The brother finally returns about two weeks after Easter, around noon on a Tuesday. Shanks is rinsing pitchers behind the bar, and only Elder Schmidt is in the dusty frontroom, sitting at one of the small square tables near the window, where the bachelor farmers gather in the afternoon to play checkers.
Shanks looks up at the rattle of a German engine, watches the one-eyed VW bug pull into the space in front of the building. He sets down the pitcher and unties his apron as his brother opens the glass door.
“ ’Day, Caul,” says the Elder as he pours himself another glass of iced tea.
“How goes it, Deacon?” He sits down at the middle of the bar, between the rails. “Shanks,” he says, not looking at his brother.
Caulfield slips off his hooded sweatshirt and shakes the sand out of it.
“Would you like a drink?”
“Yeah. What’s left in the bottoms?”
“Here.” Shanks reaches under the bar and pulls out a bottle of house scotch with about a half inch of liquid remaining, uncorks the rubber nipple, passes the bottle and a glass full of ice down the counter top. “Finish it up for me.”
Shanks uses the apron and to dry the damp pitchers, while Caulfield drains one glass of scotch and pours a second.
After a short while, Elder Schmidt gathers up his jacket and heads out into the street to talk to Mrs. Robal.
Caulfield breaks the silence. “How’s Anna?”
“You two still go out?”
“Off and on.”
Shanks wads up the apron and tosses it into the backroom. “You seeing anyone?”
“Not a soul,” says Caulfield. He’s been out in the Altiplano for two weeks. “You still mad?”
“I won’t say I’m sorry.”
“I wasn’t expecting it,” says Shanks.
“Good, ‘cause I won’t say it.”
“Finish up your scotch. I gotta kick the shit out of you.”
“Gimme five minutes,” says Caulfield. He empties the bottle into his mouth,then takes off his spectacles. “Okay, kick the shit out of me.”
It shouldn’t be a terribly fair fight, after all. Shanks is probably six four, about ten inches taller than his brother, and nearly a hundred pounds heavier. But he’s more than two years younger, and he knows better than to turn his back on Caul. In the end they sit on the curb in front of the Rexall, smiling past fat lips.
Caulfield reclines on one elbow and asks, “is it out of your system yet?”
“Yeah, I feel a lot better about it, now.”
“Yeah. You needed your ass kicked.”
Shanks met Anna at the Four Corners Winter Intertribal. A tall, freckly mestizo, she stood staring across the Zuñi Pueblo dance hall at Shanks looking at his feet.
Shanks approached her, made talk about the powwow, about skipping the rest of the dance for a drink back at the Oasis. They had sex on the faded carpet sofa in the backroom, quietly and ineptly. The next morning she went into the bar to find Caulfield stretched out in a booth, drooling on the vinyl, smelling like sheep and dust.
That was all it took for Anna. Caulfield never gave her much except good sex, and then only twice, but it was enough. She was in love, was going to introduce him to the parents, hint subtly at dates in June. But after the VW vanished around New Year’s, she took her heartbreak to Shanks.
Elder Schmidt makes fast words through the deacon circuit, and once the deacons know, their wives know, and then their wives’ friends, and then everyone’s daughters, and that’s all it takes: “Caulfield Bower’s back in town!”
Four years ago, Caulfield was the first Bower ever to go to college. It was in his third semester that Albert Bower died.
The night after the father’s funeral, he sat on the roof of the Oasis, watching the October stars spin across the sky, not crying, not sleeping. He didn’t go back to school, after that. He didn’t help Shanks run the bar that Albert built after the mother died in Moab. He spent the last two and a half years on Great Uncle Ashie’s sheep ranch on the Altiplano.
For his most recent homecoming, Caulfield shaves with a dry razor, takes a shower, even brushes his teeth. He stands at the sink in the backroom, looking at his skin, while his brother serves virgin margaritas to the first batch of teenage girls to show up in the frontroom. For about an hour after school they show up, in knots of two or three, maybe a dozen in all. They come in, grin, hug Caulfield, and squeal, “Caulfield!! Where have you been hiding your self? When are you going to come back to us here?”
They smile too much, he thinks, their voices are too high and their skin too pale. They stand too close, he’ll smother in perfume. He steps back to the bar, smiles and props himself up against it on one elbow.
It’s always like this, Shanks notices—high school girls buying Caulfield drinks, old folks all shaking their heads and wondering what had gotten into such a bright boy.
Shanks leaves the bar to Miranda, the night manager, while his brother loads half-empty bottles and bags of pretzels into a leather backpack.
They leave the Oasis, drive north out of town. By the time they reach the foot of Backbone Ridge, the sun hangs at the horizon, shining through a band of yellow sky beneath the late afternoon thunderheads.
“Must be getting on summer,” says Caulfield, when they reach the saddle between the Keyhole and the Coffeepot, “look at those clouds.”
“No rain, though.”
