The Traveler’s Inn is a motor lodge on Reserve Street in Missoula, Montana, and the tired lady behind the desk is asking me how long I plan to stay. I tell her a week, maybe more, ask if there’s a pool. She wants to know if I have any pets, tosses her arm back in the direction of the placard ($10 Deposit for All Pets NO Exceptions) on the wall behind her. I tell her no, it’s just me. Maybe she didn’t hear me ask about the pool. She has me fill out an automobile card, and in the space for make, I write Escape, think how apt the word is now that I’ve done it. She gives me a key attached to an elongated plastic diamond with the name of the hotel and a number. Mine is 38, and I pull around to the left of the office where she showed me on the hotel map, park in the last space available. 38 is the room on the end, and the age I will be in two years. I put my key into the lock and open the door, pull my heavy black suitcase up over the step and feel for the light switch on the wall, flip it up.
I have come to this city to write, to wait tables, to wait out a year, perhaps two.
The room is small: one bed, a desk with a mirror, a painting of a lake with snow-capped mountains in the distance, a set of drawers with a TV on it. I grab the remote from the desk, point it at the TV, and turn it on, low, because it’s late, and I don’t want to disturb the people who must be sleeping on the other side of the wood-paneled wall. Chris Matthews is leaning over his desk, talking at the camera before cutting to a photo of George W. Bush smiling next to the Japanese Prime Minister in front of what has to be Graceland. I wonder why Tennessee, why Elvis, why the choice of this place over another, why not a more stately landmark or historical home. I think of the way I chose Missoula over all the other cities, all the other states. I unpack my shorts, my T-shirts, the smaller bag with my toiletries and line them up on the small ledge above the sink in the bathroom. Pulling my swimsuit from the side pocket of my suitcase, I think how I’m always doing things that have nothing to do with what I should be doing. I’m exhausted, from the drive, from the split I’ve just made of my life. Within minutes, I’m already sleeping to the hum of the air conditioner.
Morning, and I stand outside my room smoking a cigarette, nodding at the man who is lugging a duffel and an overstuffed Old Navy bag into his rusted Camry. I have an appointment for nine o’clock at Summit Property Management. I find the building on North Higgins easily, fill out forms, listen to the man who has his glasses low on his nose tell me that there just aren’t that many one- or two-bedroom apartments available right now, that he might have something in August, early September. I tell him I need a place in July, and when he looks at my price range, he makes one of those clicking sounds out of the side of his mouth, frowns, tells me I might try Missoula Property Management out on the North Loop.
I go there, fill out more forms, get keys to three properties: one, a second-floor apartment with dark wood paneling in the kitchen and a window overlooking a tree with a frayed tire swing; the second, a studio apartment with a butcher block kitchen counter and some bulky, smoke-stained curtains; the third, a lower-level apartment that I don’t even bother going into because the area out front, apparently a shared space with the unit above it, looks like an abandoned yard sale.
I like being able to go to these places alone, each solitary trip allowing me to pretend I am pulling into the parking lot or parking on the street, coming home. But I don’t see myself in any of these spaces, and I push back the feeling that gets stronger with each apartment I step into, each restaurant manager’s hand I shake, each beer I order at the Iron Horse: that I will not stay in this town, or rather, that it will not have me.
An afternoon of more keys, more cramped spaces with carpet stains and the pressing smell of kitty litter, of that two-in-the-afternoon emptiness of restaurants, the Uptown Diner, MacKenzie River Pizza Co., The Central Bar & Grill, Catalyst Café, where I squint into the darkness, offer my name but feel like it’s not quite mine, listen to women in black slacks and men in short-sleeved shirts gently tell me they’re not hiring. One woman walks with me to the door, telling me she admires what I have done, what I’m doing, trying to live a simpler life. She suggests I try back when the fall semester begins.
Finding a new home, I begin to suspect, requires an allowance, a certain season.
