This started as a letter to friends, but I thought it gave a sense of place, and the times we live in. The New Old West, and the information backroads.
Mark must’ve come to this same laundromat. He’s the kind of guy who’d live in a cheap apartment. He’d spend his money on travel and adventure, not frills.
The washer’s filling as I type on this laptop. The guys on the crew play country music too much in the green rig. It makes me think of Mark. Sweetness, and heartache. But Mark lived right here in Lander, Wyoming, three years. Even without country music, that’d make me think of him. He would cross my mind every time I saw the name on a map.
Lander feels like a college town, though there’s no college. Well, there’s NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School. I guess that counts. Mark worked at NOLS. He did computer database work, and in summers horsepacking.
As soon as we pulled in that first afternoon: My God, Mark, what were you thinking? Sure, Lander’s a nice little town, but you’re never going to meet anybody. But then I remembered, he wasn’t out yet. In his thirties, a luscious little hunk of a man. He had no idea he was gay.
He described it one time. “Sure, I had, like, fascinations with guys. But I thought it was some low self esteem thing, or something.”
The excuses we make to ourselves.
Maybe he drove out to the hills for a pastime. Work at NOLS must’ve been some adventure. I can picture him shooting pool at the Lander Bar. For me, though, there’s just about one weekend’s worth of fun here. Our two-day stop before the Greybull will be about right.
“So, you know folks around here?” the guys asked as we pulled in.
“No. I was only through Lander once before, last summer. With a bunch of NOLS people, setting out a horse course. Pulling trailers up to the Absoroka Range. We stopped here for dinner on the way home.”
I didn’t mention my romantic interest. I had already told them I was gay. We’d been in the upper reaches of the Green River. I knew the lay of the land. “You sure have been around,” they asked, “What took you up here?”
“I was seeing a guy who worked at the NOLS ranch, out of Pinedale. It was real nice.” It had been. That was Mark, of course. If the guys have a problem working with a fag on the team, they’ve been quiet about it. Forest Service has “sexual orientation” written into its civil rights policy, so I don’t mince words.
But Lander held my private memories from the previous summer. There were few enough. A burger, or something, at the Gannett Grill. Window shopping for trucks in the Nissan lot, after hours. We were with Rick (other Rick), who runs sailing courses in the Northwest. And Amy. And I don’t know who else. And Mark. And me, wondering just how interested Mark really was, as he always kept me wondering.
Now it’s about a year later. Mark and I were maybe going down to Colorado this weekend. It’s Gay Pride in Denver. A couple months ago, when we officially split up, it was a parting shot along with lets-be-friends. Maybe if I was not too far up state, I’d rent a car, and pick him up in Laramie, and we do this.
But his email lately was this road trip he has to take back east; see his dad in Indiana, and this elderly great aunt on the East Coast, and Goat and Lang’s handfasting in Tennessee, and maybe this rodeo. Basically giving me the between-the-lines message, like always, that I’m way down on his priority list. Well, maybe I still put out a bit of that breathless hopefulness, and he can smell it even through email. I guess I’d do the same. Still, it’s sad. I feel the few shreds of him I have left slipping away.
The washer just switched to spin cycle. It’s only a dollar here, to two fifty in Jackson Hole. Everything’s twice the price in Jackson, the guys on the crew say, but there sure are some honeys walking the streets! I’ll say. All kinds of honeys. I like the construction worker guys.
I can’t figure it. Mark was running all over the place, the whole time we were going together: Flying to the space shuttle launch in Florida. Trips to Denver. Road trips back east. Zooming up to Montana. All of which is fine. Apparently, never much worried that it was all riding on a huge pile of credit card debt. Still, if you’re cool with that, fine. But always, supposedly, finishing his Masters.
Then, all of a sudden , something changed. About the time he forgot about me, he decided he needed to start making money. So he started working on commission at this computer repair place. Which is a set-up for long burnout hours and not much pay. When I last saw him, he said he hadn’t been out of Laramie for weeks. Couldn’t afford gas money even to Fort Collins. All this, and supposedly finishing his degree.
The washer’s done, and I didn’t even notice. I guess the hot dryer will be OK for work clothes.
My first day in Lander, we got to town early. I did some business, then walked Main street; all ten blocks of it. Down a side street by the river, a memory nudged. Didn’t we stop by a house here? Amy’s house? There had been straw bales around the doghouse, for in winter when it gets so cold. And a little deck. And plum trees. Maybe I’d recognize it by the plum trees.
