The dog showed up at his ranch on a cool morning in April, two days after a spring blizzard blew in off the Rockies, leaving a foot of snow and trapping cows and calves in the gulches of the south section. When he stepped out onto the porch, the dog was waiting for him.
“Who’re you?” he asked. Sad eyes. Black. Curls like it’d just come from having a perm.
He stepped around the dog and walked out to the barn, lifted the latch, swung the door, and stepped inside. The dog slipped through the door.
The stable was in shadows. Warm. The smell of hay and horse and manure.
He saddled Blue and slipped on the bit while the dog sat and watched. He guided the horse out into the yard. Steam from his nostrils. A quick sideways movement. He swung up into the saddle and set out for the south pasture. The dog followed. Three hours and one dead calf later, he stabled and curried Blue, walked outside, closed the barn door, and walked out to his pickup. He lowered the rear gate and the dog scrambled up into the bed. He shut the gate.
“Don’t talk much, do you?” he said.
He climbed into the pickup and drove to town and parked in front of Lachlan’s. The dog jumped out of the box and followed him into the clinic. He approached the front desk and said, “Hi, Julie.”
Julie looked up at him with her clear blue eyes. “Hi, Bev.”
“Bit of a storm we had,” he said.
“Was. My man was stranded in Calgary for two nights. Got in at five this morning. Said the ditches were full of cars emptied of all their fools.” She grinned. The deepest dimples.
“He’s out. Calving season, as you know.”
“I do.” Bev turned and looked down at the dog. “This here girl found me this morning and won’t let me go. Like LePages.”
Julie rose and bent over the desk for a closer look. “That one belongs to Janice Collicutt. Curly-coated retriever. Spayed her last year. She’s a runner. And a mute.”
“That a fact.”
“It is. Born without a voice. Except when she smells smoke. Then she howls like all get-out.”
“Well, I’m not a smoker.”
“Good thing, then. You’ll want to find Janice.”
“She lives at Alton Manor. Janice will be happy to see her dog. She loses her at least once a week.”
“Might want to tie her up.”
“Oh, she wouldn’t do that. She’s too kind-hearted. She needs a good trainer.”
He took note of Julie’s dimples one last time and then turned to go.
“Careful on the roads,” she said.
“Sun’s out. Ice is melting.”
As he loaded the dog in the bed, he wondered what the mutt was called. Curly, he supposed. He drove to Alton Manor and parked in the loading zone. He put on his hazards and walked up the sidewalk to the front door. In the lobby there was an intercom and a list of names and numbers. He found Collicutt, Janice, and punched in 542. A sign on the glass door read, NO PETS ALLOWED. The ringer went off six times before a woman answered.
“My name’s Bev. I have your dog.”
“Keller? You found her?”
“She found me.”
“On my ranch. Sitting on the porch.”
“Should I come up?”
The buzzer rang to free the lock and Bev stared at it and then pulled the handle and entered. He took the elevator to the fifth floor, patting Keller on the head. “Atta girl,” he said. “You’re going home.”
When the door opened, he was surprised by a number of things. Janice Collicutt was in an electric wheelchair, and her face was too smooth and unlined and young for her to be living in an old folks’ home, and her hair was curly like her dog’s, and she had a green eye and a brown eye, and she was a looker.
Keller entered, sniffed the wheels of the chair, and lay down in the middle of the living room.
Janice spun around and turned left and disappeared. “Come in,” she called. “In here. Sit down.”
She was parked at the table, eating plain macaroni and ketchup.
He sat. Looked around. The dishes needed washing.
“I suppose you’re looking for a reward?” Janice said. “I can’t do that. Keller would break the bank. I can offer you noodles, though. You hungry?”
He was. “I’m fine,” he said.
“’Course you’re fine.” She motioned at the pot on the stove. “Help yourself.”
He stood and took a bowl from the cabinet and spooned himself some macaroni and sat and squeezed a little ketchup into the bowl.
