The Way We Live
Ellen Fagg, editor
Nevada Border Towns
[p.51]Will and I have never done a truly bold thing. We came here to this bar in Baker, Nevada, because something kept us from driving further. It is a friendly, meatloaf–on-Monday kind of place. Beer is only a buck, unless you are gambling, then it’s free. Will says, “Gamble, make a maneuver to gain an advantage.” Will likes to talk like that. His left hand reaches for me as his right drops in quarters, then pushes “deal.” Will’s hands are not what drew me to him. His fingers are thick and there is a pink scab forming near his left index finger knuckle. I follow past his hands, past his baby smooth elbow to that place between his shoulder and his neck, that place my head is drawn to. Today, maneuvering to gain advantage means moving from my blackjack machine to the one next to him. “Endure to completion,” is what my grandmother Rose would say, “be his stay, a steadying thing.” [p.52]Being Rose’s first granddaughter means I get that kind of advice. It also means I count cards and I am stubborn. Staying, right now, requires more than just anteing up.
Rose thinks she is sixteen. My mother says to me, “Follow Rose’s eyes in the pictures before she was married.” What Rose eyes is my short hair cut and my leather skirt. Once when I walked into her house wearing that skirt she asked to borrow it. She said, “Treasure,” that’s Rose’s nickname for me, “slip it off, let me try it on.” Rose maneuvers me away from my mother so she can whisper rules to me: “Never leave it to chance to fill your dance program,” and “Notice who looked away first.” My mother asks: “What does Rose tell you?”
My mother and Rose share tips about wearing bright lipstick and walking fast. “So people will notice,” my mother says. Stares mean more to these women than getting any rewards in heaven. They both burned their journals and cards from old lovers. I see my mother and Rose squatting on spiked heels in front of a brick fireplace. Burning the evidence. But facts remain, those glossy smiles.
Will and I gamble at home, the home that Rose deeded me promising the gabled roof and scalloped window dormers would shield me. Will comes home early from the four-star restaurant where he is the head chef and maneuvers me to the front porch. He unties his apron and balls it under my head, the smell of pesto and [p.53]marinara sticky in my hair. He sucks through my shirt then pulls it off, straining the seams and stretching elastic. He hurries at first and then he lingers. He takes my face in his hands, ripe fruit, his fingers covering my eyes and kisses me. He licks at my welling tears. Nothing distracts Will. On our porch just before dusk, me in only my pink bra, Will hard against me, not even the possibility of 7 x 35 binoculars slow him. He knows some neighbor guy could be focusing on the space that doesn’t exist between us. A round circle bleeding to two when we move, twisting, my leg caught under his as his neck bends around mine.
Will’s game of choice is Craps. You win with money on the Come line. We’ve made all the jokes. But there are only formica-top tables in Baker, none with felt and fake wood. So Will plays my game. Blackjack. And he splits on nines and tens, making me crazy.
Rose whispers words like vows: gown, ribbon, velvet. These words with red in front of them flush her liver-splotched cheeks. And Rose cries. Mention Jews or the spot she lost as Wasatch High valedictorian and she’ll search up her sleeve or under her fabric-covered belt for her handkerchief.
Rose and my mother and I play Rook on Saturday afternoons, never Hearts. Face cards, the King and Queen of Hell, are not allowed. “That reminds me,” Rose will say, and my mother will laugh. Rose is famous to those who know her for outbidding her hand. Men and [p.54]cards, she always thought they’d win her more, more than a mediocre Widow.
“We need a game plan,” Will says.
“The women of my family need to be pretty,” I say.
“Audrey, just take my hand,” he says.
We’re standing outside that bar in Baker, Nevada, on the loneliest road in the country. It is not a hazardous gambling town. There is no Red Garter casino and no golf course. And you can’t squander much without those felt-covered tables. But more is on the line. Will wants a word from me, a nod. I bow my head and tuck both fists under my chin. He knows to quick-as-a-dealer’s-shuffle pull me against his chest.
Rose wants me to do something other than hold my cards. She passes along advice by pointing out magazine articles. “Treasure, cut them out,” she says as she kindergarten-hands me scissors: “Grown Ups Who Were Spoiled Growing Up,” “Dancing: The Best Exercise in High Heels,” and “Beware Men Bearing Roses.”
What Rose is trying to tell me isn’t quite clear. I do know this hand should be a hold and I know this thing between Will and me isn’t fully dealt. I don’t know much more except Will doesn’t look me in the eye and I don’t arch against him from behind as he places only his suitcase in the trunk. There are things you just don’t do on the day the man leaving you against your will, leaves.
