In the spirit of The Bartender’s Tale, a lively and poignant coming-of-age story about a boy and his great-uncle on a cross-country odyssey.
Donal Cameron is being raised by his grandmother, the cook at the legendary Double W ranch in Doig’s beloved Two Medicine Country of the Montana Rockies, a landscape that gives full rein to an eleven-year-old’s imagination. But when Gram has to have surgery for “female trouble” in the summer of 1951, all she can think to do is to ship Donal off to her sister in faraway Manitowoc, Wisconsin. There Donal is in for a rude surprise: Aunt Kate–bossy, opinionated, argumentative, and tyrannical—is nothing like her sister. She henpecks her good-natured husband, Herman the German (as Donal discovers him to be), and Donal can’t seem to get on her good side either. After one contretemps too many, Kate decides to pack him back to the authorities in Montana on the next Greyhound.
But to Donal’s surprise, he’s not traveling solo: Herman the German has decided to fly the coop with him. In the immortal American tradition, the pair light out for the territory together, meeting a classic Doigian ensemble of characters and having rollicking misadventures along the way. Charming, wise, and slyly funny, Last Bus to Wisdom is another treasure of a novel from the best storyteller of the West.
About the Author
Ivan Doig is a third-generation Montanan and the author of fifteen previous books, including bestselling The Bartender’s Tale and The Whistling Season and classic memoir This House of Sky. He has been a National Book Award finalist and has received the Wallace Stegner Award, among many other honors. He lives in Seattle.
Read an Excerpt
THE DOG BUS
June 16–17, 1951
THE TOWN OF GROS VENTRE was so far from anywhere that you had to take a bus to catch the bus. At that time, remote locales like ours were served by a homegrown enterprise with more name than vehicles, the Rocky Mountain Stage Line and Postal Courier, in the form of a lengthened Chevrolet sedan that held ten passengers besides the driver and the mailbag, and when I nervously went to climb in for the first time ever, the Chevy bus was already loaded with a ladies’ club heading home from an outing to Glacier National Park. The only seat left was in the back next to the mailbag, sandwiched between it and a hefty gray-haired woman clutching her purse to herself as though stage robbers were still on the loose in the middle of the twentieth century.
The swarm of apprehensions nibbling at me had not included this. Sure enough, no sooner did we pull out for the Greyhound station in Great Falls than my substantial seatmate leaned my way enough to press me into the mailbag and asked in that tone of voice a kid so much dreads, “And where are you off to, all by your lonesome?”
How things have changed in the world. I see the young people of today traveling the planet with their individual backpacks and weightless independence. Back then, on the epic journey that determined my life and drastically turned the course of others, I lived out of my grandmother’s wicker suitcase and carried a responsibility bigger than I was. Many, many miles bigger, as it turned out. But that lay ahead, and meanwhile I heard myself pipe up with an answer neither she nor I was ready for: “Pleasantville.”
When she cocked her head way to one side and said she couldn’t think where that was, I hazarded, “It’s around New York.”
To this day, I wonder what made me say any of that. Maybe the colorful wall map displaying Greyhound routes COAST TO COAST—THE FLEET WAY, back there in the hotel lobby that doubled as the Gros Ventre bus depot, stuck in my mind. Maybe my imagination answered for me, like being called on in school utterly unready and a whisper of help arrives out of nowhere, right or not. Maybe the truth scared me too much.
Whatever got into me, one thing all too quickly led to another as the woman clucked in concern and expressed, “That’s a long way to go all by yourself. I’d be such a bundle of nerves.” Sizing me up in a way I would come to recognize, as if I were either a very brave boy or a very ignorant one, she persisted: “What takes you so awful far?”
“Oh, my daddy works there.”
“Isn’t that interesting. And what does he do in, where’s it, Pleasantville?”
It’s funny about imagination, how it can add to your peril even while it momentarily comes to your rescue. I had to scramble to furnish, “Yeah, well, see, he’s a digester.”
“You don’t say! Wait till I tell the girls about this!” Her alarming exclamation had the other ladies, busy gabbing about mountain goats and summertime snowbanks and other memorable attractions of Glacier National Park, glancing over their shoulders at us. I shrank farther into the mailbag, but my fellow passenger dipped her voice to a confidential level.
“Tries out food to see if it agrees with the tummy, does he,” she endorsed enthusiastically, patting her own. “I’m glad to hear it,” she rushed on. “So much of what a person has to buy comes in cans these days, I’ve always thought they should have somebody somewhere testing those things on the digestion—that awful succotash about does me in—before they let any of it in the stores. Good for him.” Bobbing her head in vigorous approval, she gave the impression she wouldn’t mind that job herself, and she certainly had the capacity for it.
“Uh, actually”—maybe I should have, but I couldn’t let go of my own imaginative version of the digestive process—“it’s books he does that to. At the Reader’s Digest place.”
• • •
THERE WAS a story behind this, naturally.
I lived with my grandmother, who was the cook at the Double W, the big cattle ranch near Gros Ventre owned by the wealthy Williamson family. One of the few sources of entertainment anywhere on the ranch happened to be the shelf of sun-faded Reader’s Digest Condensed Books kept by Meredice Williamson in the otherwise unused parlor of the many-roomed house, and in her vague nice way she permitted me to take them to the cook shack to read, as long as Gram approved.
Gram had more than enough on her mind without policing my reading, and lately I had worked my way through the shipboard chapters of Mister Roberts, not so condensed that I couldn’t figure out what those World War Two sailors were peeking at through binoculars trained on the bathroom onshore where nurses took showers. Probably during that reading binge my eye caught on the fine print PLEASANTVILLE NY in the front of the book as the source of digested literature, and it did not take any too much inspiration, for me at least, to conjure a father back there peacefully taking apart books page by page and putting them back together in shortened form that somehow enriched them like condensed milk.
• • •
“WHY, I have those kind of books!” my fellow passenger vouched, squeezing her purse in this fresh enthusiasm. “I read The Egg and I practically in one sitting!”
“He’s real famous back there at the digest place,” I kept on. “They give him the ones nobody else can do. What’s the big fat book, Go like the Wind—”
“Gone with the Wind, you mean?” She was properly impressed any digester would tackle something like that. “It’s as long as the Bible!”
“That’s the one. See, he got it down to about like yay.” I backed that up with my thumb and finger no more than an inch apart.
“What an improvement,” she bought the notion with a gratified nod.
That settled matters down, thanks to a wartime story cooked down to the basics of bare-naked nurses and a helping of my imagination. The spacious woman took over the talking pretty much nonstop and I eased away from the U.S. mail a bit in relief and provided Uh-huh or Huh-uh as needed while the small bus cruised at that measured speed buses always seem to travel at, even in Montana’s widest of wide-open spaces. There we sat, close as churchgoers, while she chatted away the miles in her somber best dress that must have seen service at funerals and weddings, and me in stiff new blue jeans bought for the trip. Back then, you dressed up to go places.
And willing or not, I was now a long-distance traveler through time as well as earthbound scenery. When I wasn’t occupied providing two-syllable responses to my seatmate, this first leg of the journey was something like a tour of my existence since I was old enough to remember. Leaving behind Gros Ventre and its green covering of cottonwoods, Highway 89 wound past the southmost rangeland of the Two Medicine country, with Double W cattle pastured even here wherever there were not sheepherders’ white wagons and the gray sprinkles of ewes and lambs on the foothills in the distance. Above it all, the familiar sawtooth outline of the Rocky Mountains notched the horizon on into Canada. There where the South Fork of English Creek emerged from a canyon, during the Rainbow Reservoir construction job my folks and I had crammed into a humpbacked trailer house built for barely two. I had to sleep on the bench seat in back of the table, almost nose to nose with my parents squeezed into their bunk. But the thrill of being right there as bulldozer operators such as my father—the honest-to-goodness one, I mean—rode their big yellow machines like cowboys while building the dam that bottled the creek into the newest lake on earth never wore off.
