Between Parachute and Rifle

We’d bought the beer and ice at a gas station near Parachute, Colorado. I stood with the pump while my father acquired the goods. I was a couple years off the buying age, although I had a decent fake in my wallet. I laid a bed of ice in the cooler and tumbled the cans in, keeping two for the ride. I cracked his open as he got in and held it out as he put us in gear. He said: “Goddammit, son. Don’t hand me my beer yet. Wait till we’re on the road.”

For the trip up he’d bought a half dozen maps for us to fumble through. They meant nothing to me. I didn’t actually remember the area, only the monumental yellow mesa, sparse landscape. Only the smell of old tires and the stubbornness of barbed-wire fence gates. I remember tying up horses, or stumbling into the ghost-white cold and taking a shit in an outhouse in the middle of the night.

A poet, maps are mostly useless to me. These ones detailed every switchback between Parachute and Rifle, places my father ran cows as a teenager. The stated goal was to find an old shack with a corral where a couple of hands could get a few winks if they couldn’t get off the mountain before dark. For that, maps are pretty worthless anyway.

The maps did lead us along a dirt road where we only had to open one barbed-wire fence gate. I’d opened a few of them before, mostly on trips up to visit my grandfather Otis Murray. That’s how I knew it was my job as passenger to get out, struggle with the post and loop for a few minutes, cut my hand, say a few oaths to all such fences, and wait while he drove on through. Repeat process to close the gate, then hop back in. “Cut your hand?” he said. “Meh, a little,” I said, sucking the blood. “They’re hell for a kid to open,” he said. “I’ve always hated ’em.”

My siblings and I had gone up on numerous trips to the Western Slope as kids. It was quite a drive from the big city. We’d pack into the wood-paneled Ford Taurus: me, Dad, brother Chris, and sister Katie. Sometimes my mom would brave it, and she’d say to me playfully, “You and me is city folk.” Most trips were designed to see Dad’s side of the family, but we’d usually end up doing something obsolete like fix a fence at the old ranch house or paint something thirsty like a crappy old barn or a front porch.

Once, Dad took only the boys to paint my grandfather’s horse trailer and learn how to do something, some real work. According to him, we didn’t know how to do anything. That was because we lived in the city. On the way up, brother Chris said, “Dad, is a horse trailer goddam or son of a bitch?” This was a legitimate question. Everything was goddam or son of a bitch, but how could one tell which? Dad thought for a minute and said: “That’s a good question. We’re goin’ up there to paint a goddam horse trailer, and when we’re done we’ll have painted the son of a bitch.”

This trip was different, though. I was back from college and things had changed. Grandpa Otis had passed (“that’s a good man they put in the ground there”).  The ranch house had been sold, along with the horses and cows. Some crook had stolen most of Dad’s horse tack during a garage sale. Most of that stuff wasn’t necessary anymore, since we didn’t live on the Western Slope. We lived in Denver. Actually, this was probably the first time up that Dad didn’t bring a pistol.

One wasn’t needed on this trip and would’ve been useless—unless for letting off steam with a few shots into the sagebrush. Grandma Berniece could shoot the eye out of a bird flying, to use one expression, and Dad himself needed one shot to make change out of a quarter at 100 yards. I never saw him level a firearm at anything living, but I did once see him swoop over the side of the horse he was riding—and I mean riding angry and at full canter—pick up his cowboy hat off the dirt where it’d fallen, and set it back on his head, all while cussing a litany that’d make a sailor blush. It was amazing.

Gregg Murray’s father as a toddler on Old Mountain.

Fine, so there is some embellishment, but sometimes running cows isn’t much to talk about. Out here I knew well enough that the cowboy life had given way to the rancher life. No dirty button-ups and sixteen-hour trail drives, no sleeping in a blanket roll in a cold rain. It was all buggy bosses duded up with a new Stetson and a Ford F150, biggest goddam truck you could find. In fact, most of the land we were going to hike on was owned by some oil company that hadn’t yet scoured it.

