Sharon understands the uses of beautiful. When she comes to visit, even in this middle life, she wears her hair down and schoolgirl thick to her shoulders.
I think of her walking the streets of Seattle in her high heels, carrying a little black umbrella and going to lunch with the rich women, like you suppose they do, while men watch. I wonder if she piles her hair up and shows the back of her neck.
“Don’t get too many ideas,” she says, and that’s a way of joking. It wasn’t me that got us started.
Once I was the hired boy, and her mother sent me to drive Sharon through the open snowfields to the schoolhouse over on Two Dot Creek with the sun coming up onto the peaks of the Crazy Mountains. Sharon was nothing but a cold barelegged little girl, but I sat warm in her mother’s Chrysler and watched her red hair bloom with the sunlight that bright winter morning. She looked back and saw me looking, and she still brushes her hair at night like that schoolgirl.
Which makes me happy to think about.
“Balancing water,” I say, and Sharon laughs. It’s another old joke. Don’t imagine I am dumb enough to think love is like water, except in the way everything is like water, always seeking to fill its level.
“Too bad Turkey couldn’t come,” Sharon said. “He loves it out here.” That was bullshit. Turkey didn’t love it at all. Sharon was talking about her husband, a Chinese man named Tony Lee, called Turkey by his friends, who are everywhere once you get beyond Montana. Turkey is a tall, smiling man with immaculate eyeglasses, a tough-headed guy who specializes in friends, and a chess master who flies out of Seattle to play month-long matches in Taiwan and Egypt.
Sharon and I were on the lawn in front of the house where she lived when she was the girl I watched, the creaking frame country house I keep painted so white now that it is mine to live in. The sun was only up a half hour, and the bunkhouse hands were gone to the Fourth of July in Billings. Out beyond the corrals a thousand yellow butterflies were flickering through the wheatgrass.
Sharon sipped her Bloody Mary from my marmalade jar. The only glasses I keep these days are marmalade and peanutbutter jars. I eat off paper plates when I don’t eat down at the bunkhouse. On the built-in breakfront in the dining room I keep a stack of paper plates about three feet high.
“Poor old Turkey,” Sharon said, and that was more bullshit. There is nothing to pity about Turkey. You had to know he was a hard nut the first time I met him, the spring Sharon was a junior at the University in Missoula. They’d driven off to Reno in his Studebaker, and got themselves married, and it was a goddamned scandal in our part of the world.
“Couldn’t you get a white man?” her father said, which was mainly a way for him to break his own heart on Sharon, no matter how strong his feelings. Sharon and Turkey had just come east of the mountains for family introductions, over the Rock Mountains, as Lewis and Clark called them, and east through White Sulfur Springs to the low pass where you see the Great Plains make their endless start, and down along the Musselshell.
In those days I hung my coat and my hat alongside my snaffle-bit bridle and wooly shotgun chaps and spare shirts on a line of nails driven into the wall of a room in that bunkhouse the old drovers built of cottonwood logs when they first brought cattle north from Texas, and I slept there on a steel-framed cot, right at the heart of things where in summertime I could prop open the windows and smell the corrals after thunder and a rain, and go to sleep listening to the horses as they clomped back and forth through the creek water like they will, on their way to some nighttime foraging or another. There are summer nights when the bunkhouse is empty and I still go down there to sleep.
Even in those days I was considered family enough, and welcome in the kitchen door any time I wanted, day or night. It was the afternoon before New Year’s and the Christmas tree lights were still plugged in and blinking beside the fireplace Sharon’s grandfather had built of riverstones. Sharon stood her ground, and Turkey just sat there without flinching and smiled through those eyeglasses, and you could see he was every bit as tough as Bert Doran.
“Shit,” Sharon said, and she grinned. “The Chinese invented gunpowder.” If that was supposed to be a joke, it didn’t work. You had to know Bert Doran. He never smiled at all.
“Not that boy,” he said.
Right there Sharon called for Turkey to come with her, and they drove off in his gray-colored Studebaker, and not even Sharon ever came back while Bert was alive. Bert Doran was an oil field roughneck come north out of Wyoming and reformed into marriage, and it was his luck to work himself to death just about the time he joined the Masonic Shrine down in Billings and discovered the life he’d been expecting to enjoy. Sharon’s mother owned the property and that was a lot of Bert’s problem. For a while after she died and Sharon got the deeds I had the same kind of problem, but now we have found a floor under things.
Tony Lee is an engineer for Boeing in Seattle, and Sharon lives with him in one of those big old restored three-generation houses out on the cliff above the Puget Sound in Ballard, when he isn’t off in Egypt or somewhere playing his chess. Which is where he was that morning, I guess, somewhere. And I have spent my life seeing after Sharon’s acreage and her enterprises in Montana.
“You can’t trust them,” Sharon said, and she swirled her drink with her forefinger, and sucked it dry. The meadows out below us were greened-up with swamp grass and the willow was in fresh leaf along the sloughs. My feelings for such mornings have cost me real money. Without them I’d be living somewhere else, on my own property. I like to live at an edge of the world where I know the stories behind the names of places, and where most of the stories are about people who lived here just before me, and haven’t been dead very long. Lewis and Clark named the Musselshell, and even they are not so long ago.
