For those of you who've been along for the ride so far, welcome to the sequel! I'm very excited about it, and I have some fun things planned for Our Heroes. Please be advised that I do NOT expect this story to be written as quickly as "Human Interest" was. I don't know what kind of crack-fueled wild ride I was on that I spewed out 140,000 words in six weeks, but I can't keep up that level of output indefinitely. I expect a more reasonable schedule of one chapter per week, possibly two chapters per week if I get inspired. I thank you for your continued support and your patience. I hope this new story lives up to your expectations.
I'm sorry that I have not been able to respond to all of the comments and private emails I've been sent in response to "Human Interest." Rest assured that I have received, read and appreciated every single piece of feedback you have left me, no matter what form it took, and I thank all of you from the bottom of my heart. It's your feedback that gives me motivation to continue and keeps my creative energy flowing. By encouraging me and giving me this outlet for fun writing, you're helping me not only to write stories like this, but also to stay motivated to write my original work, which I (and my agent, with her ten percent slice) hope will get me into a bookstore near you before too long. If I sell this godforsaken book and get to write an Acknowledgments section, all of you are going in it.
One crow sorrow, two crows joy
Three crows a girl, four crows a boy
Five crows silver, six crows gold
Seven crows a secret never to be told
Eight crows a wish, nine crows a kiss,
Ten crows a time of joyous bliss.
--American folk rhyme
(from the "Columns" section of the New York Post, December 2, 1983)
Adventures of an Urban Expatriate
by Liz Baskerville
My name is Liz, and I'm an urban expatriate.
I live and work on a cattle ranch in a small New England town. I swear to God, this is where they come to shoot postcards. There are white church steeples, flags waving on Main Street and concerts in the town square. Kids play stickball on the quiet residential streets and every Sunday there's a brunch picnic at someone's farm. Sometimes it feels surreal, like an episode of "The Twilight Zone." I keep waiting for the facades to be pushed aside to reveal the seamy underbelly, but behind the bucolic exterior all I've found so far is an equally bucolic interior.
A year ago I was just like you. I wore my tennis shoes to pound the pavement from my sixth-floor walkup to my office, carrying my pumps in my bag. I'd grab what I now laughingly call a "lunch break" at my desk, wolfing down a salad and mainlining Diet Coke. I'd elbow my way into crowded subway cars, shove through crowds of pedestrians, and risk life and limb hailing taxicabs. Even so, I loved my life. It was exciting. I felt energized by the city, and it made me feel so hip and urbane.
But now that it's gone, I don't miss it.
I came here last summer to do a brief story, and that's all I expected. How I came to live here is a story in itself. The short version is that just after my visit, my life fell apart in spectacular fashion. The men who own the ranch where I now live, Jack and Ennis, picked me up off the floor and helped me reassemble myself. I don't know what I did to deserve their friendship, but they've made me part of their family and their business. I work in the office, and I live in a bungalow on the property with Junior, Ennis's college-aged daughter. I have my own horse, and I can ride her whenever I like. I eat a home-cooked meal almost every day. Peter, my gentleman friend, is the local country doctor…and yes, he makes house calls. The mayor drops by to have a beer from time to time, and if we're feeling sociable, we all head down to the river park and eat sandwiches on the grass while we watch the kids play Frisbee. I'm learning things I never thought I'd want to know, like how to knit and make homemade bread. Jack is teaching me how to fly-fish, and Ennis is teaching me how to shoot straight.
When the sun goes down, I can see every star at night. Sometimes Peter and I drive up to the highest hill in town and lie on the roof of his car so we can look upwards into the heavens until everything spins and it feels like we're shooting up towards those lights. When I go to sleep at night, the only sounds I hear are the cattle and the crickets, and when I wake up in the morning, all I smell is coffee.
It's Ennis who calls me "city gal." He means it jokingly, but he's not wrong. I am a city gal, and I'm still getting used to all of this. Nothing that's happened to me has been what I expected, and each week in this space, I'll hope to share something of it with all of you who are still living that city life that I never thought I wouldn't miss.
