pull the broom handle in after him but slams it in the door, which then bangs and ricochets, the light blinding him again, pinning him there in his undershorts. He drops the broom now and grabs at the knob. Nearly gets the door closed before that voice catches him again, closer this time, softer: “You know I don’t care you’re in your shorts, Jerry. I seen you that way before.”
Who is this talking about seeing him in his shorts? He cracks the door and peers out. A woman, haloed in the light, cigarette smoke swirling about her long face. “Got yourself a broom there,” the woman says. “That’s good. You’ve had a long winter. About time you get your ass back in action.” She takes one last drag and pinches the cherry of her cigarette between her thumb and finger, and drops the butt into the Folgers can on the top step. Still blowing smoke, the woman tries to pull the door open, but Jerry finds himself resisting, holding the knob as if a buoy, as if he can’t let go to save his life.
Glen holds the throttle open a moment more, then coasts as he comes up Kincheloe Hill, the vast expanse of Art’s ranch spreading out before him. Art’s new F-250 isn’t by the house or the corrals, which probably means he’s in town, at the cafe—which is a relief.
As much as possible, Glen tries to avoid Art’s wife. For starters, Evelyn’s too old to be going about in long, flowery skirts, too old to not be wearing a brassiere, which everybody can see—it doesn’t really matter if they’re looking or not—and not exactly too old but anyway it’s odd the way she’s fooling around with herbal medicines and star charts and rain ceremonies.
If he gets right down to it, it just doesn’t seem fair to Glen. When he was in school, he had to watch his great fat mother spoon up gravy and shaved beef and mixed vegetables for all his chortling friends every day at lunch. Some days, he just couldn’t do it. He’d buy a Snickers and a Mountain Dew at the vending machine and sit by the trophy cases. Then, he’d be so hungry by practice he’d retch during warmup, nearly faint after the first few throws. To have a mother so tremendously fat, to see her every day at school in her stretch pants, her greasy hair up in a net—well, it just doesn’t seem fair to Glen that Evelyn’s oddnesses don’t similarly shame Art, that folks don’t laugh at him and shake their heads, that he is listened to and agreed with, and generally does what he wants.
But today Glen throttles the bike back up to speed, the engine roaring into his belly and chest. Even if it isn’t fair, he has to admit the matter doesn’t seem so pressing. Around here, everyone from Art Kincheloe on down has to listen to the ditchrider.
“What in the hell is wrong with you, Jerry? Listen to me—it’s me! It’s Twylah!”
Jerry peeks out the door again, and by God, it is Twylah, with her stiff red hair and her leather jacket and short skirt. Why didn’t he recognize her before? Jerry thinks he might ask her why she’s dressed for a night on the town when it’s so early in the morning, but then he’s not sure it is morning. Is it morning? He lets the knob go, and as the door swings wide, Twylah nearly falls down the cinder-block steps.
“Jesus, Jerry. What’s wrong with you? What was all that? Not letting me in? And what are you staring at me like that for? Like you went and shit your pants?” Twylah rights herself and rather than wait for an answer, bustles past, high heels thumping the floor. She opens the fridge and sniffs at a gallon of milk before taking a swig from the jug. “I mean, I saw your little weasel face right there. You must have seen it was me. Say, did Penny get out on time? I didn’t notice what time the Buick was gone this morning, so I just hope she got out on time.”
Jerry is about to say something, something that might solve this whole mess—when he hears the high whine of a two-cycle engine. He swings the door wide once more.
What the hell is that big dopey Ryan boy doing on the ditchrider’s motorbike? His bike?
“Glenny-boy!” Art calls out. “How the hell’s it hanging?” Art drops his paper and slurps at his coffee, the little blue cinders of his eyes doing that dance they do whenever he wants to razz someone.
Glen lowers himself onto the stool next to Art. To give himself time, to arrange what he needs to say, he tries to get a look into the kitchen, to see if Penny Drease might be in there—but there’s only Mel, cigarette clamped in his mouth, hashbrowns spitting on the grill. Maybe she’s out back, dumping the trash. He hopes so. He’d sure like to get a look at Penny Drease this morning. The girls in his high school class used to help him with his homework, used to flirt with him some at track practice, before darting off in their running shorts—but that didn’t mean he was ever slipped away with at a bonfire party, allowed to fumble his sausage-fingered hands up a slender stomach, cup a soft breast. No, it did not mean that. Yet Glen thinks he might have a chance with Penny Drease. She isn’t so hard and brash. She’s pretty, though not as pretty as some. And she’s younger than he is, was only a freshman when he was a senior, which means for the last three years she has gone to lunch and not heard the boys give him hell about his mother, but has instead walked into school every morning and seen his picture in the front trophy case, right next to the shotput he threw the very day he set the record. Yes, he might have a chance with Penny—especially now that he’s the ditchrider.
