Walter Kirn

       This afternoon I went Christmas shopping in Bozeman with my wife Maggie and our best friends, the Whites. Stocky and Theresa are quite a couple. Stocky comes from a rich old Philadelphia family that invented toothpaste, I believe. His grandparents were famous art collectors and friends of Matisse, and someone in his family–one of Stocky’s great uncles, I think–allegedly served as the model for Rodin’s The Athlete. Stocky’s father came West as a young man, and Stocky is a Montanan through and through: He serves in the National Guard, he owns an Uzi, he likes to rip around in trucks and tractors and watch the Ultimate Fighting matches on cable. But, because of his lofty family background, he’s also got trunks and closets full of things that belong in a museum. Signed speeches by Churchill are always slipping out from between the pages of Stocky’s books. His dining-room table was a personal gift from the king of Latvia or someone.
       Theresa runs Headwinds, the local beauty salon, and swears like a sailor. She’s pure Montana, too. As a hairstylist, she knows all the town’s dark secrets. She knows where the bodies are buried, literally. Once, when we were out driving around together, she pointed to a barren hillside and told me there was a murdered girl concealed there. The girl had been killed in front of another girl by a local man. This guy still hangs out in the bars and everyone knows him, but the girl who could send him to prison is too afraid.
       Anyway, we went shopping with these folks and nothing happened, except that we got separated. Stocky, Theresa, and Maggie were looking at sweaters in a Main Street women’s shop, and I ducked out to buy Maggie some long underwear at a sporting-goods store around the block. Everyone was gone when I got back, so I started a store-to-store search and kept on shopping. I came across bars of French soap for $20 and a scented candle priced at $40. I handled a set of Egyptian cotton sheets that cost over 300 bucks–without the pillowcases. In shop after shop, I found ordinary items–hand lotions, teapots, bath salts, slippers, towels–priced at five times what anyone would have paid for them just 10 years ago.
       A moral panic set in. To someone like me, a Midwesterner raised Mormon, $20 bars of soap–and people buying them right and left, along with $50 bottles of bath oil–point to an imbalance in the universe if not the imminent wrath of God.
       I couldn’t shop anymore. I went outside and waited by the car. The sun went down. The thermometer on the bank read -5. The others were nowhere in sight, and though I knew they’d come eventually, I felt abandoned, worried, angry, scared. I kicked at a bike rack. I smoked a cigarette. I hummed a Christmas carol. The shoppers on the street were thinning out, and my mood was plunging by the minute. It felt like the end. No friends, no wife, and the lights are going off in the stores. Montana winters are long and cold and dark, and this one, I realized today, is just beginning.