Jake wasn’t planning to stop in Dixon. He’d
already wasted a good two hours feeding the Keno machines at Joe’s
Smoke Ring, and he knew he should keep to the highway till Hot
Springs. Best to get these things over with. Quick and painless,
he’d told himself, thinking of the meningitis outbreak they’d
had at the prison a couple of years ago. That was what the nurse
had said when she rolled the canvas cuff of his shirt up around
his bicep. Her face was ugly, big and round, shiny with sweat, but
still when she’d touched his arm he’d felt his groin throb.
That’s how long it had been. Quick and painless, she’d smiled.
Then she’d pushed the tip of the needle into his muscle and he’d
felt the charge of the inoculation spreading like an ink stain
under his skin. A battalion of bad ass viral warriors camping out
in his body. Ha, he’d thought, just try and get past these
Quick and painless, Jake repeated soundlessly as
he slowed the Eldorado for the Dixon speed limit. He didn’t care
so much about quick. It was the painless part that worried him,
his memory of Buddy Knudsen’s hands, the knuckles knobby and
menacing as a sock weighted heavy with coins. Though Buddy had
sounded almost amiable on the phone, willing to work something
out, Jake knew how rapidly his mood could change.
He lit a cigarette, rolled his window down,
flicked the match out onto the road. The Eldorado wasn’t his.
Jake’s cousin had lent it to him for the trip up to Hot Springs.
He wasn’t supposed to smoke in the car, but it seemed harmless
enough with the window down. Jake exhaled, watched Dixon whirl by,
the two glinting lines of the rail tracks, the Flathead green and
swollen with runoff. It was coming into evening already, the air
punctuated by pockets of spring chill where the hills shaded the
valley. Clouds of freshly hatched flies billowed like forest fire
smoke over the tops of ponderosas. Jake tapped the wheel, sang an
off key verse of Bobby McGee.
He saw the girl from a mile away. At least that’s
how it seemed at the time. Like film slowed down so things that
normally might be hidden became visible. The blur of a butterfly’s
wings, say, or the tiny crown that leaps up when a drop of water
slams into the surface of a pond. Except for the neon Hamm’s
sign in the window of the Dixon bar, the town was all gray and
brown. The girl was a burst of red, bright and gaudy like a tufty
headed cardinal in the snow. She waved him down and he pulled
straight to the side of the road.
"Hey," she asked, putting her hand on
her waist, cocking her hip slightly to the right, "where you
Jake looked out over the dashboard and down the
empty highway. There weren’t many choices in this part of the
world. Just the one road and a handful of destinations.
"Hot Springs," he told her.
She was young and bony with too much makeup. She
wore one of those funny one piece outfits. Shorts and a shirt
together. Bright red. Her small breasts were pushed up and in,
presumably squeezed together to look bigger than they were.
Whatever she’d done wasn’t helping much.
"Great," she said. She flashed him an
optimistic smile, put her hand on the door latch, climbed into the
Eldorado. "Let’s go."
The girl reached for Jake’s cigarettes, tapped
one from the pack and stuck it between her lips. Her fingernails
were red, too, the polish chipped, the nails chewed down to their
nubs. She smelled like stale food, like a kid after a carnival,
sticky and sour.
"I like your outfit," Jake said. He
knew there was a name for the thing she was wearing, but he couldn’t
The girl smoothed the loose fabric across her
thigh. Her legs were stippled with goosebumps and fine blonde
hairs. Her knees were scraped raw like a schoolgirl’s after a
fall from a bike. A thin trickle of blood had dried down the
length of her right calf.
"A romper," she said, exhaling out the
"What?" Jake asked.
"That’s what it’s called." She
motioned to herself, to the red shorts and shirt thing. "A
"Oh," Jake said. "What happened
to your knees?"
"I fell," she said simply. Then she
turned toward the river so that Jake could only see the back of
her head, the monotonous tumble of dirty blonde hair like a pelt.
They were halfway to Perma before she spoke
again. A good half hour down the highway, Jake’s pack of
Winstons fast diminishing. "What you going to Hot Springs
for?" she asked.
"Business," Jake shrugged. None of
yours, he thought.
"Someone owe you money?"
Jake shook his head.
"Other way round, then?"
Jake didn’t say anything. She was right and he
was angry about it, angry that she could tell so easily. He
pressed his foot against the gas pedal, felt a rush of cool air
against the side of his head. "Why don’t you mind your own
business," he told her finally.
"Sure. It’s not like I haven’t ever
owed anybody." She lit another cigarette, stuck her lower lip
out and made a pouting face.
"Just shut up!" Jake said.
"Jeez, only trying to help." The girl
turned to him and he could see she was about to cry. Her eyes were
pink and swollen like a rabbit’s.
