Looming Embattlement

Fueling the fascination with such incongruence was the tangible distance she was known to keep; on various occasions, but most often when the hour ran well into the night, and any uncertainty of our feelings had been resolved, Alix’s deliberate measures to maintain a strong, focused mind for the early hours of the morning became increasingly common.

“I really should get some sleep. Tomorrow is a big day,” she said one night, retreating from her closet with a folded business wardrobe in hand. The room was completely dark; yet, the peak of physical attraction still clung to the walls, and could be felt hanging with indifference on bare hooks as Alix maneuvered the space. “You can stay, if you want,” she quickly added. “Or, I can take you home. Let me drive you home.”

“Don’t worry about it. I should probably get some sleep myself. I do have to work…tomorrow night,” I replied, before gathering my belongings from her nightstand. “Busses are still running, don’t trouble yourself.”

Alix was insistent as she went to grab her keys from the dresser. “Are you sure? It’s nothing, really.”

“No problem at all. Get some rest. I’ll see you this weekend?”

“Sure, that would be nice,” she said, and then with a kiss I was sent out the door.

Riding the bus alone at night through the city’s varying neighborhoods had a way of washing the senses; the pretense of an isolated paradise in which Alix resided would halt suddenly in favor of the stark, downtrodden extension of the city I called home. A cross of the interstate and one could see how the rag had been wrung out, leaving behind only a drip of dirty water. The latter was well-defined, first by the flickering neon of refurbished food trucks, and then by regional fast-food chains and mega-lot grocery stores, at last dotted with doleful discount bins found in abundance: all fodder for the fray. As it went for the former – Alix’s hood – boutique shopping centers had been adroitly inserted into the lobbies of pristine, newly constructed apartment complexes, further adding to the air of affluence that was slowly making its way into other parts of the city.

Such a sudden split of lifestyles seemed uncanny – a marvel, an outsider might say – if only it had occurred without compromise. And yet, more than ever, embattlement loomed on the horizon, for my lay of land was a glaring prospect for wide-eyed developers and adulated entrepreneurs affixed on their reflection in the burgeoning lagoon. I often wondered, then, of the day that thirst would become sated, and the metropolis would sink accordingly.

Lightning in a Bottle

Eddie was stocking a filterless cigarette with freshly ground herb while we sat near the back of the bus, alone with nothing but the wheel bearings and screeching brakes beneath our feet. Passive, aggressive, and all together agitated over being out so early, he remained silent, tuned into his tedium until it was through, and then promptly dove into his black notebook with a flurry of frantic scribbling, pausing suddenly at each surge of inspiration, and finishing a few with an exclamation point. Once or twice I saw him smile, but Eddie would quickly subdue the expression so as to maintain his edge over the situation. Without saying it, Eddie seemed to understand my reluctance to stay cooped up in the apartment, dwelling on the eventful weekend as if it were a sort of climax I might not ever reach again. The empty bus, the sterile air of another lecture hall, and each playful post-it note were hopeful attempts to distract the mind from wandering too far in one direction. For almost a week had gone by, and I still hadn’t heard from Alix. But to this, Eddie simply scolded me for not following the first rule: Don’t leave anything up to chance. Now, I was just a number, and the odds seemed quite unfavorable for such lightning to strike in the same place twice.

Butte, America

THE ONE AND ONLY: BUTTE, AMERICA

“They’re more anchors than land makers,” says one of the men; he is a drifter, or so it seems by the way he carries himself. 

This here is Butte, America, as they so aptly dub the old mining town in south-west Montana. Butte was, after all, one of the hottest spots in all of America, rich with minerals and oozing with opportunities to aid the folks in pioneering our historic western expansion. 

It was around the late 1800’s when Butte really began to boom. First, the word of gold and silver brought an influx of cultures from every cardinal direction; it was the copper, though, that made them stay, turning this town into one of the most prosperous cities west of the Mississippi River – between Chicago and San Fransisco, it quickly became the largest. Butte, as it so happens, also became one of the first cities to receive running electricity, just a couple years after New York City. Given copper’s high conductivity properties, this small town was a big point of pride for the entire United States. For nearly a century, folks flocked here, filled with promise and hope for a better future.

But lest one forgets the present time – a sunny, but brisk day amidst the dog-days of summer, year 2021 – the flavor of this town is not lost, nor is its history. 

