Henry Rahr’s phone rang as he bumped through the pasture taking salt blocks out to the feeders. The caller ID read “Georgetown ISD.” Christ, what’s that boy done now? His grandson, Jay Rahr, was staying with them until the school year was out. The young man was in his senior year of high school, and the family was cautiously optimistic that he would make it to graduation.
“Hello.” Henry stopped the truck, dust drifting past his open window.
“Mr. Rahr, this is Marcy Jimenez calling from the principal’s office. It’s about Jay.”
Of course it was. It was January — only four months to go. “Is everything all right?”
“Well, he’s gotten into a scuffle. If this continues, Mr. Rahr, there will be consequences. This is his final warning.”
Henry found Jay in the barn hooking the stinger up to the tractor, getting ready to put out hay. “You’re home from school awful early.”
Jay spit into the dirt. “Dad know?”
“Not unless you told him.” Jay was starting to fill out, no longer on the skinny side and starting to show a bit of patchy stubble. Henry also noted the faded circular ring in the back pocket of Jay’s jeans. It had been growing more distinct over the past semester, left by a can of dip — smokeless tobacco. Henry winced. “Finish your chores and we’ll talk.”
Jay tipped the brim of his cowboy hat and climbed onto the tractor without comment.
That hat was another thing. They were mostly reserved for the county fair these days. Boy’s swimming against the tide. At seventy-three, Henry felt surprisingly in tune with his eighteen-year-old grandson. Henry’s son, Neil, had taken a new tech job in San Francisco, but Jay — who preferred to be called Jake — declared that he wasn’t about to move out to California and be around weirdos and vegans. Despite the encroaching suburbia, Jay embraced a rural past. He liked horses, boots, and rodeos. And was an anathema to most of his classmates.
Henry had decided not to bring up the subject of the fight while Jay was riled up, leaving it for later. He had come downstairs early this Saturday morning and sat drinking coffee in the kitchen to be sure and catch the boy before he got out the door. “Jay, I was going to ride the South perimeter this morning. You want to go?”
“It’s Jake. And I guess so.” He finished his cereal and took his bowl to the sink. “I’ll saddle the horses.”
Henry chuckled. “You can be Jake when you get your own place. Come on, let’s take the truck; it’s cold out.” Henry still had a horse, but it was rare that anyone actually needed one these days. Jay had taken over care of the gelding and rode Elvis far more often than Henry did.
From the house, they headed mostly east until they came to the fence line, then turned south and moved at the pace the old Chevy took them without the foot on the accelerator. They eyed the fence as they went, looking for broken wire and downed trees.
“You goin’ out tonight?”
“Yes, sir. Shelly and I are on the outs, so it’s just the guys tonight.”
“And what aren’t you going to do?”
“Drink and drive.” They had covered this topic many times. Jay hardly listened to anyone except his grandfather.
Henry gave a good-natured harrumph. “And?”
“Never-ever take drugs, not even as an experiment.” Jay’s voice was sing-song, his head bobbing back and forth, but he grinned as he pantomimed. Too early in the morning for sarcasm.
Henry wasn’t actually worried about that one, though. The topic was a leftover from when Jay was sixteen, getting his license and starting to go out. Jay’s ways had set since then. In country and western songs, they drank too much beer and whisky, but never did drugs — too much of a lefty thing, and Jay was into the cowboy image enough not to deviate very far from the mold. They eased further down the fencerow before Henry broached the first of the topics that he wanted to discuss with his grandson. “Bit of swelling on your cheek, there. How’s the other guy look?”
“Worse. But not that bad, actually. His buddies pulled me off before much happened. Football players.”
“You punched a guy surrounded by his teammates? You don’t think sometimes. Instead of breaking it up, you’re lucky they didn’t jump you.”
“Made fun of my belt buckle.”
Henry sighed. Jay had won it for Calf Roping last season. The rodeos were a significant time commitment that Jay’s parents had been largely against. The compromise that Henry had brokered involved a two-fold commitment from Jay. First, he would never compete in a rough-stock event. Fortunately, Jay was good with a rope, competing in both tie-down and breakaway roping. That tempered the pull of bull and bronc riding, which were more glamorous, but ridiculously dangerous. Secondly, Jay would fill out his applications and go to college. He had balked at that one, but Henry sold him on Texas State in San Marcos. It was in a small town, and close enough to Georgetown that he could keep his horse and visit on the weekends.
“Do you want to eventually run the farm?”
“Of course. Why you askin’ that?”
Henry stopped the truck and turned towards Jay. “Because I don’t want it run in a half-assed manner once I’m gone. I wasn’t joking about that college stuff. There’s a lot more to managing the place than just putting out feed and fixin’ fence, and you know it. We’ve talked about this.” Jay could handle the classes well enough as long as he was interested in them. He had already been accepted, but if he was expelled from high school, then all bets were off.
