Reg bought into the Wintercreek the summer he was 16 on the strength of the work he’d been doing summers and vacations for the past five years. The Legion baseball coach called every day for two weeks when he found out. Reg was the finest slap-hitting third baseman he’d ever seen, said the coach. A regular Wade Boggs. Leo Van, Reg’s father, finally asked the coach to stop pestering the boy. Though he agreed it was a damn shame. But Reg had made up his mind. And Reg wasn’t big on shifting his mind around once he got it somewhere.
Reg could dig in corrugations at the the field ends for twelve solid hours, catch three hours’ sleep, roll out of bed at the first alarm beep for the midnight set, sleep a couple hours after, and be up before summer dawn to feed the stock, day after day after day. When the front-end loader went on the fritz, he hauled endless buckets of ground corn and hay bales across the yard to the feeders. Then he tore the loader into a greasy mass of parts, puzzling out repairs without a word of advice from his father or older brothers Hannibal and Frank. He hunted down a pack of wild dogs in the draws that had savaged the springcalves. He put up new fence on four sections. When school started, he reluctantly went off with a yellow cartoon-character backpack. His mother had picked it out for him, since he refused to go into town for school supplies. He raced home from school, trying to get in a day’s work before dark, counting the months and days till schooling was done. He had zero interest in college. After high school, Reg hardly ever left the spread.
Eldest brother Hannibal was back from college and restless. He pulled his weight, but seemed merely to be waiting for Frank to graduate college and come home. Suspicions were confirmed when Hannibal left for the East not three months after Frank returned, promises to be back “someday soon” strewn all over the spread. Frank simmered but stayed put. He had no real heart for farm work, but no strength to leave. Leo’s health started on a slow downward spiral and the next years were hard. The Wintercreek was a hell of a spread for three men, one aging, one half-hearted. Leo finally signed on to a government set-aside program one spring. More than half the Wintercreek was let lay fallow. Reg, 21-year old virgin workhorse, found himself with a lot less to do.
One Saturday night, he was persuaded by buddies off neighboring spreads to go in to Steppe. They went straight to Turtleback’s, where his buddies said the girls were. Reg wasn’t much for pool or tequila. He blushed enormously when a girl talked to him, thinking she was making fun of him. He retreated to the bar. The bartender was Reg’s old PE teacher, Mr. Harris. Mr. Harris had been run out of Steppe High for showing smutty websites to students and making one too many “surprise inspections” of the girl’s locker room. He remembered Reg’s uncanny instinct at the plate. He poured Reg up a beer.
“Suppose you’re too busy out on the farm to play much ball these days, huh?” asked Mr. Harris.
“Was,” said Reg. “But Dad’s got half the damn place on set-aside. Bout going out of my skull.”
“It’s no kind of life.”
“Tell you what. We could use some help behind the bar here. Hourly and tips. What do you say?”
Reg thought of a long summer watching weeds overrun the fallow fields.
“All right,” he said.
It was hard at first, all the talking to strangers. He was so nervous he couldn’t stop smiling. Which naturally made him popular overnight. As the tip jar filled up, he learned dirty jokes and statistical trivia and concocted the best margarita mix in the county. He was never late and never left his feet. He broke up fights with gentle threats. He had female admirers, but never took their meaning when they flirted. Then along came Mindy.
She drank whisky sours at the bar, smoking thin cigarettes and watching Reg. The first three times she came in, she didn’t say anything except to order, and she didn’t tip. Reg noticed her and didn’t look over, that goofy smile plastered to his face. Being eyeballed always kept it there. The only time it hadn’t was stepping up to the plate. Her fourth time in, Mr. Harris said his usual something about Reg’s cheek muscles getting a hell of a workout. He thought she was a bit old for Reg, maybe, but not bad-looking for all that. As Reg handed her a whisky sour, she said,
“You don’t much know how to talk to a woman, do you?”
“Ma’am?” said Reg.
“You got a name?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Let’s have it then,” said Mindy.
She was waiting for Reg out in the parking lot after closing time. Would he maybe like to come over for a drink or two, she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I got water to set in the morning.”
