“Wait a minute,” the woman holding the nine-millimeter said. “You know this guy?”
Sean looked at me and said, “Yeah.”
The woman holstered the pistol and shifted her pint glass to her right hand.
The yard sloped downhill from the house. The porch where they were standing was about ten feet above the bench I was sitting on. “I didn’t say or do anything. She came out here and pointed the gun at me.”
“Jill wasn’t gonna shoot you,” Sean said. “She’s just cranky from day drinking alone.”
Jill shrugged and took a slug of whatever was in her glass. She was tall and slim with dark brown, shoulder-length curly hair.
I smiled. “No harm, no foul.”
Sean waved his hand back and forth between the woman and me. “Tyler, meet Jill. Jill, this is Tyler.”
Jill saluted me with her glass and then drained it. “How do you two know each other?”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t know how to explain it.
Sean ran a hand over his buzz-cut blonde hair. “Tyler here set my dog on fire.”
Jill said, “He what?”
Sean made a face. “You guys hungry? I’m hungry. Let’s go to Ray’s.”
“It’s a little early for dinner,” Jill said.
Sean said, “You need something in your stomach besides gin and tonic.”
A waiter seated us in a booth next to a fountain with identical jade elephants on either side. A broken neon rainbow covered with dust hung on the wall over the fountain. The water gurgling in the fountain mixed oddly with a Cure song playing in the kitchen.
After we ordered, Sean excused himself to go to the bathroom. After a few minutes, Jill said, “I saw the end of the rainbow one time.”
“Yeah.” She shook her head. “In the parking lot of a shitty Mexican place in Fairbanks.”
“No. A broken beer bottle and a used condom.”
“What a shitty leprechaun.”
“No kidding.” She jabbed a pink Nutra-Sweet packet with her chopsticks.
“You two met in Oregon,” Jill said, changing the subject.
I nodded. “I was driving up from Fort Collins.”
Sean slid into the booth next to Jill. “I forget why you left.”
“Fort Collins has a great music scene. The weather’s pretty good. Everybody’s happy almost all the time.” I pulled my chopsticks apart and rubbed them together. “I had a hard time relating. A buddy was heading up to Alaska and said there was tons of summer work and it was easy to get on unemployment in the fall.
Jill looked at Sean. “Did he really — ”
“I didn’t think you’d make it up here,” Sean said to me.
“Me either,” I said. “But I did.”
“And now you’re leaving,” Jill said. She wasn’t mean about it.
“Looks like I am.”
Jill grinned. “I would have thought there were enough bad weather and assholes in Alaska for your liking.”
Our food arrived. We left the dishes in the middle of the table to share and loaded up our plates. Basil, lime, and chili scents rode the rising steam to my nostrils.
Jill looked at Sean. “You didn’t have a dog when we met.”
“No,” he said, “I didn’t.” He looked at me. “You might as well tell her the story.”
“We left Fort Collins, my buddy met the girl. Next thing I know we’re in Oregon and he’s bailing on Alaska. I was broke and didn’t have a vehicle, so I rented a room in a crappy motel and found a job at a lumberyard. I tweaked my back at work. They fired me. It was bullshit, but I couldn’t do anything because I was still in my probationary period. I went to a bar to drink my last twenty bucks and met this guy named Cap.”
The waiter stopped by. Sean waved him off.
“Cap owned an even shittier motel on the edge of town. Broken down, leaky pipes. Water stains on the ceiling.
Jill shuddered. “I can smell the mold from here.”
“He let me stay for free in exchange for help remodeling. Being broke and living in a lousy motel made me feel like Charles Bukowski, and I figured it would make me a better writer.”
“Did it?” Sean asked.
“Nah, I drank too much and wrote lots of bad poetry.”
“Speaking of drinking.” Jill waved her hand at the waiter and made a bottoms-up gesture.
The waiter said, “Tsingtao?”
Jill nodded and held up three fingers.
I went on. “I spent a couple hours every morning filling a dumpster with rotten siding and 1970s furniture. Cap was supposed to be working on the roof and replacing windows, but he spent most of his time in a camp chair in the parking lot drinking Southern Comfort and Robitussin.”
“I’d forgotten about that part of it,” Sean said. “What did he call it again?”
“Agent Orange.” I made my voice raspy to mimic Cap. “‘I mix it sixty-forty, like radiator fluid.’ It wasn’t orange, but it seemed to be killing his brain cells pretty well, and I think that was his main goal.”
“Sounds fucking disgusting,” Jill said.
I nodded. “Most days around two or three in the afternoon Cap’d call me over and start telling me war stories from Vietnam.”
The waiter dropped off the beers. Jill grabbed one.
“Get to Cap’s puddles,” Sean said, making a little spinning motion with his right hand.
