Tenting Today in Full
Rachael and I are recent college graduates who live in a tent in a public campground. We won’t work, getting by on small remittances from our parents. Summer we camp in the mountains of Northern California. Late September we roll south to BLM campgrounds near the Mexican border. We are in substantial noncompliance on life’s responsibilities. We call it our vow of failure. Neither of us wants to succeed in the land of Sam. Our only commitment is to ourselves.
In the past, we’ve both held slacker jobs. It was too much. The mere requirement of punctuality was too much. I have explained the reality to my puzzled dad. Eventually he came around, agreeing to deposit $500 a month in my checking account. Rachael’s remittance comes from cashing out certificates of deposit, birthday gifts from her dad, a New York beagle.
I drifted under canvas accidentally. Rachael seized the life. I’ll summarize. Me, unexceptional white bread juvenilia in a succession of suburban apartments. No drama. Except that early on my mom ditched me and my morose ineffectual dad for a hard-charging Republican mogul. My mom is a coloratura; she needs drama. Home life with my dad was quieter without her. I was an indifferent student. Not interested in sports either except for a little intramural baseball. In high school, nothing, although I always had friends, other bland latch key kids. My college mark was a plebeian’s “C.” Even this required contemptible expedients: internet cheating, excuse-making, Cliffs Notes. I had shit jobs along the way: McDonald’s flipper; dishwasher in a Chinese kitchen; table hop at the college caf. I took a degree in American history only because there isn’t much of it, and a roommate had a stash of term papers for recycling. I have no interest in the past. I have no interest in sharpening the focus on some bit of dead tissue.
When I forced myself to look beyond graduation, I could only think “teaching credential,” even though I’m afraid of children. I signed up for a few courses. Asphyxiating tedium. A priestly vocabulary suffocating the pedagogical world in cant. The experience made me see I don’t believe in public education, or in hired teachers. I hardly remember anything about elementary or middle school. Mostly blank. I can’t remember much about the teachers or classes. I can’t even look back and see myself in the classroom. I don’t think I learned anything. When it came time for the SAT I boned up for the math by reading Algebra for Dummies at the library.
At first my dad took the line that if I wasn’t going to pursue a masters or a credential, then I had to get a job. My dad really isn’t a stern parent. He’s a hack newspaper reporter, and doesn’t have strong convictions. I think he was just saying what he thought he had to say. My dad’s okay, he’s a generous guy. To humor him, I conjured up a fictive resume. I filled out some job applications available at the student center. I went to an interview.
It amazed me how terrified I was of the demure, self-possessed female who quizzed me: why did I wish to be an associate? where did I see myself in five years? how did I see us working together to reach mutual goals? My heart pounded in my throat. Midway through the interview I stammered an excuse and fled. I couldn’t stand up to this kind of lisping interrogation. It wasn’t the inanity and smiling hypocrisy of this particular girl Pharisee. It was the death’s-head adumbration. A cold shadow fell across my face as I followed her finger: the road to minion-hood, acquiescence, servility, to a lackey life dragged out in service to my betters. I suppose that for those with a vocation, work is vital. Pluck and talent shoot like bubbles for the surface. For me, self-involved and timid, unwilling to strive, of little use, the song of the cubicle and the paycheck is not intoxicating at all. The price is my volition, the only thing I value.
Also. I lack the spine for even the mild regimentation of punch-clock Samland. (An aside: Sam. A coinage from my dad’s made-up vocabulary: Sam, Samland, Samish, equals EweEsOfHay. Samtown, our nation’s capital; Samolian, the mighty Buck; Samology, Fox News.) Anyway, net line, I don’t want to play my social security card. Still, without some ready, I wasn’t going to be able to fulfill the mensual with the landlord, now that my arms-folded, foot-tapping parent had delivered his sotto voce ultimatum.
My droopy, dead-end dad, open-handed and always guardedly hopeful about my prospects, had spotted my four years of tuition, books, rent, walking around money, never complaining except to mention every month that I didn’t understand the cost of living. I never thought about the cost of living. But I know arithmetic. Animated by my dad’s uncharacteristic firmness, I’d done a few figures. A full-time shit job, for instance? The after-taxes McWage would barely cover the tab on my burnt-orange-carpeted studio apartment near the campus. Usually, I’m phlegmatic. I prefer to wait to see how things will turn out. Now the time barked for action.
I had never been a Boy Scout or taken any interest in fresh air. Sometimes my dad barbequed on the tiny patio of our various apartments. The other previous experience of the outdoors: a college roommate once invited me on a weekend campout, during which a dozen noisy drunks lit a bonfire and broached a keg. I didn’t have a tent, and slept in the back of my car. A few weeks after graduation, I ran into this same roommate at the Rumpus Room, my saloon of record near the campus. Just to say something, I ran down my stat, that of seemingly needing a job, not wanting one, ta da.
He said I should go backpacking for a month to find myself. “It’s cheaper than the Oso Negro,” he said. He was shortcutting to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which our old house had watched a couple of times. In the movie I think it’s the old prospector who says it’s cheaper to camp for free in the mountains than to pay a peso a night for a bench at the flop house. So I’m thinking. Hermetic solitude in the wilderness as a stimulus to insight. Historical precedent: Buddha, Jesus, countless obscure seekers, undertaking the lonely and inexpensive vision quest. I didn’t have a better idea.
I didn’t have any equipment either. I went to Wal-Mart and used my dad’s credit card to get what I thought I’d need: pack, sleeping bag, tent, stove, canteen, compass, whistle, some freeze-dried packets of food. I drove to a campground in the mountains, parked, loaded the pack, and started from the trailhead. I was carrying about 80 pounds. Half a mile up the trail I threw down the pack in the dust, kicked it a few times, and sat on a rock. A while later a pair of real backpackers came by. They let me heft one of their packs, which weighed maybe twenty pounds, the weight of my tent alone. They lifted my pack and shook their heads. I turned around and went back to the campground, where I pitched my Wal-Mart tent, boiled water for spaghetti on the tiny stove, and uncorked a bottle of wine that was in the trunk of my car.
The Wal-Mart gear might be too heavy for the trail, but it seemed fine for the campground. My pitch had a picnic table and a fire pit. I decided I had gone far enough to find myself. The surrounding wilderness seemed sufficient, and my quest was just as likely to enlighten me here as in any other woodsy venue. It turned out this particular Forest Service campground didn’t charge a fee. Global warming. No water in the pipes, pit toilets instead of plumbing. No cell service either, but from the pay phone at the entrance I called my landlord and broke my lease. It was the Rubicon. Only a couple of hours into my quest, and I’d already made a life-altering decision. A huge weight lifted from my heart, my eyes blurred. I was free.
I called Melinda, my then girlfriend, and asked her if she wanted to join me at the campsite for the weekend. She didn’t. She was cramming for the LSAT. She aspired to beagledom via ivy halls on the Eastern seaboard. Melinda always referred to me as “dear man,” which meant that I was a transitional figure in her life. The undergraduate beau, the sweet but impractical swain who served as a place holder until she hit law school and more promising DNA. There was no drama when she dumped me a week later.
Next I called Rachael. I didn’t think of this as cheating because I’d already seen Melinda’s footman coming with my coat. I’d known Rachael for a few years; we’d hooked up a couple of times when we’d been drunk at parties. Nothing tense. I hadn’t even called her the next day. Rachael had food issues, and was too zaftig for me. I’d always see her sitting in the student lounge reading fat paperbacks of historical fiction. Black hair, black overcoat, pale skin, kind of Goth-lite, no tats or mascara. She agreed to visit. But wait! She recently had become a strict vegan, and no grease could cross her lips; she couldn’t even stand the smell of a pizza anymore. All these years, lactose intolerant, she never knew, until she got the word from the nutrition guru at the Green Zone Cafe. This was new, because I’d been at parties where she’d wolfed her slice of the pie with gusto. Of course, we’d been toking. I told her to bring three or four big plastic jugs for water. I’d already found out from another camper that these could be filled behind a little store down the road.
One thing I liked about Rachael right off the bat: she had no desire to strive. She didn’t want to continue her studies, or have a career, or be an artist. She had no illusions about having talent. Money didn’t blow her skirt up. Doing work for others on the clock didn’t interest her. She liked to read novels; she liked to make astringent comments about the foibles of her friends. She wasn’t immune to the sip or toke; veganism apparently hadn’t changed that.
When Ranger Rick cruised through the campground, I flagged him to find out how long I could stay. It’s like this, says Rick. The rule is, two weeks. But at this particular out-of-the-way, under-used, waterless venue the rangers were reactive, not proactive. If a camper isn’t causing a fuss, Rick isn’t going to give him the boot. Ranger Rick would rather have me, harmless college milquetoast (in so many words), in the space rather than some liquored-up palooka that yells all night and sets the woods on fire. And if I wanted to volunteer to be campground host, the Forest Service would even give me a stipend (but that was too much responsibility). I took this to mean that a mild collegial boy could stay indefinitely for free.
That being the case, Rachael when she arrived suggested we go back to Wal-Mart to buy a bigger tent and other stuff to make ourselves more comfortable. She liked the tent idea right off the bat. Grasping the possibilities at a glance, she decided on the spot that she was staying. She had no other plans for her future. But she wanted more amenities.
Rachael won’t go into Wal-Mart herself. The musky prey animal smell bothers her. The ambiance depresses her. The low-rent cliental reminds her too keenly that she is an upper class intellectual Jewish girl from New York. She doesn’t like to think about beige starvelings chained to sewing machines, or about the cowed possessors of epicanthic folds and good small motor control who are threatened daily with being raped by thuggish shop overseers. Or about any other grimy scene of the global chase for cheap labor. She waited in the car. Wal-Mart was having a summer blowout, and I got a 10’ by 10’ wall tent, as well as a screen tent that would fit over the picnic table. I got two camp mattresses, and two lounging chairs that ingeniously collapsed into a duffle. I got a small plastic inflatable wading pool, the kind for toddlers. Rachael’s idea. We use it for bathing in the privacy of one of the tents. We got a Mr. Heater, and a Colman two-burner propane stove. Except for Mr. Heater, all on sale, about $400.
We drove over to Rachael’s place to tell her roommates that she was bailing and to get her stuff. Most of it went into storage at her hippie mom’s, but she brought some kitchen pots and a box of books. We don’t like the same music (she’s strictly classical) but we both have ear buds filled with pilfered music from the insufficiently policed ether. Happily, hippie mom wasn’t home, so we could just dump Rachael’s surplus gear in the garage without getting into any drama. “Hippie mom” is shortcut for credulous semi-affluent middle-aged divorcee enthralled with New Age hokum. It’s a type you see here in California. Consciousness expansion, self-discovery, energy healing, astral guidance. Retreats, intensives, workshops in which you “own what you’re wearing,” which at Harbin Hot Springs isn’t much. Hippie mom’s specialty is alchemical divination. She also signs up for the noetic sciences and holotropic breathwork. Rachael rolls her eyes. I keep my mouth shut.
Our only other stop was for lunch at the Green Zone Cafe. A new-minted vegan, Rachael no longer can stand the filth of a restaurant kitchen. She won’t eat in any restaurant except the Green Zone, where sterile Swedes in hair nets and surgical gloves chop veggies in full view of the fastidious diner.
Along with beagle dad and hippie mom, Rachael has one sib, older sister Naomi, who is only 25 and already a trophy bride. It’s Naomi’s second. Her first was to a rich Persian she met when she was 18 and taking summer honors at Stanford. They eloped for Tehran, and at first it wasn’t as bad as you might think. Purdah on the street, but at home and while visiting her top crust neighbors she wore Western duds and led a pampered life. Rachael says even a eunuch to take her shopping. Being Jewish didn’t seem to be an issue. But she got bored, fled, reenrolled at Stanford as a super-achiever. At a weekend party in Atherton she met the forty-something dot-com VP who had just cashed his options and was looking for fun that didn’t include a forty-something ball-and-chain. So now Naomi lives in Hillsborough in a gated estate when she wasn’t in St. Tropez or wherever such people go. There’s some strain between the sisters.
Back at the camp site we had the fun of assembling the tents. I was surprised at how comfortable we were. Of course this was balmy summer in the California mountains. Tee-shirt days, pullover evenings. We only used Mr. Heater for a few minutes to warm up the tent before bedtime. This was before our remittances (Rachael didn’t even know then she could cash out her CDs). We counted our funds and figured between us we had enough to get through to Thanksgiving, by which time, we assumed, this being Samland, something would turn up to spare us trouble.
Although I offered to help, Rachael insisted on doing all the cooking herself; she doesn’t like anybody else’s mitts on her food. She also doubted my commitment to hygiene. My only job was scrubbing the pots in a plastic dish pan. I’d never thought of being a vegan myself, but I immediately saw the virtue in it for long-term budget campers. It solved a lot of issues about refrigeration. However. I had grown up on a slave diet of fast-food grease. At first I had huge cravings for lard that even fistfuls of almonds and peanuts didn’t satisfy. But we had avocados and olive oil, too, and poco a poco I came to accept veganism, not with Rachael’s pop-eyed zeal, but as practical expedient that kept our kitchen simple and costs down. During these same first weeks of domestic adjustment, Rachael finally quit cigarettes for good, bitched her head off, and got over it. Another expense jettisoned. Although we both toked in school, now we didn’t have that smoke either, unless someone visited. Same for vino. “Abstinence,” Rachael says, “Better for fucking.”
For the record, I haven’t caved to Rachael’s every culinary crotchet. She’s uses chopsticks, for instance, or her well-washed fingers. She refuses a fork, saying they’re unsanitary because of the hard-to-clean interstices between the tines. I drew the line. I use a fork. “So manly,” Rachael says, “when you stand up to me.”
Pues, by mid-summer we pretty much had the main points of tenting figured out. After the raccoons and squirrels raided the food a few times, we put the entire kitchen and larder in plastic bins, and stacked them on the picnic table inside the screen tent. Rachael does the cooking on a two-burner Coleman stove fueled by propane bottles. We found an abandoned ice chest, and buy one block of ice per week at the little store. The few things inside the chest, the more perishable veggies, we bag in plastic to keep the water out.
In the morning we set out some water jugs in the sun. These are gallon plastic jugs filled with creek water. By afternoon the water has warmed enough for a bath. Two gallons each. Sometimes, for erotic stimulus, we’d kneel together inside the plastic wading pool and wash each other. But usually Rachael has her bath first, sitting cross-legged in the little plastic wading pool. The lack of a hair dryer could be an issue for some women, Rachael says, but her short hair doesn’t need an elaborate coif. After our baths we get conjugal in the sleeping tent. It’s very pleasant to rub our clean bodies together in the warm drowsy afternoon. Afterwards, Rachael reads in the hammock, and I stay in the tent meditating on the miracle of consciousness, although first I rinse off the stickiness in a plastic dish pan, a kind of a rustic bidet.
For our bed we lay a couple of Rachael’s blankets on the tent floor, then the two full-length camp mattresses, then a couple of more blankets, and then our sleeping bags. At night we wear fleece watch caps in bed and thick socks. A lantern screwed into a propane bottle gives plenty of garish light, but we both have individual LED head lamps too. And a beeswax candle, which Rachael says doesn’t emit sooty pollutants.
In the evening we stroll around the campground and pick up any spare wood other campers have left in the fire pits. We make a little fire, uncork the vino if we have any, talk about this or that. Before we got our remittances, Rachael would say: “I wonder how you’re going to provide for my future?” “Isn’t it enough that I’m pleased with you now?” I’d say. Rachael says that my unimaginative skepticism and inability to plan ahead make me a natural Buddhist.
In August my dad unexpectedly sent me some dough, care of general delivery at the little post office in the store down the hill. I’d talked to him on the phone a couple of times over the summer, assuring him it wasn’t drugs or mental illness causing me to live in a tent. Maybe he worried, or blamed himself for my inability to get a grip, but anyway we had more money. A little later Rachael’s hippie mom reminded her that the beagle’s birthday gift, a certificate of deposit, had matured; she could cash it out instead of rolling it over. It meant we could postpone making any hard decisions.
September it started to get nippy at night in the Northern California mountains. “Let’s roll deep,” Rachael said, by which she meant south. By this time we’d acquired so much gear it wouldn’t all fit in our practical student cars, a Honda Civic and a Toyota Tercel. Wal-Mart again, for a rooftop pod to hold the tents and bedding. I’d read in a magazine about the Bureau of Land Management’s Long Term Visitor Areas in Southern California and Arizona. For a modest fee (less than a C-note) the tent camper or alumna-lodger can stay the winter on a patch of amenity-less desert. We wound up at the Wiley Wells campground off Interstate 10 near Ironwood State Prison. Late September, still 80 degrees during the day, with rapid cooling at dusk.
For a few dollars we bought a pile of gnarly tree limbs from another camper (he had a trailer load of stumps and snarls) and I used an old axe from a garage sale to knock it into suitable chunks. Rachael claimed to be impressed. That evening at campfire Rachael gave me a hand-made invitation to the “Bunyan Days Top Chopper Awards Night,” where I was to receive an honorable mention. This incident began our puerile tradition of awarding each other certificates of recognition. Nobody else would be doing it. I wouldn’t be getting “Most Improved Associate for August” from anybody else.
So we continued tenting into winter. This campsite was only twenty miles from the little town of Blythe, California. We’d go in every week to Albertsons for produce. Always a drama, with Rachael. But there was also a farm stand that sold veggies straight from somebody’s backyard. In the mountains we’d used a bucket to wash clothes; now we tried the Suds ‘n’ Duds in town, but only once. Rachael said the clothes smelled like ozone when they came out of the dryer. And she didn’t like the people. So we went back to the bucket. It didn’t matter. We got by mostly on underwear, socks, tee-shirts and jeans. Anyway, a coin laundry was splurging. We took pride in our frugality. If we are talking at night in the tent instead of reading we shut down the lantern and light a candle. We buy our books at library book sales. Rachael trades historical fiction with other campers. I load my ear bud at the junior college, using swipe ware
At night we talked about everything. We discussed all the possibilities. Since neither of us can think of anything we want to do, we figured we must have evolved to the higher level of being unproductive. So many strive. So much pushing. The world doesn’t need two more to churn up the dust and make a smudge. We’d attended a mediocre state college staffed by middling hacks, but even there, in that bath of ochre, we had known tons of kids kindled by ambition. Burning. Then think of all the topnotch universities here and in India cranking out phalanxes of highly trained PhDs.
All that talent, all that yeasty squirming, all that heliotropic straining. New hatched turtles scrambling for the surf through a gantlet of predators; few destined to prosper. I admire talent and pluck in others, but I know I’m not needed, and in any case I could never meet the demands of competition. Rachael could; she has iron in her backbone. But she despises groveling and hypocrisy, without which there is no hope of advancement.
Instance Sally Grubman, one of Rachael’s friends who graduated a year ahead of us. She now has an internship at a big deal Mad Ave.outfit. Cute closet-sized studio in the Village. Intimate dinners with corporate feudal lords twice her age. Bound for glory. Bound to hike up her skirt and climb from cubicle to view office with her name on it. Sally is willing to make her deal and pay the tab. Not R. Rachael won’t smile and smile, or snap a salute. Rachael to would-be boss: “And the same for the horse you rode in on.”
Buuuht.... We were both kind of nervous because of the expectations. My dad let on how he was disappointed about my choices (but not angry). He raised me single-handedly. He’d supported me all through college. He said he wouldn’t support me any more (unless I went to grad school), but that in any kind of emergency to give him the first call. My mom (who had dumped my hapless dead-end dad for a go-getting junior titan) said she wasn’t surprised that I’m a flop. She cited liberal professors, the media, and secular permissiveness. She’s become Republican and churchy, after remarrying to the hard-driving positive thinker. My mom and I don’t seem to have much in common. On the other mano. Despite my iffy paternal DNA, she keeps saying she wants a grand bambino.
That’s out. Rachael and I aren’t reproductive either. No urches. I don’t see why anybody wants one. The future doesn’t look cheery. Not for the sapitariat. Being out of the race, we wouldn’t have the Samolians to shield an urch from looming shortfalls and depletions. When Rachael first arrived we’d been lax about contraception. Pull and pray. We had a scare; now no more laxity. The pill makes her bloat, she doesn’t trust coils, latex doesn’t feel good. Which means diaphragm and spermicidal.
Depending a little on the weather (sometimes the tent gets too warm) we have our daily sex in the afternoon while we both have plenty of energy and we’re clean after bathing. She taught me how to insert the taco gently (following my oral presentation). I enjoy capping her cervix with the slippery rubbery cup, thus fencing out and foiling the drumming hoards soon arriving.
Rachael has ample (heavy, voluptuous, pendulous) breasts, and they comfort me. But at heart I’m a pelvic girdle man; I love smooth flanks, the rich dank delta between round thighs that kiss at the top. Rachael has the best vagina in the world, embedded in a salad of soft, tight pubic curls, jet black. She lubricates easily, and her menstrual blood is clean and shiny on my penis. She smells like geraniums, tastes like almonds, and her copious oil slicks her perineum and glides my finger into her slippery anus. Her bartholins are prolific gushers, but she worries. “Promise you won’t leave when I’m dry as a cracker.” Her hippie mom, she says, won’t abide horse urine and relies on emotion lotion during intimacy with her savants and shamans. When I’m lying with Rachael I don’t believe anything will change. We wither and come to dust, but I don’t believe it. If Rachael is old I will make her pussy wet with my loving tears. We are mated for life, our stainless hearts impervious to rust, despite whatever happens to our fickle genitalia.
Over the course of summer we had fallen in love. We were both surprised. We’d screwed in college now and then, but that had been impromptu and non-committal. I’d thought our tenting together would just be with benefits. Instead I became crazy about her, and couldn’t imagine anything other than our being together always. She told me one night that she had never once during her childhood expected to be happy, but now she was happy. That made me cry and Rachael licked my salty eyes. We ruled out marriage. She said she would always love me, knew I loved her, didn’t need the rice drop.
Estoy de acuerdo. I’m not Libertarian but in main I think the state ought to keep its nose out of my private business. A couple can make their own nuptial arrangements, if children or money aren’t involved. We marry when two hearts entwine, I said. “The part about hearts entwining,” Rachael said, “Don’t mention that to anybody else.” For looks in the campground we found a couple of silver-like bands at Goodwill to wear if stiff duffers are around. If the duffer asks, we say married, just to keep it simple. It’s a private un-solemnized homemade liaison without benefit of clergy or government clerk. We don’t care about tax incentives or other pro-marriage social engineering. And there won’t be Social Security for us anyway.
As our first tenting winter approached, we still had money, although we knew the time had come to think about getting more. Rachael was also wondering if we should be involved in some kind of community. Most of the people at Wiley Wells were codgers in alumna-lodges. Ancient snow geese fleeing ice-bound Minnesota or NoDak. Pensioners living on the cheap in tuna tins. We socialized with them a little. I like geezers because they’re polite and usually quiet at night, although also boring and long-winded. Still, I think because we are young (and didn’t have any liquor), they never overstayed; half an hour of banalities around the fire and they folded their chairs and disappeared in the dark.
“Community,” she would say. “Is it because I’m Jewish?” Although I often call her The Observant Jew, sharp-eyed perspicacious Rachael is secular and never goes to temple. But she said that as a child she did go to temple and still had a yen for some kind of traction. Roots. A feeling of place. Yet she couldn’t think of anything appealing. “Shouldn’t we do good? Service? A contribution?” I couldn’t think of anything to contribute. I’m not religious or political. I don’t want to stuff envelopes for the progressive candidate. I’d feel silly scooping spuds at the soup kitchen. I’m too squeamish for the clinic. I said, how about bunnies? Sierra Club? “Aren’t those people awfully earnest?” Rachael said. “Don’t they walk in long lines like ants through the forest?” I told her right now they were fighting oil drilling in the Arctic. “Yes, we’ll save the Arctic penguin,” Rachael said. “I hope we’re not too late.”
I didn’t felt guilty about our months of rootless laziness. The days seemed to glide by, and I felt no loss because we’d done nothing helpful for others. I don’t feel strongly about community. I’ve never been a joiner in causes greater than myself. When I was ten I’d gone to Sunday school at a neighborhood Methodist Church on my own for a few months. Then didn’t anymore. I asked my father to go with me once, but he wouldn’t, saying he was a strict Missourian. And a Thomist. The doubting kind. He had no use for the Methodist Church, or any church. He subscribed to the Sunday New York Times, and that pretty much took up his day.
I said what we probably needed was a group of friends, couples our own age, to have dinner with now and then. Rachael sighed. Food is an issue for her. She prefers to make all her own meals. She can’t stand the filth of a restaurant kitchen. She doesn’t like other people touching her food. Her monastic veganism is too much for ordinary campers. People don’t come to the woods to steam broccoli.
But I conformed. I used to be carnivorous, but found that a vegan table fit the camping life. We didn’t have to refrigerate meat. She favored one pot meals, like vegetable soup. Noodles, beans, roots, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, carrots, peas, corn. No onions or garlic because of the flatulence issue. Olive oil and basil. Avocado, too, and nuts, so we didn’t miss the fat. Despite the almonds and peanuts, we lost weight over the summer. Rachael said she had gone from a twelve to a ten. She has a round body, but she’s a lot trimmer in the waist now. We don’t really exercise, but we take strolls in the morning. We stroll around the trails until Rachael says, “Please take me home,” and then we go back.
Well, we do some backpacking. That started after we got lost in the mountains. We were strolling one afternoon, a fleecy summer day. We’d been down by the creek picking flowers (Rachael wanted to make a garland), and then, bedecked with flowers, we wandered into a meadow, and over a hill into a valley. We noticed the shadows lengthening. “Do you know where we are?” Rachael said. I didn’t. We went back to the creek to follow it into camp, but it took us a couple of hours to figure out we were on the wrong branch of the creek. By this time it was dark and we were completely turned around.
I was scared. For one thing, Rachael was having her period, and I’d heard somewhere that menstrual blood attracted bears. We didn’t have any food. And of course no sleeping bag or jackets. Lost, off the trail, with night coming on. It would have been foolish to keep going in the dark. Rachael looked through her daypack. She had put together a first aid kit, and in it was a little bottle of tablets for purifying water. She had a Green Power Bar. I have to say that Rachael looked pretty cute in her Oshkosh B’Gosh overalls, with the flower garland entwined in her dark hair, as she meticulously divided the Power Bar. Then we lay down together in the grass. I was so frightened I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. As soon as it got dark, all sorts of creepy sounds, rustling, creaking, fairy whispering. Little gnome footsteps in the brush. Rachael was scared too, and we hugged and tried to comfort each other. The next thing I knew it was morning, the sun blasting on my face. Absolutely nothing had happened in the night. I hadn’t been aware of being cold or uncomfortable. No animals bothered us. We looked at each other, and felt foolish about our worries.
