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One of the Beautiful Girls
Memories of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
There was something strange about this town, he said.
I didn’t know his name. He was leaning back against the counter, waiting for the restaurant to open for the night. “Every girl in this town is beautiful,” he went on. “It’s crazy. Every single girl I saw today. They’re selling food. Handing out flyers on the sidewalk. Out there by the road, washing bikes in their bikinis.”
He looked over at me. I was counting out cash, checking that the till was ready before we opened.
“Now look at you,” he said. “Another one.” He shook his head. “Don’t you think that’s strange?”
I closed the drawer on the cash register. “What time did you start drinking this morning?” I asked him.
He grinned. A good point.
“So are you guys open yet?” He asked.
I looked up at the big clock on the wall. It was four o’clock, the hottest hour of the day. I was standing under a massive fan. The blades, like a helicopter overhead, were fighting a losing battle against the hundred degree air blowing in from the patio.
I glanced over my shoulder at the fry cook in the kitchen. He was starting up the fryers for the night. I knew the other waitress was catching a last cigarette out back before her shift started. If it was 4 pm then, yes, we were open. It was the third day of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and I was beginning another 8-hour shift, serving food in one of the biggest campgrounds in town.
Later in the evening, the line would stretch between the plastic tables, across the floor to the barn doors of the large steel building. (It actually was a barn at other times of the year.) But there was always a quiet hour at the beginning. Always a first customer who sidled up and chatted with the waitresses. Tonight’s first customer grinned at me again.
I grabbed the pen and pad of paper from the counter. “What can I get you?” I asked.
He almost said something—I could guess what he was thinking. Then he thought better of it.
“Burger, I guess,” he said, still smiling. “Fries.” He paused. “Miller Lite?”
I nodded, writing it down.
He handed me some cash and took his change.
“You’re from here?” He asked.
I nodded. “Yep.”
He shook his head. “Amazing.” He went to find himself a seat in the shade where he could ponder this strange town in western South Dakota full of beautiful girls.
I was raised to hate the Rally. The way the bikers rode into Sturgis each summer like a colonizing army, filling the town with the stink of exhaust and the constant seismic rumble of a half million engines. It always felt like the town belonged to them more than it belonged to the people who lived here. Sometime, a long time before I was born, some town leaders with power, some businessmen looking to make money, had offered it up to them, the whole town and all the people in it. None of the rest of us had any choice.
At the height of the yearly events, bikers clogged the highways all day and all night, three or four abreast in each lane, weaving and waving beer cans around. All the main arteries through town were lined with tents selling t-shirts and tattoos and bike decals. The bars—and there were so many bars—opened their rooftop decks and unlocked extra buildings and patios that went unused the rest of the year. For those ten days, and the few days on either end of the festivities, every square inch was filled with sweating, leather-clad bodies. The assault of rock music blared through the streets until 2am.
When I was growing up, we tried to pretend it had nothing to do with us. My parents had jobs in Rapid City. They had no interest in fast bikes, loud music, or anything else that appealed to the Rally goers. They had moved to the Black Hills for its hiking trails and for its snowy quiet. And imprinted in the family lore was the story of my mom’s near-miss deadly accident, once, a long time ago, on the back end of a motorcycle that belonged to some guy she dated in college. She told my sister and me the story multiple times, exacting repeated promises from us to steer clear of bikes. So, when the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally arrived in August, like an anvil crashing down on the local calendar, our family tended to leave town. We went on camping trips; we visited relatives. In the rare years we couldn’t leave, my parents’ morning commute began an hour earlier. The nightly drive home from Rapid City took an hour longer. They gritted their teeth through the gridlocked traffic and the headaches and tried to live something like a normal life in the midst of complete insanity. They kept my sister and me away from town.
