Book Cover for Tom Connors Gift written by David Allan Cates

In his fifth novel, and the final in his Homecoming Trilogy (Hunger in America, and Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home) David Allan Cates writes the story of a widow who has fled her job and Wisconsin home to hole up in a Montana cabin. Six months before the novel’s opening, the beloved husband of 49-year-old Janine dies of cancer. Now in Montana, she seeks understanding from an unexpected source: a cache of letters written by an old boyfriend, Tom Connor. The letters, which span fourteen years, are set in relief against the backdrop of Janine’s life. Tom’s letters become a touchstone for the life she lived, ultimately becoming the pathway by which her grief—palpable, wise and ecstatic in Cates’ precise and lyrical prose—might begin to dissipate. She doesn’t quite know why, but she has to read Tom’s letters before she can move on. “Even as I grieve my husband’s life,” Janine admits early in the novel, “what I’ve brought are the letters that Tommy sent me.”

“David Allan Cates’s Tom Connor’s Gift is extraordinary. The prose is ravishing, the characters are surprising and irresistible, and many of its scenes are so intensely moving that they bring tears of gratitude and pleasure. The book praises long marriage and long friendship, but what I especially appreciate about its vision is how sexually liberating it is for both men and women. Cates is a fierce and fearless writer! One finishes this novel feeling wiser, more alive, and spiritually refreshed.”
­— David Huddle

“… the book’s finest feature is the lucid prose of David Allan Cates which is sometimes so illuminating, so compelling, that the reader must pause just to savor the rich language. The novel is a work of originality and beauty, with rich layers of philosophical meditation. Tom (Connor) himself never had the discipline to complete a novel. But he loved them. He says in one of his letters, they are ‘the most amazing of all human creations. They contained worlds I could walk into, people I could love and care about. They could make me see the world more clearly.…’ This is such a novel.”
–Michael Hogan

“Sadness and madness, grief and delirium. Tom Connor’s Gift delivers us precious monsters: our first true love and our true lasting love. Coursing between anecdote and musing, this is a novel only grownups can understand. It is smart and ecstatic and will break your goddamn heart.”
­— Bryan Di Salvatore

Coffee Spew Review

An Opera in Prose, from Beatrice.com

Billings Gazette Review

More Praise for Tom Connor’s Gift

“Beautiful. A mournful snow drift mixed with the the dusty heat of a lost soul, two stories work together to create a conversation across time and space; reinventing a history, colouring a future, making sense of the bigger picture from a distance. I’m impressed with the sure hand of this author – its an ambitious device and he doesn’t shy away from letting both sides of the conversation have the full light of day in its turn. The characters are built both first hand and in reflections of each other. A steady narrative, a cool head – again, I’m impressed.” — Teresa Quin

“David Allan Cates evokes the human heart out of the landscape, blending the two with so much subtlety and skill that the very world in this novel shimmers with yearning. Tom Connor is as complex and fascinating a character as I have read in contemporary fiction, and Cates has an uncanny ability to evoke the beautiful and terrifying, the feverish and gritty Central American world Connor travels through. Tom Connor’s Gift is a journey into the heart of two continents–and the continent of the human heart–an exploration of dissolution and loyalty, naivete and cynicism, grief and renewal. In this novel, they all find their place.” — Kent Meyers

“Tom Connor’s Gift is a fearless and instructive odyssey into the rustic places of the heart that still baffle and dictate our lives.” — Rick DeMarinis

“Tom Connor’s Gift is a gift all right—hilarious and moving—a two for one: two voices, two stories, two struggles to come to terms with love and longing, in prose that is vivid, urgent, brave, and true.” — Dinah Lenney

“Put a widow in a cabin at the edge of Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front with nothing but memories and a marauding bear outside to keep her company and what do you get? A tenderly-told tale of grief, recovery, and a message of love from the past. David Allan Cates’s Tom Connor’s Gift is indeed a gift to readers looking for a novel that will ask them to slow down and think about questions like “How do we endure suffering? And how—when life has flung us far and wide—how do we get home again?” — David Abrams

“Tom Connor’s Gift is a wonderful book, standing on its tiptoes, stretching out its fingers to brush against a magical realism that is transformative.”— Mark Metcalf

Author Interviews

NPR Interview, The Write Question

An Opera in Prose, from Beatrice.com

Dear Heart, a Missoula Independent Interview with David Allan Cates

Missoulian Interview with David Allan Cates

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First Three Chapters

the bear

Morning and still no trace of dawn. I shuffle out the back door past the stacked split wood on the porch toward the outhouse. I don’t make it. In the dark I stop and bend my knees and pull my underwear aside and urinate on the frozen ground, the puppy running circles around me. I smell myself and smell the trees and the cold wind from the canyon. The air makes the skin of my legs taut, and I shiver and feel a strange resolve to do this every day for the rest of my life, get up while it’s still dark and walk outside and squat like an animal and smell the air while I let my urine out. Didn’t some widows in some cultures pull out their hair or mat it in dirt or smudge their faces with ash or cut stripes on their breasts and keen for three straight nights?

I stand up. The stars show above the canyon wall and the moon glows from somewhere behind it and my boots make pretty prints in the dusting of new snow. As I walk toward the wood pile for an armload, it occurs to me that I am walking because I am not sleeping, whereas just a few minutes ago I was sleeping because I was not walking. Don’t try to make sense of that. My legs below my robe and above my unlaced leather boots are bare and cold but the air feels good, as though I’m breathing through my skin, my cheeks, my eyelids. I know there were dinosaurs around here hundreds of millions of years ago and because I can’t understand what hundreds of millions of years ago means, I eliminate those words from my head. I walk and feel and what I feel is there are dinosaurs around here right now. The wood pile is nineteen steps away through a grassy meadow dusted with new snow and spaced with big pines and truck-size rocks that have fallen from the cliff. Hidden dinosaurs make the moon shadows of the trees and rocks more interesting. I wonder what’s under each of the rocks and wonder if a woman is. She’d have been out for her morning pee a thousand years ago, and she’d have heard the crack above her as the rock broke free, then heard nothing as it fell. I hear the same silence she heard moments before her death and the same river in the canyon below. I hear my breathing and the sound of each step on the frozen ground and try to breathe with my stride, once for every two steps, but that’s not quite right, and by the time I’ve arrived at the wood- pile of stacked pine between two ponderosas I’ve got it: three steps, one inhale. Three more steps, one exhale.

