Kent Nelson

The Graceless Age

        These days are fast, nothing lasts, in this graceless age.
                  
—Bon Jovi

Anson Hempkin believed in Jesus Christ, and every night, while Faye put the kids to bed, he got down on his knees and prayed to the plastic statue on top of his television set. He prayed his roofing company would prosper, the weather would be good, and Enrique and Pablo would show up for work. He prayed the city council would grant a variance for the megahouse on the bluff, the roof for which he had a contingent contract. He prayed for his children’s welfare and Faye’s, and that she would lose weight. He prayed he wouldn’t get caught marking up shingles and tar, charging transport fees he’d have had to pay anyway, and taking questionable tax write-offs. He prayed the NRA would protect his right to own the 30.06 Remington in the den and the .38 Special he kept loaded in the pantry.
    Anson considered himself a semi-outlaw, though he knew this was the New West, Cheyenne, Wyoming, to be exact, where there were building inspectors, tax auditors, and sheriff ’s deputies. While he was praying, the TV was on, though the sound was muted, and images of exotic women on Desperate Housewives flickered on the screen. He hadn’t yet bought a plasma set, so the Jesus statue had a prominent place among the photographs of the children, Gary and Lynette, now eight and ten, propped up in their kid-made frames.
    It was a Wednesday evening, eight thirty, and Faye was rumbling down the plush-carpeted stairs. Anson rose from his knees, settled into the recliner, and changed the channel to Dancing with the Stars. “Hey, sweetheart,” he said. “Your show is on.”
    Faye stood in the doorway in her blue robe. Her hair was washed and wet, her face devoid of the usual streaks and blurs of makeup. “Gary’s worried about the bears,” she said. “Will you talk to him?”
    “It’s hard to tell whether these people are dancing or fucking ” Anson said. “I hate that.”
    “Lynette’s asleep. Don’t wake her.”
    “I put the lid on the trash can,” Anson said. “What’s he want me to do, pick all the plums?”
    Faye sat on the sofa. “They’re dancing,” she said. “Reassure him. Tell him there aren’t any bears.”
    Anson went to the kitchen, got a Coors from the fridge, and pffted it open. The backyard beyond the window was dark, but in the ring of gray TV light fracturing through the sliding door, he didn’t see any bears. There were Faye’s beloved flowers—he never knew what kind—and beyond them the clothesline, Gary’s bike, and two plum trees with almost-ripe fruit. Far in back was the fence, courtesy of a garage-roof-for-a-fence trade with Randy, the handyman next door. If the bears wanted the plums, a fence wouldn’t stop them.
    Anson climbed the stairs and set his beer on the top step. Gary’s room was to the right. “You in here?” Anson asked into the darkness.
    “Duh,” Gary said.
    “Your mother said you were having a problem.”
    “I’m all right.”
    “You want a glass of water?”
    “I was thinking about the bears,” Gary said.
    “Those big ferocious critters? Don’t you worry. They’re going to hibernate pretty soon, and we won’t see them till spring.”
    “But they haven’t hibernated yet.”
    “No, right now they’re eating as much as they can, so if they find a couple of careless kids wandering in the neighborhood—”
    “Dad, come on.”
    “You’re not careless, Gary, except when you leave your bike out.”
    “I don’t want bears in the yard,” Gary said.
    “I looked,” Anson said. “There isn’t a single one, not yet. And bears don’t eat bikes, so you’re lucky there.”
    “Why do you always tease?” Gary asked.
    “Never say always,” Anson said. “If the bears got into the yard and ate a few plums, what does that hurt? Nothing and nobody.”
    “What if they get into the garage? The garage door doesn’t work. They could get into the garage and then into the house.”
    “There isn’t any food in the garage, but I’ll tell you what. I’ll close the garage door. Will that work for you? And we can pray to Jesus the bears don’t get into the house by the back door. Have you prayed to Jesus?”
    “I did already.”
    “Then what do you say we call it a night? You have school tomorrow.” Anson slid out of the door and closed it not quite, recovered his beer, and treaded down the stairs. Music was rising from the den. At the bottom of the stairs, he paused and drank a long gulp from his can, two long gulps. “Honey, I’m going over to Imre’s to shoot pool.”
    There was no answer.
    “You hear me, sweetheart?”
    “I thought you were going to do those mailings for the church.”
    “They aren’t due out till Friday.”
    “Don’t stay late,” Faye said. “I have to be at the office at seven, so you have to get the kids off.”
    “If you need me, call,” Anson said.
    Again no answer, and Anson was out the side door into the garage. He backed his truck out—his baby, a Dodge Ram with “A-1 Roofing—We Can Top That” painted on the doors—and let it idle while he yanked down the garage door. “Jesus, spare me,” he said. “Don’t say I never did my kids any favors.”

