|Daybreak Stoney Run|
She flounced angrily onto the futon-couch, kicked off her shoes, and wrapped her hands around her knees. Trying to avoid him, she stared out the bay windows. The slough was covered in a thin shell of ice. “It’ll be a long winter before the hatchlings break out of their pale white cage,” she thought. “And me, it’s gonna be a lifetime before I agree to wear hand-me-downs.” She muttered, “Do you realize a woman who is now dead, a woman who died at seventy-five, belonged to these clothes?”
“Tamara, you’re making a big deal out of nothing. Becky just handed me the bag and asked if you’d like to look through it before she passed it off to Good Will. The bag’s been sitting in the pick-up for the last three days. It was so unimportant that I forgot all about it.”
“When did you see Becky?”
“Don’t start this, Tamara. I’m sick to death of your accusations.”
She curled into a tighter ball on the old couch and stared into the white fog that surrounded her world just beyond the lakeshore. I just want to enjoy this winter, she told herself. “I hate fighting with you. You should have explained that I wouldn’t want somebody’s cast-offs.”
“Cast-offs? Pat died, for god’s sake. She didn’t cast em off. She died!”
“I know. Still feels like cast offs. You know how she dressed. Hardly a farm woman. She spent gazillions on her clothes.”
“Then, what’s wrong with them? I don’t understand.”
“She wore them. If I wear them, people will know they’re from her.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means they’ll snicker and gossip behind my back about how I can’t afford decent clothes, about how much better they looked on her.”
“Hardly. Most women around here know you spend more on your bras than they do on an entire outfit.”
“And just how do you know that?”
“I pay the bill.”
“You do not. I pay the credit card. My pension covers all my stuff.”
“Enough. I’m gonna install a new lock on the shed.”
“Cold out there. You sure you want to work outside today?”
“Not so bad,” he murmured as he pulled on his fur lined red hat with the ear-flaps down. “Just have to keep my fingers warm.” He closed the door to the living room as he entered the foyer and then closed the outer door.
She watched him exit. “Hummm,” she muttered. “Must have made an impression. He actually closed both doors.” She thought of the cost of electric heat here on the prairie. The bill this month was going to be staggering.
This was the third winter they had spent in North Dakota a few miles from the Canadian border. She had to admit that they wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t brought him to visit five years ago. In order to support a dear friend who was born in Flaxton, she had purchased an empty lot for the price of back-taxes. A whopping $700 had made her a landowner. The lot was pleasant with twenty feet high caragana protecting it from the roadway and a lovely view north out over the slough to the wheat fields.
She loved to sit near the bay window and meditate. Just beyond a quarter-mile of ice-covered lake snuggled a newly painted red barn in the trees surrounding an abandoned farmstead. A white silo stood as a focal point for this rural painting that greeted her each morning. Bart
Howard, the owner, lived in town, but he kept his folks’ land cleared and trimmed.
The morning sun rose slower and slower on each succeeding winter day. The solstice was still weeks away.
By the 23rd of December she’d be looking forward to a celebration of lights – probably lighting candles throughout the house and if wasn’t windy, inside paper bags down the icy sidewalk between the street and the front door. The Norwegians were the ones who started this ceremony to push back the dark, but her Irish genes looked forward to the fantastical feel of shimmering candlelight throwing shadows on the snow. She loved the flickering light pushing at the edges of darkness on the first real day of winter.
As she slipped her feet into shoes and picked up her New Zealand wool beanie, she pushed the red and white Target bag full of another old woman’s clothes onto the floor. She’d put them out for trash pick-up later.
The ancient espresso machine that she and Bert bought second-hand a few months earlier gurgled into action. It was the one absolutely necessary appliance they had allowed themselves as they arranged their budget. Double-paned windows were expensive and they needed seven in order to survive the below zero temperatures. The new metal-deck roof cost a whole month’s salary; the insulation beneath added another couple weeks’ wages. In this land of severe winters, though, they were essentials.
“Bert, we already have an automatic coffee maker. Do you think we also need an espresso machine? Where will we put it?” she had asked.
