What Happened to Tally

What his father had done wasn’t right, he knew that, but at least it was something of his own, an act he had thought out and had completed and had taken responsibility for

A Short Story

by Tom McNeal

TULLY DAVID COATES WAS A SLEEPY, SMILEY baby, “a child,” said the Coateses’ hired man a few years later, “who blinked open his eyes and believed at once in the good intentions of the world.”

For Kansas, this was a pretty speech—Tally’s folks needed a moment to respond. “A blessing,”his mother decided, and his father, habitually unwilling to agree with her, said, “More likely a curse.”

Their marriage was loud and wobbly, set loose in a farmhouse without close neighbors. Words were shouted, doors were slammed, locked, kicked open again. Tully brought out his coloring books. He hummed and colored, colored and hummed, waiting for his father to give up. Eventually his father would. He would withdraw to the barn, the tractor would pop and sputter, and once it had rumbled out of hearing, Tully’s mother would suggest a horse ride into town or down to the creek, with Tully riding up front or, later on, hanging on to her belt loops from behind while his little brother, Marlen, rode forward. If the weather was bad, she might say, “Who’s for cookies?" and they would bake a double batch with the radio on loud to oldies his mother would sometimes dance to, right there on the kitchen linoleum, twirling Tully along.

In Tully’s fifth and sixth years the house grew quieter. His mother started getting headaches, not so bad during the day, but bad always at night. Tully’s father began a course of peacemaking gestures. He took in his dishes from the table and on Sunday washed not just his but everyone else’s, too. When he went to town, he consented to buy groceries, and would throw in the makings for sundaes, which Tully’s mother loved. And he bought her the mare she’d seen for sale in Hutchinson, a big gray horse who turned out to be just as fast and trainable as Tully’s mother had said she’d be.

Still, the headaches kept up, got worse, and one morning when Tully was seven, his father, sitting unshaven at the breakfast table, told him and Marlen that their mother had gone to a hospital during the night. He gave as the reason a growth in her head. A few days later he left the boys for an afternoon, and when he came back, he said, “I was up to Hutch. It’s done for good. She’s buried.”

Tully nodded but didn’t believe what he’d heard. He expected the next telephone call to explain some terrible mistake, the next car up the dirt drive to carry his mother, damaged in some minor way—winged, maybe, in some kind of shootout. But all the cars ever brought was long-faced neighbors with food in covered dishes. Nothing was the same around the place, not his father, not his brother, not his mother’s horse or garden or kitchen— they all took on the dull look of things left behind. Tully decided that his mother had been called away on a secret mission by the government and couldn’t get in touch with any of them even though she wanted to more than anything. He believed this was true even while telling himself that it was pretend.

In the spring Tully and Marlen stayed with a neighbor while their father drove through Wyoming and Nebraska, looking at land. Upon his return men began coming by the Coates place, writing checks and driving away with stock and equipment. Tully heard his father tell all these men the same thing. They were moving to an irrigated farm on the flats outside Goodnight, Nebraska.

Tully didn’t know what flats were exactly, but he liked the sound of the town’s name—it made him think of flannel sheets. He folded a note into a bread wrapper, went down to his mother’s favorite sitting place by the creek, and tacked it to a tree. If you can’t find us we have gone to Goodnight Nebraska, it said.

When they pulled away from that empty farmhouse outside Arlington, Kansas, the trunk and back seat and roof of the family Dodge were packed and strapped with all the Coateses’ household goods. Three trucks fell in line behind them, each followed by a trailer, one of which carried the gray horse. Tully leaned far out the car window to look back and then held Marlen out for a view. “See? — it’s like a circus moving!” he yelled, but Marlen pulled back and, hugging himself, began to whimper. Tully was glad when his father finally popped Marlen one and shut him up. There was no reason for whimpering. They were on an adventure, and at the end of it was going to be a new place to live. Tully poked his head out the window, stretched forward, began happily swallowing from the onrushing air. What he was feeling, though he didn’t know yet what to call it, was the keen pleasure of leaving problems behind.

TIME PASSED, months, years, and these lives took hold in the flats south of Goodnight, Tully’s father farmed dutifully, cooked dutifully, accepted hail, drought, and hood without a word. Marlen grew plump and sullen, seemed always to expect the worst and believe he’d gotten it. But for Tully life was different. Things came easy to Tully. Pals came easy. School and sports came easy. Judging stock, fixing machinery, and bringing in crops came easy.

Girls also came easy.

