I married Larry, the high school typing teacher, in a field dotted with bison on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation in Montana. There is no record of our marriage other than the witnesses that stamped their feet on the frozen grass, but the place where we stood was crowded with lost souls who were forgotten by time but not by Larry.
In the mid-1990s I worked for the federal government as an education researcher helping school districts implement grants. My laptop computer weighed fourteen pounds and needed an external modem to access the world wide web; I did not have a cell phone, Google Maps, or anything else. I was divorced with two small children, and I cobbled together overnight babysitting stints when I traveled. I look back on it now, and I don’t know how I managed it. It felt like I carried the two of them, one on each hip, across a tight rope without a net to catch us if we fell. Each time I took off on an airplane, I only cared about the number of hours it would take for me to arrive home. I was headed to Browning, Montana for a one-day meeting. Thirty-six hours. What could happen?
The little plane was shaped like a bullet with silver domed walls and ceiling. We bent in half to enter the doorway and, when I passed the cockpit, it looked like a scene from the movie, Apollo 13 with bald men intent on their papers, maps, switches, and dials. There were ten seats on each side of the plane, which meant we all had window seats, however, the luxury ended there. Drinks were served by shoving a container of beer and soda down the aisle to the next person.
Somewhere between Spokane and Great Falls, we heard a thud and a crushing whine, and the air beneath the plane dropped away like a roller coaster ride. My stomach flew up and bounced against my throat. Bile sloshed in my mouth. It felt gritty, like sand. I gulped it back. I jerked my head to look over my shoulder out the window. Black smoke was streaming from the right-side engine. Its propeller was still. The flight attendant backed into her seat and pulled the straps over her head. Her eyes were huge, and she puffed air out between her lips in little bursts almost like she was in childbirth. “Tighten your seatbelts,” she squawked.
“Folks, we are in an emergency. We have been cleared to land in Missoula. Listen to your flight crew. This is for everyone’s safety. We will be exiting from the back of the plane. Now,” I imagined him squeezing the controls, “please lean over and grasp your knees.” “The ground was rising rapidly to meet us, a wide swatch of white foam covered the runway, and two fire engines, lit with red and white pulsing lights, waited for us.
We landed hard. I realized why we had to grasp our knees. A woman a few seats up who wasn’t grasping her knees rose like a balloon and smacked against the ceiling. The whole plane bounced in the air and hit the ground again. I could hear every nut and bolt groaning as they strained to hold on to one another. The fire retardant whooshed up the windows like the plane was in the middle of a car wash where everyone is ghostly green, and the world is suspended in the center of a soap bubble.
As my nineteen fellow passengers raced to the bank of public phones to call their loved ones, I walked to the rental car desk. “Can I get a car, please? I’m going to Browning. I’ll return it to Great Falls tomorrow.” My fingers trembled as I handed the woman my credit card. She tilted her head towards the lines at the phones. “I don’t have any anyone to call,” I said and slid the keys off the countertop.
That wasn’t exactly true. I could have called my parents, but while I was crying on my end of the phone, they would have been gazing out on the sparse landscape of the Arizona desert waving a silent hello to their neighbors in their golf carts. They lived in two worlds, and I tried not to intercede during their respite time. They helped with the babysitting during the summer when they were back in the Northwest, but I was on my own during the chilly, rainy, god-awful months of winter. My ex-husband was gone—on a ship to the Antarctic, camping out in a friend’s place in Half-Moon Bay, showing up a couple of times of year acting like I should have saved a seat for him at the holiday table. My marriage had been terrible, but I consoled myself that I had been half of something that when together was whole—until it was less than half when it was over.
