by Jaron Summers (c) 2023
There wasn’t much to do on a Saturday night except watch a movie at The Avalon, the town’s only theater, or duck into the Chinese Cafe and have a cold Coke and a warm piece of pie. Sometimes there was a dance or a wedding.
Mac’s pool hall had no ventilation, and it was dark blue with grimy smoke (from roll-your-owns) that made me cough. Mac was in his 80s, smoked Camels in a long, dirty, black, cracked cigarette holder and was horrid to his wife. He was usually drunk and one night, he threw his 75-year-old, 95-pound wife out of their home. She had to sleep in a wicker clothes basket.
Mac used to tease me about being a virgin. “Hey, when are you going to get a piece of ass?” This kind of chiding was tough to endure when there were only a few people in the pool hall, but it was more than I could handle when the place was packed with characters itching for an opportunity to laugh. Friday and Saturday nights, I avoided Mac’s.
“Hey, Sport,” said a voice.
I squinted down the dusty alley that bordered Chong’s Cafe.
Kort was sitting behind the wheel of a new 1961 Chevy Coupe. Kort was 18, same as me—except he looked like a man—he’d been shaving since he was 12 and he had muscles. Big muscles—the kind that made it easy for him to fling monstrous hay bales around like they were prairie puffballs on his father’s farm.
“What are you doing in town?” I asked.
“Came to see Jill—it’s her birthday tomorrow. Got her some imported French perfume. Like my new buggy?”
“It’s great,” I said. But I was thinking about Jill. She had sparkling green eyes and was my idea of what a 17-year-old fox should be. I figured Jill could have any guy she wanted, but I never put the moves on her because Kort had asked me to keep an eye on her while he was working as a roughneck on the oil rigs of Northern Alberta.
Keeping an eye on Jill sounded like a great assignment until you got down to brass tacks (Kort’s term for getting laid). Kort and I had been buddies since the third grade, and at least a dozen times, he had stopped locals from breaking my under-developed body into smaller pieces. When a friend like that asks you for a favor, it’s hard to say no.
“Pile in,” he said. “Let’s liven up this berg.”
I walked around to the passenger side and got in. For a new car, the Chevy was deteriorating quickly—a dent in the rear fender, a broken bumper, and a missing tail light. The back window was cracked and caked with mud. I guess that’s what happened when you drove a new car in the oil fields.
“So have you seen much of Jill?” asked Kort, grinding the car into second and turning onto the main drag of Coronation. There was only a single main street in Coronation: a couple of hardware stores, a couple of service stations, a couple of banks, a couple of cafes, a couple of grocery stores, and a couple of laundries. And there was also a drug store, a butcher shop, and a junk shop.
“Anybody been getting down to brass tacks with her?”
“Not that I’ve heard of.”
Kort reached under his seat and snared a bottle of beer. He offered it to me, but I shook my head, giving him a weak smile.
“Remember the time your old man got drunk at the barbecue, and old lady McCalpine called your mother and said your old man was crawling around like a bear in her carrots?”
“I remember,” I said.
We both laughed.
I found the bottle opener and flipped off the bottle cap. I passed the bottle to him, and Kort lifted it to his lips and took a long pull of the liquid. Then he gave a sidelong glance. “Hey, you’ve been putting on a little muscle—another couple of months and you can be a roughneck.”
“I don’t know if I want to work on the rigs. Too dangerous.”
Kort shrugged, wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his jean jacket. He looked at me and smiled, smiled with the satisfaction of a man who had left home and was successful in the world. “I don’t think Jill stays at the farm all the time,” he said.
I wondered if he had heard that I had gone to the movies with Jill a few days earlier. “How do you figure that?”
“Because,” said Kort. “She’s right over there.”