As they ate, Janice told him about her life. She lived at Alton Manor because it had elevators and wheelchair accessibility and because she was surrounded by other people. They might be a lot older, but they were good company. She said she had multiple sclerosis. Five years earlier, she’d begun to drop things, knives, pencils, her wallet, and then her left leg began to drag behind her as she walked, and one day, lo and behold, she couldn’t walk at all, and now here she was in a wheelchair. “My husband walked away from me as soon as he found out about the MS. Cripples frighten Jack. He’s remarried. Has a baby on the way. Thing is, he still thinks he owns me. I have an inheritance, from my father, and Jack thinks he should get some. Courts think differently.” She ate some more. “What ’bout you?”
“What about me?”
“Your life. What do you do?”
“I have a ranch. Four hundred head of cattle. Horses.”
She nodded. “Married?”
He shook his head.
“Once. A long time ago.”
“I thought so. You have that look.”
“The look of a bachelor. A little forlorn. Threadbare.”
“Is that right?”
“What I miss is the sex. You don’t have to be married to have sex, but it’s easier. But then it turns humdrum.”
He looked down at his empty bowl.
“People think because I’m in a wheelchair, I can’t have sex. Not true.”
Bev took up his hat and placed it on his head. He rose. “Nice meeting you, Miss Collicutt. You might want to watch your dog more carefully.”
“I try. But she has to do her business, and she gets loose, and I can’t chase her down. She gets excited about the big world out there. How far you from town?”
“One time she ended up on a ranch fifty miles from here. They kept her for the winter. Saved me feeding her. You want her?”
“I favour cats.”
“Keller’s a pointer and a hunting dog. Needs some training, though.”
“That’s probably true.” He touched his hat. “Well. Goodbye.”
“Yes. See you.”
He didn’t think so. All that talk of sex. He wondered if the sickness had addled her brain. Driving home, he kept thinking about her eyes, the brightness there in two different colours.
On Wednesday, as was the case every other week, he filled in as the auctioneer at the livestock sale in town. Gone were the heady times of daylong sales and thousands of head of cattle. What arrived these days was a worn-out dairy cow sold by a single owner, a bull with nothing in his rocket, or a small bevy of heifers bought up by a buyer from Monsanto. The auction lasted two hours. Bev caught sight of Janice sitting in her wheelchair along the walkway above the pen. He saw her at the exact moment a bony Jersey cow entered the ring. He said, “Ain’t she a sweetheart,” and he sold her for five dollars.
Later, Janice was waiting for him in the parking lot. He feigned delight, or perhaps he wasn’t feigning. He said, “Nice to see you, Miss Collicutt,” and she said, “Janice.”
Then she said, “What’s gonna happen to that sweetheart of a dairy cow?”
“Well,” he said, “She’ll be turned into glue.”
“That’s sad,” she said.
He took off his hat. “Never thought of it that way.” He looked around. “How did you get here?”
“I rode my chair.”
“On the highway.”
“Would you like a lift back?”
“I would,” she said. And then she said his name, “Bev.”
As he helped her into the cab of his pickup, he was aware of her arm around his neck and how her chest pushed against his ribs, and he was aware too of how loose and floppy her left leg was. He found several two-by-tens beside the feedlot and used those as planks to drive the wheelchair into the bed of the truck. Threw the planks in alongside. Janice was tinkled pink to see all the trouble he went to. When he dropped her off and settled her back into her chair, she touched his arm and said, “You might want to hold onto those planks. Just in case.”
The following evening, a Thursday, he arranged to pick her up and take her out for steak in Calgary. They drove up Highway 2 and found a Keg on the south side of the city. As they entered the restaurant, he wondered if he could get used to being with a woman who wasn’t able to ride or rope or wrangle, a woman whose head would always reach only the height of his belt buckle.
She ordered a Silver Cloud and a sirloin medium rare and mushrooms on the side. She said, “You’re not particular. I like that.”
“Not sure what you mean by that.”
He lifted an eyebrow.
“You’re not put off by a gimp.”
“Never crossed my mind,” he said.
“You see. That’s what I mean. I tried Internet dating once, just for a month, and you should see the freaks that come crawling out from under the rug. One fellow wanted me to sit naked in my chair while he satisfied himself. I sent him home.”
“Sounds dangerous,” he said.
“Not really. These are very weak men. Morally. They have no backbone.” She watched him carefully. “Am I too blunt?”
“You are blunt. Too? I wouldn’t say.”
“I frightened you the other day, talking about sex.”
He smiled. “And now you’re talking about it again.”
