Laramie City, Wyoming Territory, 1870. [o]
THESE DAYS I WORK at a sandwich shop called Tini’s in my hometown of Laramie, Wyoming. Between delivering sandwiches, I spray and wipe down tables, wash dishes, scrub the toilet, whatever the manager asks. I’m not Madge’s best employee but I’m not the worst. Once, back when I was allowed to make sandwiches, I passed out and cut open my stomach with the breadknife. She sent me flowers in the hospital and a check for a hundred bucks. Another time she caught me and the night manager smoking weed around the corner, and she forgave me. She’s flexible with my schedule, which is why I’ve been able to work here so long. On certain days I can’t do anything, let alone work, and I never know when those days are going to be until they’re happening.
I share an apartment with my best bud, Riley. He occasionally sets up amps, speakers, and other gear at concerts, but most of his money comes from his dead parents. It’s really his apartment, his name is on the lease and he sleeps in the bedroom. He’s thirty-seven, same as me. My other best friend is Liz. We dated twice, once in eighth grade, once in college. When we broke up the second time, we were in bed, I was about to graduate, I didn’t have a job, I didn’t understand a thing about love, I’d decided in my heart that Liz and I couldn’t go on together, and I thought that staying with her for another second would be abusive and cruel. The lamp in my room was buzzing and people in the hallway were drunk and shouting. I hugged her as hard as I could.
Because of some real estate loophole, when the house burned down he sacrificed ownership of the land.
“This feels like a break-up hug,” she said.
Today Liz is successful and happy. She’s the principal of the alternative high school in Laramie, which means the school for folks who would get bullied and exploited at the other non-alternative high school — pregnant teens, recovering drug addicts, kids without a stable home. She’s a good person. She married a man who works construction and fishes every weekend.
. . .
The alarm clock by the sofa reads 9:14, set five minutes fast, I have work at 11 and today is July 4th, which happens to be my favorite holiday. I say my special prayer as I brew coffee, like I do every morning. I go into Riley’s room and flop onto the bed.
He moans, “Not until I’ve had coffee.”
I hand him the mug. I study his long, blonde hair and stubbly, Norwegian jaw.
I say, “I know what we should do tonight.”
"Firecrackers. We’ll shoot ‘em off where your old house was.” Riley grew up in the tiny town of Centennial, a thirty-minute drive from Laramie. We used to blow his roof to hell with firecrackers every 4th, but last summer the whole town burned down in a forest fire, including his place. Because of some real estate loophole, when the house burned down he sacrificed ownership of the land. It’s now his dream to rebuy the plot and install a trailer.
He says, “Let’s check the gas tank.”
Our apartment complex, big for Wyoming, is three stories tall. Vending machines at the end of every hallway, identical apartments, blue-collar residents. Rent is four hundred a month. Out in the parking lot I’m behind the wheel of Riley’s 1991 Pathfinder, the door’s hanging open and a pitch-perfect breeze lilts off the mountains. I turn on the car, holding my breath. The needle wobbles at a quarter tank.
“Turn it off,” Riley says from the passenger seat. “Turn it off, Jesus!” I turn off the car and watch the needle sink to zero. “It’s not enough,” he says. “Maybe we could get out, but not back.”
We sit in the car for a while, thinking. A group comes out of the apartments, pops down the tailgate of an F-150, and starts drinking.
“‘Cause I ain’t paying for firecrackers or gas,” Riley says. “It’s your idea, and you owe me.”
“Fair enough. I’ll try calling Liz.” Straight to voicemail. “Hi Liz. Happy 4th! Call me.”
“Call JJ,” Riley says. JJ is Liz’s husband. He doesn’t answer either. Riley and I think for a while and share a cigarette, waiting for them to call back.
“I have work at eleven,” I say. “I’ll make enough to buy firecrackers and gas.”
“That’ll be the day.” Riley taps ash into a McDonald’s lid in the cup holder then takes the lid and taps it into the parking lot. “Forget work. Let’s go back to bed.”
“Can’t. I want to go to Centennial.” I always borrow Riley’s car for work. Every time, he says it’s the last time.
I clock into work and Madge, as she’s laying frozen bread on a baking sheet, tells me I’m late. I make a couple deliveries and get decent tips. I can’t remember if business was good or bad last year, on the 4th. When I get assignments within a ten-block radius I go on foot. Madge sees me and tells me to drive my car. I tell her I’m trying to save gas because Riley and I are on a sacred mission to shoot firecrackers in Centennial.