“Foreigners,” Sharon said, and you had to know she was talking about Turkey. One time right after she inherited the deeds from her mother, when she was drunk and telling stories on Turkey, Sharon proposed calling this place “The Japan Ranch.” I made real sure none of the neighbors heard about that one, because it was a name they would have laughed about and liked. If it had stuck I couldn’t have lived here anymore. Nobody wants to live in the middle of a joke.
Sharon sat her drink glass down on the lawn grass, carefully so as to not spill, and she lit a Lucky Strike, same as Bert had smoked. This was always a sign. I don’t think she smokes any cigarettes in Seattle.
“Turkey is whoring on me,” she said.
“He has for years.” “He loves to drink in Trader Vic’s,” she said. “Isn’t that a kick in the ass?”
I just kept my silence.
“Did you whore on her?” Sharon said. She was talking about the woman who was my wife the second year I was home from the Air Force on Guam. Becky, we all called her Beck, who has been gone to California this long time now. Sharon was looking at me with the gray steady gaze of someone solving problems.
And I looked away. Sharon seemed like a city woman in her stiff button-up Levis and the old flannel shirt she had raided out of my closet. A city woman playing at schoolgirl. Sharon had showed up right after daybreak, saying she had driven the night from Seattle and wanted a drink. She said Turkey didn’t own any flannel shirts, and she took the shirt she wanted right out of my closet. And now she was talking about whoring around.
“Yeah,” I said. “I suppose.”
“Good morning,” she said. She picked up her glass off the lawn, real careful, and walked out to stand by one of the old poplar trees at the edge of the lawn, picking at the bark with her fingernails.
“You know,” she said. “I never liked her.”
“She wanted to stay,” I said. It was a lie.
“Not really,” Sharon said. “Not ever, really.”
“How would you know?” It was a decent question. Sharon had only seen Beck twice in the flesh.
“It’s the sort of thing you know. I could have stayed. But she never could stand it. I could tell. She couldn’t stand it out here. Right from the first summer I knew she was gone, she was good as history.” Sharon held her drink out to the sun like she was toasting somebody.
“But for me this could have been home, easy as not.”
“You’re out of drink,” I said.
“You remember shooting quail?” she said, and of course I remembered shooting quail from the greasewood in the horse pasture, fluttering hundreds of them rising from the brush, and I remember killing maybe a dozen with #7 shot as I fired Bert’s fine-etched Belgian 12 gauge into the thick coveys on the ground. Her mother skinned them quickly, never bothering to pluck the feathers from such tiny fragile creatures. Her mother cooked only the breasts in pale thick gravy.
“She could never stand it,” Sharon said. She was still talking about Beck.
“She stood it,” I said, and I remembered early mornings up-stream on the creek, where it comes out of the Crazy Mountains, and Beck barelegged in the cold water, unhooking the small flipping trout I caught while the mist burned off. Beck who is my dark-eyed lost girl, who would have been my wife for all these years. “She wanted to stay,” I said, and it was the same lie.
“Another drink would be nice,” Sharon said. “Then I’ll cook your breakfast. I’ll be your girl.”
We had steak and eggs on my paper plates, and we ate on the oak dining-room table that was her mother’s, the only substantial furniture left from the old days. Sharon’s mother had polished that table with care I never understood until lately. I haven’t bought much other furniture. Some chairs and a microwave oven and a queen-sized bed, and in the living room I’ve got a pool table I bought from Ernie Brier after he went broke in his Harlowtown tavern. Sometimes I shoot pool and drink beer all night long. I can shoot a decent enough game of eight ball.
“I guess I was jealous,” Sharon said. “This is the place I should have lived. She had my house.”
“I always wanted, years ago,” she said, “for you to get in my bed when you thought I was sleeping.”
“Sometimes yet,” she said, “when Turkey’s out at night, I lay in bed and I think about it. I thought of it just now when we were out on the lawn. I thought I could live here and it would be all right. And it would.”
“Yeah,” I said, and I mixed us some more of the vodka and tomato juice.
“You know what I did?” she said. “I whored. One time I whored.”
“Never mind who,” she said. “We went to Trader Vic’s and we drank, and then we went upstairs in the hotel and we screwed. We did it in a hotel room. Upstairs from Trader Vic’s. And you know what? One time I whored and listen to this.” Her gray eyes were not so steady anymore.
“There was a fire,” she said, “we’re on the nineteenth floor, and there’s a fire.”
She chewed a last piece of steak. “I could hear sirens,” she said, “and I’m bare-assed naked. Down below there’s a fire, and you know it made me happy. I mean like I was a little girl and there was something I always wanted to happen and it was happening, like a game and I was in a movie watching, and it was real, little red trucks and hoses and people running around in the street.”
“It was a hotel,” she said, “down the hill a couple of blocks from our hotel. The Hotel Winslow. I don’t forget it. Twenty-six dead in the paper that morning.” She was staring out the window and just telling her story, like she had all the words learned by heart.