I never mentioned my big picture book to Angie. I met her just after Brando had declined the Oscar to protest Hollywood’s depiction of Native Americans, which for many other Americans including me must have marked the beginning of awareness that Indians had anything to protest. The book belonged to that class of heavy, illustrated volumes that might not have been called coffee-table books back then. It was about the Wild West: cattle drives, Indian Wars, outlaws and lawmen. I didn’t approve of outlaws generally, but I thought sometimes they were misunderstood and had a reason to break the law. That was especially true of my favorite, Billy the Kid, maybe because I was a kid myself. My favorite lawman was a Texas Ranger, John B. Armstrong, who captured John Wesley Hardin, surprising him on a train in Florida. I liked it that when Armstrong drew his gun he shouted “Texas by God!” to show that he didn’t care about glory or earning a bounty, but only about capturing the outlaw for the good of all the people of Texas. The section on the Indian Wars included a memoir by a Sioux warrior who claimed to have fought at Little Big Horn, and who remembered Custer’s flowing golden hair. The Sioux warrior would have been a hundred when I was eight or nine, so perhaps he had died. I was frustrated by the book’s vagueness about that, and about his name and where he’d lived. He said he had faced Custer in single combat, and he spoke of Custer’s strength and the challenge of fighting him one-on-one. Custer’s strength wasn’t enough, however: the old man identified himself as the one who had killed Custer.
I would meet Angie after I’d attained drinking age and had dropped out of college to go to Europe. When it came down to it I’d known my French wouldn’t take me far, so I overstayed my tourist visa for England. Working far to the west of London in a pub called The White Horse, I was appreciated as a novelty, meaning I had to watch myself since many Brits believed Americans were uncivilized.
Angie had only one foot in that camp. For her, childhood stories of my big picture book and playing Cowboys-and-Indians would have aroused contradictory feelings. She talked often about her A levels, which I think meant she was qualified to attend what she called “a first-class uni.” Her plan, on hold while she enjoyed life’s simple pleasures, was to “read” Political Science. Her political convictions oscillated between Marxism, obliging her to sympathy for peoples who had been exploited by way of colonization and worse, and anarchism. The anarchism strengthened the affinity for violence implicit in her Marxist tendencies.
“George, you wanted to hit that bloke,” she said one evening as she dragged me out of a pub.
“He was looking down your shirt.”
“What was he supposed to do? I stuck them in his face.”
She’d squeezed into an opening at the bar right next to him.
“But I wasn’t going to hit him,” I protested.
She smiled. “Not even to protect my honor? Bloody deserved it, looking down my shirt.”
We stood outside with our drinks.
“Go somewhere else?” she said. “Can’t hear yourself think in there.”
She set her glass down on the sidewalk.
“An offering,” she said. “To somebody’s god, or the next piss-head who happens by. Go round the corner to The King’s Arms?”
I hesitated and she thought it was because I didn’t want to leave my drink.
“Bring it,” she said. “Glass doesn’t care where it ends up.”
I’d been in The King’s Arms once, maybe a week earlier. I couldn’t remember much and I felt uneasy. But that was ridiculous: a pub was a pub.
A band warmed up at one end of the crowded pub as we walked in, me with half of my half-pint.
“Maybe the wrong place if you want it quiet.”
“But he’s yummy,” Angie said with a nod toward the lead singer. “Roger Daltrey tossing his hair about in a shampoo advert.”
The singer had luxurious blond curls.
While I paid the barman, another one tapped him on the shoulder.
“This is the Yank that was falling all about,” he said.
He leveled a contemptuous gaze at me.
“Sure you’re up to two-fisted drinking?”
I set down the half I’d brought in.
“Pardon?” Angie said
Someone’s Cornish pasty reeked of onion. I worried that I would be sick.
“Hold his hand, luv,” he said, eying her mini-skirt. “You his nanny, like Simon Ball”—a White Horse regular—“the other night? Lucky Simon was my mate at school. Only reason I lent him my motor to drive your Yank home.”
