Tomah

Matthew Lederman

Two men stand along the highway just before the entrance ramp loops up and around and over the road. Cars roll by. Trucks roll by. Tiny white faces peer out from behind the auto glass. Most of the traffic continues straight along the road. A few cars slow down and bear off onto the entrance ramp, slowing down for the bend, not the hitchhikers.

"Let's go up the ramp," suggests the tall, burly hitchhiker. "Let's give those Chicago fuckers a chance to look at us."

"You haven't been arrested recently?" asks the other.

The tall man shrugs, pulling his dirty green Army jacket up around his shoulders. He adjusts the back pack strap hanging off his left arm and smiles. "We're getting arrested this weekend, anyway. Might as well get a jump on the festivities."

The other hitchhiker shrugs and starts trudging away up the ramp, unsmiling, resigned. "OK," he grunts, then turns back to the other. "What?" he asks, puzzled. The large man grins. "What are you waiting for?" he persists.

"We'll give it a little more time," the large man grins, blue eyes flashing in amusement out of fat red cheeks. "Ten more cars."

"Ten," the other replies solemnly, sullenly turning back to watch the empty highway, faded white and yellow lines on a dead gray background running off to Milwaukee.

A shiny Plymouth roars past up the ramp, tires squealing, glass packs adding to the sound of an overpowered engine, two pimply faces staring out, superiority spelled out in acne. "One," counts the large man. The other grunts. A blue Volvo putters around the bend up the ramp. "Two. Hey, got any cigarettes?"

"Yeah." The man digs into his shirt pocket and pulls out a pack of Marlboros. He hands the pack to the other.

The large man shakes out a cigarette and sticks it in his mouth. "If I light a cigarette, we'll get picked up," he announces. "It always works. If you're waiting for a bus or something, light a cigarette. One will come immediately."

"I guess there is a God," the other man mutters.

Two high-school girls cruise by in a new Cadillac. The car slows. The girls look out and smile and then laugh and then talk excitedly to each other. The long-blonde hair in the passenger seat stops, frozen in mid laugh, and stares at the slimmer, shorter hitchhiker. The driver guns the car. It rolls around the bend. The two men watch the car merge into the sparse traffic, cross the overpass and disappear on the other side.

"Just as well," laughs the large man, "they aren't going far enough." He pulls a steel Zippo out of his pocket and lights the cigarette dangling out of his mouth. He watches the four-inch flame for an instant before he snaps the cover shut, extinguishing it. "The near one liked you," he taunts, handing back the cigarette pack.

"All women like me," the other shrugs. "I bring out the mother in them."

"Bullshit."

"Yeah," he agrees, "bullshit."

A red Ford pickup truck rolls up the ramp. The grizzled farmer driving it sizes them up and continues. "Three," the large man says.

"No. The girls in the Cadillac were three."

The large man thinks. "No," he smiles, "we're both wrong. The girls in the Cadillac were four. So the pickup was five."

"Who cares?" the other grunts.

"I care," the large man retorts angrily. "I don't want to wait here any past the tenth car. It'll screw everything up."

A long station wagon with wood-trimmed sides glides up the ramp. It slows to a stop just past the two hitchhikers. They jog up the incline to the car. The large man drops the cigarette onto the ground and grinds it out. He opens up the passenger door and pokes his head inside.

"Where you guys headed?" the slight man calls out from behind the steering wheel.

"LaCrosse," the burly hitchhiker answers.

"Well," the driver offers, "I'm going to Eau Claire. You're welcome to come along."

The large man pulls his head out of the car and looks at the other hitchhiker. They both shrug. He slides into the front seat. "I guess we'll take it," he grins. The other man opens the back door and slides in.

"Thanks," he grunts to the driver.

The two doors slam. The cars eases forward and crawls around the bend to the highway. The driver checks both mirrors, flicks on the turn signal, looks over his left shoulder and drifts out onto the empty highway. He accelerates slowly. Both hitchhikers watch the speedometer silently. The needle settles on 55. The driver sighs and pushes his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose. They ride in silence.

The traffic thickens. Trailers and campers struggle over the little hills. Cars slip past on the left. Large trucks roar periodically. A doe stands along the shoulder, watching the traffic casually, almost indifferently. "You won't see that in a month," announces the large hitchhiker.

"Won't see what?" asks the driver.

"A deer standing in the open like that."

"Like what?"

"There was deer beside the road," explains the large hitchhiker patiently. "Didn't you see it?"

"No," says the driver. "I wish I had. Why won't you see that in a month?"

"Hunting season," the large hitchhiker says. "They just disappear when they realize that they're being hunted."

"Really?" the driver marvels.

"Yup. Like they never existed."

"My name is Bob," the driver extends his hand.

"Mike," the large hitchhiker shakes it. "He's Peter," the large man jerks his head over his shoulder.

