A flabby arm, slathered with tattoos, rested across his chest. It was twitching. "Hey," he said, picking up the wrist with two fingers and dropping it at the woman's side. He kicked off the tangled sheets and climbed out of bed. The room smelled of whiskey and smoke, and his head weighed a hundred pounds. Wish I could vomit, he thought, I'd feel better. He coughed and rubbed the back of his head. Need a haircut. Exam tomorrow and look at me. He eyed the woman. She was lying on her back, her head angled to the side and mouth open. Her hair was shorter than his. Staccato snores. He wandered into the bathroom and brushed his teeth without looking in the mirror. Water tastes like iron. He spat into the stained, cracked sink and rinsed his face with cold water. The first throb of a headache. He rubbed his fingers across his scrubby cheeks, realizing that he hadn’t shaved for days. He walked back into the room and slid the thin, olive-green curtain to the side. A band of sunlight bounced off the wall. He squinted and looked out the grimy window. Cattle in a field and a two-lane road with snow drifts. I need a shower, straighten myself up, he thought. But he didn't move. The depression was back, creeping up his spine, into his stomach and throat, dread snaking through him. Just sitting still brought relief. Suddenly, the woman sat up and looked at him with beady, watery eyes.
Who are you?” She rubbed her face. Her naked breasts drooped over the sheet, and dried drool coated her bottom lip.
“I was just about to ask you that,” he replied. “I’m going for coffee. Make sure you’re gone when I get back.” He grabbed the room key, wallet, shoulder holster, and gun. His father’s watch was still on his wrist. Without looking at her, he walked out of the room.
The café next to the motel was crowded and noisy. Three boys were running between tables, yelling and throwing spitballs at each other. He sat down in the booth facing the driveway, his back to the wall, a habit he'd acquired when a cop in New York. You never know about people. Got all kinds. The waitress was pretty for her age, and the coffee helped. Ham and eggs, pancakes, and hash browns. Extra syrup, lots of coffee, and a spitball floating in his cup.
Two men were walking toward his table. He’d noticed them a little earlier paying their bill. Both big, unkempt, dull eyes, slow-moving. ”Sheriff?" the taller one asked.
“You got the wrong guy.”
“You’re Sheriff Miter. Saw you at the Town Hall meeting. Name’s T-Bone Maast, and this here’s my little brother, Mace."
Miter glanced at them, then sipped his coffee. “Nothing little about your brother.”
“Can we sit for a minute?”
The two men sat down across from him. "This'll only take a minute," said T-Bone.
Miter motioned to the waitress for more coffee. She filled his cup and looked at the other two men. “They don’t want anything,” Miter said, “they’re leaving.” He watched her skirt shift from side to side as she walked back to the kitchen.
“We’re looking for our brother, RibEye. He’s the one who disappeared from Harborre a few weeks ago.”
Miter looked up at one, then the other. “I’m not the sheriff there anymore. Not my problem.”
T-Bone stiffened. “Well, Sheriff, I think it is. Happened on your watch.”
“I resigned,” Miter snapped. “Deputy Sloane’s in charge. Talk to him.”
“We’re talking to you.” T-Bone looked steadily at Miter without blinking. Mace shuffled his feet under the table.
“No, you’re not." He rested his head on the back of the booth. "Now get out of here so I can enjoy my coffee.”
T-Bone’s jaw tightened. “Don’t appreciate your attitude, Sheriff.” He nudged his brother to get up. They stood over his table.
“I don’t care. I told you, I’m not the sheriff there.” Miter sipped his coffee without looking up at them.
"We'll see you again," T-Bone snapped. He slammed the table with his fist and walked out, his brother close behind him.
Miter wiped up the split coffee and watched them get in their truck. He pulled out a small notepad from his shirt pocket and wrote Black 1990 Chevy Silverado 454SS, W 873N2, then tucked it back in his pocket. Should have figured, he thought, whiskey license. Bet I see them again. He walked to the cashier, paid his bill, and left the waitress a $20.00. Maybe I’ll see her again too.
He opened the door to his hotel room. The woman was gone, leaving a trail of wet towels and a pile of crumbled kleenexes next to the bed. He smelled perfume. Cheap, just like her. He draped a Do Not Disturb note on his door and sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing his head and neck. Sunlight flooded the room with a soft, warm glow. So tired, he thought, why not just sleep awhile? He had a day yet before the Board examination, and he was confident that he'd pass. He met all the qualifications, endured the basic training program despite the sweltering heat in Georgia. The only thing that worried him was his age; the cut-off for US Marshal was 36, and he was three years past that. But older men had qualified. The two men from the restaurant wouldn’t bother him, at least not yet. He fell back on the bed and steadied his breathing. I’ll just rest for a few minutes, he thought. His eyes opened drowsily, then closed again.
“Meet you at the pool!” He woke to footsteps and a woman’s shrill voice in the corridor. “Hurry up, so we’ll have time to dress for dinner.” Children were laughing and running down the hall. His room was as black as a moonless midnight. His hand fumbled for the lamp on the bedstand, and his watch read 4:40 PM. An hour later, his face was headlong into the hot spray of the shower. His shaven face tingled to the heat, and strands of soapy hair clung to the sides of his face. Better get that haircut, he thought. He tilted his head, leaned into the spray as the water cascaded down his back. His body barely fit in the small shower stall, but he couldn’t remember feeling that clean in a long time.
He dressed and walked a few blocks to a bar, already bustling with men dressed in worn, greasy jeans and t-shirts with wool jackets. Two women sitting at the bar were shouting at each other. The older, heavy one slid off the barstool and fell face down on the floor with a thud. Peals of laughter rang out above the piped-in country music as she stumbled back on the stool. She straightened her sweater, slammed her mug on the counter, and yelled to the bartender for another.
