Read the introduction by guest editor Peter Ho Davies.

 


 

Gem State

 

That August every time Tillie said she wanted to have a baby I wanted to break something, so one afternoon when I came home from work and she started on that again, I slammed through our kitchen door to shoot arrows in the backyard.

I admit, I have a temper. My truck’s dashboard looks like someone’s been at it with a boulder. Two fingers on my right hand point different directions from punching the sharp-barked ash trees, planted in our back yard to keep the heat off the house. But I had archery, which for me meant control. The first arrows would be crazy—I almost threw them into the target’s outer rings—but as they drifted towards center I could finally breathe, jogging across the dusty yard to the target and back. If I concentrated on shooting straight I didn’t have to let Tillie get under my skin with her idea that we—that I!—could raise a kid okay.

Except that day Tillie followed me out. She wore a t-shirt and cutoffs, a pink cotton sheet held closed at her neck despite the heat, shoulders back, her black curls falling across the pink like she was playing some kind of queen. In her other hand was her mug shaped like a pig, half full of wine.

She walked in front of the target.

I jerked my aim right and the arrow skipped off our house, scraping a bright line in the siding.

“Are you crazy?” I shouted. I never wanted to hurt her.

“What else can I do? You’re like a zombie,” she said. “You don’t even talk to me, you just do this.”

Tillie has always been smarter than me—better in arguments—and I felt caged by her words. Of course I wanted to talk, but if I couldn’t shoot I couldn’t get calm, and if I couldn’t get calm we’d have another of those backyard screaming matches that bring out our neighbors, who love a good show. Tillie calls these people “pissants” but you know the type: cars parked halfway out their garage, get their checks cashed at the pull-tab place. People who have six kids in a two bedroom house. Our neighborhood made me claustrophobic, pinched between the paper mill hunkered on the banks of the Clearwater River, and a steep canyon where semis loudly downshift while blaring past runaway truck ramps. At night I paced the house, closing our blinds, running the taps to see if the water smelled like the mill’s chemicals. I needed to get away. I put my bow in its case, gathered my arrows, and loaded them into my truck.

“What is this?” Tillie said, for once surprised by my move.

“I can’t keep having this conversation—I need a few days. There’s this archery tournament in Sacramento. I’ll go, come back, and then we’ll see.”

Tillie blinked a few times, clenched her sheet tighter. “You want to leave whenever you want. You just—”

I got in my truck and squealed out of the driveway. Tillie followed, yelling. At the curb she whipped her mug at me, but it caught by the handle and exploded at her feet. She fell backwards in shock, spotted purple. I wanted to go help her up, help her inside, but I had to drive away. By the time I reached the last house before the highway, the one where all the dogs threw themselves at the fence as I passed, my phone buzzed in the cupholder with a message from Tillie.

If you can’t come back ready to commit to our family, come back ready to say goodbye.

#

I took Highway 95 south through the Clearwater Valley. White smoke from wildfires drifted across the road, thick and smelling like scratchy pine. Lewiston sits in the dry hot country of northern Idaho, at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers and near the mouth of Hells Canyon, where the high prairie meets the pine forests coming down from Montana. There were always wildfires during summer, and sometimes smoke drifted into town and made it look like a disaster area—Baghdad, or something. Dim at noon, people going around wearing goggles with bandannas over their faces.

Once I cleared the smoke I called Rick, my boss at Sportsman’s Warehouse, to say I was going to the Outdoor National Archery Competition. I’d been putting up posters all summer at work.

“Finally leaving us in the dust, huh?” Rick said. He was joking, but he sympathized. He knew Tillie and I had been rocky. When he hired me back in high school he’d been going through a pretty rough divorce. Now he went to meetings for his drinking and had a nice girlfriend. “Sure. Figure some stuff out.” Rick’s in his fifties and always wanted kids.

