Joyland

The Midwest |

Care

by Tim Raymond

Mom told me before she died to go to Jake’s house if I ever got into trouble. So, that’s where I’m going. I’m not sure Mom would call this trouble. I have my car and a bag full of clothes and my laptop. I have a little money. When I arrive, Jake hugs me and welcomes me inside. He says, “How about this view?” It’s not the view so much as it’s the general scenery that the view hints at. If you look out of his front window, you just see brown plains. Near the plains are some nice hills. Out there is a great patch of trees: cotton, I would think. Upstairs, Jake shows me the office he built, then the guestroom, which will be mine. I haven’t seen the house since I was a kid coming out to visit Aunt Lucy and Uncle Red. And their boy Jake. He says, “Jesus Christ, the times,” and I can’t help agreeing.

I spend the night just getting myself set up in the large room. It’s quiet. Instead of neighbors, Jake has wind. I never thought I would miss Wyoming. I didn’t, until I was driving south into it. I expected to see more cows while heading past Sheridan. Instead, I saw a flea market and a bunch of abandoned trailers stacked one above another on a hillside. There were animals around, dogs and pigs, even a goat. Jake says that a woman lives there among the heap. People usually stop and take pictures of her, which gets her screaming. “Did you do that?” he asks. Obviously, I didn’t. I wouldn’t, even if I had a camera. I don’t even have a phone.

“Why you didn’t call first,” Jake points out.

A few days in, we get to hiking around. Jake’s property is small. Aunt Lucy and Uncle Red are buried somewhere on it. I was told that by Mom. Jake doesn’t seem to want to show me where. First, we hike around his plains. There’s a stream on his land. You can skip on rocks across it. Second, we get in his truck and drive along county roads to check out some of the ranches. This is where the cows are. I ask more about the woman with the trailers and find out that she had horses once, but she underfed them and they died. Jake adds that this is the general story, and that he doesn’t believe it. Jake isn’t likeable, exactly, but he is logical. I believe he is intelligent. He says, “Tell me she didn’t sell them for food, all right? You think she has a kitchen in that pile?”

I tell him I hadn’t thought about whether she had a kitchen and that’s the truth of it.

Jake has an office because he manages some of the leasing for the ranchlands. He hardly ever spends time in there, as far as I can tell. For him, working seems to be driving around and talking to people. He wears jeans and a sweatshirt when he goes out.

The house is nicer than I remember it. The water tastes good. We grill a lot of meat. One time, Jake goes fishing and we have fish. One day, Jake comes in with bruises and cuts all over his knuckles. He says he saw a moose. “And?” I say. But he says he just saw it.

There is a famous novelist living about 15 minutes away from Jake’s house. Jake asks if I want to meet him. But I had to be told that he is famous. “Excuse me for thinking an English teacher would know about bestsellers,” Jake says.

At night, I lie in bed and think about trees. Uncle Red used to tell this story about eagles killing the antelope by dive-bombing them, so the antelope stopped coming around. I can’t seem to find any antelope when I go walking. I think one afternoon that I want to go fishing, but as soon as I get to the water, I change my mind. I hear the wind and the water moving over rocks and decide that it’s too embarrassing to have any memories about anything. The sun looks like an old stone. Jake only puts salt on his beef, which I think about fairly often.

One morning, I hear a clonking sound coming from the shed on the side of the house. Jake and I have not talked about the shed, because it is a shed. He is in Buffalo meeting with an electrician about something that has nothing to do with his own house. Up close, the sound is like a hammer repeatedly falling onto other hammers. I want to go inside, but the truth is that I’m afraid of what spiders may be lurking in there. I have always been scared of spiders, ever since I woke up to one slowly descending onto my bed. I was given the basement bedroom when I was a kid, even though there was another room upstairs. The spider-thing is one of my more human qualities, because no matter how little sense it makes, I can’t get past my gut reaction. They put fire in me.