At the woodpile, I grab sticks of split pine and lay them across my left forearm. The thick robe keeps the wood from scratching my skin. In each of my twenty-four days here (one day for every year of my marriage—but this is a coincidence) I’ve marveled at how I could have survived almost five decades on this earth with rice paper skin. Almost everything I try to do outdoors pinches or scratches and I have more nicks on my body than I ever have had. I remember counting them on my husband’s body when we were young—this little cut on the back of the hand from the barn door, this on his knee from the corner of the baler, this on his elbow from something un- der the car. His body a map of his days, and looking for nicks and cuts and bruises was a way of knowing him. At five or six sticks the weight is enough so I wrap my right arm under as well and turn to carry the wood back to the cabin. My fingers are suddenly so cold I’m making fists and my biceps are burn- ing with the weight. It would be nice to have the arms and shoulders and back of a man. My son when he was teenager told me he wanted his muscles to burn with fatigue every day and I know women in other cultures carry a lot of weight so maybe it all comes down to living too long without burning biceps, or maybe just living too long.

Loaded with wood, I breathe once every two steps. I try to breathe through my nose very Zen-like but start to suffocate so open my mouth and get a full lungful and then start thinking about the bad taste in my mouth and how I’ll try to drink a full pint of water when I get back into the cabin, as yesterday I started drinking coffee immediately and forgot about water or juice or anything like that. Then, just after lunch, I felt so thirsty I drank almost a quart of water in less than fifteen min- utes. I felt my stomach bulge out to bursting and that’s when I thought, why didn’t I feel thirsty before this was necessary? Why did the thirst just lie back like that all morning and then suddenly start shouting? I hadn’t even been craving it, but suddenly I felt like a madwoman trying to gulp down enough water. Which is a sideways journey into thinking about sex, because then to amuse myself while my arms are burning and my mouth is tasting bad, I wonder if drinking a lot of water has any meaning in the big picture? Could there be a particular time we drink water when it would be very meaningful and could there be a time we drink water when we say, oh, it meant nothing? And that amused me even more. Carrying wood back to the cabin under the still starry sky, my untied boots crunching on the frozen ground and the skin of my bare legs tight and clean against the cold air, I think, some people say all sex means something but those are people who have never taken part in meaningless sex. Or won’t admit it. Which is just another way of thinking: how do we decide which sexual act means something and what sexual act does not? I mean, does it mean anything if something is meaningless? And, if you feelbad afterward does that mean it meant nothing or is that proof that it must have meant something? My husband Mark told me he fell for me because the first time we lay in bed together and he touched me I looked at him in a way that made him know he was into some deep shit. Those were his words, of course, and they were figurative. Just so the record’s straight. He had sex with two other women during the time we were married— two that I know of—and he told me they meant nothing. That touching them meant nothing. And I believe him, somehow. But what I can’t seem to understand is why, if touching them meant nothing, if he was able to make that decision—and of course, I’ve made that decision about sex, not when I was mar- ried, but before I was married, I had sex with boys that meant nothing—so why if he tells me that, and I believe it, then why did they mean something to me? So much so that I was mad at him for years. Years I’ll never have back, years I lost be- ing angry. During which, who knows? Maybe he had sex with even more women, women who weren’t angry with him. Who could blame him? Me, I suppose, because even thinking about it makes me mad again, even now, carrying wood in the dark on the far side of the Great Plains. Suddenly I’m burning mad at all the wasted time, and at him for dying and for making me mad again long after I thought I was over it. My fists are clenched as anger floods my neck and face and oozes out my pores and feels somehow like the only true thing I have any- more. It’s the only thing that makes sense or nothing does. I feel I am going to split with this truth, so big and hard and beautiful and irrelevant.
I’ve arrived at the back door of the cabin already, and I need to turn around with my armload of wood and use my hip to bump the door but it has latched and won’t open. Irritated, I turn a little too sharply and try to lift the latch with my hand even though I’ve got both arms supporting the wood and my cold fingers balled up in fists. I can’t seem to do it, and finally I have to let the wood drop. I should have bent down and let it roll off my arms but because of my anger I just let it go and try to jump back—a trick I don’t quite manage, as one of the pieces hits my shin on the way down. I unleash a string of cuss words at the top of my lungs. My shin is pounding in pain and I know I’ll have a bruise and probably another bleeding scrape, but I find the echo of my voice off the cliff weirdly amusing.

I cuss again, just to hear it again, then bend to pick up the wood that has scattered around my feet. Crazy grief is a good drug, bending the banal to strange. Things like peeing outside, drinking water, and cussing off canyon walls get interesting fast but it’s all a distraction. The fact is I’m so sad since Mark died I don’t know what to do in the world of human beings. I don’t know who I am beyond a woman bending in the pre- dawn darkness to pick up the firewood she’s dropped. I bend and feel the cold sticks with my cold hand, and I concentrate on that, and think as I lift each piece, this is real, this is real, this is real, just that, just this—which is when I see the bear.

