Summer in Benteen County, Kansas, is a season possessed of all the gentle subtlety of an act of war. Winter, of course, is no better, but the memory of frosts and blizzards and winds that begin to suck away your life before you walk a dozen steps had grown faint by the early hours of that Sunday morning in late June. A week ago, the thermometer had risen past the unbearable mark for the first time in the summer of 1997, and, in automatic response, the humidity rushed after it—to a level technically described as obscene.
The sheriff lay in the sultry darkness, wondering how to extricate his arm from under the woman sleeping soundly beside him. He wanted to leave, but he didn’t want to wake her. The situation reminded him of the definition of “coyote ugly” someone had once told him. When you discover the woman you picked up the night before is so disgusting you’re willing to chew your arm off rather than wake her to get free—that’s coyote ugly. He wasn’t that desperate, and Judy certainly didn’t deserve the label. Judy was, in fact, a knockout.
He tried shifting a little to see if improved leverage might make the difference. It didn’t. Judy was solidly atop his arm and it was numb and tingling for lack of circulation. Waking her would be easy, she’d probably just roll over and go back to sleep. But she might not. That possibility was enough to keep the sheriff from disturbing her with his efforts.
He had married and divorced Judy in July, the end coming a few days after the eighth anniversary of their beginning. About six months later, they’d started sleeping together again. Benteen County was the kind of place where everyone knew everybody else’s business and, since TV reception without a satellite dish was erratic, gossip was still a favorite pastime. Neither the sheriff nor his ex-wife were the sort who would have cared, if their jobs hadn’t depended on the community’s perception of their morals. He was in his third term, and wanted to serve more. Judy taught at Buffalo Springs High School. For both jobs, an absence of obvious moral turpitude was required. Six months of enforced celibacy had proved to be all either of them could stand. Without the availability of acceptable outlets, they’d taken to filling each other’s needs on an irregular basis. Plenty of people might suspect, but this man and his ex-wife did have a good excuse to see each other regularly, an excuse named Heather. She would turn thirteen over Labor Day weekend.
It was sex, and it was release, something both of them had found difficult to do without, but they weren’t considering remarriage. The problems that led to their divorce hadn’t dissipated. Their skill at the little gibes that hurt was now of Olympic caliber.
That was why the sheriff didn’t want to awaken her. They’d sparred from the moment he came through the door last night. After Heather went to bed it got a little ugly. The sex had an angry tint to it as well. They were both so mad by the time they got around to it that it took on a sort of frenzied quality in which pleasure was something to be inflicted, not given, and a shared climax was both a victory and a defeat.
He tried a different approach. He snuggled closer to her, letting their combined body heat mount. Sweat begin to bead and drip, despite the efforts of the air conditioner in the window across the room, humming in frustration at the impossible task of keeping the night’s heat and humidity at bay. After a few minutes, his strategy worked. Judy rolled away, searching for a cooler spot, and as she rolled he managed to draw his arm from under her nearly perfect form.
He sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, letting the air conditioner dry him while he massaged feeling back into the limb. Then he gathered his clothes, separating them from hers, searching through the dark for where they’d been wildly tossed. He remembered, with an odd mix of lust and shame, how, earlier, they’d nearly torn them off each other. He shook his head at the absurdity of it, and, barefoot, padded softly out of her room and down the hall to the bathroom to dress.
It was a woman’s bath now, complete with curling irons, hair dryers, dozens of mysterious oils, lotions, and scents. Even the toilet paper was floral. The sheriff found that a little silly.
He pulled on his jeans and ran the sink full of water, borrowing a washcloth, to sponge off his face and upper body, and some of Judy’s least fragrant deodorant. He would have showered, but the noise might rouse her. He considered the brief loan of one of her razors but his beard grew slow and thin and he knew he could get by without it, especially as an alternative to the lecture he’d get if she suspected he’d used it.
