Our Lady of the Rockies, fiction by Eric Bosse

I meet a girl and her father on the crest of a hill. She waves as the dog and I climb, and the dog bolts so fast I think he might hit the hill­top and keep run­ning into the clouds and on to the sun. I hold back a shout with a fist to my lips, and the dog skids to a stop and licks the girl’s shoes. When I get close, the father juts his chin to greet me. With one hand, he blocks the wind from a camp stove. With the oth­er, he flicks a sil­ver Zip­po. It sparks but won’t light, and he toss­es it to the dirt. His fin­gers are black with grease. “Always some­thing,” he says, and he reach­es around to scratch his own back.

The girl rubs the dog’s ears, and I ask her ques­tions. She is twelve. She fig­ure skates. She loves vam­pires and feels “dis­com­bob­u­lat­ed” by the leap from ele­men­tary to mid­dle school. Her hands dance as she speaks of cell-phone cov­er­age, her dead best friend, and a stain­less-steel stud some­one will punch through her eye­brow the day she turns eigh­teen. Her apple-yel­low hair hangs in a thick braid down the back of her pink T-shirt.

Knock it off already with the pierc­ing talk,” her father says.

I scope out the glen below. It looks emp­ty, and I tell the father I will pitch my tent a bit down­hill. He asks what I’m up to in the woods on a Wednes­day. I say I got laid off, and he tells me to join the club.

You remind me of a boy I know,” I say to the girl. “A spe­cial boy.”

She smiles then frowns and looks to her father. He exam­ines his hands. I pick a burr from the dog’s coat and feel an impulse to give the girl a gift. But I have only the dog, and he is not mine to give.

The father tips a can­vas chair onto its side by the camp stove, grabs his lighter, and coax­es a blue flame from the burn­er. “Give me the cof­fee,” he says, “and those sausages.”

The girl pets the dog again.

Hur­ry up,” her father says.

She unzips a back­pack, hands him a tin pot, and pulls out a plas­tic bag of ice water and a pack of eight sausages. The dog sniffs at her knees and crotch. I tug him away by the col­lar. The father asks if I have enough food. I point a thumb over my shoul­der and turn so he can see the trout dan­gling from my pack. I tell the girl to stop by lat­er if she wants to play fetch. She says she might. Her father tells me no offense but he won’t let her vis­it a stranger in the woods. I say good call. And, as the dog and I hike down­hill, the girl sings the same catchy pop song my son was hum­ming as I drove him to the mall this morn­ing — a song my wife has insist­ed Satan him­self sure­ly com­posed.

I make camp and dig a fire pit on the far side of the draw. The dog sniffs every­thing in sight while I fry the trout with wild onions and morel mush­rooms. Whiffs of pork and gar­lic from the sausages on the hill­top swirl through the fir trees and mix with sage, trout, olive oil, smoke, and mist off the stream. I look around and breathe it all in. This is the first peace I have known in weeks.

I have come to the woods to escape dra­ma at home. My wife and I have long sus­pect­ed our son Peter is gay, and we have worked hard to come to terms with this. Erin want­ed to take him to psy­chol­o­gists for coun­sel­ing. I argued for lov­ing the sin­ner even if we hat­ed the sins he might some­day com­mit. Our worst fear was that one day Peter would ask us to pay for surgery to make him our daugh­ter. But the real shock came two months ago, when he sat us on the sofa to announce he would for­go gen­der alto­geth­er.

I am not a boy,” he told us, “and I am not a girl.”

Erin’s grip near­ly broke my fin­gers. She asked Peter what the hell he was, then. He had a term for it:

I am an asex­u­al androg­y­ne.”

I put my arm around Erin’s shoul­ders. She jerked away and asked Peter if he was some kind of sex robot. He said, “Oh my god,” and she warned him nev­er to use the Lord’s name in vain. Mean­while, the dog licked his paws.

Sor­ry,” Peter said, “but I won’t let soci­ety dic­tate my iden­ti­ty or tell me what to desire.”

Have you joined some kind of cult?” Erin asked.

Peter stood up. “I don’t expect you to under­stand,” he said. “But I do expect you to love me as I am.”

