When the school year ended, I was out of a job, so I moved back to Beaverton. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d completed my spiritual quest. I was like a haggard Achaean come home from the Trojan War, only I was wearing a tie-dye t-shirt and a wooden name tag with the word GOOGOLPLEX written on it in purple Sharpie. I started feeling depressed. I’d peaked too early. I was like one of those high school jocks who forever reminisces about his glory days, only my glory was being alone in a cabin at 3,000 feet, reading essays about walking.
My dad repeated his offer to get me a job at his electrical contracting company on the condition that I cut my long red hair. Reluctantly, I agreed. My perdition, in the form of gainful employment and health insurance, was inevitable. There was only so long you could earn your living singing “boom chicka boom” to a gangly pack of sixth-grade campers. At some point, you had to join the ranks of men like my father and become chronically depressed, earning money all day so you could fail to buy happiness.
I went into the bathroom, took a beautiful lock of hair between my fingers, and opened the metal mouth of the scissors. Just then the phone rang. It was Angela. She asked if I wanted to go to Montana.
I said, “What’s in Montana?”
She said, “I don’t want to talk about it. Are you in or what?”
I closed my eyes and tried to picture a life with short hair: eating healthy, going to the gym, listening to Dave Matthews Band until I had a nervous breakdown in a Pottery Barn.
I said, “Okay, sure.”
I threw a few shirts in a bag, told my mom and dad I was going to Montana, and hopped in Angela’s truck.
Angela and I didn’t talk on the drive. She rolled cigarettes, and I asked her questions, which she pretended she hadn’t heard. She was suffering from PTSD, a result of her botched relief mission in Africa. I only got bits and pieces of the story, but from what I gathered, upon arriving in Angola, Angela took an immediate dislike to the leader of her organization. She accused him of lacking in leadership skills, and he accused her of being a bitch. There was a mutiny, which failed. Fleeing Luanda, Angela was detained at the Angola-Namibia border. There was talk of marrying her off to a village elder. Another member of her group, a Malibu surf instructor named Chip, found her and pretended to be her husband. He bought her freedom with a case of Budweiser and a Zippo cigarette lighter.
We snaked our way up the Columbia River Gorge, spent the night in the onion country of Walla Walla, then began our ascent of the Rocky Mountains. On the outskirts of Bearmouth, Montana, Angela finally broke her silence. Not to tell me where we were going, but to outline her survival strategy for the biblical End of Days.
“Not everybody’s going to die,” she said, plucking a strand of loose tobacco from her tongue. “A handful will survive. I intend to be one of them. I’m taking a CPR class this fall. Learning kung fu and beekeeping. Money will be obsolete in the new society. We’ll be judged by our ability to provide food and shelter to our fellow man.”
I checked to see if she was joking, but she was serious. Her eyes were so blue they glowed in the dark. The white moon hung low in the sky like the blazing eye of a deranged god.
“That’s the reason I can’t have sex with you,” she said. “I need a man who knows how to work with leather. Forge tools from wrought iron. Someone who can gut a wild boar if needed.”
“I could gut a boar,” I said.
Angela ignored me. She lit a fresh cigarette off the flaming orange nub of her previous cigarette and rolled down the window. A powerful scent filled the cab. Twenty years later, I still think about it. Montana smelled like alfalfa and wildflowers crushed inside a blender. Like geology and time and glaciers melting, pushing mountains around like chess pieces. Breathing filled me with desire. I imagined sucking on Angela’s small, paranoid breasts. I’d seen them once by accident through the neck of her loose-fitting hippie gown. They scared me. They seemed too good for a world where Bill Clinton was president and That ’70s Show was the top-rated sitcom on TV.
~ Chapter 9:
At midnight we pulled into a parking lot next to a wooden fort surrounded by rough-hewn logs. It looked like something out of Disney’s Frontierland, only seedy—Big Thunder Mountain featuring a dopesick Davy Crockett. There was a covered wagon out front next to a Geo Metro, two horses tied to a satellite dish, and a hand-painted sign reading “SALOON” covered in illicit graffiti.
A woman appeared from inside the fort, wearing buckskin pants and a 10-gallon hat. I recognized her. It was Irma, Angela’s friend who thought date-rape drugs tasted like semen.
