We invited him to all of our weddings; he was famous. We addressed the invitations to his record company’s skyscraper in New York City so that the gaudy, gilded envelopes could be forwarded to him on tour—in Beirut, Helsinki, Tokyo. Places beyond our ken or our limited means. He sent back presents in battered cardboard boxes festooned with foreign stamps—birthday gifts of ﬁne scarves or perfume for our wives, small delicate toys or trinkets upon the births of our children: rattles from Johannesburg, wooden nesting dolls from Moscow, little silk booties from Taipei. He would call us sometimes, the connection scratchy and echoing, a chorus of young women giggling in the background, his voice never sounding as happy as we expected it to.
Months would pass before we saw his face again, and then, he would arrive home, bearded and haggard, his eyes tired but happily relieved. We could tell that Lee was glad to see us, to be back in our company. We always gave him time to recover before our lives resumed together, we knew he needed time to dry out and regain his balance. We let him sleep and sleep. Our wives brought him casseroles and lasagnas, bowls of salad and freshly baked pies.
He liked to ride a tractor around his sprawling property. We assumed he liked feeling the hot daylight, the sun and fresh air on his pale face. The slow speed of that old John Deere, so reliable and patient. The earth rolling backward beneath him. There were no crops on his land of course, but he rode the tractor through the fallow ﬁelds of prairie grasses and wildﬂowers, a cigarette between his lips, or a joint. He was always smiling on that tractor, his hair all ﬂyaway and light blond and in the sunlight it was like the ﬂuff of a seeding dandelion.
He had taken another name for the stage but we never called him by that name. We called him Leland, or just plain Lee, because that was his name. He lived in an old schoolhouse away from things, away from our town, Little Wing, and maybe ﬁve miles out into the countryside. The name on his mailbox read: l Sutton. He had built a recording studio in the small, ancient gymnasium, padding the walls with foam and thick carpeting. There were platinum records up on the walls. Photographs of him with famous actresses and actors, politicians, chefs, writers. His gravel driveway was long and potted with holes, but even this was not enough to deter some of the young women who sought him out. They came from around the world. They were always beautiful.
Lee’s success had not surprised us. He had simply never given up on his music. While the rest of us were in college or the army or stuck on our family farms, he had holed up in a derelict chicken coop and played his battered guitar in the all-around silence of deepest winter. He sang in an eerie falsetto, and sometimes around the campﬁre it would make you weep in the unreliable shadows thrown by those orange-yellow ﬂames and white-black smoke. He was the best among us.
He wrote songs about our place on earth: the everywhere ﬁelds of corn, the third-growth forests, the humpbacked hills and grooved-out draws. The knife-sharp cold, the too-short days, the snow, the snow, the snow. His songs were our anthems—they were our bullhorns and microphones and jukebox poems. We adored him; our wives adored him. We knew all the words to the songs and sometimes we were in the songs.
Kip was going to be married in October inside a barn he’d renovated for the occasion. The barn stood on a farm of horses, the land there delineated by barbed-wire fences. The barn was adjacent to a small country cemetery where it was entirely possible to count every lichen-encrusted tombstone and know how many departed were lying in repose under that thick sod. A census, so to speak. Everyone was invited to the wedding. Lee had even cut short the leg of an Australian tour in order to attend, though to all of us, Kip and Lee seemed the least close among our friends. Kip, as far as I knew, didn’t even own any of Lee’s albums, and whenever we saw Kip driving around town it was inevitably with a Bluetooth lodged in his ear, his mouth working as if he were still out on the ﬂoor of the Mercantile Exchange.
Kip had just returned to Wisconsin after about nine years of trading commodities in Chicago. It was as if the world had just gotten small again. For years, decades, our whole lives, really— we’d listened to the farm reports in our trucks on the AM radio. Sometimes you’d even hear Kip’s voice during those broadcasts as he was interviewed from his office down in Chicago, that familiar self-assured baritone narrating ﬂuctuations in numbers that dictated whether or not we could afford orthodontia for our children, winter vacations, or new boots, telling us things we didn’t exactly understand and yet already knew. Our own futures were sown into those reports of milk and corn prices, wheat and soy. Hog-bellies and cattle. Far from our farms and mills, Kip had made good, manipulating the fruits of our labor. We respected him just the same. He was ﬁercely intelligent, for one thing, his eyes burned in their sockets as he listened intently to us complain about seed salesmen, pesticides, fertilizer pricing, our machines, the ﬁckle weather. He kept a farmer’s almanac in his back pocket, understood our obsession with rain. Had he not gone away, he might have been a prodigious farmer himself. The almanac, he once told me, was almost entirely obsolete, but he liked to carry it around. “Nostalgia,” he explained.
