The airstrip at Pocatello appeared out my window, a tiny island of tarmac against a sea of indistinguishable grain. The grain looked soft and calmed my fear of landing. I even joked to myself as we touched down, making believe the pilot was balancing an egg on his nose or using no hands as he coaxed us toward earth. Birkman was oblivious to the landing. He had done this so many times, it’s as familiar as flopping out of bed. Before the plane reached the gate, he had pocketed the clown face game and the Crispy’s blueprints. He seemed anxious to get to those bins.
We deplaned at one of the Pocatello International Airport’s four gates — the ‘international’ comes from the twice-weekly flights offered to Calgary. Jenny smiled at us as we exited, patting Birkman on the arm. I thought I spied a wink. The smile was enough to make me look forward to getting on the plane again. As we entered the exit tube, the Hemingway character brushed past us, bumping against Birkman. I shot him a dirty look, but he chuckled and continued on.
The Pocatello International Airport is a victim of the public art movement: One wall of the terminal is covered with a photo collage of life-size flying people. A businessman flies along reading a Wall Street Journal. A nun, her arms jauntily outstretched, floats toward heaven. All manner of humanity are in flight, sportsman clutching fishing rods and golf clubs, children off to visit grandma and grandpa, weary travelers grasping wrapped parcels as they head home for the holidays. Though whimsical, the overall effect of the piece suggested a great aviational mishaps to my sensibility. I turned to ask Birkman his opinion of the piece, but he had lurched ahead. There, standing by a Coke machine, was a stocky man holding a sign that read “Don Birkman and Associate”. He wore a woolly buffalo plaid work shirt, soiled white overalls, a battered beige cowboy hat and worn brown cowboy boots — central casting’s notion of a western hick.
“Howdy!” he said, walking toward Birkman and extending a beefy hand. “They told me you was a big fella, and I guess you are. This your associate?” he asked, glancing over at me and blowing his nose into a blackened red bandanna, which he tucked back into his shirt pocket. “I guess I don’t have to tell you we have a forty-minute or so ride out to the plant. They wanted me to get you out there before dark so you can get a picture of how things stand in the natural light. My name’s Fergus. You need to go to the can?” he said, looking at me again.
“I’m ready to go,” Birkman said. “How about you, Bill?”
“Want me to get the luggage?” Fergus asked.
“Bill,” Birkman said, patting me on the shoulder. “You don’t mind getting the bags while I have a word with this man?” I shrugged and mumbled “Sure,” though I would rather have seen Fergus struggle under the load of Birkman’s baggage. He rubbed me the wrong way.
I retreated past the flying people, searching for the baggage claim. After two false starts down dead-end corridors, I came across a stall labeled ‘Information Booth’. The booth was attended by a small white-haired woman wearing a full-size Idaho State football jersey. It reached below her knees.
“I’d like some information,” I began, smiling down at her.
“I don’t know,” she replied, smiling right back. “I don’t work here. I’m just filling in for my grandson. He’s over in Spokane this week with the team.”
“I didn’t know Idaho State had a football team,” I said. “What position does he play?”
“He doesn’t play football,” she snapped, as though I had suggested he was peddling drugs to Spokane schoolchildren. “He’s on the debate team. They make us wear these,” she said, fingering the jersey with her thumb and index finger. “There is no football team, sonny, but they sell the jerseys in the gift shop. Do you want one? I get a commission.”
“I’m trying to find the baggage claim,” I said, somewhat startled by the granny’s hard-sell approach.
“Like I said, I don’t work here. If you look at that map over there,” she said, pointing to a column in the distance, “you should get some answers.” Her face softened, and she added, “Should you decide to pick up one of these shirts, my name is Emily. Tell the checkout girl. Have a potato and enjoy your stay.”
I made a mental note to commend the Idaho Tourist Bureau on Emily’s good work.
After a few more false starts, I located the baggage carousel. Birkman’s bags were circling quietly. I removed each with a thud, and tucked the cylinder gingerly under one arm. Struggling back toward Birkman, I passed a group of Japanese men staring up at the flying people. One man pointed to the mural and exclaimed ‘Superman’ in explanation to his countrymen. By the time I reached the Coke machine, I was sweating and out of breath. Birkman and Fergus were nowhere in sight. I heard laughter off to the right. There rested a sad little airport bar, with a sign advertising a hot dog and beer combo for $5. The laughter came from Birkman, who exited the bar, with Fergus in tow. They were whooping it up while good ole’ Bill toted the bags around. “Fergus was bringing me up to speed on things at Crispy’s. I decided to buy him a drink in appreciation. We’re ready to go now. Can I give you a hand?”
Fergus was beaming, either from the alcohol or from his brush with this burnished executive material. I grunted “I’m okay” and shambled after them. I was a little put out by the fact that they’d left me holding the bags, as it were. I also felt slightly neglected by my boss.
Fergus led us out to an old Dodge pickup truck, circa 1955. Its huge round wheel wells gave it the aura of a Tonka Toy. Fergus motioned me to drop Birkman’s bags in the flatbed, which I did with great effort. I was afraid that I would be asked to follow them, when I noticed that the cab had been modified to include a generous back bench seat. Birkman waited for me to climb up and in before mounting the floorboard, twisting in mid-air and pouring himself into his seat, even catching the seatbelt in his right hand as he floated down. I was surprised to find an ice chest built into the space between the two front seats, where one would normally expect to find a glove or gear box. It was stocked to overflowing with ice and 16 ounce cans of Rainier beer.