South past Riggins I hoped to run out of service, but my phone buzzed and buzzed. “Just stop, Till,” I said, banging my head against the glass. I was giving myself a headache but she was giving herself one too, doing all that typing. Tillie has a learning disability and can only make out words when looking at them through yellow plastic, which she spreads over her phone. This wasn’t discovered until high school when they did tests to find out why she couldn’t read. They also found she’s basically a genius, if someone reads to her, and if you adjust for all the years she sat in back, not knowing what was going on. Then they stuck her in my remedial class. My Dad had been a drinker, and at that time was on his last big bender before his kidneys kicked for good. I was staying away from home then, living with a different friend’s family every couple months. I slept on couches with stuffing coming out, under itchy blankets, disgusted with every prefab home and trailer I was unloaded on. Tillie and I felt bad for each other.

She never held a job long after graduation. She liked restaurants, mostly—she could memorize the menus. Her longest job was at the Rockford Diner, run by a toothy Mormon couple in their forties who owned a string of themed places. “Those fuckers,” Tillie’d said, angry and unable to stop grinning when they finally fired her, scooping lifted cash from her apron pockets. “Their whole kitchen’s full of illegals. No wonder they don’t have the balls to press charges.” Then she’d done a stint as line worker at the bullet factory—I was just glad when our bedsheets wouldn’t smell like those fumes anymore. Then secretary for a hair salon started by a school friend, which went under in a year like everyone in town’d said it would. Not that Tillie didn’t do her part—illegibly scribbled appointments when she could be bothered to mark them at all—but the wannabe L.A. style kept people away. Sometimes I’d drive Main Street and feel satisfied seeing the chrome sign reading “Hair Bonita” over the dusty plate glass, finally looking like it belonged among the gun shops and pizza chains. That satisfaction? It was warm, stabbing in my gut.

“At least one of us can keep a steady job,” I’d say each time Tillie got fired, although some part of me liked it. We always went drinking after.

Tillie’s latest job was data entry at the state college, which was sticking. She liked the better pay and benefits, but also just seemed to be catching her breath.

“Come see the grounds,” she’d said after being hired the previous winter. I pointed out people we knew from high school on campus, still pitifully struggling away there almost a decade later, but she just strolled behind, blending in. “You’re no fun,” I said.

“Last Chance State College,” she replied, looking at the bell tower. She’d used the school’s nickname, although the real name was Lewis-Clark State College. Most buildings were red brick and classic looking. The school was old for this part of the country, from the mid-1800’s, originally somewhere farmers’  daughters came to become teachers and nurses. Planted in the quad was a full-sized teepee, for some reason. I had to admit campus was kind of nice, except the dust blowing in off the hills did something to the light, making everything flat and small.

“At orientation my boss, Dave, I’m supposed to call him, said they’d help me settle in,” Tillie said, grinning. She was trying to meet my mood although her eyes were on the people around us, voice distant. “Fuck that, though, right?”

That night, after we’d celebrated her new job in bed, I felt weird. “Why do you think you never became a vet?” That’s what she’d wanted to be as a little girl.

She snorted. “Rex, please. You have be to so smart to do that.”

I’d wanted to say “But you’re smart,” but she would have said “Like you’d know,” and I hadn’t wanted a fight.

Soon after, I got promoted at work. What had happened with the job was Trevor Yates, then manager of the archery section, had died on the Clearwater when he forgot his boat’s bilge plugs and sank into the freezing river. Rick moved me up even though I didn’t know a thing about archery. I used my fatter paycheck and manager’s discount to buy what I needed to learn.

One frosty afternoon Tillie stopped me from going out to shoot. “Let’s really do it. My job, your promotion…let’s put one in me.” She slid her hands in circles over her stomach. She’d been making jokes, little hints, but I could tell this was serious. In the past year two of her friends had had babies, and another had gotten married. Whether or not Tillie admitted it, she was settling in.

“We're not having a kid just because your friends are. If I wanted to be like everyone else in this town, I’d drown myself like that idiot Trevor,” I said. Then I went outside to shoot—just shoot, not run away like Tillie would claim, crying, later that night.