We parked the car—and the beer—outside of a fence gate that was now owned by Exxon. It said “No trespassing.” Luckily the land we were on that day, the very brush beneath our boots, hadn’t been raked and drilled yet. Somewhere, Dad said, there was a creek, a small corral, and a cabin that he remembered from his childhood. So we yanked open that fence gate—and cussed at it for sticking in the dirt—and started looking for the cabin.

I wished I’d worn more comfortable shoes. We’d been walking a long way no matter the metric, whether hours or miles, whether silent confounded stretches or soliloquies with Dad shaking his head and saying, “Well I don’t know if I recognize this or not. That over there does look familiar.” That was mostly false alarm. He’d point along the line of a decent-size creek where cows would’ve whet their whistles. “There isn’t a stupider animal in the world,” he’d say. Sounded about right to me, since the one obstacle on the dusty road up was some dumb son of a bitch cow standing in the middle of the goddam road. Didn’t move till we’d hopped out of the car and had a conversation with him. The conversation went like this, “Move out of the road, godammit, Yaa!!!” The cow said, “Moo,” and stayed put.

Our feet hurt and we still hadn’t seen the cabin. Nor had we headed back. “No, no, I think it’s around here. Let’s just get around the bend.” What was funny is I did get excited when he thought he recognized something. I’d start asking him questions that typically drew laconic replies. “So Dad, what’s the longest ride you ever had to do? Who is Charlie Sandoval? Did you ever have to shoot a cow?” “Longest ride? Hell I don’t know. Charlie Sandoval was a worthless son of a bitch. Why would I ever have to shoot a cow?”

I’d like to say I had a different response when we reached that nondescript range where Dad spied an empty creek bed. I’d actually put my hands on my knees and said: “Dad, I’m done. I’m heading back. You can do what you want. I want a cold beer.” But he had some weird defiance in his voice too. It wasn’t that of an adult. It was kind of giddy and secretive and out of character, like the time when he told Katie and me—after trying unsuccessfully to fix something in the house—that small tools were conspiring against him. He said: “Do what you want; I’m goin’ around this bend.” And he did. So I waited.

That is until he starting running—skipping?—along the dry creek. He’d hit the bend at the horizon of my vision. Too stunned to say anything, I eventually caught up and saw him smiling and looking at it. There it was, a dilapidated, crumbling abode maybe 10 by 15, roof collapsed as a trampled cornfield, broken windows. Next to it slumped a makeshift corral, big enough to hold a night herd. The corral gate swung open so far it stuck into uneven ground, which is every pain-in-the-ass gate. I mean, it was a real piece of shit, let’s be real. But we were happy to see it.

Photo by Gregg Murray.

We didn’t use the map on the way back. You just walk where you’ve been. By that point, the beer’s gotten good and cold. Beer tastes better when it’s cold like that.


Colored chalk drawing at the top of the page by Connie Murray, Gregg Murray’s aunt.

It Is/It Was/It Will

A baby is a composition the body knows how to create. And destroy. My baby—found and then lost.

I know I should resist the aspen trees. The elevation on the Colorado plains is too low. Below 7,400 feet they’re vulnerable to all the things that can kill them. Still I plant two. I hold their heart-shaped leaves against my palm just to feel the softness. I study the veins of their stems and watch them grow.

They say that miscarriage is an adaptation of the body, a function of a machine working as it should.

The twin aspens grow in our yard like limbs that could endlessly stretch higher and higher. They double in size, triple, until they cast shadows on my shoulders, outgrowing my partner. I calculate how tall they’ll stand after one year. Where will they be in two, three, four?

I tell people about the miscarriage out of duty—friends, strangers. Something that happens to so many, so regularly, so painfully should not have to be whispered.

Aspens would rather grow on a mountainside, bowing against alpine wind in crescent arcs, then standing up again. But I made them grow for me and I knew they’d be at risk. Single aspens don’t live long. Still the colonies they create can survive for centuries, a network of roots and rhizomes stretching underground, sending each other messages for when to rise.