I was taught to be a little afraid of the bikers. The same way I was alert in the woods for coyote packs and mountain lions. The same way I was wary of big dogs walking down the street. Sure, it might be fine, but… a lot was left unspoken. On the few evenings I was granted a trip to town during the Rally, my parents communicated silently with each other over my head as they sent me back to my bedroom again to change my outfits. Nothing black, nothing tight, nothing that made me look older. They kept right next to me as we visited my older sister, in the years when she was old enough to find a Rally job. She was serving lemonade in a tent on the street. They walked with me through the t-shirt stalls and the food vendors and pulled me away from all the sweating, happy, over-excited men in the crowds around us. When we had seen enough, they shut the car door behind me and we drove back into the forest with an unmistakable air of relief.
I looked out through the car windows at the bikers and I felt afraid. But fear—at least for me, and at least when I was young—was also fascination. I was disgusted by the men who pulled down their shorts and stood by the road, jiggling at the passing cars. I was repelled by the women who lifted their large, pastie-d breasts and ground their hips back against the men. The endless scream of un-muffled engines and raucous music. The occasional swastikas. The stench of alcohol rising from the hot pavement. But, even in my disgust, I was watchful. Curious. I just wanted to get my fingers into it, this slippery, over-ripe fruit of trashy decadence. At the very least, I wanted to walk through each year and observe the scene. If only I had had a camera. Everything I saw was a photo waiting to be shot. Each body, wrapped in leather, wrapped in fishnet, was begging to be looked at, the whole circus. And I always knew, as soon as I was old enough, I would be a part of it too. Some things are inevitable. I was a girl. I grew up in that town. As soon as I was over 18, I would be working a Rally job. It was what we all did.
More than one man said the same thing to me while I was waitressing at the Rally: “All the girls in this town are beautiful.” It wasn’t true. The girls in Sturgis were like girls anywhere. But we were young. And we were the only thing the visitors saw all day, so I could see why they would get confused.
During the Rally, the bikers met few locals who weren’t young girls. The ones pouring drinks in the bars. The waitresses bringing them food. The merch girls in the street hawking for liquor companies and bike dealers and TV shows. We were covered in soap at every bike wash. Handing over hot dogs at every food stand. During the Rally, every business in Sturgis was in a kind of sex trade. And all the local girls were hired for two weeks to provide the constant allure, if not the actual promise, of sex. We were the best on offer, between the ages of 18 and 35, from any town within a 100-mile radius, and we had been raised for this. Warned by our mothers, but never warned away. We had all seen our cousins and older sisters take Rally jobs before us. We planned our years around it. Girls drove in from Wyoming and bunked up in apartments together. They took vacation time from their other jobs, just to be in Sturgis for those two weeks. So, okay, you have to walk around in a tight shirt and cutoff jeans. Maybe you have to wear a bikini. You get pawed at, and insulted, and occasionally confused for a prostitute. But it’s the best paying job of your young life.
From what I’ve heard, the Rally once had something to do with bike races. Then, for a while, it had more to do with gang fights. But, by the time I was there, in the mid-aughts, all the Baby Boomer bikers had aged out of their extremes. They didn’t want chaos anymore. They just wanted to drink all day and ride around. They wanted loud concerts and loud parties and a lot of young flesh in sight, energetically sudsing up their bikes and doing shots with them at the bar. They came with their wallets open, happy to be swindled.
I took my Rally job for the same reason as every other girl. I had a plan and it required some quick money. I was nineteen that summer, hoping to move out of my parents’ house in the fall, and I needed first and last months’ rent on an apartment. I knew where I wanted to live—near campus, so I could walk to class. A safe building with the lowest rent I could find. I was willing to take the tiniest place, the cheapest place, as long as it was my own. But even the cheapest place meant paying close to a thousand dollars upfront, and I just didn’t have the money. Once the school year started, my work-study job would cover my basic expenses, with no luxuries. And I had been working all summer for minimum wage at the Eddie Bauer in the mall. But it wasn’t enough. I quit my mall job for the Rally. Everyone said you could make a thousand a week, no problem, working in one of the restaurants. It was safer than the bars, and safer than working in a tent on the street.
