Department Literary Lode
You were all silk lace, polite talk, and money, a daughter of professors, a mystery to a working guy like me, but we found each other because we both wanted to slut it up in Montana, to drink and dance in bars among cowboys, loggers, and magicians, to drive those long forever roads beneath the skin of the sky stretching out in front of us like an invitation to the rest of out lives. In Montana, it felt like anything could happen, and it usually did. I bought an ancient Audi Fox, a white one, for $900 from a girl who lived in a condo across the street from Dick Hugo’s grave, and when that first weekend came, a balmy Saturday in October, we headed to Yaak with the windows rolled down. Some writer or other had wintered there and written about it, which was enough for us. On the way to Yaak, we stopped in Libby, an old mining town where half the population was dying of asbestos poisoning and the other half just didn’t give a damn. We found a bar, of course.
We always found a bar.
Inside, sitting next to a man who claimed to jockey horses in California during the summer, we listened, believing everything, as he talked on about horse tranquilizers, illegal bets, and steak dinners at midnight. Montanans didn’t care much for Californians so anyone in Montana claiming to be from California was probably from California. Not that we cared. We just wanted a story, so we simply nodded and grinned, dropping shots of tomato juice into our draft beers as he told his tales. I wanted him to get up so I could see if he was short enough to be a jockey, and to see if he wore cowboy boots. I knew the details would be important.
“Which way to Yaak?” I asked him when he was done talking.
“I could drive you there,” he said, squinting at me as you leaned against my shoulder, laughing.
“No, we’re cool,” I said.
Youth is like a drug, Fitzgerald said, and we were feeling it, young and foolish, the kind of people we don’t recognize today, don’t understand—like those kids we saw just yesterday leaving the coffee shop only to stand in front of the shop’s windows kissing for minutes before they climbed into their purple van and drove away. Why stand there kissing like that? Why not just drive off together and get on with it? We looked away and got back to our business (whatever that was), trying to ignore that tickle beneath our skin, our past lives scratching to get out
When we arrived, Yaak was one paved street, two bars, and a post office. It was just after ten, no hotel in sight, no gas station, even, and Libby was 68 miles behind us, but we didn’t care. We skipped into the bar to find it packed, the jukebox miraculously screaming the Violet Fems—Big hands you’re the one—and a man dressed head-to-toe in calfskin, a David Crockett knife attached to his leather belt. He danced a little jig in the middle of the floor littered with sawdust and peanut shells. We looked at each other with ravenous wonder, delighted and in love.
“This is like a dream,” I shouted to you over the music.
“What? I can’t hear you?”
“Don’t wake me up,” I said, shaking my head.
You smiled. “I won’t.”
What I want to say is that in Montana, you and I laughed and drank and danced and fucked in a way that led us to believe that this was our life—booze, magic, and road trips—that this was all we needed. Our lives bled beauty, and everywhere we looked some draw-dropping spectacle popped up before us as if our eyes were what gave this mountain, this river, its very life. I’ve never been happier. Once, we pulled over near Polson, right before the lake, and climbed into the back of your pickup (Montana a place where even women drove pickups) and fucked furiously beneath the stars in the bed of your truck, the cars shuddering past, you breathing heavily into my ear. I wondered what it looked like to you, the bee-stung sky above, and me deep inside, as deep as I could go and with everything I had.
See, Montana was just a silly little song we couldn’t get out of our heads, but at that moment, in Yaak, right after we saw the calfskin man doing his jig, it felt as if we’d found the nectar, the secret for which others spend a lifetime searching. A few minutes later, you asked for the car’s key to retrieve a pack of smokes, and a few minutes after that, you came back in tears, your fingers red raw. You were sobbing, trying to explain how you’d broken off the key trying to open the trunk. “I’m so sorry,” you said. “We’re stranded. I’m such a fucking idiot.”
But it was okay. I held your fingers in my hands and blew on them, telling you the broken key wasn’t for the engine—the car was old enough to have separate keys for the ignition and the trunk. You laughed, and we kissed and drank our last shots, and when the bar closed, the fun done, we cruised like innocents, back to Libby, back to reality. We passed countless little white crosses marking the spots where people had died in accidents, but it felt like nothing could touch us, not yet. We weren’t destined to be some sad newspaper story forever linked to one of those melancholy mushroom crosses. We knew we were better than that (we had chains and an emergency blanket in the trunk!) or maybe just luckier, but somehow, we made it those sixty-eight miles to Libby, a hotel, and then all the way to here, Lincoln, Nebraska, our little life here today, the shared tender secrets of our children, our dreams all dreamt up.
I only wonder if it’s enough.