Art rearranges the wad of Copenhagen in his cheek. “Glenny-boy, you listening to me? Or you all of a sudden gone deaf in your young age? I asked you, ‘How’s it hanging?’”
Glen knows how he is supposed to answer, so that is the way he answers. “Long and hairy and hard to carry.”
Art laughs, a lungy chortle, and slaps him on the back. “Good to hear, Glenny-boy. Good. To. Hear! Though I imagine you ain’t come in here to talk to me. I imagine you’re here to see if you can’t convince that little Penny Drease to take a ride on your motorcycle bike. Ain’t that what you’re sniffing after? That little Drease gal?” Art winks and grins, his teeth the color and shape of corn kernels.
Glen can feel the blush rise across his neck and face. How is it that Art always seems two or three steps ahead of him? “Actually, I’m here to see you, Mr. Kincheloe.”
“Me? You sure you want to see ugly old me? If I was you, I’d be sniffing after that little gal. She’s prettier, for one. And smell’s a mite better, for another!” Art explodes in laughter.
Just like when the boys used to start in on his mother, he can feel himself go hot and watery, sweat beading on his forehead, running into his eyes. “Geez, Mr. Kincheloe, you know what I mean. I’m here on ditch business.”
All business now, Jerry aims his naked foot at the leg hole and pulls his bunched jeans up his calf, then switches feet and crow-hops and jams the other leg in, and wrestles his jeans all the way up, buttoning them around his scrawny waist. Jesus, he’s lost more weight than he thought. He clatters down the length of the trailer, roots for a belt in his closet.
“Hell, Jerry,” Twylah says, as she turns the corner into his room with him, “you’ve gone and wrecked your bed. I was kind of hoping we’d put it to some good use this morning. It’s just you and me—been awhile, hasn’t it? You want me to make up the bed? Where’s your sheets? I got on those pink panties you like. What say we make up the bed, and I let you take a peek?”
He’s got no time for any of this, got to get it together. He’s a goddamn ditchrider without a goddamn ditchrider’s bike. He fumbles a belt around his waist and drapes a cotton snap shirt over his bony shoulders, slams his feet into his boots.
Twylah shakes her head. “Jerry, I have never in my whole life—and I’ve known you since we sat next to each other in first grade, in Mrs. Himple’s class—you remember her, Jerry? She just loved you, thought you were the smartest kid she’d ever, ever run across—anyway, I’m saying, I have never in my whole life known you to—Jerry? Jerry, where are you going?”
Jerry shoulders his way out the trailer door, the light so bright it staggers him a moment, before he heel-kicks the door shut and stomps down the steps and turns toward Mel’s Cafe.
“I don’t mean to be trouble,” Glen says, shifting on his too-small stool, bringing his big boot down in a stomp not for emphasis but out of discomfort, “but you know I am supposed to be an impartial arbiter here. That’s what the book says. It says things like that, says ‘integrity of the ditch’ and ‘impartial arbiter.’ You’re just one rancher, Mr. Kincheloe. I got to think of everyone who pulls water from the ditch on this.”
Art takes another slurp of coffee and wags his cup at Mel, then folds his paper and sighs. “Listen, Glen, I know you mean well, but you just don’t know. So, listen up. This here’s the voice of experience talking. We take the time to burn that ditch, and that’ll mean we’re close to a week behind pulling water from the river, which’ll mean those thirsty bastards up around Ryegate will have already sucked up their share of river and left us with a trickle no bigger than an old drunk’s sorry piss dribble. No, Glen, what we are going to do is pull our water just as goddamn soon as we can—tomorrow, I’d say. And not a man around—I’ll see to it personally—is going to blame you if they get a bit of knapweed in their alfalfa.
“Glen, what I’m saying is this. The book is one thing, and I appreciate you studying on it, but riding the ditch is another. A job like this takes creativity and original thinking. Drease had that, had it in spades. And I know it’s hard for you—ain’t your strong suit—but I guess you are just going to have to cultivate it. Or, I tell you what, here’s what you do—you ride your bike over to Drease’s trailer and ask his advice. See if he doesn’t agree with me. He may be half out of his head these days, but he was a hell of—woop, that’s my mo-bile phone.”
