These essays represent times in my - and often times other's - lives that have revealed to me the edges, or the vague outlines, of a reality beyond our ordinary perception. A collection of 35 earlier essays has been published in 2017, titled: Beneath the Turning Stars: Glimpses of the Sacred in a Very Profane Life, and is available at Amazon Books in paperback for $12.99 and on Kindle for $3.99.
Finding the Key
“Why am I going?” This she said for the third time as we headed north to the cabin, and it was all my fault. I had been unable to sleep the night before and had been furious for it, and had not let that fact go by as I rushed around to pack, throwing things around more than necessary and swearing as I did so. At one point I had stopped to realize what a jerk I was being and had stopped that, too, but the damage, or so it seemed to both of us, had been done. I had spoiled the mood and that was that. My bad.
But hold on: things have a way of setting themselves up. Over the miles the mood had changed, and by the time we got to the Way –Up- North cabin, things were at least OK. Everything there was in order, we listened to more of the book on CD as we sipped this and that, and we both slept well that night. All the darkness had seemed, again, my fault, and that had fallen away as it always does. It was all normal, as always, dark moods followed by better moods, wounds healed and all that.
Life seemed to be continuing at its ho-hum pace, just as the morning sun proclaimed its glory the next day. A cup of tea, talk of what to do, everything was back to normal. Except: something, we would soon find, was hidden in that light that had passed over from the day before, something that had been working its way towards us, and it would be my fault again. But not really. In fact, what happened next that morning seemed, over time, to be something that was downright supernatural.
It was the car key, or really, the fob, that electronic gadget that you put in your pocket and forget about until you forget to put it in your pocket. It acts like magic, sending invisible waves out that unlock the car and start it up without you doing a darned thing. Great, sure, but when that little idol, that little voodoo doll, is gone, nothing works. Unlike a key, which functions like everything else not attached to the computer age, the absence of the fob makes one feel that a piece of the universe has disappeared. And that is exactly what happened: as we dressed up to take a great walk on a trail a half mile away, I went to find the fob where I normally put it, and it wasn’t there. All of a sudden, just after I had thought that the darkness of the past day had vanished with the hours, it had returned. The universe, once again, no longer seemed in place; the Will of Heaven, it seemed, was lost once again.
Of course, when finding that the impossibly awful has happened, there is often some lingering hope. That cancer diagnosis? Get another test! Fallen stock market? It’s just a fluke! Lost fob in the wilderness? Gotta be in that other pants pocket! Except that it wasn’t, nowhere, no how. I reconstructed the night before, of course, and narrowed its loss down to two possibilities: it had either fallen out of the hole in my pocket when I had gone out to retrieve the CD from the car, or had slipped out of said pocket as I had lain down that evening to read for an hour. Rooting around in the grass around the car found nothing, and besides, I concluded after a while that the hole in my pocket was too small for the fob to slip through. Therefore, it had to be upstairs in the bed – but after a quick search, then another, it wasn’t. It was just, simply, gone. We even searched in the freezer of the fridge and in empty containers, me fearing that we actually might find it there and confirm my premature senility, but no, there was nothing. Gone. Just like the magical tool that it was.
All was not as dark as it seemed, and the reader might groan sarcastically when I say that we had a back-up. The battery had run out, but hidden within the spare fob was a real, old-fashioned key that theoretically could route us around the magic of the fob and start things as they should be started. However, when I followed the instructions to use the key, it did not work. Not only that, when I reassembled the starting button and tried it, just in case, instead of lighting up “Key Not Located” it lit up “Damaged Starter.” Damaged starter! By inserting the key wrong (somehow), I had ruined the starter! Now I would have to hitch-hike into the nearest village 20 miles away, call AAA and hope that they would drive up a half-mile driveway that was nearly buried in pine boughs. They would, of course, but only after a rather large extra incentive of cash, and even in that case, the day would be ruined. Hundreds of dollars would be spent and all our time lost to unappealing anxiety and business necessary only because I, once again, had somehow screwed up. She had been right - we should never have gone. All the universe had warned us, and one way or another we were going to pay. Oh, woe with us! Oh, woe with me who had caused it all!
However, the universe rarely acts as we expect. As I began searching desperately in the grass to find the working fob once again, just in case the damaged starter would change its mind and work on the off-chance I did find it, the car started behind me. What? I would be told a minute later that a voice had told her to go into the car with the spent fob and try once again, even though it had been tried many times before, and the voice had been right. Half an hour later we would be in Grand Marais, and within a few minutes we would have a good battery in place and a working fob. A miracle had happened, and we both attributed it to her regular praying of the rosary. Saved!
Almost, that is, and for the most part. But a fob, unlike a key, costs two hundred dollars or more, a pretty good hunk of change for something one should never have to buy. So, while in the hardware store to buy the battery, I also bought a rake (for ten dollars. Hey, I needed one anyway). Back at the cabin I raked and sifted for about a half hour until a voice came to me as well: it’s not out here, Fred. Go back and have a cup of tea.” And so I did, and so it happened that as I sat there, calmly now, the voice spoke again: “It is by the bed upstairs. Not in it; you had pulled the covers up after reading there and had knocked it off the bed. Yes, you had looked there, too, but it is on the OTHER side of the bed, where the mattress is against the wall.” I went straight away upstairs, and sure enough, the damned fob was there.
She told me then that she had told me to check on both sides before, but I had not heard her, or so it seemed. But when I thought about it, it occurred to me that my explanation did not seem right. In fact, nothing about that incident seemed right. Like a befuddled Sherlock Holmes, I had reasoned it down to two, then to one possibility, and that had been right. But I had searched wrong, searching “right” the easiest thing about the equation. And then another conversation of that morning hit me, one about dreams. We had talked about our weird dreams of the night before that morning, as people often do, and I had pointed out the obvious strangeness of dreams, so obvious that few people think about it; that is, that WE do the dreaming, even though it seems that we do not, at least if we accept the idea that our thoughts come from ourselves. In dreams, we are as subject to “fate” as we are in the real world, but in reality, at least as far as we can know, we are the ones creating our dreams. Because of this, we should not be surprised or upset or held emotional hostages to our dreams, for we should know what is coming up next and why. We should, by all reasonable thinking, be in complete control of them. But we are not. In dreams, we act the passive victims. Why?
We can ask the same question of waking reality. Depth psychologists have long known that the unconscious knows far more about why we do things than our normal selves do. Yet, just as in dreams, our reasons and our very direction in life – that is, the self-directed portion of our fate – is known to us all along. One can say that we hold such reasons from ourselves to keep the play interesting. But why have the play in the first place? For me, the incidence of the key answers at least part of the question.
What came of the incident? Instead of a normal hike, we got drama. More so, we also got wonder and religion – me, wondering at the magic of the disappearance, and both of us of that first “voice” that was a blessing. Then had come the second voice that had ended the drama after it had fulfilled its mission. Of course, I really knew all along where the fob was, but had obstructed its finding. But then the wonder: neither of us could have gotten a dead fob to work just that once to get the car going, no matter our unconscious. Yet the two, the loss of the fob and the working of the dead one, were not separate, for if the fob had not worked, all of it would have simply been an exercise in blind stupidity.
Instead, we had learned to believe, and I had gotten this story and this thought, this thought that keeps teasing as it opens itself: that somehow, we – at least the “we” who we think we are – are guided. We are guided by our unconscious in coordination with other beings, who are all in coordination with a greater consciousness that not only knows our inner thoughts, but also – as we in our dreams – can actually change things. That many of us think this idea is superstitious or preposterous is only part of the cover; we all KNOW that miracles (as we call them) both big and small are happening, and we also know, at least on a much deeper level, WHY. But we have to keep the mystery going. We have to allow room for faith, because that points our direction back home, to the source, to where the masks are taken away and everything is as it is, in total, in the open. But first we must have the journey, to find faith in what is and was and forever shall be, a journey which began for reasons we cannot quite grasp and will not be able to grasp until we are there, finally there.
As I went upstairs to find the fob where I suddenly knew it was, it occurred to me: stories often tell us of those who travel the world in quest, only to find that the key was at home all along. Just as was this key – or rather, this fob. Right under my nose all along, and I knew it. But that would have ruined the adventure, and the story. FK
Zombie at the Picnic
The last time I had seen her, things had not gone well. We were visiting relatives in Connecticut and were staying at my mother’s when I had woken in a haze and there she was – my cousin Margie. She looked about as rough as I felt, and as soon as I offered a flat good morning, she started in on the politics. To her, everything was politics and she and I did not share the same point of view. Whatever she said that morning made me snap back out of habit, which brought her to some triumphant point that did not concern me one bit. I changed the subject and things went along as well as can be expected by two people not feeling too well so early in the morning.
Ah, but it had not gone along as I had expected. That afternoon, my brother had a cook-out for the immediate local family and friends where I had volunteered as chef of the grill. It had been a cheery time, spiced with a few beers, and Margie had not made her expected appearance until late, when she apparently had gone straight into the house, because I had not seen her. It wasn’t until the grill was closed that she made her appearance again, where she moved as if to leave in her car. I saw her and called her over: “Hey, Margie, can I get you a beer?” She had paused as if thinking about it, and then had replied, “Yeah. I guess I could use one.” We then talked about pleasantries until she had to leave and all, again, seemed well enough.
It was not until all the guests had gone and I was helping put stuff away with my brother that he told me what had really gone on. Margie had come into the house, apparently quite drunk, and had complained bitterly about what an awful person I was. It was my politics, and she had told everyone within that I should not be allowed to raise my son, given how I would pervert his view of the universe. It was from this diatribe that I had had that beer with her. Who could have known?
Not many. How often do you go from excoriating a relative – not a boss, but a relative – and then sitting down for a pleasant chat with him? Not often, but Margie had her problems, so many and so deep that her behavior that afternoon did not shock me. Her father, one of my mother’s brothers, had been an alcoholic and bon vivant of the first degree, a good match for Margie’s mother, her father’s third wife, who was also an alcoholic. Not surprisingly, Margie had also been an alcoholic and a drug addict, having birthed three children with two different men who both got custody because her life had been such a mess. At one point, she was even running a bar for her third husband – her next to last – who had been a drug dealer for the Mafia, who was then doing time for attempted murder. An exciting life, to be sure.
But she had since calmed down, married a decent man, and let her drinking go down to only after- hours. Still an occasional evening binger, I would get drunk-dial phone calls from her late at night, which I would have to terminate after she got around to repeating her phrases the third time, which didn’t matter anyway, because she never remembered the calls. But at least she was sober during the day, had a job that she was good at, and had a husband who was on the right side of the law.
She had changed recently, however, and for an understandable reason. She had gotten to know two of her children in adulthood, both boys from the same father, and had developed a tolerable relationship with them. One of them had become a local cop and by all appearances seemed to have had a decent life until his divorce. This had not gone well, and he himself had gone too heavily into drink, but that was certainly not unusual. What was unusual was that one night, just a few months before the cookout, he had taken his service pistol and blown his brains out.
It was I, then, who should have known better, should have known that I should have treated Margie with extreme delicacy, but Margie had made it difficult. Instead of covering herself in mourning, she had kept up with the old tough veneer, acting as if everything were the same as ever, even her obsession with politics. But, of course, things weren’t the same. Her protection was to keep up the act, and like many actors, she had to resort to medication to maintain the façade. With her background, it was not surprising that she was doing so with a vengeance. Her probable future was too grim to fully discuss.
The thing with the future is, it comes whether it is discussed or not. A year later, my son and I were back east again for a special event: my other maternal uncle was celebrating (or, rather, was being forced to celebrate – he couldn’t have cared less) his 90th birthday. He was an especially tough buzzard who had been a bomber pilot in WWII and a fighter pilot in Korea, and then a math teacher, and then an athlete who had run marathons into his 70’s, until his knee had given out. Much of the scattered clan had gathered, bringing children and even grandchildren that I knew little or nothing about, all appearing fairly healthy of body but obviously eccentric of mind, as is the norm for the DNA on my mother’s side. I was to be the cook again (this is so because my wife is from the South, and almost demanded that I learn to barbecue. Up north, at least when I was growing up, grilling out was for Labor Day, and sometimes Memorial Day, only), and had come late to the scene due to some errand to the store. My brother’s wife had already started the grill, and as I fingered through the meat patties and hot dogs, I said my sometimes awkward “hello’s” to many I had not seen in decades, and who I hardly recognized. Gray or bald or fat or all of the aforementioned, defined all of us - except for Margie. Seated beneath the shadow of a tree, I had not noticed her until she made a request for a hamburger. “I want mine burnt,” she said, “like a hockey puck.” Sure, I said, looking at her fully for the first time. That’s when the horror hit me.
Of course I had known something of it – how her liver was shot, how she would have to stop drinking for six months before they would even consider finding a donated liver for her, which had seemed a bit harsh to me, considering she was only 53. But I had not known just how gone she was. Sitting in that lawn chair with the same wise-acre smile on her face was a form so emaciated that the flesh hung off the bones like soft leather. Her arms and legs were absolutely skeletal, which was frightening in itself, but it was her belly that really caused alarm. The damaged liver, now desperately trying to do the job it could no longer do, had increased its size to such an extent that she looked six or so months pregnant, so much larger for the skeleton she otherwise was.
That was not the worst of it, though. It was the eyes. Her skin had become dry and yellowish, but her eyes shown out of her darkened, now - cavernous sockets like yellow lights from an airplane in the night sky. These eyes were not just yellow, but golden and shining with a frightening brilliance.
I tried not to stare, nodding at her request and passing off a little joke about it. It did not seem that she even knew how she looked until it came time for the family picture, which she declined. Nobody said a word about her decision, letting it rest in a vacuous pause that was gratefully broken up by calls to group-up. There, Margie sat and watched it all from under the tree, her half-eaten burger in her lap, her eyes glowing like the cover of a Steven King novel.
We adults simply couldn’t say what we were thinking, for it was all so painfully obvious, the whole story. But that didn’t stop the kids. At one point Margie had gone into the house, just before some late-comers arrived with several children. They had naturally gone into the house as well to go to the bathroom while we grown-ups settled into the real party-time of a cookout, when the food was done and more earnest and substantial talk began. The sound had quieted from the boisterous to the conversational when one of the children, a little girl of about 4, emerged with a face beaming with excitement. She might have gone unnoticed if she had not possessed a piercingly high voice that was as loud as her expression. With this tool, this weapon, she proclaimed to us and the whole world the reason for her amazement: “Wow! There’s a zombie at the picnic!”
The façade had been stripped away. My brother may have laughed with his odd sense of humor, but I, as well as everyone else, was aghast. The truth was public now, told without pretense, and there was no hiding it. Margie looked like death itself from excess drinking and was going to die. Soon.
We had been hiding these obvious facts just as Margie had hid her deep, deep problems all her life. Whether she had started to drink and use drugs because of a genetic predisposition or her background or both is a matter for the experts, but certainly she caused her inadequacies from their use, and then hid from these failures in the same way. Years later, after finally getting her life together, the past had come back to haunt her with a vengeance as the son she could never raise killed himself. His problems had apparently become too large to hide any longer, and after his final solution, his mother disappeared once again into her own final solution, one from which she would never return.
She denied it all to the very end. “Doctors always exaggerate,” she told my brother the following week when he visited her in the hospital. “And turn on CNN. I want to see what’s happening in the campaign.” Two hours later, she went into convulsions and died, taken from the bed to an emergency room while the news continued to play.
I’m sorry for everything, Margie. It was the life of others that pushed on yours, and your life that pushed on others, too, but we cannot always control our actions, or know where they will lead. Once the pebble is tossed, the ripples go where they will. It is a hard thing to take, this life thrown back on us, and it’s easy to see how forgetting – or really, denial, because we never forget - might seem like the solution. But there will always be the little girl in the crowd with the big voice. We will always be exposed.
Life is sometimes too much to take. Some do not choose to hide or forget, though, but instead search for signs of the first big voice to see if The Word ripples still; for if it does, surely it will carry us to the end, to rest at last against the shores where all is as it should be. Perhaps she is already there, too, in the all-time, waiting for us to emerge beside her and shake off the waters and laugh at the oddity of it all. Surely she is, for if the world is the Word, in the end there will be nothing to forget, and nothing ever again to regret.
House of Usher
It happened again – the dream, the house. The house can be anywhere – field, woods, city – but it is always an old house that is falling apart, and often, but not always, a farm house with chipping white paint. It is dangerous and unpleasant, and always – always – filled with malevolent spirits. I know why I get it at certain times; as with two nights ago, it is usually the next night after drinking too much, as I did while talking late with my brother. It is reflective of a nervous system readjusting, but it tells something more as well.
When my parents got old, they let the house of my upbringing fall apart. It is made of cinder blocks, and at certain points the blocks developed cracks, which let in the ivy that was creeping along the walls. My mother trained the ivy along the large plate-glass windows to look pretty, but still, the outside was left to come in, often with unwanted critters like rats and black snakes. Finally, my parents were just too old for the place and my brother – the same one I was talking to a few days ago – bought it. The parents moved to my grandmother’s little house, which had been vacant since her death, and my brother moved to the old house and began repairs. First, it was to the leaking roof, where the carpenters began clearing its flat top before covering it with several tarps for work on the next day. That night, four inches of rain fell. The rain pooled in the depressions of the tarp, and with that weight, the roof came crashing down, dumping hundreds of gallons into the house. People screamed, many things were ruined, and the project of the house got that much bigger.
The ruination of the house was a reflection of my parent’s age and creeping senility, whereas my dreams are about the jangle of the body recovering from alcohol. Both, in reality and in image, are reflected in the state of the house.
I know about this because of a special English teacher I had in 11th grade, who had us study the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Edgar had once been a literary critic, and had not always been the odd “Raven” as he is now known. He was also known, however, to drink a lot and perhaps that was how he envisioned his story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” It was my teacher who told us, in fact, that the house WAS a symbol of the self in disrepair. Appropriately, when my parents were letting the house go, I would joke that they were living in the House of Usher. How prophetic that was, and still is with my own internal house. Yes, all clear except one thing: why the evil demons? Why the same house almost every time, and the creepy spirits who lived upstairs in the dangerous disarray of the attic?
I have lived in many old and crumbling farm houses, from the one in Storrs, CT, when I was a student, to the one in my home town owned by an old famer, to the one in northern Wisconsin when I was there with friends logging for a summer. Only in one, that in Storrs, had there apparently been a spirt. She would often wake me in the morning with the sweet voice of a young woman, calling my name so clearly that I always looked around to make sure no one was in the room. The buzz among my housemates was that someone had hung themselves in the attic, but hers was never the voice of despair. In fact, I wish I could have seen her, but she never showed herself in any form and I have never heard from her since that time.
So, from where? Last night’s dream had a very obvious location, and it was NOT in an old farmhouse. Instead, it was in the wreck of a self-made modern house in Eastern Connecticut that we had bought for a song, considering it came with twenty six acres. But God, what a mess! I have written of it before, but here is the synopsis: the man who had designed and built it was a musician who had been carried away with the idea of a solar “envelope” house, where heat from a panel of windows would be directed beneath the house to warm from bottom up. Thing was, the knoll he chose to build on was solid rock, so no “beneath” was ever made, causing the house to be unbearably hot when the sun was out, and to leak heat like crazy at night through the large south-facing panel of windows.
My first fix-up on the house entailed replacing all the water pipes and shower and toilet and so on, because the musician had run out of money and had been forced to rent the house to live himself in the little A-frame outbuilding he had made for an office. Unfortunately, the renters were custodial workers at a hospital who had developed heroin addictions. Their last act in living there had been to tear out anything they could get a buck for. They were arrested, thanks to neighbors who eyed the truck leaving the place with a load of pipes suspiciously, but the house was re-possessed by the bank and sold at a small price just to get rid of it – sold, that is, to me.
My next act had been to replace the windows with insulated roofing, which worked, but there was so much more. The more I worked on the house that we were then living in, the more I understood how poorly it had been designed and built. One of the many things I discovered was that this knoll, being largely treeless and above a swamp, had (probably for centuries) and still was the site at which reptiles came to sun themselves. At certain breaks in the wood walls, snakes would congregate in the sun beneath windows inside the house. The horror. And there was more, so much more, such as finding used needles hidden in holes in the dry wall. There was so much horror, so much to fix, in fact, that it kept me anxious for all of our two and one half years there. I fear, too, that I might have neglected our two, and then four-year-old son as I sprinted through the house fixing one thing and then another. My final fear had been that I was about to lose our one great nest-egg, the horrible house itself.
Fortunately, just when we were forced to move by my wife’s company, the right couple came alone – a builder who knew his stuff but wanted land - and handed us a handsome profit. We were free of the nightmare house and our nest-egg was saved.
But the nightmare has never quite left me. Yes, it was an excess of alcohol that probably brought the dream to the fore last night, but this had not invented it. It lay there and lays there still waiting for the right time to express its – my – worst fears. My fears see their spirit in every crumbling house in which I have lived, but I know that they come from that single, two and one half year episode of house repair.
What, then, of spirits and nightmares, of houses and physical disrepair? While I was living in Venezuela, I read a reporter’s interview with a priest who had gotten a long prison sentence for smuggling cocaine to Spain. When asked of evil spirits – the Caribbean culture is loaded with them – he had scoffed: “Evil spirits? They exist only in a bottle of rum!” It was his cynical truth that people experienced spirits only after they had overly indulged, odd thinking for a Catholic priest.
In a way he was right – it is the jangling after-effect of alcohol that often brings the mind to the presence of evil spirits. But, as I have found, the spirits are always there, and may come in moments of uncertainty or anxiety as well. They appear as our worst nightmare, and are the stuff of the dark side of life – death, disease, loss, all of these and more that spell FEAR.
Evil spirits, then, are fear itself. In my dream last night, I was at that awful house on the knoll, and above was an attic that was crumbling and was filled with evil, vile spirits. I reality, though, this house never had an attic. But there were places for snakes and other creepy evils, and they were housed forever in the attic of my mind.
Are these spirits, then, just mind-images of fear? It might seem so, but what makes the fear in the first place? Why did I fear that house so much? It was the snakes, yes, and the needles, but more than that, I feared the loss of big bucks, of the money we would need to comfortably live. None of these fears, including the snakes, had a natural right to impinge on my well-being, but I let them; I let them haunt me far more than I should ever let such passing insecurities haunt. Whose fault is that but my own? But since I cannot control my dreams, who or what is behind this great, overblown fault? Psychology, some will say; the unconscious, others will dutifully note; but isn’t it really the fault of my obsession with my own well-being? Isn’t it really the fault of my short-sightedness, of my inversion of values that bring about my own psychological misery of fear and failure and worse? And since I obviously don’t want these fears, who, again is responsible for this affliction?
It is not the occasional over-indulgence in alcohol – that, really, is only a catalyst. Rather, it is the spirit of the self that allows itself to be consumed with worldly worries, with money and snakes and needles and other environmental factors that are not really a danger, but only magnifications of our own fears of safety. To allow that fear to manifest is, to me, a lack of faith. But again, I do not want this fear; I have not asked for it. From where does this lack of faith come?
In the East, the theory of karmic attachment tells us that we make our own hell - our worries and nightmares – from attachment to this world that is so much like a nightmare, if we let it be. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this attachment is called original sin. Original sin, like attachment, comes from our own misconstrued will. In the East, this going astray, this original sin, is given no precise location and time, but to the west, we are given the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden – and the mishap with the snake, Satan. While in the Garden of immortality, he could do no harm; but once humans were expelled, he could do all the harm in the world. Ultimately, it was humanity’s plunge into mortality that gave us anxiety, and it was the snake that allowed us to open this gate. The snake, then, was responsible – coupled with our will to believe him. The snake was Satan, the ultimate demon among minions of demons, who are nothing more or less than our evil spirits.
It is asking too much in our era to have people believe that our fears come from real demons, but we should ask ourselves: in a world of all possibilities, why these gnawing fears that only harm? In this house of fear, this house that is the picture of our state of being, what are these fears telling us? That here, there is no comfort, no power over the evil? That here, in this dark valley of disease and death, there is no place to go, no place to hide?
No place to go, no place to hide, yes; living in the House of Usher, we can only await the inevitable fall. On a sunny day, it is clear that this cannot be so, but in the darkness that we must all confront, there is the terror. It is a lie, for the night never lasts forever, but we get lost in the darkness of the house, and the house becomes us, and we fall mad with fear, grasping at straws, desperate and alone, alone except for our demons. Or so they tell us. Or so they lie.
You could feel the sizzle, the crack of electric-white nerve synapsis as they brought the mind to places unimaginable and unspeakable. The world of classrooms and parents and politics and careers took on laughable proportions, paraded out like cheap cartoons that had nothing to do with a reality that burned with the unbearable heat of meaning, each living moment a shocking revelation of being, of NOW. Our books of poetry, of religion, of art came alive with a depth that gave them the authenticity that our teachers could never teach, nor could ever really understand, and nature spoke as it always had but we had never heard before. We were now the illuminati; we possessed the key.
At the age of fifteen, we had bought segments of that key for three, four, or five dollars from weasel-eyed dealers who slunk in the shadows to make a few bucks from stupid kids with no common sense, but that didn’t matter. In the hyperspace of illicit LSD, the pushers were no more mysterious than the rest of the cartoon world. Self-centered and unaware, they and all the others of the old world just didn’t get it. The revolution was here and it was not armed with guns or angry mobs but with us, smooth-faced child-rebels who were slicing like ice-breakers through the dense ice of the fallen world. Our weapon was gnosis, and this weapon, this unknowable known, had made us invincible and inevitable.
So we had thought in the old, pealing dorm rooms perched above the Doric columns and brick walls covered with ivy at the prep school, and in the fields and woods and low mountains of southern New England that surrounded it. In the heights, in the rush of that four-dollar hit, anything had seemed possible. With the arrival of spring, when the sun was bringing new heat and comfort after a frozen winter, almost anything had seemed doable. But even for us, what Chris did that one week in May was shocking in its breathtaking stupidity. With the hindsight of many decades it now appears to have been par for the course, but that is beside the point. Because Chris had been the most bold, from that time on, he would be known as the moron with the can of chicken.
I recall it had begun in mid- winter of that year, when one of us “townies” – locals who did not board at the school – had discovered from our friends a dealer who oozed around the local public high school selling an assortment of black-market drugs. This guy, who we nicknamed “Pablo” for his alienating slickness, was one of the bad ones who offered everything from black beauties (speed) to heroin for anyone with the cash, but our gang of self-described intellectuals wanted only the pearls of not-so-great price, the hallucinogens that “Look Magazine” said would drive you mad, but that the rock stars and hipster gurus – the ones who really spoke to us - said would bring instant enlightenment. Surprisingly, the latter had been the more accurate of the two, which we discovered one cold day on a long walk through the local hills as our minds crackled and popped with revelation. From that time on, things began to open up like oysters, which bore truths about ultimate being as well as those of our social structure. Our minds had not only been expanded, but our adolescent sense of rebellion had been given voice. We were no longer rebels without a cause. Still, most of our gang – myself included – continued to study for exams and worry about the next regional conference JV meet, living in two minds and two worlds. A few others did not: Roy, who had discovered morphine in his hometown in Pennsylvania and now only wanted to get high, and Chris, who could never do anything in half-measure.
Chris was a boarder, a full-time preppy whose father was paying thousands of dollars a year to bring him into the upper echelons of the Ivy Leaguers, those best and brightest who ran everything and had a leg-up in anything, from banking to the Foreign Service. The cost to townies was less, but our parents were paying for the same thing on the cheap. It was a lesson that was lost on all of us, as it would certainly not square with our philosopher-king status, except for Chris. He would have none of it, now that he knew the shallowness of social prestige and wealth compared to the wisdom of Zoroaster and Siddhartha, and he began to actualize his rebellion by skipping classes; then by staying out past curfew; and then by simply staying out of the ivied campus altogether. He had little money, however, and was several years from majority, a ward of the school in every way. Where he would live would be a problem. Who in their right mind would take in a fifteen- year-old fugitive?
My parent’s place was the only logical choice, if there was any logic to Chris’s thinking. We lived in a large, disordered house managed loosely by a woman, my mother, whose heroes included every social misfit that ever put pen to page or brush to canvass. Her youthful dream had been to freelance in New York City, to live in Greenwich Village with the free-thinkers and travel the globe with exciting assignments from the New York Times, but her father, who she loved dearly, would have none of it. Years later would find her hunched over her paints or curled up by the stereo with the classics while we kids happily did almost anything we wanted to do. The house was perched on a hill in Old Yankee farming country, where most of the farms had been left to fallow, and the surrounding hills had returned to their near- virgin glory for mile upon mile. This, thought Chris, could be his new wilderness.
And why not? We had learned that our time-weary world had it all wrong; that we were sleeping cosmic beings who, once reawakened, could live in the aura of vibrant Godhead by a mere chance of thought, plucking our needs from the one true energy that ran through everything and united everything. That the rest of us were not willing to go that extra mile only showed our lack of faith.
Chris had plenty of faith, but we soon found that even my artsy mother did not, which the rest of us had expected. “What is Chris doing here when he should be at school? We can’t take him in. He’s a minor! He has to go back before tonight.” Yes, we nodded wisely towards Chris, we told you so! Think what you want, but that other world isn’t going away anytime soon. Stop being a fool! Drop out, go back home, but you can’t live here or any other place free of adult rules. Accept reality. Which was funny coming from us, we of the cosmic brotherhood, but we understood our limits. It’s one thing to THINK something, and quite another to LIVE it.
Still, Chris would have none of it. “I’ll live in the mountains.”
“You’ll freeze to death.”
“Lend me some blankets.”
“You’ll get wet.”
“Give me that tarp, then.”
“Fine. But what ya gonna do about food?”
“I’ll hunt. I’ll make a spear.”
“Oh, that’ll work, city boy.”
I can’t quite recall the exact moment, but I can still picture the scene: we were standing in the kitchen area next to the big island table that was covered with orange Formica, me and Dave and Chris and a few others, and it appeared that we had stopped this fool in his tracks. Food, yes; that was important. Spearing rabbits and deer did seem a bit difficult. But just when it seemed we had talked some sense into him he swung around from us and opened the pantry. Digging around a bit, he finally emerged triumphantly holding a large can. I recognized it immediately. It had been something that we had convinced my mother to avoid cooking for many months: a full, uncut canned chicken. Just imagining a chicken released from months stuffed in a tight can had been enough to drain the family’s appetite, and it is amazing that anyone had bought it in the first place. In fact, I don’t recall that anyone had ever owned up to buying it, although it had to have been the work of Mom or Dad. And so we laughed.
“What? You gonna live off a canned chicken for how long?”
“It’s big,” Chris said defiantly.
“Maybe three days’ worth, and if you got anything left, it’ll rot.”
Chris twitched uneasily. “I can make it last. Smoke it or something.”
“Yeah, you’ve been smokin’ something all right. Forget about it. You’re cornered.”
He did not forget about it, at least not right away. When the boarding students left for their dorms before dark, we two townies, Dave and I, helped Chris tie up the tarp and the sleeping bag and then led him into the woods, can of chicken under his arm. We might have helped him build a fire, although I can’t recall, but I do know that we left him as darkness approached and the temperature dropped. Back home, my mother had become unusually stern: “The school is calling, his father’s calling – you’d better bring him back right now!” With a mandate and a flashlight, we lit out for the territories and discovered Chris shivering under the tarp. He accepted our guidance back out, leaving behind the tarp, but taking the chicken. He had not wanted to, but we made him. Live by the chicken, we said, and die by the chicken.
By next morning Chris’s father and mother had come to take him away, no doubt in disgrace, although we didn’t put ourselves anywhere close to the scandal – not that it mattered. That we were associated with something so strange left us branded at the prep school like a wanton woman, which would follow us until graduation day. Within months after that final release, we would find that Chris somehow had gotten into the same university as us, with more bizarre and exciting adventures to be had. But we never let him forget about the chicken, and to this day, Dave and I still laugh over it.
As we should. Chris was so out of his depth that is was hilarious in a pathetic way. This is not to say that I have proven to be the hard-headed realist over the decades. Recently, in fact, I have lived and learned to contradict pragmatic thought at every turn, surprisingly because of an increasingly conservative bent. Not the political kind, though; rather, I have begun to study the Gospels once more.
“Give up everything to follow me;” “Worry not about your daily bread. The birds of the field neither reap nor sow, and yet how much more the Father loves you;” “If two or more of you pray for something, so it will be given; ” “If a man asks for your coat, give him your tunic as well.” There are many other phrases with similar meaning if I could remember, many other words from the man who gave the Western World its values, words that tell us that God will provide if we have faith; words that tell us to give up everything for our beliefs and leave it all to God; words that tell us that this is a divinely conscious universe, where all and everything can be provided. Just as there was mana from heaven for Moses and the Tribes of Israel, so there could be sustenance for us all. If we have faith. If we believe.
So who was the fool so many years ago? Was it the school, which pointed us towards riches and status? Was it us, who laughed at Chris for his outlandish faith? No: certainly, it was Chris, for somehow he had gotten it wrong and would have died within a few weeks in the woods, found lying by a can of chicken licked clean. But why? What part of “faith” did he, did we get wrong? With all our cosmic knowledge, what did we not understand?
If I had all the answers, I would not write, for writing to me is a way to look for solutions, but I think I know a part of the answer: time. To get it right, we need wisdom, and to gain wisdom we need time. Moses struggled with his people for forty years, and Jesus, as the very son of God, still needed forty days of fasting in the desert to shake wisdom out from knowledge. And while God provided mana and water for Israel, and loaves and fishes for Jesus, for the rest of us, wisdom means learning how to get by while living with knowledge. It is the way of the world, the narrowest of paths, the razor’s edge of human existence. Time, then, gives us our greatest challenge but also our greatest gift, for time provides the crucible, if we are willing, necessary to purify the gold – to distil wisdom from knowledge.
In that, who knows what is possible? I think that we did when we were fifteen and burned with the fires of pure being, but we did not yet know how to apply the flames. As we pass into aching older age – those of us who remain - I can only pray that our time is not spent worrying about pain and death, but rather in finding time’s greatest reward. A can of chicken does not appear to be a sufficient crucible, but with time, perhaps we will see that it was.
A Cross of Gold
A few years ago I was driving up to our cabin in the Michigan Upper Peninsula (UP) with a friend of mine. We were almost there, far into the back woods, when we pulled up at the last store for the next thirty five miles. It was small, and I knew from experience that all it had was old white bread and big name commercial beer, but we needed fishing licenses – and Kevin had to pee. Because it was nearing dusk and pretty woodsy, Kevin began to walk over to a small field besides the store to go, but I thought otherwise and called him back. Good thing and just in time, because just as he turned back, a scraggly old man came rushing out of the store in a “I got a gun and will use it!” furor, looking quickly over to where Kevin was now standing harmlessly near the car. To stop any questions, I immediately asked if he sold fishing licenses.
“No,” he grumbled, as if he had one of the world’s worst hangovers.
“Oh, Jeez,” I replied innocently, “I thought you would, being out in the woods and all and it being summer.”
“Nah,” he snarled. “The damn machine costs too much. Anyway, I don’t like summer. Too many damn bugs.”
As it happened, the road construction at the time was driving the man out of business. A month or so later when I visited again, the place was for sale. I suppose I could excuse his grumpiness.
