1976 - Misfit
“Everyone who lives here is a misfit,” Charlie said. He was standing in front of the dryer at Charlie's Hotel, cupping his blotchy hands around a cigarette that he was about to light.
He was the closest thing to a father figure that I had in Gardiner. He had a calming voice, was witty and was pretty good at making me laugh. Sometimes he even got me thinking. I never saw him dressed in anything but jeans, button down shirts with rolled up sleeves and cowboy boots. Whenever he left the premises he wore a cowboy hat over his faded silver and strawberry woven hair and his knees were always bent to nearly ninety degrees whether he was sitting or standing. He was my boss and he was my friend.
His wife Jean had hired first me and then Louisa as maids. Every day we took a mid-morning break. Jean would signal to one of us that it was break time and then that maid would pass the news on to the other maids and then we‘d all gather in the little kitchen next to the office and drink fresh hot coffee and munch on cookies, brownies or coffee cake.
While we were piling on calories, Jean would sit back and sip on a cold protein shake through a straw swinging her free leg that was draped over the one that was crossed underneath her. I liked to study the intricate pattern of the day on her expensive boot as we swapped jokes and stories for those coveted fifteen minutes. None of us maids were in any rush to get back to scrubbing out toilets. Our breaks often stretched beyond fifteen minutes and into twenty.
The week that Charlie and Jean went on vacation, they left the business in the hands of their daughter, Ellie. That week our breaks ran especially long. Ellie was a good friend of blue and brown eyed Lucy, of the Corner Café. So, during our mid morning breaks Lucy would join us in the little kitchen. She of course never ate any food, saving her all of her Weight Watcher points for light beer and Ellie was following in her mother’s footsteps of sipping on protein shakes. So there were always seconds and thirds for us maids to eat while listening to the wild tales of the older girls who were in charge of the place. That was a fun week and Charlie's Hotel was still standing when Charlie and Jean returned and then our fifteen minute breaks returned to twenty minutes.
Each day after the rooms were cleaned, I would join Charlie in the laundry room. Due to my exquisite work performance and just plain showing up every day, I’d been promoted to head maid and helping out in the laundry room was part of my responsibilities. It was the first promotion I'd ever gotten in my young life and along with the prestigious title came more money.
“Why do you say that everyone in Gardiner is a misfit?” I remember asking him as I pulled an easy to fold, warm pillow case, out of the cart.
“Do you see anyone in this town who you would call normal?”
“Well, if what you say is true," I smirked. "Then that means that you are a misfit too.”
“That, I am.”
“Do you really think you are?”
“Of course I do. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
“Then you must think I’m a misfit too.”
“Well, you are here.”
While I was pondering his accusation he said, “Millie, being a misfit isn’t a bad thing. It just means that you’re different; that you listen to a different drum. I would rather be a happy misfit than an unhappy fish out there swimming up a stream with a bunch of other unhappy fish who think they know where they’re going.”
“Do you know where you’re going?”
“Sure I do. Nowhere. I like it right here, in the land of misfits.”
I thought about what he'd said. The fresh smell of bleached air, the washer window filled with white suds and white towels, the steady beat of the dryer clinking and clanking, the warmth of the pillowcase in may hand and Charlie's voice were all very calming to me. I decided that I liked it here too. I was never going to leave. I guessed he was right. I was a misfit. I was a proud misfit.
I dug around in the cart for another warm pillow case and pulled it out.
Charlie exhaled smoke and said, "You know you're going to run out of the easy stuff at some point, right?"
The Yellowstone River was in the back of the hotel, down a steep bank. The rushing of it drowned out the noise we made as we traipsed along the sidewalk day to day, from room to room pulling the cleaning carts and vacuums along behind us. More than once Louisa and I were trapped inside a room and had to wait out a big horn sheep that had come a grazing in the yard.
“You take the high road and I’ll take the low road,” Louisa used to say to me on our way in the first room of the morning.
