The couple next door—that’s room 6—is fighting again. I’ve been here two and a half weeks, three more days than they have, and have grown accustomed to these recurrent challenges to their connubial bliss. I’ve also become quite good at estimating their duration. So, I put down my notebook and head over to the Cenex gas station for the usual: an ice cream sandwich.
Outside, it’s dark and a cloud of insects surrounds each of the lights in the parking lot. In the distance, lightning flashes soundlessly. I walk across the street to the gas station, where groups of kids have gathered, some inside pick-up trucks, others just sitting on the curb. I pass two teenage boys and catch a bit of conversation. One boy says that “this guy” might have “some stuff” by tomorrow. The other kid replies that that’s not good enough, that he’s talked to a friend who knows someone that will have something by midnight and it should be down at the Cenex in a few hours. The boys are rail-thin, their t-shirts and ratty jeans hanging off their bones. One of them runs his hand over his face continually, another fidgets, kicking at stones as he talks. They both look flushed and damp, although the night is cool. I’m not surprised: meth is rampant around here, consuming the young, feeding off boredom and bravado.
I walk into the store and get my ice cream sandwich, then leave through the other door and head toward the highway. I stand on the gravel shoulder, eating, and there are no cars, only insects and the breeze off the prairie. Then there’s some more lightning on the horizon. Through the darkness I can see some ramshackle homes on the other side of the road. I can’t imagine that anyone lives in them. I smile at one thing: I don’t live in them either.
After finishing the ice cream I turn back toward the Cenex where, in the parking lot, a fight has broken out. One of the skinny kids I saw earlier, the one that couldn’t wait until tomorrow, is up against a big guy in a green cut-off t-shirt that reads “DEERE” in yellow ink. The skinny kid looks like he’s had his nose broken and blood covers the lower half of his face. Under the yellow lamps the blood looks like tar. Everyone that was in the lot earlier has circled these two and they’re shouting and clapping their hands. The woman from the counter is standing on the sidewalk. She’s yelling for everyone to leave, saying that she’s called the cops, that they’re on their way. No one pays her any attention. The skinny kid’s friend yells something in his ear that I can’t make out then gives him a pat on the shoulder. Suddenly the kid lunges for the big guy, flailing and swinging wildly. The big guy steps lightly to the left, as if in no real hurry, and punches the kid in the center of the face with two sharp shots. The crowd yells and claps their hands, everyone smiling or frowning or swearing. A couple people are holding wads of bills. The kid staggers backward but stays on his feet. Big drops of blood fall onto the gravel. His friend gives him another pat and the kid squares up again, fists up in front of his chest. I can’t help but admire him, this doomed teenager, for his tenacity, his refusal (or inability) to recognize physical pain, and his willingness to see a lost cause through to the bitter end simply because he can imagine no other option, even though he must know somewhere deep down that the price he’ll have to pay could be very high indeed. But I don’t really have the stomach for this and I turn back toward my room. Behind me I hear two more pulpy thuds and a louder chorus of cheers. The cashier starts yelling about the police again. I don’t turn around to see what’s happened.
Back in my room I can hear the woman next door sobbing, so I leave the light off. I just sit on the bed, looking out the window at the lightning now growing closer, wishing I could click my heels and be someplace else, someplace good. But I figure it’s been a long time since there was any place like home. After awhile I hear sirens over at the Cenex. The woman next door has quieted, so I get up off the bed, turn on the light, and get back to work.