Next on the route of remembering, however, butted up against a rocky butte right at the county line as if stuck as far out of sight as possible, a nightmare of a place reappeared, the grim rambling lodging house and weather-beaten outbuildings of the county poorfarm—we pronounced it that way, one word, as if to get rid of it fast. Once upon a time my father had graded the gravel road into the place and dozed out ditches and so on while my mother and I spent creepy days looking out a cabin window at the shabby inmates, that lowest, saddest category of people, wards of the county, pottering listlessly at work that wasn’t real work, merely tasks to make them do something.
Seeing again that terrifying institution where the unluckiest ended up gave me the shivers, but I found I could not take my eyes off the poorfarm and what it stood for. In most ways I was just a dippy kid, but some things get to a person at any age, and I fully felt the whipsaw emotions of looking at the best of life one minute, and this quick, the worst of it.
Mercifully the highway soon curved and we passed Freezout Lake with its islands of snowy pelicans, within sight of the one-room Tetonia school where I went part of one year, marked mainly by the Christmas play in which I was the Third Wise Man, costumed in my mother’s pinned-up bathrobe. A little farther on, where the bus route turned its back on the Rockies to cross the Greenfield Canal of the huge irrigation project, I was transported once more to a summer of jigging for trout at canal headgates.
What a haze of thoughts came over me like that as memory went back and forth, dipping and accelerating like a speedometer keeping up with a hilly road. Passing by familiar sights with everything known ahead, maybe too much of a youngster to put the right words to the sensation but old enough to feel it in every part, I can only say I was meeting myself coming and going, my shifting life until then intersecting with the onrushing days ahead.
That near-stranger who was me, with his heart in his throat, I look back on with wonder now that I am as gray-haired as my talky companion on the Chevy bus was. The boy I see is a stocky grade-schooler, freckled as a spotted hyena, big for his age but with a lot of room to grow in other ways. Knowing him to be singled out by fate to live a tale he will never forget, I wish that things could have been different enough then to let him set off as if on a grand adventure, turned loose in the world at an age when most kids couldn’t unknot themselves from the apron strings of home. He has never been out of Montana, barely even out of the Two Medicine country, and now the nation stretches ahead of him, as unknown and open to the imagination as Pleasantville. And he knows from Condensed Books that unexpected things, good about as often as bad, happen to people all the time, which ought to be at least interesting, right? On top of it all, if worse comes to worst, tucked in those new blue jeans is a round-trip ticket home.
But that was the catch. Home to what, from what?
• • •
I MUST HAVE BEEN better than I thought at hiding my double-edged fear, because the chatterbox at my side seemed not to notice anything troubling me until I shifted restlessly in my seat because the object in my pants pocket had slipped down to where I was half sitting on it and was jabbing me something fierce. “Aren’t you comfortable? Heavens to Betsy, why didn’t you say so? Here, I’ll make room.” With a grunt she wallowed away from me a couple of inches.
“Huh-uh, it’s not that,” I had to confess as she watched my contortions with concern, because I still needed to squirm around and reach deep into my pants to do something about the matter. Knowing I dare not show it to her, I palmed the thing and managed to slip it into my jacket pocket sight unseen while I alibied, “My, ah, good luck charm sort of got caught crosswise. A rabbit’s foot on a key chain,” I thought up, hoping that would ward her off.
“Oh, those,” she made a face. “They sell the awful things so many places these days I’m surprised the bunnies have any tootsies left.” With that, to my relief, she went back to dishing out topic after topic in her chirpy voice.
“Donal,” she eventually got around to pondering my name as if it were one of the mysteries of the ages. “Without the d on the end? That’s a new one on me.”
“It’s Scotch, is why,” I came to life and informed her quick as a flash. “My daddy said—says—the Camerons, see, that’s us, were wearing kilts when the English still were running around buck-naked.”
From the way her eyebrows went up, that seemed to impress her. Emboldened, I confided: “You know what else, though? I have an Indian name, too.”
Her eyebrows stayed lofted as, for once, I leaned in her direction, and half whispered, as if it were just our secret: “Red Chief.”
She tittered. “Now you’re spoofing.”
People can be one surprise after another. Here she hadn’t let out a peep of doubt about anything I’d reeled off so far, but now when I told her something absolutely truthful, she clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth the funny way that means That’s a good one.
“No, huh-uh, honest!” I protested. “It’s because of my hair, see?” My floppy pompadour, almost always in need of a haircut, was about as red as anything from the Crayola box. And if that didn’t earn me a tribal alias, I didn’t know what did. Maybe, as Gram would tell me when I got carried away with something, this was redheaded thinking. It seemed only logical to me, though. If Donal was tagged on me when I came into the world bald as a baby can be, didn’t it make sense to have a spare that described how I turned out? Indians did it all the time, I was convinced. In the case of our family, it would only have complicated things for my listener to explain to her that my alternate name had come from my father’s habit of ruffling my hair, from the time I was little, and saying, “You’ve got quite a head on you, Red Chief.”
My seatmate had heard enough, it seemed, as now she leaned toward me and simpered, “Bless your buttons, I have a grandson about your age, a live wire like you. He’s just thirteen.” Eleven going on twelve as I was, I mutely let “about” handle that, keeping a smile pasted on as best I could while she went on at tireless length about members of her family and what I supposed passed for normal life in the America of 1951.
That fixed smile was really growing tired by the time we pulled into the Great Falls bus depot and everyone piled out. As the club ladies tendered their good-byes to one another, in one last gush my backseat companion wished me a safe trip and reminded me to be sure to tell my father how much she enjoyed digested books.
I blankly promised I would, my heart hammering as I grabbed my suitcase and headed on to the next bus ride which, while way short of coast to coast, was going to carry me far beyond where even my imagination could reach.
“WHY DUMB OLD WISCONSIN, THOUGH?” I’d tried not to sound like I was whining, at the beginning of this. “Can’t I just stay here while you’re operated on?”
“You know better than that.” Gram went down on her knees with a sharp intake of breath to dig out the wicker suitcase from under her bed. “They need the cook shack for whatever gut-robber Wendell Williamson hires next.”
“Yeah, but—” In a panic I looked around the familiar tight quarters, lodgings for Double W cooks since time immemorial, not much more than a cabin-size room and a few sticks of furniture, yet it had providently housed the pair of us the past two years, and if we were being kicked out, temporarily or not, I couldn’t help clinging to whatever I could. “I can stay on the ranch, I mean. Be in the bunkhouse with the haying crew, why not. I bet nobody would care and I wouldn’t take up hardly any room and—”
“For one thing, Donny, you’re not old enough for that.” Trying not to be cross with me but awful close to it, she squinted my direction through the bifocals that made her look like her eyes hurt along with the rest of her. “For another, Wendell may be short on brains, but he’s still not about to let you gallivant around the ranch on your own. So don’t talk just to hear your head rattle, we need to get a move on or you’ll miss the mail bus.” After more or less dusting off the suitcase, which was the best that could be done with wicker, she flopped the thing open on my bed. I didn’t care that it came from the old country with my grandfather’s father or somebody, to me it was just outdated and rickety and I’d look like some ridiculous comic strip character—PeeWee, the dim-witted little hobo in Just Trampin’ readily came to mind—carrying it around. Ignoring my fallen face, Gram directed, “Hurry up now. Go pick out your shirts. Three will have to do you, to start with.”
I stalled. “I don’t know what to take. What’s the dumb weather like back there?”
“About like anyplace else,” she said less than patiently. “Summer in the summer, winter in the winter. Get busy.”
Grudgingly I went over to the curtained-off nook that substituted for our closet. “Fuck and phooey,” I said under my breath as I sorted through shirts. I was at that stage—part of growing up, as I saw it—where cusswords were an attraction, and I’d picked up this expression from one of the cowhands being sent out in the rain to ride herd on stray cattle all day. It applied equally well to a dumb bus trip to Wisconsin, as far as I was concened.
“What was that?” Gram queried from across the room.
“Fine and dandy,” I mumbled, as if I’d been talking to the shirts, and grabbed a couple I usually wore to school and my dressy western one. “Put that on to wear on the bus,” Gram directed from where she was aggregating my underwear and socks out of the small dresser we shared, “and these,” surprising me with the new blue jeans still in store folds. “People will think you’re a bronc rider.”
