The Grand Tour
Bonnie and Otto sit in the dining car, coasting on velvet upholstery, stretching for something neutral to say. The Czech countryside passes: soothing, green, civilized. After a wellness weekend at her behest, cold golden mugs of pilsner waltz in Otto’s mind. To his bitter disappointment, he hasn’t managed to shake Bonnie since Karlovy Vary.
“Your father works very hard, you know. And you should be there, Otto.” She hovers over a wafer layered with hazelnut cream. She buffs her fork with her napkin, fiddles with her plastic cup of coffee.
Otto has no trouble remembering the Kalt family farm on the edge of town, scratching his mind like a sore.
“Yes, ma’am,” he says. Otto Kalt urges the train to Budapest, everything Wyoming isn’t. He’s tried to dilute the memory in his mental soup, the white family home, the paint insistent and flaking, woodbine growing into the air-conditioner, the pant of the porch door as it closes behind his father, Earl Kalt, marching out to do more chores after his tenth cup of coffee. He doesn’t want to hear a whisper about pickup, tractors, wells, dogs, snakes or barns — or that’s what he pretends, moans about weather, irrigation and prices are poison as deadly an entertainment as the meth and blowjobs at Lot 50. He’s done with the big tidy farm, the envy of every kicker in that wasteland of a county. Otto Kalt wants drunken dawns and the everlasting fog of winter. He wants dog shit and smoke, piss and the poor, absurd suffering and abject light. He wants cute drunk girls and fields of tobacco. He wants to forget he’s fat and a geek. He wants the inspiration that becomes an outsider. He wants never to try again, for the message is clear here: you will fail anyway, so don’t bother.
But Bonnie Kalt persists. “He does need you.”
He flinches a little but she continues regardless.
“You left because you were ashamed of us! It’s true but you won’t admit it.”
“I couldn’t stay cramped up in town forever. I had to go.” She’s a windbag and there’s no stopping the blower. “And if I was in New York you wouldn’t see me any more than you do now. Plus, you wouldn’t be coming on these fine trips you can tell all your friends about.”
Bonnie studies her son, swollen red like an angry plum. She’s in no mood to pacify him. “Sylvester is a better son to your father than you.”
Otto knows all about Sylvester. “That boy’s no smarter than a side of beef. His wife’s curdled milk and them snotty kids are dumber than corn. That’s why he’s still in town and I left.”
“Well, like it or not, it’s all going to be yours. You have responsibilities.”
“You’re just going to sell it when he’s dead,” he says with compunction. “Let dad figure that out.”
“Oh, Otto! You’re frightful!” But he’s right. She hates farms, too.
“What’s it worth?”
“Goodness, Otto. No telling.”
“Two million?” He’s wondered before. She’s avoiding the question. “The town’s growing, that new prison’s made the farm a prime piece of real estate.”
Bonnie hesitates. Is she being threatened or encouraged by her tubby, rude son? She nibbles at another wafer. The crumbs stick to her cardigan like the words she doesn’t say. She formulates an answer, after all it’s important to her security and her son’s. “The partnership is maybe half a million. The irrigated farm maybe a million.” She adds hastily, “And another million for the ranch. But this is Goshen, so you never know.” She’s selling it short. Otto knows there’s more, way more. These figures don’t reflect the investments behind the family wealth.
“You’d do better with your cash over here,” he says.
“Your father’s from Wyoming, not some place he doesn’t know anything about, and he needs to play in the dirt.”
Everything’s suddenly fallen into place. How funny is money. Otto struggles on 30,000 bucks in a good year, while his parents behave as cavalierly towards cash as most people aspirin. A laugh gestates in his belly, rolls through his shoulders and emerges like an uncontrollable wave as he finds himself sinking to the saloon floor.
Bonnie’s ire rises with her son’s hilarity and she dares to raise another tender point. Is he drunk? “You know what he says about you, Otto?”
Otto shakes his head — sure, he knows he’s no good, that he’s not a son, that he’s been forgotten. His normally bright behavior has been retarded but she’s been irritable and unbearable the whole trip.
Who encouraged him to come to Europe? Bonnie.
Who sheltered him from any responsibilities? Bonnie.
And Bonnie knows what he wants. Money slips through Otto’s fingers like water.
Otto doesn’t want to hear anymore about his father. Returning to his seat, the laughter still lurching through his fat body in short, compulsive jolts, he tries to change back to his favorite topic. “So what are you going to give me?”
“Otto, we made it, you make it. You never learned the value of money and you’re not getting any more. We failed as parents.”
“Otto, I’m leaving tomorrow so let’s enjoy lunch. We’ll soon check in to the hotel in Budapest. When you’re next home, you’re going to help your father. He’s got a list for you, but you wouldn’t care because you’re selfish and uninterested.”
He can drink a few bottles of beer in the interim of lunch — keep up being civil, agreeing to disagree. He smiles as he deciphers the menu, glad that Bonnie, the old bitch, will pay. No one can be that nasty and not suffer in the end.
| | | |
Otto looks upon the city he rules like a spoiled lion. Budapest twinkles and sparkles below. The funicular stops then resumes, shipping passengers down the hillside. The windows reflect his thick face set in a main of curls. Some kids chatter in their phones. He gives pause to his day and the abrupt termination of his gig at the International School.
Could it be his absenteeism at the premises high in the Buda hills? That his clothes reek of night emissions? That, when under observation, he slurred through the alphabet for the kindergarteners, falling asleep at the unkind letter F? Is he no more than a fuck? Either way, Bonnie’s last ultimatum to earn a living seems a failure.
He smirks at the compensation package — maybe a round or two for him and his pals. He shakes his head in dismay, the city lights like bottles behind a bar. Among further reason for alarm, and coinciding with today’s demotion, he’s been cut off by a sequence of faulty ATMs.
Bonnie cancelled his cards, the cunt.
Prone to awful fits of anger, somehow he’s unperturbed. He’s Otto beating his drum after all, and his pals owe him for all the liquid knowledge he’s imparted upon their shrunken brains.
Once he plants his club-like feet in the slushy flats of Pest, Otto ponders where to start. He decides to wander and his boots smile at the coils of shit and heavenly muck.
Its windows melancholy and dim, the Six oozes comfort. Otto’s vilely early — often he saves his dosh by drinking at home until he senses the moment has ripened — but this is the day he’s been sacked, the week Visa’s turned off the tap.
“See ya’ Otto,” says the bartender. Deep medicated rings punctuate her eyes.
“Hi,” Otto says, his voice awkward: when is he going to even his tab for the winter, those long dark months allayed only with large amounts of drink? He has to be strategic is his movements as his bar tabs are like confetti.
She slides her last rook across the bar’s chessboard toward her opponent, irregular in size, feverish around the eyes, then she breaks from the game so she can sort him out: a pint of pilsner and a double of plum brandy.
Otto rolls a cigarette from his pouch of shag. The walls smelly like a corpse smoked tobacco and vodka.
“Can I play next? Whoever wins?” Otto says.
Her opponent strokes his pumpkin-colored mustache and wears an oddly tailored jacket. “Yes,” he says, the man handsome, his tone rich and extravagant. Then he grins savagely.
Otto, oblivious, can’t help but be friendly. After all the Six is his domain. “New here, huh?”
The ghost-faced stranger puts his fingers to his lips, points to the board.
He fusses with a Hungarian newspaper, scanning over the captions as if they would enlighten him. He pulls at the sleeves of his sweater through his jacket and then lifts his head, pondering the eclectic mix of objects and art cradling the booze.
Mary loses her queen. She’s nearly checked, an unusual event considering her many wins chalked up at the Six.
He wants to order another beer and vodka, then remembers his manners if he’s to interrupt. “Thirsty, guys?”
The stranger leans back, completes his final masterful move, then smiles gruffly.
“Tea and Moskovskaya for the gentlemen,” Otto says too eagerly. So far his reputation as overly outgoing, prone to monologues on coding, cornering everyone about art and being an insistent pest has not ruined his chances with the newcomer.
“What’s the name?” Otto asks, scooting off his barstool towards the figures lining up for a new game.
“Ross,” the man says, his accent thick like grease, Slavic in its depth.
Otto extends his hand but finds it deflected, deflated by Ross’s gaze.
“A round for you too, love,” he says.
A green bottle of Moskavskaya emerges from the deep freeze. The syrup’s irresistible, cold and brittle in the ample glasses.
“And me,” says Otto. He’s feeling better.
Ross raises his wiry arm to the bartender.
“Happy trails!” says Otto, tipping forward.
Their glasses clink together, their eyes brimming with comradeship, and the ambrosia slithers down.
“Another?” asks Ross, blinking.
“That’s the way, huh?”
She’s kept the Moskavskaya up on the bar. She dropped three more bottles in the freezer when the big guy waltzed in.
Otto and Ross toast again, more cordially this time. They extend an arm over one another’s shoulders — Ross’s thick, corded. Otto’s fat, humped.
“Do you have any pickled fish?” Ross asks, his stomach numb, his appetite gaining, the chess unloved.
She shrugs. “Nuts?”
Ross glances at the shelled peanuts. “Too poor for my blood.” Thanks to discount airfares, he’s been enjoying Europe after decades of cabbage water and unleavened bread.
Sensing the momentum, the bartender breaks open the ice-encrusted top of another Moskovskaya.
Otto feels a confessional loquaciousness swarm over him. “I got sacked, today,” he says. “Bonnie told me to get a job, any job, a spare job. Stinky old bitch cut me off too.”
“Kill her,” says Ross. He slips off the barstool and he seems to fill the bar with his aura: slim, slight, untamed violence exudes from his frame, held to the ground by a pair of narrow-necked leather-soled boots that rise into tight tartan drainpipes. His eyes are glazed, intense, his hair long and tied together. His shirt is untucked, its crenellated front awry under his jacket cinched around his waist. Ross recognizes the type from Saint Pete who could be any dumb rich Oblomov. He interrupts Otto, deep in his song of complaint. “Got any smoke, buddy?”
“Skunk,” says Otto. Not a bad idea, a top up.
“I hate that shit.”
“Oh yeah, me too.”
“Some fresh air then?”
“No, it’s at my place,” he says, droning like a snob.
“Well, call a taxi, fat boy.”
Otto’s disconcerted by the fraternal punch he receives on the shoulder. He’s just met Ross and the guy’s invited himself over to his apartment and studio, his inner sanctum, his living five-room liver of booze, paint and plans? He hesitates but he can’t drum up an excuse, on the spot like this. Why did he say he has any? If he bides the time, will this weird cat lose interest?
Some gals wiggle past Ross to the bar in a way they’d never wiggle past Otto. He’s jealous, looking into the poisonous smoky interior dotted with their deodorant-like smell. The thought of women convinces him: it’s time for a spliff and he doesn’t want to smoke alone.
The dispatcher recognizes Otto’s voice stumbling over the request. The bartender reminds him of the tab and his severance pay just about covers the evening’s bill.
“Later,” Otto calls, waving, no one inside caring or responding. Ross bundles him into the taxi. He’s unnervingly quick.
Otto’s breath is boozy and hollow. Ross’s shaved head touches the upholstered roof of the taxi. His hands rest on his knees. His back is straight. Otto notices the ruddy, frostbitten texture of his new buddy’s hands.
“You’ll have to climb to the top,” he says
Ross’s feet rebound on the stones, his chest bouncing over his ribs, his body curling around the rising floors; Ross can’t wait to smoke. He’s unflappable.
