The Road Revisited

Follow Me Around The United States!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Max and Willow, Revisited.

I met Megan at the Super Wal-Mart (not to be confused with the regular size Wal-Mart 8 blocks away) and, one case of Beast Light later, I was following her to Lala's. Lala herself was already home and Adam was nearly done with the steaks. He had outdone himself. There was asparagus, corn on the cob, homemade hollandaise, bean salad and of course, steak. It was amazing. Lala and Adam's three little boys were running around, too -- Devantee, Ethan and Juan. They were adorable. Juan sat in my lap during dinner, drinking water out of my Six Million Dollar Thermos. Adam had bought some bottles of chiles, Mexican spices, and was testing them out on the corn. "This would be great on oranges," he said. Lala and Megan agreed.
"Huh?" I asked, ever the rube. "Chiles on fruit?"
"Oh yeah! Look at the bottle!" Sure enough, there was a pineapple and an orange on the label.
And here this whole time I thought I was an expert on Mexican food after living in LA for two years.

Adam inflated the family air mattress for me in the kid's playroom and they had fun jumping on it and playing hide and seek on top, under, and around it. Being with them made me think of what the triplets will be like in a few years. And I'm very afraid.

As the night grew later, Devantee and Ethan fell asleep downstairs, watching caricaturas where it was cooler, and Juan actually fell asleep on the kitchen floor at his mother's feet. "Is he okay right there?" I asked.
Lala giggled. "Oh yeah, he loves the floor. Seriously, even if I put him to sleep in his crib, he'll get out and lie down on the floor. He's funny like that."

We drank beer and discussed everything from immigration reform to Josh to eating the worm.
Adam told me about a woman in Missoula who formed her own church in which prostitution is legal -- the perfect American loophole. "Yeah, she has her own website, it's called Except she's not really cute."
"Yeah, and she looks like she's been rode hard and put away wet," Megan added.
"Dually noted," I said.
After awhile we all looked pitifully at Megan. "You have to be up at seven!"
"I know, I know," and she reluctantly went to bed on the couch in the basement, her usual spot.

We followed suit soon after and before I fell asleep I thanked god that, even though Josh was a weirdo and hadn't called, Missoula hadn't totally turned its back on me.

The next morning, at 6:30, I woke up with Devantee in my face. "What are you doing?"
"Um, well, I was sleeping."
"Oh. What's in there?" He pointed to my backpack.
"A bunch of stuff. What time is it?" I looked at my phone and groaned, hiding my head under the pillow.
"Guess what. I can read."
And with that, I was awake. (I was kind of sour about it then, but writing about it now I can't stop laughing. As is the case with most everything.)

I made Devantee some cereal and swiped a handful for myself, then tried my best to pawn him off on the television and sneak away under cover of bright morning sunlight. No dice. Ethan appeared, and soon the two of them were bouncing off the walls and onto the bed I was trying desperately to sleep on. I tickled them to get rid of my hangover and we played for awhile, until I really did fall back asleep, from exhaustion. They left me alone for about 45 minutes, then it was Juan's turn. We played hide and seek and Devantee showed off his stellar reading skills that he woke me up to tell me about, then Lala and Adam took the kids out to breakfast. "Do you want to come?" they asked.
I wasn't hungry, so I stayed home and showered and thought up ways to fix my ailing relationship. No dice.

The rest of the day was spent writing and on the phone, until about 5:30 when I decided to take a drive over to Turah. Turah. Wonderful Turah, wonderful only because it is home to The Two Most Beautiful People Ever. Max and Willow. I called Josh on my way there to see if he wanted to tag along. "No thanks, I have to work. And I don't really want to hang out with people who poop in their living room."
"Suit yourself. Call me later?"
"Yeah, I'll give you a call when I get out of work."
"Okay, cool." I knew he wouldn't.

I was supposed to meet Megan and Lala at 8:30, and figured three hours would be ample time to spend visiting Max, Willow, Bernice, Burnett, Kathy and Larry. And Steve. And Lee. And Jamie. Man, I had met a lot of people in Turah!

