A secret romance between two men takes a mysterious turn in Dennis E. Staples’ debut novel, This Town Sleeps. Set on a reservation in Minnesota, it follows an Ojibwe man who begins investigating a murder after entering a relationship with a closeted white man. Author Tommy Orange has called the story “elegant and gritty, angry and funny,” and you’ll understand why after reading the book’s description:
On an Ojibwe reservation called Languille Lake, within the small town of Geshig at the hub of the rez, two men enter into a secret romance. Marion Lafournier, a midtwenties gay Ojibwe man, begins a relationship with his former classmate Shannon, a heavily closeted white man. While Marion is far more open about his sexuality, neither is immune to the realities of the lives of gay men in small towns and closed societies.
Then one night, while roaming the dark streets of Geshig, Marion unknowingly brings to life the spirit of a dog from beneath the elementary school playground. The mysterious revenant leads him to the grave of Kayden Kelliher, an Ojibwe basketball star who was murdered at the age of 17 and whose presence still lingers in the memories of the townsfolk. While investigating the fallen hero’s death, Marion discovers family connections and an old Ojibwe legend that may be the secret to unraveling the mystery he has found himself in.
Counterpoint Press will release This Town Sleeps on March 3rd, and we’re excited to share an exclusive excerpt from the novel. Read it below to discover how Marion and Shannon’s relationship begins—and to learn why the dog’s spirit roams a playground of all places.
You can pre-order This Town Sleeps here. (That’s an affiliate link from Bookshop.org. If you click through and purchase a book, both Paste and independent bookstores will receive a small commission.)
The light on the message screen pings. The profile is blank but in a small town that could mean many things. Discretion. Shame. Desperation. The need for relief in a failing marriage. This man on the other end doesn’t say much about what he wants. He won’t even send a face pic, and he doesn’t want to see mine. I’m not closeted; I used to have my face showing but men wouldn’t reply when they saw my Indian skin.
After hearing a brief description of my body, the only thing he will agree to is meeting at a dark place in the middle of the night. To most men this is probably a red flag.
Basil is sleeping in his pen near my TV and has food and water. He’ll be okay for the next hour or two.
Right at the south end of Geshig, there is a rest area near a small park and a few acres of marshland. Until a few years ago, the park was an aging, dangerous structure filled with slivers, metal bars, and, according to some rumors, dried blood where children were either murdered or simply scraped their skin. Now it’s a plastic pastel paradise with padded corners and a soft mulch ground instead of the pebbles that were once the endless ammo for rock fights. But most kids still prefer the elementary school park because of how much bigger it is.
The parking lot is well lit from the streetlights, and the new playground catches enough of it to discourage post-curfew children or drug deals.
Far behind the rest area building, away from the light pollution and near the cattails is where I meet him. As soon as I see his silhouette approach from another far end of the area, I begin my typical bout of last-minute nervousness and convince myself that he is a murderer. He is coming here to strangle me and throw me into the marsh. My body will not rot and future generations will study my mud-mummified corpse during their wetlands section of general science. That will be my reward for anonymous sex.
He sits next to me in the grass. “Hi.” We sit there for a few moments before he reaches over to me. I expect his hand to land right at my groin, but instead he touches my stomach. His hand traces my sternum up to my shirt collar and then brushes over my neck and chin. For a long time, he touches the stubble on my face and says nothing. Then he moves back to my chest, lifting up my shirt and running each finger through the short tangles.
He removes my shirt and with both hands begins to squeeze my pecs, softly at first and then harder. I haven’t experienced this before. Is this how a woman feels?
His hands dig into my skin. I let out a squeal and he stops. “Sorry! Sorry! I didn’t mean to…”
Even in a quiet whisper in the night, I recognize his voice. I smile and bring his hands back to me. “Don’t worry. I liked it.” He lets out a breath that sounds like a smile and begins grabbing me again. “Can I kiss you?”
“I wanna see you first.”
The outline of his head looks over to the parking lot before standing up. He caresses my hand and leads me toward the back of the rest area.
I see his face before he sees mine.
The moment Shannon recognizes who he’s been groping in the dark, he pulls his hand away and runs back to the shadows of the grass.
“I knew I shouldn’t have done this. I’m so fucking stupid!” His whispers are full of anger, almost enough to scare me. I follow him and repeat “calm down” until he sits back on the grass and puts his head in his hands.
“Good to see you?” I pull my shirt back on and zip up my jeans.
“I shouldn’t be here…”
“But you are here.” I scoot closer a few inches. “Might as well make the best of it.”
“Sorry. I don’t think I can.”