Otto fumbles with the keys to flat 39. A breath, an internal command to relax, and he struggles the door open, turning sideways to enter, Ross barging behind, pushing.
It’s spartan, bachelor-like, and unfurnished, except for the rows of beer bottles coating everything. Otto pulls off his boots with his toes and slips into his flip-flops. Some turgid abstract paintings are dotted along the walls.
“Self-portraits,” he says. “Ross, you want a pilsner?”
“Um, wine? Rum? Ah, bitters? Schnapps?”
“The Cuban stuff? If not, then with some juice.”
“Bacardi and ice?”
“It’ll have to be — no juice.”
Ross tags after Otto into the kitchen, harlequin tiles and vinyl-coated cabinets, a bare bulb hanging over the white table. The only modern apparatus is a beast of a refrigerator. The sink is filled with glasses. “Why use plates when you got hands?” Otto says when he registers Ross’s disgust.
Ross looks at a field of magnets scattered on the grubby refrigerator door. Family photographs are tucked under a few. For some reason he doesn’t want Ross prying, staring at his life.
“Pretty lady. This your girlfriend? She looks German.”
“No, that’s my mom,” Otto says. “That bitch can turn back time.”
“Not a chance. I like bouncing on young princesses.” He shrugs. “Just they’ve been few and far between.”
“I once fucked a fifty-year-old.”
“Whoa! What was that like?”
“She liked me too much. So I kept her watch.”
How should he respond to that? He snatches back the photograph of his mom. But something clicks and he hands it back.
“Think about it,” he says, instinctually pushing his finger over her face, closing her eyes.
Ross hates how he brings the worst out in people. Why do they think he’s a stereotype?
Otto’s eyes sparkle. “That’s dad on the fridge, the one in the mobility access vehicle.”
“Sick little fuck.”
It comes out all in one fast breath — what Otto’s wished and never dared say.
“You’ll do it?”
The request flows like fresh ale from a clean tap.
“I’ll buy your ticket, you can fly to Colorado, rent a car, and you kill my parents and I’ll pay you when you get back. Who’ll know?”
“Whoa, dude, what makes you think I’d do a lousy thing like that? Why not a black who’ll do it for fifty bucks?”
“They’d get arrested just for being in a town like Goshen.”
“I still didn’t say a thing.”
“But your eyes said — ”
“What my eyes say and what I say are different.”
“Ross, look at all seven feet of you: You’re a natural baby killer. You can’t fuck up.” Otto laughs, as if tickled from Vienna by Freud and his work against the old taboos. It’s hysterical.
“Roll a spliff and we can talk about what I can do for you.”
Otto gathers the rum and ice and photographs of his family. He’s almost levitating in the kitchen, a rare event for a shy plump guy as aware of his body as Otto. They walk down the hall and turn into one of the two large rooms that shape the flat.
Otto retrieves the rolling tray. They sit next to one another on the leather couch near Otto’s shrine, his computer. The pillows bounce with crumbs, bits of ham and cheese and bread.
“I’ll put on a something stupid. Mighty Boosh, okay?”
“Hand those vegetables to me,” Ross says, indicating the jar next to the computer.
“Oh, yeah, sure. You roll it.” Otto twiddles his thumbs nervously after starting up the DVD. He’s excited and anxious, filled with his immaculate new idea.
Ross purposefully pulls out a Rizla. He crushes a pomegranate colored bud between his fingers.
“Tobacco,” he says, and Otto donates a pinch
Ross soon exhales a flume of smoke. He notices there are some absurd fields of color and canvas on the walls.
“Yeah,” he says. He moans. He takes another and another. There’s no need to rush, the room filling with the smell of saltpeter.
“Yo,” says Otto when he feels it’s his turn.
“Why you want to kill your parents, bro?” asks Ross, sinking into the vibe.
Otto can’t answer. He eyes are popping with smoke.
“Natural thing to want to do, of course. Why don’t you do it yourself?”
Otto reaches forward to ash. “Because they’d know. But if you do it, they won’t. I can’t be in Wyoming and Budapest at the same time.”
“Maybe I kill you, too.”
Otto chokes. Kill Otto?
Deep crags seem to spread across Ross’s face, the smoky trigger to his past. Ross points at Laurel. “They always control the chaos. That’s what makes it funny.”
“Kill them first, Ross, and then worry about me.” It feels so good to say it. So base, so basic. Otto holds the photographs in his tubby hands. “Look at them. That’s the house. It’s on a farm outside a town, right on the state line. Almost no one lives there. They don’t even have a sheriff. But don’t confuse it because those farms all look the same. You can tell its mine because of all the cedars along the drive.”
“It’s yours, huh?”
“Almost.” Otto’s voice is chilling and cold.
“You’re a farmer, that it?”
“Do I look like one?” He’s appalled. Otto Kalt, a farmer? “I’m a painter, can’t you see the art?”
Ross ignores him. “Maybe you should pick melons on a kibbutz before you decide you want to hurt your folks.”
“I don’t like cantaloupe.”
Ross clamps his hands under his armpits. He can’t take any more of Otto’s weak demeanor.
“Otto, I’d like to see America. I’ll eliminate your parents if it means so much to you. They won’t feel a thing. You pay my fee, half before, half after, plus expenses. Buy me two tickets for next week to Colorado. I want to be comfortable on that flight. And roll another. It’s not working. You might as well be called Toot.”
For Bonnie and Earl, it’s decided.
Ross walks downstairs to Immigration at Denver International Airport. He’s passed through the prerecorded whoops of Indians broadcast down the concourse. He waits in the queue, impatiently standing on one leg, then the other, leaving deep size-16 impressions in the carpet. When called, he puts his thumb on the scanner and hands over his Israeli passport.
“Son, you got another citizenship?” asks the officer, gruff, his mustache twitching, one eye on the flagged passenger in the database, the other unimpressed by the preppie ensemble stretched over Ross’s pale body, the pale yellow pullover.
“I was a Russian,” Ross replies. “But thanks to the Law of Indefinite Return, I’m now Israeli.”
“First time in America?”
“First time,” he replies, glibly.
“Take your thumb off the scanner,” instructs the officer. “An address you plan to go to?”
“I’m a tourist and go for Yellowstone. I like very much extreme sports.”
“Watch it, son. Whacking Arabs a whole lot easier than whacking grizzlies.”
Ross is glad to be free of the oblique questions. He watches for his black Adidas bag on the carousel, and once it’s retrieved, he steps into the main hall of the airport, the tepee-like roof studding the sky, the air refreshingly smoke free.
He passes Rocky Mountain News and an assortment of empty storefronts until he finds Alamo rentals. He presents his reservation at the desk.
“Good evening, sir,” says the representative, taking the clipping, like a square of confetti, from his hands.
The terminal is hushed, sound dampened by the vast tent roof that covers the area; it’s more like a mall than a terminal. His phone vibrates twice. It’s found a network.
He picks up the Alamo shuttle bus on the east side. The driver is overly friendly and wants to take his bag, but Ross’s not having any of that. Ross doesn’t like blacks.
Soon he’s in the Alamo lot and the attendant is explaining that he can’t have the automatic, no matter what the representative promised in the terminal.
“We’re out, dude,” he says in a high nasal voice.
The threat of Ross’s angry, displeased size is no trifling matter, and he’s quickly upgraded in the name of customer satisfaction.
The Mercedes coupe should be perfect. It should even handle the rough stuff. Ross’s Russian sense of extremes is starting to warm to America.
At the moment he’s about to sink into the cockpit of the silver car, he turns as an older man in is clipped by a black Suburban. He can just discern a woman talking on her phone behind the tinted windows. She doesn’t bother to stop or hang up. He nods. It’s like he’s back in good old Saint Pete, the Neva not far, mercy to the highest bidder, good and evil so entangled and powerful that it could make a man feel even superior to God.
The car’s ready, he’s ready, the plan’s ready, and the MP3s from Otto Kalt are synched into the slit of the stereo.
The man squirms on the cement, befuddled, then slowly pushes to his feet.
Ross figures he should be fine with a little grim repair.
It’s not really that much like Russia, he concludes. The bitch stopped, until she saw the man get up.
The Navaid points the way. Turning on the Ft. Collins toll road, Ross avoids the temptation of Denver, of buffalo steaks, silver jewelry, and bawdy whores. He heads northwest. He allows the coupe the speed limit.
If only he could burn one, it’d be grand.
He joins the interstate well above Denver. The Mercedes merges with the trucks and cars that will rarify at the Wyoming border.
Lights wink over the dry marsh-like plains. Night has almost fallen and a touch of purple indicates the slopes of the Rockies rising from the foothills.
He passes the bold green signs: Greeley, Ft. Collins. The traffic thins. Not too many people want to drive into the emptiest state in America. He crosses the boundary, Wyoming buffeting the car with strong gusts where there had been none before, seemingly announcing the peril into which he advances. He pulls over at Little America in Cheyenne and stretches his legs in the parking lot. He hesitates then goes in. He orders a coffee and a slice of lemon meringue pie from the Filipina waitress as if he’s always eaten this combination. Under the low lights of the restaurant and wedged into a booth, he needs to sort out his rest and relaxation. In fact, he’s whacked from the long flight. A room would be nice. But, helped by a metal box of ephedrine found near the Little America cash register, he can keep on driving, pushing through Laramie and Rawlins, wanting to get to Lander by midnight, feeling like superman on those little white speedy pills.
There is nothing on the highway, no rigs, no trucks, no cops.
He can’t appreciate the mesas and mountains, the dry beauty, but he can smell the skunk-like sagebrush and the resin of the pines when he allows in some fresh air.
Sometimes a deer twitches along the fence line, threatening to bound across the highway, its asphalt surface strangely furry in places. There hasn’t been much rain to wash away the carnage.
“God, it’s empty,” he says, glad to see it posted that Lander is a mere 112 miles away. He laughs. Israel isn’t more than 40 miles wide. “Where’s the Dead Sea? Or the Aral Sea for that matter.”
Russia’s feeling of immenseness is part of him still and he finds this desert closer to Zion than any bit of Golan or the Neva. He reflects on Saint Pete’s massive decrepit buildings, the abundance of water, the white nights, the poverty of his spirit, without possibilities, without opportunities before he came to the promised land of Israel where his skin dried under the sun, tattooed with the codex of the gulag. His soul, however, remained stubborn and sweaty, cold and cruel and refused to dry and sweeten.
The flier for the Pronghorn Lodge is on the passenger seat.
He stands in reception, his head stooped, his shoulders near the beams.
Ross leaves his name in the register but fudges a digit and a letter in the license plate number.
“Tired, mister,” says the girl behind reception. “Long day?”
“Long,” he says, his manner tired and abrupt. “Bar open around here?”
A dried up doughnut with a bite mark rests on the desk.
He dumps his gear in eighteen, walks the few blocks into town. He finds the Shoshoni past the caboose doubling as a tourism office. Surrounded by trucks, its front window is covered in neon signs.
Ross shoulders up to the bar, bumping aside a few cowboys in white hats. He orders a beer, a dark beer from a girl behind the bar, plain but attractive too, who immediately smiles at him when he pays.
“What’s that accent?” she asks him.
Billiard balls snap in the background, mixing with the whoops of boys in town from the ranches and farms and the cries of the jukebox.
He nods. Under the guise of friendliness, people ask too many questions in this country. In reality, they’re just nosy and far too smart for their own good.
