How to Clean Your Conscience Chapter 2: At Least it Wasn’t Gretch After All…

July 22nd, 2016.  12:00 PM

Her voice was gentle; her tone soothing to the ears, a nice compliment to the pint of local brew we had just been served.  Bill and I had found ourselves a table near the edge of the patio, one side a prolific view of the entire street with its opposing shops, the other a front row seat to the musician’s performance—our personal enchantress.  And lucky for Bill, her innate ability to take a range of classic rock songs and transpose them into the soft style of Jewel had strayed my anger away from the cardinal error committed several minutes’ prior.  Add in a waitress flirting her way to an exorbitant tip and the Solid Café was on its way to an 5-Star Yelp review.

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash

“How do you like it?” asked Bill.

“Not bad,” I said with a slight shrug, followed by a gulp of beer. “We’ll see how my chimichanga is.”  In reality, the ice-cold taste of Belgian Ale provided an amiable balance to the 90-degree heatwave beating down on us, but there was no way I was letting my guard down.

“Yea, I guess we’ll see,” Bill’s response suggested disappointment.  We sat for a moment, sipping our beer and taking the time to appreciate the patio décor; the flowered planters lining the windows of the restaurant and the wood-stained decking, a sound balance between modern and rustic.

Boise Restaurant Row

Bill’s ears perked and his eyes sprang open like a brightly flicked lightbulb at the combination of notes coming from the enchantress’s guitar. “Hey… hey, I know this song!”  I turned my head to a prime position to feed my curiosity.  The progression of chords drew familiarity.  Then, a rapid rhythm.

“I’ve just seen a face I can’t forget
the time or place where we just met…”

“I know this song too!”  Bill and I drew quiet once again, attentive to each graceful note played, hoping to be the one to uncover the name of the song.

“And she is just the girl for me,
and I want all the world to see,
we’ve met.  Hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm hmm.”

She continued, slowing her beats per minute and taking her time between lyrical phrases to showcase her smooth and elegant plucking style.  If I didn’t know better, I’d swear she were teasing us, driving our anticipation in a subtle way—a most enjoyable and subtle way.

“Falling… yes I am falling,
And she keeps calling… me back again.”

“It’s the Beatles!” I yelled, my face beaming with satisfaction.

“Yea! I love this song!”  Bill sprang from his seat, moved by the choice of music and added a few well-deserved dollars to the enchantress’s tip jar.

“Thank you,” she said, continuing with the song without missing a single beat, an in-song response that had been practiced several times before.  The conclusion was met with a round of soft, yet eager applause.

“Are you still mad?” asked Bill.

“Mad? Why would I be mad?”

“Well, about earlier.”

“What do you mean earlier?”

“When I accidently… never mind.”

“No, what did you do?”

“It’s nothing, I…”

“Wait a minute…” I paused.  A familiar topic, disturbing in nature nearly edged itself back into my frontal lobe. “Wait a minute…”  It hit me.  “Wait a minute, is she playing Johnny Cash?”  It was an unnecessary question.  Of course she’s playing Johnny Cash! I jumped up and added a couple dollars of my own to the tip jar.

“Why thank you,” she responded, again taking a short second to acknowledge her fan’s appreciation before settling back into an imitation of the iconic voice; not quite as low, but just as pleasing.

“What were you saying again?” I asked.

“Oh, I uh… um, actually, I don’t remember.”

“Oh well.” I shrugged my shoulders and took another sip of beer, which was near empty.  I waved the waitress over as she made a pass.

“Did you like it?” she asked.

“It was perfect!”

“Told ya.” Her smile was a bit suggestive. “How about another one?”

“I’d like that.”

“I got ya covered.  Your sandwich and chimichanga are coming right up.”  She leaned in close to me and added a wink.  “You’re going to love your chimichanga.”  Bill rolled his eyes and downed the last of his beer.

“In that case, I’m gonna need another one myself,” he said with a reply that hinted towards sarcasm.

“Same kind?”

“Uh… sure.”

“Coming right up.”  She turned, maintaining a steady grin during the entire process, then strutted back to the kitchen, moving her hips side to side in a sensual manner.

“Dude, I think this babe kinda likes me,” I whispered to Bill.

“That’s what you said about the running babe 20 minutes ago!”

“But I think this one’s for real!”

“I guess I’ll take your word for it…”  A heavy sigh left his body.  “Surely she’s not flirting to get a bigger tip,” he mumbled.

“What was that?”

“Oh, nothing,” he said as he tipped his glass, a reminder that we were without beer for the moment.  He stared into the empty abyss, depression taking over, though with the aid of our enchantress’s sweet melodies, he patiently waited for our waitress’s return, as did I.

And return she did, keeping true to her word with a fresh round of beers, even adding in a new set of flirtatious quips.  Then came the grand finale—two plates, one with a sandwich, the other with a giant log occupying the length of the plate, smothered with red, green, and white sauces and deep fried to perfection.  “Alright.  Here’s your sandwich, and here is your BBQ’d chimi-changa.” The presentation of our food drew a nod of approval.  A dash of hope had resurfaced.

“So… what’s in the box?” she asked, lifting her chin with a “what up” gesture, her eyes fixated beyond me.

I glanced across the table, honing in on the only object that could fit the description. “Oh you mean this?” I asked, grabbing for the running shoes.

“Yea.  What’s in the box!?” she said again, channeling her inner Brad Pitt and forcing a quick chuckle out of Bill.

“Well, check these bad boys out.”  I opened the box, revealing the newly purchased pair of shoes.  Not yet adulterated by the fouls of feet, its flashes of florescent orange shined and synthetic aroma filled our nostrils.

“Oh my God…” she replied.

“Yea, I know. I thought they were pretty sweet too the first time I saw them.”

“…Oh my God!” she repeated, staring out into the distance.  Geez, even I don’t like those shoes that much. This babe must really be head over heels—

“Oh my God!” The voice was much deeper this time. I whipped my head back to the waitress, then to Bill.  Both had contorted their bodies to face the street, gearing their attention towards the perpetual sound of pounded pavement.  The rest of the lunch patrons took notice and followed suit.

“Hey!” A scream, long and forceful, echoed through the streets.  I shot my head towards the source, barely catching a glimpse of a silhouette blasting down the middle of the road.  I turned my head again in unison with Bill, the waitress, and the rest of the patio members as if directed by a drill sergeant and zeroed in on the action.  What in the world…

His speed was impressive, especially given Birkenstock sandals as his choice of footwear.  The way he stayed on top of the double yellow lines at his current velocity through oncoming traffic suggested a heightened level of athleticism.  No doubt he had achieved success in the hundred-meter dash in high-school. It was the Bermuda shorts however that instituted his lack of care while in pursuit of the blue SUV in front of him, of which he was gaining ground at a significant rate.

“Hey Bill, isn’t that Gretch’s car?”

Bill sat for a moment in deep thought, then chuckled.  “…Now that you mention it, it could be.”

“I mean, it makes perfect sense.”

“Wait, who’s Gretch?” asked the waitress.

“Believe me, you don’t want to—oh Jesus!”

Whap! The sound of lethal contact reverberated down the street, the trigger for a chain reaction of subconscious events.  Tables shifted.  Chairs scooted backward.  Senseless chatter rang from each table, quickly converging to the edge of the patio.  All the while, a softly plucked rift of a Jewel song played in the background, unaffected by the erupting chaos.

If I could tell the world just one thing it would be
That we’re all ok…

“What in the hell was that—“

Whap, whap whap!  Three additional blows cut the waitress’s comments short. The man had sent his fist through the open window several times, delivering four unexpected punches to the head of the driver.  Bill sat back aghast, having the perfect view of the carnage.  

And not to worry, cause worry is wasteful
And useless at times like theses…

“Jesus Christ!” our waitress shouted, mixing in a colorful string of expletives between the phrase.  Due to the circumstances, her lack of professionalism was excused for the moment. An urge to conform, to join the waitress with her release of curses rose within me.  Yet, another force, built upon the siren call of a young enchantress, worked to suppress any desire to overreact.

My hands are small I know
But they’re not yours, they are my own

And they’re not yours, they are my own, and…
We are never broken…

“Looks like Gretch alright…”  I took a sip of beer and remained in my seat, clarity beaming.

A line of pedestrians stood on the sidewalk, leaning into the street as if they were barricaded by an invisible fence.  The man had positioned himself in the front of the car, obstructing any attempts of progress from the driver.  The car sat idle, its driver dazed and petrified, their identity still a mystery.

Rumors flew over the next several minutes.  Tensions rose and patrons colluded with one another, each of them bestowed with the task to gather clues as to what happened—a task that brought about many interruptions between me and my chimichanga.  

“I heard he almost got run over,” one said.

“Him and the driver got in an argument,” said another.

“No, my manager said he got in an argument with his wife,” our waitress added.

“Wait, his wife was driving?” asked Bill, trying to conceal his disappointment.

“Gosh, I hope it wasn’t,” said a random patron.

“Neither do I,” I added, shaking my head.  “…Neither do I…”

“No, it wasn’t the wife,” our waitress interjected.  “I’m pretty sure it was a…”  A sighting from inside the restaurant stalled her train of thought. Bill and I took a peak of what looked to be a flash of the manager.  “…It was a… …hold on just a second.”  She disappeared into the restaurant with the hope of uncovering new details.  Bill and I took notice of a crowd that had grown twice as large within a matter of minutes.  Cars continued to pile up, filling the length of the street.

“Ok, the police are on their way,” announced the waitress bursting back onto the scene, having found her calling in life.  Serving us longer no longer seemed to be her occupation.

“So what happened?” asked the enchantress during a break in lyrics, plucking away at her guitar as if it were the natural order of her existence.  She looked over to our waitress leaning over the railing, her attention elsewhere.  She continued plucking away, waiting for an answer.

“So, the guy got into an argument with his wife and kids across the street,” finally said the waitress, her focus undeterred.  “They were yelling at each other back and forth, and he was acting like he was going to cross the street.  But he never would, and these drivers are all getting pissed, cause he keeps giving them the wrong impression!” Her ability to speak without taking a breath was nothing short of astonishing.  “So, one of them says ‘screw it’ and turns.  Well then, this guy finally decides to step out right into the street while the driver’s turning, and then he goes ballistic—” A blip of a police siren sounded down the street, directing us to simultaneously turn to the source.  “Well, look what we have here…” she said.  There was no shame, not even an attempt to hold back the grin she had ripped at the reveal of her foretold prophecy.

Two more police cars rolled up to the front of the SUV.  An ambulance followed, maneuvering through the a completely surrounded crime scene.  Officers and paramedics exited their vehicles and began their line of questioning, starting with the man in the Bermuda shorts and trickling down to the line of observers.  Two others tended to the driver, who’s identity was still a mystery.

“So you’re saying the guy got hit?” asked Bill.

“No, he was like 5 feet away!  Not even close!”  Gee, looks like the police are questioning the wrong people.

“So who called the police?” I asked.

“He did.”

“Wait… on himself???”

“Oh yea!” she replied with the enchantress’s sweet ambience backing her up.  “He was so angry, he jumped right in front of the car and called them right up!  Man, this keeps on getting more bizarre by the minute.  “Look, the driver’s getting out!”

The phrase set off another stampede to the railing, much like the announcement of a schoolyard brawl.  Police officers worked to convince the driver to exit the vehicle, activity far from our waitress’s claim; a blunder that resulted in zero repercussions. Anticipation lingered amongst the crowd and strengthened with each passing minute as the negotiations between the police and the driver continued.

“They’re opening the door!”  A random claim brought the hundreds crowding the sidewalk and patio to whispers.  Not one among us had the gall to speak while the driver’s identity was being disclosed, nobody except for one—our enchantress, the only one worthy, still plucking away at her guitar, her source of life.  Who is this person?

An officer opened the door and outstretched his arm.  I stared and waited, my heart pounding like a jackhammer, unable to break from the moment.  Slowly, a fragile hand reached out, shaking until it met the stability of the officer’s hand.  A wave of “WTF’s,” spoken fully and without filter sparked throughout the crowd as the driver was guided into sight, a phrase that neither Bill, the waitress, nor myself could skip when it was our turn to participate.  An elderly woman, easily passed as a member of the Golden Girls emerged, her left ear the size of a grapefruit and spots of blood soaked in her curly, white hair.

The man, the young track star donning Bermuda shorts and Birkenstocks, had beaten up a little old lady.

“What the F—!” The last one came from a beautiful voice.  A clatter of dropped silverware and a series of gasps followed. Bill and I turned to our enchantress, the only logical source of the foul phrase.  Our faces grew wide and petrified.  And then there was silence—an awful cacophony of silence.  The sweet, siren melodies had come to an end.

…I guess even the best among us have our flaws.

Mr. Bermuda was arrested immediately, his wife and kids nowhere to be seen.  Officers did their best to restore order to downtown Boise as he was placed under police custody, a fruitless effort in the end.  Yes, their professionalism helped calm the situation, and most of us would find a way to reintegrate back into society for the sake of our loved ones—somehow.  But to anybody near the vicinity of the Solid Café on that sunny afternoon, there was no denying that a piece of our souls had be sucked away, forever lost in the ether floating above downtown Boise.

 “Well, at least it wasn’t Gretch,” said Bill, having found the will to speak once again.  I barely knew how to respond.

“I… I suppose it’s time to grab the check,” I responded with a frozen face. I took one last swig of beer and waited for our waitress to cross our line of sight.  It had been several minutes since her last sighting.  Her presence now seemed pointless, as did my reason for my existence. Yea… at least it wasn’t Gretch after all…

Chapter 24: The Lonesome Crowded West, Part 3 – The Emmy Award Winner

We emerged from the shallow depths of the Madison River lobster skinned and fully consumed of energy, the grueling, 7-mile journey by tube certainly taking its toll on our bodies. So thankful we were to have experienced several minutes of relaxation, to become one with the river and to exist, if only for a few hours, amongst a series of hazards that would mold us into honorary Pony natives. How thankful we were to say that we had endured the elements of the mighty Madison, our scrapes, bruises, and burns worn as badges of pride on our trek up the recovery ramp.

But perhaps most of all, we were just thankful that the whole damn thing was over.

In the backseat of the Benz laid my backpack with a new set of clothes. I grabbed for it, and then hesitated, opting to peak outside of the car for a suspicious survey of my surroundings. Bill and Gretch stood near the trunk, their undivided attention focused on deflating their tubes, something I had been ever-so prudent about since our exodus from the river, a calculated move to avoid a squall of harassment for being the last one with an inflated tube. With my backpack in hand and the coast clear, I calmly shut the door and slipped into the public outhouse undetected for a change of clothes and a quick whiz, one that was much deserved.

After my episode of relief, I dipped into my backpack and pulled out the green Old Navy shirt I had bought right before the wedding. The material was light and soft, one of those shirts that aren’t exactly a solid color, consisting of short, dark-shaded fibers of the same color scheme, but make you look both buff and awesome whenever you put it on—my favorite type. Josh Ulrich would agree, being that his whole wardrobe consists of them along with a couple of Patagonias and North Faces. Ben Woodward has a bunch of those shirts as well, but none of them make him look buff, or awesome for that matter. Sadly, the kid just kind of looks like a dingus, no matter what he wears.

With the words “Green Bay Packers” printed in yellow varsity style XXL letters however, I couldn’t help but think that this shirt was far superior to anything that Josh Ulrich ever owned (and definitely better than everything in Ben Woodward’s collection). There was no doubt that this was a one of a kind. I put it on, and dad body or not, I looked buff, and I looked awesome. It was a wonder why it had taken me until now to wear it.

I strutted out of the bathroom, giving Bill the “what’s up” nod as he folded and packed the rest of the deflated tubes into the back of the Benz. He nodded back with an impressive smile. “You guys ready to head back?”

“I think we should stop and get some more beer before we go…“ Whoa, wait—what is this? It wasn’t so much the suggestion that bothered me, but when Gretch lifted herself out of the backseat, a jolt of repulsion shot through my body. There she stood, clad in a thin green shirt with the words “Green Bay Packers” on it, written in yellow varsity style XXL letters, trying to look “buff” and “awesome,” or something stupid like that. I threw my hands up and rolled my eyes in disbelief.

