Fat Tanya was on duty the night the robbers came into the store. She shot dead the big one holding the knife with the old .38 revolver that was kept under the counter by the till. His companion, a small guy, fell to his knees and begged for mercy. Tanya sat on him until the deputy sheriff arrived from Baker.
We never called her Fat Tanya – to her face – after that. She had won respect and it did her good. She slimmed down and stopped drinking and being loud. But she would always be Fat Tanya in our recollections and the community’s history tales.
Everything is relative of course and her slimming down took her to about 190 pounds so she was still a big girl. That said her features were better defined and with a little make-up and a hair wash she could look almost pretty – or at least handsome. Nor did she go teetotal exactly. Just that she was less likely to get into a fight over the music on the juke-box in the self-styled Cattleman’s Club but which was just a diner with a bar and a pool table.
For some reason she kind of took to me and my younger sister Frankie. Maybe it was because like her we had a disorderly family set-up. She was given away as an unwanted baby and at seventeen thrown out by her foster parents. Our Mom left for California when we were barely able to talk and our Dad was pretty much absent and when home, drunk.
So we spent quite a deal of our leisure time hanging out at Arnie’s Garage and Grocery – which other than the Cattleman’s was the only amenity in our tiny township. We helped keep it tidy, did inventory, stocked the shelves and pumped gas for the truckers and occasional tourists and of course the locals: except these last preferred most often to drive a hundred mile round trip to Miles City or even Rapid City, which had cheaper gas and of course shopping malls and Walmart’s. So it was not a dynamic business and we had plenty of time for talk.
The eponymous Arnie rarely showed. He had fairly advanced Parkinson’s so only stopped by to say ‘hi’ in a shaky voice. His accountant took an interest in the books but other than that left Tanya to manage the business as she saw fit. In fact it is a surprise on reflection how accepted it was that someone as unlikely as Fat Tanya – herself barely twenty one – aided by two young and seriously neglected teenagers could run the town’s only retail business. Then again, whilst often greatly censorious about certain moral issues rural communities can be relaxed about folk doing a useful job.
It was a good thing then that nobody seems to have picked up on one of the reasons Arnie’s continued to do quite well out of the passing truck business – and Tanya was never short of money for the Saloon. Over the couple of years we had been working with her we had noticed that she always took note of trucks that pulled in.
‘I know a lot of these guys’, she told us. ‘If they ask for Tanya, you call me’. You didn’t have to have a doctorate in social observation to realise that Tanya had a line in personal services for the transport industry. We weren’t that far from IS94 or from a main route through to the Canadian border – but we weren’t that close either.
I guess it was around Frankie’s sixteenth birthday that Tanya came clean. Tanya had come round to our place after the store closed and brought a jug of Montana Silver vodka. We defrosted pizzas from the store’s freezer, put some music on and mellowed into Frankie’s celebration.
‘So, have you got a beau yet?’ asked Tanya.
Frankie shook her head and blushed.
Tanya nodded. ‘Good thing. There’s no hurry unless you’re desperate for a fuck. Men are useless anyway, mostly’. She looked across at me ‘No offence meant’. I smiled.
‘Anyway’, she continued, ‘fucking is no big deal, you’re better off with your own company – know what I mean?’ We knew what she meant. Tanya was in the mood for talking.
‘If a guy hits on you and you think you can get something out of it, give him a blow job’, she said. ‘Men don’t care where they stick the dick so long as they can fire the gun. In fact, I think mostly they prefer head for all sorts of reasons. For us girls it leaves us more in control and no chance of being knocked up.’
We had little to say to that. It seemed to make sense. We looked at each other and laughed. ‘Thanks Tanya’, we both said. ‘Sounds good advice’.
She seemed encouraged by this. Then she said, ‘You ever wonder about why I keep an eye on the truckers?’
‘I guess a little’, I replied cautiously.
‘Because they pay me to blow them!’ she said triumphantly.
‘Do you enjoy it?’ asked Frankie.
‘ I enjoy the sight of a twenty dollar bill more’, said Tanya.
So that was it. Tanya was earning her living and saving cash too. Her plan was to buy Arnie’s.
‘What’s it like?’ asked Frankie. She leaned forward to Tanya in an interested way.
‘Sucking dick?’ asked Tanya.
Tanya looked at me. ‘Girl’s talk Billy boy – unless you want to know about how ladies really feel you could fix the pizzas.’
I grinned. ‘I can do both.’
‘OK.’ said Tanya and turned to Frankie. ‘It’s alright – provided you get a good clean dick – the rest is about technique. He thinks he’s got a bimbo on her knees and you know you’ve got a guy by the balls.’
