I met The Author the summer before I left that small Montana town for college. That was the liminal period of impossibly long, bright days wearing cutoffs so short the pockets hung out on our thighs. The days of perpetual sunburn from floating the Yellowstone River in old black inner tubes. The days the river flowed through town so slowly it was as if it too had the doldrums and was just waiting to move on to more exciting seasons.
That summer I had an internship at the newspaper, circulation 2,000, which came out in the afternoons. When I was younger, Livingston seemed retro in a way that wasn’t cool, in a way old people enjoyed because it comforted them to have a newspaper that came out in the afternoon and a drive-in burger joint where the carhops wore roller skates. Back then, that town was a stop along I-90 that most people passed by on their way to Billings, Bozeman or Missoula.
The last summer I lived there, it was my job to cover the county fair, the 4th of July Parade, everything cute children and pets did all summer long and, as it happened, the release of The Author’s first book. According to the New York Times, he represented the new masculinity in literary fiction. He was the new Jim Harrison, the new Thomas McGuane, the new man of the West. I interviewed him in the coffee shop downtown. He wore aviator sunglasses, ripped Levi’s, and a leather cuff around his wrist. He was well over six feet tall and had an athlete’s build. He bragged that he played college baseball, a detail I never bothered to verify. In the beginning, it thrilled me to believe everything he said.
The Author talked exclusively about himself. Technically, in an interview, the reporter asks the questions, but with him I hardly had to ask anything. All I had to do was listen and then choose the details I wanted to save.
“I’ve had every job under the sun,” he said. “I’ve been an ambulance driver, a poker dealer, and a fishing guide in Cuba. I used to think I wanted to be a religious scholar. I even went to divinity school at Yale for a few years before I got bored and decided to write instead.”
When I was young and still unsure of myself, this sort of narcissism quelled my anxiety. If he talked about himself all the time, it meant I didn’t have to talk about myself. I was keenly aware of my status as a small-town girl. I had never gone to Yale or Columbia and knew I never would. I had never even been on a plane. My mother had left years ago and my father, a railroad mechanic, worked hard for our rent and grocery money. I nodded along and wrote what The Author said in my skinny reporter’s notebook.
“So I live in Peck’s Place now,” The Author announced. “You know, the director, Sam Peckinpah? He used to live in the Murray Hotel. The suite still has his cross-country skis. It’s a bit like living in one of his movies or maybe a part of his mind. Maybe you’d want to come see it?”
I stopped writing and looked up. Of course I did. I’d heard about the crazy director, how he spent his last days on the third floor of the hotel, shooting mirrors and the ceiling when the ghosts in his brain startled him from sleep.
“Okay,” I said.
“I must be about twenty years too old for you,” The Author said. “How old are you? Eighteen at least?”
I nodded. I was, at least.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t want the front desk staff or people in the Murray Bar to see you going up to my room.”
He looked at me and began to drum his fingers on the table, considering options. I looked down into my notes, pretending to read what I had written and hoping I was not turning red.
“I know another way,” he said. “It will be just like the movies. Have you ever seen The Getaway?”
I hadn’t, but I was game.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said. “I’ll show you.”
He led me down the alley to the back of the hotel, past the grease trap that belonged to the restaurant downstairs and the garbage dumpsters. He stopped in front of the old metal fire escape ladder that reached to a small window on the third floor. Then he shook it, startling a colony of pigeons, to show me it was sturdy.
“See that window?” he pointed. “That’s the window Doc and his girl escape out of in The Getaway after they rob a bank. I’ll leave it open just a crack for you. Why don’t you come back at 10 p.m.?”
Don’t you already know how this story goes? Of course I went back. I crawled in through The Getaway window and tiptoed down the hall to the room labeled “Peck’s Place.” I knocked softly.
Inside, The Author poured me a shot of rum from the dispenser he said he’d smuggled from Cuba. He explained how he bribed numerous customs agents to bring the disassembled mahogany contraption home in his suitcase.