South through eastern Oregon was brown scrub and heat mirages and sometimes road work, which was murder because my truck doesn’t have AC. Past Jordan Valley, 95 became one lane while a crew laid asphalt in the other. Parked in line I scanned the workers, most with soaked t-shirts under their hardhats to protect necks and shoulders, trying to see if I recognized anyone. A few buddies from high school, or their fathers, or uncles, worked these crews. Even with my promotion they made more than I did, but paving monkeys never stop picking tar out of their arm hair and blew their noses on tissues that came away black and bloody. Plus, they still lived in the same neighborhood as me, drinking beer in the same plastic lawn furniture and enjoying the same view—south across the river to the junkyard with all the windowless rusty yellow school busses.

I hadn’t had a lot of reception since Boise, but I must have found a patch because my phone started up buzzing. With nothing to do except bake and listen to static as the radio went around the dial again, I decided to make a quick check.

Just admit you’re embarrassed of me, the most recent message said.

I tossed the phone away, bouncing off my dashboard’s divots. The line started moving and I put my truck in gear. “Stupid,” I said, talking to myself because the silence was getting to me. “Fucking stupid.” I hit the wheel, making my hand numb.

#

The competition grounds in Sacramento were full of Ivy League teams carrying Olympic bows that looked like something you’d weld to a satellite. A pamphlet from the registration tent explained the tournament structure: two days of individual shooting, then the top sixty-four shooters moved to a series of head-to-head matches in the Men’s Open.

I ducked between vendor display tents, high-tech games where you shot deer on plastic screens, and shaded sitting areas. Laminated signs gave directions but everything looked the same. I moved aside for people wearing one-armed shooting vests, and then again for what I swore was the same group. My phone buzzed, and I checked it without thinking.

It makes sense you’d do this. Ever since you brought that bow home you’ve avoided me. Why string our relationship along if you were planning to trade me in for some tournament?

You mean everything to me, JUST STOP IT!!! I typed, but didn’t send. Being lost and dealing with Tillie was making me frustrated, and I worried I’d break my bow in half like my first one when I was learning to shoot. If I lost my temper I’d never get into the Men’s Open, which probably came with a trophy or certificate. I pictured how good it would feel to slap a framed certificate down in front of Tillie. Here’s what they think of me in California, that type of thing. So I would be serene. “I am fucking serene,” I said. One letter at a time I erased the response Tillie had lured out of me, pressing the DELETE key with dedication, with resolve.

I finally found my field, where a Target Captain pointed to the line I’d shoot from. The guy to my right was tall and seriously built, a red polo with sponsor patches stretching across his shoulders. His first arrow hit bullseye. The pale kid to my left was spaghetti-armed, with a folded orange jacket by his feet that said PRINC-. His arrow landed in the nine ring. I breathed deep. I kept my weight forward, relaxed my body. I felt good. Just like shooting in the yard at home. Everything I knew to do, I was doing right. My first arrow landed in the seven. That end I scored eighty-six, pretty good for me. Then I saw the flatscreen kiosks that showed totals. I’d need to score 100 to place. During my next end I scored near that, if under. It could be enough, I thought, every time I landed a seven or an eight. Just a little closer to center.

When the day finished I packed my bow and quiver into my truck, then fought my way through the snarl of SUV’s and pickups leaving the grass and gravel lot. I found a motel by pulling off the freeway and driving slowly away. After checking in I ordered a burger from the attached restaurant. The server gave my ticket to the kitchen, then stood looking me over. Her name tag said Carol. Late sixties, missing a few teeth in back.

“Look at you,” she said. “I used to have a thing for guys like you. Drive a truck. Dirty t-shirt. Yeah. What do you say, Rosa?”

Rosa scowled at a coffee machine that was making the whole place smell like burnt grounds. “Leave me alone. I can’t figure out why this thing keeps ruining the decaf.”

Carol just clucked and kept looking at me.

“Give me a couple beers too, huh?” I said.

