Bison Burgers – a short story

Here’s another short story. This one appeared in the visual arts magazine where I’m a contributing editor, Border Crossings, in 2011. It’s the story of two middle-aged siblings lost on their father’s ranch in Alberta.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

BISON BURGERS  

 

Who do we mean to visit? they wondered on the approach. Really, our father? Or is he such a changed man we hardly count as his children? Siblings, yes, on a thread, they were still that. Jules was in the passenger seat of the rental sedan looking for bison behind the tall wire fences strung along the highway. And Shannon, the younger one by five years, driving the car as if it was one, a bison. (I changed their names to protect the family.) The Avis rental bison, Jules called her driving style, slow and skittish grazing along the highway. That’s enough, Shannon said. With her nose to the windshield, her chest pressed to the hump of the wheel, fingers gripped on the horns. He urged his sister to lean back and relax. I won’t till this trip’s over, she said.

Smacked in the face by wrinkles and grey hairs and ambivalence all at once in a single year, a swift decisive blow to what remained of her youth – thirty-one, that was a bleak year for Shannon. Possessions kept being divided up, month after month. Her fiancé put things on hiatus, then her mother moved to Invermere to be closer to the amethyst and radium, and to cap it off before Christmas her father retired early from his work on the Queen’s Bench, sold the family home in Calgary, and bought a bison ranch in the foothills of the Rockies.

Shannon felt a little torn apart ever since. Unwholesome for general consumption. But five years later and after one decent love affair, it was just this lingering sense in the back of Shannon’s mind of not being sure of anything. The sight of bison set her teeth on edge. The thought of eating bison made her belch airlessly. Even to see her brother, after nearly a year without contact, was a little off-putting.

Her older brother Jules was in a foul funk, too. He believed he saw right through their father’s bison ranch to what it really was. These hoary livestock were the defenses of a prep fleeing from some social crisis of dubious origin. Professional or private blow-out with society? Jules wondered. Or both. Or neither. Shame or fear or a woman, something, a bribe, blackmail, a secretary, something drove him off the Queen’s Bench, Jules guessed.

They saw fenceposts carrying the heavy handcrafted wood signs for his ranch. But no sight of an entry gate along the acres of fence running beside the highway. Shannon parked on the lip of the highway and the siblings scurried under the fence in a convenient spot and carried on by foot over through the scrub and tall grass.

Big Bison Tower Ranch, said Jules. Dad took me for lunch to some atrium pub in a bronze-glass skyscraper downtown where 2nd Street meets 2nd ave. I really thought he wanted to congratulate me in advance on becoming senior manager at Esso. Two guys sharing some memories, his of botched trials and me some HR bungles. His prosecutors and his juries and me saying how it’s like me swaying my staff. Tell a few droll off-the-record stories from divorce court, drug court, violent crime. He makes some Hearst jokes. Me make some Trump jokes. Nothing criminal. Old time whatever stuff between us we can say without raising a hackle. Everything goes well until he leans over very paternally and gives me a pat on the cheek that numbs me like a hockey slapshot. I can’t feel my face for it. I’m incredulous. I feel like I’ve got palsy. He pays for my steak and two cocktails. Then as we’re leaving he says it’s bison he wants to tell me about. Bison burger’s big money, he tells me, and more tax shelters than a pair of gloves. I said to him, Dad, buffalo, you’re a chief justice, what the hell are you talking about?

Meanwhile I haven’t seen a single bison or buffalo, said Shannon. Where are we?

West of Eckville.

After the siblings walked in silence for another ten minutes Shannon said, There’s a difference between bison and buffalo?

Naw.

Cowboy now?

Jules spat to prove it.

Another hour hiking the foothills and no house in sight, not so much as a fence. They were in deep. The interior acres of their father’s ranch were carpeted in plenty of thriving grasses, silky waving wheatgrass and burly white-tipped fescue, and smattered with tiny wildflowers that coloured the sandy pools of bunchgrass. Black currants were caged in pointed violet-tinted thistle, hidden under tall nicotine yellow whiskers of fringed brome and oat grass, all a bit slippery underfoot, growing semi-wild.

Shewing apart a cloud of mosquitos with her many-buckled purse, Shannon said, He really trapped us this time. We walked right into his cage. Penned us in. Don’t be fooled, dear bison, wherever you are, he sure likes to let you think you roam freely, but then suddenly you find out he’s let you hang out to dry. Well, he knows I’m not happy. I told him on his voicemail, Did he expect me to drop everything and come live at a freakin ranch? Shannon skipped ahead over some sharp yarnballs of a red-veined plant. I mean, really, is sand pouring out his ears? Is he that out-of-touch with me? I am on the board of the Calgary Opera, that I love. I invested a lot to start up my career as a facilitator. And my friendships are important to me.

