Opportunity, Montana | by Becca Rose Hall | fiction

            Herd of sheep: that was my first impression.
            "What the fuck is that," Henrik said, swerving his pickup. He did not slow down or put his second hand on the wheel. 
            "I think it's some sheep," I said. But it was a man riding a bicycle. He was towing a bike trailer loaded up with a huge white canvas bundle. It was the bundle I thought was a sheep. He was riding along, maybe four miles an hour, right up Highway 93 towards the pass into Montana.
            "Jesus," I said, and then we were by him. 
            "What I was saying," said Henrik, "is don't worry about it, Jess. There will be foliage."  He took his hand off the wheel entirely and squeezed my thigh. 
             I stared at his arm. I have pretty much spent college staring at his arms. If the choice is to be looking at Henrik's arms or not looking at them, I'm looking at them. It's an obvious decision. His arms are just beautiful. He's outside all the time is why, and now of course there's the smoke jumper training.  
            "What I'm saying is, it's gonna be ok, babe," Henrik said, and put his hand back on the wheel. 
            "But I wanted lilacs. I wanted something that smells."
            "Well next time we plan our wedding, we'll factor in climate change."
            "Yeah." I sank down in my seat and looked out the window. Pines, pines, pines, pines. On the Montana side, there would be mountains and ranches and a river with tall cottonwoods. This is one example of why I chose Montana over Idaho. When an opportunity is given, I take it. 
            We were on our way back to Missoula that day from the hot springs down near Salmon. It was two weeks until the wedding, and we thought we would take an overnight getaway before the relatives descended. I don't know why we thought we had the time. I guess it's just that I get restless. I need a highway sometimes.
             The hot springs are a trek, but so worth it. It's a stream coming down off of a mountain in the desert and half the water is hot and half of it is cold and you can sit in hot waterfalls. In the winter, the mist freezes on the branches like clumps of cotton candy. But this time it was May, and I had sunburned my boobs and was feeling testy about it. What if my boobs were peeling on my wedding night? What would that portend? Also, we had planned the whole wedding for the week when Missoula fills up with lilacs – they were going to be our flowers, which would be awesome on two accounts: a) they are my favorites, and b) we could pick them for free. 
            But spring had come early. It had been so warm that my watershed ecology professor held class outside in the lawn in February. Up on the hill above campus, near the big M for the University of Montana, someone had written WALK using white sandbags. When our class saw that, we got kind of tense and somber. That is one of the worst things about climate change – it takes all the fun out of nice weather. 
            Two days later, the sandbags read BIKE. Then KYOTO.
            "Well that's Chinese for a waste of time," Tyler had said. He's my friend Emily’s boyfriend, and he runs heavy machinery for a construction crew out past Reserve Street where all the new subdivisions are going in. I never have anything to do with that side of town. If he wasn't Emily's boyfriend, I wouldn't have anything to do with Tyler either. He's kind of a bro. But Emily had a dream about kissing him before she even met him, so she feels like it's meant to be. Who am I to say anyway?
            Anyhow, the lilacs came early, and I wasn’t sure there would be any left by the wedding, which meant we'd either have bouquets of some random flower Emily would steal us from the campus flower beds, or we would have to shell out for real flowers. Which would go against the whole principal of the wedding. 
            We wanted things cheap – Henrik wanted things cheap. So everything about this wedding was cheap. Emily got ordained online to be our minister, and her fee was only a case of PBR.  We were feeding everybody stew from the deer Henrik shot last fall, plus cheese platters from Albertsons. Our cake was also from Albertsons, and looked pretty much like every birthday cake I had ever had at every roller skating birthday party of my childhood only it was vanilla instead of chocolate so it wouldn't stain anyone's clothes. Dry cleaning is expensive. Henrik was wearing the suit he had worn to prom, and I was wearing my brother’s wife Shirley's old wedding dress.  
            Shirley is one of those women who fake tans so much she looks like she has a beta carotene problem. We're not anything alike, except that we happen to be the same height and bra-size. Her dress fit me so well, it was creepy.
            "It's like my brother was acting out some buried incestuous desire," I said to Henrik. "Her body is almost exactly the same as mine!"
            "Except you're not orange."
            "It's still creepy."
            I think I was really just mad because in my opinion, Shirley is kind of fat, and turns out who am I to judge.
            Our one splurge was the venue. I wanted the wedding to be in the basement of the Wilma, the old hotel down near the river. There was a movie theater upstairs now, but the basement had been fixed up really classy, and there were doors out onto a little patio that looked out over the park and the bridge and the river. 
            "We don't have that kind of money, honey," Henrik said when I suggested it. "How about the Senior Center? We could Swing and Sway." 
             That's what the sign at the center says about their dances: Come Swing and Sway. Talk about geriatric. Also, downstairs they have this thrift store that they run kind of like a lemonade stand. The ladies do the selling and the men play pool in the corner and when the ladies want something hauled around they holler at the men, "Marv," or "Herman," because that is the kind of names these fellows have, "Help this young lady with her dust buster here." On the door, coming in and out, is a two-sided handwritten sign: "Adult Diapers Sold Here."
            "I'm not getting married someplace they sell adult diapers," I told Henrik. "I want the Wilma."
            "Jess," he said, "They charge an arm and a leg. What about the Bucks Club?"
            The Bucks Club is a bar where you can get a beer and a burger for a buck. 
            "I'm not starting my marriage someplace that smells like stale Bud Light." 
            "You never get my jokes, Jess," he told me, which is true. Sometimes it worries me. 
            In the end, I got my dad to pay, and we booked the Wilma.  We set the wedding for the weekend after graduation, partly because it was lilac time and partly because then my parents could kill two milestones in my life with one visit. My parents are both actuaries in Boise. They value efficiency. 
             But now the lilacs were early, and while store-bought flowers flown in from Chile might fit their definition of efficiency, they don't fit mine.
            "Maybe it's a sign," I told Henrik as we crested the divide into Montana. "I mean, if we can't find flowers for the wedding, how is this thing ever going to blossom?"
            "Jess," said Henrik, to shut me up. Then, "I got it!" He turned completely towards me, ignoring the road. "If the lilacs are through, we'll drive up the Blackfoot or the Swan and beg them off some rancher. Micro climates, baby." 
            "That's brilliant," I said, because it had not occurred to me.
            We drove for a while without talking. The highway cut through a series of little towns, and in between them ranchettes with pretty split-rail fences. You couldn't tell by looking, but Chief Joseph and the Nez Pierce had passed through that valley with the cavalry behind them on their last ditch run towards Canada. I imagined them all moving through Darby and Hamilton and Victor, the settlers watching from their plank porches with their pistols on their hips, blinking like it was an apparition, even though the Nez Pierce were real flesh and blood. Because when someone passes through our day as if from nowhere, how often can we really see them?
            "You know," I said to Henrik, "I wonder where that man was going."
            "What man?"
            "The Sheep Man."
            "Nowhere fast with that load," said Henrik, and laughed like it was funny.	

