My name is Berl Pickett, Dr. Berl Pickett. But I sign checks and documents “I. B. Pickett,” and this requires some explanation. My very forceful mother, a patriot and evangelical Christian, named me after the author of “God Bless America”; so, I am Irving Berlin Pickett and well aware of the absurdity of my name. My father wanted Lefty Frizzell Pickett. That would have been worse. In any case, my very name illustrates the borrowed nature of my life, not easily denied. In fact, I’ve learned to enjoy my circumstances as I have moved among people trapped in their homes, jobs, and families—and their names! My esteemed colleague Alan Hirsch, mountaineer and cardiologist, calls me Irving, with a chuckle. When I first arrived at our clinic from the Indian Health Service, Dr. Hirsch told me that I couldn’t call myself a physician until I had delivered babies to ambivalent parents or taught the old to accept their grotesque new faces. I don’t know about that, but I do abide in the conviction that I’ve come a long way, and lately I’ve wondered how this all happened.
L. Raymond Hoxey bought an old mansion in Livingston, Montana, and converted the third floor into a delightful apartment with a view of the Absaroka Mountains. The second floor housed his print collection in archival conditions, with humidifiers and air-quality equipment. The first floor was divided into two smaller but still comfortable apartments, one of which was home to his assistant, Tessa Larionov, and the other, in summer, to a textile historian employed by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, who was also a trout fisherman.
The year the historian died, I was still in pre-med and painting houses to support myself; I moved into his vacated apartment. Acknowledging that there is a difference between being naive and being innocent, I will say that I was entirely naive. My parents lived a few miles away, but we weren’t getting along and I needed some distance, despite the fact that my mother was sick and often ranted about God. There are many versions of God around the world, but my mother’s was definitely a guy, and a mean one. Like many aspiring to study medicine, I planned to get rich but I wasn’t rich yet; I was just a poor house painter—out of work and looking for whatever came along—and despite all other evidence, I feared that I would be one forever, packing a great wheel of color chips from one indifferent house to another. I don’t mean to suggest mild insecurity here: by any reasonable standard, I was losing my mind.
Tessa Larionov was the daughter of a Russian engineer who had immigrated to the United States in 1953 and found his way to Montana, where he set up business building bridges for the railroad. His offices were in Choteau, where Tessa was born and grew up. Tessa’s mother was not Russian; her father had met her in New Jersey, where he first landed. She may have been Italian. Tessa was a powerfully built but attractive woman, with black hair, black eyes, and the look of a Tartar, wry and a little dangerous. She was liked by everyone who knew her. Trained in library science, she had worked as an archivist at some very august places, including the Huntington, in Pasadena, where she’d met her future employer and our landlord, L. Raymond Hoxey, who had let Tessa talk him into retiring to Montana to run his rare-prints business with her help. Hoxey was eighty-one years old, and his arrangement with Tessa was a means of avoiding assisted living. She was very fond of him and had wanted to go home to Montana, and so it worked for both of them. Tessa was exactly thirty, still single, though she had enjoyed an active love life, leaving in her wake only grateful hearts, or so she said. “They’re all still crazy about me,” she told me. “That’s why I left California.” Settling down was of no interest; she’d grown absorbed with the prints, and she wanted to keep her eye on Hoxey. I was twenty, but she treated me as if I were even younger—a salute to my retarded behavior.
My father had worked briefly as a pipe fitter for the Northern Pacific Railroad. In the course of corporate takeovers, the railroad had actually changed its name several times, but Northern Pacific was the one that stuck in all our minds. It meant something. Burlington Northern meant nothing. Then he had a little stock farm he liked to call a ranch, whose main purpose was to let him keep horses. But he lost it to the bank and went to work for the post office. My mother was a hairdresser and, because of her big mouth and religious mania, had enemies all over southwestern Montana and very few customers. During my childhood, they had had a traveling rug-cleaning business, and the three of us saw most of the West as we towed the steamer behind our van, an old-fashioned Steam Jenny with an oil-filled crankcase and a picture of a Vargas-type girl in black nylons emblazoned on its side—wonderful years, really. As an only child, I was all but homeschooled, then run back and forth between our house and the less fashionable of the two grade schools, before going to the local high school, where I was anonymous, never having been allowed by my overprotective mother to learn a sport. My mother joined one Pentecostal church after another, followed by my father, whose skepticism had long ago evaporated in the heat of her enthusiasm; they stopped just short of snake handling. But I liked to fish; I’d fish wherever there was water, and I fished in a lot of ditches where there was no hope of success. I now understand that I was for my age a weirdly underdeveloped human being, ripe for the sort of encounter I had with Tessa Larionov. Even my mother noticed my immaturity; she was always telling me, “Stop staring at people!” But she had once given me a gift beyond price: looking down at me when I was a little boy, she said, “You’re an old soul. You’ve been here before.”
