I must have been renting a place on H Street in Livingston at the time, so that I could meet clients in town. (My home was several miles south, toward Gardiner.) I was an architect, and I had a model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, which I’d built in school, on a library table in the front room. Most of my clients thought it was my design. The H Street house was on an elevated lot, facing the old sewing-machine shop. I never went in there, but I recall that they sold machines with a foreign name that were said to hem, darn, baste, and stitch—back when people did those things, instead of just throwing stuff away. Eventually, the place went out of business. I had only the ground floor of the house; the upstairs was occupied by a schoolteacher, who entered her apartment by way of a very unsafe-looking exterior staircase that undulated and squealed with her steps.
After drinking at the Wrangler until closing time one cold November night, I wandered around to Main Street, which was empty at that hour, except for a crippled old cowboy who was making his way toward the railroad yards. There weren’t many of these fellows left, the ones whom horses had broken so often in accidents far from help, their hands still as hard as lariats. They kept their worn-out Stetsons so you wouldn’t confuse them with railroaders. I had stopped to watch the old man, perhaps wondering how far he’d make it in his condition, when a young boy, an urchin, appeared from an alley and called out to him, “Jack! Hey, Jack!,” and the old man turned toward the voice. I don’t know if I can put my finger on it after all this time, but the excitement or joy, or whatever it was that these two experienced when they saw each other, has never left me. That’s all I can say about it. It was late at night on an empty street. Any euphoria I may have accumulated at the bar was gone. The pair met up and spoke in an animated way, though I couldn’t hear them from that distance. It doesn’t matter. I moved on before they did, and the boy is probably middle-aged by now, the old cowboy surely dead. Somebody later told me that he was born on the Cherokee Strip and had worked for Benny Binion. I’m not sure if that makes any sense.
We don’t remember everything, but I’d love to know who’s in charge of what we forget. If there’s a system, it escapes me. I still remember that old cowboy and the boy’s enchantment when I walk down Main, because heading home that night I was in a kind of trance that made me wonder later if I’d dreamed the rest of the evening. I had not, of course, but it had that quality, and it’s hardly certain where dreams leave off.
My head was clear as I drove home, out Old 89 under the stars, though my ears were still ringing from various Doobie Brothers covers by locals who’d learned rock and roll at an Air Force base in Spain. The earliest houses in the valley were set close along the road for easy access in deep snow. Their lights were off at that hour, and I could just make out their shapes as I drove; up on the ridges, new homes glowed with yard lights and long driveways, their owners indifferent to weather. I turned on the radio, in case my post-Wrangler Bar attention wavered.
I lived alone in a two-story frame house built in 1905, with a still incorporated into the fireplace, in which the owner had made bottles of hooch to sell at country dances during Prohibition. Walking in the door by myself at three in the morning would make me long for someone to live with—anyone—but I’d soon be asleep, and in the morning I’d be glad to be alone again and would remind myself that I had to keep better hours if I was going to get any work done.
Just south of the cemetery, where the road starts down into the Suce Creek bottom, was a car upside down and two people, a man and a woman, standing beside it. The beams of my headlights carved a garish hole in the dark. I could see that the man was holding and trying to calm the agitated woman, who was pointing toward a vacancy of brush and prairie. I turned off the radio, so as to concentrate on, or try to understand, what I was seeing. I pulled up behind the overturned car without any sense that the couple was looking to me for help. On the contrary, the man was waving harshly at me to turn off my lights. When I did, I could no longer see the two of them very well, and it was unclear whether they wanted me to stay or whether there was something private about the woman’s anguished wails that I should respect. The glimpse I’d had of them with my headlights on had suggested that they were uninjured. I don’t know why this encouraged my bafflement or diffidence, but I just sat in my car waiting to be asked.
I couldn’t just sit there, but I really couldn’t leave. I got out of the car, risking the parking lights, which didn’t seem to offend the man as my headlights had. Now he beckoned me over, with the same kind of authoritarian gestures with which he had ordered my lights extinguished. When I reached him, he stared me straight in the face in a disquieting way. He was not big but seemed fit, with close-cropped hair and noticeably long sideburns. He shook his head to indicate either that this entire situation was a mess or that there was nothing to be done about the dramatic noises coming from the woman, a remarkably small person in a cotton dress that went all the way to the ground, who was still directing her cries toward the grass and underbrush. The man put his hand on my shoulder and moved me to a spot away from the noise.
