The village appeared almost monastic in its stillness. A few lighted windows and a traffic signal blinking yellow a block or more down from where I stood shielding my eyes from the mist. Here and there a pickup truck was parked nose-in at some odd angle, one of them, inexplicably, with its flashers on. It was the only sign of life: Sage, Montana, had shut down for the day.
Almost. For at the far end of the street, well past the blinking light, stood two gas stations, both of which seemed engaged in a contest involving lumens or candlepower or whatever lighthouse keepers discuss when they talk shop over a beer or two. The Sinclair green and the Exxon red reminded me of harbor buoys and that old “red right return” mnemonic that helps incompetent sailors like me locate the channels in Nantucket Sound. It was all very nautical in a landlocked, mountainous, petrochemical sort of way.
Nantucket Sound was indeed a long way off, but I knew it well enough, having spent the first eighteen years of my life in Harwichport on the Cape, one village over from Chatham. Confession: visitors prefer Chatham for a reason. A poem by that revered New Englander Robert Frost—the one born in San Francisco—points out how people love to gaze at the sea, as if all life’s answers exist there amidst the stinging jellyfish and the plastic six-pack rings. All right he may not have mentioned those, but it’s true that people seem intent upon getting as far out into or as close to the water as they can: the last plank on the pier, the last rock in the jetty. Chatham is that last rock and people fight to stand on it; Harwichport is merely the second plank from the end.
But it’s a pretty town—if it were a town and not simply a section of Harwich. To its greater shame, officially it’s merely a census-designated place or CDP, something its residents probably discuss only in a whisper and only when they’re good and drunk. I’m not a resident anymore: I haven’t lived there in three decades, but I still consider it home. Some might see that as an indictment of the life I’ve led and my inability to root myself anywhere. I might even agree, when I’m good and drunk, although even sober that fact doesn’t bother me. The thirty years away has made it easier to recollect my childhood as a series of tenuously interconnected incidents rather than the continuum it must have been. I think we do that as we get older—start to see our lives as books with an infinite number of short chapters, many of which appear to be out of order. Not a problem, we tell ourselves. Eventually it gets sorted out.
Somewhere in that disjointed continuum is the story of Evelyn Kessinger of the actual town of Harwich. Evelyn died earlier this year, having outlived her husband by three decades. Officially Julius Kessinger died in a household accident, though some have always maintained that Evelyn killed him, for it was she who, unaware that he was cleaning the blades of a ceiling fan, flipped it on, startling him enough to make him lose his balance and fall two feet from a wobbly kitchen chair to his death. (Those who enjoy blaming the victim used to point out that, less than ten feet away in a hall closet was a steadier stepstool.) Regardless it was not the distance he fell: it was toppling chin-first into an antique cast iron ornamental umbrella stand that the couple had picked up recently at a flea market. Immediately after the fall Julius apparently sprang to his feet, waved off Evelyn’s concern, showed the facial movement of an incipient smile and, while the blades above him slowed to a final lazy revolution or two, took two steps backwards and died. He was fifty. We heard the sirens. Evelyn was never charged with anything, but for years afterwards nobody could turn on a ceiling fan in my house—or any house in the mid-Cape—without hearing someone offer the macabre suggestion that he not “pull a Julius.” By rights it should have been “don’t pull an Evelyn,” but she was still alive and it seemed cruel to saddle her with that burden. Now that she’s passed on, it’s unlikely the story will survive much longer.
Except in my head. As inconsequential as this all was to everyone other than the Kessingers, it instilled in me a fear of dying funny, of becoming the Julius Kessinger of the next generation or two. Even if I wasn’t going to be alive to hear it, I didn’t want people suppressing a smile when they met on the street and said “Oh, Calvin Hopper. Funny thing about how he died….”
It wasn’t going to happen that night: it was unlikely that I’d drown in the mist or be attacked by some indigenous wildlife: I’d heard talk of bears and wolves but so far had seen only a cat—and that one running away. Of course an hour before I’d almost achieved that humorous death when a mountain goat dashed in front of our bus and the driver, making a decision I will forever question, swerved to avoid it. Such an event could never have occurred on the Cape where the mountain goat population is limited to some scraggly specimens at an infrequently-visited wild animal farm on the bay side. But coming into Sage, Montana, requires a twisting ride along the Beartooth Highway—a must-see for photographers and tourists and, apparently, a major hangout for various species of wildlife, mountain goats among the more prevalent.