“Look, Tamara, we’ve agreed to give up movies, a decent newspaper, poetry readings, and live theatre. The least we can do is treat ourselves to a decent cup of coffee. This is an Italian machine; it may be fifteen years old, but it’ll probably last the rest of our lives. I’ll plumb it into the osmosis and a dozen times a day we can enjoy a full-bodied latte. Even on the coldest darkest morning, we’ll know we have that treat when we roll out of bed.”
She ran her hands over the stainless-steel exterior of the two-foot square machine. “Never owned one of these before. We had to move to the middle of North America to make it necessary?”
“I’ll take out the narrow cupboards on the right side of the kitchen window. It’ll fit perfectly on the countertop right there by the back door,” added Bert.
As she steamed the milk, bubbling it into a froth for a cappuccino this morning, she silently thanked him one more time for insisting. Only Bert’s hugs were more important when she needed to settle in and let go of her just-below-the-surface angst. She stirred a half-teaspoon of raw sugar into the fragrant dark-brown espresso and topped it off with dollops of white foam. Perfect, one more time.
Beyond the kitchen window, the bare limbs of wintery trees were trembling less. Later, she’d pull out her trekking poles and walk out to the city dump-grounds. Probably the long-term residents of town thought her strange to walk in that direction, but in winter there was no traffic and even in deep snow the roadway was clearly indicated as it followed the railroad tracks. She often waved at one of the mile-long oil trains passing through town. It was joyful to have the engineer recognize her with a piercing whistle in the cold winter air.
The Swainson hawk’s nest in the caragana grove along the other side of the road might be empty now. Like half of this prairie town, the huge hawks wintered in the South, but it was early and there were lots of birds still near the lake so they may not have begun their migration yet.
Tonight was Halloween. She had purchased one of those variety packs of candy that she hated to insure she didn’t eat it all before the kids arrived. Good choice. The entire bag dumped into a bowl and she hadn’t stolen a single one.
The children would arrive in costumes over their snowsuits along with warm beanies and neck scarves. She loved the sound of their laughter as they came to the door, the swoosh of cold air as they stomped into the house in their boots. They took off their mittens in order to pick and choose their favorite treats from the huge bowl she offered.
However, this Halloween, Tamara was not going to be home although she loved the children of her little community. Several of them actually spent time with her after school in the afternoons. They’d stop in to read one of the storybooks she had borrowed from the town library, a library that had been closed since 1985. Rather than let the books turn musty in the basement of the Memorial Hall, she rescued a couple of the children’s titles. The kids sat on the floor in her study and checked out each one, choose the ones they liked best, and leaning on her floor cushions read aloud or silently to themselves. It was an adventure when they joined her in the bowels of the building to select the titles that seemed least dusty and most interesting. To be sure, titles like Poky Little Puppy were not as engrossing as modern Pokemon, but there were some excellent stories.
She’d found a few titles she enjoyed herself, classic authors she had promised years ago to read but had not yet started. She could have purchased those titles on Kindle for a song, but somehow Neal Stephenson or David Mitchell always got in the way and she ended up reading Cryptonomicon or Number 9 Dream.
She glanced at the table where a children’s title she promised to read to Renee sat beside the bowl of candy. The seven-year-old wouldn’t be coming to read tonight; instead she’d come to collect candy. From 7:30 Bert would dole out the goodies this Halloween.
He was good with the children. Like an Australian Pied Piper, he often found them gathered around as he filled the pot-holes down on Iowa Street or painted the first-floor window frames in the front of the Memorial Hall. They loved him because he made them feel useful; they were always invited to help. And while they helped, he teased in that low-key ironic way that all children understand.
One day he handed Bryan, the nine-year-old, a $2000 digital camera and said, “Here, take some pictures of Alana and me filling this pothole. There they were — three kids, one a whole lot taller, stronger, and grayer than the other two covered in sticky, black basalt. Bryan clicked the photo button on a very expensive piece of equipment, Tamara’s birthday present to Bert. What ever was he thinking?
