2010 - Billings
Mma Grace Makutsi had the two of us in tears. She’s one of the main characters in, The Number One Lady Detective
, series and is always bringing up her ninety eight percentile score in typing at her secretarial college.
Signs for Billings Montana were popping up, so Mom turned the CD off and began messing with ‘The Lady’ and typing in a search for a hotel.
“We should look for a place with a nice restaurant right there, don’t you think? I don’t think we’re going to want to drive anymore once we stop,” she said.
“There’s a Best Western listed. They might be a full service hotel. I hate those express things. All you get is free wireless internet, like I give a crap, a couple of donut holes and a weak cup of coffee in the morning. I suppose that‘s better than a sharp stick up the nose.”
I rolled my eyes at her.
“Take a right in .2 miles,” The Lady was saying from her little box.
“Turn there,” Mom said to me.
“I can’t. I’m in the wrong lane. I have to go straight.”
“Okay, turn at the next street and go back a block,” Mom said.
“Take a right and then the next right,” The Lady was saying, “recalculating.”
“Here!” yelled Mom. “Turn here!”
“It’s a one way street, I can’t turn here. Quit screaming at me!”
“Recalculating,” said The Lady.
I took the next right and then another right and then another right as Mom sat next to me with her lips clamped tightly together and then we finally stopped in the parking lot of the Best Western.
“I’ll go in and check it out,” she said grabbing the big black purse that she insisted on traveling with. It looked like it weighed more than she did.
The thought of taking off as she walked in the door of the building crossed my mind. I grinned and quickly shoved that image aside.
A few minutes later she returned. “The man thinks we’d be happier at the Crown Plaza down the road. He says it has everything we‘re looking for.”
“What’d you do? Piss him off?”
“What? No. He says we can walk to a steak house from there.”
“Okay. If you say so.”
Back out into the traffic we went.
“It’s that tall building right up there,” she was pointing. “We’re supposed to drive past it and go in the back. He said there’s a big parking lot back there.”
Somehow I missed the freaking turn I was supposed to take and Mom yanked the plug on ‘The Lady’ who was still babbling on about directions to the Best Western.
We took another scenic trip around the block so that I could position myself in the proper turning lane to steer into the driveway of the Crown Plaza. And then I did turn in and there we sat nose to nose with cars that were being unloaded at the lobby door. I abruptly drove over the curb to the right of us to get into the adjoining parking lot which was filled to capacity and then we pulled up behind the cars that were in line in front of the lobby. Mom slipped out and returned with a big smile and a gold plated luggage cart.
“We’ve got a room,” she said. “All we have to do is unload our stuff. Then you drive to the parking ramp down the street and we’ll have the card stamped at the front desk so that we don’t have to pay for parking.”
In case I haven’t mentioned it, there are three things in life that scare me. One is heights. I’m scared to death of heights. Two are potatoes with legs sprouting out of them if you don‘t eat them fast enough. And the third is parking ramps. I have had more bad experiences in parking ramps than is customary including once being trapped in a maize-like one that I likened to The Medina.
My hand visibly shook by the time I took a slug from a cold beer out of the cooler we’d carted to our room like a couple of hillbillies. My trip to the parking ramp had been all I’d envisioned it would be.
I was born without a sense of direction or else if I had one it was knocked loose in third grade when I ran into an iron railing head on while sledding on my belly down Battle Field Hill. I received a blow to my forehead that resulted in my siblings towing my lifeless body home on a toboggan as they tried to figure out the best way to explain to our parents that I was dead.
It was my neighbor Bill’s fault. He wouldn’t let me sled over the very jump that I’d been instrumental in building. He said my metal runners would ruin the packed snow and that I if I wanted to ride over it, it had to be on either a saucer, or a wooden toboggan, like his, or not at all.
I said, “Oh yeah? Who made you the boss of it?” and took off on my stomach, racing in front of him to fly over that jump before he could stop me. I could see him gaining on me from the corner of my eye. He was a few years older so he and his heavy wooden sled were picking up speed. I veered to the right as I glanced back. Then I looked straight ahead and heard a terrible noise. In hindsight I think the noise was my skull cracking as it hit the iron railing on the walkway. Then everything was black and silent until I heard someone in the distance whimpering. That person turned out to be me and it was twenty minutes later. I was coming to just in time to hear my mother scream before my dad drove me to the hospital with a washcloth filled with ice on my head and a throw up bag in my lap.
