I met Debbie the summer after I dropped out of college. I was 19. I was working part time at a laundromat, and helping a man named Roger who owned a granite business, driving once a week to Anaconda where he was building a home for his recently widowed son.
Debbie was two semesters from her master’s degree in social work. She’d left her husband that winter, had sworn off men and partying, until the two of us ran into each other several times at the farmer’s market where her niece ran a coffee stand.
Finally one Saturday in June (hot, gray, cloudy) Debbie invited me to a potluck.
“Where?” I asked.
“The park — it’s at Kiwanis Park,” Debbie said.
We were standing near the entrance to the farmer’s market, near the footbridge, across the street from a newly remodeled bank with a cobblestone fountain in front.
“I’ll go,” I said.
“It won’t be weird,” Debbie said. “I promise.”
That summer I was convinced there was a dead animal somewhere in the shrubbery bordering my apartment complex. On several occasions I returned from work to find cats swarming the bushes, sniffing, looking for something.
One night Jim, my upstairs neighbor, and his boyfriend, Terry, found me (Nike shorts, flashlight, a cigarette) scanning the area by the storage sheds.
“I don’t mean to laugh,” Jim said, “but you’re ridiculous.”
“Dude, there’s something rotting,” I said.
A K-Mart team leader and photographer, Jim was one of my favorite people. Before I bought a truck, and before Jim started dating Terry, when I’d first moved into The Oaks, he’d been a godsend — reworking my resume, giving me studded snow tires for my bicycle, and always inviting me to watch baseball at the bar his uncle owned on Milwaukee Way.
“Where you been?” Jim asked.
Terry, a published poet, ran the Rosen Gallery on campus, and had likely seen Debbie and I together when we met there for lunch.
Beneath their porchlight, beneath their stained-glass wind chimes, they smiled at me and I felt truly cared for — not parents, or lovers, or people I would know forever, but people in my life I was glad I did know.
“Hey,” Terry said, “are you going to sleep with that woman? She’s beautiful.”
If I wasn’t working or Debbie was in class, I played basketball at the park behind Providence Hospital. I had played growing up and considered trying to walk-on at the University of Montana. But that was before I went home to Portland for winter break — my mother having left, my father drinking and connecting with a woman he went to high school with on Facebook — returning to Missoula for a half-assed semester of film classes, therapy, and intramural soccer.
So basketball, like any vestige of my childhood, became less a game and more an errand I enjoyed, half-jogging to the courts, listening to music, buying a Red Bull, shooting free throws until I got frustrated with my touch and quit. And eventually middle schoolers showed up (confident, newer shoes, energy) taking advantage of my offer to rebound and keep score for them as they pushed and shoved each other into the early evening sun.
Debbie Daniels, raised on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, born to a Vietnam veteran and a woman named Martha who died shortly after giving birth to her only child, was beautiful, 42 when I met her, and perpetually looking for the perfect summer outfit.
“I want us to float the river sometime,” she’d said.
The two of us would hold hands crossing the parking lot towards the mall, spend weekday afternoons rushing from one department store to the next, lone rangers, yet peaceful in each other’s company.
“You have such nice clothes,” I said once.
“You have enough clothes,” I said.
Debbie, turning to me and smiling, her right hand on a rack of blouses, said, “Sam, that’s not the point.”
I said that before I realized Debbie rarely bought anything (an anklet, or bra, maybe, food-court pretzels) and wanted only to be with me, or not to be studying. Maybe as a man, 6-feet-6 inches, the grandson of a Norwegian immigrant-gone-logger out of Union County, Oregon, I felt obligated to tease Debbie or make it seem that I thought her perusing was petty. I said that before I was comfortable telling Debbie that my greatest memories of childhood involved me and my mother shopping in downtown Portland, or at the Nordstrom on Pine Street in Seattle, somewhere busy or loud. My mother would use any excuse to flee the house when my father was traveling for work, an escape, a different town, seas of expensive shoes and handbags she couldn’t afford, loud voices she didn’t have to answer to, me in tow, her faithful assistant.
“My brother is sad,” Terry said.
Jim rolled down the passenger side window of my truck.
We were on our way home from Albertsons (ice cream, Bud Light, DVDs from Redbox). Driving down Russell Street, I noticed my headlights were weak.
“Are my lights even on?”
“I would have said something,” Jim said.
Through the rearview mirror, I smiled at Terry. “What’s wrong with your brother?”
Terry shook his head.
I thought he looked silly then, a small dude not typically active, wearing a baby-blue workout tank and aviator glasses.
“He’s lost,” Terry said. “He’s so kind and smart. He never has work, though.”
Jim nodded, half listening, eyes glued to his phone.
Stopped at a red light, I watched a family of deer dart across someone’s front lawn. It was almost evening, fires burning somewhere, college kids trickling in and out of town — a feeling of calm wanting so badly to wash over me.
“Do you have brothers or sisters, Sam?” Terry asked.
“No,” I said.
“Right — I knew that,” Terry said.
“What does your brother do?”
“He has a degree in physical therapy, I think. There’s always work in that.”
I had heard Jim and Terry arguing late the night before. For part of the evening, one of them was playing guitar, then one of them was singing. Someone did the dishes, someone ran the washing machine, and then bickering.