“A farm boy,” said Mindy.
“That explains it. Come here, farm boy.”
She kissed him right there, her smoky tongue darting deftly with a glazy warmth wholly new to rough Reg, hands up his T-shirt, lacquered nails flicking his nipples. She pulled away with a steep smile.
“How bout that drink?” she said.
“Right behind you,” said Reg.
He followed about three feet behind her back bumper. His stomach roiled and his arms twitched and a small wet spot appeared in his jeans. On the outskirts of town, they pulled into a trailer park with tar blacktop streets, a surface not seen elsewhere in the county for years. Mindy pulled up in front of a burnt-orange and brown singlewide. He parked on the street, pickup taking up more than half its width. She was waiting for him under a flickering plastic light at the door.
He sat on a stool in the kitchenette while she mixed drinks and tried to keep his hands steady on the yellow-stained Formica countertop. They were about to toast when a bleary-eyed blonde child in a long nightgown walked in. She took no notice of Reg.
“Rhonda,” said Mindy. “Mommy’s a little busy right now.”
“Can I get a water?” asked Rhonda.
“Dammit, I told you —”
She looked over at Reg and stopped.
“Would you mind?” she asked.
A plastic cup on the counter seemed to be the cleanest of the various filthy items sitting in and around the sink. He delicately shifted a couple dishes out of the way and filled the cup. Rhonda glugged it down and wiped her mouth gigantically on her sleeve.
“Say thank you,” said Mindy.
“Thank you,” said Rhonda, slitting her eyes in his general direction. “Is that Harry?”
“No, sweetie pie,” said Mindy. “This is Reg. Reg has got a big big farm.”
“Are there horses on it?”
With a startled glance, Reg saw both females were waiting on the answer.
“Sure,” he said. “We got horses.”
“Back to bed,” said Mindy.
“Goodnight, Mario,” said Rhonda, and went down the narrow hallway.
“Maybe I should get going,” said Reg.
“No way, buster. Don’t you worry about her. She won’t get up again. She almost never does. Neither does Harv.”
“My son. Sleeps like a rock.”
She kissed his neck. Reg had nothing to say against that, even if he’d really wanted to. They picked their way through a minefield of squeaky toys to Mindy’s bedroom at the far end of the
Reg’s eyes snapped open at his normal 4:45. He was more than an hour’s drive from the Wintercreek. He disentangled himself from the sheets and heavily snoring Mindy, who mumbled unintelligible phrases in her sleep. He dressed and strapped on his boots. Outside it was already light. He rummaged around on the vanity and found a pen
cil stub. On the back of a 2nd notice cable bill, he wrote his name and number. He shut the door quietly and didn’t rev the pickup starting it.
He didn’t feel too much different. But all he could think about was her. Whose last name he didn’t even know. Not being too good with streets, he wasn’t sure he could find her trailer again. But if she didn’t call, there was Turtleback’s. She didn’t call.
The day of his next shift, he finished up irrigating an hour early. Leo raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything. He’d noticed Reg rolling into the yard way past dawn the other morning. Leo had been two years in the jungle killing commie peasants, pitchforked his way through a case of Hep C, and kept the Wintercreek together through the driest, meanest years this country of God’s had ever seen. He’d come to see how a man doesn’t control but a small part of his destiny. He had an idea what was hounding the boy and knew better than to think there was anything to be done. After Reg’s dust trail disappeared from the ranch road, he went out and checked the boy’s sets for the first time in years. They were spot-on perfect.
Early to work, Reg nearly sweated out the careful styling of his hair energetically hauling crates of beer to the bar. He kept so steady a watch on the entrance customers got shunted and cocktail waitresses had to shout for his attention. She didn’t come. Near closing time he volunteered for a shift the next night and poured himself some liberal bar drinks in quick succession. Mr. Harris noticed, but kept quiet, this being Reg’s first time. Sitting in the parking lot, he thought about looking for her trailer. But what to do if he got there? He went home.
The next shift was much the same. Until midnight, when she walked in. She came up to the bar and waited for him to pour up a round of beers.
