SHORT STORY CONTEST
THE BLACK HILLS
by Barbara Mayor
He tells her she’ll love it down south but when “down there” is only South Dakota, she tries not to look disappointed. He laughs and gives her hair a little yank. She doesn’t appreciate having her hair messed with, but he’s passably good-looking and convinced that girls enjoy his touch. If Eva doesn’t react pleasantly he thinks it’s funny, like telling her all week they were going south. She’d been so excited it was pathetic.
They’ve been married six months and her parents in North Dakota still call him” that man.” “That man” and “our girl.” He’s thirty-five and she’s eighteen and she thought three nights in a hotel called for marriage. He said sure, why not. He’s a salesman and only has to come home on weekends anyway, and it would be convenient if she’s there, waiting. She’s got a wicked figure and a real talent for waiting.
They pack fishing clothes and she sneaks in a pair of high heels and a dress. They drive all day while he sings stuff that was popular when she was a kid. He has a decent baritone voice and his mother always claimed he could have been a professional, that he could sing “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton” to make you double right up and bawl. After a few drinks, he would make the same claim—if only he’d been given the opportunity and training. He looks sorrowful as he says it, and sighs.
The sky swirls low and gray like a quilt made of oatmeal and she sees why the radio announcers always say bad-weather- coming-out-of-the-Dakotas as if they manufactured it there. Rain and insects splat on the windshield and she shudders, trying to remember words to his songs. She hums along and he tells her to cut it. She’s quiet for half an hour and says, “Tell me more what’s going to be so great about this.”
“You’ll love it, I’m telling you. It’s a log cabin with three bedrooms and a creek you can hear all night like someone left the john running. And fish all over the place. Light me a cig, hon.”
He wears a rough wool shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a feed store cap that says International Harvester. He prefers it to his weekday clothes. He’s only happy after work, depending on what’s around.
She flecks the Paradise Essence polish off her nails and the tiny crumbs gather in her lap. She plans to use Bermuda Sunset when they get there. It’s an exotic rose with undertones of speckled gold which she hasn’t tried yet.
“Drop that crap in the car and you’ll lick it up.”
“Would you make me do that?”
“Is that what you’d do if you didn’t love me?” She puts her hand on his shoulder and strokes the thorny texture of his sleeve.
“If you did love me?”
“I said you goddam try it.”
“Do you love me?”
“Don’t you know anything else to talk about?”
“Well, do you?”
“Jesuschrist, open me a beer.”
She hands him the beer and then wets her middle finger to pick up the polish bits. She wraps them in the Kleenex and throws it out the window.
They pull off the road to eat the sandwiches she had made. She puts the sack on the floor between her feet and lifts the food out and puts his on a paper napkin.
“Don’t give me any of that carrot junk. Just the tomatoes.”
“We don’t have any tomatoes.”
“I don’t suppose you thought of potato salad?”
“Well, gimme gimme.”
He starts in on the huge ham sandwich. When there’s only a quarter of it left, he opens the bun and says, “What’s this shit?”
“Mustard. You like mustard.”
“You like mustard,” he mimics in a whiny voice and tosses the pieces into the sack. “Let’s get in the back seat.”
“No, it’s not dark enough.”
“Okay okay,” and he starts the car with a jerk and they drive on while she eats her sandwich slowly and fastidiously.
When she finishes, she pulls the visor mirror down and draws a red line around her lips and fills it in with Peach Frost. She turns to him, puckers her mouth and asks, “Like this color?”
“Love it,” he says without looking.
She starts to comb her hair and asks, “Why do they call this the Black Hills? Looks like green mountains to me.” He tells her because the Blacks took it away from the Indians in a football game.
They arrive in the evening and he pulls the car in behind a pickup truck in front of the cabin. Spook and his wife, Jojo, jump up from the porch steps and come toward them. Spook shouts, “Jim, hey fella, thought you’d never come.” He nudges Jojo and says, “Maybe that’s why they’re late. Hi Eva. Lookin’ pretty.”
Spook works for the same company as Jim. She’s met them a few times, once at a disastrous party where she got sick. He shakes Jim’s hand and helps him unload. His skin is white and reminds her unpleasantly of mushrooms, and he is skinny enough to make his shoes look enormous. He has a grin that nearly divides his face and a dirty mouth. He lurches his shoulders forward and pushes the hair off his forehead with the flat of his hand and winks at Eva. “He slow comin’ already, Eva?”