“If you don’t mind, I’d have you wait until we leave the grounds of the airfield before opening your beer,” Fergus said, glancing over at Birkman. There was no response. Birkman’s head was twisted at a strange angle. My first thought was that he’d suffered a stroke. I thought how that would play back at headquarters. What a way to launch my professional career — take the boss on a trip where he suffers a stroke and dies in the middle of Nowhere, Idaho, with a faux cowboy at the wheel of his hearse, no less. Lurching forward to take vital signs, I heard light snoring. He was dead to the world.
“A busy exec’s got to take his rest where he can, I reckon,” Fergus drawled. “It’s you and me, now, kid. What’s your name?”
“Bill,” I said, wishing I would be overcome with sleep.
“Grab yourself a brewdog then, Billy,” he said, wrestling a beer from the ice.
“Is it really okay to have a beer in Idaho? In the car, I mean.”
“Some people would tell you it’s against the law not to drink beer in the car in Idaho,” Fergus said, spraying the dashboard with foam. “All you got is straight roads and potatoes. Doesn’t take a whole lot of brain cells to keep it between the ditches. Not like your curvy Californy roads. Ever been down Highway One with a broad working your knob?” Fergus lifted the tallboy with two hands, cradling the wheel with his knees. He grabbed a second beer and splattered the ceiling and the left shoulder of Birkman’s jacket with foam before handing it to me. “Hate to drink alone!” he laughed. “It’ll help you appreciate the scenery.” I tried to shake the unpleasant image of Fergus driving Highway One with the sort of woman who might busy herself with his ‘knob’, and looked out the window.
The scenery wasn’t much. There was the grain I’d seen from the plane, except it wasn’t grain, but potatoes. Winter potatoes, Fergus informed me.
“Winter potatoes get about as big as your balls,” he offered, “but they’re as sweet as can be. Not like my balls. I got the clap from this lady in Boise. I itch like a dog in heat, but it was worth it. Nothing like a Boise hooker.”
Fergus leered in the rearview mirror, inviting me to share some of my lurid adventures. It was my guess that he hadn’t been out of Idaho in years, and that he’d been fantasizing about those wild goings-on in San Francisco since the episode on Highway One. I imagined an old Mason Jar squirrelled away in a closet, filling slowly with nickels and dimes, a modest nest egg he was building to squander on one night of North Beach debauchery. He wasn’t going to get anything out of me. I avoided the rearview mirror and looked at the dashboard, where a Mr. Potato Head clutching a Saint Christopher’s medal was firmly cemented above the speedometer. We were traveling at 78 miles an hour. I took a slug of my beer and gagged.
Rainier is the ‘value-priced’ regional beer of the Pacific Northwest, the one you buy on sale for $4.99 a 12-pack when the Hamm’s at $3.99 seems too much like slumming it. The Rainier TV ads I saw while visiting a cousin in Seattle years before have always stayed with me. One showed people running through the streets of Pamplona, chased by large bottles of Rainier that had been outfitted with human legs. Another showed a fisherman placidly casting in a mountain stream, only to be disturbed by the same Rainier bottles, this time crashing upstream like spawning salmon. There was no Euro-trendyness or patriotic nonsense in these ads, but there was a lot about drinking beer — it’s fun and goofy for the most part, but sometimes you can get banged up a little. The second gulp of Rainier was not so bad.
“Whaddya think of the new chips?” Fergus said, tearing another beer from the pile with one of his two free hands.
“Don’t ya know? They got less fat. It’s a patent.” I sensed that Fergus was playing a little ‘I know more than you’ game. I wasn’t going to give in that easy.
“Oh, those,” I replied. “I guess I don’t think of them as new anymore.”
This seemed to satisfy Fergus, and he turned his attention to the radio dial. He flipped from one country and western station to another. I couldn’t discern any difference, but he kept flipping. I wanted to shake him by his Hee-Haw suspenders until he spilled the beans about the new chips. Why hadn’t Birkman filled me in on this rather large detail? Was keeping me in the dark any way to instill faith in a new employee? Fergus finally settled on a station. Though I never listen to country and western, I felt like I’d heard the tune before. Then it struck me. Toledo’s calendar!
“I’d cry my eyes out over you, if I could only see/
And drive my rig to Oregon, and climb a Doug Fir tree…”
“Ever been to the Lusty Lady up on Broadway?” Fergus asked, keeping time on the side of the cooler. “Those girls’ll do anything for a dollar. I mean, ANYTHING!”
Birkman shifted and began to snore lightly. The dashboard clock said 4 o’clock. Up ahead on the right was a huge billboard. It looked out of place amidst our desolate surroundings. On the board, potatoes danced in a conga line toward a vat of hot oil. Below the potatoes was the legend, “Crispy’s Chips. Take A Dip.”
“So,” I sighed, giving myself over to my milieu. “What will those girls do for a dollar?”
Fergus cackled and tilted back his beer as the billboard passed out of sight.