My suitcase retrieved, I sat in the tiny Toyota Corolla, a comical clown-size rental car, flipping the map of Montana in ninety degree turns trying to figure out how to get to my destination. I used my finger and thumb to pinch across the map using the scale at the bottom as my ruler. I put the car in gear and gunned it. “Browning, here I come.” I took Highway 93 took me north of Missoula and climbed into the Rocky Mountains. I urged the protesting little car on, flattening my foot on the gas pedal and grinding it ruthlessly to the floor. Twilight was replaced by night by the time I sped past the town of St. Ignatius and the straight road changed to hairpin turns. The tiny sullen car and I traveled 223 miles together, and the gas tank marker wobbled at less than a half a tank in the bleak light of the dashboard. I shake my head now. What an idiot. Why didn’t I turn around and go back to Portland and just tell my boss I was in a plane crash? I was thirty. That’s the only answer I can give you.
I slowed as I reached the edge of Browning. A billboard advertised “Browning Pencil Company. You Can’t Erase Us.” A devilish little cartoon boy was pictured holding a huge pencil against a scroll of paper. Faded and curled, the advertisement was falling off the board in strips. White painted letters covered the top. “Closed Now. Thanks for 50 years of Business.” Everyone needed a pencil. Why was Browning erased?
There was a main street with a blinking yellow light, a bar with a half-lit neon sign that was missing the “C” in front of the oors, and a concrete block hotel with a rolling lidded drawer where I slid my credit card to a silent woman who used the carbon machine to make my receipt. She didn’t look up when I asked her about a place to eat. She pointed over her shoulder.
“oors it is,” I mumbled to myself.
“What’s good?” I asked as I pulled my fingers away from the sticky, plastic menu.
“Burger.” Gladys, the waitress, chomped her gum and stared at me. The roots of her bangs were sprayed so stiff they erupted from her forehead like a fountain.
“Burger it is then,” I sighed. “I’d like it well done, please.”
“Yep.” She vanished.
I looked around the restaurant. Five cowboys hunched over their beer at the bar, their dirt-encrusted boots hooked around the legs of the stools, their wrangler jeans tight at the crotch. One at a time they glanced over their shoulders at me. I sank into the torn plastic sanctuary of the booth.
Thankfully, my burger arrived, steaming on an overflowing platter of French fries. I lifted the bun. The meat was bright red—so red I pulled back. Jesus Lord, I thought. “Miss? Gladys?” I said faintly. “I thought I ordered it well done?”
“You did,” she said shortly. “You haven’t had bison before, have you?”
Bison. Bison. “Isn’t it kind of like buffalo?” I whispered.
“Lady, do you want your burger or not?” Her voice was loud and carried to the men at the bar.
“Yes, everything is fine. Thank you.” I covered the burger with a pile of napkins and slid it next to the ketchup and jam holder. I inhaled the French fries and wondered what the motel vending machine might hold.
When I stood up to leave, the familiar strains of Glen Campbell’s song, the “Rhinestone Cowboy,” floated out of the hidden speakers. I closed my eyes and remembered 7th grade choir. I sang in a small group with Tommy Owens, a hunk of a boy who lived three streets away and played touch football in the street as I rode my bike past his house ten times a day. Our little group wore wide-bottomed white jeans, long-sleeved white shirts, cravats, and white cowboy hats my mother was tasked to find. I swayed back and forth to the music as I waited to pay my bill.
“Rhinestone cowboy, bum, bum,” I crooned quietly. Then I was startled out of my memories of 1979 when I felt a hand grab a large portion of my rear end.
“Want to dance?” I turned and recoiled as one of the guys at the bar released my buttock and moved his hand to my waist. “I saw you dancing.”
“No,” I tried to pull my arm away. His teeth were stained a shiny brown varnish. His shirt had not been washed for a long time. The stench of bison burger hovered around him like a cloud.
His hand tightened. “Come on now,” he jeered in my ear. “Dance with me, Honey.”
Gladys stomped from behind the cash register, her sprayed bangs aloft in a storm. “Norman. Knock it off. She said she didn’t want to dance. Leave her alone.” The other four men stood up and leaned back against the counter.
