The Laundry Chute
They drove along the old mining road and the Jeep seemed to find every pot hole there was. The equipment and all their camping gear in the back slid around and rattled all over the boxes of rock and mineral samples. The sun beat down but it was still cold up in the mountains, especially with the weather guard taken off the Jeep. Sharon pulled her sweatshirt hood up under her cowboy hat but Nance continued to drive with just her sleeveless pull-over on and she wore a red bandana around her neck in case the dust got really bad. Her dark hair waved about madly as she sped down from the mountain toward the pass as they hit a rare straight-away; Sharon just sat there smiling behind her sunglasses and wondered about opening up a second bottle of Miller. She rarely ever drank when the sun was up but she was excited about being back in civilization again, even if it was Atlantic City, a little speck of a town that blew into Wyoming like a tumble weed. The field work and mapping was finally complete and as much as Sharon loved her work and the great outdoors, it was time to relax and enjoy. So she decided to celebrate a little early and there’s no way she’d be driving anyway, Nance always did the driving and she was pretty bossy about it too. It would be kind of nice in town to get away from Nance and Sharon was pretty sure that Nance felt the same way too.
Nance yelled over at Sharon through the wind and the noise of the rugged road and the blasted boxes of rock specimens sliding around in the back with David Crosby topping it all off by singing about cutting his freak flag hair...
“Can you pull-ease put in another 8-track? Gawd! I think we’ve heard the Déjà Vu album about eight thousand times now!”
Sharon rummaged through the box of clunky tapes, they had about fifty of them but they were all getting tiresome if they were even still working. She decided on The Best of Cream. She reached behind the seat and grabbed another beer out of the cooler and flicked its metal cap off into space and she suddenly felt chastised by Edward Abbey for littering like that, even if it was just a bottle cap. She bent down below the glove box to light another Marlboro and she lit one for Nance too and handed it to her. She gestured over at Nancy pointing at the beer bottle, “Want one?” Nance shook her head; she needed both hands for this road, the cigarette alone was hard to handle.
Sharon figured they’d be in the dusty town in about an hour at most and she couldn’t wait to take a long hot shower and it would be great just to sleep in a real bed instead of that that damn rickety camp cot again tonight. They’d been working in the field for about a month now collecting rock and mineral samples and they mapped out their assigned region of the southeast quadrant with geologic data; they chipped away at outcrops and Forest Service road-cuts examining each find with the tri-loupes that they wore around their necks.
They carefully mapped out each angle of rock with a Brunton compass and they also used a small plane table and simple surveying equipment that would do until the data was imaged against the aerial maps when they got back to the main office. They made camp near a vast pool of water that was fed by a waterfall at the north end of one of the gorges and it was beautiful there, even if the thought of bears and mountain lions was always in the back of their minds. They lived on instant oatmeal, raisins, apples, coffee, powdered milk, Miller beer, three cartons of cigarettes, and occasional shots of tequila. It was just a lot easier to stash these dry goods into the small secured trunk bay of the Jeep because assembling an elaborate food cache to keep away animals, namely bears, was a pain in the ass and they were usually worn out after working all day.
Nance also brought along an ounce of Maui that, combined with the altitude, became very potent and all it took was two puffs off the joint when images of bears and cougars began appearing at the campsite and became very real and very terrifying until they began laughing hysterically at their internal visions of their own gruesome deaths. All fear vaporized and was replaced by an overt sense of bravado that was supplied by a shot of tequila or a couple bottles of beer. But they usually did add more wood to the fire to expand the light of the campfire, even if they did say it was only because they were getting too cold. By this time they’d be looking up at the stars completely astounded and humbled by where they were. Together they’d contemplate the meaning of all things created, awed by the bands of the Milky Way and the occasional streaks of meteorites that lit up the August skies. They were serenaded by the lonely howls of distant wolves. The only radio station that vaguely came in on the Jeep was one that played lively yet rather sad Basque folk music and another one that was rife with static that usually featured livestock auctions and vintage country music. They hadn't heard any news in weeks and Nance kept swearing about forgetting the Goddamn shortwave radio, oh well, never again; this was a very hard lesson learned.
But they still had it easy according to the guys at the central office that worked in the Alaskan field where they had to be flown in by bush pilots. No matter where Nance and Sharon were and no matter how remote -- sometimes for months -- they’d still hear all about Alaska when they got back. Sharon didn’t mind too much but it always got to Nance, probably because that’s where she wanted to work the most in the whole Western region. It seemed they were always assigned jobs in Wyoming, Idaho, or Eastern Oregon but they always liked Wyoming the most.
