Two weeks after my brother Travis sawed a steak knife across his wrist, I sat beside him in the Subaru on the way home from skiing in Breckenridge. He slept, I drove. Fat snowflakes blurred past the windshield. The heater dumped warm air onto our boots. Travis snored, which gave the drive a faltering rhythm. Though three and a half years younger than I, Travis was thirty pounds heavier and a couple inches taller. His eyebrows were thick. His nose was shiny and flat. The deep pink scar on his left wrist peeked out from his coat sleeve like the slit of an eye. His mouth drooped open and his massive neck lolled back into the empty space between our seats.
Dad had insisted I take Travis to Breckenridge for old time's sake, even though we'd only made the trip alone once before. We hadn't spoken a word on the slopes beyond "Let's go there" and "One more run." Travis went unconscious the minute we got into the car.
About fifteen miles west of Florissant we passed a lone bison thirty feet from the highway, sifting his nose through the snow for dead grass. His hulking, dark body was a stain on the white meadow.
One afternoon when we were kids, we saw a herd of buffalo at Custer State Park in South Dakota. Dad's fingers were wrapped around my knee, shaking my leg. "Wake up," he whispered. The car had stopped. My eyes opened and Dad's hand moved to Travis's leg, dangling beside mine over the back seat. "Wake up," Dad whispered again. "There's a herd of buffalo." I stretched my neck but saw only the brown vinyl of Dad's headrest and Mom's bright eyes in the rearview mirror. "Look at 'em?" she whispered. I undid my seatbelt. Travis whined, "I don't wanna." Dad's voice got deeper: "Travis, look at the buffalo." Travis grabbed a Matchbox car from the seat between us and hurled it at the back of Mom's seat. "Leave me alone," he moaned. I stood up to see better. My cowboy hat bumped the ceiling. There must have been two hundred creatures in the pack -- brown masses of fur and hooves, glistening in the sunlight. The herd was crossing the road, which cut through a green meadow. They rocked from side to side as they walked. Cars had lined up on both sides of the herd. We were behind a camper with Nebraska plates. Travis grunted. Dad said, "Travis, you don't want to miss the herd of buffalo." Travis said, "Buffaloes?" Mom said, "Yeah, honey, lots of them." Travis undid his seat belt and pulled himself up by clutching Mom's headrest. "I can't see!" Dad reached back and lifted Travis across the threshold, into the front seat, onto his lap. "Buffaloes! Buffaloes!" Travis bounced and pointed. He shouted, "Wanna pet one!" Dad laughed. Mom said, "You can't, honey. They're dangerous." Travis reached for the door handle and yelled, "Wanna touch them!" Dad smacked his hand. Travis howled. Mom said, "Wayne!" and took Travis onto her lap. She hugged him tight against her bosom while he whimpered. Dad watched the herd pass in silence. I sang "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" until the last buffalo lumbered down the road's shoulder and tramped toward the woods on the meadow's edge.
A few miles down the snowy highway, past the lone bison, the Subaru pitched down for a split-second, then thudded onto the road. I held my breath and gripped the wheel. My heart raced. We still hurtled down the same lane, at the same speed, in the same direction.
Travis huffed through his nose. "Jesus fucking Christ. What the hell was that?"
I checked the rearview mirror: miles of highway and snow stretched out behind us. "Must have been a pothole."
Travis shuffled through his coat pockets and pulled out a cigarette. "Was a fucking elk napping in the road or what?"
"We're fine, Trav. Go back to sleep."
He pushed in the lighter. I pulled it back out.
"Not while I'm driving."
"What the fuck?" He pushed it in again and fiddled with the radio long enough to find nothing clear on the dial. He shifted himself in his seat, to face me, and wiped his nose. "You got a girlfriend at college?"
I waited a moment, then said, "Yes."
Travis slapped the dashboard. "The truth comes out. How long?"
"Ooh, long term." He rubbed his hand through his greasy blond hair. "Screw her yet?"
We passed a highway sign. I cleared my throat. "About eight miles to Florissant."
"Well? Have you fucked her?"
"Don't be crude, Travis."
"Oh come on." He started to finger the cracked paint on the dashboard. "She do the nasty with you or what?"
I said, "I don't kiss and tell."
"How do you even know?"
"If you don't talk about it with anyone, how do you even know what sex is, big brother?"
"I'll tell you when and if you graduate high school, little brother."
"Fuck off." Travis hung his head for a minute then shook it slowly. After a while he lit his cigarette. "There's a pizza joint in Florissant. Let's get a pie."