After he returned, Kip bought the boarded-up feed mill downtown. The tallest structure in town, its six-story grain silos had always loomed over us, casting long shadows like a sundial for our days. Very early in our childhoods it had been a bustling place where corn was taken to be held for passing trains, where farmers came to buy their fuel in bulk, their seed, other supplies, but by the late eighties it had fallen into disrepair, the owner having tried to sell in a time when no one was buying. It was only a few months before the high-schoolers began throwing stones through the windows, decorating the grain silos with graffiti. Most of our lives it was just a dark citadel beside a set of railroad tracks that had grown rusty and overgrown with milkweed, ragweed, ﬁreweed. The ﬂoors had been thick with pigeon shit and bat guano, and there was a lake of standing water in the old stone basement. In the silos, rats and mice ran rampant, eating the leftover grain— sometimes we broke inside to shoot them with .22s, the small-caliber bullets occasionally ricocheting against the towering walls of the silos. We used ﬂashlights to ﬁnd their beady little eyes and once, Ronny stole one of his mother’s signal ﬂares from the trunk of her car, dropping it down into the silo, where it glowed hot pink against the sulfurous darkness, as we shot away.
Within ten months Kip had restored most of the mill. He paid local craftsmen to do the work, overseeing every detail; he beat everyone to the site each morning and was not above wielding a hammer or going to his knees, as needed, to smooth out the grout, or what have you. We guessed at the kind of money he must have thrown at the building: hundreds of thousands for sure; maybe millions.
At the post office or the IGA, he talked excitedly about his plans. “All that space,” he’d say. “Think about all that space. We could do anything with that space. Offices. Light industry. Restaurants, pubs, cafés. I want a coffee shop in there, I know that much.” We tried our best to dream along with him. As young children, we had brieﬂy known the mill as a place where our mothers bought us overalls, thick socks, and galoshes. It had been a place that smelled of dog food and corn dust and new leather and the halitosis and the cheap cologne of old men. But those memories were further away.
“You think people will want to have dinner inside the old mill?” we asked him.
“Think outside the box, man,” he crooned. “That’s the kind of thinking that’s killed this town. Think big.”
Near the new electronic cash register was the original till. Kip had saved that, too. He liked to lean against the old machine, his elbows on its polished surface while one of his employees rang up customers at the newer register. He had mounted four ﬂat-screen televisions near the registers where it was easy to monitor the distant stock markets, Doppler radar, and real-time politics, talking to his customers out the sides of his mouth, eyes still trained up on the news. Sometimes, he never even looked at their faces. But he had resurrected the mill. Old men came there to park their rusted trucks in the gravel lot and drink wan coffee as they leaned against their still warm vehicles, engines ticking down, and they talked and spat brown juices into the gravel rock and dust. They liked the new action that had accumulated around the mill. The delivery trucks, sales representatives, construction crews. They liked talking to us, to young farmers—to me and the Giroux twins, who were often there, poking fun at Kip as he stared at all those brand-new plasma television screens, doing his best to ignore us.
Lee had actually written a song about the old mill before its revival. That was the mill we remembered, the one, I guess, that was real to us.
Our friend Ronny Taylor was an alcoholic. The drinking had made a bad detour of his life. Once, he had fallen down drunk onto the curb outside the VFW on Main Street and banged his head hard, broken some of his teeth. He’d been belligerent and loud that night, hitting on other people’s girlfriends and wives, spilling his drinks, and twice he’d been seen peeing into the alley behind the bar, his dick out in the breeze while he whistled “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” Sheriff Bartman had no choice and picked him up for public intoxication, though Bartman had no quarrel with Ronny and simply wanted the man to dry out somewhere safe, to not jump behind the wheel of some pickup truck only to kiss an oak tree at seventy miles an hour later in the evening. But of course the damage had already been done. All that night and into the next morning as Ronny lay cooped up in jail for public intoxication, his brain was bleeding from the inside. By the time the sheriff took him to the hospital in Eau Claire for emergency surgery, it was too late. Damage had been done that could not be undone. No one ever said as much, but we wondered if all that alcohol had thinned his blood, worsened the bleeding. Ronny was never the same after that, but some slowed-down version of himself. More happy perhaps, but also less aware, and if you were a stranger meeting him for the ﬁrst time, you might just think he was a little slow, but then again, maybe you would think he was normal. Either way, you might never have guessed about the young man that existed before in that same body. His sentences just didn’t come as quickly and frequently he repeated himself. But it didn’t mean that he was dumb, or handicapped, though sometimes, I wonder if we treated him that way.
