READ LOCAL First represents Utah’s most comprehensive collection of celebrated and promising writers of fiction, poetry, literary nonfiction, and memoir. This week we bring you an excerpt from Tim Glenn’s 2017 Original Writing Competition First Place novel manuscript, Forever Desolation. Glenn is a historian and museum director living in Green River, Utah. He earned an MA in U.S. History from the University of Utah, studying the history of wilderness and public lands in the West. Recently, his writing has appeared in Breathing Stories, an arts as activism chapbook from Torrey House Press. Tim is also the Democratic candidate for the Utah State Legislature in House District 69.
from FOREVER DESOLATION
Jesse Randall lived in an old farmhouse seven miles up Long Street, well past the neighborhoods and semi-clustered homes that define Green River. Technically, the Randalls’ farm was outside of the town’s official boundaries, and Jesse wasn’t a resident of any place. He complained about this fact in many city council meetings, claiming that the government had stripped his voting rights. He also proudly bragged that he hadn’t paid any county taxes in over a decade. Whatever his civic engagement, he was a member of the community by proximity, not law.
Sam pulled into the long dirt driveway that led to the Randalls’ home and noticed a new for sale sign hanging haphazardly on the edge of the property.
“Didn’t take long to get that up, did you Jesse?” he thought.
In the center of the farm sat a small Victorian style home with a large wrap-around porch that was in serious need of some upkeep. There used to be a bevy of broken down farming vehicles that consumed the Randall farm, but they were absent as Sam drove up to the house. A few old work trucks sat in an alfalfa field on the edge of the property, rebuild projects that were doomed from the beginning. But for the most part, the bulk of the Randall junkyard had been carted off to some other unfortunate empty lot.
Climbing out of his truck, Sam was greeted by Pop, an old dark grade horse with white coloring on his hindquarters and nose. Pop roamed freely on the property, and had done so for as long as Sam could remember. Jesse used to take him to the Tavaputs every summer, running cattle in the cooler and greener pastures high up on the plateau. The two of them hadn’t made a trip like that for at least a decade now. These days, Pop is just a family pet and town mascot. The oldest horse in the Gunnison Valley, and the most kind for good measure. Anyone who happens to drive down the road, or makes their way onto the Randall property will surely find Pop waiting at the edge of the gate to say hello.
Sam rubbed the horse’s nose and patted his neck, working up enough motivation to actually knock on Jesse’s front door. It didn’t matter. Jesse had been watching through the window since he heard Sam’s truck driving up the path. He was outside before Sam even made it to the porch.
“Where you been?” Jesse asked as he opened the screen door.
“Just got off Deso,” Sam said. He wasn’t surprised that Jesse knew he’d been gone. Most people in Green River had a habit of knowing other people’s business.
“Did you find any treasure this time?”
“No, but I guess I wasn’t looking for any. How’s Eddie doing?”
“That dipshit don’t know his ass from a handout,” Jesse said, with a slow and steady Utah accent. “I don’t know how he is, other’n he’s costing me a hell of a lot of money in court.”
“I heard he was just selling weed. Is that right?”
“Uh-huh.” Jesse paused, bothered by the subject of a son he had always been disappointed in. “Is that what you came here for?”
“No, I guess not,” Sam said, reluctant to bring up the topic of the power plant. “Take it easy on the kid, though. He just needs someone to push him in the right direction.”
“Bullshit,” Jesse barked, “he needs to get his act together. I taught him better, and if he ain’t careful he’s gonna end up like his brother.”
That was probably right. Sam couldn’t help but feel sorry for the Randall boys. Trent Randall, Jesse’s oldest son, was serving time at the county jail in Castle Dale. Eddie was well on his way to the same fate. No matter how hard they tried, they could never get far enough away from the rut that the Randall clan lived in. As kids, the two boys stayed busy enough with their schoolwork. They kept their heads down and worked the farm. But without any chance to go to college or get a decent paying job anywhere except for on the oil rigs, Jesse’s boys devolved into adults with nothing to live for after high school. They had no pride in their home, their family, or the world that made them. No one ever gave them any reason to.