Ennis came in the front door, stomping the snow from his boots in the tiled foyer. He could barely feel his nose. He'd been out in the stables most of the day and had spent all evening attempting to clear the snow from the porch and the steps. Unfortunately, it turned out that underneath the afternoon's snowfall was several inches of impacted, half-melted-and-refrozen ice which had eventually driven him to forsake his snow shovel in favor of a garden spade. His shoulders were aching and his hands felt like frozen claws.
Liz was coming into the living room, carrying a mist vaporizer. "There's cocoa on the stove if you want some."
Ennis looked down at her. "How is he?"
She sighed. "No better." She put down the vaporizer. "Ennis, I really think I ought to call Peter…"
"No need t'call a doctor jus' for the flu," Ennis said, flapping a hand. "Ain't nothin' he c'n do about it."
"I don't know. I'm worried it might turn into pneumonia. His breathing sounds bad to me. And he still has a fever."
Ennis considered this. Jack had been in bed with the flu for three days, and he didn't seem to be improving. "If he ain't no better tomorrow, we'll call Pete." Liz nodded and seemed to accept this. Ennis went on into the bedroom.
Jack was lying with pillows piled behind him to elevate his chest, his head turned to one side and slumped down to his shoulder. Ennis could hear his labored breathing from the doorway. He walked quietly across to the bed and sat down on the edge, careful not to disturb him. He reached out and pressed the back of his hand to Jack's forehead. Christ, he's burnin' up, he thought. Jack stirred and opened his eyes. He took a breath to speak, but it turned into a coughing fit, his chest sounding gurgly and congested as he sucked in quick breaths that erupted into alarming hacks and retches. He sat up and leaned over, curling around himself. Ennis grabbed a Kleenex and held it to Jack's mouth. He spat phlegm into the tissue and relaxed a little. "Fuck," he muttered, collapsing back onto the pillows.
"How you feelin', tough guy?" Ennis murmured, rubbing Jack's forearm where it lay across his stomach.
"I'm cold," Jack said. Indeed, he was shaking and his teeth were damn near chattering. Ennis pulled up the quilts and tucked them around him. "Cain't seem t'get warm."
"It's chills. You're runnin' a fever," Ennis said. "You been drinkin' water like I told you?"
Jack nodded, one hand going to his eyes. "I hate this." He was still shivering.
Ennis toed off his boots and stretched out next to Jack on top of the covers. He slid close and put his arm across Jack's chest. "Better?"
Jack smiled a little. "Don't want you gettin' sick too, chief."
"Already too late t'worry about that."
"You don't hafta lay here with me, Ennis. I'm disgustin' and snotty and I prob'ly stink."
"Now that hurts my feelings. You think I only like you when you're all fresh 'n handsome?" Jack coughed again; it trailed off into a tired moan. "You're hardly ever sick. Pains me t'see you feelin' so poorly."
"Not's much as it pains me," Jack said, his last word vanishing into another coughing fit. This one went on and on. Jack struggled to a sitting position, swinging his legs over the side and bending over. Ennis sat up too, frowning and rubbing his back. Jack hacked mightily and spat into another Kleenex, then shivered all over and groaned. He turned around and lay back down, burrowing into Ennis's arms like a child seeking comfort. "Motherfuck," he grumbled.
"Maybe Lizzie's right. Peter oughta take a look at you. That cough worries me, rodeo."
Jack sighed. "Let's see how I feel in the morning." Ennis kissed his clammy forehead, rocking him slightly like he'd once done to his girls. He felt Jack smile, his lips against Ennis's throat. "Mmm. Maybe I oughta get sick more often if it means I get all this cuddlin'."
Ennis grunted. "I ain't cuddlin'. You're delirious. Must be the fever."
Liz put on her coat and boots and trudged the fifty yards home to the bungalow, huddling into her high fur collar. She blew into the blessedly warm entryway and began stripping off her outerwear barely a whole minute after she'd donned it. "We oughta build a tunnel or something," she said. "Spare us having to bundle up whenever we walk back and forth."
"You just want a secret passageway, like in 'Clue,'" Junior said from the living room. Liz entered in her stockinged feet to find her housemate reading on the couch.
