“Year after the school board fired me I ran into Kara. She was home for Christmas break and picking up shifts at the little grocery in town. You walk in and it smells like rotten meat, anything you get goes bad quick or starts off stale, but it’s right there. Closer than twenty miles. Anyway, she said it was a shame how they did me—we’re all just people, she said, and it was just a matter of people. Of the heart. I didn’t deserve it. She was I guess opening up to how things feel. That’s what college is. We stood talking about her English classes, basic comp, but she took a lit class, too. I half expected her to tell me she’d been reading Nabokov. If she had it’d have been enough and I’d have left. But she didn’t. She talked about Chaucer or someone.
“It was near eight, closing time, so I asked if she wanted to catch up. She suggested coffee, maybe a drink. Didn’t bat an eye. It’s cute how we get, and Kara was real cute. She had that curly hair you can’t quite straighten, not dyed all the way blonde. You know it. She didn’t have a car so I waited in the lot. Where were you then? Denver? It was that time in our lives. You ought to know it all. Why are we doing this?”
“We’re humoring me,” she says. “I want to know when it was. You’ve had long enough.”
“It can’t help.”
“It’s all done.”
“Well. Kara liked calling me Steven, not Steve. Think she felt more adult that way. They shut down the store, the old woman manager giving me an evil eye when she saw Kara climbing in my car. It was too late for all that, though. Thought about giving her the finger but didn’t want to spook Kara. Didn’t know how she felt about her. But she looked at me and said, Hey, that drink. I recommended my place, and I guess she didn’t have an ID, anyway. I drove us the few blocks, parked in the drive. We hadn’t fixed it up yet, remember? She didn’t care. She followed me in, stood in the dark until I got a lamp.
“She had a bag, wanted to change clothes, so I sent her in the spare bedroom. It was too much space with you gone then. I liked somebody using the room. She did her do, and I turned on the coffee pot. Didn’t know where we’d landed, really, so I did that and pulled the gin out of the fridge, too. And I had whiskey in the cabinet. I was prepared either way. Kara came out in jean shorts and a halter top. She was casual but a little fancy, too. I think maybe she was headed somewhere before we ran together, but I can’t imagine why she’d have cancelled plans for me. But she eyed the gin and gave me a grin.”
“That’s what mattered, though.”
“A little. I could use another. I mixed her up with 7Up and she still squirreled her face up when she sipped it. I was drinking it about straight with lime or lemon then, whatever I had. I think that’s what I’d stopped for at the grocery. Limes. I don’t remember. I didn’t get it. I put on music. She liked I still used records. Couldn’t get over the way it really does sound different, fuller. Like she was there for it, she said. Kara was surprised by everything. I’d be lying if said it wasn’t something I liked about her. She was new, too, not something I was reaching back for. I didn’t remember her real well. She was in classes, but we didn’t talk or anything. That’s still surprising, that she jumped out at me. You know?
“I don’t remember all our conversation. We sat on the couch and got drunk pretty quick. She told me about college. She had a boyfriend, one in town for Christmas, too, but it wasn’t everything. He was at another college, and they both suspected things. I said it was rough. I understood. She knew I understood. That’s all it took, and we went to necking.”
“You sly dog.”
“You aren’t making this easy.”
“Sorry. I mean,” she says, “I’m not. Just go on.”
“I took her back to the bedroom. Like I said, that house was empty of you, then. And I’ve never had anything so easy. I don’t mean her. Just the two of us. I think she was hurting for something, too, probably something stupid but enough for right then. She seemed more comfortable with the lights off. We undressed like that, lying down.”
“And that was it,” she says. “That was the very last time.”
“Well, no. I couldn’t.”
“We were in the sheets, we were there, but I got to smelling her. She wasn’t bad, but all the sudden it was Ivory. Ivory soap. I’ll tell you what, I can’t smell that without thinking of my granny. I’m not normally like that, you know that, but that. It’s watery, almost all water, but there’s some kind of smell of rock and bone to it, too, and it’s all white. And I smell it in her bathtub, Granny’s, and she might as well be washing me when I was little. You don’t know what I’m talking about. You’re all perfume. I didn’t try telling her, either, because she’d just think it was stupid, too, I thought. I just said I couldn’t, we were too fast. Too something.”