“You just could resist, could you? You had to copy me. You saw the shirt I got at Old Navy, and you bought the same exact one, just because I got it. That’s unbelievable—No. I wish I could say I can’t believe it, but you know Gretch, after everything that’s happened this trip, this doesn’t surprise me; not one bit—“

“Zack, you saw me in line at the Old Navy,” she snapped back. “You knew I bought it, and you watched me pack this shirt in my bag this morning. You’re the one who copied me!”

This time, I actually couldn’t believe the words that had just come out of her mouth. I copied her? What an accusation! How dare she accuse me of copying her, after everything I’ve done for her! Oh, she likes the Green Bay Packers because of that one hunk Clay Matthews? No, she likes the Green Bay Packer because I like the Green Bay Packers. And she’s the one claiming otherwise? It’s revolting. It’s a travesty! It will not stand!!!

I stared at her with a set of impassioned eyes, brewing up a brutal response that would set the record straight, to create an embarrassment so overwhelming that the thought of an assertion much like the one she had just made would make her tremble in her sleep. I was about to make sure she’d never say anything so abominable for the rest of her life! My fists clinched and shook as I opened my mouth, squeezing every ounce of energy from my body into the ultimate comeback, a definitive insult, utter assurance that this would never happen, ever again!

“Gretch, You—I… Get—“ My mind raced with thoughts, thousands of them swirling, converging into a cloud of obfuscation. There was so much to say, any one of them warranting destructive results, yet all of them wanting to be released all at once! I opened my mouth again. “Gret…” It was a complete jam, impossible for anything to escape from my mouth’s tiny orifice. C’mon! Just say something—anything!

“Get in the car…” I said, my voice low and haunting. It was all that came out.

Gretch did as she was told and Bill followed her lead. I climbed in and sped off towards Harrison, stopping in Norris for a quick fill up on gas beforehand. We needed beer, and a lot of it.

20 minutes of Third Eye Blind and little conversation eventually led us to a local convenient store just inside of Harrison city limits. “I’ll be back in a minute,” said Gretch the moment I parked the car. She was quick to exit the car, as was I to follow her. “Why are you coming in?” she asked, confronting me with a look of perplexity spread across her face, as if she was the only one allowed in the store.

“I don’t know, I just want to make sure there’s nothing else we need, that’s all, heheh.” The truth was, I wasn’t really quite sure why I wanted to go in. Maybe it was just for the heck of it. She rolled her eyes and continued on towards the entrance.

“Oh boy, Packer fans eh?” said the attendant manning the store. “We don’t see many of you guys around here.”

“Oh yea, we’ve been fans for a long time,” I started, eager to hold a positive conversation about the Packers. “My family’s from Wisconsin, and we just love watching our boys play every chance we get, right Gretch?” Gretch was already to the back of the store, her focus totally diverted to the search of Coors Light. “Well, you know what she has her mind on, heheh.” The lady joined me in a soft chuckle.

“Oh boy, you kids must be so exited for the season!”

“Oh you betcha! She’s a big Clay Matthews fan, but you know me, I just have to root for my boy Aaron Rodgers.”

“Oh, he’s such a handsome fellow.”

“You know, I don’t want to brag, but I’ve been mistaken for Aaron Rodgers in the past…”

“I bet you have! In fact, you do look a little bit like him, if I do say so myself.”

“Haha, I know, I get it all the time… Yea, I really hope we get a chance to make it out there for a game or two this year. We just absolutely love it, and it’s always such a wonderful experience—” The sound of a 100-pound dumbbell slamming on the counter stopped our conversation dead in its tracks. We turned our heads, shaken up by the sound. There sat an 18 pack of Coors Light, and next to it stood Gretch, shooting us a short and artificial half-smile.

“That’ll be 16 dollars hun.” I reached into my back pocket to hand her my credit card, but by the time I got my wallet out, there was already a 20 on the counter. I gave Gretch a concerned look. She just shrugged back and returned a wide-eyed look like I was a moron. “What?”

“Thank you so much. Gosh, you two look so cute in your Green Bay Packer shirts.”

“Oh thank you mam. You have a wonderful day!” I replied with a giant smile on my face. Gretch nodded her head and gave the lady another forced, half-smile, squinting her eyes in a stuck up manner in the process. By the time we exited the store, her smile had disappeared and her nod had turned into a solid shake.

“What the heck was that all about?” she snapped.

“I don’t know, where the heck did you get 20 bucks from?”

“None of your business, that’s where!”

“GRETCH!”

“I found it in the parking lot of the gas station we stopped at back in Norris!”

“Gretch, that was somebody’s money! You stole!”

“What? I asked around. And it’s not like nobody you’ll be complaining later.”

She’s a criminal, just like her brother… “Whatever, let’s just go back to the cabin. This whole thing just makes me rotten.” We crawled back into the car and began the drive back to Pony.

“Alright! More Coors Light!” exclaimed Bill.

“Yep, another 18 pack,” I replied after a long sigh. “I can’t wait for steaks tonight.”

“Me neither. I think the grill’s gonna cook em’ up real good! You guys get anything else?”

“Nah, just the beef sticks we got back in Norris. I figured I might as well go in there and check, just in case. You never know, right?”

“Right—” A sudden release of pressure was heard from the backseat. Both of us looked back. Gretch had not only opened the 18 pack, but also cracked open a fresh can of Coors Light.

“GRE—“ I almost blurted it out by natural instinct, and for good reason too! She had the audacity to have an open container? In my car? While I’m driving? But as the word began to leave my mouth, I remembered the golden rule Lea had taught us merely a moon ago: You’re allowed to have a beer on the drive from Harrison to Pony. I let it slide without further mention and continued up the road back to the cabin.

Bill was quick to fire up the grill and get a start on dinner soon after our arrival, and who could blame him! If he felt anything like me, he was starved! I did my part by helping Lea whip up a few servings of “Idahoan” instant mashed potatoes, and Gretch even helped by prepping some corn on the cob! Well, at least I think she did. Who knows, she could’ve just stood around drinking more beer, which was more likely the case, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and say she helped.

Each of us salivated at the sight of four thick New York Steaks, fully seasoned and sizzling over a wood tempered fire, and continued long after they were lifted from the hot, grated iron they were cooked on. Our bodies released a heavy dose of dopamine the moment the savory taste of red meat hit our taste buds, sending each of us into our own form of fantastical exultation, proof that the hours of construction put into Bill’s grill was beyond masterful, and his cooking beyond that. But it wasn’t enough. Within minutes, my entire plate of food had been devoured… and I still wanted more.

To my left was Gretch, still with a substantial amount of food left on her plate, but her position and attentive nature towards her meal meant that any attempt at her food was at best a foolish endeavor. Bill on the other hand had grown negligent over his plate. Although a hearty portion had already been eaten, there it lay unattended, resting on the coffee table and still very much edible. He busied himself, toying with a collection of beer sitting next to Gretch and ignoring his remaining slab of meat altogether. “It’s now or never,” I thought to myself. “He won’t even know, playing around with the beer and all. And the way he’s acting, he’s probably all done eating anyway! I mean, I could ask—no, can’t take the chance. What if he says no? What to do, what to do—look at him poke at Gretch, obviously trying to show her something—knock it off! Concentrate—think stupid! He’s not looking! Act. NOW!”

With a single, swift motion, I lifted my steak knife and stabbed down at the slab. My knife pierced the strip like a hot stick of butter—success. I lifted the knife once again; the steak wasn’t there. Another knife had been stuck in it. “Hiya!” Bill screamed and swatted his knife towards mine, clinking together the metal ends.

“Hiiiya!” I returned with a counter attack. It was quickly deflected by another knife swat.

“Get back!” screamed Bill with a mighty swing of his knife across my body, his eyes lifted and his face long and serious.

“It’s mine!” I shot back after leaning back and dodging his swing, Matrix style. I countered, going in with a swing of my own. Bill jumped out of his seat and positioned himself in an aggressive stance. It all happened so quickly, the series of events moving faster than our brains could function, and the next thing I knew we were both on our feet, aggressing over what was left of the steak. “On guard!” I lunged toward him with my knife, my arm extended in front and body positioned like a master fencer. He took a few scoots back and came back at me with a lunge of his own, going straight for the kill shot. I deflected and rang my knife around in a circular motion in an attempt to induce confusion upon my foe. He copied my maneuver, both of our knives swirling around in between our bodies.

“Huwaaaa!” screamed Bill, shaking his knife in random directions in front of his body. I swatted my arm in a fury of madness only to be matched by Bill’s as our knives swung about, hoping that one would eventually make contact with something—hoping that contact would be one of our opponent’s vital organs.

“Yaawwwww!” My arm moved around fast—lightning fast; swinging and swatting in an out of control manner in front of Bill’s face, neck and torso.

“Ahhhh!” he screamed back, mirroring my attack style and speed—so fast that our blades began to appear as a solid sheet of grey, hovering around in front of us, waiting for Murphy’s Law to take effect.

“WAAAAA!!!”

“HUUAAAAAA!!!”

“WHHHHOOOOOOOO!!!”

“GUUUUUUUUYYYYYYSSSSS!!!” Both of us stopped in our tracks and turned our heads at the cry of the beast. Gretch sat back with her eyes wide and body trembling in horror. “What, in the hell, is wrong with you guys!?” Neither one of us uttered a sound, except for a couple of exhausted exhales. “You guy’s are acting like a bunch of animals…”

I took a long, hard look at Bill and he took a long, hard look at me. We remained silent, and nervous for another moment, before I finally spoke again. “…Are you kiddin’ me Gretch?” I blurted out, the words naturally flowing from my mouth.

Obviously we were just joking around,” answered Bill.

“Yea, you think I want this stupid piece of meat?”

“You think we’re stupid enough to fight like this?”

“Yea, the steak was good, but c’mon!”

“Geez, way to spoil the fun, Gretch.”

“No kidding. Freaking out like we’re gonna hurt each other, give me a break—you know what, I’m not even hungry anymore!”

“Me neither. Come Zack, let us leave this Gretch to simmer in her paranoia.”

“Let’s do. I got a bunch of beef sticks to snack on anyway.” We grabbed our plates and left the party pooper outside to finish the rest of her dinner by herself. “I’m gonna need a stiff old fashioned after that one…”

 

***

 

“Psst, Zack,” whispered Bill as we finished up the last of the dishes. He whipped his head over twice, motioning it towards the bedroom.

“What?” I blurted, watching him tiptoe away.

“Shhh.” He made another head nod, this time towards the bathroom where the shower was running. A smile slowly grew on his face, causing a smile to grow on my face. He waved me over and I obediently followed. Whatever Bill had up his sleeve, it was going to be good… real good.

“Ok, here’s the plan. You lay on her bed and I’ll lie on mine. She wants to go to the Pony Bar really bad, so we’re gonna pretend to have fallen sound asleep. She’ll try to wake us up, but she wont be able to, and then she’ll freak out, really bad. What do you think?”

“Bill, you gotta know that I’m not some guy off the street that’s gonna suck up…” There was a serious look in his eyes as I spoke, ready to except any sort of news with a stroke of dignity. “…But that’s probably the best idea I’ve heard this whole trip.”

He paused for a second, acting as if he needed to hold back the tears before speaking again. “Then let’s hurry and get into position before she gets out!”

“Oh God, the shower just turned off. Quick!” We hopped into the room and jumped into position, letting a couple giggles out of our system before go time.

“Ok ok, she’s coming, shhh!”

I could hear her shuffling around the cabin, taking her sweet time wandering about, looking everywhere except for the most obvious place. “Bill? Zack? Where are you guys?” I clenched my jaw shut, doing everything I could to keep from letting out a chuckle and blowing our cover. “Is this a joke?” she asked as she continued her search, heading towards the den and asking Lea for additional help. “Mom, have you seen Bill and Zack?” I heard from a distance. Again, it took an extra effort to lock my jaw in place and refrain from making any sort of noise.

10 minutes had passed and the constant sound of shuffling continued to make waves through the cabin. It grew faint, then loud, then faint again, each iteration causing an increased stress on the muscles holding our mouths shut. The shuffling noise grew once again, and this time it maintained its presence, growing louder and louder, piercing, earsplitting, drumming into my skull—ringing over me now! Pounding and pounding, ready to explode!

Then, there was silence, but for the biological release and intake of air. The shuffling had stopped, and my heart was throbbing. A loud flick of the light revealed two bodies, completely motionless in the absence of darkness. “You guys look pretty stupid right now,” said a girl’s voice. No response was given. “Actually, you look really stupid!” Wow. It was like we were dealing with an amateur. “Oh well. It looks like I’ll just have to go to the Pony Bar all by myself then…” Gretch? By herself? To the Pony Bar? The statement in itself almost blew our cover it was so hilarious.

Suddenly, I felt a close presence next to me. It must have been Gretch, and she was up in my face, foolishly thinking she could break me. “Get up Zack. You’re faking, I know you are!” It took every muscle in my body, tensed in unison to keep me from letting out a snort. The culmination of up close and personal Gretch remarks was almost too much to bear. She hovered over my position for another minutes before walking up and taking a stab at her next victim—Bill. She had given up on me… for now.

Out of a small crack in my eye, I watched Bill, whose performance was impeccable. He even had a slight buzz under his breath, a delicate snore that sounded completely natural… almost too natural. “Bill, wake up!” she commanded in a stern and frightening voice. Yet again, she was afforded no response except for another set of rhythmic breathing. Man, Bill is good! Gretch went unphased, stepping up in her attacks.

She went straight for the face, grabbing his cheeks and squeezing them together like a bloated puffer fish. “Listen Bill, get up. We’re going to the Pony Bar, or else,” she said, speaking in some mystic dialect of evil (Actually, the conversation had much more substance. But because so many curses were used, about 90% of it had to be omitted due to personal blog standards). Yet, she continued. “If you don’t @$#$@&g get up right #$#@&% now, I’m going to beat the #$@&! out of your $&#@$ $#@, you $#@# $#*&$ $@^@&$@ @$@!(!#&^ @$%!!!!!! !!@#*$@#@!&*$^@%!*^! !^@@!*^$%!# ^$!@#^(^!%#(!^!!!!!”

To my absolute horror, the conversation went on. And to my amazement, Bill miraculously managed to keep his mouth shut and his body perfectly still. Gretch began throwing his head around like a chew toy, then proceeded to pick it up by the cheeks, giving Bill the old, cold stare down. “How can one man endure so much?” I asked myself. Then it hit me. No wonder he’s is keeping such a good cover. I think he’s actually out cold!

Gretch slammed his head down on the bed, where it bounced off the mattress and joined the rest of his limp body. She whipped her head back around and stared me down. I had seen that face before, a face where someone’s all pissed off for no reason at all—the worst kind—Ronda Rousey—screw this!

“Ahhh, oh boy, what a nap,” I said, stretching my arms and legs out. “Oh hey Gretch, what’s going on, heheh?” She continued her pissed off stare; no way of clearing my name. I leaned over and took a peak at Bill. My hypothesis was correct; he wasn’t faking, not one bit. He truly was dead asleep. As it turns out, a full day of floating the Madison mixed with a belly full of beef and beer had induced a state of sleepiness, and at this point, the poor kid wouldn’t wake up for the end of the world. “Well, I’ll leave you guys alone to deal with whatever it is you got to do for a little bit. I’m gonna see what Lea’s up to.”

I slipped out of the room, careful and light on my feet not to make Gretch even more enraged. And honestly, I didn’t want to bear witness to what Gretch was about to do next. And what was the point if I was utterly powerless in stopping her? Bill had carved his own destiny; his life was no longer in my hands.

 

***

 

Lea and I were watching the evening news in comfort when Gretch walked into the den, her head down and arms crossed. She took a seat next to her mom on the couch and shoved her arms deeper into her chest for an extra pout. “What’s wrong honey?” asked Lea, somehow unaware of the troubling events that had just taken place. Gretch said nothing, her only response being a sharp turn of her body away from her mother. By her overtly obnoxious shift, we could correctly assume that she was trying to say, “I’m mad.” Yet, her actions still warranted the obvious question. “Are you mad?”

It was another sharp shift, deeper into the couch, her face barely visible at this point; no chance of possible eye contact. Why yes, by the looks of it, it seems as though Gretch is indeed a little upset. I lifted my hand and cupped it over my mouth in a direct path towards Lea as to call out into a deep canyon and create an echo. Yet, only a whisper was uttered, barely audible as to prevent anybody except for Lea from interpreting my message, both visually and orally. “She’s a little grouchy because Bill fell asleep.”

