Authors: Lee Clay Johnson
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright Â© 2016 by Lee Clay Johnson
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Johnson, Lee Clay. Nitro Mountain / Lee Clay Johnson.âFirst edition. pages cm ISBN 978-1-101-94636-7 (hardcover)âISBN 978-1-101-94637-4 (ebook) 1. Cities and townsâVirginiaâFiction. 2. Country lifeâVirginiaâFiction. I. Title. PS3610.03627N58 2016 813'.6âdc23 2015027925
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover photograph by Raymond Gehman / National Geographic / Getty Images
Cover design by Oliver Munday
To East Hundred
e were sitting in my truck in front of the diner she was working at. Greg, her boss, had everybody convinced he was a genius.
“He's really smart,” Jennifer said. “You know what he told me yesterday while I was in the kitchen?” I rolled down the window and let in cold air. She took face powder from the glove box, bent the rearview at her face and dusted her nose. Headlights came flickering from way behind us. “You don't even care,” she said.
“I care,” I said. “I'd like to kick his ass.” The headlights were getting closer.
“Yeah, right. Remember when you found that wounded squirrel?”
I turned to see a lifted Tacoma with an aluminum hound cage in the bed rush past. Barks and bays twisted around us and then away as the taillights took the next turn.
“It was a baby. It was lost. It found me.”
“You cried when it died.”
“That was a while ago,” I said.
“You've never even been hunting.”
“Catch and release.”
“I catch and keep, darling,” I said, reaching for her jeans.
She knocked my hand away. Choosing not to hunt around here was tougher than doing it, given all the shit people talked if you weren't waddling around in orange come deer season. “Don't mess with Greg anymore,” I said.
“Aw, look, it's jealous.” She petted my arm.
Hand to chin, I pushed my head sideways, to the point of pain, and held it there until my neck cracked. She wasn't even going to kiss me. When things got like this between us, I had a habit of hurting myself in front of her. See if she'd say something.
She hummed to herself, checked her watch. “Don't be here when I get off,” she said.
“How else you gonna get off?” I said.
“We're done. I'm leaving.”
“Please,” I said. “Don't.”
She walked to the diner without looking back, smoothed a hand through her hair at the door and made sure she looked good before going in. She did. It was the end of November and the sun was barely cracking the sky. Clouds scattered above the northwest mountains. It got dark so early these days, and it never got all that light.
The town was shadowed by hills. One road this way, one road that way, and their unfortunate intersection was the main square with a brick courthouse that had seen nobler days. The Bordon post office, the library, empty storefronts and a couple shops that hadn't gone under yet. And then the abandoned Dairy Queen, my sister's apartment complex and this diner. North of town off 231, toward Nitro Mountain, were the gas station and the Foodville grocery store. Sprawl, if you could even call it that. Then the country opened up. My folks' place was out there. All the roads and houses seemed to be crushed beneath the foothills, on the verge of burial. West of everything, mountains scraped the sky. At night you could see a red light on top of Nitro Mountain.
South of town was a tiny church with a homeless shelter in the basement. I worked there part-time for cash, morning shifts that involved standing behind a desk only a foot away from so many crises worse than mine, or just running around and handing out towels and soap. It was a strange thing for me to be doing. I always felt closer to the other side of the desk.
On a morning when I'd shown up to help open the shelter after a night of playing bluegrass music and drinking blended whiskey, one of the old bums stepped to the desk to sign in, gazed through my skull, grinned and said, “You look worse than I do today. And I'm a dead man walking.” He looked around. “Somebody do math?”
When things slowed down that day I grabbed a single-size bottle of mouthwash from the dental drawer and jogged upstairs to the employee bathroom. A few sticky blinks. The room rocked. I swished the shot of Scope and before spitting I checked the label for the alcohol percentage. Hard to read. Looked high. Not that bad. I swallowed and it made me feel better, and for that I felt worse.
Since then, I had promised myself never to stay out late before a morning shift. No matter what. Even if I was playing music. Even if the drinks were free. Even if my girlfriend had just left me. And there was the problem: I had a shift tomorrow morning at six and my girlfriend just left me. I needed to go get one drink and figure out what the hell had just happened to my life. I wouldn't be able to sleep if I didn't.
