6/11 Idaho Magazine Features - "The Demons of Boulder Lake" (non-fiction)

Daniel Claar - Idaho's Premier Backcountry Writer

Winner - Idaho Magazine Publisher's Choice Award 2010
"The Proper Filter"

Winner - Idaho Magazine Judge's Choice Award 2011
"Where the River Leads"

"Hot Spring Break "

"Stampede! "

"Seeing Things"
Winner - Idaho Magazine Second Place 2011

Friday, January 22, 2010

Never Too Late

     “Cougar,” Allen whispers. “Two o’clock.”

     Stanley has his back to the new bartender but already knows which woman the young man is talking about. Every Thursday afternoon, for almost three years, she had stopped by for a few drinks. As always, he had noticed her walk in from the sunlit stairwell and across his dark and smoky basement bar. Stanley lets out a barely audible sigh, looks over his shoulder and says, “Beth is out of your league.”

     Allen reacts with one raised eyebrow. “Beth, huh? Care to make it interesting? The older gals be lovin’ some hockey star action.”

     Stanley doesn’t respond right away. The kid is good looking in the All-American sense, tall, broad-shouldered, a head-full of thick blond hair, and possessing the confident body language of a man still in his prime. He may have only bounced around between minor league teams, but Stanley has little doubt Allen experienced his share of luck with the ladies.

     “Former hockey star,” says Stanley, “and I’m not gonna take your money.” He pours a stiff Jack Daniels and Coke and sets it on the bar. “Here, take this to her… work your magic if you have to.”

     Allen picks up the drink and runs a hand through his curly hair. “Don’t mind if I do.”

     Stanley watches the young man saunter across the room to a small table in the bar’s most shadowed corner. Allen is right, Beth is physically stunning. Stanley had always thought so; a natural raven-haired beauty nearly six feet tall, lithe as a dancer with creamy skin untouched by make-up. Nobody would guess she was pushing the half-century mark save for the laugh lines burrowing around her mouth. Ironic, Stanley thought, it wasn’t until she had stopped laughing altogether that he even noticed them.

     Despite her elegant features, Beth is dressed in simple blue jeans and violet t-shirt revealing sculpted biceps and the jagged points of several tribal tattoos. He remembers seeing those tattoos for the first time over a dozen years ago when it seemed she always wore a snug black tank-top. She would pump quarters into the juke box for hours, buy drinks for complete strangers, dance with unimaginable sensuality, and her howling laughter filled the room. Stanley missed her laugh most and the intoxicating affect it always had on his patrons.

     In those days, there was no such thing as a bad night when she and Travis were drinking at the Boar’s Head. During his own brief marriage to Beth’s closest friend, they had teamed up with the intrepid couple for several backpacking trips. Listening to Beth and Travis tell stories, and watching them operate in the wilderness, was like going back in time to live amongst the local Kootenai tribe, or so he always imagined. The four of them became good friends over time and those expeditions were the fondest memories of Stanley’s life.

     Stanley watches as Allen places the drink on her table and leans in a bit closer to say something. He finds himself wishing the young man will succeed where others always failed. Stealing glances at the two of them while wiping water drops from a clean pint glass, Stanley feels something tugging at his subconscious, a sudden, desperate need to see her smile; something he hadn’t witnessed in over three years. He knew Beth blamed herself for what happened because the Salmon River float had been her idea. Stanley remembers her child-like excitement when describing the walls of whitewater her and Travis were about to run.

     Despite his wishes, Beth’s reaction to Allen is no different than it is with everyone. She stares off into space, barely nodding as he speaks as if Allen is no more substantial than a whispering ghost. Despite her dream-like state, she swallows half the Jack and Coke in one gulp and smacks the glass down on the table hard enough to spill a few drops of the dark liquid.

     Allen walks back to the bar with a look on his face somewhere between amusement and concern. “Okaaaay,” he says. “That was interesting.”

     “Told ya’,’ Stanley says while pouring a draft Budweiser for a portly, red-cheeked customer in a hunting vest. The customer takes his drink, tosses three one-dollar bills on the counter and sits back down at a table with two other similarly dressed men.

     Allen smiles, warming back up after his initial strike-out, “It’s nothing my friend, Jack, can’t take care of here in a bit.”

     Stanley shakes his head. “She can put down an entire bottle and you still won’t have a chance.”

     As usual, seeing Beth brings back demons of his own. Their situations were different, but Stanley liked to believe he understood at least some of what she had been through. In that sense, he felt protective of her. One night, Stanley had nearly caved in a customer’s skull with the Louisville Slugger he kept behind the bar.

