I know it’s George calling because I’ve set his ringtone to oogah horn. I yank my honking phone out of my purse.
“Yello,” I mumble, ducking into the lightbulbs aisle.
“Poopy doopy doop!”
“Are you on your goddamn cell phone?”
“I only have one phone, dumbass. That would be the one you’re calling.”
“When are you gonna get a real phone? With a landline. Like normal people.”
“When are you gonna realize that’s what normal people did in like, 1997? Besides, now you can talk to me while I shop for essential home items at Target and kill my afternoon gin and tonic buzz.”
“Oooh, Target? Will you get me one of those three packs of boxer shor—”
“I will not buy your boxers for you.”
“Come on. Nah, nevermind. Listen! When’re you gonna be home. I’m gonna pick you up and you’re going with me to Melrose.”
Ah, Melrose. My favorite town in all of Montana. Even if I’ve never been there. But it’s so beautiful when you drive by it on Interstate 15. Tucked in alongside the Big Hole River, shaded by giant cottonwoods…” How far is that? That’s like three hours from Missoula.”
“Maybe the way you drive. It’s two.” He takes a drink, and I hear ice rattling in a glass. “Two!”
“Why’re you going to Melrose?” Hhmm… Do I need lightbulbs? Maybe those little ones for my nightlight. Gotta have the nightlight on, to keep away the ghosts.
“Did I ever tell you about my lucky mug?”
“Maybe. Will these lightbulbs fit my nightlight? Do they make all nightlight bulbs the same?”
“What? Gahhhd. Get off the cell phone!”
“You wanna hang up?”
“When’re you gonna be home?”
“I’m almost done here. Twenty minutes. Melrose… why?”
“Cuz I gotta get my lucky mug. I left it at the fly fishing shop like six months ago when Jay and I were down there shooting that documentary.”
“And why do you have to go get it right now, at five o’clock on a Saturday?”
“What else you got to do? What, are you gonna go home and light some candles and put on some Carly Simon and take a bath?”
“No, that’s what you do.”
“You are. Fine. Pick me up in thirty minutes.”
“Righteous. And we’re goin’ to the titty bar in Rocker.”
“What, you don’t wanna go to the titty bar? Don’t be such a girl.”
“I am a girl.”
“You’ll love the titty bar. I’ll buy ya a lap dance.”
“You’re buying drinks. You can have the lap dance.”
“Thirty minutes. You better be ready.”
“When am I not?”
“Mmmm… hey! Ginger? Hey!”
“I’m still here.” In fact, I’m on a trajectory to the checkout line by way of the snacks aisle. Road food.
“Bring your iPod. You got any Noisettes?”
“Is that a candy?” I pause between the candy and the chips ’n crackers.
“What? It’s a band. How come you don’t know about the Noisettes? You’re my connection to pop culture.”
“And you’re my connection to male menopause. Man-opause. Why do we need my iPod? You’ve got XM in the Forester.”
“Just bring it, poopy. And don’t forget the car connecter thingy. Bring the whole shit n’ kaboodle.”
I hang up, get some Maui Onion pretzels, and get the hell out of Target.
Thirty minutes later, George is honking a Subaru horn in my driveway. I barely have time to grab a fleece and a beer. He’s gonna piss off my neighbor.
“I brought snacks,” I tell him, slamming the car door. He waits until I’m situated with seatbelt on and purse safely stowed. This is George: obnoxious and gentlemanly. Short, well-groomed, in his midfifties. My BFF. Voice like a game show host and a predilection for liverwurst and martinis.
“What snacks? Oh… those pretzels that make your breath smell like butt.”
“But they’re so goooood. What’s this mug, now? This mug in Melrose?”
“It’s my favorite coffee mug. I’ve had it forever, since I first started working for the station.”
“What is it, like the plastic mug-with-a-lid kind? I’ve never seen it. What’s it look like?”
“Nothin’ special. Just a Conoco mug with a Falstaff beer sticker on it. From back when we had good slogans. Not this new pansy-ass New Age new shit.”
“New new new.”
“And so you left it at the flyshop.”
“Yep. I stopped in there to ask something, I don’t remember what now. And I just left it right there on the counter and didn’t realize it until we got back to Missoula.”
“Are they even gonna be open when we get there?”
“They better be.”