I pulled up in the lot, my heart actually racing. "Why am I so nervous?" I wondered. To this day I still have no idea why. I parked by the C-store and passed Lee. "How ya been?" I asked.
"Oh, not too bad. You back to stay?"
"No, just to visit! I went down to Salt Lake City and Idaho and Wyoming, but I wanted to come back before I go to Seattle!"
"Well then! Have fun!"

I padded down the gravel lane to Max and Willow's trailer. The familiar stench greeted me before they did, but I was determined not to let it bother me. "I'll just stay outside," I thought. I saw Willow's bare, spindly leg sticking out from her spot on the bench seat, and Chickie barked loudly, running around the white Ford Galaxy to announce my arrival. I walked around the car and knocked on the side of the camper, the tin resonating as I called, "Hey!" Poking my head in the door, I came face to face with Willow's gentle blue eyes, a beautiful sight for my sore ones. She smiled her taut smile and nodded as I asked, "How are you? Are you good?"
"Who's there?" came a grumpy bellow from what little recesses the camper afforded.
"It's me!"
"Me?! Me who?"
"Me, Jessica! Get over here and say hi!" I had been tempered by Max enough to know that the old man liked to dish it out, and loved to take it.
His white head appeared in the doorway. "Well! What're you doin' here?" he asked through broken gums.
"I came back to visit! I missed you!"
"Well, I'll be! Can you b'lieve that, Will?"
Willow gave a blinking half-nod, her way of saying yes.
"So where ya been?"
"Oh, lots of places. Salt Lake City, Idaho, Wyoming, Yellowstone, Teton. But I came back to visit Missoula 'cause I liked it so much the first time! How have you been?"
"Oh, can't complain. Same shit, different day. I live here in a trailer with an old gimp wife. She drives me crazy. Makes me do everything for her." He winked at Willow, who swatted his shoulder, laughing. "Did you tell your parents that two hicks up in Montana think they did a good job?"
I blushed. "No."
"Well you be sure to tell 'em that next time. In case they care what hicks think."
"I'm sure they would."
"You can tell your boyfriend the same thing."
"Um, okay."
"How's that goin', by the way?"
"It's going. Sometimes I don't know where or how or why, but I guess it's going."
"Yeah, well, expectations are funny things. In relationships and not. When I graduated with my Master's, I expected all this honor and fanfare and elysium, but I never expected to be an old hick in a camper."
I said nothing, too busy trying to process hearing the words "fanfare" and "elysium" in a sentence at all, much less spoken by a man that most others would write off as a stupid, dirty hillbilly.

"Did you ever fix Willow's talk-box?"
"Remember the last time I was here, and you were teasing Will and you pushed all those buttons on the box? And then it wouldn't work right and she was mad?"
"Oh, yeah! Oh, my! Yeah, she got it workin' again but I think if she were able to curse at me she would have been cursin' at me that day! Huh, Will?"
She nodded as vigorously as she could and swatted Max's shoulder again.
I laughed. "Yeah, well, you deserve it."
Willow laughed from her bench.
"Oh, you think that's funny, huh Will?"
She blinked and nodded.
"Well, I'm glad you're finally startin' to get the hang of our sense of humor!"
"Shut up, old man!" I teased, winking at Willow.
"By george, I think she's got it!"

"How's my dog?"
"Oh, that brown one?" Both Max and Willow had insisted on me picking up the town mutt on my first trip through. "His owners don't watch him none," Max had said. "He'd be better off with you. I can give you twenty dollars to take him to the vet for shots."
"Max, I can't just take someone's dog." Although I was more surprised at his offer of money. Here, a man with next to nothing was offering up what was probably his last twenty dollars to pay for shots for someone else's dog.
"Sure you can! He's always gettin' outta their yard and runnin' around. They don't watch him. Besides, you need a travelin' dog."
"Agreed, but I can't just take this one. My dog used to get out of the yard and run around, but it would've broken my heart if someone just stole him."
"Well, fine then. But I say they won't even notice he's gone. Tell you what -- the next time that dog comes through, you want me to hold him for ya?"
"Well, too bad, I'm goin' to anyway. That's your dog now."
I didn't like the idea, but I liked the dog, a friendly brown and gray pitt bull mix. He was the perfect size for my car, not too big or too small. In my head, I named him Bucyrus.
"So how is he?" I asked, noticing that he certainly wasn't being held for me at this point.
"Ah, someone complained to the owner 'bout him gettin' outta the yard all the time and we haven't seen him since."
"Aw, well that's good. He's probably better off. I don't think I could afford a dog anyway." But secretly, I was heartbroken.

