by Alan Toth
/ Fiction /
Most people are a little confused when I tell them how I got here. They always want to know why I did it – where was the profit? The simplest explanation is that I had read too many old books, too many quixotic tales of heroes and maidens. I had entertained absurd fantasies of saving someone, a woman named Tara Bleak. I know how stupid it sounds – the drug dealer saves the rich girl from her vast inheritance. It had very little to do with her. It was all about proving myself, about earning the respect and love of just one person in that hell hole.
I come from this tiny little town called Red Bluffs, Wyoming. There’s a few thousand people there – fewer every year. If you were an aged, well-meaning liberal you’d see the place through the lens of generational poverty. If you were the woke university type, you’d probably write some paper about race and privilege. But really, all you need to understand is greed, and the expeditious uses of fire.
Some people think that the town is named for the color of the land – the Chugwater Formation, they call it. It’s all rusty, orange sandstone, but that’s not where the name comes from. The locals tell this story. About a hundred years ago, they say, some settlers on their way to Oregon stopped there to take their ease. They lit these huge bonfires as part of some halfway-there hoorah. The fires colored the hills red, and so they called the place Red Bluffs.
It’s all horse shit. The fires were real enough, but they were set by soldiers, not settlers. The place was part of the reservation at that time. There are all these hot springs where the water boils up from way down deep in the Earth’s fiery belly. To the Shoshone, the springs were sacred, maybe just because they make the valley a little warmer. Some of the Shoshone were camped there over the winter, and that’s where Lieutenant Colonel Marius Bleak found them.
I can’t think of Colonel Bleak without remembering his statue on Red Bluffs’ main street. He sits there on his tall shiny horse, glowering down at all the little people below. His mustache twists over a sneer. His cowboy hat nearly covers his empty black eyes. They’re just holes in the cast, you see. Look into the Colonel’s eyes and see the darkness within. I can’t imagine him as flesh and blood, but only as that hollow bronze golem.
Anyway, I guess the Feds figured that the Shoshone weren’t starving fast enough, so they sent Colonel Bleak and his cavalry regiment to chip away at the borders of the reservation and get some of the land back. The Colonel let it be known on the res that he intended to seize the Shoshone’s cattle, which were the tribe’s last food source at that time. So, the men of this Shoshone camp went off to help protect the herd. That very night, the Colonel lit all the teepees on fire with the women and children and elders still inside. A few survivors were held hostage until Chief Washakie “gifted” the valley to the territorial government.
Not long after, the Colonel established Red Bluffs on the West side of the river. It takes a special kind of man to settle in the place where he’s burned children alive. Obviously, he was very picky about who was allowed to settle there. The Colonel, his friends and his progeny stayed on the West side of the river. The Slavs that came in with the Homestead Act were restricted to the East side, along with the Mexicans, Arapaho and Shoshone that came later. And so, East Red Bluffs was born.
That’s where I come in. My dad’s family are Mormons. They’re not any Latter-day Saints who are welcoming to all sorts, even brown people. They’re Mormons thank you very much. Dad hated his family’s bigotry. Maybe that’s why he left Utah and married my mom – she’s Shoshone. She left the res after high school and met my dad at a diner in Red Bluffs where she was working as a waitress. They got married, moved into a house on the East side, and had two kids: Aaron and Nicholas – my brother and me.
Things went along fine until I was about ten. My dad worked at this accountancy firm on the West side. One night, Dad went into the office and took my brother Aaron with him. I don’t even remember why. What I do remember is looking out the passenger side window as Mom parked on the opposite side of Main Street. I remember the magnificent heat that gave all the gawkers sunburns, and I remember how the firemen just gave up on saving the building and started hosing down adjoining properties. Most of all, I remember my father’s wailing choking cries. Dad had gone out to buy food, or something. When he came back, the building was in flames, and my brother Aaron was still in it.