It was a drought year, and berries and roots were scarce, so bears had come down out of the Medicine Bow Forest right into the suburbs of Cheyenne. They marauded trash cans mostly, an occasional Dumpster, and ate the fruit of whatever trees were handy. Several people in Anson’s neighborhood had complained to the sheriff, who put the onus to do something on the Division of Wildlife. But what could the government do about the bears’ food supply? The previous Sunday the pastor at Anson’s church had reminded people that some of God’s creatures could be dangerous. “Cover your trash,” the preacher said, “and deliver us from evil.”
    Of course, not everyone went to church. The neighborhood where Anson lived—Prairie View—was a sixty-year-old subdivision with mostly cheap houses, but the fruit trees had grown up—apple, plum, apricot, cherry—and, because people watered them, they were producing fruit. Anson backed out of his driveway and made a circuit around the block and down the alley, but he didn’t encounter any bears.
    He turned back onto Orion and passed his own house again, nothing special there, and drove to the main exit from Prairie View, where there was a branch bank on one corner and a church on the other. He turned into the church parking lot and gunned the truck around back, where, the summer before, he’d found a naked couple going at it full-tilt-boogie on the hood of a Subaru. No such luck tonight, though. It was too chilly. He wheeled around and pointed his index finger at the Jesus above the door of the church. “Stay with me, old buddy,” Anson said, and he squealed the truck onto the highway.
    It was four miles into town, and the halo of lights glowed above the horizon. Anson imagined the shimmering strips of intersecting Interstates 80 and 25, the exit at College, the industrial park where his business was, and beyond that the bars and strip clubs where outlaws and foreigners and college kids were making their best efforts to sin.
    Imre lived a mile down in the Lazy J Trailer Court, and Anson turned in there. He passed the office and obeyed the ten-mile-an-hour speed limit until he reached Imre’s double-wide. He knew Imre wasn’t home, but in case Faye asked, Anson made a few observations. Sybil, in the turquoise single-wide, had her lights on, there was an ATV and a Ski-Doo parked by the trailer opposite, and there were no cavorting bears.
    There were other places to play pool besides Imre’s—the Crazy Eight, Joe Q’s, Jacking the Box, to name three—but Anson had lost interest in pool. Not that he’d planned anything else in particular, not that he ever planned what he was going to do next. Outlaws calculated their opportunities on the spur of the moment, and Anson was restless, ready to do whatever presented itself. Fortunately the banks were closed; unfortunately the bars were open.
    Anson had never been much in the looks department and didn’t have surplus dollars, either, so to create attention he had to improvise. He could tell a joke or do a card trick, and he could recite the lyrics of every single Willie Nelson song, but women didn’t give a shit about Willie anymore, even in Cheyenne. Not that he made a habit of flirting. He didn’t like rejection. Sure, now and then he threw money at a college football bet or a local poker tournament or he wasted a twenty on bingo at the Elks, but mostly he was an okay provider. He didn’t mind going out with Faye, either—he didn’t actively avoid it—but going out with his wife wasn’t the same as going out alone, like tonight, when he had the imaginary freedom he pretended he wanted.
    He drove along darkened pastureland sprinkled with pole lights and onto the strip where he cruised by a couple of bars, looking for pickup trucks he recognized—Imre’s, say, or Lannie Metzger’s. Lannie was in his church, was recently divorced, and had the same Dodge Ram, except green instead of maroon. It was Wednesday, though, and not many people went out on a Wednesday, except the bears.

Faye woke at 1:17 on the red numbers, and Anson was not in bed. That wasn’t like him. When he went out, he was usually home by eleven, maybe midnight if he went out with Imre on a Saturday night. She sat up. That bastard was the first thing she thought.
    She got up, found her cell phone, and padded to the bathroom. She sat, peed, and punched in Anson’s number. Of course the slimeball wasn’t going to answer. She had Imre’s number in her contact list too, and she pressed that next.
    “Yeah, what?” Imre said when he answered, none too pleased.
    “Where is he?” Faye asked.
    “Who?” Imre asked.
    “He said he was going to your house to play pool.”
    “I got rid of my table three months ago,” Imre said. “Too much riffraff. Come on, Faye. I have to work tomorrow.”
    “So do I. So does Anson.”
    “I was in Joe Q’s tonight, and he wasn’t there. Besides, if I knew where he was, I couldn’t tell you. You know that.”
    “Shithead,” Faye said. “Thanks a lot for nothing.”
    “Up yours.”
    Faye closed her phone and flushed the toilet and then heard grunting noises in the backyard. She went to the window but couldn’t see anything. The city was opposed to have put lights in the alley, but it hadn’t, and the yard was dark. She opened the window, and the sounds stopped.
    She checked on the children, a peek in. Lynette was sleeping on her back and snoring, and Gary, bless his heart, was askew in his bed with the covers twisted in his hands. Faye reorganized him, and he stirred. “It’s snowing,” he said.
    “It’s not snowing, sweetheart,” Faye said. “Everything is okay.” Gary sat up. “What’s today?”