“Great,” she says. “But no more deliveries on foot.”
I salute, and she laughs. She has close-cropped hair, skin-colored gauges, and wears a long-sleeve tee under her uniform to cover her tattoos. Her girlfriend runs the cash register.
I keep checking my phone, but Liz and JJ don’t call. They will, eventually, but it might be next week. I go out for delivery — a big one, some catering deal with a fourteen dollar pre-paid tip — and I see this teenage kid setting up a stand on the corner across from Tini’s. When I get back from delivery she’s stapled pictures of a wire-haired terrier to the stand and put up construction paper letters that read: SAVE PETUNIA.
I walk over. It’s a beautiful day, the sunlight golden.
“What’s wrong with Petunia?”
“She’s dying.” The girl has short green hair and acne scars. Liz works with kids like this. “She’s three years old and has cancer.” She touches her stomach, showing the location of the tumor.
“Damn.” I take out a rumpled twenty and hand it to her. I tell her about my special prayer, because I think it might help. “I heard once that people in Bhutan are the happiest in the world. And every morning they remind themselves — me and everyone I love will die.”
She responds by pointing across the street, toward Tini’s. Madge is halfway out the door, tapping her wrist.
The Grand Tetons, Wyoming. Courtesy of Jackson Hole Photography Gallery [o]
I’m at an apartment complex that looks exactly like mine but in a different part of town. At the end of the hallway the vending machine’s humming, the customer hasn’t answered the door, and I don’t have enough money for firecrackers and gas. I’m working lunch shift today, and Madge has told me this will be my last delivery.
I hear bolts unlock and the door opens. The customer is able-bodied and was watching TV, waiting for a commercial. She points to a mound of pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters on the table. “The sandwich was eight ninety-nine. Count it.”
“Alright,” I say. “This pile is eight ninety-nine plus tax equals nine fifty.”
“That’s for the store, then.”
I pluck the coins off the table and put them in my pockets. On my way out, I pause. “Ma’am? I hope that tonight I will have the means to shoot firecrackers. Spare a dollar?”
. . .
Madge gives me a longer shift. She’s divine, an angel, a beam of light in this dark world. She’s fed me and Riley many delicious sandwiches, many have been discounted, a few have been free. Seriously, Madge is a good person. Then again, she’s ruthless when you’re cleaning a toilet.
Riley calls the store and orders a BLT, add turkey. The usual.
I think of a night we were sitting on the roof of his old, now-burned-down place in Centennial. Beautiful log cabin. Inside the window to his bedroom were trinkets and memories of younger times: family portraits where his face is round and cherubic, an empty dog crate, a game of cards quit in the middle. That night, on the roof under the stars, he told me he’d tried to kill himself. He’d been staying with his cousins in Riverton and jumped off a second story balcony. He wasn’t hurt, just scuffed up, and he played it off like he’d been blackout drunk.
“And I was,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I was wasted. But I knew what I was doing. I tried to land on my head.”
After he told me that, things got worse. He wouldn’t take his pills. Wouldn’t go to a therapist. Nips of whiskey transformed into whispers, then shouts. He’d grab my shirt, demanding to know why I trudged on, couldn’t I see we were doomed, why suffer through another day? Why? Why? Why?
I’m not a worrier but I worried. Then, in a drunken rage, the most violent I ever saw, he punched out a window, blood on his shirt, his face, the kitchen floor. He slipped on the blood and whacked his temple with a sharp thud on the counter.
The hospital was a nightmare, but he was insured. And somehow, someway, the demons had been cast out from the hole in his skull because he never mentioned suicide again.
Riley is playing video games when I walk in with his sandwich.
“You should go to the firecracker store,” I say. “I’m still on the clock.”
“Hell no. Heeeell no.”
“Call Liz or JJ to give you a ride.”
Riley’s game isn’t going well. He cusses, cracks the controller against his knee cap. He wonders aloud why he bothers playing, these games are clearly for idiots, for moth-brains, for invertebrates who suck more than suckerfish. He turns to me and asks if Liz or JJ has called. I admit they haven’t.
“Well,” he says, booting up the next round. “I ain’t calling then.”
“Don’t you want to go to Centennial?”
“I could take it or leave it.”
I grab the remote and turn off the TV. “Come on. I’ll drive.”