I’m trying to be truthful so although that slipped out— which is when I see the bear—I have to stop because it’s not true. What is true but harder to write is that’s when I feel the bear. But I don’t know how I feel it. Hadn’t I been feeling dino- saurs in the air earlier? Wasn’t I breathing dinosaurs, feeling them on my skin? I didn’t feel the bear like that, or maybe I did, but I didn’t feel its breath or its claws or its heat. While on my knees picking up wood I simply felt the air change, as though lightning were going to strike—but even as I say that I know that’s something I’ve heard about, never felt. So maybe I smelled it—the bear was so close, I must have smelled it. But I can’t say what the smell was. Only that it made all of the tiny hairs on my body stand and from my knees even before I lifted my head I knew what I’d see.

But that’s not true, either. I didn’t know what I’d see. I only knew there was something there, and even knowing some- thing was there—a dinosaur?—I was still surprised to actually see it. I have a puppy (where did he go?—from running circles around me when I stepped outside to suddenly long gone) and once I walked the puppy past a statue of a bear in a park, and the puppy trembled and wouldn’t go near. He’d never seen a bear in his life, much less been hurt by one, and yet he knew to be afraid of the shape of that statue. I marvel at that, but here I am, on my knees smelling a scent that has my hair stand- ing up—and when I look up there’s his head turned around the tree looking at me from no more than a few steps away, as though he’s been there since I came outside and peed and walked to the woodpile. I want to tell you he had an engorged tick on his chest and his fur silver tipped and ragged and wet on one side, and he had two toes on his left forepaw and details like that but it was dark and I could see only how he was stand- ing upright with his head turned and his face trained on me. He looked like a big cartoon character with tiny eyes reflecting the light of the heavens—or more likely absorbing the light from the heavens, because even so close I couldn’t see his eyes. What I saw was their lack, their empty blackness. I might have stopped breathing then. At least long enough to become aware of my heart trying to jump up my throat.

I force myself to begin again. First a gasp and then a real breath. Another and another. And with each new breath and the hard, cold feel of the gravel under my knees, I become more aware of my body as prey, the bear not fifteen feet away—tall, so very tall, like a hairy giant. A monster, and that’s what I think as I carefully breathe through my nostrils and begin to gather the wood that I dropped—again?—five sticks of split pine. I tuck them up and hold them against my chest. Why do I bother? Why don’t I ignore the wood and stand up and step back safely through the door into the cabin? I don’t even need the wood to start a fire. There’s plenty of wood stacked on the porch. But this is my obsession, not using that porch wood, or if I used it to replace it immediately, because if the stack on the porch grows smaller—and I’m sure it’s at least three days of wood—but if it gets smaller my reptile mind’s convinced I’ll freeze to death in a blizzard. Just two nights before I lay in bed after using wood from the porch to stoke the fire before I went to bed, used a couple of pieces, and as I listened to the crack- ling stove and felt the coziness of my bed, I forced myself to get up and go outside (with the bear?) to replace the porch wood I’d used. So on my knees now with the bear looking at me, I gather up to my chest the last of the pieces and that’s when I hear him growl. Low and horrifying. How many times when I was little or my children were little did we imitate the growl of a bear or a lion or a dinosaur—and I’d even heard such growls at the zoo before (not dinosaurs, of course) but when the bear makes that noise deep in its chest or deep in the middle of the earth I feel my bones soften and my flesh turn to jelly. I stare at the earth under me just barely lit now by what must be a paling of the eastern sky. I feel my neck bending forward, stretched and exposed, not my throat but my neck like a woman await- ing the sword. My god, nothing like a bear so close to make everything morbid. I stay as still as I can but my breathing and my heart seem out of control and I know the bear can smell my fear, and I’m sure I can, too. And then I get tired of something, I don’t know what, tired of the rough weight of the firewood in my arms or my knees against the frozen gravel and it’s only me, now, only me and my obsessive idea that I don’t ever want the pile of wood on the porch to get smaller even by one stick, only me and the little blood that trickles from the throbbing scrape on my shin, me and the tiresome smell of die-sores as my son used to call them, me and the hole in my heart where my husband used to be. I push up to my feet. When I look back to the tree she’s—she? I don’t know—when I look back to the tree the bear is gone.

I manage to open the door behind me with an armload of wood, and I step backward and into the kitchen. I hear the growl one more time as the door bangs shut and my legs give out and I sink to the dirty wood floor with my back to the door that suddenly feels too thin and flimsy to keep a bear out. It’s while am sitting in the dark like that, trying to catch my breath, that I feel the wet under me and realize that despite the pleasure I took in peeing on the ground outside, I apparently saved a little for the bear.

I get up and change my underwear even before I barricade the door, which I notice now is broken. I mean it won’t quite latch properly. I push a stool under the knob to hold it closed and keep the bear out. A stool? To keep the bear out? I don’t think about that. I start a fire in the wood stove, pour water from the storage barrel under the sink into a caldron that I cover and set on the propane burner. I put some water in a smaller pot to heat for coffee, and soon I have just that, a beau- tiful cup of coffee and a basin full of warm water, and a warm- enough cabin to strip my clothes off and stand to bathe by the kitchen sink. Through the window looking east I see the wide sky over the plains fire to pink, red, orange and yellow, and in a few places where the river bends the water mirrors the colors of the sky. I’m dripping in warm water now, standing in the low light next to the hot wood stove. The river starts high in the wilderness behind me and races through gaps in a series of massive parallel ridges before being held for a while behind a dam and then breaking out here onto the plains. I wrap myself in a towel and stand at the window and look for the puppy and the bear but see only a pair of swans. They lift up over the still green cottonwoods in the canyon and follow the bend of the river eastward until they disappear into the first rays of sunlight. The bear is the first bear I’ve seen in the wild and I wonder how long I’ll feel afraid, how long before I can begin to absorb the sadness and climb out of my cave. Home feels like a long shot but I know I can’t stay here forever. On my first trip west, a million years ago, on my first night sleeping out on the plains, I saw the northern lights. I was sixteen years old and in love with a wild and troubled boy, not the one I mar- ried. Something tells me the answer begins and ends with Tom Connor’s story. Back then I was ooh sooooo frightened and I was ooh sooooo brave. I’m standing here at the window in the cabin actually singing it. That trip west was the first time for a number of things.

the best part of traveling is the people

“It’s this country,” the driver said as he flailed his long right arm toward the green fields and red barn passing out my
window.

