Spring 2008, Volume 4

Fiction by Richard Lutman

The Medalist

Why had things turned out this way?  What had been the purpose in suddenly making him incomplete?  What had he done to deserve such a fate when his future had been before him and Theresa's body was waiting there for him, warm and womany in bed?  A guitarist with one crooked, ugly hand was no use to anyone.  He couldn't even pour a drink now without spilling it, or write his name the way he used to.

He took the worn medal from his pocket and looked at it.  The words were barely visible around the picture of a guitar; "FIRST PLACE--GUITAR.  BANNOCK COUNTRY MUSIC FESTIVAL 1985."

He often wondered why he still kept it, and then realized it was always good for a story or two and the accompanying whiskeys. He spent his time between drinks riding the freights he used to sing about, not caring anymore where they went.  There was no reason to, his journey had no end, no purpose. 

Yet he learned to love those long nights when the train rushed along the gleaming rails through small towns where sometimes only a clock in a tall building was illuminated.  Or a movie theater in the snow, flakes glittering in the marquee lights.  The smell of soup.  A small boy waving.  Cornstalks rigid as spokes. Reflections of reeds in ditches.  The skeleton of a barn and a flock of birds slanted upward over a graveyard.  Then the sudden stops with no time to discover where he was before the train moved on again.  But mostly the very monotony of the journeys came to satisfy him, and he spent long hours staring at the desolate country.

He stood by a shed and listened to the eleven o'clock to York raise its voice to the darkness.  Night animals answered and distant stars burned in quivering shapes. He hadn't really been drunk enough to catch the train.  There would be others and the bar ahead of him looked more inviting.  He opened the door and stepped inside, then walked to the first booth and sat down grateful for a moment of warm steadiness when his body felt almost whole once more.  The dimly lit room was no different than any of the other places he been to.  The same sour beer and cigarette smells mingled with perfume and sweat.

"What would you like?" the waitress said, smiling as she came to the booth where he sat.

She was tall, her black hair loosely tied back with a thin piece of polka dot cloth. The high cheekbones made her face seem narrower than it was, but her smile was friendly and it made him feel as though he knew her, and had always wanted to know her.

"We have something for everyone," she said.

"Kentucky straight bourbon on the rocks."

He turned to watch her legs as she moved away.  She came back with his drink and put it on the table.

"Haven't seen you around before."

"First time."

"I hope you like it here."

Her second smile had been inviting and a little wistful, something he hadn't expected.  He looked around the room, the dark and the bourbon at work on him.  He didn't feel any better.  He studied her as she stood before him.  In the dim light she reminded him of Theresa.

Theresa had been there when he won the medal for guitar playing at Bannock five years ago when his future looked good.  Theresa wore her hair straight, but because she liked to twist it on top of her head, she looked like a little girl playing at being old.  That was one of the things he liked about her.  They'd gone to Three Forks to celebrate in the all night bars.  He drank too much, stumbled and put his hand through a glass door.  He never found out where Theresa had gone.

"Are you all right?" she said watching the medal as he spun it on the table.  "Is something wrong?"

What the hell, he thought to himself.  He wasn't one to hide his thoughts.  Besides, it made no difference.  He would be gone soon.

"You remind me of someone named Theresa."

"I always remind people of someone else," she said.

He met her eyes.  They held a look of understanding, a look he remembered Theresa never had.  He didn't want her to go away, not just yet.

"I was a pretty good guitar player."

"I'm sure you were," she said.

"Like pro good.  That good."

“You don't have to convince me."

He had said too much and he seemed to sense she knew it, but it didn't make any difference.  He fell silent and stared at the bartender who was reading a newspaper as though he had all the time in the world for such things.

"How about buying me some gum?"

He shrugged and reached into his pocket feeling the coins in his hand.

"Here," he said, giving her four quarters.  "Buy a lot of gum."

"Would you like some?  It's no fun chewing alone."

He smiled.

"That's more like it," she said.  "That's better."

He watched her at the gum machine.  She shifted the weight of her body from hip to hip knowing he was watching.

She came back and sat down.  She was beginning to make him forget Theresa and all the trains he rode. 

"How about walking me home?" she said.  "One never knows what might happen in this part of town."

It had begun to rain and the drops were cold.  As a child rain made him think of funerals; figures huddled around a mud-filled hole in the sourness of damp clothes.  Why were people always buried in the rain.  Did the drops make them grow, reborn like seeds?  Once he held his twisted hand out into the cold drops, but nothing happened and the drops slid off his skin.