“That’s not even!” snapped Gretch, whipping around and confronting my accusation head on. Crap! How did she even hear?   “All I wanted to do was go to the Pony Bar tonight. Bill knew that, so he went to bed—on purpose. Just to make me mad!” Well, that worked out brilliantly if I do say so myself. “What are you smiling about Zack?”

“…Um, nothing, I eh just…” C’mon, think of something. Quick! “I was just thinking, since it’s my last night in Pony and all, that I wouldn’t mind going out to the Pony Bar with you for a drink or two, even without Bill.” Good save—wait!

“Oh Gretch, that sounds like a wonderful idea! How about you two just go for a couple drinks?” Like most good ideas that are given by a mother, Gretch wanted no part in accepting Lea’s. So she stood up with her head down and slowly walked out of the den. There had to be a kink in her neck and a strain in her arms or something, for her head remained stuck in the downward position and her arms looked to be permanently attached to each other in the crossed position as she walked away. And once again, Lea and I were left in the den to watch the local news by ourselves.

“I don’t know what happened? I really did want to go to the Pony Bar on my last night for a couple of drinks!”

“Oh don’t worry Zack. She’ll come around,” Lea assured. “Gretch never passes up a chance to go out to a bar, especially in Pony.” Her words ameliorated my concerns, but only slightly. There was still much uncertainty stirring in my mind, let alone the anxiety bustling about.

Sure enough, the Gretch came back five minutes later with her shoes on and covered in a sweatshirt, dressed like she was ready to brave the elements of nature. “Alright, I guess I’ll go,” she said in a melancholy voice, doing her best not to show positive emotion. “But all I want is one beer. That’s it!”

“Ah great!” I said, and with a mighty zip in my step, I jumped to my feet and headed straight for the door. “Lea, do you wanna come too?” I asked, leaning my head back into the den, nearly forgetting my manners.

“Oh, no thank you.” She wiggled her can of Coors Light in line with her head. “I’ve got enough here to last me through the night.

“Well then, what are we waiting for Gretch?” I zipped right up and out of there. Gretch followed behind, shuffling her way to the door as if she was unable to lift her feet off the ground, forced towards a place she wanted to go to all along.

 

***

 

It was a mild night at the Pony Bar, something you’d expect for a typical Thursday in the small, rancher’s town with most of the big-time cowboys waiting until Friday to come out and party. “What will it be,” asked the bartender as we took a seat at the bar, the same one that served us a day before.

“I’ll have a Coors Light,” said Gretch after taking some time to peruse the menu, a baffling maneuver since we all knew what she was going to order all along. Whatever.

“I’ll have a bud light, draft please.”

“That’ll be two dollars each.”

I reached in my pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. “Oh check it out!” Amongst the pile of crumpled bills laid a Wooden Nickel. I showed Gretch; it looked as though she had one as well. “Here you go mam.”

“Thank you guys. Enjoy!”

Gretch and I sipped on our beer and furthered our examination of the knick-knacks lining the bar’s walls from the day before, a small respite of time before I threw a deluge of questions her way. “Don’t you have a lot of friends around here?” I asked. “Where are they all at? Don’t they like to party?”

“I dunno? They’re probably working and stuff. It’s still Thursday after all.”

“Oh yea. Where do they work?”

“At the ranches.”

“What’s so good about the ranches?”

“A bunch of rich people own em’.”

“Do they all live there?”

“Ya.”

“Really?”

“Ya.”

“All of em’?”

“I think so…”

“Do they make good money?”

“The engineers do.”

“Whoa, maybe I should work there…”

“You need connections.”

“Good thing I know you guys then!”

“Yea, sure… good luck with that…” The last comment seemed to have killed off any further discussions of Gretch’s friends and their places of work. We took another sip of beer and revisited our examination of the bar’s unique decorations, each of us choosing to remain silent until we figured out the next thing to say.

“So what the heck are all those semi-trucks doing driving by your house and spreadin’ dust everywhere? What a drag on the Dutcher Estate!”

“Oh yea, they gotta clean up all of the old gold mines.”

“What happened?”

“Back in the day this use to be an old gold mining town. It thrived, and there were all sorts of things! Town stores, inns, bars, brothels, you know, the usual stuff you find in the old west.”

“I hear ya.”

“Well, the industry started dyin’ and people moved away. So later down the road, some rich and greedy dudes came over to try and find more gold, but just ended up pouring a bunch of chemicals into the mines instead. And as it turns out, those chemicals are bad for the environment, so now they gotta go out there and clean it all up!”

“Sounds terrible…”

“Yea, but who knows? Maybe it’s good for the economy?”

“Yea, maybe.” I took another swig of beer and stared at the wall of liquor in front of me. It wasn’t a lot, but impressively large for a small bar in rural Montana. “Man Gretch, I can’t believe this is my last night here. I really starting to like this place… I hope I can come back sometime—I really do.”

“I hope so too.” Gretch’s amiable response threw me off a bit given our recent history, but I gladly accepted it after taking another sip of beer. “And to tell you the truth, I’ve had a lot of fun this trip. I’m glad we all got to go to Beth’s wedding together.”

“You know, I did too. In the end, I’m glad you decided to come with us.

“Really?”

Did I really mean what just came out of my mouth? “…Sure.” Whatever, I just needed a little appeasement to get her off my back. And once again, a mug met my lips and its contents entered my body.

“Oh look, it’s Revin’ Evan!” said Gretch, her face glowing bright as if Nickelback had just walked into the bar. I turned my head toward the entrance; in came a scraggily looking dude with glasses and curly black hair, sort of a Ben Woodward type of look.

“Revin’ Evan?”

“Yea, Revin’ Evan! He’s one of the most popular guys in Pony! He comes to the bar all the time!”

“Huh. Revin’ Evan, I would have never guessed…” And neither would’ve anybody else for that matter. His oversized black T-shirt with a creepy picture of Marilyn Manson definitely did not fit the style of fashion the rest of the patrons at the Pony Bar were wearing. However, he was quite colloquial in his dealings, immediately joining in jovial conversation with a few of the other regulars at the end of the bar.

Out of nowhere, a hard rumble sent a gasp out of Gretch’s mouth. Stumbling footsteps crept up from behind us, their lack of rhythm striking a sense of fear, reason to abstain from looking back and to instead take in another giant gulp of beer in preparation to the possibility of an unwelcomed encounter. The footsteps stopped—the deity was near. We set down our beers to a loud clink and slowly turned our heads to the left. A bulging belly enclosed by a long sleeve plaid shirt that was mere moments from bursting apart and tucked into a tight pair of wranglers covered the view of the regulars at the end of the bar. Within a matter of seconds, Revin’ Evan’s notoriety had literally been overshadowed.

“The name’s Wade,” said the deep and raspy voice next to us. “Is this seat taken?” Each of us raised our heads slowly upward towards the man whose cowboy hat and thick mustache perfectly matched the rest of his outfit, our stereotypical idea of an old, drunken rancher living in small town Montana.

“Please. Be my guest,” I said after a short moment of silence. He accepted my offer and to my luck, took a seat next to Gretch.

“Ain’t never seen none of you folks before. Where abouts you from?” asked Wade, the smell of hard liquor reeking from his breath.

“Boise,” answered Gretch, her answer short and succinct.

“Seattle,” answered I, my answer short and succinct.

“All you damn city folk are always comin’ here and visitin’ now a days,” he said, prompting each of us to take another swig of beer. Wade’s response was surprisingly welcoming, even though his intention appeared to show disgust. Whether or not he liked to admit it, I think Wade enjoyed meeting the new folk who passed through Pony on their travels. “What in the hell brought you out to a place like this?”

“My family owns the Dutcher Estate,” replied Gretch.

“Oh yea, I heard that name before. The Dutchers… Well Dutchers, looks like you’re almost outa beer.” Wade signaled for the bartender. “Hey miss, get these two another round and get me a shot of bourbon.” Despite his heightened level of intoxication, his good deed sparked further conversation, as well as a strange and mutual respect for the man we had just become acquainted with—at least for the time being. A minute later, the bartender came back with a fresh set of beers for Gretch and I and a bottle of whiskey to be poured into a shot for Wade. “Cheers,” he said, lifting his glass in the air.

“Cheers,” we replied, mirroring his gesture by raising our mugs. Wade wasted no time in drinking, already having his shot downed by the time our beer touched our lips.

“Another one,” said Wade without hesitation. The bartender wasted no time in accepting his request, most likely having previous knowledge of Wade’s drinking capabilities. We however, did not, and watched with a bit of dread as he waited for his next drink, which apparently couldn’t come soon enough. “You know, I’m a writer,” he added.

“No kidding? I’m a writer too,” I added, excited for the opportunity to talk, writer to writer. How happy I always am to speak of the frustrations our kind goes through when writing the next great novel, hardships that nobody else can understand; the months and years of preparation that goes into writing the perfect story and the reward you get after it touches somebody’s heart upon reading your work for the first time; a single gesture that reminds you that all the time and effort put into your creation was well worth it, a creation that nobody but yourself could have come up with. And with at least 20 more years of writing experience over me, I was dying to pick the man’s brain. “I’m actually in the middle of writing my first book right now!”

“Oh, you’re one of those types of writers,” he said in a disparaging tone, prompting me to take another drink of beer. “You see, I’m a song writer; a poet!”

“Oh… that’s great. Poetry’s very hard to write. I have a lot of respect for people who can do that.”

“You see, what it takes for somebody to write in 4 chapters, I can do in 4 minutes—one song. Let’s see you do that!”

“Yea, you know, I wish I could do that…” And yet again, I was overcome with the urge to take another long drink of beer.

“I even have an Emmy Award!” Ok Wade, I finally get it. You’re way better at writing than I am. Please continue to berate me with your awesomeness. “I used to write country songs for daytime television, you know. I’m sort of a big deal.” Oh yea, I bet you are. “Say, look at these guys over there. I’ve never seen them before.”

Gretch and I looked forward to the other side of the bar where a new group of young patrons sat, picking at a large pizza they had brought in. “Maybe you should go over there and introduce yourself,” I politely suggested. I’m sure they’d be just as thrilled with your drunken ramblings as I am.

“Hell no, they can come over here and have a drink with me! Are you trying to get rid of me or something?”

“Of course not, Wade.” Damn it!

“Hey!” yelled Wade across the bar, sloppily pointing to a taller boy with thick-rimmed glasses and wavy, long hair. “Come over here!” The boy acknowledged Wade, but couldn’t understand him, or at least pretended not to understand him, and understandably so. “…I said come over here!” The boy mouthed ‘what’ again, and the exchange went on for several more minutes. In the meantime, Gretch and I sucked on our beers. It was required if this madness were to keep up.

The realization must have finally sunk into Wade’s head that the boy was not going to come over to him. Thus, he succumbed to another conversation with Gretch—better her than me, I hate to say. For the next five minutes, Gretch entertained Wade by listening to one of his ‘stories’ while I happily sat at the bar, entertained by my mug of beer.

“I’ll tell you wait,” said Wade. “You guys wanna drive up to the mountains and smoke a little pot?”

Uh, gee Wade, sounds fun,” replied Gretch. “But I don’t know if we can swing it tonight—“

Oh, you guys’ll be fine. I’ll drive ya. Don’t worry, I’m a good driver, even when I’ve had a little bit to drink.”

“I’m sure you are Wade.”

“We can all crash up there till the mornin’ too. My truck’s got plenty of room, and plenty of liquor too.”

“Sounds fun Wade. We’ll let you know if we’re interested.”

“I bet these guys like to party over here. Hey, you with the glasses—yea you!”

“I think we should get out of here soon,” whispered Gretch to me. It was an opportune moment, for the boy across the bar had caught Wade’s attention again. “Wade’s starting to weird me out a little bit.”

“Ok, but let’s just take this nice and easy. No sudden moves; that’ll arouse unwanted suspicion. Just finish your beer and we’ll make a nice and quiet Irish goodbye when the time is right.” Wade sat back on his stool, having been denied a drinking request for the second time that night. Strike two. Unfortunately, that meant his attention was redirected back to us.

“By the way, did you ever watch that show Gilligan’s Island?” I heard Wade ask Gretch. Gretch slowly nodded her head, not exactly showing interest in continuing the conversation. Wade however, conveniently didn’t get the hint and continued his slurring. “I always thought that one lady on there was the best looking girl I’d ever seen. Her name was Marian, and my God was she beautiful. But then she became a lesbian…” Wade took a nice gulp of beer before continuing his tirade about Marian and her sexual preference. Neither Gretch nor I was quite sure why he thought she was a lesbian, but arguing with the man at this point would’ve led to nowhere. “It broke my heart! I hate her!! We were supposed to be in love with each other!” It all makes sense. How else could she not be in love an Emmy Award winner like yourself?

“And I’ll tell you what. I used to go to bed and look at pictures of her, and watch her on the television screen. Yea, I’d sit there, and get nice and comfortable, and I’d undress. And then after awhile, when I was all alone, I would reach down and—“

Whoa whoa WHOA! The hairs on my neck rose and my senses ignited like that of a pup sensing an intruder trying to enter the house. That is sick! What is you major malfunction Wade?! He was oblivious, and continued on with the unnecessary details of his exotic fantasies involving the Gilligan’s Island character. Are you kidding me? Nobody talks to Gretch like that, and I mean NOBODY, drunk or not—Not while I’m around! This will not stand. If there was one thing I knew at that moment inside the Pony Bar where Gretch was being accosted right in front of my very eyes, it was that Wade had to go, and it was up to me—careful now. This Wade guy is drunk, heavy, and highly dangerous. His thought process is beyond rational. Play it smart, and whatever you do, do not piss him off… not on your account.

“Hey Wade, see that guy over there?”

“The hell you talkin’ bout, boy?”

“That guy across from us, with the curly hair and the glasses. See?” Wade looked out, meeting the boy eye to eye and starting a stare down. “He said he could out-drink you anytime, anywhere.”

“That son of a B—“ Wade rose from his chair, a mightily concerted effort that involved intense concentration and coordination and stumbled over to confront the boy across from us. Words were said, inaudible due to distance and incoherence, and shots were taken. For the moment, it looked as though Wade had forgotten about us and that we were in the clear… for now.

“Ok, can we go now?” asked Gretch.

I studied the scene, watching Wade interact with the others while adding excessive forms of poisonous liquid to his already bulging belly. “I have a feeling maybe we should hang out for a little bit, just in case Wade decides to get back in his truck…” I reached over to the spot where Wade left one of his beers, its contents low and far from refreshing, and picked up two thin, wooden discs. “Besides, we have two Wooden Nickels to use.” I called over the bartender. “Miss, can we get one more round?”

 

***

 

We waited around and watched as Wade made his rounds across the bar, attempting to convince everyone in his wake to share a drink with him. Most refused, including Revin’ Evan, but that didn’t stop him from insisting. Eventually his stumble of shame sent him through the door and out of the bar. And by the looks of it, he wasn’t coming back.

“You ready Gretch?”

“Yes… Yes I am ready. I’m very ready.”

I called over to the bartender. “Mam, we’re ready for the check please.”

“You guys are good. Your Wooden Nickels took care of everything.”

“Wow,” I thought to myself. “Three beers each and we didn’t have to pay a single dime.” A sense of guilt hung over me. I knew I had to compensate the Pony Bar in some sort of fashion, for never in my life had I been shown so much hospitality at any drinking establishment. It truly was a special place. I looked to my left passed Gretch and pulled out a couple of dollar bills. “You see those two babes next to Revin’ Evan? Give them each a Wooden Nickel, from me—no, from the Emmy Award Winner.”

She nodded back a most serious nod. “Will do.”

We turned towards the entrance and watched as Wade climbed into his truck and pull away. “Alright. Let’s do this.”

We kept our distance between Wade’s rig and ours on our way back to the Dutcher Estate. His truck swerved back and forth along the gravel road and we watched in terror before taking our turn off. Whether his destination was home, or to the mountains where he could smoke his pot, I just prayed that nobody else was around to meet him on that stretch of road, wherever it took him.

“Dear God,” blurted Gretch, the experience finally sinking in to its full extent. “Who in the hell was that?”