But what I liked most about that suite were the books and papers covering every surface. Some books had been set down in medias res, resting on their stomachs, spines to the ceiling. Others rested on the floor or coffee table in piles that reminded me of Jenga towers about to topple. The Author appeared to write notes to himself everywhere—on the bills that littered the counters and had become bookmarks, on receipts, on stained napkins stamped with the Murray Bar’s logo. Pages of The Author’s newest short story were splayed on the floor in the shape of a fan. It looked like the sort of fantasy many of us young, artistic and hopeful women have. For me, the fantasy was always some sort of Patti Smith situation in which my artist boyfriend and I ignore the outside world and make love and art in hotel suites littered with evidence of our co-creations. I thought this must be living with passion.
The Author brought his glass of rum over to the living room and plopped on the couch. I felt nervous. With my glass of rum in my hand, I sank to the floor below the couch by The Author’s pages. I picked up the top one and started to read. He’d named the story “Shiver.” He and I have always shared a sensibility for one-word titles.
“That’s my new story,” he said. “Shall I read it to you?”
“You shall,” I said. And so, he read.
Reading aloud nearly always puts me in a trance, but to be honest I was in another sort of trance too: You see, I wanted the author’s juju. Back then I was still young and naïve and hadn’t thought of sucking it from him like a vampire. Instead, I figured that by hanging around him, I’d magically become a writer by proxy. I thought his luck would rub off on me.
If this were his sex scene, it would be about a highly sensitive male falling into bed with a younger woman almost against his will, waking up and staring at her back in the morning with an unmistakable feeling of dread and guilt. It’s my sex scene, though, so I’ll tell you what I remember: The sheets were hotel sheets, bleach white, and crisp. I did what I could to get him to hurry up. Afterward, I lay on the now-fatty muscles of his chest and he pulled those sheets up over us. Then he told me stories. He pointed to the ceiling and said, “See those two holes? Those are bullet holes from Bloody Sam’s revolver. He shot holes in the ceiling right above us, probably from the same spot where we are lying.”
Eventually The Author fell asleep and started to snore. I couldn’t sleep, afraid the same ghosts that Bloody Sam saw at night would pay me a visit.
Late that night, I slipped out of the window and climbed down the fire escape in the dark. In the movie, the window isn’t that far from Mexico. In real life, I walked back to my dad’s house four blocks away.
I grew old enough to wait for him in the Murray Bar, where I ordered a vodka soda. It was late afternoon, summertime because that was the season of our affairs, and so hot that the bartender had opened the doors that faced the street. I had gone off to college at the University of Montana in Missoula and was about to graduate with degrees in journalism and English literature. The Author still lived in my hometown, in Peck’s Suite on the third floor of the Murray Hotel. He acted like a touchstone for me; I didn’t ask much about his other affairs or girlfriends, but when I made the four-hour drive east to come home, we’d find a way to spend a night or two together. I still believed that he would help me become a real artist.
A feeble flow of air drifted through the open doors of the Murray, along with the noise from the train depot across the street. I was watching the street when I saw a laptop fall from the sky. It landed on Main Street with a loud smack and its insides scuttled across the road. No cars were coming.
“Looks like they are fighting again,” the bartender said to no one in particular. I knew he must be referring to The Author and his current girlfriend.
When I informed The Author I was coming home and asked to meet up, he’d explained a waitress he’d slept with had moved into Peck’s Suite with him and promptly gone crazy. He told the story as if he was only a passive agent, an omniscient observer to her unraveling.
“Glad you’re coming,” he’d texted. “Need to get out.”
The Author came down into the Murray Bar a few minutes later with his old green suitcase in his hand. His face was puffy and red. Despite the heat, he wore a blue cashmere cardigan he was very proud of having found at the thrift store. He nudged me from my barstool with his elbow.
“Let’s go,” he said. “We’re getting the hell out of here.”
I slung five dollars from my pocket onto the bar and shrugged at the bartender. When I hung out with The Author, we often didn’t make plans. We’d get some booze and weed and just start driving until we saw a funky hotel or a deserted campground where we’d decide, on the spot, to stay.