“I don’t have a lot of time left. Maybe a year. All the old rules have been chucked out.”
The food arrived. “Would you cut my steak?” she asked, and pushed her plate toward him. He cut it for her and thought of children.
He said, “I couldn’t have babies. That’s why Dorothy left me.”
“I never wanted babies. Too old, anyways.”
“That’s not what I’m saying. I’m just trying to be honest.”
“I knew who you were the moment we met.”
“Yeah? Did you know I’m celibate?”
“That a threat?” She laughed.
“I’m a Christian as well.”
“How ’bout you?”
“I could be if it’s useful.”
“This isn’t a negotiation. It’s about faith.”
“I know that.”
Driving home there was a deep silence that didn’t feel like silence because he sensed her breathing and her movements, and at one point she reached out her strong hand, her left, and stroked his head and then ran it down to his neck. It was shocking to feel once again a woman’s touch.
“Could I spend the night at your place?” she asked. “I get tired of my apartment.”
“I only have one bed,” he said.
“What would we do with the wheelchair?”
“Put it in the barn with the horses,” she said. “You can carry me inside.”
He was quiet.
“You think too much,” she said.
“This isn’t life or death,” she said. She took her phone out of her purse and entered a number. He heard her talking, saying her door was open and Keller needed water and food and she needed to go outside. “Don’t let her off the leash,” she said. “She’ll run.”
Bev had not had sex with a woman for twenty years. The last woman he’d slept with was his ex-wife, Dorothy, who left him after years of trying to have children. The doctors determined that he was at fault, perhaps because of his acquaintance with Agent Orange during his tour of duty in Vietnam. When Dorothy left him, she claimed to be heartbroken. And then she married a town man, manager of the credit union, who gave her three children. Bev saw them in church, sitting five abreast, all clean and wonderful and contented. He was happy for Dorothy, and this was his greatest problem, that he imagined happiness was found elsewhere, certainly not in his own home and heart.
The previous fall, he’d driven to IKEA in Calgary and picked up kitchen cabinets and then gone home and installed them, laying out the boxes and reading the instructions, assembling the cabinets and then hanging them. Making love to Janice Collicutt was like putting together an IKEA kitchen, only in this case the instructions came from Janice herself, telling him to move her leg just so, to adjust his weight, and to help her hand find his cock. Sex with Janice was surprising for its mechanics.
There were no tricks, there was no hesitation, everything fell together just so.
At night, he woke to find that Janice’s left leg had clamped him to the bed and held him with a ferocious possession. He lifted her leg and slid out of bed and walked naked into the kitchen and ran a cold glass of water. Drank it looking out at his pickup and the single yard light that fell like a sharp sun across the barn that held his three horses and a few chickens and housed a motorized wheelchair. What was he doing? He laid the glass upside down in the sink and went back to bed and dreamt of a talking dog.
In the early morning, as Janice slept, he stepped out onto his porch and looked at the foothills to the west. They were not grand compared to the Rockies beyond, but they were a stepping stone to something greater, and he saw himself stepping into a new life, and the mountains dwarfed him and the foothills were miles away, and the sun rising behind him seemed just as happy for him as he was—in fact, the sun seemed to wink at him. As a young man, he had suffered anger and fits of rage, and he had fought anything and everything that was presented before him. This all stopped one day. It had been immediate and true. A real conversion. He had been out riding fences, leaning into a westerly, fighting the snow and cold, and he’d gotten off to splice the fence when the barbed wire snapped and wrapped around his neck and threw him to the ground. He would have bled out if his horse hadn’t nuzzled him out of the drifts and walked him home. On the horse, leaning forward, his face pressed against the mane, he’d had a vision of himself travelling down a wide road toward a bright light, and it was that bright light that stayed with him. From that day, he stopped all fighting, rid himself of his rage, forgave Dorothy, forgave himself. He got himself a cat, an animal he’d always disliked. He grew to love the cat, a fat calico that proved to be a tremendous mouser. He was a changed man—still resolute, with little patience for fools, but kinder, softer, and sometimes leaning toward tears.
