There’s stillness up here in Centennial, Wyoming. And it’s not because the population is the size of a Sunday congregation. Small ranches, trailers, tiny houses, a general store, a motel, a church, two bars, a little school, all sit alongside Snowy Range Rd., all make up this sleepy little town in the clouds. The sky hangs low here. The elevation is over eight thousand feet. You can take Snowy clear down the mountain, straight through Laramie and on to Casper. Or, you can go up, the air thinning as you climb, up through the pines and spruce trees of Medicine Bow.
Where I am, this booth—this restaurant—right here near Medicine Bow National Forest, I consider real good country. People say settlers found gold here a hundred years ago, made a good go at a living and gave the town its celebratory name. I came here for my own kind of wealth, maybe a last shot for reconciliation.
Customers are talkin’ around me, but I’m not tuned in. I pull a postcard from my back pocket and read my daughter’s message over again. She’s twenty-one, beautiful with brown hair, a sharp smile that cracks across her face like lightening. The blue ink on the card is smeared in spots, and I wouldn’t be able to tell what the words say if I hadn’t memorized it on the drive down here. Four hundred miles give or take from Billings, the small drafty apartment, right where Shelly’s mother left me. I fold the card back up behind my wallet. Each year Shelly picks a new place to meet down here: Jackson Hole, Cheyenne, Rock Springs. But Centennial carries a different weight.
I arrived in town yesterday and decided to camp up off Rt. 130, behind a wall of pines so I couldn’t be made from the road. The quiet within the Snow can make a man forget all about himself. The snowcapped ridges seem to rise into the clouds, and if you followed them you might reach some secret terrain. Climbing at this altitude stole my breath, and it made me lighter. I was content to climb down and lie on a bed of needles, listening to the creaking and ticking of the forest. The wind played through branches.
I dipped my hands in a stream and it swallowed them up; the water stung my bones. Then I lost feeling in my body, in everything. And at that moment, clarity shook me like a damp web ripples in the wind. These mountains help me look for things that I’ve lost. People have lost things here.
Five years ago, a plane flew straight into the front cliff of the Snowies and everyone on board died, including a Mormon choir, including my wife. She was on her way back from a trip to her mother’s in Reno. We hit a rough patch after Shelly moved out, had nothing to focus our energy on, only each other and that turned out to be a bad thing. She and I had agreed the time apart would help us figure out what the next move should be.
I was clamoring over the rocks of the crash site for the first time yesterday. I waited for a great heaviness to overtake me, the kind of pain you feel at an unattended funeral. If it’s going to hurt, I want it to really be something. Not parsed out in sporadic memories. Though it’s what I deserve, maybe. But I found myself to be more curious than anything while I was up there in the Snowies. I picked up little pieces of metal and plastic and examined them in the sunlight. I found what appeared to be a tiny, red button from the cockpit, and a rusted-out piece of motor from the plane that just fit inside my coat pocket.
Why family members of crash victims left the plane pieces scattered on the rocks is something I still struggle with. I suppose they want their pain to stay at the site, frozen forever in those bits of plastic and metal. Now it’s a place where people can go to forget or remember, depending on what they are in need of. If they’re like me, they come to do both. Maybe put their hands in the water and feel life through chilled bones.
I get a refill on my coffee. It’s mid-afternoon. Outside, things are calm, and the clouds hang down like dangling jellyfish, their shadows blanketing the mountains and fences. The few remaining leaves on a nearby birch tremble in the chilled wind. Someone’s meal is up, the bell by the heat lamp dings.
I order a piece of rhubarb pie and thank the waitress. I pull the postcard back out. The front features a huge rainbow trout being towed behind a large flat bed. It reads: You Caught the Biggest One! Shelly probably got it at one of those little gas station stores between Laramie and Cheyenne. Knew I’d get a kick out of that, I suppose. The three of us must have seen a dozen of those places alongside the highway, the ones that sell cheap Navajo jewelry and belt buckles to people from the East.
If Shelly shows, I’ll tell her more about her mother and me. I’ll try, anyway. I’ll do my best to remind her how happy we all were together. I’ll recreate some memory. Or maybe help her forget. Tell her she and I don’t have to work like this. Even though I know it’s not the truth. Even though she won’t ever come back to be family.
Maybe she’ll walk through the door I’ve been watching for hours and sit across from me in this booth. I’ll get her some pie and coffee. And we’ll just look out the window together. The same window. All the clouds nearly touching down on little Laramie thousands of feet below. Then she’ll scoot over to my side of the table and take my hand and I’ll show her the piece of the motor I recovered from the rocks. Or maybe she won’t, maybe she’ll just send me another post card, another place, another time.
BENJAMIN MORRIS is currently a PhD fiction candidate at the University of North Dakota. His fiction has appeared in Plots with Guns, Red Clay Review, and Lake Effect.