He examined his face closely in the mirror to be sure and was surprised at the age of the visage that peered back. His short hair was still black, no grey anywhere, but his forehead was higher than he remembered and the lines around his eyes and mouth had turned from crinkles into crevices from too many years squinting into the Kansas sun, too much exposure to the wind that rushed up from the Gulf of Mexico in the summer, or plummeted from the pole in winter, with no more than a couple of trees in Nebraska or Oklahoma to slow its passage.
He had high cheekbones and a Roman nose. But for the surprise of the pale-blue eyes that peered out of his dark face, he looked more like a full-blooded Cheyenne than the quarter he was supposed to be. He wondered what genetic happenstance had left him with such an Indian face and such Anglo eyes, especially when his former mate’s genealogical researches suggested that quarter Cheyenne actually subdivided into one part Cheyenne, one part Sans Arc, one part Buffalo Soldier, and one part Mexican.
He put on everything but his boots. In socks, then, instead of bare feet, he went to the bedroom at the other end of the hall to check on his daughter. It was amazing to think something so wonderful could have resulted from the disaster of his relationship with Judy. Her bed was empty. He turned and just kept from running down the steps to the first floor living room where lights still blazed and the TV made noises for the benefit of neighbors who might be able to imagine parents sitting up into the wee hours to discuss their daughter’s future.
Heather was curled up on the couch where she’d fallen asleep in front of the TV. She was wearing one of the t-shirts he’d given her, an extra-large purple with a snarling Kansas State Wildcat. It was big enough to serve her as an oversize nightie, even though she was turning lanky and coltish in her adolescence. He had the urge to find a blanket to tuck her in, but it was, if anything, still uncomfortably warm in the living room. He satisfied himself with turning off the TV, slipping quietly into his boots, and tiptoeing to the door.
“Dad?” she said, sleepily, just as he put his hand on the knob.
He turned and watched her sit up and rub her eyes. “What time is it?” she asked around a yawn, stretching and shaking her tousled hair back into place.
“Four-twelve.” Before digital watches he’d never cared, nor differentiated, beyond the nearest quarter, how many minutes before or after the hour it was. Times change, he thought, on the face of his watch and on the face in the mirror.
“You should be in bed,” he scolded, mildly.
“Couldn’t sleep, what with all the noise you guys were making, especially those sounds Mom makes right near the end.”
If he’d had a lighter skin he would have blushed. Instead, he just stood there, unable to think of something appropriate to say. “I don’t understand,” she continued. “You guys bicker and fight and then you fuck. Is that the way it’s supposed to be? Is it good for either of you?”
He decided this was one of those times when you ignored the f-word. Though that was probably part of this particular testing of the available parent, it wasn’t the critical part. “No,” he said, honestly.
“No, it’s not the way it’s supposed to be and no, it’s probably not good for either of us. Obviously it’s not good for you either.”
“Old habits, I suppose. It’s hard to explain and you’re still a little young to understand.”
“That’s bullshit, Dad! I started menstruating months ago. Did you know that? Did you ask? Did you care? I’ve seen animals do the deed. I’ve known about fucking for years. I’ve even had offers.”
One thing she seemed to have inherited from her mother was an intuitive sense of what to say to really get to him. With every inner reserve stressed to the max, he refrained from asking who had made those offers. Maybe the appropriate thing would have been to turn on the outraged parent act and pack her off to bed and himself out the door. He didn’t know. He was as lost at parenting as he had been at husbanding. Since an adult might understand, if not forgive, he gambled and decided to treat her as such.
“This is a small community, old-fashioned with old-fashioned values. People can have extramarital relationships or cheat on their spouses, but only if they’re willing for everyone in the county to know about it and treat them accordingly. Your mother and I are public figures. We can’t fool around and keep our jobs—unless, maybe, we fool around with each other. That doesn’t make it right, especially since, sometimes, we don’t seem to like each other very much. But sometimes we still care for each other a lot. And, we’re human. Like everybody else we’ve got weaknesses. I guess we thought we were getting away with it, fooling the community and fooling you too, with nobody, except maybe the two of us, getting hurt. It looks like we were wrong and I’m sorry. I’m sorry, too, that I didn’t know you’d started menstruating. You’re growing up so fast…and don’t ever let your mother hear you say the f-word or mention the noises she makes or you’re not likely to live long enough to grow up the rest of the way. OK?”
