I was driving through Montana when I saw them standing on the shoulder: the young woman and the old man. Western Montana – where that famous big sky gives way to blue-green mountains in every direction, and the road begins to twist and rise and fall. But this was on a straight, downhill shot, and the smoke coming off their car was visible from a quarter-mile, so I had plenty of time to consider whether I was going to stop.
There weren’t cell phones back then. This would have been the late eighties, I think, because I was driving that giant blue Mercedes 1974 SEL sedan, the only car I’ve ever really loved. If there had been cell phones, this story would be different. For one thing, it wouldn’t have happened. I would have assumed they were waiting on a tow they’d already called, maybe at most I’d have called 911 and let the police know they should swing by. And, of course, today I wouldn’t be driving around aimlessly with the entire world laid out before me like presents on Christmas morning, but that’s a different thing. Back then, two people stuck on a stretch of lonely road was a real problem.
I stopped. It hadn’t hurt, if I’m being completely honest, that as I got closer it became clear the woman was blond and pretty, wearing one of those impractical furry throw jackets, and that the flanneled man beside her was probably forty years her senior. I felt like the traveling salesman in one of those lame jokes about the farmer’s daughter, only I wasn’t a salesman – I taught high-school English on a Crow reservation outside Billings – and the man wasn’t a farmer. He was a preacher, or so he said after they’d gotten in the car, and to make conversation I’d asked what they did.
This was also after I’d agreed to take them to Whitefish, nearly a hundred miles away, and I’d U-turned the car back up that long hill. She, riding shotgun, sighed and said, ‘He’s not a preacher, he’s a sculptor.’
‘Yeah, a famous one,’ she said, with a note of unmistakable pride.
He snorted. ‘Hardly.’
‘He has a piece in the Smithsonian.’
‘Some garbage folk art exhibit.’
‘Wait, what’s your name?’ I said.
He said nothing, so she answered for him. ‘Zell Jeffers.’
The name rang a faint bell, or maybe it just sounded like someone famous. A grunt issued from the back seat, as though in protest at his name being spoken so casually. ‘Hardly famous,’ he said again, as I merged onto US-93 at Missoula. ‘Famous people have cars that don’t blow up in the middle of nowhere.’
‘It could happen to anyone,’ she said.
‘But you ever notice,’ he said, ‘how this shit always happens to me.’
‘People’s cars break down.’
‘You’re my lucky charm,’ he said, and she turned to the window. ‘Anyway –’ he caught my eyes in the rearview – ‘thanks for the lift. I’ll make it worth your while.’
‘You said you were headed west, this is way out of your way.’
I’d said I was headed west, and it was true. I was planning to drop in on a girl I knew in Coeur d’Alene. But, also true: I wasn’t sure if the girl still lived there, and I was about as much headed to Whitefish as anywhere. On my summer breaks, I drove all over the plains and upper Midwest, taking those little white cross ephedrine pills you could still buy at gas stations, humping around my big Minolta to shoot artless photos of crows standing in fields, drinking beer in dingy motels with a sense that something might happen, though it pretty much never did. I was a romantic, and like many romantics, I fancied myself some kind of artist, or rather, someone with an artistic soul – someone who one day might become an artist, if they lived their life in an artistic manner. In truth, I was pleased by the new possibilities my day suddenly contained with these two strange people in my car.
‘What’s your name,’ said the woman. She was older than I’d first thought – older than I was, maybe thirty. Her hair was parted in the middle and she wore buckskin moccasin boots that came up over her jeans to mid-calf. She struck me as one of those late-hippie types you still ran into in the sticks, displaced in situation and time, better suited to 1968 than 1988, and so removed from modern culture that you couldn’t tell if they knew the difference. ‘I’m Molly. Like Malone.’
‘Like O’Neill,’ she said.
‘Like Debs. Like Oregon,’ sing-sang the voice from the back seat, punctuated by the light crack of a bottle being opened.
