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Snapshots of My Redneck Brother

And other undeveloped negatives

by BK Loren

Published in the March/April 2007 issue of Orion magazine



PHOTOGRAPH | LARRY MILLS

WE’RE AT THE LONESTAR SALOON, which doesn’t live up to its romantic, Old West name. It sits smack-dab between Chili’s and Applebee’s. We do have to walk through two saloon-style doors to enter, and my brother Roy is wearing elk-skin clothes (and a Peterbilt ball cap that sits high on his head), and he’s carrying a six-shooter, as he always does, and his wife’s wearing an actual bearskin coat. But the restaurant itself is just another generic link on the chain of what the locals call Munchie Lane.

Roy and his wife, Shondra, both order whiskey, baked potatoes, a slab of beef, bloody rare, and a salad. Shondra also orders a bottle of wine.

When the salad comes, Roy picks at the croutons with his fork like a kid picking at peas. “What’s this stale bread on my lettuce?” he says, barely moving his lips and speaking way back in his throat with an accent I dropped and he perfected somewhere between playing tag in the yard of our childhood home and herding sheep in Wyoming for a few seasons. He eats the iceberg lettuce.

Shondra drinks her whiskey and most of the bottle of wine and, after Roy pays the bill, shoves the near-empty wine bottle into her coat pocket. “We paid for it, we’re taking it,” she says. Good point. In the parking lot, she sighs and looks up at the stars. “Yeah, I’m gonna go back to the Weinerbagel, take the noodles out, make myself a stiff drink, smoke a bowl, pop a Xanax, and go to bed.”

The Weinerbagel is a Winnebago. The noodles are their three dogs in the Winnebago. Shondra is Mormon.

The occasion of Roy and Shondra’s returning to Colorado from their home in Utah is my mother’s death. The next day, at the memorial viewing, my brother, with elk skin and bolo tie, the ghosted outline of the Peterbilt still on his head, sits stiff-backed in the pew and never stirs. He blinks slowly, breaking his otherwise constant stare. He’s always reticent—Shondra does the talking. But today his reticence is ready to shatter. If you brushed by him, or said the wrong thing, he might stand up and punch you once, then sit back down, motionless. You would not come back at him with a punch of your own. Because, I forgot to say, he carries the gun to the funeral, too. Shondra carries a small paper bag of vodka in the bearskin pocket where the wine was last night. It’s barely past noon, and already she loves everyone. Her breath burns more aromatic than the incense. She says, “I love you, you know that? I really love you.”

In the background, my mother lies in state.

Before the funeral, I had asked the funeral director to play “Kind and Generous,” by Natalie Merchant, as the final song. It’s an upbeat tune of thanks and honor.

At the service, when the joyous song breaks the somber mood, Shondra stands up, thrusts her pinkie and forefinger into the air, and bellows, “Rock on, Mom!”

That’s my brother. That’s his wife.

That’s me there, sitting next to them in the pew. I’m the raging far-left liberal with a few college degrees and a CV, which my brother, when he speaks of me, proudly, as he always does, calls a CB. I’m against logging (he’s a part-time logger); I’m an almost-vegetarian (he works weekends in a slaughterhouse); I don’t hunt (except with him, which I’ll tell you about in a minute); and I’m gay. His wife tells me every chance she gets that she accepts this in me. “I want you to know, you’re the same as us, same as any of our friends. In my eyes, y’know what I mean? Y’ain’t no different. None. At all. See what I’m saying?”

IT WAS SO EARLY IN THE MORNING it was still night. I sat, looking out my apartment window, excited to see my brother for the first time since I’d started college. I noticed the sky, shiny as a black widow’s abdomen, stars like little red and gold hourglasses splattered across it; then Roy’s headlights bent around the corner. I shouldered my gear and headed out.

I opened the truck door, saw Roy and Shondra behind the Marlboro mist, and climbed into the cab. Roy nodded hello, stepped on the gas, and shoved a bag of donuts my way. I declined. He gave me a look and dunked his donut in the thermos lid of steaming coffee, steering with his knees.

