The West |


by Ammi Keller

edited by Kara Levy

The man sat hunched above us on the hot tub’s ladder, his ankles in the water, his nipples pendulous and oyster pink.

            “So what brings you to Hot Springs?”  he asked.  My girlfriend Macy and I had just slid across the hotel’s marble atrium, up the stairs and onto the deck, then out of our clothes and into the water safely, like ball players coming home.

            “We’re here for our friend’s wedding,” I lied.  “Gina, from college.  You know how some people need to top everyone else’s occasion?”

            “Oh I do!” a red-haired woman in a two-piece said.  Beside her a man with a walrus mustache and a woman with a long, wet ponytail lolled in the backlit water.  “But at least you get a vacation.”

            “That’s true,” I said.  “It’s been wonderful.”

            I looked down at where my ribcage met the churning steam.  My designer suit from the thrift store glowed bright white against my brown skin, looking like it had always been mine.  The mountains rose around us on three sides as broken rock, pine and darkness.

            “So what do you do?”  the man on the ladder asked Macy. 

            I tensed.

           “Odd jobs.  Mostly I find things on the street and sell them.”  Macy adjusted the fall of her homemade bathing suit, cut from a T-shirt to reveal paper-white triangles of her hips and rib cage.  “I’ve made hundreds of dollars just selling things for a quarter, you know?”

            But they didn’t.

            “Yeah, we’ve been having fun,” I said, pulling everyone’s faces back to me.  “Two days ago was the bachelorette party.”

            “Did y’all tie one on?” the red-haired lady asked. 

            “Well yeah, but it was more than that.”  I tried to look innocent, pausing while the clear water twinkled around my bare fingernails.  “She hired male strippers.  It was a crazy night.”

            “No way.” The lady was enjoying us.  The man on the ladder looked deflated.  “Did you, I don’t know, have dollar bills for the guys?”

            “Oh yeah,” Macy laughed, revived to find herself able to draw on actual life experience, albeit from the other side. “You got to have some bills.  Otherwise there’s nothing to do!”

            The red-haired woman smiled and I leaned back, aligning my lower back with the jet.  The water was amazing.  Every anxiety seemed to run, like steely little snakes, from my pores.  I left the conversation then, focusing instead on the enormous white moon, which looked the same whether one was home, or in a place where no one did or could understand you.  When I tuned back in, Macy was being asked where we lived, and telling the man on the ladder that we’d “stayed in New Orleans before da storm.”

            She said her “the”s like that: da.  She did it more often around white people, the rich than the poor.  She was trying to represent, I guess.  But as the one black person in the water, I hated it.  Though she was the one talking I felt six pairs of eyes straining not to look at me.  With the mention of the storm, some huge turbines in my body changed course, as though everything nobody wanted was now flowing toward and into me.   

            “Were you there for Katrina?” the dark-haired woman asked in my direction.  The skin of her cheeks was vaguely sallow, her eye sockets limp and clumpy with liner.

            “Yeah, we were,” Macy said.  “The roof was blown off the supermarket and we must’ve looted about three hundred pounds of groceries. ’Cause we had to take care of ourselves, you know?”

            But they didn’t. 

            “Wow,” said the red-haired woman, who had earlier answered the what-do-you-do question with, I run an internet company, but really it runs itself.  I’m more about my pottery now.  “I’m from Covington and I know what you mean.  We had the wind damage.  FEMA had to send eight eighteen-wheelers to my property to haul off downed trees, and that was just a fraction of it.”

            “Jesus,” I said.  But I avoided looking at Macy, who was still battling FEMA for the funds I had gotten a few days after the storm.  Who that morning had come back from the food-stamp office without a card, her handbag stuffed with paperwork she couldn’t fill out to anyone’s satisfaction.

            “It cost me fourteen thousand dollars just to deal with the downed wood.  That’s after what FEMA took.  But I had to pay it.”  The red-haired woman threw up her hands, little droplets hitting the hunched man on the side of his face.  “I couldn’t move back into my house otherwise.”

            Macy folded her arms over the fleur de lys tattoo on her sternum, nodding with a taut jaw.

            “You were a victim of, what do they call it?” she asked.  “Price gouging.”

