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Jenny Siler

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 little soldiers.

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 going?"

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 remember it.

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 passenger window.

"What?" Jake asked.

"That’s what it’s called." She motioned to herself, to the red shorts and shirt thing. "A romper."

"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 behind her.

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 away.

"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 for service.

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 cheer.

"I’ll get us something," Jake told her. "What do you want?"

"Peppermint schnapps."

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 bar.

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 electric.

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 explained.

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 and tendon.

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 soft flesh.

"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 were they?"

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 driveway.

"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 the forest.

"Daddy," he heard the girl say, then silence and the unmistakable sound of a slap. He felt himself get hard.

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 again.

"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 something else?

"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 sheath.

"Daddy!" the girl cried.

The man twitched again, his arms and legs shuddering.

"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 skin.

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.


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