portion of the artwork for Keith Lesmeister's short story

Keith Lesmeister

I never made it past Fargo, though my intention was to ride the train out west, to the Bakken oil field, make a shit-ton of money, and come home to Iowa.

But Fargo had this deeply confused feel, the entire town wondering what it should be. I’d never seen so many foreign-ethnic restaurants with no foreign-ethnic people to speak of. It was all youngsters with mustaches and serious looks on their faces, trying too hard, and old people not giving a damn, and a handful of do-gooders trying to sort it all out. And just as well. I had a hankering for something new every day, so I stayed awhile, excited by the town’s identity crises. I walked around on cracked concrete sidewalks, but spent most of my time in this old brick building downtown that housed a watering hole for combat veterans, but it wasn’t the VFW I was used to. Not that I was a veteran myself. Above the bar, on the second floor, were a series of rooms for rent, and for as many hours as I’d spent there I didn’t see one person come in or out. Nor did I meet any military or combat veterans. When I inquired about renting a room, the bartender, Chief, said, “No vacancy.” That was the other thing. Most of the people here were Native, and drinking themselves into stereotypes, but I didn’t pass any judgments whatsoever. Most people thought I was Native anyway with my thick black ponytail and dirt-brown skin, and I was mostly glad for all the guys passed out against the jukebox because if I didn’t have them, who else would I use to measure against my own life? I’d figured out a while back that we’re all on some continuous spectrum of comparison, and those were the people I looked at to feel better about myself, something that might resemble a brighter future. Unlike most Americans, I didn’t consider the Native folks foreign-ethnic.

Gaming was a hot item in Fargo. Old ladies manned poker tables, dealt cards, collected cash, talked shit with drunk men who would raise their voices and eventually lose their paychecks to these dealers, or other things: video poker, cigarette vending machines, condom dispensers in the hallway between the men’s and women’s john—things you’d never find in Iowa.

I took up with this big heavy Sioux everyone called Bear, saved him from losing everything to this blackjack dealer with a venomous smile and blonde hair. She was well older than us, in her 50s probably, but was doing everything possible to make herself look 22. What is it with people trying to look young? Fake nails, fake hair, fake tan—none of it looked good. Under the dim lights this woman looked like a Hollywood model, but in the clear light of day, not so much. She laughed every time she won, and Bear tipped her anyway, slipped her a couple tokens. I think he was superstitious about how he treated people—that it might affect his fate somehow.

After he lost 10 straight hands, and probably had nothing left in his pockets, save for a box of matches and a soft pack of Camels, I lifted Bear off the stool just before noon and took him to the Drunken Noodle because I had a thing for their spaghetti and meatballs. I think now that maybe taking him out of that gambling tavern was in fact the move that ended all moves for him. He took off his fingerless wool gloves for the first time since I’d known him. We sat across from each other at a table next to the window. Outside was hazy with fog. I kept my stocking cap on. Bear and I acknowledged each other a few times, but neither of us said anything. Finally, as I noticed the server coming over to take our order, and realizing Bear probably didn’t have any cash on him, I said, “I got you.”

Bear ordered off the menu without looking up. Sometimes he stayed quiet for so long that I’d forget what his voice sounded like. And sometimes, when he’d talk, kids within earshot would scoot closer to their parents and cling to their legs or jackets. Bear didn’t notice these things, but I gawked in amusement and admiration. I’d never had any impact on anyone’s actions, with the exception of my ex, who made her instructions very clear, which was why I was currently living eight hours away from my own kids. The server brought out some Vietnamese noodle dish from which Bear ate two bites before scratching his tongue, complaining that it tasted like his ex-wife. I didn’t register any of this until I had finished my plate clean.

Turned out, Bear had a job with the railway working maintenance, mostly fixing and repairing doors, latches, overhead air seals, etc., and that explained why his hands looked the way they did: blood blisters, callouses, scratches, and cuts, and hardly any fingernails. After lunch, I walked him to the trains. He was fixed on second shift, but could come in whenever he felt up to it. He said there was always work to do, and when I dropped him off, the boss-man asked if I could help out.

“I have no experience,” I told him. We were standing inside a single wide converted into an office. The lights were on and bright. Way brighter than outside, and I had to squint while my eyes adjusted.

“Painting,” Boss-man said. He adjusted his engineer’s cap. He rubbed his mustache with his fore and middle fingers. “It doesn’t have to be good. You’re just painting over graffiti.”

“I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be in town.”

“I’ll pay you cash, you can start today.”

“Like I said, I’m not sure how much longer I’m gonna be here.” And, really, all I wanted was to sit in the VFW and keep warm with Chief, and drink myself to serenity.

“I’m hiring you,” Boss-man said. “You’re hired.”

