They’re going to the mountain. He let his ex-wife borrow his GPS, so the three of them just wing it: Elle and Jim and the dog named Doodle. Jim says he knows the way, driving through Viroqua, Westby, Cashton, places where he has to drive for work, towns big on farming and the Amish. Hills. Most of the towns are Norwegian.
Elle sits there in his Blazer. Doodle, in the back, with his paws on the compartment between them. Doodle pants, looking happy. The sunroof’s open, and the windows. The wind blows in. Jim drives around the bends and up them. He knows where he’s going. Every now and then he lights a smoke, holding the wheel with his elbows. Trust me, he says. We’re going to the mountain.
When his phone gives off his brother’s ringtone (some kind of cowboy theme) he flips it, says, Oy, hoy! And talks about the trip, about how he’s loaned his GPS to the ex, saying he’s probably too nice of an ex, that it probably pisses off Elle.
Elle looks at Jim then, his one cigarette hand on the wheel, one hand with his phone, at his head that’s balding. At his lips. He has nice lips. She’s always loved his lips. His eyes. His eyes are blue.
They end up in a place called Norwalk. They seem far from any mountain. There’s a bar with a Schlitz sign. The bar is called The Thing. They leave Doodle in the Blazer with the sunroof open. Jim needs some direction. Maybe someone in the bar can help.
At The Thing, Jim orders a Bud Light for himself and Elle can’t decide what she wants. She orders what’s on tap.
The bartender looks about the size of a dozen people and when Jim asks how he is, he says, “Living the dream! Every day’s a holiday! Every paycheck is a fortune!”
The Thing is old and dingy. A tavern, really, like the ones Elle knew as a girl in the town called Advance, which now is owned by the neighbors of her childhood.
Here, there’s a pool table and a jukebox, a picture of two Bud girls in tight tops and long hair, their boobs almost touching. A sign offering a Sno-Cone, and a swirl, a girl at the end of the bar with leathery skin and frazzled hair and a cigarette says her name is Wendy. The other old and toothless bartender asks Jim and Elle where they’re from, so they provide the same story they present to everyone these days: she lives in New York and he lives in Viroqua. They are high school sweethearts who have reunited.
The bartender says, “That’s sweet.”
He writes out directions to the mountain. He says, “You’re lost. You’ll have to pass the meat plant. You’ll know it when you’re there. It smells bad.”
When Jim and Elle finally arrive, Jim drives to the top. He didn’t follow the bartender’s directions. Rather, he drove back to Cashton, where he and Elle stopped at a lunch place where he always goes when he’s working in that office. There, he had a Bloody Mary and a chaser, and Elle sipped her beer, too full to even drink it. They got some water in a bowl and brought it out to Doodle, and Jim said he had a bad feeling about the mountain, that something in his gut told him not to go there, that he had to protect them.
He says, I should have brought my rifle.
At the park’s office, Jim gets a sticker to put on the Blazer to last for the summer. He also gets some info on the campground and canoeing. While he does that Elle waits in the car with Doodle, sighing every now and then, thinking of her home back in New York, probably getting dusty. The bills. The rent. Her obligations as a teacher. Her back feels knotted. The dog drools.
When they find a spot and get out, Jim puts Doodle on his leader. Doodle runs to a bush and smells it. He lifts his leg and pees.
Jim and Elle follow a path, a trail that’s marked off so no one can drive there. Jim says, “We finally made it.”
Jim says, “We’re making memories.”
Elle walks with him to the top and looks down at the view, at the trees, the valleys, the homes.
Everything. So far away and distant.
This piece appeared in slightly different form in Gargoyle, June 2011
Kim Chinquee’s new book, Snowdog, from which this work is taken is available from Ravenna Press in January 2021. She is also the author of the collections Oh Baby, Pretty, Pistol, Veer, Shot Girls, and Wetsuit. Her work has appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies including NOON, Denver Quarterly, Conjunctions, The Nation, Ploughshares, Fiction, New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, Notre Dame Review, the Pushcart Prize anthologies, and others. She is an editor at New World Writing, associate professor and co-director of the Writing Major at SUNY-Buffalo State, and she serves as AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Northeast Regional Chair and as a member of the AWP Board of Directors.