Dad lost it after that. The accountancy firm went out of business, and Dad started drinking all day. Mom just picked up and went back to the res. She told me that she wouldn’t stay and watch Dad drink himself to death, she had seen enough of that already. She told me she loved me, but she didn’t take me with her. She blamed Dad and didn’t want any reminders. Aaron was her favorite, I think.
The house went to shit. Dirty clothes piled up everywhere. Nobody let the dog out, so he just pissed on the carpet. The only orderly part of the house was the bedroom I used to share with Aaron. I kept his side of the room exactly as he left it for many years. I used to wake up in the middle of the night, thinking I’d see him sleeping there, that it was all a big mistake. There was never any food in the house. I got by on school lunches and $1 tacos that I bought with the loose change that fell out of Dad’s pockets whenever he stumbled into the house.
I’m not looking for sympathy here. It wasn’t ideal, no doubt about it, but I’m no whiner. I got through it, mostly because of reading. I still remember reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time. It was magic, it really was. It wasn’t too long before I was reading Mark Twain, James Joyce, Kurt Vonnegut, and Shakespeare. God bless the public library. It’s the most radical thing about this backwards country. Even in a shit town like Red Bluffs, anybody can walk into a library and learn pretty much anything they care to.
I got through middle school, no problem. High school is where it all came apart. I had read all the books for English class already, and as I got taller the tacos weren’t cutting it anymore. I was bored and tired and I slept through most of the classes. What I needed was some kind of challenge to keep me going. I tried to the join the drama club, but the director said he didn’t need any troublemakers with bad grades. So, I dropped out in my junior year.
About that time, Dad’s parents showed up in Red Bluffs. I had met them once before when I was very young. Something about them made me think of Plymouth Rock pilgrims. I think it was that fanatic gleam in their eyes. They seemed to look through everything and everyone, like they saw the rapture just over the horizon. They cleaned up our house, and we all sat down on the living room sofa. I had forgotten we had one.
“Grandpa Joseph and Grandma Eve have found a program in Utah that will help me sober up and find work,” Dad said. “I’d like you to come along, but if you’d like, Grandma and Grandpa have agreed to take over the lease to the house. They’ll let you stay here until you find your feet.”
Dad was shaking bad as he delivered those prepared remarks. At the time, I thought he was scared, but it was probably withdrawals. I was a hungry, 16-year-old dropout. Clearly, I needed someone to take care of me, but I had pretty much been taking care of myself for five years, and the way that my grandparents looked at me, well, they never said anything, but I could see it in their eyes – utter distaste. They didn’t want me going with them. I told my dad I would stay in Red Bluffs, and Grandma and Grandpa were true to their word. They paid the rent for years until I was old enough to take over the lease.
I tried a lot of different jobs. I worked as a farm laborer and a server at McDonalds for a while. In the end, I went into business for myself. I sold pot on the West side, and opioids on the East side. I got Sour Diesel or Purple Punch from a guy in Casper. I sold it to West siders and gave them a discount when they offered their unused pain pills. Then, I sold the pills on the other side of the river. Everybody was a winner – well, except the East siders, but what else is new?
But, enough preamble, right? I ought to be talking about what got me here. Like MacDuff says, What’s the newest grief?
So, one day I sold some weed to a stay-at-home mom up on Cottonwood Heights, a gated community up on a hill. I would always cut through this woman’s backyard to avoid being noticed on the streets, but that day I was in a hurry, and I tried to shave off a little time by cutting through the neighbor’s yard. I was just about to leap over the fence when I heard a voice.
“What are you doing?” said a woman from somewhere behind me.
I put on an oblivious-looking smile and thought up some excuse, but whatever I was about to say just evaporated from my head when I turned around. The woman was Tara Bleak.
“Nick?” she said.
She crossed the yard and moved in close. She had a few more lines on her face than I would have expected seven years after high school, but she was still beautiful, or at least she would have been but for the mottled color around her left cheekbone. It had mostly faded to green and yellow, but her eyelid was still swollen and purple. Someone had beat the hell out of her. She put a hand up as if to brush back her hair, but the hand hesitated over the bruise like she was hoping to hide it. Then she whipped around and looked back at the house.
