All the Naked Women
by Gary V. Powell
Gary V. Powell
Gary V. Powell's stories have appeared in several literary journals. His story, "Miller's Deer," was selected as runner-up for the 2008 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize. A former attorney, he lives and in North Carolina with his wife and son. He's nearing completion of his first novel, Lucky Bastard, which involves the characters Harley and Jim from "Delivering the Goods," a story that originally appeared in the 8 May 2006 issue of Amarillo Bay.
Visit him at www.authorgaryvpowell.com.
Chopper kept a single-shot .410 under the bar. In ten years he'd never shown it, much less used it. Wes feared that might change if the reporter from Minneapolis didn't back off.
"It's a human interest story," the reporter explained. He was respectful enough and too homely to take seriously. He reminded Wes of the kid on the front of Mad Magazine.
"And I'm saying it's none of your damn business," Chopper told him. "This is our tavern. What happens here, stays here."
"That why you call this place Vegas?"
Chopper wore his blonde hair pulled into a pony tail. A thick hoop earring dangled from each ear. He frowned through his handlebar mustache. "That's none of your damn business, either."
The reporter wasn't letting go. "I mean, there used to be manufacturing. Tourists came for snowmobiling and ice fishing. With the factories closed and tourism off, it's got to have an impact on the community."
"You don't know shit about this community."
Wes washed and dried beer mugs. He continued working as he spoke from the other end of the bar. "Why're you busting his balls, Chopper? He's just doing his job."
Wes sported a buzz cut and biceps the size of softballs. Tattooed images slithered down thick forearms.
Chopper stared at him for a long minute. Finally, he said, "All right, here's how it is. At first, business was even better than before the economic shit hit the fan. The men drew unemployment, played darts and drank."
The reporter was sympathetic. "But now that their unemployment is running out, business is down."
"You might say that," Wes said.
"You want the truth?" Chopper asked. "Here's the truth. We're damn near broke."
"We're not broke," Wes said.
"So, what're you going to do?" the reporter asked.
Chopper grinned. "What we usually do is poke a hole in the ice and throw a Polar Bear party. Offer two-fers the first hour and give a prize to the guy who lasts the longest in the lake."
"And a party like that brings in business?"
"Big business the day of, then for a week after," Chopper said. "Guys get together and talk it out."
"The other alternative," Wes said, "is we could sponsor an ice-fishing contest."
"Less liability," Chopper pointed out, "but we don't sell as much liquor."
Wes came over and stood hip to hip with Chopper. "See," he explained, "guys bring their own liquor to an ice-fishing contest. We sell shots and beers before they head out and a few drinks when they come back, but it's not an all day booze fest."
The reporter scribbled on his pad. "You think the President's stimulus will help?"
Chopper shook his head. "Not likely. Road work won't start until spring, but trout season opens in April and deer are plentiful year 'round. No reason to work road construction when you can hunt and fish."
"Deer season doesn't open until fall," the reporter said.
"Season's open all year for a hungry man," Chopper told him.
The reporter closed his note pad. "You guys've been a big help. Mind if I check back in a few weeks?"
Chopper leaned across the bar, his face no more than an inch from the reporter's. He looked like a cat about to pounce. Wes placed a big hand on his partner's neck and massaged the muscles, tight as rebar.
"Easy," Wes said; then he asked the reporter his name.
"Nathan, you come back anytime. Bring some of your big city friends. Remember, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."
The reporter smiled. "Thanks, guys."
Wes continued to rub Chopper's neck as they watched the kid out the door.
"Jesus Christ on a broomstick," Chopper said under his breath.
Wes extended his arm across Chopper's shoulders and hugged him tight. He pressed his lips to Chopper's ear and kissed the soft spot underneath.
"He's all right," Wes said. "He's just doing his job."
Wes kept the heat low to save on gas. It was so cold in the morning that ice formed on the inside of the windows. After rolling out of bed, he pulled the down comforter tight under Chopper's chin, slipped into his jeans and sweat shirt, and made his way downstairs. Chopper snored steadily, his pony tail undone, his long hair festooned across the pillow.
Wes built a fire in the barroom and got coffee going, then pulled on his boots and parka and headed outside. Almost immediately, his nostrils froze shut. He figured twenty to thirty below without wind chill. Nothing moved, not even a branch in the bare birch trees. A pale half moon illuminated the frozen lake. The dark clouds banking to the west heralded snow to add to the foot or more they'd had since Christmas.