Ronny dried out in the hospital over the course of several months, often restrained in his bed, and we came to the hospital to hold his hand. His grip was ferocious, his veins seemed everywhere ready to jump right out through his sweaty ﬂesh. His eyes were scared in a way I had only seen in horses. We wiped his forehead and did our best to hold him down to the earth.
Our wives and children came to visit him too and he liked that. It forced him to mellow. Our children brought crayons and paper to the hospital and drew crude portraits of him, the colors always happy and beside his head a glowing sun or a leafed-out tree. Sometimes after the children left we would ﬁnd him clutching their art and bawling, other times, holding them tenderly, studying them and touching their work like sacred artifacts. He saved those pictures and later hung them in his apartment.
After a period of time he came out of the tunnel and we took care of him as best we could because he was ours and he had no other family; both his parents had passed away when we were in our mid-twenties—carbon monoxide poisoning at their cabin up on Spider Lake, near Birchwood. Ronny was Little Wing’s orphan.
He had been a professional rodeo. He was tender with horses, brutal with cattle. He knew ropes and even before the accident he’d suffered any number of vicious injuries and insults to his body. There were times when he came over to our house for dinner that my children would ask him to list off his broken bones. That inventory took some time.
“Let’s see,” he’d say, pulling off his tired cowboy boots. “Well. I had all ten toes broken, I know that.” Next he’d pull off his holey socks. What toenails he still had were yellowed and the dirty milky color of quartz; they seemed to grow in deﬁance of his ﬂesh. “Some of these toes were broken twice, I think. An angry brahma is going to come down wherever they want to come down, see, and sometimes that’ll be on you.” Ronny would pick up our son, Alex, and set him on his back on the living-room ﬂoor and then pretend to be a bull, crashing down gently on the little boy’s body, tickling his ribs, armpits, and toes. “In Kalispell they wanted to take both pinkie toes, but I escaped the hospital before they could put me under. Had a girl there who I called and she was waiting outside with the engine running. . . .
“This scar here,” he said, indicating his pale right ankle, “a bull named Ticonderoga come down on it and snapped my leg in two.”
My kids thought this was the best game in the world—seeing how many garments they could get Ronny Taylor to shed, how many broken bones he could remember, how many nasty scars their little ﬁngers could trace.
But the drunken fall had ended his rodeo life, and we were sad for that. He had dropped out of high school to rodeo; he had no trade and no skills.
Lee paid for his medical expenses, his apartment, his food and clothing. We weren’t supposed to know any of that, but we had grown up with Rhonda Blake, who worked in one of the Eau Claire hospital’s medical records departments, and she told Eddy Moffitt one night at the VFW. She had been shaking her head and smiling kind of winsomely and Eddy went over to her, bought her a drink, and asked what was going on.
“You know, I could get ﬁred for saying something,” Rhonda said, “but the thing is, something like this. People ought to know. I never heard of a good deed like this. Christ, I could lose my job, but truth is, it’d be worth it.”
And then she told Eddy that Ronny hadn’t had insurance. That the bills had been well over a hundred thousand dollars.
“One day,” she said, “we get a delivery from New York City. An envelope from some record company to Ronny’s attention. And sure enough, a goddamn check for a hundred and twenty-three thousand dollars.”
She drank her beer fast, her eyes wet.
“It was just so sweet,” she said, “I couldn’t keep it to myself.”
Eddy told us all this story one night after a high school football game. (Us versus Osseo.) None of us had children old enough to be in high school yet, but when you live in a town as small as Little Wing, Wisconsin, you go out to the high school football and basketball games. It is, after all, something to do, cheap family entertainment. We all stood underneath the bleachers, some of us sharing a pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco, others passing a bag of sunﬂower seeds, listening to Eddy as the crowd thundered its support right above us, boots stomping the wooden bleachers, the rickety metal scaffolding shaking loose rust. From overhead, aluminum cans and crumpled-up hot dog wrappers rained down. We crossed our arms, spat, tried to imagine what a check for a hundred thousand dollars even looked like.
