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-- "Wright Angles" Column, Missoula Montanian, July 4, 1989
Well, old buddies out there the other side of the ink, I am not a happy camper this Fourth of July morn. What we've got here is the hundredth time the grandandglorious has turned up on the calendar since the U. States of A. decided to let Montana in, so wouldn't you think we could do the holiday with some hiss and vinegar by now? But no, it's going to be more of the lame old usual. From Yaak to Ekalaka today, we Montanans will bake our brains in the sun at rodeos, meanwhile consuming enough beer and fried chicken to cholesterate a vegetarian convention, waiting for dark so we can try to burn down our towns with fireworks. A centennial Fourth of the same old guff: hip-hip-hoorah, flap-the-flag-and-pass-the-swag. Maybe it is an American condition, in this strange nation we have become, all helmet and wallet and no brain or heart. But does Montana have to be in a patriotic coma too? Take it from Riley, friends: the calendar this morning says "Independence Day," but you can look high and low in the doings of this centennial year and nowhere find a really independent idea -- like changing the name of this state of ours to something more appropriate, such as Destitution.
-- "Wright Angles" Column,
Missoula Montanian, July 4, 1989
Click. From where I was sitting on the bumper of the Winnebago I was doing my utmost to outstare that camera of hers, but as usual, no such luck. You would think, wouldn't you, that a person with a whole rodeo going on around her could come up with something more highly interesting to spend film on than me. Huh uh, not this cameraperson. No more than an arm's reach away she was down on one knee with the gizmo clapped to her eye like she couldn't see without it, and as soon as she'd shot she said as if it was something the nation was waiting to hear, "You're not such a bad-looking old coot, you know that?"
"The old part I do, yeah."
CLICK. Her next snap of the shutter caught me by surprise as it always did. After all this while, why didn't I know that the real picture Mariah wanted was ever the unexpected one, the one after you'd let your guard down.
She unfolded up out of her picture-taking crouch and stood there giving me a gotcha grin, her proud long mane of hair deeper than red -- the double-rich color that on a fine horse is called blood bay -- atop the narrow but good enough face and the figure, lanky but not awkwardly so, that somehow managed to be both long-legged and thoroughly mounded where the female variety is supposed to be mounded; one whole hell of a kit of prime woman suddenly assembled. I just sat there like a bumper ornament of the motorhome. What's a guy supposed to say, thanks ever so much for doing exactly what I wish to hell you would cut out doing?
Just then a sleepy bleah issued out of a Hereford calf unconcernedly trotting past us into the catch pen at the end of the arena. "AND KEVIN FREW HAS MISSED WITH HIS SECOND LOOP!" the announcer recited the obvious in that tin voice we'd had to hear all afternoon. By habit Mariah twirled a long lens onto her camera and in a couple of quick pulls climbed atop the arena fence to aim out at the horseback subject who was disgustedly coiling his pair of dud lariats, but then didn't bother to snap the scene. "FOLKS, WHAT DO YOU SAY WE GIVE THIS HARDLUCK COWBOY A BIG HAND OF APPLAUSE! IT'S THE ONLY PAY HE'S GOING TO TAKE HOME FROM HERE TODAY!" My thumb found the Frew boy on the program. Christamighty, he was only the first contestant in the third section of calf roping. Down through all the Fourths of July, if I had a dollar for every guy who entered the Gros Ventre rodeo under the impression he was a calf roper I could buy up Japan.
Mariah was staying perched on the top fence pole while she scanned through that telescope of a lens at the jampacked grandstand crowd across the arena. Involuntarily I found myself seeing the surroundings in the same bit by bit way she was through her picture-taking apparatus. What this was, the woven wire between the posts and poles of the arena fence sectioned everything in front of my eyes into pieces of view about the size of postcards. So when I gazed straight across, here would be a wire-rimmed rectangle of the rows of rodeo-goers in dark glasses and their best Stetsons. Seek a little higher and the green tremble of the tall cottonwoods along Gros Ventre's streets was similarly framed; like the lightest of snowfall, wisps of cotton loosed from the trees slowly posed in one weave of wire and floated on into the next. Farthest beyond, there hung the horizon rectangle, half sky and half cliffwall of Roman Reef and its companion mountains, up over English Creek where it all began. Where I began. Where she'd begun.