“You gotta love that pale ale,” she says.
“Any fish?” He misses fish.
The girl smiles curtly. “Chef’s left. Maybe a busboy can help. Lemme ask.”
He looks around. Televisions are bolted into each corner. A dozen women are dotted at strategic points around the bar, surrounded by a scrum of men milling around in the uniform of the times, boots, jeans, and t-shirts. Memorabilia is tacked up on the walls, what’s left of the trappers, miners, cavalry, and the people they replaced. He tastes his beer and turns his head. He’s flexible, a cable.
“I’m Sonny,” she says cutely, now standing in front of the bar. “You’ll have to wait until tomorrow. Frito pie, okay?”
Ross studies the manure-like concoction. It’ll have to do. “Thanks,” he says. “Not pork?”
“All our chili’s made from beef.”
“Drink?” he asks.
“A slammer, sure. It’s that time of night.”
Being the biggest man in the bar, it’s natural that at least one woman would want him. Sonny certainly can’t resist one this big, even if it means ignoring the last fifteen minutes of her shift.
“Spicy!” he says, hooting over the din.
“Uh-huh,” she says, about to tip back her tequila. “Want one?”
He won’t answer her questions, which roll fast like rapids.
Who are you?
Where you from, really?
What’s your name?
Why you here?
What you want?
He refuses each and all. Slammers won’t loosen him up.
“Back to the Pronghorn?” Ross asks. He likes the look of her.
Sonny’s heard that proposal before. She squirms. She’s excited and he’s mysterious. Creepy, too.
“Tomorrow I’ll take you to Sinks Canyon, okay?”
“Ross,” he says, “Room 18,” hoping his name and number is enough for a kiss and all that follows.
“Scottish, aren’t you?”
“The nukes are buried in the ground here in Wyoming in case you Russians try anything,” she says, parting, dragging her fingers over his forearm, untying her apron, and vanishing into the Shoshoni kitchen.
He waits but he quickly flags. He’s jetlagged and jittery.
| | | |
Sonny knocks at his door the next morning. She’s washed off the odor of cigarettes and alcohol. She’s wearing cut-offs and a tank top with a blue sports bra underneath. A fleece is tied around her waist. Sparkly brads hold down her mild, curly dark hair that’s growing out. A summery breeze enters the room. She’s not surprised that he has pushed together the two king-size beds. He wouldn’t fit much any other way.
Ross pulls the sheet around casually. He’s far from bashful.
Static rises through Sonny’s legs. He looks delicious, ripped like a board.
“Got the climbing gear in the truck,” she says. “That fancy car yours?”
“Yeah,” he says, chinking the blinds to make sure.
“More is never enough, huh?”
“Rental, cute stuff.”
“I’m not cute.” Sonny stamps her hiking boots into the peach shag carpet.
“Quit eying me,” he says, pleased that she’s mad, moving to unzip his bag.
“Be my guest.”
He finds Sonny on the steps to the lodge. She’s helped herself to the complimentary weak coffee and stale pastries at reception, including a copy of the Gazette, the headline, “Environmentalists, industry square off over Red Desert.”
The sun seems nearer at this elevation.
“Won’t last long in those loafers, big boy,” she says. “We’re going into the Winds. Nothing sportier?”
Ross backtracks to the room and slips on his Pumas instead.
“Those won’t do either,” she says, kicking back her throat in disdain. “Got some change for some gear.”
“Color green, okay?” he asks, reaching for his roll and closing the door.
Sonny’s truck guns out of the parking lot and sputters along Lander’s main drag. There’s a rifle in the rack.
“Don’t have no nature where you’re from?”
“Hate nature,” he says, grinning.
“It’s the end of the road,” she says. “Every nobody ends up here. So what brings you to America’s gulag?”
Ross diplomatically swerves that question. “So why the gun?”
“It’s either bears, moose, snakes, or freaks. And there’s always Rawlins.”
He doesn’t have a response riding high in the cab of the truck, the tires drubbing against the road.
“Get out,” she says when they pull up to the Mercantile, the lot filled with harrows, seeders, ploughs, sprayers, four-wheelers, stock tanks, doghouses, and all the big needs of farm and ranch.
Once inside the low tin building, she guides him to the outdoor equipment.
“What size those sleds?” she asks.
She whistles to that — big hands, big feet. Big.
She selects a pair of boots and gaiters, two heavy-duty t-shirts, one pair of camouflage pants that unzip into shorts, and a puffy vest.
“Try the boots on. We can always exchange the rest.”
The boots seem okay.
“You’ll want a baseball hat if you want to look like you belong around here.” The soft plastic one with “My Daddy Made Me” screened on its visor is the nearest at hand. “And trade in that car too if you don’t want to give yourself away completely.”
He tilts his head quizzically at that. Has he let it slip?
“Surprising what can happen in Lander, huh.”
At the register Ross pays with two slick hundred-dollar bills.
“Tip money?” she asks, raising an eyebrow.
“Don’t like cards,” he says.
They avoid the racks of pop, candy, and chips on their way out the door and Ross deliberately pauses in the parking lot to appreciate Sonny’s curves.
The muffler barks at the walls of Sink’s Canyon. Pretty cabins flank the road passing through the meadows along the creek. Aspen and pines thrive in this wet high climate.
“You like fish, yeah?”
“Love fish,” he says, “Especially sprats.”
“What are those?” she says, making a face.
“Little guys, from the Gulf of Finland, smoked and made into a paste.”
“Fish should stay in the water.”
“They’re refreshing with rye bread, vodka, and a sauna.”
“Fish.” Sonny points to the stream gushing down the canyon. “Further up there’s a pool filled with trout.”
They park along the road and walk to the observation point, not before stopping to deposit some quarters in the fish food dispenser for a handful of pellets.
“See, the water emerges here,” she says.
The deep pool is busy with browns, prowling over the sandbars, dozing and plump like steaks.
The sun breaks onto Ross’s face. A cloud lingers at the edge of the caprock, its sheer surface dented by a glacier of old.
“You’re a redhead,” she says. The stubble on his chin and cheeks is almost auburn. She doesn’t remark on the deep lines carving through his face, masked yet evident, spackled with soot and wax, as if Ross is far older than she imagines.
He throws the pellets into the water and the browns scramble into action, slashing at the pellets with great gulps, flashing their bellies of silver. “They taste like chicken,” he says, chewing on a pellet.
“Kind of like Fritos, yeah?”
“You’re being sarcastic.” The complicated word comes slowly off his tongue like he’s guessing.
“Something like that, baby,” Sonny says with a spring in her voice. It’s not a question of if but when. “Wanna see the Sinks, where the water goes in?”
They return to the truck without reading the placards enumerating the mystery of the Sinks. Sonny twists on the radio. “The reception’s not so good up here in the canyon,” she says. She snaps her fingers over the steering wheel.
Ross is unsure. She’s too enthusiastic. He chooses to criticize the country music. “Sounds like mud.”
“Don’t worry. It’s Hank Senior.”
They pull into the gravel parking lot of the visitor center. A ranger beckons from inside but they don’t bother to go in.
The giant and waif disappear where the stream abruptly curves right into the cliff face, damaged and cathedral-like. Boulders and bushes are strewn around like afterthoughts.
“When the snow melts it gets pretty high,” she says, gesturing to the logs wedged in places. She finds herself locking her fingers through his.
He squeezes back.
She bites her tongue.
Can she wait?
Her legs are taut and vibrating.
His spine tingles.
Her mouth is watering with discovery.
His field of vision turns pure white. He wants to refuse her, but like this, hard and lonely, no way.
Her hands seek him.
They growl together like the water, rocks, and wilderness. His hands engulf Sonny’s head as she sucks on his God; her hands are tucked in the crease of his ass.
Ross’s a lung, blowing back against the Wyoming wind, his chest open, his back a bridge.
Sunny spits the froth into the rapids and she washes her mouth with the crisp water and brushes the sand, dots of mica and feldspar, from her knees.
He opens his arms and she enjoys his embrace, even if she suspects it’s superficial. She likes it uncomplicated anyway. His scent is almost nonexistent, yet vaguely like fish, rawhide, and straw, like straw and paper. He could be made of snow or rain.
“Now, let’s see if you can climb. This is a dead end, and up is the way out.”
| | | |
Walking’s treacherous. An early cold snap has dusted the city with snow that has melted and refrozen over a few days, glazing the streets and bringing with it icy fog, the low hills invisible, the spires of the churches grasping for a clear shot at their target: God.
Fearing the inevitable, Otto Kalt has bunkered down in the Cunt, a fond basement retreat. The owner will gladly accommodate Otto’s bender by staying open indefinitely, unhurried by Otto’s order for another pint and a coffee. Sometime that morning, Otto emerges from the Cunt to dash out for a packet of shag. But he returns to the basement, fretting about his lager, bemoaning Ross and the whole caper. He’s a mess, coated in ash and beer. He’s burned several holes in his jumper. His skin’s clammy. But his liver seems to be blessed, rinsing his blood at a steady rate of four beers per hour, Otto’s normal imbibing speed. Maybe he should have done it himself?
Ross’s number is stored in the Nokia that Otto juggles nervously in his hand like a cigarette. He’s having trouble resisting an update. But he’s been instructed: no calls. Anyway, all trans-Atlantic communications are recorded and sorted by keyword. Ross wisely has warned him: who needs to arouse the curiosity of the NSA?
Otto could at least check in on his parents, even if they’re not supporting him right now, even if he doesn’t want anything. So he dials.
“Hi, mom,” he says. “I just wanted to say hi.” His voice is high, quavers.
“Hi, honey,” she replies.
“He’s outside. Shall I call him?”
“How’s your job at the school? Are the kids nice?”
“Yeah, sure,” he says, lying.
“Ask for a raise?”
“No, not yet.”
“Make sure you do. It’s been two months. It hasn’t been too hard, now has it?”
Why is she asking him? She made it clear: they weren’t supporting him anymore. Unless it’s a bluff? He’s running low. Funding Ross hasn’t helped. When’s the fucker going to arrive? He’s probably balling some chick and having a great time. A ray of hope lights his voice.
“Do take some private lessons.”
“I’ve already got a few.” Why is it that one lie bumps into another?
“It sounds like you’re doing great, Otto.” Her tone is saccharine and adoring.
“Tell dad hi.”
“Okay, honey. Anything else?”
“I gotta go now. This call’s costing me a lot of money and I need to prep a lesson.” He slurs this last one.
“That’s my sweetheart.” She hasn’t noticed.
“We’ll talk next week.” He hopes not. He hears the doorbell chime in the background and an aggressive knock. He’s momentarily hopeful. “Who’s that?”
“It’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses. You know your father loves to read their magazine when he’s in the toilet — what’s it called?”
Bonnie roams to the farmhouse door and there on the porch are a couple, neatly dressed, a suit for the male, dress and cardigan for the female, as befits the witnesses.
“The Watchtower, mom.”
“That’s it. It’s not such a bad magazine, very informative. Sorry, honey, I have to go. Don’t forget to talk to your pastor if you have any problems! I love you.”
He ends the call and nods twice to the bartender — double vodka. The alcohol is bittersweet with the taste of his ruminations of what it will be like when there’s no one to talk to.
