The Way We Live
Ellen Fagg, editor
Why I Left Paradise
[p.1]It wasn’t long after Harris started carrying his pistol into the Bucket that Ed Jakes the sheriff and Tommy Belew the mayor got together at the cafe to talk about an ordinance to stop him—it was easier somehow than talking sense to him about Dimmer—and it was hardly any time after that before the men from the NRA started showing up in Paradise and talking about winning the west and freedom and the wild frontier and all that history, some of which still seemed pretty modern-day to us and some of which we had done our darnedest to forget. True, I walked out as far into the desert as I could every day just to be alone under the sky, but if anything, that was what made people around here talk, and it had nothing to do with what the NRA boys were saying as far as I could see.
Not, like I pointed out to Tommy and Ed later in the [p.2]bar when they came in to tell me about it, that boys hadn’t been carrying guns in their trucks or even into the Bucket for years and nobody minded. But those were hunting rifles or working guns with no clear malicious intent attached to them.
And not that there hadn’t even been a few shootings around town, when things got a little wilder than usual, but they took place rarely and privately, in people’s houses or trailers or out in the desert among the sage, and everyone could say afterward they might have predicted them-unlike in the city, where we all knew, from the news, people got shot in grocery stores or out on the sidewalks in front of their houses.
But Harris, he bought his pistol with a purpose and everyone knew it, and he walked into the bar every night with the gun strapped around his hip for us all to see, and then he’d start drinking and looking around him. I can’t say, though I must have loved him at the time, that it was good for business. When Harris started talking loud and looking at people with his hand on his hip above the holster, customers started picking up their hats, and who can blame them?
Of course, after the NRA boys came the gun control people followed, and then the reporters, and this changed everything. Like Tommy said, none of them had any real business here, but all of a sudden there was more work in the Bucket than I could handle alone, and I hired on a couple of town girls as barmaids [p.3]whose husbands would let them wear their blouses unbuttoned one or two.
Walking in there at night I would hardly know the old place, filled with men in suits or brand new cowboy boots, half of them with holsters on their hips or strapped across their shoulders, the other half mostly in beards. It was like the movies, only more so. Nobody who saw it on the drive-in screen over in Rock Springs would have believed it.
As far as I could tell, the NRA boys thought the show of guns made their drinking less recreational, more a serious demonstration of liberty at work; and the gun control guys mostly sat around looking sad and peaceful, except when one got in it with an NRA boy and they started squaring off over a pool table, hitting one ball into another with serious intent, holding their cues like weapons.
Even then, I kept wanting to say to them, “We could have handled it ourselves.” After all, I thought at the time, it wasn’t them we cared about, just Harris, who was a little funny and who had his reasons that we all knew and, more than strangers anyway, understood.
But then looking them all over I didn’t know anymore. For us, most of them were too skinny or too soft, and within a couple of days they all had new sunburns and were walking around bowlegged like they’d been galloping around Wyoming on horses all their lives.
[p.4]Nobody was fooled. In fact, it wasn’t even until Del showed up late in the game that Harris developed his conspiracy idea into anything more than one of his dim notions, and things began to get serious.
It all started the first time Dimmer burned down Harris’s trailer. That time, Harris just stood there in the hot, wavering light from the flames, his arms crossed over his chest and the bottle of Dickel he’d brought home to help him and me ease into morning, and laughed. There was no conspiracy yet; Harris had plenty of insurance for once and admitted he didn’t have much he minded losing beyond a snug place to take me to when we got tired of looking at my little house, or even to go home alone to when we got tired of looking at each other.
And once can be an accident.
At any rate, somehow Harris never even thought of Dimmer. Looking into the embers, he dropped his arm around me and kissed me and said, “You don’t mind if I don’t bring over my silk pajamas, do you?”
Some people who hadn’t been around Paradise long and remembered the mattress in the jail, and even Henry from the State Farm office in Rock Springs, wondered for awhile that time if Harris hadn’t had something to do with the fire himself, but after not very long Henry admitted there were too many of us willing to [p.5]swear Harris had been glued to that barstool all night. The flames were shooting high already by the time we all came out from the bar into the street to see, so the case was settled pretty quick as those things go. And nobody said anything about Dimmer, who had just stood and watched the trailer burn like the rest of us, but with maybe a more devoted attention, until his mother came and took him home.