Everything of life picture-size, neatly edged. Wouldn't that be handy, if but true.
I shook my head and spat sourly into the dirt of the rodeo grounds. Blaze of the July afternoon notwithstanding, this was yet another of those days, half a year's worth by now, when my shadow would have frozen any water it passed over.
Naturally Mariah had come to the attention of young Frew, who halted his horse, doffed his rodeoing hat and held it over his heart in a mock pretty way while he yelled across to her, "Will this smile do?" Mariah delivered back to him, "The calf had a better one, Kevin," and kept on scoping the crowd. Young Frew shrugged mournfully and went back to winding up his spent ropes.
I regarded her there above me on the fence. That pert behind of hers nicely enhanced by bluejeans, and her snapbutton turquoise-colored western shirt like some runaway blossom against the sky. Mariah on high. Up there in sight of everybody for a mile, but oblivious to all as she waited for the next picture to dawn. Not for the first time, more like the millionth, I wondered whether her behavior somehow went with her name. That eye sound there in Mariah, while any other of the species that I'd ever encountered was always plain ee Maria. She was a singular one in every way I could see, for sure.
I stood up, partly to unstiffen but mainly to turn it into the opportunity to announce, "I've had about enough of this." Of course my words meant the all-afternoon rodeo and this perpetual damn calf-roping, but more than that, too.
Mariah ignored the more. "What's your big rush?" she wanted to know, all innocent, as she alit from the fence and turned to face me. She made that gesture of swinging her hair out of her eyes, the same little sudden tossing way she always did to clear her view into the camera. As always too, that sway of her head fired off a flash of earrings, silver today, against the illustrious hair. As if just the motion of her could strike sparks from the air. No wonder every man afoot or horseback who ever saw her sent his eyes back for a second helping.
"Jick, somebody's going to use you for a doorstop if you keep on the way you've been," she started right in again as if I was running a want ad for advice. "I had to half-drag you here today and now you can't wait to mope off home to the ranch and vegetate some more. I mean, what is this, suicide by boredom? Before, you were never the type to sit around like you got your tail caught in a crack." Before.
"You know as well as I do that you've got to get yourself going again," she supplied in the next breath. "That's why I want you to pack your socks and come along with me on this."
I'd already told her no. Three times, N-O. Actually I guess it must have been four, because Mariah never starts to really listen until you say a thing the third time.
"Sitting sounds good enough to me," I tried on her now. "The world can use more people who stay sat."
Wouldn't you know, all that drew me was the extended comment that if such was the case then I might just as well plop my butt behind a steering wheel where I'd at least be doing somebody a minimal amount of good, hadn't I. She let up just long enough to see if any of that registered on me. Judging not, she switched to: "I don't see how you can afford not to come. The whole trip gets charged off to the newspaper, the use of your rig and everything, didn't I tell you that already? And if you think that isn't a real deal you don't know the bean counters they've got running the Montanian now." Before I could point out to her that free stuff is generally overpriced, she was tying the whole proposition up for me in a polka dot bow. "So all you've got to do is bring the motorhome on over and meet the scribbler and me Monday noon, is that so tough?"
Tough, no; impossible, yes. How could I make her savvy the situation? Before, I'd have said I could shoulder whatever was asked of me, this included. But everything changed for me on that night six months ago, none of it for the better. You can be told and told it will all heal, but that does not make it happen any faster.
Mariah wasn't waiting for my deep thoughts to swim ashore. Gathering her gear into her camera bag, a lightweight satchel made of some kind of synthetic but painted up to resemble Appaloosa horsehide, complete with her initials as if burnt in by a branding iron, she simultaneously was giving the rodeo a final scan to make sure there wasn't some last-minute calf roping miracle to be recorded and saying over her shoulder as if it was all settled: "See you in Missoula on Monday, then."
"Like hell you will. Listen, petunia -- if it was just you involved, I'd maybe see this different. But goddamn it, you know I don't even want to be in the same vicinity as that Missoula whistledick, let alone go chasing around the whole state of Montana with him."
"Jick. If I can put up with Riley for a couple of months, it shouldn't be that big a deal for you to."
She had me there. Of all the people who'd gladly buy a ticket to Riley Wright's funeral when the time came, Mariah was entitled to the head of the line.
