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Miracle on Slant Street: A Missoula holiday fable

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’Twas the week before Christmas, and I was high in my garret, the lights of Missoula winking cheerily below. A mixture of sleet, graupel and freezing rain pattered cheerily against one window pane, and the cat scratched cheerily against the other. I was composing my annual holiday letter, a seasonal tradition by which I remind family and close friends to leave me alone. Dear Sir or Madam, I began, pausing to chew the end of my feather pen. Typically, the rest flowed easily from there, but on this blustery winter’s eve I paused, for the moment at a loss.

My eyes drifted absently about the room. There were my beloved things, more precious to me than any so-called family: my astrolabe, my bookshelf with its complete works of L. Ron Hubbard and collection of rare 20th-century pornography, and the sacks upon sacks of saffron I received for my role in arranging the sale of the Independent. There was my humble bed and humble oil painting of myself. And here was I, surrounded by everything I needed and yet possessed, in this hibernal hour, by a nameless melancholy.

I resolved to clear my head with a brisk walk around the grounds. Pulling my nightcap over my ears and gathering my dressing gown about me via the system of dressing-straps I had ordered through the mail, I descended the stairs. My heels clacked on the wooden slats, reminding me to put on my shoes. I blocked the cat from slipping in as I opened the door, silently congratulating myself on giving him the gift of self-reliance. Then I was in the yard, relishing the crisp night air and the moonlight on my skin in the few minutes before I started to burn. Wintry mix fell gently on the birdbath, the hibachi and the pile of scrap lumber, mattresses and Subaru head gaskets left by the previous tenant. The world in solemn stillness lay, until it was interrupted by the oafish voice of my neighbor, River.

“Happy Wednesday!” he shouted. “What are you up to this weekend?”

His goatee was flecked with Cold Smoke from a growler he cradled in one arm. His other arm waved merrily, rustling the down of his jacket as he tromped across the lawn. His boots were laced in red and green, and he wore atop his customary ball cap a red felt hat trimmed in white fur, with his sunglasses perched atop that, presumably since it was dark. I wasn’t sure whether River was his real name, and I hoped never to find out. Again I cursed myself for renting a garret with a shared yard, instead of the disused observatory I saw on Craigslist Butte. I turned to face the other direction, pretending to study some bird or another in a tree across the street, but he persisted in spewing the native gibberish to which I had grown accustomed.

“How about this inversion?” he said, offering me a pull from his growler. When I demurred, he remarked that he hoped it might snow soon. I grunted noncommittally and edged toward the refuse pile, where I began to separate the lumber from the mattresses. Perhaps, given enough of what my nurse called social cues, he would become discouraged and leave me alone.

“I’m so stoked for the Bowl to open,” he said. “You know what we should do? We should throw a combination ski season-holiday party. Like a Brooks-River kind of thing!”

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I hefted the largest of the mattresses and set it on its edge between us. This had the effect of muffling his jabberings, and I jammed some of the sturdier pieces of wood alongside to hold it up. Then I heard him exclaim from the other side, as though struck by a genius idea. His boots crunched on the frozen grass.

“Riverbrooks!” he said, peering around the edge of the mattress. “What do you say?”

I told him I was busy that night. Selecting another mattress from the pile, I arranged it endwise to the first, hoping to discourage him from pursuing our conversation by lengthening the chase. I was not successful.

“Whatcha got there?” River asked affably. “Makeshift wall?”

Casting about for some solution, I had an inspiration of my own: I would hit him with a two-by-four. Then I had an even better idea. Continuing to pile refuse between us, I told him that I could not throw a party with him, because my religion forbade me from celebrating Christmas or any other holiday. As a reformed Coptic Zoroastrian, my faith instructed me to observe the season only by constructing this wall. The disappointment in his eyes told me I was on the right track, so I added another fib for good measure—what seasoned avoiders of camaraderie with their neighbors refer to as the coup de grace.

“Frankly,” I said with a reproachful look, “I’m surprised you don’t respect my beliefs.”

That did it. I had seen the “Coexist” sticker on his Outback, and I knew he was the type to take such admonitions seriously. With apologies for disturbing my ritual, he tromped across the lawn and back into his house, pausing only to refresh himself with a draught of Cold Smoke along the way. After his door swung shut, I abandoned my wall-building and returned to my garret, congratulating myself on my quick thinking.

No sooner had I kicked off my shoes, switched to my indoor dressing gown and mixed a quick nightcap of Everclear and Tylenol PM, however, than I heard a rummaging noise outside. A look out the window confirmed it: rummaging! It seemed a tramp had discovered my impromptu wall and was in the process of making off with a mattress.

“You there!” I shouted from the window. “Mendicant!”

