Justin Blessinger was raised in northeastern Montana on the Fort Peck Sioux and Assiniboine Reservation. His writing draws upon the strange tension between the remoteness and ferocity of ranch life and the temptations and challenges of life in the rough-and-tumble reservation town of Wolf Point.
Winner of the 2008 Doug Fir prize for fiction, he publishes both fiction and poetry, and his work has recently appeared in The Bear Deluxe Magazine, Up the Staircase, South Dakota Review, New Tricks, and in an anthology of writers of Generation X, In Our Own Words. He lives in Madison, South Dakota, with his wife, Christina, and their two dangerously inquisitive daughters.
A Short Story
By Justin Blessinger
The snow lay thickly drifted on the frozen Missouri tonight. Great Grandpa says they used to move houses across the river this time of year, the river frozen to within a few feet of the bottom. Even after the bridge went in and the ferry closed, you couldn’t get a house into that tunnel-like, humped steel bridge. But looking out his car window, intermittent wiper oddly thudding, he saw only drifts of snow, curled like giant worms. He checked his phone, but it hadn’t vibrated and he knew there were no texts. He turned up the radio and reclined his seat a little. It was warm inside the car, especially with his down ski jacket on. Tiny, icy snowflakes built up on his windshield while he listened to the price of barrows and gilts on the Northern Ag Network. Cripes, nobody he knew had any pigs for miles. But it was a big state, Montana.
He woke with a violent leg jerk. He checked his phone, the sudden bright light of the screen hurting his eyes. No messages. His breath fogged the screen. Why was it so cold? He realized the car wasn’t running. He quickly turned the key. It cranked, but didn’t fire at all. The fuel gage aimed to the left of “E”. He had been low on fuel when he left town, but he’d had enough to meet Barry for the delivery. Barry was heading to Poplar, was coming up from Billings, so he’d driven out to the old park under the bridge, about five miles from town, to meet him, so that Barry could just head east and not have to first drive into Wolf Point.
He turned off the head lights, to keep the battery from running down. He was boned, but there was no sense in making things worse for whenever he had to come back out here.
He texted Barry. Then he sent another one to Killer Keller, asking if he would come get him. The phone said it was 2:30am. Barry was supposed to be here at 1. He had slept for quite a while.
He shoved his phone in his coat pocket and opened the door. Almost no wind, which was rare and welcome, but it was extremely cold, below zero anyway. His tennis shoes made the snow squeak like Styrofoam beads when he stepped into it. He opened the trunk, as if a red gas can would magically be in there. Great Grandpa Ben would have had one in there, with a small toolbox. A yellow bottle of Heat. And a pair of coveralls, because if he was going to town, he would be dressed nice. And coveralls were an extra layer if you got stranded.
The trunk revealed a rusted Hi-lift jack, which was utterly useless for his mostly-plastic car . . . even if he’d had a flat instead of being out of gas. He had a torn-plastic bag spilling Car and Driver magazines all over, though, so he had that going for him. Maybe they had an article on how to not be stupid. He checked his phone. Nothing.
The stars were thick and bright, the thick white slash across the sky prominent among the masses. A satellite ghosted northward. Otherwise, not even a jet, so far as he could tell. He looked toward the highway, which was utterly silent. This wasn’t a night to be out at 3am. Nobody else was that stupid. He began to hate Barry for this whole scheme.
The cottonwoods around him threw veiny shadows all over the white snow. Once in a great while, he’d hear a loud pop from the trees, like a pistol shot. Cottonwoods would do that when it got cold enough. Otherwise, not so much as a squirrel skittered or dug in the brush. His breath coiled into a helix, almost straight up. He walked to a picnic bench, crushed on one end where somebody had driven into it. He climbed on it and looked up the river as far as he could see, then over at the bridge. He could see only the flood light at Harry’s Night Club, across the river. Back when the reservation had been dry, Harry’s was the only game for miles. Only five miles from Dog Patch, so people would pile as many as would fit into a car or back of a pickup, and it was a wild time. Great Grandpa said they had so many pull-tops from the beer cans that they filled a small ravine behind the place. Just the tops.
He blew into his hands to warm them, then rubbed the moisture that his breath added onto his jeans. He remembered he had gloves, and jerked them out of his pockets, with them his phone, that clattered first against the top of the table, then spun off into a thicket. He wove a vibrant braid of language after it, and hurried over to look for it. Of course, this was in one of the moon shadows of a giant cottonwood. Of course it was. He yelled something barely coherent, even to him, and looked around for something at which he could direct his rage. He punched the table. Again. A dusting of tiny snowflakes vibrated from his ferocious blows, but the heavy wood was unimpressed. His third blow missed the edge of the table, but made a sudden, painful detour as it hit some piece of broken metal that jutted out where nothing should have been. He knew right away that he was bleeding into his glove.