"You and him, that's up to you," I answered as I had any number of times before. "Though for the life of me I can't see why you'd hang around that joker Riley any longer than it takes to cuss him out, let alone all the way from now until the celebrating gets over." The rest of July, August, September, October, the first week of November: four entire months, Mariah's version of "a couple."
"Because this centennial series is a chance that'll never come again." She still was working me over with those digging gray eyes. "Or anyway not for another hundred years, and I'm not particularly famous for waiting, am I?"
"Christamighty, Mariah." How many ways did I have to say no to this woman? "Just take the rig yourself, why don't you?" I fished into my pocket for the Winnebago keys and held them out to her. "Here. The Bago is yours for however long you want it and I don't give a good goddamn how poor a specimen of mankind you take along with you. Okay?"
She didn't take the keys, she didn't even answer my offer of them. No, all she did was that little toss of her head again, as if clearing her firecloud of hair out of the way would clarify me somehow too. People either side of us on their perches of bumpers and fenders were watching the pair of us more than the rodeo. Swell. See the world champion moper Jick McCaskill and his girl while they duke it out on the glorious Fourth; we ought to be selling ringside tickets. I started to turn away and do what I should have done long since, stick the key in the ignition of the Winnebago and head home to the ranch. Try that, though, when the next thing you hear is Mariah saying ever so slowly, in a voice not her usual bulletproof one:
"Jick. Jick, I need to have you along."
Damn. Double damn.
Going Winnebagoing around the countryside with her and the other one was still the last thing on this earth I wanted to do. But need instead of want. Do people really know what they are trying to reach for with that word? I wasn't sure I could tell, any more.
I scrutinized Mariah. Her, too? Her own wound not yet scarred over, either?
Our eyes held each other for a considerable moment. Until I had to ask her outright:
"You're not just saying that, are you?"
A kind of crinkle, or maybe tiniest wince, occurred in her expression. Then she gave me that all-out grin of hers, honest as the sun, and said: "If I was it'd be the first time, wouldn't it?"
God, that grin. That world-by-the-tail grin that brought back with fresh ache what I was missing, these months since.
In back of Mariah, out in the arena dirt a grunting guy was kneeling on a calf, trying to collect three of its legs to tie together. I knew how that caught calf felt.
Christamighty. Four entire months of letting myself get just exactly where I knew not to get, between the pair of them. Mariah the newspaper picture-taker, my headlong daughter. And writing Riley Wright, my goddamn ex-son-in-law.
Missoula was sizzling. 93, the temperature sign on top of the Montanian building kept spelling out in blinking lights, as if it needed any spelling out.
I still had the majority of an hour before noon when Mariah and Riley were to present themselves and I'd already used up the scenery from the parking lot. The Montanian offices fronted onto the Clark Fork River, in a building that looked as though it had been installed before the river -- a gray stone heap with an odd pointy-topped round tower, turret I guess it'd be, bellying out over its front entrance. When the rooftop temperature sign wasn't broadcasting a terrible number, it recited in spurts. Or tried to. First:
Over and over again. I had to wonder what they thought about that gaptoothed brag across the river where the other newspaper, the Missoulian, was headquartered in a new low building like a desert fort. Mariah had told me it is rare to have two papers in one town any more, but who ever said Missoula is your average place.
I'd acquired a discarded copy of today's Montanian when I stopped at Augusta to coffee up before coming over Rogers Pass, but purposely wasn't reading it because that'd have seemed like giving in to the blinking sign. I figured it wouldn't count if I just leafed through to see whether Mariah had any photos in. The picture with her credit under it, though, I almost missed, not expecting to find her handiwork in the sports section. A balding softball player gasping on third base after running out a triple, his stomach pooching out under a T-shirt which read KEEP MONTANA GREEN. SHOOT A DEVELOPER.
Since I had the newspaper open anyway, I took a peek at Riley's column next. Same as ever, the Wright Angles heading and the all too familiar Riley mug, so favorable a picture of him it surely had not come from Mariah's camera, and then the day's dose of words.
Curlicues of drawl from the car radio. The girls sing along, and prairie hills squat all around the endless highway. We are, as the road-restless word that year says it, motating. Our green Studebaker coupe motates to the music of time, "melodied radio-special" for us, announces the disc jockey, "by the one and only Mr. Hank Williams." Fast miles of lost romance banner behind us, who still think high school is the world. The gold-haired girl leans softly nearer the radio and hums at the hills easing past. Mr. Hank Williams echoes the wail life made as it happened to him, and might to us.