I left them to it and put the microwave to work while Tanya gave my kid sister a life lesson in giving head to men.
All this was before the robbery and Tanya’s apotheosis as heroine. But it was an instructive and fun evening that left a big impression on Frankie. She and I had always been close. I even saw her through her first period. Maybe because we were slightly suspect and were non church-goers we were never much encouraged by local families to make friends with their children. At high school too, relative poverty and lack of transport meant we were not sought-after companions either. This was fine by us. The days of the school bus over we commuted together on an old Triumph Bonneville I restored. I paid $20 for it from a scrapyard. Having been convinced that we were not delinquents or retards society left us alone. We were the local niggers in the absence of any black people to condescend to.
Afterwards then, nothing much changed between us and Tanya – though they did for her. People nodded to her in the street and the Sheriff or one of his deputies stopped by on a regular basis to ask ‘how’s it going?’ I did notice too that she and Frankie had established a warmer and more mature friendship. Frankie had acquired a best friend. I was glad of that. But I began wondering what was next for me. The borders of Montana and North Dakota were not where I planned to make my life.
Then one day we came into the store and Tanya was holding a letter and looking as pissed off as I’d ever seen her. The Sheriff had written to advise her the dead robber’s relatives had applied for an arrest and prosecution for murder and she was to be taken to the State Court in Helena for a judicial hearing. The letter was very formal but the Sheriff had pinned a handwritten note to it saying ‘we’ll be on your side in this’. The official summons said that a State Trooper would come to her home in a couple of days to take her to the hearing.
We sat around chewing the fat on this problem. We hadn’t been there on the night of the hold-up – it was late on and Tanya had just finished with a regular customer.‘I don’t have a lawyer’, said Tanya.
‘The Sheriff says he’s on your side.’
‘That means Jack shit when he’s up against the state justices’.
Tanya was scathing. The main grounds for murder were that she had shot the perp twice at close range. Once in the chest and again as he fell back. The second shot had blown his jaw off. ‘He had this fucking hunt knife’, said Tanya. ‘You gotta make sure.’
Next morning, on our way to school we noticed that the stores weren’t open. On the way back we saw Arnie’s accountant’s car parked out front and stopped off. He greeted us with strange enthusiasm. ‘ Thank the Lord you’re here. What the hell has happened to Tanya?’
That was pretty obvious. Tanya had run for it. Which might suggest guilt, but to everyone in town simply meant she and we had no confidence in the justice system. Since her car was still at the garage the inference had to be she had taken off with one of her trucker clients and, given its proximity, crossed the Canadian border. In northern Montana this is a porous and very casually manned affair reliant on honesty and a limited technological monitoring system.
There were a few days of varying annoyance as State officials and police accompanied by embarrassed local deputy sheriffs bustled around asking questions. Frankie and I were a focus of attention. Conscious of our slightly vulnerable status as minors all we could do was tell the truth. Tanya had been upset and run away and Canada was the obvious destination. They eventually left us alone and went away.
The township figured out a means to keep the business going. We played a part in this, doing the late afternoon and evening shifts. This gave us some credits in the community but Frankie had to deal with the inevitable ‘where’s Tanya?’ and ‘so what do you do pretty lady?’ from truckers. She was pretty cool about that and I made sure I was visible. Gas sales dropped badly quite soon though.
One day a post card arrived. It contained the laconic message: ‘having a great time, wish you were here, will call soon’. The picture was a general view of the Rockies and it wasn’t signed. Just some ‘x’s for Frankie, who was visibly moved and in some way upset.
We figured that some level of paranoia was legitimate on all our parts. The story had long since died out. Local media bored with the trivial sensationalism of ‘Hunt for escaped robbery shooting perp.’ (State media) Or ‘ Robbery heroine escapes malicious State prosecution.’ (Local media). But this didn’t mean the case was closed for the State Police.
A few months later Frankie had a letter. It was postmarked Seattle. She took it away and read it in private. Then she came into the kitchen and put it on the table in front of me. I guess it was a love letter, in Fat Tanya’s blunt style. But it was about love and I was glad Frankie trusted me with some of the more explicit expressions of her lover’s regard. I had no idea about the when and where they had gotten that close. The letter closed with a British Columbia address and an invitation. Tanya acknowledged that I might be hurt, though with a predictable ‘but’.
Frankie looked at me. ‘What do you think?’
‘What do you want me to think?’
‘That it’s OK, that you’ll be OK.’
‘It’s OK Frankie, I’ll be OK. Hell, I’ll come visit!’
Two days later, I put her on the bus in Baker. We hugged. High School was over. Canada sounded like a good place to be.