Te saw her seven days in a row. He’d drive over to her apartment late in the day and roust her and wheel her out to his pickup and place her in the cab and drive the wheelchair up the planks into the box and then climb in beside her, and each time he did so, he was delirious. He’d take a deep breath and then say, “Here we go.” And she’d grin and adjust her loose body and answer, “Yes.” They’d drive the roads below the foothills, watching the light fade pink and then dark green and then dusty grey and finally a soft blackness that verged on purple, which meant that the mountains were catching the last of the sun on their backsides. She was a bigger talker than he was. She’d grown up in town and been wooed by various men from a young age, perhaps because her father had money, or maybe because her eyes were different colours. “Men seem to like that,” she said. Her father had made his money selling mud to drilling companies. “A mud millionaire is what he calls himself.” He’d bought her a house after her divorce and offered her a full-time nurse, but she preferred the company of the tenants at the Alton. “A lot of wisdom there, along with some unwanted advice,” she said. “My father flew me to Italy last year for that operation that opens the jugular venous system. That Zamboni guy discovered it. For a month I was leaping about like a newborn colt. And then, bang, I lost feeling in my leg and arm, and I was back in a wheelchair.” She talked about herself as if she were describing someone else. Like she was watching her reflection in a triple-glazed window. And always, when darkness had arrived completely, he would drive her to his house and carry her inside and drop her on the bed and undress her and then take off his own clothes and lie down beside her and they would make love. One time, he discovered that he was crying, and she wiped at his tears and said that he was the sweetest thing she’d ever known. He said that with age his tears came more easily, and though it embarrassed him to admit this, he said it anyway.
For twenty years he had forsaken women and had even denied thoughts of sex. Like a monk, he had cleansed himself. And now Janice was in his life and he had tumbled down the hill of virtue into the slough of carnality and he had never felt so free and so liberated and so full of life. She was beautiful and yet she wasn’t. He wanted to tell someone about her, and one afternoon at a café just outside Calgary, when the waitress told him that he had a glint in his eye, he agreed and said he’d just met the love of his life. “It’s never too late, I guess,” the waitress said, and he saw that she was calling him both old and lucky. He couldn’t argue with that.
On a Friday morning, after eating fried potatoes and eggs with Janice, he dropped her off at the Alton and went to see Harv Engel, the manager of the credit union, the same man who had married and promptly seeded Bev’s ex-wife.
Harv was a big man. Some might have called him fat. He liked to say things like “Let me be frank” or “Let’s cut to the chase” or “You need to line up your ducks.” Harv was in his office, holding down his chair. He was breathing heavily, as if he had run a long distance to meet with Bev. He sighed and said, “Let me be frank. I’ve cut you slack for the past year, reducing your interest rates, forgoing payments, but the time has come to face the music. You either sell the ranch or declare bankruptcy. Selling seems the bigger option.”
Here was a flannel-mouthed barrel of a man who soaked up numbers and spat them back at you as if the numbers themselves were the only truth in the world.
Bev crossed his legs, laid his cowboy hat on his lap, and laid out a few numbers himself. “Give me sixty days,” he said. “May thirtieth. I’ll have the thirty thousand.”
“Where you gonna get that much money in that time, Bev? I hate to say this, but we can’t keep postponing the inevitable. The feedlot’s looking for a new manager. They could use a good man like you.”
“Aww, heck, I’m too old to start all over again. And I can’t live in town, Harv. It’d kill me.”
“That ranch is killing you, Bev. Maybe there’s a little house in the country you could rent. I’ll keep my ear to the ground.” He touched an earlobe as he spoke.
“How are the kids?” Bev asked.
“Fine. Fine. Crystal’s playing volleyball this year. She has Dorothy’s legs. A real jumper.”
“Say hi to Dorothy.”
“For sure. For sure.” They shook hands. “Give the feedlot a call,” he said.
He drove home slowly, taking the back roads, windows open, wondering if he were an ignoramus. He dismissed this thought and watched two geese, wings reared, land on the grassland.
At home, he discovered a Cadillac in his yard, parked near the barn. Jack Collicutt climbed out. Bev sat in the pickup and watched Jack approach. Rolled down the window.
“That’s me,” Bev said.
Jack stopped a few yards from the pickup. “Stay away from Janice,” he said. “She’s not terribly clear these days and is easily influenced.”
Bev waited. When nothing more was offered, he said, “That it?”
