Mount to the Sky

In this story of longing and loss, a man watches his 15-year-old neighbor approach a breaking point and disappear like “dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,” says author Michael Caleb Tasker, winner of the 2019 Great American Fiction Contest.

A young cowgirl holding a lasso

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When she told him to hurry, that they would be late already, he thought of all that foundation the ladies wore, thought of how it would get onto his jacket, onto his collar as they came in for those light, expensive-smelling kisses, and he thought of that pile of coats that always made him claustrophobic. He fingered his tie, listened to her heels on the floor upstairs, and took his drink onto the back porch. It was almost dark, and deep purples slipped over the sky, and he could hear them again, next door, yelling. He liked the sound of the girl’s voice when she yelled.

He watched her come out of her house, quiet now, and stand in the driveway. She was very thin, he thought, very small, too small for such a voice. She looked around and kicked out at a tricycle and he took a step backward, into the porch, into the dark.

He heard Lori come up behind him. “She’s younger than your scotch, Allan.” He nodded and finished his drink.

“You ready to go?” she asked.

“Gin.”

“What?”

“I was drinking gin.”

“Good for you. Let’s go. Any later and they’ll think I had to drag you.”

“You do.”

“Hurry, hurry.”

“You look great.”

“As good as your young friend?”

“Better.”

When they left the girl was sitting at the curb, smoking a cigarette. She looked cold, Allan thought, cold but happy with it, and when she took a deep drag, watching the sky, he tried to remember that Greek god with little wings at his feet.

 

Allan watched the girl rake leaves. It was early and the sky was dim, gentle, an easy November blue that seemed to say it would always be so quiet and he smiled, still waking, still dreaming, and when she looked up at him he didn’t register. He came back to himself and saw she was frowning at him and he felt old. He blinked out a smile and went into the kitchen to start the coffee. From the counter he could still see her, through the window, raking, looking happy with the work and with herself.

Lori came down the stairs, already talking. He didn’t know if it was to him.

“I’m going to walk to work,” he said.

“Walk? But it’s cold.”

“I like the cold.”

“They say it will snow this week.”

“I hope so. When we were young there was always snow by November.”

“You must have had a different childhood.”

“Coffee?” he asked. He kissed her, gave her a mug. She still smelled of whiskey sours and someone else’s cigar.

“I need a hot bath,” she said. “Scalding.”

He looked out the window, looked next door. She was still there. “Think she’ll do our lawn?”

“Who?”

“The girl.”

“Chloe. Her name is Chloe. And I’m not game to ask her. Yesterday I thought she was going to murder her father.”

“That’s not her father.”

“Still, it was nice her mother got a break from it.” She laughed, sipped her coffee, and looked over the kitchen, over the living room behind him. He wondered how long after he left the house before she would pour herself a drink.

When he left for work the girl was sitting on the curb again, and when he nodded at her she frowned weakly, with nothing behind it, and he knew she wanted to smile. He stopped.

“How’s Rudy?” he asked.

She studied him a minute. She wasn’t good-looking yet, he thought.

“You know my father?”

“A little. We had a drink together, once or twice, before the divorce. That seems like so long ago now.”

“It was.”

“He still spends all his time on the road?”

“They don’t tour so much in the winter. He’ll be spending the next two months here in town.”

“Does he still smell like horse shit? I used to love that smell.”

“Me too,” she said. She smiled at him and he thought maybe he was wrong; maybe she was good-looking. He wanted to touch her cheek but she was too old for that. Or too young. He wasn’t sure anymore. “He’ll be here soon if you want to wait.”

“I can’t. Tell him I said hello.”

