The next morning, the various parties of the night before kept to themselves as they prepared for a day that lay before them like a “Caution Ahead” sign.
Again, wintry weather; and now that fluish feeling that had nothing whatsoever to do with a virus or food poisoning but more with feelings of guilt and confusion and aimlessness.
Vermillion was the only one who would not succumb to the flush feeling, even though he felt something deep in his bones — which he could not identify. Instead, he took a twenty-minute shower, letting the hot stream beat on his chest. a loosener for the heaviness within. Afterwards, he brewed coffee so strong he figured it would surely pave over the bad mood like tanks in a war zone. He picked up the Wall Street Journal of the day before and began reading about money and business and money and politics and money and people as if his life depended on it — which, incidentally, it did He saved his life everyday with little tricks such as this one.
What would have happened without the coffee or the hot shower? Perhaps a life question would have popped up, such as “What is my purpose in life?” or “Is there meaning to anything I’m doing?” or even, “Am I as cool as I think I am?” Questions that for some people were routine, a part of life. But Vermillion inevitably chose the other option: he made strong coffee. And he spent the next hour solidly focused on the print, at the end of which time he felt rejuvenated and reassured, as if he had just meditated deeply for an hour.
As he dressed, he assumed the role of the young upwardly mobile cowboy, as if there truly were such a thing, and did it with satisfaction dangerously close to smug. Not so long ago he had been a suit among suits, clawing his way to financial independence with the rest of them until his pile had become bigger than most everyday else’s. Then with his pile tidily earning more for him in interest and investment, he had slipped quietly but quickly out of New York and headed for Montana on a hunch. Life had begun again three years ago at age thirty-seven for the tall and most would say attractive man who’d turned the page and began to feel as if he had control of a good, even upstanding, life.
These feelings, however, relied heavily upon a past firmly entrenched in wealthy protestant values. Set against such a backdrop, it wasn’t so hard to be a moral renegade — in this case, a self-made cowboy out to do good for the working people in his employ while quietly enjoying the fruits of less proletarian stocks and bonds and mutual funds. He was a smart man, but his upbringing had taken its toll: judging everyone he met by the standards of his class, he nevertheless condemned them as victims if they stacked up successfully. As a result, he had no close friends, except one from college who understood him perhaps better than he did himself. And women? They lasted about as long as the ice cubes in a glass of scotch. His extravagant, if moral, life had a fluish core, but with his tricks of the trade, he ambiguously kept this core at bay.
Lunch with Anna Kidd, however, he could handle. How had he happened to set this up, he wondered, as he settled onto his couch and rubbed his eyes. They had had lots of drinks and those two women had interrogated him, something he had not minded in the least. Ah yes, the one with the black hair had insulted him, called him an “imaginary cowboy with some balls and a big bank roll” and the other had — endearingly embarrassed — come to the rescue with an invitation to lunch. On her. To discuss in greater depth the potentials of Dove Creek.
Taking sudden pleasure in his surroundings, he surveyed this condo, small enough to be warm and high enough to have views. It had two bedrooms and two bathrooms, brass fixtures and a balcony. It could only be a good investment. He decided in this moment to buy it and forget completely about the ranch house fifty miles away. Calling Masket with the news, together they figured out which loophole would release them from the current contract and how much to offer the owner of the condo.
Now rooted in a place he could practically call his own, he pondered ways to change it, to make it more adequately reflect himself. With no ideas — without a clue, really — he decided to have another cup of coffee.
Max Lee Perdue awoke with the kind of headache that temporarily displaced the fluish feeling with pain of another caliber. His eyes hurt deep in his head, his ears were ringing, and all desire to open his dry mouth had vanished.
Movement could only be summoned by an act of God. Now, he sensed profoundly what goldfish felt when children tapped on the glass insistently, smiling their stupid smiles at a sentient being in pain. Lying in bed, he stared at the wallpaper in hope that the kind of headache he had would temporarily be lulled by patterns: flowers from another time, probably a a better time. He tried to think pleasant thoughts, but they would not come. What he felt instead was the cold hammer at this head pinging away. He also realized he would have to get up to make a fire, or die.
