A short story from R. M. Dolin’s novel, TROPHIC CASCADE – The Rise and Fall of Quiet Acquiescence.
Summary: Chance is a road-hardened Harley rider who stopped at Jake’s distillery on his way through New Mexico to sample whiskey and wound up with a job. He keeps his past a secret because he got into some trouble in Worland, Wyoming and has been and living off the grid every since. Chance doesn’t mind being asked about his past, as long you don’t expect a truthful answer. Jake is comfortable asking, and for his part, doesn’t care if Chance is honest, it’s not for him to judge another man’s truth.
When Chance left Wyoming it was in a hurry, with his life irreversibly altered, that it happened in a snow storm only complicates matters and compounds the toll. His rapid rate of departure from the forlorn mountain town he hoped to call home was in diametric contrast to the years it took to slowly meander down from upper Wisconsin heading first slightly east before sliding west. How he wound up in Worland is as much a matter of fate as deliberate decision-making, but it was never his intention to stay long in the Tetons, in fact his plan when he arrived was to make a lot of quick cash then winter in Phoenix or Tucson.
He wound up in Worland because a girl he met in Sundance on his way from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally to wherever the road took him next, talked about a Pepsi can manufacturing plant that was so huge it produced over a million cans a day. Chance reasoned that locating the large plant in a remote mountain town probably has more to do with corrupt politics than sound business principles because it makes no sense. Just the logistics of bringing flat rolls of sheet aluminum in, and a million empty cans out each day consumes whatever available workforce the mountain town had before the plant was built.
Aside from logistics, which is a small portion of the plant’s total workforce, there’s the labor needed to run operations, the engineers and technicians required to optimize production while minimizing down time, and the accountants, managers, and clerical staff it takes to execute administrative functions. None of which existed within the resident population. Chance’s friend from Sundance assured him they were so desperate for help he’d be guaranteed a job, in fact, if he was willing to work the night shift and his Spanish wasn’t too bad, he could get one of the higher paying supervisor positions. Because Chance rode a bad-ass Harley and dressed the part of an outlaw biker with worn leathers, lineman’s boots, and blue bandanna holding his long sandy brown hair in place, she added they’re willing to pay in cash and not asks too many questions.
Chance, whose name wasn’t Chance when he arrived in Worland, did nothing to assuage her assumptions, he found it helps get girls when they think he’s someone like that. He really isn’t though, in fact, he’s just the opposite. He started dressing like a bad-ass Harley guy because people don’t mess around with him as much and when you live on the road, not being messed with each time you arrive in a new town is much appreciated.
He also doesn’t mind whatever personal questions Pepsi might ask, figuring they’re free to ask anything they want. It’s expecting truthful responses he’s not completely on board with. He has nothing to hide; at least not in a legitimately legal sense, it’s just after years of wandering he finds it comforting to come and go without being noticed and without the ability to be found later on. The thing about Chance is that as smooth and easy as his ability to make friends and build relationships can be; good-bye is not something he excels at. You can easily draw a map of the places he’s been based on the women he’s left devastated and the husbands, boyfriends, and fathers he’s dodged vowing revenge. Truth is both a nasty bitch and a relative variable for Chance, something based on situation and context. If the situation is seducing a woman, truth’s whatever’s necessary to achieve his objective. In matters regarding business and non-romantic relationships though, he holds himself to a unorthodox high standard, even when others don’t. It’s the “code of the West” he tells himself when resisting the temptation to take advantage of a situation. Maintaining high ethical standards in such matters is how Chance measures his manhood, his Dad brought him up to believe it matters so that’s how he behaves, even after that night in Worland, when his life went to shit.
