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Sweet Thing

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Laverna woke with a hangover, and her shoulder hurt. She blamed both on her daughter. She lay in bed, kicked at an empty can of beer caught in the folds of the quilt. It flew from the bed and rolled across the floor, came to a rest as it wedged between her high heels. She planned to never wear those heels again. They were impractical, and she fell several times at the Fireman’s Ball.

Today was her birthday. There was a hair in her mouth, and it tasted like home perm.

In the kitchen, Laverna made a pot of coffee, toilet paper stuffed where the filter should be. She smoked her first cigarette of the day—her first cigarette at age forty-seven—and grimaced. It wasn’t that she thought forty-seven was old, just inconsiderate, a bad thing that happened to good people, like home perms.

As the coffee brewed, Laverna dressed for her shift at the bar. It was nearly three o’clock in the afternoon. She dug out a pearl-colored blouse, a black pantsuit, a gauzy black scarf. She pulled on thin nylon socks, slid a black velvet headband across the pelt of her hair, and stepped into black loafers with no heel whatsoever. Laverna always dressed in layers, even in the thick of August. Red Mabel accused her of dressing like she lived in constant fear of strip poker. Laverna cursed when she realized she had forgotten her control-top panty hose, removed her pants and started over again. This was forty-seven. Nine more hours and it wasn’t her birthday anymore, not that anyone would dare mention it. In the bathroom, she penciled her eyebrows, added more arc than usual. She considered curling her eyelashes, but her hands were shaking, and besides, it seemed excessive, and she was supposed to be in mourning.

She returned to the kitchen, sipped at her coffee and smoked another cigarette. Laverna stared out the window into the front yard. It all looked the same to her in the winter, a rerun. She hated the winters here. The only thing moving outside was smoke from wood stoves. Winter in this town trapped people in their homes, in their lives. It was no wonder trains didn’t stop in Quinn anymore. Only derailed.

Laverna drove to work past the softball field, covered in snow. She slowed the Cadillac, as she did every day in the winter, making sure that everything was in its right place. She was very protective of the softball field; it was the only place that made her happy, although last season had been a catastrophe. They had won only three games, and one was by default—the entire opposing team of silver miners had gone to a Heart concert in Spokane.

The Dirty Shame was converted out of a row of railroad apartments. It was sided with oily wooden shingles that Laverna’s father acquired at an outrageously low price. She took after her father; Gene Flood could talk a dog out of having rabies. He grew enormously fat after they opened the kitchen and started serving food at the bar. He died of a heart attack at one of Quinn’s softball games, which was embarrassing enough, but the fact that it took six volunteer firemen to haul him away from the bleachers was mortifying. A week after the funeral, Laverna’s mother answered the door and made the mistake of inviting Jehovah’s Witnesses into her home, confusing them with mourners. Before a month passed, she sold all the video poker machines and fled to eastern Montana with the money and her new congregation. At twenty-two, Laverna became the owner of the bar, and twenty-five years passed, changing out kegs and breaking up fights.

Tabby threw her apron at Laverna the minute she walked through the door.

“It’s all yours,” she said. And it was. Of the two bars in town—Laverna proudly owned the one that served food and encouraged fighting. The other bar was the Bowling Alley, an unoriginal name but frequented by most of the volunteer firemen and folks from town who had tired of fist-fighting over the conservation of the spotted owl. The Dirty Shame was always packed with loggers, men from the highway department, and the female silver miners. The miners were her most devoted customers, so Laverna tolerated the constant cloud from their boots and their pants, piles of powder in the dustpan. The silver mine seemed to only employ dwarf-size men and giantess lesbians. The lesbians were tougher than anybody else in town, so people held their tongues.

At six o’clock, Red Mabel installed herself at her usual stool as Laverna wiped down the taps and made a fresh pot of coffee. A silver miner, already quite drunk, stood at the end of the bar waving a twenty-dollar bill. The woman looked like Fred Flintstone.

Laverna sighed. “What?”

“Can I get a White Russian?”

“Too much work,” said Laverna. “It’s beer or nothing. I’m in mourning.” Laverna sighed again. Frank’s death was recent enough for her to get away with such a statement. They had been divorced for two decades, but Laverna would capitalize on any grief to get out of making a mixed drink. Frank rarely crossed Laverna’s mind. He had already become a ghost, as fleeting as wood smoke, long before he died. She always knew he would derail, but there was no conductor asleep at the wheel, no negligence. Frank had crashed his own train.

She had met Frank at her first and last yard sale. This is what he bought: A toy logging truck missing a wheel. A Pat Boone album. A mountain lion carved from a piece of cottonwood tree. A boot warmer. Laverna’s bowling ball, bowling shoes, and wrist guard.

Frank had held the bowling ball, palmed it like a thick-knuckled ­fortune-teller, and smiled shyly.

