Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2018    poetry    all issues

Summer 2018 Cover


Cover Michael Lønfeldt

Emily Rinkema
Child A

Alice Martin
A Hole to Nowhere

Fan Li
Dromedaries in America

Judy Colp Rubin
The Crossing

Rebeccah Dean
Forgotten Dreams

Marianne Stokes

K. Ralph Bray

Zoë Däe
Bugs Under a Spaghetti Strainer

Charles J. Alden
Double Feature

Ateret Haselkorn

M. M. Ehasz
A Shanghai Concession

Kitty Bleak
Sooner or Later

Barbara Fischer
From the Gentlemen at the Bar

Wendy Cohan
The Sweetness of Cowboys

Writer's Site

Wendy Cohan

The Sweetness of Cowboys


According to my cowboy jitterbug partner, who hails from Lincoln, Montana, Ted Kaczynski, aka, the Unabomber, was not the strangest resident in town, but actually somewhere mid-spectrum.

“Why? What was he like?” I asked Cal, wondering by what criteria he’d determined this.

“Well, Ted could make pretty good eye contact. He came to the library regularly, and he was an excellent math tutor to our junior high kids. Genius-level smart. We couldn’t believe it when the FBI busted him. Thought it was a conspiracy, because Ted seemed like a decent enough guy. Bit of an introvert, though.”

This was the kind of conversation I’d never imagined having before moving to Montana, before I pulled up my city roots and changed my life completely.

I met Cal one early spring night at the Union Club, which isn’t a dive bar, although it’s dim interior and aged booths might initially give that impression. As I waited for my drink, I glanced at the happy couples sitting all around me, as far as I could see. As the band launched into Guy Clark’s, “Ain’t Gonna Sing No Lonesome Tune,” one of my favorites, I wandered alone onto the dance floor, swaying to the music and looking around hopefully. Sitting at a table near the back were two gentlemen my age. As the song ended, I wandered toward their table, drink in hand. I’d never done this before — asked a stranger to dance. But my feet shuffled in their direction, my mouth opened, and the words tumbled out.

In a heartbeat, this handsome silver fox with a handlebar mustache jumped right up. “Right on, Darlin’” he growled. “I’ll take you for a spin.”

“Cal” and I set ourselves up on the dance floor as the band started into an original Russ Nasset tune. Somewhat awkwardly, we arranged our hands, positioned our torsos, and began the in-and-out seesaw of the jitterbug, our hips bumping lightly. I glanced down at my feet: right, left, back-step, right, left, back-step. Cal was a strong leader. He explained that he danced in only one style, “Missouri River Cowboy Jitterbug.”

“I keep my feet mostly planted, and use my ‘throwing arm’ to twirl you out and bring you back in. I won’t step on your feet,” he promised me, “as long as you keep’em out of my way.”

We jitterbugged slow, we jitterbugged fast, and we started getting good at the basics. We were well-matched in height, with the top of my head reaching about to his bushy eyebrows.

Cal said, “You’re a pretty good dancer,” which I found hard to believe since I was thirty years out of practice, and I could still hear that critical voice in my head telling me that I had no sense of rhythm or coordination. I told it, firmly, to shut up.

At the end of one particularly energetic number, Cal pulled me in and planted a loud, smacking kiss in the middle of my forehead. Then he threw back his head and laughed. At one point, he turned me around and pulled me back against his chest, our arms still entwined. We rocked back and forth that way for a few bars, before he un-pretzeled our arms and sent me spinning out again.

Cal’s arms were lean and lithe and covered with fine blonde hairs. His shoulders were broad, and his hips and waist were narrow. Older than me by a few years, he had a strong frame, but it looked like no one had been feeding him lately. If I took him on, I thought, I’d want to bring him home and fatten him up, just a little. But, when you have been hurt as badly as I have been, this possibility seems beyond one’s capability in every respect.

I leaned back into a dip, gazing up at a pair of sparkling blue eyes in the nicely-weathered face of a man I’d only just met. During the band’s break, Cal related his history. He’d been many things, but, mainly, the foreman of a large cattle ranch on Montana’s Eastern Front. As I watched, he hand-rolled his cigarettes and sipped ever so slowly on his whisky and water, his manners courtly, in the way of a cowboy of the last century—like the good guys you see in old Westerns.