     An obscenely drunk patron had been hovering over her table, broadcasting his load, obnoxious pick-up lines for the whole bar to hear. Stanley was walking up behind the guy, with the club in hand, when he saw her pull a large folding knife out of her pocket. Without looking at her harasser, she began to clean her fingernails with the long blade. The man walked away in mid sentence, his face draining white. The casual hostility radiating from her presence had convinced both Stanley and the drunk somebody was about to get killed.

     “Look man, I’m no quitter,” Allen says smiling once again. “Besides, what’s the worst that can happen? I go to bed alone tonight?”

     Stanley turns away from Allen, wincing involuntarily as a memory of his ex-wife bubbles to the surface. Her warm body beneath the covers and the most comfortable sleep he ever had lost in an instant; a slammed door never to be re-opened. “Is there anything worse than going to bed alone?”

     Allen laughs in his easy-going manner. “I can think of a lot of things. Ever been knocked out with one punch and lose three teeth?” Stanley doesn’t respond knowing Allen wouldn’t understand, but he would gladly take that punch and a thousand more if he could change one night of his own past. Instead, he pours another Jack and Coke.

     “Here, she’s done with the first,” Stanley says. “Take her another, champ. Keep it civil.”

     Allen winks at Stanley, grabs the drink and walks back to the Beth’s table. Again, he sets the drink down and begins talking. Stanley can’t hear the words, but he sees the young man’s easy smile and relaxed confidence. Once more, Stanley finds himself hoping Beth will offer something more than her usual terse replies. The result is the same, except this time, when he returns to the bar, Allen is clearly irritated.

     “Damn, is that bitch stuck-up or what?”

     Before he knows what he is doing, Stanley is in Allen’s face, staring venomously into the taller man’s eyes. Tapping Allen’s chest with one index finger, Stanley hisses, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t know her at all. When have you ever experienced real love… real loss?”

     Out of the corner of his eye, Stanley catches a glimpse of himself in the antique mirror behind the bar. He looks old, tired, and almost comical jabbing his finger into the chest of the much bigger man. His brain flashes a familiar warning image of hockey players pulling opponent’s jerseys half-way over their heads and beating them mercilessly. Instead, Allen raises his hands in a calming gesture. “Whoa, dude. Sorry. I wasn’t trying to piss you off or anything. Look, I need this job, alright.”

     Stanley wishes he could shut his mouth but instead his voice gets louder. “Yeah, you need this job. Everybody needs something, right?”

     Stanley knows Allen doesn’t deserve his anger, but waves of pent up emotion and guilt are suddenly tearing holes through his facade and he can’t stop the flood. For years, he had wanted to tell Beth how sorry he was, but the timing always seemed so wrong. Besides, there was no reason for Beth to forgive him, let alone accept his useless apologies. Nothing he said could bring anyone back.

     “They did more for me and my bar than I ever could have. And you know what, she didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t her fault!” Stanley catches his breath with one quick intake and continues ranting. “I had a choice once. Hell, I had everything and threw it away in one stupid, selfish moment, but she never did. She didn’t deserve that for one second! Travis didn’t deserve it either”

     Stanley is acutely aware the handful of afternoon customers are focused on their exchange and part of him wishes he could drop through the floor, out of sight forever. Beth, after hearing her husband’s name, is looking at Stanley as if she recognizes him for the first time in years. Stanley continues his tirade, wishing more than anything he could stop.

     “How would you like to watch your husband drown knowing you couldn’t do a damn thing? Goddammit!” Stanley smacks his hand down on the bar hard enough to leave his palm stinging. “Never mind… forget it. In my bar, you show some respect, understand?”

     Allen shrinks slightly beneath the verbal onslaught, while in the corner, over the young man’s shoulder, Stanley watches Beth finish her drink and place a ten dollar bill on the table. She walks to the exit, places a hand on the door and then pauses. She looks back at Stanley for just a moment. The last thing he sees before Beth disappears into the sunlight is a brief, clear flash of her crystalline blue eyes and the tiniest of grins threatening the corners of her mouth.

     Allen places his big hands on Stanley’s shoulder and stares into his intense gaze with an equally forceful look of compassion, “Look, I am really sorry, ok? I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t know, but I’m sorry.”

     Stanley cuts the young man off in mid-sentence, feeling suddenly mortified by the silence in the room and the customer’s eyes upon them. He steps away from Allen’s grasp and begins walking towards the storage room where nobody will be able to see him. He feels the water welling in his eyes. “No, I’m the one who’s sorry,” Stanley whispers. “I needed to say that a long time ago.”

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