“What’s the big attraction?” April Reece asked him one night in The Spur, after watching him off and on for a couple of hours. Tully had come up beside her at the bar to order himself a beer between rounds of pool, and she’d started talking. April Reece was older than Tully and known for her flashy dressing and frankness. “No, really,” she said, “it’s beyond me,” and Tully shrugged and turned up a palm as if to say that if it was true, it was beyond him, too. He was twenty-one, loose-limbed, hair the white-blond of cornsilk, pale green eyes in a smooth, unremarkable face. “Maybe it’s that car you drive,” April said, and drew a smile from Tully. He was interested in April—who wouldn’t be?—but he made a point not to show it. He wandered off, played some cutthroat, gravitated back. She was wearing black— black sweater, black denims, black socks turned down over bright pink street shoes.

Tully covered the top of a dice cup, gave it a rattle, and with elaborate indifference said, “Wanna roll for a beer?” While they drank, she asked if he was still going out with the Smalley girl. “Ella and me’re friends,” he said agreeably, but it was less a statement of loyalty to Ella Smalley, though he had some of that, than it was a way of saying, Ask a question, get an answer. He thought of adding a truth, that Ella Smalley was just a friend, but he knew it would come out sounding puny. He signaled for two more beers. April liked a little tomato juice in hers. He himself couldn’t stand red beer, but he liked pouring in the juice, which he did now, slowly, leaning forward to watch its color curl into the beer.

“Guess it doesn’t take much to amuse you,” April said, and Tully, letting his face open into a smile, said no, he guessed it didn’t.

A month or so later, after sex with him on the warm, spacious hood of his old black Lincoln Continental, parked on a flat space overlooking the Niobrara, April pulled a blanket up around her and leaned on an elbow to regard him. “Well, I think the reason some girls go for you is that you’ve got this nice bland face, and in just the right light a girl can make it into anything she wants. It’s a face that fits right into any of about six standard happy endings girls cook up for themselves.”

Tully tugged the blanket back down, and she left them out there for observation, smooth floppy breasts with nipples the width of poker chips. Tully gave one breast a gentle lift with the back of his hand. “What six happy endings?”

April turned on her back, smiled, let her gaze float up into the night sky. “Can’t remember.”

Tully was amused that someone so reckless in public would be so careful with her secrets, but he didn’t press. He rolled his pants into a pillow, set it between his back and the windshield, and sat up a little to bring into view the red beacon that topped a radio tower deep in the sandhills. He could also see it from his bedroom window at home; for years he had looked at it before going to sleep each night. It had been put up by the state patrol, but Tully always thought of it as something that belonged to him. It was a relay tower. By staring at it he could relay messages to anyone anywhere. To God or Abraham Lincoln or old Mr. Spence, the dog they left behind in Kansas. He told April how he used to really believe this.

A pleasant silence developed, and then April crooked a leg over his, gently took hold of his parts, and, after he’d come to life, said, “I love the way that works,” which Tully figured for a lie, though a pleasing one just the same.

But April, her hand still at play, idly asked if his dating someone like Ella Smalley was a sign he meant to settle down.

Tully tried to think. “I don’t know,” he said finally, because he didn’t. What threw him was the notion of what he meant to do. It suggested that planning out the next step was something people did, and the fact that he’d never given the tine of his life any more thought than he might give to what crops to plant or where first to stalk his buck come fall made him feel suddenly deficient. So he was glad when April began kissing him again, sloppier even than before, but then, as things got interesting, April suddenly broke off a kiss and grabbed hold of his testicles so fiercely that Tully had to clench his teeth to keep from screaming. “Just one thing,” she whispered into his ear, “and that is, if I hear of that Smalley girl or any other female for that matter winding up on this car hood with you, ever, I’m going to do something—don’t ask me what—but something just to register my significant feelings about it, because this much of your life, Scout, is all mine.” And Tully, in spite of his ferocious discomfort, mustered a laugh and said, “I’m paralyzed with fear,” at which point April very slightly tightened her grip on him.

A month or so later, in June, dully came in for supper and found the hood of his old Continental hanging from a cottonwood, where it had been rapped several hundred times with the ball peen hammer April still stood holding.

“Looks like it caught itself a meteor shower,” Tully said. “Hoist it up there yourself?”

She nodded. “That was for Lori Hallick.”

Tully worked up a smile. At least she wasn’t mentioning Wendy Adams or Jill McIntyre. “Night has a thousand eyes,” he said.

Ten days later April and her brother Ed drove the Continental, with its yellow replacement hood, into the open sandhills and used it for target practice. When she took Tully out to it that afternoon, she said, “Wendy Adams.”

Tully circled the car, staring at the broken windows, taillights, and mirrors. April had let her temper take hold of her—something he believed he would never allow, a belief that produced in him now a kind of smugness he mistook for peace of mind. He grinned and said, well, the hood anyhow still looked usable. It was late afternoon, broad daylight, and April, glancing around, sliding out a grin, looked like someone who’d just caught the pleasant scent of mischief.

