The Works of Richard Luftig
Richard Luftig is a Midwesterner now living in California. He is a recipient of the Cincinnati Post-Corbett Foundation Award for Literature and a semifinalist for the Emily Dickinson Society Award for Poetry. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines including Bloodroot, Front Porch Review, Broadkill Literary Review, and Pulse literary Magazine. He was nominated for a 2012 Pushcart Prize.
All Fiction © Richard Luftig
Beyond the Rain Line
I don’t come by being a failure lightly. Four generations of my ancestors were colossal disappointments, although my father did pretty well. But then I’ve heard that screwing up often skips a generation.
Which is how I’ve taken up this barstool as my second home, maybe my first if you don’t count sleeping off hangovers in a rented trailer in this crappy Iowa town. Einstein published his theory of relativity at thirty-seven. When Mozart died at thirty-five, he had written forty-one symphonies. I’m thirty-six and hold the distinction of flunking out of three colleges—mostly because I couldn’t find one with a major in boozing, two marriages, and God-knows how many jobs.
At least my ancestors came by their debacles honestly. They were farmers, that is if you consider chasing the rain line through the Dakotas and Montana, farming. They were from Sweden and what they knew about farming you could have put into a thimble. But they drooled over the advertisements that railroad agents took out in local newspapers to get immigrants to populate the empty space that was the American frontier
Some farmer would be turning over black earth that morphed into gold. Only a fool would have believed those advertisements but my ancestors took the bait like a sturgeon coming out of hibernation. They moved west only to find that crops don’t grow without water. Of course, they weren’t alone: lots of folks immigrated only to find drought, failed crops and bankruptcy.
By the 1930’s, there was nothing to guard against the constant wind that sliced away topsoil like a sieve. The Second World War pulled the country out of bankruptcy but it was too late for my grandfather.
My father must have seen the writing on the wall because when he turned eighteen he left Montana and moved to Iowa. He worked days and went to college nights. Later, he built the most successful insurance agency in three counties.
I guess his successes made my failures even more galling. After my first drop-out, he stopped supporting me. By my second stay in rehab, he quit communicating with me all together.
He died six months ago and, for the sake of family peace, my brothers asked me not to go to the funeral. I heard that he cut me out of his will.
And now I’m downing shots and fingering this envelope from some lawyer, afraid to find out what else could happen to make my life even more miserable.
I was so absorbed that I didn’t see Jed slip into the barstool next to me. Jed is the nearest thing I have to a friend in this sorry-ass town. We drink together and take turns driving home when one of us says he has to throw up. It’s our idea of a designated driver. People say that we look like the number sixteen when we’re together: I’m six-three and skinny as a rail—I guess whisky is a great diet drink and beer washes away whatever calories are left—and he’s like five-six and passed the two hundred pound mark like it was standing still.
Jed ordered a Miller Lite. For him, it was an appetizer before the main whiskey course. “What’s with the package,” he said.
“Beats me,” I said.
“So who’s it from?”
“Some lawyer in Dodge city,” I said. “That’s where I grew up.”
Jed thought for a moment. “Know what I’d do?”
I shook my head. “No, tell me. You’re so harebrained that I’ve learned that whatever you suggest I should do the opposite.”
“Well, I’d send it back return to sender. For all you know it’s a summons for child support. You leave any, shall we say, deposits when you were growing up?”
I considered the possibility but rejected the idea. I hadn’t been back since high school. Any kid I had would probably be getting ready for college. That being if he was smarter than his old man.
I shook my head. “That’s not what this is.”
“Well, I’d still send it back.”
Like I said, anything Jed suggests I do the opposite. I ripped open the envelope and shook it out.
A silver key clinked onto the bar along with a folded piece of stationary.
“Jesus,” Jed whispered. “What the hell is that?”
“It looks like a key to a safe deposit box. God only knows what the paper contains”
“You going to read it?”
I downed my glass to embolden my courage and unfolded the stationary. The letterhead was the same as the return address on the envelope.