Later in the summer, we picked up some used backpacking gear at a yard sale in the little town. A young dude off to college had cleared his closet. He’d grown up in the mountain village, backpacked his whole life. He gave us advice: In the summer, if you’re not going too high on the mountain, you don’t need much. A nylon drop cloth; a little bitty nylon scout-type tent which he had lightened by cutting out the floor. A couple of half-length air mattresses. A couple of thin wool blankets. One pot. Some fuel tablets. He said to get some wool shirts at Goodwill and cut off the sleeves to make vests. That and a nylon windbreaker. Put it all in two of these battered old rucksacks that he’d sell to us right now for a buck. So we tried it. On our outings we seldom went more than three or four miles from camp. That was far enough to find some pretty overlook.
Like every child, I know how to work my parents. Parent, in my case. My mom took a hike early on, and I grew up with my dad, bouncing around, from one cracker box apartment to another. My dad calls himself a tramp newsman, but that's not accurate. A tramp travels but won't work. "Hobo reporter," would be better. He's worked for about twenty different sheets, got fired from ten of them. But for the last eight years or so he's been doing general assignment at a third tier suburban rag here in California.
He's always telling cute stories, but inside he's misanthropic and skeptical like all his hack newsmen contemporaries (a Missourian can rain on just about any parade). He’s ineffectual too, not one to make things happen. Not much of an enthusiast. My mom used to call him “Downtown Oakland.” That’s why she left with the ardent Republican, to get some passion and glamour, and now she's a lot happier going to fund raisers and singing in the choir. I don't think my dad cares much about getting dumped. Before my mom, after my mom, a string of gals, old, young, cute, feo.
They all eventually dump him, and I think he's always relieved. People are responsibility, people are grief. On the flip side, without people he tends to disappear like the Wonderland cat. As a solo act he doesn’t emit much of a force field. He knows it. He says his solitary presence can only be inferred by the wobbling orbits of nearby satellites. That’s the reason he went into newspaper work: it gives him body. Like many self-absorbed people, he's shy. He has a slight stutter. But in the shadow of a newspaper masthead he's able to shape shift into the visible spectrum. Almost somebody.
I sort of knew how to approach him about the remittance. My line was: Dad, I'll never make it Samishly, no use even trying. Maybe it won’t turn out to be overt bum-in-the-gutter failure, but for sure it’ll be the commonplace failure of lifelong compliance in some meaningless niche. I'm interested superficially in lots of things. You know that. Even if I don’t read a newspaper, I read books. I’m not a dunce. It’s just… Figaro I’m not. I don't want to bustle for other people. I don't want to carry out the steward’s fiat, or salute the logo, or be loyal to Team Win, or smooch the cubicle overlord’s behind.
I don't want to fret about whether my betters believe I’m a useful asset. Dad, too much of the world is busy. Busyness is maiming the planet with smudge and grime. I don't want to abet. But that’s not really it. I’m just not up for the game. Some are rarin’ for it. Dick Tray needs a kingdom to be busy in (my dad’s a sucker for a Shakespeare allusion). But I already know my place. I don’t even get to be an attendant lord to start a scene. I’d be holding the horses. You know me, Dad. There’s nothing Nietzschean about me. I’m sub-mensch grade. No will to power. I barely have a pulse. Effort will only bring me disappointment. Sure, I could drag on in grad school another few years. But you’ve seen my grades. There’s no vocation for me in academe. My report card doesn’t merit subsidy. I don't want you to piss away more of your money on tuition.
I know you think I should get a job, but Dad, look at your own life in the Sapitariat. You’ve always said you’re nothing but a donkey engine. You’ve always said you’re a work beast under the lash of junior widgets. It’s too late for you, but why do you want me to be servile? Even if I had a talent (and you know I don’t) the odds against it being realized are Lotto-sized. Most of your newspaper pals are bitter pills about that one; they were all going to be hotshot writers; instead they hopped the express bus straight from promising kid to paunchy drunk.
You’ve worked since you were fifteen (he likes to hear that) and you got nothing; you don’t have a retirement (he’s bounced around too much to get vested) and you’re gonna be Siamese-ed to the tube until you pitch face down on the keyboard . You’ve said it yourself: we’re all in the spot labor market now. No pension, no Social Security. Health care? Some cheesy HMO. Look what happened to you (my dad threw a temper tantrum at Kaiser twenty years ago and his jacket as a troublemaker has followed him ever since).
Okay, I’m not robust, but I’m basically healthy. I don’t bungee jump or watch the Jackass movies. I drive like an old lady and I’ve never even had a traffic ticket. I quit smoking dope (mostly) and I’m monogamous with a vegan. I’m not like you; every time you screw a new woman you take on her whole venereal rap sheet. I’m true to one disease-free gal, and since I started kissing Rachael I brush and floss every day so I’ll have good breath. And I get in a walk. That’s a better health plan than you got. Look, dad. Rachael is kicking in $500 a month from her CD. If I can match it we can live a quiet life with a tiny thumbprint. It's better for everybody. The world won't notice...
And ta da and so on. My dad looked sort of gloomy, but eventually he went along. It's not the dough. He's always been pretty generous. If I'd decided to go to grad school, or even to take the Grand Tour, he'd have pungled up (a newspaper term) without a gripe. The thing is, my cynical dad basically agreed with me already, and that's the secret to making a sale. I don’t think he even pegged me for more of a washout than any other feckless youth. He knows the truth. The ruck of every college crop is destined for middling lives of disappointment. There are very few top predators. Most of us are prey animals or parasites. It’s just the run of the cards. A low pair is what the average mope is likely to draw. Of course, Kid Callow is inclined to see a gorgeous future despite the tables. But my sour cynical show-me dad sneers at Babbitt-y pep and Pangloss-ian pap. It was actually my dad, at my graduation, who came up with the turtle analogy: the new hatch scuttling seaward through a scrum of predators.
He also knows that people my age frequently make a course correction. I could see him thinking, Okay, why not? Go live in a tent with your babe girlfriend for awhile until you figure it out. What's the hurry? Net line. He agreed to deposit $500 a month to my bank account, no conditions or stipulations. That's his way. He never loans money.
The day unfolds smoothly amidst the sand dunes of Wiley Wells. Our tent site is sheltered by Palo Verde and ironwood, out of sight. All the other residents are geezers in various forms of alumna-lodges. Nobody is intrusive or even curious, and we have our privacy while sitting in our bathrobes in the morning sunshine.
Thanks to Rachael’s hippie mom we have a blender that cranks by hand. So we start the smooth day with a smoothie: blueberries, banana, splash of orange, maybe a melon or another fruit if we have it. Silken tofu for some protein and body. I’d prefer yogurt, but we are stone vegan here. Then some thick crusty home made whole wheat bread warmed in the frying pan. Jam and olive oil on that, with a garnish of peanuts.
After that, evacuations and ablutions. Then we walk. It’s getting to be a long walk, four or five miles, a couple of hours. At first, in the early tenting days, it was a meander, a slow stroll. We’ve picked up the pace. We move briskly now. Rachael usually wears her Oshkosh B’Gosh overalls, and she is darling. Back in camp, I slip into my hammock and read for awhile. Every day I say, “I’m in reserve,” meaning I’m ready to help if called.
But Rachael never calls. When it comes to food, she prefers to do it all herself. Some times she even washes the pans. “I don’t wish to disturb his nibs,” she says. “He’s worthless anyway and makes a big mess.” A light lunch of bread, cucumbers, radishes, and tomatoes in rice vinegar, followed by an apple. Or maybe whole wheat pasta and olive oil. Or maybe corn tortillas with a filling of avocado and salsa. We lie in the hammocks for awhile to digest. In a half hour or so, a bath in the bathing tent.
Rachael goes first, kneels in the tiny blow-up wading pool, and mixes boiled water from a Thermos and warm water from the gallon jug that’s been in the sun. She washes her body with a wash cloth, soaps her hair, and then yells out, “Bath attendant.” I come in and pick up the sprinkling can she’s filled with warm water, and rinse her hair. Then it’s my turn, same drill, except I usually have to rinse my own hair. After that we go into the sleeping tent to lie together.
In the drowsy afternoon, the campground is quiet; people are off doing things. We always pick a spot for the tent as removed as possible from the burly, if possible a tent-only or walk-in site. Rarely is our privacy disturbed in the afternoon. We can unzip the window panels for ventilation, turn on the fan (powered by a deep cycle battery), and lie down together on the inflated mats. We both favor long, deep, wet kisses. “Jewish girls have an oral tradition,” Rachael says. “That’s why I need you. I can do myself, but I can’t kiss myself.” I know it’s the heavy kissing that arouses her. I know now from her sighs, and from the way she twists her hips, when she wants to be touched there by mouth. She likes me to worship, and prefers to be on top, straddling my head, using her fingers to pull back on the folds of the labia to lift the hood from her little bead. She anoints me too, and nibbles the stones in their leathern purse, and by this time her spit is as thick as honey.
During rut we usually try a few poses, and she likes to have her wrists held for awhile, but to prepare for release she gets on top so that she can strum herself with two fingers. Sometimes, on the verge of mini-mort she says, “Flip me,” and I quickly roll her underneath for the tattoo of the mad minute. Then what I love the most, her catatonic convulsion, when her eyes fill, when her breath rasps and when she flings her arms around my neck. I do believe then that she loves me more than anything. She presses against me and covers my mouth with hers until I can barely hold any longer. I prefer to have my squirt while on top. She is extremely well lubricated; her inner thighs and her cheeks and her anus are slippery in my hand. I’m plunging like a merry-go-round pony, and I am wildly happy beyond the imagination of poets.
And then it’s over. We lie together like a hundred million other couples at that same moment, drenched and panting, nose to nose, covered in each other’s breathing. After awhile she gets up to sponge her nethers in the dish pan bidet in the bathing tent. I lie still and think. There is nothing more important to do than what I am doing now. There is no other place I need to be. After her bidet Rachael climbs into her hammock and reads her novel. I lie on the tousled sheets and think. Images float in my eye. Faces appear that I have never seen before. Thoughts of gossamer drift like smoke. I lie still and celebrate the miracle of consciousness.
“From here it sounds like unconsciousness,” Rachael says. “You snore when you meditate. You may think you’re being oceanic in there, but out here it sounds like the surf crashing on Diamond Head.” I don’t think I do snore. But it may be true that the miracle of consciousness insensibly elides into the siesta. Eventually I get up and segue into the hammock. We call this period of the afternoon the continuing education segment. I am up on current affairs, but I hardly ever read a newspaper. I keep up through books and with news magazines when I go to the library.
I’ve read lay books on Social Security, oil cartels, soil erosion, forest mismanagement, industrial pollution, the declining fisheries and the destruction of the mangrove swamps and coral reefs, books on labor unions, the space program, the evolution debate, traffic congestion, city planning, population pressure, on the exotic, crouching, slate-cleaning pandemic viruses about to pounce, on poverty in the ghetto, despicable crime and cruel punishment. I probably get this all-quadrants interest from my father, the newspaper reporter. He subscribed to a lot of magazines and to the New York Times. A tax deduction for him. Every flat surface in the house spilling over with magazines. He also had a pretty good library that he conscientiously hauled around from one apartment to the next during his nomadic years. I had a lot of print on site while growing up.
At some point during continuing education Rachael gets up and makes us a smoothie. When the shadows lengthen we put the books aside (in a plastic bin). Rachael pulls on her knit hat, long sleeve shirt, overalls and thick socks (it’s bug time), and we pat on some repellant (for some reason Rachael isn’t against DEET). I begin to prepare the campfire while Rachael cooks on the Coleman. A lot of times we just have a bowl of oatmeal and soy milk, with raisins, cranberries, walnuts and some fresh fruit. As the sun declines below the trees I light the campfire. No leaping blaze. It’s Indian style: no stick thicker than a wrist. Once a month or so we go north by car into the so-called national forest (Land of Many Abuses, the graffiti says) and get a truckload of downed limbs which I break up and saw into size at the camp site. The fire isn’t for warmth, but for cheer in the gathering dusk. This is the blue confidential hour of murmuring conversation. Rachael talks about her mom or her sister. “I’m a little sorry, but there is no way out for you,” she says. “You’re stuck in the hinterland with a woman. You will hear about my family.” Or. We get a visitor.
We have been surprised at how many people come to see us. Since our vow of failure, we haven’t done much visiting ourselves, mostly because it’s too expensive. We found that it’s more expensive to freeload on our friends in the city than it is to stay at our campsite. A free bed, true, but one is kind of expected to bring a bottle of wine and share expenses. And then for Rachael there’s the food issue.
We give directions to our current venue in our e-mail posts, and all are welcome. My dad has dropped by a couple of times now, Rachael’s mom once, accompanied by her born-again reformed-alkie savant swami. College friends have appeared, lugging their enormous backpacks. Sometimes they bring wine and the talk becomes animated and we all laugh like crazy. Or. Somebody in the campground hesitantly appears. Begins a conversation from 30 feet away, and then with a couple of choruses of “Oh, I don’t want to disturb you,” finally takes the spare seat at the campfire. We get invitations, too, from fellow campers. We turn down the dinner invite (Rachael explains the iron rule of veganism with such a face that nobody would want us at his table), but we do accept campfire seats with the understanding that we bring our own vegan vodka-free cocktails. Rachael never tires of spreading the vegan good news to a bewildered audience of geezer pilgrims spread out in camp chairs before their alumna-lodges.
It’s hard for people to know the true Rachael. She sometimes comes off as haughty, or as a fanatic, and can be shy in company. Not a standout during dinner chit chat, nor is she the life of the old party. The Rachael in private is entirely different. She’s caustic, she’s snide, she’s meanly sarcastic, capable of penis-withering mockery, corrosive in her characterizations of all her best friends who aren’t there, and pitiless in her annihilation of absent enemies. She makes me laugh. A girl who makes you laugh is everything.
My dad says that as a newspaper reporter he’s met lots of interesting people, all of them other newspaper reporters. Of course, as you’d figure, all the interesting journalists are his age and of the same dour Missourian kidney. The new generation, according to him, is made up of careerist drones spot-welded to the tube, and about as scintillating as an insurance actuary. They don’t drink; they don’t hang out after work at the equivalent of the M&M, the Billy Goat, or the Ten-Spot. They go have sushi. The newspaper reporters of his day were bibulous raconteurs who gathered every evening at their saloon-of-record for bucket, snifter, or libation. During the working day they’d already had their eye-opener, a shirt-sleever and maybe a sneak. By quitting time their jaws were well-oiled.
Story-telling, my dad says, is different than wit, repartee, or the retail trade of jokes. Wit was avoided by his set; only a Voltaire or a GBS can do it adroitly without offending. Wit is cruel, and writers are delicate flowers, their feelings easily bruised. Also, after a wit’s successful hit, the conversation slams into a wall. As the laughter recedes from the victim’s burning face, the talk must laboriously spool up again. Jokes are okay in moderation, my dad says, if perfect, and only one per customer. The venue for the comedian reeling off a string of blue jokes is the bachelor party or the oil lobbyist’s dinner for male plutocrats. Newspaper reporters, my dad says, tell stories. Amusing, focused, and hurtling toward a point. Mostly they involve events the reporter has reported on, and of course for a smooth transition one story would always put a listener in mind of another.
When my dad visits our campfire, he’s got a receptive audience in Rachael, who likes a droll story if it doesn’t drone on too long. I’ve heard all of my dad’s already. Here’s a quick example: The cowboy who didn’t know country.
The rodeo was in town, and the city editor sent my dad out to do a few graphs on the 100-year-old cowboy traveling with the show. The centenarian was still employed, slopping troughs, brushing horses. My dad posed the usual question regarding longevity and got the usual answer: whisky, cigarettes, and no wife to nag a man to death. “Do you have any regrets?” says my dad. “Just one,” says the cowboy, “I’ve never seen it.” A long pause here. “You’ve never seen it?” says my dad, incredulous. “No, I told you I never married. And back when I was a sprout, the whores wore Mother Hubbards; they never would let you look.” “Well,” says my dad after awhile, “if you think of an oyster...” “I’ve seen it in magazines,” says the cowboy, a little nettled. “I’ve just never seen the McCoy.” “Well,” says my dad to the city editor, “To that old dude, country matters, but I don’t think we’ll be able to use this...”
“I don’t think I get it,” Rachael said. She hadn’t read Hamlet.
“Country matters,” my dad says, “The cowboy didn’t know cunt-ry.”
Rachael said she would give me all her youth and lubricity, her sweet vaginal fluids and the wetness of her soft mouth, would scour my seed in the afternoon and tote my ashes at night, and never deny the demand of piping blood pressed against her flawless thigh, if only I’d promise, cross my heart and hope to die (if I lied) that I would stick by her when she got old. She doesn’t like old women; they’re ugly and masculine and they frighten her. How could the smooth cheek wilt? How could pert dugs sag? How could a perfect rump turned by the divine lathe degenerate into curd?
And the real horror. How could what she always described as the blissful feeling of fullness and juice in her loins drain away and parch? She was horrified by the existence of menopause. The Curse to her was no curse, but a welcome purge and renewal, like the overflowing of the Nile (although in my experience she could be a pretty damn cranky little Egyptian). It appalled her that some day the ruby fountain would cease. “I’ll be a hag,” Rachael would say gloomily, “One day this cute snoot will be a chicken’s beak. My eyes will sink and get baggy. I’ll have a face like the state of Nebraska (I think she meant the mapped skein of red secondary roads covering the flat states). I’ll dry up into a wrinkly little gremlin with a mustache. I’ll need goop to be penetrated, like my mother does.”
I reminded her that we use goop too. “Only for anal. One day these fingers you’re sucking will be claws, and my tits will be flat on my stomach. My cute ass will sag, and curly blue snakes will pop out on my leg. My silky tuffet will turn into a Brillo pad. I said tuffet. I mean Little Miss Muffet here.” I repeated my vow. And I wasn’t kidding. I was with her for life, whatever happened to Corporeal Rachael, I never would leave her. I was absolutely committed. I felt I had much more realistic fears of her leaving me, since I’m a dork and a loser, and over time her heart might seek conventional comforts that I couldn’t provide. “No,” said Rachael, “I’m committed to this tent. I’ll never go back. I love why oh ewe. Even if your pecker gets lazy, I don’t care (as long as you’re not tongue-tied). But men are different. They want sex even when the coffin lid’s being nailed down. And now there’s Mr. Blue...” She put her arms around me. “I will take out my teeth and give you such a hummer.”
Rachael says that I’m androgynous. I’ve never been much interested in sports, never participated on teams. I think it’s just because I’m not suited to games. I’m uncoordinated, clumsy even, although I have very fast reflexes. If my hat blows off my head I can catch it behind my back with one hand without looking. But that doesn’t qualify as an athletic event. In schoolyard baseball, I got picked last, and wound up daydreaming in right field, dreading the left-handed hitter. When Rachael says she prefers androgynous men, she’s not talking about looks. She’s talking about a kind of feminized right-lobe attitude. Definitely not the sports-obsessed, work-driven, competitive aggressive swaggering Gasconading male. They don’t appeal to her as conversationalists or as lovers.
“I’m not a ma’am that likes to be slammed and bammed,” she says. “I like somebody easy and slow who doesn’t get defensive about taking a few helpful hints.” I know what she’s talking about. For instance, she likes “the ante before the deal,” plenty of kissing and caressing before being mounted. She likes to be touched just so. “Just so and just when. I’m not interested in John Wayne who wants to plant the flag on Iwo and go home.”
She says I’m androgynous because I’m not career-minded. Most college mopes my age chaff for fulfilling work. I can’t seem to get it up for making a name, setting the world on fire, accomplishing things big or puny. All effort seems futile. “What if everybody were like you?” my mom says. She’s right. The pyramids would have no points. The Great Wall wouldn’t be visible from space. No Notre Dame or Chartres to hold a joyful noise, for lack of brick makers and masons.
“That’s good,” Rachael says. “Because I don’t want to be the cattle prod on the butt of a working stiff. I’d rather be shoulder-to-shoulder and hip-to-hip with a congenial drop-out such as yourself. Maybe a little out in front. I certainly don’t want to hear about your big sales meeting, or your chances of being promoted to assistant associate. Besides, kid. You’re already at the top of your game. You’re the king. Unlimited leisure. Beholden to no one except me. Taking orders from no one except me. Who calls you villain? Who plucks your beard, if you had one, and blows it in your face? (She’d decided to read Hamlet) That’s right. Nothing in the world to consider but our own pleasure. We disdain everybody. We’re proud and arrogant like natural aristocrats ought to be. Our white hand is unsullied by grubbing commerce. We talk in the first person plural. Okay I know. Most aristocrats have at least credit at the grocery. But we’re kind of like the refugee post-revolutionary Russian aristocracy in their bed-sitting rooms in London. Weak tea and genteel poverty. Or the hidalgos in the New World refusing to demean themselves with menial work below their station. We kill dusky heathen or do nothing. That’s our attitude.” Rachael reads a lot of historical novels.
She says I’m androgynous because I’m not an enthusiast for improvement. I don’t see anything I can do, or want to do. I know. The world could use better managers. We’re told by pep leaders we all need to jump in somehow. All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do what I do. Maybe I’m inured because I’ve come of age in a period of rank misrule. During my college dream years, the sachems of Samland sold the country to the Chinaman. They socked the tar baby in Mesopotamia. All the bunnies are melting and the wooly ungulates and Arctic penguins are going defunct.
According to my dad, thuggish Samsters mugged the narcotized burgher and stole his wallet; Samtown steamrollered the mentally ill, the pension geezers, the homeless street losers (but everybody does that); Sam put churchy zanies on the levers of power; disappeared people into secret gulags and water boarded hajji like dickey birds, galvanizing even demure librarians into umbrage. Sam even blew the first priority of the state, which is to protect its elites from Ponzi and sub-prime raiding parties on Wall Street. Bi-coastal gorge, high and low, has gone through the roof. I can’t get excited about it. I think it’s too late. The tickets are punched. We’re on the back side of the curve, and even if people wanted to be good, took the stinky bus to work and spiked the second child, it’s too late. Too many stomachs, too much combustion. Too many alluring ads promoting profligacy. The Chinaman and the Hindi are getting a car and refrigerated air. A hundred new coal plants for every windmill. High water, heat and hurricane. Death spiral entropy canceling out any virtuous gain. “Very convenient for you,” Rachael says.
Afternoon sex with Rachael. I love the oozy liquidity of it. She isn’t a vocalist. But with arousal her loins are sopping. The black moss of the pubic stone is drenched, the pretty ravine between her nates slippery with glycerin. In the gasping throes of crisis her eyes drip, her nose runs, her kisses are sticky with mucous, and her tongue leaves a glistening track across my cheek. Sometimes she’s embarrassed by the richness of the fluids.
“Do you love me so much that you would suck the snot out of my nose? she says. Yes. I would CPR her sinus cavity. I want to be in her and have her in me. There’s not a germ in her crop or a microbe in her bowel that I wouldn’t lovingly ingest.
I’d had girlfriends in college such as Melinda, the soon-to-be-beagle, but they didn’t give me tutorials. Rachael shows me how she masturbates. In her left hand, a small rubbery dildo (trade name, “Pocket Pal”) penetrating her vagina while two fingers of the right thrum the clitoris. “You can help,” Rachael said. My part is to press back the snoodish hood, the prepuce, which shields the clit, to bring the head of the comma-shaped seedling upright. Then she told me how she liked to be sucked, starting with tongue flicks, later the clit gently rolled between tongue and lip. “It’s not an ice cream cone,” she said. “You can slurp the pussy once in awhile if you want, but it’s all up here. It’s delicate. Be gentle until it gets plump. That’s right. Keep that up and you’re in for another medal.”
A regular feature of our nightly campfire is the award ceremony or presentation in which outstanding qualities or achievements are recognized. I’ve always been bemused (I guess that’s it) by the mania for recognition. Napoleon said that he was more than just bemused; he was boggled, at what men were willing to do for a scrap of ribbon. “With enough ribbon, I could rule the world,” he supposedly said. (Another good Napoleon quote I read, in apt juxtaposition: “What are a million lives to a man like me.”) Napoleon dispensed scraps of ribbon to manipulate the vain and the weak-minded: that’s the way most awards seem to me. Tools to mold behavior and gain obedience. Not only medals and ribbons, but “Associate of the Month,” and “Salesman of the Year.”
For me, the bad odor in any kind of official recognition is that, to be singled out from the mob, one has to agree with the idea that there is some superior authority competent to judge me. The judge, the panel, the awards committee. Maybe a judge’s opinion is of interest to his mother. Why should it go further? “This is all sort of moot, isn’t it,” Rachael says, “I mean. For you.” True. Maybe I rationalize. “But soft my hero,” Rachael continues, “there’s no reason your den should be without a plaque and your mantelpiece without a trophy, except that you don’t have a desk or a fireplace.”
I’ve now received many honors, in case I ever do get some wall space. It’s just that they’ve been self-conferred, or come from satirical Rachael during campfire. I have my own diploma mill that awarded my masters, the one mentioned in the phony resume I never sent out. The same institution corroborated some of my credit background when I applied for a Visa card. “I’d like some recognition, too,” Rachael said. “How about awarding me something for once? I’m thinking more of glory than achievement.”
Fine. Since then, I’ve given her awards recognizing her life of service. She got Woman of the Year one week, and has a Good Housekeeping seal. I went ahead and gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award, even though she’s only twenty-two and hasn’t done anything. Rachael also got the Connie Lee Guss (a particularly awful pedagogue at our state college) Outstanding Teacher Award for Human Reproductive Sciences. The commendation (mimicking Ms. Guss) read in part, “...in recognition of Rachael’s aptitude for combining in an intimate classroom environment sure-handed methodology with a pulchritude that instills a thirst for learning...” The certificate, on thick bond, was lettered as neatly as I could in marking pen and Crayon. After the speech and the toast, Rachael used the certificate to relight the fire. A pagan end that obviated the need for framing.