“I think that’d be enough.”
“Last I heard, you were married to another woman. Makes no sense why you should be concerned with Janice.”
“Like I said, she’s not at the top of her game. I’m concerned that you’re after more than Janice.”
“I’m not after anything, Mr. Collicutt. You can climb back into your slick car and get off my property.”
Jack looked around. “Tittle-tattle tells me it isn’t your property much longer.”
Bev opened the pickup door and stepped out. Jack moved backwards, palms held out, and then turned and scattered back to his shiny car.
Over the next three days, Bev and a neighbour boy who was all arms and acne rounded up bull calves and together they branded and inoculated and castrated. The skies were clear, the sun shone, the world was endless. During that time, Janice left him three messages that he didn’t reply to. He told himself that he was tired, that his ranch was demanding his time, but he knew Jack’s visit had surprised him. He now saw himself as Jack Collicutt saw him—a bankrupt rancher who had fallen into the arms of a wealthy divorcee. It wasn’t a pretty thought. One night, late, the phone rang and he picked it up. Janice’s voice was soft and happy.
“There you are,” she said, as if they had been playing hide-and-seek.
“What are you doing?”
“Soaking in the tub.”
“Nice. I miss you.”
“You wanna come over?”
“I’m naked as night.”
“Get dressed, come by, and get naked again.”
“I don’t know. I sort of fell off the path and I’m not sure it did me any good.”
“Good? What garbage.”
“You don’t know me at all,” he said.
“I know more than you think I know.”
“Well, put it this way, then. I’d rather you didn’t know all that I think you don’t know.” He paused. “What do you know?”
“That you’re about to lose the ranch.”
“There a sign on my back or something?”
“Jack told me.”
“He informed me of the same.”
“You talked to Jack?”
“He paid me a visit. Warned me to stay away from you.”
“And you’re going to obey him? Get over here, Bev.” She hung up.
He climbed from the tub and shaved, angling his head to catch the dim light above the bathroom mirror. Splashed on aftershave. Dressed. Donned his white suede Sheplers. Stepped outside and smelled the air. A warm wind was blowing from the south. The stars were completely hung.
Going on 3 a.m., they were still talking. He’d told her everything vital about himself. His time in the mental hospital after his tour in Vietnam, the death of his father and mother and how much he missed his mother, his barren marriage, his unkindness to Dorothy when he learned that he was to blame for the lack of children, the money shortage, and his discovery early on in life that hard work kept him sane, even if that same hard work failed to provide him with the means to hang on to the little that he had. He said he lacked generosity. In love, in life, and with himself. He paused, suddenly shy. He had never before spoken so clearly of himself, and his honesty surprised him, and the words and what they meant surprised him as well. He was like the man who wakes from a deep sleep and looks down at his feet and comes to recognize those feet as his own only by addressing them.
They were lying side by side in Janice’s bed. Janice held his hand as he spoke and when he was finished, she said, “You’re way too hard on yourself.”
“I might disagree.”
“Not very bright, then, are you?” She manoeuvred her body on top of his. “Help me here,” she said, and he lifted and pulled until she had settled. Her weight was lovely. Her mouth was strong. Her generous heart.
The following night, alone in his own bed, he dreamed of a dog howling and he woke from a sinister sleep and heard the howling in his yard. He walked naked to the front door and opened it to discover Keller in the driveway howling at the fire that was consuming his stable. He ran for the barn. Blue was circling his pen, snorting and quivering. He laid a gunny sack over his eyes and led Blue out and set him free. He fetched the two remaining horses and then stood at a distance and felt the heat on his face and crotch and arms and he watched the sparks tear off into the night and he listened to the chickens burn. No use in calling the volunteer fire department.
He made sure no sparks came near the house. At some point, he dressed and made himself a cup of coffee and sat on the stoop with Keller, and together they watched the roof cave in. An unholy sound. Keller emitted a forlorn howl. Alley, his calico, appeared and walked a figure eight between his legs. He rubbed her ears. Jonesy, the neighbour to the south, drove up in his pickup and climbed out and asked about the livestock.
“Lost a few chickens. I freed the horses.” Bev waved a hand out toward the road indicating the direction they’d run.
Jonesy rested a boot on the steps. “Any idea how it started?”