Shondra conked out after saying good morning, and the rattle and hum of her snore was the only sound in the predawn dusk, until Roy nudged her a good one in the ribs.

She bolted awake and elbowed him back. “What the hell?”

“You’re snoring!”

“And you’re breathing. In and out, in and out, all day long— the monotony.”

They both held a tough gaze for a second, then cracked up laughing. Roy popped a cassette into the deck, and Bob Seger serenaded us up I-70, into the mountains.

When we arrived at the site, Roy and Shondra set up camp. There wasn’t a lot of campfire chat. After a round of blank early-morning stares Shondra hitched herself up to a standing position and crawled back into the tent. Roy and I headed out.

We walked together into the woods, our feet sinking soundlessly into beds of soft grayish-blue fir needles. Just as the sun tipped over the bony-backed mountains, we ducked into a copse of aspen trees. In that light, the gold leaves turned bright enough to hurt my eyes, sharp dots of light in the lifting fog.

Roy sat with his back against the trunk of a tree. He smiled and patted the ground next to him. I felt like a kid again, like Roy and I were in our old tree fort, and no one else knew it, and this was the life.

We didn’t say anything for the next four hours. Time passed like time should pass—rich and quiet and all your own. We walked, occasionally. Then we sat. We didn’t have to talk to know when to walk and when to sit. It was cold and the woods smelled nutty and sweet and dusty, the way autumn woods always smell; that’s what I noticed. What Roy noticed was the fall leaves rustling in a particular way. Even if I were not his sister, I believe I could have seen his thoughts because he thinks them so hard. His posture changed. His back straightened against the tree he’d been leaning against and he lowered his eyes. Seconds later, seven does spilled from the aspen into the meadow. I could tell by the smallest shift of his gaze that he was offering me first shot.

In that second I heard the blood rushing through my ears like little rivers, and then the sound poured over and out of me, and the woods throbbed all around me, and I couldn’t hear a damn thing except this whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, and it made my hands shake just a little, and Roy saw them. That’s when he caught my eye; I nodded, consenting. It was not my shot.

The deer grazed. He waited, we waited, oh, I don’t know, maybe forty-five minutes. That breathing that Shondra had complained about—it seemed to stop. Roy was perfectly still.

If you’re not a hunter, what happened next may disturb you. It disturbs me. Because it was beautiful. I swear it felt for a moment like Roy and I had stepped into the crack between two worlds. For no apparent reason—no difference in sound or movement or mood—the deer stopped grazing. They became as still as Roy. Then there was the shot and the scattering of the deer that ran like seeds might blow across the land, and one doe fell to her knees. Then to her neck. Then to her side.

The click of the gun cocking, the blast, the sound of the doe falling, and the crash of the rest of the herd taking off were all one sound. Time layered, no sequence.

Then we snapped back to this world. It was no longer beautiful. I was watching a living being die. It was ugly, as death is always ugly. And it was mean, and it was hard, and it was bloody, and life wanted to hang on, it always does. We field-dressed the deer, then returned to camp.

WE WERE BEST FRIENDS. I was seven years younger than Roy, but the gap never really mattered. We were inseparable.

We lived in a smallish town in central Colorado that was no longer rural, but not yet suburban. When my parents first moved there, the place was open prairie and orchards; soon after, a highway was cut through the drought-scarred land, and it turned our neighborhood from a content little community to a place that longed to be noticed as travelers passed us by. The only structures we could see from our westward-facing window were the distant smokestacks of Rocky Flats.

“They make triggers,” our father told us. “For atom bombs.” I saw Roy’s eyes light with wonder.

We spent most of our days outdoors. Roy had pieced together a four-wheel-drive ‘57 Chevy from junkyard parts, and we spent our afternoons ripping through mountains and rivers, thrilled with the power we felt in our bones, the rumble of the engine, the accelerator obeying the slightest tap of the foot, taking us wherever we wanted to go. We had motorcycles, too, also junkyard masterpieces. We took them with us hunting. After the kill, we tore through the woods, the high-pitched ping-ping-ping of our two-stroke engines screaming through the peaceful trees, wounding the terrain, polluting like only a two-stroke can.

