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  • 16. Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before

    By Willy Vlautin

    I’ve been eager to have a Willy Vlautin story in this space ever since we began, and the timing couldn’t be better: this new story appears in our new collection Please: Fiction Inspired by the Smiths—just as we’re bringing Willy’s excellent new novel, Lean on Pete, to bookstore shelves.
    The narrator of “Stop Me” has all the qualities I associate with Vlautin’s fiction: genuine heart, an unslakable attraction to trouble, and a rueful humor that allows the first two to stand together as uneasily, but surely, as they do in some real lives.

    For years I just floated along. I wasn’t much. I’m not saying I’m anything today, but back then it bothered me more than it does now. Now I’m all right with where I am. Now I know that just getting along is okay, that it’s better than a lot of things.

    I grew up in the same house that I was born in. My mom and me lived there. My dad left us when I was eight. He moved out of state with a woman nobody knew or even knew existed.

    Growing up I wasn’t much of a student or an athlete. I barely got through high school, and I tried at it. I stayed up a lot of nights studying, toiling over it. So when I got out I didn’t even think about college.

    I’m not extraordinarily gifted in any particular way, and I’m not saying that for any reason except that it’s true. I have never been obsessed with working on cars or slaving over a computer or trying to make a trunk full of cash. Plus I’ve always had trouble speaking in front of people, a lot of times I can barely eat in front of them. And I can get lazy. I can watch TV for days. I can let dishes stack in the sink for a week. I feel bad about all of it. About everything I just mentioned.

    I guess when I was younger, deep down I wanted to amount to something, have some sorta normal life like everyone else. Own a house. Have a kid that likes me and a girl that stays with me.

    For six years after high school I worked at a chemical warehouse and loaded trucks and answered phones. The chemicals we sold were to mines located all over the northern part of the state. I’d load 48-foot trailers with chemicals used for leaching gold out of the mountains. I couldn’t smell, my sense of smell was ruined because of the chemicals, and my hands were scarred. But it was a job and, for a guy like me, with my education and experience, I guess that I felt like I was lucky I had it and I worked pretty hard at keeping it.

    So the story starts here. It starts out of the blue. It starts after a year-long dry streak. I met a girl at a bar called the Swiss Chalet.

    She was young and had black hair and was small. Not much bigger than the size of a jockey. But she was good looking. It was the summer and she wore summer dresses. The dresses you see poor women from the South wear in old movies. They were thin, almost see-through, and she had a body. Jesus, it was something else. And then on top of that she flirted. She was an expert flirt. She would talk to me and look at me and laugh with me, the whole time giving me that eye. She had an eye worse than a broke hooker.

    After a while I began taking her home to my room and she would spend the night there. And the nights, I got to admit they were something. I’d never been with a woman like that. It was like something out of a skin flick, like something you’d read in the letter section of a porno mag.

    But then the night would end and morning would hit and everything changed and I should have known it right then. I should have realized it and run as fast as I could, but of course I didn’t. Of course I just got myself in deeper. It all went like this.

    She got up before me. Her job started earlier. And she’d always make a big production of it. Like she was a real saint just for getting out of bed. She’d wake me, every time, and say a few things like, “Why don’t you get better coffee? Where did you put my underwear? Your neighbors are too loud. You should talk to them. You shouldn’t let them take advantage of you like that.” And then she’d get dressed and leave. I didn’t know her phone number. I didn’t know where she lived. It wasn’t like that, you know? We weren’t like that.

    Then one morning the woman woke me up and told me I slept too much. I told her I didn’t have to be to work until ten, that I liked to sleep in and she just shook her head and said it didn’t matter.

    “A man shouldn’t sleep all day if he’s going to amount to anything,” she said.

    She was in the kitchen making coffee in a black G-string saying all this. She had a tattoo of a cobra on her back. I got to admit that had something to do with it. Her standing there like that in my kitchen. After that I tried to get up early with her, but it was hard.

    Maybe a month went by and she got out of the shower and stood there wet and naked, drying her hair. I was at the kitchen table half asleep when she told me the bars we went to were too smoky, that the smoke hurt her eyes, that the smoke ruined her clothes and made her hair smell.

    “Smell this goddam shirt,” she said, and threw it at me. “It’s the worst-smelling thing in the entire world. I’m sick of it. I’m seriously sick of it.”

    So after that when I saw her, when we’d decide to meet up, we stayed in at my place. We’d watch movies and watch TV and make margaritas or daiquiris and then afterward she’d try to rape me. And this went on, this went on for some time and I didn’t mind it. I didn’t mind not spending all my money at bars. Bars are a waste of time the farther you get away from them. They really are. And I like movies. I could watch movies all day long if I had to.