The last time I'd been seriously drunk with Jennifer, she wanted to fight so bad that when I didn't raise a hand she hit herself right in front of me. I begged her to quit as she threw her fist into her face over and over again, then said, “You coward, if you won't do it, somebody's got to.”
We were guilty of the same strange cruelties, hurting ourselves to hurt the other, then crawling back and asking forgiveness. She often said I was too soft, and out of everything she called me, that hurt the most because it was true.
I drove to Durty Misty's, a bar on the edge of town where I sometimes backed up country bands on bass. It was a good spot to get shitty, and while driving over there I decided that's what I was going to do tonight.
The place was almost empty when I walked in. I'd never come here just to drink. It was always with a band on a busy night. One guy sat at the end of the bar playing Nudie Photo Hunt. A picture of a woman in a small torn bikini appeared on the screen and then broke apart into little squares. He pieced her back together before his time ran out, otherwise he would've lost her.
I sat down and told the bartender I wanted something that would make me hard. He was a quiet guy who looked at me like he couldn't hear a thing I said.
“Give the boy what I'm drinking,” the man playing Photo Hunt said. He turned away from the game. There was a Daffy Duck tattoo on the side of his neck and I recognized him from the shelter. He showed up every now and then, never to eat, never to do laundry or to get help printing a rÃ©sumÃ©. Just to look around, take a few books from the free library and leave. The books he took were often classics. Lots of tattered Greek tragedies. The occasional Charlotte Lamb romance. He didn't know who I was and I didn't bring it up.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Try shutting your mouth more while you're talking.” He picked his tooth with the snapped prong of a plastic fork, shook his head. “Somebody do something,” he said. “Now.”
The bartender poured whiskey, beer and pickled jalapeÃ±o brine into a blue mason jar. He mixed it with a soda straw, placed the jar in front of me and then backed it with a tiny birdbath of bourbon in the jar's upturned lid.
“Drink half the drink,” the man said. “Then shoot the shot. And then.” He paused and considered the wall of bottles behind the bar. His pinkie and thumb winged out from his hand while three ringed fingers rubbed the tattoo into his throat. A small airplane made of beer cans hung from the ceiling on fishing line.
“And then drink the rest of it?” I said.
“No. And then fuck the rest of it.” He turned to the bartender, sucked his fingers and tapped the bone between his eyebrows. It sounded like wet wood. “Who is this sitting next to me, Bob?”
“Has he been here before?” He pressed the tattoo like he was taking his pulse.
“How do you know?”
Bob was right. I had been here many times, but I was always hiding behind my bass at the back of the band.
“Does he know what we do?”
“What do you know? Do you know shit? Tell me what you do know, Old Bob.”
“You want another drink,” Bob said. He had the eyes of a boy, and orange cracker crumbs at the sides of his mouth. His hair was caught up in a bad Elvis situation. Paper clips held some of it together.
The man stood up and started clapping. “Thank God! Hallelujah! Fuck it. You know a lot more than we give you credit for. Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced to the empty room, “please give Bob the bartender a hand. He knows every fucking thing.”
Bob took a bow. Some of his comb-over fell forward as he went down, and when he came up a length remained standing.
The man quit clapping and ordered himself another one of what I was drinking. “Hell yes, heaven time,” he said, and drained the shot. He moved the other drink to and from his mouth with both hands, like he was operating some big machine, and then looked straight between Bob and me and asked, “You know why a girl's got two holes?”
I didn't, and neither did Bob.
“So you can carry her around like a six-pack.”
Bob started fixing his hair.
The man looked intent, like he'd just imparted some essential information. “Get it?” he said. “Do you get it?” Past the plane, a clock was nailed into the wall. It wasn't even nine yet. Or maybe it was.
