Cheyenne Interlude (March 17- April 30)
My true self waits in the truck with the dogs, in a parking lot in fog-locked Wyoming. My soul stays with them to brood as my body vanishes into a gray building. Hours pass. I emerge from a door kept by an electronic gatekeeper and return to the truck to become whole again.
The window in my temporary office provides a floor to ceiling panorama of the company parking lot. Gray clouds move slowly, as if ready with snow, and the whine of the wind preceeds them. Arizona was warm and bustling with green life, wildflowers, and mystery three weeks ago. As I lazily crept northwards the land became brown, bald, obvious and normal. It’s normal to be cold, to work hard, to accept a Protestant life.
How long will it be before something out there turns green? When did I first wonder, When will spring come? On the calendar spring is located precisely, but spring is a spatial reckoning and the results, though inevitable, can be slow to arrive.
“On these widespread plains blown clean by the wind and rains large herds of buffalo roamed and gained in number. Then the warriors of Indian tribes hunted them for food and skins. Later white men came to trap beaver in the prairie channels and the mountain glens. Then thousands of adventurers were lured to the peaks and canyons by the discovery of gold. They plowed fields, built cities and founded a commonwealth. This highway travels straight south to Denver and beyond, past ranches and then irrigated farms rich in grain and sugar beets. Eastward lie hundreds of miles of prairie now dotted with prosperous towns, westward rises the rampart of the Rocky Mountains crested with summits like Longs Peak, James Peak, Mount Evans and Pikes Peak, old in story.”
So goes the legend carved into a brown and white sign erected by the Colorado Highway Department a few miles below the state line. Like a bunch of other Wyomingites, I’ve ventured south to purchase lottery tickets. We wait inside a low-roofed building made of river rock. There is a cage at one end of the counter as if the place had been a post office, but it’s a bar and all-purpose rest stop now. Two men, to whom the impeccably restored Harley Davidson motorcycles outside must belong, sip beers. My aleatory future in hand, I continue down the Greeley Highway.
The town of Eaton makes the summative declaration, Beef, Beets, Beans on its welcome sign. I stop along a side street at a junk shop and step into a rat’s nest of household debris. The addition of each new object must cause a shockwave that lifts the dirt and redistributes it so that the new item is indistinguishable from those which have accumulated through the ages. The result is plastic ice cube trays that look millennia old. Nothing interests me, but an old man sitting in front of a black and white TV that periodically looses its vertical hold, gets up and greets me with a shaky ‘Hello’ and I would feel badly if I just walked out.
“You don’t dust often,” I tease him.
“Too busy,” he shakes his head good humouredly. “C’mere. C’mere.” He cups his hand and waves me toward the back room.
I have worked my way to the front of the store: I can feel the warm wind pulling the dampness out of the dark building. Cottonwoods bounce about along the street and fling shadows every which way.
“C’mere,” he says. I follow.
“They’re for my wife. For her birthday.” He opens a jewelry box lined in red velvet. “I made ‘em myself. Think she’ll like ‘em?”
I stare, trying to make out what they are. Two sawed-off antler tips and two metal sea shells stare back.
“They’re earrings, see?” He raises one and it dangles, all six inches of it, like a perverse fishing lure.
“Is she a large woman?” is all I can think to say.
In the early evening, when the spring sunlight can barely be felt, the bald size of the land dazzles. I walk a furrow that sprouts miraculous green wheat and I realize that I could follow it along the undulating surface for miles. Far behind me the road is reduced to another brown element in the giant striped graphic of fallow and new-growth fields that dwarfs the immense metal towers that carry high power lines. I feel like a giant myself, my senses deceived by the scale. Only the dogs look correct as they run across the field, their feet kicking up threads of dust that show as white puffs above the dirt.
The maintenance man, who is barely taller than the vacuum cleaner, is vacuuming my office. He must clean during the day because the owner of the company doesn’t trust anyone in the building after hours. I’m strangling a mouse, trying to learn a graphics program. Mr. Maintenance doesn’t usually talk to me, but today he shuts off the vacuum cleaner and asks what it is I do here.
