The Pretty Wolf

Mary Clearman Blew

The thunderheads had rumbled all afternoon, turning the sky black and purple in the east, but it was past midnight when the storm blew into Missoula. Rain dashed down as if it aimed to wash the whole town, lumber mills and interstate highway and university campus, off its precarious perch between the mountains and down the Bitterroot. By two in the morning when the bars closed, the highway was a river of drowning neon and the last bar rats scurried through the deluge to the lighted shelter of the all-night restaurant on Higgins Avenue.

Once inside, the sound of the storm was muffled by canned music and the hum of dripping after-hours customers, tourists and Indians and university students and lumberjacks, motley jettison from every bar in town. But waves of black rain lashed the big plate glass windows that looked out on the highway, and Richard Austin, who had gotten a chair opposite the window, had to face his own reflection drowning in the rain.

"It was the best work I've ever seen you do on stage," said Laura for the second time.

"But look at him now! Worn to a rag with all that work!" Kitt jeered.

"You'd be tired too if your mother had just finished tearing you to pieces," said Richard, meaning to joke. He was very tired. Since leaving the university theater at midnight the three of them had sat in the Jekyll and Hyde discussing the play until all remarks were fatigued and roundabout. Now Laura and Kitt sat across the table from Richard, so it was as if three faces looked back at him; two implacable women and his own reflection, patched like a clown's with watery blue and red from the motel sign across the highway.

He wished he had gone home alone as soon as the theater closed, but then the play would have been gone forever, and he had wanted to hold on to it a little longer.

And there was Laura. He knew he had to talk to her before the night was over.

"You've never met Richard's mother?" said Kitt to Laura. "I never believed the stories Richard tells about her, either, until I walked in one day and caught her practicing arabesques off the living room sofa."

"That can't be real," said Laura. She sounded too tired to care.

"Oh, yes, she does jetés and glissés around her all-white living room all day long, waiting until Nureyev comes to sweep her right out of Missoula, Montana."

"Really?"

"Absolutely," said Richard. He shook another cigarette from the pack, got two before he could stop, and dropped them both. "Mother wears a purple velvet tunic and drives my father wild by standing on the sofa and dropping peanuts on his head. Then she tells him that if it weren't for him, she could have been a star."

Kitt's eyes were examining Laura for clues to match the legends she had heard. But Laura was as unassuming as a student in her white jersey and levis. Even with the fatigue of her 300-mile drive and an evening of Euripides collected in the dark pits under her eyes, she did not look the 15 years she was older than Richard and Kitt, nor particularly talented.

She had a scab on her elbow. Laura was always hurting herself, Richard remembered, and without warning came a flood of memory. The first time he had ever seen her, after he had hitchhiked north and inquired his way down the musty and rumbling corridors that led through the old high school to the theater in the basement.

"Mrs. Dianopoulos? That's her over there," said one of the boys and Richard, looking across the stage where he pointed, saw a girl in levis teaching a knot of high school students how to cleat flats. As she turned, still holding her hammer, an amber beam from one of the ellipsoidal spots hit her in the face, lifting a sudden aureole from her hair.

"Larry, cut that out!" she shouted at the boy on the catwalk, whereupon he swung the spotlight directly into Richard's eyes.

Laura pulled a plug and the gold beam evaporated into the dark, but for several minutes Richard saw spots in front of his eyes. Laura, holding her hammer, waited to see what he wanted; and as his eyes readjusted to the dark he thought she was beautiful.

"I've come to ask if I can be in your theater," he had said to her. And Laura had taken him in, found him a job and given him roles in the ramshackle community theater she ran in the high school basement. She had more insight into a role than any teacher he had ever known, and she had taught him that he had a vein of talent if only he dared tap it.

Now he sipped scalding coffee to burn away the taste of panic in his throat. Laura would be the first to agree that he didn't owe her a thing. And she would be going home in the morning, alone.

"I don't care if she is a poet," Kitt had stormed through her tangle of avocado plants that morning when Richard stopped by the apartment to tell her that Laura had telephoned and was driving down for closing night of The Bacchae. "Or if she's as pretty as they say, or if she knows more about theater than everybody else has forgotten. I'm damned if I'll let her hurt you again. She's years older than you are. Doesn't she realize how ludicrous she is?"

