Sunday, April 30, 2017

Philipsburg, Montana

I park in front of an unassuming bar on Broadway, with its red brick facade and neat blue paneled window frames. I step off the car and I’m greeted by the bar watchdog, a greyhound by the name of Jessie, who looks more like a mini antelope. I punch open the swinging art deco chrome doors, under the blinking neon sign. I’m met by the noisy and bustling scene inside and by the smell of wholesome home-cooking which wafts around the spacious, fluorescent-lit joint. It’s impossible to escape the incredible potpourri of sports memorabilia scattered around the bar’s green paneled walls. I sit at the end of the long wooden bar which bends into a small formica lunch-counter. Local Duck Dynasty lookalikes, on their umpteenth drink, wear their long hair under baseball caps and sport goatee beards as tasteless as their T-shirts. At one corner, some are trying their luck in the Keno and Poker video gambling machines. Others are drowning their sorrows at the bar. These larger than life characters all look like they just walked out of a casting for a new art-house movie. I get the impression that they all might as well have spent the last month here. Stuck to a barstool with a beer in one hand and a chaser in the other. Their aim to look as neglected as possible and to say as little as possible. The waitress can hardly keep up, rushing back and forth clanking her heels on the wooden plank floor. In one poor-lit corner of the bar is the “Hall of Fame”, a collection of pictures of old timers who have passed. I hop off my chair and head to take a closer look. There must be close to one hundred pictures hanging in the wall, each one with a small inscription or saying beneath the picture. “It’s not how fast you run or how strong you are, but how well you bounce”, it reads in one of the pictures. “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on”, reads another. “The measure of a man is when he does the right thing even if no one is watching.” I cannot smile in approval at this tribute to those who have gone. At the top of the “Hall of Fame” is the picture of a tall and lanky old man with azure blue eyes. A white shock of hair flattened beneath an Irish cloth cap and a mischievous grin on his face. I take a closer look at the inscription underneath. “The car that brought me here doesn’t run anymore”. I cannot help but laugh at the use of a line, slightly changed, from “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” as a kind of epitaph. Looking around the bar, the atmosphere becomes contagious and the laughter is infectious. I might as well be stuck inside a Richard Hugo poem for all I care, so I linger for awhile. The car that brought me here still running for all I know. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Dillon, Montana

I’m driving south on Interstate 15. Butte’s famous Mile-High hill slowly disappears from view. The highway cleaves across Deer Lodge National Forest. Only the tops of the black skeletal mining gallows can be made out now. The vertiginous granite walls of the Rocky Mountains suddenly retreat into the horizon. New broad valleys and a flat landscape replace the snow-capped peaks. Farmlands scattered with copper-colored prairies. Lush mountain meadows line the highway’s boundaries. Herds of Black Angus and Hereford cattle graze on yellow sagebrush. Snow-fed mountain streams flow into the main rivers. The deserted highway trails its way deeper into the open countryside. Ranches and homesteads of all shapes and hues now come into view. Time appears to have stood still for these Western prairie dwellers. The Union Pacific Railroad runs a train, transporting fattened steer down its tracks. This is the only sound of life in a landscape otherwise completely engulfed in silence. I drive into a wide valley traversed by the Beaverhead River, filled with old ranches and brimming with trout, and arrive in the authentic old train town of Dillon. I park in front of The Metlen Hotel Bar & Café and step into the bar. Charles Marion Russell reproductions and stuffed trout adorn the green walls, weathered by decades of use.  A sign at the bar reads, “Work is the curse of the drinking class!”. The place is filled with locals, cowboys and your regular part-time professional barflies. In the back of the bar a silver disco ball eerily spins round, for no one, flashing its hypnotic light over the dance floor and the dark leather furniture dating from the 60’s. With the dull green lights hanging over two blue pool tables and the walls behind the counter crammed with fierce looking wild beasts it’s difficult not to compare the bar to the décor and ambience of a David Lynch film. A cowboy dressed in a fancy blue shirt, authentic cowboy boots and beaver felt hat talks with a colorful character sporting a ZZ Top beard and tattered hat about the best time in spring to wean calves from their mothers. An old timer with twinkling blue movie star eyes, hidden under a rather worn out cowboy hat taps his dirty knuckles against the bar counter to a Bob