“Then keep your damned head down at school. You got four months ‘til graduation. You know I’ve never been a turn-the-other-cheek sort of person, but you best get your priorities straight.”
“But Paw-Paw —”
“Paw-Paw nothing. You keep your head down — for your sake and mine. I mean it.”
Jay stared at nothing in particular on the dusty dashboard in front of him. Henry could tell by the way the boy’s jaw was working that they were going to have to have another talk at some point, but he hoped that it was enough for now. He reckoned that Jay’s self-image had congealed, but that it was still a little wobbly, making him prone to outbursts when challenged. Henry put the pickup back in gear hoping that Jay was in a phase that he would grow out of.
As they approached the southeastern corner of the property, the first subdivision encroached on the view. Real estate, as it pertained to the financial realities of ranching, was the second thing that Henry wanted to discuss. He tapped his grandson on the leg and motioned with his thumb for them to get out. The door on Henry’s side of the truck gave an angry squeak in protest.
From the top of a rise, they leaned back against the grill and took it in. The development was low-end ranch-style houses. “We used to go up to the road there.” Henry traced where a two-lane blacktop cut an arc between houses and continued on into the countryside. “This was the first piece of land I had to sell. That was nearly twenty years ago.”
Jay’s mouth twisted in mild disgust. Henry was sure that Jay had it in his head that he would never have done such a thing. And neither would he if it could have been helped. But ranching just didn’t pay any more.
“Saved my ass, too. That summer, if you climbed that ridge over there, you could see fires dotted all around the horizon. Lost some good grazing here too.” They looked over the rolling hills, dotted green with cedar and junipers amid the brown of winter and chalky cream of caliche. Henry was the first to turn back to the eyesore of the subdivision. “Same thing will happen to you too. Can’t control the weather.” He kicked a rock with his boot. “People were liquidating herds that year. No water. Cents on the dollar. You know the farm only makes money three years out of five anyway, don’t you? That’s aside from the really bad years. Gotta have an eye for what improvements you need, age of your equipment, the health of your stock across the whole cycle. An agribusiness degree will help.”
Jay crossed his arms. He nodded slightly and turned back towards the ridge in the distance. “I get it. More to it than putting out feed in the winter and hauling off the calves in the spring.”
Henry was glad to see that it was sinking in. “Come on.”
They rode until they came to a sharp incline where two gullies converged to form a low area that flash flooded during heavy rains. If a fence was down, this would be a likely area. Jay got out to walk that stretch on foot while Henry circled around to meet him on the other side.
Jay headed for the back of the truck as he came out of the ravine. “Bottom wire’s broke and a couple of posts leaning. Brush got in above the float and tangled it up.” Jay grabbed a roll of barbed wire, work gloves, and the stretchers; he motioned with a jut of his chin for Henry to take the pliers and tamping bar.
The morning rounds were going to take longer than expected, which was fine, since that would give Henry more time to work on his grandson. After clearing the brush, they began on the posts. “So, Jay, you weren’t much impressed with that subdivision backing up to us.”
“Nope. I hear you, though.”
“Let me ask you, would you swap fifty acres on the front side of the place for a hundred and fifty acres on the back?”
Henry was bracing the post and Jay had the hammer, about to tack the wire. He paused with his arm in mid-air and straightened up. “Hell yeah. You got a deal cooking?”
“Hypothetical. Somewhat, anyway.”
Jay hung the claw of the hammer on one of the wires that was still taut and removed his gloves. He pulled out a can of Skoal, tapping it to compact the tobacco on one side of the can.
“For god’s sake, Jay. Don’t use that shit. It’s disgusting.”
Jay made a sucking sound with his tongue on the back of his teeth. He grudgingly slipped the can of dip back in his hip pocket without taking a pinch.
Henry sighed and continued. “None of the ranchers would want to pay up for front acreage — but a developer would. You’d have to borrow to pick up the extra land, but could clear the debt by parceling off a section of the front. You’d be left with something that you liked better than before you started — except that you’d have another subdivision lining the property.” He pointed the pliers up the fencerow to an area that they hadn’t come to yet.
Jay was thinking.
“Come on. Let’s finish up. I’d like to get back for lunch before one o’clock.” He braced the post again, but Jay hadn’t yet reached for the hammer.
“Who all’s interested in the front acreage?”
“A few. I’ll introduce you at some point. All in due time, though. You’ve got other priorities for the time being.”
Jay made a face and resumed hammering. He would pause, though, working things out in his head before digging into his shirt pocket for another staple. Henry didn’t rush him, glad to see that the gears were turning.
