Playas Peak by Darren Dillman

Playas Peak

 

 

When Troy Weatherford looked at his freckled redheaded dancer Trixie Croom, he was reminded that most men didn’t care what a sexual object looked like as long as it was made of flesh and had a hole somewhere.

Stocky and balding, he leaned on his elbows across the bar, bored and tired despite Trixie’s energy and acrobatics on the pole.  The Panther Country Bar was empty of customers, the air redolent of Marlboro 100’s and Axis perfume and Mexican beer, yet Trixie snaked and swerved inside the L-shaped platform.  Axel Rose was shrieking “Welcoming to the Jungle” from the Peavey speakers.

The door swung open and Collin Mortensen, a small blond-headed man decked in boots and a collared Wrangler shirt, meandered inside.  Collin, a Mormon bishop, hailed from Cotton City, ten miles north, while Troy had grown up in Playas, a former Phelps Dodge smelting town twenty minutes west.  Both fifty-two years old, they had played football and basketball together for Animas High although these days they found themselves morphing into the old men they’d made fun of over three decades before.

“Has C.M. been here?” Collin asked, taking a seat opposite Troy.

“Haven’t seen him,” Troy said.  “Want a beer?”

The bishop laughed.  “You don’t quit, do you?”

“My business won’t let me quit,” Troy said.

“You know I don’t drink,” Collin said.

“So you say.”

Collin waited.  He focused on the bar, biding his time.

“Mark’s getting bad,” he said.

Troy turned his face.  The week before, his older brother had lost his hand in a car accident.  They hadn’t spoken in a decade, not since their father’s funeral, when angry words had all but severed their relationship.  Many years before, Mark had borrowed five thousand dollars from Troy and never paid back a dime.  The old man, who had always played peacemaker between the two, hadn’t been able to mend their rift.

“I won’t pester you with it,” Collin said.  “I just thought you should know.”

Trixie leaped onto the pole, pirouetted toward the bottom.  The bishop made it a point not to look.  According to him, the first look was the one that hurt people the most.

“You believe that stuff he writes?” Collin asked.

“What?”

“C.M.,” Collin said.  “You know.  Apaches.  Dead kids.  Dead horses.  Every one of ‘em has a miserable ending.”

“Weird stuff,” Troy said.  “That’s his world, I guess.”

 

 

Later, after Collin left, Troy fell asleep at the bar.  He dreamed he and Mark were kids again, playing in the Playas park.  It was near dusk and the orange inferno of sun danced through the willow trees, the grass dark green and thick, rising elliptically to their ankles.  He climbed the ladder to the tallest slide, whisked down the shiny aluminum.  Then he was whirling on the merry-go-round and telling Mark, “Spin it faster!”  Through the whirring, he saw his father standing in the distance, clad in jeans and beige long-sleeved shirt, leaning against the slide pole.

***

“Ready to do some shootin’?” C.M. asked.

Troy jerked clumsily, raising his head.  C.M. sat on the bar stool across from him, in the same seat Collin had been sitting in.  Four years Troy’s senior, his silver hair lay down like dead grass and his stern blue eyes spoke of a desert sea.  His square, gaunt face would have frightened a stranger.  He’d recently won a book award and sold the novel’s rights to Hollywood, affording him a new pickup and a house in Rodeo.  Like Troy, he was divorced, but he had a son who lived in El Paso.

“Your face looks like meatloaf,” C.M. said.

“If it ain’t Mister Metaphor,” Troy said.  “You interrupted my dream.”

“Not a wet one, was it?” C.M. asked.

Troy smirked.  He scanned the bar, then rubbed his eyes.  “Where is everyone?  Where’s Trixie?”

C.M. glanced over his shoulder.  “There wasn’t anyone here when I got here.”  He ventured behind the bar and helped himself to a Modelo Especial in the cooler.

“You’re welcome,” Troy said.

C.M. exhaled after a drink.  “Why you so grumpy?”

Troy hopped off his stool and grabbed his half-breed cowboy hat from the hat rack.  “Let’s go.”

“Hold on,” C.M. said.  “I got to drink my Modelo.”

 

 

***

C.M. drove them in his pickup.  Along the way, Troy gazed at the panorama he’d seen hundreds of times as a child riding the school bus to Animas:  the creosote and yuccas, the unwavering slopes of bedrock and serrated ridges, the wide dome of sky that held everything in its grip.  He had tried living in the city—in Tucson, then Albuquerque and also in small towns in Arizona--but none offered the sanctuary of Hidalgo County.

