I wrote this piece in Tuscarora on Memorial Day 2013.
Lilac bushes withstand winters here, but not every spring. Hard frosts leave the buds black as burnt match heads. In a bad year, only half the bushes bear a few blossoms. In a good year, the town is softened by a lilac haze and the sight of this place I love—an assemblage of mobile homes; abandoned shacks and wrecked cars; a few stick houses; a post office and a historic cemetery—makes me believe in grace.
No one in Tuscarora loves his lilacs more than my eighty-six year old neighbor, Milt. Looking at his weed-free front yard, you might not suspect the care he has invested into the four large bushes that border his side of the dirt road dividing our properties. When you look at his double-wide trailer circumscribed by a two-foot rim of nondescript rocks, you would bet that somewhere out back a pit bull growls behind a chain link fence. Not so. Milt was always a Labrador retriever guy. These days, enfeebled by age and emphysema, he’s barely able to take care of himself, let alone a dog.
I’ve been coming to Tuscarora for twenty years. Usually it’s around Memorial Day weekend when I show up. Four years ago, in 2009, Milt was tethering his American flag to his deck railing as I got out of my car to open the barbed wire gate. I can’t depend on the weather, but I can depend on Milt coming out of his mobile home, standing on his deck to watch me unload my car, and calling, “Welcome home!”
“It’s good to be here,” I shout, regardless of the weather. This call and response is a joke between us. He knows my husband and I reside in northern California, but my heart’s home is Tuscarora.
“What do you think of my lilacs?” he said.
“Beautiful. Magnificent,” I said as I walked across the road. “Perfect shapes. So many blossoms,” as if I were judging flowers at the county fair,
Milt pointed to the one I was admiring. “That’s a Boone and Crockett lilac,” he said.
I laughed at his sportsman’s metaphor. “Sure is,” I replied.
Milt, a retired teamster from northern California, moved to Tuscarora about five years before we bought our place. Like many Californians of his generation. he came to northeastern Nevada for the deer hunting and trout fishing.
“Jim died,” he said, out of breath, a sign his emphysema had worsened over the winter. I told him I was going back to my house to get coffee and a jacket and would be right back. I seldom go into Milt’s trailer. It’s clean enough, but the living room is crowded with brown furniture and dominated by a large tv, always tuned to a sports channel.
Our visiting in the summer takes place on his deck, just wide enough for two green molded plastic chairs, our coffee cups or wine glasses resting on the railing as we watch the sun set over the Independence Range and purple shadows move across the meadows. Milt and I think it is a beautiful view and agree 99% of the rest of the world wouldn’t get it.
Milt told me about his friend Jim’s funeral and wake. I am not sure “friend” is the right word. For years, they drank their morning coffee at one another’s houses, unless Jim was on a bender. Often on Saturdays, they drove seven miles down the road to the Taylor Canyon Club for a hamburger and to talk to any of the ranch hands or miners hunkered at the bar. But Milt is a loner. He always has been.
“They put Jim in the Manor last fall,” he said. The Manor is the care facility in Elko, fifty-two miles away. Milt didn’t have to spell it out for me. He knew I knew that’s where you go to die. Milt went on, “I’d go see him when I went to town for groceries. He was doing pretty good until after Christmas. I quit going up there. They say he died of complications, whatever that means. Hell, his heart and liver couldn’t take it anymore.”
As Milt talked, I tried to be sympathetic, thinking about Jim, another lonely old man with a drinking problem and a nasty temper. Milt continued, “Just about the whole town turned out for the burial. All fourteen of us. “ He gave me a sideways glance, knowing I’d get it--Tuscarora isn’t a ghost town, but pretty damn close to one. Milt looked east, toward the cemetery and continued, “Somebody said, ‘They oughta throw a six-pack in his grave.’ That wasn’t too nice.”
We both knew Jim’s Budweiser binges could last a couple of years and that Jim wasn’t the only person in town with a drinking problem. Milt, himself, is a reformed alcoholic, with his own definition of “not drinking.” He never touches the hard stuff, but red wine doesn’t count.
Milt said that after Jim’s burial everyone went down to the Taylor Canyon Club. “Somebody did this real nice photograph thing. There was a picture of Jim in a frame and then below it was this set of antlers and they were saying that was the last buck Jim shot. Bullshit! Jim never shot that buck. But I didn’t say anything.”
“You did the right thing,” I said.
“Yep,” said Milt. He paused, looking straight ahead, across the valley and toward the Independence Range. “His daughter planted a lilac bush on his grave."
“That’s nice,” I said. “I didn’t know he had a daughter.”
“It’ll never make it,” Milt said.
“What?” I asked.
“The lilac,” he said, as if I were stupid. “Who will take care of it?” He looked right at me.
“Nobody tends the lilacs in the cemetery,” I said. “There are two of them that I know about. They have good years and bad years, just like the lilacs in town, but they do seem to endure,” I picked up my cold coffee off the railing and started to go home.
This year, (2013) when I arrived Memorial weekend, the weather was awful, but it’s a good lilac year. When Milt and I exchanged our ritual greeting, I could barely hear him. Later that day I made myself walk across the road, knock on the door, sit down in his living room, and have a visit. I told him he looked like he wintered-over pretty good. I was being nice. “I feel fine,” he said. “I just can’t breathe.”