Chance rode from Sundance to Worland in three days, taking a detour to visit Devil’s Tower, because he figures he might never be that close again. He usually doesn’t need an excuse to take a ride though, because he loves being on his bike and feeling the give and take of secondary roads and rural towns. It provides a sense of peace and freedom he finds increasingly necessary as life on the road relentlessly grinds him down. He and his Dad bought his 68 Shovelhead at a police auction when Chance was a junior. The bike had been in an accident and then impounded while the owner awaited trial. The frame was straight, even though pretty much everything else needed rebuilding, but the potential to own an early Shovelhead made the restoration worth it. The Harley has an air-cooled V-twin engine that sits at a 45 degree angle. The “shovel” cylinder head is a modification of the panhead design it replaced but the name derives from the appearance of the rocker box covers that look like flipped over scoop shovels. Chance’s Dad, for reasons having to do with how engineers process the world, laughs whenever he talks about the silliness of designing an engine to look like a scoop shovel. They painted the bike black, like Harley’s should be, and the engine and pipes are chrome with old school spoke rim wheels. He doesn’t use a fairing and his saddle bags are well-worn leather but still soft. Everything Chance owns fits either in his saddlebags or the backpack he keeps strapped to the back bar.
Whenever Chance and his Dad worked on the Harley, his Dad would bring up anecdotes, usually involving drugs or bike safety, meant to leave a powerful lesson. He’d talk openly about what it was like for him growing up in the sixties. The sex, the parties, the revolutionary ideas he at times carried to action. Chance’s Dad was not the type to be ashamed of anything he’d done, and believed it’s the journey that builds the character of who we become. Looking back, he would say, is for people with regrets, even though you might make mistakes, if you become a better person you shouldn’t have regrets. His Dad felt a person’s continually on the road toward who they’re supposed to be, and believes everyone’s here for a purpose and would on rare occasion, talk about the struggles he had after Chance’s Mom left and about how easy it would have been to feel sorry for himself; to surrender to the temptation to get high, or drunk, or give up on life in general. He shared his pain in an open way that never assessed judgment or blame, something Chance greatly admires, because life is what it is without filters or excuses.
One night while working late and his Dad had too many beers, he shared his philosophy about how once a person finishes doing what they’re put on earth to do, they die, which is why people die at various stages of life. When a young person dies it means they finished early and when an old person dies it means they procrastinated. He also believes that how you die is based on how you live, the better you live the quicker and more peaceful you die. That’s why he survived his wife leaving and being laid off at the auto plant, he understood both tragedies were part of his journey, and he had yet to accomplish what he was supposed to do. He argued that it wasn’t because he was procrastinating, he just hadn’t yet figured it out. As strange as that philosophy is, it resonates with Chance and whenever life on the run gets exceedingly hard, he falls back on those simple truths to give him clarity and comfort. Like his Dad, Chance has no idea what this purpose might be, but he knows he’s yet to accomplish it because he’s still around, and his life on the road is a journey toward that destiny.
“It’s the small things that make a man,” his Dad would say. “We celebrate the grandiose but men of grander lack substance, like politicians, and they’re mostly bitter, petty, and unhappy.” Jake admires his Dad as much for his wisdom as his weaknesses, because both provide meaningful lessons. His Dad used to share how stupid he was as a teenager when it came to drinking, girls, and acting responsible, but always caveats that life taught him three essential lessons; never mess around with a married woman, always be honest in personal and professional dealings, and never do drugs. The more Chance fails at lesson one, the more he’s driven to adhere to lessons two and three.