“Fuck that,” I said.

“Don’t make me …” He held a crowbar up and cocked his head in a menacing way.

Boss-man led me away from Bear, and away from the single-wide office, to a place between tracks and handed me a bucket of steel-colored paint, a roller, and one of those tin rolling pans. “Not much to say,” he said. “Get to work.”

“Where am I supposed to—”

“It takes about a second-grade education to figure this out,” he said. “I don’t have time to babysit. Stop back at the end of the shift or whenever you’re finished.”

“When’s the shift ov—” But he was already gone. Turned a corner. I could hear his boots scuff the gravel and hardened dirt. I stood there for a while, cursing myself for the work I’d fallen into. I wanted to blame Bear. I went to find him. I searched up and down the track for about an hour. Nothing. Finally, I just started painting.

That day was like every other day I’d spent in Fargo—gray October, chilly, and without much hope. For the last month it felt like my life was a black and white movie, whatever that’s supposed to mean. They call Montana Big Sky, but if you’d ever been to Fargo you’d know otherwise. You’d know what a big sky actually looked like because it looked like this all the time—like the inside of a drunk person’s brain. And you’d also know what it could do to your own mind, which is why shrinks and social workers are parked on every corner of every block.

The entire yard shook every half hour when the trains came through, the reverberations funneling between arrivals and departures. Some of the graffiti looked like shabby art projects—badly drawn private parts, misspelled cuss words—but others were different. I’d been painting for an hour or two before I peeled off my hoodie, set it on the gravel between the tracks, and admired something. It wasn’t your usual tag. It wasn’t a gang thing, and it wasn’t bored teenagers either. I can only describe it now as a kind of love note. But maybe that’s not right. Maybe it was something else altogether. At any rate, it felt out of place, to be sure. Even now, I can’t recall the colors or even the actual image. I just remember feeling like I’d walked in on some private conversation between people who really loved each other. I left that tag as it was, didn’t touch with the steel roller, and went on to others, smearing cold gray paint over everything. I worked from west to east, along the tracks, and every once in a while I’d see a few guys lurking around the edges of the yard—guys in worn-out clothes and matted hair, layered up in sweatshirts and jackets and stocking caps, searching for something or someone. Guys who’d traveled here from God knows where. Nothing, I told myself. They’re nothing.

I found quite a groove while I worked. I moved with efficiency, splattering paint on the graffiti-tagged boxcars, as I was instructed to do, and I was pretty good. By good I mean efficient. I’d developed a system for moving paint cans, the rolling tin, and the roller itself. Working there was the best I’d felt physically since being in Fargo—the satisfaction and sweat rolling in beads down my back. I let my mind wander for a moment and it was pinpointing all the places along the way where I’d made the wrong moves. Moves that led me away from my family to where I am now—an unkind word here; a poorly timed gesture there. No need for specifics. You all know the extent to which I’m referring.

I worked for another hour before I came upon an open boxcar, and inside was a guy sleeping. I was going to keep going, but then I noticed Bear’s gloves. Once I got close enough, I realized two guys I’d seen earlier, lingering around the edges of the yard, were crouched in the dark recesses behind him.

“What’d you fuckers do?” I said. I held my paint roller over my head, as if that was supposed to mean something. They looked at each, then me. “Bear,” I said. He smelled like the sins of the morning, that dragon breath, all the booze lined up on the blackjack dealer’s table. I shook his shoulder and he started moaning. His eyes were confused. He was seeing something over my shoulder, but when I looked, there was nothing. Just gray sky. “Bear,” I said. He slapped at the air, his hands flapping in front of his face, and a small puddle of drool was forming on the floorboards, and one of the guys, still tucked in the corner, said, “I’ve seen this kind of thing before.” He hopped out of the boxcar, as did the other guy, and then time froze—a momentary pause—before Bear did this awful shudder. His shoulders shook, his jaw clenched.

Then there was nothing.

I still have it still-framed in my mind, the way Bear just went dull and rigid, the way I shoved his shoulder but his body didn’t give like it should have. In one millisecond he was there, then he wasn’t. When I glanced around for those two men for help, they were already out of sight, slipped between boxcars, or hiding in another. Either way.

Either way here’s how I felt: I liked Bear. We drank together. I knew nothing about him, but we kept each other company. Seeing him dead, I have to admit, I’m not sure if I felt anything. Or maybe I can’t describe how I felt. I stood there, trying to figure what to do and how to act. I still had the paint roller in my hand, and there was Bear. No longer. I got a little scared at what could happen to me. No one knew me there; no one could vouch for me; no one could offer an alibi. So I abruptly slammed shut the boxcar, knowing that train would probably be in Montana by nightfall; knowing that not a single person would think to ask about Bear for at least another day. I suppose the other thing I considered—maybe not then, but certainly now—was that I was partly at fault for leading this man here earlier than expected. Maybe Bear had other plans that day, until I showed up, lifted him from the bar stool, and bought him that horrible lunch.

