issue twenty-eight

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(3390 words)
Laurie King-Billman
A Soft Landing
Before I can take one sip of my Java Hut coffee, my phone rings and the screen fills with a pair of scaly, sunburned lips. Pa can never quite understand that you have to stand back to be seen on a mobile phone.

"Gina, I can't find my Mind Jack," the lips screech, and everyone in the Hut turns to glare at me before I can turn the sound down.

"Did you check the south pasture, where you usually lose it?" I whisper.

"Could be. I had a funny feeling the government was trying to spy on me yesterday, so I was glad it fell off." I don't want to give him an opening to pontificate on his many paranoid theories of government spying through a perfectly harmless device.

"When did you notice it was gone?"

"When I was talking to Annie at breakfast."

"Annie has been dead for twenty years."

"Think I don't know that?" he answers, and continues.

"She let me in on that fact right off, then refused to help me look, told me I'd have to find the Jack myself. 'Matt,' she said, 'the dead are not as good at that sort of thing as everybody thinks. We got our own problems.'"

I married into the family after Annie died, so we never met, but her postmortem conversations indicate a character as strong as his.

I will have to go out to the ranch...again.

"Pa, I'll call Jewell to come over until I can get there." I am relieved he has such a good neighbor.

"OK. I have a hankering for some pie anyway. Maybe she'll bring me some."


       Oh yeah, Jewell's pie; the image of hot, purple juices steaming over autumn-gold crust floats into my mind's eye and sends a growl to my stomach. A trip out to the ranch has its appeal.

Before I hang up, Pa pulls the screen up to his mouth again and yells, "Now, remember to ditch any bots that try to follow you. Those devils in Washington are dying to get their hands on my land." I need to get out of this coffee shop before all the students trying to study call the peace bots on me.

The barista gives me a steaming to-go cup quickly, not wanting any trouble either. I reprogram my car for the ranch. I call the principal at the elementary school where I work, and he is able to get a tech from HR (in North Korea) to upload an avatar at the last minute to take my class. I start to feel really good about the day. The kids will be busy trying to outsmart the avatar app and won't learn a thing. Luckily, this year's crop is doing well, so I can allow them some midweek fun.

It was a crisp fall morning. The trees on the ranch are glorious when the colors change, a pageant of red oaks and gold aspens that carpet the canyon floor, contrasting with the green pine trees that cover the small hills to the west before turning to the high, snowy-peaked mountains of distant Colorado.

My husband, Joe, never gets these calls. I am an in-law, but I have more patience for Pa. Joe resents the time I give, thinks I get too involved. I admire Pa and love being on the ranch. The family ranch is now what they call a "heritage ranch," as our cows are not raised electronically. The beef is better, but not everyone wants to pay the extra price. Once a year I take the kids on a field trip to see how ranching was done in the Old West. Pa plays the rancher role up perfectly, with his vintage jeans, worn boots, and a cowboy hat that looks like it has doubled as everything from a dish to umbrella, it is so worn.

My background could not be more different. I come from a military family that traveled the world -- brother born in Libya, sister born in Afghanistan, myself born in Syria. I fell in love with Joe in college, and we moved back to Montana to help his dad after his mom died. It didn't take me long to see how the land could touch someone's heart and never let go. Pa is the last remaining brother and has lived on the family ranch for one hundred six years now. Pa's grandfather and grandmother were hippies who bought the place in the early 2000s. Joe says I am too romantic about it all. He got enough of ranching before he was ten.

I know a safety drone will follow me until I reach the left fork of Dead Man's Creek. I am a history teacher, and I know there was a time when drones were not a part of everyday life. Crime was so prevalent in the last century that they actually had facilities dedicated just to housing criminals. I love knowing that our safety bots monitor my kids' every move. I will never have the pain like those poor parents in the twentieth century, who were constantly losing their children to random accidents such as drownings, car accidents, and abductions.

Pa hates the drones, and if his Jack is off, he'll shoot at any he sees when he goes to town for supplies. I must have a streak of Pa in me, because I feel a great relief when they turn away at the cattle guard. I roll down the window and let the wonderful sounds and smells of the canyon fill my car: no electric hums, just birds singing, flies buzzing, and my own breath.

Pa himself has caused this peace to be at risk. Five years ago, a religious commune up the road from the ranch finally got fed up with his shenanigans when, with six kids on board, they happened to drive by and were treated to one of Pa's naked bullfights. They hired a lawyer. The Department of Elder Relocation and Protection Services issued us an "Elder in Need of Supervision" warrant. The judge gave us three choices: move into the ranch house with him, relocate him into town, or hire a bot to look after him.

Pa and Joe argued for months. My husband was fed up with Pa's conflicts with the neighbors, his public bullfights, and his paranoid rants about government plots and demonic bots. I wanted us to move to the ranch and live with him, but Joe refused. Finally, Pa was court-ordered to leave the place. He was scheduled to check into the Paradise Rest and Recreation Home. Paradise sounded great to me -- hot tubs, prepared meals, enrichment classes. I would have loved to take a vacation from my kids, my job, and my husband to spend a couple of weeks there. But I was sad for Pa. He loved the land.