As tenting tyros, we were concerned about bears. The griz is long gone from California, hunted out to the last hump. But plenty of curious black bears sniff around the campgrounds with a nose for treats in ice chests. Heavy-handed warnings are posted by the park service. Rangers remind arrivals not to tempt the bear with unsecured patties or links. No food in the tent. A tidy, tidbit-less camp site, please. If the ice chest won’t fit in the trunk, camouflage it in the back seat so it won’t look square and boxy. The bear knows what he’s looking for. One night, squeals and shouts from some family campers. An ursine intruder has unseated a car window and violated a sedan. A newspaper account posted on the bulletin board told of a black bear biting a Boy Scout on the hand (to make it drop its S’more).
“Here’s the deal,” Rachael said. “We’re a vegan campsite. The bear isn’t stupid. Those people over there were cooking burgers.” She was right. From Bruno’s standpoint, he could do better elsewhere. Still, we weren’t easy about bears until finally we actually saw one. We were coming back to the campsite after the morning meander and there he was on the trail. We recoiled in frank alarm; the bear did likewise, and started to climb a tree. “I hate to say this, but I think I’ve started my period,” Rachael said.
She was still under the impression, touted by me, that bears are drawn like vampires to menstrual blood. I know nothing about bears, but for some reason, a kind of empathetic recognition, this one struck me as being a young male. Something about the way his cocky swagger collapsed into confusion. A callow teenager. I said we should continue straight down the trail and ignore the kid. If it does decide to try to bite us, she should see if she could get some bars on her cell, while I would yell and throw rocks. As we passed by his perch the young bear realized how lame we were, felt ashamed for getting rattled, crawled down the tree, and followed us a little way along the path, nose snuffling, just to reassert his bruin-hood. Then he wandered off into the trees.
He’d probably been casing the campground against a night raid, and as for us, fe-fi-fo-fum or not, we weren’t worth the mugging. Once again, like my dad says: if you don’t have anything people or bears want, they’ll probably leave you alone. A few days later while out walking, we saw another one. Again, I have no way of knowing. But this time the beast struck me as being matronly in appearance. A large womanly figure. We halted while she ambled across the path in front of us and into a thicket, where she stopped, rose up on her haunches, and peeped at us. Bears reputedly don’t have good eyesight (according to a show I saw on the Discovery Channel). Also, I remembered, very protective of their cubs. We waited to make sure no offspring were in train. But in another second the bear had disappeared into the undergrowth. Now for some reason we weren’t afraid of bears anymore. Not that we’d ever try to make friends. We’d surrender a sandwich if asked. We still respected the brawny paw that could unhinge a truck door. But we felt we could co-exist peacefully, separate but equal, in the outdoor venue.
I should mention that the encounter with the young bear earned me a medal, the Distinguished Silver Cross Citation for Exemplary Gallantry, with Chocolate Cluster (actually a Hershey Kiss). Rachael makes her medals out of snips from magazines pasted on construction paper and hung with Christmas ribbon. The citation read, “In recognition of devoted service and intrepid conduct in protecting Rachael from a bear.” I value this stuck-together concoction, still gluey when she hung it around my neck. I value it almost as much as my Special Olympics award from the same hand. I’ve heard that actual heroes sometimes spurn their decorations. James Jones said he and his combat buddies of World War II saw heroism in war as the product of fear and blind rage, and medals as Machiavellian tricks used by cynical leaders to goad men to bloodshed, a la Napoleon.
I see a distinction between the motives of Boney and Rachael. Timid and harmless as I am, I actually would fight a bear or a foe to protect Rachael. My zest for combat ends there. If the colors call, I’m out. No time for sergeants. Other priorities. Napoleon couldn’t find enough ribbon among a nation of shopkeepers to make me pick up a musket. If nominated for boot camp I will run, if selected I will not serve. Even if through some unimaginable fluke, reason-conquering fear and rage did make my blood pump enough for gallantry, I know I’d feel chagrined, standing rigid and dumb in a line while some father figure with superior talisman pinned a broach on me.
The subject reminds me of my Uncle Larry. He once told me at some family gathering that he was disappointed in my grades. I guess my father had mentioned my lackluster academics. He said I must be smart (“When you was little, you always had your nose in a book”), and he was disappointed that I hadn’t done better in school. One is stunned as if by a Star Fleet phaser. Uncle Larry bless his heart, obedient taxpayer, successful salesman of ceramic products, loving father, more or less faithful husband. Familias in good standing. But do I need to explain anything to Uncle Larry? Is Uncle Larry’s evaluation of interest? Larry once publicly gave his eldest son a red car. He said he was proud of his son for doing well at something or other, and the sporty car was a token of that. The son was obviously embarrassed; we all were. A respectful and dutiful son, but he got rid of that car as quickly as he decently could.
What value commendation or rebuke, if it comes from Uncle Larry? Rachael, sure. Uncle Larry? The main reason I didn’t shine in school was laziness and cynicism. But I also had no ganas for serving the institution as vassal. Once in high school I won an essay contest. I thought the recognition deserved. Then I found out the selection committee had been made up of Mr. Heath and Mr. Cousins, the Gilligan and Skipper Too of Penal High. I was in line for a dinner and a plaque, but I went to the movies instead. In college my freshman counselor handed me a list of the various awards given annually. Something to strive for, she said, to add pizzazz to the grad school app, and to improve my prospects for a spot in the Sapitariat. I’d pretty much done my own counseling. I’d scrape through, get a degree, jump through the hoops absolutely necessary (advanced algebra and Spanish) but that didn’t include any preening for award committees. It actually said in the counselor’s handout that part of the purpose of college recognition was to shape the student’s behavior. We’d like you to be walk like this. We’ll give you a dinner and a plaque
Before Rachael and I started tenting together I had never lived with a woman. In college I lived for awhile in the dorms. Later I rented a room in a house for awhile with three other male students. I had girls in my room from time to time (not very often) but after sex they left. My room was like a closet. The bathroom wasn’t very clean, since it was in use at all hours by my roommates. But it was way down the hall, out of earshot. When I started going with Melinda, I screwed her at her apartment, but I didn’t stay the night. I only used her toilet to pee in. I’d often wondered how couples handled the sordid bathroom parts of living together full time. One good thing about tenting, the jakes usually is far away. Noise made at stool won’t be heard by your partner, the way it might if the bathroom adjoins the bedroom. Still, there’s the matter of farting. I didn’t really know what to do about sleeping through the night with a woman. Do you have to hold your air until morning? That seemed uncomfortable.
There are two schools of thought, Rachael said. (I brought up the subject right after we decided to tent together). One school, she said, involves pretense and subterfuge. The other doesn’t. “As for me,” Rachael said, “I favor the second. I say, let ‘er rip. I’ll tell you why. First, I know you’ll be considerate. If there’s anything really unwelcome on the way, I’m sure you’ll go outside. And I know you don’t do practical jokes. You won’t be holding my head under the covers or anything like that. But mainly the reason is, we’ll be eating my cooking. The gas collecting in our colons is going to be mild, unscented gas, because we’ll be eating pure food. No meat, dairy, or eggs; and that’s the stuff that really makes the whiff. Beans, yes, but in limited numbers, and without grease. It’s the lard and onion and garlic in Mexican that causes malaria. Trust me; the wind that blows off your butt isn’t going to have that much of a punch. It’s all in the food. If you were eating burger, fries and cheesy garlic enchilada I’d tell you to hike it down the road. But on my diet you won’t have enough methane in your asshole to light the pilot.” Maybe she’d like a storm signal anyway? “Does the rattlesnake send a note?” Rachael said, “The rattle is the warning.”
I’m no Don Juan. I didn’t have a lot of experience. I’d been with some girls, but mostly at parties where we’d be drunk or stoned and wind up rolling around and groping for things without much finesse. Before I started living with Rachael I actually preferred masturbation. For the quality of the orgasm anyway. I mean, I was lonely all the time, and daydreamed constantly about pussy. But getting it was a huge amount of trouble. When I did, it was never as satisfactory as I’d anticipated. And I never felt I was doing much for the girl, particularly for fussy Melinda. My wanking on the other hand (ha ha) was highly satisfactory. I’d take my time, let it build, and pull a huge orgasm. Then I’d stretch, settle into the covers and have a nap. I’d masturbate every night. In the afternoon, too, if I got tense. Or if I fixated on some pretty classmate during class I’d hustle her in my mind’s eye back to my room and do her. Whether the experience was good for her wasn’t much of an issue. For me, no performance anxiety. And I didn’t have to pay for a meal, or hear about her family.
“I’m glad you like to masturbate,” Rachael said. “So do I. I think it’s the key to good sex. Show me how you do it.” Rachael believes that masturbation ought to be taught at school in human behavior classes. Boys and girls should study and practice at home. “So much unwanted wrestling in cars could be avoided, along with clap and pregnancies, if girls knew how to give a hand job,” Rachael said, “Masturbation as a date alternative could save a world of grief. You say, ‘I don’t want to fuck you, but I like you, and I’ll give you a hand job right now, how about that?’” Guys are pretty easy, of course. “Masturbating women is more of a skill.” Rachael said “Basically, until you get to know somebody, the woman usually has to handle the home stretch herself; the guy is there mostly for companionship at that point.”
Rachael said I could relax; I didn’t have to worry about satisfying her. She could have an orgasm with me or without me anytime she wanted. She made sure she did. “Magic fingers. The easiest way for me is to get on top; while you’re reciprocating downstream I can touch myself where it does the most good. If you’re on top, that’s okay too, but you have to give me enough room for my hand. Or. At the very last second I’ll pull you down and you can rock on my pelvic bone. From the back is good too. I can rest on one elbow and reach myself.” Rachael said she would never fake orgasms. Sometimes she didn’t feel like having one, but liked the intimacy anyway. “I’ll tell you if O isn’t in the alphabet. Don’t worry. I’m gonna enjoy myself. You should too.” This was all a huge relief. She said it was fun when I massaged her little noodle (she showed me how) as a warm up, but usually, to get off a perfect smoke ring, she needed to apply just the right pressure and rhythm herself. “You start pitching, I’ll take over in the last inning.” .
Tenting life shares this with prison and the army. Plenty of time for reading and thinking. That’s how we spend all our afternoons, and now that we have hammocks it’s even more fun. I sort of retain some of the habits of childhood. In high school I never finished my homework but I did read a lot of library books, mostly stories. Nothing heavy, but not crap either. Silas Marner, Treasure Island, that kind of thing. In college, I shifted to non-fiction. In lieu of studying, I read books about contemporary history, or current events written by brainy Washington Post reporters. Now it’s a smorgy. Fiction, I’m into the Ruskies and the Frogs. I read Anna Karenina. Boffo. I tried Temps Perdu, or rather waded through Swann’s Way, and found it boring. I’m more a Balzac guy. Red and Black was okay. Charterhouse of Parma okay. I’ve been looking at defunct Brits too. Martin Chuzzlewit handed me a laugh all the way through. Much better than Tale of Two Cities, rammed down my throat in high school. The Way of All Flesh I really liked. The purpose of life is to enjoy it. Virtue is in being ordinary. The guy’s as big a wag as Rachael.
Rachael usually reads trash historical novels, but she picked up my copy of Cousin Bette, and now she’s on a Balzac kick too. She also read all the Waugh novels. She’d never heard of him. Four years in an okay state college and she’d never heard of Evelyn Waugh. There’s no practical advantage to any of this. Of course we’ve already conferred doctorates on each other from our respective diploma mills, but the accreditation is shaky. After reading for a few hours I usually put the book across my chest (unless it’s a tome like Karenina) and close my eyes. Sometimes I fall asleep, but mostly I think. Just think. Nothing heavy. Cogito sum ergo.
I am lying in a hammock under a shady tree and consciously thinking. It’s probably the most amazing thing that’s ever happened in the entire universe. By some long-shot fluke, a cowardly shrinking little mammal became conscious. It’s probably a gazillion to one. I don’t think there’s any other conscious life in the cosmos. Homo sap squared is it. If I’m wrong, we (by which I mean plural sap) will never find out. SETI, sure, why not. If I paid taxes, I’d be glad to give a mite for SETI. But they’re not going to find a whisper. There’s no message in a bottle coming our way. As for Sap, even the radio evidence of our existence hasn’t percolated very far. Hitler’s speeches aren’t even a hundred light years into infinity.
When I tried playing poker in college it cost me some dough to find out I didn’t have a handle on probability. I certainly don’t have the science backdrop. When I read lay books on relativity or quantum weirdness....well, the same thing happens to everybody, right? What common mope can get it? But I get 186,000 miles per second. Even if it were possible to hurl mass to near light speed, that’s still too slow. A thousand years to get anyplace. The speed limit means Sap in person will never leave the solar system. We’re not even going to get another can of Spam back to the moon. And there will never be a human boot print on Mars. Too expensive, too long a gestation (nine months, one way, unless they figure out the plasma booster), and there’s no point; scientists don’t want it: they want robots and space telescopes. Robots are more reliable, work cheap, and if there’s the wee accident, oh well.
My dad is a nut about this. He says boondoggles like the science-free International Space Station and other schemes for canned Spam suck up all the money that could be going to worthy causes like deep-space probes and Hubbles in high orbit. He says the naïve enthusiasm for a man on Mars will dissipate when Congress groks the sticker shock (probably a trillion), coming undoubtedly at a time of costly and more interesting terrestrial broils over gasoline and zealotry and busted banks. Sam’s astronauts will turn out to be Cal Tech and JPL geeks sitting behind terminals punching code at robots. Actually, this is my dad talking. He says that except for low-orbit tourism, or the long shot chance of a Chinaman or maybe a Hindunaut on the moon, the day of manned space flight is already over.
I never thought I’d be in an upper case Committed Relationship. I never thought I’d be upper case Happy. So I’d never thought about it. But Rachael had. “Here’s the deal,” she said. “Two things we have to avoid: for you, indifference; for me, nagging.” Rachael had studied and taken a couple of classes. Men, she said, lose interest in their rib after awhile. It can’t be helped. He’s got sex on demand, and he’s getting bored. This is it? The same old hash every night? During routine matrimonial coitus he begins to fantasize about sinuous 16-year-old 80-pound Chinese girls. And smoking his cigarette afterward. Does he really have to hear more tormented gibberish about her internecine rivalry with her mom? He starts to bob his head and say, “Yes dear.” The newspaper is more interesting than breakfast chat, and hubby isn’t able to muster a quorum for another interminable tribunal on his personal faults. He begins to appear...distant. There’s no longer a ...connection. That’s when she starts to nag. Sometimes defensively. “No, this is NOT about the rag.” She nags so much she becomes a shrew, a vixen, a virago, a termagant, a Xanthippe, all in a bid for attention. I told Rachael that my dad always said: once is a suggestion, twice is nagging. “That’s good,” Rachael said, “I’ll use it as a model. Now pick up your socks.” (She was kidding; I always pick up my socks).
I don’t think I’ve been indifferent to Rachael since we fell in love. I love her with all my bone and proto-sinew. But she says sometimes I have been oblivious to her needs. “I know you love me with all your killer T cells and effluvium and ineffable blah, blah spirit, but sometimes you just don’t fucking listen. You go, ‘uh huh, uh huh.’ That kind of thing just drives a woman bug nuts.” I told her I didn’t want to be like some perky lap dog with my little head always cocked in anticipation.
“I’m willing to compromise,” Rachael said. “If I’m so boring you can’t stand to listen to me, you can stamp your foot twice and say, ‘MEGO.’” MEGO is newspaper lingo she picked up from my dad. My eyes glass over. I don’t think Rachael is MEGO, or at least not very often. I’m flummoxed. It’s the difference in perception between men and women. I feel I’m always attentive, but evidently I’m not. And I don’t think she ever nags.
“It’s because I whipped you into shape early,” Rachael says. Part of this may be that a lot of nagging material isn’t available to us. Our housekeeping is so simple that there’s no call for the “honey-do” jar of the suburban household. She prepares all the meals, but that’s because she’s too fussy to allow anybody else to touch her food. I wash a few pans and pots. We take turns sweeping out the tent, a chore of a minute. No toilet or grimy tub to clean. No lawn to mow, no leaves to blow. She can’t very well nag me about being unsuccessful, since we’ve both taken a vow of failure. And there really isn’t anything around the scatter that needs fixing, not that I could fix it. “I’m not handy on purpose,” my dad always says. He always adds, “Anything that’s worth doing is worth hiring someone competent to do for you.”
“Oh, don’t sweat it, I wouldn’t have you any other way,” Rachael says, “You’re the lion, I’m the pride.” Maybe I get this trait of inattention from my dad. He won’t listen to anybody. One of the reasons my father has been shit canned so much is that he always has had trouble appreciating the importance of a critique from a mid-level line editor at a third-tier provincial newspaper. “You get the drift here,” says my dad, “I’m dealing with dwarfs. Maybe if the person had risen in life to Sunday school parson or store front tax preparer, then maybe his view might have some gravitas. I know what you’re gonna say. Ad hominoid (a little joke). It’s the telegram, not the mailman. Granted. Sometimes the wino reclining on his elbow in the gutter might have some good insight on mid-March activities. But it’s just human nature to qualify the mark.” My dad, as I’ve said, speaks his own allusive language. “Qualify” in this case means “check the credit of the prospective customer.” Lingo from the used car lot. Anybody else would say, “Consider the source.”
We met Hobo at the Wiley Wells Campground, where he was filling some water jugs at the pump. Forty-something, athletic, dressed in outsized black shorts with one suspender, ankle weights atop his boots. He helped us refine our tenting style. The Hobo lives in the Smoke Tree Valley on 10 acres of blasted ground that he bought on time, nothing down, from a real estate agent who sells desert properties out of the trunk of his car at the Interstate rest stop. Hobo calls his homestead Scorpion’s Crotch, and the place features an underground trailer with a periscope through which the Hobo can watch coyotes and kangaroo rats nosing around at night. He said it took him a year to dig a hole big enough to bury his trailer but that being able to estivate under three feet of sand makes a big difference when summer temps hit triplicate.
Scorpion’s Crotch is the well-appointed desert squat: solar panels and batteries, an outhouse with panoramic views, a watchtower on stilts that juts above the Palo Verde trees, and a bunch of 55 gallon drums buried in the wash to catch runoff during the infrequent turd floaters. The drinking water he hauls in a hollowed-out junk sedan that also has a homemade bunk and four or five tool chests, along with a nest of deep cycle batteries that he recharges off the alternator as he drives. Half the year the Hobo travels, either on foot along the Pacific Crest Trail or by freight, crisscrossing the Continent from Canada to the depths of Mexico. Now in mid-life, he says in previous incarnations he was a veterinarian and a professional racquet ball player. Right now he is landed gentry in a penurious subdivision.
The Hobo showed me how to strap a marine battery to the floorboards of my Honda and hook it up by a cable to the car battery. I also charge a smaller gel lawnmower battery the same way, this one light enough to segue into the tent to run a fan. I use the marine battery in the car mainly to power my computer (using an inverter). Hobo suggested the two-gallon pump-up air pressure garden sprayer filled with warm water as an adjunct to our dishpan bidet. He also touted Army hammocks, found cheap at a surplus store in Blythe. The Hobo advised driving a metal fence stake next to the head of the hammock as a clamping point for a 12-volt electric fan, to blow the bugs away.
The Hobo showed off the gear he carries in his car: the come-along, the tow chains, the high-lift jacks, the old rugs to put under the wheel stuck in sand, the shovel, the pry bar, the saw and axe. Not planning any off-road excursions, I decided to stick with Triple A, although I do have a small axe and saw for gathering firewood. “Let’s not get too McGivey,” Rachael said. Men, she says, are wired for hardware. Walk through any suburban neighborhood on a Saturday and look into the open garages. Power mowers, hedgers, blowers, roto-tillers, belt sanders, drill presses, routers and ripsaws. Tools hanging from walls and rafters. “And he’s an insurance agent” Rachael says.
I admire that Rachael keeps her kitchen simple and compact. Everything fits into a plastic bin. A stainless steel pot, an iron skillet, a chopping board, the hand-cranked blender her mother gave her for a birthday present, the armadillo-like steamer, chop sticks, bowls and plates, a few utensils. That’s it. She does all the cooking on a propane-fired Colman camp stove. If we’re not reading we light the tent with a candle. For ambiance. Rachael insists on beeswax, although it’s pricy. Pollution issue. Not good to breath the fumes of oily wax candles, she says. Our third propane item (after stove and lantern) is Mr. Heater, for the desert chill at night. We run it for a few minutes to warm up the tent before getting into the sleeping bags.
Our relationship seems placid, but we’ve had our disagreements. I mentioned, Rachael doesn’t like forks. A bad, unclean invention, she says. She only uses a spoon and chopsticks. I had to put my foot down on this one. She gave in. I got a fork. “I like to be dominated sometimes,” Rachael said. It’s true, sexually she does. She likes to have her wrists and ankles tied, or her wrists held above her head. She readily admits to the rape fantasy, and to the fantasy of the older mentor, the grizzled professor or the distinguished boss, who endlessly teases her labia with a feather or a baby nipple, before taking her roughly on a couch. Sometimes she likes to be struck soundly on the bottom (but not too hard). One of the attributes of our generation, I think, is that because of shows like “Seinfeld,” and “Friends,” and “Sex in the City” we can talk about anything sexual. My dad says he’s tried to talk with his girlfriends (forty-ish and fifty-ish) about their fantasies, but finds a lot of resistance. They’re embarrassed. Rachael unblushingly describes in detail how the Lit prof beckons her into his office, and what he does to her there.
We don’t have wardrobe to play out scenarios. Our box of sex toys sports only a Pocket Pal, a vibrator, cots, emotion lotion, feathers, a baby pacifier, condoms for anal (because she doesn’t want spunk in her alimentary canal). Rachael says for her it’s all in the mind anyway, and it only takes a few hints (like the held wrists) to animate the dream. I’m glad she’s got this hidden submissive side. Although I’m not a macho guy, I don’t want to be dominated, or maybe, because of my natural passivity, I’m afraid of others dominating me, taking advantage. Rachael is pretty strong, and not that much smaller than I am, but when we wrestle in the tent I put up a fight and I don’t let her win. “Throw the fight,” she says, but I won’t Only when she’s pinned, and gives, and has become needy from kisses, and shows submission by wrapping her legs around my hips, do I let her roll on top of me. I drew the line about the fork, but I did make one concession. My fork has to be dipped in boiling water before it can take its place with her spoons and chop sticks.
On a windless Sunday afternoon the campground at Wiley Wells, our part of it, had turned smoky with the burnt-brake smell of barbequed meat rising from half a dozen grills in the neighborhood. “I imagine this is what it’s like being at a car bombing in Baghdad,” Rachael said. We were glad then when the Hobo turned up driving his Safari car. His usual ride out in the desert is a battered, economical and easily repaired Volks bug with the back hollowed out for a homemade truck bed. No room for passengers however. The Safari car is a giant Chevy Suburban with all the side windows cut out for plein aire desert driving. Hobo wanted to take us into the sand-stippled waste near Scorpion’s Crotch to introduce us to Gunter Maus and his wife, the Hobo’s homesteading neighbors. That would be Heidi and Mighty Maus. He got his too-obvious nickname in high school, an apt fit since apparently as a youth he was the cocky bantam type. Maus claims Heidi spurned his crude attentions at first but when she found out he was Mighty she begged for closure. Heidi and Mighty. Couldn’t pass it up. Hobo said the two had lived a normal Samish life in a featureless tract someplace, raised some kids, worked as prey animals in a sheep cot at the usual pointless jobs, and were heading for a short obit. Instead, Hobo doesn’t know why exactly, they cashed out the empty nest, turned the proceeds into a meager annuity, and bought ten acres of worthless scrub desert, purchased out of the trunk of the agent’s car. They live cheap on their low-tech scatter during the winter, then go camping in the mountains during the summer inferno, or they visit the kids. Nowadays Mighty is a taciturn compact cheery gent with a hint of the old shit disturber in his grin. Heidi, in middle age, is a putterer (crafts) and a flutterer and a benign clucker of the “Oh, my goodness” stamp. Rachael and I liked them right off the bat.
I may as well describe their homestead. Simplicity rules. Rather than one complex dwelling, Mighty has built six small and simple cabins arranged in a loose laager, each cabin dedicated to a purpose. The bedroom measures 8’ by 12’ (about the size of Thoreau’s shack), flat-roofed, paneled with painted plywood on the outside and pasteboard on the inside. Appointed simply with a big comfy bed and a couple of chest-of-drawers. Another cabin, same size, is Heidi’s retreat where she produces desert scenes painted on glass, cute baby-sized dolls, and quilts in the style of a Gee’s Bend bee. Another, a little smaller and set apart, holds Mighty’s home-made version of the composting toilet. A fourth, a little larger, is the capacious bathing venue which includes a little wood stove to heat water and a claw-foot cast iron tub. A plastic picture window gives a view of ruddy peaks and crags. The cook house (in front of which we are now seated) has the Formica table and four shiny chairs that probably once filled the Maus dinette in Anonymous Acres. An attached shady ramada overhanging a patio of concrete paving stones allows al fresco dining or (as now) socializing.
The last cabin encloses Mighty’s tool box and work bench. Mighty says he hates small gasoline engines and has given up on anything with a pull-cord as being too temperamental in a gritty venue. As everybody else out here, they heat with propane-powered Mr. Heater, which they move around from cabin to cabin as needed. They have a couple of small solar panels and a golf cart battery to turn on the lights (low-watt florescent, LEDs) in the bedroom and cook house, plus the usual collection of flashlights, kerosene lanterns and candles. “I’m gonna bring you some beeswax candles,” Rachael said. What else?
The southern exposure of the bedroom and Heidi’s craft shack have Thrombe walls, basically small glass-enclosed greenhouses from which captured sun-heated air seeps into the main room during the winter day. The heated air is pulled passively (that is, without electric fans) with the help of a heat chimney at the northern end of the room. The chimney sticking up from the roof and guyed with a dozen wires is a black stove pipe encased in a plexi-glass box. As warm air rises up the chimney it pulls in more warm air into the room from the Thrombe wall. “Mr. Heater works better,” Mighty says.
To save on the propane bill, Mighty built a solar oven and claims it actually works. “On a sunny day it’ll do a stew or a loaf of bread,” he says. “It can get up to 375 degrees inside a covered Pyrex bowl.” They had a propane refrigerator for awhile, got rid of it. They now use a home-made, heavily insulated ice box Mighty says in the mild autumn two fifty pound blocks of ice will keep vegetables and some kinds of meat like bacon for a couple of weeks. “If it gets too cold out here in winter, I heat with gasoline,” Mighty said. “We drive to Mexico.”
