Michael S. Wolfe
Photo Credit: Chris/Dr.DeNo
Buddy VandenCamp, who learned to find the capital of Indonesia on a map at the age of three, who failed to find pleasure in video games, and had a hard time making friends throughout childhood, was always a bit of a mystery. Even Marie Koller had a hard time with him. She was the first girl who fell in love with him. She told him several years after their first meeting that she had not liked him at first blush: his eyebrows were unusually bushy, and he was short, maybe half an inch taller than she, and scrawny like a cornstalk. It was kind of shallow, she admitted.
Buddy’s family lived on a widespread ranch in North Dakota near the Minnesota border, and his father was a rancher. From a young age, before he learned to read, his father had told him he had a way with cattle that made him an asset on the ranch. The beef stock trusted him, walked wherever he prodded them into walking, as though they knew their fate and accepted it, just because Buddy was so nice to them. But Buddy never took to the work with any real interest, and at sixteen he got a job at Gator Gulch Putt-Putt where he handled an assortment of colored golf balls, putters, scorecards, miniature pencils and cash.
The manager, Mr. Martin, was probably the closest thing to a best friend that Buddy had, although they never saw each other outside of work. “A good worker,” was how Mr. Martin would have probably described Buddy, if someone had been interested enough to ask. “Not that there’s a whole lot of hard work to be done around here,” he might have added, for the sake of fairness.
It was true, Buddy liked the business of miniature golf over ranching because it was easier, but also because Marie worked there. Five months after he started working there, he asked her to dinner, and she said yes. There was not much in terms of elegant dining in the town where they lived, but near the end of Coal Valley Road, the road where Buddy lived, there was a Chinese restaurant where the waiters declined to ask for ID, so they ordered rum and Cokes, daiquiris, piña coladas. It was the only ethnic restaurant Buddy had ever been to.
Their time together at Gator Gulch Putt-Putt stretched into two years before Marie found another job tutoring younger students in math and English. She was saving to go to college. Eventually, she saved enough to quit her job at Gator Gulch, and by then, she and Buddy were living together. They shared an apartment, and Buddy came home to her on weekdays, and on weekends when she worked later, she came home to him. It was a happy arrangement, because they loved each other, and so the small space seemed more than adequate. Buddy was happy to live away from his parents, even if they only lived ten miles up the road.
Soon after they began living together, Buddy sensed that they were too different for each other. Neighbors didn’t believe she was really his girlfriend: she was too pretty for him, and too ambitious. She had long hair the color of dark beer, intense brown eyes behind smart glasses. She dressed in elegant black skirts, or flaming red saris that made her look like a foreigner among the girls in North Dakota. She eventually planned to go to medical school. And she had a longing to travel, to see the world before it changed into something else.
Buddy sympathized, but he wondered what he would do with himself while was she away.
“Save your money,” she told him. “Come to Europe with me.”
“Hmm, I don’t know.”
He never imagined he would leave the country. He’d never even been on an airplane. The local airport in Fargo was semi-famous for being Buddy Holly’s intended destination on the day he died in a plane crash in Iowa. Buddy, who noted that he and Buddy Holly had the same name, as well as the same glasses, wondered aloud if they shared similar luck with aircraft.
“Buddy Holly’s plane was a tiny prop plane,” said Marie. “We’d be taking a 747 most likely.”
“Well, you sound like you really know what you’re talking about,” he told her.
She did. Marie had already traveled—without dying—to many places that Buddy had never been to. Minneapolis had an international airport, and she’d flown from there to Montreal to visit relatives a few times. As a couple, she and Buddy had even done some light traveling, but never involving aircraft. Sometimes they took the bus to the cinema in Fargo, which offered a five-dollar matinee on weekends, and once they drove north to Grand Forks to see the North Dakota Museum of Art, which was closed when they got there. The Amtrak Empire Builder stopped in Fargo, and went as far west as Portland, though they had only taken the route as far as Devils Lake, North Dakota.
Buddy saved his money and then quit his job at Gator Gulch Putt-Putt, a move which pleased him greatly and mortified Marie.
“Buddy, this is completely crazy. What are you going to do for money? That was a good job.”
“I don’t care,” said Buddy. “I hated that job. I mean, I worked there for almost three years. I can’t be in the miniature golf business my whole life.”
