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.