"So are Bernice and Burnett here?"
"No, they went over to southeast Montana to sell fireworks. They won't be back 'til after the fourth"
"Oh, that's right, they were telling me about that!" I looked over at the Walker's trailer just in time to see them load their dogs into the blue truck and take off. "Well, I guess I won't be visiting Kathy and Larry today. But will you be sure to tell them I said hi?"
"Will do. So how long are you here for?"
"About another four or five days."
"No, I mean tonight."
"Oh! Well, I'm supposed to meet my friends at 8:30."
"Well, you got a couple hours. You want us to take you on a drive up to real Montana?"
"No, that's okay." I was nervous about riding in a car with them, lest I get sick again. I cursed myself for turning down the hospitality, but my nose would not let me say yes.

However, Willow insisted. She pointed at the red and white Chevy pick-up truck parked kitty-corner to the Ford and reached for one of the ropes hanging at various intervals around the camper, which Max had installed to help her stand. She hooked her one working finger in the loop and slowly pulled herself up.
"I guess that means we're goin'," Max laughed.
"Can I ride in the back?"
"Of the truck? Huh?" He was incredulous.
"Are you sure?"
"Totally." Sadly, it was the only way I could keep from throwing up.

I went to the bathroom while Max got Willow ready to go. When I came back he was still using spit to brush the crumbs and dust from her blue tee shirt, the same one she had been wearing two weeks prior. I wondered if they had changed clothes since. It was doubtful. I helped her down the rickety steps and into the truck. I liked the way she held my hand for support as she took her slow, shuffling steps. It made me miss the times I volunteered as a child, with my father, at a group home for the severely handicapped. I found myself wondering what happened to the residents after the home shut down when Max brought me back to the present.
"You sure you want to ride in the back?"
"Well, suit yourself. I'm gonna put Chickie in the back with you. I don't think she'll like it none, so you gotta hold her leash and make sure she don't jump out."
"Um, okay." I wasn't thrilled, because to be honest Chickie was horrendously dirty herself, but what could I say?

Chickie, a shaggy black sheepdog, would not be goaded into the truck bed, so Max lifted her by the collar and tail. She careened into my lap and I wrapped her leash around my fist. She barked loud and steady as Max climbed into the cab, because she usually rides with him. And she didn't stop. Barreling down the highway in the back of the pickup, that dog yelped and whimpered and even tried a few times to leap out of the truck. I was holding on for dear life as she covered me in grungy hair and fleas and tried to deafen me with her cries. Between that and the wind I nearly did go deaf, although I did hear Max scold Chickie several times from the cab, opening the middle back window. She calmed a little at his voice, but still went back to barking each time. The road went from asphalt to gravel to dusty dirt, and we passed tiny shack houses with broken windows. We were heading up a hill, and I laughed at the potholes and absurdity of it all. I also laughed when three big dogs came running wildly after the truck, teeth bared, gunning for Chickie as she tried to jump the gate and fight them. If the truck had been going any slower they could have jumped in the bed, and then I'd have a real shit storm on my hands. I half-screamed, half-laughed as they nipped at my hair, which was flying at absurd angles all around my head, which I couldn't help because it would have meant letting go of Chickie.

