Chapter 22: The Lonesome Crowded West, Part 1

It was a decent run. Not great, and not a long run by any means, but long enough to cause the average person to break a decent sweat on a sunny, summer morning in Montana, and leave a particular individual with over-stimulated pores coated in a thick layer of the perspirated fluid, surprisingly a nice adhesive for synthetic clothing; about as good as anybody can do after a full night of spooks. And not to spoil the work I had achieved, I opted to purchase an ice cold, sugar free Rockstar that morning instead of my usual original flavor, saving me about 250 in empty calories.

“Alright, when do we head to Pony?” I asked as I burst into the room with a swift and expended strut. “Oh man, that felt good… you know, exercising and stuff? You’ve heard of it right? Gretch?” There wasn’t much of a response. It was like I was talking in a foreign language or something. “Well, you guys should do some research, and maybe consider trying it out sometime. It might actually be good for you. Definitely works for me, as you can tell.” Still, no response was afforded, even as I continued my mellow strut across the room. Man, what crawled up their butts? “So, what time’s checkout?”

“The usual,” said Bill, lying on the bed while surfing the web on his iPad.

“Well, in that case, I’m going to take my time in the shower,” I said strutting towards the bathroom, taking my sweet time, of course. “…Because I pretty much deserve one after a nice run, considering our solid night of drinking. I mean, that’s what I do in order to keep my physique. Drinking and life choices have consequences, and if you don’t do anything about it, it’s going to knick you in the butt one of these days; at least that’s what Pat says. I’m sure you’ve heard of him. He’s your dad after all… Gee Gretch, I wonder why I haven’t seen you on a run this whole trip? Don’t be getting all lazy on me or anything.”

Gretch just shrugged her shoulders and kept scrolling through her phone, pretending to ignore me (although she didn’t do a very good job). It was as if something kept grabbing her attention—something of concern, causing her to constantly look up at my direction, an offense that eventually wore me into boredom.

“Hey, what’s that sign say behind you?” she asked.

“Oh, let me see.” I quickly rummaged through the items, anticipating their low significance. “Room rate one hundred and something bucks, don’t do any damage, checkout time, no smoking… nothing really. But enough chitchat, time for a shower. Let me gather all of my stuff…” Another ten minutes of chitchat passed before I finally gathered all my “stuff” and went into the bathroom, Bill and Gretch remaining relatively quiet through the whole thing.

“Bill, what time did you say checkout was?” I heard Gretch ask through the shower door, already stripped down to my birthday suit.

“12:00. It’s always 12:00. It’s the standard at every hotel.”

“Are you sure? This says 11:00”

“11:00?” I uttered with a growing sense of apprehension.

“Well what time is it now?” asked Bill.

“It is… 11—11:20!?”

“NOT 11:20!?” I exclaimed, whipping my head out of the bathroom door. I looked at Bill and Gretch and they looked at me, and then at each other, and then around the room. It was covered in a large scattering of clothes, computers, and old-fashioned ingredients. Each of us shot up, reacting to an internal siren that suddenly went off inside our heads. Their faces were just as wide and shocked as mine. It was a disaster, a complete disaster.

“Oh God, we’re late!” screamed Bill.

“We’re all screwed! I yelled back. “It was the ghosts!”

“Gretch, stuff everything you can!”

“I can’t—I can’t fit anything else into my bag!”

“You have to! Zack—“

“Getting dressed! Where’s the supervisor? Stall her!” I hurried to cover my superfluously sweaty body with a fresh, clean pair of clothes, cringing as each article of clothing became soiled the instant it made contact with my skin.

Bill peaked his head out the door. “Super’s coming!”

“I can’t get my pants on! They’re stuck to my—“ I tipped over, falling out of the bathroom and onto the floor. Gretch began panting, which eventually led to strenuous breathing, then to hyperventilation, desperately attempting to zip up a suitcase that was well beyond its volumetric capacity.

“Zack, your pants are on backwards!” screamed Bill. “C’mon Gretch, I need that suitcase closed!”

“I’m trying, but I can’t—“

“30 seconds!”

“The Old Fashioned mix! It’s still there!”

