It’s always the hands that mess me up. I can never get the fingers right somehow. It’s something about the proportions between the knuckles, and the way the fingers are supposed to curve when at rest. I had an entire sketchbook full of failed attempts.
Even at that moment, in the passenger seat of Dad’s F-350, I was sketching out another attempt. My tenth so far, and we weren’t even to Grayling yet. This one was the best yet, but the middle knuckles of the last two fingers looked awkward, like they’d been broken.
Which gave me an idea. I glanced over at Dad, who was driving with his left hand, the right resting on his thigh, fingers tapping to Montgomery Gentry on the radio.
“Dad?” A sideways glance and a raised eyebrow were the only acknowledgment I got. “You ever broke your fingers?”
“Yeah, broke most of my left hand, matter of fact.” Dad took the wheel with his right and showed me his left hand. The knuckles were bulbous, the fingers crooked. “Didn’t get ’em set right, so they’ve always been kinda fucked up.”
“How’d you break ’em?”
The fingers in question scratched at a shaved scalp, the stubble of a receding hairline whisking under his nails. “Me and your Uncle Gerry were out in the back forty, riding the fence line, checking for breaks. My horse got spooked by a snake. He threw me, ’cept my hand was tangled in the reins. Dislocated most of my fingers. Then, when I hit the ground, his hoof landed on the same hand, broke the middle two pretty good. Your Gramps is a hard-ass, and I knew he’d wallop me good if I came back without the job done. So I set the broke fingers best I could. There was a busted fence post, see, way out at the far corner, and Dad’s prize Thoroughbred kept getting out. Gerry and I fixed the break and went home. I never told Dad about my fingers, just had my mom wrap ’em for me. Never really healed right, and even now when the weather’s shitty my hand aches."
“I’d heard the stories of my father’s childhood growing up on the Wyoming horse ranch that had been in the Monroe family for several generations. Every summer of my entire life had been spent on that ranch, riding and roping and tagging and birthing and breaking. Gramps didn’t accept excuses and didn’t tolerate weakness or mistakes, and I could only begin to imagine what it had been like growing up with Connor Monroe as a father.
Gramps was a tall, silver-haired, iron-hard man. He’d served in both Korea and Vietnam before returning to work the ranch. Even as his grandson, I was expected to pull my weight or go home. That meant up before dawn, to bed past sunset, the entire day spent out in the field or in the stables, rarely even sitting for lunch. At fourteen, I was tanned, muscled, and, I knew, hardened to the point of looking older than I really was.” “Dad had been the first Monroe son to pursue a career away from the ranch, which had caused a decades-long rift between him and Gramps, leaving Uncle Gerry to take over running the ranch as Gramps got older. Dad left Wyoming after high school, moving to Detroit on his own to become an engineer. He’d started on the floor of a Ford plant, assembling truck frames and attending night school until he’d completed his degree, and eventually he’d been promoted to the engineering department, where he’d worked for the last twenty years. Despite his decades as an engineer, Dad had never really lost the wild-edged intensity of his upbringing.
“Why the questions about my fingers?” he asked.
I shrugged, tilted the drawing into his line of sight. “I can’t get these damn fingers to look right. The last two look messed up, and I can’t fix it. So I thought I’d make ’em look broken on purpose.” “Dad glanced at the drawing and then nodded. “Good plan. The relationship between your angles and curves is off, is your problem. I’m more of a draftsman than an artist, but that’s my two cents.”
I made a surreptitious study of Dad’s broken fingers again, adjusted the knuckles on the pencil-rendered hand, making them look misshapen and lumpy, then worked on the tips of the last two fingers, curving them slightly to the left, zigzagging the fourth finger to resemble Dad’s. When I was done, I held up the drawing to show him.
Dad cut his eyes to the drawing and back to the road several times, examining critically. “Good. Best one yet. The index finger still looks a little goofy, but otherwise good.” He punched a button on the truck’s radio, bypassing the commercial that was airing in favor of a classic rock station. He turned it up when Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” came on. “I think this summer art camp will be good for you. Interlochen is one of the best art schools in the country.” “I shrugged, bobbing my head to the beat, mumbling along with the lyrics. “It’s weird to not be going to the ranch.”
“Gramps’ll miss your help this summer, that’s for sure.”
“Will he be mad at me for not going?”
Dad shrugged. “He’s Gramps. He’s always mad about something or at somebody. Somethin’ to stew on gives him reason to get up in the morning, I think. He’ll get over it.”
“He didn’t get over you moving to Detroit,” I said, spinning the pencil between my fingers.
“True. But that’s different. Every Monroe boy since before the Civil War has lived and died on the ranch. I broke a family tradition going back a hundred and fifty years.”
Conversation faded after that, and I watched the road and the corn fields and the blue sky spotted by puffs of white, listening to Jimi Hendrix singing “Purple Haze” and twisting the guitar strings into shrieking banshees. I-75 eventually was replaced by M-72, and I felt myself nodding off. A while later, I blinked awake, and Grand Traverse Bay sparkled off to the left, a dozen sails flashing white in the distance.” “Thought we were going to Interlochen?” I asked, rubbing my eyes. The bay was farther north.