I flinched. Tom laughed in the backseat. I glanced around to shut him up but he wasn’t looking at me.

“You nervous or something?” the driver asked.

“About what?” I said.

“How should I know? This year’s Super Bowl match-up? The financial future of the Metropolitan Opera?”

I stared at the road. At least Tom didn’t laugh this time. What kind of boy would make his girlfriend sit in the front seat next to a drug addict? But he wasn’t like other boys. For one thing, he was wearing a canary-yellow tuxedo with pants and sleeves about six inches too short for him and a check- ered-flag nametag sewn onto the shiny lapel that said “Tom- my!”And maybe I wasn’t his girlfriend, either. He was on his way to Montana to see his mother, who was dying in a hospital, and I came along because I loved him and he asked me to, and because I was afraid I’d never see him again if I didn’t. Maybe I should have told him that. What I said was I’d never seen mountains before.

“Just because I stopped to snort a little H?” the driver said. “Is that it?”

“No,” I said, even though it was. Just ten minutes before he’d pulled into one those clean little waysides Wisconsin has on its highways, and with a nice family having a picnic at a table right in front of the car, he unwrapped some tin foil and snorted a brown powder he called Mexican Mud. I was afraid of how he’d drive after that. He slowed down, actually, slipped the Cadillac into cruise control at an even fifty-five.

“Listen, you ever heard of low-level Alpha particles?” “Who hasn’t?” Tommy, smart-alecky, from the backseat. The driver didn’t notice. “They travel in waves,” he explained.

Tommy blew a bubble off his tongue that floated over the back of the front seat, all the way to the dashboard, where it landed, sat for a moment, clean and beautiful with the blue sky behind it, and then popped, leaving a shiny wet circle about half the size of a penny.

“It was the low-level that killed the buffalo,” the driver said. “That’s funny,” Tommy said. “I thought it was the high.” “Myth,” the driver said. “Sixty million buffalo? Tell me exactly how high-level waves could kill that many?”

Tommy sent another bubble forward. It landed next to the driver’s leg on the front seat but he didn’t notice.

“Let me give it to you straight,” the driver said. “Everybody’s looking for where the waves and particles meet, right? Which is why the black race will never be successful in this country. Their systems are set up for a different combination of waves and particles like you’ll find over there in Africa.”

“And they’re so super successful in Africa?”

“Excellent point,” the driver said, sniffing. “But hey, you ever hear of the Black Death?” “Everybody’s heard of the Black Death.”

“Half of Europe in the fourteenth century. Dead. Like that.” He snapped his fingers. “The survivors survived. That means there was a purification process underway. Which is not in- consistent with good wave-particle theory. It means half of the white Europeans, because of their wave-particle ratio, had to be eliminated. I’m not saying I don’t feel bad for the Jews and all, killed by the Nazis? Terrible. On a human level, I mean. But cosmically speaking? Hey, the Jews were never that happy in Europe anyway. You know it. I know it. They knew it. I’m just saying Hitler was the first person to propose a systematic solution to a problem everybody else was afraid to acknowledge.”

He looked at me when he finished. Of course I thought of my mother and the ghosts of her family, and of course I wor- ried I was a coward but I didn’t say a word.

“Hitler was a hero, if you stop to think about it,” he said, and kept staring at me as if to make sure I was thinking about it.

Yes, I nodded yes. I couldn’t help it.

The driver breathed as if relieved that was settled. He actu- ally looked very happy at how he’d tamed horror with a the- ory. He continued, “Oh, Das Fuehrer was brute, don’t get me wrong, but the universe calls for brutes from time to time. He did the work that was in accord with the natural laws of parti- cle-wave theory.”

A semi-truck passed slowly, and the noise of the eighteen wheels through our open window silenced him. After it had moved well ahead, Tom said, “So what did you do before you became a scientist?”
I put my hand over my mouth and pretended to cough to cover up my laughter.

“Insurance,” the driver said.

My cough turned into a coughing fit. I was bent over my knees and couldn’t seem to stop laughing so I just kept pre- tending to cough until I felt Tommy’s hand on my back. Final- ly, I relaxed and little, and sat up.

“You all right?” the driver asked.

I nodded. I was afraid to look back at Tommy, though. I wanted him to keep his hand where it was, on my shoulder and neck, but after a while he gave me one last pat and sat back again in his seat. I looked out the window at the rolling grass hills scattered with clusters of oak trees. We passed more farms and billboards and hundreds of cars and trucks going our way, or the other. Before long, Tommy fell asleep, which is why he’d insisted on the back seat. He laid his head against his balled up jean jacket and closed his eyes. The car smelled of cologne, denim and vinyl, and even though we’d only left Chi- cago that morning, I felt gross down to my bones. The driver took it out of cruise control and speeded up to 65, then 70, and I tried not to think.

“I lived in the suburbs with my wife and three kids,” he said. “I worked every day to make ends meet, but my wife liked to spend money and we fell behind anyway. I complained about it at work and my buddy says, Hey, just make more money! So I got into dealing. Seriously, though, I figured 99 percent of the time you’re selling to junkies. You’re not selling to kids on the playground. That’s a myth. I sold to people who never should have been here in the first place, who probably could only be happy in Africa. I knew it. They knew it. Which is why they were junkies.”

I didn’t answer. We passed another hitchhiker, a boy with long blond hair and cardboard sign that said WEST. I was hoping we’d stop, but we drove right by.

