The World All Before Them

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
—John Milton, Paradise Lost


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One by one they watched houses on the block go up for sale, starting with the corner lot with the large picture windows that looked up to the sandstone cliffs of the Rimrocks. Aiden had wondered aloud if the occupants mightn’t be worried that a boulder was going to dissolve away one stormy day and send that glass smashing; it’d happened before. Next was the beat-up rambler that housed Rocky Mountain College students who changed like the seasons, blared loud music once every turn of the moon. Or maybe they were MSU-B kids. Hard to tell without seeing the parents’ money, Eva knew. The house across from that, where an RV split residence on both yard and street — its listing seemed appropriate, they both agreed: a retired couple ready to get on the move. Neither was sad to see the ’Bago leave, almost doubted it would, as they’d never seen the beige behemoth move in the five years they’d lived across from it. But so, too, the house and camper disappeared within the wave; the “For Sale” sign rocked up, “Under Contract” rolled down, bought over asking and sight unseen within the month, like all the rest. But when the neighbors’ place with the children and the garden, the dog and the scrap-ski picket fence went — the kind of home one only leaves when gone to dust and left to others — well that was when Aiden and Eva finally accepted the shift that was occurring in Montana. And so it was of little surprise when they received notice that their lease would not be renewed.


“When did we get so much stuff?” Aiden asked.

Eva sprayed the wall with a wide swing, shaking her head at the translucent arc of dispersed and dripping nontoxic cleaner. “We have less than a month to scrub this place, and honestly I have no idea how we’ll get it all done.”

Aiden wiggled between the boxes in the living room, stacked and overstuffed, already threatening to bust out their poorly taped seams. “They say a 15-foot truck’s good for two to three bedrooms, but I’d reckon we could fill at least one of those.”

“We’re going to lose half our deposit.”

“Five years of living here adds up, I guess.”

“You just know she’s going to be so nit-picky.”

“Ten years of living together must click it up exponentially.”

A small cellar spider floated in the hallway near Aiden’s head. He blew it gently forward and watched it sway, crooked legs swinging in his breeze. Eva grabbed a sponge from a fanny pack side-holstered on her hip and dug into a yellow glint only visible when leaned up sideways on the wall, head tilted toward the half windows of their basement apartment view.

“The lady was a real bitch to the last girl. We came down for that showing and the former tenant was still there on her hands and knees, working the floor like some modern Cinderella. How people in power can be like that to others …” She sucked at her left canine and squinted, as if the flecks of gold that floated in her hazel eyes might be triggering phantom sights; she blinked deliberately, ready to eradicate them all.

Aiden nodded. “It’s hard to remember how long ago that really was.”

“She’s going to try to screw us over so hard.”

Near the back wall, detritus of two lives lapped like flotsam along a shore, full of bits and pieces that resisted easy sorting into categorization of function, room, or even initial ownership, leaving open the question of who exactly had been the one at fault for collecting the porcelain elephant; three separate cans of varnish, two of wood wax; various whiteboards and poster paper; a metal detector.

Aiden might’ve been responsible for it all, if he were honest with himself, if his memory allowed such retrieval: the vault of his mind was more fleeced corners and confusion than archival hub; bleached papers clung against each other, wording lost to time. He leaned back against their heavy old couch, wood-framed and floral-fabricked, and surveyed the room, noticing squares of darkened paint ghosting the walls like shadows, after-images of paintings that he and Eva had once hung. He hadn’t realized the room even received enough sunlight to blanch the walls. Five years was long enough to wear away most things, though, he figured. Also their landlord was cheap and had definitely skimped on the paint.

Eva sighed and tossed down the scrubby, unsure whether she was making everything worse, trying to puzzle out the next step to work through. Aiden sidled up to a sturdy plastic box filled with camping gear.

“There’s a thought: Let’s just go camping. Run away from all this and see the world.”

“I’m going to check apartment listings again and see if anything in our price range has popped up yet.”

“I’ll go empty out the Thule, see what we might be able to fit in.”

In synchrony they separated, walking through their different doors.

* * *

Three weeks before the eventual dislodging, Aiden began cleaning out the shed. Technically it was a shipping container plopped in the middle of their backyard, as out of place as a stranded ship in their little suburban enclave out near the Rims, but it did keep the elements out well enough. As long as heat wasn’t considered an element: a shady little oven, the damn thing was cooking by eleven. Already Aiden’s cap was half-soaked up to the Billy Strings Band stitching, salty remnants of his landscaping job circling the sun-bleached green like sedimentary layers along river cliffs.