They bake their own bread, and Rachael scribbled down the recipe. Heidi’s version, no kneading required. Flour, yeast and salt mixed with water to a wet dough, covered and left to rise for 24 hours, then turned a couple of times, dusted with corn meal, and baked in a covered pan for two hours in the solar oven. We had a couple of slices with honey (Rachael abstained) and it was pretty darn good. Nice crust. They have a few flower pots for color but don’t bother with a garden, except for a few containers for cherry tomatoes, cukes, carrots and radishes. “It’s cheaper to buy milk than keep a cow,” Mighty says.
Their only entertainment comes from a short-wave radio with a hand crank. I didn’t see any books. They have a cell phone, which becomes useful once they hit the highway. Mighty says he’s taken an interest in collecting rocks (the area is known for some gem mines) and he’s chipping away at a big stack of ore in his workshop, while Heidi stitches together squares. They seem content. According to the Hobo, the eight-by-eight plywood sleeping cube, the inspiration for the Maus cabins, is common in these parts. These bum boxes, he says, are scattered over the desert in every canyon. Assembled in an hour or two, they usually contain a chair and some kind of cot, and give cover from the wind to nomad and prospector. “I don’t like ‘bum box,’” Heidi says, “I think of our bedroom as a ship’s cabin.”
The Hobo is mostly leisured, but he works occasionally to cover his frugal needs. He has a college degree and a provisional teaching credential that means he can sub in the chronically understaffed Blythe schools. Sometimes in season he works a few weeks on the melon tables. He’s crewed on yachts in Mexico, been a choker-setter in the Shasta woods, a faller in Alaska, a counselor at a juvenile detention camp, an udder man at a dairy in Wisconsin.
“Did I ever tell you about the fat farm?” Hobo says to Mighty. We are lounging in white plastic chairs, having tea, biscuits and honey (except no bee juice for fastidious Rachael) under the shade ramada in front of the Maus cook house. “That’s probably the worst job I ever had.” As usual, I forgot my dad’s injunction: “Always take notes.” I always forget, but this is the gist of it.
The Hobo’s Story: Prisoner of Weight.
I learned never to trust a fat person (said the Hobo) while working one summer at Leo Kronig’s Fatbusters Dude Ranch in Northern California. The Kronig spa in the Warner Mountains is kind of like a POW camp for spineless rich hefties who can’t stick to a diet unless removed from all temptation and watched over by guards. In the summer Kronig’s clients are starved and force marched around the 800 acres of the retreat, a rustic venue without a deli in sight, the nearest eatery being in Alturas 40 miles away.
During my summer at Kronig’s I learned that a starving fat person is like a hype, totally without scruple. A famished fatty would sell his first son for a doughnut. Understand, when I say fat, I don’t mean overweight. I’m not talking about chubby, a mere forty or fifty pounds over the AMA guideline. The Kronig people are sideshow material, the chronically, grossly obese. And this wasn’t the McDonald’s crowd. A month at Kronig’s cost the client about ten large. Kronig got the upper crust, high-income lard bucket that makes a life’s work out of trying to lose weight.
As may be guessed, each bloated physique was topped out by a psyche coruscating with strobe-light neurosis. All of them could have benefited from about fifteen hundred hours of couch time. Sadly, they had the same meager understanding of human motivation as everybody else. They thought of themselves as being victims of a minor character flaw; namely, a lack of will power. And this will power was kind of like brake fluid; they simply had a leaky master cylinder, which could be repaired by taking the car to the garage. All of them said the same thing: “If only I had more will power.” Nobody every said, “I’m fat because I’m a nut.”
My job at Kronig’s was to walk the fat people. In my job description I was styled hike associate. Leo already had a couple of Teutonic ex-paratroopers to double-time the fatties through calisthenics. After the Germans finished screaming, I herded the cowed platoon into the woods for a five-miler. I was supposed to chat a little about the flora and fauna, and to administer CPR is necessary.
It was also part of the job to make sure that in their deprived, half-crazed condition they didn’t hurt themselves by eating anything poisonous.
Twice a day I led group walks. I lectured on the ecology, but mostly I threatened, entreated, cajoled, anything to keep them moving. It was maddening, they were so slow. Very reluctant hikers, fat people, partly I think because they are sincerely frightened of the outdoors. Every time a lizard rustled in the leaf litter they’d think rattlesnake. And they would cower, jowls quivering, panting with exertion and fear. “Can’t go on...snakes!”
I came to understand the fundamental mendacity of fat people while I was babysitting one particular fatso on a punishment hike. The clients, of course, were ingenious in devising ways of smuggling food onto the ranch. But if Kronig discovered any surreptitious snacking he meted out swift punishment, usually a “death march.”
Kronig had caught Donnie Halbert with an empty cellophane Zonkers bag, and detailed me to walk the culprit five miles, that being the distance Leo thought necessary to flare off the offending calories and to bring Donnie back into Fatbuster homeostasis.
Halbert was a New York literary agent and one of the biggest whiners I’ve ever met. He was not above faking heat stroke to get out of the walks, and if that didn’t work, he would try to prolong the hourly rest stops by telling improbable stories of sexual license among his famous clientele. He was maybe 35, hardly five feet tall, but must have weighed in at better than three-double-oh. As if his flesh wasn’t enough of a burden, he also had been afflicted by strikingly porcine features. If he’d been wearing a top hat and tails instead of the standard Fatbusteer costume of Can’t-Bust-’Em overalls, he would have looked the perfect piggy caricature of Capitalism in revolutionary poster art.
After the first quarter of a mile on the punishment hike Halbert was sweating like a horse and already making excuses.
“You know I’m under a doctor’s care for hypertension. Can you guess what it is? Two hundred over one-ten. I’ll blow my cork at this pace. I’m feeling very faint. It’s the first sign of a stroke. Maybe if we could just stop a moment...”
With a huge sigh, Halbert collapsed in the shade of an oak. Although the ranch house was out of sight, we could hear the paratroopers whipping up their respective volleyball teams in preparation for the day’s tournament. As an incentive to victory, the volleyball champs got non-fat Cool Whip on their sugar-free Jello.
“I’m desperate,” Halbert said, ‘That’s why I came to this Austerlitz. I’ve got to do something. My doctor says I’m dead by forty if I don’t. God, the diets I’ve tried. All of them. But I’m compulsive. If I don’t eat, I’m frantic. Work’s impossible. Sometimes when the tension becomes unbearable I phone the escort service. But that’s not the kind of rib I’m thinking about.”
“Ha, ha,” I said.
“It would be good to have a normal family life. But who would marry me? I admit my looks are...marginal. I compensate by cultivating an evil disposition. I’m short-tempered and irritable. But it doesn’t matter. People want to be around me because I have lots of money...”
“Are you ready to go?” I said. I could see he was jockeying for an opening to begin one of his interminable stories.
“Wait a minute, wait... I wanted to tell you something. I wanted to tell you...this place is bad, yes; Kronig and his bullies run a Nazi death camp here. But it’s not the worst I’ve seen on the reducing circuit, not by a long shot. The worst was the fat cruise.”
“Why don’t you tell me about it while we walk,” I said.
“Listen,’ said Halbert, making no effort to get up. “Two years ago I saw an ad in the travel section of the Times. ‘Attention the Obese. You’ve tried everything and failed. Now get results! The M.S. Bon H’omme Richard Simmons sails August 12 for a 45 day cruise to the Far East. The owners seek a limited number of select, weight-challenged individuals as members of the working crew. We guarantee substantial weight loss or your money back. Call Last Resort.’ That was the name of the company. They sent a brochure.
“My doctor had misgivings. He knew that to plummet from 6000 rich, oily calories per day to a few hundred insipid ones would be a shock to my gourmandizing ways. Finally however he agreed I should give the cruise a try; after all, his last resort was to have my mouth wired shut.
“Thus on a cool, gloomy day in August my taxi pulled up at Pier 23. As I struggled out of the cab I got a glimpse of a cavernous warehouse, the entrance barred by a chain link fence. I hadn’t taken two steps when my progress was blocked by half a dozen burly roustabouts, one of whom thrust his face toward mine and screamed, ‘No fat scabs.’ Another waved a placard, ‘No blubber lubbers on union ships.’
“A policeman materialized who hustled me though the gate. My luggage fared worse, being thoroughly spat upon as a porter wheeled it through the pickets. ‘They really don’t have any kind of complaint,’ said a voice at my elbow. I turned to meet Mr. Boldwin, shipping agent for Last Resort. A morose man, with a funereal air, dressed entirely in black and having supernaturally white hands pressed together in front of his breastbone. As our footfalls echoed in the lofty building I felt he was leading me to the viewing room for a final look at the departed. ‘The Bon H’omme Simmons is now of Liberian registry,’ he said. ‘We can hire any crew we wish.’
“After signing a number of documents in a dingy office, and after the formalities with customs, I accompanied Boldwin onto the dock for my first view of the vessel. I have been at sea before, sir. I have cruised the Caribbean on the Island Princess and aboard the Antilles Pearl, both vessels acclaimed for their haut cuisine. Nothing I had seen afloat prepared me for the rusting, grimy hulk that now met my eyes.
“It was small, for one thing, hardly measuring 400 feet overall. And dirty. Large, lachrymose rust blotches ran from hawsehole to plumb line. The stacks and upper deck were begrimed with soot. And such an odor wafted from the open hatches: I’d say rancid rapeseed oil and spoiled garlic.
“Two men lounged against the stern rail, both wearing piebald aprons and square black hats like pressmen ‘We’ll sweat it off you, fatty,’ one yelled, while the other grinned, and picked his teeth.
“My trepidation mounted as I labored up the gangplank. Everything was dirty and greasy where it wasn’t rusting and flaking. It took another full day, however, for my alarm to turn to horror, as I realized my true situation.
“The Bon H’omme Simmons was the worst sort of tramp that plied the South China Sea with bulk cargo. This voyage she carried iron scrap and bunker waste for Seoul. Usually the crew was a polyglot and ill-assorted collection of Chinese, Filipinos, and Malays, overseen by Greek officers of singular crudity. The hands clearly did nothing beyond the bare minimum to work the ship; dirt, rust and grease had triumphed everywhere.
“But this voyage the owners had an exquisite plan: bring aboard fat people, work them to exhaustion, feed them almost nothing, and charge them exorbitantly for the experience. And it had worked. Fourteen of us fatties were aboard, nine men and five women. The men had been herded forward to the crew’s quarters in the bow, while the women had been given, of all things, a reefer, a giant refrigerator which once had been used to transport slabs of beef (although the unit now was inoperable). In fact, the reefer now was a sweat lodge; and if the coat wire holding open the heavy door had ever snapped, the women would have suffocated in minutes.
“Since we were on the manifest as crew rather than as passengers, the owners were spared the need of providing a doctor. The ‘nutritionally balanced meals” turned out to be gruel and watered milk for breakfast, a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, and a thin vegetable stew for dinner. These served out of a galley of unspeakable dirtiness by the grinning, toothless cooks.
“The captain’s name was Pike, a sullen, profane Britisher who spent his days jeering at our ineptitude from his vantage on the bridge. He was seconded by two sullen Greeks, one a drunk, the other clearly a borderline psychopath. The other officer aboard was the engineer, seldom seen. And then the two cooks, men I suspect of inverted habits. This jeering duo loafed about the decks, and both were drunk by noon.
“We hadn’t cleared the offing before we fatties knew our mistake. As the blunt bow of the Bon H’omme punched into the short swells of the Potato Patch, Captain Pike assembled us aft to deliver his welcome.
‘“You’re a bloody worthless lot,’ he said. ‘Your damn money is no good here, and I’m going to sweat you like a gang of Lascars.’
“In truth, we were worthless, and certainly miserable-looking, huddling in the salt spray as the captain ranted. And not one of us under 300 pound. I was not surprised to find that I knew several of my fellow crew, having met them over the years at a dozen fat farms, diet clinics, and in the offices of specialists in the East Sixties.
“There was Miss Treble, of the banking Trebles, whom I had first met at a farm upstate. She had been expelled he first day for smuggling chocolate in her lipstick tubes. But I have no reason to patronize here. On the second day I had broken away from a jogging party to scramble through a fence to the main road, from which I hitchhiked to the nearest bed-and-breakfast.
“Miss Treble, even for one of us, had a truly loathsome appearance; I had once the bad fess, at a Pennsylvania slimming retreat, to see her in bathing attire, and it’s a sight that I may never be able to expunge from my memory. Plus, she’s the worst sort of back-biting valetudinarian busybody ever created
.“The other person I knew was George Webster, a youngish scion of great wealth and good education, but of bad character. Once, after we had skipped out of an Atkinson retreat in the Catskills, I dined with him at L’Orangerie, and suffered several hours of the worst nonsense about varietals that I think I have ever heard.
“Thrown together now, however, we became friends in adversity, even to the point that I began to enjoy his mordant style. It was he who christened our unhappy club the ‘Two-by-Fours’ (for our difficulty negotiating the narrow hatchways), and while it may have been more apt than witty, it stuck.
“On the first day the captain told us off into watches, making it clear that our main duty during the voyage would be to clean and paint the ship. The women formed a separate watch, working below in the living quarters while the men worked topside.
“My watch mates were the sort I’ve come to recognize from my long experience with fat people. I have never met a jolly fat person. Tubby jollies by the score; but not fat. Nobody is more treacherous, sadomasochistic, greedy or self-pitying than a true fat man, who would gladly sell out his fatherland for the pastry tray.
“In recounting these first days at sea it’s hard to recapture the true horror. Imagine it! A baker’s dozen of pampered corpulence, accustomed to feeding on the choicest viands, suddenly lashed by brutes into numbing round of swabbing and chipping, while the only pleasure of any possible significance had degenerated into a pan of watery oats or a soggy sandwich.
“But the first day, at least, wasn’t that desperate, because we were all deathly sick. Unlike a cruise ship, a merchantman doesn’t carry gyros in the hold to damp the rocking. I was very ill indeed, and in a way thankful for the work and for the abuse poured on us by the mates, insomuch as it kept my mind from my churning stomach. And I had the pleasant illusion that voiding repeatedly over the side would be a good start to my slimming program.
“But the next morning I awoke famished. In my imagination my stomach had shrunk to the size of an orange, and was cleaving to my backbone. Purged by a day of nausea, my belly seemed to me trim and hard. Further reductions were martyrdom. Although the seas were still running, the clamor in my gut for food overrode the puny efforts of nature.
“I’m afraid the comic aspect of nine bulbous men struggling out of narrow bunks onto a pitching deck was lost entirely on me. By instinct we rushed toward the galley, where we found the women had preceded us, and were sitting expectantly at table.
“Our breakfast came, a mere dab of oats in a pan. As one our spoons descended with a ‘clink,’ and the cereal disappeared in a ‘poof.’ I have no recollection of its taste. Then, like a company of bloated Oliver Twists, we mutely hold out our pans for more. And the mutual expression of my fellow sufferers was indeed sublime: stricken puppies, yearning for the tidbit, fearing the boot.
“The toothless cook enjoyed it too. ‘Naow, not a bit more grease for you blokes; must stick to our reg-ee-min ya’knaow.’
“By noon my hands had turned raw from holding the chipping iron; I didn’t notice. All that mattered was my stomach. Had one of the sea birds trailing in the wake of the ship come within my grasp I would have gulped him raw, beak, webbed feet and feathers.
“After lunch (a peanut butter sandwich!), a rumor flew around that Miss Treble had managed to smuggle a cache of Snickers aboard; one of her bunk mates claimed to have smelled chocolate on her breath. This news threw me into a rage. It was just exactly like her sneaking ways. And no use expecting a person as debased as Miss Treble to share with her shipmates; her selfishness was perfect; she could be counted upon to hold every Snickers for herself. I don’t believe I have ever felt true hate or understood injustice until that moment.
“At dinner, after inhaling the execrable beef stew in a mouthful, everybody glared at Miss Treble. She nervously examined the overhead until finally she could stand it no longer. ‘It was only one,” she blurted, almost in tears. ‘It wasn’t enough for everybody.’
‘What was it?’ said George, very quietly.
“‘A Snickers,’ Miss Treble said in a small voice.
“‘Regular?’ said George. ‘Or super?”’
“‘Super,’ said Miss Treble, in the meekest voice I’ve ever heard.
“All of the haunted faces at the table covered Miss Treble with burning eyes. It seemed the sweet scent of chocolate hung in the air.
“I’m sure I don’t need to say that Miss Treble was completely ostracized. Nobody believed for one minute that she had come aboard with only one Super Snickers. Somewhere she had secreted others, although we ransacked her luggage in vain. I, for one, had been on enough diet retreats with her to appreciate how damnably clever she was.
“I think my hatred for Miss Treble, and my nightmarish imaginings of her clandestine munching kept me alive through the first week. George and I spent the tedious afternoons devising fiendish ways for torturing the information out of her. But it turned out to be unnecessary, for on the seventh day out we awoke to find that she had hanged herself during the night.
“Her guilt, I presume, coupled with peer pressure, had been too much. In any case her demise occasioned a hasty confab of the officers on the bridge. Captain Pike’s main concern focused on a possible investigation. The Greek officers said they were tired of the ship anyway, and were quitting in Yokohama. Let the captain explain to the authorities the way he thought best.
“But soon the officers realized that something must be done with Miss Treble’s remains, and after more colloquies, the captain elected for the usual. Pike called the crew amidships, and the two cooks and a wiper lugged up Miss Treble’s body and lay it on the deck forward of us near a kingpost.
“Frankly, as the cooks struggled to zip the body bag around her, I can’t recall Miss Treble ever looking so well. Her neck appeared a trifle mottled where the bra strap had bit in, but even one week of dieting and exercise had improved her greatly, her flesh solid, her once flabby arms round and meaty.
“Captain Pike descended from the bridge. ‘I can’t find the damn book with the service,’ he said. ‘We’ll get by with what I can remember.’
‘“Crew, bow your heads,’ Pike continued. ‘Lord, here’s another one for you. We hand her to you until the day when the sea shall give up its corruption. I’m sure you know what she deserves, so I won’t go into that. Amen.’ The captain returned his cap to his head. ‘Okay boys, sway her up.’
“‘Ugh, said the toothless cook, as he and his mates struggled to lift her, ‘Naow here’s a nyce bite for the fishies.’
“In retrospect, I think the service would have concluded normally if the cook hadn’t made his reference to the good luck of the fish. We hadn’t been properly fed for eight days. The idea of a mere scavenging shark getting something toothsome caused a string to snap in George Webster’s head.
“I don’t remember George picking up the chipping hammer, but in a flash the two cooks were lying insensible on the deck. The suddenness and ferocity of the attack was surprising, but not the results, for under the flab George is a very powerful young man. Next (I don’t know how it happened) all of us were howling after the officers. We chased Pike and the Greeks up the ladder and around the bridge. The deck officers managed to barricade themselves in the radio shack, but the engineer, a gouty, elderly man, was too halt. We tossed him headlong over the bridge railing, and I’m afraid he suffered some nasty bruises.
“Nobody needed to tell us what to do next. Whooping and yelling, we descend to the galley, smashed the door, and began eating everything we could lay hold of. We ate crackers, and buns, and raisins, and condensed milk. At one point I found myself cramming my mouth with uncooked pie dough; it was heavenly.
“Eventually, Pike and the Greeks came down and threatened us with revolvers. We hooted and jeered and threw empty bean cans at them. If Pike had shot me then I would have died a happy man. We were like piranhas in blood frenzy; Pike would have had to gun down every one of us to regain his ship.
“In time, they realized this. The officers lowered their guns and returned to the bridge for another confab. In the end, they acted prudently, putting out a distress signal. Short-handed, with three injured aboard and a mutinous pick up crew, they couldn’t work the ship. Moreover, by the end of that glorious afternoon, the stores were exhausted. And with us on board -- not your normal eaters -- the officers no doubt were prey to some unsettling thoughts.
“But we were saved from going down in history as a seagoing Donner Party. The next morning a Navy frigate, the USS Lewiston, responding to the signal, diverted from her course to Pearl, and came alongside. Soon two bright young lieutenants scrambled up the ladder from their whaleboat, and the job began of explaining the tangled events of the blubber cruise.
“The warship’s CO, a lean, grizzled sea dog (the very picture of what all of us fatties longed to be) sorted through it. He removed all the fatties, along with the injured, to his ship, and seconded a party of sailors to take the Bon H’omme into Honolulu until inquiries could be made.
“Although I never have had the honor of serving my flag, I always had lent a credulous ear to tales of the alleged vileness of military cooking. All slanders, if the Lewiston’s table was an example. The stewards and mess men watched in awe as George and I mopped up plate after plate of beans and cornbread, salad and ice cream.
“In Honolulu, the district attorney charged Webster with battery but released him on his own recognizance. Mindful of the unusual circumstances, the grand jury declined to enter charges against any of the Two-by-Fours regarding the mutiny, and instead opted to look into the blubber cruise for evidence of maritime violations. In Miss Treble’s case, of course, the panel ruled it a suicide for which no one was culpable. As for me, two days later I changed planes in San Francisco for a flight home to New York.
“It proved impossible to trace through the thicket of Liberian registry the true owners of the Bon H’omme Simmons. Thus my lawyers never found a satisfactory target for suit. I had perfect grounds. Back at my apartment the bathrooms scale revealed that during my two weeks at sea I had gained ten pounds. The company had guaranteed a weight loss.”
By the time Halbert had finished retailing this ridiculous tissue of lies the sun somehow had slipped below the tree line. Obviously it had got too late to finish our five miler.
“You amaze me,’ I said. ‘You have no regard for the truth.”
“Every word true,” he said. “There was an article in the Honolulu Advertiser. You could look it up. But say, shouldn’t we be heading back? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Salad Greens have won the volleyball? Now you don’t think Kronig would deny me my share of Cool Whip just because I was out hiking all day?”
Halbert scrambled quickly to his feet and began hurrying toward the ranch house. “But as to the fat cruise,” he called over his shoulder. “Every word true. You could look it up.” Halbert already was well down the path and moving fast. I heard his faraway voice: “Check it out.” In the time I worked at Kronig’s I never had a better example of the deceit and falsity of fat people. That’s why I don’t trust them.
“That story did have a lot of flesh on it,” Rachael said, “It needs a tummy tuck.”
Indeed, Hobo’s story had exhausted the daylight. We had to hit the dusty trail anyway because my dad was coming in that night to visit our camp at Wiley Wells. Rachael likes to see my dad, especially since on his visits he always brings us a few bottles of pretty good rube for campfire hour. For his own cocktail, he prefers bourbon and branch, no ice. Which is good, since we don’t ever have ice cubes.
Unlike most parents, my dad, even in his cups, never offers us relationship advice. His relationships have all been failures, and to push an uninvited homily at an intact happy couple, while probably tempting to most sires under the influence, would smack too much of the Pharisee. The closest he comes to that, in the strobe-like campfire flicker, is retailing a round-about parable from his hoary newspaper past.
For instance, my dad’s story of Jolene.
My dad’s saloon of record used to be Corky’s Fine Dining, a dark smoky dismal downtown tavern convenient to the old News-Free Press. The Chinese owner served a buffet lunch, catered to the five-o’clock drinkers waiting out traffic, and then at midnight turned the place over to karaoke and Asian prostitution. Corky had some kind of juice with the cops which also let him skip the smoking ban. All the tables had ash trays.
My dad said that he and Gordo, another hack reporter, were in there one afternoon having a few buckets when Jolene peeped in the door. This was unexpected. Jolene was neither a bar regular, nor a known drinker, and probably never previously had been in this particular dive despite its proximity to her cubicle. But Jolene wasn’t namby-pamby either. She was an ambitious, pushy, hard-edged young scribe who didn’t hesitate to sail right in and straighten out an erring colleague. Everybody liked her but thought her kind of abrasive. “You guys got a minute?” she says.
My dad and Gordo looked at each other and showed her a chair. “Maybe you heard,” she says. “I’m getting married.” They had heard. She was marrying Dr. Dave, a pediatrician and earnest liberal who wrote letters to the editor cataloging the long list of the world’s wrongs. “I want your advice,” Jolene said. “I want my marriage to work.” This too was unexpected, her wanting their advice. My dad had been dumped by my mom, and had never settled afterwards into anything regular. Gordo was a three-time loser. It seemed unusual anybody would come to them for marriage counseling.
“How do you mean advice?” says Gordo. “I don’t see how you can raise Dr. Dave’s consciousness any higher than it is.” “No,” says Jolene, “On how to make my marriage work.”
Without prior consultation and in unison, my dad and Gordo gave her the same advice in exactly the same words: Let Dr. Dave do anything he wants. It wasn’t advice they’d give indiscriminately to any prospective bride regarding any old bridegroom. But they knew Dr. Dave. A little naïve, a little jejune at the dinner table, but a heart of the highest caret. A credit to the species. Nothing slippery about him. Absolutely trustworthy. “Just let him do what he wants,” Gordo says.
Jolene and Dr. Dave honeymooned in Paris. Dr. Dave fancied himself a pretty good amateur photographer. He tells his new bride he’s going to bring along his camera tripod for a shot of the Eiffel. “Oh shit,” thinks Jolene to herself. “We’re going to be on and off trains and buses and taxis and he’s gonna be schlepping his stupid tripod.” But she remembers the advice of the two washed up marriage failures in Corky’s, and says, “Sure.” They go to Paris, have a great honeymoon. On the second day, Dr. Dave says, “This tripod’s kind of a drag; I’m gonna leave it in the hotel.” “Okay,” says Jolene. When she got back she went into Corky’s and practically fell on her knees in front of my dad and Gordo. It had been a close call. She could have screwed up her honeymoon by nagging Dr. Dave about a stupid tripod. She might have made Dr. Dave start to think getting hitched to Jolene wasn’t such a hot idea. But she had remembered the words, “Let Dr. Dave do what he wants.”
A few days after they got back the juice went out in Jolene’s house. Dr. Dave said, “I’m going down to the basement to see if I can figure out what’s wrong.” Jolene knew that, while Dr. Dave was a highly competent physician, he didn’t know dick about household electricity. He could hurt himself. But she didn’t say anything. Ten minutes later he was back. “I’m going to go ahead and call an electrician.” “Okay,” says Jolene. Years went by. Jolene gave up the newspaper game for a serious job. Every once in awhile my dad says to Gordo, “Whatdya hear from Jolene?” “Still happily married to Dr. Dave,” says Gordo. “That’s swell,” says my dad. “Corky. A couple of more over here.”