It was Hoxey whom I got to know first. The day I arranged to rent from him, he happened to have received several Reginald Marsh prints, of which he was very proud and which he wanted me to see. I acted like I’d heard of Reginald Marsh. I didn’t know one painter from another, but I had a hunger for this sort of information; I felt it would be useful later, when I was rich. Hoxey was a pleasant old man who must have once been very fat, because he had loose flesh hanging from him everywhere and as many as seven chins. I always tried to count them while he was speaking to me, but then something in his remarks would break my concentration. This physicality, which bespoke a lifetime of phlegmatic living, gave his discourse on prints the authority of a weathered desert rat holding forth on cactus. I remember him carefully unpacking one of the prints—a kind of crazy thing with blank-faced people swarming in and out of doorways, none of them reacting to anyone else. Hoxey said that it was the calmest Reginald Marsh he’d ever seen. “No ‘Moonlight and Pretzels’ in this one!” he cried. I could see both that he’d be an agreeable landlord and that many health issues lay before him. As someone aspiring to be a doctor, I could make a little game of guessing which one would kill him.
Tessa asked me over one night for drinks. She had done a beautiful job of making her apartment habitable, with comfortable old furniture that she’d bought cheap and upholstered. She also had a good many of Hoxey’s prints on loan, though, as she explained, she was really just storing them, and her collection changed as things were sold from Hoxey’s inventory. She made a little face when she told me that she couldn’t afford to get attached to any of the prints, quite a trial for her, as she loved the art of all nations. Cocktails and art, I thought; maybe I’ll get into her pants. I’m sure that at the time I had a big goober smile on my face as I contemplated such an outcome. Tessa said I reminded her of Li’l Abner.
“Because I work upstairs, I’ve had to become a walker just to get outside,” she said, making our drinks in a blender. “You start getting curious about different neighborhoods—where the railroaders lived, where the ranchers retired, where the doctors and bankers lived. In the winter, when the wind is up, I have to tie a scarf over my face. Anybody you see in the street is ducking for a building, kind of like in the Blitz.”
As I waited for my drink, I found myself leaning forward in my chair with my hands pressed between my knees. It was only when she stopped to look at me that I realized my posture was strange. I pretended that I was just stretching and leaned back in an apparently casual but quite uncomfortable position. As Tessa came toward me with a brightly colored drink, both she and it seemed to be expanding, and when she handed me the drink I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to hold it. I felt suddenly that everything was bigger than me, that I was in over my head, trying to handle a situation which, when I was rich, I would take to like a duck to water. But things settled down quickly as soon as she returned to her seat, and I was then glad to have the drink because I was a bit cotton-mouthed. I had gone from my first impulse of getting into her pants to fearing that she’d try to get into mine.
I was not much of a drinker; water would have served as well. That summer I’d made an experimental foray into a local bar, feeling that I needed to learn to be more social. I struck up a conversation with a somber middle-aged fellow in a rumpled suit. He looked so gloomy that I regaled him with what I felt were uplifting accounts of my struggles at school. He stared at me for a while, until I sensed that all the timing was disappearing from my delivery. Finally he said, “Hey, boss, I got to go. You’re creeping me out.”
“Now,” Tessa said, “let’s start at the beginning: what do you think being a doctor will do for you?”
“I don’t know.” My answer came out so quickly it startled her. She leaned back into the sofa—she was at one end, I at the other—with her elbow propped on the back of it and her fingers parting the hair on the side of her head.
“You don’t know?”
“I wish I did. Sorry.” Involuntarily singing out this last word.
“No, that’s all right. That’s fine. If you don’t want to talk about it, I’m okay with that.”
I didn’t share the image that I had of myself, still dark-haired but with a graying moustache, going up the gangplank of a yacht. I kept sipping my drink, looking into it as if it were a teleprompter and I were the president of the United States. The colorful liquid seemed like something I had found. I don’t know why I made people so uncomfortable. As a kind of icebreaker, I thought to ask her a question.
“When people use the expression ‘rest in peace’ do you think they have some basis for saying it, or is it just wishful thinking?”
I can’t imagine what made me believe that she’d have the answer to this doleful conundrum. But surely my mother’s poor health was on my mind.
“You mean, about the dead?”
Tessa looked at me for a very long time before saying anything.
“You know, let’s try this another time. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s me, but at this point in time and space it’s just not happening.”
I backed out of there like a crab. I felt sorry for Tessa; she probably had trouble sleeping after this weird visit from the new neighbor. I just didn’t know what to do about it—an apology would have made it seem even stranger.
