I always dream of Oregon. Trees, so many trees, unbroken until suddenly they open onto choppy black ocean, enormous and filled with enormous things. And, I stand on the edge of a cliff, arms outstretched like I’m trying to embrace the whole of the salty air, but I’m small, so small compared to the trees, the water, the air. Then I wake. It’s the same nearly every night. I dream of a place I’ve never been and will probably never go.
Today, I woke from just such a dream, my radio alarm giving the rallying cry: “Saint Peter don’t ya call me ‘cause I can’t go, I sold my soul to the company store.” I noted the irony and hit snooze.
Work could wait and Peter better, for ten more minutes at least. If I speed on the highway I could sleep till five, I thought. It’s 4:30? Hell, I have time. I deserve these ten minutes.
“One, two, three…” I counted in my head, “By the time I reach sixty, I’ll be asleep and dreaming, dreaming of trees, dreaming for nine minutes of trees.
I did dream of trees. But, I wasn’t in Oregon or the rented double wide that I now shared with three other rednecks from the mine. I was outside Riverton at my family’s first home, looking into an old cottonwood as my little sister, Rachel, streaked passed begging for my mother’s and my attention. I was young but not too young because my mom was asking, “What were three of your favorite things at school today?” I’m not sure how old I was but the three of us were there, and this was the tree that old cat jumped out of to give me that scar, the tree I “flew” out of to break my arm, the tree I was now looking into, grabbing my mother’s hand.
I answered her question: “We talked about Oregon! Do you know where Oregon is, Mom?”
“It’s a long ways away. I have a niece that goes to school out there. What’d you learn about it?”
“Just that a lot of people went there! They called it Manifest Something. What’s that, Mom? Manifest Something. Anyways, Ms. Shirley said they thought pigs ran around already cooked in Oregon.” I started laughing, then stopped. “You know, a lot of people died on the way and got buried under trees and stuff.” I grabbed her hand tighter and looked up at the tree, pleading, “When I die, Mom, when I die, bury me under this tree.”
“Die? Baby, you have so much life to live. You’re going to grow up big and strong like your dad and go to college somewhere, maybe Oregon, and have a nice family. Maybe we can go out there sometime and see the ocean. Would you like that?”
“Yes, let’s visit, but I want to always come back here. Bury me here with you.”
“…fifteen, sixteen, seventeen…” I murmured as I rolled over. I looked now at a different tree, planted near the entrance of the office of that God forsaken mine somewhere in Campbell County. It was a new sapling, new as the $95 steel toe boots I drug through the dirt as I walked to my first day on the job. I was Clearview Coal’s new blast helper.
Roger, the blast helper before me, apparently had a nervous breakdown after one of the cartridges went off before he was a safe distance away and was blown back into the wall of the dangerously tight hole. Apparently, a large boulder fell and shielded him from most of the blast, but I was now getting his $25 an hour.
Necessity is the only thing that could drive a man into that claustrophobic underground, necessity and good pay. Both drove me on as I walked towards the office building, intentionally scuffing my new shoes and thinking of open ocean and freedom as I realized I had welcomed this trapped, dark feeling into my life. Eyes bored into me as I walked, and I started to sweat.
“…twenty-seven, twenty-eight…” I stuck my leg out of the covers. I really was sweating. We couldn’t afford to keep the air conditioning on in our trailer right now. “…twenty-nine…”
I was staring out a window, recognizing it as a familiar memory from days before that first trip into the mine, days before I moved into that double wide, a memory I played over and over in my subconscious. There was an old pine tree knocking against the glass, trying to get in.
“Mathew…Mathew Roberts?” I turned to face a scrawny bailiff who appeared swallowed up by his uniform. “The judge wants you to come in now.”
I pulled at my tight collar; my shirt was too small, and it chaffed at my neck as I turned my head to catch one more glimpse of that tree.
“Sit down.” I looked around. Grandma Betty and my sister sat in front of an empty courtroom. A stern, fat judge with small glasses spoke as his plump reporter transcribed every word. “The D.A. has decided that while what you did—failing to report a missing person, living in a rented space alone with your little sister, without means to pay—was irresponsible, he will not seek to press charges and custody of your sister will go to your grandmother.”
“It’s what your mother would have wanted after your father passed, dear.” Grandma Betty’s little tongue moved behind constricted lips that stretched into a tight smile.
I heard the click of the reporter’s keys and the hard click of my grandma’s final word. An awkward silence followed as I sat and stared straight ahead, recounting in my mind the tortured nights after our father died. Together, Rachel and I watched mom slip deeper into her addiction: leaving my sister confused and scared, never fully understanding, and leaving me as the “man of the house” and the only caregiver.
“Young man—” The judge started, obviously uncomfortable. Rachel began to cry. I attempted to move forward but stopped and dropped my arm back to my side. I was now officially alone and this seemed like one more inevitable result of the course my life had taken. The judge continued, “Go on, get her out of here, Elizabeth.”
My grandmother led Rachel out of the room, crying, passed the window framing the pine. I watched it once they moved out of view, refusing to face the judge as he spoke.
“Your grandmother has taken the liberty of filling out paperwork for you to be your own guardian. I have it here for you to sign. But, really, what were you planning on doing?”
“Oregon,” I mumbled.
“What were you planning on doing with that poor girl?”
“I was going to go to Oregon,” I announced, clearing my throat.
“You’re not even eighteen yet! How would you get there? What would you do? Pick cherries?” He laughed. I stood up and walked out never taking my burning eyes from that pine tree.
“…thirty-nine, forty, forty-one, forty-two…” The scene shifted. I was in the dusty yard outside the apartment complex Rachel and I had been living in. It was several hours after my meeting in the courtroom. There was a piece of mail on top of the box of our evicted life. “The University of Oregon” was stamped on the front of the envelope. I tore it up without opening it. The reality of rejection or acceptance made no difference now. ACT scores, priority registration, and Pell Grants meant nothing when you’re left alone in a dream, without an understanding of time and place or any feeling that could create a sense of home. I threw the pieces of paper into the air one at a time, watching them float aimlessly in the breeze, and sank to the ground against the crumbling stump that decorated the yard, my tight dress shirt ripping as my back flexed on the way down into the dust.
“…fifty-eight, fifty-nine, sixty.” Every night I dream of Oregon: the salty air, the enormous ocean, the trees, so many trees. And, here I am.
Tyler Julian is a student at the University of Wyoming, the only four year institution in his home state, where he studies Spanish and Global & Area Studies. He hopes to apply to UW’s MFA Program in Creative Writing within the next year. Though he has published a few pieces locally, this is his first major publication. His work focuses on life in Wyoming as he knows it, the paradox of modernity in the least populated, mostly rural state. He is from Sheridan, WY, but he splits his time between his hometown, the family sheep ranch, and Laramie, the home of UW.