It wasn’t what he thought, the return to Two Mountain Valley. It was harder and it was easier. There were amends to make, he accepted that. People to generally deal with–where were there not? He had held onto the hope that Grandpa Kent would let him stay out at his place awhile, until he got his feet planted or freed. So far, so good. No one spit at him, crossed the street to avoid him. Or, at least, he thought they didn’t but it could be hard to tell. The way that town was able to keep the truth hidden had always irked him.
He knew he looked different. Bigger from near constant exercise, marked in ways not so obvious at first: tight lines around his eyes and harder mouth, the way he stood with feet apart, hands clasped before him unless at his sides, eyes forward and alert. Or how he walked, more compact movements made of watchfulness or warning. That way of life had leeched out of the cement walls, from other locked up residents and into him–despite his fighting it.
So there were a few who just nodded at him, eyes widening. Force of habit kept them cool and civil. Only a fool would tangle with Ronnie Morrissey now. Only a new woman in town would consider tossing a flirtatious smile his way. Some of the older men kept their own thoughts to themselves but it was they who said: Hello, you’re back finally, good for you, take it easy.
He’d like to change his name to something like Brad or Jonas or Craig with, say, a last one like Smith or Johns– and then get the heck out of there. “Ronnie” didn’t fit him now. But it took time to do bigger things. Hell, it took time to do things small, even when you tried to rush. Things were what they were and you had to tackle them. Determination but patience. He learned that in prison–there was so much blank time to observe things. To just cope with. But not much was any good except the first lesson of survival of the fittest–or in his case, maybe the smartest. Ronnie could hold his own–that was never a question, not in Two Mountains and not on the inside. But it was his talent for staying a few steps ahead that kept him intact for three years.
Grandpa had driven four hours to pick him up on freedom day. They sat side by side. Only a few paragraphs dropped between them during those miles. But it felt good. He let his eyes rest on the rolling earth, then mountainous landscape, more meadow grasses swaying, birds singing as if all was always well, the sky so stuffed with layered, knitted clouds and that bright blue–he thought he might go blind. Then they came to the Kent family’s small ranch where the old man had raised mostly sheep and goats for four decades. The usual gathering of llamas were eating, wandering a bit, glancing their way as the familiar truck rattled down a long drive. It was such a relief to see them Ronnie felt undone for a second. Those graceful necks, innocent faces and long ears–they were beautiful. They were good guardians of the money–that is, the sheep and goats–but Grandpa kept them for pack animals to rent as he wished, and their good wool.
Ronnie had always loved their lack of malice. Their eyes empty of doubt. He smiled at them as they slowed near the house and they offered their humming responses.
“I can use your help around here while you look for a job in town,” Grandpa Kent stated when they entered the back door. “Feeding, cleaning out the shelters and barn. Bunk upstairs in Nan’s old room. I’ll get some dinner going.”
Grandpa rummaged in the refrigerator and pulled out a casserole of leftover spaghetti with pork sausage. “I’ll heat things up as you settle in. No rush, son.”
He watched his grandson, his eyes then focusing on something unseen after Ronnie had ascended the steps. Nan and the family’s past. His wife, how she’d laugh and gab, bustle about if she was there.
Ronnie took his duffel bag and entered the room his mother had used as a kid and teen, decades ago. It could be anybody’s room now except for her graduation picture on top the scarred bedside table. Dust topped the frame and he blew at it, rubbed the smudged glass with the tail of his shirt, set it back. Just seeing that happy picture of her, a lot younger than he was now–he already didn’t want to stay too long. There was too much to remember. But he had restrictions, a parole office.
She had gotten out of that marriage at last, just took off; she wrote him about it from somewhere in California as fall gave way to winter. He got a cheery card at Christmas, then she wrote a bit in spring about her job as receptionist and the ocean’s pleasures. But never was there an address, just a postmark of Santa Cruz. It might not mean anything, really. He knew it was fear that still made her secretive.