“When Cap drank he liked to make rainbows. Not rainbows like at Jill’s Mexican restaurant” — Sean frowned at that — “or when kids spray mist out of a garden hose, but the kind of rainbows you get with gasoline and water. There were a lot of good-sized potholes in that parking lot, and it rained all the damn time, so Cap always had puddles to dump gas into. He’d mix up a pitcher of Agent Orange and set his chair where he could get a look at whatever his favorite potholes were that day and get the slicks going how he liked, which took a lot of gas, and then he’d sit there, drinking and smoking and staring at his rainbows.”
Jill had finished her Tsingtao, and I hadn’t touched mine, so I passed it over. She smiled at me and raised the bottle in thanks.
The waiter came by and Sean signaled for the check.
“One day this mutt showed up, some kind of collie-cattle dog mix. I gave him some of my breakfast. He was there the next morning and I fed him again and we both decided it was ’til death do us part. I named him Peter.
“A week or two after that I went out to the table with Peter to watch the sunset. Sean is sitting there. He’s got a mandolin and a poodle named Lefty and we get to talking. He’s on his way to Alaska, and he needs a cheap place to stay for a couple days waiting on a part for his Jeep. I’ve got a whole motel, so I invite him over. Why not?”
Jill made a little ah-ha sound, like she saw where it was going.
“Cap’s out in the parking lot when we walk up, staring at his rainbows, so Sean and I pull up a couple chairs and have a few beers with him. The dogs, meanwhile, are chasing each other around and wrestling under the table. He asks if we want a smoke and we’re like, sure, what the hell.”
“Did you try the Agent Orange?” Jill asked Sean.
“What about you?”
“No. By this time, the sun’s down. The moon is up, and it’s full and so bright it’s spooky. The whole world is silver and black, like an X-ray.”
I took a drink of water and looked over at Sean. He was back there with me, in the parking lot with Cap and his puddles and the shadows cast by the trees in the moonlight.
“Cap must’ve been going overboard on the rainbows, or the dogs must have rolled through a couple of puddles, or both. I don’t know. Anyway, the dogs were rampaging around and I got lightheaded from the cigarette, and tossed it over my shoulder, and whumpf, a puddle lights off and, then whumpf, both dogs go up in flames, and then they’re fucking screaming and howling and Cap melts the fuck down. He’s screaming and making this deranged cackle sound and belly-crawling on his elbows back toward the hotel, must be some PTSD flashback, and Sean, I don’t know what Sean was doing — ”
“The fuck you think I was doing? I was trying to put Lefty out.”
“Sean’s trying to put Lefty out, but Cap’s been dumping gas in all the puddles, and Sean and I, we had to back off. All I could think, besides how much it must have hurt the dogs, I mean, it must have been torture, burning to death like that, but all I could think, watching the dogs burn, watching them howling and kicking and writhing, was that it was beautiful in a horrible way. The flames twisting in the moonlight and the dark forest behind them, it was beautiful. It was horrible, but it was beautiful, too, if you forgot what it was and looked at it as a visual.”
“So you really did set his dog on fire,” Jill said.
“Peter, too. They both died.”
“And then you drove up here together?”
“No. Sean hit the road the next day. We haven’t seen each other since.”
Jill said to Sean, “And you invited him to lunch.”
“He didn’t mean to set my dog on fire.” Sean’s voice was calm, but his right foot was pumping up and down under the table.
Jill looked at me.
“I really didn’t.”
She turned back to Sean.
He shrugged. His foot was still going a million miles an hour. “I think we’d have hung out if it hadn’t happened.” Then he said, “But it did, and the whole deal was too weird to deal with.”
Jill chewed an ice cube from her water glass. “I can see that. I don’t know if I could forgive that.” She looked at me. “Even as an accident.”
Sean dropped some bills on the table, and we stood and walked out.
We started walking back toward Jill’s. We got to the corner of Arctic and Fireweed, and the sun came out from behind the clouds. All three of us stopped and turned our faces toward the sun, looking for all the world like three human sunflowers growing out of a crack in the sidewalk.
That was one of the best moments I’d had in a long while, standing silent on a street corner, my stomach full and the sun warm on my face.
“Thanks for lunch,” I said to Sean.
“Good running into you,” he said. We shook hands.
“Maybe it will happen again.”
“You never know,” he said.
“No,” I said. “I never do.” I grinned at him. Jill was grinning also. I reached my hand out to her. “Nice meeting you. Thanks for not shooting me.” She surprised me by leaning over and giving me a hug.
She and Sean turned and walked down Arctic toward the onion dome of the Russian Orthodox church rising above the spruce trees.
I shrugged my shoulders to set my pack. It felt good on my back. I started walking toward the next bus stop, just up the road, getting closer to wherever I was going.