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Short fiction by Justin Taylor

“Oh, you do, do you?” said the cab driver. “Well, I do, too.” He meant teach at the university. I made a neutral noise and he persisted. “The business marketing course, 400-level. I make them each launch an online business. It’s the senior capstone, real hands-on.”

December. We were speeding through the neighborhood they call The Rattlesnake, at least I thought that was where we were. I was not sure and did not ask, but he said it was faster than the highway if you knew how to go, which it seemed he did. He said he did.

At drinks I eagerly told Regine about the cab driver who was also the business marketing professor. Regine told me that she and her husband, Jerome, had had this same driver once when they first got here, that he told them the same story about teaching the capstone course. Regine said to me that when she had said to him that she was a creative writing teacher, he told her—her and Jerome—about the one creative writing class he’d taken at the university back when he was an undergraduate, how he still remembered the plot of the short story he had written for that class.

This, I thought, was a lesson in business marketing, though I could not have said what the lesson was.

Then the bartender interrupted us. “So, sorry if this is kind of complicated but we are technically a distillery which means that by Montana law there’s a two drink maximum on what I can serve you, so what we do is a star system because the way how they count drinks is by ounces, I mean ounces of alcohol, and two is the maximum for liquor at a distillery. See the regular bars and taverns don’t want to compete so they hold us down. So in our star system, a drink with two ounces of alcohol is four stars and I can only give you one. Two stars is what most of our drinks are, which is one ounce and you can have two of those. But if you want to sit and drink like folks do, what you want to look at is the one-star drinks, which are only half an ounce per drink but we double-proof the liquor when we distill it, so they’re as strong as a normal drink, only in half the volume, so you can have four. What I mean is that they’ll get you where you’re going just the same.”

This, I thought, was a lesson in business marketing, though I could not have said what the lesson was. Our colleague, the interim dean, the man who had hired us and perhaps the cab-driving business marketing professor as well, was picking banjo with some old-timers over by the fireplace, and that was the only reason we were here.

Me and Regine each ordered a two-star mule and Regine got back to her story, the story of the cab driver’s story: “It was about a guy walking in the woods and how the trees turned out to be these evil demons and they swallowed him up and he went to hell.”

“‘Those demon trees sure was something,’ he said,” she said. “‘The teacher said it was the scariest thing she’d read all semester and, real talk with you, I’m still scared about it to this day.’”

But he had sounded, Regine thought, more proud than scared. She thought that he had in fact been a bit in awe of himself.

He had told the story of his story to Regine and Jerome back in September, when we all first got here, and he had told it to me that afternoon, as we sped through what was or was not the neighborhood called The Rattlesnake. Jerome was gone by December; he was back where they lived, where Regine would go for Christmas. Me and Regine were visiting professors on one-year appointments. We were both from elsewhere and were still learning how to be here. Our two-star mules arrived in fresh cold copper cups.

The interim dean played banjo and the old-timers fiddled. A former district attorney, retired, on upright bass. They played “Sally Ann” and “East Virginia Blues.” When this was over, we were going to have dinner at some other place that Regine had read about in an article about the best places to eat in town. She had suggested the other place to me and the interim dean, who, upon hearing its name, had pursed his lips and dropped his gaze to the tile, only to break the long moment’s pregnant silence by saying that it was a good place, made the best burger in town, and that the owner was an old friend. The interim dean smiled; he had this big gray bushy goatee.

I knew what Regine had meant when she said the driver had seemed to be in awe of himself. I recalled his tone clearly and had had a similar thought.

And I had this same thought again a few weeks later, on Christmas Eve, when, after picking him up at a bus station and taking him back to my apartment so he could shower first, a young man who called himself Howie B. allowed me to perform oral sex on him several times in exchange for one hundred dollars, several pulls from a bottle of Grey Goose that I had in my freezer, and another forty dollars, to replace the bag of meth that he had bought earlier in the day, i.e., before I met him, but which he had now agreed to split with me as part of our evening plans. I don’t think it was a forty-dollar bag and I don’t think he split it very evenly, but we made do, and he also allowed me to film myself performing the oral sex on the condition that I promise not to upload it to the internet since he had several distinctive tattoos.

I agreed readily to this condition without necessarily intending to honor it, which I suspect he suspected, perhaps specifically because of how readily I’d agreed. If indeed I’d intended to honor the commitment I’d made, I would surely have put more effort into negotiating its terms. I was surprised that this occurred to him, given how unevenly we’d split the bag of meth, but in any case, the problem that eventually arose between us, and which resulted in my being curled up on my bedroom floor in a damaged twilight, was entirely unrelated. Or it seemed unrelated to me at the time, though I can see how from his point of view the two issues were connected, or even the same. The issue was that he wanted to stay the night because, he said, it was extremely cold outside and already well past midnight. I said I sympathized with this, but preferred to sleep alone, at which point he became sullen, then belligerent, and finally violent, which is how I wound up on my floor,  tonguing a bloody tooth for looseness, while he went through my closet and found a very expensive green tent that I had bought when I accepted the position at the university but which I had not yet found occasion to use.

He took the tent and its obvious complement, an orange subzero-rated synthetic goose-down mummy-style sleeping bag, and all of the money in my wallet, which wasn’t much, given what I’d already given him. He got down on his knees and leaned in close to me and kissed my lips and I turned my face up and he held my phone in front of it to unlock my phone with my face ID. He deleted my videos of myself sucking him, then he dropped my phone beside me on the carpet, and then he left.

It is February. Valentine’s Day, in fact. Jerome was going to come visit Regine but his work prevented him, so she and I are meeting for a drink, just us orphans, the visiting profs.

If indeed I’d intended to honor the commitment I’d made, I would surely have put more effort into negotiating its terms.

My tent now stands beneath the Higgins Bridge, where there are many tents like it, though none quite as nice, and I pass it daily but have never tried to claim it, either with the help of the authorities or on my own. Someone told me the Clark Fork floods at the end of spring and any tent that isn’t moved will be washed away, but I’ll be heading back east by the time that happens, maybe gone already. Who knows where Howie B. will be. But for now, I see it every day and I think about him inside it, every decision we each made that led to his being there, snug and warm in my orange mummy-bag, and I feel something like the awe that the cab driver felt about the short story he wrote for his class. How he had sat down in perfect innocence to do his homework and instead dredged this terror up out of himself, and how his awe at this was undiminished when he read and re-read the pages, when he told the story of having written them, and even as the years went by until, so many years later, he told the story of the story to Regine and her husband and, later still, to me. His awe was undiminished every time. Maybe it increased, became greater, with each telling, as his reverence for the miraculous horror shifted away from the tale to himself as its teller. He hadn’t known he’d had something like that in him and now that knowledge was something that could never be taken away, even as he wasn’t (and wouldn’t ever be) entirely sure what to do with it, other than share it with strangers while they were trapped in the back of his car. Which I guess is why I think of him, the cab driver, when I see my bright green tent flapping beneath the bridge in stiff winter wind. The tone the driver took when he talked about his evil trees was the same one that he’d taken when, in reply to a question of mine, he had said, “Well I moved here a long time ago and here I still am, so there it is.”

Regine and I sometimes say this to each other when we get together for a drink downtown. I’m meeting her tonight at the technical distillery, which we still patronize. The interim dean won’t go except for on bluegrass night and he leaves as soon as he’s done playing music, but for us it’s become a kind of inside joke to go to this place and ask to hear again the complicated instructions. To order two-star mules in fresh cold copper cups. She’ll tell me Jerome says hi and I will say hi back and then I will tell her any other story, any other story in the whole wide world, than this one that I’ve just told you.