 

When the snow came he was awake, downstairs, a prowler in his own house. It fell fast and full, bright against the windows, and he went outside and stood in the cold. Down the block the light from the street lamp was dim, muted by all the snow, and when he coughed the sound rang out. He looked at the house next door and wondered if the girl still had her room upstairs, at the back. She had been a quiet baby and he remembered that lost and laughing look her father always had when he played with her, rolled her around on his belly in the garden. And he remembered her father’s quiet face when he had to go on the road, down to Texas, over to Wyoming; he remembered watching the two of them sit on the curb, watching the sun go down, when she was about three, not long before he was told not to come back, never to come back. He wore a brown felt Stetson, the hatband a braid of white horse’s hair, and he put it on the girl to shield her from the sun.

 

They had been to a party, another one, and in the morning his head hurt. Voices, old conversation, and missed jokes ran through his mind, repeating themselves, and when he heard the glass break he thought it was imagined. He looked out the kitchen window and waited, but they were quiet. The young trees outside were bare and looked a wonderful and twisted black in the morning light. He set bacon in a pan and heard the girl’s mother, heard her frayed voiced all ready to break, and he wondered who had thrown what.

The girl came out and sat down on the porch steps. Her mother came out and stood behind her, stood over her, her shoulders wide in her long black coat, wide enough and black enough that Allan thought she looked like an owl watching a mouse.

“I’m leaving now,” her mother said.

“I’m waiting for my father.”

“Don’t hold your breath.”

When she got in the car, when she looked at her daughter, Allan wondered if she might drive straight into the porch.

After she left, Allan watched the girl, ate the bacon straight from the frying pan, and wondered why Harris had spent the night smiling so shyly at Lori. Harris was not a shy man.

A roughed-up Buick pulled up at the curb and he heard a wild guitar from the radio. Rudy got out and stretched, grinning, but his face was too hollow and his eyes too gray to ever really look happy. He cupped the girl’s head with a big hand, then they got in, drove away, the music rambling after them. Allan shook his head. It was too damned early for bluegrass.

 

The lead-up to Christmas excited Allan, and in the morning he put the outdoor lights up, over the front porch. It was snowing again, lightly, and when she came out of the house, very quietly, he almost didn’t hear her. He plugged in the lights and switched them on. They were red and silver, a little cold without the green, he thought, but clean looking. He looked over at the girl, sitting down at the curb, smoking a cigarette. The nicotine smelled good in the cold air.

He walked to the curb.

“Aren’t you a little young to be smoking?” he asked.

“A little,” she said. “You want one?”

“I stopped a few years ago.”

“I know. You always smoked in the backyard. I could smell them from my room. I missed it when you stopped.”

“You liked the smell?”

“Not really. Not then.” She looked over her shoulder, at his house, at the lights. “I like those lights.”

“Me too.”

She looked so small sitting on the curb, like a swift wind might pick her up, throw her about with the snowdrift, and he sat down next to her, looked down the street at the dark, sleeping homes. There used to be more Christmas lights out, he thought, a long time ago.

“I heard you last night,” she said. “Heard that music you were listening to.”

“Nat King Cole.”

“It was nice.”

“I didn’t think anyone could hear me.”

“Not anyone sleeping. I was awake.”

“I hope I didn’t bother you.”

“You didn’t,” she said. “You’re always up late. Or early. Either way, you’re always up.”

“Guess I’m worried I’ll miss something.”

She looked at him like she didn’t believe him.

He heard his front door open behind them, heard the silence of Lori watching him with the girl. She would think of something smart to say, something sharp that he couldn’t come back from, and she would save it.

Later, when he left for work, she was still out there, still on the curb, lost in dusty, faraway thoughts.

 

It caught up with him and he fell asleep, early, downstairs, by the Christmas tree. When he woke it was dark and Lori was still out. The lights from the tree lit the living room, and for a minute he remembered the way Lori used to laugh. It was a delicate laugh, like fine woven crystal that danced away and invited him to follow.

