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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 upstairs.

A man? (All the librarians are bitter divorcees and hate men.) I was like, Pearl, men are allowed to go wherever they--

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 encouragement.


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 said.


"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 leaving produce.

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 the library.

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 tears.

"James is a good boy, he is," she says.

"I know."

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. "Yes."

"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," she says.

"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 night.

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."

I nod.

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 sheepish.

"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, oh.

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 hope.

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.


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