- The Silver Bullet
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[End Page 152]
By the summer of 1984, bankruptcy was so close we could taste it. It tasted like beans, which we ate with growing frequency, and it tasted like fear. It tasted like the cigarettes my mother lit one off the next. My father, meanwhile, fell into deep silences. He stood with his arms crossed, contemplating our many orange Herefords, once valuable enough to warrant his near-constant attention, now worth less than [End Page 153] three dimes a pound. The cows looked back, chewing their cuds, oblivious to soaring feed prices, unacquainted with terms like “mortgaged” and “remortgaged.” Neighbors came by to look at the equipment, offering such trifling amounts that my father’s face reddened. He turned them down, but they called again, offering less.
That same summer, a local radio station announced the First Annual Hunt for the Silver Bullet. They’d hidden an empty keg in fifty miles of wilderness, and whoever found it won two thousand dollars, a trip to Acupulco and a lifetime supply of light beer.
“Two thousand dollars,” my father kept repeating. “That wouldn’t hurt a bit.” We tried to calculate the value of the Acapulco vacation, which we planned to sell, though we couldn’t imagine to whom. Our neighbors were ranchers and roughnecks, the kind of people you don’t find lying around, especially not on a beach in a foreign country.
Mornings, we gathered around the radio in the kitchen to listen for the latest clue. Sometimes they came in rhyme: “Where sisters meet beyond the ridge/and rapid water flows,/there I lie beneath the stars—/but where, nobody knows.” Others were brief and cryptic: “If a tree falls in a forest. . . Where does the shepherd sleep?”
We scribbled them down, puzzled over them, argued over interpretations, flattened maps on the kitchen table. We drove forgotten roads and tramped through sand and swamps. Mosquitoes bit us, burrs accumulated in our socks. One day we hiked seven steep miles to a dry lake bed, where we unearthed an old oven. Other than that, we found mostly garter snakes and a couple of dispossessed hubcaps—treasures, as far as an eight-year-old was concerned, but disappointments to my father, who’d hoped we could find the thing quickly and get back to work. For as long as I’d known him, he’d been out of the house before sunrise, feeding cows, mending fences and moving water until darkness forced him inside. But lately he’d started coming in with a hollow-eyed look. It didn’t matter if the fences fell or the pastures turned to dust.
And so we searched. Some days the cows went uncounted. Weeds overtook my mother’s flower beds. The back of my father’s truck became filled with trash that never seemed to make it to the dump. And it was a gruesome victory for the raccoons, who took up residence under the henhouse and in the space of a few days ate the heads off all the chickens.
Sometimes in our travels we came across other seekers driving the back roads, mostly families and couples in dirty trucks. You could tell they were [End Page 154] looking for the Silver Bullet by the way they peered from their windows, by the fact that they were on those roads at all. Most were driving something rattletrap—trucks with off-color doors, cars with drooping mufflers. Like my father, they’d been lured by the promise of money. Others came from town, driving clean cars, going slow. Perhaps they were in it for the adventure. My mother, we’ve always joked, was in it for the beer. There is enough truth in it that nobody laughs.
Picture her, the red hair of her youth turned brown and her freckles faded, her characteristically full lips slightly apart. She is concentrating. In her lap she holds a collection of crossword puzzles. She has the native ability to read in the car without becoming sick and an impressive vocabulary that includes words like adder...