Books That Include Work By or About Linda
Linda is a prolific writer. In addition to the non-fiction and poetry books she has written and/or edited, Linda has had many essays and poems published in anthologies and magazines.
Writing by and about Linda appears in a wide variety of books. Unless otherwise noted below, Linda does not carry these books for sale. Please contact the publisher listed or search online to purchase any of these books.
A Ranchwife’s Slant: Cowboys, Kids & Ranch Life (2013)
Brushstrokes and Balladeers: Painters and Poets of the American West (2013)
True Words from Real Women (2013)
Round-Up: A Gathering of Equine Writings (2011)
Good Poems: American Places (2011)
A Harvest of Words: Contemporary South Dakota Poetry (2010)
Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers (2009)
Black Earth and Ivory Tower: New American Essays from Farm and Classroom (2005)
Old Jules (2nd edition 2005)
Chicken Soup for the Nature Lover's Soul (2004)
Deep West: A Literary Tour of Wyoming (2003)
Sisters of the Earth: Women's Prose and Poetry about Nature (2nd edition 2003)
A Road of Her Own: Women's Journeys in the West (2002)
The Christmas of the Phonograph Records (this edition 1996)
Late Harvest: Rural American Writing (1992, 2nd edition 1996)
Beulah Land --- read the story that appears in A Road of Her Own
A Bibliography of Magazine Publications
Linda's work has appeared in a wide-ranging variety of publications. Coming Soon!
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A Ranchwife’s Slant: Cowboys, Kids & Ranch Life
by Amy Kirk
Foreword by Linda M. Hasselstrom
Paperback -- $19.95
ISBN-10: 0984585060 -- or -- ISBN-13: 978-0984585069
210 pages; 9 x 6
Spinning Sevens Press
The book, A Ranchwife's Slant, by Amy Kirk gathers more than 100 essays of Amy's musings about marriage, raising kids, and life in general on her family's ranch in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Often hilarious and always witty, Amy's essays have been a favorite in mid-western newspapers for years. Now they're collected between two covers along with previously unpublished material and photos, with insightful quotes from her two kids (from their younger years) peppered throughout.
Foreword written by Linda M. Hasselstrom. This is the first book by another author to be published through Tom Moates’s Spinning Sevens Press.
For more information or to purchase a copy see Amy Kirk's website www.AmyKirk.com.
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Brushstrokes and Balladeers
Painters and Poets of the American West
by Range Conservation Foundation and Range Magazine, Carson City, Nevada
C.J. Hadley, publisher/editor
John Bardwell, art director
$42.00 – ISBN: 978-0-9647456-3-6
hardcover with color dustjacket
(front cover is the painting “Waddie Rehearses” by William Matthews)
144 pages, 11.25 x 8.75
More than 80 poems by 50 poets are interspersed with more than 80 full-color works by 29 artists on heavy, slick paper to bring out the best in the art. The artists and poets in the book were picked for their “love of language and art, awe for horses, and an appreciation for cowboys, cowgirls and ranch life.” Some of the work is current, some goes back more than 100 years. The words and images in the book “paint pictures of life in the West. Vivid. Real. Painful. Touching. Inspirational.” You might “laugh, cry, or ache, but your heart will warm to this kind of company.”
Two of Linda’s poems appear in this book: Beef Eater on page 70 (accompanied by “Matriarchs of the Range” by Mary Ross Buchholz) and Make a Hand on page 134 (accompanied by “Uphill Chase” by Tom Browning).
Poet bios are included in the back of the book. Snippets about the artists and their work accompany the artwork.
Publication of this book was made possible by generous donations from people who care about the American West, with assistance from Western Folklife Center, drycrikreview.com and cowboypoetry.com.
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True Words from Real Women
An Anthology of Life Writing by the Women of Story Circle Network
Edited by Mary Jo Doig
Layout by Robin Wittig
published online and in print 2013
Story Circle Network
True Words from Real Women is an anthology, published yearly. It is written by and for women (members of the online group Story Circle Network) who want to share their experiences. Its purpose is to encourage readers to become writers, guide women to set down their true stories, and encourage the sharing of women’s lives.
Linda's poems "Strawberries and Champagne" and "Broken Glass" are included in this anthology.
Note: Read an earlier version of Linda's poem "Broken Glass" in the Home Page Message Archives of this website.
Look for the essay Celebrating Winter with Brigid the Light-Bringer, originally posted February 2, 2012.
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Round-Up: A Gathering of Equine Writings
by Tom Moates
foreword by A.J. Mangum, former editor of Western Horseman magazine
$17.50 + shipping -- Quality Paperback
Spinning Sevens Press
Tom Moates is a leading equestrian magazine journalist with more than 350 published articles to his credit. His previous books, Discovering Natural Horsemanship, A Horse’s Thought, and Between the Reins, chronicle his earnest attempts to improve his horsemanship skills, often with the tolerant guidance of celebrated clinician, Harry Whitney, of Salome, Arizona.
Round-Up: A Gathering of Equine Writings compiles 20 of Moates’s most notable articles and essays. Remarkable horses and horse folk alike from a wide spectrum of experiences are profiled in this compilation. The majority of the stories originally ran in magazines such as America’s Horse, The American Quarter Horse Journal, Eclectic-Horseman, Equus, and Western Horseman.
In early 2010 Tom Moates interviewed Linda for Western Horseman magazine (the article appeared in the Ranchlands section of the July, 2010 issue, in a regular feature called Women of the West). Chapter 14 of the book Round-Up includes the original longer draft of the piece about Linda before it was cut down for the magazine.
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Good Poems: American Places
Selected and introduced by Garrison Keillor
$26.95 hardcover -- ISBN 978-0670022540
512 pages, 8 X 6
Viking Adult / Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Garrison Keillor, best known as the host of Prairie Home Companion and The Writer's Almanac, introduces a collection of poems in which poets express their love of American scenes. Linda is pleased and honored that two of her poems, Coffee Cup Cafe (pages 246-247) and Butchering the Crippled Heifer (pages 346-348), are included in this anthology.
Sadly the book has a glaring error in Linda's bio on page 454. Staff have apologized and we are hopeful that the bio will be corrected for the paperback edition of the book.
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A Harvest of Words: Contemporary South Dakota Poetry
edited by Patrick Hicks
$24.95 paperback -- ISBN: 978-0-931170-03-4
250 pages, 9 X 6
Center for Western Studies
Augustana College, Sioux Falls, SD
Called “a snapshot of poetic life as it currently exits in the state,” the book includes a chapter by each of fourteen South Dakota poets. Besides Linda Hasselstrom, work is included by David Allan Evans, the state’s poet laureate; Lee Ann Roripaugh, Lydia Whirlwind Soldier, Jeanne Emmons, Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, Debra Nystrom, Allison Hedge Coke, Patrick Hicks, Leo Dangel, Jim Reese, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Dennis Sampson, and Christine Stewart-Nunez.
Linda's poems included in the book are: Make a Hand, Beefeater, Ironing My Husband's Shirts, Mulch, Butchering the Crippled Heifer, My Mother's Cosmos, Those Thanksgiving Pie-Makers, The Poet Contemplates a Night Heron, When a Poet Dies, and Jigsaw Dance.