"Hi," Peter grunts from the back seat.

Bob lifts his arm over the back of the seat and extends his hand to Peter. He looks at Peter in the rear view mirror. The car drifts into the left lane. Peter shakes, releasing quickly. Bob looks forward and jerks the wheel violently. The car swerves back between the lines. "Nice to meet you," Bob says seriously. Peter grunts again. "What are you guys going to do in LaCrosse."

"Oktoberfest," grins Mike. "We're going up to the party."

"Really?" Bob asks, eagerly. "What do they do for Oktoberfest."

"I don't know what they do," Mike grins evilly. "We go up and drink beer and get arrested."

"Really?" Bob marvels.

"I'm sure it's some kind of harvest thing from the old country," Peter volunteers from the back seat. "They probably have a parade and some polka bands and stuff like that. A lot of kids just go up there, I don't know, probably because a lot of other kids go up there."

Bob watches the road in silence. "How old are you guys?"

"I'm twenty-one," Mike boasts. "Junior is only nineteen."

"Yeah," Peter mutters, "but traveling with you has aged me quickly."

"Are you in college?" Bob interrupts.

"Yup," Peter admits. "We go to the U."

"Great marching band," Bob pronounces.

"What?" Mike asks.

"I said you have a great marching band," Bob repeats, chastened.

"Damn right," Mike agrees. "Lousy football team. Great marching band. We should give helmets to the damn musicians."

Bob laughs nervously. "I'm very interested in marching bands."

"Really?" Peter pipes up from the back seat.

"Yes," Bob says excitedly. "I just came from a large competition. It was really incredible."

"Did you compete?" Peter asks.

"No," Bob answers sadly, "we really weren't ready yet." He looks at Peter in the rear view mirror, blinking his eyes rapidly. "We should go next year." Peter raises his eyebrows. "I'm a music director," Bob explains hurriedly.

"Really," Mike grins.

"Yes. Really."

The sky darkens gradually. Farms and cows fade slowly into the blackness. Bob squints out the windshield. "Look," Mike shouts. "A buck."

Bob slams on the brakes. An immense deer stands on the grassy shoulder of the highway, his head held at an alert proud angle. "He's magnificent," Bob marvels.

"Jesus," Peter grunts, standing and leaning over the back of the front seat to get a clear view.

"Eight fucking point," Mike growls. "If I saw a fucking deer like that in season, I'd blow a fucking hole in its side so fucking big you could use it for a fucking garage."

"Look at his eyes," Bob whispers. "How could you kill something like that?"

"Easiest fucking thing in the world," Mike growls.

"You wouldn't get a shot off," Peter taunts. "And if did, you'd be so damn excited you'd miss. Or shoot yourself."

"This close?" Mike scoffs. "I could bring that thing done with a knife."

"You couldn't get this close again in a petting zoo," Peter says contemptuously.

"We'll see," Mike vows.

"Yeah," Peter continues, "you've gone deer hunting for the last ten years and you haven't even fired your fancy rifle."

The buck leaps away from the pavement toward the dark brush down the embankment along the grass on the side of the road. The animal vanishes instantly, no hint of it visible from the road.

"We'll see," Mike growls, turning around to glare at Peter over the back of the seat.

They drive on silently into the darkness. Bob looks straight ahead, peering at the white lines visible in the pale light of the headlights. Mike looks out the window at the dark shapes lining the road. Peter looks ahead between the two of them, reading the road signs and checking Bob for fatigue. Bob's sets his jaw and clenches his teeth, feeling Peter's examination of his condition.

White letters on a green sign announce the approach of Tomah. Another sign, this one accented with red, white and blue, describes the divergenge of I-90 and I-94. "I'm taking ninety-four to Eau Claire," Bob reminds them. "Where do you want to get out?"

Mike grins in the darkness. "Why don't you come to LaCrosse with us?" he invites Bob.

"No," Bob mumbles, "thank you."

"Come on," Mike persists. "We're staying with friends. It won't cost you anything."

"No," Bob insists, slowing the car down. "I've got to go to Eau Claire."

"Suit yourself," Mike says. The car stops. Mike flings his door open and slides out of the car. He slings his pack up onto his left shoulder.

"Thanks for the ride," Peter says, opening his door.

"You're welcome," Bob smiles, turning and looking over the seat back. He pushes his glasses up onto the bridge of his nose and extends his hand. Peter shakes it before sliding out onto the shoulder.

"Come on," Mike calls impatiently, slamming his door and then Peter's. The station wagon pulls away. "Jesus," Mike exclaims, "what a load that guy was." The engine fades into silence. Red lights trace its path.

"You invited him to go with us," Peter shrugs.

"He had a car," Mike sneers.

"He has a car," Peter corrects. "And we're stuck in Tomah again."

