U.S. Highway 40 is one of the initial Greyhound route casualties, taking out a string of Utah cities that includes Vernal, Roosevelt, Myton, Duchesne and Heber, along with Echo and Park City (along Interstate 80), and Logan (U.S. 89). Altogether, Greyhound is eliminating service to 260 U.S. cities and towns between Chicago and Seattle in its first round of cuts, effective Aug. 18.
Long ago, after Pop died, my mom became the defacto “family fixer.” Her brother, my Uncle Charlie, would give her money for a plane ticket to Steamboat Springs, CO now and then to look after their oldest sister, Florence.
Eventually, there was no money for planes, and so Mom would pull me out of school. Sometimes, we’d take the bus to Steamboat from the Greyhound terminal. The bus would drop us off at the Harbor Hotel, and we’d take a cab or call for a ride to their house. Later still, there was money for gas, so we’d drive. I loved the drive along US40, but only when we took our car.
The night bus rides were the most melancholy journeys of my life. To this day, the distinctive bus-smell in a long-distance coach or tour bus takes me back to the nights I’d sit watching the miles unspool like the background in an old-fashioned black and white movie. The first time, we did it in January, when there was a lot of snow in the high country.
The moon shone coldly remote above the snow-blanketed ranches as we rolled by, which were lonely outposts in the empty miles between the small towns along US 40. It seemed to me that there was nothing lonelier in the world than a single yard lamp, glowing brightly but impersonally from out by the barns, and offering no welcome to benighted travelers. And at the end of the journey, there was only toil and frustration and worry waiting to welcome us.
The Steamboat folks would be glad to see us only because it meant that we’d deal with their problems.
Aunt Florency, as I called her, was a sharp old termagant, but she was also a bit off her rocker and taking too many prescription drugs on the sly. Her husband had died, leaving far less in insurance and pension money than Florence felt was quite nice for a lady of education who was a retired teacher, and a member of the AAUW.
She had an adult son named Marty who had Down syndrome. Between Florency’s high-minded ideas on just how much money it was proper and necessary to spend on good wool dresses and fine handbags, and Marty’s notions on the care of cars and lawnmowers and snowblowers (basically, buy a new one when the old one ran low on motor oil), their finances were a mess. They used to have a lot of money through the sale of some property, but not too many years after Uncle Had died, the balloon payments for the property stopped. However, both of them lived as if there was always a big financial windfall at the end of the year to bail them out, just as always.
A couple of times a year, Mom would get a call from Uncle Charlie:
“Lell, I got a call from Martin today, and it sounds like they’re in a mess again and he doesn’t know which way is up.” She’d fly in, straighten out the problems with the bank and various creditors around town that my aunt and cousin “did business” with. Half the businesses in the area let them put things on account, in the mistaken belief that there was money to pay for the third new lawnmower in 2 years, ditto the snowblower. Also, there would be bills to somehow settle for the May D.&F. Company in Denver for a succession of matching bags, shoes, hats and fine woolens. Charlie would foot the bill, Mom would do all the dirty work… which often involved real labor, since neither Florence nor Marty were much good at housework.
Strike that. Neither of them did housework, preferring to let things pile up; laundry, pots and pans, crates of half-eaten oranges, newspapers, and so on. They could never find anything, so they’d go out and buy new shirts and pans to replace the ones lost somewhere in the piles. We’d often find unopened packages of workshirts in the piles, because either Marty couldn’t work the washing machine without breaking it, or he liked wearing crisp new shirts. There was also a succession of yappy, annoying little toy poodles with stupid names who were never entirely housebroken.
It was the kind of house with fine antique glass – jugs and jars and vases – in the windows of the living room, and rotting food and perhaps some dog mess that never got cleaned up in the kitchen and pantry. And so it was unutterably depressing to walk into the house the very first time on each trip.
But then a year or so after Pop died, my Uncle Charlie died also, and the money to throw at the problem in Steamboat went away, too. My mom couldn’t blame her sister-in-law, my Aunt Lucy, for putting her foot down and saying “no more.” So Mom shouldered the financial responsibility as well as the practical ones for taking care of the Steamboat folks.
Some time went by, and then Mom began to get those calls herself. It always started with Marty just asking “Lell?” no matter which of us picked up the phone. You could tell from the pitch in his voice whether it was just a social call, or if there was some problem Mom would have to solve. It didn’t always involve driving over to Steamboat. I’d just hand the phone to her and say “Marty,” and get ready to sulk, in my helpful pre-teen manner.
“Lell? Mom and I were talking and we decided to come to Salt Lake and just rest.”