On the day he was to move, he gave the best performance in his crazy coot career. We were sitting on the porch when the slick limo from the home landed and two blonds stepped out, done up in Old West revival prostitute fashion -- red dresses and heels -- like a couple of paid escorts.

When the first blond asked, "Are you ready to go, big boy?" a big smile lit up Pa's skinny face. He hopped off the porch like a sixteen-year-old. He was carrying his sixty-year-old suitcase, used one time. Truth is, I was feeling disappointed in him, giving up everything he loved to follow cleavage into elder la-la land.

Just as Joe breathed out a sigh of relief and gave me a smile of triumph, Pa swerved, dropped the suitcase, made a beeline for his pickup, and grabbed his twelve-gauge shotgun out of the front seat. One woman shrieked, and the other giggled nervously, but I knew it was serious. Pa didn't joke around with guns.

"Without my land I am dead, so I might as well shoot myself," he said calmly. "Or better yet, you do it. Wait, is this thing working?" He pulled the trigger, sending a blast of pellets into the tin roof on the barn. Pellets ricocheting into the hen habitat. A storm of cackling chickens stampeded out in a cloud of feathers and dust, and Hitler the bull came round the barn and ran toward the second blond, who was, unfortunately, clad in a red dress. Hitler's nostrils were fully extended and his eyes were round with wrath. Both women froze for a moment, then took to running, high heels kicking as fast as Hitler's hooves. They jumped into their limo hover car so fast a smoke puff hit us all in the face as it shot off. Hitler pawed the ground where the red dress had been, walking in frustrated circles, and finally settled for chasing the chickens.

My husband, who was standing by his jeep, grabbed his anger like a gun and began shooting up Pa with his words. I burst out laughing and Pa looked over at me with a hope-you-liked-that-one gleam in his eye. I called the Department of Elder Relocation and Protection Services on the spot and asked about the newly invented device on the markets, a Mind Jack, that could, by restoring short-term memory, reduce confusion and decrease erratic behavior in the elderly.

Elder Relocation and Protective Services gave Pa a trial and were so pleased with his ability to run the ranch with the Jack that they gave us permission to leave him on the land without a drone as long as he agreed to keep it on when he was outside. We had to sell part of the land to pay for the Jack. The Jack was a wonderful invention for Pa. The only challenge was that he had to keep it on when riding around the place.

I'm halfway out to the ranch, hovering over Old 77 West, when I get pinged again. It is Jewell, Pa's neighbor. "Gina, you got to get here. He's fighting with Hitler again."

"Is he naked yet?"

"Yep," she says, as if she were talking about one of her chickens. "Nothing on but cowboy boots and a rancher's tan, shaking his wiener at Bull Boy Hitler like it's the most threatening thing on earth."

"Have any of the members of Born Twice driven by?"

"No, it's too early in the day, we got time."

I can't say I hold a grudge against the commune, but I know that, like most folks, they want to win the second round in their battle against Pa. I hit the accelerator hard. At this point, my husband would love to legally force Pa into a nursing home and be done with all this grief.

As soon as I pass the front gate, I see Pa's wrinkly butt jiggling up and down as he waves a beach towel with a picture of Mickey Mouse dressed in red on it -- Pa's favorite bullfighting prop. Hitler has known since he was a calf how Pa loves to get him worked up and has always obliged. I have also seen Pa sitting on the bull pen gate having long talks with the horned one. I land just in time to see Pa gracefully flick the towel and Hitler charge into it, knocking Pa to the ground and trotting away with Mickey's ears hanging off his horns. This game usually tired both of them in an hour or so, but it was still like watching a couple of two-year-olds wander on a hover car landing strip. Even if all the pilots can see them, it's going to tear up your nerves.

If Pa would put some pants on, the neighbors and the commune could probably handle it better. I yell out at Pa, "Come on now, you're going to wear Hitler out and we won't get any calves in the spring."

I notice Jewell standing on his porch. Jewell is a woman full of secrets. She could be any age from forty to sixty, has long red braids flecked with gray, and wears soft clothes, almost like pajamas. She's Pa's best friend these days.

"I made us some blueberry pie. Let's celebrate another victorious bull fight," she says.

"Yahoo!" Pa says, then picks himself out of the dust, but Hitler is not going to give up easily and heads towards Pa for a pet or a charge -- I can't tell. Jewell has the tranquilizer gun already loaded and drops Hitler just as he looks about to gouge Pa's bare butt. The bull crumples into the dust, Mickey Mouse's ears flapping in the breeze.

Pa looks down and frowns. "Sorry, old boy, you know how these women get worked up." He heads to the house, saying, "Come on in, Gina; I'll just get some pants on."

We sit at the old wooden table Pa's dad built, and Jewell sets a plate in front of each of us. The slice of pie steams and the purple berries glow from little moon shapes cut in the gold crust smelling of spun sugar, fresh-baked bread, cinnamon, and wild berries fresh off the vine in the middle of summer. You can't buy her pie; you have to be a friend. One guy offered her a hundred for a piece, and Jewell turned him down. Nearby restaurants have made money on imitation Jewell pie. The only time the general public gets a taste is at the county fair, where there's a contest to guess the secret ingredient after one mouthful. No one has nailed it yet and the event raises tons of money for my school. We are all curious about her secret ingredient, but she just smiles and says, "Keep guessing." She'll never tell.

