Billings, MT

by Jesse Scott Owen

Let me first tell you about where I am, and then I can tell you why I am here. I’m in Billings, Montana. I live in a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor. When you enter, there is a small kitchen to your left. There are probably a few dishes in the sink, and a few more in the drying rack to the left of the sink. A frying pan lives on the stove top. The refrigerator is full-sized. Inside there are bagels and bread, a gallon of milk, eggs, tomatoes, cheese, orange juice, beer, lunchmeat, mayonnaise, ketchup, sriracha, worchestershire sauce, butter, hummus, grapes, cream cheese, and limes. In the freezer there are four ice trays, breakfast burritos, and a bottle of Seagrams. On the fridge, affixed with a magnet from a local bank, is an invitation to my niece’s second birthday party. On top of the fridge is a bottle of Jack Daniels and a bottle of Los Generales. On the counter next to the fridge is a toaster and a microwave. The counter is an orange-red color, and the tile behind the counter is light blue. The cabinets are made of a light-colored wood, and the refrigerator is beige-white. The toaster is white and so is the microwave. 

Go into the apartment past the kitchen, into the living room. On the floor is a large grey rug. There is a wooden desk in the corner covered in papers and notebooks and sundry items. There is a small lamp on the desk. There is a green couch with a dark blue blanket tossed onto it, and in front of the couch is a low coffee table. On the coffee table is a metal ashtray, several empty or almost-empty packs of cigarettes, rolling papers, pouches of tobacco, a couple of yellow Bic lighters, a scattered deck of blue Bicycle playing cards, a coffee-table book of Kurt Vonnegut’s artwork, various receipts, a Swiss army-style knife, a small metal grinder, weed, a red glass bowl, less than a buck in change, and a dirty glass tumbler. Next to the couch is a short, wide bookshelf. The walls are painted off-white, and there are two windows in the far wall. In the windowsill on the right there sits a small dying bamboo plant.

There are three doors inside the apartment: Across from the kitchen is a doored closet. There's a small hallway from the living room, there is a door to the bedroom, and a door to the bathroom. In the bathroom there is a grey litterbox, and my personal grooming effects are strewn across the counter. There’s a small green shag rug on the bathroom floor. In the shower there is a bar of soap and a washcloth. The bedroom is dark and rarely used. A mattress lays in the middle of the room, and the walls are lined with short stacks of books. A tall wooden dresser sits across from the foot of the bed, and a mirror rests on the dresser. Various items are scattered across the top of the dresser. And a closet without a door holds clothes and cardboard boxes. 

Vernon, my gray-and-white cat, spends most of his time on the living room windowsills, or atop the refrigerator. I adopted him soon after I moved here, and now he’s spent more time in the apartment than I have. I try not to inconvenience him with loud music or smoke. Having a cat is better than having a friend, because if he trusts you, that trust is unconditional. Vernon does not hold it against me if I drop and break a glass, or if I forget the dishes. I demand his attention, he is kind enough to sit and listen. I really cannot say what I would do without him.

I work at a local movie theater, where I am an assistant manager. My bachelor’s degree is in art history and English literature.

I moved to Billings after college. I went to a small school in New York, and after graduation, didn’t find work in any field resembling my degree. I worked at an independent movie theater for eight months, and saved about $1200. I borrowed some money from my parents to move to Montana. I chose Billings because it sounded romantic, and I had heard that Montana was beautiful. It is beautiful, and I love to go out to the edge of the city and smoke and look at the mountains. I wonder if Montana is named for the mountains. I’ve never considered that until now. 

Throughout college I worried about college and I worried about my future. I wanted to be the best writer of my generation, the next Stephen King or Hunter S. Thompson or David Foster Wallace. The iconic white male writer, who smoked and drank and suffered from depression. In my senior year of college, in the last semester, I realized that I was going about it all wrong. I had thought: writers smoke and drink, so I will smoke and drink. Soon I discovered that I was subject to a cruel delusion, and my only connection to any literary sophistication was addiction, and just as well any alcoholic could call himself a writer. My father must be a writer, and my grandfather. My Uncle Mark too.

