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Wednesday
Jul252007

Page 8

It could be that E Coli can’t find its way to Gould. Like a lot of things, especially pop music and fashion, it just takes longer for whatever the rest of the world is doing to get to the mountains. I remember jamming—and jamming hard—to Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’ many years after the rest of the world had tried to cover up that phase of American history. That’s why I think people can still eat their meat as raw as they do in North Park. Mad cow just hasn’t made it there yet.

I have seen my childhood peers frighten many a refined city waitress by telling her to “slap it on its ass and run it past the fire”. She had asked if they wanted it medium or well—rare is no longer a choice in the real world—and she’s told to go spank an animal. And that’s something that hasn’t ever made it to Gould either; hypersensitivity. No one in my hometown is ever put off by someone peeing on the side of a road, like Main Street. Up there there’s room to do as you please without others feeling infringed upon. So someone can light a fire and inappropriately touch a cow and no one gets hurt. Unless you’re like me. You smell like a country kid, you have ringworm like a country kid, but you just can’t stomach the raw meat. It needs to be cooked. Charcoal is rarer than my hamburger preference. Although Tom down at the Cookhouse never, ever cooked his burgers for more than it took to brown the outside. Of course most of his patrons liked it that way. He might have only been making the locals happy. But no matter how many times I emphasized the “well done” part of my order, he still came back with a patty more alive than dead. After a while my mom would help me by stressing that I’d like it actually cooked. She lobbied for me ever since I had unceremoniously ‘returned’ a couple of my meals. But never fail, I’d take a bite to reveal something that looked like ripe watermelon. One time my friend Bert tried to convince me it was the ketchup making it red. His grandma was taking my sister, his sister, him and me out and he wanted me to be as respectful as possible. It wasn’t the ketchup. The musty blood taste pervaded my senses. My mind thought of everything gross; the smell of antiques furniture, wet paper, moldy bread and old, drooling people eating bananas with their mouths open. All those sensations chased me to the “Cowboys” room where I sent Bert’s grandma’s generous offer back to Mother Earth.

Other than customer feedback, there are many reasons why Tom, the owner of the Cookhouse, wouldn’t have cooked his meat thoroughly. For one, propane is expensive up there. There’s one company that sells and delivers it and if you make them mad then you’d better start gathering some kindling. But what’s more likely is that the curly-haired cook did everything much faster than the average person. He talked faster, sometimes with a frightening urgency. He could be telling you about a butterfly perched on a flower and make it sound like a mountain lion was creeping up behind you. His eyes, on average, I think, were bigger than normal. But when he started speaking three things happened. First, he always carried a towel. With this he could wipe up spilled beer or brush away peanut shells that had been mauled by hungry farmers and loggers awaiting their raw meat snack. What he did mostly was wipe his hands. His hands were polished to a shine. They no longer looked of human flesh with individual crags and lines. It looked like he stole them from a figurine. Yet he kept wiping them down with the towel, especially when his eyes got bigger. That’s the second thing that happened when he had something to say.

“And the Monarch fluttered to the blossom,” he’d declare with the punched up emergency intonation of someone seeking help for a heart attack victim. His face lifted to hold his sizable eyes wide and expressive; Tom’s third speaking trait was moving around—nervously. He did not sway or pace. His speaking motion was beyond nervous. Beyond all earthly emotion was his lurching about. Was somebody about to shoot him? Was a sniper hiding behind the stuffed moose head above the peanut barrel? Good luck shooter. Tom was all at once blinding you with the whites of his eyes, shouting for help and doing his disturbing jerking about. And he was hiding in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Lucky exhaust wisped away to reveal his narrow face. His eyes sent a preemptive scream—this 70s-coiffed Medusa immobilized the bar patron, stone frozen with fear.

No matter how psychotic and artificially energized Tom might have been, the Cookhouse was our second home. Really it was our other first home, but with plumbing. To illustrate how small of a town Gould is, and how close we were to Tom, and eventually his downtrodden wife, Candy, let me take you to a breezy summer afternoon in 1980. This was a big day for my brother and me. We had found an entire cow skeleton. The coyotes had even left some skin and fur behind. Thrilled to be a part of this disease- carrying pile of rotting death, we each grabbed a hoof and drug our carrion treasure to our fort. It was better known as Devil’s Cabin. Or at least that’s what Gary, Neil Davies’ son, nine years my senior and five my brother’s, had carved in one of its supporting trees. Gary plays a bigger role in two stories, but for now he’s just the guy who had the whittling and alphabet skills to give our hideout a name.

