The Last Night of Our Lives
Nick Heeb was born in South Dakota. He now lives near the border in New Mexico. This is his first publication.
The Chevelle swerved across the lane of the cracking pavement, rumbled into the parking lot, and came to a barking stop. Bumper Hawkins stretched two long legs out the driver's side door and walked across the gravel parking lot of the drive-in. Violet was at the counter, stabbing a straw at her milkshake, talking to Sarah Kirchenbech. Violet looked at him askance.
Bumper walked beside her and leaned on the wall with a propped elbow. Hey, he said with his head down. Can I talk to you?
I'm standing right here. Go on and talk if you need to.
I meant somewhere else. His eyes shifted to Sarah and then back to Violet. Somewhere alone, just us two, he said.
Violet sighed and handed her milkshake to Sarah. I'll be right back, she said.
She passed Bumper and the scent of her hair made his blood run thin: it was still damp and had been washed with lavender. He followed her to the back of the café and sat in the booth opposite her. He slung an arm up on the rest and looked upon her with worn eyes.
We need to talk about this, he said.
You look terrible, she said. Have you been sleeping?
You and all these talks—I can't bear it. You already told me how everything's gonna be. You proclaimed yourself judge, jury, and executioner.
I heard you were out with Lance.
So? He's nice. And it wasn't going out, I wouldn't say—we just hung out with some friends.
Bumper scoffed. Hung out my ass. I told you, as soon as Dad gets back, we can be together. And I'll make it work.
I don't want to wait. Besides, we both know how your Dad is. He's not going to change.
Yes he will, Bumper said.
Violet laughed. The tips of Bumper's ears warmed.
Sorry, Violet said. I'm not going to deal with this; it's now or never, Bump.
Bumper sighed and leaned back against the plastic seating. He said nothing. He couldn't.
Violet batted her heavy eyelashes. She said: I won't—I can't forgive you for this; this isn't on you or me—it's on your Dad. His problems have nothing to do with us—yet we're the ones it costs.
Bumper stood and looked down at her. You tell Lance when you see him, I'm gunning for him. He's gonna find out what the heel of my boot tastes like.
Yeah talk, Mister Big Man, Violet said. All you ever do is make promises you never keep.
# # #
Bumper pulled up in front of his trailer house. It was white with brown skirting and the hitch at the front had a rolling shine to it. His father lived in it while he was still a bachelor. Bumper's border collie scuttled out from beneath the trailer to greet him. He jumped at Bumper and licked at his swinging arms.
He opened the door to the house. Plates streaked with spaghetti sauce and a cup with a curdled ring of milk sat reeking on the table. He went to the fridge and pulled out a fresh twelve-pack and headed out the door.
He walked across the yard to his parents' house and walked in through the porch. His four younger siblings were in the living room, watching television, lazily arranged in various attitudes. None took notice of their oldest brother.
Bumper walked into the kitchen. His mother was beginning to clear the table.
Hey Bump, she said. I seen you pull up a couple minutes ago, where you been?
I had to run to town for a bit.
She leaned over the table, running a wet dishrag over the plastic cover. Did you see Violet?
Bumper looked out at the feedlot, where black-brockle cattle ripped at a heart-shaped hay bale. Where's Dad?
He's out back in his chair with Lewis. He set an extra chair out—for you, I assume.
Bumper opened the backdoor. A melon-colored sky prevailed over the whispering wheatgrass that stretched to the edge of the world. Darkness crept in directly, threatening the last shafts of light from the passing day. Bumper set the twelve-pack beside his chair. His father had a twelve-pack of his own beside him and a fifth of rum pinched between his legs. The lid had been thrown away, of this Bumper was sure. Lewis, his ten-year-old brother, sat on the far side of the deck, staring out at the sunset, trying to comprehend the colors and scents of the world.
That rain don't come, this place is gonna burn up in a hurry, Alfred said.
It'll come, Bumper said.
Even if it does, it won't do a damn bit of good with this wind blowing like it is.