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Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers
Edited by Laura Pritchett
$19.95 Paperback -- ISBN: 978-0-8061-4013-1
240 pages, 8.5 X 5.5
with 25 b&w illustrations
University of Oklahoma Press
For Going Green, Pritchett has gathered the work of more than twenty writers to tell their personal stories of Dumpster diving, eating road kill, salvaging plastic from the beach, and forgoing another trip to the mall for the thrill of bargain hunting at yard sales and flea markets. These stories look not just at the many ways people glean but also at the larger, thornier issues dealing with what re-using-- or not-- says about our culture and priorities.
Brimming with practical and creative new ways to think about recycling, this collection invites you to dive in and find your own way of going green.
Linda's essay "Gleaning with Mac" begins on page 3.
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Photographs by Carl Corey
Introduction by M.J. Czarniecki III
Essay by Linda M. Hasselstrom
Poetry by Robert Dennis
$39.95 hardcover -- ISBN 1-59373-058-6
101 pages, 9.5 X 12
with 62 color and b&w full-page photos
Bunker Hill Publishing Inc.
Photographer Carl Corey set out to find a place that maintained an identity that could be uniquely defined as the American West. He found it in the Dakotas among ranchers. Introduced by Linda Hasselstrom, with poetry by Robert Dennis, Rancher portrays the real American West. Corey’s observant eye captures the landscape that created these ranching people while exploring their daily lives and intense love of the land.
Linda wrote in her essay: “Though the people in these photographs are strangers to me, I see in their faces my acquaintances, neighbors, and relatives-- the ranchers who live and work on the nation’s vast grasslands known as the American West.”
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Black Earth And Ivory Tower: New American Essays from Farm and Classroom
Edited by Zachary Michael Jack
$24.95 paperback -- ISBN: 978-1-57003-611-8
$59.95 hardcover -- ISBN: 978-1-57003-588-3
340 pages, 6 X 9
University of South Carolina Press
Zachary Michael Jack (Assistant Professor of English, North Central College, Naperville, Illinois), himself a fourth generation farmer’s son, has assembled North America’s foremost contemporary writers on the present rural experience to provide their own twenty-first-century insights.
Black Earth and Ivory Tower: New American Essays from Farm and Classroom gathers the disparate wisdoms of modern-day stewards of the land. These gifted teachers and growers offer hard-won inspiration from the field and the classroom, exemplifying the multifaceted, farm-grounded talents that call them to lives as writers, visual artists, conservation tillers, environmentalists, economists, policymakers, extension agents, and grassroots activists. Seeking a balanced life that reconciles the hands, heart, and head, they follow roads less traveled to find agrarian lifestyles at once enlightening and challenging. At a time when less than two percent of Americans count themselves as farmers, these writers-- all of whom have cultivated the earth and climbed the ivory tower-- underscore the diversity of the American farm as a wellspring of learning. Their plainspoken commentaries on modern farming, teaching, and living will remind older generations of time-honored, agrarian values and provide a new generation with a literate, critical account of shifting national priorities.
Linda's essay "Addicted to Work" begins on page 28.
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by Mari Sandoz
Introduction by Linda M. Hasselstrom
Published 2005 (2nd edition)
ISBN-10: 0803293240 -- or -- ISBN-13: 978-0803293243
425 pages; 5 x 8
First published in 1935, Old Jules is unquestionably Mari Sandoz’s masterpiece. This portrait of her pioneer father grew out of “the silent hours of listening behind the stove or the wood box, when it was assumed, of course, that I was asleep in bed. So it was that I heard the accounts of the hunts,” Sandoz recalls. "Of the fights with the cattlemen and the sheepmen, of the tragic scarcity of women, when a man had to ‘marry anything that got off the train,’ of the droughts, the storms, the wind and isolation. But the most impressive stories were those told me by Old Jules himself.”
This Bison Books edition includes a new introduction by Linda M. Hasselstrom.
“A realistic biography, a rare find. On putting down this book one feels that one has read the history of all pioneering.”
-- New York Times Book Review
“An amazing portrait. Mari Sandoz has written the truth. And she has given it to us as if she had cut it, like a sod, from the live ground.”
-- New York Herald Tribune Books
“It is a magnificent job. The great virtue of Miss Sandoz’s book is that you can see it happening. There is a good deal of America in Old Jules. It is, heaven knows, an enthralling story. But it is more than that, and much deeper. It is an experience in citizenship.”
-- Saturday Review of Literature
About the Author
Mari Sandoz (1896–1966) is the noted author of Crazy Horse, Cheyenne Autumn, and The Battle of the Little Bighorn, all available in Bison Books editions.
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Chicken Soup for the Nature Lover's Soul
edited by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Steve Zikman
$12.95 paperback -- ISBN: 978-075730-146-9
384 pages, 5.5 X 8.5
Whether you are scaling a summit, watching the Northern Lights, camping with friends, or resting in a hammock in your own backyard, nature offers incomparable moments of exhilaration and adventure, beauty and awe, serenity and healing.
Each story in Chicken Soup for the Nature Lover's Soul will provide that essential connection to nature in its many forms. As you read each piece, you'll be inspired to get out there and savor all that Mother Nature presents. You'll find that appreciating nature's splendor will soothe your sorrows, put things into much-needed perspective and add a revitalizing brilliance to your life.
Linda's essay "Bells in the Night" (an excerpt from "Aurora Borealis and Bells" from her book Land Circle) begins on page 221.
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Deep West: A Literary Tour of Wyoming
edited by Michael Shay, David Romtvelt & Linn Rounds
$22.95 paperback -- ISBN: 0-9714725-7-2
464 pages, size 6 X 9
In original essays commissioned by the Wyoming Center for the Book, nineteen writers with roots in the state tell how that "rough country" has influenced their work. In their essays and accompanying excerpts from their poetry and fiction, these writers bring new understanding to the American West and provide an extensive view of the literary and cultural landscape of the cowboy state.
Linda was living in the city of Cheyenne, Wyoming when she was invited to submit work for this collection. Here is an excerpt from her essay "Everything I Need to Know I Learned From My Horse" which appears in the book:
Reflecting that I'd rather be among horses than people, I recognized how much I'd learned from them about living. Some horse-taught lessons apply literally-- while unfolding into greater meanings. I learned, for example, how to stay in a saddle, and how to remount if I fell or was thrown off. Inherent in that lesson were tactics I used to raise myself from figurative dust as well, and to climb back onto whatever problem I've chosen to ride. Living in a city, I naturally spend less time pitching hay and more time thinking. Rules I learned at the bony knees of my horses, I've concluded, can apply equally well to folks who never go anywhere near a horse.
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Sisters of the Earth: Women’s Prose and Poetry About Nature
edited by Lorraine Andersen
Originally Published in 1991
Second Edition published 2003
$15.00 paperback -- ISBN: 1-40003-321-7
496 pages, size 5 X 8
Vintage (Random House)
This fully revised and updated edition with a new preface includes nearly fifty new pieces.
The thread that binds together the poetry, short stories and essays collected here is the harmonious relationship between women and nature that is about "caring rather than controlling," as editor Anderson indicates. Anderson showcases essays, fiction, and poetry in roughly equal measure, and her intelligent notes and introduction add much to this generous-- and long overdue, and most welcome-- collection.