Ronnie lay back on the bed, arms behind his neck. The pillow was soft, the bed was forgiving of his bulk and length. How would he sleep in such luxury? His eyelids drooped as he fought to keep them open. The window by the bed was wide open. That breeze from the countryside pulled in every delicate and heavy scent from the places he had loved so long. The space around him was too vast. He should set out his sparse belongings nice and neat. To mark his own space–like in prison. Nothing out of place, ever.
Everything was so unlike what he had known. This familiarity and comfort had been taken from him the moment his sentence came down. He closed his eyes. What could he do to manage all this? But that terrible night arrived fresh as yesterday, just as he’d feared. It would be worse now, he guessed, at least for awhile. He was back where it all started, more or less.
Ronnie sat up with a jerk, closed the window and curtains, went downstairs.
“Got a smoke?” he asked. The food smelled better than he’d expected. He thought it was likely due to do with being in that kitchen. With Grandpa. Free.
Grandpa Kent gestured to the cupboard where he kept his filterless cigarettes. He still smoked two a day, one with morning coffee, one before bed. Just like he had one shot of whiskey on Saturday nights.
The back yard was the start of acreage that fanned open to fields, hills and trees, then the mountain range. Ronnie filled himself with it. He eyed bruised mountain peaks wearing tall caps and silky shawls of clouds. His grandmother had told him that as a kid. They’d sit on the back porch and she’d talk and he’d ask questions here and there. My smart guy, she said, and winked at him, gave him a side hug. He liked to listen. Her voice was friendly, unlike Grandpa’s which sounded as if it had been raked over a few coals, then left out in the wild to cool and heal. She said it was his smoking; he said it was a reluctance to speak at all. But she made up for it. All the tales she’d told Ronnie–any hurts and haunts seemed less likely to pester him after she was done.
She’d passed away while he was in prison, the end of the first year. He worried he had somehow killed her, or his mother had, just the burden of them. But no, it was her congested heart worsening, then done. He got a day out but shed no tears at the burial; neither did Grandpa or Mom, not then. She’d been freed of it all. Her daughter, Nan, the troubles. If Nan just hadn’t married young, just hadn’t married that sort, he recalled her saying before the trial, rocking and holding herself. Then she’d seen her only grandson incarcerated, a horror. He thought of her every day in there, not his mother.
“Why you done it, I get that!” Grandma Kent said soon after he was arrested. “But didn’t you know it wouldn’t help, Ronnie? Nothing coulda saved her then. She was still unable to change things no matter what we tried to do for her…and now you’ve been brought down!”
“No, Grandma, she didn’t know different by then. He had her in a tight ball of a fist, she forgot what it was to live a real life. He almost got me in that clench, too. But there was something that might have changed it all; I had to do what I did, had to try for her.”
“And you won’t say just what, only that it might help her!”
“Makes no difference now. I don’t even know what all it meant,” he said truthfully and the sadness clocked him hard. Maybe Grandma knowing would make both his grandparents open to Glenn’s attack.
“So you won’t tell even me. Well, what now? How’d we lose her? Now you, too, Ronnie, you, too.”
Grandpa Kent had only sighed and shaken his head. The mournfulness rolled out, anyway, left him empty. As if his strength was drained away. But he’d never asked for anything; he had to keep Grandma going. Look after Nan somehow. Maybe he’d not been there for her enough. Maybe he was too inside himself. He had to find a way to atone for all their sins. They’d had a few loose ends over a few generations. But they’d never had criminals in the family. They’d been hard working ranchers, horse trainers, some lumbermen. They hadn’t asked for that much.
Ronnie inhaled the acrid smoke deep and coughed. He was going to quit one day. If he ever made it to that day. He shook his head to free it of darkening pessimism and wandered over to fenced acreage.
