A few miles west of Brush, Colorado, there’s a spot where the land folds in on itself, sort of crumples into itself abruptly, and the prairie falls off at a sharp grade and then flattens out smooth again at the bottom in a long sandy plane. This weird concavity – if it were bigger and deeper you might call it a gorge and if it were narrow with a stream at the bottom you might call it a ravine. But it’s dry and small and ugly, and the rocky slopes are easily scalable by children and dogs, and we never had a name for it anyway, we just said out behind Henry Barrett’s house. But if we did name it, if we saw it from a car driving west-bound on I-76 toward Denver, and felt that we needed a more exact and careful term for this irregularity in the long sweep of parched flatness, we might have called it a gully.
What isn’t visible from the highway is that the even-looking walls of the gully are actually puckered into narrow pleats, creases wide enough for a body to fit into, and it was from one of these creases that I watched Henry Barrett’s father beat a dog one summer. That was the first year that the spring rains didn’t come at all, when in April people in town stood out in their front yards and frowned up at the clear sky, which smiled back, hiding nothing, and by June the river had shriveled from its banks, exposing a rotten fringe of dark mud on either side. The dog was a big, black mutt with stiff, wiry fur, never washed or brushed. His name was Rocco. He was not a good dog, always rolling in shit and finding the carcasses of small animals and carrying them around in his mouth, and he would growl at us if we tried to get them away from him. He bit Henry more than once. He would follow us out to the gully and then roll in the dirt and ignore us while we went on with whatever we were doing, but if things got rough, if someone was shouting or hurt, he would bark and charge us until we stopped what we were doing.
Henry’s father’s name was George, and I watched him kick that dog nearly to death. He had come up from the fields and I watched him, hiding in a crease in the gully wall. I watched him come down the slope, I watched the dog bound up to meet him and I watched him kick it hard in the face with his boot. The dog shrank from him, lowered its ears, and then approached again, pathetically, and George Barrett kicked it again in the ribs, again in the face, not shouting, not cursing up at the sky, and I watched the dog shrink and come back, shrink and come back, until it could no longer lift itself up to walk back to George’s boot and so it crawled instead, kind of slithered forward on its belly and lay at his feet. And then I watched George turn, walk back to the house, and leave it lying there in the dust at the bottom of the gully.
My father would have known the right word for it, gully or gulch or basin. He would have known at a glance its whole history, and he would have told you in his droning science-teacher voice about deviations in the hard shale and sandstone bedrock caused by wind and water erosion, pockets of alluvial material, silt and loess, common in floodplains, how in other places the ground was prone to fall out from beneath your feet. My father had been to college and to graduate school in Boulder, and he taught Physics and Earth Science at the central school. He liked to go out into the prairie to look for fossils, and sometimes he would take me with him. We would drive out on the highway until he spotted a small crevasse or a low rise, a place where he might find loose rock, and then we would park, ducking through the cattle fence, and walk out to it through the scrub. He carried a small pick with him and would stop to chip away at some small boulder or the side of a dry rut. He would point things out to me, changes in the color of the rock that denoted vast geologic timespans. Sometimes he found things – trilobites, ferns, and once the imprinted skeleton of a small fish that excited him greatly – and he would bring these to school to show his students.
Before we headed back to the car he would often lift his gaze from the dirt and look out across the prairie, where in the distance the buffalo grass blended into a pale green sea, and he would say, “In the Cretaceous, Will, all of this was underwater. There was a wide, shallow sea covering the whole state. It was warm. It was tropical, teeming with life, with fish and reptiles and huge sharks and big flightless birds, all extinct.”
I stood next to him and tried to picture it, but I had never seen the sea.
My father had studied groundwater and irrigation at Boulder and he had an imperious disdain for the men who farmed the land along the river outside of town, the fathers of the children he taught. In the summer we would drive out on the highway and pass the greening fields of corn and wheat and soybeans being sprayed by the huge industrial irrigators, skeletal webs of steel pipe on wheels.
“We’re draining the land,” he would say, frowning, his voice gone hard. “We’re sucking it dry.”
He had his own ideas about the land. One winter he gave a presentation to the county commissioners. He spent weeks preparing. He brought me along, and I sat in a folding metal chair on the side of the room and listened to him talk about crop rotation and well management. He held up geological maps and water tables. He talked very earnestly about buffalo grazing, either not seeing the dull eyes of the commissioners or ignoring them. I saw their looks and I was embarrassed for him, but in the car on the way home he seemed buoyant and proud, full of hope that I knew was hollow. He said, “That went well, I thought,” and I said nothing, just looked out the window.