“Leave it, we don’t have time—“

“I’M NOT LEAVING WITHOUT IT GRETCH!”

“20 seconds!”

Gretch ran across the room with a load of clothes and threw them onto a random bag. Only a quarter of the clothes made it in. The rest were thrown in random directions, flying across my face and across the beds, a frantic panic with a one in a million chance of landing in the right place.

“Gretch, quit screwing around!”

“Why are your pants on your head?”

“What do you mean on my head?”

“10 seconds!”

“Damn it Bill, get in here! We need your help! Here Gretch, throw the rest in,” I said, holding the bag open.

“Even the whiskey—“

“Everything—NOT MY PANTS! I NEED THOSE!”

“5 Seconds! Zack, get to the bathroom. Pants on, now! Gretch, it’s go-time. Wrap it up!”

“God, I can’t—“

“Gretch, do it—DO IT!”

The door swung open and in came the supervisor. “What’s going on in here?”

“Just two guys packing a suitcase,” said Bill who was standing side by side next to Gretch.

“And one guy takin’ a dump,” I said as I walked out of the bathroom with my pants on; each leg correctly placed in its correct and corresponding hole. Even the fly was zipped completely up. The supervisor perused the room, our bags packed, clothes on, and besides a couple unmade beds and full trashcans, relatively spotless. Each of us stood perfectly still. None of us dared to make a move.

“Two guys packin’ a suitcase, and one takin’ a dump… I don’t know. Somethin’ don’t seem right here…” She studied our demeanor as if she were waiting for one of us to crack.

“…Somethin’ ain’t right…” She took a good look around the room once more. She didn’t like what she saw. Yes, there was something else going on, some other presence lurking about, but no evidence to convict.

“Keys mam?” said Bill, sticking out his hand with a set of room keys. She grabbed them and turned to the door, muttering under her breath as she walked away. “Something ain’t right. Somethin’ ain’t right…”

 

***

 

It was a two-hour drive west on I-90 from Billings to Bozeman, the last harbor for modern culture where we stocked up on goods before heading out to Pony—bagels, butter, pizza, beef, beer, liquor—the basic necessities.

“Oh Zack, go ahead and put the Coors Light up here,” said Lea while we loaded the groceries into the Subaru. “And put a couple in the cooler, just so they’re nice and cold when we get to the cabin.” The idea sounded legitimate, and we had no quarrels with cold beer, so we did as we were told. “You know what, never mind, I’ll just carry the cooler myself. There’s not enough room in the back.”

“But Lea, I think I can make enough room in the trunk,” I suggested. “I mean, look at the back seat. There’s barely anything there!”

“Oh, it’s fine, I’ll take it.”

“But mom, how about you just put it in the back seat?”

“Bill, just—I don’t want it tipping over and spilling around on the ground.”

“But if you set it on the floor, it won’t. Here, you can wedge it and it’ll hold firm—“

“Bill!”

“…Ok mom, hold it in the front seat…” Bill acquiesced to the stern and alarming tone his mother directed him with. Any further objections were useless at this point, let alone dangerous, even if they were rooted in common sense.

 

***

 

The Benz had much more difficulty picking up AM radio waves as we turned onto Highway 84, and the rock cliffs scaling the Madison River between Norris and Harrison didn’t help either. Thus, we were forced to forego our usual choice of conservative talk radio for the more contemporary sounds of Third Eye Blind, not the worst consequence in the world.

Onward we went behind the Subaru, our guide to the cabin as it followed the signs from Harrison leading to Pony. “How come Gretch is driving right now—wait, is that what I think it is?” I asked, staring at a hazy silhouette of a figure lifting a cylinder to its mouth.

“Oh my God. Caught red handed!” blurted Bill. “She just couldn’t resist.”

“Unbelievable,” I said shaking my head. “I mean, that’s something I’d expect from Gretch, but Lea?”

“I wish I could say I’m surprised…” said Bill with a look of defeat spread across his face. We finished the drive to Pony, a little more solemn about the world, and a little wiser.

