Crossroads cover

Thursday, June sixteenth, nine fifty p.m. I was sitting in the Avalanche Saloon in Lakeside, drinking Jack Daniels straight up, trying to mind my own business and wishing desperately that the rest of the world would do the same.

Across the horseshoe-shaped bar, a petite woman with a strain of red hair unknown to nature smiled brightly every time I glanced in her direction. Although it was the middle of June, the NBA playoffs were still dragging on endlessly, and on the television set above the bar, the Lakers were thumping the Cleveland Cavaliers. For some reason, this frustrated the hell out of the guy sitting four stools to my right who was obviously the product of an excellent parochial school education. Every time the Lakers scored or the Cavs missed a shot, he exclaimed “Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” most often slamming his fist onto the bar for added emphasis.

I wondered why somebody on the far western edge of Montana would care so passionately about the Cleveland Cavaliers, but I wasn’t so curious that I wanted to start a conversation with the guy.

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Behind me a tall busty blonde was setting up a Karaoke machine, which apparently constituted the rest of the evening’s entertainment. Promptly at ten o’clock, she kicked off the festivities herself with a sultry rendition of “Summertime,” which — surprisingly — wasn’t half bad. She finished to a smattering of applause and called for volunteers to step up to the mike and take a turn.

I glanced around the room at the other six patrons. None of them seemed particularly excited about the prospect of taking the stage, but the redhead winked and flashed another smile as I looked her way. Just then Darrin Allan hit a three-pointer for the Lakers and the bar rocked again. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”

The blonde continued to plead her case, insisting it was time to “Party on!” Finally, a biker three stools to my left set down his beer, wandered over to the mike, and warbled a deeply emotional version of an old Kenny Rogers tune, “The Gambler,” singing the entire song all in the same note.

I drained the last of my whiskey and signaled for a refill. Randy, the bartender, walked over, put his hand across the top of my glass and pulled the glass away. “That’s enough for tonight, Dave,” he said. “It’s time for you to head on home and get some sleep.”

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“What do you mean? That’s only my second drink of the night.”

“Wrong, Counselor. That’s only the second drink you’ve had in here tonight. That doesn’t count all the ones you had up the road working your way down here.”

“C’mon man, be a pal. I’m in good shape.”

“Believe me, Dave, I am your pal. You might be in good enough shape to make it home in one piece if you leave right now. One more drink and you won’t be in any shape at all. You’re done in here for tonight.”

With what little dignity I could still muster, I scooped up my change, leaving a five-dollar tip on the bar. As I slid off the stool, a dark-haired woman with the whitest complexion I’d ever seen followed the biker to the mike. Just as I reached the door she began rocking from side to side and wailing at the top of her considerable lungs. I paused to listen for a moment and realized that she was attempting to sing “Chain of Fools.” Shaking my head in disbelief, I stepped out into the cool night air knowing that somewhere in Motown, Aretha Franklin was turning over in her grave.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

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I dug my keys out of my pocket, walked around to the parking lot on the north side of the building and settled into my car. I sat there for a moment, hoping that the fresh air would clear my head a bit, then started the engine, turned on the headlights and pulled carefully out of the parking spot.

I braked to a stop at the front of the lot and took a good long look up and down Highway 93, the north-south route that serves as Lakeside’s principal artery. Seeing no traffic coming in either direction, I eased my way out onto the highway and headed south. Focusing as intently as I could, I managed to drive the next two miles without incident at a sedate fifty miles per hour and breathed a huge sigh of relief as I left the highway and turned east onto the blacktopped road that would take me the last three miles to my home on Angel Point. From here on at this time of night, there would be little likelihood of encountering any other traffic and zero chance of meeting up with the Montana State Highway Patrol.

I followed the twisting, hilly road at about twenty-five miles per hour, rolling slowly through the forest of lodge pole and ponderosa pines that towered over me like the spires of a medieval cathedral. Ten minutes later, I hit a button to open the gate at the head of my drive and another to open the garage door. I pulled into the garage, turned off the engine and the headlights, and pushed the appropriate buttons to close the gate and the garage door behind me.

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I made my way through the garage and down the flight of stairs to the darkened house below. Turning on a light as I walked through the kitchen, I went to the bar in the living room and poured three fingers of Scotch into a heavy old-fashioned glass — my last drink of the evening. Then I crossed the living room, opened the sliding glass door, and stepped out onto the wide deck that fronted the upper level of the house.

Above me, millions of stars blazed across the clear night sky. Through the woods a hundred and fifty feet below the house, the lake lapped gently at the shore, and off in the distance, I heard the plaintive cry of a loon searching for its mate.

Ten months earlier, on a night very much like this one, my carelessness had caused the death of one of my best friends and had cost me the affection of his wife, Alice, who had once been my lover. The intervening months had, if anything, served only to intensify the guilt that had haunted my every moment in the days and nights since, and to further deepen the agonizing depression into which I had tumbled. For something like the ten thousandth time, I silently apologized to him. And to her. And then, staring off into the dark void across the lake, I tossed off a large portion of the whiskey, which would not be my last drink of the evening after all.

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