Not long after that, he was driving alone on I-76 when an ice storm blew in from the west, one of those freak low-pressure storms that forms below the mountains and blows up through the plains, and you can see it coming but not until too late. You can see the purple clouds top the horizon in your rearview mirror and you can speed toward town but if you’ve seen it then it’s already too late, it’s on you in minutes, spewing snow and freezing rain, coating the road with a slick, lethal glaze. They found the car in a drainage ditch by the side of the highway. If that ditch hadn’t been there, he might have sailed off the road, spun off into the flatness, come to rest in a snowy field, lived. But the ditch was there, as he surely knew, to catch the runoff from the spring rains and divert it into those fields.
It struck some people in town as peculiar for my father to die like that, so quickly and violently, my careful, finicky father, who never left the house unshaven, who never smoked and hardly drank, the only teacher who wore a tie, who had The Denver Post delivered every morning because The Fort Morgan Times was “nothing but box scores and crop prices.” It didn’t seem so strange to me, though, or to my mother. We were desolated and surprised, but I think it made a kind of sense to both of us. He was made for a different timescale, periods and eras, the long slow settlement of things. He wasn’t made for fast weather.
Not shouting, not cursing up at the sky, but I knew what I was seeing that day in the gully: a storm, the discharge of rage and frustration that had been building, that had escaped only fitfully before, in small bursts, in the inflection of his voice when he told Henry to “shape up,” or even smaller, the way he closed a door or stomped into the house from the fields.
We were fourteen that summer, Henry and I, and we knew something about it ourselves we had already figured out that the gully was a good place to work out a temper or a question in your mind that you were afraid to answer. After my father died, my mother went to work as a receptionist at the hospital and I spent a lot of time at Henry’s in the summers and after school. My father had never owned a gun, and the summer after he died George took us down to the gully and taught us to shoot an old .22, and after that we spent hours lining up soup cans on a rock across the gully and shooting them and then lining them up again until our minds were empty and drooping. The summer after that, when we had both grown by inches and our bodies had changed, George taught us to box. We wrapped our hands and stuck them into gloves and circled each other in the dust with the dog looking on, making sure things didn’t go too far, and we stopped when we were panting and sore and covered in sweat or when one of our lips was split. We knew how it was that you could go down in the gully with a full, gritty mind and come back feeling tired and clean. George had taught us himself.
We would have made a strange sight if anyone had seen us down there in the gully, driven past on the highway and looked out at us bobbing and ducking. I was always tall and heavy for my age and I had my father’s square frame and blocky face, and by that age I was nearly man-sized. Henry was a head shorter, moonfaced with small features and ears that flagged sharply off his head. We were an odd couple in school, too: I had inherited my father’s quiet bookishness, but Henry was almost never silent. He had the kind of voice that cuts through the air and can be heard from far away, picked easily out of the crowd. And he was always moving, too, moving and talking and yelling, and we would make fun of him, gently because we loved him. Someone would come up behind him in the schoolyard and gently pull his ears so we could hear him bellow and watch him turn and give chase. No one would ever do something like that to me. It wouldn’t be fun because I wouldn’t like it, where Henry clearly did, at least a little. He was always looking for an excuse to perform, trying to get out in front of things when I was slouching back. As boys, we were perfect for each other, matched and balanced.
But after my father died, something changed between us, our bond became heavy and strange. Henry’s mother had left them when Henry was very young, too young to remember, and had moved to Denver where, rumor was, she had become an accountant, though as far as I know no one ever heard from her again. In our minds, my father’s death was a long-delayed echo of his mother’s flight, and where before I had enjoyed a kind of elevated status in our relationship, having two parents, now we were reduced to competing for George’s attention in the gully. When he came up from the fields to watch us, Henry would put on a show, trying to make up for his size with fierceness and speed, while George looked on and spouted bits of advice, “Move your feet, keep moving,” and “Keep your hands up, that’s it.” And if it ever seemed, as it sometimes did, that George was favoring me with his attention or his praise, just an extra touch on the shoulder when we had finished and were unwrapping our hands, Henry would become furious. “He’s just being nice to you because your dad is dead,” he told me more than once.
All kinds of things passed between us in the gully. Henry sometimes made spiteful remarks about “people in town,” but I understood that he didn’t mean it, he was just testing out his father’s words.
I stood wedged in that wrinkle watching George walk down to the gully in the afternoon, just up from the fields in his hat and dusty overalls, and I watched him kick that dog until it wasn’t even yelping anymore, wasn’t even flinching when George drew back his boot, and while I watched I was wondering if it had to do with a woman, with my mother.