I drive back to my hotel, but not before turning toward the University of Montana campus, where I can see only the tops of buildings through the trees, the Bitterroot Range in the rearview mirror. A university campus seems far away from what I want and who I am right now, especially since I handed in a resignation letter to my department chair at Southern Utah University just three weeks ago.
I’ll always wonder if I would have left had I told even one person why I didn’t want to stay, but it can’t matter now, because I did leave, and there’s no job or house for me to go back to there.
What I have is where I live now, in the end room of a single-story motel in Missoula, Montana.
Back on Reserve Street, across from the Traveler’s Inn, I walk into the Blue Canyon, a mountain-cabin-themed restaurant with oversized booths. I sit down and pull Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth out of my purse and turn to “Out There.” I have just gotten to “I’m running away from running away from home” when the server comes over and takes my order.
I have disappeared here, and I can feel it. But it’s not the good kind of disappearing. It’s the kind that evolves when a world won’t let me in and I lose who I might have been before, who I’m trying to be in it now. I wish someone would give me a job and a decent apartment. I wonder how long I can live in Room 38 in a town where I know no one, where no one knows me or anything about what I’ve left, what I’m left with.
I think how being unknown is its own escape.
The second glass of Pinot Grigio has me wistful, and I stare out the window, notice the pool behind the hotel next door. I can’t even pick the right hotel, I think, which makes me doubt all my recent decisions. My curly-haired server, I can tell, has been cut from her shift and keeps straightening Sweet & Low packets in the booths around me, asking if I’d like more water, perhaps a piece of cheesecake. I ask for my check so she can go home, but not before I ask if they’re hiring.
I think maybe I shouldn’t drink in a restaurant alone in the middle of the day when I’ve only got two months of money in the bank before my account is depleted. My server tells me it took two months before any place would call her back when she came here three years ago.
I don’t have that kind of time. I don’t have enough money.
But the desperation of abandoned apartment rooms and empty chairs in downtown restaurants will not be what I remember about this place when I drive south after two weeks of searching, after two weeks of sleeping beneath a scratchy comforter. It will be the man I saw on the corner outside the Iron Horse Brewery, when I was looking for a place to park.
It’s the part of the late afternoon when the sun sets itself down and the sky is like a pool of water that the sun’s descent has disrupted, its myriad of pinks, purples, and oranges released, churning beneath the surface. The corner of Spruce and Higgins is a busy intersection, lots of foot traffic and cyclists, and when I turn right, I catch the watery blue eyes of a gray bearded man in a red hoodie, a worn backpack slumped beside him. As I pass, he looks right at me, his eyes familiar.
After I find a place on Spruce and park, I cross the intersection I’ve just driven through, pass the man who’s still sitting on the ground, his back against a cement embankment. His eyes smile, and I easily say hello. “Where’re you headed?” he asks, as if the two of us had agreed to meet at this hour on this corner years ago.
I’ll point to the doors of the Iron Horse, and he tells me he’ll be here when I’m done. Standing next to this bedraggled man feels like a favorite sweater, the navy one I pull out of the closet when it begins to get cold, the one I wear in the house and on trips to the grocery store.
When I come out of the pub, three beers into the evening, he’s still on the corner, scanning the intersection, and I offer him a Styrofoam box with half of my cheeseburger in it, cold fries. He accepts it with a direct nod, says he remembers me. But it’s not from an hour or so ago that he means. I accept this, feel that I remember not him but someone similar, so that being next to him feels like going back to a home I once knew, but lost. Or going back to a home I was too young to know but somehow remember.
At the deli’s storefront across the street, a woman in an orange shawl leans against the wall of the building, smoking the stub of a cigarette, her nails yellowed and long. She’s wearing snow boots in the summer, the only pair of shoes she owns, I suspect, and I wonder how much it snows here, if the snowfalls last as long as they did in Utah. I think of a night I stood at the front window of my corner house looking out at the canvas of snow, the craggy shadows of the leafless sycamore across the yard in the moonlight.