Linda’s essay “Night in the Country” is included in the anthology.
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A Road of Her Own: Women’s Journeys in the West
Edited by Marlene Blessing
$24.95 hardcover -- ISBN 1-55591-307-5
211 pages, size 6 X 9
(800) 992-2908 or (303) 277-1623
Twenty Western women writers describe their inner and outer journeys in the West by car, foot, and dogsled. They write of obstacles to women travellers, unfulfilled dreams, adventures in the wilderness, and long-distance runs.
The anthology includes Beulah Land, a story by Linda about a car breakdown in a scary western town.
Click here to read the story at the bottom of this webpage.
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The Christmas of the Phonograph Records
by Mari Sandoz
Introduction by Linda M. Hasselstrom
This edition published 1996
Paperback; ISBN-10: 0803292422 – or – ISBN-13: 978-0803292420
36 pages; 4 x 6 inches
Charmingly, Mari Sandoz tells of a long-ago Christmas in western Nebraska when her father’s house was filled with good music. Old Jules had ordered an Edison phonograph and boxes of cylinder records from the East, paying for them with an inheritance and ignoring debts, to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife. But the entire family soon entered into the holiday spirit as neighbors arrived to feast and dance and enjoy musical selections ranging from Lucia di Lammermoor to Casey at the Telephone. Even old enmities dissolved under the spell, for, as Old Jules said, “The music is for everybody.”
A classic in the tradition of Dylan Thomas’s Child’s Christmas in Wales and Truman Capote’s Christmas Memory, this story by the famous author of Old Jules was first published posthumously in December 1966.
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Late Harvest: Rural American Writing
edited by Dave Pichaske
Published 1992, reprinted 1996
$24.95 hardcover -- ISBN: 978-0765197351
480 pages, 9 X 6.5
Paragon House (1992)
Smithmark Pub (1996)
Editor David Pichaske has selected generous and representative readings related to rural America from American fiction, poetry, and non-fiction of the 1970s and 1980s. Each of the sections-- "The Farm," "The Small Town," and "The Wilderness"-- begins with an essay by Pichaske, which sets the stage; continues with a selection by a well-known writer, such as Thoreau, which offers a historical viewpoint; and ends with various works by contemporary regional authors. Brief authors’ biographies suggest books for further reading.
Linda is one of the 30-some writers included in the anthology.
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by Linda M. Hasselstrom
originally published in A Road of Her Own
edited by Marlene Blessing
Fulcrum Publishing, Inc., 2002.
“Oh, Beulah Land, sweet Beulah Land.” Heat waves shimmered as I sang and squinted down the line of speeding trucks on Interstate 80. My feet stuck to hot tar. I’d jerked my hat off, thinking I might get a ride faster if drivers saw the long blond hair, but now it stuck to my neck.
Trucks whistled past at seventy-five. As each car approached, I'd close my eyes, willing it to stop. My shoulders and arms, white from working in an office, were turning pink, and my sun screen was in Beulah, the 1954 Chevy behind me. During traffic lulls, I’d prop one hip against her fender and try to remember where.
Humming, I scanned the flat Nebraska horizon, and could almost see those pioneers trudging beside the muddy Platte River, singing the old hymn about the land of heavenly joy somewhere ahead. My grandmother’s cracked voice rang in my ears, left over from the rare occasions we’d gone to church together. Here shines undimmed one blissful day. Yeah, the usual heavenly day, 100 degrees with 99 percent humidity. If I looked over my shoulder, I’d probably see Lincoln, 150 miles of corn fields behind me.
As soon as I’d opened Beulah’s hood, I’d seen the broken fan belt. Smiling, I’d gotten a couple of old nylons out of the trunk, then twisted and tied them tightly. But when the engine turned over, shreds of taupe nylon flew like autumn leaves; my improvised replacements were too old.
Still, I wasn’t discouraged; in 1976, Nebraskans were all friendly. My old Chevy was the most reliable vehicle I'd had since I’d sold the green one I’d driven in high school. Beulah was the kind of car I'd choose to be: sturdy and durable, with wide hips and a big chrome grin, wearing genuine leather seats shiny with neat’s-foot oil. The original floor mats were a little worn in spots, and I’d installed a hood ornament from an old Dodge: a silver ram with full-curl horns.
Altogether, Beulah symbolized the way I saw myself. At thirty-three, I was beginning to accept the well-known statistic that I was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to marry for the second time. As a self-employed writer, I conducted workshops all over the plains, driving alone and adept at roadside repairs. I avoided bars and dark alleys, but I’d been raped by a co-worker who was seeing me safely home. A pacifist, I carried emergency gear instead of weapons-- tools, tire chains, flares-- counting on quick thinking and glibness to keep me out of trouble. Salt of the earth, my plains neighbors; I knew them.
But apparently I didn’t know how to get them to pick me up on this hot day. A farm couple went by in a rickety truck. I could tell by the way she looked at me that the woman wanted to stop. Her husband refused to look at either of us. Next was a small blue sedan. I smoothed my hair, smiled; the car slowed as the man driving looked me over. His passenger raised the brim of her blue hat with a red-tipped finger. I could read her tight little lips saying, “Hippie bitch.” Looking embarrassed, the man accelerated. Then came a fat red van with fins like a luxury car, children looking out the windows. The bus stopped ahead of me, and a woman with a bread-dough face opened the rear door. “What's the problem?” she said.
“Fan belt broke. I just need a ride to Grand Island, about ten miles.” She watched my eyes, then spoke over her shoulder. “Fan belt broke, Harry.”
She motioned me inside. Stepping past her, I squinted in the dark aisle. I stopped when one of the kids squawked. “What?”
“Don't step on the baby.” I looked down. A red-faced infant lay on the floor in front of my foot. I lurched sideways and fell into a seat by the window, inhaling odors of stale bread and warm urine.
“The floor's the coolest place,” the woman said, facing me from the seat ahead. “Where in South Dakota are you from?” asked the man behind the wheel.
“Near Rapid City, in the western part. I'm on my way home from a job in Lincoln.”
“That's near Mount Rushmore, ain't it?” he said, shifting and wheeling back into traffic. “We went there on vacation once; them hills are just beautiful.”
“In fact, that's why we picked you up,” said the woman. “People were so nice out there. When we saw your South Dakota plates, we decided to pay it back.” Her arms jiggled and dripped sweat as she brushed curls back from her forehead.
“Took off from Detroit yesterday.” The man eyed me in the rear view mirror. “Headed for Colorado, up in the mountains. I got a brother there.”
“Then we're going home through South Dakota.”
“Was it this hot in Detroit?”
“Yeah.” He shook his head. “All that pavement makes it hotter. Can't wait to get into the mountains. How do ya like the bus? I built it. I work for Chrysler.”
I nodded appreciatively, hearing in my skull the country song about the guy who took his car from the assembly line “one piece at a time.” I counted kids with big eyes staring at me from the bunks suspended along both sides: seven without the baby.
“Where could we camp in the Black Hills that doesn't cost much?” asked the woman, pulling a map out of a pocket on the seat in front of her.