“Okay, okay. If that’s wasn’t it then why are you talking about it?”
“Because after she asked me why Priscilla. And no one ever did that. You didn’t, even. Kara knew Priscilla, and she just wanted to know why. I tried explaining it—I was just twenty-three, she was eighteen, we weren’t even sleeping together when it blew up, whatever. We just went click, which is something I think Kara understood. I laid there with her and lit a cigarette, and she smoked, and we just stayed awhile. She wasn’t in a rush, which surprised me. I was grateful. She got up and got dressed in a little, though, and I saw her to the door. Said she was just a couple streets over from some friends and she’d walk. She kissed me. I figured that was it.
“It was after New Year’s. We did Christmas and New Year’s both separate, remember? I had you a present. Did I ever tell you this? I don’t guess I ever did. It was a bear, stuffed Christmas bear. White fur and wearing plaid pants. Kind of thing you buy your girlfriend in high school, but I didn’t know what was happening then. Once I realized I wasn’t going to see you I chucked it. Thought about doing different stupid stuff to it, tearing it up and mailing the pieces to you or something, but I just had to get it out of my sight.
“But after New Year’s. Kara surprised me. I came home from work and she was on the porch with her boyfriend. Tommy, I remembered him. Football player. Not real swift but a nice kid, always thought. I didn’t know what in the shit they were doing there together. Made me a little nervous. But I got out and said hey. They were all smiles. Tommy shook my hand and Kara wanted to know about getting a drink. She had a funny look, but I didn’t understand it. They both got kind of sheepish and glancing around, like they thought maybe they were getting away with something. I didn’t care, though. I took them in and started pouring.
“I fixed them up and jumped in the shower. Had to. That’s when I was working at the dairy out past Cactus, and I stank. All day in a barn, shooting cattle through the lines and into stalls, out of stalls and into the lines. Hooking and unhooking the gear to their tits. Mucking cow shit up to your eyeballs. I wasn’t hot on it, but that job was like a plain miracle then. A gift. Guy I grew up with, Bud Adams, got me hired. After they ran me out of the high school there weren’t a lot of takers. I didn’t get hit as a sex offender, but the word got around. Wasn’t a school in Texas would’ve hired me, I don’t think, and I didn’t know how to leave there yet. Seems easy, now. Here we are. And even you were gone then. I don’t know what was wrong with me.”
“Must be. But I looked for work. First thing I did was go over to the cheese plant at Dalhart. Sounds about the same as a dairy, right, but it’s not. They pay out of the world, and it’s not all work that’ll break you. I was trying to get on driving a forklift, or even security, but that’s when I learned the kind of trouble I was in. They brought a bunch of us in, put us in a room and gave us a test. You read a paragraph, answer multiple-choice questions about it. Do a little basic math. I’m no genius, but I knew I was scraping some part of the bottom then. Half the people didn’t pass. And then they didn’t hire me anyway—woman doing the interview kept asking about my teaching degree. Suspicious, somehow, like I was slumming for no good reason. I’d have been better off if I told them I hadn’t graduated high school.
“I had to explain that to Kara and Tommy then, too. Part, anyway. Somebody sees you covered in shit and they have questions. We drank, and I let them go through my records and put stuff on, and we talked. They had both decided on English, think Tommy wanted to be a writer or something, but they’d started getting ideas. Liked running them out in front of someone who wouldn’t argue. They thought Catcher and Gatsby sucked, and I just nodded. They liked sex scenes and drugs and big movements of the heart. I said that was cool. They complained about never reading anything new in class. I told them read Denis Johnson and Kevin Canty and they swore they would.
“But I told the dairy, too, and some certain number of drinks in they decided they wanted to see it. I was a little embarrassed. Thought they’d think it was lame, anyway. But it struck them right, somehow. I told them right at that moment there were Somali refugees pushing cows along, feeding, cleaning up. The cows, they forget what sun looks like. Moon. It’s a whole world in there. We loaded in my car and took our time, me and Tommy up front and Kara in the backseat. I tried to look at her in the rearview but couldn’t see for the dark. I drove them down some backroads and crossed Cactus under the stink of the beef processing plant. It blowing smoke out into the middle of the night, all those animals being rendered.
