The Year St. Helen’s Blew

Bill Burkett
12 min readSep 3, 2022
St. Helen’s…most disastrous volcanic eruption in U.S. history…killed 57 people and destroyed hundreds of homes, 57 bridges and 200 miles of roads, leveling tens of thousands of acres of forest…sent an ash cloud more than 12 miles into the atmosphere in just 10 minutes. Fine ash…circled the earth within 15 days… — c/f Wikipedia.

Seattle weather for the liquor convention was limpid and mild, the Sound a millpond. A surreal calm against the looming ash cloud far to the Southeast. St. Helen’s had popped. But prevailing winds pushed the plume east. Convention-goers had been glued to TVs showing widespread devastation, raging mud flows, midnight at noon East o’ Mountains when ash fall blotted the sun…

Midnight at noon in Yakima, East o’ Mountains, when ash fall blotted the sun. A friend of mine, mowing his father’s grass there, saw the huge cloud rolling out of the Cascades and thought it the mother of all thunderstorms until it hit…c/f Wikimedia Commons

I slipped away from convention volcano jabber to a small lobby bar where nightlife proceeded as usual. Sat at a small table nursing my drink. A blonde came in from the street, sat on a corner bar stool and ordered a drink. The skinny black bartender set it up quickly — a squat wide tumbler full of a viscous red liquid with pieces of green vegetable floating in it that looked awful in the dim light.

She on the other hand looked good in a long-sleeved turquoise dress that came up chastely around her neck and smoothed down over her breasts and hips to modest mid-knee. She wore her bright blonde locks shoulder-length, flipped under all around, with poodle-dog bangs across her high forehead, and looked like a secretary stopping for a drink after work. I smiled when she saw me looking. She smiled back just a little too quickly and too brightly. Then did the same to other men, selling the smile a little too hard. She was a hooker.

Four other women on a row of bar stools, backs to me, flirted like mad with the barkeep in the distinctive accents of Canada. Canadian wives on the town without their significant others had an awe-inspiring reputation for how hard they partied. One had a black cap of curls cut in a kind of Prince Valiant look and wore a white form-fitting dress with plenty of decolletage showing off a rope of large pearls that could have been paste but glowed nicely against her breasts. She kept half-turning to look me over. When I met her gaze, she lowered her lashes and turned back to her drink, and there was no way she was a hooker. And Ray came in.

He wandered through the bar peering nearsightedly through thick glasses, a sandy-red-haired, age-freckled old snapping turtle. Hi y’alling everybody in his loud North Carolina accent. I had a mean unworthy hope he wouldn’t sit with me and launch one of his loud corn-pone monologues about God knows what. Then the black-haired Canadian wife with merry blue eyes would stop looking my way.

Hah. Ray barged among the Canadians, calling each by name, demanding who the hell was going to buy him a drink. And of course the black-haired wife in the white dress said she would. Two were brunettes and one was a much more lustrous redhead than Ray. They all thought Ray was cute as hell. Chivas and water Ray told the bartender — a good ole’ boy from North Carolina Liquor Control drinking Scotch instead of bourbon. I was ashamed of him — and envious of him. The legendary Canadian-wife partying spirit on display had triggered a long-suppressed urge to slip the domestic leash.

He spread his hypnotic drawl over them like thick honey. They bantered back, rubbing his head, patting his arm, bumping him with the occasional hip. Bright Eyes as I thought of the girl in the white dress kept including me in sweeping glances when it was the turn of the redhead with even more cleavage to lean in on Ray. I had an intuition she stood outside herself and watched this scene play out as in a movie, loving every minute. British Columbia housemothers on a lark the redhead told Ray loudly, as if advertising. Shopping…mainly…one of the brunettes giggled. The brunettes had lacquered old-fashioned beehive hairdos that made the professional girl at the end of the bar seem softly vulnerable. The redhead was flamboyant, a man-eater.

Ray had picked the natural leader — Bright Eyes. She was with the others but alone — like any true leader. I saw a fanciful resemblance to Hemingway’s Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises. I always thought the war wound preventing Jake Barnes’ consummation with Brett was Hemingway-code for being married when he knew the real woman he called Brett. In the uptight old days authors were big on code: muck for fuck and so on. No reviewer saw the marriage-war wound connection. But watching Bright Eyes with the old urge, knowing I couldn’t, I believed my theory sound.

In the book, Barnes shocked his Lost Generation friends by taking a prostitute to dinner. My sense of irony awakened. I had the waitress ask the girl in turquoise if she’d like to step over to my table for a nightcap. She brightened and came right over. Her name was Jackie. She was self-employed, working the convention, not even pretending she wasn’t a whore. Said ruefully it was looking like a bust; these lousy liquor peddlers either brought a girlfriend with them or held onto their wallets with both hands.