Oh sure, a regular Rags Rasmussen, champion of the world at straddling saddle broncs, that’d be me, riding the bus like a hobo with a broken-down suitcase. Knowing enough not to say that out loud, I stuck to: “I bet they haven’t even got rodeos in Wiss-con-sun.”
“Don’t whine.” Cheering me up was a lost cause, but she made the effort. “Honest to goodness, you’ll look swayve and debonure when you get on the bus.” I took that as a joke in more ways than one, suave and debonair the furthest from how I could possibly feel, packaged up to be shipped like something out of a mail-order catalog. She gave me a wink, not natural to her, and that didn’t help, either.
Folding things smartly like the veteran of many moves that she was, she had the suitcase nearly packed while I changed into the stiff pants and the purple shirt with sky-blue yoke trimming and pearl snap buttons, which ordinarily would have lifted my mood. Back and forth between gauging packing space and my long face, Gram hesitated. “You can take the moccasins if you want to.”
“I guess so.” Truth told, I didn’t care what else went in the hideous suitcase as long as those did. The pair of decorated Blackfoot moccasins rested between our beds at night, so whichever one of us had to brave the cold linoleum to go to the toilet could slip them on. Each adorned with a prancing fancy-dancer figure made up of teeny beads like drops of snow and sky, they were beauties, and that couldn’t be said for any other of our meager stuff. Gram somehow had acquired them while she was night cook at the truck stop in Browning, the rough-and-tough reservation town, before she and I were thrown together. By rights, she deserved them. My conscience made a feeble try. “Maybe you’ll need them in the—where you’re going?”
“Never you mind. They’ll have regular slippers there, like as not,” she fibbed, I could tell. “And after”—staying turned away from me, she busied herself more than necessary tucking the moccasins into the suitcase—“the nuns will see to things, I’m sure.”
After. After she had some of her insides taken out. After I had been sent halfway across the country, to a place in Wisconsin I had never even heard of. My voice breaking, I mustered a last protest. “I don’t want to go and leave you.”
“Don’t be a handful, please,” she said, something I heard from her quite often. She took off her glasses, one skinny earpiece at a time, to wipe her eyes. “I’d rather take a beating than have to send you off like this, but it can’t be helped.” She blinked as if that would make the glistening go away, and my own eyes stung from watching. “These things happen, that’s how life is. I can hear your granddad now. ‘We just have to hunch up and take it.’” Gram kept in touch with people who were no longer living. These were not ghosts to her, nor for that matter to me, simply interrupted existences. My grandfather had died long before I was born, but I heard the wise words of Pete Blegen many times as though he were standing close beside her.
Straightening herself now as if the thought of him had put new backbone in her, she managed a trembling smile. “Nell’s bells, boy, don’t worry so.”
I didn’t give in. “Maybe I could just go to the hospital with you and the nuns would let me live with them and—”
“That’s not how something like this is done,” she said tiredly. “Don’t you understand at all? Kitty and Dutch are the only relatives we have left, like it or not. You have to go and stay with them for the summer while I get better,” she put it to me one last time in just so many words. “You’ll do fine by yourself. You’re on your own a lot of the time around here anyway.”
She maybe was persuading herself, but not me. “Donny,” she begged, reading my face, “it is all I can think to do.”
“But I don’t know Aunt Kitty and him,” I rushed on. “I’ve never even seen a picture. And what if they don’t recognize me at the bus station back there and we miss each other and I get lost and—”
Gram cut me off with a look. As redheaded as a kid could be, a wicker suitcase in hand, I was not especially likely to escape notice, was I. No mercy from her on the rest of it, either. “I seem to remember,” she said flatly, “telling you not five minutes ago that I wrote down their address and phone number and tucked it in your memory book, just in case. Quit trying to borrow trouble, boy.”
“Yeah, well, I still don’t know them,” I muttered. “Why couldn’t they come in a car and get me, and see you and help you go to the hospital and things like that?”
This caused her to pause. “Kitty and I didn’t always make music together, from girls on,” she finally came up with, hardly the most enlightening of explanations. “The Great Kate, you’d think her full name was back then, the stuck-up little dickens.” She sighed, sad and exasperated in the same breath. “She always did have her own ways, and I had mine, and that was that. So we haven’t much kept in touch. I didn’t see any sense in trying, until now.” Gram drew what seemed to be another hard breath. “Because when that sister of mine gets a certain notion in her head she can’t be budged. I suppose that’s how she’s got to where she is in life. And your Uncle Dutch is”—a longer pause—“something else, from what I hear.”
Whatever that was supposed to mean, she lost no time changing the subject, saying my big trip was a chance that did not come often in life, really, to get out in the world and see new sights and scenes and meet people and have experiences and all that. “You could call it a vacation, in a way,” she tried hopefully.
“It’s vacation here,” I pouted, meaning school was out and I had the run of the ranch and could do pretty much what I wanted without being shipped off to complete strangers back east in Wisconsin.
“Oh, Donny,” she groaned, and let loose with, “I swear to Creation, I don’t know up from down anymore”—one of her standard sayings when things became too much for her. Outbursts of that sort scared the daylights out of me at first, but I had learned such squalls passed as quickly as they came. Certain complaints gathered on a person with age, it seemed. This woman who meant everything to me carried the burden of years and deprivation along with all else life had thrust on her, including me. As much as I adored her and tried to fit under her wing without causing too much trouble, my grandmother was from another universe of time, another century, actually. My six grades of schooling already were twice what she ever received in the sticks of North Dakota, if North Dakota even had sticks. She read recipe books with her finger, her lips silently moving, and had to call on me to help out with unfamiliar words such as pomegranate. Not that she lacked a real vocabulary of her own, for besides sayings that fit various moods and occasions, she possessed a number of expressions that edged right up to cussing, without quite qualifying. The way she’d meet something dubious with “That’s a load of bulloney” always sounded to me suspiciously close.
At least she didn’t resort to any of that now, instead telling me to temper my attitude in what for her were measured terms. “It’s not the end of the world,” a look straight at me came with the words. “School starts right after Labor Day, you know that, and this is only till then. Kitty”—she loyally amended that—“your Aunt Kitty will make sure you’re back in time, and I’ll be up and around by then, and we’ll get on with life good as new, you wait and see.”
• • •
BUT I DIDN’T NEED TO wait to see, plain and simple, that if what was happening to us wasn’t the end of our world, it was a close enough imitation. Just the sight of Gram, the way her apron bagged on her never very strong build, caused a catch in my throat. There was not much of her to spare to surgery, by any measure. And while I did not fully understand the “female trouble” discovered in her by some doctor at the Columbus Hospital in Great Falls, I grasped that the summerlong convalescence in the pavilion ward run by the nuns made her—us—a charity case. Maybe we weren’t poorer than lint, like the worst-off people, but apparently not far from it. If that, plus losing our only shelter on earth—the cook shack, for what it was—did not add up to the edge of disaster, even without my banishment to a town in Wisconsin I wasn’t even sure how to spell, I didn’t know what did. This awful day, the second worst of my life, both of us were becoming medical casualties. Gram was the one with the drastic condition, but I was sick at heart. For I knew if this operation of hers did not come out right, we were goners, one way or the other. If something went wrong, if at the very least she could no longer work, it would be the poorfarm for her. And what I knew with terrible certainty would happen to me then was keeping me awake nights.
Argument over as far as she was concerned, Gram gave a last pat to my packed clothes. “That’s that, the suitcase is ready and I hope to high heaven you are.”
By now I didn’t want to look at her and couldn’t look away. My mother’s face was legible in her drawn one at times like this, women without any extra to them to start with and hard luck wearing them down even more. It was showing every sign of being a family characteristic, if I didn’t dodge it.
Call it luck or not, but right then I had an inspiration. An impulse on top of an inspiration, more like. “Can I run up to the boss house for a minute? With my autograph book?”