The firecracker store is twenty minutes outside the city limits. On the way we pass trailers, a cement plant, and miles of sprawling sagebrush. I’m watching the clock hammer off the minutes, wondering when Madge is going to call and ask what’s taking so long. If she looks at the delivery record and sees Riley on the bill, she’ll give me an earful.
The parking lot is a madhouse. Riley graciously offers to wait with the car. The inside is swamped with families, cowboys, students decked out in UW gear. I spot a guy who works there, he’s wearing a drug-rug and has blonde dreads. I tell him I have no money.
“That’s a tough one.” He strokes his goatee. “No money at all, huh? For ten bucks we could get you a sparkler.”
I turn my pockets inside out. A wad of cash and coins falls to the floor. I explain it’s Tini’s money, I’m still on shift.
He helps me pick up the coins. “You seem like a good dude,” he says. “And good dudes deserve fireworks.” He glances over one shoulder, then the other. I know he’s looking for his manager. With his foot he nudges a box in my direction. A twenty-pack of Roman candles, elite stuff, way more than I could afford.
“It’s on me,” he says.
Photo by Robert Frank. [o]
Madge isn’t angry, just shakes her head and tells me she ended my shift forty-five minutes ago. She stares at the meat slicer and I think she’s about to start spouting how it wasn’t cleaned properly. Then she sighs. “If I were a stronger woman, I think I would fire you.”
“You’re too smart to work here, Tim. I’d be doing you a favor.” Madge thinks I’m smart because I went to out-of-state college. I took math classes for four years, got decent grades, loved every second, and after graduation couldn’t handle sitting in an office. I didn’t like teaching, financing, or anything. What I like is delivery.
I ask Madge if I worked long enough today to qualify for a discount sandwich, knowing I didn’t. The cut-off is six hours and I worked less than three.
“It’s July 4th,” she says. “Let’s get your tips settled, and then I’ll make you one on the house.”
My tips come to $25.13. Might be enough for gas, barely. Madge makes a sandwich exactly how I like it: cheese and avocado, extra mustard, extra mayo, EZ hot pepper. She cuts it in half with a flourish. Because I’m feeling celebratory, I order chips, a cookie, and a large soda.
“That’s not free,” she says.
I eat in Riley’s car with the windows rolled down. The girl with the dying dog, the one with the stand set up for donations, is gone. I check my phone, but Liz hasn’t called. After we broke up fifteen years ago we went a long time without talking. She was upset, and so was I, but obviously it’s not the same doing the breaking up and being broken up with. We’d shared some good times, like when I came home from college over winter break and she was pet-sitting her neighbor’s tortoise. We’d spend the afternoons in his enclosure, feeding him lettuce from our palms, rubbing his shell, absorbing the smell of reptile poo. Losing ourselves in each other. The tortoise was seventy-two years old.
I’m not sure why I remember this now. It’s not that I want to get back with Liz, because I don’t. I just remember those times fondly.
I’m at the Jackalope, and the 4th crowd has swallowed the usual daytime crew. The Jack is one of Laramie’s most historied institutions. A web of cracks meets in a bullet hole in the center of a mirror behind the bar. By the pool table hovers the ghost of Matthew Shepard. No matter how many times I try to shake his hand, shake his arm, shake him by his skinny shoulders, tell him to get out of this state as fast as he can, he won’t listen. This town has lots of scars, lots of ghosts. Some are easy to ignore, like the fractured mirror. Others, like Matt, they’ll never feel familiar, and they shouldn’t.
Even the way he took ‘em off the hook, sweet but firm. He’d be a good dad.
I ask the bartender if I can pawn my stories. She says she’s never had a problem with it before, she won’t start now. I take off my Tini’s baseball-cap, fluff it up a bit, put in a dollar to encourage donations, and move through the tables.
“This is the story of how I became friends with my ex-girlfriend’s husband, JJ.” I always start the story this way, and a few people look up from their drinks. Some of them probably know JJ, might even work with him. “He took me fishing.”
A guy wearing a sleeveless shirt that says Buck Fever hollers out he loves fishing. Hook, line, sinker — it helps when I’ve told the story a thousand times. I skip the part where I passed out at the table in Riley’s apartment, where he woke me up by jabbing fingers into my neck, where he told me I needed help, where he called Liz and held the phone cold against my ear. Liz answered, and I could tell she was annoyed. She told me I needed a change, and that the next day JJ would take me fishing.
