Great Falls, 1976
Vol. XXVI, no. 2
Strange things happen to me in Montana. It started at the end of college when my fiancé tried to convince me to move to Kalispell with him for a job. This was before Montana became The Last Best Place, back when it was still The Assignment in Siberia. My single goal in life was to keep myself east of the hundredth meridian.
He was just a crazy boy in crazy love with me, I understand that now, these almost thirty years later. Just as I realize now that I loved him crazy back. He was tall and self-conscious about his height, with thin hunched shoulders and a lean runner's body from the hours of training for the track team. There was a lightness about him. He had a deep voice and an easy laugh, and his hair was shoulder-length and streaked gold from the sun.
We met in world religions class, at junior college, where I was starting just as he was finishing. When he left Bismarck for a track scholarship in another part of the state, I dropped out of classes, hitchhiked across the state, and transferred to a university in his college town, all in one day.
With him, just twenty, and me, almost nineteen, we were mad to be graduated and together in married love. Weren't we just asking for it?
Those fevered winter sleeps in his Tenth Street apartment in Fargo, our bodies hip point to hip point, turning in the night. My shoulders lining the crook of his arm, his leg thrown over mine, light, even in sleep. My chin resting in the hollow of his collarbone, that sweet press of comfort, the comfort of enclosure.
And weren't we asking for it that spring weekend when we drove back to visit his parents in Bismarck, two hundred miles from our college town, and he took me one night up that steep ridge near the edge of the city, and showed me the wide swath of land his wealthy father owned, all of it under development, although there were no streets yet, or signs of excavation, or gutters, or empty paved cul-de-sacs.
And he stopped the car and had me get out. The headlights shone over this dark expanse, all as-yet undifferentiated land. And he pointed out where we would someday live. Our lot would be the choicest spot on the edge, he said, with the good view overlooking the lights of the city.
And he paced it off for me in the flickering light, the perimeter of the house—where the kitchen would be; here, the living room; there, the bedrooms—his long arms making wide drawing motions in the air. He stood beside me and shaped his hands into a frame before my eyes, as if blocking scenes for a film he was making.
I recall smiling at him in the darkness and nodding my head as he spoke, but some panicked part of me was thinking, Wait, did we talk about this? Where we would live after we were married, what city, what state?
And I thought I foresaw, in one bright flash, what would be my future life: a fat-faced baby banging a spoon in a high chair; strained carrots on the linoleum; a sky-blue telephone on the wall, ringing incessantly; his mother, my mother, always on the other end of the line wanting, I don't know, to exchange recipes.
For a moment, I thought I remembered I wanted to be something—a social worker, a rock star, a revolutionary—I wasn't sure which.
Here are the ways we lose each other. As soon as we get home, small things go wrong. His father, who owns an empire of businesses sprinkled throughout the West, begins to act like he owns much more. I begin to realize the boy I love receives paychecks each month, unearned, drawn from his father's business. Rich boy, I begin to think.
To make things up to me, he goes out and spends an entire month's pay on a diamond-opal necklace, my birthstone, and matching opal earrings. He shopped for them for hours—he tells me that night at the restaurant—going from jeweler to jeweler looking for the right fiery flashes of green to match the precious gems of my eyes. But all I can do is be angry when he doesn't have enough money to pay for dinner, and I'm left to pick up the check.
Wasn't he just a crazy boy who would blow all his money on presents and drive himself off a cliff for me? Ten dollars, twenty dollars, one hundred dollars, I think about it now—the stupid things we put between ourselves and those we love. Because he came from a soft world, I suppose he didn't know that I could be such a hard girl. Because I was too young, I still harbored a belief that I was indestructible and invulnerable to any breakage in the world.
Weeks later, he tells me we won't be moving to Kalispell or Bismarck after all. His father is grooming him for a job managing one of his businesses in Polson.
Polson? I say, afraid to know where we will be sent.
Western Montana, he says, on the southern tip of Flathead Lake.
Montana, I hyperventilate. It sounds as if he's drawn the short straw.
Things move quickly after that. Within months we are breaking up and broken up, and I am sleeping with a tall, willowy sprinter from Virginia, just so the crazy boy will understand it's over.
He married a girl with long, brown hair who looks a lot like me, someone said, and they moved, after all, not to Montana, but to Bismarck where he started work in his father's empire.
