When I was a child, just seven years old, my mother decided that she and I should leave my father and search for a better life on our own, just the two of us. I didn’t want to go. I loved my mother, but I loved my father too. He had taught me things. He had taught me, for example, how to catch tadpoles in the little stream that ran behind our country home. We caught them and saved them in a small glass bowl on our kitchen table. I fed them three times a day. I was permitted—encouraged by my father—to keep them until they either died or became frogs. Most of them died. But, there were a couple that did manage to hang on long enough for me to enjoy watching them hop around my mother’s kitchen floor.
I can understand my mother wanting to leave. The help my father gave me in the stream behind our house with the tadpoles wasn’t typical of him as a father or as a husband. More often, his fatherliness consisted in cheap beer, hours in front of the television, and unkempt promises. His capacity for love of my mother was equally as deficient and, probably, downright abusive. But, I treasured the few things that he was capable of giving to me. Even after I caught them, my father took an active, interested role in my tadpoles’ lives.
It was around the time of my first successful effort at nurturing a tadpole into a full-fledged frog that my mother started preparing my father for the fact that she and I were going to leave. I don’t think he believed her, but she actually set a date, one month out, and insisted that she’d stick to it.
She seemed to expect that I would want to leave with her. But, I announced a few days after she announced the date of our departure that I’d be staying behind. If she tried to make me go, I told her, I’d refuse.
When the date of departure finally came, she forced me to go. After my father left for work, she packed my suitcase and some of my favorite toys and loaded me, kicking and screaming, into her Ford Pinto and drove me away from our rural Montana home. But, at the first gas station, only half an hour from town, I snuck out of the car while she was inside buying cigarettes. I hid up the street in a McDonald’s bathroom for the afternoon until I figured the coast was clear. When I finally came out, I conned a dime from an old lady and called my father at work. He came and picked me up from the McDonald’s and took me back home.
My mother and father talked the situation over that night. She left the next morning without me, crying and waving the whole way out the lane.
But, of course, after only a few weeks I missed my mother so miserably that I decided I had to be with her again, wherever she was. I was only seven years old, after all. And, my father worked all day and drank nights. I spent the afternoons and evenings, until it was nearly time for me to go bed, at the house of a neighbor lady whom he was paying to look after me.
I didn’t realize at the time the pain my father was in. Of course, there was his drinking, but I see now how it must have hurt him when I took to crying inconsolably for the woman whom he felt had, in giving up on their love, betrayed him. He begged me, just as he had my mother, to stay. For two nights in a row, after I started the crying, he came straight home from work, took me fishing, played catch with me, made me hamburgers and macaroni and cheese, and let me eat all the Rocky Road ice cream I could put away.
But, I was seven. I missed my mommy. I had to go.
A few nights later, my mother called from Des Moines, Iowa, where she’d ended up. This was the last time I ever remember my parents speaking. There were all kinds of promises. Sobriety. Completion of aborted projects around the house. No more Sunday football parties with friends. Better care of the lawn. But, my mother had been pushed too far. She was through with him. When he finally realized that he wasn’t going to be able to talk her into coming home—when he finally felt the finality of things—he gave up begging and became his familiar, angry self again. He started yelling into the phone. He punched a wall. I imagined that my mother was very controlled on the other end, calming him as she often would.
In the final moments of that conversation, my mother and father made a plan. The next day, he’d ship me off on the Greyhound. My mother would be waiting for me at a station on the outskirts of Des Moines.
As soon as he got off the phone, he told me to start packing my things. This was what I wanted, to be with my cunt of a mother, he said, so this was what I was going to get. I felt terrible that my father should think that I, like my mother, wanted to abandon him, but I also, quite frankly, in that moment, felt frightened of him in a way that I had never been frightened. I had been afraid of him before, but it had always been fear for my mother—fear that he’d become physically violent with her—and now I felt this anger, the anger that drove my mother away, directed at me. I considered telling him that I loved him, that he hadn’t done anything wrong, that it wasn’t him, that I just missed my mommy. But, I didn’t. I didn’t say anything. I was afraid, and I did what he told me to do. I went into my room and started packing my things in the same little suitcase my mother had packed for me only a few weeks before.