I felt strange­ly proud of my boy, or what­ev­er he was, and it was pride — not judg­ment, not regret — that pushed a tear from my eye. Peter saw this, and he too start­ed to cry. I reached for him, but Erin dropped to her knees and burst into prayer. She shout­ed at the ceil­ing with such force I expect­ed her to con­jure the wrath of God then and there. Peter’s face crin­kled. He ran from the room and took the stairs three at a time. His bed­room door did not slam, but it shut hard and the lock clicked. The dog came over and put his head in my lap. Erin turned to me.

You have to put a stop to this,” she said.

How?”

Pray on it. Read scrip­ture. It’s been a long time since I saw you with your Bible. Stop going through the motions. Con­sult Pas­tor Weaver. We’re los­ing our son. Do some­thing.”

I am,” I said. “I’m let­ting him be.”

Over the next few days, Erin made it clear she blamed me for Peter’s strange­ness. I had let him play with dolls. I had let him wear tow­els as skirts when she was not home. I had refused to spank him, and I had per­mit­ted him to lis­ten to pop­u­lar music. This androg­y­ny busi­ness was just a clever smoke­screen to hide his homo­sex­u­al­i­ty, she said. If I hadn’t kept her from inter­ven­ing ear­ly on, maybe Peter could have been saved.

So she went after him hard. She ground­ed him indef­i­nite­ly. Then she dragged him to Pas­tor Weaver, who knew a camp where they cured homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. But the cure would cost three thou­sand dol­lars we did not have, so Erin opt­ed to shout the gay out of Peter despite his repeat­ed claims of want­i­ng no sex at all.

Where is your porn stash?” she said to him one night at din­ner.

Peter squint­ed at her as if she were insane. “What porn stash?”

I checked your brows­er his­to­ry,” she said.

And?”

No porn. You must have mag­a­zines or videos. Where do you hide them?”

Peter looked to me for help, but I felt par­a­lyzed. My mar­riage was crum­bling, and the thought of liv­ing with­out a wife or an income ter­ri­fied me. I stared into my tuna casse­role and wait­ed for Peter’s answer.

I’m going for a walk,” he said.

Take the dog,” I said.

No.”

A week into Erin’s cam­paign of ter­ror, we raced to the hos­pi­tal so doc­tors could pump a black spat­ter of pills from Peter’s stom­ach.

After­ward, while Peter slept, Erin wept onto my chest. I felt so angry that I could not bring myself to wrap my arms around her. I had nev­er been a vio­lent hus­band and had not raised my voice in years, but it took all my strength not to punch her in the face right there beside Peter’s bed. I prayed that night for the first time in a long time, for more patience.

After three days in Cri­sis Watch and a month in the psych ward, Peter came home loaded with Zoloft and con­vic­tion. But Erin was ready. I begged her to take it easy on him, but she cut off his Inter­net access and declared her shame for what her son had become.

Then came three weeks of full-on Armaged­don. The more Peter resist­ed, the hard­er Erin prayed. And the hard­er she prayed, the less I believed that God gave a damn. So I knocked on Peter’s door. And I knocked again.

What?” he said from with­in.

Hey, Pete, how about you and I go camp­ing, just like old times?”

Is this some des­per­ate, back­woods attempt to con­vert me?”

No,” I said. “I promise.”

He opened his door, hugged me, and said maybe it would be best if he stayed home to sort things out with Mom. We looked at each oth­er and both knew that was impos­si­ble. But did this stop me from leav­ing? No, it did not.

After the trout cooks all the way through, I set the cast-iron pan in the dirt and get on my knees. “Dear heav­en­ly Father,” I say. And no more words come. I had envi­sioned this as a prayer for san­i­ty, and for wis­dom. I had promised myself I would stay in the woods and the wind and the rain until I stum­bled onto the path down which God want­ed me to lead my fam­i­ly. Yet now, with just me and the clouds and the smells of for­est and sausage and trout, I can­not bring myself to say a sim­ple bless­ing for my meal.