“You have pretty much the worst timing in the world, though,” said Marie. “Really. We’re going to Vienna, and you have to buy a plane ticket for that. God, Buddy. This is the just the greatest timing ever.”
He disliked her condescension, as though he had no idea he had to buy a plane ticket to go to Vienna, as though he’d planned on taking the bus or hitchhiking.
He knew she loved him, but perhaps it was hard for her to picture him doing anything else. She perhaps thought badly of his skills, questioned whether he could ever amount to anything special. He talked about becoming a doctor, but this only mirrored Marie’s aspirations. They couldn’t both become doctors, she told him. She didn’t know how much that had hurt him.
They flew to Minneapolis. Buddy had expected a large aircraft with massive wingspan, but Marie explained to him why they used tiny jets for shorter flights.
“You tricked me,” said Buddy.
“Yeah, but it’ll be worth it.”
He closed his eyes when the wheels touched down. From Minneapolis, they flew to New York, and then to Vienna. It was wintertime. It snowed in Vienna, the fat flakes twirling as they fell, and this reminded Buddy of home. But the foothills of the Eastern Alps were taller than the tallest peaks in North Dakota, and more beautiful. And Vienna was by far the most sophisticated city he’d ever been to. They visited the Hofburg Palace and the Schönbrunn Palace. They visited cathedrals and museums, gardens and cemeteries.
They stayed with a friend of Marie’s—Elisabeth—an American who studied music at the Konservatorium Wien. Marie and Elisabeth were pen pals who had never met. Elisabeth seemed unusually interested in Buddy’s life history, asking him many questions about life in North Dakota—was it really cold in the wintertime?—what kind of animals do you raise on the ranch?—is it better or worse than South Dakota?
He had a hard time figuring out Elisabeth. She spoke beginner’s German with her Austrian friends, dipping into her English vocabulary sometimes, dragging herself out with help. She hadn’t lived in the states for many years. She said her family lived in West Virginia.
Buddy and Marie enjoyed Elisabeth’s nice apartment, but made an effort not to spend too much time there. They visited the city during the day, staying out for dinner and drinks, coming back only to sleep and wake up. They wolfed down Viennese cuisine like starving people: they scarfed down Wiener schnitzel, Apfelstrudel, ribs slathered with sauerkraut.
On their last night they went for a final walk through Vienna, Buddy enjoying the city lights and the cathedrals and cafés a little less than he might have if Marie were speaking to him. She wasn’t angry with him—she was just meditative sometimes, as silent as a Buddhist monastery. They walked past an accordion busker in the Wiener Prater, the waltz music fading as they followed the avenue between rows of horse chestnuts.
Back at Elisabeth’s place, while Elisabeth was at the cinema with a date, Buddy and Marie made plans for their lives in America. It was all Marie’s idea, one of her serious talks she demanded of him periodically, something he frowned upon for its pretense of importance. Buddy never planned for anything in the future—it was just a trait ingrained in him by years of having nothing to look forward to.
“What are you going to do when we go back?” she asked him.
Buddy shrugged. “Get a job. Work.”
“Work where? The only field you’ve ever worked in was miniature golf. And you hate ranching.”
“I’m not that worried about it,” he said.
“Maybe you should be!”
He hated to fight with her, but she insisted on it. And then once he got dragged into it, he couldn’t stop himself. He fought with her over her college plans. And she said: “Dammit, Buddy, we’ve gone over this.”
“Have you decided which school you want to go to?” he said, pressing her.
“Not yet. I’m still deciding between Stanford and Vanderbilt. But that’s only if I decide to go at all.”
Buddy’s spirits lifted. “You mean you might not go? What about Stanford? At least it’s not so far away.”
“California’s still pretty far. I’m just not sure I’m up to it.”
Buddy was certain her indecisiveness had everything to do with him. What would happen to them if Marie moved to California? She would never see him again. She would hook up with college guys, end up marrying a neurosurgeon. He wondered if she would be better off without him, but then he always knew his own life would be worse without her. He held onto her, like a lucky bracelet.
Of course, he thought of her as more than just that. Part of him wanted her to go to medical school, to become a doctor, to publish articles in well-known medical journals. He pictured himself sitting in her room, helping her study for tests. Anatomy 101. But in real life he felt useless around her.
