Dad rolls out of bed and takes a shot of bourbon and checks the horse race sheet. He puts in a call and, after coughing up phlegm, places bets. We came out to Montana so he could die. He lives like it’s not happening. He’s drunk all the time and chases college girls around. He’s been trying hard at death forever. My father’s a man bent on erasure. He hangs up and says we should get ready to go hunting. He coughs and coughs. I’ve stopped noting when the forearm he coughs into comes away with blood.
“Why ain’t you found a good woman to settle you down, yet?” he asks. This is one of our only conversations.
I take to cleaning his rifle.
“Tell me a story about mom,” I say.
“Those stories aren’t for you,” he says and I ask him to hand me the bottle of bourbon.
When I was little, he used to take me to rodeos and monster truck demolition derbies, some sort of training ground. We’d go to Bonanza buffets after the rodeos. He worked in a food processing plant far enough from the city that he considered himself country.
He starts talking about ticks. How we’ll have to be careful and check for them. How much they want blood. How they’re hungry. How you can trust a hungry thing and how that hunger drives it. He’s talking about manhood and cowboys, about things he thinks he believes I don’t know a thing about. I tell him we recite different mythologies.
On the way out of town, we stop at this bar that opens early and I tell dad I need to use the bathroom and he asks why I didn’t think of that before we left. I don’t say that I need time alone, away from him, even if he’s dying.
Inside, a young woman cleans tables. She’s attractive in a familiar way with a unique, prominent nose. Her hips move like lullabies. I imagine most men forget her soon after they meet her. She wears a dress that’s too nice and she smiles like this is the kind of place you smile at strange men.
I sit down and ask for any hard liquor with a burn. She brings over two shot glasses and a bottle. Her smile hasn’t quit. Outside, my dad leans on the horn. I tell her, let’s do three shots each and call it good. She asks why I’m here. She can tell I’m not from this place.
“I brought my dad here to hunt. That’s him abusing the horn. He’s dying,” I say.
“I’m sorry. What’s he got?” she asks.
“He’s dying of the same thing all old men are dying of,” I say.
We take our shots in silence and I give her fifty dollars and my phone number. I tell her that if she’s not busy later, I’d like to live a different life for a while.
I help dad climb a small ridge because his lungs and legs can’t handle the ascent. We set up and wait. Out in the wilderness, I stay close to him. I let him do the hunting. There are long stretches where we say nothing, which is the same as when we’re actually talking. In this country, the sun’s big in that open sky and feels like it’s trying to burn up the whole world. Everything is close and feels like home. Driving in, it had felt like we drove up and up for days. It felt good to be in a country that didn’t feel like industry and smog.
“Sometimes I think if I eat of an animal that I’ve killed,” Dad says, out of nowhere, “that I’ll be possessed of its wild. I’ll be part of all of this.” I drink from a flask. The burn of the sun and the immediacy of this landscape make me feel suddenly aware of myself in this place, exposed to everything.
Dad tries to give me the rifle. He thinks this is going to fulfill some version of prophecy. I tell him I’d rather not, that I don’t speak in violence.
He takes my hands and puts the rifle there and molds me around the gun. He tells me to let it become part of me. He tells me to expect kickback and bruising and how to breath before taking a shot. I pretend that I’m learning and don’t tell him I’m too drunk.
When my mother left, he spent all his time working. He wouldn’t drink when he thought about her. He broke himself as a way of coping. I cleaned my fingernails. I could not change a tire properly. We were different men, if we were men at all.
“I don’t think this is in me,” I say.
“The hunt?” he asks.
“I don’t think any of this is in me,” I say.
He says nothing and we wait. When a group of pronghorns finally appear and the clouds give way and there’s just enough light, Dad talks me through the shot. When I fire, the kickback punches me above the eye and a red gash opens up. I miss the pronghorns and they scatter. Dad hands over a handkerchief for the blood, most of which pools in my right hand. I don’t wipe the blood away. Dad says I have to make it stop, as if I don’t know. I feel the heat of the blood. It drips and pools in the dirt.
Once Dad and I return to the motel, Zarah, the woman from the bar, calls and asks me to come to her place. I ask Dad if he’ll be okay when I leave and he says he’ll survive. On the drive over, I decide I could love Zarah and we could be happy. When she opens the door, she asks about the bandages over my eye, puts her hand up to touch the wound.
She gets beer and we go down to a river by her house. It’s still light out, but the light is dying quickly and we build a fire together. We drink and eventually her hand grazes mine.
“I feel like I can live out here,” I say.
“Where do you live now?” she asks.
“I don’t,” I say.
It gets dark and we kiss and take off our clothes. I ask if we can just lay there in the grass for a moment. She runs her fingers across my chest and I feel warm. We talk about all the things we want to do and not about the ghosts haunting us. The sex is clumsy and there’s dirt all over us and sparks from the fire bite our skin. Sweat loosens the bandage and the cut bleeds again. Some of it drips on her breast while I’m on top of her. I try to wipe the blood away and she stops me.
“I want to remember you this way,” she says. We could love each other, but I know we won’t and I’ll leave soon. This will only be a myth we never tell anyone. After, when we’re in those moments of tenderness, she asks how I’ll remember my father.
“I’ll remember that I am not him,” I say.
“And, that’s okay?” she asks.
I kiss her and tell her I only want to talk of good things. She takes me down to the river. There is the rushing sound of water in the dark. Zarah takes my hand and leads me into the water. It is cold and feels nice passing over my shins. My phone rings and it’s my dad. I answer but he’s dialed me from his pocket and all I hear is him singing along to some song on the radio. He sings some words about roads and I let Zarah listen to his voice. I take the phone back when he stops singing. I tell him goodnight, though he never hears me, and I hang up. Zarah puts her hands in the water and says the ocean is too far away. We hold hands and she leans back. She says to let go and let the water take her.
Justin Lawrence Daugherty lives and writes in Atlanta. He runs Sundog Lit and his chapbook–Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise–is out from Passenger Side Books.