- A novel in sixteen chapters
- concerning lives, contraptions,
- and unidentified flying objects
by Tom Sharp
To whom it may concern
The persons in this book are fictitious; their identities and positions are not intended to resemble any other persons, living or dead. The places, however, can stand for themselves.
Copyright © 2011, 2018 Tom Sharp
- A means
- An end
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth;
whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find
myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing
up the rear of every funeral I meet . . .
— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or The Whale
- The bookstore
- Artists and kids
- The boarding house
- Reids department store
Fall had turned the plains of central Montana into straw, and had frozen every straw to the earth like miniature fallen forests of piercing quartz needles. I had just arrived in Lewistown from New York. I had been at loose ends. I had wanted (I thought I had needed), to move to a remote spot on the earth. I felt sorry for myself. I thought that “Nowhere Man” by The Beatles described me. And maybe I had read Moby-Dick too many times.
Lewistown is at the geometric center of Montana, and Montana is a large sparsely populated state in the center of the continent. I thought it was sufficiently far from almost everything, including my own tragedies.
Of course this was an oversimplification.
I had been able to take the Greyhound bus only as far as Billings. To travel north from there, I had hitchhiked. I used the traditional method, holding a piece of cardboard declaring my destination and raising my thumb in the air. I started early in the morning. I was lucky to have flagged a commercial trucker who was going to Lewistown. The trucker came up through Judith Gap, approaching Lewistown from the south west, instead of through Roundup and Grass Range, because he had stops at Harlowton to deliver a hand-truck of boxes to a convenience store, and a stop at Eddies Grove to deliver another stack of boxes to the truck-stop.
From Billings, my ride passed through the small towns of Acton, Comanche, and Broadview on State Highway 3. This was a two-lane road that separated snowy fields on the left from snowy fields on the right. After Lavina, population 187, we turned west onto U.S. Highway 12, and we passed the towns of Ryegage, population 245, and Shawmut, population 42. These small towns were random clusters of struggling trees and homes, where the two-lane highway briefly became Main Street, or Railroad Avenue, or High Street. Lavina had a couple crosswalks without lights or stop signs and one block of businesses. Ryegate had two grain elevators. To the south of the highway was the Musselshell River. To the north, Ryegate was a few small blocks bounded by a crumbling rocky escarpment of about 100 feet in height.
After the truckstop in Harlowton, when we turned off U.S. Highway 12 and headed north on U.S. 191, we were still on State Highway 3. Gravel roads led to small sets of one-story buildings at intervals, with cattle guards marking barbed-wire fencelines. The road led straight across a rolling terrain. Straggling stalks of yellow grass and brown weeds poked up through snowdrifts, particularly at the fencelines. We encountered only a few cars and trucks on the road; these counties seemed basically deserted.
We passed Judith Gap, population 126. It seemed that each tiny block of this small town had only a handful of buildings on it, like an old comb made of bone and missing most of its teeth. The town was surrounded by white fields that in the spring would give people a reason for living there. But to me, having lived in cities most of my life and having worked only in bookstores, these towns had tremendously little appeal. I have to say that I was just passing through, so my impressions of the place were not colored by familiarity or warmed by feelings of the past.
The late Pleistocene Laurentide ice sheet had came south to Lewistown and then stopped. Below and to the east of Lewistown, the large Glacial Lake Musselshell formed, covering a huge area all the way south to Musselshell on U.S. 12 east of Lavina, and draining to the north to join the Missouri River. But as we traversed this frozen landscape, I felt that it could have been two miles under blue ice.
The trucker dropped me off at a McDonald’s on West Main Street opposite a three-story brick junior high school.
Fall had started early in Lewistown; it was only the fall equinox. The air was bitterly cold, painful to breathe. The sidewalks were frozen, sheeted with crusty ice. I was not prepared for a wind that cut through my coat as though it were only a T-shirt. Topsider shoes were obviously not protecting toes either. It seemed as though I had just stepped into ice water. I was in it up to the top of my head.
I raised my eyes. Trees dominated the skyline. Looking east past the junior high, on my left, cedar, pine, and larch. On my right, the bare limbs of a birch. I shouldered my bag and gingerly trod along the sidewalk down West Main Street. The dome of the county courthouse rose up on my left, with a large four-faced clock at the top, over a four-story two-tone brick building with stone columns, surrounded by large cottonwood and willow, gray and encrusted with snow. Across from the courthouse, a beautiful stone Carnegie library, 1905, with an addition to the basement floor that extended out from under the original structure toward the street. Then a funeral home on the right. I walked another block. A more regular pattern of two and four-story brick and stone buildings began to dominate. The News-Argus. A furniture store. An antique store. A life-insurance office. Office supply. The Magic Diamond Casino, with financial advisers across the street. A Moose lodge. The Western Lounge. A bookstore and card shop. I began to feel a little more optimistic about my prospects in this old gold town. Pourman’s café. An appliance store. A Mexican restaurant. Bank of the Rockies. The Coffee Cup. A Chinese restaurant next to the small Weaver Block, next to Reids department store. The Lewistown Art Center with vague internal spaces in the imposing Crowley Block building. A hardware store. First Bank of Montana. A liquor store. The Judith Theater.
And there, near the corner of Third Avenue North, an old treadle sewing machine, worse for the weather, was chained and padlocked to a light pole. It looked as though it had been there for more than a season. The machine and its metal legs were rusting; the veneers of its cabinet were peeling. A heavy chain and padlock were obviously part of the installation, not just a means to prevent its removal. The chain wrapped around the cabinet three times, passing through the sewing machine. It had five-eighths welded-steel links, each link spanning over two inches. The padlock looked like it could secure the main gate of a castle.
I was looking for a sign: “Room for Rent,” which I found on a cork board cluttered with business cards and flyers for church socials at the door to a used bookstore. This three-by-five card announced the availability of a room at a boarding house at the corner of West Washington Street and Third Avenue North. I hoped that the boarding house wasn’t too far from downtown.
I stepped back and looked up. The name of the bookstore was Transition. The name seemed appropriate. Used books were in transition. I thought I was a special case, but, in retrospect, it was true of me, too. I was used, and I was looking for new home. I took the three-by-five card from the board and went in to ask for a job. The doorbell jangled. At the counter, Hans looked up.
This was the usual kind of used bookstore, though a rather large one. Real estate was apparently cheap here. The place contained all kinds of books—dime westerns and romances, hardbound coffee-table books, cook books, children’s books, comic books, graphic novels, sheet music, music sets for small orchestras, fake books, foreign language books, sets of encyclopedias, and a bin of free books. Plus a second floor for records, CDs, and posters. And in the front a rack of magazines. All used. It was the detritus of civilization, but at least it was civilized.
The bookstore took up the whole of a two-story brick building named Brooks Block that faced West Main. It was big enough to contain two or three businesses of moderate size. The frame of the building was constructed of vertical pillars of tan-colored brick, with joining horizontal elements of carved gray stone. Between the tan and gray on the first floor, from one side to the other, were windows framed in black. Below the main windows were green panels. Above the windows was a green awning. Above the awning was another row of smaller clearstory windows. Above, on the second floor, red brick framed twelve tall windows. At the top, a cornice of stone and brick. Later, I learned the history of the building. It had been a farm-equipment emporium and parts warehouse.
Now Orville and Wilbur owned the building. Whether their own hands had turned it into a used bookstore, I don’t know. Their living quarters were built on a second floor over the storerooms and offices in the back. I think that Orville and Wilbur had a history, too, but they didn’t talk about that, so we need to use our own imaginations. Although they had famous first names, they were not brothers. When Orville and Wilbur worked in the store, they always worked together. In spite of their age—they were old as the hills but were strong and wiry—they traveled a lot, shipping crates of books back to Lewistown from towns and cities about the country and Canada, so they hired a full-time person to take care of the place. This person was responsible for supervising and hiring part-time helpers.
Her name was Sally. She was a gaunt short woman of indeterminate age (but certainly over 50). Sally was always bundled up for winter, with woolen sweater, scarf, and knit woolen leggings under a thick woolen dress of a single color, a dark forest green, or a dull chocolate, or red the color of rust. Her hair was gray and just long enough to be pinned back on the sides with bobby pins. Sally was fierce. Orville and Wilbur must have been proud of the way she defended their interests. She allowed no silliness, no tardiness, and no idleness on the job. Our wages were not high, but it didn’t cost much to live in this town. It is debatable whether any used bookstore in this country can be run as a business, especially in such a small town without a college, but Sally’s point of view was obvious. In my opinion, Orville and Wilbur were saints with an inexhaustible supply of money or credit. But as far as Sally was concerned, to keep the store going, every penny and every minute had to be accounted for.
Like I said, when I walked into the bookstore the first time, Hans was at the counter. Hans had graying brown hair in a crew cut. He wore a clean T-shirt and corduroy pants without a belt. His face was clean-shaven, his skin was darker than the climate or his employment would warrant, and the beginning of wrinkles about his mouth suggested that he was about my age, that is, in his forties. He was sorting through a tall pile of hardbacks. I went up to the counter, he looked at me, I looked him in the eye. His eyes were blue. I said, “I’d like to work here. Are there any openings?”
Hans pointed toward Sally, who was just coming around a bookcase with a pile of National Geographics. Hans gestured to take my bag, which he put behind the counter.
I repeated my question to Sally, who said, “If you can sort and shelve these in three minutes, we can give you something part time.” But she didn’t give me the pile of magazines right away. She looked me at from head to foot, the way some men look at women, and not with approval.
Sally said, “If you’ve just gotten off the road, maybe you could be excused for being disheveled. But if you get this job, you should know that our employees are expected to be both couth and kempt.”
I was surprised by Sally’s archaic vocabulary, but I nodded and took the pile from her. She pointed out a lower shelf where I could see other National Geographics, and I went right to work.
An older couple entered the front doors. I could feel a cold draft. I was standing in the aisle that led to the shelves of National Geographic. They walked toward me. The man looked at me up and down and said, “I see you’re new here. My name is Eugene, Eugene Ely, the man with two first names.” The woman, who had been following Eugene, looked around him and added, “His middle name is Burton.” She winked. “I think his mother messed up his birth certificate.”
I told them my name and said, “Yes, I just got in town. I’m glad to meet you both.” Eugene smiled and shook my hand. The woman reached around Eugene and said her name. “Blanche Scott.” She shook my hand and smiled.
Eugene was tall with wild gray hair, made more wild by the static electricity from a navy blue stocking cap that he pulled off as he approached me. They were both bundled up and booted and their cheeks shined red from being outside in the cold. Blanche was short with short red hair and blue eyes. She wore a blue ski outfit that matched her eyes.
Eugene said, “We’re artists in search of distant color.”
Blanche said, “He means we want to look for issues of National Geographics that we can cut up.”
Eugene said, “Pages with rare purples and golds.”
Blanche said, “So don’t tell Sally. She disapproves.”
Eugene said, “It’s not her cup of tea. And she thinks ours is already overflowing.”
“Sure,” I said. “I just added an armful of them. I could show you where they went.” I scooched out of their way, and then followed them to the magazine shelves.
I pointed out issues that I had just shelved. Eugene started looking through them, fanning their pages. He stopped with one, put his thumb into it, and said, “Ooo, this might do.” He licked his finger and paged through the article.
Blanche said to me, “There aren’t many artists in Lewistown. You should come visit us. Hans can tell you where we live; we’re on West Boulevard Street.”
Eugene said, “Yes, you should, but I warn you that Blanche has got a thing for distant color.”
I left Eugene and Blanche, and walked to the front of the store. The bookstore had an arrangement of mismatched seats and a couple easy chairs around a throw rug near the front. There were five kids on the chairs, and, on the rug in front of them, Hans was reading to them.
The kids weren’t trying to be quiet. One boy was poking another, a stubby forefinger into his side. A girl noticed and opened her mouth, but she only said, to Hans, “Would you read that again, please?” Hans was reading an issue of National Geographic.
Let me tell you about cold. David Byrne sang about air. “Some people never had experience with air.” But cold is not funny. Cold is like being born in the last century where a sadistic doctor holds you upside down by your ankles and wacks you on your little butt. Cold takes away your power to breathe while it whacks you, so that you cannot even cry. You have no say in the matter.
Cold surpasses cruelty for trying the fortitude of folk. People say that they get used to it. Don’t let them fool you. Actually, what happens is that the cold whips surgeon’s scalpels through the air. You cannot see them, but you can feel them. Over a series of out-patient visits in which Doctor Cold lays its victims on its stainless steel operating tables, the doctor performs brain surgery, each time removing a little more of that gray matter that makes them suffer, so that they lose the ability to realize how cold they are, and of course they forget their time under the knife.
Those with resistance to the scalpel must suffer the cold, and the best that can be said about it is that many of them become proud of their suffering.
You have heard about cold. You have been told. You think that you can be prepared. But when you step outside and experience it, then you experience the misery of cold with your utterly exposed flesh. The skin on your cheeks tries to shrivel on your cheek bones. No part of your body is exempt from cold’s dominion. Immediately you cannot feel your fingers or toes. Needles of cold pierce your flimsy clothing. In bright light you can shut your eyes; when jet engines start you can hold your hands over your ears; but in cold there is no protection; you are naked and everything that you pull over your skin to protect yourself is colder than you are and only drains away your meager and fleeting warmth the faster.
You think that you can prepare for this. You bundle up and bundle down and bundle out with layers of silk and wool and cotton and advanced scientific fabrics, with thermal long johns, double socks, triple and quadruple layers of under and outer garments, with elastic closed legs and sleeves, with insulated boots, with gloves and scarves and hat, with ear muffs and ski mask, but then you step outside, and you still experience the encompassing embrace of the giant of cold who takes away your breath and shocks the blood from every limb and appendage.
In the shock of cold, you may experience a rush as your autonomic nervous system speeds up your heart to pump warmer blood to your extremities, but all your veins are squeezed to the size of capillaries by the invisible vice of cold, and the autonomic nervous system is beaten like a puppy on a rope.
If you neglect to wear your arctic goggles, then the scalpels of cold pierce your eyeballs. Your eyeballs start to freeze. Your vision blurs and you must close your eyes quickly to feel the strangeness of freezing globes under your eyelids. But this is good because your eyelids are not numb. If you can keep your eyes shut, your eyeballs can gradually resume functioning, but this is usually not a practical solution for navigating in the cold, except in ice storms when it is not possible to see anyway.
If you do not protect yourself from cold, it becomes indistinguishable from fire. The treatment for frostbite is to rub snow on the skin. This is a cruel joke of nature (and you were thinking that nature cannot be both humorous and cruel). When you rub snow on frostbite, you activate pain receptors that you didn’t know you had, but this is good because if you experience pain at the ends of your fingers then you will not lose them. If you can feel the cruel needles of cold in your feet then you know that your feet are awakening after near-death.
I had experienced a cold of the soul. I had lost or tossed aside everyone I had loved, or who had loved me. I welcomed the cruel winter that I was entering like a friend. I could understand pain.
Nevertheless, I try not to let my friends hurt me, and I didn’t have a death wish, so after I dropped my bag in my room at Miss Kate’s boarding house, I went out to Reids department store to buy cold-weather gear.
The boarding house was at the corner of West Washington Street and Third Avenue North. It was a large white house with a gray roof on the corner resting beside a large bare elm and a large empty lot. The brick Cloyd Funeral Home & Cremation building was just across the street.
I knocked on the front door. After a minute, Miss Kate answered. She was a short energetic woman in her sixties, I guessed. She wore red lipstick and a heavy corded woolen sweater over blue jeans.
“Ma’am, I just got into town and found this note at the bookstore. I showed her the three-by-five card that I had taken from the cork board at Transitions. Her eyebrows registered recognition.
“If you don’t want to rent a room to me, or if you will have other rooms available, I can replace the card where I found it.”
“Come in. Come in,” she said. She closed the door behind me and said “I’ll take that card, please. Set your bag there.” She pointed to a place by the stairs. She stepped past me as I was putting my bag down and said, “Come into the office where I can ask you some questions.”
The office was a desk and file cabinet at the far end of the living room. I sat down. Miss Kate sat behind the desk and pulled a pen and legal pad from the drawer.
She asked, “How long will you be in Lewistown?”
“At least through the winter,” I said.
“Do you have work here?”
“Yes, I just got a part-time at Transitions, the used bookstore on Main.”
“Good. I’m sure that Sally will be glad to have help,” she said. She took information from my driver’s license and asked me for references. I gave her the name and contact information for Ron, my brother in law, and also contact information for the manager of the previous bookstore where I worked.
She asked if I had a car, adding that there was no room in the garage. I said not to worry about that; I didn’t intend to buy a car.
“For the time being,” I said, “I’ll be walking.”
She said, “That’s not very ‘local.’ A self-respecting Montanan would rather chip ice off the windshield of his truck, put chains on his tires, jump start his battery, and drive a block instead of walking.”
She said, “OK, you can take the room for the first week. I’ll talk to Sally and check your references. If I’m not happy then I’m afraid you will need to find another place.”
“In the meantime, you can use the kitchen to make your own breakfasts, and if you do not intend to have a dinner here then I expect for you to tell me before noon. There’s no dinner on Saturdays or Sundays.”
I nodded again and said, “I can do that. OK.”
She looked at me steadily, waited a moment, and said, “You can call me Miss Kate. Oh, and here is a key.” She took a key from the drawer. “It works both front and back doors. Your room won’t be locked, unless you are in it.”
“Thank you, Miss Kate.”
Miss Kate showed me the kitchen, which was a time capsule from the sixties, with heavily painted cabinetry, white with blue trim, copper pulls, yellow formica countertops, pale yellow KitchenAid appliances, a copper stove hood, and a light blue linoleum floor.
Miss Kate showed me where I could find cereal, fruit, milk, and bread and butter for toast in the mornings. She said that I would wash my own breakfast dishes. She also showed me a shelf where I could store my own foodstuffs. Then I picked up my bag and followed her upstairs.
“How many people do you have living here?” I asked.
“Aside from myself, we have four boarders, including yourself, all men, not that I have anything against women, of course. There is Willy Coppens who works at Reids, the department store, and Raymond Collishaw, who deals cards at the Aces Casino. Raymond is here for dinners only on Mondays and Tuesdays. Lastly, there is Mister Draper. Mister Draper is retired; he had been a mechanic at the airport for years and years.”
Miss Kate showed me a small room at the back of the house. The room featured a twin bed, a small dresser with a mirror, an end table with a lamp, and a wicker-seat chair. A thick quilt lay on the twin bed. There was a small closet in the corner. The walls were painted a light orange-vermillion. A thick hand-made quilt lay on the bed. A reproduction of van Gough’s bedroom in Arles hung on the wall beside the mirror. It was the second version, the one with the floor having remnants of light green. The colors of the quilt matched the colors of the painting, light blue and deep yellow with green highlights.
“I hope you’ll find this comfortable,” said Miss Kate. “In addition to the room and the kitchen in the morning, you may use the parlor in the front of the house. You may use the telephone in the parlor for local calls.”
I hoped that the parlor would have a comfortable chair and a good lamp for reading. I asked, “May I use the parlor for reading?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Day or night?”
“Yes, although you would be sharing it with Mister Draper. No one else tends to use it, except to make a local phone call now and then.”
“Who is the person here who works at the department store?”
“Willie works at Reids.”
“Do you think he’s working there now? I really need to get some warmer things to wear.”
Miss Kate agreed that Reids would be a good place to buy boots and gloves.
I don’t shop. My strategy is to wait until I need something, plan for where to get it, go there, and buy it.
Reids department store was on West Main and Third Avenue North, a block from Transitions. I walked up to Main on Third Avenue. The store was in a two-story stone building. Behind in, in the same building, was the Garden Café and the Emporium, Antiques & Collectables. This part of the building had the same stonework, but was darker, as though only Reed’s in the front had been power-washed in recent years. There was no parking on Third Avenue except on Sunday, as signage declared it to be an “Emergency Snow Route.”
The building was made of a tan-colored sandstone. The display windows and doors were aluminum framed. Over these was a decorative brown and tan striped awning. Over the awning, the store sign. Above the windows on the second floor, a rectangle of stone was carved with the initials P.M.CO. and the date 1901. Reids had two entrances on Main Street, but the first one was locked. It had a sign pointing to the other set of doors.
The store seemed to feature something for everyone, male and female, young and old, small and large, and it was well heated. I went up to a counter where a small balding man in a dress shirt and slacks was folding shirts and I said, “Miss Kate sent me over here. Are you Willie?”
Willie said, “Yes. How can I help you?”
I said, “I’m new here. I’ve taken a room at Miss Kate’s. I don’t have the right gear for this kind of weather. Can you help me quickly chose some warm and practical boots, gloves, warm shirts, and whatever else you think I’ll need to survive this weather?”
“It will have to be quick because we close at 6.”
It was just after 5 p.m.
Willie asked, “Would this be things to wear in town? You’re not preparing for a winter wilderness experience?”
“No, only for town. I don’t have a car, so I’ll need boots and warm clothes just to get around town. Is the weather much worse than this in the wilderness?”
Willie tried to smile, just to be nice, I thought. Maybe he didn’t have a sense of humor. But he led me over to the Mens’ department and we chose boots and made a pile of flannel shirts, long underwear, wool socks, gloves, ski mask, wool sweater, scarf, and a long down coat. Willie loaned me the scissors from behind the counter so that, as he totaled the damages, I could cut the prices off the boots and coat. I put these on before carrying the rest back to the boarding house.
Getting these warm clothes on and off was cumbersome, but without them I would not have lasted the winter in Lewistown.
It was the end of my first day in Lewistown, and I had already gotten a job, a place to live, and necessary additions to my wardrobe. Furthermore, I hadn’t taken time to worry about what I had gotten myself into. At the boarding house, I went downstairs for dinner with Willie and Mister Draper.
Dinners at the boarding house provided some relief for me. Miss Kate took her dinners in the kitchen with the cook, I hardly ever saw Raymond, and Willie wasn’t communicative, but Mister Draper was friendly and talkative. Mister Draper and I got along splendidly.
I have observed that whether a person talks at the dinner table usually depends on how the person was raised.
In some families, competition for food is such that children who talk instead of chew do not get a second helping and might even miss dessert as they are forced to clean their plates. Natural selection favors the silent ones. In some families children are discouraged from talking with their mouths full, or are told to be quiet to let the domineering adults talk. In some, a parent might insist on silence as a relief from a difficult work environment.
But in other families children learn lively and intellectual discussion techniques. Dinner-table discussions in these families are energetic and rigorous, even competitive.
In my family, an almost religious silence had reigned. Truth had already been established. So I was pleased and surprised by Mister Draper’s genial behavior at dinner.
Willie’s parents must have been the discouraging or domineering type, because Willie did not look kindly on dinner-time discussions. Willie’s scowls, however, did not deter Mister Draper, who seemed glad indeed of having someone new at the table.
Mister Draper was a gentleman of minimum height and maximum belly. He had the shape of a turtle on edge, although to correct the accuracy of this image you have to turn the turtle’s body around inside its shell. Standing or walking, Mister Draper had to lean backwards to keep his balance. When he talked to you his head was so far back that he had to raise his voice to be heard. His face was ruddy cheeked; his hair was thin and white; his forehead slanted back; his eyes were dark and framed by laugh lines; his chin was weak; his mouth was wide; his teeth were yellow but he had a beautiful smile. He always wore a white shirt with a black tie, whose end he tucked into the shirt between the third and fourth buttons, so that it was not seen over his protruding belly button. Over this he wore a Harris tweed jacket loose around the shoulders and hanging in the front from the midsection. He hoisted matching woolen slacks up from below with black suspenders.
The first evening when I came downstairs for dinner, Mister Draper was already at the table reading the business section of the Wall Street Journal, which he must have had mailed to him. Typical image of a man at a table behind his paper.
The dining room was dark. I paused at the doorway and let my eyes adjust for a minute. Dominating the space was a wooden table that could have seated eight or ten, but was set for four at one end. Mister Draper sat at the head of the table. On the side of the room, a dark buffet had piles of clean plates and glasses on doilies. A dim sconce shown weakly over the buffet. Extra chairs sat on the wall opposite from the buffet, which also featured two windows, heavily draped in purple cloth. Reproductions of Dutch paintings hung on the walls. A windmill under ominous gray clouds; a still life featuring pewter and a big silver fish; boats on a canal; portraits of men with beards and hats. The floor was wooden planks and baren. A small chandelier hung over the table with six fifteen-watt decorative bulbs providing just barely enough light to eat. A door at the back communicated with the kitchen.
Mister Draper reached under his newspaper with his fork for a portion of pot roast when he heard me come in. Typical image of a man lowering the paper to see over it with raised eyebrows as I took a seat. He saw me, dropped the paper to his side, and smiled.
Dinner was mashed potatoes, pot roast, and green beans out of a can. It wasn’t gourmet, but it was hearty.
“May I ask who you are?” Mister Draper asked.
“I’m nobody,” I said.
Mister Draper pushed his chair back and stood. He gave me a little bow. He said, “I am not the Cyclops. May I introduce myself? I am Mister Draper.”
Miss Kate had referred to him as “Mister Draper,” and he introduced himself as “Mister Draper.” I never learned his first name, even though I told him mine.
I noticed that Mister Draper wore a masonic pin on his lapel, the ‘G’ inside a carpenter’s square and set of compasses. I said, “Mister Draper, you are a Freemason.”
Mister Draper looked at his lapel, turning it up with his thumb, and smiled. “Yes,” he said. “Brother in good standing of the Friendship Lodge of Ancient and Free Masons of Lewistown Montana.”
“You don’t look ancient,” I said.
“Looks may conceal more than you may see,” he said. “Freemasons built the Temple of Solomon. We built our own temple in 1908.”
I said, “That beats me. I just got off the bus.”
Mister Draper said, “I did not intend to beat you. Welcome to our little town.”
“Thank you. I may appreciate your long acquaintance with this town—you know, to learn whom I must meet and where I must be seen.”
“I would be honored, in any small way that I may, to direct you between the jaws of Scylla and Charybdis.”
“I hope that Miss Kate is neither Scylla nor Charybdis,” I said.
“Oh, no. Miss Kate is as sweet as pie. She really is.” Then Mister Draper whispered behind his hand, winking, “I never bite the hand that feeds me.”
One evening, I asked Mister Draper how Lewistown had changed over the years.
Mister Draper said, “We may observe four periods in the history of Lewistown. The first permanent settlement in this place was a trading post, Fort Sherman, built in 1873 on the speculation that the federal government would establish a Crow reservation here. That fell through. But this began what we may call the Cowboy period, which placed a period on the native period, before there was a town here. You may have realized nothing is permanent.”
“All things must pass,” I said.
“The Metis, descendants of natives who intermarried with the French, were part of the cowboy period and were early settlers here before it became Lewistown. This was also when the Carroll Trail was established and, for protecting the Carroll Crossing at Big Spring Creek during the summer months, the U. S. Infantry built a post here that they named Fort Lewis after Major William H. Lewis. You see, the town was not named after Meriwether Lewis. The closest that the Lewis and Clark expedition came was Great Falls. This period was coarse and violent. The cowboys were of course employed by the ranchers. A romantic view of that period predominates.”
“Charlie Russell documented that period,” I said.
“True, and this is why our boosters call this area ‘Russell Country.’ OK. The second period is the gold rush, which began in 1880. Before this time, the population of the town was under 75, but by 1890 the population was ten times that. A lot of money was lost, but some people become wealthy. The town was plated in 1882, and Croatian stone masons built our old stone and brick buildings then with stone from Big Spring Quarry for the businessmen who had gathered the gold. Lawlessness resulted in an appeal by the town to the state to establish Fergus county in 1886, and to incorporate Lewistown in 1899.”
“Eventually,” Mister Draper continued, “the gold died out, except for our golden fields of wheat. Then came World War Two. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. By 1942, the U. S. Army built the air force base at Great Falls and a satellite airfield here in Lewistown. Elevation 4167, latitude north 47 degrees, longitude west 109 degrees.
“They trained bomber squadrons on the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and the top-secret Norden bomb sight—navigation, gunnery, bombing. They stored the Norden bomb sights here in a special concrete building with doors designed for bank vaults. The GIs trained here for three months and then they were sent to the European front to fly and die. They lost 548 bombers and shot down a thousand enemy aircraft. Squadrons trained in Montana dropped 71 tons of bombs over Leipzig, Oschersleben, Regensberg, Schweinfurt, Steyr, and Zwickau.
“Air force training lasted only twelve months here, after which the facilities reverted to a municipal airport, which we still enjoy.
“Meanwhile, the wheat period continued until 1965, when the air force built two hundred intercontinental ballistic missile silos around the state, including the fifty that surround Lewistown. I call this the ICBM period. Our population peaked during the installation of the silos at under 7500, and has been declining since then. Today, I think, the military and federal wheat subsidies are the only reasons that this town survives.”
“The population curve resembles the path of an ICBM,” I said.
“Sadly,” said Mister Draper. “But it hasn’t destroyed its target yet.”
Mister Draper asked me, “May I ask, young man, what you are interested in?”
I didn’t want to talk about myself, so I told him that I was interested in flying, remembering that Miss Kate said he was a retired airplane mechanic. I said, “I find human-powered flight most appealing. Do you think someday that many people will have their own Gossamer Condors?”
Mister Draper said, “No, no. The physics are against it. Current prototypes require extraordinary athletes to power them. The smallest engines for ultralight aircraft generate twenty to twenty-five horse power. Why not go with ultralights?”
“Hmmmmm,” I murmured, “Are there ultralights in Lewistown?”
“Not at the airport. Not that I know of. They don’t need much of a runway so they could be used out in the country for fence reconnaissance or the like. Plenty of open land for emergency landings.”
“The air force wouldn’t be bothered by the presence of unregistered aircraft over the missile sites?”
“Oh. They can be extraordinarily sensitive, but they wouldn’t likely notice anything that small flying under two thousand feet altitude.”
“Not even a UFO?”
“No. If military radar were to catch a UFO, it would be flying over three thousand feet altitude.”
“But private planes have radar, don’t they? Did pilots ever ask you to check their equipment after they witnessed things in the sky that they couldn’t understand?”
“Yes, they have at that, but it had been other things malfunctioning, not the equipment.”
“So,” I asked, “you don’t believe in UFOs?”
Mister Draper said, “I am agnostic and I will likely remain agnostic unless a preponderance of irrefutable evidence attests to their existence. I mean their existence as physical flying vehicles.”
“You don’t doubt their existence as optical illusions or psychological delusions?”
“No, nor as electronic contusions. We have a preponderance of refutable evidence.”
I miss the days when Halloween was a simple holiday
about making ritual sacrifices to evil spirits to ensure a plentiful harvest.
— Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, 27 October 2011
- A clock
- The passage of time
- Art and artists
- Ten good men
- An invitation
I had worked in used bookstores most of my life. Transitions bookstore in Lewistown was much the same as the other used bookstores everywhere else, so that it seemed familiar, and the people in the store also seemed familiar, except for Hans.
Hans was an odd duck, even compared to me or the flocks of oddities who tend to work in used bookstores.
Can I say what was odd about him? Was I a little disconnected from reality? Do I exaggerate? This is how it seemed to me.
Physically, Hans was not odd. He wore a plain white T-shirt, tan corduroys, and sneakers (not jogging shoes, but black Converse All-Stars with white soles and laces). His brown hair was barbered in a crew cut. His face was oval shaped and his eyes were blue. His fingers were long, but he was average height, maybe five foot nine. He seemed fit and strong, but not muscular or athletic.
His name was German but he didn’t speak with a German accent. I would say that his accent was more Californian.
His behavior was unusual.
When someone at the bookstore came to Hans with a question, such as whether we had a book on electric cars, or even French lace, he never checked the computer. He already knew the answer. He knew if we had a copy of a certain Agatha Christie “Tommy and Tuppence” mystery or Roosevelt’s history, and he knew exactly where it was in the store.
I knew others who could remember book locations. An attentive person picks up an impressive amount of detail while avoiding boredom during hours after hours of sorting, shelving, and cataloging. But Hans could seemingly effortlessly field any question, such as “When was the first Remington typewriter?” Or “Who was General Custer’s first lieutenant?” Or “Is there an Oldiluvium extrusion in the Judith Mountains?” (Sorry, I don’t know much about geology, so I just made that up.)
To support an answer to the next question, in the gaps between work at the bookstore, Hans was always reading something. He read quickly, turning through the pages of everything that came into his hands, I suspect, that he hadn’t seen before. I bet that Hans had read through the Lewistown phone book, cover to cover, and I knew that regular issues of the Lewistown News-Argus were no strangers to him.
Hans didn’t simply answer the question. If the questioner, young or old, was not looking at him, he waited. He looked the questioner in the eye. If they didn’t look back, he would say nothing but continue to look directly at the questioner. Eventually, the reluctant questioner would either murmur “sorry” and move away, or comply with Hans’s unspoken requirement. That settled, Hans would answer the question, followed by stating the title and author of the book in which the questioner could confirm the fact. Then Hans would say where the book could be found in our shop, or he would say, “We don’t have that book right now. If you leave your name and number, we will call you when we see it again.”
I once made the mistake of seeming to doubt something Hans said. I didn’t mean to. I was only astonished. A boy had taken a Zane Grey novel to the counter where Hans was on duty. The young man said, “I’m going to read every book he wrote.” Hans asked, “Do you know he wrote over ninety books, including eight books on fishing?” “Oh, yes,” said the boy. Hans nodded and smiled. He said “Charlie Russell illustrated one of his books.” Here’s where I stuck my foot in my mouth. I said, “Oh, really?” I had never heard that Russell illustrated Zane Grey. Hans gave me a cold stare. “I’m sorry.” I said. “I love the work of Charlie Russell.” It seemed that Hans had to think about it, but then he told the boy, “If you leave us your name and number or address, we can let you know when we get other books by Zane Grey.”
Another thing, too. Nothing surprised him. He was curious and had a curious confidence. It wasn’t his curiosity itself, or his accent, or his quietness, or his T-shirt and corduroys, or his crew cut, or the oval shape of his face, or his blue eyes, or his long fingers. These were ordinary enough. Maybe his ordinariness set him apart; maybe his ordinariness made him feel safe, or connected. He never seemed to worry; he was basically a happy quiet person. He didn’t shove it in your face. He didn’t need to.
To save money, Sally kept the bookstore cool, so I needed to wear a sweater at work. Sally was another case; she was always bundled up against the cold, as though it had nothing to do with the weather. Hans, however, wore nothing but corduroys, sneakers, and a T-shirt in the bookstore. When he got into the building, he took off his woolen gloves and leather bomber jacket and seemed perfectly comfortable.
The first day, I was surprised by the appearance of a hoard of kids and Hans reading a National Geographic to them, but this was not an unusual occurrence. People of all ages dropped into the store all the time, singly or in small clusters. They didn’t have to be looking for something, or selling anything, or holding a flyer for Sally to tape to the window or pin to the cork board by the door. They would drop in, often saying nothing, pick up a book or magazine, and plop down on an easy chair. Sometimes they would talk quietly. Sometimes one would close his eyes and nod off. No one was a stranger there.