“Gladys, shut up.” Norman’s grip tightened on my arm.
Gladys grabbed my other arm. “Norman?”
“What’s going on out here?” A cook emerged from the kitchen. Raw. crimson bison juice covered his white apron. As Gladys and Norman began to argue with the cook, I jerked away from both of them, threw a ten on the counter and ran out the door. It slammed behind me, its bells jangling against the frame. Panting, I dashed across the street to the miserable motel. I dropped my purse letting everything rain onto the ground while my hands patted the concrete feeling for my door key. I lay awake all night, fully clothed, shivering in the chill air. I got up to check the lock on the window and the chain across the door. I wondered how my children were asleep in their Toy Story sleeping bags on my neighbor’s living room floor.
During this time in my life, I prided myself on my professional attire. Realizing it was Montana and not quite spring, I wore a navy, wool pantsuit instead of a skirt. I held the line, however, on my shoes. Sling back, kitten shoes with a tiny 2-inch platform heel gave my 5-foot-tall frame a bit of height and shaped my calves better than flats. Climbing into the clown car, I set my lips in a firm line and floored it out of the motel parking lot. This day was going to end with me putting my kids to bed.
I drove fast on Highway 2. I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get to the school. The car was facing a set of mountains that erupted from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. According to the infamous map that got me from Missoula to Browning, the two mountains, Chief Mountain and Rising Mountain, were the two sharp and pointed peaks facing me. They were covered in snow, and it was hard to see where they parted. The only indicator of their separateness was the intense blue of the sky between the two of them. They were beyond the Going-to-Sun Road which was the turn off to the Pre-K-12 grade Blackfoot Reservation School, my work location for the day.
I left the highway and turned onto a gravel road. Children ambled in pairs and small groups and moved slowly towards the school in the distance. Little girls tossed their long hair in the wind and the boys hitched up their pants as they scuffled along in shoes missing their shoelaces. I didn’t notice the speed bump until I was almost on top of it. I tensed as my car’s front bumper hit the ground while the car’s back end hung in the air. To my right was fencing around a wide field with clumps of brown grass sticking up from piles of snow. I squinted. Leaning over the wire close to my car was a group of large animals. I thought they were cows, but, given their tall, curved horns and broad bodies, I realized they were bison. Eight bison to be exact. Eight bison all leaning against a sagging wire fence that strained at their bulk.
Their breath came out in frozen clouds. Taller than elk and moose, wide as grizzlies, and smarter than cows, the bison leaned precipitously close to my car searching for the small, tender green stalks emerging on the side of the road. Their eyes were vacant. I sat with my hands on the wheel. How many people see bison up close? They were behind a fence. I kicked open the clown car door. I carried a disposable camera in my briefcase for moments like this.
I shuffled towards the group my little kitten heels slipping on the icy road. I held my camera up and positioned the group in the tiny, blurry view finder. The bison had moist, black nostrils and matted, poodle-thick hair that grew from their ears across their broad heads. Click. I held my finger down to make sure the picture was perfect. While I wound the film to the next picture, I heard hooved-feet scrabble at the edge of the road. I pulled the camera down and came face to face with a bison so close I noticed his eyelashes curled back against his fur in ringlets. He drew in a breath and huffed at me with a whoosh. Strings of snot and mucus slapped against my hair and face. I felt it drip down my chest where my suit parted on the sides of my blouse. He heaved up another breath, and I scrambled around the car. The next blow of bison boogers hit the passenger side window. I got in the car waving my hands around too disgusted to touch my face and clothes. I finally wiped the gunk all over the fabric seat next to me.
The bison snot smelled of grass, poop, and a smell I couldn’t identify—something internal, primordial, and guts-like. I looked in the rearview mirror, and it looked like I had a glossy, facial mask applied to my cheeks to improve the elasticity of my skin. I put the car in gear and flew over the speed bump scraping the back bumper this time. I didn’t pause as I sailed past the children who were still moseying towards the school building.
