LES IS MORE
It was a Tuesday when Lester came home from work, five in the morning and the sky bled pale in the east, trailer empty. Rhonda gone, gone, gone. Lester sat down on their bed and looked at the drawers still pulled open and the detritus of fast packing. The carpet was flaked with torn paper and the rising sun lit the pressboard-paneled walls with an oblique and brightening glow. Lester felt like detritus himself. Then he got back into his truck and drove down to the Billy Burger Drive-Thru. He ate a triple Billy Buster Burger and two orders of onion rings and a piece of apple pie and an ice cream cone. Then he went home and slept. When he woke up in the afternoon he went down to Flora's Cafe and ate steak and eggs. Then French toast. And a milkshake. And another piece of apple pie.
In the months that followed, Lester gained a half-dozen track suits and the profile of an engorged chigger. Never in his life had he been more than routinely bulbous. Now, when he stood straight and naked and looked down, he could barely see his penis from above. He shook his pendulous arms and watched them jiggle.
In the mirror, behind his burgeoning girth, he could see milkshake cups stacked on the table beside his bed. Walking through the house: in the kitchen the dishes leaned drunkenly and the takeout menu of every restaurant within thirty miles that had a delivery van was taped to the refrigerator door. He had not spoken much with Rhonda since she left, although he had seen her in town a few times, where they both had looked frightened and alarmed at one another. Her lawyer had written him a letter a few months ago. After he read it he had cried for about an hour, hanging on to the door handle of the freezer compartment. If things continued at this pace, soon he would not be able to turn around behind the bar down at the Rushing River Bar and Grill.
Fridays, when college is in session, the Rushing River howls with adolescent fury; mascara runs like rained-on fresh paint, cotton ribbed T-shirts cling to magnificent shoulders, and there are always some who can't wait to get home. Angry music hollers and so does Lester: Beer is two and a quarter I said! And get your ass off the bar! Bud and Double Diamond on tap! Thank you!" Lester and his friend Cindee, one of the waitresses, kept up a running repartee of deranged facial expressions. Cocked eyebrows, crossed eyes, and pre-emetic cheek bulging kept them entertained and at least a little distracted from youth, half in the bag.
On this night, Marilyn, the head waitress, was in a foul mood, and when it was this busy the kids made her steadily fiercer and Cindee was hiding from her. Apparently there had been words. Cindee's absence only increased the number of belligerent and beer-breathed children thrusting their faces into Marilyn's and the coming cataclysm was one well-trod path. Lester decided that tonight it would be worth the price of defusing the Cindee-Marilyn thing and maybe not getting hit with flying crockery. Lester got Harold, the bouncer, to watch the bar for a minute, which Harold never minded, as he felt it gave him license to steal as much of Lester's tips as he could fit in his too-tight jeans pockets.
First Lester checked the stairs below the kitchen and listened for weeping. Then he went into the kitchen and asked Donna, the cook, if she had seen Cindee. Finally he climbed the stairs to the roof and looked out. He sat down on a ventilation shaft and panted. The sky was very clear and very black. The roof shook from the music. The ventilation shaft shook from Lester. When he finally caught his breath he heard the soft mewing of Cindee crying. He stood up and followed the sound through the maze of ventilation ducts on the rooftop. He sat down beside her. She was holding a bottle of Molson Canadian between her legs and looking off toward the falls. "Hey," he said, wheezing.
"Hey yourself," she said, between sobs. The floodlights were shining purple and green against the falling water and they both studied them.
"She's cranky, hey?"
"No, she's fine." Cindee and Les sat there. The music thumped below them and the Rushing River Falls roared faintly at the edge of town.
"So . . . you thought you'd set down your tray in the middle of a set and come up here because . . ."
"I feel awful, Les."
"I gotta move out from Sam, I think." Sam, her live-in boyfriend of the last three years, quiet guy, employable, came to the bar now and then, never said too much. Handsome too--looked like a billboard ad for plaid shirts. To Lester they had always seemed like deer together, graceful and quiet and attentive. At ease with each other.
"I'm not what he thinks he's headed for."
"What do you mean?"
