First thing to notice in the lot of a rural Wisconsin taverns, is the surplus of pickups. There were ten vehicles nosed into the place, seven of them were pickup trucks. One was being bordered as I drove in by two feed-caps who stood with their hands on the door handles, watching me park, deciding whether I would make it worthwhile for them to go back into the place. The neon lighting was poor, but I wouldn’t have been worth it even with good lights. The two churned out, in their high-wheeled Illinois Ford, city boys trapped in their country fantasies. I noticed a Corvette, too, and a jeep seemed to stare at me, and several ordinary vehicles like Milo’s old soldier.
Two large people in jeans and big shirts were dancing to the strong Roy Orbison beat; the place wasn’t licensed for dancing, but they had no doubt filled the juke box with silver and were solid citizens, wrapped around each other ingenuously, dancing as if they were not married, although I had seen the couple before and was sure they were.
Four well-heeled but gaunt-looking farmers sat at a table playing euchre, a bottle nearby, ashtrays filled. Not far from them sat Bob and Frank on barstools. The bartender had once known my name but now drew a blank. I didn’t mind.
With no words, I found myself dancing with Frank. Frank is a slight man who dances with artful smoothness, his chin brushing my forehead. It was okay to dance; at least I’d changed jeans and tucked in a clean shirt and worn soft shoes and earrings. “I didn’t come here to dance,” I said, forever the femme fatale.
“It won’t kill you,” Frank replied gently. “Like this song?”
“Anything You Want, You Got It?” I asked. With a distinct pang I saw Milo’s face, Milo’s earnest eyes. “Yes, I do like it,” I said. “It has a certain honesty. The rhythm is wonderful.”
“I grabbed you so Bob can’t hear,” said Frank. “His son. You remember he was in town a couple months ago? Some of us got together and you came down?”
“I was there for an hour,” I said. “I remember him. Wise guy with moustache.”
“Yeah, he’s wise, all right,” agreed Frank. Frank’s dancing leans toward polka. He was raised German but neighbored with Polish and Norwegians, up in the farmland of central Wisconsin. I’ve never danced much with Frank; for one thing, I don’t dance well. I seem to resent the whole thing; I seem to resent taking the woman’s part and being hemmed in, being led, dancing to someone else’s tune. I kept watching the heavy-weight couple, so obviously living it up, swinging, hanging on each other, owning their space and music.
“Bob thought he was in Dakota,” said Frank. “You know those folks?”
“No,” I said, “they look so happy.”
“That night, Bob’s son, he wrote several checks; he was on the lam when he came into town. Remember he left and came back in a half-hour? In the middle? Went down the road, and across town, cashed two big rubber checks. Left before morning. Next day merchants were calling Bob right and left. Now two months later they called Bob and said Junior’s been sentenced to twenty years in the state pen.”
“What’s Bob acting like? How’s he holding up?”
“Drinking heavier than usual, not talking a whole lot.”
“All night? I mean, for how long?
“Just steady since five.”
“I mean to say, is he drunk?”
“Well you know. He’s seasoned. Couple beers every hour with some whisky alongside.”
“Would he let someone take him home to his place?”
“Not hardly, Putz,” grinned Frank, pulling his head back to look at me. “He don’t like it at home.” The music ended. Frank kissed me firmly on the south end of my mouth. “Thanks for coming,” he said. “I love you for coming. I love you anyhow. You know that?”
I was surprised Bob danced. It was a shuffle, really – holding me very tight, one arm around my neck, his nose buried at the back of my ear. “I didn’t hardly notice you come in, George,” he said, as if he had blasphemed by not seeing me. “You come to eat clams, George?”
“Clams alone would not have cut the ice,” I said. “Thanks for calling me. You never called me before.”
“’Course I wanted you here too,” said Bob, “but I didn’t want to screw up your evening.”
“That’s okay. Some screw-ups are necessary.”
“You hear about my kid, George?”
“I heard some. I heard enough. How old is he?”
“Almost forty. You know, I never know what to do. That kid was always meaner’n a snapping turtle, getting into trouble, skipping school, stealing stuff. Now that I look back I know it was my fault. A damn no-good father gets a damn no-good son. First his mother, I lost her; she didn’t die, I threw her away. We was never close after that. He never got over the split-up, and I guess neither did I. Then I married this other woman, too soon, knew better. It was my own fault. Too many goddamn phone calls. One phone call too many. One phone call. Now I can’t do nothing about it. Couple little bitty mistakes. Ain’t that just hell, George?” I felt his tears in my hair as we danced, locked together. It felt as though without me he’d slump to the floor.
“I always thought wayward children would come back and shine,” I said, talking into his good ear. “I remember my grandmother’s children; the older boy was worthless but toward the end he changed. He was all there was left, and he suddenly grew into full stature and stood tall.”
“I can’t go home, George,” said Bob. “You know Irene; she always knew he wouldn’t amount to anything. Just thinkin’ about that look on her face, I can’t face it. I know that’s unfair as hell. She ain’t a bad woman.”
“Bad women are hard to find,” I murmured.
“If I walked out of here and got hit by a truck,” lamented Bob, “I’d welcome it. A guy wants to do something right in his life. I got no self-respect. I know how to pull fish outa the water, big deal. I feel like a truck is sittin’ on top of me right now.”
“I’m sorry, Bob,” I said.
