Authors: Melanie Rae Thon
All her life, Arlen had watched the slow, sullen way men work when the job they do has no worth of its own, like the work a man does in the mill, where sawing wood doesn't mean there will be a fresh stack in the shed to get his family through a month of winter. The boards a man measures and cuts only remind him that there will be more wood tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, and none of it will ever find its way to his pile.
I was sad to think of it just then, to think of all the men in this town who worked at the mill, who got their first summer job at sixteen and retired at sixty-five. Their dream of Heaven was an endless plain of sage and sand where nothing grew tall enough to bother chopping it down, where the tumbleweed broke from its own stalk and rolled away.
My cousins worked in vain. The blaze had grown beyond any human desire to control it. It would have to consume itself.
Flames glowed brilliant and orange inside the blackened skeleton, but I could see the fire had eaten a hole in itself and was dying. Flares no longer danced; they only burned, steady and fierce. I walked up and down the street, looking for my mother and father, but I couldn't find them in the crowd.
People were slow to admit it was time to abandon the cause. Caleb Wolfe and Red Elk could barely hold folks back when they realized every hose had been turned on the building next door. Red Elk wore a shiny badge. Sometime in the past half hour he'd been deputized.
Despite the heat, some of the men shoved their way closer to the bar; their voices rose, as if they meant to rip the hoses from the hands of the firemen and aim them back on the bar. Folks took this personally. The Last Chance was the only bar in Willis, the only bar for a good fifteen miles, and everyone dreaded the inconvenience, the long drunken drives along narrow Montana roads, the impossible winter miles.
Myron Evans breathed right in my ear. He was trying to tell me something. Finally I heard the words: “I wish I'd done it.” He grinned. “Did you see what happened to that boy?” He grinned. I wasn't the only one with a grudge against Zack Holler. I felt ashamed for both of us, ashamed of the company I kept.
Minnie Hathaway tottered down the alley, cussing. She hadn't been on a bender in months, but she'd pickled herself tonight. Her black hair was damp and tangled. She staggered toward us, falling into Myron. She pinched his arms. “Wanna dance with me, you handsome sonuvabitch?” She puckered her red lips and closed her eyes. Myron stooped, pushing his face up nose to nose with Minnie. I thought he really meant to kiss that wrinkled mouth, but instead he spat words in her face: “Get thee behind me, Satan.” She cussed. She was no temptress and no devil, only a woman who made a man realize how terrible the flowers are at the end of summer. Myron tossed his head and limped away.
“You're not such a fine piece,” Minnie shouted at his back. “You're not breaking my heart, mister.”
The insides of the bar crumbled. The roof collapsed, a slow fall of flame. It was over. If Olivia Jeanne Woodruff ever dared return, all she'd find would be a burned-out shell. I saw Bo Effinger's head half a foot above everyone else's in the crowd. Lyla Leona clung to his shirt sleeve. In the final heat of it all, Bo crushed her to his chest and stole a kiss. Sorry for his deed before it was half done, he tried to pull away, but Lyla grabbed the back of his neck and held him fast, smashing his nose and his lips into her face for a minute or more. I watched that kiss, forgetting the fire for those long seconds, forgetting my father and myself.
Luella Lockwood shook me from my stupor. “Have you seen my sister?” she said. For an old lady she had quite a grip. She'd painted her mouth on crooked and had two pairs of overlapping lips, moving together.
“Don't smirk at me, missy.”
“Calm down,” I said, “everyone's lost tonight, but she can't be far.”
“Don't tell me to calm down. You don't know what it's like.”
“How long has she been gone?”
“Ten minutes,” Luella said, “maybe more.”
“Ten minutes? That's all? I haven't seen my parents for an hour or more.”
She squeezed my wrists so hard my hands tingled. She might have held me there all night if Eula hadn't tugged at the back of her sweater just then. They fell into each other's arms as if they'd been separated since birth and searching for their twin all these years. “Isn't it something?” they wheezed with one voice. “I was so worried.” They fell apart with giggles, and I walked away, back out to the street.
Two more fire trucks rattled down Main, relief from Alpena and Rovato Falls. They hooked up around the corner and down the block. Dewey's News would be smoking soon if they didn't get the roof of Saddles & Studs cooled down.