I don’t even bother pursuing this. George either called ahead or he didn’t. Who knows if the mug’s even there. I’m going to see Melrose. I’m going to walk its one street and think about how I’ll never live there because I would surely be run out of town as a commie treehugger.
We leave this crowded college town at a sensible speed and exit Hellgate Canyon in the sunset of a chilly late spring evening. I hate the Interstate right here. Everybody’s snowchains kill the asphalt and carve it into a washboarded gauntlet.
But I like this canyon, with its steep, piney cliffs hugging the road.
“This state is dying from pine beetles,” George complains. “Give it ten years, and every pine in Western Montana is going to die.”
I plug in my iPod and put on some Bette Davis. I know George will approve because he gave me the CD. And if you think I mean All About Eve Bette Davis, then you don’t know as much as you think you do.
Bette starts growling: …if I’m in luck I might get picked uuuupp…
George’s Forester zooms southeast on I-90 and we listen to Bette and shoot the shit.
“Have you ever seen Mountain of the Cannibal God?” George wants to know.
“Can’t say I have.”
“I Netflixed it last night. It’s got Stacy Keach and Ursula Andress in it. Or, as we used to call her back in high school, Ursula Undress. A buncha Italians made it, and it has to be one of the world’s worst movies. But it was filmed in Thailand, so there’s lotsa native tit.”
“Of course you suffered through to the end for that.”
“And the memorable scene where Stacy Keach says, “You never forget the taste of human flesh!”
It’s full dark by the time we hit Butte and catch I-15 South, and before you know it, we’re taking exit 93. Melrose. Seems like it should be a ghost town, but for the lights. A lot of ghost towns in Montana.
“What’s goin’ on tonight?” I wonder out loud. We turn off the frontage road into what qualifies as downtown Melrose, and there’s something like two hundred pickup trucks lining the street outside the Mint Bar.
It takes us longer to find a parking spot than it does for us to figure out that there’s a funeral going on. Or a wake. Whatever they call what happens after the funeral. There’s people packed to the walls inside the Mint, cowboys clutching bottles of Bud and staggering around on the sidewalks.
“Damn near every town in Montana has a Mint Bar,” George announces to me. “It’s a holdover from the mining and money days. Little bit ’o history for ya.”
We skirt the masses and I follow George down the bleary streetlamped sidewalk to the tackle shop. Which is closed. Dark and locked up. A lanky young cowpoke wearing tight Wranglers and Brut cologne passes by, and then doubles back to us.
“Harry closed up early for the fune’ral,” he tells us, squinting under the toxic glow of a sad little streetlight. “I think he’s down’t the bar.”
“With everybody else,” George adds.
“Come on over. Cel’brate the life of a good man with us.” He continues on, waving at someone up ahead.
“I could do some celebratin’ with him, at least.” I watch Wranglers amble his perfect ass into the Mint.
“This is gonna be a prototypical Butte Irish wake,” George says. “You ready to get your drink on?”
“Does this mean we skip the strip club?”
“Pffft. You wish. I’m thinking of this right now as Prelude to Le Titty Bar. Plus we gotta find this guy Harry. I want my lucky mug. Six months I’ve been using this other mug that in no way compares to the original lucky mug. It’s just temporary. My Temporary Lucky Mug. You’ve seen that one. I even wrote TLM on it. To remind me to get my ass to Melrose and get back my mug. Which is our mission tonight. Plus drinkin’. Maybe they’ve got Pyrat Rum. Now that’s good drinkin’. The Jaegermeister of Rum!”
“Let’s go then, matey. Operation Harry.”
I grab a wrinkled copy of today’s Anaconda Standard off a street bench while we walk.
“Wuzzat?” George slows down and peers over my shoulder.
“Somebody read the Obits and then tossed this.”
“It tell who died for this party tonight?”
“It does.” We stop, so I can read in the light near the bar entrance. The roar of mourners’ small talk rolls in waves out of the open doors, carrying with it the distinctive breeze of Marlboro smoke, sour beer, and cheap perfume.
“Donagh Doyle. Parents came from Ireland in 1887 and homesteaded near Melrose. He was born in 1916. Jeez. Served in World War II. Air Force ball turret gunner.”
“He musta been a little guy.”
“Aww, like you George.”
“Flew twenty-six missions in a B-17.”