When Chance arrived in Worland, Fall was well underway and the Aspen trees he passed on his way up the Teton summit were already cutting swaths of gold and orange through the emerald evergreens. If you’re camping, as Chance was his first week because it’s all he could afford, you wake up with your bones so cold it takes till noon to feel right. His friend from Sundance was at least right though, the Plant manager, so desperate for help, hires Chance half way through their interview, provided Chance is willing to work the night shift and can speak a little Spanish. Worland was not as bad as Chance imagined, and would work just fine as a place to hole up till spring. On the plus side, both the mountains and people have a charm that make you feel at home, the job’s okay, and the pay’s excellent. Chance doesn’t mind the cold since he walks to work, to the grocery store, and to the local bar. On the con side, this is a small town and everything about Chance stands out. It starts with his devilish charm that constantly gets him in trouble, followed by the fact he rides a Harley, and looks like an outlaw biker. His usual routine is to arrive in a small town creating something of a sensation, before long he’ll take up with a local woman which ultimately leads to someone’s husband, boyfriend, or father looking for him. The same cycle occurs in cities, it just doesn’t become the whole town’s gossip and no one really ever puts a face or name with the scandal. This highly predictable cycle has a period ranging from a few weeks to a couple of months, but always concludes the same. Chance views each new town as an opportunity to become more the kind of man his Dad would be proud of, but each time he leaves, usually at night and in a hurry, it’s with a sense of regret and disappointment at having once again let his Dad down.
“So what happened,” Jake prods while relighting his cigar, letting the glow illuminate his drawn face against the dark New Mexico sky. This is the first real opportunity they’ve have had to sit down and get to know each other, and if Chance plans to stay till after crush, he’ll learn bourbon and cigars is a common courtyard ritual.
“I decide to let fate decide,” Chance answers, taking a sip of black bottle bourbon. “I’m on my way from Sioux Falls to San Diego to hook up with a tuna boat crew when I stop in Rapid City to detour up to Mount Rushmore. On the way back I stop at this little café in Keystone, and read about job openings at a Pepsi can manufacturing plant in Worland, Wyoming. I thought, what the hell, making soda cans sounds more interesting than gutting tuna.”
“No shit,” Jake says taking his last sip of Bourbon. “I installed the heating system in that plant like thirty years ago. They broke ground in March if you can believe it, the place was like a freaking tundra. The top six inches nothing but soupy mud and after that the ground’s frozen eight feet deep. We had to jack-hammer dirt just to run soil pipe. We worked a deal with the electricians to co-rent equipment and since we couldn’t both use the equipment at the same time decided to cut cards to determine which crew worked graveyard, and in three months, I never got used to working nights.
“I never did either.”
“What’s cool was discovering an entire society of people who live after hours.”
“I used to hang with bartenders and musicians,” Chance chimes in.
“Me too, plus the night staff from the hotel where we were staying.” He tosses his remnant ice on the flagstone as Chance drains the last of his bourbon. “It’s an odd thing, how you adjust on the night shift. The routine I’ve had all my life is to get up and start work right away then play at night, but suddenly you’re playtime is before work. And eating was wonky as shit, I’d eat a cheeseburger for breakfast, then an omelet for supper because I got off work in the morning.” Jake opens the ice bucket measuring out the appropriate number of cubes recalling happy moments from Worland. He then pours the correspondingly appropriate amount of bourbon in each glass. Chance swirls his glass allowing time for the liquid to reach temperature before taking a sip. “I might have used a little less ice,” he teases.
“That’s because you haven’t yet learned to appreciate good bourbon, which is why you’re here. He relights his cigar. “So then what?”
“I was working twelve hour shifts, six days a week, building my winter bankroll and staying out of trouble. Still though, San Diego remained my ultimate destination.”
“But fate felt otherwise?” Jake appreciates all stories have a plot twist, otherwise they’d never be retold.
“Yes and no. I probably should have started my story like so many others, there was this girl, her name was Deidra, and she was gorgeous; I’m talking skip lunch to sit with gorgeous, sell the house and live on ramen noodles kind of drop dead gorgeous.”
“Was she French?”
“I met a woman like that once at a French cafe, we were together thirty-seven years.”
Chance has yet to learn about Emelia, but he can tell from the distant way Jake talks about her that it has to be tragic. “All I know,” he gently continues, “is she’s the kind of woman a man rarely if ever encounters. She smelled like sunshine, a strange thing to remember, huh? And her voice, like whispers from heaven. But, she was troubled. Even tormented I’d say, but in a way that makes her seem even more beautiful. Isn’t that weird?”