The second time, there was no question in any of our minds about Dimmer, and still nobody said a word, least of all to Henry.
Harris was working on an oil rig miles out of town, and he didn’t even get back until the trailer was just a pile of charred metal and singed plastic and linoleum. I got there with the rest of the crowd that poured out on Main Street as the smoke rose and word spread. Dimmer was there before us, and nobody had seen him arrive. As I watched the flames, I could feel him standing just behind me, too close. I could smell him, that sweet smell I remembered from junior high. When the fire was just past its height, Dimmer’s mother as always elbowed her way through the crowd and grabbed him by the hand, and though he was my age and a head taller he followed her home like a child.
I watched until the flames died then went home and got my sweater and a magazine and went back to wait for Harris. Once I looked down the block and saw Dimmer standing there watching me, but when I raised my [p.6]hand he turned and walked away. Then Harris pulled up in his truck. I know he saw me sitting on the curb but it was a long time before he reached over and opened the passenger door.
“So,” he said, “tell me.”
“Everyone came out to watch. You could see the smoke all over town.”
“I should have expected it,” he said, “but a man never does.”
I knew he’d caught on about Dimmer. “It’s always been this way,” I said. “It isn’t personal.”
He looked over at me for a second, then said, “The hell it isn’t,” and got back in the truck and started it up, and we drove over to Mason Clark’s who owns the Paradise Hardware and got him up away from his supper to unlock the shop. Then Harris stood over the gun case and weighed each gun in his hand, not neglecting even the dainty pearl-handled ones for women, and finally after pulling back the hammers and looking solemnly down the chambers of a couple of blue, sleek looking pistols chose the gun he wanted and signed over his weekly paycheck.
As soon as I saw what he was after, I started meaning to say something, just waiting for the right moment, a moment of air or light; but that time never came.
Finally, I said to him, “It was just Dimmer.”
And Harris said, “And his same lighter he used on the old school and the hospital and even, if you recall, the [p.7]Bucket once. One of these days, he’ll torch the whole damn town for love.”
I said, “The Bucket is right next to the fire station.”
But Harris hadn’t always lived in Paradise, and besides he needed something bigger in his life. And I have to admit, looking at him so serious over those guns, I wanted to take him home. So he took to packing that pistol right there on his hip where we could all see it and start to worry sometime around his second or third drink.
I was working a couple of lunches a week at the café then to help pay off the mortgage on the bar, and nights there at the Bucket where Harris did most of his drinking and where I’d been pulling beer since Daddy got too sick to stand up behind the taps. It had been tight, but I was just beginning to see the light, just starting to breathe easy. When Daddy died, people told me to sell and move to Salt Lake or Cheyenne at least and maybe get a job in an office, the bar was no place for a girl barely twenty, but I knew by then I loved it all: the warped-and-flecked mirrors; the larger-than-life painting of an old saloon singer whose name was long forgotten but who reclined still, fleshy and glorious, on the wall; the dark, splintering wood and the sawdust on the floors.
Over the years, though Mama had wanted to paint over the singer with white paint, Daddy had tried to touch her up as her skin peeled away or dimmed with age or where the smoke from the fire darkened her, and [p.8]her nipples were vivid and too new looking even under the low lights. People were right, the place was falling apart, but finally it was about to be mine.
Those days, if Harris wasn’t at his trailer when the sun came up people knew they could find him at my house, and that’s where he stayed both times after the fires while he waited for the checks from State Farm. And the first time, I have to admit, it was a little like a vacation, with Harris counting on my toes at night the little things he was going to buy me with what was left over from the insurance-a white floating nightgown, rhinestone barrettes for my hair-then working his way from my feet toward a kiss in which his upward progress involved our whole bodies.
Of course, there was no money left over from the insurance. I could have told him there wouldn’t be—there hadn’t been even enough from the time the bar flooded or the time it burned—but I was as close to loving Harris during those weeks when he was spending in his mind as I ever had been, and he was happy so I let him be. Both times he got just enough to buy a trailer even more beat than the one before—after, of course, he had already dropped a couple hundred on celebrating his anticipations.