Jill stood in front of The Builder’s Hardware amid a group of Hutterites who had come into town for Saturday night. The Hutterites dressed in black—black shoes, black pants, black skirts, black shirts, and black hats. They spoke English with a thick German accent and lived in a Hutterite colony about twenty miles from Coronation—they collectively held massive sections of land. But the individual owned nothing. The head man of the colony gave the men enough money to buy a couple of beers on Saturday nights. The women didn’t get any money, so they waited on the streets and window-shopped while their men drank beer and talked. One or two of the more daring women wore black shawls with tiny red flowers on them.
Jill was a daisy in a field of black clover, standing there in the middle of all those Hutterites. I don’t think I ever remember anyone looking more beautiful.
She didn’t recognize Kort’s car. And she didn’t see him either.
But she saw me and flashed me a real warm smile—with teeth as white and perfect as Chiclets. Then she looked past me and saw Kort, grinning at her.
“Hi, Kort,” she said. “What are you doing back in town?”
“I like your car.”
“This old jalopy? Bought it off a toolpush who got a contract for South America. Get in.”
“OK if Irene comes with us?”
Jill flashed Kort a sparkling smile. (Until I saw that smile, I didn’t think Jill was capable of a warmer smile than she had given me. That gives you an idea of how much I knew about women.)
Jill opened the back door of the car so that her friend could get in. Out of the shadows came this other girl. Her friend had acne that was close to a terminal case, she was cross-eyed, and her nose was not great. And I was afraid she was going to be my date for the night.
Instead of getting in the front seat, Jill got in the back with Irene.
“Hey,” said Kort. “Why don’t you sit up here with me?”
“Irene and I want to talk—”
“You can talk any time.”
“What’s on your mind, Mr. Roughneck?” giggled Jill.
Kort flashed me an annoyed look. “Women,” he mumbled under his breath. He stepped on the accelerator. “So what do you ladies want to do?” He dug out Jill’s present—a small package wrapped in silver and gold and passed it back to her. “Oh, by the way—Happy Birthday.”
Jill undid the wrapping, and both girls examined the small bottle of perfume it contained.
Kort checked his rearview mirror, keeping one eye on Jill. I had an eye on Kort. Suddenly Jill screamed: “Stop!”
Kort hit the brakes, and my forehead bounced against the windshield. If we had been going any faster, I would have probably gone through the glass.
Standing nonchalantly on the gravel road—two inches in front of the Chevy’s hood—was Bart Barley. Actually, his name was Harland Barley, but everyone called him Bart Barley—but never to his face. Bart Barley and Kort were the two toughest guys in town. No one messed with them. They both had the same philosophy—if anyone challenged them to a fight, they exploded like hammers coming out of hell.
Bart—who had seen Rebel Without A Cause about a dozen times—was lighting a cigarette. He took a long drag, let the smoke trickle out of his wide nostrils, tucked the package into his sleeve, pulled his ear, adjusted the crotch of his jeans. He glanced into the headlights of the Chevy as though he had seen it for the first time. Bart had skin the color and texture of old potatoes—this was from working in the summer sun on his uncle’s farm.
The mercury vapor lights made the metal tabs on his shirt collar glisten like twisted stars. Bart’s shirt was western cut—he always wore it when he had on his silver belt buckle. He had won the buckle at the Stettler Rodeo when he was 16 years old. The win had cost him five broken ribs, a twisted ankle, and the tip of his right small finger. He once told me the buckle would have been worth his entire finger.
Bart ran a callused hand along the hood of the Chevy. Then he looked in at Kort and said: “Son of a bitch, this is some car—where’d you get her?”
“Same place you could get one if you’d work on the rigs,” said Kort.
By this time, Bart was standing next to Kort’s door. Bart looked in and saw me, then he spotted the two girls in the back seat.
“Hop in, and I’ll show you how this thing takes the corners,” said Kort.
Bart shrugged and reached for Jill’s door. I guess he thought he was going to get in the back seat and sit beside her.
Believe it or not, you’ve just meet some of the teenagers I grew up with. Here is the rest of the story.