“Like Sympatico?” Jake states flatly without thinking.
“You dog,” Chance teases.
“I don’t mean like that, I mean she’s tormented, and the way she wears it is striking. There’s a dignity about her; not a “hey look at me,” kind, but the kind that says, I endure.”
“That’s it exactly,” Chance agrees amazed someone like Jake could succinctly nail what most attracted him to Deidra. “Every night it seemed she’d arrive at work more beautiful than I remembered, like it wasn’t even possible she could be real. And the thing is, she’s that way without trying. But here’s the deal, when you could look beyond her obvious beauty, she seemed, I don’t know, dead inside. Like someone with no expectation anything good could happen and no hope anything could change. And those demons, they make her real. Whenever I’d look in her eyes, I could see her struggle, a struggle that makes her seem, I don’t know, like me.”
“I’ll give you this,” Jake says, aware Chance could easily be describing Sympatico, “you know women. After a lifetime of learning I’ve found the ‘stay away from’ women are the ones that look as shiny and smooth on the inside as they do outside. The ‘want to know you better’ women are the ones who capture the nature of the world in their eyes and find a meaningful way to make it seem comprehensible. Of the hundreds, no thousands, of women I’ve known in one way or another, there’s been less than a dozen like that. I married one, and I’m looking after another.” Every topic has its natural conclusion usually reached following some sort of profound statement from which nothing more can be added. Jake takes a sip of bourbon and without saying a word, reaches for the bourbon bottle and pours equal additions in both glasses. Chance considers saying something, but out of respect chooses not to. “So then what,” Jake restarts.
“I make a point to know her. It’s awkward at first because I’m technically her boss, but why let technicalities stand in way.”
“I can tell you haven’t spent much time in corporate America, talk of ‘getting to know her,’ gets you fired faster than faking transcripts or stealing trade secrets.”
“It wasn’t like that, at least not at first. I’m not an expert in art, but I guess the best analogy I have is that when I see images of the Mona Lisa, I’m fascinated by a woman I don’t want to sleep with, but by a woman I want to know better.”
“That was da Vinci’s gift,” Jake interjects. “I saw the Mona Lisa once and it was powerful. I was attending a conference in Paris and snuck away. Jake drives their conversation in a different direction but doesn’t care, the most relaxing part about Bourbon in the courtyard is having the freedom to follow your thoughts. “It’s odd, the way you can wander around this huge museum seeing works by all the great Masters, and then you come around a corner and there she is, hanging unpretentiously on a side wall like hotel art. That’s what strikes me first, here’s the most valued object in all of humanity not in a room all to herself, not in a section of the gallery where you have to buy a special ticket, just hanging on a nondescript wall as if she’s in your home. As if you’re friends with da Vinci, and Mona might drop by for cafe.
“I stand there for what seems like hours, trying to figure out what it is about her that so holds me. It clearly isn’t her beauty because she’s a seriously unattractive woman. I rule out her smile as a path to nowhere, and it’s not her eyes or even her hands. I look and look and then it hits me, in the entirety of her image she captures the whole of humanity. The Germans call it gestalt; the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. In the simplest and most non-assuming way she is me, she is you, she’s anyone who ever understood they matter. So rare is a talent having the ability to capture the essence of a soul on canvas.” Jake takes a long draw on his cigar. “He’s the reason I got married ya know.”
“Really,” Chance teases glad he’s not the only one making up stories.
“Two days after the Louvre, I’m sitting at a sidewalk café playing this game where every time a beautiful French woman walks by, I imagine what I’d say if I had the courage to say something. Then I’d imagine her response based on my incredibly cleaver intro, and based on that, I’d extrapolate to the life we’d have together.”
“One fairy book ending after another,” Chance concludes having played this game before.