Miter sat at the far end of the bar. He signaled the bartender. “Single malt, neat. Macallan, if you have it.”
“Sure thing.” The bartender returned with his drink. “Nice to serve something other than cheap beer.”
Miter looked at the amber glow of the scotch and took the first sip. The scotch coated his tongue and the back of his throat with a warm, smoky sensation. By the second swallow, his muscles loosened, and his mind cleared.
He didn't remember how he got back to his room, but he woke up alone this time. The first light was still an hour away. He was 100 miles from Duluth. He jumped to his feet, dressed quickly, threw a tie and black shoes into his bag. Within minutes, he was behind the wheel, sipping hot coffee from a plastic cup, merging onto the freeway as the sun’s rim touched the horizon.
“Mr. Ransom Miter, Ransom Miter.” The voice echoed through the vacant waiting room. The receptionist led him into an auditorium with a long narrow desk positioned in front of a stage. Five men and a woman sat at the table. A straight-backed wooden chair faced the table. "Have a seat, please, Mr. Miter, and we’ll begin your exam.” The speaker was the youngest of the six judges. “As you know, there are four parts to completing the requirements of a United States Marshal. You have successfully completed the basic training program, physical tests, and written examination. Today is the last part --- an assessment of your character to determine if you can handle the challenges and demands of the position.”
Miter nodded consent. He shifted his weight and folded his hands on his lap. "Yes, sir, thank you."
He walked out of the federal building onto Main Street three hours later and reached into his pocket for a cigarette. The most challenging part of the ordeal was thinking fast without nicotine. He leaned against the building and puffed through the first one, then a second. The cigarettes were already easing his nerves. I did alright, he thought, no big surprise questions, my answers were honest enough. He suddenly felt very thirsty. Three bars within the block. He crossed the street and entered the closest one. His eyes took a minute to adjust to the dim light. He pulled up a stool at the bar and looked around. Only a few people, but it was early yet. He ordered his first scotch and pulled out the notebook again, recollecting some of their questions: what do you like least about yourself, a trait you most despise in others, what makes you panic, how do you define a hero, five things that matter most to you, how you relax, your relationship to alcohol. He wrote down some of them, closed the notebook, and put it back in his pocket. A second scotch and another pack of cigarettes. Quiet thoughts at last.
Third scotch and twice that in cigarettes. A woman sat down at the bar. She glanced at him, then looked away. She was still wearing her coat and a thick woolen scarf around her neck. Something about her reminded him of Serene. Who knows where she is now, he thought. The woman ordered a martini. He liked the way she lifted the tall glass by the stem and lightly touched the rim to her lips. The place was filling up. People filed in, one by one. Some sat at the bar, some at a booth, most of them alone. Sad and tired men like me, he mused. The woman ordered a second martini. A wisp of hair brushed her cheek, and she tucked it around her ear. Just my type, he thought, alone, drinking in the afternoon, and not likely to ever see her again. He pulled out his notebook and wrote: plunge into my own darkness. He tucked it back into his jacket, loosened his tie, and walked over to the woman.
"Can I get you a third?" Miter asked, pulling up the barstool next to her.
She leaned back on her stool. She was still wearing her coat and scarf. “Two’s my limit, but thanks anyway.” She smiled.
“Can’t blame you for that. Cigarette?” He offered her his pack.
"No, don't smoke, but thanks anyway."
“Do you always say thanks this much?”
“Usually not this often. Must be you.” She tugged lightly on his sleeve and waved to the bartender.
Miter fumbled with his cigarette but didn’t light it. He dropped it into his pocket and faced her. "You're pretty."
She laughed. A fresh, lively sound in the bleak world around him. "Thank you." She fidgeted with gloves on her lap. “There I go again, saying thank you. You must think those are the only words I know.”
“Not at all,” Miter replied, leaning a little closer with one elbow on the counter and the other resting on the back of her stool. “Can’t wait to hear more of your vocabulary.”
She leaned back too. “What’s your name?”
“Miter, Ransom Miter.”
“You prefer your last name.”
“How’d you know?”
“You said it first.”
“Hmm. So what’s your name?” Miter pulled the cigarette out of his pocket and lit it. He offered one to her.
“No thanks. I don’t smoke.”
Do you mind if I do?
“No, suit yourself.”
“I usually do,” Miter replied, “I’m sitting here with you, aren't I?” He let his arm slip off the back of her stool onto her shoulder. She didn’t move away. He tossed down the rest of the scotch. “Looks like I’m dry, glass must have a hole in the bottom." He grinned. “What can I get you?”
“Glass of water, please." She took off her hat. The hanging lights over the bar illuminated shades of auburn in her dark hair.
He waved to the bartender. “Just water?” Miter smiled as he took a long drag on the cigarette. “Would have bet you’d be up for a third martini.”
“What makes you say that?” She turned toward him and tapped his arm gently with her glove.
“You seem to know your way around alcohol. I like that in a woman.”
“You’re quite observant, Mr. Miter,” she said. Her voice was soft and playful.
“Must be my turn to say thank you.” Miter raised his empty glass. “To you.”
She raised her glass, still half full, and nodded. “And to you.”
Miter feigned a frown. “I was hoping you’d say to us.” He touched her hand. “And you still haven’t told me your name.”
The woman looked intently at Miter, took a small sip of her martini, touched his hand, and smiled. She picked up her purse, dropped a $50.00 bill on the counter, kissed him gently on the cheek, and walked out of the bar.