The Birthday Girl

07/22/2009 4:00 AM |

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,

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

“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

“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.