George was just the kind of man my father had disliked, big and garrulous and crude, prone to sweeping proclamations and to bouts of sullenness, but my mother had grown up in town and known him, he had been just a year behind her in school. She had always liked him, and I had always liked him. He farmed a narrow patch of wheat and vegetables by the river, partially shaded by huge old cottonwoods, and when we were younger, in grade school, our class had taken a fieldtrip out to George’s farm every year in October, and George had let us pick a pumpkin and an ear of Indian corn apiece to take home for Halloween. Then he would hitch an old wooden hay cart to his tractor and take us, four or five at a time, for a ride through a field of flowered wheat that he had left standing for this purpose. Every so often he would yell back at us to “Hold on tight,” though the tractor could barely crawl and there was nothing to hold on to. Then, when we’d all had our turn, George would stand for a moment, red-faced, smiling, looking out over the flattened stalks and dust rising, before he drove the tractor back to the barn.
Usually, my mother came along to help our teacher on our class field trips, and she was always there at George’s farm. While the rest of us ate our bag lunches on the ground along the river, she and George would sit together, slightly apart from us. It was only later, after my father died, that I would notice this detail in my memory. Because we lived in town, George and my mother did not see much of one another, though they always had an easy way together when their paths crossed, usually while delivering or retrieving me or Henry. But Henry and I both remembered how they had sat and apart from us on the riverbank, and that seemed to mean something. I think we both had the sense that they had done that before. We had begun to think about women, the girls around us that we knew but also the women who seemed so different from them, so far removed, and this was something to remark on, that my mother had sat alone with George Barrett.
We imagined them getting married and we talked of this sometimes, at school, in the gully, imagined being brothers even as we tested how hard we could hit each other. The idea at once repulsed and attracted me: there could be no greater betrayal of my father than for my mother to marry George Barrett, and yet I think I was still embarrassed to be my father’s son. It set me apart, somehow, by association, and I wanted that slate wiped clean.
My mother was the key, but she was mysterious. We both assumed that George was in love with her. Everybody was in love with her, Henry and myself included. Her name was Hannah and she was slender, dark-haired, and kind. She had grown up in Brush, or on a farm just outside, and she knew how to talk to people, how to tease the men in a very particular way, with just a little roughness in her voice but tilting her head a little and smiling so they knew she was kidding. “Well, hello yourself, Pete. I see Audrey’s been feeding you well.” This was not a quality my father had possessed. He was stiff and shy and serious around most people, but he had fallen for it in my mother, too. She was the only one who could tease him. They met when he was in graduate school and came out to Fort Morgan to do a groundwater study. He was never one for fatherly advice, but one night when he was in a good mood and my mother was in the kitchen he leaned across the dinner table and told me, “Will, if you ever meet a woman like your mother, do whatever you have to do to marry her.” I knew what he meant: even if it means living in a place like this.
Even that dog loved my mother. He knew our car, and when she pulled in he barked and danced around the drive, and when she got out he wagged his tail and licked her hands. I was a little jealous of her the dog didn’t care about me at all and I had watched George watch this display through the kitchen window when my mother came to pick me up and assumed that he was jealous, too, in some inverse, adult way, not jealous of my mother but jealous of the dog. I assumed that he was jealous and lonely because my mother was beautiful and kind and because his wife had left him and moved to Denver to become an accountant, and because I had once heard Henry call his mother a whore, down in the gully where his voice wouldn’t carry, the word drawn out a beat too long, too big for his mouth.
After George was gone and we heard the door to the house slam closed, we crept out of our hiding spots and walked across the floor of the gully to where the dog lay in the dust, eyes open, watching us but not moving, not panting, his fur coated in dust, and Henry knelt down beside him. He was crying, weeping in a way that I’d never seen him weep, and petting the dog and saying, “Good boy, good boy,” and he pressed his wet face to the dog’s neck, rocking back and forth, and then the dog raised its head a little and looked back toward Henry and licked his face.
And though I wouldn’t shape it into words until later, I understood at that moment that this had been meant for Henry. I had seen the bruises on his face and chest but I had assumed, or made myself assume, that I had put them there myself. When I looked at his bruises it was like looking in a mirror. When I hit him it was like that, too, like punishing myself. It was only there, in the gully, that I could feel the wound my father’s death had opened in me, the grief that I had needed to hide, to trade in for the love of a man my father disliked, a man who beat his dog, his son. I couldn’t even feel it as grief but only as guilt and pain and anger, only in the muffled blows we exchanged. It must have been like that for Henry, hitting me, and maybe it was even like that for George. We were all in need of punishment.
I understood why we had been hiding, because Henry must have sensed something before, some change in the atmosphere, and maybe I had also sensed it, and so when we heard George coming we had wedged ourselves in the walls of the gully, where we knew we couldn’t be seen, and maybe that dog had sensed it, too, but he had gone out to meet George anyway. He had sacrificed himself, laid himself down for Henry and now he licked Henry’s wet cheek, twice, and lay his head back down in the dust. I watched Henry crying and rocking there in the gully and I knew that everything I had thought was wrong, this was not about a woman, not about my mother at all, this was something else, not a thing with an easy word. This was about the sky, which was clear and starting to turn towards evening, and the withering river and the dry, stunted crops. It was about how once there had been a time but now that time had passed, and knowing it, too late now to move.