This was code for “Mom thinks she isn’t feeling too good, she’s going to check herself into the hospital in Salt Lake.” My aunt was the family hypochondriac. Visits from them were horrifying enough, because in the post-Charlie era, this mean that Marty, and then Florence when she got out of the hospital, would stay with us. And that meant waiting on Florency hand and foot… right down to checking “ejecta” for any unusual signs. As in, one time she felt queasy out in the back yard and threw up, but she had the presence of mind to barf in a little garden bucket so Mom could look at it later and make some kind of medical pronouncement on it when she got back from work.
Mom worked a part-time job to make ends meet, and it wasn’t always easy to take unpaid time off for family matters (there was never any question of paid vacation or family leave). However, sometimes it had to be done.
The winter trip, when we took Greyhound over, started out with the typical “Lell?” phone call, and from the sounds of it they were in quite a financial mess. It was January, and Mom didn’t want to drive in case there was heavy snow in the mountains, but also wanted to leave in the evening so she wouldn’t miss as much work. So we took a cab to the bus station and left at around 7pm, scheduled to get into Steamboat at 230am. I see that the current schedules are still about the same. I think also there was not a lot of time lost between getting the call and taking the bus, but can’t remember if we waited until Friday of that week or not.
We got there a little too early, or the inbound bus was late. I remember using the drinking fountain and noticing the “EBCO” logo on the faucet handle, and my mom cautioned me not to put my mouth anywhere on the bubbler itself. To this day, when I see that logo with its distinctive triangular “O,” I remember not to put my mouth anywhere on the bubbler itself… and I feel that shivery “snap” of connection to the past.
At last, the inbound bus pulled in, let off its passengers from Los Angeles, and they announced there’d be a short delay while they serviced the bus. Finally, the echoing, distorted sound of the announcer listed a string of words that sounded vaguely like “Steamboat Springs,” “Denver,” and “Chicago,” so we went out and lined up with our bags. It was cold, and the bus bay smelled of diesel and the lubricant they used on the old metal-wheeled baggage wagons, which looked like they’d been salvaged from a long-abandoned railway station.
The sickly sweet bus-smell hit me as soon as we gave up our flimsy little tickets to the driver and boarded. The luggage, as always, was stowed in the big metal compartments under the passenger section. As a kid, I always thought it was kind of cool to get on the kind of bus that had steps up inside of it to raise the level of the deck, but as soon as we settled into our seats that night, I realized that bus travel was not cool at all. In fact, it was kind of disturbing. Most of the other riders were ordinary people, but there was the stereotypical stinky drunk cowboy-type sitting behind us – every time the bus jolted, he’d wake up and start swearing under his breath, thoroughly and methodically questioning the parentage of the driver, the Utah Highway Department, and the greyhound dog itself. That alone kept me scared awake all night long.
We drove on into the night, pulling over at places like Duchesne and Vernal. The little towns that were familar and friendly looking during our daytime drives over were forbidding and silent at night, and the roadside landmarks I loved to watch for weren’t visible. There was only the moon, and the white shining snow, and the yard lights.
Every hour or so, the bus would slow down and pull in to a little town somewhere, either to pick up or drop off passengers, or for an extended driving break where there was time to get something to eat or a cup of coffee. Most of the time we’d just stay on the bus and eat sandwiches and snacks, and drink coffee or hot chocolate out of thermoses. We’d try to get comfortable, and then everyone would re-board, the driver would collect the new peoples’ tickets, and we’d start off again.
Finally, at last, at around 3 in the morning, we pulled in to Steamboat Springs. The snow was piled high along both sides of the street – it looked like about 4 to 5 feet or more, with little passages cut so they could cross the street or get from the curb to the doorways. The bus dropped us off at the Harbor Hotel, and we went in to the lobby to stay warm. Because it was so late, Mom didn’t want to call Marty for a ride, because waking him and knocking him out of his routine would just get him all screwed up for the rest of his day. So we asked if we could wait in the lobby until 7 or 8, and the night manager said it would be fine. For some reason, I decided it would be better to sleep on a coffee table rather than sit in one of the overstuffed chairs (either Mom took the sofa, or there wasn’t one). I’m sure we looked like a couple of refugees, what with all the extra coats and sweaters we had piled on top to stay warm. The lights, of course, stayed on all night, and the doors kept swinging wide open to admit other travelers… and a big blast of icy cold mountain air.
Once it got light, we gathered our stuff up and called Marty, who was sure to be up by then. He came over after a while, and the constant quacking began.