Rose worries I inherited her weak heart. She worries I give it away in every Nevada border town. Rose wants [p.55]me to have memories, like pressed roses, that I can share with my children and grandchildren. “They are waiting to be born,” she says, “you must think of them.”
Staying in Baker without Will isn’t a hand to risk on a house bust. But I’ve stayed with less. “Treasure, a good Widow can change a hand.” Standing in the parking lot of that small bar in Baker I cross my eyes blurring the circle a hawk is traveling waiting to catch a thermal. Minutes pass. The green of Wheeler Peak melts into the hot, low desert. Will pauses at the intersection waiting for all the lonely traffic already heading east. He U-turns sharp and pulls up beside me. He gets out of the car and walks towards me but he leaves the car running. It idles fast, the hawk circles slowly above us. My arms are two wings anchored by my hands snug in my back pockets. “Watch for those arcs, the ones with seven prismatic colors,” Will says. He releases my right arm and it springs out, cutting the air. Will isn’t giving me practical advice. He is talking about atmospheric patterns and about how I always find luck just when. Will shimmies apart my feet with his scuffed boot. My center of gravity shifts. Will leaves.
Rose’s grandmother, Renee, was Basque and she liked being alone. Renee lost her teenage husband weeks after he got her pregnant. Renee then said yes to a polygamist. He got her pregnant too. Many times. She went crazy, which is not what her granddaughter Rose would say. Rose would say, “Ma had a tendency concerning geography.”
[p.56]It’s a long walk to Salt Lake and I shouldn’t have let myself get staked out here alone. You could say it happened because of last night. I knew shutting the motel door softly behind me at midnight and not opening it again till dawn was only one way, but a sure one of putting real space between now and the some day of buying a ranch in central Nevada with Will.
The fact is, Renee would wander in the Utah hills in the winter. She usually left on horse, one named Adversity or maybe Zion, and came back on foot.
Here, the sun is setting red over Wheeler Peak. Somewhere in central Utah Will is driving four miles over the speed limit listening to some woman describe her missing daughter on talk radio. Me, I’m low on aces wandering in the desert. Fact: I’m sitting on a bar stool eating a meatloaf sandwich and considering my own tendencies, geography certainly being one of them. The jukebox plays a lot of George Jones and songs about lost clothing, buttons, and boots missing without a trace. At each entrance of a steel guitar I cover my mouth and suck in one hard breath.
When Will gets home he’ll pack some things into his canvas laundry bag- the one he had in college. The one that says, “Shit, it’s only dirt” on the outside. He’ll think of me in the chipped paint motel in Baker but he won’t come back. He won’t wire money. Will understands the ways I am most like Rose. He knows that for us, having our way means we first must think of it. [p.57]Will has the scars from pushing too hard. He knows I’ll make a deal, steal a horse, get home somehow. He worries but he won’t preempt luck. He’ll wait. He knows that when I bend forward, my hair covering my right eye, I can tip a hand.
Rose wanders too. She married a man she didn’t quite love because his eyes followed her as she walked. Renee told Rose, “Love is only a decision to stop moving.” Rose walked a lot. She’d start heading south and follow any street till it ended. Then she’d sit for a while until my grandfather pulled up, stopping short. We got calls. He was late a few times.
Too often I sluff the card I need. Hitchhiking is not what Rose would suggest. She’d say, “Don’t count on Roses in December.” I take Greyhound and I make it home.
Rose was wild. My mother says Rose must have been susceptible to charm. Rose was caught kissing a Park City boy at the Saltair dance pavilion when the lights came on. Park City boys were better dancers after all. She won dance contests all over the state: 5-pound boxes of Bluebird chocolates and first prize when she danced at Geneva pavilion on the Utah Lake shore. She has ribbons. Rose says, “Secrets are the things worth growing O-L-D for.” Sharing them is what my mother and Rose did, in the dark after I’d gone to sleep, littering my dreams.
My mother led me to Rose. “She has stories to tell,” my mother said. My mother looks like Rose, even [p.58]though she is only her daughter-in-law. Their eyebrows curve, penciled in cathedral arches. Rose and my mother compare pictures of themselves in their fast twenties. “You must never,” Rose says when I walk into the room. “No, never,” my mother says. “What?” I ask. They sit on Rose’s couch and lean over the coffee table. In the pictures they both had painted lips and tight curls on their foreheads.
