Big Show, Big Trouble - AN ARSTY JOURNEY #11
The autumn leaves of Bismarck, North Dakota were falling fast turning the gray asphalt of my apartment driveway into a face-full of yellow freckles. I scuffed through the crisp leaves, loading the Chevette for the Big One, the largest art and craft show in the state. All I had to do was cruise to Minot, an hour and a half away. Not bad considering most towns in North Dakota I could close my eyes, count to twenty, and drive right through, missing the entire community.
After the art fair, I would motor another ninety miles to Melita, Manitoba and deliver an oversize piece of art. I had successfully matched the customer’s piece of art to the maximum size of the compact Chevette cargo area: 38 ¼” and 40 ½”. Doing both trips together would save me time and money. I left Bismarck humming.
The small Chevette puttered north on US 83 passing mile after mile of ruler-straight highway surrounded by acres of endless prairie. I now understood why Columbus may have thought the world was flat.
I blinked through the city of Washburn, caught a quick sighting of the eastern shoreline of Lake SaKakawea near Garrison, and forty minutes later pulled into Minot.
Knowing this was an indoor show on the cusp of Christmas, I had loaded the Chevette with not only my usual art fair paintings, but also added one-of-a-kind holiday greeting cards and small, handcrafted Christmas collage paintings called: Papershapes. Each original had a quaint and charming title and story I designed for the season.
There was pep in my step, and my heart beat like a military drum corp knowing I was setting up near the air force base that brought people from every state, making Minot the fourth largest city in N.D. I was certain I had brought a winning product in my effort to conquer the world of art.
It turned out the 450 booths were a sea of crafts – not much focus on the fine arts. I was wedged between the sweet treat of Karen’s Kuchen and the hand-sewn baby bibs by Buffalo Gal Mercantile. Across the aisle, authentic cowboy lasso ropes were wrapped into coasters and bowls. Kitty-corner, jars of Hunters Choice Marinade, specifically intended for pheasant, goose, or venison, were stacked sky-high on folding tables.
Ten to twenty dollar crafty gifts and goodies were being swept up around me. The price of one framed Papershape was twice that. After babysitting my booth from nine to nine the first day and til five the second, I hadn't sold one Papershape or painting, just a handful of Christmas cards.
Each heavy load I hauled back to the Chevette weighted down my spirits a bit more. By the time the hatchback was packed to capacity, I was blinking fast, trying to hold back the damn of water from overwhelming feelings of failure. I was counting on cash from this show. I had been struggling to live off my art, independent of nursing, for nine months.
I was hunched over the last load when the plump older lady who had the puppet booth strolled up to me.
“My name is Marva, but you probably heard everyone call me Grammy,” she said as her eyes danced. “I was wondering if you’d trade me puppets for a small painting?”
Hearing those words I was certain Marva was short for marvelous not Grammy. “Certainly,” I muttered, too overwhelmed to put more words together.
My two sons would be the envy of all their friends with life-size puppets like hers.
With the Chevette crammed full, and my confidence feeling a bit better from the puppet trade, I crawled into the driver’s seat. Suddenly, there was a tapping at my window. Much to my horror there was a police officer with surprisingly hairy knuckles. I had no idea what I’d done. I rolled down the window.
“You’re in the red zone, lady,” he snapped and handed me a parking ticket.
Before I could utter a word, he marched away.
I was left holding a $50.00 ticket. Self-doubt reared its painful head one more time. But I had to park those thoughts for the moment. The darkness around me told me I had to hustle if I was to make it to Canada tonight.
Stuffing the parking ticket in the glove box, I drove to the nearest gas station, filled the Chevette with gasoline and added oil. True to its nature, the Chevette had burned another quart.
I had ten miles under my belt when the Chevette check-engine light flashed red. I scanned the dashboard gauges and discovered the temperature needle had skyrocketed. The compact was never going to make the additional seventy-five miles to Melita.
With the red light blinking non-stop in my face, I turned around toward Minot. Puttering at granny-on-a-Sunday speed, I coaxed the Chevette to the closest service station.
Easing into the gas station, a stream of smoke seeped off the hood of the Chevette.
A young man noisily chewing gum leaned against the station open door. “Looks like it’s running a tad hot,” he said as a wad of gum moved from one cheek pouch to the other.
I crawled out of the compact and nodded.