“She’s crying for her baby,” he said in an oddly confiding tone, almost as though he were selling me the idea. When I asked if the child had been thrown from the car, he said, “There is no baby. She’s crazy. Just play along.” His gaze was very direct. “I think you can do that.”
At this, the woman rushed over to us and stood just at the level of my chest so that the peculiar arrangement of her hair, piled atop her head with a comb thrust through it, drew my exhausted scrutiny.
“He don’t believe me! Timmy was throwed from the back window. Out in the pickers.”
The man was staring at her. She touched a finger to a button on my shirt. I thought it was a curious gesture for someone in her position. Her diction, too, was in contrast to the refinement of her face and the delicacy of her clothing. The man watched her as though he’d never heard her speak before.
“Will you look for him? He don’t believe me, and I got no shoes on.”
The man tilted his head and nodded, and I concurred that there was no harm in going along with this. It seemed entirely possible that there was a baby. As I set off, I wondered whom I believed.
I stumbled through the brush and weeds, my eyes not quite adjusted to the starry night. I thought something like a five-minute loop would demonstrate my willingness to help, but at the same time I listened for the sound of a child. I hadn’t gone far before I stepped into a badger hole and fell; by the time I got the dirt out of my eyes and my mouth, I was annoyed. I thought of the old cowboy and the boy back on Main Street and how there was something important about them that I couldn’t put my finger on. I was in no hurry as I stood up to pick the thistles out of my left palm.
It was thus that I observed my car drive away, two little red tail-lights, and this threw me into a strange reflective state, in which my dissolute night at the Wrangler and my ensuing exhaustion, the cowboy and the boy, the two crooks who had just stolen my car, my remote house and its unconquered air of vacancy, all seemed to have equal value—that is, no value. I have gone back to this idea since, because I feel it was a clue to my eventual burden, this set of random data points by which I simply moved across some screen before being faced with a connivance that I couldn’t understand, though it seemed to belong to me. The flashing light on a remote radio tower across the valley looked almost like a beacon, and I recall thinking that I could head for that as easily as go back to the road, where I no longer had a car. Later, misusing these memories to impress some girl, I would try pitching the idea that this descent into the abyss was hilarious, but I hardly laughed at the time.
When I got back to the road, scuffed up, fingernails packed with clay, I looked both ways as though I might be run over on this empty highway. I knew where I was, just at the rise toward Deep Creek, Pine Creek, Barney Creek, and so on; I could smell the irrigated hay fields on the night air. I was more than ten miles from my house, on a little-travelled road. The Absaroka Range made a sharp silhouette against the starlight.
A car approached from the north, a pair of lights wobbling on the uneven pavement. I stood at the edge of the road, arms at my sides. It pulled up beside me, and from within I heard a woman’s anxious voice: “Are you all right! You’re lucky to be alive!” I made an effort to sweep the dirt from my clothes before opening the passenger door; it gave me the moment I needed to understand this interesting development. Then I got in, flinging myself back against the seat. “Yes,” I breathed. “Very lucky indeed, thank you. I just need to get home.”
“Shall I call someone, the—someone?” She held up her phone. A pretty face, sharply focussed, very dark-brown eyes, shone in the thing’s green light. I said I didn’t think it was necessary. I supposed that my own phone was travelling somewhere in the night, in my car. I tried to make conversation as we drove on. “Is that Cassiopeia?” She didn’t know; she was trying to watch the road. I remembered the groceries I’d had in the trunk of my car—some apples, orange juice, Lean Cuisine, two tins of Science Diet cat food, a fifth of George Dickel. I knew what was going to happen: it was three in the morning. We didn’t even get upstairs. We fucked on the couch with the front door open. The cat was all over us. She started laughing and soon left. I carried my clothes upstairs, threw them on the floor, and went to bed.
Karen was her name. I don’t know if she got mine or not. She was an emergency-room doctor and smelled like surgical tape. She was tired from work and on her way home. I’m surprised she took the time with me. I believe I enjoyed the experience, but I really couldn’t stop thinking about the old cowboy and his young friend. She did tell me that her job was grim and had taught her to “live it up.” Maybe that explained it, if an explanation was required.