Moisture — water, blood, piss, whatever – was not any sort of good thing in below-zero cold, and he retreated to his car to try to find something to press against whatever injury he had just earned. It didn’t hurt much . . . yet . . . which was maybe good. In the light of the car, he opened the glove box. There was one crumpled napkin from McDonalds, the manual, old registration papers, and a small box of fuses that didn’t work in this car. But they had been expensive, and had been transferred from an older car to this one.
He peeled off his wet, and now torn, glove, and examined the wound, which was a jagged cut that had opened the large, purple vein that looked like a crooked slug on the bag of his hand. The napkin cleaned up a lot of blood, but was too wet after that to try to stop the bleeding. He went back to the trunk, tore some pages from a Car and Driver, got back into the car and pressed the crumpled mass against the wound. He sat in the car, but could hear the tap-tapping as he bled past the glossy pages, and the blood snapped against the plastic insert on the carpeted floor beneath his feet. He thought about tearing a piece of his shirt, but he had no knife or scissors. He thought about his sock, but knew that would mean a very cold foot inside his already too-lightweight sneakers, assuming he was going to have to walk out of here. He kicked angrily and randomly at the brake pedal. He was not the person Mr. Rogers believed he could be, he told himself. He laughed bitterly, watched his breath cloud the glass and hide the stars, then took a deep breath. It occurred to him that his glove was already ruined, having been torn and having soaked up blood. He decided to use it to stanch the bleeding.
It worked, mostly, though his cold-tight skin reminded him that it wouldn’t take much movement of his right hand to provoke it again. He tucked it deep into his coat pocket. His feet were cold. Damn.
Damn. Damn. Damn.
He got out of the car, stomped a bit to try to get better circulation to his feet, then returned to where he’d last seen his phone. He tried to recall exactly how he’d stood, exactly how the glove had pulled on the phone. “Force equals mass times acceleration,” he mocked himself, looking in the direction that amounted to his best guess. Snow and black sticks. It may have slid right under the snow. It may have not even fallen this direction. He looked under the picnic table. No phone.
That settled it. He would walk across the river to Harry’s Night Club and beat on a door until somebody answered. They’d be upset and maybe scared, but he’d be warm and not dead, which he rather preferred.
Of course, in order to cross the river via the bridge, he’d have to walk the wrong direction for several hundred yards, since it towered over him where he was now. Or, he thought, he could just walk south. The river was frozen thick enough to move houses; it could surely hold him. He walked to the riverbank. The enormous concrete pilings of the Missouri Bridge loomed above him, gray and stoic, like towers of a decaying castle. He felt the rising memory of a classmate of his who had been dunking girls in the shallow edge of the river, and who suddenly stepped an inch too close to the channel, which had yanked him under without his even having time to cry out. They eventually found his body, tangled deep below the pilings. Arthur. His name was Arthur.
He pushed the memory away. The water was frozen. The river was safe. And his feet were cold. He moved forward. The transparent, thin ice along the edge shattered, dry ground underneath. Rationally, he knew that was normal – all water did that when it froze, leaving a tattered edge of thin, garbage ice along the perimeter. But it still stopped his heart for a moment. He looked up as a car thumped across the bridge, creating a booming resonance in the vaulted chambers above him. He found that if he reduced walking to a mechanical process – left, right, left, right – that he was able to make progress. His toes hurt more, now aching in sharp peaks with each beat of his heart. Between the large, wormlike coils of snow, smaller ribbons warped and undulated like scarves stolen by the wind, wind which was much more palpable out here.
Something sounded like barking, or that was his first thought. Something deep in the ice. There was an initial bark, high pitched. Then it . . . echoed, in all directions at once. The next one sounded more like his tennis shoes chirping against the wood when he stopped short in the empty gymnasium. And again the repeated, diminishing sounds that seemed to run away from him, down in the water, every direction from his feet. He stopped walking, sure that the ice would split wide and swallow him. Somewhere, almost right beneath him. That was where Arthur got tangled up. That blue-dark echo chamber. The wind blew his breath around his head, engulfing it for a second so completely that he looked headless, a wraith with only smoke where his face should be. Once it cleared, he realized how badly he was shaking. Not just his hands, but his jaw, his entire right arm, and the large muscle in one thigh.
He looked up. The Milky Way was an old scar on the sky’s dark skin. Back on land, another tree popped, a gunshot-like suddenness to it. Then everything was silent again. The sounds out here don’t echo down there, under the ice, he noticed. Just the ice repeats itself. Even the wind had dropped off. His heart pounded and his body shook, but the world was still. Eventually he heard coyotes start yipping somewhere north of the river. The river smelled like . . . like the steel bars piled behind the welding shop, the one across the alley from his house. Like when they were wet. He had always walked to school that way.
