Aloha By Melea G'Rina
Monday, August 09, 2004
Rated "G" by the Author.
Shelley whispered the name of the town again.She tapped the glass cover of the map case hanging on the office wall with her fingertips and closed her eyes, imagining the smell of lilacs and the sight of gold finches flitting through the green fir trees.Images of narrow alleyways that separated cedar shake houses and sandy lots filled her with a strange, almost childish excitement.
There would be sea gulls in Aloha, she thought.Gulls only came this far inland to escape massive storms blowing off the Pacific Ocean during the winter months.The noisy birds would stay in Helena for a few days, descending into fields close to the city limits.Sometimes she would see them scavenging for scraps in the parking lots of burger places near the interstate.They would disappear as suddenly as they swept in, leaving only crows and a few ravens behind in vacant lots near the dumpsters.She liked seeing the gulls each time they returned.Their presence meant that something, even a storm only a few hundred miles away, was happening outside Helena, Montana.
She tried to make out the map symbols through the glass, avoiding her own reflected image of a slender young woman of twenty-two with dark eyes and black hair.Overhead fluorescent lights reflected off the glass.A cloudy sky illuminated the large window behind her, making it difficult to tell size of Aloha from the map alone.She’d need a proper atlas.
Shelley began gathering her personal things from the desk.As she reached to switch off the office computer, the silver chain bracelet Norman gave her on their first anniversary glittered in the light of the monitor screen.She pulled it off her slender wrist abruptly and stuffed it into her book bag.She looked around the office one last time before turning off the lights.The computer screen still glowed faintly in the dim room.A deli lunch sandwich wrapper at the bottom of the wastebasket and a few empty folders on the edge of the desk were the only evidence she once occupied the office.
Being a temporary had its advantages, she reminded herself.There were no goodbye parties, and no one ever promised to keep in touch after you moved on.No one called you up the next week to ask you where you put the case file on a ranch property or the bank merger, leaving that for the new temp to sort out.There were no explanations required, thus avoiding any speculation on your reasons for leaving, or even returning.
Shelley pushed open the huge wooden doors to the bank lobby and stepped outside.She pulled her sweater closer around her slim body.It was late May, but winter continued to linger along the ridge tops where the cottonwood and locust trees were still bare of leaves.The snow-covered Rocky Mountains beyond the ridges reminded her that in some places in Montana, winter never ended.
The cloudy afternoon sky was brighter than usual for this time of day, and the leaves of the Ginkgo trees planted in a row along the sidewalk above a bed of spring flowers shimmered like silver in a faint breeze.Gingko meant silver in the Japanese language, she recalled.She crossed the street, unlocked her car and tossed her bag onto the passenger seat.As she climbed behind the wheel she wondered what spending next winter in a place like Aloha, Oregon, would be like.
Shelley planned to drive all night.A new Rand McNally Road Atlas lay on the seat beside her.She picked it up during a fuel stop on the main highway out of Helena, feeling a little foolish for checking to see if Aloha was actually in the book before she handed it to the clerk at the counter.Seeing the town in the index and then going to the page for Oregon and finding Aloha in bold letters in the suburbs of Portland reassured her that maybe this wasn't such a crazy idea.Norman called it “a hell of a crazy idea,” when she told him.
“You don't want to do this, Shelley,” he warned her on the phone.After listening to his voice on the other end, she realized that Norman wasn’t sure she would be coming back.She heard the waiting and wondering in his voice this time when he asked her if this was going to be a legal separation.They argued about her continuing the temporary jobs in town right before she slammed the phone down.The abrupt disconnection left her frightened, and twinges of uncertainty still pulled at Shelley's heart.
She was glad it was all said over the phone.In his presence, she might have doubted her own reasoning.Standing before him, her voice would have betrayed her, just as it did whenever she was asked to help him make a decision about the silver.She loved Norman, but there was something about the mines that bothered her, enough so that after two years of marriage, she still couldn’t bring herself to come near them.She even found it hard to work in the office trailer where the covers of the record books, one for each of the pits, always carried a thin film of dust and smelled of the machines.
But Norman was born into the mining industry, and his roots reached deep into the ground like the veins of silver that still drained the ridges and valleys of west and central Montana.When he brought her here, the raw, stone cliffs that needed to be ground away by heavy machinery and harvested for the little silver that remained were alien to her.She missed the rolling fields of wheat and black soil of interior Saskatchewan where her parents farmed.She resisted believing that anything as beautiful as a piece of silver jewelry made from the gray metal could emerge from the ugly rocks and the dust that coated everything.Out of habit, she glanced at her wrist, then pulled her sleeve down over the empty place where her bracelet once lay.