Hands thrust deep into his pockets, the hood of his parka pulled over his head, Wes walked onto the frozen snow and ice of the lake itself. The crunch beneath his feet was the only sound save the distant whine of an occasional eighteen-wheeler on the highway. A half-mile out, he paused. From here, far in the distance, he could see the lights of Bemidji, where his ex-wife and son, Josh, lived.
He raised his fist and imagined Josh, alone in his room, doing the same. Across the miles, they bumped knuckles, father and son. They'd done it nearly every morning since that spring ten years earlier when Wes had packed his stuff and moved out of the house.
The boy, seventeen years old, visited every other weekend, except during football season when he played away. They exchanged e-mails and talked by phone between visits. Even so, Wes started most days with this silent gesture to a fragile relationship. Summers, he took the boat onto the lake and engaged in the ritual from there.
At least Josh claimed he did it. Probably so, when he was younger. Now that he was a teenager, who could say? Lately, the kid had been talking Marines. But he'd been talking Marines since he was three and Wes told him that he'd served and fought in the first Gulf War.
He stood in the cold for a good five minutes, taking in the stillness, staring at the lights, before returning inside where the fire crackled and the coffee was hot.
Monday was his day off, the only day of the week Vegas was closed.
Chopper sat at the bar, studying the menu. "We could try all-you-can-eat Buffalo Wings."
Like most mornings, he'd slept until ten while Wes read the local paper, went online for national news, and accepted deliveries. Chopper's jobs were to tend bar and maintain order. Wes handled the books and ran the kitchen, but Chopper couldn't keep his nose out of either.
"Tried that before," Wes said. "Lost more than we made."
"How 'bout gourmet sliders? We could offer three for five bucks."
"Too labor intensive, plus I can't even buy product three for five dollars."
Chopper laid his pen on the bar. "I'm just trying to help."
They'd met while riding with the Minnesota Rangers, a biker club that claimed openness to men of all persuasions, straight, gay, and bi, but was mostly gay. At the time, Wes worked as an accountant at a mid-size firm in Bemidji but wanted something on his own. He'd been married seven years then, his son was five, but he'd been seeing men on the sly since high school. Chopper was younger, a college dropout, living in Minneapolis, working for a telecommunications company. Wes's marriage endured two years of weekend biker events with Chopper. As much as the guy loved fishing, it hadn't been hard to convince him to move north.
If people in town suspected the two burly tavern keepers of anything other than friendship, they didn't ask and Wes and Chopper didn't say.
What happened in Vegas, stayed in Vegas.
Wes folded his paper and placed another log on the fire. "Any plans for today?"
Chopper stood and hitched his pants. "Working on my bike."
"You'll have to heat the garage."
"It costs is all I'm saying."
"You're the one told that reporter we weren't broke."
"Doesn't mean we have money to burn."
Chopper poured himself a thermos of coffee. "I'm putting in those new Harley heads."
"It's four months before you're going anywhere on that bike."
"I want to finish her by spring," Chopper said. "Anyway, you know where I'll be."
After he left, Wes polished the brass on the bar and cleaned the mirror. The bills were stacked in a tray in the office he kept off the kitchen. He was eyeballing January's damages when he noticed that Chopper's cell phone bill was double the usual. Most of the extra charges were calls to Duluth. Chopper had a sister there but this wasn't the sister's number. The calls had been made in December, following Chopper's visit to his sister's over Thanksgiving.
Wes reached for his own phone and punched in the number. It rang five times before a deep voice answered. "This is Tiny Dave," the message said. "Speak your piece at the fucking beep, Motherfucker."
Wes listened as the beep sounded across the miles. Then he clicked his phone shut.
He was still sitting there, thinking about what he'd heard, when his Born to be Wild ringtone sounded. It was a call back from Tiny Dave.
"You didn't leave a message."
"Wrong number, man. Sorry."
"You should be more careful."
"Like I said, I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry. Be tight and right, asshole."
Tiny Dave signed off and Wes felt a numbness settle in. He could call the sister, ask if she knew this dickhead. But even if she did, she might not say.
Wes restacked the bills. He went out front and stared through the window that overlooked Main Street. At the intersection, snow was piled high as car roofs. A few folks shuffled along the slick sidewalk under a low, gray sky. Wes jammed his hands into his jeans and thrust out his chin. He was forty-six to Chopper's thirty-eight. Maybe the guy harbored hopes and dreams beyond Vegas and Bemidji. Maybe he needed something Wes wasn't giving him.
