You get so sick of the fighting
You lose your fear of the end.
But I can't lose your memory
Or the sweet smell of your skin.
-- "Dry Lightning," Bruce Springsteen
It's after midnight, and I keep telling myself I have to sleep tonight. It'll be since Tuesday if I don't. I turn off the highway and head north on county 206. The left headlight's busted on the truck, but there's nothing much to see, anyway -- a pitted brown strip of road flanked by Ronnie Johnson's pasture. I turn the radio dial to see if I can't get 790 AM out of Regina. The stars are out tonight, but I keep my eyes focused straight at the pool of light falling on the road in front of me. The prairie feels big even at night. Taking out a cheap plastic flask, I take a sip of vodka; it burns going down but the warmth spreads when it hits my stomach. I don't usually carry a flask but I hear drinks at this place are through the roof.
Last Tuesday night was sweet. My head hit the pillow around eleven o'clock -- I watched the news out of Havre, rinsed out my glass, was good for a change and brushed my teeth, then slipped into the covers -- and woke the next morning at six-thirty. Couldn't remember a single dream; didn't even get up to take a piss. But that was it. Since then, nothing.
I quit messing with the radio and shut the thing off. I look in the rearview and can see the bed of the truck. The gate's down, and I make a mental note to close it when I get to the place. There's more junk back there than there should be. I keep meaning to clean it, Jenna's always on me to clean it, but these last couple of weeks it just gets so hot during the day, and then by the time night comes I don't feel like doing much of anything. There's all kinds of crap back there, mostly junk -- an old tarp, boxes and empty beer cans, the rake I took over to Glenda Horneth's to rake up her leaves, a shovel with the handle broken.
The left tire dips into a pothole. The shocks on the truck are for shit like everything else, and my teeth bang together as the truck drops down into it. I look in the rearview again, making sure nothing fell out -- not that that would be so bad -- and I see something moving against the tarp. It's tough to tell, at first, in the moonlight, there's just something shifting around in one of the folds of the tarp, but then I see it, like a coil of rope turning in on itself, and even in the dark I can see the pattern on its skin, black-and-white diamond bands on tan skin, and I can even see its eyes, two black pinholes, darker than the night surrounding them.
I slam on the brakes and the tires cough up a cloud of dust. I throw the thing in Park and lean back against the seat, breathing hard. Part of me wants to deal with this later. Tomorrow, the next day. Hell, let the thing live back there, it's gotta live somewhere, right? But the sliding window between the cab and the bed won't shut all the way, and maybe it'd come crawling in looking for food while I was at the Dancing Bear. I pop open the glove compartment. The light's broken, so I have to root around, but I find and pull out the worn .38 that I got from my dad. The thing wouldn't shoot straight at twenty yards but at close range it'll do the trick.
It takes about five seconds to open the door, and I have to kick at it with my knee until it finally comes free. I jump out onto the ground. The sound of the engine running is the only sound. Some wind, maybe, but not much tonight. I check to make sure the thing is loaded and try to sober myself by focusing on what I'm doing, pulling the hammer back with my thumb, taking two steps towards the back of the truck, holding the gun up in front of me so that as soon as I get a clear shot...
My heart's going a million miles an hour. I have to get on the tips of my toes to get my shoulder over the side of the truck bed, but I steady my arm on the side of the truck and aim down towards the tarp, towards the recess where I had seen it twisting up around itself. As long as I can get a shot in the body, that should do it. Just aim for the body. My finger is ready on the trigger as I aim for the place where it was.
Nothing. I take a deep breath and listen to the truck idling. It's a warm night, dry, and I feel my skin start to tingle as my sweat gets sucked away by the air. I've lived in Montana all my life, and I've never known a summer this hot. Heat changes everything.
I jump back towards the open gate, keeping my eye on the road, thinking that when I braked it had fallen out, and now is lying dazed under one tire, scared, ready to strike the first thing it sees. I keep the gun straight out in front of me and look under the truck. It's dark under there, and for a second I try to listen for it, but I know it won't do any good. Even if its rattle could be heard over the noise of the engine; a rattlesnake doesn't rattle when it's cornered and scared, that's just a myth -- it's not that stupid.