“We made the dairy, and I went on by, thought better of pulling on the lot, and parked us on a rise. Somebody’s field next door so we could look at the three barns stretching out on the flat, lit up by the moon and security lamps. You could smell it, manure like too-rich dirt but not too bad. I didn’t think any more of the place in the dark, but they seemed to like it. Never even driven by it, I guess. Tommy got a little wound up and jumped out. He said he was going to see it, up close and right, and wasn’t listening to me say don’t. We watched him across the field, shining a little and disappearing black here and there, and hitting the dairy grounds. We lost sight of him around the buildings. I lit a cigarette and offered Kara one. She climbed up between the seats and sat next to me.
“He’s a little touched, she said, and then she told me how on prom night him and his buddies had robbed some Mexican family’s house. They just knocked out a window and walked in. Didn’t take anything but cheap stuff they thought came from Mexico. Old blankets, a clay pot. So I guess he was touched, but then Kara wrapped her arms around my neck and we were kissing. She started pulling at my clothes, and we worked at each other, and that was it. The last time. Front seat of the car. I didn’t have any pause in me that time.
“She said she was sorry for bringing him around, and I said it didn’t matter. Then she asked if he was coming back, Tommy, and I told her no. I couldn’t see shit, though. I just knew I was on top of her and then I was inside her and we were going. I liked it, I think. Knowing he might come back and catch us. Don’t know what it says about me. Kara did, too. I mean, she was trying to break in on me like he had that house. That’s my best real guess why she was there, how she’d come around. I don’t know what I was for her, but it was something.”
“Then nothing. I need another drink. Go make me one?”
“What’d you do then?”
“Can’t you fix me a drink? I told you it all. What good’s this doing?”
“You didn’t see her again.”
“I did not. Tommy didn’t catch us. Obviously. He came running back after we’d finished and were smoking and sipping my gin bottle. I saw him coming, carrying something, and when he reached us he chucked it in through the back window. He crawled in breathing hard and saying go, squashed Kara up against me, and we rode back to Sunray sitting three-across in the front seat. It was a big flat manure shovel he’d brought with him, and he couldn’t shut up about the man who’d almost caught him, a Somali. Big, tall guy, solid black and bald and wearing one of the white uniforms they gave us for over our clothes. Tommy said the guy saw him with the shovel and shouted something in his home language. Pointed at him like the hand of God.
“Tommy ran, and that was that, but he’d come out obsessed with that man. He couldn’t understand the meaning of it, he said, his being there. I mean, they were all over the area, them and Burmese refugees that all worked at the processing plant, mostly. Exiles. But that wasn’t what he meant. Tommy thought he meant something, a sign. I kept saying they were all, he had to have seen them before, but he didn’t listen. By the time we reached the house again he’d made a story about guardians, gatekeepers, some nonsense like that. He decided the shovel was that particular man’s and that it was an artifact, a symbol, of something I didn’t know. Tommy didn’t explain. He loaded it in his truck downright tenderly.
“Then we drank some more, and then we slept. Kara and him both curled up and passed out on the sofa. I sat and watched them awhile. I still hadn’t figured her out, couldn’t guess at that point even. She looked right at home with him. Sometime I slept, too, and they were gone in the morning. No trace. And they got my artifact, too, apparently. Took a bunch of my records. Some Zeppelin and Skynyrd, not the end of the world, but pissed me off. Why those particular ones—I don’t know what it says about me. But they connected it somehow, I’m sure.
“But I told you. That was the last, period. Never even saw Kara again. She had what she wanted. I waited on you, then. That ought to be enough, far as this goes. You want a bow on things, I’ll tell you. I kept waking up every morning, and I went to work, and I waited on you or the phone or something. Sometimes at night headlights would flip in off the street, run through the window and around the walls of the living room. I’d think it was pulling in the drive, and that made me think it’s you, and finally it was. That was another last, a different and better one that explains more, did us some good, but you already know it all. No point in telling it.”
Marvin Shackelford resides in the Texas Panhandle with his wife, Shea, and earns a living in agriculture. His stories and poems appear in Portland Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, FiveChapters, NANO Fiction, Armchair/Shotgun, and elsewhere. His first poetry collection, Endless Building, is forthcoming from Urban Farmhouse Press.