I think about it and put on more clothes and a hat and gloves and then try the shed again. The sound is louder now. There is a lock on the door, but the key is dangling from a string roped around a nail sticking halfway out of the door. I miss Wyoming immensely. I open the door and wait as a warm wind exits. It is dark inside. The sound has stopped. I go in and the door swings shut behind me and then there is a light blooming from nowhere, the way I imagine an idea is born inside your brain. The light fills the windowless shed and I am staring at the back of a woman, who is rearranging the tools on the wall. The shed seems much bigger than the exterior would suggest.

I have a small attack and cough and the woman turns around and it is Mom. I have a bigger attack and back up into the door, which opens. As soon as it opens, the shed goes dark again and I can’t see anything in there but shadows.

“Hello?” I say, but it’s honestly just the shadows.

I don’t go back inside the shed. Instead, I lie on the floor of the living room and try not to stop breathing. I have to pee over and over again. My stomach hurts. I have a memory of teaching in the city and I feel embarrassed. I vomit. When Jake gets home, he asks if I was bitten. He kneels next to me and checks my ankles. “By what?” I say. Then Jake understands. I ask him why he didn’t lock the shed and then hide the key. He asks, “Oh, are you over that shit with the spiders?”

“I’m serious,” I say.

“Who’s going to sneak in?” he says.

He says, “The wind?”

“Am I crazy?” I ask him. He shakes his head and sits on his butt on the floor. I want him to look at me like I’ve finally gone the way I’m sure they all thought I would. I want him to get serious and tell me it’s going to be fine, but in a tone so that I know he’s lying. Anyway, he looks calm, almost relieved. He is happy to share this thing with someone. Family, no less. He says that a few months ago he was walking by the stream with his rod and the tackle box when suddenly he spotted some guy washing his hands in the water. Jake ran up to the guy ready to unleash the hard questions. He squeezed his hands into fists. And then the guy was Jake’s father, my uncle. Jake says, “He was just standing there. A few hours later, I woke up in the stream. I’d rolled down into it. Dad was gone. I was all cut up on my face from the spinners falling out of the box. I lost a few.”

Uncle Red wasn’t gone. Jake had just rolled out of the zone where magic is possible. Jake keeps reminding me that it’s magic. He asks if I know another word to describe it. All I can think is “crazy.” He says I’m not. He says, “Come on,” and we go outside and get in the truck and drive awhile out on the highway toward Sheridan. We get off on a county road a few miles before the lady with the trailers and circle back in the direction of Jake’s property. We’re on a ridge and we can see things. Jake parks and points at a barn situated below a hill. “Between that barn and the hill is a hole in the earth like God came in with a God-sized knife,” Jake says. Neither of us believes in God. Jake says, “Scientists called it a landslide. I’m surprised you didn’t hear about it. People called it amazing. It was on the internet all over.”

“Is it amazing?”

“You look down into it and you just see darkness.”

“They let you look inside?”

“Who?” Jake says. He tells me there are probably zones all over. He wonders how many of the ranchers have experienced the magic, and then just kept it secret because this is Wyoming and who’s going to talk to anybody about it? I want to know how many zones have been created on Jake’s land, and he says it’s just the two that he’s found: the shed and that spot by the stream. I feel like he should have warned me before leaving me alone to do whatever and wander wherever. “What if the dogs run into it?” I ask him. Jake doesn’t even have dogs. I don’t have any idea why I said it. He gives me the look that I was waiting for, the one where he does a bad job assuring me it’ll work out. We go back home and silently clean the vomit and the urine from his floor.

It hits me the next day that Jake has been hanging out with his dead father all this time. Some of the times that he told me he was hiking or fishing were in fact just times he was going to meet Uncle Red. He asks who I saw and I tell him. I say, “Do you see other people?”