    “Technically it’s Thursday. You have school in a few hours.” Faye laid him back on his pillow and sang a couple of verses of “Momma, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”
    “I saw the end,” Gary said.
    “The end of what?”
    “I’m glad it’s Thursday.”
    “Go to sleep, darling,” Faye said.
    “Where’s Daddy?”
    She patted him and sang another verse, and when he didn’t stir, she went downstairs and got the .38 Special from behind the canisters on the pantry shelf. Then she turned on the light over the patio, slid open the glass door, and looked out into the yard. The plum tree came alive, the leaves and fruit shaking like the fever, and two pairs of eyes shone from the darkness—raccoons. Faye went outside, and the animals flailed out of the leaves, and in thirty seconds, they’d skedaddled over the fence and were gone.
    Faye went back inside and pondered which bars Anson might be at. They all closed at two. She wasn’t worried about other women, really. Not Anson. He was all bullshit and no action—though it unnerved her to think she could be mistaken. Who else to call? Lannie Metzger, the sheriff, the state patrol, the hospital? She was more worried about tomorrow—her lack of sleep, his not getting the children to school, not to mention the money they’d lose if he didn’t work.
    It had been her goal, not Anson’s, to get married. Twelve years ago, she’d been working in the one-woman office of Allied Energy, typing up field reports and filing documents with government agencies. Most of the men were geologists, field engineers, or greasers, many of them married to women out of state. They hadn’t minded a bathroom fuck once in a while—she hadn’t, either—but her long-term prospects with any of them was zero or minus zero. Beyond work, her parents’ church threatened to absorb her life, which was why a little sin here and there was a good thing, reminding her she was alive and had other work besides being a missionary. One day Allied contracted for a new building for its equipment, and Anson was doing the roof—a simple tar job. He was there every day for two weeks, punctual, a roofer, but who cared, if he had a paycheck? Six months later they were married, and she was pregnant with Lynette.
    Now she had more or less what she wanted—a house, a flower garden, and two children she adored most of the time, though Lynette could be a little bitch, and Gary was a weenie. Anson came home smelling like shingles and tar paper, beer and sweat, depending on the season, but at least he came home and was a churchgoer, though she was suspect sometimes about his devotion to the Lord. During hymns he sang loudest, and he prayed loudest, too, as if he were adamant about being a better person, which meant he wasn’t good enough to start with.
    She sat in the living room and thumbed through the Bible without being able to put her mind to a particular passage that applied—repent, the sinner? The parable of the lost soul? The wanderer in the desert? She was in the midst of this pondering when the phone in the kitchen rang. It was 1:52 am.
    She and Anson used cell phones, and the land line never rang except for the children’s calls. She had to get up to answer. “Faye Henkin?” the voice said.
    “Where is he?” Faye asked. “That bastard, is he dead?”
    “This is Deputy Reichel over at the sheriff ’s office,” the man said. “No, he isn’t dead. You are listed in his wallet as the contact person.”
    “He’s in the hospital, is that it? God, with the insurance and all, that’s worse.”
    “He’s not in the hospital,” Deputy Reichel said. “Will you let me finish? He’s all right. We have him down here at the jail. He wants you to post bail. Will you do that?”
    “Post bail for what? What’d he do?”
    “We was arresting in a sting,” the deputy said. “For soliciting.”
    “Soliciting what?” Faye asked. “I’ll bet he wasn’t handing out church literature.”
    “No, ma’am.” There was a pause on the line, and the deputy coughed. “I don’t know if you want to hear the details. Are you two still married?”
    “With two kids,” Faye said.
    “You know what a glory hole is?” the deputy asked.
    Faye didn’t say anything for a moment. “No, I don’t want to post bail.”
    “That’s fine,” the deputy said. “Don’t blame you a bit. Leastways you know where he is.”
    “Tell that asshole to get in touch with Jesus,” Faye said, and she hung up.
    She eased herself down on one of the kitchen barstools. The world of Anson’s unknown whereabouts that had a moment before been uncertain became, now, in the new certainty, much more scary. “We’ll have to move,” Faye said aloud. “How can we stay here? How can I stay here?” She slammed her fist on the counter. “My husband is a pervert.” She lifted her head and eyed her reflection in the sliding glass door to the terrace. Her hair was a mess. Her robe was open and exposed a fattish thigh. “Tucson,” she said. “Tucson is warm, but would it be good for the children? I sure as hell don’t want to move to Nebraska.”
    “Mom?” Lynette called from top of the stairs.
    “The fucker,” Faye said. Then louder: “The fucker.” It was a long way from Cheyenne to Tucson.
    Lynette called again.
    “What, sweetheart?”
    “I hear something outside. I think it’s bears.”

How could Jesus desert me in my hour of need? Anson thought. Faye will kill me.
    He was standing in his cell when the deputy came back and told him Faye wasn’t going to post bail. “You can call a bondsman in the morning,” the deputy said. “Now don’t you feel bad?”