Outside the bar on Main Street, The Author pitched his suitcase into his truck and we climbed in. We headed west. We drove. We drove until dark, until the mountains were only shadows in the distance. We didn’t speak. The Author listened to Guns N’ Roses, replaying the song “Patience” until I lost mine and finally said, “What the hell was that all about back there?”
“She destroyed my next novel,” he said. “That laptop. It was the only place it was saved. I already busted the contract for my second book once. Now the whole thing is ruined.”
“You mean you didn’t save it anywhere else?”
“Look, clearly I can’t explain this to you,” he said.
The Author pulled off I-90 at Missoula. He had brought me right back to the place I had come from. He parked outside of a bar in downtown that was not unlike the Murray and that I frequented with my college friends. Most of us were pretending at being artists of some sort—writers, photographers, painters. I had lots of credibility in this group because I was fucking The Author.
We sat down at the bar and he ordered us two draft beers. He took one sip of his and then said, “I have to go make a call.”
I waved him away like women do in the movies. I asked the bartender for a shot of whiskey. I might have thought about why I continued to sleep with The Author, but I didn’t. Not really. I told myself I was only following the story. Plus, I was pissed off. Maybe I was doing it because of the assigned reading in my literature classes, because of James Joyce and J.P. Donleavy, Denis Johnson, Hunter S. Thompson, Dharma Bums. Fucking Dharma Bums. Every one of the college boys in the wannabe artist group raved about that book. Who can remember any of the female characters in Dharma Bums?
Maybe I was sleeping with The Author because I could, because it would make a good story, because I’d learned that if you wanted to be like the boys you better drink whiskey and have bad relationships. I could call it all a spiritual quest, call my novel Dharma Slut.
The Author came back in a huff. “Come on,” he said. “I need your help.”
I carried his beer outside with us and drank it. I had finished mine and the shot, but he didn’t notice. I was working on one of those rolling buzzes in which most cruel things seemed funny.
“Was it her?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Crazy bitch keeps saying she’s going to do something terrible. Before she hung up she said, Check under your seat you bastard.”
“So?” I said. “You said she’s threatened to commit suicide before.”
“Yes, but I guess we better check under the seat.”
The Author felt blindly through his truck’s cab to find his flashlight. Then he handed it to me and asked me to shine it under the seat while he searched. It didn’t take long. The box of empty shotgun shells lay right there amid the crumbs and candy wrappers. There was a note taped to the top of the box. I shined the flashlight on it. It said, I told you I would do it. I’m a good shot too. I remember how I thought her handwriting was funny, all scrawled and strung out just the way I expected it to be.
“What does this mean?” I asked.
The Author looked like he might pass out. He was now sitting on the curb. I was holding the note and the box of shotgun shells.
“She bought a gun the other day,” he said.
“What? How could you let her buy a gun?”
“It’s Montana. Everybody has a gun. I didn’t think she knew how to use it. I thought she would just use it as leverage.”
“Leverage? This note implies she’s been practicing.”
He rubbed his hand over the stubble on his jawline. “We have to go back.”
“I don’t want to go back,” I said. “Can’t you just call someone else to check on her? What about the police?”
“I’m going to get kicked out of the Murray, lose Peck’s Place, if I keep making scenes,” he said. “I realize it was wrong to tell her I was leaving with you.”
“You told her that?”
“Yes,” he said. “She even bit me.”
He scooted up the sleeve of his blue cashmere sweater. The curved imprint of her mouth was still stamped, like a brand, on his forearm.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go back.” My drunkenness only slightly numbed the disappointment I felt in this adventure, which had turned into endlessly driving back and forth on the interstate with very few re-tellable romanticisms.
So, we got back in his truck and drove. We drove back from where we had come, listening to Guns N’ Roses.
* * *
At 3 a.m. The Author woke me from my crumpled sleep in the truck. He had pulled into a sketchy truck stop outside of Butte.
“She’s calling,” he said.
“So?” I said.
“Look, can you just go inside? You don’t want to hear this.”
“Because I have to tell her I love her to calm her down. Please? You don’t want to hear this.”