And the house he imagined that night overlooking the city was never built. The couple bought a house, I found out years later, in his parents' subdivision, two doors down from the house where he grew up. And when I heard that small news item, I must admit, I thought to myself, Man, I really dodged a bullet there.
I have a friend, a traveling salesman, who swears his car breaks down every time he passes Eloy, Arizona, a small town between Phoenix and Tucson, on the way to Nogales. Now, each time he gets near Eloy, he's tempted to take a detour, but he tells himself it's pure nonsense, superstition.
Then just as he passes Casa Grande, the engine skips or the tires begin to thump, the muffler rumbles and sparks drag on the freeway, or a hose breaks, spewing anti-freeze all over the windshield. It's true, he's an unreliable narrator of his own stories. And there's no way to check the truth of it. He does drive junkers which increases the likelihood he'll break down anywhere, including Eloy. Still, I want to believe him. Because I know there are places that have memory, that harbor grudges and throw hexes. There are places in the world that have hard-ons only for you, and Montana is such a place for me.
The truly strange things that happened to me in Montana began after I dropped out of college in 1977, eight credits shy of a degree in Social Work, right after I broke up with the crazy boy who loved me.
After that, I ran wildly into my future. I joined a country western band, then a wedding dance band, then a rock band, then a progressive hard rock band, then a heavy metal band. With music, it's just like what they used to say about drugs—you're always working toward the harder stuff.
By my fifth or sixth band, my soprano voice had gone deep and raw from stage screaming, and I was dressing now, entirely in black. My hair color and my stage name had been changed, not to protect the innocent, but to protect some idea I had about who I wanted to become.
It was the early eighties, and I was living in Rapid City playing with a heavy metal band—a power trio of bass, guitar, and drums, with me up front singing and playing a little keyboards. We toured the West and sometimes Canada in a large black truck outfitted with couches and cots for resting as we drove, and a large bearing wall in the back half of the truck that held all of our gear in place.
The strange events that came to pass in Great Falls actually began weeks earlier, the night before we left Rapid City for a two month tour. I lost my driver's license that night, mysteriously it seemed to me, when I was stopped by a cop for a burned-out tail light in my Plymouth Fury.
That was the last I saw of my driver's license, my only form of identification, and I really didn't think twice about it—ever having to prove my identity—until three weeks into the tour when we had a sudden cancellation, a double booking in a club we were supposed to play, and our manager called to tell us he'd found a replacement gig in Canada.
It was easy to find last-minute work across the border. Canadians loved American bands, but no one wanted to cross the border. With a van full of long-hairs and a truck full of equipment, the border guards thrilled at giving their drug-sniffing dogs a run through all your possessions.
We'd always gotten through the border, but you'd hear horror stories of speakers being ripped from cabinets and left on the side of the road, of guitars and sound boards dismantled, and of the inevitable discovery of that lone pot seed nestled in the carpet. You might be there for hours, or years.
We had been playing in Bozeman, finishing up our week at the Cat's Paw when the call came about the gig in Calgary. The pay was twelve-hundred dollars for the week, which was good money then, even though six of us had to split it, after travel and hotel expenses, and twenty percent came off the top for our manager, and, really, it was only twelve-hundred in Canadian currency. We sat in the motel room and weighed our options, which were few. We were going to Calgary.
This is the moment when I had to introduce my unique problem—my lack of identification—and all around the room, I saw shoulders go limp, jaws go slack.
How could you leave home without an ID, our light man scolded.
I was new to this band, only four months. The male singer I'd replaced had a high, airy voice, almost feminine. The band had made two albums with him singing all the songs in that high voice, until he got married and his new wife said, Uh, uh, buddy, that's all the road life for you. So that's when they came to Fargo looking for me. Because I was in between bands, and my voice was high enough to hit their previous singer's highest high notes. The last three weeks on tour hadn't been going well. I was losing my voice from all the hard singing six nights a week, and, for the last few months, I'd been messing around with my guitar player who was unhappily married to his high school sweetheart, a good woman, now a civil engineer who was happy to support him financially, as well as cook, clip coupons and clean house just to support his wandering genius.
