AN: Characters belong to Annie Proulx. None of the religious views expressed reflect those of the author.
Margaret was washing the dishes, listening to the sullen vernal wind and the occasional rustle of newspaper from John, when a new and familiar sound joined the homey symphony. Jack, leaning against the window at the front of the house, coffee in one hand, staring outside, intoned, "Daddy, you have simply got to get some help out here. This spread is goin' to the dogs."
Margaret opened one ear towards Jack. This was his speech. He gave it every time he was here, two or three times a year, and it always went the same way, more or less.
Jack continued, "Hell, you don't got but one hand, and he ain't any good as far as I can determine. Half the stock looks like it ought to be shot. Can't be gettin' much for 'em, that's for sure."
Jack got away with speaking so freely on the subject because John had closed his ears long ago. Margaret liked it, though. This speech was oftentimes the only way she knew what all was going on in Jack's life—and in Ennis's.
The first time he'd given it, he'd started it the same way, ended with, "Friend of mine, real hard worker, Ennis del Mar, he could come up here and whip this little operation inta shape in a heartbeat." Year after year after year, variations on the theme danced through Jack's speech. "Ennis is workin' a ranch now. Probably be better for him to work this one." "I could move up here with Ennis and give you a hand." That one had been a red flag for Margaret. "Ennis got real responsibility on his ranch now but they don't pay him shit for beans. Bet he'd rather be foreman up here." "Ennis del Mar'd know just what to do with this craphole." "This stock's lookin' sorrier and sorrier every year. I am really gonna get Ennis del Mar up here this time. You need his help."
Margaret had long ago put Ennis in her nighttime prayers right next to Jack, thinking he sounded like a man who deserved to be there.
But this time, Jack ended his speech differently. "Got a friend in Texas, foreman on a ranch nearby. Bet he'd come up and give you a hand."
Margaret found herself wondering how the spoon she'd just been toweling dry had managed to find itself on the kitchen floor. The clattering rang unwelcome. John turned the page of his newspaper.
Jack was in his old room when Margaret knocked on his door. "Ma?"
This was not something she'd done before. She usually left him alone. She was wringing her hands in front of her. "Everythin' alright for you, Jack?"
"Yup, Mama, you keep this room just perfect for me. I got everythin' I need."
"Jack…" Margaret ran her hands down her apron. That wasn't what she meant, and she thought Jack knew it. "You meant what you said about your ranch neighbor?"
Jack's face softened towards her, he exhaled in a rush of emotion, and his voice turned tender. "No, Ma, I didn't. I'm just so mad at that motherfucker. Just talkin' outta my ass."
Jack wasn't referring to his ranch neighbor, Margaret knew, though she wished he wouldn't swear so. Still, she was awful happy to hear his answer. She couldn't say why; she guessed maybe she'd gotten pretty attached to the idea of Ennis del Mar.
"He ain't never gonna be comin' up here, an' that's hard. Sure wish he could get ta meet you." Jack gave her a weak smile underneath his hardened eyes.
Margaret saw the hopelessness in those eyes, and she didn't like seeing it. She slowly approached him, like approaching a wild dog. Jack would never hurt her, but she had long practice with holding her tongue and wasn't used to loosing it. "Jack."
"What is it?" He met her halfway across the room.
She squeezed his bicep for support, although she didn't know for whom. "Jack, you know you're in my prayers, right?"
"You're both of you in my prayers… have been for years. I know it seems hopeless, but as long as you're in someone's prayers, the good Lord will provide. Ain't no sin like givin' up on prayers."
"Mama, good Lord don't provide for--."
"Good Lord provides, Jack. I'll pray for you, and I'll pray for that man ta come up here for you, and it will happen. Lord will find a way, Jack."
Jack scooped Margaret up in a bear hug, growl and all. Hope was a secret they shared in this hopeless home. They'd brought it to each other as best they could behind John's back for forty years, since Margaret had first sought someone to smile at her, and baby Jack had been born into the world with an endless supply. In return, she'd taught him what she knew of hope, what he had taught her. The good Lord will provide.
Margaret was making coffee. It was just something to do to not be thinking, because thinking always led to thoughts of Jack, and that was not a thought she could bear. She'd been baking earlier, all of Jack's favorite foods, but no one was left to eat them. Margaret didn't think she made much sense in a world without Jack. Coffee made, she started to wash the counter for the forth time today, listening to the howling early autumn wind and the occasional spit of chew from John when a new and unfamiliar sound joined the lonesome symphony. The car door was followed by footsteps on gravel, and Margaret didn't know what to think. John barely looked up as Margaret moved towards the front door.
She saw the man, as weathered as the leaky barn roof, thin as a rail, hat low over his eyes. He looked like he was made of ranch work from head to toe, and Margaret wondered if he'd come for a job, or to try and buy them out of the ranch, something ranch related.
He heard her at the door and looked up across the dusty yard. Her eyes met his, saw the same emotion filling them that had filled her small frame these long, Jackless months—hopelessness—and in that moment she knew. The good Lord did provide.