“Well, look who’s here,” she said. “Welcome to Frontier Village!”
She invited us into her apartment, a cozy room on the second story of the fort.
“How was your drive?” she asked, loading a bong full of marijuana covered in purple hair and sticky crystals.
“Magical,” I said.
“Frustrating,” said Angela.
We took turns taking hits, and then Irma told us about Frontier Village. It was a roadside attraction, she explained, a place for bored drivers to pull over while en route from Great Falls to Pocatello. Once a bustling Wild West amusement park featuring horseback rides, dinner theater, and the chance to have your photograph taken with an 8-foot stuffed grizzly bear named “Old Ben,” Frontier Village had fallen on hard times. When the park’s founder, Jack “Outlaw” Quinby, died in a stagecoach accident, a German couple, Klaus and Greta Müller, purchased it at auction. They were running it into the ground. The problem was their eenie-meenie-minie-moe approach to U.S. history. Walking around the faux-storefronts and saloons of Frontier Village, it wasn’t uncommon to come upon Klaus wearing a bowler hat, World War II bomber jacket, and the bone necklace of a Lakota Indian.
“Velcoom to the Viiuld Viiuld Vest!” he’d say, pretending to shoot his guests with a pair of plastic squirt guns molded to resemble AK-47s.
The tourists didn’t know what to make of it. They asked for their money back.
Irma was insane, but in a totally different way than Angela. LSD had convinced her that the earth was a vicious cesspool of backstabbing sadists intent on destroying her good time. Boyfriends, coworkers, her own mother—pretty much everybody in Irma’s worldview was united in a conspiracy against her, trying to drag her down. She referred to the worst of these conspirators as “energy vampires.”
Klaus and Greta belonged to this category. They hadn’t paid her in weeks. They hadn’t paid anybody. The dozen or so hippies who prepared meals, washed dishes, and sold postcards at Frontier Village worked for free on the vague promise that they’d be paid “eventually.” Given the hippies’ aversion to capitalism, the ruse worked surprisingly well. It was only when everybody ran out of money to buy drugs that the employees threatened to strike.
“They keep saying they’ll pay us next month,” said Irma, launching a smoke ring off her tongue. “They’ve been saying that since April. I don’t get it, man. Everywhere I go—energy vampires!”
She stuck her hand down her jeans and loudly scratched her pubic hair. Angela sat on Irma’s bed, rolling her 40th cigarette in 24 hours. I sat on a beanbag chair, wondering how much longer I could remain on Planet Earth, a 21-year-old virgin surrounded by oversexed witches.
Irma let Angela and I sleep on the floor for two nights, but then she decided we too were energy vampires and told us to get out. I asked Angela what we should do. She said she wasn’t interested in exchanging our hard work for vague German promises. Then she lit a cigarette and looked toward the hills as if she were seeking the answer to our problems in the Montana skyline.
“Up there,” she said, pointing toward a gentle slope rising behind Frontier Village. “We’ll pitch a tent. Hide out. Klaus and Greta won’t even know we’re here.”
I wasn’t a hundred percent sure why we were there in the first place, but sleeping in a tent with Angela rekindled my hope that one day we’d repopulate the post-apocalyptic earth with nervous red-headed babies.
We put our gear in backpacks, hopped a fence, and made our way up the slope. The view from the hilltop was stunning. You could see for a hundred miles in every direction: yellow hills spotted with western larch, the Missouri River carving a crooked path to St. Louis, and in the distance, the sun like a jeweled pizza cutter slicing the sky from the valley.
The only problem was that our campsite appeared to be on private property. Cows roamed freely in our midst.
“Is it okay that we’re here?” I asked.
“It’s fine,” said Angela, staking the tent. “It’s part of the earth. Nobody owns the earth.”
It was my understanding that people did own the earth, that the planet was chopped into a billion little parcels distributed, in this part of the country, primarily to white people of European descent who bore firearms and shot anyone who trespassed on their land. Judging from the bumper stickers I’d seen since arriving in Montana, killing trespassers appeared to be a pastime here, on par with horseshoes and badminton.
“What if the cows attack us?” I asked.
“They’re cows. Cows don’t attack. You’re thinking of bears.”