“Then I went to prison,” the driver said. “And now I’m out and on my way home. The H is just to keep me up, keep me go- ing. I feel good and I don’t want to stop, see, because I miss my kids bad. Lately I’ve been thinking about one time when I took my youngest to church and then skiing. She was five. We’re sitting in the big crowded ski lodge, and she looked around at all the people and she said, Did all the people from church come here to ski? Blew me away. I mean the way kids see the world. All the doors and window blown open. I’d like to see it like that sometime. Anyway, that little girl? She’s twenty years old now.”

Saying that seemed to make him sad, and then it made me sad. I wondered what my life would have been like if my dad—instead of spending his days worrying about clients and their cases and his nights worrying about me and what kind of trouble I might be in—what my life would be like if he’d been in prison. Easier, maybe, I thought, but that just made me sadder. I leaned over against the door and closed my eyes and tried to sleep but couldn’t, so I faked it the rest of the way across Wisconsin to Minneapolis, where the driver got a hotel room right on the Interstate. He said we were welcome to stay there while he checked in on his ex and kids. If things went well, he’d be gone all night and the room was ours, paid for, on him.

The wave-particle ratio must have been right—for he never came back. I showered that night while Tommy slept, and in the morning we showered together. He was happy and kept playing games with the soap to make me laugh. For all his craziness, he could look so adorable. Sometimes when we kissed I’d think I needed nothing else on earth but his face right up next to mine—as long as I could adore it and kiss it I’d be hap- py. We dressed and ate waffles in the restaurant, then strolled out to the highway with our packs. He wore the same yellow tuxedo and, as absurdly as it fit, it looked pretty in the morn- ing sunshine. He struck a gallant pose with his arm extended and his thumb out.

“The best part of traveling is the people, right wench?” he said, and winked, but I got him to promise he wouldn’t make me sit in the front seat alone again with a man driver. Within ten minutes we got a ride in an old rusted Oldsmobile from a man with a big head of curly red hair and a red beard he fingered constantly. The backseat was loaded with junk so we all three sat in the front, me in the middle. We accelerated up onto the highway and drove out of the city heading west. Red Beard was going to Seattle, so we figured we had it made all the way to Montana. We couldn’t believe our luck and kept smiling at each other and holding hands. The driver told us he’d lived all over and when he was about our age he spent a year roller-skating around Denver. He said he’d built luxury hotels in Hawaii and train bridges across the Yukon, but the thing he’d remember until the day he died was the first time he hitched across the country and got a ride with a man who was going to Canada to ditch the draft.

“The guy was all torn up, but I couldn’t really see it at the time,” the driver said. “Understandably, he didn’t want to go fly across the ocean and kill people in a war he thought was wrong. He wanted to do the right thing, but the right thing meant he’d be an exile. The right thing to him—the brave thing—meant his family and everybody in his hometown would think he was coward. I was only a few years younger than him, and I’d just run away from home—so being an exile didn’t seem all that bad. I hadn’t a clue what to say. I remember we went about thirty miles per hour up Loveland Pass above Denver in this old beater of a jalopy. He stopped the car and told me he had to take a leak. There we were at the top of the Rockies. Three hundred and sixty degrees of snow-covered peaks. The dude walks off the shoulder into the snow, behind some rock, and—Boom! He shoots himself.”

“What did you do?” Tommy asked.

The driver squinted and tugged at his beard. He shook his head as though trying to remember. “I don’t know, really. I guess I freaked out.”

“Did you flag somebody down?” I asked.

“I don’t really remember,” the driver said. “But I don’t think I did. I know I walked around behind the rock and found him. And I know I drove his car down to Denver and ditched it.”

“You mean you left him there?”

“I did.”

“Wicked.” It was one of Tommy’s favorite words. After a
long pause, he said it again.

“I don’t know what I figured. Maybe I thought he’d done something brave but I knew nobody else would understand. Somehow it comforted me to think if they did find him, they’d think he’d been murdered. Maybe his parents and friends would like him again. I don’t know. I was young. In Denver I got a job delivering newspapers. That was the year I took up roller-skating. Sometimes you do things, sometimes you feel things. The meaning of it all? Hey, you’re asking the wrong Jimmy Callahan. Where are you? What’s the next thing to do? As far as I’m concerned, those are the big questions.”

“Agreed,” Tommy said, and I think he really did. He came from a rich family but when he was thirteen his dad dropped dead right in front of him. Heart attack. Now his mom— who’d moved to Montana just a couple of years later, leaving Tom with an old aunt in Chicago—now his mom was dying, too, and he didn’t seem to be afraid of anything. He probably figured, what could be worse? It’s obvious to me now why my parents didn’t like him, why they suspected he was missing something you need to build a life with, and why they were most likely out of their minds with worry for me at that very moment. But how could I know anything about that then? I only knew I held Tommy’s soft hand on my lap and remem- bered his warm breath in my ear last night, the sweet taste of his mouth. I only knew I was a long way from home and he made me feel brave.
We passed miles and miles of sunflowers, of corn, of soy- beans. We drove over hills and green valleys, along lakes and over river bridges, past signposts, exits, ravens clustered on a dead deer. First the mackerel clouds moved in from the north- west, and then lower, more solid ones followed. We drove and drove, and west of the Missouri the flat green fields broke into a strange landscape of brown cones and deep ravines. The sky turned leaden from horizon to horizon, and when the sun set and the sky grew dark only a very occasional ranch light twin- kled across the broken land.

“Pick a spot,” the driver said. He was talking to me because Tommy had fallen asleep against the window.

“What do you mean?”

“A direction. Point your finger.”

I pointed past him to the southwest, to where the thin silver line of horizon was all that separated the sky from the dark land.

“Okay,” he said. “Now if I stop the car and make you get out and walk that way, how far do you think you’d get before you go mystic on me?” “What?”