US-93 north was a flat, alternately four- and two-lane road that first passed Missoula, the bleak trailer-parked Missoula outskirts, then the Flathead Reservation, Flathead Lake, and past that, I knew from a previous ramble through these parts, Kalispell and Whitefish, and the jarring contrast of their tract housing and million-dollar lodges. Along the way, the Mission Mountains, white-capped in May, rose to the right of the car, and the increasingly beautiful landscape seemed to animate Molly in turn. She grew talkative about their lives, downright garrulous, and I could feel the figure behind us tensing at the sustained noise of her voice.
‘We were headed over to Spokane to see Zell’s daughter, but I never felt right about the trip. Too much bad juju from the start.’
Zell said, ‘What’s bad juju is always thinking everything is bad juju. It creates an atmosphere.’
‘Something you’re an expert in.’
‘I don’t deny it.’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘let’s just say there were signs, and I think the car breaking down was fortunate. I had a dream last night that we hit a patch of ice and skidded off the road, flipped down sideways into a ravine.’
Zell said, ‘No ice in May.’
‘It’s a metaphor.’
‘The reason,’ Zell said, ‘that she didn’t want to go to Spokane, is that she and my daughter don’t get along. My daughter thinks Molly here is using me for my fame and fortune. If she only knew.’
‘I’m only in it for the sweetness and good conversation,’ Molly said.
‘Shut your mouth.’
‘Hey,’ I said. The car grew silent, but the harshness of the words hung in the air like a sour smell – like, in fact, the increasingly strong odor of whiskey emanating from the back seat. To dispel some of the atmosphere, as Zell had called it, I turned on the radio to a fuzzy AM station playing old sixties surf hits: Dick Dale and The Surfaris. The weirdness of the moment was amplified by the shimmying twang of reverb guitar in the background, and it seemed that this would be an important day in my life. Although maybe it didn’t – maybe that’s me assigning the feeling I would come to have about that day to my feelings at the time, if that makes sense, a significance freighted in after the fact.
Zell had gotten his way and Molly had hushed, turning her attention to the passing landscape out the window. She was a fascinating-looking person, in that rawboned Joni Mitchell mode. Hair so blond it was almost white, and skin so thin that on her temple you could see a pulsing blue vein, like a mountain road on a map, full of switchbacks. She said, with quiet stubbornness, ‘Anyway, I think this whole thing was a blessing.’
Zell said, as though to the world, ‘Oh, to be possessed of this woman’s disposition! For every piece of bad luck to be good luck!’
‘Oh, Jesus, you shut up,’ said Molly. She turned to me, ‘Enough with our bullshit, what do you do?’
I told them what I did, as briefly as I could.
She said, ‘And you’re from Philadelphia? How on earth did you wind up out here?’
How did people wind up anywhere? In my case, the answer was that after college I’d seen a life of safe boredom stretch out yawning before me – some version of graduate work (even – oof – law school), eventual marriage and mild-mannered suburbanization either in Delaware County where half my family lived, or in some other leafy Acela corridor locale. So when I came across a brochure in the student union for teaching in reservations out West, it seemed not like a calling or great moral enterprise, but an escape, the chance to reinvent myself somewhere completely different and exciting.
But where I’d wound up, a dumpy little duplex in Billings, did not feel that different or exciting, despite the ghostly blue mountains in the distance. My landlady and her yapping dachshund lived beneath me, and she beat her ceiling with a broom if I played music after eight. I still sometimes got a thrill from living what seemed like such an unusual life – but, in truth, the kids on the reservation weren’t all that different from the same bored teenagers you found everywhere. They listened to metal and got high before class, and resented your authority like all high-school students, albeit with much greater historical cause. Driving home from the res every afternoon, I still had the sense of waiting for my life to happen.
After my quick precis, the old man said, ‘Rumspringa, huh?’
‘That’s what those, uh – the Amish call it. Go away for a year and get crazy.’
‘I’m working on three years now. Thinking I might move out to LA.’ As I talked, I realized that I’d taken on his clipped, macho manner of speech, and I understood that I wanted his approval, despite not knowing him, and despite disliking the little bit I’d seen so far. It’s always been a failing of mine, looking for respect from people who are themselves not worthy of it. ‘It’s not a rum-whatever.’
