short story #5.1

Guns and Company 1
 
GUNS & COMPANY (PART I)
 
The calf had died in the snow that covered the spot, its blood visible only faintly, a spatter of light pink that glowed through the fresher flakes—Gerald almost didn’t notice. He had to squint to see anything in that light. But he’d heard the screams of the calf distinctly, and he thought he understood something now. Yesterday, he’d known only that he would leave, saying to himself as he strolled in downtown Bozeman, “Gerald Thompson, this is a marvelous day.” He hadn’t thought of the coming storm; he hadn’t thought he’d see Alice again, though she’d tripped through his mind and he’d smiled thinking about her, sitting in the fields with her, kissing her. Now she stood behind him, watching.
            The wind bustled down from the mountains at his back and burned along his ears and through his fish-checked shirt. Gerald shifted his weight. The tiptops of dead wheat stalks poked above the snow like a blonde five o’clock shadow on a pale face. He rubbed the snot out of his eyes with his knuckles and looked down and kicked the snow and kicked up the frozen blood and the fine, white hairs. It happened, he thought. It was real and not in his head. This was life, come and gone.
 
*
 
Gerald Thompson, this is a marvelous day—cold, opaque and you are the glistening ray of sunshine lighting the streets, the snow, each little crystal blinding each little passerby. Gerald, my boy, you are a fine, no, a superb specimen of a human being. He stopped in front of the glass of the Leaf & Bean and admired his reflection through the lenses of aviator sunglasses. He was dressed in corduroys and a suede trench coat that he thought of as a nice piece of cow. The outfit was topped with a felt fedora, the front brim of which he’d folded down in Humphrey Bogart fashion. All had come second hand, given him by his father, excepting the sunglasses, the material find of his life that had been waiting just for him, he fancied, half buried in early August under the trash and napweed that lined the side of State Highway 93. Napweed was a green gaunt and wiry noxious plant that sent roots down as far its two-foot stocks and grew lavender buds that overnight would bloom and turn to seed and spread in the wind. He remembered working along that highway, digging in the gravel with pry bars and picking up cigarette butts and bottles and pounding the blue steel rod through the earth over and again with all his back and arms to get the plants out by the root. And he had looked beneath one of the fallen purple flowers and seen the gold-rimmed sunglasses through the dust. It was the same spot he’d blown a fan belt and hitched a ride to town with two high school girls in low-cut tube-tops. “They’re sluts, man,” Jack had said. Jack was three years younger than himself. “You want nothin’ to do with ‘em.” Gerald had grinned and told Jack he was too conservative and with a hop had pulled himself into the front cab of the truck.
            The sunglasses took up most of Gerald’s face. He adjusted his hat a turn and walked into the Leaf & Bean, the coffee shop that still, three years out of high school, he found himself coming back to. He ordered hot-spiced cider, which just tasted like sugar. No one went there for the quality of the drinks. They went to talk and escape the cold of winter during the day, before the bars opened. And high school kids went year-round because they couldn’t go anywhere else. He felt suddenly old looking at all of the young faces, only a handful of whom he knew. He used to know them all. It alienated him until he sat down with his cousin Will at a fake marble-top table and began to focus on conversation. 
            “You mean it?” Will was asking. “If you really mean it, you’re leaving.”
            “I’m on the skedaddle. As surely as the day is short.” Gerald sipped his cider, realizing he should have brought some Scotch to spike it. Will was nursing a cappuccino. Gerald felt along the corrugations of his corduroy pants, so soft; he wondered if they looked as soft. “Bozeman’s just a big suburb—it’s thirty thousand white people watching sitcoms. I gotta get.”
            “Yes, but you know it’s arbitrary to care that it’s suburban. I like it here. Even you like it here.”
            Gerald sank into his plush armchair and dropped his eyes and watched the steam from Will’s coffee dance and fade into the air. Beautiful, he thought. “It’s nauseating to me now,” he said. “It’s such a censored kind of bantering monotone—all the same and nobody with anything to say. To really say. We talk back and forth because it’s no good saying nothing so we all just talk about nothing instead. It’s like there’s nothing risked, so what’s here to gain?”
            Will’s face was deep in the shadow cast from the hair that struggled up like a blazing black flame from his scalp. He rapped his fingertips on the saucer, absent-mindedly wiping up little coffee stains, blinking his brown and gold eyes—they almost glow in the shadow of his face, Gerald thought.
            “I wish I didn’t have to go,” Gerald said. “But I’m making jackshit that’s any good here. My paintings are boringer than the city.”
            “You’re coming to Meghan’s New Year’s tonight?”
            “I didn’t plan to.”
            Will looked down at his cappuccino—it was empty and Gerald knew this, and he watched Will sitting so stark against his wooden chair that didn’t seem to hold him quite right. A picturesque image insofar as they looked perfectly out of place together—odd how picturesque changed over the years from what did look right to finding beauty in what did not, Gerald thought; he didn’t like to see Will look down, but, he thought, there was beauty.
“I should paint you like that,” Gerald said, “you’re perfectly misplaced.”
            “Sure,” Will said. “But come to the party.”  
            “If you’re going, I wouldn’t miss it.”
 