    A couple months go by and she comes to my place one night and I offer her a whisky and ginger ale but this time she says she doesn’t want to drink any more. She’s had enough. She tells me she’s a blackout drunk. She says she’s the type of drunk who ends up in the bed of a man whose name she can’t remember. She says this happens all the time. Not every time, she says, but enough times.

    “And listen. I’m tired of it. It’s worthless. You’re gonna ruin your life if you keep doing it. I’m bad, I am and I admit it, but you’re worse and you won’t admit it. That’s a bigger problem. That means you’re an alcoholic. You’re gonna get cirrhosis of the liver. My uncle had it. It isn’t pretty and it hurts like hell. He could take it, but it would kill you.”

    “Look,” I tell her. “I don’t black out. I don’t wake up not knowing where I am and who I’m with.”

    “I’ve seen you guzzle down the beer. Anyway, you don’t know what it’s like for me. If you knew you’d stop just ’cause of that. You’d stop because I’m a blackout drunk. You’d stop ’cause I was an army brat. I went to fifteen different schools by the time I was thirteen!”

    Then she falls on my couch and curls up in a ball and begins to cry her guts out. She cries until she passes out in exhaustion.

    Maybe a month or so later we’re in a mall shopping for a birthday present for my niece. There were a load of people there and I don’t like crowds. I hate malls and I hate shopping. So my nerves were already going when she suddenly stops and says, “I’m not a slut if that is what you think. Is that what you think of me? Is that what you think of our relationship?”

    Then she begins to cry frantically in the middle of all those people and stores. We’re standing outside of Sears. I begin to panic. What the hell’s going on? What did I say? Did I say something that was making her feel this way? Was there a way, without even knowing it, that I had caused this?

    She said nothing more after that. I tried to talk to her but she wouldn’t. She just closed her mouth like a mute and ran off. I searched around the mall, then looked around the parking lot, but I couldn’t find her and finally I just gave up and went home.

    I didn’t see her for two weeks, and it made me lonely as hell. For the first time in a long time I got really down. I swear to God I didn’t understand what I’d done and I felt horrible about it. I was a wreck and Jesus, that’s when I realized how deep I was in. Maybe I was really falling for her. She was a serious handful, I knew that, but maybe that’s just women. I didn’t have much experience. Maybe that’s just the way they are. Maybe love worked like that, and maybe it was me that was too stupid to realize that that was what was happening.

    I guess maybe a month goes by, and one evening at the Swiss Chalet I see her and she’s drunk and flirts with me like she’s never met me. She talks with me and holds my hand and gives me that eye. She gives me that eye like she was gonna take off her clothes right there and pull me underneath a table. We each shove down five or six drinks then go back to my room and stay up all night in the sack. Afterwards, near dawn, I feel better. She’s got an imbalance or some sort of mental issue, but hell it’s hard to be alone once you’ve had a taste of it the other way. It really is. Plus as they say, love ain’t easy. So I decide right then and there that I was gonna give it a serious try.

    “I hate this town,” she says some time later. She’d moved her things into my apartment. She stayed at my place almost every night. She became my roommate without me ever asking her to. But honestly, truthfully, it was all right with me. I’d never moved in with a woman before. My mother, who lived in Bakersfield, was excited about it. She hadn’t met her, but me living with a woman. It was a good start, my mother said.

    “I hate this town because it made me say all those mean things to you at the mall. It’s this goddam redneck town that’s made me a blackout drunk and made me sleep around. It’s lucky I don’t have some horrible disease. It’s lucky I haven’t been murdered. I swear Reno is the worst town on the entire planet, and it’s done it to you as well. It’s trying to make a bum out of you. It’s the reason you work at a chemical company and pollute our environment. It’s the reason your place is so horrible.”

    “What the hell are you talking about?”

    “I’m talking about the environment. I can’t believe you work there.”

    “You leave me out of this.”

    “All I’m saying is this town is ruining you. It really is. It’s ruining us both.”

    A week later in the middle of the night she wakes me and says she would spend the rest of her life with me. She had never woken me before. In the darkness she said she would marry me and have my children. That’s why I sleep with you, she said, because I want you for the rest of my life. You’re the one. I don’t sleep around any more. I’m not like I was. Do you feel the same? Do you feel the same way about me? Her voice was soft with uncertainty. She lay naked next to me. It was snowing outside and three days before Christmas. I told her of course I felt the same way. But Jesus, I didn’t know what the hell I felt. I just knew I had to get up and work that next morning and I didn’t want her to get upset.

