GUNS & COMPANY (PART II) (to read Part I, click here)
Meghan met them at the door of the cabin. “Well, goodness me,” she said. “The Thompson cousins.” Her hair was a dyed golden blonde and she was dressed in heels and a miniskirt, both black, her V-neck shirt dropping well into her cleavage and accentuated by a gold chain with a cross. No doubt the best advertisement for Christianity, Gerald mused. The gaudy image both attracted and repulsed him. She said, “And Gerald, looking so ridiculous and dashing.”
“Yes, like one of Rembrandt’s fantasy portraits, he said. “Duchess”—he thought the title suited her—“you look like a cheap silkscreen.”
“None of us care, Gerald.” She frowned at Will with raised eyebrows that seemed to say Why did you bring this idiot to my party? then dropped her face behind the door, straightened herself, and opened it. “You’re always welcome, Will, you know that. I would be bored without you.”
The cabin was something of a log mansion—Meghan’s folks’ summer home, actually, and since she was going to school in Bozeman she used it all year for hosting parties. Will and Gerald had permanent places: Will because Meghan loved or hated him, both probably, and Gerald because she found him interesting; also he’d introduced them, if reluctantly—Meghan had been in a painting class with him and her paintings were terrible, but then so were his own. She and Will had been having grand and hopeless affairs ever since.
And so nother party at Meghan’s Wonderland, as Gerald deemed it, is upon me.
The parties weren’t so novel anymore and Gerald usually made it a point not to attend unless he knew he’d be able to talk with Will or even Miss Meghan back when he first knew her and was attracted to her himself. This would be the last one. The guests were already milling about, munching hors d’oeuvres. Like slugs in a garden. Two crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, highlighting the lead crystal glasses, the Champagne, the gleaming caviar; lighting the moisture on Meghan’s lips as she asked Will for a massage. “Tell her you’d rather vomit in her shirt,” Gerald suggested, but his cousin’s nerve had already wilted and he promptly excused himself to pursue some “nice anti-social observation.” His favorite game, when it came to this, was to plop himself, shrimp and caviar in hand, amongst several groups and take in the multiple conversations at once, or at least piece them together in a single continuum. Gerald knew it was hollow but went to work. The trick was to switch attention from one to the other on transition words, and so he began: Yeah, I can’t believe she gave you a C, Rachel, I mean it’s like dollar is just shit to the bitch is, like, completely just back from London—it’s like twice as much there to get your grade changed—Yeah, my parents said that beer is so fucking good and my parents are but, dude, they are hot. They walk around in nothing, man besides totally A quality paper. Gerald knew everyone and they knew him. He wondered if his presence unnerved them. He stared when they glanced. Still, the whole situation disgusted him, and he felt lousy for playing his game.
Will and Meghan had left, to the boudoir, Gerald imagined. He didn’t want to imagine them in the boudoir, however, and he needed to scoot. He called them on Meghan’s cell phone from her own house phone until she picked-up. He said to her he was leaving and to be a good hostess and come and wish him farewell, and to bring his cousin when she did. And so they came.
“Goodbye,” Meghan said.
Gerald tipped his hat. “Goodbye, darling,” he said. He turned to Will, “It’s ok if I leave now?”
“It’s not even midnight,” Will said
“I’d rather not be here when it is,” Gerald said. “No one to kiss. You know, you should come with me. Leave this rot and leave the Duchess. I’ll drive you to Bozeman and you can pack.” Gerald looked into Will’s eyes and Will stared back and for a moment Gerald hoped, and he said, “and we’ll go.” But dropping his eyes and bowing his head, Will broke, and broke between them. Gerald tossed his arms around his cousin and pounded his back. “Good luck, then,” he said. “Goodbye.” He hurried out into the night and the snow.