“Not that I’ve experienced,” he says. And here’s the funny part, the part I can’t really comprehend, because it seems to be a level beyond magic. It seems to be a joke. When Jake sees his father in the shed, the man is working. When Jake sees his father by the stream, he is playing. There is a clear separation of work and play. The zones have rules. I am overwhelmed with meaning. But this is Wyoming, I think. Jake finishes his coffee and encourages me to do two things: sleep, then go see my mother again, in either one, or both, of the zones.

I try, anyway. I can’t sleep. I walk along the stream and wait for Mom to show up. I wonder how she will be playing. What she will be doing. Playing is not how I remember her. I remember her working. I remember her telling me not to be cold. I remember her saying, “It’s going to rain.” Dad wasn’t a piece of shit, but he wasn’t much of anything. Mom taught me there’s no use in splitting hairs. Sometimes, she had a few beers and got rosy. She used to like to cook spaghetti. It was delicious.

Jake didn’t give me good directions for where the zone is, so I don’t see Mom playing. I marvel at how calm Jake has been. I have it in my head that loneliness is fatal. I don’t see how the zones make him anything but more lonely. And yet, he’s grounded by his usual logic. For this reason, everyone is fine with him. At the shed, I finger the key and wait so long that the sun gets covered by some clouds. The day is windless. I don’t believe in signs. It might be Friday the 13th. I knew it was coming.

Before I’m aware of it, I’m in the shed and it’s lit up and Mom is wearing a scarf that I’ve never seen before. “Teachers getting thrown out on their asses and you decide you want to let them off the hook and quit,” she says. “This wasn’t what I meant by trouble.”

“Mom,” I say.

“Get over it,” she says. “Look at me.” And then she slaps my face. It is the first time since I was a child. I want to say that I didn’t quit, but of course I did.

“Are you all right?” she says.

“Did I die?”

“No, I did,” she says.

“I left you flowers and a poem,” I tell her. It seems like she knows. This is her working, cleaning the shed and, apparently, sharpening tools. She has a space set up for sewing. There is a box full of coins. Mom was a cashier once, though not for very long. I don’t know what to say, so I say, “What’s it like?” because I am an idiot. She tells me it’s like the time I got chicken pox and had to lie in the bathtub naked while she put soapy washcloths on my back, then on my stomach, then on my back again. I remember that because I used to play a game in the tub, with the washcloths, like I was getting ready to go to school. I can’t recall the rules of the game. I know a little of what Mom means.

“Leave me alone now,” she says. I protest, but she slaps me again, and then I’m stumbling backward and out the door. The shadows descend. I stand up and think about what the chances are that Mom will remember this interaction should I enter the shed again. I wonder if we’ll just start over. I can’t tell which would be the sadder reality.

That night, Jake says, “It’s random. Sometimes, Dad remembers. Sometimes, he doesn’t.”

“How in the world is that fair?” I want to know.

Jake says, “The work and play are separated.” But Jesus Christ, that again? A few days pass and I feel like I’ve lost weight. I suggest we buy a dog because I don’t know how else to process what is happening. Jake is kind when he says no, by which I mean he does not remind me that I came to him not even a month ago. We’re not in any way living together or collaborating on something. It’s his house and his land and I’m just his older cousin who sort of messed up, albeit not enough to curse when I admit to it. We both know that I’m not going to be around for any extended period of time. I understand this and it makes me miss Mom more than I already do.

The next time Jake comes in with cuts on his hand, I realize that there was no moose. I realize just how bad that first lie was. And I ask why they were fighting, but Jake won’t tell me.

He agrees to show me where the zone by the stream is. It’s under the lip of a small hill and sheltered from the wind and any cows that might be looking on from behind the fence a hundred or so yards out. There’s no reason to go down there, not even a good fishing hole. I understand why I didn’t stumble into it before. Jake says it’s small and to go on already. I’m curious whether Jake will see Mom, as well, but from a distance. Jake is not curious. He says it’s my thing and he has no interest in introducing me to his father. “I hope you weren’t hoping,” he says. I guess I was not hoping. I have not had time enough to sort through what discoveries are and begin the process of hoping. Jake says, “I’ll be at home.”