Of course, that’s how it works. Of course. We try to make someone again. Still, sometimes I think, how can this be?

In May, I turn my back and the dog gnaws an aspen trunk in half like it is dried wood. It’s no wider than my finger. We tape it, support it, stroke its papery bark. I think maybe I could hold this broken tree in my hands until it returns to itself–stands up and stretches its arms in all directions. But I can’t and it won’t.

They say the early movements of a fetus feel like pop rocks. Like exploding kernels of corn, like butterfly wings flapping. I think it feels like gas. Like a tumor that can swim.

My hope—that the aspen saplings found each other under the dirt and had time to create something together, even when we didn’t do enough to protect them. That the tree will die but its roots will live. One day we’ll see a shoot of green push through the soil and grow into the brutal world it wasn’t meant for but can survive anyway.

At a yoga class for pregnant women the teacher asks a woman if this is her first. She says, “First child, second pregnancy.” I tell myself that next time I’ll say the same.


The Care and Keeping of Other People’s Pets

In the summer of 1977 in the small southern Georgia town of Valdosta, my mother stole the neighbor’s dog. I don’t remember much of Valdosta: wet, red clay dirt, snakes in the garden, everything green, everything humid, everything on the edge of rotting. Even voices had a sweet rind of decay. Years after we moved back north, I found a cassette recording my mother made of me counting. My “two” rhymed with “chew.” My “three” and “eight” lilted and stretched into two syllables. “Ten” could be confused for “tan.” By the time I discovered the tape, I no longer had an accent, and that recorded voice revealed a separate existence that was strange and gone.

My mother, Erika, also had an accent, but she didn’t lose it. Born in Hungary, she was ten when she came to the United States with her parents and sister. She was functionally deaf in one ear as the result of an accident with a sharp pencil. The hearing loss was never diagnosed, and when Erika had trouble learning English, her American teachers thought she was slow and put her in remedial classes. The deafness was eventually detected, and she was fitted for a hearing aid, but the mislabeling had an impact. To this day, she’ll be damned if she lets anyone call her stupid. But she never lost her Hungarian accent. Never lost the identifier that marked her as foreign.

As a child, I didn’t know my mother had an accent. My mother’s voice was my origin of sound. I still don’t hear the accent unless I listen hard. But in the 1970s in the deep south, in a city nine miles south of Moody Air Force Base, my mother’s accent defined her. She was a stranger, seen and treated as an “other,” often with perceptible distaste, something she felt acutely.

My father, a CPA who worked for ITT Corporation, was raised in upstate New York by an Italian-American father who worked for the railroad and an Irish-American mother who spent her days herding seven children. While labeled a Yankee, he was, at least, American. His presence served as a social bridge in the neighborhood, but he wasn’t around much, and when Erika went to the grocery store or hauled two kids to the public library, she was on her own in a hostile territory that, through southern charm and expert dissembling, pretended it wasn’t hostile.

I didn’t know or sense any of this as a child. It was only when I was a teenager, loading the dishwasher in the house my parents bought when we returned to New York, that my mother revealed what her years in Georgia were like. I don’t recall what we were talking about when something I said opened up a wound. She told me about the slights and snubs in Georgia that rubbed her so regularly they formed a callous that protected and numbed her.

“I was alone except for you and your brother. You two were all I had,” she said.

The confession made me uncomfortable. I turned back to the dishes and my mother left the room. I hadn’t known, up to that point, that my mother could be hurt. Of everything that she was, of every quality she embodied, I knew my mother primarily—often solely—as strong. I thought she could only be angered.


The neighbor’s dog was a toy poodle named Suzy. She was alternately cared for and neglected by the Studdards, who had a son named Dean whom my brother Mark and I played with occasionally. I don’t remember much about Dean except that I had a vague understanding that he could be mean, and once, he hit me on the head with a stick when I was climbing up to the tree house. I fell and landed hard. My father came out, and there was yelling. I think my mother tried to limit the amount of time we spent with him, especially after Dean and I were discovered half-undressed beneath the Studdards’ trampoline. I tried to find Dean Studdard on the internet. There are two living in Georgia—both in Valdosta.

