Editor’s note: GHLL is an extension of the teaching mission of the institutions that have sponsored it and the people who have produced it. We felt that this excerpt from correspondence with the author should be shared for what it tells us about the course of a piece of writing, and the writer agreed.
“This story has a special place in my heart. It was the last one I wrote for my thesis. Denis Johnson was my teacher at the time and he loved it, so I always loved it too. This story has had many endings and he told me back then, “well this isn’t the right ending, and it will likely take you five years to figure that out, but one day there it will be.” And you know, he was right. The edit of this story you have is seven pages shorter than any other version. I had always overwritten the ending. It was there all along. He passed away a year later and it has been five years since he told me that it would take five years to find the ending. Funny how things work out like that. “
* * *
Out past the reservation is a trailer for sale. They plan to hitch it to the truck, tow it all the way to California. It could be a home enough. Max convinced Claire he would take her so far from Libby neither of them might remember the lives they left behind. They keep the windows rolled down as they drive because exhaust floods back into the cab and makes them both sick. Claire rests her feet on the dash. The hot dry air of July blows up her skirt. They laugh on just about everything, things that aren’t even funny. For the briefest of thoughts, Max worries this is too tall an order; people like him don’t get to ask for the kind of happiness they’re after. But quick as the notion comes, it’s gone.
As they pass through town, Max nods to the important places as if saying goodbye to old friends. Most storefront windows now sit covered in sun-bleached newsprint. But Max remembers when the streets were filled with clusters of kids and men getting off work, women streaming out of shops with colored bags in their hands, and the grocer so busy he couldn’t keep the fruit stocked in the summers. All of that felt like a very long time ago.
Claire sips a Dr. Pepper, her expression blank. Her fourteen to his eighteen would soon be a detail of their past.
“I’ll miss Cathy,” she says. Cathy’s served eggs in the diner since before the both of them were born, a constant in their lives.
“Me too, baby.”
When town is in the rearview Max speeds up. The truck kicks a cloud of dust giving the appearance the pair is running toward something rather than away; though sometimes in life the two are the very same thing.
* * *
A week before all of this, Max is shooting pool at The Rest Stop. It’s one of a few places in town with its doors open since the vermiculite mine shut down. At first it was all anyone talked about. Not a family in town who hasn’t either lost a job or a loved one from the sickness it brought.
The Rest Stop serves as the hunting lodge in season and a watering hole at all times. Mounted around the room on wood paneled walls are the heads of great bighorn sheep and elk the size of two men. They lord over the patrons drinking slow and fast. Max scratches on the eight ball and loses five dollars, then he sits at the bar top and waits.
“One or two?” Wendy asks. Wendy is still beautiful in her own way, though time has ground her down like everyone else in town. She’s an old friend of Max’s father from when his father kept friends.
“Two,” Max says.
“Why not make it three then?”
Wendy hands Max a paper cup for his chew. She lays down three heavy shots of whiskey in front of him and three in front of her. Her fingers are long and thin like her legs. They both take a drink, eyes trained on one another.
“Where you been?” she asks.
Max looks at the door then back to Wendy. The pink neon sign behind the bar casts a valentine-like glow over her. Her eyeliner is smudged under her left eye, her tits too big for her tank top. She leans over the bar, so close he can smell her; lavender body wash and Virginia Slims, just like always.
“Around,” he says.
“Not an answer.”
“Been trying to do right by Claire.” He puts in a dip and gets comfortable on the stool.
“She’s a fucking child, Max. She is literally a child.”
“So was I, Wendy,” Max says. He stares at her. He wonders who takes care of her now. She looks tired in ways she never has before. They both take the second shot.
“You’re here now though,” she says.
Max turns again to watch the door. He is waiting for a guy. He is waiting for a guy with a gun.