My father had known it. He had seen it coming when there was still time. And now I looked down into the dog’s black eye and I felt that I had to make a choice. To be the kind of man who calls the warnings that no one listens to and who then dies quickly in a freak storm, or to be the kind who dies slowly, flailing as the ground erodes out from under his feet, who goes into the seed business, or keeps planting a couple of sad acres to qualify for the farm subsidies, or drinks himself to death. I looked into the dog’s black eye, which said choose, but I that was not a choice I could make. So I ran. I ran away and left Henry in the gully with the dust and the broken dog and the inevitable walk back up the slope to the house where his father was. Up out of the gully and down the driveway to the highway and then towards town, knowing that my mother would be driving out to get me and would see me there on the roadside and pick me up and take me home.
I kept running, through high school and then to college in California and into a solid job selling flood and landslide insurance to the people who own houses along the coast. Henry ran, too. A couple of years after that day in the gully he stole George’s truck and drove off. We had grown apart, and he never said anything about it to me, but rumor was that he had gone to Denver to look for his mother, and as far as I know no one heard from him again.
All of us ran, all the kids I grew up with. Cindy Lord came out to California, too, and she was in a couple of movies ten years ago, and Eddy Kadrich went out to work on the oil wells in Louisiana after high school, and Tish Kemp and Lee Schuller and Joe Durbin went to college in Boulder or Fort Collins, and Jamie Kilmer went out on the gambling circuit and ended up in an exurb west of Las Vegas. And there were others, like Henry, who just drifted off without a word or a story.
Who stayed? My mother. After I left for college she married Dr. Arnold and they worked together at the hospital until the new one opened in Fort Morgan and the county closed ours down. He died a few years later, and my wife and I asked my mother to move out here and live with us, but she said she wanted to stay. “Someone has to stay,” she said. Then, as she usually did, she told me whatever news there was from town, and there was always some, a death or a birth, a snowstorm, a high school basketball game, or just the small bulletins that made up her days and weeks, the new neighbors had cleared out the gutters, Pastor Paul had gone on a service mission to a country in South America, the gas station in town was out of gas.
“Someone has to stay,” she said, and it might as well be her, and in a way I felt grateful for this. I felt that she was sacrificing herself, for me and for all of us who left. Because if she left, too, then there would be nothing, no origin. Our movements would lose their trajectory, change from flight to floating, meaningless. If she stayed, if she helped organize the July Fourth parade every year and led the campaign against the county not to tear down the old hospital, then at least we would know what we ran from, and so I understood that she had to lay herself down for us, as that dog did for Henry, as nobly as that.
She died, too, and I went out for the funeral. The pews of the Church of the Nazarene were full at her service, and I didn’t recognize many of the people there. They were younger than I was, people who had moved to Brush since I left and bought the decrepit, abandoned houses and torn them down and brought in mobile homes on trucks to live in, commuted to Fort Morgan to work at the meat packing plant or the health center or the Wal-Mart or the Park Service. But there were some I recognized, my mother’s old friend Jean Daniels, too old to walk now, and John King, who had been the janitor at our school, and Lou King, his cousin and two or three others. They sat up in the front pews as Pastor Paul said his service, the ones who stayed.
Afterwards, driving back west on I-76 to Denver through the dull, dry fields, I passed where Henry’s house had been, but it wasn’t there anymore. George had died years before, and the house was probably picked apart by the wind and the sand and eventually torn down so that now just the concrete square of the foundation was visible pushing up out of the scrub like some Neolithic ruin. And then I passed the spot, the gully or the gulch, out behind Henry Barrett’s house. It was still there, no one had filled it in, there was no reason to, and from the window of my rented car I looked down on the sandy bottom where I had left them, but I didn’t slow down. I kept going. Forward, into the prairie and the clear sky, toward the spot where my father’s car had left the road, and somewhere on the way I must have passed it, too, but there’s no marker there, no skid marks, no flowered cross, just the flat, dry land, and even when I try to think about him, my father, I end up thinking about Henry and that dog.
And that dog, Rocco, somehow Rocco didn’t die in the gully that day, though he was different after that, he skulked and shied away from everyone, even Henry, even my mother. And at the end of that summer he ran, too, or tried to, though he couldn’t run very fast – he had a little hitch in his step and he was hit by a truck trying to cross the highway, in the eastbound lane, the far lane. He almost made it.