I went back to the VFW and ordered a double. Late-season baseball was playing on the two televisions above the bar. I had no more interest in baseball than I did a fate like Bear’s. I searched around the bar for familiar faces, but no one turned up. I never did tell anyone about Bear. I didn’t want that kind of trouble following me around. Back at the train tracks, I wrote a note and put it on Boss-man’s chair before I left, told him I wasn’t cut out for this line of work. Then I doubled back and nabbed the note, crumpled it, and tossed it to the ground. I didn’t owe him an explanation.

I drank until I couldn’t feel my arms, then I asked Chief if there were any vacancies, even just for the night. He said no, and I asked him, “Isn’t that where Bear stayed?”

Stays,” he said. “He lives up there.”

“Right,” I said. “Which room?”

“Yeah, he won’t care,” Chief said, as if he understood my situation—that I needed a place for the night, somewhere to rest. “I’ll let him know you’re up there when he gets in after work.”

I stared at my whiskey a moment and had an incredible urge to talk to Chief. He was a quiet, gentle man who had large shoulders and a smile that could convince strangers that most days were worth celebrating, even if quietly. I watched Chief move behind the bar like a grazing deer in the early evening hours—slow, cautious, thorough. He nodded to me when he thought I needed a refill, and that’s when I almost blurted out the news. But I held close. I let it be, didn’t say anything, and left the bar and pulled myself upstairs. I patted my back pockets, which was where I’d stashed Bear’s fingerless wool gloves. I’d pulled them off his burly, bruised hands after he spun out and went elsewhere. I didn’t want anyone else to have them. Is it considered a crime if you take from a dead person?

Bear’s door hadn’t been locked. Inside it looked clean and smelled faintly of socks and burnt coffee. It was at that point, when I was in his space, knowing he’d never be there again to rest or kick his legs up after a long day—it was then that I longed for home.

* * *

I’ll never go back to Fargo. That place weighed heavy on me, like an oversized quilt. Or layers of wool. There was a monotony to the place and the people that I’ve never been able to explain to anyone else, not even myself. I still don’t understand it, but I think it had something to do with the open space—land and sky as far as one can manage to see, and I think that lack of structure, or the lack of variation, makes the mind grow dull and weary. Plus, gray. Gray everywhere—streets, clouds, the color of their eyes and faces. The color of Bear’s gloves—gloves I still have.

I’m back in Iowa now, and still see Bear every once in a while. I’ll enter a bar and spot a big guy sitting at the end of the bar with no expression on his face, a worn-out flannel hanging off his rounded shoulders. Or, I’ll turn a corner and catch a glimpse of a person who might look like me or might look like Bear, but I’ll never make direct eye contact to find out for sure, and I think mostly I avoid these people for fear of what I might see—all those memories that I’ve really never dealt with. And I wonder constantly: Where did he go? Where did that train carry him?

One thing I do understand finally is that Bear was the one person in Fargo I didn’t have to compare myself to, because that’s exactly who I would become—losing my family and working unsteady jobs—although I am mostly still alive.

I’ve tried to reimagine that graffiti, the one I was supposed to paint over. The love note. I try to recall what was there, but I can’t seem to recall anything. The only image I consciously recollect from my time in Fargo is Bear on his fridge, under some VFW magnet, a photo of him wrapped around some other Natives—family, I imagine, everyone holding each other. When I first entered his apartment that evening, my last night in Fargo, it took me a while to recognize him in the photo. At first I thought it was because of the dim lights in his apartment, the way it barely leaked out of the lampshade, but now I know differently. Now I know that I never recognized him in the photo because he was grinning. For the short time I knew him, I never saw the guy smile.

Keith Lesmeister’s Comments

I started this story several years ago after reading news articles about the North Dakota oil boom. I don’t remember much from my reading, but I do remember one reporter discussing that area of ND—now with an influx of out-of-state, and mostly male, workers—as the new “wild west.” I thought it intriguing, so I started writing about this down-on-his-luck guy who was attempting to make his way from Iowa to the Bakken oil field. But as I started writing, I found myself stuck in Fargo, working with this character, and so I stayed there a while—we stayed there for a while—and this story was the result. And for as many times as I tried to "finish" the story, the conclusion remained elusive. Then, not long ago, I figured out what the character knew all along: it was time to leave Fargo, but not west to the oil field. Rather, it was time to go home. Once he returned home, the story wrote itself to its final lines.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 51 | Spring/Summer 2018