* * *
Claire rests her arm out the window. The wind tangles her ratted curls into more knots. She lifts a fifth of Old Crow from between her bony thighs and hands it to Max every now and then. Claire has taken care of herself since she was a child. At ten she got a job at the video store, which was also a laundromat, a coffee shop, and a tanning salon. Max admired this about her. He said she was industrious, a word he liked to use and say all the s’s. But more than anything he wanted to be the one who did the caring from now on.
Almost every dollar Claire made in the last year went into a coffee can she kept in a dug-out hole in her mattress. She saved up just shy of three hundred dollars, barely enough to buy the trailer. Max kept a jar in the glove box and saved everything he could running a skidder and betting pool at The Rest Stop. He imagined it was enough to get them started somewhere new.
“We can’t spend more than twenty a week each,” Claire says.
“Don’t worry anymore. I’ve told you the worrying part is over for you.” He reaches over and strokes her head. “Baby, in California the sun shines all year long and I’ll work and you won’t ever go without.” He grins at Claire true and wide, showing the space where his bottom tooth is missing, a purple scar stretching taut above his lip.
It’s a good day’s drive from town to the reservation, a bit further to where the trailer is for sale. Most of the farms they pass are forgotten and grown-over, lean-to wooden structures and collections of twisted metal.
“I never understood why people collect so much garbage,” Claire says, and repeats what she sees out her window: “Washing machine, motor, tractor, car, swingset, tires, car, bicycles, car.”
“Where else they gonna go?” Max says. “End of the line.”
“They don’t do that other places,” she says.
“What do you know about other places?”
“Nothing much, I guess.”
“We’re about to change all that. I’m gonna to take you so far we see the ocean,” he says.
Claire takes a book from her backpack: The 50 Strangest Places to See in America. She turns around, resting her back against the dash and her feet on the headrest. Max listens to her rattle off facts. He suspects this makes her feel more normal, to know the strangeness of others. Her voice light and airy, so quiet sometimes you might miss it.
“Salvation Mountain, Area 51, Winchester House. The Villisca Ax Murder House in Iowa is still unsolved. Clinton Road.”
The sun cuts long shadows on the combed-over prairie grass and the single lane highway stretches out so far they can see the curve of the earth.
“All of them,” he says, “You can see all of them.”
Claire crawls across the bench seat and kisses his neck, his ear, his jaw, sending electric waves through his body like touching his tongue to a 9-volt battery. Max runs through a checklist in his head. He’s ready, ready as he’ll ever be, and knows if it came to it, he’d do anything for her. With this thought he is made bigger; by a sense of security and the common belief which graces all youth, that nothing bad will ever happen.
* * *
In the corner of the bar beneath a glassy-eyed doe, the sheriff is playing cards with a man with one good arm. The other arm is a homemade prosthetic. It’s fashioned out of coat hangers and melted plastic, like the hand of a Barbie. It is molded to hold a can of beer and it hovers at his side. Max puts in a dip and decides that when they get to California he’ll take Claire to a boardwalk. A place where people drink lemonade, and feed seagulls, and everything is in pastel. He’d seen it in a movie.
The man with the Barbie hand beats the sheriff in cards. He walks toward Max with a sure stride, sits down, and orders a beer and a shot of whiskey from Wendy. When he finishes both he turns to Max and says, “Believe you been waiting for me, and rather patient.”
It’s late, the bar is near closed, and smells of used mop-heads and watered-down bleach. Wendy has turned on the lights in the rear, making the animals look more dead than before, the seams of their taxidermy showing under the fluorescent glow.
“Unless one of you is taking me home, time to head out,” Wendy says. She winks at Max.
Barbie hand jerks his body off his bar stool and heads to the door. “You coming or you staying?” he asks and then turns into the dense dark of the Montana night.
* * *
Max and Claire drive until almost dark and then pull down an old logging road. A high full moon lights the world while warm summer wind moves through the trees. In the bed of the truck they braid their bodies together beneath quilts and pass what is left of the Old Crow between their lips. He can tell when Claire slips into a dreamless sleep by the change of her breath against his neck. Max cannot bring Claire any closer than she is, but if there were a way, he’d open up his rib cage and place her inside for safekeeping.