He must speak to Ross, implore him to hurry, for the delay is a disaster. He owes everyone to the point that he’s almost unwelcome. Unpaid tabs await him on every corner. He shouldn’t have been celebrating so prematurely, rollicking in the idea that his parents are dead and he’s the sole heir. He should have been responsible, teaching and painting, living modestly and cleanly, saving some money for a ticket home. He hasn’t even touched his paints. He hasn’t rounded up a single student. His credit cards are bloated. His friends are distant and cold. He owes property tax, income tax, and health insurance. Oh heavens, how Otto needs to pay up! What calamity will befall him if Ross doesn’t do it?
Otto knows. He won’t be able to afford to drink.
“Rise early, finish early,” says Sonny when she sits down in Ross’s car. The car stretches to greet her and sinks once she is snug inside. The interior is as tight as her black dress, flowing down to brush the wings of her black snakeskin boots.
The car swings from the Pronghorn parking lot. Ross accelerates once they pass the town limits, marked by the tranquil wooded grounds of the state mental hospital for broken cowboys. There’s a mansion, a flagpole, a circular drive.
“No speeding,” Sonny says, rubbing her hands together, scrunching her shoulders together, her breasts pushing together like balls.
He drives silently, his eyes on her, wisps of her hair kissing the window.
His body is bent and tortured, his joints pained by the vertical yoga of climbing. He couldn’t take defeat so easily on the walls and wanted to push them back into the earth that afternoon. He’s missing one fingernail and the pad of one thumb is split clumsily down the middle.
The Agie River runs with tumbling golden water and flanks fields of irrigated corn. The Rockies appear purple and desolate in the blue light.
He’s irritated. He’s been too much the gentleman. “Far?”
“Not long,” she says.
Svilar’s rests in the middle of the four blocks that describe downtown Hudson. The front is weather beaten and the lumber nailed down in strips. Ross and Sonny skirt past the two globes of the Chiclet and Hot Tamale dispensers. Ross looks again at the cigarette machine. He’d like one Camel, not a box of them. He inhales regretfully as he moves into the dark interior of the bar, low and long, a series of swiveling stools.
“How can I help ya’?” Mr. Svilar asks.
“Why, we want some steaks,” says Sonny.
“Two steaks,” Ross interjects, grinning.
“So you’ll be wanting a drink first?” He holds the fountain gun in his trembling hand, his finger moving over T for tonic. “When you work for me, Sonny? I need all the pretty gals I can get.” He leans back to laugh. “Who’s your date?”
“This is Ross,” she says. “I met him at the Shoshoni. Says he’s Russian.”
“Had some Russians here in Hudson once. Impressed that we had heating in church.”
Ross reddens, mortified by the attention.
“You like steak?” asks Svilar.
“I like fish,” he replies.
“Fish fingers on the kids’ menu. A big guy like you should try a steak. You want a drink, mister? Sonny?”
“Vodka tonic.” He’s quick.
“Same,” she says.
Old Svilar adjusts his bronco bolo tie over the collar of his tan checked shirt and proceeds with the drinks, his head nodding side to side.
“Enjoy ’em. Sonny’s a good gal.”
“Sure,” says Ross.
“Thanks, Mr. Svilar,” says Sonny, curtseying.
“Take any table you like,” he says, “Dang people from California always filling up the place.”
The décor is quaint: veneer panels, Formica counters, Naugahyde upholstery. The jukebox blurts out Johnny.
They rub glasses, elbows on the table.
Down, down, down
Into a burning ring of fire
Ring of fire
“This way,” says a waitress, hair pulled back in a greasy ponytail, moving among the tables.
They lick the sweet crushed ice from their lips, pause to admire one another before they shuttle into the aqua-walled dining room divided into booths and decorated with kitsch.
“So retro you could shoot a movie inside here,” she says. Nothing has changed too much since her last date.
The waitress brings the crudités with creamy ranch.
“Try it,” she says, not having more to say.
“How’d you get here?” he asks, tactfully not talking about himself.
“Sick of my husband,” she says. “To be honest, I don’t like men that much.”
“So what happened?”
“Nothing works out.”
“I don’t like men either.”
Murals of wild horses stampeding in the sagebrush have been painted on the slick mint-colored cinderblock. Sonny wipes her cutlery with a napkin from the metal dispenser. She loves bad boys.
He orders the 18-ounce rib-eye. And another vodka tonic.
She has the ten-ounce prime rib.
“Where’d you learn to climb like that?” he asks, navigating again.
“NOLS.” She’s proud, sure, an alum.
Is she being cryptic?
“It’s survival school — like the military but with sex, drugs, and nature.”
He did notice her strong lithe arms and he liked her deep grunts as she lifted herself up the rock.
They laugh together. It’s kind of funny. Her David to his Goliath. It’s then that they notice the gargantuan woman eating two steaks at the next table.
Sonny can’t stop herself. Why’s it clicking? Why does she always go for big killer brutes?
The meat is hot and bloody, like a slab of living red earth. The blood dribbles down his chin. It’s true, the steak’s exquisite, better than mountain goat or musk ox. There’s no need to talk. He eats one, then another.
She’s as peculiar as a bride when he carries he up the steps to room eighteen at the Pronghorn. His phone is glowing blue when he pulls it from his jacket and he throws it aside. Otto. He’s in no hurry at all.
Sonny is surprised by the silence of his body, how it seems to move without moving. The possibilities excite her.
He helps her off with her boots.
She has a tattoo over her crack and that motivates him in the dim light. Surely only prostitutes, mercenaries and thieves have tattoos.
He’s nearly bored by its ease. He could have more fun with a refusal. The dilemma lingers in his mind until she comes from the bathroom to bed. Ross can’t resist now that he’s this far along.
“It’s not nice not to say good night,” she says.
They both fail in what ensues.
She’s wooden and he’s obligatory.
Was the morning some kind of extra hi?
Maybe they shouldn’t but they do anyway.
Once he’s wrapped, he can’t believe she’s loose. The shock sends him regressing back in time to when the violence started.
She reminds him of the old woman. How he swirled around inside her!
She’s like paste. Is the slag sewn up?
Her chest jiggles around her armpits. How he chokes her like a bird. He does what he missed last time. He gags her with his hands and she shits him. The old woman deflates like an emptied cold water bottle. Of life and piss and laxatives.
“Samson was the strongest man in the times of olden,” she says, her voice like a cricket, her hands clutched in prayer, her body arranged like an inert package.
“Oh Ross,” he murmurs, “What a bad, bad boy!”
Later, he does a sort of dance as she sleeps. He ties knots in the condoms and drops them in the trash, washing himself, flecks circling around the sink, sex oily like fish.
God, we were drunk, Ross recalls. Such sick games.
He tosses his bags out the door and they flop onto the sunlight on the landing.
She’s spooning with a pillow, warm, and he leaves the door ajar.
He pays his bill in cash, takes a powdered doughnut for the ride. Who cares if it’s a space or a surface: it’s food.
He touches his sunglasses to his nose and the car sinks to the road. He feels so cool, like he’s in a cigarette commercial. The highway is littered with dried road kill that ticks in the wind driven between red rock and metal sky.
He follows Sonny’s advice. The cops are fed at this hour, so why not take it easy after a few hours and stop for a malt at the junction.
Three tubby women glare at him from the counter of the malt shop busy with flies. Why not root beer and peach? While slurping the aromatic goo on the boardwalk, he decides on a detour. He fills up on the edge of town, buys a stuffed rattlesnake as a souvenir wondering how long these strange translucent humans marooned in the desert can hang on.
Independence Rock is scuffed around the edges, franked with grass, plunked down like a medicine ball among the white wagon ruts. Ross kicks around the campsite, follows the trail of graffiti around the granite boulder, stitches running up its sides.
The wind deflects in his ears. Lonely place.
He pushes against the coarse sharp rock biting into his arms, hugs what could be the bald head of a giant snoring beneath the prairie. He wants to wrest it free, hold it aloft, bound across the sagebrush flats, the round rock’s shadow casting a ragged flame.
The car beeps open. And the doors baffle shut, the car hollow and talking like a drum. His heart and nerves roar. Yet it’s quiet. Not a sound. He strikes a match and lights a tiny stick of juniper incense. He likes souvenirs. They’re as good as friends.
He bumps on the radio: amplitude, static. He pulls his nose between his fingers. What a mask. He feels the mordant old woman somewhere in his restless thoughts and ties her in knots. The silly bitch had wanted to be his girlfriend.
Visitors are sailing erratically around the rock like jazz dolls when the coupe rises up a trail of dust on the highway.
“Space is the place,” he says, repeating a phrase of bathroom graffiti to the dried rattler coiled in the passenger seat. He tries out Otto’s care package of CDs. Aphix Twin’s acceptable but he hears the raging psychedelic horizons of the Doors out on the road.
By Casper he needs another break.
He parks at Walmart. He’s about to prop his butt against the spoiler but thinks again when he spots the bug juice. People flock inside and he’s excited, too. He’s offered a cart from a smiley employee, but not before being instructed to clean his hands with the complimentary sanitary wipes. The warehouse is its own republic with its own rules.
What does he want? Bleach. Gloves. Tape. Baling wire. Jumpsuit. Rifle. Ammo. Crowbar. He walks through the aisles piled high with deals.
The phone pulses in his pocket and Ross grabs it.
“Is this Ross?” Otto pulls on a cigarette. His jumper is tied around his waist. Tufts of body hair spill over the hem of his t-shirt. The Cunt is empty, save for a few derelicts.
“I’m at the embassy,” Ross says. The toys are larger than the kids, the clothes bigger than cows.
“Is that you?” Otto’s bewildered. What does diplomacy have to do with it?
“I have the package.”
“I see the ambassadors.”
The items of food are larger still, displayed in chilled troughs. The giant warehouse is its own republic with its own rules.
“I’ll talk to them first.”
“Dude, wait! You’re gonna talk to my folks?”
“Cool it, Otto, I’m in Walmart. Listen.”
Ross lifts his handset into the stale air, the slow drawl of Casper.
Does Ross want the four-pack of cashews, the Monterrey Jack, the tortillas? So far he has nothing in his plastic schooner.
“Quit screwing me around!” He’s had it with Ross’s codes. “Ross, are Earl and Bonnie there? You’re in Scottsbluff?”
Ross pulls the phone to his mouth. “How creepy would that be?” he says, not waiting for an answer. “No, Otto, but I’m starting to like it here in Casper.” He finds tubes of anchovy paste and buckets of pickled herring stacked in the dairy section. He’s getting warmer. Nothing fresh?
“Well, that’s great, dude. But what about the promise?” Otto motions for a shot and he quickly slams it. He should have done it himself. Ross’s unreliable.
“Sure, Otto. Having regrets? It that why you called?” He notices a cascade of ice glimmering at the back of the warehouse and he can just discern some tantalizing, leaping shapes. He slides across the cement getting there and it’s nearly a religious moment.
Banks of salmon, walls of crabs, squads of mackerel, cairns of clams.
“God no, but say goodbye to them for me, okay.” Otto stares at his pilsner, hunched into his hair and phone.
“Crowbar, okay? Or petrol? Which you want?”
“I love them. Oh please don’t make it hurt.” Arson really is a step too far.
“Any of my money left?” asks Otto. After so many pledges of fidelity and assurance, Otto hasn’t economized since the loans but he expects thriftiness from Ross. He turns on his stool and wipes away his hair and sweat. He drinks athletically, a touch of melodrama in his bearing. He has to go. But he can’t afford a ticket.
“Bye,” says Otto Kalt, “Say bye.”
