Wednesday, June 29, 2016
The Condill Hotel was like any of its kind—a dilapidated old monument in the centre of town. They could be found clean across the prairies, clinging to the past like the failing grain elevators and abandoned railroad tracks. It tilted slightly and the roof sagged, leaving not a single hint of the luxury accommodation it had once been. No longer a stop-over for travellers, it was now the end of the road for addicts and old age pensioners. And a place to party for just about anyone else.
Gypsy walked into the lobby. It stank of piss and stale cigarettes. In a corner, curled up beneath a phone booth was Laughing Joe, snoring loudly and so drunk she could smell the Royal White on him from the door. A bartender would be along soon to kick him out. Riley had told her that Laughing Joe was once a champ bronc rider. He’d rodeoed all over the States for more than fifteen years, and nearly everyone he knew had one of his buckles, trophy saddles, or halters, because he gave them away as soon as he won them. Now, he was a lump of dirty clothes passed out in a hotel lobby—already dead and waiting for his body to catch up so he could move on. Gypsy glanced around checking if anyone was watching. She slipped a ten dollar bill into his hand, then tucked the hand inside his open jacket so that it would not be visible.
It was a wonder that anyone could sleep with the music thumping from the review bar. Judging by the volume and the whooping cheers, a girl was on stage. Probably Cherry Hills. The bar was always packed at lunch time. The big joke around town was that it was the famous steak sandwiches that drew the noon hour crowd. The steaks were good. But not good enough for the crowds that gathered there. It was all about the pussy.
On the left was the tavern, or what the rednecks called “the Indian bar”. Though it wasn't unusual for it to be filled with more slobbering old white cowboys than anything else. But whatever the patronage on any given day, it was exactly the kind of place she liked to drink best. To hell with all her VIP passes to the trendy nightclubs, of which she had a good collection of, extending right across the West. Came with the occupation. It wasn’t that she didn’t show up once in a while and make her appearance and play her part around the essential hotspots in every city… mostly for the free drinks on shitty tip nights, but that was like an acting job and too exhausting after twelve plus hours playing fantasy girl. What she liked best were the white walled, over lit bars that gave her a much needed fix of anonymity. The kind of place where you walked through the door and no one gave a shit where you just came from. The kind of place where if you were running from some sort of haunt, any kind, that made you family with whoever was inside. No pretensions. No bullshit.
She grabbed a Pilsner from the bar and sat at an empty table, facing the juke box. It was playing a song about the lonely road, one that she knew well. It was a regular in her portable CD player and had travelled some long, trying Greyhound miles with her.
“Hey, Baraback Riter,” an ancient looking Native called across the barroom. “Whad’re ya drinkin? Led me buy yooh a beer.”
She smiled politely and declined. “I’ve just started this one, thanks.”
A hurt expression crossed his hollow toothless face. “C’mon. Led me buy yooh a beer. I watched yooh rite, you know?”
If she accepted the drink, she could be sure to be buying his beer for the rest of the afternoon, because he didn’t look like he had all that much money, but what did it matter? She couldn’t be rude to a man who would offer her a drink he probably couldn’t afford. “Alright. A Pilsner.”
It wasn’t yet 12:30, but beer spilled over the man’s palsied hands, as he staggered to her table. “Here ya goh.”
She thanked him politely, but he stood at her table, unmoving.
“Hey Bareback Riter, mind if I join yooh?” he finally asked. “They call me George.” He stuck a wet hand out for her to shake. She grasped it firmly.
“Yeah, the bareback riter.”
“Charlie,” she repeated, hoping he’d stop calling her that.
He nodded his head, and settled into a chair unsteadily, nearly tipping it over. Charlie didn’t mind that he was drunk, or that he would most likely carry on calling her “Bareback Rider”. Lots of men called her that. Mostly the ones who watched her dance, or knew she danced. But this man meant it as respect. No innuendo. She could be sure he wasn’t going to proposition her. He wasn’t going to order a drink for her by saying, “hey waitress, how about another one for the stripper.” He wasn’t going to ask her why she took her clothes off for money, if she had a boyfriend and what he thought of her stripping, how much she made, did she get along with the other girls, didn’t she realise she was too good to do a job like that? It made her head fucking spin listing all the stupid frequently asked questions. No. He wasn’t going to ask her any of those things. Maybe he’d just ramble on about the good ole days and she’d be happy to listen, even if he was a little incoherent and the words fell like soup and mashed potatoes from his gappy mouth.
Before long, a large man walked into the bar. George called across the room to him. “Hey Frank, I’d like yooh to meet my new girlfrient. She’s a bronc buster.” He turned to Charlie. “That’s my cousin,” he told her. “He’s awright.”
George knew everyone who came through the door and before long the table was full and another had to be added to it. The empty glasses multiplied, and Charlie made several trips with an armload full back up to the bar. She went through two packs of smokes in a couple of hours, but she hadn’t bought a beer since the first one, so she figured she was up, and bought a third pack, which she left open on the table. And the best part was, not one person asked her about her face. Yes. No questions.
The door opened again, and a pretty woman nearing fifty walked in. She had feathered hair and long dangly porcupine quill earrings. She didn’t look like the type of person you’d find in a bar like the tavern. She didn’t look knocked down by the world quite enough. She took an empty seat near Charlie. Reaching across the table, she tapped George’s hand to get his attention. “Hey, George,” she said, “yooh’d better finish up. The boy is at the feed store, and when he gets back we’re goin’ home.”
George tipped his glass to his mouth and chugged it back, then ordered another. “Hey sis, I want yooh to meet my new girlfrient. She’s a bronc buster.”
George’s sister leaned in close to Charlie, trying to be heard over ten competing conversations. “Is that right? My sister’s boy was a bronc rider. He’s a real good bulldogger. He’s just ohdinary size, but he’s a good wrestler. Fine horseman, too.”
Before Charlie could reply, the Tavern door swung open again.
“Ahh, speak of the devil, eh.”
“Hi aunty,” the man said flashing a crisp broad smile. It was the whitest smile Charlie had ever seen— at least that’s what she had thought the first time she saw it. “Hey George. Hi Charlie! Sure didn’t think I’d run into you here.”
“I didn’t really expect to see you here either, Riley.”
“I just stopped in to pick up my auntie and uncle.”
“Ah, so you do know him?” the woman said giving Charlie a nudge in the arm. “Come. Take a seat, Riley. Let George finish his beer. He’s been in town a week already, one more beer isn’t going to kill him.”
“Ouch,” Riley said, pointing to the bruise on Charlie’s face. She shrugged. The tables were crowded and it was awkward for him to find a place to position his chair. Charlie slid hers back to allow him some room. She couldn’t believe just how good it was to see Riley. Since she had spilt with Cody, she only ever seemed to see him at rodeos when he’d show up to pull her riggin’ or face her horse out. Then he’d be gone. Things had been awkward since that night when it all ended with Cody, but Riley had been a good friend. Most of the guys Cody hung out with were jerks, but Riley had always been different. The nice guy. But he was more Cody’s friend than hers, and she’d accepted that.
“Are you entered up this weekend?” she asked.
“Yeah. I’m up on Saturday.”
“I’m on Saturday, too.” She took a sip of beer and read the bold white letters on his navy blue t-shirt. FBI . “You got a secret identity or something?” she teased.
He laughed. “Nothing I wasn’t born into. What are you drinking?”
“Pilsner.” She watched him strut to the bar, a cartoonish swagger in his walk. Across the back of his t-shirt read: Full Blooded Indian. It made her spit a small spray of beer. She wished she actually had some girlfriends— someone nice ones who didn’t use a man like an ATM. She’d set him up.