The Birthday Girl 

Saturday night at the Sip 'n' Dip: Piano Pat is bellowing out her 35,000th rendition of "Take Me Home, Country Roads" while the college boys and girls — home for Christmas, stuck in town till New Year's — suck mixed drinks off the piano-top bar and sing along. It's ten o'clock or ten-thirty and the snow is coming down like a freight train outside. I get a Daniel's Ditch to go and take it back to the room, not without regret. The bar is snug and warm and windowless and loud. The street outside looks like the Ice Planet.

"Where's my Coke?" asks Justin.

"What Coke?"

"The one you didn't get me," he says.

I dig a wad of dollar bills out of the front pocket of my jeans, separate one from the mass of change and throw it at his head. Reflexively his hand comes up to catch it. He plays second base for his high school team in San Diego and is already platooning as a sophomore. When he gets up to go find the Coke machine, he is taller than me, again, as he has been this whole visit, which I find surprising, again.

I fire up the laptop and his mother's flight is still delayed, hasn't left Salt Lake, no arrival time specified. I'm glad I'm not there with her. She's easily bored and she gets frantic when she feels trapped, like a terrier in a box. Plus she doesn't smoke anymore, according to Justin, which would only make it worse. I remember her in that exact airport, remember looking at her in the glassed-in smoking room, talking and smiling with her fellow-sinners while the rest of us sat alone and bored. On the television, the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders are taking on the beautiful Raiderettes in a tug-of-war across a mud pit, under a blue, blue sky and the flickering shade of palm trees. It's some kind of danger, but fun danger — with mud-wrestling overtones — and the girls all have big white smiles. They're having a terrific time. Outside the motel room, the wind whistles in the corners of the building, and snow taps against the glass.

"We've got a cleaning lady," Justin says. "Beat that."

He flops onto the bed, at length and at speed, and the bed complains.

"I've got a girl comes in once in a while," I tell him. "She's supposed to come tomorrow. When it's just me, I don't need the help."

"You're saying I'm a mess?"

"Hell, yes, I am. Do you ever look behind you?"

"No."

"Well, you ought to," I tell him. "A trail of empty soda cans and candy wrappers and dirty socks and I don't know what-all else."

"Granny," he says.

"Pigboy," I tell him.

I snap the silver Apple shut and go look out the window, at the horizontal snow flying through the streetlight, the cars inching down the street, the cones of their headlights outlined in snow. Elaine will never make it down in this weather, or even up, if she's lucky. Better to cancel the flight completely than to spend those hours circling, waiting for the weather to break, a slot to land in. I picture Elaine in her own motel room, alone and eight hundred miles away; and I'll admit I do take a certain satisfaction in this image. Let her suffer for once. Let her spend the night alone.

Justin watches the cheerleaders while I call up to the Black Star to see how things are going with the storm. Carter tells me everything's buttoned up tight and the cattle are down in the draws where they ought to be. He says it's not snowing that hard up there and he doesn't even think it'll get down to zero. I tell him I'm definitely stuck for the night and some hard-to-figure chunk of the next day. Originally Justin and his Mom were supposed to fly out at ten the next morning but all bets are off in this weather.

I summarize what Carter told me in a short email and send it off to New York. I manage the Black Star for a person you have seen on television. It's really more of a desk job than you might think but I still look OK on a horse.

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