In gratitude, I would have told them all my secret spots, but we got to a truck stop in Grand Island first. They took the kids to the bathroom while I found a mechanic who said he had a fan belt. As the family pulled away, the kids were whining for lunch and the woman was saying, “I'll make sandwiches.”
I spent an hour sitting on a tire nursing a soda before one of the mechanics came to take me to my car. As he pulled onto the interstate, he tossed a lock of blonde hair back, widened his blue eyes, and said, “So, honey, what are you doing driving around out here by yourself?” He stretched his arm along the seat back so his hand landed casually on my shoulder.
“Heading home to my four babies,” I said, leaning away to roll down the window. Nothing deters lechery like children.
Blondie slapped both hands on the steering wheel and speeded up. He set a new speed record for installing a fan belt and drove off while I was fastening my seat belt. Beulah started on the first try and I eased into traffic, thinking how lucky I was to have gotten out of my marriage without a child to support.
The sky was flat blue, shimmering with heat. I paused at the truck stop to wash my face and buy a soda and sandwich. As I finished the sandwich, I crossed the 100th meridian, the line beyond which less than twenty inches of moisture falls a year. At our place, more like sixteen. I whooped with joy, happy to be back in the West, home country. Three-thirty. I wouldn’t make it home in daylight, but I was determined to keep driving.
“I've reached the land of corn and wine,” I bawled, “and all its treasures freely mine.” What came next? Those pioneers had seen the tan grass outside my windows as the lobby of paradise, where they would tarry until summoned to the Celestial City. “For this is heaven’s borderland,” I sang, and was still holding the last note as Beulah slowed and drifted off the highway.
“Now what?” I got out and pulled the hood release, snatching my hand away from the hot metal. Smelling gas, I removed the gas cap and rocked the car until I heard sloshing. Around me, pavement rippled as if it were melting. Aha! A rest area just up the interstate. I raised the hood, sprayed the houseplants on the back seat with warm water and left the windows open an inch. Then I hung my purse on my shoulder, squared my shoulders and marched down the road, reasoning that in the West, the Code of Chivalry wouldn’t allow a real man to ignore a reasonably attractive blonde afoot in a heat wave.
By the time I staggered into the rest area, I’d decided the West doesn’t begin in the middle of Nebraska. I lurched to the fountain and sucked water until I gathered enough strength to ask at the information desk about service stations. A smiling farm girl pointed out the pay phone, and said the closest station was about three miles east, behind me. Yep, this was the West.
Walking fast, I reached Beulah as the tow truck pulled up. The driver peered under the hood, then tried the starter, shaking his head. Then he said, “Sure you're not out of gas?”
I ground my teeth. “Filled up in Grand Island. I can see gas in the tank.” He took the gas cap off and peered in, then rocked the car. While he hooked up the wrecker, I got emergency money out of the glove box, slipping some bills in the coin pocket of my jeans.
I hadn't even noticed Brady, Nebraska as I had shot past it singing hymns, but when the tow truck pulled in front of a concrete block building with two Standard Oil pumps in front, I estimated the population at sixty, counting kids and dogs.
“I've been meanin to fix up the shop,” the driver said. “Got to do it now-- just got married. That there's my brand new trailer, eighty feet long.” He nodded toward a pink double-wide behind the building. Beside the trailer stood a new yellow Olds. Cottonwoods planted by a homesick pioneer bent and whispered like old ladies over a wedding cake.
He sighed, strolling into the shop as I trotted behind. “Yep. Inside that trailer is a brand-new wife moving new furniture around. Those things don’t come cheap, and I got to be making money.” He shook his head. “We just got married Monday, so I don't want to spend the whole damn night working on some old '54 Chevy.” He winked and punched me on the arm. “She's a feisty blonde, but packed a whole lot fuller than you are, sweetie. My name's Bob.”
“I don’t want to waste any time either, Bob. I've been away from my four babies for six months.” I’d planned to leave the little snivelers in Grand Island, but the situation called for instant reproduction. “But Bob, I been sending money home, so I have just enough to get home on. What do you think is wrong?”
“I don't have the foggiest notion,” he said placidly. “And I've got a motorcycle tore down, so I can't do nothing for you.” While I was drawing breath, he wiped sweat off his forehead with a greasy arm and bellowed, “Hey, Leonard, I brought you a pretty lady in distress.”
A scrawny geezer crawled out from under a Harley, dug a toothpick out of a pocket, and stuck it between his teeth as he wandered over.
“What seems to be the trouble, honey?” he said, looking at my breasts.
“It choked a couple times and quit. I can smell gas, though.”
He nodded, shoving back his cap to scratch his forehead. “You're just out of gas.” He groped in his pants pocket, found a match, and scratched it on his zipper, and lit a cigarette, grinning at me.
I squared my jaw and bit my tongue. He grunted and limped over to the car. With the gas cap off, he pushed on the fender, leaving two black hand prints. Then he picked up a cottonwood branch and shoved it into the tank, pulled it out and sniffed the end. “Dry, all right. You're just out of gas.”
“A half hour ago, when Bob rocked it, gas sloshed up the pipe.”
Leonard shook his head. “When'd you fill up last?” he asked, taking down the gas nozzle. When he squeezed the handle, the bell on the old pump cheeped and numbers started wheezing past.
“Grand Island. Fan belt busted and I got it fixed there.” I looked under the hood.
“Well, you're out of gas anyway.”
“Wait a minute, Leonard. I smell gas up here. Why would that be?” I knew exactly what it was, but telling me would make Leonard happy.
He came around in front and looked down in the neighborhood of the battery. “Oh, hell. I wonder if that's your fuel pump.” He started the motor, then came to lean over the fender beside me. We stared as gas squirted everywhere. Nodding, he muttered, “Damn, damn, damn.”
Feet shuffled behind me and I turned around. Three greasy-haired boys wearing jean jackets with the sleeves torn off stood, their thumbs hooked in their belts, smirking. “Sheeeeit, Frankie--a fuel pump,” said one.
“You know, Panch, I bet there ain't a fuel pump for that old wreck in miles.” Since their lips didn’t move, I couldn't tell which one was speaking. The third one put his hand up to his eyes and peered around the horizon, grinning. Leonard was bent over Beulah’s interior, banging a wrench.
“Hell, no,” said one. “Why, I bet he'll have to go clean to Lincoln to get a fuel pump for that thing.”
“You know what that means, don't you, Frankie?”
“Yep. That little honey's going to be looking for a place to spend the weekend in Brady, Nebraska.”
“You see any motels?” They all turned in unison. I squinted at the horizon myself, hoping for a motel, or South Dakota.
“Why, no, I don't.” They all rubbed their hands down the front of their black jeans. “Nothing but our little tent over there under the tree.”
“The Green Canvas Ho-tel.”
“The No-tell Mo-tel.”
“Open all night, entertainment and generous hospitality all free.” They laughed together and sauntered in lock step back inside the garage.
“God damned bitching piece of iron, excuse me,” Leonard yelled, holding up my fuel pump, blood running down his arm. “Cut my finger on the son of a bitch. I'll go in and see if I can find one anything like this.” He looked at me, eyes bright, then found his cap on the carburetor and yanked it down. “You stay here.” Maybe he'd been listening.
