I always wanted to see the greatness of America. Fruited plains, purple mountain’s majesty, amber waves. We didn’t travel much, but when I got old enough, I took off. Caught a bus to California, hopped a freight train to Santa Fe. Hitchhiked north, looking for quick work, and got a job running the cash register and serving burgers at JP’s Joint in Jackson. Five dollars an hour, plus tips, which were few and far between, but I tried my best to amp them up by running out napkins, unasked-for water, taking away dishes as if it were a sit-down place. In the kitchen, when I tacked up the orders, JP pulled patties out of a plastic flat and threw them on the grill. His fingernails were black, and he’d wipe his nose with the back of his hang. I got to figure that the heat kills the germs, but it still wasn’t pretty to watch. Baskets of fries in, baskets out, orange seasoning shook on them, heat rising from the fryer and the grill. It’s already hot there, in the summer, scorching, and I’d have sweat marks on the waist of my little apron. The register keys would get greasy, so that I’d have to pull out the key and wipe them off. Mostly families came in to the Joint, and mostly they didn’t tip much, but every now and then you’d get some high rollers or some that felt guilty for their kids throwing half-eaten fries all over the floor and leave a five. Those days it was like Easter and the Tooth Fairy all at once, and I’d stuff it in my pocket quick so JP wouldn’t see, because even though he said the tip jar was my sole domain, I didn’t want him getting any ideas.
Still, it wasn’t bad. It’s a beautiful place up there, walled in by the mountains on three sides. I used to take walks on the road south out of town and watch the streams coming off those mountains and snaking across fields of blue-green grass. They’d change paths depending on the weather. And across the Refuge there’d be great big herds of elk chewing leaves or just staring at you with their big calm eyes. Back at home they shoot elk, just go out in the morning and pick one off as he gets up to have his breakfast, but out there the elk are protected. They know it, too. They’re not skittish. A full grown bull will weigh eight hundred pounds, but you never feel like they’re going to charge you, just like they’re old and wise and they know better. Even the half-grown ones have a quality about them, something regal.
The people are nice, too. They don’t ever lock their doors or their cars. They just throw the keys on the seat. Something about that kind of confidence makes you feel included, like the car is saying to you, “Hey, Friend.” Like you want to protect the car from any evildoers that might take advantage of that fact. Like you’re a guest and not a stranger. I never felt like that before. And there are a lot of strangers, more than locals probably. People from out west like me, and lots more from Colorado or Texas, Louisiana or Florida. Like Damien. Damien was from New Orleans, he said, down in Metairie actually, and he was out in Jackson to find the Wild West. I met him one day when I was walking back from JP’s to the tent park. He was walking too, going to an AA meeting in the church basement. He fell in step with me and crinkled the corners of his eyes, and he told me his name, Damien Duplechain, pronounced the French way, and that he was Cajun from way back, and how he ran a small company of shrimp boaters back home in New Orleans, but how he needed a change of scene. He told me straight out that he was going to an AA meeting because drink had killed his daddy and he didn’t see why he shouldn’t keep himself honest. And he asked me out to dinner.
I don’t know why I went to the AA meeting too. I’d never been to one, then, probably only had a drink two or three times in my life. I remember the crackers and juice, which made it seem oddly like a nursery school storytime, and the deep sober eyes of the people there, and the hugs. Mostly I remember the way the light fell across the white church walls as we descended the exterior stairwell into the basement, which was cool and only faintly musty, and the way Damien took my elbow without actually touching it and steered me to a folding chair.
At dinner that night he told me some more about his prospects, how he had a little bit of money to invest and was thinking of going by land this time, maybe a ranch, maybe a ski park. He poured us glasses of wine, but he barely touched his, and then he walked me back to the tent park in the fading light of nine o’clock and said my name.
I thought maybe he was going to kiss me then, but he didn’t. He just said my name again, and then his eyes crinkled up at the corners and he said he’d see me, and thank you for dinner, and then he walked out the wooden gate and back up the road toward town. Earl over at the next tent gave me a good razzing over it, called Damien “Mister Southern Comfort,” but I mostly ignored him. He didn’t feel comfortable to me. He felt like a kindred soul. I didn’t say that to Earl, of course. He wasn’t looking for anything but the next beer and bimbo to go with it, and since I’d made clear I wasn’t like that he treated me like a pesky little sister. Looked out for me a little. But I thought it. I thought you never can tell about people, but maybe Damien’s heart’s locked up in exactly the same way as mine.