Pulling into Missoula, Shelley passed up two fast food places and then settled for a meal of chili and rolls in a downtown diner.She drank two cups of coffee and asked the waitress to pour the rest of the pot into a large Styrofoam cup for later.She would need it when she left the interstate at sunset.In the parking lot, she started the car and tuned around the car radio for latest weather conditions for the two-lane highway into LoloPass.It was supposed to be clear and cool--there would be no ice or snow this trip.
She recalled that other trip during the summer they were married.She and Norman hit LoloPass in a snowstorm, which was uncommon for late June.It was her turn to drive, and she headed west into the pass around , going about 50 miles per hour.It was as fast as she dared in the heavy snow without losing momentum and getting stuck.As thick, white flakes flew straight at her and piled up on the wiper blades, she saw a silver wolf run directly across the beam of the headlights.She instinctively tapped the brake just enough to keep from sliding off the road and felt a slight thud.
"Norman, I hit a wolf," she murmured as the car kept going.But her husband still lay sleeping on the seat next to her.After awhile she thought that maybe the wolf was all right.The bumper only touched the very back of the wolf's body, she reassured herself.She kept on going without looking back.
Shivering at the memory, Shelley turned on the car heater.It was well past now.The only vehicles on the highway at this hour were logging trucks, all headed east, their lights coming toward her slowly as they ascended the grade, then disappearing into blackness in her rear view mirror.
The LoloPass highway was virtually downhill all the way as she crossed Idaho.One endless curve looked just like the next as the highway wound through the Rockies along a small river.She remembered from that last trip that there were no cities or towns to speak of between the summit on the Idaho-Montana border and the valleys that opened up near the Washington border.The map didn’t show much in the way of civilization except for a few sleepy Indian villages, but there was no sign of them in the dark.
At a ranger station near Wallula Gap, she stopped to rest her eyes.A lone wheat truck was parked next to the office.Its running lights were on, and the motor idled quietly.Beyond the truck she could see the confluence of the Snake and ColumbiaRivers.The waters of the two rivers converging on one another appeared lighter in color than the surrounding hills and lighter than the sky, although it was almost dawn.A Boise Cascade pulp mill lit up like a Christmas tree was the only sight on the horizon further upstream on the Columbia.She started the car and headed downstream in the opposite direction.She was in the wheat lands now.
As she approached The Dalles, a few scrub evergreens, bent by the winds blowing east out of the Gorge, were a sign that she’d be leaving wheat country and entering the Gorge soon.A quarter moon still hung low in the western sky above the basalt cliffs.A cluster of grain elevators rose hundreds of feet up from the surface of the water.Two empty barges on their return journey up the Columbia slipped quietly past massive concrete piers, while a line of rail cars moved west along the water.The barges and the train cars sliding past each other in opposite directions made her dizzy.
Gulls, already awake and diving for salmon, hovered over the crests of the larger waves that were whipping up the middle of the Columbia River.More whitecaps clustered near the bases of channel markers.Canoes and surfboards moved silently past Shelley's head in the early morning light, mounted on the roof racks of Ford Explorers and Toyota 4x4s.Against the backdrop of wheat fields to the south, she could swear the boards with their colorful sails were gliding on the tops of the spring wheat, surfing their way on green waves of grain toward HoodRiver, the Wind Surfing Capital of the World.
Her tired eyes drooped.It would be nice to rest along the water , she thought.There was a pullout ahead.She felt the car slow and began her turn.The car came to a stop and she closed her eyes."Just for a few minutes," she promised herself.
Shelley found herself standing on the rocky beach near the road.Waves broke against the jagged rocks in front of her, while wet sand funneled away from her feet, leaving puddles widening under the car’s tires.She took her shoes off and carried them in one hand, her other hand dragging her sweater in the pools between the rocks.
Sea gulls gathered on the edge of the cliffs above the beach.She noticed several tall smoke stacks rising above the cliffs like narrow lighthouses.Hundreds of tiny lights lit up the stacks, drawing the gulls in toward them.A few of the gulls landed on the tops of the stacks while more gulls circled around them.
A layer of fog crept in along the shore, a few feet above the waves, and the stacks seemed to move back and forth, in and out of the fog.She couldn't tell if the stacks were part of a pulp mill like the one in Wallula Gap or the huge grain elevators at The Dalles.Were they smelter stacks from some kind of mining operation like the silver mines in Helena?She thought she could smell the silver metal and her head spun.
Shelley just wanted to crawl back inside the car, but the wind tugged at her and sand blasted her face and arms.Water rose up around her ankles and white foam covered the shore.Or was it white feathers from the gulls--it was difficult to see.It could be wheat straw, she thought, confused.But the wheat was still green, and it was rolling and blowing and rippling out from the edge of her father’s fence and across the Saskatchewan prairie ocean.
Sand crept under her eyelids and she squeezed them tight.She turned her back to the wind and tried to open her eyes.Silver lights flashed on the tops of the darker green waves like the bellies of salmon, shimmering through tears from the irritation of the sand under her eyelids.She was part of a storm raging up from the Gorge on the wind.Large drops of rain fell on her face and shoulders and the atmosphere was thick with green and silver drops, like puddles on a glass windshield blocking her vision.