I became obsessed with the story of Henry J. Darger. He was the outsider artist. He was born and eventually died in Chicago, Illinois. He wrote novels that spanned thousands of pages. He illustrated his work with painting and collage. And he did it all for himself, in the comfort of his apartment. How lovely. His work was never found until he was near death, and he was never recognized for his genius in this life. How nice.

I dreamt of being a Henry Darger, of creating a huge wealth of work to be discovered after my death. But I would still be vying for approval, deluding myself into believing that I am a great. I know I am not good enough, I am no Darger. In locking myself away, I'd be admitting that I cannot be successful in this life. Maybe if I tried hard enough, I could do moderately well, even get a few books published. But not a great. And what is the point of living, if you are not a great? There surely can be none. 

I exiled myself, not to create great works, but because I knew I could not. I moved to Billings to be alone with my misery, and to survive, and to take care of a cat. My shame consumes me.

I still write. Sometimes I use my desk, but most often I sit on my couch with my legs propped up on the coffee table. I am working on a novel, probably my only novel. Here is a bit I have about Oli:

Oli lived with three roommates in a rat-hole apartment in Brownsville, New York. Brownsville is a dangerous neighborhood out in Brooklyn, and the four of them were the only white residents in their building. Oli was a tall, husky kid with short hair and a stubbly beard. He laughed nervously and he spent of his days in his bedroom, playing World of Warcraft with his girlfriend, who lived with her parents in Manhattan. He played guitar, and his extra cash went to buying pedals and better gear. His roommates were sick of his music, and when he played, he kept his door shut.     
Sometimes one of his roommates’ friends would come over, and he would get to show them his setup. He was proud of his pedal board, and as much as he only bought popular gear, he liked to believe that his sound was unique. Most recently he bought a Boss Mega Distortion pedal, and almost completely stopped using his standard distortion pedal. The sound was more rough, more hard, more metal, and he loved playing such absurd sounding music. 

Oli is an odd guy, I find it hard to dislike him. He’s not a neutral character, but about as close as you can get. He isn’t necessarily a force for good in the world, but there is no evil about him. Oli is kind and forbearing. He is loyal and quiet. But Oli produces nothing, and works as a busser at a hotel restaurant in Manhattan. Surely there must be someone more qualified and enthusiastic willing to take his place on the planet. But so far Oli has pissed no one off, so he gets to stay. I’m not sure what he’s doing in my novel, but he’s a good roommate, and makes a good buffer. He’s not a compelling character. But I guess that doesn’t matter, I like him, and I want him to stay. 

I brought my books with me from New York. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams, Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams, The Confessions by Saint Augustine, Godric by Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets by Frederick Buechner, Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley, Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, The Stranger by Albert Camus, The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo, The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coehlo, Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coehlo, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, by Mark Doty, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, Vie Francaise by Jean-Paul Dubois, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Beautiful Outlaw by John Eldredge, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman, Loving by Henry Green, Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, Ulysses by James Joyce, Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July, The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush, The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, Lit by Mary Karr, The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, On Writing by Stephen King, My Struggle: Books 1 & 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott, Why We Suck by Denis Leary, An Experiment in Criticism by C. S. Lewis, Close-Up Card Magic by Harry Lorayne, Non-Memoirs by Yuri Lotman, Born Standing Up by Steve Martin, All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, Hollywood Said No! by Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck by Don Rosa, Billions and Billions by Paul Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World by Paul Sagan, Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Tenth of December by George Saunders, Barrel Fever by David Sedaris, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris, Amarillo Slim in a World Full of Fat People by Amarillo Slim, Just Kids by Patti Smith, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck, Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan, Tarbell Course in Magic: Volumes 1-8 by Harlan Tarbell, Now You See It, Now You Don't! Lessons in Sleight of Hand by Bill Tarr, The Medusa and the Snail by Lewis Thomas, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut, Fates Worse Than Death by Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut, Sucker's Portfolio by Kurt Vonnegut, Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut, The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace, Oblivion by David Foster Wallace, Still by Lauren Winner, and The Shack by William P. Young.

All the books I own,                   
Maybe I'm meant to be alone.

At some point you've got to stop inflicting yourself on other people. 

Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.