Spring/Summer 1994, Volume 11.1
Fiction

Kristen Rogers
The Desert Star

From where she stands behind the counter of the eGoodee Caf6, Maureen watches the two city boys walk up from the interchange. She is stacking cups and they are whistling and good looking and carrying suitcases. They come up to Main Street and stand at the corner, looking up and down. They glance at the caf6 on the left and at the vacant train station, which is the only building in town that has retained any dignity, straight ahead.

The city boys grin and nudge each other, standing there on the cracked road, their hair rumpled, their jackets tossed over their shoulders. Main Street, which was the main highway in the days before the freeway, is now only a cleavage in a town of gutted houses, falling sheds, old tires and cars, sprung couches. It is March. The trees that hang carelessly over the decay have softened and will be green.

Maureen sees them smirk, the city boys, as they look up and down the street. There's the motel; its broken windows gape. And the gas station, with its doubtful pumps, its doubtful pop machine. A couple of mobile homes. And the Desert Star Hotel.

It suits the city boys. They walk past the caf6 to the hotel. Maureen, behind the formica, yellow hair hanging to her waist, watches them pass.

Al and Dave step up to the weathered door marked Office, Please Knock. They pound the wood and wait. Al pulls faces at the concave mirror that hovers over the door.

Mrs. Loomis, big-jowled, making her heavy way along the hall, won't bother to glance at the mirror. "Who is it, then?" calls out Frank Tinney from the parlor.

"Just let me get the door open," she says and gives the door a yank. The city boys stare at her from the other side of the screen. One of them grins. The other scowls. Edna Loomis, basset-eyed, looks at them, and the grinning one speaks up.

"Got a room?"

Her chin and the flesh beneath it twitch; she looks down at them through heavy-lidded eyes and nods and pushes open the screen. "Who is it, then?" calls out Frank Tinney, hobbling out of the parlor.

"Car trouble," the city boy says, as though he needs to explain himself. "Car's down at the station off the freeway." His eyes never meet Mrs. Loomis's square on. "We've got nice rooms," says Mrs. Loomis. "Twenty-six dollars a night.

With dinner, it comes to thirty-one, but that's up to you."

"Anything to do in this town?" says the city boy.

Mrs. Loomis scratches inside her ear. "You can go on over to the caf6. Tell Maureen I sent you. My granddaughter, Maureen. There's video games and that over there."

Frank Tinney looks at her sharply. "Hell," he says. "You should of been around twenty, thirty years ago, when the mine was open. You would of seen something then."

In back of the Desert Star Hotel stand a half acre of ambiguous outbuildings, shadowed by the falling light of afternoon. Although the buildings are now little more than piles of damp lumber, one particular fabrication, a rickety little pen, seems to be in use. Someone has painted "Calamity Jane" on a board and nailed it over the chicken-wire door.

Al and Dave stand there, studying a couple of mutilated rabbit carcasses inside the pen. After a moment, Al turns away, whistling through his teeth; he looks down the road, along the telephone wires stretching off to somewhere else. Dave hunkers over and squints into a small square hole cut into a square box. A wild face glints out of the blackness.

"Look at this." Dave squats down and presses his face against the wire. "Hey, you. Hey, Calamity Jane."

Al peers in. "Bobcat," he says, and kicks the pen. A low snarl comes from the box. Dave slides his fingers through the wire, coaxing the cat with little tongue noises and the promise of fresh meat. Al stands around, kicking rocks across the highway. There hasn't been a car by yet and there probably won't be.

Dave gets a stick and toys with Calamity. The cat hisses and retreats into the dark of the box, but Dave means no harm and tells her so. To show good faith he tosses the stick away. He sits down on the cool spring ground, grinning at the cat as she glares back through the square hole.

"Come on," says Al. "Let's get out of here."

"Goddamn," Dave says. "A live bobcat."

"Come on," says Al again, then he heads off alone toward the caf6. He glances back, petulant, a few times.

Maureen sits at the counter leafing through a magazine while Al appraises her through the window. The features of her face are heavy and sullen. She reads with her mouth slightly open, and from time to time she yawns in an unconscious way. Her flat cheeks are uncommonly pink.

Al watches her through the window until Maureen, perhaps instinctively, looks up. A sudden light, a self-awareness, flashes in her eyes. Al grins, winks, and comes around to the door.

"Hiya," he says.

Her cheeks redden.

"Nice day, huh?"

She nods once.

He swaggers over to the counter and leans across. "You live here?"

She nods again.

"You talk?"

She ducks her eyes away from him. "Yeah."

"Come on, babe. You don't have to be scared of me." Al squeezes onto a barstool, not moving his eyes from her face. "Do I look scary? Huh?"

She glances around the caf6 as if someone is in the corner, listening. "No,"she says.

"Okay. All right. How about a beer then?" He watches her. Watches her fumble with the bottle, watches her hips. She smiles a little as she sets the bottle and a glass on the counter in front of him. He grins.

"You got a name?"

"Maureen."

"Maureen." He reaches his hand across and touches her hair. "Well.