"She says she wants to see our show," Richard had muttered, and Kitt, reaching up to water a droopy philodendron, knocked a smaller plant off the windowsill and broke it.

"She's got a sweet tooth for boys," said Kitt, stepping over broken plant and pot shards to get the broom. "Don't think you're the first."

He knew he never should have gone to Kitt, and yet she was the one he had called from the bus depot that morning last February blear-eyed and hoarse from riding all night from the north. So Kitt knew the whole story.

But Kitt had always been ready to shelter Richard, from the days when they were both 7th graders and Kitt's family had moved into the tender green suburb where most of the executives for the Weyerhauser mill across the river lived, and where Richard's mother practiced ballet and brooded in her purple tunic. Kitt had been outraged to learn that Richard smoked pot in those early days--"Think what you're doing to ourself!"--but times had changed, and marijuana plants crowded the avocados for a share of the damp light on Kitt's windowsill. Kitt was as ready as Richard for the limp, smoky nights after rehearsals, passing along the tender joint that stretched the night forever against morning with classes and racking throats. Loading that heavy smoke into the dark empty places left after the stage lights had evaporated, until nothing mattered until time to take up the role again, not classes nor his father's anger nor being named at the bottom of cast lists, nor the girls and now sometimes the boys who rolled over against him, denim grating against denim as they explored for what they wanted. He didn't mind. The fragrant smoke rose, powerful and rank as the smoke from the lumber mills that hung over Missoula on wet days and hid the Bitterroot valley, and eased it all until he could stand on stage again in the bath of amber lights with no Laura to pull the plug.

Kitt didn't need to smoke as Richard did. Loading for her was a matter of fashion, like her house plants and the Indian prints on the mattresses, but he thought it came to the same thing in the long run. Now, every bright blonde hair coiled in precision, she was ready to do battle for him against Laura.

"We're all very grateful to you for the help you gave Richard last year," Kitt said. She pushed back from the table to cross her legs. The scrape of the chair leg was a warning echo of her tirade of the afternoon: "I'll talk to her, all right!"

"What about Gregg?" Richard had asked Kitt when she promised him she wouldn't leave him alone with Laura for a single moment.

"Gregg won't care. I'll tell him not to wait for me."

Gregg was a graduate student working as a lighting technician at the university theater. Most nights he went home with Kitt to her weedy jungle of houseplants and cosmetics and theater posters. Kitt made disparaging faces about him, but she would never let him go until she had somebody else assured as her regular in bed and in other people's estimation. Kitt kept her bases covered; she could afford to be magnanimous with Richard.

But he had begun to wish he had never told Kitt what Laura had done. He wished they would both let him alone.

The restaurant was crowded now with late-nighters, mostly college students and a few rejects from the seedy bars just off the interstate. Someone was just leaving or just coming in out of the rain; Richard could see doors opening and closing , behind his reflection in the window. He drew his long legs out of the aisle, for he hated to be jostled.

"Yes!" said Kitt, and her eyes were alight for signs of a chink in Laura. "I understand you were a regular mother to him!"

Laura murmured something into her coffee cup, but she was watching Richard. He looked away just in time, and yet be could not help filing what he had seen. He could use a face like that if he were lucky enough to be cast as Richard the Second in the fall; those eyes, and the mouth just beginning to slacken-- in the fall, within the safe bounds of the university theater, he would prepare a face like that.

"Good theater has to be based on trust. Trust and understanding, that's what we find." Kitt's advance was relentless, Laura was not paying attention.

"Richard," said Laura urgently, and this time he was caught by the widened gray eyes before he could look away. Laura's eyes were dark-ringed above the pits of exhaustion, cruel as the eyes of a child bent on having its pleasure, or as the unsubtle eyes of a wild thing on its prey. You'll go to bed with anyone else, why won't you go to bed with me? she had cried at him once when full of whiskey.