“Twenty-six missions?! Christ! You don’t see a belly gunner lasting twenty-six missions. Like, ever.”
It’s freezing out here on the streets of Melrose, even with the warm boozy air rushing out of the bar. I look at George, and it actually starts to snow, little flurries whirling around us. At first I think somebody’s cigarette ashed on us.
“Weird spring weather,” says George. “What else?”
“Donagh married his childhood sweetheart, Birdie. They bought a ranch and started roping wild horses up the canyon, broke ’em and sold ’em as saddle horses. Birdie died in 2002, but the family still runs the ranch.”
“Damn,” George breathes. I half-expect him to whip out his Moleskine notebook and jot down notes about the life of Donagh Doyle. But he only nods and says, “Let’s go celebrate this good man. And find Harry.”
Operation Harry commences and ends within two drinks and ten minutes of shuffling and elbowing our way through the bar. George can be charismatic and persistent, and the tipsy, grieving folk of Melrose are friendly and obliging. But Harry isn’t among them. He’s up at the town cemetery with a backhoe, readying the ground for Donagh Doyle.
When we get up there, after several wrong turns, it’s coming down snow like it’s Christmas Eve. And Harry isn’t alone.
“Ahoy!” George calls out, lifting an arm to wave as we walk up the hill toward the fake sun of a portable light tower. He takes a sip from his flask, which he somehow got the bartender to fill with Pyrat. I’m still carrying my bottle of Scapegoat, which I snuck out inside my jacket even though nobody in Montana cares about that.
“Help you?” A tall, angular man steps out of the shadows and sagebrush. He’s yelling as loud as George, because of the noise from the backhoe. He’s very bald and reminds me of a pale spider.
“Are you Harry?” George yells. George looks funny when he yells. Like a cartoon character.
“Nope! He’s runnin’ that backhoe!” Skinny guy nods, as if that settles it. A woman steps up next to him, moving through the gleaming swirls of snow.
Suddenly, the backhoe engine cuts off, and in the ensuing, graveyard quiet, the woman yells “Who’re you two supposed to be?” She’s maybe in her early sixties, with long black-dyed hair and garish red lipstick. She’s wearing pack boots and a black trenchcoat. Also she’s drunk off her ass and working her way, it appears, through a bottle of Bushmills.
“I’m Agent Mulder, and this is Agent Scully,” George says. “I’m here for my lucky mug. Is this your cemetery? Cuz if it’s not, it should be. You two really look the part.”
The woman takes a stagger-step backward and blinks snowflakes off her eyelashes.
“What’d he say?” She glares at us, and I decide she kinda looks like a casting call for a vampire movie.
Then Harry clambers down off the backhoe. “Don’t tell me… you’re George,” he says.
“No, he’s Agent Mulder,” explains the Bride of Dracula.
Harry grins, walks toward us with one meaty arm outstretched in a too zombiesque manner. I seriously consider dropping my beer bottle and running for my life, because suddenly this meeting in the graveyard is wigging me out. But Harry just wants to shake hands, and George introduces me, too. George and Ginger. It always sounds like we’re a pair of circus elephants.
“You come all the way up here to find me so you can get that mug back?” Harry folds his arms across his chest. They don’t stay there long. The arms are short and the chest is barrel, and so within a moment his hands kinda pressure-pop out from inside his elbows, like he’s an inflatable toy.
“So you did call ahead,” I nudge George. “Shocking.”
George ignores me. “You still got my mug?”
Harry shrugs. “’Course. But… it’s down locked up in the shop. And I gotta get this hole dug tonight in case the ground freezes. I waited till the last minute, but of course, you know with these spring storms. Might happen.”
I want to express my doubts about frozen tundra in April, even in Montana, but I stay silent. Mr. Skinny has one long arachnid arm around Dracula’s bride, and she’s watching me with narrowed eyes.
“Why you need Harry to get you a mug? Are you here for Donagh’s funeral? Do you even know Donagh?”
“How do you know Donagh?” George fires back.
“I know him,” she mutters, and lifts her bottle. We all toast the dearly departed. Surprisingly, George looks more somber than the rest of us.
It’s right about now that I understand we’re standing on a hilltop in Melrose, in the dark, with a buncha outcasts from a dead man’s wake, haranguing a guy about a plastic mug while he digs a grave.
“George, maybe we needa come back another time,” I tug at his sleeve.