He lifted the hood of the Chevette and poked his nose deep inside. “How long has it been burning oil?” he asked. The gum changed sides.
“Maybe a couple months,” I said.
“I’m afraid it needs a complete value job,” he said as the gum ball picked up speed.
I shrugged like it wasn’t important. Inside, I was all knots.
“That means rebuilding the entire engine to replace the rings and values on the cylinders,” he added. The gum snapped and found a parking spot in his left cheek. “Where might you be going?”
“I need to deliver that large painting to Melita,” I said, trying to make my voice sound steady, not wrought with worry. “Tonight.”
This time he cracked his gum. “What about all the other stuff? Can you dump it?”
Did he say dump it? I couldn’t think. I couldn’t breathe. “No,” I croaked, and cleared my throat. “It’s my livelihood.”
“Sheesh!” he spewed and his gum flew out of his mouth with his spit. “Here’s what we’ll do. I’ll get you to the bus station and you can load the little stuff to go back to Bismarck. Without the extra weight you’ll probably be able to make it to Melita without overheating.”
He gave me directions to the bus depot. Under the circumstances it wasn’t a bad idea. It was after six on a Sunday evening and no shipping companies worked on weekends, yet the bus ran daily.
It turned out the depot was a couple blocks south on US 83. I nursed the Chevette into the parking lot.
“Twenty pounds maximum per box,” the man behind the counter said. He had a sort of secret military combing technique to camouflage his bald spot.
I gasped. I hadn’t packed with weight restrictions. I was certain the large boxes were more than twenty pounds. I had borrowed a two-wheel dolly to load them.
“And fifty dollars is the maximum insurance per box,” he added.
What? My paintings were worth more than fifty dollars. My throat tightened.
Before I could get an answer out, he took a drag from a cigarette and bathed me in a cloud of smoke.
I turned away and saw highway US 83 – nicknamed, The Road to Nowhere. I already felt like chewed up gum. Maybe I should slither into the Chevette and take this Road to Nowhere, straight from Minot to Mexico, away from the rippling chill of North Dakota autumn. Wait, the ripple-chill wasn't from the autumn air, it was coming from inside me. I felt as alone as the Road to Nowhere thinking about the barren plains states I would travel if I headed south: Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas.
Then, from around the corner, I saw Gum Kid sauntering over.
“Hey, Floyd,” he said to the smoker. “This lady needs help getting stuff to Bismarck. If you sell her a bus ticket, you can claim the stuff as luggage and wave the weight and insurance limits.”
Gum Kid turned to me, “Floyd is my uncle. He’ll help you out.”
Floyd grunted, but began tearing off baggage check tickets.
I felt a rush of heat hit my cheeks and it wasn’t because they were turning rosy from the crisp cold air. It was from my racing heart. There was nothing like the feeling when someone has stuck their neck out for you. The people of North Dakota continued to have something to offer me. Daily, they added to my life.
The grand total for a bus ticket and luggage was half the cost of my parking ticket. I slid into the almost empty-Chevette with a few coins left in my purse, and hope in my throat. I journeyed north on US 83 toward Canada, and the red-flashing check-engine light stayed off! I did a victory shimmy in my seat.
At Westcoat border crossing I handed my driver's license to a very large man who was currently cracking his knuckles.
With a gloved hand, he checked the identification with a flashlight that glowed blue.
“Any pets?” he grumbled.
“No sir,” I said.
“No, sir,” I said as I held back a chuckle. If he only knew camping for me was room service at the Hilton. My sons could tell that story.
“No, sir,” I answered, wanting to let the laughter rip, but stayed stone-faced.
He waved me through, and I delivered the artwork in Melita.
Returning through United States customs, the Chevette puffed a little gray smoke, I prayed they didn’t send me through an emissions test.
I gave him a super-model smile.
They waved me through, and I chugged back to Bismarck safe and sound.
Mark the Mechanic told me to keep a spare quart of oil in the Chevette. “That pint-size compact should run another few thousand miles if you don’t weigh it down,” he added.
His words cut right through to my heart. The Minot Big One was the last fair of the year. I wouldn’t have a heavy load until spring, but how would I generate thousands of dollars for another car by March?
In the basement apartment, the answering machine was blinking. I crossed my fingers. I had to concentrate on tackling the art leads I had generated over the past eight months, not on the fear of failing.