ELLA SMALLEY WAS A DIFFERENT STORY. SHE was tall, skinny, and not especially attentive to her appearance. Her panty hose bagged and her eyebrows lay fuzzily against the grain, which made Tully want to lick a finger and smooth them down. Every now and then her wide, liquid brown eyes would take Tully by surprise, but by and large Ella was something Tully never gave much thought to. She was just there, was all, and always had been. She was quiet, she sneaked up on you like an orphan dog, always on the fringes of things, edging in with eyes down, looking up when it was safe. Ella Smalley saw a lot of things. She’d seen Mr. B. B. Holcomb, the town attorney, put a Sheaffer fountain pen, packet and all, into his inside coat pocket and leave Lloyd’s Pharmacy, paying only for a Baby Ruth. She’d seen a fully dressed Indian man sitting below the crooked bridge alongside a woman wearing just a Human League Tshirt. One night through a cracked door she’d seen an aunt in horrible silent anger jab her uncle in the chest with her long hands, moving him backward across the bedroom until he sat down on the bed. Ella had wished her uncle would fight back, and then, when he didn’t, decided he deserved it after all. She had been visiting. The next morning, when her aunt had served hot cakes and bacon in her usual manner, and her uncle had eaten hungrily and told a joke about hippopotamuses, Ella had gained a fuller view of adulthood. Usually she told Tully such things while they were cruising down the highway in the Continental. She liked riding along, to the Friday stock auction in Crawford, to the John Deere agency in Chadron, to Hollstein’s Pack in Rushville—anywhere with a little distance to it. She would stare out the window and then, after a time, would turn to Tully and ask some little question. Did he think Mr. Shiff’s wife was really his cousin? Did he know that Marlen, on a dare from the Heiting boys, had eaten six Mrs. Smith pies on the sidewalk in front of Frmka’s IGA? Then a question that came sneaking closer, eyes down. Did his father ever laugh at anything? Her mother said that not being unhappy is a kind of happiness, but she didn’t believe it— did he? So what had his mother been like, exactly, or did he remember?

Reckless popped into Tully’s head, but that didn’t sound like the right word to use for your mother. He said “glamorous” instead.

“Glamorous,” Ella said carefully, as if trying to fit this piece into whatever picture she already had of Tully’s mother.

Tully stared down the highway. “Well, afternoons, for example, she’d read magazines and drink peppermint schnapps while taking bubble baths that went on forever. And outside the house she always wore bright-red shoes, candy-apple red, even in church.” He shook his head. “And, like on her horse. She wore these chaps, like she was living in Marlboro country or something, and she’d come flying toward you, pull up short, and toss down a look that made you feel almost privileged, like it came from a movie star or someone.”

Ella nodded. Her mother had told her that a son’s slant toward the mother predicted his slant toward the wife, so she let a mile or two pass and said, “What else?”

“Not much. Except when my mother died, that mare actually grieved. Wouldn’t eat or look anybody in the eye for days. It was the same horse we have now. Jackie, after Jackie Kennedy. My mom was always big on famous people. Named my brother after Marlon Brando, except she misspelled it.” He let out a snicker. “Just like my old man to let her.”

“Name your brother that or misspell it?”

Tully laughed. “Either one, I guess.”

And then Ella would be staring out the window again, letting things settle, until something else occurred to her to ask.

Tully never talked to Ella about other girlfriends, and she never asked. The closest they had come to arguing was over the car he bought to replace the shot-up Continental. It was a broad-hooded Buick LeSabre. It had over 100,000 miles on it, she pointed out. It took oil and guzzled gas. She had in mind a Plymouth Horizon they’d seen with only 60,000 on it. “That was four hundred dollars more, you seem to forget,” he said mildly.

But Ella, her face flushed, said, “That doesn’t matter a fraction of one little bit.”

Tully thought Ella believed she had a duty to make him more wholesome. He thought his job was to make her less. So, to keep her from uttering another word about, say, the notion of charity, he might lean over and nibble at the slow white curve of her neck.

Ella was slender, didn’t have much of a figure, and wouldn’t let a hand under her undermost clothes, but she knew how to kiss. She kissed like there was no tomorrow. In fact, she kissed better than Lori Hallick or Wendy Adams or even April Reece when you got right down to it, if only kissing was all there was to it.

BEHIN TO THE COATES PLACE, ON A PLATFORM mounted at the lower end of the barn roof, there stood an apparatus that had caught April’s attention: a steel drum fitted with water piping and a shower head. The stall below was floored with a wooden pallet and enclosed on three sides. By midafternoon on summer days the water in the drum would have grown pleasantly warm, and on one such afternoon Tully’s father happened to lead old Jackie around the corner of the barn while Tully stood under the stream of water with April’s arms locked around his neck and legs around his waist. His hands were stirruped under her hips, moving her slowly, but he stopped when his eyes met his father’s.