He had it right on bugs in the UP, though. They are simply awful, going from bad to really bad depending on the weather of the last few weeks. When it’s cooler, you get the black flies, or no-see-ums, called so not only because they are very small, but because their itch doesn’t hit you until after they are gone. They are so small, in fact, that regular window screens will not keep them out. In such weather, I always wake up with itching welts on the back of my hands and feet and face, those spots that are exposed during sleep and have soft skin.
When it’s really hot, you get the sand flies that go for the legs and are not affected by bug spray in the slightest. Their bite hurts almost as much as a bee sting, and you may get dozens of them in a casual stroll – which usually ends in a desperate run back to the cabin or car.
When it’s rained recently, you get the mosquitoes, which you always get, but after recent rains, you really get them, so thick you breathe them in. DEET works against them, but with such numbers, they find any place without it - your eyes and ears and what-not – so much so that you can’t stand it. On such days, I keep a pee-bucket in the cabin, so when I have to go I won’t let mosquitoes in.
I could go on a bit more, but the reader gets the idea. The bugs in the summer are very, very bad.
And so it was with great delight – even shock and intense gratitude – when my wife and son gave me a combined birthday and Father’s Day gift of a fat-tire bicycle. Not only was it the most expensive gift I have gotten in quite a while – this one worth about $240 on sale – but it was exactly what I needed for the cabin. Located as it is among hundreds of thousands of acres of state and national forest, there are hundreds of miles of logging trails available. Because of the sandy soil there, however, they are not even manageable by your average trail bike. The sand requires those fat, fat tires, and now I had them. Now I could explore much more territory because of the greater speed of a bike over my feet. And now, thanks to the breeze set up by that greater speed, I could travel around without getting bit by the bugs. Try as they might, they couldn’t catch up or hang on. Sweet victory!
The logging roads, however, are so many in number and cover so much territory, territory that looks virtually the same almost everywhere, that it is easy to get lost. As a matter of record, you – or at least I – will most certainly get lost, especially if the clouds are covering the sun. The first time out on the bike I did exactly that – got lost - becoming more convinced with every additional unknown mile that I would have to spend the night with the bugs and no cover, a truly horrible thought. Eventually, I hit the one paved road in the area, and I instantly knew where I was. Relief. But from then on, I knew that I should never go out for a long ride without my compass.
The next time I did not forget, taking my favorite compass from the coat rack and hanging it around my neck. With this item I was suddenly free, and felt it, for if you know your direction but are lost, you can simply head one way consistently to find some kind of real road. It may take an hour or more, but you’ll then be somewhere that goes somewhere and be able to get back to where you want to be. Yes, it looks a little ridiculous in print, but it works. It is like those explorers of old once they invented the chronometer; however far they might have been away from home, they knew how to get back. That is the definition of not being lost.
And so, paradoxically, I promptly and happily got ‘lost,’ taking trails that had only been the beginning of mysteries previously. It was woods, woods and more woods for sure, but there was also the occasional pond or surprised animal or special glade of trees or steep hill that added to the sense of discovery. On and on I went, occasionally looking at my compass to keep an approximate idea of where I was going, secure and happy in my lost-ness. Until I noticed that, at one sharp turn, the compass marked no change in direction. Uh-oh.
Compasses don’t break. There are no circuits to burn out or mercury to leek, no springs to rust or snap. Only some form of electrical charge or magnetic barrier can make them malfunction. There were no electrical lines anywhere, and I briefly thought of that book I had read about the cross-country skiers who had gotten lost in the Arrowhead, the iron ore-rich region of Minnesota because of the iron in the ground. Of course, that’s what it had to be – iron. It only took a second to remember where that iron was: around my neck, right next to the compass. It was an iron cross, and the irony hit me immediately – the cross that is meant to help find one’s way had led me astray. Thanks to the cross, I thought I had been found, but now was lost.
The cross. Besides the necessary compass, I don’t like things around my neck because they make me feel confined. This cross, however, had a history. A year or so before, my church had held a revival of sorts, a marathon of patience held over three long days that was meant to inculcate renewed faith. My wife had eagerly signed up, as she doesn’t mind sitting around for hours on end, but I had at first balked because I do. But then something happened: I felt compelled in a way that was very unusual. While every part of my normal self yelled “run away!,” something else quietly but insistently said “do it.” I could not refuse, and a month later there I was, spending twelve hours at a clip being revived. It must have been what a calling is like, as even the prophets of the Bible often speak of being compelled to act on their faith’s behalf even though they dreaded it. So it was with me (without the torture and death part), and so I finally emerged from the event somehow grateful that I had gone. It was during the last hour of the travail that we were presented with the iron cross as a mark of honor, something akin to a graduation diploma - or to me, completion of Marine boot camp.
Since then I have often worn the cross, even though it makes my chest break out where it chaffs. I wear it to religious meetings but also when I feel a need for additional spiritual strength, a need I had felt on that trip to the cabin. I thought that in the solitude of the woods, the more intangible chafing within my mind – within my soul - might find solace behind the cross. In the deep woods, though, its failure, its lack of power, had been made evident in a comedic farce. There I discovered that I was lost, thanks to the cross.
Nothing is meaningless, wrote Dr. Freud, and I believe he was right, although from a spiritual perspective. It did not take much thought before I realized that on the trail that day, it had not been the cross that had led me astray, but rather what it had been made of. Had it been of gold, it would have given no problems. From there, the analogies lept. These days we believe that gold is valued because it is pretty, because it is easy to work, doesn’t tarnish, and is scarce. Besides that, it has simply been accepted as valuable by the rest of the world. But the rest of the world has always valued gold beyond what one might think, and the reason for this is often found in the deepest core of cultural mythology. Gold not only does not tarnish, but it never degrades and can be separated and made whole from anything with which it has been mixed. The alchemists of old understood it to be the physical representative, or sign, of the eternal. They did not try to transform led into gold to become rich, but to find the essence of the universe, that which can never rust and can never be adulterated – that which lasts forever in pure form. They were attempting to find pure soul, or the God in man, from the most precious physical reflection of God’s being - gold.
We have long forgotten this and are led astray by things that tarnish, that die, that end in dust. What was that ‘calling’ to the revival, that something that spoke to me beyond me? It appeared in me, that being who will become dust, but it was not from me; it was not “me” itself, but something beyond.
And what was that cross to me? It was on my neck, but it would disappear in time along with me. Its ‘gold’ was beyond the physical symbol, beyond what I could grasp or hang from my neck. As a talisman by itself, it was nothing but iron. But in it, if I saw beyond the iron, was a reminder of the golden word, of the eternal, the secret script of the philosophers’ stone of old. There was no magic in the iron cross, but in the eternal gold that lay behind it, placed there for seekers of the truth to mine.
It, life, is all like this. The miners of the Alaskan God Rush suffered misery and death to find the gold that would make them rich. All, winners and losers, are dead now. But their struggles and desires are symbolic themselves, reflections of a greater reality, of our individual struggle to smelt gold from the iron of the earth – or from the iron in our hearts. To pursue only the form, the external shadow, is to lose oneself in the woods.
After my laughter, I put the cross in my pocket and eventually found my way back to the road. The speed of the bike kept away most of the bugs, but still I was bitten and so remain. The sores of life continue to itch, and I continue to scratch and scratch, as if I am digging for gold in my own flesh – which I am. It is all like this, this life; a shadow, an illusion that we believe to be true but which only swings crazily like an errant compass until it is placed upon gold, a gold that is rested only with relentless effort from the depths of a rusting earth.
It must be good to be a turtle, to always have a full house around you, ready to take you in for a nap or nighttime or foul weather. True, it keeps you slow, but what of it? Why rush to somewhere when your home is everywhere?
So it was for us on our first long, many-day trip from the open green fields of Wisconsin to the narrow hills and forests of Connecticut. We now had a pop-up camper, more spacious than required for just the two of us, and we were in no rush. Like the turtle, anywhere we happened to stop would be home, and our trip would be utterly changed by that. Tired in Toledo? Why, there’s a campsite just over yonder by Lake Eerie! Peeved in Pennsylvania? Why, looky-there, a great place for camping in the Allegheny Mountains! We would stop only at places we liked, even if out of the way, for what matter another day on the road? $30 more for an electrified spot would be all, and we could sit by a fire and drink beer until the cows came home, or the mosquitos drove us back into our shell. With the dog in tow, we hiked, swam, and felt as free as we had ever felt on the road, even if so encumbered, for freedom is, more than anything else, a need to do or be someplace else. And in that, we were free.
But like the Allegheny’s in early morning, there is always a mist, a cloud that is riding upon the mind, reminding us that only the turtle can truly be free. As humans, we always have obligations or expectations or some such to grab us by the nostrils, and so had we, our obligation centered around the most irrefutable obligation of them all – death; irrefutable when it calls, and irrefutable when we are called to pay it heed. In our case, it was a collision of deaths, a coincidence of having two final bows in one weekend. One was for my mother, who had died a year earlier at a ripe old age, and the other for my high-school friend, who had died two months earlier at an age that was still too young.
After our round-about tour of the northeast, including a visit to Niagara Falls (which was great, surprisingly), we trundled onto my brother’s three acre field and pitched camp, two days before the first event. Our camper gave us all emotional elbow room, and the entire stay, all five days of it, was annoyance-free, not so easy as it might sound to the young and idealistic. Perhaps, though, I give our camper too much credit, for there still was that cloud, or set of clouds, to confront, which lent perspective to our own problems. First came the scattering of my mother’s ashes.
My mother had been the consummate artist – that is, someone for whom art is at the center of creation, or really, is creation itself, for to her, the greatest of all artists was God itself. To hear her talk, to have her make you aware of the nuances of shade and light and color in a cloud, made her claim irrefutable. It was her divine duty to copy the works of God in painting and poetry and story, and that she did all her life. What kind of send-off could you give to such a person?
She had grown up by the shore of Long Island Sound, and had loved the ocean above all else, so of course she would go into the sea. Since it was somehow illegal to do so, it would have to go into a section of the Sound in summer that was not overly crowded. Meg’s Point, off to the side of Hammonasset State Park, would do, we thought. We arrived much later than planned, as is usual for our family, and we – her four kids and their spouses and a cousin and his wife - climbed around and over the barnacle-encrusted rocks that tumbled into a falling tide. At some point it seemed right, and then it suddenly seemed (was it real?) that there was nobody else around but us. We four stepped into the waves that had darkened with sunset into the wine-dark of Homer’s sea, and we opened the urn. And with that came my own private horror.
Out she poured, not just a pinch of dust, no, but pounds of it, enough for my mother in life to mix with water and make a tea cup and saucer and probably a big pot to go with them. So much of her! Although only white gritty powder, it was all- too real, too corporeal. Yes, how lovely, really, the setting sun on the lightly churning waves, and the barnacle- encrusted rocks and the wine-dark sea, but so much! The water whitened and then whitened more – and then stayed white. For half an hour we stood up to our knees, finally kicking at the milky water to make it go out to sea, damn it! Yet she stayed, in part, even as we slowly walked back, noting the radiance of the reddening sun, of the tinted clouds, the silent whoosh of a single seagull that might, we thought, be her. Go! Be free!
So it ended, and we all went to eat at a great pizzeria, the type that only exists in and around Jersey and New York City and coastal Connecticut, the very best, noting that it had all been perfect. And it had. It was only me, as far as I know, left thinking – too much dust! Spirit should be free, absolutely, dustless and free!
We drank a lot of wine that night, but not so much that the following day was ruined for a tribute to my friend Bill. Bill had been a musician with a day job, and had acquired many friends along his musical way, so many that my brother had set up an open-sided tent to hold the dozens who would come to honor Bill’s life. Both my brother and I were nervous about it, though, for we would be meeting people we had not seen since our twenties, when we were young and care-free and often delusional idiots. My brother had even had a few altercations of the violent sort with some disgruntled band members, and they and others who were not always happy with us were to come. For my part, I would be reminded of all my foolishness, of all my carousing and my overall juvenile bravado. To take up the nervous energy, I helped with the set-up of grill and beer and tent and seats and so- on with unusual vigor.
I had promised myself not to drink until after 4:00 PM, but as soon as the first few people arrived around 1:00, I had a cold one in my hand. By my third I was more curious than anxious about who would come next, and it was then that the afternoon leveled out for me, comfortably soothed but not drunk, friendly but not falling. There were so many surprises. First, there were the last of my life-long buddies who had palled around with Bill along with me – Jim and Dave, with whom I had kept in touch, and Randy, the brother of Brad who had died trail biking only two years earlier. He had disappeared from my life in my 20’s, after he and Brad and Brad’s girlfriend (to become his wife) had moved to California, where the brothers had gotten into a fight, where Randy had found Jesus and Amway products, where they had split up and Randy had gotten married, become a cop, gotten divorced – ah, the story, his and so many others as they came to talk and unfurl the years.
So many. There was Harv, the one-time rock star and athlete who was almost unrecognizable, colon cancer and maybe alcohol having taken their toll; Corey, who’s sister had been my first serious crush (a disaster), and who now lived a life astonishing for its entrepreneurial spirit; the band members who had fought with my brother in the heat of alcohol, now peacefully sipping their bottled water; a dozen or more others and all the women, the wives formerly known or the new ones not, each surprising for who they had become or who they had married, with all their warts, as I knew them. All like a geological rift, the pieces of our lives together falling out at different strata like fossil finds, long dead but oddly and strikingly preserved.
There, too, was the widow, gracious in her grief, and all those responsible for the ceremonies, for this was not to be only a gathering. There was great music playing, first on track, then by the musician friends themselves. Then there were the speeches. Alas for poor Bill, this is where the chickens came home to roost. Bill had died a drinker, and in his day, his drinking had been notorious, so much so as to have left even my own tremendous feats of abuse far behind. Drinks were often free for the band, and Bill had always gotten his full payment. Just imagine what fifteen 151 proof rums drinks would do to you. One time, he had taken a wrong turn into someone’s swimming pool – a ‘someone’ who was there at the wake and told the crowd all about it; at another, he had stepped out of the back of a van to take a leak, even though the van had been driving down I-91 at full speed. He had not, incidentally, suffered a scratch, which had shocked his panicked band buddies as they pulled him off the medium. He had done many things memorable for their drunken stupidity, and I cringed as the stories unfolded, thinking of my own legacy and wake someday, and also about the widow, who might be listening to this, well, the wrong way.
To all looks and appearances, though, she did not. Perhaps it was because there was something front and present which had taken, and continued to take, front stage, far above anything else. It was Bill’s head.
There is something about perspective that messes with the mind. When, for instance, the likeness of a head is life-size, it’s OK; and when it’s way-big, it’s OK, too. But when it’s just so much larger, it has an eerie affect, as if the world has turned slightly nightmarish and we wish only to wake up. That was Bill’s head. His cousin, the artist, had payed Bill homage by carving a larger-than-life but almost life-sized head of the Bill we had known before he got really scraggly with age. Bill had been a drummer’s drummer, so perfect for the role that he could have been cast in a commercial. In fact, Bill had provided inspiration for the Henson Muppet “Animal,” the wildly red-headed, wildly bearded drummer seen on Sesame Street and at theaters near you. That was Bill. And there his head sat in a work of wood that looked a size and a half too big and three times too heavy to be Bill. It was too life-like as well, for she had put his Beatnik touring cap and his too-cool-for-school shades on, riveting one’s looks to the “outsizeness” of it all, as if Bill had not died but was now only very ill from elephantiasis of the brain, his head preserved like that of a billionaire’s in a cryogenic lab awaiting the day he (it?) could return to his fortune. It took one’s breath away. Worse, it was rumored that his ashes were housed within. It was Dave who whispered to me from our seats as we listened to another tale of drunkenness, “God, that thing’s hideous!” I could only laugh and take another pull at my glass, for how could it be denied?
It ended early, as it never would have back in the day, and as the last of the guests wandered to their cars with half-full bottles of water, the widow came to me among the ruins of folded chairs and tables. “I’m glad that you came,” she said, dropping her smile as she spoke before fastening her arms around me and sobbing. “How couldn’t I,” I said as she cried on and on and on. The head, still set on its little table, never looked so small.
We turtled on back to Wisconsin with a single night’s stay in Pennsylvania – or was it Indiana? – where we lost and then found ourselves again on a morning hike before the last push through Chicago to home, where all the chores and duties awaited like the demons of a rough hangover. But as if a clinging fog, the events of death remained, leaving my thoughts swaddled in a gray haze. What, really, was so disturbing about the ashes and that outsized head? Wasn’t it their thing-ness, their being in place where there should have been nothing? Wasn’t it that the spirit in death was to be left free of all things of life? For even our foolishness, our mistakes, were made in the muddle of thing-ness, which had confused and distorted the spirit until our mortal selves no more resembled it than the ashes or monuments left behind. Even the memories, whatever they might be, were unworthy. In death, there is no wink and nod, no chummy inside jokes, no familiarity whatsoever. It is spirit, born from life but bearing so little of life as we understand it that nothing we have learned here can compare with what will remain, what always is. Thus the hush, the goose-bumps, the absolute stillness as that cloud, that whatever it is, passes by.
The shell of our caravan squats in our back yard awaiting another adventure, which it soon will have. It is meant for freedom, but that is just a notion. It is a shell none-the-less, and it, too, cannot make us free, except as it brings hope of flight, of escape. We have many shells, some lighter than others, and as each is discarded or taken, we become less sure, until we face that final shedding where we are left alone, far from all we have known or done. Nothing else can speak to what remains. It is terrifying, this truth, yet so right, better than anything we could ever make or say to capture or preserve what we thought we had but understood less and less with every effort.
Between gasps, I think I may have laughed. I had known “Laura” since graduate school, and although we ceased to be an item decades ago, we have still managed to not only remain friends, but to have shared some remarkable experiences together: hiking through the mountains of Mexico, rambling on the infamous “Road of Death” in Bolivia, and living several years with Indians in Venezuela. All those adventures ended some time ago, and since, our phone conversations have been on small matters or politics or the latest speculations in anthropology. But not this call. This time, she spoke of the greatest adventure that either of us had ever had, and one that neither of us would ever want.
Her voice came over in bursts, forced out between gasps of breath, as if she were still there. After the preliminary expose, this was her story:
It was spring, and for the last year she had been teaching in a small college in the foothills of the Catskills. The snows had recently melted, leaving the land so saturated that recent rains had caused flooding problems in the valleys where most lived. After her last class, she had stepped out into the parking lot that once again glistened with rain, and I suppose she had tightened her coat, given a sigh, and slid onto the dry seat of her nearly-new car. She had gotten her license only a few years before and appreciated the comfort – at last! – of her little car that could take her anywhere she desired, without need of tickets or change. Freedom! With the door closed and the windows up, she was as dry as she had been in class, but now she could pop in a CD and relax. It was only an eight- mile drive home, but on the roads that curved through the mountains, that could take half an hour. The music, and the misty mountains outside her windows, would accompany her on her magic carpet of steel and plastic. Life must have felt pretty good.
When she came to the sign at the curve in the road, her mood must have changed to one of annoyance. It said “no thru traffic,” and that would mean a much longer drive around the mountains. Reacting with lawyerly logic, she reasoned that she was not one of those defined by “thru” traffic, because she lived only a few miles past the sign. Satisfied that she was complying with the letter of the law, she drove on, blind to what might lay ahead by the mountain side that required the curve. Then, in an instant, she saw the muddy stream running across the road. Before she could think, her front tires entered that muddy stream. With the water deepening, she finally regained enough reason to put the car in reverse, but with a shock that must have been horror, she found that it was too late: the car was already being carried away by the muddy stream.
And the stream had a place to go – within seconds she was cascading down the side opposite the mountain, flowing quickly with the stream into a river that normally was barely visible from the road. Now, however, it was very visible, haven swollen its banks and captured acres of forest in the tight valley. She panicked; she could not swim, and the car was moving too quickly! In a few moments, she saw, as in a dream, the cold river water rise before; in another instant, she felt the car lose any contact with land. In a horrible moment after that, she saw that she was in the current of the flooded river, and was being dragged downstream.
As water poured through the door and undercarriage, she felt the front end, with its heavy engine, tilt towards the bottom and then drag the entire car with it, until she was entirely below the surface. As the front quickly filled with opaque water, she struggled past the headrests towards the back, which remained tilted upward, buoyed by the remaining air. She thought to tap the window button so that she could escape, but being electric, something had happened in the water and it no longer worked. The water in the back rose to her chest. With her head now pressed again the year window where the last of the air remained, she suddenly realized that she was going to die. As she said,
“A strange kind of peace filled me. So this is death? It’s so easy! I began to relax, waiting for the last of the air to leave, when another thought came – no! I would not die! I pushed myself into the water and tried the rear door button (perhaps the other? She did not say) and this time it worked! The water came in faster and the opening was very small, but I somehow managed to squeeze out, and then managed to float to the top. Suddenly I was above water and alive!”
She could not swim, however, and this was an icy, fast moving river, but luck was with her. Apparently, the car had not been washed along the bottom current because it had been caught on the branches of a tree, one that must have grown very close to the normal river bank. She grabbed for the branches, and they held, even though he tree was dead. She then climbed several feet above the flood and clung to the branches like some kind of baboon, shivering in the wet and cold, helpless in the flood.
It must have been at this time that I had laughed, for the worst of the drama was over, and the picture of her dripping form marooned on a lifeless tree against the tide was somehow hilarious. I don’t know if she appreciated the humor, because she continued with her story almost without pause.
“Pretty soon I saw someone standing on the bank of the river, and he must have called the police, because not too long after that a fire truck arrived. They couldn’t get me out with a rope and I wouldn’t anyway because I can’t swim, so they extended a long ladder out to the tree. I couldn’t move, so a man climbed out to me and held me as they retracted the ladder. They gave me a blanket and let me sit in a warm car. I was shivering and numb all over.”
Maybe it is because of this, that she was beyond thinking, that no memory of how she got home comes to mind, but she did tell me that they pulled her car our within a day or two of the flood. Of course it was totaled, which required some correspondence with the insurance company. But that was not all: not much longer after that, she was to have some more correspondences with the police, the fire department, and finally, the department of justice.
These other stories came to me over the phone during the next several weeks. First, the police department issued a citation for disregarding a road sign. This amounted to only a small sum, but because of this, she was to be held responsible for the expenses of the fire department, which went into the many hundreds of dollars. Because of this, she had to contest the citation, and with this came her court date. When that day came, her story so raised the sympathy of the judge that she was moved to scold both the police department and fire department for putting her through this extra trauma. Laura was off scot free, but still the issue of insurance hovered over her. The company would pay the value of the car at the time, she was told her, but that would not be enough to replace the car with anything close to what it had been. The incident, one might say, was at best a financial wash. Her new car would not be new and would not hold the sweet new -car smell of the last, but at least she was alive to drive again and was well.
Well from a physical standpoint, that is. After the initial shock wore off, she discovered while going to the soda machine in the basement of her school that the confined quarters caused her to panic. “I got really dizzy and had to hold on to the machine to keep from falling. I couldn’t breathe. I could barely pull myself up the stairs to run outside for air!” These panic attacks would re-occur for many more months, until, as far as I know, they receded into a dark and hidden pool in her memory. But there are a few things that stand out in my memory of her adventure to this day.
One: it was not only her own mind that gave her the energy to try to escape from the car one more time. It was also the voice of her deceased grandmother, the one who had been her primary caretaker in her childhood. Of this I am not absolutely sure, because she has talked with the spirit of her grandmother quite a bit over the years. For instance, during our several- month stay with an Indian tribe in Venezuela, she told me one morning about a dream she had had the night before. Lying in my hammock beneath the mosquito netting, I listened as she explained how she heard the voice of her grandmother calling her from another room in the house in which she had grown up. Nearing the room, she saw that there was a gauzy curtain before her, thin but one which she could not pass or quite see through. “You can’t come through here anymore,” her grandmother told her, a phrase which Laura understood immediately, for with surprising bluntness, she finished her story by saying “My grandmother has died.” Two months later, when we were able to communicate with the world again, she found that her grandmother had indeed died right around that time. As far as Laura was concerned, however, she had never left, but remained only partially hidden beyond the veil. It was her voice, as best as I can recall, that really saved her.
Another part of the story that was remarkable was the sense of peace that came over her once she realized that she was going to die. This brings to mind a story of a French explorer in the early 20th century who had been taken from his hut by a lion. The lion had not killed him outright – obviously – but had instead fastened him in his jaws, to dispense with him after leaving the settlement. The explorer had said something like, “oddly, I did not have a sense of fear or panic at all. It was as though I were in a dream, or in a waking stupor. It was not until the natives noticed and chased away the lion that the fear came to me.”
Both these may be labeled as “those strange things that happen at the portal of death,” but it had never occurred to me that dying might be connected to Laura’s vision of her grandmother until I retold her story just a few days ago, for reasons I cannot now recall. Death by drowning in a submerged car, as well as by being hauled out for slaughter in the mouth of a lion, must rank right up there with some of the most frightening ways to die, and yet, with both, immanent death was met with peace rather than panic. Could it, might it be that death is closer to life than we have ever imagined? Could it be that we are separated from it only by thin gauze, such that it truly is a simple passage, one that is imagined in horror, but in actuality, is only a change, a short hop to another shore? Might this gauze separate life and death just as dreams set us off from waking life? Might we compare the two, where our perceived “real” lives are the dream, and our deaths the waking life? For, in ordinary time, our panic comes in dreams, and our peace in the light of day – just as in life, where panic comes from living while peace comes in death.
We might conclude that if death is only a step to the other side of the gauze, then only the imagined horrors of the transition would cause alarm. With the transition imminent, it might well be that our consciousness understands what another part of us has always known: that death is only a one stage in the slow and eternal movement of being, no different from life than night is to day or wet to dry. Each comes in its turn. Each is a surprise to the other, but neither, in the end, is a horror in itself. Only before transition does the terror come. In analogy, once the race begins, the nervousness goes, and we are left, once again, only to the running.
Oh, so nice and neat, and perhaps true. But still I am left to wonder: why did the voice, whether Laura’s own or her grandmother’s, call her back to life? If life and death are only the flip sides to a simple repetitive transition, why must we have all the fuss and drama? Might it be just as well if we all lay about, living and dying with little cause for concern, with few worries about today and none for tomorrow? But that is not the case. Whatever we think we know, when the car sinks or the lion comes, we will fear, and we will fight until we can’t fight any more. Perhaps this in only a trick of God, for life could not continue if it did not care about living. On the other hand, perhaps it is trick of Satan, to have us fear and grasp and fight in a world that was meant for eternal peace. Either way, it seems our crux sits not on one side or the other, in life or death, but in the transition. It is there where the true meaning resides, which can only be told through the startled eyes of the dying or the wandering eyes of the just-born. Herein lies the problem, though: neither can talk. And so we are left to wonder.
Perhaps it is this wonder, this awe and mystery, which is our greatest gift, for if we could speak of it, what would we say? Instead, we are left speechless as the flimsy veil fades, revealing to us in the depth of sacred silence the fulcrum of both our horror and of our peace.
Werewolves of California (Excerpted from Dream Weaver, Chapter 14)
When I hit the road a few days later, leaving my aunt in a little heaven of her own, I repeated the chant over and over again to help get the right ride. Nam myoho renge kyo, Nam myoho renge kyo. It did seem to work, albeit imperfectly. It was not for me to demand any better.
Coincidentally, it was during this stretch that I saw the vision that made me aware of the Western spirit and how it struggled with the progression of civilization from the east.
It happened somewhere up in the Salinas area by an ugly stretch of road that ran through some weedy farmland. I know it was near Salinas, or at least near a highway turnoff going to Salinas, because I remember seeing the sign and thinking, “hey, this is John Steinbeck country!” The sign would come into sight just as the last hint of evening was disappearing from a ridge of desolate mountains to the east, whose crests were outlined by a fading ribbon of pinkish purple. Soon it would be night. As the traffic was nonexistent, I began the now-familiar search for a safe hiding place to sleep. The trouble was, Billy wasn’t yet ready to throw in the towel.
Billy was a card in the odd hand that the West continued to deal me. Although I was not aware of it at the time, things of and about American Indians had decided to appear in my life for a purpose that can only be guessed (were they not the only Americans with “place”?). It had begun in Arizona and was still happening through Billy, who was part Indian. This had surprised me at the time, because he was from Washington and I had never paired Washington State with a large population of Indians before. Billy also surprised me by not being anything like an Indian should be.
Billy had come into my perimeter that morning at an exit when his ride veered west toward the coastal highway. I was still brushing the cobwebs from my mind after a restless night in a roadside bush and did not welcome his presence. I was not up for conversation, and people often wouldn’t stop for two. One way or another, he was going to make my morning longer.
He was a short guy with straight black hair and a hint of earth brown to his skin that told of Indian fore-bearers. The hair, however, was strikingly short for the decade, let alone for an Indian, and he moved in quick, restless jerks instead of the smooth, confident gate Easterners expect from the Native West. His skittering motions soon brought him right up beside me.
“You goin’ north? I’m goin’ north. Pendleton or Walla Walla, I got folks in both places. What you up for? I’m on leave from San Diego, Navy, got my uniform right here but thought I’d go in civies, ya know? The women, they don’t go for the uniform no more, anyway, whose gonna smoke pot with a swabby? You got some weed? I got pay, liberty pay, ya know? You from Washington?” and so on, as quick and jerky with his mouth as with the rest of his body, a talking machine that made me feel mute, and that’s a tough thing to do. For some reason, though, his manners didn’t bother me. He was something like the little brother that you like in spite of yourself. It would prove true that our hitching together would keep us from getting many rides, and we would split up the next day because of it, but for that day and that night near Salinas, we were hitching partners.
As it turned out, the few rides we did get were from local farmers and diesel drivers, so we smoked no pot. We did get a six-pack toward the end of the day and split it, but that was nothing to me. By that evening, the beer had only made me a little more ready for a decent rest.
I say all this to convince the reader that what we saw that night was no chemical twist of mind for either Billy or myself.
We had been standing in the weeds by the Salinas sign for long enough to finish the six and start feeling thirsty again. It was clear that whatever traffic normally passed there had come to an end. Billy, however, was still full of beans and tried to convince me to keep on hitching. I told him that he could go on if he wanted but the rides were through for the night and laid out the parachute on a soft patch of alfalfa as a final statement. There came a rare silence as Billy realized that he had lost momentum. As he stood there stumped, we both heard the noise.
It was a movement of bushes, not by any wind but by something with volition, something that had a reason and a plan. Although little animals could make big sounds, this signaled something really big. The hair along my head and down my back stood up like that of a cornered dog. The sound seemed in some way to come from a human, and nothing is scarier than a creeping human in the middle of the dark.
Billy was just as stricken. We were like deer sniffing the wind at the sound of breaking twigs, stiff and straining with every sense to find where the danger came from. Another rustling sounded out, and we both located the spot at the exact same time. As I focused hard, my mind briefly went blank. A large clump of tall bushes stood near the highway about fifty yards from a streetlight that lit the fork to the west. The bushes pressed up against a cyclone fence, eight or so feet high, which lined part of the exit ramp. Stepping from the bushes was what appeared to be a man, except that when he moved into the light, the uniform darkness of his form, from face to feet, did not change. And he was huge.
My mind started working when the ‘being’ moved again. The impossibility of what was happening was pushed aside, allowing details to be clearly witnessed and recalled. As this thing crouched to make a two-legged leap, I could see that it was covered in dark brown hair. When it sprang into the air, I could see that it cleared the top of the fence with room to spare. When it disappeared behind the bushes again, now on the other side, I clearly heard a sound that is familiar to most hunters: the cry of a dying rabbit.
Billy and I gaped at each other. His mouth was wide open, and mine probably was too. He wasn’t quiet for long.
“Did you fuckin’ see that?”
“You bet I did.”
“Its fucking Bigfoot, isn’t it?”
“Can’t be anything else. Holy shit.”
“He got a rabbit. Did you hear that? He was hunting for a rabbit.”
“Well what are we waiting for?” Billy fumbled around for a second in his pocket, and then brought out a small jackknife. “Let’s go get the fucker. Shit, we’ll be famous! First proof ever of Sasquatch!”
“Get it with that? Are you fucking crazy? Did you see the size of that thing? Did you see the jump it made? It could tear our fucking heads off before you could pull out the blade. Besides, why would you want to kill it? It’s not doing anything to us, man, and, Jesus it could.”
“But we could be famous. And rich.”
“No way you could find the thing in the weeds now, anyway. It’s dark, it can see, we can’t. Could be a mile away by now. Let’s just get some sleep.”
“Sleep? You fuckin’ crazy? Who can sleep after that?”
“Me.” And with that, I did. When I got up to pee a few hours later, there was Billy, sitting cross-legged on the edge of the parachute with his unfolded knife in hand, looking toward that big bush. He was still there in the morning, sound asleep, knife still in hand, dew clinging to the blade. Perhaps he was dreaming of the fame he could have had, an adoring crowd dancing with the other shards of life that tumbled through his sleeping mind like shells in ocean waves.
For years, I thought of that incident as just another True and Amazing tale that you told to unbelieving friends around a campfire. Honestly, I wouldn’t have believed anyone telling me the same, especially given the nature of living on the road back then. If it weren’t for Billy, doubt would have overcome myself as well. Now, though, the importance of its “realness” has diminished. Instead, I see it as part of something bigger that is happening in America, something that asks the question: Bigfoot, aliens, desert spirits, all those implausible things that seem to live with the people of America, what are they? Here’s what I think.
In the first place, I do not think that we are “alone,” that is, alone with our special human self-consciousness amid a planet of unconscious and semiconscious things and plants and animals. I do not think reflective or imaginative thought is an evolutionary fluke or a gift (and curse) given only to us. It is, in some way, manifest throughout nature, both in what is seen and what is unseen.
It also seems clear to me that reflective thought is not merely a passive recorder of sensory data. It gives meaning to the data and “sees” data where our sensory organs may not. These “unseens” range from electrons and electricity to the ethos of an age, from the measurable to the empathic. Because of this, the mind sometimes, even often, sees or hears or smells what is empirically only thought. The mutual sight of the American Flag in the sky with my friend back in high school comes to mind.
The nature of human reality is more mysterious still. Sometimes visions take miraculous forms and affect us directly in the material world. One might receive a dream message from grandma telling you that she has just died unexpectedly, and you wake and find that it is true. One might experience the sudden disappearance of a cancerous tumor after a vision of Jesus. One might hear the call and part the Red Sea. One might also experience Bigfoot. And as with the other miracles, one might expect that the manifestation of Bigfoot had some personal connection with the witness.
Of course, he might be as real and “out there” as a coffee table, but where are his bones? Where is his lair, his feeding grounds?
Then again, if we are to treat him as a reflection of our collective inner mind, what aspects of ourselves does he embody? What exactly is he to us?
He is, for one thing, a very Western totem, a spirit form of the bear whose likeness is on every Californian flag. He is large and powerful, a solitary hunter, without tribe or pack, unable to be tracked or traced or hunted. His fur makes it unnecessary for him to make clothing and his strength makes hunting tools superfluous. He is in so many ways simply a bipedal predator. Yet his cunning is indubitable, for no man has snared him or pierced him with weapons or poisoned him with bait. He is more cunning than human beings, yet also a beast of the forest. He is large and gamy, yet ephemeral, impossible, for how can he be? Yet he is seen, again and again.