Jojo puts her stringy arm around Eva and leads her inside. Eva is ready to cry and when she sees Lefty and Maris in the kitchen, she does. “She’s just tired and sulky,” Jim says and when they get to their bedroom, she flops face-down on the bed and sobs.
“Last ones here get the unchoicest bedroom, if that’s what’s bothering you,” Spook says, and goes out and shuts the door.
“So what is it?” Jim asks.
She rolls over on her back. “You didn’t tell me they’d be here.”
“So if I didn’t?”
“I don’t want them here.”
“This is a fishing trip and I told you that. Do you think I’d want us just to fish alone?”
“I don’t even know how to fish,” she wails.
“God, you’re something. Tell you what.” He kneels one leg on the side of the bed and takes her shoes off and then her skirt. “Know what you do know how to do? Eva? Look at me. Know what?” He pulls her panties off. She smiles and sniffs and he takes the corner of the pillowcase and wipes her eyes, leaving a mascara streak across her cheekbone. “Now you bend this knee and put this foot here and this foot there and you wait just like that.”
He stands up and undresses, then leans over and shoves her blouse up under her chin. “Now, say, ‘Come here.”
“Are you happy now?”
“Okay then. Grab ahold.”
The four are laughing raucously in the kitchen. Lefty shouts, “Hey, you lovebirds,” and rattles the doorknob. She asks Jim to lock it, but he doesn’t hear.
“Now,” he says when he stands up, “say you’re real happy.”
“I’m real happy. Do you love me?”
“Yeah. Sure. Looks like you’ve got a black eye. Don’t act like an asshole in front of my friends.”
They dress and she takes a long time with her make-up while he goes out to the kitchen. When she follows, everyone stops talking and leers at her and she feels the heat rising in her face. She drinks what someone hands her and finds a place to sit next to Jojo while Spook finishes the dirty story he was telling. Jojo is nice. She says, “Don’t let them get your goat. You’ll get used to it.”
She looks down at Jojo’s hands. They are brown and covered with rings up to the knuckles. She watches dully, waiting to see if Jojo can curl her fingers around her glass, but she picks it up deftly with her thumb and forefinger and Eva looks away. Her eyes wander around the unfinished walls and it doesn’t look like a real log cabin inside. The floor is linoleum, worn in stripes where the boards beneath have buckled. There is a calendar on the wall and a picture of fishermen holding a long string of trout that hang like bloated pennants. The curtains are gathered in skimpy, dispirited ruffles, two in plaid and one with flowers, all faded in the middle.
They don’t go to bed until two-thirty and she lies awake listening to Jojo in the next room moaning, “Oh Jesus!” ten or twelve times while their bed bangs the wall, and the mirror falls on the dresser and snaps in two like a dry stick. She begins to cry again.
When she wakes alone at noon, she stays in bed for an hour before she joins the women in the kitchen. They point to the coffee and toaster. Jojo hooks a foot under a chair and scrapes it toward Eva and they go on talking.
She guesses the two couples had come here together and Jojo and Maris didn’t get everything said. They go on and on and she thinks they’re on the verge of emptying their minds.
Both of them are wearing expensive warm- up suits. Maris is large and spongy looking and her hair is blonde and crimpy. Other than that Eva thinks she is kind of pretty. Jojo is nicer, though. She is tan and dry and wears huge glasses and her nerves seem always at a fizz, ready to explode and leave everyone behind. She almost knocks things over but at the last moment, she doesn’t. She drags on her cigarette and lets the smoke escape from her mouth and speed up her nose.
Eva stands with her back to them and finally figures out the ancient toaster. Then the toast cools while she gets oleo out of the refrigerator. There’s no jelly in sight and she decides not to ask. While she pours coffee she worries about where to sit. She edges sideways on to the chair Jojo had pushed so as not to seem to be listening, but available if they want to say something to her. They don’t, but she thinks she might mention how pretty the Black Hills are if they do.
After an uncomfortably long while, she takes her coffee outside and sits on the porch step. It is sunny and the pines are full of birds and glinting with beads of yesterday’s rain. There are four more cabins and behind each is an outhouse with logs attached here and there to match the cabins. She had made Jim walk out and wait for her last night because she was sure there were bears. She goes in the outhouse and notices spider webs in the corners and inside the roll of paper. She taps her finger on the roll in case anything is still inside. There are three holes and she guesses any three of that crowd would go together.