The first time Max had sex with Claire was the first time Claire had sex with anyone. She was so delicate and light in his hands she reminded him of a baby bird he once found out of its nest — wings like tissue paper and a beak made of glass.
He picked her up at her house. Claire’s father played cards at the kitchen table with a few men from town, and Max listened as they spoke on the state of the logging industry and the shut-down vermiculite mine, and how no one was ever going to work again. He waited at the threshold of the front door but no one looked up. Not at him or at Claire when she came from her bedroom, took a bottle of bourbon from the cupboard and walked out the front door. They didn’t return until morning and Max was sure no one ever looked up from the table. What he remembered well about that night: her red fringe vest, her chapped lips, how she slept curled like a cat on his chest, and how terribly bad he wanted to keep her.
Only when the sun comes up does Max realize he fell asleep at all. It’s a relief to wake up with Claire still in his arms, and although his hand has gone numb beneath her he doesn’t move. He kisses her forehead the way people do when they have something precious. The trees are still and the fog’s burned off, a soft morning light comes through, warming the bed of the truck. The day will be hot and long, but for this one moment, he waits, and prays this will be one of those memories he gets to keep.
* * *
The man’s car, a rusted two-door hatchback, is immaculately clean on the inside. Max is tall and thin, folded like an accordion into the front seat. It smells of vanilla air freshener on top of years of cigarettes.
“Your car smells like my mother,” Max says.
The man reaches over to open the glove box. It clicks down and hits Max in the knees. The man unwraps the gun from a fine piece of royal blue cloth and it catches light from a streetlamp. The man sets the gun in his own lap and the plastic hand rests on the driver side door. The man offers him a cigarette and lights his own.
“Nah, I gotta get,” Max says.
“You ever been to the South?” the guy asks him. “I was on a run through the South and found myself outside Asheville—it’s in North Carolina, near the Appalachias. You ever been to North Carolina, kid? More trees than you’d think, looks kind of like here, only the sky ain’t so big and the days ain’t so long.” The man exhales a long drag and it fills the car.
“I was with these guys and we were drinking in a bar, listening to this pretty young girl, big in all the good places, sing country songs about getting her heart broke and left for dead. I’m watching and all I can think is how I got to take this girl home with me. How I want to put her in my truck and drive her back up here and take good care of her, like men are supposed to. I want it for her and I want it for me. I want it more than I ever wanted anything before.”
“On second, I’ll take a cigarette,” Max says.
Max inhales deep drags that go straight to his head. The smoke circles out of his bruised lip, hanging in the car in front of him. He rubs his hands on his thighs and the story stretches on.
“So, I’m thinking about this young thing being my wife, and how nice it would be to work a cold day and come home to something warm like her. Then I can’t take it anymore and the bar we’re at only serves beer, so I leave with these fiddle players who say they know a spot up the road. We all pile in the bed of their truck and tear up this wide road, down from the Appalachias. And we’re going so fast I get convinced, for a little while, I’m going to die because if the guy driving is half as drunk as I am, it’s sure to happen. And I promise God if I live I’m going back to that bar to get her.”
* * *
Max and Claire spend the early morning drive eating sandwiches she made the day before: peanut butter and grape jelly soaked into bread. Max has the flyer for the trailer folded up in his pocket: a black and white photograph with the address and it says simply: no phone, come knocking. He takes it out and shows it to Claire. She smoothes it against the dash of the truck and smiles.
“How you know it was the one?” She has grape jelly on her cheek.
“Just know,” he says.
Claire lies across the bench seat and places her head in his lap, her feet out the window, and the flyer in her hand. She’s like this until they arrive, staring into the picture like it might tell her the future.