The sky had turned gray. I switched on the headlights. The snowflakes were fatter now and the road looked wet.
Florissant was little more than a filling station, a motel, a convenience store for skiers and hunters, and a couple dozen trailer homes. Back in 1969 President Nixon designated a field of petrified tree stumps a mile or so out of town as a National Monument. Someone clever started a pizza restaurant named Stumpy's. We sat at a red Formica table.
The waitress slid two menus from between the napkin dispenser and the parmesan cheese shaker. As she leaned across the table, Travis took a deep whiff of her perfume. When she walked away, he winked at me.
"Sweet ass on her," he said.
I shrugged. "Didn't notice."
An old man at the bar, the only other person in the place, swiveled around on his stool to face us. A reddish ridge of skin crossed down his cheek. He pointed a finger at me and said, "How could you not notice?"
Travis reached across the table, flicked my chin with his finger, and said, "See?"
The old man wheeled back around to face the bar. I leaned toward Travis and whispered, "Don't be vulgar."
"Sheesh." He took a napkin from the dispenser and blew his nose.
I took a napkin, put it in my lap, and stared out the window at the falling snow.
Once, on the tail-end of that childhood vacation in South Dakota, my parents checked us into a Motel 6 on the edge of Rapid City. We lugged our bags into the room and walked across the street to Shakey's Olde Time Pizza Parlor. After Dad ordered, Travis and I stood by the window onto the kitchen. We watched the cooks twirl dough, scatter corn meal onto a counter, splash on the sauce, sprinkle the cheese and dole out the pepperoni slices. Travis said, "Look!" and pointed toward the back of the kitchen. One of the cooks slipped his hand up a pretty, young waitress's skirt. She jerked away from him and dropped a tray full of soda mugs. Root beer, cola and tiny nuggets of ice splashed onto the floor. The cook laughed. The waitress pushed his arm away. An older man, probably the manager, came into the room and yelled at the waitress. She dropped to her knees and collected the mugs. The cook came over by the window where we stood, picked up a ball of dough, and tossed it over his head. As it twirled in the air, he gave us a wink. Travis waved. Just then Mom called us over to sing along to Ye Olde Time Piano and Banjo Combo playing "Camptown Ladies." We went to the table. Mom was drinking Coke. Dad's mustache was whitened by beer froth. A new waitress -- older, heavier, more like someone's mother -- brought us a basket of garlic bread.
Travis and I asked for a large sausage pizza, two house salads and fried mozzarella cheese sticks. The Stumpy's waitress wrote our order on a little spiral notepad. She had brown eyes that looked black in the dim light, and short, dark brown hair that reflected the window's red neon beer signs. She looked my age. Mid-twenties at the oldest.
Travis said, "Can you rush that? We're starving, and it's an all-night drive."
I kicked his shin under the table. We were an hour from home. Depending on the road conditions it might have been an hour and fifteen minutes.
The waitress smirked, said, "Sure," and walked back to the kitchen.
Travis kicked me back. "She wants me."
"Cut it out, Trav."
"You saw her smile." He tapped another cigarette out of his pack.
"Hate to break it to you," I said. "But of course she smiles at dopes like you, for bigger tips to take home to her husband and kids."
Travis leaned back against his booth seat. "No, dude. I'm telling you, I'm giving off the right hormones."
"Pheromones. You give off pheromones."
He waved his cigarette and grinned. "You said it brother. Pheromones."
The old man at the bar gave a tiny, formal bow as the waitress delivered his chicken sandwich, as if she were royalty. She smiled and put her elbows onto the bar. She had a cute, lopsided smile that drooped a little toward her left shoulder. They talked quietly while he picked the onion slices out of his mayonnaise.
Travis tapped my elbow. "So tell me."
I watched as he poured parmesan cheese into his water and drank the whole glass. "Tell you what?"
"If you've porked your college girlfriend?"
He tilted his head to the right. "No you won't tell me, or no you haven't porked her?"
I looked out the window at the snow. It was coming down pretty thick. "Chill, Travis."
The click of the waitress's shoes came near our table. She set the mozzarella plate on the table and said, "There you go, gentlemen." She carried off our soda glasses for refills.
I shook my head at Travis. "She doesn't want you."
"The fuck she doesn't. Watch this."
She brought our refills. "Everything OK?"
"Just fine," said Travis. As if to prove the point, he dipped a cheese stick into the tomato sauce, stuffed the whole piece into his mouth, and grinned. She walked away. He leaned across the table and held up his left hand. "See? No ring."
I sipped my root beer. "She's too old for you."
