Verle Hibberd pulled into the Standard Hotel parking lot and finished his cigarette. The bar was hopping, partly thanks to Wednesday Karaoke Nite. Some young socialite inside was caterwauling to “Jesus Take the Wheel”—probably Staci, shaming her ex-husband again by crooning at every buck-ass cowboy in town. She’d embarrassed Verle once by starting to give him a lapdance. He got up and stormed outside, angry for a reason he didn’t fully understand.
Yep, there was Danny Murcheson’s old truck, with Calvin pissing on a Ford emblem in the back window. Verle didn’t know much about Calvin and Hobbes, but he sure didn’t remember the kid having any kind of urinary streak in the Sunday paper. Some damn fool redrew the character to appeal to redneck idiots, and damned if Danny Murcheson wasn’t redneck idiot enough to enjoy it. Verle would happily bet his life’s savings there was at least an old pop can in the back of that truck, and probably half a dozen Busch cans as well.
When Danny wasn’t out working some construction site, he holed up in his rickety old house on the edge of town. He devoted most of the house’s wall space to cheesecake posters, gun racks and shelves full of ammo. There might even be army surplus munitions in there, shit he bought off the Internet black market. Danny’s favorite song was a jaunty number from Cross Canadian Ragweed called “Them Oklahoma Boys,” in which Ragweed claimed them Oklahoma boys rolled their joints all wrong. Verle had seen Danny Murcheson outsmarted by furniture on at least two occasions. He was a small man with a smaller life, even smaller than Verle’s in too many ways, but he’d been in Verle’s life too long to worry about it now.
Ah, well. Verle crushed the remains of his cigarette into the gravel and climbed the front stoop, where Fred Tibbs took his ten dollar bill and waved him in without a word. Sure enough, Staci was finishing her moment in the spotlight by pleadng for Jesus to save her from this road she was on as she gazed into the eyes of some poor woman’s husband. No doubt Tom Stokes was still paying for them titties of hers. Her little black dress was so tight Verle could tell what kind of underwear she was wearing. Her bra was too tight. Was thirty-eight too old to wear a thong? Apparently Danny Murcheson didn’t think so. His eyes were glued to Staci’s backside like a hungry dog watching a man tear into a ribeye.
“I’d tell you to take a picture,” Verle said, punching Danny’s arm, “but you can probably find one on your computer somewhere.”
“Oh, son, would I hit that like I mean it,” Danny agreed. “Ol’ Tom’s a good fella, but his wife gets me harder’n Chinese algebra.”
“’Zactly. Dang, I gotta get my pecker wet, Verle. I got balls the color a blackberries.”
“Size, too, I bet.”
“Shi-i-it,” Danny drawled.
The two men sucked Bud longnecks for a few minutes as a soppingly drunk college kid warbled his way through four minutes of heavy metal bullshit. His friends egged him on with encouragements like “Asshole!” and “You suck suck SUUUUCK!” If Verle had friends like that, he’d never stop smackin’ ’em.
A familiar quartet took up residence for the night at a booth in the corner. Verle and Danny played weekend flag football with one of the four, a big guy named Rick Orzabal who sat with one arm draped casually over his hot Japanese-American wife. The other two Verle knew by reputation: The fella worked as a pharmacist at Walgreen’s, while his wife stayed home to raise a six-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Nice people, give or take a few drinks, but alcoholism wasn’t what brought them out to the Standard three nights a week. No, these were what folks used to call “swingers.” Nowadays, swingers liked to say they were “in the lifestyle,” as if they’d taken up windsurfing.
Verle made the mistake one inebriated night of letting Danny in on the secret. Now it came up almost every damn Wednesday. Sure enough, Danny’s eyes zeroed in on Mrs. Orzabal. “Lemme ask you something,” Danny began.
“No, lemme ask you something; or no to what I was gonna ask?”
“Good question. Both.”
Danny scratched the patchy stubble on his pockmarked chin. “You mean to tell me you wouldn’t crawl over Rick to get to that?”
Verle shuddered. “Not unless they invented a penicillin that knows gol-damn karate.”
“You been single too long.”
“Maybe not long enough.” Verle’s ex, April, up and left two years ago in a fit of postpartum depression. Now Verle got to see his kids two weekends a month. Apparently April, class act that she was, once told his teenage daughter, “Your daddy’s all right; the Good Lord just cursed him with a dick like a thumb in a rubber.” Which was true, gol-damn it, but nobody else ever complained. You didn’t hear him bitching when her idea of sexual wildfire was to take off her Hello Kitty nightshirt.
“What you need,” Danny insisted, “is somethin’ like that over there.” He pointed across the bar to the pool tables, where, often as not, the unskilled won money from the un-sober.
“There, in the back.”