After a couple of minutes, I heard him calling my name. His voice had a bizarre tone. It had a kind of desperate urgency that I had rarely, if ever, heard in it. I thought he might have fallen and accidentally hurt himself in some way. I came out into the kitchen. He was holding my frogs. These were the only two I had raised that had ever made it to froggy adulthood. He had transferred them into the Tupperware container that my mother had let me poke holes in the top of and use to take them to show-and-tell day at school.
“I want to take them along tomorrow,” I said.
He ignored me. “Come outside. You’re father wants to teach you something about the way life is,” he said.
He went out the door without waiting for me, my frogs tucked under his arm.
I was expected to follow him, and I did. I ran after him, actually. I was afraid that he was going to let them go, and I didn’t want him to. They were my friends. I wanted to take them along.
He was walking very quickly, in big adult strides, toward the stream.
“Please,” I said, pumping my little legs, trying to catch up. “Please don’t let them go.”
He stopped under the cottonwood tree next to the water and set the Tupperware down.
“Wait here,” he said. “Don’t touch the frogs.”
He walked over to the little shed in our yard. He fumbled around for a minute or two inside and then came out with his carpenter’s belt in his hand.
He set down the tool belt, took off the lid to the Tupperware container, and pulled out one of my frogs. It was squirming madly, but he squeezed it into submission. Then, he took a utility knife out of his carpenter’s belt and slid out the razor blade.
There, beside the little stream where we had harvested the tadpoles, my father pinned one of our frogs—the bigger one which I had decided was the daddy frog—and sliced through the back of its head, severing its spinal chord. He pithed it. I’m not sure how he knew how to do this. Perhaps, he remembered from high school biology. But, he did it; there was no doubt about that. He pithed the frog, so that it wouldn’t feel, and yet would, for a time, go on living.
I started crying.
But, I had to learn, my father explained, as he sliced the frog’s tiny chest open with the razor blade, “You’ve got to learn what a heart looks like.” And, when he had pealed back the thin layer of frog skin and found the heart there next to all the other organs, still beating as pithed frogs’ hearts do, he said, “Look at it. Do you see what it looks like?”
I was trying, as my mother had often instructed me, to be a little man. But, I was failing in this manhood. My lips were quivering and, all of a sudden, I let go in audible sobs.
This made him angry.
“Cut it out!” he shouted. “Look at it! Do you see it?”
I nodded, dry heaved. Of course, I had seen it. And, the other frog, which I regarded as the mommy frog and had named Frankie, could see it too. The lid was off of the Tupperware container, and she had jumped out but hadn’t hopped all the way to freedom. Instead, she had stopped to watch my father dissect Freddie, which was what I had named the daddy frog.
“Do you see?” he shouted. “This is how people can be. They can be dead, but still living.”
I dry heaved again.
He adjusted my chin with his hand—a hand that was now wet with frog blood and slime—so I had to look in his eyes. “Look at me!” he said. “I’m trying to teach you something.” For some reason, he began speaking about himself in the third person. “This is how your father is. Do you understand me? This is why you can’t stay with him.”
He poked the frog’s tiny beating heart with the angled point of the blade, and the heart spurted blood for a few more beats, before it stopped. This further excited him. “That’s it!” he shouted. “That’s it son! That’s what your father’s heart looks like! Your mother made it that way!”
In the commotion, as my father stood and yelled, Frankie—the mommy frog –finally hopped safely into the stream from which she had come.
When the heart had altogether stopped and when my father had calmed down a bit, he asked me again if I had understood everything he had taught me, to which I told him, yes, I did, and he left me there alone and walked—himself alone—slump-shouldered, in the failing daylight, across my parents’ lawn into what had been my family’s home.
Though I thought of my father quite a lot in the years that followed, I rarely think of him now. I’m a schoolteacher in the northeast, in New Jersey, and my life is so completely different than the life I had in the country, in Montana, chasing tadpoles as a child.
