Category Archives: Stories

These include my longer stories about life in Montana. Sometimes they’re funny. Sometimes they’re sad. Usually they’re full of lessons.

Stop the Clocks

clock
Stop the Clocks
by Laura A. Munson
(for Erin and Caden)

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

W.H. Auden

People die here in ways they probably don’t where you live. To grizzly bear. Mountain lion. Horse…mountain bike…mule pack…off a cliff, launching their humans, avian, for one last adrenaline rush. An avalanche. A capsized river raft or kayak and a class four rapid and a rock or a log jam. A tipped canoe too early or late in the season on a frigid lake. Tractors, chain saws, timbering trees in the forest, no wood for winter for the ones back home. Deer, elk, moose on the lightless almost-empty country roads…right through the window shield into suddenly pulse-less laps. It hurts to think of all the dead in those moments that go so readily from brave to gone. But we like to call these, somehow, good deaths.
People almost die here all the time, and there are hero’s tales at the bar every night that end in toasting and another round and bragging and laughter, like little boys who have stolen something from the school gym. What doesn’t kill you here, does not necessarily make you stronger. It makes you lucky that you got away with being so brave.
Sometimes it makes you a voyageur. Journey-man. Rich in maybe not moral compass, but clairvoyance when it comes to the ways of mountains, creatures, waters, trees, wind, snow, heavy machinery. But still, even with intuition and bravery, in this country, there is an element of dumb luck to your survival. Put it this way: An agoraphobe doesn’t last long in this neck of the woods.
However you choose to describe us in death, there are a lot of ashes sprinkling the forest floors here, sent from not-so-brave, not-so-unlucky hands. Grief hits hard in our little valley. So many ways to live. And die trying.
Shocking then, when the mountains, lakes, rivers, and creatures and trees and machines seem unimpressed. Cold. Cruel. They didn’t ask us to be here. It’s we who came to them. We who invented some things that made it possible to go where we weren’t supposed to go in the first place. Helicopters. Boots. Polypropylene. But they don’t always save us in the end.
You fool.
You beautiful brave unlucky fool. You had a good death. You died with purpose. Doing what you loved. Getting after it, people like to say around here. We’ll say that about you. We’ll need to. We’re getting good at it.
But what will we say about the lives we lost this last day of winter? What will we possibly say?
The Jehovah Witnesses knock at my door and I hide and am glad I’ve got requiem blaring from my stereo. I might not be the only house today that is playing funeral dirges. I hide, still in my pajamas, still without breakfast or clean teeth, and hope they don’t get stuck in the icy steep of my snow-bermed driveway. Again.
Last time I had to spend an hour with them waiting for the tow truck to talk their sedan back from the ridge where it had attempted to jump, head first. I felt like my angle on Jesus might have embarrassed them a little. Trespassing against us, such as they do.
Today the flyer that prowls though the crack in my door has a strapping, well-fed on red meat, Jesus on the cover holding an immodest glass of wine. Blood. Lots of blood in this Jesus.
A car scratches down the driveway without snow tires. I peer out the door at my golden retriever, wagging his tail after it. He liked the man in the long wool coat with the shiny leather shoes. But wonders why he didn’t lean down for a quick good dog and a pat on the head like the UPS driver, the propane guy, the Culligan guy, the FedEx guy, the neighbor who delivers the eggs, the teenager who brings wood with his buddy, mid-winter.
And I wonder if the Jehovah Witness thinks he’s brave. All those doors and dogs. And today, all the dirges. Maybe doors will fling open today, and weeping young people will lift fists at his shiny shoes on their winter-strewn front stoops. Rage at his red-blooded Jesus and all his wine.
There is nothing that helps us with these deaths. They’re deaths we aren’t used to. We have nothing to frame them by—no sense to make of them– nothing that will gather us at the side of a mountain or have us huddled in the woods, somehow thinking about good ways to die. People who didn’t believe in God, are mad at God. People who did believe in God are mad at God.
We reach to out-of-towners for solace and understanding– who live near highways…busy highways…highways that bear commuters and constant chains of serious voyageurs—people who know that there are weak links every day in that chain. It’s their common practice to expect the ringing phone to bring them news they dread…but will swallow…eventually, or maybe even at once, as the way of the world. There will be a proper burial with just family and close friends. They’ll gather in churches, in black, ashes to ashes in a little urn. A party afterward where people will drink wine and plenty of them will get drunk and cry, but no one will talk about a good death. It’s a normal death. A normal tragedy.
Not this.
This was no regular death. This was no normal death. Not to us. Just because it happened on the busiest strip of highway we know.
So I’ll refrain from telling you for a moment more, how she died. They died. How our pregnant she and her thirteen year old son died. On the last day of winter. Here where we live. Because I can’t bear your reaction: Well, accidents like that happen. Dime a dozen. Still, tragic.. And then you’ll launch into all your people, lost on pavement.
I don’t want to feel so normal.
I don’t.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.

I’ll add to Auden because it’s the only way I can imagine being brave right now, hiding from the solicitors in a snowstorm on this second day of spring:
Pack up the machines. The inventions.
Bring out the bears.
Wake up and beckon us.
Make us come naked. Without boots.
Make us see how far we can get. And watch us stop and cry.
Because it’s not so very far without boots.
Then comfort us where we fall. By wandering past us.
Sniffing our punctured, leaking bravery. And what’s left of our luck.
Tell us you don’t have the appetite for fools. Even beautiful ones.
Make us listen to the shivering birds.
Who’ve come back, knowing there would be snow and little food.
Make us listen…to the shivering birds.
And mourn now. Normally.
Shivering in the woods.
Knowing that spring will unravel now.
Whether or not we join it.

For however else can we understand a head-on collision on the highway? When a purportedly suicidal sixteen year old, in a fight with her boyfriend, catapults her Pontiac Grand Am into oncoming traffic, and hits a Subaru Forester, holding a pregnant woman, and her thirteen year old son, coming back from a band concert on a Thursday night. In Montana. mother and babe

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Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, Stories

Break Me In, Montana

grizzly2
Break Me in, Montana by Laura A. Munson
chicago_skyline
I begged for this. This house. This land. This time. This husband and these children. I begged to know a place season for season. To use last summer’s spent perennials as winter mulch. To rake it off when the Lenten roses poke through. To know, finally, which one is the North Star, and use it to find my way home. I begged to feel my heart sink with the leaving V’s of geese. And become buoyant again with their return.
I did not know I was begging. All those years in cities. Chicago, New York, Boston, Florence, London, Seattle. I would catch myself in storefront windows and say yes, I am alive. I see myself here in the crowd. In that great outfit. Those fantastic shoes. And return to the apartment with the cockroaches and the blinking answering machine, ready to make my home in some glittering concert hall, some stark white art opening, some hushed mocha-toned new restaurant. I did not know I was begging for this when I dropped to my knees one night at the side of my bed like my grandmother used to, and said, please, please, bring me home.
Three weeks later my husband walked into our brand new Seattle house and said, “I just got a job in Montana. You would be able to write full time. We could have our kids there, and you wouldn’t have to work outside the home.”
So we left.
bear1
I watched the Cascades until they were little harmless divots in the horizon, and
I cried all through the dry nothing of Eastern Washington and over the pass that brought me, for the first time, to the Flathead Valley.
Over a hill, and there it was: Flathead Lake to the south, the ski mountain in Whitefish to the North, the Jewel Basin in front of us drifting off into the Swan and the Mission ranges. The canyon leading to Glacier National Park off to the east. Twin bald eagles riding a thermal over us.
“It feels like a set up,” I said.
I could not receive this place at first. It felt like it had power over me like one of those guru types posing to know you better than you know yourself. More so, it felt like my enemy. The answer to a prayer I never meant to pray. Like it would break me in half if I slacked off for one second. Grizzly bears. Forest fires. Avalanches. Mountain lions. Angry loggers. Angry environmentalists. People dying for and from what I could only perceive as folly—kayaking, mountain climbing, mountain biking, backpacking, back country skiing, downhill skiing, horseback riding, ice climbing, river rafting…and on and on.
“Let go of the city,” the lovers of this country would say. “Stay. Sit a spell.”
No, I secretly schemed. Letting go would mean a betrayal. Of that girl in the shop window.
Instead, I spent many years letting go of Montana. Taking hits off the city in drug-dose proportions. Looking down from my returning flight into our little valley, seeing the outline of the mountains, the five or six farm lights still on, landing, thinking I can do it this time. I can stay. Three months later, I would be up in the sky again, panting over the grid of lights below and the skyscrapers on the horizon beckoning me back.
mtlion
Until I had my first child. And the subway so suddenly went villain. The honking cars and heaving bus exhaust and hissing sewers…like land mines. I clung to my baby. I ended up in parks. Grant Park. The Presidio. The Boston Garden. Central Park. The Arboretum. Leaving the city windows to another girl’s self-fascination. Then I would hover over our little valley with the landing gear descending, see the half-dozen little lights below, the moonlit ranges, and begin to find thanks.
It occurred to me then, that letting go was not a leaving. But a climbing in. A yes.
I proclaimed that yes. At first quietly. Ashamed. Then louder. Then so I didn’t know the difference between yes, and living.
Fifteen years. Dog sled racers, endurance riders, snowcat operators, medicine women, stunt pilots. Grizzly trackers, loggers, bowhunters. Helicopter nurses, heart surgeons, brewers and preschool teachers. Electric company cherry pickers, and Flathead cherry growers. Pizza parlor proprietors and organic farmers. Cowboys. Rodeo queens. Horse whisperers. Blacksmiths. Piano tuners. Cross dressers. Quilters. DJ’s, hot dog vendors, mule packers. Vietnam Vets. Ski bums. Fly-fishing guides, bartenders, computer programmers, train conductors. Double Phds that live in their car and grift at the pool hall for food money. Wives who live to hunt. Husbands who live to cook their wives’ kill.
I still have not been mauled by a grizzly bear. Still have not even seen a mountain lion. Have only come upon the aftermath of forest fire…and found a bounty of mushrooms there. Montana never broke me in– like a cowboy who thinks it needs to break the mare’s spirit to gain respect. I was never that mare. It was never that cowboy.
Instead, it was there all that time– in purple Alpine glow and sparkling wide rivers, in the sight of my child’s fingers on a trout belly, the safe back of an old horse lakeside in August, dipping its neck down and drinking slow sips of glacial run-off, in soft rains and misting meadows, anthills and golden Larch, in the little white farm lights and moonlit snowy peaks– it was there, all that long sweet time…welcoming me home.northern lights

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Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, Stories