Lee was already our hero, but this only deepened our love for him, grew his legend. We all went out the next day and bought ten more of his albums, each of us, even though we had duplicates at our homes. And that money we spent was precious too because so many of us were just scraping by; it could’ve been plugged into savings or used for groceries. Still. We mailed them to relatives and distant friends, donated them to libraries and nursing homes.
Ronny never saw a bill; Lee’s lawyers took care of all the logistics. Ronny would be taken care of forever. Ronny did not seem to know that he had a patron in life, or, maybe he did, I don’t know. All I know is that Lee never talked about it, and neither did Ronny. Then again, it was only right. There were countless posters of Lee in Ronny’s apartment, and they had been there well before the accident and surgery. Most had gone a little faded with sunlight, greasy with kitchen smoke. They had adorned those shabby walls long before Lee became famous. Ronny had always loved him the most.
The invitations to Kip’s wedding were heavy with paper and ribbon and glitter. We carried them from our mailboxes and vehicles into our houses carefully, reverently, as if they held priceless, exquisite news. We vaguely knew the woman he was marrying. Felicia was from Chicago and now worked as a consultant from their new house just outside town. Exactly what or with whom she consulted, we didn’t really understand, though Eddy claimed that it had something to do with pharmaceuticals. She had come out to the VFW a few times with Kip, always beautiful, her makeup and hair and nails all perfect. We remembered her for her high heels, which she wore all through the winter, her toenails a sharp shiny red. She was plenty nice, but there was something in her manner that seemed to indicate to us that our town was just a temporary place for her, a kind of layover, and that we were layovers too. Layovers to later be ﬂown over one day and waved to. Flyover friends.
We scanned the invitation, surprised to see that Lee would be playing a song during the ceremony. He had not played songs at any of our weddings, and though we had all wanted him to, none of us had even thought to ask him for that kind of favor. We hadn’t really thought of him attending as a performer, just as our friend.
Not long after the invitations arrived at our houses, Lee came home from Australia, as run-down and misspent as we’d ever seen him. We let him be a few days, like we always did, and then my wife, Beth, invited him over to our farm for dinner and a bonﬁre. He always seemed to like playing with our children and the fact that we didn’t have cable television, that in fact our only television was an ancient model inherited from my parents that looked more like a gigantic piece of wooden furniture than something that might actually connect us to the outside world. We owned a newish record player though—I collect old vinyl—and he always blushed as he passed it and noticed one of his LPs underneath the needle. Our kids knew all the words to his songs.
The kids squealed that night as they saw the headlights of Lee’s old truck come down our driveway toward the house. They ran in circles and galloped, singing out all his trademark lines with gusto.
“All right, all right, all right!” Beth said, laughing. “Enough. Now you’re gonna give Uncle Lee some room. He’s tired, all right? He just got home from Australia. So don’t pester him too much.” Shooing them away from the front door, she checked her reﬂection in the mirror, pursed her lips, and ran her ﬁngers quickly through her hair.
He came to the door carrying a bouquet of carnations that were obviously bought in a hurry from the IGA. Beth took the ﬂowers and they hugged. He had grown skinny over the years and his hairline was quickly receding, though he let the strands grow long. He had a beard and his forearms were scattered with tattoos.
“Hey buddy,” he said, grinning at me. “Good to be home. Missed you a ton.”
Lee always gave good hugs. I felt his rib cage against my own, his long arms around me. The smell of tobacco in his beard and in his hair.
“We missed you too,” I said. Then the children attacked him and he fell to the ﬂoor in mock defeat. Beth and I went to the kitchen and brought the meal out to our old dining-room table, where there were candles already lit. Beth went to the turntable and ﬂipped his record, placed the needle in the wide black groove at the edge.
We heard Lee groan from the entryway as he stumbled toward us, dragging Eleanore and Alex, his arms underneath their armpits, and shaking his head. “Let’s listen to something else, huh?” he said. “I’m so friggin’ tired of myself.”