“Fine,” I said. I ripped open the door of the truck, jumped down and slammed it shut again. Inside the truck stop, I used the bathroom, shocked by the fluorescent lights. I lingered in front of the mirror, picking at my makeup. I wished I had washed it off but didn’t want to now that my face looked so sallow and pimply. I never understood how some women affected the artist look effortlessly. I had black jeans and a leather jacket, but to me I never looked right. I never looked like a writer.
In the gas station store, I bought a bottle of water and sat at a table near the window. I started to read a copy of the Penny Nickle, which someone had left on the table. After a while, I felt eyes on me. When I looked up from the paper, I saw a dog-faced trucker watching me. I made the mistake of looking at him, straight into his face, where our eyes met. This was his invitation. He walked over to my table and sat across from me without asking.
“Hi,” he said. “What’s a pretty girl like you doing here?” I could see that he had long black hairs growing from the top of his nose, hairs that looked as though they had been plucked at one time but were now forgotten.
“I’m waiting for my boyfriend,” I said.
“Really?” he said. “What kind of a boyfriend would leave you here alone in the middle of the night?”
He must think I’m a hooker or something, I thought.
“I’m not alone,” I said.
“I was just looking for someone to talk to,” he said. “You look like you might need that too.”
I looked down at the Penny Nickle and the trucker took this as my acceptance, as permission to stay at my table.
Some film critics argued Sam Peckinpah’s male characters might have seemed misogynist on the surface, but they were actually trying to be good men against a backdrop of rural American poverty, rage and despair. I bet those critics were all dickheads, but they were right about one thing: White man’s poverty, rage and despair are the true subjects of Westerns. Really, it doesn’t matter how far away we get. There are still these men, this darkness, out here in truck stops, in our bedrooms. The farther west we run the more they show up. These men— these monsters—are the other side of the romance. You can’t try to fit yourself into a Western without getting burned by them. I’m pretty sure they are inside me. I’ve let them in. And I always wait until the last possible second to get away.
“My name is Carl,” the trucker said. “I drive trucks from Texas to Canada. I have a son, but I never see him. He lives with his mom in Canada.”
When it seems like I have nothing over The Author, when I feel like just a girl from Montana to his I-got-bored-with-Yale yarn, I still have better stories than him. Somehow or another they find me. They come to me even when I don’t want them.
Carl told me he had been molested as a child. Sometime ago it dawned on him, after he split up with his ex, that he should try to find out why his life was so messed up. Carl had a problem, you see. His life was too “sexified,” as he put it. He was obsessed with sex, he told me, all sorts of it. Anything about it. Normal sex didn’t even arouse him anymore. He came to the conclusion this was connected to the molestations of his childhood, committed by both his father and his uncle.
It occurred to me that I should start writing down what this trucker was saying to me. There was something thrilling about sitting within reach of the darkness, about this man’s disturbing willingness to tell this story, to even use it as a pickup strategy. The Author would never believe this story. He frequently doubted the veracity of my stories. He scolded that I should make up details only in fiction and not in real life. I had never really seen the point in this distinction, but I suppose it might be for men who make themselves better in their fiction but who expect the women they are with to be like their characters in real life.
I stammered to Carl that I was a writer. He didn’t seem to care, so I pulled out a pen from my purse and started scribbling on the Penny Nickle. “Nose hair, black, on top,” I wrote and then covered it up with my arm.
When Carl finished his story he asked, “What are you thinking about? You look sad.”
“Nothing,” I said.
“I just told you my life story. You could tell me yours.”
“Mine’s not that interesting.”
“Why are you a writer?”
“I’m not really a writer,” I said. “I’m just a girl.”
“Where are you staying tonight?” he ventured.
It was just about time to make a break for it.
“I’m leaving with my boyfriend as soon as he gets off the phone.”
“Stop messing around with me. I know you aren’t here with your boyfriend.”
“Yes I am.”
“Where is he, then?”
I wheeled around in my chair and pointed out the window, but the light had gone out in the cab of The Author’s truck and everything was dark.
“He’s out there,” I said.