“He’s home. You have to leave,” she said.
I didn’t need to ask who. It all came back in a flash. Tara had taken an interest in me during our sophomore year. She had long black hair and bright green eyes with small brown motes scattered around the irises. They looked like little worlds. They made me wonder about the black pits in her great grandfather’s statue. How had the Colonel’s line produced such a beauty?
Tara would blush whenever I told one of the off-color jokes that I heard from Dad’s bar friends. Her smile was unbelievable, not because it was perfect or anything, but because it was so genuine. It was like she didn’t even know the power of her last name, or how weird it was that she should be interested in someone like me.
One day she got on the bus to the East side and sat right next to me. She didn’t even ride the bus. She put my arm over her shoulders and my hand on her breast, and just like that we were dating.
She convinced me to go to her youth group at the Baptist church. I went every week. I told them all I was born again or whatever it is they say, but after the prayers Tara and I would sneak off to the boiler room and make out. Both of us were utter novices. We kissed like vacuum cleaners and pawed randomly at the curves and bulges under our clothes. What I really remember is the way she smelled, a mélange of untreated hair and clean skin and something vaguely floral.
One evening, as we were making out, I heard the door of the boiler room open and saw a burly shadow in the doorway. In an instant the shadow was on top of us. It grabbed Tara by the hair and dragged her into the hallway. It was Tara’s dad, Marty. He was a deacon at the church.
Tara screamed. I got up and tried to follow them, but Marty pushed me down to the concrete floor. He flipped me over and shoved his knee into my spine. He grabbed one arm and wrenched it behind my back. I tried to scream, but he leaned forward pressing all his weight into me, and I couldn’t breathe at all.
“Move and I’ll break your arm, you little shit,” he said. “If I ever see you near my daughter again, I’ll fucking kill you.”
He eased up then, and I was able to suck in a few ragged breaths, but he twisted my arm so unnaturally that it went numb. I screamed, but he only twisted harder. He finally let go and walked out of the room, closing the door and leaving me there in the dark. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried like a little kid – hell, I was a little kid. I never spoke to Tara after that, and she didn’t speak to me. I heard that after high school she married some guy and moved to Montana. As far as I knew, no one had seen her in years.
Strange as it sounds, I had never really known exactly which house belonged to Tara’s family. I only knew she lived on Cottonwood Heights. Once I learned that I was on Marty Bleak’s home turf, I turned away from Tara without a word, leapt over the fence and hustled down the hill. I went straight home and smoked, trying to calm myself down. What was she doing back here? Who had beat her up? Who cares anyway? It’s not my problem.
* * *
A few days later, I went to the West side for Dungeons and Dragons. Laugh all you want, but nothing cuts through class barriers like DnD. My high school friends had mostly washed their hands of me when they left for college, but a few of them had returned to Red Buttes after graduating, and while they wouldn’t come to my place, and they wouldn’t meet me for beer, they did invite me to DnD every week without fail.
That night, we fought a bodak and two beholders – no easy proposition, believe me. We all leveled up, and there was a ton of loot. I guess it sounds stupid if you’ve never played, but there is no high quite like the successful conclusion of long DnD campaign. We were all floating. Maybe that’s why Chris was so amenable to smoking with me after the game.
Chris still had the same bowl-like haircut from high school, but his thick beard, darker than the sandy hair on his head, was a relic of his college days. Chris and I used to smoke a lot in high school, but I wasn’t sure if he had given it up in college. He lit up and held the smoke in his lungs like a real stoner.
“How are things going with Milk and Honey?” I asked him.
“Not good,” he said.
Milk and Honey was a drive-up ice cream shop on the West side that Chris had bought from Marty Bleak two years before. Marty had opened the place about 15 years back, hired all the most popular girls from the high school and paid them about $3 an hour to hawk sundaes and onion rings. All the kids and their parents flocked to the place, and Marty raked in profits.