The guitar player had black hair, long and straight down the small of his back. He had obsidian eyes, and dark dashes of eyebrows, and a heavy blmustache that was so long that he could, if he wanted, twist it up on the ends, handle-bar style like those villains in Saturday morning cartoons.
He was brilliant and troubled (as the brilliant often are, I told myself) a classical pianist and a classical guitarist, in addition to his heavy metal playing, which was hard-edged and fast and gritty. He harbored a romantic notion of himself, I knew, as Attila reincarnated.
When I first joined the band, I would watch him tuning his guitars in his dark corner of the stage, hunched over in some cloud of constantly brooding blackness. The indestructible girl in me perked up.
The real Montana trouble had begun earlier that week in Bozeman. I was taking a bath one night after the gig to wash the sweat and salt from my skin. The guitar player was sitting on the edge of the tub as I bathed. We were discussing the night's performance, what songs had gone well, what needed work. And this is the moment that I chose to give him an ultimatum—the next time we returned to Rapid City, I said in a calm voice, he would have to leave his wife or give me up.
He shot to his feet and began to shout. I rose in the bath water and stepped out of the tub naked, knowing it was better to get away from the water. I reached for a towel just as he grabbed me and began to shake me, his thumbs pressing into my arms.
My first response was shock. No one had every touched me this way. My father was an exceedingly gentle man with an explosive temper that he reserved only for the weather and farm equipment.
It was slippery on the tiles and cold, with my dripping hair, my wet skin and feet. I struggled in his grasp, and that's when the first slaps came, hard on my face, which so surprised me that I began to scream and flail my arms, which only made him pin me tighter against the wall and slap me harder.
He was strong, I realized then, so much stronger than I, even as I fumed and bucked against him with my thighs and knees. After some time, after I had no strength left, when I finally went limp, he released his grasp and we sank to the floor together, both of us crying now. And then a long silence followed.
People always speak with impatience about women who stay with violent men, wondering how they could be so stupid. But people don't realize that many violent men, as violent as they are, are equally gentle afterward. They are so sorry, sorry, sorry. And each time, they manage to convince you it was an anomaly, that it will never happen again.
We spent the rest of the night in bed. He, on his knees beside me, crying, begging forgiveness, touching my swollen face, the scrapes on my shoulders, the thumbprint bruises on my arms, saying over and over that he couldn't believe what he had done.
We didn't sleep. We waited for the sun to come up, and we watched the bruises develop around my left eye and cheek, light blue and pink in patches, and eventually, by morning, a ripe purple half-moon rose under my left eye.
I met the band in sunglasses the next morning, making small excuses. The band didn't ask questions. We played out the week like that, with me fronting the band. I sang more loud and vicious, under the harsh stage lights, my bruises covered by the wide rims of dark shades.
Road musicians are notorious problem solvers. A few days before we are to leave for Canada, after I've revealed my lack of proper identification, the guys come up with a solution—all I need is a certified copy of my birth certificate.
But I can't call my parents. The arguments I've had with them over the years about dropping out of college, about bands and breaking up with fiancés and having no money, have left them so disturbed that we have reached an impasse. When I joined this band, one state away, four months earlier, I couldn't bear to tell my parents. I couldn't afford to hear the disappointed sigh on the other end of the line, so I just packed up and moved to Rapid City.
Disappearing was easy. I couldn't even be sure they had noticed me gone yet, but I liked to imagine their wild concern when they finally called and found my old number disconnected. How can I explain the wicked pleasure I took imagining their suffering? They'll be happy to see me when they find me, I remember thinking, or they'll be sorry when they find me dead. Who was this person—so young and sadistic, and eager to dash herself against the rocks.
So to retrieve my birth certificate I had to call my old fiancé, the crazy boy who once loved me. There was no other choice. He now lived in Bismarck, the city of my birth, the location of the state capitol, and the permanent home of my birth certificate.
I swallowed hard and dialed the number. It struck me then as amazing that all you need is the exact arrangement of seven digits and you can dial straight into someone's life. The casual hello of his wife's voice on the phone sounded strange and far away. She didn't ask who was calling.