“Now that’s a sweet thing,” he said, and paid with cash. They were married four months later. He was a stranger in town, a precious thing. Laverna was not going to let him get away. She was surprised that her daughter had shown up to claim the inheritance. Laverna thought of Rachel the same way she thought about the time her appendix had burst—sometimes things could come from inside your body and suddenly betray you, nearly killing you.

Once upon a time, Laverna trusted her daughter to work at the Dirty Shame, found a lucrative use for all of that lasciviousness. Rachel brought in her own crowd, and the local cops looked the other way, ignored the fact that she was only fifteen. Rachel was a terrible bartender, but fantastic at playing the ingénue cocktail maker, at flirting with her hair. ­Laverna’s weekend numbers tripled in size. Now it remained a dead zone, and Laverna couldn’t care less. Her daughter had burned her, set her life ablaze. There would be no forgiveness, only ashes.

Red Mabel turned around on her stool and launched a cue ball at a group of dusty women who were playing truth or dare. The ball smashed into the pint glasses, shards and liquid flying everywhere.

Cackling, the miners responded by hooting and grabbing at their crotches. The miners were more feral and violent lately, and if the rumors were true, emboldened by drugs. Laverna didn’t care what they were buying from Black Mabel, as long as they continued to spend money at the bar. Red Mabel’s fits only exacerbated their recklessness. The miners were itching to fight someone their own size. Laverna threw the bar rag at her best friend.

“Those bitches are out of control,” protested Red Mabel. “You should make them clean it up.”

“I really wish you’d stop breaking things,” said Laverna. “I’m in mourning.”

Black Mabel staggered through the front door, eyes unseeing, bombed on pills. As usual, she had embraced her nickname, wore a black T-shirt underneath a pair of inky work overalls. She wore that cursed leather duster, dark as night, and much too big for her. She wore it every day, even in the summer. It swept across the floor, filthy with old mud splatters, the hem soaking wet from the snow. Black Mabel’s feet were invisible, and as usual, she seemed to be levitating. Her face was shockingly white, surrounded by the massive collar and lapels she turned up against the wind. While Black Mabel dressed to instill fear, Red Mabel would just as soon punch you in the face. Red Mabel guzzled the rest of her drink and left in disgust. As she passed Black Mabel, Red Mabel elbowed her in the arm, but she didn’t seem to notice.

The bar was more rowdy than usual. One card game had dissolved into arm wrestling in bras, and Laverna saw two of the women pass a green olive to each other on their tongues. The men from the highway department cheered at this. Laverna sent Black Mabel over to admonish the women, and watched as she ducked a shower of peanuts the drunkest silver miner threw. When Black Mabel returned, Laverna gave her a piece of beef jerky.

“I always wanted to be a miner,” slurred Black Mabel. “My mother was a miner, and both my cousins.” Laverna took a drink of coffee, and raised an eyebrow. This was a story she had heard many times before. “I couldn’t cut it,” continued Black Mabel, looking over at the table of exhibitionists as they draped themselves over the jukebox.

“Mining is hard work,” said Laverna.

“I’m claustrophobic,” said Black Mabel. “I went down the shaft on my first day and burst into tears.”

By eight o’clock, Laverna had officially lost control of the crowd. She called Tabby for backup, because Tabby was always hungry for tips and lived only a block away. The rest of her barmaids were probably unconscious somewhere.

Of all people, Rachel had been Laverna’s most dependable barmaid. When Rachel was fifteen, Laverna had fired her entire weekend shift, both girls, for stealing from the cash register. Laverna was the law of the town, and a penny-pincher, so she installed her excited fifteen-year-old daughter behind the bar on weekend days, and the money flowed. Laverna didn’t care if it came from pedophiles. Rachel had been a natural—imperious and saucy and a quick learner. Laverna eventually stopped shadowing her, and for two years, Rachel transformed two of the slowest shifts into moneymakers. When Rachel was exiled, bookkeeping was the only time Laverna missed her daughter.

A man pushed his way through the crowd at the front door, nodding at each and every miner. They glared at him as he passed, at his Quinn Volunteer Fire Department polo shirt. His eyes were locked on Laverna. He sat down next to Black Mabel and inched his stool away from her, to show some respect. He smoothed out a ten-dollar bill with his index fingers and propped his elbows on the bar.

“Scotch,” he said.

“We’re out,” Laverna said, and wiped her hands with the beer rag.

“Beer,” he declared. “And keep the change.”

Laverna studied him closely. He was vaguely handsome, and looked more capable than the other firemen she had known. His polo shirt was unwrinkled, tucked into his pants.

“Thanks,” Laverna said, and poured him a beer and placed the pint before him. He raised his drink to her.

“Jim,” he said, and stuck out his hand. “I’m new in town.” He stood up, and she had no choice but to shake. “I’ve been wanting to make a proper introduction.”

“He’s the new Jim in the department,” offered Black Mabel. “Jim Number Three.”

