Amanda Eyre Ward
Butte as in Beautiful
Itís a crappy coincidence that on the same day
James asks for my hand in marriage there is a masturbator loose in
the library. On Monday morning, for example, everythingís the
same. Pearl gets picked for the Copper Lunchbox so we have to listen
to Steve Winwood all afternoon. Dorrie goes, did you have to pick
all Steve Winwood? and Pearl goes, Look. Itís my Copper Lunchbox.
Fair enough, I say, and then I say, Can you all be
quiet so I can alphabetize in peace?
Pearl and Dorrie snort and turn up the radio. When
you see a chance, take it. Find romance, make it make it.
We fight about the radio, primarily. Weíve each
been picked for Copper Lunchbox at least once, and then everybody in
the library puts down their newspapers (which theyíre not reading
anyway) and thinks itís their job to comment on your musical
tastes. They donít have any other jobs in Butte, so people take
what they can get. In July, and it was hot, Old Ralph spent half an
hour pontificating about Madonna. I was like, you know what Old
Ralph, fuck off. "Crazy For You" is a good song, and itís
not a lyrics thing. Old Ralphís like, Touch me once and you know
itís true. I never wanted anyone like this, itís all brand new!
singing it real loud and I almost took the new Mary Higgins Clark
and threw it at his head.
So, we live in Butte, Montana. The richest hill on
earth, ha, ha. They dug a pit the size of the city next to the city
and now itís filling with toxic water. Itíll overflow in the
year 2000 they say, so I say, well, a year is a year. Now theyíre
talking about mining the water.
My dad was a miner. Heís dying now of cancer--itís
in his bones--and all his friends are dying of cancer too. They come
over to the house and drink Guinness and smoke like fiends and whatís
mom going to say? Itís bad for your health? When I get home thereís
some kind of meat or some Beefaroni, and when I get in bed my sheets
smell like Downy. In-between my dadís coughing, I can hear my
motherís soft laughter.
They hired me at the library out of Butte High. I
was the class valedictorian. At the graduation ceremony, I said,
"Go forth and find your dreams." I could have gone to
Missoula, and played for the Lady Griz, but my coach was like,
Annie, that kneeís going to give in less than a season. I had to
tape it for the last game as it was, but the Lady Griz still wanted
me. They are the best womenís basketball team in the West. They
went to state and then to Florida to play in the Championships this
year. I watch them on TV. Theyíre all as tall as me, with their
hair in little ponytails, and they were on the beach with suntan
lotion all over their noses because hey, theyíre from Montana and
their skin isnít used to Florida sun. One of them married the
quarterback of the Grizzly football team. She wore a cowboy hat with
a veil, which I think is tacky.
So, people used to send their daughters to Butte
because your skin would get pale here, and that was fashionable. It
was the arsenic in the air. Itíll bleach your skin. Our Lady of
the Rockies is light as snow.
After work, James picks me up and we go driving.
Sometimes we drive just over to Pork Chop Johnís for sandwiches,
sometimes to the flats for a beer, and sometimes we go all the way
out to Deer Lodge where the prison is or to Anaconda where the
smokestack of the old smelter rises up like an arm. James! He smells
like melon and green peppers. He plays trombone for the Toxic Horns
and when I watch him play, with his eyes half shut, I can smell him
over the smoke and the BO from all the townies. His hair always
looks messy and sticks up like a little chickadee. Heís blonde and
tall as me. His tongue is the softest thing in the world.
Back to Monday. By the afternoon itís raining,
and thatís the best time to shelve. Itís quiet and warm in the
library, and the books are all organized and beautiful. Iím
humming and checking out the Romance section when thereís a scream
from the second floor. Itís Pearl and she goes, "OH NOOOOO!
AAAH!" and the upstairs exit slams shut and Pearl comes running
down the stairs like a puppy. Her lapis blue eyeshadow is smudged
and her wiglet is askew.
What? What? goes Dorrie and Pearl canít say it.
She breathes in and out and finally she goes, There was a man
A man? (All the librarians are bitter divorcees
and hate men.) I was like, Pearl, men are allowed to go wherever
And Pearl goes NO! You donít UNDERSTAND! and she
starts crying. Dorrie leads her by her little liver spotted hand
into the bookbinding room and Pearlís shoes make this sad shuffle
sound. You can hear the two of them talking quietly and then Pearlís
crying, Dorrieís soothing sounds. A few minutes later, Dorrie
comes out. Her mouth is drawn together tight as a prune.