Jim had his eyes closed as I pulled up to the Oaks.
I considered making a joke to Terry about his brother picking up shifts at Sparkle Laundry, where I worked the middle of my week. But he wasn’t in the mood. If Terry’s mind was wandering, or he seemed sad, and you rushed him back to the moment, he’d be annoyingly literal. He would have shaken his head, maybe, and reminded me that his brother lived in California.
Terry’s brother struggling to utilize his degree, struggling to find meaning, became a kind of thread that summer. If the three of us were hanging out, we usually talked about the poems Terry had sent a publisher, Jim getting a real estate license, or Debbie.
In the same way a teen driver texting, or a drunk drifting home, never imagines they will hit someone or crash into a Douglas fir, I never imagined I would get Debbie pregnant.
Walking by the river, en route to the potluck, I didn’t feel like I was going on a date. Debbie had sent me a text message about the potluck being “an annual thing her program did.” When I arrived, Debbie handed me a beer and kissed me on the cheek. I played Frisbee with some of Debbie’s professors. I set up a volleyball net for kids whose parents I never met. I watched flies hover over a fruit platter.
I remember loving that Debbie was so close to everyone in her program, yet nothing like them.
“These people take themselves too seriously,” she said. “God bless them.”
After a light rain started, most of the potluck attendees were gone. Debbie and I had helped a woman stuff her van with Rubbermaid bins and blankets before standing beneath a gazebo for a cigarette.
“Anything going on in their lives, they somehow relate back to work. The guy you played Frisbee with, he’ll bring it up in class.”
I laughed. “Dude was a trip.”
“He’ll lecture about the value of meeting new people on a neutral ground, no expectations, and how —”
I kissed Debbie (Pepsi, lipgloss, something minty).
In a dream, I’m passing through Livingston, Montana, with my son. It’s dark and cold, stores closing, municipal trash cans overflowing, and my son has to pee.
“Dad, I’m sorry,” he says.
I know if I pass through town and find a rest stop off I-90, by then it might be too late. My son, prone to Batman apparel, chocolate milk, and a litany of aches and pains, is not the most forthright copilot.
“I can hold it, definitely,” he says. “No problem.”
“Oh, I am,” he says.
Normally when I have this dream, it ends there — I go to his room, feel around the dinosaur print bed sheets for wet spots, accidentally wake him, kiss him on the forehead, then go.
But this time, I can’t find my way around Livingston so my son and I end up at a bar.
“I could use a snack,” my son says.
A bartender-gone-hostess leads us through a crowd. I end up on a cold metal stool, looking at my watch, while my son takes a piss. There’s a band playing. Formerly a gallery for Western art, “Eat Drink, Be Merry” in giant neon letters above a mural of Yellowstone.
Suddenly cold hands touch my cheeks, and by the time I turn around, Terry is already crying.
“I can’t believe it,” I say.
Terry folds his arms across his chest, lets out a sigh, and then looks over my shoulder.
My son, my little human, ski gloves poking out of the kangaroo pocket of his hoodie, waves at me before running off.
The first time I slept with Debbie it was a hot, relentless afternoon — following a week of rain — when the Missoula valley, rich in color, looks fake, a video game landscape.
I’d worked late the night before, Roger and I finishing the kitchen countertops at his son’s new home, leaving Anaconda well after midnight. I’d slept a few hours after Roger dropped me off but woke up hungry. I biked to Perkins, hoping pancakes and an omelet would put me down. But there was no hope. At my apartment, the sun coming up, a shave, diner coffee, a beer — I was wired. I loved cash, loved knowing Roger thought I was good help, the internet and Geico paid, a lifetime of hours to waste.
I took a walk at Fort Missoula, originally built out of fear to protect townspeople from Western Montana Indian tribes, and for the first time in my life I wished I had a camera. I was stunned and a little creeped out by the old barracks, buried behind wheatgrass and the burning sun.
Walking back to my truck, Debbie called.
“Sam, would you come by?”
I pictured Debbie studying (volleyball shorts, hair up, lap desk). I imagined the airflow in her house on Rattlesnake Drive was good, and that she wanted to wrap her arms around me.
Before a First Response test was purchased at Walgreens, before Google searching “pregnancy power foods,” reenrolling at the university, Debbie and I renting a small cottage on the Northside, there was a drive to Browning to spend the 4th of July with her father. There was a sherbet-orange sky, a bag of Burger King between us, my truck on its last leg.
“So happy,” Debbie said, “this will be great.”
“I want to meet your dad,” I said.
“He’ll love you.”
I laughed. “I’ll love him.”
Her father, barely mobile, down to argue about basketball while Debbie studied, fed me beers, and grilled me with questions about Portland.
“I was there once,” he said. “For something, not a concert or anything.”
At some point, both of us wanting something to eat, Debbie’s father and I crossed the front lawn towards my truck. There was something said between us about Debbie and whether or not she was hungry too. I wanted to get her flowers. Her father also suggested we get some “decorative items.”
“The Fourth should be fun,” he said.
But more than anything said, there was a weird, palpable understanding that our trip to town wouldn’t be our last. And I realized, suddenly, that I’d been waiting for this my whole life, for pine needles on floorboards, a chance to love, for fireworks blasting through Browning like a beautiful air raid.