    Anson blamed himself, naturally, but it wasn’t all his fault. He’d stopped at Pedro’s Tex-Mex on Third Street, where he’d ordered a tequila shot and a Modelo and talked with a couple of Hispanic dudes at the bar, who, it turned out, knew Enrique and Pablo. The last of the dinner guests were leaving, but the bar was picking up, and Anson stayed an hour. Coming out, it was ten thirty, time to go home, but when he got behind the wheel of the Ram, the truck turned the wrong way, right, toward the air force base. The Golden Triangle was out that direction past the city limits, alongside the used-car lots, oil and gas supply companies, and the ag equipment dealers. Even as he drove into the parking lot and saw the yellow triangular sign, he felt himself sliding toward sin.
    There were maybe a dozen cars and trucks in front, mostly beat-up ones, though there were a few newer SUVs—lawyers liked this place too. He parked at the far end of the line where the name on the side of the truck would be less obvious, though how many customers in the Golden Triangle would hire a roofer? He’d been there before, not that often, and he’d not been particularly entertained or enticed or satisfied, whichever applied. So why had he gone there again? He couldn’t answer the question. He was aware, and if he were aware, why hadn’t he gone home?
    Inside it was dark except for the stage where a blonde woman in a red dress was dancing to Dire Straits. A waitress in panties and bra asked if she could help him find a table, though there were plenty of them empty. “How much help can I need?” Anson said. “I’ll sit at the bar.”
    “I’m Tammy,” the woman said. “Let me know . . . whatever.”
    “I’m married,” Anson said.
    “So am I,” Tammy said.
    Anson ordered a gin and tonic and laid down his last ten-dollar bill, though for emergencies he kept a fifty inside a folded-up picture of Lynette and Gary in his wallet.
    The bartender was a bruiser, hired, no doubt, precisely for his capacity to bruise. “First one’s free,” the bartender said. He set down the gin and tonic. “And it’s Wednesday.”
    “What happens Thursday?” Anson asked.
    “Depends. You from here?”
    “Here being the planet? Maybe sometimes.”
    “Here being Cheyenne.”
    “Home of the outlaws,” Anson said, “and the Frontier Days Stampede and Rodeo.”
    “Cheers,” said the bartender. He drank from a glass hidden behind the bar.
    Anson figured the bartender’s drink wasn’t alcohol, but camaraderie was a way to get customers to drink faster, and the second drink wasn’t free. Anson downed half the gin and tonic in one gulp, then swiveled his stool toward the stage. The woman in red was no longer in red, but was strutting in a frilly pink teddy, now and then bending over, front side or back, toward the men in the first row of tables. The bending elicited the predictable oohs and exhortations. Another linebacker type, maybe the bartender’s brother, was stationed near the stage to make sure order was maintained.
    Anson paid ten dollars for the second gin and tonic and carried it to the edge of the tables farthest from the stage. Another woman had succeeded the blonde in red—a brunette this time in a top hat and tails. The music was “New York, New York.” It was already toward midnight, and Faye would be in bed asleep, but all the same Anson felt her disapproval, not so much for where he was or that he was late, but because he wasn’t home, that he was out wherever, even at Imre’s, while she’d been left behind to manage. On the other hand, he hadn’t chosen to be a husband and father, not consciously, anyway, not voluntarily. If one person wanted something a lot and the other person was indifferent or even slightly negative, who won out?
    Anson thought of himself as Cole Younger—ruthless, greedy, willing to do anything. He wanted to get the money and run, but at the same time he didn’t have the right attitude, whatever the attitude was. He hadn’t made his up mind about that, and he didn’t know why he was in the Golden Triangle, either. He was already in trouble, though, and he saw how things were going—he’d break the fifty-dollar bill for another gin and tonic, maybe two, and watch the women take their clothes off. Then what? He rummaged in his pocket for his cell phone and turned it off, but he knew that wouldn’t solve anything.
    The woman on stage threw her top hat into the crowd and took off the tuxedo coat, and underneath was a false-fronted shirt, bare in the back. She danced back and forth in front of the whoopers and yelpers, all of whom were leaning forward. But what was the joy in being close enough to touch but not touching? Anson, to his own surprise, finished his gin and got up and walked out.
    After midnight. There was nowhere else to go but home. He had to sleep. Tomorrow was another day of putting up tar paper, ice-and-snow shield, and nailing shingles. More of the same. Less of what he wanted, whatever that was. He had a couple of potential clients to see, too—Melanie Brooks, for one, who might be able to get her insurance to pay for a new roof, and the Fort Cheyenne Museum, which wanted someone to do maintenance—both tricky and lucrative.
    He wandered out to his pickup in no hurry, when a semi whooshed past on the highway and headed north into the darkness. The red taillights disappeared past the seventy-five-mile-per-hour sign, and Anson pondered how different that trucker’s life was from his own. That driver was loose on the road at midnight, eighty miles an hour, free as the nameless trappers and explorers, who were the real outlaws, living in places that hadn’t been named yet. Anson got into the Ram and, barreling out of the parking lot, turned north.