The first road at the onset of town led to an abandoned school. Made from bricks that were easily over a century old, it was the first of many of its kind from the community’s gold mining days. A few more gravel roads branched off like capillaries from the main drag, leading to more old building and homes sparsely scattered about with their own, unique homemade decorum. We continued on, looking up from the bottom of a valley that looked to eventually lead to a mountain peak overlooking the town, one that gave me a craving for exploration.

That exploration would have to wait however, for coming up on our left was our immediate destination as determined by Gretch and Lea. “Pony Bar,” the sign said, hanging above a set of deer antlers, sharing its property on a Main Street only a couple building lengths long. We parked and entered with a flavor of cautious excitement. The Mercedes was widely outnumbered by the horses parked along side of the weathered bar, an old, wood-stained saloon that was absent of change but for one, single renovation soon after its conception during the days of the Wild West.

“What will it be guys?” asked the bartender.

“I’ll take a Coors Light,” quickly replied Lea. Taking after her mother, Gretch ordered the same.

“What do you have on draft?” I asked. “Anything local? What’s your seasonal on rotation—better yet, what’s the best IPA you have on tap?”

“…Hun, we got Budweiser and Bud Light. Take your pick.”

“Uh… I guess… I’ll just take a Bud Light…” I hung my head, not quite in shame, and not quite in disappointment, but somewhere in between.

“That’ll be two dollars.”

“Whoa, two dollars!?”

Lea looked as if she were rather popular around the joint, greeted by each patron who came by like she was a long lost daughter of the town, all grown up and returning for the first time in years. It gave Bill, Gretch and I plenty of time to observe the array of knick-knacks decorating the bar, many of which you’d find at your grandmother’s house, an oddly fitting look for the joint. There were cowboy hats, skulls, horns, mounts for a variety of different animals, pictures of old, pictures of new, pictures of athletes and country stars that found their way into town, and even a .22 caliber rifle that was up for raffle. “I want that,” said Bill as his eyes fixated on the firearm, devising a strategy to win and bring it back to Boise with him.

“Man, there are lots of black and white pictures around here. How old is this place?” I asked.

“Pretty old,” said Bill. “Been around since the old days. I hear it used to be a brothel too.”

“A brothel? You mean, there used to be prostitutes?”

“Yep, some pretty greasy stuff.”

“There’s also been a couple of shoot outs too,” added Gretch.

“Yea, I’m pretty sure people have died here. Possibly right on top of where we sit…” I sat and wondered about the old tales of the Pony Bar, which ones were true, and whether or not I’d survive in a time like that.

The gentleman talking to Lea excused himself to the bathroom. A short window—now was my chance. “So Lea, I hate to be a narc, but I saw you participating in illicit activities earlier.” My heart pounded over the confrontation I so much wanted to avoid, but my principles disallowed it, unable to live with the heavy burden of guilt weighing me down.

“I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about?” she replied.

“Mom, we saw you in full view pounding the Coors light in the car while Gretch was driving. That’s illegal, big time.”

“Oh, don’t you guys know? You’re allowed to have a beer on the drive between Harrison and Pony.” It’s not that we didn’t believe her; we just weren’t fully comfortable with the supposed rule. But who was I to question a Pony native? I looked forward and sipped on my beer, pondering in deep concern over Lea and her well being while I finished it.

“Don’t worry about it…” It was a tough request to swallow; my perception of Lea had just been altered, and permanently I feared. “I’ll tell you what, here’s one on me,” said Miss Social herself, flipping me a small, wooden disc. “Does that make you feel better?”

“What’s this?” I asked.

“It’s a Wooden Nickel.” Under further investigation, the picture of an Indian outlined with the words “Wooden Nickel” was a dead giveaway. “It came from the gentleman that was just talking to us. Good for one free drink of your choice. Go ahead!”

“Wow, I uh… heheh, gee, I’ll take another Bud Light then. A Wooden Nickel… I could get used to this.”