Her place was small and smelled of jasmine.  On one wall was a large mirror with postcards stuck in along the edge.  One showed an ocean with palm trees, a second was of mountains, and a third of trees covered in snow.

"I like collecting them," she said.  "I have a shoe box full already.  Sometimes I just like to look at the pictures and imagine myself there.  It’s not such a bad thing to do.

Don't you have any dreams?"

"I did once.  Good dreams."

"I know they were.  You should never give up dreaming. How can you live without a dream?"

He wished she would stop talking, but knew that was impossible.

Soon she lay next to him, her body was warm and he felt good, better than he had in some time.

"I don't know," she said after looking at him for a moment and smiling an attractive lopsided smile.  "I liked you when you first came in.  But there was something else.  I think I wanted to help you.  You seemed as if you needed help.  I've always been a sucker for things like that."

He didn't answer, letting the spell continue.

"I didn't know what you'd come to think of me."

He lifted his head and rested it on the heel of his hand looking down at her face.  Her bar smell was strong and addictive.  It would be so easy to leave while she slept, he'd done it before, and find another bar with another girl.  Yet he couldn't bring himself to do it, not now at least, the moment wasn't right. 

The rain stopped and the sky was an opaque white.  The same light he remembered about the finger bone of a saint which had been on exhibit at a church near the center of a town he passed through.  A big display in the paper next to the used car section announced the viewing times.  The sidewalk and steps of the church were full of people waiting to see the relic.  He'd gone in very early and walked down the aisle in the deep silence.  A small piece of discolored bone lay on a piece of plaster under a glass case.  The texture and shape were the same as the weather beaten piece of wood.  A woman next to him knelt, her face swollen with a tumor and asking for forgiveness.  In desperation he'd asked to be whole once more.

She opened her eyes, and then laughed softly, looping her arms around his neck and holding him firmly.  Her grip on his body was strong and he could feel his heart beating with hers.  She made him unsure of himself.  In the room across the alley someone played "Cindy," the guitarist trying to bring himself into the piece.  It wasn't the way he'd play it.  His fingers were lighter, more expressive.

He remembered how the sun made his hands glow rich with blood and warmth, the way his music had been.

"What are you thinking?" she said in a quiet voice.

About the song."

He studied her, trying to find himself in her eyes.  His image was so bright and beautiful he felt like crying.

"Talk to me," she said.  "Talk to me," Her voice was frightened as she looked at his hard, drawn face.

For a moment he didn't feel like responding, "Would I have liked you as a child?"

"I think so," she said with a laugh.  "What a thing to say.  My mother always said people liked me.  She and my father were killed in an accident with a truck full of bibles."

He touched her lips, trying to make her stop.  He didn't want to become that part of her life right now.

"Please," she said. "I want to tell you.  I was about seven at the time.  There was fire, burning books and pieces of metal all over the highway.  It was outside Chicago. 

"I went to live with an aunt and uncle.  They had a small store in a small town on the Illinois plains.  I left there when I was barely seventeen. There's really not much else.  I took a job in a restaurant, until one day this guy came in.  He talked to me like they all did; said he'd come from a small town like I had, that he'd made money and was going to see the big city.  He was friendly and had a nice smile.  Unlike a lot of others."

He could saw tears shining in her eyes.  For a moment he didn't know what to do, and then he held her.  He needed a drink then he would be all right and sure of himself, just like the day he'd won the medal.

She trembled.  He reached out and touched her breasts.   Her face.  Her hair.  Her eyes.  He held his hand up into the moonlight--it no longer felt connected to him, sparkling and silver in the light.

"Play for me," she said.  "Play for me."

He took the imaginary guitar and his fingers touched the notes.

The song stopped and he could hear her breathing.

"Tomorrow," he said.  "Let's get out of here.  We can find a car and drive up into the hills, then just sit back and listen, getting drunk, not worrying about anything.  It will be like it was."

"Yes," she said.  "It will be.  But you'll have me now and not Theresa."

Her breasts were lovely.  He looked away, not wanting her so soon, but she took his ruined hand and kissed it, then placed it between her legs.

BIO:  Richard Lutman has lived in Philadelphia, New York City, Montana, Rhode Island and Vermont. He now resides in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Since 1992 he has been collecting butterflies on the outlying islands of Hong Kong. A retired tech writer he has taught fiction and composition classes in Connecticut and Rhode Island. His first novel was published in April of 1994. He has a MFA in Writing from Vermont College.