“Never rains on the Altiplano. We don’t even get many clouds, except for days in the winter.” Caulfield sits down next to a piñon tree growing improbably out of a crack in a boulder. “At times I think back on...rain clouds in the afternoon.”
Caulfield gathers juniper and mesquite wood, and sagebrush, while Shanks makes a ring of stones around a pit in the dirt. They always come to the sheltered place under the Keyhole, looking west across the badlands dissolving into twilight.
By the time the fire is started, they are already finished with one of the half-empty bottles. The clouds have passed over now, and the quarter moon rises behind them, over the sandstone pinnacles on the spine of the ridge.
The yipping had begun even before the moon rose. From no more than a quarter mile away, downslope in the badlands, the brothers can hear dogs barking in short controlled yaps, quietly. Then, louder, howls from a mile or more away.
Shanks sits up at a thin and high-pitched howl. “Jesus, listen to that.”
“Gives me chills, you know,” says Shanks, breaking the seal of a fifth of bourbon whiskey.
Caulfield leans back, inspects his empty bottle through its square bottom. “Out on the Plano...shit, you heard them all the time. I don’t know, the bastards are everywhere, I mean really just all over the place.” He blinks hard at the fire. “When I was at school...they were having problems in Glendale with dogs in the garbage. Coyotes...in L.A., man.”
He passes the empty bottle to his brother, who throws it down the slope.
“With sheep around...Coyotes are lone wolves, mostly, they run alone, or in little groups, twos and threes. But if they sniff a flock, they’ll gather up in a group, follow you around. At night they howl a fuss, trying to scare up the flock. Sometimes they’ll catch some old goat or a lamb what’s wandered away, and the next morning you find...well, not much.”
“They ever take on the flock?”
“Nah, they’re big chickens. Once I saw...well, I had this ram, one of the lead rams, a really old goat, a sinewy old guy with the biggest fucking hornage. Anyway, one night he chewed through his lead and he wandered off. It was cold, so, I don’t know, he slipped down a rincon, I guess. The next morning I went out looking,” he sighs, bends over and slips off a boot, “I went out looking and there was just nothing left. The coyotes ate fucking everything. Ate it or dragged it away...Bits of the skull, horns, hooves left...but everything else, bones, everything, just gone.”
“Jesus,” says Shanks, starting in on the last bottle, which they finish an hour later. Caulfield staggers off to the head of the talus slope over the , next to the piñon that reaches only to his shoulders, and pisses down the slope. They can no longer hear the howling of the dogs, cannot, in fact, hear anything at all, but wind passing through the Keyhole, and through the space between it and the Coffeepot.
Caulfield zips up, slides to the ground. He slips his right arm around the scaly trunk of the piñon, and sings all the Simon & Garfunkel songs he knows, at the same time.
“God bless you please, lai la lai. I am a rock, I am an island. Me and Julio feelin’ groovy.”
Shanks squints at his brother. When he turns his head to the side and doesn’t look too closely, he can’t tell where his brother’s dusty body ends and the stunted tree begins.
About two years ago, shortly after the father died, Caulfield got himself into a fight with Benny Briggs, who was at the time the badest ass in the county. Shanks can’t remember what they got to fighting over. He can only remember Benny Briggs kneeling on his brother’s chest, pounding him in the face over and over, the eyes swelling shut and oozing blood, the face discoloring, the skin peeling away like an overripe apricot. His head, his hair, became a dark smear of blood, pulpy and raw, and Benny Briggs’ fists were covered with the stuff. Caulfield couldn’t even get a square punch in. When Benny Briggs had enough, he got up and turned around. Caulfield grabbed a rusty exhaust train off the street in both hands, jumped straight up to his feet, and broke it over the small of Benny Briggs’ back, dislocating a vertebra. A week later, Benny Briggs was in the first of ten months of PT and metal crutches, while Caulfield had only a chipped tooth, a bent nose, and a three-inch scar along his left cheekbone. The swelling had faded to a nasty yellow-green bruise.
Anna telephones on the day the Bower brothers return from the Backbone.
“Oasis,” Shanks answers, pulling five quarters out of a puddle on the bar top. He nods at Ign’o Begay, who waves over his shoulder as he turns to the door.
“Shanks, honey,” she says, “how’s things?”
“Fair to middling, I guess.” He shifts the phone to his other shoulder.
“Yeah. Hey, you going to Cecilia Broma’s place Friday?”
“Hadn’t thought about it.” He smiles.
“Oh.” He can hear her inhale. “What about Caul?”
“I mean Caulfield. Is he...I heard he’s back in town...I mean, there’s this thing Friday and I wonder—”
“Don’t start on that piece of shit, honey...”
“Look, I was just curious.”
“Yeah, I bet you are,” he says, and she doesn’t answer.
“Well,” he says finally, after he sees Elder Schmidt coming in, “I gotta go...”
“Listen, mi corazon,” she coos, “I didn’t mean—”
“I don’t reckon to know just what you mean, mee cor-a-zone.”
“Shanks, if you aren’t doing anything Friday...”