Ross’s fingers shake and his eyes sparkle in excitement. “Bye, Otto.”
He points with the phone to a beautiful Alaskan sockeye, his fingers hooked and possessive, and the fishmonger places the bar of salmon on the scales.
America is a big fat distraction, a dream, and he likes procrastinating more than the prospect of the venal job ahead. Yet Ross knows what he needs, what he’ll do, and he’ll buy all he can.
Earl and Bonnie Kalt are just miles away when he lowers the nose of the car down the concrete highway.
| | | |
Ross turns off the highway at the Burlington Santa Fe rail yard. The Platte River turns slowly past dashes of the trains and dots of the oil tank farm. The car heads towards a white hill, distinct from the red ones around, stutters over a cattle grid, and passes through a gap.
The ranger waves him past. He knows the car, the decal of the Wyoming State Park Heritage Pass — 29.95.
Gone most of the day, back evenings, all week long. The big guy seems busy.
The road into the park first crosses the dam, its bottom exploding with spray, and then it peels around the canyons of the reservoir. Picnic tables occupy the points where there’s a good beach. The air is fragrant with cedars.
Ross’s camp is deep in the part and he parks in the long green grass next to his tent in the shade of a grove of cottonwoods along the lake. Spume erupts behind the wake of a water-skier turning in the bay.
“I could do that,” Ross thinks.
He unzips the tent and unfolds his camp chair and table.
He pauses to stretch. That car isn’t big enough.
Bugs rise from the water and the sky deepens in color.
Ross hunts for grasshoppers in the weeds along the shore, puts them in a can, so he’ll have some reserves. He casts with aplomb, then scratches his ear, baked and a bit flaky. The bug flip-flops, refusing to go down, walks on the water. Good bait.
He admires his Styrofoam cooler, prepares to lift the lid.
The slow deliberate drum of tires passes on the road.
The rattlesnake’s dead and uncomfortable inside. He clasps the new buck knife and lifts it onto a pine plank salvaged from the lake shore.
“Day pass?” The voice comes from his Bronco. The ranger’s badge glistens on his Stetson.
“A season pass with Wyoming State Parks is 29.95.”
“Got one.” Ross nods at the car.
“What ya’ doing with that serpent?” The ranger rubs his elbow on his door while he waits for a plausible answer. “That’s state property.”
“I was fossil hunting back in the canyon. Killed the snake with a rock.”
“Only Mexicans eat snakes, buddy.” He notices how the big guy moves too fast. His knife is adroitly skinning, gutting and cutting the rattler into fritters. That fast, the big fucker could kill plenty of snakes. “That a fancy car?”
“Don’t like snake?” Ross asks obsequiously. He pushes his shades onto his nose with his wrist.
“Just Coloradans. And Californians. Got a boat?”
“No boat.” This ranger’s a punk. How can he be so slow and curious?
“Don’t take any fossils.”
“Sure,” says Ross, shrugging. He’s hungry and he’s got rattler to fry on his Coleman.
“Shark tooth.” That surprised him, finding that out in corn brakes, when he panicked and struggled for direction, the Kalt’s farmhouse nowhere in sight.
But now he knows Bonnie comes home every day for lunch with her old man.
Night. It’s going to happen at night.
“That right? All this pretty country was ocean once. More ancient fish round Kemmerer, especially. Depends. You never know.”
The meat’s writhing, twitching with snakiness. Revolting. He’s going to have to through with it if the ranger won’t buzz off.
“Don’t trespass none. People have a habit of straying off in the state of Wyoming. Enjoy your meal.” He restarts his Bronco. More weirdoes to check on. That’s a hoot. Eating snakes. Can’t be local. What next? Raw fish?
Ross breathes easily. He tosses the skin and guts, washes the snake.
A bat drags across the sky like a wayward pen drunk on insects. He might as well as try it.
He lights a fire in the iron BBQ and waits for the embers.
He fishes in the meantime, the lake celestial. The line soon goes taut, zips through the water. He slips his fingers into the trout’s gills and stuns it against a rock. He gashes it in places and smothers it with oil and salt. He adds the serpent burgers too, then casts again. He’s also learned the trick with burned corn.
Later, pregnant with snake, corn, and trout, he listens to the coyotes joking in the night. The lights of a few boats move on the water. Naked, he wades in and swims into the stars, darting like souls on the mirror of water.
A car has parked on the beach. He listens from the shallows. Four Spanish voices. Music. Cans of beer.
He steps quickly from the lake, big and nude. “Give it to me,” he says, grinning like death.
The kids scatter. Voices hyperventilate in the dark.
Ross picks up the tin of foaming beer and drinks it. He wraps himself in a towel from camp. He turns on his lantern.
“You scared the crap out of us, gringo!” says a boy’s voice.
“Sorry. Beer’s good after a swim.”
“Got more?” The girls come like three cute buttons.
“Nope. Grilled rattler?”
“Gross!” say the girls. “Mister, we don’t eat snakes!”
“What’re your names?”
“Reba, and this is my sister, Luisa,” says one voice, stronger than the rest, pulling the two other little ghosts forward. “And this’s Karen. Billy’s driving.”
The kids faces are burnt yellow like sunflowers.
Ross towels off his arms and pulls on his shorts, then his boots. He slaps at a bug. Why not a little fun to keep his mind off the farmhouse? Ross doesn’t like creeping around at night more than anyone else. “Vodka?”
“Sure, we looove slammers.” Reba’s English is touched with the weight of long Spanish vowels.
“Just one cup.” Sometime his English is like thorny trees.
The kids are fireflies energized with a strange blue anxiety. They collect around the bottle and cup.
“Nastravya.” He toasts first, then pours. Reba goes, Karen, Billy, then Luisa. No coughs.
“Do you dream you’re smoking when you’re smoking?” asks Ross. He’s mesmerized by the Marlboro lights darting to their mouths. Smokers.
“Wanna shoot the gun?” asks Billy. He’s pulled a pistol from his droopy pants.
Ross doesn’t like guns.
“Put the cans out on the road and I’ll bang ‘em.”
He moves fast but not fast enough.
“Do it,” says Billy, alarmed by Ross’s speed. He nods the gun at his gut.
Ross backs off.
He lopes along the road. He ripples the muscles under his body. Dodging bullets is never easy. He puts down the cans, staggered in a row.
The snub-nosed sparks and the road lashes, right under Ross’s feet. He doesn’t flinch, but he’s disconcerted by the girl. She’s got another piece.
“Missed, Reba!” says Billy. He laughs and draws his. “Like this!”
Bap! Bap! Bap!
His isn’t so powerful. But it’s faster.
Reports crackle over the lake.
Ross leans into his boots, worried. He feels the cold handle of his knife in his pocket. He could put an end to this. Some force crouches within.
“Fix them cans!” Billy shouts.
Where’s that smart-ass ranger?
“Fix ’em, guapo!” The girls scream in unison.
Ross deals with the mangled cans, and the kids hold fire.
Billy nudges Reba and she takes the stance.
Reports roll down the canyons like artillery.
Ross sprints forward at the kids, zigzagging. They need to learn something.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
The road sparks and ricochets peel up the canyon like footsteps.
He’s fleet, arrives, cartwheels and roundhouses Billy’s arm, tattooed with spiders’ webs. The gun drops and pings onto the primer-coated Impala. The little girls go for it but Ross’s faster.
He figures Reba won’t shoot but she boldly points into his legs and squeezes.
Boom! The asphalt spills between his boots as Ross leaps, flipping in motion, aiming a boot at her shoulder.
“Tough little Nikita,” he thinks, smiling as he disarms her, the girl down heavily.
“Ah,” she says.
She’s a sack of spuds. Billy’s breathing like a house. Now he’s on top.
He corners the other two girls. They’ve both got some crystal on their nostrils, the little druggy punk shits. The little fuckers don’t know a thing. A can sways in the road and tinkles over.
“You wanna a BJ?” asks Luisa, trembling. “Anyway you like. Just let us go!”
It doesn’t register. His fingers are on the triggers of the guns. He could pull them here and now. He prefers better romance than this. He gestures with the guns. The Impala.
“Just like that?” asks Karen, dumb like detergent.
“We can’t drive.”
“Billy just fixed it.”
“You like Mexican food?” asks Luisa
“I like snakes,” he says.
“OK, mister. Come on, Luisa. Help me with these fools.”
They help Reba up. Billy’s out cold. Ross advises the girls to tump him in the trunk.
“Less trouble that way,” he says.
Before they scoot in front he says, “Both hands on the dash, Luisa. You too Karen. Don’t roll it into the lake.”
“Can I have my gun back? It’s my mom’s.”
“Finder’s keepers, isn’t that it, little cunt?”
“So you know the answer. I hum them into the lake.”
He smiles as it dawns on him. He’s got two more guns. Exactly what he needs. Who’s going to believe a bunch of Mexican speed freaks, that they’re not killers.
Karen strikes up the Impala and it skids forward a skip as she engages the transmission.
“Drive the road with those lights off,” he says. “The ranger’ll be coming some time soon about those shots.”
The car tinkles down the curve of darkness. It mashes a can like a frog.
He huddles in a hood afterwards, cold. He walks along the road to warm up.
He correctly expects the slow methodical drub of the tires. The irregular but persistent cast of the spotlight dazzles his eyes and makes him halt for a moment like any four-legged prey.
“All right, Mr. Colorado?” The ranger’s terse voice cuts over the rumbling engine.
“Uh-huh.” Ross’s not going to start.
“Heard some guns? Maybe your camp?”
“No guns. I like fish.”
“Sure about that, pard?”
“See anything? Maybe some fucked up Mexican kids?”
Bullshit. The air smells like brass bullets.
“Or bikers? Cause a little trouble summertime on the way to Sturgis.”
“No bikers.” Ross props his hands against the high bonnet of the truck.
“Here much longer?”
“Good fishing.” The exhaust from the Bronco smarts his eyes. Why doesn’t the idiot turn it off to chit-chat.
“Don’t go over.”
“I fish only for me. Sometimes trout, but carp for soup is very nice.”
“Shit, man, that’s junk fish. Carp! Tastes like mud!”
What a freak!
“Try the Platte, buddy. Fort Laramie got a good access point. Or go up to Lander. But there should be some bass and trout in the lake. Wyoming Game and Fish stock it.”
“Must be shy.”
“Those your Bud cans in the road?” He flicks on his high beams.
“They weren’t here tonight?” Should he use probable cause and search the man’s camp?
“Want me to pick ’em up?”
“Be a sport, will ya’.” The ranger’s command is disguised, hardly.
“Good night,” Ross says, wishing young dry balls would get the hint.
“Plenty kids got guns and the water’s a good person to shoot at. Enough ammo down there to pop all Afghanistan.”
“I bet.” Never a truer word from the ranger’s drawling mouth.
“Be seeing you,” the ranger says at last, his mustache twitching. “Might try a hike up that canyon some day. Primitive man made himself some pretty neat tools out of the quarry up there.”
“I might do that.”
“Check it out. Get yourself some snakes.”
“I will, sure. Nice country.”
The Bronco finally passes the bend near Ross’s camp, but halts for a moment, spotlights the tent and Mercedes from afar, directs a beam along the road and moves away. It’s not like he had time to hide any tracks. Then he notices the bloody knuckles. He must’ve been tougher on those poor kids than he imagined.
