A beat up ashtray made of thin, pressed metal and painted a dull, dark green, sat in the middle of an equally beat up round card table, its brown felt stained and burned from years of spilled drinks and forgotten cigarettes. The ashtray was filled with old butts piled so high that a half dozen had overflowed onto the tabletop.
Most were of the same brand: a smooth, tan filter with a single, very thin gold band where the cotton and tobacco met. All of these had been smoked right to or beyond where the white cigarette paper ended. At the opposite end, the filters were stained as dark as caramel but otherwise were in good condition.
Above the table, a green enameled reflector confined the sixty watts of the single bulb to the table top and the floor just beyond, leaving the rest of the room concealed in shadow.
The unity of the shadow was broken as a door banged open and the dim yellow light of the adjacent barroom streamed in to the sound of jukebox Country music, followed by a balding middle-aged man in a soiled t-shirt that stretched over an exaggerated pot belly. He dropped the two cases of twelve-ounce Coors cans onto the table, knocking more butts from the ashtray, followed by still more as he ground out the cigarette he'd been smoking into the stack.
One of the butts that fell was white, with coral lipstick smeared a third of the way down to the floral bouquet printed on the side. The man looked at the butt and a smile pulled up at the corners of his mouth. He made a small acknowledging noise deep in his throat and then flicked it from the table with the blackened fingernail of his right middle finger. He cleared his throat loudly and spat on the concrete floor. The door slammed shut behind him and the room was once again cloaked in shadow.
Clifford Barker's cigarette would smolder on the stack for another three minutes before finally going out.
The china saucer had once been white but was now stained brown from nicotine; the band of silver on the rim was tarnished black. On it lay three thin cigarettes, crushed and coral stained. They lay as they had for the past ten hours, the last one extinguished just ahead of the bedroom light.
The saucer sat amid the clutter on a beige lacquered dresser in the mobile home bedroom of a thirty-foot trailer at the Dun Rovin' Trailer Court, just outside of Stone Lake, Wyoming.
As the bathroom door opened, a cloud of steam rolled along the ceiling and Doris Feeney, in a pink terrycloth turban, stepped into the bedroom wrapping a threadbare towel around her body. She picked up the half empty pack of Eves, jogged one up and pulled it from the pack with her lips. She rooted among the objects on the dresser top for a moment and raised the green plastic lighter to the cigarette. Just as she was about to light it, Doris looked past the yellow flame into the forty-four-year-old face reflected in the mirror. She had spent a good long time trying to get to sleep last night and thought it showed on every inch.
Maybe if she was prettier, she thought. Maybe then it wouldn't be so hard to decide what to do. Maybe if she was younger or didn't live in a tiny little town where what everyone else thought of you didn't matter so damn much.
Cliff had been his usual crude self last night. Maybe it had just been her mood, though. Fifty-two dollars in tips made her want to celebrate a little. Or it could have been the shots she'd been helping herself to since eight o'clock. Maybe if she'd only been firmer with herself about going right home after work. Maybe...
But an hour after closing time she was in the stockroom, pulling her pantyhose back up and Cliff, always the gentleman, was at the bar pouring himself a drink. She smoothed down her skirt and then dug a cigarette from her purse. After the first long drag, she tried to straighten her snarled hair in the mirror of her compact.
"Doris," Cliff's voice came from behind the bar. "Don't forget to mop out here. The floor's a mess."
Doris crushed the cigarette out in the saucer. Her face flushed. How was she going to go back in there tonight? That son of a bitch would drop hints to his Good Ol' Boy buddies until every regular in the place knew the story. But if she quit out of hand, he'd probably spread it around just to spite her for leaving him flat on a Saturday night with no chance of a replacement. This wasn't Salt Lake or Denver. Nobody quit a job in Stone Lake without something else lined up unless they planned on taking an eighty-mile commute to Rock Springs every day.
She knew he wasn't a half bad sort. She'd seen him pack up a half dozen of the worst off customers into his Suburban and spend the next two hours getting them home safe. In the five years she'd been there, she'd seen it more times than she could count. When Bud Campbell got laid off last year, Cliff pulled two hundred dollars out of the till and loaned it to him and not a word said about it even though it was near to six months before Bud was able to pay it back. She knew he'd bend over backward for a friend and that, deep down, he was probably the most generous and honest man she knew. But did he have to be so crude about everything?
Doris sat on the edge of the single bed and stared across the room at the swirls of imitation wood grain on the walls, swirled like the smoke from her cigarette; like the thoughts in her head.
Cliff looked up at the clock for the third time in five minutes. If she didn't show up soon it was going to be one long Saturday night. Since she'd started working for him, she hadn't been late five minutes, much less thirty-five. He knew better than to have messed around with her last night. Let a woman get you by the balls and you might as well go and cut your throat. You'd think Janice and that goddamed lawyer of hers had taught him that lesson for life. But it was a good crowd last night and they both felt the need to wind down over a drink. Congratulations, Cliff, once again you let your dick do your thinking and look where it's got you.
"Hey, Cliff, how about my change? Does it really take you that long to count out two quarters?"
Cliff snapped out of his thoughts and looked down at the change in his hand. "Sorry, Porter," he said, walking over to the short side of the bar, "here you go."
"Where's 'Dorable at?"
"I don't know. Maybe she was sick this morning."
"Well, you better hope she gets better soon or you're gonna wear that spare tire of yours down to the threads."
"You're hysterical, Porter. Mind if I get back to work?"
After filling three more orders, Cliff's shirt was starting to stick to his back and drops of sweat to run into his eyes. After twenty minutes, things were caught up enough to try Doris' number. One ring, two, four, five. No answer.
"How about a cold one here!"
"Damn." He hung up the phone, put a glass under the Miller tap and pulled back the handle.
Cliff stubbed the tan Raleigh butt out in the glass ashtray and took another sip of bourbon. For a while there, he hadn't been so sure that 2 a.m. was ever going to come. He thought about lighting up another one and then heading home for the night when he heard a knock on the front door. Some idiot must've locked his keys in the car. He pulled the door open.
"May I come in?"
"Nice of you to show up."
"Don't start, Cliff," Doris said, "I want to talk with you."
"You go ahead and talk. I've been busting my ass for nine hours and I'm going to sit down."
"Cliff," Doris started, walking over to the table where Cliff sat down, "I couldn't come in today. I know how you are and I couldn't stand the thought of listening to you prove to your friends what a stud you are at my expense."
"You got something else lined up? I mean, you seem pretty willing to throw down ultimatums."
"I have to live here too, Cliff. Those friends of yours have wives. And what do you think they talk about a Claudia's salon, wallpaper patterns?"
Cliff took a sip of his bourbon. Suddenly he had an image of Merl's three-hundred pound wife whispering about his sex life. It was almost too ridiculous to contemplate. But Doris was someone he could rely on. It wasn't worth losing her for the sake of a few yucks a Mrs. Merl's expense. On the other hand...
"I'll tell you what, we'll just call things even now. I'll keep last night to myself if you'll stick around. But next time you're headed to Claudia's, let me know, okay?
"Now sit down and I'll get you a drink."
Doris sat down slowly onto the wooden chair and watched as Cliff walked toward the bar. He had a smirk on his face that meant he was up to something. She rummaged through her purse for a cigarette and then remembered leaving them on the dashboard. She picked up the pack of Raleighs and took one out as Cliff returned with her rum and soda.
"Here," he said, picking up the lighter, "let me get that."