It’s funny what shapes you and what doesn’t.
How part of your brain can play games, and wish something was different, and paint you an entirely different history, or life in a different state, or in a different body, or on a different planet. Especially as a kid. But it can be amazing how fast you let go of that too, especially on a farm. Even a dreamer like me.
Although there was a moment when it wasn’t like that. Like a song that’s stuck in your head you can’t get rid of, there was one day for me that replayed, over and over in the back jukebox of my mind. That’s probably why flashes of that day are so vivid.
Like a hair stuck in your glasses that you can feel but can’t see, always taunting you, it’s there, right in your face, but invisible. Some things you forget. Some things stay with you, shape you, like a stain on the wall that you’ve bleached clean, but with a flash of a CSI blue light, the blood stains stand out in sharp relief.
And sometimes, after something bad happens, a part of you is always hoping, always looking for a white knight to ride in with something good.
I was thirteen, and Clayton was seventeen, just two weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday.
It was my parents’ anniversary. They’d gone out to Route City for dinner. Even though it was late, almost ten thirty p.m., my brother Clay and I were sprawled out on the couch, watching CSI Miami. Our parents weren’t back yet, and we were involved in the show, watching Horatio try to figure out who ran a girl off the road, so we didn’t think anything of it.
The knock at the door startled me, and I looked at the clock on the TV. 10:29 p.m. My brother got up, his huge body unfolding from the couch slowly, his face staring at me with a quizzical expression even as he walked away from me to the door.
I live in northwestern Montana, in a town called Wounded Deer, population 1,100. Wounded Deer is spread out over 900 square miles, so there isn’t one person I know who can see their neighbor’s house from their front porch with the naked eye. The houses are too far apart for neighbors to just drop in unannounced. We might not be that close to each other in area, but we still look out for one another when we can.
Two cops were at the door with their hats in their hands and very somber faces.
In a town as small as Wounded Deer, you pretty much recognize everybody. The cops at the door were the police chief and officer Margie Greytree.
“Howdy boys. Can we come in?” the Chief asked.
Clay stepped back.
The chief just looked at us.
The saturated yellow from CSI Miami flickered over them, turning everything into that light blue TV screens do when the light shines in the dark onto someone’s face.
No one said anything for a minute. I couldn’t figure out why they were there, what was going on.
Clay realized it first.
“How bad is it?”
“It’s real bad, son.” The chief looked down at the floor. “You’re father’s done passed on already. He was killed instantly.”
“But your mother’s over at Memorial. From what I understand, she’s in real serious condition.”
“Come on Clayton, Noah,” Margie said gently. “Get your coats. We’ll drive you over to Memorial.”
It took a second, like the words weren’t making any sense. My brain refused to believe it. I heard Horatio Caine, in a dry tone say, “Justice is never fair, but it sure is swift.”
I burst into tears.
Clay grabbed me to him in a fierce hug. I buried my face in his chest. I thought he might crack one of my ribs, he was squeezing so hard, but I vaguely remember that I didn’t care.
As if from far away, I could still hear the TV. Horatio Caine said, “Death comes to everyone, it just comes to some faster than others.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, my whole face squinching up. The cable knit of Clayton’s sweater was suddenly very rough and yet extremely comforting. I wanted to go back a few minutes. I certainly didn’t want to go forward. I was going to stay in Clay’s strong embrace forever.
“Time’s of the essence boys,” the Chief said.
I don’t remember the drive to the hospital. I don’t remember walking in. I don’t remember sitting down and waiting. But I remember the surgeon, his light green scrubs still splattered with blood, walking toward us as if in slow motion. I played that over and over in my head hundreds, hell, thousands of times. His voice always comes out like it’s under water.
“I’m sorry. We did all we could. She didn’t make it.”
I don’t remember anything after that. Blank spot, TV off, shock on. I think Clay might have carried me out.
And just like that all of my childhood was gone. My life had a new shape. One day forged a mold.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that your life still moves forward.
I existed in a zombie state for weeks after. I did my chores, and ghosted through the necessities, mechanically chewing whatever Clay put in front of me at meal times even though it tasted like cardboard.