He dropped the mattress and looked up with a twinkle in his eye. In the moonlight I saw he wore an old slouch hat of the kind seen in certain historical re-enactments, with a pince-nez atop the brim. His clothes, too, had an anachronistic quality: He wore hobnailed boots wrapped ’round with belts to hold them together, baggy trousers, and a waistcoat with a watch chain running from one button into his pocket. His coat was blue and black and brown, mottled further by the first flakes of snow now collecting on his shoulders. Seeing me in my high window, he shook off the snow and went running for my back door. Before I could reach my Life Alert bracelet, I heard the sound of boots and buckles on the stair, and then the tramp was in my very house!

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Reader, I fairly swooned. Who knew what fate awaited me? Conversation at the very least, and probably some kind of bum crime—he would knock me unconscious with a bindle stick, perhaps, or disembowel me with his harmonica. But the strange old tramp did no such thing. He merely flopped down on a sack of saffron, insensate to the yellow cloud it produced, and looked curiously around the room as he pulled off his fingerless gloves.

“Nice garret,” he remarked.

“I assure you it reflects my importance,” I said stiffly, “and influence with the local police. Have you any idea what time it is?”

At this, the tramp pulled back the lapel of his jacket and began hauling on his watch chain, producing a remarkable length from his pocket until he reached the end, which was connected to a sandwich. He munched placidly, seeming to have forgotten my question.

“I knew a swell like you once,” he said, gesturing to my oil portrait and unpatched gown. “Three of them, as a matter of fact.” I nodded, trying to convey interest as I edged toward a heavy brass candlestick. But the tramp said something that froze me in my slippers. “The year was 1889,” he said. “It was a cold year, just like this one, but not too cold, just like it is now.” And the strange old tramp settled in to tell me his strange old tale.

“Back then,” he said, “the town stopped at the Clark Fork river. It wasn’t called the Clark Fork river then; it was called the Clark Fork Bath, Lavatory and Periodic Vomitorium. That’s how it was known to the tramps of nineteenth-century Missoula, anyway, who made up the majority of the city then, just as we do now. The swells”—this was the tramp’s word, not mine—“had on the north bank their hotels and their general stores and their mercantile which would stand forever, and the whole town seemed pretty well bought-up.

“This state of affairs chafed a couple of the swells, two lawyer-speculator types named W.J. Stephens and W.M. Bickford. Stephens and Bickford conceived a plan to start their own town, with them the ones who owned everything, so they purchased a tract of land about a half-mile south of the the river. They called it South Missoula. At that time, the only feature in that area was a wagon road that ran from the bridge southwest to Fort Missoula. They took to widening this road and improving upon it and named it Stephens Street after Stephens, who owned the land to the northwest. Bickford, who owned the land to the southeast, built up his own road which he also named after Stephens, but Asshole Avenue never caught on.” Here I shot the tramp a questioning look, but he bade me silent with a wave of his hand.

“Once they had their Stephens Avenue,” the tramp continued, “the two lawyers set to dividing their land into parcels, for to sell off to whatever homesteaders would buy. They lined up the parcels with Stephens Avenue, so the roads ran northwest and southeast—catawampus to what they had in old Missoula or, as Stephens and Bickford had taken to calling it, Garbage Town. Old W.M. and W.J. looked to be in clover, with South Missoula on the grow and them set to be kings of it, but then trouble rose up in the shape of a swell even more uppity than they were. His name was Judge Hiram Knowles.

“Judge Knowles, who was known to certain upstanding members of the community”—here the tramp pulled back the lapel of his jacket and blew on his fingernails, yellowing them considerably—“as a real stick, bought the land between the river and South Missoula. He did not care for the idea of parceling out his tract catawampus to the old town and cardinal directions, so he laid his streets out straight, east-west and north-south, like one does. Where his parcels and roads met the parcels and roads of Stephens and Bickford, there were triangles and unexpected oncoming wagons and other deviations displeasing to both traffic and the eye. On a summer evening, when the weather was right, Knowles and Stephens and Bickford would stand at these intersections and blackguard one another. It was a sight to see and a sound to listen to, although it offended the mothers come Christmastime.

“As the town grew,” the tramp continued, “so did the confusion at these intersections. Yet Judge Knowles and the lawyers would not relent. They went on building up their land and lengthening their roads, one at cross purposes to the other, and each party insisting his was the only sensible way. Finally, the situation came to a head. South Missoula and Judge Knowles’ land could not continue to grow contrary to each other. So you know what they did?”

“Settled their differences and resolved to live in peace?” I said.

