The moon has been off my left shoulder for thirty-seven years and I’ve never known a blue this bad, this purple. Lots of no-woman stories, sure, simple. Lots of gone-woman stories, too. I am lost of gone woman, myself; nothing new here. But I need another story. What I don’t need is Gonewoman leaving east in a truck of her parents’ financing, driving right back into the catalogues, leaving me half a box of Lucky Charms and feeling that can only be summarized as A Submarine, Torpedoed.
My name is Dave, and I’ve been up all morning, wandering my floors dehydrated and naked and looking for something to placate my forehead and chest which at last assessment were, well, sizzling.
Ok, simple. Gonewoman leaves and goes east on the one road that runs through town. This is the road that delivers the tourists in the summer and the snowmobilers in the winter. Our livelihood is that road. We are a service to people who don’t live here but who have more money than us. We do not go to their cities and vacation when we have time off. It is a very real feeling to begin to feel like a parasite, living off pocket-fall and false charity. I don’t feel it much anymore, perhaps I’ve come to terms with it, but Gonewoman felt its burn incessantly. She couldn’t stand it, parasitic, and so leaves east.
East is the direction I do not go when I leave and go to town to buy provisions for my bar. She, Gonewoman, cocktailed for me for a year. I try and hire attractive women for the twin reasons of 1) it brings in more business, and 2) I might find something good myself. It is a smarmy policy, I know, and that’s fine.
It is true that Montana winters are hard on women and machinery. By late March this town got real small on Gonewoman. The low cloud cover became a lid over her, fusing the surrounding rimrock to the sky to construct a tight, cold, winter box. This is bad. She is fifteen years my junior and the gossip fills the Exxon mini-mart every morning like the stink of burnt coffee.
When I go to town for provisions for the bar the three absolute staples are bourbon, microwave burritos, and aspirin.
You can’t even drive east in the winter. The town dead-ends in a snow bank fifteen feet tall. This snow bank runs from here to Billings a hundred miles away. I saw Gonewoman come booking down on her skis once and go flying right off that snow bank and land on the other side of the street. She loved the sound of avalanches miles away, and she moved on her skis as if she was something fluid herself. See her? Crouched and flying through the air like Wonder Woman.
She leaves east, first going to Colorado to get her college stuff and then really east: Vermont. I hate both. I tell myself I loathe Colorado and Vermont so many times a day that there’s no way I am not a Westerner. I was born in a nice hospital in the middle of Billings, but today I feel like I was born in hell.
• • •
I have expired Montana plates on my four-door, currently defunct, 1972, V-6, Ford Maverick. The Maverick’s coat has been described by others as: butterscotch, nacho, mac and cheese, mustard, manila envelope. Gonewoman once poetically waxed that it was the color of a faded yellow highway line. I myself like desert stone; then other days I prefer yellow. I have more than expired plates on the Maverick, I also have a tape deck with the Stones in it. She leaves this morning. She left this morning. She drives onto the road and out of this town. She drove onto the road and out of this town. East leaves left; gone, went.
I am thirty-seven years old and run a bar and bought the Maverick for $70 and a repairable snow blower. I rebuilt the engine in shop class in high school because it was my only way to get to school. My father’s truck was always drained of its gas and on blocks for the winter. Fun cannot be described as negotiating icy bridges with my hungover and insistent father at the wheel, all just to go try and solve long division problems on a chalkboard in front of girls who proved impossible to kiss. We read My Antonia out loud in class. Where’s the news there? Dirt house? Shit, I know an old Sioux named Billy the Sioux who fishes like Jesus and lives his summer in a sod house. Last time I saw Billy I gave him a big thumbs up from across the river.
“How are my Redskins doing?” he yelled.
I didn’t know if he meant the football team or his family back on the reservation.
“2-9” I yelled back.
Here’s the thing, in the great state of Montana, I’m allowed to drive this rattletrap Maverick, rust under the fenders, boogers under the seat, as I please. In Colorado or Vermont I’d be seized and incarcerated. My sister lives up in Judith Gap and drives a three-speed Rambler to her job at Subway. She’s so short she has to stand on her college degrees to work the register. She is funny, you’d like her.
Gonewoman was funny, too. One morning I was out in the yard thinking garden, even though the only things that live here at eight thousand feet are those that can live on a rock or grow twenty feet into the air. I had my coffee in hand and the sun on my neck, I was scratching my stomach. I was in love and if you would have chosen nice to describe me at that moment you would have been accurate. I was even considering a long and sentimental letter to my grandmother when Gonewoman came out in her kimono.
“Look at you. Mr. Pleased because he got some last night,” she said. And she was right; the world is that simple. You could grow a garden in January on the moon in a world that yellow.
• • •
There is this other things she tells me. We’re in the back of the Maverick, this was back when it was running. We were going backpacking in Wyoming—I hadn’t been backpacking in years—but we couldn’t make it to the trailhead because we couldn’t stop humping in the back seat. Over and over, until finally I was so much less myself than a weak suggestion of myself that all I could do was lay there while she fed me orange Gatorade.