Max lived in an eight by thirty-five foot trailer on the sunny side of town: the only trailer left within the town limits. It was a fifties deluxe model that had once been inhabited with love, and featured the aforementioned wallpaper, oak cabinets, even a tiny marble kitchen counter. Max himself had tiled he minuscule bathroom and had laid in hard wood floors after having bought it in 1984 for $2300. Now, he owned a trailer but not the land beneath it, and soon, soon enough, his landlords would decide to build on his wonderful spot, and where would he go? These were wornout questions, which did not plague him now, not this Friday, only because other things hurt worse.
Green with a hangover, he started a fire and put the kettle on, flinching at all sounds inside and out and hardly responsive to his big orange cat Dale Evans, who crawled out of her own goose down kitty bed. “Please Dale,” he whispered, “don’t talk to me, or jump on me, or even rub up against me.” He closed his eyes, nauseated, and shuffled to the bathroom to see if anything in the cabinet could help him. Echinacea. Goldenseal. Carmex. Bayer. Cell salts. Cod liver oil, god no.
The next thing he knew he was actually throwing up at the thought of cod liver oil and felt the cat jump onto his back as he squatted there, gripping the porcelain of the toilet, which was as icy as his feet. He would heave successfully and then he would dry heave, but the cat did not seem to take notice; she was merely curious at the position of her companion and fascinated by the interesting items being catapulted from deep within him via his mouth.
He’d have to remember this, he was thinking, as he straightened up, a little relieved. “Cod liver oil is good for hangovers.” He made some tea and dry toast and sat near the fire feeling the desolation of the day-after-the-night-before landscape, slumping further into his mood. “I made a fool of myself, Dale,” he said, sighing involuntarily as the cat answered him with a purr. “Oh, yes, I did, you don’t know. I passed out at the bar, blacked out, and came to the next morning, fully clothed and under the covers. There were dollars coining out of my pockets. I don’t know how I got them. Bets? Dancing on the bar? Disrobing?” He groaned and closed his eyes slowly as if drawing the curtains on this particular scene in a play.
The morning shone in weakly, like tea too shyly brewed, and a draft slipped in through cracks in the wafer -thin walls. Max stoked the fire, in a trance, finally braving a look out the window Whiteness and gray, and the thick branches of trees bared to it all like martyrs. The last tile job was over and the next wouldn’t begin until next week: he had the next three days off, and he had fifteen thousand dollars to mull over. Would three days be enough to sort it out? He thought it would. Again, he tried to recall events of the night before.
He remembered some of the faces, he remembered buying a round and so many beers. Being lifted up? Vaguely he recalled being lifted. He would ask Raymond Peach when his nerve was up, and hoped he wouldn’t see anyone soon who had seen him so far gone. Deciding to go to the market for something that might give him an appetite, he pulled on a thick hand-knit sweater and brushed his teeth for the third time. He head did not cease to throb but sunglasses seemed to help the eye-socket pain.
The air, cold but still, could easily have traumatized a hungover man; but feeling it as penance, Max picked up his pace.
The very same watery light filtered through the Venetian blinds and made patterns on the Persian carpet in the bedroom of Anna Ortiz kidd. It was a quarter to ten and she had to be at work soon, but would not, could not forego her stretching routine. She put on some of her favorite sitar music and did her stretches, not exactly frowning but close. Was it the flu or simple depression…. She backtracked to the origin of the feeling, something she did on a regular basis with most vague feelings, like routine detective work.
Waking up, she had remembered anxious dreams whose residues still clung to her. Like pieces of paper on the blustery day. Had she gone to bed feeling low “I went to bed feeling high,” she murmured out loud, “on account of too many drinks. I’ve got to give up drinking; it might as well be today” And she would give it up for weeks, maybe months, until it was time to say, “I’ve got to start drinking again.” And she would. It was like this with Anna.
Then she remembered Rory Vermillion leaning up against the bar with his aftershave, and his good education and his quips; and the fluish feeling hit her full on, “Oh. Of course.” She felt sick with the thought of him and this was not a good sign. It was the sign of infatuation, of falling in love briefly, of being fifteen again. It meant smoking three cigarettes a day and daydreaming, and, worst of all, it meant analyzing herself for flaws and reasons he couldn’t love her more. How could anyone love a woman who constantly wondered why a man couldn’t love her more? And what kind of woman was this? And she was supposed to have lunch with him at one o’clock.