 

***

 

We each helped ourselves to one more beer before departing to the Dutcher Cabin, only a half-mile from the Pony Bar as the crow flies. We passed the school and a few other old structures, and then drove up a gravel drive where we parked on the outside of a wooden fence that marked the bounds of the Dutcher property. Perched up on a hill, the cabin overlooked Pony’s main street and the mountains beyond it. After a quick unpacking, Bill drew his attention to the large stone placed in the middle of the yard, sending his imagination into a creative spin. It didn’t take long before a makeshift fire pit came into production, built using spare pieces of wood, metal grating, and stone hidden around the cabin with the intention that it could eventually be used as a grill.

While Bill busied himself perfecting the details of his grill-in-progress, I couldn’t help but stare out into the precipitous landscape that surrounded the small town. On the other side of the Pony Bar laid a long, mellow hill. Up close, logic and experience deduced that the hill was made up of rough and treacherous surfaces, sharp with rocky objects and steep in unsuspecting areas. But from the distance, it looked to be a rich source of lush grass that spread down a delicate slope, sending delusions of grandeur through my head—dreams of youth and carelessness; three kids, running up to the top, racing and laughing the whole way before making our journey back, a long descent to the bottom by laying down and rolling our way to its base like the wheels of a steamroller. And when it was all over, we’d make the trek all over again, and again after that, until Lea would call us home for dinner, bringing about a bountiful amount of rest and sustenance so we could do it all over again at the emergence of another long, summer day.

And beyond those hills laid the unknown, virgin to all eyes except the mountain peaks laid directly to the west in the path of Main Street, the watchful mothers of Pony and all her surrounding land. It was a world that had yet to be explored, waiting for a group of avid explorers to finally arrive and discover it, for there was still much frontier left to be unveiled. Although the right thing to do would’ve been to assist Bill with his imaginative inception, I was rendered useless by an imagination that was running wild on its own. So I sat and sipped on my old fashioned, gazing out at the landscape in wonderment of what could be uncovered by our eyes for the very first time, while Bill, brandishing a vodka screwdriver of his own, tinkered with his grill in meticulous fashion, looking for any way to improve upon his creation.

And Gretch… well, let’s just say that Gretch did what she always does, and did so until Lea called us in for dinner…

IMG_1609

We gathered around a table next to the kitchen area where a box of pictures had been placed in the middle. With a plate of pizza slices in front, each of us took our turn sifting through the pictures, giggling and laughing at old photos of Gretch and Bill in their childhood sporting the typical, goofy little kid haircut, as well as family reunion photos of Bill’s parents as young adults clad in short shorts and bright T-shirts, as was the appropriate style in the 70’s and 80’s. One picture in particular showed the family before a sports run posing with matching outfits, while Pat, Bill and Gretch’s father, stood alone on the side, aloof, his outfit out of sync with the rest of the family’s. That one was probably my favorite, or at least the most memorable.

Bill took a quick trip to the bathroom while I snuck off to finish unpacking my belongings, something that none of us really put much concentration into, but not before taking a quick peak into Bill and Gretch’s room. There were two twin-sized beds with bulky, wooden frames on each side, the same one’s they had slept in as kids.   Two quilts that looked as though they had been woven by their grandmother covered each bed, and laying on them were artifacts from Pony’s past—clothes, toys, and a stack of magazines. One of them, entitled “Life,” featured a picture of their grandmother sitting with her schoolmates. By the looks of it, nothing in that room looked to be younger than 50 years.

The walls that separated each room didn’t quite reach the ceiling, meaning that privacy was not easily attained inside the cabin, proved by the distinct sound effects that were more than vivid during Bill’s private time in the bathroom. Next-door was the master bedroom of which Lea graciously offered me. It seemed as though she was content with sleeping in the den that was past the living room area on the other side of the cabin, where she could lay on the couch while she fell into a slumber to the hilarity of late night television. And really, the den wasn’t so much of a bad deal. Jimmy Fallon has been on a roll as of late!

The sun’s fading glow brought us back to the outside so us kids could revel in the beauty that dressed the final hours of daylight hovering over the west. “Hey Zack, wanna put on some tunes?” asked Bill.

“Sure, what would you like, some Modest Mouse?”

“Yea, and maybe that new Third Eye Blind CD we were listening to.”