Then Marty put the business up for sale. His asking price was insane – $1 million. Chris told us about it during one of our DnD sessions. Apparently, the bank figured that the business was only worth about $200,000, and they wouldn’t loan Chris any more than that, so Marty offered him a personal loan for the rest. Marty would take 20% of the profits off the top each month until Chris paid off the loan. It sounded to me like the kind of offer you got from a drug kingpin, but I guess the nostalgia clouded Chris’ judgment.
Anyway, about a year after he bought the place, it became clear that Chris had made a mistake. He hadn’t bothered to get a non-compete clause, so Marty opened up a juice bar right across the street from Milk and Honey and first scalped all of Chris’ employees and then his customers. Chris and his wife mainly ran the business themselves after that. They sat across the street from Marty and watched him grow ever richer as they tried to sell sweets to an aging, prediabetic customer base.
“I should have asked for all the books before I bought it,” Chris said. “Marty had so many shell companies going. He hid all the profits in the LLC’s so he could qualify for all these assistance programs. When you try to run the business straight, it just doesn’t work.”
It didn’t surprise me. Marty drove around town in a hundred-thousand-dollar truck, and then bragged about defrauding the Feds by getting his whole family on Medicaid. I didn’t know what to say, so I changed the subject.
“I saw Tara the other day,” I said.
“Marty is finally letting her out, I guess,” Chris said.
Chris told me he had gone to Marty’s place to drop off the monthly payment a few weeks back and Marty invited him to stay and watch the game. Chris went to use the bathroom, but he took a wrong turn and ran into Tara. She had a hell of a shiner on her face. Her eye was swollen shut and she had ugly stitches curving over her cheekbone. It was pretty clear from her reaction that Chris wasn’t meant to see her there. Chris went back to the game, and Marty didn’t mention her.
“I think he was keeping her locked up in his basement. He didn’t want anyone to see her like that,” Chris said.
I wondered whether it was Marty or Tara’s husband that had beat her up. The two men were likely cut from the same cloth, in any case. We smoked in silence for a while and then Chris fidgeted and mumbled, like he was trying to decide whether to tell me something.
“Did anyone tell you that John Brand is back in town?” he said.
* * *
The fire that killed Aaron was the last of a series in Red Bluffs. It started with a few car fires on the East side, then a coffee shack by the highway went up, followed by a small salon. They were all meant to look like random accidents, but because Aaron died in the accountancy fire, a legit fire investigator was brought in from Cheyenne. He found that the accountancy and all the previous fires were arson, and it didn’t take long to identify the culprit.
John Brand was a West sider with a handlebar mustache and a pot belly that was always hidden under a bulky camouflage jacket. He wore reflective sunglasses and chewed tobacco, and he spent his days driving between odd jobs, listening to Rush Limbaugh and loudly wondering why it was so hard for a white man to get a fair shake in America. His steadiest gig was with the local volunteer fire department. He was always the first one to arrive at the fire station after the whistle blew.
“I just wanted to be the hero,” John said, in his deposition.
And he was, for a while. He was on the front page of the local newspaper week after week, bravely fighting the flames, until the investigation revealed that John himself started the fires. He was convicted of arson and involuntary manslaughter and went to the state penitentiary.
The thing that was never mentioned in the newspapers was that the fires were not completely random. They all just happened to benefit the Bleak family in some way. The coffee shack went up in flames shortly after Milk and Honey opened. The salon was owned by a member of the West family – the Bleak’s main rivals for richest family in town. As for the accountancy, Marty’s wife had just got her CPA license at that time and was doing taxes for a few clients at home. After the fire, she set up shop downtown.
The Brands had been loyal lackeys for the Bleak family for generations. John’s wife and daughter did very well after he went to the pen. The wife got a job at the Bleak’s new accountancy firm. She and the daughter moved out of their rental and bought a nice house near Cottonwood Heights. Unfortunately for John, the wife ended up divorcing him while he was inside. Fifteen years after his sentencing, John was back in Red Bluffs. He had his freedom, but not much else.
“Fundraiser for John Brand,” the flier proclaimed.