"Come on," Mike calls impatiently again. "Let's go."

"What's your rush?" Peter squints at him in the darkness. "Look," he gestures down the highway, "no cars."

"There'll be some," Mike promises and trudges through the darkness after the station wagon. Peter follows, a few steps behind. The highway splits. Mike stops and turns around. Peter stops. Mike looks back down the deserted road. "Cross," he commands, stepping out onto the pavement. Peter follows him across the road. The moon is partially visible, diffused through a thin layer of clouds. No stars poke through. Mike and Peter trudge along the shoulder, the cold night air making their breath visible.

Headlights appear down the highway. "Car," Peter calls ahead.

Mike turns around. "This is it."

"You're on," Peter challenges.

"For a beer?"

"Yup."

Mike extends his arm, pointing his thumb up the road. He smiles. The headlights give him a ghoulish expression. The car whizzes by without slowing down. "Give me a cigarette," Mike demands. Peter hands him the pack. Mike sticks a cigarette in his mouth, flicks his lighter expertly and puffs. He admires the tall flame for an instant before snaping the cover down. He sticks the cigarettes and the lighter in his jacket pocket. "Come on," he commands. "We're not even at the sign yet."

Mike and Peter trudge down the shoulder. Headlights appear again far down the highway. "Double or nothing?" Peter offers.

"Fuck you," Mike growls, turning around and putting his thumb out. The car passes. "See? I knew that one wouldn't stop." Mike stomps off ahead. Peter follows slowly. "Her it is," Mike calls triumphantly, thumping a sign post like a long lost friend. "No Hitchhiking," he shouts gleefully.

"Fascinating," Peter mumbles sarcastically, touching the pole gently, reverently.

Mike pulls a clasp knife out of his trouser pocket and snaps the blade open. He digs into the wooden post. "I've done this before," he says. "A lot."

"Why don't you leave some space for the next unfortunate soul who gets stuck out here?"

"There's plenty of room," Mike scoffs. "You want to carve yours?"

"No."

"Suit yourself," Mike says, snapping the blade shut. "Let's just stand here," he says, slinging his pack onto the ground at the base of the post. "There's no point walking."

"Yeah," Peter grunts, dropping his pack beside it.

Mike sits on the ground. "We're gonna be late."

"Yeah."

"I told you we should have left earlier."

"Yeah."

"What the hell is your problem," Mike explodes.

"I'm just waiting for you to stop criticizing me," Peter replies evenly.

"It's your fault we're stuck out here," Mike says angrily. "What the hell did you have to do?"

"I just had to do something," Peter says glumly.

"What?"

"Leave it at that," Peter snarls.

Headlights appear in the distance. "You do it," Mike commands. Peter puts out his thumb and watches the car approach. "Put some feeling into it," Mike advises. The car rolls past. Red taillights disappear down the road. "Good job," Mike comments.

"Fuck off," grunts Peter.

Mike pulls his collar up over his neck and huddles down inside his jacket. "I've been here too may times," Mike shakes his head. "Tomah. What a fucking dump."

"You've been on the side of the damn highway," Peter challenges. "That's not really being anywhere."

"No matter where you're going," Mike says glumly. "LaCrosse. Eau Claire. Minneapolis. You always get dumped in fucking Tomah. I think its a fucking conspiracy."

"You've never even been to Tomah," Peter argues.

"I'm in fucking Tomah right now."

"Bullshit," Pter spits. "Tomah's ten miles from here."

"What does the sign say?" Mike demands.

"No Hitchhiking?" Peter asks innocently.

"The damn sign says Tomah," Mike shouts. "That's where we are. Tomah."

"Where's the gas station? Where do the people live? Where's the fucking taverns?"

"There aren't any," Mike shouts. "Look around you. Nothing. There isn't even a fucking town. It's a sign. Maybe two. That's all Tomah is."

"I've been to Tomah," Peter says quietly. "It's a nice town."

"Maybe your Tomah is," Mike concedes. "This Tomah is nowhere."

"You know what all the street signs in Tomah say?"

Mike shakes his head. "There aren't any."

"Home of Frank King."

Mike looks at Peter. "Who the hell is Frank King?"

"I haven't got a clue," Peter shrugs.

Mike and Peter look down the dark, deserted highway without speaking. "Getting cold," Mike observes.

"Brilliant," Peter grunts.

"Don't get pissed at me," Mike growls. "It's your damn fault that we're stuck out here. Give me a cigarette."

Peter reaches into his shirt pocket. "You never gave them back."

"Yes, I did."

"Fine," Peter concedes. "You gave them back."

"Give me one," Mike demands.

"Fuck you."

Mike glares at Peter, the whites of his narrowed eyes visible in the darkness. He takes the cigarettes out of his pocket, sticks one in his mouth and lights it with a practiced flick of the Zippo. He looks at the flame for an instant before flipping the cover closed.

