THE MAN ON THE EDGE OF TOWN
By Jamie Gogocha
Crossing from the green, mountainous western half of Montana into the endless horizon of the eastern half is like crossing into another country. As I drove along the empty two lane highway, I took the opportunity to appreciate my surroundings as I passed by. I loved being embraced by the blue that gave Montana the nickname Big Sky Country. Watching the trees become fewer was always something I had appreciated in the past. It made me feel like I was running a race and pulling ahead of the crowd.
Around 2:30 in the afternoon, my stomach rumbled, and I realized that I hadn’t eaten anything since I left the hotel in Missoula before the sun rose.
The green metal highway sign informed me that the exit to Echo, a town I had never heard of, was coming up. “Why not?” I thought to myself. Surely there must be a café or something along whatever constituted the main stretch of road. I had always found visiting new towns in Montana to be an adventure in and of itself. I never knew if I’d find welcoming or isolation, a rancher’s haven or a touristy ghost town (I’m looking at you, Virginia City), or nothing but a gas station and a worn two-lane highway.
As my Camaro’s turn signal tick-tocked just under Halestorm’s music coming through the speakers, I passed a faded blue and yellow sign welcoming me to the little town with a population of 646 and was “home of the mighty Lions.” It brought back memories of the sign above the entrance to my high school gym saying “You’re in Warden Country!” Not far past the weather-loved sign, I saw an establishment called Queen’s Café.
“Any place,” I figured, “called Queen’s Café around here must at least have a mean BLT or a pasty.” Nostalgia brought a smile to my face as I thought of all the pasties we used to eat when I was growing up—beef and diced potato filled turnovers smothered in brown gravy. As tumultuous as my time in Montana was as I was growing up, I did abscond with some nice memories.
I nudged open the glass door of the café and saw pretty much what I was expecting. Behind the counter stood a woman skillfully wrapping silverware in generic white napkins as though she’d been doing it since birth. At the counter sat two middle age men dressed and ready to be on the cover of Rural Eastern Montana Magazine, if such a publication ever existed. They each wore jeans, cowboy hats, and boots. One had a Carhartt jacket as faded and dusty as the town’s sign and likely just as old, and the other man wore a heavy cotton shirt rolled up to the elbows. All three paused their conversation as I walked in.
After a cursory look at the newcomer, the men resumed talking and the woman said, “Just have a seat anywhere, hon, and I’ll be right there with a menu.”
I thanked her and took a window seat in a booth near the front door. I was staring out at the empty main road, not that there was a lot to stare at, and thinking about what kind of town I was in. Across the street was a water tower with the town’s name painted on the side. Next to the name, I could make out some initials surrounded in hearts and a local artist’s rendition of the Metallica logo. At the foot of the water tower sat a classic pickup truck. Its dirty, faded blue exterior suggested that it was still in use for work rather than showing off at car shows. Beyond that were plains, fences, and an occasional house or barn.
The click of a ball point pen brought me back to that window table, and I turned to see my waitress approaching. She was wearing faded blue jeans, a white three-quarter sleeve t-shirt, and her sandy blonde hair was pulled back into a no-nonsense ponytail. As she set a menu next to me on the table, she said, “My name is Sarge. Can I get you something to drink while you take a look at the menu?”
After a quick glance at the soda machine, my answer was ready: “I’d like a Dr. Pepper please?”
“You got it,” she said and walked over to the counter. Her boots, black and fairly urban chic for a small Montana town, carried her rhythmically across the floor.
“So, I see your Washington state plates, you movin’ out here?” Sarge asked as she brought my drink to the table.
“No, I’m driving to Michigan for a conference,” I told her.
“Why are you drivin’ instead of flyin’?”
“Well, I don’t really like to fly. Also, I used to drive through eastern Montana to visit family, and this felt like a perfect opportunity to drive through again,” I said to my menu, feeling very aware that I was an obvious out-of-towner in a very small community. Eager to take the spotlight away from my business, or lack thereof, in town, I smiled and said, “Would it be possible to get a pasty please?”
“Comin’ right up,” she replied.
As I watched her walk away, I wondered about her name. Was it her real name? A nickname given out of irony? Was she bossy?
When she brought my plate out (mmm….pasty and lots of brown gravy!), I asked my question before my inner monologue had a chance to say mind your own business. “So, can I ask where you got your name?”
Sarge laughed and said she didn’t mind at all. “If I had a quarter for each time I’ve been asked that, I could afford to hire myself a cook for this place!”
She leaned on the booth opposite me, took a bottle of ketchup out of her apron pocket—“Just in case you’re a ketchup and gravy girl.” She paused only for a moment while clicking her pen. Then she started a story about a longtime resident of the dusty town that chance and a hungry stomach sent me to that day.
According to Sarge, Pete and Clara Raymond were regular customers of Queen’s when Sarge took it over ten years before. Each Sunday, as the novelty cuckoo clock on the wall struck noon, Pete would walk up to the entrance, holding Clara’s hand, open the door, and usher in his wife wearing her Sunday best. “I can still see them—him in gray slacks, a checkered button-down shirt, and his floppy brown fedora, and her in a flowered dress, a matching cardigan, and a little pillbox hat like Jackie O. wore,” Sarge said with a voice full of love as she stared out the window.
“When all the snow started to melt in the spring,” Sarge digressed and came back to the present, “Clara preferred to sit in this booth. She said it allowed her the best view of the world coming back to life.”