Our bus driver’s terse explanation after regaining control, “Mountain goat—we missed it,” did little to subdue the nervous jabbering among my fellow survivors, many of whom agreed that the time had come to eradicate all wildlife. I assumed it was the fear talking.
I should probably qualify that phrase fellow survivors—it may be a bit Pollyannaish since none of them liked me very much. Hard to blame them—I was the one responsible for adding several hours to an already interminable trip across southern Montana, part of Wyoming, and just about all of Idaho. Idaho, that tall skinny state is skinny only on top. These people wanted to get to Boise, on the bottom, where it’s fat. They blamed me—justifiably—but we all knew that long before I bought my bus ticket, and stumbled into their lives, Gallatin Transit and the transportation commissions of three states had sealed their fate with a bizarre agreement: GallaTran.com could keep its lucrative Boise route provided it continued to serve some smaller towns when necessary. Smaller towns like Sage. I wasn’t the problem, just the embodiment of it.
When the passengers’ crusade to slaughter animals lost a bit of its initial steam, the man across the aisle leaned toward me.
“So…what would you want for an epitaph?”
He was bundled up like a shut-in some negligent caregiver had forgotten to unwrap, and he had said almost nothing the entire trip, choosing instead to expend his energy holding together the collar of his red fleece, itself sadly out of place on this mild October afternoon. Prozac or Zoloft or something like that had smoothed him quite nicely; he had in fact offered me a pill as soon as we began ascending the mountains, but I told him I was trying to steer clear of others’ prescriptions, a refusal he took with prescribed serenity.
Apparently the swerving bus had helped him forget my initial rejection and he held the uncapped amber bottle toward me again.
“They’ll calm you,” he said.
Again I declined. He capped the bottle and put it in his bag.
“So,” he said, taking my refusal in stride, “What would you want on your tombstone?”
“I don’t know.”
“Never thought of it?”
“I’m going to be buried with my cat,” he said, then began nodding like a dinghy on a choppy lake. I nodded too, as if his plan were completely logical and not just a second-rate horror movie waiting for crowdfunding: dead man, live cat, casket, six-feet under, clawing and scratching and mutilation. How could it miss?
I didn’t want to seem unfriendly or insensitive, though, so I asked him how old his cat was.
He glared at me. Either he couldn’t face the prospect of his cat getting old and dying, or—and I’m afraid this is more likely—the cat was already dead and vacuum-sealed in the guy’s freezer: a somewhat different horror movie with just a bit more insanity.
For the next few moments I fussed with the bus schedule to avoid eye contact as he mumbled sporadically about Easterners and, if I heard correctly, vegetarians, though it may have been veterinarians with the cat and all—maybe he held some vet responsible for the cadaver in his freezer. I was enjoying my imagined scenario more than his voice, but mellowed out as he was, he returned to that epitaph question.
I made a nondescript sound which could have passed for dunno. I wasn’t trying to be unfriendly, but I’ve read too much eloquence to settle for only one tawdry line on a marble slab, and I couldn’t imagine anyone I knew springing for multiple grave markers. My ex, maybe—but only because there’d be more room for dancing. Prozac man seemed to accept my evasive response, retrieved a different bottle from his bag, and shook out another pill. He didn’t offer me that one. Must have been the good stuff and he wasn’t sharing.
One thing about my ex—she isn’t really my ex. We had never gotten as far as the altar, but calling her my former girlfriend makes me sound twelve. And she won’t really be dancing on my grave—she’ll be far too busy ironing her current husband’s large wardrobe of straitjackets to attend my funeral. If that sounds bitter, it’s because I am bitter, though that doesn’t make the statement any less true and she’s not the reason I came to Sage. There’s hardly ever one reason why we do anything, and sometimes trying to get to the bottom of things is a waste of time and energy. That doesn’t mean I don’t do it, and it doesn’t mean that the time I would spend in Sage would not be devoted to trying to get to the bottom of something—of several somethings.