The burger came out more like a ball than a patty, but Carol didn’t charge me for two beers from my six pack, giving an exaggerated wink. I spent the rest of the evening watching cop movies on cable with the door open to move the air a little. I remember deciding to show control by not drinking the last beer, pointing at it and winking like Carol had. I fell asleep with my boots on, waking hungover before sunrise with a fuzzy mouth, a stomach that needed antacid tablets, and a bladder full of piss. In all the messages Tillie had sent during the night, I found one I’d sent back at 2:11 a.m., somewhere between drunkenness and sleep.

Ever road home.

      Sorr

               y.

After that she’d gone quiet.

#

I was in no shape to shoot, but my first end I shot 112, racking three bullseyes. I stared, trying to remember each arrow. Just about the best I’d ever shot, yet when I checked the scoreboard I saw that to get into the Open I’d need to make up for yesterday by scoring around 150—higher than I’d ever scored before. My certificate was getting away and I expected to be angry, but no. Feeling like I was watching from outside my body, I drew, loosed, and scored 200. But the totals had jumped and it still wasn’t enough, like I’d known it wouldn’t be. It was impossible for me to place by my last end, but I was fascinated watching my arrows find center over and over. Another day and I’d rise to first place.

I hung around to watch the last few ends before the start of the Men’s Open and noticed lots of people doing the same arithmetic, adding up two days worth of arrows and realizing how short they fell of making the sixty-four. I felt if someone could see the whole crowd—from above or whatever—they’d be able to pick out something that showed us as losers. The way we crossed our arms, tilted our heads—something.

I did notice a blond girl, college age, hair sharp at her jawline like it’d been cut with a laser. She must have washed out of the women’s.

Fuck it, I decided. I was on a roll, of sorts. “Who’re you watching?” I asked. She nodded to the tall fit shooter in a red polo, the guy who’d pounded in bullseye after bullseye while I struggled through my first end. Her hand twitched every time he loosed.

“Your boyfriend?” I asked.

“No, yours?”

“I guess you noticed I’ve been watching his ends. Which means you’ve noticed me.”

Her eyes flicked my way. “Don’t be clever. It isn’t cute.”

“I’d like him to win.” I nodded to Red Polo. “There’s something different about him, isn’t there?”

She was watching his back muscles as he drew. “There sure is.”

Her voice sounded like she was counting every syllable. Precise, that’s what it was. I asked her name and she said Alaana, and I asked if after giving birth her mother’d said I’d like to buy a vowel and Alaana blinked.

“Wheel of Fortune,” I said. She shrugged.

I asked if she shot for a team. She showed me the patch under her folded arms. YALE.

The last shoot ended, and we watched Red Polo pack his bow and walk to the target with the others.

I asked if she wanted to get a beer, my throat just a little tight.

“No, I truly would not.” Her head only came to my shoulder but words like short or thin seemed wrong. She was the perfect size and proportions for herself, just surrounded by bigger people. She turned to me, took my arm with a warm hand, and rose onto her toes.

“I do not want a beer and I certainly do not wish to discuss archery. What I would like is to leave,” she said. “With you,” she said, when I didn’t move.

At my motel, once I’d scattered the cans and styrofoam takeout container off the bed, she said we could only do oral. Shimmying from her slacks and panties, she threw herself on the still messed bedspread, unfolding her legs. “It’s a medical thing. I’ve had it since I was young. Mother was adamant about sexual health, always getting me checkups. To spare you the jargon: I’m too tight for boinking.”

Crawling onto the bed, I tried to use what I could see to compare hers with Tillie’s.

“Fear not, I’ll suck you off after,” Alaana said. I kept my t-shirt on when she did. When I finished she ran, no kidding, ran, to spit in the sink. She twisted the tap so the water steamed, and scrubbed her chin red with a washcloth. Then she turned and looked around the room. With two fingers she started putting my flattened cans into the styrofoam container.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Recycling—worrying about landfills gives me insomnia.” She even pulled empties out of the little trash can. Finished, she leaned against the desk, still naked from waist down, and sighed happily. “Human beings are a disease.”

