The Girl She Left Behind
Can you find a home in a place where you never really belonged?
Excerpt from Chapter 1:
I know three things about the City of Angels. There are no angels, the beach is too cold for swimming, and despite all the happy pronouncements about clean air, smog exists. Did I say three things? I should have said four. The fourth thing I know about L.A. is that only millionaires can afford to live there in the style presented to the rest of the unsuspecting nation via television programming. I mentioned this to Stephen as he and I loaded the last of our stuff into the overflowing U-Haul trailer. The eviction notice had been taped to the Spanish-style grillwork on our apartment door just the day before.
And the band around my finger felt tighter than it should have, considering that it fit perfectly when he put it there nine months ago.
In the end, it was the U-Haul business that did us in.
At least, that’s how I remember it.
Some Amoco or Conoco or Way-to-go gas station along the 405 freeway. I had the U-Haul trailer attached to my car. I pulled too far past the pump and I had to back up. That sounds easy enough. But try backing a trailer sometime when you just learned this morning that backing a trailer means that everything you know about driving is now backwards.
I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t back it up. So I pulled forward and drove around until I could come at the pump straight on. Stephen, who was standing there holding the pump nozzle, rolled his eyes and muttered something as my window passed by. Maybe I should have cut him some slack. He was driving the old beater. With no air conditioning. In late July.
But Stephen rolled his eyes and I rolled right on by. Just kept going. And I didn’t stop until the low-gas warning light came on and I had to stop or risk Kitty and I being stuck on a highway somewhere with psycho serial killers slavering in their black vans as they drive along hunting for unsuspecting girls like Miss Kitty and me. I made sure I stopped by the pump nozzle that time.
Miss Kitty and I have been going ever since.
If tumbleweeds could keep going for three years.
Tumbleweeds aren’t attached to anything. Most plants in the plant kingdom stay put. Politely burrowing into the ground and propagating themselves by attaching less-polite burrs, pollen, or seeds to fur, bee legs, and the wind. Tumbleweeds refuse to be politely planted. A small family group will scatter in a high wind, rolling haphazardly along until they run up against the fence that borders this highway or the three or four like it that criss-cross the Wizard of Oz flats of eastern Montana. The highest point around is the red-tailed hawk on the fencepost. The hawk’s head turns as my car rolls on by. There aren’t any fences across the two-lane highway for me and Miss K. to run into.
I cross over a bump in the road that passes for a hill and . . . there it is. Silver Creek. Twisting through the grassy mounds and eroded gorges and occasional trees that make up the landscape wrinkles generous people call the beginning of the foothills. Twisting like a silver snake in the mid-afternoon sun.
I used to sit on one of the high points--that bulge of earth with a lone cottonwood just to the right--and watch the creek change color with the sky. I don’t know why it’s called Silver Creek. As far as I know, no one ever discovered silver in this part of eastern Montana. But maybe the long-dead person who named the creek saw it the very same way I’m seeing it now. After riding or walking long, dry miles, he or she crossed a little bump and there it was, shining in the sun like a silver snake. And maybe they wanted to name it Silver Snake, but some literalist nearby snorted and said, “Good Lord, what kind of idiot would name a creek after a serpent?” Then the literalist shook her head--I’m sure it was a she since the imaginary voice I hear in my head fits so well with the sour-eyed women in the old photos on the wall of Silver Creek’s city hall--the literalist shook her head, and the person just like me cringed and fell silent. And the creek became Silver Creek. And the town founded by the sour-eyed women and the mustachioed men became Silver Creek Town. Only no one calls it anything but Silver Creek anymore.
The annoying yellow “you’re low on gas” light is on again, so Miss Kitty and I pull into the station near the highway. Silver Creek has been spared the “Interstate-ization” of rural America. Because it’s not on the interstate. Otherwise it would surely sport the five obligatory fast food restaurants, competing gas stations, and Best Western--all clustered next to the same-all-across-America four lanes and yellow street lamps that greet anyone stepping off the interstate looking for food, gas, or lodging. Silver Creek got missed by the railroad in the 1880s and missed by the national interstate system eighty or so years later. Some call it a curse. It might be a blessing.
