A "weird" or "experimental Western" is how Louisville writer Robert Garner McBrearty describes his latest novella. It's called "The Western Lonesome Society" and it features a tribe of Comanches. Yet, McBrearty swaps out traditional cowboys for characters such as a make-believe therapist, a madcap linguist and a paranoid writer trying to piece together his ancestry. McBrearty spoke with Colorado Matters host Nathan Heffel.
Read an excerpt:
On a warm afternoon in summer, many years after his kidnapping, in the makeshift room above his garage, in a modest, ramshackle suburban neighborhood in a small city somewhere in the West, Jim stands at the window, training a pair of binoculars on the neighborhood streets. He’s watching for signs of trouble, of any threats to his own family. For now, all looks quiet on the Western front. Across the street, a woman walking a white poodle, down the block a guy on a bike, but no apparent threat in sight. He reviews the neighbors in his mind. Probably no kidnappers among them, but the neighbors make him insecure in other ways. The Wilsons across the street have great adventures. Their boy, Addell, at four, was the youngest ever to climb Pike’s Peak. The Johnsons, to the south, are great humanitarians; broad-faced and beaming toothily, they are frequently pictured in the paper for their winter coat drives.
The Smiths, to the north, are simply beloved by everyone. They have seven children and each year a different one is high school valedictorian. They have a swimming pool filled all summer with family and friends and neighbors, all bouncing cheerily around.
All three families send Christmas newsletters. So many awards! So many scholarships! So many trips! So much happiness and success! How can Jim’s family compete?
The Rathmans do not send Christmas newsletters. There are older children who have moved back home, husky young men who go in and out the front door carrying automotive parts. They have numerous cars and trucks parked in their driveway, in front of their house and up and down the street. They are forever working on their cars and trucks and washing them. Whenever he pulls his scraggly Toyota into his driveway, which has cracked and settled, weeds spurting through the seams, Jim waves to them if they are in their driveway working on their cars and they wave grudgingly back with wrench-filled hands.
Worrying about so many things at once is tiresome, and Jim moves from the window and lies down on an old green couch. Through motes of dust, as if materializing in a sudden glare of sunlight through the window, into the scene intrudes a shadowy, plump, bearded man, reminiscent of a therapist he saw some years ago. The therapist sighs as if suffering from an ache in his buttocks, swaddles down in a swivel chair, hands folded over his plump belly. He wears a dark suit and has an immaculately trimmed beard and impeccable fingernails, though he is stout, red-faced, sweaty. His voice is deep, loud, faintly theatrical. “You really have self-esteem issues, worrying about what the neighbors think. You should get some help for that. But go on. What else is on your mind?”
On this warm day in summer, he tells his therapist about his idea for the family saga, how he will recount the kidnapping of his ancestors in the frontier days and his own kidnapping. The book will be such a smashing success that it will free Jim from the clutches of President Jammer and the mad linguist, Dr. Dalton. “And there are other kidnappings as well!” he says, excitedly now. “It’s all about — it’s all about: where does one belong? We’ve all been taken — taken from our true home, and it’s only a matter of getting back there! Of finding our way back home.”
His therapist rolls his eyes, sighs, “If only.”
Yes, yes, he will stick it to old Jammer and Dalton. Just let them try to push around a Nobel Prize winner! He won’t put up with their abuse anymore! In his summer class just yesterday Jim was lecturing when the thin pale gas wafted under the door. The students paused in mid-text message, mouths agape. They all slumbered and woke in a daze. “Does anyone remember what we were talking about?” Jim asked. No one did. The students shook their heads and refocused on their text messaging.
But more importantly than his neighbors or Jammer or Dalton, his father will be impressed! The old guy doesn’t get out much anymore, maybe he’ll take him with him to Stockholm. Jim shuts his eyes and here’s the old soldier now, back in the family kitchen, birds alighting in the bird bath way back by the alley. “Why Stockholm?” his father asks, face querulous, eyes glinty beneath his thick glasses. “Where the hell is Stockholm anyway? Europe? That’s a hell of a long way to go. I don’t have enough frequent flyer miles. You know if we held off until spring we might get a better deal.”
“I could pay for it out of my winnings.”
“It would probably be warmer in spring.”
“Well, there’s this thing about collecting my prize.”
“What prize was that again?”
“The Nobel. The Nobel Prize.”
“Oh right. What is the prize anyway? A trophy?”
“About a million bucks.”
“A million bucks? That’s not bad. Cash or annuity? What was it for again?”
“Our family history. Our story. Going back to the frontier days when Tom and Will got kidnapped by the Comanches. And when Len and Sis and I got kidnapped after the guy stalked Mom.”
