I Can’t Live Here

I was cleaning the kitchen after breakfast one cold March morning when Jim came home a few minutes after leaving for work and told me he no longer had a job. Momentarily stunned, I asked him why. He shrugged.

“Chris said he heard I didn’t like the way he was doing things, so I should probably leave.”

I thought I knew what had happened. We’d gone to a ranch rodeo in Winnemucca over the weekend, where Jim had vented his low opinion of his boss to a friend near the beer garden. Chris’s father-in-law, the Rafter J manager, probably overheard the conversation and relayed it to Chris.

Book coverMaybe Chris and Jim should have discussed their differences. Jim probably should have kept his loud drunk mouth shut in public. In a regular workplace, somebody would have filed a written complaint and waited out the three-strike policy. But ranches don’t have a human resources department and nobody cares if you get your feelings hurt.

Jim made over a dozen phone calls without securing another job. Staying at a ranch where we no longer belonged wasn’t encouraged, so we left after about a week without a clear destination in mind. We dropped off our horses at a friend’s pasture, shoveled manure out of the horse trailer, stuffed it full of all our worldly possessions, threw a tarp over the whole thing, and parked it at another friend’s house. Then we drove to California to visit my dad.

Within a week, Jim found a job at the Panther Creek Ranch, right on the Nevada-Idaho border. We arrived at our new home on a muddy spring morning. Jim carried moving boxes from the horse trailer past where I stood on a cracked sidewalk in the yard.

“I can’t live here,” I whispered as he walked by.

He paused by my side for a moment, holding a cardboard box marked “Kitchen—FRAGILE” in big Sharpie letters. I’d marked most of the boxes FRAGILE, even the ones that contained Tupperware and baby diapers. I didn’t want my few things to get broken.

“We have to make it work,” he said. “We don’t have any other options.” I knew Jim was right. We were lucky he’d found a job so quickly since our little family needed both the income and housing it would provide.

But I was worried about the house’s location. It was at the bottom of a steep canyon with cliffs on three sides. Rimrock crowded in directly behind the kitchen, limiting the view out the north windows to solid rock. The steep cliffs shortened daylight hours by at least an hour. I really liked sunlight and missed it already. Sunlight prevented me from sliding too deep into the seasonal depression that had plagued me for years. Sunrises were glorious and sunsets divine.

I knew I’d never see a sunrise or sunset as long as we lived there.

A man, woman and baby in front of a herd of cattle.

Jolyn, Jim and baby Grace.

Jim continued to unload moving boxes. I picked up another one and followed him into our new home. The squat white house had been built in the late 1800s and had walls that were eighteen inches thick. It had been slowly modernized over the years to include an upstairs office with midcentury shag carpet and a bathroom. The original floor plan predated indoor plumbing, and the bathtub was crammed awkwardly under the staircase. Jim would later discover he couldn’t stand upright in it. The vanity across from the tub was coated in thick drips of dried blue-and-white toothpaste. (And we’d eventually learn that the previous occupants’ little kids had flushed a onesie down the toilet and clogged the pipes leading to the septic system, which created a foul aroma just outside our bedroom window.)

Two bedrooms were downstairs and to the left of the front door. The first one was really small, and the second one was slightly larger but still small by modern standards. It featured a built-in wardrobe in one corner. The wardrobe was about three feet wide and had swinging double doors up top and two drawers down below. People in previous eras didn’t require as much storage space as most folks do today, probably because they didn’t have as many things. A modern closet with sliding doors and a rod for hanging shirts had been added later along another wall.

The kitchen was open and cavernous, with a washer and dryer wedged awkwardly but prominently between the fridge and counter. An old wood-fired cookstove sat unused in the corner. The stove pipe was missing, but the hole in the ceiling remained gaping to the sky above. A white five-gallon bucket on the roof covered the hole, but it shifted every time the wind blew. Leaves and twigs circled down onto the stovetop.

“Sorry the place is such a mess. I meant to have it cleaned before you guys got here,” said Nels Arneson. He managed the Panther Creek Ranch and had met us at the house to show us in. He was an old friend of Jim’s, and at six foot five, he was also one of the few people I’d met who was taller than my husband.

