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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail, scene twenty

The room was shaped like a big horseshoe. Rough, wooden tables were scattered from left to right, in front of the oak bar, which was three sided, one long one in front, and two shorter ones down the sides, like the bridge of a ship. The far corner on the left had three pool tables with low yellow lights suspended above each one of them. The right side of the bar had a massive jukebox, lit up with pink and aqua neon lights, and a small dance floor cleared just to the north of it. Cat walked towards the dance floor, and chose a table not far from the jukebox. He pointed at Tom, what’ll you have? I’m buying.” A mirror caught Tom’s eye, it read, Coors Light, " and he blurted it out, “Coors light.” Cat leaned against the bar and waited on the bartender. Tom looked over the room. A header hung down over the bar, and it was decorated with lariat ropes, an old saddle, several pairs of cowboy boots, and framed antique photos of cowboys and cattle. Every wall in the bar was decorated similarly, except on the wall behind where they sat was a massive set of white, black tipped horns from a longhorn, that must have been eight feet or more from tip to tip. Cat came walking back, expertly carrying a mixed drink, the Coors light bottle, and two shots of yellow booze. He sat the beer and one of the shots in front of Tom and then slid a cigarette from a pack he had placed on the table, and lit it. He tilted his head back and blew a plume of smoke toward the ceiling. He put the cigarette into a square, amber ashtray and stood up and dug into his pocket, pulling out a handful of quarters. “What kind of music do you like?” Tom shook his head in thought for a second, “I’m pretty easy to please, you pick it, I’ll like it.” Tom watched Cat at the jukebox, his face pink from the neon light. He was animated, almost bouncing with energy. It was as if the booze had released some sort of anabolic adrenalin in him, his entire being was electric. Before Cat was done making his selections, the song, Highway to Hell started blaring. There were only two other occupied tables in the bar, and everyone at those tables turned and looked first at the jukebox, and then at the table where Tom and Cat were sitting. Tom waited for the looks to subside, and then sized them up in the dimness of the bar. They wore cowboy boots, vests, bolo ties, and the ones who weren’t wearing cowboy hats had crew cuts, then he looked at Cat with his ponytail and sneakers, and he suddenly worried about the contrast. Cat finally came back, “You gonna drink any of that beer before it goes flat?” he laughed as he said it, then took a drag from the cigarette and raised the shot glass. “Here’s to traveling light.” Tom didn’t want the shot, wanted nothing to do with it. He was still reeling from the vodka at the laundromat, but he raised it, and they touched glasses with a little clink. The shot went down easier than the vodka had, but he still shuddered. Cat sat the glass down, and examined the tips of his fingers before licking a sheen of booze off of them. “Hey,” he said to Tom, “you ever hear how Coors light is like sex on the beach?” Tom smiled, “No, I don’t think so…” Cat took a drag of the cigarette, a smile making his eyes slits, “Because it’s fucking near water…” Tom tried to grasp the punchline. Cat laughed, “Get it? Fucking near water, like Coors light is almost water, and then sex on the beach is fucking near water?” Tom looked at the empty shot glass in front of him feeling dumb. Then suddenly it came to him and he burst out laughing. Cat slapped him on the back, laughing himself, “A little slow on the uptake huh?”

