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Gallatin Canyon: Storiesby Thomas McGuane
John Briggs sat on his porch on a dreary hot August day with a glass of ice water sweating in his hand, listening to opera on the radio. The white borders of the screen doors were incandescent with mountain summer. Through them he could see the high windswept ridge above his house, where the bunchgrass could not get a hold, leaving only a seam of shale to overlook the irrigated valley.
Earlier, at the farmers' market at the fairgrounds, he'd strolled among the pleasant displays of food and craft. A bearded youth offered handmade walking sticks; next to him, with a cage full of rabbits, a woman in Chiapas folk costume sold angora tooth-fairy pillows while tugging strands of angora from a rabbit asleep in her lap. An extraordinary variety of concrete yard animals surrounded a display of bird feeders with expired Montana license plates folded for roofs. A hearty woman with her fists on her hips offered English delphiniums, which, she explained again and again, had never been crossed with Pacific Giants, "not ever." The Hutterites, in suspenders and straw cowboy hats, had a vast array of vegetables; their long table faced lines of people, five deep, eyes fixed upon the produce. A girl in jeans and a bustier played a harp, almost inaudible over the sounds of the crowd, beside a table selling geodes and specimens of quartz.
Briggs had a large shopping bag into which he placed his purchases: carrots, kohlrabi, baby beets bought from a woman in a Humane Society T-shirt, and Flathead Lake cherries from an old man in an "Official Party Shirt" from Carlos and Charlie's in Cozumel. A woman with the forearms of a plumber spotted Briggs and stepped from behind a meager display of home-grown lavender to block his path. She gazed at him fixedly and, as he grew uncomfortable, asked, "Is anything coming to you?"
Briggs shook his head tentatively. The woman let out a vehement laugh with a faint whistle in it. A mirthless grin spread ear to ear.
"Is it possible," she asked, "that you don't remember me at all? Two a.m.? January? Roswell, New Mexico? Ring a bell?"
Trying to conceal his discomfort, Briggs said that he was afraid it was possible he didn't remember.
"You glutton!" she roared.
He could see that the onlookers were not on his side. The woman followed him for several yards, a steady, accusing stare as he made his way through lanes of boxed produce. He heard the word glutton again, over the otherwise gentle murmur of the market. He also heard her ask the crowd whether people like him ever got enough. She was right; it was outrageous that such a thing could have slipped his mind, whatever it was. He was dismayed to have shared some potent event with this woman and be now unable to even recall it. He tried again, but nothing came. Perhaps it had been long ago—but no, she'd said January. Was he losing his memory?
He stopped to look at the midsummer light bouncing off the hoods of cars lined up alongside the park. Someone touched his elbow, and he turned to a young woman with a blue bandanna tied around her neck. She had on one arm a basket filled with parsnips, heavy August tomatoes, onions shedding golden paper in the hard light. "Don't blame yourself," she said shyly. "She's asked a dozen people the same question, and they couldn't remember either." The woman seemed to redden. He was greatly absorbed by her gray eyes and her fine, clear forehead; it seemed to him the kind of face that only profound innocence could produce.
Her name was Olivia, she said, and she was buying vegetables for herself and her father. Not today, not tomorrow, not until Wednesday could she meet for a drink. In fact, she didn't want to meet for a drink at all, but in the end they could agree on no convenient meeting place other than a bar. He would have to wait.
Olivia was on time. She'd suggested the Stockman Hotel, which had a popular bar and was midway between their homes. Her yellow cotton dress was stylish but out-of-date, maybe a generation out-of-date, and must not have originally belonged to her—an elegant hand-me-down. The bar was busy with ranchers, an insurance man, a woman who drove for UPS, and two palladium miners; everyone was talking, except for three men from a highway crew who didn't know anyone and stared straight ahead, holding their beers with both hands. An empty booth remained, and Briggs led her there, trying not to appear coercive. Olivia sat quickly, clasping her fingers, elbows on the table, and looked around. She seemed happy. Her shoulder-length hair was parted in the middle and pulled behind small, pretty ears that were unpierced. She had a sensual mouth for a shy girl, though he supposed he ought not to have seen this as a contradiction.