He heard Chloe, next door, growling, and he sat up and looked at the tree, at the lights, and thought it all looked a little bare without gifts, without wrapping. He listened to her yell, listened to her mother, tried to make out the words. He heard something about Rudy and went to the kitchen for a scotch and he drank it at the window, watching their house, waiting for something to move at the windows but saw nothing but snowdrift, whipping at the air, lost between their homes. He fixed another drink, a tall one, full of ice, and when he poured the scotch he noticed the bottle was close to empty and he wondered who Lori had over.

Chloe’s mother got louder, yelled out No no no so loud Allan stepped back. Out the window the snow picked up and he moved to the front porch, into the cold night, let the easy sound of the wind drown the yelling. The snowfall was coming on faster, heavier, and he thought come morning the streets would need to be plowed. The door slammed and he saw Chloe walk out of the house, walk down to the curb, and sit down, wrapped in a ranch blanket, and after a minute he heard her crying. A soft and quiet cry, and he remembered the panting whimper of a coyote he had hit with his car the last summer.

The falling snow caught a car’s headlights. A door snapped shut and he heard Lori’s familiar step; small, precise heels hitting the pavement, a happily determined rhythm, and he saw her come up their pathway, her head turned, watching Chloe. She stopped for a second, her long dark hair caught in the wind, and he could just make out the line of her lips, the soft open mouth. She nodded slightly to herself and walked on, left the girl alone.

She jumped a little when she saw him standing in the dark, on the porch.

“Keeping an eye on her?”

“Keeping an eye on you.” When he kissed her she smelled of gardenias. “You smell terrific.”

“I should hope so. You bought the perfume.” She started inside the house. “Are staying out here? It’s freezing.”

“I’m coming.”

“Is she crying?”

“I think so.”

“Fighting again?”

“Yes.”

“Did you hear it?”

“Not the words,” he said. “I heard them mention Rudy.”

“Rudy? The cowboy?”

“Yes.”

“God, is he back again?”

“I guess so.”

“I hope I don’t run into him. There’s always something so damned depressing about him. Gets me down every time.”

Allan followed her into the kitchen. She took down a glass, made herself a drink and then another one while he watched her. She had gotten thinner all of a sudden, he thought. Her collarbone seemed like it might snap under a hard kiss, and he walked up to her and ran a finger down her neck, along her collar.

“Christ. Your hands are like ice.” She moved his hand away, kissed him easily on the cheek, and smiled that dinner-party smile. “I’m going to shower. Give me a minute and come join me?”

When she walked upstairs he heard something whip and bang outside, down the back, and he walked to the back door. The girl was out there, in her backyard, smoking a cigarette, her head down as she watched something in her hands. She moved quickly, lightly, her hand snapping at the air and he saw the lasso cross her yard and catch the handlebars of a child’s bike. She pulled it down hard. When she took a long pull on her cigarette, her face was hard, was serious and hollow.

 

He left the party early, without saying goodbye to the Davenports, to the Scotts, to Lori even. He couldn’t remember when he had last seen Lori. Early, before they brought out the champagne, before the singing, talking in whiskey-soaked whispers to Heather. Laughter still rang in his ears, the greasy smell of makeup and starched hair lingered, and he walked quickly through the snow, the heavy swollen clouds low in the sky, pushing in on him, stealing the air. His mouth was thick with gin and his mind wandered, quickly, aimlessly, through homes and seasons and he remembered a Christmas from years ago, when he started staying awake nights. He remembered the mean and dashing look in Lori’s dark eyes that didn’t fade when he kissed her, and he remembered staying downstairs, watching Rudy and Chloe walk down the road, the two of them carrying a Christmas tree as the snow billowed like wild white birds around them. She was small then, and serious. She held the back of the tree and when they came up the driveway to the house they both looked at him like they thought he was not real.

He saw the Buick up ahead, parked, the engine running. Cobwebs of silver moonlight ran through the sky and Allan stopped, watched the car, and wished he still smoked. He walked over and knocked on the car window. Music played very quietly inside the car.

