Sweat was stinging my eyes, my t-shirt was soaked, and I was regretting wearing jeans. Though typical of Montana springs, the morning was cool, yet the afternoon felt like a furnace. There was a westerly breeze blowing down from the range, yet it did little to cool off the patrons of the “First Annual Antiques and Hot Rod’s of Broken Bow Assembly and Car Show!” I was bent over inside the hood of a 1952 Chevy Truck, my hands reaching in awkward angles trying to get a cotter pin inserted into the throttle linkage. I blinked, clearing my eyes from beads of sweat, swearing under my breath, and finally wrangled the pin in the hole. After bending the ends back, I stood back up, stretched my back and wiped my hands on an oily rag.
“Try it now, Kim.”
The engine cranked over and fired to life instantly. Kim feathered the throttle and let the small block rev, making a deep throaty rumble out the dual exhaust pipes. Then she shut off the engine, and I dropped the hood, wiping away my greasy fingerprints from the hood.
“Thanks Jack,” she said, exiting the cab. “Can’t believe I made it all the way here and then it broke!”
“You were lucky, I guess. No better place to break down, probably more tools and parts here than John’s Garage on Main.”
I took off my hat and wiped my brow on my shirt sleeve. I squinted at the sun, and breathed the spring air, laced with exhaust fumes and oil. Putting my hat back on, I smiled at Kim.
“I’d better be heading back. Jo’s probably wondering what happened to the lemonade I promised.”
“Let me buy those for you. Least I can do.”
“Sure, thanks.” I said and we headed off to the food truck. The event wasn’t a Barrett Jackson car auction crowd, but it was respectable for Broken Bow, Montana. Then again, it didn’t take much of an excuse to get people out after a long cold winter. Most of the cars on display were “projects” not destined for the Concour’s but rather just good fun or old family treasures. Kim’s truck had been her father’s, bought brand new in 1952. I’d convinced Kim to pull it out of the barn and swap out the old inline six for a small black chevy 350. We installed the new engine, transmission and drivetrain over the winter. We made the truck respectable on modern roads, more reliable, and easier for her to drive.
“You let her drive here today?” Kim asked, knowing that Jo was not old enough legally to drive, but by Montana standards, she was tall enough to reach the pedals and see over the dash, so was thereby qualified. Being my niece, and now her legal guardian, I was struggling with the fine line of being the nice Uncle, or the upstanding parent.
“Yea, there was no putting up with her if I didn’t.”
“Which car did you bring?”
“The ’51 Styleline. It’s Jo’s favorite.”
Kim just smiled. We ordered three lemonades and a bag of popcorn. As we strolled along back to where I was parked, we admired the row of cars and trucks across the field. Some had come in from other states, but most were from Montana and it was somewhat surprising to see the hundred or so backyard projects that had been hiding all winter all collected in our small little mountain town. Perhaps the largest irony was that most of these vehicles were people’s daily drivers, or actually working on the farms and ranches outside of town. But thanks to its proximity to the mountains, the Indian Casino, and the ski hills not twenty miles up the range, Broken Bow did have its fair share attraction for a hot rod culture. After all, when the weather was right, the roads around the valley and into the range offered some of the most amazing vistas for a day cruise.
“Jack! About time, you have to help harvest the lemons?” Jo came running up, swiping her drink from my hand and took a long sip from the straw. “Hi Kim!”
“Hi Jo. Sorry, but Jack had to help me out with the truck.”
Jo was fourteen. She was blond, blue-eyed, athletic, able to change your oil, rope a calf; but her speciality would be the four course dinners that she would create. Her ambition was to be a chef, own a series of restaurants, and generally leave Broken Bow in her dust as soon as she hit adult age. Jo’s mother was my sister, Julia. Julia had passed last fall. Jo’s father wasn’t in the picture, no one knew where he was, and only Julia and I knew who he is. So, with my little sister gone, something that still pains me every day, Jo became my responsibility. And not a day goes by that I think how much Jo reminds me of her mother when Julia was her age. It was like having my pesky little teenage sister all over again, only this time, tripping her into the mud wasn’t quite the honorable way to act as an Uncle. Can’t say I didn’t think about it, though.
“Here, have some popcorn,” I extended the bag over to Jo. She swiped it from my fingers and then plopped down into the canvas camping chair.
I stood there and sipped my own drink, looking at the old chevy, admiring its simplistic lines and sharp chrome accents. I suppose I lost interest in cars once they stopped putting on hood ornaments. Kim patted Jo on the shoulder and then walked about the car, sticking her head through the open window.
Kim proclaimed, “Nice car, I’ve always admired it. I can see why its your favorite Jo, suits you better than your Uncle I think.”
“Jack, there was some woman here just a while ago, asking for you,” Jo said.
“Really? Anyone we know?” I asked.
“If I knew her, I wouldn’t have called her ‘some woman.’” Jo explained.
“Fair enough. What did she want?”
“No idea. Just asked if this was yours and if you’d be back soon. I told her you would be straight back, but then I didn’t plan on you milking your own lemons.”