Poor Marty. I never could feel a lot of affection for him, because I was always a little frightened of him (and apparently, with good reason). He was harmless enough, but grabby. Always poking and pinching. Always quacking away about the same few things that held his interest. If you picture Ernest Borgnine, but with his features blurred over and dulled, that would be Marty. He would have been in his thirties then. As we drove up toward their house, he kept up a constant narrative about the neighbors, the houses we passed, and how well his mom was doing, and whatever cute little dog they had then.
When we walked into the house, it was generally though the pantry, so we got the worst first. Marty was in the habit of buying crates of fruit, eating half of it until it began to go bad, and then buying another crate of fruit. So often the first job after dumping our stuff in the guest room (which was usually pretty much as we’d left it last time) was to clear the rotting fruit out and put it out in the garage, where it would have to wait until garbage pickup day. However, first we’d have to pick through and get all the paring knives out, because Marty also tended to stand there snacking with knife in hand, drop the knife in the crate for the next time, and walk away.
Then we’d be in the kitchen, where piles of dishes and pans would be gauged: would this be a quick, easy trip with just a little slicking up, or would this be 3 days of hard labor? That winter, the cleaning wasn’t so bad – it only took the first day to clean up the kitchen and make the dining area useable again.
Florence was either in her bedroom, or on the sofa in the family room, which like the living room had glass shelves in the big picture windows to hold her colleciton of antique glass. We’d come in, and she’d greet us rather in the manner of minor royalty whose pedigree is assumed, but never proven.
After an initial cleaning binge to get the worst of the piles of dishes and laundry dealt with and put away (inconveniently, the washer and drier were in the kitchen, right in the path of anyone working there), Mom would ask to see the bills and the checkbook, and then call the bank to see what was what. I’m not sure how she knew who to contact, other than sorting through piles of old mail and searching all over the house for anything that looked like a relatively current bill. However, it was generally the same list of local businesses. She’d call and arrange some sort of payment plan, and tell the managers (again) that under no circumstances were they to allow our relatives to put anything on account.
And then, of course, there was indoor poop patrol. This meant hunting down errant poops in the corners of the living room, which was rarely used. Marty was never consistent at letting the dog out, and of course when it was cold he felt sorry for them and wouldn’t toss them outside by the scruff of the neck, so if they didn’t want to go outside, he wouldn’t make them. They’d go out to pee, apparently. Weird. Anyway, this job generally fell to me, while Mom worked on getting the account to balance.
It usually took a day or two for her to figure out who she needed to call, and which bill was most urgent. Then she had to wrestle with the bank account and the checkbook, trying to reconcile from sketchy accounts of where and when and how much Florence and Martin remembered writing checks. Often, it was a case of waiting for all the outstanding checks to hit the bank. As there wasn’t much money in savings, she kind of had to know how much she had to transfer over. All of this is speculation, because she didn’t really share at the time all the nuts and bolts of fixing the financial problem. I do know that without Uncle Charlie to help, it was a lot tougher. Somehow, she made it work.
It helped that Marty had a cleaning job at a couple of places around town, but he used to get horribly screwed up if he went in to one place and they told him to come back on a different day – he couldn’t figure out how to adjust for schedule conflicts between the various places.
That winter trip was fun in some respects – the snow was very deep, and I got out and goofed around on a set of old wood and leather snowshoes. Also, there was a Winter Carnival, with Norwegian ski-joring races. That’s horses running like hell down the main street, with skiers behind them hanging on for dear life to long reins, being pulled via a harness-like contraption. Hell yes, it looked dangerous, but it was very exciting. And at night, they used to have night skiing, and you could see people with colored torches across the valley in some kind of choreographed event for the festival.
At some point, we’d start to see daylight. There would be discussions around the newly cleared dining table (they tended to eat on a table in the family room, and let things pile up in the dining area) about not buying anything they already had just because they couldn’t find it. There would be discussions about paying cash only from the checking account, and not to touch the savings account. There were several kinds of Social Security payments they were getting, which I think went direct to savings. With the checking account straightened out, Mom would go over it with Marty, and show him where to write the checks in the register. He could do simple math, but I don’t think he could actually keep a running total and allow for deposits from the savings account. I think she arranged for someone from the bank to balance their checkbook with him.
Then we’d have to tackle Florency, whose disapproval of the whole process hung in the room like a cloud. She didn’t like being bossed around by a younger sister and being told what to do. She didn’t like being forced to sit and listen to Mom tell her that she couldn’t go to Denver on shopping trips, and that she had closets and dressers full of unworn new clothes, and unopened boxes of shoes and hats and bags stacked up to the ceiling in the closets as well. She would grudgingly agree to our sorting out the clothes and keeping things she needed and give the rest to charity (I think some of it got brought back to Salt Lake and sold through a consignment store when money was very tight). She’d lie or sit on her bed as we went through dozens of handbags, looking for personal items – she had dozens of duplicate pillboxes, for example, some of them made of silver and quite pretty). Anything that was still unworn (often still in the bag from the store) would get put in the “sell or give away” pile, and she’d object to every single thing. “That’s good wool. That’s wool. It’s quality. That shouldn’t be thrown out.”
