"Do you hate Daddy?" she asked once, from the depths of a divorced child's sadness.
"Your daddy," I replied, "is a good man."
In the manner of good ranchmen, my father and John squatted on their haunches on the porch facing each other. The whiskey bottle rested on the floor between them. John's good white shirt was buttoned painfully around his neck. Dad had pushed his Stetson back, and a white band of skin glowed above his dark face, smooth and strangely delicate. When I moved to the doorway, their conversation was shifting from weather and cattle to marriage. As Dad tilted back heavily on one heel to drink from the neck of the bottle, John looked down and began to plot our life with one finger in the dust on the floor.
"I been meaning to stop by . . . ," John said to the toe of his boot. He looked up to catch Dad's eye. Dad nodded and looked away.
"You figured a spot yet?" He spoke deliberately, weighing each word. Like all the big ranches out there, John's place had been pieced together from old homesteads and small farms turned back to grass.
"Morgan place has good buildings," John replied, holding Dad's gaze for a moment. He shifted the bottle to his lips and passed it back to Dad.
"Fair grass on the north end, but the meadows need work," Dad challenged. John shifted slightly to the left, glancing to the west through the screen door. The setting sun was balanced on the blue tips of the pines in the distance. He worked at the stiffness of his collar, leaving gray smudges of dust along his throat. Settling back, he spoke with a touch of defiance.
"If a person worked it right . . ." Then his eyes found his boots again. He held his head rigid, waiting.
Dad smoothed one hand along his jaw as if in deep thought, and the two men squatted silently for several minutes. Then Dad drew a long breath and blew it out.
"Old Morgan used to get three cuttings in a rain year," he said at last. John's head rose and he met my father's steady look.
"A person might make a go of it," John agreed softly. Dad's shoulders lifted slightly and dropped in mock defeat. He placed a hand on each knee and pushed himself up, John rising beside him, and they shook hands, grinning. Twisting suddenly, Dad reached down and grabbed the whiskey. He held it high in a toast, then leaned forward and tapped John's chest with the neck of the bottle.
"And you, you cocky sonofabitch! Don't you try planting anything too early, understand?" They were still laughing when they entered the kitchen.
I talk to my father twice a year now, on Christmas and Father's Day. We talk about the yearling weights and the rain, or the lack of rain. When I moved away from our community, my parents lost a daughter, but they will have John forever, as a neighbor, a friend. He is closer to them in spirit than I am in blood, and shares their bewilderment and anger at my rejection of their way of life. As the ultimate betrayal, I have taken John's sons, interrupting the perfect rites of passage. The move was hardest on the boys, for here they were only boys. At the ranch they were men-in-training, and they mourned this loss of prestige.
"I used to drive tractor for my dad," the elder son once told his friends, and they scoffed. "You're only eleven years old," they laughed, and he was frustrated to bitter tears. He would go back to the ranch, that one. He would have to. But he returned there an outsider, as his father knew he would. He did not stay. The first son of the clan to cross the county line and survive found it easier to leave a second time, when he had to. Had he chosen to spend his life there, he would have had memories of symphonies and tennis shoes and basketball. When he marries and has children, he will raise them knowing that, at least sometimes, cowboys do cry.
I stuck with the bargain sealed on my parents' porch for more than twelve years, although my faith in martyrdom as a way of life dwindled. I collected children and nervous tics the way some of the women collected dress patterns and ceramic owls. It was hard to shine when all the good things had already been done. Dorothy crocheted tissue covers and made lampshades from Styrofoam egg cartons. Pearle looped thick, horrible rugs from rags and denim scraps. Helen gardened a half acre of land and raised two hundred turkeys in her spare time. And everyone attended the monthly meetings of the Near and Far Club to answer roll call with her favorite new recipe.
Excerpted from Breaking Clean by Judy Blunt Copyright 2002 by Judy Blunt. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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From NYT bestselling author Ann Leary
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