Reading group guide for East of Denver
About East of Denver
When Shakespeare Williams returns to his family’s farm in eastern Colorado to bury his dead cat, he finds his widowed and senile father Emmett living in squalor. He has no money, the land is fallow, and a local banker has cheated his father out of the majority of the farm equipment and his beloved Cessna.
With no job and no prospects, Shakespeare suddenly finds himself caretaker to both his dad and the farm, and drawn into an unlikely clique of old high school classmates: Vaughn Atkins, a paraplegic confined to his mother’s basement, Carissa McPhail, an overweight bank teller who pitches for the local softball team, and longtime bully D.J. Beckman, who now deals drugs throughout small-town Dorsey. Facing the loss of the farm, Shakespeare hatches a half-serious plot with his father and his fellow gang of misfits to rob the very bank that has stolen their future.
Mixing pathos and humor in equal measure, Gregory Hill’s East of Denver is an unflinching novel of rural America, a poignant, darkly funny tale about a father and son finding their way together as their home and livelihood inexorably disappears.
Excerpt from East of Denver
I was driving from Denver to the farm with a dead cat in the back seat of my car. She was a stray I used to feed off my back step. She slept outside. She walked in the rain. Once, after a blizzard, she spent a month trapped in the sewers where she survived by eating baby raccoons. When the snow melted, she crawled out of the storm drain, mangy and wet with a chunk of skin missing from her left side. She rubbed against my shin and got pus on my britches. She was tough. She got better. I don't mind cats but I hate cat-lovers. I loved this cat.
Nothing can survive poor kids. Poor kids in the city in the summer are apocalyptic. They wander the neighborhood with spray paint and sticks. Tag it, break it, steal it, kill it.
I don't know what they did to her or if they even did it. But when I found her wheezing on my back step, I could tell that something mean had happened. She was bent up all crooked and blood was coming out of her fur like sweat. I picked her up. She was a tiny thing. I held her until she died.
I put the cat in a cardboard box and waited for dark. I couldn’t bury her in the back yard. I was a renter. I couldn’t risk the next tenant digging her up and playing with her skull.
So I was driving to the farm with a dead cat in the back seat of my car with the intention of burying her in the pasture where my Dad had been burying dogs for fifty years. Bing, Cindy, Jumper, Lady, Norman.
Denver to Dorsey. Two hours on a pale eastbound highway. Hawks sat on the telephone poles, watching. Juvenile sparrows dive-bombed the car.
A box turtle was basking on the highway, just begging to get run over. I hate to see a roadkill turtle. They look like bloody rocks. Not this time. I pulled over, backed up, got out, and carried it into a pasture. Got cheat grass in my socks.
I stood in the pasture and looked west. Denver was gone. The mountains were gone, replaced by prairie, a shimmery horizon, and cumulus clouds building up for a prick-tease of an afternoon shower. The dry world. It wasn’t cracked or duned-up like a real desert. Just dry. Grass, sage, tumbleweeds, wild sunflowers growing in the ditches. The color was bleached out of everything.
I pissed in the ditch. The puddle huddled to itself like mercury. The ground didn’t want the moisture.
I have anosmia, which means I don’t have a sense of smell. I was born that way. I was twelve years old before I became aware of the condition. I had always assumed I couldn’t smell because I wasn’t trying hard enough. But one day, I was driving the tractor and the cab filled up with dust. Then I noticed flames coming out of the steering column. The dust was smoke. I shut off the engine and emptied my water jug on the fire. Nothing serious was damaged. But it occurred to me that if I couldn’t smell smoke, then maybe there was something wrong with me.
That night, I told my mom about my condition. She said I shouldn’t worry. There wasn’t anything wrong with me at all. I just couldn’t smell. Then she whispered in my ear. “I can’t smell either. Don’t tell anyone. They don’t understand.” She was right.
There’s lots of consequences to not being able to smell. You don’t know when you stink. You don’t know when something else stinks. But you always suspect that something stinks, because people are always reminding you. When someone asks, “Who stepped in dog shit?” I don’t even bother looking at my shoe anymore. I just leave the room. It was me. Shit might as well be chocolate.
I climbed back into the car and cracked a soda pop. I didn’t feel like driving yet. I just sat there. The windows were up, the air conditioner was broke. Let it bake. I was an Indian in a sweat lodge.
A cop knocked on the window. I cranked it down.
He said, “Everything all right?”
“It’s too damn hot.”
The cop wrinkled his nose, peeked through the open window. “You got yourself a dead cat.”
“Tell me what you’re doing with a dead cat."
“I’m going to bury it on the farm.”
He looked at my neck. “You’re not a farmer.”
“My Dad is. Was. Emmett Williams. Maybe you know him.”
I said, “What for?”
“You want me to, I can find something.”
I gave him the license. He walked and sat on the hood of his cop car, smoking a cigarette. I watched him in the rearview. He sat there and smoked a cigarette.
He came back and handed me my license.
“Go bury your cat.”
When I pulled into the driveway, Dad was next to the shed, poking a jack handle into a juniper bush he’d planted twenty-five years ago. In a land where things refuse to grow, he treated that juniper right. It was taller than he was.
He stopped poking the bush. “You come alone?”
“I brought a cat.”
We drove to the pasture. Dad opened the gate. The barbed wire was stapled to cedar posts that had been hauled on the back of a wagon 120 years ago by our homesteading patriarch Helfrich Williams. He was German, but he’d never been to Germany. In the early 1800’s, Helfrich’s ancestors moved from the middle of Germany to Russia. They were either escaping an oppressive regime or taking advantage of some sort of Russian government goodwill offering. Whatever it was, they settled on something called the Volga River plain. I don’t know where that is. Another thing I don’t know is why they were called the Williamses. Not very German. But if you look at the birth entries on the first two pages of our family bible--a bible written in German--there’s Williamses all the way back to before Lincoln was president.
In the 1870’s, the Russians decided to murder all the German immigrants living on the Volga River plain. Shortly before the Russians burned his village, young Helfrich Williams and his wife, Margaretha, packed up, moved out, and jumped on the first boat to America. Three weeks on the ocean and a miserable train ride later they marched across the prairie until Helfrich stamped his shoe in the dirt and said the German equivalent of, “We’re home.” Then they huddled together underneath a washtub to avoid a sand storm. The Homestead Act promised paradise and, unlike many of their neighbors in that rectangle of the Great Plains soon to be known as Stafford County, that’s exactly what Helfrich and Margaretha found. To them, paradise was any place where they didn’t kill you.
The cedar posts were still solid. Good for another 120 years. Dad stepped out of the pickup, hugged a post, slipped the latch off, and dragged the gate out of the way.
I pulled the car into the pasture. Dad closed the gate and climbed back in.
He asked, “Where are we gonna do this?”
“Same place as Bing, I guess.”
I said, “Your first dog.”
“We buried him?”
“I wasn’t born yet.”
“Bing. Here, Bing.”
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