When the sun went down it was as if a signal was sent out from the bar, and within fifteen minutes the place was packed. Cat made trip after trip to the bar, each time bringing back a shot and a mixed drink, but Tom refused to drink anything but Coors light, which he nursed slowly, drinking just enough to appear as if he was engaged. He watched Cat closely, and even though he poured drinks down at a breakneck pace, he didn’t seem to be getting any drunker. His speech didn’t slur, his walk wasn’t a stagger, and he moved with ease around people as he plugged quarters into the jukebox, or went to the bar for drinks. Tom was watching him, when a group of women came in laughing, and sat at a table to his left. He noticed one of the women, who was also noticing him. When he made eye contact with her she looked away, then back immediately. She laughed a little, although the bar was so busy he couldn’t hear it. When she turned back to engage the group of women she was sitting with, he stole a few quick glances at her. She had long, straight, shiny black hair, and her skin tone was a kind of warm olive. She wasn’t dressed up. She wore faded Levis, and a dark blue and white plaid shirt, open at the front with a t-shirt he couldn’t see from his angle underneath. Was that an accident? Was she just glancing this way and I happened to catch the look…or was she looking at me? Cat slumped into the chair next to him. “Man, feels good to let loose a little, huh? But damn if this place didn’t fill up quickly.” Tom was slow to answer, his attention on the woman, “Sure did, sure did… Hey, listen, you’ve been getting these drinks all night, let me use the bathroom, and when I come back out I’ll buy you a drink.” Cat laughed, “Can’t argue with that, I’ll have a shot of tequila.” Tom stood and walked toward the bathroom, acutely aware of the girl, and also realizing this was the first time he’d even noticed another woman since the breakup. He walked past her table and thought he could see her being aware of him out of the corner of her eye. Stop having delusions of grandeur, she couldn’t give a shit less about you. But after he walked past her, he looked at her reflection from the Coors mirror behind the bar, and thought he saw her glance at him. When he came back out from the bathroom, he paused in the hallway and trained his eyes on where he knew her table was. He wanted to catch another look if there was one to catch. He all but jumped around the corner, and he saw her look back at her friends quickly, his heart surged, okay, that wasn’t my imagination. He stopped at the bar where he had a good view in the mirror, and ordered the shot, he caught two more darting looks. He picked up the drink and walked past her table, slightly closer than he had the first time. Cat was at the jukebox again, almost looming over it. The woman at the table didn’t look over again, but Tom could tell she was aware of him without exactly looking at him, just as he was aware of her without looking. He looked towards Cat at the jukebox, but every ounce of his attention was focused on the little no-look game he was playing with the woman at the table. And then his confidence flagged, she’s not looking at you, you moron, who the hell are you anyway? He watched Cat light a cigarette, the curls of smoke glowed pink from the neon light of the jukebox. Tom eyed the shot that was waiting for Cat. He was already buzzed, but the buzz hadn’t brought him enough courage to find out if the looks he was seeing from the woman give him were a coincidence or something else. He reached down and grabbed the shot between thumb and index finger and turned it back and forth like a radio dial. The music was screaming the guitar intro to a Ted Nugent song, The Great White Buffalo. He glanced at the woman, if she is looking at me, she isn’t gonna wait all night… He lifted the shot and downed it with a quick swallow, then washed some of the burn away with a long pull from his beer. Cat made his way back to the table and sat. He looked at the empty shot glass, then up at Tom, “Now that’s the spirit, but you still owe me a drink.” He pointed at Tom, his hand in the configuration of a pistol, and at the same time made a clicking sound with his mouth. Tom laughed, “I’ll get you one right now.” He walked to the bar again, every sense trained on the woman at the table. The shot had emboldened him, even if he wasn’t feeling its full effects yet. When he looked into the mirror, she was gone. He was almost ready to turn and locate her, when her image appeared in the mirror from behind him. They stood side by side waiting for the bartender. He caught her scent, just the hint of some sweet perfume that smelled edible, he was taller than her, she couldn’t be more than 5’4’, and as his eyes pretended to follow the bartender he saw the yellow lights from above the bar reflected in her shiny black hair. The shot was beginning to hit now, liquid courage. You don’t have a goddamn thing to lose, chickenshit, say something or regret it forever. He quartered toward her, eyes on the bartender, “Does it always take this long to get a drink?” She turned and looked at him immediately, the sweet, edible smelling perfume noticeable but not overwhelming. “Not when I’m working.” She pulled open the flannel and printed over the top of a black silhouette of a longhorn steer with massive horns and shoulders, were the words, “Come in off THE RANGE, and wet your whistle.” It took a second for Tom to understand the significance of the shirt. She cocked her head sideways, her slick hair swayed, like it was heavy. “I work here…but not tonight.” Tom nodded, “And this is the way they treat a valuable employee, make you stand here like a commoner, waiting?” She smiled, a big dimple, shiny black eyes, the whites like snow. “I’ll be the last in line when it’s this busy.” she said. Is she flirting? Is this just small talk? Am I misreading her? Don’t be a goddamn chickenshit. “I’ll tell you what, if you go sit down, I’ll buy this one for you, what’re you drinking?” She laughed, “I wasn’t trying to con a free drink out of you, I swear to God, but since you’re offering, surprise me.” Tom smiled, “Surprise you? I can’t even hazard a guess what you drink.” She laughed again, and gave him a whisper of a touch behind his left elbow…the tiniest touch, and turned to sit down, her shiny black hair swaying like heavy silk threads all moving in unison. Surprise her, good lord.... When the bartender finally came, Tom ordered a cosmopolitan for her, and a shot for Cat. He carried the drink over, holding a napkin under it, and placed it in front of her. Her friends looked up and smiled at him like they knew a secret. He smiled at her, “I did my best, didn’t have much to go on.” She looked up at him, the lights from above sparkling in her clear eyes. “We’ll see…” she smiled, the dimple a focal point. He walked back to his own table and sat the shot in front of Cat. “I see you ain’t wasting any time getting acquainted with the locals here, are you?”

