The tow truck dropped me off in Bozeman, and the driver, in the manner of all tow truck drivers, took too long to write down my credit card number on his grubby noteboard. I had to stand embarrassed by my stranded car while Wal-Mart shoppers wandered past. He left Roxanne, my Subaru in a distant corner of the lot, under a stand of trees where the sun wouldn’t bake away the skis in my rack. I started to cross the hot asphalt towards the Wal-Mart, but I’d barely gone three parking spaces before I was halted by a hoarse holler. A scraggly looking man beckoned me over, behind a minivan that looked like it hadn’t run since long before my parents had even met.
“Hey, kid, you got a needle!?”
Silence. Awkward, exhausted silence. My sandals shuffled and I was acutely aware of the sweat in my stubble.
“I need to take my Insulin, but I need a needle”
I knew even less about Insulin than I did about hard drug use at that point in my life, and I still had no interest in providing a needle.
But the tow truck driver had parked me three spaces down from this guy, and it was obvious neither of our cars were going anywhere anytime soon.
“No, sorry, I don’t have a needle, I just have skis.”
“You got money for a needle!? Man, I just need a needle!”
“Sorry, no money.”
I spun slowly as I said it, walked away, expecting a shiv in my back, or whatever one uses to dispatch those who refused to provide needles.
Inside the Wal-Mart was no better. The grime and sweat of four days of skiing hard in the sun stood out. I slunk to the bathrooms, found the family restroom, and stripped. I brushed my teeth, looked in the mirror, and mourned the youth who’d left home for Montana a week ago. I wiped myself down with paper towels wetted and doused with hand soap, left a pile of brown paper in the trashcan.
I still felt filthy when I came back out, so I slunk out of the Wal-Mart.
I walked along the main strip away from the freeway whence I’d come. The road was dotted with pawn shops, and I stopped at each, looking for skis that cost just enough more than I could afford to tempt me. Nothing.
Back out into the sun, but now it was diffused by the trees downtown, and the orange glow of sunset was just starting to color the filtered light.
I walked the length of Main Street and turned to come back. As I returned up the street, a few blocks in, I noticed a figure across the street, where I’d just come from. A girl had been walking behind me, but she stopped before I’d crossed over, and unslung the guitar from her back.
I stopped, stood diagonally to her, and tried not to stare. She was tuning the guitar, swaying with each chord as she tightened its melodies. I pulled out my phone, desperate for any excuse to linger. It was dead, but I pretended to text as she started to play.
At first, her fingers just wandered across the strings, releasing lilting notes that bounced softly and then popped to silence. She hummed low too, a little hoarse, discordant, quietly searching for the rhythm, the melody, the rhyme, some song not quite revealed.
I gave up on feigned disinterest, put my phone in my pocket, and squatted against the wall of the shop, leaned up against the mural on it. I wanted to hear music. She was here to play music, there was no reason to be an embarrassed audience.
She nodded to me as her fingertips milked an almost melody from the guitar, and then bent her head again, as if she was trying to release her trapped tune from the guitar’s soundbox. She was my age, slim to the point of skinny, and cleaner than I was, but not by much. I don’t remember everything about her, but what I do know stands out, juts realer against my memory of the rest of that scene, that day, that ski trip.
Her feet were bare other than a toe ring, calloused, and they mostly hid beneath her long ruffled skirt as she squatted over her guitar. Her skin was tan, that shade that no burn will peel away. The hair that tumbled over her face was dark, messy, two uneven strands twisted into locks bound with ochre beads while the rest flew loose. Her eyes were mostly closed, but as the music carried her they danced higher under hooded lids, piercing, bright spotlights demanding attention behind the tangled jungle of her hair.
She stamped up dust from the tree box beside her as she found her rhythm and it hung gold in the dusk. Suddenly she found her song too and her volume lifted. Her fingers bounced between two notes, slow at first playing with the half step as she started a murmuring nearly-wail, humming high without any trace of shrillness. The two notes bounced off each other faster and faster, billowing into a crescendo, and she rose with them till she stood tall and slim, and then suddenly silent.