In the kitchen she refills her cup and sits with the women. Maris and Jojo have just had a big laugh and Jojo says, “Oh, he didn’t!”
Then she turns to Eva and says, “Maris said that Lefty says he’s going to fuck you before we leave and she’s taking bets.”
Eva looks at Maris who is enjoying herself and rocking side to side on her lofty buttocks while she snorts and laughs. “Don’t worry kid. I’ll watch out for you—if you’ll keep those tits covered better.”
Eva smiles tentatively and goes back outside. Maris says, “She ain’t no Cindy.”
Their cabin is the last one on the left and the land slopes sharply down to the brook. Even though it is a sunny day everything is in shade. The ground is covered with slippery brown pine needles and she makes her way down to the water’s edge. The stream is wide here and bubbles and ripples over smooth stones. She wonders if Jojo and Maris have even seen it.
She reaches her hand in and finds the water icy. She sits down on a rock and watches the water swirl into eddies, and in an iridescent vortex a green leaf spins and disappears. Except for the water tumbling by, it is quiet. The trees are motionless and dark and it smells like gin and mint.
She thinks about Jim. It’s what you get, girl, you couldn’t wait, she says to herself. But she’s learned a bit, that she likes sex and what a man looks like. She’d expected something different, not so pink maybe. And she’d thought only women had pubic hair. And that everything wasn’t all between his legs but more out in front. She remembers when she and Mary Upton were freshmen. They thought rubbers were like rubber bands and tried to guess how they worked. They talked about marriage incessantly and planned to give all their children names that started with the same letter. Mary chose R and Eva said it depended on her husband’s last initial. They wrote their names with different boy’s names to see which sounded best. When Eva wrote Mrs. E.B. Skinner, they looked at each other with wide eyes. Mr. Skinner was the math teacher and had a wife and two kids. Mary gave her a sly look and asked, “Would you really do it with Mr. Skinner?” Eva smiled and raised her eyebrows hoping she looked knowledgeable, not sure exactly what “doing it” involved. Mary dated lots of boys later and their friendship faded away. Eva was shy and plump and the boys didn’t hang around like they did with Mary.
In her senior year Eva met Jim at a movie. She was standing in the lobby in a swarm of popcorn that someone had knocked out of her hand. She was flushed and uncertain, wondering if she should clean it up, or just ignore it. She tugged her head scarf forward trying to become invisible. Her dowdy brown coat hid the embarrassing curves her body had suddenly developed. She looked innocent and naive and Jim swaggered up, picked up her empty box and half filled it from his. Then he took her arm and they went in to the movie. He said the show was only worth half a box anyway and they left in the middle and walked to his hotel. No, she wouldn’t go up to his room and no, she’d only drink a coke. The second weekend he charmed her into the room and the third into bed. Next he bought her the kind of dress and stockings he wanted her to wear and she was hooked.
They married when she turned eighteen and told her parents after she graduated. Now she wishes they’d had a real wedding, she in a low-cut white satin dress instead of one of her mother’s home-made horrors, and Jim in his navy blue suit, in which he looks somewhat like Mr. Skinner.
Back in the bedroom she puts two coats of Bermuda Sunset on all her fingernails and toenails and stretches out on the bed, humming while she waves them dry. The three men come back and when Jim doesn’t come into the bedroom, she goes to the kitchen. Jojo and Maris greet her in a friendly manner and start cooking fish the men have caught and put out plates and drinks. Jojo has brought a peach pie with a circle of punctures in the center and a crust decidedly browner on one side, and Maris has baked potatoes wrapped in tinfoil and a salad. Jim hadn’t told her to bring anything and she feels wronged. Not able to make herself set the table or do anything to help, she sits with a sweating drink in her hand and tries to look interested.
Remembering what Lefty said about her, she gets a wiggly sensation inside as if her guts had suddenly gulped. His disheveled good looks give her a guilty thrill and she wishes Jim could know what he said without her being the one to tell him. Now and then she peers up to see if Lefty is looking at her. When he catches her at it, he makes a face like an oxygen-starved fish, pops his eyes and smacks his lips. She blushes and looks at Jim.