Three hundred yards up the fence row was the next subdivision, newer than the first. There had once been a uniform perimeter around the development. Over time, though, that changed as the various home owners took over the maintenance. Henry didn’t understand how someone could sit at their breakfast table looking out at a leaning, ramshackle fence. One homeowner — or possibly a renter — had two panels that had completely blown over.
They were parked near the opening when a woman in her thirties came to the sliding back door holding a coffee mug. She noticed them through the gap and cocked her head, staring at them.
“Well, let’s go say hello.” Henry waved to her and got out of the truck. They marched over the fallen fence and past a rusting swing set. Henry removed his cap as he stepped onto the concrete pad outside her back door. The woman was in baggy sweatpants and puffy house shoes. Her shoes didn’t quite have bunny rabbit ears on them, but the pale shade of pink and sparkly bows trended in that direction.
“What do you want?” She had to raise her voice to be heard through the glass. “How’d you get here?”
Henry shouted back, “Wanted to talk to you about your fence, ma’am. I have the property on the other side of it.” He turned sideways and motioned towards the truck.
“My husband is here.”
Henry knew that wasn’t true — she would have gotten him already. “Name’s Henry Rahr. This here’s my grandson, Jay.”
“Jake,” said Jay.
Henry shot him a look. “Thang is, ma’am I got this bull, and he’s real ornery. If he got in here — well, I don’t know.” Henry found it amusing to play up his accent as well as the potential dangers of not fixing the fence. He figured that the worst thing that could happen was that some yappy dachshund would spook his bull, causing it to injure itself in the escape. But she didn’t need to know that.
“I … ah, we … ah —”
“Got your quotes yet?”
“For the repairs — or replacement. Probably needs a replacement. Cheaper in the long run.” It was clear that they hadn’t planned on doing anything anytime soon.
“Well, um. We could probably get some by next weekend.” It came off more as a question rather than a statement.
“That’d be just fine. I appreciate it.” At least things were in motion now. He eased off the concrete pad into the yard. “I’ll check in on you later.” He put his cap back on. “Y’all have a nice day.”
Jay chuckled when they got back in the truck. “I didn’t know we had any ornery bulls. One that’s excitable, and a couple that I’d definitely call stubborn. But none that I would consider downright ornery.”
“Well, you’re pretty ornery yourself sometimes. You know, just nudging things in the right direction is usually more effective than showing fight — and easier on everybody.”
Jay grinned. “Wisdom of the ages.”
Henry put the truck in gear and winked. “Your approach tends to result in shiners.”
They followed the fence past the front gate, stopping once for a small repair. There was one more subdivision, about midway to the corner post from the front gate. Henry had sold the parcel only a couple years ago, but a fourth sale might be needed before long. The developer had scraped nearly every tree off the land and leveled out the natural undulations into something nearly flat. Streets had been laid and curb cuts stood out where driveways would soon be. From the looks of it, these homes were going to be crammed closer together than the other two subdivisions. Henry pointed the truck towards the fence before killing the engine. He stared out at the altered landscape.
“What’s on your mind, Paw-Paw?” They had been sitting for a couple of minutes without speaking.
“Well, aside from all that,” Henry gestured toward the destruction in front of them, “I was thinking about your dad. You don’t give him near enough credit.”
Jay scrunched up his mouth and studied a gnarled live oak out his side window.
“I mean it, Jay. I get it that you don’t want to move to San Francisco, but you could be a far sight more supportive. He’s sure as hell been supportive of you.”
Jay half-glared at his grandfather.
“What, you don’t think so? He made it to nearly every one of your rodeos, if you’ll recall. He’s patient with you — maybe to a fault — and doesn’t ride you about how you want to live your life.”
“Corrects my grammar.”
Henry rolled his eyes. “Occasionally. He means well. What is it with you and him? He’s done nothing but try, you know.”
Jay was silent. He shuffled his boot on the floorboard, a grinding, scratching sound, his only response.
“Well I think he’s a fine man. I don’t just mean nice — which he is — but strong as well.”
“We talkin’ about the same person?”
“Yes, in his own way, I’d say he is — in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. You remember that Hallettsville rodeo? Well, something had blown up in the office and everyone was pressed to try to rework a software problem over the weekend. You were competing, though. You remember how he kept stepping away to take phone calls? Well, his supervisors were riding him something fierce. Said he was doing the most important thing that he could be doing that weekend, though, and everything else would have to wait ‘til Monday.”
Jay looked over at his grandfather with a squint.
“See, you didn’t know that, did you? I didn’t pick up on the full extent of it at the time, either. Had lunch with your dad at his office a few weeks later, though. We were in the canteen and you know what they called him when people would stop by the table? They would say like, ‘Hey, Rodeo. Do they have you on the new project?’ Apparently, a couple of higher-ups had laid into him on a panicky conference call, but others were impressed with how he kept his cool, not taking crap while still maintaining professionalism. The name stuck, at least when colleagues wanted to give him a little ribbing.”