“Anyway,” Jesse said, “what’re you doing up here?”
“Well,” he sighed with hesitation. “I was wondering if you’ve heard anything from these power plant people. I thought maybe they’d contacted you since your property is-”
“Yeah they came by,” he interrupted. “Had a surveyor out last week, talkin’ ‘bout prolly makin’ me an offer for my land. I ain’t made no decisions yet, or anything. Don’t sound like they’re interested in my grazing permits.”
Sam was surprised to hear that Reef Holdings had already made an offer. If they’re acquiring private property, maybe there’s more progress behind the scenes than the papers have been reporting.
“Seems like you might be leaning towards selling, eh?”
“Ah hell, it’s just a sign, Nash.”
“I’m just asking, Jess. I’m not here to tell you what to do, just trying to keep up with what’s going on around town.”
“Well, nobody said they wanna buy it just yet. So you can go tell your friends in Salt Lake to hold on to their picket signs”
“Did they say anything about why they want your land?”
“I don’t know. What does it matter to you?”
“You didn’t think to ask why they’re interested in your property?”
“Nah, but I am thinkin’ ‘bout kicking you off of it.”
“Don’t get all worked up,” Sam complained. “I’m just curious. You know I don’t want a power plant coming in, but I’m not here to have that argument with you. Why don’t you go ahead and get your shorts out of a bunch.”
Jesse spit off the porch and let out a sort of reluctant grunt. They each let the silence of the farm dilute the tension. They’d been in too many arguments to count over the years. These days, it seemed they couldn’t stand within a hundred yards of each other without something bubbling to the surface.
Sam once looked up to Jesse. In a lot of ways, he had always wanted to live Jesse’s life instead of his own. He romanticized the Randalls’ ranch and farm, and he envied the freedom that Jesse had as a kid. He wished he could disappear each summer to the Tavaputs, in the middle of wide-open skies, riding horses and sleeping under the stars every night. As far as Sam was concerned, Jesse was living a cowboy’s dream.
But Jesse never saw it that way. He couldn’t be sentimental about the heavy weight that fell on his shoulders at such an early age. No child should be subject to the amount of hard labor that he was. It didn’t help when Sam, several years younger and useless as a farmhand, began to shadow him all over town.
The two of them stood on the porch, leaning up against the support beams and avoiding eye contact. Pop stared at them from the edge of the grass. There was a feeling on the Randall ranch that made Sam homesick – something that made him wish he could go back thirty years. As he stared back at Pop, Sam saw in the horse the only thing on this Earth that had never strayed from Jesse’s will – the only thing that never thought to leave him.
After his Dad died, Jesse’s brothers refused to help run the family business. He had no choice but to quit school and take over running the ranch. It was a hard life, but he made it work. For three straight years, he even turned a profit and made enough money to work another year.
But a few decades of just scraping had already taken its toll on the Randall family. After he was legally an adult, Jesse’s mom left him to carry all the family burdens on his own. On his eighteenth birthday, she transferred all the property and grazing permits to his name, including the accompanying mortgage and debts. No sooner were the papers signed, did RuDean Randall leave in search of something better. She packed up in the middle of the night and left without a word to anyone. Jesse never heard from her again. She only left him a note that said “I’m sorry. I couldn’t stay.”
By then, Jesse was married and had a child of his own. He’d have sold the farm and left in a heartbeat if he had the chance. But nobody wanted to buy a ranch in Green River during the 1990s, and there was no choice but to squeak out a living from the land. In the years that followed, his own family failed to exceed the expectations of his parents and siblings. Jesse’s wife, Selena Cecchini, the daughter of Arnie Cecchini and inheritor of his temper, refused to settle for a ranching life. The two of them were terribly incompatible – a destructive force that blew through town any time money got tight. Neither of them stayed faithful and they eventually strayed so far away from each other that she never came back. Through it all, there was Pop. He never left. He never quit. He was the only thing left that had never disappointed or deserted Jesse Randall.