The llamas were humming and clucking their talk, rooting out some bark by a grove of trees. He’d counted eight of them. They hung together, moved together. Ronnie had known a couple of them since he was seven or so. Nearly twenty years had passed. The closest he had gotten to anyone besides his grandmother was likely those creatures munching away on grass and twigs. That was an odd truth but they listened. Heard, he believed. They asked for little in return. Llamas didn’t berate, judge or question him but accepted him day and night, in good or not-good times. They were still his angelic beasts. There was a powerful pull to them.He wanted to get close to them, feel their smart, gentle energy cover him. Guide him again.
“Time to eat!” Grandpa called out from the kitchen. “Got fresh corn and carrots, too. Food good and clean and fresh for you, son.”
It was what Tom Kent could do now, feed the boy. And wait with him. Let the passing of time do its own work.
Ronnie realized he hadn’t heard him say that much at one time in a decade.
“Man, I sure do need it,” he called back and crushed the smoldering butt with his worn out boot. He stretched mightily, reaching to the summer’s ravishing sky. A glimmer of a smile appeared, then vanished.
Ronnie was holed up with Errol back then in their step-above-crappy apartment. They both worked as mechanics at the Ford dealership, Ronnie on trial basis after finishing required courses for computer diagnostics. Everyone thought it was great he had followed Earl’s advice. He had worked at Broken Star ranch four years and decided he wasn’t suited to such a life, dawn to dusk back breaking. Earl had graduated high school a few years ahead of his friend, made a decent living at Butler Ford. And so far Ronnie had done alright. The future looked better than it had in years.
But then one Friday night came a deepening sense of unease, as happened at times like this. His mother had called him twice and it wasn’t even seven o’clock. He was at the bar with Earl, eating a burger, on his second beer. His cell phone buzzed again, and it skittered across the table to his elbow as he tried to ignore it.
“Your mom again? Better pick up.”
“Dang,” he muttered. “Mom, what now? Tell Glenn to get out for the night, sobering up at the drunk tank would be good. That’s all you can do. You’re okay, right?”
Earl watched his friend beneath thick black eyebrows. The younger man’s intelligent brown eyes shuttered as he toyed with leftover fries. He wished Ronnie’s mom had it better off. That Glenn was not a man to make an enemy of–his position made things worse. He was an almighty Deputy Sheriff, after all. And week-end drunk.
After a few more words, he hung up. Earl waited but Ronnie said nothing. He figured it must be alright until Ronnie got up, his chair shoved back angrily.
“Later, I gotta get something for Mom at their house. They’re holed up at Trail’s End Motel for the week-end–he’s calling it a getaway week-end, the idiot!–so it’s now or never.”
“But she’s alright?”
Ronnie started off, then stopped and turned. “You know how this goes. I guess so or she will be, she said, if I take care of this for her. I’ll see you tomorrow at work.”
Earl stared into his beer. He didn’t like the sound of it but it was just more drama. He was glad his own mother hadn’t remarried.
It should have been simple. She kept a duplicate key under the third red geranium planter by the back door. This was put in place years ago when it became apparent Glenn drank too much and then kept Nan in for the week-ends so she could be the recipient of his verbal abuse–no physical stuff she assured him, but he knew how it could go. He had lived there long enough. Sometimes she called him or her dad to come help settle things down.
This time it had to do with some journals, of all things. When did his mother ever write things? She’d been keeping journals a few months, she’d told him quietly on the phone, about things Glenn had done or might do, things he said, stuff he’d want nobody to know. It was an outlet but a safeguard, too.
“Mom, it’s not good to write private things that can be found out, not by him…”
“Right. But I had to, just in case,” she’d said, voice lowering to a hoarse whisper. “Glenn’s taken Rufus out for a short walk. He’s drunk already…but we talked earlier, he suspects I’ve been keeping track of stuff. He saw me writing once or twice. I told him I’m trying poetry–he laughed, of course. Tonight he’s convinced I have a big file on him. Or I’m writing love letters to someone else! He gets so nuts after a few glasses of whiskey, you know how it is, Ronnie…so could you just get them? Three small journals. Take them to Grandpa’s–hide them somewhere. Don’t tell anyone else!”