“Call me then, Anna. I gotta go.” He turns to the Elder sitting, looking out the window at the polished afternoon sky. “Help yourself to tea, Elder. I got business to attend to.”
Caulfield rolls over onto his back when Shanks opens the backroom door.
“Jesus, Shanks, you scared the fuck out of me.”
“Get out of my bar,” Shanks says, standing in the doorway with daylight shining around the blocky outline of his body.
“What the fuck?”
“Get the fuck out of my bar.”
“Lemme get my boots, dammit...”
Shanks sets his jaw, holds one fist to his side, near his kidney, the other under his right nipple.
Caulfield grabs his boots in one hand, gets up off the sofa. “Have you seen my glasses?”
“Get the fuck out.”
“Jesus, where’s my damn spectacles, Shanks?”
“Just get out.”
“I need’em to drive, dammit!” Caulfield waves his boots at his brother, but takes a step backwards.
Shanks breathes in sharply. “You can walk.”
“Just get out.”
Caulfield steps around towards the frontroom, his boots in front of his chest. “Okay, okay.”
“Go out the back.”
Shanks stands looking through the glass front door at his brother walking around the building, sitting down on the curb in front of the Rexall. Caulfield works his feet into his boots, squints at the Oasis, then stands slowly up. He scratches at his backside. He ambles northward out of town.
Deputy sheriff Andy Pinto wakes Shanks up about eleven the next day.
Shanks, standing at the doorway buckling his pants, invites the deputy in for a cup of coffee.
“No, I’ll pass, Shanks. This is...this is about your brother. Do you have any idea where he went last night?”
“Nah, he fucked directly off. Is he in some kind of trouble?”
“We don’t...don’t rightly...Could you come down to the station with me maybe?”
In the sheriff’s jeep, Shanks leans his head against the window. The day has grown cloudy, indistinct. Without the sun, nothing casts any shadows, nothing has any color. It’s all gray and shapeless, without edges or corners or boundaries. He listens to the dispatcher on the radio, speaking calmly in code to Andy, about something apparently happening in Mesa Dura.
Sheriff Lewis meets them at the station door.
“Care for a cup of coffee, Shanks?”
“No, I’ll pass.”
Lewis and Andy walk ten feet ahead of Shanks, talking quietly with their heads leaning towards each other. They stop at a door with a window. Shanks looks his feet.
In a few minutes, a man in a white coat steps out of the room, speaks softly with the sheriff, looking from time to time with short glances at Shanks.
The man in the coat looks over hard at Shanks. “James?”
“Everyone calls me Shanks.”
White-Coat is leafing through pages on a clipboard. “James, do you know if your brother went to the dentist’s office recently, or if he ever...ever had any x-rays taken...?”
Shanks bites his lower lip. “Beats me.”
“Can you step in here a minute with me, please?”
“You want I should go in with you, Shanks?” asks Andy.
They push through the window-door, into a fluorescent-lit room with a metal table and broad metal drawers along the wall.
“James, do you recognize these boots?” asks White-Coat. He sets on the table a pan containing a pair of dusty boots, the soles worn unevenly along the insteps.
“Yeah, they’re my brother’s.”
Andy takes a deep breath. “Shanks, we found these down in a wash along 36 this morning. We don’t have much else, but...we think your brother was hitching rides, down to Gallup maybe. Maybe he got himself messed up with someone, and, um...”
Shanks rubs his nose. “He forgot his specs.”
“Whoever did this didn’t leave us much, James. Are you sure these are his boots?”
“Yeah, they’re his boots, all right.”
Andy and White Coat look at each other, then at Shanks eying the door.
“Shanks, I sure am sorry...”
Shanks can see the sheriff through the window in the door. “Yeah, I bet you are.” He pushes the door open, and it swings shut, then open, then shut again behind him.
Shanks opens the Oasis around two, letting Miranda run the bar. By mid-afternoon the well-wishers arrive, the housewives and schoolchildren first, later the men. They bring Tupperware and casserole dishes, say, Here, it’s mutton stew, just warm it up, and We feel just terrible, Shanks, and If there’s anything you need, give me a call.
To each other they say, At least he was probably too young to remember the mother and Will he go live with the uncle on the Altiplano? and Didn’t the mother have a sister in Provo?
The Oasis does a spanking business, Miranda can’t keep up with all the beer and iced tea the townspeople feel obliged to buy. Shanks doesn’t mix drinks. He doesn’t cry, and he doesn’t say anything but Thank you. Around six or so he puts on his weathered motorcycle jacket and climbs up onto the roof.
The gray sky darkens. He watches the clouds move; nothing is rooted or anchored. A cloud, or a star, or the moon may seem to stand still, but really, they’re always moving. They drift overhead, and nothing can hold them in one place.
The gray pall of the day clears around sunset, which gleams fiercely off the backside of the the thunderclouds. The town dogs bark, he can hear the cars on the highway. But beneath the patina of civilized noise he hears a yipping, and sometimes a howl at the emerging quarter moon.