Ennis hadn't wanted to stop by the cemetery.
He'd never owned much that couldn't be moved, but there were a few things that Alma hadn't wanted that he wound up taking to his sister's. Her surprise at the divorce and gentle comforting only made him feel guiltier. He didn't feel the way he should and he knew it. He felt numb. He knew they hadn't worked, but he hadn't expected it. It was a slow decline, with few enough fights. He'd failed her, and the girls, and even though he knew that, he caught himself thinking about Jack, Jack's panicked voice on the phone, "Ennis? You okay? The hell's goin' on?"
He'd never called before.
He was taking a few things by Sarah's, then hitting the road. Jack would meet him in Colorado.
It was Sarah who thought he should stop by the cemetery. She gave him the flowers, too. He hadn't been back much since he'd first left town looking for work, but Sarah said that she'd kept up the graves, and KE had stopped by on the anniversary most years. Ennis didn't give a good goddamn what KE had done, but he didn't tell Sarah that. He figured she probably knew, anyway.
He didn't like being back in town. Everything looked old and small and run down, and the people he remembered had probably moved away or died by now, but that didn't even feel like a loss. He didn't want to see them. Most of his good memories were of the Del Mar homestead, long gone now, and made alone, with the company of cows and horses. He couldn't wait to leave town.
But Sarah wanted him to stop, so he stopped, reluctant to leave his truck, shifting the flowers uncomfortably from hand to hand. Seeing the grave didn't make him feel any better or worse. The numbness roared in his ears like the quiet of a swampy summer-- a deafening, empty fly-buzzing silence. He looked down at his father's name etched in stone, his mother's beside him, the neat-cropped grass, the plastic flowers Sarah put out for the season. The headstone was dirty from a recent rain. He bent for a moment, then stood again without touching the marble, turned on his heel, and started back for his truck.
His father telling him to be tough, not to be a coward, to hit back when his brother swung at him.
His father cursing him for being afraid of the dark, and the thump of the barn door, barred behind him late at night.
His father's laugh when Earl's body made him retch, and that harsh reminder, Earl and Rich were queers, Ennis, and that's what happens to people like that. Queers and cowards get what's coming.
He was halfway there, counting his steps the way he had as a kid to keep calm, when a different name caught his eye and he lost count. His steps faltered. He made it another three paces, paused again, and turned back.
No one had left plastic flowers for Earl Pilk. His headstone was a little crooked, like the ground had settled just a bit and no one had come by to level it, but the grass around it was cropped just as neatly as the rest of the cemetery. The headstone looked an awful lot like the Del Mar marker. Ennis wasn't sure why that felt so odd, except that it reminded him just how much the dead look alike, however different they were alive. He shifted his weight, stood looking down at the stone, and then bent all of a sudden and placed, with great care, the flowers Sarah gave him.
He glanced around with the automatic guilt of a child, and there was only one other person in the cemetery, an old man with an ancient pickup parked across from his truck and standing by it, looking down the row of graves and watching. Ennis looked down, kept his head down and his step-count certain until he had the key in the door of the truck.
"And who might you be?" The old man hadn't moved.
Ennis tensed and looked up. He was an old man, wrinkled and sun-beaten and gray-headed, with a gaze as steady as Ennis forced his to be. "Ennis Del Mar, sir. I grew up just down Dead Horse, a few miles from here."
"Oh, I know the Del Mars." It was hard to read the man's tone. "I thought your Pa was way down the end of the row there."
Ennis's face was blank, his tone was blank, his posture gave nothing away, but his knuckles were white around his truck key. "He is, and my Ma, too."
"Why'd you leave them flowers on Earl's grave, then, Ennis Del Mar?" There was no accusation in the tone, just a mild curiosity. That didn't reassure Ennis in the slightest.
"My sister comes out to take care of our folks. I figured they didn't need the flowers, figured there ain't many folks left in town who leave flowers for Earl. You don't think I should, you put 'em somewhere else." He was still blank-faced and flat-voiced, but now he realized how badly he was spoiling for a fight. That had always been the best way to shake the numbness in his chest.
"You don't know who I am, do you, boy?"
A muscle twitched in Ennis's jaw. "No, sir, I sure don't."
"Rich Holcomb." The man put out a hand, and Ennis shook it, examining his face, his coiled up anger spooling out like a Slinky that had turned from wire into string. He felt suddenly tired.