“No rush. Thought we’d grab some lunch before I drop you off. Ain’t gonna see you for a while, you know.”
We ate at Don’s Drive-In, a retro burgers-fries-and-milkshakes kind of place, small and cramped, red plastic-leather booths, chrome table edges, and black-and-white checkered tiles on the walls. We didn’t talk much, but then we rarely did. Dad was a reserved man, and I’m a lot like him. I was content to eat my burger and sip my shake, worrying internally about spending an entire summer around a bunch of artsy kids I didn’t know. I’d grown up around silent, hard-bitten cowboys, men who chewed tobacco and swore and could—and often did—go days without much more than a grunt or two. I knew I was a talented artist, as capable with pens and pencils as with paint. What I wasn’t good with was people.
“Don’t be nervous, son,” Dad said, apparently reading my mind. “Folks are folks, and they’ll either cotton to you or they won’t. That was my mom’s advice to me when I left for Detroit. Just be you. Don’t try to impress anyone. Let your work stand for itself.”
“This isn’t like school,” I said, dragging a fry through ketchup. “I know where I fit there: alone in the corner, with my notebook. I know where I belong on Gramps’s ranch. I know where I belong at home. I don’t know where I belong at an arts camp.”
“Wherever you are is where you belong. You’re a Monroe, Caden. That may not mean shit to anyone else, but it should mean something to you.” “It does.”
“Well, there you go.” Dad wiped his fingers with a napkin and sat back. “Look, I get it. I grew up surrounded by thousands of acres of open land, all hills and horses, rarely seeing anyone but Mom and Dad, Gerry, and the other hands. Even school was the same kids from kindergarten to graduation. I knew everybody in my world, and they knew me. When I moved to Detroit, it was scary as hell. Suddenly I was surrounded by all these buildings and thousands of people who didn’t know me or give a shit about whether I made it or not.” “People confuse me.”
“That’s ’cause most people don’t make a damn lick of sense, if you ask me. Women especially. Trick with women is to not try and figure them out. You won’t. Just accept ’em as they are, and try to go with the flow. Good advice for life in general, really.”
“Do you understand Mom?”
Dad let out a rare laugh, but I didn’t miss the way the corners of his eyes tightened. Things had been strange and tense around the house lately, but neither Mom nor Dad was the type to talk about what was bugging them. “I’ve known your mother for twenty-five years,” he said, “and been married to her for twenty-two. And no, I still don’t understand her. I know her, I get her, but I don’t always understand the way her mind works, how she comes up with ideas or arrives at her conclusions or why she changes her mind so goddamn much. Makes my head spin, but that’s how women are and that’s how she is, and I love her for it.” “All too soon, Dad was paying the bill and the truck doors were slamming, and we were hauling down US-31 toward Interlochen. The ride was quick, and then Dad was parking and unstrapping my duffel bag from the bed of the truck and handing it to me. We stood toe to toe, neither of us speaking or moving.
Dad pointed to the rows of tiny wooden cabins. “That’s the cabins. You know which one you’re in? ”
“Yeah, number twenty.”
“All right, then. Well, guess I’ll be going. Gonna be a long drive without you snoring in the passenger seat.”
“You’re just turning right back around and driving home?” I asked, then immediately hated how childish and whiny that had sounded.” “Dad lifted an eyebrow in reproach. “You’re here for three weeks, Cade. You expect me to sit on the beach and twiddle my thumbs for a month? Your mom needs me home, and I’ve got projects to finish at work.”
I felt the question bubbling up, coming out, and couldn’t stop it from emerging. “Is—is everything okay? With you and Mom?”
Dad closed his eyes briefly, breathed in slowly and let it out, then met my eyes. “We’ll talk when you get home. Nothing for you to worry about right now.”
That sounded oddly like an evasion, which was entirely out of character for my gruff, straight-talking father. “I just feel like things are—” “It’s fine, Caden. Just focus on having fun, meeting new people, and learning. Keep in mind that this is three weeks out of your entire life, and you don’t ever have to see these people again.” Dad stuck his left hand into his hip pocket and wrapped his right arm awkwardly around my shoulders. “I love you, son. Have a good time. Don’t forget to call at least once, or your mom’ll have a hairy conniption.”
I returned the embrace with one arm. “Love you, too. Drive safe.”
Dad nodded and turned back toward his truck, then stopped and dug into his back pocket. He pulled out a folded square of $20 bills and handed them to me. “Just in case.” “I’ve been saving my allowance,” I said. Dad always expected me to earn money, never gave it for free.
“It’s…just take it.”
I stuffed the money into my hip pocket and shifted my weight. “Thanks.”
“’Bye.” I waved once, and watched Dad drive away.
I’d spent months at a time away from my parents, lived on Gramps’s ranch for months at a time. Goodbye was nothing new. So why did this one feel so unsettling?
~ ~ ~ ~