Milt doesn’t look fine. He looks like something from the bar scene in Star Wars— not quite human. A few strands of black hair are stuck against his scalp, his skin the color of putty. While we visited, he took the breathing tube from his nose and set it on the cluttered, dusty end table. An oxygen tank stood by his chair. He wore a clean t-shirt, and, as always, it’s one with an image of a trout or ducks or the head of a deer. The waistband on his navy blue sweatpants was stretched around his bloated stomach.
Milt is Bay Area Portuguese and proud of it. Back in the day when he was piling rocks for his fence, spraying Round-Up in his front yard, and fertilizing his lilacs, I remember a short, stocky man, tanned, energetic, eager to tell anyone whether the fish were biting at Wild Horse reservoir; whether they’d have better luck at the Willow Creek dam; or what the prospects were for drawing deer tags in the fall.
I know more about Milt than he knows about me. Like most men, he prefers to talk about himself. He knows I’m from here, not Tuscarora, per se, but that I grew up on ranches in Elko County. He knows I have a lot of connections in this part of the world, both with the ranching community and people in Elko where I went to high school and where my parents were active in the community for many years.
He knows I drive into Elko twice a week to visit of my ninety-eight-year old mother in the assisted living facility connected by a hallway to the Manor, where Jim died. He knows I fancy myself a writer, that I prefer to be here without my husband to take care of, but I don’t tell him much about my hopes and dreams, about my marriage. Milt’s not my confidante; Milt’s not my friend.
I know Milt has been married four times; I know he recently had a falling out with Ted, his stepson, and it pains him to talk about it. I know that for years he supplemented his retirement income as a bookie, placing bets by telephone on professional sports. I know that late summer nights—this was at least twenty years ago—I would hear the crunch of tires on gravel as he pulled out of his driveway. “You used to go to Elko late at night to the whorehouses, didn’t you?” I said one summer after a few glasses of wine.
He looked across the valley into the fading light. “I’ve always liked the ladies,” he said. When he discussed his failed marriages, he admitted that both hard drugs and philandering wrecked his domestic life.
It’s reasonable to characterize Milt as a miserable old bastard, alone in his trailer and dying one breath at a time. I’m not going to get sentimental about him, and I’m sure as hell not going to take care of him. What we have in common is our love for this place and our need to be left alone.
My need for solitude and autonomy has taken me by surprise. It makes me uncomfortable. My sense of my seventies as my last best decade has created an urgency to make the most of these years, and it turns out I want to arrange my days to suit myself, no one else, once I have finished this obligation to be available for my mother. Yet I was raised to be a good wife, a good daughter, and it seems unnatural that nurturing is not in my nature, at least not any more.
Just last week, I was taking groceries from my car, when Milt raised his glass with one hand and signaled me to come over. “I’ll bring my own wine,” I yelled.
“How are you?” he asked. I was surprised by his solicitousness.
“A little tired from being in Elko all day.” I said.
“Tell me about it. I was in town, too,” Milt said. “It’s a hell of a note when you have to arrange for your own cremation.” He described his trip to the funeral home in Elko to do the paperwork and pay for his cremation. We had taken our place on the deck, the red wine catching the late afternoon light. Milt had switched from kind to cranky as he spoke. “He asks me, ‘Do you have any family?’
“Who asked you?” I said.
“The goddam undertaker!” Milt said, looking right at me.
Then he says, ‘Any friends?’ Milt leaves the mortician’s question hanging in the air.
I wanted to say, “What about Ted?” or “I’ll keep the cremation papers,” but he was obviously still on the outs with his stepson, and he would have known that mine was a half-hearted gesture. Instead, I asked him, “Do you have a place picked out in the cemetery where you want to be buried?”
Milt said he and Ted were talking after Jim died, and Ted said he would dig a hole. Milt said, “I reminded Ted the ground was so hard he’d have to rent a backhoe from somebody down at Taylor Canyon.”
“Well, if Ted digs the hole, I’ll plant a lilac,” I told him.
“I don’t give a good goddam,” Milt said, looking at the grey haze that flattens the landscape just before sunset.
“Actually, if Ted rents a backhoe, we can dig up the Boone and Crockett lilac and move it over there.”
“You’ll have to water it,” he said, not looking at me.
“I will,” I said. I half mean it.
Memorial Day, May 28, 2018. Milt died February 27, 2018 in the Manor in Elko. I’m waiting for his son Ted to rent a backhoe so I can plant a lilac on his grave. And I took the two green plastic chairs from his deck and put them in my yard to watch the light move across the valley as the sun goes down.
Nancy Harris McLelland taught creative writing, composition, and literature for over twenty years and Conducted writing workshops for the Western Folklife Center, Great Basin College , and the Great Basin Writing Project . An Elko County native with a background in ranching. McLelland has presented her "Poems from Tuscarora" Both at daytime and evening events at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko. Her essay, "Border Lands: Cowboy Poetry and the Literary Canon" is in the anthology Cowboy Poetry Matters .