Anne Devine, 1992


We almost rolled right on through Dixon last Saturday night; it was the prospect of a toilet that poured us out of the truck in Dixon. We were driving a quick and dirty, one-day tour of Northwestern Montana for the International Wildlife Film Festival, hanging posters in gas stations, supermarkets, and other magnets of smalltown civilization. Mick navigated his beat up Chevy and I rode shotgun, the seat between us littered with empty thumbtack boxes, extra rolls of tape, and a heavy duty staplegun. After ten hours of repeating the poster rap, we had it down. But after ten hours, we could hardly muster the enthusiasm to pocket the tacks as we unfolded out of the truck. Reaching into the truckbed, I slid two yellow posters from my portfolio and then shadowed Mick into the Dixon Grocery & Hardware. The last, very last, poster stop.

The foreigness of Mick's warm lilt caught the ear of the long haired woman behind the counter. It was my turn to model the goods. While he rattled off a quick primer on the Festival I smiled and held up the poster, presenting it in all its splendor. And please show this charming woman what she will receive tonight. For your viewing pleasure, a handsome "lonesome moose by lakeside" poster.

The moose, a species for the most part devoid of controversy, yet informative as a symbol of wildlife; the moose, looked upon with favor by hunters and wildlife enthusiasts alike. Coordinating publicity and acting as Art Director for the Festival, such considerations have come to me mysteriously, via some previously untapped intuition. Montana is new territory for me, and with it comes a new complexity of values.

Where I come from there is no wild land, no wildlife. There are more people living in the New York county of Suffolk than in the entire state of Montana. One morning I recall my father found an opossum in his squirrel trap and he called me and the dog out to the yard to look at it. Louie stuck her snout right up to the metal and drew in a noseful of that 'possum scent. A marsupial. My father drowned that opossum, just as he would've a squirrel from the trap; to him the opossum was merely a rodent of a different sort, not wildlife crossing from the woods into our yard.

In the months before I slipped through the George Washington Bridge toll plaza and left New York in my rearview mirror, the prospect of my leaving unleashed in others a longing for the romanticized grittiness of the West. Across grocery baskets brimming with household cleansers and paper products, women in their late fifties lamented their lost opportunities. If only I had your spunk when I was young---I missed my chance to explore this country. Drinking vodka gimlets in the East Village after-hours clubs, friends pried at my decision to leave. Why the hell Montana? You trade Manhattan, the twenty four hour city, for trees, bears, cowboys, and outhouses? But then...Can I come out for a month to paint and sleep under the stars?

Montana beckons to our metropolitan hearts, a state of mind unleashed by a map blanketed with the green of forest and park lands where we imagine wolves roam the rugged mountains and eagles float over the tall pines. To us, a national forest is just that---a protected place where trees grow. We do not know of the constant battle to whittle away these stands of marketable lumber. It seems incomprehensible to us that an animal like the wolf could spur vicious debate and polarize communities along the entire Rocky Mountain Front. Crammed up against one another in a rush hour subway, shooting through the bowels of the city, we cannot fathom that wildlife and wild lands create such controversy in the regions where they struggle to exist. Rather, we are content in our undisturbed ignorance and we continue believing that these green splotches do exist; for us there is no other struggle greater than surviving the city streets to reach our cubicles of safety without getting mugged.

The woman behind the register chewed on the inside of her cheek, darting her eyes between me, Mick, and the lonesome moose. My bladder silently screamed at her to decide on the damned moose poster. C'mon lady, its for a wildlife film festival, not Earth First! This is National Geographic. Lions and bats. Fun for the entire family, and educational to boot. I shifted my weight, impatient to finish the task in hand and call it quits for the night.

"Sure, go ahead and hang it in the window up front there, by the door. So they'll see it on the way in." As her gaze caught on the thick flash of metal in my grip, her tone lightened, "But just don't use that staple gun on my window."

As I slipped the roll of tape back into my jeans and stepped away from the window, I gazed at the poster and wondered if any of our efforts today mattered. Headed down the aisle in the general direction of the store's toilet, I noticed tampons on the shelf neighbored plumbing supplies and open stock hardware bins. How many residents of these rural areas would venture into "the city" to watch wildlife films anyway? I washed my hands with a scrap of soap. Remove any arguments or controversy surrounding the issues of wildlife, and the film festival is still competing with VCRs, the satellite dish, and the drone of miles between a comfortable couch and the Wilma Theater in Missoula. A splash of cold water in my face to revive my sagging spirits. It was awesome this afternoon to drive out of Polson, the street we had just walked transformed into a channel of storefront windows marked by the mustardy yellow moose posters. I flipped off the light switch on my way out the bathroom door. They can't possibly come if they don't even know about it. People will notice these posters, and some will make the journey. That belief is what burned in me and Mick all the way north to Kalispell and even here at this grocery store in Dixon.

I caught up with Mick at the counter. "Thanks again for letting us hang the poster," I said over my shoulder to the cashier as Mick was pushing open the door.

"Where's your momma, little one?" I heard him ask, catching my attention. At his feet, trying to enter the store, was a scrawny mutt of a puppy. "You are much too young to be out alone on a cold night like tonight, " Mick murmured into the puppy's ungainly ear as he gathered it in his arms.

There was no one else around the store front.

I fingered a thin red rope knotted tight around the puppy's neck.

"These ribs sticking out. She's no one's dog."

"One blue eye and one brown."

"First things first," I said as I pulled my knife and cut the rope. I should have recognized that even such a simple act as the slice of a blade could shred my resolve not to complicate my life with another dog, or to try and replace the sixteen years of Louie's companionship.

"Can't be more than, oh, six weeks old. You sure are a cutie," crooned Mick.

"That pup's been hanging around the store for a few weeks. I feed her sometimes," offered the woman as she came out from behind the counter. "People drop their animals up here all the time, when they get tired of them. Dixon is just that kind of place."

"Looks like you're in for a trip to Missoula and we'll find you a home," Mick decided in a flash, transferring the dog into my arms and then tugging open the stiff door of the truck. And with the turn of the key, he said aloud, "she's taking to you already."

"You mean me or the dog, Mick?"

"Both, obviously."

The headlights sliced into the darkness and the road to Missoula opened up before us.

  devine republic : stories