“Not unless you want Sparrowhead’s,” she dismissed that out of hand. “And you know how he is. Sometimes I think that man has a wire down.” Then she added, as if I had forgotten, “He’s the only one there, with Meredice away.”
“Yeah, well, that’s sort of what I had in mind,” I fumbled out. “It’s just, you know, I have everybody else’s.”
Gram’s pursed expression questioned my good sense, judgment, and maybe other qualities, but she only said, “Child, you get some of the strangest notions.”
Biting her tongue against saying more on that score, she checked the clock. “All right, I suppose if you have to. But make it snappy, pretty please. You need to catch your ride to town with the vet as soon as he’s done in the cow shed.”
• • •
MY MIND BUZZED as I crossed the grassless packed earth of the yard, so called, that separated the cook shack, bunkhouse, barn, sheds, corrals, and the rest of the sprawl of the Double W from the extravagant structure in “ranchin’ mansion” style that was the stronghold of the Williamsons. Rather, of the Williamson men who had ruled the huge ranch for three generations, while the Williamson wives of equal duration had as little as possible to do with the white-painted pile of house poking up out of the prairie.
“I don’t blame Meredice for scooting off to California every chance she gets,” Gram sympathized wholly with the current lady of the house. “It’s like living in a hide warehouse in there.” That may have been so, but the ranch headquarters, the so-called boss house with its dark wooded rooms and manly leather-covered furniture and bearhide rugs and horned or antlered heads of critters on the walls—most spectacularly, that of the bull elk shot by Teddy Roosevelt on one of his visits to the ranch before being president took up his time—held a sneaking allure for me. Cowhide furniture and trophy heads can do that to you when you’ve lived the bare-bones style Gram and I were stuck with.
I entered by the kitchen door without knocking, as the kitchen and the adjoining windowed porch where the ranch crew ate at a twenty-foot-long table were Gram’s domain, where I hung around to lick the bowls when she was baking and even did small chores for her like taking out the ashes and filling the woodbox. Pausing in the familiar surroundings to gather myself, I gazed around for possibly the last time at the cookstove of the old kind that cooks called a hellbox and the creaky cupboards and the rest of the tired kitchenware Gram had made do with, three times a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year, as the latest in the succession of Double W cooks fending with a shortage of modern conveniences and a surplus of Wendell Williamson, classic tightfisted employer. I swallowed hard. What I was about to do was a gamble, but I was a hundred percent sure it would work. Well, fifty percent at least, the rest maybe the kind of hope only someone at that age can have. “Hunch up and take it” might be good enough advice if you were willing to go through life like a jackrabbit in a hailstorm, but I was determined to try for better than that.
Getting ready, I smoothed open the autograph book. A memory book was another name for it, because collecting autographs really was an excuse to have people dab in some lasting bit of wisdom, humor, or simply something supremely silly along with their signature.
• • •
WHAT WOULD I HAVE DONE, in that difficult period of life, without the inch-thick, cream-colored album with the fancily lettered inscription YE WHO LEND YOUR NAME TO THESE PAGES SHALL LIVE ON UNDIMMED THROUGH THE AGES embossed on the cover in gold or at least gilt? Autograph books were one of those manias that sweep through a student population, and at our South Fork one-room school it started when Amber Busby, as spoiled as she was curly-haired and dark-eyed, showed up with a fancy leatherette one she’d been given for her birthday and began cornering all of us to write in it. Immediately everybody, from the littlest kids just able to print their names to the seventh- and eighth-grade galoots edging up on the fact of a world half filled with girls, had to have an autograph book; it’s a miracle how something ceases to be sissy stuff when everyone does it. Like other schoolyard manias, this one wore itself out in a week or two, but I kept at it, away from school as well as in. Gram, always desperate to keep me occupied—over time I had worn out enthusiasms on jigsaw puzzles, pen pals, board games, and things since forgotten—wholeheartedly encouraged this particular diversion, not that I needed extra motivation. The variety of sentiments people came up with to be remembered by appealed to the grab-bag nature of my mind, and by now I had a good start on filling the pages. I knew there was a long way to go, though, because I wanted to set a record. I loved the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! panel in the Sunday funnies of the Great Falls Tribune that the Williamsons passed along to us when they thought of it, with its incredible facts that a North Dakota man ate forty-one pancakes in one sitting and that the Siamese twins Cheng and Peng shared a total of six wives in their lifetime and so on. I could just see myself in a full-color drawing: Donal Cameron—my name correctly spelled and everything—the Montana boy who collected more autographs and their attached memories than any other known human being. What that total was, of course, remained to be determined, but I was working at it. And this next autograph request counted double, in a sense.
Flipping past the scrawled sentiments of my classmates and the other schoolkids—When you see a skunk in a tree / Pull his tail and think of me was pretty typical—I picked out a nice fresh page, holding the place with my thumb, and set off for the office down the wood-paneled hall.
Only to slow to a halt as ever at the display table in the hallway nook. The show-off table, Gram called it, there to impress visitors with items discovered on the ranch from pockets of the past. I never passed without looking the fascinating assortment over. A powder horn and bullet pouch from the days of the fur trappers. A long-shanked jinglebob spur a cowboy lost on a trail drive from Texas. A big bone of some beast no longer seen on earth. All stuff like that until the array of Indian things, spearpoints and hide scrapers and flint skinning knives and other remnants of buffalo hunts long before Double W cattle grazed the same land. And resting there prime amid those, the object I longed for, the dark black arrowhead that was my find.
I was heartbroken when Gram made me turn it in. I’d been hunting magpies in the willows when I spotted the glassy sparkle in the gravel bottom of the creek crossing. When I reached in the water and picked it up, the glistening triangular shard of rock was sharper and more pointed than other arrowheads that sometimes surfaced after winter frosts or a big rain. Much more beautiful, too, solid black and slick as glass—which actually it was, I later learned, a hardened volcanic lava called obsidian from somewhere far away—when I stroked it in the palm of my hand. My excitement at gaining such a treasure lasted until I burst into the cookhouse and showed it to Gram, and was given the bad news.
“Donny, I’d rather pull my tongue out than tell you this, but you can’t keep it.”
“W-why not? That’s not fair!” Dismay sent my voice high. “I’m the one who found it, and if I hadn’t, it’d still be there in the creek and the haying crew might break it when they pull the stacker across, and so I saved its life, sort of, and I don’t see why I can’t—”
“You can talk that way until you’re blue, but I just don’t like your having something that rightfully might be theirs,” she laid down the law as she saw it. “Sparrowhead makes the riders turn in anything like this they come across, you know that.” I absolutely could not see why the Williamsons were entitled to something that had fallen to the ground probably before the ranch even existed, but Gram’s mind was made up. “Go on up to the house and give it to him.”
“Good eye, Buckshot” was all the thanks I got from Wendell Williamson when I did so. “Lucky to find one of these. It’s pre-Columbian.” He liked to say things like that to show he had been to college, although Gram claimed it only went to prove he was an educated fool besides a natural-born one. Anyway, when I looked up the meaning of the phrase in the Webster’s dictionary Meredice Williamson kept in the bookcase with the Condensed Books, I was awed. Older than Columbus! That made the black arrowhead even more magical for me. Just think, it had lain there all those hundreds of years, until, as the man himself said, I was lucky enough to be the one to find it. Equally unlucky, it had to be admitted, to be forced to part company with it. Well, that would not have to happen for good if my gamble of calling on the boss of the Double W paid off in that way, too.
• • •
WITH HOPE AND TREPIDATION, I now approached the office. The door was open, but I knew to knock anyway.
When he saw it was me, Wendell Williamson sat back in his swivel chair, which Gram claimed was the only thing on the ranch he knew how to operate. “What can I do you for, Buckshot?”
This was new territory for me, as I had only ever peeked in when he was not there. The office smelled of tobacco and old hides like the mountain lion skin and head draped over a cabinet in one corner, enough to set a visitor back a little, but I advanced as though life depended on it. “Hi,” I said, my voice higher than intended.
