Issue 171, Fall 2004
Buddy Millar was the kind of driver who avoided traveling on a main road with other cars. This distaste for sharing the highway often took him rough-wheeling across the prairie or into a labyrinth of faded gravel tracks. Some of these roads were shortcuts but most were long, and a few were serious bad dirt.
He had grown up thirty miles from Greybull in a hamlet without traffic lights and learned to drive at age eight on the perimeter roads of his parents’ sugar-beet farm.
An hour after his high-school graduation Buddy’s father handed him a beer and said, “Well, what’s it goin a be—college or a job?”
“Job,” Buddy said.
The shining light in the family was his cousin Zane, a wildlife biologist assigned to Denali National Park. He came back to Wyoming every year at Thanksgiving to see family. At thirty-eight he was still single, and Buddy, who didn’t like him, thought he might be queer. He kept looking for telltale signs but Zane was a good actor. His “area of specialty,” as he called it in a supercilious tone, was wolves, although earlier he had worked with tropical fruit bats. He subjected the family to lectures on wolf behavior, wolf physiology, crimes against wolves. At Christmas he sent cards featuring wolves leaping through the snow. Buddy’s mother, during one of Zane’s visits, had said something about how wonderful it was that Zane was helping preserve the balance of nature, and Zane had made a face and said the balance of nature was a dead dodo.
“Nothing is really balanced. Try to think of it as an ongoing poker game, say five-card draw, but everything constantly changes—the money, the card suits, the players, even the table, and every ante is affected by the weather, and you’re playing in a room where the house around you is being demolished.”
Buddy and his father, in sympathy for once, exchanged glances.
“Truth is,” said Zane, “most of the time we don’t know what we’re doing. Just tinkering, is one view, another view—”
“Quit while you’re ahead,” said Buddy’s father and silence fell on the table.
At first Buddy worked for his father but the old man had a temper and the son had a way of saying the wrong thing. When the methane-gas boom opened up he hired on as a roughneck with a crew in the Powder River Basin. After a few months he gave the tool-pusher some lip and was fired. He went to Denver, where he picked up an indoor job as a grouter helper. When he got laid off he took a job that Latinas usually did—making dice from precut nitric-celluloid cubes, but the volatile solvents gave him bad headaches and the tedium of drilling and painting little spots sent him back to construction.
He blamed the city for his increasing depression. He could not get used to so many people and Denver, especially Sixteenth Street, was a freak parade of half-boiled Indians in stacked jeans, women the hundred colors from charcoal to cheese. Street people swarmed everywhere and a handful of water dipped out of Cherry Creek could not lighten the tan that went with being down and out at high altitude. There were tourists asking each other for directions.
When all they found were fast food and sleazy T -shirt shops and, down near Market Street, a demented sculpture project of metal buffaloes with human knees, they got a look on their faces that said, “why did I come here?” To this he added his own dislikes— mulletheads in suits and skinheads in waddle-shorts, waiters out on the street for a smoke break, a lesbian couple sharing a caramel apple, a black man sweating in a mink coat in the September heat, caps emblazoned Avalanches, Rockies, Broncos, people cruising, hanging out, waiting for whatever came next, all cranking along against the western flash of mountains. And there was his boss who, when he gave an order and wanted to be sure he was understood, said, “You lookin at me?” For a year Buddy endured, then, after a scuffle with a trench trimmer, said the hell with it and headed north seeking out back roads.
Within a mile or two of crossing the Wyoming line it began to snow—sparse, dry flakes. The map showed a gravel road cutting west in the vicinity of Tie Siding and he watched for it. He thought he must have missed it, pulled into a ranch road to turn around and then saw it was the one he wanted. He could see it snaking west, the distant Medicine Bows, where the snow was falling heavily, almost obscured.
The road was rough with stiff ruts left by hunters’ trucks, but passable. Despite the snow the surface was dry and his Jeep raised a pillar of chill yellow dust that mixed with the flakes and hung in the air for minutes.
His parents pretended to be glad to see him but let him know in little ways that he was wrecking things for them. The sugar-beet harvest had been good and they had set up a vacation. Now, out of the blue, here he was, Mr. Monkey Wrench.
“You want a take a cruise? Take a cruise,” he said. “I’ll look out for the house, cook for myself. I’ll house-sit while I look for a job. Got enough money, I’ll buy my own groceries.”
“Oh Lord, I can see it when we come back, dirty dishes, mud, dust—” his mother moaned. “And I really don’t want a go on a cruise. It’s your father’s idea. I don’t care about icebergs.”
But he had convinced them and they left. It was wonderful at first, having the house to himself, and he made a big effort to keep it clean. He slid into the silence of his childhood, slept like a stone at the bottom of a lake.
About ten days after they left someone broke into the house and cleaned it out while he was down at the bar—took the two television sets, the kitchen appliances, including the dishwasher, his father’s golf clubs, his mother’s fur coat, which he had promised to put in cold storage for her, his father’s coin collection. He remembered telling his mother she should bring the fur coat, that it would be cold among the icebergs, but she took her sea-green anorak with the wolf-fur trim that always brought approving chuckles from ranchers.
