Page 1

Summer 2009

East Montana Jerome W. McAllister Earlier in the day, after leaving the mountains but before catching up to the rain, Maureen had entered east Montana. The sky dominates completely without competition from the mountains. It is not flat but has contours on an enormous scale. The country is too dry for anything but sparse brown grass and, intermittently, a few Angus cows. The exception is the occasional stretch of green from a band of irrigated hay along the Yellowstone River. The Interstate follows the river’s course east to the North Dakota border. Signs of human habitation are few beyond the Yellowstone. The exit at milepost 172 quickly turns from pavement to gravel which leads to a handful of houses called Terrance, Montana. At the edge of the pavement sits a gas station, the town’s only retail outlet. It has an appearance that says, “I used to look a lot nicer when the Interstate was new.” The station’s lone island contains two pumps, each with a single hose. One is for regular and one for something a little better. Under each nozzle for starting the pump is a long popmetal handle to pull over. The pumps make a slow buzzing sound suggesting the gasoline is barely dripping out. Maureen sits in the front passenger seat of the Camaro, eyes unopened. Slowing from the hum of the Interstate has awakened her. Gravel against the tires piques her interest for a look around. The dry, treeless country that extends from the mountains to Minnesota continues to surround her. The wind and rain from last night in the mountains has returned and is buffeting the side of the car from the east. Brad announces, “Gas stop, three hours to the next one.” “Why are you in such a hurry?” asks Maureen. “Aren’t your folks expecting you today? There’s over seven hundred miles left to Minneapolis.” “I don’t want to go home.” “You didn’t want to live with me in Montana either.” “There wasn’t anything there for us!” Maureen slumps back into the seat. The Camaro is still. Finally, she hears the low grate made by gasoline hitting the walls of an empty tank. The sound diminishes 56


Fine Lines

quickly to a weak trickle. She opens the car door and swings her bare legs onto the clean, cracked concrete apron surrounding the two faded gas pumps. Her hip checks a bag of clothes from the backseat, until the door can force it back. The wind blows a cold drizzle into everything exposed -- face, legs, arms -- forcing her to advance directly onto the station and use an aluminum bar running across the middle of a glass door to lever it open. She carries a portion of the wind and the cold and the mist into the station. “Is this awful weather from Minnesota for me?” she wonders. The inside of the station is warm and bare. There is little more than some automotive supplies, newspapers, and a middleaged woman sitting behind a glass counter with a cash register on top. Maureen notes that the restrooms are off an adjoining room to her right where four men in cowboy hats are seated at a single table, drinking coffee. The woman says hello. Maureen responds by saying that it’s cold. “There’s coffee in the other room,” the woman says, nodding towards the seated men. Maureen enters the room and spies the pot on a counter to the left of the men. They appraise her finding a twenty-year-old with long legs, big bones, and blonde hair going brown, and return to talking about the potential for cutting more hay before snow sets in. She goes into the restroom. It’s bright with a shiny floor, and all the trash is in the wastebasket. The basket is constructed from green expanded metal, like one in a city park. She exits back to a now empty room, finds a stack of white Styrofoam cups next to the pot and pours one full. On a shelf just above the coffee, she sees a long row of plastic bottles, various kinds of shampoo and conditioner. The bottles are in two perfect rows, none missing, dust free, and the price is less than she remembers paying at Albertsons in Livingston. Nothing else is for sale in the room but a row of necklaces hanging from the wall by the shampoo shelf. All the necklaces are similar -- cheap gold chains, attached to upside-down tear shapes. Each tear has delicate wildflowers painted on a dark, highly shellacked background. The colors are bold against glossy black, like those from anemone or hepatica on an early spring forest floor. Below the necklaces are a photograph of seven women and a small card with calligraphy stating they have been made by the Prairie Homemakers’ Club and can be purchased at the Terrance Gas Station for $8.00 apiece. 57