Said Cat. He grinned at Tom, and for the first time he didn’t immediately drink the shot. Tom searched his speech, his movements, his persona, for signs of drunkenness, but there were none, not even the hint of a stammer. How in God’s name can anyone drink that much and not be laying on the floor? He turned back and looked at the woman. The music was louder than it had been, and Cat’s latest selection, the Journey song, Stone in Love, pounded through the room. She leaned way over the table, and her friends across from her were doing the same, their faces only a few inches apart, obviously trying to hear one another. She glanced over her shoulder a few times, a little Mona Lisa smile noticeable. Cat took the shot, sat the glass down and slid it across the surface of the table a few inches, leaving a little line of tequila where it had moved. “This place needs one of those mechanical bulls, I’d ride one of those son of a bitch’s right now…or a real bull would be even better,” said Cat. “Imagine a bar like this one with a bullpen out back. Every cowboy in Montana would be here every night proving what a tough bastard they were,” he laughed as he said it. Cat raised his eyebrows, and used a glance of his eyes to indicate that Tom should look to his left. The woman was walking toward their table, she carried the drink. Behind her, her friends huddled laughing and taking tiny looks toward them. Cat patted Tom on the shoulder, “Gonna hit the head.” She sat in a chair to Tom’s left, cocked her head almost comically to one side, and said, “What kind of girl do you take me for?” She said it with a smile, her eyes narrowed. Tom looked at the drink, then back at her, “I didn’t make the right choice, did I?” She raised the glass and took a solid drink, then looked him right in the eye, her look unnerved him a little and he fought to be cool, and not to waver looking back at her. “The drink was a great choice for just about anyone, except for a woman who's a bartender in a Montana cowboy bar.” She smiled, and when she did he couldn’t help but smile back. “Well, I’m not a Montana guy, so I did my best…and besides, you seem to be choking it down okay.” She looked at Tom, and then looked over her shoulder in the direction Cat had gone, “I’d have never guessed that you and your friend weren’t locals.” She said it earnestly, with no hint of humor. Tom was surprised, maybe the time he’d spent working for Jerry had changed his aura. “Really?” She lifted the drink and drained it, “No, you stand out like sore thumbs. You didn’t notice that you two are the only guys in this place not wearing cowboy boots and hats? And your friend with the ponytail? That’s the first one I’ve ever seen in this bar.” She tilted the glass and drank a tiny bit of pink liquid, then she stood up, “Better check on my friends, oh, and by the way, my name is Gina.” She stuck out her hand, nails bitten short. Tom stood and took her hand, it was warm, and small, and fit perfectly into his, “Tom, nice to meet you.” They stood there holding hands a half beat longer than normal, until she said, “I’ll be sitting right there,” and nodded her head towards the table, her shiny hair moving like black mercury. Cat came out of the bathroom and walked around the bar, which was now three people deep. Tom watched him, the ponytail, the tennis shoes, then he reached up and felt the stubble of his own head and measured his clothes against the other men in the bar. Gina was right, they did stand out like sore thumbs. He watched her from behind, he could tell when she laughed by the way she leaned forward slightly and hunched her shoulders. Cat sat next to him and slid a cigarette from the open pack on the table and tapped it to pack it. “Well, did you make any headway with Ms. Local there?” He raised his eyebrows at Gina as he lit the cigarette, his face temporarily orange from the flare of the match. Tom smiled, “Well, if learning her name, and her not liking the drink I bought her is progress…then yes.” Cat blew a series of smoke rings aimed at an empty shot glass. “That sounds like a bang up start.”