“…Wade… the one and only Emmy Award Winner of Pony. He’s famous… He’s infamous! He’s forever changing the culture. And as long as he’s in Pony, nobody should sleep safe… nobody…”

Chapter 23: The Lonesome Crowded West, Part 2 – Dad Bods

The livestock vastly outnumbered the locals during my morning run. However, none of those animals came close to affording me the type of courtesy received from each car as I ran several miles up a gravel road on yet another gorgeous, sunny day in Montana. Each person who passed greeted me with a smile and a friendly wave, a pleasant rarity for someone from the city, and the same mountainous landscape that had captivated me a day earlier was again on full display, overlooking the exotically named ranches on the outskirts of town. I had a good feeling we were in for another adventurous day in Pony.

Bill was already hard at work fixing the finer details of his stone-made grill upon my return. It was pertinent that it be designed to his meticulous specifications—that night’s dinner depended on it. I walked around the yard, noticing a higher than normal weed to grass ratio, and remembered that Lea had even made mention of her dissatisfaction over the abundance of weeds that had suddenly appeared since their last visit. Looking for ways to be helpful, and being that I was already a sweaty mess, I cracked open an ice-cold Rockstar from the fridge and went to work.

“Where’s Gretch?” I asked Bill as I tugged at the base of a large weed deeply rooted into the ground. It was imperative that I pull both the weed and root in order to ensure the weed’s elimination once and for all.

“Haven’t seen her since I got up?”

“Hmm, that’s weird. I wonder what’s going on?” With one last pull, the weed released its grip on the soil, causing me to nearly fall to my backside from an excessive amount of unabated force once the roots gave way. I gathered my balance and tossed the weed, adding it to an already impressive looking pile.

“Hey guys, what’s going on, heheh?” We turned to investigate the familiar voice coming from the deck. Gretch stood there in her pajamas, holding a freshly opened can of Coors light. “Were you guys having a snoring contest or something last night? I’m lucky I got any sleep, haha,” she continued, letting out a shameful, cringe-worthy chuckle in the process. I stared back at her unimpressed with the back of my wrist resting on my hip while I used the other free wrist to wipe away the combination of sweat and dirt that covered my forehead. “Gee, it looks like you guys are breaking a little sweat. It’s about time, heehee!” Bill kept shaking his head, doing his best to ignore. Like me, he was growing much more exasperated with each subsequent syllable leaving her mouth. I worried that it would soon hit a breaking point, and if she wasn’t careful, she’d be on the receiving end of a major eruption. “Well, you guys are sure doing a great job… sort of. Keep up the good work!” Gretch walked back inside (thank God) while Bill and I turned the other check and went back to work on the yard. There was just too much that had to be done in order to get the Dutcher Estate into tip-top condition, are number one priority for the present, and getting worked up over Gretch wasn’t going to do us any favors.

A few seconds later she bursted back out of the cabin, unprovoked. “Ok, ok, I’ll help you with a couple weeds. Sheesh, no need to get all worked up over it.”

Another half hour of weed pulling and grill tinkering provided us with enough satisfaction to head in for a mid-morning breakfast. Bill and Gretch grabbed a bagel that Lea had toasted for them. I opted to pound the rest of my Rockstar, grab a change of clothes and claim first dibs on a shower.

 

***

 

A deflated piece of plastic film hit me in the chest as I stepped out of the bathroom, fresh and clean, right off of a hot shower. Bill looked at me with a mysterious grin spread across his face, the assumed origin of the plastic projectile. “What is this?” I asked.

“Blow her up. We’re floating the Madison today.”

I examined the tubes solid, pink background that had outlines of flowers drawn over it, obviously a product intended for 6-year-old girls. “How do you expect me to float down the river in this?”

“Don’t worry, me and Gretch have the same kind.”

“But I’m like 100 pounds heavier than you guys!”

“Well, we were going to get some bigger tubes, but these were only 97 cents each!” mentioned Gretch, gleeful in her response.

“Yea, no way we were gonna pay 4 bucks for the other ones!”

“Well gee… thanks a lot.” I shook my head in disbelief and began the arduous task of blowing through the plastic valve on the side of the tube.

“Are you guys almost ready? I need to take care of some things around the cabin while you’re gone,” said Lea.

“Well, me and Bill are,” said Gretch.

“Wait, I still have to get my shorts on!” I pleaded.

“Well, hurry up then,” said Bill.

“Here, finish blowing this up then.”

“No way! You slobbered all over it!” yelled Gretch. “It’s got your germs all over the place!”

“Just do it really quickly,” suggested Bill. I began to blow, really quickly, just like Bill suggested.

“You guys, I keep blowing, but nothing’s happening!”

“Just keep it up, it’ll start!”

“But, I’m… I’m starting to get a little dizzy—“

“Less talk, more blow!” snapped Gretch.

“She’s got a point. The more you talk, the less air that goes into the tube.”

“But I think I’m hypervent—“

“Zack! Just blow!” blurted Gretch again. I blew, fast and hard, and the faster and harder I blew, the faster and harder feeling left my body. “Geez, we’ll never get out of here at this rate.”

“Yea, Zack. I hate to say it, but you are blowing kind of slow.”

“Kind of slow? More like I could make a quilt faster than this slow.” It was yet another baseless insult hurled from Gretch’s mouth. My face turned beat red, wanting to respond so fiercely, yet bound by the pressure of blowing the stupid tube up in a timely manner, partly for Lea’s sake, but mostly motivated to put an end to the abuse.

By the time I had a fully inflated tube, their words were barely decipherable, my body a mere seconds from collapse. I struggled to cap the tube shut before falling onto a chair, dropping the tube on the ground beside me. “Not bad,” said Gretch during her examination. “Not good either, but not bad. I guess it’ll do. Now go get your shorts on. We’re already late.”

I looked up at Bill in desperation, a giant plea for mercy. Please.

“Zack, I’m sorry but we… we gotta go!”

“Did you fill the backpack up with beer Bill?” asked Gretch.

“I thought Zack was going to do that.”

“ZACK!”

 

***

 

We traveled 7 miles up the Madison River from the recovery ramp where the Benz was parked, looking out at the rock formations scaling the sides of the river and the 100’s of other patrons who braved the float. The intention was to make our way the entire distance back to the car by tube. I prayed we had enough beer to last the entire journey.

“Ok, you kids have fun. Do you have everything you need?” asked Lea. “Don’t forget to put on sunscreen!”

“We wont,” I replied while we grabbed the necessities out of the car and stripped down to our shorts. “Bill, hand me a cold one, and while you’re at it, lather me up!” Bill reached into his backpack and pulled out a bottle of sunscreen and a ‘cold one,’ which wasn’t really that cold anymore.

“Ok, I’ll see you boys back at the cabin. Hurry up now. Gretch is waiting,” said Lea before leaving us to set sail on our voyage down the Madison River.

“Ok, get my back and then I’ll get yours.” I told Bill. I turned around and felt a cold mist fall over my backside. Bill handed me the spray bottle and I returned the favor.

“Give yourself a good spray and then hand it back so I can get my belly,” he said.

“Haha, you’re gonna need a lot of sunscreen for that then, heheh.”

“Speak for yourself tubby!”

“Who you callin’ tubby, porky?”

Porky? Look at you.”

“Look at you!

We looked down at our bellies that bulged over our shorts before giving each other a long stare down, starting from the bare belly and up to each other’s blank face, shocked and appalled at the sight in front of us. Two weeks worth of burgers, brats, beer and booze had taken its toll, and the results were devastating.

“We… we have…”

“Dad bodies…”

“You guys coming or what?” Gretch’s voice was faint as she called out to us, already wading in the river.

“…Yea, Gretch. Be right there…” said Bill. We walked out into the water, our heads and bodies buried in shame; a shame that was buried deeper and deeper with each sip of beer, our solution, our temporary escape… the primary contributor to our ultimate demise.

 

***

 

“Hey, this river isn’t as deep as I thought it’d be.” I said. “I’m barely to my shins!”

“Maybe that’s why people like floating it so much. I guess you’re not gonna die if you get too hammered and fall out of your tube!”

“Good point.” I placed my tube down and sat in the middle. “Hold on Bill. I think I’m stuck.”

“I’m stuck to. Here, just push off and find the current.”

“I’m trying, but I think I’m too heavy! I just keep on sinking and hitting the ground!”

“I knew we should’ve gotten the 4 dollar tubes!”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Gretch thought it was a waste of money.”

“Well, where is she right now?” We looked forward. 100 feet down the river was Gretch, relaxed and floating with ease, having been picked up by the current and rapidly pulling away from us. She nodded at us, smiling a large smile that bordered mockery.

“GRETCH!”

 

***

 

“Hey Bill, what’s this green stuff at the bottom?”

“It looks like algae, or an underwater Christmas tree or something. But it’s like—alive…”

“Gross. I dare you to touch it?”

“Screw that! You touch it.”

“It’s too far down. I can’t.”

“Look you guys, it’s not that bad,” said Gretch, holding up a long piece of the slimy green stuff she ripped off the bottom. It wrapped around her forearm and dangled off her elbow, flapping around like a live tentacle.

“Oh Gretch, that’s disgusting!” I yelled. “Bill, hand me another beer. I can’t handle this.”

Bill reached out, holding in his hand a fresh can of Coors Light to meet my outstretched hand. “Hold on, you’re pulling away.”

“Well, what’s the matter?”

“I’m stuck on a rock. Stop for a second.”

In my path the water turned a shade lighter, indicating that shallower water was up ahead. I steered my tube towards it, eyeing down at the bottom for a rock to hold onto. The color of the surface went from blue to brown as the water became shallower. I threw my legs down, ready to anchor myself into position. “Almost ready Bill, I think I have something.” I looked down, feeling a slight tingling sensation brushing against my toes. “What the—“ The ground was no longer a rocky brown, but a solid sheet of living, parasitic, soul-sucking green fungus. “Uh, Bill… I don’t think I can stop right now…”

“What do you mean? It looks shallow where you are—“

“Um, dude, more like I think I’m in some real trouble.” The water became shallower and shallower as I nervously looked from side to side, surrounded by the slimy, green, plant-like invasive species at bottom of the river. “Uwha!” I screamed as I felt its appendages brush against my bottom, edging my backside up out of the middle of the tube. “It’s all around me man!”

“Just stay above the water, you’ll make it!”

“I’m trying man! It’s brushing against my tube!” My breaths increased in frequency and severity. I flung my legs straight out in front of me, raised high above the raft and pushed my body up off the tube, supported by my elbows, anything I could do to keep away from the field of mutant mold lying below. The friction between tube and surface became rougher and rougher, decelerating the tube towards a slower pace. “Oh God Bill, it’s slowing… it’s slowing… it’s—“

It all happened so quickly. The green scraped against the bottom of the tube like Freddy Kruger’s claw across a wall, his signature gesture before slaughtering his next, unsuspecting victim. It brought the tube to a crawl, until it was only me, stuck and stranded, and wedged atop a peak of green, solidly formed mucus. “Bill… help.” I leaned my elbow against one side, a tactic that put a heavy amount of stress on one side of the tube, hoping the pressure would create enough force for a press off, an all too risky proposition; an act of desperation, for Bill was taking way too long. “HELP—“

The tube shot out from underneath me like a fist slamming on a tube of toothpaste. My body hit the water with a splash, sending my back through the barrier of water and onto the bed of fungus. There were thousands of them, crawling, clinging onto my back with their slimy appendages, sucking the life and infecting me with a grotesque poison of which there was no cure. They worked their way up my back and onto my sides, where my abdominal muscles once lay. Soon they would wrap around my torso, my legs; my entire body, turning me into a mutant pile of scum that would forever dwell at the bottom of the Madison River.

In the middle of my turmoil, a glimpse of every tragic event that had ever occurred in my life up to that point flashed through my head: Failing my Driver’s Ed test, my date to the senior prom barfing her brains out and not making it to the dance, falling off a 12-foot rock onto my head and almost dying, waking up in intensive care and having the doctor remove the catheter, watching the Shi—Seahawks beat the Packers three times in a row… but this—this one second, down at the bottom of the Madison river amongst a company of a thousand jumbo-sized, protozoa-like creatures… this was the worst—hands down.

“OH GOD BILL, GET IT OFF! GET IT OFF!” I yelled and screamed, rolling around in the water as if I were trying to put out a fire. “It’s all over me! What do I—“

“Quit rolling around, you’re getting it all over you! Get up and—YOUR TUBE!” All of a sudden I was up on my feet, driving forward, powering out of the vile platform I had mistakenly stumbled upon with a new, immediate purpose in life: get the hell out of there. Nothing else was of importance.

The water level dropped and I stepped forward, sinking into the river, face first. As quick as I was ungraceful, I popped back up, pushing through the current, only to be thrown back down into the shallow depths of the Madison once again, and again, until my body waded against the rough current above my knees, looking onward at a pink ring of polyurethane radiating against the pastels of the rocky Madison River landscape and accelerating several feet away from me with the pulling current. A new goal simmered into my head, entrapping my mind to prepare for another mad dash. I pushed off the rocky floor and high-stepped it down the river, running as fast as I could to catch the tube that was in peril of being forever lost to the mercy of the treacherous Madison. I drove through the river, my legs pushing against the current and my belly fluidly jiggling up and down, left to right; man versus a nature whose viscosity was hell bent on holding me firmly in its control. Nearly an arms length away, I reached out for the tube, only to swat at a handful of air. I trotted forward, but the force of water, now past my thighs was just too much. Spent from the hardest 100-yard dash of my life, I could only watch as my prized 97 cent possession floated away to the whims of the roaring Madison. “I didn’t work this hard for—screw this!”

I bent down, expelling every working muscle left inside of me and lunged into the air. I dove forward with my body spread, hoping meet a bed of soft plastic, but realistically anticipating a belly flop. Below me was water and rock, and then a mix of pink and white overtook my direct line of vision. My arms, head, and upper torso fell through the donut hole, flipping the tube over and under my body, and together we floated down the next stretch of the river. Finding myself back on top in the proper tubing position was a struggle just as difficult, and even more time consuming.

After several minutes of precise positioning I was back in business, my arms and legs sprawled out across the edges of the tube and my butt sunk into the middle of the hole, looking as though my entire body was being sucked down by an underwater tractor beam, an unforgiving weight that left the tube deformed—Homer Simpson style. I panted, and wheezed between spurts of water coughed up from my lungs. Looking clumsy was the least of my concerns at this point.

Another tube of lime green and white floated up next to me. I tipped my head over, also laying victim to the effects of the tractor beam, giving the impression that I had been prescribed with a heavy dose of anesthetics. It was Gretch, looking down upon me with an aura of comical condescendence. She was trying not to laugh; I know she was. I pressed my head forward, foregoing any further contact, and held my mouth taut over my tense face.

“Looks like you need a beer,” she said to me after heavily studying my depleted demeanor. I afforded her another look. She held out her hand. In it was an open Coors Light. Don’t fall for it. It’s empty. She’s playing a trick; I know she is. Another few seconds of hesitation went by. Ah, what the hell?

To my surprise (and pleasure), the beer was mostly full. I pressed it to my lips, using both of my hands as a little child would a sippy cup and took a giant swig, an action that would’ve produced a smile if it weren’t for my severe state of exhaustion. I let out a great sigh of relief and tipped my head back.

“I mean, it wasn’t like you really need a beer or anything with that dad belly and all—“

“Oh, shut up Gretch!”

 

***

 

In time we all managed to meet up and float down the river as a friendly trio, and for miles, we held ourselves together in close proximity, talking the issues of the day and marveling at the natural architecture surrounding us. Flat meadows of brush, level with the waterline stood side by side high, rock walls with ridged edges against the river, serving as coves for the weary tube traveler around each river bend. For over an hour we basked in the sun, so relaxed and so full of carelessness that the logical thought of recoating ourselves with sunscreen dissolved into oblivion, joining the rest of the worries in the world that were obliterated by a blissful drift down a short passage of the Madison River in the heart of rugged Montana.

“Hey Bill, can you pass me another beer?” asked Gretch.

“This is the last one,” he replied, holding up a full one above his head in the ‘cheers’ position.

“It can’t be—that’s impossible!”

“You’ve been drinkin’ em all up. There’s no more left!”