"Give me one," Peter asks.

"Fuck you," Mike replies, flipping the pack at Peter in the dark.

Peter sticks a cigarette in his mouth and lights it with a match. He tucks the cigarette pack into his shirt pocket. "Thank you," Peter says politely.

"You're welcome," Mike responds sarcstically.

Peter smokes, staring down the dark highway. Headlights appear in the distance, nearing rapidly. Peter cups the cigarette in his left hand and holds his right thumb out. The headlights squeal to stop one hundred feet down the road. "Hey," Peter exclaims, pleased with himself.

"It was the cigarette," Mike explains, getting up stiffly. "It always works." They jog down the road. A dark pickup truck waits, rumbling patiently.

Peter opens the door. A gaunt, wrinkled face peers out from behind a thick black beard. "Throw your packs in the back," the driver commands. Peter slips the strap off his shoulder and tosses it into the back of the truck. Mike does the same. Peter slides across the seat. Mike follows in and slams the door behind him. "I didn't see the big guy," the driver tells them. He puts the truck into first gear and they bounce back onto the highway. He shifts smoothly into second then third then fourth. "Little cramped, huh boys?"

"Yeah," Peter admits.

"Beats sitting on the side of the road, though," Mike adds.

"I'll bet it does," the driver says, leaning in front of Peter to get a look at Mike. "Too cold to ride in the back," he says. "You boys should do this in the summer."

"Yeah," Peter agrees politely.

"We do," Mike pipes up.

"Where you boy going?" the driver asks.

"We're going to LaCrosse," Peter answers.

"Where the hell is that?" the driver turns to Peter.

Peter shrugs. "Up the road a hundred miles. Where you going?"

"Montana," the driver says solemnly.

"Really?" Mike asks, interested.

"Wouldn't say it if it wasn't true," the driver replies.

"Where you coming from?" Mike asks.

"East," the driver replies. "What you going to LaCrosse for?"

"Looking for work," Peter says.

"What kind of work you boys do?"

"Anything that pays," Peter says. "Anything legal, anyway."

"Seems to me you're limiting yourself," the driver muses. "You know people in LaCrosse?"

"Yeah," Peter allows. "A few. Not real well, though."

"Where you going to stay?"

"We're hoping to stay with a guy I know," Peter answers.

"He expecting you?"

"Yeah," Peter admits. "I guess."

"Where you going in Montana," Mike interrupts.

"I know some people," the driver answers. "I'm going to stay with them."

"Going to get a job?" Mike persists.

"No need," the driver grunts. "I can survive without money." He stares at Peter and then Mike. "Survive, hell," he boasts, "I can live better with no money than you guys live with money."

"Yeah?" Mike asks belligerently.

"I can catch and kill and cook eat any animal you can name with my bare hands," the driver brags. "I stole every drop of gas this truck burn for a thousand mile." He snorts angrily. "Get a job? Me? The world ain't gonna last that long. A job?. Me?" He rolls down the window, cackling madly, spits a huge gob of saliva out and rolls it up again. He turns to Peter, hair and beard made wild by the wind through the window. "I just ate a snake. Cooked it on the manifold. If I see another one I'll cook it up for you. Two long strips of meat on a snake. One on each side of its spine. Peel them out like licorice. Broil under the hood. I hold them down with duct tape. Some folks wrap them in tin foil."

"Yeah?" Mike says, interested.

"I eat bugs when I can't get snakes," the driver says.

"Bugs aren't so bad," Mike scoffs.

"Bugs are damn good," the driver asserts. "High in protein. Apes eat bugs. Birds eat bugs. Hell, some plants even eat bugs."

Peter swallows hard. "Nice truck," he observes.

"I stole it," the driver says.

"Good choice," Mike thumps the dashboard with the palm of his hand.

"And I killed the man who owned it," the driver continues.

Peter sneaks a look at the driver. The driver stares unblinking out at the road in the headlights. Peter looks at Mike. Mike grins evilly. Peter looks up into the rear view mirror. The driver's eyes bore into his own. Peter instantly looks ahead through the windshield.

They drive in silence, staring out the windshield at the road rushing below them. Mike closes his eyes and naps. Peter's eyes quiver and twitch. He fights to hold them open. The driver stares ahead unblinking. The mile markers click by. The flat road becomes hilly. The growth along the sides encroaches on the space cleared for the road. Mike leans against Peter, breathing softly and deeply. Peter leans back, keeping Mike upright, keeping himself a few inches away from the driver.

"LaCrosse," the driver announces.

"What?" Peter asks.

"The sign," the driver explains. "LaCrosse."

"Great," Peter exclaims, nudging Mike with his elbow. "You made great time," Peter compliments the driver. "Thanks for the ride."

The driver stares straight ahead, silent, unblinking.