Bill made it up to me, but it wasn’t the bouquet of carnations from the grocery store that he brought over to our house that cleared him. It was the next summer when he saved my life. I got stung by a bee while snooping around in the creepy sunflower garden behind the old green haunted house. It was the one near the sandpits where Bill, my brother Ket and I had made a fort out of junk we’d pulled from the dump, including a sofa. It was real sweet.
Bill told me that it was obvious that I was going to die because it was not an ordinary bee sting. He said the bees were attack, killer bees he’d read about and that the old woman had evidently trained them to kill anyone who trespassed in her gardens. My arm was turning red and there as a thin line coming from the bee sting. He was sure that the poisonous venom would travel to my heart and would kill me within a few hours. That’s how his aunt had died, blood poisoning, so he was quite knowledgeable on the topic. He took some weeds and wove them together into a couple pieces of twine-like rope and then tied those cords around my arm cutting off the circulation above and below the sting. If he hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be here today telling you about any of this including my problem with a sense of direction and following directions, period.
I don’t understand instructions when I read them and I blame this on that blow to my head. There’s a split second delay. I can at best liken it to the interval in the sound between an HD TV and a standard one. When you are in a moving car that you are operating and reading signs with information that you must interpret and react to instantly, this amount of time can be detrimental. So between the Crown Plaza and the Parking ramp my heart was screaming. I was positive I would fuck things up. The most insignificant errands in my life can be traumatic. Fortunately I saw a car a few lengths ahead of me slow down and turn into the hidden parking ramp. I was elated when the Cadillac disappeared through an opening that was disguised by an earth tone colored awning. I would have preferred neon lights with blinking arrows over a modest canopy, for God’s sake.
If I’d missed that turn into that dark cave I would have been in trouble. There was more traffic than I was comfortable with surrounding me and the cars weren’t all headed in the same direction, the way I preferred and as they’d done on the interstate. Although Billings could be hailed as the most confusing cities of one way streets, that particular one wasn’t. Except for the fact that The Crown Plaza stood above the rest of the buildings, I may never have been able to find my way back if I’d veered off course. I wondered how long Mom would stand there with that cart in front of that building. She was closer than she knew to being abandoned in downtown Billings, Montana and I wasn’t smiling about the image this time.
I jerked off my sunglasses, pushed the button, took a ticket from the automated ticket dispenser and drove under the gate that had risen for me. That should have been when relief set in, but I knew better. There were no empty stalls, at least not until I’d passed them. That damn delay was in action. There were too many signs about renters only and violators would be ticketed or towed. Naturally I drove to the very top and into the sunlight. Then I was shook. I headed back down the other side following the arrows that said exit next to them. Whole floors were void of cars but there were still signs everywhere about tickets and towing, and then right in the middle of the completely empty third floor, there was a sign that said, compact cars only. I pulled my mother’s midsized car into it. It fit perfectly between the yellow lines and besides that, it was the only car there. I walked back to the hotel which was less than a block away.
Mom was still guarding the cart outside the building when I got there. “That was quick,” she said. “No problems?”
The desk clerk had given her two complimentary beverage tickets and the restaurant was kitty corner from the hotel. Our room was plush and there were enough pillows for an army. We had a pleasant view of a lit up downtown Billings softened through sheers.
“Millie, I can’t get these curtains open,” I heard her say.
“I’ll be right out,” I answered from the bathroom thinking, ‘jeez, how hard can it be to open some damn curtains?’
“The T.V. won’t come on either.” I could hear her out there bitching at the remote control.
“I’ll be right out,” I said gritting my teeth.
I tugged on the sheer curtains and found that she was right, they wouldn’t budge. So the sheers were closed and the heavily lined drapes wouldn’t move from their open position either. They were all jammed up or something. The view might possibly have been a stunning one if we could see it clearly, but we gave up.
Mom went to freshen up while I fiddled with the T.V. You know how older people can be with remotes. But that damned thing wouldn’t work for me either. I apprehensively tried every button on it. It was a satellite connection. You have to be so careful with the buttons on those satellite remotes. Then I spotted another controller on the night stand and thought, “Well of course, one to turn the TV on and off and one to change the channels. It must be programmed separately.”