The interior of the last trailer glowed with a kind of green, underwatery light, and it was infused with a smell that I could never quite identify, though it reminded me [p.9]of the apartment over the bar just before Daddy died sort of medicinal and decayed at the same time. And try as he might, grading the ground over, crawling around underneath looking at wheels and suspensions, Harris never could get that trailer level.
Everything that happened in there happened askew: the one time we shared the narrow bed, I slept next to the wall and felt his weight against me all night long, my shoulder wedged against plastic wood-grain paneling; and when I cooked a dinner in his oven, the casseroles and pie fillings all slid over to the north side of the pans and stuck that way, so the full table was a dizzying field of slopes. More and more, Harris was waking up in my level white bedroom and pouring out his morning coffee at my solid kitchen table.
What was wrong with Dimmer nobody really knew, though it had always been wrong, and when he was a year old or so, I’d been told, and his mother had seen enough other babies to know something was the matter, she took him down every few weeks for awhile to Salt Lake and the children’s hospital to try to find out what could be done. When the doctors told her to give up, she did.
And Paradise just took him in like we’d always taken in the odd ones from among us, with even a certain kind of love no more cruel, maybe even a little gentler, than the love we gave to those strong and close to our hearts. [p.10]He was a fixture we took for granted in the elementary school, his desk always behind mine because of the alphabet. When we started taking the bus out to the junior high, Dimmer took to sitting in the seat behind me there, too, as if only a view of the back of my head kept him located.
Mostly, I paid no attention to him, but once, some of the older girls started laughing at him-asking him to flick his Bic for them, to light their fires, as if he would have any idea at all what they were talking about—and he looked so lost with his fists shoved down in his pockets I said, “Leave him alone.”
He just looked at me then moved up real close but not quite touching. His white T-shirt and jeans were filthy, but I caught for the first time then that sweet smell I knew was exactly the smell of his skin. After that nobody said a word to him when I was there. I got used to seeing him almost everywhere I went.
Dimmer started small, I know, with little child’s fires made of twigs and leaves. Then, the fires started to spread, taking bushes and finally whole vacant lots. Once he lit the papers in his mother’s bedroom wastebasket; the plastic melted and began to burn the carpet before his mother smelled the smoke and pulled the garden hose, water running all the way, in at the kitchen door, through the dining room and living room, and up the stairs.
And once on the Fourth of July he and another boy [p.11]Buddy Werner, found a pint of vodka still a quarter full behind the Bucket. Any other boy would have drunk it down, as Buddy wanted to, but Dimmer lit five sparklers, dropped them in, and screwed the lid back on. We heard the explosion in the bar. It didn’t sound dangerous, more like a muffled loss of air, but Buddy’s screams brought us out.
Daddy bound up Buddy’s thigh, sliced through to the bone, with bar towels, then loaded him into the truck to drive him to the clinic. I gave Dimmer the hose and he sprayed the blood and bubbled, fractured glass down the asphalt in first a red and then a widening pink fan, keeping the hose on it like I told him until the water ran clear.
The time he lit up the trashcans behind the Bucket on a Saturday night, I was fourteen and just coming down from the apartment over the bar where Daddy and I lived to ask permission for something, I don’t remember what. I remember I was wearing a new dress made from a pattern I saw in Seventeen, with a skirt that would billow out when I swished it just right, and so I held on to the doorframe with one hand and swung around it into the bar, and first my skirt and then I came right up against Harris, new in town then to work on the oil rigs. I’d never seen him before.
He stepped back and took me by my elbows and looked at me for a minute. Then a flash right over his shoulder caught my eye and I looked up in time to see [p.12]the back wall of the bar give way to a sheet of fire.
Like the rest of them, on his very first evening after rolling into town in that little white sportscar Harris looked at and called a toy right off, Del was in at the Bucket letting us all take a look at him. It was true the car looked silly in this kind of space, against the dust and wide sky, and so did his new boots and the white felt hat still clean from the box, but he wasn’t carrying a gun that I could see, and I could see too first thing that though he was handsome in that young sort of way-smooth-faced and blond-he wasn’t too sweet or too stupid either.