“Naw,” Harry waves me off. “Can you all just wait a bit? I’m almost done with the requisite six feet.”
“The requisite six feet,” George laughs. He repeats anything he thinks is funny.
“That is not funny,” says Vampira.
“What is her deal?” I whisper to George.
“Her deal is for me to get as far away from her as possible,” he says. “Okay, we’ll just wait over here, then,” George announces, and we walk thirty steps to the porch of a little house, which is either the groundskeeper’s office or—
“You can just have a seat on those steps there,” Harry points. “They had the viewing inside earlier, so…”
“Well, we might wanna pay our respects.”
“George! No.” I sound like I’m training a puppy.
“Well, why not? He was a hero.”
Harry looks at Mr. Skinny. Mr. Skinny, propping up the Vampire Woman Who Knows Donagh, looks back. His lips quirk, a quiet skitter of the mouth. I can see that even from twenty yards.
“Sure, go on,” Harry tells us. “If ya like.”
George turns to me. “Yeah, we like,” he mutters.
“Are you serious? Do you really wanna wait an hour up here on Boot Hill before we can go get your mug? Do you really wanna go look at this dead guy? How much rum you got left?”
“I got plenty. And it’s Donagh Doyle. Not ‘this dead guy.’ What’s wrong with waiting? I know you’re all damp to get to the nudie bar, Ginge, but I want my mug. And while we’re here, we can drink to Donagh Doyle.”
“I am not damp to get to the nudie bar.” I take a swig of my beer. Two swigs, and it’s finished. “They probably think we’re total assholes. Your charm only goes so far. Maybe you shouldn’t interact with people at all. Just stay at home and do those mail order animal skeleton assembly kits. Or be a forest lookout. Or the caretaker at the Overlook Hotel.”
“Caretaker at the Overlook Hotel,” George chuckles, and it’s impossible to be mad at him.
“Fine. You go inside first.” I shove him.
“Aw, is this your first cadaver?”
“Yes. And you’ll be my second.”
George laughs his stage-show laugh. “And you’ll be my second…” he imitates me.
The inside of the cottage smells like furniture polish and carnations. People say carnations don’t have a smell, but I say they do. They smell like the inside of a florist’s cooler.
We’re standing behind several rows of folding chairs, with Doyle’s somber, closed casket on a dais at the front of the room.
“Whoa,” George stops as the door closes behind us. “I haven’t been in a funeral parlor since my dad died.” The lines of his face deepen. He’s a good human despite the dick jokes and the manpig bluster. Or perhaps because of all that.
“Let’s see if they put lotsa pancake make-up on the poor bastard.”
Dear George. He’s the one who lifts the lid on the coffin. I stay back a few feet.
Donagh Doyle looks like a dead ninety-three year old Montana rancher. His face is lined and thin, and while there’s not too much make-up on it, there is a kind of melancholy. I expect if he were to open his eyes they would be sad, but the idea of those eyes opening is enough to make me take a step back.
His coffin is lined with white silk and he’s wearing a dark brown suit with a bolo tie. There’s a white carnation in his lapel buttonhole and a wornout pair of pointy-toed cowboy boots on his feet.
George is quiet for too long, staring at the dead guy.
“I think I’d almost rather be wrapped in muslin than put in clothes when I’m buried,” I tell George as I grab the flask out of his hand. “Something about clothes rotting is worse than rotting gauze. Or maybe I don’t like the idea of people playing dress-up with my corpse.”
“Or you have a mummy fetish.”
“Oh, for sure. Wrap me up and bury me with all my worldly treasures.”
“Yeah, like what? Your iPod and your Birkenstocks.”
“And that about sums it up.”
“I’ll make sure your iPod’s playing Neko goddamn Case.”
“What—like I’m going first? You’ll be toast long before me, you cantankerous old fart.”
“I think he just moved.”
“Shut up. It is kinda cold in here.”
“He moved. I’m serious.”
“I’m outta here.”
The door to the cottage bangs open. I half expect to see Harry and his cronies shamble toward us with Night of the Living Dead lurches and growls.
“Good news,” Harry claps his hands.
“You’re not a zombie,” I say.
“Huh? Listen, Jacob says he’ll finish the backhoe for me, and then we can go down to my shop and get your mug, sir.”
