What the Hell’s in Helena, Montana? by Paul Luikart

The tractor brakes finally burned out in Helena, Montana and the boss only wired enough for one plane ticket, so John flew back to Chicago to get another cab and left Jerry in town to babysit the load—a bunch of basketball shoes. Jerry had never been to Montana before. First thing he did was find the dirt cheapest motel there ever was, The Pic-A-Bed Inn, and hole up. On into the second day, John texted Jerry every couple of hours with updates. “Jer, back in Chicago, John.” “Jer, boss is waiting on replacement rig from Atlanta, John.” “Jer, ask boss to comp you the motel room when we get back, John.” That kind of news. Into the third day the texts came less, and by noon of day four they were pretty much done with. Jerry called John a couple times after lunch. It kept going to voicemail. “This is John, leave a message and maybe I’ll call you back. If you have a pair of tits I will most definitely call you back.” Jerry tried the garage once too, but the line was busy and he never called the garage again because the boss canned drivers who bothered him.

Jerry’s motel room was first floor, parking lot level, with a view of a soup kitchen across the street. A dilapidated structure, probably some kind of warehouse at one point. The whole building was leaning to the left. Above the front door was a big sign with a hand-painted Bible verse on it and another big sign that said, “No loitering.” It looked like people were always loitering. Along the chunked up sidewalk in front of the place was a line of sleeping bags and backpacks, shopping carts and bulging, crinkled grocery bags. When Jerry checked into the Pic-A-Bed, he saw a guy sitting under the Bible verse, knees tucked up to his chest with a halo of thick cigarette smoke swirling around his head. Another guy was lying there looking dead, but probably actually off in some drugged-up la-la land. A couple of guys easily mistaken for piles of laundry. Around the corner of the building, behind a chain-link fence were a dozen or so tents, making up a kind of drifter tent city. The capital of vagrants. Some weren’t even actually tents, just blue tarps set up in lean-tos against the crumbled tuck-pointing.

Around about suppertime that fourth day, Jerry was hungry. He’d eaten up all his road snacks and the thought of something else from the vending machine about made him puke. Since it was his first time in Helena, Montana, and since he didn’t know where the hell anything was, and since he was aiming to save his little money anyway, when he saw that line of raggedy men order itself and everybody in it face the same direction, he stepped outside, locked his door, popped a cigarette in his mouth, and walked on over. He fell in line as nonchalant as he could, keeping his hands in his pockets, mostly keeping his eyes down, definitely keeping his mouth shut. When the line started to move, he moved with it. Inside, he got a plateful of goulash from a slack-jawed woman with an apron on and had a seat in the white dining room. White paint on the walls, whitewashed concrete floor, white table tops, albeit a white scarred with initials and cuss words and symbols that probably were gang signs, all gouged in, Jerry figured, by the rusty knife blades half of these people must keep in their shoes.

He slurped up the goulash quick and took big drinks off the red Kool-Aid some kid had set in front of him in a plastic cup, and just as he was about to stand up and go, somebody sat down across from him. A tiny man about Jerry’s age, mid-forties, though it was hard to tell exactly for the scraggly red whiskers and caved in cheeks. He wore glasses with one of the lenses popped out, so the eye behind the remaining lens looked huge and veiny. A Mariner’s ball cap sat on his head, the dark brim salt-stained, shredded.

“Are you going to eat the rest of that?” he said, pointing.

There was a little pile of noodles and tomato chunks on Jerry’s plate.

“What, you want it?” Jerry said.

“Hell yes I want it. Goulash night is my second favorite night.”

Jerry handed the plate to the little man, who grabbed it up in calloused hands and scraped it onto his plate, handing Jerry back the empty. He set it on the table and didn’t touch it again.

Jerry said, “What’s your first favorite?”

“Tacos.” Rolls of orange slime had bunched up in the corners of the little guy’s mouth and bits of goulash flipped out from between his frog lips when he talked.

“I guess I missed it,” Jerry said.