An hour later, with wet circles staining the front of my silk blouse and hair glued to my forehead, I was ensconced in the school cafeteria where 18 teachers spanning grades kindergarten through 12th-grade sat on the uncomfortable lunchroom benches. I went through slide after slide of examples for using the grant money. I proposed portfolios, a collection of evidence including assignments, interviews, and self-reflections about student learning. After several hours with a break for lunch, I turned on my kitten heels and asked if anyone had questions. I waited for a hand, two hands. There was none. Hurt, I turned to pack up my briefcase, and the school principal came to me.
“Thank you,” she ventured. “It takes us some time to process information and think about our children and their learning styles. Do you have a little more time to spend with us today?”
“Yes, I do have a bit more time. I have to leave for the airport by 3:00 at the latest. I have children waiting at home for me. You know how it is.” I laughed lightly pretending it was no big deal.
“Oh, you don’t have family to care for them?” she asked. Her hair was a sleek, shiny black and pulled back into a simple bun at the nape of her neck. She wore jeans, boots, and a warm black sweater.
“No. Not this time of year.” We stood looking at one another, and I was suddenly jealous of her. She likely didn’t feel the thread unspooling as it sailed back towards her untethered children. My biggest fear was the thread would run out and the kids would drift away from me. I don’t know if she was part of a marriage, but she was more whole than I was—she was surrounded by family. Not even the bison snot could hold together my brittle edges.
“Will you be back here to advise us on the grant? We appreciate your help,” she faltered. “I don’t know if you know much about our history. You might like to see a few places on the reservation.” Something in her voice made me stop. It was a hesitancy, an opening, a little bit of fear but a crack of openness too. She motioned to a man standing off to the side. “Larry, please meet Dr. Thompson. Larry is our typing teacher.” My small hand disappeared into his beefy one, and his fingers felt like stiff sausages. Larry had two long, grey braids that hung down the front of his jacket. His large belly hung over the top of his pants, and his butt disappeared into the depths of his pants at the back. A packet of cigarettes was stuffed into the pocket on his shirt front.
“Come on. I’ve got two tanks of gas. We should be fine.”
Oh shit. Two tanks of gas. Hysteria flooded my chest. “We’re only going for an hour, right?” I asked him while looking for the principal to confirm our return time. “I’ve got to get on the road to Great Falls to catch a flight.” I followed Larry, my kitten heels tapping on the lacquered hallway floors. I saw the principal clutching a notebook to her chest in the office window. She waved goodbye to me. The runaway plane, the push and pull between Gladys and Norman, my children sleeping on my neighbor’s floor, I began to feel bits and pieces of myself crack off and fall to the ground.
Larry put the truck in gear, and we lurched out of the school driveway. We shuddered and bounced along the roads. Larry gained speed as we approached the speed bump warning of wandering bison. I wasn’t prepared. We vaulted over it, and the crown of my head slammed against the metal ceiling. Just like the woman in the plane.
“Sorry,” he said. He looked at me full in the face for the first time. “Are you hurt? He looked more alive than he had in the school. His brown eyes were direct. I noticed his hand rested on the gear shift clutching it only when gaining speed.
“I’m fine.” I was tired and I tried to sit up straight.
“We don’t have to go,” he offered.
“No, no, I do want to go. I’ve just had a hectic trip. A lot has happened in 24 hours.”
“Like what?” he looked at me with a calmness on his placid face.
“You really want to know?” He nodded yes. I tried to stick to the facts. I detailed the plane emergency, the drive around the lake, the bison burger and unwanted dance partner, and then the bison snot attack. Larry laughed until he had to use his large, puffy hands to wipe under his eyes.
“I’m sorry you haven’t had a better trip to Montana.” He grew silent for a few moments. “Thanks,” he said. I cocked my head sideways. “For saying Blackfoot instead of Blackfeet. Most people don’t know the difference.”