Art sits up and fiddles with his buzzing shirt pocket. “I didn’t want one, you know, but I got to be in touch. I mean, agriculture is agri-business these days. We ain’t a bunch of pig fuckers out here anymore. Here, okay, I got it.” Art flips his phone open and hellos and laughs, then covers the receiver and turns back to Glen, whispers, “And maybe you’ll get lucky, Glenny. You head on up to Drease’s and maybe Penny’ll be there. Maybe she’ll have a little something she can teach you, too!”
Glen feels like he might slide right off his stool, fall and burst on the dirty cafe floor.
More than once Jerry nearly falls on his ass in the weeds and trash and dogshit along the alley’s verge. Goddamn. It is an indignity. That he has to hoof it across town when by rights he ought to be able to take his motorbike. He’s ridden that bike wherever and whenever and in all weathers for the past twenty years. And now, as if the years promised nothing more than years—it’s gone.
He wonders if Penny’s at work today, if that’s why the Buick wasn’t out front. Or does she have the Buick at school? Is it a school day? And what was Twylah saying about her getting out on time? He has no idea. He isn’t worried, though. He never has to worry about Penny.
With newborn Penny in tow, Penny’s mother rode in with the oil boom in the late ‘70s. She was small and wiry, and the first time Jerry brought her home from the Sportsman, it felt damn near like a fistfight, what went on in the little single bed in the trailer. Not six months later, the very day the oil company pulled up stakes—everything already dry but a few wells on Art Kincheloe’s place—Jerry came home to find a note on the kitchen counter. And on the kitchen floor, the playpen. And in the playpen, Penny, her round face twisted into a sleeping grimace. She’d gone and left her daughter with him. He knew he ought to be angry. But he wasn’t. Not exactly. Even if the child wasn’t his, he’d taken a liking to the little thing. No, that wasn’t quite right—he’d fallen in love. It was as simple as that. It’s one of the few things, besides ditchriding, that Jerry Drease knows right down to his bones—he loves that girl.
More than a few around here offered to take her in—some of the Congregational Church ladies even intimated that it wasn’t fitting, a single man like him raising a little girl—but he never paid them much attention. Besides, half the time she’s raised herself. Twylah has helped, with the womanly things, and he’s seen her through her homework and gone to the band concerts and the ballgames and whatnot, but for the most part she’s raised herself—and hell if it hasn’t worked out. It is one of the bafflements and happinesses of his life. Why, she’s even talking about college now. Way back when, a couple of his teachers had tried to get him to go, said he should be an architect or an engineer or some such. But he visited the state college in Bozeman, and it about gave him a heart attack—busy streets and people in funny clothes and for the mountains all around he couldn’t get a clean look at anything, not even the sky.
Jerry comes around the corner of the cafe, the light striking him full in the face, winking on the tin siding, glistering on the gravel lot out front—and, holy hell, there’s his bike. He strides, feeling surer than he has in months, and sets his palm on the fuel tank. Once a firetruck red, it’s chipped and dulled now to rust and stone. It looks even better this way, he thinks, and gives the tank a knock of his knuckles. He feels, oddly, like he did all those years ago, stepping into the trailer and finding Penny in the playpen. He wasn’t much more than a boy then, and he already knew. There are some things we just know.
Glen doesn’t know if he’s ever been more ashamed.
There was the time his mother caught him in the bathroom with the J. C. Penney’s catalog open to the women’s underwear section—his mother in her tent of a nightgown, those women in their tiny white panties, and Glen on the toilet with his pud in his fist—but he was just a little green-nutter then, just a boy, and isn’t he supposed to be a man now? Shouldn’t a big son of a bitch like him be a grown man by now?
He has just stepped out of the cafe, just left Art laughing and yakking on his mo-bile phone, and here’s Jerry Drease gunning his motorbike west out of town.
Hell. Goddamn. Hell and goddamn.
He knows he should go back in and ask Art for help, but his shame, his rising anger, won’t let him. Instead, he takes off up the alley. Running, sprinting, moving faster and faster, pumping his huge legs, swinging the tremendous weights of his arms. The old son of a bitch will have to come home sometime. And when he does. When he does, Glen will be waiting.
