Prairie, fiction by Ben Werner

His team had won the state cham­pi­onship and after the cel­e­bra­tion on field petered out and the lights atop the poles had clunked off for the last time, he went to the par­ty.  Picked up Bre on the way there, and as soon as she was inside his truck she gave him a tongue-thick kiss, grabbed him around his neck, and then pulled away.

You’re all wet,” she said.  “Why are you wear­ing your jer­sey?”

We just won state,” he said.

Gross.  My hands are cov­ered in old sweat.”

Sweat of a state cham­pi­on line­backer.”

I bet all of you are doing it, huh?”

He didn’t answer.

God, you boys think foot­ball is the whole world, even after it’s over.”

He said noth­ing.

Well, I guess it’s only for one night.  Any­way, we’re state champs!”  She laughed and leaned over and kissed his cheek.  He smiled.  Wind blew ripped sheaves of clouds across the stars and moon and braced against his truck, tip­ping it at an angle against worn springs.

He parked beside the barn in the dirt lot crammed with cars and trucks.  Bre ran ahead through the cold wind and he walked, his shad­ow blur­ry and indis­tinct in the moon­light.  He opened the door of the barn to the faint organ­ic tang of manure and climbed the lad­der into the hayloft where every­one was gath­ered, imme­di­ate­ly filled two cups with beer, drank and refilled.  Swung on the rope swing and slapped hands and hugged.  Got drunk­er and hung his arms around jer­seyed shoul­ders while talk­ing about the game, past games.  Drank more and fell down the lad­der and puked out­side, returned and poked Bre’s ass with his fin­ger and laughed when she hit him soft­ly.  Took off his jer­sey and jumped bare-chest­ed in the crust­ed-over snow bank on the north side of the barn.

This is it,” some­one said.  “We did it.”

Peo­ple left or passed out and he bit Bre’s lip, felt her moan in his mouth.  They climbed down the lad­der and stum­bled through the dust to a horse stall par­tial­ly filled with hay bales and he jerked her pants down and pushed his fin­gers inside her, lis­ten­ing to her sur­prised, plea­sured gasp.

When I was com­plain­ing about your sweaty jer­sey,” she said, breathy, “I didn’t mean it.  I like it.”

The next after­noon he met with a group of seniors at the base of the old water tow­er, their eyes blood­shot and faces wan and tight.  He climbed the steel rungs, buck­et of black paint in hand, wind scour­ing the prairie and blow­ing up the cuffs of his pants and under his jack­et.  The town below him set out in pale squares, whites and reds and browns and the occa­sion­al flush of ever­green, and beyond it cor­ru­gat­ed dusky fields and unfarmable gray swaths.

I have to study for the ACT,” Bre had said.

This hap­pens once a life­time.”

Go paint the tow­er, have fun.  I can’t.  I have to get a 28.”

He and the oth­ers paint­ed the tower’s peel­ing white sur­face, a math-club­ber named Orin mea­sur­ing and out­lin­ing the let­ters so it would be leg­i­ble, the wind a con­stant howl cut­ting his face raw.  The gray sky coughed a few tiny spher­i­cal flakes which the wind hurled against his jack­et like bits of Sty­ro­foam.  When they were done it said STATE CHAMPIONS 2006.  He held his emp­ty paint buck­et over the rail­ing and dropped it, watch­ing as it fell and hit the crin­kled blanched grass below, the lid pop­ping off with a metal­lic ping.

Back on the ground he looked up at the tow­er but the large let­ters wrapped around its curved sur­face and all he could see was TATE CHAM.  He clunked his truck into gear and drove to the bowl­ing alley.

They sat around a fake wood table, mul­ti-col­ored clown­ish rentals still on their feet, and watched the reg­u­lars tip and wad­dle around the place.  Laughed at their wrist guards, their con­cen­tra­tion on form as they whipped the ball down the lanes, their pot­bel­lies and tit-sag.  Light­ing one cig­a­rette off anoth­er, Bud­weis­er crimped between two fin­gers, bel­low­ing at each oth­er as the pins crashed and the own­er scold­ed them while she gath­ered emp­ty bot­tles.

That one could fit a bowl­ing pin up her twat and not even notice,” one of his friends said.

For­wards or back­wards?” anoth­er asked.  They laughed.

Can you imag­ine?” a girl said.

No. No I could not imag­ine a bowl­ing pin back­ward­ly rammed up my hypo­thet­i­cal twat.”  They all laughed again.

You’re so imma­ture,” the girl said.  “I mean can you imag­ine being here, like that?  Do you see how this is the high­light of their lives?  Sat­ur­day night at the bowl­ing alley, get­ting drunk and for­get­ting their lives blow.  It’s fuck­ing depress­ing.”

Maybe you should pull the bowl­ing pin out of your ass.”  More laugh­ter.  The girl lit a cig­a­rette and waved the smoke away from her face, ignored them.

None of you noticed but Orin fucked up the water tow­er,” he said.  “The let­ters are too big.  He didn’t stack the words.  In order to read it you have to dri­ve around the whole fuck­ing tow­er.”

Man, every­one has a bowl­ing pin shoved up their ass tonight.”

Fuck you guys,” he said.  “Let’s get out of here.”

