Leslee Becker grew up in the Adirondacks. She’s a former Stegner Fiction Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, The Atlantic, Alaska Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review, Iowa Review, Epoch, Boston Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and has been teaching at Colorado State University for years.
Alice liked watching Westerns as a kid, and now she’s twenty, flying to Denver, her first trip west. She sees some passengers in cowboy hats, but feels a phantom sensation from a tooth recently extracted. She hopes she doesn’t have dry socket, the gruesome condition the dentist warned her about.
She takes a pain med, and tries to picture Vail, but gets a scene of her father driving her to a dentist in Lake Placid, when she was ten. The dentist was German, and his office was in his home, where his plump wife greeted patients in the parlor with a parrot in a cage that squawked, “Bet you’re scared. Ouch. Give me the gas.”
Alice always suspected that the dentist was a former Nazi, hiding out in the Adirondacks.
She looks out the window on the approach to Denver, but the plane’s banking, giving her a slanted view of wind-heeled blonde grass and the Rockies. “I made it!” she wants to shout, but doesn’t want to seem like a greenhorn.
She prefers ingénue. It sounds lovely and impressive, and it fits her movie infatuation. She and her father sometime swapped French phrases when they watched movies and TV. “Mon dieu, nous sommes perduthey’d say about the news, but Alice’s all-time favorite was watching her father mimic Quebecois when the Canadian station showed a hockey player praising Dorion Suits in Montreal.
“I shop at Dorion Zoots,” Alice’s father would say, “because there are no assholes. The Canuck means hassles. Get it?”
“We get it, already,” Alice’s mother would answer.
Alice used to invite her friends over to watch TV to hear the hockey player say, “assholes,” but the novelty wore off.
As she grew older, she worried that her fascination with her father’s time in WWII had become an affectation she’d trot out, like an exotic pet, for college chums, despite knowing that the story had become old. He’d entered Paris with scores of other servicemen, then returned home to the Adirondacks.
She often traveled with her parents to Montreal for his medical treatments. Shock treatments, she learned later, for her father’s nervous condition. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the current phrase, puts her in mind of something pneumatic, but in the old days, Alice figured doctors were cheaper in Montreal, and her mother wanted to keep secret the fact that her husband had a mental condition.
“Nerves,” her mother would say, as if picking an entrée from a colorful menu of wartime maladies that Alice studied, including Nostalgia, the disease for Swiss and Austrian soldiers centuries ago, and Soldier’s Heart for US Civil War veterans. She already knew about WWI’s Shell Shock, but Homesickness—Heimweh for German soldiers, and maladie du paysfor the French—surprised her.
Alice’s choice is maladie du pays.Her father came home, and got sick. A changed man, according to her mother.
And no wonder. He’d been wounded by high-explosive shells. He had scars on his back and neck, and she asked him about the scars a long time ago because she’d seen a scary movie about parents turning peculiar, after being abducted by aliens, then deposited back home, and the only way kids could tell what happened was by checking their parents’ necks for a coin-sized scar, showing where something had been implanted.
He touched his neck. “Shell fragment,” he’d said. “A souvenir from Nazis. The only person who abducted me was your dear old mother.”
When Alice asked her mother about the time her parents first met, her mother said, “A wickedly cold night, but nice and toasty in the dancehall. I was having fun with my girlfriends, when this gangly soldier walks in, his ears sticking out from his cap, so I say to my girlfriends, ‘I hope he doesn’t pick me,’ but that’s what happened.”
For the longest time, Alice pictured her father, young, and scenic-looking in his uniform, picking her mother out, as if selecting a confection in a bakery.
Éclats,the French word for shell fragments, surprised Alice. It sounded like a pastry. She discovered the word in her research on war wounds. If her father had been around, he’d make a joke about Frogs and éclairs, but he was dead by then.
Soon after he died, her mother showed her a telegraph he’d sent from Germany that said, “I’m coming nome.”
“A snafu,” Alice had said.
“Right, and get this. He got on the wrong train, and I had to drive to Portland, Maine. One other woman on the platform with a baby that won’t quit crying, and he’s in his uniform and cowboy boots he says a pal gave him. He’s nervous, shaking like a leaf, looking at the bawling baby, and he starts bawling himself, so I tell him, ‘Shape up. Thousands of servicemen have returned home. Shape up.’”
“Or ship out,” Alice I could’ve said, but didn’t because she felt cored out.One time, during a particularly hazardous trip to Canada, her father seemed to lose his marbles, shaking, and saying to Alice’s mother, “Satisfied? Jesus, when troubles come, they come in battalions.”
“It’s just a mood,” Alice’s mother had said. “It’ll pass.”
When he was in an upbeat mood, he’d take Alice to the movies, saying, “Just what the doctor ordered.”
And he’d talk about former army buddies, like Frankie, who loved peaches, and couldn’t wait to get back to Reno.
“Frankie stole stuff from the packages we’d get from home,” he’d told her toward the end, when he looked reduced, his eyes and speech sloppy from his cocktail.
“What’d he swipe from you?”
He put his hand to his heart. “Everything. Here’s what I think. God created the world, then took a rest, some R&R, and he came up with loneliness. He was the entrepreneur of that business. Loneliness.”
Alice feels that she’s gone under, a possible effect of the painkillers. She’s glad to get outside, and while waiting for the bus to Vail, she sees a startlingly blue sky, a backdrop for the peaked spires of Denver International Airport, white as bleached bone, and manufactured to imitate the majestic Rockies. She’d heard stories about when the airport first opened, its bowels gorging on luggage, its location—tornado alley—confounding pilots, making them think that DIA stood for Death in the Air.
She recalls what her father told her, when they were watching a Western. “Artificial gunplay. Completely manufactured. It’s all an act,” he’d said, adding that John Wayne, “the Duke,” had never been a soldier in real life. Raised in the Midwest, not the real West, and saddled with Marion for a first name. “A phony. Get the picture?”
“Yeah, sure,” she’d answered, feeling she’d become a martyr to facts, especially when he described how men died, owing to closeness, being so close to another man who got shot, or hit by a grenade, or stepped on a mine, that body parts from the man—teeth, bones, arms, legs—even canteens, helmets, and belt buckles wounded other servicemen.
“There’s a vacuum during an explosion that pulls and flips you like a hooked fish, and you feel you’re going to suffocate.” It happened to him, and it happened to his buddies, like Frankie.
Then he told her about the funny feeling, almost like elation, he’d had moments before things went topsy-turvy. He’d been huddled down with Frankie in a foxhole in the cold, after a major skirmish.
“Something told me I was going to be A-okay. And, Frankie, like he’s reading my mind, gives me a nod. I could’ve sworn that he patted me on the back. I felt something warm and wet.”
“Then you conked out,” Alice had said.
“I have no recollection of what really happened.”
He showed her a picture of Frankie. A fat guy with crooked teeth. On the back of the picture, it said: “Frankie. KIA, 12/22/1944.”
She boards the shuttle bus, relieved that her toothache’s gone. The driver collects tickets from tanned people dressed ridiculously in shorts. She watches the driver load a trunk on the rack. Then, as the bus rounds a curve, the trunk tumbles down, and out spills a plastic cooler, its lid clamped with festive holiday tape depicting snowmen and Santa.
A passenger chuckles, and says, “Yippee! Happy Hour!”
His seatmate tells him to shush. She points to a label on the side of the cooler that says, “Human Remains. Handle with Care.”
Alice wishes the driver would return the cooler to the rack, but he speeds along through a landscape deprived of snow, and then an elderly man, who smells like he specializes in second-hand smoke, suddenly plops down beside her, removing his cowboy hat, revealing a head as bald and shiny as an eggplant.
“Howdy. Your first time in the Rockies?”
She nods, and unnecessarily adds that she’s an Easterner, finally skiing in the Rockies, something’s she’s always wanted to do.
He laughs, and describes avalanches and foolhardy people colliding with trees and ski lifts. She considers it just her luck to end up with a senior citizen addicted to doom.
He tells her that the officials play up the good parts of Colorado, not the 1997 flood in a town north of Denver. “Fort Collins. A five-hundred- year deluge. Positively Biblical. I was there. It was a wet one.”
She glances out the window, seeing dry land and the occasional cactus sticking up, like an old mop. And then the bus enters the Eisenhower Tunnel, going under the highway and the Continental Divide.