Down the road they sped along, slowing to a stop at the sharp corners and switch backs. Sharon could see the small town far below and her heart sped up. Food! She’d eat until she couldn’t take another bite. She finished the beer and threw the glass bottle in the box with all the others, the glass smashing together too with everything else back there. She did it too because she could tell it got on Nance’s nerves and Sharon smiled a little smile to herself.
They drove into town and parked the Jeep in front of the small hotel. The proprietor at the desk looked them over and grinned.
“Are you two from the U.S.G.S.?”
This took Sharon by surprise and she asked, “How did you know?”
He chuckled and pointed at her worn t-shirt that had the USGS logo of two crossed rock hammers.
“If the t-shirt wasn’t a dead give-away your Jeep outside 'shore is.”
The dusty Jeep had the same logo on the side panel and the two women started laughing along with him. He explained that there was a battalion of forest fire fighters in town taking some well needed R&R so it made rooms sparse but he did have one left if they didn’t mind sharing. Sharon was disappointed; she looked forward to her own room after spending weeks with Nance in that God awful tent. She could tell that Nance felt the same way and their moods began to dampen. At least there were two soft beds, thank God. They unloaded the Jeep and lugged their belongings and anything else that seemed worth stealing from the Jeep up a narrow wooden staircase. Nancy’s cowboy boots made an enormous racket on the wooden floorboards so she pulled them off. She opened up a window to air the room out and she laid out on one of the beds.
“You go ahead; you can use the shower first. I just want to rest a bit after that horrid drive.” Her ears still stung from the sounds of the road and those blasted bottles smashing together.
When Sharon emerged from the bathroom Nancy was fast asleep. It was only five o’clock and the food could wait. She thought about a third beer and decided against it. She looked out of the smudgy window to look down at the main drag. She saw a saloon that said “Live Music Saturdays”. Today was Saturday! She turned the television on softly and just stared at it, it seemed so odd just watching a baseball game. She flipped through the channels to find some news and caught the tail end of something about the Elvis Presley funeral. Wait. Whoa! Elvis died?!?
“Nance, Nance, wake up!”
Nancy opened up one eye, “What, what is it?” She said half asleep.
“Nance, guess what? You are not going to believe this! Elvis Presley died; they were just talking about his funeral!”
Nance looked up at Sharon and smirked. “I can’t believe you woke me up to tell me that, my God!” She rolled over and shut her eyes but all she could envision was Elvis stuffed into that white jump suit, ick. She couldn't go back to sleep. Her stomach growled. The thought of the hot shower got her up. She could still feel the jerky motion of the Jeep as she got to her feet and she felt a little dizzy. Her arms and hands could still feel the steering wheel too. She needed some food.
* * *
They walked down the main street to take a look around. It was nice hearing cars and people talking and little kids riding bikes. There was a diner called “The Bluebird” on the corner and it seemed to be the only restaurant in town so it would have to do. They felt so clean again and Sharon wore a wrap-around skirt and sandals and even wore her long auburn hair up. Nancy eyed a coin-operated laundry across the street and she couldn’t wait to have clean clothes again that weren’t washed in a stream with bio-degradable soap and stiffly dried on a makeshift clothes line or hanging from a tree limb. And where the hell did Sharon have that skirt hidden? She had never seen it before. Sharon was like Ginger or Lovey Howell from “Gilligan’s Island”, her wardrobe had no end, even in the wilderness. Nance felt suddenly self-conscious in her jeans. Oh well, this is how it always was when she was with Sharon – Nance would always be plain old Mary Ann.
Everything smelled so good the minute they walked into the diner; scents of French fries, coffee, and grilling meat with onions welcomed their nostrils and one waitress ran around the tiled floors from table to table in a pale-blue and white uniform; she even had a paper tiara propped in placed that was anchored somewhere in her massive platinum blonde bouffant. They sat themselves down in a vinyl seated booth with a tableside juke box. They ordered massive quantities of food which surprised Adelle, the waitress who also wore a great big frilly Adelle name tag. They surprised her even more by eating every scrap and then they ordered pie for dessert and ate that too, a la mode. A group of guys walked through the front door and they took immediate notice to Nance and Sharon. A couple of them waved and one tipped his baseball hat. They all grinned broadly and then sat at a table where they could still see the women. Adelle came over later and informed Sharon and Nancy that the men were a few of the fire fighters resting up after that horrible fire that burned up sixty square miles of land at the Bridger National Forest last week.
She winked at the two women and said longingly, “Oh, to be your age again with such nice looking fellas like that in town in droves. You two should be having a lot of fun this weekend!”