Travis stuffed another cheese stick into his mouth. When he finally swallowed it, he said, "No chick's too old for this bad boy." He wiped his chin with a handful of white paper napkins. "I'd bet you anything, anything at all that I can do her."
"Get laid, dude. Right there." He pointed out the window at a neon sign across the road. It showed a green Native American warrior in a headdress. Beneath his feet, orange words flashed one at a time, then all together: "HAPPY HUNTING GROUNDS LODGE."
I dipped the last cheese stick into the sauce. "No chance. Dude."
"Bro, if she agrees to meet me at the lodge over there, you have to tell me if you've porked your little college chick. If the waitress dogs me, I shut up for the whole drive home. Deal?"
"We drive home either way, Travis."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean even if she agrees to meet you, which she won't, you ditch her and we drive home."
He shrugged, took a drag from his cigarette, and said, "It's all about the thrill of the hunt, brother. The thrill of the hunt."
I checked my watch. "It's 5:45. You've got twenty minutes."
He pulled his shirtsleeves down around his wrist. "No sweat. No sweat at all."
I slurped the last of my root beer. "So, Travis. Enough beating around the bush. Why'd you do it?"
He squinted at me. "Do what?"
"Cut your wrist."
His head dropped for a moment. He glanced over toward the old man at the bar, then out the window, then back at the table.
"Was it a girl?"
He looked up at me, his eyes narrow and bloodshot. "Let's not talk about that."
The waitress brought our pizza and salads. We ate in silence. Travis reached for the parmesan cheese shaker with his left hand, winced, and put it down. "I'm not supposed to lift anything heavier than a kitten," he said. Then, with his right hand, he smothered his half of the pizza with parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes.
When he had finished his half of the pie, one of my pieces and his salad, he stood beside the table. "How much time do I have?"
It was 5:58. "Seven minutes."
He turned and went to the cash register, where the waitress was counting change and writing numbers in her notepad.
When Travis was taken to the emergency room, my mother had called me on the phone an hour before my final Intro to Psychology exam. I was on my way out the apartment door, with my backpack over my shoulders. The phone rang. I hesitated, picked it up.
"Don't get too upset," she said, "but your brother's in the hospital."
"He cut his wrist."
"He was in his room, yelling into the phone, before we went to bed. Your father found him when he got up for a midnight snack."
"I've got a class."
"It's my final."
I hung up, walked outside, went straight past the hall where the exam was to be held, and didn't stop until three o'clock the next morning. It was still autumn. Leaves crunched under my feet. I walked along the train tracks, then down by the stock yards, and finally through downtown, around and around, talking to no one, watching the sky, feeling on the verge of death myself. I thought I'd never kill myself, though. Even if I did, I'd take pills.
I watched the old man at the bar. His head nodded over his plate. He mumbled something to the air, as if some ghost were arguing with him. Eventually he finished his sandwich, dropped a five dollar bill on the counter, and pulled a suede hat with ear flaps over his head. He stood up and walked to the door. As he pushed it open, the waitress called out, "G'night, Joe." He waved and walked through the snow, past the Happy Hunting Grounds Lodge, into the darkness up the road.
My watch said it was 6:05. I slipped two dollars under the pizza tray. Travis and the waitress stood near the register, talking. When I approached, I jingled the car keys and handed the waitress our bill. Travis didn't reach for his wallet. She rang it up, and I paid.
Travis winked at me and said to the waitress, "Sorry I left that book at home. You'd get into it."
"Sounds great," she said. She played with a bracelet on her wrist, silver with little turquoise stones. Her tongue slid over her upper lip for a split second, then she smiled. Her earnest eyes made me want to call off the bet, but Travis would have been furious so I didn't.
He looked at me, then at the door, then back at her. "I guess we'll go check in," he said, gesturing toward the lodge across the road. "You should stop by later."
Her smile widened. She shifted back on her heels. Her chin rose an inch or two in the warm air. "You said you were driving all night."
Travis made a sort of breathy laugh. "We changed our minds." He tugged my sleeve. "Didn't we?" I shrugged. He moved closer to the counter and smiled at her. "Guys change their minds too, you know. You think you'll come over after work?"
She leaned forward and softened her voice. "Just say what you want, Travis."
He grinned at me, then back at her. His eyes were sparkling. "Honestly, I want to get into your pants."
Without missing a beat she said, "I've got one asshole in there already, Travis. What would I do with another one?"
She wiped the counter with a wet rag.