Technically we should have gone into the foster system, because neither of us were eighteen. I still shudder when I think of that. Clayton and I would probably have been split up, and we would have lost the farm for sure. But Clay was always stronger than five men, even back then, and there was no way he was going to let that happen.
Clayton didn’t have to go too far to find a way.
Old Cooter was a widower who owned the neighboring farm. Old Cooter had long brown hair that only emphasized his receding hairline. Cooter sometimes had a blade of grass he would chew on, hanging out of his mouth. He had a loud snorting laugh, and he was the best neighbor you could ask for. He was also in charge of court documents. He reissued Clay a false birth certificate saying he was born a few months earlier, so the state thought he was eighteen. That meant no one ever gave us any shit. But it also meant that all of a sudden Clayton went from being almost a high school grad to the man of the house, with a big farm to manage, and a kid to raise single-handedly.
He never batted an eye.
Clay never made me go back to school that year. His philosophy was hard physical labor would be a lot more therapeutic than sitting on my butt in a classroom, and he was right. He got certified to homeschool me, taught me after sundown, after ten to twelve-hour days on the farm.
I’d always had a few chores but nothing like working full time on the farm from sunup to sundown. You would think that I would be cranky, thrust into all that work, and then having to sit and study with Clay for about two hours after. But I wasn’t. I was so, so glad I was near Clay, near the animals, out in the fields, alive, that even after being hot, sweaty, and exhausted, I would do anything Clay said—even math.
Clay never let me feel sorry for myself. We were barely making ends meet, but we had a big house, healthy animals, large fields, each other, glorious Montana plains, God, and country. Not that I’m the moping or feel sorry for yourself type. I’m more the brood-about-all-that-is and all-that-isn’t, but maybe-could’ve-been type.
If I had ever dared mope, I think that would’ve been the one time he’d beat my butt. And he was right; I had a lot to be grateful about, so I focused on that.
Still, losing my parents like that… it’s not something you ever get over. While it gave me a real appreciation for life, it also gave me a deep fear. I feared I might lose Clay just as suddenly. Anything could happen, a farming accident, falling off a horse, anything. I prayed a lot to keep my fears at bay. I told myself our family had enough bad luck and that lighting rarely struck the same place twice.
I developed a kind of dual nature. I was practical and analytical during the day, focusing on what had to be done on the farm and in my studies, and keeping a wary eye on Clay. In the evening as soon as dinner and my studying was done, it was like a switch flipped. I became a spacey dreamer, spending hours in one of the rocking chairs on the porch staring up at the stars, imagining life in other cities, on other planets, in other realities. Sometimes I took a sketch pad out there and just sketched abstract lines and shapes, or tried to draw, badly, pictures of the animals I imagined while I was partially spacing out. In either my day or night mode, I was pretty content in both places.
I spent a lot of time with the horses. I’d always loved animals. But after my parents died, taking care of the horses, talking to them, riding them, loving them, actually, seemed like it was the main thing that kept me together. Sometimes when I woke up in the middle of the night, or just before sunrise, I’d go out to the stable and go in with my favorite girl, a tall dark brown beauty named Eagle-eye, and just brush her down, over and over, until I felt calm and centered.
I had a few friends when I was in school, but when I dropped out, those friendships faded away. When you’re a kid, your friends don’t really know what to say to you when your parents die, and you don’t really know what to say to them. I guess when some people face a tragedy they become a ham, always vying for attention. I became quiet, like my brother. But unlike Clay, who was always so strong, I was quiet in a small, shy way.
Maybe part of me was worried that somehow without parents I would never quite be enough, like if you didn’t have a mother to teach you, there was something vital always missing in you. Sometimes at night I wondered if there would always be a chance that fate had mixed plans for me—or worse, no plans for me—or maybe there would be something good or bad coming my way. It was as if some small part of my brain was always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
In a way, the long days were a blessing. They kept me from ruminating all day and all night, which probably would have been too much.