“I will not look any different than I normally would,” she vowed, snapping off the tape, and proceeded to pull on some leggings, some low boots and her least favorite sweater, which was baggy and bright green, the wrong color. It made her look washed out, and she knew it. But so what? She wore no makeup, well, she hardly ever did — and put some Vaseline on her chapped lips. Her hair hung straight own. How did she look? Fluish, there was not doubt.
Satisfied, she went to work determined to be as bored by Rory Vermillion as she was with her job. What made him so different from Bob Peebles, for that matter? They were both men. That alone made them both the same, period. When vulnerable like this, Anna felt the war of the sexes would never be won, even fought well. When vulnerable, she felt men and women were just simply too different to have anything to say to each other. The only thing they could do was play out the sexual game until it was all played out, and then return to their solitary lives, among other women, among other men. Sighing deeply with these grim thoughts, she was obtusely reassured that she need not fear infatuation for any man.
Mimi O’Rourke was the only one who would wake up feeling fluish and give right in to the feeling with no hesitation, no asking questions. She stayed in bed until eleven, and when she got up, which she did only because Nero would not leave her alone, she raged against the ugliness of life, the weather, against the unfairness of economics, against her misery and annoyance and confusion.
She let the mood go like a wild animal, even encouraged it, thinking it might run tits course by two or three o’clock that afternoon. Instead, her dog was picked up by the local police, she broke her favorite coffee cup, and then sliced her finger deeply on one of the shards. By early in the afternoon, she was screaming into a pillow, throwing a tantrum like a two year old.
This however seemed to work. Hoarse from screaming, she was able to calm down and make her way to the health club where she pounded her body and released brain chemicals until nearly all traces of her snit were gone. Letting her mind wander for the first time that day, she involuntarily thought of Rory Vermillion. “Ugh,” she said out loud in the empty locker room. “He’s the cause of this, that phony cowboy. Piece of shit creep. Asshole with lizard boots. Transplanted gentrified slime.”
The chemistry between Mimi and Vermillion had not been good, and had been used only by the scotch buffer zone between them. He had toyed with her and ignored her, and he had focused on Anna with whom he had apparently made a lunch date for today. How could her friend fall for such a fake? Why wasn’t she seeing right through him? He certainly was thin enough to see through. She’d have to call Anna later on in the afternoon.
Worried that she might be swept back into the tantrum state, she scurried into the steam room — her permanent sanctuary — where she found Chuck Ludman, bartender from the night before, now glistening with sweat and tapping his right foot on the floor. His belly really wasn’t that big for his age and occupation and he looked strong; the towel barely fit around him and the slit left his leg bare almost to the hip.
“Chuck,” acknowledged Mimi, positioning herself flat on her back with both legs lifted up against a wall.
“Mimi,” acknowledged Chuck, shifting slightly in deference.
People did not feel they had to say anything at all in the steam room; but on the other hand, it wasn’t necessary to be silent either. It made for a natural environment and Mimi loved it. She could say things to people she would normally never say and they came out sounding fine. Most time, she even challenged herself to see just how far she could go. She had gotten personal, had gotten nosey, had gotten bitchy, and yes had gotten love made to her in there once. Even that hadn’t been so shocking, just very very fast and slippery.
Was it the steam? She had tried to figure this out. Exactly what did the steam do? Was it the half nakedness? The close quarters? The near claustrophobia? What allowed her to talk to a developer about his astrological sign and why he felt he always had to be the center of attention. What made him tell her he had been into the stars in the sixties, had a moon in Leo, had a Sagittarius rising, and hadn’t talked about any of it in a while. A veritable fountain of astro-facts, he became quite animated in discussing them. They had said hello on the street from then on.
