As eager as hunting dogs, Ryan and two friends zip from their Chicago college dorm to a dive bar tucked across the Wisconsin border. After leaving the expressway, they wind along a two-lane county road and pass long-closed factories for mattresses and deluxe pens. A maximum security prison located here looms near the town of Snapped Branch’s fading welcome sign.
At Windmill Bar, the doorman sits in a wheelchair and nods hazily at the three young men when he takes the $3 cover charge and, to their delight, accepts their fake IDs with a token glance. The trio finds a booth that would comfortably fit six. Above them a 10-point buck sticks its head through the wall.
“Oh, it’s trouble,” a waitress says smiling as she tosses coasters on the table. She wears a Luke Bryan concert T-shirt and a Walking Dead button. “What to drink, guys?”
Ryan orders the house special: “The Flat-On-Your-Ass” pitcher, one that comes in a phallic-looking plastic boot with 40 ounces of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
It’s roomy in the Windmill, and a proscenium stage is where country legends played when their careers spiraled out of control. The bar’s regulars wear permanent frowns. If they’re prison workers – the village’s fortunate ones only by financial standards – they rarely become happy drunks.
These local men – battered by their relentless anxious work in the prison (simply dubbed “Max”) – avoid the dance floor as if it is covered in concrete mix. When one beefy guy passes their table, the trio smirks at the back of his T-shirt. The shirt says: “If you can read this, the bitch is off my back.” Ryan and his friends, though, aren’t surprised at that sentiment here. “Charming,” Ryan says with a smirk, “must be a feminist.”
At exactly 9 p.m., the band Moonshine arrives on the stage. The band’s singer, with a Jack Daniel’s belt buckle clinging for life around his waist, greets some customers, especially two dozen women scattered throughout the Windmill, the area’s only Saturday night entertainment venue.
Ryan hoists his beer glass and whistles. The Windmill Bar does that to him. He develops swagger here. Usually reserved at college, he has bravado here. About a year ago, Ryan was with a group that water-skied nearby and stopped at the Windmill Bar afterward by chance. Since then, Ryan has returned three times, enjoying the company of Snapped Branch’s women.
Ryan starts scouting as the band plays the country rocker “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck.”
* * *
From her bar seat, Anna saw them arrive in a sleek car with an Illinois license plate. She went to the washroom to check her appearance, running her hand through her auburn hair and applying fresh lipstick.
She knew it would be easy to attract one of them and, after the first song, Ryan stands near her.
He tells the bartender to refill the woman’s glass. Anna nods and that prompts Ryan to slide a wobbly stool closer. He asks, “You’re alone?”
Overhearing, the bartender interrupts and reaches to touch Anna’s shoulder. “Yes,” the bartender says, “the Butter Princess reigns by herself tonight.”
“Butter Princess?” Ryan asks, turning to Anna.
She gives the bartender a stern glance then explains: “Seven years ago, I was the county fair’s queen – or what they call the Butter Princess here.”
Ryan takes this in and notices Anna’s story-is-over expression and doesn’t pursue the subject. “What do you do now?” he asks.
Anna shrugs. “I work in the office for a company that supplies the prison with food. … And you?”
Ryan describes his background: sophomore at Loyola University in Chicago, business major with an eye on law school.
Anna gathers these facts.
“You’re from Chicago,” she says. “You’re not visiting someone at ‘Max.’” She sips from her glass. “So what are you doing here?”
To answer honestly, Ryan would admit that the ratio of available women to suitable men at the Windmill Bar is four-to-one.
Instead, he finishes his beer and plops the empty mug on the counter.
“Beer tastes better here,” he says quickly. “Wanna dance?”
* * *
Alcohol fuels Ryan and Anna’s first hours together. There’s an exhilaration among them that spurs flirting – smiles, kisses, suggestive comments and racy slow dances.
Outside the bar, Anna lights a cigarette and rests her head on Ryan’s shoulder. She runs a finger against the rim of another glass of vodka and cranberry juice. Ryan rubs her neck.
Anna sighs with delight. “That could get you far,” she says. Ryan moves his hand along her arm and caresses the back of her hand. “No ring,” he says. “I mean, is there some guy who’s going to burst through the door and challenge me to a shootout?”
She takes a quick sip. “The only person in my life is a 7-year-old boy name Curt.” She pauses. “My son.”
“Seven,” Ryan says quickly, unable to mask his surprise. “You look so young. And his father?”
She coughs. “We never married, barely dated. He got out of Curt’s life when he realized raising a kid requires more work than having a pet goldfish.”
“Who’s Curt with now?’
The question lingers as Anna pushes an unfinished cigarette into a tin ashtray. “A neighbor watches him,” she says.
Ryan fidgets with a toothpick.
“Relax,” Anna says. “Curt’s in bed by now. That kid could sleep through a tornado. He sleeps a hell of a lot better than I do, that’s for sure.”
Anna leans against Ryan. “You’re sweet to ask.”
* * *
On the dance floor, they move with reckless abandon, completely at ease with each other’s touch. When the third set begins with “Dirt on My Boots,” Ryan slides his hand along Anna’s back and lowers it below her waist. She doesn’t resist.
“How about I take you home?” Ryan asks.
Anna nods and tells him she lives one block away behind the Kwik Trip.
Ryan has her wait by the bar. He returns to the booth, where his two friends talk overzealously to two women who are almost twice the men’s age.
“Jackpot,” Ryan says. “I’ll be back in an hour and we’ll go to Denny’s off the expressway. I’ll text you guys.”
One woman fixes a burning glare at Ryan. “She’s a nice girl, Anna is. Tough times, too. Parents dead. She’s a single mom. Doesn’t get out much because of that boy of hers. Treat her good.”