Wills song on the jukebox. Two young cowboys flirt with a much older heavily made-up waitress, inundated with breakfast orders, before putting their goatskin work gloves on and heading out the door. An extraordinary mix of characters that seems to reflect perfectly the kind of Anytown of the modern American West. That rugged self-reliant hard working can do attitude. I get a hot coffee, served with a dash of something a little stronger, at the recommendation of the bartender. It’s what everybody drinks in these parts to start the day and get ready for another’s day work. It’s called “an eye-opener”, he tells me. On my way out the door a sign reads “As long as there’s a sunset, there will always be a West…”. I fill the car up at the local gas station and get back on the road. I drive through acre upon acre of prairie as broad as it is flat, covered with sagebrush and longhorn cattle. Further into the farmlands ranch hands are leveling the ground and seeding. As I cross the Idaho/Utah border I keep my eyes fixed on the slowly setting sun on the far horizon out west. It seems to go on forever.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Sidney, Montana

She woke up to the sound of a flail mower out by the pool area. She opened her eyes and looked at the digital alarm clock on the nightstand. For a moment she couldn’t tell if it was 7 a.m. or 7 p.m. The sunshine peeking through the closed drape curtains gave her a clue. She lay there, looking at the strange shadows the sun was making on the walls, trying to guess which animal they resembled the most. She listened as a couple of young kids, maybe between 6 to 8-years old, she thought, were playing jump-rope outside. The alarm clock went off and the sound of Classic Country AM radio invaded the room. She leaped out of bed and into the bathroom and splashed cold water on her face. Patsy Cline was singing “I Fall to Pieces” on the radio. Her voice full of aching bravado and emotional drenched intensity. She looked in the mirror trying to convey the song into her life. She walked to the door and opened it letting the wind hit her face. The kids were now playing hide and seek. The boy was trying his best to hide behind an old oak tree and failing miserably. He motioned to her with his index finger not to divulge his hiding place to his older sister. She repeated the gesture and smiled playfully at him. The farm report replaced Patsy Cline on the alarm clock radio. The talk about future commodities and a significant drop on the prices of soybean and corn made her hungry. She dressed up and went straight into the coffee-shop, the glass door swinging shut behind her. The smell of greasy bacon and hot coffee was not strong enough to overtake the crude oil-stenched coveralls and the dirt-filled work boots smell. She found a corner booth at the end of the counter and sat down facing a young couple who were silently counting single dollar bills under the table. The waitress threw a menu on the table and poured some coffee and disappeared into the kitchen. She took a sip from her coffee cup and looked outside. The young siblings had stopped playing hide and seek and now the girl was lecturing the boy about something that brought tears to his eyes. The girl took the boy’s hand and led him to the coffee-shop. On TV, a group of four panelists were discussing the oil boom and how it was ready to bust out at the seams. That got the attention of the three oilfield workers sitting at the counter, each providing a different opinion on the subject. The young kids came running into the coffee-shop in the direction of the young couple who sprung to their feet in their direction when they saw the boy crying. They hugged the little boy as the little girl explained that he was almost hit by a car when he crossed the parking lot trying to find a good hiding place. The waitress placed an order of pancakes and a bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup on her table and left the bill underneath the coffee cup. Outside, in the parking lot, the young couple and their kids were getting into their rusty Ford Taurus Station Wagon. The young boy holding a lollipop in one hand, her sister’s hand on the other. They drove off, a big trunk strapped to the hood of their station wagon. She finished her pancakes and cleared the tears off her cheeks as the waitress came back to refill her coffee cup. She stopped her by asking instead if they were hiring. The waitress took a long glance at her as if trying to understand if she had ever worked as a waitress. The oilfield workers left in a ruckus leaving a trail of dirt on the floor and oil stains on the counter. The waitress grinned at them and then gave them a broad smile when she saw the generous tip they had left her. On TV, two of the panelists agreed with the moderator that there were reasons to believe the boom was here to stay while the other two disagreed. The waitress came back from clearing the counter to ask if she knew how to use a broom. That night, back in her motel room, after a first day’s work, she began to unpack and fill the motel room with her mementos. Her favorite pair or earrings, a family heirloom. A worn-out paperback copy of Willa Cather’s “My Ántonia”. A small stuffed Teddy Bear. A framed picture of her 6-year old son on the nightstand. She sat on the recliner in silence facing the dark and empty parking lot. She closed her eyes and could still hear the two young kids playing outside. She decided to give herself the same chances of succeeding in this new town as the panelists on TV had given to the oil boom. Fifty-Fifty. That was good enough for her. She allowed herself to smile again. If ever so slightly.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Terry, Montana