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“No!” he shouted, rattling his hat. “Knowles was a judge, and he got his friends in city government to rebuild the bridge so it lined up with Higgins Avenue, not Stephens. Then he tried to get them to annex South Missoula. Stephens and Bickford didn’t like it, but the city put it to a vote, and Knowles and his side won.”

The tramp leaned back on his saffron sack and laced his fingers behind his head, as though having delivered a work of moral instruction. I failed to see his point, however, and hastened to tell him so.

“What is the purpose of this inane parable,” I cried, “save to pass a few minutes soaking up my precious house-heat?” I expected him to be chastened, but the tramp only smiled absently and hoisted himself from my sacks.

“Behold!” he said, and led me to the window. Outside, in the dwindling moonlight and accumulating snow, my neighbor was constructing his own wall of mattresses and scrap wood. Where mine ran sensibly toward the street, however, on what I had always thought of as the dividing line between our two halves of the yard, his wall ran at a 45-degree angle to mine.

“All he wants is to share your holiday tradition,” the tramp whispered, filing my ear with the scent of ham, “even after you treated him so rudely.”

“But his wall makes no sense,” I protested. “It serves no purpose—and even if it did, why must it take that stupid angle?”

“That’s how this town has always worked,” the tramp said with glee. “No matter how we disagree, no matter how we try in vain to convince one another, in the end, we all live here together.”

“No,” I said hoarsely, but my voice caught in my throat. It was all too terrible to imagine.

“And,” the tramp added, his eyes glinting, “real estate developers exercise inordinate influence over local government.”

“No!” I cried as he cackled and threw up the sash. Pausing only to snatch my cocktail from the side table, he leapt through the window to the lawn below, where he lay face-down for several seconds. My former drink sat upright in his limp hand, miraculously unspilled. Then the tramp sprang up, downed the cocktail in one gulp and sprinted off giggling through the snow, wishing me happy holidays as he went.

A wave of vertigo overcame me as I turned from the window. These strange events were too much for my fragile constitution to bear. Had they even happened? Surely they were a product of my imagination, and yet they seemed so real. I had not felt so feverish a combination of terror and unreality since I ate a tin of discount oysters and wandered into the carousel. The room wheeling about me, I collapsed into bed and a deep, velvet sleep.

I woke the next morning drenched in what I hoped was sweat. The room was frigid, and I padded gingerly across the floorboards to close the window. Looking out across the lawn, I saw a blanket of fresh snow. No track marked the tramp’s passage, and the lumber and mattresses lay under a dusting of powder in their customary heap. Had it all been a dream?

Foreboding stole over me. I selected a fresh dressing gown from the rack and made my way downstairs. The crisp winter air burned my nostrils as I tromped across the lawn to inspect the pile. River saw me from his kitchen window and came outside.

“Happy Thursday!” he called. “What are you up to this weekend?”

I ignored him, possessed by a nameless intuition. Behind the pile, in a sheltered spot between the mattresses and the back fence, lay the motionless body of a man. His coat was mottled blue and black and brown, and when I rolled him over, I saw the watch chain disappearing into the pocket of his waistcoat. His face, scoured by the elements, wore the impassive mask of death.

“He was a ghost all along!” I exclaimed.

“No,” River said, “I think he needs to go to the hospital.”

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This interpretation seemed the stuff of fairy tales, but my neighbor convinced me that despite his old-timey clothes, the tramp was indeed a living person who needed medical attention. We bundled him into the rear of the Outback. I got in the back seat as befits a gentleman, and River drove us to the hospital.

We passed a tense hour in the waiting room, as the various doctors and nurses ministered to the tramp and River filled the time by asking me what I planned to do that weekend. Finally the doors swung open, and an orderly emerged pushing the mysterious tramp in a wheelchair. He wore a paper gown, and his anachronistic garb was stuffed into a plastic bag on his lap. Although he looked pale and seemed oddly out of place in his modern, paper clothes, his eyes bore the same unmistakable twinkle as my visitor from the night before.

“Could my fever dream have been real after all?” I gasped. A cluster of nurses turned to look at me, and the orderly spoke sternly.

“Your friend suffered toxic shock from an apparent overdose of”—he paused to examine the chart—“Everclear and Tylenol PM. He’s lucky to be alive.”

But he was not the lucky one, dear reader. I was, for I had learned that the true meaning of the holidays lies in fellowship and mutual assistance. Also, I lived indoors. As I left the hospital with River and the tramp—who was named Terrence, I think, or possibly Donnie—my heart swelled with gratitude and a feeling for my fellow citizens that, if not love per se, approached the area of grudging acceptance. Did we not all live in the same town, as my strange visitor reminded me? And were we not all at the mercy of developers? We did, and we were, and we remain so to this day.

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