“I only knew it because of my research. Why isn’t it corrected?” Larry shrugged his shoulders at me. I shook my head frustrated. “It’s hard. I do all this research, but it is not the same. I go to different states and walk into places where everyone knows one another. I want to be respectful of how people live their lives and how teachers have separate ways of working with kids. I don’t think I’ve done a very good job while I’ve been here, or anywhere,” I muttered.
“You did alright,” he acknowledged. “Maybe we can do something like you talked about. No one told you that rez kids don’t take schoolbooks home. They aren’t that important. They leave them somewhere or they get lost at home. We teach other ways.”
“Yeah. Everyone did.”
I felt better. I looked around me as we chugged along. Wild prairie rolled off into the distance until it turned into the foothills of the mountains. We crossed a small river that appeared to be over its banks with spring run-off. The trees lining the bouncing water had a tinge of green to them.
“Two Medicine River.” Larry pointed. A more substantial waterway, it passed beneath the highway we crossed.
“Larry, “what do the kids type in your class?”
“What the book tells them to type.”
“You mean they don’t type their own essays, memos, or letters?”
“Nope. They type what the book tells them to.”
“Why do you do it then?”
He scratched his head. “It’s a job. I get to see all of the kids grow up through the grades. I taught their parents too.”
“Do they type now?” I held my hand on the console as we dipped into a depression in the pasture.
“They don’t need it.”
I let it sink in. “I don’t know how to act here.” As soon as I said the words, I wished I could snatch them back.
“You’re fine.” That’s all Larry said. It was later I realized my bare-naked words hanging in the air opened the door wider still. He slowed and stopped next to a gate. He got out opened it and drove through. Bison looked at us. They didn’t move as we bounced in and out of the ruts in the field. A giant pile of hay was piled up a few car lengths away. Their tales flapped like irritated crows.
“We’re here.” He turned the truck off. Looking down at my shoes he said, “We’re just going to step over there.” He pointed to the high point where a lone tree stood at the crest of the hill.
I looked down at my kitten heel shoes. Maybe I could have them dry cleaned, I thought.
We hiked up to the top of the ridge. I stumbled. Larry grabbed my elbow and pulled me upright. I looked at my watch. 2:00. I still had time. Buoyed, I hurried to catch up to Larry’s slow but unstopping pace.
“Why do you look at your watch all of the time?” He asked as we stood and surveyed the valley below us.
“I want to get home to my children.”
“We have Indian time.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It means we get there when we get there.” Larry cleared his throat. “The last of the buffalo were slaughtered here.”
“I’m sorry.” I looked around at the desolate land where shadows indicated depressions in the earth and small groves of leafless trees were bent against the wind. “Where are we?”
“Ghost Ridge. About a hundred years ago the Blackfoot think the last buffalo died here.”
“See down there?” He pointed to a pile of boards that looked like it might have been a shed once. “When the buffalo died, the Blackfoot camped here in the winter and most of them starved. They ate cottonwood bark trying to stay alive. An Indian named Almost a Dog cut notches on a branch every time a body was taken away. He had over 500 notches. That building down there is filled with bones. There’s a few more caved-in sheds around here too. There got to be so few people left they were too exhausted to bury them.” He looked at me. “Come see.” He held out his hand and I grabbed his arm. We carefully made our way down the hill. We stood a respectful distance away, and Larry took his cigarettes out of his pocket. He handed me one.
“Thanks, but I don’t smoke.”
“They are not for smoking.” He motioned me to make a slit along the side and free the tobacco from the paper. He turned to his left, bowed, and dusted the ground with the faded bits of dried leaves. “West.” He turned to the south, and we shook out a few more flakes. “East,” he said quietly. We turned last to the north and let the last of the tobacco flutter to the ground. “We’re giving thanks.”