Sally treated her employees strictly, but townspeople were never treated harshly. Employees were not allowed to eat anything in the main part of the store, not even chew gum, but townspeople would come in with their lunch bags and thermoses. Kids would be chewing gum. There was a bathroom in the back, and a small water fountain and a trash can beside the door to the bathroom. People would always clean up after themselves. If a child left a mess, sometimes I would see Hans clean it up and sometimes Sally would.
Except for one person, named Loren, if they were curious about me or Hans or Orville and Wilbur, they never showed it. If there were such a thing as midwestern reserve, then they had it. On the other hand, I wouldn’t regard them as shy, especially not the kids. The kids were demanding. They would come in and treat us like aunts or uncles, or like grandparents. “Do you have any Pippi Longstockings?” “Why do bees sting?” “How do flies fly?” and, if Hans weren’t there, “Where is Hans?”
The town’s artists also loved Hans. Eugene and Blanche were frequent visitors. Also three friends of theirs, Theodore Ellyson, George Kelly, and Paul Beck, whom I saw less often. Sometimes one or two would come in just to talk. Other times it was to talk about what they were doing and what they were wanting to find. This was because when Orville and Wilbur went out on a shopping expedition, they would also keep their eyes out for items of interest, which they sold at cost, as though it took no effort for them to find, buy, pack, or ship things to Lewistown.
Hans sat on the stool among piles of books behind the counter. He looked out the window. He did his job with normal efficiency. Keeping track of what we sold, making change, buying books that people brought in boxes, climbing ladders, on his knees to pull out the volumes that had been pushed behind, no one seemed interested in him, except for me and the kids.
But my curiosity had not even begun to be satisfied until mid October, when he told me that he was building a clock.
“What kind of clock? How is it driven?”
“Electricity, and it is made out of wood and bicycle parts.”
“Oh. With weights and a pendulum? How big is it?”
“It has a pendulum, yes, but no weights. The clock is big enough; it takes most of a wall.”
“Why build a clock? You can just buy one.”
“People build clocks,” he said. “Some do it to decorate a mantle, or to exercise their ingenuity.”
“But those are not your reasons,” I said (which is just like me, making unsubstantiated claims). “What does your clock do that any other clock wouldn’t do?”
“My clock will remind me of the passage of time.”
Some days at Transition bookstore passed like weeks, and other days like minutes, but I generally didn’t need to be reminded of the passage of time. A clock and a calendar were on the wall behind the counter, and a watch was on my wrist. I had plenty of reminders of the passage of time, not counting the lengthening shadows, and the shape of the light, and the growth of stubble on my chin. Temporal consciousness was not a problem for me. I’m young enough to fear my unknown future, and old enough to feel that I have wasted my life so far. I would rather forget about the passage of time, but it won’t leave me alone.
I wasn’t married; I didn’t even have a girlfriend who would marry me. Hans was about my age, and he also seemed unattached. Being alone didn’t seem to bother Hans, but it bothered me. I had a dead-end job. I lived in a boarding house where old Miss Kate treated everyone like a child. I didn’t even have many friends, at least no one near with whom I could share my feelings.
After college, my friends left for graduate school, or got married, or moved back to their home towns. I couldn’t move back to my home town. I didn’t have a home town. Even the cities where I had lived were not my home. So I buried myself in books.
A year before this, my sister had died; I have never felt more alone. They say that grief doesn’t last. One tribe of Native Americans had the “wiping of the tears” ceremony when a year had gone by. Now it had been over a year and, for me, it wasn’t any better.
It didn’t matter to me what work Sally gave me to do at Transitions. I was happy enough as long as I was busy. I was happy enough when people came into the store. It didn’t matter what their ages or what their reasons were. I was happy when Orville and Wilbur were working; they were always interesting. The hard times for me were the quiet times, when I could hear the echos of every footstep.
The sewing machine that I had seen when I first walked into town was one of Eugene’s installations. More of his installations were scattered about town. On the eastern end of Main Street, just at the city line, was a billboard featuring lifesize goldfinches made with tin cans arranged to fly in a spiral pattern toward and merging with a large yellow rose in the center. This was a collaboration of Eugene, Blanche, and Paul.
I asked Eugene what the sewing machine meant. He said, “It represents the soul. The human soul is a sewing machine left out in the cold, bound by a heavy chain to a light pole.”I asked Eugene what the swirling goldfinches on the billboard meant. He said, “They represent the soul, the golden flower of enlightenment. But they’re nailed to a board and left out in the weather, winter and summer.”
I said, “You’re pulling my leg, right? Everything doesn’t represent the soul.”
Eugene said, “You’ll see. You should come over tonight. We’ve plenty more works of art about the house. And I think Theodore will be there. Come over after work and we’ll feed you.” Eugene gave me a big smile. “It would be good for your soul.”
I found that focusing on others made my heart feel lighter. Maybe the sewing machine and the swirling goldfinches represented the heart. I needed to reread Jung.
It turns out that Eugene and Blanche’s house was out Third Avenue a block from Miss Kate’s boarding house. After work, I went home and went into the sitting room for an old newspaper from a basket. In my room, I got my bag down from the shelf above the closet, and I rolled up in the newspaper my parents’s pewter candlesticks.
Eugene and Blanche lived in the Symmes house. Ahem. The Symmes mansion. It was set behind a beautiful blue spruce decorated by the weather with snow and ice cycles like a Christmas tree for a giant.
I knocked on the door with the candlesticks under my left arm. Blanche answered right away, saying “I saw you coming. Goodness. Come in quickly; it’s cold out there.”
Blanche was dressed in a bright yellow dress cut from an eighteenth-century pattern, with yellow lace and puffy yellow shoulders. In contrast, her red hair was on fire. Drop your coat and things on that chair. Gene and Ted are drinking brandy in the library.”
I had my mouth open. She said, “Oh, this. Sorry. Ted needed a model to wear this. He’s already taken photographs. I think it was a wedding dress; he dyed it. It’s coming right off.” She smiled. “This way, please.”
The place was beautiful, with parquet floors, cherry-wood moldings and wainscoting, alabaster sconces, and marble steps on a grand staircase ascending from the foyer. But artworks were hung and leaning on every vertical surface, photographs, paintings, most without frames, collages, papier-maché statuettes, and many small things glued into old orange crates and wooden soda boxes.
I put the candlesticks on the chair with my coat, hat, scarf, and gloves.
Blanche led me past the stairs to the left toward the back of the place. She said, “I know it looks like a mess, but it grows on you. Eugene says that the way for an artist to avoid becoming attached to his work, so he can sell it, is to make lots of it. Others say just make it ugly.“ She laughed as she opened the library door.
The library, too, was full of artworks, mainly sculptural. A man in blue overalls with erratic blonde hair and a stubble of beard raised his eyes from his glass of brandy, looked at Blanche, and said, “Ah, here’s our model of yellow perfection!” He smiled.
Blanche curtsied and said, “A recently hatched chick may be perfect, too, but in time it molts.” She left me with Ted and Eugene.
Ted looked at me and said, “Ted. Glad to meet you.”
A gray cat meowed, jumped off a chair, and ran past me through the door.
Eugene offered me a brandy, which I accepted. After Eugene gave me my glass and I had a sip, he said, “Thanks for coming over. I made dinner tonight; I hope you’ll like it.” With a more serious expression, he said, “Lewistown is far from the thick of civilization; I hope that the town hasn’t been getting you down.”
“The same,” I said, “for you. How do you survive as artists here?”
“Ah,” he said. “I have outlets in New York and in L.A., but mainly I praise my dearly departed Aunt Bessica, whose dearly departed husband, Uncle Hugh, left her with more money than she could spend, and a love of art.”
“Yes, but why Lewistown?”
Ted answered, “Why Lewistown? It’s remote from the arts scene, it has dreadfully long and dreadful winters, and its native population is provincial, but it’s cheap to live here. No one bothers us. Isolation and cruel winters drive artists inward, where we either find our souls or go mad.“
“Sheesh,” I said. “I think I’d rather be driven outward.”
“Fortunately,” said Eugene, “we’re not entirely alone.”
“As for that,” I said, “thank you for inviting me tonight. I love all the clutter; lots of interesting things to look at.”
Eugene said, “The house is complex but the meal will be simple. Come this way . . . to the kitchen!”
Eugene led Ted and me to the kitchen, where we found Blanche, dressed in blue jeans and blouse, stirring something in a big pot.
Eugene said, “It’s a bouillabaisse.”
I said, “You get fresh seafood in the frozen north?”
Eugene replied, “No, Sorry. It’s all been frozen, but I hope it tastes good. Maybe a little more chewy.”
Ted and I took a peek into the pot, while Eugene went into the dining room and started cutting a large loaf of bread.
I said, “Wait a second, I have something to add to the table.” I went back into the hall and grabbed the candle sticks, still rolled up in newspaper.”
Everyone else was standing behind a chair around the dining-room table. I said, “I didn’t bring a bottle of wine, as would be customary, but I would like you to have these.” I handed the bundle to Blanche, who unrolled the candlesticks.
Blanche said, “These are lovely.”
Eugene said, “Oh, something practical!”
I said, “Those were my parents’. Candles, you know, represent the soul.”
Eugene said, “The sticks themselves are only lifeless bodies, but we can put candles in them, light them up, and remember those to whom we were once close. Thank you.”
Blanche pulled out a pair of white candles and a book of matches from the buffet, stuck them into the pewter sticks, and lit the candles. Their yellow light warmed up the table and gave an extra glow to each cheek, an extra glint to each eye.
The bouillabaisse was warm and tasty, and the bread moist and chewy. Eugene said, “I baked that bread.” Everyone complimented him on the yeasty result.
We all sat and enjoyed the soup, along with a bottle of cheap Cote du Rhone.
I asked Ted, “What are you doing with photos of Blanche in the yellow wedding dress?”
Ted said, “I am working up several ideas. One is a parody of Cinderella fairy-tale romance. Another is an invasion of clowns in old wedding dresses, all in beautiful pastels. They come down from the altars of synagogues, churches, and mosques, and they try to entertain our children, but our parents will have none of it. The clowns seem to lack sincerity. They have a sense of humor but no sincerity.”
Blanche objected, “You wouldn’t put a clown’s makeup on my face, would you?”
Ted said, “That’s only one of many ideas. For your face, I am thinking of an invasion of angels in wedding dresses. They come down and taunt our elders. They entice our young like a hoard of pied pipers.”
Blanche smiled mischieveously and wagged a mocking finger at Eugene.
Eugene said, “Well, just because I’m older than you is no reason to gloat.”
Ted said, “Aha!”
Eugene turned to me and said, “We have so many questions for you. Where are you from? What do you do? Why did you come to Lewistown, Montana? Did you know someone here? Do you plan to stay long? How is it to work with Hans? How is it to work with Sally?“
Blanche said, “Yes, isn’t Sally like an invading angel?”
“Exactly like an invading angel,” I said, “but one who was educated in the eighteenth century. Not a bad century for invading angels, but . . . ”
Ted added, “But Sally belongs here more than we do. We are all transplants from foreign lands. New York, Los Angeles . . .”
I said, “I am a transplant from New London, Connecticut, and the twentieth century. I write fiction, and have worked in used bookstores from Connecticut to New Jersey.”
Ted said, “So then your stint here at Orville and Wilbur’s Transition is not a transition from a non-bookstore career. You are here only to gather material for your next novel, right?”
“No,” I said, “I am in a transition only from a lonely life to this happy company. I’m seriously getting away from it all.”
Eugene said, “But we are not all here. Next time, you should meet Paul. He makes those kinetic sculptures driven by wind, weights, or falling balls. He’s a useful man to have around.”
When we had finished the soup, and wine, and bread, Eugene said, “Leave the dishes.” Eugene turned to Blanche and asked, “Isn't Judith here tomorrow? She can clean things up.”
I had a great time, but the teasing banter between Ted and Blanche reminded me of my sister, Bonnie, and made me feel more isolated than I should have thought. I went back to my room that night with a lot on my mind.
Hans seemed to enjoy his privacy. He did not volunteer personal information, nor did he ask for it from others. But I realized that he had a keen interest in the lives of the people around him, including me.
One day, a friend of Sally’s, Anna, came into the bookstore. Anna was tall and overweight. I think she was the housecleaner for Eugene and Blanche. Her cheeks were always flushed like a caricature of a Scandinavian maiden, but Anna’s maiden years were years gone. Anna looked around, craning her neck. I asked her, “Could I help you find anything?”
She wasn’t looking for a book. She asked, “Where is Sally?”
I nodded toward the biography section in back. Anna darted back there. Hans was at the register, that is, at the computer that we used to track inventory. Both of us could hear much of the conversation.
“He did it! Barney quit!”
“He what? Why’d he do that?”
“He said they didn’t treat him right. He’s been angry since the masons refused to let him join their men’s club. He’s been pretending to go to work every day for weeks because he was afraid to tell me. Come to find out he’s been spending his days at the tavern. He has his own men’s club at the tavern, though the dues are higher.”
“What did you expect? He’s an overgrown child. You don’t have to put up with that. You should just kick him out.”
“I couldn’t do that. Where would he go?”
“Let him sponge off his drinking buddies. He won’t get anything from me. That’s for sure.”
I noticed that Hans’s eyebrows were up. But Anna and Sally must have realized that they were being overheard, because they lowered their voices and moved to the lunchroom in the back. Everything was very still in the bookstore. Overheard, on our high ceilings, ceiling fans slowly turned.
After Anna had left, I went by the counter and whispered to Hans, “Living alone may be lonely, but it lowers one’s risk of suffering the inconsiderations of others.”
Hans whispered, “I feel sorry for both Anna and Barney.”
I whispered, “Well, I do, too. I’m not taking sides. It’s too hard to decide whether in my life I have acted more like Anna or more like Barney.”
Hans whispered, “It is too hard to be perfect.”
After overhearing Anna’s exchange with Sally at the bookstore, I asked Mister Draper, during dinner at the boarding house, how many men were members of his masonic lodge, and whether he sometimes saw them elsewhere in town.
Mister Draper said, “Abraham convinced God to save Sodom if ten good man could be found in it. We have over a dozen, although half are getting on in age and are not active.”
“Can you tell me who they are, or do I need to look for men with masonic pins on their lapels?”
“I could tell you, but what would you do with the information? I’ll tell you this. I understand that you work with Hans at the bookstore. Hans is a Freemason in good standing, although not a brother of our lodge.”
“How did you learn that?”
“I saw him leaving our lodge once, so later I asked our grand secretary, who had been there when Hans visited.”
I said, “I heard that you haven’t accepted everyone who applies for membership, one Barney in particular.”
“No. Barney is a sad case. He is a good man with a weak character and a weak mind. A sad case. One wonders what kind of help he needs.”
I was lonely. To distract myself, I read a lot. I was lucky to work in a used bookstore. I got Sally’s permission to borrow books. “No more than three at a time,” she said. I looked for classical American literature set in the west.
I read The Octopus by Frank Norris, a bleak and tragic epic of the conflict between the wheat farmer and the railroad barons in the central valley of California. The sheep are run over by the train and the wheat farmer doesn’t have a chance.
I read Zane Grey’s Desert of Wheat, although I could barely tolerate the idealized innocence of Lenore (“I wonder—how I will feel—when I see him—again.... Oh, I wonder!”) or the manly confusion of Kurt Dorn who loves growing wheat with a religious fervor. Matching this romance, this being set in the Pacific Northwest during the first world war, Grey works out the drama between the stereotyped wheat farmers, the stereotyped bankers, and the evil, unprincipled stereotyped representatives of the International Workers of the World, said to be in the payroll of imperialistic Germany intent on destroying the ability of the Americans to feed the allied armies fighting in Europe.
I read The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie. I was not impressed with Boone Caudill’s crude sense of right and wrong.
I read Charlie Russell’s stories, Rawhide Stories and Trails Plowed Under, both sequences of yarns and tall tales concerning interesting characters such as Pat Geyser, who built a resort out of cottonwood logs that shrunk up so much in the dry weather that Pat could move the hotel in a wheel barrow, and Morman Zeke, who was an Indian trader and a brawler. It also tells a story about a “hoss-wrangler” who thought he was a good cook and who became a leading citizen of Lewistown after he had to leave Landusky for making a pudding for Thanksgiving that killed three guests and disabled several more.
I started reading all the B. M. Bower that I could find, starting with Chip, Of the Flying U because Charlie Russell illustrated it. Chip’s story would be a reserved romance set in Chouteau County except that Chip, an unschooled ranch hand turns out to be able to paint so well that men can see his cows breathe and bellow.
I reread The Call of the Wild. Its inversion of the civilized and the brutish appealed more to me then than it had in my youth.
I read many traditional westerns, books by Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, Bret Harte, Larry McMurtry, Monty Walsh, and anything else that I found at the store.
I tried taking walks around town, but the weather made me shorten this exercise to where it wasn’t much help. I spent time in the library. At least in the library there were other people with a love of books. I began to fantasize about the younger female librarians, but this made me feel my age and my isolation more acutely. I was not cut out for being happy only in my fantasies.
Halloween was soon announced in the store windows of the town. Sally brought forward all the books that she could find in the store on saints, witches, the occult, and the macabre, including all our books by Edgar Allen Poe. She decorated the window display and the table by the counter with these items, with black and orange crepe paper, and with a couple plastic skeletons that she kept in a closet.
In Lewistown the merchants do something special for young trick-or-treaters on the Sunday before Halloween. Mothers and fathers usher their kids in their costumes from store to store. There wouldn’t be enough theme books in the appropriate age range in the bookstore, so Sally had a basket of black liquorice and jawbreakers shaped like skulls at the register.
I was in no mood to dress in costume for work. Fortunately, Sally did not ask me to, although she came to work in a calico apron and hat. Hans also wore only his usual clothes, although when kids came into the store, he put on a huge smile.
Loren was the one adult who did not conform to the general nature of acting reserved during his visits to the bookstore. He was skinny and short but walked like a tall man, with his arms swinging. His face was pimpled, but he was at least a few years beyond high-school. I think he worked at the Central Montana Coop just north of town on Highway 191.
Loren would lope through the door and head straight for the counter. He would doff his cowboy hat, put his elbow down, tilt his head to the right, and say anything that would pop into his head, especially if seemed to him to be provocative. My role was to keep a straight face, trying not to directly encourage him, because what seemed to him to be provocative usually seemed to me to be funny.
Once Loren asked, “Does it always smell like this?” I replied, “Like what?” He said, “Like a person would notice it.” I said, “Definitely not. If a person would notice it, then it’s not what he’s used to.”
Days later, Loren said, “You’re not from around here. Do we, the good people of Lewistown, seem like aliens, or just poor imitations of what you find elsewhere?’ I tried to think of a witty reply, but said only that most people were normal.
He said, “I think my nose is clogged up with wheat dust.” “I hope that’s whole wheat,” I said, thinking that I shouldn’t have said anything. “I think whole wheat isn’t as good for you when it’s mixed with mouse-turd dust.”
Once Loren asked, “Where can a man think?” I looked him up and down and said, “Some people do it in the road.” “Not in this town,” he said.
I never saw Loren being as talkative with other people. But I imagine that he had a regular route, like a paperboy. I think he worked afternoons and evenings, so that in the mornings he was free to start at the grocery store to chat with the clerk, then to the salesperson at the car dealership on Fifth, then to the bookstore, and from there he could parade up the street to the Empire café, then the public library. He never carried anything except for his cowboy hat.
At the bookstore, Orville and Wilbur were doing an inventory with the aim of determining what kinds of books they needed more of and what kinds of books they had too many of.
Orville and Wilbur were both thin and agile. Both wore blue jeans, different colored turtle-neck shirts, and brown wing-tip shoes. Orville was about five foot nine, and Wilbur was three inches shorter. Wilbur was a more bald, with a shiny patch on his crown. They both had beard and hair that never got long, a gray stubble. I think they must have trimmed each other every day with an electric home hair cutter, chin and noggin at the same setting, using a quarter-inch comb. Orville’s hands and feet were huge; he could use his hands as umbrellas and his feet as snow shoes. Wilbur’s hands and feet were normal.
Wilbur brandished a yellow legal pad that featured Dewey Decimals with categories and numbers, working the list with a pencil. I think only because he thought it was funny, Wilbur wore a green celluloid eyeshade, like an accountant from the nineteen-fifties. Orville counted books on the shelves and reported numbers to Wilbur. He pulled a few books here and there, and put them into a couple boxes on the floor.
All the while they worked, Orville whistled songs that featured whistling, one after another—“Whistle While You Work,” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, “Sukiyaki” (a great favorite of mine), “Walk Like an Egyptian,” the theme song to “The Andy Griffith Show,” Roy Orbison’s “Here Comes the Rain, Baby,” Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay,” and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.’ He interrupted his whistling only to give numbers to Wilbur.
Orville asked, “What about ’Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah’? Did that one have any whistling in it?”
Wilbur said, “No, but you haven’t whistled ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,’” which Orville then whistled, adding “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” by Paul Simon, and “Two of Us” by Paul McCartney.
Hans and I didn’t have much to do at the time. I think Orville and Wilbur’s inventory work and whistling put Sally off her stride. I asked Hans, “What will your clock do to remind you of the passage of time?”
Hans didn’t answer me.
I looked him in the eye and asked, “Would you show it to me?”
Hans nodded. This was about three in the afternoon.
Before we closed for the day and after Orville and Wilbur had adjourned their inventory work, Hans motioned me over. Sally had assigned me to an old straw broom that I had nearly worked from a back corner of the store to the opposite front corner. Hans said, “Would you like to come over to my house to see the work that I have done so far on my clock?”
I had only begun to see that Hans was more complicated and interesting than he had at first appeared.
It just happened that the public happened to, uh, appreciate the satirical
quality of these crazy things.
— Rube Goldberg
When I was a boy, I watched the Ed Sullivan show. The Beatles weren’t the only act that Ed Sullivan introduced. You could learn a lot watching television in those days.
I remember where they played the “Sabre Dance” and Erich Brenn spun plates balanced on flexible poles. He worked very quickly and he started dozens of them one after the other all spinning at the same time. He also spun plates on their edges on a table. As each of the plates started to wobble, in the nick of time before it fell, Brenn would prance up to it and restore its spin by wiggling his fingers over it or twirling its pole, all to the “Sabre Dance.” He really had to be on his toes. It seemed remarkable that none of the plates ever fell and broke.
Brenn’s spinning disks are what the uranium saucers first made me think of. I was walking along West Broadway behind First Bank of Montana where the bank has its drive-up ATMs and pneumatic tubes that connected with the bank. There’s a ten-foot wide space between drive-up lanes and the parking lot behind the bank. Someone had put up a six-foot tall chain-link fence in a six by six-foot square. Inside the fence were six narrow poles in two rows, and on top of each pole were a set of seemingly balanced orange plates.
Compared to Brenn’s plates on the Ed Sullivan show, these weren’t spinning and each pole had two plates balanced on it. The two plates were arranged so that the top one was upside down over the bottom one, making a symmetrical disk that could have contained something between them, like keeping your breakfast warm. They looked like Fiestaware. I knew that color. It was the orange that Fiestaware produced in the forties with uranium oxide glaze, when the glaze really was radioactive.
I looked around. A woman in a white pick-up truck was driving up to the automated teller. I might have been the first person to notice the saucers on poles.
If these flying saucers were intended to depict UFOs, then to me they suggested that UFOs were rigged on poles.
This reminds me of another act on Ed Sullivan. I forget who it was. I think it wasn’t Erich Brenn; maybe it was the cigar-box juggler Kris Kremo. He came out on stage with three cigar boxes. With a cigar box in each hand, he caught the third. The band played a song with a lot of horns; the audience started clapping. With each clap, Kremo would toss or twirl the middle cigar box, shifting the three boxes around in the air so that the left one would get in the middle, then the right one. Kris Kremo would twirl around while all three boxes were in the air. He really seemed to be making an effort. Once he dropped a box. Ed asked him about that after his act, and he confessed that if he didn’t drop one then people began to think it was easy.
That’s what I learned watching the Ed Sullivan Show. If you want people to think it’s hard, then you have to drop one occasionally. Similarly, if UFOs were rigged, a gigantic hoax, then Roswell could have been faked as a refutation. At any rate, I wondered how the plates were affixed to the poles.
It had gotten to mid November. Hans had invited me to his place to see the clock he was making.
Hans lived in a large craftsman style house on West Broadway Street with two stories and a deep covered front porch needing paint. There was no car in the drive. There were big cottonwoods in the yard. Cats were mewing on the walkway.
I walked up the wooden stairs to the porch, and could hear jazz, Gerry Mulligan from the fifties, quietly playing. I could smell frying onions, and could see a soft yellow light spread onto the old boards of the porch. The door was open, even though it was freezing cold. I raised my arm to knock, but I heard Hans call out, “Come on in. The door is open. You can shut it behind you.”
Hans was in the kitchen, and someone else was at the stove.
“This is Jim Radley,” said Hans. He didn’t tell Jim my name. My eyes were getting used to the light. Also, my eyes watered from the smoke from onions and burning peanut oil that filled the room. I guessed that the door had been open to let out some of the smoke.
Jim turned around and I shook his hand. Jim was dark and thickly bearded, a little on the heavy side, with wide full lips, and thick framed glasses perched on a wide red nose. He wore his hair long, but it was tied to a tail in the back with a rubber band.
I turned around. In the corner, behind the wooden table, sat a woman in a calico dress. She had thin light brown hair, and her ears stuck out of her hair.
“And this is Judith.”
Judith said, “Jim is going to cook something.” Even though she was peeling cloves of garlic, she seemed to disassociate herself from Jim. The disjunction was exaggerated because her verb tense didn’t recognize that Jim was already cooking. She did not seem happy or friendly.
I said. “Glad to meet you.” I looked at her and cocked my head, but she said no more. I wondered why she had volunteered her prognostication.
Hans was sitting backwards on a kitchen chair, facing Jim at the stove, Judith on his right. He rose, swinging the chair back under the table, and stepped forward to take me by the elbow.
“Come in through here,” he told me. We went through a doorway.
Mulligan was now playing “The Shadow of Your Smile.” We walked into what I supposed would be the dining room. But instead of a large table with chairs around it, or sideboard, or China cabinet, it was a workroom, a kind of wood shop, or bicycle shop, or clock repair shop. Bins of parts, open drawers of tools, a table saw, a lathe, a vice and clamps. There were motors, switches, a multimeter, and a breadboard bristling with colored wires laid out on a bench. Chisels, saws, drills, screwdrivers, wrenches. The smell of wood and three-in-one oil more powerfully presented to my nose than the smoke of onion and peanut oil from the kitchen.
Hans shut the door behind us and sat on a metal stool. He was smiling.
Hans said, “You started combing your hair.”
“Yes,” I said. “Constant and fierce looks from Sally drove me to do it.” I felt sheepish. “I don’t have any objection to looking neat. I’m not that much of a rebel.”
Hans said, “Your spirit of freedom should survive the grooming. Thank you for coming over.”
“My pleasure,” I said. “If you invite a Buddhist visitor to dinner not knowing that she is a vegan, and you serve her roast beef, then she eats it out of kindness to you, her host. . . . Sally was kind enough to give me a job, so . . . ”
Hans finished my sentence, “ . . . so combing your hair is a small kindness to Sally.”
“Yes,” I said. “I wasn’t referring to your inviting me here.”
“And you are not a vegan,” Hans asserted.
“Right,” I said.
“Right,” I thought. I wasn’t a vegan even if I hadn’t eaten meat for a month, or even a year, since practice is separate from principle, or at least from whether the practice identified me. Just as I wasn’t a celibate, at least in principle. But had I become a conformist? Was I losing my principle, my belief in the need to be odd? I knew that I hadn’t lost my appreciation for oddities, and Hans did say that my spirit of freedom should survive the grooming, so on consideration I decided I was still on safe ground.
I looked around the room. Entering from the kitchen, tools and loose parts were on the right side of the room, where there were windows, and were scattered on a long workbench in the middle of the room. At the other end of the room was a lathe and a small drill press. The wall on the left had no window, so it presented a wide expanse for the construction of the clock. Hans had sketched an outline of the clock on the wall in blue pencil.
A few parts were mounted, large and small wooden wheels and spools, small metal brackets to which bicycle axle and bearings were bolted, and in the center a cluster of objects from which hung a broom.
Hans saw my eyes open and said, “The broom is temporary. We will find a more suitable pendulum. The clock does not tick as a normal clock,” he added. “Its ratios are not communicated with teeth on the gears.”
My eyes opened even wider. The wheels and spools had no teeth. They didn’t touch and weren’t connected; they didn’t communicate by any means that I could see. I knew that the clock wasn’t finished. I asked, “How . . . how will they communicate?”
I also noticed that Hans had said that “we” will find a pendulum, so I added, “And what do you mean, ‘we’?”
Hans didn’t answer.
One of the cats came into the room, mewing. I shrugged. I squatted and scratched the cat between the ears.
I walked up to the contraption in the middle, which was mounted about five feet from the floor. The broom was clamped to the front of it so that the broom could be adjusted up or down. Behind this and swinging on the same pivoting axle, was a vertical wooden piece with a crossbar. I could see coils of wire, but I didn’t see how it would regulate.
Hans said, “That device replaces the escape wheel, escapement, and verge wire in a regular clock.”
I knew something about clocks, so this terminology was familiar to me. The ticking of a clock comes from its escapement. When a pendulum swings to one side the escapement lets one tooth pass (tick), and when the pendulum swings to the other side, the escapement lets the next tooth pass (tock). The verge wire is attached to the escapement, so that when the escapement rocks back and forth, the verge wire pushes the pendulum from side to side.
OK. This one didn’t tick because it didn’t have a escapement.
I noticed, however, that it had a flashlight. This was mounted on the wall to the left. Wires came from it and led to two coils, one on each side of the crossbar, and to two other devices in red plastic a little lower and closer to the center.
I turned around and looked at Hans.
Hans was looking at me.
Hans volunteered that the wall had once been paneled. Drywall had been screwed to the paneling, then plastered and painted to lighten up the room. The underlying paneling made it easy to attach the clock parts to the wall wherever they were wanted without having to find a stud for each one.
Hans said, “I am using those two red bicycle lights for their magnetic switches. You see there’s a small permanent magnet glued on the back of this vertical arm. When the pendulum swings past the switch, it turns on the electromagnet, which repels the pendulum because you see this crossbar has permanent magnets tied to the ends of its arms.”
I acknowledged that I understood that much.
Hans said, “I was thinking of mounting the batteries on the broom in place of the bob, as a joke about perpetual motion. You see, the pendulum is driven by the electromagnets, and the pendulum drives all the gears.”
“Ignoring of course that eventually you will need to replace the batteries.”
“Right,” said Hans. “And the broom is not the right pendulum anyway.”
“Hans?” I asked, looking at him, “Why don’t you want the clock to tick? Uh, why wouldn’t you want every tooth and pinion of the clock . . .“ I paused for a beat. “Why wouldn’t you want the gears to march in lock step with each tick like a Nazi army doing its goose-step?”
Hans said, “Ah, see? You understand without my answer. It helps to be somewhat of a rebel.”
With that, Hans confirmed my point of view. “OK. Why is it driven by the pendulum?”
“I liked the idea of doing it backwards. The pendulum of a normal mechanical clock is swung by tension in the gear train created by a weight; the gear train keeps the pendulum moving. In this clock the pendulum is driven by electromagnetic force and it keeps the gear train moving. You know—the last shall be first—the master is the servant.”
I asked, “So this clock was intended to express a philosophy?”
Hans said, “Yes. A philosophy. It wasn’t intended to be a better clock. Even a simple mechanical clock based on the traditional design would likely be more accurate. And a cheap battery-powered wristwatch with a quartz movement would be far more accurate.”
“How does the pendulum drive the gears?” I asked.
Hans said, “Well. Right now it does not; that is, it cannot because it is not finished. It will have a cord around these three wheels.” Hans stepped up to the wall and pointed to three wheels arranged in a triangle, with two wheels at the bottom and one above them. “The cord will go through these grippers.” Hans pointed to two wooden blocks about the size of walnuts, one mounted beside the bottom left wheel and the other mounted on a cylinder that rode over the end of the vertical piece above the crossbar behind where the broom was mounted.
He said, “But not just any cord will do here. I know of a waxed nylon braid that will be perfect for this. I’ve seen a spool of it before. It was made by the same company that made the cords for the reentry parachutes of the Apollo space program. It has been used by Air Force technicians for binding bundles of wires.”
I thought of the spool of string that my sister left me. Everything else seemed to fade out as if something were dimming the lights in the room.
The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto
the color of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their
appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a
— Ezekiel 1:16
Bonnie and I were like only children. There were the two of us, but there was no rivalry between us. Our parents managed to never divide us; they never made either of us feel shorted because of the other. Bonnie was younger than me by only a year. We were close in more ways than one.
We grew up in New London, Connecticut. Dad was a banker. Mom worked for the fire department, in the office. With both parents working, starting at least with the seventh or eighth grade, Bonnie and I had more autonomy than many kids.
One thing we shared was a poor opinion of our parent’s religious convictions. The Huntington Street Baptist Church, with its white Doric columns, seemed to me like the bank that Dad wished he worked in. Mom and Dad were devout Baptists. But their devotion was worse than the doctrinal obsequiousnesses. They believed in an extreme form of Christianity that accepted the Bible as the literal word of God except for all the parts of it that they wouldn’t accept. They held a severely modified version of Deuteronomy and Leviticus in their minds. For example, it was OK to eat of the flesh of the swine. But they believed that Jesus really did cast out the demons from a man into a herd of swine so that they jumped over a cliff.
The only things related to the church that Bonnie and I appreciated were the hymns and choral singing. The melodies and harmonies of the music carried a wordless spirituality that levitated our souls.
We grew up happy, that is, we thought we were normal. It probably helped that we were equally smart, equally motivated, equally attractive, and equally spoiled. The only meaningful difference between us was that she was a girl, and I was a boy.
Other differences emerged as we became adults, but we never fought. I always loved her. I never married, and Bonnie married before she finished college. She never had kids. She got her teaching credential and taught, so the kids in her classes were her surrogate family.
Ron, her husband, was a school audio-visual guy, so they both had pretty much the whole summer off, which they spent traveling around Europe, Central America, Asia, doing volunteer work and staying at churches and youth hostels. That was another difference. I didn’t travel much. Also, Bonnie had the same job all her adult life, but I, I kept finding reasons to work somewhere else. That, or my bosses found reasons to get rid of me. Working in bookstores isn’t the most stable of careers, but I loved being surrounded by books, the older the better. After a stint as a helper in a garage, or pumping gas, or stocking shoes on a discount shoe store, I always returned to working at a used bookstore.
Only used bookstores. Used bookstores weren’t owned by big chains, and were concerned less about profits than about caring for the books and finding them the right homes. I preferred used bookstores because they had character. They were places where characters could hide out for a while without attracting unwanted attention.