    The semi had already disappeared, but there was only one highway. He accelerated to seventy, then to eighty, eighty-five. He had no reason to head to Casper or Billings or Canada, but it felt good anyway. The gin was streaming into his heart. His mind was racing. The headlights splayed out over barren grassland, delved into darkness, created darkness between the land and the sky. A few miles up the road, a bright burst of neon appeared, and Anson slowed to read the sign. Adult Store. CDs, Books, Toys. He braked and turned in.
    To turn around, really—and his lights swung across a low-slung ranch house converted to a business enterprise. A single sedan was parked outside. Anson got curious and parked in back. He’d seen this place written up in the newspaper—problems with the First Amendment or county zoning, or protests from church groups, or background checks of the owners. Whatever the issues, the place was open now.
    He got out and went up to the back door, the entrance, it looked like, to the ranch’s kitchen, but the door was solid and had bars on it. A single sixty-watt pig’s-tail bulb lit up the stoop. Inside, two movies were advertised on a stand, Sinlight and Flesh Flood, and there was a bookcase of CDs, a magazine rack with Hustler, Muff Diver, and others, all wrapped in plastic, and several padlocked glass cases with vibrators, dildos, strap-ons, harnesses, and other paraphernalia Anson couldn’t identify. The several doors to other parts of the building were closed, though some had numbers on them. Anson hadn’t heard a customer bell when he entered, but his arrival must have alerted someone in back, because he heard shuΔing and, seconds after, a man came in, a tattooed, weaselly guy in a too-tight T-shirt from Gold’s Gym. “Yo,” the man said. “You need something?”
    “Doesn’t everyone?” Anson said.
    “I mean, you know.”
    Anson browsed the magazines, looked more closely at the harnesses and dildos, but couldn’t imagine Faye would be interested. There were whips and feathers too—a feather with a leather strap attached was called the Energizer and cost $19.95. “What are the numbered doors?” Anson asked.
    “Depends,” the man said. “Movies, etcetera. What are you looking to do?”
    “Not movies,” Anson said. “Can I look in?”
    “Be my guest. You have to pay before anything happens.”
    Anson opened door number two. A forty-inch TV was perched on a wall platform, a fake leather recliner facing it, and a coatrack on the wall, along with a roll of paper towels. Anson backed out and looked in number four, which had no TV, but rather a six-inch hole in the wall, duct-taped in a star to smooth the rough edges. “Hello,” a woman’s voice said from the other side of the hole.
    “Hey,” Anson said. The hole was covered with a cloth on the far side.
    “Forty dollars for a blow job,” the woman said, “thirty for a hand.”
    She had a foreign accent, Serbian, or one of those new Russian countries Anson wasn’t sure existed. “No, thanks,” he said. “I have to get home.”
    “For you, five dollars off,” the woman said.
    Anson pursed his lips. It was late, and he was tired, but there he was, and what difference would it make to anyone else? Faye never gave him a blow job, and he was saving twelve-and-a-half percent. Besides, what about the poor woman behind the wall? She had bills to pay like everyone else.
    He dug into his wallet and found the fifty-dollar bill between the two school photos of Gary and Lynette. It wasn’t exactly an emergency, Anson thought, but it was close enough.

Faye had heard Lynette calling from the top of the stairs and had shouted up at her, “Go back to bed.” She hadn’t moved from the kitchen stool. What would the neighbors think, the people at work, the parents of the kids in Gary’s and Lynette’s classes? But she was hurt, too, as well as angry. The list of what she needed to do—hire a mover, harvest bulbs, transplant bleeding hearts, find a safe neighborhood in Tucson, where there weren’t any perverts or bears—had lengthened and seemed too much.
    Then Lynette appeared on the stairs in her pajamas with Steven Tyler’s big lips on the chest. “Where’s Daddy?” she asked.
    “Daddy’s not home tonight.”
    “I think I hear bears.”
    “They’re raccoons,” Faye said. “They woke me up too.”
    “Is Daddy all right?”
    “Daddy’s busy, sweetheart. He’s not coming home.”
    “Busy doing what?”
    “Hunting,” Faye said. “He went hunting.” She roused herself and walked over to the sliding glass door. “I’m going to bed now too.”
    “Hunting what?”
    “You know men, sweetheart. They get up early in the cold and shoot at ducks and geese. He might be gone a few days.”
    Lynette came all the way down to the kitchen. “He didn’t say anything about hunting.”
    “That’s another lesson to learn. Men don’t communicate. They don’t tell you what they’re going to do beforehand, and then they ask forgiveness.”
    “What do you have the pistol for?” Lynette asked.
    “I didn’t know what it was outside,” Faye said. “Now go on upstairs . . . ”
    In the yard there was a loud crack and a thump, as if someone had thrown the grill or maybe a minicar.