The same thing he was thinking when they first met and he taught Tamara how to fix a leaky faucet at her cabin in the eastern Sierra. He knew she could do it. He trusted her to follow directions. He assumed that Bryan would do the same and, of course, the youngster did, just because an adult trusted him.
Bryan and Alana were the youngest children in a family with five kids ranging in ages from seven to nineteen. The two eldest had some other father. The youngest three lived with their biological mom and dad. The entire town functioned as their family. When they weren’t at Tamara’s house, they were at Erma’s, a sweet 75-year-old grandmother who spent most of her life feeding and entertaining her own nine or their numerous offspring. No reason that these three youngest imps couldn’t join them.
One day Erma and Tamara had a discussion about what they fed the kidlets when the youngsters arrived at 6 a.m. at her house or at 7 p.m. at Tamara’s. Mom and dad didn’t seem to pay much attention to meals. To fill in the empty spaces in their tummies, Erma gave them cereal and milk. Tamara provided hot chocolate and cookies. Baking cookies was not something that took much time, but Tamara didn’t often think of it unless there was a kid in the house, and yes, Bert counted as a kid. She seldom took time to bake in the afternoon so together she and the youngsters smashed together a batch of oatmeal cookies in the early summer evenings. Once they tried rice crispy treats. What a mess — rice bubbles everywhere.
However, Bert’s fav dessert was ice cream. In order to remain in his good graces, she seldom fed the neighborhood youngsters any of his sweet cold favorite.
Erma often gave the kids popsicles on hot summer afternoons. They were fairly cheap and she had quite a few wandering youngsters to satisfy.
Tonight was not only Halloween; it was also an important meeting of the City Planning Commission. At seven Tamara would be busy helping to make sure that land developers arriving from across the county in the midst of the Bakken oil rush didn’t invade this small hamlet and make their first million dollars by renting space to ten twenty-five year old males in each of the dilapidated antique houses in town.
You see, housing can be a problem. Flaxton is plunk in the middle of the new oil fields that stretch from Edmonton in Saskatchewan, Canada, to Rapid City in South Dakota and as far west as Glacier National Park. Suddenly the Buffalo Commons, the wide flat spaces of North America that feeds corn, wheat, oats, barley, and sun flower seeds to most of the planet’s inhabitants, became massively multi-productive. On top of the ground, mankind is busy raising abundant crops to feed three-quarters of the world’s population. Two miles beneath the earth’s surface, oil oozes along fractured lines between layers of sediment and rock just waiting for some ingenious scientist to figure out how to bring it to the surface.
As you might imagine, this process isn’t simple. When the initial oil is extracted, the subterranean soils slip down upon the empty spaces and close off the supply to the wellhead.
Two inventions work to make sure the oil reaches the surface. The cost of these processes is enormous – about $72 a barrel, but that’s not a problem since the price of oil in the USA is often over $80 a barrel. An $8 profit makes it all worthwhile as many pumps deliver a thousand gallons a day.
In Tamara’s little corner of paradise just before the oil boom, Burke County, a rectangle of 1600 square miles, had a population of 1600 (including the kidlets). With modern farm equipment, it takes only one farmer and some fantastic machinery to produce over 1,000 acres of crop each year. However, there aren’t enough men available to farm and to drill for oil. A poor economy everywhere else in the United States makes the Bakken look good. Thousands of young men left home to plop themselves down in the middle of what appeared to be a gold mine, a black gold mine.
And the village dwellers, how do they handle newcomers? With concern. Outsiders are not precisely welcome. Insufficient housing and very, very cold winters during which oil-workers can’t live in tents or RVs add to the problem. Thirty-five-mile per hour winds on a -15 degrees Fahrenheit night can freeze the sewer and water connections as well as kill the most intrepid.
So, Tamara abandoned the Halloween urchins on one of her favorite holidays when she might have stayed home to enjoy Alana and Bryan in their costumes. Along with her fellow village volunteers, she listened patiently to the wisdom of village elders as they tried to figure out a way to manage this difficult situation.