I waited for a half beat, shocked by how tense I’d become as she let the strings vibrate out their last notes, holding the guitar almost tenderly. I saw now that it was haggard, beaten by a multitude of miles, strained under the weight of songs. The body was faded and cracked, the pickguard peeling at the edges, and the neck was worn raw by sliding hands. It shone in a bright patch against the dusk, an aspen rubbed bare by a rutting elk. I realized I hadn’t been breathing, that I was leaning forward, the tension of the silence paralyzing me.
Then she howled, not the soft fake howl of a girl trying to imitate a dog, but a deeper, rougher, more gutteral sound, like the scream of a cougar. As the last trickle of the call escaped her lips she attacked the guitar, tearing a powerful melody from the splintering wood. Her hair was a mess now, over her face, floating in a demented halo, catching the last rays of light.
She didn’t seem to be singing a song in the traditional sense. There were no verses, bridges, choruses. Instead she sang like some greek prophetess delivering celestial pronouncements in a noxious cave, Cassandra with a guitar. I caught wisps of familiarity, but whenever a progression of chords strayed too close to a conventional tune, she caught it again and whipped it back into a frenzy of layered passion.
Eventually, the tune came to rest and she squatted and hummed again, picked the strings with one hand as she slipped a silver-belled bracelet onto her ankle. Then it grew again, sweeping back up, and she was dancing, punctuating each beat with the tambourine on her ankle, beating the guitar with the flat of her hand, tearing rhythm out of the melody.
Nobody passed between us on the sidewalk as she sang. Just a silent, filthy, boy squatting against the mural of children playing in the sun, and the wolf-girl enslaved by music. She sang of love, and mountains, and a home lost, she sang of the call of the sea, and the whispers eagles carry to the sun, and finally, she howled again, dancing, jumping in place with her guitar, expressing in exasperated syllables what no words could carry.
Her head swung back, and her hooped earrings dangled against her startlingly white neck as she howled. Her shoulders were spread, pushing back into nothing and her collarbone strained against the song beneath it as she pulled startling notes from the guitar. It built until it could build no more, until she let loose one last whine, a final haunting chord, and collapsed forward into her guitar, squatting in the planter among the cigarette butts again.
She rested for a moment, breathing hard, face hidden behind the tangled curtains of her hair. Then, finally, long after she’d stopped playing, in a tired afterthought, she set out a worn hat. It was futile, no one was passing on this street anymore. No one had change to spare for the woman who’d howled to the wolves. Now she was just another crumpled shape beside the sidewalk.
I was still squatting against the wall. When I tried to get up my feet were asleep and I fell forward to my hands. She didn’t lift her head as her lone audience member grunted and finally rose. I slipped forward, began the walk back to the car. I didn’t have any change, I had one twenty left in my pocket, and I was already short on funds before I blew my car’s engine. I made it half a block before I turned in the dusk, slipped back as quietly as I could and dropped the bill in the hat, turning awkwardly and almost running to get away. I didn’t want to just pay her, didn’t want to slide some largess like she was just another street performer, didn’t want to cheapen her song like that. But I wanted her to have that money. She didn’t raise her head, still breathing hard.
I made it two blocks before I looked back to see the slim shape with the guitar on her back limping into the dark.
I hummed the rest of the way back to the Wall-Mart, snuck past the minivan where the needle-desperate man resided and locked myself into my Subaru.
As I put on my headlamp and opened my book, preparing to read out the long hours before my ride home arrived, the horned moon crested the trees and some shiver of song stood the hairs behind my ears on end. I wouldn’t sleep at all that night, and many nights after when the moon is high and cold I still hear glimpses of her melodies. Even now, years later, I find myself waiting to catch another glimpse of her. When I do, I’ll squat against the wall again, and lose myself in her howling.
And here's a little video about how I made the illustration for this piece: