To Telly, From Belleview, Colorado
by Devin Murphy
You wouldn’t believe the dogs in this place. There’s a Great Pyrenees a few properties down that lumbers out of the foothills dragging coyotes with its jaws. Its nose is a patchwork of raised black scars. Along the stream shooting off the Cache la Poudre River, there’s a pack of dirt-field mutts that go howling around their horse pastures and wind cripple orchards, chasing after anything that moves. Scary at first. Raise that primal part of the body, hair on end, spring in legs, hands into fists. Then there’s my German shepherd, Edison. She’d amaze you. She’s two and half now and pretty much trained herself. She knows about forty commands and has a whole host of rules she follows that came to her out of the sky or the dirt, because I didn’t teach them to her.
Edison has a route she takes every time I let her outside. A twelve-point patrol of the property. She’s beat a trail for herself that I’ve begun to follow for exercise and to get out and see the property myself.
Telly, I wish you could be here to see this place in the spring. Even the winter. The fall. The summer. I just wish you could be here.
Remember how you used to bring home every sort of animal you found when we were kids? Dogs. Kittens. Once you even showed up with a guinea pig you found wandering the school’s playground. How Dad would scoop the animals from your hands and take them to the back field and chase them off. Remember that brindle lab that kept trying to follow him back to the house, how he teed-up and booted it in the ribs? Do you ever feel like that? Sometimes when I think of the old man I think of him chasing us out in the field until we were lost to each other.
I get part-time work with a local insurance agent who wants me to work the area around my home. I told him you were a big shot insurance man in St. Paul, and that probably won him over. The area has been mostly redneck, rural, but since Fort Collins and all the areas north of Denver have been developing, everyone wants to be close to the mountains, and these acreages around me are going for fortunes. I won’t sell, though. Wouldn’t know where else to make a life. I bought forty acres with the inheritance from Dad, and twelve of that is fenced in with cattle guards for Edison. It’s enough land that I can’t see my nearest neighbor who’s about three-hundred yards away. Sometimes I think of the land as a recompense for the first half of our lives. Some sort of payback for enduring. My house is sort of a dump, but it’s paid off, and the land is special. The land is becoming part of me. Though when I go around trying to insure my neighbors and their property, I either come across these mega rich McMansions or dried-up ranches with gap-slated barns, each with one or two skinny horses swatting flies and half-starving to death.
I was at one of the poor houses and tried talking to this old Mexican lady on the porch, but she didn’t speak any English. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her little kitten walking the top of the split-rail fence. I looked because I must have seen the shadow swoop down. This giant bird, some kind of eagle or huge owl snatched the kitten. Silent. That kitten was limp as soon as the talons dug in. The bird didn’t even flap its wings but glided right over the kitten and away. I tried to tell the lady what had happened, but with the language barrier, there was no getting that across. It was a futile feeling needing to tell her something but not being able to communicate. At the same time I was feeling down about that lady’s cat, I was in total awe of the shadow that carried it away. It was all grace and power. I told Mr. Maroni, the insurance guy who hired me, about the kitten and only half joking asked if we insured cats.
You know, I never imagined what your day-to-day work life was like. An insurance broker. When I imagine you we’re still kids, and then I feel hollow in my gut.
You know, of all the meanness Dad dropped on us, there’s one time that captured it. Just after he left the D.A.’s office to run for judge, you had stolen a notebook from a classmate and got into a fight at school. You were twelve. But you got a shiner, and there was no hiding it from Dad. I assume you remember this, of course. How I told him what happened when you wouldn’t. How he laid into you so bad you had bruises up and down your ribcage. I was so scared, I stood there and watched. It didn’t even occur to me to try to save you. I only wanted to save my own ass. My reaction made me come to hate myself, and that feeling has been at the core of me for a long time. I’m not sure if you knew that. I’m also not sure if you knew that after you went to your room, Dad gave it to me real bad, too. He leaned over me when I was lying on the floor, and said, “That’s for ratting out your brother.”
In the morning, he had us dress up in ties, march in a town parade, and wave at strangers. You waved and waved and I hated you for it. For putting on a second face like he did. It’s only now I wonder if it hurt to lift your arms that day.
I guess it makes sense we could never really get any traction to keep each other upright. But that’s all an old life.
Now I can imagine you answering phone calls and e-mails all day like Mr. Maroni. His clients call him for the craziest things. One woman had her jewelry stolen by a family member who had some sort of drug addiction problem. She was all upset when Mr. Maroni told her they’d investigate. He had to shout at her over the phone that we weren’t in the business of handing over checks, which to be honest, sort of clarified what the insurance business is all about. They like when you send the checks and they don’t hear from you. Though I can’t blame him or probably you, either. He’s got two dog bite claims going. One dog pretty much pulled off a landscaper’s face. It took eighty stiches to sew that guy’s mug back on. There was a lady wanting to file raccoon damage, but apparently those are varmints, and those don’t get covered. Have you ever heard about that kind or rule? One old diabetic hoarder had gone around his house shitting all over the walls, all over everything, and managed to get the insurance to pay for a hazmat company to clean it. The calls Mr. Maroni gets. The calls you must get.