I was your father’s attorney in Dodge City. He requested in his will that you be given this key. It is for Box 516 of the Hall County Farmer’s Bank of Liberty, Montana.
Jed let out a low whistle. “Where the hell is Liberty, Montana?”
“I don’t remember giving you permission to read over my shoulder,” I said.
Jed grinned. “Friends share. So where is this place?”
I rummaged through my memory. “Central part of the state.”
“What’s it near?”
“Nowhere and nowhere. It’s where my father grew up. Where my grandparents used to farm. But they sold the place decades ago.”
“So why send you the key? What does it mean?”
I studied the note like it was the Holy Grail.
“It means I’m taking a road trip to Montana.”
I woke up on the air mattress that functions as my bed. The sun was streaming through the curtainless window so I knew it was morning. I didn’t remember anything about how I got home but that was my usual state of affairs. If my truck wasn’t out front, then Jed had driven. More likely, I had risked another DUI.
My head was throbbing with each beat of my heart. With one hand shading my eyes, I fished around for my keys. I felt something stiff and brought it up to my line of sight.
An envelope. Everything about last night—the bank key, the stationary, the mysterious note all flooded back into memory. I remembered that I had decided to leave for Montana. Jed said he’d go with me. We had laughed over what we’d do with the million dollars we’d find in the safe deposit box, and how we’d be set up with beer money for the rest of our lives.
But, in the cold light of day it didn’t seem like a good idea. For one thing, there was the little problem of traveling expenses. Iowa to Montana was over twelve-hundred miles. Three nights, two- hundred dollars, even if we stayed in Fleabag Inns. Plus, food and gas. What would happen if my truck broke down? The thing was fifteen years old with 180,000 miles on the odometer. Once you got out of Iowa, the map was a big empty. You breakdown, you could be stuck for a long time.
I stared at the water stain in the ceiling made from the leak in the roof. Then I remembered the box of photographs. I hadn’t thought of them since he died. I started around the mess, trying to remember where I had seen them last, but months of alcohol-induced fog didn’t help.
Finally, I found them in a box stuffed with old, unpaid bills, dead batteries and dry pens.
I’m twelve. We’re on a fishing trip in Michigan. Just the two of us. My brothers had bowed out for some reason. They were older. Maybe they had girlfriends or were just embarrassed by the Old Man. I was just happy to have my father to myself.
We spent three days in a cabin and caught exactly two fish, both by me. My dad made a big deal of it and I was proud. He said that given all the expenses, the two fish probably cost five-hundred dollars apiece. Then the punchline: he was grateful that we hadn’t caught four.
Years before my screw-ups, before we drifted into parallel worlds of estrangement. A lifetime.
All I had left of him was in a safe deposit box in Liberty, Montana.
Fuck the money, I needed to learn what he wanted me to know.
Jed backed out at the last minute. He always did. But that was okay. After looking at the photographs, I was just as happy to make the trip alone.
If you’ve never driven through Iowa and North Dakota, you might be surprised. For most folks, the two states run together. Even the AAA guidebook has them in the same edition.
But the two couldn’t be more different. Iowa is rolling hills. North Dakota, once you cross the Missouri River near Bismarck, flats out. Iowa is corn and hogs, North Dakota, wheat and cattle.
In Iowa, towns are bunched together like beads on a rosary, so you’re never far from a diner, motel or garage. North Dakota has a town here and there, but mostly empty land.
Mile after mind-numbing mile, my mood gradually shifted from lonely to sad to suicidal. By five-hundred miles, I knew it was real. At seven-hundred, I could taste it.
By the time I crossed into Montana on the third day, the broken yellow line of the road was permanently etched into my brain, and I was talking to the A.M. radio. So when I saw a sign for Lisa’s Diner in Hazleton, I decided to pull in for some emergency coffee.