“I mean, take away these roads connected to distant cit- ies, and take away our wheels and all you have is yourself and the earth and the sky, and tell me, how long before you throw yourself face first on the ground and start calling for a witch doctor?”

I shrugged while my stomach tightened with dread.

The driver laughed. “Don’t worry, I’m not stopping.” He tugged on his beard and pushed his foot down to the floor and the old car shuddered with new speed. “We don’t deserve this country, did you know that?”

I wanted to pinch Tommy’s leg to wake him up.

“We stole it,” he continued, “and we don’t deserve it, and without our machines it scares us witless. Did you know that?”

I managed to shake my head.

“Well, now you do,” he said. And we drove on into the night and I stared out at the stars and the vast sweep of land scooting by us at eighty miles an hour and I thought of Tommy’s mom dying somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, and I didn’t sleep at all. I remember wondering if no matter what else happened in my life, if this might be one of the things I’d always remember, this first long night crossing America. And so far, these many years later, it still is.

Because, like I said, there were other firsts, too, starting with the car breaking down just over the Montana border. The clunk-clunk started on the edge of a little town, and the driv- er said uh-oh and then the motor stopped and he took it out of gear and we glided silently down a sleepy main street and came to a stop right in front of the only light. It was a bar, of course. We all went in and while the driver tried to figure out what to do, Tommy and I started drinking. I had a glass of wine and he fought off his grogginess with shots of tequila and before you know it we were laughing and drinking more. After a while Red-Beard headed off to sleep in the car but Tommy and I stayed and I switched to tequila, too. Everything seemed suddenly amazing. The car breaking down where it did was like a boat crossing the ocean and starting to sink right when it came to an island. Could we have planned it any better? At bar time we took our packs from the back of the car and walked up a bluff at the end of the main street. With the little town behind us, we stared out over the plains and felt as if we were on a beach looking out at the sea. Even in the dark we could see forever. We zipped our bags together and with Tommy over me, something else happened that had never happened before. I felt wave after wave of a wild pleasure break under my skin and wash the colors of love up under my eyeballs. Just when I’d think it was over, I’d feel it gather again, and I’d squeeze and surrender all at once, and feel it lift and toss me again and again, and all of that while looking past his shoulder at more stars than I’d ever seen in my life.

Afterward, we lay on our backs next to each other and listened to coyotes yipping madly past the edges of our vision.

“Yeeeee-ha!” he kept saying before he fell asleep. It was fun- ny because first he was shouting and then it got quieter and quieter until it was only his breathing as he drifted into sleep. I couldn’t believe I was out on my own, lying on the big heart of the world with a boy I loved sleeping next to me. Whenever I’ve heard the expression one with the universe, it’s that night I think about, and about how and why it happened. Sure I’d taken the first step. I mean, I’d said yes when he asked me to go, and packed my clothes in the night and snuck out before dawn. We’d hiked together up the ramp onto the Eisenhower heading north, all thumbs and backpacks. But after that, well, it seemed it had been all waves and particles. Of course we didn’t deserve this land. What possible feat of greatness could anybody do to deserve such bounty? Such love and beauty? Nothing that I could imagine. And if all of that wasn’t enough to turn me into a quivering ball of pitiful flesh, dissolved in my gratitude, something even more unpredictable happened. In the hours just before dawn, pale light began to spread up- ward from the northern horizon and wave like a gauze curtain in the wind. It grew to cover almost half the sky and turned the softest of yellows and greens and blues. I’d never seen the northern lights before and I nudged Tommy awake. He kept saying awesome, awesome, until finally he fell asleep again, and I lay awake and speechless, shivering with wonder and the precious ache of his hand in mine.

Not quite speechless, though, I said, “Tommy, I love you.”

Is this what was called going mystic? Did somebody need to call a witch doctor? Didn’t I already have enough reasons to remember this first long night crossing America?

He didn’t answer. I probably should have gotten him to speak, to say something, but I was very young and had run away from home with a boy I loved and I just needed to tell him. I was scared because I knew he didn’t love me like I loved him but he moved to show he heard me, and he held me in his arms and his breath in my hair made me feel it was okay, I was going to be okay.

the only thing I care about is losing majors

Inside the warm cabin, I’m sitting in front of the big window, my back to the woodstove, my feet up on a table. The stool is wedged under the doorknob against the back door that now hangs crookedly from its hinges. The screws are coming out of the soft woodwork, and I try to imagine what Mark would do, how he’d fix it, and feel some despair at my capacities. Then I quickly take reasonless comfort in the fact that at least the front door closes and latches and locks. Outside, smoke like ragged pieces of fog blows from my chimney past the near trees toward the river and the mouth of the canyon. The puppy has returned, thank goodness. He’s asleep on the couch, but no sign of the bear. Listen to me: no sign. Just over three weeks here and I sound like an old trapper. What I mean is, from this chair looking out the window, I haven’t seen him again. He’s sleeping. He’s eating. He’s walking around sniffing and doing bear things. Mark used to say he wanted to be a lion. What great fun to sleep twenty hours a day and wake only to mate with females and eat the meat that the females killed. He recognized, of course, that like all male lions it would also be his duty to chase off hyenas, but because we lived on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin, he didn’t anticipate hyena chasing would take much time.

