by David Sims
You'd like to blame what happened on the damn Paiutes. Or the bikers out of Sac. Or any of those other sons of bitches who never worked an honest day in their lives. But you can't, can you, Joe? That's why you ain't coming back.
You called her Babe even though her real name's Agnes Degitt. You called her Babe, and she liked that, liked the sound of the word across your lips. She'd smile, and reach out her small stubby fingers to stroke your temples, pulsing with those thick brain veins of yours. "Pumping blood to the source," you told her once. "Ain't nobody with lobes like yours, Joe," you said she answered. "When you die, they oughta put your skull in a museum someplace." And how you two would laugh, in the kitchen of her tiny crib down in Fallon, snapping beer caps from bottles and stacking them like coins while her ancient chihuahua snorted and farted under the red formica table. Yeah, I know all about those days. I should, seeing as how you invited me down there so often. But every time I visited, I always carted along six quarts of Brown Derby and a fifth of Beam, so I know I don't deserve this. She's bleeding all over my couch, Joe, while I keep walking to the window, wondering where the hell you are.
It's quiet and real dark out tonight. When I close my eyes I can still see you sticking your tongue in her ear and telling those old stories, about being in the Army and laying track for the Great Northwest. And the one about the night the two of you first met in the Windmill Lounge at suppertime and how by midnight you were driving down to Jackpot in the rain. You'd act it all out for me, how Babe held the Crown Royal sack on her lap and you reached over to fiddle all those silver dollars and what was soft and wet beneath the velvet and her skirt.
And the last time I was there, what was it, a month ago? Babe fell asleep, and it was just you and me and the dog. You said how you couldn't sleep, how you'd been spending your nights lying there awake, listening to her snore, and how after awhile you'd have to get up and twist the knobs of the old car radio she had on the window sill, drawing juice from the jumper cables that drooped down to the near-dead battery on the floor.
You remember that night, Joe? How you said your heart would break when you listened to music from stations far away, places you knew you'd never get to? Is that where you went? Out there into the dark, chasing down radio signals to somewhere you know has to be better than this desert? I know you wanted to run away with Babe, Joe, slap her awake, kick away the bottles, dump her clothes into an alfalfa sack, hit the road in your old Falcon and just keep on going. But neither of you could ever do that. Until what happened tonight, I guess. And whatever it was, it made you go alone.
Why me, Joe? That's one thing I want to know. It's not like I owed you anything. It's not like I ever hurt you bad enough to deserve this, to have to watch your old lady dying. Two hours since you banged on the door of the trailer, rousing me from a good dream, holding her in your arms like she was a sleeping kid coming home from the drive-in.
"Mitch, Mitch, my man," you said. "Something bad's come down. Babe's hurt. Hurt bad. Take care of her for me, will you? I'm going to get help." Me standing there half-asleep, what did you expect me to say? I thought she was drunk. It was only after I pulled on my pants and lit a cigarette that I realized she'd been knifed.
Getting back into the Falcon, you muttered something about being up in Crazy Corners, and Indians, and finally something about bikers, and then you were gone. Now I'm wondering if any of that's true. I got your goddamn woman whimpering in my living room, Joe. Where the hell are you?
Okay. I get it now. You ain't coming back. So what do I do? Call the sheriff and say "It's like this, Parker. Joe Clemmons brought her here couple hours back. He said they'd been drinking up in Winnemucca. I don't know what happened, but there she is." That'll carry real far. I don't need this shit, Joe. I got another nine months on parole. I told you that. You should've remembered. You should've known better than to bring her to me.
"Joe? Joe! What happened?" Babe says from the couch. Her eyes are closed and she's resting on her side, arms wrapped around her enormous tits. She's wearing this paisley print summer skirt and a sleeveless black t-shirt and I can see the veins pulsing in her neck. Her skin looks slick and yellow.
"Joe's not here," I say. "It's me, Babe. Mitch." I kneel down on the floor beside the couch. Looks like the bleeding's slowed down some. The dish towel's all red and her clothes are pretty much soaked, but at least she's not dripping as bad as she was a half hour ago. But what the hell do I know? Maybe she's running out of blood or something. Can that happen to a person?
Looks like a deep gut cut, far as I can tell. I didn't want to look too close, though. I just lifted her shirt a little and pulled down the waistband of her skirt enough to see where it was coming from, a long gash between her lower left rib and her belly, down into the smooth left thigh. That was enough. I didn't need to look no further. I saw what I needed to-enough to know it's all well out of my league.
"Where's Joe?" she says, eyes fluttering like moth wings.
"He went to get help, Babe. You need anything?"