The Studdards’ house was directly behind ours, backyards adjacent, no fence. In addition to Suzy, they had a large, aging mutt they didn’t let inside. I would creep to the back of their house to fill an old trough beneath a spigot that served as his water bowl. I often found it near empty and would fill it as quietly as I could. I thought I’d get in trouble if someone spotted me.

My mother loved Suzy. She loved all animals, though we didn’t have any pets in Georgia, probably because of our transience. We had moved from New York to Houston to Memphis to Valdosta in a little under two years following my father’s job. Eventually, after we left Georgia and landed in New Jersey, my mother adopted a dog named Mooch and a cat named Choo-Choo, but in our house on Sherwood Drive just a few miles north of the Florida border, she had only Mark and me, creatures who required a more complex and demanding affection.

Despite our lack of pets, my mom stocked Gaines Burgers in our kitchen pantry, moisturized dog food shaped like hamburgers and made, as the box claimed, “with real meat!” I loved the feel of them—soft and mushy beneath the cellophane. My mother used the dog food to lure Suzy to our back door, and I would help her crumble half a burger into a little bowl. Like my act of filling the water trough, I knew what we were doing was good, but there was something in my mother’s manner that made me understand that it was also something illicit.

“They don’t feed her enough,” my mother would tell me as she put the bowl on the steps leading up to the back door. And Suzy, who had the run of both backyards, would make her way over and take delicate little bites. Afterward, Suzy would follow us into the house where she jumped onto the sofa and napped as my mother petted her. A little while later, she’d jump down and head back to the Studdards.

Suzy began to follow my mom around the yard, then into the house and around the kitchen as she prepared meals, smoking cigarettes and talking on the phone, a long twisted cord giving her access to the stove, refrigerator and counter. The click-click-click of Suzy’s nails on the kitchen linoleum became the soundtrack of quiet afternoons in an air-conditioned house shuttered and dark against the heat. I was confused and grew to think that Suzy was our dog, and my mother did little to clear up my confusion. The Studdards own Suzy, she’d tell me, but we take care of her, and she loves us more.

Eventually, Suzy started following Erika around the neighborhood. One afternoon, my mother took me across the street on a rare visit with a neighbor. She served us iced tea at a table next to a large, above-ground pool that I found incredibly luxurious. We were barely settled when Suzy came around the corner of the house. The neighbor’s dog, large and brutish, lunged and caught Suzy in its jaws, shaking her like a toy then flinging her across the yard. Suzy lay where she landed, not moving, bent and bloody.

My mother called the Studdards from the veterinarian’s office, told them what happened, told them how much it would cost to get Suzy fixed up. The Studdards refused to pay, telling my mom it was her fault, telling her to let the dog die. After she hung up with the Studdards, my mother called my father at the office. He said no. Hell, no, we’re not paying $300 for the neighbor’s dog. My mom cried. She hung up. Then my dad called her back at the vet’s office. He said okay. Go ahead. Get the damn surgery.

My mother loves to tell this story. She loves to talk about how my father pretended to hate animals but was really a softie. She credits him with a change of heart tied to his conscience. But I know my father was not a softie. He was a large, difficult man with a temper and whose rage was often terrifying. My mother just always got what she wanted. She still does.


A few years back, before my brother got divorced, his then wife called me in exasperation.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “Your brother is a grown-ass adult man, and he can’t make a single decision without talking to your mama first and getting her blessing. He has got to cut the apron strings.”

It’s funny to think about it. How my mother rules my brother. She’s a tiny woman—five feet, two inches and my brother is a huge, ball-busting, tough guy. Barrel-chested and muscular, he worked as a bouncer through college. He shoots guns. He can scare most people without trying too hard. And my mother can cripple him with a disapproving look. She owns him. There was very little comfort I could offer my sister-in-law because my mother owns me, too. And I suspect, back in 1976 when Suzy was mauled by the neighbor’s dog and wasn’t going to live without emergency surgery, my mother owned my father, as well.

I have always been in awe of my mother’s strength. In a certain light, it could be perceived as hard-headed stubbornness and self-righteousness. In a different light, her strength is born from a clear sense of justice and a refusal to be shamed. I suspect it is a mix of both. In 2007, when Mark and I were what passes for adults, my mother was working for the State of New York in a midlevel government job surrounded by people who watched TV at their desks. She forwarded a viral email to a group of coworkers. It contained a collection of cartoons, one of which featured a snowman with a carrot erection next to a snowwoman with large snowballs for breasts. There was probably a risqué quip beneath it. When my mom forwarded the message, she cut off the tail that showed the string of state employees who received it and forwarded it on before her.

One of her coworkers reported Erika for sexual harassment. I feel like I need to write that again. My 62-year-old mother was accused of sexual harassment. She was called into Human Resources (HR) with her supervisor and union representative. She was reprimanded and given an agreement that outlined disciplinary actions: a loss of two weeks’ vacation, probation, and a letter in her permanent file. Her supervisor and union representative counseled her to sign it. She refused and explained that she merely forwarded a stupid email that had been forwarded to her. HR asked her for the name of the person who sent it to her. She refused to name names. They explained that there was nothing else they could do. Erika still refused to sign the paper and asked for a hearing. Everyone left the room.

A few days later, her union representative called her and said that HR has decided to change the disciplinary action: one week of lost vacation instead of two. The representative urged her to accept the deal. Erika refused. She demanded a hearing. A few more days passed, and they offered a new deal: no vacation loss and a letter in her file. Still, Erika said no. Eventually, the case was dismissed with no action taken. My mother had waited them out and worn them down.

I often thought about how I would have responded, the acute shame of being accused, the stacked power differential of the people in the room, the risk of losing my job. Throughout the negotiations, my mom would laugh as she recounted the latest developments, but I was scandalized. Embarrassed. I thought her disregard for consequences was short-sighted. At the same time, I liked to think I would have fought it just as she did, would have advocated for myself, would have loudly proclaimed the ridiculousness of the situation and made a stink. Or maybe I would have been just as successful in my own way, using diplomacy and reason, appeasing the offended without acknowledging the offense. But even then I knew better. In many ways, I was not my mother’s daughter. I was meek. I rolled over. I would not have fared well.


When my mother brought Suzy back from the veterinarian, the dog had a cast around her entire torso. I was delighted by the cast, the contrast between the hard, cool shell of the plaster and Suzy’s warm, wriggly body inside it. Suzy stayed with us, and my mother nursed her, made a little bed for her that she carried from room to room, so Suzy wouldn’t be alone. Nobody heard from the Studdards.

Suzy recovered quickly and was soon up and about, carefully making her way down the back patio steps to sniff around the backyard as my mother gardened. The cast was removed after a few weeks, along with the stitches. My mom brought Suzy home, and we fed her Gaines Burgers as she pranced in and out of the kitchen, jumping on and off the couch in pleasure. Later that day, we heard a knock at the back door. Dean Studdard stood there, his face set in a grimace.

“We want our dog back,” he said.

“You tell your parents that they can have Suzy back when they pay me for the vet bills,” my mom answered.

Dean glared and turned away, and we watched him walk across the backyards to his house. Shortly after, the phone rang, and my mom launched into a heated exchange with Dean’s mom who slung xenophobic slurs and threats involving the police. My mom called my dad. He talked about the neighborhood, not wanting to make enemies, not wanting to involve law enforcement, especially when, he suspected, we wouldn’t win.

“Give the dog back,” he said. “She’s not our dog.”

My mom gave Suzy back.


