On his break, Chad sat outside the Eastside Campground General Store, drinking a Coke. He would have had vodka straight, but he’d preferred whiskey in his soda. He missed it now, the selfish promise at the bottom of the bottle. Without it the soda was too sweet, but it was day forty-seven. For each day without alcohol, Chad tried to play with the number to find some meaning, to make it lucky. When he was golfing he’d tap the ground twice—never more—before each swing. The contact grounded him. It wasn’t that two was an especially lucky number. He just needed to make contact with the moment, needed to pin it down to make it real. This had become especially true when he was drunk. Now that he was working towards sobriety, he knew how quickly he could find a drink, how quickly he could topple from his hard-earned perch, and he needed a similar connection. If he could tie each day of his sobriety to something real, it felt more like a part of himself.
Day forty-four: The number on his peewee football jersey the year before he discovered golf.
Day forty-five: Four plus five made nine. His birthday: May ninth.
Day forty-six: This one had taken him a while, but four and six were the last two numbers of his grandparents’ address. In the few years after his mother ran off and before her parents died, he spent as much time in their house as possible. He remembered doing puzzles with his grandma at their small kitchen table. He slid the puzzle pieces across the checkered tablecloth.
Day forty-seven: Easy. Four plus seven is eleven, the age Colin was when he last saw him. He wished he had a better memory of the day, but he’d been buzzed. Functional enough to pack boxes and say goodbyes, although Leanne had wanted to do all the talking.
“You’re hardly in a state,” she’d said as she scanned his red eyes and rough face.
But he’d insisted. He couldn’t hold down a job, couldn’t put it together, couldn’t trust himself around his kids. He at least owed them an explanation.
He sat Colin and Sophie on the couch and sat on the edge of the coffee table facing them. He rubbed his unshaven face, still short enough to be prickly.
“You guys are important to me,” Chad said. “Very important. So I need to be my best for you. I’m not—I can’t—” Chad had thought he could wrap up all his mistakes, present them in a package to his kids that would make this make sense, but nothing seemed to fit together. He tried again.
“What’s my number one job?” he asked Sophie, grabbing her knee and giving it a wiggle.
“I thought you didn’t have one,” Colin said.
“Golf?” Sophie said, cutting a side glance at her brother as she tried to even out the conversation.
“Used to be,” Chad said. “I thought it was. But I’ve been thinking, and it’s not that after all. It’s keeping you two safe,” he said. He watched Leanne squeeze the fingers of her left hand, pressing them together as if she could change them entirely, make a new shape and start over.
“And I can’t do that right now. I’m not doing too great. There are some things getting in the way of me doing that job—”
“Drinking,” Colin muttered.
Chad had nodded, wondering again what exactly Colin had seen in the middle of that night.
Coming from his son, that single word had held more condemnation than Chad expected, but not more than he deserved. He’d been gone for six hundred and seven days, with only forty-seven sober days to show for it.
“Chad,” Ada called from the shop. Her torso stuck out of the open screen door. “Call for you.”
In addition to Eastside, Ada owned the Gateway Bar and Grill with her brother. Now that it was the end of September, the season was winding down. Campgrounds would close soon. Ada had offered Chad a job at Gateway during the winter. The hours weren’t guaranteed, but it would be enough to make the rent on the run-down trailer that Chad had been living in since April.
The small Montana town, just east of Glacier National Park, was used to strangers—not only people visiting the park or passing through, but also people running away from their past. People like him. Chad felt comfortable at the campground, but he worried he might blend in too well behind the bar. Pulling beers and pouring shots, all the while telling himself he didn’t need any of it, seemed ill-advised at best, but he didn’t have another option at hand. He’d worn out his welcome at every other stop, so he might as well stay on through the fall and winter.
He tossed his can in the bear-proof recycling container before stepping inside. When he stood, pain zipped down the back side of his body to his feet. It was always there, but he had stopped fighting it. Although he tried to golf for a few months after Belford, the truth was that he wasn’t good at it anymore. Belford Waters had stripped him of his confidence, not just in golf. He didn’t trust himself to make good decisions or to keep those around him safe. He bore the jolts that crackled through his body like a hairshirt, feeling their bite when he reached to stock shelves or rang up customers at the cash register. At night, when he shifted from one hip to the other, the slipped disc seemed to come to life. It pulsed, keeping him awake, beating out a steady rhythm as he tried to search the black hole of his memory for some sort of reassurance that he wasn’t a monster. So far, he hadn’t found any.