My Lover, LA

chicken

My Lover, LA
by Laura A. Munson

I love my children. I love my husband. I love my mother and deceased father. Sister and brother. Every person on my Christmas card list. Two dogs, two horses, cat, and pet rat—love ‘em all. I love Montana too—my twenty acres and the hills around our house, the miles I log in them on my trusty horse, the tracks I make on my cross-country skis, the birds and trees and insects and frogs and wildflowers and mushrooms I recognize as they do their seasonal dances. I love the peaks of Glacier National Park, and I’ve even grown to love the fact that here, I’m on the food chain; grizzly bear sushi. It builds character. But what I love a lot more than perhaps I should or would dare to openly admit in a small Montana town where it’s popular to hate all things urban, and Californians as well…what I yearn for, especially in mid-January, is what I can’t get here and that’s excellence in the following: art, dining, shopping, sunshine, surf. So every so often, I sneak off to LA.
prada
I have two great friends there. Best friends. God-mothers to my children. They don’t know each other, and maybe it’s better that way because I can divide my four-day get-away between them, and basically act as gluttonous and selfish as possible. And they forgive me for it every time. Gluttony and selfishness are forgivable in two-day stints/binges, turns out—especially if you’re from Montana.
So I am picked up at LAX in a Mercedes station wagon, by one dear friend, and delivered back four days later in a Volvo station wagon, by the other– my suitcase doubled in bulk, my intestinal tract processing things it hasn’t known in a long while like foie gras and uni and cassoulet, my face a little tanned, my skin a little bare, my toes feeling sad covered in shoes again, but my hands happily around a new, fabulous purse. I take my seat on the plane wearing even huger sunglasses than last time, with a smug movie-star feeling inside—like I’ve had an affair. The flight attendants notice it. I might be famous. I’m glowing. I’ve bloomed.
Friendship is an interesting creature, especially when it’s long distance. It’s alive, but it doesn’t necessarily need your tending. It goes about life without you changing its diapers or helping it with its homework, or remembering its birthday. But then it suddenly shows up and you feel like, without it, you can’t live– you’ll have no oxygen. And then it goes, and you’re breathing along again just fine. You’ve heard people say, it’s like we just pick up from where we left off every time. That’s the kind of friends these two women are to me.
They listen to me sob and bitch about the impossible rejections of the writing life and how my husband likes skiing more than he does me, and that my kids are ungrateful, how I should have gone to Yale, should have stayed in Seattle, or Boston, or Chicago, or New York, and whenever will I get back to Firenze… These are two women who’ve loved me, combined, for longer than I have lived and probably will live. And I love them. They show up at weddings and funerals and they answer my calls; granted each of them spends a lot of time bored on the freeway.
prada
Here’s what we usually do when we’re together—and this extends past LA, to all the afore-mentioned cities, including Firenze and Paris too: We go directly to the best restaurant we can think of, order wine, and eat a long, multi-course meal. Then we go walk around somewhere edgy or gritty or shiny, but with lots of people to look at. In LA, we go to Venice Beach and mix with the Carnies, or to Rodeo Drive and try on dresses at Prada in the best dressing rooms ever (you can watch yourself in a Prada dress on a virtual runway video), or to Montana Ave. in Santa Monica (so far away from my Montana), or to Abbot Kinney or Melrose, or just simply to Mecca: Fred Segal. Once, on Venice Beach, we saw a two-headed turtle and a two-headed raccoon at the same time, and once, we saw Glen Close (who looks like George Washington in person) and Rick Ocasek (who looks like Ichabod Crane in person)—not at the same time and not on Venice Beach.
Then we go back to their houses and lie around on their outdoor futons and read Vogue or do The LA Times crossword puzzle together— because even though we’ve been New York Times crossword puzzle snobs all our east coast spawned lives—hey—we’re in Cali. This crossword puzzle is way more fun. Then we make a pitcher of mojitos and get into the hot tub nude, and talk about mutual friends—their divorces and dalliances or suburban woes. We feel pretty good about ourselves then. So we get dressed up and go out and flirt. Maybe go to a bar cantilevered over Malibu Beach (Moonshadows) or to a museum cantilevered over the hills of Brentwood (The Getty). The last trip, I went to Moonshadows and The Getty twice—once with each friend. The last time I visited LA, both of them had coi ponds.
Well this most recent trip to LA, let’s just say, there were no coi ponds. No Moonshadows and no Getty and no flirting. Why? Because these women are mothers, just like me, in their Januarys, with their kids’ science fairs looming, their constant state of chauffeur-dom, and too much goddamn sun sun sun all the time…and besides, LA is so ridiculously expensive and with the way the economy is going, who can afford a place with a coi pond. In particular, one of them is a new mother—eight weeks. And for the other, this was her weekend with her kids. Which was great. I love these kids. But I had huge sunglasses to buy!
prada
Somewhere between gathering water samples from eight beaches and NOT getting to put my toe in the water due to impending traffic constraints, and wiping up that old familiar French’s mustard-colored diaper goo, I realized that this trip was not going to be about buying sunglasses. At all. Here’s how it went down, present tense so you can feel my pain (keep in mind that in my valley in Montana, we get on average, seventy-five days of sunshine a year, and you can’t get a New York Times—except the Sunday—on Wednesday), and you can’t get an LA Times at all:

Part I
I awake to bamboo and the sounds of exotic birds. It’s pitch black and twenty-two below in Montana, but blue sky winks at me through the blinds and I think I’m at the Hotel Bel-Air—my fantasy hotel, with my non-existent but very real to me, Italian lover, Giovanni.
I burrow into my pillows and dream about my lox and bagels and my crossword puzzle. And the amore Giovanni and I will make… More important, it’s Monday—the easiest day for the crossword puzzle; like David Sedaris, I base my personal worth on the completion of major urban crossword puzzles, and today I won’t have to do it online—just good old fashioned ball point pen (yep) to newsprint!
I sit up and stretch, anticipating the walk I’m going to take later on the beach, alone, because I will be done with Giovanni by then and he’ll be off shopping for me on Rodeo Drive. Then I hear the cries of a newborn and remember that I’m in a child’s cot, in an office in Long Beach, and that I’m staying in the home of exhausted people who “miss the seasons.”
That’s okay—this is their little miracle bundle of joy and I’ve come here to visit it. Help them. Give them their much-needed break. Yeah, right.
I put on my Nike Frees, instead of my lug-soled Sorels, and try to sneak out for a walk to the beach just three blocks away—terra firma. No snow. But they see me. And I am so helpful. I am so good and kind. And loving. What a friend am I. Watch me hold this baby so “you can get some rest.”
I forget why I needed so much chiropractic during my children’s infant years. Four hours later, we go out. We’re walking to the beach. I am ecstatic. Baby starts to cry. We decide to drive. My friend has to do some banking. No, of course I don’t mind sitting in the car with the baby. I end up standing in the parking lot for a half an hour, the baby asleep, leaning against the car, face in the sun. This isn’t so bad. I’m in LA! There’s a tree with flowers on it…right here in this…parking lot…where I’m so lucky to be…standing…in the sun! A deliveryman makes fun of me. I flirt with him, but he’s unimpressed.
We get to the beach. I forget that my friend has moved from Santa Monica, and let me just say this about the Long Beach beach: It’s got a great view of some of the largest oil refineries in the world.
prada
Part II
I meet my next friend in Santa Monica, and I’m thrilled because I love Santa Monica—barefoot, wet-suit clad surfers jaywalking with their boards, the Farmer’s Market, Shutters on the Beach… We experience a movie-star sighting—a movie star I can’t stand—fingers on the chalkboard. Why do they have to wear those stupid baseball hats that say, I’m a movie star—look at me so that I can say, ‘no thanks—I’m not giving out autographs right now.’
We wait in line a half an hour to order a panini, and slowly…I begin to realize that there’s no wine list. But we’re close to my friend’s kids’ school, plus we have a parking place, so this is it. Slowly too, I begin to realize that it’s a vegetarian restaurant. So there’ll be no fancy meat in my panini. Ah….Firenze. For a quick moment, I think of Giovanni—wonder how he’s doing on Rodeo Drive.
We spend the afternoon taking water samples from beaches that we don’t walk on more than to get to the water and walk back to the car. Then we get stuck in traffic. It’s sunny, but it’s sixty-four degrees, and in LA this is freezing. It’s parka weather. My friend’s actually wearing a parka. And huge Prada sunglasses. I’m sweating in a tank top with the windows down, sporting the knock-off Gucci sunglasses I bought the last time I was in LA. At least I get to see the Malibu fire damage. In Montana when we have fire damage, it doesn’t look like you could make it go away if only you had a crane, a really good landscape architect, and a truckload of Mexicans.
That night, we have an early dinner because the water samples need to incubate.
We spend a lot of time cutting holes in a Styrofoam cooler—again, nails on chalkboard, and go to bed early.
Phone rings at 8:00 am. It’s a professor friend from UCLA who’s a famous writer/friend of my friend’s (I would be her non-famous writer/friend) and what I hear from my end is something like this: Oh, hi. Yes, my son would LOVE to accompany your son to the pre-party for David Sedaris tonight. Yep. Uh-huh. Back stage passes? Great. We’ll just drop him off at your house, and then my friend who’s visiting from Montana (that would be not Montana Ave. See: hick) and I are going to take my daughter to a pizza party in Beverly Hills. We’ll just drum up all his David Sedaris books so David can write charming meaningful notes of inspiration in them, and we’ll see you tonight.
It is everything I can do to remain cool and not brown-nose my friend’s thirteen-year-old son. I’ll probably meet David Sedaris in Whitefish, Montana—right? Isn’t he, like, really into skiing?
I can’t go into the rest of this aspect of my trip because it’s just too heartbreaking. Suffice it to say that I met the writer/friend of my friend’s on the front porch of her home in Pacific Palisades, and said something really mature like: “Hi. I’m the un-published novelist friend.”
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Then we dropped off the girl at a pizza party which was behind big gates that I didn’t attempt to penetrate as the un-published-novelist-friend-from-not-Montana-Avenue, and went to Shutters and had a drink or ten and the rest of the night, to tell the honest truth, was kind of a blur. Fine, base your entire self-worth on the completion of a daily crossword puzzle. Jerk. Loser. You missed out. I’m so friggin fabulous. You could water-ski behind my fabulous career someday if I’d let ya. Sedaris. Did I tell you I coulda gotten into Yale! That’s a different story. But I coulda. Just didn’t wanta.
So, it’s my last chance for huge sunglasses, and I wake up hung-over, with an airplane to catch and the little girl, who is my god-daughter, (and exceptional I may add), climbs in bed with me– not as much to cuddle, but to get to the laptop I’ve smuggled away in a drunken stupor to watch re-runs of Brothers and Sisters. She wants to do Webkinz together. I don’t even stay in the same room with my kids when they’re doing Webkinz. I feel about Webkinz the way I felt about Teletubbies and Cabbage Patch Dolls. But I lounge around with her and help her choose furniture for her weird consumerist Webkinz world. Hey, I figure, I’m shopping in LA. The tambourine table actually feels like something you might be able to pick up on Abbot Kinney.
I decide then to make a varsity decision: I’m not leaving. I’m going to have my Hotel Bel-Air fantasy. Damnit.
So I book it—change my ticket and book a room at the Hotel Bel-Air. Spend an extra hundred dollars for a room with a courtyard. Book a dinner reservation and everything. My friend is thrilled. We’re all going to be sprawled poolside for the day, sucking on lavender Popsicles, our faces spritzed with Evian water by guys in pink polo shirts and white shorts. We’ll eat dinner in their fabulous vine-covered outdoor dining room with a fire going. We’ll eat foie gras! And what’s more, her kids will love me forever—maybe even enough to introduce me to Davis Sedaris!
But the incubator was too hot and the bacteria fried, and she and her thirteen-year-old have to go back to All Eight Beaches and take NEW samples.
Uh-uh.
prada

