My kind of town: Livingston, Montana

An essay on returning home to the West, after years abroad.

 

Livingston, Montana, on the Fourth of July.
Jake Luttinger

When the preacher said doctrine wouldn’t allow my sister to join the Girl Scouts, he learned something about my mother, who turned around, shut the door and just walked away. Every time I walk past that church, I remember why I so rarely tried to tell my mother what to do.

A busy supermarket stands just up the street. There used to be a root beer stand there, and the thought of it churns memories of my grandmother, generally a soft touch for a frosty mug.

Around the corner is the tiny house Mom rented when we first moved into town, after her divorce, right across the street from the school where they told her women teachers weren’t worth as much as men. That policy turned her into a lifelong union member. Like I said, there wasn’t much point in trying to tell her no.

On the other end of town, I often pass the house where I got my –– astonishing –– first real kiss. The taste of lips and the texture of tongue can sound pretty sour to the early adolescent mind, but Debby Sanders converted me.

When John Lennon died a few years later, I was sitting in a house on the corner of F and Geyser, watching TV with the sound off and the stereo turned up. It took a couple minutes for the reality to soak through the fog.

These are the kind of ghosts I find on my daily walks around Livingston, Montana, my hometown.

For a place with only about 7,000 people, Livingston is pretty well known. Celebrities hang around and the scenery astounds. Three mountain ranges bulk up here and millions of tourists pass through, usually on their way to Yellowstone Park, just up the road. The Yellowstone River shoulders by, mostly a delight and sometimes a menace but always a marvel, untamed in spite of us. We’ve got wildlife all over the place and we have our famous wind, with gusts that roll semi trailers and motor homes, and once even a train, out by the truck stop. Serious crime is rare, but we live in the world: In 2011, two sheriff’s deputies killed a man who had shot and wounded a woman multiple times.

A Google dump could tell you most of this. But it can’t tell you who we are. That’s what the ghosts are for, if you listen to them.

I’ve spent most of my life here, so I see these ghosts a lot. They don’t pull at me, or make me particularly sad or happy. They just exist, like gravity, issuing reminders and providing weight.

It wasn’t always like this. They used to scare the bejeebers out of me.

A generation ago, I returned to Livingston after a long stint of foreign adventures –– the swarm of Asian cities, body-surfing in New Zealand, learning that a chicken’s monetary value soars if you run it over with a motorcycle.

The concept of coming home started to percolate in Seoul, Korea, on a sunny afternoon when a little bird flitted over my head, and I hit the deck. There had been riots and I thought somebody was aiming a stone at me. Slogging through tear gas makes a vivid memory, but what really struck me, after I regained my feet, was the rarity of birds in that city.

Back home, the tables turned and the stories sought me, popping up everywhere. I didn’t know that familiarity could frighten so.

It took a while to come home for good, partly because when I got here, the ghosts rattled me, made my feet itch to leave again. They were everywhere, peeking around corners, lifting a curtain to watch me pass, telling their stories. Mrs. Working was a crabby woman, impossible­ to satisfy, while her neighbor, Mr. Hokanson, could always spare a minute for a kid. A giant boy named Phillip sat next to me in second grade; he couldn’t speak a word, but a shared crayon always made him smile. (He liked the red ones.) Leo Schaeffer had 11 kids of his own but loved engaging in apple fights with the neighborhood hooligans. Willie Moffett, handsome and impish, joined the Marine Corps, and I never saw him again. Perry Herbst disappeared, too. By the time Kenny Fleming died, he didn’t add much weight at all to the first coffin I ever carried. I have no idea what happened to Debby Sanders, she of that first kiss.

I thought the best stories lay in unknown and exotic places, so that’s where I sought them. Back home, the tables turned and the stories sought me, popping up everywhere. I didn’t know that familiarity could frighten so.

It took a while, but I learned to appreciate the stories. They were part of me. Midge Taylor’s good advice at her cluttered table still provides a flicker of warmth when I pass her house. Mickey Livermore’s giant fist taught me to watch my mouth. The bowling alley where I played pinball is now a mental health center.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m fully capable of ignoring these ghosts, especially if I’m in a hurry or preoccupied. Most people have similar memories, I suspect. But most people don’t live in the town where they grew up, so their ghosts suffer the erosion of time and distance.

My ghosts don’t seem to fade, especially since I’ve been walking more, trying to wrestle back the middle-aged flab. They’ve taught me to see their stories as a yardstick, a measurement of how things change.

On M Street, I remember how the kids ostracized Dolly McNeill, and I wonder if modern schools could have nipped that in the bud. On Yellowstone Street, I recall the crush I had on Jill Glenn, the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. Up by Winans School, I remember the satisfaction I felt when Benjie Schweniger knocked the snot out of the worst bully in junior high school.  On Eighth Street, I remember the woman they called Dirty Mary, who raided garbage cans for food and suffered endless taunts. We didn’t have a mental health center then, or a food bank either, though we probably needed both.

On some blocks, I can name somebody who lived in every house at some point in time. But I often can’t name the people who live there now. I wonder: Do they know the stories of their homes?

A great scary, hairy man used to drink beer on his porch on the corner of Eighth and Clark streets, wearing a T-shirt and scowling at the summer hubbub. My friend Dave Eaton lives there now and laughs at that story. But what about the house on F Street where a man impregnated his wife’s 12-year-old daughter, with his wife’s full cooperation? Somebody else lives there now. The yard is neat, the dog is friendly, a tricycle is stowed on the porch and the walks are shoveled. I’m not about to go knock on that door and spill those ­particular beans.

But the ghosts know. They’ve watched things change. They’ve seen our cruelty and our kindness. They’ve watched us bicker and then come together when the river floods or a house burns or cancer strikes. They’ve watched schools close and new banks open. Livingston has more wealthy people now and fewer children, and I wonder if the ghosts realize there’s something off-kilter there.

Most of the railroad jobs are gone, but there’s a dozen art galleries. The neighborhood grocery stores closed up ages ago, but we have better food now. A bin of avocados or a jar of kimchi no longer puzzles people, and tuna doesn’t have to come in a can. In many ways, I like my town better now. It’s more open-minded and more generous, I think. We’ve certainly become more cosmopolitan, with creative people from all over the world passing through or planting roots, living out stories that will be somebody else’s ghosts someday.

But I’m glad my own ghosts are still here, the old ones reminding me of people now gone, people who died or chased a dream or maybe just found a job somewhere else.

They’re OK, these ghosts. I’m used to them now. They can walk with me any time.

Scott McMillion is the editor of Montana Quarterly, where a version of this essay originally appeared.

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