I wasn’t thinking of bears. I looked at a cow. Its bulbous black eye was the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen. I imagined a stampede, one of those razor-edged hooves puncturing my skull with the unthinking violence of a hole punch making a circle in paper.
At dusk Angela and I got stoned, checked to make sure the coast was clear, then followed the path up the hill to our camp. Illuminated by flashlight, the inside of our tent looked like a sex grotto. There was a tapestry, incense burning in the corner, and Ravi Shankar playing on a battery-powered boombox. If Angela hadn’t stated so explicitly that she wanted nothing to do with my sad pink genital, I would have taken off my pants and prepared to make love.
Angela wanted to read passages from D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow to each other before falling asleep without having sex. I wanted to try six or seven positions from the Kama Sutra and spend the rest of the night coming up with baby names inspired by famous French philosophers.
We compromised. Angela read D.H. Lawrence to me in her nightgown while I rested my head on her stomach like a baby. It was the best feeling of my life. As she read, I barely listened. “Harvest,” she said. “Clergy. Nottinghamshire.”
In my imagination, we were living in a cottage in northern England. Angela was grieving the death of our son Benjamin, a victim of the recent typhoid epidemic. I worked in the fields all day, harvesting wheat with my trusted scythe.
Evening came, and I walked through the front door, covered in sweat. My peasant’s smock hung open, revealing a pelt of orange chest hair.
“Oh, Kevin,” she said. “I miss our little Benjamin.”
“We can make another Benjamin,” I said, ripping open her bodice.
I threw her onto the bed and penetrated her like a plough burrowing into the earth.
“What do you think so far?” asked Angela.
“It’s good,” I said. “I like it.”
The first two nights we lived in unhealthy matrimony, playacting mother and 6'6" child, but the third night it got cold in the tent. Angela said, “Fuck this,” and left me to go sleep in Irma’s bed. The fourth night she sent me up the hill alone. She said she’d be up in an hour or two, but she never came.
I was alone in a cow pasture, confused and sexually frustrated, but free in a way I look back on now as one of the happiest times in my life. Night after night, I zipped myself into the sex grotto and tried to figure out what to do with myself. Even though I hadn’t listened to the actual words of The Rainbow, I’d grown accustomed to our ritual. I tried to keep it up, but now that I paid attention to the plot, the book turned out to be a mind-numbingly dull exploration of class. The sex parts weren’t sexy at all; they’d been hallucinations.
I threw the book out the tent flap and dug into my backpack. Before leaving Beaverton, I’d had the good sense to buy a few paperbacks. One was Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
For the next three nights, I read that masterpiece by flashlight. Billy Pilgrim traveled to Tralfamadore. He became an optometrist. He hid out in an underground slaughterhouse while the Allied Forces rained 3,900 tons of aluminum shells sloshing with incendiary pellets over the church-spired skies of Dresden.
The sun rose, and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I fell into a deep sleep. In my dreams, I was unstuck in time, just like Billy Pilgrim. One minute I was a baby. The next, I had a beautiful wife and daughter. Then I was back in high school, sitting behind Jessica Nash, watching the gentle undulations of her ponytail. I blinked, and I was 3,000 miles away, a newly divorced dad, sobbing in my car, driving around the Green Mountains of Vermont.
When I woke up at noon, a heifer was pushing her black nose against the tent fabric, making sounds like I imagined dinosaurs made in the Jurassic period—175 million years ago, when ferns were like palm trees, before humans ruined the earth.
Kevin Maloney is the author of The Red-Headed Pilgrim, Cult of Loretta, and the forthcoming story collection Horse Girl Fever (CLASH Books). His fiction has appeared in FENCE, Barrelhouse, HAD, and a number of other journals and anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Aubrey. He found online at kevinmaloney.net.
The Red-Headed Pilgrim (Two-Dollar Radio, 2023) is out now and available at your favorite local bookstore (as well as online retailers such as Bookshop.org). It's a tragicomic tale of an anxious red-head and his sordid pursuit of enlightenment and pleasure (not necessarily in that order). It is a novel of misadventure and new beginnings, of wanderlust and bad decisions, of parenthood and divorce, and of the heartfelt truths we unearth when we least expect it.