The irony of Wyoming is that often there is no place to hide, and when I enter the zone I find Mom kneeling by the stream to catch minnows. I cry. The tears are immediate and large. Mom releases the minnows and walks over to me and slaps my face. “Do you remember when you and Grant used to steal blocks from the garage and throw them in the river?” she says.

“Yes,” I say.

“I didn’t say anything before, partly because I didn’t know at the time, and partly because it was adorable, but that was a total waste.” I can’t see how it was wasteful. Mom used to leave them piled up in the corner of the garage. “Do you remember how you idiots used to take the cans out of the trash and drink the last of whatever beer was in there?” she asks me.

“Yes,” I say. I am crying. It is ugly. Mom does not slap me. She kicks some rocks into the stream. We let the time pass.

“How did you know I quit my job?” I say.

“It’s all over your face.”

“Is this the only place you can go?”

“Is this the only place you can?”

There are billions of people alive and hundreds of billions who were alive and are now dead. If I went into a different zone on someone else’s property, would I see someone else? If someone else came into this zone, would they see whichever person? Would a person from Korea be able to lie down by this water and talk to their mother, too? If I went into the hole in the ground between the barn and the hill, would I fall forever, or just enough to kill me? “Do you see Uncle Red?” I ask. Mom shakes her head. My entire life, I have been asking the wrong questions.

When I leave, Mom is not sad or hurt or even affected. She vanishes plainly. I walk backwards until I can’t see the water anymore, then I turn around and walk forwards. At home, I pull out my laptop for the first time since arriving at Jake’s, and what I do is connect to the internet and watch porn until I stop feeling ashamed of myself. I am 30 years old.

The next time, I spend hours deciding whether I want to see Mom in the shed or by the stream. I go for the stream just for the sake of even numbers. I bring her a cake that I bought in Buffalo in the early morning. Mom looks at it for a second and then throws it into the stream. “You better clean that box and shit up,” she says. “You asshole.” I chase the box as it floats away. I leave the zone and Mom disappears without me realizing that’s what chasing the stream means. I don’t go back to see her, at least not right away. I track down the box and wet my legs up to my knees and then feel like I’m freezing to death. I go back to the house and take a shower. I masturbate while showering and honestly can’t figure out why. I don’t care to linger on it. The truth is that I want Mom to be happy, but she is a dead person. It occurs to me that what we’re doing, what Jake and me and whoever else with zones are doing, is returning to these people to show them that what they have left behind are folks who can’t live on their own. Some legacy. If I could live on my own, I would have a house on the plains, too. I would have my name on a lease. I would update my insurance.

If Mom were not a woman, I might hit her. But she is a woman. And she is a mother. She is my mother. I do not judge Jake for anything he has done in his life.

He says, “Is it going well?”

“I don’t get why you keep going out there,” I say.

“Different strokes,” he says, but I suspect it’s more than that. We are eating steaks that were a gift from one of the ranchers Jake works with. The meat is so tender and delicious that I feel weak. I don’t have any idea what to do with my life. Jake is cutting his steak with such expert knowledge and skill. I am scraping at the fat. My knife squeaks against my plate. The whole house is filled with the sound and I am aware of nothing except my dislike for it. There is whiskey in at least two cupboards in the kitchen. I do not have the constitution for it. In the morning, I head towards Sheridan with the notion that Mom deserves something that holds meaning. I don’t know what that is until I pass by the woman with the trailers and see all of her animals. I park next to a series of mailboxes across the street from her and walk over to the woman’s fence. She runs down the hill screaming at me. I can’t tell what she’s saying until she’s close enough that I can make out her features: the bad teeth, the bags under her eyes, the inexplicably beautiful hair. I hold up my hands to show her that I don’t have a camera, and then she calms down. But she’s still not interested in who I am. I tell her I live nearby and ask her what her pig’s name is. “Fuck you,” she says.