I write fiction, mostly short stories because when I can’t sell them it’s not such a big loss of time. Working in a used bookstore was useful for my writing because when I needed an interesting character for a story, I could rely on my memories of the people whom I worked with or who visited the places where I worked, and I could borrow as much or as little as I liked from real life.
I completed one novel, and I wrote another one that is not and maybe never will be completed. My first novel sits in a box in a storage locker in Hoboken, New Jersey. It took me a year and a half to write. I guess it wasn’t a total loss because I extracted two short stories from it and sold them. And for that year and a half I was pretty excited and satisfied about my writing. For me, such excitement is better than taking a trip around the world.
The completed novel is about Henry, my great uncle, who was an improvisational pianist, and who might have been murdered. May I say that this was a work of fiction? I’m not sure I believe it was, because Henry was my great uncle. I grew to believe everything I wrote. If I believed in channeling, then I would say that I had been channeling my uncle.
I know what you’re thinking. I mean that I can guess what you should be wondering. Is this story—the story that you are reading—is this story fiction? You have it straight from me; you can see that it’s a first-person narrative. Is it true? Did it really happen? You could check. The places are there with the streets and buildings that I describe. Was the weather really that bad? Yes it was; check the records. But I have changed the names of people to protect their privacy. I’m not sure what to say. Picasso said, “Everything you can imagine is real.” I could ask you what truth is. I could ask you what you expect of a true story. I’m not trying to be evasive. Thank goodness that we have a practical understanding of what we mean when we make a claim of fact. Well, all I can say is that it seems to me to be true. I do a good job of channeling myself.
When Bonnie was alive, she and I would ask questions like this, but we would not have to answer them, because we knew each other’s minds.
Bonnie and Ron did well and were happy together, but then Bonnie got breast cancer. I’m pretty sure her cancer wasn’t caused by uranium saucers; Fiestaware stopped using that glaze in the forties. Anyway, Bonnie fought it bravely. Four years later, she was dead.
After Bonnie died, I broke up with Laurel.
I couldn’t tolerate Laurel’s tender consolations. She had gotten into the habit of excusing my every lapse of attention, saying, “You poor boy, I know you aren’t at your best right now.” It was true; I wasn’t at my best. I had trouble sleeping; I had difficulty concentrating. But I didn’t like being pampered, and she treated me like a baby. My parents never treated me like that. I would have preferred being told to buck up, to quit moping and sighing and drooping around. Laurel was the mothering type, and I wasn’t going to be her child.
I isolated myself from Laurel, and from everyone. I didn’t respond to phone calls; I didn’t answer the door.
I kept thinking about the time that my father came into my bedroom and told me about Ezekiel. I got my old Bible and reread the passages.
1:17-20. “When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went. As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four. And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Whither soever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.”
Ezekiel ate a scroll, he had visions, he was made dumb except to speak the words of the Lord, he told parables, such as the parable of the valley of dry bones, he delivered prophecies, and he was carried to Babylon.
3:12-14. “Then the spirit took me up, and I heard behind me a voice of a great rushing, saying, ‘Blessed be the glory of the Lord from his place.’ I heard also the noise of the wings of the living creatures that touched one another, and the noise of the wheels over against them, and a noise of a great rushing. So the spirit lifted me up, and took me away, and I went in bitterness, in the heat of my spirit; but the hand of the Lord was strong upon me.”
Ezekiel has a vision of the glory of the Lord that many interpret as a visitation by an alien in a spaceship.
10:16-17. “And when the cherubim went, the wheels went by them: and when the cherubim lifted up their wings to mount up from the earth, the same wheels also turned not from beside them. When they stood, these stood; and when they were lifted up, these lifted up themselves also: for the spirit of the living creature was in them.”
To me, Ezekiel seemed delirious and insane, but to Dad Ezekiel was telling the truth about his privileged relationship with the Lord God and his angels.
After Dad left my room that time, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to embarrass him. It took me months to realize that I could talk to Bonnie about it. The religion question became a secret that Bonnie and I shared. Dad kept his faith until he died, about fifteen years ago, of a heart attack. Mom is still alive, but Alzheimer’s has robbed her of any chance of a rational assessment of her beliefs.
After Bonnie was dead, I felt trapped in the world. I was left in a reality that no one else shared, a reality in which no angel would come to make promises that could not be kept, in which sunrises and sunsets through the clouds were not symbols of a glory that I would someday attain, or that Bonnie had attained. She was gone, and I could not imagine her above the clouds. I was forced to face a world in which everything reminded me of her, but she was no where in it.
One of Bonnie’s students, I think, gave her the spool of waxed nylon braid. I think that she used it for a class project. When she was sick, she gave it to me because she knew I liked this kind of thing. I liked the neatness of it. It lay flat on the spool, woven diagonally back and forth across the spool. Because it was waxed, the string stuck lightly to the spool, so if I used a bit of it and didn’t twist it too much, then I could rewind it on the spool in the same diagonal cross-pattern.
Among my few possessions, this spool of nylon braid was all I had that she had given me, except for her time and her love. I thought that this was exactly the kind of string that Hans wanted for his clock, but I was not ready to offer it to him. Maybe it reminded me too much of the passage of time.
It was the darndest thing I’ve ever seen. It was big, it was very bright,
it changed colors, and it was about the size of the moon. We watched it for ten minutes,
but none of us could figure out what it was. One thing’s for sure,
I’ll never make fun of people who say they’ve
seen unidentified objects in the sky.
— Jimmy Carter, remark during 1976 presidential campaign
I was still stunned, deep in my thoughts of Bonnie, after Hans had described the waxed nylon braid that he had been looking for to connect the wheels of his clock. Hans offered me a cup of coffee. I accepted. “Wait here a minute,” I heard him say.
I had time to clear my head. Hans brought cups of coffee back from the kitchen for me and for himself.
I wanted to change the subject. I looked Hans in the eye and asked, “Who are Jim and Judith?”
Hans replied, “Jim is a woodworker. He sold me his old wood lathe and offered to show me how to use it.” Hans gestured over to the end of the room where a stool and a lathe sat in an island of wood shavings. “Jim doesn’t have much work this season. Money for the lathe was an incentive, plus the promise of a Mackeson triple-X stout. We got the lathe over here on a hand cart. After the lesson, and after the beer, Jim offered to cook. He repeated this offer the next day, when Judith appeared with him. Now they just come to cook and eat. Other than that, I do not know what to do with them.”
I sipped my coffee. “What would you need to do with them?”
“They keep coming back, but they have no interest in anything. Jim cooks, they eat, and Judith does the dishes, then they leave, almost without getting involved either with me or each other. They are not curious about anything except why I prefer walking instead of driving. They have asked me twenty times, ‘Why don’t you have a car?’ That is all they want to know, it seems. ‘Why don’t you have a car?’ But they do not believe what I tell them.”
“You don’t tell them why you don’t have a car?”
“No. I tell them I have a car; I have two cars. Then they look at each other, and they never ask the next logical question.”
“They sound like broken records. Hans, why don’t you keep a car here?”
“I do not need a car here. Besides, the place does not have a garage.”
“Are those your only reasons?” I looked at Hans. He looked exasperated, but I didn’t say anything.
“Well.” Hans said, “Another reason is that any of my cars would attract too much attention here.”
“Having no car also attracts attention.”
“Yes, but not as much as my phaetons would.”
“Your phaetons?” I asked.
“I own two phaetons: a 1930 Buick Series 40 Phaeton, and a 1935 Duesenberg Convertible SJ LA Grand Dual-Cowl Phaeton. The convertible would definitely need a garage. I used to have a 1984 Triple Black Excalibur Phaeton, which is also a convertible, but I traded it for the Duesenberg.”
“I’m impressed. Old luxury cars.”
“The Excalibur was not as old, but, yes, it is a luxury car. After I got my first phaeton, it was natural to buy the next.”
“Where were you living then? You don’t find many Duesenberg convertibles in Fergus county.”
Hans laughed. “No. This is not the right county for Duesenbergs. I think Duesenberg did not make a pickup. That was in Chicago. As for Jim and Judith, I have asked whether they would like to help. The answer is either no or a change of subject. They do not read anything; they do not have anything else to do. Jim is not interested in helping with the clock; they do not care what music I play; they do not gossip; and they do not pet the cats. I would only want them to care a little bit about something.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
Hans looked at me without blinking. A moment passed. “I think of Jim and Judith as my failed experiments. I did not want you to be one, too.”
I blinked. “Everyone has problems.” My thoughts ranged widely and settled down into a heap. I muttered, “Maybe I care too much.”
Hans asked if I wanted to join them for dinner. “Yes, that would be nice,” I said.
“I will tell Jim and Judith. We have a chicken in the refrigerator. There will be enough for four.” Hans stepped out and came back after a minute. He said, “Dinner is good. We will have a nice Burgundy. Judith will have some. Not Jim. Jim will have a beer. This is one of the advantages of having a good cellar. We have something to suit anyone.”
“Hans, you have a wine cellar here?”
“Yes. The only problem is the winter. Funny. Winter here is at least six months long. I had to have a heater put in to keep the bottles from freezing. It is not a problem keeping the wines cool.”
“Wines like stable temperatures,” I said.
Hans said, “That is funny. You anthropomorphize the wines. I hope you do not mind me saying so.”
“No, I think it’s funny, too.”
“You are right, though. Expansion and contraction of the contents of the bottle prematurely ages the wine.” Hans laughed. “My terminology is also tinged with a biological bias. You know. ‘The wine has to breathe,’ they say, as though the wine were a life form, not just the yeasts living in it.”
“Some people live in their beer.”
“Or use it as a form of self abuse, a way to forget their lives.”
I said, “There’s no need for that in Lewistown. Abusive weather is less expensive.”
Hans smiled, “But the weather is one thing they must try to forget.”
“Hans, you don’t seem to have any trouble with the weather.”
“No. Nor do I have any trouble with wine. Shall we go in and set the table?”
Hans and I retrieved glasses, plates, napkins, knives, and forks from various cupboards, shelves, and drawers and we arranged them on the kitchen table. Judith didn’t offer to help. Jim was busy frying chicken and mashing potatoes. He had frozen corn and peas in a saucepan.
Hans left for a couple minutes. I heard a door opening and closing, then stairs creaking as Hans descended to the cellar. I just sat at my place at the table watching Jim with his pots and pans. Judith was sitting at her place, humming a spiritual, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” and she was also watching Jim. Then creaking as Hans ascended the stairs, and the door opening and closing. Hans came in and placed a bottle of Burgundy on the table. He went to a drawer and came back with an ah-so, the kind of two-prong cork remover.
I said, “Oh, that’s a grand cru.” The label said it was a 1996 Domaine Gaston & Pierre Ravaut Corton Grand Cru “Bressandes.”
Judith and Jim looked at each other.
While Hans removed the foil and the cork, he said, “They make nice Pinot Noirs, and this one was not expensive. They say it was tannic when it was younger, which would go well with Jim’s chicken, although I expect that the tannins will have softened in the aging.”
Judith and Jim looked at each other again.
Hans stood like a waiter at a fancy restaurant over Judith’s right shoulder. He said, “Madame?” He showed Judith the label.
“I’ll try a little of that,” Judith said.
Hans poured about a third of a glass for Judith and turned around to Jim, who was using a fork to remove pieces of chicken from the frying pan and pile them on a plate where he had already put the sauteed onions and garlic. “Jim?”
Jim said, “No thanks. I’ll have a Mackeson, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” said Hans, who swung by the fridge and pulled out a Mackeson from the shelf on the door. Hans placed the beer at Jim’s place at the table. Jim spooned some flour into the frying pan and stirred it into the peanut oil. He added salt and pepper.
Hans turned to me, tilting the bottle so I could see it. I nodded and he poured about a third of a glass for me, then the same for himself. With the flour browning in the pan, Jim took a milk carton from the fridge and trickled milk into the pan, stirring. Then he poured the result into a gravy boat. Hans got a beer bottle opener and returned to the table, placed the opener at Jim’s place on the table. He put corn and peas from a pot into a bowl and brought that to the table behind Jim, who carried over the plate of chicken. Both sat down.
Hans said grace. He said, “Dear God, thank you for our blessings. We ask for your grace on this food and on us. Amen.” Jim and Judith didn’t bow their heads or close their eyes, but they waited until Hans had finished before starting to eat.
The meal was delicious. “Jim,” I said, “the chicken is delicious. I love the sauteed onions with,” nodding toward Judith, “the garlic. Thank you.”
Judith said, “Home cooking is certainly better than what you can find on the menu at the Empire café, much as I like Roberta and her cook.”
Hans raised his eye brows. I suspected that Judith’s speech was longer than any other that she had produced here. I wondered if I could encourage even more dialog. I said, “But Judith, have you tasted their fish sticks and cole slaw? Why, those fish sticks are almost better than cardboard.”
Judith looked astonished. Then she smiled. She said, “you can’t get any good fish anywhere in this county unless you catch it yourself. Of course the fishing isn’t too good when the creeks and lakes are frozen solid. And who would want to traipse into the woods in this weather?”
I said, “But if you did catch your trout tomorrow, you wouldn’t need to eat it right away. It would be frozen solid in a minute.”
Jim, who had seemed to have been interested only in his food and his beer, spoke. He said, “There are some lakes in the Judith Mountains that I wouldn’t mind hiking up to with a chain saw to get through the ice. I bet I would find some hungry trout under that ice.”
“Jim, how do you cook trout?” I asked.
“Trout tastes best if you get it from your hook and to your fire within an hour. I just gut it and skewer it with a sharpened willow stick, then hold it over the coals of my campfire. You don’t need oil; you don’t need pepper; you don’t need salt.”
I said, “And you don’t need to wait. Say, what makes this chicken taste so good? Paprika?”
Jim said, “A cook can keep no secret. So long as people can taste, your recipe is an open book. But not the sweet paprika; you have to use a hot paprika.”
“I’m sorry. I won’t tell anyone.”
“No, it’s not a problem. If you don’t like to share, you’re not a cook.”
Hans said, “That would explain the great number of cookbooks published every year. You don’t need to join a secret society to learn how to cook.”
I said, “I’ve read recipes, but it takes a great cook to cook a great meal.”
Jim added, “A cooked dish lasts only minutes; a published recipe lasts forever.”
I said, “Jim, you are a philosopher. How did you get to be a woodworker?”
Jim said, “Thank you, but if I talk like a philosopher, it’s because there isn’t enough work for me here as a woodworker. I have plenty of free time and a man cannot help thinking.”
“Ah,” I said, “then why don’t you pick up and move? That’s what I did.”
“I admit the grass looks greener in other states, but . . . ”
Judith interjected, “That’s right it looks greener; it is greener; the grass here is dead, brown, and frozen solid.”
“ . . . but looks aren’t everything.” Jim looked at Judith, but I didn’t think he was displeased with her looks. I considered that she might be vain of her looks, so Jim’s comment could be construed as a subtle criticism of her.
Judith picked up on the criticism, too. “Your beer-drinking friends aren’t everything, either,” she said. “You hang around them much longer and you won’t be fit for woodworking.”
“Oh, Lincoln and Barney aren’t that bad,” said Jim.
“And they aren’t that good, either,” said Judith. “They are likely no better than they should be.”
Jim said, “Judith, you know why I stay here, in spite of everything.”
“Yes, you say your mother needs you, but maybe you just need your mother. I don’t know why you don’t make some nice things to sell outside this place. I don’t know why you don’t try some other work.”
“Hans,” I said, “this wine is perfect. Judith, doesn’t it go well with the chicken?”
Judith put down her fork and left the room. We could hear her walk into the living room.
Jim said, “I don’t understand women.”
We heard Judith go out the front door. Jim stood up, gave us a pained look, and went after her.
Hans said, “I hope that Jim and Judith will be OK. They have never been so talkative. Normally, it is good for couples to talk, but in this case talking seemed to exacerbate the tension between them.”
After that evening, Jim and Judith stopped dropping in at Hans’s place.
I said to Hans, “Too bad. I bet that Jim would have cooked a good Thanksgiving dinner.”
Hans replied, “Yes, but good food isn’t good without good companionship, is it?”
I said, “Right, or it’s not welcoming without welcoming companions. Say, I would welcome your companionship for Thanksgiving. I could bring over a rotisserie chicken and a store-bought pumpkin pie.”
Hans said, “Good idea. And I could make instant mashed potatoes, heat up corn from a can, and open a good bottle of wine.”
I laughed and said, “I don’t know. It seems a little too traditional, except I won’t whine about the wine.”
Come Thanksgiving Day, in the late afternoon, the bookstore was closed but I was glad that the grocery, Gehlen’s, was open. I bought the chicken and pie, adding a tub of whipped cream, a loaf of French bread, and a bar of dark chocolate to my basket.
The weather was worse. In addition to being dreadfully cold, the wind had picked up, with gusts strong enough to affect my balance. The wind was blowing icy snow sideways from the west.
I walked slowly to avoid dropping anything. I would have preferred walking in the middle of the streets because they were relatively free of ice, but I wasn’t confident that the drivers of vehicles that passed could see though their frosted wind shields, which could not be well cleared by ice-encrusted wipers. I kept to the sidewalks although I wish I had both hands free to wield an ice pick and a pikestaff. The weather was not a thing that I was thankful for at the time, although I felt some satisfaction in surviving it.
Hans had not started making his instant mashed potatoes or opened his can of corn. I put my bag of groceries on the kitchen floor by the counter. The paper bag was starting to tear as the snow that had smashed into the side of the bag had begun to melt.
Hans asked, “What is your favorite wine for drinking as you cook? For hors d’oeuvres, we have cheddar and pickled okra.”
“In general, for drinking as I cook, I like a zinfandel. But for pairing with cheddar and pickled okra, I have no idea. I don’t have experience with pickled okra.”
“Then I will recommend a blend. I have a seven-year-old Lava Cap field blend. I think it is predominately zinfandel, syrah, and merlot, but no doubt has other grapes in it, including sangiovese.”
“That sounds great. I will give thanks for, among other things, your cellar.”
I said, “Certainly the pilgrims did not do as well in the wine department. We should make an opportunity to review your complete list later.”
I put the pie and whipped cream in the fridge while Hans brought up the Lava Cap from his cellar. Hans opened it. We let it air while I cut sticks of cheddar and Hans opened the okra, drained the jar, and dumped the green pods into a bowl. The wine was perfect with the hors d’oeuvres.
We set about assembling the meal. The chicken was cold from the walk from the grocery, so I turned on the oven, asked Hans for a glass baking dish, slid the chicken into it, and put this into the oven. Hans put milk and butter into a pot for the potatoes. He opened the can of corn and dumped the corn into another pot. Soon these were starting to simmer. Hans started to sprinkle potato flakes directly from the box into the pot of milk, whisking the mixture vigorously with a fork.
“Hans, it looks as though you have a familiarity with the restoration of dried potato flakes. Have you always lived alone? Where did you learn how to cook?”
“I learned to cook and I learned to drink on my mammy’s hip and on my pappy’s knee. Mammy let me chew a rag dipped in wine as a teething remedy, and I watched her cook sitting at the kitchen table on Pappy’s knee.” Hans looked at me and asked, “Didn’t everybody?” Then he observed, “You have a lot of questions. If you expect answers to them, then you better be prepared to answer the same questions yourself.”
“OK,” I said. “I learned to cook from my first girlfriend and I learned to drink from the brother of a classmate in grade school in the alley behind the school. She was a beauty and I’m sorry to ever have thrown her over, assuming her wicked temper would have mellowed in time. But Charlie Taylor was ugly as a mud fence and he’s my good friend to this day.”
Hans laughed. I continued, “Have I always lived alone? No, I experimented with female cohabitation twice, and I would he happy to try it again if the female were to treat me like a human being. The first treated me like a puppy. Come think of it, I probably acted like a puppy, but a man should expect to be treated as an equal, even if he is not. The second treated me like a toddler, which I could not stand, even if I deserved it. And you?”
Hans said, “Yes, you guessed my secret. It took my living alone to perfect the art of restoring dried potato flakes to their glorious cloud-like fluffiness. Night after night of trial and error, experimenting with ingredients, their proportions, the use of tools, perfecting the flicking of the wrist. This furious effort drove more than one woman away. But now, if the chicken were warm, it would be time to take dishes to the table.”
Hans took dishes from the cupboard and I pulled silverware from their drawer. We took all this to the kitchen table, along with the wine and bread. Hans carried the foods to the table in their cooking pots and dishes, and I stuck serving spoons, forks, and knives in with the food.
Hans refilled our glasses and I said, “A toast to life.”
“A toast to time,” Hans said.
The wine was good. Hans tore an end off the bread and passed the loaf to me. I tore off a piece. I bit into it and chewed it with a sip of wine. We helped ourselves to the food so that our plates were soon full.
I said, “I am thankful for good food and good drink.”
Hans said, “I am thankful for our contraptions and contrivances, things that make our lives easier, healthier, and more interesting.”
I said, “I am thankful for old friends and old books.”
Hans said, “I am thankful for new books and new friends.”
I nodded and said, “I am thankful for simple pleasures.”
Hans said, “I am thankful for the privilege of thinking for myself.”
I said, “I am thankful for the privilege of having someone else to think with.”
Hans said, “I am thankful for having unsolved problems and mysteries to think about.”
An empty lot sat next to the boarding house. I think it must have had a big house on it at one time. Maybe the house burned down, but the lot had no obvious signs of ownership, at least none that were visible above the snow.
On a Sunday after Thanksgiving, I looked out the window of the parlor and I saw three brightly painted red arrows in the middle of the lot. They were about six-feet tall and a foot wide and pointed at the ground at a fifteen-degree slant. The three arrows pointed in the same direction, roughly toward the center of town.
I suspected the red arrows could be the work of Eugene or his friend Paul, and I was right.
I put on my boots and warm coat and walked over to Eugene and Blanche’s place. I knocked and it took a while before I heard footsteps behind the door.
Eugene opened the door and said, “Hi. Come on in.”
“Thank you.” I stomped the snow off my boots and went in.
Eugene said, “We’re working in the basement. Come on down. Keep your coat on.”
Eugene was wearing a heavy wool shirt and earmuffs. He led me to a door behind the main staircase, opened it, and we went down its wooden steps.
“Watch your head,” he said. “These people were shorter than you and I.” He added, “It’s good you came over. I wanted you to meet Paul Beck.”
“I came over because I was curious about the red arrows.”
“Ah!” he said. “OK, here is Mister Paul Beck, master of art and artisan of mastery.”
I shook Paul’s hand and gave him my name.
Paul said, “We made those beautiful red arrows here. Don’t you think the red sets them well against the field of white?”
“They’re beautiful,” I said.
“We asked the owners beforehand, you know,” said Eugene. “They are the same couple who own Miss Kate’s boarding house.”
I looked around the basement. Heavy electric wires and pipes descended from the ceiling to large shop-tools—a lathe, a band saw, a table saw, a drill press, a hydraulic press, a planer, sanders, an high-temperature oven as for glassblowing or metalworking, tongs, anvils, and a set of shelves with gray plastic buckets for nails, screws, metal rods, hinges, pots of paint and cans of glue, and a peg wall clustered with screw drivers, hammers, wrenches, and handsaws.
I asked, “Why the large red arrows?”
“Nothing sinister,” said Eugene.
“Nothing sinister at all,” said Paul, but in a tone that belonged in Hollywood mystery from the fifties.
“Not all all?” I asked, laughing. “Say, you have a beautiful setup here.”
Paul said, “I’d rather work here than in my own garage.”
“That cold, ill-lit and cramped space?” asked Eugene.
“Well . . . ” Paul sheepishly responded.
“We thought we could sell them to the Winifred city council.”
“They might still buy them.”
“Meanwhile, they are serving their God-given purpose over there on West Washington Street.”
“Is their God-given purpose being beautiful and intriguing?” I asked.
Paul said, “Well. They might be intended to remind people to look for solutions on earth . . .”
“Rather than hoping to be rescued by divine or alien forces,” said Eugene.
Paul said, “Secretly, I think they are supposed to point to a buried dungeon filled with gold and guarded by a dragon.”
“But we’re still looking for the entrance, if there is one,” said Eugene.
I said, “There would have to be an entrance if the dragon breathes air. I guess you need to explore every hole in the ground until you find it.”
“Just stay away from the holes with ICBMs in them,” said Eugene.
I said, “ICBMs are fire-breathing dragons, but they don’t guard piles of gold.”
“Yes,” said Paul. “But fire from an ICBM comes out the other end.”
So blind is the curiosity by which mortals are possessed,
that they often conduct their minds along unexplored routes,
having no reason to hope for success, but merely being willing
to risk the experiment of finding whether the truth they seek lies there.
—René Descartes, Le Discourse de la Méthode
I wasn’t willing to tell Hans that I might have the string he wanted for his clock. I had to think about it first. But Hans knew that someone nearby was bound to have a spool of it. It could easily come into the hands of a military contractor who no longer needed it. After all, the string wasn’t a controlled item. It was only an item of military surplus.
On a Saturday after Thanksgiving, early in December, Hans came over to my boarding house and grabbed me just after breakfast for a shopping expedition. It was freezing cold out. I was already wearing long johns. I took a couple minutes and put on my warm boots, thick coat, woolen gloves, and a ski mask, which would only partially mitigate the sub-zero temperatures, considering the wind-chill.
The first place we went to was Captain Bob’s surplus store on Main Street. Hans told me that we needed to go talk to Arch.
This place sold sporting goods, camping equipment, guns and bows, boots, bicycles and bicycle parts, and military surplus—the usual ammo cans, mess kits, and Halloween costumes. We entered and a bell on a springboard over the front door jingled. I was struck with how warm the place was. Sally at our bookstore didn’t seem to believe in central heating, but I guessed that Arch wanted to make himself comfortable. We took off our hats, gloves, and scarfs. Arch called out from somewhere in the back room, “Call out if you want anything.”
We went past the aisle that displayed camping equipment, and there on the wall was a jumble of ropes on spools and bundles, laundry cords, tent lines, fishing lines, twines for tying a buck on the hood of your car, kite string, chains, steel cable that you would use for fixing a television antenna on a roof. I almost expected to find a can of string beans or long strings of black licorice.
Hans looked carefully at the various strings. I could see that none of them were even close.
Hans called out, “Arch! Is this all your string, braided lines, and cords?”
Arch came huffing out in a hurry. He was a big man, over six feet and probably nearing three hundred pounds, dressed in leathers and flannels, with beads of sweat on his brow, topped off with a red knit hat. “What? What?”
Hans asked him, “Have you got any spool of waxed nylon braid about this wide?” Hans held out his thumb and index finger about an eighth of an inch apart.
“What is that?” asked Arch. “About the width of a fettuccini?”
“No, we don’t have any waxed fettuccini right now. Could I sell you kite-string and a candle?” He smiled.
Hans maintained his serious demeanor. “The nylon braid that we are looking for was used for wrapping wiring. They must have had a crate of it over at Maiden for use at the radar site up on Judith Peak. Do you know anyone who used to work up there?”
Arch’s wet brow became a mass of horizontal ridges. There must have been a lot of extra skin under his hat to be used for this purpose. “You could ask Ralph Johnstone. He used to do work up there, although his main line is heating and cooling, you know.”
Hans thanked Arch and we put on our hats, gloves, and scarfs before Hans pushed open the door, jingling. I followed Hans. Blinking in the cold wind, I saw a woman on the sidewalk carrying a small bag of groceries walking in our direction. She was protected from the cold with tall boots, long overcoat, scarf, knit hat, and patent leather gloves. Hans smiled and nodded in her direction, and she nodded in return to Hans, saying nothing. As she walked past me, she looked at me with light blue eyes. As she walked away, the wind caught the end of her scarf.
Ralph had a showroom and warehouse over by one of the town’s grain elevators. It was about eight blocks from where we were. We walked there in spite of the frozen streets.
Hans was not talkative on this hike. I knew better than to complain. Even if this turned out not to be a wild goose chase, I knew I had a tame goose in my bag at the boarding house. As for the weather, I had signed up for it. I had known that I would be living in the cold part of darkness. Maybe I thought that the weather would be cruel enough to shock me back to an honest perception of reality, even though I seriously doubted that anyone’s perception was anywhere close to reality. However, it occurred to me that I was more warmly dressed than Hans.
As for how Hans knew were to find Ralph, I didn’t ask. How he knew what he knew was none of my business, and I wasn’t going to pry so long as I didn’t want to answer questions myself.
Ralph owned Big Sky Stove and Hearth, but he liked the installation work more than minding the store, so his daughter kept the doors of the store unlocked, and we found Ralph inside the warehouse entrance at the back, smoking a cigarette and drinking cold coffee out of a dirty mug, standing at a drafting table, leaning over a set of blueprints.
I had taken off my ski mask so I looked a bit more friendly.
Ralph was a burly, gray-haired gentleman wearing a canvas jacket. The radio was on a station with a talk show. The warehouse was at least warm, which one would expect. It seemed that the hot Franklin stove at the side was there mainly to establish an authentic atmosphere, wood smoke mingling with tobacco smoke in the space that was mainly occupied with industrial steel racks full of conduits and large and small cardboard boxes.
“Well, boys, what can I do for you?” Ralph stubbed out his cigarette in a full ash tray.
Hans said, “We are looking for something you might have in a junk drawer, rather than any sort of commercial product. It is a spool of waxed braided nylon cord. I think that they used to have spools of this cord over at Maiden. You used to do some work over there didn’t you? This is exactly the kind of thing that you would appreciate for being handy later on. I have a good use for it, and am willing to pay you whatever you think it is worth.”
Ralph’s eyebrows went up, but the corners of his mouth went down. He said, “Yes. I think I have seen what you are looking for, but that is years ago and, no, I don’t think I ever dropped one of those spools in my kit.”
Now the corners of Hans mouth went down.
This was wrapped around a thick brown paper spool, right?” Hans nodded. “Too bad, eh?”
Hans said, “Right. Do you know anyone who might have picked up such a spool, maybe when the base was being decommissioned?” Ralph was slowly shaking his head. “Or maybe someone who might have come across a more recent supply, maybe doing some electrical work for the Air Force?”
The corners of Ralph’s mouth went up and so did his tobacco-stained right index finger. “Ah. That could be. My daughter Jan’s husband, Ben, would fit that bill.”
We went over to the retail end of Big Sky Stove and Hearth. This had started to seem like a lot of trouble just so I could hold on to a memento of my sister.
Jan was a roundish woman wearing a cotton dress. Her short hair was dyed red. She wore glasses with decorated frames that sparkled. Red lipstick. Big smile. And she sounded just like her dad, only an octave higher. “Hello, boys. What can I do for you?”
Hans said, “I would like to talk with Ben. Ralph sent us over here. We are looking for a spool of waxed nylon braid, and were hoping that Ben might have picked up a spool of it during one of his jobs for the Air Force. I am willing to pay you whatever you think it’s worth.”
Jan didn’t even blink an eye. She turned around, picked up a telephone receiver of the phone beside the register, and hit a quick-dial code.
“Ben. . . . Yeah. Do you have a minute to talk with a gentleman here at the store? . . . He’ll tell you.. . . . Hold a sec.”
She handed the receiver to Hans. The coiled line stretched over the counter. Hans repeated what he had told Jan and paused, listening. “OK. . . . Yes, waxed nylon string on a thick spool about five inches long. . . . Ah, you do. No. . . . Well, do you know someone who might have picked up a used spool of this string? . . . OK. Yes, Lincoln Beachey. . . . On Pine near Fifth. White pickup. Thank you, Ben. . . . Right.” Hans handed the receiver back to Jan.
West Pine Street and Fifth Avenue South was only five or six blocks back toward the center of town. It wasn’t too bad hiking over there as long as we stayed moving. The wind was piercing, but at least it was not snowing. Hesitate here, I thought, and you’d end your days as cold and immobile as a fire hydrant.
Why do people hike out in the cold woods, anyway? Is it something about the mountains, or the presence of animals hiding in the bushes, or the accidental beauty of the clouded sky seen through the trees? Is it pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, as a test of character? Is it for the endorphin rush that you need to mask your pain?
After we crossed Second Avenue, West Pine Street went blocks without pavement, except where the paved avenues crossed it. The frozen gravel of the street without curbs or sidewalks merged nicely with frozen gravel drives or frozen yards. One homeowner had put in his own sidewalk, which seemed ineffectual, just giving, I thought, a surface that had to be shoveled clear of snow. Trees reached with bare limbs against a gray sky.
Homes here were generally smaller and simpler here than on the other side of town. After Fifth Avenue, we saw a white pickup truck parked by a small blue house. Lincoln’s name was on the mailbox. Hans knocked.
No answer. We looked at the truck. Hans knocked more loudly.
At the small neighboring white house, a door opened a crack. A woman stuck out her head. “You won’t raise Mister Beachey there no matter how hard you knock.”
We turned to look at her. The woman was neither young nor old, thin nor fat. Strands of gray were curled with the brown. I asked, “Would you know where we could find Beachey today?”
“Barney Oldfield picked him up. They wouldn’t have gone deer hunting because they didn’t take their guns. They wouldn’t have gone out on a job because Mister Beachey didn’t take his tools.” She looked at us with green eyes set wide apart on her face. “You wouldn’t expect Mister Beachey to be informing his neighbor of his whereabouts, would you?” I said nothing. “You wouldn’t expect Mister Beachey to care about other people, would you?”
I was growing impatient, but I tried to consider her point of view. I said, “I’m sure that you’re aware of more than what Beachey tells you. I bet you have an idea where we could find him.”
“I would think you could find them both at the tavern.” She sniffed.
While my mind raced through images of sniffing neighbors on stage and screen, Hans asked, “Which tavern would that be?”
“That would be the Montana.”
We thanked the woman and turned to trudge back toward West Main.
Montana Tavern was dark, warm, and full of cigar smoke. I blinked and wiped my eyes with a rough sleeve until I could see the bar. Hans followed me to a stool. The bartender smiled, wiping a glass with a white towel as they do in the Westerns.
“What can I do for you men?” He flipped the towel over his shoulder, put his two palms down on the bar, smiled, and moved his head between Hans and me.
“Two things,” I said. “You can give us each a mug of hot coffee. It’s darned cold out there. I think that my fingers would break if I were to try to bend them around anything cold.”
As I pulled off my gloves, the bartender nodded, turned, and quickly returned with two steaming diner mugs. He followed that act by wiping the bar with his towel.
“Secondly,” I continued, “you could you tell us if Lincoln Beachey has found temporary sanctuary here?”
He nodded his head toward the booths at the back and said, “He and Barney are in the second booth.”
I looked at Hans. He had removed his gloves, too, and was wrapping his long fingers around his warm mug. I figured that Beachey would wait until we began to thaw.
Hans said to me, “Thank you.”
His gratitude made me feel uncomfortable, because I had the spool of waxed string that we were looking for, but I didn’t see my way out of it. I put a couple dollars on the bar for the coffee. We could hear the low voices of Beachey and Oldfield but I couldn’t make out what they were talking about.