He came to the phone in a few moments; I could hear him moving through the rooms toward the receiver, the sound of the television in the background, and then his voice was on the line, still warm and deep and friendly. I explained my situation. Could he go to the state capitol in the morning and retrieve a certified copy of my birth certificate. Could he seal it in an envelope and put it on the Monday morning westbound Greyhound bus, which would arrive in Great Falls, by our estimation, around the time that we were passing through that city on our way to the northern Montana border crossing in Sweetwater. How many years had it been since we'd spoken—three or four. Yet he agreed easily. It was nothing, he said, a small thing to do for an old friend.
Great Falls, despite its lofty name, does not boast great falls. A stony ridge marks the cutbank of the Missouri as it meanders through the city. On the north side of town, some outcroppings reveal a series of shallow shelves that drop and make their way to the turbines of the Rainbow Dam. This is the part of the Missouri that gave Lewis and Clark fits when they tried to portage it, but that was two hundred years ago in birchbark canoes.
We came upon Great Falls in the late afternoon, just as the light was fading. We found the Greyhound Bus depot on the crustiest street on the southern edge of the small downtown. We parked our big black van outside the bus depot and waited for the westbound, which was due in by nine. We laid back and settled in. It was October and the days were getting shorter and cooler.
Our soundman estimated that we could be to the border by midnight. With no delays at customs, we could be to Calgary by morning, just in time to sleep, set up, and play the next night. I felt relieved. Great Falls would be an errand, a stopover.
In the end, we spent two days parked outside that Greyhound bus depot, our truck moving up and down the street in car-length increments to avoid getting a parking ticket. Every two hours, our soundman would rouse and crank the engine, pulling ten yards forward to the next parking spot, all the time singing, "Lovely Rita, Meter Maid," as he did so.
Westbound buses came and went, at the rate of two or three a day. The people behind the Greyhound counter came to know all of us, shaking their heads, No, as we approached looking for my birth certificate after the latest bus. The westbound buses stopped in Great Falls for short fifteen-minute layovers, took on passengers, then plunged further westward in the morning, afternoon, and night, toward Spokane, toward Seattle. We lived and slept in the van those two days, taking turns dozing on the couches and cots. We used the depot facilities, brushing our teeth, washing our faces in the bathrooms. Strangers came and went, mounting buses, lugging their crying children and heavy suitcases.
I spent much of those two days in the phone booth just inside the front door of the bus depot, dialing and redialing the work number and the home number of my former fiancé. Sometime on the first night, he had stopped answering his home phone. Imagine? The next morning, his secretary claimed not to know how to reach him. I left message after message.
Between dialing, I'd retreat to the bus depot bathroom and take off my sunglasses and study the migration of purple bruises on my face. Then I'd return to the phone booth, pull the black accordion door closed beside me, pick up the receiver and dial again. This would have been my home phone number, I thought as I dialed. If I hadn't been so stupid, this would have been my blue princess phone ringing in my linoleum kitchen.
The days stretched on endlessly. The band took walks, bought cookies, got coffee, visited a porn shop down the street, talked to the drunks who congregated and begged for change outside the door of our van. One guy actually said to me, "I'm a quarter away from a gin and tonic," as if he were endeavoring toward some noble goal, like raising funds for better programming on PBS.
With each westbound that came and went without my identification papers aboard, the guys in the band grew more frosty and impatient. By now, I was hiding in the highest of the bunks in the back of the truck. I was crying, holding a pillow over my stomach and my hand over my mouth so no one could hear my sobs. At one point, I overheard the lightman in the front seat, saying, "All I know is, ever since she showed up bad things have been happening."
When the guitar player finally found me hiding in the back bunk, and saw that I was crying, he asked me what was wrong, and I blubbered, "I miss my cat," which made everyone roll their eyes. Who was this stupid girl, and could we just leave her by the side of the road?
She's so many selves away from me, these over twenty-five years later, she's almost unrecognizable. But I must claim her, that black-haired girl dressed in black, with a black eye hidden under dark sunglasses. I feel the tug of recognition whenever I dare to think of her. If she is one small bead on the necklace of myself, then the self I am now, even though dozens of beads away, is still strung together with her on the same unbroken thread.
"I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be," Joan Didion once wrote, "whether we find them attractive company or not." If we don't, she says, "they come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. on a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends."