Another December thirty-one and no girl, no resolutions, no decision, no direction. La di da to that. Gerald stood facing his dorm’s head-to-toe warped dressing mirror that made him look stocky. Tough. His dorm room was small and bland and naked now and somehow prettier without all his old paintings hanging from tacks and tape. He spent little physical time in the room, purely to sleep. The paintings had been embarrassments, anyhow, proof that his old standards of art fell low of the mark. Maybe Florida would hold the answer. He’d packed: his paintings rolled in and around shipping tubes, his father’s canvas duffle bags jammed with clothes, two boxes filled with books, and all in his car. He hated the room and hated the linoleum-tiled floor, soft in the mornings beneath his feet with the fuzz of dust and cold. He frowned at the mirror—navy dress pants and a deeper, near black fish shirt patterned with salmon, crappy, bass, trout, and sunfish, over-worn and beginning to fade, only a hint of whimsy remaining from what had once been outlandish. This was goodbye. He placed the fedora lightly on his hair, pulled on his suede coat, and thrust his fists deep into the pockets, fingers finding old tissues balled and disintegrating. He pulled these out and tossed them on the floor and turned, catching himself in profile. “An Adonis of a bumpkin,” he said, and he left.
            Snow drifted through the light thrown off by the metal halide bulbs over the parking lot, the streetlamp poles hanging bright and gray, splitting and curving in opposite directions at the tops, like the frozen necks of great dead swans, he thought. He hated them, hated the parking lot: All so ugly. Not even so ugly. Just so damned boring. Too nice, too well kept. No razor wire, no stench of piss, no needles. Disgustingly safe. Only his imagination could produce a moment of apprehension, but he had come to view even imagination cynically. In elementary school, they teach you to use your imagination so that you can get through the goddamned boring and bland hell they raise you in without complaint, without going out of your mind because of how disturbingly mundane it all is, and lifeless—everyone running scared, living in the drama in their heads because they have no real dramas in their lives. Gerald was young enough that he found such notions terribly poignant but astute enough that he understood his own tendencies. “Hard for me too to keep the goddamned drama out of my own head,” he said. “Screw it.” He pulled the suede coat off and folded it up inside out and tucked it under his arm and walked out in the snow to his car. The steering wheel was frigid to the touch and he cursed himself for packing his gloves in his duffle bag. 
 
Will stood outside his own dormitory, waiting, as Gerald drove up.
            “You don’t look well,” Gerald said. Will was annoyed. Terribly dressed, too, Gerald observed. It was like he had never seen colors outside of black and khaki. Stubborn in a naïve kind of way. “You ever gonna spiff up for any goddamned thing? It’s fucking New Year’s.”        
            Will considered. “I don’t know,” he said. “I see you packed.”
            “Yeah.”
            “How do I get back?”
            “I’ll drive you,” Gerald said, “if you don’t end up staying, you know.” The qualification seemed unnecessary.
            “I’m not getting back with Meghan,” Will said.
            “No,” Gerald laughed, “never.”
            “Fuck you.”
            “Nothing like revisiting old horrors.” He regretted saying that. He loved Will.
            “Jesus Christ. Don’t turn your goddamned patronizing act on me—your intellectual superiority insecurity complex, like I’m one of them that you can observe and fucking know.”        
            “Ah, fuck it, man. I know you’re not one of them,” Gerald said. “No one really is.” He wanted to say, “Let’s drop it,” but didn’t let himself. He knew people who said that and it annoyed him; he liked to argue things out until both parties were equally alienated or somewhat reconciled. He’d always hated when people would just shut up and say nothing. That’s what’s patronizing, he thought, the idea that they know better than you and are too good to tell you, or that you’re too stupid to understand. Of course, it’s true enough that most arguments don’t end well, but fuck—fuck it; he was bored with it.
            Will looked out the windshield, watching the snow and lit-up billboards pass as they left town, left Bozeman and headed into the Madison Valley that stretched out great and black before them in the dusk. “We’re all conceited,” he said.
            Gerald looked at him a moment and grinned. “No,” he said, “you and I aren’t rich enough to really be conceited. I think the best we can do is pretentious.”
           