The man behind the desk, no taller nor heftier than average, had a kind of puffy appearance, from his fleshy hands to a pillow-like girth to an excessive face, his hairline in deep retreat up to a cluster of curly gray in the vicinity of his ears. Gram called him Sparrowhead behind his back because of what she believed was the quality of birdbrain under that jag of hair. Or sometimes her remarks about her employer were more along the line that he was the sort of person who’d drown kittens to keep himself busy. Regardless of what she thought of him, or he of her, they had maintained a prickly standoff, the boss of the ranch reluctant to fire the tart-tongued cook because of her skill at feeding a crew on the cheap, and the often-disgusted mealmaker who ruled the kitchen putting up with his stingy ways on account of me.
Gram’s bad turn of health was about to bring all that to a crashing end, if I couldn’t do something about it. Wendell—I didn’t dare think of him as Sparrowhead just then—was examining me as if he hadn’t seen me every day of the past couple of years. “I hear you’re getting a trip to Minnesota.”
“Nuhhuh.” This strangulated utterance was a habit of his. Gram said it made him sound like he was constipated in the tonsils. “It amounts to about the same, back there.” I suppose trying to be civil, he drawled, “Come to say ‘Aw river,’ have you?”
The joke about “au revoir,” if that was what it was, went over my head. “Uh, not exactly,” I stammered in spite of myself. “It’s about something else.” He waited expressionlessly for me to get it out. Heaven only knew what rash requests had been heard in this office down through the years by one poker-faced Double W boss or the next. None quite like mine, though. “What it is, I want to get your autograph.”
He gave me a beady look, as if suspicious I was making fun of him. I quickly displayed the autograph book. “Mered—Mrs. Williamson—already put in her name and a sort of ditty for me.”
That changed his look, not necessarily for the better. “She did you the honor, did she. You must have caught her when she wasn’t packing up for Beverly Hills again.” He reluctantly put out a paw-like hand, saying he guessed he’d better keep up with her any way he could. Taking the album from me, he splayed it on the desk with the practiced motion of someone who had written out hundreds of paychecks, a good many of them to cooks he’d fired. I waited anxiously until he handed back what he wrote.
In the game of life, don’t lose your marbles.
Double W ranch
in the great state of Montana
“Gee, thanks,” I managed. “That’s real good advice.”
He grunted and fiddled busily with some papers on his desk, which was supposed to be a signal for me to leave. When I did not, he frowned. “Something else on your mind?”
I had rehearsed this, my honest reason for braving the ranch boss in his lair, over and over in my head, and even so it stumbled out.
“I, uh, sort of hoped I could get a haying job. Instead of, you know. Wisconsin.”
Wendell could not hide his surprise. “Nuhhuh. Doing what?”
I thought it was as obvious as the nose on his face. “Driving the stacker team.”
This I could see clear as anything, myself paired with the tamest workhorses on the place, everyone’s favorites, Prince and Blackie, just like times on the hay sled last winter when whoever was pitching hay to the cows let me handle the reins. The hayfield job was not much harder than that, simply walking the team of horses back and forth, pulling a cable that catapulted a hayfork load onto the stack. Kids my age, girls even, drove the stacker team on a lot of ranches. And once haying season got underway and gave me the chance to show my stuff at driving the easy pair of horses, it all followed: Even the birdbrain behind the desk would figure out that in me he had such a natural teamster he’d want to keep me around as a hayhand every summer, which would save Gram’s spot as cook after her recuperation, and the cook shack would be ours again. To my way of thinking, how could a plan be more of a cinch than that?
I waited expectantly for the boss of the Double W to say something like “Oh man, great idea! Why didn’t I think of that myself?”
Instead he sniffed in a dry way and uttered, “We’re gonna use the Power Wagon on that.”
No-o-o! something inside me cried. The Power Wagon for that? The thing was a huge beast of a vehicle, half giant jeep and half truck. Talk about a sparrowheaded idea; only a couple of horsepower, which was to say two horses, were required to hoist hay onto a stack, and he was going to employ the equivalent of an army tank? I stood there, mouth open but no words adequate. There went my dream of being stacker driver, in a cloud of exhaust. I was always being told I was big for my age, but I couldn’t even have reached the clutch of the dumb Power Wagon.
“Cutting back on workhorses, don’t you see,” Wendell was saying, back to fiddling with the papers on the desk. “Time to send the nags to the glue factory.”
That did that in. If charity was supposed to begin at home, somehow the spirit missed the Double W by a country mile. Apprentice cusser that I was, I secretly used up my swearing vocabulary on Wendell Williamson in my defeated retreat down the hallway. I can’t account for what happened next except that I was so mad I could hardly see straight. Without even thinking, as I passed the show-off table and its wonders for the last time, I angrily snatched the black arrowhead and thrust it as deep in my jeans pocket as it would go.
Gram watched in concern as I came back into the cook shack like a whipped pup. “Donny, are you crying? What happened? Didn’t the fool write in your book for you?”
“Got something in my eye,” I alibied. Luckily the veterinarian’s pickup pulled up outside and honked. In a last flurry, Gram gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Off you go,” her voice broke. “Be a good boy on the dog bus, won’t you.”
AND HERE I WAS, stepping up into what I thought of as the real bus, with GREYHOUND—THE FLEET WAY TO TRAVEL in red letters on its side and, to prove it, the silver streamlined dog of the breed emblematically running flat-out as if it couldn’t wait to get there. Maybe not, but I had two days and a night ahead of me before climbing off at the depot in farthest Wisconsin, and that felt to me like the interminable start of the eternity of summer ahead.
At the top of the steps I stopped short, not sure where to sit. The seats in long rows were easily four times as many as in the Rocky Mountain Stage Line sedan, the roomy high-backed sets on each side of the aisle making my ride from Gros Ventre squashed between the mailbag and the bulky woman seem like three in a bed with room for two, as Gram would have said. This was a vehicle for a crowd, and it already was more than half full. Way toward the back as though it was their given place sat some soldiers, two together on one side of the aisle and their much more sizable companion, who needed the space, in the set of seats across from them. Slumped in front of them was a bleary, rumpled guy in ranch clothes, by every sign a sheepherder on a spree, who appeared to have been too busy drinking to shave for a week or so. Across from him, like a good example placed to even him out, rested a nun in that black headgear outlined in white, her round glasses firm on her set face. Then toward the middle were scattered leathery older couples who I could tell were going home to farms or ranches or little towns along the way, and some vacationers dressed to the teeth in a way you sure don’t see these days, coats and ties on the men and color-coordinated outfits for the women. One and all, the already-seated passengers were strangers to me, some a lot stranger than others from the looks of them, which didn’t help in making up my mind. Much more traveled than I ever hoped to be, Gram had forewarned, “The dog bus gets all kinds, so you just have to plow right in and stake out a place for yourself.” Yeah, but where?
Now I noticed the dark-haired woman nearest me, with her name sewn in red on her crisp blouse in waitress fashion, although I couldn’t quite read it. Wearing big ugly black-rimmed glasses that made her look like a raccoon, she took short quick drags on a cigarette while reading a movie magazine folded over. She was sitting alone, but her coat was piled in the seat beside her, not exactly a friendly signal. Robbed of that spot—I’d have bet my bottom dollar that she knew how to be good company, snappy when talking was called for but otherwise minding her own business; some people simply have that look—I kept scanning the seats available among the other passengers, but froze when it came to choosing. It was a bad time to turn bashful, but I decided to take potluck and ducked into an empty set of seats a row behind the nonstop smoker.
No sooner had I done so than I changed my mind. About potluck, I mean. What was I going to do if the bus filled up and whoever sat next to me was anything like the nonstop talker about the digestive system? Or if the drunk sheepherder toward the back, recognizing me as fresh off the ranch—my shirt said something like that—came staggering up the aisle to keep me company? Or the nun decided to sneak up and get going on me about God? I didn’t know squat about religion, and this was not the time to take that on. It panicked me to think about trying to keep up with conversations like those all the way to the next stop, Havre, or who knew, endless hours beyond that.
I bolted back out of the bus, drawing a glance between rapid-fire puffs as I passed the seated woman.
