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Courting Calamity

"I had second thoughts ... But here, entering this whole other world, I was also sure I’d made the right decision. Maybe just because it was my decision to make"


We were on the road out of Nashville before midnight and by sunrise we’d crossed five states. Scott had done his share of the driving through the night but we were both so exhausted when we stopped for breakfast at a diner in Lincoln, we ate with our heads halfway to napping on the slick linoleum tabletop. And with his head hung like that over some eggs and a steaming coffee, Scott admitted he didn’t really understand a bit of what we were doing so far from home at so ungodly an hour.

I took over the drive and spent the day leading us westward through Nebraska. This was already as far as I’d ever been from home. I didn’t know they even made states this big. So I passed the day telling Scott some of those stories Gram used to tell me. Stories of young Calamity Jane and her alien gunslinger, the Green Man. The stories that got me through the hardest time in my life.

I started by telling him one of my favorites. The one where Jane charges into battle alongside the Lakota Sioux. When Gram used to tell me this one, she used to make a big fuss of talking all rhythmically, like the braves did in those old John Wayne movies she grew up watching. That used to pull me right out of a funk, to the point of tears I’d laugh so hard as she stood beside the bed, channeling Red Cloud or Crazy Horse. Then she’d crouch down, telling Jane’s part of the story from my level, even as she raised her laser gun into the sky. Of course, Gram’s laser gun was a flashlight but that didn’t trouble me none. I was twelve. Not so old a flashlight couldn’t still play lightsaber or searchlight or cowboy laser gun if it needed to.

Of course, I wasn’t Gram. I didn’t have her way with the stories. And I’d read the journal—or transcript or interview or whatever that book was. I read the parts Gram skipped in tailoring the tale for a tween on the verge. But as I kept on with the telling, my versions got more exciting and animated. And I realized how much I still wanted to hold that laser, or to smear war paint on my cheeks, or to face down a Wild West villain. I still wanted to be a cowgirl. I’d just forgot.

I was telling him Gram’s old stories fast as I could remember them. There was the one where Jane and the Green Man shot up half of Cheyenne in a running gunfight, like something out of Desperado. Or Grand Theft Auto, I told Scott—turns out he’s not really into Westerns. And the one where she fought like a wild animal or all the ones where she and the Green Man argue like Lucy and Ricky with rifles.

I told him about the time Jane tangled with two different aliens and bested them both. And about the Green Man’s totally freaky psychic horse. And how that young Calamity Jane was every bit what I wanted to be when I was a girl. How she had this foul mouth and foul temper and a deadeye and didn’t take no shit. How she didn’t have any family or any friends except a loyal horse and her badass green cowboy to help her conquer all. She was just a little teenage girl in a bloody man’s world surrounded by posses and spaceships and everything that little teenage girls in the Wild West shouldn’t be any part of. But she always got by, whatever came her way. And how when I was a little teenage girl, myself, wasn’t too many times at all I could’ve heard stories like those.

I told him, too, about this one part I read for the first time just two nights before—a part Gram never read to me—where some thug tried to force himself on her. Tried and failed, thank God. It was an ugly scene and I had trouble telling it. And things were quiet in the car for a bit after we talked on that. Scott, I think, wasn’t sure what to say. And I didn’t want to say more. But I kind of wished Gram had read me that story a long time ago.

But I don’t think Scott saw what I saw in those stories. He made a fuss about aliens not being real and certainly not a part of the Wild West. And I don’t think he meant to, but he made me feel a little foolish.

No, I told him, I didn’t think we were going to drive across the border and find some green-skinned alien cowboy high on horseback any more than I thought we’d find a 160-year old Calamity Jane running a truck stop. But when I thought about how reverently Gram held that book, or about the details in the reporter’s transcript of his conversations with Jane—there had to be some kind of evidence, didn’t there? Something maybe only I’d be able to find? These were real places. These were real people. There must be some trace.

And all the while I was telling tales, I remember catching myself fidgeting with Gram’s disc. Scott asked about that, too, but I didn’t know what to say. I never knew what it was, but the book told that it was the Green Man’s. That it was something alien and that Jane cherished it just as much as Gram and PopPop had. That it had worked for her in a way I apparently couldn’t quite manage. And I don’t think I wanted to admit that last part, most of all.

Driving through Nebraska was a strange experience. It was lovelier than I expected and hinted sometimes at what I was hunting for. The Platte river—where farther upstream Jane once fought alongside those Sioux I was telling Scott about—snaked in and out of sight alongside the highway. And soon the farms and silos gave way to a distinctly barren, Western landscape. Nebraska rose underneath us like a mountain, becoming a moonscape as it climbed toward that high plateau called Wyoming.

It had snowed the week before and suddenly it was white every which way we looked. Except up. The sky was bigger and bluer than I’d ever seen it. Five thousand feet we rose in that last hour of driving—our ears popping all the while—with not a house or a barn or a tree or anything in sight except for the big rigs powering up the continent in my rearview.

If Gram were still alive, she’d call me a goddamn fool for driving up into the high plains in the dead of winter. Except she would’ve said it nicer. No less intensely, but nicer. And I’ll admit, about an hour into that uphill climb, nothing but wasteland in every direction and Momma’s piece of shit car rattling underneath me, I had second thoughts of my own. But here, entering this whole other world, I was also sure I’d made the right decision. Maybe just because it was my decision to make.