Inside, Chad reached for the old landline anchored behind the cash register. An official voice calmly explained a situation he couldn’t quite grasp. Coroner’s office. Pueblo. Howie Harris.
When he thought about Colorado, Chad imagined it preserved in the past, Leanne and Colin and Sophie carrying on without him in Belford Waters, protected in a snowglobe of memory, far from his reach. He sometimes remembered hiking with Leanne or watching the kids play at the park. He didn’t think about the fights and the moments he wasn’t there; it helped that he drank his way past them. Sometimes he thought about the small town, the way it had felt cozy and welcoming when he and Leanne first moved there. After leaving Pueblo, where he was only ever Howie Harris’s son, growing into Chad Harris in Belford Waters had felt comforting. That is, until he started drinking and everyone in town seemed to know what he was unwilling to admit to himself.
But Pueblo? He never thought about Pueblo, never thought about his father. The name of the small city conjured images of his father’s face smiling on billboards, his last name printed in thick sans serif font on real estate signs. He could picture the billboards but not his father.
Chad didn’t speak much before hanging up the phone. During his stay at Eastside, he had learned that Ada was a woman who despised the pretension of eavesdropping and made no effort to hide the way she listened in on conversations around her. She was restocking a shelf of noodle cups.
“Bad news?” she asked without turning around.
“My father died,” Chad said. He hooked his right hand on the back of his neck.
“Sorry to hear it,” Ada said. She turned to face him. Of all the places Chad had kicked around in for the last couple of years, Montana had been the calmest, if not the most welcoming. He was still the obvious outsider, familiar with the cowboy aesthetic but totally unrehearsed in it. But Ada had accepted him from the beginning. “That your uncle on the phone?”
“Coroner’s office. I’m next of kin, although I don’t know how they found me.”
“W-4 forms. You’re not the first person to get found up here that way.”
“Must’ve. I haven’t spoken to him in years—a decade, about.”
Chad considered before answering. When was the last time he saw his father? Before Sophie. It must have been that Thanksgiving before she was born. He drove Leanne and Colin to Pueblo, but Howie couldn’t be bothered to cook so he took them out to a steakhouse. Colin wouldn’t sit still, and Howie criticized Leanne’s lack of control. Chad had felt that old rage from high school spread across his chest, that need to prove his father wrong, coupled with an impulse to reject his father’s approval.
“Just fell out,” he told Ada. “It seemed easier at the time—he was tough, Dad. Then it just became a habit.”
“Doesn’t seem like a good reason to cut someone off.”
“No, guess not.”
“There aren’t really any good reasons for that, you know.” She had moved from rearranging the dry goods to refolding the t-shirts.
“There are some,” Chad said.
Ada caught his eye. She was fifteen or twenty years older than him—he never asked—and a widow three times over. She was fond of telling people that all of her husbands lived fast and were easy to lose, but those reckless men loved her better and harder because of it.
“Now see, you’re wrong there. You might get mad, disagree, what have you, but a difference of opinion is no reason to walk away for good.”
“What if it’s a matter of safety?” Chad looked down as he asked this. The thin gold carpet had been tracked over into a dull tan, save for one square tile that has been recently replaced. It seemed to glow up at Chad from beneath the postcard rack.
His first week on the job, Chad bought a postcard to send to Colin. It was a picture of a mountain goat, white and majestic. He held off on sending it; he wasn’t sure what to say and could only find excuses when he searched for a stamp. The postcard lay under piles of old newspapers on the cracked plastic table of his trailer, forgotten until Labor Day weekend, when Chad went for a hike and saw a mountain goat.
If he were ever to see such an animal, he had expected the same majestic figure from the postcard: bright white fur in contrast with a blue sky; gray, knowing eyes; pointed horns that curved back toward its shoulders. Instead, stuck behind a group of tourists hiking at a slow picture-pace and inexplicably wearing flip-flops, Chad came across a mountain goat crossing the middle of the path. Instead of the cool billy from the postcard, this one looked beaten down. One horn was broken down to a nub, and its matted fur could only be said to be the color of snow if that snow were stained with dog pee.
The sight brought the old postcard to mind, but the goat itself had been such a disappointing sight that he never sent the postcard. Everything he had done as a father in the two years before leaving Belford Waters had been a letdown. He was that goat: scraggly and miserable and no good to anyone, staring at the gawking tourists with dead eyes. He threw the postcard away as soon as he returned to his trailer. He still thought about it, though, especially when boys Colin’s age raided the camp shop for candy bars and soda.