The high road was what we'd named, making up or stripping the beds and dusting the living area. The low road is what we'd named, cleaning the bathroom. God, we hated the low road and the pubic hairs that came with it.
It didn’t matter if you had the high road or the low road in the first room, because we alternated. It made it seem like we were going faster by working together, although I don’t think we actually were. We didn’t spend as much time per room, since we had two bodies working them, but there were still the same amount of rooms and the same amount of bodies no matter how you added them up. Whether one of you started on one end of the hotel and one started on the other and you worked your way to the middle, or if one of you took the high road and one took the low road in each room and you went from one end to the other, it still took the same amount of time. We were paid by the hour anyway, so it made no sense to see how fast we could finish, but that is exactly what we did, every day.
Charlie was very specific about how the rooms were to be cleaned. “This is a triple A place you know. Inspectors could show up anytime,” he’d say. “We always have to be ready.”
No toilet brushes for the maids. We used bleach cleaned rags and our rubber gloved hands. Charlie was certain that a person could clean more deeply with their hands than with any brush swishing around in there.
“Always wipe the faucets dry after washing them. Make them sparkle. Never leave a drop of water in the sink or on the counter. Dust everything in the room, even if there is no dust. Spray the Lysol Disinfectant into the air in an S-like motion, like this, all the way to the door before leaving.”
He was having a hell of a time with the newly developed waterproof mascara and the deep red shades of lipstick the guests were wiping off on his whiter than pristine snow washcloths and towels. He usually got them back to a crispy bright white by the time he was through with them. If he couldn't, they became our new toilet cleaning cloths.
The week that we had to deep clean and spit shine the place because inspection time was approaching, we washed every window inside and out. We vacuumed and scrubbed every wall. We took apart every light fixture and dusted all the grates on all the heaters. We wiped out each drawer and dusted off every Gideon's Bible. We were there all day long, every day that week and we made lots of money, but boy, did we work for it. The most awful job that still gives me the heebie jeebies was taking each mattress off each bed and vacuuming out the springs underneath. And that, my friends is where the term spring cleaning originated. It was at Charlie's Hotel in Gardiner, Montana, in 1976.
“What happened to your sister?” Charlie asked me one afternoon. He’d seen me going from room to room without my side kick.
“Oh, Louisa? Yeah, she went home. She wasn’t feeling the best.”
“Uh , yeah, I think so,” I lied, remembering her slithering down the wall and sliding under the bed in slow motion, her golden blonde hair and freckles disappearing from sight and then her feet were sticking out on my side like the bad witches. We'd been taking the high roads together that day, each of us on either side of the bed stripping off the sheets. Louisa was sitting out the low roads completely. She thought if she had to deal with any pubic hair she would puke for sure.
After I'd pulled her out from under the bed she went home. Then I had to remake the thing. We’d been rolling around on top of it in total hysterics, laughing about her ridiculous condition. I was mimicking her. "I won't be late Millie!"
I’d seen her at the K-Bar the night before. She was dancing in front of the juke box. Louisa wasn't an in front of the juke box dancing kind of a girl. I'd said, "Louisa, don't forget you have to work tomorrow. You can't be late."
“Oh Millie, don’t worry about me,” she’d snapped. “I won't be late.”
She was right, she had not been late.
2010 – Steve McQueen
Mom and I decided to check out the Two Bit Saloon. The stone wall on the outside looked the same as it had, but the upstairs had been converted to a bar with a restaurant and a rafting business. The upstairs was in business, but the whole downstairs was no longer in use.
The girl in the restaurant let us pay the downstairs a visit. I'd explained to her that I’d lived in Gardiner thirty years ago, when the lower level had been the main hang out and a magnificent dance hall.
We descended the old wooden stairs and walked right into a time capsule after passing a bright red painted door leaning against the wall.
The room downstairs that opened out to the street was festooned with a collection of beer signs, a large rug with a picture of a dog sledding scene, antique photos of antique people, as well as yellowed with time newspaper articles that had been framed and hung years ago. Behind the old wooden stage, the wall was plastered with hundreds and hundreds of old license plates from all over the world.