She said, “How you been, steamy britches?”
When they got to the trailer, the kids were up and watching cartoons. They called him by name and Harv, a perilously thin boy of seven or eight, asked to be picked up. When Reg obliged, he delivered a cookie-wet kiss to Reg’s cheek. Reg put Harv down and said, “Don’t they have school?”
“Summer, silly,” said Mindy.
She tottered against the countertop from the tequila shots Reg had comped her. He steadied her out.
“Think I should drive you home next time,” he said.
“Don’t nag me, now. Just when I’m getting to enjoy being the bartender’s girlfriend.”
Reg helped her get the kids to bed, who insisted on a bednight story. When they got to Mindy’s bedroom, it was 3:30. Mindy went for his zipper. Reg looked at the paper thin walls.
“Won’t they hear?” he asked
“Didn’t you just put them to sleep?” said Mindy.
He didn’t take long, but after it was still too late for sleep. He stroked Mindy’s dirty blonde hair and watched for dawn. He had plenty of work at the Wintercreek and then the Friday shift at Turtleback’s and then, he hoped, back here again. He didn’t see how he’d ever sleep again. He didn’t see how he’d want to. Mindy was asleep. He wanted to tell her everything he’d ever been. But look at her there, so peaceful. He kept quiet, watching the time go, chuckling soundlessly to think of himself loafing around.
When it was time, he slipped out from under her. His belt buckle rattled when he cinched it up and Mindy’s eyes flicked open.
“So soon, babe?” she said, stretching out her arms.
“I got work to do,” he said, but went to her anyway.
After, he got up to go.
“Ah, don’t look like that,” said Mindy. “I’ll see you again real soon. Mommy’ll give you all the sugar you want then, too.”
“I know,” said Reg.
“Listen, babe, I hate to ask. But I’m running a bit short this month.”
He was soon at the trailer as often as he could swing it. He even started dropping by before shifts. He didn’t like to think of himself as a puppy, but he guessed he was.
One time he came by and the kids were planted in front of the TV. He started giving out Rodeo Rides. Mindy came out wrapped in a towel and pissed off. She said she had to get ready and how could she with all the racket, and why didn’t he call before he came over like people do. Harv and Rhonda stared and the TV blared. He looked at her dry hair.
She said, “I barely got in when you started clomping around.”
He apologized, but she still made him leave. He went out hangdog, not saying goodbye to the kids. Which he felt bad about, so he went back in real quiet. The kids hugged him tightly and kept looking toward the back. Where Mindy was being pretty noisy taking that shower. In at Turtleback’s, he told himself it’d be a while before he’d show his face round there again. He told himself that all night. At closing time he slipped the busboy to do his cleanup and was back at the trailer ten minutes later.
It was like nothing had happened. Mindy was all smiles and Harv wanted to go outside and play catch, late as it was. Reg promised to come by Sunday for a round. Mindy fired him up some burritos in the microwave. Rhonda brought him milk. Family-feeling, almost. Later, after a couple rounds in the bedroom, Reg asked what was the deal with the kids. Mindy said it was a long story but wasn’t neither one of their daddies worth a broke dick.
“Were you married?” asked Reg.
“To them?” said Mindy.
“To Harv’s daddy. For a little while. But the sonofabitch had it annullified. Been skipping out on child support ever since.”
Reg didn’t much want to know more. So he caught an hour’s sleep.
As the skies threatened snow, he was still keeping it up. Except for a little stretch there during harvest, he was regular as a heartbeat round Mindy’s. He got so he didn’t like some of the conditions she and the kids were living in, so he did some fixit work—wiring, plumbing, storm windows, satellite dish. And he made sure Mindy, who took a temperamental disliking to anyone named “boss”, stayed off food stamps. The kids got to swarming him at the door. He took them school shopping the last day of summer vacation. Mindy had had too much the night before and wouldn’t drag herself out of bed. Meanwhile he didn’t think he was giving anyone at the Wintercreek cause to say he was slacking. What he didn’t do much of was sleep. He got used to it.
