1976 - Sissy
Sissy was on some sort of a pilgrimage that summer. She was on her way through Gardiner when she decided to stay for a week or so and then was going to return after she left in a few weeks and then would be back again on her way back through. I never could follow her plans but she always had them, and was, and still is, one of my most beloved friends.
During this particular visit she was helping me make a birthday cake for our landlord, Gale. Gale and her skeleton of a husband Francis owned the hotel, the little brown cabin and our blue house apartment.
I often coffee-clutched with Gale in her miniature kitchen next to the hotel office, where she chain smoked cigarettes and couldn’t resist blowing smoke rings with her creased lips. I never saw her without coffee at her side or without a juicy story to tell. She loved to gossip about people I never knew; mostly her family. She had some bad ass relatives, who, according to her, liked to sleep around and duke it out.
One day she mentioned that she and Francis had never consummated their marriage of fifteen years.
“What did you say?” I asked not wanting to admit to her that I didn’t know what consummated meant.
“I said Francis and I have never consummated our marriage. If it doesn’t happen on your wedding night honey, it probably ain’t gonna happen.”
“That’s a shame,” I said shaking my head in pity. She didn’t tell happy stories often so I assumed this was not a happy one either.
Jason knew what consummated meant when I told him later.
“I don’t blame Francis,” he said. “Gale would crush that little bag of bones and he’d end up in the hospital.”
“Oh Jason,” I said smacking him with the end of the kitchen towel, realizing I’d known what it meant all along.
During this particular Sissy visit, Sissy, Belle and I were in my ugly kitchen on a bright and dusty morning and I was reading over the directions in my Betty Crocker Cook Book. My finger was on the chocolate cake page and I was making sure we had all of the ingredients in the big silver bowl as Sissy began blending them together with my new olive green electric hand- mixer just purchased from the Livingston Goodwill, when it stopped.
Belle and I looked up and Sissy was standing there one hand on her hip, her long sandy hair tipped to the side and she was staring at the mixer in her hand.
“Why’d you stop?”
“I didn’t. It just quit. There’s something wrong with it.”
“That’s impossible. It’s brand new.”
“Well, it’s not working.”
“Is it plugged in?”
“Of course it’s plugged in. It was just mixing.”
Her voice trailed off.
“Oh, maybe the plug is slipping out.”
She leaned over and shoved the plug back into the outlet while looking at the frozen blades.
Well that mixer worked just fine. It spewed chocolate like the fourth of fucking July. You know those big billowy fireworks when everyone is oohhing and ahhing? It happened so fast that Sissy’s reactions couldn’t save my ugly kitchen.
She finally pulled the cord out of the mixer.
There were two full seconds of dead, pin drop silence, before Belle began licking the walls.
“You know, you need to have the beaters in the bowl when you turn the mixer on,” I said.
Sissy’s mouth was still wide open and she was still assessing the damage.
“Well, I wasn’t thinking. I just pushed the plug back in.”
“Yeah, you pushed the plug back in all right with the beaters in the air, not in the bowl.”
She made her notorious face with her lower lip sticking out and her head hanging in shame.
Then I started laughing.
Then she laughed.
Then we both laughed.
Then tears were streaming.
Then Belle stopped and looked at us and then she went back to licking the walls. I didn’t know at the time that chocolate wasn’t good for dogs.
“You made my ugly kitchen even uglier.”
“I know. How is that even possible?”
“You are obviously some sort of a genius.”
We started laughing again and Belle continued to lick the walls.
The white ruffled curtains over the window that looked into nothing were riveted with chocolate bullet holes, the ceiling was polka dotted as well as the chocolate Formica cupboards. The yellow walls had a bad case of the chicken pox.
Sissy herself could have been on the menu if you like slim, sandy blonde, blue eyed, chocolate splattered women.
By the time we had that cake baked and frosted and the kitchen and Sissy cleaned up, we’d lost half the day and Belle had the shits.
I set the cake in the middle of kitchen table like it was a master piece in an art gallery and we took off to hike Bear Creek Trail.
When we returned a few hours later the cake was still on the table exactly where w'd left it but the frosting had vanished.
Sissy said, “What the?”
Belle was laying on the floor, ears down avoiding eye contact.
I started to panic. Gale’s surprise birthday party was in less than an hour and I was bringing the fucking cake. I was finally going to meet some of her bad ass relatives and I so wanted to make a good impression.