Rachael responds to the Jolene story
“You can fix your own drink from now on, old man,” Rachael said. “Your old pappy is being protective of you, sweet cheeks. He knows I’m a lot stronger than you are and he doesn’t want me to completely obliterate your sketchy personality. I don’t know why he just didn’t come out and say so, instead of floundering around in this treacle. And don’t go getting the idea you can do anything you want.”
My dad likes Rachael a lot. He says he agrees completely with her aversion to the filth of a restaurant kitchen. "At the old News-Free Press we sometimes used to go to the Revere House after work for Mensa meeting. Smoking was allowed there too because the owner, Paul, was a city councilman. If the cops were dropping by for any reason they'd call the bartender in advance so he could police up the ash trays.
Paul had been in the restaurant business for 30 years and says he has never seen a clean restaurant kitchen. “It just can't be done (says Paul). You got food all over the floor; there's always a leak somewhere; you're gonna have mice and cockroaches. A good place like the Revere House will have the exterminator in every month, but you're just brushing them back. Most restaurants are on the bubble; you can't afford pricey help, particularly in the prep. Do these people wash their hands? I have no way of knowing. Does the swamper do the most meticulous job on the prep tables? I hope it's good enough. But bugs and rats don't make you sick; the prep cook with dirty hands don't make you sick usually. It's holding temperature. The health inspectors can see rat shit on the counters, a stopped up toilet, cockroaches running over the lettuce boxes, and they'll still pass you. Steam table ain't right, reefer on the blink, they'll slap on the padlock."
As a newspaper reporter for suburban blats my father often did the story about the county health department restaurant inspectors. "Usually these guys bend over backward to avoid closing a place for code. Pretty much fucks a joint, particularly some mom 'n pop Asian or Mexican deal. But it’s un-fucking believable what you see in a restaurant kitchen. Back when I was tagging along on surprise inspections with the county, in one place, literally, human shit on the bathroom floor being tracked into the kitchen. Shut down this dirt? No. The inspector just gave the owner a warning. Rachael is right about the kitchens. But she goes too far with the elitist vegan bullshit."
We are elitist. To get around the class issue, Rachael says we're of the leisure class. Sort of the bohemian cadre of leisure, without being too scruffy. Sort of the chattering cohort, without getting paid for it. Rachael is authentically upper middle, from the loins of a hot shot, aggressive New York Jewish beagle. I'm lower middle Scotch-Irish Protestant, quickened by a newspaper hack on the tradesman plains of anonymous suburbia. Rachael admits she's a little abashed that she retains quite a lot of class prejudice. In the abstract, she believes the oppressed service sector and suffering single mom should be relieved by tax-supported intervention, helping professionals, and your kind donation. But maybe not by Rachael in person. She has never ridden a public bus, never experienced the police state for the poor so vividly depicted in “Cops.” She has never rubbed elbows with the sapitariat, or walked her trick on a picket line. The fetid prey animal stench of Wal-Mart nauseates her. Working people are dreary, badly dressed, and their children don't behave. It's shocking the way the Southern Hemisphere doesn’t pick up after itself in the city park, leaving garbage in heaps right next to a trash receptacle. "Well, I don't like my own class any better," Rachael says.
In the tent at night we discuss whether we’re neurotic and escapist. I say yes, Rachael no. I think some bit of attention must be paid to the opinion of others, even if one is taking the stance of substantial non-compliance with prevailing norms. For instance, my dad keeps asking if I would like therapy, his treat. Our friends from school don’t conceal their wonder at our blithe squandering of our youth and chances. Peace Corps in Bolivia, teaching on a Rez, they could understand. It wouldn’t hurt the vita, either. But doing nothing other than letting the blood wash; that’s odd in go-getter Samland. Probably a pathology. I know it is for me. I’ve always been anxious, uncomfortable in company, a shunner of confrontations, a passive onlooker. People make me nervous.
In college I doubt I appeared abnormal. I belonged to a circle. I had a few girl friends. School for most students is a passive experience anyway. You’re an oil painting. You sit, sop up a few dabs. I preferred large survey courses, a hundred faces in an auditorium, rather than intimate seminars and workshops. No direct participation, less risk of being caught cheating. I never tried to stand out or excel. Because of my generous dad, I didn’t have the money worries facing the typical state college drudge. I didn’t need to root for scholarships or to please committees. Although I am easily flustered by a teacher’s query in class, my anxiety wasn’t debilitating. But I did all I could to avoid such pas a deux. After my junior year, I could always escape to my nice apartment. I’m calmed by sitcoms and light reading. My striving friends relied on pharmacology, which was necessary for them because they were hustling grades and the strokes of mentors; they’d got by on pot and rube at Penal High, but now needed Probital and Oxycontin at Middling State. I smoked weed, and drank the cheap rube at parties too; but only because I had to interact with peers for a few hours, or needed to be pot-valiant enough to grope drunken girls. Mostly I fell back passively on my apartment and zoned on anything with a laugh track. So I think it’s me, not the world
Rachael says it’s other people who are fucked up, because they’ve bought into the Sam line from infancy. She says we’ve all been neuralized by the Borg’s silver-tongued propaganda-spewing loud hailer, the mind-control starting in kindergarten with the pledge of allegiance and a million TV recitations of sugary cereal ads. Take veganism, for instance, a subject never far from Rachael’s mind. “Think of all the forces conspiring to make you eat crap from the dawn of babyhood,” Rachael says, “If you resist, if you refuse to eat putrid carcasses, or nutrient-dead, over-processed pulp, or a bowl of straw in high fructose corn syrup, you’re branded an eccentric. Why am I a fucking neurotic? If you don’t want to be a lemming, or salute a rag, or poison your body, then you’re a nut who hates America. What a load of crap.”
Rachael has an issue with the pledge of allegiance. Not only is it puerile and illiterate, it’s insulting to true patriots such as herself. “Why is my loyalty being questioned? I don’t have to take a fucking loyalty oath. I don’t have to cross my heart. I don’t have to seig heil the eagle every morning. My loyalty should not be questioned. Do we have the Napoleonic Code for allegiance in this country?”
I think she’s right. Steve and Stefanie Decatur are patriots. I’m a mere non-contributing citizen Samlander, and have no fervor for the national bunting. I agree with her on this one. The pledge is pretty silly, not to mention untrue in its assertions. It’s hard to get through the pledge without smiling, so I always hold my stomach. Once I did get in trouble over a flag incident. In high school, I tried out for a week at McDonald’s. I couldn’t handle the pressure and was going to quit anyway, but the manager fired me first. It was just after nine-eleven. I told the manager that in recognition of the national tragedy we ought to fly all the McDonald’s flags at half staff. The red square with the yellow M. I didn’t think he’d do it. The flags had been at half-mast all afternoon before some vet duffer called city hall to complain about the sacrilege. The manager caught a rocket from downtown, I got fired.
“Why am I considered nuts?” Rachael says, “Look at your old sweetheart Mary Carlson.” (A bit of a sore point; Rachael knows that Mary and I screwed a couple of times at parties.) Mary got an internship at Cargill. Blatantly whoring (according to Rachael) to be an account exec. Motivational retreats at fancy pants spas. Gushing about the 401k, the stock options, the incentive pay. “Why not just say, ‘I’m a bloodsucking mercenary; I’m being paid to undermine the health of children with corn pus and to destroy the soil bank.’ Why isn’t she considered nuts? Why isn’t she considered criminally insane? Is it because she drives a Lexus on credit and flaunts her boob job around the office? (I told Rachael they weren’t real.) Why should I buy into any of this? Why should I buy into the idea that I’m the one who’s mental?”
The issue of Thanksgiving arrived. Hippie mom wanted to take Rachael to a Wicken Feast at Harbin Hot Springs; beagle dad wanted to fly her out to New York to meet “the new woman.” “This resolves itself,” Rachael said. “We don’t celebrate holidays with flesh eating. We don’t celebrate holidays with anything…except…poetry. You can make the selection, English Lit boy. Just don’t pick one of those Victorian gas bags.” Rachael declines to participate in holidays largely for gastronomical reasons. She already in principle had rejected slow food-ism. We weren’t living in Provencal, we don’t have any wine, and to dawdle three hours over luncheon would be difficult anyway when all we had on the plate were a few steamed vegetables and a slice of homemade wheat bread. We certainly don’t bolt our food, but half an hour, tops, sees us through lunch. They idea of strenuous, day-long preparation for an hour of gluttony…particularly when Rachael thought about revolting bird flesh, or bird-gut stuffing… She couldn’t do it.
Meals, Rachael said, should be clean, simple, Spartan, every day, no exceptions for rituals or superstitions. As for my dad, I hadn’t heard from him so I didn’t know his plans. Once during college I’d gone to my Mom’s for Thanksgiving but that had been strained. She has two prepubescent daughters out of the Republican. During dinner my mother was reserved, and the little girls made faces at me. The Republican tried to make me welcome, but as the conversation languished, he took the bull by the horns and filled the dead air with Tales of the Country Club, including Junior Tennis, which he coached. I haven’t been invited back.
“Does your dad actually have a place to go?” Rachael said. “Maybe we should invite him here.” My dad usually works holidays for the time and a half. As far as I know, he doesn’t have anyplace to go, except the Weary Gentleman Saloon (aka Corky’s). But it’s a long drive up here, and frankly, I didn’t figure him for a convert to vegan fare. “Let’s go ahead and invite him,” Rachael said. “We’ll include the menu. At least we’ll have made the gesture.”
Rachael’s Thanksgiving Menu
Tofu in vegetable broth
“That should do it for your dad,” Rachael said.
But my dad showed up. Failure is supposed to be an orphan, but my own dad’s loyalty abides, never surrendering hope, religiously pungling up my monthly remittance, and continuing his gentle well-meaning inquisition into my welfare. I know he’s been a little peeved and worried although lately there’s been alleviation. After visiting our camp a few times my dad has changed his hand-wringing, spluttering tune. It hit him almost as quickly as it had Rachael. The first time he checked out our cozy tent, I literally could see the elevens in his neck subside. My dad admits he’s sometimes susceptible to Samology. I think he thought it might have been drugs; that maybe secretly I’d wandered into heavy traffic beyond the safe playground of the casual party puffer. Or maybe he thought that the perfume from a dress had made me digress.
But our little pitch in a well-regulated and ranger-supervised Forest Service campground was neither an opium den, nor one of much other iniquity either, but rather the quiet venue of a completely moral, low grade and frugal hedonism. He and Rachael locked in sync right off the bat and laughed their heads off all night. Once settled in a canvas chair, the orange flame in its iron ring licking at a log, a tall toddy in his hand, the mirthful Rachael encouraging him, and the silhouetted black saw-toothed pines enclosing our cheery camp all around…my dad got it.
He told me that if the five bills weren’t spreading, he could make it more (five are plenty and he’s not rich). I think he had a lump in his throat; he understood and in a way was kind of proud of me. His son would be no Heep doffing his cap to some Chatterley. My sad dad has worn out his life eating the bitter merde of servitude, but his only seed would not. He later told me the ground had been prepared by his old newspaper pal Paddy. “I’d gladly, fucking gladly pay a measly half large per mense to get my own dickhead son out of the clutches of bitch-Goddess,” Paddy had said. Paddy’s son is sniffing after bitch-Goddess in some clucking stack of poultry cages in a high-rise. (It also helps though that picky bitch-Goddess has snickered at my dad’s feeble efforts, so he isn’t that enamored of her.) Hippie Mom is on board too, telling Rachael to ignore her father’s pleas for her to go back to school. Lose the head trips, councils Hippie Mom. Feel your womb. “I have people for that,” Rachael says.
My dad always says, though, that my chosen lifestyle is the result of my being passive aggressive. He says that’s how I’ve been able to evade responsibilities. “You seem agreeable most of the time,” he says, “but somehow you manage to thwart my wishes.” He’s kidding around at the campfire, but I take his meaning. Although I wonder about aggressive. I think he means passively subversive, outwardly conforming, inwardly dragging the feet. Nobody would associate “aggressive” with my shrinking timidity. Except Rachael. “It’s reaction formation,” says the beneficiary of an undergraduate psych class. “You look milky, but it’s a crafty screen for some awfully bloody-minded sublimation.”
No. It’s my dad who secretly harbors the lurid revenge fantasies. He won’t sit down to the newspaper until he’s had the toddy-o to seat his composure. Otherwise, as fresh outrage leaps from the page he starts visualizing the executioner’s axe falling on the neck bone of ... Never mind. I don’t want to see him rounded up by the vigilance for making terrorist threats. My dad says it doesn’t matter if the pilloried villain du jour is pederast pimp, pettifogging politico, peculating Punjab, perp or pervert …his condign verdict is always the same: the shortest way. Emasculation, evisceration, eyes gouged in their sockets, the tongue ripped from its pinions, ear drums deflated with an ice pick, the indicted felon dipped in boiling water to the waist, and then fed alive and half-cooked to starving feral dogs, with the droppings captured in glass jars for presentation to the felon’s family.
Boozily animated at our campfire, my dad says this kind of stuff to the admiring Rachael. Or, if he’s in a lenient mood…perhaps the once-smug malefactor is merely booted across the floor and forced to nuzzle the feet of his oppressed victims, before being shot point blank in the back of the neck. “I’m the same way,” Rachael says, “Take no prisoners, bayonet the wounded.”
My dad knows his is the impotent seething of the cowering prey animal. Happily, two vodka tonics police up the poisonous sadism. Thus de-toxed and serene, he cons the daily horror with an unruffled temporal vein. One twenty slash eighty. Alcohol is the answer, he says, and the consolation, for a philosopher who recognizes it’s hard to make people be good. Rome does not have one neck.
I told Rachael the shrink that I don’t mind if she marks me down as sneaky. But not as a bloody minded clerk, like my dad. Not a water board wannabe, or slit-eyed Woo. I am almost inert. No acting out behaviors ever submitted in evidence. No studied covert rebellion with an eye to any outcome other than simple non-compliance. No yappy agenda. Shhh. All buts silenced a-borning. I protest not a syllable. My MO is to seem to acquiesce to teacher or parent. “You’re right as rain on that one,” I say. Then I flake, taking advantage of the adult-onset ADD common to the busy mentor. Not a noble MO, to shine-on all that valuable input, and duck a homily. It’s resistance without conflict, a shirking of duty (imposed on unwilling me by others) while easing away from consequences. I’ve found I can often preempt conflict by studying to be known as chronically unreliable, unpunctual, forgetful. Parent and teacher don’t expect much. I dodge being tasked, without getting into a lot of drama.
Maybe there is something noble here. I was reading in an introduction to Chekhov’s stories that the master once said he had to squeeze the blood of slaves out of his veins drop by drop. I’ve got the slave blood of a Spartan helot. My blood is fouled by slave corpuscles whimpering like puppies for approval, the deferential slave blood of congenital low self-esteem. All I can do is resist like the cunning peasant slave, while on the sly I nip my wrist, trying to blanch out servility. I grow pale, transparent, I fade from view. Otherwise I’ll wind up being somebody’s punk in an office.
I try to explain Tenting Today to my dad. As practiced by Rachael and me, it is self-imposed careless routine and pleasant tedium; a bargain-basement moral hedonism, without rules, punctilio, or schedule. “Rules chafe me,” I say airily. Not all rules, says my dad. True. I obey all the reasonable rules imposed by society. Traffic laws are okay, at least in Samland. Maybe it’s possible for a well-connected scion to fix a ticket. But the former police reporter for the News-Free Press says generally Samland’s speed cops aren’t on the pad (not counting Chicago or the Deep South). The motorist in Samland bows to rules that pretty much work and are more or less fair. My dad says in some basket case countries like Paraguay or Albania, there aren’t any traffic laws. Every cop is a criminal. Stop signs are suggestions universally ignored. “My first real look at anarchy was in a town called Ciudad de Este in eastern Paraguay,” my dad says. “I was in a bus trying to get across the Parana River from Brazil. The bridge had six painted lanes that meant nothing. Sometimes five lanes went one way; sometimes five lanes the other, all depending on driver moxy. Intimidation rode. The soldiers didn’t even try to sort it out.”
My dad says civil life is impossible without universally accepted symbols like the stop sign (he can drone on about wonk topics: high-density zoning, handicap access, traffic roundabouts). Yes I’m for the symbols of civil life, I tell him. I’m not Bolshie. I’d be a Red if I thought it would do any good (not that cowards are wanted at either end of the class struggle). Maybe as the peeping pleb bystander I would enjoy seeing haughty bluebloods frog walked curbside and dispatched with a bullet to the medulla, or stung up on an elm for the picture postcard. But that unlikely future thrill isn’t enough to compensate for the truth of an activist day: the fervent expressions of solidarity with comrades in the service unions, the interminable meetings, amplified speeches, any kind of singing. Despite all the good work of the fighters of the good fight, I’m pretty darn pessimistic about the chances of common mopes, and history in general absolves me. My bitter dad is right; the sapitariat is always screwed. Because, in fine, they’re stupid and don’t understand their own interest: prey animals easily cajoled and foxed, easily persuaded to turn over their wallets in return for a constitutional amendment to bring crack babies to term. Blind and selfish as the plutocrat but too sentimental to be ruthless.
Here I am on the curb, the gape-jawed goof; here comes the Big Lemming Parade. Lemmings United marching by. “Join us, join us.” I slide behind the lamp post. I don’t care much about winning economic justice for these unlucky rodents, jauntily stepping along toward a precipice that lacks a bridge. Lemmings should stay off the road and try not to breed so much. Does every global lemming need a Honda or an iPod or a plasma television or even a fridge and an air con? (I know, it’s warm down South). If one or two favored palefaces have these dirty things it isn’t fair but it hardly matters to chubby earth. But a billion lemming Chinamen? Every lemming Hindi on the Ganges? Every mouth-breathing pig poker in Arkansas and the Carolinas? Greedy arms everywhere outstretched and waving like fields of tentacles in the tide pool.
My dad says that the red octagon, because it’s generally obeyed, illustrates civility in Samland. As I hurtle toward an unsought maturity I find myself down with the pater for reasonable Hobbesian restraints on the lead-footed Id, for the sake of civil life. Oh-tow (OTOH, as we say in text), let’s be measured. As I tell my dad, I see a difference between a full and complete stop, and for instance the compulsory indentured servitude of conscription or some other ferrous barcode limiting the volition of the citizen unit. I stop at all stop signs and count to three. If I don’t, I deserve a citation and a tedious term in traffic school. OTOH, I’m not willing, out of any fealty to Sam, to make the leap from traffic court to induction center. My leap would be to Ottawa or Rio, if Sam every reboots the draft.
Also, in the solitude of the water closet, I find wanting some of the assumptions that pretty much tote the badge of law. It’s kind of assumed, for instance, that every Samuel (even if only as de facto ID) should have a master and an assigned seat. (“Hi, Myron Mope here. Sales. Mr. Elderman’s shop.”). I know. Like Rachael says, I’m cute when I puff out my lip. Pouting is futile. I grew up a prey animal suckled with sap juice from the cradle, stamped in a cookie shape, fed on breadfruit, Borg-certified as mope with wind-up spring, meant to wring my heart trying to please my betters.
As with almost everybody else to the steerage born, the urge to obey and to please is like gravity. Trying to escape a slave destiny is like pulling six Gs in a Raptor, cheek smeared against teeth, snot running down the trim moustache. It’s too much. I know that in the pale of command presence, the unseen hand that shaped me presses me to acquiesce. That’s why I have to be sneaky. Nefarious rebel fingers pluck me back somehow to save me from the confrontation of wills that I would lose. I will not please because I will not show up. Let the sap cup pass to another. There are plenty of congenital cube pucks who know their place (“cube puck,” one of my dad’s convoluted neologisms, a synonym for cubicle mope; “puck” means PUC, the military acronym for “person under control” Anyway.). A born cube puck wants the porthole seat at the oarlock. His taste in music is the two-part beat. He understands that the lash is for his own good. Born pucks are absolutely needed on land and sea. The well-regulated trireme needs order and hierarchy and willing oarspersons. But like I told my dad when I put in for my remittance, life on the rolling wave is not for me. Even though reared and schooled for widget-hood, I don’t feel accommodating. So why fight it? Isn’t it wiser to spot this wild hair early? Not waste time on a bad fit?
In high school I knew this kid Carlos. Not revolving in my orbit, Carlos. My friends were doughy, bland and blond; Carlos was mocha, skinny, edgy, ran with the tough clique, although not so tough himself but more of a wiseacre. I met him because we walked around the track during the PE hour, an option for those of us who weren’t willing or able to suit up for games. All through freshman year, Carlos was trouble. Minor beefs, being late, zany antics, disrupting. The teachers and administrators had many meetings with his nice parents. Carlos always said he was sorry; an hour later he was mocking the teacher behind her back.
Lo. Somehow by sophomore year Carlos had learned a few of the truths usually kept back from high school pucks. First, nobody has any power. The principal didn’t have the power to pick Carlos up by the nape and deposit him on the curb. The law required Carlos to be warehoused until he turned sixteen, no matter how he behaved. The most the principal could do: shunt him over to a bunch of trailers set out on the back lot for the chronics. Alternative school. A lot of kids welcomed the jacket of troublemaker, but Carlos realized he didn’t want troublemaker school. It was small and didn’t have cute girls. Fortunately, Carlos also had found out the main truth: nobody cared if he learned; he was merely baggage waiting for a claim ticket; the school just wanted him to button up until he rated sixteen candles, after which he pretty much could disappear. His parents? Their only whip hand was their signature at the department of motor vehicles allowing him to get a driver’s license.
While the soccer teams shouted and ran, Carlos and I and a few other malingerers walked around the track. What else had Carlos figured out? He told me he knew the high school diploma is shit. The kids aiming to matriculate needed to play the game; those who thirsted for a car at sixteen needed to play the game. But Carlos wasn’t going to the university, and he was content with his skateboard. He’d heard about the GED. He didn’t need a high school diploma to get into the JC. Carlos took a look at the sample GED at the public library and saw that he could probably pass it right now except for the math. So he pretty much had it figured out. School suddenly didn’t seem so bad, now that he knew nobody could make him do anything. He told me he didn’t feel like he needed to fuck so much with people.
He went to class, zipped the pie hole, played Warlock or text messaged. He refused to answer any questions and eventually the teachers stopped calling on him. He never turned in assignments, accepted his “F” with equanimity. His parents wrung their hands, his counselor implored him to think about his future. Carlos probably was one of the few kids in the bonehead classes who had thought about his future. At sixteen he would ditch penal colony and take the GED until he passed. He’d work a shit job for a year, get his own place, sign in at the JC and pick up a trade. This was a good plan for Carlos. He started his own tree trimming business at nineteen and bought his first fixer-upper when he was twenty, while I was still pissing away my dad’s money at state. If he had continued along the road set out for him by others he’d have dragged through half a dozen futile years and wound up in prison. Instead, he took the wheel.
I cited Carlos as an example of how penal colony isn’t right for all. My dad, sipping his toddy, says yup, yup. The campfire has burned low and he’s getting pretty shitfaced by this hour, on his fourth or fifth bourbon and branch. “Everybody I’ve ever known has a plan for reforming public education,” my dad said. “You want to hear mine? No, Rachael, you do. I say: do what you can with the little fuckers before the hormonal rage kicks in. Eleven, twelve, they’d better know the trio because further effort’s hopeless. Their minds are oatmeal. As soon as a little bastard’s feet start to smell, the only thing for him is outdoor sports, field trips, and bracing hikes in the snow to take his mind off pussy. It’s okay. Only a miniscule percentage of the population needs math past arithmetic. Fuck fractions. Show them how to use a calculator. Everybody needs to know what science is, to help beat back the religious nuts, but only the tiny few with the bump need to cut up a cat or light a Bunsen burner. Students should be able to read print. Book, screen, who cares? For the time being, until something better comes along, everybody should know QWERTY.
“Pound the basics before sixth grade, after that you might as well give up. For ninety percent, it’s all they’ll ever learn. The little shits can’t be loosed on the world yet, but prison ought to be more humane. All that young, yeasty squirming flesh stuffed into airless classrooms. It’s a fucking crime, and the IRC ought to intervene. Of course the dozen or so brain-iacs will push ahead with -ologies and -osophies. The beatnik crowd will want a seminar on Hamlet. Fine. Cut everybody else loose. Sports. I know you hate sports, but you’ve always been a weirdo (my dad’s kidding). Soccer, volleyball, badminton, those are good games for kids. Fun, everybody participates, self-regulating.
“No. Don’t fire the teachers. They’re there to help the few that can handle an education, and to police the rest. The troublemakers and shit disturbers assembled outside in the sunshine and force marched under guard into the arms of helping professionals. Classroom space only for the willing. I know kids don’t read books; it’s a waste of time and there’s no money in it, but I still think books might be a good thing. Put one in a kid’s hand and let him go out on the grass and read the damn thing at his own pace. We’ll talk about it later. We’ll walk around the practice field like Socrates and talk about the book. Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, you haven’t even heard of these books (actually, assigned reading at Penal High). A quiet library on campus by God if it takes an iron fist. I was out at Commodore Sloat to talk to the principal about something the other day and happened to walk by the library. Was it fucking Bedlam? Were the inmates howling and shaking their chains? What kind of library is this? I’d have a big empty warehouse somewhere for kids to schmooze and take calls. Not the library.”
One of the embarrassments of my childhood was my dad’s inviting in evangelicals who rang the doorbell. I’d be watching sitcoms, and I’d have to get up to shake hands with a couple of Watchtower-toting zealots. My dad would sit them at the kitchen table, make a pot of tea. He was just curious. What were these people thinking? Of course part of it was that my dad enjoyed trying to shock. He rationalized it thus: they are being let loose on a largely heathen world and part of the growth experience is to grapple with secularism however brindled. To be fair, he was always restrained with the Mormon bicycle-riding white-shirted duo on their mission. Too young to kid.
He preferred full-grown full-gospel charismatic evangelical pastors, who often arrived with a couple of acolytes in tow. I wouldn’t say my dad is a scholar of any kind; but he knows just enough scripture to argue. The Baptist pastors, as far as I could tell, genuinely enjoyed a tussle with a self-confessed secular humanist, particularly if they had the acolyte audience at the tennis match. My dad was too cagey to ever admit to atheism, another belief unsupported by evidence and un-amenable to proof. He took the stance of the puzzled skeptic who had a few questions. Prayer in school? Who can stop it? What temporal law can bat down a prayer issuing from a school? God hears the prayer of the wretch cast into the Stygian dungeon? Certainly a prayer can escape a flimsy classroom. A prayer zips through iron and stone prison walls like a neutrino; certainly a secular school board can’t get in the way. God’s omniscient eye is reading every prayer like Obama with his first Blackberry. Oh. You mean formal prayers recited together at a regular hour? Didn’t Christ speak against that in the Sermon on the Mount? Don’t be like the hypocrites, and make a big show of devotion, Jesus says. Palaver with the Senor in your closet.