“You sure did.”

Jerry watched him. The little guy said, “I’ve never seen you here before.”

“I’ve never been here before.”

“Not a lot of new people come through.”

“I won’t be around long.”

The little guy chomped and smacked his lips, sucked the sauce from his fingers and the tines of his fork. “I wasn’t supposed to be around long either.”

Jerry gave a tiny salute. “Have a good night,” he said and swung his legs around and stood, but the little guy didn’t say anything, didn’t even look up.

When Jerry got back to his motel room, he turned on every light and the TV too. He called John, didn’t get him, and so left this message: “How’s it going with the truck, Johnny-boy? I’m starting to put down roots. Got me a little wife, had me a baby. Might raise up a real nice family here in Helena, Montana. Seriously, though, how’s it going with the truck? Call me back. This is Jerry.”

Hell, maybe John was on the road already. Jerry fell asleep still wearing his jeans and boots and he didn’t turn off any of the lights. He dreamed he was a caveman in the mountains around Helena, and got food by pretending to be dead, waiting for vultures to land, then jumping up and strangling them and biting their heads off. He woke in the morning stiff as hell, the sun screaming through the curtains and his phone was blinking a message. Not John though. It was Karen saying her lawyer was going to call so expect a call and not to call her anymore only call her lawyer and this was the last time probably he was ever going to hear her voice. He dialed John and said, “Where the hell are you? This is day five now. Call me ASAP. This is Jerry.”

Boy, talk about time to kill. Out on the road there was a lot of time to kill too, but they told each other stories about high school baseball games, deer hunting, their women. John’s woman left him a long time ago just like Jerry’s was leaving him now. John said it was eventual for any trucker. When Karen called Jerry up a few weeks ago to let him know they were through, it wasn’t a big surprise. Really. He was sitting right next to John in the cab when he got the call. The conversation probably lasted two minutes. He barely said a word, as a matter of fact.

“She’s out the door on you, huh?” John said.

“How’d you know?”

“Sound of your voice when you said goodbye.”

John looked over at Jerry.

“My voice?”

“It changed. Got lower a little bit, more scratchy. It never goes back either. You hear me talking like this? Not the normal sound of my voice. When I got divorced, it changed to this. And been this way ever since.”

Jerry laid the phone down on the dash.

“Least you don’t have kids to fight over,” John said.

Jerry stared at the road, face hardening.

“Hell, it’s been years me and her been split and we ain’t quit fighting over our boys yet. Don’t think we ever will.” John paused. “Maybe we’d rather fight one another forever. Loving forever didn’t work.”

Jerry didn’t know what else to do, so he took a little stroll around that part of Helena, Montana, only in that part of Helena, Montana, around the motel, there was nothing to see or do. He walked in the direction of some tall buildings way off, dwarfed by the mountains, but after about a half mile or so, he was aching and out of breath. He sat on the curb and smoked a cigarette. Behind him was a rusted-out old asphalt plant. Across the street stretched a huge, cleared-off concrete pad, a couple of hundred yards square, a place he figured some other plant used to sit until somebody came along sometime ago and bull-dozed it away. Grass and weeds, some about three or four feet tall, grew up in green jags from the places the concrete had cracked.

Jerry tossed the butt down, then looked at the mountains. Maybe they were an enormous rock-whale family that lived beneath the surface of the earth, but had to come up for air, but when they came up they froze in place, backs arched, because the winters were so cold. It’s easy to see where Indians got their explanations for all kind of things. There was some tribe believed the Earth was the back of a turtle and it crawled around the sun in a huge cosmic circle.

Back at the hotel, Jerry watched a Honeymooners marathon, then headed over to the soup kitchen again. This time it was hot dogs. Still with the red Kool-Aid. The little guy from yesterday came in again and sat down across from Jerry.

“Where do hot dogs stand for you?” Jerry said.

“Dead last.”

Jerry scarfed his down, loaded with mustard. He reached for his Kool Aid, but the little guy grabbed his wrist. His grip was hard.