“What?” April said.

“My old man,” he said, and April followed his gaze. Tully’s father was walking the old mare off toward her stable. April forced a laugh. “Guess he got an eyeful.”

He had, but he hadn’t. He’d averted his eyes. He’d glanced at them, and then registered his chronic mournful look with Tully and kept walking. That was his way. He’d turned his eyes from every pretty girl Tully had ever brought around the place—every one, anyway, that Tully’d had doings with, which was something his father could always somehow detect.

As his father led the mare away, Tully out of stubbornness kept April around him, and they waddled as one into the barn, laughing, and finished up sitting on a saddle blanket still laughing and, toward the end, taking straw dust deep into their lungs. They had disengaged and stopped coughing and were listening to their own breathing when something chunked against the barn siding and then chunked again.

Tully crept over and peered through a window. His father was throwing rocks, chunk, pause, chunk, pause, chunk. “Work!" he yelled. “There is work to do, Tully David Coates!” He grubbed up more rocks over by the fence. “Work!" he yelled. “Work! Work! Work!” The word, repeated, seemed to slip free of its meaning—for a moment Tully thought he was listening to a foreign language.

“Jesus,” April whispered, suddenly behind Tully, peeking out from behind him through the window. The rocks kept coming, and April, almost to herself, said, “Guess your dad’s never going to like me now.”

Tully looked past his father, stared out at the blank hills and white sky, and began to fill them in with greens, blues, an orange smiley sun.

His father kept shouting words and chucking rocks.

April said, “This is like a creepy movie.”

“Just wait,”Tully said. “Just wait.”

He knew his father would eventually stop, and eventually his father did. He walked off, got into his pickup, and drove away, and the moment he was gone, Tully and April, as if by a spell, fell into their ease. April stood in a shaft of late sun. “Sure you got to get back to work?” she said, smiling at him there in the rich golden light.

Later in his life, if he stepped into the barn when the straw was dry and the angle of the sun just right, the feeling of this moment would come flooding back to Tully, and he would stand perfectly still so as not to lose the memory of those last simple kisses.

FEW WEEKS LATER, WHILE TULLY’S FATHER and brother were off to a farm auction, a man came driving a late-model Chrysler up the long dirt drive of the Coates place. The plates said KANSAS. The man sat in the car with the windows rolled up, while his dust caught up with him and layered down over the car’s shine. Then he got out and stood looking slowly around. Tully watched all this from the window of the Quonset shop where he was working on a pump shaft, honing down a new bushing for it from one too big. He switched off the grinder and walked out with a pipe wrench dangling from his hand.

“Over here!” he called out.

The man turned the wrong way. He was a big, wideshouldered man with a stomach sloping evenly out from his chest. He looked maybe fifty. When, finally, he turned again, he seemed startled by Tully’s appearance, and was looking at him in search of someone else, or so it seemed to Tully, who found himself doing the same thing with the man. Tully smiled but didn’t offer his hand. “Do I know you?”

“Oh, I don’t believe so,” the man said. For a fat man he had delicate wrists and hands, and he had his white shirt sleeves rolled a couple of turns to show them off. From an interior pocket he withdrew a little brass case of business cards. Mr. McC’s Restaurant Supply, they said. Hays, Kansas. Mal McCreedy, Prop. The man extended his hand. “McCreedy’s my name.”

“Tully Coates.”

At these words the man’s eyes laid back a little, seemed slightly less interested. He released Tully’s hand and looked around.

Tully had seen this man somewhere, he was sure of it, but in some other form—in another getup, or maybe on the TV news. Tully was right-handed. The pipe wrench was in his left. He switched it and said, “Doubt if we’d have much need of restaurant supplies.”

McCreedy turned and laughed drily. “Oh, no, I suppose not. Actually, I’ve been asked to look into the feasibility of a restaurant along Highway 20, either in Goodnight or Rushville. Using local-raised beef and chicken.” He smiled. “Paying top dollar.”

Tully nodded. He was no businessman, but the idea sounded half-baked.

McCreedy stared off toward the lambs and heifers. “You raise sheep and beef.” He took a second look at the heifers.

“Charolais,” Tully said. “We also raise some beefalo.”

The man actually pressed his hands together. “Oh, perfect! Tourists would love ordering beefalo. How does it taste?”

“Above average,” Tully said. He was wondering where these tourists would be coming from.

“We?” the man said, and when Tully looked confused, the man said, “I think you said, ‘We raise beefalo.’”

“Oh, yeah. My father, my brother, Marlen, and me. They’re up to an auction looking for a truck to buy.”

McCreedy took this in carefully. Then, nodding, already moving, he said, “How about showing me your operation?” Tully explained the cycle of backgrounding, summer pasture, and commercial feedlot, the average gain per day in each phase, but McCreedy didn’t seem to be listening. He’d noticed the horse shed behind the barn. It was as if his whole mass tipped toward it. “You raise horses, too?”

