Pinkie and I had come three days from Montana to camp among the aspen at elevation on Steens Mountains, right near the top of southeastern Oregon, up where we used to live. My sister Grace had lured us along the road with talk of serious family medicine.
“This one is Vito,” Grace said, and I figured. Yeah, that one is Vito. We had heard about Vito on the telephone. Just one sober Sunday morning telephone call. Grace was in love again, and out of money.
And this lad with all the rings on his fingers, and no shirt in sight, that had to be Vito. Maybe twenty-six, twenty-eight or twenty-nine, and too many rings, grinning like he was shy as a new dog and just coming on curly headed while Grace did the talking, a nice fellow, and suntanned as a water-ski addict. The kind you find everywhere, when you’ve got a dollar in your pocket.
After I sold the ranch where we all used to live, Grace located herself in Santa Fe. This Vito, she said, owned a motel called The Submarine, a pretty good name for an establishment out in the highlands of the New Mexican desert. Grace was moving her gallery-shop into his building. Like Pinkie said, in that mean little streak she can show, “Paying to hook up her business.”
“Vito, you come over here,” Grace said. “These are your new relatives, sort of.” Travels like a race horse, that’s what they used to say when Grace was running her roads. And here she was, lean and sun-dark like she keeps herself, wearing a pair of those wide-hipped white shorts she has learned to favor, precisely clean and ironed, but real short. Grace . . . those chorus-girl legs on a woman turning forty-three, the little purple flecks from broken veins hardly noticeable, mud on her feet, posing again.
Grace touched her tongue to her teeth.
“Our Woman,” as my father liked to call my mother, had named Grace out of hope. “So maybe she’d be different than the rest of us,” my mother’d said. “But it’s goddamned hope-less.” My mother was one of those ranch women who insisted on her right to go horseback after cattle while some hired lady kept the house. But she’s given it up now; she lives on a mountaintop overlooking the Pacific Ocean and Los Angeles. She
is active in the politics of the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy, and she blesses me for selling the property. “Other-wise,” she says, fixing me with those blue British eyes, “I’d of died on the son-of-a-bitch.”
All the time since we drove up, this Vito has been leaning against Grace’s little buff-colored two-seater Mercedes with the top off—Grace always did like to travel light. One thing you would never imagine in the horseback days was a thirty-thousand-dollar automobile within a mile or so of the highest fall off from the Steens.
The mountain is one of those fault-block shelves the deep pressures of earth have tilted up in that rimrock country, the western slope rising through thirty miles of juniper and long grasslands to near ten thousand feet at the ridge, which is edged with rotten drifted snow until late August. You stand up there at daybreak, and the huge distance across the sagebrush deserts to other mountains is home. You could fall into it. The great eastern rockfall drops through most of a mile to the white alkaline playa of the Alvord Desert. One long running step, and you could be gone. It’s always there.
The aspen were turning. Come morning there would be a rim of ice around the water bucket. Some of the leaves were lime green and others dead fading yellow in the late sun. Off some seventy miles toward the low sun I could see the shadow of Bid well Mountain in northeastern California. At one time we ran close to seventy-five hundred mother cows between here and there.
“We got business,” I said to Grace. “You and me.” That Vito was coming out of his slouch, and Pinkie got down from the Blazer to come stand beside me. Good old large-hearted Pinkie, gone thinner over the years, her moss-red hair tight to her head —gone to wire and bone she says—looking like she was blinded by the sunset. And here comes this Vito, barefoot and gimping over to meet us. Pray for rain.
“Pleased,” Pinkie says. “Real pleased.” She stepped right out in front of me, like she will at any echo of hostility. It’s a sign of common sense I have learned to recognize and allow over the years. “Business can wait,” she said. “We better have a drink. Everybody is dusty.”
Pinkie and I do our drinking once the sun is going down. Mostly gin, from half-gallon bottles with plastic pour-spouts. Pinkie has her horses and I have my workshop, good hard-handed things to do on our two hundred and eighty acres of timothy and orchard grass along a year-round creek on the west side of the Bitterroot Valley in Montana. It’s the perfect place we found after eighteen months of dealing with real estate brokers all over the western side of America—a fringe of tamarack and Douglas fir on the high side where we border the Selway Wilderness, and those mountains gleaming in the sun after the first snowfall. Who could say enough?
We sold the ranch, and we got what we wanted. Not that we are so entirely local. For a time Pinkie read travel books, and we flew out to know the world. France and Spain and London and Mexico. But we settled. Sometimes you do the right thing.