“Not necessarily,” Jake cautions as he relights his cigar. “Sometimes it ended well, but not always.” He pauses to reload his story. “Anyway, all of a sudden this beautiful woman strolls by who I can’t help but notice. You know the type right?” Jake asks smiling coyly as Chance who grins back. “And this after being intoxicated for days on the beauty of French women. They’re like a recursive dessert, the more you see the more you look. This woman though, is beyond all that. I mean I can’t take my eyes off her as she saunters down the sidewalk disappearing into some shop.” Jake stares into the darkness as if he’s watching his French beauty escape down the sidewalk. He waits to make sure she’s really gone before getting back to his story. “Then its back to a continual barrage of beauty, every five seconds a gorgeous woman walks by but, this woman who sashayed in, then out of my life, hers is the memory that can’t be superseded. Even fifteen minutes later she’s still on my mind; there’s just something about her.”
“Tell me you followed.”
“I’m afraid prairie cowboys don’t follow beautiful Parisian women, pretty certain there’s laws about that the French Police would have been more than happy to explain on my ride to jail.”
“So I bury myself in my journal, working on a math problem I’ve been trying to solve for months, when I get this sense someone’s staring at me. I look up and there stands this woman asking if it’d be okay to use my extra chair. I’m so stunned I can’t even respond, like some sort of incapacitated monkey, I nod and gesture something incoherent.
“You should have invited her to join you.”
“I know that now!” Jake jams back. “But in that moment all I can see are all the miraculous things da Vinci captured in his Mona Lisa and I’m completely devoid of speech.”
“But you eventually did make your move right?”
“Not exactly, we sit beside each other at our separate tables for as long as forever can be crammed into one of those tiny-ass cups of espresso they serve. I want to talk to her but can’t think of anything to say other than damn the French and their tiny cups. If only she’d ordered a café Americano, then there’d be time to figure out something. But then, in the midst of strategizing how to initiate a conversation, she just matter of factly starts up, and the rest is a very magical history.”
“Things started that way with me and Deidre,” Chance states, “but that’s definitely not how they ended. And it wasn’t that she rejected my advances, I can overcome that, it’s that she wasn’t interested, not even in flirting, and I’ve never known a woman who wasn’t at least interested in flirting.”
“Let me guess, you persisted until you persevered?”
“I tried all my usual moves, and let me assure you, I got game. We managed to become friends but that was as far as I got. We’d have lunch together every midnight and talk. Slowly, and I mean melting snow slow, she reveals how she came to be working the night shift at such an out of the way place.
“No one wanders up to Worland by accident, that’s for sure.”
“It’s funny how frail fate can be, I mean my life is simple and I pretty much roll with the punches. But that’s because I never really lost anything I cared about. Well maybe some stuff,” he says while attempting to decide if his Mom should be on that short list. “I’m the kind of guy who easily lets things go, ‘no encumbrances – no regrets,’ that’s my motto. The intriguing thing is she isn’t running from anything or moving toward something, she isn’t hiding but also wants to be far away from a past she needs to escape. And it isn’t just escape, I’ve been with plenty of women who want that; some out of boredom, others for a chance to change, or find adventure. Her deal’s different, I ask her once if she’s married and she says no, one night I ask if she’s been abused and she says, ‘who hasn’t,’ that’s a messed up answer right? Finally, I just ask her point blank, why Worland? And, this is a bit eerie, but she asks if I can imagine hell? Not the pain or agony part, she qualifies, but the grinding emotional deadness that beats the breath out you before you even breathe.” Chance pauses to recalibrate, he usually doesn’t allow himself to get too deep, but sitting here with Jake and hearing his story about Emelia, causes him to retrace his destiny with rare openness. “She says she’s been in Worland longer than she needs, but has no place to go and no real reason to leave. I can tell her story’s bullshit but figure when she’s ready to tell me more she will. I do however; believe the part about hell, no one could describe something like that unless it’s real.”