His breath coming in splutters and huffs, Glen slows in front of Drease’s trailer and laces his hands behind his head, blows a moment. Salvage boards and rusty chains and irrigation siphons litter Drease’s weed-choked lawn. A dirt path skirts the junk and leads to a half-dozen cinder blocks stacked up for stairs. Most of the screenless windows are open, and the wind has sucked a curtain’s tail-end out the window near the door. Glen feels his rage begin to die down, the flames in his belly lick back. He may still be living in his mother’s house, but he has plans for a double-wide with a real foundation and a lawn and a little wooden deck off the back door. That would look pretty nice to someone like Penny Drease, someone who’s had to live in a shitbox like this all her life.
Glen walks up the dirt path, thinking he’ll surprise the old bastard, just sit himself down and wait inside. He knocks, to be sure, but as he reaches to open the door—it swings wide, wisps of cigarette smoke drifting out.
Sitting up at the old wooden table in Evelyn Kincheloe’s cluttered kitchen—racks of spices and bags of beans, last season’s dry peppers still strung across the ceiling, a dark, earthy smell drifting from the pot bubbling on the stove—Jerry takes another drink of the tepid yellow liquid in his cup and tries hard to listen, to understand.
“I think the real problem is in your subnavel chakra, Jerry. That’s the cradle of your essential fire. And all that water—remember how cold and soaked you were, Jerry? My gods—anyway, all that water has doused your essential fire. You need to burn, Jerry. You need to be lit up again.” Evelyn blinks her wide, green eyes and leans in all the closer. Just as the pause begins to be uncomfortable, just as Jerry thinks he might need to somehow respond to all this, Evelyn asks, “Would you like more tea?”
“Sure, yeah, you bet. More tea. But I was wondering, too, and maybe you mentioned this and I missed it, but I was wondering if Art’s around? I’d like to speak with him. Ditch business.”
Evelyn begins to rise, but then turns back. “Hasn’t Art told you? He promised me he’d stop by and tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
Evelyn reaches over and takes Jerry’s hands in hers. She closes her eyes and begins to make a humming sound in the back of her throat. Then stops. Snaps her eyes open. “It is not that you have been diminished, Jerry, but that you have been transformed. Yours is the light of a changing star. Forces beyond you and within you are manifesting. Jerry, you are no longer the ditchrider. Glen Ryan is the ditchrider.”
The particular breath sliding through him turns to water, threatens to drown him from within. He swallows, coughs—it doesn’t help. He takes a drink of tea. Another.
“Yes, that’s it. Drink your tea, Jerry. That’s right.”
Jerry lifts his cup to his lips and spills the liquid into his mouth, down his chin.
“Yes, Jerry! Yes!” Evelyn pushes back her chair, begins to do a kind of dance. “It’s ginger, lemon, and black pepper—a tea that is both water and fire. A tea to cool and burn. Drink it, Jerry! Drink it!”
He does. He drinks it all. And as Evelyn cheers and sways, he rises and stumbles out the door. As if he were a stuck fish, his jaws work at the wind. He can’t seem to get enough air. He reaches for his bike and misses. Reaches again.
Glen reaches down to pull his shorts and jeans back up, but Twylah flats her hand against his chest and lays him back down. “Hold your horses there, big boy. It’s my turn.” She slips her hand down his chest, runs her fingers lightly up and down his thighs. “I’ll get your poker primed again, and then I’m going to finish my ride. How’s that sound?”
Glen thinks this is probably like those questions they used to ask at school, the ones they never really wanted you to answer in the first place. Which is fine. He doesn’t want to say the wrong thing and spoil any of this. He knows Twylah, of course, from the Sportsman, but doesn’t really know her—the way in a small town you might have said in your entire life only a word or two to someone but know anyway their most intimate histories, be able to close your eyes and map their faces as well as you can the barbed-wire scars ribboning the backs of your hands—and so everything that has happened since Twylah opened the trailer door is more than a surprise to Glen. It’s a revelation.
Twylah sits up now, her great, soft breasts swaying miraculously above him, and pulls Glen’s jeans the other way, down his legs. “Let’s go ahead and get you comfortable, huh? Big boy like you, you need some room to move.” Twylah tugs his jeans all the way off, then reaches for something that seems to have slipped from his pocket—the knapweed flower, bent and bruised but still bright. “Is this for me? Why, I just might end up your regular sweetheart if you keep bringing me flowers. Or I bet you already got a sweetheart. You got a sweetheart, big boy?”
Glen feels the day’s bucket of shame again tip and threaten to spill. What’s he gone and done—and right here in her house? What’s Penny going to think of him now?
