October 16, 2014
Brandon Fair kept his car a few seconds behind the small U-Haul truck his father drove as they entered the city limits of Great Falls. He promised himself he would never return to his hometown, but the more he heard about his mother’s cancer the more he felt he needed to be around. Besides, it would give him a chance to finish his Great American Novel, and it wasn’t as if he was doing anything particularly productive in Portland. After finishing his literature degree at UC-Santa Cruz, he moved up to Portland to “get life experiences.” He ended up bartending and hanging out in bars, and he fashioned himself as a modern day Bukowski or Hemingway but without writing anything beyond a few sketches and short stories.
As Mr. Fair turned left on R Street and headed north to their home, Brandon continued downtown to see if there were any changes. His last visited almost two years ago for Christmas but was bedridden by the flu and didn’t leave his parents’ house except to get firewood from the back patio. He didn’t have enough of a connection with the town to recognize any new businesses nor miss any old ones that had closed.
Early on a Thursday night, the streets were bare as Brandon expected, and he wondered if renting the downtown loft would be a mistake. But, he remembered growing up in Great Falls and his parents’ house being too far to walk to any other part of town, and after living in Santa Cruz and Portland, he got into the habit of walking for nearly an hour each evening and he always appreciated it more if he had an actual destination.
He parked his car in front of a pool hall and walked down the block to The Revisionist, whose orange neon sign advertised “Cocktails and Dancing” but the music spilling out the front door was punk rock. It was dimly lit with ceiling fans and a long rail bar made out of a lacquered wood slab, and the area behind the bar sat almost two feet lower than the rest of the place, so if you were standing and the music was too loud, you would have to lean for the bartender to hear your order.
At the far end, a half dozen patrons watched a baseball game with anticipation. A sports bar this was not. Brandon drank there years ago but didn’t recognize the bartender, who wore black and had tattoos on her forearms.
“What can I get ya?” she asked before he had a chance to survey the beer list on an old chalk board.
“What do you have on tap?”
She side-stepped and waved to the taps behind her. “I’ve got these and ten more down at the other end. What are you looking for?”
“I’ll do the Firestone Union Jack.”
“Good call,” she said before bending down to get a pint glass from the fridge.
Brandon looked up at the TV and saw a ball float into right field just beyond the red Levi’s logo, and the guys at the end of the bar whooped and jumped out of their seats. Brandon wasn’t a big fan of baseball but smiled at the dramatic ending.
Brandon checked Facebook and his last status update–Goodbye, Portland. We will meet again…–had several likes and a few questions from friends asking where he was going, which were answered by other friends who already knew. He posted a new status, “Back in Great Falls. Who wants to help me move into the apartment tomorrow?”
His phone rang. It was his mother. “Where are you? Dinner’s getting cold.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you were cooking.” Brandon got up and went outside.
“Where are you? Are you in a bar?”
“Yes. I stopped to have a drink. It was a long drive.”
“Well, get home soon. I made roast chicken and potatoes.”
Brandon lit a cigarette after finishing the conversation with his mother. He looked across the street at another bar with neon beer signs in its windows. It was surrounded by a Starbucks, a movie theater and a few different eateries.
“Got a light?” the bartender asked. She had wild black hair and introduced herself as Kristen.
“I’m Brandon. You’re taller than I expected.” In better lighting, she was also prettier than he initially thought.
“Optical illusion. Uneven floors.”
“True. What’s going on here tonight?”
“Thursdays we have a deejay come in around 10. You new in town?”
“I grew up here but just moving back.”
Brandon ate at the kitchen table while his mother hovered with a glass of wine. She checked the drawers and cupboards, moving a glass or plate from here to there.
“I just don’t know why you don’t want to live with us,” Mrs. Fair said. “With both you and Lizzie gone, the house always feels empty.”
“Ma, Lizzie lives around the corner.”
“It’s at least ten minutes, and it’s not the same.”
“You can drive to her house in less than two minutes,” Brandon says. “And, really, you don’t want me living with you guys.”
“Well, if you ever get lonely, you always have a place here.”
“I know, Ma.”
Brandon received a text message from Dennis Jordan, a high school friend, “Just saw you’re in town. Having a drink at the Cantina. First one’s on me.”
The Cantina was full but not crowded and brightly lit. Brandon found Dennis at the bar sitting between a white-haired gentleman and a younger Mexican woman with round eyes and a heart-shaped face. A few Giants fans celebrated the trip to the World Series with toasts and screams of “Ishikawa!”
“Welcome back to Great Falls!” Dennis said. “This is Bob and Vanessa.”
Bob offered his seat, but Brandon declined and told him he had been driving all day and didn’t mind standing at all. Dennis ordered a round of whiskey, and they toasted Brandon’s return.
“I’m going to need a cigarette after that,” Brandon said as the whiskey hung in his throat and nasal cavity.
Vanessa Silva and Dennis smoked with him outside.
“Thank God it has finally cooled down,” Dennis said.
“It was still 90 degrees last week.”
“So what are you going to do while you’re in town?” Vanessa asked.
“I’m moving into my apartment tomorrow, and I’ll figure it out from there.” Brandon looked at Dennis. “By the way, are you going to help me move tomorrow?”
“No can do. I’m sleeping in tomorrow,” Dennis said.
“I can help you tomorrow,” Vanessa said.