My shock and nausea had dissipated and Angie saw my anger coming on.
“Sorry Rick gave you trouble,” she said.
The barman didn’t seem to notice my surprise.
“Rick is sorry, too, and we’re both extremely grateful for the lift in your car. He leave his wool scarf, by any chance?”
The barman’s tone softened.
“Have a look. Red Mini closest to the pub.”
“Thanks ever so much,” she said. “One more thing, please: may I have a bottle of brown ale? Like to splash it in my whisky.”
“On me, luv,” he said as he handed her a Newcastle Brown.
He turned away.
“Go outside so you don’t see me kill him?” I whispered.
She hooked an arm around mine.
“You’re outnumbered,” she said. “Jump him outside.”
Under a moonless sky, she went over to the red Mini.
“Rick?” I said.
She looked at one of the tires.
I circled the little car.
“Have all their tread,” I told her.
“Perfect. One second while I go for a wee.”
She stepped into the street.
“Use the loo in there,” I said, but she was halfway to the unbroken row of closed and darkened shops on the other side. I lost sight of her and waited. I was about to cross when I heard the sound of glass shattering. When she came back, I saw the remains of the Newcastle Brown bottle in her hand.
“You all right?” I said.
“Fabulous. Like to see Harold Wilson stick this in his pipe and smoke it.”
The barman had a round face and straw-colored hair.
“Shirty twat,” she said.
She walked purposefully toward the Mini. She stabbed the jagged end of her bottle into the tires as she moved swiftly around the car.
“Jesus,” I said.
The band was loud. We could have fired a gun and no one inside would have heard. She knelt beside the driver’s door and scraped a single word into it: RICK.
She admired her work.
“Smash the windows while Roger Daltrey’s in there howling like a stuck pig?” she said. “Climb in so you can have me on his seat?”
She stood and hiked up her mini-skirt. “Or on the bonnet if we want to be quick.”
I didn’t move.
“Don’t give a thought to me,” she said. “Just have your fun.”
“Simon will tell the barman my name. I’ll be thrown out of the country.”
She pulled her underwear up from her ankles.
“Wasn’t thinking,” she said. “Ever so sorry. What you going to do?”
I was glad I’d only had half a pint. I needed to think.
“Six a.m. bus to Bristol, right?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Then somewhere else? You don’t want bloody Bristol.”
“London. Come with me? Go home now so we can get up early? Meet me at the station in the morning?”
“Was in the mood,” she sighed, “but can see you aren’t. Loads of time for it in London, though.”
She patted the front of my blue jeans.
“Five-forty-five,” she said as she left.
She still lived with her parents. I was surprised that she’d agreed to go.
Packing went fast. I owned nothing because I spent every penny on alcohol.
Getting up early was hard and I got to the station late. No sign of Angie, but the bus was delayed. It finally departed at twenty to seven.
Alone on the bus and drifting in and out of sleep after getting too little the night before, my thoughts became untethered, bouncing from anger with Angie to anger with the barman to, at one point, my past anger with the old Sioux warrior who had killed Custer. I recalled that when I was eight or nine, if he was still alive I wanted to find him. He had locked hands with Custer: Indian wrestling, except two-handed. Yet even at Indian wrestling, which should have given the Sioux warrior an advantage, Custer held his own until the Indian pulled his hair. Not how men fight, I thought: that’s cheating.
I wasn’t a man, which gave me permission to cheat, too. I would pull his hair, shown in my book to be long and straight and white. I imagined clutching the ends of his long, dry hair in my fists and using the hair to whip him around until his head struck something hard: a boulder, or the earth.
Don Stoll works in the admission and marketing offices of a residential arts high school in Idyllwild, California, and with the nonprofit that he and his wife founded in 2008 to bring new schools, clean-water systems, and clinics emphasizing women’s and children’s health to three contiguous villages in rural Tanzania.