Hungry and jittery from the coffee, Wes made four ham and cheese sandwiches. He tucked them into a pocket of his parka and walked out to the garage.
"Thought you might be hungry," he said from the door.
Chopper was on his hands and knees, grime to his elbows. "Thanks, man. I get so lost in this."
He stood, wiped off on his jeans, and accepted the sandwich Wes offered.
Chopper's bike was spread across the floor, the heat up to eighty.
They'd bought the old-school unit off of E-Bay. She'd shown plenty of dust and rust, but otherwise was a gem. Chopper had stripped the Jim Davis frame, leaving eight inches of downtube stretch and thirty-three degrees of rake.
The idea was to upgrade the engine and pipes, plus add a Massive Glide fork. Chopper had settled on an 88ci S&S engine, special ordered from the warehouse. The engine matched up with a Primo belt drive and the bike's original four-speed H-D tranny.
Wes had suggested a tire-hugger front fender and a tail-dragger on the rear. Chopper planned to add a new filler panel under the seat to hide the oil tank and give the bike a beefier feel. For the handlebars, he'd ordered a custom-built, pull-back design from a chrome shop in LA. The seat was vintage Danny Gray.
They couldn't afford any of it.
"So, how's it going?" Wes asked.
"Not bad, but I need to re-build that transmission from scratch."
Chopper finished one sandwich and started the other. "I need parts. I was thinking to drive to Duluth, pick 'em up."
"Today? There's snow coming in."
"I know but I was thinking about staying over with my sister. Anyway, I'll take the Expedition, leave you the Wrangler. Be back early enough tomorrow to help with lunch."
"Never know how that road's going to be."
"It's never good in winter," Chopper said, "but I'm not waiting 'till spring."
After paying the bills, Wes showed $13.12 in the business bank account. That reflected the $4,000 draw he'd taken for living expenses. By the time he paid health and auto insurance, made car payments, and set aside child support, there wasn't much left in the personal account either.
Chopper was right. As much as he hated to admit it, they were nearly broke. Revenues were down sharply since the first of the year. Early February, and folks were just trying to hang on until spring.
Wes went upstairs and turned on the TV. He couldn't bear the news on CNN, so he cued up an old war movie. Mid-afternoon, Chopper came inside, showered, and packed an overnight bag. He said goodbye from the door. From the upstairs window, Wes watched the Expedition pull away, snow already beginning to fall.
It was Thursday noon before Chopper showed again. The storm turned out to be the worst of the season. Wes had to bring in Vic, the kid who attended community college and helped on weekends, to run the bar. Margaret, their waitress, was snowed in at her cabin.
Wes limited the menu to burgers and frozen pizzas, taking orders in the kitchen, men shouting to him from their tables. He tried to lose himself in the sizzle of handmade patties on the grill, the bubble of fries in the deep fryer. He took pride in his presentation, kosher pickles and a scoop of coleslaw on the side.
Wednesday afternoon, between lunch and dinner, Josh called. Usually, Wes initiated their conversations.
"I'm thinking about college," the boy said. "The coach at Northern's out of scholarships, but says I've got a shot as a walk-on. If I make the team, he'll give me a ride next season."
Wes was relaxing in front of the fire, his feet on a footstool. Steam rose from his socks. His son, a defensive tackle, was big and fast and rangy. There weren't that many kids who could block him.
"That's out-a-state tuition," Wes said.
"Mom said you could handle it for a year."
Wes padded over to the bar, poured a shot of Wild Turkey, and tossed it back. Then he opened a Heineken. "I could probably help."
"I'll get a job, off-season, you know."
Josh's mother's name was Cindy. A nurse, she worked at a local clinic. Years earlier, when he'd told her he was in love with another man, she'd turned and walked away. The next morning, she talked to her Lutheran pastor. That evening, she told Wes he had to make a choice, her or the other person. Chopper, Wes said, his name is Chopper. Oh, Honey, she whispered behind closed eyes.
He'd never told Josh, and didn't believe Cindy had either, that Chopper was more than a friend and business partner. No doubt, Josh had it on his own.
"What happened to the Marines?" Wes asked.
"I don't know. Where's that get me?"
"Got me four years at Mankato State on the GI bill."
"I know, but . . ."
"It's all right. I'm glad you're not going."
"Sure, with these wars. No reason to go if you don't have to."
Later on, while slinging burgers, Wes worked on a strategy for paying half of Josh's first year tuition. Maybe take a second mortgage on Vegas, maybe tap into the business credit line. Either way, he'd never get out from under it.
