Sunday, August 7, 2011

Natalie


Billings
 

Out near the end of the valley, I'm parked in the dark, in an industrial park where all the roads are dead end. Sometimes I don't like this, looking out at the dark, with nothing to amuse me, nothing to engage me, with no light to light up what's usually out there and take my mind off what's always out there anyway.

In ten hours I can deliver this load and leave. It's ten hours until daylight, too. I got to town about noon, found this place, went back to town and killed some time looking for a place to do laundry. It has to be not just a place to do laundry but where I can also park the truck. After an hour of driving around I happened upon a Goodwill store where I could park on the side street. Goodwill is a suitable substitute for doing laundry -- buy clean, new old clothes for not that much more than you'd spend washing your old old clothes. I was really, really out of clean clothes, down to nothing, and Goodwill clothes actually tend to be fairly nice clothes. Poor folks don't donate their unwanted or out of style clothes to charity, they wear them. The well to do do not.

I like Goodwill, and Waffle House, because no one acts pretentious in Goodwill or Waffle House. You can't pretend you're not there. Sometimes the Waffle House waitresses can be annoying. I don't know why. The clientele is not among the most affluent, and ten percent of $1.99 is 19 cents there and not a quarter or a dollar.


I like saying Waffle House. Like the sound an old motor makes each time it emits a big puff of fumes. Good, working class folks can get a good, working class meal at Waffle House. A guy will bring his family in after church for a restaurant meal. The kids are all dressed up and excited. At some Waffle Houses, late at night, after the bars close, the wretched of the earth are there, maybe people looking for something stronger than they sold at the bar. Looking for some way to spend the time until they pass out. Sometimes that time never comes. You're sitting in the Waffle House, a brightly lit space enclosed by glass. The night is out there, but it's not in here.

Waffle Houses are mostly found in the south. Often two to an exit, in the cities. One on either side. But there are a few out west, along the southern tier. Albuquerque actually has two Waffle Houses. One is on Central, old US 66, way up the slope of the valley, coming in from the east.


The other is further down, and south, on the road to the airport, at the edge of Southeast Albuquerque, one of the more unfashionable quarters of town. When I tried to get off the road last time, and drove the city bus for a year, I lived near that one, in a little efficiency off Gibson, and I'd stop there on my way in to do the morning commuter route for something and eggs. When I'd go up to the counter to pay, one of the waitresses, the one who always seemed to be there when I was there, would take my check and money, then glance over at my table to see if I had already left a tip, and based on that information would either thank me politely or hand me my change and walk away.

 

Somewhere in Billings, somewhere out there in the dark, is someone I know, or knew, when we both lived in Wisconsin. Natalie has come back home to Montana, the last I knew. To die here, I suppose, where she was born. Natalie was, is, was when I knew her, a beautiful, intelligent, athletic woman who had contracted MS, multiple sclerosis. The first time she had me over she had said the door would be unlocked, to come in. She was waiting in bed, where she could still be Natalie.

The next morning, after I had got out of bed, she reached up and grabbed my shoulders and pulled herself to a standing position. She had the arms of a swimmer from pushing herself everywhere in her wheelchair. She pulled herself up to a standing position in front of me, kissed me, and then, holding on to me with her strong arms, lowered herself to her knees.

She would never let me help her, at home or in public. When we went anywhere she wanted to drive. Her strong will carried over into all things, like mine does, and when we would argue, we would fight, and not see each other for a day or two, and she would summon one of her lovers, as she recounted to me once.

We became close. We rarely fought. We didn't spend very much time apart. Her lovers stayed around, in my memory. Eventually, I just couldn't handle them. Not her, and them, and me. I suddenly let Natalie go, cut it off completely, and not long after that, I left Wisconsin. I often think about her, still. I've seen stories about her on the internet. It's the same Natalie, strong, willful, arranging sponsors for a five hundred mile wheelchair ride to publicize MS, getting the mayor to spend a day in a wheelchair, an activist in the MS community.

She's out there in Billings somewhere tonight. I think about her every time I pass through Billings but this is the first time I've delivered a load here. The first time I've had to stop. The first time I've had to decide whether or not to call her. I could have called her before this, but this is the first time I can't say I don't have the time.

I can picture her as she was then. Natalie was a beauty, a true beauty. I can see her bright, dry, brown eyes, her long lithe body. I can feel her strong will, coursing through her like electricity, and feel her passion, her wanting to feel alive. At the edges of all the images, though, are the lovers, slinking in and out of the picture at the edges. Natalie, them, and me. I look out into the dark. There's nothing to look at. Nothing to see. There's nine and one half hours until I can look out into the daylight and not see anything there.





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