“Just one,” Tully said. Then, as they made for the shed, he said, “Thinking of serving horsemeat, too?”

The man didn’t bother to laugh. He was walking faster. The mare was in her stall, poking her head out, curious. When McCreedy got to the fence, he slipped a hand into his pocket, brought it out cupped and empty, and made kissing noises. The mare ambled out, sniffed the empty hand, snorted into it. Then—and here a fat drop of sweat rolled coolly down Tully’s ribs—the man cradled an arm around the mare’s muzzle and let his fingers nibble at her nose and said in a crooning whisper, “Old Jackie, old Jackie, oh, old Jackie.”

Tully became aware again of the pipe wrench in his hand. “Who are you?” he said, and the man, after just an instant, spun around wooden-faced. Tully had two shocks of recognition. One was that he had seen the man before, only he’d looked taller then, and not fat. Tully had been maybe five. The man had come to their place in Kansas and argued with his mother a long time out on the mud porch. The other thing Tully understood was that the eyes behind this man’s wide, masklike face were Marlen’s eyes.


“I don’t care who you are,” Tully said, and moving forward, he tapped the mare’s muzzle lightly with the pipe wrench, to move her back and the man away.

McCreedy threw his hands up in mock surrender. Tully followed him back to his sedan at arm’s length, all the while staring at the spot on the man’s head where his pink, big-pored scalp showed. But McCreedy evidently had no inkling, because when he got into his car and lowered the window by pushing a button, he said, “Your mother went with me to California, but I wasn’t enough for her either,” and then had the big car in reverse by the time Tully, dumbfounded, trotting close to the backing car, grasped what McCreedy was saying and, before he could think what to do, was swinging the pipe wrench into the driver’s side of the windshield, shooting fine cracks everywhere through the glass and crazing the image of the man sitting behind it.

THE NEXT FEW days Tully slept fitfully, ate poorly, mentioned McCreedy to no one. On Saturday night, when he saw April, they drove out to Walgren Lake, where he discovered that he was a lot less interested in fooling around than she was. When she asked how come, he just shrugged. “Well, this is a scream,” April said. This was a new word of hers. Everything was a scream. At first Tully had thought she might’ve picked it up from an old movie, but now he figured she was getting this kind of thing from her new waitressing job in Alliance, thirty miles south. She’d also begun calling everybody Slick. “Thanks, Slick,” she said, for example, to Teddy Hill, whose name she knew, when they stopped off later at McCarter’s Mini-Mart for snacks. They parked at the overlook and drank beer, and April tried again to get Tully’s interest, but finally gave up. Tally said he guessed he just didn’t feel like it. April, without hiding her annoyance, said she’d take a rain check, and Tully went home to sleep the sleep of the dead. He didn’t, though. He woke up at three and lay in bed until dawn thinking up flamboyant ways of killing McCreedy, usually after looking him in the eye and saying, “It’s been a scream, Slick.”

It seemed to Tully that all his feelings—about his mother, his father, his own sunny life—had been pulled inside out, and the ideas released kept running around in all directions. He blamed everybody for his mother’s leaving. He blamed McCreedy for being sleazy, his father for being first loud and then wimpish, his brother for being pink and obese. He blamed his mother for being bored, the farm for being boring. And he blamed himself for being pesky, for never leaving her alone, for whining outside that locked bathroom door the whole time she took her afternoon bath.

Facing things head on was not Tully’s strong suit, but one day, while cultivating beans, he came across this hard little fact: What McCreedy had told him was not a revelation. It was a confirmation, a light turned on something he’d always sensed lurking off in the dark but never allowed himself to see. So this shifted things. He was not just his father’s victim but his accomplice, too.

Tully began to work longer, harder; he was surprised how often barbs, thistles, and rusty metal tore at his arms. Sex, when resumed with April, was less frequent and took an angry turn. If she cried out, Tully would loosen his hold, but only just barely. At home he couldn’t stop watching his father. He became resentfully aware of the way his father let Marlen or him make the lists of the day, the way he just read them and did what was written there. Tully began adding items. Ditch field three. Fence the river field. Weld the pipe trailer. His father did them all, and never said a word.

One day, at their noon meal, Tully’s father was patiently cutting his pork chop into small neat pieces, cutting up his string beans, pouring a little milk on his potatoes, mashing them fine. So his wife left him, Tully thought. So what? So why didn’t he just say she left and get on with it? Lots of people try to make a pissing post out of a person. That was bad. But it was worse when somebody swallowed it whole, made a life of it. Then it was pathetic.

Out of nowhere Marlen said, “Something gnawing on you?”

Tully started, turned. “Work,” he thought to say. He made a grin. “More we do, more there is yet.”

