A story about pain.
When I rolled into Missoula, Jim Donlon was waiting for me in dark glasses and a black cardigan with a white T-shirt underneath. He looked drunk.
“Davis,” he said, as if my return was the last in a long line of depressing accidents, “what the hell is this?” His way of saying welcome back. I took the cigarette he offered, and we walked out of the bus station through the snow. He was parked five blocks north. We stopped in at the Old Sod along the way.
I was exhausted from my three-day bus ride from San Diego. And neither of us felt like talking right off—which was fine by me considering that these were the first drinks I’d had in almost a year. Jim was closed-mouthed when he drank, the sort who made it seem alright for you to quietly let alcohol simmer in your veins. We must have looked ridiculous that afternoon, sitting in the empty bar without talking: me with suitcase and laptop satchel and Jim still wearing his sunglasses. We used to come to the Old Sod a lot. And here we were as if I’d never left. In the months I’d been gone, nothing had changed. Nothing good would ever happen in this lousy bar. The fat bartender would be eternally reading the paper.
“I thought you quit drinking.” Jim blew long shoots of smoke out his nostrils.
“How’re things?” I asked. “What’s new?”
Jim sighed. “Look at this.” He took out the smallest pistol I’d ever seen and put it on the table between us. The barrel was two inches long, lighter than my drink.
“Careful,” he said. “It’s got a bullet in there.”
“What do you need this for?”
Jim finished his drink, lit another cigarette. “You’re back in Montana, Davis. Didn’t you notice?”
“These things kill people.”
“So do these things.” Jim held up his cigarette. “And this thing.” He stood and grabbed his balls.
There weren’t many people in there. Two mustachioed old men in the corner staring into their beers. The jukebox had Broken on it. There was one woman in the place—redhead, mid-forties, plastered. Jim hid the gun in his waistband under his cardigan and walked over to her table. They talked. He held up his hands and asked, “Why not?” loud enough that I could hear it. Then he came back and sat down.
We looked at each other.
“You don’t know a thing,” he said.
We drank until we both ran out of cash, switching to pitchers of Pabst at the end, when we got to our last. Then we staggered out into the snow. It had begun to glow with the gray-white luminescence that only the streets of Missoula have in the late afternoon, like cold ashes.
He destroyed one of his own plastic garbage cans, when we got to his apartment, sending two weeks of trash into the air, over his car, and out into the cul-de-sac. Two wheels of his Acura were up on the curb. I laughed and slipped on the ice. Everything was funny.
“What about all this trash?” I asked as Jim walked to his front door.
“Forget about it, “ he said and I found this funny, too. I’d ripped a hole in the right knee of the only pair of trousers I owned.
In October of 1999, I was determined to rethink my life.
A letter came from Yugawara, chair of the English Department, asking if I would be available to work as a private tutor for a high school kid. The pay, he wrote, would justify my return to Montana. I believed him.
I packed a small suitcase and called a cab.
I’d been taking a year off in order to write; though, the real reason I’d left Missoula had been to dry out. A graduate student at the University of Montana and twenty-three years old, I already had arrests in two different states for driving under the influence. I was not proud of this. Perhaps because I am an only child or because my parents both came from broken homes, I have always been indulged. But, whatever the case, my mother and father did everything they could to help me with my drinking problem when I should have been disowned.
In order to help myself financially and morally and I think to, as my mother put it, take some time to develop a spine so you won’t always let everyone walk all over you, I moved back to San Diego on leave of absence, promising teachers and friends that, when I returned, I’d have my novel finished and be ready to take my degree. I fully intended to do this, but I didn’t work on the novel at all in San Diego. I produced one frivolous, eight-page story that I threw out.
So when Yugawara’s letter came, I jotted a short note that said I was going and left it on my bed. I took the cab downtown, to the Greyhound Bus Station, bought a eighty-dollar ticket one-way to Missoula, and sat down to wait. My parents wouldn’t ask questions. Still, I felt like I was abusing their hospitality by leaving so abruptly in the middle of the day with a stack of library books on my bureau that needed to be returned and no explanation whatsoever.
I told myself that, even though I was worthless, I was doing what had to be done. I needed to go, and I was never any good at good-byes, usually getting soppy and melodramatic enough that I made a fool of myself and embarrassed whoever I was with. My family hated public spectacle, so at least in that sense, I told myself, I was doing them a favor by disappearing. I would write to them from Missoula. Though, deep in my weak, self-centered heart, I knew I was a rotten son.
It was October. At least that much was certain, an unavoidable fact. Winter in San Diego meant that days stayed in the upper seventies instead of the lower nineties, and palm trees swished slightly more in the wind. But that didn’t mean winter couldn’t be just as hard there as anywhere else. I always felt that it wasn’t the climate that killed so many homeless over the holidays but the hardness of everyday people around the world, taking out their petty frustrations on the less fortunate. I knew that was a sentimental way of looking at things, but sitting in the Greyhound terminal can bring out the sentiment in anyone. It seemed like all the homeless people in the city were sleeping in there that day. And it made me sad to look at them curled up around me in the black molded chairs, stinking, talking out loud in their dreams.