“It zips,” she said. “The coat does not zip.”
It had been late, after two A.M., when he lurched in and found everything tipped over or missing. He had called the police but they seemed to think he had done it himself, disposing of the stolen goods through some seedy receiver, and they changed their minds only when the mixer and the golf clubs turned up in a Casper pawnshop and the pawnshop woman shook her head at his photograph.
“The one brought the stuff in was a little guy, sort of dark-complected but not a—not a colored man. I don’t know, maybe Mexican, maybe part Indian. Maybe a Arab.”
That made them sit up, the idea of an Arab creeping around Wyoming, breaking into houses. Then the coin collection and one of the television sets were found at another pawnshop in Cheyenne and the cops told him that was an indication the robbers were heading for Lincoln or Denver. Probably Denver. Denver, they said, was better or burglars; Lincoln was for bank robbers. The fur coat, the rice cooker, the dishwasher, and the other television set did not reappear and he dreaded his parents’ return.
It was as bad as he thought it would be, shouting and accusations, his hot-voiced promises to pay them back, his father shaking his head in I-told-you-so disgust.
“People just don’t do that here,” his mother said, all memory of the icebergs and the shipboard buffets crushed by the disaster.
“I knew we shouldn’t have gone,” and there was a flick of triumph in her voice as she glanced at her husband. Buddy put down his head and prepared to weather the storm.
“They think maybe it was Iraqis,” he lied. He made the mistake then of faulting his father for not carrying insurance that would have covered the loss, and the paternal volcano erupted.
After an hour of shouting, his father demanding how he could possibly pay them back when he didn’t even have a job, he slammed out of the house.
He drove around, cooling down, taking turns onto roads he knew too well, wishing for new territory. It had been a big mistake to come back. Things were worse than they had ever been. He couldn’t stay there. He’d find another place, get some lousy job and send them like, fifty dollars a week or whatever. He’d move, he thought, to some almost-gone town like Gebo, Ulm, or Merna.
Remote and difficult. A new set of bad dirt roads to explore. He would not have a telephone. They wanted distance, they would get distance. But in the end it was Wamsutter, the town enjoying a methane-gas boom that promised to equal the happy oil years of the thirties and seventies. The only problem was that he had arranged for his last paycheck and the balance of his savings account to be sent to his parents’ address. His mother promised to forward the money to him as soon as he had a mailing address.
Wamsutter was a desperate place, a hairline away from I-80. The first street was a strip of gas stations and convenience stores. Butted against this strip like the teeth of a comb were five or six short streets crowded with hundreds of trailers and a few houses.
Fading into the desert was a second cluster of trailered streets. The entire town, he saw, was a huge trailer park, pickup trucks in front of every mobile home, license plates from Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Nebraska, California, identifying the migrant gypsies of the gas and oil fields who followed the energy booms. This, he thought, was the real Wyoming—full of poor, hardworking transients, tough as nails and restless, going where the dollars grew.
The single-wide he looked at was five miles out of town, in the Red Desert, at the end of a lumpy hog-rock track. It had been advertised as “furnished” at forty dollars a month. He hated it at first sight, the scarred brown exterior, the clumsily painted sign over the door that read King Kong, the stained sofa in the living room with its design of sea anemones and broken nutshells, the crusty carpet which he could see someone had tried to vacuum by the flattened paths crisscrossing it. An enormous elk head took up most of the space above the sofa. He thought it would probably kill someone if it fell. In front of the sofa was a homemade coffee table with splayed legs; on it two china kittens romped beside a stamped metal ashtray dark with cigarette burns.
“See, all set to go,” said the owner’s daughter, Cootie, a fat woman in grimy sweatpants, flicking the wall switch. She turned on the faucet in the miniature sink and a yellow dribble appeared.
The doll-sized gas range produced a tiny blue flame. The wall behind the range was covered with ill-matched pieces of aluminum foil, discolored and crinkled. The bed was close beside the kitchen range, separated from it only by a food-stained wooden box.
Handy, he thought, if he wanted to fry eggs without getting out of bed.
The walls were trimmed with red, white, and blue bands painted around the doorways and windows. Along the top of the kitchen wall were the painted words Love God repeated several times. Partially blocking the bathroom door was a cheap bicycle exercise machine that looked like an ironing board with pedals and mini-handlebars. In the bathroom he noticed a tiny hot water heater with a five-gallon capacity. He’d have to be quick in the shower.
On the way out Cootie mentioned the stove again. “The other burners don’t work, but you can only use one at a time anyway, right?”
He wanted to say “Wrong,” but did not. Between them lay the unspoken sentence: What do you expect for forty dollars a month? “I’ll take it,” he said. He would only be using it to sleep in once he found a job.