Sissy was shaking her head. “No, Millie. You cannot do it.”
“Oh yes I can. Get the damn mixer out. We can fix this.”
She told me I would go to hell for what I was planning to do.
I told her I wouldn’t go to hell because I would scrape the top layer of the cake off with my new rubber spatula from Goodwill, before putting on the new batch of frosting.
She asked me if I was going to eat a piece of that cake at the party.
I told her no, I wasn’t going to eat a piece of that cake at the party, but I didn’t like cake, and she knew I didn’t like cake. And who did she think she was she telling me what was right and what was wrong? Hadn’t she just driven twenty-four hours straight and rather than pulling over to pee at a truck stop where she was sure to be mugged and raped, she’d peed in a bottle with her foot still on the gas pedal going seventy miles an hour? Was that a sound mind? I didn’t think so. Not sound enough for a decision about this birthday cake.
I was grateful Sissy wasn’t invited to the party which ended up being a small gathering in the living room of Gale and Francis’ motel living quarters. Gale glowed with all of the attention and her cigarette lighter, and she was in shock that Francis had arranged everything. I think it was better than any consummation of any marriage for her. She couldn’t have smoked more cigarettes if she’d tried.
We all sang happy birthday and she blew out the candles.
Her bad ass relatives didn’t do anything terrible at the party, so that was a bit disappointing.
The cake was a big hit.
No, I never had a piece.
1976 - Chuck Manson
One summer night Louisa and I found Peggy sitting on the sidewalk hugging her knees in front of old stone building next to The Twin Bar.
“What’s wrong?” Louisa said kneeling down next to her in the dark. “What’s the matter Peggy?”
She could barely spit her words out. She pushed her brown framed glasses back up her swooped nose after wiping her eyes. Her wavy brunette hair and eyebrows hung sadly. When she could finally speak I was sure she was mistaken.
“Chuck fired me.”
Chuck Manson was the owner of the Corner Café. He was an old guy with a bald head and a waxed handle bar mustache that you could see from behind, it was that wide and it curled around on the ends. He seemed like a nice enough gruff old man.
We ate breakfast at the Corner most mornings. Not to take anything away from Jason’s cooking at the K, but the Corner Café had better hash browns and larger portions and their hot cinnamon rolls were to die for. It was a little greasy spoon and our hard earned money went a long way there.
Chuck’s wife was a sweet, slightly hunch backed woman named Gloria who obviously slept with a couple of rollers on top of her head of short salt and peppered hair. She had a friendly hollow smile and worked around the clock it seemed, always slithering through the restaurant, wiping off tables, pouring coffee and ringing people out at the cash register.
Their daughter Lucy was in her mid-twenties. She was striking with one brown eye and one blue eye and shiny, red-copper colored hair that went to the middle of her back. Lucy was on a perpetual Weight Watchers Diet and never ate anything in our presence. “No thanks”, she would say. “I’m saving up my points for a six pack of light beer. I gotta shoot pool tonight.”
The Manson’s owned two dogs. One was an overweight mix of a bull dog and maybe God knows what else. He had those weird bottom teeth that stick out like an upside down smile and the other one looked something like a black Brillo Pad with an over bite walking on sticks. Those two mutts hung out together in front of the Corner Café, always.
Peggy began to tell her story. “Chuck called me a cunt and threw a pan at me.”
“No! You’ve got to be kidding. Chuck did what? Why?” Louisa and I were in shock, our eyes wide open and mouths gaping. Nobody ever actually said that word, did they?
“I don’t know what I did. He walked in the door and started yelling at me.
“What were you doing?”
“I was filling the sugars jars for the morning.”
“What did all the customers do?”
“There weren’t any customers. It was almost nine. He yelled, “Get out of here you little cunt. You’re fired!”
“Was he drunk?” I asked. It didn’t sound like the daytime Chuck who was rough around the edges but once you got beyond his intimidating appearance and intimidating name, he seemed okay. Calling someone a cunt was absolutely unforgivable. We were never, ever going to the Corner Café again, absolutely never.
Louisa pulled Peggy up off the sidewalk. “Come on, I’ll buy you a beer. You’ll be fine.”
There was another café over at the old hotel. We gave it a shot, but they didn’t have the same greasy hash browns, hot cinnamon rolls to die for, Lucy with her bi-colored eyes and her bizarre outlook on life, and there were no goofy looking guard dogs. It just didn’t have the same charm. Our boycott from the Corner Café was short lived, even for Peggy.
