Assistant Professor of Botany Dr. Sylvia Anderson woke me up at 2 AM and told me she had to get going. I lit a cigarette on my front step and only winced a little bit when she dinged my beat-up Civic with her truck. My mind was still too muddled up to care. Not because I was particularly drunk, but because I was confused and a bit surprised. A friend of mine once told me that the best sex of his life was a random encounter with the manager of a Cookout in Galax he had met driving back to Richmond. Said it was a complete surprise, but that man fucked like his life depended on it. I don’t know why I’m watching it snow in Laramie and thinking about two dumpy dudes getting their swerve on back in small-town Virginia. Not a whole lot in my life makes too much sense.
I’ve got a busted top lip right now from a poorly-planned ice-climbing trip with some sketchy Alaskans in the Wind River range. A piece of ice hit me and banged up my grill. I was never too pretty to begin with, so this was just another one of those things. The Alaskans drove me to Riverton where the doctor stitched me up and told me I probably didn’t have any brain damage. I was just glad I didn’t break my front two fake teeth. They were the ones that Melissa, the girl I dated for a year in Philadelphia after I quit seminary, knocked out. I met her a week after I left, when I was living in a Motel 6 with only 20 bucks and the disapproval of the Blessed Mother to my name. I was charging the room to my brother’s Navy Federal card. She put me up in her house and got me a job at a record store and in the end almost broke my jaw. After that, I was too ashamed to go back to Roanoke, so I headed out west at age 21, scrawny and pale, with a job offer from the Bureau of Land Management and a vague plan that I was gonna live an interesting life.
I met Lynn last season when she was hanging around the Lander office, doing research on sage ecosystems on a grant. I had just gotten back off a fire with the rest of the Rawlins helitack crew and I was sitting in the break room drinking a cup of instant coffee, half-asleep, wiping ash out of my nose, while this girl talked my ear off about bushes. Two of her undergrads eyed me nervously from the corner. One of them let off a little puff of air freshener. I liked her, but I really wished we could have run into each other about 18 hours later, when I didn’t feel like the living dead.
“Where are you from, Hank?”
“Southwest Virginia. Not south West Virginia, but the southwest part of regular Virginia.”
“I haven't spent much time in Virginia, but I love the south. I really liked New Orleans.” “Most people do.”
“The live oaks were my favorite part.”
“They’re pretty neat.”
“Do you do much plant identification when you’re out?”
“Can’t say I do.”
“That’s a shame.”
“I’m just a caveman, I don't appreciate nature as much as I should.”
“No, I meant maybe you could do some legwork for me. Save me some time.”
She gave me her number later, when I was about to drive back and I saw her in the hallway. I kind of forgot about her, but I was living in Laramie for the winter, and I asked her if she wanted to grab a drink one day.
I’m a good listener. It’s my saving grace because I’m pretty dumb. I listened to sermons growing up about the evils of the world. I listened to my priest who told all of us boys that if we really wanted to do God’s will we should forget about sex and the world and go to seminary. I listened to my roommate, who was from central Ohio, agonize about how he had kissed a boy and really liked it. I wanted to tell him that I had only kissed a girl a couple times in high school but I would pawn the chapel’s candlesticks to do it again, but I kept my mouth shut instead. I listened to Melissa kindly explain to me why I had the loss of my two teeth coming. I listen to briefings, the air attack channel, intra-crew, the division channel through the radio in my flight helmet or in the pickup. I scribble down the important parts in my Rite-In-The-Rain next to the dicks the rookies drew in there when I’ve been stupid enough to leave it lying around. I listen to waitresses bitch about work and drunk old men who want me to read them poetry at the bar.
Lynn and I met at the Silver Dollar, a little dive, and she was a whole lot cooler than she had seemed in Lander. The product of sleep on both of our parts, maybe. She called me dude a lot. She was from Pennsylvania, but down in Pennsyltucky. I told her that I went to college there - a little liberal arts college around Philadelphia. I figured the whole seminary drop-out tale was a bit much for a first date. Plus, it all seemed like a life lived by another person. She told me she had just gotten out of a six-year relationship and wasn’t looking for anything serious, which bummed me out more than I expected it to.
“Fighting with my fiance is really what I remember the most about New Orleans,” she said, after a couple beers.
She told me I looked good with my lip split in half. She said that eventually she wanted to leave Wyoming and head somewhere less remote soon. California, maybe, or Texas. She heard Austin was cool.
“I’m thinking of heading up north here sometime,” I said.
“Montana. Missoula, maybe. Got some buddies on a crew up there who want me. Better than Rawlins.”
“Rawlins isn’t so bad.”
“Spoken like someone who hasn’t spent much time in Rawlins.”
“Montana’s cool. You ever read Lonesome Dove?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“It isn’t a happy book, anyway.”
“I can deal with a sad book every now and then.”
“Going to Montana doesn’t work out very well for them.”
“Well, now you’ve ruined it.”
“It’s been out for like 40 years. That’s on you.”
“I meant going to Montana to escape my problems.”
“The book, too. I’m slow on the uptake. I was a sheltered child.”
“Like solidly-built double-wide sheltered.”
She just laughed and we kept drinking and she started touching my leg under the bar and I knew we were getting on the road. We went back to my place. I remember her lying on my queen bed, the teenage-girl bed frame I had bought off my landlady with sheets I hadn’t changed in weeks and a dirty comforter. She looked like some sort of high plains orchid in the light filtering in from my neighbor’s house. Pale and naked with a bandana around her neck. I held her and slept until she woke me up and said she felt sober enough to drive, and then she left. I smoked my cigarette in the January cold. I went inside and felt the old loneliness, like it had never happened, except my sheets smelled like her and she left a pair of earrings on the dresser.
I don’t go on many dates. I don’t talk to many people. As soon as she left I wanted her back, wanted her in the animal way that comes on too hot and too soon. Wanted to buy a house and settle down. Knew that she knew I would get too attached. Knew that this might be the last time I ever saw her. Knew that this wouldn’t work out. Knew it in my soul with the kind of fatalism that always comes over me when things go too well. Like the penultimate acts of old crime movies. That the money’s going to be gone and the cops’ll close in, or, as close as it gets, the main character is still going to bite it. But without the high stakes because this was just another white-trash hookup. But maybe the good things will actually happen. Maybe the next climbing trip won’t land me in the hospital. Maybe Missoula will make me feel less blue all the time. Maybe she won’t decide that she’s through with me in the morning. Who knows. Anything’s possible. But I doubt it.