The advertisement was taped to the window of Fruitful and Fortified – Marty’s juice shop. It invited people to come down tonight for a fundraiser to benefit our dear friend John Brand, who had fallen on hard times. A smudged picture of John warped the cheap printer paper. He was bald now, and there was no coat in the world that could camouflage his girth. He smiled, looking happier than he had any right to be.
I could just imagine it. There would be drinks, food and live music, and an oversized jar with a slit in the cap would be passed around for donations – cash only please. The jar would fill up. A decent haul, but small enough to stay off the books. At the end of the night, maybe Marty would drop ten crisp $10,000 stacks into the jar, hidden among all those crumpled fives and tens. A tidy reward for a job well done.
I smashed my fist into one of the cheap aluminum tables set up outside the shop. My punch rebounded on the flimsy metal and the table flipped over and rolled in a small circle before coming to a rest on the pavement. A pair of teenage girls squealed. I stared daggers at them and walked off.
If I had just gone home and smoked a bowl and gone to sleep, none of this would have happened. Instead, I did the one thing I shouldn’t have done. I went to work.
I walked to the cheapo studio rentals by the river where Bob Ainsworth lived. Bob was a few years older than me, and we had hung out a bit in high school. I sold him pot, and he kept pestering me to let him deal. He was completely useless, but I had given him a shot anyway.
In high school, he had been the kind of kid who made up stories about how extraordinary he was. He was a member of Mensa, he had jumped off the water tower and lived, his body was registered as a lethal weapon, anything to distract you from the truth – that he was a no-talent, nobody from nowhere. His least credible fiction was that I looked up to him. I always felt like there was no benefit to me in setting him straight. Funny how you can become obligated to an old lie. I guess that’s why I caved to his mewling and gave him $1,000 worth of Sour Diesel to sell a couple weeks before.
I heard the sounds of World of Warcraft from the stoop outside his studio and pushed the door open. Bob’s floor was covered in plastic cups and beer bottles. A couple pipes and a bong were on the coffee table, surrounded by gray cannabis ash. Bob had thrown a party, but whose weed had they smoked?
Bob was in the kitchen nook. His massive body was bent over the oven, fetching a frozen pizza from inside. Squares of yellow sandwich cheese bubbled on top of the wafer-thin pie – Chef Bob’s Special.
“Hey man,” he said. “I’m about to start a raid. You need something?”
He sat in front of his massive gaming PC, the metal folding chair squeaked under his weight. I asked if he had sold the weed yet. He hadn’t. He put on his headset and directed his half-naked elf shaman into the instance.
I asked how much he had sold – none. I asked where the weed was – gone. He started talking about buffs with the other guys in the raid. I pulled the headset off.
“What the fuck, man?!” he said.
I stood over him and asked if he had smoked all my weed.
“I’m good for it, buddy, you know me,” he said.
I told him that I owed my guy in Casper. I couldn’t just get an extension. This business was all about reputation. Bob lit cigarette and leisurely puffed. He looked up at me through his coke-bottle glasses. Tiny beads of sweat clung to his ever-expanding forehead. His red beard and diminished hair were tangled and matted. He blew a cloud of smoke in my face.
“I don’t need to worry about reputation,” he said.
He said it in the way white people had been speaking to me my whole life. Innocuous enough in content, no way to prove his intentions, but his tone and expression summoned up half a millennium of gaslighting and throat cutting. Like Iago told Othello when the Moor asked why, What you know, you know — because I’m white, and you’re not.
Bob turned wordlessly back to his game, dismissing me like some insolent servant. It felt like all my blood was surging into my ears and throat. I could barely breath, and all I could hear was my roaring heart. I pulled an empty wine bottle from a pile on the floor, wielded it like a hammer and swung the heavy glass into his face. The impact pushed him too far to one side, and he fell into a pile of plastic bottles along with the folding chair. He cried out, but I beat his face with the bottle until it broke, cutting his forehead. I threw the bottle away and kicked at his massive belly.