Pa is quiet while he finishes his pie. I figure he is slipping back in time, skipping through his life the way he sometime does without the Jack. He and Jewell keep looking at each other. Something is up. When he starts in on how drones are going to ruin civilization, I stand up and try to get the search started.

Jewell says, "I think you two are going to have to ride into the north pasture. I searched the house and didn't find the Jack." She says this without her usual energy, leaving me to doubt she had looked very hard. I search the small house quickly. The Jack came with a beacon, but none of us has been able to understand the activation instructions. I take my coffee onto the front porch, where Pa is saying, "The Chinese have definitely down loaded something into the bots and could take us over at any moment." I gaze up at the white snowcaps on the mountains, thinking about the winter to come. Jewell is nodding and responding, "Like they have the time." When she is reasonable with Pa, he usually calms down.

"Pa, where were you working yesterday?" I ask, trying to keep the stressed edge out of my inquiry, the sound that is guaranteed to bring out Pa's stubborn side when he doesn't have his Jack in.

"I saw him up on the north pasture," Jewell says.

Pa says, "Well, if I had my Jack on, I could tell you where I left it."

"How about Annie's grave? You have left it there a few times," I say.

"I lost my heart there, not my mind."

"OK. Well, should we just take the pickup and go looking?"

"Let's ride the horses," he says. "We can see the ground better."

Jewell stands up. "See you two later. I got to rush." This is strange because Jewell never rushes anywhere. Most of the ranch people I have met move to an easy rhythm.

"Let's take the ponies, then," I say. "I'm not in the mood to be bucked off."

"Boring," he replies as he heads out to the stables.

I don't want to be a sissy. The Twin Terrors, as the folks around the county call his big horses, are buckers. He takes Diablo, a big, all-black stallion with very strict rules for human riders and a mean streak that can come out without warning. The bucks, while not violent, have left me on the ground. He hands me Cleopatra, a white horse with black-rimmed eyes. Cleo checks me out with those gigantic peepers and a little nostril flare. The stress in my clenched thighs transfers to her. She gives a little twitch of her tail, ordering me to relax. The day is crisp with an edge of winter. I'm glad I have my jacket. I look off into a drone-free sky. When we get to the cottonwoods by the river, a gleam on the water coats the red and orange leaves in gold light. Early autumn's sharpness always makes me feel happy, and pretty soon Cleo's gait is more like a rocking chair than a roller coaster. Pa is having a good day for being without his Jack. He hasn't had a single rant on this ride, but as he pulls alongside me his eyes get that crazed look of the Jack being out. We both see the gleam of the Jack together, and Pa gets down off the horse, picks it up, sticks it in his ear for a few minutes, and then pulls it out again and puts it in his jeans pocket. I tighten my legs, and Cleo gives me an irritated whinny. Diablo often bites another horse if he feels it's getting too close and questioning his leadership. Cleo backs off. Pa says, "Gina, I'm not planning to go on forever."

My thighs clench up again, and Cleo bends her head back toward me, giving me a threatening stink eye.

"See, I am ready to see Annie in the flesh again."

"You don't know if you'll see her. What if you just blank out and you are no more?"

"I can handle that," he replies. "I have done my job. I have family that loves me, and the land that I belong to is in good hands. I can rest."

Maybe he's just having an attack of longevity depression. I manage to unclench my body again. "You'll feel a lot better when you can rest up from losing the Jack."

"Gina, I tossed it out here. I needed some time with my own mind, I am going to go riding. Some day I will probably have an accident. I want to make sure I let everyone know how much I love them before that happens."

"Oh, Pa," I moan.

"Now, let me finish this. Your little Jade, I think she will want to run the place someday. I am ready to go, and now that Jewell has told me what makes her pies so good and where she came from, everything is tied up nicely. I have stopped fearing death, but I am not going to invite it in, if that's what you're thinking."

"Pa, you're the boss," I find myself saying. "But I just would miss you so much… You shouldn't make quick decisions."

Instantly, I want to take that back as I see him toss the Jack in his saddlebag and kick Diablo, heading straight for the high bluffs. I kick Cleo too and catch up just as he stops at the edge.

"I wouldn't let any horse run like that with the Jack on," he says. Slipping the Jack back in his ear. "Yep, what a rush."

I hope I don't look as relieved as I feel.

"See, my decision is to go about the property without the Jack some days. I am not planning a precise time when I go. I have just decided not to avoid it so hard."

I am crying a little when we head home. Cleopatra will probably buck me off at some point. Despite the drones, I know this is the nature on all rides in life, like today. But I'm OK with that. Just like Pa, I don't need a drone to catch me before I fall. In any life, there is some meaning, some beauty, and a lot of little falls before the big one. The best I can hope for myself and Pa, my kids, and my world is that a soft landing awaits us all.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Laurie King-Billman. All rights reserved.