“Ice Tea,” below, is my shortest published story, first appearing in Colorado Review Vol. XXX, No. 1, Spring 2003, and reprinted in The Story Behind The Story (Editors Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett, Norton, 2004).
In the seconds before his tires hit the black ice, Bob Weiss apprehended that the reservation experiment had gone bust, a false start-after the school year ended, he would leave. Nearly unconscious with drink, he didn’t slow down. The undersized pickup left the road without hesitation. It was January, the edge of Crow Indian country in southern Montana. The pickup snapped off a swath of bare branches before overturning beside a frozen pond.
A scant half hour later two of Bob’s students, juniors at Arrow Creek High, spotted the headlights staring walleyed into the trees. They stopped their rusted Impala, dragged the cold, inert form from the wreck, hightailed it into the rez town of Arrow Creek, and dumped it on the living room couch of another teacher. Bob was O.K. He slept the weekend.
Bob’s students immediately dropped the ‘W’ from his name, in honor of his driving exploit. Then, from ‘Bob Ice,’ the rapper boys with the backwards Bulls caps dubbed him ‘Ice-T,’ from a used CD they’d picked up in the swap shop in Billings. Some of the girls preferred ‘Encino Man,’ after the revived frozen Stone-Ager, star of a video they rented from the Arrow Creek Lunch and Trading Post.
Bob looked the part of a Montana mountain man, tall, angular, and bearded, though balding. But he was from Ohio. He walked stooped and was given to rudely sudden intimacies. For instance, the first Monday after the accident he told his class, “They said I was passed out, but I was awake the whole time, looking through that hole in the windshield at the cold stars. I knew I was freezing. You’d expect to see stuff like the face of Jesus, but I was with this French whore. I’ve never been to France, you understand, this is in my head. She’s saying in her accent, ‘Ro-bear, tonight we make baby. I take my basal temperature, my body is ripe.’ And we’re going at it, and she’s talking about the baby, his curly hair and big chin. It’s all an act, a whore’s thing, but extra creative, and personal. For me.”
The kids had the impression of peering into the Visible Man. They didn’t necessarily like what they saw, but they liked him for being weird enough to show it to them.
Bob taught vocational agriculture, his second year after fifteen with USDA. Enrollment for his specialty was near zero, so he’d diversified into woodworking and auto shop, both popular. Crows didn’t want to farm, he’d concluded.
The following weeks he replaced the truck and drank even more incautiously, keeling over onto the floor of his triplex with a thud that alerted his neighbors. In class he’d be still drunk. It was said he drank with the kids. Indisputably, he bought Mortal Kombat and allowed them to play at his home all hours, so the next day they’d be as hollow-eyed as he. The principal warned him, but in mid-year, for the rez, it was tough finding teachers without criminal records or certifiable mental disabilities.
Bob couldn’t think past the end of the semester, to what he’d do next. USDA had fired him for prolonged drunkenness following the breakup of his second marriage. While earning his teaching certificate he’d worked a series of jobs. Most memorably, he’d cooked for Ramada Inn until a buffet luncheon when he’d composed a salad of whole, unpeeled oranges garnished with unshelled boiled eggs. Diners examined it in wonder but without sampling. Then he’d stacked apple cores like Lincoln logs around a pate.
Bob met Carolita Salgado at a Billings bar. He bought into the idea that being Mexican made her hot. She wore men’s Levi’s with the button fly, the bulge of her tummy parting the denim flaps like labia. Yet she volunteered that she was a Seventh Day Adventist, that the liquid in her highball glass was straight ginger ale, and that the bar’s dense smokiness inflamed her eyes.
Bob took her to an all-night coffee shop. Summers in a rustic cottage on Lake Erie, when he was a boy, had given him a sense of home, and that made him a lucky man, Bob said. He had no children. Carolita’s two belonged to that “old life,” she said, jerking her head as if at something over her shoulder.
That night she wouldn’t let him touch her, but over the next few weeks Bob forced himself into athletic sexual feats for which she complimented him. She quit her job with the phone company and moved onto the rez. Next to his flyweight Isuzu, her white ’71 Chevy pickup looked more at home, huge, slightly crushed in, like a lunging animal.Carolita volunteered in the classroom as a general go-fer, circulating in the barn-like shop amid the table saw’s whine and the sharp reports of the impact wrench. She said she was thirty-eight, nine years younger than Bob, but with her hair dyed jet black she could have been in her late twenties. She also dyed a blonde-and-brown streak down the middle, which some girls imitated. To the boys, she was a chunk of raw sex set down to thaw in the big cat cage. They circled, biding their time, practically rubbing their heads against her. Her demeanor was proper, brittle, scarcely smiling. Yet Bob couldn’t control his voice. “This is how you stay in school when you’re flunking everything else?” he yelled at Alex Old Bull, who wore a T-shirt with rain on the front and lightning in back. Alex had leaned behind Carolita’s neck and whispered in her ear.
“Just jivin’, Ice. Sorry.” The boys nodded and went back to work. Unafraid, they had no heart for shaming him.
In fact, with Bob, Carolita was more often romantic than sexual, as if they were still courting. She didn’t approve of their sex without marriage. If he didn’t drink so much, she said, he could afford to take her on a helicopter ride. “You put away that habit of poisoning your body, and your mind goes more places. Being up there…” she said. Her eyes closed, mouth tightened into a line, forehead clenched. She didn’t nag, but that yearning was a hollow place, scary if left unfilled. Besides, Bob liked the transaction, a high for a high. After a month on the wagon, he drove her to a helicopter pad in Billings, April 2.