The owner of the restaurant, and the campground surrounding it, went to church with my family. He was probably rich. He ran a large successful ranch fifty weeks a year and had a full campground each summer. But people kept quiet about their Rally earnings in that town. He told my parents they needed waitresses at the restaurant and they were paying Rally wages. So I cut off a pair of jean shorts. I found a push-up bra that had been buried in my underwear drawer for years. I drove my car down the canyon and across the gridlocked town every day for two weeks in the raging heat in order to be another smiling young thing in the center of it all. All I had to do was be nice. All I had to do was look good and take a little abuse, act like I could give it right back.
“I heard all the girls in Sturgis are on the take.” Another man, another night in the campground restaurant.
I handed over his chicken strips. Set down some fries in front of his friend. “Only the smart ones,” I replied. “You guys need anything else?”
“Are you one of the smart ones?”
“Dumb as a rock. Why? You’re looking for a girl on the take?”
“Try the Buffalo Chip,” I told him. “It’s up the road.”
I went back into the kitchen and laughed about it with the other waitress. “Speaking of which,” she said, “if you give that guy a hug,” she pointed into the dining room at one of the louder tables, “he’ll give you a twenty.”
“A twenty? For a hug?”
She held up a sweaty twenty out of her pocket for proof. “He’ll grab your ass, of course.”
I looked over at the table and shrugged. “Still,” I said.
It was like anything else. When I was thirteen, I was too embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t tried alcohol before. I took my first shot like I found it boring. When I was seventeen, I lifted my first cigarette to my mouth a half-second behind everyone else and pretended to inhale like I’d done it a thousand times. Thrown into the deep end, I always tried to act like I’d been swimming from the start. It was a useful nervous habit, even if it only made me more nervous. When I was unsure of myself, I moved slowly and hoped I would look like I’d already lived a few other tiresome lives before this one. In the restaurant, I modeled all my movements after the older waitress. She was in her late twenties, with a high blonde ponytail and a sharp mouth, and she had been working the Rally for years. I assumed she knew how to handle herself.
She carried out a round of beers to the patio and the whole table of men stood up to greet her. “Ma’am,” said one of them in a thick Georgia drawl. “Ma’am” the others repeated. She set down the cans on the tabletop. “Gentlemen,” she responded. “Take your fucking seats.” They sat down somberly and watched her ass as she walked back to the kitchen. She set down the tray on the counter and we laughed and laughed.
The whole thing was a joke. The lawyers from Florida. The doctors from Ohio. A whole gaggle of dentists from Texas. All these men rode into town in their best leathers, sunburned and white-eyed and dehydrated from the long ride they took to get there. They were falling off the barstools from the weight of their wallets. We knew they probably had wives back home. They had kids and financial advisors and games of golf to play. But, for now, they were in the land of make-believe. Badass bikers who partied and grabbed asses and revved their engines at the lights. As long as they were handing out tips, the whole town was willing to wink and play along.
Each night at closing time, I would finally let my face down. I was tired of smiling. Tired even from laughing in the kitchen all night, always pretending I was in on the joke. I liked the restaurant best in that half-hour after midnight. The air was cool on the patio. The tables were empty. I could think while I gathered the condiments from the patio tables and swept the floors. The other waitress was usually inside the kitchen, counting out the night’s take with the manager. I could hear the traffic out on the main road. Around me were the muffled sounds of life from the thousands of campsites. It all felt far away. I listened to the bugs humming in the screened fluorescent tube lights in the canopy overhead. When everything was ready for the next day, I would fold my tips in my back pocket and drive back up the canyon. Each night, I washed the smell of grease out of my hair before I went to sleep.
Then one night, when the Rally was almost over, I fell into a situation that wasn’t about bluster. It wasn’t about bullshit at all. I still can’t tell you what it meant. Only that I still think about it, sixteen years later.