His father, still setting up his food, nodded without looking up. He was buttering bread now, making a project of evenness. Marlen, with exaggerated surprise, said, “Do I hear Tully moaning about work? Our very own work-hard, play-hard, sleep-hard Tully?”

“Caught me at a tired moment, is all,” Tully said.

Marlen took a bite of fatty meat and said in a joking voice, “What’s the matter, your pecker getting all the sleep lately?”

“Fuck you, Slick,” Tully said before he could catch himself, and a change came over the table. His father set his fork down, the radio weatherman talked about highs and lows within the growing zone, and the smile on Marlen’s face, when it broke, was like a dawning.

IN THE NEXT FEW WEEKS MARLEN SEEMED TO feed on Tully’s brooding, to come slowly to life. He worked with barbells in the basement and cut down on sweets. He walked jauntily out to his tractor, whistled while pulling ticks from the dog, sang in the shower.

It won’t hurt
When I fall down off this barstool . . .

Tully knew that whether brother or half-brother, he should’ve been happy about this change in Marlen, but he wasn’t, not at all. All he heard in Marlen’s voice was a McCreedylike cheeriness that just made him sourer.

“Your brother finally getting some?” April asked.

“Maybe in the ass,” Tully said, and turned to April, who didn’t laugh.

“You’re really getting yourself an attitude,”she said.

Ella put it another way. “For one full month now you’ve been like someone else,” she said, and kept her arms folded against a little breeze. It was almost dusk. They stood near the last of her mother’s garden, a few tomatoes, some soft squash. Tully sucked his molar and stared off toward a field of bleached-out vines.

“Your dad don’t get those beans in soon, they’ll be blowing all over the county.”

After a silence Ella said, “It’s like all the time I’m with somebody that looks like Tully but isn’t Tully at all.”

He narrowed his eyes and turned on her. “Or maybe vice versa. Maybe this is the real thing.” He stared not into her eyes but just above them, at the fuzzy eyebrows. “You want to know what’s got hold of me?” He wanted to tell her about McCreedy, and thought he was going to, but when he opened his mouth, he heard himself telling her instead about his father catching him and April showering together—“showering” was his one concession to her feelings. Ella turned away, and when her shoulders began to tremble, he knew she was crying. He would see later that making her cry might’ve been his intention, but now he said, “Ella, for chrissakes, c’mon.” She turned away when he tried to face her. “Hey, you knew April and me were like that.”

Ella made for the house. She stopped, though. She came back. “I know what you do. I know what you and her do. I saw you once out by the river on top of your car, both of you thinking you were something unusually wonderful, even though it looked uncomfortable to me.”She caught her breath. “So that’s not it. But if what’s been troubling you for a month is that your father caught you and her”—here Ella both lowered and tightened her voice—“doing it, then I don’t want to hear about it, because you telling me something like this means you’re thinking of me as your little friend, and the one thing I’m not, you . . . birdbrain, is your little friend.” She must’ve sensed the unserious effect of “birdbrain,” because for the first time her cheeks pinkened. She moved half-running toward the yard, and then her mother—what, Tully wondered, had she heard?—held open the back door, and Ella disappeared into the lighted opening of the house.

Tully saw April the next day, and again on Thursday. On Friday she was working a new shift, serving cocktails, in Alliance, and Tully was supposed to meet buddies at The Spur in Goodnight, but he didn’t have the spirit for it. He tried phoning Ella, but Mrs. Smalley was screening the calls, which, he figured, was about what he deserved for going out with a girl still living at home.

Tully wandered out behind the barn, leaned against the fence, and listened to the crickets and the shush of the river on the bridge piles. He found his point of red light in the distance. He wanted to pass on his thoughts to somebody, but didn’t know who. It was cool. From somewhere beyond the water came the smell of woodsmoke, and all at once the season seemed to have turned without his noticing. Tully, to his surprise, was about to start crying, when off in the dark the old mare began nickering and fidgeting.

Tully turned. There, moving along the pens toward the mare, was the outline of his father. “Dessert!” he sang out in a soft voice and rattled a paper bag. “Didja think I’d forget?”

Tully sat quiet and watched his father dip bits of squash in a small jar of molasses and feed them one by one to the old mare. When they were gone, he carefully folded the sack flat, stroked the mare’s nose, and returned to the house.

What Tully did then was nothing planned out. He just walked in, went over to where his father was reading the paper, and said, “A fat, pink-faced man named McCreedy came by about a month ago.”

His father’s face looked as if a window shade had suddenly snapped up, showing a version of him Tully was never meant to see, a softer, younger, scareder version. After a second or so he got the shade back down. He blinked and stared evenly at Tully. “So?”

“This McCreedy said our mother didn’t die in Kansas. He said she ran off with him to California.”

