The tiny Montana town I grew up in had one main intersection where two highways came together at a T-shaped junction. One stop sign told vehicles traveling east to give way to the north and south traffic passing straight through town. On the corner stood Dad’s pharmacy: a two-story, baby blue, eyesore of a building. Dad chose to paint it blue when he got a great deal on paint: price always trumped appearance in Dad’s world.

After Dad’s stroke, the bank threatened to foreclose unless I moved back to help him get things back on track. My first priority was painting the store. As I painted at the top of a thirty-five-foot ladder, I saw Louie, a local teenager, driving by in his late model Mazda pick-up, shirtless after a hard day of swinging a hammer.

At the intersection, a van from a university out east pulled in front of him. Louie, no time to react, center punched his truck into the much larger vehicle.

I scurried down the ladder and ran over to the wreck. Louie was huffing away and grimacing in pain from taking the steering wheel to the chest. The mostly young female passengers in the van had exited, seemed unhurt, and I’ll admit I got a little excited because a vanload of young women about my age had just showed up, and I could speak college.

“Is everybody all right?” I said in an official tone.

Nobody answered.

Then a mumbling snippet of a statement floated in the air: “…what a shitty truck.”

Louie huffed a little bit, and I told him to ignore the comment. He rubbed his bare chest while the rest of us waited for the police and fire department to show. Nobody asked if Louie was okay.

The van driver, a college kid with Carhartt shorts and a pompadour haircut, stood, arms crossed, scowling at Louie and me while the others gave us occasional glances. Someone muttered a statement that ended with “…trailer park.”

Louie grumbled and I told him to toughen up.

When the police arrived, the driver finally opened his mouth. Every word he spoke was like a dead pine tree above an uphill fire. “It’s not my fault,” he kept repeating. “He should have stopped when he saw me.”

The officer, writing in his notebook, answered, “You had the stop sign and he didn’t.”

Someone in the college kid huddle said, “…his paint-covered jeans are filthy.”

I turned to calm Louie, then realized they were talking about me.

Louie smiled. It was his turn to tell me to ignore the comments.

I was confused. I wanted to tell them all that I had a college degree, that I worked in hospitals, that Dad was sick and his pharmacy was failing, that I was a good person, a smart person. But I said nothing.

The driver shot a look at Louie and argued to the officer, “He didn’t swerve to miss me because he wanted me to buy him a new truck.”

As if you’re so rich and Louie’s so poor, I thought.

What I wanted to say was that Louie would never trick someone into buying him a new truck. I wanted to say that Louie was a good kid, that nothing came easy for him in his life, that he earned everything he had, that he too was going off to college.

But I didn’t say a thing.


Emry McAlear grew up in Montana and now lives with his family in Sussex, England, where he makes the locals uncomfortable because he smiles too often and talks too much to strangers. He won the Montana Prize for Nonfiction in 2015 and has been a finalist for the New Letters prize in Nonfiction, the Lamar York Prize, and the Thomas A. Wilhelmus Nonfiction Award.

Photo by Dinty W. Moore