I imagine over a life of so many calls your world view must take center in some shape or another around the existence of calamity. The whole idea of calamity makes sense to me. Pack rats shitting themselves to death in their homes. Birds of prey grasping at fur and claw and bone. Everywhere you look, something is always being pulled apart.
I wish I could hear from you. I day dream of getting in the car and driving to St. Paul. I looked it up, how far away it is. I don’t have your home address, but figure, like these letters, I could go to your office and wait.
Since I wrote about that kitten being snatched up I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how graceful that bird was. I’ve done some homework and now think what I saw was a young bald eagle. If I held a young bald eagle on my arm you’d swear it weighed forty pounds. But their bones are hollow, and they have fluffed-up feathers, but damn, are they impressive.
I’ve gone over to a nearby raptor rehabilitation center and begun volunteering. That’s why I’ve learned so much. There are a few full-time employees, and in a sort of trade for my time and energy, they’re letting me in on everything about these raptors. What they have me doing is a bit off, but to be honest, I don’t mind. Hunters donate their kills, and I go pick up what’s mostly mule deer, but twice already big haunches of elk meat. These guys come from out of state to shoot an elk, which has got to be as difficult as shooting a penned-in dairy cow, but then they don’t even think of getting the meat home. I load it up in the back of the truck, haul it to the center’s freezer, or see the raptors go to work on it when it’s still fresh. There are fourteen turkey vultures at the center. They took apart a mule deer in front of me. Peeling red strips from it, then pecking and pulling at everything that linked the bones together. I sat in a folding chair and watched for hours. I’d never really seen anything like that before, or, at least never really looked. Hell of a thing to see. Have you seen how a dead creature can disappear through the work of animals? There’s something special about that connection. If you think of it that way, no one dies alone. Be it worm or beak, the body needs help slipping off for good and final.
There’s been a fire up in the mountains. If you watch the national news, you’ve probably seen it. I’m not in danger as the real dead forest is up the canyon where the pine beetles have made a tinder box of most everything. People are losing their homes up there, and the smoke fills the air every time the wind turns to the southeast. I can smell the cinder and ash in Edison’s fur. It’s a good smell, but it can become thick and overpowering. You think it’s a cloudy, overcast day in town when it’s really sunny and clear beyond the ash clouds. I’ve never been this close to such a natural force of destruction. Half of the West’s firefighters are here. There are smoke jumpers and water-scooping helicopters trying to tamp it down, but it will go until it burns all the dead trees. This one is too big to be curved. Though, of course, it’s exactly what this place needs. To take down the dead and open up a path of ash for a new forest to grow from. Some of the trees up there drop seeds that only open in flame.
I slept with a woman. I haven’t slept with anyone in a long time. Not many in my life. You know as well as I do how unattractive I am. I wonder what you look like now. Have you filled out in your face, across your chest and stomach? God, you’d hate me if you saw my stomach. If the boy you knew me to be curled up he could fit inside this body.
The woman works at a gas station that serves sandwiches not far from where I live. I eat there often, and we’ve gotten friendly over the last few years. Nothing ever to speak of, but we met up at a Lion’s Club barbeque that served beer. A live band played classic rock songs like Bob Seeger and Tom Petty. It was the first time we’d seen each other outside the sandwich counter, and the beer helped. We ended up at her small ranch house with a double wide trailer sort of soldered on to the back as an extension. Of course, had I not been half in the bag, none of this would have happened.
At one point in the night she got out of bed, and I sort of half woke and stayed in that mid-sleep phase until I saw her standing in the hallway. She was totally naked still and stood like that, fifty years old and heavy set, with wide, dangling breasts. I sat up to admire her, grateful for having been touched by someone in the first place. To not spend a night alone. For years it felt like I was cursed to always be alone or there was something wrong with me that people could pick up on from a distance. Though, lately, I’ve accepted that as part of my life.
As I stared at her it really dawned on me that this was the first time I’d been with a woman in almost ten years. Since Tina. You never met Tina. Tina was one of the bright spots in my life until she supernovaed and burnt everything out of me, left everything smoldering and black.
When I sat up all the way and waved her back to bed, she walked from the room. I found her sitting on the couch in a faded red robe. She was turned away from me and didn’t even move her eyes when I sat next to her. We were silent. I put my hand on her shoulder and I felt he skin pull away. Her skin. In that dim light, from that angle, she looked like a completely different person, or, here again was that old second face shining through, unknowable and untrustworthy as always.