I rolled down the windows and sprayed the houseplants again, but I knew they were goners. Then I sat on a tire in the shade of the building, breathing deep and reminding myself that most foul-mouthed men are harmless. Should I spit defiance at them, swear worse than they did? Maybe innocence and an appeal to Leonard would work better. I hummed a little. A sweet perfume upon the breeze/ Is borne from ever vernal trees. When the bikers came into the sun, blinking, I ducked inside and saw Leonard talking on a phone in the corner beside an old pop machine. I got a warm Coke for a nickel and sat on an anti-freeze box.
The three goons walked around Beulah, looking in the windows at my books and suitcases. One kicked a front tire. Another leaned against a rear fender puffing a joint. Then Bob unlocked the Coke machine and opened a free one.
“Are those your guard dogs?” I asked.
“What say, sweetheart? Oh, no, they're just traveling through, soon as I fix that Harley.”
“I hope you hurry.”
“Sure thing, honey. We don't like them California boys harassing our women.” He smirked.
Leonard hung up. “Bob, I can get a fuel pump over in Gothenburg. I called the fella in the Chevy garage there; he'll go down and open up for me.”
Bob said, “I got to finish up these motorcycle boys; you just do this job for her and you can have the money, OK?” He stepped behind the counter and opened the cash register with a bong. “That's twenty-five dollars for the tow, sweetie. Why don't you pay me now in case I finish before you get back and wanta head home to that pink trailer?” He winked.
“That's a lot of money for a three-mile tow,” I said. My father taught me to haggle.
“I can tow it back out there and not even charge you nothing extra,” Bob said without a breath.
I handed over five dollars and a traveler's check. “Last one,” I said, tossing the folder into a waste basket beside Leonard.
“You wanta stay here in the shade,” he said, glancing into the waste bin, “or ride to Gothenburg with me, honey?”
“I'll ride with you, Leonard.” I followed as he strutted around the corner to a blue 1949 Ford pickup, sun blazing off it like cold fire.
“This here's Henry. A little old, but he still has a lot of pep.” He giggled. “Just like me.” He popped the clutch as we left the parking lot.
“Are those plastic Hell's Angels friends of yours, Leonard?”
“Them? No, they're just passing through.”
“They have dirty mouths and they're trying to scare me.” And succeeding. Time to establish my character. “How would you feel if they talked to your daughter like that?”
“Oh, they're just men, honey, talking to a pretty girl all alone. What are you doing out here by yourself?”
“You know, Leonard, I’m a grown woman, and we’re are allowed to have jobs and cars these days.” I sighed heavily. “I’ve got four children to provide for; their daddy ran off. I've been working in Lincoln and I'm headed home, minding my own business.”
“Oh hell, they don't mean no harm. Here, have a Camel.” I hadn't smoked since an interminable night involving Camels and whiskey in college, but I took it and inhaled.
“Hell, we'll get that fuel pump in and you'll be on your way in no time. Here.” He held his lighter out. The truck was bouncing so hard I finally had to grab his hand to light the cigarette. He looked sideways at me and smiled, “Where'd you say you're from?”
“Hermosa; about the size of Brady, only we don't have a garage any more.”
“Where's that from Sturgis?”
“About seventy miles south. Why?”
“Oh, I go to Sturgis every year for the motorcycle rally. Got me a hog and I race up there, last ten years. I don't win any races, but I enjoy the beer and the girls. All them cycles really gets those girls' motors purrin’.” He threw out his bony chest.
I stared, reassessing his age. His face was wrinkled and the strands of hair hanging out from under the greasy cap were gray. Suddenly the pickup cab seemed very small.
“Since I been retired, I ain't had as much money, but I've got time. I do a little work for Bob and use his tools. Maw, she thinks I'm crazy. Wants to buy a boat and move to Florida. It'd be too far to ride to Sturgis, and that's the only place she can’t keep an eye on me. What'd you say your name was?”
“Marie,” I said, then remembered I'd written my real name on the traveler's check.
“No, I mean your last name. When I get to Sturgis this fall, I want to come down and give you a ride on my Harley.”
“Johnson.” Leonard didn't handle the money; he'd never see that check. Bob was probably tucking it into his new wife's size-40D bra right now. “You just ask for the Johnson place when you get to Hermosa.” If Leonard came looking for Marie Johnson, he'd get action: her six brothers are jealous of competition. They all have big muscles and little eyes set close together.
“I worked construction for years, so I'm in good shape. Then I took one of them correspondence courses and become a mechanic. But I had to quit when I got hurt.” He looked at me expectantly.
“How'd that happen?” I said, on cue.
“I was fixing a dump truck, underneath it, you know? Well I heard this noise and I knew she was dropping, and I throwed myself forward 'cause if I'd a throwed myself back I'd a got my head stuck between the box and the frame.” He looked at me to be sure I understood.
“As it was, the box dropped on my back. I yelled once before I passed out and my partner heard me. When he raised that truck box, I tell you I slid out of there onto the floor just like a snake.” He illustrated with a sinuous movement of his arm in the air between us, dropping his hand onto my knee as he went on with the story.
“My partner dragged me out and called the ambulance.” He squeezed my knee. “I was in the hospital about a year and they said I'd probably never walk again.”
I lurched closer to the door, leaving his hand behind as I rolled the window down. “But I just kept working at it until I could walk again. I never give up.” He winked. “I’d been ridin’ a cycle, so I figured I might still get around on two wheels. Strong arms.” He held up an arm, brown and shining like a mahogany sculpture. This time, his hand landed on the steering wheel.
Sweat tickled, rolling down the inside of my arm. The old pickup bucked along, swaying in the backwash of big trucks snorting past. Smoking, Leonard said nothing for a mile while I slid my right hand down inside my pants pocket. My jack knife was still only three inches long.
“There's Gothenburg; old Swede town. A bunch of them damn Swedes got this far on the Oregon Trail and said, 'Ay ben not going no furder; dis country gets vorse and vorse.' You know what a Swede is, don't you? It's a. . .”
“A Norwegian with his brains knocked out? You must be Norwegian, Leonard.”
“Yeah--and I bet you're a Swede, ain't you?” He pounded the steering wheel. “Johnson and that blonde hair. I usually stick my foot in my mouth.”
We were both laughing when we got to the Chevy garage. Leonard banged on the door, and a portly fellow in a lavender leisure suit unlocked it, beaming. “Hel-lo, Leonard. How are you?”
“I'm finer'n bird sweat, George. How's yourself?”
George nodded. “Fine. Fine. This is the damsel in distress? What's a little girl like you doing out here all by yourself?” He put his arm across my shoulders and squeezed.
“Car trouble makes this damsel damn grouchy, George.”
“Awful nice of you to come down here like this, George,” Leonard said. “Save this little gal from being stranded in Brady.” I dropped my purse and bent to grab it, ducking away.
“Hell, Leonard, I wouldn't do it for anybody but you.” He looked at me, no longer smiling. “We go way back, Leonard and me-- way back.” He winked and patted Leonard on the shoulder and the two of them went through a door labeled “Parts.”