At the bar, Anna and Ryan toast each other with a shot of vodka.
“Ready, Butter Princess,” he says, putting his arm around her and leading her into the brisk night air.
* * *
Anna’s apartment is one of four units inside a house with no screen door. She fumbles for the correct key when an elderly woman opens Anna’s door.
“I put Curt to bed about two hours ago,” the woman says, eyeing Ryan as if she wants to remember his face. Then the woman limps into the hallway and to her apartment.
“Thank you, Pearl,” Anna says, too loudly.
Anna and Ryan enter the room as awkwardly as contestants in a three-legged race. Cold air leaks through the windows. There are three rooms: Curt’s bedroom, a tiny kitchen and the living room with a futon supported by a makeshift wood frame. Ryan makes room for himself on the tattered couch by putting a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and an old copy of Glamour on the table.
After checking on Curt, Anna pours vodka and Sprite into two Wisconsin Dells water park glasses. They sip together. As soon as Anna puts her head in Ryan’s lap, she quickly sits up.
“I need some aspirin.”
When she goes to the bathroom, Ryan spots a high school yearbook below a rickety table where two unopened bills and an unlit lamp sit. He checks the last name on an address label and searches for Anna’s yearbook picture. Her face is fuller now; her smile is smaller. Given the yearbook’s date, Ryan figures that Anna is no older than 24.
Anna spots him. “Sneaking through my things,” Anna says. “If you’re wondering, yes, they let teenage mothers go to class – despite the ridicule – even if they got pregnant two months after being picked as the Butter Princess.”
Ryan carefully closes the yearbook.
“Please,” Anna says, shaking her head. “I know this place is depressing. It’s depressing to me. I can’t leave. And I’m forever the knocked-up teen Butter Princess.”
Ryan looks down at his shoes as if searching for wisdom. Anna embraces him, and they kiss because it’s the only thing that might make them feel good.
When Anna relaxes, Ryan buries his face in her neck and says, “Long live the Butter Princess.”
She arches her head and slides her hands across Ryan’s chest. He reaches under her blouse.
“Wasting no time,” Anna says with a crooked smile. She stands up and unbuttons her shirt. Ryan leans her gently onto the couch. His hands glide down Anna’s thin shoulders.
Together, they feel their bodies freeze. They hear footsteps.
“Curt,” Anna blurts, grabbing a blanket off the floor in a belated attempt to cover herself.
The boy looks away from the couch then mumbles, “I want some water.”
When Anna returns, the couple’s sexual energy fizzles. There’s no point starting again.
She whispers, “What am I going to do?”
Ryan suggests better days ahead, but Anna quickly brushes him off by waving a hand. She wants no lectures. She takes a drag on a freshly lit cigarette. Ryan stares at the water stain on the ceiling.
“At times,” Anna says,” “I feel like the oldest 23-year-old person in the world.”
She continues, shifting to a story: “Curt didn’t want to go to school yesterday. I asked, ‘Why?’ He goes, ‘I don’t want to.’ I know something’s bugging him. I asked if bigger kids were bullying him. He shook his head. I asked if he was feeling sick, but he was fine. Then he goes, ‘It’s the states.’ I ask what he’s talking about. That’s when he tells me that last Thursday his teacher went around the room and pointed to a state on the map and someone in his class had to read the name of the state.
“The teacher points to New Hampshire and Curt goes, ‘New Hamster.’ Some kids in the class laugh. The teacher goes, ‘OK, Curt, do it right.’ The kid doesn’t know what he did wrong. He doesn’t know some little state. So he goes, ‘New Hamster.’ And those kids laugh again. Kids can be so mean. The teacher finally catches on to what’s really happening and pronounces it right.”
She flicks ashes into an empty glass. “Like he’s ever going to New freakin’ Hampshire.”
* * *
Ten minutes later, Anna closes her eyes, spread across the couch. Ryan is disoriented. He feels the room shift slightly from his drinking. He goes into the bathroom and takes a long pee. Then he grabs his wallet and iPhone from the table. He finds the exit when he hears the door in Curt’s bedroom open slowly.
“Are you OK, Curt?” Ryan asks in an alarmed tone. “I’m a friend of your mommy’s.”
The boy, wearing monster truck pajamas, opens the door wider. He nods.
“Your mom’s sleeping. Please, it’s bedtime for you.”
Curt returns to his bed. Ryan puts the blanket over the boy.
“There,” Ryan says as cheerfully as he can, “now you’re snug as a bug in a rug.”
Shutting Curt’s door, Ryan surveys the room, relieved as Anna sleeps with a periodic snore. She’s wrapped in two brown blankets.
On the way out, he locks the door. In the hallway, he turns the knob again. It’s wobbly but secure. No one’s getting in.
Stumbling back to the Windmill Bar, Ryan opens his wallet and it feels lighter. He can’t find his Visa or his cash of about $60 or $70. His debit card has been cut into two pieces. His iPhone’s screen has a fresh cut like Harry Potter’s forehead scar.
When Ryan arrives at the Windmill Bar, he finds his friends.
“You don’t look good, dude,” one says.
Ryan says nothing. Instead, his stomach revolts. The bathroom stall is taken, and he vomits into the sink. The mirror is cracked in such a way that it adds to Ryan’s confusion. He sits against the bathroom wall and rubs his fingers to his chin, which smacked the sink. Blood spreads across his hand as if painted sloppily. The bathroom begins to spin like a carnival’s Tilt-a-Whirl ride as Ryan lies slumped while he hears shouting at him.
Moments later, from her apartment, Anna hears the faint sounds of either an ambulance or a police car from a few blocks away.
She feels safe.