Reg's First Time, by Court Merrigan

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."

"That right?"

"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.

"Well, yeah."

"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.

"Well, yeah."

"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 olé 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.

Creative Commons License
Reg's First Time by Court Mer­ri­g­an is licensed under a Cre­ative Com­mons Attri­bu­tion 3.0 Unporte
d License

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.

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