Wondering what the old grease monkey had on George, I found a water cooler and drank deep. When I straightened up, George grabbed my shoulder again. “I found one, little gal. Only about, oh, $24.95 ought to do it.”
When I opened my billfold, Leonard's eyes pivoted toward it. I didn't know what he was going to charge me, so I riffled the five ten-dollar bills that were left after I’d paid, so he could count them. He grunted and went outside. When I got in his truck, he turned left out of the lot instead of right toward the interstate.
“Where are you headed, Leonard?” I said, my hand on the door handle. The thought of escaping Leonard with George as my only acquaintance was not comforting.
“Oh, I thought we'd go down to the Lucky Strike and have a cool one. Must be a hundred and ten in the shade.” His hand started crawling across the seat. His palm stuck to the vinyl and he pulled it loose with a slurp, like a sound from a horror movie.
Ah, I thought; the secret of his romantic success. “You're a dangerous devil, Leonard and I'd love a drink, but I don't dare. If I drink one, I'll drink eight and then where will I be?”
He chuckled. Exactly.
“I told my dad I'd be home by seven tonight and what with that fan belt, I'm three hours behind already. It'll be past midnight and if I know my dad, he'll send my brothers out if I don't show up on time. Those boys will backtrack every stretch of road all the way to Lincoln.”
I shook my head. Leonard stared at the bar.
“Then he’ll worry about them being too slow, so he’ll call the sheriff, which is ridiculous. He hasn’t held a state office for ten years. In fact, I'd better call when we get back to the garage.” Babbling, I pictured Leonard drunk twenty miles from my broken-down car, and tried to figure out what I’d do if this didn’t work. I wanted to cry. Instead, I visualized pulling a snub-nosed pistol out of a shoulder holster and jamming it between a couple of Leonard's bony little ribs.
Across the street, tinny music howled out the open door of the Lucky Strike. The pickup idled down the street. Then he shifted into second.
“Yeah, you're right.” He pulled a stick of gum out of his pocket and popped it in his mouth. “It's gonna take awhile to get that fuel pump in that old wreck if I remember right.” He threw the gum wrapper out the window. I breathed. He said, “Do you mind if I take the old road back? I hate that damn interstate.”
I leaned back. “No, Leonard. I like old roads.” The sun flashed in our faces, and then dropped behind the everlasting corn fields. As on thy highest mount I stand, I look away across the sea. The air smelled like silage and pigs.
After awhile, Leonard said, “What’s you say you did in Lincoln?”
“Edited a university history course for TV. You ever see those?”
“Yeah, I watch them once in awhile.” He turned the radio off. “Both my boys went to college. That's why I worked them two jobs for twenty years. I'd have let them work their own way through but my old lady said I had to help them. I paid for the books, but they had to work theirselves for money to live on. They done good, though. One of them teaches sociology out on the coast. The other one, he went in the service his third year in school and got into computers. God, he could have made a bundle when he got out. You know what he's doing?”
He faced me, twisting the gear shift knob furiously. “You know what he’s doing? He's driving a dump truck for the county.” He snorted. “Lot of god damn good a college education did him. He could have done that right out of eighth grade. I done better than that and I never went further than fifth.”
“Maybe he'll change his mind when he gets married. You know, responsibility.”
“Last time we seen him, he brought a woman home one Saturday night, and took her to church with us the next morning. That's been a coupla years. Haven't seen my other boy since he moved to the coast.”
“They must be proud of you, working so hard so they could go to school. When I was in college, some of my friends wouldn't bring friends home. They were embarrassed if the folks didn’t talk right or had grease under their fingernails.”
“Hamm.” He frowned and chomped gum.
I leaned out the window and tried to feel cool while sweat pasted my shirt to my skin. Was today's mess a metaphor for my life? Logic told me I could learn from my mistakes, but I felt like a failure. I'd failed at marriage, been raped. Maybe I'd never feel safe again. Where mansions are prepared for me,/ My heaven, my home forever more.
Zillions of June bugs buzzed around the forty-watt bulb over the shop door. Country music bubbled out the open door of the pink trailer, a neon prairie schooner marooned among cottonwoods, a carnival ship on the black horizon. Leonard clamped a trouble light on Beulah’s hood while I got the fuel pump out of the box. The price tag read $19.95. Maybe the extra five bucks was Lavender George's Sunday-opening tariff.
Leonard rolled under the car on a dolly, grunted and said, “You up there? I need a hand.” I leaned over the bumper and saw his face under a tangle of hoses. “I'll turn this wrench as far as I can from under here, then you grab it and turn it as far as you can, take it off and hand it back to me. I'd like to get my hands on the bastard who thought this was a good way to install a fuel pump,” Leonard wheezed. “Don't drop that wrench in my teeth.” Sweat ran out of my hair and dripped, along with leftover gas, into Leonard's face.
We'd traded the wrench back and forth a few times before he muttered, “How come a college woman don't have a better car than this old bitch? Christ, she's older than you are.”
“Watch your language, Leonard. This car is named after my great-aunt, a Mormon lady of great virtue.”
“Well if she's so damn virtuous, she could afford to buy you a better car.”
“I had a new car. My ex-husband took it when he ran off with his little girlfriend. Now I'm older, wiser and poorer.”
We were twisting in the last bolt when the hair stood up on the back of my neck. The three bikers were right behind me.
“Yer suite is ready, honey.”
“The finest accommodations Brady has to offer.” They guffawed. “The only accommodations Brady has to offer.”
“Got a few six packs too. Hell, it's Saturday night.” The nearest one, who might have been speaking, clamped a hand on my butt and squeezed.
I yelped before realizing it was my turn with the wrench. I whacked his wrist with it and said, “Back off, boys,” but my voice shook. I took a deep breath and bellowed, “Back off! Go play with yourselves!”
The one I'd hit doubled a fist, then howled and grabbed his wrist, as if the pain signal had finally reached his brain.
Yelling, “What the hell's going on up there? Give me that wrench!” Leonard rolled the dolly out, smacking into one guy’s ankle. Swearing, the guy bent over and hit his head on the bumper. “Ouch! Bitch,” he screeched. The other two giggled and they drifted back into the garage.
“Thanks, Leonard. What happens next?”
“Right now all I want to do is get this god damn thing fixed.” He shoved the last bolt home. When he tried to hand me the wrench I was looking over my shoulder, so the wrench clanged on the concrete beside his head. “God dammit!” he yelled. “Pay attention. A little grab-ass didn't hurt you, and anyway, I can see their feet if they walk up here again.”
My watch said 6:30 when the dolly squealed and Leonard slid out from under the car. “You gas up,” he said, and walked into shadows beside the garage. After filling the tank, I started the car. Leonard came back and leaned into the engine, looking and listening. “No gas spraying out. I'd say we got 'er in there just right. That's it, honey.” He slammed the hood and said, “Come on inside and pay me.” His smile looked broad and wet.
I slipped my nine-inch brass tire gauge into my back pocket before I followed him. The three bikers were sitting on a stack of tires drinking beer and shoving each other.
“How long is this going to take, Bob?” one asked. “We got us a date here with the little lady. I'm first.”