It was just before closing, and I carried out an order to a table at the far end of the patio. A couple older guys were sitting together, drinking beer in silence. One was large with a big, round head, wire-rimmed glasses, and a sweaty t-shirt stretched over his belly. He thanked me when I set down his food. The other guy was small, with a short reddish beard and a kerchief tied over a curly red ponytail. He sat staring at his hands while I put down the burger in front of him. He nodded to acknowledge it. I asked if they needed anything. No, the redhead said. They were fine, thanks. His whole demeanor was heavy. A weighty slope to his leather-vested shoulders. I watched him reach slowly with his fingerless gloves for a single fry.
I went back to the kitchen and carried out one or two more orders, but business was slowing to a trickle. Almost all the tables were empty. I looked over once or twice and saw that the sad redheaded man was watching me work. I gathered some condiments, went back to the kitchen and chatted with the other waitress for a while. When the fry cook started acting like he wanted to talk too, I circled back out to the dining area to check on my last tables. A sleepy group of lawyers in leather was finally clearing out. The only customers left were the two in the back, so I walked over to check on them. The big guy was talking intently to the redhead under his breath, and the redhead kept shaking his head. “Seriously, man. I’m fine,” he was whispering as I reached the table.
“Y’all need anything?” I asked. I had been dealing with men who were loud and drunk for eight hours. I wasn’t sure how to approach such a quiet table.
The redheaded man looked up at me suddenly. I was startled by his eyes. They were wet and searing blue. I could see them shining under the lights. The whole empty dining area was silent, even the bugs. He reached out and took my hand.
“Can I ask you something, my dear?”
Automatically, I took a half-step back. It was late and I’d been grabbed too often that week. I was sick of peeling myself off of men’s laps. “Sure you can,” I said, a little hesitantly.
“Would you come have a beer with me?”
I took another half-step. “Well, I…” I pulled back my hand.
“I know,” he said softly. “I’m sorry. I know you aren’t supposed to. But you see right there?” He pointed to a tent about ten feet from the edge of the parking lot. “That’s our spot. We’re right out in the open. I promise no one will hurt you. I just… well, it came to me just now that I really want to have a beer with you. Just one beer. If you’d be willing.”
I was silent, looking over at his tent. I had to tell him no. It was in the rules that we said “no” to all invitations into the campground. But the rules hadn’t explained that the men might be sad and apologetic when they asked, and not drunk and demanding.
“My friend here is about to leave. He’s going to go start a fire at our spot. We’ll be sitting outside when you’re done with work.” He watched my face for a moment. “I know you aren’t supposed to. It’s okay if you don’t.”
I wavered and smiled nervously. “I don’t know,” I said. Suddenly I didn’t feel like I could swim at all, not in any depth.
His craggy face wrinkled into a smile. “It’s alright,” he said. “I understand. We’ll be right there if you decide you can. Just one beer. But it’s okay if you don’t.”
As I went to clear the lawyers’ table, the big guy stood and went to their camp spot to start the fire. After a while, the redhead finished the beer he was drinking. He dropped his paper plate into the garbage can and slipped off the patio without a word. I was still prepping for the next day, but while I worked, my mind was on his question. The whole idea was dangerous. I hadn’t taken a single step into the campground the whole time I’d been working, and I knew I’d be taking a big risk to do it now. Especially after midnight, with no one at the restaurant to run back to.
But fear, like I said before, was never just fear. And there was something so desperate, so achingly tired about the redheaded man, and he’d made his proposal so gently.
I gathered up my things and pocketed my tips. In the parking lot, I turned right. I stepped into the campground and found his fire.
It was worth it just for the look of surprise on his face.
“One beer?” I said. He laughed and tossed a can into my hands. His friend was sitting there in a lawn chair and he nodded at me approvingly. The fire was low and calm, casting shadows across the face of the tent.
“You ever seen an Indian before?” the big guy asked me.
“This bike,” he gestured at the bike near the edge of the fire and then he stood and shuffled over to it. He ran a hand over the seat and down the side. “It’s an Indian. I restored it myself.”