His father’s eyes slid away. In a reciting-style voice he said, “That is a lie. Your mother is dead.”He laid the open newspaper across himself like a lap robe. “What did you tell Marlen?”

“Nothing. Not for me to tell.”

“Nothing to tell,” his father said, and closed his eyes.

IT WAS A BAD WINTER. IT WENT ON AND ON AND on. Snow began in early October, and by November the downstairs windows were darkened by drifts. Blizzards came once in January and twice in March, when several calves were lost. The last blizzard was the worst. Pheasants turned into the wind and died where they stood. “Imports,” said Coates, Sr.—worth noting, because in the course of the winter he all but gave up speech. He meant the pheasants weren’t indigenous, had been brought in from China, couldn’t cope.

He’d installed a double-drum woodstove in the Quonset, and he spent long days there repairing everything on the place that needed repair, from machinery to old chairs. The routine was slow and steady, returning something fixed and hauling off to the Quonset something broken. He never showed off his work, never looked at who was in a room. “He’s like a ghost,”April said one day. “Ever notice how a door doesn’t make a sound when he passes through it?" Tully noticed plenty. He watched his father wearing his greasy down jacket even in the house, moving slowly from room to room, looking straight ahead with half-alive eyes. His father began to smell. Tully wished his father were one or the other, dead or alive, which he supposed was how it could get with people you were obliged to love but didn’t.

Tully saw April about once a week, depending. She’d rented a place in Alliance and taken a job doing some kind of dancing. Tully didn’t ask for specifics, but he could guess at its nature. He didn’t see Ella. She’d once come into the bar where April danced. “She was with some farmer,” April said. “It was no good, her being there. I couldn’t dance at all like I like.” Every night that he could Marlen went into town, where, forty pounds slimmer and in a new set of clothes, he for a time consistently drew double takes. He went to dances, he went to bars. “Call me a socializing fool,” he said.

In late April the number-two and number-five alfalfa fields took a hard freeze, the block on the old Case cabless cracked, and the hydraulic on the flathed truck began to work only sometimes. By this time Tully’s father had entered a tidying phase, cleaning out the basement, his desk, the kitchen cabinets. Like Marlen, he didn’t eat much, but while Marlen grew lean, Coates, Sr., just got small. He kept punching new holes in his belt—the end lolled down like the tongue of a tired dog.

April, who was driving a new Thunderbird, one night mentioned in passing that a Lebanese had married her, but strictly for immigration reasons. His name was Essa; he worked for the railroad, in management; they lived in the same house but separate rooms; and her marriage didn’t mean anything needed to change between her and Tully. One day in May he saw them coming out of Gibson Discount in Alliance. Seeing her was like seeing a high school friend dressed up as an adult in the junior play. April was wearing a pantsuit. The Lebanese was in slacks and a tie, his graying hair combed straight back, smoking a cigarette and pushing a new red rotary lawn mower across the asphalt parking lot. He looked forty. “Thirty-two,” April told Tully a few days later.

On the first warm day in June, Tully’s father drove into town and came back with sweets. He didn’t eat his supper but afterward heated Hershey’s fudge sauce and put out mountainous sundaes for all three of them, ReddiWip, almonds, cherries, the works. He ate slowly. When he finished his, he made himself another, and when that bowl was empty, he began on the jar of maraschino cherries. He ate them one by one. Finally the cherries were gone, and his father, running his finger into the syrup at the bottom of the jar, said, “Where’s the flathed parked at?”

The next day his father rode the old mare out to work on the truck’s hydraulics, rode out carrying a wooden toolbox with a wide leather strap tacked to it for a handle — like some old-fashioned country doctor, Tully imagined. When he hadn’t come back by noon. Tully went out on the ATV and found him up at the river field, smashed between the frame and lift bed of the six-ton truck filled with alfalfa silage. He was unquestionably dead. The hydraulic worked when Tully tried it, but when the bed raised, all he saw was the way the scalp had moistly torn free and the way a bolt had made a neat hole in one of the broken parts of the skull. Tully lifted the body away and laid it down in the turnrow and covered the smashed-in part of it with his shirt. He stood aside then and heaved, but nothing came up. He began to hear a sound. It was the old horse, tethered to the fence by a lunge line, tail-slapping her rump for flies.

That night, after they’d taken Coates, Sr., off on a gurney, after all the telephone calls, after two of the neighbors had come with casseroles, April ended a long silence by saying, “This’ll probably sound bad, but it was almost like he was already dead. This just sort of makes it official.”

Tully nodded. Her words seemed right, and yet they didn’t account for how sudden the final part of the process felt. “You know,” he said, “all that ice cream is probably still in him.”