I leaned past Larry’s shoulder to see the bones. He turned me to him and kissed me tentatively on the lips. I stumbled backwards, and my fingernails dug at my chapped lips like I was trying to remove the bison snot from the morning.
“Larry, why did you do that?” I wiped my mouth with my hand again. His cigarette breath repulsed me, and his slack, old man lips had pushed against my teeth, probing for more.
“I thought you knew this was sacred to us.” Larry’s red face blazed from cold embarrassment.
“Yes, but why you would think it was okay to kiss me?” I lost control of my voice, and it grew higher as I slipped down the hill towards the truck. I started to cry.
“We were talking, and I thought you were interested in being a Blackfoot. I thought you would be my wife.” Larry passed me on the hill with large, long strides.
I tried to keep my rising fear under control. “I need to get back to my car. I need to get to the airport. I need to get home. I need my children.” I hiccupped through my tears. Larry slammed his door shut and started the engine. The truck came to life and began to bump its way through the field.
“Larry, wait for me,” I wailed. Exhaust puffed from the tail pipe as it left.
I began to walk, then jog and then run through the pasture. I couldn’t catch my breath. According to my watch I had left Portland exactly a day ago. I ran past the bison daring them to engage with me. I reached the gate and saw that it was locked shut. I didn’t even stop. I put my kitten-heel shoes on the bottom rung and climbed the gate. I slung my leg over the top bar and climbed down the other side. My suit was sopping wet and covered in mud. I stumbled up to the road and did the unthinkable: I stuck out my thumb.
“Oh my, what happened?” The school principal asked rolling down her window. She pulled over and grabbed her pile of notebooks, kids’ lunchboxes, and a basketball and threw them in the back to make room for me.
“He wanted to marry me.” I sobbed.
“Oh.” She focused on the road. “Larry’s wife just died. I am so sorry. I thought he would show you the river. Never would I have thought something like this would happen. He must have really liked you to go to that place. Please, please don’t be angry at him. He’s an old man who doesn’t know better. Showing you Ghost Ridge was a great honor,” she took her foot off the gas pedal for a moment. “For most it has been forgotten.”
“I just want to go to the airport.” I stared out the side window.
When I knocked on my neighbor’s door later that night, my children were in their pajamas asleep on her couch. They clutched their lunch boxes on their laps.
“They were sure you would come,” she said smiling. “They’re good kids, you know.” She sniffed me. “Tell me later about your trip?” she asked.
“Definitely,” I whispered. We slept that night, the three of us, piled in my bed under covers that smelled of lavender laundry detergent, clean hair (mine, thank goodness), and that mysterious, undefinable scent of toddlers in sleep.
It’s been twenty-five years since my trip to the Blackfoot Reservation School. I’ve been married for two decades to Paul, who is not just the other half to make a whole, but my everything. Even so, sometimes I find myself sliding back to that trip to Montana. I’m pulled backward like time has fallen away, and the distance has shrunk into nothingness. Logically, I know the plane’s dead engine is scrap parts, and surely someone fixed the “C” in front of the oors sign, my navy wool suit and my kitten heels are buried in a landfill, and the grant money has been spent and replenished many times. Larry, however, has only Ghost Ridge where the bones of his people lay forever in the ruins of a few scattered old sheds. He could still be the typing teacher who types nothing living near the town that was erased. What was it the principal said?
“Showing you Ghost Ridge was a great honor. For most it has been forgotten.”
I remember Ghost Ridge, the site of our brief and bewildering marriage. Perhaps more than one version of time exists. I rocket through time anxious to see around the next corner while Larry gets there when he gets there. Our times converged while we stood together on the top of the ridge looking down on the history below. His blessing of the four winds, the visit to the bones, and ultimately the kiss, were his attempt to tease time into giving him a life he had lost. How sad, that it is only through a backward glance, that we realize time has moved at all, and much of what we have done has been forgotten—if we are lucky, maybe it’s remembered by someone.