Two of Staves

Image “Bucking the Tiger” from http://www.shortbranchmercantile.com/

That first night was ok. We got a room, and Will went to meet Craig for a couple rounds at the casino. Nothing to Lose with Martin Lawrence and Tim Robbins was on TV, and I thought about applying to the University of Reno.

The next day we were due at Craig’s homestead. Will had worked with Craig in Atlanta building signs before, but Craig was from out west. He was renting what I would call a ranch in Sparks. There was a long dirt driveway with a ranch-style house at the end and a cow in a big corral being fattened for slaughter. The property looked out on the empty hills, which were dusted with sagebrush.

“Howdy,” Craig said when we pulled up. He was a giant, about 6’ 5” and 230 lbs. He was wearing an actual cowboy hat and a had a broad smile beneath his moustache. His wife, Sheri, came out with her drink. She was a pretty woman with hair dyed black, an airline stewardess who worked part-time serving cocktails at the Atlantis. She didn’t say much.

After we brought the cat and our overnight stuff in, we talked through the rest of the afternoon, although his wife spent a lot of time inside. Craig told us how they got married of a sudden, then she and him and his brother got drunk and he ended up spending his honeymoon night in jail. Will wanted to hang out with Craig at another casino, of course, so they left me with the wife.

“Show her your paintings, hon,” Craig said. He must have got wind that I liked such things. So they took off in Craig’s pickup, Ole Blue, the standard faded pickup with an Indian blanket over the seats.

She turned on the TV and brought me a glass of white wine. She showed the paintings, well enough done ocean landscapes with dolphins and such. We sipped our wine. She refilled hers a few times. There was nothing to say.

“I heard you like books.”

She brought out a book with a faded green retro cover, some kind of sex book.

“I’ve got some stuff to do in my bedroom,” she said.

“Ok.”

She refilled her glass again and disappeared down the hallway. I flipped through the book. For a book that was prudish enough to suggest on the first page that physical intimacy should be between a man and woman only, it sure had some weird shit in there, stuff I had never heard of or would even dream of doing, like sticking a hairpin in your urethra, which sounded pretty unsanitary. I put the book down.

She made up beds for us on the sofas and said she was going to bed. I got the feeling she didn’t like me much, or just didn’t want us there.

“Is it alright if I take a shower?”

“Help yourself,” she said.

The boys came in while I was in the shower, because there was Will poking and prodding me through the curtain. At first I though he was in his funny, flirty mood, but that ended real quick with him jabbing and calling me some nasty shit I don’t remember. I dried off. He followed me to the living room with his mouth. I turned off the lights and curled up on the couch. He sat down on the edge and kept on.

“Go to sleep, Will.”

He wouldn’t. When he couldn’t get a rise out of me, he jabbed his elbow as hard as he could into my side. He must’ve been completely wasted. It only happened twice before, one gut punch at the Grant Park house and that horrible ordeal when we were at Leslie and Markus’s ghetto apartment in Jacksonville, where he cocked me on the weak part of my spine and knocked me right off the couch.

It kind of reminded me of middle school bus rides. All the hours of name-calling. Sticks and stones. I was taught to be meek, turn the other cheek. Until those boys on the bus whacked me on the head with a textbook.

There was just a little light coming in from the porch through the sliding doors. It was dark. Will didn’t see it coming. My knuckles connected with his temple right by the eye. His granny had given me a pretty turquoise ring that I was wearing. The setting popped out and flew across the room. Will fell back on his ass on the floor and shook his head. When he realized what happened, he grabbed my right arm and pinned it.

“My turn now,” he said. So I slung with the left. At this very fine moment, the light went on in the hallway.

“What the hell is going on out here?” Craig asked. He and Sheri were standing there in terry cloth robes from a hotel casino. This was all a very bad portent for our new life.

The next day was all gray skies and dull as rocks. Must’ve been Sunday. We were planning to find an apartment the next day. Will was nice as could be, joking about the cut by his eye. In the afternoon, the four of us took a ride to a nearby bar. Craig took the long way around, and we cruised through this quiet suburban neighborhood at the foot of the hills where a herd of wild horses was walking along the center of the street.

We didn’t stay long at the bar. They carded, so I drank iced tea. It was a quiet night.

The next day we rented an apartment at the back of this old Austrian lady’s house on Yori Avenue. It had a fenced yard. There were no trees anywhere that I had seen yet.

Will took the truck to Craig’s shop the next day, so I started wandering the streets looking for work. I even walked out to Sparks and back. Weeks passed. Despite all the people coming through that town, it was secretly a closed community where everyone grew up together and knew everybody. 