From this I believe he is part of the American self, a projection from our imagined past into our imagined present. He competes with another projection, a group projection, of our imagined selves cast from our present into the future. These counter-beings achieve great technical and mental skill as their bodies atrophy. They fly advanced spacecraft and master time travel and come back from our future to subject us to inexplicable experimental horrors just as we do with our lesser creatures. They have throbbing heads floating on thin, rubbery necks. They peer through the dimensions of space yet dryly search our souls and bodies in vain for an elixir that will give them joy and lustful abandon. They are the white-smocked lab technicians of today who create cold and awful secrets in government caverns hidden from view and the light of day, one hundred centuries removed. They are Organization Man, merged into one leaden mass like a mound of termites in a growing desert of their own making. They have made their pact with the devil and can only intuit their damnation as the last primal urge of life evaporates from their large skulls and leaves only desiccated spirit.
They are one voice of America, one that floats to us on the wind. They warn us never to think without heart or without passion.
Bigfoot is the other voice. Powerful, free, and wondrously clever in his elusiveness, he is dependent on no trade or industrial complex for his livelihood. With no need for others of his kind, except for the periodic ritual of all flesh, he has no culture, no village, no home. He is Man in spirit and animal in form, animal in spirit and Man in form. He eats like a beast yet moves like a ghost. He follows no law but his own, gives nothing to others but personal space. He is Daniel Boone without Manifest Destiny. He is the logical consequence of extreme individualism.
His voice is also in the wind. This voice is hair raising and strong, yet brooding in the way of dark forests in a great wilderness. But in his voice is no music, no art, no lofty thoughts or touches of kindness. There is no sound of laughing children around him. Ask him why and he can only grumble: “this is my life. Listen or not, it is no concern of mine. I talk only of my way. The path you follow is up to you.”
I think that in our alien and Bigfoot sightings we are seeing ourselves in two pure forms and are struggling for a middle way even as we slip toward a future with big heads on rubbery necks. Perhaps this conflicted tale of America is what the spirits were scrawling in my mind in the Arizona desert. Perhaps their message came to me near the reservation through a people who knew Bigfoot long before Europe stepped into their world. Perhaps we must make a place of our land as the First People did before we can read the message in the scrawl and take the right path.
All speculation aside, the final truth is that I saw Bigfoot. For whatever reason, America showed me one of her great secrets. Whether the sighting was connected with the First People or not, the West would touch me with their spirit again and again.
By Chance, a Cold Dread
Perhaps it was the eternally gray skies, skies that had not seen blue in weeks. Something was missing as my wife and I drove with the dog three hundred miles north to the tiny cabin in the way-back of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The dog never settled down, and the road coffee didn’t give its customary rush of enlightenment, stirring magic into radio music, and even the off- preacher of doom or love. Yet everything went without a hitch, or with the flawless hitch of the wagon that held the snowmobile. No flat tire, no shifting cargo, no engine trouble, no big snows or overly-slick roads. We made the last thirty mile stretch into the wilderness on time, giving us two hours of light to get from the end-point of the plowed road to the cabin four and half miles in. The sled was already packed, and the one snow-mobile was unloaded quickly and with usual effort. It was all so easy, yet so uneasy. The wind blew cold from the vast stretches of pines under the occluding clouds, and in it was something disturbing.
I knew what it was as soon as Vicki took to the snowmobile lanes with the dog. I would meet her just before that last half mile, where the snow was not groomed, and its three-foot depth would not be packed for easy walking. She would ride that last stretch with me, after I had gotten the cabin fire and the propane gas going, while the dog would run behind. But what, by chance, if the snowmobile wouldn’t start? It had just been serviced by the small engine mechanic, and I had started it with ease the day before. But what if? The last walk- in would be nearly impossible alone, but worse, how would we get the big sled with all our gear, all our beer and food and extra clothes, past those long cold miles?
“What if the snowmobile doesn’t start?,” I yelled into the wind and lake-effect snow, which spit back silence into my face. She was already on her way. I was alone with the sled and the snowmobile and had two hours of daylight and it already felt too late. How did I know?
Unease and foreboding are often only psychological intrusions, portending nothing but our own insecurities, and that first seemed the case. With five difficult pulls on the two cylinder engine, the snowmobile popped to life in the blue haze of two-cycle oil. I had not yet attached the sled nor put on the helmet, so I drove the ‘mobile around the large parking space that was plowed by the county to warm it up a bit. All was good, so the engine was stilled for the final adjustments that would lead to the triumphal return to the cabin, after almost three months.
Nothing to it, you silly old man. Attach the rope, tighten the straps around the gear, put on the helmet, and slide away. Don’t let the clouds and the vast loneliness of space, of cold non-human presence, get to you. You’ve worked it just fine. It’s just another fun day in the fields of the Lord. At worst, some bag will fall off and you’ll have to go back and repack it. Shake that chill. With almost two hours of daylight left, you’ve got nature under control, the mojo at your back.
Forty five minutes later, I was still pulling the starter cord, my arm so sore that I could barely go on. How much longer should I try? It would take at least two hours to pull that sled in by hand, and it would be long after dark before I got to the worst part, that last half-mile, if I could find the turn in the cold drifts. The longer I waited, the worse it would be, but walking in would be SO bad, almost impossible with the load. The light – there was no sun – was decreasing noticeably and the snow picking up in the bitter wind that blistered off Lake Superior, eight miles away. I said another prayer, almost in tears with frustration and pain, and pulled. The engine turned, then stopped, but it had turned! After a few more tries, it got going, and away I went, helmet barely on top of my head, now covered with sweat. It would be a cold ride with that, but I passed Vicki, now two-thirds the way down the main path, and successfully bulldozed my way in the last half mile, with gear hanging tentatively off to one side, threatening to stop short at any moment against a pine. But all was well. An hour later, with everything lit in the cabin and the path to the outhouse cleared, I started the beast again, now with ease, to take Vicki that last mile in, although that last mile turned out to be the last four hundred yards. Still, the snowmobile had made the pass easier, and we soon settled in with the dog, to food and then, for us humans, for beer.
I could barely move the next day, but we were there and that was good enough, no? But the gray continued as did that nagging dread. To get stuck at the cabin is to get really stuck, and it had happened before. There is no cell service there, and no other house for six miles, and those few deep into the woods. I had gotten stuck before, that time in the summer with a broken old Jeep, and I had miraculously been saved by a seventy- year-old local who was just checking out the new road they were putting in. She had actually stopped for this wildman of the woods standing by the rutted dirt of construction, and had done what I had asked by calling my wife to come to the rescue. Brave soul! But that was luck and summer. What of now?
I worried because of where we were. There is no mercy in the deep woods, as there is none at sea. Mercy comes from people, and that is it. Nature will yield what you can take, just as engines will start only according to natural laws, but it will not soften or bend to pleas. God does not exist in the woods; God does not send mere mortals mana from heaven. ‘It’ lets you get yourself into a pickle, and then lets you get yourself out. Pray all you want – it is a mere mosquito whine in the great forest. There it is like darkness, not because it is evil, but because there is no merciful light. And that lack feels evil, devoid, menacing, although it is only itself.
Worry was left behind that first night, as the physical stress and beer made for peace, but the next day the nagging started again. There was something wrong with that monster, I could just feel it! It was not until afternoon that I had the heart to try my aching muscles against the pull of the machine, and when it started on the third try, I quickly throttled up and drove a five mile circle along the trails.
Something was wrong, all right. It ran so roughly that the vibrations nearly put my hands to sleep in only that small amount of time. Something was profoundly wrong, and the only question was, would it make it back to the car with that cursed sled? It was becoming more and more apparent from the weather radio in the cabin that we would have to leave by noon the next day because of an incoming ice and rain storm that would make the going a nightmare. Already I was sweating it. I supposed I could pull the sled out if I started early enough, although there was a mile-long hill going out. It would be hell. Could the monster make it those last miles?
That night, apparently there was no peace, although I did not know it. Somewhere in the middle of it, my wife told me that I had shouted, “I hate you, God!” Horrible! I made light of it that morning, but felt the blasphemy in it, and the curse of it. I was no longer fighting against nature, but also God, for if God does not help one in nature, ‘It’ is most certainly ready to destroy the unfaithful anywhere – or so one believes when at nature’s hollow mercy. Worse than this superstition, though, was that non-ending sense of foreboding – an unnatural cloud that extended from an unnatural machine that had taken on the trappings of the forbidden forest. If no God, then darkness; if darkness, no mercy. It was Aristotelian logic frozen into a dark Platonic cave.
We had planned to get some cross-country skiing in before leaving that morning, for the storm was definitely rolling in, and the old metal monster nagged with its silent presence. Let’s just say it won’t start, we reasoned. How long would it take to get out, three hours? Maybe more? And what if I took an hour to try to get the beast started, and then it didn’t? That would mean four hours total, and we didn’t want to get home past ten that night. With this simple math in my head, I finally worried myself into packing, and then set upon the machine. The joke about “hating God” had already been rung out and left to dry with its curse. The machine just had to be tried. Of course, there was no other choice.
Fully suited, helmet on and ready, I pulled. And pulled and pulled. Nada, nothing. How could that be? It had started just fine the day before, even if it had run like crap. What magic was working against me? Time after time I pulled until exhausted, then waited, letting the sweat settle. After forty five minutes, I took off the helmet and coat, stripped down to the snow pants. Fifteen minutes later, Vicki shook her head. “The hour you had given yourself is up.” Her calm was incomprehensible: had she any idea how hard it would be to pull that sled out by hand? After taking a break, I tried for fifteen more minutes, then took out a tattered tarp to cover it, as with a body bag in a morgue - and then swept it off and tried again, then again. I prayed again to that God I had hated in my sleep, and still nothing. The tarp was pulled over one last time.
“I must have known last night that this would happen. No wonder I hated God,” I joked, but in times of trouble, jokes sometimes fall flat because they have become shadows of a deep and terrible possibility – that one can be cursed. We have all felt it, I know; we have all said, “it’s going to be one of those days.” We have all believed in the curse, no matter our stated beliefs.
The way out was as horrible as imagined. All the pulling on the starter cord had tired my lower back and even, somehow, my legs, so that each step with the weight of the sled behind me was an act of pain and pure will. We made it to the snowmobile route, and then another half mile to the start of the hill. I unzipped my coat, already bathed in sweat, and dug in like a beaten old mule on the Erie Canal. When you’re screwed, you’re screwed…
Except Vicki had not shared these dark feelings and had, in fact, been nothing but cheer all morning long. Still light with hope, she waved her hand at two snowmobiles that were passing, at last, the right way, and they immediately stopped. The man was not only amenable to dragging our sled to the parking space, but to giving us both rides, and pulling out the beast machine from the cabin to boot. The latter was too much of an imposition, I thought, and with the dog we could not both ride in, and so we would walk. He sped off with the sled after leaving us his cell phone number, to call when we could to let him know that we were all right. I offered him twenty bucks, gladly, but he scoffed. “We help people. It’s what people do.”
The walk continued to be painful, and I realized that I probably could NOT have made it with the sled, but all went well after that. Vicki texted the man when we got near the town of Munising, and he texted back with a thumbs up.
Days later - today - the snowmobile sits under a tattered tarp by the cabin, as useless and senseless as it had been that day, and we no longer care. That adventure is over, and the extraction of the wreck will take place at another time, sometime in a future not yet felt or feared.
Dark foreboding: do we manufacture our own bad luck? Are we prescient of things to come? Or is it just silly superstition, with life as plain and workable as a machine which has no volition outside design and function? If the latter, though, what then of nature? Is it really the clockwork of Newton’s mind, another machine whose parts and function are rationally solved? But we are just parts of nature ourselves; wouldn’t we then also be cogs in the natural and immutable design of a distant maker, or of even darker chance?
These questions hover in time, like children’s inquiries about what is beyond the universe. The woods, the lake, the sky, the reeds, none give solace to the human; none could or would stop their motion, their natural functions, to help or aid. And yet, we are of them; we stop and aid, most of us; it is what we do. If humans are also parts of nature, does that not say something about nature? How it can be both distant and horrible, but also close and beautiful? How it can kill us, but also caress us with wonder and joy? How it can share its being with us as brethren, as a circle joined, as part of a family that cares?
And what does this say of Newton’s distant maker or of dark chance?
These are not just idle questions, for their answers can shake the world. Just yesterday, I got some disappointing news, news that spit in the face of all my prayers. It was just like the snowmobile not starting, I thought: nothing cares, nothing listens. It is all just mechanics, I reasoned bitterly, and in the end, regardless of anything, we’re screwed. From dust we come and to dust we go, so who the hell cares?
And yet, something does. Care is not made from whole cloth, just as we are not a species born from nothing. We carry all of life within us through the astounding workings of time, and with that, from somewhere, we carry not only care, but love and beauty, interest and joy, pathos and the art. That these are mere aberrations, mere chance additions to the brain, is as ridiculous as saying that our failed machine could suddenly develop a sense of humor. No, these things do not happen by chance. If we are machines, something greater than a mere machine was built into us right from the start. And something wanted that to happen.
My prayers are almost never answered, so seldom that if one ever seems to be, it is most probably through the odds of a casino, a mere flip of the coin. But with that broken snowmobile, I chanced upon something that has proven greater than an easy ride; and this is that, even as our pleas are not answered, something greater may come. It may come on the harsh winds of a great wilderness, whistling with dread, but how else would we know? How else would we hear it, remember it, and begin to understand?
“To the right? Which right? Left or right”? The elderly woman with the Brooklyn accent was nearly in a panic, while the tour guide groaned. I ducked my head down behind the bus seat to hide my barely –held laughter.
“To that right. No, the OTHER right!” Eduardo’s large shoulders were bunched towards his neck. His face shown with the sweat of the terminally hassled.
“Well, come on Eduardo,” I thought, “what did you expect with a troop of American white-hairs? Surely you’ve handled this before?” But, then again, it was day seven of nine, and he was a tour guide, among other things, not a saint. Then I looked to the right. Yes, it was a yellow-beaked toucan sitting as pretty as you please in a tree along the highway that curled down from the cloud forest and Costa Rican national reservoir, Lake Arunal, in the climate transition zone as we headed to the dry Pacific coast. That was Costa Rica, alright: where one could see monkeys or alligators or coati mundus just about anywhere.
This had been an eye-opener for me, having traveled in the backwoods of Mexico and Bolivia, and having lived for more than two years in Venezuela, from Caracas to the great southern tropical forests. In those other lands, most wildlife larger than sparrows, with the exception of vultures, had all but disappeared from populated places, and even in the backwoods, where they were still hunted for food and pelts. This was a different world. Nearly identical in climate to Venezuela, it had a feeling of order, of management, and the wildlife told the difference. In populated areas, there were no great stretches of shacks, called ranchos, tumbling down eroded mountainsides; the river beds were not packed with garbage and plastic bags, and did not exude the stench of the cesspool; and the tropical animals we usually only see in zoos or in National Geographic were almost everywhere. How absolutely unexpected.
I believed I could detect an attitudinal difference in the people as well, but I have to be candid: we had booked ourselves on a nine day eco-tour that almost completely cut us off from the general populace. Our hotels were mostly in the countryside or on the edge of tourist beaches, and our contacts were predominantly with those who made their living from tourists. These had been uniformly polite, if not a bit too formal, and nearly all spoke at least a little English. But we did get “out” occasionally, and the differences I saw from the other Latin lands were profound. In Bolivia, there was a sense of absolute isolation among the greater population of Aymara Indians, and a sense of intrigue and class warfare among the elite educated class. In Mexico, raw fear of violence mixed with chaos in the cities sat hovering over one’s shoulders like the buzzards in the dusty backlands. In Venezuela, there was chaos among the poor, and psychosis caused by low-level, but constant fear of violence among the middle class. In those lands, no one was particularly concerned about the natural environment, just as one might expect; instead, they were focused on survival. But not, apparently, in Costa Rica.
This took away some of the excitement, but of course it was a good thing. Our flight time had changed at the last minute, and we did not arrive at Juan Santamaria Int. Airport in San Juan until nearly 10 PM. In Maiquetia, the airport of Caracas, one would expect hustlers to try to separate one from one’s money at every turn, but not in San Jose. Everything went smoothly, and our Caravan Tour guide met us on time and without a hitch. We travelled the well-maintained freeway to our luxury hotel, and even there we were not disappointed. No cucarachas in the bathroom, no vendors of fake anaconda skins or parrot feathers around the entrance. At the bar, I spoke Spanish only because I wanted the practice. Everything was just so – nice. Still, I waited for the other shoe to drop. Surely something would go horribly wrong, and the image of Costa Rica as a safe Latin American adventure spot would wash away like so much propaganda. But it never did. All was so pleasant, so uneventful, that I was not sure what to do with it. For the first time in the land of the conquistadors, I was simply a tourist spending money.
That odd feeling never went away, and with each serene day, I anticipated another that would fall into boredom, but this never happened either. As coddled as we were by the careful organization of our tourist company, and by Eduardo, our often exasperated but always attentive tour guide, even our twenty one year old son never slipped completely into his I-phone for a fuller existence. Beautifully-kept groves of coconut and bananas, large fields of coffee bushes, and dense forest and mountains continued to engage us. Animals, as said, were everywhere. And nowhere was the presence of the vast, crushing poverty that envelopes most nations to our south.
First day after arrival: Poas Volcano, only about twenty five miles from San Jose. After a half hour or so of shifting in the our seats as the behemoth bus hung onto the curves in the mountain road, we arrived at the park entrance, where one only had to walk a half mile to view the crater from above. At the wooden fence that separated us from a crumbly cliff, we could see smoke bubbling up through a muddy ooze that covered the volcanoes simmering core. The immediate area looked like a rough gravel quarry, gray and desolate, but beyond, clouds hung between wave after wave of mountains, over which could be seen the Mar Caribe about fifty miles away. We stepped away from the older ones of our group – my wife and I, at about sixty, were relative youngsters – and took the two mile trail through the dense cloud forest, finding towards the top those great vestiges of the dinosaur age, the graceful fern tree, which had first carried me to a dream world two decades ago as I walked deep into the mountains of southern Venezuela. This time there would be no slogging for days up and down slippery slopes. Instead, we were all packed back into the bus a few hours later, ready for our next adventure, which seemed like a snooze: a visit to a coffee plantation, just a few miles down the slope of the volcano.
If it seems that I am about to detail the whole of our tourist route, then breathe a sigh of relief; for that, you can read the Caravan brochure. Here, I will only mention those places and events that stood out for me, and surprisingly, the coffee plantation was one of them. Sit and drink your coffee as you read this – I promise that you'll appreciate it more.
As one might expect, we were not taken to just any old coffee farm, but to the Doka Plantation, an estate where coffee had been grown and processed for three generations. They had a dining area open to the outdoors, and a tourist shop where one could buy coffee made on the premises, as well as countless nick-nacks that no one really keeps for long, but besides that, it was primarily a plantation and processing plant. We were given the tour, learning first that much of Costa Rica sold high-grade stuff, because only the ripe red beans were picked for use, which had to be done by hand. Imagine that: each coffee bean comes from one coffee berry, each picked by hand. Now, let’s say that 10% of the coffee in the US is of the hand-picked variety (as in Starbucks). Let’s say that a 12 ounce cup of coffee requires 50 beans. Multiply that number by the millions of cups drunk per day and it seems impossible. Where do all those hands come from?
As if turns out, they come from the poor neighbor to the north, Nicaragua, but that is another story.
On our tour, we next moved from the bushes themselves to the processing house, where the bean was separated from the berry, then dried, then sorted, then dried again, then spread out, again by hand, to dry completely in the sun, where it is raked over several times. And more: this facility used grinding equipment powered by a stream that had been diverted through the mill, which was then redirected back into the fields and forests below. All was done with clean energy on beautiful land with natural cover, and so much work for your one cup of coffee which may cost you 25 cents if made at home. Wonderful, impossible, and guilt-provoking if one thinks about it.
Back at the hotel that night, we went to the mall across from the hotel to take out money from our home bank through the local bank. Jeffery waited outside while we shifted from one foot to the other as the removal and conversion of currency was done, which took the teller an unbelievable amount of time. When we finally got out, five dollars poorer for our effort, we found Jeff leaning against a wall in the hall using his I-phone. After walking a ways, we were informed that he had a story to tell: while we were in the bank, another young guy had tried to sell him drugs. When Jeff shrugged him off, the guy roughly shoved him and swore at him in English. So much for paradise - although paradise was never expected. Still, it was just another sign of how some things have gone horribly in the world. It is both tragic and sad, but stood alone as the one truly negative experience.
On to the town of Fortuna, then, which is a tourist town at the foot of the famous Arenal Volcano, which was forever hidden in clouds, for here is found another of Costa Rica’s cloud forests. These are what they sound like, an environment caused by moist air from the Pacific Ocean cooling against the rise of the mountain ranges, forming a forever-wet, lushly green swath. In a national park beneath the volcano, we walked a two mile path in the mist by traversing several hanging bridges – suspension bridges made of steel, not vines – that sway as one walks over one-hundred-foot ravines. There we saw our first howler monkeys, broad-faced and bearded things that clustered in groups in the larger trees.
We would see them again, as well as the white-faced capuchins, on our river cruise the following day, where we were also taken to the edge of no-man’s land, the border with Nicaragua. It was in this area not very long ago – during the presidency of Reagan – that Contras and Sandinistas would cross this border to pillage, rape and murder. That is over with now, although the bitter memories remain. What has followed is extreme poverty in Nicaragua, and a mass illegal immigration into Costa Rica. We were told that 20% of the country is now Nicaraguan, and the people are as angry with them as many in our country are with the Latin Americans who have crashed our borders over the last thirty years. It is a phenomenon of our era, and tests whether human numbers are assets or liabilities in our time. For the future of world economies, no one knows, but each has a mouth to feed, and for that, land is needed for crops and livestock. What these greater numbers will do for the natural wonders of Costa Rica is more and more a concern.
For those who lived there, that is, but less and less to us as we wound down the mountains into the drier country of the Guanacaste Coast on the Pacific. Here we would be put up in a luxury hotel on the shore within the sanctuary of a formerly vast cattle ranch, now open for real estate transactions for the very rich. The pool would be vast but shallow, and the beach front a cove of rocks, but to the south, about a half- mile walk away, one could find the wide-open sandy beaches and the surfing waves. Back at the hotel after sunset, the hotel beach was lit up with a stage which supported a variety of performers entertaining a very exclusive wedding reception. We had been placed among the exclusively rich, those who live everywhere in Latin America but are found only at certain places, as if they float above the masses in castles built on clouds. Every few generations in many of these nations, the elite are thrown out of public life and their assets are seized by the Revolution, but still they thrive, somehow; still they live like many think Americans do, but usually do not. The masses are not downtrodden in Cosa Rica, but an upper class manages to live on as if the Spanish Kings had not lost their grip two centuries before.
Day 8 – after various twists and turns, we returned to the coast further south, where our new fancy hotel was situated on the edge of Manuel Antonio National Park. A line of people had formed at the entrance to the park, and after that, on the mile walk to the beach, we were surrounded by howler monkeys, some of whom gave us warning barks – watch out, we are the masters of the forest! Capuchin monkeys greeted us at the beach, trying to snatch anything they could from the tourists while we shared the beautiful little bay surrounded by lush forest. My wife, son, and I walked a path to a hidden cove, where cliffs came down to the sea, and a small island stood alone, lush, untouched. Back at the beach, we swam in the perfect temperature of the Pacific, but nature caught me by surprise. As I floated fifty yards out, a wave of medium-sized fish suddenly emerged from the water, rising more than ten feet, and then fell about me like fat rain. One hit me in the side of the head with such speed that I saw stars. Others laughed, but it took a few moments to regain my humor. I kept a watch- out for more fish-bombs after that, but they never came back. Only I was hit, just that once. It is not always good to be the chosen one.
Back at the hotel, we climbed to its roof perch, where the bar was serving drinks already paid for by our tour. Many of us got giddy as the sun set behind a large island in the ocean before us, just as a paraglider arched across its circumference. A beautiful last night before our return to San Jose.
Just another tour, just another tourist, and the question dogged me the whole time – why? Why was I spending good money on this pleasant but unspectacular journey? What, besides a slightly broader view of Latin America, had been gained or resolved, by me or anyone else?
It was on the walk back from the beach of Manuel Antonio that an answer began to form. It was then that I had a talk with a friendly guy named Bill from California, someone now in his mid –sixties who still had the aura of a California surf-dude. For him, as it must have been for several of the older travelers, the trip had been taken to enjoy the earth while he still could, for although he was not quite old, he was in partial remission from cancer. He openly admitted that his whole life had been turned upside-down by the diagnosis a year or so ago, causing him to question the meaning to his life, and perhaps of life itself. The reality of the end had slapped him on the head like that fish had done to me a bit earlier. His eternal laid-back California NOW had been crushed and turned into a story with a beginning and an end. Travel had become a way to find himself, I assumed, but how? How could this comfy cruise for old-timers culminate in any form of solution?
And so my own question for this trip, for I have always believed that a journey is only worthy if it involves suffering. Travel is the route of the wise-man or shaman, of the archetypal seeker who climbs the Himalayas in search of his guru. Jesus found his footing after fasting forty days in the desert, where he met and defeated the temptations of Satan, and that is how it is supposed to be – to give up the material for the spiritual; to harden oneself to self-pleasure in pursuit of eternal pleasure. Surely, all of us on the trip - save my son - all us older and old people knew that we would never find paradise on Earth. Still, I think, many of us were trying. But not Bill. But why then, this trip? Was he saying good-bye? Was this his love-letter to a life that he had suddenly realized he loved, and now had to know? Was this, this Earth, like the forgotten childhood sweetheart, and this travel the last visitations to a former naïve trust in the world that he, like many of us, had long since abandoned to a practical and bitter truth? A bitter truth that, in the eclipse of a single life, Bill was perhaps learning was not the truth?
As for me, I brought back only a few memories and some excellent coffee and rum. But thank you, Bill, for reminding me why we travel, even when it isn’t into the desert or to a far-flung monastery. In casual travel, we are looking for our dreams, for a paradise that has been lost for so long that we can only think of it as a dream. But we know somewhere inside us that it is real, and we search. We search everywhere, but can only find the object of our desire when we understand that reality is much more like a dream, and our dreams much more like reality; that, in the end, it is beauty, simplicity and fellowship that have been calling us, which are often not found until we are in a foreign land.
It is there where we might understand what the desert means. It is there where we might see that the desert is anywhere that is somewhere else, a liminal and exotic place that sets the stage for the separation from our ordinary selves, from which we might return to find that our ordinary selves were the aberrations. It is then when we might learn that the winds of mystery and truth and wonder blow through us everywhere and always, once we can look back to where we came from; once we can truly look back to home.
The Wall - Part I
Galbraith entered the car with a great sigh of relief. It had been another night with a brutal homicide, the victim stabbed so many times that she appeared sponge-like, seeping dark red from every area, oozing as if from her pours into the grimy alley of Old Town. The perpetrator had been quickly located, as they always were now, and it would be his job to interview the prisoner once he had been processed. The question, as always, would be, why?
The door to the car sealed out all noise, and after a simple wave of the “home” light, he lay back to relax and to ponder. It was not like the old days, when people lived from pay check to pay check or from welfare dole to food stamps. After great political contortions, that had all been taken care of. With the introduction of cold fusion from O3, first mined on the moon, advances had been made to include simple hydrogen as fuel, which gave the world such an abundance of clean energy that everything had become possible. With desalinized water, deserts bloomed and droughts were remedied; with nothing now to hold production back, machines made everything needed, as well as cleaned the streets and even public toilets. Whole cities were placed under “eco” domes, where perfect weather could be enjoyed every day, where trees bloomed in replanted streets that no longer needed asphalt, where every child could enjoy the countryside no matter where he lived. No one had to work at dirty, menial jobs, and everyone could enjoy an environment that had once been the domain of the privileged elite. Now, by comparison, everyone was “privileged elite.” But still, crime had soared and soared. Not property crime, for there was no longer any need, but violent crime; crimes of sex and perversion, crimes of violent passion and hatred. What had once astonished and repelled had now become every day. Jack the Ripper would have been more at home in this modern paradise than in filthy, impoverished Victorian London.
The car soared effortlessly ten feet over the grassy carpet of the highway, the bright eyes of deer occasionally looking up towards the glowing pod as Galbraith drummed his fingers on his chest. Why?
To answer that question had become the hardest job in law enforcement, for advances in public surveillance and forensics had made identification and capture almost automatic. The perps knew this, of course; they knew they would be caught, but still the violent behavior thrived and grew, as if it was a malevolent mold on a bathroom ceiling. Nothing could kill it, not even the new punishment that was imposed to instill terror into any would-be rapist or murderer. Perhaps it had not worked because it was bloodless, or because it did not involve routine humiliation as they once had in prison yards, but that could not be it. The new punishment was so awful, so alien to human life, that everyone, every detained torturer and blood-stained madman, trembled in terror before the sentence that they knew they would receive. And yet the violence continued.
The car hovered obediently before the garage door, then entered at its opening, shutting off without command as the locks clicked open. Galbraith did not live under a city dome, preferring to match his metal with the elements in the countryside that now contained few houses, including those of the farmers, who also favored the domes and hovered to their fields in the morning, or simply programmed the tractors for work from their home systems. Life was quiet here, but so it was, without loud machinery, under the domes. Still, it was not the work - machines did the heavy lifting in the country, too. People simply wanted to live with other people, and that is why they chose the domes, or so Galbraith reasoned. This reasoning informed an important part of his unfinished theory – if people wanted to live with one another, then why did they commit so many crimes when they had so much, both in things and in choices? When they had everything they could want, or nearly so?
Or nearly so. What was missing?
Galbraith entered a quiet house that was missing something that technology could not offer. He had had a few intense relationships in his time, but all that seemed over with, now that work demanded so much of his time. Just as well. Imagine raising a child in this chilling atmosphere, where the sun shined on beautiful walkways under crystalline skies, and somewhere, anywhere, someone held a knife, hidden, poised, for some random act of madness. So he told himself, but his job was to unearth the hidden motive, and his solitary life had nothing to do with children and little to do with his long hours. His long hours, he really knew, were due to his solitude, his empty life that wanted to be shared, but could not. There was a clue in this, for he, too, was a part of this culture of violence that purred so easily on the surface. Like a large cat with hidden claws, he thought.
To hell with it. He brushed past the kitchen into the service room, where entertainment and work merged in harmony through the genius of electronics and digitalization. Here he could sit in his cushy chair and have reports written, or watch his favorite entertainment without lifting more than a finger. Tonight, he said to himself as he plopped into the chair, he would choose a movie of exploration, of what it would be like to zing to the stars. It was possible, they said, and all understood that it was. With energy worked out, with advances in everything from gravitation control to life supporting shields, they could wing far past the cold planets with their ugly mines to find something else, something livable, something better. Better? How could it be better? It was just that question that kept them fastened to the solar system – how can we make it better? Before a massive effort to explore the stars, it had been decided by the electorate that Earth should come first; first, we would all be given the keys to happiness. The means seemed well in hand, but the outcome – what were they missing?
To hell with it again. Before he could scan the right point for his movie, however, the answering service pulsed on in the entertainment matrix. As God must have first spoken to Moses, the bodiless voice glowed from the void of the three dimensional ‘cage’ where his movies would dance about in perfectly realistic animation. Automated voices often left no face, however, and this one seemed just another message from work, the smoothly modular female voice that told him of appointments and relevant events. He was about to wave it off when the lights flickered and a body appeared. It was female, with long dark hair and smooth brown skin, and he thought in his surprise that he might know her. The automated voice ended abruptly, followed by the human sounds, and then voice, of the woman.
“Galbraith? You might not remember me, but I worked with you at the station a few years back. I was in charge of profiling, remember?” Galbraith did, but before he could answer, she continued. She seemed slightly distressed or excited about something. “I got a job at the Reconstitution Bridge after they finished it and have been here since. I remember your research when I came across something here –well, a whole lot here that made me think of you. Shine me back when you can, OK? My code is shielded. It’s kind of urgent. Bye.”
Galbraith left her image dangling in space, his hand poised over the control lights. Shielded? No code has been legally shielded for ten years, and to do so in any event was thought impossible. And the Recon-Bridge – The Wall! My God, who the hell would work there? He had remembered her – Dalia or something like that – as a backroom worker, good looking in a typical way, but overall ordinary, nondescript. This had to be some kind of joke. Maybe Lt. Franz had put her up to it. Or maybe it was some kind of test. Maybe the office was baiting him in some kind of anti-terror probe. There had been no evidence of an organized counter-social force since the Decree – how could there be? – but there were rumors. Still, there were always rumors. In the mystery of the recent catastrophic uptick in pathological behavior, that kind of paranoid thinking was to be expected. But a test? No, it had to be a set-up, a trick to get him out of the house by the jokesters at the station.
His finger trembled as it chose the response node, even before he could think to do it. This was out of his routine. He didn’t like going out of his routine. But the mystery had given her a certain kind of allure. Her image appeared as quickly as the shine was sent.
“Galabraith!” She appeared amidst a background of circuit board lights set against night-blackened glass. “I wasn’t sure you would shine me.”
“Dalia, isn’t it?”
“Dal – i –a, with the accent on the ‘I’”
“That’s right, now I remember.” She was more alluring now than he had remembered. This must have been a set-up by the Crew. Hey, why not? “So tell me, Dalia, what’s so urgent?”
She dropped her smile. Good acting, Galbraith thought.
“You heard I was working at the Reconstitution Bridge? Well, here I am.” She waved her arm to the farther surroundings that were contorted by the matrix. “Did you wonder why I chose to work here with my message?”
“Well, yeah, of course. It’s some kind of joke, isn’t it?”
“There’s nothing to joke about here. This is the place of nightmares.” She made it clear that her dark look was not an act. “It’s that I remember your research…”
“My job. More than research.”
“Yes, of course. You want to find out why people are flying off the handle, right? Why paradise isn’t working?”
Galbraith nodded, thinking conspiracy again. What was this?
“Come on down to the Recon-Bridge and I’ll show you.”
“The Wall? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Tonight. Now. I can get you in.”
“I can get in any time I want to. I’ve got clearance.”
“Not here, you don’t. Not on the bridge itself. Use this code in your pod so they can’t trace you. You’ll be taken to the tube and I’ll meet you. Do it now if you want to find out. Memorize it now.” Galbraith saw the light bars, a 50 red, 101 green and two 14 blues, slash across her face, and then they were gone. “Got it?” Galbraith nodded. “Then I’ll see you in, what, 20 minutes?”
“That’s a quick trip.”
“That’s the short-cut. This is your only chance.” She looked around quickly as if expecting someone, then turned back. “Right?”
“Sure, yeah, right.”
Then there was only the blackstone pad on the cage floor where the matrix lights dully glowed.
