Promises to Keep

by Grasshopper

Chapter 1


Don't you just hate it when the first sentence of a story is: Life was hard. You kinda sigh back into your chair, thinking, **Man, you think your life's hard; mine totally sucks**. I guess my point is that everyone's life has a few moments of pure joy and several drudging years of hard work, abysmal boredom and freaking entrapment. So, you settle back and begin to read another man's story of scraping through and hoping that maybe, just maybe, this will be the story that turns it all around. It will unlock a door, open a window, toss you a key. Sorry, stories don't do that....they just try to make you think. The unlocking, opening and tossing are all up to you.


Life is hard here. Winter is harsh and there never seems to be enough time. The light comes and goes so quickly that you gotta keep movin' if you're gonna get your chores done before the blackest black you've ever seen settles around you, covering even the strongest starlight.

Here, where I live now, there are no street lights, no yard lights, no headlights. There are no cars, sirens, neon flashes, thudthudthudding of the heavy bass, or laughter floating across a still night. There is just this sometimes beautiful, sometimes oppressive calm; this peace that passeth all understanding. You can grow with it, let it envelope you, let your mind settle for the mundane or you can grit your teeth and try not to let the sounds in your head drive you crazy.

Two years ago, I was seventeen. I finished high school with this undeniable 'thing' squeezing my heart. Here, where I live, this 'thing' does not exist. There was this computer in the school library that hooked up to the internet and, sometimes, if I was real careful, I could hit it just right when no one was around. The places I really wanted to go were all locked, of course, but I could go to news sites; I could find message boards, I could just touch the keys and find people with this 'thing'. Course, I could never talk to them and they never knew I was out there, but the undeniable 'thing' could rest almost quietly. I had a dream of maybe going to college or Chicago or Miami; anywhere.

Last year, I was eighteen. A man, so they say. I could do anything. Anything except go to college, or Chicago or Miami or even Cheyenne. There's a computer at my house now. It sits in the kitchen on the peeling vinyl counter. It's dial-up, you see. I can use it from ten til eleven at night. That's after any phone calls to my family and before the kitchen light will bother Grandma. But, it's in the kitchen. I might as well sit in the lobby of the courthouse. The undeniable 'thing' began to chew a hole in my guts.

My father's heart attack choked him and laid the responsibility on me. His heart attack choked my mother, her eyes looking to me for help. It choked my baby sister who had never realized that people you love might actually die. His heart attack choked me with responsibility, obligation, crushing disappointment and guilt.

The first two I could deal with. I loved the mountains, the silence and the work. The third I would have to just put in a box and shove under my bed. The fourth is what would keep me going on nights like this when the wind hurt, the frost crunched under Kick's hooves. 'One day', I said to myself, 'One day, I will go. I will go to Chicago or Miami or somewhere. One day.'

I'm nineteen now and this is where I am: sitting on my horse, in this saddle, on top of these bluffs, my dog Jasper, a blue healer, ranging out in the woods behind me, staring out at the biggest, grayest sky with the heaviest, darkest snow clouds hanging so low, that if I reached out, I could bust them open. But, busting them open would be bad. It's coming soon enough. No need to hurry it along.

The wind sucks my breath away and the cold chafes and scratches at my face. My hands hurt even inside my gloves cause they're always wet and my legs itch where the hair has been rubbed off by the friction of jeans against horse.

You have this picture of the lone desperado, don't you, his Stetson pulled low over his eyes with the steely glint, a Clint Eastwood poncho draped across his chest, a stub of cigar clenched in tough guy teeth. Nothing penetrates his cool; not even this freezing night.

Well, it's way diff when it's you and it's 7 degrees with a windchill factor of like -45. My ears get so cold that I'd wear my sister's pink ear muffs if I thought it would help. Funny thing about's fucking beautiful when it's coming down but, after hours riding in it, the "joy" has worn thin. My jeans are wet, my layers of flannel and wool are wet, frost is building on my eyelashes. Dang!

But, even though I have a few more miles and few more chores, I have just stopped. I do sometimes. The sheer beauty of it; the silence, the heart- catching horizon that goes on forever, the air so clean it hurts to breathe. Right before it starts to snow, with just the creak of my saddle and the shy, but insistent whinnies from Kick, letting me know he wants to get on with it, get it done, and go home....this is truly why I stay. I run my hand over his wet brown mane, disturbing tiny crystals of ice that are clinging. "I know you're cold," I murmur. "So am I."

