I. One-Horse Town
Growing up, I wanted something awful to happen to me. A chronic illness, a brush with tragedy, a schoolyard brawl that left me bloodied and bruised. Home was eastern Nebraska, a quiet suburb with a creek flowing through its center. Clean schools, chain restaurants, and plenty of green space. I was the oldest of three, an honor-roll student who couldn’t lie to save my life. I didn’t swear, I didn’t drink, I played in the marching band. Every July, I’d high-step down Main Street, a Pearl snare strapped to my chest, performing John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” for hordes of flag-waving residents, my uniform’s starched collar chafing my sunburned neck.
My father, of hardier Minnesota tack, spent his youth snowmobiling, hunting pheasants, yanking walleye pale-bellied and thrashing through holes in the ice. Years later, he’d bring me along on those fishing trips. I’d struggle awake in the cold January dark. We’d be dressed and out on the lake before the sun rose. In the icehouse, still half-asleep, I’d peer down at the water, waiting for my ice-flecked line to move. Impatient yet anxious. Afraid I’d slice my hand open on a flared fin, that a barbed hook would catch me by the mouth.
II. So Far Away
Rockstar Games released Red Dead Redemption on May 18, 2010. I had just graduated from college. I tossed a few bags into my ’99 Ford Escort, hugged my family goodbye, and moved to Chicago. I could count the people I knew there on one hand. I had time to kill. I bought a copy of the game at my local Target. That summer, I became John Marston, a reformed outlaw hired to track down his old gang. Scarred and world-weary, I roamed the American West, rubbing shoulders with principled killers, jaded lawmen, idealistic ranchers, and snake-oil salesmen. I broke horses, robbed trains, intervened in a provincial civil war. I felled grizzly bears, mountain lions, and poisonous snakes. I wasted hours scouring plain and prairie for Butterfly Weed and Hummingbird Sage.
Back in the real world, I wandered the city, aimless as a priest circling the desert sands of Punto Orgullo. I had no idea what I was doing, what I wanted. The boy from Nebraska, who a short time before had been so sure of his place in the world? A mirage. And in his place: me, thin-skinned and awkward, desperate to be anything other than what I was. Please, I thought. Make me savvy, streetwise, cool. Graze me in a duel, run me through with arrows, leave me hogtied on a train track, hurl me down a mineshaft. Kidnap my family, give me a purpose. Just make me someone other than me.
I’ve never skinned a deer. I’ve never cut gristle, cleaved muscle, sawed bone, held a limp animal in my arms and felt its lifeblood ebb. But here, from New Austin to Nuevo Paraíso, I am anointed. I kill to feed and clothe myself. My hands are calloused, my denim waistcoat blood-stiff and torn. Jagged scars streak my face like dried-out riverbeds. I am bound by a code of ethics. I own no books, no films, no electronics. My only possessions lie beyond the cabin window: a clear stream, a snowy peak, a well-worn trail cut into the hillside. I pretend I am someone for whom life is brutal, unforgiving. And in this way, I am redeemed.
III. Men into Angels
Occasionally, I’ll open Spotify and play the Red Dead Redemption original score by Billy Elm and Woody Jackson. Its opening track, “Born Unto Trouble,” starts slowly: a mournful violin, peering through the fog like the first crepuscular rays of a Texas sunrise. Close on its heels is a whistle, desolate and forlorn. When I hear it, I am transported—not only back to the game, but to those first days living on my own. To those Fourth of July parades back home, when our city gathered to celebrate our nation’s emerging from the wilderness.
In the last act of Red Dead Redemption, I am betrayed by the government. They renege on their promise to let me live peaceably. Once an outlaw, always an outlaw. I make my last stand on the family ranch, fending off a U.S. Army unit until, cornered in a barn, I am outnumbered. I peer through a slit in the door. A dozen armed men await. They have no intention of jailing me. I recall how my son, Jack, once described airplanes as “Them machines that can turn men into angels.” I take a deep breath. I think of what I’ve lost, of what’s yet to come.
I open the door.
And step into sunlight.