No wonder he wanted to sell. Who could blame him? He’s been the lamb sent for slaughter his entire life. Who could expect him to try and save a place that he hates for the benefit of a town that wouldn’t even notice?
“Well, what else you got to say?” Jesse asked with more than a hint of indignation. “I’m a busy man.”
Sam took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. He didn’t have anything else to say, but he didn’t want to leave. He’d only come to catch some rumblings about the power plant. He never expected to find out that they’re already buying up property. The town seemed to be slipping through his fingers faster than he could catch up with the story.
Reef Holdings was working in the shadows and doing it quickly. They would buy up half the town if they were smart, and Sam knew he wouldn’t be able to stop them. But there was something about this farm. He wasn’t willing to let them have it. Despite years of hard feelings, disrespect, and black eyes from the hands of Jesse Randall, Sam didn’t want to see him sell his land. Jesse was as much a part of Green River as Sadie Parker or the San Rafael desert. His run-down property, filled with old trucks and rusty equipment, was as important to the spirit of this town as the vanilla skies on Swasey’s Beach or the purple rain-drenched Book Cliffs. Sam wasn’t sure if he could keep Reef Holdings from ruining his town, but if there was any way to stop them from stealing this horrible farm, he had to try.
He walked toward the top steps of the porch, and stopped short, “Pop is getting old.”
“I guess we all are.”
“That’s the damn truth. How is the herd looking this-”
“I gotta get back to work, ” Jesse interrupted. “You can come back when you actually want something.”
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Jesse?” Sam asked, refusing to let him walk away.
“What do you mean?”
“Selling this place.”
“What the hell else should I do?”
“Stay. Live here. Work your land. Don’t give up on everything that you’ve built.”
“Look around, Sam. I don’t have anything but a worn down horse and a couple of sons on their way to a life in prison. There ain’t nothing here to give up on.”
Sam couldn’t argue with him. Jesse was alone. He didn’t have the river, or the canyon country, or any memories worth keeping. He didn’t love anything about Green River.
“Yeah,” Sam said in defeat and waited again for something to say. He thought about climbing onto his soapbox and preaching about the virtues of rural living, maintaining a closeness to the land and spirit of Jeffersonian America. He wanted to tell him that no amount of money was worth the sale of your heritage and that Jesse had a moral obligation to stay faithful to the lifestyle that had created him, to fight for the essence of a town that was built on the backbone of rural farmers, ranchers, and businessmen.
But none of it was true. You can fight change all you want, but even the evilest of revolutions are pure in the eyes of the architects.
“I guess I’ll just see you around,” he said, and walked back across the yard to his truck.
After years of evangelizing, it seemed the nuclear prophets were finally on the verge of making Green River the poster child for a nuclear West. Where Glen Canyon Dam had once been the blockage that stopped the heart of canyon country, the Green River nuclear plant would become the cancer that brings down the whole body. Southeastern Utah would be turned upside down, and the empty canyons would be filled with energy, greed, and Chevy Tahoes.
Sam walked back to his truck, and couldn’t help but offer one last plea. “Don’t let them buy it, Jesse,” he yelled. “I’m not saying don’t sell it, but don’t let them buy it.”
Jesse turned around and for the first time, Sam saw the face of an old and tired farmer instead of the youthful and overbearing bully he’d known his whole life. Jesse paused and looked out across his dying green fields. He considered the empty mancos shale and gray dusty hills that surrounded them. He looked at Pop, old and tired – closer to dying than the alfalfa sprouting in the field next to him.
He shook his head and yelled back. “This place ain’t worth saving, Sam. Not like it is.”
Jesse walked back inside his house, and the screen door slammed behind him.