"Rich. I always figured you left town, after Earl. Guess I don't know why."
"Put too much into the ranch to go. So did Earl. Most especially when so many people wanted me to." He flashed a yellowed smile.
The Slinky in Ennis's chest was coiling up again, but not so much with anger now. "The ranch is still doin' alright?"
"Oh, I manage. Ain't much, but I manage. You come back just to see your Pa?"
"No." Ennis glanced back at the cemetery. "I'm-- I'm movin'. Left some things with my sister. She told me to stop by. I didn't want to. Figured you'd miss Earl more'n I missed my old man. No matter what you were to him-- Hell if I knew nothing. I was nine when it happened."
Rich followed his line of sight for a moment, then looked back at him. "You gonna take those flowers back if your daddy was right?" he asked, soft and pleasant.
Ennis met his eyes. "No. I ain't. Unless you wan'um for something. I think Sarah put a little mint in there, might be able to pot it."
Rich laughed just a bit, rusty but genuine. "I see. Well, I'll take the mint out when I get over there, then. Earl'd like that. Useful shit, that's what Earl liked."
Ennis hesitated, not sure if he should say it, or how to say it, if he decided to. "I'm sorry," was what he said at last.
"That's alright. Wasn't you who did it, was it, Ennis?"
"Would you do that shit to someone else?"
"Then I ain't blaming you. I'm sorry your daddy was the way he was-- sorrier'n I've ever been about the way I am."
Ennis made a strangled little laughing sound of his own. "Hell," he said, then hesitated again. "It scared the piss out of me, seein' that. Made me sick. Worst thing I ever saw." He regretted it at once. As if Rich needed reminded of how it'd happened, needed some other local boy talking like Earl was never alive.
"Yeah." Rich watched him steadily, waiting for whatever it was that Ennis needed to say.
Ennis's stomach knotted up on him. "But you ain't sorry? About-- I mean." He thought suddenly that he sounded like his old man, trying to make Rich sorry for the way he was, like he thought that shit should have been enough to scare the queer out of him. Rich still didn't seem upset, though. If anything, his face seemed to get a little softer. Something in Ennis's tone, then, or maybe his own face. He wondered suddenly how much he was giving away.
"Sorry it happened? You bet your ass. Sorry for how I am? I got years with Earl, boy. Years and years. And now I got the ranch, and the cows he and me bought, their grandbabies are still out on that ranch. I'm alright."
Ennis frowned, looked down at his hands.
Rich watched him for a second, then tried again. "Nobody ever knows they're gonna be happy forever, Ennis. You just gotta be happy as long as you can."
Ennis turned this over in his mind, felt the knot in his belly loosen a little and something else tightening up in his chest. "Yeah. Yeah. Glad you're alright. Well. I ought to go. It was... good seein' you, Rich. I hope you keep on doin' good out there."
"I will. Glad I saw you here. Where you headed?"
"I--" Ennis ducked his head, tried not to smile and not to frown. "I'm not sure just yet. Colorado. Then maybe Texas. Maybe back up somewhere around here. I been thinkin' about getting my own little place. A ranch, I mean. You got more cows'n you need next season, you keep an ear out. I might stop by."
Rich offered him a hand again, and they shook. "Then I hope I see you."
Ennis wanted to say something more, knew that Rich knew in seconds what he'd been trying not to know, himself, and thought that his old man had really fucked up by teaching him that the only thing as bad as a queer was a coward. He wasn't about to be a coward. He'd been acting like one for a few years now.
The silence stretched on, and Rich leaned against his rusty pickup and looked out over the cemetery. He knew, alright, and he wouldn't make Ennis say another word, but Ennis had to do it now or he'd never start, so he took a deep breath and forced it out anyway. "You always had some good stock out there, if I remember. Don't know where I'll be, or if I'll get the money together by next year, but if I'm near enough, I'll be lookin' for a bull. Might be me or Jack stopping by, Jack Twist."
Rich smiled at him, broad and real, and the wrinkles on his wide face deepened, like he'd gotten them by smiling in the first place. "Jack Twist. Alright, Ennis. You have a good trip. Wish you luck with the ranch-- I got a yearling or two might be up for sale by then."
Ennis cracked a smile back, nodded, and stepped up into his truck.
When he pulled out of the cemetery drive, he could see Rich in his rearview, a small figure standing in front of Earl's grave, hands in his pockets, looking up at the sky.