He shuffled forward again. By sliding this way, it provoked fewer sphincter-tightening noises from the ice. He kept his eyes trained on a bit of scrub brush by a flat, clear area where people sometimes stood when fishing, in the nicer weather. It only took another minute to get there. He took a deep breath when his feet came off the ice, felt as though he suddenly weighed half as much, here on the ground again. A winding path led up to a place where people parked their car when they fished. The floodlight at Harry’s Nightclub was only a short walk from there.
The parking lot of Harry’s was unsurprisingly empty, and no lights shone from inside. The owner lived in a house around back, which was similarly dark. No one came to the door, even after five minutes of first knocking, then pounding, then kicking, then stopping kicking because it hurt his toes so bad he began to swear loudly, which made him realize that even if someone were in the house, they were now thoroughly terrified by the door-kicking, foul-mouthed psychopath outside, yelling about their mother. But it was fine if they called the police, of course. He needed help. His feet wouldn’t last much longer before he was going to need medical care.
The rear door of the bar was surprisingly normal looking. Not reinforced steel or anything like all the back doors of every place on Main Street back in Wolf Point. Not that he’d ever broken into any of them. One just got to know the alleys when one didn’t have anything to go home to.
He tried the door. It was locked, but there was a lot of play. The latch slopped loosely when he put his shoulder against it. He looked around. A loop of wire held a rusty downspout against the corner of the building. It came off easily. He bent a sort of small “J” shape into one end and straightened the rest. When he slid the wire between the jamb and the door, it fit easily, and only stopped where it hit the latch by the knob. Good. No deadbolt even, or it wasn’t being used. He hooked the J around the latch, pushed the door in and out a little, and pulled the wire toward him. There was a sound like someone inside had turned the knob, and click, the door opened. An inch. A small chain stopped further progress. Damn.
Damn. Damn. Damn.
No, this wasn’t the end of our hero, he told himself. He cast about again, for something to pry with. He remembered his wire. He bent a smaller hook onto the tip, then a u-shape a few inches above that. He reached in, hooked the chain, closed the door most of the way, and slid the peg at the end of the chain away from the jamb. It almost worked on the first try; he felt it catch in the round hole before his wire slipped. The next four tries were utter failures after the first promising try. But the next time he felt the chain slide into the worn hole again and heard the chain slap against the flimsy door. “Ho quah, MacGyver,” he told himself as the door opened.
He felt tears touch his eyes as the warmth of the room poured over him. He hadn’t noticed how cold his other parts were, given how much attention he’d paid to his throbbing toes. His nose was an ice-cube, his ears felt hot and cold at the same time. His hand . . . his hand was bleeding again. In his enthusiasm to open the door, and the knocking on the other, he must have over-exerted it, and the wound had opened again. He found a light switch by the narrow pass-through to get behind the bar. Once he had light, he found a stack of cocktail napkins tucked into a cubby. He pressed several against the jagged cut and waited. He didn’t see a phone. That was a little weird. Every bar had a phone. Maybe through the door behind the wall with the shelf of liquor? He studied the many bottles, their labels and their colored glass. One bottle was dusty and looked like it hadn’t been touched in years. It was almost perfectly full, but the seal had been cut. He read the label. Laphroaig. He tried to say it aloud, three different ways. He opened it and smelled. It smelled like railroad ties. Like burning railroad ties. He poured a little into a glass, and sipped it. It tasted like burning railroad ties, too. Reminded him of bonfires at the keggers, back when he was younger. He poured a little more. “Here’s to you, Arthur,” he said to the empty room. His voice seemed dead in here, no reverb at all. It just sort of fell to the stained carpet. The room smelled of old cigarettes. The fluorescent light above his head buzzed metallically. He held the smoky, burning liquid in his mouth a long while. Then he poured a small amount into some clean napkins and daubed the red slash on his hand. He sucked air through his clenched teeth, then put more napkins on the cut. It seemed to have stopped again. He threw the mess of napkins into a trashcan.
There was in fact a little office beyond the liquor shelf wall. A laptop was closed on the desk. A tangle of wires lay next to a filthy credit card reader. A black phone with extra large buttons was mounted to the wall just above the light switch. He picked it up before thinking about who he should call. He hung up. 911? Then he’d have to explain about breaking in. Surely they’d understand. Right?
Maybe he should just call Killer Keller. That made the most sense. Assuming he could remember his number. He programmed numbers into his phone; nobody memorized phone numbers anymore. Killer’s was a 653 number. That was almost everyone in Wolf Point. But the last four? It was really similar to . . . yeah, that song. Jenny. 5309. Only not. 53 . . 89. That was it. Pretty sure. If not . . . some old man was about to be no-discount-at-the-buffet level pissed. He picked up the phone.