We, not just he, smoked Marlboros back then. The sting in the lungs felt good, the pleasure of knowing we were playing a part in our destinies. We had a good idea of what disease would get us in the end, and there was power in the fact that we would be the ones to invite it. Power, too, in the way we spoke—fuck grammar and the way we were told to talk. Our mouths formed an accent that was not southern, not northeastern, not West Coast, but one a them middle-a-nowhere, redneck ways of talking that had nothing to do with place.

Some days, when we couldn’t sneak out a car or motorcycle, we’d walk the land behind our house. Toward Rocky Flats there was a rocky outcropping where we liked to hunt for rattlesnakes. We named this place Skeleton Ridge, not for any bones we’d found there, but for a hard white spine of quartz that ran skinny through the otherwise red Colorado dirt.

We didn’t kill rattlesnakes when we saw them. We just watched them, their beauty. We sat still, the high-altitude heat needling the bare skin on our arms and necks. A few times, we saw a snake strike a rodent. I say “saw,” but there was no real seeing involved. One second we were looking at a lazy snake; the next second, the snake had half a mouse hanging out of its unhinged jaws. Three or four surges of the rattler’s slithering body, and the snake had a mouse-shaped Adam’s apple. Then the bulge slowly lost its form.

Like I said, we never saw the strike. The sound of it—a sharp rasp of motion—was a memory by the time the strike registered.

Once, after a day of unsuccessful searching, Roy and I gave up. We found a soft-curved rock and lay back, soaking up sun. It was the last day of summer before Roy entered high school. I’m not sure how long we lay there, holding onto that last sweet tendril of freedom, but I can still hear the sound, that familiar sharp rasp. Roy and I bolted upright. After that, the world turned surreal.

There was the yelp of a dog, and as we turned we saw a muscular boxer that had leapt at least five feet into the air. A thick, thrashing rattlesnake dangled from the dog’s leg.

I can’t tell you what happened in the next split-second. One moment, Roy was sitting next to me; the next, he was a skinny slash in the midst of the confusing scene. Before the dog hit the ground, Roy had the tail of the snake in his grasp. Then there was the dreamlike image of the snake’s body sailing in midair. Roy had ripped the snake from the dog’s leg and flung it a distance away. The rattler hit the ground with a soft thud, red dust flying up around it in an S. The dog landed, tried to run, but faltered and fell.

The owners of the boxer, a man and woman, came into view next. The woman curled herself around her dog. The man stood above her, his gun out, pointed at the snake.

“No!” Roy cried. “Don’t kill it. Don’t hurt it!”

We heard the ping of a gunshot, and another ping, and yet another, and then everything went still.

Roy saw the snake, its body blown to smithereens, and he burst out crying.

“For Chrissakes, kid,” the man said. He rapped Roy on the head with his knuckles. “What are ya? A baby?” He pushed his wife away from the dog, then wrestled the boxer into his arms, saying, “Come on, boy, come on!” He made a tourniquet of the dog’s leash. The struggle weakened the animal, and by the time the man was able to lift his dog from the ground, it was dead.

On the way home, Roy hiccuped, holding back his tears. He collapsed to the ground about halfway, held his knees to his chest, and sobbed. I sat with my arms around my older brother, cradling him as he rocked. When he stood up again, he knocked me away with his fist in my stomach.

That was the last time Roy and I hunted for rattlesnakes.

I LEFT HOME AFTER HIGH SCHOOL and, through a circuitous route, ended up attending a university. Roy moved to a tent in the mountains. He was married by then, had two kids, and the only way we could stay in touch was if he called me from the pay phone when he went to town to buy groceries.

Our conversations were, well, they weren’t conversations. They say Inuits—actually they say Eskimos, but PC language has changed all that—have more than a hundred different words for snow. Roy’s “yeah” is kind of the reverse of that. It’s one word with a hundred different meanings. Take for instance when I learned about recycling in college. I knew Roy loved the wilderness, and I was excited to share this idea with him. “Yeah,” he said, meaning: I’m not washing out any mayonnaise jars and mind your own damn business.

