I had just returned from a trip to Africa when, after clearing customs at JFK airport, I was hit with some tragic news. Uncle Ramon, an eccentric, reclusive millionaire, had passed away suddenly and tragically after asphyxiating during a bizarre sexual encounter he had with some whores he had met while out drinking and shooting craps behind Lucky’s Grand Casino, a legendary Yellowstone County establishment.
I felt bad, but the voice on the other end of the line gave me a silver lining to this national tragedy. I was named a beneficiary in his will, and as a result I inherited one of the crown jewels of my uncle’s belongings: his yellow Quonset hut that sat beside a set of busy railroad tracks in a small town outside of Billings that he had called home for almost the last 20 years. In order to finalize the deal, however, I needed to go to Montana to claim my treasure.
I soon arrived in the Big Sky, rented a car, and headed out to collect my booty. To say I was dismayed when I arrived would be a colossal understatement. In the short period of time it had taken me to reach this place, my buzzard-like relatives had swooped in and picked the place clean. Even his massive collection of ‘70s porn had gone the way of the buffalo. I felt like Magellan on his trip to Guam. There was one thing left over that I found, though, that was stuck behind a wall panel that looked out of place. It was an old dusty book. I blew off the dust to reveal the title, “On Clamming,” penned by an ancient, obscure French fur trapper.
I spent that night on the floor reading intensely. The book, which was over a century old, detailed in a blow-by-blow account the riches that could be had by picking clams along the banks of the Musselshell River, an obscure tributary to the Missouri that flowed about a stone’s throw away from my new Quonset hut.
The next morning, book in hand, I headed up to the waterway, eager to find my fortune in clams. The book talked about all the uses and variety of clams in the area. Just as the sun was peeking from behind the fall of night, I reached the river and began my search for riches.
It was all for naught. As I wandered around the riverbed in search of the elusive bivalves, I couldn’t find anything; not a single shell. A bit perturbed, I returned to my car, cracked open a beer, and began reading the guide again. As I read it more carefully, it kept mentioning a legendary spot near a town called Shawmut, which was about a half an hour from where I was at. So I started the drive over there, and soon I arrived at the local bar.
I went into the dingy establishment, and I was immediately given scowls by the patrons and old man who was working behind the bar. I sat down and ordered an Oly.
After my beer arrived, I asked the barkeep, “Hey, where can a guy find some clams around here?”
He gave me a semi-puzzled look and pointed over to a corner table. “Go over there. Ol’ Bill is the King of Clammin’ in these parts, I’ll tell ya what.”
I thanked him and walked over to the table, where I found a gruff looking Amazon of a woman sitting with a grizzled, gin-soaked cowpoke who was wearing a vest made out of clam shells. They were drinking Old Crow straight out of the bottle.
“Are you Bill?” I asked the old guy.
He eyed me suspiciously and yelled in a high-pitched drawl, “Maybe. Who’s askin’?”
“I’m Mike,” I said.
“Mike? What in the hell kind of name is that? French?” (It’s a curious fact that in Montana, virtually every male over the age of 50’s name is “Bill.”)
“No,” I said. “I’m from here.”
“I’ll be damned,” he said, taking another sip off his rot-gut whiskey while his old lady hacked up some phlegm. “I know some Roys, a couple Lyles and even a Buck ’r two, but I ain’t never met no goddamn Mike before.
“What in the hell do you want anyway?” he asked. The large, gruff-looking woman he was with was edging closer and starting to generate an aura of hostility.
“Well, I heard you knew about the clams around here and … ”
He slammed his fist down on the table, causing his clam-shell vest to make a jingling noise. “Clams? I don’t know nothin’ about no god damn clams! Ya hear?”
“Of course and I’m totally sorry,” I said. “Now how about something to drink for me having troubled you?”
“Well, hell.” He shrugged his shoulders and looked at his old lady. “I think that’s perfectly fine.”
And you would be surprised how after 20 or so beers, a person’s mood changes. Both of them were like old friends by the time I had spent nearly the yearly GDP of Burundi on booze for them and myself.
“Fluffy over here, don’t mind her,” he said pointing at the hulking woman he was with, who hadn’t said anything all night aside from a few grunts. “She’s quiet but she’s tough. She was the mud-wrasslin’ champ of Alberta way back when.”
“Fascinating,” I mused. “Now, I was meaning to ask you, do you know where there’s some good clam spots at?”
“Do I?!” he shouted. “You want clams? I’ll show you some goddamned clams!
“What kind do you want? You can find some fuzzy clams at a bar in Harlo, and … ”
“No,” I said. “I don’t need any of those. I want some Musselshell River clams.”
“Yeah, I can show you those, too.”
So he got up and staggered a bit and told his old lady he’d be back and motioned for me to follow him outside. I did, and he got inside an old, beat-up Chevy stepside. Upon getting in, it was clear this was the truck of a serious clammer; the whole dash and steering wheel were adorned with glued-on clams.