"Sorry," Jake said. It wasn’t her he
was mad at, anyway. It was Buddy Knudsen and his tight-ass.
Calling two days after Jake got out. Still worrying an
eight-year-old debt. Jake didn’t have the money and Buddy knew
it. Come up and we’ll talk about it, Buddy had said. Work
something out. Christ, he thought. He looked over at the girl. She
was really bawling now, her shoulders shuddering beneath the thin
red fabric. "I’m sorry," he said again.
"Let me out," the girl sobbed. She
popped the passenger door and stuck her foot out. Jake could see
the asphalt whipping by, brown stalks of knapweed bent in the car’s
side draft. "I want to go back to Dixon."
"Shit, shut the door," Jake told her.
She shook her head, one scuffed white pump
hovering over the blur of the road.
"I’ll take you back," he said,
slowing the car, wheeling into a U-turn. "Okay?"
"Okay," she nodded.
Just the one drink, Jake told himself. He parked
the Eldorado next to the Dixon bar and watched the girl climb out.
Her shorts tightened against the back of her thighs, and he could
see where the elastic lines of her panties gripped her ass.
"You coming?" she asked, turning to
look back at him across the front seat before closing the door
Jake pulled the keys from the ignition, swung
his boots out onto the gravel of the parking lot. The sky above
the Flathead was blue and clear as a Montana sapphire. Two magpies
flitted across the highway, their black and white wing feathers
flashing iridescent. Jake took a deep breath. There was wood smoke
in the air, the silty odor of the river. Darkness was still hours
"You coming?" the girl asked again,
stepping towards him. She pulled his arm around her waist, pressed
her nose into his neck. Her breath was hot, her cheeks cold from
the open window of the car.
He thought briefly of Buddy Knudsen’s
knuckles. "I’m coming."
There were just a handful of customers in the
bar: a couple of Indians in the back and some old-timers drooping
over their beers. The girl found a stool close to the door, waved
The bartender was tall and sharp-edged, working
toward old age. He was wearing a western shirt with opalescent
snaps and Levi’s that hung off his brittle frame. He shook his
head at the girl, turned to one of the Indians, said something
Jake couldn’t hear.
"What’s a girl got to do to get some
service around here?" she yelled. She laughed and lit another
of Jake’s cigarettes. Her voice was manic, heavy with forced
"I’ll get us something," Jake told
her. "What do you want?"
Jake got up and walked to where the bartender
and the Indian were talking. He took a twenty dollar bill from his
jeans and set it on the bar. "The lady wants a drink,"
he said. "Peppermint schnapps. And I’ll take a Jim Beam and
a beer back."
The bartender looked at the Indian, as is for
advice or some kind of confirmation. He slid the twenty off the
bar and shuffled away.
"Bring us some of those cherries,
too," the girl called. "You hear me, Harry?"
The bartender nodded, his eyes glued to his
age-speckled hands on the buttons of the cash register.
Jake went back and sat down next to the girl.
She bounced on her stool, rubbed her palms together, then set her
hand in Jake’s lap.
"I’ve got to get going," he
observed. "After this drink." He lit a cigarette and
looked past the girl’s shoulder and out the front window of the
The girl nodded, wriggled her hand over Jake’s
fly. He felt his dick twitch against his jeans. "You ever had
these cherries before?" she asked, greedily watching the
bartender set their drinks in front of them. "They’re
soaked in Ever-Clear."
"Sure I’ve had ‘em before." It was
a lie, but Jake said it anyway, picked one of the cherries up in
his big, meaty hand, and tossed it into his mouth.
The girl smiled, took one of the liquor-logged
fruits, and threw her head back. Her blonde hair was slightly
frayed at the ends, wild. When it dangled free of her back it
caught the clear, late evening light and crackled, unruly and
The bartender turned the TV on. A polar bear
loped across the screen. A group of seals slid off an ice flow,
disappeared beneath gray waves.
"Harry likes nature shows," the girl
Jake nodded, took a sip of his whiskey.
"Earlier there was one on about sharks.
Hey, Harry!" she called. "Do your shark."
Harry tilted his head back in mock ecstasy,
opened his mouth and closed his eyes as if swooning. The
age-creased skin on his neck pulled tight, showing bands of muscle
The Indians laughed. The girl slapped her knees,
rocked back on her stool. "There was this man in a boat and
he would touch the sharks, pet them like, on their noses. And they
would fall back into the water, like they were in a trance."