Finally, we stopped on the top of a steep foothill, where an iron fence kept cars from sliding down the slope. There were no houses, just flowers, succulent sagebrush, tall willows and oak trees. Dragonflies and tiny yellow butterflies fluttered under our noses and wrists before swooping down the crest into the afternoon sun. (In Montana, where the sun sets at 10 o'clock, 6 o'clock is still the afternoon.) "Well," said Max, awkwardly lowering himself from the truck, "this is the place."
I opened the door to help Willow out. "What place?"
Max watched Chickie bound from the truck and run down the grassy hill. "This was the first place that Will and I camped, before where we're at now. This is where she learned to walk again."
"She couldn't walk before? I didn't know that."
"No, not when I met her. But she told me she wanted to learn, so we came out here and we walked together up and down, up and down this here hill. All day long, just up and down the hill. We put our camper just down there, see that tree? We put it right near there for the whole summer. By the time we were ready to move it for the winter, she was doin' real good walkin'. And this was about twelve years ago, before this road was here, and this fence, it was all just open, wild space."
I tried to speak, but my voice caught in my throat. I had been amazed by them before, but this was unbelievable. I had never met two people more in love, under such incredible circumstances. Fanfare and elysium to helping a woman to walk again on a mountainside in Montana. It was nearly surreal, the stuff of Hallmark Channel movies. But no, it was real life, their life. The same kind of life that happens every day, all over the world, in our own backyards, the stories that make us stop and re-evaluate everything. "Why do 'regular' couples have such trouble making marriages work, when these two poor people, one disabled, have got it all figured out?"

Willow took a few tentative steps forward on her own and pointed, to what we didn't know. "What is it, Will?" Max asked. "The hill? You want to go for a walk?"
She furrowed her brow to say no.
"The rock?" I offered. "Do you want to sit down?"
Again, she frowned.
"Well, what is it then?" Max chided, as she began to get very frustrated.
Finally, she reached out with her good finger and hooked a tall, green willow.
"Oh! The willows!" I finally understood.
She beamed, and slowly pointed from the willow to herself.
"That's right! You go to the willows!" I could again feel tiny tears stinging behind my eyes.
"Yep. Belinda of the Willows," Max said. "She picks a willow every year and puts it in a vase. However many willows in our vase, that's how long we been together. What is it now, Will, five years?" He was teasing her. She gave him an exasperated look and he laughed. "I know, I know. It's twelve. So is this this year's willow?" He broke the stem about halfway down and handed it to her. She nodded. "This is number twelve? Okay, okay. Now let's keep movin'." He began to help her back in the truck.
"Wait, wait. Can I take a picture of you with the willow?" I asked her.
She smiled broadly, and struck a silly pose with the willow under her nose like a moustache.
"Perfect." I picked a willow for myself, my reminder of my summer with them, and we walked back toward the truck.
"Y'know," Max said offhandedly, pointing to the tree down the hill again, "one time me an' Will were doin' love junk down by that tree and a big ol' helicopter flew over us. So we waved and went back to messin' around." He winked at Willow, who was wearing her famous big smile.
"You kids are crazy."

A butterfly had found its way into the truck's cab, and Willow watched in childlike amazement. She looked at me and pointed to it, yellow wings bumping up against the visors.
"Yeah, I see it! I love butterflies!" Again, my eyes were welling in spite of myself. It was a beautiful scene, dirty truck, gnarled hands, filthy dog and all.
"Will has a thing for them butterflies," Max said, and waited until the thing had flitted away before closing the doors.

I thought it was time to go home, but I thought wrong. Max and Willow had more they wanted to show me. "Let's take a ride over to Will's son's house! You can meet him! We need to go over there anyway."
"Fine, but can you put Chickie in the cab with you?"
"Actually, I'm gonna let her run with the truck for awhile."
Which is exactly what he did. The dog ran in front of the truck and alongside, barking, frightened that we would leave her behind. She ran like that all the way down the mountain, until the dirt turned to gravel and the gravel to asphalt once again. "Get in, Chickie!" Max shouted, and she hurled herself into the cab, to Willow's dismay. But at least she stopped barking.

I tried to pull my hair back, already matted and snarled beyond repair, and wondered if I'd have to shave my head to get all the knots out. But riding in the back of the truck sans pup was downright enjoyable, as I could rest my arms on the gate and watch Montana go by. Tall trees, tall grass, tall rays of sunlight stretching across the narrow roads, making the asphalt appear glossy. Not sure of the local laws, I would bend over at the waist and hide whenever we came upon people, and I could hear Max laughing at me in the cab. Finally we arrived at Steve's house. He's Willow's son who was one year old when she had her accident. Now in his early thirties with kids of his own, they live in a trailer house on a residential street in some tiny town near Turah, and he works the third shift at a factory nearby. When we pulled up, his wife was giving their son a mohawk with clippers in the yard. A lithe little girl with white-blonde curls picked her barefoot way across the gravel of the drive, finger in her mouth. "That's Kayla," Max called to me from the back cab window.