I got hired on with these residential cleaners. Three days training videos. I worked for a week. It was mostly Mexican ladies. Boy, rich people are slobs sometimes. Why did the lawyer have 20 almost empty shampoo bottles in her shower? Why did we have to vacuum the daughter’s room while she sat on her bed? Despite inhaling chemicals all week and my hands shriveling up, it was at least not boring. Until we worked 12 hour days for a week and the paycheck wasn’t even a hundred.

Craig finally got me on at this place he was doing a sign for, The Aeroclub. It was in a historic house on Flint Street built for a wealthy sheep rancher, Joseph Giraud, by Frederic Delongchamps. The theme was flight, particularly warplanes and pilots. There was an excellent framed black and white drawing of a propeller, hanging model planes, etc. White linen place. The owner was a sawed-off Napoleon who never paid on time — one week late, two weeks late. The Aeroclub was funded by his wife. She was nice, pretty, way younger than him, and had money.

There was an entryway to a grand staircase. The bar was mahogany with brass rails and fixtures that had to be polished. Then a bright dining area, a huge industrial kitchen, where a door opened to a horror movie set of stairs that went down to a black basement where the chefs all hated to go. It was supposed to be haunted. There was a servant’s staircase off the kitchen that went to the upper level, the banquet rooms.

Molly was the bartender and day manager. She wasn’t very old, had straight brown hair and freckles and plump cheeks and a handsome boyfriend who looked like a well-dressed lumberjack. They were together since they were kids, she said, without smiling. She seemed really older than her age and uptight until she took me out one night. There was Soma and her little sister, who walked around like Barbie and Skipper in their little heels and nice clothes, Lisa, and Carrie. I didn’t particularly like what I did, or like anybody yet.

Plus with the checks being two weeks late, the rent would be late, and the Austrian landlady would slit open with a fake pink fingernail any of our mail that looked like money. We were pulling out of the garage one day when she came running out her kitchen door in her white bra and old lady panties.

“Will!” she screamed, waving a handful of letters.

“I got your mail out of the mailbox when I got mine,” she said, and shoved it through the car window.

“Thank you,” he said. She went inside. At least one letter was opened.

“Oh, my God,” he said. “That’s an image I won’t soon forget.”

He had been, if not nicer, at least more tolerable. I never saw him use drugs in Reno, and I figured he would have done it right in the open like always, so things were better. I should have known that the only thing keeping me from walking on eggs and the only thing keeping him balanced out and cool was cocaine and whatever else.

If we wanted to call anyone, we had to use the landlady’s phone. I had just hung up one day when she said, in that fascist accent,

“You should go, quick, before he gets home from work. Fix yourself up nice. Put some makeup on.”

“I’ll do that.”

Sometimes Craig and him would use an extra hand at the shop. We all rode in Ole Blue and crossed to the industrial part of town listening to “A Boy Named Sue”. There was a toothless bum shuffling along the sidewalk.

“That’s me when Alice leaves me,” Will said.

“Ha,” I replied.

“That up there,” Craig said, pointing to the ridge laid out in pink and gray against the sky. 

“That’s Donner Pass. Where the famous pioneers, the Donner party, tried to cross westward. They got caught out in a blizzard. Ended up eating each other.”

The shop was an aluminum and steel building stuck in between others that were the same, with a small office and a wood loft. The doors at the back could be slid open, and looked out on the train tracks. It was bitter cold standing on the concrete, even with a space heater, and Will made a fire in an old steel barrel.

My job was to trace the lettering, then lay out the vinyl letters and squeegee out the bubbles. That was just for vinyl. There were signs with metal letters and neon. Particularly for the strip clubs and bars. We carted this one sign through the downstairs of a club where all the girls were bumping and grinding against people’s laps, up the stairs, through the girls’ dressing room where they were lounging around giggling at us like some old-timey saloon, and out the window onto the roof.

When we were done freezing with the cold seeping right up through our bones and inhaling whatever Will decided to toss into the burn barrel, there was a crummy bar we walked to. I ordered a Key Lime Pie.

“Don’t got that,” the woman said. 

“Grasshopper?”

She looked at me like she wanted to punch me in the face, just like when that angel ordered flaming rum punch in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The men at the bar were all staring up from their whiskeys.

“Just, whatever then. Something fruity and weak.”