But last summer, when my wife left me, I took off for the areas in Montana where my mother and I had drifted and searched for a new home the summer after my father’s suicide. That’s how my father handled his pain; he took his life. The day I left on the bus, he doused the house with gasoline, locked himself in, lit a match, and burned his pain away. It was such an awful form of death—and, my mother thought, vengeful and cruel toward us—that she decided we should not attend the funeral. She was angry with him, and it was hard to blame her, I suppose. We stayed in Des Moines for a month a two, but there was nothing for us there. My mother had grown up in a small town and cities of even moderate size took her apart. That summer, we found ourselves back in Montana: driving around and staying in dingy, cheap hotels with weekly rates. We’d come into a new town, and she’d look around for jobs and try to decide if we should stay there. But, we didn’t stay anywhere. Not in Montana, at least. That winter, we ended up back in South Dakota in the same house where my mother and my mother’s mother had been born.
So, when my wife left me last summer, I felt an urge—one I didn’t completely understand—to return to Montana. But, frankly, I was scared. That stark, wild, open landscape, I was afraid, might take me apart. I talked an old college roommate and friend of mine into coming along. He had just finished his PH.D in philosophy. We had fished together on the east coast numerous times, and the promise of trout was how I lured him into coming along. But, the truth was, though I wanted to go, I didn’t want to drive around that state alone.
We met at the airport in Missoula, and we rented a car and headed east toward Helena. We stayed there for a few nights, drank and relaxed, and then we went south into the central part of the state planning to camp and fish.
It was unimaginably arid. Wildfires were ravaging the state. There was a dull haze that lined the sky. It was the kind of haze that, even on the sunniest of days, remains. The fishing turned out to be no good during this period either. The water levels were way down. It was hot and dry.
I had been talking about my wife—or soon to be ex wife—almost nonstop since we’d met in Missoula and my friend Francis was, understandably, tiring of it. He is forty-three like me, but he’s never been married. He took a pragmatic philosophical approach to the problem of my wife leaving me. His solution was to forget about her.
“I thought you said it was over.”
“Well, it is,” I admitted. “I guess it’s just that I’m having trouble with that concept.”
“Do the highest good, the right thing, to the extent that that exists. Quit calling her. Tell her to quit calling you.”
“You’re confronted with two bad options. Take the best bad one. Cut her off,” he said. “Cut yourself off from her.”
We were old friends, and we could talk to each other like this, with an almost callous frankness.
“Look, it’s hard when you love someone,” I explained. “I love Suzanne. It’s easy for you. You love books and tobacco.”
“And, they love me back,” he said.
He was fully aware of the absence of romantic love in his own life, and, yet, he seemed altogether at ease with it. I admired him for this as I did for many things, his intelligence and practical sensibility not least among them.
“Do I look miserable?” he said, smiling, stuffing his cheek with a wad of tobacco.
I thought about retorting with some rhetoric about not exposing yourself and for that reason missing out on the deeper aspects of life—on the joy and pain involved in trying to love. But, I didn’t believe it myself. I got tired of my own fragility, sensitivity, and inability to let go of things. It seemed ridiculous for a man in his forty-third year of life. The truth was I wished I were like him. Like water, free, flowing, not giving a damn.
“It’s hard, we’re in the aftermath.”
“To hell with the aftermath. You’ve got to move on. You’re driving yourself crazy,” he told me.
The road had been winding up and down and around the mountains, but we had come out on a flat section of highway. An open highway. Except for the black areas where the wildfires had burned, the grass was brown as far as we could see. On the western horizon where another mountain range began, smoke was billowing up out of the peaks.
I noticed, about half a mile ahead on the right, a road that headed back toward the mountain range, the range from which the smoke was rising. I slowed down.
“What are you doing?” Francis said.
“I’m driving back there,” I said and turned onto the road that led back toward the fires.
I’ve struggled in my adult years with anger at my mother for not taking me home to Montana to attend my father’s funeral. He had his problems, but he had friends. He was an energetic character. It would have been an opportunity for me, as his son, to see people talk favorably about him, overlook his shortcomings, as people often do at funerals. It was as if my mother sought to erase the memory of my father from both of our souls and that, of course, isn’t possible. I’ve also discovered, in adulthood, that I have a strange fascination with fires. A therapist friend once told me that this might be related to unresolved grief over my father’s death and the nature of it—by fire. I don’t know about that. It’s certainly possible for one to over think things, but I have found myself on countless occasions imagining and reimagining my father’s suicide. I have a recurring dream in which he is burning, in that Montana house, and calling my name in a tone not unlike the one he used just after he spoke to my mother the last time, when he called me out of my room to teach me the frog lesson.