Gerald headed south on State Highway 93, trying to get out of Montana to Idaho. His hope was to reach Boise by morning and maybe keep on clear to Texas then hook east into the Deep South. He’d never been to the South and it seemed an excellent place to escape the suburbs, to find something real and vital still beating, something sad and beautiful still lingering. He was taken with a romantic vision of a heat that roiled his mind and blood, and of women in sheer dresses and children in overalls. And all of the colors—the Black, Hispanics, Asians, and every other ethnicity he’d never seen, cultures he’d never glimpsed. Montana was so limited. How could you understand life here? How could you understand art?
The snow stopped him. It came in great white gusts that tore into his vision and obliterated his fantasies along with the night, the road, and the markers along it. Even with his headlights dimmed, he couldn’t see. In the hollow of the Madison Valley, the wind twisted and pounded his ’88 Honda. You’re being so stupid. His eyes ran in fear along the tops of the white crosses cropping up beside the road. He envisioned the car catching an edge of ice and shooting and rolling off the shoulder and into barbed wire. An old farmer would drive past in the first light of the New Year and see the overturned sedan, the windows shattered, and Gerald crushed inside with the braided metal strands gashing his flesh. His fish shirt, his favorite shirt, would be torn and bloodied so that he could not wear it in the casket, and finally, at the funeral, Will would only think he was a goddamned fool. He would be missed briefly and forgotten—he had accomplished nothing of importance in life, had not even really lived, so he wouldn’t much matter.
He pulled over when he saw the neon lights for a bar called Sweet Street that glowed as if in a dream, as if suspended in the night and snow.
The name did not fit—Sweet Street served no pastries, chocolates, or desserts of any kind. It served alcohol, so far as he could see, and Gerald thought it irresponsible, watching the drunks leave—because this was a bar only accessible by car. That’s what Montana was, though, and self-consciously he considered that maybe he sought just this—but no, boozing and driving was as much a middle class, suburbanite problem as a country standard. The bartendress—he liked the sound of the word and smiled to himself—was a middle-aged woman who wore no makeup and looked strangely beautiful but for the wrinkles in her wind-burned face. He wondered how old—maybe only thirty-five, he thought. When he met her eyes, he felt compelled to order or look away, his courage weak from the storm and from staring at her destroyed skin. He asked for coffee and she pointed him to a vending machine by the entrance of the bar, crowded in by a coat rack, a pool-cue rack, and a picture of a man in a blaze-orange hat holding up the head of a buck mule deer and grinning. Three nice racks, and not one belonging to a woman. Regardless, the vending machine coffee did not look appealing. He asked how long the bar would stay open.
“Till there’s no business,” she said. “All night if there is.”
Gerald felt good about his chances—he’d drink and wait out the storm and drive back to Ennis and pass out in the local library pretending to read a book and then drive on again in the day. The idea was just cheap enough. And it’s New Year’s, he told himself, and I’m too sober. He ordered a Maker’s Mark straight up with a glass of water on the side. Going to the South, he figured it time to start an appreciation for bourbon. The was didn’t ask for ID—Gerald was disappointed—he’d never been carded since he turned twenty-one over a year earlier and he felt the odds going down every day. He liked the whiskey and sipped it and let his eyes wander about the bar and noticed it was too bright, with a sort of diner quality to the lighting. Yes, people could see each other too clearly—every wrinkle and mole and scar, every point in every eyebrow where a hair had not been plucked, where zits erupted, and even the faint fuzz on upper lips. Everything that a bar was supposed to hide, that alcohol was supposed to hide, they failed to hide here. On the other hand, showing off flaws was more honest and he figured somewhat admirable.
The intermittent opening door and accompanying touches of cold kept off the whiskey and kept him awake and conscious. The cold had an immediacy to it like hunger and pain, which would let up only in anticipation of death—it kissed the back of his neck, his fingers.
His eyes came to rest on two women at a table across the way. The nearest to him was facing away, showing only the back of an auburn head of hair on slight shoulders. She wore a bright red shirt. Red had recently become his favorite color. He preferred green in the past but now it seemed too naturally ubiquitous—nothing was dangerous about green. The other girl, whose face he could see, was attractive and not so intriguing—her features were unremarkable, her shirt cold and white, and straight blond strands framed her rouged cheeks and bright red lips. The two were talking with animation, and he found them pleasing to watch through the smoke of the room.
