Bursts into my head: Now, don’t go throwin’ stones at each other. Something my mother used to say. This, as I fingernail open yet another warm beer, sip off the foam, flip through the channels on the radio and drive on into the dark night out here. Nothing good on the radio at this particular moment. Probably why my mother’s bit of universal philosophy is creeping into my thoughts. More than anything else, really.
Not one of you is without sin.
Weird. Way those thoughts filter in.
I sip the beer and drive and wait for a good song to find its way onto my radio. A good song will make me feel a whole hell of a lot better about things. That’s all. The reception is going bad on me, and I’ve been going through the call numbers one at time instead of using the seek button. I hate it when the seek button on my radio doesn’t work. It’s like I’m all alone in the vast dark universe. Lonesome in the car that way. Sometimes I’ll just let the seek button go its own like I’m casting out with a big old electronic net trying to snag onto any old ditty and drag it down into my car. Ain’t working tonight. Not even the scratchy bite of some country blues station way east of here in Colorado by some quirk of atmospheric conduit is coming in tonight. Have to switch to AM, maybe, catch someone talking about the war and oil prices and relationships and what all else. Companionship’s all a radio is. Words. Something familiar to soothe me. Poor substitute for flesh and blood. Woman. Even just a friend.
I’m way out here in the poor reception because I got to thinking about my baby brother Carl. Tough shit him. He had to go and sign up for the Marines when he was but a day past eighteen. That’s been four years ago. Dead now, Carl. Did his tour, came home and bounced around some, got in some fights, took dad’s hunting rifle, drove his shitty old truck out into the sagebrush, and said sayonara. One of those fights he got in was with me. Stupid really. The morning before he did it I told him to go get a job. Tired of his ass on my couch. I worked hard for that couch. He swore at me. Swore back. Called him soldier boy. He took a swing and missed. I took a swing. Hit.
Ah hell, I’m not the easiest guy to get along with–but Carl? We were close. Brothers. I have lots of friends. Jim. Gart. Brad. Vicki. Aaron and Betty. There’s loads more. But then, they may or may not have any kind of head on their shoulders. The jury’s still out deliberating that one. Most like it will be a hung jury or thrown out for lack of any hard evidence.
I’ve been driving so long in the night drinking beer and trying to improve my lousy dark mood with the songs on the radio that I am getting mighty close to where one of those friends of mine lives. Old Til. He’s just ahead, down in here along this field nestled in between these scrub mountains. Like a tick.
Knocked on Til’s back door. His chickens were hunched over all white. Sleeping in the coop beside the lilac bush. It was through blooming for the year, black-green and swaying some in the breeze. Summer was on good. Til’s hound, Big Dick, out in the run. Let out a yelp at the sound of my knock. Damn loud dog, don’t know why he waited for me to knock to bark. Made me jump, near to slip off the crumbling concrete step. The chickens moved some there in the coop. Til opened the door and said, Why hell, Monte, what are you doin’ out here? Told him I was there to check out his lazy old ass. Til slapped me on the back and had me in. Glad to be in there with Til, tell you what.
We sat down in his kitchen at his table. Hot in there. Hot like he’d been cooking something up. A smell, too. Good smell, like bean casserole. Suspicious smell. Til couldn’t chef himself up any more than a peanut butter sandwich. Even that he’d screw up.
He offered me a cold beer from his fridge and I took it. Til’s always good for that. It was good beer. Cold. Appreciate a nice cold beer when all the beer you’ve been drinking to that point of an evening is cool at best, and then it’s only that first one you pop open after leaving the gas station that’s gonna be cool. Sometimes makes me want to turn round and go back to that Fuel-n-Go and say, Hey this beer is not cold. False advertising on the marquee. But that’s just me, a bit combative and always feeling remorseful for it. After.
Could hear the television in Til’s front room. Stations were getting changed somehow. So I says to Til, Who you got in there? And Til just rolls his eyes and says it’s his ex-wife Mag, and I give him the ah-ha look letting him know I know where the good food-scent in the kitchen originated, and I ask him where their kids are, and he says at grandma’s, and that’s all that needs to be said. Mag. I don’t try to say ever what another man’s business is, especially when his business concerns an ex-wife. I let it go. Sleeping dogs lie.
