Driving through Montana convinced Otis of one thing: Whatever the opposite of claustrophobia was, he had it. In spades. The vast open space, the huge sky, rolling monotony all conspired to crush Otis into a state of insignificance, and threatened to blow him away.
The wind blew relentlessly. He vaguely remembered lyrics from an old Broadway show tune . . . "when the wind comes whippin' down the plains". Surely, they'd been singing about Montana. But what would Otis know? A lifelong New Yorker, the closest he'd ever gotten to a Broadway musical was a 42nd Street peep show. Most common New Yorkers believe Broadway is only for tourists. Peep shows are more egalitarian.
He thought about relinquishing his driving duties to Tony Bland, but that would require stepping out of the car. What assurances did he have that the wind wouldn't pick him up and carry him off to someplace even worse? He wasn't certain where 'worse' might be, and decided to keep it that way.
Otis thought of trying the radio again, but feared they'd be playing that 'wind comes whippin' down the plains' song. He glanced over at his front seatmate, Peanut Brittle, and realized paranoia is indeed contagious.
"Only about an hour more to go," said Otis, mostly to himself.
"They gonna be Indians where we goin'? asked Marci Toots.
"Of course. According to my research, the reservation is shared by the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes."
"Cinnibon? Yum. These be feather-head Indians, or turban-head Indians?"
"They prefer to be called Native Americans, Marci."
"These Native Americans ever seen black Americans before? I don't like bein' stared at."
If Marci was to get stared at, Otis was pretty sure it wouldn't be because of the color of her skin, but the sheer magnitude of it. When it came to food, Marci left nothing in her wake. Pac-Man in a parachute bra.
"Native Americans and blacks have always enjoyed good relations, Marci. In the old days, many escaping slaves found refuge and acceptance among the various tribes. Lots of black blood runs through Native American veins."
They'd passed a Welcome to Fort Belknap Indian Agency sign a full thirty minutes before being directed off the Interstate and onto Montana State Highway 2. Twenty minutes later, they came across a few ramshackle structures. Most had vegetable gardens out front, and an assortment of rusted-out vehicles off to the side. A solitary sign informed them Harlem lay eighteen miles ahead.
"See," Otis said to Peanut, "I told you there's a Harlem in Montana."
Peanut, ever brittle, responded, "Sure, it's where they keep all the black folk what wander into their trap."
The center of the town of Harlem had the feel and smell of cement still drying. Several new buildings clustered in the shadow of the biggest new building--The Fort Belknap Casino and Hotel.
Among the other new buildings were a couple of mid-level chain restaurants, a gentrified General Store and Souvenir Shop. A unisex hair salon. A tiny U.S. Post Office Branch. A Western Wear haberdashery. A few storefronts hawking Native American arts and crafts. And, at the point farthest away from the casino, an EconoMotel.
Clearly, the town of Harlem had sprung up to both support and leech off the new casino. Recently, too. The white lines marking the blacktop parking lots were still breathtakingly white.
They self-parked the rental. Otis, only an occasional-driver, had never used valet parking before and was unsure of the etiquette. He believed that, in social circumstances, avoidance was always preferable to embarrassment.
They piled out of the rental, stretched. Or, in Marci's case, settled.
"Don't look nothin' like Harlem to me," Peanut remarked.
"This Harlem be new," answered Marci, "give it time. The Good Book say, 'Build your city on the gamblin' road, five'll get you nine, you gonna lose."
Peanut scowled. "Where the Good Book say somethin' like that?"
Marci scowled back. "Cover to cover."
When you've never lived outside a major metropolitan city,
rural Montana may as well be Mars. -- Otis Browne, Esq.
Otis whispered into Marci's ear, "Even without all the snow on the ground, Bozeman, Montana is whiter'n a frog's belly."
A confirmed 'Big City' man, Otis Brown, Esq., had never seen a live frog. Nor was he in the habit of speaking such rural colloquialisms. But you don't go from being a crack baby to Officer of the Court without developing a knack for adaptation.