I figured the diner would be near empty, but I was wrong. The sign announcing Hazelton said the population was 137, and I think they were all at Lisa’s. Every swivel seat at the counter, every table, was filled.
I’m from the east where we stand patiently by the Please Wait to be Seated sign, but nobody was paying me any attention. Finally a waitress somewhere between the ages of forty-five and one-hundred, carrying a full pot of coffee in each hand so heavy that her biceps bulged like that old poster of Rosy the Riveter, pointed with the carafe of decaf toward the back of the place.
“No seat in front,” she said. “Check the Liar’s Table in back. Might be an empty seat there. They’re always looking for fresh blood.”
I found my way to the largest table in the place; room for ten. All the seats were taken by old—no, let me be more exact—ancient guys. I bet there wasn’t anyone sitting there younger than eighty. There were walkers, canes, even a wheelchair, strewn about. They seemed to all know each other; three were playing a card game, two others providing a running commentary. The others were engaged in conversation.
I slipped into the one vacant chair. They all treated me as if I was invisible.
All except for one. If the other men were old then this guy was Methuselah. He wasn’t exactly unkempt—he just seemed to not care a whole lot. He was almost completely bald and what little white hair he had seemed to be poking out at odd angles. He had a tanned face that young guys in California work hours to get but ranchers come by naturally. I guess what really struck me though was that he had more hair on his eyebrows than on his head.
He moved his cane off of the back of the vacant chair. “Don’t mind these guys. They forgot their manners back in the fourth grade.”
He held out a liver-spotted hand. “Name’s Jacob Hollander. Who do I have the pleasure of conversing with?”
“Robert,” I said.
He paused as if waiting for my last name. When none was forthcoming, he shrugged and shook my hand.
“Good to meet you.” He seemed to study my face. “We don’t get many strangers here. You coming or going?”
I contemplated what I wanted to say. “Going,” I said. “Headed to Liberty.”
He seemed surprised. “I got family out there. Haven’t seen them in years though.”
I remembered that Liberty had something like sixty people. I wondered if he was senile or just full of crap.
“Really?” I said. “You’d think the chances of me randomly meeting someone who knew folks from the middle of nowhere would be slim.”
He took a drink of his coffee. “Son, this is Montana. Our towns usually have more cattle than people. You mention a town and people are either from there or know someone who is.”
Our orders came, and we ate mostly in silence; me, a hamburger, Jacob some kind of open-faced sandwich on Texas Toast with a pound of fries all under melted Velveeta. I didn’t know how the guy had any open arteries if this was his regular bill of fare.
He finished off his lunch. “Hey, I have an idea. How about giving me a ride there? I could use a change of scenery.”
A bomb going off wouldn’t have surprised me more. “A ride? Christ, I don’t know.”
I could see he was gaining momentum. “Yeah, it would be great. You could take me to visit my older sister. I haven’t seen her since the state revoked my driver’s license.”
This guy was older than dirt and now he was claiming he had an older sister?
“How old are you?” I asked.
“And how old is this older sister of yours?”
“Ninety-three. She lives by herself since my brother-in-law died. You want me to fix you up with her?”
Now I understood why they called this the Liar’s Table. “Older sister, my ass. I might be naïve but I’m not stupid.”
He smiled like a fisherman who had just landed the biggest catch of the day. “Only one way to find out. Drive me and see for yourself.”
I don’t know what kind of fairy dust this guy was spreading, but ten minutes later I had paid for both of our lunches and we were heading off to visit his sister.
I guess I was more starved for company than I thought because I told Jacob my whole story; about my father, his death, the safe deposit key and the cryptic message. I don’t know why, maybe it was because I’d probably never see this guy again, but it felt good unburdening it all. He didn’t say much but nodded a lot.
After a while, we lapsed into silence, mesmerized by the constant onslaught of the never changing horizon. There were few towns to break up the monotony. Nothing but wind-blown sand that came through the closed air vents of the truck and settled in my teeth.
Jacob shocked me back into awareness by pointing to a narrow road. “Take that,” he said, with excitement. “We need to make a stop.”