Come on around here, Maureen. Come on over and sit by me." A look of vague alarm comes into her eyes. "Come on. Hey, you want customers, you gotta give the customers service. Come on over and talk to a lonely stranger. You know how lonely it is to be a stranger in a strange town? Come on."

She considers. After a moment, she complies. At first, she sits facing straight ahead, her hands gripping the edge of the counter, looking at him sideways. After a while, she swivels toward him and leans her cheek on her hand and lets him talk. He grins and talks. jokes. Becomes earnest, his hands describing the places he's been. Headed to L.A. now. He grins at her. She gets up and brings back another glass and a couple more beers. She watches how his hair curls over his ears, how his nervous fingers stroke his glass. When he belches and then laughs, she giggles behind her hand. Now and then she nods or makes a short contribution to the conver sation. Her face has lightened some.

Al is grinning and grinning at her, talking and looking at her in a way that makes her heart feel as though it's a bird fluttering against the walls of her chest.

Neither Dave nor Calamity have moved. Dave fiddles with a twig, conversing with the cat like an old pal.

"You got it easy, honey," he tells her. "Nice place to stay, plenty of food..." He snaps the twig. "What son of a bitch stuck you in here, anyway?"

Edna Loomis and Frank have finished speculating about the two strangers.

"They look like nice young men," says Mrs. Loomis, stirring up gravy at the stove. "Nice for Maureen to meet."

Frank does not reply. He stands up stiffly and says, "Well, I'll fetch Maureen and them for supper." He pulls on the old plaid jacket like he does every afternoon about this time when he walks over to the caf6 for Maureen. Edna is indifferent; just like every afternoon, she fusses about the kitchen. Frank is as good as husband to her and has been ever since Mr. Loomis passed on.

Frank sees Dave at the cage. He ambles over. "Damn fine cat," he says. "Eh?"

Dave looks up and scowls.

"Caught er myself, up there in Lyman Wash, about forty, fifty miles from here." Frank gestures with his head toward the mountains on the horizon. "Brought it back here to Edna's place, for one of them tourist attractions, don't you know." Calamity has retreated into her box. Frank stoops and picks up a handful of pebbles and hurls them at her.

"Quit it!" says Dave.

Calamity has fled to the rear of the box. Frank cackles.

"I got Edna to put a sign up on the freeway that says, 'Live Wildcat, Next Exit.' Watch this," he says and, picking up a stick, he pokes the box and rattles it violently. Calamity snarls short and pained and springs through the square hole to pace in tight circles around the pen.

Dave grabs Frank by the jacket and yanks him to his feet. The stick falls to the ground inside the cage. "Don't you do that," Dave yells. "Don't you do that again."

Frank is old, but not servile. He jerks free.

"Let me tell you something, son," he says. "That there's my animal, not yours nor any city boy's. I can shoot the damn thing if I please." He shuffles away toward the cafe, declaring in a sour voice, "Edna says come in for supper.

At the caf6 he finds Al and Maureen. He can pretty well see what's going on.

The wallpaper in the dining room has been painted rose pink, and is peeling along the seams. Mrs. Loomis, satisfied, surveys the table. Al has asked for seconds and thirds; this pleases her. Frank is sopping up the rest of his gravy with a ball of bread, retelling the history of the bobcat while Maureen traces the pink flowers on her plate with her fork.

That child hasn't said two words, thinks Edna, exasperated. But then, neither has the gloomy one. Maybe he doesn't like her cooking. Maybe he doesn't like Maureen. No matter. The other one-Al-has sparkled, telling long and probably untrue stories about himself, turning often and meaning fully toward Maureen.

Frank, too, has noticed these gestures and, noticing again, he talks faster and louder. He will teach both of these boys a thing or two.

"Funny thing," he is saying. "That little cat is the spitting image of Doralee Watkins. Old flame of mine." He cackles. "The spitting image. Flighty little gal. " Maureen gets up to clear the plates. "Wonder what makes females so flighty," Frank says. He looks from Dave to Al.

"Set it loose," Al suddenly says.

"Naw," says Frank. "Can't do that. You set it loose and it'll just go out and starve itself. Doesn't know how to catch its dinner any better than Edna there could." He snorts out a laugh.

Edna pushes herself up. "Well of all the things. You know I can handle a gun, Frank."

"She's been in that cage nine years now," Frank says. He takes his napkin and works it all around his mouth. "Dumb as a rock. Vicious too."

Dave, morose, is watching the salt shaker.

Maureen comes back for more dishes. Frank talks louder. "But she sure brings in the business." Maureen is bending over the table. He looks at her bosom. "Now that Maureen, there's another troublemaker." His eyes follow her as she gathers silverware. "Anybody can see that."

Edna is in the kitchen now, and they can hear the clinking of silverware.

"Oh, I don't know," Al says. "I think Maureen is a wonderful woman." Maureen freezes. She allows her eyes to dart in Al's direction, and he gives her a long and tender glance. Frank's eyebrows contract. Maureen's face is scarlet. Suddenly she turns and, without a word, leaves the room. They hear the heavy fast sound of her footsteps going up the stairs.