Otis, Marci, Peanut, and Bland were crowded into a midsize rent-a-car zipping north on US Route 2 headed for Harlem. Harlem, Montana, that is. Their mission was to find Hy Runderstack, thus conclusively proving Otis's client was innocent of the Cracker King's murder. Bland was convinced they'd find Runderstack gambling at an Indian casino somewhere near the Canadian border. Fort Belknap Casino in Harlem, Montana seemed a logical place to start looking.
Otis drove while Ray 'Peanut' Brittle occupied the front passenger seat. Marci Toots and Tony Bland sat in the back, staring at nothingness out their side windows.
"I got sight, but I ain't seein'," Marci muttered. "I wanted to see grass, I coulda stayed home and grown my own."
"This isn't a sight-seeing trip," Otis reminded her. "We're working. Besides, you don't have anywhere to grow grass."
Marci snorted. "You ain't seen my closet with the purple light. Be amazed what I got growin'."
Otis eyed her in the rearview. "The less I hear about that, the better. Remember, I'm an Officer of the Court."
"An' I'm Queen of the Green," she laughed. "Put that in your pipe, and smoke it, Officer."
Peanut wrestled with a road map unfolded to roughly half an acre. "I can't find no Harlem on this map, Otis. I think we lost."
"We're not lost. And we don't need that old-fashioned map, either. We have GPS."
"Yeah, well I got ESP, an' it's tellin' me this is all a rust."
"You know, a trick?"
"See? You think so, too." Peanut has a hyperactive imagination set on 'paranoia', and stuck in a conspiracy theory loop. He can read sinister portents in Pringles crumbs. And he has.
With a three-hour drive ahead, and nothing on the radio but jabber about wheat futures and 'dad-gum' ergot remedies, Otis decided to give Peanut his head. One takes his entertainment where he can find it. "Okay, man, tell me about this rust."
Peanut paused to gather his thoughts. It took a while. Finally, he said. "Every Arab in the world wants to go to Mecca, right?"
Otis played along. "Right."
"So, where do all black folk want to go?"
"Jim Crow, Mississippi?"
Peanut scowled. "I'll make it easy for you, Otis. Mecca is to Arabians, as blank is to blacks."
"Ah, of course, Harlem! The Cradle of Afro-American Civilization. I should have guessed sooner."
"Stop jivin' me, Otis, and hear me out. So, here we are--two brothers, a sister, and an ugly I-tie--way up in freakin' Montakota, or some damn place. Whitebread capital of the world, man. They prob'bly ain't even got real chocolate milk up here. On'y that offay white chocolate stuff." He took his frustrations out on the map. "So, they see us comin' off the plane, what do they do?"
Otis was enjoying this. "What do they do?"
Peanut leaned over, whispered, "Plan H."
"H? Law school taught me Plan D is the limit, man. Beyond D, there be monsters."
"That's 'cause you a brother. Bet your white classmates heard 'bout Plan H . . . Plan Harlem?" He sat back, smug. "Them Whitebreads at the rent-a-car place sent us chasin' off to Harlem, man. They knew we couldn't resist no place named Harlem." He rustled the chart draping his lap. "Only there ain't no Harlem nowhere on the map, brother. Closest I can find is a Helena. Helena ain't no Harlem. It's a cosmetic, man." He stared through the windshield, talking to himself. "Plan H, man. Plan H."
Otis shook his head. "Relax, Peanut. Harlem, Montana is a real place. It's on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. That's where the casino is. Look here at the GPS--says 'Harlem' right there."
He leaned over, looked, nodded. "What you think GPS stand for?"
Otis shrugged. "Global Positioning System."
Peanut nodded. "Uh-huh. That's exactly what they want you to think."
We all harbor minor paranoiac tendencies.
Some welcome the fleet. -- Otis Brown
Author’s note: My research shows there is an Indian casino in Harlem, Montana, at the Belknap Reservation (shared by Gros Ventre and Assiniboine).
Not far away, is the Kid Curry casino. The perfect set up for my story. The name Harlem is a fortunate bonus. Peanut's views are not necessarily those of the author.