I had already seen a lot more of Montana than I wanted. “Only stop we’re making is to see your sister,” I said. “She live up this road?”
“Maybe,” he said, obviously enjoying the mystery.
We came to a building that read: Beer, Gas, Pizza, Historical Museum all on one of those electric signs you see back east on a Seven-Eleven.
“Stop here,” he said.
I shook my head. “We don’t need any gas. Why do we need to stop?”
Jacob reached for his cane. “Well, for one thing my sister lives here.”
I looked at him. “Your ninety-three-year-old sister lives in a Quickie Mart?”
“Not in the store, stupid,” he said. “She has an apartment in back. Besides, I wanted to show you something you need to see.”
We walked inside. A bell rung when we entered to tell the clerk that she had customers but the store was empty.
“Anybody home? Helen, you back there?”
From a back room, I heard a slow, rhythmic clicking. A woman using an aluminum walker emerged from a room behind the main counter. She was short and thin with white hair done up in a bun and glasses that hung from a chain.
“Jacob, what the hell you doing here? Be nice to let a body know when you’re coming for a visit. You always were a pain in the ass.”
Then she saw me. “Oh, we have company. Be nice to warn me so I could watch my language.”
Jacob smiled. “Not company. A customer. Helen, this is my new best friend, Robert. He was nice enough to drive me here. Robert, this is my sister, Helen.”
She extended her hand. I was afraid of grasping it too tightly in case her fragile bones might break, but her grip was strong and firm.
Jacob took me by the elbow. “I wanted to show Robert something in the museum. That okay with you?”
Helen nodded. “Suit yourself. You’d be the first customer this week. I’ll even give Robert the same discount I give everybody who wanders in here by mistake. Admission is free."
“Thank you,” I said. “But how do you make any money on that?”
She laughed. “I’m hoping you’ll buy a postcard and a Dr. Pepper. Who knows, maybe I can get you to spring for a package of our gourmet beef jerky.”
Jacob hobbled toward the museum that was off to the side of the store, and I reluctantly followed. Once inside, it was like entering another universe: silent, stodgy, like leaving color and entering a black and white world. The place dusty but clean. Dust from hardly ever being used.
We passed display cases filled with memorabilia from the county’s history: high school pennants, old clothing, farm tools, all jumbled together in no particular chronological or logical order. It was as if everyone in the county had cleaned out their attic and given their stuff to Helen to keep watch over.
Jacob kept moving like he knew what he was looking for. For my part, I was somewhere between bored and angry.
“Jacob, I really don’t have time for this. You wanted go to your sister’s and I lived up to my part. I didn’t bargain for a tour of everyone’s junk.”
“Ten minutes,” he said. “Besides, it’s not like you have a plane to catch. I guarantee you Liberty will still be standing when you get there.”
We stopped at the last display case in the back. “Here,” he announced.
He reached behind and took out a yellowed photograph dated 1905. A family. The man, perhaps in his forties, posing in a suit. His wife, maybe thirty but looking twenty years older. Seated in front of a mud-plank home with a door with one tiny window. The roof made of grass.
Scattered in front of them, three raggedly children, the oldest no more than eight. None of them smiling. The children sickly, the wife wan. A still life of hardship.
“These are your great-great grandparents,” he said.
Now I knew he was lying. “You’re claiming to know my ancestors? You really are full of shit.”
Jacob held up his hand. “I didn’t say I knew them.”
“You certainly did.”
He shook his head. “These are the Great Plains grandparents of everyone from Montana. Every German or Swede who pioneered and staked a claim. These are the people you come from.
“Take a good look,” he said. “What you see in their eyes?
I studied the faded picture. They looked so grim, so tired.
Jacob shook his head. “Fear.”
“Of water. Or more precisely, the lack of it.”
He fingered the top of the photograph, the part that held the sky. “How many inches of rain a year does it take to sustain crops?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Twelve. Now guess what the average rainfall is out here.