"We here?" Mike wakes up.

"Yeah," Peter grunts, "we're here."

"I mean in LaCrosse," Mike growls.

"Right outside."

"Super," Mike grins. "What the hell time is it, anyway?"

"I don't know," Peter says. He turns to the driver. "Do you know what time it is?"

"Does it matter?" the driver answers.

"I guess not," Peter concedes.

"As long as it's not bar time," Mike conditions the response. Peter glares at him.

"Drinking's not very good for you," the driver mentions.

"Yeah," Mike snorts.

The truck passes a white on green road sign. "Is this the exit?" Peter asks Mike, hopefully.

"No," Mike asnswers. "The next one. I think." The truck passes the exit. Another sign comes into view. "This is it," Miker pronounces. "Hey," he leans past Peter and looks at the driver. "Let us off at the next ramp," he commands. The driver stares straight ahead, no indication that he heard. Mike grins at Peter. Peter looks up in the mirror. The eyes stare back down at him.

The truck slows down at the exit. Mike opens the door before it comes to a complete stop. "Thanks," Peter mumbles to the driver. He stares straight ahead, hands clasped on the steering wheel. Mike hops out and pulls the packs out of the back. Peter slides out. "Thanks again," he says, slamming the door. The truck pulls back on the highway. Peter shudders as he watches the taillights fade into the night.

"He was a real piece of work," Mike laughs, handing Peter a pack.

"Yeah," Peter agrees, slinging it over his shoulder, "a real piece of work."

Mike and Peter walk down the ramp to the dark road below. The cut under the highway and across the two lanes coming from and heading to LaCrosse. "Two rides," Mike grins. "The bare minimum because you got to stop in Tomah."

"It'll probably take more rides than that to get into town. I don't even know where the hell we're going."

"I know where we're going," Mike asserts. "We're going in the first fucking tavern we see and we'll call that low life up to come and get us."

"Great," Peter grunts. "Where's the nearest bar?"

"Quit bitching," Mike commands, "and walk."

Mike and Peter walk along the road. They turn around and show their thumbs to each passing car. Most cars do not even slow down. A few cars swerve playfully toward them, the hoots of their peers ringing out as Mike and Peter jump out of the way. A beer bottle flies out of a pickup truck shattering on the pavement in front of Mike, spraying his legs with broken glass. "He missed," Peter observes.

"Bastard," Mike growls.

An old station wagon slows down. A teenaged boy looks them over carefully before he stops the car. Mike and Peter jog over to the car. Mike yanks the front door open and slides in. "Thanks," he says, beaming at the slight, scrawny kid behind the wheel.

Peter slides into the back. "We're going into town," he announces. "Take us as far as you're going. Thanks."

The boys pulls the car away from the roadside. "I'm not going all the way in," he says."

"As far as you're going is fine," Peter assures him.

The boy drives without speaking. He glances over at Mike and into the rear view mirror to look at Peter. Peter looks out the window into the darkness, pretending not to notice. "Oktoberfest start?" Mike breaks the silence.

"Oh, yeah," the boy answers. "It started, alright." He looks at Mike. "Hey. You got any weed?"

"Weed?" Mike repeats, scornfully.

"Pot," the boy clarifies.

"I might," Mike says.

"Could you sell me some?" the boy asks, excited.

"Maybe," Mike ventures. "If I had some."

They drive in silence. The boy looks over at Mike suspiciously a few times, then angrily. Buildings line the road now. Large, dark structures looming over the blacktop. "This is as far as I go," the boy announces, pulling the car over to the side. He looks at Mike. "You gonna sell me some?" he asks hopefully.

Mike shakes his head. "Haven't got any to sell."

"Come on," the boy prods. "I'll pay for it."

"If I say I've sell you some, will you take us the rest of the way into town?" Mike ventures.

"Sell it to me first," the boy counters.

"Nope."

"Then show it to me," the boy demands. "At least show it to me."

Peter opens the back door and slides out of the car. Mike and the boy turn around at the sound. Peter slams the back door and opens Mike's. He leans into the car. "He hasn't got any," he tells the boy. "He's just jerking you around. Trying to get you take us the rest of the way."

"Hey," Mike shouts at Peter. "Stay the hell out of this. I'll sell him some if I want to."

"Get out," Peter snarls.

"No," Mike growls, "I've got business here."

"Hey, thanks for the ride," Peter says to the boy. He takes Mike by the arm. "Come on. There's a bar over there."

"Let go of me," Mike growls. Peter releases him. Mike slides out of the car. He turns to the boy. "Thanks. You know a boy like you shouldn't smoke pot." He slams the door and grins at Peter. "Delinquent," he spits.

Mike and Peter walk down the road to the neon bar signs. Country music pours out of the building into the parking lot. "Nice sound," Peter remarks.