I can hear Jasper running somewhere behind me, the snap of iced branches, the crack of frozen twigs. He loves the cold like I do. I've never been sure who found who, we've just been protective of each other since we met seven years ago.

I watch the vapor trail of a 747 as it wings west, prolly coming from Minneapolis and heading for LA. The vapor thins, blending in with the threatening clouds. I've been on a plane, been to a big city....once. I've been where the air was always warm and the ocean water was always clear and blue. I remember bits and pieces. I'm not sure I like this better. I just know that this is where I am and here I belong......responsibility, obligation, disappointment and guilt.

I put two fingers to my mouth and whistle, calling "Jasper. To me." Stirring in my saddle, I tap my horse's sides with my heels lightly, "C'mon, Kick," I say quietly, not wanting to break the silence, "Let's get it done."

When I was in high school, there was a boy named Bran, Brandon Kelcher. He was what I wanted. I knew it when I looked at him. I knew it when I lay awake at night. I knew it when I rode range. I told Kick all about him:

"Kick, you should see him. It's not so much that he's handsome like a movie star or anything. It's more like he's just perfect....perfect for my eyes. It's the way his nose got broken years ago and there's this little bump. It's the way his eyes crinkle when he squints cause he thinks his glasses are ugly and won't wear them. It's the way he wears a long sleeved Henley and then rolls the sleeves of his flannel up so the t-shirt comes down over his hands. I watch him, Kick. There's just somethin'. Somethin'."

There was this one day back then. It was a Thursday, I recall. Spring. We were all trapped inside this huge brick prison called school; practically grown, but still sitting in desks like little kids. It was kinda funny with all these long legs sprawled out into the aisles, boots trippin' over boots. Most of us worked a man's day after we got home from school; so sitting here was for some, needed rest, for others, spithot boredom and for just a couple, like me, a way to let my mind fly away, just for a few minutes.

See, to my thinking, there are two kinds of people, depending upon what you're thinking about at the time: givers/takers, movers/watchers, lovers/haters, and then there are thinkers/blank spacers. You know what I'm talking about; those people that, if you said 'Penny for your thoughts', you'd be none the poorer. And I don't believe that old saying, 'Silent waters run deep' either. Sometimes, those silent waters are just well....silent.

Out here, where I live, it's the land of the 'save your words' men. Thing is, you save those words long enough and they're gonna either choke you or die. Anyway, this was English class and Mrs. Perry was asking us what this line from a poem meant. It was an old classic and I heard her drone it outloud:

"The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep."

"Annie Carol, what do you think Frost is saying?" the teacher asked, already knowing the answer.

"I ummm," Annie spluttered, glancing around as if she couldn't come up with any words to reply. "I think he meant that ummmm it was cold and he needed to go home." She looked up expectantly, waiting for Mrs. Perry's approval.

"Well, yes, he did, Annie," the teacher said in a sadly, tired voice.

Looking around, she tried one more time. "Brandon, you have a thought?" as if to say he had none. I watched Bran crinkle those eyes as he focused in on the teacher. Then he turned his head for a moment and gazed out the window. The sun was beaming in dust motes into our classroom and we could hear the sounds of the school outside. Turning back slowly, he said in a voice I could only describe as lonely.

"I think maybe he wishes he could just disappear into the woods, turn his horse in and disappear, but he knows he's made promises; promises he has to keep. All he has is his word. The miles he has to go are the rest of his life."

There was this second of total silence and then the bell rang. His answer was forgotten by all but Mrs. Perry and me. She, because she had heard an original thought in her classroom and me, because it was exactly how I felt, it was exactly what I wanted to do, but I couldn't. Responsibility, obligation, disappointment and guilt. Bran stood up, hoisted his books to his hip, and as he turned to the door, he glanced at me. I saw something flicker in his eyes, but it was gone.

Three weeks later, the school was buzzing with the news that Brandon Kelcher and Becky Ann Draper had run off and gotten married. With less than a month of school left, everyone figured they just got a head start on all the other kids doing it this summer after graduation. Out here, you go to school, you get married, you work hard, you have kids, you die. I thought about what he'd said in class that day. I had the oddest thoughts and feelings. He and I had never expressed anything. I knew him, but didn't know him at all. I burned up for someone who didn't even exist for me anymore. I just kept thinking about how he said that 'all he had was his word'.

Round about the end of summer, I was in town and saw Brandon's old blue pickup parked in front of the drug store. I didn't see him, but I did see what his promise had been. What his promise was. Becky Ann was trying to climb into the truck, but the baby in her belly made her clumsy. I gave her a hand up and tipped my hat with a smile. She looked pretty, her blonde hair pulled up with a purple ribbon.

So, here I sit on Kick, two years later, the feelings I had faded to soft memory and all this responsibility, obligation, crushing disappointment and guilt for wanting more than I have.

Kick, Jasper and I got it done. I whistled, called "Jasper. To me" and headed home. Wearily, I brushed Kick down, threw a heavy Indian blanket over him, filled his feed box, broke the thin ice covering his water. "Night, fella. Tomorrow's another day."

My mom had a supper plate waiting for me. I could hear my sister's radio playing and my grandma's TV. Nodding to Mom, I headed for the living room and my dad.

He sat in his old brown fake leather recliner, the paper lying in his lap. He reached down and scratched Jasper behind the ear. Dad always had a smile for me and I knew how it tore him up to watch me take on his work. "I'll be back in shape soon and be right there in the saddle with you, Trip," he'd promise, but I think that's a promise that won't be kept; not like Bran's. My dad will never be right there with me again. My shoulders are strong and my obligations are many. I'm a man now. I thought of Brandon and Becky and the mistakes that we make. I wouldn't make the mistake of turning my back either. Not with all the miles left to go.

Can you remember just the moment when you realized that you had left your parents and grandparents behind? Many people never do. They stay on the same path, use the same words, hate the same hates, I don't mean teen years when you thought your parents were stupid; not that. I mean when you were jolted out of your safeness with words that you knew were wrong; words and thoughts that slapped you in the face with wrongness. For me, it was this night. I'd heard it all so many times and I had known for so long that people, even people who love us dearly, sometimes never know us at all. We have faces we wear: good son, church boy, hard worker. The faces we don't share are the most interesting, but the most dangerous.

I saw a headline across the back of the 'Living Today' section of the paper: "Brokeback" Author Hopes for Dialogue On Tolerance. I held my hands still to keep from grabbing the paper away from him. So far, no one had mentioned this movie and I wanted it to stay that way. I had responsibility, obligation and guilt, but I was terrified that my crushing disappointment might turn into a spewing flood of frustrated words that could never be taken back. Never be undone. What doesn't kill me makes me strong; yeah, I know, but it hurts like shit while it's doing it.

Now you gotta understand something. My grandma is old. The kind of old that makes you weird and cranky and somehow hate anything and everything that isn't exactly like you. I don't remember her being like this when Grandpa was alive, but then I was a kid.

We're eating and the conversation is Dad and me about trucking hay up to the high slope, Mom and Kit, my sister, on the merits of makeup at thirteen. Grandma is silent when suddenly, she blurts: "Queers!" in this high squeaky voice.

Jesus, it was like she suddenly had Tourettes. Kit started giggling and Mom jumped up to get more mashed potatoes. I think we all tacitly agreed to ignore her if possible. But 'No', she had something to say:

"Did you see that in the paper? About queers and that movie? Well, I'll never go see it. No God loving person will go. Gay cowboys??? Whatever happened to John Wayne and Randolph Scott, those were men. It's sin, pure and simple."

My mind flashed to that scene in Birdcage where Nathan Lane is doing his John Wayne impression, and then I focused back on my family.

"It's all those fruits and nuts in Hollywood," Dad was saying, his voice taking on that heterosexual 'man' tone that they have when they don't want to think about something. "You know, Mama, there aren't any homosexuals here."

And my Mom, bless her heart, said, "They all live in California, Mama.

That's a long way away."

"What about old Mr. Kites and Mr. Freleich?" Kit blurted. "I think........"

"Hush, Katherine. They're cousins."