She had this thing for wool. I kind of do, too. Mom and I had an ongoing battle for years when I was still at home over the relative merits of wool versus acrylic sweaters; I’m convinced that my natural-fiber snobbery stems from internalizing Florency’s outraged tirades. “See that label? Wooooool.”
She was quite the hoarder of pens and ugly plants. Every room had at least 3 mugs full of pens and pencils stashed on delicate little side tables. However, there was very little paper to actually write on in the house other than some expensive notepaper that had the putative “Stocknottle” crest. I remember getting chewed out for using that paper to write down a phone message or something — it was the only paper anywhere within reach of the phone. But there were 40 pens in 2 mugs on the telephone table. Naturally.
She grew African violets on a rack in the hall near her bedroom – ultraviolet lights and so on – and I never did get the point of them, because they were pretty ugly and stuck in a dark hallway. There are African violets on a plant shelf at work, and I still think they’re ugly.
Going through the purses was strange work – there were so many of them, and sometimes Florence would get agitated if we seemed too interested in the contents. We probably collected a fair amount of cash from them, and also maybe some department store charge cards (which would probably have been confiscated or cut up, from what I remember).
Occasionally, we’d find pills tucked away in strange places in them. On later trips, we would learn that we had to search everywhere for pills, because she hoarded them, too, and was over-prescribed, with scrips from several different pharmacies. But on that trip, they were just an oddity to me, although Mom probably had a pretty good idea what was going on. Sometimes, when we found a little stash, there would be an explosion of imprecations, quickly stifled, from the direction of Florence’s bed. Mom made arrangements with a home nurse to come in and try to regulate all the prescriptions and times and instructions for Florence, because she would just pop them any old time, any old way without bothering to follow the instructions.
And then mealtimes were special family gatherings. Florence was diabetic, and Marty had a heart condition. Mom would cook nutritious, but not very interesting meals – meat loaf and chicken and so on. Marty liked to cook for himself – his favorite dish was a fat hamburger patty, fried in the bottom of a steep-sided saucepan, with ketchup and a little lettuce. Just that. And he was a smacker as well as a quacker – he didn’t chew his food, he just mashed against the roof of his mouth, which was hanging wide open, and make these juicy smack-smack sounds. When he wasn’t actually eating, he’d quack on about something to do with his lawnmowing or snowblowing activities for the neighbors. They took advantage of his willingness to mow the huge share lawn out back that sloped down to the creek, and then in the winter he cleaned all their driveways and walks. For free.
Meanwhile, Florence would complain that there was not enough salt (heart condition too) and that there had better not be any monosodium glutamate in it like in those China restaurants, because that was very bad for the health and she was sure she was allergic. She kind of had this monosodium glutamate “thing” but as it turns out, she was right. So dinner conversation, in spite of Mom’s best efforts, pretty much was “smack-smack, quack-quack, monosodium gluuuuutamate.”
Oh, and also Florence like to list a whole litany of things that added together made me a singularly unattractive child. Like having the Pitt stomach and the Martin thick ankles and the Stocknottle horsey face. Then she would invariably add that I had somehow missed out on the twofer; the Stocknottle piggy eyes. By that I think she meant protruding eyes, because there were thyroid problems on her side of the family, too. There were more unattractive qualities, but the family ones were key. Anything she couldn’t identify, she’d blame on my dad’s side of the family.
Oh, she was a right pistol, she was.
At the end of about 3 days, the house would start to look really good, and Mom would be doing more housework than financial stuff, so it would go faster. I generally did mostly sorting and finding places to put things away, and running things from one room to another. I spent a lot of time reading, too – there was downtime waiting for the dryer to finish or because the kitchen floor had been waxed. Then we’d start making things look nice – re-arranging furniture, re-hanging pictures, switching nicknacks around and dusting.
And finally, it would be my job to take all the antique glass down, wash the windows and shelves, and then carefully polish the antique stuff and put it back. When backlit by the sun, the glass would glow and sparkle, and she also had several big prisms that would have to be positioned so as to send rainbows to every corner of the room. Florence would grumble and criticise my every choice, because the pieces never went back in precisely the right positions to suit her delicate aesthetic sense. She would tell me the names of the different makers and whether the clear red one I was holding was real Cranberry glass or not, and that the satiny translucent rose bowls with the scalloped rims were Peachblow. She would fret that I would chip or drop something until everything was back in its place. However, when it was all done, we would all sit on the sofa in one or the other room and admire the effect, and she would admit that it looked pretty and that I had done a good job of cleaning it.