            I saw the Sheep Man again four days later. Me and Emily's bird class had taken a last field trip down to the preserve on the Bitterroot River. It had been a good day of birding. We'd seen a hoary redpoll and a white wing crossbill, both of which are rare in the area, and also a baptism.  That was the best, in my opinion – we were driving over the river and there they were, a whole group of people, and there was a guy underwater, just flailing. We could see the white water where he was churning it up. They were holding him under.
            "That's the real deal," said Emily. Her family is in some born-again church, so she should know. 
            And then we saw the Sheep Man. It was just the same as the first time. He was pedaling along the highway, still headed towards Missoula. We were about thirty miles north of where Henrik and I had seen him. His bicycle, I noticed this time, was pink.
            "It's the man! It's the man I saw this weekend!" I was incoherent. "I thought he was a sheep but he's a man!"
            "It's an omen," said Emily. "Rare birds, a baptism, and a Sheep Man."  
            Scientists are supposed to pooh-pooh omens, but Emily and I disagree. Intuition is a subtle system of interpreting quantities of data too vast for the conscious mind to sift through. Just because the instrument is sensitive does not make it wrong. We like mysteries – that's why we're scientists. Also, as wildlife biology majors, we believe we should trust animals, and animals trust signs.
            "An omen," I told her, "but an omen of what?" 
            We found out the next day: Emily was pregnant. Not only that, but she was already almost four months along. She spent a long time in the bathroom of the house we all share, adjusting to that one.
             "That girl needs to pay more attention to her menstrual cycle," said Henrik. "Five months is not enough time to acclimate to the concept of parenthood. I want a year of warning, minimum."
            "Marry an elephant," I told him.
            But I did agree that finding out at four months would be a rough one, and I wondered about that Sheep Man. An omen didn’t mean a good omen. Our lilacs were doomed. And speaking of omens, what does it mean when your minister is pregnant at your wedding? Did it mean my mother was right?
            The whole wedding was an ill-conceived idea, according to my mother. She did not believe in omens, but spent most of her time creating complicated calculations of all probable futures. Statistically speaking, marrying your college sweetheart is more likely to end in failure than marrying your high school sweetheart. And don't you think 22 is a little young? Women who wait to marry until age 25 are half as likely to divorce as women who marry before age nineteen. Those were her exact words. End in failure. As likely to divorce. Thanks for the vote of support, Mom.  Also, her idea of a good idea for my future was that I a) move back to Boise and b) abandon biology for business school and c) marry someone who did not jump out of planes into forest fires for money.
            But I like that Henrik is a smokejumper. That’s like sexy de la sexy and a secure job too, given climate change. Besides, my parents did not care about the extreme sexiness of Henrik’s arms. 
            When Henrik asked me to marry him, his arms were sticking out of his Remove Missoula, Restore the Valley t-shirt. That’s what I remember most: his arms with their surfer-blond hair, all muscled like someone who could make things be OK. We were standing in our snowshoes on the ridge above Holland Lake, breathless and sweaty from the climb, and he was down to his T-shirt, which had a cartoon of the University clock tower sticking out of the prehistoric lake that used to fill the valley. The t-shirt was a joke the geology department had made because of all the Missoula bumper stickers that say Remove the Dam, Restore the River, which had to do with taking out the Milltown Dam, just upriver from town. There are more of those stickers than NRA and Green Party bumper stickers combined, which if you know Missoula, is saying something. And there he was on that sunlit ridge in that wonderful, nerdy shirt, with steam rising off him from his own sweat and the boundless wilderness stretching out behind him, dropping to one knee, offering me a life of mountain tops and sunshine. It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. 
            So that was how that happened.