When I got up to board the bus, I left a ten-dollar bill on my seat. Money never meant much to me. I had a tendency to give it away if people asked for it—which someone usually did. Or I’d fall into one of my sentimental fugues, insisting that they take it for their own good. And I never saw the point of fashion. It took too much of my energy, too much money, too much space in my life.
But Jim was different: two years older, tall and thin, like me, but with better clothes and style. He seemed to move through other people’s lives, through entanglements that would side-track any normal person, with a certain effortlessness. Years ago, he’d inherited a lot of money, had an apartment in Montana, one in a Vegas suburb—where he’d go sometimes on weekends. In Missoula, Jim was a graduate student in my writing program. He took the bare minimum of units and taught classes like everyone else. And he made having money and everything that came with it seem a given, seem easy, even the day after a drunk.
As soon as we got into his apartment, we polished off the better part of a bottle of Absolut; though, I don’t remember doing it. I passed out in a small wicker chair in his living room, my suitcase and satchel placed neatly by my feet. In the morning, I woke up, still in the chair, with my legs straight out, crossed at the ankles. My body was stiff. I felt like I’d been dead for a thousand years.
I opened my eyes to a full-length cherrywood bar, an entertainment center, a few miniature indoor palms, an Italian leather couch, and a blonde on the end closest to me with a lit cigarette and one breast hanging out of Jim’s bathrobe. Jim was sitting on the other end, in black pajamas, also smoking a cigarette and there was hockey on TV.
I felt the vast, horrible waves of nausea that come from mixing types of liquor. So I didn’t say anything. I sat there quietly and looked at them. Jim was staring at the widescreen. The blonde was staring at me.
“It’s a breast,” she said. “Want to see the other one?”
“Show him the other one,” said Jim without glancing away from the game.
“Fuck off,” sighed the girl. She yawned, looked me over, took a slow drag. “You look like a sick rat.”
“Darcy, this is my friend, Davis, from San Diego.” The only way to tell Jim was hung over was that he’d let his cigarette burn down to a crooked finger of ash.
There was a silver dish of cigarettes on the coffee table. Darcy picked one out and lit it on her old ember. The ash tray sat on the middle cushion between them on the couch.
“He’s breaking up with me, you know. He broke up with me yesterday. I’m moving out.” She raised her eyebrows at me and took a drag.
Jim changed the channel. “I’m sorry I was so erratic last night, Mike. I could have gotten us both killed. It’s stupid to drink and drive.”
“He doesn’t care about anyone or anything. He’s not your friend.”
“I think I might vomit,” I said.
“Darcy, be a doll and go get him the wastebasket from the kitchen, would you?”
“I fucking hate you.” She tied the bathrobe more tightly around herself and went into the kitchen.
Jim looked at me for the first time that morning and smiled: “What can you do?”
I shook my head. I didn’t know what you could do. First I was a drunk. Then I was sober. Now I was a drunk again. The guilt hadn’t even started, but it was stalking me. I could feel it. It was being sportsmanlike, waiting for me to vomit a few times before it sprang on me in all its demonic fury. I did vomit several times—but not in the wastebasket. I weaved along the hallway and into the downstairs bathroom. The act was painful when I got to it: a thin gray fluid hanging like a cloud in the center of the bowl and then the dry heaves. For all the drinking I’d done in my short life, the day after never got any better, only worse.
Half an hour later, I made my way back down the hallway, feeling like I was swimming through an underground cave to the light. I stopped before entering the living room. Darcy had shed her bathrobe and was straddling Jim, who hadn’t moved from his sitting position at the end of the couch. Her cheeks were full of tears. She whispered things and ran her fingers through his hair while she rode him. He still had the top of his black pajamas on and his right arm stuck straight out to the side over the armrest. One of them had put the ashtray on the floor beside the couch so Jim could ash in it while they did their thing. I walked back to the bathroom, sat on the closed toilet, and put my face in my hands.
This was two and a half months before the millennium.
Jim went to school to teach a class. With nothing to do that day but wait until my appointment with Yugawara, I sat around in the coal-gray suit Jim had lent me, smoking and imagining how the world might end on New Years Eve. I didn’t see any reason to go to the university early and have to explain my life to my former colleagues. So I stayed on the leather couch and stared back at Darcy, who was wearing a pair of Jim’s shorts and one of his T-shirts. All of her possessions were now packed in her car, but she wouldn’t go. She sat in the wicker chair looking at me blankly. Maybe she was looking through me. There was an open Ziploc full of large pink horse-pills on the table between us.