Despite deals like this, my dad tried for the most part to be a conventional parent. He went to every PTA meeting at Cherry Valley Elementary School, even though he was hooted down by parents who liked the idea of having paid facilitators manipulate them into rubberstamping whatever the administration had in mind. He brought my lunch if I left it on the sideboard. Once I put a red jelly bean in my navel, lifted my tee-shirt and flashed some girls, and my dad came to school to smooth it out with the feminist principal. He knew enough never to show his face at my high school, but he did come to my graduation, was sober, and didn’t embarrass me the way he did when we were at Epcot Center in Florida and he went on a tirade about the evils of capitalism. I wanted to see the Exxon dinosaurs and I thought he’d get us thrown out. “Too bad your high school didn’t want me to be the commencement speaker,” my dad said during one of his visits to the campfire. “Here’s what the little fuckers would have got from me...”
My dad’s high school graduation address:
“Face it, kids, you’re screwed. No sugar-coating it, it’s not gonna happen for you. The suits have off-shored your low-end job and kayoed any chance you ever had of getting free health insurance or a pension. Nothing on tap for the likes of you. Why should there be? You’re lazy, and not cute. You don’t have marketable skills, and it’s your own fucking fault. You goofed in school, never saved a dime, never made a plan. Plus, you’re superfluous. You’re not needed, not wanted, not worthy of commanding a living wage. You’re subprime; cog grade. How will you ever come up with a security deposit or even a down payment on a beater? You can’t even afford to get the nicotine stains scrubbed off your teeth? No future for you in Samland, pal, and everybody just kind of wishes you’d go away.
“Okay, you’re graduating, I’m here to help. Maybe there’re a few things you can do. For instance, follow the example of my son here. Live in a fucking yurt. Look at him. In rich, indulgent Samland it’s possible to get by on a pittance provided by a too-generous dad, without kissing ass or wearing a funny hat. Off-the-griddle. Yes, Rachael, I meant grid. Let others toil and moil, breathe dirt, ooze like sticky platelets along the freeways. They have jobs, a career, a future. You don’t. You’re broke and unemployable. On the other hand, or oh-tow, as my text savvy boy says, you’re free to pursue your own paltry interests, as long as they don’t involve cash. Work with that. Make a virtue of being a bum. Example. No place to sleep? Go on a permanent fuck responsibility vacation like a drainbow moocher. Be like my son here and get a tent. Cut out for the territory. Homeless hard-luck Huck or motley vagabond? No-no-no. Bohemian artiste on world tour. Henry Miller in Big Sur. Or anyplace else he was.
“Okay, maybe sometimes you do need that paying job to bring in some ready, but you have zip for cred. Remember the Scarecrow? A phony diploma and he was spouting Pythagoras. Be like my son here. Be your own Oz Man and start a diploma mill with yourself as the client. Be like my son’s friend what’s-his-name. Duncan. Confer on yourself a BA in English Lit. It’s fucking worthless. Nobody’s gonna check. But what about the all-inclusive medical plan every hypochondriac valetudinarian Samlander thinks he needs? How about this: Sign up as an Indian. Become a Native American named Eagle Feather and use the tribe’s free clinic. You get treatment; your enrollment helps the tribe’s numbers. Shit like that. I think I’m ready for another toddy. I got one final word for you poor graduating bastards: alligators. Ass-deep. You’re out of BBs. Luke’s in the wire, and the cavalry isn’t coming.”
“Well, Duncan is a good example of a child not being left behind,” Rachael said.
My old college pal Duncan. He went to our state college for four years without ever enrolling. Rachael’s right. He wasn’t left behind despite an early career as high school goof and scholastic zero. Duncan went to the same urban penal colony (Go Weasels!) that I attended. He ran with the hard-core slacker set, a bunch of slouching, taciturn delinquents with little taste for school routine. They hung out at Hasty Burger, drove ten-year-old beaters, and had poor complexions and classroom attendance. Most of them came from Bad Home Environments. So I was kind of surprised to see Duncan show up at State. But State isn’t Stanford; a lot of kids manage to get accepted without having been standouts in high school.
I’d said hi to him around campus but one day he turned up at the office of the Daily Bow-Wow, the school paper, where briefly I was one of the editors. He said he wanted to volunteer as a sports reporter. Most of the students on staff had signed up for credit. But we were glad to take volunteers. Nobody thought to ask Duncan if he was enrolled. His writing sample looked something like:
“...I would like to report sports specially basketball and socar or anything else such as football and tenis...”
My dad always said he could take any illiterate off the street and get him up to speed as a newspaper reporter with an hour’s tutorial. I sort of followed his method and it had worked well enough for a couple of Farsi-speakers from Iran. Duncan couldn’t be worse.
“Here are the rules,” I said. “Rule one. Say something in one breath. Write it down. A capital letter goes at the front; a period goes at the end. Rule two. Name something. Say what it does. Put a period. Rule three. For punctuation, use only periods and question marks; nothing else.”
Blah squared. I started by sending Duncan to radio club meetings and to some uncontroversial lectures. Within a week he was turning in usable copy, that is, easily edited copy. Only later did he tell me his real reason for taking an interest in journalism. He needed a place to crash, and he’d noticed that the Bow-Wow office kept the lights on late. We never locked up. The supply room had an Army cot staffers used for sleeping off binges. Duncan started sleeping there at night. After the janitor had closed up the building he’d sneak down the hall to the machines and have a candy bar for dinner, if there wasn’t a stale doughnut left in the coffee mess.
I learned this later. After 12 years of social promotion and a mercy diploma Duncan didn’t have much of a transcript to show an admissions board. He knew better than to even try to take the SAT. After graduation his mom told him to clear out and get a job. But after sampling the mini-wage employment fate of the Hasty Burger crew, Duncan decided he’d better go to college. State was the closest one. On the first day of the new Fall semester he arrived at the portals on the M car.
He had school spirit. Duncan always wore either a State tee-shirt or a State cotton sweater. Not first-hand from the Varsity Shop. He’d bought them at a garage sale. Like most others on campus, he always carried a stack of books. This was a clue I missed. I’d glanced at his pile of books one time, and I saw right away something hinky. I’d lifted the cover of one book, a junior high school life science text. Stamped inside was a rectangular notice saying the book had been overstock at the public library. It didn’t hit me what this meant
Later he told me that he had bought all his textbooks at library book sales, for fifty cents or a buck apiece. The books initially were for camouflage. But over time, while sitting around the cafeteria drinking coffee, he’d nosed into them. Over four years he’d picked up a little on quite a few subjects.
For his first few weeks as a non-student, Duncan had just roamed the campus to get a feel. He attended the free lectures and concerts at noon. Pretty soon he realized he could sit in on the bigger general ed classes, things like Intro to Psychology, or Art Appreciation 1A, which were held in the amphitheaters. The profs didn’t take attendance and had no idea if a non-student floated in the sea of faces. Duncan’s confidence rose, and the next semester he audited classroom lectures. If the prof took attendance, Duncan waited until a name got called for the third time. Then he raised his hand; the prof cocked an eyebrow, a girl giggled, and the roll call proceeded.
As an editor I had in my gift a paying job, that of delivering the Bow-Wow every morning to kiosks around the campus. Duncan asked for it, I gave him the paperwork. How he filled in the spaces apparently went over with accounting. He started getting a pay check. He also wangled a part time job in the athletics department throwing towels in the shower. He’d volunteered to cover night games for the Bow-Wow, so he knew the coaches.
With his jobs he could afford a tiny room somewhere near the campus. At first he walked to save car fare; later he got a bicycle. In his sophomore year he flourished. He got front page bylines for covering both sports and the tepid political dissent on campus. Eventually he became active himself in campus politics, but I don’t remember whether he was a Maoist, a Trotskyite, a Socialist Worker, or a Young Republican. I know he didn’t get arrested. The cops would have put him down as an off-campus agitator, although Duncan spent more time on campus than anyone I knew.
I’d quit the paper, but I know that during his junior year Duncan gave up delivering the Bow-Wow to take a bigger job. Students who needed term papers written for them went to Internet outfits like Bullshit, Inc. Bullshit hired hundreds of writers to churn out papers on any subject. The company guaranteed a “C.” Duncan hired on, and became a top producer.
He told me his method. Most of his clients were jocks or biz ed majors. Their English and history professors weren’t expecting much. Duncan went to the juvenile section in the public library to check out simple biographies and histories aimed at pre-teens. He borrowed large chunks with little rewriting. For the references he cited scholarly works from the college catalog. Usually his papers pulled a “B” for the client.
His living conditions also had improved. At some demo he’d met a coed and they wound up living in a communal apartment. Later they got married. Duncan told me she didn’t know he’d never been enrolled.
“College joys can’t last forever,” Rachael said. Right. At the end of his fourth year at State, Duncan joined his adopted class at graduation ceremonies wearing the mortar board and gown, although of course he didn’t go up on stage. He’d already decided to confer upon himself a baccalaureate in English Literature. A BA in English Lit from a state college is so intrinsically worthless that no future employer would ever think to question it on a resume. Duncan was not left behind. On the basis of his alleged degree and some of his newspaper clips, he got an entry level job as an advertising copy writer. He’s now a political aide in Sacramento.
When friends visit they always invite us to drop by when we’re in town. We usually avoid freeloading with friends. It’s too expensive. But Rachael liked to visit the Green Zone Café sometimes, and then we’d stay with some of her vegan pals. In the city we’d take our walk every morning, while our hostess, non-greasy Joan, did her yoga stretches in the hypo-allergenic living room. We walked on sidewalks through nice neighborhoods. Rachael, the Observant Jew of the cruel eye, liked to critique the architecture and the landscaping. “It’s so amazing we’re even allowed to do this,” she said, “It’s like a garden district botanical tour with me as docent.” She was hard on unsuccessful strokes, on all artifice, and was particularly scornful of such clumsy PC ventures as front yard xeroscaping with native grasses. “It cries out for a prairie dog,” Rachael would say. A ragtag platoon of mismatched stalks, a kitschy waterfall, a wishing well with wooden bucket, any kind of wood chip mulch, clusters of bamboo, or vegetables. “I can’t believe it,” she’d say. “It’s a fucking row of corn. A million dollar pile, two Belchfire Eights (SUVs), a three-grand Petain (a fancy bicycle) hanging in the garage and…a fucking row of corn. A-mazing (Get it?)”
We only walked in nice well-patrolled neighborhoods. Rachael said that even if the less classy barrios, inhabited by sullen sub-menches and unleashed Rottweiler’s, didn’t scare her, still, it wouldn’t be cricket to remark on the jumbled yards of the poor. “I don’t know what to say about them. Even if it’s a rattan shack, you should try to make it nice.”
My dad the sociologist says there are three classes in Samland. The Predators are on top of course. The good people, the quality, the moneyed elites. The ruck of us are the Prey Animals, the Great Sapitariat, allotted a McWage, living a shadowy half life in the flicker of the tube, swaddled by a straight jacket of fear, guilt and responsibility, tutored from infancy to believe in the virtue of working hard for somebody else. And then my and Rachael’s present caste, the Parasites: the criminals, the welfare moms, the spastics, and the Bohemian artists. My dad says it’s hard for a prey animal to be anything else. It's his role to sheared and plucked. Few will transition to wolf or remora. Happily, according to my dad, the predators in Samland want wool, not mutton.
My dad likes to kid Rachael about her parasitical lifestyle and elitist fussiness. “Where should I place you, princess? You’ve ditched the purple, and you’re plummeting toward the peasantry.”
“I’m taking your son down with me,” Rachael said, “Hallelujah, we’re a bum.”
“I’ve always been dismayed at the lack of good pejoratives for the sapitariat,” my dad says. “It’s Sam’s faux democracy. Bum has lost its punch. Prole is too literary, working class too British, Great Unwashed too ironical and precious. We’re stuck with low class. I’m just darn sorry we can’t say nigger.”
He’s getting attuned to the convivial campfire; this is his third or fourth visit. By the blue hour he’s well into the bourbon-a-roonie and he’s got so comfortable with Rachael that he’s lost sight of any boundary. “Now that word’s got punch. Nigger.”
“I hope you’re not busting to say kike,” Rachael said.
“Kike, yid, hebe. It’s not the same. Too narrow in meaning, and anyway a powerful slur needs two syllables.”
“Hymie,” Rachael suggested.
“I don’t think so. Nigger is perfect, and it’s too bad it’s wasted on color. It’s okay for me to say nigger because I’m not a racist. I’m an actual bona fide son of the Old South (he hails originally from Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana). The racists I knew during Jim Crow, your pea-eyed cracker, believed colored brothers were biologically distinct. A non-human species, taxonomically separate. Extra sweat glands or something. I’m college certified and actually passed biology, unlike my son here. A petunia is a petunia. I don’t think the beige folk of palette-mixing Samland can get away with claiming they’re a separate race. Blood has been stepped on too much in the barn behind the big house. There’s no race left. Anyway, I’m more of a bigot. It’s cultural. It applies to bald-headed Nazi Lowrider or be-bopping Crip. ‘Please sir, motherfucker your last motherfucker in my presence, and turn down the bass on that radio.’ I could say that to any thug. Not out loud, though. Anyway, I despise that motherfucker Karl Rove, but I liked his idea for rehabbing the word nigger.”
“I missed that,” Rachael said.
”Rove says, bleach the spot out. That way, the word could have political utility, if people accepted one definition already in force. Nigger should mean, ‘A shiftless, foolish person; a person of low socioeconomic status; an unemployed, feckless person; one of limited intelligence and reliability.’ No color a’tall. Just an average pendejo, a low class mope and fuckup but not one of any particular ethnicity. I like it. The English language lacks a punchy pejorative that isn’t contaminated by fuck. If you leached the color out, nigger could go right to work in our public schools, maybe replacing gender slurs like faggot and bitch. As an admirer of the two Georges, Orwell and Carlin, I welcome the chance to rehabilitate blacklisted words and return them to society. None of this is to say anything good about the motherfucker Rove, who just wanted more ammunition to desensitize the public to social security coots and welfare sluts by calling them niggers.”
“I suppose you’re hinting that your darling son and I are really well-camouflaged Negroes,” Rachael said, “since we already have achieved that very below-the-baseline socio-economic stance you describe. Lazy boy here has lost his protective lack of coloration, and I’m drummed out of the corps of rich Hebes. You’re saying we’ve gone over to the dark side now, and are surrounded in our wattle hut by a mob of Kluxer militia. Our only chance is to muffle the children, strangle the dogs, and slip away by night through the shrouded canyon, like our red brothers the Modoc. Is there no end to my Job-like suffering at your hands, old man? Are you trying to get me to take my talons out of your only heir and pack my kit for the kibbutz, like my rich Hebe sister?”
Actually sister Naomi hasn’t spent much time at the kibbutz. On Naomi’s last visit to the Holy Land she pitched in at an archeological dig in the Sinai with some academics she’d known at Stanford. She’d been e-mailing Rachael about The Question, something that I certainly never have brought up. I was hoping my liquor- loquacious dad would give it a pass too. Naomi claimed to be surprised by the unquenchable hate of the teeming Arab street in the fetid refugee camps, and by the cynicism and anti-raghead rancor of her European-derived coreligionists in Tel Aviv. She said the young hedonistic sophisticates in the cafes all are scheming for medical waivers to avoid the army. She said all they thought about was money, tech startups, and foreign travel. The army meanwhile has to push away hoards of fanatical strong-limbed volunteers boiling out of the settlements.
Naomi and her friends wangled permission to tour the West Bank. The Torah-toss’t settlers alarmed her. She gawked at the blast walls, ubiquitous checkpoints, separate roads. On her way home, visiting in Paris, she thought she’d felt a puff of anti-Semitism at a party where The Question came up, although she said it might have been a pang of her own. While tenting with Rachael, I avoided reading about the Question. Rachael never discussed it.
“You want to talk about it,” my dad says to Rachael. “Fine.” My dad’s Palestine take is pretty much based on a week-long church tour of the Bible lands (he saw an offer on TV for a cheap ticket through a Rapture-addled Southern Cal mega-church).
“The map tells the story,” my dad says. “Israel is a postage stamp inhabited by 5 million Jews surrounded by 160 million Arabs who pray five times a day for Israel’s destruction. Long view, in a word: Israel is doomed. Its policy of asymmetrical revenge, apartied, and tough love for the world’s biggest penal colony, is suicidal. Eventually, ten years, twenty years, Arab zanies will hold a suitcase and they won’t hesitate. If half-a-meg lights up Manhattan or the Capitol Mall, Sam would get his hair mussed; but it’s a big country; it’s not the end. In Tel Aviv, it’s over. Everybody with a passport will book. Too small a country. Israel has no response. A nuke on Damascus or Tehran is population control; it’s redevelopment. Israel’s suicide settlers are pissing off everybody (except naïve Sam who still believes Tel Aviv someday might like to be nabes with a Palestinian state). Hezbollah sends a couple of hundred Little Katies wobbling blindly through the air; Israel pummels Southern Lebanon with guided munitions, sending a dollar (of Sam’s money) to chase a nickel. IDF kayos a flatbed truck launcher set up in the parking lot behind the kindergarten, giving Jazerra the chance to run another slideshow of the dead baby parade. And then, to piss off their own paisanos too, the IDF fubars a frontal attack against the Hez into a built-up area, against prepared positions, to no strategic purpose. Same deal in whacking away at the Hams in Gaza.”
There’s no way out for Israel, my dad says. The fanatic hajji and the fanatic Ruski suicide setters are breeding like rats, while the West Euro Israelis get their passports stamped. The Palestinians are corrupt, nuts, fucked, and incapable of governing themselves. The settlers are Torah-crazed nutbars, and will never give up their Scripture-driven Irredentist lust for all Palestine. The only way Israel might avoid doom (my dad says) would be to reverse course, which is impossible. Israel would have to give up the fraud of stalling negotiations until Palestinian’s inept leaders agree to stop violence they have no control over. Israel has nobody to talk to, because nobody’s writ runs in the Authority.
Israel to survive (says the one-week expert), would have to go unilateral. First, no right of return, ever, and no just compensation either. Maybe compensation, but never enough to satisfy the dislodged former olive grower. Too expensive, unless gullible Sam will pungle up. Then the other part. Israel would have to shit can all the settlements (or make hugely generous land swaps), pull out of the West Bank, give up on greater Jerusalem, build the wall on the Green Line, and buckle down for endless fits. While under rocket attack, Israel would have to agree to pay the Palestinians for water sucked out of the aquifer under the West Bank, or swap for electricity. Israel would have to shuck out billions of its own and Sam’s dough to police up the cesspool of the Gaza camps, provide all the utilities and do practically everything else for the hapless Gazans while at the same time being attacked ceaselessly and blamed for everything by Hamas and its affiliates.
Izzy and Sam would have to lay out more billions to kindle life into some kind of a half-ass state west of the river, all the time being struck at by an ungrateful serpent. That would be the high road. It won’t happen, the occupation will continue, the anger will ebb and flood, accompanied by the usual reciprocal murder, the nuke will detonate, and Israel talent will drain out until nothing’s left but hard-bitten fanatics who will be wiped flat over a couple of lifetimes. “That’s my take on it,” my dad said.
“You’re the weirdest thing that ever came out of an egg,” Rachael said.
Before my dad met my mom, he kicked around the country as an itinerant newspaper reporter, specializing in hiring out for short periods at the kind of marginal sheets that would take anybody, and paid accordingly. Sheets like the Thibodaux Picayune-Bagatelle (Louisiana), the Lacy County Weekly Hoof Beat (Texas), and the Prairie Messenger-Star-Appeal (a consolidated daily in Kansas). He also signed on in Alaska one winter at the Fairbanks News-Miner. I’ve heard every story in my dad’s repertoire, but to try to de-miff Rachael at the boozy campfire, he unpacked his Alaska Story. My dad uses a strange vocabulary of made up words but I’m retelling the story in plain text as I remember it (after hearing it a hundred times).
My Dad’s Alaska Story
The usual winter in Fairbanks. Whiteouts, ice fog, 40 below. The strip joints had propane heaters on the stage so the strippers wouldn’t get goose bumps. One morning the editor told me to hire a bush pilot and fly to Deadhorse on the North Slope to interview some whistle blower engineer types about the bad welds on the pipeline. The weather seemed pretty marginal but the pilot took off anyway in a DeHavilland Otter. Two hours into the flight, the pilot says the weather even by his standards was deteriorating and we’d better lay over awhile at Beetles, this tiny ville smack on the Arctic Circle. As we banked left I could see, over the Brooks Range, towering black cumulus laced with lightning strikes. ‘“Sorry about this,’ says the pilot, “Anchorage says this front is fast moving and may clear out in a couple of hours.”
It was inconvenient, but I hoped I could get a phone connection and reschedule. Since I was a new hire, I didn’t want to skunk my first out-of-town assignment. It was dusk by this time -- 2:30 in the afternoon - when Beetles came in view, a few dozen cabins clustered beside a runway of ice. As we descended the Otter began to act up. Outside I could see snow gusting across the runway. “Thirty-knot crosswind,’ says the pilot
He crabbed to compensate for drift, kicked the plane straight with rudder over the threshold, and touched down on the upwind wheel. We rolled to a stop in front of the cafe. Beetles is an isolated outpost in a wilderness of stunted Arctic spruce. From the porch of the cafe I could see the first lights coming on in some of the cabins, and across the way a lone snowmobile raced along the runway, in front of a ragged line of spruce. The thermometer by the door said 30 below.
While the pilot and the airport operator refueled the plane, I sat at the counter and ordered coffee and pie. The waitress shook her head to my question about the phone. Nobody had been able to call out for days. “You can forget about that,’ said the man next to me. He was the only other customer, a Beetles resident, wiry, pinched nut brown face, middle-fifties, wearing the usual red flannel shirt and a hunting cap of the same color with the ear flaps down. As I ate my pie we fell to talking. I commented on the strength of the crosswind.
“I seen it worse,” he says. If he hadn’t seen it worse, it would have been a big surprise, because in Alaska, nothing is so bad that it wasn’t three times worse a little before you got there. After some rumination, he says, “I once landed a Cessna tail dragger on this field with a forty-knot, ninety degree crosswind. And I did it from the back seat. With a dead man and a frozen caribou in front.”
Everybody in Alaska gets to know a little about bush flying, so I knew what he said had possum on it. To land a little plane in a stiff crosswind takes a whole lot of rudder pedal, which is difficult to apply if you’re sitting in the back seat. The man noticed I appeared skeptical.
“I’ll tell you what happened,” he said. “Two years ago about this time Ned Barnes and me went hunting up around Trouble Bar in Ned’s 170. Ned landed on the bar and we had some breakfast and then set out hunting. Around one o’clock I killed a caribou and as we was dragging it back to camp we come across another and Ned popped that one. One of these big boys must have weighed at least a hundred twenty, and the other maybe a hundred. It took us nearly an hour to haul ‘em back to the river. It was pretty dark by then and damn cold, and the carcasses had froze hard as a board.
“It was late, like I say, and we was both winded, and I voted for hanging the carcasses and coming back in the morning after we rested up. But Ned said the wolves would get ‘em, and we had plenty of time anyway, it being only about forty minutes back to Beetles. But when we got to thinking about loading, we realized we’d made a big mistake, because all we had with us was a little bow saw, which would have been all right to quarter the carcasses if we’d done it right after we shot ‘em, but now they had froze solid, and cutting ‘em with the saw was impossible. We needed an ax, but we didn’t have an ax. “‘It’s all right,’ says Ned, ‘We’ll just set ‘em in the seats.’
“He was in a big sweat to take off, because that gravel bar only has about 800 usable, we had a big load, and he wanted to get off while he still had light. Well, as I say, we had a load. Ned himself weighed 200 or so. Of the four passengers, so to speak, I was among the lightest, so I got in the back and then we tugged and pushed the smaller carcass in with me. Then Ned wrestled the other carcass into the right front seat.
“I’m telling you, we just did get in the air. We wallowed off the end of that gravel bar with the wheels skimming along the water. And the wind was buffeting us all over the place. But Ned kept the throttle fire-walled while we shot down the river, and pretty soon we had enough speed to clear the trees. ‘“Ha, ha,’ says Ned, “I knew we wasn’t overloaded.’”
“The wind was playing hell with us a tree-top level, so Ned took us up to about a thousand. It was pretty darn dark now and no moon, so Ned says he’d better call ahead on 122.8 and have the airport put on the lights. He was just picking up the mike when he says, ‘Jeez, I must have pulled something.’ And a second later he says, ‘Oh my God.’ And then he dies.
“Maybe the strain of wrestling around with those two carcasses got him, along with the worry about the takeoff. I knew he was stone dead, too, from the way he slumped back all of a sudden with the mike still in his hand.
“Ned fell back with his left hand still on the yoke, which brought up the nose, and our airspeed was bleeding off in a hurry. So I leaned forward real quick and banged the yoke down before we stalled out. Then I give it full throttle because right then I was thinking altitude. Get some altitude.
“It was a little smoother at two grand so I reduced power, trimmed up and tried to get oriented. I couldn’t see lights anywhere and because of the dark and overcast I’d lost the horizon. So I went on the gauges and got myself straightened out. All this time, mind, I was leaning forward over the front seat between a dead man and a caribou carcass. I knew it was something like 145 magnetic from Trouble Bar to Beetles, so I set the DG and steered it. But I had trouble staying on course until I finally figured out that Ned’s right foot was jammed against the rudder pedal. I must have been a little shook up. Anyway, lucky for me, I moved his foot before he stiffed up too much.
“By this time my eyes picked up the horizon. Then I called in and told the people back here what had happened. Jim Hayes (he’s the man over there at the pumps with your pilot), Jim says to me, ‘The wind is gusting to forty knots down here, and it’s dead across the runway.’
“Now that did worry me, because, naturally, being in the back, I couldn’t get to the darn rudder pedals. With a lighter wind I’d have figured, well, I guess I’ll just ground loop and prang a wingtip, and settle for that. The way it was, I stood a good chance of getting hurt, because, for one thing, I couldn’t keep my seat belt on while I leaned over the front. I didn’t like the idea of the plane flipping over and rolling up into a Christmas tree ball.