Luckily I was in time. The lanky driver in the blue Greyhound uniform and crush hat like a pilot’s was just then shutting the baggage compartment in the belly of the bus. “Sir? Mister?” I pleaded. “Can I get my suitcase?”
He gave me one of those Now what? looks, the same as when he’d punched my ticket and realized I was traveling by myself at my age.
Straightening up, he asked with a frown, “Not parting company with us, are you? There’s no refund once you’re checked onto the bus, sonny.”
“Huh-uh, no,” I denied, “nothing like that,” although jumping back on the Chevy bus for its return trip to Gros Ventre was mighty tempting. “I need to get something out, is all.” He hesitated, eyeing the profusion of suitcases in the compartment. “Something I need helluva bad.”
“That serious, is it.” He seemed more amused than compelled by my newfound swearing skill. “Then I guess I better pitch in. But make it quick. I can do my tire check while you’re at that. Remind me, which bag is yours?” When I pointed, he gave me another one of those looks. “Don’t see that kind much anymore.”
Kneeling on the concrete while the traffic of the busy Great Falls depot went on around me, I unlatched Gram’s old suitcase and dug out the autograph book, stuffing it in the pocket of my corduroy jacket. While I had the suitcase open, I reluctantly tucked the black arrowhead in under the moccasins; I hated not to be carrying it as a lucky piece, but I didn’t want to risk being jabbed in my sitting part all the way to Wisconsin, either.
Missions accomplished, I returned the suitcase to the baggage compartment as best I could. Headed to climb back on the bus, I nearly bumped into the driver coming around the front. I still was on his mind, apparently. “Say, I saw you come straight off the Rocky bus—did you get your Green Stamps?”
I plainly had no idea what he was talking about. “They’re a special deal this summer, long-distance passengers get them for their miles. You’re going quite a ways across the country, aren’t you?” I sure was, off the end of the known world. “Then, heck, go in and show your ticket to the agent.” He jerked a thumb toward the terminal. “Hustle your fanny, we’re leaving before long.”
My fanny and I did hustle inside, where I peered in every direction through the depot crowd before spotting the ticket counter. Miraculously no one was there ahead of me, and I barged up to the agent, a pinchfaced woman with a sort of yellowish complexion, as if she hadn’t been away from the counter for years, and rattled off to her while waving my ticket, “I’m supposed to get Green Stamps, the driver said so.”
“Those.” She sniffed, and from under the counter dug out sheets of stamps, about the size you would put on a letter but imprinted with a shield bearing the fancy initials S&H, and sure enough, sort of pea green. Next she checked my ticket against a chart. “Sixteen hundred and one miles,” she reported, looking me over as though wondering whether I was up to such a journey. Nonetheless she began counting out, telling me I was entitled to fifty stamps, a full sheet, for every hundred miles I was ticketed for. As the sheets piled up, I started to worry.
“Uhm, I forgot to ask. How much do they cost?”
“What the little boy shot at and missed,” she answered impassively, still dealing out green sheets.
Really? Nothing? Skeptically I made sure. “The dog bus just gives them away?”
“Believe it or not,” she muttered, little knowing that was the most convincing reply she could have given me.
Pausing, she squared the sheets into a neat stack. “That’s sixteen,” she announced, studying the chart again with a pinched frown. The one extra mile evidently constituted a problem for her. “What the hey,” she said, and tossed on another green sheet.
“Wh-what do I do with them?” I had to ask as I gathered the stack of stamps off the counter. Handing me what she called a collector book, which was right up my alley, she explained that I was supposed to stick a sheet onto each page and when enough pages were filled, I could trade in the collection for merchandise at any store that hung out an S&H sign. “You’ve always wanted a lawn chair, I bet,” she said expressionlessly.
“Uh, sure.” Shoving the Green Stamp haul into my opposite jacket pocket from the autograph book, I turned to dash to the bus. Behind me I heard her recite, “God bless you real good, sonny.”
• • •
ALREADY THIS WAS some trip, I thought to myself as I dodged through the depot crowd, enriched with a pocketful of trading stamps and a blessing, not really sure I was glad of the latter if that implied I might need it. In any case, I scurried out and vaulted back into the impressive silver-sided Greyhound. The same seat was available and I dropped into it as if I owned it.
There. I felt more ready. Now if I was trapped with someone who wanted to talk my ear off about canned succotash or similar topics, I could head them off by asking for their autograph and get them interested in my collection. It was at least a plan.
As the loudspeaker announced the last call for the eastbound bus, which was us, I waited tensely for whatever last-minute passenger would come panting aboard and, as surely as a bad apple falls tardily from a tree, plop into the seat next to mine. And sure enough, the sound of someone setting foot on the steps reared me half out of my seat to see. But it was only the driver, who shook his head to himself as I sank back down and he started a passenger count with me, then slid in behind the steering wheel. The next thing I knew, we were pulling out of Great Falls and lurching onto the highway.
• • •
ONCE UNDERWAY, the bus lived up to that tirelessly loping emblem on its side. In short order, the country along the highway turned to grainfield, miles of green winter wheat striped with the summer fallow of strip farming and tufted here and there with low trees planted around farm buildings as windbreaks. I stayed glued to the window, which for a while showed the blue-gray mountains I had been used to all my life, jagged tops white with snow left over from winter. All too soon, the familiar western peaks vanished behind a rise and did not come back. Apparently everything this side of the Rockies was dwarfed in comparison and only any good for plowing, not a cow or horse anywhere in sight. I could just imagine Wisconsin, the whole place a cornfield or something.
Watching the miles go by, with no company but my indistinct reflection, loneliness caught up with me. It had been held off by the woman talking a blue streak at me on the ride from Gros Ventre and then the confusion of getting settled on the Greyhound, but now if I could have seen myself, hunched in that seat amid the rows of passengers confined within themselves by the cocoon of travel, surely I matched the picture of despair conjured by one of those sayings of Gram’s, lonely as an orphan on a chamber pot.
Eleven going on twelve is a changeable age that way. One minute you are coltish and sappy, and the next you’re throwing a fit because you’re tired or hungry or something else upsetting is going on inside you. Right then my mood churned up a storm. Things had been tossed turvy, and although I was the one cast out alone onto a transcontinental bus, home was running away from me, and had been ever since some doctor’s dire words to Gram. For if I lost the last of my family to the poorfarm or worse, with that went everything connected to the notion of home as I had known it, and I would be bound for that other terrifying institution, the orphanage.
Full of instinct and intrigue as a schoolyard is, kids grasp to a terrifying extent what losing the world you have known means. Too many times had I heard the whisper race through recess, jackrabbit telegraph, that so-and-so was “going to the other side of the mountains.” Packed up and dumped in the state-run orphanage over at Butte, that meant, across the Continental Divide where the sun went down and so did kids’ lives. Designation as an orphan truly did sound to me fatal in a way, the end of a childhood in which my parents, in their shortened lifetimes, literally moved earth, and would have done the same with heaven had it been within immediate reach, to keep me always with them no matter how unhandy the circumstances.
So, right then it did not seem at all imaginary that life was turning against me, Gram and me both, to an awful extent. I resented the human plumbing or whatever it was in her case that produced this situation. If that nun back there playing with her beads or whatever wanted to do something useful, why didn’t she pray up a better system of women’s insides so a boy wouldn’t worry himself sick about losing his grandmother, all he had, to some kind of operation?
And getting booted out of the cook shack and off the ranch like we were nobody—if that wasn’t enough cause for resentment, I didn’t know what qualified. I could have driven that stacker team in haying time just fine, and if Wendell Williamson didn’t think so, he needed his sparrow head examined.
The list didn’t stop there. These shirttail relatives I was going to be stuck with for an endless summer—why hadn’t this Kitty and Dutch pair, the Brinkers by name, ever visited us, so I’d at least know what they looked like? Even if they were dried-up old coots who probably kept their teeth in a glass at night, as I figured they must be, it would have helped if I could picture them at all.