"Ah, yes. Miss Baskerville, in the bungalow, with the adding machine."
Junior frowned. "Could you kill somebody with an adding machine?"
"Depends on how mad I am." She sat down in her favorite chair.
"Still pretty sick. He sounds awful. I really want to call Peter, but Ennis wants to wait until morning."
Junior sighed. "That's Daddy for you. If you ain't got bones stickin' out, you're okay and best left to heal on your own."
"I hope he gets better soon. We've got a ton of stuff to do before Christmas." She eyed Junior, who was keeping her eyes on her book. "You decided yet?"
She glanced up at Liz, considered, and then put her book aside. "I really want to stay here, Lizzie. I mean, I want to see Mamma, but I don't want to go out there. Since they moved up to Gillette, it wouldn't even be my hometown anymore. I wouldn't know what to do there, and I wouldn't see any of my old friends. The thought of being in a strange house in a strange town with Bill and Francie, now that I'm used to being here…" She shuddered. "I think I'd rather spend Christmas in Childress with L.D. Newsome."
"The holidays are going to be awful for him, that's for sure. Daughter and grandson gone. I almost feel sorry for the guy."
"I don't. Not after what he did. He'd still have Lureen around if he wasn't such a bastard."
Liz snorted. "Listen to us. Talking about the man as if we'd actually ever met him."
"I'm just so excited about having Christmas here," Junior said. "Aren't you?"
"Yes," Liz said, smiling.
"Won't you miss seeing your family?"
Liz shrugged. "I just saw my mother at Thanksgiving, and she's going down to Florida to spend the holidays with her sister, who I can't stand. My dad and I don't really talk." She looked around. "You and your dad and Jack are more family to me now than my own have been in years." She smiled, tucking her legs up underneath her. "Besides, isn't this the kind of holiday people fantasize about? A white Vermont Christmas in a quaint small town, tucked away in a snug ranch house with a roaring fire and a huge Christmas tree? I doubt Bing Crosby himself could do better."
"And you have a sweetie to snuggle up with."
Liz smiled. "I do, indeed."
"Have you gotten Peter a Christmas present yet?"
"No. I have no idea what to get him. Men are so impossible to shop for."
"I know. I have no clue what to get Dad or Jack, either."
Liz thought for a moment. "They missed their annual trip back to Brokeback this year, didn't they?"
Junior nodded. "Yeah. With all last summer's craziness, the time got away from them." She sighed. "It's too bad. I know it's a special place for them, and even if I didn't know, I'd be able to tell just by how they are when they come back. It's like…I don't know how to explain it. Like going back there recharges their souls."
Liz thought for a moment. "What if we sent them there? As a Christmas present?"
Junior frowned. "You mean buy them plane tickets?"
"I don't know. They're already planning for next year's trip. It'd be kinda redundant, don't you think?"
"Hmm. Maybe you're right."
"I wish they could have something of that here, all the time."
Liz sat up straighter, another idea popping into her head. "Maybe they can."
Ennis woke early, the windows full of that cold, gray half-light that comes before sunrise. Jack's breathing, although raspy and labored, sounded better than it had the night before. He hoped it wasn't just his wishful thinking. He leaned over and carefully touched Jack's forehead. It was cool and damp; felt like his fever had lifted overnight.
He rolled onto his back and shut his eyes, trying to relax and get a few more hours' sleep. His mind raced ahead of him to the upcoming holidays. Things were rather more up in the air than he would have liked. Junior still hadn't decided whether she was staying here or going back to Wyoming to be with her mother. He wanted her to stay, of course, but didn't like to impose on her decision. Lizzie didn't seem to have much interest in traveling to her own family, so she'd probably be staying home, too.
Francie was the real question. She and Junior had come out for the holiday every year since he'd lived here. Not always on Christmas itself, sometimes in the week afterwards, but he'd always seen her. He didn't know what she'd be doing this year. He hadn't talked to her properly in months, not since Junior'd moved. He still called Alma's house once a week, just like always, but like as not Francie wasn't at home or couldn't come to the phone and he'd end up talking to Alma. To his surprise, Alma seemed more inclined to pass conversation with him than she had in years. She'd ask after Junior, wanting to know how her school was going and if she'd met any nice boys. She'd sometimes ask him about the ranch, and how business was going. She asked about the church he went to, and the friends he had. He'd made polite small talk in return, and had heard about Bill's new business in Gillette and Alma's two boys with him, and about how she was volunteering at the humane society.
