by Erika T. Wurth. An excerpt from her novel Crazy Horse‘s Girlfriend (Curbside Splendor Publishing)
Driving up, I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. It was late May, and although the mountains still had some snow on the peaks, it had been a hard but short winter and things had been warming up for some time. We had packed Mike’s big, blue SUV and were on our way up 103. His right hand was resting on my leg and he was driving with his left. Our windows were rolled down, and Mike was playing another one of his white noise bands that I didn’t recognize, and I closed my eyes and let the raspberry, deep green, pine, dirt smell roll over me. It didn’t take too long to get to the foot of the mountain. We were planning on camping somewhere around the lake, but we decided to drive to the top of the mountain first. They had just opened the road up for the season and we drove, things getting bumpier and bumpier, which just made us laugh as we rocked back and forth in our seats, firmly buckled in.
Goats appeared on the side of the mountain, clinging miraculously to the edge. It always looked so death defying. Goats fucking killed me. They were everywhere around here, on the mountains, in people’s yards. Lots of folks had billy goats in the area, and they were always greeting you with their funky yellow eyes, hungrily eyeing your backpack, their necks encircled with string that they were inevitably going to chew through.
“Wow, look at the trees,” Mike said, pointing out his window.
The trees here grew low to the ground and were wildly crooked. They looked like abstract art, their grey, funky bark zigzagging up into sparse explosions of pine needles.
“Yeah, we’re about to hit a point where trees don’t grow at all, actually,” I said.
“God. Those trees look like they belong in a science fiction movie,” Mike said.
“I think they’re very old, too,” I said.
“Ah. Like the Redwoods in California. Man, I’d really like to show you those someday,” he said and I pulled nervously on my white tank. It always made me feel funny when he talked about shit he was going to show me or shit we were going to do in the future. I couldn’t figure out if I wasn’t brave enough to believe him or if I was too stupid to see that he was just talking.
We were silent then looking out the window at the landscape which grew more and more bereft and strangely beautiful by the minute. Finally we reached the top and parked. We opened our doors and I could feel the hard, cold wind immediately and I reached for my hoodie. I could see that Mike was doing the same. We shut our doors and walked closer to the edge. There was a guardrail and I took hold of it and looked down, feeling dizzy. Mike stood by me and put his arm around my waist.
“Ha, goats,” he said, pointing. Sure enough, I could see some clinging to the mountain, walking up and down, occasionally bending to chew at a tiny plant growing out of the mountainside.
We were next to a family and the kids were laughing and pointing at the goats. I looked at Mike and we smiled.
“Dad! Gimmie my Twinkie for the goat, OK?” one of the kids said, a little girl who looked about eight or so. She looked up at her dad with her big, green eyes. I shook my head.
“OK,” he said, handing one over.
“Excuse me?” I said, “You can’t feed the goats. And especially not that kind of thing,” I said, pointing to the Twinkie.
The girl pulled the Twinkie out of her dad’s hand and he looked me and Mike, and narrowed his eyes. “I’m sure it won’t hurt him. And my little girl wants to feed the goat.”
I sighed and pointed to the sign not five feet from him that said, “Don’t feed the goats.”
He looked at it and blinked a few times and then said, “I pay my taxes.”
Mike and I looked at each other and then Mike started laughing and the guy looked at him suspiciously. The little girl was already leaning down, her tiny body halfway over the rail.
“Your kid?” I said and he turned around, and picked her up, her Twinkie falling out of her hand. Her legs kicked, hard and she yelled, “Noooo! Dad, nooo!” He set her down and said, “Let me help you. You could get hurt.” She just started crying angrily and I rolled my eyes.
“Do you want another Twinkie?” The dad asked the little girl and in response, she cried harder, her tiny, sparkly pink sneakers flashing in the light as she stomped.
Mike looked at me, his long black eyes mirroring my disgust.
“Let’s go look at the sun dial, drive back down and drink beer and touch each other’s naughty parts,” I said, a little loudly.
Mike laughed his little, sophisticated laugh and the man whose daughter had been trying to feed Twinkies to goats looked at me and covered his kid’s ears; his large, white hands clapping nearly audibly over the sides of her tiny little face. He looked at me angrily and I said, “Just feed her another Twinkie. I’m sure that will fix everything.”
Mike and me held hands, and the guy yelled, “You … assholes!” at our backs as we walked away.
“God. And I think my parents fucked me up,” I said, yanking the zipper of my thick hoodie up further.
“I know,” Mike said thoughtfully. It was beginning to rain and I pulled my hood up and around my head. The wind was strong at this elevation and I shivered. Mike squeezed my hand. “Thank you for suggesting we come up here.”
“Course,” I said, and we walked over to the dial.
“It just occurred to me how useless this dial is right now. Without any, you know, sun,” I said, looking over the large, bronze dial.
