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.
"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?"
"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.
"They're getting married," Justin says.
This takes a moment to sink in. When it does, I wonder why he's been here for ten days and only now decided to tell me. I ask him, exactly that.
"I don't know," Justin says. He keeps his eyes careful on the TV, where the cheerleaders are trying to balance on big rubber balls, like six feet tall. He says, "I just thought you wouldn't like it much. Plus I thought Mom ought to be the one to tell you."
"Is that why she was coming to pick you up?"
Justin shrugs, but I know I'm right, and I know I should have seen it coming months ago, when this plan started. It didn't make sense even then. Fifteen years old, he could fly on his own, as he did on the way up. I knew this all along. I hoped all along that she wanted to talk, though I didn't know about what. Something to say to me. Not this.
Justin says, "I just don't think she's going to make it in tonight."
"No, you're right."
"I bet I end up meeting her in Salt Lake tomorrow."
"When's the wedding?"
"June," he says.
"At the Coronado."
"It wasn't a guess," I tell him. "She's wanted to get married at a place like that her whole life. She likes it fancy. I guess Del can afford fancy."
Outside is wild wind and windblown snow. Eleven o'clock on a Saturday night and there's nobody on the street, nobody, not a car and not a walker — except, now that I look, a single old man in a red-and-black plaid jacket is making his way into the wind, inching forward under the brim of his hat. He walks slowly and with determination. I am suddenly and for no good reason heartbroken to look at him. Alone and out in the weather, on a night when nobody ought to be out. Really, I know he's probably just another mean drunk, walking home from the bar because he's got too many DUIs to drive anymore. But looking at him, alone and small, I find something giving way inside me.
When I turn back from the window, I catch Justin studying me. He whips his eyes back to the TV but too late. I can see he's been watching, trying to see how I'll react to his little bit of news. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Of course he's curious.
"You can go down to the bar if you want," he says. "I'm just going to watch TV for a while. I can come get you if she calls or something."
I don't say anything.
"I'm fine," he says.
This night is Justin's last till spring, and I know I should stay. But he's been here long enough this time to see inside me, and what I feel right now is not anything a father wants his son to see, small and weak and helpless. Elaine is getting married. Of course she's getting married! It's no business of mine. But I do feel completely undermined by the news.
"Maybe just one drink," I tell him. "Just a quick one. I'm pretty sure she won't make it in."
"A hundred per cent positive," he says. "Do they really have mermaids?"
"Sure they do."
"You've seen them?"
"I've seen pictures."
"But you've never seen an actual mermaid?"
"Not yet," I tell him. "One of these days."
"Come get me if you see one tonight, OK?" he says. "I mean it. The minute the mermaids come out, you come get me."
"Will do," I say. "They weren't out before though. But I'll definitely get you if they show."
"Definitely," he says.
The Sip 'n' Dip Lounge, you see, is on the second floor of the motel, and the pool is on the third floor, and the whole back of the bar is a big window into the underwater part of the pool. I'm not kidding. You can look this up. Some nights they have a show, where girls in bathing suits and mermaid flippers do artistic underwater dances while breathing out of air-hoses. I've seen the pictures, and I've had it described to me. All the way down the long hallways of the motel, I hope that they'll be out when I get to the bar. It seems like a fine night for mermaids.
When I get to the bar, though, the pool is almost empty and things have slowed down from before. The college students have taken their fun somewhere else, Piano Pat has gone on break, or maybe gone for the night — it's eleven-thirty already, which kind of snuck up on me. A light tinkly jazz is playing way in the background, and the couples that remain are scattered among the booths, the fishing nets and tiki faces and plaster-of-paris octopi. Instead of mermaids, we have a hefty couple in the pool behind the bar.
I order a Daniel's on the rocks and a bottle of Bud, which is what I order when I want to get a buzz on. I could have stayed married if I had wanted to. She was the one who left but I was the one who made the thing impossible. I knew that. Still, I loved her. Not that I had any high hopes or expectations, I wasn't waiting, wasn't holding my breath. But just the idea that she's going to be married — and not just married but married to Del, who lived in a gated community and sent out newsletters about himself three times a year — I feel like I'm about to let go of something I didn't know I was holding on to. No affection, she wrote. Justin had showed me one of the newsletters once, full of interesting information about Del, illustrated with full-color glossy pictures.