When David and I were on our England trip, we stopped for a night in a hotel in Carlisle, and they had a collection of glass much like my aunt’s, except more of the opaque and translucent kinds, and I had another one of those “snap!” moments.
Anyway, by the time the glass got done it was time to think about going home, after having the neighbors over for a visit to see how nice the house could be (and in the hopes that Martin and his mom might be motivated to keeping it looking that way). We took the day bus back on the winter trip, and the landscape looked much friendlier and more normal.
There were a number of trips like that – usually in the summer, when we didn’t have to deal with the snow or with being cooped up in a little house with snow piled up to the rafters. I remember one trip, very early in Mom’s career as fixer, when it was actually fun. I was still pretty small. Another aunt, Sis, lived in Colorado Springs, and we met her and her husband in Steamboat for a clearing-out at Florence’s place. That time, it was mostly just piles of clothes, and dirty dishes and pans stashed in the cupboards, and as we were trying to get Florence to eat better, the kitchen was the priority. She was recovering from some illness or other, and Martin had been left on his own a little too long while she was in the hospital in either Salt Lake or Colorado Springs. Each new discovery was brought out and shown to her where she sat on the family room sofa. “Look Florence This pot has mold in it! Look Florence! These pans were used and put away dirty!” This was delivered with a note of grim triumph by Aunt Sis. She was a tartar, too – Mom missed out on that particular family trait. Anyway, the clearing out and horrifying exhibits became a game. It was funny listening to the three of them backchat as my Mom and Aunt Sis cleaned and Florence rumbled defensively from the couch (well, Sis was in a more supervisory and expostulary role in the cleaning out).
Finally, Florence could take no more. Rising majestically from the sofa with the help of a cane, she declared “If you two don’t knock that off, I’ll throw you both out and mess up my kitchen with my own cooking any way I please.” This was actually greeted with cheers and applause, because it meant that Florence was feeling better and was starting to rally. Eventually, they cooked a really good meal and brought out some china that hadn’t been used in years, and we all sat around the nice dining table and felt optimistic about the years to come.
That was before the winter trip, however – quite a long time before. And the trips didn’t get better, but only got worse.
At least once, mom drove over alone, because she didn’t want me to miss school (probably in May). She came home deathly ill with some weird fungal infection that went into pneumonia – that was probably from dealing with all the rotting fruit, or maybe handling dog poop.
There was one time when I was in high school and sort of driving when we went over twice in one summer. The first time, we spent a whole week, painting all the “public” rooms, and even cleaned out and painted the dreaded “ugly room,” which was an unused bedroom piled high to the ceiling with junk, and also with new things that had never even been opened. We painted and painted and painted, because the walls had this weird textured paneling on them that soaked up the paint and still showed old greasemarks, but eventually we got it done and the house looked great.
Then within a month or 6 weeks, we got a “Lell?” call on a particularly high pitch, or maybe the neighbors called to warn us something wasn’t quite right next door (they often did that – such nice people, too). Anyway, Mom decided to drive over unannounced just to see what was what. We couldn’t get in through the garage, but she had a key to the front door, so we walked in. The room that we had left sparkling clean and freshly painted a few weeks before stank of dog poop and pee – there were piles and stains in every corner, plus piles right in the entryway. The house was silent – they were out. From where we were, we could see that the big pile of laundry had re-appeared. We could also smell rotting food and the sour smell of unwashed dishes piled in the sink, left to soak, and forgotten.
Mom turned to look at me and said “This place looks like Hell. I’m sorry, I don’t like to swear, but this is like I’ve died and gone to Hell.” And then she said, “I feel like turning around and walking out that door and not coming back. They don’t know we’re coming, they’d never know we were here.” She looked at me as if waiting for me to say “Let’s go.” I was amazed – this was serious. She was reaching the end of yet another rope, but she always found a way to grab another one and hold on, and this time was no different. Then we heard their voices, coming in the back way from some visit to the neighbors (there was a lot of back-and-forth visiting there). They had seen the car, and the jig was up. I heard Marty call out “Lell?” and she answered “Hi, Marty! We’re in here!”
And so another visit started. At least for a few moments, we’d had the option of turning tail and driving back home, rather than walking down to the Harbor Hotel and waiting for the Greyhound bus.