So I spend my day at the Bel-Air, with my adorable but still EIGHT-year-old, god-daughter. She’s wearing a scarf, Jackie-O style, and her mother’s yes, HUGE, (real) Gucci sunglasses, a dress she got in yes, Paris, and Uggs (I’m wearing flip-flops because I wear Uggs every day of my life—for function!)…and we sit by the pool while she eats a nine dollar hot dog and tells me about her trip on safari in the Serengeti. Wait ‘til I tell my own kids about my trip to LA. Absolutely no elephants. Or famous authors. Or even my dear dear friend, Fred Segal. But at the Hotel Bel-Air, they do have pads of butter in the shape of swans. I have a photograph of one.
I eat dinner alone, and have drinks at the bar afterward and hang out with the piano player and request Laura, which is one of my all time most disgusting personal habits. In fact, I have a vague memory of doing the same thing the night before at Shutters.
This story ends like this: I wake up. Five hours to spend in LA, alone, on my one hundred dollar terrace. Five lovely, languishing hours on my sunny terazza…and it’s fucking raining. So I lie in my bed, surf between the Today show, Good Morning America, and the Food Network, get bored, and decide, for the first time in my life, to order porn—see what all the fuss is about. That’s right, porn, at the Hotel Bel-Air. Maybe I can find one with an Italian guy in it.
The whole experience is so utterly tacky that I turn off the television after about five seconds and decide to add porn to the Webkinz, Teletubbies, Cabbage Patch Doll list. Then I pay twenty-five dollars for it at check out, where they give me a look which I’m not going to base my entire self-worth on, but I’m not going to not either. I tip them about as much as I would have dropped on huge, non-knock-off, sunglasses because I want to be invited back.
Sometimes I wish my friends lived in Montana. And I lived in LA. And I could complain about sun sun sun. And then maybe I’d take graceful joy in dirty diapers and fried science projects in a dark, culturally barren, January place, thickly coated in snow—far away from traffic and the horrible torpor of sun and shopping and surf and fine dining. Maybe I wouldn’t be so selfish and gluttonous…and horny.
prada
When I board the plane, I do not look like I’ve seen my lover. I look like I need a vacation. Maybe in a ski town.
As we’re hovering over our white valley, the square claims of farmland, feminine S-ing rivers, masculine mountains, I have a very real attack of not wanting to return to this place. Not because of anything to do with sunglasses; not really. But because of how hard Montana is. How tough you have to be. How brave and humble and honest.
As the wheels hit the runway, the flight attendant announces, “Welcome to the beautiful Flathead Valley, Montana. If you’re here on business or pleasure, we do hope you enjoy your stay. If you live here, welcome home.” And I join the part of me that never went to LA, and never wanted to in the first place.
When it comes down to it, there’s really not much room for the silliness of the “excellent.” Not when it comes to towing your neighbor’s truck out of a snow bank, or feeding your shivering herd in twenty-two below temperatures, digging your buddy out from an avalanche, saying a friendly, “Hey, Bear” as you come around a switchback on a mountain trail, or finding Mountain Lion scat in your back yard where your children play. Whatever Bacchanalian indulgence I might crave, is just that. A craving. And when it’s met, it doesn’t last very long. And I can’t say I’m really better for it. Not really.
What I am better for, I realize, as I turn the key in the ignition and wait while the engine moans and squeaks and finally turns over, is the good coffee I had with my friend at six am, her baby at her breast; the way my god-daughter’s hair smelled as we cuddled in bed, and the way her eyes looked when she told me about the wildebeests, the way my friend leaned down at the water’s edge with her son and collected water samples. For the indulgence of friendship that picks up where it lets off every time.
And it occurs to me as I pull out to the white stark highway, with the logging trucks whizzing by, and the dilapidated old barns and abandoned businesses with permanent Closed signs, that there is power in displacement. Everyone should try living just where they least expect to find themselves. Because it reminds you where home is.
When I get to my house, I am greeted by four feet of new snow, my two dogs, and the neighbor’s dead, frozen, and half-eaten, chicken placed, sacrificial, on my front stoop.
Do you feel sorry for me? Probably not. Either way, please don’t tell anyone in the City of Angels…that way down deep, it is precisely in this mangled but beautiful offering of this exact chicken, that I find my self-worth.

prada

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Mother Bear at the Plaza

Plaza silver
Mother Bear at the Plaza
by Laura A. Munson

I was reared for walking in and out of places like New York’s Plaza Hotel. But I live in Montana now and sometimes I forget how to be that girl. That girl having her first tea at the Palm Court in low riding white tights and a scratchy wool coat, standing three feet and agape below the Eloise portrait, thinking, “Now that’s the life. Living in a fancy hotel, pouring water down the mail chute, dragging chalk along the corridor walls, no mommy telling you what to do. Eloise is my hero.” And later, in Chinaman pajamas, I do both and feel huge.
Much later, I am waiting in the lobby for my first boyfriend, a meeting place between airport and brownstone, with my dead grandmother’s Hartman luggage all around me, considering losing my virginity while the ladies in minks and high stiff hairdos go by. And I still feel huge.
eloise
But today, in jeans and steel-toed boots, a suede thrift shop jacket, a sloppy scrunchy bun flopping at the nape of my neck, a baby in a front pack like a kangaroo, I am the only one who recognizes my footprints in this red rug. The doorman, the concierge, the maitre d’ at the Palm Court, even Eloise, even the little girl in white tights standing agape—they all step aside as if I might be dangerous. I wink at Eloise and stroll by, holding my neck as tall as it has ever stretched and find the Powder Room, for I am here today not to pay homage to my first hero, nor for tea, nor to meet my old beaux. I am here to breastfeed. I am in the safest place I know in New York City, crummy old boots or no crummy old boots. I look down and see what is very possibly dried manure on the sides of the Vibrum soles and think, It’s good for this rug to know a little of God’s country. And I open the white door with the gold gilt. And I still feel huge.
Inside, there is a woman in a black dress and white apron staring at me with an expression that sighs, Oh dear, you must be lost.
“I need a place to breastfeed my baby,” I say, looking for a place to sit. Realizing there is none. Realizing women don’t breast-feed in public, not even in the bathroom, at the Plaza Hotel. I start to lose confidence. Maybe I am a stranger here now. Maybe the little girl who ran in here, tinkled on toilet-paper-lined seats, dilly-dallied at the vanity, transferred pettifores from napkin to coat pocket chatting with the nice maid lady like in a Frances Hodgson Burnett book, remembering to tip a little something, never was. And I am a rancher’s daughter, and I am scared of places like this, and rich people are strangers to me.
eloise

The woman speaks in broken English, which feels like my language now– something like, “I know good place. Come with me. I have daughter.” In silence, I follow her down the hall, into an elevator, up a few floors, through a grand lobby with twenty foot French doors all in a row, and the girl who knew debut parties and benefit fashion shows knows there is a ballroom through those doors.
The Powder Room attendant looks down the hallway toward a row of small well-lit rooms full of mumbled voices and whispers, “No let them see you. Here. In here.” With case-the-joint eyes, she ushers me through tall gold doors.
We are in some sort of V.I.P. Ladies’ Lounge. The kind of place where Madonna hides from paparazzi and society younglings sneak lines of cocaine. We are surrounded by mirrors and high gold and white ceilings, garish escutcheons holding up huge Baroque-looking chandeliers, red damask fainting couches.
“When you finish with baby, come back same way. Don’t talk to nobody.” She leaves.
I sit.
My knees poof up to my nose and I see myself in the mirrors. I see what they
have all seen: This me does not belong. Whatever possessed me to dress like some sort of cross between Salvation Army and Rodeo Queen? The thrift-shop-look hasn’t been in since the early Eighties. Have I lost all sense of taste? All sense of now? I could have at least put on a pair of Nikes and sweats and posed as a stay-at-home mom going to the gym.
eloise

My baby starts to fuss. She is unimpressed with the spectrum of me’s unless they include my lactating breasts. I take her out of the front pack and unbutton my shirt. In the mirrors, I see through maitre d’ eyes: I have too much of my breast showing. Not enough make-up. Ridiculous hair. And then I notice the bruisy-colored haystack– the Monet above me. And I start to sweat. I’m all alone in a room with a Monet. Our next door neighbor growing up had Monets. I’ve been in a room alone with Monets before. But this me, this Montana me, she’s got to touch that thing. Maybe it’ll make her real in this old world of hers. Gotta touch that thing. What if there’re cameras? What if there’re alarms? I reach up, eyeing my aim from the mirror across the room as if I am watching a movie of me. Baby gasping for more suction. A few more inches. Yep. Oil paint. Thick fat brush strokes. Either that’s a damn good reproduction or the real Mackoy. And why not? This is a room for people who own Monets. Who don’t have to touch a Monet to prove they belong. My finger returns to my baby. I guess I don’t know either me.
I consider the thing that brought me back to New York for this visit: to plug into my old scene. Museums. Art galleries. Take in a few shows. Drink ten-dollar-a-pop martinis and not bat an eyelash. Maybe buy a pair of absolutely fabulous leather pants from a gaunt Madison Ave. saleswoman who will greet me with a low-toned: welcome. To see how my old gaggle of friends are handling this next stage of motherhood. To compare gear notes where we used to compare hair stylists. To see if million dollar apartments with doormen and live-in nannies can make one exempt from stretch marks and saddle bags. To just for one night, sit in a trendy new restaurant with city friends and over foie gras hear the one in the self-important glasses say, That’s some of Venturi’s worst work. It’s exhausting looking at mountains all the time…dishing out that kind of awe all the time. I want a bit of what people have done. I want the Chrysler Building. I want—just for a few days– to not be on the food chain!
eloise
I look at myself in the mirror and see that I am instead in some sort of social purgatory. How do I plug into this scene when I’ve lived so long in a place where there is no scene? How can I care about leather pants for the sake of leather pants and not think: Do they repel water? Do they breathe? Do they come in poly-propalene? Good God! Where is my sense of humor? My sense of power? I am giving the light fixtures in this place more importance than myself. Than perhaps even my baby.
And then it occurs to me. It’s the city—it’s stealing my soul. I am feeding my child, for crying out loud. This is a pure moment where nothing should matter but nutrition– the arc between mother and child– let no man put asunder. I stare at my baby and try to keep from thinking about the dress I’ve packed for dinner tonight. The one that looked so chic on the mannequin in Whitefish, MT, that now strikes me as something a Phys Ed teacher would wear to the end-of the-season sports banquet. Whistle and all. Maybe I’ll dress down. I’ll wear jeans. What about all those movie stars that have homes in Montana? I bet they wear jeans when they’re in New York. I’ll pretend I’m one of them. Like I’m above all this…all this…ephemera.
eloise