We watched him eat, wolﬁng down the food; it made us happy to feed him. We drank wine and listened to jazz and outside the windows the autumn leaves were loud and dry on their branches. Snow was not inconceivable.
“Heard you’re playing a song at Kip’s wedding,” I said, after some time had passed.
Lee leaned back in his chair and exhaled. “Yeah,” he said, “I guess I am. Got a text from him one day out of the blue. I was so surprised, I didn’t give my reply much thought. Maybe I should’ve.” “You okay with that?” Beth asked. “Singing, I mean. For Kip of all people?”
He shrugged. “You know, I like Kip just ﬁne, but it’s not like we’re close. He’s more like an acquaintance at this point than a friend. But I came back, you know, to see you all and—I don’t know—to support him. Old time’s sake and all. He’s done some good things. The mill, for one. I think he’s a good thing for this town. Anyway, I’d rather be here than the outback.”
“Oh,” Beth said, putting her chin in her hand and smiling, “your life’s not so bad.” She traced something on the surface of the table with her other hand.
“No,” he said. “My life is good. Very good. But I get lonely too. For people I can trust. People who don’t want anything from me. It, it changes you after a while, you know? And I don’t want it to change me. I want to be able to come back here and live here and just be who I am. With you guys.” He exhaled deeply and took a long sip of wine.
We followed his lead, raising our wineglasses to him, and they made a sound like dull chimes. Then there was a silence. Just the children’s feet swinging beneath the table and the wind in the desiccated corn stalks and tree limbs outside, and Lee smiled again and poured himself another glass of wine and we could see that his teeth were already stained purple and that he was happy.
“I wish I had your lives,” he said at last. “You know?”
I kissed Beth’s hand, then took it in my own, looked at her. She smiled at me, blushing, then looked at the ﬂoor.
Lee rose from the table then, pressed his knuckles into the small of his back, and stretched like a cat, before collecting our plates and walking them to the kitchen sink. Beth followed him, wineglasses clutched in her long ﬁngers, and I watched for a moment as they stood close beside each other, cleaning, him passing her wet dishes that she dried with a towel. His hands soap-sudsy, then hers too, both of them swaying back and forth just a little with the jazz. It made me feel good, to have everyone together, to have him back. I took a roll of newspaper and some matches and went out into the darkness to light a bonﬁre.
The wind carried cold and the stars were all out, the blue-white throw of the Milky Way grand overhead. I went to the woodpile and carried a load of logs to our ﬁre-ring in the backyard, then broke up some kindling and lit a match, blowing carefully against the tender new ﬂames. I have always loved bonﬁres.
Lee came out of the house at some point, and I sensed him behind me.
“Want a joint?” he asked.
I looked around, though we had no neighbors for hundreds and hundreds of yards. “The kids in bed?” I asked, rubbing my hands for warmth, blowing into them, the smell of alcohol still there, faintly.
“Beth’s putting them down now,” he said, grinning. We were silent a moment. “I needed tonight, man,” he said ﬁnally. “Needed to be with you guys. Just to, you know, have a little room to breathe. Eat some good food. I can’t tell you.”
There were rolling papers in his hands and he passed me a plastic bag, heavy and pungent even through the plastic. He pinched the buds into the paper and licked it along its edges. He always made great paper planes.
“Wanna just share?” I asked. “Why not.”
So we stood that way, our faces red and orange before the ﬁre with two different fragrances of smoke swirling around us, and overhead the heavens very slowly spinning and strange beautiful lights arcing down to earth every so often.
Lee started laughing at one point, shaking his head. I touched the ﬂannel of his jacket and said, “What is it? What?”
“I’m dating someone.”
“Yeah? You’re always dating someone.”
“Not like this,” he said. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows. The smoke was big in our lungs, sticky and good. We passed the joint between us.
“So, who is she? Come on now.”
I choked on the smoke when he told me, coughed into the night before beating a ﬁst against my chest. Lee was dating a movie star who appeared regularly on the glossy pages of at least three different magazines lying around our house. She was famously elegant, unfathomably beautiful, undeniably talented.
He nodded his head at me, still smiling. “And what’s she doing with a bum like you?”
“A guy’s entitled to get lucky every now and again,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, though I could see perfectly clearly that he was in love with her.
“I’m bringing her to Kip’s wedding,” he said, a moment later. “I can’t wait for you guys to meet her.”