Bookie DeVries had lost his towel in the steam room one time while stretching, exposing some commendable parts which he did a little dance trying to hide. The shy man had been mortified until Mimi muttered to him, “You don’t have to be ashamed of any of your parts for any reason a ‘tall, Bookie.” She took on his accent as she said this, a habit she slipped into frequently without thinking. Bookie had looked at her after having reattached the towel more than snugly and had smiled the sweetest smile she had ever seen, relaxed and confident. They had said hello on the street from then on.
And there were other stories. She seemed to make friends in the steam room, and to see people for what they were at their best. She wondered what Vermillion would be like in the steam room. Would he have been different had she met him here first? She felt her heart soften slightly. Maybe he had a better side with fewer clothes on.
Someone had just doused the heating element and the small room became thick with noisy heat. Sitting upright, she realized that Chuck had disappeared and that Max Lee Perdue was the culprit. He was wearing flip-flops: no one wore flip-flops in the steam room.
“Hello,” said Mimi, giving him the once over.
“Mimi,” he acknowledged as he put his head in his hands and slumped over, giving in to the extreme temperature.
This surprised Mimi, who scrutinized him more thoroughly now that he wasn’t looking. Did he know her? How did he know her? She looked at his fingers lost in a head of blond hair and worked her way down. The back was nice and broad, the thighs muscular. Everything glistened. Flip flops.
“Head hurting from last night, Max Lee?” she thought she would try out the name now that they were on a first-name basis.
“A little,” he answered as he straightened up. “You were there, too, huh. I guess the whole town was.” He looked truly pained. Chuck had told him in the locker room that he had not danced on the bar, had not done tricks, had not sung, but he still could not be sure. Chuck would have lied to him.
“No, hardly anyone was there really,” said Mimi, “And you didn’t do anything obnoxious, either,” she added. “You did have a few beers. But there’s nothing wrong with that. You were celebrating. Plenty of people do it, just because they don’t have anything better to do. Like me, for instance. I didn’t have anything better to do.” She tended to talk too much when nervous. He was cute. Sitting there, looking uncomfortable with himself, he was very very cute. Blue eyes, quite blue, perfect eyebrows. You should drink lots of water, y’know,” she said, unable to keep from mothering him just a little.
“I know,” answered Max,” “I’ve been trying. Do you happen to know how I got money in my pockets last night?” He had forgotten to ask Chuck and it concerned him. Had he gambled?
“As I recall,” Mimi said, readjusting her towel and moving close to him, “You got undressed.”
“You said I wasn’t obnoxious,” he looked at her with horror.
“That’s right, you weren’t obnoxious. You were very good. Very very good.” She winked at him, and grinned, and he finally got it.
“You’re teasing me.” He visibly relaxed. “You would take advantage of a person with the world’s worst hangover?”
“Not unless I was hungover myself, which happens to be the case. I imagine yours is worse than mine though. You have that look of someone trying to remember what it’s like not being hungover. Have we ever actually met, Max Lee?” It was getting too hot in the steam room, but she did not want to leave just yet. Unwrapping herself partially, she used the corner of the towel to mop her face, and felt his eyes watching her. “Nope,” he answered, “we haven’t. Strange, because we’ve both been her a while. Where have you been keeping yourself, Miss O’Rourke?”
“Out of trouble,” Mimi answered
“For the past five years?”
“Well, nearly. And yourself?”
Max found it easier to ask the questions. “Oh, I’ve been working.”
“For the past five years?” Mimi echoed.
“Except for regular and intermittent bouts of ski bum, yes.” The reference was made as if to a disease, something virulent and incurable.
Now it was extremely hot in the steam room, but neither of them really wanted to move. It was intimate, it was private, and they were half naked. But it was geothermal. Mimi, quick to come up with solutions when in her best interest, opened the door to the room and grabbed the hose in the outer room, the one used for washing down the walls and floor, and aimed the nozzle at herself. She let a fine mist cover her face and body, not bothering to removed the towel.”Ahhh,” she sighed, handing over the hose to Max. “Want to cool off?”
Max, ready to faint, took the nozzle gratefully and mopped down his head first, then his body, feeling it come to life again. In fact, surprising parts of his body came to life, what with the hot and the cold, the woman with big hair, the towels half off.
“I guess I should get going,” he muttered quickly, too beet red from heat exposure to turn even redder for any other reason.
