If you love, adore the moon. If you rob, steal a camel.

Stories for the Long Silk Road

Friday, February 10, 2012

Richard Luftig: You Never Know

You never know when you’ll run out, get caught short, be unprepared.

That’s why I stock up on shampoos from the maid’s cart in the motel hallway, pilfer packets of ketchup from McDonalds, sweeteners from Starbucks and chopsticks from every Asian take-out place I visit. I even take matchbooks from restaurants and I’ve never smoked.

And pens, you can never have too many of those. I probably have a pen from every bank, insurance agent and doctor’s office in Southern California.

I’m one of those people who plan for every contingency. In short, I don’t like surprises.

So, you can imagine how jarring it was to learn that my company was moving me from Los Angeles to Killdeer, North Dakota.

In hindsight, like the bogus clairvoyant who got busted by the police, I should have seen it coming. I’m forty-five years old, and I’ve worked for a gas and oil company the last twenty years here in Los Angeles. I’m born and raised in Southern California and I’ve never been east of Denver. Still, its not like I’ve never heard of North Dakota. I probably read about it in elementary school and while I could find it on a map, I sure as hell never heard of Killdeer.

I had read about the oil boom in North Dakota and knew that our company was sending engineers and drilling teams to the fields there. But it never crossed my mind that they would need support staff like accountants. After all, I’m not exactly a first line field worker.

But I got the memo that I was being transferred, and the company gave me a month to close up my life here and start one there.  Yes, a memo. Nothing like the personal touch.

After I got the word, I decided to take an early, rest-of-the day lunch to try to sort it out. I mean, where were they going to send me as punishment for skipping work? Siberia? I was already headed there.

I called my son, John and asked him to meet me for lunch. He’s really all I have
in California. Carolyn and I divorced fifteen years ago when he was eight. My youngest son, David never forgave me for the split and hasn’t spoken to me in years. Sometimes things work out that way.

“Gee, Dad,” John said. “It’s kind of short notice. I’m not sure if I can just leave the office. I’m pretty swamped.”

“It’s important,” I said. “I really need your advice.”

There was silence on the other end of the phone. I’m not known to ask my kid’s opinion. I’m more of a “teller.”

“Okay,” he said. “How about Mako’s in Little Tokyo at 11:30?”

I don’t like Japanese food but I figured this wasn’t the time to argue.        

“Fine,” I said. “I’ll see you then.”


When I walked into the sushi place, John was already there and sipping on his miso soup. I ordered tea and some sort of rice dish. I don’t eat raw fish that was swimming somewhere two hours ago.

John put down his bowl. I always marveled about how much he looked like his mother; thin, with brown hair that always had a curl in it, dark eyes that could flash on a moment’s notice, lips that didn’t smile as much as I would have liked. I’m pretty much the opposite; stocky, or as I like to say, short for my weight, with black hair, now rapidly turning gray, and hazel eyes that are hard to see behind my glasses.

“What so important that we had to meet at a moment’s notice?” he said. “It’s not like you to be spontaneous.”

I ignored the dig. “You hear from David?”

John moved his chopsticks from the left to the right side of his plate. “Yes, we spoke last week. He’s fine.”

He hesitated. “And no, we didn’t talk about you. You’re not his favorite topic of conversation.”

“What about your mother? How is she doing?”
“Dad, I hope you didn’t ask me here to get a report on the family. You said on the phone it was important. What’s going on?”

My efforts at conversation were only serving to annoy him. I needed to cut to the news.

“I’m being transferred.”

I could see that he was surprised. “Out of LA?”

“Further than that,” I said.

“Out of California? Where?”

“North Dakota.”

“Excuse me? Did you say North Dakota? THE North Dakota that’s at the end of the universe?”

“One and the same,” I said.

Our food came but John didn’t touch his. “Jesus, Dad, I’m not sure I could find North Dakota with two hands and a flashlight. Why are they sending you there?”

“They’ve found huge oil and gas deposits and are starting to drill as soon as possible. Guess they need a pencil-pusher to keep the records straight.”

“And you’re going?”

I tried to pick up some rice with my chopsticks but it was a lost cause. I switched to my fork. “I have to if I want to keep my job.”

John poked at a piece of sushi and dipped it in some sort of mustard paste. I once tried the stuff, and it made my nose fall off.
“Where are they sending you?”

“Killdeer” I said. “About 130 miles from Bismarck. Not far from the Montana border.”

“Killdeer? What is that, a town from Song of Hiawatha?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know anything about it.”

“When would you leave?”