“Fuck!” he coughed. “Please, please…”
I stepped back as he got on his hands and knees and vomited into the carpet. His glasses were gone. I knew he couldn’t see a thing without them.
“You fucking digger,” he said.
I picked up his LED monitor and smashed it into his face. The cables pulled the PC tower from the desk. It crashed into the floor. The speakers screamed and then went silent. Blood sprayed from Bob’s nose. He curled up in a ball, clutching his face and moaning. I looked around the room for anything else he might value. He had a first-gen Xbox beside his TV. I put it in a plastic bag I that I found on the floor and left without a word.
I walked to a sidewalk that follows the river and tossed the Xbox into the water. I had a better one at home anyway. The current was all orange ripples in the fading sun.
My hands were shaking. My weed supplier sold all kinds of drugs, and I had watched his goons pummel tweakers who wouldn’t pay up many times. I knew it was part of the game, but I had never beaten anyone myself before. I guess I should have felt ashamed, but I didn’t. I felt hatred – hatred for Bob, hatred for John and Marty, hatred for all those West side fucks who looked the other way as monsters killed children.
The sidewalk curved back toward town and took me past the juice shop. I sat on a curb under an orange streetlight. The only sound to be heard was the muted howls of Marty and all his cronies behind the thick windows of Fruitful and Fortified. Dozens of pasty old men crowded around the small tables. They were the kind of inbred white mob that runs every small town in the country. They cackled wildly, showing their ragged, ever-lengthening teeth. The blue lights cast hard shadows on pale faces, making wrinkles look like seams, as if they had been sewn together.
Tara Bleak weaved through that congress of horrors with a donation jar. Her face blazed with heavy rouge and thick eyeshadow. She shook hands and rubbed shoulders and laughed, but was she a politician or a prisoner?
There’s a welfare motel behind the juice shop. Its doors face an alley that separates the two buildings. I walked down the alley watching the doors and windows for onlookers. I pulled some newspapers from a garbage bin and squeezed through a breach in the fence to the juice shop’s parking lot. Marty’s white F450 Super Duty Limited was parked in the corner. I kept to the corridor between the truck and the fence, hoping to go unseen by the cameras at the front of the building.
I was ready to break a window, but the driver’s side door wasn’t even locked. I crumpled up the newspapers, pulled the felt out of my lighter and squeezed fuel all over them. Then I smashed the wet wad under the seat. I held the sparking wheel right against the paper and flicked it. Once a small flame caught, I gently closed the door, leaving it cracked open just a bit and then slipped back into the alley.
I forced myself to walk slowly and not look back. I imagined the flames dancing up into the exposed foam in the hollow under the driver’s seat. I honestly didn’t know if it would get hot enough to burn much of the truck. I was halfway across the bridge to the East side when I heard the fire whistle howling across the water. I turned and saw a column of black smoke against the dusky purple sky. The trees and houses by the river blocked my view of the flames, but I thought I could see a dim red light flickering on the hills all around.
* * *
I kept myself off the cameras in the parking lot, but there was a doorbell camera on the motel office that caught me coming and going, though it didn’t catch the actual deed. The cops burst into my house the next day and found my stash.
Grandma and Grandpa got me a real defense lawyer from Casper. She convinced the prosecutor to drop the arson charges in exchange for a guilty plea on the drugs – a much higher profile crime in Wyoming. In Colorado there’s a dispensary in every little town, but here, holding three ounces is still a felony.
So here I am, playing along with the terms of my plea, pretending that what I did had anything to do with smoking pot. You want to know the worst part? Marty died a couple months later. Pancreatic cancer. Apparently, he didn’t even try to fight it. If I’d known I’d have to chance to dance on his grave in less than a year…
Well, anyway, the estate went to Tara. She divorced her husband and now she runs the Bleak enterprise. She’s got a softer brand than her dad, but she’s twice as ruthless from what I hear. She’s really squeezing Chris over that loan. I had thought her good because she had been hurt and because she had kissed me once. But it’s possible to be both a victim and a villain, and perhaps it’s not such a long trip from one to the other.