Материалы к занятию
Getting out of bed had been painful earlier in the morning, and as he reached up to brush Horse’s neck and withers, he felt his back scream in protest. The ibuprofen had taken some of the pain’s sharp edge away, but he still found it difficult to lift his arm any higher than his shoulder. While he had been checking the cattle at dawn, even turning his head from side to side had made him wince, making him glad that José was there to help around the ranch.
After hanging the brush, he poured some oats in a pail for Horse and then started toward the old farmhouse, knowing that it would take another day or two before he recovered fully. Aches and pains were normal after any ride, and he’d certainly been through worse. It wasn’t a question of if a bull rider got injured, but rather when and how badly. Over the years, not counting his ride on Big Ugly Critter, he’d had his ribs broken twice and his lung collapsed, and he’d torn both his ACL and MCL, one in each knee. He’d shattered his left wrist in 2005, and both his shoulders had been dislocated. Four years ago, he’d ridden in the PBR World Championships — Professional Bull Riders — with a broken ankle, using a special-formed cowboy boot to hold the still-broken bones in place. And of course, he’d sustained his share of concussions from being thrown. For most of his life, however, he’d wanted nothing more than to keep riding.
Like Sophia said, maybe he was crazy.
Peering through the kitchen window above the sink, he saw his mom hurry past. He wondered when things would get back to normal between them. In recent weeks, she’d nearly finished her own breakfast before he showed up, in what was an obvious attempt to avoid talking to him. She was using his presence to demonstrate that she was still upset; she wanted him to feel the weight of her silence as she picked up her plate and left him alone at the table. Most of all, she wanted him to feel guilty. He supposed he could have had breakfast at his own place — he’d built a small house just on the other side of the grove — but he knew from experience that denying her those opportunities would have only made things worse. She’d come around, he knew. Eventually, anyway.
He stepped up on the cracked concrete blocks as he gave the place a quick scan. The roof was good — he’d replaced it a couple of years back — but he needed to get around to painting the place. Unfortunately, he’d have to sand every plank first, almost tripling the amount of time that it would take, time he didn’t have. The farmhouse had been built in the late 1800s, and over the years it had been painted and repainted so many times that the coating was probably thicker than the wood itself. Now, it was peeling pretty much all over and rotting beneath the eaves. Speaking of which, he’d have to get around to fixing those, too.
He entered the small screened-in mudroom and wiped his boots on the mat. The door opened with the usual squeak, and he was struck by the familiar aroma of freshly cooked bacon and fried potatoes. His mom stood over the stove, stirring a pan of scrambled eggs. The stove was new — he’d bought that for her for Christmas last year — but the cabinets were original to the house, and the countertop had been around for as long as he could remember. So had the linoleum floor. The oak table, built by his grandfather, had dulled with age; in the far corner, the ancient woodstove was radiating heat. It reminded him that he needed to split some firewood. With cold weather coming, he needed to replenish the stack sooner rather than later. The woodstove warmed not only the kitchen, but the entire house. He decided he’d get to it after breakfast, before Sophia came by.
As he hung his hat on the rack, he noted that his mom appeared tired. No wonder — by the time he’d gotten Horse saddled and ridden out, his mom had already been hard at work cleaning the stalls.
“Morning, Mom,” he said, moving to the sink, keeping his voice neutral. He began scrubbing his hands. “Need some help?” “It’s just about ready,” she answered without looking up. “But you can put some bread in the toaster. It’s on the counter behind you.”
He dropped the bread slices in the toaster, then poured himself a cup of coffee. His mom kept her back to him, but he could feel her radiating the same aura he’d come to expect in recent weeks. Feel guilty, you bad son. I’m your mother. Don’t you care about my feelings?
Yes, of course I care about your feelings, he thought to himself. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. But he said nothing. After almost a quarter century on the ranch together, they’d become masters in the art of silent conversation.
He took another sip of coffee, listening to the clink of the spatula in the pan.
“No problems this morning,” he said instead. “I checked the stitches on the calf that got caught up in the barbed wire, and she’s doing fine.”
“Good.” Having set aside the spatula, she reached up into the cabinets and pulled down some plates. “Let’s just serve up at the stove, okay?”
He set his coffee cup on the table, then retrieved the jelly and the butter from the refrigerator. By the time he’d served up, his mom was already at the table. He grabbed the toast, handed her one of the pieces, then moved the coffeepot to the table as well.
“We need to get the pumpkins ready this week,” she reminded him, reaching for the pot. No eye contact, no morning hug… not that he’d expected it. “And we’ve got to get the maze set up, too. The hay will be arriving Tuesday. And you have to carve a bunch of pumpkins.”
Half of the pumpkin crop had already been sold to the First Baptist Church in King, but they opened the ranch on the weekends for people to buy the remainder. One of the highlights for the kids — and thus a draw for the adults — was a maze built out of hay bales. His father had sparked to the idea when Luke was young, and over the years the maze had grown increasingly complex. Walking through had become something of a local tradition.
“I’ll take care of it,” he said. “Is the layout still in the desk drawer?”
“Assuming you put it back last year, it should be.”
Luke buttered and jellied his toast, neither of them saying anything.
In time, his mother sighed. “You got in late last night,” she said. She reached for the butter and jelly when he was finished with them.
“You were up? I didn’t notice any lights on.”
“I was sleeping. But I woke up just as your truck was pulling in.”