And just when I am hit with the whiplash of my total-unenlightenment, the door opens. It’s a tall woman in a pink Chanel suit. Her hair is Ivana Trump high and I think, I’d rather talk to Ivana herself– she’s a foreigner. She might understand.
“What are you doing in here?”
This is my payback for all those years of ‘belonging,’ I think. I deserve this. I try to sit up straight in the poof of the couch but only manage a few inches of height. I thrust my chin in the air so I am at least staring at her kneecaps. I put every amount of Mayflower descent, Anglophile, Junior-Year-Abroad, boarding-school-procured nasal and lock jaw into these words: “I am breastfeeding my child.”
She raises a singular, well-plucked eyebrow. “Well, you will have to leave immediately.”
I imagine the guards. I imagine the I told you so on the doorman’s face. “Look, I was led up here–” and then I stop. I don’t want to get that sweet sample of humanity in trouble.
“Who? Who brought you here?”
Do you always talk in Soap Opera-eze? “I don’t feel at liberty to say.” Did I just say ‘at liberty?’ I tuck my boots under the sofa and eye the Monet. And then it happens. I feel this mother bear claw-sharpened edge raise its hackles down my spine and I look up even higher, to her pink Channel un-lactating breasts and say, “I will leave when my child is finished eating.”
“You will leave now.”
And whether I end up being hauled out of here by the scruff of my hickish laurels, I suddenly cannot hold back: “What do you think? Just because I’ve got a little shit on my shoes, I’m going to run outta here with the goddamn Monet?”
She lets out a giant Huffffffffff, blows through the door, and leaves a blinding trail of hairspray and Joy de Patou in her wake.
eloise
Bring on the guards– I’ll call the mayor. I’ll get on the front page of the ‘New York Times’– ‘Plaza Hotel– No Safe Place for Mother and Child.’ Ivana herself will give me a golden key to the front door. I’ll have an open tab at the Palm Court. I’ll be given a check for a million dollars and I’ll put that bathroom attendant’s children through college. I’ll buy a new pair of shoes. Maybe some leather pants?
The door opens. It’s the woman from the Powder Room. For some reason I can look her straight in the eye and it’s not because she’s no inch shy of five feet. “I thought you get lost.”
“No. We’re just finishing up. There was a lady who came in here and got mad at us and I didn’t tell her you brought us up here, but she might–”
“Lady? Lady with…” she holds one hand a foot over her hair and the other a foot in front of her chest.
“Yeah.”
“Uh-oh. You come with me, please.”
Baby back in kangaroo position, boots ready for any terrain, we go from hallway to hallway, looking around the corner before we go like James Bond babes. We skeeter down servant’s stairways thick with grey paint and the smell of rotting room service. One more door and we are back by the Powder Room and I am Eloise. No…better: I am at the intersection of all me’s. I am my own society.
I want to give this saint of a woman a hug. She has put her job on the line for me and my little girl, but maybe for more. The girl reared for tea at the Palm Court says, you owe her a fat tip. But that is an insult, the Montana me says. There is no financial compensation for human kindness. I give her a hug and she holds me hard and then sneaks back to her post taking quarters for hand towels.
eloise

And I walk tall back past Eloise, little girls in white tights, blue-haired dowagers sipping Earl Grey, suburban virgins in transit considering sex but for now a Marlborough Light, a doorman who doubles as a bouncer, but not to me, not today; I am looking at my sleeping baby, safe in my perfectly acceptable chest.
***
Back in Montana. Full of sushi and museums, sky-scrapers– the great stuff of Men. It is nighttime and my baby and I are driving back from a party. She has been fussy and I’m hoping she will fall asleep. I am watching the stars and keeping an eye out for deer, humming lightly to the country music station which I don’t normally like, but tonight it’s like what subway shoosh must be for a New Yorker– a hymn of Home Sweet Home. I look in the rear view mirror and see she is finally asleep and I feel tucked-in by the mountains around me; not awe necessarily. And then I see flashing red lights.
Immediately I get adrenaline in my chest cavity and a ringing in my ears and pull over, reaching for the glove compartment where I know the stuff cops want is kept. I unroll the window and wait, shaking. His boots on the gravel get louder and louder and by the time he is at my window I am no longer scared; I am mother bear. I am all hackles and sharpened nails and to his bellowing “Do you know how fast you were–” I raise my finger to my lips and hiss, “SHHH! I’ve got a sleeping baby in the back seat!”
“Oh!” His shoulders shirk and slump. “I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I know how that is.”
“Can we make this quick? I want to get her home.”
“Uh– sure, Ma’m. I’m sorry. You were going seventy-five and that’s too fast at night so uh–”
I look back at my baby. She’s stirring and she begins to cry. “Oh that’s okay darlin’. Go back to sleep.” I scowl at the police officer.
He looks in the back seat and whispers, “Tell you what. Let this be a warning. Now go get that baby to bed.” I see his teeth make a smile in the headlight.
“Thank you,” I barely say. I have no need to butter him up. There is a child who is teetering on the edge of sleep and I am her mother. Nothing can get in my way.

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Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, Motherhood, My Posts, Stories

The Pack Rat Ate My Patagonia

Fred
The Pack Rat Ate my Patagonia by Laura A. Munson

I have never wanted to kill something before. Trap it live, and then shoot it. Or drown it in a glacially chilled grave. That thing—with the pretty little well-appointed pink nest, with its self-important aroma and little be-jewelled leavings. You see, I am planning a surprise party for my mother’s 70th birthday at her suburban Chicago country club from my rural Montana post, and I really could give a pack-rat’s ass whether or not Mrs. Who’s-who will eat blue cheese. So flush—down she goes. Her and her kind. The kind that is currently camping in the engine of my Suburban. The pack rat that broke the good-daughter’s back.

How is one supposed to carry on sophisticated conversations with the club manager about roast suckling pig in a port demi glace with wild mushroom risotto when there is activity in the garage of architectural proportions? Thievery from diaper bags when I’m trying to sort out the soup course from the salad course? Pillage while trying to estimate how many martinis Mrs. Who’s-who is good for? I’m talking about what floral colors lend themselves to the Persian rugs in the Hunt Room with Roberto the botanical coordinator, and a rodent the size of a Corgi dog is scurrying past my toes with insulation from the garage to beat the ensuing night chill. He’s heard the temperature is supposed to drop to eighteen tonight. Probably because he’s been sitting on my couch with a Budweiser in one paw and the remote control in the other while I’ve been in my office ordering five dollar a piece balloons.
packrat
The phone rings: “Laura dear, I’m going in for a little nip and tuck if you know what I mean, and I’ll be tardy to your mother’s big surprise ta-doo. So if you can arrange to have someone just spoon me into a chair for the party, I’ll be a definite oui to your respondez vous.”
At this moment, I am actually cradling a cordless in my neck, picking out– thumb to index finger– pack rat shit from my children’s car seats before I pick them up from school.
“Why of course, Mrs. Who’s-who, and by the way, do you like blue cheese?”
“If it’s Stilton, Dear. If it’s Stilton.”
It is then that I realize that my car smells like blue cheese. Like blue cheese atop a skunk canapé, served with a musk coulis.
So I run back in the house and I grab a stick of incense and light it off the cigarette burner while I’m mocking 90 down the highway so as not to be, yet again, one of those mothers who gets scowled at by crossing guards as she whips into the school playground fifteen minutes late. It is patchuli incense sent to me by my forty-five year old Deadhead brother who lives in a car conceivably better-smelling than my own, and I realize that my car now smells like a Grateful Dead concert, and I open the windows to get that smell out too.

My kids each have a friend coming over to play.
“What took you so long? Oh geez! This car stinks!” This four times.
“Get in,” I say, as a beer bottle actually rolls out from under a seat and clink clink clinkclinkclinks down the incline of the school parking lot. (I’m not sure I can blame this on the pack rat.)
A PTA mother looks at me, and ushers her perfectly clean child into her perfectly clean white mini-van.
“A pack rat is living in my car,” I say. Like that is an excuse.
It is at this point that I hear a sound– a pitter patter, coming from underneath my hood.
I get out, realize that I am not wearing a bra, open the hood with some odd posturing, and ploink– the damn thing evicts itself and slithers off into the soccer field, which is occupied by just about every kid in town, not to mention their myriad on-time type, non beer-drinking, non-pack-ratty parents.
I smile at them, hiding my pendulous post-breastfeeding chest behind my elbows, and pick out a pink nest of insulation from my car engine, replete with a few pieces of dog food, and one of my daughter’s barrettes. Then I cross the parking lot, and throw this vestige of Montana living, into the dumpster. It is here that my cell phone rings.
packrat
“Laura Dear, hi, this is Mr. Club Manager. Listen, we got your choices for hors d’oeuvres, and we think there might be a problem here.”
“Oh?” I say, slamming down the hood of my car.
“Yes, Dear. We noticed that you chose two Asian hors d’oeuvres. We think one is enough. Remember these people are WASPs. I don’t know how they do things out West, but in the Midwest, it’s still pretty much meat and potatoes, even at the Club. We would suggest the bacon and brown sugar.”
“Bacon and…what?”
“Brown sugar. Everyone in their crowd just begs for it.”
“What’s this black poo looking thing in my backpack?”
“Can we go—it stinks in here!” Times four.
“Laura, Dear? It’s your choice, really. I mean this is your party, after all—even if it is for your mother’s seventieth birthday. I mean everyone knows it’s a surprise party. So if you make a little mistake, they can blame it on you, if you know what I mean.”
“Huh?” I hear a squeal from the soccer field.
“It won’t be a reflection on your mother, is what I mean.”
“Oh. Okay. I guess you can exchange the Thai dumplings for the bacon and…brown sugar. Listen can I call you back?”
“Fine, Dear. But do call me back soonish. I still have to go over the color of the linens with you. The party is in a week. By the way, when do you arrive and what is your local number in case I need to contact you for any last minute details, like whether to serve during toasts or not?”
“Uh—I think my flight gets in mid-day on Monday. I’ll call you from the airport for any last minute details, because I’m…I’m going directly up to Wisconsin to visit a friend for a few days before the party. And she lives in a little cabin. And…and she doesn’t have a phone.” This is a lie.
“No phone? How about a cell phone number?”
“Uh—no cell phone service up there either. Kind of like most of Montana.” This is a lie as well.
packrat

“Mom! There’s that black poo-looking stuff in the baby’s diaper bag!”
Then the baby says, “Ewwww-ah.”
“And your fleece coat—it’s all—holey.”
“Hey—I’ve got a situation. I trust you guys. You do this all the time. I haven’t done it ever. And frankly, I think you know my mother’s taste better than I do. So– listen…you pick what you think is best. I’ll call to confirm…soon. Ish.”
I look into the back seat, and into the one nice thing I think I have left on this planet after two kids, two dogs, a cat and life in the country—it’s the Patagonia fleece my mother-in-law bought me last season. Just a little knock-about coat so you can look spiffy when you’re picking the kids up from school.
And I pick up my fleece, and hold it in the air, pack rat pellets falling off it as it lifts to the sun, and there is not just a little hole under the armpit, no– the whole thing is like a piece of polypropylene Swiss cheese.
That is when I open my mouth and these words come out: “This rat must die.” Then I spend five dollars of quarters at the car wash vacuuming out my car with a blaring Terminator-pitched hose so that all of the kids plus the baby say, “Whuuuht?” when I ask them afterward if they want to go for ice cream.
packrat

