We present another new feature on Sons of Spade: Unborn Sons in which we present an excerpt of a novel not yet published. First up is Mark Cohen's new Pepper Keane novel in progress. Would you like your work in progress to be featured here as well, just drop me a line.
WHEN THE CACTUS IS IN BLOOM
© 2007 by Mark Cohen
Every so often I drive down to southern Colorado to check on Uncle Ray. Uncle Ray is my mom’s youngest brother. He’s sixty-six years old. He lives in an eight by twelve plywood shack he built on five acres of cactus-covered land he bought on a land contract. He has no plumbing, no electricity, and no phone. He spent most of his life as a merchant seaman and a drunk, and he has a touch of schizophrenia. He divides all people into two classes – drug dealers and devil worshippers. Members of either group, he says, “will kill ya for five dollars.”
I guided the truck south on I-25 through the early morning Denver traffic. It was just after seven. Off to the right I saw Invesco Field at Mile High, home of the Denver Broncos. I remembered when the old stadium – Mile High Stadium – had stood on about the same site. Hell, I remembered when it had been Bears Stadium, named after Denver’s minor league baseball team, the Denver Bears.
I continued south, past the University of Denver, towards Highlands Ranch. That’s where my brother lives. Nobody had ever heard of Highland’s Ranch when I was growing up. It was just undeveloped land where kids drank beer, made out, and tipped cows. Now it is a 22,000-acre “master-planned community.”
My brother’s home sits at the end of a cul de sac. Each of the five homes on it has a driveway and garage, but the master planners had decreed that nobody – not even the homeowner – could park a vehicle on a driveway. Homeowners were to hide their cars in their garages, and visitors were to park only in designated parking areas. It’s a long walk from the nearest designated parking area to my brother’s home, particularly in winter, so I sometimes ignore that rule.
I eased my F-150 into my brother’s driveway and parked it. It was eighty-two degrees on a sunny July morning, but winter was just around the corner. I could feel it.
I got out of my truck, opened the front door to my brother’s home, didn’t see anyone, and yelled, “Let’s hit the road.”
“Be right down,” Troy shouted. “Just taking my morning steroids.” Troy is a bodybuilder and owns the most successful gym in Denver, but I knew he had stopped doing steroids years ago.
Troy had also stopped doing marriage two years ago, but he kept the house so his kids would have a place to stay when they visited. Now Andrew was in the Coast Guard and his teen genius daughter Chelsea lived with her mother in California. Troy and I are close, but he rarely talks about his marriage or the divorce. Once, when I asked him about why he had given up on marriage, he said, “Same reason I stopped using steroids – headaches, high blood pressure, and sleep problems.”
I helped myself to some coffee and clicked on CNN. A vivacious, well-endowed redhead walked me through the morning’s news, and not much had changed in the seventy-five minutes since I’d left my mountain home. The earth was getting warmer, the rich were getting richer, and Bin Laden (the only 6’5” Arab on the planet) was still alive and feasting on lamb in a cave somewhere in northern Pakistan. Just another manic Monday.
Troy came the stairs, looked at the smiling anchorwoman, and said, “You know, given the present state of things in this country, it’s only a matter of time until some TV exec lets an anchor go topless.”
“I don’t want to see Barbara Walters topless,” I said.
“There would have to be an age limit,” he said.
“Let’s get going,” I said. I clicked off the TV. Troy locked the front door, then we went out through his garage. He grabbed a backpack and a six-pack of Diet 7-Up, then pushed the button to close the garage door as we both ran to exit the garage before the door closed.
My truck is a gold/pewter color (Ford calls it ‘Pearl’) and has a matching shell on the back – the kind with a vertical door built in – and I opened it so Troy could stow his stuff in the back of the truck. Buck and Wheat saw Troy and started barking. “Might as well let the dogs do their thing,” I said. I held the door open and both dogs jumped down from the truck. Buck circled left and Wheat dashed off to the right.
“I hope Buck doesn’t take a dump on that guy’s grass,” Troy said, “he’ll turn me in to the HOA for sure.” Buck is a cross between a Great Dane and a Rhodesian Ridgeback. His dumps are impressive. Wheat, on the other hand, is a purebred Schipperke. He weighs only about fifteen pounds, so his dumps are less problematic. But neither dog left any presents for my brother’s neighbors. After a few minutes I whistled and the dogs bounded back to the truck and jumped right in.
We stopped at a McDonalds and bought two cups of coffee. As we headed back to the interstate, Troy pulled a CD from one of the pockets on his baggy shorts and said, “Put this on,” he said, “you’re gonna love it.” I took the CD from him and glanced at the cover.
“Dos Gringos?” I said.
“Trust me,” he said. My brother and I don’t always share the same taste in music, but sometimes he turns me on to good artists I’ve never heard of, and sometimes I remind him of some forgotten greats from the past.
Four hours later, with the words to “Jeremiah Weed” now committed to memory, we arrived in Blanca, Colorado, and I found the dirt road that leads to uncle Ray’s ‘cabin.’ It took another twenty minutes to get there.
I turned off the road and drove until we were about fifty yards from the shack. I stopped the truck and hit the horn a few times. You want to give Ray plenty of notice of your presence so he does not shoot you. There was no sign of Ray and no sign of Prince, his bluetick coonhound.
After thirty seconds or so I drove the truck another twenty yards toward the shack and hit the horn a few more times. Nothing.
I stuck my head out the driver’s window and yelled, “Uncle Ray, it’s Troy and Pepper.” Still nothing.
“Truck’s not here,” Troy said. “He probably drove into town to fill up his water jugs.” That was plausible. The last time I’d seen him he’d been driving an old pickup with a camper on it, and there was no sign of it at his shack.
“Let’s wait inside,” I said. “I need some shade.” Men in the Keane family have black hair, but we have light complexions.
I pulled forward until the truck was only about twenty feet from the shack. Troy and I climbed down out of the truck. I let the dogs out and hoped they didn’t come into direct contact with any of the yucca plants, prickly pear, or other species of cacti that surrounded Ray’s cabin for miles in all directions.
We walked toward the shack, alert for rattlesnakes. I stuck my tongue against the roof of my mouth and made a rattlesnake sound.
“Not funny,” Troy said. Troy had survived a rattlesnake bite many years ago. He had also survived a parachute mishap and a lightning strike. On the other hand, his son Andrew had joined the Coast Guard after high school and ended up in Iraq. Good luck does not necessarily pass from one generation to the next.
There was a padlock on the door, but I had a key. I opened the door.
Uncle Ray was dead.