Miss Kitty and I roll up to one of the two pumps at the Silver Creek Gas and Lube and come to rest.
I turn the engine off.
And spare a memory for that day thirty-eight months, two weeks, and four days ago when I had a trailer hitched to the car and I couldn’t back up.
I left the trailer at the first rest area after the Way-to-go gas station. I left a message on Stephen’s voice mail telling him where to find the trailer and figured he could hitch it to the beater if he wanted what was in the U-Haul bad enough to hunt it down.
Miss Kitty yowls and leaps onto the dash.
A gap-toothed teen gives me a little salute.
“Need gas?” he asks.
I roll down the window. “I can get it,” I say, hoping to save myself the extra charge of having him do the honors.
He grins. “Sorry. No self-service here.”
“Oh. A full . . .” I remember my cash flow problems. “No, better make that ten dollars.”
I pop the cover over the gas cap, then slip out because I’m too embarrassed to sit in the car while someone pumps my gas for me. Miss Kitty knows the drill now and stays put on the dash.
Over my head, the station’s sign moans and shudders--a sail without a ship, catching the wind but never moving. I lean against the car, wiping the dust from the door with my butt, and look around me. Things seem to spin a little. I’ve been driving since four this morning after catching a few hours of sleep in my locked car.
A gust of wind rattles the leaves of the cottonwood behind the station.
“Do I know you?” the teen asks as he scrubs the dried bug goo off my windshield. “You look really familiar.”
I push my hair out of my eyes, but the wind pulls it back. I look at him.
“I don’t think so,” I say, because I think it’s true.
The pump clicks down to ten dollars. I give him eleven and feel like a heel, but he smiles and salutes me again with the bills.
“Take care,” he says.
I nod and get back into the car. Wrap my fingers around the steering wheel.
Miss K. blinks at me.
I don’t know where to go.
Oh, I know the way, all right. That’s not the problem. It’s the arriving I’m not sure about. I have a choice. Great-aunt Eva or Uncle Charles. The possibilities for retribution and shame are endless.
This time I don’t jump before I roll down the window.
“You okay?” the boy asks.
“If you need a place to stay,” he says, “there’s a motel just off the highway on the other side of town.”
Option three occurs to me. I hadn’t considered a third option.
“My mom runs it,” he continues. “Clean, and you can rent by the week. Assuming you want to stay for a while.”
* * * * *
The English language doesn’t really allow for three options. On the one hand, you have either. On the other hand, you have or. Neither, nor. If, then. Black, white. Up, down. Yes, no. Maybe it’s because humans are bilateral creatures. Maybe it’s because the humans who spoke the languages that bred and produced the mongrel of the language world--English--led a life so simple they didn’t need more than two options.
I need three. But I hadn’t even considered the possibility of a third option until the gap-toothed, gas-pumping teen brought it up.
Great-aunt Eva, or Uncle Charles, or a motel.
A quiet, anonymous motel where Miss Kitty and I can stay--undetected--for about three days. Or three minutes, depending on the speed of the present-day Silver Creek grapevine. I hope I can avoid running into any of the vine’s branches. I need a bit of time while I try to figure out what I’m doing here.
If I should be here at all.
I take the back streets to reach the other side of town, even though every block has a stop sign. The houses along the side roads crowd together dustily and reach for the shade of the trees near the edge of the street, but the streets greedily pull back on the shade, keeping it for themselves. As I reach the far side of Silver Creek, the trees and shadows begin to thin until the only thing left between me and the rolling, grassy hills is sunshine and an ancient motel.
The motel keeps up the silver motif by calling itself the Silver Spur. The name sounds shinier than the gray, peeling-paint line of joined rooms that form an “L” shape around an asphalt parking lot. I park the car so the pine tree by the office shields Miss Kitty from the afternoon sun, then go in to rent us a room.