“Seriously, where are you going?” Francis asked.
“I want to get a closer look at those fires,” I told him.
There was a period of silence as we both stared at the dark, dense smoke billowing up on the horizon. You could see where entire sections of the forest had been burned out. Huge trees from this distance looked like smoldering toothpicks. Francis spit tobacco juice in his spittoon—a chocolate milk carton—and then observed, “We’re driving into the fire.”
Another minute or two passed, and he spat again. I shifted into fifth gear, accelerated a bit, and kept driving us toward the smoking mountain range. There were sections of black, smoldering earth on both sides of the road. I also noticed burn lines. I knew what they were because I remembered my father explaining them to me when I was a child; they were sections of prairie you intentionally burned to stop wildfires from spreading. The fire gets to the space of burned-out, dead foliage, and it has no fuel to continue on. Entire towns have been saved in this way.
But, the lines in this area appeared not to have been so effective. In some cases, the fire had been contained, but, in others, it had continued on its path through the prairies all the way to the main road we had turned off of and died there.
“All right, pull over, you lunatic,” Francis said.
“Because, you’re not stable. I don’t trust you. I’m driving,” he said.
But, I ignored him, kept driving, and, in another minute or so, we came up on a sign that said, “Fire Camp Here.” I could see into the camp from the road. There were tents and tarpaulins, a bulldozer, a truck with a huge water tank on the back.
“Let’s check this out,” I said.
My old friend sighed and gave no protest. At least, we wouldn’t be continuing on the road that led up into the mountains where the real fires were burning.
I turned on to the little dirt path and came to a stop next to the small bulldozer. Some men who were standing under the tent looked over at us. A few of them were smoking. They looked curious, oddly fascinated by our presence. They were all wearing jeans and t-shirts.
We got out of the car and walked slowly over toward them. One of them kept looking at us even after the others looked away. He seemed to be evaluating us, judging us. I could see black soot marks on his face and neck. He tipped his head, smiled, and started walking in our direction.
“You boys just getting in?” he said.
“You coming down from Missoula?”
“Yeah, we are,” I told him, which, of course, was true.
“Well, we sure are glad to see you,” he said.
Next to the temporary tent on the ground were oxygen tanks and shovels and huge fire-fighting pants and jackets. I saw Francis glance at me, but I ignored him. I kept looking at this skinny man with bulgy eyes, high cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and soot marks on his face. Now, I thought he seemed to be happy to see us. He was grinning.
“God knows we’ll use you,” he said.
My friend Francis is very large. He’s six-foot five, big-boned, a little overweight, but very able-bodied. “We’re not firefighters,” Francis said.
The skinny man laughed. “Did you hear that guys? They say they’re not firefighters,” he called to the other five men who hadn’t gotten up to greet us but were still sitting down, smoking and conversing. “Slater, you a firefighter?”
The man who apparently went by Slater smiled. “Hell no.”
“What about you, Rossman? How long you been a fire man?” He said the words fire and man slowly and separately.
“About two weeks,” the man who answered to Rossman said.
The thin man turned back to Francis and me. “You see? You’re in good company.” Then, he was suddenly very solemn. “Really, you’ve got nothing to worry about. We’re not going to put you in any real danger. We do appreciate your coming down.” He shook his head. “It’s amazing there aren’t more volunteers. It just makes sense, you know. It’s your own state. When it’s your own backyard that’s burning, how can you not help? I mean save a life. Stop a fire. You boys are from Montana, aren’t you?” He chewed on his lip.
“I am originally,” I said.
“Well, you look like two good men to me,” the bulgy-eyed man said.
“Well, we’re not as good as some men but better than others, I suppose,” I told him.
Francis glared at me.