The room flashed brighter as a pair of headlights shone in from the parking lot, then darkened. Someone was out there. He hung the phone up and turned out the light in the office. He fished his wallet gingerly out of his pocket and left a ten on the bar. No time for a note. He hurried to the parking lot. An older Ford F100 pickup was idling and a man in Carhardt coveralls was leaning over the back, re-hooking a bungee cord to keep a tarp down.
“Hey, Mister, can I get a lift? My car broke down.”
“I’m headed into Wolf Point. Which way you need to go?” The old white man asked. He didn’t seem the least impressed that a scrawny Indian had just appeared in the otherwise empty parking lot. Honestly, he found that just a little bit disappointing. Can’t even sneak up on an aging white guy in the dark. He was truly a shame to his ancestors.
“Perfect. That’s where I live.”
“Where’s your car?” Again, the old man didn’t look around as though he’d somehow missed it. Just tucked the tarp edge and opened his pickup door.
“Ah. Well, sure, get in. Door’s sticky on that side. Pull hard.”
It was sticky. It was worse because he had to use his left hand, and then use his left hand again to try to pull the door shut once inside, so he had to do it twice.
“Hand hurt?” the old man didn’t miss much, he thought. The old man wore a Cargill cap and a deeply lined, tired face.
“Yeah, Cut it trying to fix the car.” Which was not exactly true but much simpler than “I had to get physical with a picnic bench that wanted to talk sass.”
“Yup.” Said the old man, and he put the pickup into second and let out the clutch. The whine of the transmission was as loud as the engine. He didn’t look for oncoming traffic before pulling out onto the highway. The engine had a distinctive “chug-chug-chug” sound that wasn’t unlike an old timey locomotive.
“Cold night to break down.” He said as they passed the park. The car was easily seen by the sassy picnic bench.
“I found that out.”
They rode silently for a short while.
“You been out all night?”
“No, was meeting a friend at the park. Trying to save him a few miles. He was heading to Poplar.”
“That’s a dark-o-clock meeting.”
“Yeah. He meets a seafood truck that comes into Billings about seven o’clock, twice a month. If we buy it from that guy we save a lot. Then bring it up here, where restaurants and rich people will double our money and still get a good deal over the grocery store or whatever.”
“Huh. I never had shrimp. Is it good?”
“You never ate shrimp?”
“Nope. We’d eat at the Elks Club for my birthday some years. The had shrimp, but I always had the T-Bone. They got a real good T-Bone. My wife always had the chicken thing. The one with ham and cheese inside. Craziest thing.” The old man smiled, his occasional teeth were bluish in the lights of the dashboard.
“So what about you. You’re heading to town awfully early today. Nothin’s open yet.”
The old man took so long to reply that he wasn’t sure he’d been heard. Then he spoke. “Yeah, going to the hospital. You could have them look at your hand . . .”
“Nah, it’s not as bad as that. Just needs s few bandaids. You, though? You sick?” He didn’t look hurt, hadn’t walked hurt back at Harry’s.
The cab was quiet again.
“No.” The old man said again. “ No, I was down Miles City all day yesterday. Got back a few hours ago. To the house. The Missus had, she’d gone down to feed chickens, I guess in the morning, right after I’d left for Miles City. Doc had said she had a bad ticker. Musta been worse than we thought though. She was dead and froze, the time I found her tonight.”
“Oh.” Was all he could think to reply. “I’m sorry, Mister. You going in to . . . see her?”
“No. No, I ain’t going to see her. I can’t afford price of a ambulance to come get her when she’s already dead. I just put her back there and I’m just bringin’ her in so they can do the paperwork. Got a small herd that’s gonna need hay and cake later or they’ll be in a poor way.”
Put her “back there”? Back at the farm? But “bringin’ her in” means that . . . Oh no. nononono. He couldn’t stop himself. He jerked around suddenly. The tarp had stretched the bungee cord again. He could see the old woman’s hand, a closed fist as though pulling her coat tight.
The old man didn’t look away from the road. He stared hard ahead. His eyes were wet. The engine chug-chug-chugged. They passed the Silver Wolf Casino and the highway department. The old man dropped him off in front of his lonely apartment.
He watched the old man drive away, and his breath wrapped around his face as he stared. The locomotive sound of the pickup made it easy to hear when he finally arrived at the hospital, clear upon the north side of town, it was so quiet otherwise. The chugging sounded down blind alleys and empty streets and seemed to come to him belatedly from several directions at once. The white band of stars above him was a swatch of cloth, snagged by the wind. It was so very cold.