With my left hand I grab the tarp and shake it, the gun trained on it the whole time. I try to get my heart to slow down but it won't, not with the darkness all around and the sound of the wind in my ears, and it's been seventy-six hours now since I slept. I take the gun with my left hand and wipe my right on my jeans and flex the muscles in my fingers to keep them from getting too tight and having the gun go off accidentally. I'm not good with guns, not like the guys I went to school with; they'd take off and go hunting, bring home elk, deer, birds, anything. Sometimes Jenna says how I should go out hunting some time, since as long as I'm not working I can bring in some meat, but I'm just no good with guns, with shooting things. I don't really want to shoot this snake and as I keep staring into the back of the truck I'm relieved, thinking it must have fallen out and crawled into the ditch. "Jesus." I get back in and turn the key even though the engine's already running, and it screeches in protest. I put the gun back in the glove compartment, checking it twice to make sure it won't slide around. Checking the rearview again, I see nothing. I put the truck in gear and keep going.
The turnoff to the Dancing Bear is only another mile, and when I turn onto the road I can see the sign up ahead about a quarter-mile. I look north along county 206. In another sixteen miles, it meets up with highway 24 and heads north into Canada. There's work up in Canada this time of year, I heard, up in the canola fields in British Columbia on the way up to Alaska. "There's work around here," Jenna keeps saying, and I guess she's right. She keeps saying how we can't leave Glasgow. Her mother's sick, has something like fifteen cancers in her now, even though I think it would take a lot more than that to kill that woman. "We need a baby, then you'd feel settled here," Jenna says, and she's probably right about that, but so far we haven't been able and I suspect it's as much me as anything.
It's hard to make out the words Dancing Bear on the sign, and if it weren't for the sign and the handful of cars in the parking lot you wouldn't think it was anything, you'd think it was just another empty corrugated-metal building in the middle of the prairie. When I get out, there's the sound of insects buzzing around the sign and the fans in the top of the building circulating the air. Cigarette smoke floats on a scent of sawdust and stale beer, and I get a craving. I take another drink from the flask and throw it on the seat, then cover it up with some oil rags so some drunk doesn't see it and take it -- the lock on the door doesn't work anymore.
Two guys step out of the bar. The one staggers, and the other keeps a hand on his waist to keep him walking straight, but they're both laughing and carrying beers. They're Indians, probably over from Wolf Point. You didn't see a whole lot of Indians at Charlie's and the Circle K in Glasgow, but I'd heard that they came out here a lot. I had no problems with Indians -- sure in school me and my buddies would pick fights with them or write mean things on their cars during basketball games -- but that was just stupid kid stuff, and almost every job I worked about half of us were Indians. My old man used to say that all of them were a bunch of worthless drunks, but he wasn't doing so good himself on that count, and I couldn't claim to be any better.
I nod at them as we pass, but neither of them notice me. "Shit, man, she was after me, she was in love with me, she loved me, you know?" "Yeah, she wanted to bang you all night, she did, she told me." "She told you?" Then I'm past them, and the door is open, and I'm going inside, wading into the smoky dim building. Someone is at the door, his hand flat against the door, holding it open for me.
"Calvin," I say.
He lets the door fall shut, and I step inside. I've never been in here, came here once to pick up my old man and took him to his room at Lucy's Motel, fed him a little food and put him to bed and then went back home. I was fifteen, fourteen, maybe. Just old enough to drive, I remember. Calvin reaches out his hand and I take it. "Frank, you son of a bitch."
Calvin and I knew each other in school in that way everyone knows each other in a small school. We never talked, never really knew each other. "Go ahead and sit up close to the stage, Frank, there's some good girls tonight."
"I just kind of feel like a drink," I say.
"Right. Come on, these girls are from Houston, Texas. Richards has got all these connections. It's good to see you, first beer's on me," Calvin says, looking straight at the ground the entire time.
"You don't have to do that," I say.
He laughs. "I know. Richards likes when Glasgow guys come out. Shit, I always tell him, you and me, right, graduating class of nineteen eighty-seven, twenty-six guys, six girls, right, and all of them dogs, like that Darcy Holland a year older than us. This is the kind of place we could've used growing up, am I right? Anyway, we get guys driving down from Regina to see these girls, but a lot of local people never get out here. Now, why do you suppose that is?" He smiles at me.
"I couldn't tell you, Calvin," I say.
He doesn't stop smiling. He's gotten fat since school. My eyes have adjusted to the deep-red-lit room, and I can see how old he's gotten. A full beard now, and he's filled out, but his face is still the same, still exactly the same. "Well, for you, tonight, there's no cover."