“Christ,” she said. “I’m getting so thin. It’s like my bones are growing out of my skin.” Darcy had a fake tan, but it looked good on her. Her body wasn’t too thin; it was just right. Her eyes were a pretty blue-gray, even though there was too much white around them at the moment and she was sweating.
“You look fine.”
“Look at my hands. I’m a skeleton. You can see the bones coming through.”
“What are you worried about? You’re beautiful. You got everything going for you.” I handed her a cigarette, but she couldn’t keep the lighter’s flame on. I lit it for her and sat back down.
“What am I worried about?” Darcy puffed quickly, not inhaling, sending fat milky clouds into the air between us. “Wow. Yeah. Wonderful. That’s wonderful.”
We sat in silence, listening to her breathing. I thought about taking one or two of those pills, just so we could be on the same planet, but I had no idea what would happen. I wanted to stay straight for Yugawara and the high school kid’s parents who’d be there to interview me. So I went behind the bar and made myself a whiskey sour. Just one. Just for steadiness. Darcy watched me with a sick, detached expression—like those pills had made everything horrible, everything disgusting.
“Look,” I said, “you’re making me nervous. Why don’t you have a drink.”
She half-nodded, so I brought her mine and made another. But she let it sit on the coffee table in front of her, condensation puddling on one side of the glass. I sat back on the couch and loosened Jim’s black silk tie.
“I’m gonna kill myself,” she said to the drink. “You might want to leave.”
“How many of those pills did you eat?”
“Who the fuck are you?”
I brought her over to the couch and put my arm around her. She was shaking.
“Shit,” she said, hugging me and resting her head on my chest. I held her tight and sipped my drink.
After enough whiskey, you forget you ever had problems. You forget what a failure you are and how you’ve let everybody down. I sat there holding Darcy, waiting for Jim to get back from teaching his class, and the only thing I could do was drink. The first whiskey sour was my first mistake and, having made one mistake, it was all too easy to make another and another.
I laid Darcy down and got a blanket off Jim’s bed to cover her with. Then I began to pace. I paced around the living room for so long that soon pacing was all I could concentrate on. After a while, I didn’t concentrate on anything. I looked at my track in the carpet, walked around the room, looked out the windows, and sipped whiskey.
“You look like hell,” said Jim when he came in the front door. “Even in an expensive suit, you look like a drunk.”
He was right. I’d wrinkled his suit at some point and combed my hair over with some water, but it hadn’t done any good.
“Your girl. I think she od’d.”
He went over and looked down at her. “She’ll live. She say she was going to kill herself?”
I nodded and the room tilted. I steadied myself against the bar.
“Happens all the time.” Jim put his arms around her chest and dragged her off the couch. We put her in the backseat of his Acura, then got two unopened bottles of Irish whiskey from behind the bar and took off down the street.
I was drunk but I was wide awake—enough to know there was no way I could do an interview and not seem like an idiot.
“Yugawara. I can’t see him. I’m not up to it.”
“You’re a mess,” said Jim. “Open this, would you?” He handed me one of the bottles. Speeding up the I-50 felt like we were on a rollercoaster. Misty, snow-covered mountains were all around, but the highway could have been going up, over the top of the world. Jim kept one of the bottles between his legs and only slowed down when he wanted a drink.
“I heard about this kid up at the Black Creek Lodge. People stick things in his body for money.”
“That’s where we’re going?”
“Shit,” he said, “what are you, a genius?”
“What about her?” Darcy was in the middle of the back seat, head back, mouth open.
“Forget her. She’s stoned.”
The road was covered in ice. It made a sound like air escaping from a giant puncture.
By the time we got there, Jim had gotten drunk enough and I had gotten sober enough that we were both tired and quiet. Before we left Darcy in the car, I took off my coal-gray suit jacket and covered her with it. I couldn’t see why we’d brought her. But I was sure that if we didn’t cover her, she’d freeze.
“Davis, you’re a saint,” Jim said.
At the Black Creek Lodge, there was an annual bull testicle eating festival of international repute, which made it a meeting place for freaks of all kinds year round. But, on that day, the parking lot only had a few cars in it, and we both slipped twice. I was shivering violently from the cold and almost dropped the unopened bottle of whiskey. Jim held the opened one to his chest.
We walked through several large empty rooms, one that had been the inside of a barn. Then we came to a lounge that had a full bar in it and large bay windows looking out on a pasture. The pasture was covered in snow. A cow stood in the middle of it, staring at the windows. An old woman was waitressing and serving drinks behind the bar. The low wooden tables looked just like her—brown, cracked, not long before they’d collapse. In the corner sat the kid who got things stuck in him for money—bird-thin with a light blue sheet around him like a Roman senator. His hair was shaved down a centimeter from his head and his face showed no emotion. He sat completely straight in his chair.
