We crossed the 45th parallel, exactly halfway between the equator and the north pole.
Shaniko, said the road sign, 13 miles.
I did the math. 13 miles = 20 kilometers.
America is a BIG place. My American husband yawns at the wheel.
To keep him awake I ask, “Say, what is difference between canoe and kayak?” because even more than idle chitchat, I’ve learned, Americans LOVE each and every opportunity to voice their real or imagined expertise.
“Well,” said my husband, “the only way to tell for sure is to shoot a hole in the hull. All things being equal, the kayak sinks faster.”
“What if I don’t have a gun?”
“If you don’t have a gun you don’t belong in America.”
I yawned, “You Americans, so in love with guns but ashamed of the body. Like Oh My God, a nipple,” I bit my fist. It wasn’t a joke: whenever I reflected on the ugly side of American culture, like their strange gunlust and nipplephobia, my impulse was to flee back to Sweden as fast as possible. But two things kept me anchored in LA: the weather and my American husband. And now we were headed north to Walla Walla to see the Washington wine country.
My husband, the self-professed pseudo-intellectual, yawned and yawns again. “Next stop Shaniko.”
“Do you think we could stop and get some coffee?”
“If there’s any coffee to get.” He shrugs grimly at the wheel. “I read somewhere that Shaniko’s a ghost town.”
“Ghost town. You mean like haunted?”
“I mean like there’s nobody there. All the same, we can stop and stretch our legs.”
“Schopenhauer would like to stretch her legs,” I glance in the backseat; Schopenhauer, my husband’s 15 year old Norwich terrier, sleeps soundly on her cushion. Schopenhauer has seen both my husband’s ex-wives come and go, and half-a-dozen girlfriends. Sometimes I wonder how I measure up.
Shaniko takes form across the prairie, a small cluster of boxes on the otherwise empty horizon. What a lonely country is north-central Oregon, high and dry and without trees. Being from Sweden I am accustomed to trees. But as Shaniko draws closer I see there are a few scraggly trees in the small town center, no oasis but trees are trees.
A one pump Texaco guards the entry to town, the buildings few and very old, weathered wood and brick, downtown five empty shops and a two story brick hotel with a whitewashed balcony. We park by the hotel entrance. In the window hang two signs: CLOSED and FOR SALE. We stretch our legs and pace the boardwalk. Through a dusty window I spy a deer head on a wall. My husband walks Schopenhauer up and down the block.
Across the road there is a strangely built school house, freshly painted but boarded up. My husband states the obvious, “That school hasn’t held a class in many, many years.”
“Indeed,” I say because when Americans start belaboring the obvious it’s generally a good idea to let them talk themselves out. Indeed is a word that helps their process, a kind of verbal laxative.
We walk a lazy loop around town, but there isn’t much to see. A couple old barns. An outhouse. Sagebrush rattling in the breeze, the air thin and dry. “To think that people lived here once.”
“They still do. See the truck? And that restaurant looks open-”
“That’s not a restaurant, it’s an ice cream parlor.”
“I want some ice cream.”
We tether Schopenhauer to a bench outside the ice cream parlor. Inside the ice cream parlor the air is cool and brightly lit, the white walls hung with old timey advertisements, frozen in the ‘50s. Behind the counter lounge an old woman and older man.
Above them hang a sign: milkshake $4. Vanilla, chocolate, strawberry. They’re out of chocolate and strawberry, however, so we both order vanilla. “Where you from,” asks the old woman.
“Me, I’m from Sweden.”
“Sweden. Long way Sweden.”
I shrug, “Yeah.”
“Cold. Dark. Socialist.”
“It’s not socialist-”
“No? Saw that movie, what’s it called, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Bad place for women. Pretty forests though.”
I’m about to scream. My husband takes me gently by the wrist. “It’s not strictly socialist,” he explains, “But Heidi loves America. Don’t you love America?”
I glare at him.
He whispers in my ear, “We don’t want her to spit in our milkshakes.”
I ape a fake American smile. “I love America.”