“Coming right up.” I began to set up my computer for music, noticing a slight shiver in my fingers as I moved the mouse over the selection of artists on the screen. “It’s getting a little chilly out here! Good thing I brought that big, blue raincoat that I bought from Costco a few months ago with me.”

I ran into the house and dug through my suitcase, pulling out my big, blue raincoat that I had bought from Costco a few months ago. Being that it was a quality coat for less than half of what you would pay for a Patagonia or any of those other stupid REI-equivalent rip-offs, I was eager to put it on and show off both my fashion and bargain sense to everybody. “Alright guys, I’m ready. Let’s make ourselves another old fashioned and head out—“

I couldn’t believe it. Across the room from me stood Gretch, wearing a big, blue raincoat that she had probably bought from Costco a few months ago. Well, maybe not exactly from Costco, but nearly identical to mine, or close enough to piss me off, which I’m sure was her intention. “Come. Freaking. On.”

IMG_1600

Darkness overcame the Montana Sky, leaving a large splattering of stars above to entertain us throughout the night. Each of us stared up in amazement at the mysterious balls of fiery gas above us, wondering how many millions of miles away they were and if there was anything of importance among them. There were tens of thousands, possibly even hundreds of thousands lying out there in front of us to gaze upon, and millions more beyond the sight of the naked eye. Is something else actually out there? The odds on that night looked very favorable.

“Look, a shooting star!” screamed Gretch.

“There’s another one, make a wish!” I told them.

“What about that one?” asked Bill, pointing to another light moving across the sky.

“No, that’s a satellite.”

“Oh…” Each of us remained quiet for a moment. It sounded like there was a hint of disillusionment in his voice before he decided to speak again. “You know, you’re the first friend I’ve ever brought out here.”

“Really?”

“No joke.” A slight grin grew across my face. I couldn’t help but take in the statement with a nice serving of pride. “In fact, there’s only been one other person who has ever come with us to visit.”

“Who’s that?”

“…Megan Mills,” replied Gretch.

“Megan Mills?”

“Yea, Megan Mills. And you guys got in traaaaaa-ble!” said Bill in a nudging manner.

“What happened?”

“Oh nothing. We were out drinkin’ with some of the locals at the Pony Bar and then went into the mountains and got stuck. No big deal.”

“Dad was piiiiiised!

“I don’t even know why. I’ve been in worse situations with Megan Mills and survived.”

“Probably because you were with Megan Mills.”

“Yea, Megan Mills.”

“…Megan Mills,” I whispered under my breath as my eyes opened wide and my mouth hung agape, consequences of zoning out into deep space. The name was starting to become as legendary as the sea of stars above us. “Oh look, another shooting star!”

“Where?” asked Bill, darting his head across the sky.

“It flew right under the North Star.”

“Where’s that?”

“Here I’ll show you.” I came in close to Bill and hovered over his backside, pointing my arm across his cheek in an effort to guide him in the right direction. “You see, first you find the Little Dipper. It looks like the Big Dipper, but the cup is smaller and the handle looks longer. The North Star is at the end of it. See? In fact, if you look over at the Big dipper, two of the stars at the end of the dipper part line up and point right to it over there—“

“Click.”

“Wait, what was that?”

“A camera—Gretch?”

“GRETCH! Knock it off!” Gretch snickered away as she pointed her phone in our direction and snapped away. Once again, her immaturity ruined another educational moment, unable to fight the urge to snap a picture of Bill and I in a somewhat “suggestive” pose.

Bill and I looking at the stars

“Ok, ok, sorry you guys. Let’s walk down the street a little bit,” She suggested. “We’ll have a better view of the stars.”

“I mean, we really don’t need—you know, that’s actually a good idea Gretch,” I told her. The suggestion bought her some time to regain what little respect she had remaining after her antics, which were inappropriate at best. “I should probably get a flashlight, just in case.”

“No need, I already got one.” Bill and I looked at each other and nodded our heads. Impressive…

We followed Gretch a quarter mile down the road where we were free to view the sky with little obstruction. “Look there’s another one!” hollered Gretch, her reaction to another shooting star floating across the sky.

“I see it too,” yelled Bill.