Before it had been sold to New Mexico University of Technology to be used for the military’s counterterrorism training (via funding from the Department of Homeland Security), Playas had housed workers for the Phelps Dodge copper smelter, which lay defunct, like a rusted old clunker, eleven miles south of town.  Troy’s father had worked there for twenty-six years.

They passed the Baptist church that Troy’s family had helped build, and they saw the park a hundred yards beyond the checkpoint.  The slanted A-shaped Playas Peak stood east, two miles opposite them, on the other side of town.  Inside the small checkpoint lodge, a young brunette in a white uniformed shirt appeared at the window, holding a clipboard.

“Hi, Mandy,” C.M. said.

“Gentlemen,” she said, smiling.  “What can I do for you?”

“We want to go on in,” Troy said.

“Again?” she said, offering a pitying sigh.  “You know I can’t let you.”

“We’re not gonna do anything,” C.M. said.  “Troy just wants to look.  He used to live here, you know.”

“We’ll make it up to you,” Troy said.

She slowly shook her head.  “I need you to back up and turn around.  Sorry.”

***

 

The lake bed lay two miles west of town.  The pickup tires crunched the cracked earth, and when they parked they had an hour of daylight left.  A cool breeze riffled across the bed.  C.M. reached in the cab, grabbed two long holstered revolvers, and tossed one to Troy.

“Try that,” he said.

Troy slid the gun from the holster and examined it.  “Looks like a Colt.”

“Ruger replica.”

Troy checked the cylinders, which rolled smoothly with a flick of his index finger.  “Is it ready to shoot?”

“Ready to shoot,” C.M. said.

Troy held it up for a practice aim, then lowered it.  A fat white thunderhead mushroomed from the southwest, near Cloverdale, slinking toward the sun.

“What do you got?” Troy asked.

“Peacemaker, Nineteen fifteen,” C.M. said.  The gun was black with tiny flecks of silver and gray.  “Patton killed Pancho Villa’s bodyguard with it.”

Troy cocked his head, glaring at his friend.  “Bullshit.”

“That’s what I said,” C.M. said.

“Where’d you get it?” Troy asked.

“Dealer in Cruces.”

C.M. wandered a hundred feet out and set down his empty bottle of Modelo.  Its gold emblem shimmered like a medallion.

“How much you pay for it?” Troy asked.

“You going to shoot or interrogate me all day?” C.M. asked.  He ambled back and stood beside Troy.

“Don’t shoot your foot off,” Troy said.

C.M. aimed, pulled back the hammer, and fired, producing a resonant blast that sounded more like a blowout than a gunshot.  A plume of dust coiled in front of the bottle.  Squinting into the light, Troy aimed the Ruger and fired, producing a deafening crack of thunder, dust slithering behind the target.  They traded a dozen shots before C.M. struck the target, shattering the bottle.

“We have a winner,” Troy said.

C.M. holstered the pistol and tossed it into the cab.  He came back with a broom and dust pan.

“Loser sweeps,” he said, handing both to Troy.

“I swept last time,” Troy said.

“You say that every time,” C.M. said.

 

 

In most of his dreams Troy saw the old house on Encina.  The walls were pasted with stucco, with small logs jutting out above the garage and living room window.  His black and copper dirt bike, made of aluminum, leaned against the wall of the porch.  Sometimes he opened the door and went inside, but the rooms were abandoned, dirty; dead brittle moths lay on their backs along the window seal, their arms and legs folded at sharp angles.  Yet there were dreams where his family had moved back into the old house, though everyone was older and the floors and walls with gaping holes had become decrepit, and in the dream itself he had the tenuous feeling he was reaching for an inimitable alignment of stars that had burned out years before.

 

 

At the Panther Country convenience store the clerk, Margie Carbine, a God-fearing redhead near his age, rang up Troy’s bag of Doritos and can of Copenhagen on an ancient black cash register.  The store had been around for fifty years and the only thing that had changed was the name.  Its peculiar soda and ice cream smell reminded him of his family; whenever they had driven to Animas, his parents would stop at the store for gas and buy him and Mark candy.

“I heard about Mark,” Margie said kindly, averting his eyes.  “I hope he gets better.”  She placed the goods into a paper sack, folded it at the top, and grinned politely as she handed it to him.  “I’m keeping him in my prayers.”

“I appreciate that,” he said weakly.

He took the sack and sauntered out.