A chainlink fence circles the property. The trailer appears more livable than the house itself. Cars sit on cement blocks, their windows missing, engines dismantled, and bodies rusted. Max looks around and sees the place for what it once was, just like his town: good crops and children playing in the yard, dinner on the table and Christmas so good it makes you tired. The kind of place where people made good plans and started something new, just like him and Claire.
Max goes to check the inside of the trailer while Claire sits on the bumper of the car lacing up her sneakers. The white paneling has taken on a sickly yellow from the sun, and Max makes quick notes in his head of what he can fix himself, like the hinges on the cupboard and the kitchen foldout table. But the windows and the hitch are good and the mattress doesn’t have any rats so he’s happy.
They knock on the front door but no one comes. They check around back too. A garden on the side of the house has wild watermelon vines wrapped and tangled all over one another threatening to pull down the fences. Melons sit cracked open and resting in the sun, rotten and blistered, swarmed by black ants.
“We’ll leave the money on the doorstep,” Max says. “Not like were stealing it.”
In trying to hitch the trailer up to the truck, Max slices open the meat of his right palm on a loose nail. Blood runs down his forearm in thick rivers and leaves droplets in the dry dirt.
“Jesus,” Claire says.
Max likes the way she looks when she gets worried, her mouth twisted into a frown. Her blue eyes like ice.
“It’s nothing,” he says.
The front door creaks open and out comes a gray woman, gray in the hair and gray in the skin, a real square of a person, built solid.
She shouts back into the house behind her, “Look here.”
“Hi there,” Claire says. “We came down from Libby to buy your trailer. Me and my boyfriend, we’re going to live in it. He’s going to take me to California.”
“I bet he is,” she says to Claire. The woman makes her way down the rotted front steps of the house and they meet her in the yard. She continues to look over her shoulder and then back to Claire.
“Just wait here a minute. My son, Lyle, he’ll be out and he’ll help you, handle the business of it too. Sons are for that,” she says.
“You got a hose? He cut his hand bad.”
“Yup, round side.”
The woman looks at the blood and then shields her eyes from the sun like she’s never seen daylight before.
Claire wets a T-shirt and wraps it around the broad side of Max’s hand. They sit on the edge of the sloped wooden porch and wait for Lyle. The woman waddles into the overgrown garden and picks a watermelon, big and ripe and glowing green in the sun. She lugs it to a wooden table on the front porch and hacks off uncalculated sections of the melon with a butcher knife and then offers them out to Max and Claire. They grip chunks of watermelon the size of their heads. Max watches Claire eat, as pink rivers run down her cheeks and chin, her neck, and down over her sternum.
* * *
The night is dark around the car.
“So, did you go back and get the girl?” Max asks.
The man looks like he’s half-forgotten Max is in the car, and half-forgotten the gun in his lap. He takes a deep breath and smiles as if just the mention of her slips him back into a dream.
“God, you ever needed something, man? I mean like not want, but need?”
“Yeah, yeah, I have. I got needs,” Max says.
“So anyway, we don’t die. We get to this bar and down in the basement is more whiskey and half-naked women than I ever seen in my life. And about an hour in, guess who walks in the door? The girl! I almost got down on one knee right there.”
Max looks out the window and thinks of Claire. It’s well into the middle of the night now and he decides he’ll go by in the morning and take her to breakfast in town at Cathy’s. The only time she eats is when he puts the food right into her hands.
* * *
Lyle comes out of the house and leans against the wood supports of the awning. He’s a tangled man, hands like tree roots and wiry in the muscles. He has a handsome face. Not the sort of man Max expected. Lyle looks like someone he might bet for rather than against in a game of pool, even buy him a beer, after. Max introduces himself, reaches out his one good hand with a sure and steady gaze, wanting Lyle to like him.
“Lyle,” he says and nods his head with his introduction. He spits chew on the ground at Max’s feet, sweeps his chestnut hair from his deep blue eyes. “Glad you found us all the way out here.”