I picked it up, aimed it at the T.V. and hit the red button. Nothing happened, except the sheer curtains on the other end of the room opened, exposing a stunning view of Billings, Montana.
The Short Straw – 2010
We ordered three appetizers at Jake’s Steak House. Plates with mounds of food covered our entire table top and we laughed uncontrollably when she’d set them down and walked away.
“Never again Millie. If we ever order appetizers for dinner, we will not order three. You got that? This is ridiculous. What are we going to do with all of this food?”
“We could give some to the army that could sleep on all of our pillows.”
We cashed in our free drink tickets at the almost deserted hotel bar before waddling back to our room where Mom loyally chronicled our day once again, excluding her bitching at me and ‘the Lady’.
“Mom, do you remember the time that you and Dad drew straws to see who was going to take us kids to the outdoor theatre and who was going to stay home?” I asked, leaning on my elbow with pillows piled behind me.
“Which time? We did that more than once.”
“Sure, one of us got to stay home with the baby, who would have been Pitter, and one of us got to pile the other five of you, dressed in your pajamas, into the station wagon and sit through some God awful movie.”
“What? Do you mean the one who got the short straw is the one who went to the outdoor?”
“I thought the one who went to the outdoor was the winner.”
“Why would that one be the winner?”
“Because that person left the house and went to a movie.”
“Well, it’s one thing to get out of the house and to go to a movie and it’s another thing to get out to see a movie that you don’t care to see with a car full of kids between the ages of four and ten. I wouldn’t recommend it.”
I couldn’t speak.
“Millie? Are you all right?”
“I have never forgotten Dad’s sad face as he leaned against the house with his arms crossed and then pitifully waved good-by as we pulled out of the driveway. He had the most forlorn look I’ve ever seen. I felt terrible and I was crying to myself back there in the rear seat, the one that faced the wrong way. I thought he got the short straw and that he was going to be lonely. I almost had you stop the car so that I could stay there with him.”
“Well if your father was staying home with Pitter, he drew the long straw and I’m sure he skipped into the house as soon as we were out of sight.”
“I don’t know what to say. I guess I am in shock.”
The next morning God saved me and I owe him one, by having created the earth in six days and then resting on the seventh. It was Sunday. The masses were either in church or in bed and the road outside of the hotel was virtually motionless as I walked back to get Mom’s car from the parking ramp. Unfortunately the exit went out the backside of the ramp on an unfamiliar road and I was immediately headed the wrong way on a one way street. I quickly managed to get off it and then almost immediately I ended up in a lane with a yellow turn only arrow painted on it but I went straight anyway so that I wouldn’t lose sight of the hotel. My route could have been a choreographed chase scene in a movie if I’d been speeding and there’d been anyone pursuing me. All the director would have to do was throw in a few explosions. I completed my trip back to the Crown Plaza by again turning into the driveway that was in front of the lobby and was once more facing a departing car head on, so I drove over the curb into the parking lot as I had the day before and was therefore able to pull up to the end of the line. There stood Mom with her white sunglasses, the gold cart and our Star Bucks Coffees.
“That was quick,” she said. “No problems?”
I know she saw me go over the curb again.
1976 - Orange Juice
Mom and I retraced our way back to the interstate, skipping several turns we’d taken the day before and with only a few minor squabbles we were in the merging lane, picking up speed. I set the cruise control as Jimmy sang about getting drunk and screwing. Soon my thoughts wandered back to Gardiner and to a time in the little brown cabin.
“Stop it, I’m going to pee my pants,” I was laughing so hard that my button kept popping open on my jeans.
Louisa, Tina, Peggy, Kathy, Gabrielle, Bobbi, Cowboy Ned, Jason and I were sitting around the room. Smoke was thick and Jason had the floor.
“I’m not kidding.” He took another hit of the fat joint and held his breath, his coarse hair hanging in his eyes. Then he made the noise that he always made, always twice, not letting the smoke escape. Still holding his breath and talking in a high pitch he continued, “I thought it would be a good way to thaw the orange juice.” Finally he exhaled and we did too. Smoke billowed.