Winter came and decided to stick around. With the harvest in the bins and the cattle grazing safe on the lower pastures, things slowed down to a slug’s crawl round the Wintercreek. Reg got to thinking about that 12-mile drive down the ranch road through snowdrifts and blowing cold to the icy highway and another 25 miles into Steppe. Making it every day didn’t seem the best of plans. He started spending half the week at Mindy’s, short nights when he was pulling a shift at Turtleback’s, long evenings with the kids when he didn’t. Some calves jumped the fence down by the river. By the time Reg got there, three had wandered out onto the thin ice and drowned. No one blamed him, but Leo put Frank on the calves from then on.
Reg didn’t protest. Freed up more time. The kids were a lot on his mind. Mindy was fickle as a dust devil. Seemed like most days she could take or leave him without much noticing either way. The kids, on the other hand, loved him steadily. One snowy afternoon he was thunderstruck to hear they didn’t know how to make snow angels. He flicked off the TV and told them it was time to learn, so go get dressed. The kids dutifully trooped to their rooms and came back with jean jackets on.
“How about gloves? Hats? Boots?” he asked.
“Don’t got none,” said Harv.
“Jesus Christ,” Reg said. “We’re going to the store.”
“Mom said what they go invent heat
ers for, if you have to go around wearing coats all the time,” said Rhonda.
“Hell,” said Reg.
Mid-winter Mindy finagled a job at the new call center. She took late shifts to call people out in Seattle and Hawaii and such places, getting home later than Reg most nights. She gave up on mornings altogether. When he was there, Reg took the kids into school. When he wasn’t, they slogged a quarter mile over snow-drifted tartop to the schoolbus stop. Plenty of mornings when it was toasty inside and mom was snoring down the hall they wouldn’t have made it. But Reg told them they had to. So most mornings they did. When Harv came home with a shiner and fat lip, Reg taught him to throw a jab and right hook. When Rhonda came home with a ripped shirt and scratches on her cheek, he taught her the same. On Christmas Eve, Mindy drank too much spiked eggnog and passed out before nine. She refused to get up next morning, no matter how much they shook her. Reg watched them open Santa’s presents. Which he’d bought.
“Those kids of yours,” he said to Mindy one night after she slapped away his groping hand to light a cigarette in bed. “They need a lot more looking after.”
“You seem to be doing just fine,” said Mindy.
“Springtime comes, I’m going to be real busy. Dad’s talking about unfallowing some of that land.” He thought about it. “How about their daddies?”
“Babe,” said Mindy, exhaling mightily. “They didn’t give a good goddamn about me. What makes you think they give two shits about their crumbgobblers?”
By now Reg noticed a certain type of women seemed to find a bartender irresistible. But he paid no mind. However green that grass was, he was a one-woman man. Who was these days more often than not without his woman. Mindy was sometimes gone for days at a stretch. She had nothing to say about where to. She seemed to think the kids were his job now. She got pissed if he started on the questioning. Reg kept mentioning springtime.
“Why don’t you quit that farming crap?” Mindy said. “You got a good job at the bar. Why do you want to work out in the dust and manure and manure-dust?”
He couldn’t explain it to her, of course. He thought about trying to show her, but not for long. No way he could take her out there, what with her shrieking ways and open-faced disgust. Other than to guess how much his share was worth, she’d never asked question one about the spread. He was afraid Rhonda would ask about the horses again, but she never did. Taking Mindy out there was one thing, but there was no good way to explain her having a couple kids. No one in the family nosed into his personal affairs, but they might start if he stuck their faces smack dab into them.
At springtime, Leo unfallowed about a third of the set-aside. With Frank’s heart not in it and Reg gone all the time, it was all he dared do. He didn’t know what kind of woman Reg was tangled up with, but the fact that he never said anything about her nor brought her round didn’t signify much good. But it wasn’t his place to say. Reg wanted to hear from him, he’d ask. Reg didn’t ask.