"Do you know something?" she said, almost whispering. "I don't remember your name."
"Oh. I see. Just like that."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean . . . it's just two syllables!"
"I know. It's like a dirge or a march, isn't it?" he said.
"John-Briggs-John-Briggs-John-Briggs," she chanted.
"Exactly. In second grade, Roland Ozolinsch sat next to me, and he had such a hard time learning to spell his own name, I became grateful for mine's brevity. I worried about other things instead. I wished for jet-black hair that would lie flat like Superman's." His own hair was russet brown and sprang out. He wished he'd said shortness instead of brevity. There was something silly about the phrase grateful for mine's brevity, but it seemed to have gone unnoted.
A barmaid came to their table, in jeans and a T-shirt advertising a whale-watching boat on Prince of Wales Island; the breaching whale in the drawing was bigger than the boat, whose worshipful passengers were lined up like a choir. She knew Olivia, and they exchanged pleasantries. Briggs ordered a St. Pauli Girl and Olivia ordered a double shot of Jim Beam, with a water back.
Briggs was careful not to react. When their order was in, Olivia studied the time on her watch and then on the wall clock, before adjusting the watch. "Four forty-two," she said.
He guessed she was nearly, but not quite, thirty, at least a decade younger than him. She wore no rings or other insignia and, in general, was remarkably undecorated, though a glance revealed possible eyeliner and just enough lipstick, the absence of which might have been odd—not pretentious, but odd. Her eyes traveled around the bar and landed on him, just as their drinks arrived. "Still hot," she said, and smiled brilliantly.
This felt like a journey to Briggs, though he couldn't have said why.
"Still hot," he concurred, thinking, I need to add something. Hot plus what, Dry? Windy?
"Drought drought drought," she said, much as she'd said his name, in modest march time. "We lost our well and had to drill another, two hundred feet at I forget how much a foot, but a lot. Ruined our yard, that man out there with his machine, hammering away."
"I saw on the bank that it's ninety-seven." Jesus Christ, Briggs thought, tell her you saw a zebra!
As she drank, reacting to the bitterness of the whiskey, she looked straight at him. "You know what would be so sweet," she said, "is if you'd get me a paper from the lobby." Smiling in compliance, Briggs got up and went out. At a table in the large bay window, three young Mormons in suits craned to watch the heat-struck pedestrians. One unfurled the sports section of the Gazette; another leaned forward, holding his head in his hands. Briggs dropped a quarter into the honor-system jar and took a copy of the paper to Olivia. She had a new drink in front of her.
The bar's manager, Jerry Warren, who was small, ingratiating, and somehow like a frog in a polo shirt, sidled up to the table. Olivia knew him.
"In September," he said, "I'm going to Ireland—"
"Are you Irish?" Briggs interrupted.
"No, to hike the Ring of Kerry, hike all day, booze till two, feel up German girls—"
Briggs glanced at an expressionless Olivia.
"—and visit ring forts or the odd castle. The brochure promises your money back if you don't, like, burst into spontaneous verse by Day Two, though I expect most of the poetry ends up being directed at your raincoat." He rested his hand on the table, then slowly extended a forefinger. "Next round's on me."
"The trouble is, when you just want to get to know someone," Olivia said, with surprising volubility once Warren was gone, "there's no such thing as neutral ground. Like just now, people come up and assume. . . . But, well, here's another round." She raised her face in gratitude to the barmaid. "Jerry always tells me his travel plans, no matter how late it gets. He has some crazy jet-lag remedies you ought to hear. By the next morning, I can hardly remember what they were."
"It's five o'clock," the barmaid said. "You're entitled to all of this you want."
When she was gone, Olivia said, "I suppose we did start before five. That woman at the farmers' market, she must've had someone in mind."
"Funny way to figure out who."
"Or she was just, you know, revisiting the experience."
"Anyway, that's how we met!" But this didn't feel right, so Briggs added, "Neighbor."
After thinking about this, she asked, "Have you noticed that out in the country neighbor is a verb?"
This struck Briggs as a sudden move away from intimacy. Five o'clock had brought a crowd big enough to elbow up to all surfaces—not just the bar but the walls—and the air of day's-end ebullience was infectious to Briggs, who was a loner, and tired of being one, but seemed unable to do anything about it.