“I don’t think you milk lemons.” I said.
Jo rolled her eyes.
I looked around the pasture, filled with people, cars, sounds of music and smells of bar-b-q.
“What did she look like?” Kim asked.
“Brown hair, blond highlights, kind of punk looking. She had a nose ring, and was wearing a floppy hat. She wasn’t from here, that much is for certain.”
“Odd, can’t think of anyone I know like you’re describing. No matter. I’d rather hear what your plans for dinner are tonight. I think you promised that if I let you drive, you’d be doing the cooking and the clean up.”
“No, I said I would cook. I never said clean. The chef doesn’t do the dishes, that’s what we have help for. I can’t tarnish my creativity with dirty dishes.” Her face was lit with a savvy smile, breaking my heart, and making me laugh on the inside.
“You can if you want to drive home,” I said.
“Right.” I winked at her.
Kim stayed with us for some time, the three of us commenting on the different cars, and chatting with anyone that stopped by. It was a light hearted afternoon, relaxing in the sun, letting the rays warm our skin after months of dark gray and wintery days. After a while, Kim said her goodbye, and strolled back to her truck, leaving just Jo and I hanging out together. But it wasn’t long before I knew she was growing bored. Frankly, so was I, adapting to the slower pace of Montana had been a culture shock for me. However, after Christy died, this place had felt more of a refuge and a welcome change from my previous lifestyle. Yet, at times, the slow pace, the knowledge that everyone knew everyone, and everyone knew you could feel stifling, suffocating, smothering. For Jo, she had grown up here. For me, it had only been a place to visit every couple of years when I passed through to see my sister. Jo saw beyond the range, and her dreams bloomed in the city of her choosing – a whole vibrant lifestyle she could only dream; a place I had been reluctant to leave behind. On the other hand, truly, there were no regrets. If there was reluctance in the past of leaving behind an urban life, being here for Jo, being here for Christy, that was more valuable than breathing.
“Well kiddo,” I said, “I’m getting hungry for more than just popcorn and lemonade. I’m thinking steak. Potatoes. Beans. Carrots. Maybe a cake for dessert.”
“You’re thinking a lot there, Jack. Don’t hurt yourself.”
I chucked her the keys, she deftly caught them with her left hand, then leapt from her chair and skipped to the driver’s door in a blink. I grabbed the chairs, folded them up and placed in the back seat. I slid into the passenger side, holding my breath while Jo started the large V-8 with a roar. She hit the throttle a few times, letting all the folks know that we were on the move. Her mouth formed a wicked smile that made me chuckle.
“Easy there, Chief. Nice and easy. Please.”
Jo shifted into gear, and then slowly let her foot off the brake, letting the car idle its way out of the field and then accelerating onto the highway. She was a good driver, actually, having practiced for months on our property before I dared let her hit the streets. As we left, I waved to the Sheriff parked at the corner of the field. He just shook his head, and turned away from us as we accelerated past.
A mile down the road, Jo turned to me, “I wonder what happened to that woman?”
“Who?” I asked.
“The woman looking for you earlier today. I wondered what happened to her?”
“What do you mean ‘happened’?”
“Well, she just seemed so desperate to find you, that’s all. Just seems she would have come back again.”
“Don’t know, kiddo. Just drive straight, and five miles under the speed limit.”
“Yes, sir,” she said with a note of annoyance on her tongue.
We pulled into town and Jo slowed the old beast, letting inertia carry us down Main Street. The downtown had a divide, with the Court House sitting in the center of town and Main Street angling into a square around the building. There was a series of cross roads, each with their own traffic light. As we pulled to a red light, we sat and waited as two elderly men walked across the street towards the center park, and away from the bar behind them. Their stagger indicated they had most likely spent the entire afternoon in the bar. Just before the light changed, a small framed woman came walking down the sidewalk, heading to the bar. She was wearing a light brown jacket, black leggings, and black boots. Her head was held low and her shoulders tight. The light changed to green, but we didn’t move.
“That’s her!” exclaimed Jo. “That’s the woman that was looking for you.”
“Lights green, kiddo.”
“You want me to pull over?”
“No,” I said, watching the woman enter the bar. “Let’s go home.”
As we passed the bar, the sound of our engine must have alerted the woman, she came back out from the bar and stood on the sidewalk watching us pass. I looked at her, and saw her mouth move. I never could read lips well, but I swear she was saying, “I need -”
Leaving the bar behind, I looked back at the woman in the side mirror, watching us as we drove away. Whoever she was, I had a feeling this wasn’t the last time I was going to see her. There was something about that woman that threw up red flags, warnings that I hadn’t felt since I arrived in Montana and changed my life for the benefit of my family.
We drove the rest of the way home in silence, and I just smiled and admired my niece. She was an astute, mature, responsible young lady. I was proud of my sister, despite her carefree younger days, she had raised a fine daughter. I could only feel the sorrow that she was no longer here to see Jo flourish into a woman. In a silent swear, I promised to honor my sister and do whatever I could to send this lady off into the world to live the life her mother never could.