Mimi, ready to wonder what she had done wrong, changed her mind as she saw what preceded him out the door. She smiled and laughed out loud a laugh so sublime it rang through the steam room and into both locker rooms where, on the men’s side, Max naturally heard it pealing. “A sweet laugh,” he commented to himself and wagered a smile of his own. The critical state of fluishness had dissipated and behind the plastic curtains he felt all the pleasure a shower should bring.
On the women’s side, the laughter had subsided into a grin and Mimi pulled on her jeans anxiously over moist legs. As she struggled, a napkin fell out of one of the back pockets, something she had picked up the night before at The Buckeroo. Covered with writing, it had piqued her curiosity then as it did now. She finished dressing quickly in order to study it. Skipping the bra, she pulled a tank top on then a hooded sweatshirt, smeared moisturizer over her face and let her hair take its own course as she picked up the napkin, trying to read the minuscule writing.
“Flipping pancakes – or a fat man — wants me to take a test in pancake flipping but I know I can’t — I will forget how to flip perfectly. His fat wife — As she approaches me, she becomes thin and reaches out to me. It is getting hot in the kitchen but I don’t care. You will teach the world to eat pancakes, she murmurs with an accent as she puts her mouth on mine. As the fat man comes toward me — I am ready to hurt him. I pick him up with one hand and throw him against the wall. HE POPS — When I turn to look for the fat/thin woman, she has gone PANCAKES everywhere. WHOLE GRAIN.”
It was either a dream or some strange idea for a screenplay, Mimi thought. Amused and delighted to be privy to someone’s dream, she put it back into her pocket, slipped on her bulky snow boots and placed a wooden cap on her damp head. The restaurant was staying open this October and she was due in at five, which gave her a title over two hours to go home and get a few things done and get there.
Her pick-up had collected a sixteenth of an inch of snow , and as she wiped it down, she felt the hair outside her hat freezing. “Shit,” she said, and quickly got behind the wheel. The club was a couple of miles out of town, which she considered a blessing, because on the worst box-canyon fever days, even two miles held to relieve the closed-in, end-of-the-road feeling. As she slid to a stop, ready to turn left onto the state highway back into town she saw Max Lee Perdue on the other side and up a ways, waiting for a car to hitch back with. She honked promptly and waved, pulled up beside him, and leaned over to open the door. His hair had frozen as well. “Get in,” she bossed, as if driving the getaway car. She’d never even talked to the guy and now twice in one day.
“You and your hair look like you need a thaw,” she turned to him and switched on the fan to blow the heat harder. “Impossible to get a ride on a day like today.”
He was obviously cold. “Yup,” he answered through clenched teeth. “I probably shouldn’t have steamed then come out in the cold. But I needed the steam and my car’s in the shop. At least my hangover seems to have gone. Boy does that heat feel good.” His mustache had thawed completely and dripped silently down his front. He took this brief opportunity to stare at the driver who had taken her hat off to reveal a living mass of dark brown curls. Not curls. Waves. More than waves. He didn’t know what you’d call that mattress of hair. Her face had retained the glow of a good workout and steam; it was an interesting face, sort of Irish on the one hand and Asiatic on the other. She glanced at him and smiled.
“I found the oddest thing at the bar last night, ” she began, wanting to make conversation as well as wanting to share her discover. “It was a napkin that someone had scribbled on with a weird little story about pancakes and a fat woman. The main character kissed the fat woman…”
“And then popped the fat husband,” finished Max, sighing with his own negligence at having dropped said napkin and thinking no one would notice or pick it up.
“Yes, exactly!” cried Mimi. “Well, then it was yours? What a coin–” she stopped herself. “Was it yours?”
“Yes, it was mine” Max told her, turning the heat down a notch and unzipping his coat three inches at the collar. “I write them all down. At that time, in the bar, I just happened to remember a dream from the night before. Then I got distracted and it must have fallen to the floor. Whole grain pancakes. There’s food in a lot of them. Weird that you found it, don’t you think?” Mimi was nodding.