“That’s terrific,” George reverently closes the lid on Donagh, and I follow everyone out, with a couple glances back over my shoulder. Did he really move? Did the lid just move?
The actual obtaining of the lucky mug is quite the anticlimax. For me, at least. I swear George almost hugged it. Good thing he didn’t, because a moment later he popped the lid off and a smell like I imagine Mr. Doyle’s gonna exude in a few months reeked out of the cup and nearly knocked us all down.
“Gaakk!” George gags. “Nastynastynasty.”
“I ain’t touched it since you left it here last fall,” Harry protests. “It was just sittin’ under my counter here. So whatever was in there is what you put in there.”
“I’ll wash it out when I get home,” George says, cramming the top back on lucky nasty mug.
“You really come all this way out here just for this mug?” Harry asks for the second time tonight. He walks with us to the door. We wind our way through racks of inexpensive flyrods, gear vests, and waders.
“It’s my lucky mug,” George explains. “Reminds me that I’m alive.”
Harry smiles. “We all need that.” He flips off the lights, and I almost scream. “After you,” he says, and I fumble with the doorknob and yank the door open, shop bell chiming.
With a final round of handshakes, Harry leaves us on the sidewalk and departs for the bar. My guess is, he’s really glad we showed up and saved him from gravedigger duty.
“It’s colder than a well digger’s brass monkey tit out here,” George frowns. “Where’d we park? It’s still snowing. Mother of God.”
“It’s Montana. I’m glad you drove.”
“Yeah, me too. You’d run us into a ditch.”
“Piss off! I was saying that cuz you’ve got four-wheel drive. Where’d your ‘I got my lucky mug’ good mood go?”
“I got my lucky mug!” George does a little elfin jig, brandishing his mug, with its crusty Falstaff sticker and gnawed-looking handle. “I got my lucky mug!”
“And it smells like scrotum fug!”
“Scrotum fug!” George caws. “D’you make that up?”
Back at the car, it takes forever to warm up.
“I can still smell that coffin,” George says.
“Gross.” But it does smell odd in the car. Like cold carnations. “My liver hurts,” I complain.
“Have some more rum, Gingie Poo.”
Then we’re on the road with the heater blasting and Melrose, dear Melrose, behind us. And I didn’t even get a good look around. Coming off the entrance ramp onto the slushy Interstate, we get stuck behind a slow-moving 18-wheeler, dirty wet snow clinging to its flanks.
“Why don’t you look at property here if you like it so much?”
“Yeah, like I can afford it.”
“You just—” he starts to say, and then we both scream as a huge rock ricochets off the semi’s wheels and hits our windshield with a violent crack.
“That’s gonna need some crackstop.”
“Jesus, I’m surprised the airbags didn’t deploy.”
My heartrate slows down and I reach for the radio. “It’s XM for the way home. I need my satellite radio fix.”
“Fine. But if there’s Peter Cetera, you have to change the channel. I hate him with a hatred reserved for Nazis and the guy who convinced Garrison Keillor he could sing.”
“I know you do, you poor man.” I scan through the channels and stop at channel 62, Heart and Soul, playing After 7. “Oh-ho,” I laugh. “This one.”
Can’t stop… the boys from After 7 croon, and go on to describe how they’re diggin’ on and bein’ dug by their special lady.
“Yeah, I remember this one. What were you, in preschool?”
“I distinctly remember this new jack hit from my high school days,” I protest. Then the song cuts out mid-chorus.
“Why’d you change it?”
We watch the digital numbers morph from 62 down through 28, pausing there, then continuing on to channel 4. The 40’s on 4.
“Is that Peggy Lee?” George knows all the greats.
I read the display. “Yeah. But I didn’t change it.”
Peggy Lee’s smoky voice curls out of the Subaru’s crappy speakers.
“That is great,” gushes George. “Write that song down. Get my notebook and write that down.”
The song ends, and tinny big band music squawks at us. I flip the dial.
“Now what’re you doing?”
“I wanna listen to Deep Tracks.”
“Deep Tracks. I’ll show you deep tracks.”
The Rolling Stones are wailing about how it’s allllll over now…
“This isn’t a deep track,” George complains. I turn up the volume and sit back and listen to the Stones. A song from The Faces comes on next. And the channel changes again, all on its own.
“You’re not doing that,” George observes.