He went on. “I just forgot it was sitting on top of the grill.” He started laughing uncontrollably. We did too not even knowing why at that point. His laughter was always contagious. My button popped again. I stood up to fix it again.
“Don from the Two Bit, opened the kitchen door to ask about his breakfast when that can blew sky high. He said, “Hey Jason, how much longer for,” and then BAM, it sounded like a bomb went off. Mikey was working too. We both ducked and when we looked up, Don was standing there completely covered in orange juice and his round glasses had completely disappeared. The juice was dripping off them. Everything was dripping in orange juice. Holy shit, do you know how much orange juice is in a sixteen ounce frozen concentrated can?
Wails of laughter.
“A shit load!”
We were howling the kind of stoned laughter that had us in convulsions. All of us were, that is except, Cowboy Ned who never partook in smoking weed. He was laughing, just not convulsing. Jason went on, “and then, Don just finished his sentence like nothing happened. He couldn’t even see us. His eyes looked like orange circles. Those glasses may have saved his sight. It wasn’t so funny after that,” Jason continued, searching our pink eyes for sympathy. “Well, it was kind of funny. Mikey and I laughed every time we pictured Don and his glasses, but it took us all fucking day to clean it up. She says I owe her big time. It was on the ceiling and the walls, inside the drawers, it covered the grill. It splattered the dishwasher door and any part of the floor that wasn’t hit at first got it from us walking around. We had to take all the pans off their hooks and wash every one of them and even had to wash the hooks they hung on and every spatula and measuring cup. Our shoes were sticky too. We had to mop the floor and our shoes. There was nothing in that kitchen untouched. Plus the restaurant was busy as hell and I had to remake three orders.”
Jason repeated the story and we all howled some more. It was more productive than doing a hundred sit-ups. I had to hang onto my aching ribs.
And that was how it went. One day after the next. A bunch of good friends all under the age of twenty five, hanging out between shifts of restaurant work, hotel cleaning, or supposed ranch handing. We were in the middle of nowhere, a lost part of the universe smack dab in the center of scenery more beautiful than I’d ever dreamed.
The K-Bar was on the corner, the Ranger Bar was up on the main drag by the park which was a few doors away from the Blue Goose Saloon. Then there was the Twin Bar which was right next to the K-Bar and kitty corner from the Two Bit Saloon. If you liked mountains, rivers, streams, bears and bars, you would’ve liked Gardiner.
“I’ve got to get going,” said Gabrielle standing up after the laughter finally faded and the munchies were setting in. “I’m throwing a slumber party tonight.”
“Who’s coming?” Peggy asked knowing Gabrielle had her own definition of a slumber party.
“Sam,” Gabrielle said matter of fact like. “Just Sam will be coming, if you know what I mean,” she stood with her hand on her round hip under her tight frayed jeans.
We all laughed some more.
“That’s not a party,” I said. “And you are disgusting.”
“That’s your opinion.”
“Be careful Gabrielle,” Jason said. “Sam’s girlfriend will kick your ass if she finds out what you‘re up to. She might even kill you. I wouldn’t put it past her. What‘s the big deal about Sam anyway?”
“I like his red hair,” she said. “And I’m not afraid of any freaking cowgirl.” She flipped her long bouncy blonde curls as she got up from the couch. “Sam will dump her once I’m through with him.” She realigned her ample breasts, being sure to leave the top button on her red plaid blouse open. She then re-applied her shiny lip gloss and winked. “Who wants to come downtown with me? I’m going to find me a cowboy and with any luck I’m gonna ride that red one tonight.” She had a sparkle in her bright blue eyes and the dimple on her left cheek went with it perfectly.
Gabrielle’s Cousin John, along with his friend Art had moved to Gardiner a few weeks prior. Jason figured it was up to John to defend Gabrielle if she got into trouble, but he told me on several occasions that he thought she was crossing a line she’d be sorry for one day and someday someone was bound to get hurt. For once I got to tell Jason that he worried too much. It might have been the only time.
Those of us who remained at the little brown cabin ignoring Gabrielle’s invitation to stalk a cowboy who had a girlfriend that could lasso a bull and brand it one handed, pulled out a deck of cards, made popcorn, played shoot the moon and smoked more dope, laughing our way into another night of timeless youth.