"He thinks he's bound to marry some six-foot tiny-assed blond woman who doesn't smoke, never loses her temper, and shaves her pubic hair."
"I don't know, he doesn't either, I don't think. But he keeps waiting and waiting. In the meantime he hangs out with me."
"What makes you think that's what he wants?"
"Don't be naive, Lester. That's what everyone wants."
"It isn't what I want."
"Of course it is."
"What's happened lately?"
"Nothing. Nothing has happened lately. We both go to work and eat breakfast and we play pool and go to movies. He pays off his truck loan. He likes me, feels comfortable around me, but wonders when his ship is going to come in. One of these days he'll win the lottery. He's optimistic like that. When I first met him it was part of what I liked."
"Does he say this, that he's waiting for someone better?"
"No, of course not."
"Then what makes you so sure that's what he thinks?"
"Sometimes you just know things, you know?"
The falls roared on and on. Lester didn't have any reply for that. He seemed to rarely just know things. He had been so astonished at Rhonda's departure that he wondered afterward if he understood anything about her and what she had wanted. But Rhonda wasn't six feet tall and blond, and he wanted her. The only thing she was was gone. Cindee and Rhonda had become friends through Lester, and though he knew the women still spoke to one another, Cindee never talked with Lester about Rhonda. He had wanted a hundred times to ask her what she knew of Rhonda's reasons for leaving but had always bitten off the question. After a while he stopped always wanting to ask, but he still wondered why.
"Do you think anyone ever knows why anyone else loves you, or stops loving you?"
"Lester, it was good that she left. And it will be good when I get it together enough to leave Sam. Those two don't want us."
The Rushing River Falls were visible from nearly anyplace in Rushing River township and audible anywhere out of doors; they were the whole reason for the town to exist. In the 1880s the falls had become a tourist destination, and the train was put through expressly to take advantage of the anticipated visitor traffic. Since then, representations of the town had been spread through the continent in a thousand glass bubbles of water and miniature snowy waterfalls and tiny perfect houses abutting the cataract. Even now the town could no more be thought of as existing independently of the falls than Banff could be thought of without mountains and lakes. Or Wawa and its giant goose. Twenty-six feet, eighteen inches, total height.
The first man to attempt to ride over the falls did so in a rum barrel the day after Armistice Day, 1918. The barrel was shattered on the rocks and his pulped body was gathered up with dip nets in the pool below. After this there was a succession of attempts in steadily more elaborate vehicles--the first nonlethal ride was made by a twenty-two-year-old man named Roy Bodner in 1932 in a steel ball. He nearly asphyxiated, and spent the remainder of his years in the Rushing River Memorial Hospital drooling into a towel. He died in 1976, a local hero. Following his lead, there were episodic rides made throughout the forties and fifties, in balls and barrels of different designs. One man alone had made five successful trips over the falls, in a vehicle he called the Roy Bodner. In an effort to discourage these stunts the town council had passed an ordinance that dictated that survivors of the trip would be fined ten thousand dollars upon their rescue. Making the trip illegal of course only made the undertaking more attractive to the folks who were drawn to such things anyway, and soon the river was filled with drifting and bobbing cylinders and spheres and pyramids with snorkels protruding. It wasn't until a hydro diversion upstream nearly doubled the water flow in the river that the problem abated. In one weekend in 1973, eight barrel riders disappeared. Concerned about the tourist traffic, the town rescinded the ordinance, but word was out: the falls were no longer passable, spoiled like so much of the country. Rushing River was nearly forgotten overnight.
The barrel riders had left their mark on the town, however, and even now were remembered in neon signs along Main Street, announcing perpetual vacancies to the world at the Splash 'n' Dash Motel and the price of grilled cheese sandwiches at the Foamy Water Cafe. The townspeople remembered, as well, the sight of the terrified young men and women as they walked up and down the sidewalks of Main Street the night before their attempt. The bartenders, at one time, were adept at judging how many hours the prospective rider had to wait from the rate at which their jauntiness eroded. Just pulled into town: swaggering and laughing. Six hours to go: lips pulled tightly back, eyes narrowed, disposed to vomiting. But the riders were all gone now and the town was the less for it. The floodlights danced against the falling water and it was still beautiful, but duller.