“In another couple of minutes I picked up the airport lights and gave Jim another call.
‘It’s worse now,’ he says, ‘gusting to about forty-five. I wouldn’t try it, if I was you,’ he says. I decided to fly around and burn off some gas while I thought it over, but in a minute Jim calls and says, ‘Listen, I got the weather and they’re calling for gusts to seventy in the next hour. You’d better come down.’
“Jim told me to try to land long so if I did flip I’d go into the drifts at the end of the runway. He said he had everybody in town there to pull me out in a hurry. But by this time I’d already worked out an idea of my own. It took me about five minutes of straight and level to get ready (as near as I could manage it), and then I swung around and set up my approach. When I got down to the threshold it was a real rollercoaster.
“I chopped the throttle, put the left wing down into the wind, and then gave it full right rudder to keep the plane straight down the runway. All I can tell you is that I landed nice as you please on the left main, and came to a stop right in front of this very building, without putting one little scratch on the paint. And when everybody come rushing up they couldn’t have been more surprised, because there I was, sitting in the back seat. And I had just made a perfect crosswind landing.”
The Beetles man looked at me calmly as he relit his briar. Obviously, he expected me to ask him how he accomplished this miracle. I didn’t disappoint him.
“It was simple,” the man says. “I just borrowed a leg from that caribou in the back seat. I used the little bow saw to cut off one of his forelegs. When I bent over Ned’s shoulder, that frozen caribou leg was just long enough to reach the right rudder pedal.”
At that point my pilot came in and said Anchorage radar had reported the front had moved over the range. We could get through the pass if we hustled. That meant I might get to Deadhorse in time for my interview after all. I quickly paid up, said good-bye to the Beetles man, and in another minute we were airborne and on our way to the slope. But we left so fast I never did get a chance to ask the airport manager about the veracity of the man who said he landed a plane with the help of a caribou leg.
End of my dad’s Alaska story.
My flushed, loquacious, hooch-animated and boundary-less dad visited our camp. Rachael’s hippie mom and her shaman Twelve Step boyfriend visited. Some of our college friends visited. But some visitors to our campsite weren’t invited or welcome. Although public campgrounds in Samland are used mainly by geezer couples or fecund families, they also attract, because of the low rent and absence of background checks, what Rachael calls unsavory characters. Homeless meth cripples, dysfunctional moms trailing wailing brats, mumbling psych ward faces, and the occasional true criminal.
He slid in one night in a low-slung gray-primer beater. Sallow-faced, thirty-ish, slicked hair, wiry without being athletic. Slacks, dress shirt open at the neck, loafers. Not the usual costume for a camp out. Instead of immediately unloading gear and setting up as most people would, he daintily brushed the leaf litter from atop the picnic table, lit a smoke, and nonchalantly cased the joint, until his self-possessed unblinking lizard eyes fell on us. Then he carefully got up, smiled in our direction, and sauntered over. “Here’s trouble,” Rachael said.
I’ll call him Zeke. We offered him the third chair (“Two chairs for company, three for society,” said Harry D). After a minute we could relax. Obviously some kind of grifter, but not a violent psycho. With pursed eyes and smiling lips, he gave Rachael’s torso a sinuous once-over. After dismissing me as a non-threat and a chump, he let his gaze leisurely scout our camp, took in the two economy compacts and our meager kit. By way of conversation he did a little gentle probing into our resources and antecedents, but that line of questioning petered out after Rachael mentioned veganism, our lack of alcoholic beverage, and our opposition to cigarettes. Relieved of any business, such as mooching a drink or a small loan, he nonetheless settled back to pass the time, and not surprisingly wound up by talking about himself, just as everybody else has done around the iron grate and spiky flame. Once again I disregarded one of my father’s rules of life (“Always take notes.”). Zeke had a purring, feline way of talking, replete with street lingo and repetitions of, “You know what I’m sayin’ here?” I can’t replicate it now, and I’ve forgotten most of his demimonde patois. But he was telling us how he became a caregiver.
The Caregiver, by Zeke
I guess if you were the DA you’d call me a petty thief, strictly on the jacket. The manager at Glenview Garden Apartments calls me a hustler, which is a little closer. I call myself…kind of a gypsy. I don’t do the nine-to-five lockdown. I don’t punch the clock or answer the bell. Until I got to be Mrs. B’s caregiver, I never had a straight job. Some are lucky to be born in the chips. The rest work for the few. There’s a pecking order. Everybody’s in it. Everybody has to take the program. But not me.
To get by, I’ve run various little hustles, mostly where I usually live, the Glenview, this HUD-approved rabbit hutch of welfare moms, SSI whack jobs, general assistance winos, and your usual thugs. For a long time I dealt food stamps. Buy them from the winos and the hypes for a quarter on the dollar, sell ‘em to the six-kid moms at 100 percent markup. I’d hang in the breezeways to do the deals. Because of the class of tenants at the Glenview, I never carried cash or kept it in my apartment. I worked out of the ATM machine. In daylight. I didn’t want to tempt the dudes who stand around that corner at night. What I did was a service. Everybody benefited.
But, too many people were doing food stamps, and then the state began issuing plastic debit cards instead of script. So I did another thing. Lots of the new tenants are wets. I don’t want to go into reasons, but I can habla the lengua. For a few bills I’d walk Chiquita through the welfare paperwork. They’re all eligible, more or less. They just need somebody clear on the system. I’d help ‘em fill in the right bullshit to satisfy the welfare faces, get ‘em on the dole.
I don’t want to say too much, but sometimes I did a few solo break-ins. Very low risk. Cigarettes. Phone cards. I never went in with partners. This one time I did. This guy Chuey had a nut warehouse scoped out. Pecans, walnuts, pistachios. He had a truck and driver that would do the pick up. He just needed a couple of faces he knew personally to pop the locks and load the truck. Most of the fruit and nuts you see being sold on the corners downtown are boosted out of the Central Valley. Crews from the city strip the orchards at night. But these nuts were in town already.
It went wrong of course. The other face, Alfonso, tripped the silent alarm. He’s a hype. I don’t know why Chuey used him. So there we were, inside the warehouse, we hear the cars rolling up and the dog barking. Alfonso, loaded to the gills on some shit, started rummaging in his pockets, saying he had to ditch his tabs. Fortunately that reminded me. I’d heard a couple of the dealers at the complex saying the narcs had been moving around lately. I knew why from the paper. The city was fishing for federal matching funds for a narcotics task force, and the cops needed stats to show the problem. To make a long story short…
“One only hopes,” said Rachael. (It irritated me that Zeke was amused by Rachael.)
To make it short for the beautiful lady, I told Chuey that we needed to drop a couple of tabs from Alfonso’s stash. I don’t do drugs. I’d never done acid in my life. After we dosed, I cut into a bag, and when the cops came in they found us in a circle around the flashlight laughing and cracking walnuts. Our line was we had got a sudden hunger for nuts. For the first fifteen minutes Chuey and I had to fake the high, but by the time they booked us we were flying. Excellent piss test. I told my PD to plead me out on the drug count. The DA dropped the burglary, particularly since Chuey and Alfonso had priors and would be checking into Graybar anyway. Nice drug bust to show the feds. Because it was my first offense that they knew about, I got diversion.
It’s called Drug Court. It seems like a pretty good program, run by one of these turned-around ex-hypes. No-bullshit counseling and most offenders also study to pass the GED. The problem for them is that they’re hypes. If they flunk the twice-weekly piss test, they go back to prison. For me, not being that way, it was boring but easy. I went home at night. After a couple of months, the counselor told me that if I found a regular job, and kept passing the piss test, I didn’t have to come in anymore.
That’s how I became Mrs. B’s caregiver. Actually, my Drug Court counselor set it up. The state always needs people to monitor the home-bound SSI gummers. It’s cheaper than putting them in assisted living. I was kind of against the idea until I really looked it over. First, it was union. AFL-CIO. I’d figured minimum wage. But apparently caregivers had venceremoed and got ten bucks an hour plus Kaiser. Second, you could pick your clients. I leafed through a long list of coots that needed watching. Mrs. B jumped right out. Eighty-eight years old. Blind, deaf, and nuts. Schizophrenia with an overlay of dementia. A cripple. Incapacitating arthritis. Best of all, she lived right at the Glenview, and needed a full timer. I needed the full-time job to satisfy the court. I signed up for Mrs. B., sight unseen.”
“They let you…be a caregiver?” said Rachael.
At least I speak English. Naturally, never having worked a straight job before, I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe a training video. In fact, nothing. I chatted a few minutes with a social worker over the phone, gave her my stat, that was it. I went to work. Mrs. B lived in a standard-issue one-bedroom. Compared to some of the other dumps at the Glenview, her place was pretty clean, which was because she already had a state-supplied cleaning lady who came in twice a week. While I introduced myself, I shuffled through a bunch of bills on top of a card table in the living room. She got $700 a month SSI. The HUD-subsidized apartment cost $201. She was getting nicked $50 a month for her phone and I noticed right off that MCI was charging her $8.70 a month for a call recognition device she didn’t have. She had minimum cable, which seemed a luxury for a blind person, but was probably for the benefit of the help.
Mrs. B herself was pretty much as you’d expect. Little, and withered, sagging all over. Loose, liver-splotched skin. She had a blind person’s mobile face with expressions that alternated between daffy smiles and rolling-eyed anxiety. She had a continual Parkinson’s-like twisting of the mouth, caused by the psych meds. And she was a spitter when she talked. She mumbled behind her hand a lot. Weird muttering. Every once in awhile she’d yell out “Nerf,” or “Ate.” She had a bad case of the forgets, and would ask me over and over for the time. By the end of the first day I pretty much had her jacket.
The social worker had said that sometimes she wigged out entirely and thought that little children, or little angels, were flying around the room. The cops had been there a few times to jot down her allegations of voices coming through the walls. Typical loony shit you see at the Glenview.
The social worker hadn’t mentioned her meds. I found a lot of unopened bottles of Vioxx, Celebrex, Zyprexa and some Lotensin. On the floor, in every crack and crevice, I found old pills, mostly Haldal. I collected some of these to show Darryl, who’s the prescription drug guru in the complex. Meanwhile, I decided to put her on the Celebrex for her hip pain and 20 mg of Lotensin just in case she did have high blood pressure. What the heck, right?
“Don’t forget cupping and leeching,” said Rachael.
I don’t know. But after a few days of being Mrs. B’s caregiver I started wondering if the Celebrex was doing her any good. It was sad, although kind of comical, to see her try to get up from a chair, wobbling on two canes. I asked Darryl to stop by for a consultation. In the complex, Darryl handles the prescription stuff, mostly Demerol, codeine, and Viagra. He said he wasn’t that sold on Celebrex (there’d been some study) and to switch her over to some Vicodin I’d found under the couch. If her hip pain didn’t get better after a week or so, he’d find her something else. In return for the consultation, I let him search around the baseboards to see if he could find any more Haldol.
I took a look in the refrigerator. The freezer was crammed with expensive low-calorie ‘healthy’ frozen dinners. I nuked a couple of these for her in the microwave but she wouldn’t eat, although the food wasn’t that bad. She preferred ice cream and Slimfast. Watching toothless blind people gumming their food isn’t that wonderful, but for reasons I don’t want to go into I’m not squeamish about sloppy eaters. While watching her I noticed she didn’t have a lower plate. She’d lost it somewhere in the jumble in her bedroom. She said her gums hurt, but wouldn’t open her mouth wide. I had to badger her a little, and finally I just grabbed her chin and took a look. On the upper palate she had a big sore where her old Medicare denture had rubbed the skin off. I already knew from walking the wetbacks through welfare that no dentist around the complex would take her for small dough. So I put her on a soft diet. Slimfast, tomato soup, ice cream. Cokes during the day for energy. That made it easy on her mouth.
“Bird thou never wert,” Rachael said. (That was kind of good, for Rachael. She meant Florence Nightingale, even though I think the poem’s about a skylark.)
I was trying to help, right? Anyway. The state gave Mrs. B. 120 hours a month of care. That meant the maximum I could make at ten bucks an hour would be $l200 before taxes. The cleaning lady’s hours had to come out of that too. Luckily, when I checked with the social worker, we figured out that the cleaning lady had been padding. She worked maybe an hour tops on Monday and Friday. A reasonable person would have charged the state maybe six hours a week. But she’d been putting in for 30 or 40 hours per two-week pay period. I found out later that she was a diabetic and needed meds that Medicare wouldn’t cover. After she got broomed, I took over the cleaning. So I wound up with the whole 120 hours.
Obviously, being blind, Mrs. B didn’t read her mail. She’d tossed it all in a drawer. When I went through this stuff I realized her affairs were all screwed up. First, I could see from her bank statement that she had too much dough in her checking account. In figuring the system you need to pay attention to the details. That’s why ignorant people have so much trouble with welfare. With SSI, the rule is that the recipient can never have more than $2,000 in the checking account. Going over her statements, I could see she’d been over the line for at least a year.
It was obvious what happened. Most of her mail was from contests. All the cupboards were overflowing with cheap crap that she’d ordered to better her chances in the drawing. Then she went blind. She couldn’t answer the come-on letters. She didn’t buy much food because her daughter loaded up the fridge. Mrs. B hadn’t been spending. The SSI checks, deposited automatically, had bumped up until she was in violation.
I got all this straightened out with the social worker over the phone. Basically, I pleaded her out. The rule is, for every month Mrs. B was over her maximum in her checking account, she had to return her entire $700 grant. But I arranged to have her pay back in $50 per month increments, to be deducted from her grant. At the same time, I pointed out that the state had forgotten that Mrs. B now was entitled to a $50 a month grant for being legally blind. It turned out a wash. The SSI face was completely agreeable, as they usually are as long as the paper is cool. The state would be fully reimbursed when Mrs. B clicked over to 109.
One afternoon while Mrs. B was taking her snooze, I went through her purse and found her ATM card and her social security number. I already knew her birth date from an insurance policy. I figured it wouldn’t take long to figure out her ATM code. In fact, it was the first one I tried: Codgers usually make it simple for themselves. Over the next month I drew her account down and invested the dough in a good deal that was going around the complex: cigarettes boosted from an Indian casino.
I came over three times a day to look in on the B. I’d have dinner with her too, sometimes one of the healthy frozen dinners (although I’d sold most of them to one of the moms in the complex). On Monday, Wednesday and Friday (non-piss test days) I’d enjoy a glass of vino. I’d been trying some Santa Cruz Chards that came off a truck heading for the Port of Los Angeles. The chardonnay was too dry for Mrs. B. She liked sweet, so I’d give her a glass of white zin with dinner. Only $3.99 a bottle at Albertsons.
I’d been working for Mrs. B for a couple of weeks when I got a call from the social worker saying that Mrs. B’s son and daughter would be dropping by. To tell the truth, I hadn’t been doing much cleaning. That’s a good thing about working for a blind woman. I’d let the dishes go, and because Mrs. B wasn’t the best shot at night, the toilet looked like something you’d probably find in the Calcutta train station. I couldn’t very well ask the diabetic to come back because there were some hard feelings there. But I knew this woman, Camellia, one of the welfare moms in the complex. I’d walked her and her kids through the welfare dance. Camellia said she’d clean up if I’d let her use Mrs. B’s apartment for a few afternoons. For pocket money she turned tricks in her apartment for some of the local dudes while her kids were at school. The manager was just getting around to dealing with a mold infestation inside the walls of her unit, and a bunch of workers were removing the paneling, and she couldn’t use her own place. I didn’t see any harm in letting Camellia use the B’s couch for a few days. Mrs. B was a heavy sleeper (and had lost her hearing aid anyway); she was out for a good two hours during her nap.
The place looked spiffy when Mrs. B’s kids showed up. They were pretty much what I expected. Both well dressed, late fifties, with an air of being in a big rush. The woman, who looked efficient, brought several bags of the expensive frozen dinners. They gave me the fish eye of course but I was meek as pie and kept my mouth shut. The son was one of those guys who look permanently pissed-off. He wore his disappointments like a badge. You got the impression that he thought he hadn’t been treated right. I figured him for maybe some kind of middle manager who’d been back-stabbed on his way up.
Right away he said he wanted to look at all the bills and the mail. Of course I had everything looking right, but he got stuck on a letter from an insurance company. He read it over a couple of times, trying to make sense out of it. I kept quiet, but I could have clued him. Some scumbag insurance salesman had churned his mom’s account. I’d already looked it over. She’d taken out a little whole life policy with the two of them as beneficiaries. The agent had got her to buy a bigger policy, using the first as collateral on a loan to buy the second. Typical scam to generate commissions. This would have been a good deal for Mrs. B if she had signed the new policy and dropped dead. As it was, she was upside down, she owed more than its face value. There was nothing to do but stop payment and accept the screwing. I decided to let the two of them figure it out.
Anyway, they didn’t stay long. I didn’t blame them. Busy people don’t have time for this. It’s not wonderful. And there’s nothing you can do. With Mrs. B’s crazy head, if they stuck her in a home, she’d be a zombie on meds. Who knows what kind of care she’d get in one of those joints. You could see her children wanted to do right, but everybody’s busy. There aren’t any solutions. I couldn’t blame them if they wished they could sign her up for Eskimo Care.
A few days later Darryl came back with some Demerol for Mrs. B. I don’t do drugs, but if I did, I wouldn’t take anything from Darryl or any of the other dealers in the complex. But I figured that this was a freebee for Mrs. B and Darryl had no reason to step on it. The pills looked right, still in the bottle with the chump’s name on it, and an expiration date that wasn’t too old.
The next day she felt so good she wanted to go shopping. Being crippled, Mrs. B isn’t easy to move. I borrowed Darryl’s four-door Chevy. He’d removed the front passenger seat for more cargo. We levered Mrs. B into the back seat, giving her room to stretch out, and took her over to Albertsons because the store has these electric carts for the handicapped. Darryl showed Mrs. B how to steer and to step on the accelerator, and we let her loose in the aisles. It was pretty cute, kind of like bumper cars, with her making short runs until she bumped into somebody’s grocery cart or a stack of cans. She had on her huge wraparound black glasses, a big pink billed cap, and an old sweater sticky with ice cream. And she was hissing and grumbling under her breath, I guess about the obstacles. Pretty soon we were getting the fish eye from the clerks. ‘Can your mother see?’ one of them says to me. So I steered her around to find the items she wanted, although Darryl kept saying, ‘Let the B drive, man. Let her drive.’
While I had her out, I took her over to county to apply for a food card. I’ve been in there a million times and know the drill by heart. I got the big fish eye of course but after they got a load of Mrs. B I waltzed her right through. The food card gave us a little more disposable income. Later on I started taking Mrs. B and Camellia to Red Lobster for lunch. Mrs. B, at some point in her loony rambling, said she dug the strawberry margaritas at Red Lobster. I couldn’t face a restaurant meal alone with Mrs. B, but Camellia turned out to be fun. She had it rough, with six kids and a couple of shit jobs, plus tricks for some of the vatos. Personally, I wouldn’t want to risk my Willie on Camellia, but I did get her to give me tactical massage now and then, for trades, like taking her to Red Lobster.
“You’re quite the Lothario,” Rachael said.
I don’t know. I also let Camellia send her kids up to Mrs. B’s for dinner on the nights she worked. I fed ‘em the frozen dinners. I don’t think they got anything else during the day except the school lunch. The kids wolfed down the food while Mrs. B hit at them with her cane. Darryl said maybe this would turn out to be a new therapy where you try to match reality to the patient’s delusions.
The Indian cigarette deal had turned out, and with Mrs. B’s share I got her new choppers from a Mexican denture man on the boulevard. We paid full price. I threw in a couple of bottles of vino for vigorish, and he did a good job, although his office wouldn’t inspire confidence in anybody who could see it.
All the time I worked for Mrs. B, almost six months, I never got a visit from the social worker, which isn’t surprising, because they’re swamped down there. I think they appreciate caregivers who can handle problems without too much supervision. Anyway, I graduated from Drug Court with my class, which expunged my conviction. There was kind of a nice ceremony in the judge’s chambers. The judge gave me a little plaque for having a perfect record of clean piss tests. I worked another month for Mrs. B until I was eligible for unemployment, and had her lay me off.
At In-Home Services I picked out my replacement, a Laotian gal only a few years out of the paddy. Her pidgin didn’t matter, the B being deaf anyway. She got Mrs. B interested in growing stuff in little pots on the patio. It might work out. Orientals have a knack with the old timers.
Zeke had stopped talking and apparently that was the end of the story.
“So what you’re saying here,” Rachael said, “is that a small-time blithe spirit such as yourself does a better job of taking care of the disabled elderly than Social Services?” Sometimes Rachael presents in a way that makes me uncomfortable. Zeke kept smiling though. I could see he had taken to Rachael, and I didn’t like that they were looking at each other. Happily, the reason Zeke had wrapped up abruptly was that he’d spotted young Ranger Rick approaching in the white pickup with the colored light bar on top. Rick wanted to see if Zeke planned on spending the night. It was interesting to watch the two sizing each other up. Most of the Ranger Ricks you see in public campgrounds these days are sworn officers. Gun-toting coppers. “No,” said Zeke. “Just stopped to use the john and I got to talking with these folks.” In another minute Zeke was in his car and gone. “He knew I was gonna run his plate if he stuck around,” Rick said.
Rachael kidded me that night for being silly. “I just enjoyed the underlying commentary,” she said. “The county’s too cheap to put Mrs. B in a home, she’s not quite ready for hospice, so they hire a two-bit hoodlum from drug court to mind her, no training or supervision, and it turns out he takes care of all her problems, and gets her new dentures. It’s too damn funny.”
A few days after Zeke’s disappearance, Hippie Mom showed up at the campsite in a Winnebago driven by her swami of the hour, a shaman and healer (and Twelve Stepper) that she’d hooked up with at a Tantric intensive at Harbin Hot Springs.
In looks, Skip seemed pretty much standard-issue Berkeley hills. Mid-fifties, a mop of bleached hair falling over a creased and weathered face, necklace of pukka shells, a sleeveless, open breasted silk shirt of many iridescent colors, faded jeans with tinkling bells sewn into the cuffs, the usual leather sandals. He pounded Conga and blew didgeridoo in drum circles; he was a life coach and Reiki massage therapist at the hot spring weekends.
According to Rachael, he’d made a pile during the up tick in tech stocks (prudently getting out in time) and another pile subsequently in flipping subprime real estate (and bailing before the fiasco). He and Hippie Mom traveled in the Winnebago from Rainbow Festival to Tribal Stomp to Tantric Intensive. Unlike Hippie Mom, he had not Mahatma-ed out of a cosseted life of uber-materialism to become a Seeker. He had completely different antecedents, having been a skid row derelict for most of his young manhood before finding his way to the Light through the portal of the New Age.
After the campfire got going and everybody settled into his camp chair, and after Rachael and I had decanted some wine (their gift, though Skip is abstemiously recovering), and after the fragrant bowl supplied by the non-imbibing grownups circled a few times (and after much prompting from Hippie Mom), Skip finally consented to tell his tale of recovery and redemption. Once again I failed to heed my dad’s injunction about note taking, but this is the gist.
The Former Street Wino Tells his Story
Now Miriam (aka Hippie Mom) has heard this before. Many times, at AA and Alanon. About the mix-up that in retrospect was such a blessing. It was a dumb misunderstanding that eventually brought me to the place where I could own that I’m Skip the alcoholic and start on the road to where I am now.
Of course back then I didn’t drive a Lexus or own that ‘Bego. I didn’t live in a condo in Grizzly Park. No, I was the worst kind of street alkie; I slept in the bushes, cadged dimes on the corner, lied, cheated, stole anything I could, got in fights, and had a face like a pizza. All the cops in town knew me as a belligerent drunk that was trouble on any shift.
But I was never a child molester. That blustery day in winter (it must have been around Christmas), that bitter cold day, I woke up in the shrubs behind the Harmony House kitchen in Lancaster (out in the desert, east of LA), right around the corner from the jail, my eyes glued shut, my mouth bone-dry and rotten, my head throbbing from a quart or two of Night Train.
I got up so stiff and sore I could hardly walk, shivering and miserable, and started downtown to bum some change for coffee. On the way I needed to pee, and turned into the public bathroom inside the entrance to the Paradise Vista shopping mall right up on Desert View Drive.
“I stumbled up to the urinal, groggy, half asleep, unzipped myself, and all of a sudden somebody was screaming at me. This guy grabs me from behind, and slams me against the concrete wall. I turned just in time to get a punch in the face from a young dude in a sport coat and glasses.
I didn’t know what was coming down, but after so many years on the street I just reacted, slugged him, knocking him down on the floor between the wash basins. It’s then that I heard the bawling. I looked around behind me, and there down at the urinal stood a little kid, a little boy about three years old. Even in my soggy condition I realize what has happened: the young dude on the floor with the bloody nose, now screaming for help, is the dad. He was in the stall while his little boy made a trial effort at the urinal. Not seeing the kid, I was about to pee on his little tow head. But to the protective dad it probably looked like...well, you can picture it.
My immediate thought was, this isn’t going to look good. The local cops didn’t like me anyway. They would have loved to collar me for something more substantial than simple drunk. I bolted, left the yelling dad and the bawling kid, dashed out the door and cut around the corner into the alley, where I hopped the fence and dropped down into the gully by the tracks, figuring I’d head for the Tenth Street jungle where the tramps used to hang out, and then hop a freight out of town.
I knew that some of the shoppers in the mall had made me; the cops would have a description from the dad too, and the cops probably would start saying, “That sounds a lot like that asshole Skip...”
But then I thought, “I can’t blow town right now.” I’d been collecting, and I had a stash of aluminum cans: three big trash bags I’d been saving for the weekend. And the cans would be worth ten, fifteen dollars at Fresh Air Wreaking and Recycling, where we all used to take our found, hot or not, to Big Al.
The thought of blowing town without cash for booze was too scary, and I knew I had to take a chance. The bags were stashed in a wash. I bee lined there, slung them over my shoulder and footed for Fresh Air, which was where the mega-plex is now. I found out that the word got out already. This guy Deacon says to me, “I didn’t know you was that way, Skip. My, my. Little boys.” I told Deacon the story, and everybody had a laugh. They all knew I wasn’t Short Eyes, but they thought it was pretty funny anyway. Then Big Al says, “The cops got you made. I heard it on the scanner”’ Then he says, “I probably could bargain today, you being in a rush, but I’ll give you the usual. Jus’ don’t start messin’ with my lil’ grandson. Ha ha.”
