I am driving now. Dan sits beside me in our rented SUV with his dark shades covering his tense eyes. The stubble on his jaw is thick. His hair is disheveled and he looks like he has road burn. He is in need of a shower. I don't look any better.
Dan had driven the final leg into Flathead Valley, screaming past Swan Lake, tailgating any and all slower drivers that got in our way, cursing their mothers and passing them in places where the yellow line is unbroken for a reason. His driving scared me, I must say. It was the only time during the entire road trip that tension came between us.
I shouldn't talk. I drove out of Yellowstone doing 95mph sometimes reaching over 100, but that was wide-open country with long stretches of straight road and bald hills. I could see for miles around me. Dan attempted the same feat over curvaceous Swan Highway with thick ponderosa forest hugging the side of the road. He couldn't see fifty feet in front of him at times.
But it was all for the same reason: to get to Kalispell as fast as possible. We were both itching for the long overdue return. It's been over a decade for me, close to twenty years for Dan.
We have been in Kalispell now for two days and this morning Dan was up and staring over the low buildings on Main Street watching the sunrise. His eyes had an intense focus in them that I had never seen before.
We are staying at the Kalispell Grand Hotel, which is one of the oldest buildings in town and was once a place for vagabonds and drug dealers, but is now a luxurious hotel thanks to a wealthy rancher who renovated the old brick building. On our first night I searched the halls with a bourbon and coke in my hand trying to find the room where my old girlfriend, Samantha, used to shack up.
She and I would make love in her small, dusty dank room with cracks running up the walls and water stains splotching the ceiling. I would lay naked in the summer heat, smoke a cigarette and try to make faces out of those water stains. We would have to clean up using the public bathroom down the hall. It was no grand hotel back then.
Blind Mike also lived there at one point. This is why we're now heading to Dan?s old trailer where Dan spent his last days in America. I can feel something burning just under the surface with Dan.
I am craving a beer. We've been drinking hard every night since New Orleans. Drinking seems to be the only thing to do when dealing with a continuous hang over that rips you out from the inside.
I ask Dan, "Want to get a six pack?" He shakes his head. "I wonder if Woodland Park has changed?" I ask, but he doesn?t answer.
Instead, Dan flips through the CDs. He's looking for the perfect sound to reacquaint him with his old stomping grounds. His lips are pulled tight. He doesn't want to talk. He hasn't spoken but three sentences since breakfast. He chooses Willie Nelson.
It was just last week, when we were traveling hard and hot over the red New Mexican landscape going from Santa Fe to Flagstaff that Dan found his voice in the thick dark. The stars were overwhelming that night. I thought I could see a path connecting the Milky Way to every other galaxy. I drove with my arms folded on the steering wheel as I stared up through the bug-splattered windshield.
I knew most of the story. How Dan's mother had visited Montana from Liverpool and fell in love with it immediately. How she also fell in love with a 17 year-old boy who ran a horse ranch just outside of town. How in a desperate move to leave Liverpool, keep her lover and give her own boy a chance at a better life, she married Blind Mike: a marriage of convenience, payoffs and no sex. And how after two years of struggling with Immigration she and Dan were sent packing, deported from the States back to gritty Liverpool streets and no hope.
What I didn't know is that Blind Mike had turned on them. Even though Blind Mike was in the marriage only for the money, he had befriended Dan in the beginning. Blind Mike stepped in at the right time, as a well-needed friend when things were lonely for Dan. And so flying down Hwy 40 at 85mph Dan let it out in a rush like Old Faithful. When he was done we sat quietly listening to the tires slap the pavement.
On our first day in Kalispell, Dan took me to breakfast at Norm's News to visit Blind Mike's old hangout, but Norm's News is now an ice cream parlor with glass jugs filled with candy: a child?s paradise, not the greasy 1930's bacon, eggs and coffee joint it once had been. The sparkling bright lights stung my eyes. The old cigarette-stained character of Norm's News is now nothing more than a lollipop-tinsel shop for children who could care less about the Great Depression when Norm first opened. Besides, Blind Mike is dead now, stabbed in the back with a switchblade over a bad drug deal.
I am overwhelmed by change. I don't feel as if Kalispell is my hometown anymore. I can't find my former life haunting the sidewalks of Main Street. I feel like a tourist in a town that has moved on without me.
The pain is real for Dan too. His memories have been subverted by certain franchises serving coffee, bathing lotions and home remodeling supplies. A parking lot now covers the wide field where he once picked strawberries. The strawberry farm used to have the best view in the valley. A person could stretch their aching back and take in the sights of the snowcapped Rockies in every direction.
Yesterday, we discovered the old white house they had rented for a year, a year when things went right for Dan and his mother. But is has since been turned into a lawyer's office. When Dan saw that he sighed heavily and we went and drank beer at Moose's Saloon, one of the only unchanged things in town.
Old Moose's: 50 years of sawdust and peanut shells littering the floor, and a large moose head over the jukebox. The windowless thick log walls are covered in names, scrawled on by every sort of knife. Dan and I had carved our names in the wall above a corner booth when we were in high school, but they are gone now. We started to scratch our names in again, but felt foolish.
So now we're heading down 1 st Avenue past Woodland Park where Dan used to live in a broken down, shabby trailer just a few blocks from Woodland. I pull onto Park Street, a block behind us is Woodland, and a block ahead is where Dan spent his last days in America. I slow down giving us time to prepare, to take it in.
