Some miles West of Jimtown Bar, Nathan Bellastar traveled hard on a thin gravel road that divided the wheat fields. The wind was loud in the cab, and dust curled and billowed in his wake. Driving, he remembered what his mother said when he had failed again the very week his child was born. He’d been arrested in Colstrip for letting his truck roll through a stop sign and travel the sidewalk for fifty feet. “Admit it,” she’d said when he’d made it home the next morning. “You’re just a cheap drunk like all the rest.” She was sitting in the recliner he’d bought for himself, in the living room of his own trailer, and she’d said it in front of his wife and newborn. She was supposed to be here to help with the child, but he’d counted it against her—the grey weight of her skin, her unwashed hair, the fat coil of her face—he had hated her.
Beneath the openness of sky and moon and stars, the gold of the fields lay dimly illumined. Here, when the day died, the heaviness was always the worst. He pictured a large, oblong stone lodged deep back in his chest cavity beneath his shoulder blades. The slope of his back felt rock hard. His ribcage had become constricted and he disliked the shallow breaths he had to take. Breathing shouldn’t be something a man has to work at, he thought. He reminded himself to forget his friends, the men waiting for him up ahead. He could nearly taste the bite of the alcohol in his mouth, the hot spiral in his throat as the whiskey went down. He tried to remember his daughter, the baby smell of her breath, the way she touched at his eyes with her tiny fingers. But as he sped onward the need in him outgrew his will and rapidly he got to where he could hardly recall his daughter’s face. In the rearview mirror he found his own face bony and thin.
Earlier, Jedidiah had cut into him when they threw the last bales of the evening. Jed was a big man with thick hands and a pocked face, gritty at the hairline. A dirty ring lined the collar of his denim shirt. “You gonna come with us tonight or not?” Jed said. Nathan watched Jed’s manner, the way he jerked each bale from the ground as if he were in a fight. He noted this, but said nothing and kept working.
“I figured as much,” said Jed, and he stood and squinted at Nathan. “You been pretty much cutting out on your friends lately.” Jed spit snuice on the ground.
Nathan kept hoisting bales while Jed stood waiting, staring darkly at him. Nathan felt it and didn’t like it, but he knew Jed wouldn’t understand. Jed would just undercut him like he had before, slapping him on the back, shouting, “Come on! You got time for one. A man deserves something for a day’s work.” And Nathan would give in like a fool, like there was nothing but straw in his spine.
Nathan turned his back to him now.
“Yeah,” said Jed, “just like I figured,” and he spit again. He muscled bales and said nothing, just grunted and stopped once to spit out his chaw, then stepped in front of Nathan to grab the last few bales and hurl them onto the stack.
Watching Jed drive off in his beat up Ford sedan, Nathan felt the burden begin in the upper part of his shoulders, then down and inward until it was embedded again, directly under the shoulder blades. The severity of the feeling made him wince. Immediately he desired to cover it over, dull it away with hard drinking. He’d heard others talk of phantom things like this, weird pains that came when you tried to stop. He forced himself to wait until the boys had all gone, Jed and the others, not just follow blindly as he desired. He wished the weight would die out, but it kept on.
Nathan noticed the line at the horizon, dark, distinct. He rubbed the pad of his thumb along the smoothness of his lips, a ritual that always commenced when he started a self-imposed drought. He knew he’d been touching his thumb to his lips all day now, like a kid that couldn’t control himself. Hiding his hand in his pocket, he told himself to stop being such an idiot. He walked aimlessly for a time, half-inspecting the line of the bales, kicking or pushing at a few, but when he had straightened all he could, gassed and parked the machines along the south fence, and checked the northern gate, there was nothing left but to turn his truck to the road home. At first as he drove the dark sky had been clear, while off to the west an arm of sun remained, outstretched low and still on the land.
But as the sunlight gave way, clouds came in from the north and cloaked the earth and pushed back the stars. The land became bulky, hard to see but for the shoulders of the road and the earthen embankments that rose and fell from view almost before he noticed. Hardly distinguishable now, the track of the moon lay in the southern quadrant of the sky. Darkness had taken up the largest part of his surroundings, but in glimpses across open fields pale remnants of light pulled at the world’s rim. As he drove, the headlights opened the night. Nathan tried to push his thoughts down. He knew the most difficult part lay ahead, over a rise and around one broad swell.
Down there the neon glow of Jimtown Bar was a weak pulse in the expanse of prairie. Descending the broad curve he lost sight of the bar for a time. He felt the pull of the engine, and heard the noise of it rapping out behind him. Then he rounded the hill and bearing down he saw Jimtown bright as bone. An ugly place, dark inside, lit up outside by the fluorescent bloom of the roadway sign. The building was a small raw square on the rez line, discolored, into which Indians and Whites descended together, mostly Northern Cheyennes and some Crow, and in with them the White boys who worked the fields, or came out from Lame Deer. Last year a man had been knifed to death behind the building. Nathan and every man he worked with liked the feel of the place, always had. They’re all inside, thought Nathan, laughing and drinking at a table just inside the door. Jed’s cheeks would redden as he cackled, his large head would nod back to put another one down.