 

 

He slept until noon each day.  He turned off the phone’s ringer until he woke and took a shower, but he kept the answering machine on.  Someone from the Animas Baptist church called two consecutive mornings and left messages offering support for Mark.  He attended the church twice a year, but due to the attention Mark’s condition would bring him, he didn’t figure on going anytime soon.

One afternoon, just before he headed to the bar, the church’s pastor, Glenn Norris, called.  He inquired about Mark’s full name and the name of the Tucson hospital where he was admitted.

“We’ve got Mark on our prayer chain,” the pastor said in an obsequious voice.  “Everyone from Hachita to Lordsburg is praying for him.”

Despite the mention of Lordsburg, the fact Troy doubted there were even any Christians in its city limits, he said nothing, secretly hoping Glenn would finish and let him go about his business.

“You know, I’d be willing to go with you to Tucson to visit him,” Glenn said.

Troy hesitated.  “I’d rather you not.”

“Pardon me.”

A gulf of silence cut between them.

“Just a three-hour drive,” Glenn said.  “I wouldn’t mind.  I’ve got—”

“I insist that you don’t,” Troy said.

There was another pause.  Glenn cleared his throat.

“The offer stands if you change your mind,” the pastor said.

 

 

He sometimes dreamed of playing football, and in the dream he was an old man, yet he possessed the strength and athleticism of his youth, brandishing the pads and sprinting downfield, rocking armored opponents to the ground.  His former high school teammates, who were also old, blocked and tackled alongside him—the word Panthers stickered in green and yellow cursive across their helmets--with equal grit and determination, as though time had not diminished their abilities.

Afterward, sitting up in bed, at the dining room table, or in the bar, he wondered about the dreams and their meaning, but always came to a dead end.

 

 

Troy sat at the bar with the microphone, announcing the dancers.  It was Saturday, their busiest night, and regulars from Hachita, Road Forks, Rodeo, and Cloverdale sometimes made the drive.  Trixie was late.  Five men sat on the front row, each in a pervert’s trance.  Accompanied by Limp Bizkit’s “Behind Blue Eyes,” Candy Leyva—whom Troy referred to by her stage name, Blackie--sauntered onto the stage in a black hooded cloak.

Five years prior, in Lordsburg, Candy’s ex-boyfriend had nearly gutted her, ripping a three-inch wound vertically along her navel, and she hid the scar with a black nylon waist band that stretched to her sternum.  She went through her routine, bending over near the customers, brandishing her legs, swinging around the pole.  The wildcat glint of her green eyes was intoxicating.  During the second song she removed her top, collected a handful of tips, and when she was finished she exited the stage and sat at the bar.

“You okay, Troy?” she asked.

“Fuck if I know,” he said.  He ran his hand over his face, squeezing his eyelids.  “Keep having these dreams.  They’re messin’ with my head.”

“If you’re dreaming, you’re sleeping,” she said.  “That’s more than some people.”

He thought about it, and gave a hollow laugh.  “I want to know something.  How come you dance?”

“Why do you always ask me that?” she asked.

“’Cause I want to know,” he said.  “Grab a beer.  Let’s talk about it.”

The front door opened and Trixie hurried through, a duffel bag strapped across her shoulders.  Troy flicked his eyelids.

“The trixster arrives,” he said garishly.

“Go trick yourself,” Trixie said coldly, proceeding to the dressing room.

Candy looked a trifle stunned.

“You piss her off or something?” she asked.

“Skank syndrome,” Troy said.

“Shut up,” Candy said, laughing and slapping his shoulder.

Troy shrugged.  “Truth hurts.”

 

 

On a Tuesday night, two customers stayed until midnight, which was closing time.  They had tipped Candy generously, but neither so much as gave a glance at Trixie, whom Troy had slipped a twenty to cover her loss.

At ten o’clock C.M. had come in for a beer, and at 12:15, when he and Troy were locking up the place, they heard a commotion in the parking lot and saw the two men bothering Candy.  Troy hurried back inside, grabbed the old holstered Colt--C.M. had stashed it in the cupboard beneath the cash register--and met the group in the lot.  He  held the holster with one hand while he gripped the pistol’s handle with the other, watching the hands of the young men, anxious to draw like some antiquated gunslinger.

“What’s going on?” Troy asked.

C.M. moseyed up behind him.  Neither customer was very tall; both were lean, clean shaven, and looked to be in their late twenties.  Judging from their grins, Troy guessed they were teetering near inebriation, and while neither looked particularly violent, he understood that nothing could be assumed--not at midnight, not outside a topless bar.