Instead, I spent most of my day looking to and looking up to Clay, following his lead. Clayton was six foot four, with dirty blond hair and the classically handsome, rugged cowboy look that always got him the girls’ attention when he was in school. But just like my pre-accident life dropped away, so did his. He never dated those first years after my folks died, and truthfully, I never thought about the fact that socially, he never went out at all. If he had any regrets, he sure didn’t show it to me.
Old Cooter came over at least once a week. Old Cooter seemed old to me, but he was probably in his mid-to-late forties. That was just his name. Sometimes he helped out with the farm or helped Clay with the bookkeeping. Sometimes he stayed for dinner and played cards.
Between Clay’s steady, calm presence, and Old Cooter’s larger than life personality, I slowly came back to myself, or perhaps I should say, continued to grow into myself—someone who took the simple pleasures like horseback riding or a perfect Montana sky seriously and wasn’t going to let one tragedy define him.
At only five foot seven I wasn’t nearly as tall as Clay, although he promised me more growth spurts were on the way. I didn’t have his broad body; I was thin and wiry. I had the same dirty blond hair, that in my case always fell into my eyes, but other than hair color we didn’t look much alike. I didn’t have anywhere near his good looks, the ‘I’m a man of the plains’ handsomeness.
It was Clay who put together the connection between me not being able to see as well anymore and me not wanting to be able to see as well anymore. But he dragged my ass all the way to Route City to get glasses and made me wear them. I already looked more geek than cowboy. When you added the wire-rimmed glasses, I looked like I’d be at home in a ‘Where’s Waldo’ poster. Not that anyone was ever around here to see me besides Clay and Old Cooter anyway.
But despite the difference in our heights, looks, temperaments, and confidence, you could tell we were brothers. We were probably closer than most brothers, because we only had each other.
Our philosophy was pretty simple, keep your head down and work hard. Then continue to plow on and work hard. Be grateful.
When I was thirteen I hated being short and skinny. But almost every holiday and birthday seemed to be accompanied by me waking up suddenly feeling like I grew a tiny bit. Clay was right about the growth spurts—although I stayed slim and wiry.
One day in May, a few weeks after I turned sixteen, Clay sat me down at the table.
“Noah, I want to talk to you about something important.”
“I think we should change at least three quarters of the farm to flax.”
“Corn subsidies are going down. Big farmers are using GMOs on everything, trying to corner mass markets, and they are squeezing a lot of farmers out, you know this.”
“Flax could be a good deal. More people are looking at it as a health food, so more people are eating it. Old Cooter says it’s a big deal in Canada. He’s got a buyer lined up, so we could sell it there. It’s a risk, but I think we should do it. He’s willing to go in with us as a business partner; that will lower the risk a little bit. We could stand to make triple what we’re making now, assuming the weather is good, and we don’t fuck up.”
I nodded again.
“The farm is yours as well as mine,” Clay said. “We have to both agree on it.”
“Let’s go for it,” I said.
“We’ll need a farmhand.”
“Where are we gonna get a farmhand? Everyone here is workin’.”
“I thought I’d put the word out to some fancy agricultural colleges, see if we can get someone who knows what they’re doing about this stuff.”
I shook my head. “Someone like that’s gonna be too expensive. And they’re not going to want to come all the way out here.”
He was silent for a minute. “Yeah, you might be right. I’ll put the word out. See if anybody knows anybody or has any ideas. But we’ll need someone soon, before it’s too late to plant for this season.”
“Ask Jenny Mae down at the feed store,” I said. “She’s related to half of Montana and probably a quarter of the rest of the world.”
“Good idea. She always has her nose to the ground,” Clayton said. “And while I’m at it, maybe I’ll see if Sherry’s busy. Jenny Mae might be 400 pounds now, but her daughters are still pretty as a picture.”
Turns out Jenny Mae did know somebody. One of her distant cousins just graduated some fancy agricultural high school on the border of New York and Canada and was looking for a place to get real world experience. Jenny Mae said they had to take all kinds of new-fangled courses in rare grains, cutting edge technologies, new farm business management.
It was the perfect solution. He had education we didn’t have; we had experience he didn’t have. We could pay him a decent salary without having to pay him an arm and a leg.
After three years of just my brother and me working the farm, we’d have someone new around. I liked the idea, a start of a new adventure.