The year: back there somewhere. The season: youth. We are six in number, three of each and much aware of that arithmetic.
Curlicues of drawl from the car radio. The girls sing along, and prairie hills squat all around the endless highway. We are, as the road-restless word that year says it, motating. Our green Studebaker coupe motates to the music of time, "melodied radio-special" for us, announces the disc jockey, "by the one and only Mr. Hank Williams."
Fast miles of lost romance banner behind us, who still think high school is the world. The gold-haired girl leans softly nearer the radio and hums at the hills easing past. Mr. Hank Williams echoes the wail life made as it happened to him, and might to us.
And some more like that. Riley was working himself up into a road mood, was he. Probably he never had to exert himself to be in a girling mood.
What roused me from Riley, not that it would have taken much, was the heavy whump of a car door against the passenger-side of the Bago. A brand new Bronco had pulled into the parking space there, and a guy with a California look to him was squeezing out and frowning down at his door edge and what must have been the first paint chip out of his previously virgin vehicle. My sympathy was not huge. I cast him a go-eat-a-toad-why-don't-you glance to let him know so, then stuck my head back in the newspaper while he gave the dusty put-putting Bago -- naturally I had the generator on to run the air conditioning -- and me some eyeball time before he vanished into a side door of the Montanian building. I figured he must be a bean counter. During the energy boom when there were some actual dollars in this state, a big California newspaper named the Globe -- unfondly referred to by Mariah and for that matter Riley as the Glob -- bought up the Montanian. A person has to wonder: is everything going to be owned by somebody somewhere else? Where does that eventually end up, in some kind of circle like a snake eating its tail?
I checked the dashboard clock again; still half an hour till noon. Well, hell. Given that I'd already made a five-hour drive from the Two Medicine country to get here and there was no telling what corner of the state Mariah and Riley would want to light off to when they showed up, it seemed only prudent to stoke myself up a little. I went back to the middle of the Winnebago to the gas stove and refrigerator there and from what was available began scrambling a batch of eggs with some slices of baloney slivered into them for body.
To combat the stovetop warmth I put the air conditioner up another notch. Pretty slick, if I do say so myself; one apparatus of the motorhome putting forth hot and another one canceling it out with cold. Next I nuked myself a cup of coffee by spooning some instant into a mug of water and giving it a strong minute in the microwave. Looking around for anything else to operate, I flipped the radio on for dining company. And about lost my hand to the ruckus of steel guitars and a woman semishouting:
Just another roadkill, beside life's yellow line! But morning sends its angel Guiding home forever
"Somewhere south of Browning, along Highway 89!
Just another roadkill, beside life's yellow line!
But morning sends its angel
Guiding home forever
Some angel, her. Leaving the music on but considerably toned down, I seated myself to do justice to my plateload of lunch and the question of what I was doing sitting here in a Missoula parking lot eating eggs a la baloney.
Every family is a riddle, or at least any I have ever heard of. People on the outside can only glimpse enough to make them wonder what in the name of Jesus H. Christ is going on in there behind the doors of their neighbors and friends, while those inside the family have times, sometimes lifetimes, of being baffled with one another. "Can this one really be mine?" parent and child think back and forth, eyeing each other like foreign species. Knots in the bloodline. The oldest story there is, and ever the freshest.
We McCaskills are far from immune. I still wished mightily that I had stuck with my original inclination and kept saying no, daughter or not, to Mariah's big thee-and-me-and-he-in-a-Winnebago idea. If that daughter of mine didn't want to ram around the countryside alone with Riley Wright while Montana went through its centennial commotion, let the newspaper dig down and hire her a bodyguard, why not. Preferably one with experience as a coyote hunter, so that he could recognize what he was dealing with in Riley.
The guardian in action is Angel Number Three! Now chrome collides with pheasant, But heaven's breeze collects them
"Up along the High Line, on Route 2 east of Shelby!
The guardian in action is Angel Number Three!
Now chrome collides with pheasant,
But heaven's breeze collects them
"That was another oldie but goodie from Montana's homegrown C-and-W group, The Roadkill Angels doing their theme song for you here on Melody Roundup," the radio voice chirped. "The time now is eleven forty-seven. In the weather outlook, temperatures east of the Divide will hit the upper eighties the rest of this week, and in western Montana they'll continue to climb into the nineties. So, hot hot HOT is going to be the word..."