“Bush can barely construct a sentence, Bro. I can’t believe you like him.”

“Yeah.” Subtext: Our president talks like me. That’s pretty cool.

“Roy, Rush’s talk show is not a viable source of news. It’s biased, provincial, and retrogressive.”

“Yeah.” In other words, speak English, Sis.

The phone was not really Roy’s medium, so one morning I decided to visit him. I parked on the road, then started the mile or so trek to his canvas abode. On the way, I passed his small son and daughter sitting in a claw-foot bathtub, a fire burning under the tub. They’d woken at four, they said, to haul the water, build the fire, and take a bath.

I trekked on through the woods and finally found Roy’s tent. It was surrounded with M-16s set up on tripods. Actually, there were only three—but, to me, when you’re speaking of semi-automatic weapons, three constitutes a surrounding. The whole scene planted a deep fear in me. A fear of Roy, of his way of living; a sudden, unshakable fear of the undercurrent of violence in my own growing up.

WE RARELY SAW EACH OTHER AFTER THAT. I finished college and went on to grad school. Whenever I told stories of Roy to my university buddies, their eyes lit up with interest and wonder, like Roy’s eyes had when Dad told us about Rocky Flats and the bomb. None of my college friends had ever hunted; that alone made Roy romantically cool in their eyes. They may have been living some version of the American Dream, but Roy was living the American Myth—the one of cowboys and guns, of a lot of action and not a lot of talk.

“I told a friend about you, and he’s taken up hunting,” I said to Roy once, grappling for some common ground. “He says he wants to pay his karmic debt for eating meat. Cool, huh?”

“Guy wants to hunt he should hunt,” said Roy. “Guy wants to pay his karmic debt he should come down to the slaughterhouse and work with me on the weekends.”

I only went hunting with Roy that once while I was in college. On that trip, when he offered me the first shot, I realized that I’d already taken my last. I’d traded the power of guns and engines for the power of privilege.

I saw him again when I came home for the holidays from my graduate program in Iowa. He greeted me with a hefty punch to my right arm, and I returned the affection with the same slug. He responded by pulling a Saturday night special from his pocket and pointing it at me as we stood in front of the Christmas tree. Our family and guests were preparing dinner in the kitchen, Bing Crosby singing on the stereo.

Roy chuckled, then withdrew the gun. He cradled it in his palm like a pet lizard and said, “I can get you one for Christmas if you want.”

I said okay. It’s hard to turn down an offer from someone who’s just held you at gunpoint. But I never followed through to pick up my present.

The next time I saw him was twenty years later at the Lone Star Saloon before Mom’s memorial. Anticipating that meeting had made me by turns giddy and apprehensive. My friends now were all professionals, a number of them were gay, and all of us were “alternative” in some way or another. When we thought of people like Roy, we also thought of people like Matthew Shepard. I recalled sitting with Roy once as he and his friends laughed about the fact that the cabin of two gay men near where he lived (in his tent) had burned to the ground. “I did that,” Roy said, with pride. He was joking. I hope.

AFTER MY MOTHER’S FUNERAL Roy came over to my house, which is just down the street from where he and I had grown up. Russian olives had begun to take over my backyard, and Roy always carried a chainsaw in the Weinerbagel.

“Where’s Shondra?” I asked.

“Ah, she’s got some friends,” he said, waving his hand behind him.

I was a little stymied. I’d grown fond of the dynamic between Roy and Shondra. It had been over two decades since I’d talked to my brother alone.

Roy walked through the back gate, studied the tree problem, then reset his Peterbilt cap on his head. “Yeah, we’ll get this taken care of right quick.”

He walked with a limp now, so off balance and rickety he looked like he might have two wooden legs under his jeans. I watched him make his way to the RV, his long gray biker-braid trailing down his bent spine, and my heart ached. He lifted the heavy Husqvarna, and I called out, “You want some help?”