Call of the Unexpected
The stars dissipate in the band of purple green light. The moon, once bloody and red, now pale and dead. It’s under his stomach in his solar plexus, shining like a talisman, pulling him upward. He’s cross-legged on the shore of Guernsey Reservoir. He’s levitating, almost. His spine stretches on inhale and twists on ex. He douses himself with frosty water and feels his hair grow. His skin icy, his breath as cold as winter. The coyotes finish their howling on the cap rock. The vultures leap on the first winds of the day, rising like black curdled milk over the chasm of the reservoir. He imagines himself caged on the cliff too, nesting for a hundred days without food or water on the face of Mount Erebus, looking down from Eurasia to the tides of the Golden Horde. But it’s America he’s looking down at, free of all that Russian paranoia and pride, post-Soviet depression and anger, a gulag of dead natives and plain living folk who crept up the creeks with their sheep and seeds. How refreshing here above the crop circles and deep riverine etchings.
He moves. A staff of willow suffices for his acrobatic display, the play in its length enough for the dance of his soul. He swings and twists with movement, snake and dog. Such is his power that he feels tears, like song, welling in his head. Ross is everything he should and can be.
He grips, attacks, holds, fights on his back, sitting or blind. He’s as invincible as the wind, if not better, and there’s no better excuse for practicalities — it takes nerve to disarm another man at close quarters on the open steppe.
The sun rises like a corpuscle, dented and flushed, and he’s warm like syrup by the time he breaks camp: the sleeping bag, the tent, the thermal shower, the stove and pans, the fishing rods, and tackle box. The kids’ guns, wrapped in a series of Ziploc bags, join a large carp, thrashing and very much alive in one cooler. He plans to celebrate with spicy fish soup in the coming day.
Ross walks to the road and collects the casings ejected in the frosted grass and chucks them in the lake. Ten shots. He kicks in the fire and dumps a pail of lake water on the ashes. He discovers a plastic bag in the car. It’s printed with a cowboy logo, Talbot’s.
Did he stop there after Walmart?
He admires the crisp, folded contents: brand-new black work jeans, black roper boots, a black rodeo shirt, a black belt with a large silver buckle of a bronco. He tucks his dagger into his boot. Dressed, he feels like the old days. He takes a dead branch to scratch out his tracks.
Time to leave before the ranger kiosk is open.
The car travels like grease, easy, relaxed and silent. He gains the trunk road and then picks up the state highway east. He dampens the sun with his shades. There’s no point in suffering. A few tractors are already in the fields, determined like dragonflies.
He’s ready for breakfast thirty minutes later in Lingle. The Stagecoach Inn seems to be open, judging from the hunter-orange lettering on the door. Light filters through the slats. The white-haired server approaches the man in black with a sense of foreboding and awe. He orders the Sonny Special, with an extra hotcake. He’s taken a shine to buckwheat and bacon. But the orange juice doesn’t mix well with his toothpaste’s aftertaste.
He elbows into his meal with a copy of the local paper. It reflects the regions interests: oil, cattle and crops. He finds himself reading the hockey results, looking for goals from the players he might know. He can’t remember, and much less his old street, the cobblestones, straw, mud, horses, and soldiers. How long has it been?
His phone is dead. There’s no need to charge it, Otto Kalt being such a pest. Even so, he has it on the table. Prestige.
“Earl, you going to manage the partnership farm next year, too?”
“First year it made good money,” he says. “And I was in charge, Bonnie.”
When Ross looks up he notices them sitting across the dining room in a booth, just past the town cop and his family having breakfast. It’s a great opportunity. But he can’t just gut them here; that would be disrespectful of his traditions. Certainly, he’d have the advantage, even with the cop present. He doubts the old couple practice jujitsu or tae kwon do, certainly not with more than their tongues and wits.
“Why not ask Otto?” she asks. “He should learn the farm pays all his bills.”
“Too tricky. Bonnie, the boy doesn’t want to be here. The kid’s never satisfied. He’s yours, not mine.”
Ross signals to the server behind the low, dark, wood-paneled bar — he needs a sausage patty and another stack.
“I wish you wouldn’t put so much sugar on your food,” Bonnie says, her voice slow and languorous like a gown. “Are you having jam and hotcakes or hotcakes and jam?” Her tone is rancid and biting. She doesn’t like fat men. “Remember how much you ate on our cruise?”
Indeed, Mr. Kalt’s hotcakes are swimming, soggy isles on his plate. He loves sugar and he’s been dreaming of nonstop food in the Sea of Cortez.
Are the fuckers leaving, Ross wonders in a moment of panic. He’s planned, but not so far as knowing about the cruise. Disconcerted, he waits, watching from under his brow.
“Well, eat up, Earl. You’ll be pooped by three o’clock. I know what you’re like.”
It’s her voice he registers, shrill and high like the old woman’s. His mouthful of frothy golden cake suddenly seems unsavory. She looks a lot like Otto, the same disheveled frizz over a swollen, gouty face.
“Earl?” Bonnie asks, rhetorically, kicking her husband under the table. The cubes of ceiling and fluorescent lighting rebound with her voice.
A mural of mustangs, the herd made of leather and airbrushed a startling blue, gallops over the side of the dining room and kicks up the prairie.
The old man’s nodded off in his cold eggs. On the table Earl’s traditional breakfast slice of lemon meringue pie, for which the Stagecoach is notorious, covers his plate with its meringue-like hat.
The server turns some ten-cent gumballs out of the metal machine. They roll from red to black, as inopportune as luck.
He should be ashamed of himself. It’s going to be so easy. Otto’s a clown. A defect could do this. A child even. They’ll snap like ice.
“Earl? Are you having an infarction?”
“No, Honey,” he mumbles. “I’m just tired from my pills.”
“That’s not like you.”
“I didn’t sleep either.” Earl hasn’t spoken to his wife in forty years of marriage: he doesn’t want to interrupt.
“You’re the one who keeps me up with your tossing and turning! I’d love to move to the other bedroom.”
“Do what you like, Bonnie. You always have.” He rises from his plate. Bits of lemon curd are stuck on his chin and roughly shaved gray beard.
“Wash up and then we’ll be going.”
“Stop calling me Hon and Honey. I hate it and I ain’t all that sweet to boot. You picked that up from Sylvester, that snake.”
“I know.” Earl edges out from the booth and stands awkwardly. None of his farming and hunting buddies are having breakfast, so he need not fret about his feeble appearance. There’s no vigor in him today. He passes across the dining room hatched with light. He stops by the register for a mint and then shuffles by the kitchen into the Gents.
Earl’s hardly able to execute a pee.
And if eyes could kill, he thinks, washing his face with the overly fragrant soap, that big specter in black would be a murderer.
Hesitance isn’t what Ross expected. Sure, there’s no shame in killing a bandit or terrorist, someone identified as an enemy, but he doesn’t see the advantage in hastening an old man’s death for a cretin like Otto. From the cornfield he’s heard Earl Kalt wheezing on his farm, just coping with the garden and grounds.
He worries as the second breakfast deployed on the table, along with a new flask of some liquid resembling coffee. What’s happened to his callousness, his bloodthirsty disregard for life? Can it be the unkind and violent vastness of America has changed him? Or just the maple syrup? He doesn’t want to consider it too deeply. Superman should have no doubts. He rubs his lantern jaw. His face is tight, very tight, like a trap. He pushes the trough of food away. He pays briskly, steps on the gritty concrete sidewalk, and sits down in the ergonomic interior of the Mercedes.
The Kalts prepare to pay too. Bonnie insists on writing a check for 7.95 for the coffee and two Specials while Earl, a tad more spry now, fingers a twenty-dollar bill.
Ross watches from the coupe. He doesn’t notice the smile of Bonnie Kalt as she admires the car, the kind she’s always wanted.
Earl takes his pickup and Bonnie her Saber. They wave at one another as they depart in opposite directions and Earl moves up the hill and over the crease of the irrigation canal. He’s going out to the old Kalt ranch. Bonnie turns across the highway and heads home, but not before turning at the Kelly Bean silos and stopping for a pot of alfalfa honey from the honeyman. The shop is coated in buzzing bees, running against the windows, flying through the poor screen door. Bonnie’s thankful the man is there and it doesn’t take too long to secure a box of five-pound pots.
Ross bides his time in the car. He knows everything. He has only to wait. The coal trains and cattle trucks drone along the corridor. There’s no avoiding the fly-over states. He pops in the Best of the Doors, Jim Morrison reassuring him that parricide is okay.
Bonnie’s car pulls on the highway again and he makes a cautious u-turn. Earl’s long gone over the hills. He tags behind her, a truck ahead covering his whereabouts. Bonnie unexpectedly turns into the Rockshop along the highway. Her tires crunch over the gravel. Flakes of white paint dust the ground like grubs.
“Mother!” He curses under his breath. He’ll have to turn off and wait in someone’s drive, far too conspicuous. He might as well go on. It’s not like he doesn’t know where she lives.
“Howdy, Ray,” Bonnie says, calling into the old wooden shop. “Get any more of that agate?”
| | | |
Otto walks down the corridor of his apartment. Everything happens in the corridor.
Ranks of canvasses are stacked in the hall, the defects and incompletes. A few favorites from art school transplanted across the Atlantic have made their way onto the walls.
He almost waltzes such is his joy. The parquet creaks a bit. He stops at the fridge and carefully cracks it open and extracts a cold one with his paint-stained hands. The Pilsner is there between the Kaiser rolls and slices of baloney. He doesn’t ignore the bottle of Malibu rum in the door and has a chug for old time’s sake.
He sinks into the red vinyl of his chair when the phone rings. He doesn’t pick it up.
He reasons quite well: he’s skint and busy working, that it’s a while until he’s going to get any money, that, well, being pretty isolated and that only his friends he can thank for the period he’s enjoying right now, until they all want to see him pay them back sometime, even quite rudely at short notice, even if he’s already spent it on canvas, pork, paint and booze.
He reaches for the phone, painted hand and all. “Hello.”
The tone’s way too happy.
He’s flat, circumspect, disinterested.
No answers from Otto today. Today is all about questions, printed and painted questions that be souls or energy, he’s not sure, there in the bands of color in the studio where the light is beaming like fire.
“Bad mood, dude?”
Since losing contact with Ross, reportedly in Casper, he’s relaxed. He can trust in Ross’s fortitude, of this he’s in no doubt. So what if the guy’s phone is deader than roadkill? He can play silent too. He’s sure.
And quite unexpectedly, the arrest to his artistic activity has lifted; he’s on cruise on the autobahn of creative abandon. Where before he was all speechifying and little execution, now he’s prolific and true, emitting paintings like most people sweat. Great horrid colored strokes of absinthe and pastis, weed and speed are carefully applied to the canvases by a trembling hand stained brown with tobacco and black under the nails. The world looks nothing but brilliant tones of green and gray. Even his nudes.
Without remorse and perhaps even callously, he tosses the phone aside. There’s a pilsner calling his name.
“To you, Old Glory,” he says with a beery gasp, toasting his post-ironic 9/11 commemorative poster. “To the home country.”
No pictures of Wyoming here.
He trundles back to the studio where he’s left his smokes. The yellow pouch of American Spirit is empty of even the driest spindly dregs. He notices a roach in the ashtray in front of work in progress on the easel.
“Want to take break?” he says to Ester, nude and half-wrapped in a yellow leather skin.
“I want a drag, you brute,” she says. She presses herself upwards from the couch covered in some orange polyamide shag. Orbital’s playing gently in the background.