I shut the voice off. The hell with the radio guy and his word. I hate heat. Although, a week of scorchers would provide me a way to tackle Mariah about getting out of this trip, wouldn't it: "Sorry, petunia, but I'm allergic to any weather over ninety above -- it makes me break out in a sweat."
But when I came right down to it, I knew I could not call things off that easily. Digest all my reasoning along with the pan of lunch and there still was the fact of Mariah and myself alone with each other, so to speak, from here on. She and I are the only Montana McCaskills there are now. God, it happens quick. My other daughter, Lexa, lives up in Sitka, married to a fellow with the Fish and Game Department there, both of them as Alaskan as you can get without having been conceived in an igloo. And Marcella, my wife...
I swallowed on the thought of her again and sat staring out the motorhome side window to Mount Sentinel and the University of Montana's big pale M up there, branded onto the mountain's grassy flank in white-painted rocks. Already the slope of Sentinel looked tan and crisp. By this time next week, wherever the Winnebago and I and Mariah and goddamn Riley might be, haying was going to have to get under way at my ranch by my hired couple, Kenny and Darleen. There was that whole situation, too. Even yet, in the worst of the nights when the question of what to do with the ranch was afire in my mind, I would turn in bed to where she ought to be and begin. "Marce..."
Her at every window of my mind. Ghosts are not even necessary in this life. It is hard facts that truly haunt.
I was not supposed to outlive Marcella. In just that many words, there is the history of my slough of mood, the brown trance that Mariah kept telling me and telling me I had to pull out of. But how do you, when the rest of a life together suddenly turns out backwards. Not that it ever can be a definite proposition, but any couple in a long marriage comes to have a kind of assumption, a shared hunch about who will die first, which is maybe never said out loud yet is thoroughly there. Our own fund of love, Marcella's and mine, seemed to have its eventual sum clearly enough set. My father died at sixty-five, and his father must have been a whole lot younger than that when the labors of his Scotch Heaven homestead did him in. In both of them, the heart simply played out. So, you didn't need to be much of a betting person to figure I'd go off the living list considerably before Marcella.
Only a year or so ago the two of us thought we were on the verge of getting life pretty well solved. By then we had adjusted, as much as parents ever do, to the breakup of Mariah and Riley's marriage. We'd hired a young couple from down at Choteau, Kenny and Darleen Rice, to take the worst of the ranch work off our hands from here on. And we'd bought the Winnebago, secondhand but with under fifty thousand miles on it, to do the traveling we had always promised ourselves -- Alaska to see Lexa and Travis, and then somewhere away from Montana winter, maybe Arizona or New Mexico or even California. The brunt of our forty years of effort daylight to dark on the ranch seemed to be lifted at last, is what I am saying. And so when Marcella went in to the Columbus Hospital in Great Falls for that examination and there on the X-rays was the mortal spot on not just one lung but both, it was one of those can't-happen situations that a person knows all too well is actual. Six months before this Missoula forenoon -- six months and six days, now -- the air of life went out of my wife, and the future out of me. Her death was as if I'd been gutted, the way a rainbow trout is when you slit his underside all the way to the gills and run your thumbnail like a cruel little plow the length of the cut to shove the insides out.
An eruption of light where the side door of the Winnebago had been. I jerked back, blinking and squinting into the bright of noon.
"Hi, how many days you been here?" swept in Mariah's voice and swiftly the rest of the swirl of her, led by the ever present camera bag she hoisted with both hands. "You're the only person left in America who's always early."
"Gives people something to say about me, at least," I fended.
"You've got this place like an icebox, you know that?" As usual, her attention was in several directions at once, roving the inside of the motorhome as if she only had sixty seconds to memorize it. Today she was equipped with two or three more cameras and other gizmos than usual slung across her shadowplaid blouse, evidently loaded for the road. None of it seemed to weight her down any. A mark of Mariah was that she always held herself so straight, as if parting a current with her breastbone.