She sat with her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands and he could see that there was, indeed, an incipient adult in that child/woman’s body. That adult would be here, full-time, a lot sooner than he was ready for.
“I don’t know, Dad,” she admitted. “It’s not that I want you to stop being with Mom. I just don’t want to see you guys hurt each other. But thanks for trying to answer. I didn’t think you’d bother.”
He walked back over from the door and she rose from the couch and came into his arms. Her hug told him the world might be worth living in after all.
Boris, the German Shepherd, met him at the back door after he sent Heather to bed and let himself out. Boris wagged his tail and let the sheriff scratch his ears, but kept turning to look back toward downtown Buffalo Springs, whining in a way that sounded like an effort to communicate. He seemed a little more frustrated than usual at the sheriff ’s inability to decipher lingua canis. The dog stood on the porch as the sheriff went down the walk and out the gate to where his new Chevy truck had been pulled off the street and into the drive. He hadn’t really been worried about traffic, but it was more than twenty years since his last, and only other, new vehicle. He had no intention of letting this one start to collect dents any sooner than necessary.
# # #
The Reverend Peter Simms was a Benteen County native. He knew better than to expect anything beyond an occasional, teasing respite from unbearable heat or humidity before September, if then. He also knew, since neither his home nor his church possessed air conditioning, that Job must temporarily stand aside to make room for Peter Simms.# # #
For everything—turn, turn, turn—there is a season—toss, turn, squirm—and a cause for every insomniac under heaven. The cause for Reverend Simms’ restless inability to sleep, despite the very early Sunday hour, was a combination of heat and humidity, both in the high eighties, and a fuse that, for some inexplicable reason, kept unscrewing itself just enough to shut down his ineffective evaporative cooler and the rotating fan he’d bought to assist it. Operating together, they made his bedroom almost bearable, but every time he started to get comfortable enough to drift off, they would drift off too and he would have to find his slippers and flashlight and go twist the infernal fuse back into contact.
After four trips, Peter Simms gave up the fight. He disentangled himself from his sweat-soaked sheets and sat miserably on the edge of his bed, staring at the digital alarm clock beside him. It was set for much later. Thy will, Oh Lord, he thought, but there was a hint of peevish self-pity in it as if he were affixing blame instead of shouldering a necessary burden.
He rolled out of bed and shut off the alarm, stuffed his toes into his slippers again, padded wearily down the hall to the back door, across the porch and into the yard. At the corner of the house, he opened the electrical box and screwed the offending fuse back into position. The motor in the evaporative cooler in his window immediately began to hum. The faint glow of a night light illuminated his way back to his bedroom. He turned the cooler and fan off in case they were the problem. He removed his slippers, shucked out of his striped pajamas, and waddled flat- footed into the bathroom to place his doughy body beneath a stream of cold water from the shower. It came out tepid and the power went off again while he was soaping himself. It didn’t surprise him. He’d propped the flashlight in the sink just in case. When he emerged, he felt cleaner, and, if not eager to face the day, at least capable of it. With the good sense of a cautious man, he applied a double dose of antiperspirant before setting off to church to rewrite his morning’s sermon. A bit of scripture praising air conditioning was what he had in mind, but anything that even hinted there was nothing immoral about keeping one’s pastor comfortable would do.
The eastern horizon, flat and distant, flashed with hints of a storm—too far to hear it grumble, let alone feel its breath, cooling or otherwise. The lightning glowed the color of bruised, over-ripe fruit through an atmosphere burdened with dust, humidity and pollution. Sunrise would be spectacular. The Reverend Simms gave the storm a myopic glance as he stepped down from his back porch. He judged the flickerings along the horizon as among the Lord’s less enthusiastic efforts, then ignored them. He made his way across the back yard, down the alley, and south toward the Buffalo Springs Non-Denominational Community Church. Despite his liberal use of antiperspirant, he was sweating before he got to his back gate. He didn’t notice the shadow that detached itself from his lilac bushes and floated silently in his wake.