I know. I told Dad the same. I lied to him that I was too busy to uproot. I said I was studying finance because I took a foxy bank manager at HSBC on a date the day before, said Jules, rubbing his bald spot. Am I going to get sunburnt?

I didn’t lie to him, Shannon said. I am busy.

Rolling horizon, gentle climbs over and between brow-hills and lip-hills and chin-hills wrinkling off the frosted Rockies to the west. But still no sight of bison, or an eight-bedroom brick and marble bungalow with a saltwater pool the shape of a kidney inside an equatorial greenhouse, near a traditional red barn, and maybe a half dozen corrugated aluminum industrial farm buildings. This, according to the website.

And so they walked for another hour and twenty minutes. They walked until it was foolish to turn around. But also highly questionable to keep going.

Some debate was had between the siblings, got a little anxious, a little heated, a little like old childhood times, as to the question of what the fuck they should do. They were lost apparently, really badly. The argument was never over who was to blame. That was obvious, Dad and Mom were  – it was whether they should follow the creek out or go to the top of the next caldera.

Or turn back for the car before sundow-ohohohwn, said Shannon bursting into a few tears at the end and said, I’m sorry, but the last three years have been so awful.

I know it, said Jules.

He punted a dusty cobble of dinosaur fossil off the toecap of his leather shoe, and the siblings watched with a sporting interest as it tumbled down the hill before him.

He said, Maybe one of us can get reception from the top of that hill and we can call him, we’re lost.

He can’t make me eat a bison, she said, kicking her own fossil to see whose would travel farther; …hers.

Jules kicked another prehistoric shard down the hill, a colourful little shell of opal ammolite, and this bauble went a shorter distance than the first two.

Jules yearned for the least pastoral thing he knew. The Western Club. Calgary’s oldest private club. The amenities, blingy and deluxe, the concierge immaculate, lockers, ballrooms, gymnasiums, climbing walls. The Western Club and the thawing conversation of its waitresses. The Western Club and its homemade chutney on the side of every plate. Specialties that offered such warmth to a middle-age bachelor lost in the snow. He took his Blackberry out of his jacket pocket and looked for messages. If he could get service, he could call someone, but who? Oh, to text a good old friend or a ripe new online dating connection to meet him for a rough game of squash followed by a light supper in the members-only restaurant. Members-only drinks in the lounge, members-only indoor mini golf, wifi, robes, condoms, steam rooms.

But this pasture was members-only, too, and more exclusive still, Jules realized. His father’s continental influence and wealth pushed Jules over the tall fence to the Western Club the same as it brought him here, to Big Bison Tower Ranch.

Shannon saw it all in her brother’s face and said, You should eat more whole grains. Listen to your breathing. We walk an hour and it sounds like you’re gargling Scope.

It’s been two hours plus according to my wrist. And you? I stopped seeing you for raquetball months ago. What do you do all day? Are you doing treadmill? Who do you talk to? Never me. Do you even call Mom any more?

Mom goes on about her crystal logic. I’m struggling to figure out who I am and Mom’s trying to nullify herself and vanish into the oneness. How can I phone the oneness? Unity is her thing, cosmic heart bleeding. Bugs me. But all Mom really wants is to eat yogurt, Shannon said, she picked up the ammonite shell her brother had kicked, looking at its colours, admiring the opal’s spiral of coppery reptilian scales.

Radium is not as cynical as this place, don’t you think? Jules said.

Eat vitamins. Do cleanses. Enemas. Week-long fasts. Mom’s idea is to fart without shame and rub crystals on her forehead, not hang out together or talk to us. She moved to Invermere to be closer to pools of radiation. That’s nuts. Look at her, she wants to purge. Retreat, mutate, purge, us, purge herself from humanity. She’ll only show up here if it can be in the form of a rainbow.

Who can blame? I feel for her, Jules said. Dad’s whole planetoid gravity sucked so many people to him. Did we ever have a family dinner without guests? He made her sick of humans. I sure inherited none of his talent for mingling. I once saw Dad drink from the lipstick rim on a woman’s wine glass as she watched, in front of spouses. And me there, too, Jules threw his hands in the air, I was just a child and I knew. He’s greedy. He made himself believe he was getting away with it, with everything. He was so generous, he was indestructible. He knew good people up and down the country. He loved to be asked for a gilded favour. This ranch is the result of too much gilt, I’m sure.