He parked his beat-up pick-up truck in the stall directly in front of room 102. The sun was setting down on the prairie. A McDonald’s hamburger wrapper blew past his front window. Two teenage boys with ripped up Eric Church T-shirts and plaid khaki shorts were skating on the emptied disused swimming pool. He cut the engine off and got out into the parking lot. He stretched his back by holding his hands tightly together way over his head. He couldn’t believe he had been driving almost non-stop since early morning. He unloaded the bags off his black Ford and walked to the door of the motel room and opened it with the keycard. He stepped in and stood in silence in the doorframe without moving for a few moments. His eyes scanning the length of the room. Another bland middle of nowhere motel room. He started to hear her voice again. That kind of pinched upper-nasal sound. The high tension in her angry voice. He tried to put the last painful memory of them behind by bringing to mind her soft brown fuzzy hair and her icy-blue eyes. He remembered how it felt to be lost in those eyes. It shocked him that he could still feel that way about her, but now he couldn’t act on it. He felt wiped out, dizzy. He questioned his motives for driving half way across the country to get as far away from her as possible if the memories followed wherever he went. He decided he needed a drink. He threw his bags recklessly inside the room, closed the door behind him and got back in his pick-up. Her voice was still going on inside his head. The kind of breathless tone she uses to get her point across without being interrupted. The thought occurred to him that he was never able to get a word in edgewise when she got like this. It drained him emotionally to the point where he just forfeit these battles and let her have her way. He pulled into a gravel parking lot full of rusty old pick-ups and gooseneck trailers in front of a place called “Standing Rock Saloon & Casino” and cut his engine off. He just sat there for awhile and watched the approaching storm lights coming from all sides. Sitting behind the wheel. Trying to get her high-pitched angry voice out off his head. Watching the far away lightning. He got out of his Ford, locked the doors and went inside the bar as it threatened to start raining. The bar was nearly full with an assortment of cowboys and farmhands trying to bring some kind of excitement to the end of another workday. He kept one ear tuned to the news on TV as he hunted up and down for a place to sit. A video poker machine was blinking in one corner of the bar near the bathroom. An old cowboy kept slipping dollar bills into it until he ran out. He stepped up to the far end of the bar and found an empty seat. The news had switched to the weather. He ordered a Jim Beam and looked around trying to align himself somehow with the group of strangers that filled the bar in order to feel like he temporarily belonged somewhere. The two cowboys who sat next to him turned from their conversation about calves and replacement heifers to acknowledge his presence with a tip of their cowboy hats and then returned to their drinks. He sipped on his drink and starred over the rim of his glass at the many autographed framed pictures hanging on the walls. And there she was. Holding a Martin guitar, all dressed up in her best Patsy Montana outfit. Maybe eighteen-years old. It all came back to him and he realized he was in her hometown. In the exact same spot where she started singing. The small prairie town she had left behind for good more than twenty years ago and that she promised to never return to again. The irony didn’t escape him. He had driven this far away, from her memory, to be standing consciously or unconsciously where her discarded memories of what she used to be were. He paused and swirled the melting ice in his bourbon.  Without warning the thought that he had been reduced to nothing as far as she was concerned, a flicker of her imagination, just another sad song on her repertoire, flooded his mind. He smiled for some reason. He paid for his bourbon and stumbled out the door. Outside, in the parking lot, he starred across the empty road at the dark fields under a patchy drizzle. He couldn’t hear a thing except the wind in the prairie. A small dog in the distance. The definite silence of her voice echoing loudly in all directions. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Montana Motel Blues #4