She joined the first public hearing on the Planning and Zoning ordinance the city council and her neighbors created in order to keep peace with developers who threatened to make a buck, well, thousands of bucks, by warehousing young rig-roustabouts in Flaxton’s sparse housing.
And just in case you wondered, Tamara was not wearing any of the hand-me-downs Bert brought home in the Target bag. Can you imagine how she would react if her neighbor said, “Oh, Tamara, I just love that color on you. Looks much better than it did on Pat?”
The meeting included several community members, who had come to complain or add their two-cents to the Planning Report. At a second public-hearing more input was added. Sometimes, it appeared community members couldn’t care less. On the other hand, all wanted to be sure that no one kept them from making a dime on their own properties.
As long ago as 1994 Flaxton had as many residents as now lived in town, about one-hundred-ten. However, folks moved on. A few died. Those who were left hunkered down and enjoyed the quiet of a small town. When Tamara and Bert first arrived, the census reported fifty-five residents still living in the small community. However, during the intervening three years, the Bakken fracking brought thousands of new residents to Dakota including 55 new residents to Flaxton.
Some of North Dakota’s elder folks along the northern tier of the United States were unlike their grandparents who fled their homelands in northern Europe because they weren’t the eldest in their families and so had no chance of inheriting property. Some came to this part of America because a potato famine in their homeland urged them farther west. All came looking for prosperity. These homesteaders grabbed at the opportunity for free land. They set up simple homes near rail lines, broke the sod and tilled the soil. Others formed businesses to serve farmers. They built schools, established parks and wide paved streets. In the 1960s they dug municipal sewers and wells to serve the small towns established along rail lines.
After the dry years of the Great Depression and the advent of World War 11, modern farming machinery reduced the number of farm workers necessary to till the fields and raise the grain in this part of the northern plains, which sported little more than four inches of topsoil above ninety feet of clay in the productive fields. Population loss could not be stopped. Current residents didn’t have the huge families their parents had. Technology from penicillin to farm machinery like combines meant more children survived and more and more of them found no work in a land where behemoths like Holland or John Deere assured one man could till a thousand acres.
Well-educated North Dakota youngsters enrolled in college and moved to the Cities to make a living. The rural population dwindled. Tax monies didn’t provide enough financial support to maintain the streets, the lights, the sewers and water systems. By 1990, many small towns ceased to exist except in name. Larson, Wildrose, Coteau, and Tully were small enclaves on land that used to support wide swaths of farm workers.
In many small towns in northwestern North Dakota the residents were no longer married to the soil; they were stuck in the muck until the advent of the Bakkan oil revolution, which caused jobs to materialize overnight.
In 2009, the northern tier of the American mid-western prairie experienced a population explosion. In two years Burke County, like lots of other little corners of paradise, doubled in population to 3200 residents. And somewhere in the midst of these changes communities found themselves at their tipping point.
Every third person had seven or eight non-functioning, non-licensed old vehicles parked in the back lot. Some had washing machines from the 1970s and air conditioners from the 1980s along with black and white televisions stored somewhere in the back of their garage. Rats found homes. Raccoons found the insulation of abandoned attics in vacant buildings perfect nests in mid-winter when the temperatures dropped below zero.
Attempts to re-establish a building code, to mow the tall grass and pick up the messes left by those who had moved on were met with little interest. Now, when the fellows who worked the rigs wanted a place to sleep at night, small town entrepreneurs rented out empty lots as trailer courts for a variety of recreational vehicles towed from Florida, Mississippi, Indiana, Michigan, or Minnesota. Two bedroom mansions on wheels and tiny bed/sitting/kitchen one room shacks on RV wheels situated four on a hundred-foot by fifty-foot lot each paid $500 a month for their tiny corner of the prairie.
What did the oil workers get for this price? Space, a small space, a spring time clay-mud environment and a place to set their propane tank to fire up a heater to warm the insides of their home away from home.