Okay, picture the table: My dad, sure in his superior maleness, my mom, taking an ostrich-like pose, my sister, not giving a flip, my grandma, all indignant like there's gonna be an attack of "queers" on the house at any minute like the Night of the Living Dead, and me.........staring at my plate, wanting to defend, correct, argue, mend, love....knowing that there were no words, there was nothing to say. The people I love will never understand. The generations have to get a move on. Kit will be fine with it, cause well, kids today are starting to see, starting to grow, starting to understand, but my grandma and my parents; they'll never change. It's like they have a rule book and they can't sway from the "rules" or they won't go to Heaven.

I have this picture of Heaven's gates in my head: The gates leads to three diff places. The first is nasty, smelling of all the grossest shit you can think of three feet deep on the ground. The second is a huge green pasture full of lovely rye grass and cool streams of water. The third looks like here, but a perfect 'here'.

It's simple to get in. You've already bought your ticket. You started paying for it when you made your first thought about another person. When you die, you cash it in. No refunds. No rainchecks.

Gate #1 - You hated and destroyed; you decided somehow you were God's voice and you led sad small people down your path. You are turned into a pig and shoved into the smelly crap. I guess the familiar phrase 'Eat Shit and Die' would have to be reversed this time.

Gate #2 – You never had original thought; you repeated what your parents, your friends said and never tried to change. You could have been a friend, but it was easier to turn away. You are turned into a sheep and led away to mindlessly chew for all eternity.

Gate #3 – You have tried, all your life, to be fair and help people. You've worried and fretted that it hasn't been enough. You would give all you had to ease the pain of the world. You are black or white or shades of brown. You are gay or straight or anything in between. Peel away the outer you and there you are. You are you and you get to live with the people you've been searching for all your life.

Oh, and I almost forgot. There's this funny big red button. Sometimes, a person arrives at the gate and the Archangels just roll their eyes. They ask this person to stand on the big red X and push the button. This trapdoor opens and poof! No more person, not even the whisper of their memory. Even in Heaven, even God, in my imaginings, has a 'thumbs down' option.

I don't hate my family. I don't hate anyone. It's wasted effort. They go to church. They confess their sins and then do them again. They pray for peace in the world and yet how can there ever be peace in the whole world when the color of skin, the person you want to love, the country you come from makes them hate you? And it's not even YOU they hate and they don't even really hate you. It's just easier somehow to hate you than to think it through. Argggggg!! See why you can't grab hold of the answers? What a tangled mess.

This place I live; it's beautiful, wild and free. The sky goes on forever and the horizon stretches so far you can see the rounding of the earth. If thoughts and minds could be as free. There's you and there's me. That's all there is. If I love you, that's all there is. I read somewhere that 'you love who you love, you want who you want'. Good words, right words.....wrong time, wrong place.

This is Wyoming.
Population: 493,782.
Male population: 248,374.

If one out of every ten men is gay or bi or interested, that means that in Wyoming, there are approximately 24,837 men who want to love who they love and want who they want. my dad said just a few minutes ago, 'There are no homosexuals in Wyoming'.

We have the smallest population in the United States. Our state nickname is 'The Equality State' and our state motto is 'Equal Rights'. I guess that means that everyone has the right to believe what they want to - that's good and to believe that all decent folks are their religion, their color and straight -that's Gate #2. But, it's your right to think what you want to. Just remember that you're chalkin' up those points. You're buying that ticket.

I read Brokeback Mountain. I haven't seen the movie. I'm guessing it won't show anywhere near me. But, that's okay. I know the story. Two guys, at first rough and shove, then WTF, and then love. Not just 'give it to me' love but the real stuff. But, they can't have it, cause people say they can't. PEOPLE say they can't. Even the one guy says they can't; he's that terrified. So they live lies and tear themselves up and their miles to keep become sadder and sadder and sadder. I can't live that way. I won't hang my lost dreams in a closet on a nail.

I've never driven down to Casper; never looked at the wire fence outside Laramie. It hurts my heart too much and it would do no good. I wish I'd known him. I hope I meet him at Gate #3. I'm trying.

So, I sit up on this ridge, listening to my saddle creak, as I shift my tired self. Nineteen...............and miles to go before.............before what?

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