"What’s your name?" Jake asked. He
could feel the cherry burning in his throat, the soft luster of
the liquor in his stomach. I should be going, he told himself,
thinking briefly of Buddy Knudsen, the money he owed him. Then the
girl crossed her right leg over her left and Jake could see the
pale, smooth skin inside her thighs, the faint shadow of muscles
working. He tried to imagine what she might look like under the
thin fabric of the romper. Her stomach hollow and white as the
skin on her legs, the hair on her pubis thin and blonde, discreet
as a child’s.
"Char," she said, smiling, showing a
row of small, white teeth. "Like Charlene."
Jake had a hunting knife in a sheath on his
belt. The girl reached across and touched it, put her fingers on
the hilt. "Nice," she said.
The girl seemed small in the Eldorado, her arms
thin against the burly leather of the back seat. Jake undid the
romper’s red buttons, slid his hand over her chest. Her nipples
were hard and brown, almost as big as her breasts.
"Daddy," she whispered, opening her
mouth to kiss him. Her tongue was wet and clumsy.
"Shut up," Jake said. He’d been five
years in the system without a real fuck and he didn’t want her
calling him daddy. He took a pull off a fifth of Early Times he’d
bought back at the bar, screwed the cap back on.
She opened her eyes and stared at him. Her
pupils were huge and dark. He slid her panties down and opened her
legs. A small bruise marked the inside of each of her thighs. Two
perfect, purplish ovals, the imprints of someone’s thumbs in the
"Daddy," she said again.
"Shut up," Jake told her. He
unbuttoned his jeans and pushed himself inside her.
"You got any more cigarettes?" the
girl asked, holding a crumpled Winston’s pack out to Jake.
He leaned over the front seat and fished in the
glove compartment, his fingers finding a fresh pack.
"Thanks," the girl said. She had
pulled the romper back on, but the buttons were still undone. The
car smelled like cigarettes and sex. "I suppose you’ll be
going. Since you’ve got business and all."
Jake shrugged, looked out the front window of
the Eldorado. "I suppose." They were down by the river,
parked at the bottom of a dirt boating access road. It was
starting to get dark fast. Jake could just barely see the
Flathead, the water dense with mud. He’d forgotten all about
Buddy Knudsen. By now it was probably too late. He’d have to go
up there another day.
The girl put her hand on Jake’s head, ran her
fingers through his hair.
"What kind of sharks?" he asked.
"On the TV in the bar. What kind of sharks
She laughed quietly, shifted against the seat.
"Killers," she explained. "Great Whites."
Jake tilted his head back and thought about a
warm cradle of salt water. He’d never been to the ocean but he
could imagine it, the waves buoying his body, his hands blue
beneath the surface, silver fish sparking across the sand.
"I know where you can get some money,"
the girl said quietly. She slid her feet into her dirt-smudged
pumps, crossed her arms over her chest.
Jake rolled his eyes upward. The Early Times was
kicking in and the white upholstered ceiling of the Eldorado
revolved like a tilt-a-whirl.
"Here," the girl said, pointing off
through the woods.
Jake could just make out a trailer, its lights
peeking from between the trunks of ponderosas. He turned the
Eldorado down the dirt driveway, cut the engine. They were maybe
five miles from Dixon now, up in the mountains above town.
Kruggerands, she had said when they were still by the river. He
hadn’t known what she was talking about and she’d had to
explain that they were gold coins, from Africa. They could sell
them in Missoula, she’d said. There was something about the way
she described the coins, detailed, knowledgeable, that made him
believe her. Like how she said there was an antelope stamped into
the head of each coin. And the bit about them being African.
"What do you want?" Jake asked. He was
drunk, he’d admit to that, but he wasn’t stupid.
The girl shrugged. "A ride to Missoula,
like I told you. We can split the money there. After we pawn this
stuff." She exhaled onto the window of the Eldorado, drew a
heart in the glaze of condensation.
"Don’t do that," Jake said. "It’s
not my car."
"C’mon." The girl popped the
passenger door, slid from her seat.
Jake put one foot outside the car, then another.
Moving made everything spin. He rested for a moment, let the
dizziness pass. He could taste cherries and bile, soured liquor.
"C’mon," the girl said again.
Jake saw her silhouette cross in front of the
trailer’s lights, then she disappeared into the darkness. He got
up and started after her, following her footsteps down the
"Stop," he called out when they were
close to the trailer. She was moving too quickly for him and he
felt sluggish and out of control.
He saw a swatch of her red romper and her eyes
bright as a bird’s. "What?" she asked, impatient.
He couldn’t put his finger on what, exactly,
but he knew something was wrong, knew all of this was going to end
badly. He tried to remember what he was doing here, why he’d
driven to Dixon in the first place. Something about money, he
thought. Then he remembered Buddy Knudsen.
"Nothing," he told her. "Just
slow down, okay?"