“I was going to,” he says, none too coolly, handing her the fusty thing, modestly trying not to gather too much of Ester’s information. He’d like to get closer but how?
His beer yo-yos down her throat.
“Finito?” she asks, complacency in her voice. She arches her back and he can’t help but notice the very banananess of her breasts.
He finds himself turning to look at her clothes, her black floss-like undergarments. It’s in an invitation, right?
If he might just suck it all in, he’d surely fit!
He’s keyed up for a moment: he should try on the black g-string. That might lighten the mood! But from raw experience he knows the inevitable. Ester, like most girls, won’t be the type to fall for a guy who’s secretly a big fat tranny. Rather than celebrate, he’ll keep to the curtain-like outfits of baggy jeans and cable-knit sweaters in earth tones as flattering as bad teeth.
“Otto?” she asks dryly, registering his blank pasty look, healthy as a corpse. She’s fearless, fuming at him like a turpentine-soaked rag.
He presses his greasy head against the dirty window. It’s difficult controlling the urge, like being a bad boy again.
In the house. Alone.
Bonnie’s out volunteering. The lipstick and cosmetics are for the taking, along with the clothes, the wardrobe open and inviting, the shirts dashed with fringe and decorated with shiny mother-of-pearl buttons for the frontier, the skirts plaid and pleated, the whites tucked neatly together in a drawer like packets of envelopes, scented like sweetgrass. How his face would burn sniffing the clothes and pulling them over his skin. And how his guilty bottom would burn with his momma’s hand later, the house a mess, his face like a horrible clown, shame biting into him like a bitter pill.
“You pick it up?” Ester asks him, interrupting his reverie.
“Huh?” It’s a long journey back from childhood’s front porch.
“Yeah, oh yeah.”
It’s ringing somewhere.
“Mr. Otto Kalt?” The voice is American and official, maybe ethnic, cold like religion.
“Otto Kalt, Esquire,” he corrects. “Ah-hah, that’s me.” He feels his own voice and pulse rising like a first cigarette of the day.
“I am speaking to Mr. Otto Kalt? Ward of Bonnie and Earl Kalt?”
“Can I help?” What a rare thing for him to say. He must be feeling powerful.
“Currently residing in Budapest, Hungary?” The voice, inflected with slowness, pronounces the country as if it could have been split in two.
“You are Mr. Otto Kalt, is that correct?”
“Esquire!” His tether is short. What’s this chump going to say? His heart beats in short, sharp jumps. Is this the call?
“We have a report and we need your confirmation — ”
“You currently owe — ”
He jams the phone away and it clatters to the floor.
The voice, disembodied, distant, continues.
“Our consumer protection agency is owed 23,439 dollars. Mr. Kalt you have accrued over 2,400 dollars in interest this quarter. We are about to start civil proceedings against your mother, Mrs. Bonnie Kalt, as cosigner on that account. We thought you’d like to know.”
He kneels down for the phone, his belly hitting his knees painfully, and it skitters away like an eel. He’s imbued with clumsy nerves. What a near miss.
Otto switches the thing off. He’s sweating and smelly. From the tone, it could have been the cops or coroner.
He lifts his head from his hands, looks at the easel, then Ester, gloating like a gorgon. He has the ingredients, certainly, but distractions are piling up against his sense of panache and concentration that would allow him to paint the vulpine Hungarian girl and maybe stand a chance with her vanity afterwards. The feel of his brush in his hand, swooping across the canvas, picking color and moving the acrylic like glue, fashioning Ester as a yolk of maudlin tinge, is not to be.
“Call it a wrap, Ester. Let’s try tomorrow. Beer?” He’s trying to be nice.
“When was the last time you got laid? Or is beer more important to you, Otto?” It’s more a quip than a question. But he’s caught off-guard. Who cares when or how he, Otto, sleeps at the temple. Is it a hint?
She stoops forward, pendulous and perfect, leaning towards her clothes, revealing a dark sash of bush.
As she does so, he wonders: are his own hairy moobs bigger than hers? One is flopping under his arm like a rat as he trundles off to the kitchen, cynically drinking an entire bottle of beer on the cold tiles before returning with a couple more.
She’s dressed by now. She accepts a Pilsner, cold and hard in her hand, and kisses him on both downy cheeks. “Thanks, Otto,” she says kindly. She struts down the hall and lets herself out with a wave, leaving Otto in a stripe of darkness between two patches of light. Who can help but be boss with such a meek moose of a man?
“What a fox,” he mumbles, knowing she’s another sister of the unattainable, good for his humiliation and bad for his confidence.
The Kalt Place
Reba’s tip, a cheese sandwich with extra jalapenos from Subway, is not sitting well with Ross.
The bowling alley echoes with the dull explosions of games in progress.
She’s having no problem devouring her sub, somehow refreshing after a night of speed and beer. Reba won’t touch the alley’s hamburgers and rightly so: they’re scarred with the dirty thumbprints of the chef.
Ross sips at his pail of Diet Coke, entirely too much ice. He looks at the girl who tried shooting him and smiles — Reba, cute little cunt.
The pins are clashing in the near acoustic distance past the bar. Bowlers cheer approval for the strikes and spares and divinely count their scores. Judging from the space-age theme of the place, they’re meant to be bowling on another planet.
“Billy gonna kill you if he see you.”
“Maybe he kill you, too,” says Ross, cooler than ever.
“Gonna give me back my momma’s gun?” Reba slurps at the soft saccharine drink, studies him with her wet Mabelline-encrusted eyes, her hair loosely piled on her brown head.
“Finders keepers, losers weepers.” He grins at the sound of the childish rhyme.
“My mamma’s a hard lady.”
“So.” He opens his sandwich. Dark green circles of jalapeno are dotted on the triangles of cheese. He discharges them onto the plastic table decorated with sugar and napkin dispensers.
“Please! She’ll be real mad!”
“Well, apologize, learn some manners.”
“It’s in that wicked car, huh?”
“What’d you do?”
“Anyone tell you, you look like Brad Pitt.” Her attempts to charm him are misplaced.
“Uh-huh. And you’re J-Lo.”
“Think?” Her voice rises with a bounce. She scrunches herself together from a slouch. She’s youthful, fanciful even, but already caving in from the diet of meth and beer. “Wanna come over? Momma’s got a double at the slaughterhouse.”
“Good with knives, huh?”
“Is she ever.”
“Well, I’m going to community college to be a stylist. Want a haircut?” Reba needs practice and skipping class has not helped.
“My head needs some attention.”
“It smells like fish.”
“I love fish,” he says, thinking of his trusty cooler and oily fish croquettes.
“And snakes,” she adds.
“Sure, them too.”
“It’s your eyes or something. Smelly. Glossy like you’re already dead. Who else would eat fish and snakes but a zombie, no?”
He shrugs off her remark in silence.
“Momma’s the same. When she worked in the hospital she knew who were the dyers. Says those cows smell the same at the slaughterhouse.”
“Where’s the beef, huh?”
“That’s all there is. Either you’re a farmer, a rancher or a nobody.”
“I bet,” he says. She’s not so dumb. Surely opportunity has missed her in a place like Torrington, just for being Hispanic. His knees bump the table.
“Hey, take me for a spin,” she says in the granite-colored parking lot. “Lemme show you the main attraction, the new prison, well, where it’s gonna be, I guess.” She lowers herself with confidence into the cockpit clogged with the detritus of the roadtrip so far: wrappers, dust, pebbles, cups.
They leave her faded orange Chrysler at the bowling alley and soon pass the Gasamat and John Deere franchise. The sweet techno music of Orbital mixes well with the barren, lonesome tableau outside town, the landscape so immense and strong that it eats its residents alive. No one here can escape the dust, drought or distances of their holiday on earth.
Cottonwoods follow the course of the Platte River; a butte shines like a plum. Its skin is dark with rock and juniper. Laramie Peak glowers on the horizon, a beacon. Clouds are blowing high and wispy in the crisp sky. The river, gathering in bows, forms part of the trail west, its creeks meeting points for men against men and the nickering of horses. This is halfway, the great American Desert, the sacred lands of the Sioux
“It’s here,” she says, pointing the survey stakes tucked into the grassy dunes, a big fat nothing, and beyond the building site, the wings that will soon open for inmates, klieg lights burning around the perimeter. “Your new home.”
“You don’t say.” He laughs a beat. Indeed, the gulag offered just about as much shelter. “Why?”
“That’s for me to know and you to find out. Turn up ahead.”
He’s having a hard time not catching sight of himself in the reflective surfaces of the car. He’s worried about those eyes. What does she mean that he smells like fish? Or was it death? What’s happening behind those two red, red orbs?
He signals and turns around in the parking lot of the boarded up topless bar at the Wyoming state line.
Is that Otto speaking in the music? What’s the fuck saying? Who’s repeating his name?
He turns it off. The low beat is his blood. The tense chiming is his mind. Everything is imbued with portent these last few hours.
Four-wheelers tear along a sandy course in the dunes by the road. A locomotive is bleating. With its single headlight, a cyclops. The crossings along the road are clattering and dipping in reaction to an oncoming coal train.
His brake lights flutter, the moment to branch off.
They bank into the crossing. The train’s already there — no chance to beat it. The track compresses and shudders with four locomotives and two hundred cars of coal. The horn bellows into the river valley. The carriages careen past. The lights flash inside the car, dashing his face with red. The interior rustles with discomfort. He cracks open the window. He’s too physical for the space of the coupe. He needs room and movement, a sanctuary. But he’s compelled by an unredeemable psychotic humor. He can feel it twitching around under his skin like worms.
Reba’s place is past the rows of trailers pegged down in the dirt.
A waist-high chain-link fence hems in the property. Ross squeezes open the gate, keeping hold of a bottle of Stolichnaya from the case in the trunk, not sure why he’s here.
Because he’s a sucker for new horizons?
Because he’s never boned a Mexican girl?
Because he’s living on borrowed time?
Following Reba, he takes the steps in two bounds, stoops through the yawning screen door and into the house. He admires the bronze shag carpet and suite of reclining furniture with the faux birch paneling.
“Want juice or somethin’ for that vodka?” Reba asks from the avocado-colored kitchen
“Tomato?” He puts the vodka on the coffee table.
“We got orange.”
“Okay, gringo.” She brings out the cocktail mixing station on a plastic tray. “Some speed for those dead eyes, no?”
“Something to psyche me up for the big night,” he says. He rubs his hands together. How did that slip out?
She gives him her best quizzical home-girl look. “What, buster?” She sets up a shiny metal tray, tipping out a pyramid of speed, chopping its pebble-like edges with an old razor. “I’m not easy just because you’re here.” She scoots forward on her thighs closer to the tray, dicing the lines.
“A screwdriver, yeah?”
The ice, vodka and juice couple together healthily in the two highball glasses.
A spine of little white lines rises like hogbacks on the tray.
“If you cut it finer, it hurts less.”
She invites him onto the avocado-colored couch, an anchor. She swoons into him, falling in his lap, spreading her hands against his thighs. Reba doesn’t need an excuse anymore.
“Meth was Hitler’s drug of choice,” she says, insisting on a bit of drug trivia.
“Death was Stalin’s,” he replies. All Russians like death.
She shrugs, reaches for the tray and sips a line up each nostril. “Rip that one in half.” The cold powder is melting and trickling down her throat like solder, its flame sparkling in her mouth.
It burns like battery acid.
