The Montana Express was a wind that found its temperature somewhere around the northern end of Canada and then didn’t stop until it hit the Gulf. Our home was in its path, and so every April it would bring an unseasonable coldness to our valley which affected almost everyone and everything.
It was on one of those April days that the table was finally delivered. My grandfather had chosen the wood himself and it had taken several men two months to build. My grandfather wanted a table that could seat all of our family and especially on his birthday. Something which took place towards the end of the month.
“I want to see all my loved ones in the one place, is that too much to ask?” He would say to no one in particular.
But he was right, our family was spread far and wide: all of them farmers or ranchers. All of them doing okay but too busy to ever socialize with one and other. We’d normally meet briefly at the end of someone’s life or at the start of another – but otherwise, all points in between were just plain ignored. That is, until my grandfather declared his birthday a national holiday for the family.
“I don’t care what you’re all doin’. I want you to put aside whatever the hell it is you find so goddamn important, so’s we can all finally get together. Lord knows I ain’t got long left.”
And that, as they say, was that. Every April, 23rd we would meet around the big table and celebrate being a family. My grandfather would recite some Shakespeare (the English guy who wrote plays) and we would listen and not really understand but we’d clap and holler all the same when he was done. My grandfather had a biggest painting of the Englishman on his wall just ‘cause they shared the same birthday. My grandfather said that Shakespeare was a genius and I guess he was right.
That first April there were seventeen of us around the table. I guess we’d all forgotten just how much we really needed each other.
The following year two of my brothers and two of my uncles went off to Europe to fight in the war. So we set them a place at the table anyhow - just in case they turned up and were hungry and all.
One of my brothers, and one of my uncles didn’t come home in the end. They were buried in France - somewhere warm I hear where the Montana Express ain’t blowin’.
But we would still set the table for seventeen just so we could raise a glass to absent friends. When my boy was five he joined the table, and so did my sister’s kid. And we were seventeen again.
It was early in 1950 when grandfather left the table for the last time and he was shortly followed by grandmother. My eldest brother took the head seat and although we weren’t quite seventeen again we managed through.
As the years went on we tried to make April 23rd the Family Day. It didn’t matter where you were in the world, we’d always try to make it home to the big table. But my kids grew and married and didn’t really want to work on the land no more. One of my boys lived in Paris, France and another moved with his family to Nova Scotia.
Yet we always laid that table for seventeen.
When my wife’s place at the table went empty, I kind of lost the heart to keep it going. By this time I was the head of the table. Some years there were only four of us, but still we set the table for seventeen.
It was just before my 65th birthday that I took the heart attack. Man it was the worst pain I ever felt. They stuck me in the local hospital and I rested for the first time in my life. My boys came with their kids, and my nieces and nephews, and in the end when I got out of hospital there was about thirty of us all round that big table.
My eldest grandson asked why the table was only set for seventeen and I told him the story. He said that it should set for everyone in the family and I had to say I thought he was right. The table belongs to the living after all.
Now every year they meet up and it’s laid out for everyone who makes it to the table. But they always leave two empty places just in case one of us who left the table a long time ago happens to drop by.
2. One Day When You Least Expect It
The stand-up and be glorious thing about it is:
You’ll never know when or how it happens,
Never know what affect you’ve had,
Or who you’ve saved.
It might be the smile to a passing stranger,
Who was on their way to shout at someone -
A someone who would have driven home in an anger,
And didn’t see the person they knocked over.
Or a face on a train,
The one who was going to get off at the next lonely station
But you helped them with their coat, or hat, or bag,
And they saw a warmth in life again.
Perhaps you held the door open for a soul who then
Held the door open for a stranger, who changed their minds
About pulling the trigger.
One day, when you least expect it,
You will change the world,
And you will probably never, even know.
So there was this crazy dude, I mean as crazy as a sack of cats. He’s singing some song by the Beatles and dancing, but not to the tune that’s coming out his mouth – no, to something else only he can hear.
After about thirty minutes of this and he stops, takes a real deep breath, then falls over – so I go and pick him up, really without thinking. He thanks me and says he wants to tell me story as a way of paying me back. I’m thinking to myself, this guy is like, on something and I ain’t sure if I want to hear any of his stories but he holds my arm real tight and insists. So we sit and he pants some, and spits some, and wheezes some, then looks at me right in the eyes and boy has he got a stare.I want to tell you a story boy and I want you to listen real good.
So, I’m thinking what the h, another fifteen minutes ain’t gonna kill me, now is it?And he tells me about this land where there were people, who lived and breathed and loved and hated and all the other things we humans do. Then one day out of the sky comes this weird light and it brings to earth the machines. I ask him what machines, and he just tells me to shut up and the crazy guy just continues with his story.
These machines started to take the form of humans, he says, and soon it was impossible to tell between the real bloods and the cold fires (as they called the newcomers). Except for one thing –their metal hearts - the cold fires couldn’t breathe – they didn’t need to see? I nodded in agreement with the guy, like I say he was crazy. And because they didn’t breathe they didn’t catch diseases or get ill, and soon the metals, the cold fires were the majority and because they were jealous of the real bloods, ‘cause they couldn’t feel and cry and laugh and mean it – they wanted to get rid of them. So began the purge of the real bloods – sometimes the real bloods would be found hanging from trees. Sometimes they took their own lives. But they didn’t wipe them all out and sometimes real bloods were born and they went to school and mixed with the cold fires – except they couldn’t breathe or that would give the game away. Sometimes the kids would bully another kid and taunt him with the name of ‘real blood’ and the kid would cry and tell them he ain’t a breather, ‘cause everyone knows that breathing is wrong.And these kids had to hold their breath most of their lives, except when they were with their own kind, or by themselves – which was a lot of the time.