Gretch hesitated for a moment, a switch of tactics. “Please Bill, can I have it?”

“Dude, Gretch, I’ve had like two, maybe three this whole ride, not to mention you dropped the last one in the water and wasted the whole thing.” It seemed as though her plan had failed.

“Just… let me have a little bit.”

“Sorry Gretch, this one’s all mine,” replied Bill, motioning his beer around with his hands like he was about to open it.

“Just let me see it, for a second.” She stuck her hand out, reaching over towards him.

“Stop it Gretch!” She didn’t stop. She kept grabbing, working hard to snatch the beer from his grip.

“Gretch, be careful! You’re going to fall out of your tube!” She didn’t listen, insistent on the beer in Bill’s possession, thinking by pressing hard on one side on the tube, she could successfully balance herself on the tube while fighting for the beer at the same time.

“Bill, gimme—“

With one big swoop, the tube slipped out from under her, flying forward as she made a daring lunge for the last full can of Coors Light. Into the water she went, sending a harrowing splash that resounded down the depths of the Madison. I stuck my hand out as the tube flew past me—well out of reach. It blew down the river, picked up by an aggressive current and gaining speed with no signs of stopping.

“Haha Gretch, serves you right,” said Bill. “You got greedy and look what you got, another mile to go with no tube! Sucks to be you…” he rambled on with the insults as Gretch stood there, watching her beloved tube as it was thrown across the river by the rapids and bashed against the protruding rocks of the Madison, unrelenting with its penchant of sending light objects down the river and thrashing them about all along the way, something I had witnessed first hand. Her face turned droopy and her arms went limp against the rushing current of the river, stuck in a downward spiral leading into depression as it sucked every ounce of life and motivation from her defeated body. It wouldn’t be long before a swell of tears broke through the barrier around her eyes.

“Don’t even think about it—why are you thinking about it?” My heart tore and twisted at the sight, like staring at a little boy as he watched his puppy run away from home. “She screwed up, it’s her own damn fault!” I watched the tube move down the river, 200 feet away… 250 feet away… 300 feet away. I looked back at Gretch; her demeanor took a turn for the worst. “That tube meant so much to her, and she’d be devastated if it was forever lost. It’s now or never—it’s never! She doesn’t deserve it!” Bill continued his relentless attacks on Gretch, only exacerbating the situation. I shifted my head down river, then back up river, and down again.

“Ah, hell!” I set my feet and dove forward onto my tube, paddling and kicking against the rough and shallow waters of the Madison in pursuit of a tube that was thought by conventional wisdom to be long lost. “I can’t believe I’m doing this… again!” There was no thought of the shear difficulty of retrieving such a silly object that for some reason meant so much to Gretch, or the amount of stress and strain that would be exerted over my body throughout the arduous journey; my concern was directed towards one goal—reclaiming that stupid 97 cent piece of plastic.

 

***

 

They emerged around the bend a quarter mile up the river. My dripping, wet body stood, battered but not broken in a steady pant, in through the nose and out through the mouth, focused on my two companions making their way towards my position. In one hand was Gretch’s tube, held high above my head, a prized trophy, a representation of will and determination over nature and adversity. The other tube was wedged against the weight of my body and the rolling river, finding comfortable leverage as I sat through the donut hole, waiting for them to finally catch up. “I got it!”

“Bring it back over here,” hollered Gretch. No offer to come to me and pick it up? Not even a simple offer of thanks? She expects me to walk all the way back there for her? News flash to Gretch: I didn’t even do this for her! In fact, the only reason I did this was so our vacation wouldn’t be ruined with her stupid pouting and cursing all over the place. This was for us, and that’s it! I don’t want to put up with that crap! I’m dealing with it! If this is how it’s gonna be, I’m not coming down anymore! And she’s got another thing comin’ if she things I’m coming back to her!

“No Gretch, you can come and get your tube yourself,” I yelled back, the distance between us calling for an unintentional screaming match.

“But I don’t want to walk that far. I might spill my beer.” Oh gee, she got her beer after all. How convenient.

“I’m not walking back there after all of that. You come here. You come here now!”

“What’s the big deal? It’s only a couple of feet. You walked all the way there, and now you can’t walk back? Sounds pretty lazy to me.”

“Gretch, I’m not going to ask you again. Come over here and get your tube.”

“Don’t be selfish… Please…”

I couldn’t take it any more. I stood up, using what was left of my worn-out body to send her a final, stern message.

“HEY! YOU GET OVER HERE! YOU GET OVER HERE AND SIT ON YOUR TUBE!” My head shook, my eyes beamed with madness, and the veins bulged out of my neck while my arms pointed in all different directions, directing orders just in case my words didn’t get the point across. “GET OVER HERE GRETCH! I DID THIS FOR YOU! I DID THIS FOR YOU! I SWAM ALL THE WAY OVER HERE AND GRABBED YOUR TUBE FOR YOU AND YOU’RE ACTING LIKE AN ANIMAL—“

A gust of wind blew past me and the contact felt between the tube and my buns disappeared. I turned around and watched as a 97-cent piece of pink and white plastic flew down the river, forever lost to the depths of the Madison. My face turned droopy and my arms went limp against the rushing current of the river, stuck in a downward spiral leading into depression as it sucked every ounce of life and motivation from my defeated body. I stared out at my prized possession as if I were a little boy watching my puppy run away from home; 50 feet… 75 feet… 100 feet…

“Can I have my tube back now?” asked Gretch. I looked back. She was right behind me.

You can’t be serious…

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.”

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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!”

Chapter 21: The Ghosts of the Dude Rancher Lodge

900 miles is a long long long long WAYS in a car…

-Modest Mouse

 

“What exit do I get off of again?”

“How should I know? It’s probably the first one when you come into town. What does your phone say?”

“I don’t know, I’m talking to you on it.”

“Oh… Um, I think there’s an Arby’s or something close by when you get off.”

“Mmmmm… Arby’s… Hold on.” I reached over and clicked the “previous” button on the music player.

“Just open up Google Maps and type in ‘Dude Rancher Lodge.’ You should be there in a couple minutes after you take the exit.”

“Oh. Well gee, now that you mention it, that’s actually a good idea. I’ll see ya soon!” I ended the call and did exactly as I was told, my coordinates set to the Dude Rancher Lodge of Billings, Montana. Hmm, better start the song over, just in case.

10 minutes had passed without any sign of a Dude Rancher Lodge, or even an indication that I was getting close. “Seriously, where the hell is this place?” I let out a sigh of exasperation as I firmly pressed on the “previous” button one last time—for the third time. “I swear this is the last time.”

And then there it was, a mere 2 blocks away; the Dude Rancher Lodge, a two story brick and mortar motel topped with wood siding, proudly erected to my immediate left. I happily pressed the “previous” button one last time and called Bill. Aside from the fact that it was located in the middle of a city, the motel was appropriately named given its appearance.

“I’m here. Come out and meet me— Dude, I don’t know which room you’re in—well I don’t know where that is… C’mon that’s just confusing, just come ou— Well, I have a lot of crap to carry— Just meet me outside… I’m in the parking lot—DUDE! Why can’t you come out? It’ll take you like, two seconds… because man, I just need you to— dude, please, just come out and—oh, ok, cool. See ya soon.”

Another minute passed. C’mon Bill, where the hell are you? It’s been two minuets, hurry up why don’t you—damn it!” I paused the music. The amount of time it was taking for Bill to get out was really starting to get under my skin and spark a fuse. “What the hell’s wrong with him? I just drove 12 hours to get over here and he’s taking his sweet time! I grit my teeth and started shaking my head, frustrated with pernicious thoughts bubbling inside. “And now I have to start this damn song over again. Why must I be so disrespected? In what way do I deserve this… this insolence? Why, the moment he shows up, I’m gonna jump out of the car and—BILL!”

I quickly pressed play on the music player, cranked up the volume and jumped out of the car. Bill walked across the parking lot with a giant smile ripped across his face. I matched him smile-to-smile and spread my arms out for a hug, while an upbeat tune played from the Benz.

“The boys are back in town…” The chorus by Thin Lizzy repeated, coupled with a scale of notes plucked rapidly in the scale of G Major. “Oh man, what a coincidence!” I exclaimed. “You started to come out, and this song started playing. That’s awesome!” His smile grew even larger.

“It’s like it was meant to be! You mentioned you needed help getting your stuff?”

“Oh me? Naw, I got it. Just my backpack and a couple of Rockstars is all I need.” I grabbed my goods and followed Bill to the room, barely able to hold in my excitement. “You know, it feels like years since the last time we hung out.”

“I know right! Actually, when was the last time we hung out?” he asked, the lock on the door to the room giving him trouble.

“Honestly, I sort of forget. Yesterday, I was in Minnesota, and before then I was in Wiscon—“ Bill popped the door open. “Gretch! Oh my God, how are you! You look grea—uh, I mean… hey… what’s up?” I nodded my head and shrugged my shoulders. “Good to see you… I guess.”

“Hey,” she said while lying on one of the beds, giving me a quick nod before burying her head back into her phone. After all I’ve done for her… typical.

“Well, you wanna hang out for a while? There’s going to be a BBQ at our Aunt and Uncle’s house.”

“Bar-Be-Que! Bar-Be-Que!” I began to chant. I wouldn’t stop until Gretch was forced off the bed and into the car. Bill soon joined in on the incantation.

“Bar-Be-Que! Bar-Be-Que! Bar-Be-Que…”

***

“Hello, I’m Zack,” I said and waved as I walked through the front door, making the customary introductions to Bill and Gretch’s extended family.

“Hi, I’m Bill’s uncle, Bill,” said Bill before greeting Bill. “How are you Bill?” said Bill to Bill.

“I’m doing well. It’s good to see you again Uncle Bill,” answered Bill back to Uncle Bill. There was something about their conversation that developed an ever-growing grin across my face, though I could never quite figure out what it was.

“Well Bill, Zack, and Gretch, are you guys hungry?” asked Uncle Bill.

“You betcha!” I answered. “Why, I haven’t had anything since I stopped at Carl’s Jr. back in Bismark!”

“Well good, we have a few burgers and brats cookin’ on the grill for ya.”

Burgers and brats… again? “…What the hey, burgers and brats sound good… for the 4th time.”

“Do you have any beer?” asked Getch. We knew she would pop the question; we just didn’t think it would be this soon. No amount of preparation could’ve prevented Bill and I from sinking our shaking heads into our hands. We quickly made our way towards the backyard patio, retracting ourselves from any previous association. No shame, whatsoever…

“Lea, how the heck are you?” I said with a heightened pitch as I walked through the doorway and onto the deck. It had been ages since I had seen Bill’s mom, a great and festive lady through and through. And wouldn’t you know it, sitting beside her was a signature can of Coors Light, a sight that called for a hug.

“Welcome to Montana,” she said back to me before introducing me to the rest of the family. There was Bill and Gretch’s Aunt Ann, Aunt Sue who was married to Uncle Bill, and their cousins Michael and Helen. They offered me a Coors Light of my own, of which I gladly accepted and joined them in the social circle, gazing over a landscape that was still in transition between the barren plains of North Dakota and the rugged frontier of Montana with the setting sun finally making its grand entrance, late, as I knew it would be; a setting that unlocked the gregarious side of my personality. Forget small talk. Let’s get right to the issues! Our conversation started out on the conservative side, for I was unwilling to pull a Gretch and blurt something out that would have even the mildest consideration of being labeled as offensive.

“Have you guys seen the new Rihanna video that just dropped? It’s called ‘Bitch Better Have My Money,’ or BBHMM for short.”

Helen and Aunt Sue’s eyes lit up with excitement. “Helen and I listened to that song the other day,” said Aunt Sue.

“Oh man, the music video is pretty bad! They kidnap this girl and beat her up and make her do drugs and stuff.”

“Maybe we should all watch it a little later,” replied Helen. It was an activity I wasn’t the least bit apposed to.

“So what else do you do besides watch BBHMM?” asked Aunt Sue.

“Well, that takes up a lot of my time, and usually the rest of my day is spent trying to build submarines and stuff. Yea, I know, it’s kind of boring. In the meantime though, I’m trying to be a writer!”

“Oh that’s very neat,” replied Aunt Sue. “What have you been writing?”

“Well, I’m trying to finish up this story about a boy who has to deal with his dying dog. It’s pretty sad and all. It’s like the dog is really old, and the boy comes home, and then he has to re-examine his life, and wonders what he did wrong, and eventually has to make a decision whether or not…” I could tell the mood was getting a little somber. Not to spoil the evening, I quickly switched topics. “…I mean, I don’t want to ruin the whole book or anything, But I write other things too. I have a blog that I keep up with from time to time, and I even wrote a screenplay a couple of years back.”

“Oh really, what’s it about?”

“Well…” I hesitated, unsure how to explain the intricate plot of the screenplay. “I mean, it’s kind of complicated, so I don’t know if I should to go into details. It’s almost better if—“

“Just go for it, I’m sure we can figure it out.” I took a deep breath and a nice swig of Coors Light, finishing the rest of the beer’s contents. Here goes nothing… 

“So there’s this cat burglar… and when he robs a house, he leaves a calling card. He uses the bathroom and… he doesn’t flush. I call it, ‘Turd Burglars’.”

“Oh,” was the common reply around the social circle, coupled with a wide-eyed look and a long, taught, “lips-are-sealed” look.

“Oh look, I’m out of beer. Better grab another one.”

“We still have that bottle of wine in the fridge, don’t we mom?” said Helen.

“We do indeed! Why don’t you get some for our guest Helen,” said Aunt Sue. What the heck, why not? Helen disappeared into the house, only to reemerge with a half-full liter sized bottle of cheap rosé.

“Here you go. It’s all yours,” said Helen, eager to hand me the bottle.

“Anybody else want some?” I asked as I looked around. The rest of the group seemed just as eager to watch me drink it straight from the bottle—so I did.

“Dinner’s ready!” suddenly cried out Uncle Bill, making his way to the kitchen with a plate full of burgers and brats. We all scurried to load up a plate of our own with a unique arrangement of burger, brat and all different types of fixin’s. After filling our plates with grub, we reassumed our positions on the porch and continued our conversation between bites of meat and sips of wine.

“I’ll tell you what Lea, I love those two to death, but oh my gosh were they bad,” I began, preparing myself with a hearty sip of wine. “After the wedding, they kept laughing, and giggling, and chuckling in the backseat. It was so distracting, and it made me miss the turn off to the hotel! And don’t even get me started on the roundabouts or how they wouldn’t shut up in the hotel room. I could barely sleep that whole night! And Gretch, boy oh boy has she developed quite the potty mouth as of late…” Lea sat and listened, shaking her head harder and harder in disbelief the more I continued. That wasn’t the way her children were raised, that was for damn sure, and her distress caused me to take another good gulp of wine.

“Don’t get me wrong though, we still had some really good times on the road,” I continued. “And for most of the trip, we were on our best behavior, at places like Jackson Hole, especially Denver, Kanses, Iowa, and Minnesota!” Both Bill and I filled them in on our adventures and they happily listened, although there were probably certain details that were inadvertently left out, being that so much had taken place during our travels.

Our plates gradually became empty as our conversation went on, my bottle of wine turned from half full to a quarter full, and the sun continued its decent across the semi-rugged plains of Billings, suggesting that darkness would soon overtake the sky. “Hey Zack, before you guys leave, would you mind taking a family picture of us?” asked Aunt Ann.

A loose rumble came from my insides as she asked, warranting suspicion of an allergic reaction. “Maybe I should slow down,” I told myself, for I had felt this way after drinking wine before, and the results were always devastating. Shake it off son. You’re on a roll. “Sure, I’d love to,” I said, graciously accepting the request. I lined the family up in the living room, Bill and Gretch on the left side, Michael and Helen on the other, and all of the aunts and uncles in the middle.

“Ok, here we go. Say cheese!” I clicked the middle of Sue’s phone and the camera app made a clicking noise. “Wait a minute, something’s wrong. It didn’t take the picture correctly.”

“Well let me take a look,” said Sue, rushing over to see what was the matter.

“I did exactly what you said, but it just took a picture of my face.” Sue took a look at the camera and paused, as if she were holding her breath. After a second, she let out a snort, and then exploded into bursts laughter.