Cobwebbed spurs jingle as I push open the door.
“Be right with you,” says a woman sitting behind the counter. She’s watching a game show. “It’s Mae West, you idiot,” she says as the contestant on the television screen shakes his head in frustration.
I lean on the counter. Under the smudged glass covering the top are postcards from around Montana. Visit Butte! one faded red picture orders.
“Just one?” the woman asks, and I look up in time to see her lever her bulk out of the chair.
“One person,” I say, unwilling to lie outright, even though Kitty is more human than most humans.
“I’m staying for a while.”
“Do you want a room with a kitchen?”
“How much does it cost?”
She looks me up and down. “Fifteen.” She looks me up and down again. “Three days in advance.”
I take my money out of the pocket of my jeans and count off two precious twenties and a five.
She purses her lips. “If the money ever gets tight--”
I look up from putting the small amount of cash I have left back in my pocket.
“--not that I think it is or anything, but if you ever happen to be short on change, I could use some help around here.”
“What kind of help?”
She steps back and lifts her skirt to just above the knee and points to her legs. They’re swollen until the knees and ankles are barely visible under the white, blue-veined poufs of flesh. “I don’t get around very well,” she says, quiet dignity in her voice. “I can take care of the office, but cleaning takes a lot out of me. Dustin helps, but he’s got his own work to do.”
“Is Dustin the one I met at the Gas and Lube?” I ask.
She smiles and drops the skirt. “You met him?”
“He’s a good kid.”
I nod again.
“It’s usually not much,” she continues. “Just a few rooms to do up before noon. Some are renters, like yourself. Part of the road crew. Some are just passing through.”
“I have a cat,” I say. “She’s clean.”
She bites the inside of her right cheek. “Were you planning on telling me this?”
I open my mouth. Close it. “No,” I say after a bit.
“The cat can stay,” she says. “I would have appreciated you telling me about her up front, but I’ve got nothing against cats. Dogs put holes in the sheets.” She looks me up and down a third time. “Three-fifty a room. There are usually three or four during the summer. And you do your own room for free. Because of the cat.”
She holds out her hand. A sliver and turquoise bracelet forms a tourniquet around her wrist.
We shake hands on the deal, I sign the book, and she gives me a key attached to a plastic, spur-shaped key ring. “Number eighteen,” she says. “Just across the parking lot. Come in tomorrow morning about nine and I’ll tell you what to do.”
* * * * *
Kitty and I set up shop with the smooth division of labor of two carnys setting up the Ferris wheel at the county fair. Miss K. tries out the window ledges and the bed springs before sniffing out the dust bunnies. I drag in my duffle bag from the car and set up Miss K.’s litter box next to the porcelain throne. Then we have a rousing game of feather-on-a-string, with Kitty flopping on her side every once in a while to say, “I’m only doing this to make you happy. It really is demeaning,” before she’s off after the feather again. We eat a snack of canned peaches and tender liver bits in gravy--respectively, since I don’t like liver--then I give Miss K. a scratch behind the ears and go out to look for gainful employment.
I leave my hair down and hunch my shoulders. Silver Creek has a large enough population for a person to remain unnoticed as long as she isn’t the youngest surviving member of a family line stretching back to one of the sour-eyed women pictured on the wall of city hall. I avoid Main and continue my hunch-shouldered walk toward the Creek News office, where the blue newspaper boxes with the afternoon’s paper neatly stacked inside are chained to the exterior of the building. I need a job outside the service sector. No point in advertising my presence by hiring on as a bus boy at the all-night restaurant. Dustin’s mother--I didn’t think to ask her name--said something about some of the motel renters doing highway work.
I subconsciously see the sign and have to walk backwards two steps to take a closer look. The sign is taped to the glass-front door of--I look up--The Watering Hole. I haven’t been in Silver Creek since I attained the much-heralded age limit for consuming alcoholic beverages. And this particular service sector job doesn’t have a lot of cross-over with the local grapevine--the branches of which are all fine upstanding members of the local Society for the Concern of Morals (Other than Gossip) in Our Community.