            “That’s what it was,” the woman said.  The man who’d asked everyone what they did, we all realized, had been waiting with lurking patience to talk about himself.  I could sense the four of us women and the mustachioed, silent man becoming aware of one another at the same time we became aware of him.  And I forgot for a second, witnessing this man’s obvious insecurity, that Macy and I weren’t here legitimately the way other people were.  I forgot all about pushing a shopping cart through the storm water, laughing over the beer and strawberries and sardines without knowing in a matter of weeks, I’d be unable to digest anything. 

            “I’m an accountant with United Paper,” he said.  Then he turned to me.  “Do you work out?”

            “Yeah,” I replied, though truthfully it was the post-storm problems in my gut that caused me to lose twenty pounds, left me glamorous and compact.

            “What do you do?” the red-haired woman asked.

            “Yoga.  Running.  I’ll swim...”  I cut myself off before saying, if there’s a pool. In the beginning, when FEMA was paying for hotel rooms, I swam every day.  I was thirty-one.  I felt like I’d been given something and told to use it all at once, like a container of cottage cheese on the verge of expiration.

            “I do Pilates. Yoga was never targeted enough for me,” the red-haired woman said.

            Macy developed a new fire.  She hated exercise of any kind and small bodies as an idea.  The food stamps were part of her weight-gain routine. “I just want to be big,” she finally said.  “I’m sick of only skinny people becoming famous.”

            “That’s why you had to steal all that food.”  The red-haired woman said it, but I saw the others nodding.  “Besides, what you took was going to go bad anyway.  You didn’t take it from anyone.”

            I looked sideways.  The limp-haired lady said she wished she had our metabolisms, making me want to try to figure out the false thing Macy and I were together—something with an a sound, like anorexics or assassins—and the small-eyed man said, “I guess you could say I do the traditional workout.”

            “Oh?”  I asked, because it was obvious someone had to.

            “Weights.  Every day for twelve years.”

            “Wow,” said the red-haired woman.  “I can tell.”

            Our ten eyes took in his sagging pecs and sloped shoulders.  Beside Macy, the man with the mustache let out a nearly inaudible huff.  And then Macy smiled, a crinkle I could hear, like a game of telephone, that let me forgive her for everything we’d done to get here.  My legs in the water were only thirty-one, easily the accountant’s age, but they were nut-colored and strong from the bike and all I could think, helplessly against his helplessness was: I win.

            “So,” he said, turning to Macy, “you say you want to be famous?”

            “Naw, I don’t.”

            “But you said it.”

            “I really don’t.”

            The other bathers watched them as the night seemed to deepen.  The wind shifted and a dense fog slid down the mountain, bringing a chill that took two of the three from the lip of the pool, back into the water with the rest of us. 

            “I know a little something about fame,” the accountant said, losing his hunch and sitting up with earnest, unexpected dignity.  “I was a DJ in college and once a woman sat down next to me in the cafeteria and proceeded to tell me more about myself than even I knew.”  He pushed his thin-framed glasses back up.  “It was scary.”

            “The only reason I’d want to be famous,” Macy said, “would be to get my message out.”

            “And what message is that?” The limp-haired woman seemed to be shrinking in her blue bathing suit, the fan of its spandex skirt wriggling against the jet like a small fish feeding on her body. 

            “My message?”  Macy laughed.  I envied how big she could become, anytime she wanted.  “People don’t want to hear it.  That is the one thing I know.  People do not want to hear it.”

            Her laugh was like a tree falling, more frightening and closer down the mountain than anyone would have thought.  We waited.

            “Peace, sharing, and understanding!” Macy plopped her hands in the water like a porpoise.  Everyone looked confused.             

            “Fame is interesting,” I said.  The fog snaked inside the canopy of evergreens, condensed on the undersides of dying leaves of white oak.  “I was in a pilot for a TV show once, and it was weird to be recognized, though it only lasted a few weeks.”

            “Wow,” the red-haired woman said.  She stood and walked to retrieve a paper cone of water, gooseflesh pricking the backs of her thighs.  “Y’all certainly are interesting.”

            The accountant stared at me.

            “I thought you looked familiar,” he said.  I replied with a head-shot grin.  Yes, I would be an actress tonight to explain my presence in the hotel, to rubber-stamp my existence onto his corner of the world.  Though when I started to brainstorm sitcom ideas, I failed to stop my imagination at the cliff, and suddenly there I was: playing the girl without health insurance, looting intestinal disease and then trying to escape town in a barely functioning vehicle, after all the others had gone.  I began to feel as though I were evaporating off my own face, an impersonal blend of oil, sweat, and steam. 