2010 - Chico in the Morning
“Millie, thanks for bringing me along on this trip,” my mother was saying as she took a sip of the steaming hot coffee from her Styrofoam cup. She was sitting next to me poolside in a chaise lounge chair. It was a cool morning and steam was rising off the water. I think her hazel eyes were misty under her sunglasses.
“Mom,” I said blowing my hot coffee so that I could take a sip, “Thanks for coming with me.”
I have that picture of her in photo album number one. It’s the one that she is underneath her big white sunglasses, one slender leg up, the other outstretched, wearing my swim top of dazzling white, black, brown and turquoise and the little black bottoms made for a teenager that had come from the rack in the gift shop. She looked like a movie star. My dad always thought she did. He was right, she did.
I wrote on the back of a Chico post card to Louisa’s daughter Luanne who was a freshman at the UW in Madison. Luanne is my God daughter and she thought it would be fun to get mail out of her new little post box at her dorm. I told her about the weather, the horses, the mountains and the giant apple cinnamon muffin we were splitting by the pool.
The forecast for the day was sunny and seventy-three. That’s what the chalkboard in front of the coffee shop said in florescent pink letters along with the special of the day. That was Chico’s weather station. Montana still seemed to be low on TV’s. I liked that version of the weather channel. It said the same thing every day during our stay. It was my kind of weather and that weather board was accurate one hundred percent of the time.
“Wonder what the east-siders are doing today?”
“Hmm?” I said absently. I was texting Louisa telling her that I was sending Luanne the promised post card.
“Oh, I love it here,” she went on after a sip of her coffee. She sounded like my old mom again. The tone in her voice was the one I hadn’t heard in a long time. “A, it is beautiful. 2, the mountains are so blue. And C, this muffin is excellent.”
I had mentioned to her one day that I thought it would be fun to write a book sometime with a character who always used sayings but never said them correctly. She’d been shouting out mixed up adages in the car, like Forest Gump in his famous shrimp scene, since we’d left Wisconsin. Every now and then she’d have another attack and wasn’t able to stop herself.
“You got it,” I said acting like I hadn‘t noticed her last two. “It is a great day and today we’re going to town, and do you know what town that might be?”
“I sure do,” grinned Sophia Loren. “Heaven must be freezing over, because today we’re going to Gardiner Montana.”
2010 – Gardiner Montana
The guy at the front desk tipped us off that there would be less traffic on River Road and it would be more scenic than highway 89.
“Like there could be a road more scenic than highway 89,” I scoffed to mom.
It turned out that he was right.
I didn’t cry when we pulled into Gardiner. I didn’t scream when we pulled into Gardiner. I didn’t talk when we pulled into Gardiner. I didn’t breathe when we pulled into Gardiner.
It was just as I’d been picturing all those years. I was never sure if I was imagining real memories or if I was seeing what my mind had created and had mixed together with my dreams.
Sissy had given me some hints. She’d been on some sort of a pilgrimage not that many years prior and had stopped in Gardiner on her way back from or was it to some place, or maybe it was both.
She was right. Gardiner had changed a lot in some ways and in some ways not at all. There were a lot more businesses, especially on the north side of the river. There were several things that I remembered and they looked exactly the same, for instance, the Jardine sign, the Sinclair Gas Station, the K-Bar, the Two Bit Saloon, the Blue Goose Saloon, The Town Hotel, the house with enough wood stocked for the next ice age, the same dusty roads, the back alleys and junk sitting in the same spots, The Roosevelt Arch, Electric Peak and the bridge over the Yellowstone River. Those things looked exactly the same.
The post office is now a big building moved to the other side of the river and the fire department has lime green trucks. The grocery store is now across from the new post office instead of on the corner across from the Sinclair Station. There are fru-fru coffee shops, a car wash, gift shops, white-water rafting businesses, new hotels, and a Subway Restaurant.
I don’t remember a fire department at all in 1976, but a reliable source told me there had been one right next to the old post office on the other side of the river across from the Twin Bar. She assured me there was only one truck then and it was red. I believed her, because she remembered the Ice Factory.