I was leaning over the bar talking to Harris and letting him look down my blouse when Del walked in. I straightened up and raised my eyebrows at Harris, not in an appreciative kind of way I thought but more like I was curious, and gave Del a minute to find a free table and settle in before I walked over.
Del looked me up and down and said, “Now, you couldn’t be anybody but Dawna.” I had my picture in the front window with my name under it the way Daddy always had so it couldn’t have been that tough to know, but at the time his words seemed like a casual kind of miracle.
“What’ll you have?” I said. And he smiled, and I said, “Don’t be so sure,” but then I heard the door shut even through the noise from the crowd and when I turned around Harris was gone. So it wasn’t that hard after all to [p.13]sit down and take a break with Del, or to walk outside with him and let him kiss me and run his hands up inside my blouse while over his shoulder the bug zapper sizzled the mosquitoes, or to take him home with me after closing and give him a drink while I showered the smell of cigarettes out of my hair, or to walk back into the living room and sit down on his lap wearing only my satin charmeuse kimono I’d ordered from the back pages of Cosmo.
The next night in the Bucket, Harris was carrying his gun. Not wearing it like he’d taken to doing anyway, but carrying it in his hand when he walked through the door, and I could see he’d already had a few. I raised my eyebrows at Del where he was sitting over in the comer and shook my head to let him know I couldn’t walk by his table for now.
Harris came on over to the bar and I brought him a shot of Dickel and then another and then the bottle, all without us passing a word. Finally, about half through the ftfth, he crooked his ftnger at me and I went over. Leaning over the bar toward me, he pointed the gun behind him at Del, pointed that gun with his finger on the trigger, and said, “He’s part of it.”
Slowly, the bar quieted down. Men opened their coats and moved their hands to their hips or hearts.
I said, “Put that down.” Then, “I don’t know what you mean.”
[p.14]“I couldn’t shoot a kid like Dimmer,” he said, like he was asking me for something.
It had never crossed my mind a man might start firing for lack of something real to shoot at. I said, “Del’s not in your way. This is something else.”
He said, “It can only get worse. Don’t let yourself get taken in.”
I said, “Maybe you’d better find yourself another place to drink.”
I could see reporters pulling out little notebooks and starting to write. Somebody shouted, “Smile, Dawna,” and a camera flashed.
I said, “Fuck off.” Then, to Harris, “You too. I wasn’t born yesterday.”
He leaned way over toward me, I think mostly to keep from falling, and set down the gun on the bar and grabbed both my elbows kind of rough. “You were, Dawna,” he said, and looked into my eyes. “Remember what I said. But do what you have to.”
I said, “I always do.”
He kept looking at me like that and pushing my elbows down into the wood of the bar. And suddenly Del was there putting one hand down on the back of Harris’s neck and the other down on the gun next to us and saying, “Would you mind letting go of the lady’s arms?”
The camera flashed again, and when Harris let go Del thanked him and handed him his gun and asked me if he could buy me a drink on my break.
[p.15]Then Ed pushed in shouting through the crowd and we all ran outside and down to the motel. Del’s little convertible was pulled up in front of the door to his room, number 4. Its seats hadn’t even caught. The vinyl looked a little melted, was all, and the newspaper that had been piled up in them and set alight blew in weightless, vivid shreds up and over our heads into the desert.
All that August, Del wouldn’t tell me whose side he was on. I’d quit at the cafe since the bar business was so good, and in the mornings when there weren’t meetings or hearings Del would go back to the motel and make phone calls on his credit card, or he’d sit at my kitchen table with his little computer on his lap and type out letters for the afternoon mail while I walked out the back door and over the dry earth toward the horizon.
Once I walked out to Harris’s trailer—he was out at the fields-and let myself in with my key and sat down at the table in the green light. There was a little screw on the floor and I picked it up and set it down on the table’s slanted surface and let it roll, then did it again and thought what I knew about Del.