That night, he dreamed of Cindy for the first time in years. She wore a dress slit up the side and her hair fell on her shoulders like when they'd first met. She asked him to give her a hand with the zipper. He lowered it to the small of her back. In one motion she wriggled free and turned to face him. She was naked, her breasts soft and pendulous, her legs long and lean.
He woke up hard, reaching for Chopper, finding an empty pillow instead.
When Chopper finally returned the following day, he had new parts for his bike and wore a smile that made Wes nervous. They sat at a table near the window and drank coffee.
"We need a party," Wes said. "This week cost us a lot. We're going to have trouble making ends meet this month."
Chopper couldn't look him in the eye. "A party's a short-term solution."
"It buys another month."
"What about the liability?"
"We've never lost anyone yet."
Chopper finished his coffee. "Not yet."
Wes set the date for the party the weekend after Valentine's Day, hoping to gain momentum from what was usually one of their better holidays.
This year, though, not even the beef tenderloin, double-baked potato, and table-side salad bar for $14.95 attracted much business. Wes froze the extra beef and ran a special on potato skins.
On Monday after the holiday, he printed flyers for the Polar Bear party and posted them around town. He ran an ad in the local paper and strung a banner across the barroom. The posters promised free crock-pot meatballs and pigs in a blanket. To the winner, he offered a case of red wine left over from Valentine's Day, plus the usual case of Heineken.
By evening, Wes was in better spirits. He made a special dinner, one of Chopper's favorites, Shrimp Scampi and Tomato Provencal. In front of the fireplace, he set a table--white table cloth, candle, and a long-stem rose, another remnant from Valentine's Day. He opened a bottle of California Chardonnay he'd been saving for a special occasion. At dinner, glowing with the wine, he told Chopper that things were going to work out for them and Vegas. Somehow, some way. Chopper, dressed in his leathers, didn't have much to say. Afterwards, they made love, sweating and grunting on the floor in the dying heat of the fire.
The next morning, standing on the frozen lake, Wes told himself that Chopper's fling with Tiny Dave would pass as surely as winter turned to spring, as surely as the ice melted and the days grew longer.
Hell, it was probably over.
The day of the party, the sun rose bright, but still far to the south. Wes and Chopper carried their pickaxes outside and worked an hour to break through the ice, their breath thick as smoke on a battlefield. About the time they finished, Josh showed with two of his buddies, big strapping farm boys with wide grins. Wes cooked flapjacks and fried bacon while Chopper showed them his bike.
Men began to arrive before noon, but the turnout was less than expected. After hors d'oeuvres and drinks, they went outside. Chopper poured a final round of two-fers and distributed waiver sheets. Some of the wives and girlfriends had come to watch. A photographer from the local paper and the mayor made an appearance. Wes served as toastmaster.
Ten men took the leap. Bill Lingenfelder won the prize, remaining in the slushy water for three minutes, two seconds. They didn't lose anyone.
Afterwards, the crowd stayed, drank, and ate. But the pall of bank failures, falling stock prices, and rising unemployment hung over the barroom like an odious fart. By eight, Vegas had emptied, and Wes figured he'd broken even at best.
Josh's buddies went home but Josh stayed the night. As usual, Wes set him up in the spare bedroom, and for appearance's sake he stretched out in a sleeping bag in the hall.
Lying in the dark, Wes could hear the rhythmic murmur of Chopper's voice through their bedroom door. There was no making out the words but the whispering continued for over an hour. The miracle of wireless technology. No doubt, it was Tiny Dave on the other end.
The next day, Nathan, the reporter from Minneapolis, called. "You see my piece on Vegas?"
"I don't read the Minneapolis paper," Wes told him.
"We got some nice reviews. How're things going?"
"Tried a Polar Bear party. Didn't do so well."
"Just an observation, but naked women would likely attract more attention than men in Speedos."
"After my article on Vegas came out, I got an e-mail from a woman here in town operates a titty bar. She thought a wet t-shirt contest might be a better draw. She volunteered dancers."
"Get out," Wes said.
"You'd draw folks from Duluth and Minneapolis with a stunt like that."
"I'd get arrested."
"Even more publicity."
"Nathan," Wes said, "don't call here again."
"Look, I'm just trying to help."
"You're looking for a story."
On Monday, Chopper rose earlier than usual. He packed his overnight bag and announced that his sister wasn't feeling well. He said he needed to check on her but would be back before noon the following day. Then he gave Wes a hug and set off in the Expedition.