“Oh my God Lea, look—he took a picture of himself!” It was all she could let out before another round of breathless laughter overcame her. Lea came over and examined the close up of my face sprawled across the screen, so resolute that you could see the fine details of each strand of unshaven facial hair under my chin. She suffered the same fate.

“You have to press the button and it’ll switch over—“ Sue continued before once again succumbing to the hilarity of the situation. The reaction was contagious too, for everybody joined her in expressing their amusement, Ann, Helen, Michael, everybody, except for two… Bill and Gretch crossed their arms and shook their heads, their faces seething with jealousy. “Ha ha, very funny Zack,” said Bill in a very sarcastic manner.

“Oh my God. Typical Zack joke,” followed Gretch. Years of family gatherings and a lifetime of work and preparation in order to create such joy and comedic celebration had paled in comparison to what I was able to achieve in just one evening, and in it producing a response of pure envy, boiling and firing so fiercely that it reached the inevitable breaking point of containment. It was understandable, but unfortunate, really; a joke so funny, that it actually caused me to laugh—at my own joke! That rarely happens, ever!

After a minute of calming down (and believe me, it took a while for everybody to settle their britches), I was finally able to take the picture. Bill and Gretch forced their smiles, trying to hide their irate emotions from seeping out any further, unlike the others whose smiles were all natural. And sadly, by the look of the picture, everybody could tell.

“Hey Helen, do you wanna come out with us?” asked Bill after he had given himself a minute to calm down. “I think we’re going out to some of the bars tonight.”

“That sounds awesome!” she replied with a spurt of excitement. Before hoping into Lea’s Subaru (previously borrowed by Bill to initially get to the BBQ) and headed back to the hotel, we made our rounds and said our goodbye to the rest of the family, including Michael, whose age unfortunately hindered him from partaking in the nights festivities. Bill ensured him however that when the time came, he would with no doubt guide him through his rite to passage.

“So what hotel are you guys staying at?” asked Lea, parting her concentration between her kids and a battle with me over the volume of the music playing over the radio. However rude it may have seemed, I felt it necessary to support our penchant towards classic rock, a fondness I knew full well that Lea once loved, making her sudden opposition baffling to all of us.

“Isn’t it something about dudes?” I replied. “Dude Ranch Inn or something?”

“…You mean, THE Dude Rancher Lodge?” asked Helen, each succeeding word more alarming than the last.

“That’s the one!” answered Bill. We continued the conversation about the hotel while Helen grew mysteriously quiet, almost completely sinking into her seat. Her silence was buried under a mixture of our excited chatter and The Cars, “Just What I Needed” that kept being turned up against Lea’s will until we were dropped off at the hotel.

It was straight to business the moment we entered our room at the Dude Rancher Lodge. “Alright Helen. We’re giving you an honorary punch card,” I told her, followed by an explanation of its use and the number of derogatories allowed. “Gretch blew through hers in no time, a horrendous experience I never want to live through ever again. Even I, I’m ashamed to admit, had a major blow up due to some behavioral issues of certain individuals, but you my friend, get to start out with a clean slate!” I handed her a makeshift card with her name on it made out of a paper coaster provided by the hotel. “Go ahead and start! You can use swears, racial slurs, anything that comes to mind!”

“Um, I might just wait a while on that one,” she said. “And actually, maybe we should start heading out to the bars soon—“

“Oh nonsense! Let’s have a couple of Old Fashioneds before we head out! We need to pre-funk a little bit anyways. And besides, there’s still the premiere of Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” music video!”

“You know, on second thought, we can probably skip the BBHMM premiere, and really, the bars around here aren’t that expensive, so there’s really no need to pre-funk—”

It was no use, for I had already set up the computer and had BBHMM on queue. I clicked play and for the next 7 minutes, we studied the theme and message behind the explicit music video that involved the kidnapping, drugging, and torture of an unsuspecting executive’s wife, images that were both disturbing and at the same time, intriguing. All the while, my body was engaged in a torture of its own. It could no longer be ignored, the excessive intake of wine had no doubt caused a reaction, and an allergic one at that; my body actively rejecting the toxins I had put into it. For several minutes, I masked the symptoms—swollen throat, runny nose, and rumbling bowels, hoping each would go away with time while we analyzed the finer details of the video, looking for a deeper meaning associated with the madness… until the madness inside me reached the point of no return.

IMG_1588

BBHMM Premiere

“Uh, you guys, I think the wine… it gave me… I… I gotta go to the bathroom!” I ran to the door and turned, one final request before go time. “Do you mind waiting a few minutes?”

“Well, how about you just meet us over at the bar?” suggested Helen. She was ambitious in her quest to get out of there, and maybe I couldn’t blame her. From the sound of it, the nightlife in Billings had potential, much more than waiting around and listening to some dude destroy a toilet.

“Ok, yea whatever. Text me.” It was all I could fit in before succumbing to a fast and effective relief forced upon me by the laws of human decency. I’ve been known to do some crazy things in my day, but making a mess when it’s not necessary isn’t one of them.

For the next several minutes after the initial wave I sat and waited, making sure there weren’t any further eruptions. People tend to do a lot of thinking when they’re stuck in a helpless situation, which has been the case for a good portion of my life so far. You pay better attention to detail, and notice things you normally wouldn’t. And in that moment of solitude, I could hear a faint tapping. The further I paid attention, the taps seemed like they had turned to knocks—audible knocks on the door.

“Hello?” I called out. There was no answer. “Bill, is that you? Helen? Gretch? Gretch, is this a joke?” Still, no answer. “C’mon you guys, this isn’t funny anymore!” Another set of soft knocks resumed. “Who’s there?” I tried to stand up, but could not, as I was cemented on the ring of which I sat until my task was complete—a task far from completion. By the time I had finally finished, the knocking had ceased and there wasn’t a soul in sight. I hurried out of the room and to Hooligans Sports Pub, where Bill had told me to meet.

***

I walked in and found the trio right as the server set a fresh pitcher on the table. “Is there anything else you guys need?” he asked.

I perused our table, eventually coming to a collective and steady nod with Bill and Helen. “I think we’re good—“ I caught one last glance at Gretch. “Um, on second thought, you better bring us another pitcher.

“Coming right up,” said the server before making his way back to the kitchen. Helen watched as he disappeared into the depths of the bar, ample distance to ensure a private conversation could be maintained. She looked left to right, one more check to make sure the coast was clear, and then leaned in, prompting us to do the same.

“You guys do know about the Dude Rancher Lodge, right?” she asked us, her voice soft and quiet.

“What about it?”

“Well, some lady and her husband started building the place in the 1950’s. A couple years after it was finally built, the husband died in a tragic car accident, so the lady lived in the hotel with her kid until she died sometime in the 80’s. Ever since her death, people have seen strange things going on all over the hotel.”

“Like what?” asked Bill, leaning even closer in to set his level of intrigue.

“TV’s turn on and off, people will hear a knock on the door, only to find nobody’s there, and people have even heard and seen children roaming the halls at night.”

“Oh my God…” It was a subconscious reaction that neither Bill nor I could refrain from saying.

“So, you’re telling me, there’s like ghosts and stuff?” asked Bill.

“Yea. The place is haunted by the lady, her husband and her son.”

“Whoa…” both Bill and I replied, leaning back just as if we just had our mind’s blown. “I knew I heard something when I was on the crapper!”

“What room are you guys staying in again?”

“226 I believe,” said Bill. “Why?”

“226… oh God. That’s one of the—never mind. You guys will be fine.”

Bill leaned back in his seat and dozed off into space. “So we’re in a haunted hotel… Weird.”

“I don’t believe it!” It was a sudden, out of character shriek. We whipped our heads around to Gretch, sitting back in her chair and pouting, her face so tight face it’d scare a pit bull. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”

“Gretch, don’t be disrespectful to the dead,” I pleaded. The last thing any of us needed to do was to piss them off.

“Screw the dead! Why don’t you all just shut up?”

“C’mon Gretch, we’re just having a little fun.”

“I don’t care. There’s no such thing as ghosts!”

“Gretch, how do you even know—“

“Zack, just—just drop it. Ok?” requested Bill, hoping silence would eventually defuse the situation. I honored his request out of respect, timed perfectly with the arrival of another pitcher of beer. Gretch poured herself a pint, immediately drowning herself in the sorrows of alcohol, the cause and solution to all of life’s problems. No emotion besides anger was displayed. As fast as it was poured, it was emptied into her body for processing; its contents filtered through the liver for future distribution, a process that was to be repeated until Gretch became a much more tolerant person.

Four or five pints later, we called it quits and returned to the hotel. I looked back at Gretchen and Bill, happily stumbling together as a loving pair of siblings would. “Lea would be proud.” I thought to myself. From that sight, I came to a conclusion that Gretch was able to find peace with the ghost after all, making the outing a success.

IMG_1598

What the heck was in that whiskey???

“Well Helen, if you need to, you can bunk with us tonight,” said Bill as we walked back into our room at the Dude Rancher Lodge. “We have more than enough space for one more if needed.”

“Um…” she contemplated, staring into our room as if she could sense an evil presence lurking about. “Thanks for the offer, but I… I think I’ll just head home. My dad’s on his way to pick me up anyway.”

“Well, can I make you an old fashioned while you wait?” I asked, already starting the process of making one for myself.

“Eh… thanks, but I think I’ll pass on that one.” A quick jingle sounded from her phone, informing her that she had received a message. “Oh, that’s dad. He just got here!” Helen gathered herself while the rest of us positioned ourselves to say a proper goodbye.

“It was awesome hanging out with you Helen,” first said Bill along with a hug.

“Yea, I’m glad we finally got to go out to the bars,” followed Gretch, her turn for a hug and goodbye.

“It was nice meeting you.” I said to her. “Hopefully we can all make it back here again. I think I like Montana a lot so far.”

“Agreed. I really hope I see you again,” she said, parting words that left me with a hint of concern. I took a long sip of my old fashioned and then rattled the glass around, pondering over the silence that filled the room.

“Hey, did you guys feel like Helen was a little agitated whenever she was in the room?” I looked at Bill who shrugged his shoulders, then to Gretch. She awarded me no sign of acknowledgment. “Gretch? GRETCH!”

“What?” she replied with irritation, her eyes buried into her phone and fingers tapping away, feeding the gluttonous social media beast.

“What the heck’s on your phone that’s so damn important, Miss Anti-social?”

“Oh nothing really. Just messaging your future wife, that’s all.”

“What do you mean future wife?”

“Her name’s Brecken.”

“Oh yea. That is your future wife,” replied Bill. “You guys are like perfect for each other! Like peanut butter and jelly!”

“Two peas in a pod,” added Gretch.

“Milk and Honey.”

“Bread and butter.”

“Dude, I already have a future wife. And you know that Bill! 15 years! Remember? Do you really think I need to get myself in any more trouble?”

“But this one’s the real deal! You have to,” again said Gretch.

“Look, I appreciate the offer, but I’ve already fallen in love with way too many people so far this trip. One more—that’s just overkill.”

“Just look at her picture real quick, would you?” asked Gretch. She held up her cell phone with a picture of my “future wife” on the screen.

“Ok, she’s a babe, I get that, but c’mon! Now’s not the time to make any sort of commitments.”

“Just give Zack a break Gretch. He’s had a long day of driving, and I think it’s past his bedtime. You know he gets a little cranky at the end of the day.

“Thank you,” I almost said out loud. At least somebody has some sense to quit.

“Isn’t her family loaded too?” asked Bill.

“Wait, loaded?” I asked, with slight confusion.

“Oh yea, she’s super rich,” answered Gretch.

There was a slight pause. Bill and I looked at each other, as if a great epiphany had been bestowed upon us. We could feel it, moving through our legs and up into our bodies, slowly widening our eyelids and diluting our eyes, a heavy force overtaking us, awakening us into convulsive retractions the longer we stared. It drove us towards insanity, to a point of no return, a total blackout of reason, where all forms of resistance had become futile. I had to speak, had to say something, had to release this energy suddenly built up within me, energy that didn’t seem natural, or normal; almost as if it were… paranormal. Something was just edging us to act, to move, to—

“MAMA MIA WE GOT THE MOOLA!!”

“HELLO!” hollered Bill. We grabbed each other for a hug, nearly going in for a kiss. We hopped up and down, grasping each others arms as we circled round and round in place at the edge of the bed.

“Mama mia we got the money WE’RE RICH!!!”

“Time to get paid!”

“We got the mowwww-nay!” I jumped up onto the bed and bounced up and down like a stiff Billy Goat.

“QUACK QUACK QUACK,” Bill blurted back before hopping up onto the opposite bed.

“AHHHOOOOOOOGA!”

“ARRRGG, WOOF WOOF WOOF!”

“AOHHH-OHH-OHH-OHH-OHH-OHH-OHH-OHH-OHH,” I cried out and repeated, patting my hand against my mouth to signal an Indian war call.

“Haha ha,” said Bill using a laugh that insinuated calming.

“Haha ha,” I joined, feeling the calm myself.

“Ha.”

“Ha…ha.”

“Ha-HA ha.”

“Ha-ha, hee, haha…”

“haha ho. Haha heehee hee, haha hooooo hoho. Heeheehee hahaha hohoho—haha HA haha—hahaHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

“HOOOOOOOOOOOO—“

“WAAAAAAAOHHHHHH!!!”

“WE DID IT BABY!”

“MAMA MIA WE DID IT!”

“WE’LL NEVER HAVE TO WORK AGAIN!”

“WE HIT THE JACKPOT!”

“DWOOBLE-WOOBLE-WOOBLE-WOOBLE-WOOBLE!” It was a sound that came from my mouth as my index finger flicked against my lips in an up and down motion, over and over again until an obnoxious scream from Bill broke my attention span.

“OHHHHHHHH—“

“WOAHHHHHHHH—“

“WOOOOOHHHHH!”

“HAHAHAHA!”

“HEEHEEHEE!”

“HOHOHO…”

Nobody’s sure what made us act like we were in the middle of a Tim and Eric Haunted House sketch that night. It wasn’t known exactly how long it lasted or when it finally came to a stop. In fact, there wasn’t even much evidence that the event ever occurred. But it couldn’t be denied by any of the guests that a strange and disturbing occurrence was heard, coming from room 226 of the Dude Rancher Lodge that evening.

***

“Man, I don’t know about you, but I feel like a million bucks,” I said to Bill the next morning as I rose out of bed.

“That was the best night’s sleep I’ve had in years!”

“What about you Gretch… Gretch?” Bill and I looked over at her, pinned against the corner of the wall, eyes wide and bloodshot. “What the heck happened to you?”

“Are you guys freaking kidding me?”

“…What are you talking about?”

“You were acting like animals. Literally, both of you.”

“What do you mean animals?” I asked. Gretch had to be talking crazy talk. “Look, this is what happened. Helen left, and then you tried to set me up with some babe, and you showed me her picture and told me she was loaded, and then… then…”

“Then what?” asked Bill.

“I… I don’t know.”

“You’re tellin’ me both of you don’t remember anything?”

Bill and I looked at each other with bemusement. “Well, what happened?”

“You guys were totally out of control. It’s like you went psychotic, like you were… possessed…”

“Possessed? By… by who?”

“By gho—” she paused for a second. “Ghosts…” said Gretch as she stared off into space. Bill and I joined her, each of us just as stunned. “The Ghosts of the Dude Rancher Lodge…”

Chapter 19: I Miss My Friends When They Are Gone…

“There’s something in a Sunday that makes a body feel alone.”

-Johnny Cash

There’s some truth behind Johnny’s words, evident by the somber mood looming in the Benz. Not much was said during the car ride to the Milwaukee Airport. Was it because the whole night before was spent dancing and sweating out half our body weight, thus lacking any extra energy to move our mouths? That was a good possibility. Could it be that there was still a little disdain felt amongst us, having dealt with a pair of sardonic siblings that stayed up too late raising hell? The probability was high—quite high in fact. Or maybe—not likely, but just maybe, the morbid feelings were simply based off sadness? After all, we were only a few minutes from having to say goodbye.

To be honest, I’ve never been that good at goodbyes. I never say anything until the end, and then it’s like I can’t shut up, blabbering on for 15 extra minutes sometimes, a deficiency in my personality that has annoyed the hell out of my friend Austin Moody for decades, going as far as to coin the term “World’s Longest Goodbye.” And judging by Bill and Gretch’s lack of dialogue, they weren’t very good at goodbyes either.