“It’s not that hard.”
Gerald turned. He felt a strain in his neck, a knot wrenching at his shoulders just under the blades, twisting and running deep between his buttocks and neck, pulling taught his sinews, pulling with a pain that strained his eyes.
“Talk to ‘em,” said the barkeep.
Gerald wanted to say something but didn’t know what—and he felt at that moment he could see her weathered skin so clearly, with a purity of consciousness, and he could the gray bar and even himself, as if he were looking down upon them both after death.
“I know them,” he said.
“Then talk to them.”
He rose and said to no one particularly, or even himself, as if going over a fact in his head, “I will talk to them, then,” and he adjusted his shirt and felt the smoke and lights burn his eyes and crossed the room with a deal of self-conscious stepping, finding his way nonetheless to the side of their table. He smiled at the face of the girl in red—he still thought of people his own age as boys and girls; it seemed to him there were really very few people mature enough to be labeled men or women, and sometimes he thought of maturity as a haven for death, and so he preferred boys and girls, or guys and gals if he was in a colloquial mood. He said, “Hello Alice. Hello Christy.”
“Gerald Thompson,” Alice said. She was drinking vending-machine coffee—they both were and Gerald felt himself flush for having scorned it earlier.
“I couldn’t help noticing your shirt, you know—I had to see the girl in the bright red shirt.”
“Really?” Alice said. “But what are you doing here? It’s New Years.”
“I was leaving,” he said. “Going south, trying to get to Boise. I’m moving to Louisiana. Or Florida. I haven’t decided.”
“Leaving us poor souls to ourselves in Montana?” Christy asked.
“I just needed to leave Bozeman, you know. I have to get out. Then I’m trying to drive in my little Honda, same car that blew the fan belt, and screw it in this storm, so here I am.”
“Sit down,” Alice said.
“Yes,” said Christy, “and you look as if you need a drink.” She called, “Mandy, this darling boy needs a drink—tea, I should think—you look dazed—please, Mandy, a cup of jasmine tea.”
“Pretty word, jasmine,” Gerald said.
“Yes, but that doesn’t matter, does it?” said Alice. “It’s about how it tastes and smells.”
“Yes,” Christy said, “and it smells wonderful.” She called, “Mandy, bring three cups!”
“I’m so glad,” Alice said. “Now we can have a tea party and celebrate the New Year properly.”
“Oh we can,” Christy said.
The tea came on a silver tray with three clear glasses and a tarnished silver pot of boiling water. In the sheen of the metal, Gerald could see Mandy’s gray eyes, hollow and magical, looking at his own. He wondered at the strange course the night had taken—the world had become unreal and he didn’t understand.
In each glass was a bulb wound with string at the ends—Mandy poured the water and the water took on a green tint as each bulb opened with hundreds of little petals, the string unwinding and the little flowers unfolding like glorious bursting suns drawn in calligraphic line, as if designed by Alfons Mucha. Mucha’s work is only design, Gerald thought, beautiful and contrived. He watched Alice bend over her cup and touch the water with a little pewter spoon: the green saturated the water and she smelled the perfume of the tea and sat back in her chair and blinked slowly.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” she asked.
“It is,” Gerald said. “I’ve never seen a tea like this.”
“It tastes delicious, too,” Christy said. “It’s like a drug. Alice and I don’t let ourselves get it too often. Only on occasions. And this is an occasion.”
“We grew up here,” Alice said. “We’ve known Mandy Hutter a long time.”
“I saw her talking to you at the bar, only I didn’t recognize you,” Christy said. “She must like you.”
“Don’t play with Alice’s head, now, Gerald. We all know you came to see her.” Christy’s words were teasing and cross. “It’s just that Mandy must think you’re okay.”