Who makes those critical decisions in life? We think it is ourselves, but sometimes it seems to be the work of a silent hand that is bigger than ourselves and unknown. Galbraith had been the rounds of transpersonal psychology and had entertained the fantastic as a student, but eight years on working social pathology had put an end to that. There was an evil in some that maybe was in us all, but their actions were by no hand of fate. Rather, they were the work of hatred and twisted, thwarted desire. Sex, envy, megalomania – all mysteries in their way, but they were not the hand of fate. But this – this was something that could ruin his career. It might still be a joke, but if it were, it was stretching him thin. Before leaving for the car, he had run a background on Dalia’s code and found it nowhere. The designation colors were even more problematic, for a code might be hidden temporarily from a common interserve, but designations were real-life coordinates that constituted the bulwark of traffic safety. One did not stray on unauthorized designations, just as one didn’t run a combine through a city grove. It was potentially dangerous and destructive, as well as illegal. It was also impossible to override the official controls, unless at the control center itself. And yet that is exactly what Dalia had done. From the moment he had motioned the designation in the garage, his car had taken a route over private terrain at a spectacular height and speed. It was as if the governor had been overridden – well, of course it had – and the landscape flashed by a mile below as if from a flightbus. Holy crap! Was this for real?
The recon-bridge – The Wall – had been built on a no-man’s land that had been a toxic waste disposal area. It had been cleaned like all the others, but no one had come back to it out of a primitive fear, as he himself had called it. Now, people avoided it all the more. The horror of The Wall had filtered into the collective consciousness as Gehenna had for the Jews, and Hades for the Greeks. It was bad country, and no unauthorized designation could get you there anyway. But here he was, well on the way. The contour map showed he was nearly where he had thought it to be. He must be close, he thought, for the lights of village farmers had ceased to show in a circle of darkness giving way to lights that must define the boundaries of this hell-land. And there, coming up right before him was a semi- circle within the circle, a scimitar made of light. It could only be the recon-bridge itself. Galbraith noticed just then that he was terrified. It was part tribal fear, he knew, but also something much more concrete. He was going over his legal parameters, and that was something that could not end well. In the end, nothing was hidden from Central, but he let the car fly. He felt powerless to stop it. Fate?
Nearing the center of the circle, the car took a sudden swoop downward, almost to the lights, before he could make out the building in the middle. Rectangular and ugly, just like any institution, he understood that the sudden move was a dodge to avoid the sensors. It seemed almost stupid. Nothing could avoid the sensors, and this would only alert someone on surveillance. Again, it made no sense. The front of the building was protectively glowed from all directions, but the car swerved around to what must have been the back. In a moment, he was before a large black portal that slid open with instant precision just before the car entered, and then closed just as quickly. The drive lights stilled, and he found himself in another dimly lit space that looked like a warehouse. Only one form was there to greet him, a uniformed officer that made him or her purposefully nondescript. As his door opened, he could see that it was probably a woman by the slender build and the long hair. It was Dalia of course, and as she stepped into the tube lights, he could see that she wasn’t smiling. This was no greeting, but an earnest meeting.
Really? Galbraith was an expert on body language, and he judged that this opportunity was more than met the eye. There was something else going on. A plot, yes, but what kind?
“You’re really here, yes. Thank God.” She brushed her long dark hair from her shadowed face. “Come on. You know as well as I do that we don’t have much time.”
“They probably already know I’m here. What the hell is this?”
“You’re probably right. Let’s move it and I’ll show you.”
“What of the trace? They’ll know everything.”
“No they won’t. You’ll think of something. You’ve got clearance, like you told me.”
“I could arrest you right now.” Galbraith was thinking it was time to stop the game. He might still salvage his career. This could be his one moment. You could say that you played her, that she was on to communications, that you had to do it blind. You could still do it.
Dalia paid no attention. “This way. It’s not far.”
The corridor was set closely by corral beams that allowed only one person to pass at a time. They entered a small room that was arrayed with dark sockets that looked like the UV disinfectant apparatus at the station. That was what they must be. Then this must be…
“You recognize the processing room? This is where they take them to the beamer.” They moved through another door and another small room that was blandly designed like a purely functional coat room, and then into a shock of colored lights blinking from panels which reflected off a large sheet of glass. Galbraith recognized the room from which Dalia had shined him.
“So this is The Wall?” It looked something like a traffic control room, and probably was. He smirked. A hoax. That’s what it had to be.
“No.” Dalia sat with familiarity in a chair with various control lights set in the armrests. A wave of her hand stilled the reflections on the glass. “That,” she said with an emphasis touched with anger, “is The Wall.”
Galbraith recognized the curve of the glittering spikes before him as the semi-circle of lights he had seen from the air. But they were not simply lights. He starred with incredulity. They were crystalline pyramids arranged side by side that arched for several hundred yards to either side from their vantage point. They were beautiful, starkly spectacular like the ranges of Titan. It was the sort of beauty that was devoid of anything that resembled life, as clear-cut and sharp as diamonds. It sent an unaccustomed chill up his spine.
“Marvelous, isn’t it? Or them. You can see that it’s not really a wall, but a set of arranged structures. Remind you of anything? They should. The pyramids of Egypt. They housed the corpses of the eternally alive, too.” Dalia spoke again with subdued anger. “Yup. This is where the people’s paradise sends its incorrigibles. Nice and clean and pretty, just like our nice and pretty lives.”
Galbraith leaned against a panel without noticing, his eyes captured by the glittering structures. “I’ve read of them, but never imagined. In there? So many, all in there?”
“Yeah, efficient, isn’t it?”
“You don’t seem overjoyed. Why do you work here?”
“Why do you work with violent scum? To know. I phase them from here, sure, but I don’t condemn then. I leave that to our wise and great.”
“You yourself said they were scum.”
Again she did not give his remark attention. “You know how they do it, right? They’re stripped and scoured, just in case – don’t want to torture any microbes – and then phased into the crystal. It has to be crystal, you know, for its stability. Wouldn’t want to kill the little darlings, now, would we?” She ran her hands high above a panel. “These are their profiles. You’ve written many yourself. And these,” she leaned towards another panel, ”are their molecular profiles. Just as important, as you can guess.”
“I thought it was a euphemism for total confinement. I thought they’d given up phasing.”
Dalia laughed with a quick snort of sarcasm. “For travel like they have in the movies, yeah. Too much disruption for any distance, and you can’t materialize something in thin air. The table’s got to be solid and stable, like this crystal. You probably heard that there are experiments with entangled particles, but that’s ersatz. You get replicas, ghost reflections like sundogs, but we can phase just about anything a short distance into a solid matrix. You, me, the entire Council of Community Life. Want to know how many are in these tombs?”
“All of them?” The facts that came up in his mind startled him. In this continent, there had been five hundred thousand incorrigibles convicted in this year alone.
“All of them in this hemisphere. Pretty tidy, huh? With long sentences, we got 2.5 milion, and room for twice that, at least. You can pile on the molecules as cleanly as a scalpel cut.” She dropped her sarcasm, her voice becoming a whisper.” It’s so goddamn lonely here. Like all the horror of humanity piled into one. I’ve learned that horror isn’t a scream, but eternal silence.”
Galbraith felt that she was going to cry. Surprisingly, this tough woman was remarkably vulnerable. He quickly moved on to what had to come next - the main topic.
“What’s it like?”
“You should know. You do the exit interviews.” Steel had returned to her voice. Galbraith let it pass, feeling somehow offended.
“You know I only get them after processing. They say they’re not in shape to talk right off. Thing is, they hardly talk afterwards. Thing is, they come out empty. It’s a good study on isolation – you know, that’s what I thought this was, really – but not on the criminal mind. When they come out they’re clean. No recidivism. Surprisingly no suicides, either. It’s something I had hoped to study in my senior years, but now… they give me no clue. Blank slates, really.” Galbraith felt there was a double language being spoken here, and he could hardly stand it. In The Wall was guilt. It seemed beyond what this benevolent society could do, even to its worst.
Dalia leaned forward, getting up from her chair to place a hand by Galbraith’s. “I can tell you. I see them every day. Hear them, too. God, do I hear them, until the processing room-panels close. They’re madmen. They scream because they cannot understand where they are or who they are. You can see it in their eyes – like they’ve been banished to another unworkable dimension, set in permanent, screaming frustration.”
“That’s the fear of The Wall. It should work.”
“No, that’s when they’ve been set free. In The Wall it’s gotta be a thousand times worse. Incalculably worse. You tell me – what do they do after they’ve been out, maybe after five or ten years?”
Galbraith glanced again at the hard brilliance of the crystals, and noticed he was sweating. It felt something like panic. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. They are taught to take care of themselves – you know, go to the bathroom and so on – but they can’t shine a ride, they can’t work. Well, maybe useless jobs like pushing brooms. They rock a lot, back and forth. A few sing a little, more like chant than song.”
“Hey! In the bad old days they would have been executed or worse!”
“Or worse.” Dalia lost her cutting look and fell into the vulnerable posture he had noted before. “I can’t take it anymore.”
“Quit. Come back to the department. I’ll vouch for you. You’ve done tough duty.”
“How can you go back to normal when you know that THIS is going on?”
Galbraith nodded sympathetically, then remembered why he was here. “Dalia, why me? You could have told anyone in authority about this. I don’t work the politics of this thing. I’ve had special insights into the ‘after’ conditions, but that’s not my job. I handle the before. I try to understand what gets them here in the first place, so more won’t come. I’m the good guy.”
“You can’t see it? The Wall is not a last-ditch effort to house the criminal tide. It is what makes the criminal tide.”
Galbraith made a grimace of denial. “But what people know is only fear and rumor. Those alone should stop the violence in its tracks.”
Dalia leaned off of her chair towards Galbraith, gripping the panels as if she were too tired to stand unsupported. “The punishment is not an exception to the rule, don’t you see? There are other ways to deal with this, but why The Wall? I’ll tell you. It’s the perfect thing for this great society of ours. It isn’t born out of anything but what we are. A wall. We are all frozen into this wall, and that’s what people are doing, trying to break out. So what do we do? Put them in a wall where there is absolutely no chance of escape. It is what we have become and where we are heading.”
Dalia let her head drop until she was so close he felt he had to comfort her with a small and awkward embrace. She nestled into his shoulder as he grasped for a reply. “But we have everything! Never have we been so free of disease and want and, well, just about any discomfort or social injustice history can tell us. It’s an almost perfect world!” He almost bit those words as he realized what he had said. Perfect world and The Wall?
“We’ve got nothing but a shell. Nothing beyond animal comfort. Nothing to aim for. Nothing that tells us that we’re more than this, that answers to this.” Delia touched his jacket where the heart would be, then looked up, tears streaming. “We are so much more. We blew it. We fooled ourselves into believing that this,” she waved her hands around the glittering panels, “was all there was and all we needed. What arrogant fools we are.”
Her hands had moved to his shoulders, and then her eyes to his with such need and passion that he had to. They kissed with a desperate hunger, and without knowing or caring how he got there, they were on the padded floor, cloths disappearing, skin touching skin, breasts offered freely and taken, hips caressed, then joined in the first real frenzy of passion Galbraith had known for years. He melted into her, feeling the dark ecstasy, then, oddly, only darkness. And then the greatest terror and suffering he had ever known.
He could not tell anyone how long it took before he noticed the screams, low and hoarse like an old and dying combustion engine, nor how long it took to recognize that those screams were his. It was then that time came back, and with this, as much pain as the first black-out. Not physical pain, but a mental pain so impossible that he would have gladly died if he could have, but he could not. It was not just that his cell was padded and his arms strapped, but because he had no concept of where or what he was; no concept of space and the movement of time. He could not have opened a door if he had been pushed into it. Time was only a new source of pain that was so unendurable that, when he finally discovered his new-found dimensionality, he also found that he could do scarcely more than whimper in absolute surrender. They had freed his arms then, and begun to talk to him. He understood time then; there passed another day before he could understand words, another week before he could speak back, first in fits of tears, then finally in a coherence that he had little control of. It was then that they had thought he was better, or at least sane, and began to talk to him of what had happened. It was the visit of the NCO, Sergeant Willard, which informed him most.
“She really had you, didn’t she? Hope it was worth it. A month in rehab. How was it? Sorry, too early. How could you, such an educated man and all, fall for it?”
Galbraith had no idea what he was talking about. All he could do was recoil at the solidness of everything, and of how oddly this solid moved. His voice spoke from somewhere he did not know. “I have no idea. What happened?”
“She suckered you to the Recon Wall and seduced you. Can’t remember that? We found dope on her nipples – on her nipples! We got the picture. Knocked you out stone cold then sent you into The Wall. We thought we had lost you, for sure. Not many come back from The Wall. Well, as humans that is. You were only in for two hours, and they say that’s why.”
“She?” That one word seemed to connect to what might be a self. There was almost a memory.
“You know, the tramp who used to work in the department. Dalia. We got her, don’t worry. Found all sorts of docs and crumbs to her pals in some group intending to destroy The Wall. It was a huge find, really. They’d gotten past our tracers, the clever bastards, and she led us right to them.”
“What happened to her?” He could feel a tension in a part of him that felt real. Uncomfortable, but nothing compared to what he had endured.
“Her? In The Wall, with a dozen of her little chums. It was pretty clear – they were on the verge of mass homicide. You know how many people are in The Wall? Well, now she’s joined them. Karma, my man.” Willard looked at him with a laugh. “You’re a hero, you know that? Damn stupid way to be a hero, screwing yourself into The Wall, but the world thanks you. The story’s been cleaned up a bit, as you might guess. Before release, we’ll give you the low-down.” Willard looked at him for a while with his jaded smile, then became serious. “Too much for you now, I bet. We’ll be glad to have you back.” He patted him on his arm – to which Galbraith reacted with alarm – and then walked quickly towards the door. If Galbraith could have understood, it was more a dash to safety than a casual stroll.
In a few days, Galbraith could understand that and much more; much more than he had ever understood before. Yes, memories came back, but they were like stories from another life. The context of the memories was gone, both the feelings of joy and those of remorse. The same was true for the present. Nothing said to him, no information or movement, no turn of the head or twitch of the hand, escaped both observation and understanding. There were, he thought without laughing, no more walls between him and the outside world. Things, emotions, everything, were no longer hidden in context, and he understood; he understood that the whole arrangement of society, with all of them in a conspiracy of agreement, was an elaborate camouflage of the truth. This truth was, that they, not a one of them, understood what they were doing and why they were here. They all knew this, but laughed and cried and yelled and even loved as if they did not. They could not admit this or their lives would lose all purpose and all joy, everything that made life worthwhile. Yet they knew. He could see it in everything they did. And in this, he discovered the answer he had been searching for for so long.
It was so obvious that it took a while to see that this had been his question, his meaning, his work. He recalled, without passion, what Dalia had said to him before she sent him into The Wall, and he understood immediately why she had done it. He could not blame her, although he now could not blame anyone for what they did. It was clear that everyone was mastered either by the big lie, or by fear; or rather, they were all mastered by fear, and most controlled it with the big lie. Those who did not sought an outlet, any outlet. For more and more, it was found by expressing their agony through cruelty; it was placated in the suffering of others, and most of all, in their blood; in something so real it drew them, thrilled them, like the most profound heights of sexual passion. But still, it did not suffice, because the answers to the truth behind the lie still remained, not only unanswered but unaddressed. And Dalia had seen all of this.
For a while, Galbraith was lauded as the hero that he was not, for he had not stopped anything, but rather had only fallen for the oldest trick in the book. But he knew that people needed a hero, and he knew that the establishment knew this, so he played along, saying little, smiling slightly, ever humble. With his days in the sun over, he was released for an undisclosed time to continue his recovery, a recovery that the establishment assured everyone that every criminal, once freed from The Wall, went through routinely. Left unsaid was the hope by the Council that Galbraith would remain on leave permanently. They did not want to confront the questions that, with time, would come. Where, for instance, were all these marvelously rehabilitated criminals? And what, exactly, was The Wall?
The open-ended leave was fine with Galbraith, for he had something to do that needed open-ended time. It was a small thing, but it had to be done, and he began his task with careful deliberation. He had not written anything but summary reports for years, and this, his revelation, had to be nearly perfect, so much so that it could not be misunderstood – not by the individual and certainly not by the State. For two weeks he worked on this, his call lights closed to all but official inquires that had by this time become routine, until he received a color code on the hologram that was beyond the normal shades allowed. He suspected who it might be, and only wondered at why they had taken so long. He waved the lights and made contact, but nothing but color bars emerged. Whoever was calling was not going to be traced as Dalia had been, for in a hologram, any patch of skin or hair could be analyzed by Central for genetic code.
The light bars trembled with the vibrations of the voice. “Galbraith. You know who I am?”
“Who you represent, yes.”
“Do you know why Dalia sent you into The Wall?”
“Yes I do.”
There was a pause, as if this answer were unexpected. “She told you?”
“She didn’t have to. I understand.”
Again, a pause, then a turn to a more critical tone. “Then you know of our fight for freedom?”
“Yes. We are all prisoners of The Wall. I understand.”
“And you agree?”
“Then – you can gain access. ” There was a shimmer of color bars, and Galbraith understood this to be a code for further contact, perhaps undetectable by the monitors.
“That is not necessary. There is no need of access.”
“Then you didn’t understand…”
“I did. Do you understand why she didn’t blow The Wall herself?”
There was a tremble of lights, indicating the sender was hovering on breaking contact. Then the color bars steadied. “Because she didn’t have time. Perhaps she felt pity for you as well. She was weak that way.”
“She had the time she needed. She understood, as you do not. Listen: The Wall is not the problem, and destroying it is not the solution. I have been there and have come to understand it. The Wall is more than a prison. It is the projection of our fears. The condemned are only an unconscious pretext for the Council. The real wall is…”
And then the code was broken. Galbraith understood that, too. In the world of establishment and counter-establishment, there were mutual social understandings that were fundamental. Slip from those and you are viewed with suspicion at best, as treasonous or immoral at worst. Galbraith tapped lightly on the arm of the chair. It took little thought to understand what was to come, but for all it would entail, he did not call Central. After staring at the blank space left by the color bars for a few minutes, he picked up his scroller and continued to speak to it again, continuing with what had to be said with the stroke of his fingers as automatically as a guitarist plays familiar chords.
But Galbraith did not know everything, as he would readily admit, and so he was as surprised as anyone would be when his house lights quivered and his workspace filled almost instantly with frenzied invaders. He might have had time to reach his Taze, but that did not occur to him, as life to him now seemed to happen as it must. That they would kidnap him and take him to The Wall he understood in a second, and with that, he quietly succumbed to the neural blocker that was propelled towards him. A timeless moment later, he raised his head slowly, allowing for the initial blur to recede before looking around. It came as no surprise to him that he was in a large bus-sized pod, or that a curved semi-circle of lights atop diamond-like pyramids were shining before him through the smoothly contoured bus window. Beside him, an anxious man of about Galbraith’s age, thirty or so, brushed his rust-red beard nervously until he noticed Galbraith’s movements. At this, his manner changed instantly.
“Listen, you cop bastard! You’re gonna DNA us through the shield in about 15 seconds, got it? Keep your eyes bright on the screen now…”
“No luck about it. We know what we’re doing. Now say cheese.”
Galbraith did as he was told, giving his presence to the screen to scope a hole for the pod. It worked as it should, and within seconds they were on the ground under the bright lights of the Bridge.
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” Galbraith said to no one in particular, for now they were hustling behind him as the portal opened. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” he said one more time, but it didn’t matter. As he was pushed from the pod, the gang surged behind him, expertly launching improvised grenades towards The Wall from hand-held projectors. The Bridge quickly responded with a sweep of blue-phase. One piece of Wall, one pyramid, shivered then fell like so much ice, but then one, then another of the gang trembled and fell themselves, at last, even the man holding him. It was apparent that everyone, every radical in the gang, had been ID’d and fitted for the phase. The Council, then, had expected this turn of events, so much so that in the end, he was left standing, unharmed. They had expected him there, as well, or they wouldn’t have used an ID phase. He would be a hero again, and again for doing absolutely nothing of worth.
It was a great consolation when he, as hero, was granted the release of Dahlia from The Wall, under his recognizance – all done with a host of friendly fraternal winks. He had meant to release his manifesto not more than a month after the invasion of The Wall, but Dahlia required an attention that could not abide another interest. She had been deemed unreachable by the cognoscenti insiders after so many months in The Wall, but Galbraith knew where she had gone and believed that he could act as a bridge – as a truly positive reconstitution bridge. After a week, he found that he was right. After three months, more or less, she appeared to be herself again, although she was no longer what she was. This Galbraith knew would happen, and it did not disappoint him when his long ministrations were not met with a grateful surge of sexual passion, as others had assumed. Rather, they were met with something else, something that he had craved more than anything, but had also feared. After his release and return to human life, his longing had been for a bridge of his own, and his hope had been that Dalia, after months in The Wall, might serve him as that bridge. She would not serve as a bridge back to the human world as he had done for her, but as a bridge to something else – to something he had only known as the Other.
She did not disappoint. He had understood after his own experience that those who had been released from The Wall were not idiots, but beings that existed beyond the normal boundaries of humanity. They had, for a lack of a better word, become spirits. Burnt of all effective action and bodily understanding, they had found another substance that had always been a part of them, but had defied the cultural understanding of reality – and therefore, its exploration. Galbaith had touched that – had come so close to it, in fact, that it was as much with frustration as with pain that he had screamed for so many days after his release. He could not think of this “Other” in human terms, but he knew of it and craved it none-the-less. He had also known that somehow he would find that bridge to the Other, and Dahlia could not have been better. What she helped him find caused him to shelve his manifesto forever, for it was now not necessary. From her he had understood, and now he could teach others with a presence more tangible than the words of a manifesto.
As he had written, The Wall had been built unconsciously as a symbol of the problem with their idyllic society. Just as Dalia had understood even before her containment, he had come to see that the very ideals of perfection that had guided humans towards their utopia had excluded the ability to grow without limit. In the perfect management of life to fulfill common desires and remove fear, humanity had created for itself an unendurable prison that encircled everyone and every thought. But, he also learned, nothing is stagnant forever; fear not only repels but fascinates, and eventually draws people as a whole under its shadow. Under this they had built The Wall; and through this Wall, this manifestation of their abomination, they had produced a new kind of human which would now number in the millions, humans who had once done horrible things, but who now, both he and Dahlia knew, could do astounding things. All they needed was a bridge back, and now there were two – he and Dalia.
No, there would be no manifesto, for none was needed. It would be written in deeds and works of astounding light. People would not then need words to understand that life was not given as a machine or a toy, as if by a giant hand from the clouds, but rather as a manifestation of infinite knowledge and power. It, all of it, was infused with incomparable genius - so much so that even the worst that fear and darkness could create could become the very tool for light, for freedom, for an opening of the cage.
So far, if one had to count in time, no one but he and Dalia knew what was to come. They would release the prisoners one by one, and each would be taken back to him and Dalia. First they would count in the dozens, and then in the hundreds, each becoming a bridge to the others until there would be millions. With them a new bridge would be raised for the billions. And no one, not Dahlia, not anyone, knew how far this could take them, for there was no limit on the incomparable genius that stood beside darkness and light everywhere, even in the impenetrable structure of a crystalline wall.
Sometimes we don’t know why we do things. We were living comfortably in a small but well-built house on six acres of land. I had recently completed my PhD program, dissertation, defense and all, and we had experienced the eye-opening birth of our son not much more than a year before. I was applying to university jobs like crazy, discouraged but still hopeful, and had had a recent surge of spiritual fervor, causing me to meditate and fast regularly with unexpectedly profound results. Life was good, overall, but needed no more complications. Why, then, did I have to look at that house?
Land. I had always had a dream of owning lots of land, and this place had twenty six acres of it, large even for the forgotten northeastern quarter of Connecticut, and it, along with a house and an unattached A-frame, were going for $115, 000, an unbelievable deal. It was true that we had had some trouble with a distant neighbor over dogs, and that the people of our small town were inexplicably mean - as in rude, hostile, jealous, petty and just plain ornery. But it wasn’t that bad. We could have bided our time, waited a few years until I got a job or we had more money, and then moved on peacefully. But no, I had to buy the house.
That my wife put up with it is almost as hard to believe. She worked out of a room at home, and she had long wanted a separate office building so that she could walk from the door at the end of the day and forget about customer woes and departmental intrigue for the night, but that alone would not explain her compliance. No, not at all, once you saw what that 115,000 dollars, even argued down to $90,000 in the accepted offer, was really going to buy. It, the whole lot of it, was a mess of epic proportions.
The land: most of it was swampland. Nice swamp, to be sure, and it surrounded the property nearly to the driveway ensuring the type of privacy one only gets in northern Maine or Alaska, but swampland none-the-less. It was bought in March, and we did not have to wait long for the reality of swampland to affect us directly. We recall to this day how dusk would bring a buzzing from the swamp that would gradually rise in both volume and location, until it rolled against the house in waves of unrelenting mosquitoes. Sitting out on the porch on warm evenings was not an option. True, the few acres of high land beside the house held massive old-growth hemlocks, and beyond the swamp lay thousands of acres of hill and forest, but once the sun began its last descent, or on any cloudy day, all that had to be viewed from behind the windows.
Ah, yes, the windows. Leaving Vicki behind in the old house about an hour’s drive away, I began the work of restoration, and I was to start on the windows. It was such a wreck that it is only because of the last subject that I recall the windows first, where I began my work because the windows leaked. In some houses, this might not be such a big deal, but here is was the deal – the big, bad deal – of the ages. Let me take a breath to explain.
The house had been self-designed by a professional musician who made his living, as far as we knew, from giving piano lessons. From the workmanship and design of the house, he certainly did not moonlight as a building contractor. Being, I suppose, artistically hip, he had decided on an “envelope” house, one that would be heated primarily from the sun. The front of the house, then, had been angled sharply down, making its roof one and the same as the south wall. From a side view, this roof-wall sloped down to within three feet of the huge front porch, rising like an A-frame to the peak, where the back roof slanted off to the north at a more moderate angle. And so, being solar, the front half of the house was virtually all glass, made up of a series of three-by-six foot single- pane windows. And each and every one of them leaked.
Being in the extreme north-east hills, there was still a good deal of snow on the ground when we took over the house in mid- March, but I had to set up the ladder and try to rescue what I could of the moldering carpeting inside. The first day, I caulked all the windows, fingers turning numb in the near- freezing temperatures. The first night, as I shivered under a pile of old sleeping bags in the unheated interior, frozen dew formed on the windows, melting with the light of day, taking all the caulk with it. It should be mentioned that, with the rising of the sun, the freezing house also turned into a furnace, because the former owner and designer had neglected to add a significant part to his envelope house – the under-the floor part. The heat from the window of an envelope house is supposed to be directed beneath the floor, where it will radiate slowly and steadily throughout day and night. The musician had not only failed to make fans and ducts to direct that flow, but also the cellar into which it would go (I later found out why). And so, much like Mercury, the house burned and froze with the alternating presence and absence of the sun. And of course, it still leaked.
But that was all right, as there was much more to do until the weather warmed – much more than I had ever imagined in my ignorance. I must take another breath. The story, as it was told to us by the realtor and neighbors, goes like this: The musician and his boyfriend had started the project together, but had broken up half way through. Being of limited means, he had to cut costs, which really didn’t seem to matter, as he did not know how to build. I know this, because as I went about fixing this and that, I found that not one corner – not one – was square. Anyway, he completed the house and separate A-frame as well as he could alone, and then found that his income would not pay his debts. His solution was to move to the two-room A-frame and rent out the main house. For some reason – probably because of the house’s many deficiencies – the only tenants he could get were several Hispanic young men – either Puerto Rican or Dominican, no one could tell – who worked at menial jobs at the hospital, a half hour away from the house in Putnam (where, coincidentally, our son was born). Of course, that was not a problem on the face of it. What was the problem was their addiction to heroin.
It was not just talk. They had destroyed the house, using the bathroom door as a target for darts, and had punched several holes through the walls. It was while fixing one of these holes that I pulled out a set of “works,” a spoon and syringe that, out of sheer luck, I had not grabbed at the wrong end. And more: when the musician had finally admitted defeat and forfeited the house to the bank, the junkies ripped all of the copper tubing – all of it – from behind the walls, as well as any fixture that could get them a few bucks somewhere. A neighbor told me, “we saw them driving away in a pick-up truck filled with all these pipes and sinks and toilettes and such. We called the police, and never heard another thing about it.”
So this was the house I had stupidly set our fortunes on. I was an academic and had done almost no construction before. After sizing up the situation, I got a shot of panic that never quite left for the next two and a half years. Those were rough times.
But the deal had gone through, including the disposal of our perfectly good house. It so happened that an old high school friend had recently lost his house to fire, due to faulty wiring. Although insurance had paid for much of the rebuilding, the payments for the new construction had put him under, financially. It did not help that, just after the house was rebuilt, some local toughs had come through their yard and jumped on their car. When Bill, the friend, and his wife went out to chase them off, they pushed Bill down and punched his wife in the face. The neighborhood had gone bad, to say the least, and with everything, they were anxious to leave. We offered our house for a rent-to-buy, and they eagerly accepted. They were set to move in only a few weeks after we had bought the new place. Like it or not, we were going to have to live in this leaking house with no plumbing and more problems than I could yet know, in early April, one year old child and all.
Home Depot to the rescue. I still love those guys. I had to drive over an hour, to Norwich, to get to the nearest franchise, but it was well worth it, not only in savings, but in advice. Advice? No, really, an education. It is still hard to believe that the retired plumbers and carpenters and electricians who worked there were willing to spend hours teaching me how to rewire and sweat the pipes and use a plumb line, but they did. Maybe it was because I was such a rapt student, for I was, with my very bad decision leaving my family on the precipice, but for whatever reason, they taught me enough to fix the downstairs bathroom – pipes and toilet and sink and bathtub and shower and all – by the time we were forced to move in. Calls to local heating and cooling guys got those other things going, while I put in a woodstove to cut the cost on propane (the house sucked it up at a disturbing rate); and the window guy turned out to be better than his word. He walled off two thirds of the old window space, put in double pains for the rest, and had curtains placed on those to cut the sun on warm days. Envelope house, gone; livable house, made.
Still, necessary renovations were to continue for the remainder of our occupancy. There was the upstairs bathroom, the carpeting, a new tile floor, a stove and fridge and laundry, and paneling. But even that was not enough, for the house had been poorly planned from top to bottom. The cement floor had not been raised high enough, so that all the outside wall boards were rotten, sometimes into the support beams. These had to be ripped out and replaced with pressure-treated wood; the pipe to the septic system had been buried too close to the surface (more on that in a minute) and had to be replaced; and ditto that on all of the above for the A-frame, which my wife happily occupied during her work-a-day world.
Me, I occupied the house for all of my working day, and often night. Things did not always go right. For instance, I noticed that after everything, the upstairs shower still leaked into the downstairs living room. On this, I asked a carpenter who I had hired to do the finer work on some paneling if this, perhaps, were OK – it was, after all, only a tiny leak. He immediately returned a look of disbelief: you cannot have any leakage of water in a house, ever! It was one of the great lessons of my life – one cannot argue with nature. It will do what it will do, and all the pleading and good will in the world will not change it. The facts of life, after all those years spent arguing and speculating in academia, still remained facts. Welcome home to the real world.
In the swamp, nature was quite real in its living creatures as well. We quickly found out why there had been no basement – the house had been built on a solid slab of rock that only dynamite could displace. Because of this – because this was a rocky high ground in the middle of a swamp – it had become the basking and breeding grounds for many of the swamp critters. Every spring, hundreds of baby snapping turtles would crawl across our lawn to the life-giving morass below. Better still, it was a place beloved by snakes, who had probably sunned there for centuries. They also knew of any holes in the house, and regularly showed up in certain rooms, sometimes by the dozen – black snakes and milk snakes and corn snakes and garters, and who knew what else. I would find the holes and patch them up with a shudder. It was also for this reason that the sewage pipe had been placed so near the surface, causing me to dig for a day with a pick ax and crow bar in the leaking filth to gain an extra six inches. That, like the patched holes for the snakes, would have to be enough.
Meanwhile, our poor son had to negotiate the house with his dad’s head nearly always in a wall or under a sink. I often took off my wedding ring to work, as it caught on things, and Jeff managed to lose it, forever, one day when I was fixing that damned upstairs shower. I go ring-less to this day, although it has not led to the type of female onslaught that one might expect. Another time, Jeff got into a drawer in my study, where I had casually placed some medicine for malaria (for former fieldwork) in an envelope and forgotten it. I found a capsule opened on the floor one bright morning, which led to a stay at the emergency room, where Jeff was forced to eat charcoal. It turned out that he had only tasted it and turned away from it because of its bitterness, as he had no physical ill effects, but psychologically, we had all been poisoned, me particularly, with guilt. But the housing project went on.
And on and on until two and one half years after my careless decision, Vicki got an offer from her company that she couldn’t refuse – move to Wisconsin or start looking for another job. For reasons that baffle me now, I was extremely upset at this, but there was really no decision to make. We called the first realtor and he gave us an appraisal that was barely over all our costs, not to mention the thousands of hours I had put into the place. We declined, and as he left, he said, “That’s all right. In the end, you’ll come back to me. They always do.”
The next realtor assessed a value at 50,000 more, and we leapt. “It’s a quirky place, but you just need to find the right person. All this land and privacy is valuable to someone.” Next morning, a sign was put at the end of the long driveway. That afternoon, an elderly man – a retired contractor – drove up with his new wife of roughly the same age. He asked me to tell him honestly all the problems of the place. I did, and he retorted, “Just what I had figured.” He had also come to figure that he would make the same changes that I was about to over the next year or two. The house, or place, really, was a hit. Two weeks later, we had our sale, at our price.
Up until a few years ago, I would get periodic nightmares about that place. The panic, the feeling of drowning, of being over my head and about to lose everything, was not pleasant. Most of that has now been forgotten, except as it is being excavated in this essay, but what has remained to this day is the synchronicity of the all-around transactions, and what they would mean to us. At the start, there was Bill, ready to take the first house at exactly the right time. Then, during the long and tortuous building process, there were the right people able to help this idiot in a world where he did not belong. And at the end, along came the right buyer immediately at the right price. Here is what this had meant to us in the long run:
The extra money from the sale of the property allowed us to move into the house we currently own, in a neighborhood where we have found, against any expectations, some of the best friends we have ever known. The nearby town happened to have a Catholic school, where we put our son and began, again, to attend church. This has connected us to the surrounding community in a way, again, that had not been expected, and led in some other ways to spiritual growth. Our friend Bill, on the other hand, had a place to live in during ten years of personally tough economic times, until I finally had to sell the house that he could not afford to buy. This led him to find another house in which he now lives comfortably. The sale of the house happened to be just before the real estate bust of 2007-2008, when we were able to get a shockingly high price from people from New York who considered the price shockingly low. With that money, we were able to pay our mortgage and buy acreage and a cabin Up North, something I had always wanted and something that has helped my writing considerably.
The consequences of that one decision, then, were enormous – and, in the end, primarily for the better, beyond all odds. This has set me to wondering – did my intense meditation during that time lead to that decision? Did something within me, or without, know something that I personally did not?
On the other hand, the process was not all positive, as can be seen. During the fix-up years, I was anxious nearly all the time, with all energy focused on this one big, messy problem. On top of that, the move to Wisconsin was startlingly traumatic, as I had not made any advances professionally during those fix-up years, leaving me with a feeling of profound alienation that lasted for far, far too long. All in all, in truth, that time - from fix-it through the Wisconsin move - had been the most trying of my life.