“He was ten years old when I skinned out on him. A ten-year-old boy. I felt so sorry for myself. That’s when the trouble started. I can figure it all out now lookin’ back. Damn smart fella I am.” We danced numbly. He pulled me closer. Frank beat him as a dancer, hands down, but slickness and Dale Carnegie flattery are nowhere near everything. The pulsing of the music was a dirge.
Then we fumbled to our stools, Bob making room for me in the middle and signaling the bartender. That was when the woman came up between us. “Hi, Bob,” she said. “How are you? Hi Frank, nice to see you again, you look a little better tonight.” She was a woman of the big couple, the dancing couple. Her partner stood at the euchre table, beer in hand, listening to the talk. The woman turned from Frank, full toward me. Her cheeks were pink and her forehead damp. “My name is Auburn,” she said to me. “You don’t know me, but I know you. You gave Ivy shelter a few months ago. You probably saved Ivy’s life.”
“Well, I gave her a ride and a place to lay her head for a couple of days; she didn’t know where she was going,” I said with a smile. The woman had grey green eyes. “Warmed her up for a few days. How do you know me?
“I know you worked at Rock County. Sometimes I play footse with the Institution. I know you worked nights, but I never crossed your path. Because, well, I’m days. I’m a part-time case worker. I was Ivy’s case worker back when her beloved husband whisked away the kids. Ivy called me from your place one day, some time back. She said you were outside somewhere hustling. Does she still live there?”
“She’s in Kansas.”
“Kansas! That was – was that where her kids were?”
“Yes, it was,” I replied. “Something got into her head. She wrote once to me – short letter. Paid me back some money she borrowed for the trip to Kansas. She’s working and going to school and that really knocked the socks off!”
“That babe really had to scrounge around trying to get a break,” said the woman, laughing. Now I saw the red-gold tint in her unruly curls. Now I saw the freckles splashed across her manly nose, and her earrings bobbling, ivory fish her earrings were. She pushed her glasses back up her nose. The boys talking behind her. “Buy you a drink?” she asked me. There were laugh lines on her face, around her mouth and her eyes; she may have been forty-five. She was drinking fuzzy navels and I had one too. It’s a drink that coaxes you subtly; it’s almost comfort food, and lingers on the tongue.
“Ivy really went on about you,” she said, waving a hand. “She said you were tough and, um, strange. I do believe those were the words. I’ve seen you out and around – not very much, though. Somebody told me who you were once but then you hightailed out so fast I didn’t make it across to talk to you.” She snaked her hand into mine. “Auburn Valenski is my name. Sheesh, what a name. It was so good I never adulterated it.”
“Really kind of musical,” I said. “Sure beats my name. I should have stuck with Johnson. I admire you for not giving in.”
She swallowed down half her drink and held the glass to look at it. “What a friend we have in fuzzy navels,” she said to it in her low, stage voice, a John Barrymore voice. She tipped her head toward her partner, near the euchre table. “That over there is my husband-type. Like I need somebody to ride herd on me. My husband of three and a half years; looks older’n that, doesn’t he? Ha-ha. Maybe you know him. He has been around for a while.”
“I don’t cover much ground,” I said.
“Well, most of these resident drinkers cover too much,” said Auburn. “Tuna and I get out once a month. Hard to get a night out any more without puttin’ up a heifer for collateral.”
“Do you and Tuna farm?”
“Do we farm, ach,” she said. “Here’s how it is. Tuna works in town three days a week. I feed heifers in the mornings for him. Pigs are all mine, fifteen of them, he never dares touch them. How long’ll we be farmers? Who knows? Bottom’s falling out as we speak. On top of my puttery casework, I put in two nights a week stockin’ at the supermarket. As the lottery winner said, “I’ll just keep farming till the money runs out.”
“Auburn,” I said, practicing. “Auburn. Listen, we have to talk. I know you’re on overload; so am I. Listen, I know you have to get back to Tuna before he leaves you. Is there some time we can meet, on your day off, middle of the day or at night? I don’t get to talk to women. Ah, young nurse-types is all. I have an awful time finding someone motivated enough – socially – women are always so tied down – someone motivated enough to move her rear end.”
“That’s what I do best,” laughed Auburn, tossing her head. “We live up on seventy-three, fifth place out of town. Tuna claims he told me to get a fifth, and I went out and bought the place. It’s an old shell of a house. We live in three rooms. We do have a phone.”
“Yes. I’ll phone,” I said. “Tuesday night?” Two phone calls in one day: Ivor and Auburn, new people for me. Two phone calls where some kind of record for me.
“Tuesday’s a good time,” said Auburn, standing up to pat her big shirt in place. “I just figured we’d hit it off,” she murmured to me. “I knew I’d latch onto you some wild night.”
A fresh drink turned up at my elbow. Frank skulked close by. “What was that?” he demanded. “I thought you didn’t know her.”
“No, she knew me,” I said. “What a beautiful woman.”
“You ready for some oysters?”
“There really are oysters?”
Frank left for the back room. Bob and I danced again. Silently he shuffled, now sighing and tight-mouthed. “What are you going to do, Bob?” I asked him. “How are you going to get home?”
“I’ll go see if my niece is home,” he said vacantly.
“You can sack out at my place.”
“Now,” he muttered, “how would I explain that?”
“To whom? Do you have to explain it?”
He was silent. The juke box was playing Patsy Cline: “Crazy for crying, crazy for trying, crazy for loving you.”