Reg carved out a day a week to come to the trailer that long spring. In the week without him, the kids would just about go to seed, faces dirty, clothes stained, cookies gone. He learned to sew and cook. The kids blubbered when he left but spring work didn’t let up on account of wet cheeks. Mindy never came in to Turtleback’s, but his margarita mix stayed in high demand. He took secret shines to a few other women round the place. If they noticed he stopped being friendly, which was plenty hard sometimes. If something went wrong between him and Mindy, what would happen to the kids? Out in the parking lot after a shift, he’d remember those nights when Mindy was the wonder of all his world. But if she wasn’t home, he didn’t want to know. He headed for the Wintercreek.
His next visit, the kids reported their mother had been gone for three days. Reg smiled wanly and put away the groceries and sat down with an open box of cookies on the ratty couch. The kids cuddled into him under the TV blueflicker and crumbs collected everywhere. At Turtleback’s that night, a swaying customer paused at the bar.
“I seen you around,” he said.
“And maybe I’ve seen you,” said Reg.
“You’re playing daddy to that Mindy’s kids. Awful gentlemanly of you.”
The customer swigged down his whisky and clutched the bartop.
“Another one?” Reg asked.
“It’s your business,” the man said. “Guess if it don’t bother you, all those men trooping in and out of there day and night, it don’t bother me.”
“You want to watch yourself,” said Reg.
“I’m just saying, is all. Anyhow, it’s only on the brain cause I just seen her. Up at the Guadalajara. Doing the ole Mexican two-step. Looked to me like there were about 10 of em ready to take her to the back alley. If you catch my meaning.”
Reg stabbed at the icebox. The man watched him.
“Well, all right. Like I said. You sure are gentlemanly. Me, I got to take a piss.”
Reg watched him swaying away till long after he was gone. Then he turned to Mr. Harris.
“I got to go take care of something,” he said, taking off his bar apron.
“You coming back?” said Mr. Harris.
“Don’t know,” said Reg.
At the Guadalajara, Mindy was finishing up a slurry samba on the bartop. She was topless and her miniskirt left only a small square shadow to the imagination. There was raucous cheering and a couple men helped her down. She kissed them both. Reg gave out a couple sharp elbows and wrapped his jacket around her.
“I’m getting you out of here,” he said.
Mindy looked at him with unsteady eyes. She threw the jacket down.
“Who in the hill you think you are?” she said, voice sloppy.
He grabbed for her wrist. The two men, sneering darkly, stepped to him, chins jutting inches away.
“What are you doing,” said one. “Don’t you know that’s my woman?”
“And mine,” said the other.
“I got nothing against you,” said Reg. “Or you. But this woman’s got two kids she ought to be at home with.”
“I got three kids,” said the first man. “You saying I should be home, too?”
“Get out of here,” said Mindy. “I don’t even know who you are.”
“She don’t even know who you are,” said the second man.
More men were gathering behind him. They were mumbling and sniggering and relishing the prospect.
“The kids,” he said to Mindy.
“Get the fuck out!” she shrieked.
“You heard her,” said the first man. “I’m a caballero. I give you about five seconds.”
Dirty sweat ran down her neck to her breasts, slick ribbons gleaming dull in the yellow halflight. Her face all snarled up was like a rabid raccoon he’d seen drown in an irrigation ditch. He could see a couple decades from now: Rhonda where her mother was, Harv creeping up hard behind him. He finally saw what was in the cards, however much milk and cookies he brought to the trailer.
He turned and walked out, ignoring the thrown shoulders and threats. The disappointment in the Guadalajara was palpable, but only lasted until Mindy got at it again. Reg didn’t go back to Turtleback’s or the trailer. Next spring, there were no fallow acres on the Wintercreek.
Reg’s First Time by Court Merrigan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unporte
Court Merrigan’s short stories have appeared in Blackbird, Weber Review, Porcupine, Evergreen Review, The Summerset Review, Dublin Quarterly, The Kyoto Journal, Pindeldyboz, Identity Theory, and Angle, among others. Originally from Nebraska, he has lived in various places East and West. He currently resides in Thailand with his family and plans to be back in the USA soon. He blogs at Endless Emendation.