“Not a coincidence either,” she continued, feeling now that she could be frank with him. “I don’t really believe in coincidence of any kind. It was a link in a chain of events, which will be somewhat concluded when I hand it back to you.” As she said this, she squirmed to pull the cramped cocktail napkin from her pocket and handed it to him with a smile. “Do you have any idea what the dream meant?” she asked. “I mean. Why do you write them all down?”
Max Lee Perdue didn’t really know why he wrote them down. He shrugged, unzipping the jacket all the way. “I guess it’s like collecting information for really big term paper. That may never get written. Sometimes I have a vague feeling of what the dreams mean, and sometimes I don’t have any idea. But I feel compelled to write them all down.”
He had never had anyone find one of his dreams before, and had never talked much about them. Ginger DeBrucque-Hatfield, his ex, had tried throwing a couple of his dream notebooks into the fire once after having spent an entire afternoon reading about his dream sex with dream women — not that that’s all there was, mind you, but it was all she’d honed in on. It had infuriated her. She’d hated the fact that he wouldn’t pay attention to her at breakfast, that he’d enjoyed so much his habit of writing down dreams first thing, with tea. The notebooks were salvaged and stood near the other dozen or so, but they would have burned corners forever. Ginger Hatfield. It had been over two years since they’d broken it off; she had gotten married six months later and was a mother now who said hello to him as if saying hello to a cocker spaniel.
“Interesting,” Mimi was saying, “That you would be so disciplined about it. What she was thinking, however, was “Interesting that a man should be so caught up in his own dreams.” The snow had started to fall again, and a blurry town came into view. “Where do ou live, Max Lee?” She fully intended to find out and to drive him to his doorstep.
“Oh, you don’t have to drive me all the way home. Any place on Main is fine.” He was wondering how to arrange to see her again, how to say something in the next ten seconds that would clinch another meeting. But she insisted.
“With that wet head? No thank you, please. I’ll take you all the way.”
Guiding her to his street and pointing up to the trailer when it came into view, she could hardly contain herself. “You live in the trailer??” She stared at it as if for the first time, though she’d eyed it greedily many, many times.
“I own the trailer.” Max had never had such an enthusiastic response to the roof over his head and milked it for what it was worth. “Would you like to come inside and have a look around?” He wondered if he had left it in a state so shocking that no woman would ever have any reason to return.
“Yes, please,” answered Mimi, thrilled beyond thrilled to be entered the relic.
As they entered the trailer Mimi noted it was warm and tidy enough to get the wide view quickly. It all delighted her. “I love the formica table and chairs,” she commented, thinking they came from the same era as the trailer itself. “Original,” answered Max. “They were they only thing in the trailer — well, aside from the build-in stuff — when I bought it. Pure sixties.” Pure heaven, thought Mimi, who was attached to everything trailer-diner-cafe-and-drve-in from that time. She scouted for it, photographed it, painted it, and sang its praises. It reached out to her.
“How did you ever get your hands on it?” As she said this, her eyes fell on a large wall clock that read four o’clock “Oh geez, I’ve got to run! It takes me a while to get ready for work.” She looked at Max. “Could we finish this conversation some time — I mean if you want — like over dinner or something. Do you cook?”
Max realized he would not have to fake bumping into her again, because she was doing all the work. “Besides whole grain pancakes?” he ventured a joke. “Yeah, I cook. What do you like?”
“Beans,” answered Mimi without hesitation “Do you cook beans?”
When he said yes, that he cooked beans of every shape and size, she could no longer doubt her luck, his luck, their luck. “My number’s in the book,” she said .”You call me in the next couple of days and we’ll have dinner together. Call during the day if it’s tomorrow because I have to work. Sunday I’ve got the entire day off. Okay?” She became bossy when nervous about potential rejection
Max Lee Perdue, however, put Mimi O’Rourke’s mind to rest.
“I will call you Sunday morning and we will see if Sunday night is still okay with you.” He extended his hand in order to shake on it and she obliged “Nice meeting, you, too,” he said. As they shook hands and slowly let their eyes meet, each was grateful that the opposite sex existed. Which, incidentally, was not always the case with ether one of them.
And as she walked to her truck feeling pretty good, Max picked up his extra-large cat and whispered into her fur, “There may be hope Dale Evans; there may yet be hope.”