    “That doesn’t sound like a raccoon,” Lynette said.     Faye turned on the patio light again, and through the glass door, they saw a bear cub on the grass, right beneath the fence, where a couple of slats had been broken off at the tops.
    “It’s a bear cub,” Lynette said.
    “Hush, now.”
    `“Where there’s a cub there’s a mother bear close by,” Lynette said. “We learned that in school.”
    “Shut up, Lynette,” Faye said. “He’ll climb out again.”
    The cub looked at the fence, then at the house, not even dazed, and ambled over to one of the plum trees. He stretched up, grasped a limb, and bent the plums down so he could rip them off a half dozen at once. A few seconds later, two more fence slats shattered, and a paw reached through. Then three more slats were splintered, and the mother bear broke through into the yard.
    “Well, shit,” Lynette said. “Let’s call the police.”
    “That is not a word a Christian should use,” Faye said. “I want you back upstairs now. And don’t wake Gary.”
    “I’m awake,” Gary said. He padded down the stairs. “Are we about to die?”
    “There’s a cub and a she-bear in the yard,” Lynette said. “They’re vicious.”
    “Are they grizzlies?” Gary said. “We’re food.”
    “They’re black bears,” Faye said. “We had bears where I grew up in Sheridan, and they’re more afraid of us than we are of them.”
    Gary stayed back from the door. “They’re desperate,” he said. “Daddy said they can come right through the glass.”
    “Daddy’s not here,” Lynette said. “He’s hunting.”
    “I’m handling this,” Faye said, “and I want you two upstairs. I mean it.”
    Faye escorted them up to their rooms and threatened grounding and losses of allowances. “If I tell you to, I want you to lock yourselves in the bathroom. Lynette, you be sure you take Gary in with you. Do you understand?”
    “Yes,” Lynette said. “What are you going to do?”
    “Keep watch,” Faye said. “They’re only going to eat the plums, but I’ll be down there to protect the house.”
    “I want Daddy,” Gary said.
    “Daddy’s not here,” Faye said. “And what did he ever do for you?”
    When she came downstairs again, the mother bear had taken the cub’s place at the plum tree with the most fruit, and the cub had gone over to the other tree by Randy’s yard. She knew from a horror movie that bears had bad eyesight, and Faye turned the light off, then on again, off and on, to see whether the bears might be scared off, but they barely seemed to notice. The mother bear was on her hind legs and bent the higher limbs with the biggest plums down to her mouth, sometimes breaking the limbs.
    Faye didn’t want to kill anything, of course, unless it was Anson. Why would a man put his dick through a hole in a wall for a few seconds of anonymous pleasure? Was it thrill? Necessity? Proof of something? She supposed a man who never had sex might do such a thing—think of the priests!—but that wasn’t Anson. Not quite anyway. Maybe she hadn’t done her duty on that score, but she had priorities, too, limitations, standards. Hadn’t he thought of the consequences? The governor of South Carolina, the senator from Nevada, the governor of New York, Tiger Woods, that religious guy in Colorado—schmucks, all of them. What were these men thinking?
    Maybe ten minutes had gone by while the bears ravaged the plum trees and scarfed down as many plums as they could. Then the mother bear got down on all fours and looked toward the house. A rivet of fear snapped into Faye’s heart, and she backed away from the glass. She, of course, couldn’t know what the bear saw or smelled—food, Faye assumed—and she didn’t know what to do—lock the door, of course. The mother bear came toward the terrace, but about halfway there, the scent of something else attracted her, and she veered toward the flowers. She dug in the ground and lifted out the bulbs of daffodils and irises and chewed on them.
    That was when Faye picked up the pistol. “Oh, no, you don’t,” she shouted. Faye slid back the glass.
    “What is it, Mom?” Gary called from the middle of the stairs.
    Faye ran out into the yard waving the pistol and screaming.
The next day was overcast, and to the west clouds scudded over the low hills. Anson had called a bondsman, who’d gotten him out of jail and, for an extra twenty, agreed to take him to his truck. “Can they do that?” Anson asked as soon as they were out of earshot of the justice complex. “Can they lure you in and then arrest you like that?”
    “I ain’t a legal beagle,” the bondsman said. “You’re lucky I got enough gas to get you out there.”
    “See, this semi, he was doing eighty—”
    “Save it for the judge,” the bondsman said.
    In daylight, the area beyond the air force base looked worse—used-car lots with pennants flapping from wires and miles of cars, stacks of cinder blocks, big yards of garden ceramics. The Golden Triangle was on the right, a washed-out version of what Anson had seen the night before, like a rollercoaster shut down the morning after. The sign was visible but unlit, and there were no cars out front.
    They drove another two or three miles through open grassland, and a sign appeared against the horizon. The truck was still there, more visible from the highway than Anson would have liked—A-1 Roofing. The bondsman did a U-ey beside it, and Anson got out. The bondsman accelerated before Anson got his feet on the ground, and the passenger door slammed closed on its own.