They eat, dump all the dishes in the rusty sink, fill it with water and start drinking again.
Jim lifts her up on a bar stool and it’s another endless night. She is looking down from the top gondola of a Ferris wheel, swaying to music only she can hear and below, out of focus, is the rest of the party. Their voices sound like knives and forks clattering together and only a few phrases drift up to where she is hanging on. The wheel gives a lurch and her drink splashes into her lap. It’s Lefty who comes up behind her, reaches around and grabs her breasts and says something to the others and walks away. She thinks if they’d stop talking she might say something. Then the men get together in a noisy hullabaloo and leave in the pickup—Lefty driving with more racket and skidding than necessary. She thinks he may be showing off to her.
The three women move into the dark living room and Eva waits to see where they choose to sit before she settles on a lumpy gray hassock. Maris slops out more drinks and starts telling about someone named Bitsy. “She married Bob—you know— tractors. And she dresses up and buys a bottle of wine and thinks she’ll give him a surprise visit on the road on their three- month anniversary”.
“God, anyone could have told her. So of course she walks in on them.”
Jojo says solemnly, “I could have told her.”
“Dumb hotel clerk gives her the key. He didn’t know who was up there.”
“I could have told him.”
“Comes home crying. What does she think? He’s going to sit on his ass five nights a week?”
“You can bet Spook wouldn’t. Take him about one hour to find another ass,” Jojo says, with pride.
“Lefty too, and I’d think the very less of him if he couldn’t.”
Eva stands up and says, “I think I’ll go to bed now. I feel a little woozy,” and realizes it is probably her third sentence since arriving.
“Yep, she’s no Cindy,” Jojo says.
“Another Bitsy with a bigger pair.”
Eva is asleep when the men return, rowdy and careless, thumping against the furniture. Jim bounces the bed and says, “Hey” a couple of times, gives up and passes out on the rug.
They get up late in the morning. No one else is around. After a glum breakfast, Jim gathers his gear and leaves with Eva trailing along behind him. “Now just where do you think you’re going?” he snaps.
“I want to watch you fish.”
They walk through sunny meadows to a smaller brook and he stops and pulls on waders. They crackle and appear unbendable. She watches while he buckles and then asks, “Do you know a Bitsy and Bob?”
“Maris said what happened.” Jim makes a few casts. “Did you know about that?”
“Everybody did. Move back.”
“Do all your friends and Lefty and Spook act like that?”
“How do I know?”
“It’s none of your business.” He wades away casting ahead into the stream. She takes off her shoes and steps in. It’s rocky and numbingly cold. “I wondered about us.”
“I wondered about us.” She knows he heard her.
“Stand back or you’ll get hooked.”
“Jesuschrist, Eva, go back where you belong.”
“Where do I belong?”
“Out of the way. That’s all. Just out of my way.”
She follows a few more steps, “What does out of my way mean?”
“What it sounds like.”
She pushes some weeds aside. “Does it mean what I just might think it does?”
“Eva! Shit! Back off!” He jerks the line out of a tree, and moves on.
She shouts after him, “Do you know what I just might be thinking?” He doesn’t answer or turn back.
They make love that night and leave the next morning. She says no at first until he says, “But we didn’t do it last night.” She wishes they could talk. About anything, fishing even. Instead, it’s all kidding small talk, as if they’d just met and don’t expect to meet again. What he knows about me, she thinks, is only what’s already happened.
In the car he sings an old song and she looks out the window. He’s in a teasing mood and pretends he has a microphone and sings to her, mugging and rolling his eyes. He jerks the car back on the road after bumping onto the gravel shoulder. “Got my limit,” he sings. “Fish for thee freee-zer.” He takes his cap off and jams it on her head. She pushes it up and watches a fly on the side window walking up and down.
“Hey Eva, take your shirt off.”
“Just through this little town.”
“Spoil sport. So, how’d you like down south? How’d you like those green Black Hills?”
She opens the window and lets the fly out. Then she rolls the window closed and says, “I found out how things are.”
Barbara Mayor’s story, “Gauguin,” won the Tamarack Award and was published by Minnesota Monthly. A lifelong graphic artist and painter, Mayor now writes poetry and fiction and has discovered that art and writing make a wonderful combination. She lives near Minneapolis.