Tom leaned forward onto his elbows, and turned towards Cat, “She has a few friends…” Cat

shook his head, “Naw, they seem nice and everything, but I have someone I’m roundabout into. She’s a ghost too…like me. It’s not every woman would put up with this lifestyle.” Tom watched Cat roll the tip of the cigarette around in the ashtray, making a perfect point of the cherry. This lifestyle, he’d never thought of drifting long term, never thought of it beyond a temporary escape, or restart, or anything more than what he’d done since he began. The thought of drifting, as a lifestyle, long term, was something he hadn’t considered. Cat stood up, “Any music requests?” Tom shook his head no. An idea had spawned. He walked over to Gina’s table. Her friends signaled his approach somehow, and she turned and looked up just as he arrived. “Okay,” he said to her, “I’m gonna buy you another drink, but I have a bet for you.” She smiled, “Alright, what kind of bet?” He leaned over and put one hand on the back of her chair, and one hand on the table. “If I pick the right drink this time, I get a dance out of it.” She laughed, “And what do I get if you pick the wrong drink?” She looked up at him, a big smile, white teeth and that dimple. “You get a free shitty drink you don’t like.” She laughed again, and it was contagious, everyone at the table laughed with her. “I guess I can live with that deal.” Tom bent over closer to her slightly and squinted really hard, like he was about to read tiny print. She matched his intense gaze, then laughed again, “What’s that all about?” Tom stood up slowly, shaking his head as if he had discovered a deep secret. “I just read your mind, I’ll be back in a second.” When the bartender finally made his way over, Tom said, “There’s an extra five bucks for you if you mix me up the drink that Gina, that woman sitting right behind me, drinks.” The bartender didn’t acknowledge what he’d been asked, he just poured the drink, Jack and coke. Tom watched him work, I probably could have guessed that one. He walked over and sat the drink in front of her. She looked at it, then up at him. “You cheated,” she feigned anger, “but I’m a woman of my word, you find a good song to dance to, and I’ll honor the bet.” Tom laughed, “Okay then.”

Cat stood at the jukebox jingling a handful of quarters, cigarette hanging from his lips. Tom stood next to him, “Listen, I changed my mind, I do have a song I want played. Faithfully, by Journey, if it’s on here.” Cat plugged the quarters in and flicked through the selections. “It’s here, I saw it a while ago.” They searched together, Tom glanced back to make sure Gina was still at the table, but his view was blocked. He moved to the left, and so did the person standing in his way. He looked up at the man who blocked his view, tall, thick, purple brush popper shirt with broad white stripes, a few days of black beard on his face. When they made eye contact the cowboy smiled, exposing yellowed teeth. He pushed his hat back, exposing all of his big tan face, “Now, I can tell from looking at you boys, that you ain’t from anywhere in the vicinity of Billings Montana, that’s readily obvious.” He stared at Cat’s ponytail, then back at Tom’s shaved head. “I can see that. But you see that pile of quarters up there?” He pointed a cracked finger at a couple dollars worth of quarters in a neat stack on top of the jukebox. What that means is that I get the next few selections. It don’t matter if you’re in Alaska or Mexico, everybody knows that, everybody. I been sitting right over there patient as a saint as you guys put about ten fucking dollars into this machine. Three dollars ago I put my money up there, and by God, it’s my turn.” His voice rose and his posture seemed broader, fuller, more looming as he spoke. He settled back ever so slightly, shoulders retracting, pushed his hat back down an inch. “In the name of peace, I’m gonna pretend that you guys didn’t see my stack of quarters. I’m gonna go sit with my buddies over there, and when this pussy music is done playing this time, I’m coming over here and putting them quarters in the machine, and that’s how that’s gonna go.” He turned on his dull and dusty, broad toed cowboy boots and walked back to his table where three other cowboys, who were dressed nearly identically to him, sat. Cat kept searching, as if he’d never heard the big cowboy say anything. “Found it, I knew it was here.” Tom looked at the side of Cat’s dark face, there wasn’t a hint of emotion anywhere. “Cat, did you hear what that big bastard just said?” Cat pressed in the numbers for, Faithfully, “Uh huh.” He said it