Buck Fever wouldn’t care about any of that, so I say, “JJ’s favorite fishing hole is a couple hour drive, he didn’t say much on the way but he let me hit his E-cig. Then we were beside this creek, his creek, and I swear to God, this place is beautiful, it’s Eden. I didn’t know how to fish then, which works out because JJ didn’t want me touching his rods.”
“Amen,” says Buck Fever. “Amen, JJ.” He offers to buy me a beer and I accept.
“So JJ was fishing and I was lying there, eyes closed, listening to the water, feeling the sunlight, hearing the leaves and the branches. The way he cast the line, the way he reeled it in, I just trusted him. He’s a guy who knows what he’s doing, especially when it comes to fish. Even the way he took ‘em off the hook, sweet but firm. He’d be a good dad.”
I’ve got an audience now, mostly fishing enthusiasts and people who are drunk enough to follow a crowd. A couple more dollars find their way into my hat.
“Anyhow, I decided I could tell this guy, the husband of my ex, a story I’d never told anybody. The story of the involuntary psych ward down in Denver.”
Half the audience backs away, slowly and carefully, like I’ll lash out. The other half love it. This is when I earn the big bucks.
“My mom had just died, in Denver, and I’d gotten into a car wreck that wasn’t my fault. The cops found a few milligrams of THC in my system, and a sip of two of whiskey. Of course the insurance company took everything, even though it wasn’t my fault. Jesus, they wouldn’t let me grieve, though. ‘Cause when I got to Denver, to my mom’s apartment, an insurance guy was waiting for me. Standing in the hallway, guarding my mom’s apartment, as if I didn’t already have enough to deal with — documents to complete, numbers to call, my mom’s absence. That made me so mad, I mean, wouldn’t you have been mad? Next thing I know, I’m in temporary psych. The doctors told me I attacked that asshole. I don’t know for sure.”
Photo by Nick Price. [o]
Buck Fever, bless him, asks, “What about the fish?”
“JJ caught three big ones. I hope you get to watch him cast sometime, he’s a master. And I was telling him this story I’d never told anyone, and he wasn’t saying anything but I could tell he was listening by the way his lips were set, just like this, like he was hurting along with me. I told him the psych ward was where I learned to hate clocks. I was in psych for fourteen days and whenever I wasn’t talking to doctors I was sitting in the rec room, watching cable and staring at a red, digital clock. First couple days I was a mess, because I wanted to avoid the clock, avoid the next minute. I couldn’t stand the drip of time, dripping like a coffee pot, you know? It’s fake. The cycle of the sun and moon, that’s real, but saying it’s 3:30? Bullshit. One day clocks won’t be around and I say good riddance.”
I’ve lost Buck Fever — he’s watching two beefcakes arm-wrestle in the corner by the jukebox, which is playing yet another country song. My audience is mostly UW students now, undergrads by the looks of them, so I’ll tell the painful parts and leave out the fish.
“I met Carol in psych, she checked herself in every seven years. She could feel the breaks coming and checked in to cry herself back to normal. Outside the ward she served dinner every night to her sports exec husband, did dishes and laundry, watered the ficus, the whole shebang. This other guy, Chris, he grew up on the Wind River reservation. When the med students checked on us, he’d put on a show, drooling and staggering. He got committed to state — that’s a longer period, half a year at least. Thank God this wasn’t forty years ago, Chris would’ve been there his whole life, all for teasing med students. He hated clocks too. He said that every time he looked at a clock he was reminded of what’s already lost.”
My hat’s heavy with money, so I put the story on pause, buy a beer and call Riley. I tell him to walk to the Jackalope, I can’t pick him up because I’m drunk.
I hear the sound of video games in the background. “Why on God’s green earth would I come to the Jack? Beer’s in the fridge.”
“Because I’m buying.” I hang up, and keep telling the story. I love crowds, I love holidays, I love the panini press of a big bar and its generous patrons.
“So I told JJ about the psych ward. Then he says I’m scaring the fish, couldn’t I keep my crazy talk to a whisper? He says that every time I can’t hold myself together, it worries Liz sick, and he’s the one who ends up hearing about it. Fair enough, I said. But on the way home, he told me he thought he understood what I’d been saying. He hadn’t used a calendar in years. Couldn’t stand the sight of those days lined up, marching to year’s end, at which point you were expected to get another calendar, another three sixty-five. He couldn’t understand in movies when people X’ed out each day as they went. He said it’s like shooting somebody everyday, blam, that day won’t ever come again.”