Bob, kneeling by a Harley, looked at me thoughtfully when I said, “If I were you, Bob, I'd keep an eye this slime with a new wife all alone in that trailer.”
Leonard said, “About fifty dollars I guess, honey. Leave you enough to get home on.”
“Come on, Leonard. You saw how much money I have. I can't get that old crate home on this tank of gas.” Noticing the greasy cut on his hand, I remembered how hard he'd worked in the heat. “I could write you a check. It wouldn't bounce.” But he'd have my name and address.
“Make it forty, then. You should have let me buy you that beer. Might have talked me down a little.” His eyes glittered under his sweaty forehead. The three boys stirred behind me. I handed Leonard four tens and turned to face them.
Leonard said, “I'll see you when I come to Sturgis for the races this fall, Marie.” He led me outside, whistling softly while I tightened the straps holding the bicycle on its rack over the trunk. Bob came out, wiping his hands. “No charge for the tank of gas, honey.”
“Thanks Bob. Thanks, Leonard. I really do appreciate your help.”
“Wait a minute,” yelled one of the bikers, running out of the garage. Bob stepped in front of him and put a big greasy hand on his chest. “She's going right down that road, kid, minding her business. You mind yours.”
The other two headed for the two bikes beside the garage. One yelled, “They can't stop us; there ain't no law in this town.”
I shut my eyes, hoping to conjure up a woman who made herself a legend in our community. One night when the social whirl didn't meet her expectations, she threw everybody she could catch --men, women, children and a couple of dogs-- off the dance-hall balcony.
Leonard patted my shoulder. “Take care, little girl.”
“Thanks, Leonard. Can I outrun those two?”
He leaned close. “That's OK, honey. It’s a little-known mechanical fact that heat loosens oil plugs. They fell outta both those bikes awhile back. They won't go far.” He waved his grease rag at me as I roared out of the lot. I waved back, wishing I'd hugged him, and drove seventy with the windows down and the radio up. I watched the rear view mirror, knowing I couldn't tell two motorcycles from a car's headlights anyway.
On the outskirts of Sidney, I tucked Beulah into a slot between two eighteen-wheelers parked broadside to the highway. No one passing could see the car’s distinctive shape. In the truck-stop rest room, I washed my hands and scrubbed grease off my forehead, then realized my arms, jeans and shirt were streaked with oil.
I flopped into the nearest booth, almost colliding with a waitress wearing a skirt that barely covered her hips. “Thisboothisreserved,” she said. When I gaped, not hearing her, she shook her head, jiggling the two fuzzy dice dangling from her ponytail. “This booth is reserved,” she said slowly.
“Reserved? This is a god damn truck stop. What are you talking about?”
She pointed to a sign: “Reserved for Truck Drivers.” Over her shoulder she said sociably, “Touch my ass again, Sam, and they'll find pieces of you in Dee-troit.” My opinion of her rose fifty points.
“Don't I look like a truck driver?” I said, spreading my filthy, sunburned arms. A couple of truckers laughed and applauded.
“Well, whyn't ya just say so?” she griped, slapping a menu and a glass of water in front of me. “I don't have time for guessing games.”
Eyes under Cat and Texaco caps measured me as I gulped water. My hands were shaking so hard most of it splashed on the table. Before the waitress came back, I dug my keys out of my pocket and ran to the car. Beulah wouldn’t start until I pumped the gas, shaking and cursing; then I whizzed out of the lot.
Next time I saw a highway sign, I was doing sixty on a narrow strip of rutted asphalt, Highway 385 north. My left arm hanging out the window felt fried. I inspected each little town: no gas station.
Chugging along in the sticky dark, I was thinking how farmers’ yard lights looked like fire flies when I saw headlights on a side road. The car swung in close behind me as I passed, headlights glaring in my rear view mirror.
Each time I slowed down or speeded up, the car stayed with me. At forty miles an hour, I topped a rise and saw the lights of Dalton, Nebraska, one empty street lined with dark buildings. Light flared around a tall sign at the far end.
Halfway through town was a stop sign. I braked gently, because the other car was still on my bumper. Beulah lurched ahead, the car behind so close all I could see in the mirror was the silhouette of a man’s head. When I braked again, the car hit my bumper so hard my flashlight fell off the seat and I heard metal snap on the bicycle rack. In the rear view mirror, the man's face, red in my taillights’ reflection, was young and clean-shaven. I pulled ahead a little, looked both ways. Bang! The car hit my bumper. And again.
Leaning out the window, I shrieked, “Cut it out, you dumb son of a bitch.” His door opened as I bent over to grope on the floor for the flashlight, two feet long and heavy with batteries. As he reached for my door handle, I sat up and stomped the gas. Gravel shot back from my tires. He yelped and swore. I raced toward the light and swerved into a gas station as the other car left the stop sign.
As I slammed on the brakes and honked the horn, a heavy man inside looked up from the cash register. I ran toward the door he held open a crack. “What the hell's all the racket about, sister?” he said. “I'm closing up.”
“I'm sorry. That guy was running into me back at the stop sign.” I pointed at the other car, cruising slowly up the street toward us.
“Huh?” The man's eyes narrowed at me.
“That guy-- he was hitting my car! Have you got a phone? A sheriff?” The last street light stood in a weedy lot a block beyond the station. The other car pulled over beside it and turned, engine idling.
“Have a little fight with the boyfriend, did you, honey? Just take it on back home. This is a gas station.”
I took a deep breath and pushed my hair back from my face. “Listen to me. I'm from South Dakota. I've never seen that guy before. When I stopped at the stop sign, he ran into me, and then backed up and hit me a couple more times.”
“Oh, he's just playing around.” Engine roaring, the other car raced back the way we'd come, turning sharply at the stop sign. “Just having a good time on Saturday night.”
“He wasn't playing when he hit me. Look at my car.” The rim of the front bicycle wheel was bent, and a support on the rack dangled loose. “He wrecked the rack and the bike both.”
“We don't ride bicycles out here, sister. You want some gas or you just going to complain all night?”
“Gas, please. Do you know that guy?” With my pocket knife, I cut the canvas straps on the bike rack until I could tie it to the bumper. The man moved to the regular pump and stuck the nozzle in my tank. “Don't you know him?” he said, grinning.
“Hell, no.” An engine rumbled and the same car zipped up the street without stopping, headed north, the way I’d be going.
“What are you doing out here by yourself in the middle of the night, anyway?”
“Trying to get home. I had car trouble. You got any law around here?”
“There's a county sheriff but I think he's out of town. That boy probably won't bother you again. Where you headed?”
“South Dakota, if I ever get out of this damn state.”
He hung up the gas hose and stuck his hand out. “That'll be ten dollars, missy. Didn't your daddy ever tell you it ain't ladylike to swear? You got no business bein’ out at night. Women who stay home don't get in trouble.”
I laid a bill in his hand. He stalked inside and closed the door. I heard the lock click.
I eased onto the road. Cars slumped like cold slag in front of dark houses. Beulah’s graceful three-thousand-pound shadow leaped across the brome grass in the ditch. At the edge of the dark behind the street light, I floored it.