He doubted that was the complete truth. The windows in her bedroom didn’t face the drive, which meant she would have been in the living room. Which also meant she’d been waiting up, worried about him.
“I stayed late with a couple of friends. They talked me into it.”
She kept her focus on her plate. “I figured.”
“Did you get my text?”
“I got it,” she said, adding nothing more. No questions about how the ride went, no questions about how he felt, no concern about the aches and pains she knew he was experiencing. Instead, her aura expanded, filling the room. Heartache and anger dripped from the ceiling, seeped from the walls. He had to admit, she was pretty good at administering the guilt trip.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he finally asked.
For the first time, she looked across the table at him. “Not really.”
Okay, he thought. But despite her anger, he still missed talking to her. “Can I ask you a question, then?”
He could practically hear the gears beginning to turn as she readied herself for battle. Ready to leave him alone at the table while she ate on the porch.
“What size shoe do you wear?” he asked.
Her fork froze in midair. “My shoe size?”
“Someone might be coming by later,” he said. He shoveled some eggs onto his fork. “And she might need to borrow some boots. If we go riding.”
For the first time in weeks, she couldn’t hide her interest.
“Are you talking about a girl?”
He nodded, continuing to eat. “Her name is Sophia. I met her last night. She said she wanted to check out the barn.”
His mom blinked. “Why does she care about the barn?”
“I don’t know. It was her idea.”
“Who is she?” Luke detected a flicker of curiosity in his mother’s expression.
“She’s a senior at Wake Forest. She’s from New Jersey. And if we go riding, she might need boots. That’s why I was asking about your shoe size.”
Her confusion let him know that for the first time in forever, she was thinking about something other than the ranch. Or bull riding. Or the list of things she wanted to finish before the sun went down. But the effect was only temporary, and she concentrated on her plate again. In her own way, she was just as stubborn as he was. “Seven and a half. There’s an old pair in my closet she’s welcome to use. If they fit.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I was going to split some wood before she gets here, unless there’s something else you want me to do.”
“Just the irrigation,” she said. “The second pasture needs some water.”
“I got it going this morning. But I’ll turn it off before she gets here.”
She pushed a pile of eggs around on her plate. “I’m going to need your help next weekend with the customers.”
It was the way she said it that made him realize she’d been planning to bring it up all along, that it was the reason she’d stayed at the table with him. “You know I’m not going to be here on Saturday,” he said deliberately. “I’ll be in Knoxville.”
“To ride again,” she said.
“It’s the last event of the year.”
“Then why go? It’s not like the points are going to matter.” Her voice was starting to acquire a bitter edge.
“It’s not about the points. I don’t want to head into next season feeling unprepared.” Again, the conversation died away, leaving only the sounds of forks against plates. “I won last night,” he remarked.
“Good for you.”
“I’ll put the check in your account on Monday.”
“Keep it,” she snapped. “I don’t want it.”
“And the ranch?”
When she looked at him, he saw less anger than he’d expected. Instead he saw resignation, maybe even sadness, underlined by a weariness that made her look older than she really was. “I don’t care about the ranch,” she said. “I care about my son.”
After breakfast, Luke chopped wood for an hour and a half, replenishing the pile on the side of his mom’s house. Since breakfast, she’d been avoiding him again, and though it bothered him, the simple activity of swinging the ax made him feel better, loosening his muscles and freeing him to think about Sophia.
Already, she had a hold on him — he couldn’t remember the last time that happened. Not since Angie, at least, but even that wasn’t the same. He’d cared about Angie, but he couldn’t remember dwelling on her the way he was on Sophia. Until last night, in fact, he couldn’t even imagine it happening. After his dad died, it took everything he had to concentrate enough to ride at all. When the grief eventually faded to the point where he could go a day or two without thinking about his dad, he poured himself into becoming the best rider he could. During his years on the tour, it had been all he could think about, and with every success, he’d raised the bar, becoming even more intense in his pursuit to win it all.
That kind of commitment didn’t leave a lot of room for relationships, except the short-term, meaningless kind. The past year and a half had changed that. No more travel, no practice, and although there was always something to do on the ranch, he was used to that. Those who succeeded in the business of ranching were good at prioritizing, and he and his mom had a pretty good handle on it. That had given him more time to think, more time to wonder about the future, and for the first time in his life, he sometimes finished his day yearning for someone to talk to over dinner, other than his mom.
While it didn’t dominate his thoughts, he couldn’t deny the urge to try to find someone. The only problem was that he hadn’t the slightest idea how to go about doing such a thing… and now that he was riding again, he’d gotten busy and distracted.
Then, out of the blue and when he’d least expected it, he’d met Sophia. Although he’d spent most of the morning thinking about her and wondering what it would feel like to run his hands through her hair, he suspected it wouldn’t last. They had nothing in common. She was in college — studying art history, of all things — and after graduation, she’d move away to work in a museum in some faraway city. On its face, they had no chance at all, but the image of her sitting in the bed of his truck under the stars kept replaying in his mind, and he found himself wondering if maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that they could somehow make it work.
He reminded himself that they barely knew each other and that he was probably reading too much into it. Nonetheless, he had to admit he was nervous at the prospect of her visit.
After chopping the firewood, he straightened up around the house and rode the Gator out to turn off the irrigation, then made a quick trip to the store to restock the fridge. He wasn’t sure if she’d come inside, but if she did, he wanted to be prepared.
Even as he got into the shower, though, he found he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Lifting his face into the spray, he wondered what on earth had gotten into him.