The mystery of Montana

The Montana Dispatch:

I have a long explanation for why I am, where I am this winter.

When I was 21, I worked at a flower stand in Santa Barbara, California.

I loved my job at the flower stand.

I had a takeaway coffee and KTYD FM playing from a small radio by the tip jar. In an eight-hour shift I made bouquets for wildly happy people, people with sadness radiating off them; people in love, people who had made big mistakes the night before - my highest sales and best tips were always on Sunday mornings between 10 and noon - and people in suits who needed flowers in hand, to go places they didn't want to go that afternoon.

Sometimes the place they didn't want to go was a funeral or a home where there had been a tragedy. Sometimes it was a Sunday dinner with the family.

Customers would sit on the kerb in the sun and describe the situation and the person. It wasn't unlike writing an obituary.

I would ask questions (''how did you meet her?'' ''Where would he take you on Saturday mornings when you were a kid?'') They would watch me circle the stand, picking up delphinium, protea, sunflowers, roses and iris and then put them back if there was a shrug or a shake of the head.

And I would ask more questions until I got it about right and hand them something that captured ''Jennifer, I am so happy last night happened'' or ''Amber, I'm a dick,'' or  ''Pete loved Def Leppard and was the best dad anyone could ask for.''

And occasionally - maybe drawn to the nurturing zone of floral arranging and Stevie Ray Vaughan - you'd get the people who just want to sit in the grass and talk.

I don't remember his name.

I just remember that it was a busy morning on a weekday and he stayed out of my way as I filled up flower buckets with water, trimmed stems, and de-thorned roses.

He had a bottle of something in a brown bag, sunglasses on, and a beard with flecks of grey in it. But at one point when he took off his sunglasses, I saw that he wasn't as old as I first thought; he was probably close to my age now.

I didn't know much about people who drank out of bottles in brown bags at 11 in the morning back then, but something about him made it seem like he had a nice, but disappointing life somewhere in the neighbourhood.

I must have told him a little bit about myself as I worked.

Maybe I told him about the classes I was taking at Santa Barbara City College - probably a mix of creative writing, Italian, environmental studies, modern politics of the Middle East and Anthropology 101 - and how a lot of my friends were graduating but I still didn't know what I wanted to be doing with my life. It was probably a year that I had a lot of uncertainty about everything, but a lot of hope too.

Every once and awhile the gas station attendant next door would come by and look at me and nod towards the guy like is he bothering you? And I would shake my head like, it's fine.

The lunch crowd came and went.

Into the afternoon, the guy was still talking but by now he was making less sense. He went for a walk to the liquor store and came back with another bottle in a bag.

When he did talk he would sometimes stop in the middle of a sentence and look at me for a moment and say: "You remind me of something.''

But by 3pm, he started getting annoying. One woman left the line and drove off.  

I told him if he didn't stop bothering people I'd have to call the cops. He could stay there as long as he was nice.

He agreed he could be nice. And again, he told me that I reminded him of something, he just couldn't think what it was just then.

An hour later when the gas station attendant looked over at me as the guy picked a fight with a man holding roses, my eyes clearly said, okay, I need help now.

The guy allowed himself to be gently guided by the arm, away from the flower stand, and I watched him go, kind of sad to see him leave.

I wondered why things were so bad at his home that he had to drink that much and hang around a flower stand all day.

But, then the guy turned, shook off the gas station attendant's hand, and told him ''I have to tell her something.''

''Hey,'' he called out to me. ''I know what you remind me of!''

He had stopped making sense hours before; I could only guess that it would be his college girlfriend, or a favourite cousin, so I just nodded and kept counting cash.

''You remind me'' - and he paused, with drama, hands extended like it was the last word in a Shakespearean soliloquy - ''of Montana.''

When he said that it sent shivers through me. I didn't know anything about Montana, but I moved there less than a year later.

It was a beautiful winter - so beautiful that I had to come back for the next one.

I would look at the mountains and the snow on the pines as I would ski to the nearest bar to watch the news in the afternoon and pick up groceries and my ever-chattering mind was stunned into a stillness by what was around me.

And 14 years later - after taking a train around the States last month to explore and feel out where I want to be for this season - I am back for another winter.

It still feels both wild and familiar; a  place to be quiet again and ski and write and bake bread, pour wine, bring people plates of elk and bison and set them on white linen tables in front of a roaring fireplace and pocket some money.

I never saw the drunk guy again. But I'd love to know what he saw in me that matched this landscape.

It is still one of the most beautiful compliments to come my way.

And that is my long explanation for why I am, where I am this winter.

More to come.

* Image: Top: toes in Big Sky, Montana and below toes in Santa Barbara, CA. 

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