It seemed to Henry that Jay was softening. If Jay was aware of that side of his father, it wasn’t one that Jay gave him sufficient credit for. “Parents are biased about their children, but I think the world of him,” Henry said. “Always had a strong character. Principled. Can’t say that we didn’t have our own issues back when he was your age. He always cut me more slack than you cut him, though.” Henry adjusted his cap and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. “I know you don’t think much of his career choice — computers and all — but for me, diversification is certainly a good thing, ranching being up and down like it is. Besides, it’s not like he’s a sell-out. You’ll be picking up where I leave off. Bet you can’t think of your dad ever trying to talk you out of ranching, can you?”
Jay was silent. He scanned the horizon, not really noticing the scarred landscape in the foreground.
Henry eased the truck back in gear and moved along the fence row, trundling at the same slow pace as before. There were no further breaks in the fence, no slack where a calf could step through the barbed wire — but that wasn’t really the point of the morning anyway. Five hundred yards up, they came to the southwest corner of the property. Henry paused for a moment. A dirt road branched off from the paved farm-to-market road and ran along the western side of the property. In time, the road would probably also be paved and widened. Houses would spring up, further hemming them in. Henry sighed, then swung the vehicle back towards the house. “Let’s go see what Granny’s fixed for lunch.”
Henry answered when Neil rang the landline later that evening. “Hey, son. How’s San Francisco treating you?”
“Going well here. We’re settling in slowly. How are things at the farm?”
“Fine, fine. We’re doing fine. Your mom and I are looking forward to coming out to visit you in July.”
“Bring a jacket. They say December and summer aren’t that much different with the wind blowing in off the ocean. How is Jay? Hope he’s not giving you too much grief.”
“Aw, he’s fine. Walk in the park.” Henry wanted to change the subject. “What time is it there?”
“4:00 here. And your back? You better let Jay take care of any heavy lifting. In fact, you should think about lining up any big projects to get done this summer before he goes off to college. I’m sure he would be happy if you put him in charge of something. He is still going to college, isn’t he?”
“’Course he is. And that’s a good idea for summer projects. I’ll take it under advice. How’s Rebecca doing?”
“Bundle of energy, as always. She’s been crisscrossing the city looking at houses, learning the neighborhoods. I get a peek at a few on the weekend, but we’re not ready to make an offer yet. Can’t seem to get over the sticker shock. Renting doesn’t feel much better, though. Rebecca’s also got a couple of good leads on a job; she has a second-round interview coming up.”
“Well, that sounds fine. No need to rush things.”
“Not back yet. He and a couple of boys been practicing their events most evenings. He’ll likely be here in half an hour or so.”
“Well, let me say hello to Mom then. Love you, Dad.”
Henry was in the barn trying to repair a water pump when he decided to take a break. It had been nearly three months since the morning checking fence with his grandson. Winter feeding was over, the pastures had greened, and it looked like his grandson was going to graduate. He realized that he hadn’t spoken to Neil that week, and pulled out his phone.
“Hey, Dad. What’s up?”
“Oh, nothing. Just thought I’d say hello. Am I interrupting you?”
“No, no. I’ve got time. Is everything all right? Jake didn’t —”
“Oh, it’s Jake now, is it?” Henry was pleasantly surprised.
“Well, his mom still hasn’t taken to it, but I’m giving it a try. So …”
“He’s fine. Can’t say that he’s burning the midnight oil with the books, but when did he? Actually, he said something about tagging along on the visit to California this summer.”
“Yeah, he told me. It’s a good development. Be good for him to see some new things. We’ve actually been talking lately. Well, I say talking — corresponding’s more like it. Snail mail, of all things. Jake started it a couple months back. I bet I hadn’t written an actual letter by hand in years. But since he sent one, I answered, and it just kept going. I kind of like it now, though. Makes you think first before writing, compared to email.”
“Do they even have post offices in Silicon Valley?”
Henry had seen the San Francisco postmarks coming in the mail, and was glad that the boy was now willing to check out the area. How had he put it before — full of weirdos and vegans? Henry recalled how people used to say similar things about Austin. It had moved past its detractors a long time ago, though. Probably the same was true for San Francisco. He guessed Georgetown had to evolve as well.
“Well, I’m going to make sure he brings his cowboy hat — maybe we’ll bump into some of those high-tech colleagues of yours on the street. Tell ‘em how you used to feed cows with me when you were a kid.” If Jake did take his hat — and he probably would — Henry was glad that there wouldn’t be a chip on his shoulder to go with it.
Sean Winn’s poetry, essays, and fiction have recently appeared in a number of literary journals including Pangyrus, The Ocotillo Review, and Amsterdam Quarterly, among others. After living in Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Singapore, he now calls Austin, Texas home.
© 2020, Sean Winn