I laugh. “How were you having a better time feeling up a guy you didn’t know?”
“You won’t get it.”
“I won’t ask you to keep going but you had a need. You’re here. I’m here. It’s up to you.”
“Do you have anything to drink? Whiskey? Beer?”
“At a rest area in the middle of the night? No, I don’t. I have weed in my car though.”
“No, I don’t smoke. Can we go back to your place?”
It’s a nice surprise to hear those words. Usually the men who meet in the dark would never want to have any contact outside of the shadows.
“If you want.”
He lets out a loud sigh and falls back on the grass. “Or maybe we could go for a walk first?”
“I guess it’s as good a time as any. Where to?”
Shannon Harstad was voted king at our junior prom. The theme was Fairy Tales and he danced with the queen, Leah Littlebear. I was working the concession stand, not actually part
of the fun. Shannon’s own participation was reluctant. He was never the spotlight kind of person, not like the other popular boys.
Without looking at me much, Shannon leads me across the highway and onto the sidewalk off Fourth Street. Every time I try to catch up, his shoulders go tense and he walks faster.
“Have a place in mind?” I ask.
“It’s past the curfew.”
We walk past the Geshig Elementary School and just as we’re about to pass the park, he stops. His gaze is transfixed into the darkness of the wooden fences and metal slides.
At the edge of the fence we stand and look at each other’s silhouettes. I didn’t get a good look at him on the way here, even with the streetlights around, but I recognize the outline of his
face. Even with age, he’s still the same Shannon Harstad that I grew up with all through school.
“So…you’re gay?” He turns from me and starts walking away from the fence. “Wait, I’m sorry.”
At first it seems he is angry but then he leads me toward another dark shape, about fifty yards from the park.
He stops at the edge, but doesn’t turn it. “Do you remember this thing? No one liked it because of the dog thing.”
Every child in the elementary school knew the story. A dog went under the merry-go-round to die and no one would play on it. There was one time, though, a guy dared me to. The same guy I’m now hooking up with in the dark.
“Do you know if that was true or not?”
He turns to me and finally starts kissing me again. His hands grip my shoulders and he tries to lay me down on the merry-go-round.
“Um, bad idea,” I say, pulling away from his tongue.
I push the iron bars and a loud, rusty screech blasts into the night. “Too loud. And we’re way too close to a school. What if we get caught?”
He sighs and his lips brush mine just a little. “You’re right. I’ll take that drink now.”
His truck follows my car through Geshig and westward toward Half Lake.
The first chance I had to move out of Geshig and off the Languille Lake reservation, I took it. I moved to the Twin Cities for college. And then as a few years passed, and after a disastrous relationship or two, I found myself back in Half Lake, and spending a lot of time in my hometown. It pulls me back here like the door at the end of a dream that you don’t want to go through, but you can’t control your feet.
My house is just on the inside of the Half Lake city limits, close to the highway. It’s a small, pale cream house with a decent yard, and rent to own, so I’ll be here for the foreseeable future.
Inside, I grab a bottle of whiskey and bring it to Shannon. He sits on my couch and I sit across from him in a small armchair. I would sit next to him but it’s probably best to let him get a few drinks before we start again.
“I’m guessing you’re not out?”
The bottle is thrown back. Eyes wince. “Fuck no.”
“You’re twenty-seven, right?”
“Exactly,” he says with a bitter whiskey laugh. “I’m almost thirty. No wife. No kids. No fucking anything.”
He takes another drink and then stands up. “You’re hard.” He’s right. I had thought about being polite and hiding the bulge but I didn’t think it would matter since whatever else he was feeling his lust is what got him in this situation.
“I have patient boners.”
He walks over to me and grips it through my jeans. It’s not an uncomfortable grip, but it feels unsexual. “What if I squeezed really hard? Would you like that? Would you still wanna fuck?”
I have no response but a hope that he doesn’t deliver on that offer. I don’t want that. And I don’t know him, not anymore, probably not ever. I have no idea if saying the wrong thing will
set him off and make this whole thing end badly. “Is that what you’d like to do?”
The grip relents a little and he traces the tip with his index
finger. “Do you have a bed?”
“Of course I have a bed.”
His hand stops. “Never done it on a bed before.”
My first instinct is to laugh but instead, I stand up and lead him to my bedroom. The overhead light is off but there is a dull blue glow from the muted TV in the corner. Nearby in a pen is where Basil is sleeping. I sit at the edge of the bed and look up at Shannon. In the dusky
light standing over me, he looks more imposing than ever. He has a round face and a shaved head, but his short beard looks thicker, bushier. The glare from the screen reflects in his glasses so I can’t see his eyes.