“Love it or leave it,” says the woman, seemingly without irony. The register jangles. “That’ll be eight smakaroos.” The milkshakes take forever. When they finally come I get brain freeze.
My husband sucks the straw thoughtfully. “Funny. I haven’t had a milkshake since I was a little kid.” He touched his temple profoundly. “No, seriously, it’s been twenty five, thirty years maybe. How long?” My husband makes his melancholy pout pout face. “Not since my grandpa killed himself.”
“Real shit, actually.”
“Don’t be. They say he was an asshole. Very much like myself.”
“Say-” My husband leans across the counter to ask the old woman. “Excuse me, ma’am. Excuse me. Which direction would the boneyard be?”
The old woman cupped her ear, frowning.
“The cemetery. Does Shaniko have a cemetery?”
She shakes her head.
“But every town has a cemetery.”
“Not in Shaniko there aint. Ground’s too hard. Closest graveyard is down the road in Antelope. Softer ground in Antelope.”
“Well.” My husband regards his milkshake. “Howzabout that. The exception that makes the rule.” He sips his empty milkshake and studies the emptiness, pouting.
We toss our cups in a trashcan and step back outside. Schopenhauer strains against her leash, wagging her tail and agitated. On the boardwalk I notice the little snake, emerald green. The little snake is watching me. “Look,” I say to my husband, “is that-”
“Yeah, it’s a young rattlesnake.”
“My first ever rattlesnake. She’s SO beautiful.”
“Give it some space. Those things are dangerous.”
“We don’t have anything like this in Sweden. Little black snakes, yes, but nothing like this.”
My husband ducks back inside, leaving me alone with the snake. The little snake looks at me, flicking its tongue. I lean closer but still it does not rattle. She just looks at me, minding her own business, the lovely little creature.
My husband comes back outside, followed by the ancient man. The ancient man carries a garden hoe. My husband points, “There beside the bench.”
“I’ve been trying to kill this thing for weeks,” said the old man, gripping the hoe.
I protest, “She’s not dangerous, she’s minding her own business.”
“It’s not safe for children.”
“Children? What children!”
The old man brings the hoe down and cuts off the snake’s head – just like that, like it was a weed. The body twists and coils, rattling. The head flicks out its tongue.
“You fucking murderer,” I say in Swedish. I say other things. His face grows pale. He grips his hoe like an impotent cock. I hope he has a heart attack.
My husband restrains me, coaxing me back toward the car. “Come on,” he intones, “it’s simply not worth it.” Through the passenger window I watch the snake’s body keep coiling and coiling. My husband retrieves Schopenhauer and puts her in the backseat. “Why!?”
“Because,” said my husband, driving us away, “in theory the snake could have bitten somebody.”
“There was nobody to bite!”
“Preemptive strike. American specialty.”
“We could have saved the snake.”
“Coulda woulda shoulda. And how exactly?”
“We could have trapped the snake in the ice cooler. Then we could have driven it somewhere safe from redneck assholes.”
“They’re not redneck assholes, per se. That’s the backbone of America. They’re the reason you’re not speaking German.”
“I do speak fucking German! I hate when fucking Americans act so high and fucking mighty-”
“How many times can you fit fuck into a sentence?”
“And fucking fuckety fuck fuck. And if one more fucking American mentions Girl With The fucking Dragon Tattoo I’ll-”
He looks sidelong. “You’ll do what.”
“Say the magic words and find out.”
My husband smirks. “Oh the temptation. I feel like Saint Anthony.”
“You think I’m only joking. Say the fucking words and you won’t be laughing.”
“The Girl,” says my husband grinning to provoke me. He thinks this is a joke! A big truck is approaching in the opposite lane, glinting coldly in the sunset.
I look at the steering wheel. He grips it loosely, as though to tempt me.
I will grab the steering wheel. He thinks I’m joking?
“Pearl earing,” he smiles, “was a fairly good book but the movie was fair to middling. Don’t you agree?”
The big truck roars past.
Schopenhauer whimpers in the backseat.