Cal’s silvery hair was long enough to touch his collar, and he had the drooping mustache of Sam Elliott. His voice was deep with a hint of gravel, but it rose in pitch with excitement. As he walked me to my car at the end of the evening, he put his hand on my elbow and leaned in close. “Shoot, Darlin,’ I like you.”

I looked sideways at him and asked, not coyly but in a direct way, “What do you like about me?” Because it had been so long since any man had said these words to me.

“Well,” he said, “You’ve got good muscle tone. That long muscle that runs up along your spine? I held onto that all night.”

There was only one sensible choice to be made the first time I met him, and I made it.


Friday evening after work, I took my dog Wylie for a run through the fields of yellow grass and sweet clover at Kelly Island. Just before the sun headed over the horizon, I sat on a downed cottonwood log, bleached silvery smooth by years of Montana weather.

Wylie propped himself against my knees, gazing out at the riparian forest, ears up and alert for sounds of wildlife beyond human hearing. I rubbed little circles on the top of his head and reached around to bury my fingers in the thick hair on his chest. Wylie leaned in closer, ninety-five pounds of canine comfort. The silence was interrupted only by the calls of woodpeckers.

I let thoughts come to me, and I let them leave. Like the birds flitting above my head. Like butterflies. There was no hurry. This was the state of mind I desired: no hurry—no hurry at all.

As June blossomed into July, my new friend Cal and I continued dancing together every week or two. His solid presence was warm and comforting, and he became a kind of crusty, no-bullshit mentor who always spoke the truth.

“I don’t think men are attracted to me.”

“Look in the mirror, Sweetheart.”

“I have a lot going on right now.”

“Call me when the lightning storm is over.”

One thing I never allowed myself to do was to lay my head against his chest when we danced to the slower tunes. What if I wanted to leave it there? Cal smelled deliciously like a combination of quality pipe tobacco, leather, and wood shavings, so sometimes this was harder than you might think. Cal, with his cowboy clothing and slightly old-fashioned sensibilities, was just completely foreign terrain from every man I’d ever dated, and I didn’t have a compass. After thirty years of struggle and a failed marriage, I no longer trusted my navigation skills anyway. It seemed to me that I was better off alone, even though Cal was also an environmentalist and a registered Democrat, who didn’t even hunt anymore—in Montana.

One night, following a horrendous, botched, root canal, I called Cal in a Percocet-induced fog: “I have to take my toilet out because the guys are coming in the morning to install my new floors. What do I do?” I asked, secretly hoping he’d charge right over and take care of the problem so I could sink back into dreamland.

Instead, he patiently talked me through shutting off the water valve, holding the handle down until the tank was emptied, disconnecting the toilet from the tank, and the bowl from the wall. Requiring far more time than it would have taken to drive over here and do it himself, Cal patiently broke the steps down for me, as if he’d removed and installed a hundred toilets with his eyes shut. He didn’t just jump in and do the messy work for me, which I respected. I needed to stand on my own two feet.

I proudly carried the whole thing in pieces out to my front porch, scraped the remnants of gooey beeswax from the floor and then from my hands, and hauled myself upstairs for a long, hot shower. As I drifted off to sleep with an ice-pack against my jaw, my phone chirped out a text from Cal: “Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.” I smiled as I drifted off to sleep, grateful to have my own leathery, silver-haired, tobacco-chewing Yoda, who told me, often, “Sweetheart, you have everything you need.”

I was grateful for Cal, but I was also searching for the other members of my new tribe. Soon, I joined a hiking group and a backpacking meetup. Breathing hard, I summitted a few peaks and survived a blustery, weekend backpacking trip, which prompted me to fill in the blanks in my arsenal of outdoor gear.

Last summer, when I left the bright-blue home I had lived in for twenty years, the comfortable nest where we raised our two sons to adulthood, I brought with me only half of the cook-kit, all four of our inflatable pads, and the water purifier. Clearly, I was not thinking clearly.

I woke up early, threw on my khaki shorts and a T-shirt and headed down the highway with a ripe nectarine in my mouth, determined to get to the members-only REI garage sale early enough to beat the crowd.

