The License Plate

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As Louis and I drove our 1993 Toyota 4Runner to the DMV, sadness tugged at my mind. 

“Do we really have to get California plates?” I asked. 

“Not if we don’t mind getting a huge fine for still having Montana plates after we’ve lived here this long,” Louis said. 

I knew that would be the answer, but I had to ask it one last time. I love the new home that we have recently moved into—a little gray house in a small city, within walking distance of Louis’s school, with a yard and a garage and a porch and room for Bella. I am happy here. But the Montana plates belonged on the 4Runner. They had graced the old car for thirteen years.

We made the mistake of not booking an appointment at the DMV, so we were there for hours. And at each station we visited within the DMV, we were told we’d have to turn in the Montana plates. 

“But why?” I asked Louis.

“I don’t know. I got to keep my Montana plates when I switched the Civic’s. I guess they changed the rules.”

One of the women at one of the myriad desks gave us a tool with which to unscrew the old plates and attach the new, and I lagged behind Louis as we walked into the parking lot and toward the old 4Runner. He bent to the back of the car and began to remove the rusted screws.

I was wholly unprepared for the tears that rose in my throat and dropped onto my face, and suddenly I was eight again. 

We got the new license plate for the cars. It isn’t that pretty. It is blue and white and has a skull on it. And snowflakes at the top, just three. The Montana on it is in big letters. Montana, The Treasure State, it says on my postcards. I am always looking for the treasures in the treasure state. And one of my postcards says Big Sky, just like it says by the skull. Big Sky Country. I think I like this cold scary license plate. It matches what’s happening right now: snow, lots of it. Dad parked the 4Runner on a snowbank in our yard and that’s crazy cool. I’ve heard it snows here in July some years. I love this place already, even though on my first day here I ran into a birdhouse and had to get two stitches. There’s a creek behind the house, and a field with a horse and donkey in it. I live in the country now. I am a country girl, just like Laura Ingalls Wilder. 

And all those thoughts swallowed me. I knew that I could not give the plates to the DMV people, which were cold and scary in a completely different way than the license plate was to me when I was eight. 

“Geez! The screws are so old that they just broke in half.” Louis held the ancient screw so I could see it. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry. I can’t believe I’m crying about this. But I can’t give the plates to the DMV.”

Louis looked down at the plate, and I noticed that the three snowflakes were not snowflakes at all. They were three 0s, for the year 2000. “We can ask them if it’s really necessary. I need a smaller tool for this, so let’s go in there and ask before we take the front plate off.”

Louis asked the woman what he had told me he would ask.

“You need to turn them in,” she said, her voice bored, a hint of annoyance slipping into it.

“But why? I’ve kept old license plates before,” I asked, angry now and trying not to show it.

“They changed the rules. You need to give them to me.”

Who are ‘they’? I thought, giving the woman my best I’m-trying-not-to-yell-at-you glare. I was afraid I’d cry again if I didn’t.

“Well, we can’t get the front one off. We need a smaller tool. Do you have one?” Louis asked. 

“We only have the ones we gave you.” The woman snatched the Montana license plate from Louis’s hand and let it fall to the floor like she was throwing a bag full of dog poop into a dumpster. It gave a sharp metal scream as it hit the concrete ground. “Don’t worry about the other one,” she said, so gruffly I thought at first that she was telling me snap my sentimental ties to the Montana plates. 

Louis and I walked outside once more. “What did she say about the front one?” I asked.

“That we can keep it. Let’s go—we have to find a shop. Half of the screw is in the hole and it won’t come out.” 

“Thank you,” I said. “I’m sorry for being all crazy about this. I just didn’t want to give up my last piece of tangible Montananess forever.” I had loved letting people think I was still attached to Montana in some way, loved smiling at other Montana-plate people on the freeway. That was over, now, but I had one plate to keep.

Louis looked at me and took my hand. “You don’t know that it’s forever. You might get a Montana plate again someday.”

He smiled, and so did I, and our common dream danced in our imaginations.

He gave me the license plate a few minutes later, a piece of metal rippled and cracked by blizzards and hail and sun and rain, by eleven years of fickle, beautiful Montana. And I hung it on the wall in our office a few days later, that I may never forget the eight-year-old girl and the eleven years that formed her into present-day me, that I may never forget our dream.