After many minutes of not talking, Lester and Cindee both stood up and walked back to the stairs down to the bar.
"Do you mind waiting until I get to the bottom before starting down?"
"No problem, Cindee."
When they got back, Marilyn was in a white-hot burn. Harold's trousers bulged as if a trio of fattened ground squirrels had wedged themselves in there. The line of eager beer purchasers was twenty deep. Lester set to tending bar. Somebody was spraying beer into the mouth of somebody's girlfriend.
Cindee cashed out fifteen minutes after closing time and grabbed one of the cabs waiting outside beside the still-milling crowd. Ten minutes after that, Sam showed up. Lester was sweeping the floor and Marilyn was counting her money. She tipped out five dollars to Lester. Just to make herself clear. Sam knocked on the door and Lester let him in. He felt guilty, for knowing what was in store for Sam before Sam did, and he would not compound that by being rude to him.
Lester poured him a bourbon and Sam sat down at the bar. "Cindee's not around?"
"Just missed her. You want some chicken wings with that? They're still hot."
"Well, if they're still hot."
"Coming right up."
Lester brought a platter of wings the size of a garbage can lid and pulled up a stool opposite Sam at the bar. He opened a beer for himself. "How are you, Sam?"
"Fine as wine, Lester. Could use some more work these days, but otherwise I'm fine."
"What kind of work do you do again?"
"I'm a welder."
"What do you weld, Sam?"
"I can weld anything. Aluminum, stainless steel, titanium, magnesium, anything. Electric arc, tungsten-inert gas, oxyacetylene, I do all those. Got my tickets for aeronautical work, underwater work, and pipelines. Since the Rockwell plant shut down, there's not much call for the fancy stuff anymore. I liked that work--delicate, precise joints in wild alloys. But even black iron is fun to me. Pulling the bead along a plate never gets old for me." Sam lifted his bourbon to that. Lester too.
"Sounds kind of stupid, making such a fuss about it like that, but it always gives me a charge. I think it's great work--making things out of parts."
"Sounds like it."
"You mean stupid or great?
"Oh no, great. Melting metal so that it is joined to another piece. Smoothly and evenly."
"Yeah. It is."
"You about done that bourbon?"
"Are you offering?"
"Then I'm accepting."
Lester refilled his glass.
"Cindee looked okay when she left, did she?"
"Sure. I guess she's been a little moody lately," Lester said.
"She's got a lot on her mind," Sam replied.
"I guess so."
"It eats at her."
"Nice woman, though."
Sam looked right at him. "Yes."
They went to work on the wings then. Lester ate four-fifths of them and even so Sam leaned back stuffed before Lester wiped the last of the sauce up with a bread roll. They drank their drinks, two men never previously alone with one another, full of barbecued chicken wings in the empty bar. The lights bounced off the heavy cigarette smoke that hung like fog. The cashout was done and the staff had scurried out, headed either for all-night restaurants or late-night television, and just like he always was, Lester was the last one there, nearly alone. Like always.
He stretched and turned around on his stool, away from the bar. "This is a stupid job for a man my age."
"You don't like it?"
"It's easy, but it's not, you know, not very beautiful. The way welding is, say. I never talk about bartending like that."
"Welding is the only thing I talk like that about."
"It is." They sat there another few minutes and then Sam started rubbing his eyes.
"I don't know how you guys manage to work in all this smoke. Hey, do you want to get out of here, go for a drive?"
And they got up and walked to the door. Lester stopped to turn on the alarm and lock up behind them. Then Lester got in his truck and Sam got in his. Sam pulled out and Lester followed him out to the lake road and into the industrial park. They pulled into one of the lots. Sam got out of his truck and unlocked a chain-link fence gate and opened it. They drove inside and Sam locked it behind them. Around them were stacks of old car wrecks, train axles, and farm machinery. Among and through this a path led to an old corroded Quonset hut that they could just make out in the moonlight. The two men walked there and Sam opened the door with a key. "I rent this place for a hundred bucks a month. It's where I spend most of my time these days." He reached inside and flipped a breaker switch.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Country of Cold by Kevin Patterson. Copyright © 2003 by Kevin Patterson. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.