"There is a masturbator loose in the
Periodical Area," says Dorrie.
By now all the regulars have dropped their
newspapers. Nobodyís even pretending to browse, now. Old Ralph (of
course) leads the way. He runs up the stairs with determination on
his face for the first time since I have known him. Abe follows him
and the little biddies stand at the foot of the stairs chirping
The masturbator had escaped. That afternoon,
Dorrie gets the whole story out of poor (Catholic as they come)
Pearl. She had noticed a strange man in the Science periodicals
while she had been organizing the Ms. magazines. (I was like, what
was he reading? Discover? Scientific American? but Dorrie told me to
shut my piehole.) The man was tall with brown hair combed back. He
had a receding hairline and was wearing jeans, a brown leather
jacket, and white penny loafers.
So, Pearlís organizing the magazines, maybe
reading a bit as she usually does which is why it takes her forever
and a day, and she hears sounds from the man. What sounds? Grunting
sounds and breaths, little short ones. (Pearl kept saying, Like a
bear, like a bear, but nobody wanted to explore that statement.) So
finally she looks up from the Ms. and his backís to her. Heís
hunched a bit.
Now, let me tell you a bit about Pearl. Sheís
about sixty five, and her husband was brought over straight from
County Galway and then got himself killed in the mine explosion, but
not before he left Pearl for a stripper. She never remarried, or
went on a date, or even talked a whole lot to a man after that. In
short, the masturbator had to turn around, cock an eyebrow, and give
Pearl an eyeful before she realized he was no regular patron. She
was paralyzed for a minute. According to Dorrie, who appointed
herself official psychoanalyst, he finished the job right there and
then, and that is why Pearl doesnít use the water fountain
anymore. Pearl finally screamed and came galloping down the stairs
and the masturbator escaped.
James drove past Pork Chop Johnís. He had
showered after work and didnít smell like produce but like Paco
Rabane. "What, did you get off early?" I said.
He looked at me, and put his hand on my knee.
"Annie," he said, "I did. I got off early
today." He was talking like a movie, which always annoyed me.
While he was busy squeezing my knee, he missed the light on Mercury
and almost ran into a hippie Volkswagen Van.
"Van!" I screamed, and he hit the brake
in time. "Iím hungry," I said.
"Darling, you shall be fed," said James.
"Iím in an onion ring mood."
James shook his head. I was getting pissed off.
"So, James," I said, "A masturbator is loose in the
library." James pushed his lips together.
"I donít want to talk about that," he
said. "Annie, if you could go anywhere, anywhere for dinner
this evening, where would it be?"
I thought for a minute. "Tower Pizza," I
"Yes! You said I could choose, James. What
the fuck is your problem?"
James was breathing hard, smelled weird, and I was
getting sick of it.
"Tower Pizza or Iím going home," I
said. "Momís making meatloaf anyway."
"FINE!" yelled James, and he didnít
even touch his salad or the double pepperoni with mushrooms. I told
him all the details about the masturbator and he listened glumly.
Then, the moment. The moment went like this:
Curtain opens on a young couple in Tower Pizza, an
orange-walled restaurant with waxed yellow floors. The couple is
smoking cigarettes and eating pizza from small plastic plates. The
woman uses a knife and fork and the man uses his hands.
ME: Should we have gotten extra cheese?
JAMES (the love of my life): No. This is fine.
ME: I sort of wish I had caught the masturbator.
ME: At least it would be exciting, you know?
JAMES: Annie, I got a promotion today. Iím
ME: Awesome! I wish we had extra cheese.
JAMES: Iím going to be manager of the meat
counter. I almost have enough money to get us out of this place.
This fucking place! Weíre headed for better things.
ME: Can we get cheesy garlic sticks, babe?
JAMES: Annie, will you marry me?
So I said yes, and we went up to Our Lady of the
Rockies and had sex. Our Lady of the Rockies is a hundred-foot
marble statue of the Virgin Mary. Butte bought her and helicoptered
her up there to give the town something to be happy about. Butte was
once bigger than San Francisco. You can see Our Lady of the Rockies
from everywhere in my town. At night sheís lit up like a Christmas
tree, her arms open to us all. Iím not insulting James, but I felt
sick from the pizza, and I missed his green pepper smell.