“Jesus, Lee, I’m—shit, I’m just really happy for you,” I said, though there was something in my chest that snagged like jealousy. “I’m so happy for you,” I repeated, staring into the ﬁre, past the ﬂames to where the coals were throbbing, the palest, brightest orange. I wondered what it would be like to touch her body, to be with a woman that beautiful. Then I shook my head, shook away those thoughts and was back alongside Lee, happy and proud of him.
Strange, I thought to myself right then, how his life was like my own and yet not at all like it, though we came from the same small place on earth. And why? How had our paths diverged, why were they still even connected? Why was he then in my backyard, on my farm, the sound of almost two hundred cows, faintly in the background, mooing and lowing? How had he come back, this famous man, this person whose name everyone knew, whose voice was recognizable to millions in a way that made it impossible for him to be a stranger in so many places?
It was difficult for me to look up at the night sky and not think of Lee and his fame. All over the world at that very moment there were people no doubt listening to his music. I watched him take a ﬁnal drag on the joint before ﬂicking it into the ﬁre. He was incandescent.
Ronny frequently stayed over at the old schoolhouse when Lee wasn’t on tour. They played music together, Ronny on the drums, banging away, Lee smiling appreciatively at his damaged friend. They rode on Lee’s tractor together under the sun. Lee made Ronny breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The two of them would sit on Lee’s huge porch, just being quiet. They watched the bats swooping in the night against a backdrop of stars. They listened to the owls. Watched deer grazing out in the ﬁelds.
Lee was careful about Ronny’s sobriety. They would sit together in their Adirondack chairs with mugs of coffee or hot chocolate, and that was good and enough. When he was with Ronny, Lee was clean, or mostly clean. And if they went out to the VFW in the evening to watch a Packers game or to eat a hamburger or share a paper boat full of cheese curds, Lee kept Ronny close, ordering his friend Coca-Colas and paying rapt and sincere attention to his friend’s sometimes convoluted observations and conversation. Prior to Ronny’s accident, none of us had fully understood the alcoholism that had almost killed him, but it seemed that alcohol had become his closest companion while traveling for the rodeo. After an event was over, sprawled out in some motel bathtub icing his purple-bruised body, he would grow drunk on cheap beer or rotgut vodka. Drinking became his lover and his lullaby, his needle and his pillow.
Lee had had an entire bull killed and taxidermied and then mounted to a platform on four sturdy tires. The two friends would roll the dead bull into one of Lee’s ﬁelds and then spend the afternoon taking passes beside it on Lee’s tractor, a lasso in Ronny’s hand, expertly twirling over his smiling face and then thrown out into the ﬁeld, where it never failed to snag the impassive creature’s two shining horns.
“All his muscles still remember,” Lee would say, shaking his head in sadness. Then, “I ought to buy him a horse.”
The bachelor party was a mess. Kip had rented a stretch limousine and bought us all matching Polo shirts to wear for the day. We were to spend the day golﬁng. Thirty-six holes. He had rented out the entire course and the clubhouse. There was a rumor of strippers. But Kip had not invited Ronny, and Lee was irate. I wasn’t surprised. Kip had a way of moving too fast, of talking too fast, of barely listening, and he’d always been that way; he and Ronny had never quite meshed and maybe none of us ever really meshed with Kip. But certainly not Ronny, who would just stare at him, even when we were young, and say things like, “Now Kip, who gives two shits about advanced placement history? I mean, really. There’s a party at the quarry this weekend. That’s what I’m focused on. Focused on getting laid.” When I imagined the party we were invited to, I pictured his colleagues from back in Chicago: suit-and-tie men, martini men, expense-account men who’d gone to good universities and drove nice cars. These men would own their own sets of new golf clubs and spiked golf shoes. Their hands would be office-soft. Perhaps Kip had not invited Ronny to protect him, or because he was too embarrassed. But I also knew that none of those excuses would ﬂy with Lee, whose love for Ronny was almost righteous.
Ronny had marked the date of the wedding on a calendar that hung from a magnetic hook attached to the side of his refrigerator, and in the preceding months, he asked Lee and me regularly when the bachelor party would be.
“Got to have a bachelor party,” Ronny would say. “You just got to. It’s the last hurrah. Right? The last hooray.”
It made me sad to think that Ronny himself might never be married.
Lee and I went to Ronny’s apartment on the day of the bachelor party.