Eventually, Hans nodded toward the booths, where we could still hear Beachey and Oldfield. I had drunk most of my coffee. I acknowledged that I was ready.
Hans led this interrogation. He turned to the man on the right, although I didn’t know how he knew which man was which, and said, “Lincoln, Ben Davis said you have done some electrical work at the missile silos. Is that right?”
Lincoln looked at Hans. Then he looked at me. Then he returned to Hans and said, “This is true. Why?”
Lincoln looked like a deer hunter. A down vest was beside him on the seat. He wore thick woolen plaids, camouflage pants and steel-toed work boots. His face was dark, his features thick-set, his ears small, his hair dark and short. He didn’t wear glasses. His eyes were dark and deep. You could see that he had a deep reservoir of strength and determination.
Barney was heavier; his hair was lighter; his frame was shorter. He was wearing a sweat suit, black top and bottom, and neoprene boots.
Hans repeated his speech. “We are looking for a spool of waxed nylon braided cord, and were hoping that you might have picked up one during one of your jobs. I am willing to pay you whatever you think it’s worth, even if it’s only half a spool.”
Lincoln smiled and said, “I know what you are looking for, but I haven’t got a single spool of it.”
Barney looked at us both and said, “Say. You both work for Sally at the bookstore, don’t you? She’s a grim one, isn’t she? It’s easy to tell where you get off with her, isn’t it?”
“Sally’s my cousin,” Barney concluded.
“Sally is a straight shooter,” I claimed.
Hans thanked Lincoln and we left them there, pulling our winter wear back on. We paused by the door to pull on our gloves, where I told Hans, “You didn’t ask Lincoln if he knows anyone who might have the string.”
Hans said, “I have an idea, but it will take a little more time.”
Winter is not a season in the North Middlewest; it is an industry.
— Sinclair Lewis, Main Street
I was working the counter. Loren came in and sauntered over.
“Did you see the latest News-Argus? There’s a picture on page three.” He waved a copy of the paper in front of me.
“A picture of what?” I asked.
“Just let me tell you about it,” said Loren. “Someone put a bucket of tall umbrellas by the door in front of Albertsons.”
I continued to be mystified.
“Well,” said Loren, laughing, “a lady tried to use one of the umbrellas. I guess it was snowing too hard,” he squeaked, still laughing. “And whoop, you open one of these up, and it has all these paper streamers taped to the underside of it. A rainbow of streamers fall down and dangle all around you!”
I managed to nab the paper from him. The headline on page three was “Unexpected Rainbow.”
“That’s the kind of weather we have around here,” Loren smirked. “Unexpected rainbow!”
I thought of Ted’s vision of an invasion of clowns, because it was like the gag they use in a circus where clowns are trying to put out a fire, but a bucket of water accidentally thrown over the front rows turns out to be full of confetti. Or maybe, I thought, it was an invasion of angels; you can fold up the rainbow and use it again later.
I would have appreciated any kind of rainbow in those dreary frozen days of December. An imitation rainbow seemed nearly as good when it was just as much of a surprise.
On a Monday afternoon, I was shelving books and heard the doorbell jangle. I heard a young man tell Hans in a broken tenor voice, “I’m doing some research for a term paper, and hope you wouldn’t mind answering a few questions.”
Hans didn’t say anything but I knew that he wasn’t ignoring the student.
The student continued, even more nervously, “My name is Bill Lambert. I’m a student at Bozman, and I’m interested in the effects on people of having nuclear missile facilities nearby.”
At this point I decided to make myself comfortable near the front of the store. I sat in an old easy chair that afforded a view of the counter, and within hearing range of the conversation.
Chuck Hamilton was already sitting in the second old easy chair there, reading an issue of Farm & Ranch Living. Chuck was a younger son who didn’t inherit his father’s ranch, so he lived in town and did seasonal work for several of the ranchers in the area. Chuck wore blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and a denim jacket. He was tall and skinny, with a huge Adams apple, and an angular way of moving. When he walked he left space for a horse between his legs, so that the outside edges of his boots had worn down.
I noticed that Chuck was already following the conversation between Hans and Bill.
Hans responded, “What do you want to know, Bill?”
“This town is in the middle of a large field of nuclear missiles?” said Bill.
I cringed because when I grew up people didn’t end a statement with the rising intonation of a question.
“Go on,” said Hans.
Bill launched into a prepared speech, which he had typed and fastened to the clipboard that he was carrying.
“During the sixties, two hundred underground-silo missile launch facilities were built around Lewistown and Great Falls, scattered along country roads, to house nuclear-armed Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles, ICBMs. These missile silos are still out there today, with upgraded missiles and control systems.”
“On 16 March 1967, and in the fall of 1973, and between 6 and 8 November 1975, incidents were documented by people working at the Strategic Air Command at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls and launch control facilities in the field that involved the appearance of UFOs over and around Lewistown in conjunction with unexplained deactivations or erasures of or changes to missile target tapes.”
Bill looked up from his script and added, “These were associated with numerous other UFO flyovers, encounters, and cattle mutilations, although I don’t know how the mutilations fit into all this.”
He resumed reading. “Most people in this country do not believe in UFOs. But it has been well documented that military personnel who have been responsible for our nuclear missiles and bombs, having passed rigorous tests to ensure their psychological stability and reliability, have nevertheless reported UFOs around nuclear installations.”
Bill caught his breath and continued. “So it’s my theory that something about the materials or the presence of nuclear materials or the reminder of the threat of nuclear destruction can cause sane people to think they experience UFOs. If so, I think the effect would extend to the townsfolk and ranchers who live here in Lewistown and in Fergus County.”
Hans asked, “Wouldn’t it be simpler to assume that UFOs exist?”
Bill said, “Yes, but not everyone sees them. I think that this should be understood in the light of our desire to connect to something greater than ourselves. When a security team camper is shaken in the middle of the night, when someone sees lights hover in the sky . . . couldn’t all these be manifestations of our need to be touched by a force greater than ourselves?”
Bill looked for the first time directly at Hans. Hans answered, “Yes, this could be part of our longing for something greater than ourselves. Maybe our need for peace increases our need for a protector, especially if we feel threatened by the presence of the nuclear warheads.”
Hans looked at Bill’s clipboard and asked, “Do you have specific questions?”
Bill said, “Yes.” He glanced at his list. “Were you living near or in Lewistown in March 1967, or in the fall of 1973, or in November 1975?”
Hans: “No, I was not here then.”
Bill: “Did you personally witness any UFO at any other time?”
Hans: “No, nothing so strange to me that I could not identify it.”
Bill: “Did you know of anyone who did? If so, who?”
Hans: “I don’t know anyone who claims to have seen a UFO.”
Bill: “Did you know or hear of any military personnel or government employee (such as a sabotage alert team member) about these or other incidents?”
Hans: “No, but other people in town might.”
Bill: “Does being surrounded by nuclear missiles affect your life in any way, apart from the economic benefit or burden to the town?”
Bill looked up: “How?”
Hans: “I choose to live here, but I believe that creating and keeping nuclear warheads and bombs ready to launch is morally reprehensible. The best deterrent would be for us to lead the world in dismantling all of them. It pains me that people accept the threat of total destruction as the best means of maintaining peace.”
There was a pause while Bill took notes. I noticed Sally hovering behind the counter.
Bill said, “Uh. OK. Thank you. Could you name some other places where I might ask these questions?”
Hans replied, “Sure. You could ask the pastors of our churches. For example, there’s the Lutheran church at West Evelyn and Sixth. You start with Tracy, who is in the office. Although Reverend Charles has been around here only since the eighties, he, like most other pastors, is well connected and might be willing to ask around or give you the names of retired pastors from here.”
Bill expressed his thanks and left the bookstore. Chuck got up and left right after Bill. Sally found me sitting there and demanded, “What are you doing there? How long have you been lolly-gagging?”
I grabbed the magazine that Chuck left and rushed back to my shelving, but I kept my ears open because I saw Sally turning toward Hans.
Sally started in on Hans, “You have been working here for about three years, right?”
Hans didn’t answer her.
Sally asked, “Why did you move to Lewistown? Did you buy the Blackwell house? How could you afford it? Why don’t you have a car? Jim Radley mentioned to me that you have been building a clock with electric components.”
At this point, Hans calmly and gently said, “Sally, you have many questions. Are you worried about something?”
Sally caught her breath.
Hans told her, “I am making a clock, but not with electronic parts. Just simple electrical components. You know, magnets and switches. Jim helped me make the first wheel for the clock. You know he sold me his old wood lathe. Sally, I am not a saboteur.”
Sally went on, more to the question that was bothering her. “Just how committed to peace are you? You approve of the dismantling of weapons. Would you approve of the destruction of property to achieve peace, if that were possible?”
Hans said, “That is an interesting question. Should violence be used to prevent violence? I think Gandhi and King were right. Opposition to violence must be non-violent. Even though property is not the most important thing, destruction of property is a form of violence. No. I don’t condone violence. Anything else is hypocritical. It is not possible to make peace by waging war.”
Sally didn’t seem to know what to say. Hans looked compassionately at Sally and said quietly, “Sally, you were here before they put in the missiles, right? Do you feel uncomfortable about being surrounded by nuclear warheads?”
Sally pressed her lips tightly shut and didn’t say anything.
I had always thought that the proponents of the existence of UFOs were more earnest than honest. Maybe some were trying to create their own religion like Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, or at least to believe in one. I thought that there was plenty of opportunity for wholesale fabrication, or at least opportunity to stretch the truth, where a suggestion was expanded into a fact. It is easier to find a credible report than a verifiable one, but even easier to find an incredible one.
But UFO reports are not exclusively modern, nor exclusively from crackpots and conspiracy theorists.
In The Dream Pool Essays, written by 1088, the Chinese scientist Shen Kuo reported sightings of a UFO during the reign of Emperor Renzong over eastern Anhui Province, the city of Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province, and near lake Khanka in Heilongjiang Province. It emanated a very bright light and flew at a tremendous speed. I assume that Shen Kuo reported these sightings not because he personally believed them, but because of his general spirit of inquiry into strange phenomena, similar to his reporting petrified bamboo and stone serpents.
In 1561 residents of Nuremberg Germany were astonished by hundreds of dark spheres, blood-red crosses, rods, and other oddly shaped things that moved around and clustered together before they fell from the sky. The event began with the appearance of two large blood-red crescents in the middle of the sun. A broadsheet proposed that these were signs from God to warn of a need for repentance.
In between these globes there were visible a few blood-red crosses, between which there were blood-red strips, becoming thicker to the rear and in the front malleable like the rods of reed-grass, which were intermingled, among them two big rods, one on the right, the other to the left, and within the small and big rods there were three, also four and more globes. These all started to fight among themselves, so that the globes, which were first in the sun, flew out to the ones standing on both sides, thereafter, the globes standing outside the sun, in the small and large rods, flew into the sun. Besides the globes flew back and forth among themselves and fought vehemently with each other for over an hour. And when the conflict in and again out of the sun was most intense, they became fatigued to such an extent that they all, as said above, fell from the sun down upon the earth ‘as if they all burned’ and they then wasted away on the earth with immense smoke. After all this there was something like a black spear, very long and thick, sighted; the shaft pointed to the east, the point pointed west.Carl Jung thought that people had given military and religious significance to a natural phenomenon, such as sun dogs.
The Swedish military gathered reports in 1946 and some of their investigators concluded that some of the observed “ghost rockets” had extraterrestrial origins and that their explanation was “perhaps slightly beyond the scope of our present intelligence thinking.”
Kenneth Arnold was the person who suggested the popular term flying saucer. In 1947, while flying in his small plane around Mount Rainier, he said that he saw nine crescent-shaped objects flying thousands of miles per hour “like saucers skipping on water.”
The U. S. government paid for studies of sightings and concluded that ninety percent of them could be attributed to misinterpreted planetary sightings, stars, meteors, sun dogs, auroras, unusual clouds, visual effects of temperature inversions, airplanes, weather balloons, birds, and searchlights, and that there was no evidence at all of extraterrestrial visitations.
Famous UFO skeptic Josef Allen Hynek eventually became a believer. He realized that many unexplained reports are myths and hoaxes, but he proposed that the remainder could be explained by the existence of a technology that is millions of years more advanced than man’s, “which encompasses both the physical and the psychic, the material and the mental.”
Wednesday that week was winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. I couldn’t sleep. I stood in my bedroom with a blanket wrapped around me and looked out the window. Outside it was minus 10 and hazy. I had to rub the frost from the inside of my window to see out, and even then my view of the haze was hazy. I was looking northwest, away from the center of town and toward many of the missile silos that were scattered from that side of town. There were not many lights, but in the sky the gibbous moon had an icy ring around it.
To my eyes, the moon did not seem like a flying saucer; the light of the moon did not cause reflections from the back of my cornea and make me think that I saw it quietly zoom into the haze when I turned my head. Also, as far as I could tell, the moon did not evoke ancient images of deities or even of the one living God from unconscious realms of my prehistoric brain. I experienced no connection to transcendent or powerful beings, no sense of grandeur. It was just beautiful and remote.
I knew that many people think that aliens have established stations on the dark side of the moon and surreptitiously watch over our affairs. It is easy to see why people imagine powerful protectors in the night when the quiet and benevolent moon watches over us as we sleep, or as we lie awake unable to sleep. But, to me, watching the moon on this cold night made me feel small and alone. Its beauty and remoteness, to me, were like a happiness that I would never attain.
A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.
— Carl Reiner
Orville and Wilbur spent more time in the store in December. I enjoyed watching them. Instead of helping with everyday operations like shelving books or working the counter, this month at least they concerned themselves with the physical aspects of the store—the shelving, lighting, and painting, and I became their handyman.
Orville and Wilbur came downstairs late in the morning. Orville was wearing a red turtleneck; Wilbur was wearing a yellow one. Wilbur asked Sally, “Whom do we have in today?” Orville said, “We just want to know who our options are.”
I happened to be there, even though I normally worked afternoons, because I was filling in at the counter while Sally collected and displayed our Christmas items—our Christmas music, children’s books, and literature including Dickens, who invented modern Christmas but also chronicled Bleak House, in which the lawyers dragged out the lawsuit until the court costs had consumed the entire estate, leaving nothing to the orphan, Esther, who ended up happy anyway.
Sally told them that they could have me.
Orville asked me to follow them. They stepped out of the store without putting on anything warmer. I did as I was told.
Immediately, I realized that for a brief period I wouldn’t die. Some people call themselves polar bears, take a sauna, and jump through a hole in the ice. That didn’t sound to me like fun. The bookstore was not a sauna; Sally kept it fairly cool, so my defenses were already weakened. Actually, outside, it was balmy for this part of Montana, thirty degrees, with a light snow falling, the kind of big soft snowflakes that make you wonder if it could be true that each snowflake were unique.
Orville and Wilbur did not seem to be affected by the cold. They stepped into the street and looked at the storefront, cocking their heads at different times to the left and to the right. No cars or trucks were coming in either direction. Sally was in the window pinning stars of silver and gold foil to sky-blue construction paper.
“What about the lighting?” Orville asked. There were spotlights shining down from the ceiling above the window.
Wilbur said, “We could replace the spots with small halogens but it would be trouble to keep them adjusted as the display changes, and they might get in people’s eyes.”
Wilbur said, “We could think of repainting the trim in the spring.”
Orville said, “True. Do you think we could change the color?” The trim was painted dark brown.
Wilbur said, “Not in this town, I think.”
Orville said, “In this town, brown is festive.”
Orville looked at the cork board where I had found Miss Kate’s three-by-five card, cocking his head to the left and to the right. The board was still cluttered with business cards and flyers. Orville asked me, “Do you think you could remove the business cards and expired notices?”
Wilbur added, “How about posting a requirement that all items must be dated and will be removed if post dated or older than 3 months?”
I had started to shiver seriously, but I managed to say, “I could staple a three-by-five card at the upper right giving those rules.”
Orville said, “Good. And please check it every month. I’ll tell Sally.”
Wilbur said, “And please type the rules. It must look official.”
The constriction of vessels at my extremities had raised my blood pressure and impaired my coordination. I was the last to reenter the store and I didn’t react in time so that the door hit my arm. We stamped the snow from our feet. I tried to rub the coldness from my arms and shook my hands to get blood back to my fingertips. My arm hurt. Orville and Wilbur were looking at the shelves, again cocking their heads to the left and to the right. Some of the shelves were constructed of solid wood and some of plywood. Orville went and slid his thumb over the laminated end of a plywood shelf.
Wilbur asked Orville, “Wood, metal, plastic, white, black . . . something colorful?”
Orville said, “Yes. Something like that.” Orville turned to me and asked, “Can you use a hammer or screw driver?”
“Either,” I said. “I’m ambi-toolious.” They looked at me funny, so I added, “But I can only do it with my right hand.”
“OK,” said Wilbur. “We’ll have a trial of your motor skills after we find the trim. But we will want you to glue, tape, staple, screw, or nail some kind of trim on the edges of the shelves.”
“OK,” I said.
Orville said, “How about something reflective at the back of the shelves, behind the books?”
Wilbur said, “White, silver, gold . . . sky blue.” I thought of the stars of foil that Sally had been pinning up in the window.
Orville said, “This season, or, rather, most of the year here, white or straw.”
Wilbur said, “I’d go with white. OK,” Wilbur said to me, “you’re going to staple white butcher paper to the inside backs of all these shelves, shiny side out.”
I nodded. Orville said, “We’ll get you some rags. After you get the books out, wipe carefully with a damp rag. Staple the butcher paper from the bottom up.”
Wilbur said, “Do this one first,” pointing to a shelf near the counter, “and have us look at how it looks.”
Orville said, “But first come look with us in the back.”
Every bookstore has a room in the back, with a sign on the door, “Employees Only.” This is the room where we hung our coats and where I opened boxes. The men’s and women’s toilets were accessed from an adjacent hall with doors to both the employees’ room and the public part of the bookstore. The employees’ room had a single bookshelf and a counter below high windows made with glass reinforced with chicken wire. The purpose of the bookshelf was to accumulate catalogues and other reading materials that Sally didn’t want to be left in the rest rooms. The bookshelf, the counter, and the floor were the long-term repositories of boxes, old mail, paint cans, brooms worn down to their nubbins, books without covers, and used sandwich wrappers.
“Do you think we should order a dumpster?” Orville asked Wilbur.
“Not if we start a gradual and long-term removal program, scraping away only a layer at a time,” said Wilbur.
“OK,” said Orville to me. “We want you to spend a half hour in here every Thursday morning. Let’s see if we can stay on top of it and . . . if we can get to the bottom of it.”
“The goal is to get rid of everything of no value,” Wilbur said. “In the meantime, we certainly don’t want to let the fire marshal see this.”
There was more of this kind of work for me, except in the bathrooms. Orville and Wilbur asked me to go look at the bathrooms with them, but I said, no, I didn’t do plumbing nor linoleum. Two days later I saw a couple of contractors come through the employees’ room and go into the men’s room and, loudly, into the women’s room, presumably to prepare estimates for updates.
I got to work on stapling butcher paper onto the back of the first shelf, which they liked, so that became a regular morning activity for a couple weeks, and on Thursday I started clearing the debris from the employee’s room and depositing it as much as would fit into the small trash bin in the back alley.
Orville and Wilbur cheerfully went through the cans of paint and told me to discard most of it. They spent some of their time painting walls and the backs of the shelves that could be seen, everything either brown or white.
Orville and Wilbur were both whistlers. They would whistle anything, Christmas carols and popular tunes like “Ja-Da.” They would whistle classical symphonies and whistle them in collaboration, even from different parts of the store. Their classical repertoire was good—Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Handel, Mozart, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and others that I didn’t recognize.
Each morning, Orville and Wilbur came downstairs late and looked around. On Thursdays, if my progress in the employees’ room was discernible, one of them would say something nice to me, like “That corner looks lovely. We should get a lamp, a small table, and a couple of comfortable chairs there for breaks and lunches.”
The Broadway building at Sixth Avenue North and West Broadway was empty and boarded up. It was a three story building, the walls of first story built of stone and the top stories of brick. Its lower windows were boarded up, with plywood screwed behind the windows from the inside to make window-sized alcoves.
As I walked by Broadway building headed northeast and having crossed Sixth Avenue North, I looked back, and a flash of gold caught my eye. On the Sixth Avenue side of the building, across from the Chevy dealership, someone had stapled window-sized paintings of religious icons onto the plywood in each window alcove, six of them.
Each looked like traditional icons of Russian saints, with the gold backgrounds, red and brown garments, funny hats, and a red circle behind their heads for halos. The hilts of their swords served as crosses. I crossed the intersection and had a look at each saint. The saints were Saints Boris, Saint Gleb, Herman of Alaska, the Mother of God, Saint Nicholas, and Saint Serafim Sarovski. Their names were painted on scrolls at the bottom of each painting. The images were crudely painted on paperboard. However, none had faces. The men had beards, but their faces weren’t painted in. Their faces were only plain white areas.
Did it mean what I thought it might mean? Were Russians, even their saints, to Americans, faceless? We had ICBMs pointed at their country and we didn’t understand that they were human beings like us. Or maybe the artist just wasn’t comfortable painting in facial features.
I was getting cold, so I hurried my way on foot.
Strangely, although I didn’t realize it until later, the artist didn’t sign the paintings. Even though I knew the artists, none of the art installations that I knew of in town were attributed. Not the chained up sewing machine on West Main, not the goldfinch mandala on the billboard east of town, not the three red arrows in the empty lot by my boarding house, and not this row of six Russian saints. In a sense, the artists were faceless, too.
I got a Christmas card from Ron, my brother-in-law. The theme of the card was peace, joy, and happiness, but I felt sorry for Ron, and I felt sorry for myself. I missed Bonnie and I knew that Ron also missed her.
I couldn’t sit and I couldn’t stand still. I wished that the bookstore were open so that I would have some work to do. I had been reading novels of the American west. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, some Zane Grey . . . but I couldn’t sit still.
The morning had started out freezing and had warmed up to 34 by ten o’clock, partly cloudy. I dressed warmly and walked through the neighborhoods. The air was smoky from all the wood fires, mingled with the smell of bacon. The wind was maybe 10 miles-per-hour from the north west. Here and there people hustled from their cars with colorful packages toward open doors and smiling faces.
I walked across crunchy snow and ice. I had to be careful to avoid twisting an ankle. On West Broadway and Sixth Avenue, people were getting out of their cars and going into a church. On the premises that armfuls of Christmas gifts were not required, that people were not inside cooking bacon, and that it would be warmer inside, I followed them in. I hoped to be inconspicuous, but I attracted everyone’s attention, starting with the greeter by the door, an elderly man who welcomed me and gave me a program that I didn’t have time to look at before three other people welcomed me and asked me my name, occupation, and marital status. Did I live in Lewistown or was I just visiting? Was I working in town? Did I live alone? Maybe I didn’t have the Christmas spirit, but each warm greeting, each “merry Christmas,” seemed smarmy, like unearned praise. Each question seemed like an intrusion into a space that I didn’t want to visit.
Although the usher tried to steer me toward the front of the sanctuary, I sat in a pew in the back. A simple service, featuring “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” and a short message followed about brotherly love, the kind of love that Jesus has for us. The service ended with “Silent Night.” On the way out, I was again confronted with well-wishers and welcome-backers.
Outside, the warmth of the day had peaked and the sky had started to cast over. All the others got back into their cars. I was the only one on foot, which felt like being the only one in a swimming pool without a suit. Cars passed by with the people inside waving. I thought that a visit to the tavern for a beer or two would be more heartwarming. I stepped on a chunk of ice and hurt my ankle.
What was wrong with me? My reaction to the attempted kindness of these strangers was antisocial, even misanthropic. Anyone could see that they were well meaning and were trying to show me the brotherly love that they themselves felt. But the screw that had held my appreciation belt had loosened. Several screws that had held my happiness motor to my frame had fallen out. The springs that had once given me a smile had broken. I was angry with myself, but I didn’t have the screwdriver or replacement springs with me.
I limped angrily toward downtown. On Main Street, the stores with their Christmas window displays and fake snow sprayed in the inside of the windows seemed more sordid than cheerful. I thought of breaking some of the windows to let the real snow in, and that thought cheered me up. I walked along the lonely sidewalks. At least here the sidewalks were shoveled and salted. Before the door of the Montana Tavern, I paused and stood but I could not go in.
I turned back toward the Silk Stocking District. The crudeness of the town seemed more rude when compared to the refinement of culture that money from gold mines north of town had once enabled.
It had become totally overcast so that the lights of the homes were shining yellow on the snow and ice. I walked by Hans’s house. His lights were off.
I knew that I should find more friends in town, but I thought I knew what I was up against. The American small-town distrust of outsiders and intellectuals would disqualify me from deep acceptance.
Both Ron and I were both soldiering on, although we had a lot of life before us, stretched out, it seemed, like the frozen and rolling northern prairie of Fergus County, scattered with nuclear missiles.
Very simple was my explanation, and plausible enough—as most wrong theories are!
— H. G. Wells, The Time Machine
I was at Hans’s kitchen two mornings after Christmas, drinking coffee before going over to the bookstore for the day.
Someone knocked on the door. Hans went to see who it was and came back with Chuck. Chuck was saying, “ . . . Well, I’d like to do something. It’s murder sitting around all the time when other people are getting rich. There’s more money in rebuilding chain-link fences and waving guns to defend the missiles against drunken teenagers than in ranching.” Chuck was angry.
Hans offered Chuck a cup of coffee and said, “Chuck, I have complaints, too, but I am not a saboteur.”
Chuck looked earnestly at Hans, then at me, “My father sold his land to them. I shouldn’t complain either. Well, he didn’t sell it all, of course, just two plots and the access roads. But he didn’t have any choice, did he? The rancher doesn’t set his own price for his wheat. Other people get rich, but the rancher is always in debt.”
Chuck swept his thin brown hair back from his forehead, and went on, “I heard what you said to that student from Bozman. I know you don’t like the nuclear missiles. I don’t know whether you care about the ranchers. It doesn’t matter if you do or you don’t. I certainly don’t care about those crazies who believe in UFOs. You aren’t on their side, are you? If we have UFO-crazies because we have barb-wired missile silos, then I say let’s get rid of the silos and kill two birds with one stone.”
Chuck was looking at me, so I knew that Hans wouldn’t respond to this outburst, so I said, “I hope no one gets killed, no matter what side of the fence they are on.”
Chuck’s eyes narrowed to dark slits. He lowered his voice. “I’m not saying what might happen. They have already thrown the first stone, not me.”
I must have looked skeptical.
Chuck went on. “Don’t look at me as though I were crazy. That boy from Bozman, Bill, he didn’t think so. He talked to me, but no, I’ve never seen any of their UFOs. He took careful notes, though, and he said he would talk to his friends to see what they could do about protesting.”
Setting my cup in the sink and picking up my jacket, I said, “It’s too early in the morning for conspiracies, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got to get to work.”
Chuck said, “I don’t want to keep any man from working, although I wouldn’t mind a general change of bosses. Too many people have the wrong bosses, it seems to me.”
Chuck was waiting for me when I got off work at six. He was in the light of a street lamp, leaning against the pole like a spy in an old novel.
“Aren’t you getting cold, waiting here?” I asked, sticking my hands in the pockets of my overcoat.
Chuck said, “I’ve seen worse.” His eyes wandered over the buildings on the other side of the street. “I need to talk to you.”
“I doubt that,” I said. “I don’t think you need me at all.” I knew he was impatient to do something, so I added, “And it can certainly wait.”
“That’s the trouble,” he spit out. “We are under occupation and everyone thinks the occupying army will go away on its own.”
“Listen,” I said. “There’s no sense talking out here with both you and the snow blowing down my neck. Have you had dinner? We could get a booth at the Empire.” I turned without waiting for him to reply and walked across the street toward the café. I could hear his boots crunching on the ice behind me.
The Empire café was a small place next to Reids. Display windows flanked a single door. To the left, another door opened to stairs that accessed second-floor offices of chiropractor and lawyer. Below the windows and above the aluminum awning, blue and white tile. A Coke sign with Empire Cafe over the door. A red and white checkered strip of cloth on a rod decorated the inside of the windows. Inside was blue linoleum, green formica with stainless steel, and seats padded with red vinyl. On the right was a counter with stools and register; on the left a row of booths; between were tables and chairs. Stainless steel napkin holders, salt and pepper cellars, catsup, and a pot of jam adorned each table. In the back, on the counter side, a window to the kitchen, and on the other side a hall to the ladies and gents rooms.
Inside the café, I told Chuck, “Listen, I’m paying for this so long as you let me try to talk sense into you.” Chuck only grimaced, so I added, “It’s OK. I think I know how frustrated you feel.” We took a booth, and Roberts came over with a coffee pot in one hand and two mugs in the other.
Roberta ran the place, proprietor and waitress. She was a beauty forty years before, and it showed in her ease and confidence, in the bounce of her gray hair and the directness of her brown eyes. She wore red lipstick. When she smiled, you wanted to smile back. She wore a green and white checkered dress and a white apron. Her apron pockets furnished knives and forks rolled in napkins, and an order pad. We ordered hot coffee and the day’s special.
The meat loaf and warm gravy were comforting, but Chuck was tormented beyond its powers to soothe him. Chuck said, “It’s been so many years, the air force must think we want the missiles here. . . . They have decommissioned missile silos in Wyoming and North Dakota, but not here. Why? It’s because they think we want them.”
I said, “Yes. Or we do want them. Don’t your friends and family care about defending our country?”
Chuck said, “Yes, they are patriotic and tough, but they aren’t stupid.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“If there were a nuclear war, we would be blown to smithereens. Those silos are nothing but big red bulls’ eyes. I say we should build more nuclear submarines and get the missiles off our ranches. We need to make it difficult for them to keep the missiles here.”
I said, “Yes, there is always a better way. Just sometimes you get stuck with a bad one and you have to shove it.”
“You have to fight it.” Chuck stuck out his chin. “I think we should freeze the locks on their gates and dig potholes in their roads.”
“Or we need to work inside the system,” I countered. “Write our congressmen.”
Chuck sneered. “The best congress money can buy? I don’t have the money, and they think the only way to get rich is to suck up. They exist to channel military money to their rich friends. They have no imagination. They certainly don’t value the contributions of ranchers.”
I had to agree with Chuck on that point. It did seem so.
“Promise me,” I said, “that if you do anything, you’ll think it through before you act and make sure that no one will get hurt, including you. It wouldn’t help if you were arrested for vandalism.”
“Look.” Chuck was earnest. “Malmstrom A. F. B.” (He pronounced the letters.) “Malmstrom A. F. B. and the launch control centers, they communicate with the missile silos by hardened underground cables. The ranchers know where these are because they have to avoid digging ditches across them. It would be perfectly safe to find a cable down a gopher hole and make sure that it could be gnawed.”
I didn’t get a promise. I looked out the frosted window of the café at the empty street. I could see why animals hibernated in the winter. It took so much energy just to stay alive.
Eugene and Blanche’s house was the perfect place for a New Year’s Eve party. I had received a small silk-screened card in the mail just after Christmas. “Comrades!” it declared in red over a bold black and white image looking up at Russian men and women marching up and forward. Inside, it read:
Hear us jeer the whores of domestic prig.Fine print on the back gave the address, the time, and “B.Y.O.B,” but a handwritten note that said not to take anything, signed Blanche.
The spheres are grovelling for lost glory;
The hours are groping for rosebuds.
No more solitude; no more fears.
No insincere chronologies of pedant woe.
Let us mourn the passing of bleary and sad.
Come celebrate beginning another beginning.
Peers appear here to cheer the New Year!
Was this more a wake or a wedding? Should I dress in white or in black? Lacking context, I couldn’t decide. In the end, I went as I was.
Approaching the door at eight, I could hear that the party was already in stride. Many cars were parked on the street. A stranger opened the door. “Hi, stranger. I’m George. George Kelly.”
“Glad to meet you, George” I said. I introduced myself. I said, “Could you lead me to the master of the house?” George looked dubious. The hall was full of people, all in motion. Dresses. Suits. Halloween costumes. Who were all of these people? George turned around, looked back at me and said, “Follow me.”
A man in a black cape on the grand staircase was raising a fire poker like a baton, and kicking his feet up as he recited Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” He was already into it.
Was there a man dismay’d?Everyone else in the hall paused to shout, “Into the valley of death rode the six hundred!” Whereupon everyone resumed their motions and conversations, and the man in the cape proceeded with the next verse.
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
George said, “Who are these people? I hope you don’t expect introductions.”
I said that I would try to manage without formal introductions. People were coming out of the dining room with beer bottles and plastic cups of wine. George said, “I don’t think Eugene’s in there, but do you want a drink?” I nodded, thinking that a plastic cup of wine would be good.
People were seated and standing around the table. This was the first time since I arrived in Lewistown that I heard people talking about things that were happening outside of the state. A woman was saying, “I can’t decide. Is George W. dumb or deceitful about weapons of mass destruction?” Several people volunteered various answers. One man said, “Either way, it got him reelected.”
Wine bottles were set up on the buffet. I went over and poured myself a glass of red. I asked George, “Want one?”
I said, “George, it’s nice of you to share a toast. Are you deserting your post at the door?”
“Oh, no,” George said. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
“Well then. Cheers!”
George motioned again for me to follow and turned. Across the hall, people were crowded around both doors to the salon. George said, “I think this is where the master is holding court.”
George squeezed in and I followed, both of us having to be careful not to spill our wine. On the way in, I complimented a woman at the door for her T-shirt. Over the rays of yellow and orange from a sun, were the words, “Truth, Love, Peace.”
The salon ran the length of the house from front to back and featured a huge stone fireplace in the middle at the opposite side. Large sofas and chairs with lamps and small tables were scattered about. Large bookcases spanned the space between the fireplace and windows. As everywhere else in the house, artwork lay and hung everywhere, at least everywhere where people were not sitting or standing.
Eugene was standing on the left side of the raised hearth of the fireplace with a plastic glass of wine raised in his right hand. Another man was standing on the other side of the hearth handing a plastic glass with an amber liquid to a women in a long red dress who was reaching up to him. A bottle of bourbon was on the mantle. A fire was on the grate. The right man picked up his own glass of bourbon and made a toast. “To peace, prosperity, and poetry.”
A woman offered from the floor, “To pumpkin pie, and mud in your eye.”
“Here, here,” said Eugene. Many people raised their glasses.
“Who’s next?” Eugene asked.
A bearded man raised a small volume. Eugene acknowledged him, and he stood up on the hearth in the middle in front of the fire. He began to read in a loud voice, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves . . .”
He paused for a breath and people howled, “Too long!” “Too depressing!” “Too beat!”
“Next!” said Eugene. The bearded man stopped reading and looked bewildered.
“May I read two?” asked the lady in red.
The bearded man raised his head and read again loudly, in one breath, “dragging themselves through the negro dawn looking for an angry fix . . .”
He paused for a breath a second time and people laughed. “Enough.” “Enough already!”
“May I read two?” the lady in red asked a second time.
“Only one! Only one,” the people jeered.
Books of poetry were stacked and strewn on a table.