I was close to angry, I realized, but Molly’s hand patting my leg pulled me out of it. Intended, it seemed, as reassurance not to worry about whatever Zell was saying, it was still her hand on my leg, and a thrill ran up through my groin into the lower part of my gut.
‘You’ll go back.’ His giant head appeared again in the rearview, but this time he wasn’t looking at me. Despite the enormity of the Missions out the passenger side, he was seated behind me, staring out at a dense wall of trees beside the lake as though tracking something out there in them. He said, ‘It’s like churches. You go back to the one you were raised in. I hated the Catholic Church for forty years, but now I say my rosary.’
Molly said, ‘He does, every day.’
‘You can’t get away from anything. You spend your whole life running and you realize you ran around the world and you’re back where you were born.’
Molly said, ‘So depressing.’
I said, ‘You were born in Whitefish?’
‘No, Maryland. But I am my father, it’s a goddamned nightmare.’
We drove on in silence, with her hand either on or not on my leg. I’m old enough not to trust my memory anymore. Things get added and blurred and combined, often in ways that make everything more logical. At some point during the drive, there was a leg and a hand, but that’s about all I can vouchsafe. The dialogue, of course, is almost entirely invented, though true to the spirit and tone.
By the time we got to Whitefish, the old man was drunk. He’d probably already been about halfway there when I picked them up and just finished the job in my back seat. He said it was imperative that he get to a place called the Stone Rooster, but he couldn’t seem to direct me there. Eventually, I rolled down the window and asked a bearded fellow, who pointed and said a few blocks that way up the hill, near the lodges.
He said, ‘Is that Zell Jeffers?’
‘Yeah,’ I said.
‘No shit.’ His expression was unreadable, and that good feeling I’d had when I picked them up returned. Here I was, ferrying a famous – if drunk and irascible – artist around, enjoying the possibly erotic attention of his wife; who knew what might happen later? If every day could be like this, filled with chance meetings and secret knowledge . . . this feeling, I realized, was what I wanted all the time, was why I’d moved out West in the first place. I’d wanted to experience something new, but more than that, I’d wanted a kind of wild uncertainty and to live daily with the prospect that, good or bad, anything might happen. Of course, to have that feeling, anything sometimes had to happen, and it hadn’t for a while.
The Stone Rooster was the restaurant bar of an old resort hotel. Around two in the afternoon, during the off-season, there was hardly anyone there, just an older couple silently eating eggs and bacon in the corner while they read the newspaper. The bartender looked up from a book as the entry bell tinkled. Zell hobbled over and said, ‘Johnny here?’
The bartender shook his head and looked back down at the paper.
Zell said, ‘He coming in tonight?’
‘No, tonight’s Lee.’
‘When’s he coming in?’
‘How should I know?’
Zell brought something out of his pocket and laid it on the bar. We were standing behind Zell, a little to the side, so I couldn’t see what it was, but it was nevertheless clear from the bartender’s reaction, the way all humor and expression drained from his face, that it was a gun.
The bartender said, ‘I honestly don’t know when he’s coming in. You want me to call him?’
‘Just when I thought common courtesy was dead.’
The bartender shuffled down the bar to where a plastic cordless sat on a shelf. I moved a little to the left and saw that I’d been right. On the bar top, the old man had plunked down an equally old gun. With its ivory handle and long silver barrel, it looked like something from a western, although I know as little now about guns as I did then. I heard Molly mutter Shit, not with fear or even surprise, but with the tired inflection of a woman who’d dealt with the same routine ten times already this year alone. The couple in the corner somehow seemed not to have noticed, or maybe this kind of thing went on all the time in Whitefish, was a normal way of settling a dispute.
The bartender spoke into the phone, glancing up at Zell now and then. He said, ‘Johnny’s down in Colorado right now.’
‘Who’re you talking to, then?’