A good-looking guy taps my shoulder, taps hard. “Are you alright?” he says. A good-looking gal is holding his hand, they’re sweet as can be, they remind me of Liz and JJ. “You drifted there, my guy.”
She asks, “How does the story end?” By God, these troopers are breaking my heart with happiness. The world isn’t looking so straight, and I ask the bartender to bring me a glass of water. I turn back to these young folks, hoping they’ll stay young, hoping they’ll stay in love.
“End?” I say. “I have to live it first.”
Photo by Thom Sokoloski. [o]
Riley shows up and revives me. For a while we’re feeling good, arms around each other, throwing sing-a-longs on the jukebox, talking with strangers, laughing with friends. A couple of fake-cowboy dipshits wearing pearl-snap shirts start playing pool. They’re yelling slurs — slurs that bring the scars of this town to the surface. Every time they miss a shot, slur, every time they make a shot, slur. They remind me of the insurance asshole I beat up. I say my special prayer, the prayer I stole from Bhutan. Me and everyone I love will die. It could be today, could be any day, these two shits will die, Matt Shepherd’s already dead. I won’t make a difference.
The prayer usually chills me out, but not this time. I watch myself slink over to the pool table.
“Let me take a shot,” I burp. “Celeb shot.”
The shit holds a pool cue like a walking stick, rubber end on the ground. I could rip it out of his grip. I could crack it over his head.
Riley grabs my shoulder, spins me around. He holds out his vibrating phone. “Liz.”
It’s a frontier miracle. Liz and JJ are going to Centennial, and they’ll take us. To thank them, I say they won’t have to pick us up, we’ll walk to their place. Riley and I have time to kill, and I’m feeling grateful, I’ve forgotten the fake-cowboy shits, so we order more drinks. I’ve got it all, firecrackers, a ride, all that’s left is to go to Centennial. We take the drinks outside, next to the street, and the girl who set up the stand next to Tini’s, the girl with the dying dog, is sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette. She’s definitely not eighteen.
“How did it go?” I ask. “Raise lots of money for Daisy?”
“Her name was Petunia. When I went home, she was dead.” She takes a hungry drag of the cigarette.
I whistle, thinking I want my $20 back, then thinking this girl needs it more, I just hope she won’t spend it on cigarettes. “I know how it feels to lose somebody. Worst feeling in the world. Have you tried the prayer? Reminding yourself everyone you love will die? It does wonders for me.”
She closes her eyes for a few seconds, opens again. “I still feel awful.”
“Try again tomorrow. And next time, get a tortoise.”
I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Chris, my buddy from the psych ward, shows his ID to the bouncer, skates across the bar, bounces off patrons like a pinball, shimmies to Garth Brooks. He wears a poncho patterned with the American flag. The last time I saw him, more than a decade ago, he was on his way to the state ward. He orders two whiskeys on ice, smiles at the bartender and doesn’t pay. He stops at my table.
I say, “You’re not supposed to be drinking.”
“Listen,” he says, “Many years ago, there was a race of stone people. They were almost perfect. They built great civilizations. But the stone people possessed no blood. They looked at their civilizations, their own lives, their mothers and friends, with indifference. They didn’t suffer. They didn’t enjoy. Ultimately, the gods destroyed them because the gods wanted a race that would appreciate the earth.”
“This a Shoshone thing?” Chris is Eastern Shoshone.
“No, sir. I’ve been travelling through Mexico. It’s Mayan.” He polishes off his drink, stands, nods, leaves the Jack without paying.
Riley digs a knuckle into my side. “Who are you talking to? Sweet Jesus, you really are crazy.”
I hate it when Riley calls me crazy. When JJ says it I’m not bothered, but for some reason, that word in Riley’s mouth makes my blood boil.
I wish he’d say something. His quiet has left me alone to think about scars and burned homes and people who should still be around.
We walk to Liz and JJ’s place. The light is brilliant amber and everywhere is the sound of celebration. The houses in this neighborhood aren’t big or new, but they have yards and porches, most are occupied. Riley’s gotten nasty, which can happen when he’s drunk. I think the fake-cowboys and slurs upset him. He won’t let it go that I talked with an empty seat. He says he doesn’t think I can keep living at his place, he doesn’t feel safe sleeping in an apartment with a lunatic. He says there’s no telling what I might do. I might smother him in his sleep. I might poison his beer.