“Behind the bottom drawer of the chest of drawers in our room. They’ll be lying on the floor–he’s coming, gotta go!”
“Okay, get a grip, Mom. You okay, should I call Grandpa? Say ‘no’ if not okay–and nothing if he comes back in.”
That’s how they did it. She hung up.
So Ronnie had gone over to their neat, white-with-black-trimmed bungalow and slipped around back. It was getting dark. The neighborhood was quiet but for a couple boys playing basketball down the street. The house next door glowed with a couple of lights. He noted the neighbor moving from one room into the next, heard a voice, a yelled response. Ronnie’s pulse quickened as the key’s tiny metal box was retrieved. He inserted its familiar shape into the lock, no problem, turned the handle. Resistance, no entry. He tried a couple more times. Harder. It was the wrong key, had to be. Her mistake? Or Glenn had replaced the good one; Ronnie had wondered when he’d figure it out. He had forbidden his wife to share extra keys.
The air released a warm lavender scent as he felt sweat dampen his neck. How important could these journals be? And why was she so certain Glenn would find them? It would be like him, though, to sniff out the goods, make a big scene, give her a severe tongue lashing. Make her feel worthless. Or worse. Ronnie felt sick, his mind reeling, chest tight as his heart banged. His mom had been so worried about the journals that she’d risked calling him with Glenn near. They must document important information against him. He had to get them, that was all there was to it.
He pushed against the back door, found it rock solid. He crept around the house, stepping over flowers as best he could, looked at each window. Then he felt with fingertips more than saw that a bathroom window, the en suite, had a long crack along the edge of its frame. He stripped off his T-shirt, wrapped it about his hand, pushed hard against the spot. It did not give way. He pushed more, then hit it with moderate force. The glass cracked and broke into shards. Ronnie pulled away bigger pieces, reached up inside for the latch, unlocked it, raised the window and hoisted himself in. Jumped but landed on hands and knees which hurt sharply, then ran into the bedroom, opened the bottom drawer. He felt around for the journals and bingo, there were three, small spiral-bound notebooks held together with string. He grabbed them, rushed into the bathroom, climbed out, landed feet first onto soft ground and hightailed it out of there. He headed for his racing bike hidden in dense bushes along the driveway.
He was immediately blinded by a strong beam of light.
“Hold it, boy! I saw you at the back door, nowhere to run! Glenn just got a new alarm system so you’re like prey in a trap, buddy!” Mr. Jones stepped closer, lowering the flashlight a bit. “That you, Ronnie? What the heck?”
And then the manic wail of police sirens escalated like it was a five alarm fire.
Ronnie felt his life slip away from him that quickly. From his mother, too. Any promising future melting into nothing. He stepped back, pushed the journals deep into the bushes as neighbor Jones rushed down to greet the law like some damned hero. Ronnie looked at his damp hands and knees, saw the blood trickling down his fingers and staining his jeans and he thought: all this for what, Mom? What is it all worth?
It took time, too much, but the verdict Glenn’s lawyer pushed for and got was felony burglary in the second degree. One to three years in state prison.
Ronnie went into town a couple weeks after he got back. That was soon enough. He went over to Pat’s Famous Cafe for coffee and one of her five star giant cinnamon rolls.
“Ronnie Morrissey,” she said and her ruby red lips curved into a smile that seemed true.
“Patricia Ann,” he answered and got his cup of coffee free. He paid for the roll, sank his teeth into its richness.
“I hear you might be going back to work with Earl.”
“Don’t know. Haven’t heard from him the past few months. He still at Butler’s?”
“He is. But he’s married now, you know.” Pat inclined her head so her grey and blond-streaked hair tumbled over a shoulder. She still wore blue eyeliner.
Ronnie nodded assent, when in fact he didn’t even know. He guessed it was Fran, the same girl Earl had long dated. The mouthful went down a little hard.
“Yeah, she’s gonna pop soon, baby number one. You should call him if you haven’t already.”