Again I didn’t know.
“Eleven,” he said. “These people were the greatest gamblers alive. They bet on the rain line. In Iowa, the bet didn’t matter. They always had enough. In the Dakotas, it was close. When they hit Montana, the odds, always razor thin, did them in. Out here, it always does.
“These people knew how to make good with less. You do that when you don’t know if you’ll survive. You don’t dare waste a single thing.”
He touched my elbow. “Maybe that was the problem between you and your father. He had Montana in his blood. He knew he had to make every little bit count.
“You’re the first generation that didn’t. You live like something will always show up. Maybe it plain drove him nuts.”
I looked again at the picture, trying to see a hint of myself in their faces, but what stared back at me were unfamiliar ghosts.
I deposited Jacob with his sister and said my goodbyes. I bought picture postcards I’d never send, a box of beef jerky which I shoved in my glove compartment, and headed toward Liberty.
I couldn’t get the faces of the people in the photograph out of my mind. I tried to imagine my ancestors traveling west, the trees growing smaller and frailer and farther apart until all that was left was oceans of prairie grass threatening to catch fire with the first stroke of lightening. I wondered if they knew that the land was transforming under their feet from loam to clay that would slough off what little topsoil there was in the first real draught.
After a while, they had to know that they were destined to fail, that the rain line was going to win. But they kept trying anyway, fighting off disaster year after year. My father had been the last of that stock. He had managed to weave success out of failure.
And me? I was the first generation who had had it all and who pissed it away like cheap beer.
I pulled into Liberty. The town was no different than the hundred others I had passed through: deserted, empty sidewalks, swirling sand. A bar, a second- hand store, a bank. What used to be the post office was boarded up.
I walked into the bank a half-hour before closing. There were more tellers in the place than customers.
I showed the teller my key, and she had me wait while she got the manager. I wondered if this was standard procedure or if they thought I was some sort of terrorist keeping live grenades in the deposit box.
Finally after checking my ID and signature twice, he took out the box and handed it to me. I noticed that he didn’t ask if I wanted to go into a private viewing room.
I flipped open the metal latch. Maybe I was hoping to see a wad of thousand dollar bills. If so, I was disappointed. All it contained was two pieces of paper.
I unfolded the larger sheet. It was a land plat and deed that described thirty acres of land north of town.
I stared at the deed. What the hell was this?
Then I remembered the second sheet. It had the same letterhead of the same lawyer that had sent me the key in Iowa. Written in longhand was:
Your father wanted you to have this. It is title to what’s left of his father’s farm.
I didn’t know what I felt, but it wasn’t happiness.
When I woke up, I was inside my truck, my head propped against the door window. Empty beer cans were scattered at my feet. My head ached and my neck was stiff.
Then it all came back: Montana, my father, the land. I had been so confused over the deposit box that I did what I always did in these situations. I got blitzed.
I didn’t know what to do: go home or drive out and see my inheritance. The only thing I knew was that I desperately needed four aspirins and coffee.
I pulled my truck onto the shoulder of the gravel road and began the long walk up the drive. I remembered reading somewhere that in rural Montana, folks didn’t think kindly of strangers pulling up to their house. They had a tendency to greet people with a shotgun. I didn’t need some crazed guy as the defendant in my murder trial.
I walked to a house sitting on my newfound property. Except it was more like a tumbledown shack then a mansion: tarpaper peeking out from broken, slate-colored shingles with the door and windows all out of plumb. It had a front porch that even the termites and skunks had condemned and left for better lodgings.
A guy leaned against a porch as if he was holding up the place. He looked about my age, but it was hard to tell behind his full beard. He wore a plaid shirt, jeans and boots.
I wondered if he was the caretaker or maybe just a squatter, but I took it as a good omen that he wasn’t toting a rifle.
“You’re the owner,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
I wondered if the guy was clairvoyant.
“Yeah,” I said. “How’d you know?”