When they flew back to Minneapolis, Marie’s friend Caitlin picked her up at the airport. They planned to go on an overnight shopping trip at the Mall of America. Not wanting to stick around in Minnesota, Buddy bought a bus ticket to Fargo, and from there, decided to take a taxi to visit his parents.
It was the beginning of February. The bison farms on Coal Valley Road seemed to go on forever, the homogenous coat of white unbroken by houses or woods or frozen rivers. Everything seemed wasted away, nature falling into a state of disrepair. There were no trees anywhere. Some of the bison had flecks of white piling up in their fur, their heavy heads sagging behind strips of razor wire.
Buddy had the driver drop him off at the liquor store, about a half-mile before the ranch. The heat inside the store crashed into him like a wave. The fluorescent lighting seemed much too bright as he stepped into its glare from the canvas-of-grey sky that was empty of sun. He spent the last of his cash on two bottles of Wild Turkey and some bison jerky. The clerk recognized him: they had gone to high school together. Same algebra class. No kidding. Everybody on Coal Valley Road seemed to know everybody else—it was just a fact of life. The clerk probably thought Buddy was just fucking with him when he failed to reciprocate the recognition. He told Buddy to have a nice day, and dropped a bunch of dimes and nickels into Buddy’s frozen hand.
Outside, the snow had stopped falling, but the road to the ranch was choked with slush, in parts muddy like a root-beer flavored Icee. The taxi was gone. He hiked down the road until his feet ached and his ribs burned. He pulled up his rolling suitcase to his hip and stopped at the side of the road to rest. A few cars and trucks drove past.
When he got to the house, he pushed open the door and found the place empty. His parents must have gone out somewhere. He walked through each of the rooms, lingering a little. He remembered the day he’d moved in with Marie, when he packed his suitcase and stood in his old bedroom and thought to himself: This could be the last time I ever step foot in this place. Of course, it was easy to visit his parents anytime he wanted, because they lived so close. He just never wanted to.
He took his bag from the liquor store into his bedroom, and began to drink. He sat there for two hours, till he drank the first bottle all the way down, then opened his bag of bison jerky. His throat burned from the strong bourbon.
When he opened the second bottle, he imagined what it would be like to pass out or drink himself to death, having his parents walk in to find him slumped on the floor. The more he drank, the more delight came to him from this thought. He delighted to think of his father’s anger, and his mother’s disappointment. But then he thought of Marie, finally, and he found he couldn’t swallow another drop. He brought the bottle to his lips but couldn’t make it go down, couldn’t get the picture of her out of his mind. The shred of respect she might still have for him was something he had to preserve, and so he got up and stumbled out the door into the cold.
The next day, when Marie came back from Minneapolis with a carload of stuff from the mall, Buddy began to sense the end of things. Marie seemed more distant, like she was hiding something. Buddy still felt the sting of exhaustion from their trip to Vienna, the jet lag, and wondered if Marie suffered from the same. He had felt bored during the day, waiting for her to finally come home. When she pushed opened the door, he believed in her as someone who could rescue him from his boredom; he thought she would talk to him about her time at the mall, and they would mention how they missed each other. Instead, Marie groaned in frustration.
“What’s wrong?” said Buddy.
“I’m looking for an icepack, but I can’t find one.”
“Do you have a headache?”
She groaned again with more aggression. “No, I don’t have a headache. I hurt my back.”
“I must have hurt it carrying things out of the trunk.”
Buddy stared at her from the couch. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Yeah, well. Fuck.”
She swallowed aspirin and went to their bedroom to lie down, but ten minutes later she went into the kitchen and heated up some macaroni and cheese. An hour later, the phone rang.
“That was Caitlin,” she told him. “We’re going out for a drink.”
Buddy’s heart sank. He had hoped they would stay home and watch a movie, and eat dinner together. Besides, it was bad to mix pain relievers with alcohol.
Marie seemed happier now, on her way out. She said “Bye,” not “I love you,” and he thought he heard relief in her voice. The door shut hard behind her.
During the next week, Buddy spent his days looking for a job, partly because he thought it would please Marie. He thought about going to Mr. Martin to ask for his old job back, but the miniature golf course shut down once the blizzards came. No one wanted to play miniature golf in two feet of snow. He applied for a job at the post office, but they weren’t interested in him. No one was, not even the hunting supply store where his dad’s cousin had owned the business for fifteen years. Marie paid the rent for their one-bedroom apartment.
