“The Uncanny Fate of Objects” by Roxane Gay
Margo was used to it after four years of running the Second Chance Saloon which was not a saloon but an antique store. She rather liked the word saloon because it reminded her of chaps and spurs and firm cowboy asses. The world became a lesser place, Margo decided, when chaps and spurs and firm cowboy asses went out of fashion. Despite the many questions she got, the name stood. Jasper, Nebraska was a small town. Jasper was, in fact, smaller than a small town. To use the word town was to take a liberal and generous view of the place. Over the past several years, a big movie star had bought most of the ranch land for miles in every direction, forcing most of the farmers in town out of business. Only the hardest of the die hards remained, instead of moving East to Grand Island or Lincoln or, heaven forbid, Omaha. Margo shared the main street with a general store where one could buy overpriced essentials if they didn’t want to make the forty mile trip to the nearest Wal-mart, a tack shop, a newspaper publishing concern, four bars, and an abandoned movie theater which closed once the movie star bought all the land and most folks in town grew sour on movies and movie stars and most anything to do with the kinds of people who thought that everything had a price.
She sold things in her store—odd things, mostly ugly things. It was only right, Margo thought, for someone to look an ugly thing straight on, and see something worthwhile there. She had also applied this philosophy to her first marriage to William, though that union had failed long before the I Dos were exchanged and they honeymooned in Lake Havascu, Arizona, a horrible little place where scantily clad women and bare-chested men lay on the decks of party barges drinking cheap booze until their skin burned, bubbled, and peeled. On the first night of their honeymoon, Margo and William lay on a party barge, their bodies heavy with sun and bean dip and cheap vodka, William afraid to move because he burned himself so badly it hurt nearly to breathe. He shifted his head slightly so he could look at Margo and said, “We can still do it, you know.” She sighed and looked at her first husband, his skin bright and angry, his face, which had never been a handsome face, even more unfortunate. She willed herself not to look away, the words of the preacher who married them still lingering. She said, “I suppose so,” and carefully straddled his lap. The lake, at night, was a little quieter. The air was dry and still hell hot and the drunken laughter of others could still be heard. William grabbed her ass and slurred, “Be gentle.” Margo shook her head. She said, “What would be the fun in that?”
Most of Margo’s customers were the husbands of the women in town who had waited too long to buy their wives proper gifts for the major gift buying holidays. She did brisk business on many eves. The men always rushed into her store with that panicked look of men who thought the way to a woman’s heart was through anemic gestures. They often smelled of sweaty work and desperation, one of the more unattractive smells a nose could encounter, as far as Margo was concerned. She stood behind her glass display clase watching the men study cuckoo clocks, Depression glassware, rag dolls, mid-century signage, old sewing machines and the like. They never chose the right thing. The longer the men were married, the less they seemed to know about the women they lived with and claimed to love. That’s why Margo was done with marriage. She divorced William after three, long years of staring at his face day after day after night after night. It was too much knowing she was obligated to be around a man that ugly. She could have survived the ugliness if he were intelligent or charming or even kind but he was none of those things and she was not a saint or a sentimental woman. She served him with divorce papers a week before their third anniversary.
In the five years since her divorce, Margo had taken up with a plainspoken ranch hand who was handsome and had a lean body and a whole lot of anger coiled through his muscles. He was angry he didn’t have enough money for a ranch of his own. He was angry he had to work for a farmer who didn’t love the land. He was angry that Jasper was dying a slow, painful death. There was a whole lot going on in his head and Margo liked that about him. He was the kind of man who was real rough around the edges but also knew that it was okay to open up a quiet, easy part of himself with a woman. They often took baths together and Margo would lie in his tanned, muscled arms, tracing the sinews just beneath his skin as he talked about how he wanted to re-order the world. They lived together but didn’t make promises. Each morning when Margo woke up and saw Clement, that was his name, lying next to her, she smiled and said, “Glad you’re still around,” and he said, “Glad to be here.” He was the kind of man who never waited until the night before for anything important and every time a new customer ran into her shop, Margo said a silent prayer of thanks for the complicated but damn good man she lived with.
What Margo was used to is this: the day after any major holiday, she also did brisk commerce but this time, her customers were the women in town who came into the Second Hand Saloon looking world weary and fed up. The women in town set their ill-chosen gifts on Margo’s glass counter and she’d smile at them kindly and wave her arm around the store. She had a liberal exchange policy and knew a lot of good could come from letting a woman choose her own kind of ugly instead of forcing her to make peace with the ugly she was given. The one antique men loved to choose and women loved to return over and over and over was the head of John the Baptist on a tarnished silver tray. It once belonged to Rex Jenkin’s grandfather. When the elder Jenkins passed on, Rex brought all the old man’s belongings to the Saloon, and she bought them for the tidy sum of $500. Margo stuffed the head in a dark corner of the store she rarely visited. She figured if that ugly thing was meant to be owned, someone would find it. Nothing surprised her more than how often that old tray was found. It almost made her believe in ghosts or the uncanny fate of objects.
Whenever a man stood at the counter, nervously shifting his weight from foot to foot as he set John the Baptist on the glass counter, or whatever else he had found, Margo bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. There were even days when she wanted to cry when she thought about what it would be like to be bound to a man who thought a rotting skull on a tray was in any way a right thing to involve in matters of love. The men often asked her opinion on whatever curiosity they had chosen, wanted to know if it was something their wives would like. Margo never gave a straight answer. She would only say, “There’s no telling what a woman might like,” even though she knew damn well there wasn’t a woman alive who would want the soulless things these men loved to buy.
Each year, to commemorate the day they met, Clement would take her on a horseback ride along the Platte River to a quiet cabin. He’d cook her a nice meal and they’d drink bottles of wine and they’d dance to old records. He’d tell Margo she was beautiful and that she took real good care of him and when they went to bed, he’d touch her like he needed to feel every inch of her skin and taste every breath in her body to feel complete. They weren’t married but Margo knew she and Clement would never let each other go.
There were times when Margo wanted to tell the men in town about what a woman might really like—a kind word, an easy smile, soft private moments, a slow dance to Johnny Cash in bare feet on a roughhewn floor—but she also knew that if a man had to ask what his woman would like, he wouldn’t ever be able to hear the right answer.
Modest bio submitted by author: Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest.
Swag bio submitted by Specter: Dr. Gay is co-editor of PANK Magazine & fiction editor for Bluestem Magazine. Her debut short story collection, AYITI, is available by Artistically Declined Press.