She got into the motel a few minutes past midnight. She’d been driving for the better part of the day and she felt as much tired as excited for making it to Billings to start her new life. Her feet were pumping under the red nylon trainers as she got off the car. As soon as she opened the door to room 22 she could smell the carpet cleaning fluid trying to disguise the distinct odor of vomit mixed with mildew and tobacco smoke. She wheeled her bag inside and closed the door behind her. She set the bag down between the twin beds and stretched her back.  She took off her trainers and went into the bathroom. She turned the cold water faucet in the bathtub and sat on the edge of the tub running cold water on her swelling feet. She closed her eyes but she could still hear the hiss and roar of the interstate traffic in her head. She tilted her head back and flexed her muscular thighs and went into a trance. For a moment she thought she was falling with no one there to catch her. She opened her eyes and took a glance at her reflection in the long mirror mounted on the door and that broke the spell. She dried her feet with a small towel and sat down on a bed and turned on the TV. She went through the channels without knowing what she was looking for. With no intent of watching TV she left a rerun of “The Dukes of Hazzard” on. She set the bag on top of a bed. The Western-themed bedspread released some dust into the air making her cough repeatedly. She paced the room impatiently, looking everywhere around her but with no particular target in sight. She reached into her hand bag and pulled out her cell phone. She checked for new messages and then started dialing. She peeked through the drawn curtains at the pitch black night and waited. When no one picked up she threw the phone at one of the beds. It bounced on the bedspread and fell swiftly to the carpeted floor. She didn’t bother picking it up. Instead she sat on the edge of a bed and half-opened her bag. She leaped up and ran to the door and locked the dead-bolt briskly. She sat down on the bed and opened the bag, digging around underneath her underwear until she felt the small black box with the diamond ring. She opened the box and took the ring out which he had given her as a promise of his commitment. She walked over to the full-length mirror and looked at the image of herself wearing the ring. She smiled briefly then began to panic. She took the ring off and looked at it and at its reflection in the mirror. She got angry for letting herself fall for a married man living almost 600 miles away and letting things get to this point. It took this long for him to make a decision that she wasn’t certain he would abide to without some struggle. In the meantime, in the last six years, her life stalled, waiting for him. She sat on the bed and started to play with her long curly hair and tapping her bare feet on the carpeted floor repeatedly. She felt her heart skipping. Was she really gonna do this? Break up a family? Was it all worth it? She reflected back on the six years since they met in Colorado at the Realtors Conference. She couldn’t find any reason to reaffirm her life to strangers, let alone to her frayed friendships and distant relatives in that period of her life. She felt that for them it was like she had ceased to exist. She felt powerless and more alone because of it. She threw herself on one of the beds with her arms stretched out above her head. She lay there flat and stiff staring up at the ceiling. She squeezed her eyelids tight together, trying to see herself with him, but couldn’t. Without opening her eyes she could sense her aloneness. She kept her eyes shut tight and pictured the life she missed these past six years. She leaped out of bed and put the ring in the box and caught a glance of herself in the mirror. She didn’t like the person that she had become and that it was staring back at her in the mirror. She threw the box at the mirror, splitting it down the middle and shattering it to pieces on the carpet. She took her time cleaning up all the little pieces of the broken glass off the carpet fabric with a wet towel. After it was done, she took a deep breath and sat on the floor with her legs curled up and stared at the diamond ring on the floor for a while. “The Dukes of Hazzard” was still on the TV but she wasn’t watching it. She began to pack. Her cell phone rang in the middle of it but she kicked it under the bed. She knew it was him. She left it there for the maid to find it in the morning. She left the diamond ring next to the TV remote, with a note underneath, to pay up for the broken mirror. Outside, the orange moon was low and huge on the horizon. The lights were out in all of the rooms. The motel neon sign had been turned off for the night and the office was dark except for a glimmer of light coming from behind the desk. She got in the car, turned on the engine, and drove off in a hurry, leaving a trail of gravel dust behind her. She had six years to make up for and the road was wide open in front of her. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Montana Motel Blues #3