            In the end, we did find lilacs for the wedding. Emily scoured all the north facing, shadowy corners of town and came up with enough. The whole room of the Wilma smelled like them. Henrik looked great in his prom suit. The sleeves were a little short, but that just meant more of his beautiful arms were showing. My dress, on the other hand, looked like someone had swirled up a big pile of whipped cream and then stuck me in the middle of it.  
            "Are you wearing your bustier?" my mother asked, in a faux whisper, part way through the reception. The lingerie was a gift from her, and included garters, which meant I was wearing stockings, which meant close-toed heels.  I had been hoping for flat sandals. Maybe Chacos.
             "Yes, mom."
             "You look gorgeous," she said. Shirley, glowing orange behind her, agreed.
            "I feel like a cherry," I told them. 
            "A cherry that's getting popped," said my brother, appearing behind Shirley and beginning to rub his hands all over her.
            Oh God. 
             But I was married. I never needed to move back to Boise. "Hold on a second," I said, and escaped onto the patio.
            And – speak of omens or coincidence or serendipitous acts – there he was, the Sheep Man. He was leaning on his bike in the parking lot between me and the river, eating a bag of potato chips. 
            I put my head back into the reception. It already smelled like stale beer. Lilacs and stale beer. "Emily, psst! It's the Sheep Man!"
            She was over the patio railing in her high heels. I hiked up my whip cream and followed. At least one of my garters popped off its sock.
             He was an old man, with a white beard and white hair that stuck out around his grimy baseball hat. Tan, grimy hands, grimy jeans that used to be blue. Looking at him, grimy was pretty much the word that came to mind. 
            "We saw you," said Emily. "Down the Bitterroot."
            "I thought you were a sheep," I said. "Because of your bundle."
            "Yeah," he squinted, taking it all in stride. "I got everything I need in that – in that pile."
            It was an impressive pile: insulated mugs, bedding, a pot, shoes, clothes, single size bags of potato chips, all held down by various ropes and bungee cords. More than I would carry if I were hauling it.
            The Sheep Man waved his hand at it all. "Yeah, I got my camping gear, my rain gear, my cooking gear. Uh, huh. Man in Arizona, he told me about eating potato chips. They're real uh real good for you, because of the salt. You use a lotta lotta salt riding. I get all the potato chips I can when I can find them. I do." He said he’d started in Los Angeles and had been riding for five years, through Joshua Tree and the Southwest. “But it's too hot down there. Too hot. Yeah." He straightened his cap and stared off at the parking lot for a while. "I'm goin' to Russia," he said then. "I'm gonna ride to Alaska and take a boat. Yeah, all the way to Alaska."
            He had a pull in how he spoke, like the words got swirled around for a while in his mouth before he could spit them out.  Aliyaska, he said it. All the w-w-way to Aliyaska.
            "No way," said Emily. "Man!"
            "I hear that's a beautiful highway, up through Canada?" I said. Suddenly, I wanted that highway so badly. I wanted it now. I pictured me and Henrik driving up it in some convertible, my wedding veil whipping in the wind.
            "Yeah. S'posed to be real nice."
            "Not too much traffic, I bet," said Emily.
            "No, no, not too much."
            I imagined they were right – Canada, in my mind, is just one big wilderness. Alaska too. The kind of place you have to live by your own guts, where you have to seize life by the balls. The kind of place where you ignore the signs and you die.
            "Hey," I said, "You want something to eat? It's my wedding in there. There's plenty of food."
            "Sure," he said, not surprised or eager or bashful.
            "I'll get it," said Emily. "You go in there, Jess, you'll be mobbed." She clomped away in her heels.
            I looked at the man's bike. It was a little girl's mountain bike. His legs must stick out when he rode it like a teenage boy on a trick bike. A few of the spokes had been replaced by twisted wires. He told me the wires were coat hangers. His saddlebags, he showed me, were made from workgloves stitched together with dental floss.
            "No shit," I said. I moved closer and examined the patchwork leather of the bags. Sure enough, they were gloves. "That's amazing."
            "There's a lotta lotta leather work gloves out there. They fall out of trucks all the time."
            That was something I had never noticed, never even thought about as something that existed, something a person could make something out of. Work gloves on the side of the road. This man was a genius.
            Then Emily came back with a bowl of stew and a big stack of cheese in a napkin. "Jess, you gotta go back in there. The piranhas are hungry for their bride."
            The man had already started eating.
            "Well," I said, hesitating, "Good luck out there. Have fun in Russia." He nodded. That was all there was to say. The intersection between the Sheep Man and me was ending. I had seen him, observed him, as best as I could. I’d given him what I could. What else can you do? So I went back in to the wedding. My wedding.
            "The Sheep Man is out there," I told Henrik, but in his wedding haze he had forgotten who that was. 	
             I danced with Henrik and I cut up the cake. There was only a little bike grease on Shirley's dress.