"It might not be there Dan, so many things have changed," I say. He nods his head.
This tenseness that I have been feeling from Dan is now at the boiling point. I'm almost afraid to pull into the old trailer park and find a Starbuck's or a line of overly priced "McMansions" with perfectly trimmed lawns.
I inch us closer. Dan is patient, but he doesn't even seem to breathe. Suddenly, little trailers pop their dirty rusted walls out from behind a large hemlock hedge. I look at Dan who keeps his rigid posture. I turn off the stereo and drive down a gravel path I think is the one that leads to his old trailer. The gravel crunches softly under the weight of the SUV. There is no other sound. No children are at play. No radios fill the air, just a dusty silence in the afternoon heat. I barely touch the gas, we inch very slowly, I can't recall his trailer, so I just keep inching waiting for him to tell me when to stop.
Through the second trip around the trailer park I realize that many trailers have cute little landscaped lawns and in fact, what I presumed would be a dump of a place, is actually well kept. Where there was once a vagabond existence wrapped around the trailers, it now seems stable and decent. We can't find the shit-brown trailer that haunts Dan's memory. Finally, at the start of our third spin, he says stop, a flat simple whisper that at first I don't really hear, but then quickly process and place my foot on the brake.
Dan gets out. I watch him shuffle in the dust toward a sweet looking trailer with flowers painted on the front and the mailbox wrapped in rose vines. Dan looks almost middle-aged with his beer belly and the start of a bald spot on the top of his head. I notice the old maple tree we used to climb to drink his mother's beer. The tree has not changed.
Dan clenches his hands into fists. His knuckles go from red to white as he pulls his fingers tight. I get out gently, trying not to make a noise. I step up behind him, waiting for the grandmother that must live in there to come out and ask us what we want. There must be a dozen eyes on us at this point. Dan doesn't move and I am getting nervous.
Suddenly, Dan spits a thick loogy onto one of the pink painted flowers. "Fuck you!" he screams. "You blind bastard!"
Dan's face is a wreck of emotion. His cheeks are stretched with red veins. I look around quickly. I am horrified.
"That fucker! That sick piece of shit! When we moved him out of his nasty apartment he had nothing but an old bag full of dirty clothes," Dan yells. The words spill out of his mouth like boulders. "The blind bastard couldn't see, but he could smell, oh yeah he could smell, mate. He had a nose for my mum. I should of known then. I fuckin' should have know then. But I trusted the fucker. You never knew why my mother kicked him out?"
I shake my head and turn around. Behind us an old man comes out on his rickety steps his sagging skin and white chest hair exposed by a worn out t-shirt. I turn back to Dan.
"I caught him on top of her. She was kicking and screaming. He yelled in her face that he was her husband. Can you believe that shit? I grabbed him, but he punched me in the chest and knocked me out. It got worse mate, for my mum I mean, it got much worse."
"Calm down man," I say, pleading for him to gain some kind of control, but he doesn't even acknowledge me.
"I hate you!" he yells at the trailer. "I wish it had been me that stabbed you."
At this point Dan starts sobbing and I don't know what to do. I see movement in the painted flower trailer and I know I'm not the only one who is nervous. Dan keeps sobbing loudly staring at the trailer in some kind of defiance. I am lost at what to do. Finally, I nudge him in the elbow and whisper, "come on."
I pull into Woodland Park. Dan sniffles, looking out of his side window. Woodland has been in my memory since I can recall. I used to go swimming in the pools when I was barely old enough to stand. In winter the pond was cleared for skating. When I was a teenager Dan and I smoked pot in the trees up on the hill and I slept with Samantha for the first time behind the warm-up hut, the two of us tucked into a knoll.
We do one loop. I don't know what Dan needs, so I do another. I notice the old swimming pools have been filled with cement and are covered with Bermuda sod. The high metal fencing has been torn down. I see that the old baseball fields, which had never been in good shape, are now replaced with a water park and kids are sliding, swimming and screaming. But the essential park itself has remained the same. Yellow daisies line the old warm-up hut. The duck pond and fountain haven't changed. Geese, ducks and squirrels still look for food and warm themselves in the sun.
"Look," I say. "Look Dan, it's a cliché and it sounds like bullshit, but things do change. Some of the bad chips away and some of the good remains."
My voice sounds flat and phony. I pull the car over under some shade and we sit in silence. A little boy pulls his young mother across the street. He is talking in a strange voice and his mother says, "You're such a weirdo." The boy screams in delight and starts running. His mother chases him. "You're a little weirdo," she sings.
Dan opens the door and walks to the pond. Geese quickly paddle over to him hoping for bread. He looks across the water. The mother teases the boy as she runs bent over, acting the part of monster. "You're such a weirdo. My little, little weirdo."
The boy giggles insanely and runs through Dan's shadow causing the geese to paddle away. Dan raises his face to the sky and closes his eyes. The boy screams as his mother grabs him. "My little, little weirdo," she says, holding him up and kissing his cheeks. The boy wiggles free and makes a run for it. His mother runs after. Dan lies on the grass and covers his face with his hands. I watch his chest rise and fall. Out of the corner of my eye I see the little boy and his mother fade away just beyond the swing sets.
Sloan Davis is an adjunct professor at Tulsa Community College. He writes fiction, poetry and has recently discovered an interest in filmmaking. Recently, he acted in the independent feature film, Billy Fail, as well as worked on art direction. He is currently working on a documentary concerning evacuees of Hurricane Katrina in Oklahoma.