The classroom was at the top of the stairs of a three-story school built in the 1920s. The building was the tallest in Rapelje if you didn’t count the grain elevators which stood like one-hundred foot sentinels along the railroad tracks that came to Rapelje from the east and went no further west. The elevators were still-active reminders of why the town had come into being a hundred years before.
Little remained of what had once been a service center in the middle of Montana’s contribution to the Great Plains. The bank building, its steel vault marooned in the middle of a weeded-over lot, had collapsed as quickly as the economy in 1930. The rest of wood-framed stores that hadn’t burned down in the 1955 fire were huddled together in the center of town for protection from the wind. Only two businesses still operated in the center of town: the Stockman Cafe, open only for weekday lunches, and the Rapelje Mercantile which had doubled as the town post office until the government closed it which meant that the nearest post office was thirty miles away in Columbus.
The church stood to the west, halfway between the downtown and the school at the end of main street. In the opposite direction from downtown, three hundred feet east, the Stockman Bar was anchored next to the town’s gas station which offered implement repair for jobs that weren’t too big. For repair jobs on Big Buds and any larger equipment, the ranchers had to contract the John Deere dealer in Columbus.
I came from the east every day, driving from Billings on 20 paved miles of road until I reached Molt where the paving ran out and the road turned to crushed rock during the summer. In the spring the road was a sliding path for cars, and in the winter, when it snowed, which it did all of November and December, the road often disappeared beneath the snow and the only way to stay on the road was to keep halfway between the fence line on your right and the fence line on your left. When I reached a stretch of the road where cattle had never been put out to graze, the fence line disappeared and staying on the road was more a matter of intuition than navigation.
The morning when I found my classroom door closed, I had slipped off the road twice. I was able to shovel my way out the first time but when I went off the road again, I had to wait for a farmer who came along, furrowing through in his pickup truck. He had chains on his tires and a chain in the box of his truck that he used to pull me out.
I reached the parking lot at school a half hour late. All the buses were empty and lined up in front, the parking lot was full, and it appeared as if I were the only person who hadn’t come in on time. I was angry from the hour and a half I’d spent trying to keep my car on the road; I was angry from it having gone off the road twice; and I was angry for being apparently the only person who couldn’t get to school on time.
As I walked up the 3 floors to my classroom I stomped hard enough to shake off the snow that remained on the bottom of my pants and on my shoes. When I reached the top of the stairs and turned to the right, I expected to see an open door and a classroom of students who Joy, the teacher in the room next to mine, should have gotten going on the assignment I had written on the blackboard the afternoon before: I had left the assignment in case the predicted storm blew in and delayed me in the morning, which it had. Instead of seeing students at work, however, I saw the closed door, which is not what a teacher wants to see when he arrives at his classroom–a door separating him from whatever the adolescents in his charge are doing in private. Why was the door closed and what was going on on the other side?