So I sit cross-legged with a plate on my lap and eat as the dog watch­es every rise and fall of my fork. His whiskers twitch, and he licks drool from his lips. I set down my plate with half the fish still uneat­en, but that dog does not budge until I tell him to go for it. When he leaps up, light­ning splits the sky. As he eats, thun­der rum­bles down the val­ley. The rain begins, and the girl and her father scram­ble into their tent. They zip and unzip it and gath­er their things.

Even­tu­al­ly, at dusk, the sky clears and the girl climbs out onto the high­est boul­der. She looks down and waves at me and the dog. I want to reach up and wrap a sweater around her shoul­ders. I pre­tend not to see her and scoop mud onto the embers of my fire.

Long after the moon goes down, I wake to the girl’s father’s shouts. He growls and curs­es at the night. The dog barks, but I put a hand on his head to hush him. I unzip the win­dow flap of my tent. The father’s flash­light spins on the hill­top like an air­way bea­con.

Watch out,” he shouts. “There’s a bear out there. Or maybe not a bear, but some­thing big.”

I hear noth­ing but the man’s voice and the trick­le of the stream. After a while he gives up on me. He and his daugh­ter whis­per for a long time, and the dome of their yel­low tent glows like a sec­ond moon until the sky turns pur­ple and fades into baby blue.

Around noon, the girl arrives at my camp with hugs and kiss­es for the dog. She toss­es pinecones into the stream, and the dog fetch­es them. Her father shows up, too, with a hand­ful of stone arrow­heads. He lets me hold one. It is small and dull and sur­pris­ing­ly heavy. We’re not the first ones here, he tells me, and he wipes his neck with a red ban­dana. What he wouldn’t give, he says, to build a house on that ridge.

I ask where he comes from, what he does, and if he knows how lucky he is to have such a bright lit­tle girl. He is a con­trac­tor with­out con­tracts, he says. He comes from Butte, and his daugh­ter isn’t half as inno­cent as she might seem. But it feels right to bring her into the wild, away from friends and com­put­ers and a moth­er who cod­dles her.

I tell him to nev­er stop cod­dling her. And, with­out a thought for how the ques­tion might sound, I ask if his daugh­ter likes boys.

Maybe he sees the stress in my eyes or the tight­ness in my lips. Per­haps he thinks I am a moles­ter or a rapist. Or pos­si­bly he just pities me as I fum­ble his arrow­head to the dirt. But he doesn’t pick it up. He tells me to keep it. I, too, leave the arrow­head on the ground. I am in no mood to bend over. The man calls to his daugh­ter, says good­bye, and tells me to watch out for bears.

I hike a mile to the lake. No one is there. A loon touch­es down on the water. He folds his wings, looks around, and calls over and over for some­thing or some­one who nev­er arrives. I toss in a line. The dog sits up and pants. I think about Peter and the mys­tery of what he has become. I real­ize that he isn’t done becom­ing. After all, he has three years left of high school, then col­lege, then his whole life. And, real­ly, what has my wife become? Erin has always been deeply reli­gious. Until now I have com­pen­sat­ed for her mean streak, pre­tend­ed it wasn’t there. Yet in many ways, she is my rock. I want to be that sol­id ground for her now, for both of them, but I have no idea how.

I reel in a good-sized rain­bow trout, bash its head on a rock, poke a knife into its gills to bleed it, and hike back to camp.

When I get there, the yel­low tent is gone from the hill­top. I climb up to see their camp­site and find no trace that they were ever there. Then I gut, clean, and fry my trout with­out the smell of gar­lic and sausage blow­ing down the hill­side. And the smell is all wrong. So I pack up, hike back to the car, and dri­ve home in the dark.

Pass­ing through Butte, I see Our Lady of the Rock­ies — a 100-foot-tall Madon­na on a cliff above the town. She stands there, all lit up and burst­ing with love, stretch­ing her con­crete arms wide to embrace the world. Sure­ly her ges­ture is meant to inspire, but it strikes me as weak. It reminds me of me. And for a while I give into the temp­ta­tion to blame myself for all that has gone wrong. I love Peter and Erin, but emo­tion alone is not enough. Like the stat­ue, I open my arms, stand tall, and wait for some­thing to hap­pen.

When I get home, the house is silent. I see Peter’s light under his door, but I don’t hear him mov­ing around in there. So I crawl into bed beside Erin. All night, I dream of bon­fires, for­est fires, and ash­es in rings of stone.