Bottom line: when the bus finally rolled to a stop on that dark and glossy street, and when the driver said we had fifteen minutes to stretch our legs, and when Prozac man asked me pointedly “What the fuck are we supposed to do with fifteen minutes in this hell hole?” I was in Sage. I got up from my seat, rolled my Billings newspaper into a defensive weapon, and trudged quietly, but not unobtrusively, toward the front.
I almost made it, too.
“Hey!” It was Prozac man, his tone not one of a man embarrassed by an inappropriate outburst. I turned around.
It was hanging by the collar on his middle finger, nice and high. It was my jacket all right: I had draped it over the empty seat back next to me so that I couldn’t possibly forget it. Now there was more trudging—trudging is actually worse when people can see your face—and when I got within a few feet of him, he tossed the jacket to me, leaving his finger in the upright position. The symbolism did not escape me.
“Thanks,” I said.
He nodded, the finger still extended. It wasn’t the most eloquent gesture I’d ever seen, but I’m pretty sure he encapsulated the thoughts of just about everyone on that bus.
This time I made it off, and once outside in the welcoming glow of the running lights, watched the driver uncover my tan canvas carry-on in the baggage compartment. The rain was falling lightly, but driven sideways by a gale that surely tested what I knew from research to be some very old buildings.
“Rough weather,” the driver said. “Wet for this time of year.”
I agreed. I had done a little climatological homework a few hours before. October is a dry month in the northern Rockies. It’s also the last month people expect precipitation to fall as rain. A storm like this one, a daylong event that drives people indoors for hours at a time, is rare. But even as we spoke, conditions were changing.
Off to the west, the sky seemed to lift, revealing the vague contour of a mountain range. Unfortunately, much of my view was blocked by a dimly lit jury-rigged billboard that portrayed, in chipped and faded paint, a cowboy on a rearing white horse. Across the base was written “Welcome to the Old West. Sage, Montana, Population 150” in oversized yellow script against a background of scrub pine and cactus. If it had been a postcard, there’d have been a jackalope in it and you’d have sent it to a friend as a joke—it was that bad. I backed away a little: I was sure the next gust would topple it, killing both the bus driver and me in a frighteningly humorous fashion.
“More than that now,” she said. “Nobody wants to get up and change the number.”
“Population. Probably double that, less in the winter. Bet it’s already snowing on the tooth,” she said.
“Beartooth—the pass we just came over. If we’d left Billings an hour later, we’d have spent the winter up there.”
“Like the goat,” I said.
“Don’t you worry, that goat’ll be fine,” she said, sloughing off my concern. “I hardly grazed it.”
“Doesn’t matter—that goat won’t have any buses to bother him for the next six months. Sorry I gave you all a little scare.”
“Just a little,” I said. It was her first admission that the death skid an hour or so before was not part of the regular itinerary.
“Haven’t had an accident yet,” she said. “Of course on that road your first and last would probably be the same.”
She glanced back toward the mountains. “That’s probably it for this season,” she said. “Once it starts snowing up there, it doesn’t stop. I’ll bet they’re already lowering the gates. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were the last ones through.”
If she took any pleasure in that knowledge, I couldn’t find it. To her it was just a job, a route to drive. High above us and many miles back, those glaciers we had passed—the ones that had survived the summer and been veiled by fog only an hour before—they too would be effaced by newer snows. In a matter of days skis and snow machines would supplant buses and cars and RV’s: winter would lock down the northern Rockies. I pulled my jacket up around my neck to shield a gust of wind and my cap blew off. Fortunately it didn’t go very far, landing in a nearby puddle and sticking fast.
“It’s your lucky day,” the driver said, smiling as she retrieved it. “Without that mud, your hat would have ended up in Yellowstone.”
I’m sure she didn’t miss the irony.
When I was still a classroom teacher trying to instill a love of complexity into a generation which seemed to grow more and more enamored of the obvious and uncomplicated, pretty much like me thirty-five years ago, I liked to tweak my students with Emerson’s aphorisms—they used to like the ones about consistency and nonconformity, but deeper into this century the kids became more suspicious of those qualities. Too bad: those are the only years you can practice an inconsistent non-conformity without losing your job or your family. But even when the kids all insisted on having the same smartphone, they bought into Emerson’s definition of friendship, and I always encouraged—or more frequently badgered—my students to comment on it.