"Now look here, Maureen," Frank calls after her. His eyes are fixed on the door she has gone through. His mouth is working up and down. He puts his hands on the arms of his chair to push himself up.

"Just sit down, Frank," says Edna, coming in with dessert.

He blinks at her.

"We have guests, Frank. Sit down," she repeats, and he sits, meek, waiting for his banana cream pie. Dave mumbles that he's full and wanders outside. Al, however, finishes two pieces of pie. Then he stands up and says maybe he'll just go upstairs and try to cheer up the little lady. Frank begins to protest, but his voice trails off under Edna's glance.

The night is cloudy, windy, unseasonably warm. Maureen and Al are walking along the tracks. When he slips an arm around her shoulders she shudders some. He pulls her closer.

"Where'd you get all that hair?" he murmurs.

"I don't know. It just grew."

"A regular Lady Godiva."

She looks confused.

"Say, Maureen, do you know a place where we could sit, where we could have a little privacy?" He turns his dark eyes on her. She nods.

Frank Tinney is hobbling through the night in the wrong direction. "Maureen! Maw-reeen! Where are you, honey?" he calls as he weaves his way down the highway.

Dave, sitting by the bobcat cage, contemplating the latch, watches him pass.

Edna Loomis has finished up the dishes, put on her robe and hairnet, and turned on the t.v.

Maureen leads At to a patch of grass which is surrounded by thick clumps of unleafed lilac bushes. They sit. The branches shift in the wind, and At begins to kiss her neck.

"Hey," she says. 1 don't hardly know you."

His hands begin to pull her down. "Sure you know me," he murmurs. "I'm crazy about you."

She slides away from him. "You can't be. You don't know me."

At scoots close and runs his hand over her breast. "Oh," he says in a low voice. "Baby. You wild thing."

She gasps a little and pushes at his hand. "Stop it," she says, letting her head lean in his direction. "You don't know one thing." She pauses.

"I know you're beautiful," At says. He pulls at her, runs his fingers through her heavy hair.

She keeps talking, as though words will keep her mind clear. "I have my ambitions. I'm saving, for secretarial school."

At touches her face with his hand. She shivers, but she keeps talking, faster now.

"Besides, I've got a boyfriend, over in Monroe. Every week he asks me to marry him. But I tell him no. I tell him-"

"Sh," says Al. He kisses her mouth. His tongue fills the ache in her throat. The world goes dark.

She shakes her head loose and opens her eyes. "I tell him-."

"Maureen, Maureen," At breathes. It sounds like love to her. His hands are burning against her skin.

"Maybe later, I tell him. I don't know."

"Oh, what you're doing to me," says Al. His body crushes her, she feels herself falling.

"I know where she is," says Frank out loud, beneath the town's only streetlamp.

Calamity is being coy.

"I want to leave here," pants Maureen. "I want to leave this old place."

"Mmm," moans Al.

Maureen pushes him away and sits up. Her hair hangs around her face like a veil.

"Do you think I should leave?" she asks, pushing the veil aside and searching his face for wisdom.

"Oh. Yes. Yes. Baby." Al pulls her back down, back into his passion. He envelops her.

"What if I went with you, Al'' she murmurs gratefully. "What if I went with you to L.A.?"

"Oh," says Al. "Baby."

Calamity will not be coaxed.

Clouds cover and uncover the moon. The night drifts on and the moon is winking. There are long red marks on Dave's arms. He has set his teeth together.

In a transient patch of moonlight, Al glimpses a tombstone through the bare branches. He is up in a second.

"You crazy or something?" he yells. "This is a cemetery!" The warm wind carries his voice away.

She looks at him dumbly.

But Al avoids death whenever he can, and he is shaking as he ducks out of the bushes and runs straight into Frank Tinney.

Calamity is free.

Maureen is slow and haughty as she emerges from the bushes. She ignores the rantings of the old man; she walks back along the prim tracks, toward the Desert Star and Grandma Edna, listening to the voices rise behind her.

When she looks back to see Al knock the old man down she knows that the citv bovs will have to leave, tonight.

She does not come down to help mop up Frank's nose as he lies moaning in the parlor, but she does stand at her window, in the dark, to see the city boys and their suitcases retreat down Main Street. To L.A., she thinks. Wherever it is, whatever it is. Her mouth feels hollow. Al is jaunty, swinging his free arm and whistling, and Maureen watches until they turn the corner at the cafe and disappear.

Early next morning she puts on a clean blouse and goes to open the caf6.

Li A few freeway people stop in for sweet rolls and coffee. Mid-morning a couple of the oldt imers amble in.

"Too bad about the bobcat," says one, taking off his cap and setting it on the counter.

"And old Frank-heard his eye was all swoll shut," says the other.

"Damndest thing-that bobcat," says Maureen.

The first runs his fingers through his few dirty strands of hair. "City boys slit its throat," he says. "Ditched town. You knew that."

Maureen stares out the window at the bare cottonwoods. Clouds are hanging low and dark outside. After the rain, the trees will leaf out.

She pours coffee for the two, and they sit at the counter, hunched over their cups, breathing in the steam's warmth.