“Quite true,” Mike said. Let’s just sit on this temporarily useless device, look at the view, throw some Twinkies at goats, and go.” I nodded and we sat down.
Wave after wave of mountain range unfolded in front of us, the clouds moving quickly, the rain coming and then going, spots of sun hitting us then fading.
“Have we had enough beauty?” I asked.
“Yes, though I’m not sure about our truth quotient,” Mike said and we stood up. I looked over at the dad who we’d argued with and he was looking real intent at a map, his kid hanging precariously over the rail, a ranger striding angrily towards them.
We walked over to Mike’s car. I thought about how big, blue, and shiny it looked, like some sort of prehistoric dragonfly. He unlocked the doors for us with his clicker and we got in, the sun coming out, fading, Mike’s car starting in one, crisp turn of his key. The ride down was just as bumpy as the ride up was and we laughed again, bouncing and bouncing and looking forward to getting down the mountain and setting up camp.
We parked near the camp, paid our fee and carried all of our stuff to the site. Setting up a tent was usually torture during any kind of family excursion, not only because dad was drunk and crappy about it, but also because when my family used to camp, we had old, bad shit. Mike’s shit was new, expensive. His sleek grey and blue tent nearly sprung up on its own, looking like some bizarre variety of gorgeous, muscular mushroom.
While Mike had been setting the tent up, I’d been dealing with the food. I turned the stereo we’d brought up, Nirvana being the one band Mike and me could really agree on, and opened the cooler next to the grill.
“Hey,” Mike said. He’d just finished stuffing the sleeping bags and backpacks in the tent.
“Do you want to get high and walk around before we eat? It’s only 3:00. I don’t know about you, but I’m not hungry yet, and it’s really nice out,” he said, looking at me and squinting in the sun.
“Sure. I don’t know why I was so into this grill anyway. Probably because anything to do with fire really excites me.”
“Note to self,” Mike said, and I walked over to him and lightly punched him in the stomach, a one-two routine. He caught my arms and held them.
“Come on baby. Light my fire,” he said stoically.
“OK, Jim, will do. As long as you don’t die at twenty-seven.”
“Deal,” Mike said, taking my hand. We walked towards a path that led around the lake, the silvery water rippling lightly in the wind. We could hear birds and I pointed out a male Grosbeak doing it’s little Hammer Time-like mating dance on a branch, the less colorful looking female looking on apathetically from a nearby branch.
“I guess that’s how it goes,” Mike said.
“How’s that?” I said, leaning over and pulling a fallen stick up from the wet, brown ground and slapping Mike lightly on the right side of his face. He pulled it from my hand and stuck it quickly through my hair. I stopped, blinked dramatically and pulled it out, throwing at him. I missed.
“Well, I get all dressed up pretty for you, dance, and just like that bird there, you don’t even care. And this is a new dress!”
“Well, if you’d just learn a different freaking dance. You only know the one, and it’s getting, you know, old, OK?”
“You misogynist asshole,” Mike said.
“Yeah,” I said, “I am,” thinking that I would look that misogynist word up at home.
“I’m really very shallow, so you’d better stay pretty,” I said.
“Note to self,” he said and I laughed. I loved it when he used that expression.
“It really is amazing here,” Mike said. “I miss California, I do. I miss my friends and the culture and everything. But this is nice.” He squeezed my hand.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I said, and he stopped and looked at me.
“I’m glad you’re glad. I am too,” he said and kissed me.
We broke and started walking again, the rich green forest all around us. We stopped by the water, threw rocks in. Looked at a nest in a tree, the tiny, fuzzy Robin heads poking out, bright orange beaks first, the peeping noise urgent.
“Spring, spring, springtime,” I said. We walked all the way around to the restaurant and Mike said that we should go in and get drinks. Both of us had fake IDs.
We walked inside the old wooden building, the goofy gift store full of plastic tomahawks, fool’s gold in little baggies and aspen leaf jewelry. We walked through the restaurant and up to the big wooden bar and sat down. There were a few tourists at the bar, though most were families sitting out in the restaurant section. I wondered if Twinkie Dad would show up at some point. The tall, paunchy, white bartender came over and asked what he could get us. He seemed tired, a long white bleach-smelling towel thrown over his right shoulder.
“Gin and tonics,” Mike said. He had a thing for those. The guy asked for our IDs and after looking at them with a bored expression on his face, if well was OK and Mike said yes. The guy nodded. He walked to the middle of the bar, plucked a couple of thick glasses from under it and set them down. He yanked a bottle of vodka out, poured, squirted tonic into the glasses, pulled a couple of limes out of the condiment dish, squeezed them into our drinks and brought them to us.
“This be all?” He asked and Mike nodded. We’d brought plenty of beer and were ready to cook and drink and listen to music after this.
We sipped at our gin and tonics and talked and looked around, laughing under our hands at all of the tourists with their fanny packs and plastic Indian shit and pounds and pounds of expensive hiking gear.