In the six months since he died I often hear his voice so quiet and so loud I lose my breath. I want to grow my body huge, spread my arms and legs until they are big enough for all of the wild feelings to be able to stretch out and lie down and rest for a minute or two or five or ten. Is that a craving for death? I don’t know. I wonder if I had a really long orgasm if I’d feel better, but the amount of blood in my veins seems in- adequate to the task—and I don’t even want to imagine what I mean by task. So maybe it’s my imagination that’s crippled and bent and withered by grief. I hear the wind shake the cabin. It’s been gusting for days. I breathe deeply, try to take some of that big air into my body. I lean back and stare at the sky through the window and breathe air from up past the invisible cliffs, suck it down from miles above my head, breathe it down from the clouds themselves. “This is living,” I say, and lean back in my chair and feel my body deaden with the numbing weight of sadness. Mark worked outside his whole life. He smelled of the outside. He smelled of horses and cows and grass when he was younger and when he was older, he smelled of his woodshop. His apron is still there, I’m sure, and the sawdust, and the light through the row of south windows. When he knew he was dying and his strength was shrinking and his pain growing, he would to go out to his shop and use his lathe to make wooden spheres ranging in size from golf balls to volleyballs, but most of them like softballs, perfectly round and smooth. He made them from oak and walnut, from mahogany and teak, and from woods I’d never heard of before that he’d collected over the years and been storing in the shed for some special project. When I asked him why he was making spheres he shrugged and said he wanted to. I didn’t ask him again. He’d been mak- ing things for other people his whole life and now he was making things for himself, beautiful and perfectly useless round wooden balls. He decided he was going to make as many as he could before he died. As his illness dragged on, the num- ber grew and soon they lined the long windowsill in his shop and filled boxes and crates and baskets like so many smooth, earth-colored eggs. I liked to hold them, feel their weight, and run my fingers around their sanded curves. His rough hands could make the surface of wood as soft and smooth as velvet.

Sometimes we walked in the evening. He’d hold my hand. It was as intimate as he had the strength for. Then I’d go to bed and he’d sit up and look at the fire and smoke marijuana— something he hadn’t done in years but that he started again in those last months. He savored moments of quiet wakefulness. He told me he didn’t want to spend his last hours sleeping. He wanted to spend them conscious. He told me he had come to understand that he loved consciousness. It was an odd thing to say. I love consciousness. He said ever since he was a little boy and he remembered looking at himself in the mirror and breathing and moving and making faces, seeing himself alive in the glass, feeling himself alive, being conscious of his being alive, he had been a little bit in awe of consciousness. If we all get a certain number of moments in which we are truly conscious of our life, of living, he enjoyed those moments as much as anybody else I know. Once, near the end, the cancer spread all over his body, death looming—he had been sitting in the den and when he saw my shape in the doorway—he looked up and spoke.

“Doctor,” he said. I paused. “What?” It was a game we played. The room smelled, and I stepped past him to open a window. He waited, and when he had my attention again, he said, “Two very important health questions from your number-one patient.” That wasn’t true. He was never my patient. I learned early on that I couldn’t be his doctor and his wife. “You ready?” he said. “I am,” I said, and sat on the arm of the couch. He made his face very serious and took on a kind of puzzled expression.

“Where do farts come from, Doctor?” “You,” I said, “mostly.”

He nodded thoughtfully. He looked around the room and blinked and blinked again in the sweet soft light of early eve- ning. Along the far wall were the last stripes of sunlight. In the corner where he sat, the dark shadows of evening.

“And the second question?” I asked.

“Does it all go away?” he asked. He lifted his hands as though to hold it all. His eyes were deep pools—truly curious, wide awake. “Everything?”

I shrugged. I suddenly couldn’t see him for my tears. I put my face in my hands. See why I couldn’t be his doctor and his wife?

Late at night I’d hear his steps on the stairs and then in the bedroom. I’d hear him fuss with his clothes and feel the bed sway as he lay down behind me and got under the covers. I’d lie still and listen to him breathe and settle in, and then often I’d feel his fingers graze my cheek, move gently down my neck, my shoulder. His skin was hard but his touch light and I would be wearing only my underwear and he’d let his fingers trace my side down to my hips and then come around to my stomach and then, sometimes, if he didn’t think it would wake me or keep me from sleep, up to my breasts. I’d make a noise so he knew it was all right, and he’d hold me. One night near the end, he came to bed and I pretended I was asleep because the sadness had gotten so heavy I didn’t know what to say or do anymore. I felt his weight on the mattress and his heat be- hind me and then more movement and his heat above me. But instead of his hand, I felt his pot breath and then the tip of his tongue on my cheek, very gentle. He was tasting me. Trying to taste my skin without waking me. Then he pulled back and lay on his side again and I felt the bed begin to move slightly as he began to sob. Twenty-four years of marriage and he’d cried only three times as far as I knew, when his father died and when the twins were born and when our daughter was married. I moved over in the dark and put my arm around him, and he let me, and we both cried then. We held each other and sobbed until we were exhausted and we were dry and red and couldn’t anymore. Then, for some odd reason, right about when we were done with all of that, the defective smoke alarm in the living room went off—making that high awful whine— and then, as if to harmonize, from the floor at the foot of our bed our old dog sat up and started to howl. We rolled over onto our backs, our mouths salty with each other’s tears and tried to make sense of what we were hearing. The defective alarm downstairs—it had gone off before—and the excited dog there in our room. We stared up into the darkness and started to laugh. He’d be dead within a few days, certainly no more than you could count on two hands, and I was going to be alone, and then after a while—months, years, decades, what did it matter?—I would die, too. It struck us—or me, at least—that long after we were both gone there would always be stupid stuff like this, malfunctioning alarms, dogs howling madly. Things like that are all that’s immortal—why hadn’t anybody ever told us before? We held hands and lay on our back in the dark and laughed. People go crazy in this life looking for meaning. Any- thing for meaning! Love, work, exercise, gambling, drinking. My brother likes whores. I deserve a blowjob every day, he told me once. I think of his earnest broad face and big blue eyes blinking madly when he told me that, and it makes me laugh. Tiger Woods said in an interview, The only thing I care about is winning majors. Well, he cared about sex, too, thank goodness. Why is it that most people liked him better when he pretended he was a golf robot? Hey, but don’t listen to me. Everything I’ve ever learned has the stink of loss. Without it, I’m sure I’d never have had a thought in my head.

Maybe you’re thinking: Oh my god, she’s going to be unbear- able. And I might say in response: The only thing I care about is losing majors.