“Oh, you boys will do fine,” the man said. “I’m the only one with any real experience in this gang. So, as I said, you’re in good company. We always go in shifts. We work in groups —as teams— we watch each other’s asses, you might say.” He grinned and patted me on the shoulder. He shook my hand and then Francis’s hand rigorously. “There’s coffee over there in the tent. We’ve got beer too, if you want that. Some of the guys like beer. I don’t recommend it, you know, if your shift’s coming up. But, then again, we ain’t paying you for this either.” He looked at us solemnly again—first Francis, then me, one to the other. “I understand the sacrifice everyone’s making, leaving their jobs and their families.” He paused and smiled again. “Come to think of it, maybe I shouldn’t see it as such a sacrifice. It’s a vacation for some of these guys—they get to get away from their jobs and families. We try to have fun too,” he added, nodding.
The man had a four-way radio clipped to his belt, and it started hissing. A voice said there was a situation brewing. Could he send some men in?
“Well, guys, looks like it’s back to business for me.” He took the radio off his belt. “You men make yourselves comfortable. Get to know the boys. Rossman, Slater—give these cats the skinny,” he said, walking off with the radio pressed against his ear.
“Well, fuck fire, two more able bodies,” Rossman said, grinning at us. “You boys thirsty?” He held up his beer and pointed to the cooler. They were drinking Ranier, which I recognized from my childhood. It was, along with Olympia, a staple of my father’s.
“Seriously,” Slater said holding up his. “We’re serious firefighters. Hey, guys, come on over and meet the gang.”
Slater directed the introductions. He asked us our names, and we shook hands with the four others who were also sitting with beers.
“We’re on break,” one of them pointed out.
“Griffith here is a rancher—only real man among us. Lewis is from Great Falls. Ramson is from Billings. He’s a . . .” He paused. “What are you again Ramson?”
“I’m a bartender,” Ramson said, getting another can of beer out of the cooler and popping open the lid.
“A bartender from Billings. Hey, bartender—I’ll take one, too,” Slater said.
Ramson tossed him a beer.
“What do you boys do?” Slater asked.
“We’re on vacation, actually,” Francis said.
“Oh, yeah. Hell, yeah. We’re all on vacation,” Slater said laughing. “Rossman especially. His wife’s a slave driver. That’s the right attitude,” he said. “Vacation. So, where you boys from? You come from up near Missoula, somebody said?”
“We’re from back east,” my philosopher-friend said.
“Lewison, check it out. You’re not alone. Two more transplants,” he said. “Lewison’s a transplant. He’s from New York. New York,” he said again. “Don’t worry, the state not the city. He came out twenty years ago. You boys ain’t from New York are you?”
“I live in Connecticut,” Francis said.
The thin man with bulgy eyes called to us. “Well, boys,” he said clipping his radio back on, “Whole Goddamn state’s on fire. Who’s most sober in this bunch?” he said walking over. He stared at Francis and me, grinned. “You boys look healthy,” he said. “Haven’t even had a beer yet, have you? Can I get your first names again?”
“Glenn,” I said. “My name is Glenn.”
Francis stared at the skinny man, who was apparently in charge but didn’t say anything.
“And, this is Dr. Francis,” I said.
Francis glared at me again.
“Wow, we may use you. We may need one of those. You boys hear that?” he called to the other men. “This fella’s an MD.”
“Well, not exactly,” Francis said.
“What are you then? Some kind of healer or something?”
Francis finally cracked a smile. “Well, you might say that,” he said.
“Well, that’s close enough,” the skinny man said. His walkie-talkie hissed again. A muffled voice said, “Samson, you out there? Over.”
“I read. Over.”
“We need help down here, Captain. We can steer it back to the river, I think, Over.”
“Sit tight, we’ll be up. Over.”
“Okay, boys, we gotta move on this,” the bulgy-eyed man said.
My sound-minded friend took me aside. “Look,” Francis said. “What in the hell are you doing? Do you think these guys actually think we’re firefighters?”
“What’s the difference?”
“What do you mean what’s the difference? They’re mocking you. They’re mocking us. They’re making fun of the easterners.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Well, okay then, let’s just suppose for a minute they’re not. That they’re not fucking with us. That they think we’re volunteer firemen. Do you have the slightest idea how to fight wildfires?”
I had no answer to this question. I looked off at the men in the tent. They were laughing and drinking.
“I’ve read about these guys, the guys that fight forest fires. They’re professionals. They’re serious. This is serious shit. They’re not going to let just any idiot go in with them.”
The bulgy-eyed man with the radio walked over to us.