One intrepid investor, a contractor from out of state, arrived with a spectacular idea. In the residential neighborhoods of one of these almost empty communities were abandoned houses. For a small amount of money, windows were replaced, plumbing fixtures brought up to date, and all the rooms converted to sleeping spaces so that one two-bedroom cottage became a one bathroom, eight bedroom lodge. Forgive the term. Lodging meant you got four walls within which sat a twin sized bed with space on the floor for your backpack. Mud-caked, oil-covered boots were left on the steps outside the back door.
Garages became two bedroom sleeping spaces with a small shower/toilet room. Kitchen privileges included a cook-stove with four burners, a small refrigerator filled with the food of seven others who shared your lodging and a sink in which to wash your cooking and eating utensils before you took them back to your room. Eight lodgers to one bathroom seemed a bit overwhelming, but schedules were organized.
Some community members despaired of this scenario for small North Dakota towns. They organized ourselves into committees of seven or eight and wrote the town’s first zoning ordinances, hoping they would stand up in court and keep developers from filling their towns with a series of flop-houses for men who congregated around the new drilling rigs. Working-men with families were encouraged to renovate some of the old buildings, but a small village of one-hundred-ten was not the place to locate thirty single twenty-something workers with nothing to entertain or involve themselves at the end of a work day.
* * *
“Jack, what is your opinion of Davy Jones,” Tamara asked as the quiet settled over the downstairs dining room where three members of the Planning Commission opened the meeting on Halloween.
“He’s about as bad as the Samson boys.”
“Oh, now that’s a surprise. I thought they were pretty reliable.”
“You need to be around for a bit and you’ll realize these kids are doing as little as possible and charging as much as they can. There are so few folks around who know how to do home-repair work. Everyone who can is working for the oil companies. Thirty dollars an hour is hard to turn down.”
“I heard Grace at the Columbus Diner is trying to sell her business because she just can’t get help.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“She has it up for sale on Craigs list.”
“Not a reputable site.”
“True, but folks looking for a bargain might take a second look. She’s asking $80,000
“For that place?”
“She put quite a bit into it when they took over the building. I think she paid a pretty penny for it, too.”
“I wish her luck. Sure she wants to get out of it what she put in.”
“Do you eat there?” asked Sabrina, the chairperson of the Commission.
“Couple of times. Food is good. Prairie,” Tamara responded.
“Prairie? What do you mean?” Sabrina asked.
“I mean breaded, deep-fried, and plenty of it.”
“Ah. Not precisely Chinese.” Jack smiled.
“My favorite place to eat around here is Yin Bin over in Kenmare. Their noon banquet is pretty tasty and reasonably fresh and nutritious,” Tamara offered.
“Too spicy for my taste and they don’t speak English very well,” answered Jack.
“Bert and I have a pleasant chat with Sus-an every time we’re there. I love her spicy broccoli and chicken. She chats amiably enough with us.”zon
“Well, we have a number of items to consider for our next meeting. Wiley and Karen had some great suggestions for the zoning ordinance. Pete and Sharon were a bit negative, but their comment about including agricultural districts inside the city limits makes sense. Guess we have lots to work on. Think I’ll head home to hand out Halloween candy. How bout you two?” Sabrina asked.
“Yep, home sounds good. Been a cold and wet day at the wells. I’m ready for a little TV and bed,” added Jack.
“How many wells, Jack?”
“Six; it’s a full-time job.”
“All over on the moraine? That’s quite a drive in winter.”
“Little black ice never hurt nobody.”
“I remember the first time we dealt with that. Scared the livin’ daylights outta me,” said Tamara.
“Slowly, take your time. No rush,” he added.
Sabrina laughed. “Now, that’s a prairie mantra if I ever heard one.”
“Do you drive in winter?” I asked.
“I do,” Sabrina answered,” but not after Lasix surgery like yesterday. But usually yes. I’ve been doing it all my life.”
“How long have you lived here?”
“I was born here,” Sabrina answered.
“You guys live in a world so different from mine, even though we all live in town.”
As usual Tamara was amazed by the integrity and grit of prairie folk.
As Sabrina turned off the downstairs lights, she said, “We’re glad you’ve come. A little outside energy perks things up.”
“Thanks, Sabrina. See you on Monday at the city council meeting.”