Following the stream of fit, tan people in the door, I headed over to the storage bins filled with perfectly good, recently-returned merchandise. I scored a Sierra Designs sleeping bag, 100% goose-down, and a half-price two-person tent in matching mossy-green hues.

“Honey, I’m home . . . ,” I called out to the dog, who had been patiently waiting for my return. I found it consistently rewarding to have someone in my life who was always this happy to see me. I hauled out my backpacking gear, which had been spilling out of the coat closet, ever since the door fell off in its struggle with the vacuum cleaner. My new tent went up easily. I inflated my old Thermarest and tossed it inside, followed by my new sleeping bag, and a paperback I’d just started reading. K 103.3 FM — “The Trail” kept me entertained while I assembled a snug, little camp in my living room.

Dropping my shorts to the floor, I tore off my sweaty T-shirt and pulled over my head a gorgeous, cotton knit dress in little rivulets of blue and green, like a mountain stream. My one splurge. Then, I crawled into the tent and snuggled into my sleeping bag, sinking into three-quarter inches of warm, Gore-Tex-covered air. Patting the tent floor, I called the mutt to join me, since he was standing there wagging his tail in hope. And I needed his comfort, too, because I suddenly realized, until a week ago, I’d only ever gone camping and backpacking with my husband, and then our children—as a family. Now, things would be different. Once Wylie was settled, I turned onto my side to nap and dream. No one appeared to tell me this was odd behavior for a fifty-six-year-old woman on a perfectly warm July day.

Stuck is an unproductive place to be—so, it was time for me to devise a stone with which to kill a bevy of birds: ease my loneliness, indulge my need to care for others, tap into a new flow of information from the Universe—and make some money. After a couple of trips to the home goods stores, I opened the two remaining bedrooms in my small house to Air BnB guests. “Aspen Grove Cottage” quickly became the new, economical place to stay in Missoula.

In a few short months, I welcomed dozens of Forest Service employees, peach-faced college students, world travelers, digital nomads, Buddhists, and even one lonely, newly-divorced and attractive male just my age. My new home, painted in vibrant colors and filled with Mexican pottery, was now rich with interesting conversations and classic breakfast smells: dark roast coffee, alder-smoked bacon, freshly cut oranges. Strawberries. The simple action of inviting strangers into my life brought me exactly what I was craving: Movement. People. Connection.

Wylie looked at me as if to say, “Duh, Mom. Why didn’t you think of this sooner?” Air BnB brought benefits for him, too: Strangers to sniff and endless belly-rubs! And at least a dozen five-star reviews for “world’s sweetest dog.” One visitor called him “a gigantic ball of happy,” and I completely agree.

Things were definitely better, yet I still felt like I was sitting on the banks of the river of life. I could see the rolling water but still hadn’t gotten my feet wet. One late-July morning, I went hiking in Pattee Canyon with one of my favorite guests. Susan was a happily unattached female in her forties, here for a week to check out Missoula as a potential relocation spot. Our conversation led me to believe that Susan understood what it means to be stuck.

“I think you need to surrender,” said Susan, a practicing Buddhist. “Just start saying “yes” to every opportunity that comes your way — and see what happens.”

According to Susan, a very unhappy and stuck person named Michael Singer began his own “Surrender Experiment.” And, of course, it totally transformed his life and led to a best-selling book. As he said “yes” to the many, strange opportunities that fell across his path, curious and delightful things began to happen. Well, wouldn’t some delightful be delightful, right about now? I thought.

Only a few days later, on a random Thursday night, I stopped into the Union Club. Mike, the friendly doorman, asked me if I’d come for the open mic comedy, which took place the first Thursday of every month. “Gonna do a set, are ya? It looks like a pretty good crowd tonight,” he said, encouragingly.

“Uh, I hadn’t thought about it. I don’t have anything prepared. I’ve never done anything like this . . . ”

Mike shrugged a lanky shoulder. “Give it a try. It’s a pretty easy audience . . . might as well go for it.”