• • •
I COULD HAVE gone on and on like that, nose against the window and feeling sorry for myself, but that gets old, too. Stirring myself so plowed fields would not bore me out of my skull, to be doing anything I took out the autograph book. It opened to In the game of life, don’t lose your marbles. Right. If you were lucky enough to own any marbles to start with. Moodily I moved on from the Double W brand of advice, flipping to the front of the book. Naturally, Gram’s was the very first inscription. Wouldn’t a person think, in a nice autograph book that she’d spent real money for, she would have carefully written something like To my one and only grandson . . . ? Instead, in her scrawl that barely did for grocery lists:
My love for you shall flow
Like water down a tater row.
I was finding out that people came up with surprising things like that almost automatically when presented with the autograph book. It was as if they couldn’t resist putting down on the page—their page, everyone got his own, I made sure—something of themselves, corny though it might be, and happily signing their name to it. Wistfully thumbing through the inscriptions, I lost myself for a while in the rhymes and remarks of my school friends and teachers and the ranch hands and visitors like the veterinarian and, when I hit it lucky, a big shot like Senator Ridpath when he spoke in the Gros Ventre park on the Fourth of July. That was my prize one so far; the senator was surely famous, if for nothing more than having been in office almost forever. What a pretty piece of writing his was as I looked at it with admiration again, every letter of the alphabet perfectly formed, and the lines about the pen being mightier than the sword composed there as balanced as a poem.
The senator’s elegant citation was even more fitting than he could have known, because along with the autograph book, Gram had given me my very own ballpoint pen—not the plain old type then that was an ink stick with a cap on the end, but a fancy new retractable kind called a Kwik-Klik. It wrote in a purplish hue that seemed to me the absolute best color for an autograph collection, and I made sure to have people use it when composing their ditties rather than just any old writing instrument. Of course, there were exceptions—Wendell Williamson was represented in that deathly black Quink fountain pen stuff—but page to page, the creamy paper showed off the same pleasing ink, like a real book.
And then and there, the way a big idea sometimes will grow from a germ of habit, it dawned on me that a dog bus full of passengers, as captive as I was, presented a chance to fill a good many more of those pages with purplish inscriptions.
Sitting up as if I’d had a poke in the ribs, I snuck a look toward the back of the bus for likely candidates. The soldiers were talking up a storm, joking and laughing. The tourists yakked on across the aisles. A number of passengers were napping. The only ones not occupied, so to speak, were the nun and the sheepherder.
Mustering my courage, I stacked my jacket to save my seat and started down the aisle, swaying when the bus did. Saying “Excuse me” a dozen times, I made my way past pair after pair of aisle-sitting conversationalists. As if reading my mind, the sheepherder dragged himself upright and lopsidedly grinned at me as if he were thirsty for company. But just as I reached his vicinity, the bus rocked around a curve and I lurched into the empty seat behind him, like a pinball into a slot.
The big soldier who had been sitting by himself raised a bushy eyebrow at my abrupt arrival beside him. “Hi,” I piped up as I recovered, the top of my head barely reaching the shoulder patch of his uniform.
“What’s doing, buddy?” he wondered.
My voice high, I hurriedly told him, displaying the autograph book. His eyebrow stayed parked way up there, but he sort of smiled and broke into my explanation.
“Loud and clear, troop. If there’s a section in there for Uncle Sam’s groundpounders, you’ve got them up the yanger here.” Holding out a hand that swallowed mine, he introduced himself. “Turk Turco.” The soldiers across the aisle sent me two-fingered salutes and chipped in their names, Gordon in the near seat and Mickey by the window.
“Mine’s Donny,” I said to keep things simple. “Where you guys going?”
The one called Gordon snickered. “Sending us east to go west, that’s the army for you. We catch the train at Havre. Then it’s Fort Lewis, good old Fort Screw Us, out by Seattle. And after that it’s”—he drew out the next word like it was sticky—“Ko-re-a.”
“Where we’ll get our asses shot off,” Mickey said glumly.
Turk sharply leaned over, just about obliterating me. “Lay off that, will you, numb nuts. You’re scaring the kid. Not to mention me.”
The thought that the Korean War, which like any American youngster of 1951 I’d grasped only from G.I. Joe comic books and radio reports, could claim the lives of people I’d met face-to-face, had never occurred to me. It struck with lightning force now. Glancing guiltily around at the three soldiers in their pressed khakis, I almost wished I had lit in with the mussy sheepherder, who could be heard carrying on a muttered conversation with himself in front of us.
“I’m just saying,” Mickey stayed insistent. “Think about it, there’s Chinese up the wazoo over there”—I was fairly sure that amounted to the same as up the yanger and could not be good—“must be a million of the bastards, then there’s us.”
“And the whole sonofabitching rest of the army,” Turk pointed out. “C’mon, troop, this is no time to come down with a case of nervous in the service.”
Mickey was not to be swayed. “I wish to Christ they were shipping us to some base in Germany where we wouldn’t get our asses shot off, is all.”
That startled me. The Chinese were an enemy I had not quite caught up with, but Germans still were the bad guys from the last war, as far as I was concerned. Fiends all the way up to Hitler, and down to the enemy soldiers my family had a personal reason to hate forever.
“Yeah, right, Mick.” Gordon rolled his eyes about Germany for me. “Over there where you could put on your jockstrap spats and wow the fräuleins.”
“Go take a flying fuck at a rolling donut, Gordo.”
I was starting to realize what a long way I had to go to be accomplished in cussing.
Snickering again, Gordon maintained that if anybody’s ass was going to get shot off, it could not possibly be his. “Mine’s gonna be the size of a prune, from the pucker factor.” All three soldiers roared at that, and while I didn’t entirely get it, I joined in as best I could.
When the laughter died down, I figured maybe I ought to contribute something. “My daddy was in the war,” I announced brightly. “The last one. He was on one of those boat kind of things at Omaha Beach.”
“A landing craft?” Turk whistled through his teeth, looking at me a different way. “Out the far end!” he exclaimed, which took me a moment to savvy as soldier talk for outstanding and then some. “D-Day was hairy. Came back in one piece, did he? Listen up, Mick.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell them the truth about that. “He always, uh, says he’s in pretty good shape for the shape he’s in.”
Gordon leaned across the aisle. “So what’s your old man do?”
“He’s a”—it’s amazing what a habit something like this gets to be—“crop duster.”
“No crap?” Gordon sounded envious. “Grainfield flyboy, is he. Then how come you have to travel by dog? Why doesn’t he just give you a lift in his airplane?”
“It’s too far. See, I’m going to visit my rich aunt and uncle. They live back east. In Decatur, Illinois.”
“Never heard of the place. What’s there?”
“The Cat plant.” That drew three blank looks. “Where they make bulldozers and graders and stuff like that.” I was developing a feel for the perimeter of story that could be got away with. A detail or two expanded the bounds to a surprisng extent, it seemed like.
So, there it went, again. Out of my mouth something unexpected, not strictly true but harmlessly made up. Storying, maybe it could be called. For I still say it was not so much that I was turning into an inveterate liar around strangers, I simply was overflowing with invention. The best way I can explain it is that I was turned loose from myself. Turned loose, not by choice, from the expected behavior of being “a good kid,” which I was always a little restless about anyway. “You’re being a storier,” Gram would warn whenever I got carried away spinning a tale about one thing or another. Now, with no check on my enthusiasm when it started playing tricks upstairs in me—the long bus trip seemed to invite daydreaming, mine merely done out loud—I was surprising myself with the creations I could come up with. I mean, what is imagination but mental mischief of a kind, and why can’t a youngster, particularly one out on his own, protectively occupy himself with invention of that sort before maturity works him over? One thing for sure, the soldiers on their way to their own mind-stretching version of life ahead did not doubt my manufactured one in the least.
Shoulders shaking with laughter, Mickey forcefully nudged Gordon. “If it was the cat house, you’d know all about it, huh, Gordo?”
Gordon turning the air blue in response, Turk nudged me for the autograph book. “Somebody’s got to go first.” I instructed him in the mystery of the Kwik-Klik, and with it in hand, he balanced the book on his knee and wrote for a good long time. When he was through, I passed things across to Gordon, who looked over Turk’s entry with a mocking expression but didn’t say anything before writing his own.
