The Yearbook Office
Writings on staying alive
 

At Slampoethaven, bet on The Size.
Blues Galloper and Murk at Pumpertown.
This week’s best bet is Just Give Up at Overthere.

In Chinook, Montana, I left the keys in the cup holder and locked the door. Thankfully, the dog was out of the car. We were parked at a gas station convenience store.

“How did that happen?” M asked.

“It didn't 'happen,'” I said.

A man named Spanky from the auto shop next door helped us break in.

"Where are you from?" he asked, eyeing the dog.

"We're traveling from Missoula, but we're both from California," M said. I would have left off the California part (Montanans do not trust our kind), but M and I are very different. For example, she thought Spanky was handsome. I thought Spanky was hot.

"What are you doing in Chinook?" Spanky asked.

"We're on our way to Malta," I said.

"Why?"

"We wanted to see another part of the state, and neither of us has ever been on the Hi-Line," M said. "Is there anything we should be sure to check out?"

"This is God's country," Spanky said, at just the right level of sarcasm. That was when I decided he was hot. Also, he cursed while trying to unlock the door, then apologized for cursing, then cursed again. A salty mouth tempered by an inherent sense of decorum is very appealing in a man.

After Spanky broke in and I turned off the alarm, M said, "How much can we pay you?" I might have simply held out a bill.

"Twenty bucks," he said. "It's usually fifty, but I feel bad you had to get stuck in Chinook.”

On Highway 2, we paralleled a thunderstorm for miles. The sky was halved into gunmetal and blue haze, the dividing line hanging over on the Canadian border. Lightening flashed over Saskatchewan while Montana built up the potential. Somewhere between Chinook and Malta, a pink adobe church grew out of a hill. We hooked a U-turn in the middle of the highway to get a better look. The windows and doors were boarded up, the cement steps starting to erode, but there were fresh flowers and new gifts in the cemetery. Most of the graves were marked with a simple wooden cross.

"This is amazing," one of us said.

"I know. Amazing," the other one said.

M was worried about snakes, so she waited on the perimeter while I walked through the high grass. The wind was hot and loud. I took a picture of the dog, framed by crosses, dwarfed by the legendary big sky. After a while, back in the car, M said something about the energy in the air.

"It's the thunderstorm," I said.

"It's the cemetery."

South of Malta, way out in ranch country, the dog inhaled a foxtail and started hacking. We were trying to take a self-timed photo in a field, the camera balanced on a stack of books on the hood of the car. The focus was never quite right. Then the foxtail, and the hacking, and vomit in the dried-out field.

On the drive back to town, we kept checking for cell phone reception, knowing it wouldn't come. We would find Yellow Pages and a pay phone. We would ask for help at the front desk of the Great Northern Hotel. We would cross our fingers and hope for a vet within an hour of this tiny town. When the Philips County Veterinary Hospital appeared on the side of the road we had traveled out on, where neither of us had noticed it before, it felt like some sort of sign. We pulled into the gravel drive and parked in front of a wagon wheel hung with a horned skull.

Inside, the pregnant veterinarian yanked the dog's jaws wide and said, "I don't see anything, but that doesn't mean there's not somethin' stuck behind her tonsils." The fee was $25. She said to wait a day or two before getting really worried, and I thanked her while SECOND OPINION flashed in my brain. The dog puked a bunch that evening, but the next day, she was fine.

Later, I said, "For a minute there I was thinking, 'My dog cannot die in fucking Malta.'"

"I was thinking the same thing," M said. "That would have been a rough drive home."

"I probably would have put you on a train and stayed here to live out my life in mourning and despair."

"I wouldn't have let you do that," she said.

"At least I could bury her in that cemetery."

On a dirt road on the outskirts of Havre, we stopped to take a picture of the badlands, and a pick-up truck pulled up alongside the car. The woman inside leaned over all the way. She was smoking.

"You ladies lost?"

"We're just taking a look around," M said.

"Snakes are out this time of year, so I wouldn't wander far. Unless you got a gun."

"We do not have a gun," I said. Maybe I should have lied.

She gave us very detailed instructions for how far we could drive on this road, what we would see along the way, where we could head down a path to the river to let the dog take a swim, and where we should turn around and head back the way we came before we hit private property, which we assumed was her own.

"And watch out for the snakes," she finished.

At the river turn-out, there was one empty car parked alongside a tree. It looked harmless enough, and I wanted to get out, to give the dog a chance to walk in the river.

“I don't like this,” M said.

“It's fine.”

She waited in the car with the doors locked. The river was an elongated puddle, green scum, flies. Beer cans and cigarette butts under brush. I didn't see or hear anyone, but I kept thinking about that other parked car. The dog sniffed the surface of the water, but would not go in.

In Big Fork, M got a table in a pizza restaurant while I took the dog for a walk. A loud family forced me off the sidewalk and into the street, a girl in a tank top and white capris forced me back on, and by the time I put the dog in the car and got back to the restaurant, I was fed up with this tourist town.

"I'm fed up with this tourist town," I said, and ruined our last dinner.

“Why?” M asked.

“Everyone seems so phony," I said. M took it personally because she likes Big Fork a lot. Because it had been a long day. Because Montana is so large, and our table was so small.

Later, we stopped at a state beach along Flathead Lake and watched the sunset from a log. We took the same picture eight times before each of us was happy with the results. M prefers pictures taken from a low angle because she thinks it makes her nose look better. I prefer pictures taken from a high angle because I think it makes my face look less round. Despite this difference in opinion, we get along quite well.