Holly M. Wendt
Near everything Naomi says that first shift they work together starts Did you know—, the words like a drill. Did Del know about Hemingway on a bender, sitting just there? John Wayne drinking here, too? About the ghosts, the translucent shape of a woman hovering on the stair?
Del sighs and says, “Yes, I know.” She knows about all the ghosts in this Wyoming bar, but the ghost in her mind is Kate, solid as granite, still living the life that used to be theirs in a desert city a thousand miles away. “I’m from here.” It was never her intention to come back, but Kate said go and Del couldn’t think of anywhere else. The paper draft list slides into its plastic holder. When Del and Kate left, no bars in town brewed their own. Now, even this place has three house taps.
She knows Naomi is listening every time an old classmate, neighbor, acquaintance says, You haven’t changed a bit, even though it’s been seventeen years.
Del forces the smile each time and says, “Yeah,” like it isn’t the worst thing, like it isn’t the reason Del’s back in Wyoming. When someone says Katie—they all call her Katie still, and not Kate, firm and clipped and tapping the tongue behind the teeth—and says, You all still talk? You ever see her? Used to be thick as thieves, Del says, “No.” She does not yet dare think she could.
When the bar empties out again, Del takes a shaky breath, pretends like a keg needs changing. Naomi is polite enough to let her go.
“Can I tell you something?” Naomi says, one day later in the summer, and she doesn’t actually speak, but she lets Del watch her look at a woman, plains-pretty, red hair falling down her back. They went to school together, but everything past Hi, Hello, A lager, Thanks is unsaid.
She pats Naomi’s arm when she makes a fist in the hanging tail of Del’s flannel. Del has seen the other woman glance back.
Naomi says, “Someday—” but turns to pull another shitty IPA for the guy down the bar. Both Naomi and the other woman put up and let down their hair compulsively. They wear their hair long now, these girls.
Del and Kate cut off their hair together, in Kate’s parents’ basement, gathered up the long tails like trophies. When Kate’s parents yelled at them, Del swore they did it so they could donate the hair. Del lied. It wasn’t the last time. The last time, Kate said, was last Christmas, when Del called Kate her roommate in an airport, talking to someone they’d never see again, like they weren’t wearing rings. A reflex, Kate. I’m sorry. It’s not even legal yet.
“Will you even give it a chance to be?” Kate said it right there by the gate.
The ring’s been off Del’s finger long enough now that there’s no sign it was ever there. The ring weighed five grams. The emptiness, the weight of the echoes, is more.
Sometime still later in the summer, then, Del tells Naomi something.
Del says, “Did you know Nabokov was a lepidopterist?” That’s what Kate said to Del once, back when Kate was Katie and they were a year past graduation and still in this town. Years ago, Nabokov was writing Lolita, and he and his wife were driving across the American West, looking for butterflies, looking for them in Casper. It couldn’t have been easy for him, a Russian during the Cold War, way out here, no way to hide an accent, a manner. Del chewed her blunt-nailed fingertips. Del worried, sometimes, about the way their short hair left bare the backs of their necks.
Kate invited her to camp on the mountain, to look for butterflies. While they stretched the tent’s heavy canvas across the frame, Kate said, “He shouldn’t have had to hide anything,” though neither of them knew if the writer ever tried, if he and his wife ever pretended to be anything but who they were. She was talking about the novelist until she was touching Del’s wrist and the subject changed. They had a net that never left the car. They never left the tent.
First, the light fell. It took so long to pound the pegs into Casper Mountain’s rocky dirt; there was no mountain, no trees, no waiting meadow. Or no meadow more than Kate: Kate’s mouth moving above the flashlight beam as she read to Del about Nabokov and his butterflies, some dusky little fritillary he pursued, and Del watched the soft dart of Kate’s tongue. Del set the flashlight aside, still beaming, and took the book from Kate’s hands and put her own shoulders in them. Under her palm, Kate’s nape as firm and smooth as aspen. Their breath in the tent turned ether, dizzying, their fingers all silver where they pinned each other out, spread.
In the morning, one small creature clung to the car’s antenna, brown-flecked wings, clever camouflage and false eyes. Little enough, plain enough, that it might be mistaken for nothing at all. Some butterflies mimicked their poisonous cousins, or flowers that were not prey, because it was safer than being anything else. Some were simply bright, alive, themselves, but not the kind perched there. At her approach, it flickered down, disappeared completely.
Come back, Del remembers thinking at a clump of bitterbrush.
A napkin flutters on the bar, a moth that disappears into Del’s fist. On Naomi’s hands, and the red-haired girl’s, splashes of color on the tips. Sometimes they make a point to show each other, laugh, name shades.
The next time Naomi says, “Someday—” Del says, “No, Naomi, now.”
Holly M. Wendt is Associate Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing at Lebanon Valley College. Holly is a recipient of a Robert and Charlotte Baron Fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society and a fellowship from the Jentel Foundation. Their writing has appeared in Four Way Review, Shenandoah, Memorious, The Rumpus, Bodies Built for Game: The Prairie Schooner Anthology of Contemporary Sports Writing, and elsewhere. Learn more at hollymwendt.com or @hmwendt.