The weather and view were magnificent, but it wasn’t much of a social afternoon. As they flew over the vibrantly sallow skin of the earth, furred by woods, cracked with gullies, the uplift of mountains patched with snow and shadow, Carolita prayed and cried. She wasn’t frightened, but rather something private she tried to convey with her wet face turned up to him.
They become engaged.
Bob heard of a paleontologist who would take kids fossil hunting, so he organized a field trip at the beginning of May. Hell, he thought, you invent your own job in this place. Maybe some kids would grow up to be paleontologists. The high school, junior high, and elementary combined for the event, two busloads rattling and swerving twenty-five miles on a narrow gravel road into the badlands. Finbacks knifed into the sky, cliffs dropped off sheer. Dry coulees spilled boulders onto a suddenly red outcrop of sandstone. Several acres appeared to have been blasted by a giant blowtorch, ash heaps littered with sugary crystals and rocks forged into nearly recognizable shapes, a melted camera, a horseshoe. The kids were wondrously excited, yelling to each other as they scooped up ancient sea life and even dinosaur gizzard stones. Atop a ridge, a teenager gave a great cry and whirled a flat stone, like a discus, into space-not approved procedure, but funny enough.
Carolita had made lunches for all. Across the primeval landscape kids were eating her sandwiches. Bob felt staunch with a sense of possibility. Adhering to the paleontologist’s lecture on the way over, he helped the youngsters discover fossils. A ten-year-old, disconsolate that he’d found no gizzard stones, collected three of the strange rounded pebbles, so ordinary but for the glassy, luminescent polish. He knew Bob. “This was really in a dinosaur’s guts, Ice-T? Ho,” he breathed. Bob said he used to imagine what kind of dinosaur that people would be. His grandmother was fat with a little head, so he called her brontosaurus. “You’re Ice-T-Rex, man,” the boy said. He tagged after Bob the rest of the trip. Bob was tempted to hold his hand. Walking back to the bus, he said to Carolita, “I could live with these kids.”
But already Carolita was slipping. Twice Bob had come home to find her rocking out to devil-worship heavy metal, and when he asked if those were Seventh Day Adventist hymns she poked him in the belly and armpit, flirtatiously, but it hurt.
The week after the field trip she started taking off in the big white pickup. He said what the hell and she jabbered as if she were on something, about a movie with a talking butt, about people with really big gobs of fat that moved independently of the rest of them.
Then she was gone two days and nights. Bob cruised the parking lot of every Billings bar, drove up and down residential streets scanning driveways and open garages. Late Sunday afternoon she pranced in, purse balanced on her wrist and eyes staring out of her head. “I left some stuff here,” she said and disappeared into the bedroom. Bob ran out and deflated one of the Chevy tires. When he stood up, she was pointing a pistol. Bang! The Isuzu’s left front tire popped. Bang! The left rear. The gun swung to Bob’s head, and he dove just before it fired again. From under the Chevy bed he saw high heels heading fore and he crawled aft. He heard another shot and shattering glass.
The BIA cop from across the street called her off, cuffed her, and took her in. After her arrest Bob set fire to the vacant lot behind the triplex. The flames leaped as high as the windows before kids smothered them with blankets and hoses.
“I was burning her picture,” Bob explained to the principal. “The grass caught, and I said, ‘Oh, what the hell.'” The principal said his contract would not be renewed, but Bob could say he’d resigned.
As part of his severance, Bob negotiated an extension that included building maintenance over the summer. For Fourth of July he drove a group of kids thirty miles up a twisty dirt road into the mountains, to an ice cave.
They stepped into the mouth, sliding immediately on the slick gelid floor. Lumps of ice reared like ghosts.
“Hohhhhh,” exclaimed Leonard (Poochie) Runs Behind.
“Where Encino Man rises,” said his girlfriend.
Despite the warning signs, Bob let them duck under the railing and explore the recesses hidden in darkness. Their voices fluttered past his head like bats. They seemed to be going far away from him.
Afterward, the kids still were stirred up, gathering wood for the fire back at the picnic grounds or huddled in an only slightly menacing knot around the boom box. Butterflies skipped through the pines. Bob poked sticks into the fire. The pot for corn was balanced at a rakish angle on two stones.
“Why are you quitting, Ice-T?” asked Poochie. Poochie had been famous for imitating two women arguing shrilly at Crow Fair, the performance including background powwow singing, until his voice had changed. He’d been suspended five weeks for bringing a .38 to school, then rallied and finished the year. But the guy who snitched, Poochie would kick his ass. Kick his ass, Poochie thought. He’d imagined ways of killing him. No one had found where Poochie had hidden the gun.
“How’d you like to be written up all the time?” Bob answered the question.
“That’d be about right,” Poochie said.
“I spent more time with the principal than you did. No, I gave this job two years and it’s not working out. A man reaches a point in life when he’s got to make a change.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” Bob said.
But Poochie was no longer listening. ‘A man reaches a point in life when he’s got to make a change.’ The words rang his head like a rock hitting him. Damn, he thought, he was going to shoot a guy? And then jail, and his dad was a low weak bastard but did his mom need her heart broken right now? Poochie looked down the slopes at the lodgepole trunks half lit, half in shade, and the white clouds springing up over the treetops, and the blue going on forever, and he broke a sweat. His chest felt caved in. Dump the gun, dump the sucker fast, he thought. Sink it in the creek, easy, done. Already his breath opened wider. Damn, damn. A message could come from anywhere, and this one had come from Ice-T, an old guy who had lived through a lot and was still in there kicking. Poochie was in awe of the man, he looked at him with such love that he could not speak.
Everyone was stuffed with hot dogs. After all his hassle boiling the corn, Bob Weiss thought, nobody wanted to eat it.