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| 139 boys Joe Wilkins nonfiction When we come into town for a gallon of strawberry ice cream and a bag of Doritos, the Lazy JC is all closed up, so my brother and I jog over to the Sportsman Bar, where we know we’ll find Thad Basset, who keeps the after-hours keys. The Sportsman is one of Melstone’s last grand brick false-fronts. Forty years ago, you would have found a whole 140 | ecotone high-shouldered row of them. First, the Antlers, whose little rooms on the second floor were still littered with the silk stockings of whores, then the Wilson Hotel, Herron’s, the Grant, the Sportsman , and the U.S. Post Office—though all but the Sportsman and the post office have been torn down or boarded up, and weedy lots and busted windows line Main Street now. The Snakepit, the other bar in this town of less than two hundred, is along the highway in a cheap prefab building that also houses the only café with regular hours between Roundup and Forsyth, a hundred-mile stretch of Highway 12 that cuts right through eastern Montana’s Big Dry. The café serves the usual flash-frozen fries and preformed hamburger patties, and the Snakepit is the kind of bar where a shot means schnapps, and light beer and wine coolers fill the fridge. Not the Sportsman. Beer comes in a squat can there, and a shot means pick your whiskey. The house special, one of the few things besides peanuts you can get to eat at all, is a grease-soaked paper bag of hard-fried chicken gizzards. So it’s something to be just fifteen, still a boy, really, and be stepping up to the heavy wooden door of the Sportsman Bar. Though you can drive now into town with your brother, and though you are allowed to stay up late and eat ice cream and Doritos and watch reruns of Night Court and M*A*S*H and the half hour of music videos they show every Friday night on Channel 4, it’s still something to be pushing that very door open. The air is smoky and close. A bookshelf stuffed with paperback westerns and yellowed romances rests near the woodstove in the corner, and a battered pool table shines beneath the glare light of a bare bulb. Beer posters featuring bikinied, big-haired women draped over muscle cars hang from the walls. Country music drifts from a dusty radio on a high shelf behind the bar. Though the long antenna is flagged with tinfoil, whirrups of static snap through the jangling music. On the same shelf sits a small black-and-white television , the screen shifting and flickering without sound. Every table in the place is empty. The men—for they are all men at the Sportsman —sit on tall stools at the bar. Their cowboy hats and ball caps are pulled low, their elbows heavy on the bar lip, bellies sagging beneath. They look at us and do not look at us—a kind of slow, sideways glance. They tip their beer cans to their mouths, wipe their mustaches with the backs of their shirtsleeves. From back of the bar, fist on her good I seem to always be saying the wrong thing, not understanding that the rules here are hard and fast about what a boy can say and what he is not supposed to say. joe wilkins | 141 hip, Maureen looks us up and down. Maureen owns the Sportsman and is ancient and cantankerous and broadshouldered and big as any of the men. “Boys,” she says, in a voice that means our answer must be good, “what do you need in here?” “Is Thad around?” my brother asks. There is a beat of silence, so I attempt to clarify. “To open the store. For ice cream.” Immediately I wish I hadn’t said a thing. I seem to always be doing this: saying the wrong thing, not understanding that the rules here are hard and fast about what a boy can say and what he is not supposed to say, what a boy can do and not do...


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