    Usually Anson took Gary and Lynette to school on his way to wherever he was working, and it was only eight, but if he showed up at the house, he was afraid Faye would have his .38 Special ready and waiting. He stopped at the Cuppa Joe, bought a grande, and drove across town to the Baldwins’. The house was a fusty Victorian with a roofline that went six different directions. He had underbid the job, partly to keep Enrique and Pablo employed and partly because he thought he could get the Baldwins to pay for extra flashing and ice-and-snow shield, for which he could overcharge. He had two other jobs underway, too, Millicent Karsh’s bungalow and the Panozzo Education Foundation. Once supplies were on site, it was hard for an owner to change roof contractors, so the trick was to string out multiple jobs without damaging anyone’s furniture, famous art, or business papers and still get word-of-mouth advertising. Per contract, Anson left the time element vague, because, as he said, “You never know when it’s going to rain.”
    In fact, it looked as if it were going to rain that day, and when he got to the Baldwins’ house, he didn’t see any sign of Enrique’s Mercury. The scaffolding was in place from the day before, the Dumpster still full of wooden shingles and the worn-out asphalt ones, the ladders laid alongside the house. A blue tarp was spread over a section of the roof. It was a pain in the ass to work alone—getting the tarp off, for example, and schlepping rolls of tar paper and ice-and-snow shield from the lawn, where the delivery truck had left them, to the ladder, and up the ladder to the scaffolding, and from there to the roof. He’d have to measure alone and cut the tar paper with an X-Acto knife and lay it down before the wind wrapped it around his legs. There was some skill involved; it wasn’t plumbing.
    He hoisted the ladder, extended it, and leaned it against the eave. Getting the tarp off was only a matter of untying the grommets, but the tie-downs were far enough apart that he had to move the ladder three times, and invariably the tarp got hung up on a nail or a corner of the scaffolding. He wasted a half hour, then spent another hour cutting and stapling down tar paper.
    At eleven, Enrique showed up on foot. “The Mercury not start,” Enrique said. “Es muy frio.”
    “Frio or not,” Anson said, “we start at eight thirty. It’ll get more frio before it gets more calor. Where’s Pablo?”
    “He fixing on the car.”
    “Bring up that roll of ice-and-snow shield,” Anson said. “It’s going to rain.”
    They worked until twelve thirty, when the rain started, then spent twenty minutes getting the tarp back on. By then, the rain had slacked again, and they stood under the eaves gazing up at the clouds. “What’s it going to do?” Anson said. “Why doesn’t God make up his fucking mind?”
    “What about los osos?” Enrique asked. “Did you see them?”
    “What are you talking about?” Anson said. “What osos?
    “I hear on the radio esta dia, there are bears in the neighborhood. They have crashed into a house.”
    “I didn’t see any bears,” Anson said. “What house?”
    “One was killed.”
    “A bear or a person?”
    “No se. No comprendo.”
    Anson looked up at the darkening sky. “Let’s go have lunch,” he said, “and see what the fuck happens this afternoon.”
    Anson dropped Enrique off at his hovel in west Cheyenne and headed downtown. He missed the news on the radio, but he found a Safeway and bought a
Tribune-Eagle and leafed through it over the hood of his truck. On page three was an article about bears in the city—several incidents out Happy Jack Road, one on the air force base, another near Lion’s Park. No one was injured, at least so the article said. He couldn’t find any mention of Prairie View, though it wasn’t right in town, either, and if the incident had happened late, it wouldn’t be in the paper.
    It was twenty minutes across town to the College Drive exit, and time dragged like a suitcase. He missed every traffic light, had to wait while an eighty-year-old woman in an orange poncho crossed at a stop sign. Beyond the box stores, it started to rain hard.
    The windshield wipers smeared dirt back and forth, and the rain swept over the yellow pastures on either side. The alfalfa fields were green, and the countryside was dotted with grain silos, oil rigs, and storage buildings of various dimensions. The rain was shit for farmers who needed to get their hay cut and baled. It was shit for him too. He’d promised the museum two days ago he’d be there yesterday, and Millicent Karsh was already mad at him. Besides, when they didn’t work, they didn’t get paid.
    He passed the Lazy J and, a mile down, turned left at the church. Jesus stood in front in a blue robe, his hand raised in benediction. “Thanks for nothing,” he said. He sped past and turned left on Orion. His house was the third one on the right, a greenish pastel of asbestos tile. At least it was still standing, and the roof didn’t leak. Those were positives. The garage door was still closed, so he couldn’t tell whether Faye was home or not, but why would she be? She had a job. On the other hand, given the news she’d gotten from the deputy, she might have called in sick.