“Well, horses don’t start fires.”
“Perhaps electrical,” Jonesy said.
“You don’t think so.”
“No. I don’t.”
“I doubt it, too.” Jonesy went inside and came back out with a coffee. “You have enemies?”
Jonesy lifted an eyebrow.
The insurance man showed up the following day. He’d dragged along a fire inspector from Calgary, and the two of them spent the afternoon going through the rubble. Bev watched them from the kitchen window as they walked in rubber boots around the remnants of the barn. A neighbour five miles east had rounded up his horses and delivered them. He’d put them out to pasture, and that’s where they were now, standing with their rumps against a cold wind. He made coffee, poured two mugs, and carried them out to the men.
“Don’t know if you take cream or sugar,” he said.
“Black’s fine,” said the fire inspector. The insurance man, a thin fellow who when he spoke sounded as if he had stones in his mouth, said he didn’t drink coffee any which way, thanks. And so Bev, who wasn’t given to waste, took it for himself.
According to the inspector, the fire was the result of arson. “Scorch marks indicate an accelerant was used.” When he spoke, he looked at the sky, and because this was so, Bev felt that he was guilty of something.
The insurance man said it would take a while to process the claim. “Police and such will have to be involved,” he said past the stones. Unlike the fire inspector, he looked directly at Bev as he spoke. Bev didn’t turn away.
“How’d you get the horses out in time?” the insurance man asked.
“Dog woke me.”
“Yeah? I didn’t see a dog.”
“She’s a runner. Belongs to a woman I know. She happened to show up last night and went all apeshit. Doesn’t like the smell of smoke.”
“Lucky, then,” the insurance man said. He had a name, but Bev had forgotten it. “Fact is, it all seems terribly convenient, you with money troubles and all.”
“Where’d you get that?”
“My business to know.”
Bev said, “If it’d been me set that fire, I’d have burned the house down.”
The fire inspector thought this was humorous. The insurance man didn’t. Truth was, Bev hadn’t intended to be funny. He was being honest.
He was eager to get his hands on Jack Collicutt, and in his earlier days, when he had been impetuous and full of rage, he would have paid him a visit at his high-school office and threatened him with a branding. Or worse. As it was, he stayed put. He rode Blue bareback out along the south pasture. Vs of geese flew overhead. A great horned owl sat a fence post.
In the early evening, she called. “I heard,” she said.
“That’s quite a dog you have.”
“And quite a man you were married to.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
“Well, you didn’t burn the barn down.”
“You in trouble?”
“Might be.” It was quiet, then he said, “Nothing I can’t handle.”
“You like being a loner, don’t you?”
“A lot less trouble.”
“Yeah, people are no fun, are they.”
“I can help out. It’d please me.”
“Wouldn’t please me,” he said.
“’Course not. You’re a big proud rancher. If it helps, you can pay me back. Or count it as a reward for finding Keller. Who’s still out there somewheres.”
“Engel, and everybody else, they’d see me as your whore.”
“That’s pure mean,” she said.
“Where can this go? Your ex-husband’s a madman, your dog’s out of control, and I’ve got these two-by-tens in the bed of my pickup reminding me you won’t be around much longer.”
“’Course I’ll die. Maybe be dead next year. But right now I’m here. Here I am.”
“You lookin’ to get married?”
“For sure not. Marriage kills your sex life.”
“What do you want, then?”
“Nothing, Bev. Might surprise you, but I want nothing. I’m happy. You gotta figure out what you’re afraid of.”
He sat on the couch before a black TV screen and saw there the faintest reflection of himself. He’d known outright physical terror and fear before and he knew the feeling it evoked, but this was different. This fear was like a heavy ache, and yet there were moments when if he turned his thoughts a certain way, the fear became a peaceful happiness, and he was full of a bright light. It was like flipping a coin that offered two extremes.
And what would Janice say to this? Garbage.
He slept poorly. Kept waking, thinking he could hear Keller scratching at the door. And he rose to check the night, standing naked on the porch in the cold, looking over at the black carcass of the barn. A few times he called out, thinking she might be out there, but she didn’t come.
In the morning, in the first pink light, she was waiting for him on the porch.
This appeared in the July/August 2016 issue.