“Oh. Well, try to keep it cheerful. Nobody wants to read anything depressing. Say, if you give a little talk or something, make sure to mention your sister’s a surgeon.”
For many years, Jim’s mother implored him to do justice to their family roots, to write the story of their ancestors, and he put off the project, kids, teaching, too much to take on until his dear mother was passed and gone, but now he wakes on a foggy night, parts the curtain and spies the kidnapped boys, phantoms, riding across his suburban backyard now turned to prairie. Six-year-old Will, in the year 1870, riding beside his older brother Tom, hands tied with leather straps, surrounded by six war-painted Comanches, exhausted and sore and blistered from this ride with the morning now piercing bright and hot over the plains of Texas, already many miles from home, notes with slitted eyes that he has one advantage over his eleven-year-old brother. He notes this advantage with real satisfaction. Tom has his mouth gagged but he, Will, does not. His mouth is completely free. He laughs inside at this realization. They thought Tom would cause the problems, not him. Poor Tom! Gagged! While he, Will, is free to speak! In fact, to shout! At the top of his lungs now, without Tom being able to quiet him down for once, he barks out his orders: “Let us go, you sons of bitches!”
These are six very tough Comanches surrounding the boys, and one of the places you do not want to be, one of the very places in life you do not want to be is in the clutches of the Comanches, riding north to the Staked Plains, then the canyonlands, dead man’s land, where the captives are traded and separated.
But at the moment, the Comanches slow their horses and stare in wonder at the boy who keeps screaming at the top of his lungs. “TAKE US HOME NOW!” he hollers.
The Comanches stare at the hollering boy. They laugh. Then one looks angry and makes a cutting throat gesture across his own neck. But another Indian raises his hand to calm his friend. This Indian, the leader, a few years older than the others, is named White Crane, the boys will learn later, a taller, slender, dignified-looking man, who in another time and place might have been a philosopher, a poet, a physician, a diplomat, but who in fact is just a plains warrior trying to keep his little tribe intact as the Rangers and the soldiers move in closer with every year, pursuing the horse herds, raiding the camps, following them deeper into their own territory.
White Crane had counseled against taking these two boys, but they’d come across them out fishing in a creek just after dawn as the band of six were heading north after a horse raiding expedition. His rule is a loose one and he gave in to the men who wanted to take the boys, to raise them into the tribe or ransom them back later. White Crane doesn’t like it, though. He knows that now the Rangers will pursue them.
White Crane takes off Tom’s gag and signals the older boy to do something about his shouting younger brother. He nods at his angry friend, and Tom gets it. He needs to quiet Will down or White Crane won’t be able to hold back the others.
“SONS OF BITCHES!” Will roars.
“Will,” Tom says. “They’re going to kill us if you don’t shut up.”
Will squints his eyes at Tom and gives his older brother a command. “Kill them.”
“How am I supposed to kill them, Will?”
“I want to go home.”
“I’m going to get us home. I promise. But you have to shut up now.”
Tom has not prayed as much as he should have. His parents have always encouraged him to pray, but he mostly hasn’t. He prays now. He remembers the stories of the boys who never come back, who forget where they came from, who take up with the Indians and never leave, and he vows that he will not let that happen. He will take his brother home.
“He’ll shut up now,” he says to White Crane, who understands the message, if not the words.
North they ride into a horrible land of rock and cactus and only the mouthfuls of stagnant water you can find in gulches, hidden draws. Bleached bones scattered about. The skin peeling from the boys’ faces. The sky white with heat. Will’s delirious, talking to an imaginary friend.
“Splash me!” Will chortles.
The night turns cold. They lie side by side on the ground. Tom crawls closer to Will who is struggling and stirring in his sleep and he puts his arm around his little brother and holds him through the night, and the stars come out, a great vast canopy of timeless stars, and the sound of the coyotes, and off there in the night, shuffling sounds in the sand, maybe trackers, their father, Edmund, who’d Rangered a little, though Tom’s never thought of him as being all that tough, though he was a boxer back in Ireland and New York before he headed out West. He’d arrived in America a year after the Civil War, too late to fight in that, and back in the town they rode into every so often for supplies, all the hard-eyed haunted men who’d fought in that war made Edmund seem a little soft compared to them. Still, he would be out there somewhere, tracking.
They’re riding again the next day and the sun is digging a hole in the top of his scalp. It’s a little hole at first, a dagger hole, but it widens, and the sun fills it up. The sun fills up everything inside the hole and the hole widens. White Crane rides alongside him and throws a blanket over his head to shield him from the sun.
Reprinted from THE WESTERN LONESOME SOCIETY by Robert Garner McBrearty with permission from Conundrum Press, a division of Samizdat Publishing Group, LLC. Copyright (c) Robert Garner McBrearty, 2015.