“We just wanted a private party,” the shorter man said.  His hair was dark and curly and he had the build of a baseball catcher.

“We weren’t gonna do nothin’,” the other said.  His posture was slightly stooped, and he seemed frozen with guilt, his smile diminished.

“Shut up,” Troy said.  “Candy, go home.”

Candy picked up her purse and scampered to an old green Focus.  The small engine roared to life and she sped down the dirt road.

“Where you from?” Troy asked.

“Lordsburg,” the shorter man said.

“Figures.  How do you know her?”

“We don’t.  We were just messin’ around.”

“I’m fixin’ to mess around, too,” Troy said.

The short man looked at the gun.  “That thing’s a antique.  Probably blow your hand off.”

“Yeah, it’s old,” Troy said.  “It was Patton’s gun.”

The stooped man gave a cockeyed look of doubt.  “Patton the general?”

“Yeah,” Troy said.  “Patton the general.  He killed Pancho Villa’s bodyguard with it.”

The two young men exchanged peculiar looks.

“Bullshit,” the shorter man said.

Troy cocked the hammer.  “Let’s see if it works.”

The short man’s hands stiffened in the air.  A scant slab of light fell across C.M.’s face and recognition dawned in the customer’s eyes.

“I seen you somewhere,” the short man said.  “Do I know you?”
“You would if you could read,” Troy said.

Troy’s finger inched toward the trigger.

“Come on, Troy,” C.M. said.  “Just call Billy.”

“Billy won’t do nothin’,” Troy said.  “He just gives speedin’ tickets.”

The short man leaned back, his fingers twitching.

“I ought to drag you out in the desert,” Troy said, “let the coyotes eat you.”

“Sir, we won’t never come back here,” the stooped one said.

“I know you won’t,” Troy said.  He slid the barrel up the short man’s nostrils and nodded toward the dark country south of the bar.  “There’s graves all over this country.  They’re covered up so it blends in with the mesquite.  You got me?”

The stooped man was trembling now.  “Yeah.”

“If we see you again, there won’t be no talkin’.”

The two men backed up slowly, then scuttled into an old Jeep Wrangler and drove off, peeling dust into the night.

Troy released the hammer and holstered the gun.

“You scared the Jesus out of ‘em,” C.M. said.  “You’re going to get us in trouble.”

“So,” Troy said.  “It’s a lot more fun, ain’t it?”  He grinned.

“Hell.”

 

 

Troy found Collin in his corn field in Cotton City.  Rows of cornstalks spanned five football fields, and a green John Deere tractor waited humbly a hundred feet away.  Collin’s overalls were stained with dust and green streaks from the leaves, and his forehead was damp with sweat.

“Come for an update on Mark?” Collin asked.

“No,” Troy said.

“Good, because I don’t have one.”

Troy smiled politely, looking off at the corn cobs peeking from the leaves.

“Are they ripe?”

“Almost,” Collin said.  “Couple more weeks.  I’ll give you some when we collect ‘em.”

Collin led him along another row, pointing out problems with soil and pests:

some leaves were marked by the black cylindrical holes of blight.  Two miles away, near a fork in the dirt road, stood a magnificent Latter Day Saints church, fronted with ivory-colored pillars and a large staircase entrance.

“You’re a man of faith,” Troy said.  “Is there such a thing as time in heaven?”

“What do you mean?”

Troy looked down at his boots, conjuring the right words.  “Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying I think I’ll be there.”

“Why wouldn’t you?” Collin asked.

Troy laughed, but it was tinged with pretense.  “You know why.  Look at my business.  I’m at the bottom of the moral totem pole.”

Collin grabbed him gently along the shoulder.  “I’ve never thought that.  I know who you are.”  His eyes flickered with intensity as the sun bloodied above the bastion of big-boned Animas Mountains.

“I was just wondering if there’s all the waiting,” Troy said.

“I don’t know,” Collin said.  He pulled a leaf from a stalk, and saw a few dozen tiny holes punched through.  “I know sometimes it doesn’t seem like it, but our time is a lot shorter than you think.”

 

 

That night Troy dreamed of Playas Peak.  He had hiked it countless times in his youth, but that had been long ago, and unlike his family’s old house, the dreams embellished its beauty.  He had had the dream many times before, each differing in some element.  In some, water sluiced down a waterfall into a pool, where it teemed with moss and acacia thorns; in others he and his friends crossed through Keyhole Cave, wandered along its precipitous bluffs, or climbed down a pitch-black mine shaft.