“Protecting yourself?” Ada asked.
“Protecting others.” He wondered what Ada had guessed about his reasons for staying at the campground. She was used to people coming and going and didn’t ask many questions. Your business is your business until you make it mine, he’d heard her say more than once.
“Even so. Sometimes something that seems to be a good reason is really just a good excuse.”
Two teenage girls opened the door to the shop. The general store at Eastside wasn’t anything special. A deep freezer by the door held layers of ice cream bars and neon popsicles. Beyond the freezer were two rows of predictable souvenirs: t-shirts, shot glasses, personalized key chains. There was a Sophia and a Collin, but they weren’t good enough for Chad to send back home.
The girls stumbled over the thick mat at the front door, too interested in the shiny faces of their phones to watch out for their feet. They made a circuit of the shop, searching for a signal as if searching for buried treasure.
“You want to tell them there’s no WiFi, or should I?” Chad said.
“Eh, let ‘em keep looking. A little extra walking never hurt anyone.” Ada smiled at Chad and held his gaze a moment past comfortable.
“Seems like I’ve got to go back home to take care of this,” he said, as if she had forced it out of him.
“That you do.”
“I might stick around down there a bit,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to winter for you after all.”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll figure it out. Winter hasn’t driven me out of here yet.
Chad smiled and nodded his head from his shoulders. When he first arrived and heard from others in town about Ada’s husbands, he had expected someone—well, if he admitted it, someone more conventionally attractive. A woman so beautiful the universe couldn’t seem to allow her to be alone. When he met her he’d been surprised: long gray hair in a simple braid, skin sunned to a permanent tan, a thin frame that was never hugged by clothes. But after working with her these past months, he was only surprised at how long her latest stretch of singleness has lasted. It was a wonder to him that no other man had sensed the vitality she carried around and attempted to claim it for his own.
“What would drive you out, Ada?”
“Not a thing. I’ve been up in this area my whole life. I feel responsible for it.”
All his life, Chad had felt choked by responsibility. The greater the obligation expected of him, the more rebellious he felt. But Ada wore her responsibility proudly. He wished he knew how to model that himself.
He offered to pay rent through the end of the month, but Ada wouldn’t hear it.
“You’re off tomorrow anyway. Take a couple days to get your things in order, and then off you go. Family’s something you take care of, whether you’re speaking to them or not.”
The next day, Chad drove across the park to Lake McDonald. Glaciers had carved a huge slice and left behind a body of water ten miles long, deep and smooth in the early morning. Chad had been on the move so much for the past fifteen months that the lake’s stillness, more than its size, surprised him, as if he had forgotten what calm looked like.
He stood on the edge of the lake, looking across at the imposing mountains of the Lewis Range on the far side, their faces dark and unreadable from a distance. Aside from a few of the more prominent ridges, no other details from the landscape stood out, creating the illusion of a thunderhead resting directly on the top of the still water. Snow-capped peaks perched atop as if the weather couldn’t make up its mind between chasing everyone away with a storm or inviting them out to find shapes in the clouds.
These mountains were nothing like the Collegiate Peaks he had left behind. Where those tended toward brown and dry green, these were a bold cobalt; where those appeared rocky and stubbled with bushes and trees, these appeared almost smooth and metallic. The mountain ranges were not the same at all, or perhaps he was too far away to see the similarities.
As the sun rose and the area filled with tourists, he wandered into the lodge on the lake’s edge. It looked like something taken from a box of hot chocolate, in a way that felt familiar although he had never been there before. Inside was a grand great room with thick tree trunks reaching three stories. He felt out of place in this indoor forest. A landing edged the perimeter on the second floor. On a side wall, Chad followed the history of the building in a series of photographs that began in the late nineteenth century. They reminded him of Leanne and her interest in history. He had never understood her interest in history, but he found himself appreciating the way the old charm of the lodge made the current day recede. In their waterproof hiking gear, sturdy sandals, and reflective sunglasses, none of the visitors wandering around the lobby fit in either, and he found this comforting. Sitting in a leather chair under a mounted moose head, Chad decided it was time to head home.
On day forty-nine, Chad packed his two-door sedan and headed south.
Kate Dusto teaches high school English and lives with her family in Centennial, CO. Her work has appeared in JuxtaProse, Assay, and Allegory Ridge’s Archipelago anthology.
© 2020, Kate Dusto