“Did you get an invitation?” Lee said, looking anxiously through the mass of mail piled up on Ronny’s kitchen table, mostly junk: coupons, political propaganda, credit card offers; no bills were ever posted to Ronny’s apartment.
“Nope,” Ronny said, “probably just lost in the mail. I know he wants me there.”
“Oh, no doubt, bud,” said Lee, seething with anger, “no doubt. Hang on there, buddy, okay? I got to make a phone call real quick.” He eyed me seriously and I knew to watch Ronny, to keep him entertained. I turned on the television and ﬂipped the channels until we found a nature program about a herd of Montana buffalo.
“You can use my phone!” Ronny yelled, but Lee was already down the stairs and outside. I watched him from the window as he paced the sidewalk and shouted into his mobile. He looked like a man who needed something to kick.
A few moments later Lee came back up the stairs, his face red. “Hey buddy, look, no problem, all right!” he said, reentering the apartment. “I just talked to Kip and he explained everything to me. Your invitation, turns out, just now came back to him in the mail. He had the wrong address or something, I guess.”
Ronny was watching the television, buffalo grazing on an endless expanse of prairie. “But I don’t understand,” he said. “Why didn’t he just bring the invitation over himself? I wave to him every day when I walk by the mill.” Ronny shook his head at the illogic of it and chuckled good-naturedly.
Lee exhaled. “I don’t know, buddy. It’s a good question.” His ﬁsts were clenched. He looked outside. It was a beautiful October day. The sun bright and clear, the autumn leaves a cool inferno across the land. In the air: the smell of overripe apples, manure.
Not long after that, a limousine pulled up outside Ronny’s apartment and blared its horn six times. Lee looked at me and I saw then, noticed for the ﬁrst time, that he was a powerful man, that he could get things accomplished with a single telephone call. I saw that he was used to getting his way, he was not accustomed to disappointment.
Ronny turned from the television, his face bright with excitement. “Party time,” he said, grinning, and he gave us hard, loud high-ﬁves. My palm hurt.
We nodded. “Party time,” we said with as much enthusiasm as we could muster.
We all went downstairs to the idling limousine. It was packed with most of our better friends as well as a few strange faces, among them a photographer, a young woman with two different cameras slung around her neck. She seemed to be capturing just about any moment of even the slightest interest with her elaborate Nikon, paying particular attention to everyone’s hands, where glasses of champagne, bottles of beer, and highballs of whiskey sloshed extravagantly.
“Yeah!” Ronny shouted, taking all of this in.
“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Party tiiiiime!” The tight little crowd cheered reﬂexively.
We ducked into the limousine after Ronny and settled in as the stretch turned off Main and reoriented itself like a giant compass needle toward the golf course. The vehicle was loud with music that I didn’t recognize, and Lee leaned in close to me. “Don’t let Ronny out of your sight. Don’t lose sight of him,” he said. “Do you understand me?” I nodded, realizing that the limousine and the party had been a bad idea, that it was all a very bad idea, and now we were swept up into it; Lee had demanded that Ronny be invited, but now he saw the party as being a great danger to his friend. Lee sat rigidly, his ﬁsts clenched, jaw set.
“Get him something to drink,” Lee growled at me through the racket. “No beer, though, no booze.”
I reached for a can of Coca-Cola and popped the top for Ronny, who slugged at the aluminum can. “Yeah!” he said, coming up for air and wiping his mouth with his forearm. “Yeah!”
“Hey, hey, hey!” Kip called out now. “Hey!” He rapped a Swiss Army knife against his champagne ﬂute. “I need to make an announcement, all right? Announcement time!” He reminded me of a Scoutmaster who could not control his troop. “Can everybody please shut the fuck up? Hey!”
“Speeeeech!” the mob called out. “Speech! Speech!” The group was mostly comprised of our friends, but in that moment, I felt that it was just me and Lee, with Ronny beside us. The photographer aimed her camera at us, at Lee, and the ﬂash went off momentarily with light, blinding us. Perhaps not surprisingly, she seemed to only be interested in taking photos of Lee, and I could already imagine her cropping Ronny and me out of the image. I wondered if this was what fame was—a lot of strangers with cameras and then the subsequent blindness of some unexpected portrait. I thought about a middle school history class in which we were taught that some Native Americans thought that having their photograph taken was tantamount to their souls being stolen.