I felt my mother next to me. She said, “See what comes of all that praying?” She scared me when she knew things like that. She didn't have to go to Freda Graves's prayer meetings to know the torment of Elliot Foot and guess that he had taken a torch to his own bar. She didn't have to see me thrashing on the floor to know my beliefs were strange and my fear dangerous. I wondered how long it would take other folks to figure it out. The man looked sorry now, his head buried between Joanna's comforting breasts, his body shaking with muffled sobs. Joanna Foot patted her husband's back, satisfied at last that he had paid dearly enough for his sins of the hands and of the heart. The beams of this charred building would crumble and the body of love would lie in a black heap.
I thought Elliot would be relieved if people found him out. A jury of his peers would surely send him to jail for destroying their only drinking holeâeven if it was his place. Maybe he wanted that, maybe he longed to be confined and safe, free of Olivia Jeanne and free of his wife's forgiveness. A jail can be a monastery to a simple man, a cave he doesn't have to dig himself, a place to be good.
On that day in 1964 when the Foot brothers raised the sign for the Last Chance Bar, Freda Graves shouted from the steps of the Lutheran church and Elliot Foot, brave and indestructible, shouted back. That was a lifetime ago, for all of us. Elliot was his own man then, not the victim of Olivia Jeanne's temptations or Freda Graves's holy wars. Myron Evans was still skittish as his own cats. That was a time when Gwen Holler and I held hands and tried to get a good look inside this house of sin. Now, alone, I was trying to peer into the gutted bar again, hoping to understand, but there was nothing left. Another memory burst into my thoughts. Nina swatted my butt.
Daddy would skin you like a rabbit if he saw you here
. Then I heard my own words:
wish I didn't have a sister
Why did God always hear the wishes I made in haste and anger?
I stared through the shattered window of the Last Chance Bar. There, beyond the ragged opening, dancing on red embers, her golden hair aflame, I saw Nina. She twirled in the light, her hands raised above her head, spinning to a blur. I squinted hard. Smoke stung my eyes. I rubbed them but that made it worse. When I opened them again, my sister had disappeared.
How long has she been lost?
a voice like Luella Lockwood's said inside my skull. I had to count on my fingers. Luella smirked. “Five years,” I said out loud. But there was no one to hear my answer, and no one to comfort me. There was only the feverish babble of the mob.
It was in this moment, when the bar was lost and my sister was gone, again, that Freda Graves appeared on the steps of the Lutheran church, just as she had six years before.
She bellowed, “The wrath of the Lord is upon all ye sinners!” Those of us who knew her well couldn't help hearing her voice above all other sounds. The word
called to our blood and burned our cheeks. I saw Myron and the Lockwood twins, Bo Effinger and Lyla Leona. Even in her daze, Minnie Hathaway managed to teeter toward the church. Only Elliot Foot hung back, the wound of his conscience cleaned and cauterized.
Slowly the word passed through the horde that
was here. The swarm turned and inched toward the church. Vern and Ralph Foot headed the pack, bent on revenge. An insidious whisper hissed from person to person. By the time it reached me the words had twisted but the meaning was clear: the throng had found the one it wanted to blameâsomeone had to pay. If anyone had asked, I would have said, “I don't know her.”
Freda Graves was not afraid. “For behold,” she said, “the Lord will come in fire, to render His anger in fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire.”
Shouts answered her, and then a single cry, shrill and unforgiving. The pack surged forward, a huge animal with many feet and one small mind.
Caleb Wolfe and Red Elk leaped to the front of the mob and jumped the railing of the steps to shield Mrs. Graves. But they were only two men and the crowd was at least a hundred strong. Blinded by the veil of righteousness, Freda Graves shook her mane of gray curls, raised her broad knotted hands toward Heaven and said, “For by fire will the Lord execute judgment.” The clot of people pressed closer, and Freda Graves remembered her mortality just in time to slip inside the white arched door of the Lutheran church.
Caleb Wolfe drew his gun and fired a round into the air. Red Elk spread himself across the door. Legs braced, arms outstretched, he seemed to hang in the arch. The sheriff fired another round, and the crowd drew back, almost tamed.