To bolster our one-room hut with an evil enough look to live up to its name, we adorned it with the bones of random animals. We found what we were pretty sure was a horse skull. Cow femurs and elk vertebrae dangled in the doorway. Some type of rodent skull hung where you might typically find a horseshoe. The cow carcass was a huge find. Even bigger, we did it without Gary, who had kind of taken over our summer. He’d even driven a stake between Pete and me because he had a motorcycle and often used it to ply us apart. He relished making one of us really happy and the other really mad. Once, to his credit he had tried to fit both of us on the bike but Pete slid off the back. In retrospect—not just now but even a few hours later—I felt pretty bad for encouraging him to keep driving, and faster. But Gary was new blood, a different person in a town of five older, parent-aged people lording over my brother, sister and me. He was from Fort Collins, a big city with fast food and the Foothills Fashion Mall, and he brought a unique opportunity to learn more of his rock n’ roll lifestyle. Once, his sister came up. She was thirteen. She and her friend had big, feathered hair and wore makeup like war paint and I thought they were the most beautiful humans I’d ever seen. They camped by the pond, the body of water to be featured in the second of two stories about Gary.

I watched the young ladies from Devil’s Cabin, a set piece in the other story starring Gary Davies. I think I was hoping to see them get naked. I wasn’t sure if that’s what I really wanted, but I do recall a six-year-old inkling to see “boobies.” I wanted to compare them to what I saw in my dad’s Playboy. I studied those pictures intensely. So much so that after three hours my mom went out looking for me. When she did find me I was sitting in the outhouse, my butt numbed to a cold, little button, while I sat on the cold, outdoor toilet and held my gaze on Miss April 1980.

Waiting for some swimming or something that might encourage these exotic arrivals to shed their clothes, I was entreated to something entirely different. The girls put up a tent and talked and talked and then sat together on the shore of the beaver pond. Smoke rose from each of them. My god they were smoking!! I had never seen anything so cool in my life. These older ladies, these giants of femininity that would eventually have me hugging a tree because I thought I had to pee but couldn’t and grinding up against an evergreen provided sweet relief, were so advanced that they knew how to use a cigarette. Fascinated, I left my perch and sprinted through the trees.

You know how kids get so excited they can’t quite articulate what they want to say? That was me bursting from the forest shouting “You guys—you—you’re—“and finishing my declaration were the bright, red lips of Gary’s sister. She was able to rein in her fear and say, “smoking.”

I don’t remember her name; I just know that she was so refined and sophisticated that my finding them breaking the law did not at all rile them. No, both of the girls hoisted their habit higher and held them like little flags. “Yah,” she said looking out over the water, “we’ve smoked for a long time.” I don’t remember seeing anything much more fluid and graceful than her rebellion. I was so honored that this queen of the city found refuge in our forgotten forest. Just that she’d even speak with me defined in my brain a mutual, loving relationship. One that I would tell my first-grade friends involved kissing and boob touching.

That afternoon nothing of the kind happened. What I did do, though, is take her up on another offer. I’d try a cigarette.

The whole process was terrifying. I remember her handing me the pack and being embarrassed as I desperately tried to dislodge one single cylinder from its peers. They giggled. That only emboldened me. I’d smoked before, I told them. It wasn’t that big of a deal. I think that my complete look of wonderment at the shiny right angles of packaging, the cardboard lid fitting so perfectly over the unsmoked, and the air of accomplishment for finally extricating my new vice, gave my Marlboro virginity away. I ogled the neat rows of cigarettes. Like tobacco bullets their payload only needed a trigger. Stuffing all but one of the many that had fallen out back into the package, I put the chosen one to my lips. Fire leapt up in front of my face. She was lighting my cigarette. I felt a rush, butterflies bounced around my stomach and dizziness overwhelmed me. Then she lit it. Everything burned. My mouth, my throat, my nose. Billions of cells accustomed to the healthy life of mountain living expected another high altitude breath of cleansing air. They were mauled by smoke and nicotine. Like hitting the Boston Marathon with tear gas, throngs of the unsuspecting reacted violently to the attack. I remember the girls’ faces pulling out of my vision, their makeup like streaks against wet glass, as I went from standing to kneeling, to crawling towards the water. Their cackling, mean-spirited in its accomplice to their inner joy, provided sonic bearings as I lurched away from them. I was pretty excited I made them laugh, I thought, as I violently wretched in their camp site.

But on another summer day, one that gave us a cow corpse and a reason to stay away from the house and a dad who had a knack for inventing chores, Peter and I, ages six and ten, were about to enjoy a cold beer. Dragging the skeletal structure through tall hay just days short of harvest gave Peter time to think of reasons to stop laboring over a hundred-some pounds of bones. Pete told me that we could get sick. And if dad knew we were playing with the remains of a dead animal he’d most surely conjure something to keep us busy for the rest of the summer. Also, Peter explained, that the bones weren’t dry enough for Devil’s Cabin standards. This final diplomatic attempt successfully removed his younger, obsessed brother from the maggot buffet. Devil’s Cabin rules were very important.

What next? Our afternoon’s troubles had taken us to the edge of the Gould Meadow. Twenty years earlier, from where we stood we’d see a lone teacher preparing the one-room Gould School House for another year of lumberjack seedlings. Twenty years before that we’d see US Army vehicles transporting German POW’s to their camp just a half mile away (today, the old camp is now the home of the Gould Community Building and the Moose Visitor Center). Ten years before that a Model T flatbed pickup would sputter its payload of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps workers to a day’s labor worthy of Depression.