I couldn’t have wanted to know much. Looking back, I don’t even remember what made me realize about the wife, but however that news came-whether I looked down at an address or overheard something, or, as it even seems possible, he told me sometime that first night or week-it didn’t make so much difference that I stopped [p.16]letting him come home with me at night. It wasn’t even that I was so taken with him, though there was a lot of charm there; it was more like I knew from the start that all I wanted from him was a taste of something I’d only read about in my magazines.
It seemed like Harris knew it, too; after that night in the bar, he stayed completely away.
Before I left the trailer I found an old envelope and a pen. “I was here,” I wrote on the back. “Love, Dawna.”
Here’s the difference: Harris was a body made solid by work but soft around the middle by love and beer and the kind of food that sticks to you. When he came in from the oil fields he had a shine around him and the smell of dirt and oil and the sun and sweat both from the day and the night; sometimes, kissing him on his way to the shower, I would think I could smell myself on him left over from the night before, a dark smell not quite erased by the day’s heat and motion.
I’d leave for work as he came in, and later he’d come into the bar smelling like soap, his hair combed back wet. At night, he would take off his shirt and Wranglers and Fruit-of-the-Looms and drop them by the bed and crawl in next to me already ready. In the morning, he picked up the clothes from the floor and put them back on and pulled his cap on over his hair. He filled his thermos and came back into the bedroom to kiss me goodbye and then he left for the oil fields just as [p.17]the sun was rising, and I went back to sleep up for the bar shift or I got up when he was gone and packed a lunch and a magazine and headed out into the desert.
So when Del woke me in full sun that first morning with his fingers on my mouth like something out of the movies, I sat up and said, “What’s wrong?” but when he kissed me I lay right back down. He still smelled of a spicy cologne. His limbs and body were harder than Harris’s, but at first I was disappointed by what seemed a lack of substance. Even his skin felt too smooth to be quite real-running my hands over his back I remembered Harris’s moles and scaly spots and odd wild hairs and marveled. And Del’s limbs were like wires twisted together tight. Already that morning I could tell he was stronger than I thought.
After awhile he pulled me up and into the shower and washed my hair and back and then I did his. He said, “Do you read all those magazines?” and “What are you doing here?” and I said, “This is where I live.” He stayed with me until I told him I needed to rest before work, but he was back in time to walk me over to the bar. It was still hot, and we walked slowly.
“My mother wanted to call me Aurora,” I said. He had his hand laid across my shoulders, but I wasn’t sweating there. And when we were strolling past Millie’s with the white beaded cardigan in the window and I stopped to look as always, he went right inside and bought it even though I told him not to.
[p.18]“It’s just right,” he said, and I said, “What will people say?” but when he held it for me I slid my arms in.
It was a kind of game at first. I would say, “What are you doing here?”
He would say, “I heard this was where I’d find you.”
When we stopped making love every time he said that, he started to say, “I like to be where things happen.”
Nobody else knew either. On the street, Ed Jakes the sheriff or Tommy Belew the mayor or even in the end men I didn’t know would stop me and say, “What’s Del’s part?” and I would just smile and walk on.
To tease him, I would say, “Harris says it’s all part of a conspiracy.”
He would say, “Harris is smarter than he looks,” or “Harris is just the bone the dogs are worrying.”
And I would say no and tell him about the time just after the Bucket fire when Harris got all lit up on bourbon and wrote me a note and tied it around the shaft of an arrow and shot that arrow right through my bedroom window at four a.m. I opened my eyes to see it quivering in the wall above my bed, the fragments of glass glimmering on the floor under the window.
The note said, “You looked so innocent. I want to touch you so much it makes me shake.”
First thing the next day, Daddy said, “You’re still a [p.19]child, this is no place for you, he could have killed you,” and sat down and wrote away to Grandma back East where Mama had lived before Daddy met her.
Or I’d tell Del about the time Ed Jakes had put Harris in jail just to sober him up one night and the next morning found him curled up in one corner sleeping on the floor, the sheets and mattress on the iron bed burned to cinders. “Only Harris,” I said.
“Or someone just like him,” Del said.
“Everyone else is harmless,” I said. “And so is he.”
“In the abstract,” he said.
“So what do you think?”
“I think there’ll be a lot of fuss, then everyone will leave and the town will be just like it was but a lot emptier and either richer or poorer by comparison, depending on who you are, and Harris will carry his gun until he gets tired of it, maybe never.”