Because I wanted to be brave instead of stuck, I walked over and introduced myself to the hosts. Then, I nervously found a seat and awaited my turn. Fifteen minutes later, in a shaking voice, I began, “I drove all the way to Great Falls to meet someone from, in February. I wouldn’t recommend it . . . ”

I talked about my life as a mother, and as a newly-divorced, newly-transplanted woman of a certain age. It was all true — every word:

“I’ve learned that if a guy can’t pick you up for a date because he has half an elk carcass in the back-seat, he’s probably not good at prioritizing or time management. And, possibly, hygiene.”

I ranted about guys with too many guns, guys who think they can stop time with their minds, and guys who wear ankle bracelets, and not the decorative kind. And for some reason, people began to laugh.

Half-a-dozen women high-fived me as I left the stage and the bartender handed me a free drink called a “Dark and Stormy,” which, at that point, I really needed. My body was vibrating with new energy, and that was it. I was hooked.

One Friday night in late summer, I walked into Draughtworks to meet up with my friend and dancing partner, Cal. There he was, the handsome devil, wearing a close-fitting denim work shirt that looked as if he were born in it, and bearing the clean scent of fresh sawdust. He’d even stopped smoking.

We sat at a table near the door, ready for a quick escape if it got too crowded, but we had the entire back corner of the bar to ourselves. Soon we were up dancing to the sweet, rich voice of Carolyn Keys, in a place where no one usually dances, and just like always, it felt so natural. I leaned in close, speaking right into his ear.

“You know, it’s kind of strange, but it feels like we’ve been dancing together forever, not just a few months.”

Cal smiled with his spark-filled blue eyes and seized the opportunity to spin me out again. After a pleasant two hours, the band began wrapping up. We sat, sipping on warm root beer, no ice, no straw — a reasonable facsimile for a hefty pint of Draughtworks’ Last Rites Mexican Chocolate Porter. (Cal and I both hate the taste of beer.) It was finally quiet enough to talk, and just when we were getting into it, a buzzed young lady came up to us on her way to the bar.

“You two were bringing the thunder,” she roared. “Now, are you gonna take her home and make sweet, sweet love to her?”

Cal and I hadn’t crossed that bridge, and who knew if we ever would? Covering my blush of embarrassment, I turned to Cal, “did you pay her to say that? He jokingly pulled a wad of bills out of his wallet, but by then the drunk girl had left us and was on her way to top up her tank.

It turned out to be a busy summer, dancing with Cal, dipping my toes into standup comedy, hosting Air BnB guests, and fitting in as many mountain hikes as I could. I climbed Sleeping Woman and St. Mary’s peaks, hiked to Crescent and Heart Lakes in the Missions, my favorite mountains, kayaked the Bitterroot and Blackfoot rivers, hiked every inch of Pattee Canyon, and most of the Bitterroot Trails, too. The Universe, and Cal, both seemed to be telling me, “you’ll be just fine.” I believed it was the natural state of human beings to be modestly happy. And I was working very hard at being happy.


Russ Nasset and his band were back in great form, and since we were early, Cal and I had the dance floor to ourselves. I loved wearing my new cowgirl boots, slick but not too slick, and incredibly comfortable. (The lady at the boot store said she can always tell she’s made a sale when the customer pulls on a pair of boots and says, “ahh . . . ”)

Almost effortlessly, Cal made all the other men in the bar look like sticks in the mud, I thought, as I caught the envious eyes of women tracking us around the dance floor. I felt lucky, and happy, to be here with him. When the last slow song of the night began to play, I moved into his arms. I laid my head lightly on his shoulder, just for a moment. I wanted to know what it felt like. I knew perfectly well I was crossing a boundary, breaking a rule. After all, Cal took his dancing partnerships seriously, and he’d been a gentleman, for months, now. But he didn’t say anything, just gently pulled me closer. I breathed in his unmistakable scent—and I liked imagining that he breathed in mine.

Cal walked me to my car. We kissed once and hugged tightly. The wind was whipping down Hellgate Canyon, literally freezing my cheeks. I snuck my arms around his back, beneath his jacket where it was toasty warm. Because we were so close in height, his lips just naturally found my neck for a few, delicious moments. We pulled apart a bit reluctantly. Incredibly, we still hadn’t talked about where we were going with this, other than one awkward moment after dancing at Draughtworks, when Cal whispered dangerously in my ear, “Take me home, or turn me loose.” Then, he had turned on his heel and headed for his car, without a backward glance. Message received.