The old bar was still there. It was missing a few mosaic tiles but it was still there.
Jason and I had seen an alternative concert in that hall one night. The doors were opened to the street and people were spilled out and dancing on the dusty road between the K-Bar and The Two Bit Saloon. A woman was playing an electric violin. I don’t remember what her name was, but that house rocked and it rolled that night and I'd learned that there was a whole other side to what I’d previously considered a very boring instrument. I knew she would become famous one day. If she did, I’ve never heard of her again.
Mom and I stood there on the big old dance floor that Cowboy Ned used to cut up. He’d ask Louisa to dance, and then somewhere along the way she’d spin off his arm and then he’d be there all alone in the middle of the room so that everyone could watch his fancy two steppin’ foot work in awe. And we all did.
"Mom," I said. "Remember that time you and Jayne were here and that old guy asked you to dance?"
“I don’t remember that,” she said.
“You don’t? Are you sure? We were all sitting right back there,” I pointed, “and you said, “Oh God, that old geezer in the corner is going to come over here and ask me to dance. I just know he is. Shit. Here he comes.”
“No, I don’t remember that.”
“Hmm. Well it happened. I saw it.”
Mom & the Cat Lady
After awhile we ended up out on the deck of the Two Bit Saloon where we happened upon her or else she happened upon us.
She, being a lonely southern 'cat lady,' who’d stepped off a tour bus and was sitting by herself at a table. She said hi and then we said hello and that was that. She planted herself at our table and pulled out a large expandable portfolio of her pet from a Mary Poppins purse. We realized after volume number four that it was time to get going, before she found volume number five. So we wished her well and we wished her cat the best and then we drove back toward Chico in search of a restaurant that had been tucked away near the Hot Springs Resort, thirty years prior.
In 1977 Jason and I, along with our neighbors, who lived in the pea-green house next to the pink house with white shutters, had seen Steve McQueen standing at the bar in that building. He was drinking an ice cold draft beer while he waited for some take-out fish.
Jason spotted him first. “That’s fucking Steve McQueen over there,” he’d said so that he could hear him. I wasn’t sure if it was Steve McQueen or not and I was trying not to stare at the man, but he did look a lot like Steve McQueen.
“Hey Steve, can I buy you a beer?” Terri shouted to him.
My skin began to prickle with little beads of perspiration and I felt my cheeks catch on fire.
The man walked over to our table and patted Terri on the top of her head. “Not tonight little girl,” he'd said. “I have to get going.” He then held up two grease stained bags of food, shrugged his shoulders and limped away.
Jason yelled after him, “Hey Steve, what happened, motorcycle accident?”
I glared at him.
“What?” he said.
“You are so embarrassing. Can’t you just leave him alone?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“You were bothering him.”
“No I wasn’t. Movie stars like to be bothered, Millie. That’s why they are movie stars. He would have been pissed if we hadn’t said anything.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I know.”
After Steve was out the door, the owner of the restaurant came over and filled us in. “He's taking the fish to Margot Kidder’s place. It’s just a few miles from here. They always get take-out.”
It was about a year later that I read aloud from a glamour magazine that Steve McQueen had been diagnosed with cancer. "Shit." Jason said. "I hope he wasn't limping that day because he had cancer. Now I feel bad."
I gave him one of my I told you so looks.
Steve McQueen died in 1980.
By some miracle Mom and I found that little place and I steered us right into the parking lot. There was a slender blonde girl standing behind the counter. The room was empty except for the three of us. Mom and I sat on a couple of seats and the girl told ust how much the area had changed over the years. How she’d grown up in Paradise Valley and had just come back from college, abroad. She said she was continuing to work on a documentary film about abused women in order to earn a master’s degree. During our conversation she said that a lot of wealthy people were moving into the valley and the construction of beautiful second and third homes was rampant. She said there was a different feeling in the air and it scared her. “Nothing good ever comes out of too much money,” she stated.