I pull open the door and step inside. Outside, the late afternoon sun still has the clarity and heat peculiar to the high plains. Inside, the light comes from a dozen candles, a red-shaded lamp hanging over a threadbare pool table, and some neon beer signs. I feel like the only person in the room, but that’s because the two men sitting at the bar are staring at me. I hunch deeper into myself and force my feet to carry me forward. The closer I get to the bar, the brighter it seems. Two more red-shaded ceiling lamps light up the bottles on the wall.
“Nice evening, isn’t it?” one of the men asks.
I nod. Then say, “Yeah, it is.” I slide onto one of the tall wooden stools and try to figure out the situation. A few years ago, I would have had fifteen minutes’ worth of things to say on the weather before asking about the sign taped to the door. But Miss Kitty doesn’t do a lot of vocal communication and she studies things before deciding whether to pounce or go her merry way. Maybe the habit is catching.
The top of the bar is clean. The entire bar is clean. Everything seems to have a place and everything is in its place--
“Do you want something?” the man asks again. “Lil’s in back, but I know how to pour a beer.”
His eyes are dark under the billed cap splashed with the logo of an agricultural implement company that has a dealership on the edge of town, but the lines around his mouth deepen as he smiles.
I smile a little in return. “I’m actually here about a job.”
“Thad, give me a hand, will you?” a voice says from the swinging doors behind the bar.
The man speaking to me gets up and walks around to help a woman roll and heave a silver container of draft beer into place. She’s hooking the keg up to the tap advertising a premium beer when he leans forward and says, “You’ve got someone here about the job.”
The woman--Lil, I guess--looks up. She has short, curly white-blonde or gray hair, and she’s wearing a flannel shirt, jeans, and the ubiquitous silver rodeo buckle. Barrel racing, I think, but it’s hard to make out the design from here.
She looks me up and down, just like the woman who runs the motel. I try not to hunch my shoulders.
“Have you ever worked in a bar?” she asks.
“No. Ma’am,” I add as an afterthought.
“A few times.”
“Do you get on well with people?”
I look into her eyes. I’m already hired. I’m close enough to see that. Somehow, she’s looked me up and down and made her decision.
“It depends on the people,” I say out loud.
She nods. “Thaddeus,” she says, “cover Lyle’s ears, will you?”
Thad makes a show of covering the other man’s ears.
“This is a cash job,” Lil says to me. “I pay you in cash. Do you understand?”
I understand. But I haven’t had an income-tax kind of job for a while now.
“Fine with me,” I say.
“Good. You can let go of Lyle’s ears now,” she says to Thad. “Lyle’s my accountant,” she says to me, “and I wouldn’t want him to hear anything that might hurt him.”
“I heard that,” Lyle says.
“Three to two Monday through Thursday. Three to three on weekends,” Lil says to me, ignoring Lyle. “Sundays off and I pay for your supper.”
“I have a cat,” I say, not sure why I say it. Maybe it’s Lil’s green eyes.
“Can she keep her tail out of the beer?”
“I don’t know.”
“She hasn’t worked in a bar either?”
Lyle laughs, but it’s a nice laugh.
“Bring her on in,” Lil says. “Maybe it’s time we had a mascot.”
“I’m your mascot, Lil,” Thad says. Then he starts singing “Rocky Raccoon.” About the point where the songwriter claims everyone knows Magil/Lil as Nancy, Lil throws a damp towel at his head.
“Shut up, sheep lover!”
Thad pulls the towel off his face, but his cap is pushed back and I see gray hair around his temples that says more about his age than his ageless smile.
“You can start tomorrow,” Lil says to me.
“Okay.” I slide off the stool and walk through the dim coolness to the door.
“Hey!” Lil’s voice stops me at the door and I turn around. “What’s your name?”
Embarrassment at forgetting a little social nicety crawls into my cheeks. “Katherine,” I say. “But call me Kat.”