           “I think I’m melting.” 

           “You’re in the hottest spot,” the man with the curled mustache said.  “Take a shower.  It’ll cool you off, but not too fast.”

           I nodded, deciding I wasn’t content to be just an actress.  Tonight I deserved to be everyone I’d ever wanted to be.  Tomorrow I could go back to painting houses.  Tomorrow I’d become a social worker or a monk or a communalist or a park ranger.  The future was open.  Looking up over the wavering edges of the tub, I could see the winter like a rocket approaching.  And I could see everything I’d left in New Orleans, bright and trembling, like a galaxy many light years away, though I couldn’t remember if that meant it was in the future or the past.

           “Yeah, the jets come in really strong there,” the limp-haired woman said.  “And that’s spring water, you know, a hundred and forty three degrees up inside the mountain.”

           I slogged toward the marble shower to the left of the tub, steam peeling off me in white rolls.  They certainly knew a lot about water for tourists.

           My tongue was hot, my ankles cold, the hollows below my eyes so deep they felt bruised.  This, I guessed, was detox.  Now it was time to wash everything away.  I gripped the plain metal faucet and tried to turn it but my wrist had gone weak, as though I’d become a nineteenth-century TB patient, very romantic, taking the baths in a body that wasn’t mine.

           “Here, I need one too,” the accountant said as he appeared beside me, his hand replacing mine on the water-stained metal. 

           It was funny, showering with a stranger.  I stood beneath the spray while he stood dripping on the deck, shivering and talking about Pat Robertson.

           “Fame is a funny thing, but sometimes it’s warranted.  I had the opportunity to meet him once with my church and, I’ll tell you, I was blown away.  He showed us pictures of himself with Ronald Regan, Edwin Meese, everyone.  Meeting Pat Robertson you know in an instant why he is where he is.  He’s such a beautiful man.”

           I closed my eyes and let the water rain little pinpoints on my neck.

          “That’s fascinating,” I said.  In a weird way, it was.  Everything had come out and now, in a rush, everything was being washed away.  I felt in my own way religious.  I felt like one tiny glint, a shaving only, off a star.

           I walked out, leaving the water running, and picked up one of the thin hotel towels folded on the bench.  It warmed the area, small but crucial, between my belly and the tops of my knees.  The accountant watched me, then stepped under the spray.

          “Meeting Pat Robertson made me think about destiny.” 

          Water ran over his closed eyes and into his paused, open mouth.  He spit and continued, still talking and still blind, spitting again and again. 

          “I asked myself, why am I here right now?  What am I on this earth to do?”  He shook his head and opened his eyes, droplets racing inwards from his ears.  “Do you think about that?”

          “Every day,” I answered.

           Everyone has a destiny, I wanted to tell him, and sometimes destinies conflict.  And stars die and do battle, and cities die and somewhere, someone who will make a positive, if contradictory, difference in another life is being born. 

          “The battery light went on in my minivan yesterday,” the limp-haired woman said as I whipped off my towel and lowered myself into the tub again.  “Blinking red.”

          “Better get that checked out.  Otherwise, it’ll be a long drive to St. Louis,” the man with the walrus mustache said, a smirk animating his baritone.

          “Oh yeah,” Macy added, as the accountant climbed back into the pool from the other side.  “If your battery isn’t charging you won’t get far.  To get up here we had to drive from New Orleans to Morgan City stealing batteries out of parked cars every twenty-five miles.  It was rough.”

          Then, everything stopped.  The jets cut and we found ourselves sitting, inert bodies in a still pool.  It was sudden, like death, and we were already in the afterlife, which was quiet and fluffed with white foam.  I looked at Macy, remembering her spinning the adjustable wrench, wronging people she did not know and depositing both of us in this cartoon heaven anyway.  She looked back at me as though I were the one worthy of forgiveness.  Nothing needed to happen right now, I decided.  Three months since the storm, only three months, three whole months!  Life kept going whether or not you moved in a certain direction, or sat surrounded by incomplete humanity, adrift in the still water and waiting for a sign.