“I design this stuff.” I wave a brochure at him that pushes the company’s products.
“Oh.” He sounds disappointed.
While waiting for a program to download from the mainframe (what a dumb system) I peruse the list of towns on a Wyoming road map. “Did you know that 115 of the 264 towns listed here have fewer than 50 people in them?”
This is of enough interest for the maintenance man to say, “No shit?”
“Look at all these towns with no people at all.” I spread out the map and he looks at it over my shoulder.
“I’ll be,” he says.
“Do you think they’re ghost towns?” I ask him.
“Must be.” He unplugs the vacuum cleaner and takes it to the next office. I return to the map and count the towns with fewer than 500 residents.
I move into a working class motel with the dogs and a bag of food. The dogs are nervous at first because it’s been six weeks since we’ve lived indoors, but they soon stretch to their utmost lengths on the sculptured carpet and snooze.
The bathroom window looks out on a quiet neighborhood of frame houses, except that a white panel truck, with a rack of ladders on the roof, is taking up most of the view. Beyond it, to the right, a man retrieves a barking dog from his front yard.
Even though it’s Good Friday I found a garage open, so I left the new truck, a red Dodge Dakota with a bigger engine than the Chevy, to be joined in holy electricity with the trailer.
At 3 p.m. I rang up the garage. “I’m just getting started,” the voice said so I read the Atlantic Monthly and the weekly Washington Post, just for the novelty, and wrote two letters. The dogs danced around on empty stomachs and I had to tell them that their food was in the back of the truck over at the gas station. I gave them each a slice of bread, which they understood better.
At 5 p.m. the man said, “Gimme ‘nother half-hour.”
“I have to walk,” I said, “so I’ll start now.”
“What?” he said, as if to say, What do I care how you get here, lady?
The man’s head is underneath the truck when I walk up. The hood is propped open, so I peer inside. It occurs to me that I didn’t look at the motor before I bought the truck. And if I had?
The usual type of guys hang around. “Why’d you buy a small truck to pull that trailer?” a two-hundred-pounder asks me.
“It isn’t small; it’s just the right size.”
“Is this one of them new-size Dodges?” asks another man as he walks its shiny red length.
“Yes, a Dakota.”
“Well, you know, Dodge does make a good truck. Still, it’s small.”
A man labeled Bob joins me to stare at the motor. “Is this the coil?” I ask, pointing to the pump for the windshield washers.
“No, it’s the pump for the windshield washers.” He walks away, disgusted.
Greasy Bob’s unlabeled son works here, too. He seems unsure of himself around the other men, but becomes talkative when I go into the office to pay up and we’re alone. His small green eyes are points of exposure within his hard frame and I suffer the fleeting impression that he’s a nice kid with no place to put his heart in this pile of tools and used parts.
Elevation 8640 STRONG WINDS POSSIBLE: information courtesy of the Wyoming Highway Department. I’m driving to Laramie because it’s Saturday morning and I own a new truck. The brief and bouncy storm that bestowed rain on Cheyenne last night dropped snow in the hills twenty miles to the west. The wind picks up the crystals and makes a new squall from them. Fresh rain bangs the windshield.
We (musn’t forget the dogs) cross the looping trace of the Laramie River south of Bosler, a concretion of trailers and outbuildings through which we come and go in the time it takes me to pull the cap off my pen. The wind screams along the truck’s surface and roadside reflectors send back dizzying bits of the sun. Ahead, the storm is smoke black, as if hell’s fires burn beyond the horizon. Clouds run down the sky like water color gone mad. At Rock River, population 415, swirling tails of snow drag along the ground like curtains, and I wonder where everyone is hiding. Big snowflakes look like locusts against the darkness.
We’ve turned south to Colorado, with hope for better weather. The road climbs high to view the blue-black forests which cover the front range of the Rockies. The country here has some large, restless beasts beneath it; rumps and elbows of rosy granite pop out of turf jump-started by irrigation. Brown and black cattle eat their way to death on the lush flanks of the =7, Willow Creek and Pitchfork ranches.
