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richard cumyn
the girl from the butts



The trombone sticks its tongue out beyond the counter and
back. In the floodlit distance on the Connaught Ranges the
last of the day's rifles pop. Simon varies his tempo to
match the retorts until his song sputters nameless from the
horn. Across the field, at the kitchen's back entrance, a
shiny pate bobs beside the garbage cans. The lids clatter
and clang, the rifles pop and crack. Simon plays a donkey
bray that makes the man look up and then retreat inside. The
moon hangs like a target above the butts.

The outdoor lights are extinguished and for a moment all is
quiet. A dark green military truck, its bed covered by a
canvas canopy, drives up the middle of the shooting range.
Simon pours himself a cup of coffee, takes a sip, grimaces,
and then brings two boxes forward from the storage room. The
truck pulls up outside his window, and soon a happy throng
is milling at the counter.

He takes orders for soft drinks and candy, making change,
drawing energy from the onslaught. They know not to order
the coffee. He directs his smile at a girl in a white halter
top and blue jean cut-offs, and she returns his smile. She
has sun-coffeed skin, long, Black Forest hair brushed
straight back, aching dimples, plump lips, deep chocolate
eyes.

She says, "My sister wanted me to double-check. Are we still
on for Saturday night?"

"Oh, we're on," he says, "we are very much on."

"She's so nervous. We had the rehearsal last night. My
father kept interrupting with, like, suggestions about the
wording of the ceremony, and about how long it should take
him and Trish to come down the aisle."

"He just wants it to click."

"You don't know him. He has to control everything."

"What do I do if he wants to direct the band?"

"Let him," she says, making him laugh. "Just..."

"Just?"

"You don't have to tell him anything about this place. Let's
just say it's not his favorite subject."

He watches her climb back into the truck, and as it drives
away, she waves to him.

The telephone jolts him. Only one person ever phones the
shack.

"Miller. You're back on pots in the morning."

Coward. "And a pleasant good evening to you, Mr. Jerrold."

"Save it. Eight to twelve. Then I need you to show the new
guy what's what."

"The new guy."

"He's taking over for you. You show him where everything's
kept, how the cash works, how to clean the grill. All that."

His full heart shrivels. Pots. He can only imagine what he
has done to deserve this.

* * *

In the morning he smoothes the sheet and the gray blanket,
shaves at the line of stainless steel troughs, dons a set of
whites, and walks across the wet grass and gravel to the
kitchen, where he slides into a squat against the wall.

When the butts truck rounds the corner, he stands, tucking
his shirt back into the uniform's baggy pants. He breaks
into a sprint after the vehicle.

Groggy faces stare back at him. "Hey!" he calls. "Get him to
stop!"

He steps up onto the bumper. Marita says hello as if this
were a scheduled stop.

"I was...wondering...I mean, if you're...not doing anything
after...work..."

"I have to host a shower for Trish tonight. I'm sorry."

"Oh, well..." He catches his breath. "What about lunch?"

She holds up a thermos bottle. "We can't leave, and they're
pretty strict about visitors. You could try."

When he says, "I will," some of the sleepy faces smile from
the khaki gloom.

* * *

Just before noon, Mr. Jerrold finds him sluicing out his
sink. A young man stands behind the manager.

"This here's Wendell. Wendell, Miller. He'll show you the
operation. Any questions, ask him."

"Yes Uncle Phil -- I mean Sir."

Simon takes Wendell to the snack shack and shows him how to
balance the cash, replace the register tape, and prepare the
grill with the oil and cleaning stone. He tells him how big
a float he should carry, how many hamburgers and hot-dogs to
take out of the freezer each morning, and when to expect
lineups during the day.

"Whatever you do, never re-heat the previous day's coffee,"
he calls from a walk-in refrigerator.

"Why would I do that?"

"Exactly," says Simon, reappearing with a baguette and
bottle of red wine. "You're on your own, then."

On his way out to the butts, he is stopped by a military
policeman.

"Where you headed, my friend?"

"Meeting someone for lunch."

"Pass."

When Simon continues walking, the man puts out his arm as a
barrier.

"As in, Show it to me, darling."

"What if I don't have one?"

"Then this is where you turn around."

"But I'm a civilian employee of the base."

"I don't care if you're the Secretary of the Army. Nobody's
out here without a pass."

"How about my band plays for free at your funeral?"

* * *

He needs no security clearance to be on the range after
dark. As he approaches the targets, the turf embankment
looms like a long, pocked burial mound. He has to walk to
the rightmost limit of its length to find a way down into
the bunkers, a line of shallow concrete alcoves set into the
hill, each with a corresponding target positioned above it.
A gunmetal box with one green and one red light mounted on
the wall tells the keeper when to venture up the ladder and
when to stay beneath the overhang. Large, thin cardboard
sleeves holding fresh targets lean in each cubicle. The only
other item common to each space is a three-legged wooden
stool.