Her body was this thing that every time you looked at it you became optimistic. I could spend an afternoon watching her step into a pair of Levis. Circles begot semicircles. I used to place shiny pennies on her while she slept simply because I liked the way they looked. I had no idea I had such a capacity for joy.
She was this healing thing, like the bumper-pool table was for me when my father died and I was bereft, or bereaved, or whatever. I didn’t even know that word until I needed it. I would play on that table for hours. My mind was rife with simple geometry. I could not drink enough, and I could not lose. A year later, when I took over the bar, I hauled that thing to the dump.
So we’re in the back of the Maverick with Gatorade and her body was like a bumper-pool table and she tells me, “You are going to be a good man.”
“Yes, you are.”
I think about all that is impacted in those words: that I’m thirty-seven and not yet a good man; that I’m going to be a good man elsewhere; that I will be this thing when she is gone.
And, see this young woman; her telling me, a man who is not exactly moon-walking into his forties, that he has promise and potential? To tell him that when he’s naked?
You are going to be a good man.
I’ve written those words down so many times that they’re shapes to me now. But, I’ll tell you what kills me most about all the meaning and possibility in those shapes, you are going to be a good man: that I am thirty-seven and have never been. And she’s right.
• • •
Well, I need a fireball. A real one, not one of those little ones you get in your chest after the evening’s first touch of bourbon. I need a fireball to toss around or turn me over. Pitch and hit one. I need one to torch my bar; I need a fireball to put in the Maverick so she’ll turn over. You get Gonewoman to turn over and Jesus Christ.
I’ve only seen two in my life. Three and a half decades and I’ve seen exactly two fireballs.
The first one was when I was eight. There was this dilapidated trailer down at the dump that me and my friend Lucas played in. The roof had collapsed in places and the doors were gone. We busted out all the remaining windows and cleared a square in the roof where a stovepipe used to run. In it, we fastened a trashcan turret. In the kitchen we constructed a cockpit, on the walls we taped maps, and in our fertile imaginations we had ourselves a B-17 bomber. We flew missions over northern Wyoming and into Idaho. Once we bombed Great Falls because that was where Lucas’ stepfather was from.
One day me and Lucas were playing there when an intense thunderstorm moved into the valley. Lightning cracked and hail balls pocked the trailer’s siding. I imagined flak and turbulence. We began losing altitude. Lucas was piloting while I manned the turret. Messerschmidts darted as we sank through the sky. And then I saw something I’d never seen before: sheets of blue electricity hanging from the clouds. It felt as if we were rising now, gaining altitude. There weren’t bolts of lightning but undulating flags of it, and they were everywhere in the sky, enormous. Then there was this sound that made everything look a different color and I saw another thing I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since: a fiery tumbleweed, blue and white, that bounced down the back road and directly past the trailer. I felt it move in my teeth, the way you can a train when it passes and you are close to the tracks. After it vanished, it rained harder than I’d ever seen it rain. Lucas bailed out as quickly as he could, hopping on his bike and pedaling like mad away from the trailer. I went home, too. I was more excited than I was terrified, unfortunately, and apparently I chose Oh my fucking God in my description of the fireball and had my mouth washed out in the bathroom sink. But to this day I know what I saw.
• • •
The second fireball I saw was ten years ago during the Yellowstone fires. The Forest Service had set a back burn between town and the advancing fire, hoping to get to the fuel first. The winds changed dramatically and the back burn turned into a front burn that sent the fire raging toward town. That day I hosed the bar down and loaded myself and my books and my stereo into the Maverick and took off east. By this time the town was surrounded on three sides by flames. I hit the accelerator and the Maverick lurched, then made a kind of intestinal growl, and hit sixty-five by the time I passed the last gas station at the edge of town. But a mile up the road the fire was closing on the road, creating a kind of tunnel. I slowed the Maverick way down and rolled up my windows. Then the fiery walls lifted up into the air and swirled into a single form. Now, I’m sure there’s some kind of scientific explanation concerning gasses and oxygen levels and all manner of things I don’t understand, but at that moment it was a terrifying miracle: these forces assembling at the same moment to craft this flaming circle thirty feet in the air. I saw it. I could feel the heat of it. I remember wanting to wash my face in cold water. I drove the Maverick right under that strange sun, and by the time I tried to locate it in my rearview mirror, it was gone.
That afternoon the snows came, the winds died, and God had saved our sad little town.
One night, a couple of years ago, Billy the Sioux came into the bar and showed me a photograph of that fireball. A friend of his on one of the fire crews had taken it. I now have it framed and hanging behind the bar. Me and Billy got drunk that night and I remember him telling me that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I guess, I said.
Because I’m feeling damn thin in the spirit these days, Billy. Gonewoman and all. Because I could use stronger; I could employ a fireball.
• • •
Gonewoman came to town to study our wolves that had been here forever, and then were gone, and were now, brand new, here again. Thanks to whom I’m still unsure. She was on a crew that monitored one of the first reintroduced packs. It was a big deal. National Geographic was here; Connie Chung got off a helicopter that landed at the dump. One afternoon I charged four dollars for a can of Rainier to a journalist from The New York Times who insisted on parading around town in a fishing vest. For a year there was money from universities I’d never heard, in states I’d forgotten the shapes of. Studies were done, dissertation completed: Diuretic Tendencies in the Alpha Male, by Gonewoman.
