Friday, September 12, 2014

Drummond, Montana

It’s High Noon. I stand in the intersection of Front and Main Street. A big cluster of clouds line up on the horizon. The Greyhound has stopped here for lunch and at first I’m disappointed as I look around to find myself in the middle of another nowhere town, it seems. Looking in the direction of Main Street I can look both ways and almost see the whole town. There’s not a single store, as far as I can see, that looks like it might be opening anytime soon. All of them look like they’ve been closed for years and nobody ever cared to post a notice to that effect in the windows. A couple of them sport some advertising posters that I’m sure are at least twenty years old. Turning to Front street the first thing that catches my eye is the American flag flying high on top of the Fire Station house trying to fight this sudden sleet coming from the north. The local bank announces on its windows the upcoming Fourth of July parade, which is still more than two months away. On the other side of the railroad tracks, the water tower stands tall and proud as if trying to prove to any visitor or passer-by that this was once a thriving farming community. There’s only a couple of parked cars and pickup trucks but no sign of traffic anywhere. I get a sense I’m in a different time altogether, as if the town was frozen in the 1900’s and I’m about to see some real working cowboys on their horses coming down Main Street or cattle being driven to pasture.

The sleet has turned to snow and I head to where the bus is parked. The engine is still running and the smell of the diesel mixed with the cigarette smoke from some of my bus companions make me wish we were back on the road. Then the sudden smell of grease in the air raises my attention to the “Frosty Freeze” and a sign that announces the best burgers and fries in the state of Montana. From outside it looks like one of those places from the Depression captured by the photographers of the Farm Security Information. I step inside and I am overwhelmed by how even the smell of recently brewed coffee isn’t enough to subdue the strong smell of burgers and fries coming from the kitchen. At the counter sit two old men drinking coffee, the only costumers in the café. They both got John Deere caps on, faded jeans and cowboy boots that I’m sure have seen better days. They both look past their prime and judging from a long life of hard labour, they should be retired somewhere else where sunshine is prominent. But they don’t let a single air of disillusion for the life they chose and for the difficult times they’re certainly going through. Quite the contrary. They thrive in surviving despite all the setbacks. Right there I find the spirit of every single small town in America, stamped in their faces.

I sit at the counter a stool away from them and watch as Bill, the one closest to me keeps eating his bacon strips from a plate with his arthritis’ hands. He has an habit of touching the tip of his cap every once in a while that I’m certain is the result of years of tipping it to the ladies. Tom sits next to him and keeps reading the newspaper’s weather predictions over and over again as he’s sipping his coffee real slow. He wears suspenders that only highlight his slight hunchback. They talk about the weather and how if this snow doesn’t let up, they will soon have to dig up their snow plows. It’s the end of April and Bill says he hasn’t seen this much snow so late into spring in more than fifty years. They finally acknowledge me with a tip of their caps. I nod back and I can see tiny drops of bacon fat hanging in Bill’s thick grey moustache. They keep discussing the weather and how this constant sleet and snow will ruin the crops of hay pretty much for years to come. The owner/cook/waiter comes back from the kitchen and places an order of burger and fries in front of Tom. He then serves me coffee and asks if they’ll be something else. I say that famous burger and fries looks good to me and he goes back into the kitchen to prepare my order. I look around and notice a big clock on the wall with a pendulum that seems to be running slow. Not only that but both Bill and Tom seem to do everything to its slower rhythm. Bill is still eating his bacon strips and Tom sipping his coffee to the rhythm of that slow pendulum. I look outside and see the rest of my bus companions boarding the bus on the snow and only then remember hearing the driver announcing that this will only be a 15-minute cigarette break. I call out to the kitchen and say I’m terribly sorry but I need to get back on the bus so I only be having the coffee to go. Tom turns to me and says he’ll be glad to let me have his order to go. I thank him and finish my coffee and pay the owner who hands me a Styrofoam container with the burger and fries.

As I head to the exit I cannot help but notice a few used books by the door which are intended for trading by the townsfolk and travellers. I browse through them and find a very worn copy of Thomas McGuane’s “Nothing But Blue Skies” which I’ve been wanting to read ever since I read “Nobody’s Angel” years ago. I reach for my backpack and take out William Kittredge’s “The Willow Field” which I had just finished reading on the bus and trade it in for the McGuane novel. I look back at Bill, Tom and the owner and they give me an approving nod and a tip of their caps. I step outside and run for the bus as it’s ready to leave and take my seat up front just in time to see Tom reaching for the Kittredge book and taking it with him to the counter. I smile and look at the McGuane book as the bus roars by and tries to fight the sleet and snow that is starting to pour on down heavier now. The windshield wipers at full speed can hardly keep up with the snow falling in front of the bus. I can hardly see anything past a few feet in front of me as we keep rolling on I-90. I grab my burger and fries and eat the best burger I’ve had in the state of Montana without a doubt, looking straight ahead at the snow that is finally letting up. I open up the book and start reading as the slower methodical sound of the windshield wipers pushing the snow from the windows seem to be marking time.

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