I knew that Cal had limits. I had limits, too—physical and emotional. I knew how much love I had to give someone, but I was afraid to risk my heart again. Cal and I already worked as friends and dancing partners. We respected each other. For now, maybe that was enough, I thought, as I drove over the bridge heading home.

My phone beeped as I pulled up in front of my house. “Thanks for the dancing, Sweetheart.”

While on an autumn backpacking trip with a new Meetup group, I thought about Cal entirely too often, all alone in my tent, shivering in the long, cold night. And I had a serious bone to pick with those Sierra Designs people. What were they thinking rating this bag to twenty-three degrees? I only survived because I stopped for Pho on the way home—chicken noodle soup is curative in every culture.

As I had lain awake that frigid night in the Rattlesnake Wilderness, I heard a strong, clear voice in my head: “just because something can happen, doesn’t mean it should.”

Cal continually impressed me in all sorts of ways: by thanking the band for playing each night we’ve danced, stopping to greet one of his employees in a crowded bar, welcoming a friend of mine who stopped by our table to say hello. And he was the best dance partner a girl could ask for. Maybe even in the whole history of cowboy swing.

Cal was the unexpected sweetness in between, a delicious gift, a solid anchor in a constant sea of change.

But. Healing takes as much time as it takes. I’d never been good at allowing life to unfold for me, and this was precisely what I needed to do. As Willie Nelson says, “The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.” Patience, Grasshopper. My heart needed time to heal — so I gave myself this gift.


I didn’t come to Montana alone, the first time, but with my husband and children. Nearly twenty years ago, we purchased five acres near Glacier National Park, complete with an old, tin-roofed cabin. I don’t mean second home made of rustic materials but possessing all modern conveniences. The bathroom was a single-seater with a half-moon carved in the side and no sink. In the initial marital separation, I ended up with the cabin, my trusty Subaru wagon, and Wylie—far from the short end of the stick, in my eyes. But now, I was here for one last visit to say goodbye to the cabin, which would be sold, and to the last remnants of our life together.

Stiff after the long drive up from Missoula, I picked my way across the early snow-pack, pock-marked by fallen pine cones, larch needles, and a few random branches that had fallen in November’s storms. Winter birds flitted about in the cedars, emitting little peeps and chirps, but the predominant sound I heard was the gentle breeze sawing through cedar branches. I unlocked the door and stepped inside.

The cabin was frigid — so much colder than outside that it was always kind of hard to believe. I made a quick cup of tea, sweetened it with honey, then headed outside to sit on the sagging front stoop. Sipping my tea, I turned my face up to the low light of the winter sun, while Wylie ran around, getting all the bush news.

For such a small space, this cabin held a painfully-large chunk of my past. But, despite a vague feeling of melancholy, I didn’t regret a minute of the time I spent here with my husband — only that our life together ended without anyone really fighting for it. As my new mentor in truth-seeking, Pema Chödrön, says: “Things come together, and they fall apart,” sometimes without making much of a sound. Thirty years should have made a hell of a sound. Instead, our marriage received a quiet burial, with a closed casket and no discernable ceremony.

Following a year of legal and geographical separation, we chose to make it official, appropriately enough, on November 2nd, which marks Missoula’s annual calendar as the “Day of the Dead.” After filing for divorce, I walked two blocks in the bright fall sunshine, from my attorney’s office to Sweet Peaks. I bought my wounded soul a double scoop of pink-lemonade-huckleberry sorbet, which was exactly as good as it sounds. Then, on my way home, I picked up flowers, salted-almond dark chocolate, and a good bottle of Malbec at Orange Street Market.

I cried into Wylie’s ruff until he slunk away from me, then cozied into my couch and watched the entire season of “Fixer-Upper” on Netflix without moving. I wished, sincerely, that Chip and JoAnna Gaines were my close personal friends. I’d have offered to babysit their well-behaved kids and tend their little flock of pygmy goats. I’d always been good at making myself useful — just not indispensable: The fact that my husband did not want or need me was now inescapable. I would soon have it in writing, signed by a judge, and locked in my safe-deposit box. I had to accept it—but no part of me was happy about this outcome. How could I be? Once, the four of us were a family, and now, we would never be again. This was the loss that I grieved.