“Look, if I’m going to hike, I’m going to do it gangster,” Mike was saying. There was a big, white, yuppie-looking family all dressed in puffy jackets and expensive jeans but their teenaged kid was in a big, black, Tupac t-shirt, his oversized jeans falling far below his butt.
“Oh, leave him alone,” I said, “at least he’s rebelling against his yuppie ass parents.”
Mike took a drink from his glass and looked over at the kid. The kid looked back, narrowed his eyes, and adjusted the red bandanna carefully tied around his head.
“Should I get gangster? Would you like that?” He asked, taking a drink and then sitting back and posing with one hand over his shoulder and the other crossed over his waist, a disaffected smirk on his lips.
“That is so hot. Fill me with your hardcore babies,” I said and he broke his pose and laughed, hard, practically snorting gin and tonic out of his nose. I looked over at the kid. He was staring moodily at his hamburger. He was probably twelve or thirteen years old.
I sipped the last of my drink and looked over at Mike. “It blows to be a teenager, it really does.”
Mike looked over at the kid. “Yeah. I mean, being sixteen isn’t so bad. I guess, at least I’m not a thirteen anymore. And I’ve got this girlfriend, who is like, OK, I guess.” He looked at me. I was quiet and so he looked down at the bar, and rubbed his fingers over the wood.
“Who said I was your girlfriend?” I said and Mike blinked rapidly. I realized that he didn’t know that I was teasing him, so I said, “I have to tell you something.” He looked really nervous. I leaned over and whispered, “I’m really a man. A hardcore man.” He laughed and shook his head.
“You’re one lucky man,” he said, “a lucky man with a vagina.” It was my turn to laugh.
“Let’s get my hardcore vagina out of here before she bitch-slaps everyone,” I said.
“Your vagina is so West Coast,” Mike said and the withered old fucker sitting at the bar a few stools down looked at us both incredulously, shook his head and ordered another shot.
Mike motioned for the bartender, who was wiping the bar down not far from us, listening to some guy talk about hiking as if it was the most amazing, spiritual, awesome, life changing thing he’d ever done for mankind. The bartender kept saying, “Uh-huh.” He told the guy he’d be back, and came over.
He went over to the register, got our bill, came back, handed it to us and Mike put a twenty down. The bartender picked it up, the bleach smell radiating from his worn looking hands, and came back with our change. We walked out, and I couldn’t help but look over at the kid in the hip-hop getup. He was still looking angrily down at his hamburger, his parents not talking to one another, his younger sister filling the air with talk of Barbies and ponies and all things sparkly.
We walked back through the woods, laughing the whole way. At our campsite, I pulled the grill open, and quickly threw hamburgers onto the hot metal.
“Unlike that kid, I’m not going to stare moodily at my meat,” Mike said, cracking two beers open and handing one to me.
“Now that is hot,” I said, and we clanked cans.
We finished grilling, ate, and made a fire as the light began to dim.
“This is amazing,” Mike said. It was getting cold, and was now almost completely dark. It had gotten dark fast. Mike was looking into the woods and I could hear the sound of crickets starting up.
“Soon we’ll be able to see the stars,” I said, putting my hoodie on.
“That will make this perfect,” Mike said, sitting down in one of the chairs we’d brought.
“Except one of us needs to learn to play the guitar,” I said, spearing a marshmallow on a stick and handing the bag over to Mike. “And it’s not going to be me. I’m too lazy.”
“How about we just turn the radio up?” Mike moved his chair closer to mine and put his arm around my shoulders. We sat like that, the sound of the fire comforting, the stars coming out, the marshmallows blackening on our sticks like something ripening on the vine. I felt so content, so beautiful parts of me felt like they were dying off, exploding.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt so good,” I whispered into Mike’s ear, my lips brushing the delicate brown edge of it.
“Me too,” he whispered. He took my hand, led me into the tent. He took my clothes off slowly, his hand running down my hip, over my thunderbird tattoo. “I love this thing,” he said and kissed it. He looked back up at me, and everything slowed down. My stomach turned with too much feeling and urgency, his voice in my ear, our clothes all around us, the faint heat and light of the fire, Mike telling me he loved me.
Mike put the fire out as I was fading into sleep, the sound of the tent unzipping and zipping, the water hissing on the fire. Mike crawled back in and curled up next to me. I dreamt.
Erika T. Wurth is an Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee raised on the outskirts of Denver, which she describes as crossroads for many, many Native Americans. She holds an MA in English from University of Toledo, and a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from University of Colorado. She is currently the writer-in-residence at the Institute of American Indian Arts and teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University. Her work is published in numerous journals, including Boulevard, Fiction, Florida Review, Southern California Review and Drunken Boat. Her debut poetry collection, Indian Trains, was published by the University of New Mexico’s West End Press.