Stranded in North Dakota — Part 2

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We park in Jeff’s garage and follow him through the door, which, oddly, leads into a dimly lit bedroom that looks like its seen better days. In the darkness it’s hard to see everything in the eerie room. There are mountains of clothes up to my waist. None of the furniture looks quite whole — the dresser has been smashed into many small pieces and all the drawers are scattered across the room.

Off the bedroom is the living room. An old man sits in an oversized plush chair, not seeming to notice anyone has arrived.

It is becoming more of a horror flick by the second.

“This is my father. Introduce yourselves,” Jeff says as he heads into the kitchen.

The old man slowly turns to Rick and me. He is so old and frail, and hooked up to an oxygen tank, I doubt he can leave his chair. We tell the old man our names and he mumbles an inaudible response. Rick and I glance at each other wondering what he had said and what we should do next.

Jeff is getting out pasta and sauce and starting in on both beer and cigarettes. “Let me show you where you’ll be staying,” he says to us from the kitchen.

We follow Jeff out the back door where two small beagles are kept in a kennel. They start yelping as we pass their cage. Two trucks in different states of deterioration are in the yard; they look like they have been parked there for over fifty years. The yard has grown up so high that the Chevy emblems on the front are nearly hidden from view.

He leads us around the house to where a 1960’s era camper sits.

“It’s a little bit of a mess right now, my girlfriend’s kids were in here and one of them is big, he was jumping on the bunk bed and broke it right off.”

It suddenly strikes me that when meeting Jeff in my panic I hadn’t told him my own name. Now we are at his house and he still has no idea who we were. “Jeff, I’m embarrassed.” I confess, “I don’t think that we’ve introduced ourselves to you, my name is Jerry and this is Rick.”

“Nice to meet the both of you,” he says. “Now, help me get this bunk bed back into place.”

We are able to lift it up and slide it into the broken boards on the wall but the wood is so damaged I know no one will ever be sleeping in it again.

Jeff leaves Rick and me in the camper saying that he will hook us up with electricity and light the gas heater. “You two are welcome to come into the house and watch TV if you want, dinner will be ready in a little bit.”

Rick and I thank him and he sets off. We sit on the beds at opposite sides of the camper and just grin at each other.

“It stinks in here,” Rick whispers.

“Yeah, the mildew is pretty bad,” I agree, looking around the small space. “Looks like a tornado came through here. The curtains are just homemade blankets hung up, probably as old as this camper.”

Towels and clothes cover the floor and the mattresses are both covered with so many black spots, water stains, and lines they could have been very complex topographical maps.

“Sure beats being out in the rain, though,” I say, as the rain patters against the tin roof and the wind howls against the sheet metal sides, reminding us of where we could be. “I’m sure we will be a lot warmer in here than outside in a tent.”

After sitting in the smelly camper, eyeing the different piles of trash for a few minutes, trying to decide on what exactly makes up their contents, Rick speaks up.

“Want to go back into the house? Doing something will hopefully make me stop thinking about all the different ways I might end up in one of these trash piles,” he grimly jokes.

We go in the back door, which opens in to a small mud room. I notice empty boxes of twelve packs, piled all the way to the ceiling. Jeff is in the kitchen hovering over boiling pots filled with noodles and sauce. He holds a spatula in one hand, the other grips a beer with a cigarette pinched between his fingers.

“Anything that the two of you want to watch on TV?” he asks.

“Actually, the Red Wings are on tonight, and they’re in the Stanley Cup finals against the Penguins,” I say. “If they win tonight they’ll win the Stanley Cup.”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve watched hockey but I used to really like it,” Jeff says. “There is a minor league team in Billings. I used to drive up and watch ‘em.”

Rick and I sit on the couch, the old man in the chair seems to have become more alive. He starts a conversation with Rick who has sat down closer to him. I decide to use the bathroom on the other side of the room while they talk.

Walking into the bathroom and switching on the light, I instantly come to the conclusion that a fight has taken place in this room between two huge men, probably a death match. In their fight they have managed to smash everything into pieces. The toilet has chunks taken out of it and I notice the lid’s remains lying smashed on the floor. The mirror and the sink are in just as bad of shape, the mirror displays a distorted image of a million small reflections. I don’t bother washing my hands knowing that the sink won’t be able to hold any water.

Walking back into the living room, I sit down on the very edge of the couch fearing I might sink in and never be heard from again.