She was right about the girlfriends — more than one delegate from state and province liquor-control jurisdictions had introduced me to a “niece.” Always young, always good-looking, always dressed to kill. I told her about an eastern state official introducing his “niece” to a Canadian. This worthy blinked — the light bulb almost visibly went on: “Oh yeah, yeah — I got one of them too! Honey! Come meet his niece, aye?”

Jackie had a good laugh. Then shook her head, said definitely tonight was a bust. I was curious about her asking price, having been away from big-city sin a long time. When she said “a bill,” I nearly choked on my bourbon. Recalled an old Army buddy telling a whore in Amsterdam who named her price: “What? Is the damn thing covered in jools or somethin’?” I didn’t tell Jackie; it might hurt her feelings.

“But,” she said quickly, “it’s getting so late I’d consider an offer.” Did she take my silence for negotiation? I said forget it kiddo, I’m just a state employee, not a big shot, and I’m stony broke. “Oh — not for you,” she said. “I wasn’t talking about you. A guy like you — you’re so tall, you’ve got those shoulders and on you all that weight just makes you look stocky. You sure are a big one. The way you look, you don’t pay. You get your share.”

I was completely taken aback. “You really think so?”

“Sure — you don’t have to ask twice.”

“Well, I really am flattered. You just made my evening.”

“Don’t make a big deal of it,” she said. “It’s just the truth. C’mon, don’t make a big deal of it.” I didn’t have the heart to ask if compliments were part of her sales spiel. “That jerk,” she said next, talking about a Canadian liquor cop, a conventioneer she pitched earlier, “He wants to bargain me down to nothing. I’d sooner do a freebie with you than come down too much in price for that creep.” Whoa. Time to change topics.

I said it’s nice to have a good-looking woman tell me lies like that. Here comes the standard bit I bet you get a lot because you’re nice: how did you fall into this line of work? She was cute when she laughed. “That’s what I did, exactly. I fell into it. Landed on my back you might say.”

I laughed too. “You’re kind of snappy with the comeback.”

She said where you from? When I told her she said she’d been down there, at a girl’s reformatory of which she was a graduate. Graduate, I repeated. We laughed again.

“But seriously,” Jackie said, “this is a good way to afford a slick pad and a nice car and decent clothes. Not have to work as a secretary for slave wages and the boss expecting it free all the time.” She asked what I did. When I said I was in the liquor business she looked worried and asked if I was some kind of cop. I assured her I was a mere bureaucrat. Papers come into my in-box. I read them. Sometimes I dictate an answer. Papers go out. “Ugh,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said. She was freelance — no pimp to answer to. Said things had been tight or she wouldn’t have been so bold tonight, overdoing it. “Sit here with me then,” I said. “Good camouflage.”

‘Well, I hate to just get up and leave you if I see a mark.”

“Feel free. Hell, you’re at work. I’m just goofing off.”

“You know,” she said, “you’re kind of nice. Different. I wish I had somebody like you to sit and talk to, just go walking with.”

“Yeah. I have that effect on women. Somebody good to talk to.”

“I bet,” she said. “A guy looks like you. I just bet.”

“No, really. I could tell you stories of all my missed chances. I’ve got a dozen of ‘em.”

“That’s what I really need,” Jackie said. “A man to talk to, go walking. Who’s not trying to make me or buy me. Look — here’s my address.” She scribbled inside a match flip. “Why don’t you come around tomorrow and get me up? We’ll go someplace for the afternoon before I have to go to work.”

“Around noon?” I put the match flip in my shirt pocket.

“God no! More like three. I never get up before three.” A woman with my biorhythms. “Better yet,” she said, “tell me where you’re staying. I’ll come get you in my new car.” Then she excused herself to work on a mark. I stopped at Ray’s elbow to say whatever you do, do not tell these ladies that scruples joke. Of course Bright Eyes was at him to tell it immediately. When I got back from the john, he introduced me to Diane, who was Bright Eyes, and Rose the redhead. I don’t recall the two brunettes. The bar finally closed. We all went into the lobby. A shaven-headed, heavy-browed Georgian — Soviet Georgia — homed in on Rose. Ray and Diane and Rose and the Georgian settled into couches. Across the lobby Jackie left her mark to come whisper: “Where you going?”

“To bed,” I said.

“Don’t be an idiot!” She nodded urgently toward Diane. “You’re about to get lucky.”

“I am?”

“There’s two for two. I’ve got Ray. You get Diane.”

I never saw Ray make a move on Jackie but wasn’t surprised. But where did she get the Diane notion? Jackie said just stick around, you’ll see who Diane is waiting for, then borrowed Ray’s room key. As soon as she was out of sight he came in for unmerciful razzing. Diane said that blonde will make you pay double to get that key back. Ray cackled, said he loaned her the room so she could do her mark. Probably partially truthful — I figured he’d take it in trade.