I didn’t see him again for a couple weeks after that, and I was beginning to wonder if he’d left town, gone back to that sinking city of his. I imagined him doing things I’d always wanted to do: speaking French, sitting at a sidewalk café watching pretty ladies and elegant men. I could just see it, too, the heavy wet sunlight reflecting off the silverware, shining through the glass. I wasn’t aggrieved at him being gone, didn’t think of him all the time. But I thought of him. And then there he was, driving a dusty white Cadillac down the main drag of town, wearing sunglasses and waving at me. I smiled at him then, and a couple days later I saw that Cadillac parked outside the coffee shop, so I went in. He was sitting in the corner by the window with a notebook and a thoughtful expression. Plotting and planning, my stepdad would say. Wheeling and dealing. But when he saw me he stood up and bought me a brownie. I felt that he was glad to see me, and I was glad too, especially when he held my elbow again without touching it and walked me down the narrow sidewalks to JP’s. And when I poked my head out the door a minute later he turned around and crinkled his eyes at me.
That’s how it happened that we got to have a regular date, I guess. I never knew what to call it. Earl kept teasing me about Southern Comfort, sometimes when he was drinking it, but it wasn’t like that, and he knew it. Damien had a way of treating people—he was generous with his courtesy. Every waitress, every cashier would be smiling after him when he walked out the door. And after a while it was natural for me to meet him at the church stairs after my shift, and we’d take a walk and then go to that one white tablecloth restaurant in town. He’d get a steak dinner, every time, and I’d get whatever looked good. We’d order a bottle of wine—he’d tell me if it was dry or oaky and sometimes what the country it came from looked like—and he’d pour us two glasses and not drink his, which meant that I’d have three glasses if I could finish them. Usually I couldn’t. Usually I was too busy listening to the spaces between our words.
He never let me pay, and contrary to what the owner thought, he never laid a finger on me. He’d walk me back to the tent park and stand at the gate while I got into my tent, and I’d watch through the mesh and twilight as he strolled away.
When JP closed for the holiday I had two days off in a row. I was wondering how to spend them, if I should do something special, but I finally decided something special would be just to not work and to spend the day taking a long walk out of town, out the Elk Refuge. I was picking my way along the highway a few miles out of town when I heard a car wheels on the gravel and a voice call, “Might I interest you in a ride, Ma’am?”
We drove that big white Cadillac north toward Yellowstone. Damien said he’d a mind to take the air, to see the sights of this great big country, and I wasn’t against it. I remember every mile of that drive, the curving, dusty road, the hairs on Damien’s forearm glinting gold in the sun. When we pulled into the park it was nearly dinnertime, and Damien asked me how I’d like to stay at the lodge. I nodded my agreement. It would be nice to sleep under a roof again, I thought. But inside the lodge they didn’t have a single room free. Damien suggested we eat, anyhow, and see the sights. So we walked out to where Old Faithful sent a jet of water into the air and watched it go, like a great big whale was underground there. And then we walked on into the dining room at the lodge and had a five-course meal.
Damien wasn’t one to show temper, and I couldn’t tell if he was disappointed about there being no room at the inn. He was the same as ever except that somewhere between the champagne and the cabernet, he started to drink the wine. We went through three bottles of it and then adjourned to the lounge, where he bought me my first cognac. “Fitting,” he told me, “to start with champagne and end with the liqueur that comes from it.” It made my eyes burn, and then it made my heart burn, but finally it made me feel warm all over. Damien laughed when I told him that. “Me too, darling, and that’s just fine, as I think we’ll have to be roughing it tonight. I have a two-man tent in the car if you’re agreeable.”
We set up the tent a few hundred yards into the woods, where we could see the yellow lights of the lodge, and as we did the first raindrops began to fall. “Nick of time,” Damien said, and we snugged up tight in there. I listened to the rain for what might have been an hour or might have been ten minutes; it was impossible to tell the way my head was turning. But by then end of it the rain was beating down so hard you could see the indentations it made in the old tent. Damien crossed his arms under his head. “So ends our parade,” he said, and I laughed a little, though he didn’t. My elbow bumped his, and then his hand came up around it, for real this time.
We stayed like that for a while, while the rain fell harder and louder on our roof. I listened to the rain and the woods and the sound of our breathing, and I felt a small golden happiness bloom in me, and then it opened up like a morning glory. I could feel the warmth of his fingers on my arm, anchoring me to the ground, anchoring us together. The beginning and the end of what together was like.
But the air changed, started to smell of ozone and thunder. And then Damien went up on one elbow. I could see the shape of him, black against the black of the tent roof, for a moment motionless under the pelting rain, and he moved.
He fell on me. I’d never been so close to him before, or thought to be. He was heavier than I’d have thought, and his hands were rougher than I’d have thought, and his breath smelled like cognac, and I was too surprised to move as the tent walls trembled.
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Portland Fiction Project
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