Then I saw my father, slamming his way to the church steps. His hair was singed and his face was covered with soot. He still had that blind glaze, a man with two glass eyes, but he knew where he wanted to go. Soon he stood on the third step of the Lutheran church, and there was no one between him and the two Indians.
He clutched a rock in each hand. “We're not gonna let a couple of Indians keep us from getting what we want, are we?” he yelled. That was all he had to say. The crowd swayed and sang, a chorus of
's. A mob does not demand eloquence of its leader, only that he take the first step. How could these people guess that my father didn't give a damn about their precious bar or the preacher woman? He would have stood by and watched the whole block burn to the ground. It was the big Indian spread across the door that drove him wild. It was Red Elk's hairless face and skinny black braid that turned my father into the leader of a gang of idiots.
Spurred on by his own words, Father flung himself toward Red Elk. He fell against the Indian's massive chest; his knee rammed into the big man's groin. His rage was old. He stood before the man he'd always hated. He saw Nina. He knew what she'd done. He blamed Red Elk for this too, blamed him for having a son.
He tried to pummel the Indian with his stones. But fury clouded his eyes. The rocks rained down on Red Elk's shoulders and arms, a long way from the forehead my father wanted to crush.
Sheriff Wolfe brought a polished stick down hard on the back of Father's knees, then again sharp and swift across each kidney. His aim was perfect and precise; it took only three blows. Daddy crumpled to his knees, then fell in a heap at Red Elk's feet.
The sheriff cuffed my father's hands behind his back. The crowd hummed. Wolfe fired a third round into the dark and waved his nightstick as if to ask if anyone else wanted to take him on. No one moved.
Vern Foot yelled, “You're not on the reservation, Wolfe. You can't run us by tribal law. You'll answer for this!” But it was an idle threat. Even Ralph Foot didn't back his toothless brother. Sheriff Wolfe was not a man to cross on this night of the hot wind.
The big Indian leaned against the white door; the arch came to a point above his head. He rubbed his left shoulder and looked somewhere far beyond us, to the black outline of the hills, to the peaks of the Rockies where the snow never melts.
Together, Red Elk and Caleb Wolfe lifted my father to his feet. He was too weak to walk. They pulled him down the steps, his feet dragging. A path opened as they passed through the crowd. Daddy's fickle followers shrank back. I lost myself among them, listening to the buzz of his name on the lips of the people around me, hoping no one recognized his daughter.
Reverend Timothy Piggott climbed the stairs of his church with a shotgun in his hands. He looked gaunt and ridiculous packing that big rifle, but when he spoke, people had to listen. His was the only voice of reason on a night of impulse. “What evil has possessed you?” he said. “Would you chase a woman into the Lord's house? Would you stone her there while the eyes of Jesus stared down at you from the Cross?”
Maybe he was just protecting his church, saving his carpet from a hundred pairs of sooty soles, saving his pulpit from the scars of bricks and rocks. But I heard something more in his voice, something human and compassionate. He spoke as a man, not a minister, when he said, “Go home. There's been enough trouble for one night.”
The fire dwindled to smoke and embers. The show was over. People gave up and started home. As the crowd thinned, I saw that Caleb Wolfe hadn't taken my father to jail. His green Plymouth was still there, parked beneath the stoplight where Main Street crossed Center Street.
My father, his hands locked behind him, sat in the backseat. Wild children cavorted around the car. One tow-headed boy had a pair of shoes dangling from his belt loops, the trophy of a bully. He was the loudest, proud as a cavalryman who'd taken an Indian scalp. He pounded the hood of the car. A dirty-faced girl knocked on the windows, and two small boys flattened their faces to the glass. I saw them from the other side, saw their smashed noses, their cheeks pushed up so high they seemed to have nothing more than slits for eyes.
Father stared at his lap. His chin was cut, and I wondered if he'd fallen or if Caleb Wolfe had punched him in the face. He didn't see the children. He didn't see me. I looked for my mother, the only one who might be brave enough to shoo these little monsters away. I ran in circles, from one end of the street to the other. I sprinted to the place where we'd parked the truck. It was gone. I thought she must not know about any of this.