Achilles in South Dakota


William Kittredge
Achilles in South Dakota

Upstairs in the Hotel Estaline, so far from the western seacoast of Mexico where he wandered the beaches in warm winter rain with that tanned girl named Oralie York, Ringman stands with his shaving brush aimed at his chin in the mirror. He tries to recall the exact look of her white eyelashes, lashes like cuts over her dark eyes as she closed them. The reason why he left. One reason.
“This spider,” she said, her eyes firmly closed. She’d been seeing spiders for weeks. Great-legged spiders large as a dinner plate, most of them iridescently silver. Ringman crouched before her, brushing the dry crust of sand from her thighs. They were back from a long walk in the afternoon rain. From making love on the beach. Her flesh was impossibly soft. Ringman was retelling his climactic story of warfare while they sucked at fat joints of cheap Mexican grass. His throat burned. He brushed sand from the edge of her navel. She raised her knees.
Out the open window rain continued to mist onto the muddy street. Ringman kissed her shinbones, both of them, and went on with his story about four Laotian generals and American bodyguards staggering down a wide path through the undergrowth, brilliant shafts of sunlight striking at them through the canopy as they drank from a bottle of yellow-labeled Cutty Sark. The Laotian generals, men with hard cheekbones, wore pearl-handled .45 pistols. The Americans carried automatic rifles.
The girl named Oralie sat with her back against the green plaster wall, heels hooked into the frame of the narrow steel cot. Closing her eyes, she rubbed her palms over her small tight breasts. “They tickle,” she said, biting at her lower lip. Ringman licked salt from her toes, going on about the clearing where three naked children and a young woman scrambled into a thatched hut. A Laotian peasant, an old man, sat sifting rice through a screen, wearing only jagged cutoff green pants, quiet as he watched the strangers come toward him, shaking his head when they offered him whiskey.
One of the Americans, a tall soft-faced boy wearing mirror-tinted Rallye glasses, straight blond hair to his shoulders, raised his automatic rifle directly to the squatting peasant’s forehead. Smiling and drunk, the boy raised his eyeglasses, and beneath them his eyes were pale blue as he fired, the explosive sound like a faraway night-traveling freight in Ringman’s memory, as the head of that Laotian peasant splattered apart and his body fell into the rice.
They all waited stupidly, transfixed by the silence of birds, and then they began to laugh and raised their bottle as if in toast and drank, all except Ringman, who raised his M-16 automatic rifle and killed them as they drank, bullets fluttering like moths through bodies which twisted as they fell, looks of fearless surprise on their faces. The blue white eyes of Ringman’s friend were open and he was dead, the eyes darkening as he died.
“I ran,” Ringman said, remembering the helicopter, rotors idling, blades whomping at the moist air, and the way he screamed, fucking ambush he screamed when he was inside the helicopter, as it raised, twisting and floating away while Ringman lay inside in the warm steel floor, so many times a killer.
Ringman opens his eyes. Oralie is in the A-frame barroom high on the ski hill north of Vancouver, overlooking the Lion’s Gate Bridge, across Burrord Inlet to the green of Stanley Park — where he went with her to watch the red-breasted Empress penguins — and English Bay beyond the towers of the city. At least she was when he left.
Living in this only hotel in a town called Estaline, out on the western bluffs of the Missouri River, Ringman remembers the glittering blue of summertime seawater so far below. Standing alone on the porch in the early morning. Wanting to be near the center of the Continent. Away from edges.
So now he’s in Estaline, and Ringman plans this to be the rest of his life. He drives the town’s garbage truck, a three-year-old cab-over International dumper painted yellow, and he’s made friends with the workingmen who come evenings to the tavern downstairs, and, as he had hoped, nothing has happened for a long time. He loves the slow days of work, the bar in the evening, at least to the degree that he does not love his idea of Oralie York waiting for him in Vancouver. He finishes shaving.
Downstairs the bartender sips his morning gin. “Dwight,” Ringman tells him, “you’re close to lovely.” The bartender doesn’t even look up.
“One thing you should know,” Ringman says as he steps behind the bar, their usual morning routine, “is that I’m stealing a shot of your whiskey.”
“Peacock,” the bartender says, white of his eyes as yellow as the cream-filled coffee Ringman sips, “go to work.”
Every morning Ringman wears clean white coveralls to work. Dwight calls him Peacock because of that. As if that were fancy. A simple life Ringman leads, as he had planned, where the jokes are not elaborate. With his day-old Chicago paper on the bar, Dwight reads Ringman’s horoscope. A day late like the newspaper, it’s a confirmation rather than a prediction. “According to this,” Dwight says, “reading between the lines, you’re going to lay off other people’s wives.” Then he reads the baseball statistics and bitches about Baltimore.
Ringman figures he’s only guessing.
Until one night she comes into the tavern and she’s halfway drunk. “Just some fatal attraction,” she says. It’s early spring and forsythia are blooming in great yellow clumps under the open windows. “Like honeybees,” she says.
“Been playing golf?” Ringman asks. Her legs are burned, red against her white shorts, and she’s wearing on of her husband’s button-down shirts with the tails out, the collar frayed and unbuttoned. Ringman peels the label off his Coors.
“There’s things you don’t need to know,” she says.
“Whatever,” Ringman says, shaking his head at Dwight to show this is just some drunk lady he’s never seen before, that he’s just being conversational, that he’s got more sense than to fool with a lawyer’s wife.
“I left him cold steak in the refrigerator,” she says. “Woody wants me home but that’s his tough luck.”
“So I’m staying,” she says, looking about ready to cry.
“You got a room?” she says, knowing he does, leaning close and whispering, grasping at his shoulder. “What’s it like?”
Behind the bar, Dwight is frowning. Over his head in the mirror along the back bar, above the bottles, Ringman sees her husband, Woody Long smiling his bucktoothed smile and wearing a bleached-out University of South Dakota practice-football jersey.
Walking on Sunday in the late fall, Ringman first saw Woody, and Woody was busily raking leaves from the expanse of his front lawn, wearing that same football jersey. Ringman sat on a bench in the park only a half-block away, and watched and was envious. Woody taps his wife on the shoulder.
“Who’s your buddy?” he says nodding at Ringman.

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