The day before Mark died I helped him walk outside and up the hill behind the house and sit down on the grass. We held hands and then the twins walked up the hill and we all sat quietly and felt the spring wind and looked at how the grass in the valley had turned candy-green overnight. In the next few weeks, the green would darken and move slowly up the hill and the yellow and red buds on the oak trees would pop into tiny pale leaves that grew until full summer turned the edge of the forest into a dark green wall along the far side of the sloping pasture. Mark squeezed my hand. He looked pale and drawn and only his eyes glimmered. I put my arm around his bony shoulders. I rested my head there. He stroked my hair. I shuddered and the world disappeared except for the flutter of bird wings in the air. Crows. Mark was watching them. He used to say they were magic. That was years ago. We sat on the hill together and felt his dying and spring coming, and I don’t know that the world ever looked so beautiful. Cody and Kate helped their father to his feet and I sat alone until they made it down the hill and disappeared into the house. When the screen door slammed shut I felt the beginning of a dry emptiness that would fill me to the brim after he died. By the time I walked down the hill and followed my husband and grown children into the house I felt as if I were walking in ether, breathing water, a fish pretending to be a mammal.

Okay, here’s what I know: I’ve been well loved, and that love has given me more strength then I ever thought I could muster, and since Mark’s death six months ago I have worried and wondered and felt frightened and sad and weakened by the prospect of a life without it. So less than a month ago, I walked off a shift in the emergency room and left the Wisconsin farm we’d lived on for more than two decades, and I drove all the way across the plains to a friend’s cabin where the Sun Riv- er spills through the Eastern Front of the Rocky Mountains. What am I looking for? Maybe a place where the shell of my body will crack and the cold dust inside will blow away in the wind. It seems all I’ve done since Mark’s death—and too much of what I did before—is protect myself. So besides the big bear outside the cabin that has me either scared to death or reckless beyond belief every time I go outside, the big dramatic ques- tion of my life is a mad one: what happens if I blow away in the wind?

Also, my grown daughter and son, from opposite corners of the earth, want all of us to meet back home on the farm for Thanksgiving next month, an experience I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around. All of us?

Suddenly a big gust collides with the wall of the cabin and sends the stool that’s been jammed under the doorknob crash- ing to the floor. I feel the cold and look up, expecting to see the bear in my kitchen but the back door has merely pushed partway open in the wind. It sags on the bottom hinge. The top hinge has pulled completely out of the rotten woodwork and the screws hang ugly as long, brass teeth.

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Reviews

Book Cover for Tom Connors Gift written by David Allan Cates

Coffee Spew Review

Heart Cracked Wide Open, High Country News

Billings Gazette Review

Big Sky Journal

More Praise for Tom Connor's Gift

"Beautiful. A mournful snow drift mixed with the the dusty heat of a lost soul, two stories work together to create a conversation across time and space; reinventing a history, colouring a future, making sense of the bigger picture from a distance. I'm impressed with the sure hand of this author - its an ambitious device and she doesn't shy away from letting both sides of the conversation have the full light of day in its turn. The characters are built both first hand and in reflections of each other. A steady narrative, a cool head - again, I'm impressed." — Teresa Quin

“Tom Connor’s Gift is a fearless and instructive odyssey into the rustic places of the heart that still baffle and dictate our lives.” — Rick DeMarinis

“Tom Connor’s Gift is a gift all right—hilarious and moving—a two for one: two voices, two stories, two struggles to come to terms with love and longing, in prose that is vivid, urgent, brave, and true.” — Dinah Lenney

“Put a widow in a cabin at the edge of Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front with nothing but memories and a marauding bear outside to keep her company and what do you get? A tenderly-told tale of grief, recovery, and a message of love from the past. David Allan Cates’s Tom Connor’s Gift is indeed a gift to readers looking for a novel that will ask them to slow down and think about questions like “How do we endure suffering? And how—when life has flung us far and wide—how do we get home again?” — David Abrams

“Tom Connor’s Gift is a wonderful book, standing on its tiptoes, stretching out its fingers to brush against a magical realism that is transformative.”— Mark Metcalf

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Reading Group Discussion Guide

Author interviews, and Questions:

NPR Interview, The Write Question

Dear Heart, a Missoula Independent Interview with David Allan Cates

Missoulian Interview with David Allan Cates

An Opera in Prose, from Beatrice.com

A few questions for discussion

1. When did you realize that Janine is profoundly stuck in grief? What aspects of grief resonated with experiences that you may have had, and what events propelled her through the experience?

2. There are many gripping scenes rendered in the book: Tom Connor in the well… Janine being chased by murderous horses… Zochee in the hotel room…. Janine partying with locals and coming home with a “mummy”... Discuss a scene that moved you and consider how its themes and images contributed to the overall arc of the novel.

3. The set-up for Tom Connor’s Gift is that a recently widowed doctor holes up in a cabin with a stack of letters while an apparent bear roams outside. How does Cates manage to draw you into concern and empathy for Janine within this spare framework? How does the neighbor, Bart, create a dramatic inflection for the story when he knocks on Janine’s door?

4. Many readers are skeptical that a male author can portray a female character. Did David Allan Cates succeed? Which of Janine’s gestures, actions and attitudes struck you as most feminine, and which did not?

5. What do you think of Tom Connor? Is he a hero or a selfish fool? Why does he continue to write letters to Janine over many years, but give her no chance to respond? What is the source of the intimacy you sense between them?

6. Consider the results of Janine and Tom’s only face-to-face meeting after years of Tom’s letters. Did Janine fail Tom?

7. David Allan Cates says that the bear in Tom Connor’s Gift is a bear first, not a symbol. How does the bear enter the story and what role does it play?

8. What do you think is the gift of Tom Connor?

9. What is your impression of Janine’s marriage?

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