Aiden swiped his hand through his hair, letting condensation do its own work in the dry plains heat, letting his mind align with the shadows. He’d become unable to shake a thought that had begun percolating in his head — or maybe it was his heart — since he and Eva had found out they’d be forced to leave their home: What if Billings wasn’t home anymore? What if Montana wasn’t? Sacrilege of course. Nothing to be breathed aloud, but as he paced among their yard tools arrayed upon the gravelly lawn, full more of knapweed and purslane than anything resembling grass, he couldn’t help but feel like he never wanted to touch the damn things again. And sure, maybe that could mean quitting his job and them moving to one of the large apartment complexes that had been popping up ever-increasingly on the southwest end of town, but maybe it could also mean moving to a whole ’nother city, too. One where ain’t nobody was doing lawn work on a Saturday. Where only unionized city workers knew what a damn branch lopping shear was, and you could walk blocks and blocks without finding a single neighbor who’d be able to lend a chainsaw — a place where people didn’t go ’round asking neighbors whether they could borrow a chainsaw and then never return it, Danny. Lately, Aiden’d been thinking about Boston.

It all added up to perfect timing, Aiden figured. Like maybe getting kicked out could be the push they needed to actually leave town this time. For good. Before they got caught up in the same beautiful boring lives of all their friends, with jobs too good to quit, kids and responsibilities that sucked away sleep, until they swirled into time and moved from birthdays to weddings to funerals. Instead, he and Eva could grab adventure by the horns or some rural B.S. like that. He made a note to himself to learn a few more aphorisms like that before he got outta Dodge. City peeps might think him exotic.

Montana had changed. Simple fact. Aiden couldn’t decide — wasn’t sure he should even try — if all the change was for good or not, but having been raised in a state that considered itself more a state of mind, he couldn’t help but find himself distrusting the shifting winds. There were definitely more jobs sweeping into places like Bozeman (or were there just more people who already had jobs moving into Bozeman?), but now more than ever it felt like this place was merely becoming a plaything for those already richer. Just as it always had, the cycle continued.

Aiden had seen how trees could twist themselves through fences, grow around and through their surroundings, but what if that wasn’t always the right choice? Maybe this seed could find better places to root. Do you grow to be a part of something or just apart?

* * *

Aiden remembered the first time he and Eva met: floating the Yellowstone on the edge of town. The crew had paused for a bit and she’d jumped from the top of Duck Creek Bridge, jacking herself sideways so hard he’d thought for sure she’d be concussed. And yet she’d emerged from that crystal brown water, hooting and flapping like the least graceful bird he ever had seen. When she’d gotten back on her tube and rejoined the group, eyes sparkling green from the sun and adrenaline and maybe just a bit too much mischief, well Aiden knew for sure that she was fearless. He felt like he might be able to be a bit more like that around her, too.

Four months into their relationship, he told Eva that he’d been working on painting. Just little modernist things, sharp lines and bright colors. No training, no schooling, aiming more for France’s Rousseau than Montana’s Russell. He’d been keeping it a secret for years. Brushes and canvases and all the little tubes of paint he kept hidden in his closet. Paranoid of any quick-dry oil fumes reaching his roommates, he’d stuff towels into the crack below his door when taking them out to work late at night, like he was toking up in a forbidden land, which, well, maybe that happened sometimes, too.

Yet after he and Eva had been dating, he knew he didn’t have to pretend to be alone. He told her about his art and his plans and she looked at him and said okay, that’s wonderful, which was maybe all he’d ever wanted to hear. It was his way of saying I love you, and her response made him hear it back. Maybe it was even more than those three words. Like he was saying, here, hold this piece of me. I trust you. He figured that to many it might have been too late in a relationship to tell someone something so integral about themselves, but from that moment he knew their time together would be the long kind.

* * *

With Aiden puttering outside, Eva took to the bathroom, closed the door, and sat down on the toilet, gathering herself, taking stock. The majority of the room remained intact though gutted. The cabinets above the washer and dryer had been emptied, and the sundry lotions, shampoos, and towels clumped in garbage bags on the piss-stained and lint-flecked linoleum floor. They still hadn’t found a new place they could afford yet, but at least the packing was coming along relatively well.

A slight drip plopped from the bath faucet, a line of mineral deposit scarring the tub down to the drain. A twinge of guilt pricked Eva’s heart. Obviously, it wasn’t something they were going to have to deal with anymore, but how much waste were they contributing to by not having fixed things for the next people?