with complete nonchalance, as if he’d been asked if he wanted a cookie. “Well don’t you think we should let them have the next round? We don’t need a fight in here tonight.” He looked over, Gina was still there. Cat turned and put a hand on Tom’s shoulder, he still wasn’t visibly drunk, but his normally expressive eyes were dead, emotionless, like a sleepwalker's eyes. “This ain’t pool, we were here first, we hold the jukebox, and I don’t give two shits about his stacks of quarters.” Blood surged in Tom’s chest, he was suddenly not buzzed, the adrenalin burning the alcohol away. “Cat, listen, we don’t need a bunch of trouble over a couple fucking songs. Let 'em play their music, let's have a good time and a few laughs and get the hell out of here in one piece.” Cat smiled, but there was no humor, the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Hey, you’re song’s about to come on, why don’t you go dance with her, and let me worry about this stack of quarters?’ Tom searched Cat’s face for a sign that he might relent, but there was none. He turned and walked back toward Gina, stupid idiot, he thought. He looked up at the front door through a haze of gray cigarette smoke, just walk out that door, go sit on the porch, leave this moron. He reached Gina and tried to put everything out of his mind. “I’m here to collect on that debt.” She smiled, warm, friendly, nothing manipulative on her face. She stood and followed him through the crowd to the little dance floor. The song began to play as Tom turned to her. He took one of her hands in his, and put his other around her waist. Her back was tight, and he could feel the taut muscles on either side of her spine, the sweet, delicious smelling perfume was no stronger as he held her close, than it had been from a distance. “So, what brings you to Billings?” she asked. He turned her slowly, watching the group of cowboys in the corner. “Oh nothing really, just traveling through. I’ve never been to Montana before, I guess I wanted to see it.” He turned her slightly again, so he could see Cat and the Cowboys at the same time. Cat was standing at the corner of the bar, and the cowboys watched him. “How about you,” he said, “are you a Montana native?” She looked up at him, and could see he was watching the table of cowboys. “Born and bred, I’m actually from Three Forks Montana. I moved here for college, then got this job for extra money, and well, now there is no college, and this is all I do.” Cat walked back toward the table with a mixed drink in one hand, and a fresh cigarette in the other. The cowboy who had talked to Cat stood up and took his hat off and put it down softly on the table, like he didn’t want it scuffed. He unsnapped his cuffs and rolled his sleeves up. Gina was watching Tom first, then followed his eyes to the big cowboy. “Hey,” she said, “I can promise you that you want none of that.” He looked down at her, “Believe me, I don’t, but this stupid son of a bitch I’m traveling with seems like he’s just itching to get his ass kicked.” He shook his head a little, “I am not like this, I promise you to God. I’m so sorry that I met you on a night when something like this is brewing.” They danced quietly for a few seconds. “I know this is going to sound so ridiculous, so…corny, because I just barely met you, and I swear on a stack of Bibles this isn’t some crazy pickup line, but have you ever felt like you walked in through the right door, turned the right way, and gotten somewhere at exactly the right moment in time? Because that’s how I feel out here on this dance floor with you, right now, right here at this exact moment in Billings Montana.” She looked up at him to search for some angle he was playing, some tiny crack she could find and point to, and say, aha, you liar. But she saw nothing but his earnestness, and honesty, and for a split second she forgot about Cat, and the cowboys, and the trouble that was festering, and about her friends, and even the barroom. For a second she allowed herself to believe that nonsense like destiny, and the butterfly effect, and love at first sight were real, and happened, and was happening right at that moment. She wanted to say a million things, she wanted to laugh off what he’d said as a joke, and wanted to tell him, “‘Stop it…” But he wasn’t kidding, she could see truth in his eyes, his face, the way he said those words, and it was totally ridiculous that he wasn’t kidding, because they hadn’t spoken more than a handful of words to one another, and she desperately wanted to say anything but what she said, “Yes…”

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