I’d run out of gas. Dead out. Even the old red Volvo 122 I’d been nursing on fumes since Whitehorse wouldn’t run on air. And cold air to boot. I’d say it was about 5 below and 1:30 AM when she chugged to a halt, at the end of a long downhill run, which had sadly given me false hope that “I could just glide on like this forever”. Damn maps, they stick Canada there on the top, label a couple mountain ranges, and a guy like me can’t help but picture my little toy car just running ‘down the map’… to Amarillo at least.
Anyway, I slept in the ‘auto-mobile’, if you can call it that, and at first light started walking towards… wherever.
“Where am I?” I shouted at the first slow pickup I could sorta communicate with.
The girl slowed down enough to yell “Gabbler”. I could feel her hesitate a second. You never really know why. I guess I musta had a quizical look on my face, so she added, “…Montana”
“I knew that.” I told her quickly.”The state, I mean..” I had my pride. “What they got there?” I tried to sound like a tourist.
She waved out the window at the empty and somewhat scarred landscape and said dismissively “More a this… oh, and the mine.”
See, I didn’t mention I had no money either. I mean, not a penny. I coulda had a penny…if I’d been smart and only put $1.73 in the tank back in Hibsen. Funny how having a penny in your pocket can cheer a guy up. I musta forgot. Musta thought “Hey, a buck seventy four, now that’ll get me someplace, somewhere with hope, prosperity, goodwill towards men…”
“Mind if I?” I motioned toward the bed. She had a couple tires in the front seat, plus I didn’t want to seem ..’forward’.
“Jump out when you get where you’re going” she yelled, friendly enough, leaving me to huddle down behind the cab, maybe out of the frostbite zone, and think, “Yeah, ‘Nowhere’…I’ll be sure to jump out when I get there.”
I knocked on the back window as soon as I could read the sign. Above a long grey-dirty quonset hut with steel doors it said “Camp Heta #3″-Gabbler, MT” and a bunch of other stuff I was too tired to read. She slowed down just enough, and one of the dozen or so men standing in front of the door yelled something unintelligible at her. Somebody kicked him, in jest I suppose, and the others just kept ‘milling around’ in the gravel lot. Yeah, ‘milling around’. No other word for it. I’d seen this scene somewhere before, but it didn’t matter. Well, actually, if I could ‘mill around myself, it might help my job prospects, I thought.
“Start here with Grubie”, the white-hat told me, picking one of the older looking guys to be my… my.. hell, I didn’t even know what they did there, only that I’d have to at least pretend to like him till I got a paycheck, or got dead, whichever came first.
“Hat’s over there” Grubie pointed to a dirty table with mostly broken tools on it, and a banged-up metal hard-hat with a little light on the front. “Ok“, I thought, “I’m a miner. Guess that answer’s that.”
Meanwhile the rest of the guys, in groups of three or four, were looking at their watches and drinking from a beat-up styrofoam cooler, each one with his plastic throw-away cup, fighting for refills. Grubie left me standing there trying on my dumb hat, kinda un-ceremoniously, as I watched his seniority part the waters as he neared the cooler with his cup. I wasn’t particularly thirsty, nor had I ever seen men so dry already at six in the morning. Grubie came back with two cups, looking embarrased to be caught playing hostess. He made up for it by gruffly shoving the cup in my hand, “Vitamins. Helps in the mine.” was all he said. As a ‘new-hire’, I wasn’t about to set myself above the crowd, so I feigned eagerness and downed the Kool-aid, whatever it was. “This is what all that ‘fluid-fight’ was about? I thought to myself. “These guys don’t get out much, apparently,”
Well, I had a wonderful day down in the mine. A beautiful day, to tell the truth. Just to feel my tight, powerful body tear into the ore, to bang the chisel into the seam till I’d mentally done every girl I could remember who’d ever gotten away. Ahh, just to hear Grubie announce: “Quitting time” and be thinking “Hell, I could do this for another week and still not wanna quit”. I’d mentioned I played guitar sometime during the day, and so when we came back up to the surface, Grubie introduced me to a guy, played in a band over in Bozeman, wanted me to meet him. The guy said I could crash at his place, only a couple miles or so down the road, and I jumped on that, thanking him maybe too profusely. On the way out though, we did the same little ritual, the ‘Dixie-cup Madness’, but this time over what looked like coffee. ‘Looked like’, I said. It tasted like the world’s cheapest, most low-down de-caffeinated domestic blend of floor-sweep beans, spiked with… I dunno, chicory?” Anyway, I fell asleep in the truck on the way to his place, which I thought a bit odd. Maybe I’d overdone it, you know, my first day on the job ‘n all. But no, this was weird, almost like… like… The cold Montana night air brought me around just enough to ask Bud about it on the way up the concrete steps to his dark little shed.
“It’s so you can sleep” he ‘explained’, all groggy himself. “You know, from the vitamins” I took that as the complete answer, provisionally, of course, and crashed on the couch.
I was there a week. Never had such a beautifully mechanical life, not before and not since. My head did start hurting on friday though, even after White-Hat had handed me a roll of twenties with a smile he probably thought said “I picked another good one” but which caught me thinking “Damn, now all I need is a can and a funnel, and it’s like this never happened.”
Bud told me the truth. After I confessed that I might not show up Monday.
“Here, this’ll do yer headache”.. he handed me two white pills, “Exedrin D&E” he laughed, “off-brand”.. and I could tell there was more to the story.
“Get it?” he kinda kicked me. In jest. Yeah, I guess that’s a cultural thing in these parts. I didn’t get it, and the twenties in my pocket gave me the luxury of being real, again, so I gave him a clear “Um..?” look.
“The ‘D’s on the front and the ‘E’s on the end,” he explained.
I swallowed the pills with a warm Kessler beer he had on the cheap table. ‘D-exedrin-E’ Hey, I’d heard of that.
“Don’t it like make you..like, jumpy?” I asked, too late.
“What, and the Koolaid didn’t?” he made like he wuz gonna kick me again.
The whole thing made sense in a second. They’re playin’ with us, no dickin’ with our metabla-whatever. And underground, too, the slimy badgers.
Bud started to sing. A ‘miner’s song’, I guess, but you could tell he’d made it up..
“Give me the Dr…. I need, I need… “ he made like he was calling a guy on the phone,”that’s right, Doctor Ed, I’ll be there at six.“ Bud laughed, and once again I knew there must be a punch line.
“Ed?” I asked. My headache was fading fast.
“Yeah, Ed, the White-Hat, he hired you, duh.” “Give meth-e-drine, Ed, I need, I need..” Bud with his kick, like the rim-shot drummer for his own stand-up. And now I no longer puzzled why or how ‘Heta #3’ had beat the production quota five years in a row. But it was getting dark, and as I caught Bud off-guard with a kick I hoped he’d take the right way, I told him “Thanks for everything, guy” and shook his cracked hand, the fingernails chewed almost to the bone.
As I sorta snuck past the Mine with my gas-can, on the way to a new life, I finally had time to read the sign.
I should have known. A big logo: the letter ‘C”, with Ed’s face peeking through the hole in the middle, and a friendly wave, and then the part I’d only barely read: “Welcome to Camp-Heta Mine #3”.