The highway passes into metamorphic section southeast of Virginia Dale, then enters a valley cut along the contact of the red sediments to the east with the core of the Rockies to the west. If I could pick a place to live…. Outside Fort Collins the world gets crowded. Two small cars collide in an intersection and bile green rescue trucks swarm around a pile of broken glass. I detour to the village of Bellevue, knowing that it will break my heart. I backed out of buying a pretty piece of property here some years back. I glance at the white red-trimmed house and barn, at sheep grazing across the road, at greening trees and a red-banded cuesta that cuts the clear blue sky. Oh hell. You can’t carry an acre of dirt around with you. I had the chance to be the person who lives here and I chose not to be.
Easter, and the wind has been pounding Cheyenne since way early. My truck sits in the parking lot all alone beneath a sea of swollen clouds that chug easterly. The sun breaks through somewhere beyond the roof’s edge and the sharp shadow of the protruding rafters appears and disappears like a signal. At noon I’m still in my pajamas, drinking coffee and watching vintage Bible movies on the motel television.
“Blood gets more blood as dog begets dog.” Ben-Hur’s dizzy girlfriend chastises him when he develops a lust for revenge rather than for her. She’s the type of Hollywood female that made me understand, as a kid, that men prefer women equipped with the looks, but hardly the brains, of a poodle.
Last night I sat on a barstool and watched the “flux and flow of humanity” as my friend here in Cheyenne says too frequently. The club itself was unfancy, just a big room with an elbow-shaped bar, a few pool tables, and a dance floor. A bowling alley and a laundromat, which can be accessed without going outdoors, are thoughtful additions in Cheyenne’s climate. About midnight I picked up my jacket and purse and set out for the door. A short man, his round face hidden beneath a bushy mustache and a black hat, tugged at my arm as I passed. He had pleasant eyes.
“Where’re you goin’?” he asked.
“I’m goin’ home,” I said.
“Why so early?” he asked.
“I’ll tell you why – I sat at this bar for two hours and not one person talked to me,” I tried to sound a bit huffy, but friendly.
The man pulled on my arm again and said, “Well… hey, I’m Friendly, and hey, you, So-and-So, get over here. She thinks we’re unfriendly.” And to me, “What’s yer name? See that guy over there, he’s a wild horse racer.” The wild horse racer stepped over to us and sort of introduced himself. He half-smiled then stepped away.
“See that bunch over there at that table?” Friendly shouted. “They all rodeo, except the big guy.” The big guy was a black man whose long, wild hair erupted from beneath a cowboy hat. “He’s a lawyer,” Friendly continued. “The bald guy, he’s a pick up man. Come here,” he said as he tugged me toward the table like I was a five- year-old.
The man who plucks cowboys off their rides and the arena floor, stood up and stuck out his hand to request that I dance with him. He pulled me against his hard, protruding belly before he spoke, but he slurred the words and I couldn’t understand him. I thought he might be drunk, but he didn’t wobble as he pushed me backwards taking tiny, rocking steps that I tried to match.
I guessed at his question: “I’m from Arizona, I’ve been here a month, and I don’t know how long I’ll stay.” He seemed happy with that. His only other voiced communication was to say, when he squeezed my arm, “Oh. I’m sorry,” as if he’d taken a liberty. Friendly told me later that the man had been kicked into a coma by a horse and was left with brain damage.
I never did dance with Friendly, but I danced with one of his friends, a thin man with big, dark eyes like a Greek portrait on a late Egyptian mummy case. He laughed softly and contemptuously as we circled the dance floor.
“Lookit’ that guy.” With a slight nod of his hat he indicated a man who leaned on a post at the edge of the dance floor. “Air Force. They buy Wranglers and a hat and walk in here. Stinkin’ wannabes.” I learned later that this ‘cowboy’ works as a beautician.
“Roman soldiers, like a scourge of locusts, laid waste the East,” the narrator intones. Christ. Rome bashing again. I turn off the TV.
Big spring rain clouds churned all day along the western horizon and then moved east to give Cheyenne a quick shower. The air smelled wet and warm as I stuffed the badge that secures my release for the night into my purse and walked across the damp asphalt to the truck. I let the dogs run a bit and watched the trucks and cars moving on the interstate, reduced to dark shadows by the intervening mile of rain.
My dad called at the usual time, but a day early. Our talk drifted from the weather (rainy on both ends), to the state of the nation, to business mismanagement, via my description of the dick fights going on where I work. We never disagree that the world can be a stupid place, but he thinks it got that way because not enough people are Republicans, but think you can’t have a dick fight without dicks.
Four of us new or temporary employees attend Chemical Hazards Training. We hear advice such as, “Keep your eyes open when washing them out,” and statements of pride such as, “We keep material safety data on totally harmless products.”
The road to Chalk Bluffs goes nowhere near anything that could be taken for a bluff, for many miles. I follow a gravel township road east until it turns north. When it turns east again I stop the truck to let the dogs run while I view the blond rustling grassland, which with the sky, is all there is. Empty Winchester and Colt shells have been run over where they lie in the road. A sign nailed to a gatepost has been the recipient of, if not these, a hundred other bullets. Why not? There’s nothing else to shoot at.
Miles later, just before the town of Carpenter, the road drops over what I presume to be Chalk Bluffs and though the vertical displacement can’t be more than one hundred feet, it’s a major feature considering the planar topography it interrupts. There are no commercial enterprises in town other than a cubbyhole store and a workshop with several above-ground storage tanks in the yard. The ground is oil-soaked and a row of old, gut-exposed gas pumps is lined up along the street. Across the way is a graveyard of sorts: a Texaco tanker and a tow truck are interred there, and around them, their names still visible on the dark, wind-scoured metal, lie the patriarchs of prairie agriculture: Case, McCormick, Deere.
It’s fourteen miles up and back to a truck stop on the interstate to get gas, then we pass through Carpenter again on the way south to cross the unmarked border with Colorado. I turn east through the village of Hereford and kick up a dust cloud while crossing what must be a Pleistocene river valley, carved when glaciers melted; the tiny creek at the bottom can’t be its creator. Atop the far side, cascading into two gullies that cut the bluff, is an unofficial dump. Whole cars, miles of wire, dirty heaps of busted appliances, bottles, and oil cans induce me to stop and take a look. I pull a misshapen green bottle out of the ground by its base and knock the dirt off; dig out a homemade cupboard door, some lead roof trim, a galvanized box and a rusted bread sign. As I ferry loot to the truck I spot a 1938 Wyoming license plate in good shape, but when I reach for it, a rattlesnake startles me. Its coils are just visible behind a piece of gray wood: should the snake strike at me, it could not miss, I think. Using a scrap of corrugated metal as a shield, I grab the license plate then step to where I can see the snake better. Its rattles buzz like a big cicada and its heart-shaped head moves sideways to give me a tongue lashing. The sound stops when I walk away.
I discover a new unit of time: the Moron. The second hand on my watch is stuck in an interesting cycle. It moves clockwise through one discrete arc, then back again. I observe the phenomenon, fascinated. My slice of sky today is a flawless sheet of bird’s egg blue air that ascends above the parking lot, then ends abruptly at the bottom of the Venetian blind. My soul stares back at me through the window and asks how we came to be here. I answer with another question. Where did the boxy-butt road-toad sedans that fill the parking lot come from?
My dad called, he said, to save me a toll charge, but I think he was afraid I’d forget his seventy-fifth birthday. The old dog has been described as a mastodon or a deer with short legs by my friend in Cheyenne, but in truth, he’s a dead ringer for my father, a phenomenon noted by more than one person who has witnessed their portraits cheek to jowl. I’ve traveled with both, and although my dad is more fun to talk to, the dog doesn’t smoke cigars.
It might be hard for some people to believe, but I like living at the motel. Many trucks are packed into my end of the annex tonight, parked cheek to cheek and butt to butt, and this is another thing some people will not believe; they’re sexy. Mine is out there with the rest of them, parked real close to a big red GMC with matching toolboxes that run the length of the bed. It’s new, as are two pale blue company trucks that glow under the moon. The rest of the trucks are big old beat up things and just being near them makes me happy.