The lady in red replaced the bearded man on the hearth. She said, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” which seemed to meet with more approval from the crowd. She read this in a reedy voice, not overly dramatic:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –She stepped down to a general and polite applause.
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
The bearded man had moved to far corner of the room, standing. He raised his head and read his third line, “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”
Someone near him said, “Right on.”
Someone else repeated, “The starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”
The bearded man took a bow.
Meanwhile, a man in a long billowing white coat stepped up to the hearth. Eugene nodded. This man recited from memory:
EDMUNDThe man in white pronounced the speech of each character in a different voice, using English accents, first looking to the right, then to the left, and he introduced the name of each character boldly to the back of the house. He continued:
My services to your lordship.
I must love you, and sue to know you better.
Sir, I shall study deserving.
KING LEARThe man in white offered, in his own voice, “I shall not try your patience with the whole play, but suffice it to say that madness is a universal.” He bowed and stepped down from the hearth. People, whoever wasn’t holding a bottle or plastic glass, applauded. The others said, “Here, here,” or “There, there,” “Now, now,” or “Then, then.”
Kent, on thy life, no more.
My life I never held but as a pawn
To wage against thy enemies; nor fear to lose it,
Thy safety being the motive.
Out of my sight!
See better, Lear; and let me still remain
The true blank of thine eye.
How now, my pretty knave! how dost thou?
Sirrah, you were best take my coxcomb.
I turned to George and said, “This could go on all night. Shall we find a chair?”A couple seated on two armchairs to the left of Eugene rose and headed for the hall door, hand in hand. They were dressed in eighteenth-century costumes, he dressed in a green outfit with tight pants and lace bunched up under his throat, and she in a long light blue dress made of lace. Their hems were sewn with gold thread.
George nodded his head in the direction of their abandoned armchairs. I said, “Great.” Passing in front of Eugene, who was watching the exchange of seats, I raised my left arm and shook Eugene’s left. “Thank you for inviting me tonight,” I said.
Eugene said, “Thank you for coming.”
People were conducting separate conversations around the room, although as each reader stepped up to the hearth, voices would calm to whispers and people would generally pay at least some attention.
From my position against the wall, looking across the room, I began again to wonder where all these people came from. There were about twenty people in the room and, aside from Eugene, I didn’t recognize any of them.
People stood up and read poems by Wordsworth and Gertrude Stein. These were voices from another world, I thought. They read poems by William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and George Oppen. It’s strange. I had been in Lewistown for just over three months, but it was beginning to seem like a much longer time. They read poems by Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, and David Bromige. It was beginning to seem as though there wasn’t any place on earth that could be totally cut off from everything else.
I said to George, “George, this is a small town and these people! These people are all strangers.” I thought of the teaching that we should always treat a stranger with respect, because the stranger might be an angel in disguise. Saint Paul wrote, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
I asked George, “Where did they come from?”
George said, “I don’t know but it can’t have been from too far away, I hope. I myself, I have a small Piper Cub and flew in this afternoon from Helena. I hope to spend the night on one of these sofas so I can fly back home tomorrow.”
After taxiing to the terminal at Lewistown’s municipal, George took a taxi into town.
When I left the party at one in the morning, I was thinking that those strangers were like Paul’s imagined invasion of angels.
There seemed to be a lot of anticipation that the new year would bring relief from the dreary bombardment of senselessness, a relief from lies and deception, and a hope that fewer people in fewer and fewer parts of the world would need to fight and die, or simply be starved or slaughtered. Madness is a universal; it is not the only universal.
Over the few days after the new year, Chuck made periodic reports to me at the bookstore. He would come in and stand at the magazine rack reading Farm & Ranch Living while keeping an eye out for me. When he saw me head for the back shelves, sometimes with a stack of books to shelve and sometimes to find a book for a customer, he would follow me back.
“I talked to Beachey,” he told me in a stage whisper. “Beachey told me to talk with McCurdy,” he reported. “McCurdy has a friend would like to help,” he confided.
Essentially, Chuck was consolidating his base like a small-town politician. He was shaking hands and kissing babies. He was moving from warehouse to bar where, in his stage whisper, he made it seem as though everyone in town was fed up with the A. F. B. and likely to join a mob with pitchforks and firebrands to dump gallons of corn syrup down missile silos.
Chuck claimed that numerous schemes were hatching. Some people were going to dump water, over a series of nights, where the military vehicles would turn onto the access roads, so that they would be more likely to end up in the ditch on the turn. One would leave nails on the access roads (under the snow) so they would puncture tires. Not a good idea because most of the trucks were driven by contractors, including the security teams. One said he would let a little air out of their tires when they parked their vehicles in town, and one would toss diatomaceous earth under their hoods. Some would pour salted vinegar into the soil around junction boxes near the silos, although I doubted that it would penetrate the frozen dirt, so that the communication lines would never corrode.
At each of these disclosures, I would tell Chuck, “No, I don’t think that would be a good idea.” I would say, “I hope that no one will get hurt.” I would say, “No one better get themselves in trouble.” I would say, “It’s not easy to get away with even simple crimes.” I would say, “The more people you get involved in this, the harder it will be to keep it quiet.”
Chuck would give me a sly smile. I couldn’t get him to talk sensibly. He would say, “You wait and see.”
Big Spring Creek ran through Lewistown and supplied the town’s drinking water. It was supposed to be a big draw for tourists, but, considering my pedestrian habits and the weather, I had never gone out to see it. Many of its points of interest were out of town, including Brewery Flats and Fish Hatchery Park. I am not a fly fisherman, anyway.
I had gone to Eugene and Blanche’s for New Year’s Eve. One of the topics of conversation was the things that visitors to Fergus County do that peope who live here never seem to do. Eugene offered to drive me up the creek in his old orange Dodge pickup, but I decided I needed to stretch my legs, instead. I had survived the march with Hans to visit Ralph, so I knew that pain from the cold would be only temporary. The town was starting to seem small to me, and I thought that hiking would stretch my mind as well as my legs.
The city maintained a hiking trail that looped southeast of town and ran near Big Spring Creek on the other side of the Lewistown city swimming pool and Frank Day Park, and then came back up to West Main. I headed for the point in the trail where it crossed West Main by McDonald’s, marching west on West Main.
As I stepped off the sidewalk to cross Fifth Avenue, I noticed a woman walking toward Main on the other side of Fifth. She was the woman with blue eyes, wearing the boots, gloves, and long overcoat that she wore when Hans nodded to her in front of Captain Bob’s. As I was about to call out to her, she turned, leapt up three steps to the door, pulled it open, and entered the building.
I marched on and picked up the trail. I headed southeast through the neighborhood. After four blocks, I reached the open space around the frog ponds. I wondered what kind of frog survives its pond being covered with ice most of the year. Someone had run over the hiking trail with a snowblower, so I didn’t need snowshoes, but I was worried about exerting myself, as I didn’t want to start sweating under my layers. The trail was a little slippery, so I went slowly.
After crossing Casino Creek Drive, homes and trees appeared on my left as the path turned toward the east. Then came the swimming pool and the park. This is a large outdoor pool, and it isn’t heated, so I didn’t see any splashing around in it. Beyond the park, the trail crossed over Little Casino Creek, which fed into Big Spring Creek to the right of the footbridge. I walked a few feet off the main trail to the overlook. From there, Big Spring Creek ran over a short waterfall and headed north.
On the other side of the footbridge, the trail followed the creek. There, in the twenty of so feet separating the trail from the creek, a child’s red wagon with bicycle tires was placed in the snow. Up ahead, another one, and further up, a third. None of them had oxen or horses to pull them; their pullbars were just laid down in the snow.
White snow had piled up inside the wagons, so they appeared like the covered Conestoga wagons that brought settlers to Montana to invade the territory of the Métis people.
Altogether, six of these red wagons were all headed in a northerly direction along Big Spring Creek.
In about two miles, the trail returned to West Main Street ten blocks from where it started, which was far enough to warm me up, except for my face, which stung when I touched my cheek, a good sign.
Walking back down West Main past Second Avenue North, there were a couple men, whom I didn’t recognize, in cowboy boots, hats, and denim jackets, standing outside Montana Tavern smoking cigarettes. I realized that they were volunteering, in a way, to stand outside in the cold, and they weren’t even moving to stay warm. I ducked past them and went into the tavern just to warm my hands and face.
The thing about smoking surprised me. More people seemed to smoke in Lewistown than in any place I had ever lived. You would think that living in a region where there’s nothing but clean air would make the practice more distasteful.
I didn’t stay any longer in the tavern than it took to shake off the cold. The darkness inside seemed too dreary.
The next time I saw Eugene I asked him if the wagon train along the creek was his work.
“Yes,” he said, “although this was a collaboration. I collected the wagons and wheels. It took me months to get the six sets from newspaper listings, estate sales, and the auction here in town. Paul installed the replacement axles and wheels, and we both did the locks and chains. There’re holes in the wagon beds to drain away any water, which let us chain and padlock each one to concrete blocks to discourage them from wandering.”
I laughed. “Seems like a lot of work. How do you afford to install them?”
“Ah, well. We have an angel. An angel who helps with the cost of materials and gets permissions from businesses and the city. With the bureaucracy, getting things in place is like a business itself! No, we are lucky.”
“Does your angel have any say in what you install?”
“Well, sort of. We say what we’d like to do, and so far he or his secretary has always said, let me work on that, and in a week or so they say, here’s what you can do. Theoretically, they could say, no, it won’t go, but they haven’t.”
Eugene added, “You know you asked about why we are working in Lewistown. Here’s another answer. It’s like why Anna’s hummingbirds have begun to overwinter in Seattle. There’s less competition. Lewistown is pretty much a big canvas.”
Over the dinner table at the boarding house, I told Mister Draper all about Chuck’s scheming. I asked him, “Could the men of your lodge do anything to help?”
Mister Draper said, “One of the virtues of Freemasonry is ‘relief,’ which includes working for the common good. It doesn’t mean helping only Freemasons in distress.”
“That’s sufficiently amorphous, especially when it’s not clear what would be good. Some might oppose the missile silos for selfish or spiteful reasons, but others might sincerely care about avoiding a nuclear holocaust.”
“It might not be clear how to act,” said Mister Draper, “but it is clear that talking is better than sabotage. It would be good to get people to talk.”
I told him that I didn’t know whether Chuck and his friends had a valid complaint or constructive suggestion, and that maybe they needed psychiatrist sessions rather than a presentation and a hearing. But I was afraid that they would do something stupid and useless to get themselves into trouble, so I agreed that it might be worth trying to bring their concerns into the open.
Mister Draper said that he would talk with some of his brothers.
A couple days later, Mister Draper said he could get help to call a town-hall meeting. The Air Force should be interested in setting up a “joint land-use” task force as part of the U.S. Department of Defense’s joint land-use study program to help avoid conflicts over military and civilian goals, so he thought that he could get an information officer from Malmstrom to give a presentation and respond to questions.
“Maybe we had better talk to the men here to see if they are willing to talk, before we bring in the cavalry,” said Mister Draper.
I agreed. I told Mister Draper, “I think that I could arrange a meeting by inviting people to dinner someplace, offering to pay for it.”
Mister Draper said, “You wouldn’t need to pay for me or any Freemason who is willing to help.”
“If I invited Chuck and a friend, such as Lincoln Beachey, and you invited one fellow mason, then the balance would be about right, assuming that I didn’t need to say much.”
“I would probably bring Dowding or Freeman, not Sheriff Harmon,” said Mister Draper.
I asked Chuck about meeting Mister Draper and a friend, who had offered to help, and told him I would pay for dinner.
Chuck said, “See? Something is happening.”
I didn’t argue with him. “Can you invite Beachey and meet me at the Yogo Inn restaurant for dinner at 6?”
“I don’t know if Beachey wants to talk.”
“Just bring someone who does want to talk.”
This was on a Wednesday. Planning for Saturday gave Chuck a couple days to think about it. Mister Draper was fine with Saturday at Stetson’s. He said that he would drive me over, and we could stop and pick up Freeman. I made reservations.
On Saturday, Mister Draper and I got into his 1982 Plymouth Gran Fury.
Wilfrid Freeman lived to the west of town. Mister Draper pulled up Freeman’s drive and honked. I got out so that I could take the back seat. Wilfrid was tall and thin. He had dyed his hair brown, but had neglected dying his eyebrows, which were bushy and plainly white. He wore glasses with old-fashioned black plastic frames. He wore a business suit with a white shirt and a dark blue tie. He raised his hand to shake mine and said, “Glad to meet you.”
“Thank you for joining us,” I said, shaking his hand.
Mister Draper had apparently explained things to Wilfrid, who asked no question. He said only, “I hope that our young rebels will be willing to consider constructive alternatives.”
We got to the restaurant just minutes before six. No sign of Chuck. I told the hostess that we would be seated but that we were waiting for two friends who would ask for me. The restaurant was nearly empty.
We had been seated at a table for six and had been given menus and glasses of ice water when Chuck called my name. Lincoln was with him. We three stood for formal introductions and handshakes.
“Lincoln Beachey and Chuck Hamilton, this is Mister Draper and Wilfrid Freeman, who have offered to talk and to see if there’s anything that they can do to help.”
Mister Draper’s opening gambit was, “Sensible men have valid concerns with having nuclear ICBMs around this town. What are your concerns?”
Lincoln said, “I’d like to hear the concerns that a sensible man might have.”
Mister Draper and Freeman looked at each other. A waitress came to the table with an order pad. Mister Draper said, “Uh, maybe we should order first.”
Murmurs of consent went around the table. I ordered a beer in addition to half a roasted chicken with a baked potato.
The waitress left and Freeman said to Lincoln, “You asked about sensible concerns. My concerns are mainly economic, but I agree that we also have social and environmental problems.”
“A strong military presence warps the economy. Productive occupations cannot compete with service occupations. Big contracts are awarded out of state. If you consider the music industry as an example, you can see that with more population from out of state, you have less interest in supporting local talent.”
The waiter brought our drinks and tried to engage people with friendly banter. Mister Freeman had ordered decaf. “I hope that’s good and hot, and it won’t keep you up late.” I had a beer. “I had the bartender make sure yours was cold.” Lincoln and Chuck had whiskey neat. “Yours and yours—especially neat.” Fortunately, it was over in a minute and he left us alone. The restaurant was quiet.
Lincoln said, “I agree. Military people might be nice but most of them are aliens. They didn’t grow up here and they don’t stay here.”
Chuck said, “Most people say that federal money is good for us.”
Freeman said, “I say it weakens the health of our economy, just as eating only deserts weakens the health of a person. Now what are your concerns?”
Chuck said, “I don’t have your understanding of the economy. All I know is that keeping atomic missiles underground and crews to maintain them and to stand by to fire them doesn’t help the ranchers here.”
The food arrived on trays born by the waiter and a busboy. The servings were large. There was silence for a while as we attacked our meals.
Eventually, Lincoln asked, “I worry about a nuclear holocaust, but does it do any good to have valid arguments against the missiles? What can we do about it? Can you help?”
Freeman said, “Do we want to get into the risk of our nuclear posturing?”
“I don’t think we can do anything here to reduce that risk,” said Mister Draper.
Chuck said, “Not doing anything means we suffer. I say we need to make them suffer.”
Mister Draper said, “Before you consider destruction of property, you should realize that it wouldn’t change anything. Repairs would be made and things would get right back to normal. We need to work out economic and political arguments and make sure that our representatives know that they are dealing with mature adults who understand the trade-offs and are working for long-term improvements.”
Lincoln said, “I never wanted to do any sabotage. But what else can we do?”
Chuck looked angrily at Beachey. He said, “We can protest!”
Freeman said, “We can circulate a petition. Then we can take it to Helena. How many people do you think here would sign it?”
Chuck said, “I don’t know about a petition.”
Lincoln said, “People might not want to identify themselves to authorities.”
Mister Draper said, “We can help you but I will not represent anonymous parties. No. People will need to openly stand up for their opinions.”
Lincoln nodded. Chuck swallowed and said, “We can work on a petition, but I’m not good at writing.”
I said, “I can help you with that. You can just tell me what you think it should say, and then I can draft it and review it with Mister Draper and Mister Freeman.”
Freeman said, “If you can get signatures, we can help you present it to our representatives. And I would think that I can get some other Freemasons to sign on.”
After we dropped Freeman off at his house, Mister Draper said, “Right or wrong, it doesn’t hurt to make a little noise here, or the politicians will fall to thinking we don’t need anything like potholes filled or water inspected.”
I said, “I wonder whether there is a similar level of discontent in other parts of the state, I mean unhappiness with military installations.”
“I think you’ll find some distrust of the government nearly everywhere.”
“Mister Draper,” I said, “Hans said that keeping nuclear warheads and bombs ready to launch is morally reprehensible. Do you think that the ICBMs are justifiable?”
Mister Draper said, “Jesus said to turn the other cheek, but we compartmentalize. We separate religion from state and justify the ICBMs to defend the state. Do I accept the way we justify them? I wish it were not so, but yes. I think the threat of nuclear annihilation is all that our country can manage. It would be impossible for us to act openly and lovingly toward rogue nations and terrorist states.”
“And yet,” I said, “we expect individuals like Chuck to behave differently.”
Mister Draper said, “If Chuck were to threaten the air force, they would lock him up, but I see what you mean. It’s the idea that violence can be a means to a good end.”
I said, “The people are in another compartment; they can choose. If they choose the principle of violence then they will suffer violence.”
“Yes, but choosing the principle of nonviolence does not guarantee that they will be free from violence.”
“Actually, most people choose neither violence nor nonviolence, because they don’t protest. They suffer in silence.”
I said, “I sympathize with people who hope that aliens in UFOs will prevent us from destroying ourselves.”
“Deus ex machina,” said Mister Draper.
“Right,” I said. “I sympathize but I see it as a form of intellectual dishonesty.”
“Well,” said Mister Draper, “if we were writing a play, its purpose would not be to save the world.”
“True, but as we are not writing a play but living our lives, it’s cheap to regard the human spectacle as a form of entertainment. In real life people really suffer.”
“This is true,” said Mister Draper, “but the common person usually suffers mainly from his own obsessions. If he can laugh off the strain and take himself less seriously then he’ll live longer and more happily.”
“That’s for me,” I said, “but I give thanks for those who will sacrifice themselves for the common good.”
I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth,
but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities
and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger,
a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that
imprisoned my people. There was no particular day
on which I said, Henceforth I will devote myself to the
liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself
doing so, and could not do otherwise.
— Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
I had heard that numerous security failures and inconveniences were being experienced by military personnel at missile control and launch facilities around Lewistown.
Chuck had come into the bookstore on the previous afternoon and whispered, “Heavy snow has knocked down parts of the chain-link fences at three missile silos. The infrared detectors found deer wandering inside one and they sent out armed security teams in the middle of the night in that storm. I don’t know what the deer were interested in there because there’s no shelter inside the fences and they poison everything that tries to grow.”
“How did you find out about this?” I asked.
“They called a guy I’ve worked for who puts up fencing. No, I wouldn’t go help put the fences back up!”
I thought of saying “Someone beat you to it,” but I didn’t know if anyone had assisted the storm in damaging the fences, or could have done so without leaving tracks. Probably not.
This being a Saturday, I went to the Empire café for dinner. I asked Roberta for the meatloaf. “You don’t want today’s special?” she asked.
“What’s the special?” I looked at the slip paper-clipped to the top of the menu. “Oh, no,” I said. “Roberta, those fish sticks are awful. Why can’t you get any fresh fish here? Even catfish, I’d love some catfish if it were fresh.”
“Uh, oh,” she said. “You start to complain about our menu it’s a sign that you’re starting to feel comfortable here. And when you’re comfortable, you want to marry and settle down. Then it’s no more café meals for you. Maybe your future bride will cook you some catfish.”
I mentioned the downed fences to Roberta, and she said, “That’s interesting. They’ve always had problems, come winter, with iced-up locks. I heard that a tree had fallen on the back fence at one of the missile silos near Winifred, and that some drunk blinded by the snow turned down one of the missile driveways and rammed through a gate.”
“Is it usually difficult to keep fences standing up all winter?”
“Not usually. . . one winter we had a storm the snow was so wet it stuck to the sides of everything upright. Pulled down trees, power poles, fences . . . Not to mention cars and trucks had a hard time staying on the roads. That was a while ago. You know the Indian name for this area meant ‘Snow Hole.’”
“Ah, I guess they named it appropriately.”
Roberta said, “But this winter, it seems as though the animals have gone crazy.”
“What’s with the animals?”
“Could be hearsay. Someone said a three-year mule deer buck caught its antlers in the chain link of a silo gate, and a skunk family took up residence at another. Must be they thought it their winter resort. The skunks made it uncomfortable for two military contractors, and the third one refused to go anywhere near. The air force is probably considering a bombing raid on their own property. There were some said other silos were invaded by deer, or it was rabbits, though seems a person could tell the difference between deer and rabbits.”
“I know for a fact there’re problems with gophers. They dig under the access roads, and they dig under the fence posts, so when a truck goes over it, or a bit of snow sticks to the fence, with the weight of the snow, the thing collapses and you don’t exactly see, under the snow, why it happened.”
The next day over a tuna melt and a cup of coffee at the café, I was paging through the News-Argus (published Wednesdays and Saturdays). An article “caught my eye,” as they say.
“Widespread reports describe damaged fences at scattered military sites in the area over the previous two or three days. The damage is largely related to the storm. One gate was allegedly damaged by a man having lost his way in the night. Heavy snow and wind will continue through the weekend.”
Chuck came into the bookstore and found me in the back. To me it seemed that it must have been obvious to everyone but Chuck that he wasn’t hiding anything from anyone.
I said, “We should have lunch so we can go over my draft for the petition.”
Chuck whispered, “With all that’s been happening, I think it would be better to stay low for a while.”
I went over to Eugene and Blanche’s after work. I brought a bottle of wine to make up for the fact that I hadn’t taken anything to their New Year’s Eve party. I told Eugene, “Thank you again for inviting me over for New Year’s Eve. That was quite a party.”
Eugene said I was welcome and thanked me for the wine. He said, “We’ll open this later. I have something to show you on the back porch, just in case you didn’t think,” he laughed, “that artists don’t suffer for their art.”
The area outside the back door stank of stale tobacco smoke. Two figures were standing, one about three feet tall, and the other about half that size. Each was clearly modeled on the extinct dodo.
Eugene said, “We made the bodies out of rebar and chicken wire, and then papier-maché over that, then a thin layer of fibreglass to make them waterproof. The beaks and feet are molded epoxy resin.” I looked the adult dodo in the eye, then I looked at Eugene. He added, “The eyes are cat-eye marbles, which is not anatomically correct, but close enough.”
“The feathers are not anatomically correct, either,” I laughed. Eugene smiled.
Instead of feathers, cigarettes butts were glued onto the birds, overlapping each other neatly in the manner of feathers.
Eugene said, “For the longer feathers of the wings, I had to go out and buy a couple packs.”
I said, “Why would you make the bodies waterproof if the feathers are not?”
“True. The tobacco ends will disintegrate, and it will appear to molt, but the filters are almost indestructable.”
I said, “You aren’t being overly critical of cigarette smokers?”
“I hope everyone will see the humor in it, but I see what you mean. At least I don’t attack the sacred precepts of the myth of the west. We would never make fun of cowboy hats, for example. That would be a low blow.”
Before you cross the street
Take my hand
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
— John Lennon, “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”
I was over at Hans’s place on a Wednesday morning. I had finished cataloging and shelving the latest shipment of books from Orville and Wilbur, so I was not expected at the bookstore, and Hans usually worked only in the afternoons, so he was also at his leisure.
We were in the clock room. I was reading the paper and sipping a luke-warm cup of black coffee, sitting at the center table, and Hans was examining the clock. Miles Davis’s “Miles Ahead” was playing in the living room.
Hans had replaced the flashlight with an AC to DC converter, whose tail trailed down to the AC plug at the middle of the wall near the floorboard.
Hans had mounted a few more of the gears. He had bought some cotton cord at the Lewistown Ace hardware store and used that to connect the gears of the clock, and he was watching it work.
By this time, I think I understood most of the workings of the clock.
At the heart of the clock were three wheels arranged in a triangle, with two wheels at the bottom and one above them. Each of these were the same size. One loop of string went around the outside of these three wheels.
The pendulum moved the string between the bottom two wheels clockwise once every two seconds, that is, each time the bottom of the pendulum swung to the right. The distance that the string moved thirty times was the distance it moved in a minute. The circumference of the three wheels was exactly that distance, so each of the three main wheels rotated once each minute. Hans called these “minute wheels,” although the one at the bottom right was for seconds, the one at the bottom left was for minutes, and the one at the top was for hours.
In the center of the triangle was a triple axle with three three pairs of disks and wheels mounted on it with three races of bearings. One pair was for seconds, one was for minutes, and one was for hours. The three disks operated in the same plane, so that the minutes disk rotated inside the seconds disk, and the hours disk rotated inside the minutes disk. The hours disk had a radius of four inches, and the other two were an inch and a half across. None of these disks had anything written on them.
The wheel for seconds (at the bottom right) was coupled with a pinion (behind it) of the same size, and this wheel was connected by another string to the wheel connected to the seconds disk in the center. The seconds wheel also had the same size, so all these and the seconds disk rotated at the same rate, once per minute.
The wheel for minutes (at the bottom left) was coupled with a pinion of half its circumference. Hans called this a “half-minute pinion.” This pinion was connected by a string to a three-minute wheel on the left. A “three-minute wheel” had the circumference that the main string moved in three minutes. This three-minute wheel had a quarter-minute pinion, and that pinion was connected by another string to the wheel behind the minutes disk in the center, which had a circumference of two and a half minutes. This gave the minutes disk one rotation each hour.
The wheel for hours (at the top) was also coupled with a half-minute pinion. This pinion was connected to a chain of two three-minute wheels with quarter-minute pinions, and the second of these was connected to the wheel behind the hours disk, which also had a circumference of two and a half minutes. This gave the minutes disk one rotation every twelve hours.
The main string was put under tension by having the some of the wheels mounted on brackets with slots so that they could be moved away from the center and tightened. The secondary wheels were also mounted on brackets that let Hans move the wheels to adjust the tension on their strings.
It didn’t matter how far apart the wheels were placed because everything was connected with loops of string that acted as the fan belts in car engines.
We heard a cat yowl in the back yard. I went to the window. A gentle, loving feline from Hans’s house arched her back and bared her fangs. A short distance away, at the edge of yard, another cat arched its back and bared its fangs. Both their tails were in the air as though it were Halloween. Hans’s cat yowled; the other cat yowled. Hans’s cat edged sideways a little closer; the other cat edged sideways a little farther.
In this dance for territorial domination, fur-raising shows of aggression were probably only for show, but the aggressor, it seemed, realized the futility of its approaching the warmth of the house and the cat bowl on the back step, relaxed its body and lept to the top of the fence. There it stroll along the top of the fence as though no transgression had occurred.
The broom wagged back or forth once a second. Hans called me over.
“This string does not work,” he said. “Slipping.” Hans had hung a paper clip on the string on both sides of the first three-minute wheel for the hour chain. He had marked off their progress on the wall with yellow stickies. He had stopped the clock and was measuring the distances the paper clips had traveled.
Hans declared, “This wheel and this pinion should give a six times reduction of speed. See? This string has moved three inches, but this one has moved less than half an inch.”
“The best laid plans of rubber bands and chewing gum, eh?” I quipped. I knew that the string was not the one Hans wanted. Hans offered no comment.
“Hans?” I added, changing the subject, and looking him in the eye. “What do you think of Chuck Hamilton’s crazy plots?”
Hans paused, and said, “I think the military people are funny. If you block a truck at a gate, they will get all in a huff, arrest you, and put you in jail for ten years. But if you make them think that you have a huge triangular airship hovering over the launch site, blinking lights at random, vibrating everything inside the fence enough to melt cheese, and then you shut down all their power systems, they do not do or say a thing about it.”
I didn’t know what to say to this. He was right. They wouldn’t say a thing. It seemed that it might be disrespectful to laugh, as if to doubt what he was saying. But it was absurd.
I thought of Chuck. “Do you mean that if Chuck did anything, he would only get himself in trouble?”
“Right. Unless he were capable of supernatural effects. Chuck is more of a daredevil than a protestor. It would take a supernatural effort to dissuade him from risky behavior. Anger is never a good motivator.”
I looked at the clock. The broom silently swung back and forth.
“Well,” I said, “suppose that since the last time the UFOs shut down the missiles here . . . supposing that that UFOs did that . . . suppose that the UFOs have figured out the military the same as you. Couldn’t they have disarmed the missiles without getting the Air Force in a huff?”
Hans said, “Right. Like the small white mouse at the end of “The Mouse that Roared.” It wouldn’t be until they tried to launch the things that they would find out that a moth had blocked a relay.”
I said, “Hans. This clock doesn’t have any numbers on it.”
There was knocking at the door. I was closer, so I went to open the door, but something caught my eye outside the front windows. A military police SUV was parked in front of the house.
I retreated back to the clock room. “Listen, Hans. There’s a military truck in front. This is your house, so I think that they aren’t looking for me. If you slip out the back, I’ll answer the door and give you time.”
Hans raised his right hand and said, “No. That would do no good.” He stood up and sighed. “They do not want me, but it will take them a while to realize that.
Another, louder set of knocks. I followed Hans to the door.
Before he opened the door, Hans turned around and told me, “If you would, I want you to finish the clock. You can find the right pendulum at the antique store on Main.”
A pair of uniformed men stood on the porch. The one in front said, “I am Lieutenant Bier. Are you Hans, er . . . Hans?”
The other one followed Hans to get his coat, then took him out to the SUV. Lieutenant Bier asked my name. And he told me that they he had to temporarily seal the house, so I had better get my coat and clear out. He followed me back to the kitchen, where I had my gear, and as I walked away, I saw him put yellow tape across the front door.
I didn’t want to get in trouble, so I didn’t ask questions. But I was confused. I didn’t think that they had any reason to take Hans away or to tape the doors of the house. Why didn’t they just come in and ask whatever they wanted to know?
I crunched across the snow and ice over to Eugene and Blanche’s place and knocked at their door. Blanche answered.
“Blanche,” I said, “if you still have that bottle of wine that I brought over, open it now and offer me a glass and I’ll repay you later.”
Blanche said, “Come in. Come in. What’s happened? Are you OK?” She called out for Eugene, who met us in the dining room.
Eugene said, “What’s up? Are you OK?”
I said, “I’m OK, but military police just came and took Hans away.”
Blanche asked, “Whatever for?’ While I replied, she went over to their buffet and opened a bottle of wine.
I said, “I don’t think there’s any rational reason, but I think they’d been told that because Hans has been building a clock, because it has electrical parts that make it go, and because he doesn’t have the highest regard for nuclear ICBMs, that he’s been messing with the missle silos, or protected missle codes, or military communications. It’s hard to understand why, but they came and took him away.”
Blanche and Eugene just stared at me, dumbfounded. Eugene said, “Let’s get this straight. Now,” he said. “So Hans is building a clock?”
“Right,” I said. Blanche offered wine to Eugene and me, and poured one for herself.
“And Hans clock can somehow mess with our best military security and safety mechanisms?”
“That’s why it seems so crazy,” I said.
“I’ll say,” they both said. Eugene started laughing. Blanche smiled. Eugene kept laughing. Even I smiled.
Blanche said, “It won’t take them long to figure out what fools they’ve been, I think.”
Eugene said, “I’ll tell you what. Let’s get all our friends up to the gates of Malmstrom, and we’ll stage a sit-in.”
Blanche, “I’ll make signs that say, ‘Arrest your thoughts, not our friends.’”
Eugene, “Wake up; Make up.”
Blanche, “Make love; not war! Right not might!”
Eugene, “Free Love; Free Hans.”
Blanche, “Free Love; Free Hans; Free Beer!”
I added, “Free Hans; Free Bread; Free Wine!”
Eugene said, “And we’ll dress up in clown outfits. That’ll make them think!”
Blanche said, “I offer to pass out business cards to offer training sessions for Air Force officers on how to think.”
I said, “Remedial mind remediation. Operators are waiting. Call now.”
Eugene said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” He broke out laughing again.
We finished the bottle and resolved to wait upon the morrow, to see whether reason might descend like moonlight to light up the dark and mysterious pathways trod by the ignorant, the fearful, and the paranoid.
This is a brave night to cool a courtesan. I’ll speak
a prophecy ere I go:
When priests are more in word than matter;
When brewers mar their malt with water;
When nobles are their tailors’ tutors;
No heretics burn’d, but wenches’ suitors;
Then shall the realm of Albion
Come to great confusion.
— Fool, “King Lear,” Shakespeare
- An empty house
- Information from Sally
- Walter Brookin’s offices
- Sheriff’s department
- A phone call
No one asked where Hans was, or seemed to have noticed the yellow tape on his front door, so I didn’t tell anyone about it.
The next morning, I went back to Hans’s house. The yellow tape had been removed, so I went in. I hadn’t thought about it before, but the house didn’t have locks on the doors. No locks and no deadbolts. Hans must have had them removed after he bought the place.
I turned off the stereo in the living room, which had finished playing Miles Ahead and announced its readiness in red and green, like Christmas lights.
I had never been in Hans’s house alone before. It was strange. It was warm; the heater had been on. Every footstep seemed loud.
Nothing seemed to have been removed from the clock room. The pendulum of the clock was swinging, and the cord from Ace hardware must have been slipping, so its time must have been wrong, but there were no numbers in the disks in the center, so who could tell?
I thought of looking around upstairs. I had never been upstairs in this house. Was it any of my business? I didn’t know. Hans had asked me if I would finish the clock. Did that mean that he thought he would be detained for a while? Maybe it meant that he trusted me. Well, I wasn’t sure that I trusted him, and if looking around upstairs made me feel less uneasy, then I would be more inclined to work on the clock. Hans had never talked about where he came from. Maybe I could find a photograph or a letter that would help me notify his next of kin, just in case the world were as mad as I sometimes feared.
I went into the hall where the stairs were. On a small shelf under the stairs was a Lewistown phone book. A telephone would be hanging on the wall above the shelf, but the wall was bare. Hans had had the phone removed. There weren’t even any dangling wires or a plug.
I had never seen Hans with a cell phone. What kind of person today has no phone? He had certainly never asked for my number. It had never seemed a problem finding Hans; you knew where he was. Maybe there was one upstairs. But wherever he was this morning, he wasn’t going to call his own house. I assumed that he would call the bookstore and leave a message for Sally, or even for me.
I climbed the stairs.
I must have expected something strange. The only strange thing was that there was no clue about his past.
There had been five bedrooms, two in the back of the house, and three in the front. The master bedroom was empty, completely empty, not even any dust.