It was Taco night in that little restaurant, so we loaded our plates up. A sign on the wall said, LIVE MUSIC TOMORROW.
“It’s a woman who has never played here before,” the bartender told us as we ate our tacos. “But they say she’s really good. And tomorrow our special is, All you can eat pulled pork sandwiches or ribs for $7.99”
Mom and I looked at each other raising our eyebrows in unison and nodded.
When we got back to Chico we each put a twenty dollar bill into one of those video gambling machines to play together. Neither one of us is lucky, but we’ve learned that by putting two unlucky people together, as in the two of us, our money lasts twice as long. It has a lot to do with our attention spans and the fact that we forget whose turn it is to push the button every now and then. If one of us has to use the bathroom the other one waits, not wanting to deplete all of the funds on our own. The same goes if one of us leaves to order a drink. In other words, there is a lot of down time, which makes our money last a little bit longer.
You’d think we’d never played a video poker game in our lives if you were watching us begin that night. I have absolutely no tolerance for reading instructions. Let’s just say that a toaster oven caught on fire one day because I failed to pull out the instructions inside that said, REMOVE BEFORE USING. Mom has absolutely no patience for just about everything, but always reads directions, apparently due to some voice in her head telling her to do so. Then she gets pissed when she doesn’t understand what they are trying to say. Not the voices in her head, the directions. Machines, in general, upset her. When you mix machines and directions you are going to hear some bitching. I have to give her credit for her tenacity. She’s just looking for some decent odds that we can afford to play and to make our money last. Not only that, she wants to understand the combinations to win the big pot before playing, like that would make any difference. All of this takes a considerable amount of time which actually saves us money, in the long run. We don’t even push the start button for fifteen minutes. While she is going through her instruction process I pretend that I am right there with her. In reality I am daydreaming.
As we were in the middle of the instructions process, two certifiably crazy women popped their heads right in between ours.
“You’ve got to play this one. I played this one all afternoon and I had so much fun,” said a middle aged woman with blue eyes and a shiny blonde bobbed haircut.
“Yeah, she did, while I played that one over there and I lost my ass,” the other one with a short dirty blonde pixie cut, whined.
“I can’t help it if you lost your ass. You picked that one. You could have picked this one, but you didn’t, did you?”
They were both boisterously laughing. They pointed out their husbands who were sitting at a table in front of a big screen T.V. on the other end of the room waiting for a football game to begin.
“Neither one of us ever had a sister,” the dirty blonde one said.
“Then, she married my brother,” the shiny blonde one said.
“And, we still don’t have any sisters.”
They broke out into hysterics again.
“Play this game.” the shiny bobbed woman was pointing at a poker game on the machine we were seated in front of.
“How many lines should we play?” asked Mom.
At some point during this interaction, I mentioned the little bar down the road was going to have live music and a pulled pork special the following day.
“Oh really? Maybe we should go there tomorrow. What do you think Amy?"
“Yeah, sure, if the guys want to go we could do that. Maybe we'll see you girls there.”
Once the football game began the certifiably crazy women scooted away and joined their husbands. They could be heard through out the entire bar, hooting and hollering whenever the Tennessee team did anything good or anything bad.
Commercials were obvious. They’d come bouncing and I do mean bouncing, back to see how we were panning out, and by God, when Mom and I cashed out of that machine that had a sign that said, For Amusement Only, a couple hours later, we were dead even.
We walked with our elbows locked through the outside flower canopied corridor of Chico Hot Springs, leaving the Saloon too early to see the hot pool emptied of its spring water and then refilled for the next morning.
Mom scribbled some notes down about our first day’s adventures in Gardiner, Montana while I brushed my teeth and then we crawled into our beds where we quickly fell asleep to the whirring ceiling fan above us and the snorting horses across the parking lot.
It had been a red-letter day.