On Friday, when Marie had off from work, they both stayed home and played Monopoly. Buddy played the banker, sorting out cash for both of them, counting houses and hotels. The game was a waste of time in his opinion, but it made her happy. He, too, used to enjoy all kinds of board games, but now? Now he was older and less easily amused. He hated board games.
But then he landed on Free Parking seven times during their game, loving every moment of it. He loved Marie’s protests of half-genuine rage. Her theater of agony, the feline whining that sounded vaguely invitational. Their disparity of luck that actually brought them closer to each other, because the money was not real. The banking industry, under his control, was benevolent and forgiving.
As he put away the game pieces, Marie went into the kitchen for a glass of milk and then came back and sat on the couch. Buddy felt her eyes on the back of his head.
“Buddy, we need to talk,” she said finally.
Buddy could feel what was coming, but a part of him still resisted the truth of what he’d known all along; he acted stupid, intensely interested in her every word, because she could say anything at all.
They both cried. She told him through a blur of sobs that she was moving to California after all, that it was the end of the road for them. Buddy tried to salvage things, even when Marie resisted him. He had a penchant for salvaging.
“You know, just because you move away, it doesn’t necessarily mean we have to break up.”
“I know, I know. It’s just that…”
“You know, we could talk on the phone. I could visit you, even.”
“Buddy, it’s not just that.”
“What are you talking about? You’re only going to college. It’s not that big of a deal. I know I thought it was a big deal, but I thought about it. It’s really not.”
He couldn’t stand this. Like never before, he felt the threat of extinction—it was more like a bullet to the back of the head than the slow erosion he’d imagined. He felt like he had to keep talking, had to keep objecting to everything she said. And then he stopped. And then she told him everything would be better if she left as soon as possible. How could they stand to keep sharing this tiny apartment? It was unbearable.
She packed her things quickly, but it took until afternoon the next day to finish. They still slept in the same bed, and when he woke up next to her in the morning, he noted the shaft of sunlight bleeding through the window, falling on top of her back and shoulders; he noticed the pleasing length of her hair. It was hard to push away the knowledge that they had broken up. He wanted to make love with her, but he felt somehow afraid of touching her.
He swung his feet onto the floor, and sat there many moments, thinking to himself. The room was chilly, because the window was left partly open. Weak sunlight like lemon juice poured through without warmth. He thought only about Marie. He wished he could have made things turn out different, so they wouldn’t have broken up. Part of him wished that he’d been rich, or had a job that paid good wages, so the burden of money wouldn’t have squeezed the life out of her. He wished he’d saved his money and then had stayed away from Vienna. But then, he understood that Marie cared about so many things besides money, that even if they had all the money in the world, it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Or even if they were poorer than poor. He thought about moving to California to be with her, but knew it would never work. It was not an issue of love. He believed now they were meant to be together, then torn apart.
Later in the day, when Marie had woken up and packed the rest of her stuff, they shared a plate of moo shu chicken from the Chinese restaurant, talking about their plans.
She told him she was taking a taxi to the airport.
Buddy said nothing. He shoveled the food into his mouth with chopsticks, eating at a faster pace, as though to avoid responding.
“Will you come outside with me?” she asked.
They carried her things outside, where the beautiful golden wheat fields next to their apartment block would flourish in the spring. The snow had melted away now, but winter still lingered. The two of them shivered in the biting wind.
Buddy watched the blue sky as an airplane droned overhead. Then, sooner than he would have liked, the taxi appeared on the icy back road.
Marie squeezed him. “I love you,” she said. He said it back, whisper-thin.
They kissed. The door clicked open, and she got in. The car inched forward, then carried her away, finally disappearing behind a hill. It left behind the faint traces of gasoline in his nostrils, and nothing else.
Buddy shivered again. Then he walked back inside the apartment, where the world was slightly warmer.
Michael S. Wolfe is a writer and musician living in Santa Fe, NM. His story “Sitka-by-the-sea” was published as his thesis at The New School in Newark, DE and his story “Thunder on the Mountain” has appeared in Midwest Literary Magazine. Email: michaelswolfe[at]comcast.net