Summer 2009

Maureen returns to the station’s entry. Brad is still pumping gas. “Where are you headed?” asks the woman from behind her. Maureen turns and observes that the woman appears in the photograph in the adjoining room, “To the Twin Cities.” The woman adds, “You have a long drive and a lot of rain ahead of you. When you got out of your car, it looked like all the stuff from the backseat wanted to come with you. Are you moving?” “Well, I guess we are. Brad and I have been working on a ranch up in the Absarokas by Livingston, for over a year. Dude ranch with cattle. Started over a year ago, just as a summer job working with guests. Then, we stayed and spent the winter working with the horses and cattle, and getting ready for this year’s season. It was nice, but we weren’t getting anywhere. Going back to the Cities now.” “I know that story better than I want to. At least the ranch part. When your life out here comes from a piece of land, you struggle. There’s nothing for the help but their pay,” says the woman. Maureen asks, “I noticed -- next to the coffee -- shampoo and necklaces?” “The necklaces are made from miniature eggs, and the flowers are hand-painted by my Homemakers’ club. Some of us have been together since grade school; the jewelry-making is an excuse to get together and talk. The shampoo is a first attempt at a local toiletry trade. The closest store is forty miles away. I saw the shampoo and conditioner at a liquidation place in Glendive, and I thought if I ran out all the time, so must most everyone who buys gas or drinks coffee in here.” “What do you have planned back home?” asks the woman. “I don’t know, exactly. A year ago, we were both supposed to come home and go back to school; me college, Brad vo-tech. Working at the KbarH and living together for another year just happened.” Maureen ends the conversation by gazing toward the Interstate in the distance. Semis are moving up the overpass. From the west, the trucks leave a long plume of spray fanning out behind them. From the east, the spray curves up and pushes the trucks onward to the mountains. Looking through the big opening below the overpass, there’s scruffy grass to the horizon. She looks back at the woman behind the glass counter, this time with intent, and sees soft brown hair, combed but not orderly. The woman is wearing a clean white blouse and a pair of pants with a large, not too busy, plaid. She looks about the same age as 58


Fine Lines

Maureen’s mother, even though the sun has spent more time with her face. The first summer at the KbarH was like being in the most beautiful movie ever filmed. Seeing Brad at every meal and in her room every night made up for the previous year apart, when she was first away at college. The sky at the ranch was big and blue and almost dwarfed the mountains. They rose up right behind the ranch and made the evening sky only half as big as during the day. In June, there were butterflies and flowers in the meadows near the lodge, and in July, after the snow left, the horses took Maureen and Brad to the tops of the mountains where the butterflies and the flowers happened again. The work was long but not hard. Their co-workers complained about there being only one way to do things right and about getting up early and working until late. Every week, there was some dude who made unfair demands. Brad said the horses tended not to like those guests, either. Doing things right was not a big chore for Brad or her, and new people arrived every Sunday. They stayed past the first summer because the owners asked. Brad worked hard through fall and into winter moving cows, pulling horseshoes and repairing tack. As the snow deepened, his work tapered off. Maureen wrote e-mails and letters and talked to customers on the phone. On a Saturday in December, the neighbor families came over to help butcher three pigs that Maureen had spent the summer fattening with the dude ranch leftovers. Each person seemed to have an assigned task like an assembly line. Maureen helped with wrapping the meat cuts into meal portions, sized right for each family. Brad sat at a big round table with the men trimming the coarser cuts before grinding. All day long, the talk was about cattle prices, the moisture levels next spring, and life’s changes for everyone up and down the valley. Spring came, and getting ready for the next season took front and center. Soon a whole year passed, but this time there was no school waiting in early fall. There was not much waiting in a twelve month summer job doing work on other people’s dreams, either. Late in August, the owners started talking about Brad and her moving to the ranch house down the valley for a second winter. In response, Brad asked Maureen, “Isn’t it time to get real jobs in town and our own place to live?” “The best way to get a ‘real job’ is to go back to school. Both of 59

summerexcerpt_marketplace  

summerexcerpt_marketplace