Later we’re all in my car heading north then east and southeast towards the little town of Loa. Beer in the Loa Supply’s cooler is good. Cold. Loa Supply is a little mom-and-pop convenience store. Stays open quite late for some crazy-ass reason. It might even keep itself open all night. Don’t know. Don’t care. Haven’t checked my Rolex when I go in there, just know they keep the beer cold there in the cooler at the back of the store. Smells like a real store when you’re walking back to the cooler. Old store, if you know what I mean, don’t change the stock much kind of smell. Dust and old cardboard, rust maybe. Puts me at ease. Makes me nostalgic for youth and the candy store up in Koosharem where my brother and I would ride our bikes with our pennies in our pockets. Most times the beer I drink bought at Loa Supply makes me weepy. Those days.
Mom used to say something about loss and sorrow, too. Can’t rightly remember what it was, but I know I miss Carl something horrible. Don’t know what all he saw. What he did there in Afghanistan trying to root out them Taliban. Imagine it wasn’t pleasant. Used to wake up on my couch screaming, Carl. I tried to coax it out of him, therapy of sorts. He wouldn’t talk to me though. Why he had to use that gun of dad’s, that’s what I would ask him if I could. Why you got to go and do that? Carl? Don’t we all have our demons and devils and whatnot? Don’t understand it much. Always think there’s gonna be another cold beer and maybe mischief in a young lady’s smile just around the corner. Mischief. So why Carl’d want to go and just eliminate the chance to see what might show itself around the next turn is a question I can’t answer. I will be stumped by that the rest of my life. Pathetic. Though it is.
Be damned if Loa Supply is closed when we get there. What is that? A sign? If so, Til and Mag and I don’t read it properly. Til’s idea we can most like go through a window or jimmy a back lock. Mag’s no help. On leave from her mothering duties and is feeling Bonnie. Makes Til her Clyde, I suppose. Me? Just the stupid toady who looks around at the dusty surroundings way out here in the nowhere and plays over the possibility. Bonnie and Clyde and their sidekick Dipshit.
Haven’t stole nothing since I was fourteen. I feel bad about that still. Someday I will drop off a fruit basket anonymous with two hundred dollars tucked under the pear to that good old Marvin down the lane from me. Little interest is due, I reckon. Only stole fifty or so from him, but they was hard times for Marvin when I snuck all those small bills he had hidden for a rainy day. Took them from the sock in his bureau drawer while Carl and the other kids were listening to his tall stories on the porch. Don’t know what I spent his money on. Fireworks and pop, most like. Fizz and crackled that old man’s rainy day away. Damn if that weren’t the meanest thing.
Quiet out here in Loa. Don’t think more than ten families are within walking distance of the store. Folks are all spread out up the lanes and down dirt-red roads with chuckholes that’d swallow any little foreign car that came along. My Chrysler’s big enough. Not that I would, normally. Drive these old roads. Don’t know a soul here, except maybe Joe, but he lives there on the main road on his goat farm going out towards Fremont.
We all just sit in my car. It’s parked right in front of the store. Headlights shining on the “Closed” sign hanging from a string on the door. Tension rising between us, like helium or something. All getting giddy with the idea. Cold beer. Sounds awful nice, and there’s nowhere else we’re going to get any tonight since we’re so far out here where the mule deer outnumber the humans ten to one.
Where you think the sheriff is?
All thinking it. I mean it is dead in Loa. Sunday night. Everyone holed up for tomorrow’s haying or that drive out to the coal mine or the natural gas field. Good folks getting their shuteye. Just want some beer. Mag prefers apple schnapps. That’s way out. Shoot. No state liquor stores open way out here. Here we are. Us sitting here in my car, our hearts beating faster cause we know we’re going to do it. Whoo-ee. Couldn’t be that simple. A window left unlocked? Is summer. Maybe just a screen to pop out. Worth a walk around the store just to see?
Somebody’s idea we hide the car off the main road and walk back to the store through the sage field. I find a place on a dusty road maybe just two hundred yards south of Loa Supply. Don’t seem right, but Mag and I are the ones walking towards the store. Til’s staying back at the car. Says something about parole and too fat and too drunk to run fast enough and what all else I don’t know. Got an excuse for everything, Til. So it’s Mag and me. All this. For beer.
