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Bill told me that he grew up in Fargo and joined the army and went to Vietnam. He'd married his high school sweetheart, a woman named Janet, before he went overseas and by the time he'd returned, Janet had a tattoo of a fire-breathing dragon on her ass and was running around with a man called Turner, who was the leader of a Manitoba motorcycle gang.
"Such is life," he said, sipping from his drink. It meant something to him that we had the same kind of drink. He'd ordered a vodka and grapefruit to be polite. Initially, he'd asked for a beer. "Let me ask you this," he said. "You got a tattoo?"
I shook my head. He rolled his sleeve up and showed me the inside of his forearm: a cougar, ready to pounce.
"Take my advice and don't. It's a bad idea, especially for women."
"I've thought about it. Maybe a chain of daisies."
"Anyways," he said, "after all that with Janet, I took my broken heart to Alaska to work in a salmon cannery. Now that's good money. That's where I met Nancy.
He asked where I lived, who my family was, whether I like the Minnesota winters or not and if I'd ever been to Florida. He wanted to know what my favorite movie was, if I believed that life existed on other planets, if I ever wanted children.
"We were planning on kids, but then boom Nancy has cancer." He looked around the room. There was a row of video games across from us repeating a display of wrecking balls and exploding rockets, automobile crashes and little hooded men wielding axes. "It's so nice to talk to you," he said.
"There aren't many people you can talk to. People in this situation, so to speak."
"Nobody wants to hear it. Oh sure, they wanna know what they can do for you and so forth. That's nice. But no one really wants to hear about it."
"No," I said. I was sitting on my hands. I rocked forward every few moments to sip from my straw. A woman with a rash on her face came into the bar with a bucket of flowers and asked if we would buy some and we said no, but then Bill called her back and bought a bouquet after all: red carnations with a tassel of leaves and baby's breath. He set them beside him on the seat.
"I know exactly what you mean," I said. People had carved messages and names into the table. TAMMY Z, it said in front of me, CUNT.
"You go to bars much?"
"Actually, I just turned twenty-one."
"No kidding," he said and fished an ice cube out of his glass and tossed it in his mouth. "You seem older. I'd have guessed twenty-five. You strike me as a sophisticated lady. You've got a way that's grown up."
He had a small, firm belly and a thick bush of graying hair on his head. The same tufts of this hair sprang from his eyebrows and nostrils and the backs of his hands. His ears were red and burly and sat like small wings. He reminded me, not unkindly, of a baby elephant, in a lordly, farcical way. He was the kind of man that other men did not know well enough to be threatened by sexually.
I crossed my legs. I rattled my ice. "We should be getting back."
"Well, it was nice to get away. Everyone's got a right to that from time to time." He raked his hands through his hair as if he were just waking from a nap. I was acutely aware of his body across the table, of my own pressing luxuriously back into the ripped-up vinyl.
He looked at me. He set his hands on the table and knocked on it with his knuckles. I reached out and put my hands lightly on top of his. He stayed still for a moment, then turned his hands over and laced his fingers into mine.
"Shall we?" he said after a while.
"Yes," I said in a nondescript foreign accent. "We shall."
Bill's house was white on the outside and cloistered among a thicket of pines. It sat a few steps down from the sidewalk, but above everything else the buildings of downtown Duluth, the lake. I could see the roof of the hospital far off. It was freezing.
I was shaking, but impervious to the cold.
"The snow is sparkling like diamonds," I said idiotically.
"Diamonds?" Bill smiled at me curiously.
"Yes. I mean the ice crystals. They're sparkling," I said and blushed. "I like the word sparkle, don't you? It's one of my favorite words."
"I can see what you mean. It has a ring," he said, guiding me onto his porch. I wanted to take my clothes off as soon as possible, so I would stop being nervous.
Bill took me on a tour, as if he'd forgotten why I'd come. My boots echoed loudly wherever I went until I finally took them off and carried them around with me. He showed me the cabinets that he'd built, the place where there had once been a wall that he and Nancy had knocked down to let more light into the
In the bathroom there was a bowl of stiff rose petals on a narrow shelf and a photograph of Bill and Nancy both of them completely bald with their heads tilted toward one another.
I washed my hands and face with a bar of green soap that smelled like aftershave and then went into the living room.