"It's my birthday today," says the woman on the next barstool.
"Well," I say. "Happy birthday to you."
In the dim light, she looks incredibly wholesome, long light-brown hair drawn back into a wide clip at the back of her neck, a flowered blouse and a long dark skirt. On the bar in front of her sits a brown beer bottle with the label scratched off almost entirely. Little shreds of label-paper line the bar in front of her like mouse turds.
"I'm supposed to be in Mexico right now," she says.
I leave this alone for a minute and the both of us sip our drinks and watch the underwater couple, back behind the bar. The magnifying effect of the water makes their legs look huge, like manatees. They might know we were watching but they might not. In the blue light, their giant legs twine together. God knows what their upper halves are doing but their legs can't seem to stop touching.
"I haven't been sexual for a long time," says the woman.
She stops there, and waits for a response, but I can't think of one. After a minute she says, "It was never really a priority for me, and then I went on the antidepressants. I'll tell you, that whole first wave, Prozac, Wellbutrin, those things would really knock you for a loop in that department. You ever get tangled up with that stuff?"
"No, of course not," she says. "Every woman I know over thirty is on antidepressants, every damn one. The men just drink themselves into the bag every night. That's why the Spanish and the Koreans and all are taking this country over, ten o'clock comes around and the guys are three sheets to the wind and the ladies are, like, wood from the waist down. Do me a favor."
"Anything," I tell her. I mean it.
"I'm going to buy a pack of cigarettes here in a minute," she says, "but when you go, I want you to take them with you. Toss them out, run them under the sink, I don't care. Just get them out of my sight. Otherwise I'll smoke the whole pack and then I'll smell like cigarettes for Bob."
"My fiancé," she says. "Down in Puerto Vallarta."
"Everybody's getting married," I tell her.
"Not quite everybody," she says. She lifts herself off the barstool with a light, undrunken grace and goes out into the hallway, where the vending machines and restrooms are. If she isn't drunk, then what? I think about Justin, back in the room, and think that maybe I should just slip out while she's gone. I don't, though. I order another Daniel's on the rocks and settle back and watch the giant manatee legs afloat in the blue, fake-looking water. The light at this end of the bar is mainly from the swimming pool and filtered blue. The legs seem very friendly with each other. A hand floats down briefly into the water, then gone again into the air.
"You want to hear something strange?"
It was the girl again, or the woman, whatever — somewhere around thirty, plus or minus, with a sweet concerned face and wholesome hair. She shakes a Marlboro out of the pack, then offers me one, which I take.
"What's your name?" I ask her.
"My twin sister's birthday was yesterday," she says. "I bet you can't explain that."
"She was born at 11:59 and you were born at 12:01," I tell her.
She looks crestfallen for a moment, then perks back up. She says, "I hear they have mermaids."
"Not tonight," says the bartender, a stout redheaded woman with a face like the prow of a ship. She says, "Everything's buttoned up tonight with the snow and all. The mermaids called in at eight o'clock and said they weren't even going to try. I'll be lucky to make it home myself."
"Try Mexico," says the girl on the next stool. "Try getting to Puerto Vallarta in this."
"Do you have a dog?" I ask her.
"It seems like you've got one of everything else. One twin sister, one fiancé."
"One leg," she says, and giggles.
"You'll never know," she says. "It's one more item in the vast unknowable universe, one more piece of information beyond your ken."
"I would like to buy you a drink in honor of your birthday," I say.
"Gwen," she says. "And you?"
"Richard, I would love a piña colada."
"Done and done," I tell her. The bartender has overheard, and with invisible bartender gestures asks if I would like another drink, too, and I imperceptibly nod yes. Gwen places on the bar in front of us a photograph of a very large and mournful-looking dog, some sort of mastiff, mostly white, with a single large brown spot on his side. He's lying on his side on a wooden porch and in the background is lush, dense, green forest, almost a jungle, like nothing around here.
"Where are you from, anyway?" I ask.