My birth certificate arrived on our third night of waiting. On the evening of the second day, we had pooled all of our money (we had eighty dollars between us), and we rented one motel room so we could all take showers. Each day that passed we were losing portions of that twelve hundred dollars in Canadian currency, but our manager assured us that Calgary still wanted us, no matter how many days late we arrived.
When I finally reached the crazy boy on the phone, the morning of the third day, he acted casual, as if he were popping his forehead over his forgetfulness. All apologies, he promised to put the envelope on an airplane that very afternoon. We removed ourselves from the Greyhound bus depot and drove to the airport parking lot, waiting out the day until the flight landed.
The plane was three hours late that night due to engine problems, but I can still see our jubilant soundman running across the dark airport parking lot toward the van, waving the manila envelope that held my certificate of birth over his head as if it were the Holy Grail.
He got in the van, tossed the envelope to me in the back, grabbed the key and fired the ignition. Sweet freedom. We were peeling out of the lot and headed for the border before I could even rip open the seal.
I'd like to say that something significant changed in me the night that I was handed my birth certificate. In the dome light of the van, I read it with fascination—my father's name, my mother's name, the date, place, and time of my birth—as if I were a double-agent memorizing the details of my new identity. But the person I was at birth seemed as unrecognizable to me at twenty, as my twenty-year-old self seems strange and inaccessible to me in my forties.
A few years ago, while on other business in Montana, I rented a car and took an afternoon drive north to Great Falls. If you live long enough, it seems, you have time to revisit the sites of your most spectacular disasters.
I arrived to find the windows of the bus depot soaped over and boarded up. The depot, someone told me, had long ago been moved to the airport. The drunks were long gone or dead or dried out. The neon signs for the dive bars were torn down, the porn shop was closed, as was the giant cookie store. I stood on the street for a long time, incredulous, as if I'd been stood up for a much-anticipated date. This street had been going on, business as usual, in my imagination all these twenty-five years.
I tried to peer in the soapy windows, but it wasn't even possible to glimpse a sliver of the objects I remembered inside—the curved waiting room benches; the wooden phone booth with the hard black seat; the silver slot of the telephone into which I had pumped dime after dime; the scuffed door to the bathroom with the smoky glass window that read, "Womens." It was a cold November day. I drove north of town, to the banks of the Missouri and sat in my car watching the water cascade down the shallow falls.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in an antiquarian bookstore in the center of town. When I began to quiz the owner about the history of the region, he asked me what had brought me to Great Falls. I told him that I was a writer and that I was researching the worst three days of my life that I'd spent there over twenty years before. A woman, overhearing, nosed into the conversation. "A writer," she said with disgust. "Well, don't write anything bad about us." By then, Montanans had had enough experience with writers to believe what Joan Didion has said about them: Writers are always selling someone out. I don't wish to write untruthfully about anyone, but is it possible to speak precisely through memory? That self-destructive girl with the black eye works best as a fiction, like one of those cigarette-smoking characters in an existential novel whose motivations, though fascinating, we will never fully comprehend.
My understanding of her comes in small flashes, but there's never a cohesive whole, no unifying theory. And memory works that way, too, in flashes. We create the illusion of fluidity by supplying the connections.
I have one lasting image of her standing in the bus depot bathroom, studying herself in the mirror. The lighting is low-wattage, browned out, almost sepia-toned, and the reflection is stretched and distorted, because in the bathroom, instead of glass mirrors, they have installed unbreakable sheets of silver plastic that offer only a carnival's house-of-horrors reflection.
She has taken off her sunglasses, and she's leaning over the sink to get a good look at the progress of her bruises, the purple half moon still ringing her left eye, the lighter ones on her cheek now blue and beginning to fade.
Then I remember she does something strange—she leans directly into her garbled reflection and says out loud, Who are you? No response. Only the echo of her voice against porcelain.
Who are you? she asks again, as if interrogating a prisoner whose name she will want to document later in a report to the authorities.
Who is she? Stupid youth, unbridled appetite. She's a woman who doesn't believe the laws of the universe can touch her—not the passage of time, the force of gravity, or the curvature of the earth. Whatever is troubling her cannot be loved away or beaten out or screamed clean.
One day, the crazy burning girl in her will simply lose speed and altitude. She will fall heavily to the ground and break apart, extinguished in her own flames. Yes, one day, she'll crash and burn, giving all of us a much needed rest.