He is surprised to see no refuse strewn about, no unrolled
condoms, no cast-off panties, no bottles of sun block, not
even a portable recliner. If the rumored orgies do take
place out here in this hidden world that passes the day
bombarded by design, then their carnival trappings are
erected and torn down without a trace. He is content to have
seen where Marita chooses to work. She and he share this in
common, at least: they both replace other people's messy
creations with a clean and shiny surface. But the
subterranean confinement and the drabness and the ever-
present danger of this place is unsettling in a way the
kitchen, for all its wet heat and warring odors and petty
people, never is, and he feels an aspect of his infatuation
shift out of true.

* * *

It shifts back when he sees her the next evening at the
wedding reception. First the bride and groom dance, then her
father politely cuts in, and the floor fills with couples
relieved to be up and moving after the food and the
speeches. Because it is raining outside, the band chooses to
play three on a theme. The mother of the bride, sensing bad
luck, suggests something with a rainbow in it, and so they
play the one which usually caps the evening. Everyone
applauds the choice. After forty minutes, Simon announces a
short break, and is emptying his spit valve when Marita
strides across the room.

"I thought you were going to come out to see me."

"Is that like a Mae West invite? Come on out to the butts,
big boy. Bring your..._rifle_."

Can she tell he can't breathe? Can she feel the earthquake
in his chest?

"May who?"

"I really did try to make it." He relates his planned picnic
and the impassable M.P.

"Poor Simon. Come dance with me."

As they shuffle, he hums a tune into her hair, and she tells
him that it has been a long summer. The boy she has been
seeing is away planting trees.

"Has it ever been that one minute you're thinking about
forever with a person and the next you can't remember what
he looks like?" she asks.

Yes, he says, he knows that moment, that shift very well.

"Have you ever told a lie and kept it going so that you
could just be yourself?"

"I've done that," he says.

"If it doesn't hurt anyone, then it's all right, don't you
think?"

He is about to say, `Yes, it is the most natural thing in
the world to save people from disappointment,' when a loud
voice says,

"Would the young lady who has kidnapped our illustrious
leader please return him to the stage? We will gladly pay
any ransom under five dollars."

They hang on at arm's length for a beat longer, her eyes
saying, `What?' and then she blushes and shoos him back.
From all around come claps and hoots and whistles.

During the final set he holds her in his sights. It stiffens
him to do so, hollowing out and flattening his sound, so
that the saxophone player moves to the front of the stage,
nearer the microphone, and Simon takes a step back. The only
conduit for his feelings now are his eyes, and for a while
she maintains the connection. His look is so fierce, and his
playing so discernibly off, that she finally looks away, and
doesn't look back until the trumpet player thanks everyone
for a great evening. The lights go up and from across the
room she smiles and mouths, `See you tomorrow,' pointing her
finger at him, firing, and then blowing away smoke. He
motions to her to wait for him, but she has already turned
towards the door. A woman in a tight blue dress is saying
something to him.

"Marita's never mentioned you. Excuse me. Hello?"

"Hello?"

"Now she'd have told her mother about someone like you,
sir."

"Yes. Thank you very much. Wonderful evening."

"You must work in her section, then."

"I'm sorry. Pardon me?"

"Marita's section. You work together."

"Right."

"You're helping with the genome mapping project, then."

"I help with the cooking."

"Cooking? I'm sorry, I don't quite understand. You do work
with Marita, don't you?"

"Same place, different ends of the range. We're both in the
support area, you might say."

"Range? What on earth are you talking about?"

"Would you excuse me, ma'am? I'd like to say good-bye." But
by then Marita is nowhere to be seen.

* * *

The next afternoon, a silver sedan drives out beyond the
firing line and stops. A tall man in a dark suit gets out,
leaving the door of the car open, and strides purposefully
in the direction of the butts. Simon puts down his trombone
and walks slowly towards the rifle range now silent but for
the broadcast exhortations that the man remove himself from
the line of fire.

As the man and another figure return to focus, Simon sees
that it is Marita. She breaks free of the man's hold on her
wrist, and runs ahead. She doesn't look at Simon as she
ducks into the car, although he comes close enough to see
that her face is wet with tears.

He knows that calling out, `I'm sorry, forgive me, please,'
won't change the outcome. For Simon to say at this moment of
defeat, `I'm in love with you, Marita,' won't help her
father understand why she chose this job over the one he
found for her. Nor will it help her to understand why her
father has chosen to bring her childhood to an abrupt close
in such a theater of humiliation as this.

Simon stands mute as Marita is driven away, and he feels
the entire establishment fold like a cardboard game around
him. He knows that before the day is out he'll be giving Mr.
Jerrold his notice.

Copyright © 1997 Blip Magazine Archive

 

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