Travis looked at me, then back to her, then scuffled toward the door. On his way he grabbed the keys from my hand and said, "I'll drive." He opened the door. A blast of cold air blew into the restaurant. I pulled out a five dollar bill and tossed onto the counter.
Fresh powder blanketed the parking lot. I wiped the windshield with my sleeve, then got in beside Travis. He was in the driver's seat with the engine running. I sank into the seat beside him and watched the snow until my breath fogged the window. As we pulled onto the highway, he muttered one word: "Bitch."
About a mile and a half out of town, beyond the last few trailer homes, a loud thump shook the car. Travis hammered the brakes. We skidded to a stop. The engine cut off and a warning bell chimed.
Travis covered his face with his hands. "Please, God! Oh fuck! Oh Christ!"
The wiper blades slid back and forth.
"What happened?" I asked.
Travis said, "I don't fucking know. Oh, God. There was someone back there. Fuck. An animal maybe. I don't know."
I peered back, but the rear window had frosted over. I opened the door and got out. In the dim red glow from the tail lights, a gray mound was slumped across the gravel shoulder a few yards behind the car.
I zipped my coat and walked toward the mound. It could have been an elk or a mountain lion, but as I got closer it became a man in a gray coat. The old man from Stumpy's. His arms were limp at his sides. The hat covered his eyes. Snow on the furry earflaps glistened in the red brake light. I touched his leg. He coughed and sputtered.
"Sir," I said, "can you hear me?" He moaned. I shouted back at the car, "Travis! He's alive!"
The driver's side door opened. Travis's boots clomped along the road. He dropped to his knees on the gravel beside the man's crumpled frame. The old man moved his lips like a suckling kitten. Travis clutched the gray overcoat and whispered, "Thank fucking God."
The sight of them -- Travis cowering and cursing his relief, the old man gulping air -- sent a strange, floating feeling through my body. I stood there, on the verge of tears or hysterical laughter until it hit me: Travis could go to jail for this. And I could go as an accessory.
"Well?" I said.
Travis wiped his nose with his coat sleeve. "Should we take him back to Florissant?"
I shook my head. "We can't move him, Trav. Besides, there's no hospital there."
"We'll call a fucking ambulance."
"He'll die waiting."
Travis looked at the old man, then at me. "We can't move him."
"If we don't," I said, "he'll freeze to death."
"And if we do it might kill him."
"What do you propose?"
Travis glanced back toward Florissant.
I said, "Do you want to walk into Stumpy's and ask that waitress for a phone?" Travis hung his head. I bent over the old man. "You'll be OK, sir. We're going to lift you into our car."
I took the old man's legs and Travis lifted his shoulders. He wasn't heavy. Small, hard snowflakes pelted our faces as we moved toward the car. We set the man down as gently as we could, opened the hatchback, and lifted the man about six inches. Travis's left hand loosened. The old man tumbled onto the pavement. His skull hit the pavement and his jaw thudded on his chest. Travis stood there, clutching his wrist.
I said, "Pick him up you idiot."
Travis scowled at me. He turned away and shouted, "Shut the fuck up!"
I grabbed his ski jacket with both hands, spun him around, and shook him up against the car's rear gate. He tried to push my hands away, but I didn't let go. His head thumped against the window a couple times. Then his arms went limp. I felt my mouth moving and my voice shouting, "God dammit, Travis, help me get this guy into the fucking car!"
Travis shut his eyes. I breathed on his face for a few seconds. He looked just like me. It was like seeing myself with my eyes clenched shut.
The old man moaned. I turned and said, "Sir, we're taking you to a hospital."
He moaned again, but quietly now.
Travis said, "Let's do it."
I backed away from him. He turned and shoved aside the skis to make room. I took the old man's shoulders this time, and Travis lifted his legs. He slid into place with a couple of soft groans. We wrapped him in an old blanket and shut the gate.
I drove. Travis faced the back, clasped his hands around the old man's shoulders, and mumbled. I heard the words "so sorry" and "don't let him die." The old man coughed a few times.
After about thirty minutes I spotted the lights of Woodland Park and tapped Travis's arm. "Pray for an emergency room."
Travis pivoted in his seat. "You said the F-word back there." He slipped into a low, eerie chuckle. "You pushed me and you said the F-word."
"What's so funny about that?"
"You," he said. He pulled a cigarette out of his pocket. "You're more like me than you think."
He punched my shoulder. I laughed, but it wasn't an easy laugh. The snow softened into the tiniest little flakes drifting through the low beams. We rode the last few miles into Woodland Park, chuckling nervously, cussing about our dilemma, with that old guy dying in the back.
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