A few months later, my dad was transferred to New Jersey. My parents flew north to look at houses, and my grandmother flew south to watch Mark and me. My dad stayed north while my mother returned to pack up the house and to send my grandmother back home. In the last few days of boxes and moving vans and goodbyes, the Studdards called my mom to see if she had Suzy. The dog was missing. My mom said no and offered to look, saying with wicked pleasure that Suzy may be more likely to come if she heard my mom calling. We all wandered the neighborhood for hours calling for Suzy. No one could find her. Mark and I worried that she had gotten attacked by a large dog or hit by a car or that she would return to find our house empty and that we left without saying goodbye. Our mother told us there wasn’t much else she could do.

We left Georgia a few days later. My father flew back and we all drove north to my grandparents’ house in New York where my brother and I would stay until the new house was ready. It was a 20-hour drive and we were all hot, grumpy, hungry and tired when we arrived. My brother and I ran through the mudroom, burst through the kitchen door, and were astounded to see Suzy prancing around my grandmother’s feet in excitement.

“Suzy!” we shouted.

“Not Suzy,” my mother said, following us. “Susie.”

We looked at her in confusion.

“Grandma loved Suzy so much, she decided to get a toy poodle that looked just like her,” my mother explained. “And she named her ‘Susie,’ which is Hungarian for ‘Suzy.’”

We looked from my mother’s face to my grandmother’s and back to my mother’s. They both nodded.

“Susie!” we cried.

“Her nails are blue!” I shouted. “They match her ribbon!”

“I took her to the dog groomer,” Grandma said.

Mark and I understood completely. We thought Suzy was great, but Susie was ours, and no one was going to take her away.


It wasn’t until I was a teenager and both my father and Susie had long since died that I realized that Susie and Suzy were the same dog. I don’t remember what prompted the connection, but when I asked my mom, she laughed and said, “Of course! I wasn’t going to leave Suzy behind. She would have died.”

“But how did you do it,” I asked.

“Oh, it was a pain in the ass. We shipped her by plane to New York. It was really expensive. Your father almost had a stroke. We had to buy the crate, pay special fees. I worked it all out with your grandmother in advance. She picked her up at the airport in Albany.”

“So when Suzy was missing and we were all looking for her, you knew she was on a plane to New York?”

“Oh, by that time, I think she was already in New York.” She laughed again and pulled impish faces at the memory.

“Mom, you stole a dog,” I said.

“I did!” She leaned back and laughed. “But she was our dog. We loved her. She loved us. Love made her ours.”


I am still, in many ways, not my mother’s daughter. I am still meek. I often do not get my way, and almost as often don’t mind. I usually think of my pliancy as a good quality, but as an old friend once told me, there’s a dark side to every mountain. But the dark side is hard to see.

Last year, I found myself struggling in my job after a new executive director took over. In my first job review with her, she failed me in every category. Two of the categories I had “substantially failed.” The level-headed part of my brain knew this was ludicrous. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence and a smidge of work ethic couldn’t fail everything. I knew something was up. I got angry. Like my mother, I refused to sign the review. And then I crumpled.

The executive director emailed me a note saying that I should submit a detailed outline describing the actions I would take to meet all expectations. She wrote as if to an incompetent idiot. The next day, I diligently toiled on a work plan to address my inadequacies and shortcomings. I addressed my communication problems that included things like “too many sentences.” I acknowledged my inefficiencies and ineffectiveness and owned it all. It was a humiliating process. I saved the document and planned to send it on Monday. Then I left for the weekend.

I spent two days crying randomly in public places. The job wasn’t ideal, but it was a work-from-home position with flexible hours, and I was a one-parent household struggling to be the type of mother I thought I should be. I was terrified of losing my job, couldn’t imagine anyone else hiring me. I couldn’t fathom how I failed so spectacularly. I didn’t know what to do.

When I sat back down at my desk on Monday and opened up the document, I thought about my mother. Her stubbornness that was sometimes brave, sometimes foolish. Her anger that was sometimes ugly but always strong. I looked at all the steps I outlined to show my boss how I would do my job better. I felt gross and ashamed. It was time to feel something else. It was time to be my mother’s daughter. It was time to steal the goddamn dog.