Among the Chinese, it is said that the wrinkles of old age are honored while the smooth faces of the young are disparaged; wrinkles speak of experience, they say, and from experience comes wisdom. But perhaps avoidance of experience comes from wisdom that is inborn. Perhaps “experience” is only another word for stupidity. Yet this stupid one learned one hell of a lot from the Hell House and it consequences. I learned not only how to fix things, but how easily I could break inside, and how hard it was to fix this, this machine of mind that had seemed so invincible. But I learned that in this, too, there were forces that could help, that would help if one hung on through desperate times. Rapt attention, the expression of honest need, is required, but with that and determination, the disaster will be remedied.
Somehow, that is, for sometimes the mess we get into is beyond the kind of help we hope for. But maybe we can always get the help we need.
I will never, ever know if the decision to buy that house was the right one in the larger sense, just as I do not know if it has led me to a nobler destiny. But things have worked out well - very well. Outside, the maple tree is in full color, pumpkin orange and rusty red. Inside I write of things greater than ourselves, and in that, I feel them, almost know them. Even now, it seems that the brilliant colors might burst forth in the fullness of glory to make me forget every regret, every failing, in the grace of an unquestionable truth. There is no success, no path in the world that would be worth the loss of this, of these small moments. Perhaps these would have been missed had I not thrown our lives into the unknown through brash ignorance.
Destiny? Everything is destiny if it leads one to something beyond, something greater than the self. Experience IS wisdom, if it is worn to the end. Here, there should be no regrets or second guessing, for to glimpse the Great is greatness itself, surpassed by nothing. How one gets there is of little importance. Each is just another way, if it is allowed to be.
It might have been the need for fresh meat. Lourdes and I had arrived at the tiny Indian settlement of Chirinos with plenty of rice and powdered milk, and it was easy to trade for fresh fruit which the Yabarana grew year round in the riverine tropics of Venezuela, but meat was a problem. We had several dozen cans of Deviled Ham, each one weighing six ounces, net, and we would split one each day to top the boiled rice we always had for our afternoon lunch, but that was a far cry from a steak, or even a hamburger.
Still, though, I could have asked Freddy, my tucayo, or namesake, to take me to hunt deer out of sheer boredom, for not a lot happens in a small Indian settlement a day’s walk from the nearest town. It is like a little suburban community without the cars and TV’s or tickets to the Packer’s game. It is like living as a teenager on summer vacation, without an outside job or a driver’s license in a sparse house without AC. For the people there, the men fish and the women tend the garden or grate manioc until the noonday heat, when everyone retires to their hammocks for a long spell of sleeping or simply lulling about. At about 4:00 PM, life stirs again, but not all that much. And then comes night without lights, and early bed time. Repeat this the next day, and then the next.
So I cannot recall why I made the request, but it was agreed to quickly by teen-aged Freddy and a few younger boys, for I had a shotgun and, better still, shotgun shells that came at a high cost for people who lived outside the market economy. On the village side of the all-important life-giving river, there were the gardens and then thick brush; on the other side, the great floodplains, which had only small elevated islands of trees because of the annual floods that would cover tens of thousands of acres each rainy season. In the dry season, the plains were the place for deer. That was where we would go.
Already, at 9:00 AM the next morning, the sun was bearing down as we crossed the river in a dugout canoe and then headed on foot into the great interior. We walked through the dry grass for an hour or so before coming to one of those forested islands, where Freddy began to stalk. The boys and I did the same, crouching and moving quietly, and in minutes, Freddy, goofy Freddy who had seemed so useless in the village, pointed towards a sparse copse of tall trees. Gun Ioaded and cocked, I stood, looked, and saw nothing. But when I turned to question Freddy, my motion must have made the deer move, for it was then that I saw it, dashing from us towards the plains. I always felt like an idiot hunting with Indians, because I could never see as they could, but I was quick with the gun and was able to snap off a deer slug. It seemed to me that I must have hit it, but off it went into the grass, back towards the river. Freddy never spoke much, and he said nothing then, offering me no clue. We arrived at the river and the canoe and crossed without issue, me with some disappointment.
No one ever said a word to me how it happened, but that afternoon I walked down to the river for a cooling dip, as life was as dull as ever at that hour, and their saw Daniel, a young man old enough to have a family, dressing a deer. He said nothing to me and I do not know what he had planned originally, but an hour later, he stopped by our little open-sided, leaf-covered shack to drop off a fairly large steak. Apparently, I had hit the deer, and Freddy had taken Daniel back to track it. I always suspected that they were trying to hide it from me, but that might be ungenerous – and I still wound up with the steak.
Our cooking fire was small, as were the Indian’s, and we had done exactly as they – put three even-sized stones around the side on which to put the cooking pot. I had the advantage of a little grill, and once the coals were set, I placed the steak over the fire. A few minutes later, I walked a bit away from the hut for something or other, and on turning, caught the furtive movements of a dog. In less than a second, he had taken the hot steak from the fire and run off towards the center of the village with it. Shocked and enraged, I ran after, tripping over some string lines Daniel had set on the ground where he had planned to build a new house. I cursed loudly and then had to admit defeat. That steak was long gone.
The Indians thought it hilarious, as we “professors” always tried to maintain a professional cool, and in time I laughed, too, and forgot it. We had, after all, our canned devil’s ham and everything else we needed, and it had been at least some kind of adventure. But the dog, that dog, didn’t forget, and in fact reacted to my outburst and anger in a peculiar way: he started to hang around. In time, we began to feel sorry for him, and then began to give him scraps of food. As it must have worked since the beginning of the human-dog relationship, soon he became our dog.
He had been Daniel’s, but Daniel didn’t mind. He had gotten the dog from the Colonel, a rich military man from Caracas who now used the Indian land to graze his cattle. This extra-legal use of land often led to conflict, for as far as the Indians were concerned, they had as much right to those free-roaming cattle as the Colonel, and they were easier to hunt than deer, although far more dangerous. When the Indians killed a cow, the Colonel would complain to the authorities in town; the Indians would then complain about the Colonel using their land; and then nothing was ever done. But until the Colonel was arrested for large-scale drug smuggling, he and the Indians maintained a delicate balance with each other: the Colonel would hire them for the difficult work of rounding up wild cattle, while they would happily accept the cash that they otherwise had no way to get.
Sometimes the payments would come with something extra – like a dog.
Daniel was extremely proud of that dog, because, as he told us, it was of “pura raza,” a genuine hunting hound dog, unlike the mutts that scrambled like frightened coyotes around all the other Indian villages. However, the mutts were hardy dogs picked by Darwinian cruelties to survive in the hot, bug-infested tropics on next to nothing. Daniel, on the other hand, had no such violent pedigree, and he had suffered for it. The dog was extremely thin, like most Indian dogs, but also had a disturbing hack, like an old man with emphysema. His energy was limited and his usefulness next to nil. I suppose Daniel simply had stopped feeding him at some point, and was glad to have the business of the dog over and done with. Now, he was our dog to care for, or not. We called him Orejon, or Big Ear.
Soon, time came that our field work seemed stagnant, and we decided to move back up river to the larger village of Majagua. As it was the dry season and the river was running fast and shallow, we could get no one to take us there in a fishing canoe, so we decided to walk. We would have to cross the river again and follow its tree line for the ten-mile trek through the savannah, largely uncharted territory for us, and something of a risk. There were jaguar galore because of the cattle, but it was the cattle that were the problem. They were long-horned feral beasts whose greatest enemy was Man, and they were shockingly quick, as agile as any wild animal. An approach within a half mile to any bull would elicit a charge, and there were few places to hide in the open fields. And, as always, there were the snakes, as feared by the Indians as by us.
But we would go – boredom is a strong drive – and after packing our needs, walked with Daniel to the river, where he would paddle us across. We were followed by our now-faithful dog, Orejon.
The small fishing dug-outs, or bongos, are extremely tipsy, and we boarded with care, our gear placed just so in the middle. Daniel followed behind us and pushed off into the current, and all seemed well until Orejon gathered up what must have been the last of his strength and leapt from the shore, landing unsteadily on our pack. With the canoe swaying dangerously, Daniel dropped his paddle and grabbed Oregon by the fur, giving one mighty heave that left the dog sprawled sideways on the muddy shore. With that, Daniel steadied the canoe and dug into the water to get us over its forty or so feet of turbulence. To our surprise, Orejon followed, keeping his panting head just above the water. When he arrived on the opposite shore just moments after us, Danial shrugged. Well how about that? It was decided that we would allow the dog his choice, and didn’t really mind. It seemed, somehow, like a sign of good luck, which we thought we might need.
Daniel returned to the other side as we sorted out our packs, Orejon trembling by our side. “He looks sick,” Lourdes said, and as she reached into the food catch for a treat, Orejon raised his head and let out the most plaintive, sad howl that I had ever heard, bringing goose bumps to my arms. Then he lay down and died, just like that. Cold. Absolutely, unquestionably dead.
Dread ran through us – what could this mean? Behind us was the river and before us the burning plain. We asked ourselves if we should turn back, but felt foolish for it. We were the professors, after all, and did not believe in such nonsense. Yet we did. After feeling for a life force in him that was obviously gone, I tossed him into the river because we thought somehow that this would make his death cleaner. Careful now, alert to dangers we had pushed into the back of our minds, we left the shore and began the march to Majagua, covered by a cloud even as the sun burned hotter in the white-blue sky.
No snakes bit us, no jaguars growled close by, and the cattle came no closer than small dots on the horizon, but it proved to be a magical adventure, made more so with the possibilities of disaster that the howl had forced to mind. We walked through a broad expanse of twenty to thirty-foot-high termite mounds, the earth piled in sloppy peaks like lose excrement. Stands of stripped and dried trees were scattered throughout, victims of termite foraging, and it seemed as if we were walking through the land of the dead. Then, on through more burning plains, the distant tepuys always before us, their several-thousand-foot cliffs rising stark and gray towards cloudy, flat tops covered in thick dark-green forests that may never have known a human print. Magical, dangerous, filled with wonder, the outlandish landscape kept us quiet until we came to the large island of trees that, we thought, marked the territory of Majagua. On approach, we found some patches of tended plantain, and we knew we were there. Safe, back into civilization. Back, then, into boredom.
Boredom? How could that be? Here we were, in the back woods of the Orinoco forests living with Indians, living a life that few could or would ever do, and we felt the pressing need to move on. Even then, even on this trip without guides in a foreign land, it may have not been all that exciting, except for Orejon. His spooky last howl, where the very life force seemed to flow from him in one eerie cry, gave us something – fear, superstitious fear, yes - and something else as well: marvel. His death opened our eyes to what we had become accustomed to, made of it the special thing that it was – the tepuys rising in mist to lost lands, massive thrusts of earth made by tiny insects, gnarled gray trees and grasslands free of noise, free of people, full only of wild and unpredictable things stretching ever beyond.
Could it be that fear, fear of pain and death, is what makes us come alive? Could it be that what we avoid and curse and worry about is our saving grace, our ticket back to wonder and awe? To life itself? Could it be that our success at denying the undeniable is what sucks us dry, what leaves us bitter or wanting or just plain bored? For the paradox is that we create
walls to block the mystery, what we can never know, and in doing this deny the very life we wish to live, the very thing we need for life – this mystery, this infinite depth, this frightening depth, that which is our true home.
Even now, each night it comes, and each day I let it go, this fright, this intimation of mystery. But I should know better. In the agonizing howl of death, I saw life, and in fear saw the substance of what it means to live. It is to live with eyes wide open, with courage, to live without ever wishing that one minute should be anything but what it is.
This spring I was visited with the urge to move- to travel, to explore, to stretch across the land in its immensity and be overwhelmed – again. It had been years since I had done so, decades, in fact, so long back that this urge was almost nostalgic, almost a grasping for a past gone, but not quite. In it still was the old need, like the dying tree that sends out multiple suckers in one last gasp of life to succeed further in life. I felt that I had to move.
The call, though, was suppressed for months because of things to do and other plans, and by the time all was clear and the light had turned green, it was late August, and torpor had set in. Why go? It was uncomfortable, a hassle, and what else could I possibly see that had not been seen before? I was certainly not Merriweather Lewis, and no longer young. Everything, I knew, had taken on a patina of the used, of the tired. But that is not how life works. Instead, the impetus of spring had worked its way through the summer into design, and the design into a plan. It would be done. I almost groaned on the day that we left.
After much deliberation, it was decided that we would go west from our home in Wisconsin, heading through the corn fields of Iowa and down through uncelebrated Nebraska, where once men roamed freely on horses and carried lances with feathered banners, and then through Wyoming to the heart destination of the American tourist – Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. We, my wife and college-aged son and I, would camp when we could and find motels when we couldn’t. We would expect a crowded arena of sightseers, of jammed camp sites and selfies taken besides bison and antelope. I nearly groaned again as we started, but gained energy by motion, a motion towards the west, where Europe had invested its dreams for so long that one could not be uninspired, in spite of everything. It was the direction of possibilities, ever now as then, and the draw was like a vacuum that pulled us into the strong westerlies as we passed Dubuque and watched as slowly, so slowly, the cities separated by greater and greater miles, and the corn and soy ran towards larger horizons. It did not impress, not this old traveler, but the energy mounted with each exit off the great interstate. West, west. We were not there yet, no, for West was not just a direction, but a place, and we would know it when we saw it. Ten, twenty, one hundred miles, we watched and waited for the West we knew would come.
Iowa, where the wind blew so steadily that our gas mileage dropped by ten percent, would not be the place. This we knew. The corn was too tall, the farms too prosperous, the trees too numerous on hillsides and ravines. There, yes, the motorcycles roared by on their way to western South Dakota, the true West, but here was only a way-point. Here was only a gas -up and drink-up of bitter coffee on the way. It would come, instead, in Nebraska, but where we did not know. Certainly not in Omaha, its refineries belching smoke amid industrial buildings and hardy trees; and not for more miles than we had imagined, the land still full with wire and field and more trees. It was almost there at Monument Rock, the tall spiral that had signaled the way to the Western trails for so many pioneers, where signs at the local park headquarters warned “Danger! Rattlesnakes!,” where so many TV Westerns had taken that one shot of its tall spiral against a red-blazed sky. Almost there as the towns got dustier, poorer, where horses grazed by old trailer homes, were one could imagine a rodeo cowboy occasionally took off his boots and spurs. But it was near, and when it came, when it became West, it was suddenly as clear as day, and the old wonder began to rise, the blood expectant for new beginnings and horizons of wonder.
It was in western Nebraska, where sky and land and lake fell together in a juxtaposition of possibilities, here in the improbable that we knew that we were in the West. We had just passed rocky ledges and contoured corn fields, where the farmer’s growth fell into what was nature’s alone, short grass covering miles of rolling hills that could not be counted, hills whose bare backs were etched sharply against a blue-bright sky. As we topped a greater hill, we saw with shock the water below, the lake that stretched on and on between the hills, impossible in this dryness, a work, no doubt, of thirsty Man. Blue on blue, green and dull rock, we simply had to take the small road off the larger and follow the crease of hills down to this liquid glimmering, passing here and there a house of wood that seemed so stark and alone – so alien – in these hills, until the lake came up like fallen sky. We drove until we came to a small marina and campsite, found a dusty spot beneath cottonwoods, and stopped.
It was quiet here, here where the state park met a private marina and campgrounds that had been intended for so much more noise. Quiet under the cottonwoods as Jeff, my son, and I walked to the end of the dock to test the water. We were on a small inlet of the large lake, the water somewhat rusty and warm, and around were a few other jetties of wood that were meant to anchor boats that were not there. The weather was hot but dry, and the wind that surrounded the trees made it a perfect place, warm yet cool, dry yet dust-free with the lake so close. We walked along the shore into the nearly empty campground where the few who were there were seemingly up to nothing. A woman sitting on a fallen tree by the lake noticed us and told us, “there’s a family of turkeys up there,” and we went “up there” to see nothing at all but sand and willows bowed by the gentle breeze. We turned for the car and saw the turkeys, a family as she had said, stalking the grass by the edge of the brush, as we stepped across the fine sand that held each print in the moving shade.
We took our swim then, Jeff and I, in the rusty water, then hurried out as a boat approached the dock. Jeff said some things about fish and the folks were friendly, but they soon returned to talking of things to come, of small things like Sunday and dinner, and we changed in the small plastic outhouses as it became quiet again beneath the sun and below the spreading cattle-shaved hills that spoke of space, of quiet and space and sudden contrasts of water and dry, of hot and cold, of bright sun cut with deep shade as if by a knife. Yes, we were in the West.
Long miles later, we veered off the interstate at the border of Wyoming to make a north-westerly tack towards the Grand Tetons. The sun dropped straight into our eyes as sparse corn turned to sparse fields, and then to almost nothing at all, or so it seemed in the dimming light. Hills and cliffs, poor grass, cattle far off with antelope among them, we were in cowboy country where Old Paint died on its way to Montana, the cowboy lonesome, for there was nothing between Cheyenne and Montana, nothing for Man but emptiness and silence. We asked each other – would we live here, in the high desert? Would we brave the fierce winds of winter and, worse, the lone-ness? No, we would not, and our gas was running low. We could camp in the endless hills, but did not want to, and were glad to see a small town come up, where an independent motel advertised “vacancy.” It was in decline but still not half-bad, and at dusk was the perfect place out of the sparse hills that were so close.
Characters. There were always characters in the West when I had last travelled, when I had hitched back and forth across the continent as a young man, confused and itching for something I did not know, and there was a character here. He sat tilted back in a chair before his room out on the sidewalk – a good idea, as the weather could not be finer in the last light – and as I passed him to get ice from the office, he asked me the usual, and then he told his own story. He had come out west from Minnesota as a young man in the 60’s and had fallen in love with it, moving to Wyoming shortly after with his new wife. Fifty years later, he was retired and at this motel because of the hidden lake just below these hills, where it had once been desert but now was filled with water and fish.
“This is all desert, these hills. Now, you take this shortcut out at the damn…” He tried to explain it, then walked me over to his truck for the map. “Right here. That’s where you’ll see the farms and the green. They damned up the river sometimes back and it grows real good.” He was anxious for me to see the better Wyoming. We walked back towards the building. “But you think the bears are only at the parks. Not anymore. Why, they’re out there in the desert right now. You might see one come through the parking lot tonight.”
Really? What could live here but jackrabbits and a few skinny antelope? He went on.
“They used to tell the tourists to feed the bears back then. Then they got to be problem, so they killed off all the black bears. Then there got to be too many Grizzly. So they ended hunting in the 70’s, and now the bears are everywhere. Killed three or four people this summer so far.”
I mentioned that they should have controlled hunting to bring back respect in the bears, but he declined to answer. It was, it seems to me now, that he knew that every control measure would end with some problem, from the dams to the bears to the coal mines to the tar sands, to everything. This was the way of the West. In its flinty heart, life was so delicate that any change would hurt something to favor something else. There was no real balance out here, not as long as he had lived, and for a lot longer. It was nothing to be upset about. It was the West.
But this was true, and it did upset me, at least a little. Forty years before, these hills had been the same, but with one difference; then there had been nothing but the hills; now, the power lines stretched everywhere for infinity. And railroads – everywhere were coal cars, thousands of them, carrying off some mountain towards the east. The West had become energy central, giving us cheap gas and oil and electricity, but also strewing the debris of the fevered rush for wealth everywhere; just as it had always been, since Indians fought each other for the rights of land and buffalo. Too live here, something, many things, had to die. It is that brittle.
We made the park the next afternoon and marveled at the Tetons rising from the lake so perfectly, just as in all the pictures we had seen. The tourists, too, were dense, and most surprisingly, perhaps a half, or at least a quarter, were Chinese. Diesel fumes ruled the park headquarters as bus after bus dropped the hopefuls here, these pilgrims for wilderness, to snap photos and walk the easy paths hoping, and not hoping, to see a bear. We took the harder trip the next day, climbing a part of a mountain in rain that soon became driving and cold, and we had an adventure as we shivered in the boat on the ride back to the dock. Even then, the steep, muddy path that so exhausted us was nearly crowded, with no one alone for long. The campsite, too, gave us neighbors, even as a bear strolled through looking for some stray Cheetos.
And so it was, too, at Yellowstone. This is not to say that it was not marvelous – the boiling ponds and abundant bison, the great Yellowstone Falls, the mountain vistas were all wonderful, but always there was – us. We read of the mountain men who had come here in the early 1800’s for beaver, but really for the life, and I wondered, wished, it were still so, wished, maybe foolishly, for I am no longer tough and young, that it held the bounty of freedom and danger that it once had, for why were we here? For the Chinese if must be quite the place, but for us? I could sooner lose myself in the Wisconsin North Woods than here, or so it seemed from our short day hikes. Yes, the sights were marvelous, but it was not – it was not that, that which I cannot quite name. It was West, but managed West. Again, a balance had been lost. Here, it was not about bodily survival, but survival of the very soul of wildness. Something had been changed, and much of wildness, or so it seemed, had died for this new thing.
East, then, over a great high pass in Montana that gave me fear at driving, a memorable thing as we drove through the lingering snow fields at ten thousand feet, and then out into the Montana version of Wyoming, its own high desert, which was rockier but much the same – empty but for the power lines that ran everywhere. Our next destination was not far – Little Big Horn Park, where Custer had his last stand. Not far at all, as a matter of fact, for it was within a mile of the interstate, its open fields hedged in by parking lots and the towers and building of a small town and the big road. Walking through the memorial, the wind was driving and steady, and if one looked in one direction, one could sense the openness where this great battle had taken place, the rolling, treeless green hills that went on to the horizon. We were walking here to find where my only famous relative had died, Cpt. Myles Keogh, whose horse “Comanche” had been immortalized and once was known by most school children. Now, though, almost everyone at the memorial was as old as I or older, the last of a breed who had been raised on cowboy movies and TV shows, and as we found Myles’s death marker at the side of the field, I wondered if anyone would come here in another decade or two – if anyone would know. Certainly not the Chinese; and maybe only the Crow, who had been allies of the Blue Jackets against their mortal enemies, the Sioux and Cheyenne, and who now owned the land around the park and worked in its buildings.
It had that kind of lonely feeling, this place, although it was hardly alone anymore; as if the old loneliness of endless prairie survived even as the endless prairie had died. Perhaps that was only in us, the old and the native who understood this place. Or perhaps it was the loneliness of death, of how all things and people that die are forgotten, sooner or later, fading like the mythical shades of the Greeks in Hades.
Driving east, straight east, we split off the highway for some way into the Wyoming Black Hills, Devil’s Tower our destination. The Hills were as beautiful as ever, not wild around the park, but verdant with grass and trees that lined a snaking river. The Tower was, as with the parks, picture perfect, and although it makes us moderns think of a penis broken off at the tip, it seemed also like a hollow point bullet recovered from deep sand, the rifling groves struck into the slug perfectly. Awesome, and before we got back, the clouds darkened and the lightening sounded, the rain pounding the roof just after we made the car. Green, beautiful, civilized. We could settle there, but wouldn’t, for land prices have gone high. And Wisconsin, too, is green.
The great dry fields of South Dakota rolled out, cattle on the far vistas, and then the Badlands came, an odd land of dry canyons and hills that seem much larger than they are, for most are little more than a few hundred feet high. What is memorable here are the striations of different colored minerals exposed in the soft rock, and what is surprising in this dead place is that not long before – in the 1920’s – this land had been given over to farmers. Disaster came quickly, and they left it to the Park Service and the antelope and cattle and buffalo, the latter seen by us as small specks on grassy patches in the canyon.
The Badlands – if you had to designate an area for nuclear destruction, this would be the place, and indeed it was. Just a few miles from the park was another park, just a station, really, the site of a control room to fire nuclear missiles from a silo ten miles to the west. We had thought it would ooze dread, but it did not – rather, it instilled nothing from its design, done in the plainest of bureaucratic architecture that did not speak of the potential horrors it could have unleashed. The control center was closed for refurbishing, as such buildings often are, and we bought books that told the tale of Mutually Assured Destruction in the most frightening – and realistic – ways. We drove on, hardly looking back.
Miles and miles and miles onward, the plains slowly greened until we were back in corn country, where we turned from the highway into a mid-sized town that advertised its “Corn Palace,” the last of its kind. Surrounded by the cheapest of kitsch shops and fried dough stalls, it stood as a paean to the country bumpkin. The façade was built of corn husks and dried corn cobs to form an outrageous mosaic, perfect for bumpkin pictures for us sophisticates – for anyone would feel himself a sophisticate before it – to share and laugh at, but inside: well, inside was the town basketball court, where they also held an occasional concert. Along the walls it described the history of the town, and how the corn palace tradition had begun as a way to brag to the world about the abundance of the corn-growing states. Now a modern building with good clean bathrooms for free, it was deflating.
As was, in a way, the remainder of our trip through Minnesota and western Wisconsin, for we had seen it, lived it all before. This was and is beautiful in its way, but it does not hold the promise of the West. It does not promise adventure and awe and grand vistas and wildness. No, those last miles home are lived in and settled – certainly not the West.
But neither is the West. It had gotten smaller somehow, so tamed that its past promise was only to be found in vestiges, in views where one had to look one way and not the other; in small groups of buffalo uninterested in cars, in walks where no sign had yet routed the tourists towards something picture-worthy. The West, I thought, had been lost to the highways, to the tourists, to the power lines and the box cars, to a development that had swallowed the land to the west of the Mississippi in little more than a hundred years.
Sad, yes, but a good trip after all, and more to it than first met the eye. Seeing the West again after so many years, it had indeed seemed smaller, but had it really changed that much? In some ways, yes, but in most ways, in retrospect, no. It was, instead, me who had changed, who had gotten older far faster than the modernizing West. Just as with so many things, from romance to jobs to drinking, to most everything, the excitement, the newness, the glory has faded, not in itself, but in my eyes. The West was not so much a place as a repository of possibilities, of excitement and dreams. As I suspect of many who live there, the West is not a dream at all, but a place to live, to struggle, to win or lose, and to die – just like any other place.
But then again, no, for it is still wonderfully alive with its big sky and its rocky mountains and colored canyons. No, really, it was age that had dwarfed its possibilities – as it dwarfs all others as well. We have been born to expect miracles, and to strive for them in this world until a certain age. We have been born to expect miracles, because we are that, a miracle, but we lose that sense as our power dwindles. Perhaps it is the dwindling of power that causes us to lose the miraculous, but it doesn’t make a difference in the end. In the end, we shrivel and things and places and people and our own selves shrivel with us, until we die, no matter where we are.
Perhaps, though, age is not to be measured in years but in our loss of the miraculous, and death is only our realization that the time has come to find another miracle. Whether this one will last forever or dwindle with time as well, I do not know, but we were built for wonder, are made of wonder, and this we will find. For me, it was once in the West, and now it is in the setting sun, in the western sky, as it dims to release the mystery of night.
Fog. This morning the east field cupped a fog that glowed like primordial soup from the rising sun that could not be seen, and it filled me with an odd, uncomfortable feeling. It was thick and brackish, with a density that seemed capable of producing anything, any monster or disease, any alien or poison gas, and I wondered at my apprehension, for it was not always so. It was not always so that such a mysterious mist gave me dark chills. Rather, I had once been drawn to it as to no other, obsessed with it, and longed for it as though the clear light of day in fact obscured the greater part of existence that could only be known beneath such miasmic weight, for in such mists the most wonderful of things had been spawned and lived.
Dinosaurs. I don’t know when they first entered my life, for they were already walking with me before I had learned to read or understand much of anything else.
Perhaps it was because of the Peabody Museum on the Yale campus in New Haven, only a few blocks away from my father’s small business. With any trip we made to the city, I would always beg, implore, maybe hold my breath, so that I would be taken there to see the dioramas of cave men, or the stuffed grizzly rearing on its hind legs ten feet into the air, or the sarcophagi of ancient Egyptian nobles, or – I always saved this for last – the great skeletal remains of the dinosaurs. Of these last, I knew them all like friends, or, more to the point, like alternate limbs of my own being, from the impossibly long brontosaurus to the fierce tyrannosaurus with his huge teeth and tiny arms. There was the stegosaurus, too, and the huge Cambrian tortoise, and the pterodactyl that hung from the ceiling from thin wires, and the littler ones, perhaps those now called velociraptors. There was the wooly mammoth, too, which stood by the entrance to my monsters, for he was of a different era and I knew it, but he was also born from the mist. Mostly, though, it was about them, my dinosaurs.
But it comes to me now that this couldn’t be, for dinosaurs had entered my life even before there was a family business. Yes, I remember that I had been given a thick book on creatures from different times, an evolutionary run-down of the epics of living DNA, and it had been populated with wonderful pictures that gave full life to my dinosaurs. There was one I went back to again and again, so often that I can still see in my mind how the pages there had been curled and torn at the edges and smudged all around by dirty child fingers. It covered two pages and presented one with a vast swamp surrounded by gigantic fern trees, populated with everything from a pink-blue alyosaur (similar to the tyrannosaurus) to a gray-green plesiosaur, its long neck sticking out from the swamp as it paddled with huge flippers in the green water. It was wonderful. It was an entire world that would swallow me up so completely that unknown hours were lost while lying on the floor rug before the book.
Yet, it could not be that, either, for the interest most certainly had come before the book. The book was bought for me, instead, because of my interest, which, in the final analysis, seems to have come from the same mysterious mist as the dinosaurs. Maybe knowledge of them had come from other children, passed down from one boy to another in the living chain of information that only children know, but the interest, from where? Was it psychological, the enormous semi-mythical beasts fulfilling a child’s need for power and escape? This may be, but it did not feel that way. Instead, I recall the wonder rather than the need or desire. It, they, the dinosaur world, was magic that was, both real but not, with so much lost to the ages. For whatever reason, this lost world could not have been better made for an imagination like mine.
And it followed me everywhere. When I was four, the open lot next to our house had been hayed to make way for a new construction. I piled the hay around in a circle to make a large nest that was to serve to cushion my dinosaur eggs. I would crouch in the middle doing I –don’t-know-what-else, protecting the imaginary eggs like any decent T-Rex would. If I was walking, the grass would become fern trees, and I would crush through them like the lizard-giant that I was, or I would fly well overhead on my leathery wings. I would chalk their pictures on the black-top road out front, apart from the girls and their jumping squares. I don’t know if I had them eating people or themselves, or what, for in my mind now I sense that this did not matter. Rather, it was their presence that mattered, however that might manifest.
It was probably a good thing that I was not yet in school, for I could imagine the hostile shouts of the teacher as I penciled a stegosaurus instead of numbers or letters, or the concerned discussion of the officials with my parents: “He is detached from reality. His obsession is unhealthy and we really must get professional help.” As if that would have helped, but this was not the case. My dinosaur obsession happily occurred at a pre-literate phase, and although it continued for a few years into grade school, it was in a more subdued and respectable form.
But not when I was four. As it was then not a thing to be ashamed of, the grown-ups around me all knew of my obsession, and knew that my favor was easy to buy. Although I used my own few pennies to get plastic dinosaurs from the museum, it was the grown-ups around me who had the better connections, for I would regularly receive wonderful beasts from Dad or Grampa made from colorful plastic with its name – the real name, not “Barney” or the like – raised in letters underneath, letters that I could somehow read. There would be pamphlets, too, with pictures, and one time, perhaps for my birthday, a set of cardboard dinosaurs that I had to assemble, which I remember doing, but can’t remember the help from others that must have come alone with it. I loved them, too, but they did not stand up to the rigors of my play as the plastic figures did. Perhaps they lasted a few months, tattered and pathetic in the final extremes before, at last, they were sorrowfully laid to rest in the garbage like forgotten pets.
But there were always more to come, and I can well imagine now the delight the grown-ups had in one-upping the last offerings, until there came the Christmas that cannot be forgotten. I had no idea to what heights joy could reach until then, and I still look back to the boy I was with envy, because I have seldom been as pleased since.
And what I received - the best part of it, that is – was a one-of-a-kind that could not be bought. My grandparents lived next door, and if Gramma was not cooking, she was painting or forming clay or putting her work into the kiln, an odd oven we were told never to touch. She had been a stage actress of some note when young, but after marriage dedicated herself to the material arts. Like most people who do such work, she had been born to it, given a natural ability that makes clods like me sigh with affectionate envy, and as such, she was not limited to one or two forms of expression. As far as I knew, she could do anything of that sort, and so had many projects going at any time. It must have been because of this that I did not notice her greatest project ever, which must have been going on before my very eyes, for I was over her house every day. It was huge, and I had been so blind, but it was the rare sort of blindness that leads to good things. On Christmas day, I saw it.
Children do not faint from surprise as far as I know, and so I was to remain conscious throughout the unveiling. Perhaps it had been covered in packing paper, perhaps not, but suddenly, there it was, my dinosaur landscape built expertly from paper mache. Suddenly, I could see nothing else but the brown hills and the swamp beneath, around which stood plastic palms ready to feed. One of the hills was painted red and orange, an active volcano, drama in the very landscape that would hold the next part of the present – large, beautifully painted dinosaurs ready to fight, to fly, to swim, to browse. Real, all real, as I knew it was and they were. All real and wonderful and frightening to all but me, whose hand controlled them all, whose form rose above it all like some god or cyclops, master of the mist, of the giants, of time itself.
Of dim time. Perhaps that is where my dinosaurs came from, then; not from their ancient passage, no, but from my own. Perhaps in the confusion of an adult world that I could not understand, I understood that I had once understood something far deeper, far greater than the giants who now controlled me. Perhaps I understood that I had come from the mist and was a creature of it, too, from a time long lost but still imprinted in some part like footprints in ancient rock. Perhaps, then, those dinosaurs and great forests and swamps and volcanos had once been my ken and my place, one of profusion and creation and wild roars and stomping feet, a land of giants and monsters who stalked among the trees with menace and majesty, hardly less than the sky above and scarcely smaller than the heavens themselves. Yes, memories, not contrivance, memories that could no longer translate into anything known but the dinosaurs themselves and their distant epic that, somehow in a way that could not be said, was once my own.
Now, the glowing mist behind my house reminds me of sickness, of claustrophobia, of a closing in, and that is what it is, for I am no longer cousin to eternity, no longer kin to the stirring miasma of creation. Now it reminds me of death, and it is death, death to all I have learned to subdue, death to a world that I have made small and harmless so that this life might thrive. But we cut our ancestry too quick; we forget what we are and where we come from too soon, and so no longer glory in the furor of creation and re-creation, of struggle and blood and boiling volcanos. We are no longer a part of it, and we hold it at bay as a horror, as a nightmare, as a bad feeling that something is not right, not right at all right behind our very house, right before our half-closed eyes.
Because we have forgotten. We have forgotten that the hands that move the beasts are our own hands. We have become the card-board cut-outs that cannot stand up to the play and are thrown away, just so, like something cheap and temporal. But nothing is thrown away, nothing that matters; instead, we come and go from the mist. The little boy remembers, and the old man forgets. Time is ours, and the mist our memories as they become real, and then not real, in a play that is meant only for small children and a god who has nothing to lose because it is all time and everything.
My sister was and still is a born actress and lover of theater. When we, her three younger brothers, were very small, she would direct us in her original plays, which my parents thought were hilarious. What we thought about them varied with the intensity of her directing, but by the time she was in college and I had just turned fifteen, she had already come to know just about everyone involved in theater in south-central Connecticut. Most involved high school or college theaters, but there were a few professional theaters in that area then, and she knew people there, too. Because of this, along with my older brother John, I was to get my first regular job at the Oakdale Summer Theater in the Round in Wallingford, Connecticut.