One day she found this spot where her pack had attacked and killed a large elk. We drove down there, and on the first day we found wolf tracks surrounding the carcass. The following day, with most of the good meat scoured from the bone, there were the fresh tracks of rodents. On the third day there were Coyote prints. That night it snowed and the next day there were enormous wing marks in the snow surrounding the elk. I had no idea there were such things in this world as wing marks in snow, and that is just the thing, how Gonewoman lived in her eyes. She was a child—wonderfully like a child—in that way. Maybe if I’d gone to State and received a degree like Gonewoman then maybe this town would be small and unbearable, and I’d need to go out and see the world and discover things like wing marks in snow. As it is, I work on my own dissertation: Grief: Informal Umbrage and the Sinking Ship Phenomenon, by Dave.
• • •
Fuck this noise, I say. I say it again, out loud. Then in the yard, then in the Maverick. She still won’t turn over.
Say it again, “Fuck this noise!”
On my way to the Exxon I stop by the river for possible instruction. I pick grasshoppers out of the tall grass and throw them into the river where they are risen upon by trout.
Billy the Sioux is here, on the other side of the river. He is fishing one-handed, with lines tied to his fingers. It looks like he’s manipulating an underwater marionette. I say this.
“No, just fishing,” he says.
Then I ask him, what is one supposed to do with leftover love?
“You are right that there is no profit in it,” he says.
“I really have no use for such a failing quantity,” I say.
“Is all your information updated and finalized?” he asks.
“That is what terrifies me, Billy, I both crave and fear closure.”
Billy hands me a branch and tells me it is his contact number and, if I’m going to send a fax, not to do it before noon. He says he tries to sleep until one.
Down at the Exxon I pick up my first post-departure meal: two corn dogs with mustard and a bag of Dorritos. Last night it was pan-fried rainbow trout and a small, gritty spinach salad. And the wine whose dregs I finished this morning in the yard.
I have a conversation with Carl who owns the Exxon. He is seventy and he looks like he’s been through exactly that much winter. He is wearing a down vest with embroidered horses on it. As we talk, I check it out. They are not just horses, they are stampeding palominos in moonlight. This vest is the beginning and end of all high art in town, chainsaw sculptures notwithstanding.
Carl says nothing about Gonewoman. I take this as tact. What he says is this, “Those Olympia tall cans?”
“They won’t be in until Friday.”
“That is fine, Carl. Thank you.”
I have no idea what day it is. This is not totally true. It is not Sunday. I can, and will, pick up my mail. It is not Sunday.
I buy a newspaper wondering if there might be an article about Gonewoman turning around and coming back. There is not. I don’t find anything on Gonewoman, but in the sports section I find an article on Evel Knievel:
Knievel, a native of Butte, Mont., got his start when he jumped over a car to promote his new motorcycle shop in Washington State. Knievel said he has no regrets for what he admits was a wild lifestyle replete with women and alcohol.
“I read a book about Aristotle Onassis, and that dumb bastard didn’t know how to have a good time,” Knievel told The Billings Gazette. “I drank more whiskey and beer than him, I had a yacht the same size as his. I had more boats than him. At one time I had 14 planes with my name painted on them, and I used to fly them side by side so I could read my name at 40,000 feet. I had a great time,” Knievel said.
At the register Carl rings me up. I tell him that I not a good man. He places my corn dogs, chips, and newspaper in a paper sack, nods.
“But I’m going to be. You know that.”
He tears the receipt from the register and throws it into the bag. The horses on his vest cut right through the shit of this world and, unlike you or me, run right up cobalt light shafts and into a threadbare moon.
Fuck Evel and his rocket car. I read somewhere that he had his hand duct taped to the parachute release lever the whole time.
Knievel drives like Mary Poppins. I could jump the Snake River in the Maverick if it meant something like Gonewoman. Rocket car, give me a fucking break.
• • •
It has been over four hours now since Gonewoman’s going, and I sit in the yard with more wine waiting for this fact, the goning of woman, to obtain. She’s past Cody. She’s past the Big Horns and into the wide pan of the prairie, level as a lake, and the great nothing there after to suggest this shitty little town built on rock, or my shitty little bar built on booze.
In the best possible version of things that will not happen, she will call and cry tonight. But, the sooner all that won’t happen happens, the closer I am to the black and necessary despair I know is coming. A black despair as long and white as winter.
I try the Maverick again, nothing. This is unembraceable. I will not be this way. Surrender is impossible: I will not wash my sheets. I go back to the river.
Billy the Sioux is gone. I wade out into the river with my wine bottle. My God, how this day refuses to stop quitting. I wade out into the river with my wine bottle. There is monofilament in the trees. I wade out into the river with my wine bottle. The sky is blue and stupid. I wade out into the river with my wine bottle. It is cold. Wait, listen; I have a master plan. It is this.
Published in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 3, February 1, 2015. Excerpted from Salton Sea, a short story collection published by Noemi Press, Inc., and available for purchase at This Land Store, 1208 S. Peoria Ave.