“Make another wish,” I said as we focused on the last remnants of a fireball leaving a streak across the sky. “Let’s see if we can find one more. That’ll be five!”

“You know I sort of miss this type of stuff,” mentioned Gretch. “Being out here, away from it all. You just don’t get this in the city. It’s almost like you’re truly free—you get to escape, and remind yourself of what really matters… like family.”

“It’s sort of like— That’s weird…” I thought to myself. “Gretch kind of sounds like a boundary babe right now…”

“Like what?” asked Bill, catching me lost in a heavy trance among the stars.

“It’s like the Bou— never mind…” I twitched my body and threw my head in a downward direction.

“Yea… this place sure brings back some good memories,” said Bill. “Even with the crazy neighbor girls.”

“You mean the ones with the weird house made out of glass bottles that used to yell at mom and dad about snow plows?”

“Yea, they’re the ones.”

“Do they still live there? Maybe we should go over there and say hi? Maybe they’re a couple of babes now…” I added, nudging Bill with my elbow and letting out a slight chuckle.

“I really doubt that,” he fired back.

“Yea, maybe that’s not so much of a good idea,” said Gretch. Bill let out a slight chuckle, giving the impression that a reunion would simply be awkward and possibly troubling. “Too bad you couldn’t visit when we were younger, Zack. You would’ve liked this place.”

“I think I already do.” I looked over at Gretch, and couldn’t help but release a mysterious smile. Maybe she has a soul after all… “Hey Gretch, no wrong answer, but just out of curiosity, who was your favorite of Bill’s friends when we were growing up?”

“Oh, I’m not quite sure actually…” The answer should’ve been quite obvious, but I let her take her time, being that I was in such a congenial move. “I mean, I was friends with Josh’s sister, but he was always busy doing push-ups and being way too awesome for us.”

“Yes, keep going…”

“And Collin was nice, but he was also kind of weird, in the best, Collin way possible of course.

“C’mon G. C’mon G!”

“I guess I would have to say you—“

“That’s right, you—“

“Your one friend. He was kind of weird looking, but was always nice to me,” she said with a large grin growing across her face.

“Weird looking? Weird looking, like how?”

“I don’t know, maybe like an alien or something?“

“Wait, you’re not talking about Ben Wood—“

“Yea, Ben Woodward!”

“Ah Ben Wood—BEN WOODWARD?!?! Are you freaking kidding me?” I turned my back and stomped my way back towards cabin. Bill reached out for me.

“Zack, wait, she didn’t mean it—“

“Forget it! She blew it!”

I walked the quarter mile back to the cabin—alone. In the dark. All. By. My. Self. It was a risk I was gladly willing to take. My pride was on the line after all.

I stormed into the cabin, without saying another word to anybody. Immediately, I crawled back into bed, foregoing the courtesy of shutting off the lights or stripping down to my pajamas. I had nothing to say to them for the rest of the night.

 

***

 

“Oh look who’s back,” snapped Gretch, with once again, one of her overly astute observations.

“I forgot my computer, and I have a lot of work to do tomorrow.”

“Yea, sure you do.”

“Yes, in fact, I do. And just to let you know, I don’t need your attitude. All I need is this computer. And that’s it.” I shut my laptop and snatched it from the deck, stopping Third Eye Blind mid-track, and stormed back inside, with nothing left to say for the rest of the night.  “That’s all I need…”

 

***

 

10 seconds later I swung the door back open. “I need my power cord. I don’t want to run on a depleted battery.”

“Zack, we’re about to go in. Do you need help with anything—“

“Listen Bill, I don’t need any help, I don’t need you, and I certainly don’t need her! All I need my laptop and this power cord. That’s all I need.” I stormed back into the house. Bill followed me, or at least I think he did. I didn’t bother looking back.

 

***

 

“I don’t want to leave a mess, so I’m grabbing my old fashioned cup too,” I said to Gretch as she slid passed me through the doorway. “And don’t pretend like I need anything else. All I need is my laptop, this power cord, and this old fashioned cup.” Gretch slammed the front door shut, leaving me outside by myself.

“And that’s ALL I NEED!” I turned the doorknob.

“UNLOCK IT!”

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