“Purdy, ain’t she?” he asked me rhetorically. “Now, put this on.”
I got a bit nervous when he handed me a blindfold, but I did want to see the mythical clams, so I obliged. I heard the old vessel start up, and we started driving. It was during this time Bill slipped an 8-track in and Elvis’s voice came on through the speakers, saying “Do the Clam!” Bill started singing along. After the song ended, though, everything went silent; he “clammed up,” so to speak.
The ride went on for quite some time, but it suddenly came to a stop and the engine cut out. Bill removed my blindfold. “All right, it’s near here, but we got some walkin’ to do.”
He pulled out another bottle of Old Crow, and we each took a big drink off of it. “All right.” He handed me a burlap sack. “Follow me.”
So I got out of my side of the truck, and Bill motioned me behind him; we began wandering beneath the clear, moonlit sky. After a couple of minutes, a large owl swooped down out of the sky, inches above our heads. Bill let out a wild scream, grabbed me, and flung both of us into some sage brush.
“What the fuck, Bill?” I yelled.
“Goddamn it, didn’t you hear that? It was a black helicopter! Maybe even a goddamned Predator drone!”
“Wait, what? That was an owl or a hawk, or maybe a … ”
He pulled out a .45 pistol out of nowhere and shoved it in my face. “Who are you with boah? FBI? CIA? NSA?”
“Nobody,” I stated. “I just want to find some fuckin’ clams, man.”
His facial expression loosened up, and the look of terror and anger on his face dissipated. “Oh, oh, I see.” He kept the gun in my face, “Let me tell you sumthin’ though. You tell anyone about this place, I’ll murder your entire family.”
“Bill,” I remarked incredulously, “you don’t even know my family.”
“Oh, I got my ways,” he cackled and began laughing maniacally, still waving the gun around. “My cousin’s a deputy in Golden Valley County.”
He looked very serious, like he would murder everyone in my family over the sanctity of his clam-hole.
“Okay, Bill, I won’t tell anyone. I swear.”
“All right, so we’re clear,” he said as he put his gun down. We began walking again.
Upon coming over a bluff, one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen lay before my eyes: a pond whose shores glowed, piled with clam shells all the way around it.
“Here she is,” he said proudly. “My clammin’ spot. Now let’s go have a look.”
So we walked down to the shores, and Bill pulled out a stick, shoved it into the mud, and put his ear on it.
“I can hear ‘em!” he shouted. “There’s more of those bastards underneath here, but I think they’re on the other side of the pond.”
So we started walking, and I collected shells while Bill kept shoving his stick into the ground. We waded out into the shallows of the pond where the water was luminescent with bountiful clam shells.
Disaster soon struck, though, when Bill let out a scream and disappeared beneath the water. I looked over and saw just his crazy bald head sticking above the water line.
“Help me, you fucker! They got me!”
I rushed over and found a grisly site. Bill had fallen down a hole dug out by beavers and was impaled on a stick. He looked like a screaming, bald-headed hillbilly Kabob.
“Call the medics; I’m gonna need a helicopter,” he moaned. “But drag me out of here first. They can’t find my damn clams!”
So I grabbed Bill and pulled him out of the hole and found the stick jammed between his testicles, sticking out through a bloody hole in his Wranglers.
“Bill,” I jokingly said to him trying to lighten the situation up, “now your old lady is going to have twice the fun.”
Writhing in pain, Bill didn’t quite see the humor it that.
“Fuck you! Call the goddamned EMTs you smart-assed little bastard! I got a stick through my goddamn balls! Goddamn beavers!”
I left the stick in so he didn’t bleed out and called 9-1-1 after dragging him into a clearing away from the pond.
Within an hour, the helicopter landed, and Bill was being medevacked to Billings, where he would need emergency surgery. I got on board, too, and went with him as I felt a bit guilty because this happened because I wanted to see some clams.
As we were flying somewhere over the prairie, Bill, with an ashen, pained look on his face, grabbed the doctor. “Doc,” he said, “will I be able to do it again soon?”
“Bill,” he said, “don’t even worry. In a couple months you’ll be able to have sex again with no problems.”
“You dumb sumbitch!” he shouted and grabbed the doctor by his shirt. “Clams! Will I be able to dig fer some goddamned clams again?”
The doctor looked at him strangely. “Yeah, I guess you’ll be able to do that again soon, too.”
Bill let out a sigh of relief and relaxed his grip. Clearly he was a man with his priorities straight.
M.D. Harkins is a noted authority on small hand tools and Nuristani mating rituals. He has lived in such far-flung locales as Beirut, Lebanon, and Billings, Montana. He maintains the Enlightened Despot blog and has written one novel, Feast. He currently resides in a fortified compound near Isla Vista.