I don't know how I made it back to the diner, don't even remember driving, but that's where I landed when I stepped out of the cab just in time to see the building's lights going out. Chairs were upside down on tables and I could see all their legs in the air, a hundred little whores taking it. Drinks had worked and I was drunk. I leaned against the hood and the heat of the engine warmed my jacket sleeve. The stars were so bright the sky looked like the diner's speckled countertop.
A door shut in the back of the building. I tripped, steadied myself. Walking could not be beyond me.
The front of the diner was a retro singlewide. The kitchen and the dish room were in a cinderblock addition stuck behind it. I found Jennifer and Greg standing back there together near the dumpster. He had a full trash bag on the ground beside him, and when he saw me he said, “Who the hell's that?”
“That's him,” Jennifer whispered.
“What'd you just call me?” I said.
“ââHim'?” she said.
“I ain't going anywhere without you.”
“Oh, boy. This kind of thing?” Greg lifted the trash bag and carried it to the bin. A broken bottle cut through the black plastic and caught the light of the security lamp. When he turned around I was on him, asking how he liked me now, and I swung on him. Things went spinning and I fell against the dumpster and slid down into a sitting position.
“That's embarrassing,” he said, and kicked me in the side. Air left my lungs like a puncture. I couldn't stand up, couldn't say anything, couldn't think. I should've asked if that was all he had, but I just kept looking at Jennifer.
“Let's get out of here,” she said, tugging at him. “C'mon. Before he gets himself up.”
“We can't just leave him here.”
“Teach him a lesson,” she said.
While they were walking back to his car, she turned around to look at me. There wasn't pity in her face anymore. I saw approval. I was exactly what she wantedâsomeone to leave again. Maybe for good this time.
We weren't living together or anything like that, and honestly, if you'd asked her whether we were a couple, she would've said no. I was crazy for her because she wasn't crazy for me. I could see that now. The first time we met was so wonderful it made me believe she'd said things she never said. It was during a gig. I was onstage and she was the only one dancing. She kept her eyes on me. After, we made out against somebody's car. She said we'd never part. She said she wanted to be with me the rest of her life. Without even moving her mouth. We didn't spend the night together, just fell down right there on the concrete. The months following, I drove her around places, helped her get little things done, took her to various jobs. Never asked for gas money. The skin under her shirt was untouched, almost translucent, and I could not, no matter how hard I tried, let that go.
Tires shot gravel and she and Greg sped south down 231. I made it back to my truck and picked my keys up off the floorboard.
I should've seen it coming back when I was the one driving her around. I'd roll over to her apartment, this single-room efficiency thing with a raw mattress lying crooked in the middle of the floor, and just walk in without knocking. Once I found her curled up on the mattress beneath a mess of sheets and shirts and jeans. Everything smelled of her body and I knelt beside her and breathed it all in. “You,” I said. “You're gonna be late.”
“Since just now.” She'd been working for some photographer, doing what she said he called “tasteful erotic web work.” He was paying her to be what she wasâgorgeousâand though I'd been hoping she'd quit, I didn't get why she'd chosen this morning to do it.
“Is it 'cause I told you to?”
She snarled, clawed the air and kicked off the clothing and sheets. “Them motherfuckers don't own me.” She sat up. “And neither do you. Let's go take me for a ride.”
I leaned in for her lips, but she pressed two fingers against my forehead and pushed me back to where I'd been sitting.
“You're like, panting?” she said.
“I can't help it.”
She pulled her hair back, slid a rubber band off her wrist. “So unique!” she said. “A guy that can't help it. Who'd've guessed?”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“Can I just say something?”
“I'm sure you can.”
She tied her hair up and pushed it back. The way her breasts hung there with her elbows raised like thatâI had to look away, else I'd have lost control.
“Go start your truck,” she said. “I'll be right out.”
“I left it running.”
“Well,” she said. “Get out there, turn it off and then start it up again.”
We took 231, the same stretch down which I was now chasing her and Greg, but things were different back then; new leaves were out on the trees, bright as katydids. We popped open the vent-windows and the warm air came blowing onto our laps and flowing through the cab. We shared every cigarette we smoked and we must've gone through half a pack before she said, “So. You asked me what I meant. A man that can't help himself. You ready for this?”