As for their younger daughter, they had only talked about her new religious fervor once.
The call had started normally. Ennis asked for Francie, and Alma told him she wasn't home. Her voice sounded tired and thin, and it just barely covered the lie. All at once, Ennis didn't feel like pretending he didn't see right through it. "That what she told you to say?" he said, quietly.
"What d'you mean?" Alma said, her tone measured.
"I bet she's there, all right. I bet she just don't wanna talk t'me."
A long pause. "I cain't force her, Ennis."
"Guess not." He cleared his throat. "What d'you think of…all this?" he asked, vaguely.
He heard Alma sigh. "I don't know what t'think," she said, her voice lowered as if she were afraid of being overheard. "Some of the things she says sound like nothin' more than crazy talk. I don't like t'speak ill of church-goin' folk, but what they preach scares me sometimes. I had some hope that she might leave it behind her once we moved up here, away from them folks she'd fell in with, but turns out there's holy rollers up here just the same as in Riverton. She didn't have no trouble findin' new folks t'church with."
"How c'n you let her keep goin' t'them meetin's?"
"What'm I s'posed a do? Lock her in her room?"
"Maybe so. Maybe she'd come to her senses."
"She's almost grown up, Ennis. I don't like it, but I cain't tell her how t'love God. Ain't right."
"Don't think it's God she's lovin'."
"I jus' keep wonderin' if there was somethin' she was missin', that she had t'go out and find it with those...people."
"I wanna talk to her, Alma. You drag her to this phone if you have to."
"I ain't draggin' her nowhere, Ennis." She sighed. "Besides, you wouldn't like t'hear what she'd say if I did. Like as not she'd just go on about sodomites and hellfire. If she got nothin' but condemnation for me jus' cause I'm divorced, you cain't imagine what she thinks 'o you for bein'…the way you are."
"Oh, I c'n imagine. But I cain't just give up on her. That's my child. I ain't never gonna give up tryin'."
"Course not." She hesitated. "I'll be sure'n tell her how much you're wantin' t'talk to her. Maybe next time you call she'll be willin'."
Sure, he thought. Pigs might fly. "Thanks, Alma."
To his complete lack of surprise, the next time he'd called, it had been the same old story. And the next time, and the time after that. He wanted to see Francine and talk to her, but at the same time, part of him thought it'd just be easier to let it go. If she hated him that much, and thought that badly of him, was it even worth it?
But it was that kind of thinking that had kept him from Jack for twelve years. Taking the easy route and not fighting for what he wanted. He'd been cowardly about Jack. He wouldn't be cowardly about his daughter. He saw how Jack still suffered from losing Bobby. The holidays would be yet another blow, another painful reminder of his son's death. Ennis's girl was alive and well, and he wasn't going to let them be estranged if he could help it.
He glanced out the window at the full pink dawn breaking. So much for getting any more sleep.
Jack stirred next to him. He coughed, then raised a hand to rub at his eyes. "Ugh," he grunted, sounding gravelly and hoarse. He reached for a tissue and started blowing his nose. "I'm all crusty," he muttered. "I fuckin' hate that." He turned his head towards Ennis. "Did I wake you?"
"Naw. I been awake for a little while." He touched Jack's forehead again. "I think your fever's broke."
"I feel better."
Jack frowned. "Hey, is it Sunday?"
"Yeah. Why, you feelin' up to going t'church?"
"Ain't Lizzie's first column comin' out today?"
"Shit, you're right. Paper'll be here pretty soon, I guess." He snorted. "It ain't like we haven't already read it, y'know."
"I know, but it'll be somethin' t'see it in print. Our names." Jack shook his head. "I still cain't believe you let that go in with our real names."