After all, they had friends and best friends and BFFs. They had boyfriends, girlfriends, school friends, and Facebook friends. Even though I knew that among many of them there was depth of thought that informed all that they did, there was also an ongoing vacuity that denied serious discussion. So every year, at least once, I’d come into class early and write this on the board:
Almost every man we meet requires some civility, — requires to be humored; he has some fame, some talent, some whim of religion or philanthropy in his head that is not to be questioned, and which spoils all conversation with him. But a friend is a sane man who exercises not my ingenuity, but me.
The words always engendered some valid discussions, even some profound writing, but it remained a theoretical teaching tool until I went west and actually lost someone whom I might never have considered a friend but who, in fact, fit Emerson’s definition more precisely than I’d imagined. His death is not the only event I recount when someone asks about my experiences in the mountains, but when I settled back in to the flat lands of the New England shore, it seemed to dominate every conversation.
Sometimes they wanted to know what it was like to cut all the cords and kiss off everything, but it was never that bold or romantic. It was hardly even an escape, more like a hiatus—to utilize a vocabulary word I taught year after year to kids who would probably never use it. A gap. An interval between occurrences. A hiatus then. Maybe there’s a book in it:
My Hiatus in the West by Calvin Hopper
The title doesn’t exactly shout excitement, but for me there was some: there always is when you think you’re in love, even more so when that love and salvation are somehow mated. And even when it proves to be a false hope and the letdown is twice as painful, there are always former colleagues to commiserate, to remind me—because I taught literature—’Tis better to have loved and lost, etc. I’d like to respond that such bullshit wasn’t true when Tennyson wrote it and it’s not true today. But I’m not that convinced.
As for losing a friend, that’s only the summary—it’s what I tell people when they ask. If they require more, I fill in the details—right down to the time of day, the weather, those who saw him last, what he said, where he was going. I seldom provide the name because it means so little—just an identifier we all have stamped on our licenses, written in the papers to announce our birth, our accomplishments, our failures, and our deaths before it is finally etched on our tombstones.
It was a hit-and-run I tell them, a coward’s crime, and they respond with predictable outrage: drivers like that should be tortured, or imprisoned, or if I’m in a bar somewhere with drunken friends, castrated. They want to know about arrest and prosecution, and I tell them that those things don’t matter after the damage has been done, and most times we seamlessly glide to another story—maybe someone else’s—and mine becomes another tale muttered over a few beers and buried in the following day’s hangover.
He died last November. It’s June now. A full year since I’ve taught a class, seven months since I arrived in Sage, and hardly more than six months since that Thanksgiving night when my friend Walter Trucks stepped onto a snow-packed street for the last time. The missing chronology of childhood years has not spread to adulthood: that calendar is locked in. Six months—not very long in the grieving process, I suppose, but he wasn’t someone I’d known all my life, or whom I had gone through bad times with, or who had stood up for me at my wedding, or been a pal to my kids or helped me move furniture or all those other things that males do together to prove they’ve sufficiently bonded. And he wasn’t the secret lover who allowed me to escape the sham of heterosexuality. (If it is a sham, I remain unsuccessfully immersed.) He wasn’t any of those. I knew him for a month before he died—hardly long enough to remember someone’s name as he flits across social media these days, let alone agonize over his loss. But still his death eats away at me. His murder.
If he had lived, I doubt if he’d have been more than a bit player in the little drama that occurred afterwards, that occupied one measly half year out of the hundred-odd half-years I’ve lived. That’s a convoluted way of saying I’m fifty: Walter would have given me shit for couching my age in a math riddle. He was more plain-spoken than that. There were other players besides Walter who suffered too, who lost if not their lives at least their peace of mind, who fell into such depths of despair that existence itself seemed untenable; and yet most of them navigated some pathway out, even achieved—if you believe in that kind of thing—a modicum of salvation. I’m not sure yet if I reside in that category—the jury is still out—but I wish Walter Trucks had gotten that chance.
So here I am using a friend’s death as a launching point for some story about me. I’m no more sensitive or empathetic—no more a friend to him I guess—than those well-intentioned listeners in the break room or the bar or the holiday gathering who seem to be listening attentively only to pounce on the briefest lull to blurt out “…that reminds me of” …and so on. I don’t want to be that person, but it does remind me…