Amy is Mark’s good friend. She’s quite a woman. Sharp with horses, and databases, she exudes a good natured but no-nonsense competence. Small and wiry, she embodies for me the new old western cowgirl.
Another street over, a blue house with white shutters looked familiar. I was shy on such a tenuous connection, and thought I’d come back later. Then, I was stepping up the walk, and my finger pressed the bell.
The door opened and a familiar face greeted me. A guy talking on a cordless, smiled, “Hey, I remember you. Come in!” Him, I remembered from the ranch, in cowboy gear. Brown eyes and handlebar mustache. A man with skewed features, but handsome in spite of that. “Have a seat!”
On the wall was one of those paintings you know has a hidden image. Men on horseback, riding through an aspen stand, and the black branch stubs on the white trunks form some pattern. But I couldn’t make it out. Also, a frame-size photo of this guy here, holding up the head of a big elk he’d apparently shot. Somebody else was in the picture with him, maybe Amy, like it was a team effort.
Done with his phone call, he came into the front room. “I don’t remember your name,” we shook hands, “But you were at the ranch.” True enough, everybody at the ranch would feel like family to me too, if I met them in town. His name was Greg.
The first quarter’s run out on the dryer. The socks are almost dry, but not the Carharts. I guess duct tape isn’t a permanent way to patch a T-shirt. It didn’t stay on.
Greg and I caught up on old times. Yes, this had been Amy’s house, “But she decided she didn’t want to live here anymore, and moved up to Montana. We’d shared the house, but now it’s just me.”
The dogs were wound up from being in the yard all day, and now Papa was here. One kept fetching a well-chewed chunk of ax handle, bringing it to be tossed across the floor, to fetch again. It was all real pleasant and down-home.
Mark had mentioned, in email, he likely wouldn’t be working up at the ranch this summer, as there was a new manager and a different crew of folks. “Yeah,” said Greg, “And I’m not there either. I’m now working for Cedar Landscape and Tree Service.” He touched his bill cap, showing the company logo.
Greg had applied for the ranch manager job after the previous guy left. Mark, the other Mark. They all called my Mark “Brogan”.
“They didn’t even grant me an interview,” Greg said, “I felt disrespected. Two of the people they did interview had nowhere near the qualifications. A lot of folks thought that wasn’t done right, but I took action.” Meaning he’d quit. I was sad for him. It seemed quite a notch down, to quit working with horses, and now be spraying lawns.
“Well, I’m not burning bridges,” he continued. “I was up there doing some shoeing for them earlier. I have great respect for the instructors, and the courses they run.”
“Brogan was up there too, briefly”, he mentioned. This was news. I’d emailed him when I was working up the Green River, and not a peep then. Well, I would’ve been too busy to connect anyway.
“Are you still in touch with Brogan?” asked Greg
“Yeah, I get email. We were maybe going to meet up this weekend and head down to Denver,” I didn’t say what for, “Being as I’m working in the state.”
I wondered how much Greg knew about Mark and me. It had irked me how shy Mark had been to let people at the ranch know he was gay. Especially the handsome cowboys. Like he feared their rejection. So I kept quiet about it too, though I thought it was stupid. For example, this gentle, pleasant man I was talking to right now would probably be no more than surprised, and then mostly forget about it.
“Did Brogan ever get done with that degree?” Greg asked.
“Not yet. I think he’s stumped on the thesis. Last I saw him, a few months back, I tried giving him a pep talk. Saying a lot of people get that way, then make it through. I got the hit he didn’t want to hear it. Just didn’t want to hear about it. Now, in his last email, he’s saying he’s got to get is life together, with or without the degree. I guess that means without.”
I stayed about a half hour, wary of wearing out my welcome. But Greg seemed happy to talk. When another phone call came, I took my leave. “Stop by again,” Greg said, as he picked up the handset. He meant it.
Walking back to the motel, it crossed my mind, maybe Greg was downplaying what had been between him and Amy, same as I was about Mark. Sad how we do that, but I can see. Talking won’t bring it back, so why talk about it?
The dryer’s done, and only took two quarters. Amazing this dry climate! I shake the hot buckles so they won’t melt the bag, and haul it all out to the green rig.
I got no room to criticize what Mark was doing living in Lander. What am I doing, walking these streets mooning about him? He’s a fine man, none finer, but it was a near miss. I got to move on with my life. Meet some guy who’ll be a keeper.