Hank Williams Jr. sang about Two Dot, a small town in the middle of Montana. As it happens, a friend of mine was there this past summer while walking her way east across America in stages and writing about it on a private blog, inviting her readers to throw in their two cents. Because on this occasion one of those readers provided a link to Williams’s song, and because others commented on the town, the singer, the weather, the relative dangers of the coronavirus in the open spaces of Montana, and much else—because of all of this, Two Dot popped into existence in my imagination, then grew.
Some people believe that even before babies are conceived their souls already exist in something like a swirling nursery in limbo, waiting to inhabit particular beings, and each conception and subsequent birth saves one of the souls. I picture something similar happening with places. Characteristics appropriate for a place and ready for combining bump about in a storeroom in the sky as if in a giant theater prop room, ready to be plucked from the shelves. For a town in Montana, I’ve chosen dry dusty streets, wooden storefronts with flaking paint, trees moving in a lazy breeze, dog lying outside a gas station, couple of pickups at a curb, man in a cowboy hat, woman with a cowboy shirt, shaft of golden light, background country song. I’ve made my Two Dot.
What I didn’t choose was a man who had his own jet and his two friends—a “Vanderbilt” and her husband, who had at some point accompanied the plane owner and his wife on a three-month, around-the-world trip—seated with a few others outside the Two Dot Bar, having a drink on a Friday evening. When my friend, inside, had finished her celebratory steak dinner to mark the end of eight days of walking, 14 miles a day, she took her wine outside and joined them. She’d been cranky on arriving at the bar due to all the miles, the protesting body parts, and the accumulation of nights away from home. But the steak had been excellent, and the salad greens very fresh, and she was in a good mood again by the time she sat down with the folks outside. She planned on asking in the course of the conversation what you call someone from Two Dot—Twodotian? Twodotter? Twodotan?
Everyone was pleasant, even affable, and talk was easy. My friend asked her question, and one of the men had a ready answer: “What do you call someone from Two Dot? A drunk!” When the coronavirus came up, however, the Vanderbilt said two things that made my friend cringe: she claimed that even car accident fatalities in Montana were counted as Covid deaths, and that she was 100 percent certain that the coronavirus would magically disappear the day after the presidential election. My friend reported thinking but not saying that if the second were true, that would be a good reason for having the election sooner rather than postponing it.
Reading my friend’s account, I guffawed. I can hardly believe such opinions exist. But that’s the trouble, isn’t it: we believe our own worlds, not other people’s. But what if not only the towns we visit but the worlds we live in, the landscapes we’ve imagined, the historic events we’ve given vital importance to, the personal successes and failures we’ve let define us—what if all these elements of our world come from a great grab bag, and are arbitrarily chosen? Joyce Carol Oates once wrote that the poet Carolyn Forché, who had just published a book of poetry of witness, had earned her “bleak and wintry” vision. Earn is for rewards or prizes or money. Or rights and privileges. Something good, such as the right to judge, in return for effort or behavior. Forché had done the work and thus had a right to a vision.
But how many people set out to find out about the world before their opinions are fixed, to earn these outlooks we have, the stories we tell, which so often seem cobbled together as we go, practically by chance? People don’t earn their luck, good or bad, their private planes, 10,000-acre spreads, slow comfortable conversation about the weather, the families they’re born into, the neighbors, and the outsiders walking through their world or, in contrast, harsh weather and harsh times with no home to shelter in, no country even.
Deserve is for when what you do and what you get match up—bad for bad or good for good. You deserve a snarky comeback to your snarky remark; or recognition for an outstanding performance, such as the father receives for faultless horsemanship in William Trevor’s story “The Smoke Trees of San Pietro.” The wife proudly, fiercely whispers of her husband’s award, “Oh, how deserved that is!” Their son basks in the glow of their love. Their story, however, ends sadly, though no one deserved that.
In about a month we’ll see what Donald Trump and Joe Biden get. They can’t both win, but will one of them have earned what he gets? Will they deserve it? Better question: Will we, the voting public, deserve the outcome? And can we bear it? In Spanish, just as in English, we say that God doesn’t give you more than you can bear. Is it true? To bear means to withstand, and can you be said to bear an occurrence that breaks you? Hank Williams Jr. had a terrible climbing accident as a young man. It did break him, in a lot of places, but over the course of two years, he recovered. Harder, I’m certain, for him to recover from the car accident this spring that killed his daughter. From that, say people who ought to know, there is no recovery. That is the unbearable. It doesn’t kill you, but it crushes you.
The claim about what you can bear is from the Bible, and it is misinterpreted in both English and Spanish: it’s not hardship that the Bible promises we can withstand, but temptation. The message is not that we won’t suffer or be broken but that we can resist doing wrong, no matter what the cost. But will we?
To resist evil, you need fortitude and good moral sense. But maybe resisting or caving depends as much on the world you’ve made, the kind of movie you’ve chosen and constructed: Western, who-done-it, thriller, crime, comedy. Or even a tragedy, where no one wins.
Despite the coronavirus and a thousand other ills, the world I inhabit is a friendly place, like Montana for my friend. It’s a world from which it’s easy to wish others well if they are passing through and to be welcoming should they want to stay. A world where, even with people you can’t believe, you can still talk amiably and tell jokes. What about Hank Jr.? If I met him in the World Famous Two Dot Bar and Grill, I wouldn’t talk politics, just in case. I’d tell him a joke. Though he might not be laughing.
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