“Hey, this shouldn’t be a big deal. The guys at the other camp are calling for us.” He looked at our sport utility rental. “You mind if we take your rig? That a four-wheel-drive outfit?”
I looked at Francis and said, “Sure, we can take it,” before Francis could say anything.
The man called to the others, smiling. “Hey, I’m going to break these cats in. You boys doing all right?’
They all laughed and grinned and held up their beers.
“Watch out for fires . . .”
“Watch out for wild animals . . .” another one called, and they all laughed again.
“Okay, help me load this shit up, then,” he said.
He walked briskly to the pile of fire jackets, boots, shovels, pickaxes, and oxygen tanks.
“Throw these in back,” he said handing me one of the tanks. I wasn’t prepared for the weight of it, and it almost dropped on his foot. “Careful with the tank.”
He handed Francis a cluster of digging tools, and he fetched another tank.
“Don’t worry, we won’t need the oxygen. It’s just a precaution. Mind if I drive?” he asked climbing in the driver’s seat.
“Not at all.”
I got in the front seat next to the bulgy-eyed man. Francis got in back beside the shovels and pickaxes and fire jackets.
The man popped the emergency brake off and accelerated out of the dirt path. The wheels spun and grabbed and squealed, when we hit the macadam.
“I’m sorry, if I seem a little rammy,” he said. “It’s just if you don’t move at the right time in this business, you can miss your opportunity.”
“There are real lives, real people’s homes at stake, you know? So, you can’t fuck around. If the wind doesn’t cooperate and this thing gets down into the valley, we’ll have a real problem on our hands.”
The road curved sharply to the left and then back right again. He drove like a NASCAR driver, braking before the curves and then accelerating midway through the turn.
I looked up at Francis, but he wouldn’t look at me. He was staring out the window, which he had opened. He had lit up a cigarette.
“It’s a little dry to be tipping ashes outside,” the man driving said.
“Oh, yeah,” Francis said, his chubby, pale face flushing.
“You can smoke—I like to myself—you’ve just gotta keep the hot ashes contained.” He looked pensive for a moment. “Strange, how these fires will do it to you. I remember when I worked the fires down in the park—now, those were fires. These are just brush fires compared to those—but I’ll be damned, if I didn’t start smoking like a damn forest fire.” He shook his head. “Fire begets fire,” he said.
“Fire begets fire,” Francis repeated, meditating on the words.
The man driving looked at my philosopher-friend and smiled. “Dr. Francis agrees. Fire begets fire,” he said again and then, “Come to think of it, let me have one of those cigarettes.”
Francis took one out and handed it to him.
“Jesus H. Christ,” the bulgy-eyed man said, chuckling and leaning toward the backseat for Francis to light his cigarette. “The world sure as hell ain’t right, is it?” he said.
I looked out toward the mountain range ahead of us on the horizon. You could see where the fire had moved through the forest, taken out the green treetops exposing the black smoldering wasteland it left behind.
“What exactly are we going to be doing up here?” Francis asked.
“Oh, don’t worry,” the man driving said, grinning. “I’ll keep you out of harm’s way.”
I noticed that the foliage along the roadside was getting thicker and thicker. There were actual trees, not just the occasional cottonwood, sage, and piñon scattered across the arid landscape. We had begun to come up out of the plains.
The road forked, and we took the path to the right, up into what was really the beginning of the mountain range. Eventually, we came up on a river of considerable size. It was thirty or forty yards wide. The man stopped on the bridge.
“Why don’t you get out here,” he said to me. “You’ll be safe. You know how to use one of these?” he said giving me a two-way radio. “Call me if you see anything exciting.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like fire or smoke or something.” He laughed and poked me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. It won’t make it down here that fast. Just get in the river, if it does.” He laughed again. “And, radio me.”
He dropped a fire jacket and boots out the back door and drove off. “The doctor and I are going to dig some lines!” he called as they sped away.
I walked to the other side of the bridge and stared downstream. I couldn’t see any fire in that direction. Upstream, on the other hand, looked darker, more foreboding. I smelled smoke—just vaguely. It wasn’t overwhelming. It was faint, stale. Like what you smell on your skin and hair after you’ve been around a campfire. I looked up at the road, up the mountain, in the direction that my old friend Francis and the other man had driven. They were out of view, and there was only the sound of the water flowing and bubbling over the rocks below.