"I'd feel stupid readin' about her life with a coupla dudes called Bill 'n Chuck or somethin'. Anyways, I'm sick of ridin' in the back of the bus, Jack. After the business with Forrester I swore I was done with it, and I mean what I say. And it ain't like she's printin' our last names and our address with directions to the ranch. She ain't even sayin' what town we live in. And the fuckin' column ain't about us, like that book was gonna be. It's about her life bein' a sophisticated city gal amongst all us hicks."
Jack chuckled. "We oughta get a picture of us sittin' on the front porch in overalls, chewin' on a piece 'o straw and whittlin'."
"Coupla teeth missin'."
"Sure, and one of us can play the banjo."
They laughed quietly, which turned into another coughing fit. "Christ," Jack said. "It's bad, but ain't as bad as yesterday. I'm on the mend for sure."
"Good, 'cause I'm sick of playin' nursemaid to your sorry self."
"You're just pissed off 'cause you ain't been gettin' any while I've been laid up."
"Neither have you."
"But I been too sick to care." Jack sat up and stretched. "Damn, with a hot shower I might just feel human again."
"Junior still asleep?" Ennis asked Lizzie. She usually ate breakfast in the bungalow before coming to the main house, but on Sundays she was in the habit of eating with Jack and Ennis, ostensibly so they could all share the Sunday paper. It was a thin pretense. She enjoyed this time with them, no ranch business, no workaday talk, just their once-a-week Sunday morning date.
She nodded, bleary-eyed and clutching her coffee. "She was up till all hours studying. Finals next week, you know."
"Sure." Ennis hesitated. "How's her classes goin'? I ask her, but she just says 'fine,' like she's gonna tell her daddy a damned thing."
"They're going well, I think. She's asked for my help on a few papers. She's having some trouble with the math. I'm afraid I'm not much help with that."
"Marianne could help her."
Liz frowned. "Marianne's good at math?"
Jack, red-nosed and coughing but looked vastly improved, brought the coffee pot over to the table and sat down. "She has a degree in physics from Syracuse," he said. "She's real smart, our Marianne."
Liz blinked, wondering for a crazy second if they were talking about the same Marianne, who'd never mentioned such a history in all their many conversations. "Then…why…I don't mean to sound rude, but…"
"What's she doin' mindin' house for a coupla ranchers out here in the sticks? Yeah, I've wondered about that, too." Liz waited for Jack to continue, but he didn't.
"I don't know. No one seems to. She don't really talk about it none. I don't like t'bring it up, I get the feelin' that she's kinda sensitive about it. I think she's got herself some stories, and probably they ain't happy ones."
Liz nodded, pondering this new fact in the ever-unfolding mystery that was the enigmatic Marianne. "You guys going to church?"
"Not today," Ennis said. "I don't like goin' stag, and he still ain't well. Besides, I believe we got some important readin' comin' our way this mornin', don't we?" he said, dropping a wink at her.
"Oh, shit!" she exclaimed, full wakefulness descending in a rush. "I can't believe I forgot!" She jumped up and ran to the front porch, where the local Sunday paper and the Sunday Post were both lying rolled-up and half-frozen. She came back inside, unrolling the Post and shaking the ice crystals from between its pages. She found the Features section, where her Sunday column would be appearing for the foreseeable future.
"Let's see," Jack said, grabbing the section from her and spreading it out on the kitchen table. He flipped pages, Liz and Ennis leaning over his shoulders, until he whooped and pointed to the small photo of Liz that accompanied the column. "Lookit that!" he exclaimed. "Big as life, picture and everythin'!"
Jack read the column out loud again, although they all damn near had it memorized from all the drafts she'd gone through. "That's somethin'," Ennis said, calm and laconic as always.
"It's weird t'see our names right there, in newsprint, like we're real folks and all."
Liz chuckled. "I didn't realize you didn't consider yourself real, Jack," she said.
"You know what I mean. Real newsworthy folks."
Liz sat down again, the rush of publication making her jumpy. "It's been awhile since I saw my name in a byline," she said. "Forgot how nice it feels. Thousands, maybe hundreds of thousand of people will read that." She sighed. "And about half of them are gonna write me letters asking if these ranchers I live with are queer, or what."