“Yeah, I should. Got his number? I forgot…”
“Sure, babe. Let me write it down.” She scribbled it on a napkin. “Hey, good your mother got out of this place. That drunk, he got rehabbed after you left but that wasn’t near enough. Well, anyway, know where she got to?”
He considered Pat a moment. A gossip at the least. “Some place far, I hope.” And gave her a nonchalant shrug topped with a generous smile.
“Well, welcome back, you lookin’ real good. Hope it all works out.”
He knew everyone knew he was back. He suspected some didn’t hold anything against him but would never admit it. They knew what sort of man Glenn was. They knew his mom had it bad and Ronnie, well, he was supposed to be the fix-it guy. Until he screwed up.
Ronnie never admitted to just why he broke in and that made things much more complicated. People just assumed it was to create trouble for his stepfather, possibly get some goods for cash on the way out–but it just didn’t work out. It was best that way. He was too scared of what could happen to his mother if Glenn got a hold of the journals. Which he just would. When she visited him alone before he was transferred to prison, Ronnie managed to look her in the eye and silently form the word “bush.” She later told him she destroyed them. He wasn’t so sure of the last. He’d wondered many times if he’d ended up in prison for nothing but he also had broken in, he had conspired to commit burglary. Well, he took something. But it enraged him sometimes as sleep eluded him and in the day when he was so restless he could have jumped the high wall. But he knew she did whatever she did to save herself, to keep them both safe from repercussions of another sort.
Or at least he believed that was so, had to.
After his mid-morning snack at Pat’s and a few brief, uncomfortable exchanges with customers, he wandered down Main Street, hands jammed in his jacket pockets. He peered into store windows, finding much unchanged in some, altogether new in others. It looked shinier than when he’d left it, and guessed the mountains were luring more health nuts. Those seeking rock climbing and hiking as well as those who needed only a solace of beauty. A couple people waved at him from across the way; many passed by as if he was a total stranger. Maybe he was that, now. He felt like a visitor during his hour long reconnaissance. H dreaded who he might see next. When would Glenn appear? He shuddered but told himself nothing could come of a bad attitude. He had done the time, now he had to go forward regardless of enemies. And leave when he was off parole.
The building that most surprised, then upset him was the old community center. He’d had many classes here as a child and youth. He’d taught diving to kids in the chlorine-scented, softly illumined pool when he was a high school senior. It had been a sanctuary. Now it looked as if it had had a fire, gutted. Stark. Trashed and abandoned. His family hadn’t mentioned that. He hoped a new one had been built.
He pushed open a steel door and entered a hallway littered with the detritus of parties and vagrancy.
“Anyone here?” His voice echoed insubstantially. He heard feet scurrying. Rats. Or people into forbidden activities.
A bird flew overhead, diving toward him then altering its course. A cat meowed in complaint from top of a stairwell, another pounced on it and they shot off upstairs. He took steps two at a time, passed the second floor, the third and finally got to the top one.
No windows were intact. He found a wide, blown-open space and a ledge to sit on so he could survey the town. It looked prettier than it did below. He even felt better above it all so pulled out the new cell phone Grandpa Kent had bought him and called the number on the napkin.
The robust voice that answered was upbeat as ever. “Earl at your service!”
Relief flooded Ronnie. “Hey, Earl, it’s me…I’m back, in case you hadn’t heard.”
A hand over the mouthpiece, muffled sounds. “Ronnie! I got the news shortly after you arrived, thought I’d give you some space. Welcome home, man!”
“Thanks!” His childhood friend’s voice made everything right. He let his eyes roam over the top of the town’s buildings. He could almost see Butler Ford from his perch and felt an urge to go see him in person. “I hear you’re about to have a baby! Fran, I guess? Congratulations, that’s great.”
“No, no–” and he laughed sharply, “Emily! A gal who came to work here with us. After you left… you’ll love her, Ronnie, she’s a true sparkler, and the silly woman’s working up to her last day!” Muffled voices again. “Say, how about we meet up sometime, catch up, I mean, lots has happened here in…the time you were gone. How you doing?”