Rudy stepped out and walked around the car to Allan. His coat was old, worn out, and didn’t look warm enough for the winter, and when he held out his hardened hand Allan smelled the horses that Rudy spent all his time with.

“Jesus, Rudy, you must be cold.”

“It’s not so bad. Not with the heater going.”

They shook hands. Rudy looked older, thinner, and in the dark evening Allan could not make out his eyes but felt something lonesome and wandering in them. He grinned at Allan and shivered into himself.

“You just stalking your old house?”

“I guess I thought they might still be awake,” Rudy said. “Well, I thought Chloe might still be awake.”

“She usually is about now.”

“Still bad at sleeping?”

“Still bad at sleeping.”

“Me too,” Rudy said. “It’s not so bad if I’m here, in town. I can drive out and take a look at the old house, see who’s awake, watch you sneak around your living room. On the road, though, it ain’t as much fun.”

“Still riding?”

“Oh yeah. Mostly do roping these days, but still riding.” He looked up at the darkened house. Snow wandered slowly over his face, over the street and across the sky, and when the moonlight broke through the clouds Allan saw how old Rudy had become. “How she doing anyway?” Rudy asked. He nodded at the house and looked at Allan, hard.

“I guess she’s okay. Doesn’t seem to like Wallace very much.”

“Smart girl.”

“You teaching her to rope?”

“No. Her mother would kill me.”

“She’s learning anyway. Saw her a few days ago using a lasso.”

Rudy frowned at the house, mumbled under his breath, cursing softly.

“She was good at it,” Allan said.

“She’ll pay for it, she doesn’t keep it quiet. Her mother hates all that, hates the whole circuit — the people, the horses. I used to shower twice before I came back home to her. Never seemed to do much good.”

Allan looked into the car, saw the saddle, the horse tack and worn-out ropes in the backseat. And he saw the duffle bag and thick army blanket and he wondered how many nights Rudy spent on the road, in his car, the heater on against the cold wind outside.

“You’re packed?” Allan asked.

“Mm? Yeah. I’ll be hitting the road soon.”

“Oh. I thought you were here for the winter. I thought there were no shows for a few months.”

“Going to Nevada. There’s always something in Nevada. I got a good chance at a big purse.” Rudy smiled, a wide smile, wide enough to hide behind. “Damn, she used to hate it, me up and leaving, chasing purses around, chasing the big contests so she didn’t have to worry about nothing. Boy she used to hate it.”

“You mean Chloe or her mother?”

“Good question.”

“Chloe know yet?”

Rudy bit his bottom lip and looked behind Allan, down the road, and watched a car come quietly through the snow, headlights barely cutting through the night as it passed them. The brake lights came on and they both turned to look at the car. It idled, warm, black, too dark to see inside, and Allan’s mouth dried, suddenly, and he had to pull hard to fill his lungs. He listened to the engine hum, the sound pushing at the wind, the snow moving quickly, nervously, away from the car, away from the heat. The door opened and a frail inch of laughter came out, light and flirtatious, and then Lori’s long, stockinged legs and when she stood, shaking some thought from her hair, pulling her fur coat tight at the neck, Allan thought he was still a child next to her. She waved and laughed again before running up to the house. The car sat a minute but she didn’t look back and after she had gone inside, turning on the lights, dropping her coat on the armchair, Allan looked back at the car, a long, low Ford, and he tried to remember what kind of car Harris drove.

He looked back at Rudy.

“Nevada’s a long way away.”

“You got that right.”

 

It was cold and the wind, that mean and hulking wind, laughed through the streets silently turning the world to ice, and Allan liked it. He walked home from work, in the dark, the wind cutting his flushed cheeks and thought it had been a while since he had been drunk, really drunk, so that he couldn’t hear any words coming at him, so that he couldn’t chase those thoughts anymore. He still had that $80 bottle of scotch he got himself for Christmas. He wondered where Lori would be.

