Friday, July 2, 2010


HE SAID HIS NAME WAS DUKE, but I didn’t find this out until the end. In the beginning, I only knew, right off, he was a poser. A pseudo cowboy, one whose horseshit was not on the outside of his footwear. All hat, no cattle, as they might say in this section, except that he wasn’t wearing a hat. A faded blue bandana, knotted at the back, wrapped his shaven head. His thick, sandy blonde goatee told me he wasn’t all that old.

I’d sidled up to a breakfast counter and before my proudly served Starbucks was even ordered he asked, “Where you from?”

“Sacramenta area,” I said. “What about you?”

“Here,” he said.

Bullshit, I thought. “No one around here is from around here,” I told him lightheartedly. He assured me that he was.

The Eatery is one of those establishments that cannot exist outside of towns like Taos, New Mexico, Virginia City in Nevada, Telluride, Colorado, perhaps Mendocino, California and, of course here, in Jackson, Wyoming. The menu speaks to hearty breakfasts with large servings, but the hens lay amazingly small eggs (it must be nearly painless) and the pigs from which rashers of bacon are sliced may not have been fully corn-fed. The period quilted placemats and matching napkins are manufactured in Vietnam and available for sale at the register.

Towns like this used to exist primarily because the populous actually did something. They mined ore, cut trees, raised cattle or fished fish. We visit these places and view their past through lenses tinted by romance. Here and now, we never see the backbreaking toil and good luck that brought about the boom; nor the heartbreak – only the boarded up windows – that accompanied the bust. History, the revisionist kind, is recounted on the fronts of Hanes 50/50s displayed in store windows around the square.

“Duke” was wearing a t-shirt, the undershirt kind – not the I been to Jackson kind – and over the undershirt a ragged plaid that had likely seen many wearings and too few washings. He wasn’t shod in Justins or Naconas either, now that I think about it. He did have a collection of silver rings, enough for one on each finger of his left hand and three on his right.

Can’t do much ranch handing or timber felling like that, I thought, and a sharp tug by an angry sea bass or big-fin tuna would render any of those ring-decorated fingers simple, inglorious fish bait.

“Yeah, I’m from these parts.” His face was straight and serious, perhaps a little disappointed-in-self. His Starbucks had arrived. “Just tryin’ to figure a way out.”


My coffee arrived. This morning, before my conference session, I’d hoped to read the free local paper I’d picked up outside and then give some thought to the places I’d passed through on my way to Jackson. Places that formerly existed but lacked the grandeur of the Tetons or the drama of the ocean as a backdrop. Places where the concrete walks are cracked and lifted by roots of trees planted for shade now run-away in form or dead of neglect. Boardwalks once smoothed by years of boots scrubbing across them en route to the mercantile or saloon, now splintered by decades of rain, frost and sun, rain frost and sun. Poverty or fate had swallowed up and spit out countless towns in today’s American west. And I’d been through ‘em.

“I considered myself too smart for high school so I quit in ’92 and went off to live on my own. Just down the street from mom and dad, it was, but on my own like an adult.” He laughed at himself.

The Latina waitress, merrily plump, speaking thick, broken English, slipped a blueberry muffin his way. Offering thanks in circa-sixth grade Spanish, he continued: “Yep. Too smart for my folks and my own good. Didn’t get much further than just down the street, damn-it-all.”

I wasn’t fully convinced and wondered what, here, might be for sale.

“Duke” was shorter than I. My feet both rested flat on the floor while my butt perched atop the stool. His right foot dangled while his left toe just touched the brick-patterned linoleum.

“Got me a few jobs. Buckin’ hay. Runnin’ cows.”

In those Converse All Stars? C’mon.

“Hauling sundries to and from. Once got ta goin’ too fast and flipped the boss’ truck end for end six times. Hell of a mess of hay bales busted up all over th’ road. Good news is I learnt I could fly. Through the back window. Bad news is I couldn’t land all that good.” He tapped the blue bandana twice and grinned. “Steel plate.”

A covey of young females entered and filled the six places of the table behind us.

“Tourists,” he said to me and then to a filly in nicely rounded jeans and a hot pink tube top, “Hey.”


“How long you here?”

“Leavin’ for Boise on Sunday,” I said. I turned and saw he was talking to the girl.

Their conversation was short. Perhaps not unlike some previous encounter. Certainly more abbreviated than I might have desired had I been “Duke.”

“Sunday,” he said to me. “That’s not much time.”

I explained my purpose in town, the writers’ conference, trying not to command the conversation. Rather, I wanted to hear more from him for some reason. Find out who this “Duke” really was. The free newspaper I slipped under my butt on the stool so I wouldn’t be distracted by the tragic headline of a young bronc rider dying the other night over ta the fairgrounds.

Duke was a post-modern everyman. And fancied himself a local gadabout. There’d be a cigar tasting at the smoke shop next to the old picture show this evening. Best beer in town was the 10.5% brew concocted a few blocks over in the backroom of a small restaurant. Scotch? He’d developed his palette, or so he claimed.

“Want to keep you busy in your free time,” he explained as he finished his blueberry muffin. “I’m pulling a double shift over ta the Cadillac today. 9:30 to 1:00 AM. Stop by. I can get you in.”

The plump senorita slipped my tab beneath my coffee cup and slid his under some derelict muffin crumbs.

“Tell you what,” I said, picking up both. “You leave a tip.”

He protested.

“Just leave a tip, friend,” my statement too much a command.

He caught up with me on the street outside. “Hey,” he said, “I never got your name.”

I turned. “Charley Brilliant,” a moniker I’d wrested from the far side of plausibility a while back. I held out my hand.

“I’m going by Duke.”

I sized him up. Not tall. Not stout. No particular swagger. Just a young man of a far different sort than myself trying to get out of town and eating a blueberry muffin along the way.

“Well, thank you kindly, Charley Brilliant.”

Our hands clasped. I thought about his schooling, the wrecked truck, the tourist girl and his man-about-town self-perception.

“Sure,” I said giving him a familial slap on the shoulder and went to meeting.

THAT NIGHT, LATE, after readings by two authors, I moseyed on down to the Cadillac. Through the window, I could see the kitchen and in the kitchen was Duke dumping a basket of sliced potatoes into the deep fryer.

I didn’t stop in for that drink. I didn’t like the reflection I saw in the window of that kitchen.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

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