There was this old desert rat named Junior Reason. Small and mean. He lives in a trailer bunker way out in the desert near the Gunnery Range. He ran the range at night in some kind of Mad Max sand rail picking up aluminum tail fins from the exploded bombs. He says to me, “You fixin’ to leave, pard? You can ride with me.” I hopped in his old pickup, slouched down, and pretty soon we were on the freeway.
“I knew J.R. slightly from Fresh Air. He didn’t drink so we didn’t hang out, but I knew Al gave him some pretty good money for the bomb fins, which were solid chunks of pure aluminum. While we’re driving, he says to me, “I guess you heard Big Al screaming for clean metal. The war and all. He told me he can get rid of anything pure aluminum you can bring in. No questions. Size not an issue. You know his yard. Plenty of room. He’s got torch men on call that can break up anything. Last week they chopped two Camrys in a coupla hours. Lemme show you something.”
We got off the 95 at Mojave and J. R. drove past the Mojave airport. It used to be a Marine base in World War II. It’s where the Rutan brothers built the Voyager for the non-stop round-the-world flight. But now it’s used mostly as a graveyard for commercial airliners. A couple of hundred of them were out there twinkling in the desert sun. “That’s a lot of aluminum,” J.R says.
He took me to the Mojave Yacht Club, got me drunked up, kept talking how he needed somebody with a Class A. To make it short I finally threw in with him. I figured I’d probably wind up in prison, but I’d rather go up for grand theft and guilty than for child molesting and not. He had a couple of other desert rats in his crew: Peter the Painter, a hermit who spent all his time painting elaborate “No Trespassing” signs for his worthless property. And the Hobo, an eccentric dreamer who had tramped all over the world. (Rachael and I looked at each other, wondering if this was our Hobo).
Up against the airport on the south side sat a trailer trash kind of RV park. Strictly pendejos and pensioners. J.R. had another buddy living there in a travel trailer. Guy named Magnum, I guess after the old TV show, although he didn’t look anything like the actor, being black and about a hundred pounds. Magnum worked as a swamper at the airport cafe. He’d been casing the security. “It’s pretty lame on the weekend,” Magnum says. “Two fat boys. One of them sits in the office; the other drives around rattling the locks. He never goes out on the field.”
During the week it was different, Magnum said, because the rent-a-cop weekday supervisor took the job seriously. ‘That motherfucker is all over the place,’ Magnum said, ‘I think he’s a Mormon.’
“That’s okay, then,’ says J.R., “We’ll boost it Friday night and have it in Big Al’s yard Sunday morning.”
“You’re telling me that you guys were going to steal an airliner?” said Rachael. “To recycle the aluminum?”
That was the idea, Skip says. Of course everything went wrong. But on Friday night it started out pretty smooth, and I admit for awhile I started feeling hopeful. Twelve-foot Cyclone fence surrounds the airport buildings and hangars. There’s the Rutan Skunk Works, some maintenance shops, a flight school. A six-foot chain-link fence skirts the field along the frontage road. But on the back side of the field, facing the open desert, nothing.
The target was a Boeing 727 that in its final configuration had belonged to Air Dubai. J.R. had picked it because the Dubai dudes had painted it black, with white Arabic lettering along the fuselage. About midnight Magnum called J.R. to report that both fat guards were watching a movie in the security office.
“Okay,” said J.R., flipping closed his phone, “This is it.”
We were hiding in an arroyo about a quarter mile from the field. J.R. had his six-wheel-drive military water tanker for the tug. J.R. said it could pull anything. Plan was, we’d haul the plane 20 miles straight across the desert varnish to a jeep trail where J.R. already had stationed a Kenworth (that’s where I came in). Then we’d use the Kenny to haul the plane by connecting trails around the east side of Barstow and ease it into Al’s yard Sunday, early a.m. Altogether about fifty miles, which meant we had to average about a mile an hour. It didn’t seem that hard.
We bumped over the berm and drove right onto the tarmac and parked behind a line shack, out of sight of the airport buildings half a mile away. A chain lock secured the line shack door but J.R.’s bolt cutters sliced right through. Inside was the tow bar. Meanwhile Peter the Painter had set his ladder against the Boeing’s fuselage and had started splashing black paint on the squiggly white Arabic chicken scratching. J. R. bolted the tow bar with big U-clamps to the tanker’s rear bumper.
The Hobo, being the most fit of the crew, had the hard job. He scaled the nose, placed a furniture mat across the plane’s windscreen, and bashed out the Plexiglas with a sledge hammer. To me it seemed like a lot of noise but realistically the dull thuds of the hammer wouldn’t carry half a mile. Of course none of us knew anything about airplanes, but the Hobo had found a cockpit schematic on the Internet, and once inside he at least knew how to release the brakes and the rudder lock. About that time J.R.’s cell vibrated. Magnum, saying the guards were still sitting tight.
J.R. backed up the tanker against the nose of the Boeing, and to me it was like a miracle. Everything hooked up like it was supposed to. J.R. clicked into bottom low, eased up the clutch, and the airplane started moving. A moonless night, with a low overcast. With the lettering blacked we now had a Stealth bomber. Even from the line shack I could barely make out the plane moving against the black skyline.
I thought there might be trouble with the foot-high berm, but no, the tanker’s tranny strained a little, and then the huge fat wheels rolled over the asphalt curb, and we were on the flat, sage-dotted open desert.
But the going was slow. An hour went by and we’d covered about half a mile. The lights of the airport were still visible, and the occasional headlights from traffic on 95. We took turns, one of us walking in front searching for obstacles. It was bone-cold, and I was dying for a pop; but all we had was a big Thermos of coffee. But the hours slid by, and by 3 a.m. we had the plane out of sight of town.
J.R steered by calibrated compass inside the cab, plus a GPS fix every hour or so. Varnish, a kind of crust, covers the undisturbed desert. The virgin crust will support a vehicle somewhat. Once traffic scrapes off the varnish, then tires or tracks begin to sink into the powdery dust beneath. The soldiers training with Patton found that out: the first Sherman had it the easiest.
Magnum called again. He was out on the back side of the field repairing the berm where the airplane tires had knocked it down. He said the tracks leading into the desert were a foot deep and would be pretty damn obvious to anybody who came out to the edge of the tarmac.
Adrenaline and black coffee got us through the night. I thought we’d done darn good but as dawn started to break J. R. looked grim. We’d moved the plane only about half way to the tamarisk-shaded wash where J.R. had planned to hole up during the daylight hours. At the first sight of gray light in the east J.R. unhitched the tow bar and lowered the blade on the front end of the tanker. He planned to run the blade over the Boeing’s tracks, obliterating one set going back to the field, and the other returning. He figured from the air it might look like a double jeep trail, not that uncommon in the desert.
By the time J.R. got back we could see each other. The black-bodied plane stood out starkly in the open desert, in plain view of any low-flying aircraft. Luckily, the overcast persisted. “We might as well keep movin’,” J.R. said. He hooked up again and we resumed the painfully slow crawl across the desert.
Our nerves were pretty frazzled. Every time we heard the whine of engines overhead we all craned out necks. Of course the commercial traffic passed over too high to see us. The problem would be some weekend amateur out for a joy ride, surprised to see a 727 being towed across the desert. But we had no choice but to keep moving.
J.R. fretted and kept looking at his watch. “We’re way behind schedule. We got to hustle it up.” But the tanker, in bottom low, could only drag the plane about half a mile an hour. And then we got stuck.
It just happens that some spots in the desert are softer and sandier than others. Around noon the left mains sunk into a sandy patch and wouldn’t come out. The Jimmy diesel howled until finally J.R. gave it up. He didn’t want to burn up the tranny.
Obviously, the usual tricks you use to get a vehicle unstuck, like pushing brush and rocks under the tire, weren’t gong to work with a 60-ton airplane. We had no way to jack up the wheels. By this time I’d started getting the shakes, and my stomach had the willies. I thought maybe the best idea now would be to abandon the plane and git while it was good. J.R. wouldn’t have it. He’d been talking to Magnum, and so far, no sign anybody had noticed a 150-foot Boeing had gone missing. He detailed me and the Hobo to hoof the five miles to the pavement and bring back the Kenworth and the pickup. We’d rig a bridle and use everything we had to haul the plane out.
To make it short we finally got unstuck. It took us hours to dig out around the wheels. With the tanker, along with the Kenny and the Dodge Ram yoked to the left mains with ship’s hawser, after twenty tries, the wheels finally popped out and the Boeing began to roll again. By this time, after going for the trucks, and all the digging and pulling, the light had faded. The day had gone, and we weren’t any closer to Big Al’s.
J.R. shook his head and laughed. All day he’d been tight-jawed, but now he thought it was funny. “Boys,” he says, “We got no choice. We’re gonna have to take it down the highway. It’s risky, I know, but we got to have this bad boy snugged down at Al’s tomorrow.”
During Skip’s recital, Rachael had been looking at me and rolling her eyes. “Excuse me,” she said. “This is really fascinating, Skip, but it’s been a long day…” I walked her to the tent. “I don’t believe one fuckin’ word of this,” she said. “I’m getting tired of this bullshit.”
A week or so later I e-mailed my dad and asked him if he had ever heard of a Boeing 727 being boosted from Mojave. He wrote back saying that ten or fifteen years ago he remembered vaguely seeing a squib on the wire, dateline Mojave, very sketchy, about a stolen jetliner from the airplane graveyard, but now couldn’t find anything on Google or the AP website.
After kissing Rachael good night, I went back to the fire. I was kind of interested, and I wanted to finish my glass of wine anyway.
The original plan had been to circle the long way around Barstow on dirt jeep trails. Now J.R. wanted to get the plane onto the paved access road, the one to the antenna farm, and then take two-lane State 95 straight into town. After midnight there wouldn’t be that much traffic, and we had the grade with us.
Thankfully, it turned out to be another pitch black night. But it wasn’t until after one a.m. that we finally pulled the Boeing up on the asphalt. The tanker’s transmission was kicking so badly I don’t think we’d have made it another mile. I got into the Ken and maneuvered under the nose while J.R. yoked us up. J.R. climbed in with me, while the Hobo and Pete clambered up the ladder into the airplane cockpit. The Hobo said if he could figure out how to disengage the aileron locks he could provide a little steering help on the downhill run into Barstow.
Before I fell into the bottle I’d been a long haul trucker for a few years. Hauling a heavy load downhill, what you need is Jake brakes, and that’s exactly what we didn’t have with this old Kenny. I talked to the Hobo over a Radio Shack handheld, and said I hoped maybe he could figure out something on the brakes. The plane had been stripped right down to the Pratt & Whitney but the scavengers must have left a few half-dead batteries because the gauges lit up, although it wasn’t enough juice to get the hydraulics cycled. “Go,” said J.R.
At the junction of the access road and 95, we looked both ways. No traffic, no lights. “Go,” said J.R., and I pulled the 150-foot-long aircraft onto the highway. The wings, 108 feet, stretched across both lanes, and I had to keep the Kenny centered on the white line to avoid hitting telephone poles with the wing tips.
Once we started down the grade another problem became obvious. The airplane wanted to fly; it was lifting the rear trailer wheels of the Kenny right off the ground. As the rear wheels lifted the truck lost traction, and the airplane started to swing toward the front. I had no choice but to speed up; but the faster we went, the more the airplane wanted to lift.
The Hobo had managed to disengage the aileron lock, and he was on the yoke and the rudders. He had the yoke pressed full forward to lower the stabilizer. When the plane started to veer right, he cranked in left aileron, then as the plane started left, he cranked the yoke right. I admit I was pretty shook for awhile; I thought we’d wreak any minute. And then we saw the oncoming headlights.
“Keep your lights off,” J.R. said to me. And then into the handheld: “Hobo. Light up the aircraft.”
In the Boeing cockpit, the Hobo switched on the navigation lights, including the wing tip strobes, and the plane lit up like a Christmas tree for a few seconds just as an SUV with Arizona plates hurtled under the left wing. I got a quick glimpse of a very surprised burgher and his wife in the front seat. “Jeez Louise,” said J.R., reaching for his cell.
J.R. searched a number and connected: “San Bernardino dispatch? This is Lieutenant Morgan from Edwards PIO. Be advised that we will have experimental aircraft operating at low altitude in the Daggett- Barstow vicinity until 0400 hours. Ha ha. I know. I know that’s what happens. Well you can tell ‘em they’re not flying saucers. Yes, ma’am. You’re very welcome.” J.R. flipped close his cell. “Maybe,” he said.
We’d come down on the flat and began decelerating. Ahead we could see the fluorescent glow of Barstow. J.R. was on the phone again, talking to the bartender at the ‘Til Two Club (a joint over on San Pablo) “Darn it, he says, hanging up. “It’s been busy. Injury accident on Main and a convenience store stickup. Cops all over.” On the handheld to the Hobo: “We’re gonna have to stash her someplace.” “Why not Groucho’s?” says the Hobo.
You’ve probably heard of Groucho the Greek’s. The truck stop restaurant just south of Barstow. This was brilliant of the Hobo, because Groucho has all that stuff in his yard, the Army tanks, the antique cars, the fire engines, the old boats. And airplanes. All with giant plastic noses and horn rim glasses. His gimmick. I made a wide loop around the restaurant and pulled the Boeing in between an Army personnel carrier and a Chris Craft with “Minnow” painted on it’s hull and a couple of mannequins at the wheel dressed up to look like Gilligan and the Skipper. They had on the Groucho nose and glasses too.
We borrowed the biggest nose set (from some kind of giant earthmover) and laid it across the bashed-in windshield of the Boeing. J.R. checked the hours on the restaurant’s front door. Open for Sunday buffet at ten. Cooks probably would arrive at seven. We had a few hours.
About that time the security pulled into the yard. The usual rent-a-cop wearing his phony police-style uniform and driving the standard white economy sedan.
“Groucho’s latest?” says the guy, nodding toward the Boeing.
“Yup,” says J.R.
“I hear he’s getting a dinosaur.”
“We’re bringing that next,” says J.R.
“You guys need me to call him?”
“Naw,” says J.R., “He’s comin’ down later.”
The guard waved and drove off.
We were left standing in the gray dawn with a hot Boeing wearing a Groucho nose. By now we’d been up for two nights. I could hardly keep my eyes open. Peter lay down and was snoring. J.R. was mumbling to the Hobo. “Sunday morning. What’s going on? Shouldn’t be no cops around. Sunday school ain’t ‘til nine.”
“Somebody’s bound to see us,” says the Hobo.
“I know that, but... Hey. The car club? The Desert Roadrunners. Sunday they have early breakfast at Lyon’s. Shoot. Hey. What’s the high school team? The Black Birds?”
“The Barstow Ravens,” says the Hobo. J.R. smacked his hands together. “Wake up Pete.”
Peter got his brushes and bucket of white paint and began putting a hawk’s bill on the Boeing’s nose. Then he started splashing on some feathers along the wings. After an hour, it sort of looked like a bird. J.R. had been pacing back and forth impatiently, but as soon as the sun tipped the horizon, he says, “Now or never.”
J.R. was on the phone. “Les, this is Harry Lowell from the high school PTA. Hi. I’m calling for Mr. Winthrop, the principal. I hate to bother you. We’re bringing in the homecoming float this morning, and I was just wondering if there’s any chance that the club could spare a few minutes this morning to escort us into town. We’d be comin’ down Mojave Drive off the 95. Oh yeah. It’s a wide load. Just as far as the high school, and then you can get back to your meeting. Wouldn’t take fifteen minutes...”
So we paraded the Boeing into Barstow. The car club met us at the turnoff. During the downtown beautification project the city had widened Mojave Drive and put in a meridian. Also a good job that the old palm trees had been cut down and replaced with acacias. Even so, the Boeing’ wings just barely cleared.
You’d think some of the Desert Roadrunners might have had a few questions. Four scroungy guys with a commercial airliner that still dripped paint from the logo on the fuselage that said, ‘Barstow Ravens.’ Nobody batted an eye. I think they already were into the Mimosa. The Model A, the Model T, the old Packard, the Hudson, the ‘38 Chevy, the Ford Phaeton, took positions front and back, and the women riding shotgun or in the jump seats laughed and waved to the few drowsy heads that poked out of windows. The storekeepers sweeping the sidewalk in front of the few businesses open on Sunday waved back.
At the high school, J.R. thanked the Roadrunners in behalf of Mr. Lowell and Mr. Winthrop, and said the club would be receiving a certificate of gratitude in the mail. The antique cars formed a line and turned back toward the interrupted breakfast at Lyon’s. We were only a quarter mile from Big Al’s, and while we all expected something to go sour at the last minute, nothing did. Dozens of good citizens saw a jetliner hauled through the center of town, but nobody called the cops.
Big Al, however, didn’t look that happy to see us. J.R. had told him we’d be bringing in a major load, but had neglected to be specific. Probably Al assumed a dump truck full of aluminum bomb fins. Clearly, he didn’t expect this.
“What am I supposed to do?” says Al, “What am I supposed to do?”
“Weigh it and pay it,” says J.R. “No. You don’t need to weigh it. Eighty-six thousand pounds at fifteen cents a pound, is ah, lemme see...”
Finally, as J.R. knew he would, Al called his people in LA. There was a war on. The government contractors and war profiteers needed clean scrap aluminum. Nobody was asking questions. At the LA yards Al could get a hundred times what he paid to the likes of J.R. So, as it usually does, greed won out.
I hauled the Boeing into Al’s compound, and within an hour torch men arrived to start breaking it up. First they took off the tail, since the tip protruded over the yard fence, and then they started on the wings. Forklifts lifted the cut sections onto flatbed trucks. The drivers cinched down the tarps, and hit the freeway for LA.
Magnum checked in from the Mojave airport. Nothing. A quiet Sunday morning. The fat guard had made one perfunctory sweep around the buildings, rattled a few locks, but didn’t even look out on the field. “You got a good twenty-four hours,” J.R. said to Big Al.
J.R, Peter the Painter, and the Hobo, are still out in the desert I guess. Big Al wasn’t so lucky. It turned out that one of the Desert Roadrunners had shot a video of the parade through town and sent it to the high school for inclusion in the homecoming rally at the auditorium. That must have caused a good deal of puzzlement, and finally the Barstow PD thought to call Mojave Airport to see if somebody was missing an airplane.
Al offered to rat us all out, the torch men included, for a plea bargain, but the district attorney had decided Al’s string had run out. He’d become a liability I guess. They didn’t bother with the small fry. I’m just thankful that my share gave me the means to check in at Oak Knoll, and, I’m proud to say that some of those new cottages that went up last year have my name on them…” That was the end of Skip’s story.
The next morning, after Hippie Mom and Skip had left, Rachael got a text message from her dad saying that he had to go into the hospital for complicated heart surgery. The doctors didn’t know how it would turn out, and he thought she’d better come to New York just in case. Heart surgery! Her father had never watched his diet. He didn’t exercise. He’d smoked cigarettes, although he’d been tobacco clean for ten years, except for Cuban stogies. He loved blintzes, he loved butter, he loved French cuisine with all the fatty goop.
He’d probably had a cardiac wake-up call, and it would be a good opportunity for Rachael to hand him the low down on veganism. I drove her to the airport, and the next day she texted me, saying, find WiFi and open her message.
The surgery wasn’t either complicated or serious. As a routine precaution the docs had tinkered with his pacemaker; an office procedure. Her father had fibbed because he wanted to see her, have a visit. He was a lawyer. She should have known he was lying. But since she was there, she’d stay a week to humor him. I tried her cell every day for a week, left a lot of messages. She didn’t call. I didn’t get any more texts or e-mails.
Rachael never came back. Later her sister Naomi told me that their father from the first minute started working on her. Rachael owed society something. She had a duty. She couldn’t just live for herself. All her aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces came over to her dad’s Manhattan condo and worked on her. Her family gathered and overwhelmed her. Naomi said Rachael was sorry, but she couldn’t talk to me. She’d always love me. She hoped I would understand.
I heard more about Rachael when Naomi came to California to hike with me for a week. Rachael had sent her to help me cope, which was thoughtful and a good idea. If Naomi hadn’t slept with me I might have gone a long time without a new woman. Naomi said Rachael had resisted at first, insisting to everybody, for awhile, that she was coming back to me. But the pull of the world is relentless and commanding. Didn’t I see, Naomi said: tenting had been post-college interlude for Rachael. Now life was calling. “It had to be this way,” Naomi said. “It’s not you; it’s the world. The world wants everybody.”
After a slimming vegan lifestyle and a year in the outdoors, Rachael felt good about her body and her looks. She felt attractive and strong. She went to parties now, and it was fun to talk to a variety of people. Smart, successful men paid attention to her. They loved that she had lived in a tent, but what did she plan to do really? The women were witty and callous and catty and Rachael, previously shy in a crowd, found that she could keep up with everybody. She began to see why it’s important to make a contribution. She found that there’s nothing wrong with wanting an interesting life.
She’s at Columbia now; pre-law, aiming at being an enviro beagle. Save the Arctic penguin. Veganism is less important, her sister says; in fact, Rachael’s backsliding. It’s hard, when you go to parties and get taken to restaurants. She’s put on a few pounds, and she joined the gym that’s next to her father’s building. Pilates, too. Yes, she’s dating. Nothing serious. She’s too busy in school.
Rachael had encouraged her sister to visit me and kind of explain things. Naomi isn’t happy in her marriage. Her hubby has become indifferent; he looks a lot older and drinks too much. He isn’t much fun anymore. He’s also had a few reverses lately and has started carping about money. There isn’t much spark in the bedroom. Naomi admitted one of the reasons she wanted go hiking with me is so she could try bungo for the first time. She’d never had it, not even from the Persian. She didn’t want it from her besotted husband, and Rachael had told her that I was gentle, understood the importance of top oil, and that my pal came tipped with a small mushroom that made for easy penetration. Naomi said it was just another life experience; all her friends had tried it, and she at least would like to be fluent when the topic came up. So she can check that one off.
But mostly we had ordinary sex. She occasionally has affairs or picks up men from her husband’s circle, but said I was the first boy she’s been with since high school. “It’s nice to be with someone my own age,” she said. Naomi takes after Hippie Mom, less voluptuous than Rachael, very slender in the hips; she’s had expensive breast reduction that left the sensitivity in her nipples intact and her figure balanced; Naomi’s not vegetarian but practices portion control and consults a nutritionist; she’s supple and muscular from daily supervised workouts; she has an esthetician Brazil her cloister and pluck any stray follicle lurking around the perimeter; Even so, she said her husband is squeamish about noshing and that she was glad that I wasn’t tongue-tied that way. As for our week of backpacking on the Pacific Crest Trail, she said it wasn’t thrilling. Nice views. But her safari in Mozambique had been more interesting. Particularly because of the bandits. And as for the cardio-vascular, her Stair Master was set for maximum incline. Whitney Portal wouldn’t compare.
After Rachael gave me the pink slip, I got rid of everything, sold both our cars. Naomi agreed that my dad had first claim but he told me to keep the dough. I asked him to reduce my remittance but he still deposits $500 a month in my checking account. I transfer most of it over to savings. After giving away our big tents I resupplied at REI. By this time I knew what I needed, and all my lightweight gear fits into a backpack. One-man tent-bivy, two-pound bag, Therma-rest pad, tiny stainless steel pot, down vest, thin rain jacket and pants, a few other things, altogether under 25 pounds. I’m permanently afoot now, on the trail, usually the PCT, somewhere between Mexico and Canada.
As a solo act I don’t need all the amenities of domesticity. Sometimes I cover stretches with other hikers with trail names like Wolf Child or Tree Bunny. My trail name is Sendero. My dad suggested it. Sendero Luminoso. His little joke.
On the trail I’ve hooked up a couple of times with adventurous college girls. They go back to the ivy after semester break; I keep walking. Every so often somebody I know from State comes out to do a section. My old pal Duncan and his wife came out to do the 20 miles between Etna and Sulfur Springs. Duncan says I’ve changed a lot. I think he means physically. I used to be kind of round and doughy in college. I’m forty pounds lighter now and stringy. “Sinewy,” Duncan’s wife said. My face is dark brown and kind of hollow in the cheeks; all my nails are black and broken, and I have a straggling beard. I’m not strictly vegan anymore, and if I happen to come across a diner near a trailhead I’ll have the ham and eggs.
I had an interesting thing happen at a restaurant not too long after Rachael left. I got in my first fight. As I came outside after breakfast, a local guy remarked on my needing a bath. It was true. I’d been on the trail for two weeks without hitting a shower. He was bigger than me, kind of a paunch, standing with some other locals on the porch. He offered to take me behind the garage and turn the garden hose on me.
I have had no experience with fights other than a lifetime of watching them on film. When he took a step I swung a roundhouse right, heard kind of a crack, and he went straight to the ground. We were all surprised. I must have caught him on the tip of the jaw. The main thing of interest to me, I realized I had no fear of these guys, and that I didn’t care if I’d hurt the one who was struggling to sit up.
Somebody inside said the manager had called the sheriff, and the boys picked up their stunned pal and left in a car. I waited around half an hour for the deputy but finally the manager told me he wouldn’t be coming so I went back to the trailhead. By that time my throbbing hand had swollen to the size of a grapefruit. I’m not really a Freudian, but I know I put all my anger about Rachael into that punch.
My dad came to visit me out on the trail but it wasn’t the same. He had liked Rachael, liked the banter. He felt sort of as if he had got taken in, him the cynical reporter. We’d presented as a couple mated for life; he’d come to believe; and then it turned out not. He’d liked visiting us at the forest service campsites. He’d sit in a camp chair and get animated with whiskey. Rachael the appreciative ironist chaffed him about the often weak payday on his anecdotes. The fire danced in the iron grate and usually strains of music came from other camps. At bedtime he lay down on a cot inside a roomy tent warmed by Mr. Heater.
Out on the trail it’s more austere. I don’t carry an ax so I push a few sticks into an Indian fire. My dad had to sit on a rock. Nobody else for miles, and (like most people) he isn’t used to that kind of quiet. He had to sleep on a thin pad on the plain ground. I was traveling then with a girl named Megan (trail name, Nutmeg). Megan didn’t talk much and had little interest in the hoary days of yore where my father’s imagination lives. She sat silently in the shadows wrapped in her hoodie and didn’t laugh or even comment on his attempts. I’ve heard all his stories already. My hapless brooding dad is worried abut me. What are my plans? What is my future? My plan is to keep going as I am. It turns out I like the trail. Nobody bothers me. My dad’s conversation petered out and died with the fire. He had brought only one pint of bourbon and it wasn’t enough. My dad is afraid of me. I don’t know why.