He was out the door of room 121 before the crack of dawn. The fluorescent lights of the lamp posts still reflecting their red and yellowish color on the wet asphalt of the parking lot. He noticed that the “M” from the motel neon sign was unlit and wondered if he hadn’t noticed it last night when he came in or if it just went out during the night. He made a mental note to tell the motel owners about it on check out. He headed to his 1999 GMC Sierra pick up with Wyoming license plates featuring the Grand Tetons on the background. He walked with an accentuated limp on his right leg. He took a pack of loose tobacco and rolling paper from the ashtray cup holder and took his time to slowly roll a near perfect roll-your-own American Spirit cigarette. He placed the cigarette in the left corner of his mouth, hanging by a thread and looked for matches in the breast pockets of his black cow suede vest. When he didn’t find any he didn’t bother to look elsewhere. He kept the cigarette dangling from his lips and took a pair of coyote gear gloves from the glove compartment. He proceeded by cleaning up the bed of his pick-up truck. He unstrapped the bungee cords from the hard plastic containers and took a cleaning cloth from one of the containers. With such precision that you would believe his life depended on it, he began to, systematically and methodically, clean the dirt off his tack and rodeo gear. He started with the roping reins and the harness, followed by the noseband with buckle, ending with the leather saddle bag. When he was done he took a brush from the other container and with the same precision he had applied to his tack and rodeo gear, he shined his Tony Lamas until they itself were shinning and reflecting the rising sun over the underpass. He did the same with his Ken Dixon hand engraved sterling silver belt buckle. At the end of it he found himself breathing heavily and panting for air. Little drops of sweat rolling down into his forehead protruding from his Resistol Cattleman Silver Belly Cowboy hat. As he took a step back, feeling the pain in his limpy right leg he felt the need to lay down ever so briefly. He abstained from it and instead rubbed his right knee with such abrasiveness that the pain slowly started to subside. He took his gloves off and found his stainless steel coffee cup on the coffee cup holder and headed for the motel office as the motel neon sign and the fluorescent lights on the parking lot were being turned off one by one. The sun was already rising over the interstate to the east. The soft wind flapping the tiny triangle-shaped flags strapped to the parking lot lamp posts advertising the annual Miles City Bucking Horse Sale. A few lights turned on from inside some of the rooms as he stood outside the motel office door feeling the wind hit his cheeks for a moment. The distant sound of a TV set in the room adjacent to the office coming on, tuned to the local news channel. He looked at his reflection in the glass door. All dressed up in his Cowboy get-up. The thought he had been avoiding since the sale and that he had been able to put in the back burner until this moment staring straight at him. He had suddenly become a 47-year old Cowboy with no horse to ride. He shifted his hand-rolled cigarette from the left corner of his mouth to the right with a touch of his lips. He straightened up his Gold and Silver Eagle bolo tie and got in the door and only lingered enough time to drop his room key and fill up his stainless steel coffee cup with freshly brewed hot coffee from the breakfast buffet table being set. He limped his way back to his pick-up truck, placed the cup on the roof of the cab and secured the hard plastic containers with the bungee cords. He circled the pick-up to strap them from one side to the other but stopped midway in pain, crouching and holding his right leg. He was face to face with one of the bumper stickers in the back fender of his pick-up. “This Ain’t My First Rodeo” it read. He remembered the occasion where he bought it more than thirty years ago at the Cody Nite Rodeo. He straightened himself up and grinned at the futility of that bumper sticker now. He stood motionless for a moment feeling the wind in his face. That seemed to rejuvenate him. He held his right leg straight up with both his hands and got in his pick-up. He turned on the engine and rolled down his window. He took his cowboy hat and placed it on the passenger’s seat. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with a red bandana he found in his coin tray. He looked straight ahead at the traffic starting to clutter the frontage road parallel to the interstate. The sun was hiding behind a big cluster of clouds and the wind was picking up. He wondered what would he do from now on. How he would make a living. Was it too late for a 47-year old has-been third-tier rodeo cowboy to start a new life? He spit the hand-rolled cigarette out the window and drove on out of the motel parking lot. At the intersection of I-94 he looked at the interstate signs like he’s done so many times before. I-94 West leading back home to Wyoming. I-94 East leading to places unknown. But this time he looked with intent at them like he didn’t know where each was leading to. He pondered that his life couldn’t be more uncertain as it was at that moment either way. He stretched his left hand outside his window and followed wherever the wind blew.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Montana Motel Blues #2

