“You know, JaNean used to play Delta Dawn on the piano. She was good. You could harmonize with her.” It was more a statement than a request from JaNean’s cute, bespectacled mom.
All I heard was Delta Dawn. I did what any rational person would do and belted out a refrain.
Del-ta-a Dawn, what’s that flower you have on
could it be a faded rose from DAYS GONE BYYY?
I took a long drink. Singing is thirsty work.
“That’s right,” JaNean’s mom patted me on the shoulder. She wrote on a slip of paper and she walked away. Realizing she was turning in a karaoke request, I looked at JaNean for help.
“Those are the only words I know.”
When Mike, Colin, and I pulled into town the day before, Mike said something about it being unlikely he’d know anyone outside the family of the man whose memorial service we were here to attend, and this place didn’t feel much like home anymore.
I thought that was silly. Sure, we haven’t been around since about ‘04, but this was where he’d spent most of his adolescence. He’d been Senior Class President. I knew more people from his graduating class of about three dozen than from my own class of more than three hundred.
There aren’t that many people around here to get to know. The population of Challis hovers around 1,000 depending upon whether the mine is in operation. The county has a population density of about one person per square mile. I thought everybody knew everybody. There doesn’t seem any way to avoid it.
But Mike’s family moved, and since Challis is not really on the way anywhere from anywhere else, we rarely have call to be in the neighborhood. There were times over the course of our early marriage, however, when he waxed nostalgic about his childhood and half-threatened to drag us back permanently.
We’ve subscribed on and off to the Challis weekly newspaper, which fosters some of this nostalgia. I love the sheriff’s report. I’m including an excerpt here without the names – which seems like the proper thing to do, even though they’re public record (None of this is to make light of the serious stuff Challis law enforcement gets to contend with, by the way, I just love the daily goings-on that still earn precious column inches in this paper):
(Challis resident) reported that “a deer ran out in front of me and committed suicide” on June 23 between Challis and Ellis on Highway 93. The collision caused $2,100 damage to his Dodge Ram pickup.
A Challis volunteer ambulance crew and officer responded to a residence in the eastern addition where two friends were working on a vehicle, which got away and rolled over one of the mechanics. He was OK.
Sawtooth Search and Rescue volunteers responded to the Stanley Lake area to search for an 86 year-old man who had been hiking above the lake when his knees gave out. The man got out on his own power and was OK.
Officer was advised of a moneybag that had been found in the middle of Challis Hot Springs Road.
From my experience, the random moneybag-in-the-road phenomenon is kind of an anomaly. And, making a living wage being all the rage that it is, Mike was never serious about moving out to the sticks so our kids could have all the acres of open space they’d ever want.
At least I’m pretty sure he was never serious.
Today, we have different priorities and the kids have developed an affinity to things like shopping malls and IHOP, so moving to the mountains is a much less frequent (as in: never) conversation.
Still, a visit to a place of one’s formative years tends to encourage reminiscing. After checking into our wood-paneled hotel, we cruised Main Street so Mike could point out where there was once a separate Junior High and High School; the site of a movie theater (the only one in fifty miles) that burned down; the house in which his brother and sister in-law were living when an earthquake sent boulders tumbling down the mountain and through their kitchen. He took us to Chipmunk Hill, the world’s smallest ski resort where the rope tow used to be powered by the engine of a WWII-era Dodge Power Wagon, and where Mike tried to teach me to ski, and where later I binged on cake donuts, nursed my blistered hands and contemplated divorce.
At the memorial service the next day, Mike and others each said a few words about a cowboy and a teacher who loved hunting and fishing and being the dad of Mike’s childhood best friend. Afterwards, we lingered over pasta salad and ice tea, and more than a few folks approached, one after another, to shake hands and say hello. There was the school librarian, the former principal, a classmate of an older brother. People asked after Mike’s family and complemented him on the comments he’d made and told him how glad they were to see him.
It occurred to both of us that night that here was a little more “home” than Mike had given it credit.
Later, we ended up in the bar with the karaoke machine, listening to the high school English teacher belt out tunes from Evanescence and Little Big Town I probably knew about as well as anything by Tanya Tucker.
And when it was our turn, JaNean and I went up on stage and turned the mics down all the way. Neither of us, it turns out, know much more of the lyrics than the chorus, but we threw as much flair at the performance as we could. Later Mike and a couple of other guys got up to sing some Johnny Cash with far less panache than I think “Ring of Fire” actually deserves. I tried to help out from the audience, but they ignored my conducting.
On an evening with so much of the population of this little mountain town making use of the karaoke machine, I’m guessing Mike may have wished he had fewer remaining connections around here than he actually does.
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