“Well, the good news is that the company is giving me a month to work things out. I’m flying there the day after tomorrow to scout out the place, see if I can make it my new home.”

“And you would move there?”

I hesitated, wondering the best way to phrase what I wanted to say. “That’s the reason I called you.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just that you and David are the only reasons I have to stay in California. If I knew that you and I could be closer, that your brother and I could start up a relationship again, I’d turn the move down in a heartbeat, even if it meant losing my job.”

I could see that I had missed the mark, that John was annoyed. “Jesus, Dad, that’s a hell of a trip to lay on somebody.”

I nodded. “I agree, but it doesn’t change the situation.” I gave him a few seconds to ponder. “What are you thinking?”

“I don’t know how to react,” he said. “I realize we’re not close, but with me married and with kids, you know, I don’t have much time.”

“That’s an excuse.”

“Yeah, maybe it is. But the fact is, you and I just don’t see the world the same way.”      

“And your brother?” I asked.

“I can’t speak for David. But if I had to bet the farm, I’d say that I don’t see you two reconciling in the near future.”

I was disappointed but not surprised. I reached for the check. “Well, that’s the input I needed. All things considered, I’m going to fly to North Dakota with an open mind.”

He took the check from my hand. “Let me get it. It’s the least I can do for a man heading into the great unknown.”

We got up and he gave me a hug. I wanted to tell him I loved him but decided it might seem like I was trying too hard.

“Well, look on the bright side,” I said, trying to keep it light. “At least there I won’t have to watch people eat fish still almost moving on their plate.”

I pocketed a couple of packets of soy sauce before I left. I didn’t know if they had the stuff in Killdeer.


I had never seen North Dakota from an airplane. Hell, I’d never seen any of the Midwest. My initial reaction was shock. How could land be this flat? You live in Southern California you take the snowcapped mountains for granted.

And while I was new to the place I was pretty sure that farmland wasn’t supposed to be underwater.

It was clear as we approached Bismarck that the rivers were flooded over their banks. It was funny, though. I hadn’t read anything about floods in the California newspapers. I guess what happens in North Dakota stays in North Dakota. Kind of like Las Vegas without the slots.

Our plane approached the Bismarck airport. Let’s just say that the single runway didn’t remind me of LAX. There were standing puddles of water everywhere and the picture of our skidding on contact and showing up on the local 11 o’clock news flashed before my eyes. But the pilot must have been eager to make it safely home for dinner because we touched down perfectly and coasted to an easy stop.

If I was expecting a gateway, I was disappointed. The hatch opened and we walked down a steep flight of steps to the tarmac. I wasn’t prepared for the late autumn gusts and sheets of rain bearing down from the northwest. It whipped dust devils into my eyes. I saw that my fellow passengers were holding their hands to their foreheads like folks in California driving west in the late afternoon trying to keep the sun out of their eyes. I couldn’t walk fast enough to the lone terminal.

Inside, I looked around for someone to direct me to the rental car desk. But outside of our arriving flight, the place was deserted. I looked up and followed the signs to baggage claim. If Bismarck was anything like the rest of the world’s airports, rental cars were near where one picked up their bags.

I’ll say this for the place; there wasn’t a line at the one rental car desk. I was in my car and out of the airport in fifteen minutes.

It’s supposed to be a two- hour straight shot from Bismarck to Killdeer, ninety miles due west on I94 and then north on State Road 22, but we never have freezing rain in Southern California and the steady downpour quickly turned the drive into a four hour white-knuckle trip.

I gratefully pulled into the only motel near Killdeer, grabbed my room key and collapsed onto the bed. The paneling was ancient and spotted with bad art prints. Overall, the place looked like it was last remodeled during the Kennedy Administration. Between the cold that gripped every bone in my body and the steady rain pounding on what seemed to be a metal roof, I fell into an uneasy sleep.


I’ve heard those stories about waking up in a strange bed in a hotel and the panic of not remembering where you are. That didn’t happen to me. I opened my eyes and heard my brain yell, “North Dakota.” My second thought was that I needed emergency coffee if I was going to survive even one day here.

I looked around. There was no coffee maker in the room. It figured. This wasn’t exactly the Killdeer Hilton.

The rain was still playing the “Anvil Chorus” on the roof. Did the sun ever come out around here? I thought I was going to the prairie, not a rain forest.

I dressed and dodged the raindrops to the motel office.  The guy who checked me in last night was still behind the desk. I didn’t know if he was the owner but I really didn’t care. I just wanted something to eat.

“Morning,” he said. I didn’t know if it was a statement of fact or a greeting. I opted for the latter.