"And how you gonna answer?" Ennis asked.
"We've been over this, Ennis. We agreed I should be truthful."
"But this column isn't about you guys. I'm not going to turn it into 'My Life with Gay Ranchers.' More like…'My Life As a City Gal in the Country, Which Happens To Include Gay Ranchers.'"
Ennis made an unintelligible noise. "Still don't like that word," he muttered.
Liz rolled her eyes. "Well, then it can be 'My Life As a City Gal in the Country, Which Happens To Include One Gay Rancher and One Rancher Who Isn't Gay Except For Just This One Time That He Fell In Love With a Man and Married Him."
Jack snorted. "After all that, you wouldn't even have room for the column."
Jack was stripping the bed when Ennis came in to the bedroom. "What're you doin'? Marianne does that on Wednesdays."
"Gotta do it now. I been sick in this bed for days. I won't be able t'sleep tonight unless I do a bed exorcism."
"A what, now?"
"A bed exorcism. Y'know. The bed's in my head now as a place where I cough 'n hack and feel awful. I'm feelin' so much better today, but if I try'n sleep here, it'll just feel bad t'me and I won't sleep good. Don't y'know that feelin'?"
Ennis nodded. "I think I do, yeah."
"Happens t'me every time I get sick. I was tellin' Lizzie 'bout it, and she said I gotta do a bed exorcism. I figured it cain't hurt."
"What we gotta do? Do we need a preacher? Some holy water?"
"Nah. All we gotta do is strip the sheets, and get rid 'o all this sickroom shit," he said, motioning to the nighttable drift of Kleenexes, juice glasses, medicine bottles and Vapo-Rub canisters. "Then we gotta open the windows and get some fresh air in. She gave me this lavendar sprinkly crap and said I gotta put it on the mattress. Then clean sheets. She says it works for her every time."
Ennis shrugged. "Like you said. Cain't hurt." He helped Jack strip the sheets, then cleaned up the nighttable while Jack sprinkled Liz's lavender stuff on the mattress and the bare pillows. It smelled nice, he had to admit. Soothing, and a little fresh like the outdoors. They stood on opposite sides of the bed, tossing the clean sheets across to each other, tucking and pulling.
Jack was grinning. "Remember the last time we made this bed together?"
Ennis glanced up at him. "Yup. Night we got married. Three o'clock in the mornin' and buck naked."
"Sure made the job more interestin'," Jack said. "Maybe we oughta do more housework in the altogether."
"Well, it'd give Marianne a fright." They tucked the quilt over the pillows. "There, that's done."
Jack nodded. "Feels brand new." He went to the window and cracked it open. "Little fresh air, and I c'd almost forget all the goddamned coughing." As if on cue, another coughing fit seized him. It passed quickly enough, leaving Jack clearing his throat.
Ennis came around the bed and joined him. "Y'know that the sight of a neat-made bed jus' makes me wanna mess it up," he murmured in Jack's ear.
Jack turned, smirking. "You anglin' for a little afternoon makeout?"
"It's like y'said this mornin'. I ain't gotten any while you been sick."
"So, what? Outta patience? Cain't even wait till bedtime like a good boy?"
Ennis seized Jack's waist and yanked him close, his hands sliding down to grab his ass in two handfuls. "I ain't no good boy. You done seen to that, ain't you?"
"I sure hope so," Jack said, low.
Ennis angled his head in and kissed Jack hard, glad that his man was well enough to be interested. They could joke about it, but the truth was that their sex life was so regular that even two or three days off always felt like a punishment. Whenever Jack was away on business for a few days, by the time he returned Ennis was always ready to give him a vigorous welcome-home before he'd so much had a chance to unpack. The infrequent occasions when he was away for a week were pure torture, and not just for Ennis. He knew that the frustration was not all on his side by the way Jack responded to him when he returned.
The same way he was responding to him now, his hands all over Ennis's chest and face, now pulling at his clothes, now pushing him back to the bed, now on top of him on the neatly-made bedding, and now the only thing Ennis was aware of.