She doesn't say anything, just takes my arm in her firm grip and I follow her eyes upward to the tank. The bartender brings the drinks, makes change out of the twenty I left on the bar, then she looks up into the tank as well. The hand has returned. It's a woman's hand with a wedding ring and we all watch it disappear down the back of the man's bathing trunks.
"Oh, for Christ's sake," says the bartender, and turns to a faithful customer at the end of the bar. "Wayne? Wayne, would you go tell those people that everybody is watching."
"Sure thing," says Wayne. "Right now?"
"This is not going to end well," says the bartender.
Gwen is staring up into the blue light of the tank, as if she's seeing something more than the rest of us, which maybe she is. Nothing really seems to be happening. It's just a hand resting on somebody's ass, and watching it makes me lonely. His legs are all right, hairy and muscular, but her legs seem like an example of all the flab and rot and death that comes to the body. The woman these legs belong to is not young and not tall and not slim. And yet they are there together, touching, floating in the pool. They think they're alone. They forgive each other enough to touch. They float.
"The things that I want and the things that I need, I can't get them to match up," Gwen says, still watching intently. "The people that I love. Bob tells me I smell like cigarettes."
"It's your birthday," I tell her. "You can have a little fun."
"It's my birthday? Who told you that?"
Her eyes slowly peel from the blue water of the tank and down to my arm, which her hand is still gripping. I had forgotten this myself. Her eyes open wide as she takes her hand away, and her mouth twists into sorrow.
"My God," she says. "I was saying those things out loud. I was talking, wasn't I?"
"A little," I tell her.
"All that time, I thought I was dreaming," she says. She suddenly looks deflated, quite drunk, and the bartender is staring at me as if I made it happen. She was here first but that's not going to matter. I think of Justin, back in the room, and know that I have made a mistake by coming here. I think of the snow outside. Gwen says, "The pills."
"You'd better go back to your room," says the bartender.
Gwen says, "I can't remember which one is mine."
"It's on your key. See if you can find your key."
Just then the light goes strange and wavy and when I look up, the couple are scrambling out of the pool and the surface of the water, reflecting down at us, is in turmoil. The light is agitated on Gwen's face as she dumps the contents of her bag on the bar in front of her — change, mints, pens and Kleenex, a Palm Pilot and a cell phone — then rakes through them with her fingers, finding pennies. Finding an aerosol of Mace, which the bartender shouldn't ought to see. I nudge it back into her purse and there is her key, right in front of her, room 212.
"Thank you, Richard," she says. "There's something wrong with me."
"Do you want me to help you find your room?"
"Yes," she says.
The bartender scowls at me — she disapproves of picking off the drunk — but I'm an innocent man, my intentions are good, I mean to walk her to the room and come right back! Or maybe just go back to the room, keep Justin company if he's still awake, which he is. The boy doesn't sleep, except all morning long. Gwen gathers her things back into her bag and steps gingerly off the barstool, a little funhouse wobble in her move. She was fine a minute ago. Piano Pat is firing up the Wurlitzer as we leave, a flurry of arpeggios that gradually resolves into "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown."
"I'm not going to fuck you," Gwen says in the hallway.
The college boy, out to get ice and fifty feet ahead of us, is surprised to hear it. He turns and stares.
"I didn't think you were," I tell her. The hallway stretches far in front of us, ending at a blind corner; the parking lot, through the glass doors, is filling up with snow like milk in a glass. The cars are unrecognizable mounds, animal-like shapes, like white cats curled up to sleep. The college boy waits by the ice machine, waits till we pass and eyes us eagerly. He's curious. I fight the urge to flip him off. Piano Pat's music — drum machine, piano, synthesizer, organ — echoes and pursues us down the long hallway, like a poisonous fog.
We get to Room 212 in what feels like half an hour. I hand her the key, which I have been holding for her, and say something mild and polite by way of goodbye, feeling faintly relieved.
"Wait," says Gwen.
"Wait for what?"
"I don't want to be alone," she says. "Just for a minute. Come on."
She turns the key and slowly opens the door and holds it open for me to walk through. And look, I know what you're thinking, but it isn't that. I don't expect to do anything with her. I don't even want to go in. But her face just looks so lost and lonely, so momentarily naked, it would be a betrayal to turn away. I've looked like that before, I think. When Elaine first left, I did. I couldn't just turn my back.
Inside her room is not what I was expecting.
The flowers, for one thing, a round array of pink and purple and green poking out of the ice bucket, a single red carnation in a water glass by the bed, a couple of snapdragon or orchid-looking things on the other bedside table. The air of the room is still and full with the smell of flowers, and of her products and perfumes, a little stale. Also, there are candles, which she had apparently left burning on the desk by the TV while she went to the bar. On the table sits a still life of wine and bread and cheese, a lonely dinner. In the corner, by the closet, sits a set of black professional luggage, the frequent flyer's TravelPro rollaboard and the big black sample case.
She lies down upon the bed and starts to weep. I stand in the doorway, uncertain. Where should I put myself? I never know what to do with a crying woman. I never seem to meet any other kind. Gwen has curled herself into the shape of an S, her face turned away from me. I don't know what to do with my body. Once more, it seems to me that I should just go, back to my son, back to my life. I remember, just at that moment, nursing baby Justin through a bout of croup on a cold winter night, a night he couldn't catch his breath and the three of us alone in a place so far from anywhere that we couldn't see a ranch light from our porch, nothing but stars. And here he was, he couldn't breathe, two years old or even less. And I remember taking him into the shower, and holding him in the steam, trying not to drop him, the slippery-smooth little body. And after a while he started to sound OK. We stayed an hour longer in the steam, just to make sure, and all that time Elaine was on the porch, smoking cigarettes and praying — though she wasn't religious at all except in medical emergencies and ice storms on the highway. I don't know why this comes to me but it does: the soft wet skin, the panic.
"You shouldn't leave candles burning when you're not here," I tell her, when the tears stop. "You could burn the place down."
"It's fireproof," she says.
"No," says Gwen. "But I don't care."
She smiles at me after she says this, a bright artificial grin that shuts off quickly as a light bulb. Like an old woman, she gets out of bed slowly, stiffly, and sits at the table and pours a glass of wine for herself out of an open bottle, then one for me. She's thinking. She still looks wholesome, whole wheat, like the kind of girl who might have made her outfit herself, all long brown straight glossy hair, neat as a pin. I lie down on a bed for five minutes these days and I get up looking like I've been dead for a week. She, on the other hand, looks fresh and clean.
"You need somebody to take care of you," I tell her.
"It's not going to be me."
"I never thought it was," she says. "It's not going to be Bob, either. Sitting on a beach in Mexico."
"He changed his mind."
"Nope," Gwen says. "He just stopped answering his cell phone."
"Maybe his battery went dead."
"Maybe Bob is dead."
"I hope so," she says — then shudders, like she has said something unlucky. "I don't want him dead," she says. "I just want him to suffer a little."
"You should introduce him to my ex-wife," I tell her.
"Ha, ha," she says. "Just like Jay Leno."
I sit across from her at the table and I take her hand in mine and look at it, touch it: a girl's hand, soft and long-fingered, with pointed, painted nails. She is, to this extent, taking care of herself. I don't look at her face. I don't really want to know what's in it, what expectation or what fear. I just focus on her small, soft, attractive hand between my own.
I tell her, "When it's gone, it's gone. You'll know. You should go to him when the weather breaks."
"What if he's not there? What if he doesn't want to see me?"
"You'll be alone," I say. "Same as now but with palm trees and sunshine."
"I mean to do well," she says — and when I look up, she's staring into my face, like she means to be understood, like this is somehow suddenly important. She says, "I try to do the right thing but I feel like I'm always, I don't know, things are running away from me. Like I got off the SSRIs so I could, you know, be with Bob. Be enthusiastic, because, you know, people like that in a person. Enthusiasm. But then, I don't know, it's like everything speeded up and got all edgy, like when I quit smoking the first time, that little voice that wouldn't shut up saying time for a cigarette, time for a cigarette... You know? Like nothing would stay where it was supposed to be, nothing was at rest. So I take these other things just to slow things down and meanwhile Bob won't have anything to do with me. He says my personality is suddenly a problem and it's just because I'm trying to make him happy. Nothing ever works out the way I planned it. Do you think I'm pretty?"