He gave me his are-you-kidding glance and fired up the chainsaw. In his hands, the saw seemed like a needle and thread. He wheedled it into tight places between branches and trunks and, in minutes, my thorny jungle was leveled and the branches and trunk pieces stacked neatly.

“You want to come inside for some tea?” I asked.

“Tea?”

“Or I’ve got coffee.”

“Yeah.”

Roy had never been inside my house. We didn’t say much. Occasionally, he stood up and looked at one of the photos of Mom and Dad I had placed on a shelf.

After a while, he said, “Well, Sis, I better git.”

“Oh, okay,” I said.

“Don’t wanna keep Shondra waiting.”

“Nooo,” I said.

Neither one of us moved.

Then virtually out of nowhere, a voice called out, “Yoo-hoo!” I peeked into the living room and saw Vernal Meyers, the woman who’d lived across from us when we were growing up, at my door.

Roy leaned across the table and whispered, “Jesus Christ, that’s Vernal Meyers.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So I’m sure I stole something from her or broke something, or maybe wrecked her car.”

“She’s carrying flowers, Roy, and a casserole. For Mom.”

I’ll be damned if Roy did not blush.

Vernal let herself in and Roy’s face broke into this huge toothy grin like the kid I’d grown up with. “Well, I’m not in prison,” he said.

“Lightning strike me now, how’d you break out?” Vernal said. She whacked Roy’s chest with the bouquet, then turned to me. “I am so sorry about your mother.” The floral weapon turned peaceful when she handed it to me. Then it was right back to Roy. They talked in half sentences with references I couldn’t follow and shared news of kids on the block, half a dozen of whom were, in fact, in prison.

Vernal’s kids had also avoided doing major time, but she’d lost one of her eight in Vietnam, and now she had two grandsons in the military.

“Brady’s in Kurdistan. Shane’s in some place called Yusifiya,” she said. “I don’t know where that is. Either one of them.”

“Fuck that fucking war,” Roy said.

Vernal closed her eyes like she was praying. “I don’t know how this country got into this mess.”

“Has something to do with who’s running it,” I said. It came out before I’d had time to think.

Roy and Vernal both shook their heads. “You think I voted for Bush?” Roy said to me.

I didn’t answer.

“I went Kerry all the way, Sis.”

“Bullshit,” I said.

“No bullshit. I like Bush, yeah. He reminds me of me. But hell if I want someone like me running the country.”

“God forbid,” laughed Vernal.

“C’mon, Roy. You voted for a guy who supports gun control?”

“I don’t give a shit about gun control. I don’t own any guns.”

I gave him the you-liar look every kid sister occasionally flashes her big brother.

“Not according to the government, I don’t.”

I smiled. Of course. Making our own rules was part of Roy’s and my working-class, Colorado upbringing. We figured the rules were never fairly applied to everyone, so why not conjure up our own code of ethics, our own manners, even our own way of talking.

Roy and Vernal stood shooting the shit a while longer and eventually I joined in. As we spoke, I felt that old accent working its way across my tongue. Memory quit washing over me; it warshed over me now. It felt good.

By the time Roy and I saw Vernal to the door, night was falling, a chill settling in. We waved to Vernal, then stood side-by-side on the porch, soaking in the silhouette of the Rockies. Roy said, “All right then, Sis,” and that was that. He patted my shoulder farewell, and I watched him limp down the sidewalk. It was like a limb of me being sawed off, not a limb I used much anymore, but I needed it for balance. I could already feel myself stumbling.

“Hey, Bro,” I called out.

He looked back.

“Say goodbye to Shondra for me.”

“Sure.”

“Maybe we’ll keep in touch?”

He nodded, then used the side-view mirror to pull himself up into the RV. I watched him light a cigarette, the smoke curling around the bill of his Peterbilt cap. He squinted through the glare of the setting sun and hit the accelerator.

I saw his hand shoot out from the window, waving as he rounded the corner.

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BK Loren is the author of The Way of the River and is working on her first novel, Thieves. Her work has been published in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2004, Parabola, and Going Alone. She is a winner of the D.H. Lawrence Fiction Award as well as the Dana Award.

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