The next day, thereís posters all around the
library. They say: CAUTION, PLEASE, THIS MAN MAY BE MASTURBATING IN
THE PERIODICALS ROOM and then thereís a picture that Pearl drew of
a manís face. It looks like a cartoon pig. I tell Pearl and Dorrie
that the signs might lead people to believe that the man should be
left alone, but they look at me with their brows furrowed and I drop
the subject. Everyone is very upset about masturbation going on in
Jan and the Morning Crew keep making jokes about
us on the radio and repeating the description of the masturbator,
down to the penny loafers. All of a sudden everybody wants to hang
out at the library, and all the books are in disarray. I canít
bear it. After an hour, I call my mother and ask her to have
breakfast with me. She hadnít been awake when I had left for work,
and my father had been coughing too hard to notice the ring on my
finger. It was a thick gold ring with a diamond the size of a pencil
eraser. It had been Jamesí grandmotherís ring. She had been a
famous lounge singer and had been given the ring by a movie star I
could never remember the name of. It glitters with yearning for
better days, and flashes around as I file the card catalog. Nobody
notices when I slip out a side door.
My mom is waiting at the Squat and Gobble. She has
ordered her tea and my creamy coffee, and is wearing a pillbox hat.
When I come in, she looks up and in the bright sunlight, her face is
lined and dry. Jesus, I think, sheís an old biddy. Then I feel
guilty and give her a big hug. And donít you know she sees that
rock on my finger before I even sit down.
"Margaret Ann," she says, "Is that
what I think it is?"
I say, "Yes," and her eyes fill with
"James is a good boy, he is," she says.
We eat eggs and bacon, and my mother dabs at the
corners of her lips between bites. She comes from a wealthy Irish
family and never lets us forget it.
"James was promoted to the meat
department," I say. She smiles. "He wants to leave
Butte." Her smile widens. "How do I know if this is the
right thing, Mom?"
"Do you love him?"
I think of James and his baby chick hair.
"I loved your papa too," says my mother,
and she shakes her head slowly. "Thank goodness youíll get
out of this town," she says. She looks out the window, and I
look too. There are old cars glinting in the sun. A man with a beard
leans against Frankís Pawn Shoppe and draws a circle with his toe.
He has only one arm. A woman comes out of Terminal Meats with a
package wrapped in paper. Her face is rosy and her shoes are shiny
and new. Her coat is lined in fake fur and she holds it closed with
the hand not holding the meat. She nods at the one-armed man.
"Maybe you and James could go to Florida!" says my mother,
"Just like the Lady Griz."
"My knee is broken!" I yell, by mistake.
My mother shuts up like a clam and her face goes pale.
"Iím sorry," I say. My mother wonít
look up from her eggs. She looks like what she is: a pale old lady
with a husband who has cancer in his bones. Her pillbox hat looks
ridiculous and her lipstick creeps into the furrows around her
mouth. She doesnít dab at her eyes but lets her cheeks get all
wet, so that they look like theyíre made of clay.
"Why arenít you happy for me?" I say,
"This ring belonged to Marlon Brando!"
My mother looks up at me. "I am happy,"
"Why donít you come with me?" I say,
"Why donít you go instead of me? I donít care."
"Breakfast is one me," she says, and I
watch her count change from her worn purse. On impulse, I grab her
small fingers. She looks up strangely, but does not pull away.
The masturbator has come and gone by the time I
return to the library. This time it was Mrs. McKim who saw him in
the Newspaper Nook. He was working himself into a frenzy by the
stacks. Mrs. McKim didnít get a gander at the whole package. She
saw the leather jacket and the loafers and ran screaming before he
even turned around. He had gotten away by the time the police
arrived. "Secure all the doors!" the police say to us.
Nobody shelves the whole afternoon, and the books are not in order
on the cart. All the peepers that have started hanging around begin
to pick up books, look at the covers, and then drop them down
somewhere else. I find a Young Adult novel in the Reference Room!!!
That night, I can barely sleep. I have my mother tell James that Iím
too sick to go dancing. In my bed, I listen to the sounds of my
house: the clink of silverware going in drawers, the hum of the TV.
The creakings of two old people moving around each other in the
The next day, I take the ring off. Itís getting
in the way. I am working at the counter when they come in: three
little kids wearing glasses and brandishing pens. "We,"
says the tallest one, throwing her shoulders back, "are the
future problem solvers of America."