I will tell you this: Mag’s really quite an attractive lady when you break it all down. Hell, don’t know what that means, break it all down, just that she sometimes manages to make me, well. Horny. A word as any. Whether it’s her flaming red hair or a glimpse of her cleavage. Sometimes it’s just the way she’ll sigh. She lifts her shoulders and drops them letting her breath out and tilts her head to the side and smiles at you and winks. Til and I have talked about that very thing before. Her sighs. Her winks. Usually we’ll toss a few words over it when she’s come by, all done up, to pick up the boys after they’ve spent a weekend with Til. His visitations. I would have been there having a beer and barbecue chops. Whatever. And she lingers for awhile in the kitchen and sips off one or the other or both our beers before she sighs and leaves. Finally. That’s when I’ll look over at Til and he’ll look at me and say, Screw you man. And I’ll say, Screw you, yourself. All quiet for a while, both of us wondering what’s in them shadowy hills off his porch, then Til will say, Shouldn’t have let her go. See how fat I am? I’ll say, Yeah, you’re fat. Til will say, Screw you man. We’ll both look off again into the shadows, sip our beer, and still? Wonder.
I suppose what it is really, is Til told me once that Mag thought I was kind of handsome in a scruffy sort of way and asked him did I think I would be interested in going out with her. This about a year after he and Mag divorced. Til and I just laughed about it, what with the code of friends. Exes and what all. But see it’s dark out here in the sage field between my car and Loa Supply. Mag keeps bumping into me. Her breasts so soft, and I’m getting thoughts in my brain, like the fact I’ve never been with a red head. Shoot. Why wouldn’t I think of Mag in an ungentlemanly way? Stars are shining in the night and we’re going to steal us some cold beer.
Pick yourself up a rock and cast it if it will make you feel better for what I’m about to tell you. Can’t say I wouldn’t pick one up. Nice round one. Feel good in my palm, just the right weight, cold in the summer air. We all do what makes us feel good. Right or wrong. Consequences weighed sometimes. Sometimes not. Where can a man go to find answers if not in the tough domain of actions, actual living, stealing? Touching, tasting. Fighting. Loving? I will pick up that rock. Biblical rock, you bet. But I’ll drop it on my own toe, turn the nail black, remind me six weeks from now. This I know: There’s the present and what you do with it and then there’s regret. Usually. Regret. Most of whatever it is, is holed up in the hills, the scrub pines and the cedar. Either that or it is spread out thin like dust over the red earth butting up against the walls, what they call a reef around here. It’s either now or past. The future is just something we’re all cutting towards, parting it with our noses. Foreheads. Whatever it is leading the way.
Mag and I robbed that store. Or is it burglary? Don’t matter what you call it. It was illegal. Now here I will tell you, no, I didn’t put a twenty dollar bill next to the cash register to cover the cost of the case of beer we carried out. I reckon some are thinking that I would have done some act such as that. I have won some trust somewhat. Perhaps? I might say that I went back to the Loa Supply a few nights later and slipped an envelope with a twenty in it under the door right under the closed sign hanging from its string. Maybe I put a note in the envelope along with the bill apologizing for our actions. I could have done that. You tell me. What you will be picking up the stone for, most like, doesn’t concern the beer we took or whether I made up for it with cash and an unsigned apology. Why you might be looking for a stone is for what I’m going to tell you. Now.
There we are, Mag and I, working our way through the sage and common rabbit brush and them weeds that stick in your socks headed towards the dark outline of the Loa Supply store. Mag is real nervous. She keeps hanging onto my arm and pulling it against her. Damn. When she does that my hand keeps rubbing under her belly. That place. It’s nothing sexual to her I don’t think, but then I’m not too sure what it is to her or to me for that matter. Kind of nice is what it is, and the adrenaline is pumping mad in my veins. Always thought it was slick the way that adrenaline works for the body. Fight or flight, all that. Mag next to me. A bit shorter than I am. Think she’s near thirty years of age. Pretty lady. Said already. Well.
I’m leading the way with Mag hanging on my arm, and I’m doing my best to not lead us headlong into any bushes for fear of the ticks that are just waiting for an unsuspecting animal to come along and give them a free blood feast. Step in something soft. Know right away it’s an anthill. Feel bad. Ordinarily I avoid stepping on anthills. Feel they’ve got it hard enough being so small without a big lumbering man for crying out loud should come along and stomp their little intricate tunnels and such. Wonder about that queen down deep in there with all the blind attendant ants grooming her and fussing and all the piss-and-vinegar workers on the surface that would die. For her. Adoration. Something to live for. Or to die for.