That place was no good, so more often we went to Alturas next door. It had some famous reputation and swinger parties on Fridays, but all I ever saw in there was a bunch of lonely old geezers. For ten bucks the bartender would flash her tits. Craig liked one. Her name was Daria. She couldn’t have been much older than me.

Craig was in the midst of separation. He showed us a picture when he got married, where Sheri was smiling and happy sitting in his lap, plump and blond and rosy-cheeked, before she started shoveling Coke up her nose, dyed her hair, and wore her jeans so tight they rode up the crack of her ass. He thought she was cheating.

“Do like Alice’s Dad did. Tap the phone and record her conversations,” Will said.

“Sma-rt,” Craig said.

“Only do that if you really, really want to know the truth. If you don’t want to know, don’t do it,” I said.

He did. She was screwing a pilot. She kept coming back though, for the breakup sex. Craig brought me by his house a couple times when Will was gone so long to Atlanta. It looked like a bachelor lived there. I scrubbed down the refrigerator, informed him that the bathtub stopper was missing.

“She took the damned bathtub stopper?”

I was trying to straighten the weird pallet of blankets he had been sleeping on in the living room when a gold bracelet fell out. The script said Daria.

“Hey, uh, here.” I handed it to him.

“Oh, shit. You’re a lifesaver.”

They got divorced at the courthouse, and he threw his wedding ring off the bridge into the Washoe River. It was a tradition, he said.

When I Was Walking

When I Was Walking

by Abigail Swire

When I was walking last night I found the remains of a bird, gray wing feathers splayed out, delicate bones, pretty lungs intact set neatly aside. When I was walking last week I heard the banter of two owls and the sizzling of the power lines. Walk at night, you can spy briefly on other lives you will never know, in warm lit dining rooms or the cold flash of blue screens.The sound of my own heartbeat lodged in stillness.

When I was walking in the desert, I got dust in my eyes and teeth every time I tried to cross the intersection. There was an antique shop there, filled with strange collections, and the best damn latina beauty shop this side of the Rio Grande. The sunset would strike pink on the snow capped peaks of Donner Pass.

When I was walking in the swamps and creeks and mountains I found that you could scare the snakes out of hiding to watch them flee. That some water is still so clear and pure you can drink the mineral tang and cure poison ivy in an instant, that each tree and tangle of weed has its own markings and character to navigate by. There are real bones bleached white by the sun and plastic deer bones shattered by buckshot, and everybody throws their old couches and bedsprings and junk at the back of the property line.

I learned that it is better to walk out than have someone walk out on me.

When I was walking the dirt roads and fields I found broken metal and buried cars, a $100 dropped by a drug dealer, other unclaimed treasure, an expired condom still in its wrapper. Burned photographs of lovers split at the seams and tossed out of car windows. When I was younger, my grandmother walked with me and worried when I called the horses over to the fence. She worried about everything. Mostly me getting kidnapped. So she told me a horrible story of when she and her sister got hijacked back during the 1930s. She told me a lot of stories that were hers, and I never got kidnapped, and no one wants to kidnap me now.

When I walked the highways I found white crosses and plastic flowers for the dead, a motorcycle helmet that had flown off and tumbled down the ravine, with no head in it.

When I walked the city streets I found strangers and friends, kindness and apathy. I walked in and out of trouble. I found bars and blackjack and nightclubs and galleries and entrances to train stations that yawn out of plazas. One time I was walking and I found 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, where a handsome malinois was pacing and a guard was giving directions.

I wore the wrong shoes to Times Square where a vendor was selling stencils of St. Patrick’s. The straps cut deep wounds into my feet. 

“Bud spokoyen!”

That one rubbed ointment on and bandaged them up while he argued furiously with his mother in Russian. Maybe it wasn’t love, but it was something.

My friend assesses the damage when I can no longer walk. She lays me down on her bohemian bed and treats the wounds, brings out a bottle of wine. This is her secret side, the one who only wants to nurture and be shielded from the blades of life. What the hell is wrong with our men anyway? 

And that other one, that old friend I used to know, again with the ointment and the bandaids, puts my feet up in his lap with some kind of humility, if only to stroke the lightning bolt of seeing clearly tattooed on my ankle. It was a gathering at my girlfriend’s house that turned into an overnighter.

“Thanks for, you know, holding my hair last night,” he says. Ok. Whatever.

When I was 18, I walked down to the corner store to meet him. I waited a long time. He never showed. Walking helps you to forgive, but never forget.

Poor mistreated feet, who have served me so well. Even with the exhaustion of all those miles on them, I could still walk the world, until I hit the mapmaker’s edge and tip off beyond this place, where there be dragons.