Life in Pend Oreille County often affords opportunities of post-modern cultural emersion.
Just walk down main street. In a single block, the astute observe can and will encounter numerous fashion statements. This is attire that might seem more appropriate featured on the pages of yellowed National Geographic Magazines.
And don’t forget the ark of the lost hair styles. Many of these excesses represent various experimental phases of the last seven decades--tragedies that in more civilized places immediately violated accepted social norms. The bouffant. The updo. The Caesar Cut. Unisex Mullets. Yet, we remain a frontier county. We proudly wear sweats to the bank and halter tops to mass. Fashion, as have found, is often not our friend.
Living on the edge is how folks in Pend Oreille County excel. The county is all about creative expression and is home to some of the finest meth cooks in the world. And pot growers. And survivalists. The Air Force purposely drops, via parachute, perfectly good pilots into this terrain. They call it Survival School. We call it Welcome Wagon. The Air Force Brass believes that if a recruit can survive this hostile environment, they can survive anything.
Our residents are used to living adversity 24-7. This is a survival life, and we are in the doctorate program.
I like to think of it as a PHD in “bet ya can’t for dummies”. And in light of this proud tradition, we are known for filing creative insurance claims that boggle the imagination.
We die, often with excessive individuality through a process of unusual experimentation and expression. Many of these deaths are preceded by one of three phrases: “Watch This!”, “Race Ya” and my personal favorite, “Dare ya”.
Amongst claims adjusters, POC’ers are known for our unique impaling’s, avalanche chute rides, miles spent drug behind pick-up trucks. We’ve been run over by our own quads, rolled multiple times off logging roads while picking berries, and we drown in spectacular aerobatic maneuvers either on jet skis, water skis, or while still riding in ski boats. We can drown even while wearing floatation devises. Not just anyone can accomplish this sort of brilliance.
Risk, and our addiction to it, is part of our genetics. Yes, during hunting season we sometimes shoot amazing big racked game, but we also sometimes mistakenly shoot our relatives, children and our neighbors. We have even accidently shot our neighbors dining room window out.
It’s a complicated place.
If we survive hunting season, we let nothing go to waste. Sometimes we wear our bounty. Fur, in these parts, is still, in. The purpose of PETA is lost to us. Or at least it was.
Several years ago, I went into the local credit union. The day, a scorcher, seemed one of those rare summer moments where humidity threatened to sauté the entire county. As I stood in line waiting to cash my check, I became aware of a very unsettling odor. I looked around me, trying to identify the source of this sweet pungent nausea producing stench.
My eye’s settled on the woman standing directly in front of me.
She was a middle aged woman, with hardened skin, and short efficient gray hair. She did not wear a lot of make-up but stood attired in the layering that is more traditionally found worn in early spring, late fall and all of winter. I thought this peculiar. After all, it was July.
Not only did she swim under a fairly heavy and dirty beige coat, but she also sported a fur stole. Upon a closer study of this elegant fur stole, I began to wonder if she’d somehow accessorized it. Little white buttons or beads appeared scattered throughout the long fur draped across her neck.
I’d just come in from the bright daylight, and even as sweat continued to leach into my eyes, I could not shake the increasingly overpowering odor. I blinked my eyes, and yet they only began to water more. I tried to focus. Again my eyes came to rest on this particular accesorization of fur directly in front of me. I inhaled, which was a huge mistake, what I saw before me, became apparent.
This was homemade fashion. A stole like no other. Cured on the fly. I’m fairly sure I stood face to face with Pend Oreille County coyote. Appearing light brown with some spotting, I also identified a bit of darker coloring. In some places the fur appeared matted. Oh and the accessories I’d noticed a minute before? Well that would be the maggots. Beads my ass.
I took a reflexive step back and found myself in the arms of a large burly logger, who was also now scrunching his nose. I looked up at him and pointed at the woman in front of me, just as he whispered, “Holy shit. Something is deader than dead in here!”
The woman turned and eyed us curiously. Oblivious.
I didn’t want to stare, but I also could not look away. As my eyes continued to adjust to the light, they now registered tendons, dried muscle curling around layers of the fur that yes, actually touched the woman’s neck. I noted the presence of additional maggots. A nest of them.
The woman turned back toward the counter and moved forward in line.
In unison the logger and I both took several steps in the opposite direction. Other customers entered the building. We motioned for them to stay to the rear of the line, even as we pointed to the road kill fashioneista, by holding our noses. Although she now stood some five feet ahead of us, that stole felt as if it had actually rubbed right onto our noses.
I started to gag. The logger muttered under his breath something about “crazy old bitch” and “Jesus Christ… all he needed.”
The branch manager, a short woman who I count as personal friend, sat at a desk in a private glass walled office. Her door stood mostly open to the lobby.