You don't need to worry about it, the place will still be here when you get back.
Alfred took a pull from the bottle, grimaced and clicked his tongue. You sound pretty confident.
One of us needs to be.
Something startled a pheasant below the dam and it came chuckling out of the thicket and disappeared over the grade. Lewis attempted to recreate the noise with his labored moans. His face was contorted into a smile. He rubbed his seized hand, then slapped it with his palm like the curve of a ketchup bottle.
I'm only doing this for your mother, Alfred said.
Why don't you do it for yourself?
Alfred glanced over. Bumper immediately regretted questioning his father. Frogs were starting their calls of yearning for a mate along the cracked shale shore of the dam. Bumper thought about Violet. Those frogs didn't know the first thing about yearning.
Bumper cracked open a can and took a long thirsty drink. He thought to clarify his question. I mean, take advantage of the opportunity since it's there.
Alfred nodded; mist sprayed from the bottle as he pulled it from his lips. Your ma's been good to me, I won't deny that. That's why I'm doing this for her.
Do they allow visitors up there?
Hell if I know. Don't make a shit of difference anyhow—I ain't letting none of you come up and see me while I'm there. You all think I'm weak already, I ain't gonna let you see me locked up like some goddamn criminal—how the hell you think that'd reflect on me?
Alright Dad. I just thought maybe Ma would like to see you while you're there.
She can come up if she wants—and she'll be sitting in the waiting room all damn day if she does. She wants to be around me so damn bad, she shouldn't have forced me into this.
Do you think it's gonna work? Bumper asked his father.
Hell no, Alfred said. Nothing's gonna change. I'm doing this for your mother; once I do it, I'll be back to it like nothing ever happened. All she asked is that I'd go.
Mama mama mama. Mom, Lewis honked.
Quiet, Lewis, Alfred said.
Bumper and Alfred were silent. Lewis hummed lightly. The frogs called out louder and the air was turning damp and cool. Bumper heard the clinking of glass plates from inside. He wondered if his mother was listening.
Alfred continued on: You'll find out when you have kids of your own that a wife will use them against you every chance she gets. Your ma said if I don't go, she'd take your brothers and sisters and move out. That don't leave a hell of a lot of options for me, now does it?
No sir, Bumper said. He cracked open his third beer and drank half of it in one long glug. His stomach started to warm and he felt his tongue loosening.
I called it quits with Violet, Bumper said. Then he wished he hadn't said it.
Alfred thumbed the label of the whiskey bottle. Hmmm. How come you did that?
Bumper shook his head. I told her I couldn't run this place and worry about her at the same time.
Violet. Vi-uh-let, Lewis cried.
Quit your yammering, Bumper said. Lewis smiled back at him and Bumper shook his head.
Alfred sighed loudly through his nose. Well, I'm glad it ain't just my life your ma's ruining.
It sure ain't.
The sky to the west was nearly dark; only a diluted blue band stretched over the horizon now. The stars filled the sky like glinting hearts in a cloudless space. Violet's eyes, the color of her name, passed before Bumper and he spat and opened a fourth beer. Give me a drink of that whiskey, he said to his father.
Alfred half-smiled and passed the bottle to his son. About time. I thought you was gonna make me drink it all by myself.
Hell no, I wouldn't do that to you. Bumper took a long slow pull from the bottle and set it on his lap.
Bumper bent an ear and listened to the leaves pirouette across the dried-up creek bed below the dam. He forgot about time and his troubles and pictured those veined amber leaves flipping and lazily falling back to the earth before being picked up again.
His father's voice brought him back: You better get started on that alfalfa up on Billy's in the morning. It needs cutting while there's still something left.
I got to change the oil on the swather first, Bumper said. I don't want her breaking down the first day.
That's right, Alfred said. His chin was falling closer to his chest and his eyes pressed together.
Better take another drink, Bumper said, handing the bottle back to his father. You look like you're slowing down; I can't have you calling her a night already.