The little brown cabin, Gale and Francis’ hotel and the blue house apartment were all gone. We found the spot they’d been located and looked over the steep bank at the river below, standing in the same place where I’d stood and looked over the river that first night in Gardiner after passing by the little brown cabin. It was the same bank that I used to slide down to the river on my butt with my sketch pad in hand, and then curse all the way back up the crumbling hill, rocks slipping out from under me.
Mom and I stepped inside the K-Bar for some lunch. From the outside it looked almost the same as it had. But the inside was another story. The dimly lit smoky bar that I’d pictured all those years, lined with cowboy hat silhouettes, while Hank Williams voice blared out of the speakers, was replaced with no smoking signs, bright cheery glossy wood tables, the sun shining in through a big freshly washed window, a digital juke box on the wall and a large flat screen TV behind the bar that was tuned into the golf channel.
There were no pool tables, no foosball tables, no hippies and no cowboys. The golf channel was tuned in on a flat screen T.V. behind the bar. I just had to say that again.
I ordered a Bloody Mary to soften the blow, but they only served beer or wine. So I changed my order to a beer and Mom and I decided on a medium veggie pizza, which made me stifle a laugh as I remembered the day that Jason had served an entire busload of vegetarians, several vegetarian pizzas in which the crusts were covered in a red meat sauce, unbeknownst to Jason. He only learned of it after one very angry vegetarian discovered that they’d all just inhaled beef.
“God those vegetarians need to get a sense of humor,” he said later that night as we listened to his story in hysterics and he exhaled his next sentence. “I thought they were going to kill me.”
“So they all ate the pizza?”
“Every fucking one of them.”
“And you didn’t know there was meat in the sauce?”
“I had no idea.”
We all admitted that we’d never noticed any meat in the sauce, but there wasn’t a time after that, that I didn’t notice it.
The café side of the bar was closed the day that Mom and I were there. It’s now used only in the busy season when they need the additional seating. With permission from the waitress we wandered over to the old K-Cafe restaurant to take a peek while our pizza was being prepared.
The salad bar still split the room in half but it was covered with overturned chairs instead of garbanzo beans and lettuce. The tables still lined the walls and they were still shielded with green and white checkered table clothes that were also hidden under the over turned chairs. It looked as I’d remembered it, just deserted.
After we finished our lunch in the bar I went to use the restroom while Mom paid the bill. The ladies room was near the passage into the café and my feet wandered that way once more as if they had their own will. The swinging doors with the circle windows to the kitchen were ajar and I stood there under the doorframe gazing in for a moment. The same industrial sink lined the wall on the left side and the big grill covered oven across from it on the right side with the high shelves and hanging pans and the counter in between, just as they’d been. I traveled back in time standing in the doorway.
1976 - Old Faithful- Mitch
Beau taught me how to smack the head of lettuce on its core on that counter in the middle of that kitchen my first day on the job. “Twist and pull it out and run cold water inside to rinse it,” he’d said with his Texan accent. “Never cut it with a knife. Use your hands to rip it apart. Otherwise it’ll turn brown.” He then asked me to refill the garbanzo beans and I’d said, “What are garbanzo beans?”
Then I pictured Jason with his back to me standing in front of that big stove, his lean physique, disorderly head of hair, and spatula in hand, flipping burgers with his rapid fire wrist, like he was playing a game of foosball.
A friend of mine from high school stopped in one day, on his motorcycle, on his way to visit some other friends somewhere out west. Mitch had been staying with Jason and me for a few days sleeping in the spare room in the blue house apartment.
I had the day off and Jason was scheduled to work from 2:00 PM until 11:00 PM, so Mitch and I decided to go for a ride on his motorcycle. I walked through the swinging doors with the circle windows and stood next to Jason. He was placing a slice of Swiss cheese on a burger that was sizzling and oozing juices when I told him our plans. I kissed him good-by and ran out before he could object.
It was a perfect day. It was warm, sunny and dry and I loved motorcycles. Jason didn’t like motorcycles.
Mitch and I rode into the park. We leaned together around the curves with warm wind on our faces, my long hair flying around happily behind. We pulled over and looked at waterfalls, hot springs and wildlife. Eventually we drove into a parking lot at Old Faithful after weaving our way there. It was late afternoon and we parked his bike and went to see the world famous geyser.
There were people milling around outside and someone said to us, “You just missed Old Faithful.”
“Really?” I said.
“Don’t worry. It’ll go off in another hour,” the guy said. So Mitch and I went into the Inn to kill some time and we found a bar.