Mickey balked when the autograph collection reached him. “I don’t know about this happy horseshit of writing in here. What am I supposed to say?”
“Pretend it’s your coloring book,” Gordon wisecracked. But Turk took right in on the reluctant penman. “Get with the program, troop. If the kid’s good enough to give a damn about us, the least we can do is put some ink on the page for him.”
Without looking up, Mickey did so, and after laboring through, passed the autograph book and pen across to me. Gratefully thanking the three of them up, down, and sideways, I retreated to my own seat to catch my breath.
• • •
GIDDY WITH SUCCESS, I read the soldiers’ inscriptions over and over, the pages as distinct from each other as handwriting could possibly be.
Life is like a deck of cards.
When you are in love it’s s.
Before you are married it’s s.
After you are married it’s s.
When you are dead it’s s.
May your long suits be hearts and diamonds.
Alvin “Turk” Turco, Pfc.
TIME FLIES LIKE AN ARROW,
WHY I’VE NEVER UNDERSTOOD.
FRUIT FLIES LIKE A BANANA,
NOW THAT SOUNDS PRETTY GOOD.
General Nuisance, U.S. Army
Mickey O’Fallon is my name
America is my nation
Butte, Montana, is my home
Korea is my destination.
Like the Turk one had said, Out the far end! Three fresh pages of inscriptions, just like that. Now, though, I faced a dilemma. Stretch my luck and go back for Kwik-Klik tidbits from other passengers, or quit while I was ahead? The bus was belting along through nondescript country with nothing much to show for itself except a brushy creek and flat buttes, so Havre or any place else was not in the picture for a while yet, and I had time if I wanted to brave the gauntlet of strangers again. But if I wasn’t mistaken, the nun had looked about ready to pounce as I hustled past to stop me from keeping company with the swearing soldiers. Was it worth it to risk falling into her clutches, or for that matter, end up with some talky tourist bunch like the ladies’ club on the Chevy bus?
While I was hung up trying to decide, blue puffs rose steadily as ever from the passenger in front of me as if she were putting up smoke signals.
Making up my mind, I leaned way forward to the crack between the seats. I could just see the side of the woman’s face as she smoked away, eyes down on her movie magazine.
“Uh, can I bother you?” I spoke into the narrow gap. “Talk to you about something, I mean? It’ll only take a jiffy. Honest.”
Somewhere between curious and skeptical, she took a peek at me through the crack. “A jiff, huh? In that case, I guess come on up and let’s hear it.”
Scooping her coat off the seat and stuffing it down beside her purse as I slid in next to her, she gave me a swift looking-over. Up close, she was eye-catching in spite of the raccoon glasses, I was somewhat surprised to see, with big dark eyes that went with her glossy black hair, and quite a mouth, full-lipped with cherry-red lipstick generously applied. From the sassy tilt of her head as she sized me up, I could imagine her giving as good as she got if someone smarted off to her, which was not going to be me if I could help it.
Before I could utter a word, she dove right in. “What’s on your mind, buttercup? You’re quite a jumping bean, you know. First time on a bus?”
Uncomfortably I owned up to “Almost.”
“Takes some getting used to, especially in the sit bones,” she said with a breezy laugh. Just then a flashy Cadillac of the kind called a greenback special—Wendell Williamson had one like it, of course—passed us like the wind. “What has big ears and chases cars?” she playfully sent my way, not really asking. “A Greyhound full of elephants.”
I giggled so hard I hiccuped. So much for being businesslike with the autograph book. My partner in bus endurance, as she seemed to be, didn’t bat an eye at my embarrassing laughing fit. Still treating me as if I were an old customer, she tapped me on the knee with the movie magazine. “Don’t wear yourself out worrying, hon, this crate will get you there. Always has me anyway. Betsa bootsies, there’s always a bus to somewhere.”
With all that said, she plucked up her cigarette from amid the lipstick-stained butts in the armrest ashtray and took a drag that swelled her chest. Trying not to look too long at that part of her, my eyes nonetheless had to linger to figure out the spelling of the name stitched there in pink thread. Leticia, which stood out to me in more ways than one. Determinedly lifting my gaze to meet her quizzical expression, I rattled out my pursuit of autographs to remember my trip by, producing the creamy album in evidence.
“So that’s what’s got you hopping,” she laughed, but nicely. Taking that as encouragement, I fanned open the pages to her. “See, people write all kinds of stuff. Here’s my favorite, just about. It’s from Miss Ciardi, best teacher I ever had.” Together we took in the deathless composition:
A flea and a fly in a flue
Were caught, what could they do?
“Let us flee,” said the fly.
“Let us fly,” said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.
“Tough competition,” she laughed again. The cigarette met its fate with the other mashed-out ones as she surprised me with a drawn-out sigh. “Sure, I’ll dab something in for you, why not. Your tough luck it’s me instead of her, huh?” She flourished the movie magazine, open to a picture of Elizabeth Taylor with a cloud of hair half over one sultry eye and nothing on above her breastbone.
“Aw, anybody can be named Elizabeth,” I spouted, feeling brave as I extended the open autograph book and special ballpoint to her. “But Leticia, whew, that’s something else.”
Solving the pen with no trouble at all, she gave me a sassy grin. “Had your eye on the tittytatting, have you,” she teased. “Letting the customers get to know you right up front on the uniform helps the tips like you wouldn’t believe.”
“I think it’s a really great idea,” I got caught up in a rush of enthusiasm. “I wish everybody did that. Had their name sewn on them, I mean. See, mine is Donal without a d on the end, and hardly anybody ever gets it right at first, but if it was on my shirt, they couldn’t mess it up like they always do.”
Listening with one ear while she started to write, she pointed out a drawback to having yourself announced on your breast. “Like when some smart-ass leans in for a good look and asks, ‘What’s the other one’s name?’”
It took me a moment to catch on, then several to stop blushing. Thankfully, she still had her head down in diligence over the autograph page. She had whipped off her glasses and stuck them in her purse—she looked a lot younger and better with them off—and I couldn’t contain my curiosity.
“How come you wear your glasses to read but not to write?”
“Don’t need ’em for either one,” she said offhandedly. “They’re just windowpane.”
“So why do you wear them ever?”
Another one of those grins. “Like it probably says in the Bible somewhere: Guys don’t make passes at gals who wear glasses.” She saw I wasn’t quite following that. “Honey, I just want to ride from here to there without every man who wears pants making a try at me. The silly specs and the ciggies pretty much do the trick—you don’t see those GIs sniffing around, do you.”
“They’ve got something else on their minds,” I confided as if wise beyond my years. “They’re afraid they’re going to get their asses shot off in Korea.”
Frowning ever so slightly, she made a shooing motion in front of her face. “Flies around the mouth,” she warned me off that kind of language. She glanced over her shoulder toward the soldiers, shaking her head. “Poor babies.” Going back to her writing, she finished with a vigorous dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s, and handed book and pen back to me. “Here you go, pal. Signed, sealed, and delivered.”
I saw she had done a really nice job. The handwriting was large and even and clear, doubtless from writing meal orders.
Life is a zigzag journey, they say,
Not much straight and easy on the way.
But the wrinkles in the map, explorers know,
Smooth out like magic at the end of where we go.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for The Bartender’s Tale:
“[The] rewards of The Bartender’s Tale—a subtle and engaging narrative, characters who behave the way real people behave, the joys of careful and loving observation—remain very great and extremely rare." –The Washington Post
"The perfect book for your bedside table. Pick it up, lose yourself in the past and remember what it was like to be twelve years old, when your world and all the people who entered into it felt as fresh as the Montana mountain air." –Associated Press
“Doig is at his best with coming-of-age stories. And he is masterful at exploring the emotional complexities of family and community through the eyes of a precocious youth… [He] has fashioned a moving tale of tolerance, self-discovery and forgiveness in which a child comes to terms with his own origins and in the process opens a new door to his future.” –The Seattle Times
“Thoroughly engaging, and the book's soft focus of nostalgia is in itself a kind of pleasure.” –NPR