The Long Forgetting
Past unhorsed present. Her faded image hovered within his sight, looking out at him from a frame tarnished with age and neglect, green eyes seeing nothing yet seeing all, her gaze a perfect retribution, the payment made in years of days, hours, minutes, the shame familiar, wizened, knowing where to prod, a constant reminder of his failings. He hunched up his shoulders against the thought, moving through a house once hers but now his by squatter’s rights, a place of habitation without refuge, of value long forgotten. The kitchen window above the photo rattled before a hot breeze.
Angling toward the front door with his one-sided limp, he stopped and stood idle, staring through the rusted screen at the bright of midday but seeing little, his mind’s eye still caught in a time now beyond reclaiming, loosed to the swirl of time like the coursing wind, capricious and changeable. A sudden cloud passing across the sun cast the room in indigo, pulling him into the moment. Then a car door slammed shut. He took a breath and moved to the entryway, trying to prepare himself while his son’s footsteps sounded on the gravel drive.
Webb looked up as his father stepped through the door and moved to the top stair, his hands in his back pockets, his good eye studying Webb the way it might a horse, sizing him up, looking for weakness, expecting it even. Horses he knew. He’d once had a stable full but gave them up sometime after Webb’s mother left, instead retreating from the world like a spoken word lost to the wind, as closed to his son as a scar-sealed wound. He peered at Webb in his usual way, silent, ineffable.
To Webb’s way of thinking his cloudy eye still seemed the wiser of the two, as if blindness was the price of understanding. In his father’s case, he could believe it. He saw in his son only what he wished to see. He had lost use of the eye to a ricocheted bullet while surveying for rabies down along the Nueces River, south of Crystal City. The authorities guessed he had spooked up some smugglers. Squinting at Webb, he again hunched up his bony shoulders, never taking his hands from his pockets.
-Webb squinted back at him, in no mood to play his game.
What do you have to say, then?
I got nothing. It was you that asked me all the way out here. Or don’t you remember?
Sure I do.
You know, not remembering is what happens when you get on in…
-He poked a gnarled finger into the space between them, glaring at his son.
My memory works good as it always did, if that’s what you’re getting at.
Then why am I here?
I’m not as old as you think. You just believe that way because you’re young and figure you know what’s what. A man who starts thinking he knows it all stops seeing the world as it is.
I never claimed that.
You’ll find out you’re wrong soon enough.
Did you ask me out here just to have someone to argue with, Maves?
-He had started calling his father by his first name after his mother was gone and it was just the two of them in the cramped house. Without her around to keep the peace, Webb slipped into the surly existence of a motherless teenager. He took care of himself and Maves did the same. Most everyone thought his father’s full name was Maverick Van Horn but Webb knew his French grandmother had named her son Mavis, in that language meaning joy. A bitter smile crossed his lips at the thought. Maves looked at him askance.
Did I miss something?
I don’t know, did you?
You’re grinning like a whipped dog.
-Webb lost the smile, knowing his father had more than enough reason for his somber ways. He held up both hands, palms out.
Let’s start again, Maves. Why did you bring me up here?
I suppose the art of having a visit before you get to your point is long gone. People in this day and age just want to get on with it, whatever it happens to be. Well, at my house I’m going to follow what I was taught, so come on in and let’s get us something cold to drink before we set to the matter at hand.
He disappeared through the door. Webb mounted the top stair and hesitated, turning toward the rock-strewn hills, the land below him falling away, stretching southward, vast, formidable, cut by dry wash and arroyo, thick with mesquite and juniper. Further on, the tepid flow of the Rio Grande meandered between sand banks and cane breaks, the strangled river no match for the fuming heat. Further still, the saw tooth line of the Sierra Del Carmen range loomed above the torn horizon, their wildness beyond hope of understanding.