He was right. The ordinance was defeated; the reporters did a whole lot of last-minute interviews and took pictures of people on horseback or standing by pickup trucks or holding up their hunting rifles victoriously. Ed Belew was on the front page of a big paper back East: the photo shows him standing in the doorway of the Bucket, his great-grandpa’s holster and pistol buckled around his waist. Somewhere around are shots of me in tight jeans with the desert behind me; the photographer said he wanted to shoot me naked, he’d make me famous, but I said he didn’t know and anyway, enough was enough. [p.20]As far as I can remember nobody bothered to take a picture of Harris. The NRA boys spent a couple of days drinking the Bucket dry, then they packed up their rental cars and drove off down to the big airport in Salt Lake with the gun control guys and then the reporters hot on their heels.
And the next noon I hung up a “Closed for the Night” sign on the Bucket and Del and I walked out my back yard and into the desert, west, with the sun right overhead.
“Watch out for rattlesnakes,” I said. I carried the blanket and he carried the basket with sandwiches and apples and a bottle of bourbon. We climbed the stile over the fence onto Mason’s ranch—Del went first and turned to take my hand as I came over—and made our way through the sagebrush down to the swimming hole.
It seems now like that was the last really hot day of the summer, the last day when the heat feels like it’s pushing you right down into the ground while you walk. By the time we got to the creek, our legs were covered with dust and I could see the sweat curling down over the sunburn already peeling on his back.
“There’s a lot of poison out here,” he said, and I said, “It’s everywhere. Here, you just know where it is.”
“What more could you want?” he said.
We spread out the blanket and took off our clothes and teetered over the sharp rocks into the water. We paddled and pushed each other under and he touched me [p.21]where the cold had tightened up my flesh. Then, still naked, we ate our lunch on the bank and drank out of the bottle, then we swam again and then he pulled me back out onto the blanket and started to kiss me in earnest.
Once, he pulled away and said, “Do you ever think of leaving?” but I couldn’t tell why he was asking so I didn’t answer but put my hands behind his neck, and he went right back down to my mouth.
I had shut my eyes and was feeling my way into his touch, letting it travel down below the surface of my skin, when I felt the shadow. It was another second before I remembered I had seen no clouds anywhere and opened my eyes. The sun was behind him; at first I thought it was Harris, but the shape was too tall and too slight. His hands were in his pockets and his shoulders hunched; he was standing very still.
“Dimmer,” I said, “go home.” And he took one hand from his pocket and reached it out toward me and just stood there. Del had rolled aside and after a minute I got up and picked my way barefoot through the sand and put my hand in Dimmer’s. I could feel Del’s sweat evaporating off me. Dimmer kept his eyes on mine but I could tell he was seeing everything he wanted to.
“Go home,” I said, and he held my hand for a second then dropped it and turned and walked away.
It was dark when we got back; I showered and put the steaks on while Del showered and then we ate, silent, [p.22]looking at each other over the bowl of Minute Rice and the casseroled vegetables and the salad. He hadn’t said anything but of course I knew he would leave the next day or the day after, it didn’t much matter. I looked past him at the window, but it was dark and I could see only my own kitchen distorted in the glass.
“Did you get what you wanted?” I said.
He just looked at me.
I said, “For a long time, I thought there was nothing here. I would look at my magazines and imagine the big cities, each with some pulse traveling through it that I wanted to feel. But that summer Daddy sent me away to Grandma, I would dream I was standing on a hill in the middle of the city and the buildings were in rubble around me. Finally, I could see as far as I needed to, and then the ruins were gone and I was walking out in the open desert.”
“Could I come back?” he said.
“Call first,” I said.
Something moved in the window—it was neither of us, and I got up and went and opened the back door.
Harris stood there, his hand on his gun. “I think you’d better come,” he said.
Even before we got around to the front of the house, I could see where the sky was lit up over Main Street and flickering. The couple of blocks of businesses were going up on the west side of the street; fires had been set at [p.23]either end, and they were moving fast toward the center, toward the fire station and the Bucket and Millie’s.