She awoke in the middle of the night in panic. Startled by something she couldn’t exactly pinpoint at that moment. Her heart beating fast. Like it was about to jump out of her chest. She sat down in the bed. Her head resting on the fake mahogany headboard. She placed the sweaty palm of her right hand firmly over her chest. That seemed to calm her down a little. She was sweating as much from whatever had suddenly awoken her from her sleep as from the A/C she had left turned on to medium hot before going to bed. She pulled back the cheap fabric comforter and sat in silence looking at her chipped red toenails. She thought to herself, how can her head be of a sound mind if she doesn’t take care of her body first. She had a notion of painting her toenails a different bright shade of red but decided she was too jumpy to attempt such a task. She stood up from the bed and took a deep breath, curling her toenails in the Scottish plaid carpet. She looked at the drawn caramel pinstriped drapes and at the subtle sign of neon light emanating from the motel sign outside her room by the small gap between the two drapes. She went to the powder room adjacent to the bathroom and turned the cold water faucet on. She listened to the sound of the running water hitting the marble sink and looked closely in the mirror at herself. “What are you doing here”, she asked herself out loud in a heavy mid-western accent and starred at herself in the mirror looking for an answer from the other side of the mirror. She poured a splash of cold water in her face saying “Wake up” to herself in the mirror. She went and switched off the A/C completely and sat in the brown leather recliner curling her legs in a lotus position. She looked at the sun-bleached color photos of some tropical beach mounted above the double bed. She wondered what was the idea behind having those photos framed in a motel room in the middle of winter in Montana. She became intrigued by it. Maybe they were vacation souvenirs from the motel owners. But then she remembered the owners being a family from India. Or maybe they just bought the motel from some wholesome American old couple who had decided to retire from their family business and sell the motel. Maybe they had no other family heirs or their kids didn’t want any part of the business anyway. Maybe the old couple decided it was time to start living after giving so much of their life to keep the motel running. Maybe they took the money from the motel sale without telling their kids and moved to some tropical paradise for their twilight years. She began to picture this old couple, grey hairs, sitting on beach lounge chairs, sipping Mai Tais, watching the sunset together. Maybe the photos were a way for them to leave their imprint on this place. They worked so hard for this dream of theirs. Maybe they thought it would also serve as an inspiration for somebody one day at the end of their rope in the middle of another Montana winter. She began to cry. But she would not let the tears roll down her face. She jumped off the recliner and began to pack. The sun had begun to peek just slightly through the drapes. She opened them up to let the rising sun start filling the room. Outside, the Mexican cleaning ladies were ready to start another workday. Each with their own cleaning cart full of cleaning supplies, toilet paper, clean towels, mint sugar drops for the pillows. The kidney-shaped swimming pool was still covered with the polyethylene winter pool cover. She exited the room carrying a black 4-wheeled travel bag, her skirt hiked up, wearing high heeled sandals showing her toenails freshly painted with a bright red nail polish. She put her bag in the trunk of her red 2006 Chevy Monte Carlo parked outside, closed the trunk and went inside the room. She came out of the room with a black cloth Walton duffle bag and carrying a picture frame under her left arm. She left the duffle bag on top of the custom logo welcome mat outside the motel room door and got into her car. Leaving the motel parking lot her mood started shifting. She stopped just before leaving the motel behind. She looked at one of the framed photos from the motel room resting in the passenger seat. She looked in the rear view and saw the Mexican cleaning ladies fake modeling some of the clothes they found in the duffle bag for one another and sharing them amongst themselves. She began to smile. She looked right and left before leaving the motel. The road was clear. She pressed on the gas. And never looked back.