On this day asphalt tamed the dirt road and the school hosted only squirrels and skunks. It leaned to one side. Its warped wood paneling withered in the sun. The soldiers and corpsman gave way to two dirty kids watching someone rake his driveway. Down the hill and through the sparse patch of thinned pine we spotted manic Tom wildly assaulting the ground and unwittingly frightening passing tourists away. Most people wouldn’t go out of their way to get this man’s attention. Pete and I were bored.

“Hey Tom,” I shouted as we ran towards Highway 14 and the Cookhouse, the social and commercial hub of our community. It was also Tom’s pride and joy. In 1977 he’d won $70,000 from the Reader’s Digest Sweepstakes. He pulled up roots from the Denver exburb of Longmont and moved to the hills. His lifestyle demanded the seclusion. He had no idea how good his life was about to be. He had found a place on the planet where he could do all that coke, and be that violent and wildly unpredictable, and still be beloved by the local children.

Looking up from his gravel thrashing, Tom saw the two Ewy boys running out of the bar ditch. He looked happy. His smile gave me the confidence to shout an unusual request.

“Can you get us a beer?!”

I’d say it was less than a minute later that Pete and I were sitting at the bar with two cold draughts in front of us. Now don’t get me wrong, we were used to the lifestyle. On busy nights we even washed bar glasses. More commonly, however, we incurred permanent damage by endlessly spinning on the stools. Dad would order another Bud and we’d get back to whirling, eating peanuts and nabbing a maraschino cherry or two from the garnish buffet. I also learned to like green olives. A typical visit to the Cookhouse pinnacled with one of us stabbing the other with a tiny, plastic sword. To get one of those we had to wait until a more sophisticated visitor finished their foo-foo drink. Our dad drank only Budweiser. No cherries, no olive daggers, just beer. I used to think his penchant for the “King of Beers” was a reflection of his status. At some point some visitor, probably just making awkward conversation with the weird kid staring at the cherries in his drink, told me that Budweiser had just made that up. They were only a self-proclaimed king. Heineken, he said, would be a more likely monarch.

Despite the stranger’s declaration, the Budweiser Tom poured for us was very imposing. Pete and I couldn’t believe we really had a beer. Each of us had our own draught glass. They started slender on the bottom and widened to the top. This macho drink was served in the most effeminate vessel and they still managed to intimidate us.

Tom left the bar. Towel in hand he rubbed and walked his way to the kitchen. He gave us the drinks but we still waited until he was gone to imbibe. I wanted a sip but tipped a big swallow. A familiar burning rushed its sensation from my belly to my reddening face. Pete looked more experienced. His beer was half gone and he didn’t take on the physical appearance of a frightened animal. He looked very serious and grabbed me off the stool before dragging me to the Cowboys room. This is where he hatched a plan. We had to leave immediately. We had to get home and tell our dad we drank a beer before Tom could tell him we did.

Tom walked back out of the kitchen—probably took the two minutes he was gone to cook a batch of burgers—to revel with his young partygoers. He’d just started to shout something in good spirit when he stopped. Two beers bubbled alone and the cowbell on the bar’s screen door announced our departure.

We ran. Across the road, up through the pine, then into the aspen that bordered the open field to the Gould house. Our dad looked up from his chainsaw to see his boys sprinting toward the house. He stood up with his sharpening file and watched us, probably entertaining himself with guesses of what we’d done wrong. By the time we got to the house his imagination had pissed him off. This was good, because our story brought sweet relief to whatever he’d made himself believe we did. Winded, we took turns revealing our breathless confession. It was Tom’s idea and not ours and that we didn’t even finish them.

He was ashamed. “You left two free beers sitting on the counter?” I looked at Pete, now even redder in the face, and sent a grimacing reminder that fleeing wasn’t my idea.

The five of us loaded in our two-passenger CJ-5 Jeep. Pete sat in between the seats. I sat on him. Little Laura took her place on mom’s lap. And we were off. While the Jeep lacked power, it was also without brakes. Dad had to do his famous 180-skid stop in front of the bar. Mom did her best to join in the screams of laughter and joy. But she was holding out for a station wagon.  With brakes.

Tom’s day of raking wafted towards the old school. I hoped the warm afternoon would make quick work of drying cow bones.

I knew for certain that the summer weather had made me thirsty. And that was a good thing.

My dad had decided that we were going to have to finish those beers.

“I remember that,” mom said. She pushed words past parched skin. Moisture was a luxury provided by a mouth cream and some occasional ice chips. “I know you do, mom,” I replied in a tone more sentimental than necessary. “But remember how mad you were when Gary and I tied Peter up and left him in the woods?”

“Yes.” She coughed up the word. And I saw her young and beautiful, and standing at the end of the long dirt road. She was twenty-nine and way too wise for her years. No happy hour drinks with friends for this petite babe. She was taking time from the cook stove to find out why she could hear a strange howling. And why it was only Gary and me running up the driveway.

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