He often recalled one hike in particular, a hike that likewise varied from dream to dream.  Mark and his father had gone with him, and they stood on a precipice beside the cave, looking over the town and miles of sage grass and cactus and the wavy blue Animas Mountains, the desert hissing its secrets to them through the wind.  Time and the world had seemed to grind to a halt, and he had recognized a peculiar peace, a surreal sensation of largeness, as though he were standing on the mountain of the gods, and everything—his worries, his wishes, his fears and loneliness—were reduced to brambles and scree.

 

 

He drove in his pickup along the rocky road that approached Playas Peak from the rear.  He crossed a rusted cattle guard, and his muscles and joints shook violently.  Cattle were interspersed among the desert and he had to stop to usher a cow away from the road.  He parked at the base of the mountain and began hiking up the first hill, trudging in his hiking boots, as a hawk glided and grasshoppers fiddled, past prickly pear and sage grass and creosote, the sun a mere lamp among the chilled countryside.  Jackrabbits darted around the hill, a wolf spider scrambled down a hole, lizards stirred from the thicket, and horned frogs scooted from his path, as though he were infringing upon the unspeakable, the sacrosanct.  When he reached the crest of the first slope, he looked back down at the diminutive truck and realized the great distance he had traveled in a speck of time.  A coyote cantered between creosotes in the valley below.  Two prickly pear needles jutted from the denim of his lower leg, and he plucked them out.

He hiked against a small whistling breeze that picked up speed.  The second slope was steeper, rockier, and his foot slid a few times, sending rock and basalt tumbling down.  He traversed its side and hiked up the final short slope—the one facing Playas--and maneuvered between great boulders and flint rock until he located Keyhole and the ancient dried-up waterfall, lined with a tongue of bright green lichen.  From what he remembered, the environment had changed very little.

He chose a flat slab of flint rock and lay down; a cob-webbed groove in the flint proved a delicate fit for the base of his skull.  He didn’t mind the dirt, ants, flies, gnats, or sticks:  they were all good.  Closing his eyes, he thought of the poisons that had accumulated in his soul, and he imagined that he could exhale them.  The insects’ percussion had ceased, and except for his own breathing, it was totally quiet now.  He remembered his childhood in Playas:  the birthdays, Christmas parties, family reunions at Caballo Lake, where he and Mark had set off jumping jack fireworks and accidentally started a fire; up through his youth, the football team he and Mark had led to state titles, the beautiful girls they had dated; and finally, to adulthood.

He dozed off, dreaming of the very ground he lay on, but remembering few details, turning over each stone in his past, and it was difficult to distinguish between the dream world and the real one, as though the two met somewhere in between, at some merimectic lake.  He woke up, delivered to the confluence of the present.

He sat up on the stone, seized by a profound clarity, the stinging realization that he had gone about his life wastefully, with apathy, that for years he had harbored, in addition to the grudge against his brother, a false, loathing image of himself.  An aching gnawed at his insides:  he wanted desperately to retrace his steps, to salvage the wasted years.  He hiked at a fast pace down the mountain, toward the town, kicking through cactus and creosote, scraping the sand of ant beds, sensing only the pain inside, tearing free of his clothes as he scurried toward an answer.  When he reached flat ground and jogged a couple hundred yards, a military security team moved on him, burying their automatic rifles in his face, and he lay on the ground, naked and sobbing, his hands behind his head.

***

Troy sat at a table, drinking iced tea, in the bowling alley café.  No one was bowling, but the amber floors glistened as though recently waxed and cleaned, much like they had been forty years before.  Security officers had tracked down his clothes in the desert, and he had put them back on.

Mandy, the guard at the entrance gate, appeared in her uniformed t-shirt and jeans, with a clipboard in hand.

“You ready?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said.

They rode in a white government Escape.  The names of the streets flashed by—Lomitas, Pequeno, Chapparal—and the years flitted past.  Mandy turned onto Encina and, halfway down the street, came to a halt at the old stucco house.

“This it?” she asked.

“That’s it,” he said.

He opened the car door and his hiking boots crunched the brittle tumbleweed-plagued lawn.  The stump of a willow tree remained in the center.  The house looked worn, the stucco chipped in various places.  Above the awning of the den, the frame of a satellite dish remained.  He pushed the front door open and passed through the rooms, like a ghost, pausing at each.  Toward the back, in his parents’ old room, he stood for some time, remembering his parents speaking calmly, empathically each night while he lay in bed, his room adjacent to theirs.  Futilely, and purely for his own nostalgia, he turned on the light switches, the electricity long dead.  He wandered around the side of the house, into the back yard, where additional memories flooded his thoughts.  As an almost daily ritual, his father would throw the football to him and Mark, teaching them how to run different pass routes.