That night I take dry wall screws and drill them into the bottom of a rat trap the size of a flip flop. Then I mount it on a two by four and actually say out loud, to myself, “Ain’t nothin’ dragging that trap nowhere.”
Then I slather peanut butter on it and turn off the lights in the garage. “Nighty night.”
The next day there is nothing in the trap, but the inside of my car is covered in pack rat shit, and now, my other last nice thing—my $250.00 Pierre Deux diaper bag given to me by my mother’s suburban Chicago bridge group so you don’t feel frumpy, Dear carrying around all those horrible diapers and things—has a hole in the side of it the size of a softball.
I drop off the kids at school in a drive so silent, that they are afraid of me. And I go to the car wash, forgoing my hair appointment designed to assuage my mother’s comment on her last visit to Montana: can’t we do something about that hair of yours?
I am interrupted by a guy standing at the hood of my car. “Better be careful,” he says. “I just spent five hundred dollars fixing the wiring in my truck from a rat.”
The cell phone rings, then, in-between quarter-feeding rounds. “Laura, Dear, hi this is your Aunt Who’s-who (for some reason every woman in my mother’s bridge group refers to herself as aunt somebody—usually when they want something) “I hate to bother you Dear, but I thought I should let you know, Mrs. So-and So has her nose bent out of shape that she’s not included in the surprise party for your mother at the club. For what it’s worth.”
And standing there, holding the power vac, I feel my oats, because I actually say: “I’ll tell you how much it’s worth: fifty frigging bucks a head!”
Flash: a call waiting from my Deadhead brother: “Laura, hey dude, listen, I’m still a Vegan so like…could you make sure there’s something for me to eat at Mom’s party. Maybe some raw organic carrots and hummus at the cocktail party and like…a smoothie, maybe. I still do garden burgers so that’d be cool for dinner. Hey—and like is this a surprise…or does she know. Because I might have said something to her about it.”
“First of all, YES it’s a surprise! Generally speaking, a surprise party is supposed to be a surprise! And second of all, I don’t think the Who’s-who Club would know a smoothie, never mind a garden burger if it slapped them across the face, and third of all…” I can feel my heart beating in my temples. And it is here that I have a vision of my brother welcoming a pack rat into his Volkwagon van—befriending it, adopting it as a pet, feeding it lentils one by one, fastening a little red bandanna around its neck and naming it Magnolia Blossom. “And third of all…third of all…you can take your flippin’garden burger, and shove it up your–”
“Whoah. Hostility. What’s that about?”
“There’s a pack rat living in my car, okay? The pack rat ate my Pierre Deux diaper bag, okay? The pack rat ate my Patagonia!”
“It’s just a creature. He’s probably just looking for a warm place to get in from the cold. You should–”
“What? I can’t hear you. You’re breaking up.”
I beseech myself: Why am I trying to be the good daughter? At what point do we stop paying proportionally for our adolescences, never mind our births?
packrat

Another five dollars in quarters later, with no epiphanies to speak of and two more phone calls from my brother who is now trying to convince me to pass around a hat at the surprise party to fund his return airfare, I am at the hardware store again, investing in a live trap. Maybe he’s right. I am hostile. Hostile that this pack rat is making it impossible for me to go back for my mother’s surprise seventieth birthday party and look presentable. Hostile that I have offered to co-ordinate this party in the first place. Hostile that people get their noses bent out of shape, especially when they’re just going to go get it nipped and tucked anyway. Hostile that my mother can’t just fly out here for her seventieth and have a good old fashioned pot luc under a rain tarp with a keg and a DJ like everybody else in this country.
I buy the trap, put it in my car this time, bait it with a piece of old pizza and turn off the garage lights.
My ex-boss calls me later that night from a Christian conference in the deep South to tell me she is on fire for the Lord. I tell her about my pack rat. She says, “Jesus says you reap what you sow.”
Next morning at seven-o’clock, I am staring a terrified and noticeably cute little critter in the eyes, striking a deal. “I take you out in the woods, see…and you go make a nest in a nice old stump, see. I save your life, and you save mine, see. It’s a Jesus thing. Capice?”
packrat
And we go, me and my little doppleganger buddy, out to the woods before anyone wakes up. And I lift up the door. And he doesn’t go.
“Go on! This isn’t a Lassie episode! Get out of here. Shoo. Go! I know they don’t have Patagonia or Pierre Deux in the woods, but moss works just fine! You’re a rat! I’m the one with the WASP lineage to uphold. Go on! Git!”
And he goes then. Slowly, with stealth, at a royal’s pace, a little hobo stick over his shoulder, looking back once, his nose a little bent out of shape—he wouldn’ta cared, you see, if I double-Asianed his hors d’oeuvre choice, wouldn’ta cared, see, if I’d spooned him into a chair or hung him from a chandelier, given him a GD gardenburger or one of his own turds.
Aw shucks, little guy. Write when ya get work. It’s a cruel world out there. Ain’t it.

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Inversion

inversion
Inversion
by Laura A. Munson

It’s lonely in February with just one woodpecker and a few chickadees against the grey. They call it inversion.
Our valley is flanked by the Whitefish Range—foothills to the Rockies– what in summer looks like a towering garden wall. Then winter rolls in from the Pacific Ocean and gets caught along its jagged edges; and we are sequestered here under a low ceiling of grey, from as early as October, to as late as June.
I don’t have the mind for winter much past the end of January. I can’t sleep that long. Day after day of this grey, socking us in, pressing us down, depriving us of vitamin D. I try to work with what is left—with what is not dormant. I become fascinated by paw prints—are those snow hare prints? Mountain Lion? Fox? I go out with a field guide and a ruler. Scat becomes a symbol of communion. Even the deer start to seem exotic. Crows, prophets. The raven, a mystic holy one.
I walk in insomniac circles in the snow to prove that I am alive. Is that the actual dirt of my driveway glinting through the ice? Does the pond look like it’s opening up in the middle—just a bit?
I force bulbs in my kitchen window, missing the wildflowers that
cover the hillsides from June on to the snows—the yellow arnica, the pink roses, the purples of the columbine, wild lupine and geranium, the orange of Indian paintbrush, the blue flax, and on and on until the violet of the asters. The bulbs in my window come up so wan, knowing they are decoys.
I become good with the mawl, splitting kindling, never enough in this undying season. Sometimes I split wood just to hear the echo. Maybe the woodpecker will answer. Maybe it will be a Pileated woodpecker—maybe there will be red in the trees.
It is fashionable to complain. I do not want to complain. I remind myself that it is this precise grey that keeps our valley free from over-development, our hillsides thick with Larch and Fir, Ponderosa and Lodgepole pine– not thick with the “rustic chic” of log-accented condos and private ski chalets. These are not Colorado winters bedazzled with sapphire skies and relentless “champagne powder” days. This is still the great Northwest; fertile and wet and dense. And grey. Perhaps that which is so fertile must sleep deeper. Longer.
I slap skins on my skis and hike to the top of the mountain, above the cloud level, just to see what has been procured for pilots and high-flying birds who’ve had the guts to stay. I strap on skis and climb through the grey to remind myself—my skin, my retina– that there is a color in this world brighter than my orange down parka.
The sheen off Glacier National Park is garish. Like a confection. The sun so sovereign. The sky so blue with infinity. My heart rises then sinks: How could we be so…neglected?
And I remember the gluttony of summer. Dipping hot feet into mountain lakes turquoise with mineral-rich glacial run-off, melting lotion into golden shoulders, waking with the birds at the exact blush of dawn, little bundles of fingers purple from picking huckleberries, emerald green peas in a silver pail.
Maybe I’ve got it wrong.
Maybe we are being protected from something that only the sky knows. Maybe the inversion is a great grey net, preserving us, somehow.
It looks so quiet below. Not sinister.
Yes, I decide. We are being preserved.
I breathe into the blue and slide back down under, and for a moment, as the world vanishes into vertigo, I feel free. Floating in-between acute wakefulness and sleep again; a part of the gentle hand of ozone covering us all these months, year after year.
And then it’s the valley again, cut off at the shins. The lake, a white footprint in the middle of it all. And again, I am on my front porch, chin to the grey, but I am thanking it now.
For however else am I to remember the welcome the wildflowers deserve?

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Raven

Heart_Shaped_Rock

Raven
by Laura A. Munson

I know a woman who frequently finds hearts. In rocks, in the dish suds, in the shape of manure clods. She’ll say, “Laura! Come here.” And I’ll know that I am about to see some mystical arrangement of two curves, cleavage, and a point.
I know another woman who claims that whenever she begins a trip—in her car, on horseback, by foot, a hawk flies right across her path. “That’s how I know we are going to be safe,” she says.
I know a man who says that when he was a boy, his father told him that there was a magic place in the forest where there was a circle of trees. And if he could find it, and stand in the very center of the circle, he would get any wish he could dream up. So he was always walking around in the woods behind his house in northern California, in search of the Circle of Trees. He never found it. But now, as a man, in northwest Montana, he says that he cannot take a walk in the woods without coming upon a perfect circle of trees.
“Do your wishes come true?” I asked him.
“I’ve never made a wish there, actually. I just figure that the circle is, in itself, the proof that wishes can come true.”
I knew a girl when I was young, who was on the lookout for stones with perfect rings around them. “They’re good luck,” she’d say, squatting on the banks of Trout Lake in northern Wisconsin. She would pick them up faster than it took for me to imagine how a ring in a rock could have power; never mind believe in it. I wanted to believe—her bucket filling up with all that luck.
For a while it was blue sea glass. On the beaches of Lake Michigan. Green, white, and amber were abundant. Blue was hard to find. But not for me. Red was almost impossible, but I’d find red too. Then someone said, “Do you know what that is? It’s broken glass. It’s litter. Pollution. How can you find that beautiful?” So I stopped looking. Still, on beaches, I find blue sea glass. Put it in my pocket. Don’t tell anybody.
My daughter finds X’s in the sky. From airplanes. “Look, Mama. Another X. Isn’t it beeuuuuuuuuuutiful?” I don’t tell her that it’s exhaust from an airplane. She can find beauty wherever she wants.
Now, for me, it is the raven. Always a raven with audible winging, coming out of nowhere as if it is the same one, following me, flushing at my presence, performing its fly-by. It halts me. Reminds me to breathe deeply; say thanks.
My husband finds faces in coals. Usually late-night, around a campfire, when the fire has burned down and everyone else has gone to bed, and it’s just us. He is silent, staring. I know what he is doing. I leave him to his faces. I have never seen them. He says I look too hard.
I apologize to the coals. I assume I have not looked hard enough. I assume I should be the sort to see every design in all of Creation.
But I hear the winging; the raven being released into the night. So close I could reach up and let it skim my fingertips.
Breathe. Thank you.
I take a stick and poke into the coals, collapsing the faces I haven’t seen for whatever reason. I do not need to see faces, I say in my mind. I am the fire. The faces are me. I am not Narcissus of the fire ring. Nor an interpreter of Nature’s art. I do not need to see the designs as much as receive them when they come.
And still, there is the raven. And I wonder: are these things offered? Or are they beckoned.