“Can’t tell you guys how much it means to me that you’re all here today,” Kip said, “helping me celebrate my big day tomorrow. I’m overcome, guys, I really am,” though he did not look overcome. His reddish brown hair was thick and long and greased up away from his tight calm face and the closely trimmed beard that followed his strong jawline, his smile utterly controlled and almost ironic. “Me and Felicia,” he said, “we’re so happy you’ve all welcomed us back into the community the way you have. With open arms. And that you’re excited too, about the mill. You know? It means the world to us. And tomorrow”—and here he paused with all the phony gravitas and dramatic ﬂair of a seasoned corporate toastmaster—“we’re all going out to that big old barn to see a great wedding and to par-ty heart-ty.”
He was not ﬁnished with his soliloquy, but Ronny yelled, “Party time!” and pumped his ﬁsts in the close boozy air. Some of the group laughed a little uncertainly, but Lee threw an arm around his friend and whispered intently into his ear. I watched Lee’s lips move, though I could not hear his words. You stick close to me, buddy, I imagined him saying. We’ll party hearty together, okay? You and me.
Nodding indulgently at Ronny, Kip moved on. “So listen,” he said, “I got you all a little present, okay? Some shirts. It’s not much, but hey—it’s something, right? I want you to put them on now. Because today, we’re like a team. A team of friends. You know? I want you to have fun. I want you to forget about everything else today, all right? Okay. So that’s it. I’ve said what I had to say. Now, let’s go have some fun.”
He reached into a black plastic garbage bag and pulled out a multitude of red Polo shirts all specially embroidered across the left breast with two crossing golf clubs and the date. Kip began passing them around. He even knocked on the Plexiglas window of the limousine and passed a shirt up to the driver. Then he passed one to the photographer. It appeared to be at least one, perhaps two sizes too small for her, and I averted my eyes as she gamely removed her button-down shirt to don the conﬁning garment. Some of the assembled cheered at the frustratingly brief exposure of her stomach and bra. And then Kip tossed a shirt to each of his assembled friends. To everyone, that is, except Ronny Taylor, whose face drooped, almost imperceptibly, his hands empty and waiting. Lee noticed it immediately and handed his Polo shirt to Ronny.
“Here you go, buddy,” he said. “Kip must’ve just forgot about getting me one.”
But when Ronny looked back at his friend, his face was sad with knowing. Ronny paused a moment before he pulled off the shirt he was wearing, and we saw then the scars of his rodeo days, the meat grossly missing from an area near his shoulder, the crudely sewn stitches of some arena paramedic or small-town ER. His stomach, still admirably ﬂat, was corrugated with muscle, and a tattoo over his heart in blurred blue lettering read corvus—Lee’s stage name—along with a roughshod image of a crow perched atop a telephone wire. The tattoo, already almost ten years old, had been there before Lee was even famous, when we were all little more than kids.
“I still can’t believe you ever did that,” Lee said now, reaching out to touch his friend’s tattoo. He shook his head and smiled.
“I believed in you,” Ronny said with all the earnestness in the world. “I still do. You’re my friend.”
All eyes in the limousine were on them. Outside the long automobile, the world continued to move on—traffic slowly blurring by, the occasional tractor, an old farmer walking along the gravel shoulder, perhaps toward the bank or library downtown—but inside, life was a diorama of open mouths, unblinking eyes, and held breaths. Then Kip broke in. “You, Lee. Where’s your shirt?”
“I didn’t get one,” Lee said. He had a hand on Ronny’s knee.
His voice was stern. “But don’t worry about it, chief. It really doesn’t matter.”
“But,” Kip began, and even as his eyes fell on what had to be Lee’s shirt, right there, on Ronny’s back, we could all hear in the falter of his voice that he wouldn’t push Lee any further. That even though everyone in the limousine was equally uniformed except Lee, who sat heavily against the limousine’s glossy leather upholstery in his omnipresent ﬂannel shirt and torn blue jeans, Kip would not now challenge him. Kip rapped his knuckles against the glass of the limousine driver’s partition and we began to move faster still, the volume of that bass-heavy music increasing even as the giant vehicle picked up speed.
Excerpted from Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler. Copyright © 2014 by Nickolas Butler.
First published 2014 by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St Martin’s Press, New York.
First published in the United Kingdom 2014 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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