Wes threw darts and drank shots and beers all afternoon. He ate dinner alone at the bar. Before turning in for the night, he got out a photo album from the early days. There they were, Chopper and Wes, outside of Thunder Bay, on the banks of Lake Superior, skipping stones. The water was blue enough to break hearts. Another picture showed them dancing, other bikers drinking beer and laughing in the background. Everyone was thinner back then. His favorite was the one of him and Chopper breaking camp in their long johns that morning outside of Presque Isle. Late July and snow on the ground.
Chopper didn't come home Tuesday or the next day. Wes called and left messages. The sister claimed her brother had stopped by to tell her he was moving to Duluth. Tiny Dave didn't pick up.
On Thursday, after lunch, Wes went to the garage. Chopper's bike frame and parts lay strewn across the floor where he'd left them. He'd be back for the bike, no doubt.
Wes dragged the frame far out onto the lake and went to work with his pickaxe. After breaking through, he dropped the frame into the cold, deep waters of Lake Bemidji. He went back inside for the engine and handle bars.
Then, standing on the ice, the daylight fading, the moon rising, he called Nathan, the reporter in Minneapolis.
The woman who owned the titty bar was named Cari Weitzel. She was Wes's age but well-preserved, petite and perky. They talked first by phone, then she said she wanted to see Vegas for herself. Now, she sat across the bar from Wes.
"I grew up in a town like this," she said. "I hate to see this way of life die out. Besides, it's good publicity for my place, too."
Wes hadn't figured her for the sentimental type. "It's a nice gesture," he said. "I don't know if it's enough to save us."
"We'll give it a try, see what kind of turn-out we get. I say we dress the girls in g-strings and tees, parade 'em around the barroom. Five bucks buys a drink and a turn with the mist bottle. After the girls are soaked, we'll move the party outside. Those nipples'll stand out like half-inch bolts. The crowd picks the winner. You need to discuss this with your partner?"
Wes winced. "Chopper? Nah, we're not partners anymore."
Cari reached across the bar and patted his hand. "Hard losing a partner, isn't it?"
She'd read him pretty well. Wes supposed he'd lost him. Three and half weeks had passed and still no word from Chopper. He'd hired a full-time bartender and stopped depositing draws into the joint checking account. He'd stopped making payments on the Expedition.
"Hey, it's cool with me," Cari said. "I'm the last person to pass judgment."
"I was married once," Wes explained. "I got a son thinking about college. Chopper and me were together ten years."
"Nice bunch of guys."
Cari shook a cigarette from a new pack. Wes lit it for her. "What're you going to do," she asked, "if this place doesn't make it?"
"Don't know. Get on my bike and ride."
She tilted her head back and blew smoke rings. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that."
"Yeah," Wes said, "let's hope."
The Frozen T-Shirt Contest attracted customers from Minneapolis, Thief River Falls, and Duluth. A girl named Candy Apple won with a pair of thirty-eights. But it was only one party. A late March snow shut Vegas down for a weekend and Wes missed his first mortgage payment in April.
Two weeks later, he received a call from a business broker who'd gotten wind from a banker that he was behind. The broker offered to help with the liquidation. The next day, Wes closed up and went trout fishing.
During a warm spell the first week of May, he heard noise late one evening. From the upstairs window, he saw Chopper and another man the size of a grizzly bear step out of a pick-up truck. Chopper tried the lock on the garage, but Wes had changed it a month earlier. Chopper banged on the back door and called Wes's name.
Wes went downstairs and took the shotgun out from under the bar. He stood in the dark.
"I got the .410," he said.
"Where's my bike?"
Whispered words were exchanged on the other side of the door. "Gone where?"
"Hey, dude. Open up. Let's talk about this." Wes recognized the voice as Tiny Dave's.
More whispered words. "We'll be back for my bike," Chopper said.
"Bring the Expedition. Half of it's mine."
"Maybe I'll bring half."
"Asshole," Wes said.
Minutes later he heard them pull away. Wes restored the .410 to its place under the bar. He poured three fingers of Wild Turkey. If he could sell Vegas at a decent price, he could walk away clean. The boat, the Wrangler, assorted tools and equipment would bring twenty grand, enough to pay Josh's tuition for a year and then some. That left his own bike, a vintage Harley with enough chrome to blind a man. But he'd never sell that.
Wes carried his drink onto the deck. The ice on the lake groaned, breaking into large flows. He'd made it to spring.
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