“Me too,” Max says. “Know my way fairly well around this state. We’re from Libby, headed all the way to California. Going where no one knows us and it doesn’t snow.”
Both men laugh.
“Is that so? Imagine that.” Lyle says. “I’ve traveled myself quite a bit, been to California. You’ll like it there. Can give you some tips too—cheap places to park and stay, and eat too.”
“God, that’d be great. We just got a map and a few ideas,” Max says.
Lyle looks at Claire. “That taste good to you girl?” He drags his syllables for too long, like he isn’t sure where his words are headed.
Claire doesn’t look up, her face buried in the watermelon. “Yes, sir.” A piece of hair, wet and sticky, clings to her throat.
“Best watermelon in the county in this yard. Won an award some years back for it too. People used to drive over here just to get a taste. Couldn’t even keep them on the vine. Isn’t that right, Mama?”
“That’s right. Couldn’t even keep ’em.”
“Say Ma, why don’t you go in and get us guys some beers. One for the pretty girl too. It’s a nice day out.”
Max holds up his bandaged hand. “Think you might help me get this trailer hitched up?”
“Sure thing. Business first, though. The fridge don’t work and such.”
“How much you think it will run to fix that?”
“Don’t know. I could take twenty off though for it. Or you could always just trade the girl for the whole thing and call it even.”
Lyle looks at Claire, who seems not to be listening. Max can feel his heartbeat quicken, the blood throbbing in his hand. This time Max doesn’t laugh.
“Aw, I’m just kidding, man, just kidding. You get the money. I’ll grab my tools.”
Max goes to the truck and reaches beneath the bench seat of the car. He feels the gun and then the money right next to it. He counts it out first and then puts the wad of perfectly stacked bills in his back pocket. When he turns back to the house the gray woman is setting down beers on the front porch. Then she disappears back inside. Lyle is standing with his hands on his hips. He leans in close to Claire and says something Max cannot hear.
* * *
Max is staring out the windshield at the backdoor of The Rest Stop.
“So, the girl comes back. What’s the point, man?” Max asks.
“The point is, man, I end up in this game of pool. I bet this huge motherfucker, her boyfriend, I bet him this gun for his girl.” He points at the gun while he says this. It’s still sitting in his lap in the soft blue cloth, and his cigarette has been smoked down to the filter.
“And the whole bar watches us play, and I’m playing the best game of my life and I win. I fucking win.” He smacks the steering wheel with his one good hand and the horn goes for brief loud second and Max jumps.
“So I take his girl by the arm and I walk out of that bar. I tell her about Montana. I tell her about the way it smells and how far the trees reach, and how big the sky gets in the summers and how low it hangs in the winters. And she stares at me like she’s got her tongue cut out of her mouth. Come to think of it, the whole time she never says a goddamn word. I’m standing in this parking lot, rattling off my heart to her, telling her I love her and shit. And I do, man. I really do. And then I realize I’m in the middle of the fucking Appalachias and I don’t have my truck. I’m nowhere near Montana.”
Max laughs, thinking it’s the end of the story. He fishes around in his pocket for the money. And he isn’t half mad anymore that he’s been sitting in this guy’s car when he should be with Claire.
* * *
The afternoon carries the hot sun high into a bluebird sky. Everyone enjoys a few beers, and Max has a nice warm buzz going that hangs low behind his eyes. He’s thankful for Claire and proud for having found their new home. He’s even thankful for Lyle. Once the trailer is hitched and the brake lights are wired proper Lyle says, “We should celebrate.”
“We really should get going,” Claire says. Lyle’s mother fixed her with a plastic grocery bag of watermelon slices and she holds it with both hands.
“Don’t be like that,” Lyle says.
Max figures one more beer won’t make a difference, so he says, “We don’t want to be rude, Claire.”
“Yeah, you don’t want to be rude,” Lyle repeats. He rests his hand on Max’s shoulder making it appear the two are old friends.