At home I knock, then use my key. Will is balled up on the floor with my pink bra wrapped around his closed fist. “You need some sun,” I say.
“Some black olive pesto,” he says.
“I can’t deal with this.”
“Hold the hand you came with,” Rose would say.
The this I refer to is the us before it was split like two aces in a little town on the loneliest road in the country. But I’m not mad and we’re not mean. We’ve just reached the point where being kind has hurt us more than anything else. I kneel by Will and open his hands. He twirls my ring. “Stay,” Will says as he lifts that wayward strand of hair out of my face and tucks it behind my ear. The afternoon sun through the aluminum-framed window is warm on my back. I shake my head.
“There was a diamond,” he says.
“Notice when I stop moving,” I say. I leave.
I stand in my mother’s bathroom, spinning. Grief, to my mother, is one more excuse to apply make-up. “Just imagine Rose,” my mother says. I peer into the mirror. [p.59]My mother motions like a game-show hostess, pointing at all the drawers that hold what could make me so much closer to beautiful. She points to the vanishing cream, her red lipstick, her eyelash curler. My mother tells her friends, “That Audrey, she fixes up real nice and she can change her own oil.”
My mother has secrets too. She purses her lips when anyone mentions apple orchards or cable cars. An engraved white Bible sits on her bed stand—her last gift from her first love. She tells me I am lucky to be a tall woman from a line of thin ones. She says, “Audrey, play your high card.”
How we ended up in this car without questions, only statements, is simple. “We’ll drive,” Will had said.
“I’m not staying alone,” I said.
“Stay on a soft 17,” he said.
Will tosses chicken bones into the back seat. We pass the exit to the airport and where we are going is the only place left to go on this road with a half tank of gas. Rose would say that I’m playing a Nellow Rook hand with no ones.
I hold my hand in front of Will’s face. My fingers are long. Will says they are the longest he’s ever seen. Will says, “Point to the glacier scar line.” I trace a line in the fog on Will’s window. With his hand that is not on the wheel, he takes my finger. He pulls until the knuckle pops. Lightning starts out on the flats. I lean against the cold glass and count. Will makes sizzling sounds.
[p.60]We pull into the Red Garter. Will collects quarters from under the mat and the glove box. I brought bills. I’ve got a fair stack to lose. “Don’t let me throwaway the gas money,” Will says.
“Don’t let me bet my rings,” I say.
“Play conservative with 13s,” Will says.
Around the metal legs of the stool my feet are cold. Will stands behind me leaning against my sloped spine. His hands rub my shoulders. He adds my cards and his hands stiffen. “Beware gambling with your own weak heart,” Rose would say. My bangs are in my eyes, leaving only a slat of light. I push back against Will’s large palms. “Stay,” he says. Hitting and staying, doubling and splitting, that’s all there is in twenty-one. My back is cold. His weight is no longer balancing mine.
The woman sitting next to me is losing even bigger than I am. Her bets are large and she hesitates more than a kid on the high dive. She’s taking hits with the dealer showing a four. She’s third base and she’s messing up the way the cards land.
“My boyfriend can’t stand to watch me lose,” she says.
“Where is he?” I say.
“Over by yours,” she says.
“Mine,” I say.
The dealer spreads his fingers outside the circle where my green $25 chips lay. I haven’t bet the porch yet.
[p.61]It’s light outside. Will has won bills and thrown away change. I just stopped. Will noticed.
“I feel for those who call this town home,” I say.
“We’re not driving back,” Will says.
“Ever,” I say.
Will won enough to pay the $29.95 week-day room rate. If he wanted me to chip in he never asked. We drive to the last motel on the east side of town. If there was ever cause to investigate, it might appear we started to leave town then changed our minds. Not exactly the order things took.
Will is quiet in the bathroom. No running water, not even a cough. Now isn’t the time to bluff. Rose lost the diamond from her wedding ring after she tried to tell my grandfather he was just too simple to love. She sat on the floor, her nightgown pulled over her knees. The spiky edge of her ring caught. They spent the rest of the night searching.
I wake up as the sun is setting. Against me Will’s body is warm. “Treasure, unless you double-Nellow, your partner doesn’t get to play.” Rose is famous for Nellowing alone. Will’s back is to me but his feet are wrapped around mine. As I move he grips my feet with his. He is my stay. My grandfather bought Rose a new diamond with money saved from their laundromat. Not wanting it didn’t matter. They stayed together for another forty years.