chris offutt

 

BOOTH 13

 

Darla takes me to lunch at a health food place that costs an arm and a leg for rabbit food. There’s nary a thing I can eat, but she moves through the meal like a champ—just mowing down all the slop in sight. She wants to talk about our relationship. Kentucky is a big long state with two parts—the hills and the blacktop. She’s from the blacktop and you can guess where I’m from. I should never have moved to Lexington. People in the hills don’t have relationships. They have marriages. 
Darla is fifteen years older than me but you can’t tell it by looking. We started minking right away. She’s my first and that means something to me. I mean, I’ve kissed girls in the hills, but not gone one step more. It’s tough when every available girl is someone you’ve known all your life. Me and Darla, though, we fit together like Lincoln Logs. I plan on marrying her only she don’t know it yet. We’ve been together a month. 
She says, I can’t be with you unless I’m sure I love you. I figure that means we’ll go somewhere together, maybe Tennessee. I say, how about Memphis, and she says, that’s not exactly what I mean. Well, I say, I’m open to a notion, and she says, good, because I want to be with somebody else. She takes a bite of some kind of limpy looking grass I’d not feed a dying goat. She’s a dancer—the leotard type, not the topless—and talks fast. It’s all I can do to keep up with her, and this time I wish I’d got left behind. 
I finally say, what are you talking about? and she says, you heard me, this is Lexington, not out in the county. I look at the waitress with hairy legs and the menu made out of hemp paper and I say, you don’t have to tell me that. 
The way she talks, there’s already somebody lined up for the weekend. The whole thing is the biggest bunch of bull hockey I’ve ever heard, but she makes it sound like I’m a bonehead for not understanding. She’s just being honest about her true feelings. I figure it’s a test to see if I’m jealous, so I say, go ahead and do what you want. Thanks, she says, you’re making me complete. She calls the waitress and asks for tea, but when I realize she’s serious, all I want to do is smoke the menu. We don’t say much, and away she goes, leaving me hanging like a one-nutter with the bill. 
That weekend is the worst of my life while she’s off I don’t know where. I get worried it’s some rich guy with a horse farm, or a salesman in a cheap motel. Either one’s as bad as the other. Maybe it’s a hippie and she’ll never come back. What I did was smoke weed and play video games. 
Come Monday I get the guts to call Darla up and she says, oh, you’re so sweet. Good, I say, let’s do something. She says, all right, but in a few days, I’m busy right now. We hang up and I walk around my dump about half-happy, which is a big step. I’m glad she loves me but how she found out just tears me up. I won’t say nothing though because we ain’t married yet. 
The upshot of the whole deal is she caught a disease off the guy. It’s herpes is what it is, and even kissing is off limits until it goes away, and that is driving me nuts. First she minks a stranger and now she can’t mink me. Plus it is somehow psychological, which means the more stressed she gets, the more it spreads. We’re not even supposed to talk about it, because it gets worse during conversation, like one of those flowers that blows up and sends pollen all over kingdom come. I’d like to find that guy who gave it to her and slap him to sleep, then slap him for sleeping. 
But that’s not even the worst of it. You have to understand, I’m 19 years old and it’s springtime, and there’s a woman at work who was a centerfold for a magazine two years ago. Now she’s broke up with her boyfriend and giving me the hairy eyeball. We work at a hotel over by the airport. She’s on the night desk and I do everything else. A job’s a job I reckon, pretty hard to come by in the hills. The only way to get work in my home county is if somebody dies, and you better hope it’s somebody in your family or you don’t have a chance. 
Anyhow, this woman at work has been flirting in that way you can’t tell if she’s serious or not, but tonight she spells it out. She’s eating a corndog and she takes the whole thing in her mouth down to the stick, then wiggles her eyebrows at me. I can’t stand it, but I do. I’m in a relationship. 
After my shift, I head straight to Darla’s apartment with one thing on my mind. My hammer is cocked and needs the trigger pulled, and I don’t want nobody but her. There she is, completely beautiful, her legs long on the coffee table. As soon as I walk in, she knows where I’m at, and puts the whammy on minking with a look. I mean one look and I’m like out the door. The last thing I want is to get that damn herpes acting up. 
I go driving around but the traffic is full of cars. They’re a busy bunch here. It’s amazing there’s so many people with some place to go at the same time. Folks in the hills stay at the house mostly. The way I see it, Lexington just has more things not to do. 