Oh, I had worked at other places, including the Mark Twain House in Hartford, where I was humiliated by a group of black girls while weeding the front lawn as they sang (rather well, I remember) “Grazing in the grass is a gas/ baby can you dig it?,” a pop song that I knew all too well from then on. But Oakdale – this was to be a full-time job which, for some reason having to do with art, allowed under-aged people to work ‘round the clock, if need be. And in those first few weeks, those needs were nearly ‘round the clock – for that, we quickly learned, is show business. Grueling, however, it was not, nothing like the grinding, grimy jobs I would get in future years in the piece-work factories that once made Connecticut hum. Rather, it was theater work, and however demanding it got, it always had a special something, an excitement that discounted tedium that few other jobs had.
I loved it. For our first two or three weeks, we would arrive at 7:00 AM and keep going past dark, sometimes until midnight, learning to set the stage. The play to come, my brother reminds me, was The Music Man, probably a typical play regarding sets, but Oakdale was a different kind of theater. It was, for one thing, open at the sides. The theater floor was a concrete oval, like a round football stadium that rose on its edges and descended into the earth at its center, and over its top was hung a huge canvas top, a veritable circus tent held in place with ropes and stakes. But because it was not closed, the outside light came in; even at night, it was never truly dark in the theater, and in daytime, the performances were lit almost entirely with natural light. As it was also “in the round,” there was no such thing as a curtain or back-stage. There were no hiding places, in other words, for the stage props, or for the set-up people or for the setting up itself. It was all done in the open, the magic of the theater threatened by the reality of non-actors bussing things on and off stage in plain view.
Because of these circumstances, we dressed in black, like ninja warriors, during performances. We also were trained to be lightning fast, made possible by endless drilling until nothing, absolutely nothing could impede our speed or go wrong.
And so it was, and so it is that this is not a story about blowing it on opening night or on any other, because we were so highly trained that we couldn’t get it wrong. Even a monkey so trained couldn’t get it wrong. Even a fifteen year old, filled more with dreams than technique, couldn’t get it wrong. Rather, this is a story about the lives of those involved in theater, or at least how I came to know them, and like the theater work itself, there was nothing, ever, dull about them. Messed up, immoral, chaotic, yes, but never dull.
The professional set-up guys; unlike us, they traveled with the acting troop, living out of motels on very limited funds just to be near theater. In a way, they were an educated version of the Carney, living off the land and the people in much the same “I don’t care, I’m moving on” fashion, but they were something more; they lived for theater. Many were actor wannabees, and all fancied themselves artists in some way. Back in 1969, that meant wearing bizarre hippie outfits that they had bought at Army- Navy stores in San Francisco (they had all been there), embroidered with peace signs and blazing suns and mystical stars and so on. It also meant long hair and beards and drugs. I remember one guy, who fit the above description to a “T,” talking about his terrifying trip on DMT and how flashbacks would appear suddenly, literally turning his world upside down. Oh, I remember thinking, don’t do DMT! And yet we all thrilled to the story. Madness to this crowd was cool, because it was creative and it made them different. It made them, personality- wise, just like the fragile actors and actresses that they followed.
I never had dreams of becoming an actor, perhaps because of my sister’s demands on us for her plays, but probably because an actor is born, not made, and I just wasn’t born that way. I was also ignorant of any mind-changing chemicals, including alcohol, but I desperately wanted that situation to change, the faster the better. And while the working crew never approached me with drugs – I would have loved to have bragged to my friends about smoking pot – one guy did offer to get me drunk, for free.
He represented another troop that not only followed the actors, but backed them up on stage: the dancers. A crowd that normally kept apart from us stage hands, one of them approached me one evening in the changing tent where costumes and props and dressing rooms and everything else besides the stage and the play were stored or happened. We were close to going home, and he asked me, “hey, did you ever get drunk?” No, I replied, but I would like to. “No problem. I tell you what – you come with me to my room at the Yale Motor Inn tonight and I’ll let you have all the gin you can drink. And afterwards, you don’t have to go home drunk. You can stay with me for the night. I have a big double bed that will fit both of us comfortably.”
I wasn’t sure about how Mom would react to staying overnight in a hotel, but I was excited about getting drunk for free, and sought out my older brother for advice.
“He said what?,” smirked John, who at seventeen knew something about the world. “He’s a queer. You know, he likes guys for sex. What, are you stupid? Go to bed with him drunk and you’ll wind up with a sore asshole. Tell the creep to buzz off.”
I was shocked and disappointed and grateful for the advice all at the same time. Ah, the wisdom of the elders!
If (most of) the dancers stayed aloof, then the actual actors were on the farthest of clouds, even though they might be five feet away in a dressing room. I recall, perhaps incorrectly, that we did two plays, one of them The King and I, with Yule Brenner, one of the old folks that even I knew on sight, and the other, The Music Man, that featured similarly notable stars of the era. One might think that I might have stood around a dressing room to get an autograph or simply revel in the glow of fame, but I was fifteen and not interested in these ancients. But Oakdale did not just do plays – it did music. Liberace came annually for years, but I would not have seen or heard him, not a note, unless someone had paid me for the privilege. But others came, many others including pop stars. Big-name pop stars. One of my favorite all-album songs (more of a riff than a song) of the past year had been “In a Godda da Vida” by Iron Butterfly. This has become a joke for my generation, because in hindsight it was simply awful, but back then it was the cat’s meow. It had a mysterious title and lyrics that no one could understand, which made it so much more mystical. It had a piecing electric guitar solo that seemed to display great skill, and best of all, a drum solo that went on forever. We considered the drummer a first-rate musical genius, and it was primarily because of the drummer that this one-hit wonder band was able to rise to the top of the heap and stay there for many more months than they deserved.
The managers knew this, although I had no idea that acts were packaged. I knew only that the rock bands were the illuminati of our day, prophets of such wisdom that they would never need, or condescend to, handlers. Because of this, what I saw as I worked on set-up the first night of their show had me as alarmed as the rest of the fans.
It was at night and the lights were on in the “round.” I stood at an entrance, full of myself for being able to watch the performance without interruption, for there was only one set-up, and I patiently waited out the mediocre songs that made up the reverse side of their one great-selling album. Finally, it came: bum- bum – badda ba-bum –Bum Bum Bum!, that distinctive bass opening to “In a Godda da Vida” that put all us young teens in a frenzy. Oh, it was so cool, and I was there, for free! My friends would die from envy! On it came, the electric guitar, and then the sepulcher voice of the lead singer, sounding as if his head had just thrust itself from a mossy crypt. Then finally, the drummer – oh, the ecstasy! All alone, he pounded out his magical rhythms of glory and skill for five, then ten, then fifteen minutes! How could he go on? Was the man possessed? Was he – we could not discount this – a messenger from the Other Side?
On and on he went, all of us more rapt than ever, when suddenly the drumming stopped. We fans knew it was not supposed to stop, not then, for the song was to end as it had begun, with the bass and the electric guitar and then the zombie singer. What was going on? Wait, what was that? Oh - my – God, the drummer had collapsed! Amid a clash of symbols, he had fallen to the stage floor, his arms and legs akimbo and twitching. Was that foam coming from his mouth? What could we do? Then we heard the sounds of the ambulance – oh – my – and shortly saw, actually saw, the stretcher bearers come in and carry our mad sorcerer away. Was he going to die? Would he ever return to us from his voyage to the beyond? We did not know, but we did know this – that we had just seen a one-of-a-kind show, something that would go down in history. And unbelievably, we were there!
It was odd, then, that I should be told to come in the next night, for how could they do the show without the drummer? Perplexed and burning with curiosity, I helped set up, and then saw the entire band assemble to do the same show as before, as though nothing had happened. Wow! The miracle of modern medicine! And when the finale came, the drummer went off on the same wild riff, unable, I thought, to dampen his genius for doctor’s orders. And then, it happened again – before the proper ending, the drummer collapsed on stage, the siren sounded, and the same guys came to tote him away.
It was then, as Marlon Brando said as Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, that the truth “hit me like a diamond bullet through the forehead.” It had all been an act. The entire band thing was an act. Everything was staged; all the music that was made, all those groovy album covers that were drawn, all the cool clothes and long hair they wore, everything had only been about fame and money. No prophets, these; they were, instead, punks like me only a little older, with a little more practice on their instruments. I knew then that I would have to look for my heroes elsewhere.
Or so I thought until Led Zeppelin came to the Oakdale. Led Zeppelin was entirely different from the transitional pop bands of the time. Even then, we knew that their work was classic in its own way, which it was and is. About half of their stuff was junk, but the other half literally helped form the consciousness of two generations – for better and for worse. So when they came, I did stand around the dressing rooms, until finally a break came and I was actually able to not only stand before the door guarding the room that guarded the lead singer, Robert Plant, but to walk in to “get something.” It was shortly before the performance, and he didn’t notice me at all. As it was, I never even actually saw him straight on. All I would see was the reflection of his face in the dressing mirror, as Robert’s hands applied gads of make-up to that skinny countenance beneath the great flop of reddish hair. Make-up! What kind of man, I thought, applies make-up? On top of that, those hands were trembling in nervous anxiety, flopping about like those of the effeminate dancers off-stage. This guy, I thought, this rock-legend, this god of the Aquarian Age, was a poof!
I have never since been able to shake that image of him, but that has not shaken my image of his, of Zep’s, music. A man and a man’s art are often two different things. As a kid, I had conflated the two, and would most probably have been disappointed with any hero had I known and seen everything about him. In later years most of us learn that the man, or woman, dies, but the greatest of their deeds live on. It is no contradiction. It is the universe’s great grace, that imperfect men might give us works of perfection that are as immortal as the spirit of the people they come from.
I was not to see this show, though, because I had been given the job of guarding the back gate. Set up against a hill covered with trees, dozens of young fans had come to hear the music from afar, and many had hopes of slipping over the fence to see the rock gods up close, for free. It was a lonely and thankless job for a fifteen year old. The kids, mostly a few years older than I and, by the simple mathematics of age, far cooler, would look me in the eye through the fence and plead. “Come on, man, who’s gonna notice? Be cool and let us in!” Several offered drugs, joints and tabs of acid, which did not move me, but their pleas did as I squirmed and squeaked out, “no! I’ll get fired!” Finally, after most had given up, a few kids told me a sob story about a dead grandmother and, gee, couldn’t you just let us in? What’s it to you? To this, with a great twisting in the gut, I said yes.
They whooped and began to climb over, but before reaching the top, a grown man jumped out from the bushes yelling, “get outta here, you lousy kids!” They scrambled instantly, leaving me alone with the man, Bernie Siegel, the one and only owner of Oakdale. I was mortified.
“We told you what your job was, kid. I would fire you on the spot if you had taken any of the bribes, but because you didn’t, I’m giving you a break. Don’t let anyone in! Got it?”
Oh, yes sir, I got it, and my “no’s” were now definite and certain. Phew! But it has occurred to me in the following years that this man knew what was going to happen by putting a young kid in charge; that this man, the owner of the whole place, had hid in the bushes just for the joy of blowing the whistle and, perhaps, catching someone, me, taking a bribe. Ah, Bernie, you’ve GOT to be kidding! Why? Weren’t the young dancing girls enough for you? Wasn’t rubbing elbows with the famous enough?
Perhaps he had thought he would be the leading light in my moral upbringing. It seems more likely, though, that for him it was the sheer theatricality of it all; it seems more likely that he, too, was another actor wannabe who set up stories as we had set up stages, so that he could star as the leading man in his own play.
This passed as all things do when one is young, and when Labor Day approached, the season for the Summer Theater in the Round passed as well. But we would not simply walk away with a few nods to the friends we had made before setting off to school, for this was the Theater. Instead, on our last day the stage manager announced that a great party would be thrown for us all at the motor inn, and after collecting our checks, my brother and I got a ride to the very same place where the dancer was to get me drunk for the first time. And so it was to be; I would get drunk there for the first time, but in an entirely different, but no less unusual, atmosphere.
The suite was crammed when we got there, dense with cigarette and pot smoke and so heated by bodies that entering it was like entering the chambers of a smoldering volcano. Dante-esque, I might have said to myself if I had been so erudite, for soon we were about to witness a few of the circles of hell – or at least what got you there in the first place. Booze flowed like water, and the host was as eager for me to drink as I was. The first glass of whiskey went down like molten puke, but the next several were like grandma’s Kool-Aid. “Go ahead, have another,” the man would laugh, and I would politely say, “don’t mind if I do.” Oddly, I never felt drunk at all, even after several glasses. Instead, I seemed to merge with the party, to become one with these older people of great charm and experience. As far as I was concerned, I had become grown-up, with the only annoyance being that I kept dropping my glass, which not only did not upset the host, but made him laugh uproariously and fill it up again. The music played, the necking and petting started, and all was so great, so adult, so me! Some women touched me, kindly I had thought, but I had no other interest besides the party, the atmosphere, and the joy of simple companionship.
With the whole world in a jumble, some stood and loudly recited lines from Shakespeare or Gilbert and Sullivan or whomever, while others danced, and others mysteriously disappeared into the bedrooms. It all seemed so normal that I did not even blink when the greatest act of all stole the scene.
“Tammy Tassels, Tammy Tassels!” the men shouted, while a thirty-ish woman stood up proudly before an audience that quickly settled on the beds or chairs. A rowdy tune was made to play, and there, before us all, Tammy magically made her shirt disappear, quickly replaced by two tiny pasties that covered her nipples and trailed long streams of tinsel. Around she made that tinsel dance, going one way with the sway of her heavy breasts, then another, then in opposing directions that, I had to admit, must have required a great talent. The men roared, the woman cheered, and at this point, all seemed to roll into one great warm bath of comradery.
From there I cannot recall much that happened. Brother John must have made a phone call at some time, however, because in the midst of all that glory, my mother suddenly was standing in the door. The crowd laughed, someone yelling out, “farewell, sweet prince!,” while my mother fumed silently until we were seated in the car. Life seemed so good that it shocked me when the dam broke and sharp words of disapproval were hurled at my brother: “How could you let your brother drink like that? What type of people are they to let this happen?” Sitting in the back seat as if invisible, I remained confused. I didn’t feel anything but fantastic – where, mother, was the love? Everything had been done in great fun. Why, I was even my same old self, wasn’t I? What’s up with you old people anyway? I believe I remember going to bed still wondering what all the yelling was about.
The next morning I found out. Spewing liquid from head and tail, I would beg God to kill me – oh yes, please kill me! The misery was the worst I could recall, even worse than the ‘flu, and it went on all day. My mother never mentioned the party, never yelled at me for my indiscretion because she knew she didn’t have to. Whisky took care of that, and although I would drink a great deal in later years, it almost never involved hard liquor, and when it did, I always deeply regretted it. We were not meant for each other, as the Devil in one of his circles of Hell was kind enough to let me know, early on. In that was a far greater lesson than old Bernie could ever teach me.
Still, Oakdale was not about lessons, no, but it did have something to teach. Oakdale was about theater and theater people, about an entirely different world from what is commonly known. It is a world that draws in the rascals, the depressed, the manic, the foolish and the empathic, a world that leads to nowhere else but humanity. However it might seem, this is no small thing. Theater really isn’t about money or about fame, or even about venal promiscuity or ribaldry. It is, instead, about the human temperament lived to its fullest, from the most foolish to the most noble. It is about the clashing of swords, about a thousand deaths and glorious victory, about lives ruined by affairs and drink, about excessive love and murderous hate. It is about the lives we would live if we had no fetters, the lives we would lead if we let ourselves move with the tides and tempests, if we allowed ourselves to abide by the earth as it means to live in us. It is about raw honesty in its cunning, about redemptive grace in its debauchery, about the joy of life lived in terror on the razor’s edge.
It is, then, about the reasons we need to keep on living, about the full texture and color that calls to our souls, a call we are afraid to answer, and for good reason. But the theater and its people are so made as to gather it all up, all the messiness and wonder of our natures, and fling it back at us like so many loaves and fishes while they thrive or perish by the seasons of their passions and the whims of our contempt or applause. Theater is the cathedral of the natural man, and its people the vagabond parishioners. They are damned and saved, the masks of gods and demons, every one of them. Pity them, certainly, but pity more the world without them.
The Checker King
It’s not overly abstract to say that in some ways, we create our own reality. Oh, I don’t mean that we can find gold at the end of a rainbow if we really believe, but that our minds construct a personal map for us, both geographically and emotionally, which may or may not be shared with others. My mother, for instance, gave us stories of her neighborhood for years and years, so much so that I held the picture she made of her life and times as if it were an objective fact. Towards the end of her life, she had me drive her around that sea-side neighborhood, which she claimed had changed very little, and I was astonished: the vast world of wonder that she had painted for us was, for me, only a small neighborhood of shoddy housing on a small beach next to a saline swamp consisting, at best, of one or maybe two hundred acres. That had been the extent of her daily life. It did not seem marvelous or dark or anything else but mundane, small and insignificant.
Since then, I have had to re-evaluate the picture of my own childhood world. It was bigger than hers by several times, but still, this world, too, probably would seem like nothing to the experienced traveler. Yes, it had fields and hills and cliffs and swamps, but nothing that would cause the United Nations to declare it a world treasure.
Oh, far from it. We are speaking here not only of the physical outlay, but of the personalities and experiences that truly colored the map. And just as I could never match the fullness of my mother’s experiential map with its geography, so others might not understand the attitudes that for us made my childhood home what it was, and created from a mundane geography something close to a grandiose mythology.
Two examples of divergent world views make this clear – and possibly politically upsetting. One involved the legend of the Checker King, and the other of Warren the Queer.
I can guess that I might be in trouble all ready, for the word “queer” has been so appropriated by the homosexual community, however that might be, that only those of it are allowed to use the word. But this piece is done in the interest of how things were for a great many children of my time and town, and how at odds it was with the way we view things now. That former view, as with many views of children, might be totally wrong or stupid or offensive, but here I offer it as a tiny piece of history that many in my town, I can assure the reader, could corroborate.
Warren the Queer: he was known to us children as a pederast who would cruise the school yards before and after school in his big black car, stopping now and then to offer a ride and a treat to some small group of boys. The police must have known about him, because they were often right behind his car, and I can imagine now that they knew they could do nothing until he did something, which they were not going to allow. And so he cruised and carried on his fantasy as frustrated, I imagine, as any bull in a barnyard who had been summarily neutered. As far as I know, he never succeeded in his seduction, which is a good thing, but what is most interesting is the reaction of us boys.
I had heard of him, and then first saw him (or really, his big black car), while in junior high. There, the older boys would bring up the subject now and then, just as we did when we became the elders. In this manner, the story of Warren the Queer became legend, as the portrayal of him and the required big-boy reaction to him became standardized. While most of us did not know exactly what he wanted from us, we knew that it was disgusting, but in such a manner that it inspired not dread, but ridicule in the finest of adolescent tradition. “Ha-ha, did you see Warren the Queer go by today? What a jerk!” one of the big boys would say, and we would sneer along with the instigator and dismiss the man as a fumbling, effeminate nothing. There was no fear of Warren the Queer. Instead, he made even the meekest of us feel proud of ourselves, for in an instant we were longer pathetic lumps of sub-humanity. We might have pimples, been caught red-faced with unwanted erections in class, or had our faces ground into the dirt by a local bully, but by God we were not Warren the Queer.
I suppose in a way you might say we loved him. He was less a man than any of us could ever imagine being, and for that we were grateful. When the older guys got to sneering about him, we could join in and feel – grown up! Brave! Manly! Even – if just for the moment - normal! Most of us would not know the facts of his desires, if what was said about him were true, until years later when our minds were ready for the uglier aspects of the human world. In those later years, a rich guy who lived on the other side of the hill from us in an impressive house was arrested by Vermont police for soliciting sex from a child near his summer home. It was found after the arrest that he had made several other such entreaties. He did not fit the prototype of Warren the Queer that we sneering boys had made, and I think his exposure at that time, this of a competent, well respected family man, would have frightened us. We would have suddenly felt very vulnerable in this world. But never with that wimp, Warren the Queer.
Then there was the Checker King. He was housed in an old folk’s home that had been surprisingly – to me – build on the edge of a rough neighborhood towards the center of town. The inhabitants were working poor, and many of my school friends came from there. I would seldom visit them, however because all I would do – would be forced to do – was fight with every cock-of-the-roost on every block. The fights were fair, never causing more than a bloody nose or a split lip, but for me the experience was unpleasant and ultimately boring. And while most of the boys grew up to be honest working men, and some respected college-educated professionals, not a small number ended up in the Big House, including one who had been a fairly close friend.
And so I had questioned the wisdom of those in power to construct an apparently pleasant and expensive retirement home on the edge of this human jungle. It was not long after that the tale of the Checker King emerged from the ‘hood.
I never got to see the Checker King, as by this time I was in high school and beyond such things, but my little brother had, as had all his friends from the area. He was a wizened old man with a chalky voice who would stand hunched-over by the road in front of the convalescent home and invite boys to the back yard to play checkers, saying, as legend has it, “Hello, little boy. You wanna play checkers?” Who had been the first to do so is not known by me, but after the first, the game (NOT the game of checkers) was on. The older junior-high boys would invite the younger boys to take a bike ride in that vicinity, and if the Checker King was out, they would coax them to go along with him. “Ah, he’s just a crazy old man. You might get some money or candy if you play along. What’s a’matter? Ya chicken?” And so the ten and eleven and twelve year olds – those of my brother’s age when I heard of it – would go to the back of the Home where there were tables and chairs for the old ones and a small patch of woods. There, he would sometimes get one of the boys to go check something out in the trees, where he would then lift the boy up if he could and try with his mouth to get past the pants for his version of a good time. Sometimes if the kid was small enough, he would succeed, as was the case with my brother’s pal, Joey.
On that occasion, Joey had screamed bloody murder, and that was a known fact, for all the other boys had come at the sound. Then – they had laughed. To them, it was the funniest thing since the Three Stooges. Everyone with any link to the boys in the ‘hood heard about it. And we laughed, too. For years after, it was not unusual to have someone portray the Checker King and run his creeping hands over someone, saying, “Hey, little boy, you wanna play checkers?” In fact, now and then - I am almost ashamed to admit - it still happens when I am with friends from home. And given the way the whole thing played out, Joey did not become a pariah for his unwilling part, but a key participant in the joke. There was, as far as I know, no loser in the game.
How could that be? It is probable that the old man had dementia and was not responsible for his behavior, but still – shouldn’t the boys have been traumatized? Shouldn’t the older ones responsible have been ashamed, and the others have called the police?
Yes, certainly, and that is how I would expect it to play out in most towns today. But we have been talking of a different social geography here, one that was smack in the middle of every-day America, but one that could not exist now, at least in the smaller towns and cities. I do not know of the inner life of girls back then, but life for boys, and probably for men, was very different from what has long been portrayed by mainstream America. The movie Stand by Me comes far closer to it than the goofy sitcom, Leave it to Beaver.
But just as both of these fictional pieces are only fiction, so were our attitudes then. We had reduced the truly scary and sick to little side skits, to incompetent pederasts and fumbling old men. For all our underground bravery, we were still only tilting at windmills, and in so doing, denying that there really was evil around us, evil that we could not laugh off. We were making a map of our lives, a living geography, where we would endure and thrive in a world that our parents tried to hide from us. We thought we knew better. But of the real evil behind the sham, we knew nothing.
My wife watches a show about serial killers who almost invariably have twisted sexual desires. One might conclude that they did not want these twisted desires at some point in their lives, but still, they are beyond what society can tolerate and these men – they are almost always men – must be put away for our own good. How does such evil come to pass? It has always existed, both here and there and in this time and that. It is not merely “civilization and its discontent,” as Freud had put it, but a natural phenomenon, as natural as a thunder storm or an earthquake. Perhaps it is the more realistic nature (and that should be put in quotations) of TV shows now, that parents hover over their children, should a ‘Warren the Queer’ become ‘Vlad the Impaler.’ We adults are terrified for our children, less they end up as faces on a Missing Children episode. Yet we, too, miss the mark. For all our worries, the chances are far greater that they will die while we drive them to soccer practice.
It is as if we all, from grade school on up, sink rods in the soil of our imaginary landscape from time to time to check the core samples for proof of our own reality. But we always see more from our imagination than from hard objectivity, for we are born of the earth and sense its endless depth and infinite meaning with alarm. We check our samples but quickly conjure dragons and then arm ourselves against them, far more ready to do battle with a myth than with what we know we can never know. In the depths lurk something that sends up evil, pain and death, and we stand like knights with swords raised high, believing we can win when we know that we cannot.
Yet the sun shines on the just and the unjust alike. Grass grows and soft winds blow over glittering waters, and life is good, too. St. George kills the dragon, the Checker King is just a crazy old man, and a sharp eye will always protect our children. Things are as they should be, even as the earth turns and everything we once believed is proven false, again and again.
At the wake for my mother, I met up with an old friend, Bill, who I hadn’t seen in a decade. His appearance reminded me of an office joke that was passed around from copy machine to copy machine back when I worked at the steel mill in the 1970’s. It was made up as a “wanted” poster for a cat that went like this: “Looking for pet cat, one eye out, leg missing, torn ear, broken teeth, castrated. Goes by the name of Lucky.” Bill had all four of his ‘legs,’ but was missing an eye and had long made unwanted mention of his vasectomy. He also was on permanent disability, and so, as unemployed, had let his scraggly red-turned- white hair and beard do whatever they wanted, run wild like some tom-cat on the loose. He had, in fact, the look of an old biker, and it was this that brought up a summer long ago, when I worked at the steel mill and had just bought my first new motorcycle.
It was in 1977, a fact I remember only because it followed on the American bicentennial, which I spent in a sordid area of Philadelphia, too drunk to care about the fireworks that were exploding over the Delaware River on the south side of town. But that is almost beside the point. Since then, I had put a year into an office job at a prosperous re-roll mill and was now reaping the rewards of my hard labor. I had an apartment, which I shared, but that was almost like a place of my own. I also had worked long enough to get a few weeks off, and enough to sock away the money for a new motorcycle, a 500 CC yellow-tanked Suzuki, which I paid for, cash on the barrel head. It was still getting its break-in miles when I took those two weeks off and, with a few hundred extra bucks, headed up north for Canada, where I had never been.
I was not new to bikes, my last being a used 350 Yamaha, and so I knew all about vibration fatigue, how the trembling of the bike would make your legs and arms go numb up to the knee and elbow, and about prolonged exposure issues: how the wind would freeze you at 60 degrees or even 70 F, and how on warmer days the moister would be sucked from your body at a debilitating rate. So I went as prepared as a twenty-two-year-old hot-shot could be: with a bag of extra clothes packed in a saddlebag, including a few changes of underwear and a heavy jacket, a toothbrush and a bottle of water. I wore a scuffed pair of cowboy boots for protection (and to look cool) a pair of prescription eye-glasses and a pair of jeans, and with that, was ready to take on the Canadian wilderness, like some latter-day trapper in “Olde” Quebec. There I found that the people could be both friendly or oddly hostile, that they spoke French whether they knew English or not, and that the customs were often risqué enough that at times it seemed they needed another batch of Jesuits to come and save their heathen souls.
Of the last, I encountered the first moral scandal just a half hour or so after crossing the Vermont-Quebec border. It happened, admittedly, from my own decision, which for me had been a mandate. I had been six hours in the saddle, the heated wind and vibrations having taken their toll, when I spotted a one-story wooden building squatting alone beside the highway amidst a vast acreage of plowed field. Before it was a marquis sign with letters slightly eschew that promised, in excited short-hand, the great pleasure I would find within from the “totally nude exotic dancers!” Oh, Canada! At that time in America, there were no states that allowed total nudity, those generous dancing ladies having to dress in an exactly defined cover of pasties and G-strings, so this was to be the first treasure of my foreign travels. I parked the bike and walked stiffly into the quaintly-dilapidated building.
Inside was as dilapidated as out, a large single room flooded with light and dust, small tables scattered throughout before an equally small dancing platform about two feet high where the “exotic dancers” would do their erotic thing. I was one of four customers, and was immediately approached by the proprietor for my order, an exotic, green-tinted bottle of Labatt’s. Moments later, a totally nude girl appeared from behind a dirty cloth drapery and mounted the platform. I took a drink of the Labatt’s and waited for the raw shock of her presence to settle into pleasing arousal. From a quick look around, the truck drivers who sat with their single bottles of beer were already aroused, their eyes glinting hard as obsidian as they focused on her, on only her. There was no chatter or laughing, just an out-pouring of intense, reptilian lust. I took another long swig as some pop-hit played fuzzily through the overloaded speakers, still waiting for the pang of intense desire that had hypnotized my fellow voyeurs.
The wait lasted only as long as the beer. Yes, I eyed her private areas with a singular intensity, but the shock was never to be fully displaced by the lust. Her “dancing” on the podium-stage was lethargic and pointless, her expression numbly cynical. She was far, far from feeling “hot” and obviously held nothing but disdain for all the drooling suckers in the room. She had the passion of a five dollar hooker working on her 20th guy of the night, a visual plumber unclogging the dirty pipes of men’s pathetic frustrations. I felt dirtier and cheaper with every glance at her slightly wobbling body and sardonically-curved lips.
With a quick gulp to finish the beer, I was out into the sunshine and fresh air, glad to be free. This was to be part of a great story of adventure to tell my friends, yet it had not worked out as it was supposed to. We were not supposed to care, only to take what was given (or bought), to be summarized later in the loud and braying voice of youthful male arrogance. Yet it was the great blue sky and the highway north that held my unwavering interest, not the lowly-paid nude dancer with a cynical smirk. Who would figure? Ah, c’est la vie!
Montreal: too big for me to comprehend, too expensive to stay, I parked the bike and walked its downtown in wonder and amazement. It was – so European! I had been to England in 1972, and much of it seemed like a cleaner London, except – continental, like posters I had seen of French cities. Of primary importance, I had to get the first oil change on the bike, and was surprised to find that I had great difficulty in understanding directions to a bike shop, for half the people there spoke French and only French. Finally, I was directed to a large, grease-stained garage just east of the city along the mighty St. Lawrence River. There, a friendly mechanic about my age took care of business while trying to speak to me in his very simple English: “Yes, I like America. Go to moon, no?,” this said more with his hands than his mouth, but I appreciated it. Friendly and foreign, just what I had hoped for. Once finished, I hit the highway again, heading towards Quebec City, where on-route I hopped to find a place I could afford.
It came, a few hours later after the sun had set and the twilight was fading. A very cold wind had come off the river, and I was suffering from that and the drain of the 65 mph speed limit in Canada that seemed frighteningly fast, the US now wedded to the “double nickel” maximum in an attempt to save gas and defang OPEC. With trembling hands I leaned the bike on its kickstand and stood before a chateau of sorts, a large, Tudor style house of wood beams and plaster that stood alone near the banks of the river, which now gleamed orange in the star-lit cusp of night. Immediately after the entrance was a desk, behind which stood a pretty, thirty-ish year-old woman who asked for something in French.
“I’m sorry, I don’t speak French.”
“Then you do not stay,” she said in broken English.
“But I’m freezing. I just want to stay the night.”
On she went in French, even angrier in tone, until a middle-aged man approached from my side of the desk. He spoke to her in a soothing voice, and after a few moments, the woman held out her hand, apparently for my driver’s license. Taking this information, she then held out her hand unmistakably for the required sum. Meanwhile the man continued to talk, now in a suggestive manner. “Something something, oui? Something something else, no? I could only guess, but as I found my way upstairs to a very nice, even ornate, room, I began to fantasize. Ah, yes – he was telling her, “why don’t you sleep with this young man, yes? He is lonely and would be good company for you, no?” Ridiculous in hindsight, I know, but I began to believe it myself, and waited in bed for the furtive knock at the door. And waited. Perhaps it was that sulking nude woman earlier in the day who had ignited the lust, the need, but in whose hostility satisfaction could not be found. Perhaps I believed this other woman’s mollified anger was to be my consolation, my reward for seeking a higher passion. But, no, it was not to be. My reward, such as it was, was only a nice bed away from the cold, rented to me grudgingly by another grudging French Canadian woman. What was an “Anglo” to do?
I was summarily spat out the next morning by the woman at the desk, a trace of desire and hope still clinging in my dream-hazed head, before I was on the road towards my most prized destination, Quebec City. It was not a disappointment. A small city dressed in French colonial buildings and cobblestones, it sits on the ramparts of a great cliff that overlooks the St Lawrence. Two hundred years earlier, American revolutionaries had tried to take this city from the English, made a part of the crown after the French and Indian Wars only a decade earlier. The Americans soon discovered what many other invaders had: that scaling the cliffs of Quebec for a hostile take-over was not an easy thing.
But now, for a bike or a car, it was the easiest thing in the world, and the twisting ride up was exhilarating, as was the old city. I would walk around a bit, look off into the river and the big Island in its midst, get an odd brunch in another dusty, sunlit building that had no nudes and few patrons, and then head out, again for more sights and cheaper lodgings.
That night I slept on the ground at a campsite somewhere along the Quebec-New Brunswick boarder, with a newly-purchased six pack and a bottle of Jose Cuervo Gold. The bottle was never opened, but the six-pack was finished, and all went well until morning, when the dew had seeped through the cloth sleeping bag that I had spread on the ground. Cold and hungry, I set off south for Fredericton at the New Brunswick – Maine border. There had only been a few young families at the campground – no single young males to drink with, no pretty young women to hope for. Life on a bike, I was finding, was largely an internal venture, filled with rushing wind and passing landscapes and thoughts, thoughts that became less imaginary and more singular and directed and gray as the hours wore on.
Pine – old pine, new pine, scrub pine, all was pine after I left the St Lawrence basin to pass through the interior. It was a relief to come upon Fredericton, even though that town, too, only dealt with pine – pine- filled boxcars, paper plants, saw mills, the log-filled river, the dam that ran the paper mill, and the muddy roads that catered to the logging trucks. Still, it had people, and a Dunkin’ Donuts. Never were there fresher donuts or better brew, and the people spoke English and didn’t care about my “papers” or my Anglo status. Still, it was with surprising relief that I entered Maine, and, with my new-found love of 65 MPH (really, 100 KPH, a little less, but 65 MPH it was for me) I continued to cover the miles, eschewing the scenic route for truck-plagued I-95. With new-found gusto, I was determined to make Connecticut before sleep demanded another expense at a motel or another night soaked with dew.
I did, sometime past ten in the warm embrace of a July night, and there, filled with high spirits, drove directly from the highway to the Brass Rail, then the epicenter of the young adult’s happier hours in my home town. That was not why I went there, however, although the thought of cold beer was calling irresistibly. Rather, it was because Bill, the youthful twenty-two year old Bill, with only one eye but with red-red hair, was the bartender. He would fill my mug to the top, no foam, and listen to my stories, what little they were. He did just that until closing, and then, just before the doors were locked, I retrieved the bottle of Jose Cuervo from my saddlebags. With only the dim lights on, the room still smoke-filled from the crowed, we did shots with lemon and salt, and then shots with nothing at all, as unadorned as the girl in Quebec, but with a cleaner bight that led to a genuine smile.
It was surprising how quickly the time passed, but as the bottle slipped below the half-way mark, we noted that it was already past 3:00 AM. One would think that bed would call after those long hours of driving and then drinking, but no. We had a belief back then that tequila was different from all other liquor in that, as much as it got you drunk, it also perked you up, like today’s blend of Red Bull and vodka. It was probably only a young-man’s tale, but we believed it, and after the look at the clock, I proposed to Bill a grand ride on the new motorcycle. He agreed without hesitation, and in minutes we were speeding east out of town, and soon were flying on I -91, a flat ribbon of concrete that rolled out like a limitless parking lot, completely devoid of traffic.