I was to pick up game meat north of Red Feather Lakes near the Wyoming border after a group from Atlanta went out on a three day hunt. I thought I’d have an adventure and make a trip out of it. Stir the blood with a hike. Something I wouldn’t normally do, but I needed to shake free of the sandwich woman dismissing me. I took a circle trail early in the morning that led up to near 12,000 feet above sea level. Around here tree level starts at 9,000 feet, so I’d get up into exposed granite with good views of the area. It was a great hike too, though about half the time I thought I was going to keel over from a heart attack.
I got up to the top of the mountain and started working my way down the other side. I didn’t know this until I got there, but a fire had swept across the backside of the mountain and cleared so many trees that tree line cover was an extra 2,000 feet below where I thought it was.
Clouds rolled over the mountain on a hard wind and it was like night all the sudden showed up at noon. A huge lightning storm cracked open, and I was moving in a frantic rush, fast as I could down the switchback trail, but I was totally exposed on the charred slope. Lightning bolts began touching down all around me. Bright white and blue bolts hit the side of the hill and traced the ground for a split second, then left this sort of wet afterglow in my peripheral. Bolts hit around me like they were about to split time open, the eternity of the past and future each peeling away to one side, leaving me a raw heartbeat in that exact moment, like a new being. Then I thought of Dad telling us to settle down before our balls sag to our knees and no one will want to touch ‘em, and how that’s sort of happened to me as my balls hurt from running, and I suddenly couldn’t run any more. I dove flat to the ground and lay there.
The lighting brought a terrible feeling of change. Like I was going to just be erased up there.
Any minute I thought I was going to die. I lay there for twenty minutes as this storm raked itself over me. Lighting hit within twenty yards of me a dozen times. I felt it. Soaking wet, sliding into naked terror, this electric power was gravitating toward me, inch by inch. My final eviction notice. My stomach was water and I pissed myself. I was soaked through anyway, so if anyone saw me, it wouldn’t matter, but that sort of completed my demoralization.
It’s hard to say exactly how it felt, but I left the mountain with this loose feeling, that’s kept me nervous, on edge ever since, like there are now bugs under my skin. I must have shown up to those Georgian hunters a pale, quavering mess. Perhaps they could see it on me. For about two days I couldn’t untighten my jaw. Still, it feels like things inside of me have not yet jelled.
Edison got bit in the face a while back by a rattlesnake on my property. Her jaw swelled up. I spent a day in an emergency vet’s and almost had to put her down. It was awful. I thought she’d learned her lesson, but it just happened again. This time they gave her an IV and ibuprofen. She’s built up a better immunity to the venom. I arranged it to get several IV bags at my house in case that happens a third time. Isn’t it wild to think about, how a body can get used to something so toxic? How it wants to survive.
What I like about the west is it’s full of places where the wild still lurks. There’s a danger of coyotes, bears, mountain lions, raptors, and even veins of electricity snapping from the sky. I wonder if this is something your insurance company takes into account with all this protecting against wounding and death. Though, I guess it’s more likely actuaries have parceled out every nasty angle on how we diminish and demise. They probably have reports on every ugly thing to ever happen and are at work trying to cover it all. The world on paper can get all bordered up, hedged, and insured. I’m sure it’s nice for you, profitable, but I think some wild part of life, or our awareness that the world is wild, will be numbed when we’ve covered every possibility in life. At least for me, at least for this wild place I live in. I feel like I’m on the edge of a wild place being encroached upon by civilization’s paperwork. Soon there will only be well-insured McMansions left. The poor and marginal and wild and wildlife will all be pushed off somewhere else. It will be a loss. Though I’ve seen how loss works. For me it has been a slow grind. Others were fleet, silent shadows.
I’m not sure you’re getting these letters, but I’m going to write you all the same. Writing helps me organize my thoughts. Sort of keep a record of my life. Which I am starting to feel is random and more confusing than I could ever explain.
I know you’ll never write me back. I imagine if we ever sat down together, the ghost of our father would be there at the table. That mean bastard had something wrong with him, something deep in the brain or chest that made him lash out at people. After I heard he died of an aneurism, I had a daydream that I was the blood clot adrift in his system, searching out the right vessel to gunk up. I know you think about him. How could you not? I know that’s probably why we’re done with each other in this life.
I think maybe if I write to you about who I am and how I think about the small corner of the world I’m in, it could be like something to cleanse where we’ve been cleaved apart. I’ve thought of driving out to find you. But that road across the northern Great Plains would have to slip through time. It’s a road I can’t find the start of. So I’m writing you these letters about calamity and the small connections I’ve made with others. I’m hoping to circle back to something good about myself so I can move on with my life. Do you ever feel that way, I wonder? Like you’re moving in two directions while everything else is plowing forward?
Telly, do you have any idea what I’m talking about? I wonder if some days you remember everything the way I do. Telly, do you remember the sound of my voice?
Devin Murphy‘s fiction appears in The Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, and The Missouri Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, and New Stories From the Midwest as well as many others. He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University.