My husband and I traveled together for a long time , and now, it was perfectly OK to fly solo for a while. Here, where the mountains are so much larger than life, it seemed possible to believe I already had everything I needed to be happy.

But, in fact, happy was a feeling I’d not been closely acquainted with recently. In early October, before the first snowfall, I stopped dancing. While Cal tried to be supportive in his gruff, Montana-cowboy, Yoda sort of way, I was short-tempered and humorless, as I joylessly dragged myself through the unpleasant tasks involved with filing for divorce and everything that comes after. It was such a strange pairing—sensible financial disentanglement and catastrophic heartbreak.

I stayed in “hunker down” mode, without ever reaching out for the support that I knew was there from my friends, from my adult sons, who understood better than anyone, and from my whole family. I didn’t really know why I chose to isolate myself — I simply went to ground as if it were the only way to get the job done. But, it might have had something to do with shame, which was the final blow—because, until the papers were signed, there was always a distant glimmer of hope. When it was all over, I felt shame, bone-deep, for failing in my marriage — an emotion that is the opposite of helpful.

For two solid months, I wanted nothing to do with Cal, or with any other man, or, to be honest, with anyone or anything. I curtly replied to random texts from Cal, like: “Thinking of you makes me smile out loud,” and “Just breathe, Sweetheart.” My cynical smashed-up heart wondered if Cal really cared about me, or if he was simply another manipulative man out to break me, for good, this time. Trust no longer came easily to me—and that included an inability to trust my own judgement.

The dark, drudgery of divorce finally ended, with an anonymous judge’s stamp of approval, on December 7th, a date that’s still a little too easy to remember. I stayed in bed and cried for about twenty-four hours straight. After all, thirty years was worth a little respect and the grief that comes with it. But, when I came up for air — the first person I thought of was Cal. I know it seems sudden, but it wasn’t. It was simple. I missed him. I mean, I really missed him, everything about him.

On Christmas Eve, I baked a pile of Finnish ribbon cookies, pecan snowballs, and jam-filled thumbprints. After a quick, surprise phone call, I showed up at Cal’s house, where he was on hospice duty, sticking close to his ailing black-and-white tuxedo kitty. We talked for hours, as he tenderly cared for her, as feathery flakes drifted down outside the kitchen window. We ate some more snowball cookies, drank cups and cups of tea. I held his cat’s weightless body on my lap. Pleased to meet you and goodbye, we said to each other.

After a long while, Cal gently pulled my wool-covered feet up into his lap, rubbed warmth into them with his big hands, which felt sensational and more. Something real and undeniable began to grow and take form between us. It shimmered there like an unopened Christmas gift. As we watched the day turn to dusk, I reached for Cal’s hand. I felt his warmth and openness, his gentleness and his strength. I felt possibility, and forgiveness, even. This was a man I already knew well, so when the moment felt right, I reached for all of him.

Cal had the combination of strength and tenderness I’d been craving all my life, and which, for so long, had always eluded me. And he was heart-meltingly romantic, too. Most cowboys are, he assured me, and he should know.

When Cal placed the palms of his hands on my cheeks and leaned in close, I knew it was going to be a really good kiss. He took possession of my lips, very slowly. His kiss was gentle at first. And then, like all the best kisses, it grew into a conversation. I had a great deal to say, after holding so much back, out of fear, and because I wasn’t ready.

It was a kiss that carried both of us forward — even though I was still a bit of a mess, and even though, this late-life love came after quite a long, uncertain wait for Cal. But, none of this really mattered. These last bits of rough weather blew over soon enough, leaving behind something calm and strong and sure.

Wendy Cohan, a writer from Missoula, Montana, is the author of The Better Bladder Book - A Holistic Approach to Healing Interstitial Cystitis & Chronic Pelvic Pain and What Nurses Know...Headaches. A practicing nurse since 1994, Ms. Cohan made a midlife leap to her second act, writing full time about women’s lives, travel, and health with as much humor as she can get away with. You can find more of Ms. Cohan’s work on,,, and She can be reached at:

Dotted Line