Jake recalls his time in Worland as he exhales a long steady stream of cigar smoke, watching it rise in the cold night air like a diffusing memory. “The thing that strikes me most is how emotionally blank she is,” Chance continues. “Not in the dramatic way that begs attention, but in a quiet way that seeks anonymity. And that’s just how things remained, sort of stuck, like the way I was starting to think about Worland.”
Chance takes a healthy sip of bourbon before continuing, the art of good story telling is instilling believable pathos, and as all skilled storytellers know, that requires well positioned dramatic pauses. “That’s when things take a turn, one evening she arrives late for work and by first break has managed to avoid me. When she doesn’t meet for lunch, I go looking and find her on the way out of the plant carrying all her locker stuff. She’s won’t tell me what’s wrong and won’t even stop long enough to talk. Of course something’s wrong, so I follow her, and just as she’s about to get in her car, I grab her arm and tell her she can’t leave, at least not like this. She’s tries avoiding my eyes but I won’t let her. She’s about to tell me something, I can see she wants to share and is just starting when her phone rings. She looks at the caller’s ID but doesn’t answer and then, without any sort of explanation, gets in her car and drives off.
“I know something’s wrong just as certain as I know I can’t let her leave like this, she means too much to me, and I believe I to her. So I do what any man would, I hop on my bike and follow. Unfortunately, by the time I get going she’s long gone and I only have a vague idea where she lives, but since it’s a small town, I start looking. It takes like a half hour but I find her car in this small apartment complex. The bad news is I don’t know which apartment is hers, the good news is it won’t take long to find out. I start banging on every door, and about three doors in, she steps out of another. For an instant she’s glad I’m there, but that passes quickly, overcome by events I suppose. She hurries past without saying a word, but I follow, demanding to know what’s going on. At first she refuses to say anything and gets really angry I’m blocking her, refusing to move until she talks.
“Then, all at once she collapses into my arms crying. I hold her for what seems like forever but is probably less than a minute, but in that minute everything feels right. She begs me to let her go, but I can’t. She promises that as soon as she finishes what she needs to do she’ll meet me. I insist on going with her, but she’s adamant that whatever needs doing, has to be done alone. She says she can’t come back to Worland, so we agree to meet in Denver in one week.
“She promises to call, but-” Chance stops and takes a strong drink of bourbon, staring longingly into a night that could never be as dark as his mood. “I shouldn’t have let her go, but I do, it’s my biggest regret. I drive all the way to Denver but she doesn’t show, or ever call. I return to Worland and stay the entire winter just in case she comes back, but the thing is,” Chance tries vainly to explain, “we never even kissed, and up until the moment of our good-bye, never even touched. But in all my years, and through all the women I’ve known, she’s the only one I ever loved – still love. Is that stupid or what?”
“No,” Jake answers softly his voice rattled with unspoken regrets. “Nothing about love is stupid. It’s a strange force no one can figure out. It doesn’t tell us when to start or even when to stop. It doesn’t provide feedback, or any information about our state, it just is what it is and we have to accept it.”
When Chance left Wyoming it was in a hurry with his life irreversibly altered, that it happened in a snow storm only complicates matters and compounds the toll. The thing about Chance though, is he’ll say anything to get a girl in bed, and doesn’t mind if you ask him personal questions, just so long as you don’t expect honest answers. His story of how Deidra left Worland the night his life went to shit, is not the most eloquent version he’s spun, but the one thing all his stories about Worland have in common is, they always end with a confession to himself about how much he loves her, and how much it still hurts that she’s gone. Chance doesn’t really believe her story about why she had to leave, and vows to someday find her even after everything that happened the moment she stepped out of her apartment and they walked into the parking lot where their lives changed forever. Jake knows Chance’s story is a fabrication, but in a strange and perhaps sympathetic way, doesn’t need to know what really happened. Jake and Chance live in the world of men, and in this world there are but a few rules, the primary one being that it’s not for one man to judge another man’s truth.