Nance asked for the check and the waitress laughed. “Your fun is already starting, Hon; they already picked up your bill!”
Nance and Sharon looked over and the four men at the table waved and tipped their hats. Nance and Sharon smiled thanks and waved back. This attention wasn't new to either Nancy or Sharon. Despite feeling like she was Mary Ann from “Gilligan’s Island”, Nancy was very pretty with her high cheek bones and intelligent dark brown eyes. She looked fresh and healthy with a glowing tan from all the field work and her love of the outdoors. Sharon was just plain gorgeous. They worked exclusively with men; after all they were geologists, a pretty non-traditional field to be in at this time. They were used to the attention and so was their boss. No way would he ever pair either of them out in the field alone with the guys, to be on the safe side, but those guys were all pretty harmless if not a bit geeky and it was like one big family at the office. An affair with any of them would feel more like incest but the boss was old school. He never did approve of women working in the field anyway but times had changed. Hell, we never even had aerial photos back then to double check our maps, everyone had it easy now.
The two women left the diner waving back again and they headed toward the saloon. It was starting to get dark as the sun slid slowly down. This sure felt better right now than spending another night in the Gros Ventre wilderness. The street was crowded with ranch hands, families, and Basque shepherds who were enjoying being out on the town from the seclusion they called their homes the rest of the week. Teenagers cruised in pick-up trucks and Chevelle’s and people started lining up to see “Taxi Driver” at the little movie theater in the center of town. They could hear the faint whiff of music when the saloon doors were opened and as they entered the bar they had to adjust their eyes to the darkness. It wasn’t all that crowded yet but it did feel good just to be with people again and the noise and the clatter that came from the bar where the Basque sheep herders lined up. They sat down at a table near the front by the band and ordered a glass of wine; they hadn’t had wine since they went into the field. They didn’t talk much because after a month together there wasn’t much to talk about really. They got along fine even though Nance was on the more intense side. She tended to do things like organize her match sticks in a row on the table or fold each cocktail napkin carefully in half after each drink. Even her ashtray was filled with butts neatly lined up before the waitress emptied it. These kinds of things drove Sharon a bit nuts but it could be worse. At least they both shared the same kind of humor and they both liked the same music among other interests, including their profession. But Sharon’s disregard for organization drove Nance a bit nuts too but it wasn’t enough to argue about, she just knew she could never just leave a glass ring like that on the table and not at least wipe it down. Sharon just finger painted designs in each ring instead. Nance began tapping time with the music coming from the stage, the band was a little off but okay, they played a lot of Neil Young. The fire fighters started drifting in and before they knew it they were having a great big party around Sharon and Nance’s table. Even the band joined their tables between sets. One man with a beard who had that Jeremiah Johnson look going for him asked what they did and why they were in town.
“We’re geologists,” Sharon shouted over the crowd.
“Are you here with that revival then outside of town by the lake?” He asked solemnly. Sharon looked at him confused, “Say what?” she asked.
He continued on despite her apparent look of bewilderment. “And will you be here for church tomorrow too or are you going to be leading the services?”
During a brief lull of bar noise and music Nance started laughing and asked what the deal was about church and revivals.
“Didn’t you say you two are into theology?”
This time Sharon seriously looked baffled. Then she got it.
“I said geology!”
Everyone was laughing by this time and Jeremiah Johnson was clearly embarrassed.
Sharon slapped the back of his flannel shirt, “Don’t be embarrassed, it’s so loud in here!”
He started laughing and said he did wonder about all the glasses of wine, that maybe it was an okay thing to do for theologians since it was wine and Jesus sure liked his wine!
The saloon was packed and the fire fighters were getting rowdy but they were all good guys. Half of them said they were either engaged or married. The others were almost too shy to talk to the women until the Michelob or Coor’s kicked in. One young guy was homesick and talked about his parents and his kid sister. Other women from town had joined the tables too and it was all about friendly. The band was taking requests and inviting people up to sing. Nancy boldly went up to the microphone.
“You guys know Horse with No Name? ” How could the band not know it, it was two chords!
Nance was laughing hysterically during the intro, “I’m gonna sing an English teacher's worst nightmare!” she yelled out; the microphone wailed with feedback.
The tables of people cheered and clapped and Sharon couldn’t believe Nance was up there doing this, she wished she had brought a camera along.
On the first part of the journey, I was lookin’ at all the life. . . Then everyone in the saloon was singing along except for the Basque sheep herders who simply looked on amused, smiles creasing their leather like faces.
Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no name. . .
By the time the song ended everyone was smashing drinks together and Nancy was doubled over laughing so hard she was crying. As everyone slowly recovered, a sense of seriousness swept over the crowd. One of the fire fighters ambled up to the stage and held up a shot. “Okay you guys, this one’s for Randy!” The guys all stood up, removed their hats and drank a shot. Jeremiah Johnson whispered over to Sharon that they lost Randy in the fire last week, he got trapped and no one could get to him before the flames did, he was twenty-two years old. Her eyes filled up and then she noticed that everyone else’s eyes were filled up too including the mountain man’s.
It was getting late and everyone was getting tired. The crowd broke apart and they all said their good-byes like they’d been friends forever. Nance and Sharon walked out into the night and the street was bathed in neon and streetlight. The marquis at the movie theater and the ticket booth was dark now.
“I still can’t believe you got up there and sang like that, I didn’t even know you could sing!”
“There’s probably a lot you don’t know about me,” Nance said. Sharon shot back a look and said the same thing right back at her.
Nancy thought she knew everything about people, especially about Sharon!
“Oh come on Shar, you are an open book, I think you’ve told me just about everything there is to know about you over the past two years we’ve worked together.”
“I’m adopted,” Sharon said, looking the other way. “I never tell anyone that.”
Nancy couldn't believe it, and thought maybe it was an elaborate joke that Sharon was famous for pulling, all Sharon ever did was talk about her folks and her family; naturally she’d say something about being adopted too. Nancy felt a bit of anger rising up, it was important for her to know about people, even irritating close people like Sharon and why would Sharon be so secretive? Why would she hold back like this to her?
“I’ve been thinking about finding out where I really did come from, who my mother really is, there has to be a way of finding out. But I don’t want my mom and dad’s feelings hurt if I do find out.”
Nancy stopped walking and looked intently at Sharon. “Does it really matter; I mean I’ve been with your family at holidays for God’s sake! You guys make Father Knows Best look dysfunctional!”
Sharon sat down on a bench and smiled and Nance plopped down next to her.
“We all have our moments. My family is far from perfect. Did you know for instance I went missing my very first day home? I was a week old. The whole family was there to see me-- all the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins -- the whole shebang. When everyone got there they all came upstairs to see me for the first time and the bassinet was empty. My mother started screaming. My father looked out the nursery window to see if there was a ladder, like what happened in that Lindbergh case. ‘Call the police!’ the grandmothers yelled frantically as the aunts all hugged and then there was my mom who was about to faint into my grandmother's arms. And then my brother Mark began crying saying he was so sorry. No one listened to him. Then he began to wail. What? Sorry? Where is she? Mark, where is Sharon? Tell us! He walked down the hallway with the entire anxious family following close behind and then he stopped, sobbed loudly, and pointed at the laundry chute. The laundry chute! The women all screamed in horror and the men ambled down the stairs, four at a time and continued down the basement stairs as fast as they could. The women continued to scream, the cousins stood frozen with fear, and Mark continued to sob. But the beds had all been stripped that morning because company was coming and that’s where they found me, I landed into a large hamper on top of all those blankets and sheets and I was perfectly fine; in fact, I was sound asleep!”
Nance looked at Sharon in disbelief and then exploded with laughter. “I always said you were dropped on your head when you were a baby!” They both laughed hysterically, “I’ve never told anyone and it’s one of my family’s darkest secrets”, Sharon sputtered out.
“Oh my God!” Nancy cried out. “No wonder you and Mark never got along! Jesus Christ, the laundry chute?”
They walked back to the hotel and planned out the journey back to Menlo Park, they’d leave on Monday and they’d call the Denver office first to check in. Tomorrow they’d do laundry after a big breakfast at the diner. When they got back to their room Sharon flipped the television set back on just to listen to it. The reception was snowy but John Belushi was doing a Samurai routine. Nance fell asleep thinking of Alaska and Denali and Sharon looked over the cocktail napkin that Jeremiah Johnson gave her with his name and phone number on it. His real name was Bill Parker and he was from Eugene, Oregon.
She’d call her folks in the morning; they always worried when she was out in the field. She couldn’t believe that Nancy fell for that story about the laundry chute. She thinks she knows everything. Sharon buried her head in her pillow and giggled. But she hadn’t lied about the adoption. She couldn’t figure out why she had always been so embarrassed about that. Maybe she would look for her real mother someday. Her eyes felt like weights and she slowly drifted off to sleep in the large comfortable bed; it was… as soft… as a hamper full of sheets at the bottom of a laundry chute.