Because you're too old! he had answered, falling back on Kitt's explanation, for he did not know the true answer. He did not want to know the answer, only that he felt suddenly sick with longing for that golden girl on the pedestal that Laura had demolished as effortlessly as pulling the plug on a golden stage light. Laura had not taken her eyes off him, and now Kitt too was glaring at him. As the motel light flickered across Richard's reflection in the window, painting it red and blue, it was as if the clown's face were trapped between the two women. A clown's mask with nothing but empty rain and the interstate highway behind it, Richard thought, and it seemed to him that for the second time that night he had been pulled to pieces by women.'

Then someone bumped into his chair, ungently, and he realized that Laura and Kitt were no longer looking at him but over his shoulder.

"Bud, you got a light for me?"

Richard smelled the raw liquor in the same breath. He turned. A man in a new-ish levi jacket and jeans, an Indian oddly twisted and stiffened at the pelvis, as though some giant had unscrewed his torso from his legs and then replaced it sloppily, waited at his shoulder.

Kitt's eyes dropped at once. Richard imagined the warning her mother or his would have dinned into her ears: a nice girl doesn't stare at the dirty old Indian. A nice girl in spite of her seamy sheets and her apartment and her pots of flourishing hemp, Kitt chose that moment to fish out a cigarette of her own.

Richard struck a match, careful to hold it for Kitt before turning to the dark eroded face bent over his shoulder. The moment lengthened before the cigarette in the shaky dark hand caught the flame, and all the time Richard smelled whiskey and something more, like an ancient whiff of fear from the dark rainy places beyond the streetlights, empty side streets he'd never been down.

"I'm a Crow Indian from Montana. Crow Indian."

"Is that right?" said Richard, finally looking directly at the old Indian. To his actor's ear it had sounded rehearsed, perhaps a pitch for tourists. The old man was very dark. He could have been any age; his eyes were old as the hills but his hair was still black under his black cowboy hat. His nose had been broken. But it was the eyes that held Richard, flat dark discs as knowing as an old animal's.

"You wouldn't know me, would you? My name's Pretty Wolf."

Richard had to strain to understand him, but Laura, who had been woolgathering, came back into focus from far away.

"Pretty Wolf?" she said. "You're not Tom Pretty Wolf'?"

His hand was extended. "You know me? I've met you someplace, ma'am?"

Laura took his hand, and he dropped into the empty chair as if invited. He and Laura sat holding hands across the plastic-topped table. Kitt's eyes were glazed with disapproval.

"No," said Laura softly. "I've never met you before tonight, Tom, but I've watched you play basketball many times."

"Basketball," he said, and nodded. But his eyes were baffled; she had ended his pitch. "Can't seem to place where I might have met you, ma'am."

"I've never met you," Laura said again. "But I was in the stands that night in Billings when you scored 56 points. Against a school four times as big as yours. It was in 1957 and you were a high school senior, and you set a state high school scoring record that's never been broken."

Her words were like a litany that Richard understood was meant for him as well as for Pretty Wolf. Then he looked at Pretty Wolf and saw that Laura's words were having a profound effect upon him. His eyes never left her face, and the long blackened fingers held her thin brown hand.

"I was good, wasn't I?" he said.

"You were the best," said Laura.

"I went to England after that," whispered Pretty Wolf, and Richard strained to catch the sinking words. "I toured England with the Harlem Globetrotters. Did you know that?"

"Yes, " said Laura. "I heard about that."

"The Globetrotters! Really?" exclaimed Kitt, jarred back to attention. Her blue eyes were round. Pretty Wolf glanced at her, but his eyes roved back to Laura, who remembered him.

But Kitt leaned forward in her chair. "You really played with the Globetrotters? You learned to do all those trick shots with a basketball--trick dribbling and so on, with resin on your hands?"

Pretty Wolf smiled at Kitt, tolerant. "No trick. You don't need resin, just a way of ball handling." His hand palmed an imaginary basketball, and for a fraction of a second there was magic in the motion of his wrist and fingers. Entranced, Richard tried to see the boy in the battered frame. And the blaze of a basketball court under full lights, a kaleidoscope of cheerleaders and trombones, the hot jammed audience waiting for the boy.

He had turned back to Laura. "Leg's been broken in two places. And my back--was on my way to Kalispell a few years ago--they were holding a youth camp there, wanted me to talk to the boys. Encouragement. Basketball clinic. Had a wet highway like tonight, and that car turned clear over. My back's been stiff ever since."

