It was a cloudy mid-winter morning–June in Montana, in other words. Snow threatened against a skyline without buildings.
Weird, I thought, wondering how Hemingway would have handled the moment, this situation with the train being late to the platform. He stood with a wife whose name he couldn’t remember. She held the cardboard valise full of memories from his afternoons of drinking crème de cassis in cafes on the Left Bank of a city without distant mountains on its skyline. He wrote about the War–all of them, actually–in longhand. Cursive, no doubt. Today’s schoolchildren will never know.
Paris in February is no fun. Cardboard valises melt in the winter rain, their words falling between the platform’s cracks into oblivion. It’s cold and it’s damp, that’s why the lady…oh, wait…that’s California.
“April in Paris” is nice. “Da-da-da-daa-daaa,” I sang to myself as the aromas of veau cordon bleu danced in and around my nose.
I shook the cobwebs from my head, slapped my left cheek awkwardly with my right hand (will I ever learn?), and reminded myself that I was in Montana. No song came to mind, though in the distance I thought I could hear some nasal twangs and a banjo against the insistent crackle of a campfire.
The telephone rang and it scared me half to death because that telephone–a pink rotary Princess model an uncle I barely knew had bequeathed me, along with a concertina and his remains in a brass Turkish urn–had been disconnected from service nine years ago and I just hadn’t bothered to remove it from my desk and throw it away because it had become somewhat useful as a paperweight for the papers I’d written but never read but were stacked nonetheless on the desk’s northeast corner which is the very direction from which our worst winds and weather come.
I answered it anyway only to discover in four more very similar paragraphs that I’d since torn from the tablet, crumpled and thrown into the recycling bin that I wasn’t in fact channeling Faulkner despite the lack of punctuation. I was just writing sentences that couldn’t be parsed, let alone diagrammed.
Take that, Flo Swanson, you grammar slut!
“Hello,” I said. I paused to wonder if that answer might deserve a question mark, as in “Hello?”
I determined it did, so I started from scratch.
“Hello?” I asked in a deeper voice, the last syllable rising a bluesy minor third, or maybe a flatted fifth or an augmented seventh. I wasn’t sure. I’m still not. These are confusing times. Ask anyone.
“You don’t respect farmers.”
I found the moment odd, briefly recalling Steinbeck and wondering at the same time about what in my life warranted such unsolicited scrutiny over a telephone that presumably didn’t work.
“Excuse me?” I asked, confident that I at least was asking a question.
“You don’t respect farmers.”
I wanted to protest, to vehemently deny any sense of agricultural bias, but I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly.
I thought for a moment. Maybe two. Moments of shame passed briefly through my head. I thought of people I had forgotten. Did they remember me?
I had heard her correctly, however. It was an accusatory statement in a woman’s voice—a voice that sounded like snow sliding off a metal barn roof with a steep pitch. I don’t know what that means, but it seemed at the time more poetic than saying that she sounded like Neil Young without vibrato.
My mind wandered (again) as I wondered (again) if Neil Young and Ethel Merman might have been related. And if they had been, wouldn’t they still be even though Miss Merman is dead? We all have relatives in the past tense, after all. I briefly entertained my fantasy of hearing Neil sing “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” And how would Ethel have handled “Down By the River” or “Old Man”?
“We need to talk,” she said.
“Isn’t that what we’re doing?” I asked. The question mark seemed secure in its current use.
“In person,” the snowy, vibrato-less voice said, icily. “I’ll send a plane.”
Emerging from the Uber Subaru with great trepidation, an overhead stowable carry-on bag and wearing shoes I had smuggled into Canada and back again, I approached the tarmac at the local hilltop airport with even greater trepidation but still with the same bag and contraband shoes. I wondered how it, the tarmac, differed from asphalt or surfaces other than linoleum. The snow prevented further inspection and so I turned my attention to the Gulf Stream D-382587867-LXIV standing before me. It was a sleek beauty of a plane that I’d read about in Aviation Tomorrow just yesterday. It was parked near a row of fourteen, aqua-tinted stand-alone Dr. Johnny port-a-potties (urbandictionary.com offers a significantly different take on these, by the way) with crescent moons cut in the doors. I looked around for Fellini. No sign. I marveled at the plane’s sleek design, its silver shell, its dual exhausts and overhead cams, the Hurst tranny and the snow chains on its tires, and wondered why the windows were shaped in that almost-ovoid shape that all airplanes seem to feature. I also wondered how many evangelical pastors it might hold.
Little did I know that I would soon find out. Three is the short answer, by the way, but just as interesting is the fact that “pastor” is a word derived from the Spanish that means “herdsman.” Suddenly, everything made perfect sense in an imperfect way that in some way would always involve sheep.
Then I wondered why the Uber cost the same as a Yellow Cab, although we have no Yellow Cabs in Montana. I thought this was supposed to be a deal, I said to myself. Next time, I noted, Lyft.
A four-wheel-drive, off-roading stretch Jeep limousine appeared out of nowhere, emerging from a shimmering curtain of heat like one sees in desert war movies. Except there was snow. And it was cold. Go figure. Puerto Rican flags blew stiffly from the front bumpers, falling limp when the limo stopped and released its passengers: two disreputable Congressmen, a cabinet Secretary/Realtor who speaks frequently of his days balancing a beach ball on his nose as some sort of seal, and the Secretary of Education.
As we shook hands I remembered that I had forgotten to bring a package of hand sanitizer wipes. I was suddenly reminded of the Golden Globes and Harvey Weinstein. I felt dirty in a not-so-good way.
“Madam Secretary,” I said, as we settled into the over-stuffed seats of the aircraft.
She cut me off with a wave of her hand.
“I don’t know why they call me ‘Madam Secretary’,” she said. “I don’t take shorthand, I can’t type, and I’ve only met Heidi Fleiss a few times at Republican fundraisers.”
She saw me roll my eyes.
“Well, we’re meeting today because I need you on my side top help reform education in the public schools.”
“You must have me confused with somebody else,” I offered. “I’m not an educator.”
“But I’ve seen your Facebook posts opposing teaching elementary schoolchildren to be little farmers.”
“I think you’re wrong,” she asserted. “And I think you’re wrong about not wanting to teach them how to iron clothes, change a tire, balance a checkbook, perform first-aid, change the oil, make beds and load a dishwasher.”
“But if we taught them to read wouldn’t that give them the basic tools necessary to accomplish those everyday tasks?” I asked.
“There’s nothing in the Good Book about those things and that’s the only book our nation’s children need,” she said.
I thought briefly and had to admit that “vacuum” does not appear in the Bible as a verb. Nor does vacuous, which somehow reminded me of the Secretary.
“Besides, workplace skills are what we should be teaching from Day One. No productive member of society needs poetry or music or literature to distract them from the tasks at hand.”
“But shouldn’t there be opportunities to help them understand the world they live in, to process and interpret information, to think critically,” I asserted, adding quickly the idea that the arts tend to bring both joy and inspiration.
“Well, of course,” she said. “That’s why we need charter and private schools, so the rich children continue to have an advantage. Poor people can’t afford the opera.”
“And the less fortunate, the disenfranchised, the powerless?”
“They need task-oriented training and to learn obedience to God and country,” she said. “The last thing we need is for them to be thinking about anything.”
Portrait of Evelyn by Courtney A. Liska