Yeah, Verle had to admit, Danny’d pegged his type. He sat next to the girl—Shay something—one night, but he’d been too chicken to talk to her. That story he kept to himself. There was something about Shay that dissuaded any man with a GED in or a Skoal ring on his pocket. Besides, Verle heard she worked at Saving Grace, which probably meant she was too refined and Christian to put up with a smelly old cuss like him.
It had been a long time. Set aside how long it had been since he’d lured some embittered divorcée into his untidy bedroom; at his age, pushing fifty, he could go days without trouser timber. But there were nights, and there were days, when he dreamed of the soft, fragrant touch of the feminine. Women liked him. They did. And he damn sure liked ’em back. Problem was, they liked him when he fixed their cars, or they wanted to fix him dinner, or they drank all his beer. They didn’t like to be girls anymore. Maybe that was it. Verle missed the way women acted when they had the time and inclination to be nothing but feminine. How long had that been? His early twenties? Verle wondered sometimes if he knew how to love a woman his own age. He felt cornered by women somehow. They made him feel like he owed ’em something before he ever said a word.
That Shay, though—What was she, maybe thirty at the most? It was hard to tell with señoritas, but there was a woman ripe as summer watermelon. Black shoulder-length hair, thick as a tar pit. Curves all the way down and around. Verle even liked her sweater. Underneath, he imagined, not bare skin—why be greedy—but silk. Sliding silk. Whisper silk.
“That is one sweet piece of ass,” Danny sighed.
“I’m jus’ sayin’.”
“Remind me never to take you to the ballet,” Verle sighed. Karaoke Nite soldiered on.
Verle slumped at the bar. All the usual bullshit, he thought. The usual parade of mediocre beer bottles. The usual dumbass jokes from Danny. The usual hypnosis in the presence of women. Even the same old songs; these new songs sounded just like the old ones. Staci found some cowboy to fall on. The four swingers grew bored with each other and drove home in pairs, the same pairs blessed in the Sugar Roses First Baptist Church. Verle figured “the lifestyle” must be kinda like running a fancy French restaurant: It only worked if you had a wide enough patron base.
It occurred to him he might be too drunk to drive, but that thought seemed downright un-American. Besides, he wasn’t really drunk if he could walk. Even cops knew that. He rolled out of the parking lot, gravel crunching under his tires. He headed east on Highway 19, carefully watching his speed and staying between the yellow lines. He rolled down his window and listened to Sugar Roses as he left it behind.
He lit a cigarette and thought about Shay, the tumble of her hair, the curve of her shoulders, the ways he’d have to change to get a woman like her. He wondered if a woman so young and desirable could ever understand loneliness as deep, full and heavy as his.
Five miles out of town, Highway 133 broke off north. Verle was alone on the road, headed to his trailer on County Road 1510. Only a few dim stars of porch light broke the darkness. This late on a work night, most folks were sensible enough to be asleep. Most folks had families to protect, warm bodies to curl up against. Most sensible folks had better things to do than hold down a bar stool and trade lame jokes with noodle bait like Danny Murcheson—
The deer flew sideways out of the dark. Its hooves barely clicked asphalt before the truck slammed into it at forty miles an hour.
He felt the collision in his hands. A spray of blood misted in the headlights. The deer slid down the highway as silent and stiff as a carousel horse. A stab of pain, piercing hot—The cigarette lay in Verle’s lap. He chucked it out the window and parked beside the road. Slowly breaching from a thick sea of shock, he rummaged for a flashlight and staggered from the truck.
He listened. No sound. He walked slowly down the highway, looking for the deer. A burst of movement exploded in the ditch to his right. He aimed the flashlight instantly, startled from his skin. The deer kicked weeds and ran in place, its left flank concave. Verle smelled bloody copper and wondered how to put the deer out of its misery.
The deer leapt to its feet. Verle fell on his ass.
The flashlight clattered to the highway, its beam a sweeping radar as it spun out of arm’s reach. He and the deer stared at each other, stunned in the moonlight. The deer took two steps toward him. Its eyes were liquid black beneath Disney lashes. It steadied its footing, drew in a shuddering breath that reinflated its wounded side, ambled forward, and leaned in to butt Verle’s leg gently. Be careful, will ya? There are animals trying to live lives out here.
“I’m sorry,” Verle heard himself saying.
The deer stared at him in open chastisement, then raced into the Campbells’ back pasture and the black woods beyond.
Verle woke in his trailer the next morning and wondered if he dreamt the whole thing. There was blood and fur in his grille, but no animal carcass by the side of the road as he drove in to work. He prayed for the first time in months, and he didn’t take a drink for two whole weeks. By then, of course, the End Times had come.
He played no role in the ensuing events, as he himself could have easily predicted. And Verle would’ve sworn on a stack of Bibles his old drinkin’ buddy Danny Murcheson was fated for similarly conspicuous insignificance—but in that, as in so many things, Verle could not have been more wrong.