The buildings were mostly old wood that had dried out for decades there under the sun. Every man in town was out. They’d opened the hydrant in front of the station, and Tommy trained a hose on the roofs of the unburned buildings there, leaning back against the force of the water.
“He got the trailer, too,” Harris said.
We stood for a minute, Harris and then me and then Del. Del had grabbed my sweater. They each had one of my hands; they both stood close, their shoulders touching mine. Then I shook off their hands and dug my keys out of my jeans and walked under the arch of water from the hose and unlocked the door of the Bucket and went in.
Later, people would say I was in shock; some would say it was grief still about Daddy, but having sat over him so many nights I knew how to let him go when the time came. They would say I should have got married to Harris and settled down long ago if I was going to stay in Paradise; like the other women behind their lace curtains ordered in from Sears I should have done the dishes from the night before and hung the wash out on the line and stood a minute to chat over the fence instead of keeping the bar ‘til late then walking out of town alone in the mornings.
I went behind the bar and pulled out a bottle of [p.24]bourbon and a glass and then grabbed a handful of quarters out of the cash register and dropped them into the jukebox and pushed the numbers for all the mournful songs—Patsy Cline and Hank Williams and Tammy Wynette. Behind the music I could hear the low roar of fire all around. Then I sat down and started to drink, not too fast but steadily, and when I looked up Harris was putting down his own empty glass on the table and reaching for the bottle.
“I promised I’d bring you out,” he said.
I said, “The fire will never get here.”
“Then come on.” He reached down and pulled me up by the hand, but instead of leading me outside he put his arms around me and started to dance me between the tables. He was bigger than I remembered, solid and nourished and starting to get tired in the general way. I felt like I was floating; I didn’t have to move because he moved me the way he wanted me to go, and my body went. He put his hand behind my head and pressed it to his chest. I could smell the sweat and feel the pulse in my ear, either his or mine, and under my left elbow I felt the handle of the gun.
“Why didn’t you shoot him?” I said.
“I told you,” he said. Then, “It was always for you.”
He laid his cheek down on the top of my head and sang along with Freddy Fender—“If he brings you happiness, I wish you all the best”—in the same trembling warble.
“I know,” I said. And then the song finished and we [p.25]danced the next one and went back to the table for the one after, but before he sat down he unbuckled the holster and laid it next to the bottle. Neither of us said anything for a minute. Then I got up and put a quarter in the pool table and started to rack the balls, lazy. I picked up the two-ball and hefted it in my hand like I was going to throw it, first at Harris, who kept grinning, and then at the old mirror over the bar.
In the mirror’s cloudy, wavering surface I could just see the tops of our heads down to our eyebrows, and above them the reflected painting, the lush old-time whore stretched out around her brilliant nipples, one gartered leg crossed demurely over the other, her toes still dark with smoke from the last fire.
I aimed at the higher nipple and held the ball for a long time at my shoulder, then wound up and threw. A wave rippled the whole glass; the cracks spread through it and it fell in a shattered sheet of light to the floor.
I let out my breath and sat down at the table. We looked at each other and started to laugh; I threw back my head and Harris laid his down on the table. His shoulders shook; he started to pound the table with the palms of his hands. I brought my head forward again and looked straight in front of me where the glass stood out in a jagged edge around where the mirror had been; I was still laughing, the tears running down my cheeks. We were pulling deep as we could for breath in the thick, hazy air and howling.
[p.26]Then I unsnapped the holster and pulled out the gun. He didn’t stop me, just watched with a smile on his face like he had seen it coming, though I knew I hadn’t. I ran my hand down the barrel, smooth and oddly warm.
“It’s heavy,” I said. I still couldn’t breathe. I had fired a rifle once, when I was a kid, just at some tin cans on the back fence. I remembered the way it had kicked against my shoulder—I’d had a bruise there afterward for days.
My eyes burned. The static from the fire had grown louder but the jukebox had stopped. I knew I had put in more quarters than that. I put the heel of my hand against my chest where my breath was burning me.
He would come in for me, I knew. I could almost feel him standing next to me, could smell that sweet smell. I held the gun and sighted and waited for the door to open, for Dimmer to appear and hold out his hand through the smoke.