The siblings almost reached the sunny stream at the bottom of the valley when they realized something was seriously wrong. The creek was moving along quietly and idly, that was fine, but so was the bunchgrass and sandstones. Bison. From a distance the bison grazing were indistinguishable from rows of dark dry blades of fescue and thistle. Shannon saw out of the corner of her eye a giant shit-brown shag head raising up from the briar with its clean white horns pointed directly at her – blinked and growled with a huge long pale pink Kiss tongue shaking out, dripping saliva. Gaahh! The bison said and made an about-face and casually trotted away from them. Shannon felt the blood drain from her face and feet, and for a second she thought she might faint. It was too late for the siblings to turn back. The herd surrounded them, roaming the whole valley eating and curiously vocalizing, snorting and bleating about their small visitors.

Just act natural, said Jules.

Fear is natural, damnit. Any one of these things could kill us. Fuck, there must be hundreds.

I mean act cool.

Gaahh! from another unseen bison.

The two middle-aged children walked softly through the graceful ancients, each bison in its own iron mask, all that fur imprisoning the mind of a chilling, wise and cunning chief. So Shannon imagined. She saw a lot in common with her father in the wrinkled oval eyes of a bison, as if each bison was a heavy-smoking brown-bearded judge cursed to the lowest courts, seated on a giant bench of dreadlocks and muscle.

Seriously would trade all my gigabytes for a 12-gauge right about now, Jules said.

Oh, what an expression, said Shannon finding one bison blinking at her very soulfully. She was a wallowing cow bison seated on her rump in the dirt with her shaggy front hooves ready to push up her whole big powerful body at a moment’s notice. Her belly was spread out and her sour milky paps lay exposed, brightly greased by rough feedings. A ginger-haired calf tottered around her mother on frail cinammon sticks for legs. The calf whined and bleated and shivered its little body straight to the tail.

Shannon was not enough of a threat to her calf, the bison decided, to merit rearing up.

Hello, Shannon said. The creature studied Shannon carefully, heavily. What is it? Shannon said. What do you see? Tell me. What am I supposed to do, Mother bison? Tell me what to do.

The sight of her milk pearling at the teats made Shannon think of her pearl-white silk pijammas, logging on to monster.com every afternoon grazing for facilitator jobs with zero luck, not going outside her personal valley once the entire day, and never changing out of the pijammas. She looked into the bison’s clay face with its dark-skinned heavy-lashed eyelids and soft wet almond-round eyes pushed far back on the hairy face. A set of wide grey apelike nostrils steaming over a clownish mouth grinning huge square teeth. Cairn weighty head shawled in brown curls. Her bearded neck waddled on the muddy earth under her chin as she idly chewed the green thistle.

Then the bison turned her head to look at Shannon through the other eye for a second opinon. Curse of the supreme court judge, Shannon said in chills.

At the top of the next ridge a single bison kept watch beside a lodgepole pine. As the siblings climbed the hill the sentinel stamped his feet at their boldness. Big as a truck, he started honking open-mouthed epithets at them. Laborious tongue-lolling vocals trying to stall them, Gaahh! before gallopping off to scout from another closeby hill.

They saw the pine was planted at a high point with a clear view of the entire pasture over countless hills to far off in the west where Shannon parked the rental car.

Jules let out a Gah! of his own. The ranch house seemed to appear in front of them as suddenly as the bison did in the valley. At this elevation they were a few hundred yards to a fence, and beyond it, the brick and glass sprawling house of the website. They could even see a couple in front of the mansion standing beside a blue pickup. A man came from the driver’s seat of the truck, and a woman brought a steel tub from an outdoor kitchen centred around a stainless steel bbq grill. The siblings were starved.

 

Walking towards the scene, the siblings witnessed the man use a winch off the end of his pickup to hang a dead bison by its hindquarters. In a matter of seconds the pale pink balloon of the stomach, the size of a yoga ball, disgorged from a slit the man made down the animal’s belly, and after a few tugs and cuts, followed by all the blue and white and black smaller organs amid a great final gush of dark red blood. All of it was caught in the steel bucket and reeking, humid with skatole and bile and grass.

Hello? called Shannon meekly. Ha ha.

‘The fuck, you crazy, come through the pasture? the man said with a sneer into the sun, shielding his creased eyes with a bloodied rubber glove. Where’s your car? I’m Brent. He waved a butcher’s blade at her. As you can see I’m his ranch hand.

Jules. Son.

We got super lost.

I won’t shake your hand, Shannon. You’re just in time for burgers though. Hope you’re hungry.

Ha ha.