“Do you have any puppies?” I ask.

Just like that, I’ve got a dog in my arms, for free, because the woman believes that the world is a terrible place for animals now. But when it comes down to it she trusts someone who lives nearby, someone who has a house with space to run around in. I imagine the woman slipping into a zone and suddenly riding a horse, the one that she sold or that died, whatever. Her goat ambles up to me and I don’t feel like I need to touch it. I can tell that this pleases the woman. She says the dog’s name is Mort and that he is a collie. Mort is ugly, even as a puppy. The woman thanks me. I think for a second that nobody understands anything or anyone else, not until the person or thing is smashed into your cheekbone. Then still. “Do you have a kitchen?” I ask her, and she doesn’t even pretend to care.

I still have to go to Sheridan, so I do, to buy dog food and a collar. I drive by a veterinarian, but don’t end up stopping. I have to get gas, and do, and then I’m back at Jake’s house cleaning up Mort’s urine and listening to his nails scrape against the wooden floors. When it comes to barking, he is as quiet as a mouse. I love listening to him say nothing. That night, while Jake is at home, I store Mort in my room, where he is quiet enough, though he pees all over the floor and the bed. I throw the blankets and sheets in the closet and turn the mattress over and sleep on that. Mort threads himself between my legs. He pees again. Then he poops. In the morning, Jake cooks eggs and bacon and I know Mort can smell it, too, because he is whining some by the door. I do not let him out. I leave water in a cup by the window and go down to eat. Jake and I eat together mostly silently, except for some chitchat. The famous novelist has some deal in the works to turn his series of Westerns into a TV show for AMC. Jake is not happy about it. He asks me what I think. I say I think it’s great that Wyoming will be on TV. Jake says, “Every summer some fans show up in an RV and ask around for this guy’s address. He welcomes his fans.” I think that’s great. Jake thinks the RVs are a bad sign. Of what, he doesn’t say.

Jake goes and I spend an hour preparing laundry and cleaning up the piss and shit. I feed Mort the dog food and then cook him some bacon. He is in love with it. I take him outside and let him run around, which is a mistake because when I want him to settle down and come back to me, he decides that it’s game time. He sticks his butt up into the air. He barks. It is the first time I hear it and it makes me feel embarrassed. I give up on him and come back inside to grab the cup of bacon grease by the sink. I bring it back outside intending to lure Mort in, but then he is waiting by the door. For a second, I believe that parenting is the easiest job in the world. Then I scold myself for such bad thinking. I get on a roll and scold myself for all my mistakes. I know this is a useless thing to do. But Jake must know about Mort. He is not stupid. He can smell the dog. My room reeks like a toilet. And the hair on the floor. It reminds me of Jake’s lie about the moose. Moose on the plains. I’ve been gone from Wyoming for too long. We are telling lies for good reasons, but good reasons do not equate to skill. Mort is chasing a bird now.

I do get him collared and then we’re standing in front of the shed. Mort is wagging his tail because he is outside and that’s all that life is to him. Inside the shed, he starts sniffing. The door shuts and the light blooms and then Mom is screaming at me for buying a thing that I obviously can’t take care of, and not just because I’m jobless and without savings. Didn’t I learn when I was a kid? She doesn’t care that I’m not married. She cares that I’ve never been close. She cares that I lived alone without really wanting to. It’s true: it is nice knowing that someone else is asleep in the next room.

I say, “The dog was free.”

She says, “Jesus Christ,” which is a new phrase for her. I think of the hole in the ground between the barn and the hill.

Mort doesn’t seem to be aware of Mom. The puzzle fills up with more riddles. A puzzle that is a clear picture only when the riddles are in the right order. And the right order does not equate to answers. Only a clearer question. In a way, life is what’s in the shed. But this metaphor changes depending on whether the door is open or closed.