    Maybe a month goes by and she left a card on my truck while I was at work. She wedges it between the windshield wiper and the windshield. Inside the card was a key to a motel room, the name of the motel, and directions. She said she would be waiting there after I was done with work. So I went to the motel and she was naked on the bed waiting. I opened the door and she attacked me. She had handcuffs and talked like a degenerate nymphomaniac. When we were done I held her and we watched TV and I fell asleep.

    She woke me up an hour or so later and said, “If you truly love me we’ll move to a real city and not stay in this shithole. Look, don’t I give you everything? Don’t I give you my entire soul? I’m not a slut. If that’s why you think I brought you here then you’re as bad as the rest.” Then she started crying. A full-blown crying blowout. She began to hyperventilate and then finally curled in a ball and fell asleep. I didn’t know what the hell to do. So I went down and bought a six-pack and the newspaper and went back to the room and sat in the bathtub. But the thought began creeping in. Maybe she was right. Maybe I was a failure. Maybe it was the town that made me so. Maybe she was right and this was my big chance to change, to prove myself, to take a chance and become someone of substance, someone with some sort of character.

    I was lucky and my company has offices in Portland, Oregon, where we had decided to move. They hired me on graveyard shift loading trailers. It wasn’t as good a job as I had, but it was a start. It was something. We took her things from a storage unit then loaded as much of mine as my truck would hold and left town.

    With my savings we rented a small apartment, an apartment the size of the one I had just left, but these things happen, I say to her. I only have so much money, I say. It won’t always be this way, I tell her. I give her my credit card to decorate. I go to work the second day I’m in that city. I drive my truck forty-five minutes each way and I load trailers for nine hours a day. And our lives go on.

    Maybe two months later she throws a plate against the wall. She’s doing the dishes. She can’t find a job. There are no jobs in this city, she tells me. How can there be so many goddam people here and no jobs? What kind of city is this?

    Another month goes by and I come home one evening and she says there was a break-in, that our neighbor stood in the bedroom and watched her sleep.

    “You know I sleep naked,” she says. “He’s a fucking pervert. I know he’s a pervert.”

    “Are you sure it was him?” I ask her.

    “I’m not lying. What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you believe me?”

    “I’m just asking,” I say. “I’m gonna go over there and talk with him. I’ll kill him if I have too. But are you sure? Are you certain? ’Cause if you are I’ll get my shotgun and blow his fucking brains out across his living room.”

    “Maybe I was just having a nightmare,” she says suddenly, and begins to cry. “Don’t kill him. Jesus, I don’t want that, just don’t leave me here alone at night. I’m dying here alone at night. This city is just as bad if you’re gone every night. It’s boring out here. I don’t have a car, ’cause you take it every night and we live out in the fucking suburbs. I don’t know why we have to live all the way out here. Why the hell do we live all the way out here? It really isn’t a city out here. It isn’t the city at all.”

    I tried to transfer to day shift, but day shift is what everyone wants and I’m low man on the pole. So after a couple months I quit. I get a new job as a forklift driver and I work days and because of that our life falls along like everyone else. She makes me dinner, we see movies and shop downtown. And she finally gets a job at a pizza parlor. She’s happier. And me? I’m more relieved than anything. Maybe things will change, I tell myself. Maybe we’re turning the corner.

    Then a month later she comes home and says the owner of the pizza place, a fifty-five-year-old man with four kids, made passes, that he had touched her, that the other workers didn’t like her, that the other workers were jealous of her, that they were all a bunch of morons who tried to stab her in the back, who said horrible things about her when she left the room.

    I didn’t say anything and then she says she’s tired of being broke all the time. She’s tired of the grind. Tired of the goddam grind. “Why don’t we have any money?” she says. “Why don’t you make more money?” It went on and on and on and on and on. It was ugly, that night was ugly, too ugly to really talk about and in the end I just felt bad about being broke, about being a forklift driver, about never making any money, about being a low-wage stupid son of a bitch.

    Since I didn’t have any friends in the town and had no kids or any other obligations, I took on extra shifts. I worked Saturdays when they needed me and I got a job in the warehouse next door and worked two nights a week on swing.

    It was the dead of winter by that point. She stopped going to her job at the pizza parlor. She didn’t quit, didn’t get fired, just stopped going. She said the winters in Portland were too much. The rain brought her down. She wasn’t used to the rain.