Inside he left the lights off, made the drink in the dark, standing at the kitchen counter. Next-door the living room light was on and he could see the movement of the television beating at the window. He took his drink and went outside, out the front, without his coat, and saw Chloe sitting on the curb again. He watched her, saw her breath mist in the air and swiftly dash away, chasing winter. After a minute he went and sat down next to her.

When she looked at him her eyes shone, and he knew she had been crying the dry tears of what his father had called a rough and tumbler.

“How old are you?” he asked.

She watched him a minute. “Fifteen.”

“Old enough, then.” He held out his drink.

“What is it?”

“Scotch. Incredibly good scotch.”

“That’s what my father drinks.”

“I know.”

She took his glass and had a small sip. He could see her breath get taken away. “Not many cowboys drink scotch,” she said. “Always go for bourbon or beer. Or both.”

“And not many cowboys live among lawyers and bankers.”

“He doesn’t anymore.”

“He did for a long time, though.”

“I know,” she said. “Still can’t picture it.”

“And I can’t picture him on the road, riding bulls or whatever it is he does.”

“He rides horses. Not bulls.”

“I saw him. The other night. When he came to say goodbye.”

“I didn’t.” She took another sip and handed the glass back to him and he waited for those eyes to wet up again. “We were at Wallace’s parents’ place. Stayed the weekend.”

“Good time?”

“You bet. Mom and Wallace got drunk. Got to hear about what a loser my father is.”

“Oh.”

“It’s okay. For a loser he sure wins a lot.” When she smiled up at him, her eyes somehow wild, bristling, somehow very far away, he wanted to put his arm around her, hold her, keep her with him.

A small light came on across the street, in Parker’s garage, and soon the smell of kerosene gripped the air and he knew Parker was standing at his workbench, looking out the window at the two of them. He liked the way the lamplight moved across the windowpane. He took another drink of the scotch and held the glass out and when she took it, watching him in that way young girls have, he looked down quickly, at her hands, and saw how rough they were already and he remembered all the roping she had been doing.

Later that night, while Lori slept, he went downstairs, padded around the house, looked through his records while he finished the scotch, alone. He liked the quiet way the night breathed when it was so late, and later, when he went to the kitchen for another drink, the moon was out bright in the clear sky, and he saw the girl standing in the backyard, holding the lasso limply in her hand, watching something in the darkness, watching something that wasn’t there.

 

He took to stopping off at Oliver’s for a drink on the way home. He’d sit at the bar and watch happy, breathless women let themselves be impressed by men who were a little too old, a little too sad but somehow expectant of the fawning, watch the way they cut so forcefully into Oliver’s famous T-bones, watch the way they sipped so quickly at their drinks so the waiter seemed to always be with them. One night a woman sat close to him, smiled weakly behind her heavy black hair. She had dimples that made her look young and when she ordered a gimlet she drank it so easily, so needfully, that he ordered one as well. By her look she thought it was a come-on and he let her, made small talk and thought about Lori and the way she had with Harris. When he left, walking home well-past dark, his thoughts wandering around in gin, lost and happy about it, he realized that he smelled of the woman’s perfume and was suddenly struck with guilt.

Lori was out and he showered, ate some toast, and then ran up to shower again before falling asleep on the sofa, listening to Nat King Cole sing about lonely men, and later, when he woke, he saw Lori’s coat by the front door and her purse in the kitchen. His head hurt and he had a glass of milk and went outside and watched Chloe’s house. It was dark, sleeping, and he waited, half expecting her to come out to say hello.

 

There was snowstorm upon snowstorm and the world turned white, quiet, and disappeared. The banks closed, schools closed, and Allan stayed home and sat in the kitchen and listened to the radio, watched Lori cook, happily, smiling up at him every now and then and he wondered if she still liked having him around after all. He made coffee and took a strip of bacon that was cooling on a plate. Lori winked at him. She came close and he took her hand, pulled her to him and kissed her and when he saw the blue and red lights rolling silently over the snow outside he felt her go tense, felt her making the effort to stay so close to him. He let her go, smiled, and looked back at the police cruiser pull into the driveway next door.