"We're near the Mississippi," Mike says. "Everyone who drinks that water is stupid...."

"Or at least has no taste in music," Peter interrupts, pushing the door open, leading Mike into the bar. The music hits them with unexpected force. Peter stops. Mike walks into his back. The long dark room is full of smoke. A bar runs along the wall. A pool table sits in a clear space at the far end. People shout and dace and mill around. A man in a cowboy hat rells past them and staggers out the door. A stringy blonde smiles at Peter, the teeth she still has are yellow even in the dim bar. She slowly brushes her hair out of her eyes with her hand. A rose is tattooed on her forearm, a spider on the back of her hand.

Mike digs his knuckle into Peter's back. "A ride," he shouts into Peter's ear.

Peter nods and smiles back. "Hi," he shouts at the girl. She looks down at the floor, then looks back up at Peter under long thickly crusted eyelashes. She smiles shyly and clomps away.

"Good work," Mike shouts above the din. "Let's get a beer."

Peter nods and slips through the crowd to the bar. A grizzled old bartender leans over and look at him suspiciously and expectantly. "Pitcher of Old Style," Peter shouts. The bartender backs away and fills a plastic pitcher from the taps in the middle of the bar. He brings it back over, sloshing beer on the floor, and sets it down hard on the bar. He slams two small glasses down beside it. Peter pays. The bartender makes change slowly and painfully. "Why don't you call him?" Peter shouts.

"In a minute," Mike promises, pouring a glass of beer. He takes a long drink. Foam encircles his mouth. "Where's the phone?"

"How the hell would I know?"

Mike slams his glass back down on the bar and storms off into the crowd. Peter pours a glass of beer and sips slowly, watching the crowd mill around, aimlessly, drunkenly, happily. The stringy blonde clomps past. Peter tries to catch her eye. She looks purposefully away. A burly guy in a black cowboy hat glowers at Peter from across the room. "Shit," Peter says quietly, turning around to face the bar.

Mike slides in beside him and takes a sip from his glass. "You spit in this?" he shouts, accusing Peter playfully.

"Yup," Peter admits loudly. "Just be glad I didn't piss in it."

Mike nods. "Not home," he shouts.

"Bastard," Peter shouts back. "He knew we were coming."

"Let's finish this pitcher and go downtown. Where's that slut you're gonna get us a ride downtown with?"

"I think she's with someone," Peter shouts.

The music stops. "Pussy," Mike spits. Peter just grins and fills his glass from the pitcher. The music starts up again. "There she is," Mike shouts.

"I see her," Peter shouts back. "Look at the ugly guy in the black hat."

"Which one?" Mike shouts.

"That one, by the jukebox, yellow shirt."

"He's not that ugly," Mike argues. "What about him?"

"He's been looking at me."

"Think he's a queer cowboy?" Mike taunts.

"No. I think he's got an interest in the tatooed blonde."

"Jesus," Mike exclaims. "What's gotten into you?" He shakes his head sadly. "Go over there and kick his ass."

Peter grins and fills his glass again. "You're absolutely right. I'll just finish this beer and go over there and kick his ass. I don't know what got into me. Thanks for straightening me out."

"Don't mention it," Mike shouts, filling his own glass from the pitcher.

The stringy blonde clomps through the crowd and slips up to the bar beside Peter. She ignores him, staring back at the bartender, trying to get his attention. "Excuse me," Peter shouts. She leans farther over the bar, her breasts spilling out over the top of her yellow tank top. Peter gazes into the the crevice of flesh for an instant then looks up quickly at the glowering man in the black hat. "Excuse me," Peter shouts a little louder, reaching out and touching her bare arm lightly.

She turns and smiles, displaying the gaps between her yellow teeth again. "Me?" she giggles.

"You," Peter confirms, looking into her mouth, swallowing hard.

"What?" she giggles shyly.

"You should order your drinks at that end of the bar," Peter shouts, smiling benignly, giving advice.

"Why?" she giggles.

"Because your friend in the black hat doesn't like to see us together."

"What?"

Peter jerks his head toward the angry man. "He thinks I'm trying to pick you up."

She looks at the man in the black hat. He looks away. "Are you?" she giggles.

"Of course," Peter says, watching the man in the black hat.

"Well, you can forget about it," she laughs.

"Why?" Peter asks, surprised. "You think I can't take that guy?"

She flicks her stringy blonde hair out of her eyes and looks across the room at the man in the black hat. "I don't care about him," she sniffs contemptuously. "But, I don't care about you either. Besides, he'll kill you."

"So you do care about me," Peter shouts. "You're worried I'll get hurt."

"No, I'm not."

"Well, you should," Peter shouts. "That guy could kill me."

She laughs. "Some tough guy you are."