In fact, this man – whom later introduces himself as Frank, to a pair of strangers as they wait in life for their coffee – and the way he speaks of others just like him, merely reflects the dichotomy of the town. There is only one Butte, America, and it is unique in many ways; in some, it is visibly striving for progress; but, in others, Butte appears passive to the thought of being stuck in a realm of antiquity. All of which is edified by the many abandoned buildings which boast an aesthetic of careful craftsmanship from a time in our history when such a thing was emphasized; there is an overwhelming amount of detail to be found in the many archways and windowsills of the now-empty banks and bread shops. These were, at one point, some of the tallest buildings in the entire country, designed for the rich folks and working class to cohabit as they created one of the wealthiest communities in the west.

Butte, was, in fact, widely regarded as ‘The Richest Hill On Earth’. As such, while walking the streets, one does not have to think long and hard about what sorts of characters and activities occupied such places, especially with the reputation that its transient community and vibrant nightlife maintained, for more than a few decades.

But for as much has changed around here, some of the most concrete truths remain the same.

Since we are creatures of habit, it is of little surprise what brought me in their company, on this fine Saturday morning; it is the only place of its kind that is open at this hour – a small coffee house that doubles as an art studio and gallery. 

This is just another habit, as well, for Frank, who speaks of others on first name basis, with the timid barista, a young girl whom is still abashed over having to kick out a grown fellow – someone they both happen to know – but moments prior. 

“Oh, are you talking about Sam?” Frank asks her.

“Sure, I think that’s his name,” she replies. “He was yelling, a lot. For no reason, too. I told him twice to calm down – before I finally had to tell him to leave.”

“Yeah, that’s Sam,” smiles Frank. “He yells a lot when he wakes up.”

As I remain seated, in a far corner of the cafe, turning page after page of a Calvino classic, I feel a slight deal of remorse; remorse for this barista, yes. But also for myself, for not having the heart to tell her that this same fellow – Sam – is sound asleep on one of the sofas in back, hidden but perpendicular to both the studio and a series of lounge chairs set up as a quiet place to read. 

But at last, another poor soul in passing speaks up, some moments later, and gives up Sam; the barista scurries out, only to return a few minutes later, visibly distraught. 

While she is away, a line forms at the counter, where two older men converse in casual rhetoric; it is as if they have known one another for years. One of the men has a son in high school, standing six-feet-five, and weighing in at 350 pounds. He plays on the offensive line for the local football team. Tonight, they’re going head to head with one of their bitter rivals.

“Where’s he going?” asks the other man.

“Not sure,” says the father. “He wants badly to be offered by the U. But, he might have to settle on Western.”

“Hm,” grunts the other man. “Should be a game. Heard them boys have some real prospects. A couple are even next level.”

“They sure do. That quarterback can sling it all over the yard. Those scouts have his number alright,” says the father. “Now, what about you? Have you been to any games yet?”

“A few, yeah. I actually planned to go tonight. In fact, I used to play there myself. So, I show up from time to time to catch a game,” replies the other man. “Part of that is pride. The other part is ego.”

Once the crowd thins, it is just the barista and I left in the shop. I later step out to use the bathroom. Before me, spread out on a small table that has been set up adjacent the art studio, are two men. One of them is Frank, the other is the fellow he came into the cafe with earlier. They wear similar attire – baggy jeans and oversized sweatshirts, each with a few sets of holes in them – and carry themselves in an accordingly indolent fashion. At first glance, I even catch sight of the smudges of dirt that underscore the one, unnamed fellow’s eyes. Those eyes, moreover, are fervent; for he and Frank are exchanging thoughts over the sketchbook that is spread out on the table. Frank is explaining his process; the other fellow nods occasionally, listening intently. 

Deciding that I am not ready to retire from the spot – for, it is one of the few of its kind in town, and I have grown quite comfortable frequenting it on my occasional jaunts through Butte – I return to the cafe, collect my belongings, and then bury myself in a plush, suede arm-chair that sits before two large bookcases, stocked with subjects that span from art theory to introspection. Fitzgerald, and one of his short-story collections is quick to catch my eye; I settle in, content.

But a pair of patrons soon discover me, as they peruse the space, seemingly for the first time, linked in arms. One of them immediately sparks up conversation. Her name is Tracy. Her companion, a tall, stocky fellow, meanwhile disbands himself and begins to stroll away, towards the gallery.

I find out that Tracy is from here, a Butte native. She, along with the man, have seen a lot change, explains Tracy. It sure isn’t how she remembers it, growing up. Even so, Tracy says she didn’t even know such a space existed – this secluded cove stocked with literature and periodicals. Rather, she frequents the used-bookstore down the street, and goes on to gush over the expansiveness of their free-section. 

