I sing when I drive. Good and bad songs. My current mix includes Ani Difranco, Madonna, Cee-Lo Green, Radiohead, Fiona Apple, and Meatloaf.

Today, I drove in to Buffalo, the smaller of the two nearby towns, to pay a lunch bill from yesterday. (I still can’t believe I drove all the way in yesterday with no wallet.) I got breakfast, today, too, because I felt terrible. And I left a big tip. The young woman who waited on me was new. She had on a nice yellow shirt–the other waitress was wearing an inexpensive yellow t-shirt. The whole restaurant –three tables, anyway– got quiet when the veteran waitress began telling the new waitress how to make coffee in the mornings and how to roll all the silverware the night before, in case the morning was too busy to do it. 

“You’re welcome to these grapes down here,” the older woman told her from across the dining room, gesturing at some space under the bar/counter. “I’m not going to tell you again. Just grab some; they’re washed. I’m very particular about that.”

The breakfast burrito was okay. The service was very good. I wondered about the other place in town, with the maybe better burritos, but definitely worse service. Locals like that place, and they dislike this one, because the terrible service is reserved for people the waitstaff doesn’t know. For everyone else, it’s like having brunch over at your cousins. But none of these people are my cousins. I drank extra coffee, because I’d left mine at home, on the counter in a travel mug.

My grocery list was short, which was good, because Buffalo has limited options for groceries. Most people go to the Albertson’s in Sheridan–and normally that would’ve been me too, except for wanting that lunch tab off my already burdened conscience. I got fruit and eggs and chocolate almond milk, because I already had everything else. 

On the way back out to the house I’m staying at, I decided to get a little gas. I’m trying to save money, and it seems silly to do that by not filling the tank all the way up, but it always makes a kind of sense at the time. When I got back in my car, I turned the music back on, and fiddled with the cord from my iPod so that I could hear it okay. Something’s broken inside the rubberized cable, and it takes some twisting and kinking and bending to get the sound alright. While I did that, I was singing along to “Shadowboxer.” I looked up and saw that an older man on the other side of the pump was watching me and smiling. I’m sure I look silly singing passionately to the songs of a precocious 17-year old. He nodded and waved a bit. I ducked my head as a kind of nod back and smiled politely.

Then he started to walk around the front of my car, to my side. So I rolled my window down and paused the music. I expected him to tell me that one of my tail lights is out. It has a short. He was wearing a fishing vest. Only one snap was done, near the top, and it seemed to be doing the work of three, holding the fabric together across his belly. I found my eyes wandering to that snap involuntarily as he spoke. Wondering if it would hold. 

“Are you from Laramie originally?” In Wyoming, the license plates are made up of two series of numbers, separated by a space. The first one or two numbers indicates the county that issued the plates. People from here can see at a glance where you’re from. While Albany County (number 5) isn’t just Laramie, 95% of the people in that county probably live there. I started to make a head gesture that said no, or maybe I was shrugging, about to answer. “Or didja go to school there?” Which is the only thing people passing through Laramie (who aren’t workers at the cement factory) seem to do.

“I did.” I nodded. We both kept polite smiles on. 

“Did you ever, by any chance, make it to Woods Landing while you were out there?”

“I did, actually. On one of my first weekends in town.”

The thing about talking to someone from inside your car, if you’re from a city, is that it is very hard not to wait for the pitch. I see people here talking to one another from inside their cars often, especially on ranch roads that might stretch for miles in each direction. Why get out, when you both need to keep going? But rolling down the window is polite. Asking after one’s sick mother or recent graduated kid. Asking how the stock is doing. And here, that means actual countable cows or sheep, not some string of abstract numbers on someone’s ticker. 

So I’m waiting for his pitch, and I think later, how I must wear that look that says, I am being patient here, please get to the pitch so I can say no. 

“That was my great-grandfather’s homestead,” he says. Still smiling–it’s a polite smile. Not a leer, not the wide-toothed grin of the unstable or untrustworthy. He has a baseball hat with enameled pins from some branch of the military all over it. His vest also has some pins. But I’m trying not to look at the snap, so I keep my eyes on his face. 

“Well, it was an amazing dancehall,” I say. Which is true. There are supposed to be bed springs under the wooden floor at Woods Landing, to make it extra springy. A member of my cohort was brave enough that night to order the well whiskey, which came out of unmarked bottles. Another member was brave enough to join the three cowgirls practicing their line dancing. I just watched and laughed and tried to remember to ask questions. 

“Yes. You know he was one of the first vets up here at that hospital,” he waved a thumb back over his shoulder, in the direction of Sheridan’s big VA hospital. It was opened in the 20’s and had nearly a thousand beds by the end of World War II. “He’s buried around here somewhere.” The here was meant to indicate Buffalo.

I nodded. I was beginning to doubt there was a pitch, but I am bad at small talk. I didn’t know what to say or how to say it.

“Wow!” I mean, what would you have said? I just never know how to react to these situations.

“Yeah. We come up here to see if we can find him, put something up wherever he is.” By now he’s backing away, still smiling, but ending the conversation. I wished him good luck. He wished me a good day.

As I drove away, I thought, how lonely he must be, to want to talk about his great-grandfather at the gas station. I didn’t see anyone else in his car, though the “we” could’ve indicated company. Or not. I often say we as a defense mechanism on the road at night, to let the clerk or whoever know that I am not a woman driving alone. And then I thought, that I had no right to assume he is lonely, especially when what I mean is that I am lonely.

I pulled onto the road to Ucross, and I saw myself telling anyone who will listen about vultures. My boss only likes to tell me about her dogs and the wildlife she’s seen. If I try to talk about my own life, I’m an attention-seeker, a narcissist. If I be-friend one of our customers, she is liable to dislike them. So I try not to. I am very lonely out here, is what I’m saying.

And I was trying to sing along to “Criminal,” but all I could think about was loneliness: how I have structured my life to minimize connections. How I move and move. How I am so difficult sometimes that most people don’t want to be around me for very long. How I cry all the time and get mad too easily and hold grudges and worry too much. And how I wish I’d known better how to prolong the conversation at the gas station, how to ask questions, instead of just nod defensively, because I won’t see another person until Monday.

And then I said to my otherwise empty car, “Wow. I just made that all about me.” And I decided that when I got home, I would write the whole thing down, so that I’d have to remember my waitress and her boss and the man at the gas station, too. 

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Jonathan Howdeshell · May 20, 2014 at 6:30 am


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