"For the prairie niggers and the Canucks, huh? But not for local boys, not for you. Listen, you grab a seat close to the stage, all right, these Houston girls are out of sight. Check this one out." He nods towards the stage. A blonde is twirling around slowly, not in time to the music, with a tight leather bikini covered with fringe. She wears a cowboy hat and gloves, and with her left hand she reaches down between her legs and squeezes her crotch. A pale old man sits at the edge of the stage, a short stack of dollar bills sitting next to his drink. She looks over towards me, and I avoid eye contact by looking back toward Calvin, who laughs, and when he laughs it's like I'm back in school again, standing in the locker room, hearing his high-pitched, slow laugh fall from his mouth. It's like listening to someone run their hands along the black keys on a piano, from the high notes to the low ones. "You have a seat, there, Frank, I'll come over and have a beer with you when things get a little less hectic around here."
I nod and move inside. I aim for a table far from the stage, even though I see Calvin looking at me. I really just want to drink a beer and sit and slip into something like sleep, even though as I move toward a table and past the stage, I see the girl dancing look at me, and I catch her eye. She smiles at me, and I smile back, not knowing what else to do. She's lovely, tanned, and even though her breasts don't look real I figure I'm no real expert. It's not like I've seen a lot of them or anything.
An Indian girl comes over to my table after I sit down, and she puts down a napkin where she'll put my drink. I order a Labatt's from her, but she doesn't have it, so I order a Molson instead. Jenna tells me they're just the same as American beers but I buy Labatt's or Molson because I like them. The Molson brewery's just up in Regina, but Jenna doesn't think we'll be able to take a vacation any time soon because of her mom, even though she's got plenty of time built up down at the county extension office. And I know her mom's sick, but I just keep wanting to get away. I've slept every night for the last seven years in that trailer, and even then it was only going over to Grand Forks, North Dakota, to the hospital for some tests on Jenna's mom after she'd been diagnosed with her latest cancer. The pancreas, that time.
I stare at the Indian girl as she walks back towards the bar. She's heavy on the bottom, and she swings her hips a lot when she walks. I wonder what tribe she's from. I learned all this, once, in my eighth-grade Montana history class, but I can't remember. She's not Sioux, I know that. Chippewa? I feel bad, then. Here's this pretty girl, descended out of all this history, and I don't even know the first thing about it. She's pretty, and when she opens the cooler and gets my beer she looks over at me and smiles, and I smile back.
I feel good right then, and I look up at the stage and see that the girl has taken off her top. Her nipples are pink, and large, and the pale man has risen up from his seat, holds a dollar bill in his hand. She looks at him, curls her lip, and moves towards him. She turns around, leans down and puts her ass against his chest and, bucking with her legs, rubs it against his chest. He leans back, leans his upper body into her, and looks toward the ceiling. She leans forward then, and lies on the ground, reaches down towards her panties with her hand and rubs herself. She's got her face turned to her left side, and she closes her eyes and opens her mouth and moans. I think that I can almost hear her over the music.
The Indian girl is hovering over me with my beer, and she sets it down. I give her a ten-dollar bill and instead of a five and three ones she gives me eight ones, setting them down next to my bottle. I reach down and give her one of them. She thanks me and heads back towards the bar. I look toward the stage, but the song is ending and all I see is the blonde pick up her top and head toward the back of the stage. She wears high heels, and in them her legs look fantastic, and I feel something deep within me shift. I take another deep breath. I need to get some sleep, I tell myself, and drink about half the beer in one shot. I figure if I can get drunk enough, get enough stimulation, I can get to sleep. I've been through these before, these nights without sleep, but only one or two, never a third, and so when the fourth came I knew I had to do something different. Watching TV and drinking at home didn't help. Maybe here, with the loud music and the darkness and the twirling, dancing, naked girl...
Another one comes on stage. She's thin, too thin, wearing pink shorts and a thin pink top, dressed up like something from the teenage section of the JCPenney catalog. Her hair is parted in the middle and pulled back tight, with two short pigtails, one right behind each ear, that come down and just brush the tops of her shoulders; she's brunette, at least it looks that way in the light. I take a long swallow from my beer and lean back into my seat. It takes her a second, but she catches the groove of the song and starts to bend her knees to the rhythm, sink toward the floor every fourth beat or so.