“They put them out in a cart, on the street,” says Tracy. “Cuz, I can’t afford to shop at that other one, up the way.”

“I know what you mean,” I reply. “I like to support local businesses, but those new books can really add up. A buddy and I went in there last time, and spent almost $100 between the two of us.”

Tracy whistles, flashing a grin. “Yeah, I’ll stick to my bookstore. Now, say, do you think they’ll mind if I swap one of these out with one of mine?”

I shrug. “Don’t see why not. I thought of doing the same-“

Suddenly there’s a crash. It sounds like a chair has just hit the ground; next, we hear the sound of shuffling feet and muffled voices. The clamor startles Tracy, causing her to turn a foot and walk quickly to the corner of the cove. She peaks her head around, while I sit and watch her, watching the action unfold. What can be made out as tense, curse words are exchanged between Frank and his friend. They grow more excitable and enraged by the second. The fellow challenges Frank to a fight, right there on the spot. 

“Bring it,” Frank beckons. “I’ll take you right here, right now, punk.”

“You don’t have the guts. Take your shot!”

“You don’t know me! I’ll take you down!”

“Sit down, fool!”

They go back and forth like this, for some time. Tracy turns to me, awestricken but unabashedly amused. Peculiar, I think to myself, for these two men were, less than an hour ago, prattling on to the poor barista about how they were so noble – at any point, even ready to step in when such senseless confrontations arose. Sam, in particular, was the subject of this discussion. 

“If that sort of thing ever happens again, I’ll gladly step in,” I remember Frank saying to the barista. The propensity to do the right thing, however, had at some point inexplicably escaped this man, as evinced by his readiness to put an end to the fellow whom he, just moments prior, had professed a desire to partner with for his next art project. 

Peculiar, indeed. 

Since I see these two men, Frank and the squalid fellow, squatting together, some two hours later, on a soiled city curb, watching the day go by, I can safely assume that they made up, without acting upon their vile outbursts for one another; they even share the same 40oz beer, smiling at each passerby. Seeing them again, another couple hours after that, albeit on a different corner but with a fresh forty, epitomizes that timeless vortex which tethers itself to the name, Butte, America, and accordingly evokes one simple question: where the fuck am I?

Pesky Roaches

For Eddie, it seemed to have been brewing since the day we arrived, whereas I put off the matter as long as I could, hoping to keep peace amongst the three of us. In his most earnest efforts, Eddie adroitly enlisted household items, even converting discarded pieces of recyclable material into contraptions to counter their cunning ways. If to trap one in a glass, designate said glass specifically for catching them, and don’t you dare mix them up, he demanded one day. The idea was to capture these cockroaches we came to find – scurrying around various spaces, at all hours of the day – well enough to make your way out to the balcony, and then launch them back into nature.

Cockroaches are, moreover, rather elusive – some even resourceful enough to take flight at the sight of danger – and they are almost always a single step ahead once the lights go on. As such, trapping them humanely became something of a game. But the game ended one afternoon when, while working on a story at my desk, my feeble attempt at scooping one of the buggers onto a plank of cardboard was thwarted by its sudden scramble. As a result, the shiny critter plopped into my cup of steaming coffee, and I watched, disgusted and disappointed as he scurried around in a sea of black soot, unable to crawl out. 

Later that week, a ‘courtesy spray’ was conducted at the apartment. No stranger to the siege of chemicals and ensuing quarantine, Nico cleared his schedule for the day, and advised Eddie and I do the same. Throughout the process of having them addressed, however, I sensed in Nico an unspoken amusement toward our collective loathe toward one of Mother Nature’s most pesky critters. He seemed desensitized to the sight of them, as if they had long since become a fixture to the territory, and their coexistence was a mere trade-off for the city’s many endearing attributes.

Eddie

As I leaned against the stone barricade next to him, I smiled at certain points of emphasis while he rambled on, nodding only on occasion. Windows for interjections were sparse and seldom seized, but I was comfortable that way. Rather, Eddie made a person feel comfortable because it never was inferred that they had to do any of the talking. He would chomp away, running on about the heat, or how his underwear was bunching up around his crotch but he was dealing with it. The latter, I presumed, was why swimsuits were a staple to his wardrobe, along with a few large-billed hats and shirts with flimsy fabric. The white shirt he was wearing that day was made of thin cotton. It clung to him from the heat, and by the time he stopped moving, it was entirely transparent and stuck to his slim torso. Without doing a single sit-up or crunch, Eddie boasted of his inexplicably well-kept six-pack, and would smile at the irony while sipping from his poison.