Through you I drain the pent-up rivers of myself,
In you I wrap a thousand onward years. – Walt Whitman
How odd that just now when I consider our past what comes to mind is the night Oscar was killed and the sergeant came knocking at our door. What was his name? Roy, I think. Roy was a spoiled, obnoxious lout with a fondness for dope, an explosive temper and a beautiful wife who seemed bored with him. Few coworkers liked him and fewer trusted him, even when he bought endless rounds at Stoddard’s bar near the head of Gallinas Canyon and the booze flowed as freely as the waters foaming on the boulders below. I’d watch his pitiful attempts to buy acceptance from that armed and insular band of men, watch him with both captivation and revulsion, and each beer, each whiskey chaser, each ribald joke or bald-faced lie made the night lonelier and more complex.
The night he knocked on our door I watched him differently, watched his hands and where they were, what they held, what they reached for. I studied his eyes for intent. The slightest deviation from the norm and I would put a .45 hollowpoint through his chest.
It was August 15, 1974, a little after one a.m. Lori and I had been married less than a month, in that initial stage where we were no longer strangers but still learning our way around one another. We were crazy in love, inseparable, young enough to believe the future held only promise, that everything we touched would turn to gold. And wrong on all accounts.
Roy’s arrival wasn’t unexpected. His dog, Oscar, had been accidentally shot in the head by a careless police officer, and though I had no part in it—indeed, I was on patrol a hundred yards away when the report shattered the night—there would be consequences, of that I was certain. Everything would change, if not now then shortly, in a day or two, a week, a month at most. It was already crumbling, almost two years in the making, a job that was loved now on the cusp of irremediable destruction, and the knock on the door a death knell in the night. I unholstered my .45 and told Lori to stay out of sight.
If I was angry and upset over the shooting, it was nothing like the sergeant’s rage. He screamed and threatened and refused to hear my explanations, and flailing his arms paced back and forth like a caged beast, his eyes angry and bloodshot and yet drawn inexorably to the pistol hanging at my side. I let him rant until he was out of steam and then bid him goodnight. There would be more discussions in the next few days, he promised.
The collapse was as sudden as a gunshot in the dark. Within days Roy was promoted to lieutenant, a new captain arrived and with him orders that I quit or be fired. Lori and I bought a Denver newspaper at the convenience store and took it home to pore over the job listings. The next day brought rain and a debilitating sense of melancholy. The following day we left town, heading north.
Our defeats become ingrained in our DNA though time blessedly files down the burs. On that long journey into the unknown we held hands and talked of a future we could neither imagine nor conceive, and if we were more hopeful than circumstances allowed for, with a knock coming from an engine that would disintegrate on the outskirts of Denver, with little money and no jobs, we had each other, a pistol in the glove box, two plates, two forks, two spoons, two knives, two pillows, two sleeping bags and two kittens named Balin and Butterbur. At the time it seemed enough currency to buy our way into whatever future we wished.
Thirty-three-plus years later the cutlery is gone, and the plates, the sleeping bags, the pillows, the kittens and the pistol, too. Of that time and that place, Lori alone remains.
For the most part I’ve traded the .45 for the poetry of Walt Whitman, Robert Frost and Jim Harrison, music, the natural world and its creatures large and small, sunlight warming the rounded knolls of the northern Flint Hills, the slow purl of prairie creeks and the companionship of my very best friend.
To paraphrase Whitman, I probably deserved my enemies but never my friends, and that includes my wife. I don’t regret the enemies I’ve made, finding them an unavoidable outcome of a no-nonsense approach to life. Love was a gift.
But sometimes I still imagine my fingers wrapped around the heavy Colt and a world where it was all I needed to feel in control. Like many other things, I was wrong on that one, too. The world has changed and me with it.
Some things never change. Two friends die and two babies are born. Another setback, a betrayal, and I wrap my arms around her and retreat into a song she had discovered while researching autism. It was Five For Fighting’s “World,” and the lyrics took me back to a newlywed couple heading north out of Las Vegas, New Mexico, the Sangre de Christos to the west, the Great Plains to the east and a huge question dangling before them.
What kind of world do you want
let’s start at the start
let’s build a masterpiece.
What kind of world do I want? One with her, one of her, one drained of the pent-up rivers of myself, one wrapped in a thousand thousand onward years with this beautiful woman I married, of this life we’ve shared, that we’ve built from scratch and watched crumble and rebuilt and imagined with more optimism than we had any right to expect. We’ll start at the start, I vowed. We’ll build a masterpiece. We’ll start now.