Mitch had been a very talented class clown in my grade and he hadn’t changed much, one year post high school. He had me in stitches as he picked on the bartender and talked to me about Mr. Peabody, our mousey old librarian, and the pranks the poor man endured. I remembered Mr. Peabody’s pale face turning beat red when he noticed a book had been signed out under the name Simon Garfunkel, and Mitch still swore that day that it was not him. He could do a perfect impression of the old guy preaching about the Dewey Decimal System.
An hour passed, so we wandered back outside to see the famous geyser and again people were milling around and someone said, “You just missed it, but it will go off in an hour.”
That’s when Mitch pretended that we were newlyweds having our first fight and he began bickering. “Millie, I told you we were going to be late, but you NEVER listen to me. Why don’t you listen to me?”
“What? Don’t blame me, Mitch. I was waiting for you. You were the one who took your sweet time getting out here looking at every ass along the way. I am sick and tired of you always blaming me for everything that goes wrong.”
We bitched our way back inside to the bar and ordered ourselves some more beer.
An hour later we wandered back out to see the geyser go off again and people were milling around and someone said, “You just missed it.”
“Really?” I said.
“It will go off in another hour.”
“Millie! You did it again. I can’t take you anywhere. You’ll be late for your own funeral and it might just be today.”
“Oh, no you don’t, you no good loser. Don’t pin this on me. How can you live with yourself?”
Back to the bar we went for another hour and then back out to see the geyser.
“You just missed it,” a man said to Mitch.
We then morphed into a couple on the verge of a divorce. “That’s it Milicent, I am leaving you. I am sick and tired of your self-centered irresponsible crap. Look at this. We missed Old Faithful again because of you. At least that geyser is faithful.”
“Listen here you son of a bitch, you were in there peeing for a half an hour and I think you are drunk. That is why we missed Old Faithful. It has nothing to do with whether I am faithful to you or not!”
People were staring with open mouths and mothers were pushing their children away as we continued with our act, bitching our way into the dining room where we loudly ordered a couple more beers and a couple of steaks.
A waitress stopped at our table, which was moving as far as I could tell. Our show had advanced into the finale where we were busily making up. Mitch had my hand in his in the center of the table next to the candle and he was apologizing for being a complete ass and he never meant to say that I had been unfaithful and I was as faithful as that fucking geyser that was outside of the window, even though he hadn’t ever seen the fucking thing. He didn’t need to see it to believe it, just as he believed in me, even though he thought I might be sleeping with Jason.
The reason that Sue, the waitress, stopped by our table was because she recognized me from high school and she happened to be working at Old Faithful Inn. My inebriated tongue tried very hard to respond but it kept fucking up my words. I could see by her face that she wanted to run, which she practically did, and then we burst out laughing.
Mitch and I did finally see Old Faithful shoot off and it was cold and dark when we did.
“You dragged me all the way here to see that?” Mitch snapped at me and we about fell over laughing again and then we made our way, staggering along the sidewalk to his motorcycle and we got on it, still laughing.
The fifty mile drive back to Gardiner was not so fun. It was really cold and really dark and we were really drunk. We could have used a designated driver, a pot of coffee, some mittens, a couple of hats and a jacket or two. We had to pee constantly and we stopped about every ten minutes so that Mitch could warm his frozen fingers.
Jason wouldn’t have been one bit happy had he known that we were still on that motorcycle and that we were drunk to boot. Luckily he was at work so he would never know the truth.
We were driving only a few minutes at a time before having to pull over to regroup. We could see our breath and I began to wonder if we’d make it back at all. Were we going to freeze to death in the mountains and be a sad little story in the back of the Livingston newspaper?
By the time we walked into the blue house apartment it was well after midnight and Jason was furious that we were alive.
He’d almost gone looking for Deputy Dean, called the hospital, the Air Force and the National Guard, but then, we had no phone.
He had no sympathy for our frozen fingers or near hypothermia.
Mitch decided to get going the next morning.
A side note: Mitch died this year. It took me by surprise. He knew I was writing about Gardiner more than a year ago. I told him that I couldn't wait for him to read about the day on the motorcycle and he said he couldn't wait to read it. I wish I hadn't waited to show him. I nearly sent an email to Mitch and to Sissy the very morning of Mitch's death to see when we could all get together for lunch, like we often did. I didn't send that email, he never read the story and he is gone. I will miss Mitch for the rest of my life.