“Is it broken?”
“Just watch the road, I don’t know.” I watch the numbers flip back to 4.
It’s Doris Day and Buddy Clark, apparently, and they love somebody.
“Why’s it keep going back to channel 4?”
“Pull over,” I tell George. “There’s a gas station at the next exit.”
He doesn’t say anything, so I know he’ll do it.
Before we get off the Interstate, I change the channel again. Back to Deep Tracks. Only a few verses of Mott the Hoople, and then we’re back to the 40’s on 4. Woody Herman, with that old feeling.
George pulls off the road and into the glare of an Exxon pump island, coasting through until he parks the Subaru at the edge of the store, near a dumpster and a weedy field.
“Okay, what’s wrong with this thing. Wait. I need coffee first. Aw, dammit. My lucky mug’s still nasty.”
“Didn’t you bring your temporary lucky mug?”
“Nooo. Why would I bring that when I knew I was gonna get my real lucky mug?”
“Go get coffee. You can deal with a To-Go cup. I’ll figure out the radio. You’ll just get mad and punch it.”
“Get me hot cocoa.”
“Hot cocoa?! Nine-year-old kids drink that!”
He leaves me with the engine running. I play with the dial on the satellite radio, trying different stations and waiting. Nothing happens now. I leave it on Hair Nation, it stays on Hair Nation. Well, whatever. I get out of the car and let the snow tickle my face. It fluffs onto the curb and the newspaper racks, but it won’t last. Spring snow always melts within a few hours.
“Did you fix it?” George rejoins me, and we climb back inside the Forester. He shuts his door, and I’m about to take a sip of my cocoa when I feel suddenly nervous, as if a stranger has just walked up to my window. I look out into the snowflaked night, but there’s no one there. Someone’s behind us?
I turn around in my seat.
George is fussing with dials on the dashboard. “Why’s it cold in here again? Why’d you turn off the heater? Did you fix the radio? Didjoo fixit didjoo fixit didjoo fixit?”
“Shut up for a second!”
He slurps coffee. “Aahhh that’s gooood.”
“I feel like someone else just got into the car with us.”
On the radio, Poison stops doing “Fallen Angel,” and the XM channels scroll down to 4. Dinah Shore and a full horn section.
…blues in the night…
“You didn’t fix it,” George sulks.
“It’s not broken,” I shiver. “Something’s doing that. Do you smell that?”
“Yeah, but did you fix the radio.”
“I’m telling you, it’s a ghost.”
“Aw, what, you see a dead body and now you’re all, I see dead bodies…”
“It’s dead people.”
“Well, yeah. You claim to.”
“I’m just saying…” Just what am I saying?
Dinah Shore keeps singing about the blues in the night.
I turn again to the back seat, and there he is. Donagh Doyle.
“George,” I squeak.
“Ginger.” He slurps more coffee. “I can’t wait to clean out my lucky mug.”
“George,” I grind out through clenched teeth.
“Ginger. We’re only twenty miles from Rocker. You ready to go to Sagebrush Sam’s now? Meth-ed out Butte girls with some fiiiine tat-tays waitin’.”
Donagh Doyle doesn’t look at me, but he is smiling. Like he’s listening to some old-time favorite radio show. He’s wearing that dark suit and the bolo tie, but I can see right through him to the pile of papers and George’s crumpled Montana Grizzlies sweatshirt on the backseat.
“There is a ghost in the back seat, George.”
“That’s funny. Very funny. I’m not falling for that. When we get to Rocker, we’re gonna get you even drunker.”
“Just turn around and look. Look at him.” Dead Donagh Doyle, duded up in his spectral suit and cowboy boots.
“I’ll look when we get to Rocker.” George reaches out and bumps my arm, changes the channel. “I dig Dinah Shore, but how ’bout the Bob Dylan Radio Hour?”
Donagh Doyle frowns, and then he looks right at me with his sorrowful eyes. I suppose they are eyes that saw his childhood sweetheart grow old, saw wild horses running across the Big Hole Valley, saw bombs rain down on Germany from the belly of a flying fortress. But now, they’re the hopeful, somewhat lost eyes of a hitchhiker who’s just hoping you’re going his way for a while and maybe you like listening to the wartime era hits.
“Can we leave it on the 40’s on 4?” I ask George. “At least till we get to Rocker?”