She's beautiful, is the first thing I think. But I'm tired, and after the vodka and the first long pull of beer, I'm drunk, too, and I recognize that. I put the dollar bills in my pocket. There's only a few people scattered here and there: the pale guy up at the stage, I don't know him, figure he's not from around here, figure he must be down from Canada or something. There's about three kids, hell, they look like high-schoolers, staring at the stage, giggling, looking pale after too many beers. There's two guys sitting together at a table in the far corner, and one of them looks familiar, someone I've seen come through the filling station sometimes, something like that. He's got on a cowboy hat three times as big as his head; it looks like if a strong wind came up it would catch his hat and blow him away. The guy he's with I've never seen, but he leans back in his chair real comfortable, has his feet up on the table, and he's not even looking up on stage at this girl, this dark-haired girl with the pigtails. She's trying to look fifteen or something, with the pajamas on and the pigtails, but she looks maybe in her twenties. Not that I'm real good with judging people's ages.
There's a sharp knock on my table. I'm startled and look up to see Calvin walking by me. He keeps going a few steps, then turns around and leans down across the table. "Give her a dollar before she takes her top off, Frankie. You gotta let 'em know you like 'em, you see what I'm saying?"
"I'm really just here for a drink," I say, and he laughs again, scratches his beard and turns around, heads toward the corner where those two guys are sitting, neither of them even watching her. Calvin watches her, his whole way over, keeping his eyes on her. She looks towards him as she's running her hands over the sides of her pajama bottoms, pushing them down toward her knees; beneath, she's got a white g-string on. Calvin waves at her and almost runs into the back of a chair.
Then he sits down across from the guy with his feet up, and he starts talking to him. He talks for a long time and the other guy doesn't even act like he's there, just keeps smoking a cigarette and staring straight ahead, like Calvin wasn't even there. But then I see Calvin turn around and point at me, and for the first time this guy with his feet up, he looks over, he rotates his head a few degrees and he looks at me. And the guy he's with, with the big hat, he looks over at me, too, leaning around Calvin so he can see me. Or maybe it's something behind me, even though there's nothing behind me but two empty tables and a wall. I look back up to the stage, where now she's turned around and she's bent down, holding herself close to her knees, with her ass sticking out toward us. I take another long drink and set it down, and the Indian girl is there picking it back up and setting it on her tray. "You want another?"
I nod, and when she comes back with it I reach into my pocket but she says, "It's on Calvin."
"Oh. Okay," I say, and give her a dollar as a tip.
"It's on me, too." I turn around and there's the guy Calvin was talking to. I look past him and see the guy with the big hat and Calvin sitting together, looking at the two of us. Then Calvin turns to him and says something, and they both look up toward the stage, where she's just starting to take her top off, pulling it up over her head in slow motion. Her breasts drop free of the fabric and settle, sloping ridges topped by bright pink nipples. I feel my heart quicken a beat. I start to get up, extend my hand, but he waves me to sit down. "Great tits, huh? It'll be sad when they go south," he says, and sits down, propping his feet up on a chair. I laugh and nod, take a long drink to avoid having to say anything, hoping that he'll talk first. He does: "You're friends with Calvin, huh?"
I shrug. "Knew each other in school."
"You're an old Glasgow boy, huh?"
"Yeah, I guess."
The Indian girl comes by again and sets a glass of gold liquid in front of him. Whiskey, probably. He takes a long drink. "I try to get into town more, see a football game at the school or something, but this place keeps me pretty busy."
"I bet," I say, and take another long drink. When I set the beer down, it's almost empty.
"Let me get you another," he says.
"You don't have to do that. I wasn't planning on staying too long, just having a quick one, you know," I say. I wonder what time it is. I'm starting to feel heavy in my chair; maybe I'll be able to sleep tonight, if I can get home and get into bed quick. Up on stage, the girl turns around, and between her shoulder blades I can see a tattoo, like a figure eight turned on its side. It's thick, but I can't make out the details, and then suddenly she turns around again. I catch her eye, and she lowers her head a bit, curls her lip and stares back at me. The guy next to me takes another long drink and laughs, real loud, so that everyone can hear it even over the music.
"We don't get a lot of local business, it's nice to see a local gentleman like yourself come in here, see what we've got to offer."
"Someone told me this place had closed down. Maybe you could take out an ad in the paper," I say. I'm glad when my third beer shows up, and take a long pull off it.