Eva pulled the bath rug over, folded it in two, and knelt before the basin. From the bottom of the tub, she ripped up the mat, suction cups slurping off with pulpo-pops, leaving a smudgy latticework of mold behind. She set it off to the side to be bleached along with the shower curtain before they left. Reaching into a bucket of supplies, she pulled out the cardboard can of Comet and flung the dust around, then grabbed a sponge and slid it along the trail of leakage, tapping under the faucet to catch any meniscus in formation, and went to work grinding the powder into the basin’s surface, trying not to smell whatever death those chemists had concocted back in the day.

Plop. Another drop fell.

* * *

Affixed under the stairs of the Yellowstone Art Museum hung part of a sculpture by Patrick Zentz: copper tubes radiated out from the ceiling, sending little drips down to a circular pool below. Eva couldn’t have been more than ten when she first stood in front of the system, off on a field trip with her elementary school. The docent leading their class had paused, Eva directly behind her, the first stop as the line behind her all pinged forward into each child ahead; they crowded along a black marble bench which buffered the water in the bottom half of the sculpture — a basin filled with water so smooth, looking so very much like a fountain waiting for a penny, Eva thought.

Then the docent hushed everyone. And not like their teacher.

She asked them all to close their eyes and listen — listen, quietly.

Miniature worlds near a miniature world, classmates around her fidgeted, but Eva followed along, clenched her eyes closed, balled her fists up in concentration, and waited for another instruction, for her teacher or this nice older lady with the half-gray hair to tell them what next they should expect.


Eva opened her eyes and saw the emerging ripple, noticed that nothing had been thrown, looked up to the ceiling and immediately understood. Not how the sculpture worked and sent water down from high. The docent went on to explain that process and how the frequency and placement of the water droplets corresponded to the outside temperature and wind direction. Instead, Eva understood that this piece had translated a mood into magic, that those little sounds were like coins thrown to the well, disappeared without a trace, accepting a viewer’s wish and changing their world. In that moment, Eva understood what art was meant to do.

As the class trailed away, off to the children’s center where they would be able to make their own little pieces to clutter fridges and kitchen table stacks, Eva let herself flow to the end of the line. And while she knew she was not allowed to touch anything — ever the good student, she knew perfectly all the rules — there in that hallway, looking at this contraption that resembled no other art she had ever seen, she felt the uncomfortable compulsion to dip her toes into the water, submerge her head, whole body, into that safe, shallow place and listen to the swirling of the universe until she became one with it, too.

Slowly, slowly she dabbed her pointer finger into the water and watched the ripples ensue. Such a sin had never felt more holy.

* * *

Eva stood at the sink refilling her Nalgene. Aiden gave a half-wave and pulled open their quickly emptying fridge. With only two weeks left in the apartment, they’d been working down their fresh and frozen stores, though the thousand accumulated condiments still remained on the door and in the back. Near the bottom, next to the celery that would never finish and a couple of sandwiches Eva had prepared for the day but neither had gotten around to, three Cold Smoke Scotch Ales stood sentry. It wasn’t the best beer for a summer day, but at least it was cold. And a full pint. Aiden was happy to diminish their ranks.

He cracked open the can. “I feel like this town’s just a black hole, y’know?”

Eva shuffled over to the cupboard, opened it as though she hadn’t already rehomed the 20 cans of kidney beans and diced tomatoes, the 30 cans of soup. “Did you hear Parker and Madison is closing again? That cute little bakery and brunch spot down in the tree streets?”

“Everything’s always just circling, circling the drain here. I thought we’d reached exit velocity when we made it to college, but apparently we were merely stuck in orbit.”

“I really thought they’d make it this time, but I guess it’s hard for everyone these days.”

A trickle of beer slid out the side of Aiden’s mouth and he tried to catch it before any spilled to the floor or his clothes. He looked down at the paint-stained work shirt he was wearing, an old long-sleeve tee with an elk on the front, the kind that his uncle gave him every year when he was younger but that Aiden had only taken to wearing the last few years, realizing the use of a sturdy shirt you didn’t give a flip about.

“I just feel like with everything that’s happening, maybe this could be our rocket booster, burning everything up. Like maybe with more force, more experience this time, we could finally, truly, make it out.” He wiped his hands along his front, brown blooming near the antlers.

Eva popped open a large container of dried goods and tip-tapped past Ritz and Goldfish and Triscuits, none of it capturing her attention, her motions soft but uncaring. “Sometimes I like to think about how many good restaurants there still are in Billings, though. They just get hidden behind the Pizza Farms and Cracker Barns and the fried fluff that highway people go to. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t so, so many awesome people putting in the work, making interesting things already, right here, right now.”

“Might be all hometowns are a little like that, though.”