Laverna rolled her eyes and went back to the crush at the bar. Laverna did not like the volunteers in town, especially the firemen. They had enormous egos and couldn’t keep it in their pants.

Frank had never come to the bar, even after they were married. He left her every June to spend five months in the woods at the Forest Service lookout, came back in November, left again in January. He spent winters maintaining snowmobile trails, not looking for forest fires, yet he returned to Quinn one April to a woman enflamed. Laverna had missed two periods.

Frank took to sleeping on the sunporch, and this was where he stayed through a ferociously cold April, shielding himself with a space heater and piles and piles of sleeping bags.

Rachel was born in September 1964, and Laverna’s cold, cold heart warmed when they handed her the baby. Frank was not present at the hospital—he stayed on the front porch, working his way through another Louis L’Amour. When they brought the baby home, Frank smiled for the first time since the yard sale. And for a while, anyway, he did make some effort—he bought a crib at an auction and played the harmonica for the baby, who seemed to enjoy it. He knit a tiny pink afghan on the front porch, a skill nobody knew he had.

They passed two years this way. Frank wasn’t a doting father, but he tried his best. He built Rachel a mobile of airplanes from tin-snipped beer cans, which hung above her crib until Red Mabel pointed out that if it fell on the sleeping baby it would dismember her. He gave Laverna his paychecks, stayed out of her way, occasionally cleaned Red Mabel’s guns. When he decided to leave, shortly after Rachel’s second birthday, he gave no clear reason why, maybe because Laverna didn’t ask for one. She needed the sunporch for storage anyway, had thought about learning how to make jellies and applesauce for the baby; the woods were thick with huckleberries, and she needed the space for canning.

Frank bought a trailer house on the outskirts of town. The checks came every month, and Frank kept to himself—Laverna got a child out of the deal, and as a businesswoman, she determined that all accounts were settled.

When Tabby arrived at the bar, Laverna made a big production of wiping the nonexistent sweat from her brow, poured herself a greyhound, and limped away to the only free table in the back, carrying a bar rag with her so it looked like she still intended to do some work. She put her feet up on the chair, and watched Jim Number Three push himself off his barstool. He looked embarrassed as his boots crushed the shells of peanuts. Wiping his hand on his jeans, he pulled up a chair across from her.

“Howdy,” he said. “Mind if I join you?”

“You could rub my feet,” said Laverna.

“I’m a volunteer,” he stated. “But that doesn’t mean I do charity work.”

“How many fires have you been on?”

“Four,” he said as he sat down.

“Jim Number Three, you are a true hero.” She sipped at her greyhound and did a quick head count of the miners. She liked to keep a tally while they drank. When they disappeared, bad things tended to happen.

“They were chimney fires,” he said.

“Chimney fires can blaze out of control,” she offered.

“Not these ones,” he said.

Laverna excused herself to pour another greyhound. The door swung open, and Bert Russell emerged from a curtain of snow suspended in the howling wind. The door eased shut behind him, and as usual, he avoided looking at Laverna. She checked the expiration date of the grapefruit juice, and interrogated Tabby about Jim Number Three.

“Who is he?” Laverna topped off her drink with a maraschino cherry, just because it seemed like a flirtatious object. She hadn’t flirted in years, except for tips. But knowing that her daughter was back in town, Laverna was determined to trap him as soon as possible.

“Never seen him before,” said Tabby. “He’s cute, though. You’d better stake your claim.” Tabby pulled the fresh pint glasses from the dishwasher. She put a hot pint glass in front of Bert and poured the remnants of a pitcher into it. The beer was so cold that it cracked, the pint glass exploding, and the beer ran down the bar and into Bert’s lap. Tabby apologized profusely, and Bert said nothing, which was typical. He moved his barstool over and let the beer drip onto the floor. Bert wasn’t one of Laverna’s favorite customers, so instead of handing him her rag, Laverna returned to Jim Number Three.

Jim Number Three flinched when Laverna threw the bar rag past his head. One of the silver miners was on the verge of vomiting, as the rag landed on the floor near the card game. The silver miners cursed when the tallest one unleashed three kings.

“You lose,” said the tallest woman. “All of you.” She tapped powder out of her boots with a beer bottle, flipped over the pile of cards that were out of play.

The vomiting began, and Laverna called for the pail of sand, kept behind the bar.

“TABBY!”

Tabby struggled to carry the metal pail, and Jim Number Three ducked when she nearly hit him in the side of the face.

“I try to keep this place respectable,” said Laverna. Jim Number Three nodded.

The miners were silent as Tabby grabbed a handful of sand, sprinkled it across the mess on the floor. They knew they had done wrong.

“Welcome to Quinn,” Laverna said, and raised her greyhound. Jim Number Three lifted his pint glass in return, seemingly unfazed by the body fluids on the floor. Usually, it was blood. Laverna wondered if her luck had changed, if this new man might be a gift worth keeping. It was her birthday after all.

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