On the edge of town are the prettiest horsefarms you ever did see—miles of fence and acres of grass. It’s a better deal being a horse than a human here. I think about hitting one of those meat market bars with beemers and blondes, deck shoes and no socks, but it is too embarrassing. Each guy pretends he’s the only one who’s not there to get minked, and since the whole place is playing the same fake game, it all works out. It’s like going to a tavern and pretending you don’t want a drink. Plus these Lexington women can tell where I’m from quick as a frog jumping in a pond. 
I cruise downtown trying in case any older divorced women are on the prowl. They are supposed to be hot, and you know they’ll mink since they’ve already been married once. The problem is it is hard to look cool driving a Gremlin. I had me a Trans-Am but wrecked it, and this rig was all I could afford. It’s got a store-bought tint job on the windows as dark as the law allows. Sometimes I wear my hat backwards so people will think I’m a lowrider, but Dwight Yoakum ain’t rap. 
I roll past a sex shop and get an idea. I have never been in one, but a guy told me you can go in there and spread a little mustard and nobody cares. He said it’s for men whose wives are pregnant. Anyhow, I decide to deal with Darla’s herpes by using those video booths to take the edge off. 
I park a block away and walk like I’m going to a bar, then cut down an alley to the sex joint. The light is bright, and there’s display cases with things in it I hope to God my mother never sees, with knobs and handles and variable speeds. I wish Darla had come here instead of finding Mr. Herpes. A guy down the hall watches me get tokens but I keep my head down, and open the first door I come to and enter a little booth with a couch. The room smells like chlorine and the floor is sticky as fresh paint. There’s a little hole in the wall that somebody should have fixed by now. I put tokens in the machine, feeling like a short dog in tall grass, but I’m here because I love Darla. The wrong sort of video comes on—men with men. They look like regular guys, and I change channels and everywhere there’s men in cowboy boots, sailor hats, and cop belts. Some of them are dressed the same as guys you’ve worked construction with. The last thing I want to do is watch, but I do. I don’t know why. They’re kissing and everything. I’ve never seen anything like it and I just keep watching—about six tokens worth. 
The next thing I know some dude is walking in the booth. I can’t believe I’m caught watching gay videoes, and I try to block the screen with my body. He sits on the couch and grins. I try to stay cool. Hey, I say, I’m in here, and he says, but of course. I say, get out of here, man, go buy your own tokens. And he says, but this is booth 13. 
I decide right then to make tracks because it is dawning on me what’s up. I go straight to Darla’s place, wishing I’d snatched that guy baldheaded. I’m hoping to hell she’ll let me have some sugar, because I’m already worrying about why I stayed in booth 13 so long. It’s just that I figured a regular video was around the corner. I wonder if I even got a little bit excited in there, but just thinking that way’s a bad sign. I should have left that booth so fast the door would never bounce back. I should never have left my home hill. 
Darla’s up watching a movie, a completely stupid romantic comedy, but I don’t mind because it’s at least got guys kissing girls in it. Darla smiles sweet and I need that bad right now. I need a lot right now. I need some weed and a video game, but she’s got wine. I never drank it until Lexington and it’s not half bad. You don’t go to the bathroom as much as beer. She pours me a glass. Everything is cool. We’ll mink and I’m not gay. 
I sit on the couch beside her and when I cross my legs we both see at the same time a torn-open condom packet sticking to the bottom of my shoe. It shocks me as much as her. Darla takes my surprise as a full confession. How could you, she yells, and I say, it’s not what you think. She says it’s that girl at work, and I say, I swear to God that thing is not mine, it’s some guy’s downtown. 
That goes over bad, and she disappears so fast it is like taking the R out of varnish. She locks herself in her bedroom. She’s screaming through the door, telling me to get out and stay out and never come back again. There’s nothing I can do but leave. That herpes is probably jumping all over her body and she’ll blame me for it. 
I go back to my place and smoke a bone and start flicking the light switch. The air of the room turns black, then a burst of light, like changing channels in the video booth. A part of me knows I stayed in there way too long and I start to wonder which side of the bread I’m buttered on. Maybe I’m gay and just don’t know it yet. Maybe Darla does and that’s why she cheated on me, got herpes, then threw me out. But I don’t care about all that. I’m from the hills not the blacktop, and I’m going to marry her.