“It’s okay, we’re just gonna track mud in with all these trips in and out of the house anyway,” I replied. We were here, it was dirty, and complaining wouldn’t help anyway.

I kept my eyes on the sidewalk and walked back to the horse trailer to grab another box. The house was old and cobbled together with an assortment of additions, but at least it had a solid foundation and the ground was not visible through the floor. There was, however, a pile of cat poop in one of the bedrooms. Animal feces on the carpet was becoming a disturbing trend in my as-of-yet limited experience with ranch housing. But no matter—I could scrub it up well enough to suit our needs.

I’d traded a cramped trailer house that should have been condemned and wide-open spaces for a run-down but historical home shoved in the bottom of a box canyon with limited visibility. The situations were very different, but I wasn’t yet sure if I’d traded up.

Nels and Jim headed out to camp a few days later for an overnight trip to check fences before turning cattle out for the spring. Nels’ wife, Denise, was in California visiting her folks with their toddler son.
I would be alone on the ranch.

“You should be fine,” Nels said. “I’m sure nobody will bother you. I mean, there used to be an old Indian who would come over here from the Rez once in a while and just stand there when someone opened the door, but I don’t think he ever hurt anybody.”

I didn’t say anything, because all my internal systems had ceased to function. Was Nels for real? The Duck Valley Paiute-Shoshone Indian Reservation was two hours away by dirt road. An unannounced visit by a resident—or anyone else, for that matter—was plausible. But would some random old guy actually show up and silently stare me down in my own doorway?

I started breathing again and recovered my ability to speak. “Are you serious?” I asked.

“What? Oh, I mean, there was an old guy who came over from the Rez once or twice.”

“Now I’m afraid to stay here by myself.” I didn’t want to sound like a little kid, but Nels had me spooked.

“Nah, don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

Easy for Nels to say. He stood nearly seven feet tall and had the arm span of a mountain gorilla. He could probably reach around an intruder and tie him up with his own shirtsleeves. I, on the other hand, craned my neck to look up at everyone except school children. I was also responsible for the care and protection of a tiny, helpless infant who would most likely be useless in launching a defensive attack against an armed trespasser.

I didn’t want to come across like some paranoid sissy who couldn’t handle a night alone in the country, so I kept all further questions to myself and didn’t mention it again. I figured I would just be ready to bust an unwelcome visitor’s skull with a Maglite, give the baby a switchblade, and hope for the best.

I kissed Jim goodbye and wished him a fun trip. I watched the company truck and trailer disappear over the rim of the canyon and hoped I’d live to see him again.

Later that night, darkness settled in with a completeness known only to wild animals and people who live way off the grid. The creaking of the old house and the rustling of pine tree branches on the roof convinced me that an intruder would be on my doorstep any second. He was probably loading his gun as he walked across the driveway.

The closest “neighbor” was forty-five minutes away in the no-horse town of Jarbidge, a thirteen-mile journey over a dirt road that hugged the river and openly embraced many large potholes. It featured drop-off cliffs and an assortment of boulders. Even if I knew anyone’s number in Jarbidge, which I didn’t, and the unreliable landline phone actually worked, which it sometimes didn’t, help would arrive no sooner than one hour. My calculations included fifteen minutes for the person I didn’t know and wasn’t going to call to get dressed, use the restroom, put on some shoes, and fill a reusable water bottle for the drive. I’m a considerate hypothetical victim.

I got ready for bed and realized the hundred-year-old front door didn’t have a lock. I stared at the brass knob and monitored it for the slightest sign of turning. I sat in Jim’s green recliner across the living room and held the baby with a rifle propped in the corner. I probably should have held the .243 and propped the baby in the corner, but fear had addled my brain.

Grace developed a cough during the night and provided her mother with another thing to worry about. I held her to my shoulder, stared at the doorknob, patted her back, stared at the doorknob, shushed her to sleep, held her to my shoulder, and patted her back again, all the while staring at that smooth brass orb.

The wind rattled the door in its frame a few times, but the knob never turned. I was never so glad for the company of the morning sun, late as it arrived to our side of the cliffs.

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