A few minutes pass and then I leave. I lock Mort inside. At first, he is calm. By the time I get to the house, he is barking. Howling, in fact. I let him tire himself out while I put the wet sheets into the dryer.

It is late afternoon and Mort is mad at me. So is Jake, because of Mort. We’re all in the living room airing our grievances. I have disrespected someone’s home. I have no excuses. I think Jake has disrespected something much larger than home, but I have no evidence of this. I certainly can’t explain it. And I’ve been in and out of zones just as consistently as he has. Mort pees and Jake laughs, but not because it’s funny. I want a home, but that would require making choices based on not wanting to be selfish. And I am a big, selfish asshole, just like Mom said.

I give up, though not in a serious way. About a week passes, and then Jake heads out to the shed. I don’t think it’s because of Uncle Red. Jake likes the stream more than he likes the shed. I’m pretty sure that Jake needs his axe. While he’s in there, with the door open, I sidle up and listen to him grunting. I don’t care about anything or anyone. That’s not true. I care too much, and that’s the problem. I charge into the shed and pull the door shut behind me. Jake is startled and hits his head on a tool. He says, “What the fuck?” The light has bloomed and then Mom and Uncle Red are standing there holding hands. Mom is in a wedding dress, but not the one I’ve seen in pictures. No one is saying anything. Jake walks over and punches his father in the face. Mom slaps Jake and then Jake comes and punches me in the mouth and Uncle Red says, in a voice that’s not his own, “Boys, you best get serious.” I have to wonder if the zones all this time have been about our desires or our fears or both. Neither Jake nor I had a brother. In the shed, we seem to be brothers. Uncle Red is dressed in camo and a bright orange hunting cap. He grabs Jake and me by our ears and says something in a language I don’t understand. It’s all nonsense. How much should we care? “Let me cook you something,” Mom says. She puts some wrenches and screwdrivers in Uncle Red’s hat and shakes the hat around like it’s a frying pan. I believe that death is what happens when your desires are exactly the same as someone else’s. I never thought of love like that before. Jake looks at me like I’m someone who’s watching him choke to death. I do not like this look and I suddenly do not like Jake at all. I want all of his money so that I don’t have to see him again. I am the most embarrassed I have ever been in my life.

Finally, Jake pushes me out through the door. I fall backward onto the ground and feel a very intense pain on the back of my neck. I make a noise because of the pain. Jake mumbles something and turns me over and says, “Fuck,” and looks around on the ground for something. He pounds his boot into the earth, then looks again, then pounds his boot onto a rock. He walks into the house and comes out with a cup, into which he scrapes what turns out to be a recluse’s smashed body. “We’re going to Buffalo,” Jake tells me.

I feel nauseated and weak as we wait at the doctor’s office. No one anywhere is talking. The doctor takes a look at the spider and the wound and washes the wound and then prescribes some antibiotics. He suggests not going anywhere for a bit. He says, “Could be more than a month until it heals completely. Watch it. Make sure the flesh doesn’t necrotize.” For all I know, this doctor has a zone in the middle of his living room, and he’s been talking to his dead wife every night. I see a sparkle in his eyes. I know it could be the poison in my blood clouding me. I know too that it could be the doctor’s dead wife clouding his judgment.

“You want me to look at that jaw, too?” he says.

“No.”

“And your eye?” he asks Jake.

“No.”

More than a month. In the car, Jake and I keep silent. He paid for the antibiotics. At home, I get Mort and go to my room and shut the door. I do not feel embarrassed. I think about what Mom meant when she said “trouble.” All the trouble seems to be at home. Jake would agree, I imagine. For years, I was a teacher: of kids. It’s so absurd that I laugh out loud. I laugh so loudly and hysterically that Mort begins to talk at me. He does that thing dogs do, to imitate humans. He imitates me and I imitate him. I am crying from laughing so hard. A teacher. Jake comes in and wonders if I’m all right. He sees me laughing. He starts laughing. Mort is overcome with happiness. And then he pees.

And then that night it snows.