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Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, Motherhood, My Posts, Stories

Spring-blind

2007-03-06_snow-goose-4

Spring-blind by Laura A. Munson

I have not noticed spring like this before. Perhaps this owes to the fact that this spring has been a long one—two years, more or less.
It began with the Snow Geese migration last April which I drove five hundred miles round trip in one day to see, over the Rocky Mountains (and back), to a place called Freezeout Lake. I missed the geese by a week, but discovered Avocets and Northern Shovelers instead. I did see one Snow Goose. It was dead in a field. I wanted to spread out its wings and sleep by it like Terry Tempest Williams. But I was scared to touch it. So I touched it. It was soft and warmish. I wanted to pluck a feather. So I did. Three of them. I felt each one down my spine. I had never plucked a feather before.
Then, within days, there were birds in the morning, waking me with their nesting frenzy. Flocks of Robins feeding in the fields, Red-winged Blackbirds assuming their bossy haunt of the marsh. And the rest came: the Bluebirds, Western Tanangers, the Sandhill Cranes. And there was a time when spring was just spring with the promise of summer as I have known it. And there were times when I knelt in the soft earth to smell the sweetness and give thanks, but maybe, too, as a bargain.
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Then, summer, as we have known it, did not come. Smoke came. And spring moved through a summer of forest fires and we did not see one bird for all the smoke. We needed the birds—how else could we believe in summer? And then the terrorist attack came, and we missed the migration for all the smoke and television. And we needed the migration. More than we ever have. We needed to watch them go. And to believe that we were worth returning to.
It was then that I started stealing things. Hoarding them. Cramming them greedily in my pockets and stock-piling them on my desk: heart shaped rocks, bones, pine cones. Hoping mostly for a nest.
Spring moved then, through the Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, of my mind, slowly groaning under the snow heaves in the meadow and tossing and turning below the frozen ice of the pond, while its time-twin sunned on rocks in Costa Rica, and I was left with tiny questions presented by wet mittens holding empty nests: “Will the birds need this again? Do I have to put it back?”
“Yes. You should put it back,” I told my little girl, in the voice of the god I had been hearing as I pulled things through the snow and shoved them into my pockets. And we did. We put it back where she found it, in the low branches of an alder. I knew well that the bird which made this nest would not use it twice; I made her put it back so I could keep my three feathers. My heart shaped rocks. My shells and horseshoe crab skeletons and bones, all in a jumbled cairn on my desk, hoarded. Proof.
I went to Florida somewhere during this long spring. I did not see a Roseate Spoonbill; I did not know what they were then. But I found a pink feather on the beach on Marco Island and if you ask me how my trip to Florida was, I will tell you this story, and another one that had to do with a starfish I found on the beach and took even though it was still alive, then returned; then took again and kept. The nest in the alder branches is carrying more and more weight the longer this spring goes.
If you are my daughter, I will admit to you that I took a starfish that was still alive.
“You should not have taken that starfish,” my daughter said.
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I returned to Freezeout Lake this second April in spring to see the Snow Geese. Earlier this time. I crossed the Rocky Mountains, and drove through the bleak everlasting white that drove the pioneer women white-blind and is what was left to the Blackfoot Indians if you don’t count liquor stores and casinos. I drove past an historical marker, blowing horizontal in the wind. I stopped my car on the side of the road and waited for the wind to lay down its tale for a minute. When it did, I blushed. This is where Meriweather Lewis was shot by Blackfoot Indians who were insane with pride and fear and this is where Lewis and Clark turned around and traveled another thousand or so miles south until they found their mountain crossing and even then they were not at the Pacific Ocean and it would be months and months before they ever found what they were looking for and you just drove it in a few hours, you silly stealer-of-starfish birdwatching non-goose—or something to that tune; I wasn’t sure—the wind swooped it up again before I could read it all. Still I eyed the pass I had just negotiated in my SUV not forty miles behind me, and blushed.
I saw the Tundra Swans first, their white-silver necks pumping them forward like my daughter’s skinny legs on her swing. There are Mourning Doves in their song. Then all 300,000 Snow Geese came up at once and it roared; I felt it in my spine. A professor from the University of Montana told me they were going to the barley fields to feed on the spent grain for their nightly meal. The Northern Pintail Ducks followed them, so secondary in their brownness. I looked down and there was a dead Snow Goose with its breast sliced open, its feathers bloody, a ruby organ lying next to it in the sand. I looked up at the professor. “We gave it an autopsy this morning,” he said. “We checked the liver for Airborne Cholera. It didn’t have it. Sometimes they just die.”
All I could think to say was a tiny wet-mittened, “Do they fall out of the sky when they die?” which was code for, I took three feathers.
He smiled, sadly. “Sometimes.”
I went to the grain fields and they were white and roaring and there were farmer’s children with their noses pressed against picture windows with whirligigs and bird feeders on their front lawns. Then I drove back over the Rocky Mountains in time for a late dinner.
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I have a bowl made out of a dried, halved and hulled-out, grapefruit. It sits on my desk with the pink feather in it, the three white feathers, and the starfish, atop the cairn of shells, heart-shaped rocks, bones. I look at it and think about Airborne Cholera and non-brown birds falling from the sky after thousand mile migrations and mountain crossings and white-blindness. And I think about how starfish grow their points back if one breaks off. I need this bowl, at least until spring can turn to summer.
We put a bird feeder up in January even though the man at the store told us the winter birds would not trust us this late in the season; we’d have to wait until spring.
“Oh the birds will come,” said my daughter. “They’re hungry.”
But I did not trust. I missed the migration, after all.
She was right. In the first hour after we hung it from the eaves on the back porch, we had Mountain Chickadees and Black-capped Chickadees. And we learned that there is a difference in the world of Chickadees and it is this: a stripe through the eye. Then we had a Red-polled Finch with a broken foot. At first we thought it had a bloody head but then we saw that it was just its marking. It kept falling asleep under the feeder and tipping to one side when the snowy wind blew. We kept trying to catch it while it was sleeping; I’m not sure that we knew what were going to do with it. We just wanted to touch it. Save it somehow. Love it for trusting us and believing in spring in January. After three or four times, it flew away and stayed away; it didn’t trust us anymore. Would you?
Then we had Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Lincoln’s Sparrows and then the snow melted and we had Red-winged Blackbirds who are utterly obnoxious but I love them in the cattails so much that I cry when they come back. There has been a lot of crying this spring. Frogs make us cry, especially.
One morning, we saw two Evening Grosbeaks. They looked like parrots– accidentals. We have had Hairy Woodpeckers and Downy Woodpeckers, Starlings and Juncos, Camp Robbers and Flickers, and once a Mourning Dove. And even when we stand at the window, not three feet away from the feeder, and stare through binoculars, we still can’t really see the yellow stripe in the Pine Sisken’s wing and tail. We only know it is there, like we only know it has been spring all along.
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When the Mountain Blue-bird came back to his house in the meadow, we said, “Hello, Friend.” That is his name, according to my daughter. Then we went to the pond and there was still ice in the middle, but we saw a male and female Barrow’s Goldeneye and a male and female Hooded Merganser and we couldn’t believe we could have such birds in our measly little pond that dries to cracked mud by August even without smoke. And there was a couple of Mallards and we could believe them, because there is always a couple of Mallards. The male Goldeneye was making quite a show with its purple head and its alabaster markings and its ability to dive down and then bob up like some kind of machine bird. The female seemed brown and unimpressed. It occurred to me that she might like to see my pink feather or maybe my long white Snow Goose feathers, or even my starfish. She looked at me and said, “You should put it all back, if you want summer.”
I answered her, “Maybe I do not want summer.”
That is when my daughter said, “I once saw two ants shaking hands. Come on. I’ll show you.” And we went to her anthill that I had mistaken for a stump all this time, and we peered down into it and held our breath over its roaring vertical migration. I watched two ants carry a twig to the top, politely going around the other ants who were on their way back down over the millions of fir and larch needles. And when they got to the top, they gently laid down the twig, then mounted it like a balance beam, came into each other, met at the middle, stopped…and then they shook hands. “See,” said my daughter.
“Yes. I do see,” I said.
So we went to the alder tree in the marsh where we had replaced the nest in January. To visit it. To see if it was still a tightly woven vessel. To see if a bird had claimed it. (I was not so sure about the ways of birds now.) And we saw instead, that it was gone. Now there was nothing to hold the weight of my bowl. And I knew that our long spring would be over soon. And we turned back for home.
And we came across a pile of fur leftover from a kill.
“Oh that’s sad,” said my daughter.
I looked to see what the animal had been. Something softer and smaller than a deer. Larger than a coyote. Something that was very white in places and very brown in other places. Something capable of carrying much weight.
“I’ll bet that fur will help the birds with their nests,” said my daughter.
Then we heard the three part pierce of the Varied Thrush but again, did not see it—we never see it. But we knew it was there, like we have known it is spring.
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Then later, by moonlight, I walked out to the marsh where the alder trees are, holding my brimming grapefruit bowl. I woke the frogs and they all warned each other of me with beautiful music. I stood with my bowl in my hands, and I lifted it up until the moon poured itself over my feathers and my starfish, casting them in its blue glow. Then I leaned over and put my bowl in the branches of the alder and went home to receive summer.
***
It came in April when I took my daughter to Freezeout Lake to see the Snow Geese on her birthday. I took her, not because she needed to believe, but because I needed to. At dawn, we stood out on a peninsula and watched them lift, rising to feed—300,000 fold.
No terrorists, no war, no loss or fear of hope can take away belief such as that. Each April, the Snow Geese become our permission.