“So you’re going to see the farm girl tonight?” asked Bill, finally breaking the long period of silence.

“Yea, I think I will.”

“…That’s cool,” he replied, shaking his head while perusing the cityscape, followed by another minute of awkward silence. Although I never saw Bill as a liar, I wasn’t quite convinced that he thought me seeing the farm girl was “cool.”

“Oh man, they have a Cheesecake Factory here too! I wish we could’ve gone there,” I said as we passed the restaurant, an appendage of an upscale shopping center. There was no response, which is typical whenever I favorably mention the Cheesecake Factory in front of anybody for some reason. I don’t know why? They have a great selection of cheesecake, and I really do like their fried macaroni and cheese balls. “…So, how long are you going to be in Montana for?”

“I don’t know. A couple of days maybe. Possibly a week?”

“That sounds fun.” Honestly, there wasn’t really anything said that alluded to “fun,” but the reactionary phrase came out anyway. “What is there to do over there?”

“You know, just hang out and stuff. Go to the bar. Drink beer maybe; go to the river…”

“Oh, right on.” I nodded my head and did a little perusing myself, giving up on the whole talking thing altogether. It would be at least five more painful minutes that were scarcely filled with random comments about the weather, scenery, news, Seattle Seahawks, and a myriad of other topics that nobody cared about until we would reach the airport.

I pulled up to the curbside drop off area and immediately began unloading the luggage from the trunk, as if it were part of an important mission. Bill and I stood a body apart facing each other after all of the luggage had been placed along the side of the curb. “Well, I guess this is it,” I said. “For the most part, it’s been a pleasure.” I stuck out my hand and he extended his, initiating a shake.

“Glad I could be a part of it,” he said as our handshake seamlessly turned into a bro hug.

“Have a safe trip, and take care of yourself.” Gretch stood few steps back form him and to the side. “Gretch, look after him for me.” Gretch sent me a nod, assuring me that she would.

It was the stupidest thing. Right after I said goodbye to Gretch, I got this weird feeling, like somebody had punched me in the throat, making it swell up and all. There was this bump, or lump, or something. It’s not like it hurt, but it kind of made me sad, then kind of made me mad. And to be honest, it kind of pissed me off a little bit! “What’s going on? Why did that happen?”

They waved a final time before turning and walking through the sliding glass doors of the Milwaukee International Airport, disappearing into the wonderment of airline infrastructure, becoming one with the thousands of others taking part in public commerce, each with a story and destination of their own. “I guess this is it, just me, a Benz, and 2000 lonely miles. No more Gretch… no more Bill…” I stood at the edge of the curb, staring through the hectic congregation of travelers, jammed into one solid image of moving, human flesh, an image that Bill and Gretch easily became lost in, one that I feared would consume me in time. “Whatever, I got an organic farm to go to.” I slid back into the car, slammed the door shut, and stepped on the gas without saying another word to anybody.

“Let’s see, Maggie gave me Kassie’s number.” I rummaged through my phone, ignoring the dangers of performing such a maneuver while driving. “Voicemail?” I swiped my finger across the screen and let the message play through the speakers of my car.

“Hey Zack, it’s Cousin Brian. Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner, I just got back from the lake for the 4th. Anyway, me and Cousin Erin are at the house hanging out. Give me a call back if you need a place to stay. We would love to see you.”

“Oh man, Cousin Brian and Cousin Erin, I remember telling them I’d be in town. I haven’t seen those guys in over a year! But I already had made plans… I’m going to the organic farm, and it’d be unorthodox of me to go back on that. I mean, I confirmed it in my head and everything! But then again, they’re family. What kind of cousin would I be if I didn’t go and see them? The more I think about it though, Cousin Brian and Cousin Erin have always been reasonable people for the most part. They’d understand my dilemma. They have to! It was all thrust upon me out of nowhere! Besides, it’s always been my dream to live on a farm—well, not a “dream” dream, but you know, it’d be fun to hang out on the farm and stuff, especially with a farm babe at the end of the night, watching the sunset on the swing over the cornstalks, thinking about life and the universe… And besides, there’s something about farm babes that I kind of dig. And one day at a farm—heck, that wouldn’t be half bad. They probably have a bunch of good food there too, since they grow it there and all, even if it is just vegetables and stuff. I mean, vegetables aren’t my favorite thing in the world, but I’m sure they’d be all right if I gave them the chance. All of those yuppies at Whole Foods seem to be fond of them. Then again, so do the hippies—oh geez, I bet ya there’ll be tons of hippies there… exactly like Whole Foods. That means no Rockstars for a day—whoa, I haven’t done that in, gosh, I don’t know how long… And man, what would Cousin Brian and Cousin Erin think about that, ditching them for a farm babe and a couple of hippies who don’t like Rockstars? Now that I think about it, I might be a little heartbroken if I was in their shoes. And the disappointment in Bill’s face… I don’t know if I could bear it—wait a minute, why do I even care about that guy? He ditched me for Montana! And if he was around, I’d have to deal with all the crap I’d get from Gretch, and… and—“

Then it hit me, a wave of sense smacking me like a 2×4 to the face. “Ah, who am I kiddin’? I don’t even like organic food! Never have, and probably never will! That stuff’s for freakin’ sissies! Not me though. I like my Slim Jim beef jerky, easy cheese straight from the can, Applebee’s 2 for 20 menu, my daily Rockstar Energy Drink, whether it’s the original 280 calorie—56 grams of sugar kind with a bunch of chemicals or the white cans with all the aspartame. I live off that stuff! I haven’t gone without one in almost five years, and I wouldn’t change a single thing about it! I’m half man, half preservative! What can I say? I love my genetically modified foods! I’m not even ashamed to admit it! Always have, and always will…”

“Kassie, you’re the best farm girl I know, and you’ll always have a special place in my heart, but the organic life’s just not for me… Not to go all Bill O’Reilly on everybody, but I just can’t go against my principles—not this time. I sincerely hope that you find it in your heart to forgive me someday…”

I picked up the phone and clicked on the last missed call entry on my phone. “Cousin Brian, it’s Cousin Zack. I’m coming to Wasau. Let’s party!”

***

I walked into Cousin Brian’s house after a grueling three-hour drive from Milwaukee that required a nap at a rest stop, arriving right at the tail end of the US Women’s soccer team’s thrashing of Japan in the World Cup. I mean, I’m not a huge soccer guy, but I love America, and man (or woman in this case) did Japan get womped! Like 5 to 2 or something. Even I know that’s a ridiculous score for soccer! Good moods were flying all around.

“What’s up Cousin Zack?” said both Cousin Brian and Cousin Erin at different intervals. I proceeded forward and delivered a set of hugs before jumping into some customary small talk. “Have you had any dinner? We have a bunch of leftover burgers and brats we need to get rid of from the 4th.”

“Well… uh, what the hey, why not? Let’s have a couple burgers and brats!” My response was a bit hesitant, for it was almost my 3rd dinner in a row that consisted of burgers and brats since my arrival to the motherland, but hey, I’m not going to complain about food that’s offered to me, especially if it’s free! So each of us loaded up a plate with a pile of burgers and brats along with some of the fixin’s on the side and treated ourselves to another good ol’ fashioned Wisconsin feast.

“You should try some of these beers I have. Most of them are brewed locally in Wisconsin!” I grabbed one that said “IPA” on it, opened it with my keychain and took a swig, issuing a nod to show my approval.

“Man, I love how everybody’s getting into microbrews these days. They’re popping up all over the place! People are actually starting to appreciate the taste of good beer now!”

“Really Zack?” butted in Cousin Erin. “After the whole MGD incident?” Of course she had to bring up the time where everybody got mad at me cause I bought “Miller Genuine Draft,” acting as if I had performed a sacrilegious act. One time. I guess it wouldn’t be a Wisconsin trip without its honorary mention.

“That was like 2 years ago!” It didn’t matter, for they still found it necessary (and will for the rest of time) to pummel me with insults for the next few minutes. “But seriously, enough about the MGD talk, you guys should come back out to the Northwest sometime. They’ve got a bunch of great breweries all around. You’d love it!”

“Yea, I’d really like to,” said Cousin Brian. “Actually, the last time I was out there was I think for your Eagle Scout Ceremony, right when I turned 21. I remember hanging out in the hot tub and drinking a beer with your dad. That was pretty rad!”

“Didn’t we go out there when we were younger too?” asked Erin.

“We did!” replied Brian. “I got to ride my bike to another state! It was awesome!” What Brian always forgot to mention whenever he retold the tale (of which he has numerous times throughout his life) is that our house was only a 5-minute drive from another state.

“Yea, you also farted in my face in front of everybody, for no reason!” I had to rudely remind him of the incident. “All I was doing was sitting in the family room playing with Legos, and you came up to me and ripped a huge one!” They all laughed, for it was in fact a pretty silly memory before moving on to more contemporary topics of how I can perfectly push grandma’s buttons, recounting a couple of my more recent successes. Soon after, the sun began its slide beneath the Earth’s horizon, marking my last day spent in Wisconsin. We cleaned up the patio table and moved inside in order to prevent a swarm of mosquitoes from feasting on our flesh. “C’mon in Cousin Zack. You can make us a couple of Old Fashioneds.”

“It would be an honor.”

***

 

Cousin Brian’s liquor table was well equipped: Jim Beam Kentucky Bourbon, Jero Old Fashioned Mix, Angostura Aromatic Bitters, Maraschino Cherries, 7-Up, and olives, an extra ingredient that Cousin Brian liked to add to his old fashioneds; his own unique, personal twist that he swore by. I conjured up two cocktails, heavy on the Jim Beam, and handed one to Cousin Brian (Cousin Erin opted out of having one, being that she had to go home soon). He took a sip and nodded his head in approval. “Not bad… not bad at all.” I sat down in relief, taking a sip of mine as well. I too was satisfied with my creation. “So tell me about your trip so far.”

I told of the tales from Idaho, our journey into the Gran Tetons, and the best and worst of what Wyoming had to offer. They got a little (but no too much) insight on the whole Denver escapade (or debacle, depending on whose opinion you receive) and our travels through flyover country. And of course he was briefed on my 30th birthday experience with honorable mentions of the boundary babes. As I began talking about Wisconsin though, something else suddenly interrupted my train of thought. “So tell me. What exactly is a Supper Club?”

“Oh man, we used to go to Supper Clubs all the time back in the day! There was one we’d go to in Appleton on Thursday’s that served this awesome prime rib. We’d get a couple drinks in us and stay for like 4 or 5 hours sometimes!” He went on about Supper Clubs for a while, seemingly forgetting the true nature of the question. Reminding him of its original intent however seemed inappropriate at the time, thus prolonging the mystery of the Supper Club. “They have a couple of good ones in Neenah by Lake Winnebago. If we have time during the family reunion, maybe we can convince everybody to go to one in a couple of weeks.”

“Oh yea, the family reunion, I almost forgot!”

“Yea, I’m really looking forward to it. I’ll bring the Wave Runner out and we’ll have a good old time.”


Me and Cousin Brian SurlyCousin Brian and I with our Surly’s – Family Reunion, Lake Winnebago

“Oh man, I do like Waver Runners! It’s crazy that I’ll be in Wisconsin twice in one month. And of course I’ll have to make myself out here for a Packer game before the end of the year. It’s just too bad we couldn’t have it all at the cabin. I would’ve loved to hang out there one last time.”

“I know, I’m going to miss that place. We had a lot of good memories there. Luckily I got to go and visit a few more times before they sold it.”

“Man, the last time I was there, I think around two years ago, Nick made me do the belly flop off the dock in front of a bunch of people, like 50 total—some of which were babes. That sucked, big time!”

“Haha, I remember that, quite well,” added Erin.

“Remember the first time we all went there?” I asked. “It was right before grandma and grandpa’s wedding, and you and soon-to-be Cousin Hans took an old Champaign bottle and filled it with a bunch of soda and started drinking out of it while Cousin Hannah played the piano?”

“Oh geez… yea I remem—“

“And then you went upstairs where all of the parents were at and started stumbling around acting like you guys were all sloshed! That was hilarious!”

“…Yea, yea, I know… we were all pretty crazy back then.”

“And then Grandma got all mad, and mom and dad—“

“Yes, Cousin Zack, I do remember. I remember it all too well…”

“And what about the time you walked through th—“

“C’mon, who doesn’t remember that story?”

I beleaguered Cousin Brian with a few more embarrassing stories, sending his head into a constant shake from side to side. “Haha, well, I better get going,” said Cousin Erin. “Unfortunately, I have work tomorrow. Not really looking forward to going in.”

“Understandable. It was awesome seeing you,” I told her as I stood up and gave her a hug.

“Tell everyone I say hi. See you all in a couple weeks.”

“I’m looking forward to it.” I settled back onto the couch with my old fashioned in hand and took another swig, readying myself to resume our conversation. “Man, I thought you guys were the coolest kids back then. Why, I remember how you and Cousin Kevin each got paid 5 bucks to walk Grandma down the aisle at the wedding! I only got a dollar for being one of the flower boys!”

“And then Cousin Kimmy started dancing up a storm on the dance floor.”

“Dude, she was losing her mind, and she was only like 8 years old, same age as me! She danced so hard she fell on the floor! I was right next to her when it happened!”

“Haha, she was definitely one of the craziest of the cousins back then.”

“Well, I think we all kind of had our moments growing up… like when we were all at the cabin and you couldn’t stop talking about American Pie and how it was the best movie in the world!”

“That was a good movie for the time! When was that, 1999?”

“Yea, the year we drove out there all the way from Washington. That actually became one of my favorite family vacations of all time!”

“Ok, yea, I think I remember now. Cousin Holly and Cousin Kimmy came over with Cousin Kevin, and they were playing Limp Bizkit and stuff. And Cousin Kimmy had a really big potty mouth.”

“Oh my gosh, I know it! She couldn’t stop swearing! It was awful! Speaking of potty mouths and crazy people, Alicia’s coming to the reunion. You’ll finally meet her husband Derek.”

“Oh yea! Do you like him?”

“Well, he’s a little brash, and kind of funny looking. You know, a little deformed around the edges here and there, like a hunchback. But overall, he’s a good guy. So yea, I think you’ll like him.”

“Well good! I bet grandma and grandpa will be happy about that.”

“I know it! It’ll be good to have the family all here again. I love it whenever we have an excuse to come out to Wisconsin.”

“The only thing after that is to just move out here! By the way, when are you moving out here?” His question was delivered in a facetious tone, however I felt the hint of a serious undertone in its framing.

“Man, wouldn’t that be the dream. I got friends trying to get me to move all over the place! Boise Idaho, Minneapolis Minnesota, Nick and Cousin Holly are even trying to get to come out to Milwaukee. Just so many decisions you know!”

“Well, at least you know you’re wanted. I’m sure you can find something anywhere you go. My company has me flying all over the place, and I’ll actually be going to Austin in a couple of months. I’ll have to get together with Emily while I’m down there.”

“Nice, she’d like that! What are you gonna be doing down there?”

“Well, it’s a new region for our company, so we’re trying to expand our client base. You know, doing the usual sales pitch presentation, going out to dinner and schmoozing with the potential customers, giving them the whole spill, that kind of stuff.”

“Do you like it?”

“You know, they treat me pretty well. Every time I let them know I’m think about finding another job, they seem to give me a raise and more responsibility, so I guess it’s good. What about you?”

“Hey, it pays the bills, and I can’t lie, I do get to work on some pretty cool stuff. But man, working for the government can be a pain in the ass sometimes. You gotta deal with inspectors looking over your shoulder for the most minute of details, all the way to the tiniest squeeze of a turd pebble out of your butt crack. It’s drives me crazy! And when you make a mistake, it’s like you just committed a deadly sin! And trying to get everybody together at the right place and right time to get a job done, it’s like it takes an act of God just to get a job certified or something! And man, don’t get me started on signatures on paperwork and material ordering.”

“Well, you probably get good benefits at least.”

“Yea… can’t complain about that. A decent amount of leave each year, good 401k matching… they even send me on travel every once in a while. Like last month, I was in Alabama doing some Quality Assurance and auditing stuff for a sub-contractor of ours. The work wasn’t all that fun, but I liked the traveling part.”