I remembered tales of Kayla from my first visit with Max and Will. "She won't call Will 'Grandma'. When she sees me, like in the store or something, she yells, 'Grandpa! Grandpa!', but she's scared of Will. Kind of upsets Will, y'know? I tried to get her to call her Grandma but she won't." Now that we had invaded the family driveway, Kayla was somewhat more polite, but kept her finger in her mouth to keep from saying anything. Steve came around the corner and I recognized him from a fading, yellow picture on the camper wall taken ten years earlier. Gone was the long hair, the moustache, the baggy jeans and black t-shirt, replaced by khaki shorts and a baseball cap, as they often are.

"Hey, Max," he called, laid back and walking slowly towards the truck. He walked around the truck to plant a tiny kiss on Willow's grinning face through the open window. "Hi, Mom." Unlike many mothers and sons, they kissed on the lips, which was heartwarming considering Willow's level of hygiene. It was obvious they were as close as they could be for two people who couldn't converse with each other. I wondered what it had been like when Steve was growing up, if he rebelled and against what, to whom. Was he angry at the world for his mother's condition? Or her for getting in the car with a drug addict? Or had he been taught to understand, as simply as to reading and potty-training, to accept his mother's condition? Those are questions that time and tact cannot answer.

He opened the door for Will as Max introduced me and then brought up a subject I still don't understand the apparent severity of. "You talk to your grandfather 'bout that land yet?"
"Yeah, just the other day. He wants me to fly out there and look at it to see what I think."

Steve is being offered a huge chunk of land stocked with maple trees in Central New York, as an inheritance from his grandfather, Willow's ex-husband's father. Most of the trees are not yet mature enough to give sap, but the land is free for the taking (aside from the property taxes). But it means moving to New York, which breaks Willow's heart. To be honest, I'm still confused as to why. It seems like a win-win situation to me: either Steve and his family, Max and Willow all move out to the land and farm maple syrup, in a climate not unlike Montana's, or they sell the land for profit. What is there to lose? Still, the whole situation upsets Willow to tears every time the subject is breached. However, seeing Steve was enough to quell her tears for the moment, as she stepped out of the truck and held up her hands to him.
"Oh, you want a hug, Mom?" He enveloped her small frame with his big one, holding her tightly and leaning back for another kiss. I swelled with an odd jumble of emotions, one part being proud of him, for not shrinking away from her, despite the odor, and the other contentment. I found that I had become quite protective of Willow in our short time together, and I would defend her against anyone who treated her as less than human, for handicap, hygiene or otherwise.

The three of them discussed plans for Steve and Willow to fly out the next week to see the land. I tried to imagine Willow on a plane, but stopped myself, bristling with just the thought of anyone staring or snickering. I did wonder, however, what she would wear.

Finally, it was time to go. Steve shook my hand and gave Willow another hug and kiss before helping her back in the car. I liked him very much. As I clamored into the truck bed, I blindly assumed that we were headed back to Turah and was surprised when Max turned away from the highway. But the back of a pickup hurtling down the pavement at 75 miles per hour is not the place to scoot around and knock on the window to ask. After about fifteen minutes, which felt like fifty, we pulled into a tiny gravel parking lot alongside the Blackfoot River. Max got out and said, "This here's the place Will and I spent our first winter in the camper. We spent about five winters here altogether. Now we winter at the place you saw. But this was the first. Come on, let's take a walk, I'll show ya."
He began limping into the woods, not bothering to get Willow from the truck. "What about Will?" I asked.
"Oh, she's all upset about the maple syrup thing. I think she just wants to be left alone, come on."
As I turned back to look, Willow's usually gentle face crumpled into a sob.
I didn't ask Max why.