‘I bet. Listen, you tell him the next time I see him he’d better have that money he owes me, or I’m gonna shoot him in the knee. Tell him I brought the gun, so he knows I’m serious.’
The bartender repeated the words, though they’d been spoken loudly enough that surely the person on the other end had heard. The bartender hung up, and Zell said, ‘Okay, give me a Jack rocks and whatever those two want.’
Molly said, ‘Just a water.’
Everyone was waiting on me, I realized. ‘A beer, I guess?’
‘A beer, he guesses.’
The bartender got us our drinks and we moved to a table by the long window that looked out onto the streets of Whitefish. I expected to see police lights tearing down the road any second and became nervous about the little white pills in my pocket, even though they were legal. Molly didn’t look worried, though. She sipped her water through a straw while staring at Zell, who slouched into his chair at such an angle that he almost had to reach up for his drink.
‘Shouldn’t we leave?’ I asked.
‘Why, ’cause of old Chekhov, here?’ He patted the gun which he’d returned to somewhere in the recesses of his flannel jacket.
He looked at me appraisingly, and I said, ‘Yeah, I get it. The gun on the mantel that has to go off at some point.’
‘Not only that, but it makes things happen, drives the plot along. Gets surly bartenders to pick up the phone.’
I said, ‘You should call it Chandler, then,’ which felt pretty clever to me but drew no acknowledgment. ‘Isn’t he going to call the cops?’
‘Hell, no. He knows I’m old friends with Brickley.’
‘Sheriff Brickley,’ clarified Molly.
‘Brickley’s not gonna bring me up on pulling out a gun. That’s barely a crime, anyway.’
‘Threatening someone with a gun isn’t a crime?’
‘Depending on who you are, no. Quit worrying and drink your beer.’ We sat silent for a minute or two. I noticed that there was music playing, the Eagles, ‘One of These Nights’. Either it had been playing when we’d walked in, or the bartender had put it on after their little showdown. Zell said, ‘You’re a worrier, huh? My son’s that way. Bad worrier, they got him on all kinds of meds.’
Molly said, ‘Because a childhood spent watching scenes like that –’ she pointed at the bar – ‘fucked him up.’
‘Shut your mouth,’ he said again.
She shrugged. ‘Not like you don’t know it.’
‘It’s getting so,’ he said, squinting into his drink, then theatrically raising his gaze to meet hers, ‘I’m just not having fun anymore.’
‘Feel free to leave any time you want.’ She looked at me. ‘Zell likes to act like everything’s his, but we’ve been together eight years, common law. And I’ve worked that whole time.’
He laughed. ‘Some work, ferrying Mexican skunkweed around the Badlands.’
‘How much did your artwork bring in last year?’
‘Not shit,’ he laughed.
I was wondering, at that point, how I could reasonably extricate myself from the situation. It seemed I was no longer a temporary chauffeur, I’d become some kind of powerless referee, an unwitting witness to their union’s demise. There was a certain lurid interest in it, but the stunt with the gun had charged everything with the ugly undertone of potential violence.
I pushed up from the table. ‘You know where the bathroom is here?’
Zell said, ‘You’re not thinking about leaving us are you?’
‘I wouldn’t blame you if you were. We’re a bit of a load right now.’
‘We,’ said Molly.
He ignored her. ‘But the house is only about ten minutes up the hill behind here. I’ve got money there to pay you, can’t give you shit unless you get us there.’
‘Sure, of course,’ I said.
‘Thank you, Eugene,’ Molly said, again squeezing my leg.
In the bathroom, I bent over the basin splashing water on my face and looking at myself in the mirror, since that seemed like what a person was supposed to do at times like these. What were times like these? When a crazy old gun nut’s common-law drug-runner wife was coming on to you: times like those? I had a full head of hair back then, unruly and thick, and I smoothed the water from my face up into it, slicking it back a little. The thing was, I knew if I walked out, I’d always wonder how the story ended, what might have happened. Looking back to that time from where I am now, I wish I’d had even more of that resolve. But I had enough at that moment, at least, to return to the table and say, ‘All right, let’s go.’
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