"That's awful," said Kitt.

"Have a lot of friends, folks I met over the years. Somebody always stands a man a drink-" his voice dwindled, then strengthened. "My old lady, she works at the hospital. Let me off here on her way to work tonight. She talks about a doctor there, might get him to take a look at my back--"

"And was that why you stopped playing basketball?" said Kitt.

"No. That was a long time back." Pretty Wolf smiled, humoring her; but his eyes searched for Laura again, bare and deep as an animal's coming to drink at a river.

A waitress padded up, flicking a practiced eye over the four of them. She set a bowl of chicken noodle soup down in front of Pretty Wolf.

"There you go, Tom." She padded off, tired, her feet swollen almost out of her machine-beaded moccasins.

Pretty Wolf watched steam rise from the bowl, then lifted it in both hands and drank it down without stopping. Richard dared not look at Kitt. He wanted to ask Pretty Wolf what it had been like, alone on the shining gymnasium boards and shielded from 10,000 eyes by a blast of light. He'd heard it was like being on stage, that the basketball players weren't aware of the eyes, only of the great collective energy on which to draw. How could Pretty Wolf have abandoned those boards?

"Weren't you afraid?" he said without thinking, and Pretty Wolf, setting down the empty bowl, looked at him curiously.

"He means stage-fright," said Kitt.

Pretty Wolf looked blank, and Richard knew he could never explain what he meant. He looked at the dark old face across the table from him, gouged and blackened from a hundred blows, looking back at him like his own reflection.

"Can't seem to remember where I met you before," Pretty Wolf said again to Laura. Laura shook her head, but she said nothing.

"I was good."

"Yes," she said. "You were very good." You could be good, but you're afraid to be, she had once shouted to Richard.

And now she stood up, disentangling her hand from Pretty Wolf's. Kitt, too, was collecting her cigarettes, her copy of the Missoulian with its review of the play, her lumpy tapestry bag.

"You wouldn't buy me a hot sandwich before you leave?" said Pretty Wolf.

"Of course," said Laura.

"I'll buy it," said Richard. He still had half of his allowance left, but Laura wrenched away and fled as if she could not get quickly enough through the heavy plate glass doors and into the rain that was still falling, not so heavily now.

"What do you want?"

"Hamburger?"

"Sure."

Laura was waiting in the shelter of the overhang, gloomily watching the filthy river of rain in the gutter, when Kitt and Richard came out of the restaurant.

"Sooner or later it'll rain hard enough to wash this damned town clear off the map," she muttered.

"Really sickening, wasn't it?" said Kitt. "To see what society does to those people. Poor old guy."

"He's not old," said Laura angrily. "He's the same age I am."

"You were wonderful!" cried Kitt. "I couldn't have done it! But I felt so sorry for him. He reminded me of a boy I knew in high school."

"He was so handsome. You can't believe how handsome. When I was 17 I fantasized about him--" Laura broke and stared at Kitt. "Have you ever thought of getting yourself really well screwed?"

"What?" said Kitt involuntarily. Then she recovered. "Listen, I don't have to take anything off you!"

But Laura had not stayed to listen.

Richard ran after her, splashing awkwardly through the gutter.

"You're not driving back tonight?"

Laura wrenched away as if he had tried t touch her. "He was lovely!" she wept, and Richard knew she was crying for herself. He stood and watched her go.

If he walked back to the restaurant he would have to talk to Kitt, so he headed down the interstate instead. The gutter followed him and the last of the rain seeped through his hair and trickled down his scalp. It was almost daylight.

Pretty Wolf's battered face traveled with him like an undeveloped negative of his own; Pretty Wolf, who had been torn nearly in half by a crazy hand and mended crazily.

Richard thought he could never have endured it himself. After he had walked several miles it occurred to him that for all his safeguards he had undergone it long ago.

He had branched off the interstate highway and come nearly to the mouth of the Bitterroot. Laura followed him trotting silently with his vitals in her teeth. The last traffic light bathed his face with clown patches of red and green while the rain turned to mist. The storm was clearing in the east.

 

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