The elderly high school sweethearts ordered the same meal each week, and once Sarge became familiar with the routine, she would have everything ready to cook for when they arrived. The first time she had their eggs and hash browns ready ahead of their arrival, Clara smiled and asked, “But, my dear girl, what if I wanted something else today?”
With a wide smile, Sarge replied, “Well, I made you that, and you’re gonna eat it!”
“Uh oh,” Pete said, “That sounds like an order to me, dear.”
“Oh, well then—Yes, Sergeant!” Clara said with a salute and a giggle.
“Each week,” Sarge said to me, “Clara would ask me that same question and call me ‘Sarge’ and giggle like a little girl. I loved it.” After a while, everyone started calling her by the nickname Clara had bestowed upon her. “The name just sort of stuck… but I don’t mind. Customers don’t give me as much grief,” she added with a wink.
A couple of years ago, Sarge continued, Clara began eating less of her meal and “forgetting” to bring her leftovers home. Sarge asked if she was feeling okay, to which she replied that she was fine. In a small town, word gets around, and Sarge found out that Clara was ill. Pete and Clara continued coming in each Sunday, but Sarge started adjusting the portion and price of Clara’s meal to accommodate her shrinking appetite.
Then it happened.
One Sunday, Pete and Clara did not come in. As soon as she heard the siren’s wail, she knew that Clara had eaten her last plate of hash browns and eggs with the yolks still runny.
Pete was absent for a month or so, but then he resumed going to Queen’s after church. Though Sarge tried to engage him and go the extra mile to provide friendship and good customer service, Pete was lost in his own world. He would stare out at the mountains from the booth window and sip coffee, but he said little.
Pete soon stopped coming in at all. Sarge heard from Penny Jenkins, the pastor’s wife, that Pete stopped going to church. Some small town investigating revealed that he didn’t go anywhere. He didn’t speak with anyone, and he sat in a squeaky dining room chair at the oak table he and Clara received for their wedding fifty years before. His days were spent just staring at photo albums and loose photos in a faded shoebox. Mrs. Jenkins started taking sacks of potatoes over to his house each week so he would have something to eat. He loved potatoes. “Second only to Clara,” Sarge added with a laugh and a wipe of a tear.
“Mrs. Jenkins got an idea one day to buy a new photo album for Pete,” she went on, “She thought that giving him a project, sorting the photos he always looked at, would give him something to do. Maybe a small step here and there would get him out of the house and talking to people again. After she delivered the photo album, she told me, ‘He just took the album, nodded, and closed the door.’”
Sarge said she worried about him, and would stop by his little old blue house at the edge of town. Just to make sure he was okay. She never could bring herself to go inside. “I didn’t want to be an intruder,” she said. Occasionally, some of the local kids would run into Pete’s yard and sing schoolyard taunts about being mute or deaf or afraid. Sarge would tell them “Take a hike and leave the man alone!” They’d run off, but she knew that they would be returning eventually.
I looked over to see that the sun had shifted. Sarge had been sharing stories of the town and two of its residents for over two hours. As I looked at the clock, Sarge checked her watch. With a flick of her wrist, I was sure I caught a glimpse of Mickey Mouse waving around the watch face.
“Golly, I’m sorry,” she said, “I’ve been doing all this gabbing and haven’t paid any attention to the rest of the work in my restaurant!”
“I understand,” I said with a smile, “I appreciate you visiting with me. It’s been a lonely drive!”
“It’s a beautiful story. I’ll always grab an opportunity to tell it,” she replied.
I finished my pasty, which had gotten cold by that time, and left a 100% tip for her since my experience at the café far surpassed a simple meal. As I got back on the road and headed out of town, I couldn’t stop thinking of Pete and Clara. I decided to drive to the area where Sarge had described Pete living, and sat across the highway in my car.
Moved by the thought of Pete sitting at his old dining room table at that moment, I grabbed a pen and the envelope from my vehicle registration out of my glove compartment. I looked up as some kids giggled after exchanging dares and ran up to the house as I was preparing to write.
I rolled my window down to yell “Get lost!”
Having a strange woman in a strange vehicle yell at them startled them enough to run away. As I settled back into the seat of my car, I saw the white lace curtains flutter in the front window. Pete may not interact with the citizens of the town, but it would seem he is aware of them.
Confident that they’d the local kids would be leaving Pete alone for a while, I began to write a poem inspired by a true love story. I wondered to myself what he would think if I sent him a prettier copy after I got back home.
They’re outside again,
Singing, taunting, laughing
Yes, I can hear them outside.
They think I can’t hear
Since I never answer.
But yes. I can hear.
Yes, I can hear.
Trapped in here.
Trapped in my four-walled hell.
My four-walled hell where
She left me to pine and die.
I sit here and pine
But I haven’t died.
Staring at my heaven
Frozen and posing in a
Two dollar album.
The two dollar album
The preacher’s wife brought
With another sack of potatoes.
I never thank her,
But I guess she knows.
I guess she knows.
So here I sit
In my four-walled hell
Eating my hash browns
And missing my heaven.
About the Author:
Jamie Gogocha is a Senior Library Assistant and graduate of Central Washington University’s Professional and Creative Writing Online Program. Jamie lives in Yelm, Washington with her husband and their two cats. Some of her previous work has been published by Creative Colloquy and Chantwood Magazine. She also writes for Timberland Regional Library’s “Voices of Timberland.”