“Oh,” I said. “It’s lovely.” I stood awkwardly and opened my beer.
“Women like it. The vibration feels good between their legs. Or so they say.” He chuckled.
“Oh.” I looked over at the red haired man, who was shaking his head.
“Jesus, man, you have got to stop saying that.” Then, to me, he said, “Sorry.” He stood and looked at me seriously for a moment. “I know I just got you here, but would you want to go for a walk?”
I weighed all my bad options for a second. I cast a quick glance at the big guy and his Indian and nodded.
As we left the site, the redhead whispered, “I’m starting to hate that guy.”
So we walked.
The campsites were marked by a string of fires. The tents all glowed with lanterns. Everywhere around us was the sound of low laughing and murmuring. We followed the path down one row and turned, and the man began to talk. He talked as though we’d begun a conversation years ago, and he was just opening his mouth to continue it.
Being in America still felt strange, he told me. He’d only been home a couple months now from Iraq, the last of his many tours. He’d been some kind of officer. He’d overseen supplies and watched as younger guys drove out each day into the desert. He’d load them up and send them out, he said. All those young boys. He saw some die. He met a few monstrous boys he wished had died. It was a terrible job, but it was his life, every day. It was what he knew. His whole career, he’d just moved from one combat zone to another.
As we walked, I noticed the softness and the blackness of the grass that edged the dirt pathways. I heard a loud guffaw from somewhere, one of the campfires. The drone of traffic out on the highway. He spoke quietly and I stayed close to hear him. He admitted he’d cried the day he got the order to come home.
“I mean, who am I? I’m just the Army. I’m nobody, apart from that.”
He’d come home to a family he didn’t remember. They belonged to a person he’d forgotten how to be. He had a kid somewhere he didn’t want to know. And a few buddies, like the charmer back at the campsite, from the old days who kept trying to cheer him up with a million activities he couldn’t stand. This trip was a case in point.
I finished my beer and creased the can in my hand as we walked. Maybe it was just his story, but it started to feel like we were walking through the camp of an immense war party, on the edge of a battle that was coming in the morning. Surrounded by the fires and the quiet voices, this felt like the last night before a terrible loss.
“I don’t know how I’m going to live,” he said finally. We were stopped at the edge of the camp, where the light met an open field. He turned to me. “I have to make some kind of decision now, but I don’t even know where to start. How can I start anything at this age? All those years, I had something that I was. Now I’m nobody, and maybe I was nobody that whole time too, and I just didn’t know it.”
I tried to think of something, anything, I could say. I had spent the entire Rally acting like a grown-up, but now I felt like such a child. All the words that came to me were too small for the bigness of his story. He turned and pulled me into his arms for a hug. “You know,” he whispered. “I haven’t said any of this to anybody.”
I felt his warm leather vest against my cheek.
As I pulled back, he took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped at his eyes. “You’re going to think I’m crazy,” he said, “but I looked at you tonight and I thought, somehow, you might be my guardian angel. That’s what I thought, sweetie.” He laughed at his own expense.
As I was studying the faded remnant of some old, amateur tattoo on his forearm, he pulled me close again and gave me a brief kiss on the mouth.
I must have looked alarmed. “Sorry,” he said. “I told you it would be safe, didn’t I?” He smiled. “Let’s get you to your car.”
The parking lot was closer than it had seemed while we were standing out on the edge of the camp. I waved goodbye to his friend as we passed their tent. Then I turned to him at the edge of the gravel lot and tried to think of anything better to say than “goodnight.” He saw me struggling for words and hugged me again.
“I’m sorry,” I said, finally, into his shoulder. I wished that I were more capable of being somebody’s guardian angel. I wished I could think of any words at all.
“I’m going to be okay,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.” He stepped back to watch me get into my car.
As I drove away, he stood at the edge of the gravel lot and waved. I could still see him in the rearview until I made the curve to town. He just stood there, backlit by a thousand burning fires.
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