Gerald had driven up the canyon so many times—not to Meghan’s so much, like Will, though enough times to know how to get there, but really he used to come up—they all did—to hike, to fish, to drink, to work. He remembered driving with Jack once with a bottle of red wine they’d found dusty but unopened in the work shed. They’d gotten ripped out near Pioneer Campground, laying on the grass beside the river in the sun—it was beautiful, then, so hot, and he could smell the grasses and pines, and Jack had brought a pack of cloves, and they had smoked and drank and Jack had said, “It’s a hell of a life.” Sure it is. “All we need is a couple girls.” We’d fuck it up. “Whatever happened with those chicks in the car?” Like I’d tell you, man, you’re too young. “Ah fuck that. I bet you didn’t do nothin’ with ‘em—best for you, anyhow.” I wasn’t that lucky. How are they, anyway? “I don’t really know—they’re older’n me—guess they’re still workin’ out the ranch their uncle owns, but I don’t know.” They were nice girls, and Alice was damned cute. “Both ‘er pretty hot. Sluts, though. My older brother—” Fuck it man, you still hung up on that shit? “Ah, I don’t know.” They’d walked the couple miles back to the truck to sober up, and there were some kids bridge jumping or waiting to start bridge jumping or perhaps just finishing up and anyhow sitting on the rails. Jack had known the biggest of them.
            “William,” Gerald said, “did I ever tell you about when Jack punched that Wilkins kid?”
            “No.”
            “So we’re walking back the road at this bridge, the one just after Pioneer Campground, and Jack sees this big kid, blond guy with a crew cut, wearing one of those long striped swimsuits all the high school guys wear, and his chest is sunburned and he’s with this other guy who was just there, I think, and a girl he’s trying to show off to or something and he’s chewing a big wad. Name was Jonathon Wilkins. I didn’t know who he was then, though, and he spits a wad in front of Jack and says to him, ‘Say hi to your brother for me,’ and he laughs—Jack’s brother’s in prison for making meth, stupid kid, but Jack’s touchy about it—and Jack, three years younger than this guy, stops, and he looks at me, and he says to me, ‘You know Alice and Christy?’ Yep. And he walks up to this guy, just sitting on the railing, and says, ‘My brother says your sisters give good head,’ and punches him in the face and the Wilkins kid falls back off the bridge, and Jack and I walk over and look over the railing and his face is bleeding—he’s ok, and Jack spits at him, and we drive off and he’s all climbing back up the bank cussing and saying he’s gonna get Jack and shit like that.”
            “Crazy.”
            “You remember those girls I told you I got a ride with?”
            “Yeah.”
            “Yeah, they were too young, then. Cute girls, though.” 
            “Like that stopped you.”
            Gerald laughed. “Well, I kissed Alice, anyway.”
            “I don’t see you’ve gotta go, really—go back working summers on the ranch.”
            “I don’t know,” Gerald said. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen Jack for a while now. Winston would hire me back, but—I’ve been here too long. I gotta leave Bozeman. I mean, it’s not like you just coming to school here—I’ve lived here, what twenty-two years. I’m done, man. Fuck this place. The art department sucks anyway.”
            “Graphic design’s good.”
            “And fuck graphic design, man. That’s advertising. That’s selling yourself.”
            They drove on in mutual ease and silence. The snow no longer fell so much as it came swooshing up and from the sides with the gusts of the wind, mesmerizing sworls in the headlights. Beyond the snow lay the road and beyond the road the pines that all broke up in shades of black. Gerald blinked with a conscious effort to see the snow and the road and the trees and understand them—to legitimize them to himself as a reality, concrete and tangible, and he strained all of his attentions and touches and memories—he knew them, almost, but still they passed, images flitting effortlessly, two-dimensionally by—and he could not get there—it was all a film. It was something Alice had said to him. They were sitting just off the road at dusk—his car had been towed and Alice had offered to drive him home—and he was smoking a joint with her and twisting stems of wheat in his fingers and running his fingers up the shafts, pulling all the seeds of wheat into a bunch at his thumb and forefinger and blowing them away to the ground, and Alice had said, “No one knows it—no one knows this.” She picked at the dirt and wheat and leaned against Gerald’s chest. “Everyone sees it and goes on and no one tries to see it and feel it.” And she’d kissed the tip of his nose. But he could not get at that memory—it slipped away quickly—he wanted to stop and walk out to the trees and touch the bark; he blinked and drove on and he had the feeling that he had lost touch with anything truly alive, that he had entered into a sort of limbo and was moving toward hell.
 
– end Part I
 
– Lionel Harrington
 
 
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