“I was expecting you. The bank manager called. Said you’d probably be up here today.”
“So much for client confidentiality.”
He smiled. “Hey, at least he closed his office door before he made the call.”
He held out his hand. “Dave Gullickson. I rent the place.”
My second major surprise. Not only was I a landholder, I was a slumlord.
“Rent?” I stammered. “I had no idea.”
He opened the screen door. “Maybe we should go inside. I have a pot of coffee going.”
I followed him into the house. Shock number three. If I expected the inside to be as shabby as the exterior, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The place was as neat as the proverbial pin, old maybe, with furniture, what there was of it, nicked and worn by years of wear, but the place was clean, well maintained and looked organized.
We went into the kitchen and sat down at one of those Formica tables that my parents must have had in the 1960’s. The drip coffee pot was half-full. I wondered if Dave kept a pot going all day.
He poured mugs for both of us. It was jet black and looked almost solid. I noticed there was no milk.
I took a sip. It was bitter, acidic on the tongue. “Jesus. This stuff is strong.”
He laughed. “In Montana we use it to lubricate machinery.”
I had to ask him. “You been paying rent all these years?”
He seemed offended. “Out here, we don’t use what isn’t ours. I’ve been paying my rent the first of the month for ten years just like clockwork.”
“Some lawyer in Iowa. What he does with it I haven’t a clue.”
He seemed to be studying me. “So, you going to sell the land?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not good at long-term plans. Didn’t even know I owned the place until yesterday.”
He nodded. “Wouldn’t blame you if you sold it. Folks from the West Coast have been buying up land in Montana like nobody’s business. What we call desolate they call summer homes.”
I looked around. “So what do you do? I mean for a living.”
“Work full-time for a cable company, installing lines. Nights and weekends, I farm this land. Vegetables and potatoes. Sell it at the Farmer’s Market out the end of my truck.”
I was surprised. “Didn’t knew crops grew here. Thought it was too dry.”
He considered the question. “Not if you know what you’re doing, work hard and have a bit of rain to help you out.”
“You make any money?”
He smiled. “Lose money on every crop but make up for it in volume.”
“Then why do it? Seems like a lost cause.”
He shook his head. “Guess you eastern guys wouldn’t understand. This land is a trust. You live on it, you have an obligation to work it, to treat it with respect. That’s what all of our ancestors did. It’s how we keep the connection.”
There was a long pause. “So, I imagine you’ll want me out. I was hoping you’d give me sixty days to harvest my crop and find a new place.”
I looked at the guy. He seemed so focused, centered, on this land, his life. I liked and disliked him at the same time and didn’t know why.
Then it hit me. He was like the man in the old photograph that Jacob had shown me in the museum. He was a good farmer, a good worker, probably a good son. He was me without the fuck-ups.
“You have a dollar?” I said.
He seemed thrown by the question. “What?”
“A dollar,” I repeated.
He fished around in his jeans pocket and took out a bunch of change. “This should be about a buck’s worth. Why?”
I took a pen from the far edge of the table along with an empty, ripped open envelope.
I, Robert Lockbridge, legal owner of this property as described by the enclosed plat in Liberty, Montana, do legally sell the land to David Gullickson for the purchase price of one-dollar and hereby relinquish any future claims to the property.
I signed and dated it. “You get your lawyer to draw up the papers, I’ll sign them and the place is yours.”
He stared at the envelope like it had come from a spaceship. “But why? This property is worth a lot.”
“It was to my ancestors who farmed it,” I said. “It was to my father who left it to me. And it clearly is to you. Just think of it as my repaying a debt.”
I finished my coffee, shook his hand and walked down the long drive to my truck. For the first time I was sure of what I wanted to do. I’d go back into Liberty, gas up and get some supplies. Then I’d head east, back through the Dakotas, into Iowa, to Dodge City.
I’d visit my father’s grave, make things right with my mother, try again with my brothers
If I was lucky, I’d hit a ton of rain.