“No one’s out there,” the ugly trucker said. “I think you are alone and in some sort of trouble. I don’t mean to be pushy, and I’m not trying to be all perverted, but you can stay with me. I have a hotel room. I promise I’m not trying to be perverted.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I have to go.” I got up without looking at him, grabbed my Penny Nickle, and ran out the door.
“Wait,” he said.
I didn’t look back. I became truly afraid for a few seconds, until my eyes adjusted to the darkness outside and I saw the outline of The Author’s truck parked in the lot.
The Author will not take off his satchel, which I have dubbed The Pill Purse. He sleeps with it next to his pillow and wears it everywhere during the day. The pills and the bottles inside make a pathetic plastic jangling sound if he tries to jog and when he sits down. It’s been two years since I last saw The Author and ten years have passed since he first told me about The Getaway. The old game is still on, although the vigor is flagging. I’m trying to get to the end of the story. We are sitting on barstools at the Murray. The owner of the bar, a transplant from Boulder, Colorado, remodeled the inside and now one wall is covered in tiles with brands people put on cows. Another is covered in wine corks. Another with pictures of all the famous local fisherman, or, as I call them: The fish pimps. The pool tables are gone and now you can order fancy cocktails. The barstools are filled by refugees from Los Angeles, Denver and Seattle, people whose wardrobe is dominated by Patagucci, people who still believe in the myth but want it to be cleaned up for them. I don’t think Sam Peckinpah would approve.
The doors of the bar are open, but the breeze only slightly cools the sweaty inside. I have graduated to martinis and become a journalist. The Author has become a has-been and hasn’t managed to publish another book. He says he has cancer.
This morning, I noticed that The Author’s hands shake after he wakes up and before he starts drinking. Sex doesn’t work between us anymore, but, to be honest, that was always the least interesting part of this story. The Author has no more girlfriends as far as I can tell. He clings to my back at night. The pills in the purse play some role in his kaleidoscope of addiction and impotence, but because he always keeps the purse next to him, I’ve been unable to fully investigate its contents.
Honestly though, the washed up, sick, drug addict, drunk writer thing is old, real old, and I’d like to kill The Author right here for the sake of all of us, especially those of us who might believe loving this sort of man is romantic, but that wouldn’t be true to the story. The truth is I feel sorry for him, but I also have a perverse desire to witness The Author’s tragic downfall like Sam Peckinpah makes his viewers see violence, all of it, all the cruelty human beings have within our capability. I do not want to turn away.
The thing about Westerns is that they almost never make it to Act 3. They never tell the story of what happens to the hero, how his rage eats him alive until he shakes every morning and can’t fuck any more. They don’t show the hero when he’s become no one’s lover or father. They don’t show John Wayne’s teeth. They don’t show Steve McQueen beating his wives.
Once I did a story about an old costume designer in Santa Fe who worked on Westerns. He said he did several Sam Peckinpah films and that, on the last one, Bloody Sam had a pacemaker. The director was supposed to be off blow and since no one else would get it for him, he asked the costume designer to hook him up. Peck claimed he couldn’t work sober. The costume designer said no and got fired. He didn’t want to be responsible for killing Bloody Sam.
At the bar I ask The Author, “How many days a week do you drink?”
“Most days,” he says. He doesn’t look at me, keeping his eyes on the bottles behind the bar. “All days. It helps with the pain.”
“Do you think you might have alcoholism and not cancer?” I ask.
Finally, he turns to me. His face now has constellations of age spots and wrinkles and his skin is sallow. He squints, and I know what I’d said had hurt him.
“You are such a bitch sometimes,” he says.
I squelch my laughter and turn back to my martini.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you something about my memoir,” he says. “I wrote all about the summer I had that crazy girlfriend who tried to kill herself. But I decided not to make you a character.”
This strikes me as very funny. I laugh so hard I start to hiccup. Then I stand up.
“That’s funny,” I say.
Although there is no horse waiting for me, I walk out the door and into the sunshine.
Natalie Storey’s work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The New York Times Magazine, Faultline, Beloit Fiction Journal and others. She’s a former Peace Corps volunteer to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and served as a Fulbright scholar in Morocco. She currently teaches English on Rocky Boy’s Reservation in northern Montana.