            I hadn't really thought getting married would change anything. We were staying in the same house, with Emily and Amanda. I figured that except for the title and the ring things would go along pretty much the same, only I could get on Henrik's benefits when he got a job as a smokejumper, and there were tax perks. I figured we would spend the summer tubing the river, like we always did, and Tyler would come in yelling, "It's Friday, let's get some brewskis!" or he would bring us weed and we'd play broomball with a beer can in the parking lot in the backyard. I thought maybe we could be grown-up and get a dog.
            But none of that happened. First of all, in July Tyler got picked up on six-year-old pot dealing charges, even though he didn't even deal anymore. The shock of it all made Emily go into labor at 27 weeks, which meant she only knew about her pregnancy for barely over two months. Baby Jayden was so little he had to be in an incubator all summer, so any time Emily wasn't working, she was there, and whenever I could be there I was there too.  
             Second, I was lucky and got a job at Fish and Wildlife, which was pretty dreamy to get right after school. But it turned out that the job was 100% a desk job, memorandum ad nauseam. I did not even get a tan. And the job came with medical benefits, so I didn't even need Henrik's. Also, Henrik was never home except when he was bone-dead tired. He barely touched me all summer. Home without Henrik: the anti-honeymoon.
            In my mind, blowing some money on a honeymoon is one of the prime opportunities getting married affords, but we couldn't take a honeymoon right after the wedding, because my job was starting and also we didn't have any money.
            "We'll take one this winter, babe," said Henrik, one night when we were in bed. "On my winter break."
            "Let's take a road trip," I told him. "Let's drive up to Alaska."
            "You can't take a road trip to Alaska in the winter, babe." 
            He had a point.
            He squeezed my butt. "How about Las Vegas?"
            "I don't want to go to Las Vegas."
            "Well you pick somewhere, as long as its warm."
            "Let's go to Costa Rica."
            "Pick somewhere cheap. Somewhere warm and cheap."
            "What about interesting?"
            But he was asleep.

            That summer they started to dredge out behind the Milltown Dam. We had all been seeing those Remove the Dam, Restore the River stickers forever, so the actual dam removal felt like some kind of historic moment. The problem was, removing the dam was not so easy. There were so many old mine tailings behind that dam it was a major Superfund site, and it wasn't like all that toxic sludge could just be allowed to wash down river. They had to dredge it out and dump it somewhere. They picked a town called Opportunity, Montana.
            I thought about the dam a lot, while I crossed the Higgins Street Bridge and looked down at the river, and at work, too, while I stared at a computer in that stupid, stuffy room. Some people from my office, who were luckier and tanner than me, had been up to the dam site to leave trout in cages to see if the trout died from the toxic sediment the removal stirred up. So far, the trout were alive. I thought about those trout and about the little dam they found behind the big dam, a forgotten dam that had been hidden by the reservoir. And I thought how much it sucked to be Opportunity, Montana. Until then I had always assumed opportunity was a positive word but it occurred to me all it really meant was possibility.
            I started a new habit that summer. Every time I saw a leather work glove – when I was riding my bike to work, or driving over to the NICU to see Jayden and Emily in the evenings – I stopped and I picked it up and I brought it home and put it in a box in the closet.  I didn’t talk to Henrik about them. If he noticed them there, he didn’t talk to me. 

Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram

Becca Rose Hall is the director of Frog Hollow School, a decade-old children’s writing program. She writes the newsletter A Few Crooked Words about helping children love writing. She studied writing at Stanford and the University of Montana. Her work has featured recently in Orion Magazine, sPARKLE and bLINK, and Mutha Magazine. Her novel Salt for Salt won the 2019 Writers Lighthouse Emerging Fiction Fellowship. She lives in Seattle with her daughter.