She coughs, and a trickle of blood runs down from the corner of her lips. I run and grab another towel from the kitchen and wipe her mouth, smearing the thick red lipstick and the blood together until she looks like a kid who's just eaten six cherry popsicles. She keeps coughing. She pulls herself up a little, until she's half-sitting, half-leaning against the frayed arm of the couch. She reaches out her fingers, heavy with turquoise rings, and takes the towel from my hand. She doesn't stop, and for a second I'm going crazy from that gurgling noise. I stand up and walk across the trailer, open the blinds, but I don't see anything out there but the dark desert. I stare up at the sky and wish the stars were clear and bright, but they're not even showing through the clouds. At last she stops.
I turn to look at her. She's holding her side, her bleached blonde hair pulled back in a bun, a couple strands dangling loose across her high cheekbones. I remember Joe telling me how she was a mixed blood. Something about her grandfather being a crazy silver miner who just missed staking a claim at the Comstock, and took off to the hills, striking it rich another way when he found a Ute woman, was how Joe told it. I don't know why, but all of a sudden I see the Indian in her-dark eyes staring down at the blood on the towel, left hand palmed against the wound in her side.
"The sonofabitch ain't coming back, you know," she says. I've read stories in Parade Magazine about how people get real smart right before they die, how they start talking and the words make so much sense that whoever's listening can't help but be quiet. I walk to the refrigerator and grab a quart of Derby. I don't know whether or not people bleeding from knife wounds should drink beer, but I know that's what I'd want. So I ask her, "You want a glass of beer, Babe? You think that'll be okay?"
She looks up at me like she just realized I was there.
She seems better, but still I'm a little cautious.
I don't know if this means she's going to pull through,
or fall flat dead on her face in the next five minutes.
I get the same feeling I get when I'm playing Blackjack
down at Circus Circus, sitting on a nine and a queen
and waiting for the dealer to turn over his hand.
I grab the Fred Flintstone glass out of the cupboard, since it's the smallest one I got, and another pack of smokes from the counter, then sit myself down on the chair directly across from her. I set the glass on the coffee table and crack the Derby, pour it halfway full, then light her up a cigarette. "What happened, Babe?" I ask her after she takes a swallow. "If you don't mind my asking."
She takes a deep drag, holds it for a long time, then blows a smoke ring up to the ceiling fan. She chugs down all the beer and then points at the bottle. "The sonofabitch stabbed me. What do you think happened, Mitch?"
"Who? Who do you think? It was that bastard Joe."
This time I fill her glass all the way to the rim, then
light up one of my own. "Why would Joe do something
like that, Babe?"
"And what was that?" I keep waiting for her to keel over any second, but she seems calm now, and other than her yellow skin, rather healthy, I'd say-particularly for a woman who'd just oozed out about a gallon of blood.
"I called him a rabid, dick-sucking, coyote cur of an asshole who wouldn't know what love was if it came up and kicked him in the balls then tattooed her phone number on the head of his inch-long pecker is what I said." She sips at the beer, takes another drag, then says, "But that couldn't have been it. I've said a lot worse to him, and all he did then was raise his fist and threaten to break my face." She looks at me over the glass, her eyes dark, mascara heavy around her lids. "If some woman said that to you, would you knife her, Mitch?"
"I wouldn't knife nobody. For any reason," I answer, telling her the truth. I've been rehabilitated, as my counselor likes to brag. I'd learned my lesson the hard way, as usual. Two years down at the pen in Carson taught me that armed robbery is bad enough. Murder ain't something you want to even think about fucking with. So I can't believe what she's telling me. Sure, Joe's the kind of guy who won't think twice about putting his friend into this kind of situation, but I still find it hard to imagine him slipping a blade into Babe's gut. I always thought he loved her. Not that I'm trying to defend him, but I still need to make sure the story she's telling me is true, so I say, "And I don't think anything you said would be enough for Joe to want to knife you either, Babe. Not that I'm calling you a liar or nothing."
She waves her hand to tell me she's not offended, starts to look around. Her face reminds me of people who wake up in the drunk tank. "Holy Christ, look what I done to your couch," she says.
"It ain't nothing," I tell her. "I'll get a throw or something. Don't worry about it." I take a swallow from the bottle and crush my butt in the jar lid on the table. "You feeling all right? I think you lost a lot of blood."
"How do I know?" she says, closing her eyes. "I could be dying. Maybe I am." She leans up to take a swig of the Derby. "But you know the funny thing? The funny thing is I don't even care. I mean, what's worse than to have your old man sink a shiv into your gut? Whatever else happens after that is just piss icing on a shit cake." She looks me at me. "You don't have anything stronger around here, do you, Mitch? I mean, this might be my last drink and all, you know."
I nod. Even though I'm still not exactly what you'd call comfortable, I'm feeling better than I was a couple minutes ago. It looks like she'll pull through. She's talking like the Babe I remember, the one who'd down shots with me and Joe from the time we got off work at the alfalfa mill until the sky began to lighten in the east. I stand up to get the Beam from the kitchen, and on my way back I realize kind of suddenly that I still don't know what the hell happened.
"So why'd he do it, Babe?"
She opens her eyes and looks at me, hard and long. I busy myself cracking the plastic top off the whiskey. "He got tired of me, Mitch," she said. "That's the only reason."
That ain't good enough, I think. It's not like Joe to try to kill the woman he loves. "But what really happened?" I ask her, and then remember a line my lawyer used. "What were the circumstances that led to the crime?"
"It don't matter, Mitch. He ain't coming back."
"Matters to me, Babe. We still got to do something with you. You need to go to the clinic, get yourself some stitches at the least. We got to have a story to tell them, you know." I'd learned pretty early how if you're poor, you need good stories to work your way through the system. So had Babe.
"You want a story to give them assholes," she says, reaching for the pack on the table. "Tell them the truth. Tell them how me and Joe were out driving earlier this evening. Tell them how we fucked back there behind the silos, right on the Eagle-Pitcher Mine. Tell them how Joe had his bolt cutters in the trunk of the Falcon, and how that chain-link fence was just gleaming in the sunset, wanting to be trespassed through. We were in one of those moods like we sometimes get-you know how we are, Mitch."
I nod, remembering all the stories they'd tell me down in Fallon, how they laughed so much, their tongues darting in and out of each other's ears, how Joe couldn't keep from pawing at her ass, and her fingers always dancing up along the inside of his thigh.
"Then what happened, Babe?" I pass her the Beam and she takes a long swallow, then another.
"It's like this, Mitch," she says at last.
"We leave the mine and Joe says, 'Let's go on
up to Winnemucca, Babe, wash this cum out from between
our legs with some whiskey. Whattaya say?' Now you
know me, Mitch. I says to him, 'Sure, Joe, start driving.'
So of course when we get Winnemucca there's only one
place for us to go and that's Crazy Corners.
"We walk inside and the place is jumping, I mean really hopping, Mitch, especially for a Wednesday night. Joe shoulders his way past these bikers and finds us two seats at the end of the bar, back by the restrooms. It stunk like piss, and I told Joe I wouldn't mind standing, seeing as how my legs were cramped up from being in the car. But Joe turns to me and he says, 'No way, Babe. You gotta show these people that we belong here, too.' I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. I looked around and saw people just like us. A bunch of Indians were in the back by the pool tables, and the bikers, like I said, were up front by the door. I remember that because there was this one fellow, Christ, he must've gone over three hundred pounds, Mitch. But the funny thing is he was drinking mineral water and he kept getting up and looking out the glass block window-checking on his bike, I imagine. But other than them folks, everybody else looked just like Joe and me. Plain people, out for a good time." She pauses and motions for the bottle. "You ever notice that about him, Mitch?"
"Notice what, Babe?"
"About this thing Joe's got. How he's always got to prove something to the world. You ever notice that?"
While I light another cigarette I think about it. I met Joe last summer, when I started working at the mill. I'd been out of circulation for a while, so I wasn't used to being around people I didn't know. There was a bunch of us, and Joe was the only veteran. But this chip on the shoulder thing? I knew what she meant. I'd noticed it the first night I met Joe. We worked graveyard together, the two of us and Wild Davey. Once you get your line running, there ain't a hell of a lot to do. One night I wandered over into the office for a cup of coffee and found Joe sitting in the foreman's chair, tilting back a bottle and reading a Thermodactyl long underwear catalog. "What do you think about this shit?" were the first words he said to me, and he said them like he was ready to beat the hell out of me if I gave him the wrong answer, his white hair running wild from under the brim of his baseball cap and his brown hands thick and knotted.
"What shit's that?" I asked, holding my coffee cup to the spout.
"These long johns that cost $69.95."
"That all depends, " I said.
"On what?" he almost snarled.
"On how cold you are."
Joe looked at me for a second, and then I saw his wrinkled face break into a wide grin. He began to laugh and he offered me the bottle. "At last," he said, "I got somebody I can talk to."
We got along pretty good after that first night, spending most of our shifts talking while that rich Irpa Sapa 30 alfalfa kept running through the lines. I figure I know who Joe is, so I think Babe must have it wrong. She must've never got past seeing how Joe had to act tough, and give people a lot of shit, but how underneath it all, he was as helpless as her old chihuahua.
"No, I don't think he needs to prove anything," I say to her. "He knows who he is."
"Yeah," Babe says, looking away, "and now I know, too. He's the kind of bastard who'll knife the woman who loves him." She starts crying and the tears paint jagged black tracks across her Indian cheeks.
"Anyway," she says, "it doesn't matter. Where was I?"
"You were telling me what happened."
"Right. I decide not argue with him, so we sit down and he orders us up a couple double shots of R & R and everything's fine for a little while, we're just laughing and talking like usual. But then this one Paiute comes up from the pool table and elbows his way in between us. 'Hey, how you people doin'?" he says, smiling.
Sure, he was kind of forceful, and he almost pushed Joe off his stool, but I think that was more because the guy was loaded. Like I said, the bar was crowded, and anyway we were sitting closest to the tables. But Joe gets kind of riled. I could tell from the way those veins in his forehead started to throb. So I reach over and say, 'Joe, it's okay, honey.' But I know he doesn't hear me, doesn't even feel my fingers on his wrist."
Babe takes a pull on the bottle and I light another cigarette. I know what she means about those veins. One night at the mill, Wild Davey took a Forklift into one of my magnetos. He was whacked out of his head as usual, and he just sat there, pulling at the ends of his mustache, watching cleaned seed spill out all over the concrete floor. When he heard the commotion, Joe came running out of the office and his head was about to explode. He was swearing and shaking his fists, hopping up and down like a crazy man on speed, but more than anything, it was those veins, these big purple ropes laying just under the skin above his eyebrows that I remember most.
"Now just about the time all this is happening," Babe goes on, "the fat biker starts banging his fist on the bar. Seems like he'd ordered a round that never got there. Don't ask me why he was in such a hurry to drink another mineral water, but I suppose he was just showing some concern for his friends, who were lollygagging around, staring down at their hands holding empty beer bottles like that was the worst thing that could ever happen to a person. Everybody in the place was staring at the biker, of course. I mean the noise was loud, Mitch, with a capital L. Everybody but Joe, I should say. He must've decided this was his chance, so he pulls his hand away from mine and I can't believe it, but he pushes the Paiute guy backwards away from the bar and onto the floor. Joe leaps off his stool and stands there, knees bent, fists raised, veins throbbing, and he says, 'You got a problem, mister? You got a problem or something?'"
I look away from her. Her voice is getting kind of soft for a second, but then she starts to coughing again. I take the Beam from her hand and take a good pull, then wait until she stops.
"Christ, Mitch. This hurts," she whispers.
I don't know what to do for her. I mean, it seems like
there's something I should do. If I had a phone, I'd
call for the paramedics. But I don't. And my c.b.'s
been on the blink for a while, so that's out.
She's quiet and I watch her chest rising and falling, and all the while I'm thinking about that bobby pin. "What did Joe say?" I ask, almost not caring.
"He says, 'I got a right to her,' And the Paiute, instead of getting back up, he just lays back on the floor and closes his eyes, like he's talking to himself. 'No you don't,' he says. 'I can take her away. I can take anything away from you.' And Joe reaches behind him, lifting up the flap of his Levi jacket. He says to the Indian, 'You can't take nothing away from me, you goddamn Paiute. I got my rights. I'll show you how many rights I got.' And then out comes his bucknife, blade open, shining in the bar lights. I thought for a second he was going to jump down and run it right into the Indian. But then you know what he did, Mitch?"
"Joe grabbed me by the neck and pulled me off the stool. He held the knife under my left tit and then he says to the Indian. 'I'll show you. I'll show all of you people how much right I have to things I want. To her. To anything!'" She coughs again, and the blood trickles out from the corner of her mouth. "Then he stuck me in the gut. It hurt like hell, Mitch, let me tell you that. I felt his hand come off from behind my neck and I started falling to the floor. I looked at his face, seeing his eyes all teared up and wet. I remember saying, 'Why, Joe? I love you,' and then I don't remember nothing else until I woke up and saw you standing by the window, Mitch."
I just sit there. Outside the wind picks up a little and blows sand underneath the trailer. I know whenever I start hearing it like that, like animals that run faster than anything around here, like creatures you think see at night, when you're driving alone in this desert, that it's time to stop drinking.
"I can't figure it out, Mitch. Why'd he knife me?" Babe whispers.
I can't figure it out either, but I know it's true. I stand up and walk to the window. After a while, I turn around. She's closed her eyes. The cigarette's still burning in her fingers.
"Babe?" I say. She doesn't answer.
"Babe?" I walk over, take her cigarette, and snub it out in the jar lid. I look down at the table and see the empty beer bottle and how the Beam's half gone. "Babe?"
I think I hear the sirens. I light a cigarette and walk over to the door, open it and step out into the night. I can almost see them, the spinning red lights of the ambulance striking high and wide against all the clouds that keep out the stars. I imagine you sitting there beside Parker in the squad car, listening to stones hammering the fenderwells, looking out straight ahead, seeing the lights from my trailer. What did you tell him about what happened, Joe? What are you going to tell yourself?
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