“Getting used to things, I guess. Figuring out what’s next. Emily, huh? Well, I have a lot to learn.”
“True, nothing stays the same. But good to hear from you. I’m afraid I have to go–I’m so busy I hardly have time to turn around. We’ll talk more. I’ll give you a call, come out to your grandpa’s sometime, okay?”
Ronnie could hear someone–was it Jim, the guy they both disliked?–call out in that bombastic voice: Ronnie, that loser? Really, Earl? Be smart–tell him to shove off!
“Oh. never mind, you know how Jim is! Okay, really, gotta run, Ronnie. Best to you and your grandpa. Take it easy!”
He got it loud and clear. Earl didn’t have any interest in getting their friendship back on track. Or he was embarrassed to hear from him while at work. Or both.
His ears burned, mouth went dry. He’d trade anything for some smokes. There were new complications to cope with. He looked at his hands; they shook with aggravation. They’d all told him it wasn’t going to be easy. Ronnie sat on the ledge like a statue, halfway out of his body, out of the present. He flashed on blood hands and glaring flashlight, the clank of steel doors, keys jangling, jeers. Wait, wait, what would he be doing in prison right now? Push-ups, waiting to go outside to the yard to run as many laps as he could, play basketball, avoid trouble, keep his head clear. Right, stay centered in the now.
The distant mountains looked like the best thing out there and he thought that might be his next move. Camping, alone.
Nothing could change that night. He knew what he knew almost four years ago when it all started. He loved his mother, tried to protect her for years; he could not trust, much less ever appreciate, his stepfather, the bully, the controller, the abuser. She had something on him, more than anyone would ever know but maybe it didn’t matter now with her gone. She’d lost her nerve but at least she had left him. That was the good of it and that was that. Ronnie hoped to one day see her, learn the truth. He wished her well, in any case.
But this was how it would be now in Two Mountains. Ronnie Morrissey, apart. They didn’t have one clue what he’d experienced. He didn’t get who they were, either, and didn’t care.
He picked up a piece of broken cement and threw it in a wide arc over the edge, watched it fall, blast the ground. Vertigo seized him and he closed his eyes, held on to the ledge until it passed. His phone rang once, twice, three times and he stared at it. All numbers were unknown to him.
“Ronnie? This is Emily.”
A commanding and pleasant voice reached him and he blinked, stood back from the ledge.
“Who? Oh, right…”
“Earl’s Emily. Listen, you need to come over for dinner, the sooner the better, as I’m due in three weeks. How about this Saturday night? About seven o’clock? We’ll barbecue, eat on the patio, you know where, right? Oh, no, wait, it’s a new place! I’ll text you the address, okay?”
He considered her words. “I don’t know….”
“Ronnie, look. Earl is just…he doesn’t know what on earth to say. It’s okay. He’ll get over himself, no one is perfect. You’ve always been his best friend. How can you not be here as we welcome our first baby? I want to meet you, so say you’ll come.”
Ronnie looked across the streets, over the hills, saw the tiny people moving as if in a dream, the miniature vehicles trundling along. Their valley. That hazy blue mystery of the mountains. He had to start again, somehow.
“Alright, sure. Thanks for… just calling.”
“Good! See you soon.”
The ledge and the wide, unknown distances beyond beckoned a last time, but he turned away. Raced past two kids smoking pot, past a ratty sleeping bag and four broken chairs, past garbage bags left for weeks and rats digging for a feast.
Back to the ranch where he did belong, for now.
Ronnie walked onto the green acreage to find the llamas. He found them grazing, huddling, cozy in small groups. There was an opening between them so he claimed a spot and stood within their warmth, entered their nuzzling, humming, whinnying circle of life. He reached for a long, fuzzy, powerful neck. Put his arms around it. Held fast as he did long ago and was gently, kindly tolerated. Ronnie hugged that beast close. Shut his eyes, hung on.