A few locals were sitting in a semi-circle in front of him, laughing and drinking. A man in a bowl-cut and two flannel shirts, missing his left index finger. A blonde with a nasty puncture scar on the side of her neck. And another woman with no teeth at all; though, she couldn’t have been more than 35. A few others. Everyone but the kid looked at us when we walked up and sat.
“Look at this. Whiskey for everybody,” said a fat, bearded man in a thermal undershirt and jeans. Jim smiled and toasted them with his bottle. The men sitting there looked like loggers and so did their women. I wondered if they’d come for this or if they just happened to be drinking here.
The old woman from behind the bar walked up. “I’d ask you two what you want but it looks like you got that covered.”
I opened the full whiskey bottle and took a sip. Jim asked the woman for cups and, when she brought a stack of plastic tumblers, he poured out whiskey for everybody, brightening spirits all around. Jim even poured out one for the kid, but the fat bearded man held up a hand and said, “No, thanks. He don’t drink.” The kid didn’t do anything but blink. He was completely still.
After everyone had some whiskey, the bearded man stood. “This is Colter and he only does this once a day.”
Too much whiskey: I felt stupid, my thoughts dissolving in to Montana nothing, as if I were no different from that cow in the snow-gray pasture.
“Is he gonna scream?” asked one of the women.
The bearded man slapped Colter hard across the face and said, “See? He don’t feel nothing.” He took the sheet down and pooled it around Colter’s waist, leaving the boy’s upper body exposed. The skin was pale and curiously unscarred. Did it matter that he was sixteen or fifteen or fourteen? He had nothing in his eyes, dead stare, vacant. Then the bearded man brought out a black dish containing hatpins, a long thin paring knife, an assortment of thumbtacks and small pins.
In San Diego, my parents’ yard would be covered with plum blossoms. I thought of them and wished I was there. California was a bright complex of light and heat that was beyond us here, in this place, after we’d given the bearded man ten dollars each—where we took turns silently pushing hatpins into the boy’s arms and chest—where even the snow looked like ashes.
When we finished, thin strings of blood ran down Colter’s torso where silver thumbtacks had been stuck between his ribs in graceful arcs. The pearled plastic drops at the ends of the hatpins looked vaguely like peacock jewelry, an ancient beautification method, difficult and prized.
“Shit,” said one of the women, “I want a picture.”
“Five dollars,” said the bearded man, getting a Polaroid from behind the bar.
Like the lady bartender, this woman had nut-brown leathery skin, and it was hard to tell how old she was. She leaned over Colter and did a 1950s-style cheesecake pose as if she were on a float—Miss October. When she grinned, she was missing two of her teeth.
Jim had been drinking steadily from the bottle and staring at the boy, who was still expressionless with arms and chest full of pins.
The bearded man stood. “Okay, that’s good. We’re all done now.”
“Wait a second,” said Jim. “What about that knife?”
“Oh,” said the bearded man, “the knife. If you want to do that, it’s fifty dollars.” He smiled and looked at Jim as if he were seeing him for the first time.
Jim inserted the paring knife sideways, right under Colter’s left nipple. The kid hardly bled at all. Everyone cheered—whether for Jim or for Colter was unclear—maybe just for the spectacle of the thing: the kid, a human pincushion, so much metal sticking out of him, and some drunk bastard adding that thin knife, as if it needed to be done to make the effort complete. But I remember Colter’s exhalation, the sound of it—long and gradual as if from a great distance.
Darcy woke up, when we were half-way home, screaming as if someone had just jumpstarted her heart.
“Where the fuck am I?” she said.
“Don’t worry,” said Jim, squinting intensely through the snow coming down in thick, moth-gray sheets. He gripped the wheel with both hands. The engine made a steady whine and the wipers could barely keep up. We were doing seventy, seventy-five, outrunning the distance as the car fishtailed and hissed. He raised his eyebrows and flashed me a look as if he expected me to object. But I looked out through the snow, thinking of Colter’s expression as the knife went under his nipple, when he slowly began to smile.
Later, we’d drink until we both wept. Jim would cut himself on a broken whiskey bottle, bleeding all over the top of his cherrywood bar. He’d shoot his pistol off twice into the floor and scare us both. The next day, he’d lend me another suit. I’d make apologies to Yugawara and get the job tutoring a slow, yet very wealthy, fourteen-year-old girl with a vision problem. And all that winter, I’d dream of plum blossoms that settle in the heat like parade confetti, making my parents’ back yard look covered in snow. I’d step through the ice to the laundry at the corner, where I’d buy my parents postcards of blue mountains in summer and scrawl I love you on the back.
“What’s going on? Where we going?” hissed Darcy, holding onto the back of my seat for dear life.
“Don’t you worry,” said Jim. “We’ve got you. Nothing’s gonna happen.”