I see the living room has barely any furniture. The TV sits on the floor, and, other than the couch, and the chair that houses the old man, there is only a very wobbly coffee table completely covered in beer cans. As if reading my mind, Jeff calls from the kitchen, “Sorry about the mess, my girlfriend took everything and trashed the place right before she left.” This seems to explain at least a bit of the house’s current state.

We continue to watch Friends with Jeff’s dad since the Red Wings game doesn’t start until later. I get distracted from the show, watching Jeff try to clear all the clutter off the table and attempt find plates more interesting. It doesn’t look like the kitchen table has been used for more than storage for quite some time.

“Alright, it’s ready, serve yourselves. There’s plenty,” Jeff calls. Rick jumps up and grabs a plate, though only takes a tiny portion of both the noodles and sauce.

“Better take more than that,” Jeff snaps. Heeding Jeff’s command, Rick take a little more of each. Amazingly, the old man is able to move from his chair and make his way slowly to the kitchen with the assistance of a cane.

I have been a vegetarian for the past three months. I decide to break my vigil to keep from upsetting Jeff. I take a much larger portion than Rick but try to get as little meat from the sauce as possible.

We scarf down the spaghetti. I occasionally slow down to filter out a little bit of the ground beef. Jeff eyes me skeptically as I pile the meat into a miniature Devil’s Tower. It reminded me of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and I figure that aliens are the only thing that could make things weirder.

I assume telling Jeff I am a vegetarian would get the same reaction as telling him I am actually from another planet. Hoping he won’t mention my meat pile, I try to spark up a conversation. “Thanks for letting us stay with you, Jeff. We appreciate all that you’re doing for us.”

“No problem,” he replies, momentarily ignoring my lack of meat consumption. “My father and I don’t often get guests, we’re happy to have you here.”

Our frenzied eating slows as we try to find topics to talk about with our hosts. We tell them how Rick and I are going to Yellowstone and how Rick spontaneously decided to join me on my trip by flying in to meet me. We hear about Jeff’s dad’s life as a soldier in the Army and how Jeff was born in Hawaii at a military base and traveled all over the world with his father. After he got out of the military they moved to Billings, Montana, and Jeff later moved to New Salem where he could find work.

Then we hear the Red Wings game start on television. We quickly clean up the plates and take our seats in the living room. Rick and I sit on the edge of the couch and Jeff pulls up a chair from the kitchen.

We find out that both of them had been hockey fans at one point, Jeff’s dad used to take trips up to Canada to watch games. Jeff has nearly finished the twelve-pack and must have smoked a full pack of cigarettes. As a result he was becoming very talkative.

“Sorry about the state of the bathroom,” he says. “The girlfriend got drunk and started breaking everything I owned, including the toilet. I’d buy her a case of beer and carton of cigarettes every morning and when I got home she would have finished both. She had all of her kids with her and she wouldn’t pay them any attention. But I’m saying too much, I’m sorry.”

Rick and I shake our heads, not knowing what to say but feeling like we have to give some response.

“Finally I just couldn’t take it anymore and I made her leave. I don’t know where she went but I don’t care. When I kicked her out she wrecked the house, took a bat to everything I own. But again I’m saying too much, probably shouldn’t be saying any of this.” Rick and I continue to shake our heads.

The Wings are having a battle of their own against the Penguins. They had gone down by two in the first period. Then in the second they fought back to tie it up, took the lead in the third, and immediately let it become tied again. Jeff, meanwhile, continues to smoke and a thick haze blankets the room. My eyes begin to water and sting, closing on their own no matter how hard I try to keep them open. I pry them open for a few seconds but then they slam themselves shut again.

At the end of the third, the game remains tied 3–3 and it’s going into overtime. I want to stay up and watch but it’s after midnight and the smoke is so bad I can’t open my eyes for more than a few seconds at a time. I can barely even squint.

“I don’t want to keep you two up to watch the game. Rick and I can head out to the camper.”

“No, I’d like to keep watching to see who wins,” Jeff counters.

Seeing no polite way to exit, we stay. My eyes are so sealed shut from the smoke cloud that without knowing it, I fall asleep.

Rick, sensing that I have dropped off, shakes me and I force my eyes to open. The first overtime is over and they are still tied. “I think that I had better go to bed,” I say. “I’ve had a really long day.”

Rick jumps up to go with me. “Goodnight guys, thanks again for everything,” Rick says.

As soon as we are outside my head clears and, magically, I can open my eyes and wipe the tears out of them. “I feel wide awake now that I’m not in that smoke-filled room,” I say.

“It was pretty awful,” Rick agrees.

We enter the camper and crawl into our sleeping bags.

Read Part Three

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Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. — Albert Einstein

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