The roads between Arizona and Reno were like Martian terrain. I had begun to understand by then that Thurman, my brother, was in no real hurry to get to California.
We had found our way to a seedy saloon in Tonopah, Nevada that was supposedly once owned by Wyatt Earp. My brother had developed some kind obsession with the outlaws and lawmen of the Old West.
Thurman always had something of a wanderlust. He had ran away when he was fourteen after Papa had caught him messin with a neighbor girl. Papa first dragged him into Mama's kitchen. I was sitting at the table when they came bursting through the back door, Thurman naked as the day he was born, struggling to get loose from Papa's grip, but Papa was a big man, a big angry man, and he held firm against Thurman's struggles.
Mama didn't know nuthin about what was going on; I watched her always calm gray eyes go sad and her shoulders sink before she said, "Now, Henry, whadda ya go and do a thing like that?" She took off her blue flowered apron and went and got Papa to release Thurman. Then she wrapped the apron around my older brother. Thurman stood still long enough to let her put the apron on him and then skinned out of the back door like a scalded cat.
Mama quickly glanced at me with eyes that said for me to leave. I saw her hands nervously try wipe themselves on her apron as she always did when Papa was in one of his moods, but the apron wasn't there. I stood up and was going to take my plate and milk glass to the sink, but Mama came and grabbed them and took them herself.
I scooted through out the door as Papa was screaming, "Hell and tarnation, woman, what are you talking about what I shouldn't a done? It was your boy that was out there cavortin with the Devil."
Thurman was out in the barn; I could hear him rustling around. There was a lot of screamin coming out the back door, all of it Papa's. Mama never raised her voice unless she was singing in church.
Thurman's eyes were shooting lightning bolts as he struggled to get his pants and shoes back on. "One of these days, Billy, I'm gonna kill that man," was all he said to me.
The situation got worse when we went to church that Sunday. Papa was a deacon. That title was his pride and joy. I can still picture him walking up and down the pews passing the plate with his handlebar mustache neatly waxed and wearing a starched white shirt that was always straining to contain his corpulence. The preacher had only made him Deacon for mama's sake. He knew of Papa's moods and felt that giving him some religious responsibilities might contain them a bit.
It did at Church or at the potlucks and meeting, but not so much at home. At least, that is, till the Sunday he threw his first born down on the footworn wooden floor before the altar of God.
Papa must have been readin up on Abraham and Isaac. When the preacher asked the congregation if anyone had a birthday or any such event that week, Papa stood up, hoisted up Thurman by the neck and dragged Thurman down the aisle and tossed him down on the floor before the stunned assembly. I can still hear their collective gasps and the cry of Sersie Miller sitting in the back with her family.
"This boy and that Miller girl right there, " Papa pointed, " were too busy sucumbin to the sins of the flesh to notice me as I walked into my barn to sharpen my hoes. They was writhin and moanin and didn't even see me till I was standing right ovah 'em."
Thurman jumped up and kicked Papa in his nuts as hard as he could. Papa dropped like a ton of rocks and started to do some writhing and moanin of his own. Thurman stood erect and straightened his clothes and with the earnest face of a Biblical prophet growled, "There's your damned Devil." He then took off running and darted out the door before Papa could recover.
That's the last I saw of Thurman for over a year. Later, he told me he had caught on with a carnival outfit and traveled round with them. He also said that when he got back round this way the following year he had heard about Papa being sickly and knew that Mama was suffering because of it. So, he came back home.
I was out chopping wood when he showed up. I saw Mama come out on the porch, wiping her hands on her apron and staring down the lane. She was looking for something and her eyes looked as tense as the last sad note on a fiddle that keeps on thrumming till you can hardly stand it.
I looked down the lane and there was nothing but a tiny speck. She knew it was Thurman. I don't know how; I sure couldn't tell. I guess it had something to do with how seawater always knows how to turn and go back toward shore at high tide.
When it started getting plain to see that it was in fact Thurman coming home, she started walking out toward the gate, slowly at first then picking up the hem of her dress and running. Thurman was carrying a bag over his shoulder, but once he saw Mama running, he started running too.
I could live to be a hunnerd and fifty, and I would still remember the moment they embraced with Mama crying and Thurman trying not to. The old man even hobbled out on the porch wearing his red long handles and his shoulders covered by dark blue blanket. He didn't smile or anything, but I could tell he felt some relief even as he worried where it would all end up.
Mama and Thurman walked back to the house arm and arm and she went in a cooked him a bang up dinner. He surely look like he needed one as the year he had spent out on the road had him drawn down almost to sapling size. I ambled out to where he had dropped his bag, picked it up and carried it back to the house.
I was glad to see Mama and Papa's evident relief, I was relieved too, but I had also resolved to pick a moment at a later date to kick the living shit out of Thurman for leaving me to do his work.
Turns out the moment was two days later. He came out of the cabin complaining about the noise the cows were making while I was carrying a load of wood up to the house.
"What the hell them cows bitchen bout?"
"Could be they needin milked?"
"Then why the hell ain't they been milked?"
"Cause you've been sleepin and ain't milked them?"
"Who the hell said I'm supposed to milk them?"
"I did. It was your chore when you left, and I been havin to do it since ever since. You back now, so you can go back to milking them cows."
" Fuck you, Billy. You need to back it down a notch; you ain't the boss of me." He came off the porch and walked over to where I was. I dropped the wood and stepped right up to him. He reached for me without too much intent. I suddenly grabbed his arm and turned my shoulder under it and flipped him on the ground.
It knocked the wind completely out of him, and I pounced on him like a mountain lion and wailed on him with both fists. He was too weak and emaciated to put up too much of a fight. The whole thing was over quickly as it had begun. I jumped up and hovered over him.
After a minute, he spoke, "Give me a hand up." I did, and he stood. I watched as he raised his left arm to his nose and wiped the blood off on his shirt.
Then he took a deep breath and muttered, "You know this ain't over."
I was silent for a minute before answering, "We'd finish this right now except them cows need milked."
He glared for a minute then turned and slowly walked toward the barn. I went to pick up the wood I'd dropped, and as I did, I saw Papa peeking out of his window through a rusty screen.
I'd been sitting in the saloon most of the afternoon while Thurman had taken the truck to be worked on. He walked in about quarter after five. He looked kind go happy, at least for Thurman. He always lightened up after he took care of something that needed done.
He saw me sitting in the corner and walked over to where I was. "How's the grub in here?"
I raised my hand and beckoned the barmaid, "They got a pretty decent steak." He ordered a well done steak, sliced maters, some taters and a couple of beers. I watched him eat for a bit before I asked something I'd been thinking about, "What the hell we doing here, Thurm?"
He took a bite of his steak, chewed it, and then swallowed it down and followed that with a drink of beer. Then he leaned back in his chair, looked at me. " Came here to see Wyatt Earp's saloon, I guess."
"I ain't talking bout Tonopah. I'm talking about here."
"Well this is Tonopah."
"I mean what are we doing here in the middle of nowhere between Oklahoma which we left and California where we're headed. And fore you say, you gotta travel the road betwixt the two, you know damned well we could've already been where we're headed."
" Well, maybe I got notion to see Reno first."
"Why, you ain't married, and damn sure don't need no divorce?"
"Not me, maybe somebody else."
"Mind if I ask who?"
This caught me by surprise. I hadn't heard him talk of her since that day he ran out of church years ago. She had gotten married and moved out west. " I thought she married Tommy Pruitt."
"That's why she needs the divorce." He finished off his beer and called for two more. "Her and Tommy split up. He's going back to Oklahoma."
"And you couldn't tell me this before now?"
Thurman shrugged, " I guess I shoulda. I felt that maybe we could use a vacation." He stopped to see my reaction; there was none." I figgered that maybe we shouldn't be in such an all fired hurry to settle down. Hell, you just knocked the clods offen them boots less than two weeks ago. We both need to wander around a bit. Life's too short to walking in straight lines all the time."
" It's where they make them movie pictures, or haven't you heard?"
" I know they make pictures there. We planning to be in the movies, Thurman?"
" Hell, Billy, everthin's a movie nowadays. I thought you knew that."
He was right; I wasn't in a hurry to build a fence nohow, so I let it go. We sat there and drank beer the rest of the night. When he talked, it was all about things he had read about and things he wanted to see, and things we should do. He never about the past. While I was listening to him though I was steady thinking about what all we'd left behind.
I thought back to the night that Papa died. He called for Thurman, and when Thurman entered the room illuminated by a single kerosine lantern, Papa spoke in a rasp, "Thurman, you my oldest son. I need to ask fo yo fogiveness."
Papa was lying in bed with the covers pulled up to his chest. His girth had wasted down to almost nothing. He wore a soiled white nightcap on his head, and his cheeks were sunken and covered with white stubble.
When Thurman didn't answer right away, Papa spoke again, "I knowed I been too hard on ya. I seed I done wrong by ya. Yo mama made me promise on her deathbed that I'd try to make it right."
Thurman's eyes flashed, "And you waited till now?" There was a long tense pause before Thurman resumed. "I don't rightly know that I can forgive you, Pa. I will build you a box and get a preacher to say some words. I will tell you that all the hate and anger I have in my heart will be buried too. Then maybe someday when and if I ain't so busy hating, I can think of a kindness or sumpin nice you did or said."
If Papa's tired old heart was broken, he sure didn't show it. His eyes said, "Fair enough or I'm good with that." Which one I'm not too sure because the room was dark and Thurman's head was partially blocking my vision. Then, I really didn't know how his heart could be either tired or old. He certainly didn't use it all that much around us.
And that was that. Papa started gasping for air thirty minutes later. The huge effort to draw breath made him lunge forward like he was trying to sit up in bed. Then he fell back into his pillow with a muffled thud and died.
I was sitting and listening to Thurman rattling on about the future, but in my head I was in Oklahoma seven years gone. I was thinking that I couldn't have hated and not forgiven a dying old man, especially my own Pa, the way that Thurman did. But then again, Papa hadn't thrown me down on the floor in front of the altar of God.