The land still held him even after so long, as if from his mother’s blood some essence of dirt and wind had passed, a dark tincture flowing beneath his skin, restless and unquiet. His father had none of it, instead the cool of stone his sole nomenclature. That Webb’s mother left him at a young age, a boy not yet a man but expected by his father to be so, had always haunted him. The reasons never spoken, he was left to blame them both as the cause, or neither, finally settling on himself, the black bile in his veins then turning white hot, incandescent but for the tight hold of will and effort.
Passing through the doorway, he crossed the creaking floor of the front room before stepping into the small kitchen. The quiet air smelled of dust and camphor. Maves set two bottles on the table, popping them open with a rusted church key and sliding one toward him. Beads of sweat trailed down the brown glass. Maves lifted his beer, taking a long pull as he studied his son, wondering how he would take the news he was about to hear.
He turned his gaze to the window and again considered the chasm between them, tracing the thread of time to where it began, recalling the moment his wife had walked out the door, disgust clear in her eyes, the sting of her ire known then and felt again now as if new. Regret swelled in his throat though the sentiment seemed almost pointless after so long. He turned back to face his son, doing his best to sound friendly.
How is the business? Are you able to break free now and again?
-Webb stared at him for a moment, surprised by his father’s interest, wondering what ulterior motive might be waiting behind the question.
I can get away if I need to.
I’m glad to hear you’re not working yourself to an early grave, Webb.
The truth is the business practically runs itself.
You’re doing alright, then.
Do you have a reason for asking or is this just us visiting?
I admit we haven’t done enough talking between us, or I haven’t anyway. But we’ll have time to catch up while we’re on the road.
Here it comes. What road is that, Maves?
I asked you here because I’d like you to take a trip down south with me, west of the Devil’s River, near Langtry.
You want to take a vacation? If Langtry is your idea of fun, I can think of about a hundred better places to go.
-Maves’ expression turned grave.
There’ll be no fun to it, Webb. An old friend has asked for my help and I mean to do what I can. I’ll go on my own if I have to but I could use a hand. Understand it could get dicey. We’ll be crossing the border and you know the danger down there these days.
Why go across, then?
My friend needs to get out from under trouble and can’t exactly just cross in the normal way.
You’re asking me to help sneak someone across the border, Maves? Do you know what they’ll do if they catch us?
-Maves glared at him.
I spent twenty years patrolling those back roads, remember?
I’m just surprised you’d want to take the chance, knowing what you do.
Then you know I wouldn’t do it unless I had good reason, just like I wouldn’t ask you to take the risk if I didn’t need your help.
-Realizing his father rarely asked for anyone’s help, Webb decided he must go.
Alright then, what’s your plan?
A friend near there has a boat. We’ll put in west of Seminole Canyon at the western edge of the park. There’s a spot upriver from the lake that’s fairly narrow but deep enough for a boat. At least, I believe it is. I guess we’ll find out one way or the other when we get there. If it all works out, we’ll pick up my friend and hightail it back across before the Border Patrol gets wind of us.
When is all this supposed to happen?
We’re due to meet up this evening and cross a little after midnight.
-Webb tilted his head back, draining his beer. He set the bottle aside and leaned toward his father, a smirk on his face.
You’re mighty sure of yourself, counting on me to just drop everything and get myself down here on the spur of the moment.
-Maves shook his head.
I know it’s sudden and all but I had no choice in the matter. The clock is ticking and time is running short.
Why is that?
My friend needs to get out soon. That’s all I know.
Then we best get on with it.
-Maves stood and peered out the window, his scarecrow form silhouetted by the noonday light.
The truck is out back. Throw your bag in the bed. I packed us a lunch so we can eat on the way.
-Webb peeked through the blinds.
You sure you want to take that old dog? My car will be more comfortable.
I’m sure. We’ll be glad for that pickup before we’re done.
-Maves ran a hand through his thinning hair, knowing his deceit, trying to remind himself of the necessity, hoping his son would forgive him of it and more when the time came. The tattered photograph of Webb’s mother peered out at him from atop the mahogany bureau, the burn of judgment still in her eyes. He paused in the doorway, the past again stirring within him like an illness, recurring and malarial. Grabbing a small ice chest from the counter, he turned and stepped through.