Then the day came when the cold fires let the reins loose a little and real bloods were allowed to live together – and have children – although the cold fires thought is wasn’t right and prayed for the real bloods to their cold fire god. And although they might all live near each other, everyone knew that only cold fires were going to heaven and that real bloods would go to hell.But the real bloods just smiled and laughed and cried just like they’d always done and they knew what set them apart was their warm hearts.
And that made them happy.And that’s when I ask the crazy guy what happens next and he just turns to me and he says:
You got a heart – use it.
4. The Blue Way River Hotel
Pitched as a concept @ BAFTA, April 2013 under the title Wonderland.
The Blue Way River Hotel
You know it ain’t a hotel, right? I mean let’s get that out of the way from the start. Some punk years ago called it the Blue Way River Hotel as a joke and the name kinda stuck. It was a place that people stayed – some for longer than they maybe wanted to. Now, I guess you’re thinking it’s a prison or something like that. Well it ain’t and to be real truthful, it was simply the local nuthouse. Even that’s too simple an explanation for it – it was a lot of things over the hundred years that it stood in its own ugly way at the corner of Rose and Juniper.At the start of the last century it had been used to hide people away, those who’d transgressed against the good book, if you get my drift. Then when the boys came back from fighting in Europe it had been where the ‘weak-minded’ were locked up (their words, not mine).
When a man got to looking at another man in a special way, he was taken into the Blue Way River Hotel and his brains were fried, or drugged within an inch of his life. Never changed anyone, well except that the light would be on in their heads but no one would be home.
It became a strip joint a few years ago, not that there weren’t any more people in need of a stay at the Blue Way River Hotel, just that those who run this goddamn country felt it would be better (and cheaper) if the folks could find their healing among their own (and we all know how that ended up).But the time I want to tell you about is way long ago when people had gramophones, the good old days when it rained in winter and the sun shone in the summer. And folks respected teachers and doctors and cops. That time.
In those days, my granddaddy was a cab driver in the town – the only cab driver in town.Let me stop you there and explain a little. The town had been going through hard times, real hard times. The Wilson’s Woodwork store had long since gone and the small factory that built ‘superior autos for superior gents’ had moved somewhere back West. People were just flat broke, although everyone tried to help everyone else, there was less and less of things to go around.
My granddaddy main work was to drive the town council to meetings in places far away, so that the good old boys could have a drink. Then granddaddy would drive them all home again. Sometimes he’d take the odd person to the airfield a few miles to the North. You couldn’t go anywhere real exciting from that place but it had a twice-weekly flight to the State capital and from there you could catch a seat to the big world. When my grandma was a young woman she had worked at the airfield canteen and that was where she met my granddaddy. She called him ‘Earl’ on account that he drank only Earl Grey tea and over time her name for him name stuck. His real name was Albert but somehow that sank under the weight of Earl.
They dated and fell in love and it was as quick and as simple as that. Until the day my grandma died, they were never more than a few miles or a day apart.Now things started to get difficult for everyone in town – well every honest soul in town, that is – there were some who profited out of other’s misery but I’ll let the good Lord take care of them. Anyhoo, my granddaddy is starting to get less and less work and has to make ends meet by working shifts at Carter’s Emporium over on 5th.
Then my grandma took sick and it cost him everything and in the end the sickness took her away. It broke him, broke him right down the middle. He tried everything to keep going but everywhere he turned life would trip him up just because it could, I guess. His debts were growing and he had less and less to eat. So he came up with a plan. One sunny day in June he drove his taxi to the door of the Blue Way River Hotel and with the engine still running, he just got up and checked himself into that little sanctuary for the crazies (his words, not mine). Now let me tell you good and proper, he wasn’t crazy, leastways not in the way that folks are these days. He was just tired, good and simple and decided that he could hide out in the Blue Way until better days came along. He wondered why it hadn’t occurred to him before, and as he was walking up to the door, he just kept chuckling to himself.
Now how do you go to the local nuthouse and convince them that you’re in need of help?
So as he walked into the place, he shouted ‘Honey, I’m home’. I kid you not. Seems that was enough. There was whispers from the nurses about his wife passing away and his company in trouble – it’s a wonder, said one, that he wasn’t in earlier. And as my granddaddy was taking his obligatory shower, he was wondering the same.
Now I’m going to tell you exactly as it was told to me. When my granddaddy got in there, there weren’t more than two poor souls who really needed the place. The rest, about twelve people, were in their hiding for the same reasons as my granddaddy. The nuthouse really was a hotel. Now don’t look all disgusted. People need to eat and keep warm and that seemed like the only place in town to do it. However there was a little matter which my granddaddy found out early on – how do you convince the folks that you are in need of shelter ‘cause your mind is drifting, yet hold on to your sanity?Some suckers got found out and were thrown out and told not to come back until they were really in need. Others walked a real fine line between this world and the crazy one – and one or two of them tipped into permanent madness. But my granddaddy hung on to his wits and survived in that place.
He told me a whole load of stories and I’m going to share them with you if you’ll let me. And don’t think they’re all depressing and stuff. Those folks in there lived and I mean lived every day.
bobby stevenson 2015