“She’d of told you we were both taken if she didn’t,” Alice said. She touched Gerald’s fingers with her own. She was not classically beautiful but he found her striking—her eyes were so soft, he thought, her face hard yet full and healthy, her round cheeks dimpled in smile. She said, “You silly boy—you’re forgetting all about your tea.”
“Yes, yes,” Christy said. “Drink up while it’s hot.”
Gerald did and they did not stay on long when the tea had finished. He was happy with the tea and with Sweet Street and Mandy Hutter, too, and with Christy and with Alice, particularly. The girls seemed to understand each other without speaking. But then they were sisters. Will was as close to a sibling as he’d ever had. He hated leaving, but the girls stood in unison and he followed. He thought he saw Ms. Hutter watching from behind the bar counter with the glass mugs and cups and taps and silver trays. He thought she looked at him pitiably, but he couldn’t say for sure.
Outside, Christy said, “Gerald, walking about in this weather with no coat and no hat and only a fish shirt—”
“Is fairly stupid,” Alice said.
Gerald looked at his little Honda. “I hope this isn’t the point where I have to say goodnight,” he said. He realized he had not been invited any further. They had only asked if he would not also be leaving.
“Of course not,” Christy said. “We wouldn’t let you go along all by yourself—follow us to the ranch—I don’t even think we can let him drive, can we, Alice?”
“We certainly can’t.”
“Gerald, you shouldn’t have been drinking, but oh do let me drive your car,” Christy said. “You can ride up in the truck with Alice. I love little cars.”
Gerald fairly had no idea what to say to anything and walked along following Alice to the truck in compliance. He remembered hopping into the cab before and he tried again but slipped on the ice and only caught himself on the handle inside the door and pulled himself in and Alice laughed at him and pulled his face to hers and kissed him greedily. Then they drove out through the snow, following the red little taillights of Gerald’s Honda like eager children led on by two candy red cinnamon hots, going north along the highway then east into the foothills and ranchland of the Madison Range on a gravel road caked with snow. The faintest glints of light silhouetted the slopes of the mountains—this must be the reflected light from the moon, though Gerald couldn’t see the moon.
“They’re amazing, aren’t they?” Alice asked.
“Yes,” Gerald said, “Jack and I used to hike up Gold Creek after work.”
“I shot an elk in Gold Creek this winter—in a big timber flat on the far side of the Sphinx. It was beautiful and so lonesome and quiet—no one goes there. Gerald, this is country. And you can’t find country lacking. I don’t know how you can grow up here and not know that but none of you Bozeman kids do and you even worked here.” Her voice was sad and accusatory and far away from him. “Bozeman is such a lot of hell.”
“That’s why I’m leaving it.”
“You’re leaving this,” she said. “You don’t even know it—and you live in your goddamn head and you ignore it and you ignore me.”
“I’m not ignoring you.”
“Why didn’t I see you again after that day? Why did you disappear?”
“I don’t know. That was three years ago—you were sixteen.”
“So now I’m older and you follow me like a stupid lamb and I’m supposed to love you because you dress like an idiot and you’re an artist and kissed me once and you know I like you. But maybe you’re just pathetic. Maybe you listen to Jack, that ignorant shit who calls me a slut. Says I blew his brother. Fuck him and fuck you.” Alice slowed the truck, and in the glare cast by the snow and headlights, Gerald could see her crying. “I’m going to kill him, Gerald. I should kill Jack. I’m sorry, I know you don’t understand it—but I get hell for it. From everyone—we know each other here—we all know everything and every rumor and every hell.”
“I didn’t know,” he said. He didn’t know what to say that was right. He liked Jack.
“Yes,” Alice tried to laugh. “Well, you’re lucky I’m a tough girl, really—and all this shit is almost over.”
She laughed nervously and drove on, and Gerald looked at her with some bewilderment and felt his stomach begin to turn.
– end Part II
– to read Part I, click here– Lionel Harrington