Come to a fence, just your run-of-the-mill fence with barbed wire running and sagging at the top of the cedar posts that are spaced evenly. Push down the wire. It’s old and lost its tension. Squeaks a horrible racket. Can’t be helped. The sound makes me nostalgic too, but I won’t go into the whys or wherefores here. I throw a leg over and make sure I’ve got crotch clearance, holding the barbed wire down between my legs with both hands. Swing my other leg over. Now comes Mag. Damn her jeans are tight. Worry she won’t be able to get her legs up and over and I push the fence down lower. More squawking wire and she gets one leg over. Exertion. Steady. Bend. Over.
We’re standing in grass that could use a mow in the back of the store. There are three windows and a door. Just for kicks I try the door. Unlocked. Makes me jumpy right off, thinking, that’s awful careless or more like someone is still around inside. I don’t hesitate though and go through the door. Mag right there with me. I can feel her heat. Boy she’s making me hot. And bothered. Remember Til telling me one night the way she mewled like a lamb when they’d make love. Peculiar, that. It’s not too dark in the store, the light coming from one or two low fluorescents in the corners, and it’s comfortable cool. Puts my mind to the beer cooler. We walk through the little back storage room and into the store with its old smell that puts my mind on Carl.
Right then Mag grabs my behind. Just up and takes a big handful of my starting-to-soften backside in her little girlish fingers. Gooses me good. Now why she chose to do that the moment we are standing illegal in a store with the intent of stealing merchandise is something I’ll have to bring up with her some other time. Probably I will just keep that silent, though. Some things just don’t need asking. Sleeping dog again, or some such notion. I figure the short of it was she was just feeling her oats. Robbing a store might stir up desire in the best of us. Hell, I know I was stirred. Well, I jump like I’ve been cattle prodded, and I knock a sack of corn chips off the rack and onto the floor, and that makes Mag snigger. Damn. Why she had to go and do that? I’ve come around to take a squeeze on her. Justice. Got a shameful good handful of her ass, when.
I see the dog.
A big one. Rottweiler. There at the front of the store, brown and black as all banished hell. The thing is, poor son-of-a-bitch has near hung himself somehow. I don’t see right off how he’s done it. He is just hanging off the cashier counter by a length of rope that’s hooked to his collar. Black toenails are dangling to where they’re just scraping the floor making an awful pitiful pattering sound. Mag screams. Not loud, but it gets that dog to gyrating like a hooked cutthroat wagging on 6 lb. line. There’s a noise coming up from his throat. I do not care to hear a sound like that ever again.
Mag stays where she is. I check it out and see that the rope’s caught on a corner of the counter on the other side down near the floor. Dog must have jumped up on the counter to look out the window and just casual like jumped off the other side and got hung up. Simple as that. Boy he didn’t look good. Guard dog. His tongue was hanging slack and there was foam and slobber all up the side of the counter. He put his black eyes on me and gave me a look. Maybe it was a look of petition, I don’t know. Should have been brave like the little boy before the lion with its thorny paw. Should have.
Well, we left him hanging there. Not much more I could say concerning it. No. I’m not real proud to have done it. But I felt like it was one of those catch-22 situations, if you know what I’m saying. Damned if you do and there you go. I wanted to help it. Shoot yes. I did. Feel real bad about it. But that dog was ripped and pissed as a wet mother hen. I think I would have been bit is the thing, and probably caught by the law. Then where would this relating of what happened been? A poor, sorry trio of fools in the Wayne County jail of a Sunday night, one of ‘em with stitches and a missing finger or two, and some other poor bastard maybe administering a strong purgative and following that dog around to retrieve my digits in order to sew them back on. If so.
I know that dog most like died hanging there. Happened to my brother Carl’s dog. Got himself hung up like that in the night on a fence. My brother found his dog dead next morning. Damn how things cycle round in some manner of speaking. Birth and death and regret. And there’s always tomorrow for the living. Bills to pay, debts to square yourself on however you can manage, and people to love more. Hell yes. There’s always gonna be more people. To love.
That night, though, Mag and I, we got the beer, and that was that. We made our way back through the field to the Chrysler and Til. Friend. Ex-lover. Passed out cold in the backseat. And I drove us into the silent darkness up over the pass with that case sitting unopened warming up on the floor at our feet. I drove. Mag was quiet. And I kept vigil with my finger there hovering over the seek button on the radio, waiting, willing a song to come along, something with lots of chorus, cheerful uplifting lyrics and singing. Something to fight all this loss and sorrow that creeps in ‘round the edges. Like the night.
Or like tomorrow, when I write so many words. My mom’s words. Words I want to believe in. Written in the coral-red dust on the hood of my car.
Not one of you is ...