"I don't have to be a tough guy," Peter says. "I've got a bodyguard." He taps Mike on the shoulder. Mike turns slowly. "Mike," he shouts. "I'd like you to meet my fiancee. Wendy, this is my bodyguard, Mike."

"My name's not Wendy," she shouts to Mike. "It's Donna. And I'm not his fiancee. Nice to meet you."

"Nice to meet you," Mike shouts.

Peter leans over to Donna's ear. "The only problem is that he's a wimp. You can't get good help anymore." Donna looks up at him, puzzled. "Want a beer?" Peter offers.

"Tequila sunrise," she says.

"So be it." Peter turns to the bar. "Hey, bartender," he shouts. "Tequila sunrise." The bartender drags himself down the bar and mixes the drink. He puts it down on the bar in front of Donna, spilling the top half inch out onto the wood. Peter pays. The bartender shuffles off to make change.

"You guys here for Oktoberfest?" Donna asks.

"Nope," Peter says. "We're on our way to the Florida Keys."

"Really?" she lights up.

"Yup," Peter nods seriously.

"Where you coming from?" she asks.

"Montana," Peter replies.

"What do you do there?" she asks.

"We live off the land."

"Really?" she sighs.

"We're on our way to see a friend here," Mike interrupts. "You know where this is?" he shows her a piece of paper.

"That's downtown," she says. "You don't want to go there tonight. It's Oktoberfest."

"What's that?" Peter asks.

"Well," she replies, "it's like a festival."

"A festival?" Mike asks.

"Yeah. People come from miles around and get drunk and get arrested."

"Sounds interesting," Peter muses. "Want to show us where it is."

Donna looks around the bar. "Yeah. I'll take you. But you gotta meet me outside. I don't want everyone to see me leave with you guys."

Peter shrugs. "We'll walk down the road a couple of hunderd yards."

"I'll be out in a few minutes," she promises.

Donna takes her drink into the crowd with her. MIke and Peter gulp down the rest of the pitcher. "I did it again," Mike boasts.

"Did what? I picked her up."

"I chose her," Mike says. "Hey, bartender," Mike shouts. "Give us a six pack of Old Style, here. We're going." The bartender takes the beer out of a glass-doored cooler, slips it into a paper bag and trudges down the bar. Mike picks Peter's change off the bar and pays. He crams the change into Peter's shirt pocket. "Thanks, buddy."

Peter shrugs and leads Mike out through the door into the cold night air in the parking lot. Miker crams the beer into his pack and struggles to zip it closed. They cross the road and walk slowly toward town. Cars full of screaming youth shoot past them. They hug the shoulder and look back in the direction of the traffic often. "Think she's gonna come?" Peter asks.

"If she doesn't, it's because you screwed up," Mike says.

"Yeah," Peter grunts. "I kind of knew you'd see it that way."

"Is there another?"

A car passes the slowly and pulls off the road. Mike and Peter jog up to it, a rusty Nova. Peter pulls the door open and flips the seat up for Mike to get into the back. "Bastard," Mike whispers as he slips by. Peter pushes the seat back and slides in beside Donna. The car pulls out into the road.

"Thanks," Peter grins.

She laughs, relieved. "Oh, it wasn't nothing."

They drive in silence into town. Police cars are parked conspicuously at many corners. Uniformed officers pace slowly down the streets. "It's quiet here," Peter says.

"Yeah," Mike cackles from the back seat, "too quiet."

"Your friend lives down that street," Donna says. Mike and Peter spin around to look at the corner, trying to commit it to memeory. "We should park down here a little and walk the rest of the way," Donna says. The cruise slowly through a few more intersections. Donna pulls the car over. They pile out. "You can leave your packs," Donna offers.

"What if we get separated?" Peter asks.

"Hell with that," Mike says. "I've got the beer in mine."

Mike, Donna and Peter walk down the dark, quiet street. A Deputy Sheriff looks at them dispassionately. They nod. He doesn't acknowledge their existence. The street starts to fill with drunk, rowdy kids, hooting and shouting and yelling for no reason, their faces flushed with alcohol and excitement. More police appear. The kids have taken the streets from the cars. The police line the sidewalks, forcing most of the crowd away from the sides of the buildings. Donna leads them around a corner. The street is packed with kids. Small pockets of police officers float in the crowd, trapped by the sheer number of reeling, careening youth. Donna leads them to the shelter of a building on the corner. A barber pole stands erect in the middle of the crowd. Mike points up. Peter looks and nods. He hands Mike his pack and scales the front of the building, perching on the top of the barber shop roof. Mike tosses the packs up gently. Donna looks at Peter and then at Mike. She giggles and allows Mike to boost her up. Peter pulls her the rest of the way by her arms. Mike scrambles up after her. He reaches into his bag and pulls three cans of beer out. He hands one to Peter. Donna shakes her head. Mike crams it back into the bag.

"What do you think, Mike?" Peter surveys the scene below. "We got the best seats in the house?"