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The Moral of the Morel

yosemite

Originally published in “The Sun” literary journal

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The year before I moved to Montana, a guy shot another guy for picking huckleberries in, what he had so self-deemed, “his” huckleberry patch. Said he thought it was a Grizzly bear. Like that’s supposed to make it safer for huckleberry pickers everywhere. At that point, so new to my life in the Northern Rockies, I didn’t know what to fear more—the Grizzly bears or the homo sapien with the gun. I was a city girl. I was used to humans going amuck. Just not over huckleberries.
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Over time, I made my peace with the bears. But this shift took practice. Tectonic practice. Many walks in the woods. I redefined my notion of surrender—from a letting go, to a moving in. I stopped watching shows about Grizzly bear attacks on The Discovery channel and started reading field guides instead. I put away my books with titles like “The Night of the Grizzly” and started talking with Glacier National Park forest rangers whose jobs entailed tracking these creatures, not sitting on their couches worrying about them. And they convinced me: the critters higher than I on the food chain, really didn’t want to eat me. They could, if I did something stupid and threatened them. But as long as I paid attention, I was about as likely to get eaten by a wild animal, as I was to get struck by lightening. And I am not a woman whose reaction to lightening has always been to look at it in awe, but not fear, necessarily. It wasn’t that different really than learning to hold onto my purse tightly on a crowded sidewalk and affecting the blank You-can’t-see-me-if-I can’t-see-you stare I had perfected in my years as a city-dweller. Don’t walk alone in a dark street equals don’t hike with a steak sandwich in your pocket. That sort of thing. In short, I bowed to the notion of being on the food chain and wore my new consciousness like a badge out on the trail. Finally, I swallowed the necessity for my communion with nature and if it ended in bloodbath, then it was still better than being stabbed on the subway and dying in the din of public transportation. But always in the back of my mind, it was this “huckleberry picker” that I feared. This breed of backwoods misfit, more lost than found. And a peace with him seemed harder and harder to strike the longer I lived outside the city where we humans are only prey of one another.
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At a certain point, for the most part, I stopped entertaining my fears in the woods, so agog was I to the beauty and splendor that is my life here. Except for when friends would come to visit. It was at that junction that I would see myself through their eyes, and question the validity of myself as a truly-swallowed-whole Montana outdoorswoman. They’d be sitting at the kitchen table over morning coffee, blithely anticipating their day playing out under the Big Sky, and I’d hear myself saying things like:
“Have a great walk, but uh— if you see a mountain lion, get big, but don’t run. And if you see a moose, stand up against a tree and circle around until you tire it out. You might have to climb the tree, however. And if you see a bear, don’t move. Stand still. If it starts coming at you, get small, cover your vital organs, make sure you have sun glasses on. But if it’s just minding its own business, then stand your ground. You don’t want to offer yourself to it by curling up in a little ball like so much steak tartar. And here’s some bear spray. If you’re getting charged, you can slip back this lever and deter it with the red pepper spray. Hopefully there won’t be any wind. The family of black bears over there in the woods shouldn’t be any problem, but there is a Grizzly up over the ridge that wanders down this time of year so pay attention to scat and scratch marks on the trees. Whatever you do don’t run!” I didn’t say, was “the locals like to call bear spray: seasoning.” I’m no bully. Just informative by nature.
“Scat?” is usually the one word which would befall my visitor’s lips.
“Yeah. Poop. I’ve got a field book if you want. With color photographs and a ruler which helps identify it. It’s a lot of fun, actually.” And I’d cut myself off then, because I could tell, this thought was about appealing to my visitor as trying to identify the origin of the phlegm ball on the sidewalk in front of his or her apartment building.
Sometimes I’d try to launder the situation which I had just, in one fell swoop, laid limp, with a “the fairy slippers are in bloom” or “check out the four foot tall ant hill when you turn your first corner” or “you might find some huckleberries this time of year.” But then, it is remiss not to add, “just remember the bears really really like huckleberries too. And you don’t want to be their toast.”
One friend visiting from New York City peeped a pained, “I didn’t know huckleberries were a real thing. I thought they were, like—you know—cartoon characters—story people—Huckleberry Hound, or like, Huckleberry Finn– that sort of thing.”
“No, they’re real alright. And it’s no cartoon when you’re out there, either. The bears are hungry this time of year. And they don’t have the Consciousness Gene people are supposed to have. In other words, they don’t really care about you. You shouldn’t take it personally.”
Then he dumped the bear spray, scat book, and idea of a hike in the woods on the kitchen table, sat back down to the remainder of his cup of coffee, and slathered a piece of cold toast with about a quarter jar of my homemade huckleberry jam. I felt a little territorial, like I might shoot him for it. It was late August. My jam supply was low.
“This is not relaxing,” he said.
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And here was my litmus test: am I really this person now—is the language of wildflowers and mule deer beds in the winter wheat really imprinted on my heart more than the Sunday Times crossword puzzle? Am I really more in touch with what’s singing in the larch snag out back, than what’s playing at the MET? Or am I an imposter?
So I shot him with this: “Why do people accept danger in the city, but not in nature? People=threat. Animals=furry little balls of Walt Disney fuzz. Have we forgotten that David had his Goliath? Ahab, his Moby? The Old Man in the Sea, his Fish? Jonah, his whale? Have the realities of the natural world become so far removed from our lives of urban and suburban sprawl that we don’t even see them as our intrinsic milieu? Tell me this: why would you, without even blinking, hop on the subway, accepting that you are sharing a small underground vessel with potential muggers, murderers and rapists, but blow-off your Montana morning walk due to the possible encounter with a cat, bear or—ah heck—I didn’t even mention the wolverines?”
His answer was the absolute stunning and depressing representation of what makes us Human: “Laura, I’m on vacation.”
My response was small and defensive (probably because I had just heard the phrase intrinsic milieu come out of my mouth): “So next time I’m in New York City, I guess I should expect to be exempt from muggers as I wait in line for Lion King tickets.”
“Honey, getting from point A to point B in the city is about necessity. We accept the inherent dangers therein. Taking a walk in the woods is just not a necessity.”
And I felt a hot wind inside me: “I guess I don’t agree with that idea anymore,” I said. “Pass the jam.”
And instead of taking the hike we had planned, my friend opted to go shopping at one of the myriad curios shop that plague my western town, pandering to folks who travel through here and have no problem dropping a few hundred bucks on the turquoise-studded belts and suede-covered picture frames and spur earrings and other total Ye Olde crap that feeds the myth of the American West. That day, as I sat in a taffy shop watching my friend buy a pound of huckleberry taffy made in Wisconsin, I have never felt more hungry for a walk in the woods. And I knew that I had slipped over into a perhaps tangled, perhaps mountain-lake-clear world in which I had come to trust nature more than my very own species.
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***
It has been a decade since I moved to Montana, and I have seen Grizzly bears but never one that had any interest in me, no mountain lions, no wolverines. But it wasn’t until last week that I finally met my Huckleberry Maker, or his cousin, Morel Mike.
I was driving up the North Fork road that runs just west of Glacier National Park, with my two small children, to go mushroom picking. Our part of the country experienced the top-priority fire in the nation last summer, and the thousands of burned acres have produced, amongst a jigsaw puzzle of burned animal skulls and stray black bones, charred tree snags and ashen pine and fir cones…a mighty crop of morel mushrooms. As we jiggled over washboards above a brown and swollen and broiling Flathead River, usually a perfectly clear window to the rose and sage colored river rocks at its bottom, we should have taken that Montanan’s pause– should have taken the river’s condition as warning.
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This was not the Nantucket of my youth where the bonny rogues grab nicely designed buckets from their un-muddy mudrooms and romp off in pink pants and rubber boots from the L.L. Bean catalogue to gather blueberries for their morning muffins. This is the land of Grizzly bears, burned tree snags– their roots so blazed through, that they fall flat in the wind without warning; widow-makers, they call them. This is the land of poisonous mushrooms that pose as delicacies. The land of giant cats, and yes, wolverines. I know all this, like I know the folds of my knuckles. But what I did not consider, is that this land is all this, and too, the land of the migrant worker.
The road was suddenly flanked by rusted-out cars and small groupings of blackened mushroom hunters, glaring territorially from the hillsides. I was driving in, high on Woodie Guthrie and dreams of morel and gruyere soufflé, and they were driving in on rusty floorboards missing muffler, tailpipe, wife, children, and dog with institution-sized plastic buckets and a twelve-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon in the can. Woodie Guthrie would have stopped mid-song phrase—this land was very suddenly, NOT my land. Not made for nothin’ except these fifty dollar a gallon fancy-ass mushrooms that my six-shooter can convince you fastern’ a flash on a flood that you’d better skeedaddle back to that Suburban of yours and go back to your air-conditioning, little girl. There was no friendly waving—not even the local’s too-cool-to-wave tip of the finger off the steering wheel, like, hey, bro, we belong… There was no slowing to make cute little local’s comments, like, hey—nice mushrooms. Where’s a girl go to get a mushroom like that in these parts? No Tell ‘um Ridge over near Never Wuzzer Pass? This was the land of my mother’s distant city-spawned words: “Lock the doors, roll up the windows.” I resisted, because I know better than to judge a person by the way that they look whether I’m in the city, the country or any other place. I thought.
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As we drove through, stone silent, dodging dicey stare-downs, and interrupting illicit-looking exchanges by our very SUV-ish presence, I flashed on a sunny day in Eastern Washington in the early 90’s when my husband and I, then recent New England transplants, did what most New Englanders do on a sunny Sunday in autumn: we went apple picking. The rolling hills of Wenatchee had us salivating with eastern memories of stopping by red barn farm stands complete with do-it-yourself apple presses and attractive corn husk scarecrows. We anticipated the same ritual—grabbing a few wooden-slat buckets and going out to the orchards for a small fee. Making pie for days after. Applesauce. Apple Brown Betty.
By orchard by orchard we drove, with nary a barn in sight. What we did see were beat up vans parked on the side of the road, and hoards of dirty-skinned raggedy-dressed young men standing in trees on rickety ladders. Not at all the stuff of Apple Brown Betties. They looked stern and tired and pissed-off. We stopped at one orchard that had a Lord-of the-manor looking fellow addressing a new group of van-people, and approached him once he’d finished with the others.
“How much for a bucket of apples?” we said.
“Seven dollars a basket,” he said.
“That sounds reasonable,” I chimed.
So out we went, filled a few buckets, got sneered at by van people all the while, and returned, with hearty grins, but not quite Apple Brown Betty ones.
“Thanks,” my husband said, handing the man a twenty.
He looked at us, cocked his head as if seeing us for the first time, and let out a roar of a laugh that smelled like stale cigars and rotten apples. “I pay you. You don’t pay me!”
In that moment, we wished we were on Nantucket making blueberry muffins in pink pants. “You mean we were working just now? For you?” I whimpered.
“Yup. You pick the apples, I give you money, you give me the apples. This is America, in case you didn’t know it.”
“What if we want to keep the apples? And pay you for them?” I said, a little bigger, a little more American.
“Doesn’t work that way,” he said.
So we handed over our apples, and drove away with fourteen dollars in our pockets. All that and a liberal arts education can buy you a few cups of coffee at Starbucks. We didn’t talk until we saw the lights of Seattle. I think we went out for sushi that night. Used the fourteen dollars on the tip.
As I pulled off the road, past the mushroom pickers, I collected my children, a little sunnier than normal, a little too perky for my daughter’s taste.
“What’s wrong,” she said.
“Nothing, honey. Let’s pick us some mushrooms!”
She doesn’t miss a beat. “Who were all those people?”
“Mushroom pickers. Now remember, if you see a bear, stand still. Don’t run. And if Mommy has to use the bear spray, stand behind me. And avoid the trees if the wind picks up. This will be fun.”
She looked up at me deadpan. “I’m not scared of the bears or the trees. I’m scared of those men down by the road.” Remember, she is a Montana girl, born and raised and nature-fed.
“Oh, no! Don’t be scared of those people. They’re just people, like you and me. They’re just a little…dirtier. That’s all.”
She grabbed her bucket, begrudgingly. “Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure.”
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And it occurred to me in that instant that I was perhaps the worst mother on the face of the planet. Because not only was I putting my children in the eye of a forest burn with widow makers blowing in the breeze and a healthy habitat of Grizzlies surely lurking in the breaches, but I was judging a book by its cover and lying about it, both, never mind the very real notion that this particular breed of human being represented a beaten-down and forgotten fragment of society which was capable of what any beaten-down and forgotten fragment of anything is capable of: love, fear, hate, murder, grace. I was scared, then, of it all. But a-mushroom picking we went.
As we knelt in the black-bottomed forest, we teetered on that thread of fear and wonder, picking morel after morel, my two year old clinging to my neck, like he knew something we didn’t. Then a beat-up old pick-up pulled in next to ours, not ten yards away, and a guy got out and sat in the cab, smoking a cigarette. My daughter looked at me, and I kept up my smile, clinging to the faith that carries us across that fine thread.
“There’s a whole cluster of ‘em! Look!” I chimed.
And her fears were forgotten to ten more morels.
I eyed the man, smoking, shirtless. And then we heard a shrill howl. My god, I didn’t think of wolves. We jumped—even my two year old jumped. And then we realized the howling was coming from the man in the pick-up truck.
I started laughing then. Nervously but unabashedly laughing. Just who had I thought I would see out here, up the North Fork, picking this bounty of morel mushrooms that go for fifty dollars a gallon to the local buyers? Travel writers for Gourmet and Bon Appetite? Foodies in khakis and chef’s clogs? Wolfgang Puck and Julia Child picnicking on checkered tablecloths sipping Sauterne, frying up morels with a beurre blanc sauce? Maybe Jacques Peppin would pop out from behind a tree, stuff an extra pint full of these prized fungi into his chef’s pants and rejoin them for goose liver pate ala` cognac and morel. Am I the type destined to buy the morels in the store, jacked up to twenty-five dollars a pound? Tell me that my friend from New York City would laugh at me, and go back to picking with new steam, new faith in the utterly predictable craziness of man, as long as I could hold up the faith in the bear spray and scat identification.
We held our ground, picking until we had buckets overflowing all to the tune of this mad-man-made howling. And then we had no real choice other than to return to our car, which entailed passing this howling gentleman. I had visions of using my bear spray on him. Visions of him heisting our harvest, kidnapping my children, cutting us up into tiny pieces and rendering us fodder for the six o’clock news—Oprah, even. This is the stupidest thing I have ever done, I thought, walking tall, holding my daughter’s hands, and hugging my son in tight.
“Howdy,” he said, mid-howl.
“Hello,” I said, not altogether impolite, but not altogether brimming with cheer, ushering my daughter to the promise of that thick steel American-made vessel of ours, not ten feet away.
“Hey—c’mere, little girl. I got sumthin’ fer ya,” he said.
Oh god, we are going to die. “That’s okay,” I said, not wanting to ruffle anybody’s feathers.
“C’mon. I got sumpthin’ fer y’all. C’mere, little girl.”
My daughter stopped and turned and looked at him. “What?” she said.
I grabbed her and gently pushed her car-ward.
“I got so many a’those damn things. C’mere. Aw c’mere, why don’tcha.”
And she lifted up her bucket and started moving toward him.
“No,” I said, pulling her back. “Get in the car,” I whispered to her. “Now.”
And he started toward us, his chest black with ash, holding a white plastic bucket.
I stood in front of my daughter as she climbed into the car, my son hanging off my neck. He’s got a gun, I thought. Walk slowly back into the car, Laura. Grab your keys…slowly slowly.
But he was coming at me with this bucket, fast. “Here. Take it. I got so many of these damn things I don’t need ‘em all.”
And he shoved the bucket in my hands and backed off fast, like maybe it was me with the gun.
I stood there, paralyzed, while he got into his truck. And I dared gaze down, and there, dangling in my hand, sure enough, was an entire five gallon bucket of the biggest fattest morel mushroom Wolfgang Puck never saw.
And I think I said something like, “Well, gosh. We appreciate the kindness of strangers,” like he was going to get this little word play—like he frigging knew who Blanche du Bois is.
And he leaned over his passenger seat and out the window closest to us he hollered in a perfect put-on Yosemite Sam, “Cuz Lord knows I’m steeeerange!!! Heh heh heh!”
And he drove off.
And I got into my car, hands shaking, heart pounding, and started the ignition and put my forehead on the steering wheel because I realized that I had just done everything wrong. Everything.
And my daughter said it all then, as usual. “Huh,” she said, “Just because you don’t look nice, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t nice.”
“Yep,” I said, staring at the morels.
“What are we going to do with those mushrooms?” she said.
“We’re going to take them home,” I said, “Wash ‘em, and eat ‘em.”
And with that, the man’s car backed into my vision.
My heart clenched.
“Name’s Mike, by the way. You shouldn’t go mushroom picking alone,” he said. “Fer what it’s worth. Less yer packin’ a gun. It’s not the Grizz’s ya gotta watch out fer.”
And he drove away, his car back-firing in time to all that thinks it is predator and all that thinks it is prey.