“Oh, honey, I didn’t mean to make you upset. Just relax. If you got a sweetheart, that’s fine. Plenty of my sweethearts got sweethearts. This here is just between the two of us. You want to tell me about her? I don’t mind listening. And it might even help you get going again.”
Twylah leans back, slips another cigarette from her pack on the windowsill, and Glen realizes this is a question he is supposed to answer. He realizes, too, that he wants to answer, that he would like to talk, to be listened to. “Well, yeah, I guess I do kind of got my eye on someone. She’s younger—nothing against you, I mean, God, you’re good looking as all get-out—but she’s closer to my age, is what I mean. She’s quiet and smart. I don’t really know her all that well—I guess it just seems like me and her would hit it off.”
As if she’s forgotten the final motion, Twylah’s lighter and cigarette hover near her face. “What’s this girl’s name, big boy?”
“It’s Penny Drease. I been—.”
“Let me stop you right there.” Twylah points a red-nailed finger at him. “You’re a sweet boy, but you ain’t right for Penny Drease. I don’t want you or any other Musselshell boy getting her to feeling mixed up and confused. You keep your goddamn distance. You got that?”
The bucket tips, comes spilling over. Shame. Anger, too. What does she mean, he’s not right? What does she know about him? “How come? How come I ain’t—?”
Twylah jabs her finger into his naked chest. Hard. “It ain’t about you. It’s about her, what she’s headed for. And let me tell you something, Mr. Ditchrider—I’ve fucked half the men on the board, and I could get the other half bedded down right quick. You like your new job? Keep your goddamned paws off Penny Drease.”
Twylah lights her cigarette and stands, drops the knapweed blossom in Glen’s naked lap. “You went and ruined my mood, big boy. I just hope to hell you heard me. For your own good.” Twylah turns, the naked length of her disappearing down the hallway.
Jerry turns into the alley, gravel popping, snapping, the bike fishtailing. He had thought the highway speed might help him breathe, funnel the wind into his mouth. But he still can’t seem to get enough air. His chest hitches, his lungs ache. He’s nearly to the trailer but opens the throttle anyway—and then the sky disappears, goes gravel dark, and he is weightless, the wind roaring in his ears.
Then, a metal whine, a windy silence, a chunking sound—and he is skidding on his right shoulder, skidding through the gravel and the weeds, a great weight on him the whole time, as if his lean hips and thin legs have gone suddenly thick and heavy, grown to ten times their size.
And now he skids, finally, to a stop, and he is on his back, his legs smashed into the gravel, pinned, as far as he can tell, by their own sudden heaviness, but there’s the sky, where it ought to be, which is good—the sky, the sky, and now a great wing of shadow.
Someone’s wide face peering into his own.
Glen gets the final button of his pants fastened, and then pounds down the cinder-block steps, takes the yard in three great strides, and squats down to stare into Jerry Drease’s face.
The man’s eyes, sky-blue and wide, flutter open a moment, and Glen lets out the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. “Oh, Jesus, Mr. Drease. I thought you were a goner. That was a hell of a wreck. Here. Let me get this bike off of you.”
And Glen does now what only he could do: he rises and gets ahold of the front and back forks of the motorbike and hefts it off Jerry’s legs, hefts it cleanly, quickly, straight up into the air, and then sort of tosses it off to the side. Then he kneels again, studies the small, rumpled man in the dust. There’s not much blood, and both legs look straight and true, unbroken. “That better?” he asks. “Mr. Drease?”
“Scoot over, big boy.” Twylah shoulders up against him, her leather jacket zipped up in a way that makes Glen think she’s not wearing anything under it. “Here, lean him up,” she says. “Help me get some whiskey in him.”
Glen does as he’s told, wraps an arm around the smaller man’s shoulders and lifts him, cradling the man’s lolling head with his other hand. Glen has known Jerry Drease all his life, and even for his small size Drease has always been stubbled, ruddy, wind-burnt, somebody to be reckoned with. Twenty years he was the ditchrider, and now Glen holds him in his arms.
“Here we go, Jerry. Let’s get some of the good stuff in you.” Twylah dips a spoon into a tin mug and holds it to Jerry’s lips, tips ever so slightly. The whiskey leaks, for a moment, out of the sides of his mouth. But then Jerry licks his lips and swallows. “There we are. Nothing a little whiskey can’t fix.” Twylah drops the spoon to the ground and holds the cup up for him now.
Jerry slurps and slurps, and begins to blink and work the muscles of his face. “Goddamn. I sure do feel like shit.”