I started dressing and she did too. I turned from buckling my belt and she was half out the door, which clicked shut behind her. Her shadow walked across the window’s thin curtains, styrofoam rattling in a way that reminded me of an old truck dragging its muffler, but probably just reminded her of recycling. I guess she got a cab.

I called room service for my burger because I didn’t want to talk to Carol or Rosa. I took my pants off before I ate and drank a new six pack. My dick still kind of smelled like Alaana’s mouth so I jerked off on the end of the bed. Afterwards I sat in my mess still drinking with my off hand and decided I’d see what Tillie had been loading my phone with during the day.

Scrolling through the message previews they all started with Why do…, Who do…, or Where are.…

The last said: When you ignore me like this I always worry something’s happened. Car crash. Stray arrow. Just let me know you’re okay?

I went and washed the jizz off my hands, then muted the cop movie. “I’m fine,” I said when she answered. I intended to hang up after that.

“Don’t go,” she said. “I’m alone here. It’s just me in this box. Will you let me listen to you breathe?”

So I did, for a while. Then she said, “Why are you breathing like that? Are you angry?” I hung up and held down the power button. She was wrong. I didn’t feel angry or anything. I lay on my back, picking out patterns in the motel’s popcorn ceiling. God help me, I thought, Tillie’s the most consistent thing in my life. If she ever found out about Alaana she’d leave me, and without her I’d be…well. Somewhere very close to here.

#

I must have caught Alaana’s insomnia because I didn’t sleep. When I got up the distance things were from my hands kept changing. I didn’t see Alaana at the tournament, where the Men’s Open wrapped up quick. In the end it wasn’t Red Polo on the podium, but some kid who looked like he’d never shot from anywhere more challenging than a Harvard lawn. He could have been the kid who’d shot on my left that first end, who knows.

I do know he didn’t show for the last shoot, one just for fun arranged away from the competition area. It was a modified Clout shoot styled after British bowmen, where we’d lob arrows at targets 500 yards away. Only myself and about twenty graybeards showed at the outskirts of Sacramento’s industrial district. Our field was plenty long, heavy with tall grass waving in the breeze. It ran between corrugated warehouses that looked abandoned. Targets spotting the distance showed broad rings of blue, red, yellow, but they were too far away to see the dividing lines. I could hear the freeway's whistle, the beep of a truck reversing somewhere.

“British longbowmen represented archery’s peak,” said Mitch, a paunchy man with a Texan accent. He had earned his chance to bluster by setting up the shoot. “They could pierce a knight’s heavy plate from 400 yards. Six-foot yew bows, wielded by commoners who spent a lifetime training. Then came muskets and cannons. From that time of the longbow’s dominance—1200 to 1500 AD—not a single longbow survives. Yew’s springiness gave bows power, but broke through use. Okay. Let’s shoot.”

After that it was nothing formal, just set up and fire. Bowstrings twanged; arrows fell in the distance. When one found a target a little cheer went up. I felt sick for a moment, but concentrated on the arrow I held and forced myself not to vomit. I was again hungover, and thought about Tillie, and Alaana’s shadow rattling past my window. Beer foamed up my throat, but I put those feelings into the arrow so I could send them away. The arrow had an orange fiberglass shaft with two brown fletchings and a white vein. I drew and loosed into the sky. I had nocked again when my first arrow fell a rainbow into the bullseye. Five hundred yards. Everyone stopped shooting and walked near me. A few on the outside hooted. Someone slapped my back.

“You’ll never do that again,” said Mitch. “Reckon if I’d made that shot I could put my bow down for life.”

I didn’t know how to feel that good. I was grinning. It was the perfect shot I’d been waiting for. I searched in myself for what to do now, how to celebrate properly, but nothing told me. My bow seemed small, like a toy, and I decided to take Mitch’s advice and put it down. After that a few made halfhearted shots then walked out to retrieve them, beating the grass with spare arrows, looking lost. When they finished I waded the 500 yards by myself. My phone buzzed.

I don’t want to lose you.