Another one chimes in. "We are working on
deforestation," he says.
"Look in the card catalog under FOREST or
WOODS," I say. The Future Problem Solvers of America look
"We canít really read,"says the tall
one. I spend all afternoon helping them. We find pictures of
clear-cut forests and pictures of lush, green ones. We find pictures
of log homes, and rugged men with axes. The FPS of A leave
satisfied. They promise to return next week, when they will begin to
cure cancer. I tell James I have the flu, and watch television with
my father. I wrap myself in an old blue blanket and laugh so hard
that my father tells me to shut my damn piehole.
By Thursday, things have settled down at the
library. The masturbator has not returned, and James has stopped
coming by and asking whatís wrong, whatís wrong.
Iíll tell you whatís wrong. It took me all day
to get that library back in order. Whatís wrong? People and their
ability to mess everything up. Disorder always increases. Thatís
the rule, according to Einstein or whoever. Well, Iím no Einstein,
but I say, every rule is made to be broken. I tape my knee every
day. It wonít get worse, and thatís a promise.
I like being a librarian. I like the peace and
quiet, and the smell of old paper. I like time to talk and time to
just look through old magazines. Each book is stamped with a
history: whoís read it and when. Who needed a renewal. Nowadays,
everybody loves mysteries, but I can prove that people used to like
history books. That says something, but Iím not sure what.
My kids are going to know all about History.
Pocahontas to Columbus to Marcus Daly, who took all the copper out
of Butte and left us with his empty mansion and a cancer pond. Iím
going to teach them to be a part of history, like the Lady Griz and
their trip to Florida. Like the Masturbator, even.
At three or so pm, I hear the front door open. It
makes a click sound and by the time I turn around, someone has
scurried up the stairs. I know without seeing that itís him. But I
keep filing for a time. Really, I donít know whatís the matter
with me. Finally, when nobody else goes about catching him, I make
my way to the staircase. Itís a wooden staircase, and it makes a
small squeaking sound with each step. Outside the door to the
periodicals room, itís silent. I canít hear a sound. It smells
like chicken soup upstairs. I push on the door, and of course, there
he is, the Masturbator, whacking away.
Hey! I say, and he turns around. His face is red,
but dry. His hair is neatly combed, and his shirt is white and
pressed. He looks like somebodyís lawyer, or somebodyís dad.
Granted, his dick is hard and heís got his meaty hand around it.
But the expression on his face is not panic. He looks relieved, or
like I had walked in with a present all tied up in a bow. He says,
What is there for me to do? I am eighteen years
old, and a grown man (who has become soft by this time) is standing
between me and the weekly periodicals and heís got his pants
unzipped. I am a librarian, and a Montanan.
I recognize the look in his eyes.
Go home, I tell him, Canít you just go home? And
something changes in his face. His eyes fill up with tears.
It is at this point that Dorrie comes through the
door. She has just been fixing her hair and she smells like a new
dose of perfume. Her mouth opens wide, and she screams and grabs me.
The man (dick completely soft by this time, and swinging wildly)
pushes us to the ground and heads for the door. Old Ralph tackles
him downstairs, and when the cops arrive, the Masturbator is tied to
the card catalogue with packing tape.
It turns out that the Masturbator has a name:
Joseph Davis. He lives in Helena with his wife and two kids. Heís
a mortgage salesman. His picture is on the front page of the Friday
paper, along with my name and the name of our library. It is an old
picture: his hair is thick, and he wears a tie. His smile is full of
What a sick, sick man, says my mother, looking at
the paper over my shoulder. Her hair is still pinned in curls, and
she has given my toast with honey. She is rotting from the inside, I
can smell it.
You got that right, calls my father from the
living room. His oxygen tube almost drowns out the television. I can
see my fatherís face, and it is grey and tired.
I donít say anything, but I know they are wrong.
I saw Joseph Davis in the flesh. I knew the flash in his eyes. I
wish my parents would just be quiet. I will call James today, and I
will give him back his ring. I will tell him what I should have told
the Masturbator. Please understand, James, I will say.
I will say, There are plenty of things worse than
having a home, and doing what you have to do to stay there.
Amanda Eyre Ward received her MFA from the
University of Montana. She has just finished her first novel.