“Good Morning. One hell of a day. Does it ever stop raining? I feel like I’m in the Amazon.”

He didn’t break a smile. Either he didn’t get the joke or I had inadvertently insulted the State of North Dakota.

“Been awhile since we’ve seen sunlight,” he admitted. “Two weeks to be exact.”

“Is it like this a lot?”
“Depends on the time of year you visit,”

I decided to forgo the small talk. “Any place around here I can get a cup of coffee?”

“There’s a café in Killdeer. But it isn’t open.”

A genius, I thought, Why would he tell me about a restaurant that was closed? I tried to remember if today was Sunday or a National holiday.

“Why’s the café closed on a Tuesday morning. People not eat around here on Tuesdays?”

Still, not even a smile from the guy. I wondered if everyone around here was such a tough audience.

“Floods,” he said. “The Little Knife jumped its banks yesterday. Everybody in town from banker to school teacher is sandbagging and trying to build a levee.”

In Southern California, we have earthquakes and fires, landsides and smog alerts, but the trickle that we call the Los Angeles River has never been a flood threat.

“Sounds serious,” I said.

He looked at me sharply as if trying to gauge if I was truly empathetic or just a big-city smart-ass. “Only if you’re worried about losing your house by nightfall.”

I didn’t want to sound crass or unfeeling, but I still needed my fix of caffeine. “So where is the closest place to get something to eat? I really didn’t bring any provisions with me on the plane.”

He thought for a moment. “Not really sure. Lots of people from different towns have come to Killdeer to help out, so I don’t know what’s open and what’s not. Your best bet is to backtrack to Bismarck. Lots of choices there.”
Welcome to North Dakota, I thought. Towns too small to have a restaurant. What was next; learning that people took turns operating the one traffic signal in the state?

I didn’t want to argue with the guy but I sure as hell wasn’t retracing my steps to Bismarck just for breakfast. I saw from the map that there were a number of towns to the east; Hazen, Halliday, Dodge. Something had to be open. I drove into Killdeer to pick up State Route 200.

It looked like a town during World War II trying to defend itself from attack. Only this time the enemy was water. People, maybe fifty or more, were in a line, some shoveling dirt into sandbags, others passing the bags from person to person until they reached three or four men piling the things into a three-foot high levee. A guy in a bulldozer was delivering scoops of sand from a pile some hundred yards distant while another machine was pushing mud and other debris into an earthen wall.

I pulled my car over to the side of the road in front of the post office and watched. Nobody seemed to notice me or ask what he was doing. They simply continued their work.

I don’t know why I did it; after all, it wasn’t my town. But I got out of the car and walked over to the snake-line of workers.

“Where do you want me?” I said to the guy who seemed to be in charge.
If he was surprised to see a stranger standing in front of him, he didn’t let on. I guess the need for volunteers trumped curiosity. He nodded in the direction of another line a little farther down the street that I hadn’t seen.

“We could use folks over there. That part of the levee is beginning to give way. Just get on the line and begin passing bags.”

I waded in. Immediately the freezing water reached above my ankles making my feet numb. I cursed not bringing my insulated boots from the motel room.

My world quickly focused on three things; taking the ten-pound sandbags from the guy behind me, swiveling, and passing it to the woman in front.

“My name’s Denise,” the woman said, accepting my sandbag.

“Rob,” I said. I wanted to be polite and hold out my hand but another sandbag poked me in the small of my back.

Denise seemed pretty, but amid the rain and grit and mud it was hard to tell. Her complexion was red from the wind. She had blue eyes and her hair, what little peeked out from her kerchief, was almost iridescent red. To me, she looked like the epitome of the Scotch-Irish folks who I read had settled this area generations ago.

“You’re not from around here,” she said. I noticed there was an odd lilt to her speech. I tried to pin down where I had heard it before. Then I remembered. Every character in the movie Fargo had spoken like that.

“No, I’m checking the place out,” I said. “My company wants to transfer me.”

“From where?”
“Los Angeles,”

She whistled. “Jesus. Talk about culture shock. Well, welcome to North Dakota. I guess if this weather doesn’t turn you off to this place you’ll be a flatlander for sure.”

We kept passing bags from hand to hand. Ten pounds might not sound like much but sand is dead weight. Besides, I figured I was passing about five bags per minute and that equaled 3000 pounds in a single hour.

I don’t know how long we kept at it. Two hours, maybe three. All I can tell you is that pushing paper in the office never trained me for this kind of exertion. I cursed myself for not exercising more. Okay, for not exercising at all. My back was screaming in revolt and my arms felt ready to rip away from my chest.