“What do you think happened?” he asked.

“You didn’t hear?”

“Hear what?”

“She ran away.”

“Chloe?”

“That’s right.”

“When?”

“Two days ago. I think. Before the storms started. God, when do you think it’ll stop? I’ll have cabin fever by tomorrow.”

“You look like you have it now,” he said. “Two days ago?”

“You’re always listening to that damned thing, have they said when it will all stop? When will you go back to work?”

“I don’t know. Soon, I guess. Where do you think she went? Chloe, I mean.”

“God knows. Somewhere without these damned blizzards.

“Maybe she went to Nevada.”

She looked at him, wide-eyed and gone, far, far away, and shook her head. “No. That’s not far enough. Not for her.”

 

It took Allan a few weeks to get used to her being gone, to get used to the quiet nights, to get used to the fact that the deep railroad of yelling was an afterthought from his own tired mind. It was her voice, the fighting, that he missed.

He bought a bottle of single malt he couldn’t afford and walked home. It was warm and when he passed the Wilsons’ home, he smelled the gardenias blooming and he thought about sitting outside, on the front porch, listening to Nat King Cole, listening to “Blue Gardenia,” softly, quietly, so as he didn’t wake Lori, didn’t wake the neighbors.

Lori was home, reading in the living room, and she smiled at him when he walked in, smiled wide and blank and his skin ran cold.

“What’s in the bag?”

“Scotch.”

“Ugh.”

“I guess you don’t want any, then?”

“No. I’m going out soon. With Claire. But thanks.” She looked at him briefly as he set the bottle up on the dry bar, turned the bottle just so, and walked away. “Not having one yourself?”

“I will later.”

He ate dinner alone, at the kitchen counter, and when he smelled cigarettes he went outside to look for Chloe but forgot that she was gone. Spring had come on strong and the air was damp, smelled of turned soil, and somewhere, cigarettes.

 

It was early when he heard the yelling, but he was awake anyway, downstairs, sitting at the piano, in the living room, the lights off, waiting for the daylight to break in the sky, to slowly spill into the living room, into the house. He smiled then remembered she was gone and listened harder. The voices were deeper, stronger, somehow sadder, and he poured himself a fresh scotch. The yelling became screaming, a man’s voice swearing to god and Allan took his drink outside, sat on his front steps. Thin streaks of red daylight crawled through the sky, and the man’s voice got louder, and when a door slammed Allan saw something move across the street, in the Parkers’ upstairs window, and he wondered which of them was watching. He heard the familiar sound of Chloe’s mother about to break. He took a sip of scotch and smiled. Rudy’s Buick was parked at the curb. With the growing light he saw the mud and dust on the tires, kicked up on the mudguards, and Allan wondered what part of the country had mud so red. Rudy came out of the house, his ex-wife’s voice trailing after him, calling him a son of a bitch, a useless son of a bitch.

Rudy came down the stairs and stopped in their yard, then turned back. “You should have told me. The minute she was gone, you should have told me.”

“You really expect me to think you would care?”

“What the hell else do you think I care about?”

When she screamed Oh just go away, just go away! it was so loud, so hard, it spooked Allan, like the fight had jumped out at him from nowhere. The door slammed and Rudy kicked the tricycle so hard it hit the house. He turned around and looked up and down the street, his face cool and red in the dusty morning light. It was quiet, not even birds sang, and Allan wondered if the fighting had scared them away. He watched Rudy pace, watched his body soften as the anger left and he walked slowly to the curb and sat down, lit a cigarette, and he took a deep drag, watching the sky, and Allan tried to remember that Greek god with little wings at his feet.

Meet the 2019 Great American Fiction Contest winner and runners-up.

This story is from the January/February 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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