“There’s that Russian bakery. The burger joint that got on TV. The Indian place. Thai Chili. Oh, and that new-age fancy French-American fusion. I don’t know why that word got such a bad rap. Fusion. I feel like that was the goal for all of us sometime not so long ago. Maybe we’ll come back to it.”

“And might be it’s not that towns like these are a black hole, but more like planets — like if you live there long enough you get used to the specific gravity of the place so that after a while you just can’t imagine being able to live anyplace else, aren’t sure that your system would be able to take it.”

“It’s the system that’s the problem! And the people who uphold the racism and inequity within this structure. The ones who steal and appropriate and twist everything to their own gain — that’s what we have to keep fighting against. We just have to keep fighting.”

“Might be that, too.”

Aiden stepped back and held open the fridge door wider, looked over at Eva, her high pony-tail shaking with her head. “Do you want anything?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said and walked away.

Aiden swirled his can and went outside himself. Poured the rest of the beer down the grate. Couldn’t find a place inside himself that wanted to finish it anymore.

* * *

Just keep moving, he thought. As long as he kept moving maybe none of it would become real.

With only a week to go, they’d rented a small trailer in order to transport most of their junk over to Eva’s parents’ garage where they could store it until they properly found a place. The way things were going at Eva’s work, Aiden hoped her parents might be holding onto it for a longer haul. Not that he wanted anything bad to happen for her.

He peered into the dim cavern of the trailer. Nearly all the boxes were already settled into place, squished together in the center like da Vinci’s bridge; as long as the keystone — a box of pots and pans — was in place, gravity and inertia and everything else would keep it all together; as long as that one solid piece was in place, things wouldn’t fall apart. Aiden stepped in and banged it once, hard, just to make sure.

* * *

As Eva sat in her office at the museum that Monday, sun bright at her side, as she researched possible rental homes with a yard, she heard yelling coming down the hall. And while there was often some measure of glitter-fed giggling that snuck out of the children’s center during summer camp (too often, according to some of the older volunteers), this was a recognizable shout of malice, clearly coming from a grown man. And yet no less childish.

Eva knew Jerry, the security guard, would be a minute or two before he got his coffee set down and feet back under him, so she chose not to wait for his — calming — lethargic presence to hobble over as first to the scene. The marketing manager, Heather, had also come to the front of her door. The women exchanged a glance, both knowing that two women might be happenstance but three could constitute a conspiracy in the defensive eyes of some, so Heather let Eva be the one to approach the scene. Keds sneakers on slate tiles, Eva swept through the open-air lobby as the unbroken shouting surrounded her, sailed her windward into the bluster of full-throated curses that bounced off marbled pool and copper tubes; interior storm, the water never moved.

She arrived just in time to see the back door hush pneumatically closed, the new executive director’s wingtips kicking the fogged glass door throughout the slow shut: blunt shadows in a blizzard. She rounded the corner just within range to hear a halting sob tremble, the camp counselor still processing what had happened: muffled forest after snow has fallen.

Eva was used to comforting a camp counselor once or twice a summer, what with school district budget cuts making a career in the arts even more impossible, as well as the handful of parents who took seriously their self-appointed jobs of meddling, even during break. But never had Eva needed to comfort a coworker due to someone from within.

The vessel was cracking and she wasn’t sure where to find the right glue.

* * *

Ever the good worker, Eva knew that the only way forward was to be open and direct. She and Heather and their volunteer coordinator, June, set up a meeting with the board about the new director’s repeated and continued abuse. They’d done their best to keep the agenda quiet, but rich people are gossips at best, sinking ships for the most, and by the time they sat down, it was easy to tell that leaden water had already leaked in. No one, after all, wanted to hear that they’d made a wrong choice.

“Is this some sort of power grab?”

“Mike consistently belittles his female employees and refuses to listen to any of our opinions or expertise.”

“Did he touch you inappropriately?”

“He behaved in a way that is inappropriate.”

“It’s not that I’m not believing you, but he’s never treated me that way.”

“On more than one occasion he has shouted at female employees for trivialities and circumstances outside the employees’ control.”

“I’ve never seen him do anything like that, or I would put a stop to it at once.”

“There have been multiple HR complaints brought up about these occasions.”

“How do I say this these days without getting people all worked up … but I’m wondering why it’s only you three that are bringing this to our attention?”

“Why is this so hard for you to understand?”

In that airy conference room filled with Western art, Eva started listening from outside herself, like she had floated away, become an audience member to simultaneous plays. Two scripts were being followed, but neither set could seem to hear the other. Eva wisped amongst the echoes, took a deep breath, felt her lungs, her hands, hot blood and hurt and hope all flow within. And yet, still there was that hope — that something might pierce the veil and allow the other half to stop and truly listen.

