Thursday, July 7, 2016
Charlie slipped her gloved hands underneath the twine of another square bale and heaved it onto the trailer behind the tractor. They’d already been at loading the hay for a few hours and Stella still wasn’t back with Jacob’s truck. “Fucking bitch,” she said under her breath as she heaved another bale up. “I really need to get the hell out of this place.”
“You talkin’ to yourself down there?” Jacob shouted through the tractor cab window.
She grunted and threw another bale on top of the last. This was stupid. She was stupid. What the hell was she doing?
Jacob stopped the tractor and crawled down from it.
“What now?” she thought.
“Here,” he said, tossing her a cold beer.
She caught it and held it against her forehead. And then, the sudden inactivity hit her with a hard sucker punch. She stood there lost, frozen, like she had maybe forgotten how to breathe. Her gaze wandered out across the hayfield and beyond the river coulee, out of the focus of her eyes. Circles rimmed the outer edges of vision, black rings that shrank in and swallowed her sight, carrying her off to fade into the wind. Her knees buckled and she went down.
Jacob bent over her, taking her body in his arms. When she opened her eyes again, he was there, staring down at her. He lifted her ball cap off her forehead then kissed the place just above the shiner.
“Am I interrupting something?” Stella asked, walking out across the field.
“No,” said Jacob, releasing his embrace and righting himself quickly. “Gypsy just faded on me here for a bit. Too much sun, I think.”
“You all right?” Stella asked, extending a hand to help Charlie up, that Charlie was obliged to take, though she would have rather shaken hands with the business end of a scorpion.
Charlie shook her head. “I’m fine. Yeah, probably too much sun. I don’t know what happened. But I’m good now.”
“I saw a friend of yours today. Little busted toothed runt. Something gives me the feeling you'd love to know I threw an extra-large cup of steaming hot French vanilla in his lap.”
Charlie laughed, in spite of herself. “No? Really? Oh my god, what happened?” she asked bending over to salvage what was left of the beer she dropped when she fainted.
“Well first he got into it with another guy. Over you, I think. I thought he was going to get his ass pounded into the pavement, but the other guy walked away. He could have taken him though.”
“Ah fuck. So then what happened?”
“He thought he could spout off at me, and I’d play as nice as the other guy. But I’m not nice. Am I Jake? Jake will tell you I’m not nice. And I don’t take shit from anybody. So, I unloaded my coffee on him. I was tired of standing in line waiting to pay for it, and was looking to get rid of it anyway. For a tough little shit talker, it sure brought his ego back down to a size more fitting of his stature.”
All of the hay was either put up or shipped out, and Stella and Jacob had gone to town for dinner. The house was empty. The quiet imploded inside Charlie’s chest cavity and ricocheted around her like an echo. It was a long shot, but she thought she might know somewhere she could go that was just far enough from Cody and Jacob and Riley that didn’t mean returning to the road. Needing someplace to land, she picked up the phone with a shaky hand and dialed the number.
“Hello,” said the strange woman on the other end.
“Hi. Is Chuck around?”
“Um, no.” The voice was curt. “Who is this?”
“He’s gone to a rodeo this weekend. But I’d appreciate if you didn’t call again. We do not wish to be involved with people like you.”
“People like me? I don’t know what Chuck has told you, but ...” She couldn’t find the proper words to defend herself.
“Look. I know what you are, and we don’t welcome that around here.”
“No. I’m sure you don’t. And, I’m sure seeing as how you’re with my father, you are of fine upstanding moral character. I’ll bet you hooked up with him before he moved the last one out.” She could tell by the woman’s silence that it was true. “By the way, that stand-up guy you’re with? My mom killed herself because of him. You should ask him about it. Have a nice day, and go fuck yourself.”
She cracked a beer and guzzled it back. She threw the empty can in the garbage and walked toward the fridge for another, but before she got there the phone rang. She raced back to where she had left it on the table. Maybe it was Riley and not all was lost.
She picked up the phone. Dammit. Her father. She was regretting having ever thought she should call him.
“Don’t be calling my house no more.” He said it like the house hadn’t been the place where she had grown up.
She walked back to the fridge and got that beer she had been after. She was going to need it. “Who’s the new chick?”
“What happened to Tory?”
“Oh, she was a few back,” he said laughing, pleased with himself for finding women to be so readily disposable for him. “Anyway, Sharon doesn’t want you calling the house.”
“Why?” She pushed the screen door open and stepped outside.
“Well, she’s got a couple of young girls and she doesn’t want any bad influences on them.” They weren’t even his daughters and he was worried about guarding them? Where was he when she needed guarding?
“I’m a bad influence?”
“Well, with your peeling and all.”
“You say it like I’m a hooker.”
“You could be for all we know.”
“You don’t know me better?” Her voice cracked.
“There’s no telling what kind of a lifestyle you could be living when you’re in with that kind of crowd.”
“What kind of life style?” she echoed, lighting a cigarette and taking it out to the porch. “I’m staying with a guy who runs a guide outfit, and working as a ranch hand. How’s that any different from your life style?”
“Yeah, I heard all about it,” he said. “Isn’t that guy older than me? I bet he just loves having you around.” He laughed again. Her father could be such a pervy creep. “A sugar daddy, huh?”
“Jacob’s just a friend.”
“No man ever kept a cow he wasn’t milkin or breedin. And, no man ever married a whore if he had better options.”
“A whore?” She would have smashed his face in, if he wasn’t safely secured behind a phone somewhere on some anonymous road. “You mean like all those women you ran around with behind Mom’s back?”
“Well, now,” he chuckled, “that’s a different story. Your Mom was depressed and I had to find a little loving somewhere.”
She gritted her teeth and threw the stub of her cigarette into the driveway. She pulled another out of the pack. “She was depressed because you kept fucking around on her.”
“You’ve got that wrong. Your mother was a hard person to live with.”
“Real hard, I’m sure. Hard to have someone do your laundry and cook your meals while you’re out fucking around.”
“Look,” his tone became angry, “you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
How dare he get angry with her? She’d never done a thing to him. “Well if I’m a whore, it must run in the family. Get it from my father’s side.”
“You’re the one who chose to start spreading your legs for cash. That’s not my fault, though it’s a fucking embarrassment to the family.”
“First, we aren’t a family. Second, did you even hear me? I’m working on a ranch, not dancing!”
“And I’ll bet you got one helluva an arrangement going there, don’t you? Real step up from peeling.” He laughed again and it hit her that he expressed joy and exercised oppression simultaneously in that signature laugh, because for him, they were synonymous.
“Jacob’s one hundred times the man you’ll ever be.”
“I’m still your father, and you remember that.”
“You were never my fucking father.”
She missed the days before cordless phones, as she drilled her finger into the end button. It just didn’t carry the weight of satisfaction that slamming the receiver down used to. She held the empty beer can in her palm and smashed it into the step. It didn’t make her feel any better.
She couldn’t go to town and she didn’t feel like sitting around an empty house, so she grabbed a six pack of beer, a couple of changes of clothes and her riggin bag, then scrawled a quick note to Jacob.
Gone to Fort Nelson early. See you Sun.
She wasn’t sure how to sign it. Fuck it.
It was a four hour drive to Fort Nelson and she hoped to be good and numb before she got there.