"It's kind of aggressive, isn't it?" he said. "Usually about how someone failed to neighbor."
"Yes." She sighed. "And the speaker always makes you think that he neighbors even while he's asleep." She covered Briggs's hands with her own. "How 'bout you?"
"I don't do a lot of neighboring," he said.
Olivia took this in somberly. "I must strike you as desperate," she said. The tone had changed, and her smile was slack.
"You do not."
She had nearly finished her complimentary double, and Briggs, on his third shell of draft, realized that she'd put away six shots of whiskey, which suddenly seemed to be sinking in; the slow movement of her eyes beneath lowered lids, which he had first taken for flirtatious warmth, now appeared to be the start of some narcosis.
"That Ring of Kerry thing doesn't sound like much fun, does it?" she said into space.
"Oh, I'll bet it's beautiful there."
"But just getting through a wet day to end up in a pub . . . Is that the reward? And where did he get that about German girls?" Only now did she look up at Briggs.
"He was probably trying to entertain us."
Olivia looked surprised. "Oh! Well. Now I'll be grateful. I'm so dense." At that moment, Warren passed their booth. "Hey, Jerry! That was great," she called out.
"What was great, Olivia?"
"About the ring of German girls in raincoats."
Jerry glanced at Briggs before moving on. "If I can just get through this drought," he said, as he plunged into the crowd.
"What does he mean?" Olivia asked. "I'm missing connection after connection." She gestured for another round. The barmaid waved back, and Olivia commented, "I really like her, but she's a huge slut. Ready for another?"
"I don't know if I can drink more beer. My teeth are floating."
"Your teeth are—?"
"I'm bursting with beer."
"Maybe you should drink something more concentrated. Beer's mostly water. I wish alcohol came in the same size as an aspirin. You just wear out your digestion trying to cop a buzz. And this stuff"—she pointed—"tastes like kerosene. Your teeth are floating! That's a scream."
Briggs didn't feel comfortable doing more to prevent the arrival of another round, but when she'd finished it, he wished he had.
"Where are we going with this?"
"I thought you were about to faint."
"Oh, how wrong you are."
Briggs caught Jerry Warren's eye and made a writing gesture with his right hand on his left hand. Warren winked his understanding, and Briggs turned back to Olivia. "Let's get outside while we have a little of this day left," he said. He could tell that this was heard from a great distance. He stood up to enforce the suggestion and then thought to extend a hand, which Olivia took as she got to her feet and quickly leaned against him.
"Going to have to do it like this, aren't I?"
"Not a problem. Out we go."
Briggs escorted her through the front door so deftly that their exit was barely noticed. The one woman who stared was told by Olivia, "No worries," in an Australian accent. Once outside, the heat hit her and she began to topple. Briggs had to take her around the corner to find a quiet spot. "I want to help you here, Olivia. You're having a bit of trouble with your balance."
"How did I let this hap-pen? A little birdie says it's time for me to scoot," she said. With her hands at her shoulders, fingers fluttering outward, she did the birdie.
"How about if you let me drive you home?"
"I'm afraid I require it. Where is your car?"
"A, we identify make and model."
"Can you do that for me? And parking place?"
She looked left and right. "You know, John Briggs, I'm going to flunk that test."
"No problem. We'll go in mine." He helped her into his twenty-year-old sedan. She told him they'd be lucky if the jalopy made it to her house. The car had old-style seat belts, and fastening hers across her lap produced from Olivia a languorous smile. "There!" he said briskly, to undo the smile, then went around to his side, got in, looked over at her amiably, and turned the key.
"Doesn't look like you're going to try to take advantage of me."
"It wouldn't be hard. All aboard!" She imitated a train whistle.
They headed north and, just as they left town, she said, "Hey, there's my car!" But then she was uncertain. It didn't really matter to Briggs, unless she turned out to be right in wondering whether his car would make it. They were halfway to her house before she spoke again. She said, "Ooh, boy, this is a bad idea."
From the Hardcover edition.Copyright © 2006 by Thomas McGuane
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