    “All it does here is rain. And, look, you say we can’t afford cable. But you’re gone all the time and I’m stuck all the way out here.”

    “You said you were tired of being broke.”

    “Well, why can’t you get a job where you make more money and don’t have to work so much? You can’t expect me to just sit around and wait for you all day and goddam night.”

    It was springtime when she said she would kill herself if we had to live in that apartment in the suburbs any longer. She got a knife and threatened to stab herself. She took a vial of pills in front of me and I had to make her puke them up. I told her I’d find us a new place, a nice place in town. I called my brother and borrowed $1,000 and I rented us a house in a nice neighborhood in the city. But this time there was no easy stretch, there was no calm time, there were no good times.

    “I’ve given you my body. I’ve given my life to you. But you won’t marry me. What am I to you, a hooker?” she said while crying her guts out. She stood there naked. We had been in bed together. We were right in the middle of it when she started.

    I didn’t know what to do. I was stuck. It was past anything I knew anything about. But I tell you this. I couldn’t marry her. My guts hurt when I thought about it. But then I couldn’t leave either. I guess I loved her and what if she really did try to kill herself? What if she wasn’t just talking? Then what? So in the end I just stayed.

    I began to lose myself. I began to dream of disappearing, of vanishing from the city, from the state, from the world. I began having hour-long daydreams about being an old man, about sitting in a chair knowing it was almost all over. I tried to tell her these things. I tried to let her know that I might be starting to crack.

    “If you leave me,” she says, “I will kill myself. If you leave me, I’ll die. I’m not joking,” she says to me. “Look at what you’ve done to my life and now you want to leave me. You want to ruin me and then cast me aside like a dirty diaper.”

    So I quit talking to her. I mean I’d say hey to her and talk about anything she wanted to, but I guess I quit telling her much of anything I was thinking. I began closing down. I also began drinking again, mostly after work. I began sitting down the block from our place and drinking forty-ounce beers. I’d drink at least one before I had to set foot in that house.

    One evening as summer ended she put her hand through a window and sat on our bed and bled.

    “It’s your fault,” she said in a crying fit. “It’s your fault because you don’t love me any more. You don’t want me any more. I know. I give my heart and soul to you, but you give me nothing. Where does that leave me? You tell me.”

    I tried to say things to get her to calm down. I tried to say what was right, but I would have said anything at that point. I was worn out and she could tell. She could tell I didn’t mean anything I said.

    Finally one night just before Thanksgiving I told her I was leaving. I broke down. I started crying. I told her if she killed herself then that was her decision. I told her I was finished. I was on empty, I told her. I was all cashed in. I told her she could have everything I owned. I gave her my truck and most of my money. I paid rent for two months and ran. The next morning while she lay in bed crying, I packed my things and left. I stayed in a motel, gave my two weeks’ notice, finished that and took the bus back to my home town, the town I was in when I met her.

    By then I was flat broke and uncertain of everything. I had to borrow money from my mother. I rented a room in a small boarding house and begged back my old job at the chemical company. I rode a thrift shop Free Spirit 10 speed bike to work there every morning.

    Within six months the girl married a man who owns a bar in the city where we had lived. Where she still lives. He owns a bar down the street from our house. This I hear months later from people who knew her.

    I remember riding along the road to work as cars and tractor-trailers rushed past me, their frozen air trying to knock me from the bike. I remember riding and thinking to myself that I didn’t feel lost any more. Even though I was just where I was. Same job, same town, same routine. And this time I didn’t even have a car and was thousands of dollars in debt to my mother, my brother, and three separate credit cards. But the strange thing is I didn’t beat myself up all night any more. I didn’t lie there wondering why I didn’t have more guts, why I wasn’t a better student, why I wasn’t more of a businessman, or a forward-thinker, or an entrepreneur or a business visionary. All that had changed.

    More than anything I just felt lucky. Even when it was snowing and I was trying to pedal my bike through the ice and slush. Or when I had to pull a double shift or when I woke up lonely in an empty bed knowing that it might always be this way, that the woman might have been my only shot, that she might be the only one willing to take a chance on me. Even then, with no end of it in sight, I just felt luck around me like it was some sort of belt.


    © by Willy Vlautin. From the collection Please: Fiction Inspired by the Smiths, edited by Peter Wild. Used by permission of the author.

    Willy’s new novel, Lean on Pete, is already being called “an archetypal American novel” (The Independent). Get a taste of it here:

    Or immerse yourself in the world of Pete in Willy’s video:

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