Her flying inspection lit on the frying pan with its evidence of recent scrambled eggs, and that brought out her grin. Which is to say, it brought Marcella into human face suddenly again, as if my thoughts of her were rendered visible. In most other ways Mariah was built McCaskill, but like her mother she grinned Withrow. So many times I saw it originate on old Dode Withrow whenever he and my father talked sheep in the high summer pastures of the Two Medicine National Forest, and it awaited me on his daughter Marcella my first day in the first grade with her at the South Fork schoolhouse -- that grin, one hundred percent pure, which seemed to reach out from all the way behind the eyes, to tell the world Pretty good so far, what else you got up your sleeve?
Trying desperately to get myself off that remembering train of thought, I put into voice: "I wasn't actually all that hungry, but -- "
" -- you figured you'd better eat before you got that way," Mariah melodically finished for me with a laugh. With a quick step she closed the distance between us and leaned down and provided me a kiss on the cheek. Another of the things about Mariah was that she closed her eyes to kiss. I always thought it was uncharacteristic of her, but I suppose kissing has all its own set of behavior.
Her lips sampled my cheek only an instant. She pulled back and stared at me.
After considerable scrutiny of the scissor-eyed kind only a daughter or wife can deliver, she asked: "What, did you fall face down on a porcupine?"
"You never seen a beard before?" I said in innocence. I suppose maybe that was a generous description of the not quite week of snowy stubble on my face; but I was growing the whiskers as fast as I could.
"Beard?!? Jick, beard has always been next thing to a cussword with you! What brought this on?"
"What do you think did, the centennial, of course. They're having a beard contest for it, up home. I figured I'd get in the spirit of things." Actually I didn't know why, after 643/4 years, I suddenly was letting my face grow wild. All I can report is that the morning after the Fourth of July I took stock at the mirror and thought to myself, hell with it, let her sprout.
"Jick, you look like what's left of a wire brush."
"It'll get to looking better."
"I guess it's bound to." She gave me another stare almost strong enough to wipe whiskers away, then shook her head and said, "Listen, I just came to say I'm not really here yet." My impulse was to retort that I knew she wasn't all here or the two of us wouldn't be about to go gallivanting around the state of Montana with that Riley dingbob, but I abstained. "To stay, that is," she more or less explained. "I've got a shoot I have to do. The Rotary Club speaker. Big fun," she droned in a contrary voice. By now she was fiddling with the middle camera around her neck as if the orator already was barreled in her lens. "How about if you stock us up on food while I'm doing that, okay? Riley's finishing up another of those thumbsucker columns of his and he's supposed to be done about the time I am. He better be, the turkey." Mariah hefted her photographic warbag and spun for the door. "See you."
Off she vanished Rotaryward, and I drove the Winnebago over to the big Buttrey's store at the east end of town. One thing about having spent a lifetime tending camp for sheepherders is that you don't dillydally in the presence of acres of groceries. Pushing the cart up one aisle and down the next, I tossed in whatever I came to that I figured we might conceivably need in Bago living. Supper of course was closest on my mind, and at the meat counter I contemplated pig liver until I remembered Mariah's golden words: "The whole trip gets charged off to the newspaper." I threw back the liver in favor of the three biggest ribeye steaks I could find.
All the checkout lines were busy -- I guessed this was city living, people buying scads of stuff in the middle of the day -- so I parked my cart at the end of a line of four other carts at least as heaped as mine and settled to wait.
I didn't stay settled long.
Only the moment or so it took to study idly along my neighbors in front of me in the grocery line until my eyes arrived at the woman, about my age, being waited on by the clerk at the cash register. I was viewing her in profile and that snub nose told me with a jolt.
Holy H. Hell, it couldn't be her, out of a past that seemed a thousand years distant. But yet it indubitably was. I mean, I know what is said about why coincidences so often happen: that there actually are only twelve people in the world and the rest is done with mirrors. But magic dozen or no, this was her for real. Shirley. My first wife.
For the next several eternal seconds I wondered if I was having some kind of attack. My knees went flimsy, as if something was pushing into them from behind, so that I had to put a hand to the grocery cart to steady myself. Simultaneously my heart seemed stopped yet I could almost hear it butting against my breastbone. My guts felt snaky, my blood watery. Normally I do not consider myself easy to spook. But where was there any normal in this, coinciding in a checkout line hundreds of miles from home with somebody you mistakenly barged into marriage with so long ago?
Copyright © 1990 by Ivan Doig