“Let’s see what this baby can do!” I yelled through the breeze to Bill, and with what I took for acquiescence, we ramped up a small rise, and then down, hitting the top-end of 105 MPH. I howled into the compressed air that had become a force of its own, and then spotted the exit for highway 68 to Durham. I knew immediately what I would do. Bill, I was sure, would be delighted.
Without saying a word, I followed the highway east as it dwindled in stature to a small, broken country road, crossed the railroad tracks that carried gravel to New Haven for the looming quarry, and then turned right onto the quarry road itself. I had only walked this road once, from the top of the cliffs down, because in day-time it was busy with trucks and cranes, and trespass was prohibited, for good reason: every few days, they would crack the face of the cliff with a heavy charge of dynamite. I had a friend in grade school whose dad was given this job, and he told me that his father had lost his hair after a few months from handling the TNT. We thought at the time that this was exceptionally cool.
But now it was only 4:30 AM and not a soul, or so it seemed, was within sight. The quarry road was swept with erosion, and at one point took a sharp curve upwards, towards the top of the cliff. I had to gun it past the dump trucks that sat brooding on their huge, pitted tires, to make it over the ruts and up the steepening incline. At last, the road simply ended, and I fish-tailed around rocks and holes the last hundred yards to the top following what was left of the old hiking trail. Finally there, I stopped a yard short of the three-hundred-foot sheer face of brittle-gray trap-rock, and shut off the engine. Bill and I got off unsteadily and shared a few more slugs of tequila. The cliff spoke through its exposed nerves of ancient times, of thoughts different from Man’s, and the metal spires of the cranes below poked upwards from the pit like blackened saplings. The sun had not yet risen, but mid-summer’s dawn had already lightened the sky, lounging in the morning mist with a jovial presence. Beautiful!
“This is the life, huh, Bill?”
“Absolutely,” he replied before holding out his hand for the last or second-to-last shot.
I suppose I dropped Bill off at his car and went back to the apartment after that, but can’t recall. But I could recall everything the next day, each glowing moment and every rushing minute, a glorious end to a not-so-glorious vacation.
And so I could remember the best parts still when I talked to Bill of it at my mother’s wake. As we sipped at our warming cans of beer, I recounted briefly the trip to Quebec, and then spoke with detail of the bar, the tequila, the 105 MPH race, and the pause at the top of the gravel quarry. Wasn’t that crazy? Remember?
“No, I don’t, not a thing. But I believe you.” He smoothed his wiry beard with his hand, then patted his paunch. “Must ‘a been one hell of a night!”
“You don’t remember? Ah, I suppose it was the tequila.” I gave him an out with that, but I still found it incredulous. Didn’t remember that? How could he forget?
In the months since then, I have settled on an understanding of this memory lapse. Bill had not just returned from a lonely and disappointing trip, one that was supposed to make the summer, to make the bleak hours and weeks and months in the factory worthwhile. He had not just gotten back from a trip that was to emulate Jack Kerouac, but instead had been the emotional equivalent of a young boy abandoned at a boarding school. Interesting, yes, but cold and flat and often hostile, too: this had been nothing like home. It was not that I was a neophyte to travel; I had hitched and flown and hiked many miles before that trip, and would cover many more after. But over the decades that separate that time and this, I have gotten used to the loneliness of the road. I have learned in those years to burrow within and satisfy myself, but then I was young. Then, I was still convinced that the world was all about and for me, and I had not yet learned that the rest of the world, outside of home, cared absolutely nothing for me.
Even now, I find it hard to believe that the world is so large and that we are so small; that our place and our happiness in it are almost like nothing at all. It has taken nearly half a century to understand, but now I see that the lives that we know have been cupped out by those who care for us, cupped out with hands filled with intent, with a prideful knowing, from nothing but thin air. It seems, just like the wind that hits when one drives at 105MPH on a motorcycle, that this air is a force all of its own, for all the power it has; but really, it is only what we do with it that gives it strength. Without intent, it just blows where it may, to leave us behind without a trace. But passed even lightly with warm hands, it stirs to make us the center of all there is. From there, it is passed on to others, to family and friends, to pause only when those hands are closed in memorial prayer, as if to clasp one more time the great invisible power that was given us by those who first filled their hands with our tiny, wrinkled forms.
A Little Blister
In the song, “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits, an imagined blue collar worker laughs at the rock star who gets his “money for nothing and his chicks for free,” having suffered no more than a “blister on his little finger” for it. “I should have learned to play the guitar! I should have learned to play the drums!,” he chuckles. Of course, the lyric writer, Mark Knopfler, meant this as a spoof. We are to understand that it takes a lot of work to make it in the big time. A little blister, you wish!
I don’t know about everyone else, but for me, the satire is not convincing. Playing guitar is what the musician wants to do. If he has to repeat a stanza over and over again to get it just right, well, that’s the life and it’s way better than installing microwave ovens, carrying them upstairs and ruining your knees as you squat on the floor with a drill or screwdriver. And the pay – don’t forget the pay! We understand that it’s a long way to the top, but once there, are you kidding? These guys with bongos and guitars think they deserve the glitter and the worship? Aww, come on!
Ah, yes, welcome to the world of the creative and the abstract. As a writer, I know the blue collar attitude well and have little to say in my defense when someone says, “when ya gonna get a real job, Fred?,” which I get at just about every neighborhood party or pot luck in town. The mark of a real job is, after all, that it not only wears you out, but that you hate it – hate it enough to feel proud of your sacrifice to the gods of commerce. If you aren’t suffering, it ain’t a job, and grabbing your hair when you can’t think of the right phrase, or plucking at chords that just won’t come out right, won’t qualify. Where are the horn-hard callouses? Where, as Pol Pot would often demand, is the dirt under the fingernails? It does help if you make a lot of money at your art, as if that made the production of it any easier, but we still come off as effete. And, let’s face it, in many ways we are. Does having a hit pop tune entitle one to a mansion? Does having a thriller on the New York Times bestseller list warrant a vacation home in Hawaii? Or even, as in my case, should typing a few hours on the computer grant me the righteous freedom to wake up late in the morning when I feel like it, even in my ever-so-humble home?
No, I can’t convince anyone that “the arts” is a real job, not even myself, but I believe we writers have a better case for respectability than those other guys with blisters – or paint- on their pinkies. As one author said, to paraphrase, “writing is the only art where there is no pleasure in the doing, only in the done.” This is largely true. Writing is often painful, a task that we take exactly as a task, not a creative adventure. No picture materializes before one, no tune lays claim to the appreciative ear. Instead, all we have are dead black and white symbols that we hope, through some magic of alchemy, will create pictures and music in the mind of the reader. And we are forever unsure if we have ever done it right.
This suffering of the writer came home to me the other night while talking to my son about setting a study schedule at college. “It’s like sports practice,” I told him; “You’ve got to do it on schedule and you often hate it, but you feel good when it’s done.”
“Yeah, well,” he said dryly, “you go to practice because if you don’t, they’ll think you’re a pussy. School work you just hate, all by yourself.”
And that’s the point. Young children will naturally draw pictures and love to sing. To get either right requires long practice, but behind it is a natural desire. The same can be true for car mechanics, who often start by spending their free time in the garage, or for builders who start with tree forts or little dams and work themselves up. Few children there are who eagerly pick up a book and beg to learn the symbols and actually enjoy doing so. Fewer there are who long to write books themselves, once the process becomes known. In writing a book, one has to hold an abstract narrative in one’s head and continue for months or even years hoping the glue of words is just right enough to convey the story and the meaning, the pictures and the characters. It’s hard stuff. It takes years of study to even begin, and, as my son says, nobody likes school work.
Reading a book on one of the philosopher greats of antiquity, I came across a dialogue that was said to have taken place between student and teacher. To paraphrase from memory, it went something like this: “Teacher, study gives me great pain.” To which the teacher replied, “Yes, that is what it is supposed to do.” And so it was understood. Learning was not supposed to be pleasant, but a chore of great self-sacrifice.
If the teacher and student had known enough of the world’s societies, they would have understood that book learning is concomitant with civilization, for learning among the un-civilized – that is, those of traditional family-based societies – was not a chore at all. While I was living with unlettered Venezuelan Indians, the ancient form of learning became known very quickly: daughter and son followed what mother and father did, simply by doing. With boys, that meant hunting small animals with a blowgun, accompanying Dad on a greater hunt, fishing or fixing their own weapons. For the most part, they did not have to be told to do so. They did it with and without the parents, and gloried in it. It was their play, play that would gradually turn into their “work.” It would become, at the very least, a mild pleasure for the adult, and often a joy. And it, this way of life, didn’t take any self-denying sacrifice to learn.
But in school work, we have largely done away with the natural and the pleasurable. In a stratified society, we must learn to conquer our desires and impulses and sit, painstakingly, to learn. Competition demands it. We must have a grasp of certain fundamentals to make it in this world. Most never come to like learning these fundamentals, and most are glad to be done with it when the required age is reached. Even now, with the constant pressure to go to college, a majority never complete a degree. Instead, they find other work that does not demand longer study; instead, they get jobs that give them calloused hands and bad knees, jobs that they come to hate – with pride. Real work. Work that they ran to because the study for other kinds of work was more than they could bear.
Writing requires exactly that kind of sit-down learning that the people with calloused hands fled from. To do it well, you’ve got to learn grammar, syntax, rhythm, and extreme, long-term concentration. You have to sit and read what others have written, for hours and hours a week. Writing is at the high end of that painful learning curve, as high as most any other profession, and we writers should be looked at with awe. “Such discipline! Such skill! How the heck can they do it?” The world should break out in applause.
Or so it comes to me in another flight of fancy, the type that often afflicts writers. I can follow the logic of my paragraphs, be amazed by the intelligence and wisdom of the proof, but even I am not convinced. No, putting a roof on takes a lot more guts and energy than writing a novel. It’s just that simple. And besides, there is something in writing that the roofer does not get. Yes, the man with callouses is proud of his sweat and sacrifice and can point to the actual, useful thing he has created, but he can’t get, by the work itself, the pleasure that many find in the writing. This pleasure does not come from money. It does not come from recognition. Rather, it comes from the writing itself, as incongruous as that sounds, for writing is a dreary business. But most of us who write know that there is a light in the fog, and it is what pulls us on, social scorn and contempt be damned. It is the power and glory of ecstasy.
Ecstasy; it means “getting out of oneself,” and is now associated with drugs and sex more than anything else, but the ancients knew what they were talking about. Ecstasy was, to them, as much an exploration of an alternative reality as it now is to any Dead Head. It often, if not always, meant being carried away by the gods, where great meaning beyond the coils of mortal man was nonetheless shown. It was often feared, and just as often pursued. And it was most certainly at the foundation of all of our arts, including the telling of myth, history, and tales. It was not the muse’s fault that the “telling” would one day become “the writing,” precisely where civilization and its discontent entered this particular art. But the ecstasy remains, behind the pain.
Oh, it might take a while to get there. It might take serial procrastination - eating crackers, making one more cup of tea, strumming a Bee Gee’s song - before even sitting down at the computer. Then it might take fifteen minutes, maybe half an hour of mechanical, heartless typing before IT comes – the coming that takes away self and a sense of time. The coming that turns one out of oneself, that delivers a power to write that one does not have, that takes hours out of life that seem like minutes, like a dream; and there you find the words, not perfect yet, but so ordered, so arranged in thought that one knows it came from somewhere else.
And you are astounded. You have reached ecstasy without drums, DMT, or dancing; you have reached ecstasy by nothing more than sitting before a computer and plodding on, which then somehow, magically, draws on something else – on a smarter you, or something else altogether. And you declare, “It is Good,” like Jehovah in Genesis, and you sit back, as on the seventh day, to admire, to glow, to bask in the rib that through you has miraculously become a story, a poem, another chapter.
The pain of forced concentration, and the reluctance and the procrastination will come again as sure as sunrise, and you will grumble like the roofer with his weekend hangover on Monday morning, but it’s the high, the ecstasy, which carries you on. The criticism that is spewed over your lifestyle will continue, each solitary walk taken for insight seen as goofing off, every hour on the chair before the glowing screen scorned as if an outing with video games, but once you have hit the high, you will continue. Every now and then, you will even think of yourself as special, as chosen, before you are hit with a slump that leaves you as dry and useless as a bowery bum, before everyone including the pizza delivery kid proves that he can make more money than you; proves, by that fact, and by the calloused hands or grease on the fingers that he, she, they are working and you are not.
And they are right. We are just junkies, after all, and junkies of all stripes suffer for their high. The writer junky might need a bit more education and cerebral dedication, but he is working for the high in the end, a high seldom reached by Real work, where joy is measured in weekends apart from work – which one righteously hates. We are cast-offs, hobos with cleaner cloths, ineffective dreamers, trust-fund babies without the trust. Working America is right to scoff at us, all and every line of reasoning or excuse in our favor to the contrary.
But we’ll take it; and on the off-chance that we strike it rich, we will show our hands to the carpenter and the appliance man and say, “see? I’ve got callouses too!” They may be from your new sail boat that you ride with and beneath and above the forces of the gods, the ropes burning your hands as you tack against another gust, but you can show them and pretend. Because pretending is the thing we do best, in everything but that one thing, that pull into ecstasy that leaves no callouses, that exercises nothing but the soul. And for a few hours a day or week, that is somehow enough, even as we fall and fail again and again against the world.
Just the Ticket
There is a town on the way up north just south of Oshkosh, Rosendale, which is known for only one thing. It is such an average small Wisconsin town that one would ordinarily whiz through it like any other except for this: its reputation for The Ticket. Yes, the speeding ticket. It is known throughout southern Wisconsin for this peril via folk lore passed from word of mouth to everyone who regularly goes to his cabin up north or to the Packer’s games. As with any other small town, its border comes on quickly, the posted speed dropping from 55 to 30 in an instant, but everyone dutifully follows that command – at least those of us in the know.
As it is the last town before the limited access highway to Green Bay, I normally stop at the gas station in the center, the one just before the light, for the bathroom and a cup of coffee, and on the way to the facilities see the range of Wisconsin knick-knacks which always includes cows and cheese and Packers paraphernalia, but here they also have a tee-shirt section with one resounding star among them. On it is a picture of a police car with its lights on, and below it the phrase, “Rosendale: Just the Ticket.” You have to laugh, even though getting a ticket is no fun, for the sheer chutzpa of it. I suppose I’ll continue to laugh at each trip to the bathroom, but as of last week, the humor will be a bit more guarded, for I have now been branded with the letter “S” – speed violation. And it didn’t happen in Rosendale, but in some other little town where there was no warning whatsoever, no tee-shirts, no cows with Packer’s hats as far as I know, and no word-of-mouth buzz.
I think the fateful event happened in Dousman. My wife and I had taken time off on a beautiful day in August to hike the state forest, and after our several mile effort had decided on a back-road route to the highway just for the hell of it. We were both in a relaxed mood, and as far as I could care, I would have driven the ten or so miles at a crawl as a tourist, as a man without a destination or a time table. There, Vicki, see? There’s a strange barn – still has the old ramp they used for the horses to go into the stables. And hey! – a field of sheep, two of them black. They don’t like black sheep because you can’t dye the wool – did you know that? Oh, and here comes Dousman and – crap, they’ve got construction and a detour around town! Now what do we do?
In a flash, tensions mounted as Vicki quickly began to type in instructions to her GPS. Is that Hoffman Street? Which direction are we going?
Craning my neck around bulldozers and traffic, I looked for the street signs and finally found the one that would take us north to the highway. Problem solved. I was going about 35 at this point and saw the police car coming from the opposite direction right about then and was not alarmed. And yet I knew. With no idea that I was speeding, with no recollection of a slower speed posting, with housing fading in the rear view mirror, I had no reason to fear anything, but I knew. It came as no surprise, then, that within seconds we saw the cheerful flash of Christmas lights behind us and I pulled over. Still, I was mellow. How about that? How could I be speeding?
Moments later we learned that the limit here was 25 (!) and that I was going 14 MPH past that limit, like a teen-aged carouser. It took all of the 15 minutes we had to sit in the car for me to work up a good fit of anger. As I fumed, the cop did his cop thing while people passed by with the neck-craning look of antelope who had evaded the lions (this time!). The ticket was delivered eventually by the too-young cop who could have been a high-school kid as he recited the penalty: $96 bucks and 4 points on the ‘ol license. He reminded me that 12 points in a year would get my license suspended. By this time I was apoplectic, but before I could demand it, he said, “if you want to go to court, that’s September 26th, 8:00 AM in Oconomowoc. Too late now to change the ticket.” And with that, the afternoon was ruined.
Why this was so might seem a puzzle, for it was my first ticket in fifteen years in the state and it would probably be my last for another fifteen years. To me, however, it was not so much the ticket as the wrongness of it; to me it was the injustice. I had not intended to speed and, as said, would have crawled along happily while seeing the sights. Later I spoke of this to others, and was not very surprised to hear many reply, “Too bad, Fred. The law’s the law.” Yes, I replied, but these are our police and our rules. We do not live in a totalitarian state, and we deserve and demand justice! This, I said sticking out my jaw, was not justice.
And then they would roll their eyes.
Still, I was determined to go to traffic court and kept the ticket stuffed roughly in the side-pocket of the car. But with each passing week, doubts began to enter. What others had communicated was probably true, not so much about the law being the law and such, but what was better communicated with the roll of the eyes: you can’t fight city hall. Get used to it, for Christ’s sake! Don’t you know any better at your age?
I suppose I did, but I could not let it go, and often went to sleep practicing my defense with muted outrage. Surely a judge would understand that this older gentleman with a clean record could not have meant to speed! I did not mention this before, but the arresting policeman had also said he stopped me because “too many people were speeding on this road lately.” Exactly! They, too, could not see the sign and could not imagine that this side route would have us travel at a paltry 25 MPH!
Oh, I had my defense well-practiced. The only trouble I foresaw was the possibility of nervousness in the delivery, and so I pictured every kind of scenario I could. This, too, kept me up at night, and as the time drew nearer I began to think that maybe all this fuss and worry wasn’t worth the effort. It would be an hour’s drive early in the morning for probably nothing at best, and maybe something worse, for I had heard those wiser voices tell me, “You know, once you’re in court, they can do anything they want with that ticket. Maybe even increase it. You do know that, don’t you?”
Well, maybe I didn’t, but I did then, and as the day approached I almost mailed in the check and the summons with the “guilty” box checked off, but I just couldn’t. I could not help thinking that I wasn’t guilty in the real sense. It was a travesty of rules for rule’s sake, not something for public safety. Surely any magistrate worth his lawyerly salt would certainly see that – or so I argued half-heartedly to myself. Still, I could barely sleep the night before, and woke up well before the alarm, taught and slightly ill from the lack of sleep. Too late to back out now, I thought. It was time to take the measure of the man. It was time to face the lions.
I got lost in Oconomowoc because nothing was labeled in that town, not even the main route through it. Fortunately I had to make a nerves-induced rest stop at a Duncan Donuts, where I also bought a small coffee and a Boston Cream to show my appreciation. Thinking I was finally on the right track, it was only as an afterthought that I asked the old guy who had to ask me three times what kind of donut I wanted where the court house was. “You just passed it,” he said. “It’s the big tower with the clock in it, right there.” Du-oh! Without that information I would have been late. This must be a sign!
So then, finally, was the courthouse, which immediately swallowed me with its musty jaws. It was not that it was dirty or filled with heroin addicts or gang-bangers. It’s yellowed floors shown with waxing, and the old bathroom fixtures sparkled and did not stink. It’s just that it had this – feel - or better said, a portentous lack of feel, like spacing in a musical score. It was dead, melancholy, mechanical, humorless. Police went about with routine regularity, one helpful in pointing out the staircase to the traffic court, another in directing me to the “sign in” registry that would be read by the District Attorney before adjudication, but all was poisonously bland. And if that odd feel-non-feel did not strike home beforehand, it certainly did in the courtroom. Its old wood walls and magistrate desk were faced by scratched metal chairs for us miscreants, all resonating with nothing, with a soulless space neither black or gray, but sepia, like a faded photo from a lost and distant past.
Of all the scenarios I had pictured, I had never pictured this one. Settling uncomfortably in one of the chairs, I took out the book I was reading, “The Grace in Dying” by Kathleen Singh, and dug in. I would not let the bureaucracy rob me of soul, and determined to soldier on as if my fate were not being decided by emotionless ants. As I opened the book, the author proceeded to tell me things that I did not want to hear but knew were true: that our ego reality was a sham, that on death we had to be cornered by this truth and dragged kicking and screaming into the abyss of the unknown. Terrified and trembling slightly from the morning’s coffee, l put the book down to recall the words of Richard Rohr on the same subject: our world in space-time is governed by limitation and control, something we eagerly choose even if that control makes our lives miserable.
Yes, of course, I thought, anything is better than the void, the black depths of the unknown.
With such thoughts arising in such a dead place, I wished I had paid the fine and left it at that, but now that I was signed in, there was no possibility of escape. The long arm of the law held me, and all I could do was wait for its dominating decree.
And wait we did. The court was supposed to open at 8:00, and at this point I shared the spacious but hollow room – almost a hall – with only a handful of other unhappy people. By the time the judge and DA entered, it was twenty minutes after the hour, and the room had nearly filled. Good Lord, I thought, I could be here all day! Why had I not just caved in? Why must I always be the rebel as if I were someone special, as if I would ever really stand up against this or any other empire? I would have liked to bury my head in the book, but after the officials sat and sorted through a stack of papers, the judge spoke:
We did, and then, as if we were in church, we were asked to sit again. It appeared that we were in for a sermon.
At first he read the rules, and they were scary. There would be no exception to these rules, and everyone must be conscious of that. We would have to stand alone at a podium where the dirty deeds would be read, and then we were to enter a plea – guilty, no contest, or not guilty. In the case of the latter, he said, a court date would be made for a later date, probably in two months. You could almost hear the groaning. If that were the case, we must be polite to the secretaries and the DA, who we were assured were used to abuse, but who did not like it, especially the DA. Assuming that this last statement was a mild joke, we all looked to the DA. His face did not betray a joke. His hard, somewhat antagonistic eyes told us that if we were to contest him we would have a real fight on our hands. We were all beginning to see how the cards were stacked.
Then, almost fatherly in his approach, the judge admonished us to not look at policemen as people who preyed on unsuspecting speeders or inadvertent breakers of other traffic laws, but rather as people who saved lives, who took people to the hospital, who protected us from the harsher criminal elements. Theirs was a tough job, and we should all appreciate it.
I swear, in the space of silence that ensued, I could almost hear the uniform thought, “What, in small town Wisconsin? These cops never did anything for me but cause trouble,” but of course no one would ever say that, not now. We knew well now where the power lay.
As if reading our thoughts, the judge then picked up a stack of legal writs with his left hand. “You have shown respect for the law by coming to this court. These forty people,” he lifted the pile up and down to show the significant weight, “have not paid or showed up. They will each get a warrant for arrest. They may be driving to La Crosse to visit a friend or to Green Bay for a Packer’s game, but if an officer gets behind them and punches in their license plate number, they will be arrested and sent back to the county jail in a nice state van, free of charge.” We all understood what he was saying: you cannot escape the law. We WILL have respect.
It was then that I understood the process: the eyes of the law are like the eyes of God; we are all expected to sin, but we will be forgiven if we have respect – and fear. Every person in court knew that everyone else went over the speed limit or did not come to a total stop at a stop sign or went through a yellow light too late at the last second on occasion, but we who were sitting there had been signaled out by fate, like Job. It was fair because regardless of the circumstances, we had broken the law. It was not fair because the others had gotten away with it and we had not. But we were left to understand that we should have no fear – justice would be merciful for those who recognized the power of that law and respected and feared it. We also understood that it was just a matter of time before everyone else was caught. Just as everyone would suffer and die, there would be no exceptions. Only have respect for the power of the inevitable and ye shall be delivered.
And delivered we were. The first two defendants were read their crime, each one for minor speeding, and then asked to plea. One answered “guilty, and the other “no contest,” and each was given a reduced judgment. Surprisingly, I was third on the docket, and I stood there with equally surprising ease. “No contest,” I pleaded, and then was given the DA’s bargain: my crime would be reduced to a mere “driving with faulty speedometer” with only two points against my license. This would leave me with greater room to sin again, and as I breathed a sigh of relief, I took my checkbook out. This, it was clear, was the other reason for this court. The reduction in fine was only $2.40, as that was the absolute minimum, so they would get their full measure of cash regardless. It was almost with another sigh of relief that I recognized the familiarity of it all: the State was about control AND money, the deck stacked to make you actually happy to pay the fee. And by golly, it worked.
It was with a lightened heart that I left that alien courthouse and town, and on the drive back I got to thinking. Control with fear – wasn’t that what life in the greater sense was all about? We all know that modern bureaucratic law is a man-made thing. Sometimes we feel we can scoff at it as such, but the law makes sure we do not with arrest warrants, fines and prison. While the law itself may seem ridiculous, the consequences are anything but. Thus we are made, by fear, to respect the law – and it works. It does not make us love or honor the law and those who serve it, but it makes us respect it. Just like the God of the Old Testament, the powers that be may want more, but they will settle for fear.
Still, even religious traditions are far more about ourselves than about God, for God is unchanging but our “selves,” and even the Christian’s own Bible, are not. As big as we might think we are, we need order in our world, even demand it, for without that follows chaos. In chaos, what we know no longer holds and we fall into the big, black pit of endless fear. Better to fear what we understand than to fear what we can never understand. With that looming infinity outside us, then, we prefer to create our little personal world and surround it with barriers of fear – fear of death, of insanity, of humiliation, of poverty, and so on – barriers that we often know are false but maintain for our own protection. Moving out and back in again from there, we create our families and our government just as they create us, each personality and institution hopefully governed by love and respect, but often enough governed simply by fear, which we hold to our bosom for the power this fear has to distract us from the far greater fear of the abyss.
Wise men must wink to themselves as they write of such gods as Vishnu or Jehovah riding their chariots or casting their lightning bolts, for they know that they must speak our language, the language of the human condition. They know that they must speak of order and control amidst the fear of chaos. They also know that as we eagerly accept their myths at one point, we will just as eagerly reject them at another as absurd. It is then that all must change, one myth, one story replacing another. But still the wise men wink, for behind each story they tell is couched the struggle of our lives, the inevitable drama of our very personal approach to the gates to Hell. These are the gates of our own fear, and once there, we must slay the demon or dragon that presides over these gates before we can walk through victorious and free.
It is a vicious fight to the death, but we must all do it. We would rather settle for a silly speeding ticket and a momenta tee-shirt; we would rather genuflect before the power of a policeman in his cartoonish garb. We would rather put up with that and more if we could only avoid that confrontation at the gates, if we could only avoid our struggle with the truth that will bring the death of us before we can find new life.
So next time a policeman stops you for speeding, even though it seems a great injustice, show not only your respect, but your love. He is only ‘you’ doing the service you have commanded. He is only ‘you’ dressed in a fancy outfit, assuring us that man is the measure, if not of all things, then at least of all things that concern you – for now.
As for me, they can have my $94.60 and two points. They can even have my license as long as they maintain my respect, even if this is done through fear. It is, after all, this fear, this distraction which keeps me from the really big fear. It is, this law, like the nurse’s finger waving hypnotically before my eyes. It is something I watch, fascinated, grateful that it keeps away the vision of the doctor coming from behind with a really, really big needle. He will come anyway, but in the meantime I can watch, numbed, and believe for a moment that everything will always remain just this way forever, because she, too, is in a uniform and she, too, commands my respect.
Sometimes you can’t choose where you are going to live. As it happened, we wound up in Wisconsin, not exactly the center of the universe if you’re the go-gettum’ type, but for us it also occasioned another problem: our sets of families live in Connecticut and Mississippi, and neither is on the doorstep of the Cheese State. Connecticut is so far out that we only travel there once a year by air at great expense, but Mississippi – ah, Mississippi. It takes exactly thirteen hours to get to my wife’s family from here, just short enough to drive in one day by car, and just long enough to make you hate driving in general and through the never-ending flatlands of Illinois in particular. For some odd reason it always strikes us that it would be easier if Illinois were divided in two, the lower half being the State of Goshen or something, but we will never get to test that theory. Instead, we will continue to alternate between driving and flying, between saving money and getting the one hundred yard stare, or spending a bundle to be crammed and hustled and hassled on a plane to save, oh, maybe three hours after everything is considered. How it works is, when one is done, we want the other, and neither is ever satisfactory.
My wife Vicki’s parents knew this, and often offered a second alternative – to meet somewhere in the middle, rent a cabin or something, and see the sights of a new location. This worked well until my father-in-law developed emphysema, in which panic about breathing became the final word and long-distance travel became the enemy, for who wants to stop breathing on a highway between Chattanooga and Nashville? So it happened that, regrettably, we now had to drive the whole distance ourselves, and that is why we set out to do exactly that, smack in the middle of summer on the day before the July Fourth long weekend, no less.
This trip was beset with a problem from the start: our ten- year- old Jeep began to leak coolant the day before our departure on one of the hottest weekends of the year, and I had to pressure my long-term mechanic to fix it immediately so we could leave the next morning, using every bit of loyal customer leverage I had. By late afternoon that very day we were told that we were as good as new, and the following morning we set off before breakfast, planning to combine the first rest stop with the culinary excellence of McSaussage wrapped with McWaffels saturated in a type of McSyrup that had never shook hands with a maple leaf, let alone tasted its sap.
This we did on an exit just south of Rockford, Illinois, where the Golden Arches combined with a Shell sign in the middle of a featureless countryside blurred by diesel fumes to give us the irrefutable and invigorating sense that we were on the move American style, and on our way to adventure. Unfortunately, just after we had wiped the syrup from our chins and shirts and were gassing up for the big haul, my eagle-eyed son spotted a consistent leak dripping suspiciously under the just-fixed water hoses. Not to worry, I assured everyone, for our mechanic could do no wrong. It was undoubtedly merely overflow from the newly-filled radiator subjected to the demands of the hot day and the air-conditioning, and with that I stilled the nagging worry that something was still not right with the old bomb. This optimistic assessment seemed to be confirmed as the car hummed away with modern technological precision over the dreary flatlands and rising heat waves of northern, and then central Illinois.
I can still recall the feeling of doom the moment everything went terribly wrong. At precisely the mid-point of our journey, and I mean precisely to within a tenth of a mile, smoke began to billow out from beneath the hood, accompanied by the stench of burning oil. We were exactly at the exit ramp into the town of “Benson,” but it was so bad that I was not sure we would make it to the garage that we could see just beyond the stop sign, which we then had to idle behind as traffic slowly passed before us while the smoke rose and the idiot light flashed madly. Finally we were able to pull out and curve right into the gas station, which unfortunately was only a gas station, not a garage. Fortunately, we belonged to AAA, and soon we had a real garage guy looking under the hood, tow truck idling by our side.
“Your water pump is shot. What happened is, without coolant, your engine block overheated and warped the head. You need to replace that water pump and grind down the head so the gaskets fit tight.”
“So,” said I, “when can your garage do that?”
“A week or so, maybe. We got the Fourth of July weekend, and then we’re backed up to the end of this week. Maybe a week from this Monday.”
Oh, crap. “Ah, you know any other garage we can go to?”
“You can try (such and such), but I bet he’s busy, too. Busy time of year, ya know.”
We consulted quickly under the pressure of time, and then asked this: “Could you tow us to a decent hotel around here?”
“Just have the two, on the other side of the overpass.”
“Anyone got a pool?”
“That would be the Holiday Inn. At least they used to.”
The plan, also quickly conceived, was to check in at the hotel and then go to the other garage. We were assured that we could drive the car ‘as is’ for a few miles without melting the engine, and so we drove to the hotel – finding that the pool had long been filled in – checked in anyway, and then drove to the other garage. In so doing, we got an inkling of what Benson was all about – a Midwest version of the Appalachia coal belt, poverty and all.
After passing several wrong streets while nervously watching the smoke coming from the hood, we finally found the garage, a grimy building in between other soot-besotted buildings, and as busy as an anthill. Why this was so was never answered, but I passed through the cars lined up for service and into the office. There were several other guys in greasy jeans and Carhartt overalls waiting before me, one guy angrily demanding past pay for work done before he was fired, but soon I was asked my business, and just as soon told, “Not until the week after next. Things get real busy around Fourth of July.”
“Yeah, but…,” but before I could finish my futile plea, the guy asking for past pay said, “bring the car around to my place. I can fix it.” His tone was defiant, somehow snubbing the man behind the counter, and I stalled to assess the situation.
“You got a garage around here or something?” I was looking him over and saw a tall, thin and angry man with a scar on his lip, probably from hair lip surgery by his slight lisp, who certainly looked grease-stained enough to be a mechanic. Just as certainly, he had already assessed me: middle-aged white collar guy from up north in shorts and short sleeves with clean fingernails and no knowledge of cars, stuck on his way to vacation. The acronym for that, I believe, would be: S-U-C-K-E-R.
“Nope, but I got my tools. Follow me down to my house and I’ll look her over.”
Down to his house? With family in tow? Angry or not, though, the guy struck me as genuine and, after all, the only hope we had of getting back to Wisconsin – forget Mississippi - before vacation was over. In a few minutes, I was firing up the wheezing Jeep, and the three of us, wife, son and I, were off again to see the sights of Benson, Illinois.
There will never be postcards made of Benson, but we did pass a park with ancient oaks that promised somewhere to hike the following day, as well as a row of great Victorian mansions that spoke of the days of the coal barons and mining towns. As we turned down a one-way street, we saw that the coal-town era still resonated, for on the far side over a strip of marsh and weeds, we saw and heard a long train of boxcars filled with coal, the rumbling of its wheels probably no different from the steam engines that hauled the same cargo a century before. And it was on this one-way street with the tracks across a bed of weeds that our leader stopped, pulling into a short gravel driveway by a double-wide trailer. He stepped out and so did we, to be immediately met by the man’s very pregnant wife.
“This is Cathy,“ said our man “Frank” after explaining to her what this was all about. “She’s due any day now, so if I have to stop work on your car, you’ll know why.” Cathy smiled wearily, her loose dress wilting around her like pumpkin leaves in the intense heat while her two little ones hung shyly behind.
That said, we followed his lead over to the garage, which was filled from top to bottom and front to back with tools. As he rolled out a massive metal tool cabinet, he explained his situation: “I didn't exactly get fired from that place. It was more like an agreement. They’re a bunch of crooks.” His angry snarl returned, “and I wouldn't play their game. I’m a Christian and I don’t believe in cheating people.”
We let that information sink in. I’ve been cheated pretty equally by Christians and non-Christians alike, and found it suspicious that he was telegraphing his integrity. I also wondered at his next line of conversation: “I see you’re from Wisconsin,” this said with an enthusiastic grin. “I learned mechanics there up in Janesville. I really liked it. Good people, not like around here,” his grin dropping momentarily back into a scowl, and then changing to a wistful frown. “I really want to go back. When we get enough money, that’s what I hope to do.”
“Good for you,” I said, looking around at the double-wide and the two and nearly three kids and the grimy railroad tracks and his rusted van. “I hope it works out for you.”