His eyes water and weep. It’s bitter like aluminum foil. It’s definitely not the classy cocaine in the discos of Saint Pete.
Reba chuckles. “Us tweekers know — she’s a real bitch!”
Before he can figure what’s changed, she’s gathered together their things. “Let’s go in daddy’s camper out back. No one’ll bother us.” She gathers his hand and leads him onto the porch. Her petite hand hardly can encircle his large fingers but he follows after the squelch of the screen door. The sky flashes above, lightening somewhere. The camper is parked on a tongue of concrete. A few dogs sing around the trailer park. The air outside smells of the feedlot, ordure and panicked cattle. He enjoys being led astray by the cute delinquent, keeping his mind from dwelling on the dark deeds to come.
The young dark girl sitting next to him smells appealing. Like felt, cannabis, creamer, chilies and sex. A violent lust rises through his legs and he finds himself crossing and uncrossing his legs, simultaneously scratching at the crooks of his arms as she bends forward and lowers her nose. Her thong creeps over her buttocks as she does so and Ross finds himself reaching for it as he sips on his screwdriver. She doesn’t flinch but leans back and her mouth migrates to his. His hand plunges lower and she too reaches below the waist, under the black jeans to his pale blue flesh.
Their mouths and bodies are chemical and hot. They’re tangled together, twisted and barbed like wire and weeds. They don’t stall. They’re urgent. Bashfulness and prudery fall away thanks to the blue white crank. They rush with ferocious biting to the exchange of skin and sweat, and an artificial stamina, the multiplication that speed brings to size and experience, like legends, Frida and Leon on a hot Mexican night, enjoying again what they were purported to have done.
| | | |
The neighborhood is dormant, undisturbed by the private party behind the metal shell. A door bangs, caught by the wind, and a rhombus of light pushes over the concrete and dirt. Yellow-blue vapor pours from the camper. The air swirls with topsoil and sand. A distant streetlight sways in the distance. Ross lifts his collar to his mouth and scans the area for the car. Enraged by meth, confused by weed, he can’t locate the flashy gray car. He fumbles for the keys. Are they still with Reba and the ongoing binge in the camper? His thighs are taut. He pats around again and identifies the lump, a bug walking in his pocket.
He circles around the silent slugs of trailers and spots the car. He pushes the remote, the door unlocks pleasingly and he climbs in, brushing off the dirt from his black shirt. The wind and grit howl around the capsule and he checks himself. His lips are raw and chapped. His jaw throbs from too much sucking. Crystallized snot is frozen under his nose. His eyes are vivid with thoughts and plans. Everything seems to be moving.
Otto’s voice, disembodied and weak, broadcasts a list of what must be done.
Ross curses and admits the kid leaves a strong, insistent impression, a reverb looping instructions in his ears.
The car crawls through the grid of the small town, almost invisible in the dirty maelstrom. No lights. No movement. No people. No cops. Nothing, just squares of lawns, token trees and shrubs, flags, flamingos, empty porches.
Ross drives up the easy slope, rigorously obeying the speed limit and passing the community college. The wheel reassures his trembling hands. The route is familiar, but a blowing fog has collected here above the town, an aerosol of crusty condensation. The car banks left, then right, following the paved surface. Dead shucks of corn swarm against the road. The wind spawns and batters the car. The halogens penetrate only so far. He cracks a window, the dirt and dust furious, fine and sandy, lifted by the petulant lungs of nature.
He sputters and coughs, then stops the car, cuts the lights. Ross needs to equip himself before the dirt road, stretched like a brown tongue before him. Rows of dry beans rattle outside, shaking in their skins. Fretfully shielding his eyes from the blowing land, he pulls out a roll of burlap sacks and a roll of baling wire salvaged from the Torrington dump. The wind disobliging and uncooperative, he manages to reverse onto the burlap sacks and wire. He kneels, snips the wire and twists it together over the rough cloth. He pauses and looks into the murky darkness, the stars relentless, neither past, present nor future, as non-temporal as heaven. He can drive on now, for how long he’s not sure, time dissociated by the night’s texture. Weed. Speed. Sex. Dirt. Intent.
The wipers sweep at the clouds. He inches past the hedge and mailbox before he realizes he’s passed the Kalt house. A cottonwood stoops over the road, that’s his clue in the mesmerizing swirl of detritus blowing through the night, coating the car, the road, the plants, his mind. He cuts the engine and lights, rolls onto the drive. Leaves hop in the trees. Trees walk in the darkness. The gravel crunches softly. Tubs of marigolds and dahlias. A row of cedars. The silhouette of the peeling white house. Drifts of dirt. Little is visible of the barn or Earl’s vineyard, yet he’s sure this is the Kalt place, even if all places look alike, white, wooden, simple and unchanged by the circumstance and fate of the prairie.
Ross composes himself a moment, concentrates, silent before beginning his last journey. Only then can he rise and begin.
He wraps his feet in burlap and he binds them with tape. He dons a baklava and tapes it around his neck, after closing his shirt, and cinches a pair of thick rubber gloves on his hands, the cuffs tight. Then the goggles. Maybe because of apprehension or even a strange unacknowledged pleasure, his hands immediately start to sweat, like the Kalts near him, perspiring in their pleas that tickle his mind tonight. He reminds himself of the usurer, how she struggled and nearly killed him, how his rage savored her death so long ago, how he could justify his rule over her life, and that they, like her, were deserving. In retrospect, he should have thanked her, as surely as he will thank the Kalts for living and then dying like the others.
He’s watched Bonnie and Earl devour breakfasts with their circle of friends worried with age, he’s tagged after them to the local mall and nearly bought what they bought, he’s selected the same steaks from the grocery store and tasted what they tasted as he grills next to the reservoir; he observes, hunched in the cornfield, glassing them from the irrigation canal with his binoculars.
Ross knows Earl and Bonnie Kalt like they were his very own and he’s indebted to them for showing him how superficial and useless their lives have been. He doesn’t care that Earl regularly briefs classes of elementary pupils about his marsh. He doesn’t care about Bonnie’s work with dropouts. It all means nothing. Yet the more he watches, the more his envy and obsession grows that these innocent people are worthy of the end. His breath stutters from his throat, bitter with white catarrh. For courage he could take another bump of meth and a swig of Stoli but it’s too late for that.
Brusquely, he walks to the concrete steps. He pulls open the screen door, pushes the door behind it and enters the mudroom. No one bothers to lock here: a gun is enough of a deterrent for most troublemakers. The wind strains at the door but he’s careful to keep his grip. The sand creeps in after him. It distracts him for a moment, swirling like a serpent on the painted cement floor of the mudroom.
The imprint of nocturnal rehearsals rings through the tense physical map of his body. He tiptoes the linoleum in the kitchen, nearly trips on the rag rug, slides past the pine table, the last site of Bonnie and Earl’s negotiations about chores and the dividends from Earl’s past career in mining.
The door swings into the dining room and he stoops under the low doorway. The long oak table sings with Bonnie’s outrageous opinions with which she has deliberately skewered the Kalt’s circle of friends, stuffed on the asparagus vinaigrette, rutabaga and potato potage, and leg of lamb charred to perfection by Earl, the guests imprisoned by a torrent of her digs at Catholics, niggers, Irish, women: she said what no one else dared, even among the conservative bedrock of Goshen, and for that they were grateful.
The plants and furniture breathe back at him. Ross turns the corner into the den, the macabre walls decorated with trophies, frontier guns, horns, and arrowheads. Kerosene lamps and old maps complete the array of homesteader artifacts. Earl was quite a scavenger.
Ross takes a short breath, curls his head in anticipation, tightens his body, ready to pounce. Earl’s snores tumble down the stairs.
Unexpectedly, he feels unsure.
Rush the stairs and bedroom and dispose of them in their bed?
Retreat from the house and wait for Earl and Bonnie’s early morning steps in the yard drunk with sleep as they inspect the garden choked with sand?
The wind taps at the windows, startling him.
He studies the dark room, illuminated by the blinking clock of the VCR. His skin seems to reverse over the scratchy material of his being. How he relishes his absolute power over the vulnerable elderly couple a few feet above him, their angel-like slumber, their wet open mouths.
His foot wiggles onto the first step. He eases the next, spreading the load of his body with a long slow compression. Step-by-step, he rises to the second floor, nothing creaking, nothing giving away his vengeful presence. The mood of doom uncoils from him and slithers into Bonnie and Earl’s bedroom. The wind batters the house and the weathervane spins frantically on the roof, blown in circles by the sandy gusts.
Crouching, he loosens the pistols. He rises and walks fast now, filled with portent, pushing his giant engorged body into the bedroom. They’re stiff in bed like two dolls, tiny and mute and he comes like justice, swift and vengeful. He doesn’t bid them hello or goodbye or play with them, and before the Kalts can register their shock at their impending death in the horror of their rheumy sleep-charged eyes, much less before Earl can grab for the pistol in the closet, Ross has discharged a dozen bullets into them, feathers flying from the duvet, the sound compressing and rebounding under the eaves, the fire flashing in the dark like tongues, cordite filling the pocket of air, and then the blood gurgling like a stream, cascading over the mattress to the amber parquet.
The security light flickers in the yard, awoken by a gust of wind.
Ross’s grim psychotic laugh is a glissando of flats and sharps, blue to its pulse, yet with a note of celebration, a rush of bold rage, and far underneath, comic irony. He loves himself and his achievement, his return from the sidelines to a central role, and he starts to sing, first an untuned caterwaul, with shrieks for a chorus, that mutates into a gorilla-like dance through the house as he tears it apart, skating on his burlap and tape feet, no more than an ignoble vandal, certainly not a heightened killer, until he realizes that his job is done and he must return home no matter how much he likes Wyoming’s appetizing frontier of blood and pussy.
Ross decides to take a memento, something of clear value despite his policy to never do so. He browses through the house, but the junk on the walls doesn’t interest him. He returns upstairs and habitually gathers their watches from the dresser, maybe a pair of Movados, gifts from a lavish anniversary trip to Switzerland, the very objects that will prove to Otto that the job is done, a coward unable to wash his own dirty laundry. A junky Timex and a worn out Seiko are all he finds.
That’s when he takes his first look at the horrific faces, smeared with blood and anguish, and he jolts awake, hyperventilating.
These aren’t Bonnie and Earl!
These aren’t the right faces, agape, ajar, awry.
This isn’t the right freaking house.
The Kalts were.
Yet still are?
He stumbles, almost vomits, reels from the room, stupefied with his amateurism and his premature celebration, the failure of his preparations, his incautious disturbance of the ritual through drugs and alcohol, his pleasant sojourn living next to nature. He peels through the house, careens through the door, gasps for air in the beds of dust and sand on the lawn, issues a banshee-like wail, chokes, spits, then dives for the car, ignoring any caution and burning away from the farmhouse like any other hotrod that would accelerate down the straight shot of road, his mind reeling with thoughts of the Kalts and their deaths.
He pounds on the wheel, smashes at the console, resorts to kicking at the pedals, swerves into the ditch, dashes his head against the wheel, fishtails, and fixedly stares at the dust and sand pitching through the first bands of light, hunting for that damn Kalt farmhouse, all the white houses looking like cookies, the same, all related. He’s too jittery to continue. He broods over how he’ll get even with Reba, that little cunt, and her meth buddies until he stumbles over what seems like a logical conclusion.
His eyes watering, Ross descends through the sandstorm on the hill, aiming for the trailer park at the edge of the awakening town.