Eva gazed at each of her colleagues, her friends. Heather looked hollow, Eva felt scraped out the same. June half-sat, half-hovered over her chair, riding seething emotions, carrying the conversation further, saying what needed to be heard. It fell on deaf ears. And not just Morty’s, who’d needed hearing aids for a while. All of them. Ghosts in the machine, pale portraits on the wall.

The board accepted the three resignations without further debate.

* * *

Eva spent the extra few days post-resignation to use every spare second to clean, while Aiden called off work Thursday and then Friday, too, in order to pack all the items that bloomed every time they’d thought themselves finally clear. The landlord was coming for the final inspection within the hour. Both cars were filled right to the brim. All that remained was their ancient couch and a faded Igloo cooler. Somehow their bare little apartment felt much smaller now, Aiden thought. Eva stood next to him, wondering how such a place had ever contained their lives and dreams.

The room was hot. A basement in Montana, it didn’t have air conditioning. Had never needed it until the denizens — suddenly former — were tramping repeatedly in and out the door. Eva felt a little sick, a little fevered; Aiden looked pure pink, a lobster already basted.

Aiden stood at one end of the couch, Eva on the other. He put the cooler atop the cushions; she stroked the woolen headrest.

“I think we’re going to have to carry this together.”

* * *

Eva remembered the first time she and Aiden met, at a party her friend’s older cousin had brought her to in Bozeman after skiing. He’d been hanging in a corner on a couch, black hoody up, white headphones in, listening to an iPod already out of date, sitting with a dog on his lap and two beers at his side. She was still in high school, he visiting from UM. But that didn’t matter then. Not that night. That night they never actually spoke more than to exchange names when the cousin who knew him said hi. Which was fine. Eva had other ideas of how to act cool and older and it didn’t involve hiding in the living room, no matter how cute the dog, the boy. But when he looked into her eyes, repeated back her name and stated his, she noticed that he talked sideways, like he’d been hit with a mean right hook once, and she wondered if that wasn’t something she should consider a sign.

Maybe it was. Because when they finally found each other all those years later, she learned to understand the different clicks his jaw made like a language when he ate or laughed or kissed. Soft, loud, sweet. Different signs all of them, mostly pointing back to her. That loose piece of him hadn’t come from any accident or punch, she learned, merely genetics and the kind of family that didn’t pay for braces, and yet there was something about the way he always jutted that chin out. Like he was waiting to get hit by the world. Daring it. Because the world loved to punch down. And yet every time it suckered Aiden he kept getting up. And goddammit, wasn’t that brave? She loved him for that. She thought maybe she could learn to fight this world a little bit more, too.

Eva thought back to the museum that she loved, that felt unwelcoming despite all it held within. She thought about Zentz’s piece and how it translated the world around it, filtering science through technology, creating meaning anew. There was something swirling in the air, Eva knew. And not just in Billings. She wanted to ride that current. Harness it, help it swell and purify and blow away the rotten core that had developed, that maybe had always been lurking sulfureously below. She couldn’t help but see the museum as the cornerstone to a community’s culture — to her community, to Billings. Everything else was built in relation to having that rock be vibrant, safe, and free. She didn’t want to let those dominoes fall, and she knew there were many others like her, too. Quitting would be her start, not their end.

* * *

It took three rests, one drop on his boot, and way too much energy as far as both were concerned, but they finally got the couch all the way out to the dumpster. With the same rust color of every old grandmother’s home, Aiden wasn’t sure who would take such a thing, but Eva had put it on Facebook and Craigslist for free nonetheless.

The sun was slanting off the treetops, seeking final refuge on the Rims, sandstone turning shades of umber in the dying light. The rocks all looked steady as ever. No sign of collapsing just yet. Instead it was Eva who crashed with a poof onto the cushions, sending dust swirling up and out and away. She gently blew the flickering filaments into the light, watched them float past crooked branches swinging in the breeze. Her eyes appeared almost fire-fed in this limbo between day and night, Aiden thought; Eva noticed a twisted grin split Aiden’s distracted face, felt one creep onto hers. She slid open the cooler, grabbed the last two beers, held one out; he accepted and joined her on the couch. Two cracks, two sips, they stared out to the East.

Aiden sighed. “Maybe this doesn’t have to be forever.”

“Nothing really is, is it?”

“You weren’t willing to come with me.”

“And you weren’t willing to stay.”


“It’s nice to be understood.”

In synchrony they reached their hands across the couch.

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