Hans’s room was the smaller room in the back. In it was a double bed with a quilt over it. One end table with a lamp. No phone. One bureau with a mirror. The closet had the pants that I had seen Hans wear. Shoes and boots on the floor of the closet. The bureau drawers contained T-shirts, socks, and underwear. On the walls were art posters from museum exhibits put up with thumb tacks. Kandinsky, Matisse, Piccaso, King Tut’s sarcophagus. There was nothing personal, and nothing of particular value. No photographs, no camera on a shelf, no computer, no letters or bills, not even any junk mail. My heart sank.
The three rooms on the other side of the hall were a surprise. There were three doors but the connecting walls on the inside were removed. It was Hans library. You would expect that someone who worked at a used bookstore would love books, but this was beyond the scope of the usual nice library. Good solid shelves lined all the walls from floor to ceiling, with extensions coming into the room from the inside to fill the floor space except near the central window, where a comfortable leather chair, small table, and a floor lamp stood on an oriental rug, and at the right end, where a map table was built over narrow horizontal shelves. On this was a detailed topological map of Fergus County.
There were books of all sorts and genres. Reference, history, biography, literature, poetry, drama, literary criticism, art, art history, science, mechanics, music, theology and philosophy, anthropology and archeology, atlases, a good wide shelf for compendiums of comics and humor, even cookbooks. Many of these books were rare and in good condition, even first editions of all four volumes of Roosevelt’s The Winning of the West. Strange, too, many of the books were in German, French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Swahili, even Arabic.
On the small table was a first edition of The Modern Clock: A Study of Time Keeping Mechanism; Its Construction, Regulation, and Repair, by Ward L. Goodrich, 1950.
I sat down in the chair to think. The chair was turned so looking up Hans could see over the front yard. In the yard were majestic trees stripped of their leaves and crusted with ice on the north faces of every limb. A car drove by on the street.
This library was impressive. It seemed that time and expense had not been a factor and that no area was preferred over another. I didn’t see any catalog. The bedroom made me feel sad for Hans. I couldn’t imagine what he had left behind, but to have no photographs, no letters, no evidence that there had ever been anyone who loved him was devastating. But this library gave me a different feeling. The owner of this library was awesome, not someone to pity.
I went to to the bookstore, and found Sally at the counter. She was surprised to see me because I was not due for work until the afternoon and I guess that she had not called me in.
“Sally,” I said. “Hans was taken in by the military police yesterday morning, and he is not back.”
Sally said, “We will want you to work extra hours until he gets back. Is that OK?”
“Yes, that’s OK, but does this happen much around here? Can they take people away at any time without a reason?”
Sally said, softly, “No, they must have had a reason.”
“Have you heard anything? Do you know why they took him? Has he called here?”
“No, he hasn’t called, though I think he will. You shouldn’t worry.”
“Sally. Yesterday they had yellow tape on the doors of his house, but today the tape was gone, so I looked through the place. They haven’t taken anything that I could tell. But there’s something odd. There is absolutely no mail in the place. No bills, no letters, no junk mail. Do you pay Hans in cash?”
“No,” she said. “That’s unusual, isn’t it? We send checks for his wages to his lawyer, Walter Brookins, here in town. I think Walter pays his bills.”
Walter Brookin’s offices were in a four-story brick building on the corner of Main and Fifth, with the office door on Fifth. Rather than call, I walked up there, which gave me a chance to cool off. “Walter Brookin, Legal” was painted on the door. This was where I saw the woman with blue eyes. I pulled the door open and stepped in. A bell rang. The office was warm, at least compared to the bookstore. A pretty woman was sitting at a desk. She smiled and waited until I had unzipped my coat and removed my hat, gloves, and scarf before she asked kindly, “May I help you?” She had a lovely alto voice.
The office was painted in beige and pale green and furnished in oak.
“Would you talk with me about Hans, or should I see Mister Brookin?” I was sorry that my tone seemed angrier than I thought it would.
Her tone became more business-like. “I wouldn’t mind trying to answer any question about Hans. Hans is a good friend of this office. But before I do, would you mind telling me who you are?”
Her question surprised me; it was more than a little severe. I said, “I work with Hans at the bookstore, and I have been helping him with his clock. I was with him yesterday when the military police took him away.”
She relented. She said, “Oh. OK. Walter is here this morning and I think we can interrupt him. Just a moment.”
A sign on her desk gave her name, Ellen Baker. She pressed a button on her intercom with her left hand and I noticed that she wore no ring. She spoke into the intercom, “Hans’s friend is here and he wants to talk about Hans. Shall I take him in?”
Ellen looked at me again. She rose and stepped out from behind her desk. She was medium height and wore a white blouse with lace at the collar. A woolen skirt that swayed nicely as she walked. There was a little gray in her hair that shined. She took my coat and hung it on a coat rack; next she took my hat, gloves, and scarf and placed them on a table by the coat rack. I stood there with my mouth open. Her eyes were light blue. She took my arm and said, “This way.”
At a door at the end of the hall, Ellen let go of my arm, knocked, paused, opened the door for me, and followed me into Walter’s office. Walter rose from the chair behind his desk. He was a tall, thin, and elderly man in a three-piece suit. I think he might have been six-foot-five.
Walter said, “Thank you for coming to see us.” He walked around his desk and held a thin hand out. We shook hands. “Hans has told us about you. You should feel welcome here. Please sit down.”
Walter directed me to a leather chair facing the desk. Ellen sat in a chair facing mine at the other end of the desk. Walter walked back around the desk and sat down, too. The office was lined with bookshelves filled with legal books, except for a section of the wall by the door where Walter’s legal degrees and certificates were displayed. The room was comfortably lit. The desk and chairs sat on a dark rug.
Walter said, “I hope you are not worried about Hans. He called us from Great Falls right after he arrived. Although he could spend a few more days there, he is being treated well, and, you see, they need him.”
I must have looked somewhat astonished. No, I didn’t see.
Walter said, “I hope that this reassures you.”
I said, “I don’t understand. Are you his guardians?”
Walter, “No. Oh no. Not in the least. Rather, we are his servants.”
“Hans doesn’t get his own paychecks? Or manage his own mail?”
Walter, “Ah, I see. Hans has us to manage things for him, but he makes all the decisions that matter. It’s just that Hans keeps his money and his correspondence here. We can show you his office if you wish. His office is upstairs and of course he has his own key.”
Ellen inserted, “Hans is often here in the evening, but you could find him working here in the middle of the night also.”
Walter, “But, yes, we take care of the routine tasks for him. You see, Hans has more assets than he needs for himself, as it were, so you can think of us (myself and Ellen) as the main administrators of Hans’s foundation. With our help, you see, Hans is doing a lot of good in simple ways for many people.”
“Where did these assets come from? Hans doesn’t talk about his background. Where did Hans come from?”
I looked back and forth between Walter and Ellen. Ellen explained, “You know, because you have been helping Hans with the clock, that he’s an inventor.”
Walter, “Hans is not making the clock for money. His other inventions provide means for anything he wants to do.”
I interjected, “And you are doing this work here in Lewistown?”
Walter, “Well, you see, with the internet and international banking you can work anywhere today. But we do have offices and staff where we need them, including New York, Tokyo . . . ”
Ellen, “ . . . Cairo, London . . . ”
Walter, “Plus of course we have agents where we can help, as in Haiti, Somalia, Palestine . . . You understand.”
“OK,” I said, “but where did all this money come from?”
Walter, said “It is from things that you use all the time but don’t think much about, such as silicon spatulas, and from things that benefit others, such as water filters. You know, if you like, you can ask Hans about any of that.”
That quieted me for a moment, but then I had a thought. I asked, “Uh . . . Does the foundation have anything to do with nuclear missiles, you know, disarmament?”
Walter was a little startled. He said, “I can say this. If we were working for nuclear disarmament, we would not use petty vandalism to achieve our ends.”
I stood up to go, thanking them, and Ellen stood up with me. When we got to the door, Walter cleared his throat and said, “I’m sorry. One thing we must ask of you.” We turned around. Walter looked a little sheepish and said, “Hans values his anonymity, you see.” He hesitated. “So I know you understand that we tell you these things in confidence, because you are a friend of Hans. It’s OK to talk with Hans about these things, but in Lewistown Hans is thought of as a regular person, maybe a little odd, but not as a wealthy inventor.”
I nodded and walked back to the front office with Ellen. I noticed that she wore comfortable and simple shoes. It felt good to be walking next to her. I thanked her again and I wanted to say that I hoped I would see her again, but this caught in my throat.
I bundled up, left the office, and went out in the cold again. I walked a block, then stood there, thinking. Even though Walter seemed confident that Hans was in no danger, I didn’t see what basis he had. The military didn’t take him away and tape the doors of his house to get free advice. I decided to talk to the county sheriff. I figured that the sheriff’s department would have more exchange with the air force than the town police because they patrol the county roads and highways along which the missile silos are scattered.
I had seen sheriff’s department vehicles across from the courthouse on Main at Eighth Avenue, three blocks past Walter’s office. So I took a deep painful breath of the freezing air and turned around.
The officer at the duty desk looked up when I came in.
“May I see the sheriff?” I asked.
“Without an appointment?” He squinted and cocked his head at me, probably trying to decide whether to laugh.
“Well, yes. Is he in? Is he busy? It’s important. . . . Uh, I guess everyone who comes in off the street says that.”
“Suppose you tell me what this is about.” He had gotten serious.
“Yes, Officer . . . Coffyn.” His name was on a bar over his right pocket. “Yesterday . . . ” (I tried to marshal my thoughts) “ . . . military police took a friend of mine from his home. I was there when it happened. I would like to talk with the sheriff about how the department cooperates with the air force, and ask what you know about this. Is this fairly common here, to be taken from your home?” I decided to leave out mentioning that Hans had already contacted his lawyer.
“No. Why do you think they took him in?”
“I think it’s about the pattern of damaged fences at missile silos around here.”
“Do you think he had anything to do with that? You understand that we won’t act as his lawyer. We don’t provide that kind of protection.”
“Oh, no, of course he had nothing to do with it. But I have reason to think that someone accused him of having something to so with it. I’m not expecting you to help him; I just want to know what your protocol is when someone—he’s not in the military—is picked up like this.”
Officer Coffyn told me to wait a minute, and went down the hall, glancing back. He knocked at a door, opened it, and went in.
When he came back, he said, “You can follow me.”
“Sheriff Clifford Harmon” was painted on the window of the door. I thought that this practice, to paint a name on the glass window of a door, could be seen only in old movies. Officer Coffyn knocked and escorted me into a small and cluttered office. The office was crowded with sports trophies and piles of papers on every horizontal surface. There was a room on the side where I heard a toilet flush, then water running. The sheriff came out wiping his face with a towel that once belonged to “Hotel Emperor.” The sheriff was a large florid man with a beer belly and a crew cut. He wore a masonic pin on his lapel. He gave me a warm smile and said, “Sit down. Sit down.” He waved Officer Coffyn out of the doorway and, swinging that way, shut the door himself.
“OK,” he said. “Who is this, your friend?”
“His name is Hans.”
“Sounds like a German name.”
“Maybe, but he isn’t German.”
“Well, never mind about that. I can tell you this. We know about Hans, but we cannot tell you why he was picked up, to protect his privacy, of course . . . unless you are his lawyer, of course.”
“No, I’m not his lawyer. I work with him at the used bookstore. He’s a friend. What do you mean, you know about him?”
“I mean we knew he would be picked up. They told us that, of course. They also told us why, which I can’t tell you, not that I think they have a case, of course. But this department . . . I don’t have enough men to follow up on every request.”
“Can you tell me anything else? Like if they charge him with anything, or if they are holding him without charges? Or when they release him, whether they give him a ride back home?”
“I see. You want to know what’s happening with your friend, of course. Yes, they will tell us and we can tell his lawyer, if the lawyer asks us to. Do you know . . . Does he have a lawyer?”
“Yes, he does. Walter Brookins.”
“Ah, I know Brookins. You would want to have Brookins keep you informed, that is, if anything happens, of course.”
“Yes, I will do that. And I’ll ask him to contact you. Thank you.”
When I stood and turned to leave, Sheriff Harmon added, “You don’t need to worry about your friend. No, not this one.”
I thanked him again and left. I also thanked Officer Coffyn in the front. Then I bundled up and headed back toward Walter’s office. I wanted an excuse to see Ellen anyway.
I stepped into the law office. Again, it seemed comfortably warm. I took off hat, gloves, and scarf, but still I began to sweat. Ellen just watched me. I said, “Ellen. It’s nice to see you again.”
“Ah. I was just talking with Sheriff Harmon. He said that if Walter, as Hans’s lawyer, calls him and asks, then he will keep you informed about what is happening to Hans. . . . I figured you might learn something that way, if Hans doesn’t get a chance to call first.”
“That was sweet of you to go talk to the sheriff,” said Ellen.
“And I’d like to hear from you, whatever you want to tell me,” I said, “about Hans.” At that point, maybe it was the warmth of the office, I blushed, which Ellen couldn’t help but notice.
The afternoon at the bookstore was trying. If my mind were a stage, I tried to dance on it with Ellen but she was stiff and uncooperative. I brooded about Hans, and I was distracted by entrances of the minor characters of the day. I wondered whether Sally had been Hans accuser, although that didn’t make a lot of sense. I wondered about Walter and the work of the foundation. Both Walter and the sheriff wanted to reassure me, but for some reason I was not reassured. I felt like Hans’s clock, swinging back and forth with no clear sense of the time. I was tired.
Hans being gone bothered me more than I thought it should. I didn’t notice anyone else bothered by it. I realized why; it was because I had begun to regard Hans as a friend and my resilience from being abandoned were still weakened from losing Bonnie. It stirred up some of the pain and desperation that I had felt after Bonnie died.
After work, I didn’t feel like eating. I went to Hans’s place. Jim and Judith were not there. I turned on the lights in the clock room and stood before the clock for a while. I didn’t want to sit. The day’s characters whirled through my mind, including myself, dressed in motley.
When I got back to my place, the boarding house, the phone extension in the parlor was ringing. Miss Kate stuck her head out of the kitchen door and said, “Good. It’s you. It’s for you.” She pointed to the extension in the parlor.
“Hello.” I could hear Miss Kate hanging up, and my name spoken.
It was Hans. “Hans!”
“Listen, thank you for talking with Walter and Ellen, and Sheriff Harmon, but you do not need to worry about me.”
“Hans, I have learned more about you today than I had learned working with you for months. I worried because I didn’t understand what was going on. But, you know, I still don’t understand. Where are you? Have you been charged with a crime?”
Hans said, “I am in Great Falls, on my own reconnaissance, as they say, but reporting to Lieutenant Bishop at Malmstrom. No, I will not be charged with a crime.”
“Weren’t you accused of something?”
“Yes. Well, Lieutenant Bishop did not take that seriously, and I doubt that he could, considering the Posse Comitatus Act and the fact that the uniform code of military justice does not apply to me, because I am neither in the service nor retired.”
“So you are not being held? You’re just volunteering your time?”
“They are paying me for my advice. For example, the air force has so much trouble with iced-up locks in the winter that they send out a crew with both a combination and a bolt cutter. I recommended a combination lock that does not ice up. They accept my advice to help with practical issues. But they also have psychological issues.”
I said, “Would they be paranoids?”
Hans continued. “The psychology of air force investigators is interesting. I mentioned their denial of UFOs. Assuming that those events, shutting down missiles, really happened, their denial is not complete. They deny the cause and have no other explanation for it, but they do not deny that the missiles were shut down, because they work their hardest to get them back up as soon as possible. They are like ants on an ant hill. When a boy takes a stick and messes up the ant hill, then the ants set about putting it right. The boy interrupts their work with the stick again, but the ants have no means of understanding what happened. They can only resume their repairs. It is the same with the recent events. The air force is willing to ignore the causes. They mainly just want to fix the fences and ignore the fact that they cannot explain why so many strange things happened in one night.”
“So they didn’t ask whether you knew people who have talked about sabotage?”
“No. But even if they had, there is a difference between talking and acting. Many people would like to have the nuclear missiles removed, for many reasons, including me. Better, I have convinced them to review their own tapes. The tapes will show that the probability of human agents behind these events is very low. I think they will find that all the damage happened within seconds. Simultaneous events rules out the likelihood of human intervention or sabotage.”
“They have tapes for each facility, and records of activities like video and readings of infrared sensors?”
“Right.” Hans added, “They also photographed everything at my house in the clock room. They thought that what I have been making could have had something to do with it. I have spent time explaining to Lieutenant Bishop how the clock works. Luckily, the lieutenant is a lover of clocks. Clocks appeal to the lover of regularity and order, as though the world could be as simple, even though mine is not as simple.”
“But Hans, are you a lover of regularity and order?”
“People have other reasons to make clocks.”
“Hans, wouldn’t a lover of regularity and order have a harder time admitting the existence of a black swan?”
Hans said, “Yes. This may only be a symptom of what people call the military mind.”
“Hans, your house isn’t locked. You have a nice jazz collection and you have rare books upstairs. Isn’t there a risk that someone like Judith will take something valuable?”
“No, no one will take anything like that.”
I said, “OK,” but I was not entirely convinced.
“I hope that you are getting extra hours at the bookstore. Please apologize for me to Sally and tell her that I will be back as soon as I have finished here.”
How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness,
is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do,
and of all they are willing to endure.
— William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
- A decision
- Replacing strings
- A pendulum
- Pendulum assembly
- Tuning the clock
- The string
The next morning, I walked over to Hans’s place again. In the clock room I stood before the clock for a while. Diffused morning light came through the windows and lit up surfaces, reflecting white off the metal tools on the workbench. A dull shadow traced the path of the string that connected the wheels, and swayed back and forth behind the broom.
I went into the kitchen and made a cup of coffee. I was thinking, why not work on the clock? Maybe I could invite Ellen over to look at it. Even if I couldn’t improve the clock, it might help to establish a rapport with Ellen.
I put the coffee cup down, bundled up, and walked back to my boarding house. In my room, I took my bag from the closet. There was the spool of waxed braided nylon cord that Bonnie had given me, rolled up in a small paper bag.
After a while, I went into the parlor and found the number for Walter’s office. With a pencil by the phone, I wrote the number on the paper bag that the spool was in, then I dialed the number.
“Walter Brookins Legal. How may I help you?”
I felt relieved. “Ellen.” I said. “Hans called me last night. He doesn’t know how long he’ll be in Great Falls, and he wants me to work on his clock while he’s gone. I was wondering if you would like to see it after you get off work.”
“Yes, I’ll be at Hans’s place working on the clock. If you’re not driving, I could meet you at your office and we could walk over together. I will have cheese, French bread, and a bottle of wine to share. Really, I know a lot about the clock. I can answer any of your questions.”
Ellen said, “Yes, I would like that. I have my car here, and I know where the house is. So . . . will you be there a little after five?”
“Yes, I’ll be there. I’ll see you then. That would be great.”
Next, I called Sally at the bookstore and gave her Hans’s apology. I then apologized for myself, saying that I could not work today. I told her that Hans had asked me to do some work for him at his place before he got back. I was hoping that Hans’s name could give credit to my truancy.
Sally said in a friendly tone of voice, “That’s fine. Nothing new arrived from Wilbur and Orville, so I’m not sure what I would have you do today anyway. Enjoy!”
I took a round-about route walking back to Hans’s place. I stopped at Gehlen’s for a sack of groceries, including apples, sandwich bread, and sardines for my lunch, French bread, a nice gruyere, and a bottle of California cabernet sauvignon.
The weather was still miserable, but it was starting to seem like an aspect of the climate, not an aspect of the soul.
At Hans’s place, in the clock room, I cleared a good space on the table and wiped it clean with a kitchen towel. Each string made a loop, and I didn’t want a knot where the two ends joined because the joins would need to slip gracefully through the grippers, so my first job was to establish a means of joining the ends to make the loops.
First I thought of melting the nylon. The melting temperature of nylon 66 is almost 500 degrees Fahrenheit, so I realized it wouldn’t be practical to melt the ends together.
That fact that the string was waxed would be nice in establishing a grip on the wheels, but it presented a problem for sticking the ends together with glue. I realized that I could boil the wax off the ends, but I didn’t have a glue that would hold even unwaxed ends together and remain flexible.
I found that Hans had sewn together the ends of the existing string. I found a small needle and a small spool of fine thread in a jar lid on the workbench. I experimented with sewing overlapping ends and found that this join was flexible and strong. Trimming the loose ends after sewing and rubbing a little candle wax over the join seemed good.
I warmed up a cup of coffee. While I sipped the coffee, I examined the loops that were on the clock. There were seven. The seven strings were kept tight against the wheels by having at least one wheel in the loop mounted on a bracket that rode in a slot to move the axle away. The bracket was tightened in place with a thumb screw.
I realized, if I weren’t making the loops on the wall, that I would to remove all the old strings and mount the new strings from the bottom (closest to the wall) to the top. I made labels using halves of three-by-five cards, cutting a slit into each that I could tape closed after sliding the old string into the slit. I took the old strings off and labelled them.
I used the old strings to measure the new ones, unwinding the new string from my spool. I started with the string on the main triangle. I measured it twice, cut it, sewed and waxed its ends, and checked its size against the old one. I slipped this loop around the three main wheels. The seconds wheel was on a mount that moved horizontally, so I moved it to the right to tighten the loop. Next I added the loop between the seconds wheel and the wheel under the seconds disk in the center. Moving the seconds wheel to the right tightened the seconds loop but not the main loop, which was a little longer. The main loop was tightened with a bracket and thumb screw on the hours wheel at the top.
After tightening these first two strings into place, I pulled the main string to see how the wheels turned. They were tight and seemed not to slip.
At this point, it was past noon, so I went into the kitchen for apples and sardine sandwiches. I went upstairs, brought down The Modern Clock, and opened it at random to read while I ate.
“Moving the bob up or down 1-18 inch makes the clock having a seconds pendulum gain or lose in twenty-four hours one minute, hence the selecting definite numbers of threads has for its reason a philosophical standpoint, and is not a matter of convenience and chance, as seems to be the practice with many clock makers. With a screw of eighteen threads, we shall get one minute change of the clock’s rate in twenty-four hours for every turn of the nut . . . ”
After lunch, I added the remaining five loops as I had installed the first.
Hans had said, “You can find the right pendulum at the antique store on Main.”
In town I had heard the joke, “Where can you find antiques in Lewistown? In the homes, churches, bars, stores, and anywhere on the street.” But I hadn’t been to an antique store here and didn’t know where to find one. I went into the hall and opened the phone book to the yellow pages.
Maurice Paulhan Antiques was on West Main Street between Second and Third avenues. When I entered the shop, a bell rang and a mature mixture of old wood and mold grabbed my nostrils. Conveniently to the right inside the door was an elaborate brass and oaken coat stand. I took my time removing gloves, scarf, coat and sweater, and hanging my things up. I didn’t know how long I would be here. Peering into the interior I was looking through the vastness of antiquity.
Nobody appeared in answer to the door bell, although I wanted to speak to the dealer because if this were the right place then Hans had been in here, and I hoped that he would have been remembered.
Every space inside was occupied, like an elaborate Chinese puzzle, furniture piled up on the floor, rolled oriental carpets standing on end, golden plaster-encrusted mirrors, dark oil landscapes, and cuckoo clocks mounted on the walls. Chairs and picture frames and rusted baby carriages were even hanging from the ceiling. As I stood looking at a mirrored bureau, the entire entourage was too much to realize all at once, but gradually other members introduced themselves to my consciousness. Porcelain vases, pewter book ends, small picture frames, statues of the Buddha and Kuan Yin sitting and standing on their lotus blossoms next to a Charlie Russell bronze of a cowboy on a horse, carnival-glass glasses, and old license plates. Under the bureau were milk cans, a rusted hand plow, and a beaten up croquet set in a wooden rack. This was a small area of the grand and cluttered expanse. I remembered the scene in “Citizen Kane” where the camera panned up over a forest of wooden packing boxes, but here everything was unpacked and was filling every available niche.
I was starting to enjoy the richness of unrelated associations of old things, but I had to concentrate. I zigzagged my way to the back. Through a doorway, a warm yellow light emanated. At a desk was a hunched-over man, working at a ledger. “Maurice?” I asked.
He looked up. “Maurice? No, that would be my grandfather. My name is Louis.” His voice was high-pitched and gravelly. He smiled and his teeth were dark brown, as though he had chewed tobacco all his long life. He was dressed entirely in black, a black wool three-piece suit, a black shirt, and a black Western string tie. He reached out a fat hand with short fingers, which I shook.
I took a breath. “I came in for a particular item, even though I don’t know what it is. A friend of mine said I could find it here. I hope that he introduced himself and you have some idea what I’m looking for. His name is Hans. He told me that this object could work as a pendulum for a clock that we are building.” I knew this sounded ridiculous, but I had to give it a chance.
Louis gave me a good long look with a bloodshot eye. “Yes,” he croaked, “a young man named Hans was in here a while ago. . . . ” I gave Louis time to remember. He cocked his head and continued, “If he knew you needed this thing to make a clock . . . ” He almost whined, “why didn’t he get it then?”
“I don’t know why,” I said. I wondered why this had to have underpinnings. I asked, “Do you have any idea what it was?”
“I should keep track of everything that people look at in here? You want I should go crazy?” Louis seemed a little angry, but then he stopped frowning. He sighed. “Let me show you what Hans had been looking at.” Louis scooted off his chair. His feet had to fall six inches before they hit the floor. He stood but he was short and bent over, so that looking at me it was easier for him to turn his head sideways than to raise his head and look straight at me.
Louis led me into one of the back corners of the shop. It was an indirect approach. The straight lines had been already taken. It was easier for Louis to lead than it was for me to follow because he did not hit his head on hanging toy wagons and sleds; he walked under them without ducking. Consequently, he got ahead of me, and when he reached the spot, he must have turned around and not seen me, although he might have heard me banging my head. He called out, “Come over here.”
I asked, “Over where?”
“Here,” he said. I got lucky and when I got around a massive armoire, I saw him looking at me sideways. He turned his head to the other side, so I squeezed around him to look.
It was a cross, but the stem and arms were made from four nine-bar iron-and-zinc gridiron pendulums.
“Where in the world did that come from?” I asked.
Louis only shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’ll give you a good price for it.”
The longest pendulum was upside down, with its brass disk-shaped bob at the center of the cross. The other parts, the arms and the head, had been assembled behind the bob, with holes for their bars drilled into the iron weight behind the bob, where they were tightened with set screws. The base was a simple iron disk with a hole for the center rod to slip into. To disassemble the cross, I simply loosened the screws and pulled it apart. I left the screws in place to help compensate for the weight of the iron drilled out of the holes.
The longest pendulum must have been taken out of a grandfather clock. It was the right length for a one-second swing.
The bob adjustment screw was still in place, although it had been let all the way out, so I tightened that to bring the bob back into what looked to me to be a more normal position. The cross pieces were brass, with tiny brass screws to hold the rods in place were they were fixed. I put a little machine oil at the holes where they were supposed to slip and wiped it clean.
I removed the broom and stood it up in the corner of the room. The opening of the clamp where the broom handle had been was too big for the center bar of the gridiron pendulum, so I looked around for something to fill the gap.
I realized that a section of the broom handle, cut vertically in half, would be the right size and shape, but I didn’t want to shorten a good broom. I went out the kitchen door looking for a shed. It seemed likely that if there were a shed that someone would have saved the handle of a broken hoe or rake.
I had forgotten how cold it was outside, but there was a large shed in a back corner of the yard. I swiftly returned to the kitchen. Before I donned on my coat and gloves, I went looking for a flashlight.
In a kitchen cabinet was a complete array of flashlights, with packages of spare batteries. I picked a medium-sized flashlight and shook it once to test that it had batteries in it. I turned it on and decided that it would do.
The latch on the door of the shed was not locked. I didn’t think that it would be. Clearing the spider webs, I found an old hardwood rake handle in the back, leaning between the two-by-fours. I was able to extricate myself from the shed without undue entanglement in the garden hoses or tripping over the lawn mower.
When I got back inside, I put the rake handle in the clock room and went to the front door to turn on the porch light.
I powered up the radial arm saw, trimmed the end of the handle, and ran a cut down the center before I cut off what I needed. These I put in a vise just to cut a small grove in the centers with a hand saw. Then they fit neatly around the middle rod of the pendulum and let me clamp the pendulum in place.
I set the pendulum swinging.
The accuracy of the clock was adjustable by raising or lowering parts of the pendulum assembly. The pendulum itself could be lengthened or shortened using the clamp at the top, and its period could be increased or diminished by raising or lowering the bob using the screw at the bottom. In addition, the pivot under the pendulum could be raised or lowered to change the length of the swing that moved the string. Raising the pivot decreased the swing, and lowering the pivot increased the swing.
Before adjusting the clock by raising or lowering parts of the pendulum assembly, I decided to repeat the test that Hans had done on the clock with the old string, to see whether the new strings were slipping.
I turned on the porch light. In the living room, I went through Hans’s CD collection and selected a recording of Eric Satie compositions played by Aldo Ciccolini. As soon as I had the Satie playing, I heard a knock at the door. It was already dark. I opened the door and Ellen was standing there looking lovely, and behind her as far as the porch light reached into the night, white snow was falling gently.
I ushered Ellen quickly into the living room and helped her with her scarf and overcoat. I thanked her for coming and said, “I hope that I’m not keeping you from anything important.”
“This is important,” she said, “to me.”
“Have you never been here before?”
“No. Hans likes to keep his private life separate from his work. You see, I’m associated with his business and charitable interests.”
“But it’s OK to come here when he’s not here?”
Ellen blushed. This was becoming. “Well,” she said. “Hans told me that it would be fine to come here and have you show me the clock.”
I was surprised. Hans was keeping closer tabs on events in Lewistown than I had realized. “Well. I had better do that. But first, would you like something to eat?”
I led Ellen into the kitchen, where I took the bread and cheese out of the grocery sack and put them on the table. I found a cutting board, knife, and plate and gave the knife and cheese to Ellen, who started laying out wedges on the plate, I washed an apple, sliced, and cored it, and put the pieces on the same plate. I took a piece of cheese and a slice of apple and handed them to Ellen. Then I took slices for myself. The crisp tartness of the apple contrasted well with the gruyere. Ellen smiled.
I took out the cabernet. I rummaged in the kitchen drawers for the ah-so cork extractor. I asked Ellen, “Do you know how to use this?” She took it from me and opened the bottle while I found a couple of glasses. Soon we had glasses of wine and a nice array of food on plate and bread board. I picked up the plate and, nodding towards the bread board, said, “We can take these into the clock room.”
Ellen stood holding the bread board in one hand and her glass of wine in the other and looked at the clock. She said, “It is an unusual clock.”
I said, “It’s driven by the electromagnets on both sides of the pendulum. There are small permanent magnets on the arms behind the pendulum.”
“And there are no teeth on the gears,” Ellen said. She looked at me and asked, “What work did you do on it today?” She smiled and sipped her wine.
“Ellen, it’s nice the way you look at me when you ask a question. Is that a habit that you learned from Hans? He makes you look him in the eye or he won’t answer.”
“I guess so.”
“Having no teeth, this clock doesn’t tick or tock. This is important to Hans. But to answer your question, today I have replaced the strings and the pendulum. That’s an odd thing, the pendulum.”
Ellen gave me a quizzing look.
“When I first saw the clock, Hans was using that broom for the pendulum.” I pointed at the broom in the corner. “But Hans told me then that ‘we’ would find a pendulum, and before he left with the military police he asked me to work on the clock and said that I could find the right pendulum at the antique store. So this afternoon I went to Paulhan’s to look for it. It turned out that Hans had been there. Louis Paulhan—Louis is a character—Louis remembered Hans and he took me to the object that Hans had been looking at. Louis asked me why, if Hans knew we needed this for a clock, why didn’t he get it then.”
“Why didn’t he?” Ellen asked.
“Well . . . it wasn’t just a pendulum . . . and it wasn’t even a pendulum in an old grandfather clock. That’s part of what’s odd about this.”
“What was it, then?”
“It was an assemblage of four pendulums arranged as a cross. It stood up five feet off the floor. The other pieces are over there. I don’t know why Hans asked me to get it.”
As Ellen looked at the other pieces, she said, “Everyone I know well, when it comes down to it, is odd in one way or another.”
I said, “I like the way that Hans is odd. I think you can treasure odd people the way some people treasure rare books. They are worth reading, even rereading.”
Ellen smiled again.
“Speaking of rare books,” I said, “Hans has a large library with many rare books upstairs,” I gave Ellen a serious look, “I tell you these things in confidence, you understand, because you are a friend of Hans.” We both laughed.
“Listen, Ellen. I just got this working again with the new string and the antique pendulum that had been made into a cross. I thought that I could test and tune it while we talk, if you don’t need to go away right away.”
“No. I can stay a while. Would you like more wine?”
“Yes. And could you find another CD in the living room, something you’d like to hear, and put it on?”
When Ellen came back with the wine bottle, I could hear Bill Evans playing in the living room. I had placed the chair to give Ellen a three-quarter view of the clock, out of my path between the clock and the work bench.
She added wine to our glasses and gave me mine. “A toast?” she asked.
“To good music?” I asked.
“To good music and odd friends,” she said.
We drank to that. Then I said, “You may sit, dear, while I rig this test.”
Ellen sat and I went to the workbench. I set down my glass, took a bite of bread and cheese, and picked up paper clips and yellow stickies. She picked up a cat, which was rubbing itself against her leg, and pet it to purring as she talked with me and watched me work.
I stopped the pendulum to position the paper clips and stickies where Hans had placed them, on both sides of the first three-minute wheel for the hour chain. I noted the time on my wristwatch and restarted the pendulum.
Ellen asked, “Why did you replace the loops of string?”
I said, “Hans knew from the beginning what string he needed, but we couldn’t find it in town. We asked all over, and walked all over town, looking for it. So the string that Hans put on here wasn’t the right string, and it was slipping. The test that I am performing here will tell whether the new loops are slipping.”
Ellen asked, “If you couldn’t find the right string anywhere in town, where did the new string come from?”
“Ouch,” I said. “I had a spool of the string the whole time and didn’t want to give it up.”
Ellen spoke gently, “This string must mean something to you.”
“Well. Yes. It does. My sister, Bonnie, gave it to me. She died of cancer.”
“I’m sorry. You were close to Bonnie.”
“Goes without saying. . . . Sorry, I guess it doesn’t go without saying. Yes, I loved her very much.”
“Do you suppose Hans knew the whole time that you had the string?”
“If he did, then he was a perfect gentleman about it.” I picked up my wine glass and raised it, saying, “Here’s to perfect gentlemen.” We drank to that.
For me, some of the pain of losing Bonnie drained away as I thought about having Hans as a friend, and about my luck in meeting Ellen. Whether she liked me or not, for the time being I had been filled with hope.
I stopped the clock again and measured the distance each loop had traveled. It was exactly right, at least within the accuracy of my measurements.
“It’s good,” I said.
“Congratulations,” said Ellen. I detected a slight Southern accent in her tone.
“Ellen, where are you from? You didn’t grow up here in Lewistown, did you? If you tell me why you came here, I’ll tell you why I came here.”
Ellen said, “What? You don’t think I fit in?”
“No, you don’t, but I see that as a good thing.”
“OK. Walter is my uncle, my mother’s oldest brother. I grew up near Raleigh, North Carolina. I went to the University of Denver and dabbled in Business and International Studies, then I went to Leeds for an MBA.”
“Why did you go to school in Colorado?”
“Originally, it was because Walter was there and he had gone to Leeds, but I stayed, then left, for another reason. I had a boy friend there. Then my boy friend left me.”
“Uh . . . I’m sorry. Aside from the opportunity it gives other more deserving suitors.”
“Oh, I guess you shouldn’t feel sorry. It was probably for the best.”
“So you came here to work for your uncle. How long have you been here? Do you intend to stay?”
“No fair,” Ellen protested. “First you need to tell me why you came here.”
“OK,” I said. “But I’m a simple case. I had no ties, I had a little money, and I wanted to get away.”
“I was in New York City. I guess I wasn’t there for my health. I liked the excitement and the crowds, and it is a great place for used book stores. But after Bonnie died, I couldn’t enjoy the excitement and the crowds. I think that Lewistown is as different from Gotham as could be.”
“Did you know that Washington Irving was the first to call the city ‘Gotham’? He called it that after a town in England where it was thought that silly and insane people lived. Silly and insane people started to grate on me.”
“They grate on most people.”
“People in Lewistown seem sane and sober,” I said. “Not that you aren’t. Maybe it’s the harshness of the winter.”
“Oh? Being trapped all winter behind a snow bank in itchy woolen clothes without any fresh vegetables doesn’t drive you insane?”
“Good point. But we’re not natives. It doesn’t seem to do anything to them except to deprive them of a sense of humor.”
Ellen looked at the clock, the pendulum swinging, the wheels turning. “Why doesn’t this clock have hands?” she asked.
I said, “I think it’s an expression of Hans’s droll sense of humor. Hans’s clock has no hands.”
“Speaking of odd friends,” Ellen said, “why do you think Hans and Walter moved here?”
“Oh? I thought that Walter was native. He has that well positioned office building, and everyone seems to know him.”
“No, he moved here with Hans only three years ago. Walter had met Orville and Wilbur, so he knew about Lewistown. It doesn’t take more than one election season for everyone in a small town like this to get to know a newcomer.”
I echoed the question. “Do you know why Hans and Walter moved here?”
“No, but two smart people should be able to figure this out.”
“Thank you for the compliment. I’m sure it’s not because they are sabotaging nuclear missiles.”
“I agree,” Ellen said. “Could it be because people here believe in UFOs?”
“They do? Then maybe the winters have driven them crazy.”
“You don’t believe in UFOs?”
“No,” I said, “but I don’t disbelieve in them, either. Even though the question is about belief, I’m not going to take them on faith. I think that they could exist, and I think that they could be a projection of fear or anxiety or stress. What else is real in our lives? Why do some people believe in them even if they haven’t seen them?”
“Why do people think they see them if they don’t exist? In this frozen landscape, an apparition of a UFO couldn’t be from swamp gas.”
“Yes, maybe they exist,” I observed. “I mean, not merely as something that we cannot identify, but as alien ships.”
“There are only four ways to explain UFOs,” said Ellen, counting off the reasons on her fingers. “UFOs are either natural, psychological, alien, or something else.”
“Many reports are hoaxes, but, putting those aside, the psychological explanations are the most believable. In a dim, low-resolution environment, when people see something they can’t explain, they unconsciously fill in the gaps with images and ideas from their minds to fit what they see or what they feel should be there.”
“The extraterrestrial explanation is the simplest.”
“Simple explanations for simple minds.”
Ellen said, “That leaves the natural explanations . . . or some combination, such as psychological experience of extra dimensions, assuming extra dimensions are natural.”
“Can they be psychological even when many reports have more than one witness, combined with radar evidence and so forth?”
Ellen said, “Yes, if we consider the power of suggestion, but I think we can safely rule out all explanations.”
“OK,” I said. “But did Hans move here because he was interested in UFOs?”
“It doesn’t seem likely. They could have chosen Lewistown because here they could be anonymous. No one bothers Hans at the bookstore, and everyone who comes to the office wants a divorce, not to pitch a harebrained investment opportunity.”
“That,” I said, “must be part of their reasoning. But I bet that Hans had another reason.”
Ellen said, “Not to make a clock.” She looked at me and asked, “Not to make a clock?”
“Hans could make a clock anywhere. You get UFO sightings almost anywhere, too. It has to be something about this place, I think. If it isn’t the bad weather, then it could be working at the bookstore or the proximity of the nuclear missiles.”
“Hans didn’t come here looking for UFOs, or he’d be out on the country roads at night waiting for them.”
“Hans loves books. A combination of Wilbur and Orville plus anonymity is my guess,” I said.
“Ellen,” I asked, “have you gotten hungry? I think that we could find something in the kitchen.”
“What time has it gotten to?”
“Almost seven. Ellen, do you live alone? I’m sorry I haven’t asked you.” Ellen slowly shook her head. “Because I would love to spend more time with you.” Ellen slowly nodded.
Ellen said, “Glenn, what about you? Do you have a girl back home? How long had you planned to stay in Lewistown, because I am here until Hans decides to work somewhere else, unless of course I quit.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to quit.”
“You are not independently wealthy, by any chance, are you?”
“Ah, no, there’s nobody back home. There’s no home to go back to. And I’m not wealthy. I’m just independent.” I tried to make a joke about this, but it didn’t seem to bring a laugh. “Ellen, I would follow you anywhere. Wouldn’t it be good to share a situation in a more temperate climate?”
Ellen said, “OK, dear. If we aren’t going to worry about our future together, should we worry about Hans instead?”
“No, I think Hans can take care of himself,” I said. “Uh. I mean, I know both of us can take care of ourselves, too, but we don’t need to worry about anyone, do we?”
Ellen said, “No, you are right. We can worry about the the poor and the oppressed and children who are not well treated and all the people who could be killed by poison gas and bullets and bombs, but, no, we don’t need to worry about anyone, not even Hans.”
I said, “Ellen, I might be right but all I really meant is that I would rather talk about us. Have you gotten hungry?”
“Yes,” Ellen said. “I would like something to eat, but then I think I need to get myself home for the evening. We will have time. We should get to know each other, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I do. You’ll give me your phone number? Can we share our addresses? There’s a lot that I want to tell you, assuming you are interested.”
We exchanged phone numbers and addresses. We looked in the refrigerator and found some leftover pasta with red sauce, and peas and corn, and we warmed these up and ate them in the kitchen. I told Ellen about living in Miss Kate’s boarding house, and she told me about her condo at Seventh Avenue South and West Watson Street. After we ate, I washed the dishes and Ellen dried them.
Ellen asked, “May I drop you off at your place on my way home?”
“Yes, that would be sweet. . . . That is,” I said, “to give me a ride, but I would sooner stay up all night than lose priority in your queue.”
Ellen laughed. “You don’t need to worry about that, either, dear.”
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
—Edgar Allan Poe, “A Dream Within a Dream”
I woke up in the middle of the night with a cry. I was in a cold sweat. I had had a bad dream. In the dream I saw pock marks on Ellen’s face and arms, and this confused me because I knew that her skin was unblemished. A Pleiadian representative appeared before the galactic alien council. It was like the control room of the star ship Enterprise, but with a large cast of strange characters. They were looking at a large video monitor. The monitor showed Ellen sleeping in her bed, in white sheets. I could see her breathing. The camera zoomed in to show a pock mark on her brow. The Pleiadian representative was dressed like Darth Vader but spoke clearly. He stood in front of the large image of Ellen on the screen. He claimed that her pock marks couldn’t be good. He recommended treatment. The council agreed with loud shouts in many languages, sounding like animals upset in a zoo.
Ellen was lying outside in the snow, asleep. A triangular UFO that seemed like a steam iron with lights descended out of the cloud above her. It made no sound. Ellen was gigantic, lying in the snow. The pock marks on her brow were huge. The iron, steaming hot, was descending. I knew that the aliens were interested in the survival of the human race, but what I was seeing didn’t make sense to me. I was anxious for the hot iron to stop. I didn’t want it to touch her, but I was behind a tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. I shook the fence. I couldn’t get to her. The iron descended; I tried to warn her and she woke up. She saw the gray steaming surface of the hot iron descending above her and she was terrified. I cared for her too much for this to happen. I tried to yell; I wanted to tell her to roll out of the way but I couldn’t make myself heard. I thought she started to scream but I woke up and it was me screaming.
I got out of bed, got a towel, and dried myself off. I wrapped myself in a blanket and sat beside my bed. It was cold. I looked at the damp white sheets and trembled. I closed my eyes and tried to calm myself. I told myself that it was a dream. I told myself that I was OK.
In the morning, I waited until after eight, and I called Ellen from the phone in the boarding house parlor. She answered, “Hello?”
I said, “Ellen, are you OK? I hope that I didn’t wake you.”
“I’m OK,” she said. “No, I was awake.”
I didn’t want to make a fool of myself but I decided to be honest. “Ellen. Thank you. I know it’s irrational but I’m relieved. I had a bad dream last night in which you were being threatened. I can tell you about the dream this evening, if you would please have dinner with me. I’ll buy you dinner. Would you like that? I would love to see you after work.”
“Glenn, that would be lovely. And, yes, I will want you to tell me about your dream.”
I learned that Punxsutawney Phil prognosticated another six more weeks of winter, but that couldn’t be true for Montana where winter usually lasted well past Easter.
To make the weather seem even more cruel, by way of contrast, or maybe to brighten up the views of brick, stone, and icicles, someone had been posting travel posters on side street vacant walls, mainly brilliant Mediterranean seaside views, in which the waters were more blue than the sky. San Remo, Saint-Tropez, Monte Carlo, Antibes. These were sponsored, originally, by airlines and cruise lines, but at least some of them, Empress of Scotland, PanAm, were now out of business.
I got to work at noon. The bookstore seemed very quiet. I didn’t even see Sally busying about. But Hans was at the counter.
“Hans! You’re back!”
Hans said, “Glenn, thank you for your work on the clock. I just got back; I had only enough time at home to see what you’ve done and to change my shirt. Nice work with the pendulum and the string!”
“You’re welcome. Thank you for asking me to work on it.” I looked at him. I was relieved that he was back. I was starting to learn that the size of the town where you lived doesn’t matter as much as the number of people whom you can name as friends. “Hans,” I said, “I wanted to check with you. You know that I asked Ellen to your place to see the clock.” Hans nodded. “Well. I like Ellen very much.”
Hans said, “Ellen is a lovely woman.”
I looked at Hans again. “So you are all right with that?”
Hans said, “It seems to me that you are right for each other, and you do not need my permission to try for her.”
I got myself busy. Three boxes of books had arrived from Wilbur and Orville from Columbus Ohio. More items were coming into the store than were going out the door. I unboxed them, sorted them, and began to take them to their shelves.
The covers of a couple of the hardbound books were a little moldy. I compared these covers to myself. Maybe I was a little moldy, too. Maybe I needed a new shirt.
I love books and music, but I had a doubt. Maybe the dream was making me question things. I thought about why we accumulate things. It’s like the national debt. We borrow and borrow until our interest payments exceed our income. We accumulate and accumulate, then we need to manage and protect what we have accumulated, and we don’t always do well in protecting what’s important to us.
I was distressed by the futility of gathering and taking care of all these things until others realized that they needed to help. But I thought about why I love books and music. These were not just physical objects that get frayed and moldy; these were the uplifting and enlightening results of our culture, of human striving, of our ability to understand and to love and to feel both pain and joy.
It can be a painful world. Good works are not merely opportunities for escape. They can help us cope with our difficulties. Good works train us to think more thoughtfully, to perceive more perceptively, to feel more feelingly.
Books, CDs, and even clocks are not like bars of gold. They are made by our own hands. We created them because we had parents who loved us, because we had experiences that mattered to us, because we were able to love others. These objects represent love more than greed; they represent human beings more than gold ever could. I tried to find a good place on the shelves for all of them, a place where they could be found by people who would appreciate and take care of them.
Maybe I, too, had been waiting for someone with whom I could share the pages of my life. But I realized now that I didn’t feel that I was still on the shelf. Thinking about Ellen and Hans, I didn’t feel alone.
I quit work and went to Reids to buy a new shirt. I bought a long-sleeve white dress shirt and a nice tie. I still had a little time before Ellen would get off work, so I went home. I called Pourman’s Southwestern Café and made a reservation for two. Pourman’s was on the same block as Walter’s office, but on Fourth. I cleaned myself up, combed my hair, which tends to get a little disordered, and put on the new shirt and tie. I even wiped the dirt off my shoes.
Ellen was at her desk. “Glenn, you look different! Less unruly!” She laughed.
“Thank you!” I laughed, too. “Maybe the inner me is showing his character more than he has been. Say, did you know that Hans is back?”
“Yes, Hans checked in with us this morning before he left Great Falls.”
I said, “Hans thanked me for my work on the clock. That was nice, even though I don’t think that I did as well as he would have done, working on it.”
Ellen said, “You should trust his judgment on that. It’s not like Hans to say something just to be nice. He would just be quiet about it.”
I said, “A friend once pointed out that one can lack confidence without lacking competence. There can be a disconcerting discrepancy.”
Ellen said, “Sometimes one needs only a little praise. I also think that you are competent, and thank you for showing me the clock and explaining it to me.”
At Pourman’s we both ordered a salad and a chicken quesadilla with chicken and spinach.
“Tell me about your dream,” said Ellen.
“OK,” I said. “Don’t laugh. It seemed real in the night. If I were to write a dream sequence, I would try to make it more—I won’t say realistic—but fulfilling.”
Ellen said, “I think you can just tell me about it. I won’t consider it as an example of your literary skills. Ah. Do you suggest that you are a writer? I find writers extremely interesting. You know, you seem more unusual every day. It’s unusual to have both mechanical and creative literary abilities.”
“Well . . . yes. I write fiction and have published some short stories, but we can get back to that later.”
“Fine for now, but I will want to read some of your work. . . . Oh! Do you want to be a paperback writer?”
I laughed at the reference and said, “My book isn’t about a man named Lear.”
“Whose clinging wife doesn’t understand,” said Ellen.
“OK. In the dream, a UFO was descending over you and was about to hurt you, and I couldn’t help. I tried, I tried to warn you, but I couldn’t make myself heard, except to wake myself up, and then I felt horrible.”
“A UFO . . . Well. I’m sorry that you felt horrible.”
I said, “Thank you, dear. So, in the dream, you were lying asleep in the snow and you were bigger than life, and you had large pock marks on your face and arms.”
“Large pock marks! I don’t have any pock marks.”
“Yes. Your skin is as lovely as you are. If this were a movie script I wouldn’t give large pock marks to my leading lady.”
“But this wasn’t a movie script. It was real life, eh?”
“Right.” I laughed. “Anyway, in the dream, the galactic alien council voted to do something about your pock marks. Then a UFO like a hot steam iron came out of the clouds above you and slowly descended over you. I couldn’t get to you; I was behind a chain-link fence. I guess I panicked.”
“Dear, you wanted to protect me.”
I said, “I didn’t want you to be hurt.”
“I wouldn’t want anything to hurt you, either. But, really, the galactic alien council? How did you dream that up? You remind me of Eugene and Blanche, in a macabre way.”
“You know Eugene and Blanche?”
“Yes, of course. Walter and I have been helping with some of their installations around town. You know, like the Russian icons on the Broadway building. That was Blanche. And I don’t know if you’ve seen the red wagons along Big Spring Creek over by the swimming pool.”
“I’ve seen them.”
“Ah. Well, Eugene and his friend Paul did those. We just arranged with the city to have them be left alone there.”
“So, you are Eugene’s angel. He said they had an angel who helped with their works around town.”
“That’s not an angel in the literal sense,” Ellen said.
“That’s debatable,” I laughed. “Say,” I said, “I’ve noticed that none of the art that’s installed around town is attributed. Why is that?”
“Oh,” Ellen replied. “I’m not sure I should tell you, but that was Hans’s request. He said that he wanted to commission work by Eugene and his friends, and that he didn’t want to have signatures or plaques. The works should be unattributed.”
“Yes, that was his only stipulation.”
“Anyway,” I said, “as for the dream, I guess I do have a good imagination. The aliens were in a large room like the control room of the star ship on Star Trek, and they were watching you on a large video monitor. At first you were in bed, but when the steam-iron UFO was coming down then you were sleeping in the snow. . . . Say, I don’t dream about alien councils every night. This was the first time for me.”
Ellen said, “You know, in a dream it’s not me. I mean, when you dream, your characters can be symbolic.”
“Yes, I realize that. The chain link fence was from the missile silos. But instead of fusing the control units of missiles in their silos behind chain-link fences, you were behind the chain-link fence and the alien council wanted to iron out your pock marks.”
“Do you think that aliens would want to fuse the control units?”
“Ha,” I said. “This is just a dream, remember. We aren’t talking about a real alien council. . . . It would be easier for me to answer what I would want. Yes, I would fuse the control units, especially if it were a national crisis. I wouldn’t want the missiles to be launched.”
Ellen said, “It does seem that even the fanatics have a benign view of alien races, believing that they care whether we destroy ourselves.”
“Yes, it is strange, because it seems that we are afraid of everything else.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” Ellen said.
“Ah, that’s different; I’m not frightening.”
“But aren’t you afraid of me, Glenn?”
“Ellen! Maybe I am. You know the shepherds were frightened of the angels who came to tell them about the birth of Jesus. But if I were frightened of you, then I would want to get over it.”
“I think I can help you get over it. Really, I’m not frightening, either.”
“If you aren’t frightening, then I must be projecting, or acting out a script from a past trauma.”
Ellen said, “I have some literary ability, too. Between the two of us, I think we can rewrite that script.” Ellen took my hand. I picked up her hand and kissed it.
To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow
is the way to control him.
— Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki
- Life goes on
- A thought experiment
- Covering for Hans
- Judith Peak
- Young at heart
- Bat cage
Before I left Ellen for the night, we agreed to meet at the bookstore the next day before the end of my shift.
Life goes on, I thought, thinking of Desmond and Molly as I trudged across the icy streets toward the boarding house and my cold bed.
It was late, and the streets were pretty much deserted, but the driver of a beat-up red Ford pickup saw me crossing West Main. He stopped; it was Loren, rolling down his window. “Hop in,” he said.
I got into the cab. “I just got off work,” he said. “You’re staying at the boarding house on West Washington, right?”
I nodded and said, “Thanks for picking me up, but I could easily walk if it’s any trouble for you.”
“That’s OK,” he said. “I also wanted a chance to advise you not to take Chuck too seriously. I like him and all, but sometimes he puts out a lot of talk whose purpose is only to make himself seem more important. It’s funny. In a small town like this, everyone knows what everyone else is doing, but some people want even more attention.”
The next morning at eight, I called Ellen and told her how much I enjoyed our evening, and that I was looking forward to seeing her after work. Then I donned my cold-weather gear and walked over to see Hans at his house. I knocked.
“Come in.” Hans was calling from the kitchen. I let myself in and went to directly to the clock room. The new pendulum was swinging. Hans came in with two mugs of coffee and handed one to me. We watched the clock.
“Hans,” I said, “it’s hard to tell how accurate it is without hands or numbers.”
Hans said, “Accuracy was not my main goal.”
“And that being . . . ?”
“I told you. To remind myself of the passage of time. But the passage of time is quiet. I wanted it not to tick because time does not tick.”
“True. But would making a clock more similar to time also rule out using gears and pinions with teeth?”
Hans said, “Are we caught in the teeth of time?”
“Good question. I feel caught, but only metaphorically, not caught in the teeth of a clock.”
Hans said, “Maybe it is a question of control.”
“Yes. Whether time controls us, or we control time—either way.”
“Ah. . . . You mean that Ahab didn’t have to kill Moby Dick. It was only his hatred, his sick mind, stemming from his desire to control what he had no right to.”
“‘When the teeth of time bite you in the eye, bite it in the back, but do not make it fly.’” Hans modulated his voice to produce a melodramatic tone. “You must try to free yourself from its deathly fangs.”
“OK. I’m not getting any younger. I agree that making a clock without teeth is good. Can you abolish death and loneliness while you’re at it? . . . Hans, why not try doing more to improve things?”
“First one must change a heart.”
“Yes, if only at first one’s own heart. ‘All you need is love.’ But that doesn’t rule out helping one’s neighbor (for which I am grateful). But I mean ‘neighbor’ in a wider sense. Why not try to get rid of nuclear missiles? And, please, no more aphorisms.”
Hans said, “Sure, but how? In an ideal world, we do not need nuclear arms. But could getting rid of them help bring peace and make the world better? Let us do a thought experiment. Suppose that I had developed a means to silently disable all nuclear weapons, like ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still,’ but so that no one, no one but me, no one else knew nor would find out, once I had activated my secret effect, that no tactical nor strategic bomb or missile could be fired or if it were fired then it would not explode.”
“At first, it would make no difference, except of course that the world would be safer. It would be as if Jesus came back and no one knew. He couldn’t tell anyone. He couldn’t do anything so people would realize. He could silently and anonymously make small improvements, maybe. But no one would be saved. No one who otherwise wouldn’t be, that is. If he could make school buses, for example, no longer blow tires, then the drivers and mechanics would just start to feel lucky and would take more risks.”
“Right, people would still be mean to each other; they would still want to harm each other; they would still put their selfish interests first.”
I said, “But it wouldn’t work for long. You couldn’t invent anything that would keep people from discovering that their bombs were broken. Eventually someone would test a missile and so find out that it had become a dud, like ‘The Mouse that Roared.’”
“Would everyone throughout the world all breathe a sigh of relief? Or would some become afraid that their bombs were also duds, that their so-called protection were also a fiction?”
“Hans, their protection is already a fiction.”
“Yes, but some would test their own bombs. If every bomb they tested were discovered to be a dud, what would they do?”
I said, “They could lie, tell their enemies that all their bombs were still good. They would try to build bombs that would work in spite of your invention.”
“Yes, it would not likely help in the long run, although in the short run one nation could not destroy the world. Nations would spend more money on new bombs and things would get back to the normal insanity.”
“Needless to say, activating such an anti-weapon would put you at risk if people were to discover that it was your doing.”
Hans said, “Like the saboteur. He puts himself in danger for a principle, but cannot really change things for the better.”
“One would want to protect the saboteur from causing damage even though one agrees with the principle. Why should he sacrifice himself when in the long run it would be better for him to survive?”
“One can always hope to change at least one heart.”
“It might be easier to change a heart while living than by dying,” I said. “I keep thinking that there’s a flaw in our logic. There must be a way to save the world.”
“Americans like a solution that involves a gadget. If I were to invent a gadget that extracts energy from the ether and I gave away the gadget, then nations would not need to fight over resources.”
I said, “Is it mere cynicism or flawed logic that concludes that free energy would be used first to make more terrible weapons?”
“Well, anyway, you are right. It might be time to put a face on the clock.”
Hans and I walked downtown to the bookstore, making tracks across the snow. Sally had decorated the bookstore for Valentine’s Day. I was happy thinking of Ellen as I worked.
Orville and Wilbur had shipped in a whole Americana collection from a small college in Indiana that was making room. Combined with what we already held, end to end, the collection measured about 24 linear feet. I got Sally’s permission to move it all to a prominent case between the literature and history sections. I devoted hours to assembling, arranging, clearing space, and shelving the collection.
As I worked, I made up Valentines.
- My cheeks are red;
- My fingers are blue;
- No matter how cold,
- I’m still loving you.
- These books are old
- We work among.
- We won’t be cold;
- Our love is young.
- Young or old
- Everyone’s part
- Is not to be cold
- But change a heart.
Hans signaled me. I went over to see what he wanted.
“Glenn, please cover for me. I need to run home for something.”
It was only a half hour till closing time, so I told Hans, “I’ll lock up.”
I worked near the counter, watching for any potential buyers, but only one browser came into the store.
The doorbell jangled. Ellen had entered the store. I went over and squeezed her hand. She was dressed in a skirt with a sky-blue blouse that matched her eyes.
She smiled. “Show me what you’ve been doing all day. I’ve missed you.”
“That could be fun, but what would be new? All that I have done . . . is to think of you.”
“That’s cute, but show me anyway,” she said.
“I’ve spent my time making Valentine’s rhymes.”
“Have I been your muse?”
“Yes, but, well, I didn’t know if I could find flowers in this frozen town, so now I’m prepared.”
I showed her the empty boxes and the neatly arranged bookcase for the Americana collection. I had used the computer to print out labels for each row and each section. To me, it was impressive and pretty. Besides, we had some nice editions of some interesting books.
Ellen teased, “Nice job. I didn’t realize that you had such organizational skills. Maybe you should come over to Walter’s office tomorrow morning where I can have things for you to file.”
I said, “I might have other even more valuable skills. Only time will tell.”
“Oh, meaning you won’t tell?”
“Do you want to know a secret?”
“If I promise not to tell?”
I had to clean up and close out the register. Just then three small girls pushed open the big door to the bookstore. Did parents drop them off without checking who else was there? Was it an older brother who needed to make an appearance at the Montana Tavern? But when they saw Ellen, standing by the register, they went up to her and the tallest of them took Ellen by the hand to lead her over to the easy chairs.
When I finished, Ellen was reading a story about Amelia Earhart as a child.
Ellen’s voice expressed the excitement that the young Amelia must have felt.
“Ellen,” I said, “It’s time to lock up here. What should we do with these girls?”
“Can we adopt them?” Ellen asked.
“I already have a mother and father,” one girl said. Another pointed to the front door, “There’s my brother. He’ll take us home.”
I put up the “Closed” sign and locked the front door. We left and Ellen said, “How about a drive?”
It was nearly five in the afternoon and nearly 40 degrees and clear. Although the temperature would be falling, the roads would have been salted and free of ice. “Sure thing!” I said.
As we walked to Ellen’s car, she asked me, “Have you gotten out of town since you were here?”
“No, even though I hitchhiked from Billings up highway 3 and across Judith Gap.”
“In that case we drive north. Maybe we can get up Judith Peak before it clouds over.”
Ellen drove a black 1957 Ford Thunderbird. “Are you sure you want to drive this over a mountain road?” I asked. “It would get dinged by sand and gravel.”
“It’s already dinged,” Ellen said. “I’ve driven up there before, already, though that was in the summer, which might have been worse because of the dust.”
We went out Main Street to First Avenue North, the turned right onto Highway 191. Like all the highways in this part of the state, it was a two-laned road lined by barbed-wire fences and a string of poles for power and telephone. Wheat fields alternated with fallow fields on both sides of the road, both featuring windswept snow and drifts behind the fences. Every mile or so was a cluster of house, barn, and outbuildings. Behind each cluster of buildings a sequence of three to six or more small white buildings decorated a field or hill.
Ellen used the time to ask me about my parents, and where I grew up.
After we passed more than one set of these and came to the next one, I asked, “Why do they have those small outbuildings going up the hill?”
“Oh, I asked about those, too. They are a standard 4-H project on this county. You can use them to count the number of rancher sons.”
“Whom do you ask about such things?”
“I ask Walter and he plays the part of the innocent stranger at the Rotary Club and gets my answers for me.”
I said, “These are wheat fields, not cattle ranches. I would call them farmers, not ranchers.”
“Not to their faces, I hope,” Ellen said, laughing. “They won’t accept that job title hereabouts. Calling one of them a farmer is like calling a sanitary engineer a janitor, only worse. If you use that term in a bar to describe a man with a two-toned brow then you had better be prepared for a strenuous session in the alley.”
“What’s a two-toned brow?”
When they’re plowing a field on a tractor, they wear a cowboy hat to protect their head, but it doesn’t protect the brow below the brim well, so that the exposed brow burns red and the brow above the brim stays white. You see them standing in church, where they take off their hats, and the high-water mark is quite noticeable.”
“That’s quite a fashion,” I said.
“Yes, but I wouldn’t mention that to their faces, either, if you’d like to avoid unnecessary personal damage, that is.”
“No, not I. I’m a quiet drinker. In a bar, I don’t make any remarks at all.”
“Have you always kept your nose clean?”
“Yes, except by being circumspect.”
“Yes. They say if you keep your mouth closed then you might be thought a fool, but if you open it then you remove all doubt. But me, I would generally say something smart and ambiguous when bear-baited and have to bear ill treatment not because they understood what I said but because they can have only abuse for anyone who’s smarter than they are. Unfortunately, I never learned how to seem like a native in the land of the stupid, and drinking decreases the intelligence of men, even though it increases their loquaciousness.”
“Better keep quiet, I agree. But tell me about your college days.”
“I went to Colby College in Waterville Maine to get away from home. I didn’t have any idea about what I would do after college and the question never entered my head. I guess my parents granted me a dispensation to make my own mistakes, when I was in high school, when they realized that I was smarter than they were.”
“That beats me. I remained under my parent’s watchful eyes until I started working for Uncle Walter.”
“I don’t really know what’s worse,” I said. “I was alienated from my parents because they were not engaged, and you were probably alienated because they were engaged.”
“That’s right. Did you make good friends in college?”
“Yes, or at least I thought so. But we all broke up after college and most of them, my closest friends, went to graduate school, and I didn’t. They just lost touch. This was before internet email. Dad and Mom had sold the house in New London and moved to Virginia. Dad got his promotion and Mom stopped working and started a serious drinking career. So I drifted toward New York City stopping at various college towns including New Haven, working in bookstores, for six months to a year each.”
“Did you retain your college friends?”
“Oh, yes, a good number of them, anyway, at least my girl friends, and we still talk and write, and when I’m passing through their towns I let them know and drop in for visits. Of course most of them have had families, which are always changing, so that’s fun to catch up with.”
“Ellen,” I said, “you didn’t marry? I mean why not? You’re perfectly lovely, and you’re smart. I would have married you in a flash, I think.”
“Yes, it was unfortunate for me, or maybe it was lucky. Well, it was unfortunate that we didn’t meet. But William was very jealous, and I didn’t realize how much he was holding back. He had so many reasons for delaying, and I was naïve. I had been overprotected and William took advantage of that. Maybe it was because he was Canadian, I don’t know. It turns out that he had a girl in Manitoba. If I have learned anything, it’s that I should have a man who is willing to share everything with me. I can’t stand secrets.”
We had been diving north, but now we turned west on Maiden Road. The landscape changed from open wheat fields to woodsy meadows with small farms. These were mixed woods, predominately long-needle pines separated by clumps of aspen.
Further up the road were the remnants of the 694th radar squadron. Most of the housing had been removed but the motor pool, gym, barracks, and commissary remained. Who knows who was using them.
A mile beyond the former base was the former town of Maiden.
“Look in the glove compartment; the ghost town brochure should be in there,” Ellen said, “When Maiden was a prosperous gold mining town, it was a candidate to become the state capital. But now it’s just a bunch of unpainted shacks with a population of one or two.”
“People make bad choices. Today, Helena has less than a third of the population of Billings, and half the population of Great Falls, but of course the size of Great Falls is bolstered by the army, air national guard, and air force.”
Ellen said, “Glenn, you’ve never married?”
“Never. Never even proposed.”
“Why haven’t you married?”
“I think it wasn’t me, personally, but my lack of a certain or steady or sizable income, I think.”
Beyond Maiden, the road got steeper and the pine trees got denser.
Ellen said, “You said you never proposed. Do you mean that you never found a woman who could support you adequately?”
“Ooooo. Ahhhh. Noooo. I would say that I suffered from an unlucky combination of opposites. I was unlucky that the women I preferred wouldn’t take me seriously, and unlucky that the women who wanted me were not the kind that I would marry. It was a marriage of oppositions to marriage.”
Ellen said, “That’s cute, but not good enough. Remember, no secrets, dear.”
“OK, love,” I said. My last girlfriend was Laurel. She was a nice person who worked at a small clothing store in New York City. No particular talent, but she was a high-school graduate. I never figured her out because she claimed to admire me for my intelligence and knowledge but she treated me like a child, especially after Bonnie died. I couldn’t stand being pampered.”
“I’ll try to remember to treat you roughly.”
“Laurel’s mothering instinct was pathological. When I was upset and depressed about Bonnie’s death, she treated me like a baby with a terminal illness. She wouldn’t talk to me; she would coo, ‘Oh you poor baby!’”
“So I told her I couldn’t stand it and refused to answer my phone. I think my anger probably did me good. It relieved me from feeling so hurt about Bonnie. I felt hurt and abandoned, but I wouldn’t be babied and mothered.”
“But then you abandoned her.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “If you think of Bonnie’s death as a test of our relationship, Laurel and me, then we failed. She wouldn’t, maybe she couldn’t talk about anything with me like an adult. Everything I tried resulted in, click, baby talk. It didn’t matter how I explained to her how I felt; she would always come back with, ‘You poor little thing. I know you aren’t feeling well.’ I couldn’t fend off the baby talk except by leaving her, it seemed. Really, we were not a good match.”
“Maybe that’s lucky for me.”
“Ellen, I promise not to keep secrets. I’ll tell you anything and everything. But I want you to promise to always to treat me like an adult, even if I’m disturbed about something.”
“OK, it’s a deal. So long as your being disturbed doesn’t get pathological. As long as you can take a little teasing.”
“Usually, I would say that I appreciate a little teasing, at least as much as I deserve, and I would expect the same of you, although no more than you deserve.”
“You are so clever! How do I know that I can trust you?”
“Listen, dear Ellen. You will get to know me, and, anytime you like, you can talk to Ron, my brother-in-law. He’s my personal reference and he was good enough for Miss Kate!”
Now Ellen was turning a corner at the top of Judith Peak. We had gotten lucky with the weather. Although it was colder, it was only partly cloudy. This was where the radar domes had been positioned for the view over the whole of Montana, into Alberta and Saskatchewan, and at least partially into four other states—Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, and North Dakota.
I got out of the car and Ellen quickly followed. I turned around slowly in a complete circle.
“Ellen. This is spectacular!”
She gave me a big hug and a kiss. The passage of time seemed even more quiet than usual.
“Spectacular,” I repeated.
Back in the car heading down the mountain, I asked, “How long have you worked for Walter, Ellen?”
She said, “I started to work with Uncle Walter before he met Hans, right after getting my MBA. He was in Denver. He handled divorce work, wills and probate, and lawsuits, but the lawsuits bothered him because of their adversarial nature. I worked for him for seven years before he met Hans. We moved to Chicago to work with Hans.”
“Divorces are adversarial, too.”
“True. I guess he doesn’t like divorce work, either.”
“And how long were you in Chicago?”
“Glenn, is this just a sneaky way of calculating my age?”
“No, I wasn’t being sneaky; I was being discrete, but, OK, how old are you, Ellen?”
“I’m 36. Three years here, two years in Chicago, seven years in Denver working for Walter, two years getting my MBA, four years in college, should I go on?”
“No, that’s enough.”
“And how old are you?”
“I’m 40, not yet middle aged.”
“Not when you’re young at heart.”
I said, “I’ve felt young at heart since I met you.”
“In that case, you wouldn’t be too old for me, assuming that the flash in which you would have married me would reoccur before you were to be too old.”
“Oooo, I love a woman who understands the subjunctive mood! It does seem hypothetical, the future—doesn’t it?”
“Yet one’s desires, one’s hopes in life, are actual,” Ellen said.
“It would be nice to have unfulfilled desires if one had hopes that they would be satisfied, especially if I could help you satisfy them.”
“Don’t you have hopes for your desires?”
“Yes, of course, all of them. I should have said, ‘especially if we could help each other satisfy our unfulfilled desires.’”
“Then what is your second greatest desire, dear.”
“I hesitate to ask about my second greatest desire when my first is to ensure that we would be happy together. Maybe you don’t want children.”
“Of course I want children, you dear man. I mean, I would want children if the right man came along and agreed to stay.”
“Conditions, conditions. Love, but not unconditional.”
“No, I’m no fool for love. I stand on my conditions. My prince charming should be not only charming but rich.”
“Do you mean that he would have to get a real job?”
“Yes he would. I don’t see any acceptable alternative.”
“What if a long-lost aunt left me a fortune?”
“What if life were like a fairy tale?”
“If fairy tales were like life, then the wicked aunt would have established conditions. Our hero would have to serve for seven years in the salt mine, without a single book to read.”
“Could you serve as a literary or drama critic?”
“Yes, I am especially critical of any text or script that I did not write myself. Take this fairy tale, for instance. In my version, my fairy godmother would have stipulated, in her will, that I should not inherit unless I married the most beautiful woman in the kingdom.”
“Would that be me?”
“Yes, but I fear that I’ll be too old before my fairy godmother dies.”
“I think we could work out terms and conditions favorable to some kind of happy ending.”
After work the next day, it was already dark but not very late, so instead of going home directly, I walked over to visit Blanche and Eugene, armed with my newly-found information about who their angel was, but the evening took an unexpected turn.
On my way over, I noticed in the snow below a large live oak an oak gall that had broken off a dead branch. I picked it up to give to Blanche and Eugene. It was grotesque; little gnarled limbs grew out of its smooth hard round light-brown shell.
Blanche answered their door and ushered me quickly inside. She said, “Eugene is in the museum. Ah. What do you have there?”
I presented the oak gall on its cluster of gnarled branches.
Blanche said, “That’s a perfect addition to the museum. Ah. We haven’t shown you our attic, have we? We call it the museum. Keep your coat on; it’s not the warmest place in the house.” She laughed and said, “Walk this way.” She raised the oak gall before her like a candle, and stepped ahead as though she were marching up a wedding aisle. I followed her up the main marble stairs.
A set of small wooden stairs at the back of the upstairs hall led to an oak door. Blanche knocked slowly twice, then quickly three times. She said, “It’s a special place,” and winked. She opened the door. She parted dark and heavy felt drapes and let them fall behind her as she stepped inside.
I did the same, and stood for a minute inside to let my eyes adjust to the dim light. I said, “I, a stranger, beseech whomever is present to be admitted to this attic museum.”
Eugene said, “Actually, it’s more like a traditional cabinet of curiosities.”
I said, “I, an ’umble stranger, seek permission to be admitted into this cabinet of curiosities.”
Eugene said, “Another way to look at it is as a storage room for stuff that we haven’t been able to use in our artwork.”
“Or didn’t have the heart to dismember for another purpose,” added Blanche.
I said, “I, an ignorant servant, have brought unto you a gnarled oak gall.”
Blanche said, “See! It’s gnarly and smooth at the same time.” She held it up toward a bare twenty-five watt light bulb for Eugene to see.
Eugene said, “We accept this gnarly and yet smooth gall of oak. Please enter not as a guest, Glenn, but as a fellow collector.”
I looked around. The floor, the walls, and the sloping ceilings were clustered with all manners of interesting objects. Blanche took me by the elbow and Eugene followed us around as they showed me a few of their assembled oddities.
I was formally introduced to Little Miss Maypole, a dress mannequin with ribbons falling from her otherwise bald head, wearing a dress made of woven ribbons. Her dress would fit a woman of about four-foot seven.
On the wall behind her was a sampler of laces under glass, and under that an old pinball machine whose theme was dancing skeletons.
A family of small trilobite fossils performing in a circus tableau sitting on cylinders as if about to jump through hoops.
“Trilobites are more steady workers than fleas,” said Eugene.
“Performing for the last five hundred million years,” said Blanche.
A set of broken, bent, and tarnished brass instruments, somewhat mangled together. “Worth their weight in brass, I bet,” said I.
Painted and beaded African masks, a shield of sewn cowry and dentalia shells, a coat of arms. “Azure, a pheon argent on a border or, eight torteaux,” said Eugene.
Claws of all manner of creatures big and small, antlers, horns of bull, sheep, and goat.
“And here,” motioned Blanche, who picked up a narrow cone about a yard long and held it across the upturned palms of her hands for me to see, “is the horn of a unicorn, or maybe a narwhal.”
“It’s a fake! It’s porcelain,” said Eugene.
“Well,” said Blanche. “One may at least dream.”
Antique dolls sat in a line on a shelf. I touched the skirt of one and Eugene said, “Careful. Some are fragile.”
Marionettes hung from hooks at the bottom of the doll shelf. Blanche said, “Sometimes at night, something pulls the strings, and the joyful marionettes dance as if their lives depended on it.”
Eugene opened a large cabinet and said “Heck. The light is supposed to come on. Wait . . .” He reached behind the cabinet and pulled out a plug. “Here we are.” The whole cabinet lit up from behind. In it were many small cubbyholes, each of which contained a sea shell or coral. Eugene said, “We wouldn’t open this up if the bat were asleep in its cage.”
“The bat?” I asked.Eugene pointed to the center of the room, where a a bat cage made in China of small limbs of bamboo, hung with its door wide open. Eugene said, “We actually have a resident bat who lives in the cage, but of course he’s out eating bugs at this time of night.”
Blanche pointed out a table of painted porcelain statuettes. They were saints with bloody death wounds clearly depicted. “The Catholic Church and Father Leo would give their eye teeth to come into possesion of these holy relics.”
“Ignorance,” said Eugene, “is sometimes a blessing.”
“Everyone has their hidden and intricate spaces, although most are not made for show,” said Eugene.
“And might not be safe to explore,” added Blanche, “without a Virgil to guide you into the depths.”
Then there was a tray of arrowheads, geodes, and other crystals, “And this,” said Eugene, “is a meteorite.” He handed it to me. It was surprisingly heavy.
An array of small bird nests, none with eggs, were lined with threads and thistle down. Eugene said, “Surplus avian housing.”
Then came bird eggs of many colors and sizes. Eugene claimed, “This ostrich egg is purported to be the egg of a dragon.”
Blanche added, “Which is why it is stained blood red. But don’t you believe a word!”
“It’s an empty shell, anyway,” said Eugene, shaking it.
Bird claws grasped a single limb of birch, all in a row, including the webbed feet of waterbirds.
Bird feathers of many colors and sizes were tied to a string that ran between the rafters—bluebird, robin, peacock, turkey, woodpecker. Blanche said, “These, poor poor feathers, like the souls of piety and hope, will never fly again.”
“One may at least dream,” I said with a smile.
Behind a Chinese lacquered folding screen featuring cranes, chrysanthemums, and clouds of gold, was a shelf of jars with pickled vegetables having the shapes of tiny heads, feet, and hands.
A framed portrait of a woman sitting before a window was composed of human hair, blond and brunette, knotted and woven into strings, ribbons, and mats.
A mirror with a ghostly image in it swung in a little draft. I asked, “How do you do that?”
Eugene said, “It works only in low light; the image is painted on the glass with iodine or something, I don’t know what, then silvered over.”
A set of glass insulators turned blue with age, some with green copper wires still wrapped around them.
Leaves of a lamb’s ears plant were attached to the head of a wooden rabbit. “Isn’t it cute?” I said.
A crystal ball. Blanche said, “I haven’t gotten that thing to work.”
The bones of a cat and the bones of a rat, neatly reassembled, the first about to pounce on the other.
A Remington typewriter sat on a short stand. In its platen was a sheet of paper with the words, “It was a dark and stormy night.” I said, “That’s the typewriter that I learned to type on! On it, I wrote my first poem.”
“What was the poem?” asked Blanche.
“I came through many
dimensions of evil
to you; and,
though unhurt I may
seem, I have
in my heart for
want of your love.”
“That’s sweet,” said Blanche.
A ring of five chairs were arranged under the bat cage, with a small circular table in the middle, on which sat a candle stuck in an empty wine bottle, and a decanter with five small glasses arranged around it. Blanche picked up a book of matches and lit the candle.
Eugene said, “Please, all, let us sit.”
I said, “The bat cage reminds me of ‘Norwegian Wood.’”
Eugene picked up the decanter, which was mostly full, and began to pour three small glasses.
Blanche somewhat sang, “And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown.”
To which Eugene sang, “So I lit a fire, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood.” He gave each of us a glass of port.
I said, “The bat cage is like a heart whose love has flown.”
Blanche said, “Or a convenient place to hang your bat.”
Eugene said, “A place for ideas that never visit.”
Thus we went around the circle—me, Eugene, and Blanche—as we sipped our port.
“The animation of a tiny credulity.”
“An uncertain opinion that flits from its cage and may never return.”
“A crazy uncle who visits only after dark.”
“The incubus of a monkey inside each of us.”
“The dream of a mother with schizophrenic episodes.”
“The dream of a child, that there were bells on a hill.”
“A game played with living creatures, who couldn’t hear them ringing.”
“A fragile cage protecting a fragile ego.”
“A mysterious contradiction between the tame and the wild.”
“A hidden urge that you indulge only every Tuesday, in secret.”
“Something socially unacceptable but kept in impenetrable darkness.”
“A symbol of craziness, totally in control.”
“The ideal of a person obsessed with things that eat bugs.”
“The mistake of a person in love with Tinkerbells.”
“If you put a cage around the soul, you must leave the door open.”
“It’s like a love that you never confess.”
“Wait a moment,” said Blanche. “Have you a love, Glenn, that you’ve never confessed?”
“I’m in love with Ellen,” I said.
Blanche and Eugene cried in unison, “Not our Ellen?!”
“But if you have such a great desire to separate them,
Proserpine shall return to heaven, but on only one condition,
that no food has touched her lips, since that is the law, decreed by the Fates.”
— Zeus to Ceres, Metamorphoses, Book V, Ovid
- Left hand
- Hitching Post
- A connection
- An apology
- The face of the clock
Easter had once replaced pagan fertility rites and celebrations of the renewal of spring. Christ rising from the dead was like the return from the underworld of Persephone and the first green things poking out of the earth. Yet here it was nearly Palm Sunday, and Lewistown was still thoroughly frozen. If a drunken Easter bunny left any symbols of spring in one of our yards, the eggs would be frozen solid within hours.
Ellen and I spent the Friday evening before Palm Sunday with Hans. We had baked a tuna and cheese casserole and had eaten it with a carrot and raisin salad, and were listening to Bill Evans, drinking a bottle of French pinot noir (Sylvain Cathiard Vosne-Romanee), and we were in the living room after dinner. I was reading A River Runs through It and Other Stories.
Ellen was reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream from a large book containing the complete works.
I asked, “Hans, remember, before Valentine’s Day, when when you asked me to cover for you at the bookstore so you could rush home? What was that about?”
Hans said, “You knew that Jim and Judith have not visited since before Thanksgiving.”
“Well, they split up in January and Judith decided to visit on her own. Valentine’s Day’s coming up might have made her feel more deprived. She did not expect anyone to be here. I was supposed to be at work. Maybe you did not notice, but Eugene came over to the store to talk with Wilbur and Orville, and told me that he saw Judith go into my place.”
I said, “I see. So you were able to welcome her on her return.”
“Yes, but then she was embarrassed about it, and she tried to cover her embarrassment with anger. I think she wanted only something to console herself.”
“Did she want anything in particular? Do you think that she blamed you for her wasted time?”
“She was probably hoping to find money. Maybe she does blame me, so she was willing to bite me in the back, her lost time being too hard to bite.”
“The poor woman,” said Ellen.
Before the evening was spent, Hans asked, “Glenn, would you be willing to go look at a couple of missile silos with me tomorrow morning? I am renting a pickup.”
“Sure,” I said. “What time?”
“Uh. OK. That’s early . . . but not too early.”
I looked at Ellen. Hans said to Ellen, “Sorry not to invite you, too, but the weather won’t be very pleasant, you know.”
Ellen said, “At seven in the morning I shall be asleep, tucked warmly in my bed.”
Mister Draper had observed, over a dinner of meat loaf, the appeal of secret villians or angels. “The Freemasons,” he said, “wouldn’t want people to know, either way. Jesus said to pray in a closet, and to give with the right hand without letting the left hand know.”
I set my alarm and slept soundly until the second before it rang.
I was over at Hans’s place ten minutes early. I had walked over from the boarding house. I had hurried to build up a little body warmth. A blue pickup was in the driveway.
It was about 17 degrees Fahrenheit and foggy. You have likely been in fog before. In my mind, fog is a fairly pleasant experience associated with warm moist air blowing over relatively cool ocean waters where the salt spray provides nuclei for the condensation of droplets. Here, however, we were at least 700 miles from an ocean. This fog was formed by cooling a cold air mass even cooler at night. Warmer air retains more water than cooler air. This is why it rains on the windward side of a mountain; the wind blows the moist air up into the cooler altitudes where the air cools and as it cools it loses its moisture. The same process occurs at night over frozen ground when the temperatures fall from 21 to 17 degrees, only this is a dry fog. It’s dry because small water droplets freeze when they are suspended in air that is 15 degrees below freezing. Breathing air containing this kind of frozen fog is not a fairly pleasant experience.
Hans opened his front door and stepped out as I reached his porch.
“Good. You are here early. Take this thermos of hot coffee.”
“Early seems to be the theme of the day,” I said.
Hans was quiet. We got into the cab of the truck, a Toyota Tundra. Hans said, “I had this delivered. Pretty good of them to get it over here so early, eh?”
“Pretty good,” I said. “I suppose one could still complain that the sun isn’t up, that it’s below freezing, and that it’s hard to see through this fog, but I find it bracing; more of a challenge.”
Hans started the truck, turned on the headlights, turned the heat on high, and thanked me for coming. He backed out onto Broadway, heading north east. The truck had an automatic transmission. The headlights decreased our visibility because of the reflections off the fog, but at least it reduced the likelihood if we were sued for reckless endangerment that damages would be increased because of negligence.
Hans stayed on Broadway past First where it curved over to Main. There he turned left and followed that beyond where the street turned to the east and out of town, onto state highway 200, U.S. highway 87. Passing the Lewistown historical marker, I resolved to walk out there someday (or maybe ask Mister Draper for a ride) to see what the town boosters thought that they could brag about. Hans sped up to 50 m.p.h. but the road being straight and no traffic being ahead of us, he soon stretched that out to over 65. As we got out of town, the fog thinned a little.
The hot coffee was good. Hans didn’t have any.
Our first stop was off Corebly Road about ten minutes out of town. Hans turned onto a graveled drive. Fortunately, the wind had kept the snow from accumulating on this drive, but we could see that ours was the first vehicle on it in a few days. Hans drove up to a locked chain-link gate and jumped out, leaving the truck running. He took a digital camera out of his jacket pocket and took a photo of the stenciled numbers on the gate: N-09.
Back on the highway Hans again headed east. I more or less thought that Hans had a photographic memory, but I wasn’t going to ask him about it. I didn’t say anything about the camera, although I wondered how a person with a photographic memory could find a photo of stenciled numbers useful.
The next missile silo was 15 more minutes down the road, during which the fog thinned out and it began to snow lightly. Hans turned onto Giltedge Road.
Again, Hans turned off on a gravel drive but this time I could see a set of tracks, a vehicle that went in but hadn’t come back out. We rounded a corner. A dirty yellow Chevy pickup was lodged in the side of a snowdrift in the ditch beside the gravel drive. The chain-link gate was another couple of car lengths farther. Snow stuck to the windows, so I couldn’t see if anyone was in the yellow Chevy.
Hans drove up to the gate and got out again, leaving the truck running, to take a photo of the stenciled numbers on this gate: N-10. Then he jumped back in, turned the truck around, and stopped just past the yellow pickup. Here Hans put gloves on and asked me to help him.
We got out and walked back to the yellow truck. Hans opened the driver-side door and a man started to tumble out, except that I stepped up and pushed him back up. He was Barney and he was just waking up, which I could tell because his teeth started to chatter.
Hans said, “We will carry him over to our truck.”
Barney was a heavy man, but we let him tumble out, slowing his fall enough to avoid breaking anything. Hans ducked his head into the cab of the yellow truck. He shook his head and said, “His keys are not in the ignition.” With Hans lifting Barney under one arm and me lifting under the other, we dragged him more than carried him to Hans’s truck. By getting his feet on the step inside the door and twisting him around in the air, with both of us pushing, we got him up on the passenger side, leaned him forward onto the dashboard, and shut the door. This was possible only because Barney had begun to regain consciousness and responded to simple commands, such as “Keep your arms down!” and “Stop flailing!”
Hans said, “It may take a while to find his keys, but we will tow his truck out of the bank and you will drive it back. Come around and to see if we can make any sense of what he says.”
I followed Hans to the driver’s side and followed him into the cab. Barney was huddled over the dashboard, blubbering. Hans pulled him back, shook him, and shouted his name. This was effective because Barney stopped blubbering. Hans asked him if he had come alone, and Barney made a kind of noise, nodding. I asked Barney for the keys to his truck. He shook his head and started blubbering again, hunching over the dashboard.
“I wonder how much alcohol this man has consumed,” Hans said.
Hans pulled Barney back up and reached across his body, feeling his pockets for his keys. No luck. He shook Barney again and asked, “Barney, where are your keys?”
Barney mumbled something like “And too da snow” and gave us a sideways leer.
Hans said, “I think he threw the keys into the snow.”
I asked, “Is this idiot suicidal?”
“I think not. I think he is the normal variety of idiot, but I will take him to the hospital where they can diagnose him properly. But first we should find his keys.”
Hans turned off the blue truck and we left Barney there. I figured that Barney would have thrown the keys from either the cab door or from somewhere near the front of the truck. From Barney’s footprints, it looked as though he had left the cab more than once and opened and shut the hood of his truck. There was a path through the snow in front of the truck that he had beaten down to get to the latch of the hood.
We started looking for a hole in the snow at the bottom of which we might find the keys. I stayed near the truck, figuring that an angry drunk man would not throw his keys very far. As I circled from the nine o’clock direction clockwise, Hans circled counterclockwise. We met about two o’clock. Off the starboard bow, as it were, we could both see a depression in the snow that could have been made by the keys, assuming that the snow would have started to fill up the hole. Hans indicated that the honor was mine, so I took my glove off and stuck my arm into the snow, feeling for the keys. I got lucky; I had to do this only once, for I felt something hard and loose, grabbed it, and brought up a whole bunch of keys.
“I guess he didn’t need some of these keys, assuming that Anna kicked him out, but this key” (I held up a Chevy ignition key) “would still have been useful.”
Hans said, “He was probably frustrated, confused, and angry, aside from not being of sound mind.”
In the yellow pickup, I pumped the gas pedal a couple of times, turned the key, and it started up. Hans returned to the blue pickup and pulled a tow chain out of a steel box in the back. I got out to help. Hans hooked one end of the chain to a hook under the back of his truck and I hooked the other end to the back of Barney’s truck. I got back into Barney’s truck and put it in reverse. By this time, the heater was starting to produce air above the freezing temperature of water. The gas tank was half full. Hans started his truck. Our combined traction was enough to work the yellow truck back up to the gravel, with only a little bit of slipping around.
I found an ice scraper on the inside of the door and got out of the truck with it. I scraped the windows while Hans got the chain off and back into its box.
He went back to his truck, where I could see him pouring coffee from the thermos and trying to get Barney to drink some.
I went up to his door and he rolled down his window.
“I’ll follow you,” I said.
“Does his truck have enough gas?”
“OK. In town, you drive straight to my house. I will take Barney to the emergency room.”
“You don’t want to leave Barney’s truck at the hospital for him?”
“No. He will need to come ask me for his keys.”
At Hans’s place, I put Barney’s keys on the kitchen table and started more coffee brewing. I looked in the fridge and found some eggs and cheddar. I found some chicken sausage in the freezer. I took my time but had the sausage thawed and browned, and scrambled eggs with cheddar cooked by the time Hans got back.
Hans came in the back door stomping the snow off his sneakers.
“Well?” I asked.
“Well, did Barney get to be a little more coherent?” Hans said.
“Yes, and he told me quite a tale.”
“What was he doing there? How long had he been freezing there?”
Hans looked at the food on the stove and asked, “Did you intend to share any of that?”
“I’m sorry. Yes.” I got down some plates and Hans pulled a couple of forks from a drawer and a couple of bagels and a small bottle of hot sauce from the fridge. We dished the food and sat at the kitchen table.
I said, “Hans, it was lucky for Barney that you didn’t wait until later in the day. He would have been frozen.”
Hans said, “Barney said he went just to look at the missile silo. He had been talking with Lincoln and Chuck in the bar, of course, about the accidental damages inflicted on the missile silo fences, that one in particular. Barney left the bar at two a.m., but he had a bottle of vodka in his truck, which he took his time drinking, so he didn’t leave town until maybe five. Then he would have been driving slowly, so he might have arrived at the snowbank in the ditch about 5:30 or six.”
“He had gotten himself safely all the way there. Why do you think he ended up in the ditch?”
“Right. That was the tip of his strange tale. He said his engine stopped on the turn. It has power steering and he wasn’t sufficiently alert or strong enough to stop it or straighten it out.”
“The engine started right up this morning.”
“True. He suggested that it stopped because of a UFO. He got out of his truck to see what was wrong with the engine. It was still dark. He claimed he heard a loud humming noise. He said he looked up and saw strange lights over the fenced-in area. He walked closer. The lights were dancing around in no regular pattern and were descending. He panicked.”
“Assuming he wasn’t already out of his mind.”
“True. He said he lost it and fell down a couple times, trying to scramble back to his car.”
“I’m surprised that he didn’t wet his pants. Maybe he was lying to you.”
“Or hallucinating because the vodka and the cold deprived his brain of oxygen.” Hans added, “He said he was sorry.”
“What for? Had he returned to his right mind?”
“I think Barney’s mind has been in left field for some time. Then he has been influenced by all the stuff that Chuck had been pouring into his brain.”
“His poor brain was obviously overfilled.”
“Yes, so we should not be too hard on him.”
“Do you think that he really encountered a UFO? He had gotten himself all the way there safely, so his being in the ditch was a form of evidence.”
“True, although a thoroughly drunken man can easily turn his truck into a ditch without the assistance of a UFO.”
The next day, Sunday, walking by, I noticed that Hans still had the truck parked beside his house. I was on my way to Ellen’s place. We had planned to go to church together. Then we would share an early dinner with Hans.
Ellen opened her door dressed in a bright, flower-print dress. I said, “Ellen, you are beautiful, and to me it’s a spring morning just to be near you.”
She said, “I know, but it’s ironic that instead of flowers in the garden, we have snow in the fog.”
It was foggy and 24 degrees.
Ellen said, “But never mind the weather. I have a warm place for you in the kitchen.” Ellen gave me a hug and led me into her kitchen, where aromas of hot coffee, warm herbs, melting cheese, and fresh bread from the oven welcomed me nearly as well as her embrace.
She put a mug of coffee in my hands. We sat down at her kitchen table to eat a cheese souffle with fresh bread with melting butter and marmalade.
“Ellen,” I said, “if you are trying to impress me, all your effort is wasted because I’m already sold on you.”
“No, silly,” she said, “I’m not trying to impress you; I was just hungry.”
I wondered just how much one can tell about a person from their guest bathrooms. Hans’s was functional, with old mirror, sink, and toilet. Clean towels, no rug, linoleum on the floor. A disinfectant odor. On the walls were framed black and white photographs of cities, New York, Chicago, San Francisco. Ellen’s was more modern, more comfortable, and more bohemian in its decor. Soft rug over tile. No odor at all. Poetry broadsides were thumb-tacked to the walls.
I thanked Ellen for the wonderful breakfast, and for the rich coffee.
Ellen put on a straw hat with a ribbon that matched her dress. She drove us from her place to the Methodist church. This visit for me was entirely different from my solo visit at Christmas. We arrived and we left in a vehicle, that is, in our own suit of armor. Because we entered the narthex hand-in-hand, Ellen and I had only half of the attention to bear. The faces of the greeters seemed familiar and friendly, not intrusive. Half the time, instead of stammering out my own weak response, I simply smiled and looked at Ellen, who responded warmly and tactfully.
The highlight of the service was a procession of children singing and waving palm fronds made of green construction paper.
After the service, standing by her car, I gave Ellen a warm thank you, a long hug, and a nice kiss. She handed me the keys to her car.
She said, “First we get gas, then I have something to show you out Airport Drive.”
I drove to the east side of town to fill up the gas tank, then drove west. All the highways out of Lewistown are two-laned roads.
Following Ellen’s directions, I turned left onto Airport Road, drove past the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, and past the red-and-white checkered water tower.
At the end of Airport Road, a series of three large sculptures mounted on poles rose over the field of the Lewistown Fire and Rescue training facility. The poles were placed in a line to the northwest. On the nearest and shortest pole was a sleek stainless-steel fighter jet. On the third and highest pole was a stainless-steel flying saucer with a circle of small windows glazed with blue glass. In between these on a pole was a blend of the jet and saucer; the tail had atrophed and the wings had broadened to where they merged with the body of the plane. The cockpit window had turned blue.
“What do you think?” Ellen asked.
“They are fabulous!” I said. “How long have these been in the works? Eugene didn’t make them in his basement!”
Ellen said, “No, Eugene and Paul designed them, but a fabrication company in Great Falls built them.”
“Congratulations,” I said.
We retraced our route and headed west on State 87.
“What does the fighter jet turning into a UFO say about our civilation and its discontents?” I asked.
Ellen said, “That we have a long way to go?”
I said, “That we will always be somewhat deluded?”
The views over frozen wheat fields were hypnotic. The South Moccasin Mountains to the north were no taller than the posts of the bob-wire fences that ran along the road. Past the town of Moore, we turned south onto State 3, U.S. 191.
I said, “I would sad if I were deluded, but that’s not a reason for holding back.”
Ellen murmured in agreement. “Even more sad to think of lives lived in shadows out of fear.”
We drove past Garneill, population of 275, to the small town of Judith Gap, population 150, about 45 minutes from Lewistown, situated in the gap between the Little Bend Mountains to the west and the Snowy Mountains to the east. The most prominent feature of the town is its water tower. Its only paved road is the highway. Its only café or restaurant is the Hitching Post Bar and Café. I had passed through the town on my way to Lewistown, but today there seemed to be more there than there had been then.
The Hitching Post is a small red roadhouse behind a gravel lot just off the highway. I pulled up, parked, and we got out of the car. It was cold. An old-fashioned thermometer on the wall showed that it had warmed up to 28 degrees. We went in. The room was warm and empty. At the right was a bar with four stools. In front of us were four red formica, chrome, and red leatherette dinette sets.
We heard someone through the doorway behind the bar, scraping a chair on the floor. The floor creaked. A tall thin man wearing denim blue bib overalls stepped up behind the bar.
“’Good day, folks. What can I do for you?” His name, Grover Bell, was sewn at the top of the bib.
Ellen and I looked at each other and sat at the bar. I asked Grover, “Can you get us a couple of beers and two grilled cheese sandwiches?”
“That I can. We have Coors in cans and Miller in bottles.”
“Miller in bottles,” Ellen said.
Grover produced two cold Millers, removed their caps, and set them on the bar in front of us, followed by two chilled glasses.
Grover said, “I’ll see about those grilled cheeses,” and went back through the doorway.
We poured our own. Ellen whispered, “Ask him why he wears those overalls.”
I didn’t intend to ask him that, so I made a face at her and shook my head. I proposed a toast, “To travelers everywhere.”
Ellen added, “May they all get their beer and warm places by the fire.”
Grover returned and said, “Your sandwiches are on the grill.” He asked, “Just passing through?”
Ellen: “We just drove down from Lewistown.”
I said, “We are out for a Sunday drive. This is beautiful country, even when it’s frozen and the wind blows.”
Grover said, “It is that.”
I asked, “Is there anything unusual or special about Judith Gap that we shouldn’t miss while we’re here?”
Grover said, “The town used to be a big grain shipper, a junction point for the Great Northern railroad. But now it’s only the schools and the church, it seems, that keep it going. They will be putting in a wind farm a little south of here, but I doubt that it will benefit the town much.”
Grover went back to fetch our sandwiches, bringing them out on two small plates. I took a bite of mine and it was good, especially with the beer. I nodded and said so.
Grover said, “We use a George Foreman grill. Makes it easy.”
Ellen asked Grover, “Is the wife and the rest of town still at church? There’s no one else here.”
Grover said, “It’s one of those Methodist pot lucks.”
I asked Grover, “Are you a devout Methodist?”
Grover started to hem and haw, rocking back and forth from one foot to the other.
Ellen asked him, “Do you believe in UFOs?”
Grover was startled. “Oh. I thought you were going to say Jesus Christ. No, I suppose I’d believe if I’d ever seen one, but I never have.”
Grover offered, “But the wife believes in them. She believes in everything.”
Ellen relaxed her frown.
“And I’ve heard truckers make claims.”
Ellen brightened up.
Grover said, “Yeah. Truckers come through here. They say they’ve seen all sorts of things. Colored lights, things that fly. I don’t put much store in what they say. Lack of sleep and the right kind of drugs could make them see the Easter bunny.”
I asked, “Your wife hasn’t seen a UFO?”
“No,” Grover said. “She hasn’t seen and she yet believes.” He grinned.
We finished our sandwiches, paid, used the facilities, and thanked Grover for his hospitality.
Standing by the car in the cold parking lot, I asked Ellen, dangling her keys, “Would you like to drive us back?”
“OK,” she said, “if the beer and food hasn’t made me foolish.”
“I would be foolish if I didn’t ask for a kiss in return for the keys.”
“Go ahead and ask, but they are my keys. If I wanted to kiss you, I wouldn’t need a silly tit for tat.”
“Well I don’t need one either.” I gave her the keys and she kissed me.
We got in and she started the car. I said, “I thought it was bold of you to ask Grover if he believed in UFOs, but I’m glad you did.”
Ellen said, “The similarity to religion is interesting, don’t you think?”
“Oh, yes. Most people don’t get either in their lives; they don’t meet God and they don’t see a UFO. So the existence of both is a matter of faith.”
“You know that some people have found rockets and alien beings in ancient scriptures and archeological records.”
“Yes, but not without stretching the meanings of the words to fit.”
“People long for a connection,” Ellen said.
“And wanting to experience it badly enough, many do.”
“If Grover were to have said he had seen a UFO, would you have believed him?”
“I would have believed that he thought he had seen one. Grover referred to what Jesus told Thomas, didn’t he? Well, I’m a doubting Thomas. I think my parents took that away from me, the ability not to doubt. Their faith was so obviously devoid of intellectual merit, so pathetically contradictory . . . ”
“Why did you want to go to church this morning?”
“Oh, yes, why? That’s because, in spite of the mysticism, Christianity is also an admirable moral code, you know, recognizing the need to be a good Samaritan, to turn the other cheek, which includes the principle of nonviolence. And those people are good people. I had an awful time there on Christmas day, and I wanted to reclaim the good of it. I wanted to be able to go back for reminders.”
The fence-posts whizzed by. We opened a window to let in some fresh air.
Ellen asked, “What about retirement and old age? Do you want to move to a mobile home in Florida?”
“Every summer we can rent a cottage in the Isle of Wight, if it’s not too dear.”
We stopped at Gehlen’s grocery on our way to Hans’s place. Ellen wanted to give Hans a chocolate Easter bunny. We also got some ice cream, frozen raspberries, and fresh bread.
Hans opened the door. The smell of cooking salmon filled the house.
“Hans,” I said, “you’re not cooking salmon! I am so starved for fresh fish.”
Hans said, “Well, it is fresh frozen, but should be good, even so. It is in the oven with garlic, onion, tomatoes, and potatoes.
“Thank you, Hans,” Ellen said. “We brought bread, ice cream, raspberries,” pulling each item out of the shopping bag, one at a time, “and I thought you needed a chocolate Easter bunny.” She gave this to Hans.
“You were right,” said Hans, laughing.
I tucked the ice cream into the freezer as Hans said, “I put a face on the clock.”
I turned around and said, “I want to see it.”
Someone knocked at the front door. We all went to see who it was. It was Barney, whom Hans invited in.
Barney said, “I come to thank you, and to get my keys back.”
Hans said, “You are welcome.”
Barney said, “I mean you, you both, you saved my life, probably.”
“Probably,” I said.
“And I didn’t deserve it. I was angry and I saw you, Hans, I saw you come out of the mason hall one day, and they wouldn’t let me join.”
Hans didn’t say anything about being a Freemason. He said, “When you get dealt a bad hand, you need to either make the best of it or fold to wait for the next one.”
Barney said, “I also have to say, I came to say, I’m sorry for talking to the air force. I know someone who works in one of those underground launch places. I’m sorry for talking about you, you asking about the missile silos.”
I said, “We were just looking for a spool of nylon cord. You thought that our search for the cord was only a cover for learning about the missile silos?”
“Well, yes, but you know I’m not too smart, and I wouldn’t have said anything because now I can see you are both good people.”
Ellen said, “You mean you shouldn’t have said anything.”
Barney nodded to Ellen and said, “Yes, I wouldn’t have mentioned them at all. Just like I wouldn’t have mentioned Chuck, because I know him and he’s all right.”
“So now we’re all right, too?” I asked.
Barney nodded, looking miserable. He said, “Specially now I know it was the UFOs that were making things happen, probably, damaging the fences and all.”
Hans spoke up. “Barney, it is OK with me that you talked with your friend about us asking questions. I am more concerned about you. You need to stop drinking and you need to get a job. What are you going to do with yourself?”
Barney, “I’m going to try to get my job back, and then Anna will take me back, too, probably.”
Ellen offered to get Barney’s keys for him from the kitchen.
I said, “Barney, if you see any more UFOs, I’d like to know. OK?”
The face of the clock consisted of three rings. The inner ring was for hours; the middle ring was for minutes; the outer ring was for seconds. Instead of hands that rotate to point at fixed rings of numbers, these rings rotated and the pointer was fixed. At the right side of the face, Hans had mounted a triangle that pointed to the left. The numbers on the rings could be read from the center toward the right—hours, minutes, and seconds.
I realized what Hans had done with the photos of the stenciled numbers on the gates of the missile silos.
“Yes,” he said. “It seemed like a good idea. Though I am not sure what it means.”
I said, “A wheel in the middle of a wheel. It shows an interest and a difference, I would say, not an affinity.”
Hans said, “A wheel within a wheel within a wheel, and here there are no winged creatures.”