Finally, some people came from across the street to relieve us. I was ready to hug them and dig into my wallet for $10 tips but thought better of it.

“Free at last,” Denise said.

She looked at me and laughed. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you look like crap.” I looked down and saw that my coat, pants and shoes were covered with mud.

“Yeah, I’m afraid I have to agree with you. Not a great way to make a first impression.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “It’s not every stranger passing through that would climb out of his car and get down and dirty with total strangers to help save their town. When folks figure out who you are they’re going to think you’re a hero. You might even get a statue in front of the post office.

I laughed. “Fat chance. Besides I needed the exercise.”

“Still,” she said, “let me buy you breakfast and a cup of coffee.”

I looked at her. Her pretty face was tan, like she had spent the summer in the sun. I wondered if she was a farmer. “Breakfast?” I said.“Where? I heard everything was closed.”

She pointed across the street to a café. “It is except to the locals working on the sandbagging lines. Roberta’s is open, and she’s serving free coffee and half-priced meals. Disaster like this hits, and everybody does their part.”

We entered the café. Almost all of the tables were filled with townspeople as dirty and gritty as us. Evidently, they were taking a break before returning to the levee work. We ordered coffee at the counter and found a table and two chairs at the rear of the restaurant.

Denise took her coffee black. I looked around for some ‘Sweet and Low’ but there was only the tall, glass sugar canister with the little metal flap where you pour a stream from the top. I remembered the packets of artificial sweetener in my jacket pocket that I had pilfered from the Starbuck at the Los Angeles Airport. I took one out and emptied in my cup.

Denise looked at me quizzically. “You come prepared. Is that a California thing?”

I tasted my coffee. “No, more like a neurotic thing. I hate to be caught short.”

We drank our coffee, talked, and ordered a second cup, I was impressed that refills were free. Try that in Los Angeles. I told her about the time I had run up a $25 iced-tea bill in a restaurant thinking that there were no charge for refills. She thought that was hilarious.

Denise asked what I was doing in North Dakota near the onset of winter and I told her about the job transfer. She ordered a third cup of coffee. I was nearly floating away on the two I had already put away.

After awhile, she said she had to get back to work on the sandbags. I apologized but told her that I needed to return to the motel change and check in at work.

She drained her cup and got up. “So what are you going to do, move out here in the middle of nowhere, or stay in California and take your chances? You’ve probably guessed it’s going to be total culture shock for you if you move out here.”

I looked at my half-finished up and then up at her. Standing there in her mud- splattered, loose fitting workpants, so many layers of sweatshirts that I couldn’t tell if she was small or big breasted, and work boots that extended halfway up her calves, she was nothing like any of the well-heeled, hair-in place, lipstick and maybe-botoxed-women back in L.A. In short, I liked her.

“I’m not really sure,” I said finally. “I have to check out the job, living arrangements, everything. Then there’s my ex-wife and kids back in California, although to tell you the truth, I really don’t have much of a relationship with any of them.

“But I agree with you on one thing. If I’m going to move out here, I better be sure because it’s going to be one hell of an adjustment.”

Denise searched in her pockets but came up empty. “You have anything to write with?”

I reached again into my jacket and took out a matchbook from a L.A. Chinese take-out place and a pen I lifted from my credit union. I handed both of them to her.

She ripped out the matches and wrote her phone number on the inside and handed me the book. “Tell you what; here’s my number. You make up your mind you want to come here and I’ll give you the ten -minute grand tour.”

She gazed at my coat. "You have anything else stashed in there, like a coffee pot and silverware?”

I laughed and put her telephone number carefully in my wallet. I knew I wanted to see her again.

“I hate to run out or be unprepared,” I said, trying to explain to her my philosophy of life.

“After all, you never know.”

Richard Luftig is a professor of educational psychology and special education at Miami University in Ohio. He is a recipient of the Cincinnati Post-Corbett Foundation Award for Literature and a semi-finalist for the Emily Dickinson Society Award for Poetry. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines including Bloodroot, Front Porch Review,  Silkscreen Literary Review, and Pulse literary Magazine. He is a 2012 Pushcart Prize nominee.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, a good read and a good start to my Monday morning.


Silk Road Mantra

by Suchoon Mo

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road

I go and go

from west to east

I go and go

from east to west

bury me not

in the lone Silk Road


As of June 25, 2015, The Bactrian Room is closed to submissions.


Search This Blog

Notice of Copyrights

Original material on this site is copyrighted by the authors and artists. No material may be copied or reused without the permission of the respective author or artist.