As we walked, the path grew narrower and more overgrown, then opened up again to a clearing padded with pine needles. Chickie ran ahead as Max pointed out some landmarks. "This spot here's where we put the camper the first year. We had a different camper then. It had a holding tank, but I broke a hole in it at the beginning of that spring when I backed it up over there, see that hole in the ground over there? Well, I was backin' up and ripped a hole right in the holding tank, and boy it stank! There was some people over there campin' and they were pretty downright mad with us, but what could we do? We just drove away!" He laughed.
"I'd be pretty mad too if that were me."
"Oh, I know, but this was 'bout fifteen years ago. I'm sure they're over it by now."

Coming into the clearing, the first thing I noticed was a large fire ring inlaid with three sets of stones in symetric patterns. "Ain't nobody supposed to be back here no more, that's why we camp in Turah," Max said. "State wanted to keep the land from gettin' used up, but people come back here anyhow."
"I can see that." The ashes were fresh. It looked like something from a documentary on Satanism.

Max disappeared with Chickie into the deep woods and I busied myself by noting everything in the brush that wasn't a part of the forest. A piece of a porcelain bowl, an empty can of beans, beer cans, a sneaker, a silver fork. Near a tree lay a makeshift raft, made of plywood on which was nailed a rust-and-plastic lawnchair. It was spray-painted psychedelic colors and some spots and vaguely resembled a medieval torture device. The swift river ran only thirty feet away, but the thing didn't look seaworthy, or even pool-worthy. Or even land-worthy for that matter, which was confirmed when a large red and black spider crawled from underneath the folds of turquiose plastic wicker.

On the shore of the river, between the trees and where the water meets pebbles small enough to serve as chunky sand, was the largest ant hill I'd ever seen. It stood about four feet high and three feet wide. It was actually a decaying tree trunk, so diluted and infested with ants that looked more like sawdust. It startled me because at first glance it looked alive. Tiny black dots moved rapidly over every bit of surface, giving the whole thing the appearance of static on a TV set. With the river in the background, the rustling of the pines, and the hum of gnats over the water, I could almost hear the same white noise. I struggled to find a suitable lesson in the thing, something meaningful about men and work and life and money, but came up empty. I heard a terrible sound in the distance, but close enough to be within the forest. It sounded human. It had to be Max calling the dog, but how? By removing a lung from his throat and compressing it like a bagpipe?

Whatever banshee was screaming, Max or not, he was nowhere to be found. "Lala and Megan are gonna kill me," I thought. The sun was already dangerously close to the tip of the mountain on the other side of the river. I took to examining the patterns in the fire ring, looking for symbols and animal bones, or at least sacramental sage, but still found nothing concrete to determine who had set it. Finally, Max emerged from the thick woods, Chickie on his heels and a tall, white daisy in his hand. "You ready? Where were you?"
"Down by the shore, just over there."
"Oh! Did you hear me call the dog?"
"I thought that's what that was. Sweet Jesus!"
"Yeah, Will hates when I call her like that, but damn, it works! Ja'stick your feet in the river?"
"No, not with these boots on. Maybe tomorrow."
"I'll tell you what, people get in that water! Man! That's too cold for me! But there they go, floating down the river in them inner tubes!"
"Yeah," I mused. Josh had promised that we'd go floating the river while I was there. I wondered if that would happen. I knew it wouldn't.

We walked back to the car in silence and I climbed in the back while Max handed Will the daisy through the window. "Better now? Yeah? Still love me? I love you too. Give me a kiss?" He stood on tip-toes to lean in the window.

He walked around to his door and said, "Okay, now there's one more place we're gonna take ya."
"Oh, god! I was supposed to be home a while ago, with my friends! I told them!"
He spoke slowly, which was unusual. "Well.... I mean... I guess we could take ya back.... if you really needed to go... but I really wanted to show you this place... I don't know why but I think it's real important that you see it."
"How far is it?"
"'Bout twenty, thirty miles."
There and back would put me at Lala's after dark, but it was Max. How could I say no to Max?
"Okay, let's go."
"You sure you still want to ride in the back."
"Sure as sure."