I say, “I might teach you a lesson.”
“Sure,” he snorts. “Alcoholic story-teller, you can barely walk straight. If you tried to hit me you’d miss. Maybe I’m not even real. You’re talking to thin air, ya’ lunatic.”
We’re halfway down the block. A wilted DON’T TREAD ON ME flag lolls over a porch. There’s a car coming, a dinky gray sedan. It’s stopped at a stop sign, coming again. Across the street, a group of kids shriek and claw over a bag of McDonald’s. Silence and dark. I’m all twisted around with one foot in the gutter, I must’ve lost my balance. The screech of car tires is ringing in my ears. The kids have dropped the McDonald’s, they’re staring, open-mouthed, wide-eyed. Riley lies face down in the middle of the street.
He pops up, brushes his chest furiously, his hands come away bloody. His shirt is shredded. He kicks the hood of the car, yells, “Asshole!” Still brushing himself, he hops back onto the sidewalk, pulling me with him. To me he says, “You made your point.”
I grab him, hug him. I rain kisses on him, his arms, his shoulders, his neck, a few land on his lips. Kissing Riley isn’t like kissing Liz. Nor is it like kissing pets. His mouth tastes like morning coffee and yesterday’s cigarettes. It’s nice.
After the kisses, Riley goes quiet. Behind closed doors he can be passionate, almost overwhelming, but now he’s quiet and I can’t tell if he’s sullen or okay. We walk and listen to the happiness around us, the celebratory, the drunk, the loud, the obnoxious. I wish he’d say something, his quiet has left me alone to think about scars and burned homes and people who should still be around. People who tried to conceal themselves behind video games, football pads, stories, whatever, but one day the mask slipped, they might kiss another guy on a public street, and not long afterwards some fake-cowboy dipshits might run up on them in a lifted truck and that would be it.
Liz and JJ are sitting on the porch, she’s drinking hard seltzer out of a glass and he’s got a Corona with a lime jammed down the bottleneck. JJ sees Riley’s bloody chest and bursts out laughing until he notices Liz looks angry, real angry, like her day is ruined. The moment stretches. I don’t even hear the sounds of the street because I’m so focused on Liz and how she’s gonna say the plan is off.
Then she laughs and tells JJ to go get a towel, antiseptic, and a new shirt. She asks Riley what happened.
“Tim, who’s not a lunatic, pushed me in front of a car.”
I shrug. “Good to see you.”
“Yep,” she says.
After Riley’s cleaned up, we climb into JJ’s truck. We’re going to stop by Riley’s place to grab the Roman candles, and we should get to Centennial with plenty of time until dark. JJ puts the keys in the ignition, takes his hand away, lets the keys jangle without turning on the engine. He looks at me in the rear-view.
I think he might be about to rip me a new one. Tell me I’m scum, trash, anybody can see I’ve got an eye on his wife and that’s not cool, no sir, I can get out of his truck and walk myself home — except I don’t have a real home to go to. Maybe Liz would pile on, saying I never change, I’m the same cold-hearted bastard who broke her heart. I think if they said that, I’d understand.
JJ starts the truck. We all roll down the windows, roll down the driveway, head for the western hills.
To either side the land crests across buttes and hills, flattens into prairies and ranches. There’s no end to Wyoming. The music is landing, lifting. I’d give anything to experience this moment, the road zipping under the truck’s wheels, the smell of gunpowder from far away fireworks churning through the air-conditioner. Lucky for me, here I am.
Centennial is packed. Plywood shacks line the strip beside the highway. Eight or nine of these shacks serve beer from kegs and liquor from bottles. As soon as we park, a guy with a huge, bristly beard stumbles up. He asks for fireworks. We give him half of the Roman candles.
“Good folk. Take this.” He presses a flask into my hand, shambles away. The booze tastes like Fireball. We pass it around.
. . .
Finally the sun has set and Wyoming’s gone dark. The fireworks can start for real if there’s anyone sober enough to shoot them. Far in the distance, back in Laramie, fireworks bloom over the town and I hear the crack a second later. I know we have some fireworks to send up, right here, right now, we waited all day for this, all year, but I can’t find Liz, JJ. Can’t even find Riley.