“Well, I guess that’s why they call it work isn’t it?

“You have a point there. Damn, they way we’re talking, it’s like we’re already ready to retire.”

“I mean, we’re pretty much almost there.

“Ha, yea! 7 years down, only about 20… 20 to go…”

A cold chill shot through my veins, shooting thousands of little bumps all over my skin. Something struck me, a ton of bricks slamming down on my chest, leaving me completely breathless. My God, it happened… I’m… we’re… we’re adults now…

“You all right Cousin Zack?”

I thought it’d never get me, but it was the shock of time, the ultimate killer. It finally snuck up on me, the most deadly of physical dimensions, and perhaps the most unforgiving. It doesn’t wait up. It doesn’t stop. And one day, it gets you and rolls over you, leaving you stunned and wondering how to catch up… catch up to a time that is so far ahead, with no sign of slowing; a time that slays you, leaving you with nothing but thoughts… thoughts of purpose, meaning, and the people that make them up…

“Yea, I’m good… I uh… I think… I just… I miss my friends when they are gone…”

There was silence, except for the sips and ice rattles coming from our old fashioneds. Maybe a similar thought had gone through Brian’s head too. “You’ll be alright,” he finally said to me. Remember, you still have family. And that’s above and beyond the most important thing of all.”

“Yea… God, family, and the Green Bay Packers…”

Both of us stared outward and pondered the phrase made famous by Vince Lombardi for a minute. Cousin Brian looked at his watch. “Man, it’s passed 11 now. Better get to bed. Got a full day of work tomorrow.” He took a final swig of his old fashioned, finishing the rest of it off then popping the leftover olive in his mouth. “By the way, if you’re serious, we really should go to a Packer game this year. We have a hook up for tickets. Front Row, near the 50 yard line.”

“Yea, let’s do it. Maybe for Packers and Shi—sorry, Seahawks.”

“Heheh, sounds good Cousin Zack. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yea, see you tomorrow. Thanks for everything Cousin Brian.”

“Anytime. We’re family.”

Green Bay Family

We in fact, made it to a Green Bay game.  Packers and Seahawks (PS, we won)

Me at Green Bay

And here’s an extra one of me, just because I look so freaking awesome!

I stayed up a while longer, finishing the last bits of my old fashioned. I took my time with the drink, time that was diminishing with every passing second, thrusting me back to a world I had escaped from what seemed like so long ago… It was time that I desperately needed, but could barely afford.

***

Having found the will to move again, I placed the old fashioned tumbler glasses in the sink and readied myself for bed, knowing it was wise to take advantage of a good nights sleep after such an eventful weekend. After brushing my teeth and slipping into my gym shorts, I slid into the makeshift bed that Brian had set up for me in the spare bedroom. Hoping to squeak a quick run in the next day if the weather permitted, I grabbed my phone to set an alarm for a decent time. “Wait, a missed text?” It was Bill.

“Hey, I was doing some thinking on the plane ride over. If you’re up for it, and/or if it’s on your way, you should meet us in Montana and hang out in Pony for a couple of days. I think you’re going to like it over here…” 

Pony Montana… Sounds like such a peaceful, wonderful place… I laid in bed, imagining a quaint little mountain town tucked away in the rugged landscapes of Montana. I wonder what it would be like, living in the Wild West? I bet they have a lot of cowboy types, being that it’s most likely a small rancher’s town. It probably hasn’t even changed in years either… like a place where time stands still… yea, I think I’d like that. I’d like that a lot… Pony Montana, maybe I still have time… I kept my eyes closed and thought of such a magical place filled with cowboys, friends and family. I thought, and then thought some more, until my mind joined the state of my tiresome body, sending me into a deep slumber.

Chapter 10: Young Americans, Part 2

“Gretch? Gretch who?” Bill and I looked at each other half-bewildered. The mentioned name was of a foreign dialect as a mixture of melted cheese, ground beef, and deep-fried pickle seeped into our taste buds, sending signals of ecstasy to cloud our minds. It was an overwhelming amount of grease and fat, far more than our bodies were acclimated to, but a risk we were more than willing to take nonetheless. The heaven we were experiencing now would far outweigh the potential hell that our stomachs would suffer and the carnage it would produce later down the road, for this… this was how a birthday was supposed to be spent. I had Bill, my traveling and crime companion, Cambray, our certified Minnesota representative, and John, a fine English lad recently adopted by the state, and we were gathered at the Blue Door Pub, a local favorite according to the Food Network enjoying the simple pleasure of my long, sought-out Juicy Lucy.

The waiter stopped by our table as I took my final sip of beer, making his arrival a timely one in order to sustain our state of euphoria. “Can I get you guys anything else to drink?” he asked.

“Do you have a nice ‘PILS-ner’ on tap?” I asked back in a half-sarcastic manner, parodying an obnoxious character created by the comedy duo Tim and Eric. Being that it was my birthday, not only was it an excuse, but also an obligation to act like a dingus.

“Yes. Yes we do.” he replied, his dry facial expression obviating the fact that he wasn’t the slightest bit amused with my question. “It’s called Hamm’s.” Well, crap. That sort of backfired on me.

 

“Uh, heheh… ok, I guess I’ll have the PILS-ner,” I said in a sheepish manner, slouching my chin into my chest. Shamed by my own immaturity, accepting the cheap imitation of PBR was my only means of recovery.

“Don’t worry, we’ll take you to a place where you’ll never have to worry about beer ever again,” said Cambray. There was a spike of sincerity in her soft tone, bringing true meaning to the words she had just spoken. She was a loyal and trustworthy friend, her word at least equal, if not great to that among my other best friends, including Mike Gibson. I wholeheartedly believed her, and chugged my beer to prove it.

“Tell me more.”

“It’s called Surly, a local brewery that’s been gaining in popularity lately, especially in the Midwest. They just opened a new facility this year too,” said John.

“Surly… I think I’ve heard of that before. They have a Furious or something… That might be something worth checking out, and you know it’s no secret that I like an occasional beer or two, even if it is a PILS-ner.”

“And if you’d like, I’ll even be the designated driver, being that you are the birthday boy.”

“Yea, and get this. If you’re lucky, you might even see a…” Cambray leaned in close, her inside voice turning into a whisper. “…A Boundary Babe.”

“Boundary Babe?” shouted Bill.

“Check please!”

***

SURLY BREWERY—The sign glowed bright into the fading summer sky around a sculpted foundation of stone and rebar, the gateway to a 50,000 square foot complex. It was clean, it was open—it was in all forms of the word stunning, a textbook example of how all breweries should be built, and a true monument to the beer gods. We walked along a path of brick and fire, behind us a large gathering of beer-drinking patrons spread across a beautiful landscape of cement and green, decorated with meticulously placed art sculptures, trees, and walkways lined with bench level ledges. At the center of the master-crafted courtyard was the main attraction, a large mound of finely broken black stone with fire spitting up from its core that each section of the campus built towards, blending in to become one with its atmosphere, as if its presence were merely just a simple reflection of Mother Nature. As an aspiring architect, my sister would be thoroughly impressed.

But as striking as it all was, its beauty could not preclude us from moving forward onto our ultimate goal, to the indulgence of another sense; the trigger for further euphoric satisfaction. The freshly built brew hall stood before us, serving as a modern day Parthenon for beer worshipers everywhere. We drew closer to the entrance, our excitement reaching the bounds of containment, like Ridley Scott’s Alien seconds from bursting out of our bellies. Our pilgrimage was nearly complete.

I swung open the double doors into the brewery a man on a mission. To my left was a gift shop, its immediate vicinity drawing captivation over the rest of the brewery’s attractions far beyond the focal point of my faded eyesight. I took a sharp turn to a clean spread of pint glasses, clothing, accessories, and much more paraphernalia with the Surly logo plastered about, giving each carefully placed item a quick peruse, but unable to stop my legs from kicking back and forth in a scissored direction that propelled my body in a steady circular motion around the shop, over and over again. It was the best and only control I could provide to an over-stimulated body, a puppy parading around his personal candy store, his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth, drooling over everything that could potentially be his.

The sound of heavy metal blasted through the gift shop’s other entrance, reveling unto me a large dining hall filled with rows of long, solid wood tables leading to an industrial style bar lined with 20 different types of craft beer. The gift shop was merely a distant memory now, for my deficient attention span had drawn me towards a new majesty, growing more majestic with each aggressing step.

At the end of the bar was a 4-story glass wall that spread the length of the dining hall, a showcase of industrial ingenuity. Inside it was home to a state of the art system of pipes, boilers, rows upon rows of hoppers, and various other stainless steel structures, all for the purpose of producing a large quantity of a quality beverage we call beer, and doing so in a logical and efficient manner. Every square foot of the grandiose facility was spotless, a valid sign that they took pride in their craft, a craft of which I was about to show my upmost appreciation for. As an engineer whose expertise is in piping system design, I was thoroughly impressed.

“Yes, I would like that one, that one, we’ll go with a Furious just to be safe, let’s try that smoky one, and maybe a nice ‘PILS-ner’ if you have it,” I told the bar tender, pointing to random beer taps left and right with faith that they would all be up to my sophisticated standards for beer. Bill, Cambray and John grabbed a pint and joined me at a table I had snatched a moment later, as it was a struggle keeping up with my rabid excitement.

Seconds later, our tattoo-clad waitress walked up to us with a look distress, although my up-spirited mood left me unsuspecting of concern. It’s probably just been a busy night, that’s all. She began talking, my mind trying to focus on her speech, but distracted by the other elements in the room—friends, babes, the augmented reverberation of distortion pumping through the beer hall, the variety of beer sitting in front of me—I can’t understand what she’s trying to—now she’s looking at you and nodding her head! Focus man, focus!

“Oh yea! No problem! Sounds great. Thank you very much! I appreciate it…” I went on and on, adding to it a heavy nod and a giant smile with raised eyebrows and two forceful thumbs up before she walked away, foregoing any future eye contact. She was just busy, that’s all, and wanted to let us know that she would be with us soon like all waitress do. No big deal. Bill, Cambray, and John all whipped out looks of unease, as if they had just witness daddy hit mommy. “What?”

“Zack, you do realize she just yelled at you, right?” replied Cambray.

“What do you mean?”

“I think her exact words were, ‘um, just to let you know, this isn’t open seating. You’re supposed to see your hostess, before you grab a table, ok?’ She looked pretty upset about it too, like you cut in front of a bunch of people…” Whoops!

 

I guess it’s a good thing crabby waitresses never brings me down! And despite the same grumpy look she gave us each time she walked past the table, our mood never seemed to sour, each pass having quite the opposite effect to be exact. The simple fact was, I had beer, I had friends, and I had a beautiful evening to spend with both, and nothing could take that away from me. And at that very moment inside the Surly Brewery, I felt no anxiety over turning 30 like I had anticipated, no feeling of discontent, and certainly no concern over compromise. There only was wisdom, maturity, and resolve. So I rose my glass, and prepared a toast, a rite of passage to the rest of the 20 year olds around me, for as a 30 year old, I had lots of knowledge to give.

“You know, I wasn’t sure at the beginning of this day how I was going to feel going forward, especially after the H&M debacle.” I shot a look towards Bill, who responded by darting his head towards the ground. “But as I sit here in this brewery on this wonderful Midwest evening, I realize it’s times like these when we realize how lucky we are to be alive. And to have you here as friends spending this special day with me… gosh, all I can say is, life is good, and I honestly don’t know how this day could get any better! So from here on out, I’d like to make a pledge. No more distractions. No more excuses, and no more silly games. From here on out, I won’t let anything keep me from becoming a strong, independent, and contributing member of society. I would like to announce that starting now, at this moment forward, I will—“

“Whoa,” Bill interrupted. His jaw dropped and his head slowly shifted towards the entrance, my words of kindness long forgotten. “What is that?” he asked, running out of breath as the words left his mouth.

John and Cambray followed his lead with similar expressions, the effect seemingly growing on the rest of the bar, bar tender’s included. Even the scorching sound of heavy metal had softened, as if we were about to witness an old Wild West style stick up. What’s going on? What possibly could be so intriguing as to make my own friend stop me in the middle of my birthday toast? I turned my body to investigate. “Whoa…”

 

Her radiance cut through my heart the moment I laid eyes on her, ripping it my from my chest and taking control, all without making an incision. The room lit behind her with each graceful stride, as if an angel’s aura left it’s blessing over the sacred ground she walked. It was quite evident she was out of her natural environment, a beer pub not exactly on par with the serenity of lake and forest, but her elegant stride did not falter, only enhancing the pristine surroundings of the finest brewery I had ever set foot in, her beauty incorrigible to even the most repulsive of surroundings.

For days I had tried to prepare Bill for an encounter, just in case we happened to be lucky enough to be graced with such a sight, but no matter how concise I made the definition to be, no words could ever come close to describing the ineffable symptoms one experiences when coming across your first sighting. And though it was a sight I had been fortunate to see before, its presence once again struck me harder than I could have ever imagined, as it always does, capturing me under a hypnotic spell that I was doomed to bear for the rest of eternity. The next set of words barely left my mouth, her presence leaving me dumbfounded, hardly able to complete the most elementary of sentences… and she was walking right towards us.

“Bill… that my friend, is a Boundary Babe.”

We exchanged hugs and a few kind words of to each other, as was customary after any extended absence, for a Boundary Babe never shies away from a polite greeting. “Hi, I’m Lauren,” she said to the unrecognized face across from her.

“Uh, I um, well… gee, I am… oh boy…”

“Sorry, this is my friend Bill,” I jumped in for the save, having witnessed the speechless effects a Boundary Babe can have on a person from previous experience. “Would you care to join us for a drink?”

“How about we have one on me! It is your birthday after all. What would you like?”

Wow, I actually don’t know what to say… But say something stupid! “Uh, I um, well, I like, um… gee, I guess uh—”

“Sorry, he would love a Surly Furious, if that’s ok with you,” Bill jumped in for the save, having witnessed the speechless effects a Boundary Babe can have on a person from previous experience.

“Surly Furious would be great,” I added. She called over the waitress, which for the first time that night, caused a smile to grow across her face as she took the order, as if she were eager to be of service to us.

“Ok, I’ll be back in a minute with your drinks!” And sure enough, within a minute, she was back with a fresh round of brews, another good quality of the Boundary Babe. “Cheers!”

Cheers!” we replied, satisfied with her newfound alacrity.

To be fair, for I believe in full disclosure in all of my writings I must say that Cambray is a Boundary Babe as well, for she embodies the same characteristics as mentioned above. However, being that she was (and still is, so don’t get any funny ideas guys!) married to John, groveling over her would not only be awkward, but also inappropriate. But as for Lauren (and all other boundary babes for that matter), nothing could stop my devotion, a succinct representation towards one of the few unadulterated locales left on this Earth, tucked away in the Northern wood and water of the Minnesota/Canadian border called “The Boundary Waters.” It was a beauty and presence I did not deserve, but regardless, was given the pleasure of her company along with a beer to share, for within the spirit of a Boundary Babe to provide to others, undeserved or not.

“You know, there was a nice crew cut sweatshirt I saw in the gift shop when I came in. I think it would look really nice on you,” said Lauren.

“I saw the same one,” added Cambray. “You have to get at least SOMETHING to remember the Twin Cities by.” It was by those word that I was prompted to pound my beer and all others lying on the table and venture back into the depths of the long forgotten gift shop… on a quest for the perfect crew cut.

“I love it!” I immediately said after pulling the sweatshirt over my body. It was black, and that was all I really knew. It didn’t matter however, for the Boundary Babe has an impeccable eye for style. I wasted no time with my purchase, the cashier scanning the sweatshirt as it was still attached to my body, for I had complete faith in the Boundary Babe’s choice of attire. “What now?”

“I have an idea,” Cambray popped in, her eyes gleaming as if she had just had a Godly revelation. “What if we did a little karaoke tonight?” the question was framed in what seemed like random fashion. I however knew better, as did she. She knew full well karaoke was my strong suit, the one area where I unequivocally outshined the rest, no matter the crowd, and she was rooting for me, as a true Boundary Babe would.

Lauren gave her a nod of approval, and then Cambray looked at me, waiting for a similar response. A grin grew across my face, for I was unable to hold a straight face, as was the intention.

“I would love some karaoke.”

To be concluded…