Erin and I wake at the same time, eye to eye across the gap between our pil­lows. She sits up and cov­ers her breasts with the sheet. She asks why I came home so soon then tells me she wants a divorce.

Can we eat break­fast first?” I ask.

Out­side, brakes squeal, a garbage truck’s com­pactor roars to life, and a trash can slams to the street. I pull Erin close. She pulls away, gets out of bed, and wraps the sheet around her body.

He’ll out­grow this,” I say. “Give him time.”

No,” she says. “I’ve prayed on it.”

Then give us time,” I say.

And she says she has prayed on that, too. This is her final word on the sub­ject. She car­ries her work clothes into the bath­room and locks the door. I push my face into the pil­low and feel the dog’s wet tongue on the foot I’ve dan­gled off the end of the bed.

And for sev­er­al days — when I’m not box­ing up Peter’s and my pos­ses­sions, apply­ing for jobs, or argu­ing with Erin, whose heart has grown crooked and gnarled with knots — I sam­ple sausages from butch­er shops around town. I cook these with trout and sage. Some­times Erin ral­lies enough to thank me for these din­ners. Peter, the veg­e­tar­i­an, refus­es to try them. They are good meals, but they do not give off the scent I crave. I soon quit red meat in favor of chick­en and seafood. And, once the divorce paper­work arrives in the mail, I eat no meat at all because I can no longer shake the image of that trout’s eyes as I bashed its head on a rock.

At some point Erin and I find our­selves stand­ing togeth­er in the laun­dry room. She asks why Peter and I still live in her house. I tell her I will not leave until I have every­thing I need. She asks what that means, and I shrug. She piles dry clothes into a wick­er bas­ket. I tell her to stop. Then I get down on one knee and ask her to mar­ry me all over again.

Come on,” I say. “This time at least we’ll know what the hell we’re get­ting into.”

She puts a hand over her mouth. Then she shuts the dry­er, grabs the cord­less phone, and locks her­self in the bath­room.

Four months pass, and I live with my things in the base­ment. I eat lit­tle and cook almost noth­ing. I’ve lost forty pounds. When I walk the dog, the neigh­bors say I am wast­ing away.

I know now what was miss­ing in my failed attempts to con­jure up that elu­sive odor of sausage, sage, and trout. One sim­ply can­not extract pollen, sap, and mist from the for­est air and bring it home. But on win­ter after­noons, wrapped in the heat of the house, I some­times stroke the dog and catch myself long­ing for the smell of that meal. I think about the girl and her father, as if our chance encounter marked a cross­roads — as if the odors in the air that night car­ried mean­ings I had failed to grasp. I sift through every detail. I shift the angle of a rock and the slant of an arm. I adjust the bal­ance and heft of the gear in my pack. I shuf­fle the order of moments and string the daughter’s words through the mouth of the father — and his words through her mouth — hop­ing to catch them out in a lie, a dodge, a moment of truth. I fum­ble around for some toe­hold on which to scram­ble back through time and ask that girl and her father in the full light of day to please take my son’s faith­ful, dopey dog as a gift.

Yet I love this dog. I bought him as a pup, a present for Peter’s birth­day. But Peter ignored him from the start. Now the dog goes wher­ev­er I go. He naps with me on the couch in the fam­i­ly room. He rolls in the snow when I shov­el the walk. He nuz­zles my wife when I pass her in the hall, and he licks Peter’s wet shoes after school. And, after the dog has loved them, he sits at my feet and sleeps. I under­stand now that he is mine, and he shows me the way.

Eric Bosse has pub­lished more than forty sto­ries, some flash fic­tion and some longer, in such mag­a­zines and jour­nals as The Sun, Mis­sis­sip­pi Review, Exquis­ite Corpse, Zoetrope, Eclec­ti­ca, Night Train, The Col­lag­ist, and Wigleaf. His sto­ry col­lec­tion, Mag­nif­i­cent Mis­takes, was pub­lished in Sep­tem­ber 2011 by Raven­na Press. He lives in Okla­homa with his wife and forty-sev­en chil­dren, give or take forty-five.

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