For a moment Nathan recognized how odd it was, how crazy in fact, that all this was so attractive to him. Then the notion died and he was caught again wanting to burn, wanting to throw off every resistance. The daughter he loved seemed distant, something faint, and far beyond his reach. He envisioned himself pulling into the parking lot, walking in the pseudo light of the neon sign as he hurried toward the door, his shirt half open, his eyes turned down. Thinking this way, his own face became foreign to him, the deepset lines of his forehead, the tightening of his countenance. With his palm he tried to unfurrow it all, to push it up and back, but before he noticed, his hand was at his lips again, brushing at the shape of them, thumbing the smoothness there. Losing himself to the feel of it he knew the movement was no help. In the midst of it he was struck by the desire to press a bottle to his mouth and down liquor, as much of it as he could lay his hands on. He pounded his fists on the wheel and commanded himself aloud, “Right now. Knock it off!”
Back in early May he had come home late again and found his wife asleep on the couch, tired from the pregnancy. He had watched her for a moment, the way she lay on her side in one of his t-shirts, her small body round and tight from the baby. He approached her and smoothed her hair from her face. She turned to him. She kissed his mouth, and she asked him, “Nathan, will you name our daughter?” These words. Even after they had cursed each other when he called from the bar that night.
In a bent tone he asked her, “Why me?”
“Because,” she said openly, “you’re a good man. You’re her father, and I’d like it if you would.”
Almost without will he said, “Okay.” Face to face like this, she could do that to him, call him to a ground he’d have never taken alone. He carried her to the bedroom and wrapped her neatly in the down comforter her mother had given them. Over the covers he lay next to her and held her and gently pressed his cheek to her face, feeling against his own face the bones of her forehead, the circlet of bone around her eyes, and underlying her eyes the cheekbones. When she had fallen asleep, he whispered, “I’ll be her father.” And he knew the name he’d give.
Ignoring the bulky feel in his chest and back, the labor it was to breathe, he set his face to the road and stepped the gas to the floorboard. To avoid drawing his thumb to his lips he consciously gripped the wheel in his fists. Quietly, but aloud, he said his daughter’s name—“Noel.” At the sound of it something increased in him, and as he drew near to Jimtown he kept the pedal down. Neon flashed in the cab for a moment before it died behind him. In the rearview mirror he watched it narrow and fade, then disappear. Just like that, he thought, more simple than it seemed. But long after the bar had passed he looked in the mirror, eyeing the road ahead only for a moment at a time.
More than 10 miles on, the sky had opened and Nathan shut off the headlights before turning on the dirt road that led to his home. He entered the trailer and closed the door softly behind him. Pausing, he rested his hands on the back of a metal folding chair at the kitchen table. He heard the rhythm and the stillness of his wife’s breath, this with the breathing of his child, quiet like the whisper of willows and wild rose.
He walked the hall and stopped at the open doorway, the last door, the master bedroom. The moon was full in the room. A slight breeze from the window touched him. A cedar chest made by his wife’s father was at the foot of the bed. In the bed, his wife slept beneath the down coverlet, only the black sheen of her hair visible up near the headboard. Words came to him that he’d heard her whisper on occasion when the babe slept in her arms: “The garment of praise instead of the spirit of despair.” He thought he remembered her reading those words somewhere. He loved the sound of them, the movement they made in his mind.
Beside the window he saw his daughter’s crib, the child asleep within, and drawing near he stood over her. Hardly breathing, he stared. He saw the line of her jaw, the small closed lids of her eyes. She is so perfect, he thought, so fresh and new. The moonlight is an angel in whose wings she breathes and sleeps. She was no longer than his forearm, and when he reached down her head fit in the palm of his hand. He smoothed her hair, then drew his hand back and folded his arms over the railing.
Here he beheld her, and in the lovely way of her form he found the echo of himself.
He went to the foot of the bed and folded his pants and shirt and placed them in a small pile on the floor. In bed, he touched his wife’s arm and whispered as she slept, I’m grateful for you, You are a good woman, I know a good woman, and as the last words left his lips he drifted, sleeping.
In the night he woke and heard the child’s breathing again, like a lost rhythm calling him. He got up and approached her crib and from his place near the window, arms folded on the railing, he looked out. In the early light the line of the earth seemed a great distance away and barely visible, and there in the dim new world he saw everything: her tender form sleeping, his own faint reflection in the window, and out far the land, the stars, and water in between, the darkness and the dawn.
Shann Ray’s debut collection of stories, American Masculine (Graywolf, July 2011), won the prestigious Bakeless Prize. The winner of many prizes, Shann grew up in Montana and spent part of his childhood on the Northern Cheyenne reservation. Some of you may know Shann from his college days when he played basketball for Montana State. He now lives with his wife and three daughters in Spokane where he teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University. This story first appeared in the South Dakota Review. For more info, see www.shannray.com.