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Today I’m linking up with Kirsten Oliphant and the Not So (Small) Stories community! This week’s prompt is ‘memory’ or ‘dream’. Join us! http://kirstenoliphant.com/2014/05/27/small-stories-tenth-edition/  

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What Eowyn Ivey, James Herriot, and Wallace Stegner Showed Me

What Eowyn Ivey, James Herriot, and Wallace Stegner Showed Me

I plopped into the middle of the field in front of my house in Montana, my new bone-white Macbook settled into my lap like a baby, and stared at the things around me. The grass, late-summer brown swallowing the green. The sharp outlines of hills and mountains smoothened into their most beautiful state by a haze only the departing sun can create. My grey house, the evergreens guarding the front yard. I wanted to put these things into my ‘book,’ (that failed story about the girl whose parents die, and who, I suppose, lived in the same house I did). I was sitting in the field with my fingertips perched over my keyboard in order to weave Montana into my words, but it was not working. I couldn’t do it, and I didn’t know why. I sighed, closed the laptop, and went indoors.

That was three years ago. Maybe two. (I’m a failure at even the simplest math problems.) When I first sent one of my professors the first two chapters of Blackbird, she had this comment to make about Polly, my female lead character (Wardie is the lead male): [Polly] is also very much a character of her place. She belongs in Montana.

Whoa. I was excited and surprised, because I had not consciously tried to stick Montana into my characters’ identity: I use a fictional Montana community for the story’s setting, and somehow that setting sneaks into Polly’s flesh and makes itself known as a part of her. After doing a celebratory dance–even a small thing like that feels triumphant to me with this manuscript–I sat down, worried. What if I can’t continue that throughout the entire manuscript?

A few weeks ago, I finished reading a book called The Snow Child, by Alaskan author Eowyn Ivey. The book immersed me in rural Alaska of the 1920s, into a brutally beautiful wilderness that at first weakens the aging protagonists, who are newcomers from the east looking to escape old sorrows and find luck in homesteading, and then finds its way into their bones and strengthens their minds, bodies, and hearts. I did research on the author after I finished the book (which I highly recommend, by the way) and found that she loves Alaska deeply–but she attended college in Washington state when she was my age, and though I do not know her personally, I started to wonder: did that separation help her with writing so wonderfully about her home state later on in her life, even though she wrote The Snow Child with Alaska’s beauty surrounding her?

After I finished The Snow Child, I read the third James Herriot memoir, All Things Wise and Wonderful. I love these books because of their delightful verbs and poignant blend of humor and sadness, and this particular story reinforced my thought about Eowyn Ivey’s writing, because in it Herriot has to leave his town in Yorkshire (in England), his veterinary practice, and his pregnant wife in order to serve in the Royal Air Force during World War II. In the book, he often reflects on how everything in his surroundings makes him miss his hometown and the surrounding hills and dales. Even though he never had to leave England to fight, that longing for home may have inspired his writing when, later in life, he wrote his memoirs.

And then, after I finished that book, I started Wallace Stegner’s collection of essays, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. Stegner writes about the American West, and not in a romanticized way. He spent his most formative years in Saskatchewan and Utah, and they shaped the way he thought about life. Stegner confirmed my suspicions about Eowyn Ivey and James Herriot in the book’s first essay, “Finding the Place: A Migrant Childhood,” in which he says that his father’s yanking the family away from their beloved Saskatchewan plains when Stegner was a child fiercely influenced his writing later in life: “Every story that crowded to the typewriter evoked the smells and colors and horizons and air and people of the region where I had most lived…I grew up Western, and the very first time I moved out of the West I realized what it meant to me” (page 19).

Okay, so I didn’t move out of the West. I live in California right now, and that’s considered West. But my family moved away from Montana a year after that sitting-in-the-field moment, and I have now realized that even though I miss Montana every winter with California’s dearth of snow, its summers’ overbearing sun, and its green-leafed fall, leaving was priceless to me in one way: it gave me the perspective I needed in order to do Montana justice in writing. I resonate with Wallace Stegner’s words because I understand them well. Here in southern California, among the swarming people, the green-tinted smog that smothers the mountains, and the eternal background music of sirens and gang members’ thumping radios, I am allowed to close my eyes and drift back home. I am allowed to remember the dangers and the beauties, the smells and the sounds, the feelings and the mysteries of Montana. I do not have to worry about it making its presence known throughout the rest of my manuscript, and I am thankful to James Herriot, Eowyn Ivey, and Wallace Stegner for bringing me to that realization. Montana finds its way into And the Blackbirds Mock without my even trying because I have known how it feels to lose that treasured place.

Laura