a work in progress

 

Anything You Might Want

          Every time Michael told Gina about how he had become her father’s debtor—the old man’s slave, he always said—the story changed a bit. He might linger over his description of the bar where he and the old man met, The Blue Mustang, painting for her the horseshoes nailed along the edge of the bar, the locked door leading to the back room with the illegal poker games, the fat beads of air jiggling up the tubes of the Wurlitzer during the twelve hours that they played cards. Or he might, as he traced a finger along Gina’s hairline, her lips, the edge of her collarbone, describe her father: the way the old man laughed even when he was losing, the way his eyes narrowed to slits when he looked at his cards, only once per hand, no double-checking no matter how high the stakes. Sometimes Michael skimmed over the whole night at The Blue Mustang and focused on better days, three straight weeks of a winning streak that started on his twenty-sixth birthday and took him from Reno to Denver, leaving him feeling like he could turn any card to an ace just by brushing his fingers across it. But the story always ended the same way, back at the bar with him losing hand after hand, losing his temper and his money and digging himself deeper until he dug himself right down into her father’s coal mine, working ten-hour days to pay the old man back for all the bets made with money Michael didn’t have. His hands, while he spoke, were always gentle, but his voice tightened like a guitar string.

            “You know what he said to me on my first day? ‘If you disappeared into one of those mine shafts, nobody would do a thing about it. Nobody would even notice. Think about that before you start making plans to sneak off in the middle of the night.’”

            “He’s not lying,” Gina said. “He has cops in his pocket all over the state. But I’d notice.” What she didn’t say was that she had her own theory about how Michael had ended up in that bar.

            Gina was eighteen and had never left Montana or even her home town. She had a room full of designer clothes and jewelry and expensive shoes, and she hated it all because it all came at a price. He would let her spend thousands of dollars on a horse she never bothered riding, but he wouldn’t let her go to Billings with her friends for the weekend. He would pay a driver to take her around town, but he would not buy her a car, or even let her buy one herself. She had a job at the convenience store in town that she only kept so she could spend ten hours a week somewhere she knew he wouldn’t bother her.

          Her older sisters, Bea and Laura, had been even more trapped than Gina was because they weren’t smart enough to get away with anything, so they had solved their problems by marrying young and packing their new husbands off to Missoula. Once they were gone it was harder for Gina to avoid her father’s scrutiny. On nights she wasn’t working and couldn’t sneak away she would lock herself in her room and lie in bed with the radio on and plot her escape. She began to picture the man who would get her out of Montana. Not someone boring, like Bea and Laura’s husbands. Not a husband at all. Someone exciting. Someone who hated Montana as much as she did.

          When her father was drunk and in a lecturing mood he loved to say, “If you really want something, you have to imagine every step of how you’re going to get it, and then you take it without mercy.” It was how he operated with everyone, and it was why half the people in town hated him, but she had to admit that maybe there was something to it, being that he owned everything in sight. So she imagined—the way the man who would be her escape would walk, and sound, and smile. The way he would drink a pop and zip his jeans. The kind of shoes he would wear and how he would smell in the heat of summer. She imagined him until she got to the point where every time she turned a street corner in town she expected to bump right into him.

 

            The night Gina met Michael was one of her sisters’ rare visits home; when their father headed out to the bar Gina and Laura and Bea got into Laura’s car and drove down to the lake. Laura and Bea were drunk on a shared six-pack and cackling with laughter. At the lakeside they left their dresses spread out like empty shells along the pebbled shore, slipped into the cool water and made their way swiftly to the middle of the lake. They were all strong swimmers, and they spent an hour dipping between the dark water and the clear, sweet light of the moon.

            When they swam back to the beach they slicked the water off their bodies with their fingers, and Laura and Bea put on their dresses. Gina found her sandals but not her clothes; she walked across the beach, searching, but the night was windless, and until she heard a rustle in the bushes, followed by a quick burst of laughter, she couldn’t imagine what could have happened to the dress. She walked toward the underbrush cursing, eyes boring into the darkness, and crashed through the branches to find a group of men blinking up at her, beer bottles littering the ground around them, and Michael waving her dress above his head like a prize trophy.

            Gina didn’t say anything, and she didn’t try to cover herself. She stared into a dozen-odd pairs of glittering eyes and recognized, one by one, faces she sometimes saw coming out of the mine at closing time. The same realization came over the men, so that they dropped their gazes and shuffled backwards into the shadows, muttering apologies. All except Michael, who stayed leaning against a pine tree, lazily grinning up at her while she stared at him. Eventually one of the other miners crawled up to him and whispered in his ear, and then the grin disappeared. Michael turned his face away, held the dress out to her and, when she took it, got to his feet and ran. But already she wanted to run after him, to bring him back, to tell him she knew why he was there, even if he didn’t yet.

            After that she noticed him everywhere: coming out of the movie theater; sprawled in the shade of the big oak trees in the park; sitting at the counter at the donut shop, licking powdered sugar off his fingers. He hunched over when he ate his breakfast, just like she had imagined he would. He had a tattoo snaking around his left bicep, the way he was supposed to. Every time she saw him she looked at him long and hard before she went back to what she was doing, and he blushed heavily and dropped his eyes.

            When she found him sitting alone at Sadie’s Grill, three months after the night at the lake, she decided enough was enough. As always he turned away from her, but she walked over to his booth and sat down across from him, taking half his grilled cheese sandwich from his plate.

            “Do you work at my daddy’s mine?” she said.

            “Yes.”

            “Do you like it?”

            He took a gulp of his drink and she watched him closely, biting the crisp corners off his sandwich and enjoying his discomfort.

            “There are other places I’d rather be,” he said finally.

            “Damn right,” she said. “Like anywhere.”

            He laughed, and so did she, but he didn’t say anything else and looked down at his plate again.

            “You’ve already seen me naked,” Gina said, “Which most of the boys in this town would give their right eye for, by the way, so I don’t see the point in getting shy at this late date.”

            “Could you keep your voice down? Your father would kill me.”

            “He’d kill both of us,” she said, “and we haven’t even done anything yet.”

 

(end of excerpt)