Thereafter, we sometimes ran into each other in the hallway adjoining our apartments, and it did not get any less awkward. I made increasingly maladroit attempts to be cordial, these being received with growing skepticism, even revulsion, until upon seeing me Tessa would dart into her apartment and slam her door. What was strange was that if I lingered in the hallway after she’d gone inside, I would always, moments later, hear her phone ring.
Once she said to me, “I know you’re tracking my movements.” And another time, “Don’t think you’re fooling me.” And another, a cry, “Please stop!”
A mirthless laugh followed and a slammed door.
I made every effort to avoid these encounters. Indeed, I did start tracking her movements, if only to avoid her. She headed upstairs to work for Hoxey at exactly nine, out for the mail at ten thirty, lunch with Hoxey in his apartment Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, catered by Mountain Foodstuff, out to lunch Tuesday and Thursday, but always back by one thirty, dispatching UPS and FedEx and other outbound packages at four o’clock, at which point her workday was over. I really didn’t have a bead on her activities and so came and went from my apartment nervously. When she had men over, they seemed to linger around my door as if on the lookout for me. One strapping fellow with a shiny black goatee positioned himself as though to actually block my way. I gave him a big smile and pushed past. He smelled like motor oil. He said, “Hello, Doc.” Tessa must have told him that I was in pre-med. I said hello. I was glad to get inside, and when I looked through the little spy hole in the door, I saw into his ear.
Concentrating on the Help Wanted ads calmed me down. I had discovered that I needed to look for work elsewhere, as people in town knew who I was and—this really is very funny—held my studies against me. “You can’t paint my house,” Mrs. Taliaferro said. “You’re going to be a doctor!”
“Not necessarily!” I said in my warmest tones, while hers cooled markedly. I have no idea why I answered her that way. I was sure I was going to be a doctor, but when I was under pressure to make conversation, it was as if all my life’s plans went up in smoke. I felt the need to persuade Mrs. Taliaferro that I would be a lifelong house painter.
I kept studying the paper. I recognized that real opportunities existed for those who would sell cars or apply siding, but given the trouble I was having with my communication skills, I thought those occupations might not be up my alley. Still, I really felt that once I got my timing back—and it was a timing issue—I’d be able to look into a different set of prospects. I was very much focused on the chance to be unexceptional; if I had the opportunity to keep my head down, I meant to take it.
I got a job working for a very nice guy, or so I thought, named Dan Lauderdale. He was an attorney in Billings who specialized in whiplash and owned a cute little turn-of-the-century cottage in Harlowton, which he used as a weekend place—or, rather, somewhere to vacation with his secretary, who did not enjoy the same legal standing as his wife. “Lawyers like me make doctors leave the profession every day!” he joked. “Stick to painting houses.” But he was an amiable fellow with a big laugh that drew one’s attention away from his shrewd, close-set eyes. His dark brown curls were so uniform and regular as to suggest the work of a beautician. When I asked him if they were natural, he told me to mind my own business with such vituperation that I actually flinched. The previous owner of his cottage had used stolen Forest Service paint for the trim and shutters, and Dan now wanted it to be all yellow, “like sunshine, get it?” I was basically rehearsing what I thought to be the style of my current position when I said, “No problema,” but he must have sensed something wrong with my delivery, for his eyes grew narrow and he just said, “Right.” Many years later, Dan Lauderdale would become a well-known judge and part of my life.
I rented a pressure washer, masked everything, used a quality primer, and picked my weather for the final coat. It looked much better, but Lauderdale never responded to the bill I sent, nor the second or third. Live and learn. I wasn’t much interested in exploring my remedies, and since other revenues were unassured, I sold my car and went on a grocery binge. Also, in celebration of two months in the apartment, I bought a bed, which I put out in the middle of the living room, where I could luxuriate in all that space and gaze east, west, and south, but not north, at fine window views that were better than any painting, in that they were full of those moving, changing parts known as “Life.”
I heard a timid knock on my door and called, “Enter!” I was stretched out on my new bed in my shorts reading a newspaper I’d found in the doorway to the bank. My visitor was the chief of police. I was really pleased to see him, so pleased that I easily set aside any worries over the reason for his visit. I suppose I was lonely. In a decent society, the chief of police is the one stranger you should be able to welcome into your home without reservation. In this case the first thing he told me was that I’d better get dressed, as I was going to jail. He gazed at me with sad knowingness. He had a big, warm face; it shouldn’t be misunderstood if I declare that he looked like Porky Pig, with all that guileless amiability, the same pink complexion.
“Tessa Larionov”—he gestured with his head in the direction of Tessa’s abode—“has charged you with making obscene phone calls to her.”
“Oh?” I said. “I don’t have a phone.”
For one miraculous moment, there were people passing all three windows, and the chief remarked that I needed curtains.
“How bad were they supposed to be?” I tried to picture myself as the twisted man placing these calls. In a weird way, it seemed plausible.
“They were not nice.”