I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I was alone on a river in Montana—in a way I hadn’t been since I was a child.
I went to the end of the bridge, climbed down the bank, sat on a large, flat rock, and waited.
Five minutes hadn’t gone by, when our rental sport utility vehicle came squealing back onto the bridge with the horn blowing. Francis’s window was down, and I could see that he was smiling, which I figured was a good sign.
“Let’s go!” he shouted.
“Jigs up,” the bulgy-eyed man said when I got in. “Your buddy here spilled the beans. You ain’t firefighters. Oh, well, nice of you to think of helping out . . .”
We didn’t speak the whole way back to the camp.
When we got there, the man got out of our car and smiled and waved. He was friendly enough about the whole thing.
Francis hopped in the driver’s seat. He wasn’t taking any more chances with me. I looked back at the camp, while we pulled away. As the bulgy-eyed man came to the tent, they tossed him a beer. He spoke for a few moments, and they all started laughing uncontrollably, standing up, and high-fiving, slapping their knees.
“I told you. They were fucking with us,” he said.
I didn’t say anything. We drove in silence for a while. He smoked and chewed tobacco. I felt silly and miserable. We turned back out onto the road we had been on.
As we drove away from the fires, somewhere south of Helena, things started to look vaguely familiar to me.
It may sound strange, but I was so young when we left Montana that I had forgotten the name of the town where we had lived, where I had spent the first six and a half years of my life. I had asked my mother, in adulthood, a number of times, and she had grown agitated. And, on one occasion four or five years ago, when I pressed her on the topic, she actually broke down and cried. She felt, as we all do, regret over certain aspects of her life. She told me once that she thought she had failed as a mother because she did not choose a better man to be my father. This was, of course, odd because I had as much of my father’s genetics as my mother’s. By any means, the thought of her son returning to the scene of those emotional crimes was too much for her to take, and she never told me the name of the town, the county, or the stream that ran through our backyard.
Then, all of sudden, we were there. We just came up on it. I knew it was in the central part of the state, and I sort of went looking, but it still felt like we stumbled on the tiny town. There was the little one-room schoolhouse that I had attended in first grade. There was the diner, Miller’s Diner, with the flashing neon sign outside. It appeared to be still operating. And, there was the Mint bar. My mother and I had picked my father up drunk there many a time. There was no doubt. This was the town of my youth.
“Keep going straight. Straight through town,” I told my friend.
He looked at me like I was an idiot. “I hadn’t planned to stop in the middle of the road,” he said.
“I think there’s a stream up here, just out of town, on the right.”
“You know where we are?”
“I think so,” I told him.
We crossed the little stream on the way out of town. It ran along the road for a couple of miles, bent out of sight, then wound back again near where our house had been. There was the neighbor woman’s home, where my father had sent me during the two weeks I had stayed behind with him without my mom.
Our house was gone, of course, but I recognized the spot. There was no question. This was it. There was the little shed looking lonely and abandoned now without a house.
“Slow down. Park there.”
“Does anybody live here?” he asked.
“I’m not sure.”
He pulled us into the grass. We had hardly stopped, and I was already out of the car, walking down across the yard toward the stream. I paused for a moment over the area of the lawn where the house had been. It seemed like you could just see the remnants of its foundation. The earth was irregular, uneven. There seemed to be more weeds and wildflowers growing. I imagined my father’s ashes were here.
I continued walking back through what had been our yard to the decaying shed. I peeked in. It was empty. I continued to the stream. The tree was gone, but I stood for a moment where I thought it had been.
Now, what? I had found it, without even trying, but, now, what was there to do?
I squatted down and looked in the water, in the shallows, and searched for something—anything—moving or alive.
Francis came bumbling across the lawn with his waders on and his fly rod in his hand.
“Are there fish in here?”
“No, there’s nothing here. Let’s go find another river,” I said, walking past him back to the car.
Stephen Byler’s first collection of stories, Searching for Intruders, was a New York Times Notable book. He is currently at work on a novel and a collection of nonfiction travel essays. He lives and works in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.