So up we went on Rt. 200, past Bonner, past the Garnet Range, past the ghost town of Garnet itself, past Miller and Twin Creeks and up towards McNamara, past the fish and game ranger station, until finally a dirt road led into a field by one of the thousands on creeks in Western Montana. Max yelled from the window, "Remember this place! It's the left turn after the ranger station! In case you ever need to find it again!" The field became a thicket and the thicket became a forest. People were camping on the water's edge but Max turned away from the road. "Remember this too -- only make left turns! One here!" -- he lunged to the left, now off-roading -- "And again here! And don't go up that hill over there, see that? Don't go there, there's bears! (Dually noted.) Go left here instead!" He parked in a grove of massive oak and fir. "This here's where Will and I'll come in a couple weeks, for the hot months. You gonna be comin' back through here? You can stay here, if you can find it. Remember, it's all lefts."
"Well, I don't think I'll be back for awhile after Monday. But thank you for bringing me here, just in case."
He looked choked by words caught in his throat. I couldn't figure out why. Again he spoke slowly. "I don't know why... but I felt it was important that you see this. There's something about this place. You can feel it. I don't know... I just... you needed to be here."
I must have looked quizzical, because he continued quickly, stammering. "I mean, I don't... you could... y'know, stay here... if you didn't have anywhere else, but... this place... it's nice, it's... I needed to bring you here."
"Well, thank you."
"If'n you come back before the summer's over you can stay here with Will and me."
"If I come back through, I definitely will."
Even though in my heart, I knew it would be a long time before I came back to Missoula. Although one never knows.

Truth be told, there was a bit of magic in the place, the same kind palpable in any scene completely surrounded by nature and devoid of any human elements besides you and whatever carried you there. Not Grand Canyon magic, not face-to-face with a bear magic, but magic all the same. Max let Chickie run as I watched the sun slip behind the mountains, leaving the shade dusky and thick. I was anxious to leave, anxious to not piss off yet another person in Missoula. "Lala and Megan, please don't think I'm a flake!" I pleaded with the air.

Finally, Max loaded the dog back in the truck and we were on our way back to Missoula in the faded light of Saturday. We made one more stop, because Willow wanted me to see Johnsruud, a public boat launch that fifteen years ago was just another unpaved piece of land that locals camped and fished on that slowly was eaten up by regulations and signs that say, "No overnight parking." We parked amid the weekend crowd, which is (I think) what Willow wanted me to see, the discrepancies between the grove near McNamara and this parking lot of late-model German cars with kayaks and inner tubes strapped to the racks, children running and carrying fishing poles, swinging hooks treacherously close to eyes, and half-naked teens splashing in the water. We didn't stay long.

Safely back in Turah, my hair a prime piece of high-quality real estate for any bird or rat looking for a nest, I said goodbye. Again. I helped Willow from the truck and Max laughed at me. "You really like helping her, don't you?"
"Does that shock you? You signed up for the same deal, you're the one that married her!"
He giggled through the gaps in his teeth, but really he was impressed, softened by watching us.

"Thank you so much for showing me around. It was a perfect afternoon."
"You remember how to get to the spot?"
"You'll give your parents our regards?"
"Okay, then. You're all set."
"Good luck with that maple syrup thing."
He rolled his eyes. "Yeah, thanks. I have no idea what's going to happen."
"Whatever does, I'm sure it'll be fine."
"You're probably right."

I pulled Willow close to me, like Steve had done, rather than the typical periferal embrace. I didn't breathe, I just held her. "I'll try to come by again. We can talk some more then, okay?" Her eyes half-blinked and her chin raised. "Okay, then, it's a date."
"We may already be at the summer campsite," Max added.
"But you showed me where to find it."
His eyes grew wide. "Didn't you?" I asked.
He smiled and looked at the ground, softened again. "You're right. Go on, get outta here before it gets too dark."
"Bye, Max."
"Bye, girlie."

I made it to Lala's house at 10:30, just as Megan was leaving. "Dammit!" I cried, hopping out of the car. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I know I said I'd help you babysit and cook dinner, I'm sorry!"
"It's cool, where've you been?"
"I kind of got... kidnapped.... in a good way. I had to ride around Montana in the back of a truck, I had no choice, I was forced. But it was fun. Um, do you have some mayonnaise I could spread on my head to get these knots out of my hair? Or a razor?"


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