    He passed the house, turned right at the next intersection, and right again into the alley. Ahead, about where his house was, the alley was blocked by a pickup truck—Randy’s maroon Tacoma. Randy was a liberal in all the bad connotations of the word—long hair, peace tattoo, and foreign truck, a goofy guy, but tolerable, except he had a bumper sticker that said, “Make Love Not Guns.” Anson parked nose-to-nose with the Tacoma.
    Randy was in Anson’s yard with a cordless drill in his hand and was unscrewing screws from a broken slat. Anson idled the Ram and got out. “What’s going on?” he said. “Looks like a tornado.”
    “Bears,” Randy said. “They did a number on your fence.”
    A dozen slats were broken, and in the yard the plum trees were mangled too—branches broken and hanging down and littering the lawn. Most of the plums were gone. Beyond the two trees, though, the house looked to be intact.
    “Everybody okay?” Anson asked.
    “Depends on your definition,” Randy said. He lowered the drill and gave Anson the once-over. “Faye asked me to do this because she said you weren’t living here anymore.”
    “I was only gone one night,” Anson said. “I’m back.”
    “I don’t want to get mixed up in anything between you two,” Randy said. “I’m doing this for Faye.”
    “A new fence won’t keep the bears out,” Anson said.
    “Faye killed one of them,” Randy said. “That one won’t be back. And the DOW took the cub.”
    “Killed it? Faye killed a bear?”
    “She came out firing, with a pistol no less. She woke up the whole neighborhood. It was wild. The sheriff was here, a bunch of deputies, the DOW people. This was in the middle of the night. I don’t think the sheriff cleared out till around four.” Randy unscrewed a screw, the broken slat fell off, and he tossed the slat toward his truck. “It’s against the law to fire a pistol in the city limits.”
    “You’re allowed to protect your property,” Anson said. “That’s a basic right.”
    “The bear was in her flowers,” Randy said.
    Anson’s phone vibrated in his jeans’ pocket, and he looked at the number—Faye’s. “A-1 Roofing,” he said. “We can top that.”
    “What are you doing in my yard?”
    “I heard about the bears,” Anson said.
    “Go away.”
    Anson stepped back into the alley. “You shot a bear with my pistol,” he said. “Good for you.”
    “I might use it again.”
    Randy carried a few more of the broken slats to his truck and tossed them into the bed. “I can finish this later,” he said. “I’ll come back.”
    Anson looked toward the house. The curtain was pulled across the sliding glass door, and in the window upstairs—their room—the venetian blind was down. “Where are you, Faye? I can’t see you.”
    “Go away,” Faye said, “and stay away. I hate you.”
    Randy got into his truck and backed it down the alley to his own garage. Anson put his foot on his back tire and pulled himself up into the bed of his truck. “I live here,” he said. “I didn’t do anything. That’s the truth.”
    “That’s why I got a call from the jail?”
    “I had a few drinks and stopped at the Golden Triangle,” Anson said. “Then I was on my way home when a semi zoomed past. The next thing I knew I was following him north, see, and I came to this place to turn around. There was a light on . . . I don’t remember exactly. There’s good and evil, darkness and light—same as ever—but now you have more freedom. Drugs, airplanes, cars, television stations, booze, money, you name it, it’s all part of the same thing.”
    “Satan led you there? Is that what you’re saying?”
    “It wasn’t Satan. It was Jesus. Jesus wanted me to see how easy it was to sin. He wanted to see if I could avoid temptation.”
    “But you didn’t.”
    “We don’t know that,” Anson said. “I was tempted, yes, but they arrested me before anything happened.” Anson climbed onto the roof of the cab and knelt down. “Can you see me, Faye? I’m kneeling on the cab of the truck.”
    “I see you,” Faye said. “I hope they put you behind bars.”
    Anson looked up into the gray sky and adjusted the phone. A burst of sunlight shot down through the clouds. “Jesus, I see that a moment of weakness is all it takes. One moment when I wasn’t vigilant—”
    “Stop the bullshit,” Faye said.
    “Even if Faye can’t forgive me . . .”
    Anson glanced over at the house and saw the curtain move at the sliding glass door. Faye slid the door open and stepped out into the yard with the .38 in her hand. She walked past the grill, picked up a couple of broken branches from the plum tree, and examined the half-eaten plums. Then she looked up toward the alley.
    Anson was kneeling on the cab of the Ram. There they were, one kneeling, one holding the branch of the plum tree, a man and woman caught in a dilemma, intimate strangers.


Kent Nelson says, “A bio statement. I hate those. Well, this is one of my posthumous stories, written during a recent phase when I sequestered myself in my cellar (no windows, lots of cobwebs) and wrote nine stories in three months (because after my death I thought I should write faster). I called this my phase of self-a-basement. I never know what to say in an author’s note—I live in Ouray, Colorado, travel around with my girlfriend, and look for rare birds. We’ve been to Ecuador and Costa Rica. I used to run mountain races but quit that when I died during a half-marathon almost three years ago. I will come up with something and e-mail it to you soon.”

“The Graceless Age” appears in our Spring 2013 issue.