“What the hell?”

“You sure all you want is Kool-Aid?”

He was holding a flask, the silver screw top just peeking over the lip of the table. The one eye, the big one behind the glasses lens, seemed like it was pulsing.

“What is it?”

“Kickapoo Joy Juice.” The little guy laughed his little head off, laughed so hard the Mariners cap plopped onto the floor behind him. Then just as suddenly as that cackle had busted out of his mouth, it was gone. The look on his face was absolutely grim, like death. “Yes or no?” he said.

“Okay.”

Little Guy looked around the room, then poured a lot of the stuff into Jerry’s cup, then some into his own. He screwed the cap back on and the flask disappeared into the folds of his filthy sweatshirt.

Jerry and Little Guy put away a whole hell of a lot of joy juice and the rest of the night was fits and spurts, like somebody sketched the night out on index cards and then thumbed through it over and over again. They practically fell out of the soup kitchen, a plate crashing, food splattering on the white floor. They stumbled through streets Jerry’d never seen and never planned to see and might never see again, past ghost men in doorways, stubs of orange under street lights in the growing night where they drew on rolled cigarettes and let out smoke so thick it actually hid their faces and once Jerry said, “How come you can never see their faces?”

In some way, they ended up back at the tent city. Jerry didn’t know what time it was. Little Guy was either passed out or dead on the ground beside him. Jerry, still drunk, wasn’t tired. With his hands behind his head and his feet crossed at the ankles, he laid back on the hard ground and looked up. It was the kind of blackness that really did go on forever, but the blackness was pierced by so many vivid, white dots—more stars than he ever would have imagined could exist. When they talk about billions of stars in the galaxy, this must have been every single one of them. He didn’t know any real constellations, so the stars came in constellations his brain made up. There were some that spelled out his name, as close to heaven as “Jerry” might ever be. There were some stars that bunched together to form waves, and some that made animals, like lions and charging stallions. A woman’s face, beautiful with long hair parted down the middle and wrapping around her neck. She smiled too. A goddess. And then, one by one—billions of stars up there and then think of one by one—one by one, they began to fall. Here and there at first, one would drop off and Jerry couldn’t be sure if he’d imagined it or not. But then more and more, and they gathered momentum, and the sky was filled with streaks of white fire until there were more fire streaks than there was blackness and the dark of the night sky was overtaken by the light, and the light blinded him and he’d always remember feeling really, really glad to have been blinded like that.

In the morning, Little Guy was gone. The sun was high and naked in the sky. A hot wind passed through the tents, rattling the nylon into flaps and zip-zops. Jerry breathed in dust, coughed, sat up. He looked at his shoes for a long time. Then he stood and stumbled back across the street to the motel. “What the fuck, John? This is Jerry,” he said into John’s voicemail. Then he passed out on the bed and didn’t wake up until dinnertime. When he did wake up, he had another message, again not John, this time the lawyer, who said something about papers. At the soup kitchen there was Little Guy with his joy juice and they wolfed down the Salisbury steak, practically kissing the little flask on the way out.

“What is this really?” Jerry said.

“Mescal. Homemade. By a real Mexican.” Little Guy’s pulsing eye was wild.

Not too much later they were sitting with their backs against the soup kitchen wall watching the sun go down, a flaming chariot of the gods and all, shot down, slamming into the mountains, burning out and scattering pieces and parts made of gold all over the west. They were talking about coyotes maybe, when Little Guy interrupted and said, “What were you trucking?”

“Just a load of basketball shoes.”

They were quiet and the sun finally disappeared.

“What are you going to do with them now?” Little Guy said.

“Get them to Chicago.”

“How, by hand?”

“No, they’re going—” Jerry started then just as quickly stopped. He was looking up at the starlight and imagined he could somehow feel it on his face, tiny stabs of endless warmth.

Paul Luikart
Paul LuikartPaul Luikart’s MFA is from Seattle Pacific University. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughters.
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