I think Riley’s probably at his old place, the bare patch of memories and scorched earth. I walk along the dirt road, up past the gulch, I pass a lake that used to be surrounded by aspens. I turn up the charred road to Riley’s. He’s not there. Nobody’s there. It’s mostly dirt, but a few plants have sprouted. The soil under my shoes feels soft, inviting. I stick my hands in, spread my fingers like roots. ≈ç
Sam Feldman fills out
THE WILD CULTURE SCRIBBLER'S QUESTIONNAIRE
1 What is your first memory and what does it tell you about your life at that time and your life at this time?
My first memory is of my backyard in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Weeds, vines, and ivy had overgrown most of the yard. I remember playing there and thinking I had a whole jungle to explore.
2 Can you name a handful of artists in your field, or other fields, who have influenced you — who come to mind immediately?
Much of my writing is in the epic fantasy genre. Writers I particularly admire include Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan. In my short stories, I look to Annie Proulx and Sherman Alexie for inspiration.
3 Where did you grow up, and did that place and your experience of it help form your sense about place and the environment in general?
I grew up in Laramie, Wyoming, the setting of this story. Laramie absolutely formed my sense about so many things — self, nature, balance, what it means to be ‘at peace.’ Being around so much natural beauty helped me realize how priceless that beauty is. I don’t live in Wyoming currently, but I miss it everyday.
4 If you were going away on a very long journey and you could only take four books — one poetry, one fiction, one non-fiction, one literary criticism — what would they be?
For poetry, I would take Geography III by Elizabeth Bishop. I know that’s not original, but it’s true. Fiction, I’d bring War and Peace. Again, not original, but it’s long and would be good for a long journey. Non-fiction, I’d go with My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley. As for literary criticism, if it’s allowed, I’d take the Norton Anthology of Poetry. It has so much great poetry in it.
5 What was your most keen interest between the ages of 10 and 12?
6 At what point did you discover your ability with poetry?
I first got into poetry my junior year of college, after pretty exclusively taking quantitative classes my first two years. Not long after that I got into fiction writing.
7 Do you have an ‘engine’ that drives your artistic practice, and if so, can you comment on it?
My engine is the sense of paying back a little of what I’ve taken. I’ve read so many incredible pieces, and I just want to chip in, do my part, give back. Reading can be a selfish act, and writing, at its best, can be selfless.
8 If you were to meet a person who seriously wants to do work in your field — someone who admires and resonates with the type of work you do, and they clearly have real talent — and they asked you for some general advice, what would that be?
Write like hell. You’re gonna have days when everything feels like shit, when everything is shit. If you can’t write through the shit, don’t. If you can, do. Don’t be too hard on yourself, but when you can handle a push, push yourself.
9 Do you have a current question or preoccupation that you could share with us?
My preoccupation involves vaccination in Wyoming. If you’re in Wyoming, please get vaccinated! It saves lives.
10 What does the term ‘wild culture’ mean to you?
Wild culture is a perfect way to describe Wyoming. It’s wild in many senses, and it’s got a rich — sometimes problematic — culture.
11 If you would like to ask yourself a final question, what would it be?
Q: What will you, dear Sam, do the next time you’re in Centennial?
A: I will really enjoy it.
SAM FELDMAN is pursuing an MFA in Fiction Writing at Columbia University. He grew up in Wyoming and now lives in Harlem, New York.
I lived in Evanston, Wyoming one college summer, working as a welder in a railroad roundhouse, fixing the tanker cars that rolled in from god knows where. Wyoming is unlike any other state or any other place on earth — the last bastion of the wild, wild west. It is bizarre and surreal. One time while hitchhiking through Rawlings, Wyoming, on the 4th of July, I noticed it was snowing. They made a big deal of it in the town. Even for them snow was rare in July. Like most things in Wyoming much is a bit odd but definitely possible. It seemed like everyday something unusual happened, but totally understandable to anyone who lived there. The state exists in some Riemann plane. The landscape reminds me as if I was living on the moon. Everyday I would wake up thinking, “Gee, where am I? Oh, that's right, I am in Wyoming.” I missed the green, green grass of home the most while I was there, but there is a certain essence of the place that never leaves you, which was captured in this piece. I was supposed to do student teaching the following term but something from Wyoming taught me that I was not cut out to teach; there was just too much of the world I did not know. While I was reading the story I was reminded of Sherman Alexie, and then noticed the reference to him in the follow-up. John Perry Barstow, who grew up in Wyoming, wrote songs for the Grateful Dead and attended Wesleyan, wrote this “Let your life proceed by its own design” and “let the words be yours I am done with mine.”