Ten minutes later, when he returned to the vehicle, the engine was still running.

“Did you see what you wanted to see?” Mandy asked.

He nodded stoically.

“Thank you for doing this,” he said.

“You’re very welcome,” she said, and drove him to the other side of the mountain, to his pickup.

 

 

That night, he sat in his usual place, leaning forward on the bar with his elbows.  Dazed.  Wanting to have nothing to do with liquor and condemning himself for having ever touched it.  He saw things clearly now, wondering why, and how, he had failed to do so in the past.

As she danced, Candy kept looking his way, as though he were a compass.  Between songs, she asked him if he was okay, and he said he was fine.  Later, after everyone else had gone, she took a seat on the bar stool beside him.

“Something happen today?” she asked.

He didn’t answer.  Finally, he swiveled toward her, peering into her eyes.

“Do you trust me?” he asked.

“Why?” she asked.

“Just, do you trust me?” he asked.

She nodded.

He gently placed his hands on the black laced band around her waist.  Her eyes betrayed her anxiety, but still, as though relinquishing control to some ineffable spiritual force, she let him proceed.  He pulled the band down to her hips.  The four-inch scar started an inch below her navel and rose jaggedly above, like a Caesarian gone wrong.  He traced the scar with his thumbs, feeling her quivering flesh, the pulse racing behind her navel.

“You’re beautiful,” Troy said.

She met his eyes, and then, perhaps unable to handle this new intimacy, looked down at the floor, squealing a pitiful sob.  He withdrew his hands.

“Do you want me to do anything?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said.  “Find a good man.  Go back to school.  I’m closing this place down.”

“What will you do?”

“I’ll find something,” he said.  “I can do a lot of things.  I can be C.M.’s secretary.”

She chuckled, then embraced him.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said.

 

 

“What the hell you gonna do?” C.M. asked, sitting at the bar.

It was 4 p.m. and Trixie had yet to show.  Troy took a drink of iced tea, letting the question settle in the bar’s thick air.

“You got a spare bedroom?” he asked.

C.M.’s face took a dour turn.  “I don’t see the humor.”

“That’s ‘cause you’re not a man of humor.”

C.M. glanced over the bottles of liquor and the dancing platform.  “Where am I gonna get my beer?”

“Quick shop,” Troy said.

“Shit.”  C.M. perused the dance stage and poles.  “And I was just starting to appreciate all the teats in this place.”

“I know you were,” Troy said.

 

 

Troy sat in a cushioned chair beside Mark’s hospital bed.  He had met Mark’s wife Lily in the hallway; they had embraced, and he’d told her he was sorry for not coming sooner.  The elder brother sat up in bed, his left hand noticeably absent.  His complexion was vaguely sallow, and tubes ran from his wrist and nose.  Upon seeing him, Troy’s eyes began to water, and he wiped the tears as they fell.

“You always were a cry baby,” Mark said in a gravelly voice, which Troy attributed to his Marlboros.

Troy laughed.  “I’d ask how you’re doing, but you’d probably cuss me out.”
Mark smiled.  “Doctor said I’ll live.  Two weeks ago he didn’t know.”

A fistful of weight lifted off Troy’s chest, and he felt hopeful for the future.  He politely inquired about Mark’s children, who were both in college.  Then he told him of his hike up Playas Peak, as well as the descent when he had stripped off his clothes, and Mark laughed through the pain, the weakness; and he told Mark of his visit to their old house and of the condition of the Playas town site.  He asked Mark if he remembered hiking Playas Peak with their father.  Mark nodded.  They discussed other memories of their parents, the town, high school, and the land.  Then they were quiet.

“I’m sorry it took me so long,” Troy said.

“Can’t blame you,” Mark said.  It was quiet again.  Mark cleared his throat.  “The money.  I’m gonna pay you back.”

“No,” Troy said.  “Let’s not talk about that.”  He took Mark’s hand, holding on for dear life even though his brother lay beyond death’s grasp, and looked him in the eyes.  “This is the payment.”

Mark’s lips quavered, his eyes glossy.

“Thank you,” he said, clutching firmly.  “Thank you.”