None of us seemed ready to leave the little gathering. Inane jokes and laughter echoed across the lobby. Eventually Jackie came to an open balcony above and looked over twice, quickly. The Georgian said she is stealing everything you own. Ray cackled again. What can she do with men’s underwear and toiletries? I got my wad right here in my pants. He wiggled his eyebrows, cracking the Canadians up.

I don’t know why I did what I did. Maybe because I was the PR guy supposed to ensure the convention avoided embarrassing headlines, and thought Ray bit off more than he could chew. I suggested Diane call Ray’s room from a house phone, hang up when Jackie answered, wait, then call back as the switchboard operator: Mrs. Ray had called and was angry a woman answered his phone. Diane carried it off beautifully, bright eyes full of devilment.

I asked the Georgian if he was well-read in American novels as he seemed to be in classics. He said perhaps. Have you read Hemingway? He said everything. Does Diane remind you of Lady Brett? Yes, he said, yes! He laughed loudly. Yes, I see it. I see what you mean exactly! Of course Diane had to know what we were talking about. He explained. She asked is it a compliment? Oh yes, a very fine compliment.

She held my gaze. “Write the name of the book down for me.” I did — both titles. Canadian bookstores might have it as Fiesta. Jackie hurried down the stairs to tell Ray his wife called, he needed to call her back. But Jackie was no fool. The Canadian accent had tipped her, and she asked who was pulling her leg. She was really upset with Ray. He was finally embarrassed, turning the color of the Bloody Mary she ordered when I first saw her.

So I asked Ray what time it was in North Carolina. He said 6:30 a.m. I said you told me your wife was an early riser — he hadn’t — would she call, then be quick enough to throw a scare into the switchboard when a girl answers your room phone? He cackled. His color improved. “Wouldn’t be the first time my bride pulled some stunt on me, that’s just like her. She don’t worry me none and I don’t worry her. Me and Mama get along just fine after all these years, and that’s just what I think she done to this poor child.”

Jackie was confused and disgruntled. “I’m going to go eat breakfast and go to bed,” she said. Left without once looking at me.

The gathering broke up. Diane and I did not get together. My punishment I suppose for upsetting the sexual tension of the night. Next day she did ask me to drive the Canadians to the train station and appropriated the seat beside me in my big old station wagon. The others razzed her about what she did to earn chauffeur service. She twinkled at them and said absolutely nothing. Yeah right, they said. And asked me. “Absolutely nothing,” I said. To Diane: “Did I say that with enough conviction?” They broke up in giggles. When they were gone, and with them my chance to explore the legend of partying Canadian wives, I went back to work in the hotel.

Jackie was in the lobby all cleaned up in a nice Navy frock, but looked a little hung-over. She said you weren’t waiting for me this afternoon were you? I admitted I wasn’t. “Good,” she said. “I didn’t come by for you. I have to work. I really need to make some money today. God I can’t believe I’m working in the daytime, I haven’t worked in the daytime in six months. Between all the screwing and the drinking I don’t know if I’m coming or going.”

Later, liquor suppliers mounted a banquet on the mezzanine that would have done Nero proud, featuring a bar furnished by distilleries with every liquor brand in the world. I saw one purchasing agent insist on cracking a new bottle for each drink he took, and he took a lot of them. So did they all. I ate rich food until I was stuffed, then carried coffee down to the bar to escape the politicking and constant St. Helen’s gossip. Jackie was in place at the end of the bar. I stopped by to see how she was feeling.

She leaned over and whispered, “I’m starving, I’m so hungry I could eat a horse. But I’m afraid to give up my seat at the bar, and the bartender won’t serve me food.”

That aroused my maverick nature that gets me into trouble more often than not. “I’ll be right back.” I went to the mezzanine and piled one of the largest plates with some of the most expensive buffet food in the world, including a cup of caviar. Marched back into the bar and presented it to her with silverware in a cloth napkin.

“No food in the bar,” snarled the bartender. He wasn’t the same one as the night before. I flipped my lapel forward and let his eyes fall on my Liquor Control credentials. He suddenly wanted to look anywhere but at me.

“A Class H license,” I said like the bureaucrat I was, “requires availability of food service. Do you really want to make an issue with me?” A quick shake of the head. Jackie watched this with wide eyes. “Eat hearty,” I said, and gave the bartender the bureaucrat stare. “You’ll look after her, right?”

“She can eat all she wants,” he said through his teeth.

“That’s the spirit. Keep that liquor license polished up.”

“God I was so hungry,” she said, her mouth full. “Thank you.”

“You have to keep your strength up,” I said. “Take care.”

“Wait. You still have my address?”

“I do.”

“Come by tomorrow? Even before three?”

I patted her shoulder. “If I’m still in town.”

But I wasn’t. And I was kind of relieved I wasn’t. The domestic leash stretched only so far. Jackie joined Diane of the bright eyes in the panoply of women by whom I never got laid. I can almost hear her laughing.

Pages from my “roman a clef.” Available at Amazon Books



Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.