I don’t know what I expected as we crested the hills overlooking Cheyenne. But I certainly expected something bigger. The sun was low and red and I think if I’d blinked I would’ve missed Cheyenne. Except I didn’t miss it. I turned down some undulating road and over train tracks emblazoned with a ridiculously gigantic Union Pacific marque. I didn’t even know the Union-Pacific was real. Somehow that giant red, white, and blue shield was all I needed to know I’d made it to the West. The land of boots and cattle and Calamity Jane and green men.

I parked at the local depot museum and jumped out of the car. And how the winter air of those high plains just sliced right through my Southern-girl cold-weather clothes. Took my breath away sure as a punch in the gut.

I must’ve screamed from the shock because Scott ran around the car to see what was the matter and laid himself low on the ice caking the parking lot. He went down so hard and so fast it was like he just blinked out of existence—except for the smack of his ass on the ice and the groans of a grown man humiliated, spread eagle in the street.

We weren’t prepared for the cold. All I had was this pilled scarf I found in Gram’s closet and an old cape that Momma used to use as a blanket for me when she’d leave me in the car on cold night. And boots, of course. Can't work in a honky-tonk without boots on. So when I helped Scott up to his feet, I just leaned into him, cursing against the cloud of breath circling my head. He was a bit stiff on the contact but soon enough he put his arms around me. He even vigorously rubbed my arms up and down, warming me through the cape. And when I finally stood apart, I looked down to find that disc in my hand. I didn’t remember taking it with me from the car but I wasn’t surprised. Like my fidgeting on the drive, I just felt like I should keep it with me.

We wandered over to the main road and I was struck all of a sudden by the realization that she’d been here. My Calamity Jane. My great-great grandpa’s Jane. My namesake. She’d been right here. She maybe even fought her way up and down these streets. Or holed up in one of these hotels that still have the ground-level bars where the saloons and brothels once made their trades. There was even an empty lot, a hole between two buildings where the facing edifices stood like scars, that could’ve been the left-over from the explosion Gram used to act out with a jumping-jack leap and loose-lipped, “Fa-boom!”

And I found I wasn’t that cold anymore. My face was. But I felt a warmth deep inside me. That leather book described all this. Well, not exactly this, but close enough. There was a Federal Marshall’s office, just like in Jane’s account of Cheyenne. And was a proper old hotel, three-stories with a lobby and façade all like she said there would be.

Scott made some quip about not seeing any aliens around and I warned him that too much talk would just make him colder. But he was right. I shrugged and looked up and down those quiet, cold streets, half expecting I’d see a young teenager girl sporting a Stetson and Springfield facing me off down the way. But this wasn’t what we’d come for. Jane had been to Cheyenne, but a Cheyenne long gone. Replaced one brick and timber at a time until it was new again. My search for Calamity Jane and her Green Man would do better out on the plain. In someplace older. Someplace where signs of her passing might remain.

So we ducked into a bar around the same time the sun finally sank out of sight and took with it ten precious degrees of heat. The place was a dive and that was fine by me. Was like seeing a Wyoming version of the bars I’d spent years working in. But I picked it for the name—Boone’s. That was the family name of Jane’s rivals in a bunch of Gram’s stories—and in the journalist’s interviews. But Gram and the old book left it a little unclear how that rivalry worked itself out. Well, except for the part where they came head to head and blew up a whole town. But that was early on and I wanted to see if there was any hint how it might’ve ended.

So while Scott ordered us a round, I did a slow circuit of the bar, checking any photos or prints on the walls. Most of it was the same Budweiser neon bullshit we’ve got in the honky-tonks back in Tennessee. But here and there were pics of old-timey, bearded men by a train or holding out rifles in such a fashion it wasn’t clear if the men or the gun were the intended subject of the photo. But nothing of Jane or a green, antennaed alien. Was only one photo of a cow to suggest anything like a cowboy at all.

I joined Scott at the bar and we toasted a long trip completed. Except it wasn’t. And except Scott immediately started to make fun of all the effort it took to get somewhere only to find nothing at all. But I ignored him—wondering, not for the first time, why he came along if it was such a bother—and started shooting questions at the bartender. He was an older guy, just the prime age to creep me out with all the gross come ons I typically get when I’m behind the bar. He sported a beard that would’ve made ZZ Top proud and a tee shirt that reminded passersby that, yes, he loved America. And he answered my questions with a combination of brevity and annoyance that I recognized immediately as part of his professional disposition.

But then I asked him about Calamity Jane, specifically, and he got more chatty by a mile. He still wasn’t very forthcoming or friendly but I had his attention. So I followed up with a question about aliens and Scott hid his face behind his hand. And the bartender just stared at me for a long time before finally saying he didn’t know what I was talking about. Said New Mexico was the state for that kind of thing. Or so he’d seen on The X-Files.

So I plucked out the disc from my back pocket. Metal as it was, it wasn’t cold at all from all that time outside in the below-freezing air. And I told him I’d read that aliens in these parts once carried discs like this. And these same aliens once ran afoul of the Boones. And he nodded. And he laughed. Told me his last name was Crown, not Boone. And then, like I’d stopped talking, he just turned away and didn’t speak another word to us all night. Even when we paid the tab. But he did eye that disc enough I told Scott, “We’re on to something.” And he told me he’d be happiest if he could be on to a bed.

I stole a Boone’s matchbook—seriously! They had matchbooks!—and froze my ass off while we tried to find a hotel. We were so exhausted we settled for the world’s shittiest motor lodge. But it had a kind of space-age all-plastic bathroom that sort of matched our alien theme for the trip, so it could’ve been worse. And despite the cold and the smell of mildew, I fell fast asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. And I dreamt of a teenage cowgirl who’s path I was following. And when she looked at me, she was me.