Mike pops his beer can open. "Cheers."

Donna shakes her head. "They're gonna clear the street soon. I hope they don't see us."

Mike takes a long drink. "Tell them we kidnapped you. They'll let you off."

The police form a phalanx at the far end of the street. A few people in the crowd toss debris at the officers, beer cans and bottles mostly, but the bulk of the crowd seems unaware of the police presence. The police ignore the trash, but watch the crowd warily. "Here they come," Donna warns. The police slowly move down the street, pushing the crowd in front of them. Some people in the front line of the crowd resist. The police subdue them instantly, but gently, and pass them back through the ranks to be held by those at the back. The crowd starts to shout as the police compress them. More bottles fly, many of them falling far short of the target, landing in the front of crowd. A young man's head explodes in blood as a bottle smashes against his temple. The crowd around him screams. They surge in all directions. People fall, covering up as they go down. The police push the crowd back, arresting a few, moving the rest.

"Damn, we got good seats," chuckles Mike evilly.

"Yup," Peter agrees.

"Those cops are good," Mike says. "Look how well they move them out of the street. Must be outnumbered fifty to one. They just keep going."

"They got two small advantages," Peter says. "They got guns and they're sober."

"They're not using their guns," Mike scoffs.

"Let's hope they don't have to," Peter adds.

The police push the entire crowd out of the street and around the corner. A few police cars sit at the far end of the street, leaving at brief intervals, carrying back seats full of drunk kids somewhere for processing. The last car pulls away. The street is deserted.

"Well," Mike says, "that was a good show."

"A little short," Peter says. "But pretty good."

"Let's get the hell down," Donna interrupts, "before they come back and arrest us all."

Peter laughs and moves to the edge of the roof. He lowers himself part way and drops lightly to the sidewalk. Mike tosses the packs down. Donna slides off the roof. Peter guides her feet until she is low enough to let go. Mike lowers himself after her.

Mike, Donna and Peter walk down the deserted street, retracing their steps to the car. A police car passes them, slowing down to take a look, then speeding up and rounding the next corner. They climb back into the Nova. Donna makes a U turn. They cruise slowly back the way they came. "I'll drop you at your friend's," Donna offers.

"Thanks," Peter grunts. "You can hang out if you want to."

Donna looks ahead, thinking. "What's the house number?"

"Four two four," Mike answers from the back.

Donna slows the car and makes a right turn. They creep down the tree-lined street, peering out at the houses, trying to spot a house number. "I think it's the next block," Donna says. She pulls the car up in front of a small frame house. "This is it," she announces sadly.

"Want to come in?" Peter asks. "I'm sure he's got a bottle of Tequila."

"No," she sighs. "I've got to get home. I have to get up early with the kids."

"Kids?" Peter asks. "You've got kids?"

"Yes," she says softly. "Two. A boy and a girl. They're staying with my mom." She pauses. "I'm divorced. Well, separated, anyway."

"Oh," Peter says. "Well, thanks for the ride and the tour." He opens the door and slides out.

Mike pushes the seat forward. "Thanks," he grins, struggling to get out.

Peter leans inside the open door. "We'll be here all weekend. Come by if you want."

"Maybe," she says wistfully.

"Good bye," Peter says quietly. He turns and looks at Mike striding up the walk to the front door. "Good bye," he says, slamming the door gently. The car pulls away. Peter turns and jogs up to the door. Mike pounds at it angrily. "Hey," Peter hisses, "don't wake the neighbors."

Mike scowls at him but pounds a little softer. The door swings open. A young man looks through the screen at them. "Yes?" he asks, hesitantly.

"Where the hell is Rick," Mike demands. "We're supposed to be staying with him."

"Rick?" the man asks, faltering. "Rick? Rick is dead."

"What?" Peter asks.

"He overdosed. Last night. They just disconnected the respirator. Maybe an hour ago." The man sniffs loudly.

"What the hell did he take?" Mike demands.

"Cocaine," the man sobs. "Not that much. He just never woke up."

"Who the hell are you?" Peter shouts.

"I'm a friend of his."

"Were you with him?" Peter shouts.

"I took him to the hospital," the man says softly. "I called his mother. She's inside. She's taking him back for the funeral."

Peter takes a deep breath. "See you," he grunts. He turns and walks down the path to the street. MIke follows him. They turn around and look back at the house. The man still stands behind the screen door. "Give me a beer," he snarls. Mike takes two cans out of his pack. He hands one to Peter and opens the other. Peter pops the other can open. They each take a swig of warm beer. "Let's go," Peter says softly.

Mike and Peter trudge down the street, LaCrosse at their back. "Let's go to Tomah," Mike says, resigned.

Copyright 2005 Matthew Lederman. All rights reserved
Contact: matt@matthewlederman.com