They piled into a cou­ple trucks and drove back to the barn where they sat on the naked boards of the hay loft and played cards while they drank.  He got drunk and for­got the rules of the game and the oth­ers made fun of him, fris­beed cards at him, and after awhile they were all too drunk to play.  He called Bre to pick him up but she didn’t answer.  It was three in the morn­ing.

He woke shiv­er­ing on two hay bales and walked down to his truck in the blue-gray of ear­ly dawn and drove home where he sat, unable to sleep.  Noth­ing was mov­ing in the morn­ing, the scrub Russ­ian olive trees along the edge of the yard hun­kered in gray twist­ed silence, no birds aloft in their branch­es, no wind or cloud, not even a dog yip or diesel grum­ble, noth­ing but dawn stretched tight in the sky and hard­pan prairie.  He climbed into his truck, an old list­ing Chevy, the tail­gate tied up with bail­ing twine and the engine filmed with dark gunk, but still turn­ing the tires, still run­ning good enough.  He backed out of the dri­ve of his par­ents’ house and head­ed south­ward.

No wind on the prairie either, which was abnor­mal of fall morn­ings when it often whipped shin­gles off roofs, pried slats from fences, uncorked fifty-foot pon­derosas from the lawn at the cour­t­house.  He drove the tar-patched two-lane and out­side his win­dow it was always dry yel­low cheat and sil­ver clumps of sage and the occa­sion­al rusty slice of bare dirt.  Way west were sil­hou­ettes of moun­tains, soft and thin and as tan­gi­ble as dreams.  Inside his head was a thud accom­pa­nied by a stal­e­ness along his tongue and teeth and a hol­low­ness in his body, the rem­e­dy for which he pulled damp and brown from a can and tucked in the trough of his low­er lip.

He drove with no des­ti­na­tion, radio long bust­ed, hang­over limp­ing back to where it came from, barb­wire fences sewing the ground on either side of him.  A dirt road kicked off to his left and he took it, jack­ham­mer­ing over the wash­boards out into the bad­lands.  Less plant life out there, most­ly crust­ed dirt bands of cream, laven­der, crim­son, hard cracked coun­try mot­tled with grit­ty scabs of snow left over from the first storm of the year.  His road curled up a bluff and past an oil pump and then down into a shal­low basin where more pumps dipped and rose in steady silence.  A faint sul­furous stench sat in the air and he wan­dered the web of two-tracks around the wells.  To the north on a grav­el and con­crete pad a new well was being drilled, the white and red scaf­fold­ing of the rig stand­ing above the prairie and the men on the deck small dark shapes punc­tu­at­ed by yel­low hard­hats.  He turned back towards the main road and even as he left the oil field he could see the rig in his mir­ror, high­er than all else, and he was unable to shed the last aches of the hang­over from his body.

Back north then, reflec­tor posts click­ing by, dash lines jump­ing into the square hood, still no drop of wind or fleck of bird, just flat fry­ing pan sky and shriv­eled prairie.

Eter­nal tarred cof­fee cup full of black spit, loose bolt rat­tle some­where in the door, rasp­ing bear­ing, pores leak­ing malt liquor, infi­nite Wyoming every­where.

A brown ani­mal scut­tled across his lane and into the oth­er and he swerved at it, hit it with two quick bumps, and slid to a stop on the rum­ble strips and gath­ered dust on the side of the road.  He walked back to where the ani­mal should have been dead on the asphalt but it was gone.  He looked in the weeds on the edge of the road and saw noth­ing at first, but then, move­ment in the bar­row-ditch between a crum­pled sage and bed of prick­ly-pear cac­tus, a maimed bad­ger.  The thing was a mess of brown blood and fur but its eyes reg­is­tered him and it let out hiss­es and growls, still very alive and own­ing a mouth­ful of wet teeth, though the back half of it was smashed by his tires.  He pitched a rock at it and it humped and snarled and dug at the ground with its front paws, dug hard and fast and with feroc­i­ty which showed there was much between it and eter­nal dark­ness, coy­otes, hop­ping gangs of crows, worm­ing fly lar­vae, twist­ed hide and dust.

God-damned thing would get there though, and he snaked his belt from his pants.  Four feet of wide leather with a brass buck­le like Hell’s door­knock­er.  He eased clos­er to the ani­mal and it watched him and dug at the ground again, set­ting the sage­brush atrem­ble, and he swung the belt in a cir­cle and brought it down like he was split­ting log.  The thing screamed and tried to get at him and he swung again and it hissed and wailed in the dust and he thumped it again and again, and still it tried after him, bloody and froth-mouthed and red-eyed.  He went back at it, his belt slic­ing in arcs and the prairie filled with tor­tured screech­es.  Thing not dead still, he strung his belt back into his belt loops and retrieved a tire iron from under the seat of his truck.  Parts of the ani­mal were speared in sticky clumps on the cac­tus spikes and oth­ers were pound­ed into the dirt, but still it looked at him and coughed and opened and closed its mouth.  Its last breaths inter­rupt­ed by the muf­fled crunch of iron on bone.

Ben Wern­er lives and works in Cody, Wyoming, and is going back to school in the fall.

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