"I do," I tell her, and rub the warm skin of the back of her hand.
She stands, and in one gesture, it feels like, steps free of her plain skirt and blouse, discards her bra and then stands naked before me in only her knee socks, never taking her eyes off my face. Her body is perfect. There's something blinding about it, too bright to be stared at directly, there in the pale candlelight — and the searchlights of her eyes, playing over my face, looking for something, looking for what?
Whatever is wrong with her, it is nothing I can fix, or even help. I know this all at once. It's a mistake for me to be here.
"Do you think I'm beautiful?" she asks.
Because she is, she knows it, she's beautiful but she's dead, and I feel myself drawn toward her, toward the taste of ashes in my mouth. I rise to leave, but I don't leave. I can't seem to. Like gravity, she pulls me in. Her body is perfect. Her pubic hair is pale gold, honey-colored.
Then I remember Justin, back in the room — his little body, wet with soap, so many years ago — alone in our room, and I know I shouldn't be here, I know I don't want him to end up this way, alone.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I tell her. "I have to go."
"Don't go," she says.
"I have to."
"Not tonight," she says. "It's just one night."
"I have to go," I tell her. And even then, it's half a slow minute longer before I can gather myself to go, take my eyes from hers, turn my back on her lovely body and automatically walk away, out the door and into the hallway and down the hallway, breaking through sticky little cobwebs of need and desire, half-mistaken, ready to turn back or to flee, at the same time. I feel like I've been narrowly rescued, at the same time wanting to turn back to her, wanting not so much to touch her — though I do want to touch her — as to help, if I can, for just one night, her loneliness.
I stand at the doorway to the parking lot and press my hot forehead against the cold glass. Outside the wind has died down but the snow has continued to fall, big fat flakes drifting slowly down, slowly as the snow in one of those Christmas balls filled with slow liquid, the little house with the snowman out front...
Elaine is waiting for me when I get back to the room, Elaine and Justin.
Immediately I feel accused, and I am — she can smell it on me, the perfume, candle-smoke and cigarettes. She always could.
"What are you doing here?" I ask her.
She looks good, stylish, expensive, sleek. She air-kisses me on either cheek and gives me a guarded, warning look. We're not going to talk about it with Justin around.
"They landed us in Helena and bused us up," she says. "A hellish drive."
"I was just down in the bar," I tell her.
"Really?" Elaine says. "I was just looking for you there. Just a few minutes ago."
"You must have just missed me."
"I'm sure I did," she says.
And this is all. In a minute, she will go back to her room down the hall; in six hours, we'll all be awake again, and I'll be driving back to the airport, the bright sunshine painful on the white, white snow. In a couple of days you'll be back playing second base under the rustling palm trees, and I know that you'll be wondering what happened on this night, and I think someday I might tell you, though I can't imagine where or when it would come up. Just another day in the river of days, long gone.
And this last thing: I went back, the night after you left. I don't know if I was looking for her exactly but I did check to see if she was still at the hotel. Of course she was long gone. But I went back down to the bar, just to have a drink anyway, and that night the mermaids were out. And this was the thing, I knew one of them — she was this girl I met when I was talking to a class at the Vo-Tech, talking about range management. Just a pretty girl, an ag major. But then I looked up through the glass and I saw her and I recognized her right away, even with her hair all floating around her face and her feet bound up into a rubber fin. And this is the thing that's amazing to me, I never realized this but I guess they can see back through the glass and into the bar, because she recognized me, too. She swam up to the glass and she smiled at me and waved, and I waved back, and then she breathed in, from her air-hose, and out again. A string of bubbles drifted out of her mouth and up through the lit blue water and out, into the unseen sky above the surface.
From the story collection Where the Money Went by Kevin Canty, which is being published this month by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. Copyright (c) 2009 by Kevin Canty.
Kevin Canty’s short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, Story, Tin House and Glimmer Train. He is the author of three short story collections, Where the Money Went, which will be published in July 2009, Honeymoon (2001) and A Stranger in This World (1994), and three novels: Into the Great Wide Open (1996), Nine Below Zero (1999) and Winslow in Love (2005), all published by Doubleday and Vintage. He is a professor in the English Department at University of Montana in Missoula.