“You crashed, Mr. Drease,” Glen tells him. “You crashed the bike.”
Twylah elbows him in the ribs. “Shut up, big boy. He knows that. Jerry, what’s wrong with you? You’re acting strange all day, and now you go and wreck your bike. I just don’t know what to think.”
Jerry seems to be trying out a moment the mechanics of his neck, moving it side to side, up and down. But then stops. “Where’d you find that?”
“Find what?” Twlah asks, beginning to cry. “What are you talking about, Jerry? What the hell is wrong with you? Christ. Sometimes, Jerry, I just—I just don’t know why you’re such a damn fool. What with that girl depending on you and all. I just—.” Twylah breaks off and rises, wipes at her eyes, and stomps back toward the trailer, stepping neatly over the still spinning rear wheel of the bike.
Glen watches in disbelief. “Wait, don’t leave! He could be hurt—hurt bad!”
“I ain’t hurt. Not too bad. I don’t think.” Glen turns back to the man in his arms, to Drease. “And I wasn’t asking her anyway. What I’m asking about is that knapweed flower you got in your front shirt pocket, which I saw when I was checking to see if I’d broke my fool neck. I’m asking about that knapweed. Where’d you find it?”
Glen looks down, and yes, there’s the knapweed. He must have slid it in there when he was getting dressed. “Just past the headgate. A pretty good tangle in the ditch there.”
“You burned the ditch?”
“Why ain’t you burned the ditch?”
“Art said it would take too long. He said we had to start pulling water. He said you’d—.”
“Said I’d what? Said I’d tell him to shut his goddamn rich man’s mouth? Because that’s what I’d do. Let me give you some advice, Glenny-boy. You got to get it straight in your own head—are you the ditchrider? Because if you’re going to be the ditchrider, you got to be the ditchrider.”
Glen can’t believe how little the man weighs. He could take him up and throw him over his shoulder if he wanted, like a child, yet even now Glen can feel his own tremendous weight pressing down on him, the gravel biting into his wide knees. “Okay,” Glen says. “I guess I am. I’m the ditchrider.”
“Then help me up.” Glen hauls Drease to his feet and feels the man slowly give his weight over to his own legs. “Seeing as how I went and bunged up the bike, you got any idea where we might get some wheels?”
“My mom’s home today. Probably just watching TV. We could take her Tercel.”
Glen watches Drease take an unsteady step back down the alley. Then another. “But where are we going, Mr. Drease?”
“Jesus. You got some learning to do, don’t you? We’re going to the ditch. We’ve got some burning to do.”
Twylah thinks for a moment that it is her cigarette. But then the smoke balloons, goes blacker yet—yes, off to the west, someone must be burning something.
Twylah stands, to get a better look, to stretch her legs. She can’t quite tell how far away, but at least a few miles. She sits again and drags on her cigarette, the cinder blocks warm against the back of her legs. The motorbike lies there on its side in the yard, where that Glen Ryan dropped it those hours ago. She’d never seen anything like that, the way the boy just picked it up as if it were no heavier than an empty can or a cardboard box. That was something. She blows smoke and wonders about Jerry. Wishes, for the ten-thousandth time, that he’d up and be a man one of these days. Oh, well. She doesn’t know where Glen and Jerry have gone off to, but she was peeking out the window. She saw Jerry get up and sort of stumble-walk down the alley. He’ll be fine, the son of a bitch.
She splays her hands out before her, studies the red of her nails, brings her cigarette to her lips, and as she drags, she looks once again toward Kincheloe Hill, toward the highway. She hopes Penny is having a good time, hopes she’ll be brave. Twylah thinks of the time it took her to gather just the right pieces of driftwood, those buffalo-grass seeds, three goosefeathers—all things that drift and fly—of the way Evelyn Kincheloe prayed over each item and wrapped them all tightly up in coyote leather, told her she had to wear it over her heart next time she went farther than the river. The charm wasn’t for her, of course, and Twylah truly hopes, prays, or whatever it takes that Penny humored her, that she wore the charm as she drove along the river this morning and up into the mountains and all the way to her orientation at the state college in Bozeman. Twylah doesn’t even know how to picture it. What Penny will find there.
Off in the west the smoke begins to pool, and the thin, white horsetail clouds in the distance seem to dance on the black lake of it. She hasn’t heard any sirens yet, which means it’s probably someone getting rid of an old barn or clearing a field. She doesn’t know. Or care, really. That’s someone else’s world right there.
But good luck, she thinks. Good luck with it, anyway.