“No, ’course not,” she says.
“I got some good dope I’ll grab. We’ll christen your new home.”
Max and Claire enter the trailer. The space is lit a deep orange from the tint on the front windows. There’s a bench seat covered in flannel blankets that can fold down into a bed. The shelves sag a little in the middle, and the small sink is rusted.
“It’s home,” Claire says as she runs her fingers over the counter tops. “I’ll fix it up.”
“’Course you will, baby,” Max says.
Lyle comes in with three beers in one hand, three shots of whiskey in the other, and a long thin cigarette joint between his lips. He hands out the drinks and then sits down next to Claire on the bench seat.
“Cheers,” Lyle says, “to whatever happens next.”
And the three of them drink to that.
Smoke fills the tinny trailer as they pass the joint around, taking long drags. Lyle talks about his life outside Montana and Claire rattles off all the places she wants to see. Max begins to feel heavy. He thinks about the current in the river back home, about the time it dragged him under and he nearly drowned. He listens to them speak, but slips further and further away until he wonders if he is really there at all.
“… and I want to sleep beneath the redwoods,” Claire says.
“I once had sex with a girl, looked kind of like you, small little thing, beneath a redwood. Magic, ya know?”
Claire doesn’t answer.
Lyle puts his hand on her thigh and she doesn’t move.
“I mean, you two fuck don’t you? How do you like it? You old enough, right?” Lyle says.
“Fuck off, man,” Max says. He tries to sit up but the weight of everything, all of creation, seems to hold him down.
“What?” Lyle says. “It’s an American question. I can ask that. Aren’t we friends? I mean, hell, I’d fuck you. I’d probably fuck both of you.” Lyle finishes his beer.
Claire is quiet and staring at the floor like she already knows what comes next as Lyle moves his hand up her thigh.
“We should go now. Get in the truck, Claire,” Max says. But the words coming out of his mouth are neither solid nor clear, drowned in beer, whiskey, and whatever else Lyle slipped him.
Claire tries to stand, but Lyle forces her back down, both hands now on her skinny legs. She has the same vacant look on her face she’d get when her father was around. The look told Max she’d left her body. Max tries to stand but his knees buckle and he crashes to the floor. A small rose of blood blooms through the shirt wrapped around his hand. His eyes blur.
Lyle is laughing and then he isn’t. And in that moment Max thinks about the man with the plastic arm and the gun still sitting in his truck. And the last thing Max saw before blacking out is the watermelon slices on the floor and Lyle dragging Claire out of the trailer by her hair.
* * *
The man shakes his head and pets the gun in his lap like he’s saying goodbye to an old friend. Max knows how men get attached to things like guns. He is counting all the fives and tens when the guy starts up with the story again.
“So we’re in this parking lot and I’m thinking about out how to get her out of there. I’m promising her the world soon as we get to Montana. Then the bar door opens and out comes her boyfriend. He’s an oak of a man and he says, I’ll give you one chance to give up my girl. And I say to him, no fucking way man. Because I’ll pick the girl every time. So, the guy pulls out his own pistol, one of those real nice ones with pearl along the handle, and he shoots me in the goddamn arm. And he takes the girl. He leaves me there in the gravel bleeding the Mississippi out of me.”
And this time he holds up the plastic arm and he doesn’t laugh.
Max looks between the arm and the gun, back and forth, like one of the two might tell him if this guy is full of shit.
“The point, man. The point is, you’ll never know until a moment too late. Get it? You get screwed. That’s the point.” He sets the gun in Max’s lap. Max sets the money on the dash and then he gets out of the car.
Erin Rose Belair received her MFA at Boise State University, where she wrote her first collection of short stories, Vinegar. Stories from this collection have won awards and been published with Glimmer Train, Narrative, Greensboro Review, Juked, and more. She just finished her first novel, The Only Road Home. She lives and writes in Laguna Beach, California.