I was not lonely there; it was grief that buoyed me through the night, kept me awake, drinking, staring out the window, feeling life to be as empty as those branches casting shadows across the snow. It’s a scene that often shows up, like a photograph in a drawer that shuffles to the top of the pile every time I’m searching for a receipt, a key, an overdue-gas-bill notice.
I cross the street toward the woman, smile at her and the others huddled beside her. I ask her what brand she smokes, and she tells me whatever kind people give her or she finds, but I insist, say surely there’s one brand she likes more than others. Camels. Inside the deli, I buy myself a pack of Marlboro Lights and her Camels, head over to the cooler and pull out a case of Coors, the man from the corner beside me the whole time. Outside, he introduces me to his community of stained clothes and bent faces, gives the woman my fries. I set the case of Coors on the sidewalk, sit down next to it, tell them all to please, help themselves. They are grateful. While it turns darker, I lean against the bricks of the deli, mostly in silence, a few what-are-you-doing-heres, but mostly my questions, and I know what I have always known, that we all have the same answers: it’s not a matter of how, but who. And when. And how often. Or maybe once was enough. Or not nearly enough. And the who, most likely, is us. So we sit on sidewalks, or pass people who do.
With the hooded and shawled and shrouded around me, I know that I could go as far into disappearance as it will take me, because I am close to having nothing, and I, too, am a woman without a home, a nameless stranger, a woman driving an Escape.
When the case is empty, I stand up, accept the thanks, the good lucks, the man’s pat on my arm as he warns me that I do not belong here, that this will not be my home. I realize he knows that better than anyone, because he sits on this corner every day watching people, and he read the way I carried myself into and out of the Iron Horse and what I’m trying to leave behind. I am grateful, reach into the pocket of my blue sweatshirt and pull out the two lottery tickets I bought with the beer. “Here,” I tell him. “I hope you win the world.”
I head to my car, hear his voice, and turn to see him grinning, his arms stretched out, calling, “I already have!” There’s a part of me that wants to stay, not in Missoula, but on this corner, invisible, detached, lost forever. The sun is nearly gone, the colors of the sky have settled back to the bottom, and I get into my Escape, unable to look back to something I cannot name.
Two days later, the woman at the front desk of the Traveler’s Inn calls my room to tell me that the entire hotel has been reserved by a group for the next few days, and that I’ll need to check out tomorrow by noon. I drive to another hotel, one closer to downtown, ten dollars more than Room 38. It has a pool where I swim laps in the mornings before heading out to more properties, more restaurants.
I call the bank to check my account, become nervous. Tomorrow, I will put in an application for the second-story apartment, the one with the tree swing. Fear flashes through my mind like a train passing through the back corners of a small town. It whispers that I’m playing a silly game of “I live in Montana,” when what I’m really doing is blowing my money and drinking on sidewalks.
Back at my hotel room one night, I sit at the desk built into the dresser against the wall, check my email, and see one from Boise State. Subject: Adjunct Position. The Chair of the Search Committee wants to know if I’m still interested in a position I had forgotten I applied for months ago, before I knew where I was headed. I email back, ask for specifics, then open the bottle of Chardonnay I bought at the liquor store across the street and unwrap one of the plastic cups from the bathroom. I drink myself to sleep while watching Frasier, back-to-back episodes.
The next morning, I check my inbox, find a friendly note from the professor in Boise. He details the position: two classes, no benefits, a list of courses available. I read the list: New Literatures in English, Multicultural Literature, and American Literature II. I would choose two, he writes, start classes on August 16. I hit reply, tell him I’ll take the first two on the list, wonder what “New Literatures in English” means.
Afternoon, and I pull my black suitcase out of my room, check out of the hotel before heading downtown, where I hope to find the man in the red hoodie, but the corner is quiet. Even the front of the deli is empty. So I turn my Escape in the direction of the I-93 South sign, forget that my black swimsuit is hanging over the shower rod in the hotel room, still dripping from the morning’s long swim.
Rumpus original art by Annie Daly.