"Okay," she agreed, then she ducked
out of his view and her pumps pounded on the wood steps of the
trailer. The door flashed open and the trailer’s light flooded
"Daddy," he heard the girl say, then
silence and the unmistakable sound of a slap. He felt himself get
He stepped up into the trailer after her, trying
to keep his head steady, trying to focus on why he’d come. Gold,
he thought. Money. Buddy Knudsen and his mean hands.
Somebody hit him from behind. Not the girl, he
thought, somebody bigger, stronger. Spinning around he saw a man’s
arm swinging towards him. He ducked, threw a blind punch, felt his
fist connect. The man doubled over.
He could see the girl out of the corner of his
eye. She was backed into a corner, her bottom lip split open, her
chin crossed with blood. The man moved to stand and Jake hit him
"Daddy," the girl yelled. She was
crying now, not like she’d cried in the car. There was something
more desperate about this, Jake thought, more serious. He glanced
around the trailer, taking in the furnishings. Stained couch.
Plywood table. Empty gin bottles in the sink. Had he expected
"Fucking whore!" the man yelled. He
rose up, his hands clenched like hammers, and made a move toward
the girl. Jake lunged for him, threw him to the floor.
"Kill him!" the girl screamed.
"Kill the bastard!" Jake wasn’t sure who she was
talking about, him or the man. Somehow the top few buttons on her
romper had come undone again. Jake could see her right breast. A
red bruise where his lips had been.
He looked down at the man. Jake’s eyes were
having trouble focussing. They could only hold the floor of the
trailer for a few seconds before the scene slid away like a frame
disappearing from the eye of a View Master. The man seemed less
menacing lying down, his fat chin tucked into his chest. His eyes
were open wide and his body twitched. Jake figured he must have
hit him harder than he thought.
"Bastard!" the girl screamed again,
and again Jake wasn’t certain which one of them she meant.
Things were moving quickly now, too quickly for
Jake to keep up. All he knew was that the man looked bad, like a
sick animal, something that needed to be tended to. Jake reached
back and found the handle of his knife, slid the blade from its
"Daddy!" the girl cried.
The man twitched again, his arms and legs
"Shut up," Jake told the girl. For a
split second everything was clear and he knew without a doubt this
was what she wanted, what she had intended all along. He put his
knife to the man’s throat, felt the blade slide through the
It was dark on the highway, so dark that Jake
could only see the small arc of blacktop in front of him where his
lights bounced off the pavement. It was like one of those driving
video games, he thought, where objects appear out of nowhere, then
slide away into the black screen.
There were a few sips of Early Times in the
bottle and Jake finished them long before he hit Ravalli and the
slow downhill grade into Missoula. It took all his concentration
to keep the car out of the Flathead, the tires glued to the road.
He was glad for the mental work, glad to have something to focus
on besides the girl and the man, besides all the things he knew
for sure and wished he didn’t. Like the way the car smelled, the
girl’s sweat mixed with his own, the tang of stale tobacco, the
chlorine odor of sex.
A deer leapt across the Eldorado’s headlights,
flashed its white tail, and disappeared. It made Jake think about
the Kruggerands, the heads stamped with African antelopes. When
the girl told him he had imagined some graceful animal racing
along the Savannah. Brown coat with jet black markings, horns
curled like seashells.
He had known she was lying to him. Even before
he’d seen the trailer. He could see that now. He had known as
soon as she had told him, but he had gone with her anyway. That
was his problem, he thought, how he let things slide, how he,
Jake, slid along. He lit a cigarette, rolled the window down. He
could feel the girl’s hand in his hair, her fingers on the crown
of his head.
He could go to the coast, he told himself, L.A.
or San Francisco. Or even Mexico. He could work in one of those
resorts where everyone spoke English. At night he could sit on the
beach and drink beer out of tall, frosty glasses. From his bedroom
he would hear the ocean, the rhythm of the Pacific rolling across
the sand. During the day he would strip his clothes off and swim
in the cool salt water.
A stop sign loomed in the darkness and he
slowed, put his blinkers on, and headed down the long, gentle
grade into Missoula.
Jenny Siler is twenty-nine years old, and she
grew up in Missoula, her travels have finally leading her back
there. In the ten years she spent away from Montana she was, among
other things, a salmon grader in Alaska, a fork lift driver in Key
West, a piano mover in Paris, a sketch model in Frankfurt, a
bartender, a waitress, and a cab driver. She now owns a house
three blocks from the one she grew up in. "I love just about
anything that gets me out into the mountains here. And though I
suspect I'm the least successful angler in Montana, I love to
fish." Her first novel, Easy Money, was
published last year by Henry Holt.