I pulled the arrow. Walking back I held my hands above the blowing stalks, my steps scaring up grasshoppers.

#

Somewhere in Nevada I slept parked in a rest stop that was just a marked off rectangle of desert. Around sunset I passed a plywood sign some farmer had put in his field, WELCOME TO IDAHO THE GEM STATE spray-painted in surveyor’s orange.

I kept the arrow on the passenger’s seat and kept looking at it. Approaching Lewiston I followed the Clearwater off the Nez Perce Reservation, finding town lit up for nighttime and looking bigger than it really was. I left 95, passing the Pepsi bottling plant, the loyal machinist and auto body shops who advertised Pepsi on their signs, then the trailer park. I passed lawns cooked crunchy by summer and hopelessly dead, full of red-faced, red-kneed kids out late after the heat of the day, playing on plastic swings and the Olympic-sized trampolines, our answer to the swimming pools of Beverly Hills. I remembered bouncing on those trampolines as a kid, rising high enough to look down on the roofs. It had been fun.

When I got home Tillie was watching Spongebob on TV and softly crying.

“What’s this about?” I asked.

“I really do want a baby,” she said, gesturing to Spongebob and crying harder. “That’s all.” An empty bottle of wine lay by her feet. I sat on the couch and she leaned across and started slopping kisses on me.

“Just a sec,” I said, not ready for that yet. On the coffee table was a pig mug, purple-rimmed at the bottom. “New mug?” I asked. Tillie nodded.

“It is a boy or a girl?”

She took a moment to answer. “A girl.”

“I don’t think so. I think he’s a boy. Jeremy, maybe.”

Tillie got up on her knees, palming away tears. She snatched Jeremy. “You brute. She’s obviously a beautiful little girl named Christina.”

Christina, I whispered to myself, loving how much it sounded like Christmas. Tillie held up the mug and through the handle I could see several patches in the wall, holes I’d made and then filled.

“If we’re going to do this we’ve got to get serious—more money, to start.” I said. “I’ll talk to Rick, see if I can get summers off to work a paving crew, or something. And you can’t run out on LCSC—we’ll need the benefits. You and me, Till. We’ll drag each other forward if we have to.”

She nodded. We went to the bedroom and made ourselves busy, shirts and pants off, sliding under our old blankets, pushing as though we had something inside and could only use each other to dig it out. It was slow but not gentle, and Tillie kept biting me, hard. I used my head to push hers away, my shoulder’s skin sliding from between her teeth with a soft snap. I had to keep pressure on so she wouldn’t bite again, and soon that spot on my forehead grew cold and numb. It was that way for her, too.

When Tillie was asleep I heard a few raindrops on the window so I went outside to shoot in my jeans and let the water cool my sweat. The rain fell lightly. The radio had said most of it was in the mountains, where the wildfires were out. I shot over and over, the thrumWHAP from string to target almost instant. Just a little closer to center, I promised each time. I hoped the sound wouldn’t wake Tillie or any neighbors, although they’d slept through it before. As I jogged to the target I felt the drops on my chest, stomach, arms, the pokey grass crumbling under my feet. I stepped on twigs fallen from our ash trees. Helicopter seeds stuck to my heels, spun off early because it had been so dry. I knew each drop that touched my skin, sweat, would run off to the ground, pavement, storm drains, sewer grates that had a picture of a Chinook and said DUMP NO WASTE FLOWS TO RIVER. Each time I shot I imagined those 500 yards in Sacramento, that perfect arc. I didn’t shoot the orange arrow. It had a kind of magic that, true to the sewer grates, I wouldn’t waste. The next day I put the arrow someplace secret, and never shot it again.

 

 


William Klein received his MFA in fiction from the Helen Zell Writer's program in 2016. "Gem State" was given an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train's Short Story Award for New Writers in 2017, under its original title "The Open." His short fiction has perviously appeared in Carve Magazine and Pacifica Literary Review. In summers Will returns home to commercial fish in Alaska, about which he is writing a novel. 

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