An hour later, I cruised to the tune of my rattling bicycle through Bridgeport, black as a cornfield. On the bridge over the North Platte River, I stopped and stumbled to the railing. Was that a breeze? My eyes fell into the flow of water. My mind drifted; I seemed to see piles of household goods abandoned by pioneers following their dreams west. Where streams of life forever flow, I sang softly, feeling discarded. Leaning on the railing, I cast curses on all the men I'd met that day.
After awhile, I opened the rear doors to roll the windows down and noticed my dead house plants. I picked up the biggest one, a jade plant with a trunk thick as my wrist, and staggered to the railing. Where was she now, the friend who’d begged me to take it when she moved? When I pushed the plant over, it struck the muddy water and a geyser exploded, splashing me with drops that looked silver in the faint light. One by one, I pitched them all. When the last one hit the water, I was drenched, laughing and cool for the first time that day.
On the outskirts of Alliance, I decided I could drive two more hours home if I could find gas, but both stations on main street were closed until 7:oo A.M. “Vacancy” flashed a motel’s red neon sign. When I turned the key off, I sagged like a bag of wet sand.
Cold air swallowed me as I opened the glass door. I felt in the coin pocket of my jeans, checking to be sure the bills I’d stashed earlier were still there, and hoping they were twenties. A bald man in coveralls filled an overstuffed chair, watching a late show and smoking a huge green cigar. He didn't look at me.
“Got a single?” My voice was coarse as gravel.
“Yeah.” Looking at me, he exhaled a billow of smoke that veiled his face.
“How much is it?” I pulled two bills out of my pocket, holding them on my side of the counter so he couldn’t see them; they were both tens.
“You alone?” Chewing the cigar, he leaned forward in his chair, trying to see around me to the car.
He peered at me through the cigar smoke while he stuffed his hand inside the coveralls and scratched his belly. “You ain't got somebody else in the car?”
“Go look if you want to.”
“What's a girl doing running around motels at this time of night for?”
“Car trouble. Trying to get home,” I said. “Haven’t you heard? They passed a law that women can drive cars.” I tried to smile and felt my upper lip lift in a snarl.
“We don't have that commie pinko liberation shit in Nebraska.” He exhaled another cloud of green smoke and leaned back in the chair.
I straightened, smiled carefully and said, “Sir, I'd appreciate it if you'd watch your language. I've left Lincoln today heading home to my four children. I live two hours north, but I’m out of gas and there are no stations open. I've had car trouble twice and I’m exhausted. I'd like a single motel room, and I plan to occupy it by myself.”
He grunted. “Eighteen dollars.” He tapped a long ash in a metal ashtray balanced on the arm of the chair.
Two dollars left, unless I found another cash stash. Maybe I could write a check in Hot Springs, forty miles from home. “Thank you, I'll take it.”
He didn't get up. “Register's there on the desk.” I turned it around and signed my name while he put his fat hands on the arms of the chair and lunged forward. On the third try, he stood, turned the book around and said, “That your name?”
I bit my lip and flipped open my driver's license. When he pulled on it, I tightened my grip. He looked me, little eyes hard, and wrote the number in his book. Then he lifted a key off a nearly-full rack behind him. “Here ya go, honey.”
I snatched the key. “Eighteen dollars doesn't buy you the right to call me honey, buster.” While I started the car, he copied my license number.
Since I'd planned to be home, I didn't have an overnight bag, but I dragged a clean shirt out of a suitcase, found my bottle of gin in a wastebasket and a twenty in the plastic tampon case under the seat. I collected the flashlight and tire gauge, locked the car, found a pop machine in a walkway and some quarters in my pocket. I bought three cans of Squirt. As I unlocked the door to the room, I saw the man at the office window, staring.
I locked the door, put a chair under the knob. The TV was bolted to a battered bureau. I turned on the bathroom light and yanked the moldy shower curtain aside. There was no glass, so I drank half a Squirt, filled the pop bottle with gin and drained it. Then I sat on the bed and started to shake.
Why had the day been so terrifying? Experts say a woman's best protection is acting confident and staying alert. I'd done both. I tried to keep my vehicle in good condition, planned trips to allow extra time. No weapon would change the way some men talked and thought. Yet I hadn’t been physically harmed. Maybe I’d have to develop instincts, learn to tell which men were dangerous and which weren't. Either that or lock myself in the house at dark.
Finishing the second gin and Squirt, I noticed a wide gap in the window curtains and thought I heard a shoe scrape on concrete outside. I snapped off the light and checked the lock. Then put a chair under the door knob and shoved the chest of drawers, TV and all, against it. With two safety pins from my purse, I pinned the curtain together. Then I locked the bathroom door and showered until my fingers turned blue. I dabbed myself with a dusty towel, put on the clean shirt and filthy jeans. With a good grip on the flashlight, I turned off the bathroom light, waited until my eyes adjusted and opened the door.
I was sitting on the bed in the dark, toasting the family in the clunky bus, when I noticed a red glow beyond the curtains. I tiptoed to the window and opened a two-finger slit. Across the street, flames leapt from the roof of a building labeled “Auto Parts.” I unpinned the curtains, plumped up the thin pillows, and leaned back. When the fire died to bright embers at 3:00 A.M., I slid down in the bed and slept.
* * *
In 1991, sixteen years later, I pulled off Interstate 80 at the Brady exit. I was headed to eastern Nebraska to do a series of readings from my books. After rewriting the story of that day a dozen times, I’d resolved to revisit the scene. Had Bob graduated to more sophisticated larceny after the new wore off the trailer and the wife? Maybe I’d pull in and ask him to diagnose the clatter in the Bronco-- test his honesty, since I knew the sound came from my dead catalytic converter.
Queasy, I thought how much I’d learned doing the jobs that support my writing habit, driving across the plains to give workshops and speeches. My preparations for bad weather and bad people have become second nature, but I travel cheerfully as well as alertly.
Cardboard flapped in broken windows of the gas station, still the only major building in Brady. The old yellow Olds was jacked up in front of the double doors, one rear wheel missing. The cottonwoods behind the shop were dead. Canted over, the faded pink trailer was streaked with black streaks, like flames. A dirty curtain blew out a broken window.
A wizened old man stood in the shop doorway, his belly dragging his pants down, suspenders stretched and puckered. Squinting against the sun, he pushed his cap back on his head just the way Bob had done sixteen years before. Terror snatched at my throat. I gunned the motor and spun out of the station throwing gravel. I sang loudly as I merged into traffic. Oh, Beulah Land, sweet Beulah Land.”
* * *
Five years later, in November 1996, I totaled the Bronco in a rollover on black ice, my first accident in 163,000 miles. Witnesses said I did everything right; the investigating Highway Patrol officer absolved me of error. A friendly tow-truck driver helped me load my possessions into a rental car so I could continue my speaking tour. He didn’t notice that I was collecting cash stashes from old tampon containers, ashtrays, collapsible cups and other hiding places. He surveyed the scatter of jumper cables, flares, a tow chain, coveralls, a pistol, knives, wrenches and spare parts among my boxes of books, and said, “You were ready for anything, weren’t you? Except rolling your car.”
# # #
by Linda M. Hasselstrom
published in A Road of Her Own
edited by Marlene Blessing
Fulcrum Publishing, Inc., 2002.
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