Oh, and for us. First, we had to leave our car with him, we walking the mile or so back to the hotel for the sole sake of having something to do; then we had to give him money to have the head ground at a local shop of a friend (one of the few, I supposed). And then he had to work and take things apart and so on while we sat helplessly, car-lessly in the hotel.
I did ask for a timetable, and he said, “Sometime next week. It depends on when we can get the water pump shipped here. What with the holiday, we can’t do that until next Tuesday.”
We digested this information later in the single room of our pool-less hotel in a run-down coal town that was apparently filled with crooks. What to do? Vicki and I could read, but our son, about ten at the time, could hardly be expected to enjoy himself inside the single room or outside in a grimy town sweltering under record heat and humidity.
Much to the courage of my father-in-law, the solution was offered: they would drive up to Benson, where we would get a better hotel with a pool in another town and have a car to drive around and explore, just like in old times. And so it happened; the in-laws arrived three days after our breakdown on a sweltering and closed-for-business holiday Monday, my father-in-law’s machinery for breathing traveling besides him wherever we went - which very quickly was to a better hotel with a pool. Things were almost all right.
Except for that damn Jeep. By phone, we learned on the day after the stars and stripes gave everyone an excuse to drink beer in the afternoon that the needed water pump could not be shipped from St Louis until the end of the week, to arrive on the following week, except if one of us was willing to drive up there to the auto-parts store and get it himself. Needless to say, I was willing, and on Wednesday I was seated in my in-laws’ grandparent van on the unlovely 2 hour drive to St Louis. By an act of God, I found the parts store right away, in a section of town that should require concealed carry permits, and was able to steal away with the precious item back to Benson before the son dipped low enough to permit the temperature to drop below ninety degrees.
Now it was up to our “shade tree” mechanic, with whom we had no formal contract or identification or anything. My ailing father-in-law was quiet about his condition, but was obviously desperate to get back to the safety and familiarity of his home facilities, and we were warned again about the immanent date of the delivery of Frank’s next child. It was a nail-biter, and we had no clear sign as to whether fate was smiling on us or snapping us away with thumb and index finger. Yes, we had gotten a maybe-mechanic out of sheer luck, but we had also broken down in a town that was equally far from a home base, that had no garage openings, no recreational attractions, and that was swimming in an unmovable torpor of heat and steam.
Oddly, I do not remember if Frank’s wife delivered at the hospital during those days, but probably not. By Thursday at noon, Frank called to tell us all was set to go. All we needed to do was pick ‘er up. Astounded, Vicki drove us down in the van, and I stepped out, checkbook nervously in hand. Now was the moment of truth for both of us: he could charge anything he wanted, and I could pass a bogus out-of-state check right back at him. I stood before the car, which indeed was under a shade tree by the chest of tools, while Frank calmly voiced the bill: something like three hundred dollars, about half of what we had expected. “Take it around the block first, to make sure you like the fix.” Again, it appeared to me cynically that I could just drive off and not return. We had nothing but a verbal understanding, after all, but Frank was not nervous about this or anything else. He was right, of course, but how could he know? Or was he that naïve, so naïve that he could not even work at a garage under the normal conditions of over-repair that so many have?
I returned to the trailer, car running fine, and wrote out the three hundred dollar personal check. We shook hands, wished each other well, and drove off – we to the north, the in-laws to the south, our unplanned adventure not ending all that badly.
Nine years later, I still think of Benson. We have passed it several times since on our way to Mississippi, many trips in the old Jeep that continues to hum along to this day, the engine a lot better off than the twenty-year-old rusting body, and I wonder about coincidence. Why did the mechanics not replace the water pump before we left? How was it that the car flamed on just at the exit just at the spot exactly half-way between our house and the destination? What luck was it that the fired mechanic was in the shop at the same time I was inquiring for help? And then, what luck was it that he was good at his job and honest and that my in-laws had the gumption or duty or whatever to come so that I could use their car for St Louis?
I have also wondered at how the incident affected the mechanic: did his re-connection with Wisconsin put him on a different course? Was our three hundred or so dollars just what he needed for that month’s’ rent? Was he just as surprised as I was that everything went smoothly without a lawful contract? Did it, in other words, change his life?
It is within these two broad categories that I think of the incident. On the one hand, it seems that fate or God or whatever we wish to call it has a wry sense of humor. The pieces of our adventure fit together too perfectly to be happenstance, like the development of the eye in biological evolution without the millions of years to do so. How such precise humor can come from the blue I don’t know, but lions play and wolves cavort, and even snakes bask, each lost to fun or innocence at least for a moment. The world, inscrutably, is filled with terrible things and inevitable, eventual suffering and death, and yet it is capricious as well: it supports equally the philosophy of the hooded priest and the nonsense of the bell-jingling fool. Where ultimate reality is in all this contorts the mind like a pretzel, the horrors of genocide balanced with the great good luck of millions of Americans doing fun and foolish things on the Fourth of July – and getting away with it, scot free. That may not be fair and it may be maddening, but it is so.
On the other hand, Benson reminds me that my role in the play of fate is not always that of leading man. Our drama there was a mere inconvenience; we were only losing vacation days and suffering nothing more than boredom and losing some extra money that we could then afford. Frank, on the other hand, was at a serious cross-roads. It might have been just for him and his family that the home mechanics screwed up just enough for us to land in that shop in Benson at 2 PM on a Friday afternoon exactly when he had gone in to argue for his desperately needed back pay. For us the episode was a fool’s errand, but for him it might have been the turning point, an act of grace that worked to steer him to a better, or at least more fitting, future.
Maybe, then, that’s what much of life’s foolishness is: one’s bit part supporting another’s epiphany. Maybe the silly things we do are not so silly to someone else. But then again, anyone with children and all of us who have been children already know this. How many times has the good nature of a parent taken away the dark fear of a kid? How many times has a seeming foolishness led to the development of joy and love in a life? And how many times has that then led to something better still: a sense that there is purpose, a purpose that is not only essential but at times simply fun?
Benson, oh Benson. I am hopeful that I played my part well, but next time I’d prefer off- Broadway or Pittsburgh of even Peoria, but I wouldn’t bet on it; I can still hear the tinkling of the bell on my fool’s cap from time to time, and if it lands me in Benson again, well, so be it. Life is not all light or shadows. Sometimes, no matter the scene, it requires the Joker.
Carousel (from Dream Weaver, chapter 6)
The rising colors on the horizon soothed out whatever bumps remained from the last ride, and the warm country breeze smelled of pollen, of life reaching its potential and its greatest joy. It took some moments before I stuck out my hook again, and it didn’t really matter to me if anything was caught. Zen. Of course, a ride came instantly, a ride that, despite my arguments with The Engineer, and despite the weirdness of the gay situation, proved to be the real shift of gears, the real quantum leap in the hitching cycle that led to a series of events that I could never, ever have predicted.
It started out typically enough. An old car, this one with a suggestion of fins, the last of that era, beat and dusty and midnight blue, veered widely onto the shoulder. The brakes, obviously, needed some repair. The back door popped open before I got there, letting out the typical cloud of smoke and pounding rhythms from the eight-track. Inside was the typical crew—a couple of guys and a girl, joint lit, eyes bloodshot, long, greasy hair all around—and they gave me the typical, “Hey, man, where ya goin’?” and so on. In fact, everything was typical except that it went on for far too long.
This ride took me to Minnesota, hours into the night, with nonstop weed, good, strong stuff, on and on. For some reason, I couldn’t refuse. Something about this group of Minnesotans demanded that they, and all around them, remain blitzed on cannabis for all their waking hours. Of course, I can recall little from the ride, only that southern Minnesota looked like South Dakota except tamer, with more well-painted farmhouses with their inviting porches, and healthier-looking trees in the front yard. The rest was the same gently rolling farmland, with the wheat gradually changing to more corn and soy, until darkness wrapped it all into one inky ocean with only the dim light from our smoky little submarine left to distinguish it from the void. Oh, God, did I get high, too wasted to function in the waking world.
Sometime around nine, we entered one of those dusty little Midwest towns, towns that sprung up like clumps of weeds amidst the corn and wheat around the grain silo, towns that began and ended with such abruptness that they could have been canned in a jar, and came to a stop. I’m not even sure that anyone said anything, but it was obvious that is was my time to swim on my own, and out I stepped at one of the two crossroads in town, the pavement and turn-of-the-century brick three-story buildings glowing from the ghostlike eeriness of streetlamp florescence. Oh, jeez, I managed to think, what’ll I do? We were a few miles off the major highway and nothing promised to come my way before breakfast. Camping in the street was not an option, and I was so wasted, so tired. After about fifteen minutes, I faced reality and prepared to walk two or so miles out of town to some clump of cottonwoods somewhere, when around the corner weaved the same old near-black car. “Come on in and let’s get high,” they yelled, and they took me back to an apartment one block away on the third floor, up in perhaps the highest human habitation between there and Mankato. With the TV tube glowing in the background, we smoked some bongs.
Then, oddly, now past ten at night, they asked me to leave, for no other reason than that it was bedtime for the potheads who felt they needed some rest before they hit the bong again for another trying day. Me, I struggled, blown away, down the stairs with my duffel and walked to the glowing crossroads again. A meanness had slipped into the high by now, and fear and menace had begun to ooze from the town like quivering music in a Twilight Zone episode. A signal from the blackness warned me to head out immediately, but a quick look over my shoulder showed that it was too late. A sheriff’s car was approaching over the crossroads just passed. It was clear that he had stalked me and was now going to make me pay for all the dope I’d smoked, although there was none on me. Would he force me to betray the bums who had kicked me out into the street? Not that I cared that much for them, leaving me in the lurch as they did, but the reward for ratting on them would probably be no better than a reduced sentence. I stopped and began to posture myself, affecting a look of hurt innocence for the coming horror, when another car on the main road swerved and stopped, nearly on my foot. Behind the wheel under the one great streetlight in town sat one great woman, a huge mama with one flabby elbow crooked on the open window.
“Come on, jump in,” she told me, and I did, squeezing next to two kids in the back just as the sheriff pulled up alongside.
“You know this guy, Deana?” he said casually, lazily pointing his thumb toward the darkened backseat. I slid down a little farther into the upholstery.
“It’s OK, Bill, we’ll take care of ‘em.”
“OK, then, just watch your drinking.” Then, to my relief, he left. That was it, saved again from justice, and justice it would have been. No one this side of Jamaica was currently more stoned than I.
The situation in the car was quickly clarified. The large woman, about forty years of age, was the mother of the two girls in the back, about eight and twelve, as well as mama to the big blond guy in the front next to her, age eighteen (she told this unasked, for some reason). He had just gotten off from work with the traveling carnival, and his mother was giving him a ride back home. But first, they said, they would like to stop at the local tavern for a few. Would I care to join them?
I told the woman that it would be my pleasure, but that I had no money. She told me that this would not be a problem. Thus, it appeared that the Lord had answered my prayers, bringing me an Earth mother with free booze to help soften my landing from this deep, black high. Still, even blessings were often tied with strings.
The big blond guy, I’ll call him Butch, was talking loudly about unimportant stuff, giving me the impression that he was somewhat thought-challenged and in a perpetual state of fighting readiness. One thing he made clear, though, was that he thought it would be a very good idea if I were to join the carnival work crew. Apparently, they were short and needed recruits. He was so insistent that I began to suspect that a finder’s fee was involved, but this would not prove to be the case at all. In fact, the reason behind this insistence to join the carnival would never emerge. It has occurred to me since that this whole strange episode was meant to give me a peek at where my new universe was headed, into a carnival of mindless, stupid intoxication and...well, let the story speak for itself, a true story that only becomes weirder with each detail recalled.
We turned at the other crossroads in town and idled into a packed parking lot before a large old farmhouse that had been converted into a saloon. We walked up some creaking wooden steps and swung open an old screen door onto a world that was so perfect, in its way, that it could have been a movie set. Scores of rugged blue-collar types and farmers sat or stood or played pool with their drinks while others danced on the old wood floor before a country-rock band, everyone sheathed in smoke and halo-ed by blue show lights and a mist of sweat and beer vapor. It was dark enough to hide the uncoordinated roll of drunken eyeballs but light enough to perceive, in the noise and heat, if the stranger you were yelling to was a male or female. Boom-chica-boom-chica, everyone was engulfed in the grand two-step that seemed to push the beer or whiskey down their throats, boom-chica, making it disappear at an accelerating rate until, by golly, they had the beat and the heat and the night was their glory. I picked up the groove before we even sat down, all of us crowding in close at a round table that seemed to have been reserved for us near the middle of the action, where we had to bunch up tighter and tighter to avoid the stumbles and spills of the milling revelers.
My hosts ordered pitchers and shots, the latter waved off until hours later and miles away, when the spell of the liquor spirits became so powerful that they forced me to succumb to their vileness and do all manner of foolish things. Still, I guzzled the beer and would have sucked up what was spilled on my shirt and lap by passersby if possible, as thirsty as I was from the relentless sun of the Badlands and the prairies and the desiccating effect of the reefer smoke. In short time I got to feeling pretty darned good, even comfortable and at-home, and was eying the cowgirls, trying to decipher the inexact code that made the availability of a woman known, when the assault began.
At first, they came one at a time, one tough looking character after another who would bump into the table, say hello to Butch and Deana, then press me to join the carnival. I would decline, citing my need to get home back East on urgent business, so sorry, which would lead to several minutes of persuasive dialogue and posturing and then to retreat. The entire world within and without was becoming more intoxicated and less rational by the moment, and it began to seem as if each person there was attached to this carnival, all wanting me to join. It was as if I had died, and the “carnival” was heaven, or more probably hell, and this test would determine my eternal destiny. Time and again another character would lunge to the table and attempt to bend me to his will, to his world, to join that carnival, to join his fate. I did not like the look of that fate in the hard, drunken faces of these carnies, and I became more resistant to each entreaty just as they became more forceful. After a while, it took on the feel of a battle for freedom, a fight for the God-given right to follow a better karmic path.
The carnies, defeated one by one, now began lurching to our table from their dark enclaves by the twos and threes, offering less argument and more threat. You will join the carnival—the “or else” was not said, but held in the tone and by the show of increasing numbers. I pretended that it was all still a casual thing of whim and choice and continued to say “No, thank you, more pressing responsibilities call.” In fact, this was not true and I was ripe, at that moment, to become a lifelong carny, running the stuffed-animal scam and latching small-town kids into rusting Ferris wheel seats, and they could smell it. Like evangelicals or demons from hell, they were going to join me to their numbers, to share in their pleasures and miseries and overall alienation from the dominant tribe. At one point, I felt a softening in myself, arising from the weak spot where my spiritual virtues had long been overtaxed and weakened. As is the cosmic law, my perdition would have been my own damn fault.
I drank more and, with the background of a great long day of reefer in my skull, became somewhat incoherent and more docile. In fact, I stopped saying no and started saying, “I’ll think about it tomorrow,” stepping on the edge of the slippery slope that would lead to a life of tattoos and hard drinking and runaway teenage girls and periodic stints in the local hoosegow for all those excesses. There would be the bad teeth and the dabbling, ever more desperately, in stolen goods and forged documents, a fate that was becoming so close that the predators could sense the wavering of my will even through the heavy dark smoke of the bar. That’s when they sent in the alpha wolf for the kill.
I don’t know how I could have missed him before, but now he came looming from the corners like a vast shadow projected on the wall. When he stood a few feet from my chair, his corporality could no longer be denied, and it seemed that defeat was certain before such a huge and overwhelming presence. He was, and this is the truth, the spitting image of a great Lakota warrior. He had long, straight, coarse black hair tied in the back with a strip of cloth; a sunburned reddish-brown complexion; a great nose knobbed at one point as if broken in a fight; and a cutoff T-shirt that exposed huge scarred, hairless arms knotted with the kind of taught muscles made not from sissy barbells at a gym but from hard work. His frayed leather vest lay open, exposing a massive chest and a fatless waist cinched with a bead-worked belt with a brass rodeo buckle. He wore big boots too, dusty, worn cowboy boots, working boots spattered with sweat and blood and beer and whisky. He strode to our table in those big boots, towering at least six and a half feet into the thick air above me, and then bent down until his crooked, half-drunk smile came within a few inches of my face. I did my best to maintain a calm and contained façade. He leaned his left hand on the back of my chair, making me sit upright to avoid touching his curled thumb, then nailed me with a wicked look from his black eyes, the look of a hunter who now had his elusive game at bay.
“I tell you what, traveler; you guess the name of the president on a $20 bill, you can go your own way. You don’t, you join the carnival.”
“I don’t know if I…”
“It’s a deal, then. What do you guess?”
There was no room out now. Back in 1974, a $20 bill was worth a good deal, and at my age and with my occupations, student and bum, precious few had come before me. I simply didn’t know the answer.
There is a funny thing about the spirits in drink, though. As destructive as they can be when given too much power, they also have their own genius and usefulness. Before I could concede defeat, a drunk “self,” confident and fearless, rose from my defeated form and quickly answered the question.
“Ah-hah!” said my helpful spirit, “You can’t trick me. That’s no president on the $20 bill. That man was secretary of state!” I said it with such finality that, wrong as the statement was, no one there, regardless of the high regard some may have had for the study of history, doubted me. Instead, I found that the statement had gained me an instant respect. The Indian became almost deferential.
“Oh, you college boys!” he boomed, laughing, not angry in the slightest for his failure, for he, it would seem to all, had known the answer too, and so was as clever as I. “Can’t fool you fellas! OK, a beer for my friend here!”
And I was magically free of the carnival, delivered from a way of life by a single spark from the spirits who had proven against reason that they could get you out of a jam as easily as they could get you into one. Perhaps they had been influenced by higher powers. Who knows?
We drank more until Butch became almost uncontrollably hostile, his mother and a few friends saving him time and again from starting a fight until it got to be too much. Momma mentioned that it was time to go and asked if I would like to stay the night with them. In my mind, there was doubt: my choices were either to stay in a house with a bed and breakfast in the morning or sleep under a bush along the highway. I thanked Deana and accepted the offer. A more sober “me” would have guessed that Demon Rum had more tricks up his sleeve, but I was nearly as wasted as Butch and about equal to Deana, although she had popped shots at twice the rate of my beers. You have to admire, or at least stand in awe of a woman like that.
And she was sensible too. She realized, probably from a few experiences with the sheriff, that she was too drunk to drive, as were all of us adults, and so had her twelve-year-old daughter do the honor. A blanket that was kept in the car, maybe for that purpose, was doubled over several times until it formed a raised seat that enabled the girl to see clearly over the dashboard, and away we went. She was not a good driver, but her momma helped talk her through it, getting her past the intersections and around the dark curves. As she drove farther into the moonless night, I grew more and more concerned about finding my way back to the highway the next day. Just as I was reaching the point of panic, we pulled into a tiny community of old village houses with sagging porches and huge poplars in the back yards. The little girl cranked the wheel to turn into the driveway, but she was not quite up to the effort (most cars then did not have power steering), and we veered off the gravel and crumbling blacktop into some dissolute-looking bushes that seemed to be begging for a final bullet to end their misery. The girl parked the car right there, relieved. She knew from experience that things would be set right in the morning.
Momma rose from the car laboriously but steadily, apparently in control, while the little girls dashed into the house. Butch fell into the driveway, cursed, and started swinging at dark air until he saw me. His rolling eyes focused momentarily like an angry bull’s and he lunged toward me, getting only a few feet before he fell. He lay in the gravel mumbling and drooling until Momma got me to help drag him through the screen door onto the old cracked linoleum floor of the kitchen. He sat up briefly and cried out “Papa, Papa!” before he fell again, plunk! for the last time from his own volition. We hauled him to the darkened living room and Momma covered him right where we dropped him, his head sounding like a bass drum when it hit the old wood planks. I saw a couch in the gloom, felt tiredness run through me, and asked if she might have a blanket for me too.
“No, sir, I thought we might sit at the table and have a few more drinks. I could use a little company on a Saturday night.” It hadn’t occurred to me that it was Saturday. That explained the crowd at the bar. I had lost track of the days, simply because their names had become irrelevant, forgetting that they made all the difference in the world to the rest of America.
More drinking, on the other hand, didn’t sound too wise. I was at that wonderful age where drinking all night could be fun, but the long rides and the pot and the new situations had made me too tired, too tired and drained. I begged to be relieved, but she insisted and I relented. Adventures are made, as Pinocchio knows, from following the will of others.
There is a picture in my mind of us then, seated under a fluorescent light at a shrilly bright and wobbly Formica table on matching chairs with torn plastic seat covers and rusty, bent, one piece hollowed steel chrome legs, the kind that often seemed to give way on nights just like this. We would drink through our drunkenness and enter the bizarre clarity that all heavy drinkers know. It’s a process called “drinking yourself sober,” and it can be done with other things too, like pot, where you become so influenced by the drug that you enter into its pure logic, devoid of the shell of sober thought. You remember everything, see everything, but look back on yourself later with astonishment and a little fear at the odd creature you had unknowingly become.
Deana brought out the whisky and the glasses. She had no beer, and I just gave in, caved to her momentum, resigned to let the chips fall where they may. The light got sharper. Talks of work and people turned into talks of destiny, of God, then, yes, of flying saucers, aliens waiting on the lip of our dimension to shift us to a higher consciousness. She spoke of the strange lights she had seen out on the prairie, of the alien presence that was ghost-like but palpable like a fog on a dark night. Then she asked:
“Do you believe in spirits?”
“Yes, yes,” I said, and mentioned something about concurrent worlds, of different states of consciousness. “You see, the spirits are here...”
“Even the spirits of the dead?”
“Yes, even them, all here at this very time and place. Time, you see, is just a measure of our awareness. It makes reality seem like a room in strobe light, where we see disjointed pictures, each separate from the other, but, really, it is all one solid connecting flow. The dead are over here,” I moved my hands away from the table, “and we are here, in the same room, but we can only see right here. Now, if we had perfect awareness we would see everything in the room. The room is our “epic” or “age,” and we would be able to see all the past and future that would concern us, as well as everyone who ever lived in this age. The Hindus claim that ages run in four-hundred-thousand-year cycles. That’s a hell of a lot.” I swished my whiskey around in the glass, reflected happily on my surprising depth and clarity, and then dropped the glass onto the floor. The soft rotting plywood underneath made a nice cushion and the glass did not break. Deana picked it up, refilled it and joined in the talk with heated enthusiasm.
“You know, I’ve always thought that! I knew we were soul mates!” She gave me a look of affection that surprised even my drunken self. Then her head dropped and she wheezed out a soggy cry.
“Oh, my Willy! I can feel him here with us!” She lifted her head for another belt of whiskey, and then fixed me with moist eyes set in a heaving frame of drunken morbidity. She broke off her look suddenly, lowered her chin into the two concentric layers of fat beneath it, and smothered a belch with her fist.
“‘Scuse me. My poor Willy, my children’s father. If you turned on the light in the living room you’d see some of the smoke damage left. We was out swimming at the lake when it happened. He was sittin’ right in that room smoking a cigarette when he fell asleep in his big recliner chair. Oh, I shoulda’ been here! If we’d just come back an hour earlier, I’d have my Willy now!” She lowered her head again into her fleshy cowl and cried real, running tears. In such situations, my awkwardness is always greater than my sympathy, but I tried to say some comforting words.
“Now, you were just doing what you were doing. No one could know. It’s all in God’s hands.” At the mention of hands, she reached hers across the table and put them around my left arm, on which I had been steadying my weaving head. She looked at me again with blunt sincerity.
“When we came home, there was still smoke coming out the door. The volunteers had already dragged my husband outside and had him laid out on the stretcher. He looked like he was just sleeping, but he was stone dead. They said his cigarette lit the chair on fire, and the smoke in the room killed him. It weren’t the fire, but the smoke. He looked perfect. I couldn’t believe smoke could kill my Willy. He’d been drinking that morning, and I guess that’s why he didn’t wake up.
“He didn’t have no insurance, but it’s good we own the house. I get some disability for my back, and some money from the government for the kids, but Butch’s work at the carnival is all we got for pay. The girls’ got school coming up and I don’t know what we’ll do.” She kept her hands on my arm, loosening one just long enough to take a drink. I could feel sex in the air now, but it had a domesticated and leashed feel to it, something that was odd and unwelcome. I liked women a little plump, but not humongous, and a woman of forty was much too old. But Demon Rum was running the show. I put my other hand on one of hers.
“But he never died, really. He’s right here, as comfortable as can be, probably reaching out to help in whatever way he can. He’s probably looking out for your little girls, making sure they do just fine, even without money. I bet you’ll do all right. I feel like you’re in God’s hands.” I had turned away briefly, for affect, and now was coming back with a look of paternalistic concern when the dam broke in her eyes. She leaned farther across the table, grabbing more and more of me until she was off her seat, circling the table until she was close against me, forcing me out of my chair with her great weight until I was standing, fully embraced and overrun by her passion.
“Oh, I knew you were my soul mate, I knew it the moment I saw you!” She kept pressing against me, pushing me from the kitchen into a dark hall where we bumped and skidded along the wall until we fell into an open door. She twirled me once so that I would land on top, and then dropped us onto an unseen bed.
In a split second, the heavy panting was broken by high-pitched screams and a squirming thrash of legs. The girls had been asleep in their momma’s bed and had been terrified by the sudden collapse of the world upon them. They scrambled from the room squealing with panic. I was shocked almost to sobriety by the event and lost any interest in sex that may have arisen from sheer momentum, but Momma didn’t miss a beat of her heaving passion. It had been so long, so lonely…
She flopped around in bed with surprising agility, kicking off her pants as she pulled off mine, all while keeping her sweating body pressed to me, now a mere prisoner of her passion, a bird caught in the eye of a hurricane. It would have been more expedient to please her, to appease my young male ego and get some sleep, but this flight just wasn’t going to leave the ground. I suggested a few things she might do, and she replied, in a deep voice husky with sex but disapproving, “You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” and that was it. I probably would just have passed out anyway, no matter what. Still, had my passion met hers, I most certainly would have felt even worse the next morning, hung by the noose of obligation after the fact.
There having been no “fact,” the morning left me with only the obligation to assemble my world and priorities while lying in a strange bed in a strange town in a strange state in a strange everything. Even my pants were strange, somehow clinging to my butt while giving me ludicrous room in front, which briefly brought me to a panic, until I figured out that Deana had recollected some propriety and had dressed me before the girls might return (Fat chance. They will probably not go near a bed with a man in it again until years of therapy and the mercy of God have relieved them of their trauma.), putting them on as a woman’s pants once were, with the zipper in the back.
I was alone but could hear the voices out in the kitchen, where my duffel bag was. If it had been possible, I would have snuck out of there, caring for my raging hangover in the private misery such a state deserves, but my things had to be reclaimed, as simple as they were. I re-did my jeans and stumbled down the shadowy hall toward the voice of Butch, who sounded to be in a worse mood than the night before. My appearance in the sloping, stained room of cracked linoleum and greasy walls, red-eyed and ratty and wasted, was greeted with all the dignity it deserved.
First, the girls looked through me as if I were a bad dream, merely a dim projection of a hallucination that would hopefully disappear with the day. As for Butch, my appearance made his face turn from angry red to apoplectic purple as he curled fists in preparation for the action he was cheated of the night before. Here before him, after all, was a man who had woken up in his mother’s bed. Only Momma seemed glad to see me, giving me a smile as if there had been a “fact.” She asked me what I wanted for breakfast.
“Just a glass of orange juice, please. My stomach couldn’t handle any food, after last night.” She gave me a puzzled look, not putting heavy whiskey drinking and an upset stomach together. She was a real pro.
She got back on track. “But you’ll be pretty hungry if you don’t eat now. We’re going to the lake for the day. Gonna be a hot one.” I looked reflexively out the window and saw the blue sky and heat waves rising even at this time, just before noon. The sweat was already pouring from me too, greasy alcohol sweat that would accentuate the joyless journey of detoxification that would dog me until blessed sleep came at the end of a long, long day. Alcohol is instant karma, divine justice served in this lifetime, at once. A lesson of, and look into the divine plan that is so clear that even the most callous alcoholic could see it if he thought a minute. Which he does his best not to.
I snapped back from the window view, suddenly understanding my situation with a rising panic. Momma expected me to stay with them, and not only for the day. I saw her set my plate, saw the look that said, yes, God has sent me another man. Oh, Jesus. And there was Butch, going on with his ceaseless griping and anger, directed, I realized, not at me, but at the frightening world. It came clear in an instant: he needed a daddy to help him grow up, to teach him to stand on his own two feet, and whup him into shape if necessary. Yes, there I was, Deana’s man, substitute dad hardly older than her eldest, invited to bed and breakfast and all the demands of a hard-workin’ husband.
“Oh, no, thank you, no, I’ve really gotta get going. Thank you all for the ride and all, but it’s time to head out. Have ta’ get home to my folks. Yeah, they need my help,” I lied, knowing that we would all be far better off without Deana’s dream arrangement. In the pause that followed, pictures of the night before flashed in my mind. There was the big Indian standing over me, saying, “Now, what president’s on the face of a twenty?” This had brought the picture of the grim life of a carny before me, with adolescent runaways and other lowly, forbidden pleasures as my only reward, but this new possibility was even worse: just fat ol’ Momma and angry Butch and two little girls in need of therapy.
I edged over to my duffel and then slowly shuffled past Butch, who did not yet realize that daddy was going, then slid past Momma, who was beginning to understand, then tip-toed over to the flaking screen door. “But you…” Momma began to sputter, but before she could finish, I made it free, out the door and off the porch and onto the driveway that led to the little road that led to the county road that led to the highway. I looked back, once, just in case, and saw Butch’s face behind the screen, still angry, glaring at me now for my ingratitude, seeing me now as a bum who had been treated to whiskey and sex and now was running away without paying for it. I quickened my step to a near run until gaining the county road. A direction was taken from the position of the sun, and my web-like ESP was set to catch a ride going east as fast as possible. Then came their car.
It was them, all piled into that crappy little compact, coming right up to the T in the road just a few yards from me. I froze, thumb still out, as they took a right and drove past, giving not a look, a grin, or a frown. They had closed me out, shunned me for my unforgivable rudeness. I had not followed the carny code of getting entangled in messy and impossible circumstances because, hell, what else was there to do? but instead had done what anyone with a sense for self-preservation would have. I had, in their minds, scorned fate, the will of their god.
Surprisingly, the shunning hurt. To me, we had shared a time in space, a little adventure, and at least should be modest friends.
There was little time to pout, for I was still on that different wheel, the intersecting dimension that had trapped me the day before, and got a ride within minutes. And, oh, when that door opened, it was as if hell, or at least limbo, had changed to heaven. She asked me to sit in the front next to her, a soft and strong voice floating up like the scent of her sweet and light perfume. She was a year or two older than me, with long, floating blond hair, blue eyes, and a creamy soft complexion. Her blouse was only partially buttoned, opened to breasts covered lightly, provocatively, by a flowered bikini top. She smiled at me with perfect white teeth, her poise at ease, displaying not a trace of fear or dread from my disheveled appearance, and asked, “Where ya going?”
“East, Wisconsin,” I said, choking, suddenly numb to any clever or endearing phrases that might float into consciousness. The hangover accentuated the natural clumsiness that plagued me when situated next to a beautiful and welcoming woman. I didn’t dare to even look at her long for fear she would see my panting, servile need.
“Oh, too bad. I’m turning up here about two miles, to go to the lake. You have to keep going straight, you know, to find the highway.” It seemed she moved her thighs, so slightly, just enough to let me know that I was welcome to change my plans and come along for the ride. She would see how long a ride that would be. For a moment I could hear her think, “Would you like to give it a try?”
Obviously, I would have liked to but didn’t and kicked myself for some time for my cringing self-consciousness. But if the challenge had been taken, if there really had been one, I probably wouldn’t be writing now. I’d be at work at a branch of the federal agricultural service, extension college degree on the wall, spreading the word about Monsanto’s new gene-spliced soybean hybrids, helping to fill out farmers’ bankruptcy papers and get extensions on government loans, working hard to put the last of the kids through college or trade school. My plump wife, still beautiful in her way, her hair streaked with gray, would be off at the secretarial job she was so excited to get after twenty years at home. We would be thinking of the extra cash that would bring in, of how we could at last get a piece of land up in the north woods, out of farm country, and own a clean and quiet and shady place for retirement. Or maybe I’d be thinking of my eldest daughter and how I hoped she wouldn’t marry that dopey guy who talked like a car salesman. Maybe I’d be dreaming now and then about being free, free of family and obligations, free to wander the globe and rediscover the spark that had been lost so long ago.
Maybe, on the other hand, I would have run into Butch, who would have blown a gasket after seeing me with another woman at the lake just hours after his momma had let me into her bed, and there would be no book or daughter or camp house, none of the above, and even “carny” life would have been an improvement over this one so brutally cut short. Anything, god knows, is possible.
In a few minutes my beauty, my other future, the golden-haired wonder who may have offered herself, dropped me off at her turn, smiling to the last. I watched the car until it disappeared under the earth’s curve, cursing my bumbling cowardice, then took a deep breath and looked around. In the vast flatness, soybeans floated on the heat like scum on a pond, stretching to infinity to the east, to the north, to the south. I twirled around the cardinal points, giving myself a greater headache, and then stopped at the sight to the west. How could it be missed? A black-purple cloud had been spilt on that corner of the sky like ink on a blotter and was growing, pushing upward with a frenzied urgency until it somehow cast an eerie shadow across the land without even blocking the sun. Then it changed in seconds from an astounding thundercloud to something like a volcanic spume, a dense cloud of smoke that shot up from a single point on earth. Then the point began to turn.
Oh, Jesus, it was a tornado, come for me from the Land of Oz! How could I have been so blind? Some magic had been done, some mind-space had been crossed that had rent the normal dimensional fabric, spewing oddness and angels until now, at last, the cleansing tornado had come to suck up its own and pull it all back into the other world. It was obvious, as it spiraled my way, that I had been tagged as one of its own.
I wasn’t going without a fight. At first, it seemed that only a fringe of prairie grass grudgingly allowed to sprout by the side of the road would provide a slim grasp, but then a drainage pipe just fifty or so yards away came to view. I ran as quickly as possible to its protection, duffel slapping my leg at every other footfall, and crawled into its stifled air and through the green, slimy trickle of water at its bottom curve, donning a gopher’s sense of gratitude and smugness after settling in. The hole made me feel snug and safe, the rest of the world be damned. The truth is that the tornado probably would have sucked me out of the pipe like lint up a vacuum cleaner had it come close, but I felt safe, and that was what counted then. After several long minutes of breathing the shallow breath of hidden prey, there came a lightening of the world and a normal sense of breeze through the tunnel. I emerged as if from sleep, blinking in the sun, just in time to see the last puff of clouds disappear as if by a magician’s wand. Whoosh!
And, just like that, my world shifted back into place with a nearly audible pop, like an injured shoulder slipping back into its socket. No, it was not that everything was all right. There was still an underlying fear lying deep within myself as well as a desperate sense of aimlessness, two of the forces that had sent me to the highway. But I had somehow slipped through a knot of possibilities, escaped a series of twists in the course of life that would have led to unexpected consequences, to realities that would have been cursed or praised, or both. But it was over for now. I decided, on the moment, to skip past Wisconsin and head directly home. There lay some tatters of my old world there that might be mended.