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Filed under Food, Little Hymns to Montana, Motherhood, My Posts, Stories

Inheritance

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Inheritance by Laura A. Munson

When life is long, we take off our gold bracelets and put them into the back of a low drawer. When life is long, we move far away from that drawer. We curse the drawer. We curse the bondage of gold bracelets, the parents who bought them for us, the mines that produced them and the rivers they leached strychnine into to get the gold. We go to the river and look into the slither of the still-pink-bellied fish and say, “I’m sorry.”
When life is short though, we think, “Well, it might be nice to feel the fickle weight of a gold bangle on my wrist. Might be nice to look down and see my hand looking fancy and shiny. Might be nice to remember my parents in this piece of jewelry.” So we go back to the drawer and find the bracelets, and we put them on again, forgive our parents, and feel sixteen and long in life.
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This year I inherited a combined legacy of five hundred years of unbroken china, crystal and silver. And in some addendum to the throes of running from gold bracelets, I have found myself living, what looks like semi-permanently, in the northwest corner of the biggest “square state,” Montana. Montana, where the women were lucky to arrive with their lives, much less their china, crystal and silver. Montana, where pomp went out with the bath water. Montana, where a formal dining room is a new concept, or rather, one of the Bacchanalia left behind for a better life, a job on the railroad, a wanderlust-ful love for mountains, gold.
So I sit here on a snowy day and stare into my grandmother’s glass and oak dining room hutch and think, I am the one who is going to break this glass front, I just know it. It’ll be my child who slams her toy baby carriage into it and shatters it; my dog with such a brawny tail. After all, I am the first to allow a dog or toy baby carriage in the dining room. I am the first who uses her dining room to wrap presents for Christmas and to write novels, and not for nightly dinners and Sunday afternoon suppers. I am the first not to use the china. I am the first to merely behold it.
I found out last night that there is a woman in my town who has met me once and now feels the need to state in public places that she does not like me. She is quoted as saying something to the effect that I am a lady of leisure—that I sit around all day and have tea parties with all my fancy china. I guess she’s heard about my formal dining room with the five hundred years of china stacked into its hutch. It’s no secret. But in Montana, it is an anomaly. I like to think of this woman when I am on my third load of laundry, second batch of dishes, fourth leg of kid-school-transport, third reincarnation of this week’s beef—from roast to stew to cold sandwiches. I like to think about how my Montana includes her, but how hers does not include me. And make my peace.
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Other times, particularly when I’m on my fourth leg of kid taxi service, I day dream about teaching this woman a little lesson: I want to invite her to lunch and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Limoges Haviland that came with my great grandmother in a covered wagon from Manchester, Vermont to southern Illinois in the mid 1800’s when she and her husband realized that they couldn’t support their eight children on the income from their farm and that there was cheap farm land “out west.”
And then we’ll drink milk from Steuben goblets that I’ll blow the dust out of and I’ll read the accompanying note in the slanted elegance of looping letters: “Given to me by Chester Wright Munson on our wedding day. Good. Save for the girls.” And I’ll hold up a claret red shot glass and read that accompanying note in the same script: “Brought back from Chicago by my parents when they attended the World’s Fair– 1893.”
And we’ll stab at carrot sticks (it’s not a fancy meal, this one) with pre-Civil-War Towle forks not taken by the Yankees who camped in my great great grandmother’s yard, and I’ll tell her about my great great grandmother and how she hid her babies under her bed and her silver in the ground behind the smokehouse while her husband was losing an eye at the Battle of Shiloh, the same battle where William Elliott Aldrich also fought, only for his Northern cause. And I’ll tell her how he lived to have a son and that son was my great grandfather Hilen, who came to Fon du Lac, Wisconsin through the Erie Canal when he was nineteen and how he worked on the railway as a conductor and I’ll show her his lantern with his name engraved into its base—and a date: 1858.
Then I’d like to tell her that it’s his wife’s china that we are eating off of (Yankee china to Confederate silver), and that she had a son who had a wife named Genevieve who died young of typhoid and left two baby boys behind and it’s her Adderly’s white china dessert plates with the blue relief fleur de lis that we’re going to eat our chocolate chip cookies off of in a minute, right after she says that she was all wrong about me—that I’m not an over-privileged ninny, just a woman well-endowed with the fragile touchstones of family stories, just another sentimental woman in a long line of sentimental women who clung to their possessions in a world that had no promises and still doesn’t. Right after she says she’s sorry.
Then I’ll say, “That’s okay. Next time I’ll cook you a real meal,” and give her a linen napkin with hundred-year-old creases in it and a hand-sewn M in grey, and I’ll remove the straight pin from it and the browned note written in yet another slanted elegance, stating with some sort of pathos toward the daughters to come, “Hand embroidered for my trousseau—1912.” And I’ll tell her about the farm girl who wrote that note, that she had a beautiful contralto voice and went to Northwestern University to pursue a graduate degree in voice until she was sexually harassed by her professor who threatened her with failure, so she up and left and went back to her hometown sweetheart who moved her to a small industrial community on the Mississippi River where he ran a corn syrup factory and she sang in the Presbyterian church choir and at her piano and had a son who was brain damaged at birth by the doctor’s forceps and lay otherwise perfect, in a small crib in the dining room, right next to the hutch I have now, until he was thirteen and died of pneumonia.
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Then I’ll show her the piano and tell her that farm girl was my grandmother and maybe I’ll play her the song she used to play for me: believe me if all those endearing young charms, which I gaze on so fondly today, were to change by tomorrow and fleet in my arms like fairy gifts fading away… That’s all, of course, pending on whether she has a change of heart and hands over the olive branch. If she doesn’t, she won’t get a cookie.
But I don’t do any of that.
Instead I stand at the glass hutch doors and turn the old key and sniff the bloody waft of brass and stare at the notes I’ve been left by my mothers on all sides. Some have to do with china. Others, with furniture. Photographs. Silver. Quilts. I take out a sterling pitcher—the one my father says was always on his dinner table as a boy, and with flannel cloth and polish, I run my fingers over the same beveled handle that my grandmother did, thinking about her solo for Sunday church, or her vegetable baby not crying in the next room.
The fact remains that my mothers wanted to be known. And this is what they had to care for and show for themselves, with sick children and husbands dying in war and life on this mystical and heartbreaking planet. They were the ladies of the house, and that meant something to them; the fact that there are notes shows me that it did not, however, mean everything.
I’ve read those notes over and over. Some are on torn pieces of paper—the backs of checks, lined note-paper with the lines rubbed off by years of sitting in a teacup with the train going by. Others are on engraved stationary—“Mrs. Hilen Aldrich.” And on the inside, “Given to our first grandchild by her loving grandparents, Lucy and Hilen. Hoop skirt chair needle-pointed by Lucy. Chair belonged to Hilen’s father and mother. With sincere adoration—1932.” This note is covered in a child’s pencil scribbles; perhaps those of the first grandchild, my mother, or perhaps mine, playing next to my mother on a china-dusting day. Whichever. It doesn’t matter.
We are all the same in the china cabinet. We are rebellious youths running far from family. We are new mothers who for the first time fear death and seek understanding in the chain of legacy. We are trying to make “home” in new places, remembering Thanksgiving dinners and entire people—their voices, their smells, their eyes sparkling over a story and the gravy only their wife can make—all from the glimmer of a forget-me-not on a Staffordshire chafing dish. We are far from our mother’s gravy. We are the mothers.
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I’ll dust the contents of this cabinet. I’ll keep it well. We will not be the ones to break it. And there will be Christmases around these plates and cups and homemade buns, all because there is a tiny plate just for buns. There will be mint juleps because there are spoons for mint juleps. Shrimp because there are shrimp forks. Espresso because there are demi-tasse. And the mothers will bring these things to the table over and over; the bounty of table-side ritual, the battens of family. And the gold will wear thin on the cup handles and little chips will dig in around the crystal rims…and it means that we were all here. On this beautiful and heartbreaking planet, breaking our bread, but not our fragile things. That’s life, long and short, in a china plate. That’s inheritance.

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