I'll drink to that, Alfred said, tipping the bottle back. A congregation of small bubbles from the mouth of the bottle formed at the surface of the swishing whiskey. He let out a sigh, placed the bottle between his legs and cracked open another beer. We might have to make a booze run before the night's over, he said. Specially if Lewis gets in on the drinking. Alfred rubbed his son's head and Lewis proudly received his touch.
Better not, I don't want you dead before you take off.
Don't be telling me what I can or can't do, his father replied. I can still whip you if it comes down to it.
I didn't figure you'd argue that, said Alfred. When you're done with cutting that alfalfa, you need to get them cattle moved to the Hoffstadt place. I don't want them eating that grass down to the nub.
I'll take care of it, he said.
That's what you say now. We'll see when I'm gone just how confident you are. This place better not be worse for the wear when I get back.
You just worry about getting better, I'll worry about the place.
The fuck you say to me?
You heard me, Dad. You ain't deaf, you're just drunk. I'll take care of the place.
One more word out your mouth about me and I'll kick the hell out of you.
Lewis' expression became frantic and he looked back and forth between the two men.
Bumper calmly leaned back in his chair. An ass-kicking ain't gonna change nothing—you're still leaving tomorrow, and I'm still running the place until you get back.
You fucking smartass—I should have kicked you off the place once you graduated.
If you'd done that, where would you be now? I'm the only one sober enough to get anything done around here.
Yeah, and it's always done half-assed. I always got to clean up after you.
Lewis fell to weeping and wailing in sickening sobs. Mama, he choked out. Mama. He rocked front and back in his wheelchair until he nearly fell out. Bumper stood and straightened up his brother in the chair. He stroked his greasy head.
C'mon now, quit crying, Bumper said. You know I can't stand the sound of you bawling. Lewis' sobs quieted and he sniffled. Dual streams of snot swayed off his top lip.
Hand me that bottle again, Bumper said, reaching out his hand. Alfred passed him the bottle and Bumper took a long drink, then threw it overhand far away toward the creek below the dam. It landed with a dull thud. Something spooked and rustled through the buckthorn thicket. Lewis began to laugh.
I think it's about time to call her a night, Bumper said.
I still got two beers left, Alfred replied, staring down at his twelve-pack.
Bumper cracked open another beer. Fine. Here's to new beginnings.
Alfred smiled. Yeah. Right, he said. He cracked open the beer and drank it in one turn.
Things will be just fine.
Fine's for people who gave up on life.
Bumper listened to the frogs and the water lapping the shore. He stood and crushed his beer under heel. The drinking made him miss Violet more: it reminded him of parties, the smell of her hair almost suffocating him, her warmth against him. He wanted to call her, but now he knew he wouldn't.
He looked down at his brother. Lewis smiled but sniffled a little. Tears had cut paths through the caked dirt on his freckled face.
I'm headed home, Bumper said. He stuck his hand out for his father to take. His father's pale eyes were near white from the light of the moon. I'll see you in a month, Dad. Good luck.
The only luck I've ever had was of the bad variety, Alfred snorted. Maybe we should start wishing for something different.
You take care, then. Do that much at least?
Right. I'll see you. Oh, and hey? You better have some beer on ice for me when I get back. And you owe me a new bottle of Jack.
Bumper nodded. He walked around the outside of his parents' house; he didn't want to see his mother. The gravel cracked and skittered from beneath his boots on his way to the trailer. A thumbnail moon was tucked into the black night as if in peaceful sleep, and from the east a congregation of coyotes raised their voices in concern to the celestial sphere which tormented them so.
Bumper wondered if Violet was in bed yet. He thought of the way she smiled in her sleep, her full lips curving perfectly upward. So many times he'd wake and watch her, the gentle breathing, the rise and fall of her chest as soft as the light of spring.
He drank the last of his beer and threw the can toward the chicken coop. The alcohol warmed him head to heel. He needed sleep. The alfalfa wasn't going to cut itself.