That night, rolled up in his sleeping bag, he heard the nearby yip and yodel of coyotes, but near morning, the five A.M. light milky in the windows, he heard deeper howling. Someone’s dog, he supposed, and got up to start the day. He had a hundred things to do in Rawlins, the nearest town with real stores.
There was another trailer near the turnoff, obviously occupied as there was a truck in front, clothes flapping on the line. Around this structure was a moat of automotive junk, horse trailers, oil barrels, and a fiberglass boat with a hole in one side. A pile of fence posts lay half in the driveway and tire marks veering around them showed they had been there for a long time. Pink-stemmed halogeton weeds choked the background. The owners had dogs and he supposed they were the source of the predawn howling.
After a few days he realized there was a third single-wide about a mile farther out in the desert. He walked to it one day, passing the hulk of an ancient truck with solid tires, faded lettering on the door that read J.O. Sheep Co. In the distance he could hear a drill rig.
The trailer was in ruins, broken-backed because its west end had slipped off the cinderblock supports. All the windows had been shot out. He went inside. The floor groaned and moved and something ratlike whisked into a hole near the floor. Sand-filled rags and a tiny sneaker lay under a table. No chairs. Small heaps of dried grass and hundreds of scat pellets lay everywhere. He sneezed at the strong musky smell.
“Packrats,” he said aloud. He opened cupboard doors. In the tiny bedroom a yellowed newspaper story dated 1973 was tacked to the wall. It told of several urban families who had bought land south of Wamsutter from a fly-by-night development company. In the story one of the buyers was quoted as saying, “This is our dream come true, to own our own ranch. We’re the new pioneers.”
This passage had been underlined with red crayon, a line that went into the margin and attached to the words Dad says in the same red crayon. But, the story reported, townspeople said the “pioneers” would never make it through a single winter and no crops would grow in the desert. The accompanying photograph showed a girl about six sitting on the steps of a trailer. After a hard look Buddy thought it might be the trailer he was renting.
But it was the next-door trailer that became the focus of his attention. On his first weekend, cleaning trash out from under his place, something bit him and his arm swelled to the size of a telephone pole. At the Rawlins emergency room they thought it might have been a rattlesnake and, after antivenin and tetanus shots, ordered a week’s rest and no activity, no reaching under dark trailers or beds. He felt plenty sick. Recuperating, he watched his neighbors.
On sunny days a small boy play-fought with a plastic gun in the driveway while a woman in a striped shirt (the same shirt day after day) sat on the steps and smoked cigarettes. A baby crawled in the dirt. The wind blew the woman’s long orange hair. She looked a little familiar, as did all fat, fair women, perhaps because that was his mother’s physical type. He dubbed her “Fat Wife.”
During weekdays there was no vehicle in the yard until evening. In the mornings the rumble of a diesel woke him before daylight. The neighbor worked hard and long at something. On the weekends a very old Power Wagon arrived and the driver, a huge bearded lug dressed in sagging jeans, a deerskin shirt with fringe and a wrecked hat, disappeared inside the trailer for hours. This man (he thought of him as “Big Boy”) seemed to be a bow hunter as sometimes in the afternoons he and the hardworking father of the children (this was “Old Dad”) would come out and shoot arrows at a hay bale transformed into prey when they tied on a plastic deer’s head. Old Dad looked familiar, too, but he couldn’t say how or why. He guessed Big Boy was Old Dad’s pal or maybe brother-in-law. After the shooting matches Old Dad fired up the barbecue and Big Boy cooked something on the grill. Buddy could see him turning meat with his hunting knife.
So far, so good, but then their dogs began coming around. He had a trash bag of garbage in the Jeep to drop at the dump on his next trip to town, but was disagreeably surprised one morning to see a dog leap out of the vehicle with a slice of moldy bread in its jaws. Trash, coffee grounds, bacon grease, plastic wrappers were all over the Jeep and it took him a long time to clean the vehicle.
When he was done he walked over to their trailer.
Old Dad had built a plywood entryway with three steps and a handrail. Next to the entryway was a scrap-wood lean-to with a basketball hoop on the center post, milk crates of automotive parts lined up on the ground.
Fat Wife opened the door. The smell of cigarette smoke came with her.
“Yeah?” she said, lighting another.
“Hi. I’m your neighbor—Buddy Millar. Uh—I’m having a little problem with your dogs. Dog. The brown one.” Two were black and one was brown, all of indeterminate breed.
“Buddy Millar! I knew there was something. I told Rase you looked real familiar.”
He stared at her. The frizzled red hair showed dark at the roots and the long ends straggled across her shoulders like damp raffia, the finer strands caught in the fleece fabric of the grimy anorak she wore. Her face was so oily it seemed metaled. Behind her he could see a brown chair, the floor littered with clothing and toys.
“I’m Cheri. Cheri Bise back in high school. Cheri Wham now. Me and Rase Wham got married.”
Slowly it came to him, the high-school bully, Rase Wham, had dropped out in tenth grade. Wham had been a vicious sociopath. Cheri Bise, the overweight slut whose insecurity made her an easy sexual conquest, had disappeared around the same time.