The sand shifted under her toes.Lights from the stacks and the barges and the trains and pulp mills and grain elevators and logging trucks reflecting on the water danced up and down.They swirledacross her cotton dress, now soaked with spray from the whitecaps and caked with wet sand.She lost her footing and slipped under the waves.
It was dark and warm, like the mines at 60 feet down.Funny, she didn't remember ever being in the mines.This is what it is like, she thought.But there were no underground silver mines left in Helena.Norman told her that when she first learned about the silver.Helena, Montana.
No, she was in Oregon.She knew that.But Norman was there.He stood on the other side of a chain that stretched along a railroad bed between the sand and the rock wall, holding out his hand toward her with something in it.There was a strange, yet familiar look on his face, like he wanted her to know they were in the mines and yet, at the same time, above the ground.If she wanted to, she could run.She moved toward Norman and felt solid rock with her hands.The bedrock was warm and smooth under her bare feet.
Before she reached him, the sound of loud machinery grew into a roar throughout the cavern.Green lights flickered in the eerie underground room where she stood, and the wind filled the mine with a noise even louder than the machines.Static electricity charged across the skin of her arms and lifted the hair off her neck.She could see Norman.He was still standing on the other side of the chain, waiting with that look on his face.She could see her bracelet hanging from his fingers.Everything was prickly and she felt like she was floating on needles—spruce needles and wheat stubble and powdered rocks.
A loud knocking on the windshield startled Shelley awake and she jumped up in the seat, hitting her chin on the steering wheel.Water cascaded down the car windows and gusty winds rocked the car.Rain pelted the metal and bounced off the sun roof.The shape of a tree branch brushed the windshield.Her heart was pounding in her chest but thunder drowned it out.The air was green and wet and dark outside the car.
She crouched in the driver's seat, shivering, until lightning only flickered in the distance and the wind died to a few brief gusts.It was daylight, yet she saw a bright light--like a lighthouse--moving across a nearby field.Smaller lights covered a huge machine that appeared to be rolling and bending the ground as it came closer.She got out of her car on shaky legs and moved toward the fence between her car and the field.The engine sounded familiar to her.
It was a wheat combine, like the one in Saskatchewan that her father used.Oblivious to the storm that just passed, a farmer continued to work this field.She could see him moving his arms back and forth on the controls, safe and warm and dry inside the familiarity of the modern cab.
The combine looked like something else; and then she realized she and Norman owned machines just like it—machines that stripped the earth from the hills to separate the silver, leaving only rows of neatly tilled soil and powdered rock in their wake.
After a few minutes, the combine disappeared over the hill and she could no longer hear the engine.Shelley sidestepped rivulets of water streaming between the asphalt and the gravel and got back into the car.As she pulled onto the interstate and gained speed, she saw a sign for Portland, only 62 miles away.She felt reassuringly for the road atlas on the seat beside her.
A faded street sign on the highway marked the main entrance to Aloha.Shelley drove down a street where small evergreen trees were planted evenly in beds that separated the lanes into a two-way boulevard.She passed banks and office buildings, gas stations, a Dairy Queen, a drug store, and a funeral parlor before coming to the city limits of Aloha.
Shelley peered down the highway.A dilapidated saw mill and a convenience store marked the boundary between Aloha and the next small town.Gray haze from the mill covered the landscape and rain clouds hung low over the hills.She could hear the interstate traffic in the distance when she turned the car around.As she headed back toward the center of town, she didn't see any homes, and there weren't any flowers.
She thought about the new ranch home she shared with Norman back in Helena and how he helped her decide on the flowers for borders along the fences and the patio just a few weeks ago.She turned down a side street and glanced from side to side, looking for the cedar shake cottages she imagined just yesterday--with alleys where you could walk without having to cross a busy street.
Her mind raced with anxiety, even more so than when she experienced the thunderstorm back at the entrance to the Gorge.She missed the openness of the high plain around Helena and the sight of mountains and ridges from wherever she happened to be at any given time.The evergreens and low hills blocked any view of the Cascades to the east and she was too far away from the ocean to feel and smell it.She missed the Gingko trees.
Wishing the ocean was a little closer and she wasn't so tired and the day wasn't so gray, her fingers trembled on the steering wheel.The dreaming back in the Gorge was what messed her up--dreaming about sea gulls and smelters and combines and wheat straw and silver, with Norman all mixed up in the middle of it.
Norman.She suddenly remembered her promise to call him when she got to Portland.In her mind, she saw herself kneeling by his side on the patio where they talked about setting out geraniums.She would know the look in his face from the memory of his voice and pictured just how he would be standing at the open door of the office trailer when he answered the phone.