Her seatmate drones on, and she feels drowsy, his voice sounding like a narrator of a documentary, and so she wonders if the formal thing she hears is a dream, or maybe the old-timer has a mood disorder and a shifting personality.
In 1997, on a humid and still July day, migrant workers looked up from the field at a yellow sky stretched across the horizon like a tent. They made the sign of the cross, and scrambled into a truck, passing feedlots teeming with pigs, cattle, and sheep, their hides tinseled with hay.
In Fort Collins, at dinnertime, kids left the city’s swimming pool, joining a procession of people all collectively thinking, “Sure is a hot one, not even the Dog Days yet,” and there they were, packs of dogs roaming the streets, yowling, their ID tags now superfluous, since they were heading toward the hills to join wolves and coyotes.
A German nanny, Anna Kraus, was feeding oatmeal to a fussy toddler when thunder and lightning began, a flash of light thieving through the kitchen. Wind agitated the trees, and rain and branches pummeled the roof, making Anna think of her people, how the old ones talked about the war and the bombs falling.
Anna wished her employers would come home to take care of their own spawn and the foolish house designed to resemble an American’s idea of a castle. But the spoiled Americans were on the golf course, probably cursing the weather.
Wunderbar!Anna exclaimed, when lightning hit again. She pictured the toddler’s mother getting zapped on the golf course, melting her breast implants.
A Wyoming rancher, Ferris McGraw, had come down to Fort Collins to find a possible retirement home. His wife was sick of wide-open spaces, berserk temperature fluctuations, and the lack of civilized people. Even had to go to a different state to see Brokeback Mountainwith her lady friends, all of them bawling because of those two dandy cowpokes and their secret love. Ferris had to remind her that those fellas were taking care of sheep, not cattle, which is why they took to bunking together and bucking each other. “Nasty things, sheep.”
But nothing satisfied her. She wanted to join a health club and contort in yoga, and told Ferris he could maybe find a pal in Fort Collins.
He’d just looked at a patio home near Spring Creek. The realtor yakked about the advantages of a maintenance-free yard and a spacious bathroom. He told her he’d think about it. It would mean a big change.
“I guess it’s hard to get an old dog to change his spots,” the realtor said.
Ferris blushed, and told her was going outside.
“But it’s raining cats and dogs.”
“I reckon I’ll fit right in then,” Ferris answered.
Spring Creek had turned into a fat river. Bobbing down the water was a suitcase, an airline sticker attached to the handle. Ferris went to retrieve it, lost his footing, and rolled into the churn, getting sucked down, but his wife must’ve watched it all, he figured, when he saw her running down the muddy field in her good shoes, barking at him for becoming a spectacle.
“We’re skinny on time,” she shouted.
He’d lost his dignity, his boots, and his glasses, Ferris told pals back in Wyoming. “Thought I was a goner. And now I’m living south, thanks to my wife’s modernistic ideas.”
“I got stories that’ll flood your radiator, sweetie,” Alice’s seatmate says. “Coyotes and wolves shrieking all night. They know what’s coming.”
She glances at the cooler containing human remains in the aisle. Next to her is a geezer, who resembles toothless Gabby Hayes, which makes her think of sidekicks in Westerns. Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the Duke had comical sidekicks. She blames the altitude for her giddiness and the funny pictures that emerge about lonesome cowboys crooning love songs in their ostentatious outfits, most of them, anyhow, their Technicolored boots looking as unlikely as shrimp in the desert, and now that shrimpy man next to her pokes a bony elbow at her, muttering about how he’d like to show her the genuine article. Jesus, he’s fumbling his hand down his jeans, and she’s convinced he wants to show her his credentials. She behaves exactly the way stupid people do in the movies, when, despite knowing that something awful and ugly is down there, they still go into the basement, so she watches him plunge his hand into his pocket.
“Looky here, missy.”
It looks like beef jerky, but he says it’s a shriveled-up fish. “A relic from the ’97 flood. A preview of coming attractions. Indians and animals know what’s coming. I’m part Cherokee myself, but I don’t hold a grudge to what happened to my people.”
“Good for you. Now give it a rest.”
But he rambles on about wild stallions, and how he hopes to ride into the sunset with a pretty thing next to him. She’d never want to see herself as his sidekick. Maybe that explains why she imagines movie cowboys out to tame the land. The vastness must make them feel puny and lonesome, so why not pretend to be manly, keeping secret their private fears and affections?
“Keeping a stiff lip,” her father had always said, reminding her to “face facts.”
Like how he and many others like him, who did their hitch in battle, suffered embarrassing second-hand wounds because of closeness to their buddies—Slim, Cookie, and Frankie—the name he’d sometimes cry out at night when he must’ve been dreaming.
She sees misty mountains ahead, but feels melancholy. It’s the indigo hour, a color to match a mood. Her father must’ve had homosexual leanings that he tried to bury, since homosexuality was as bad as cowardice. Thus, the shock treatments, after he came home and tried to carry on with regular life, but something went haywire.
Her father has joined the ranks of the two cowboys in Brokeback Mountain,the movie she saw in Plattsburgh, because it didn’t show in her town. Someone threw a boot at the screen during the love scene, and the screen ripped open, giving her a fractured view of Jake Gyllenhaall and Heath Ledger briefly, until the manager shut everything down.
So, her old man loved at least one other man, probably Frankie, which is superior to thinking that her father was just plain nuts.
“Nuts,” she knows, was General McAuliffe’s response to a German officer in the battle in Bastogne. The Yanks were threatened with total annihilation in two hours, if General McAuliffe rejected the surrender proposal.
Going through her father’s effects after he died, she discovered a recommendation from a commanding officer for a promotion to Lieutenant. At the bottom of the document, under a heading marked “Disposition,” she saw her father’s response: “I am honored, but have to regretfully decline the promotion so that I can stay in the same capacity with my men.”
She felt she’d tasted something rich that added gloss to her father’s record. He could’ve kept rising in rank, but he wanted to remain faithful to his best buddies.
She doesn’t know if Frankie died during the Bastogne battle or if her father was with Frankie when Frankie disappeared from history, but figured that her father must’ve trained his thoughts on his eventual homecoming, then felt gypped that he missed the big show by not coming home on a troop train or ship with the other guys. Plus, the baby bawling on the train platform her mother had told her about probably reminded him of catastrophe, the awful things he saw overseas.
He arrives on a train in the wrong state, and the woman he quickly married before shipping out isn’t like the one he met in the dancehall. This woman has an operatic baby, and when he starts bawling himself, his wife shows up, pulls on his sleeve, ordering him to shape up, and start behaving like countless other servicemen.
When Alice asked him for details about the night he met her mother, he said he’d been heading to Montreal for sightseeing, after being cooped up in the barracks.
“A little R& R,” Alice had said.
“Right, but I got lost, saw a dancehall, heard music, and figured why not.”
“Exactly. Why not? You were about to ship out.”
“Totally unexpected. That night,” her father said. “I thought she was making fun of me to get laughs from her girlfriends. ‘I’ll show her,’ I told myself, so I removed my cap, winked at her, then zeroed on the exit, but couldn’t resist looking back.”
“And the rest is history,” Alice said.
“Don’t I wish.”
She figured his head had gone cold again. “I don’t get it.”
“The rest is now, kiddo. The other part is all inventioned.”
He’d been picking through a box of chocolates that night, removing pieces from paper cradles, and examining each one.
“Nuts,” he said, when he bit down on the candy, then shuffled upstairs to the bedroom.
Alice’s seatmate is snoring, his bald drooping dangerously toward her shoulder, so she gives him a shove.
“I went somewhere, and then I came back,” he says.
“You dozed off.”
He returns a sour look. “Who are you trying to be? A gal stuck on herself makes for a mighty small package.”
She feels a tightness right under her heart, and hopes that the old fool doesn’t see her embarrassment, but he’s snoozing again.
She’d stayed downstairs the night her father said everything was “inventioned.”
When she looked out the window at the sky, only a partial moon showed, and some clouds slowly drifting, like they didn’t care if they got anywhere.
Then she went upstairs, and stood near the closed door to her parents’ bedroom, hearing them whispering. Were they going at it? Would she hear something awful and true about herself? But hadn’t that night seemed more lenient?
“Did I do all right?” he might’ve said, “Everything’s going to be A-okay, honey. Trust me. I’ve got my act together.”