I turned toward her just as she looked up from her desk, trying to place that unsettling change in the odoriferous climate of her branch. I pointed in front of me. She began shaking her head while lowering her head into her hands.
Apparently our Cabelas Godess had visited the branch before. The stole was not nearly as fresh as I’d imagined.
Turning forward, I noticed that three large, brave men remained standing in line directly in front of our fashion queen. The men were typical of Pend Oreille County, wearing plaid shirts, sleeves cropped. One wore suspenders with the chain saw branding of “Oregon” falling down the suspenders. Outside the credit union, two bobtail log trucks idled, their engine fans kicking on and off to cool their massive diesel engines.
As much as I fought the urge to vomit, I became increasingly drawn into the moment. I wondered that up until now none of the men turned around. Even as they faced the tellers, and one by one kept scrunching up closer and closer to the counter, they did not turn but stood stoic and bravely against the stink. Two women stood at the counter, and as the smell became over powering, by default, the men grew closer and closer to each other.
Finally they could stand it no longer, and almost in unison, as if they were auditioning for a high school cheer team, they turned around desperately trying to locate the origin of where this retched smell hailed.
One by one, the counter cleared and they took their turn, but each time they stepped forward, so did our petite haz matt representative. Soon the men were actually touching, crotch to butt. Men in Pend Oreille County are not very good at this sort of bonding amongst strangers.
We are hand shakers, nodders, and wavers. We do not embrace. Not even at funerals. And we certainly don’t stand directly behind one another, not like that. Not without aid of generous personal space.
By this time, the trapped tellers also smelled the wafting odor of rotting carcass. As they politely counted out change, the tellers eyed one another nervously. The men, one after the other, stood at the counter, trying to cover their mouths, their noses, and their alarm. No one spoke. That would involve breathing. Suddenly both the customers and the branch staff were fluent in sign language.
The branch manager stood up from her desk, emerged from her office and quickly walked past the nauseated line. Disappearing first behind the counter, and then into a room out of our view, I realized how lucky she was to seek a place of refuge. I fantasized about an open window myself, or a back door, or well, any relief. I visualized her gasping as she sought clean air.
Instead she emerged back into the lobby just as quickly as she’d disappeared. As she returned to suffer amongt us, holding a spray can over her head as she walked back among her people and a discernible trail of mist followed her determined and brave steps into the land of the dying. I recognized the fragile scent of lilacs mingling with road kill.
A strange, horrific chemical reaction resulted. And although, it hardly seemed possible, the atmosphere of the credit union got even worse. The sweet smell of lilacs combined with the sweeter smell of death, which didn’t even include the smell of a half dozen customers sweating through every tactile gag defense known to man. The effort not to breathe was leaving us breathless.
Finally, a couragious lady behind me turned and ran-- gasping and coughing, bailing for the exit. That first brave customer became a symbolic signal for the rest of us, our “out”. We all turned in unison, following her brave exit stage right, becoming as one in our mad rush of desperation. Emotion ruled our defenses. We sought air, any air. In a panicked mob we tried to outrun that tickle deep in our throats and make it to safety.
Only two glass doors separated us from air. Only two glass doors stood before us and a communal flood of vomit, that all of us knew might be fatal. Especially as it would so compliment the already delicate balance of air conditioning and ruin now completely permeating the credit union.
It is the only recorded human stampede in Pend Oreille County History. It couldn’t have happened soon enough.
As we caught our breath outside, we did not acknowledge our shared moment. Instead we waited sheepishly and guiltily on the sidewalk, looking everywhere but at one another. It was as if we had nothing better to do than stand curiously unattached, waiting for an unknown something to happen. Loitering like that. Just wasting time, in front of the credit union, even as we knew three credit employees, at least one logger, and a sinus challenged fashion champion remained inside.
I felt deeply embarrassed at our hasty retreat. I knew that collectively we’d all flunked an important test of what it means to be a Proud Pend Oreille County resident. Even as we stood sweating and uncomfortable, beaten down on the blacktop, serenaded by idling log trucks, I could not shake my shame. Even as I breathed so deeply the welcoming smells of summer and pine, knowing that nothing could replace the memory forever seared into my brain of the corrupting power of a coyote corpse.
When the Dances with Coyotes Diva finally left the building, we remained outside waiting. We counted, quietly amongst ourselves. And then, one-by-one, in the order that each of us had originally been in line, we reentered the building.
We would not speak of this amongst ourselves. We did not acknowledge the pain of our horror to the tellers, both of whom now had tear marks where mascara had once been. Instinctively we knew that although we were now all survivors, some victories are not to be shared, celebrated, or remembered.
Especially with regards to fashion.
Especially when it’s to die for.