"That's an idea," he says. Two of the teenagers are trying to prod the third into going up to the stage. One of them takes a dollar bill and sticks it in the other's hand, and they push him forward. He staggers but catches himself on a chair, a dollar bill in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other. She sees him coming and raises her arms in time to the music, runs her hands along her sides. "Listen, Frank, what is it you do for a living, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Um ... nothing much right now. I work every once in a while at the Sinclair station. Otherwise, just odd jobs, that kind of thing," I say.
"Smart guy like you? Calvin had said you were the one went to college after school."
"I didn't last very long, just wasn't into it, I guess." I had hated it over in Havre, too, plus Jenna kept wanting me to come home every weekend--we started going together the summer right after I graduated--and back then I just wanted anything to be able to be in her arms every night, and on top of it school was driving me crazy. My old man had really wanted me to go, get the chances he didn't get, all that crap, but it just didn't work out that way. I figure if I ever had a kid, I'd want him to go to college, sure, but if he didn't I wouldn't make a big deal out of it, as long as he wasn't coming to me for money or anything. And I didn't go to my old man for money, or for anything anymore.
"I hear you. You want an education, you get yourself a business. You gotta learn people, money, that's where you really learn about life." That kid is still standing up at the stage, with the dollar in his hand. His beer is on the edge of the stage, and she's lying on the floor with her hands cupped on her crotch, and he's nodding his head in time to her, staring at the space between her legs. "Or a woman like that, huh?" he says. "A woman like that'd give you an education, she'd teach you a thing about the world, you know?"
I laugh and don't say anything. An old guy shows up at the door and I see Calvin get up and go over to meet him. "Listen," he keeps going. "You want to come to work for me on Saturday, I got some things I need done out at my place, got some guys coming in. Fifty bucks for the day, huh? Sound good?"
"Sounds real good."
"Take this road out here three miles more east. Be the only house on this road. You won't miss it. Seven o'clock. That too early?"
"No," I say, and then I'm about to take another drink when I hear the sound of bottle breaking, and someone is shouting. I'm awake again, completely, and on my feet. Up at the stage, the girl is scrambling to get to her feet, and this kid, he's standing there next to the stage holding his face, and his friends are getting up and running toward him, and blood is coming out from between his fingers. There's a shattered beer bottle a few feet from him, and beer all over the edge of the stage.
"She broke my fucking nose! She broke my fucking nose!" he's yelling, and his friends are trying to get him to calm down, and everyone's on their feet now, except the guy next to me, he's still sitting there with his feet up, cradling his glass in his hand, watching everything. Calvin is running up on the stage, and the guy with the big hat is standing up now but you can hardly tell, he's so short, but he's yelling, and his voice pierces through everything.
"What the fuck? What is happening here? What the hell are you doing?"
"He stuck his finger in me!" she yells, backing up. Her eyes are on fire, the energy still shaking in her hands. "This little son of a bitch stuck a finger in me."
"Goddamnit, you don't hit him. What the fuck are you on?" the little man is still screaming. He's standing up by the stage, but he can only barely see over. He's got his hand out, and he's slamming down on top of the stage, yelling at her.
"I ain't gonna have someone stick a finger in me," she yells, and the whole time this kid's friends are sitting him down, and the Indian girl has gotten a towel and they're holding it against his nose trying to get the bleeding to stop. Calvin's up on the stage, and he's got her top and is holding it out to her, but she's not paying any attention. He reaches out with it and touches her, and she whirls around on him like she's going to kill him.
"You're crazy, you know that? You're out of your goddamn mind! So he touched you, so what?" He's still yelling, and she grabs her top from Calvin and pulls it on, then turns around and runs off the stage. "Get back out here," the little man is yelling.
"Sam," the guy next to me says in a low voice, and the little man shuts up, turns around and looks at him. The music is still playing, but no one else is making a sound. Calvin raises his hand to shield his eyes from the stage lights. "It seems there's been a misunderstanding about the rules here. I'm sure this young man had no intention of doing something that is completely out of bounds here. And Danine, she's had a long day and didn't mean to overreact. It seems like a round on the house is in order." At this, he stands up and looks at me. "Until Saturday morning," he says, then turns and heads toward the stage, climbs the steps and whispers something to Calvin, then leaves through the stage exit after her.
The little guy turns around and looks at me, then sits back down, and everyone goes back to their positions. Even the pale guy at the stage sits back down and fingers through his dollar bills, waiting for the next girl, who does come out, but I'm almost out the door and in the parking lot by then.
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