They were out at the porch stoop, April and Marlen sitting on it, Tully standing nearby. A mild westerly carried cottonwood fluff, the sound of buzzing electrical wires, the smell of fermenting silage. Tully could see the relay tower if he leaned a little. He wanted to pass on some word to his father, but he had the terrible feeling that he’d lost the right to believe in that sort of thing. He leaned back and closed his eyes. His resentment of his father had slipped away—he could hardly remember what it had felt like. That didn’t seem funny to him. What seemed funny was how it had been converted to taking his father as is, and that was funny, in two different ways: one, that the minute you took a wider view of the way your father lived was the minute you realized he was a dead man, and two, that if you’d opened up to this view sooner instead of looking askance, he might’ve had enough room to make a decent life in. It was all pretty disappointing.

Out of the silence Marlen said, “This is the first time in my life where I can’t even begin to think right,” and in that moment a feeling unlike any other Tully had ever had for Marlen welled up suddenly inside him. He reached over and laid a hand on Marten’s shoulder, began to work gently at the muscle there, felt Marlen only just slightly give himself up to it.

After another little while April stood up and said she’d like to stay longer but she had told Essa she’d be home an hour ago. Marlen stirred himself and said yeah, maybe he’d take off too. Tully went to a knoll and watched their taillights part, the Thunderbird moving west toward Highway 87 and Alliance, Marlen’s big Duster heading north toward Highway 20 and Goodnight.

He walked to the tack room and took the bridle down from where his father always hung it. When he came out of the barn, somebody was there, a tall dark form, over near the cottonwood.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” Ella said.

Tully walked toward her, talking. “How long you been here?”

“Dunno.” She ducked her head. “Not that long.”

He looked around. “Where’d you park?”

“Up the way. I had a feeling she might be here.”

“She married an A-rab,” Tully said. “Talk about funny.”

Ella nodded at the bridle. “Going somewhere?”

“For a ride, yeah.” He stood staring at her. “Wanna come along?”

Ella said sure, and they were walking our toward the horse shed when she stopped. “There’s one thing I have to know. I have to know if your feelings for me have gone sour.”

Tully gave a low laugh and said no, he didn’t think they had.

The two of them headed out for the truck. They rode bareback, the old horse rolling slowly beneath them. The moon was mostly hidden, and in the dark the rolled bales in the river field looked like sleeping sheep. “I like this,” Ella said. “But how come we’re doing it?”

Tully didn’t answer. What he meant to do was retrace this just the way it had happened, get it straight in his mind.

When they got to the truck, Tully tied up the mare where his father had tied her. He started up the engine and tried the hydraulic. It went right up, the box tilting at forty-five degrees and holding. Tully stared at it a long time and then stepped forward to where his father had stood and, bending at the waist, leaned his head under the box. He stayed there and reached back with his left hand for the lever. It reached. It reached easy. Tully kept his hand tight around it for a second or two, thinking, and then stood up straight, stepped aside, and shot the lever back. The box slammed down fiercely, metal on metal, Tully let out a little grunt, and the truck jumped on its springs.

Tully had stood once in a circle of players up on the football field watching one of his buddies not come back to life. The silence then was like the silence now. It made loud the buzz of crickets and the blatting of a ewe. It made the world too mysterious for human beings.

Finally, Ella said, “That was horrible.”

Tully kept staring at the truck. What his father had done wasn’t right, he knew that, but at least it was something of his own, an act he had thought out and had completed and had taken responsibility for. His.

Ella and Tully rode back the way they came, but slower, looser-reined, the old mare with her smooth, rolling walk mostly finding her own way. When they got down along the river, Tully felt Ella behind him making some adjustment to her blouse. Then she rolled up his flannel shirt. He’d almost decided he’d misguessed her intent when he suddenly felt her bare skin against his back, and Tully was caught short at how fiercely he craved every single aspect of Ella Smalley, top to bottom, inside and out, A to Z.

TULLY’S FIRSTBORN WAS A BOY. THEY NAMED him Russell, after nobody. Russell Christopher Coates. When the boy was old enough, Tully would tell him bedside tales about a kid—a pistol—named R.C., who, come to think of it, looked a lot like Russell Christopher, except R.C. was left-handed, not right. This R.C. had a soapbox that took him to fairs, rodeos, and whatnot, and got its power from no one knew where; it would just keep taking him from one interesting place to another. “R.C.” was a name his pals loved to call out, because it would get up in the air and carry from county to county and sometimes on cold nights from state to state, which, Tully said, would often scare the people in South Dakota. These stories would always end with R.C.’s worries melting away like peppermints, at night while he slept, an idea Tally had gotten from a Willie Nelson song. Tully himself didn’t care for peppermints, but whenever he was in Scottsbluff he stocked up from Woolworths, so that last thing each night, if Russell promised not to chew it, Tully could take a peppermint from a tin and lay it on his son’s tongue before saying good night.