The woman came up and surprised Jules while he considered the weird polite smile on his sister’s face, put her hand on his arm and squeezed, I’ll shake your hand. I’m Pasty. Pasteur. After the cow scientist? Surprise, I grew up near Willow Creek on a giant milk farm. My parents are industrial milk producers? What I love about working the bison industry is nobody wants to talk about milk.

I’m Jules, he said. But I grew up in Calgary around judges and civil servants not on a journey to the centre of the world. Or around bison.

Pasteur laughed politely. Cool. You’re lucky you didn’t get stamped to shit. I’ll see you for burgers, Jules. I gotta go throw this blood on our fertilizer before the stench makes me retch on your neck. A nice fatty cut, Brent.

Nothing but marble, said Brent.

Their father’s voice came from behind the truck: More marble than the floor of a courthouse, Brent.

Yes to that, said Brent, ripping off the bison’s fur coat with the short square blade and not a drop more blood lost.

Their father took Jules’s hand and pat him on the back to hug him, and greeted his daughter with the same customary hug, no one could avoid this tradition or improve upon it. They said a few words and eyed one another. Their father looked twenty years younger. His face was tanned and lean. He had lost much of the judge’s stomach and gained some width around the shoulders. It was cold and he was short-sleeved.

Oh, I just remembered. Shannon took the ammonite shell out of her purse. Jules found this in your pasture, she said. Do you know what it is?

He took it from her and looked at Jules incredulously, his eyes widened again when he looked at his daughter as she smiled to see the same face as the mother bison, his insolent, knowing, expectant, desirous, impressed gaze. It’s ammonite, her father said. It’s very rare.

It’s yours, Shannon said.

Thank you. I’ll show you inside once we’ve ate, their father drawled after he pocketed the gift from his children. Here now, he said, and Brent handed their father a rippling pink filet with a thick edge of shining fat and a membrane that enclosed the entire cut except for a single corner of exposed flesh. Let’s go grill, he said and while Brent finished the carcass, he walked his children to the quad bbq under heated parasols.

All flesh is grass, their father said. Twelve hundred acres of what traditional Blackfoot style pasture would look like, you could say. Their father started to explain his business while hefting the fatty bison filet back and forth from hand to hand as he walked and talked. Fences and horses is my big difference from the Blackfoot. Close to six hundred head, rotating five herds in pens. Hire a hundred fifty decent men once a month thereabouts to move them. One whole pterodactyl found, now in Tyrell Museum. Fresh air blowing straight off Mount Merchison every day. Year-round tan. Full moustache grown. Cowboy hat settling in. Their father was starting to joke now, but they weren’t familiar with this side of him, so he explained the latter half of his operation. I court chefs. This is my marble here, grass-fed sirloins. Sell Big Bison Tower burgers, sausages, and steaks to restaurants stretching from Seattle to Saskatoon. Plus a secret burger recipe, he said and waved his hand over to where Pasteur stood.

Jules watched Pasteur wiggling her butt as she mixed fresh seasonings for the bison in a bowl pressed against her belly. Then she found drinks while Brent ignited the propane on the grills and laid out cooking tools across a little metal surgical table. The five of them stood on the stone patio with alcohol to drink, overlooking the rolling fields. Shannon’s car was somewhere under the shadows of the Rockies. Deal with that tomorrow, Brent said. I’ll drive you. Missed your exit’s why. Shannon’s head was dizzy from the day and her appetite.

Jules combed his fingernails through his hair, eye on Pasteur. Now that he was no longer so lost and knew he’d eat a bison burger or two, his thoughts turned again to the loneliness of his days spent at the members-only Western Club. He wondered if Pasteur was his father’s lover or Brent’s or could she be waiting for him? Nervously, he distracted himself with the Blackberry.

Make yourself useful, said their father and set Jules to pushing the bison chop through the old cast iron black meatgrinder to make raw burger. Pasty, dear, he said in a funny sweet voice, have you got that bowl ready for meat? Giving ohis son the mixbowl and its eggy aromatic coagulate, Stir so the meat is all together with the secret recipe, Jules. Nothing worse than a clump of secret recipe in a burger patty. Mix that burger evenly as you can.

Ok, I will. Jules put some shoulder against the hand-grinder, and with a little push, threads of meat spooled out in broad lengths like hair, mottled red and white, into the bowl. A few minutes later he was stirring together ground bison and secret recipe to make enough Big Bison Tower burgers for five. It was late summer and the sky was a blue-green, stained a dragon purple. The evening shadows frosted grass. Shannon was eager to accept Brent’s offer to go find her a suitable parka from the house, and saw this as her chance to follow him inside for a peek at her father’s new home before dinner, thinking, Life seems to promise families that what they see in each other, others do not see, and can never see any of what others see in themselves.

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